This week has been a big one for scandal. Whether it’s been inside the Church
, inside the Beltway
, or inside a Philadelphia courtroom
, it seems like our collective dirty laundry has finally spilled out of the hamper and onto the floor. And while I don’t delight in scandal, I realized this week--after being bombarded by it on every side--that scandal offers a strange kind of comfort. Perhaps it’s not the scandal itself, but that the revelation
of scandal stands testimony to a God Who is faithful to His promises.
When you’ve suffered because of another person’s sin, one of hardest parts is the helplessness that comes when no one else knows or even seems to care about it. In this place, it’s easy to begin to believe that God doesn’t either. You begin to doubt, you begin to fear, you begin to worry that the truth will never be revealed. You reconcile yourself to the fact that justice will never be done—you question whether it even exists at all.
But it does. And that is never clearer than when a scandal finally breaks.
When a scandal breaks—when painful truths finally come to light—we are watching God fulfill His promise that “nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known.”
We are watching Him actively “bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and disclose the purposes of the heart.”
We are watching Him prove that day and night are alike to him and that He sees the pain of His children and will vindicate them.
In this sense, scandal is grace. Scandal is grace because it restores our hope in God’s justice. Sin will be found out no matter how expertly we cover it or pretend that it doesn’t exist. But scandal is also grace because it reminds us of our own need to confess—of our own need to submit to this same justice. Because if we don’t voluntarily confess our sin today, it promises to be a scandal tomorrow.
You see, scandal only happens when we refuse to repent. But when we do—when we willingly uncover the hidden secrets of our heart--the only scandal left is the scandal of His mercy. The scandal of a mercy that remembers that these now confessed sins have been already been atoned for. The scandal of a justice that refuses to punish us twice. The scandal of a God who says: “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy."
And so when we confess our sin to Him and those we’ve wronged, He covers them. He does not minimize them and He does not always remove the consequences, but one thing He does not do is flaunt them. He does not hold a press conference to shame or humiliate us in the midst of them. He does not make a scandal of them.
So when the Gosnell verdict was finally announced this week, I found myself unexpectedly crying—not tears of relief so much as tears of thankfulness. Thankfulness for a God Who promises to reveal the hidden things. Thankfulness for a God who sees every time a child suffers, every time a government abuses its power, every time I convince myself that my own sin can be covered. I cried tears of thankfulness for a God who loves us too much to allow darkness to continue and Who joyfully receives us with open arms when we finally come running out of it.
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.
(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.
It’s a moment that any child who has grown up in a traditional church setting will quickly recognize--that point in the service when the offering plate is steadily advancing toward your pew and mother is still riffling around in her purse, frantically digging for coins and dollar bills to disperse among her children’s waiting hands.
Only now, I’m the mother.
I don’t know why I haven’t yet gotten my act together yet. Every Sunday the ushers pass the offering plate and every Sunday my children hold out their hands to me. And still, I routinely find myself playing Minute to Win It. Your challenge: find enough money to distribute between three children so that each of them can put something in the offering plate by the time the ushers reach your pew. You have sixty seconds. And… Go!
To be fair, I have learned a few things over the years. I’ve learned that the denomination of coins must be roughly equal in order to avoid protests. At the same time, I’ve also learned that in the cosmic realities of childhood, two quarters do not equal ten dimes (“No fair! She got more than me!”). And forget the widow’s mite--according to my children, God doesn’t want pennies. Still knowing all this, I routinely find myself caught unprepared. It’s particularly problematic now that my husband’s pastoring again and we sit only three rows from the front.
But this last Sunday, something happened. In the process of sorting through my coins, mentally calculating and dividing the little change I had, I noticed a coin that I didn’t recognize. It was the size of a dime, but slightly thinner and the profile was definitely not a Roosevelt. Initially I thought it was a foreign coin that had simply gotten mixed up in some return change. So I paused to take a closer look. This coin was worn, thin—almost elegant. And although I couldn’t make out all the script, I quickly realized that it was no foreign coin. No, this stranger in my wallet was United States currency. In fact, it was a dime. From 1918.
I quickly passed along some other money to the kids and handed the dime to my husband for safe keeping. As the dust settled, I sat there taking it all in. Without warning, I had unintentionally become the owner of a small bit of history. Later I discovered that this particular dime is known as a Mercury or Winged Liberty
dime and unlike today’s coins, is predominantly silver. Still, even in my pew that morning, I could tell that my dime was no museum show piece—no this dime was a working dime. A dime that had made it way through the masses, serving those who owned it faithfully, and nearly one hundred years later had found itself in my wallet. And the whole time, I hadn’t even known it was there.
Suddenly, I felt both very small and yet oddly connected to the larger scope of humanity. Had this dime—this very dime that I held in my hands— passed through the hands of another mother? Who was its original owner? What work, what sweat and labor, had first earned this newly minted coin? And after that, what route had it taken? Had it fed a hungry belly for just one more day during the Depression?
Did it buy a midnight cup of coffee for a GI returning from WWII, grateful to be back home but unsettled by his experiences?
A decade later, was it the price of a candy bar for a little one thrilled to see daddy coming through the door from work?
Or was it the dime that paid for that phone call from a child who had wandered a bit too far and simply wanted to come home?
I don’t know. But unexpectedly, in the scope of five minutes on a beautiful Sunday morning in October, I could trace the hand of Providence. It ran through the worn profile of Liberty and the now nearly illegible “In God We Trust.” It is a Providence that controls the fates of nations even as He nurtures and guides the individual lives of those caught in the whirlwind. A Providence that brought this dime to my wallet without my even knowing it and in doing so, offered a ten cent reminder of His hand, of the grand scheme of His plan, and the truth that none of us--even dimes--escape His watchful eye.*Image from http://coinauctionshelp.com/How_To_Grade_Mercury_Dimes.html
This image has nothing to do with my post--I just love fall.
Over the weekend, our little house welcomed two extra adults and four extra children when family friends came to visit. That’s right, this brought the occupants to a grand total of four adults, seven children under the age of eleven, and 1.5 bathrooms. From the time they arrived on Friday until they left after lunch on Sunday, life in these four walls was a whirlwind of freckles, toothless smiles, pajama parties, and the unending attempt to fill hungry bellies.
My husband and I have known these friends since we were newlyweds in the same church. We started the cycle of family life together—the first anniversaries, the first pregnancies, the first homes, but work and out-of-state moves have taken us in very different directions over the last several years. And while we've kept up through Christmas cards and Facebook, our families have spent very little time together and our children hardly know each other. (I had to remind my children that we had
actually visited our friends before—they remembered once I described the toys in their playroom.)
So shortly before our friends arrived, in the middle of the final dusting and picking up, I had a moment of panic. Here we were, about to enter a weekend of very intimate circumstances with only our past friendship to carry us through. Who knew if the children would get along? What if the weekend turned out to be one extensive fighting match with the parents caught in the middle? What if we weren't as good friends as well as I had remembered?
As normal, my fears turned out to be unfounded. The children got along marvelously and so did the adults. But this wasn’t necessarily because we did everything the same way. I quickly noticed that we engaged our children differently and we had very different dynamics as husbands and wives. In fact, what struck me repeatedly throughout the weekend was how two families both pursuing the same things could go about it in distinct ways.
It’s easy for us to avoid people and families who function differently from us because when confronted with differences, we often feel threatened and uncertain about our own choices. One way we handle this is by doubling back, assuming a defensive position, and launching attacks to prove to ourselves (and others) that the opinions we hold are just as significant (if not more so) than anyone else’s. And some of us handle the uncertainty, not by fighting back, but by simply adopting every new philosophy and every new paradigm because we secretly fear that everyone else is obviously doing a better job than we are.
But a funny thing happened this weekend. Because I didn't feel threatened by our friends, because I knew I was loved by them, I was free to learn from the differences. I could observe their children’s politeness and academic success without feeling inferior. I could watch my friend mother with gentleness and strength without needing to be defensive about my own mothering. And I could evaluate our family’s decisions and remember why we had chosen certain things without thinking I had to change just because they had made different choices.
And amazingly, as I did, I could see the gaps. I could see areas where I needed to pick up my game and where they had been more successful. It wasn't that I compared my children to theirs or even that I compared my mothering to hers. It was simply that by being close enough and loved enough, I was free to be able see the areas where she did some things better than I do. And oddly enough, instead of being confronted, I was challenged. I was inspired. Inspired to take my children’s spiritual health more seriously. Inspired to take my own spiritual health more seriously.
A lot of times, we think of diversity in God’s kingdom as simply a way to get more accomplished—a.k.a., you work in your corner and I’ll work in mine. Or we think it's primarily about learning to exercise patience with each when we disagree (although that is part of it). But I think diversity serves another function. Diversity is a means by which God can change us, a way of challenging our presuppositions and pushing us past our comfort zones. After all, iron may sharpen iron
but not without resistance, friction, and the occasional sparks. And diversity offers us the opportunity to be sharpened. It offers us the chance to humbly evaluate our choices, to reflect on our own process, and to change when we see a better way of doing things.
But ultimately this requires humility—the humility to recognize that maybe, just possibly, we don’t have it all together. This requires grace—the grace to believe that despite our differences, God loves us each equally. And it requires remembering, when given over to His hands, our individual strengths and weaknesses coordinate together to fulfill His purposes, both in our own lives and for the sake of His kingdom.
Over the weekend, our family ventured up the mountain to the annual arts and crafts fair held in my husband’s home town. You might remember that I’ve mentioned
this one-stop light community before. It’s the kind of place where you regularly run into friends and neighbors, the kind of place that publishes a weekly paper with the latest quilt guild news and pictures of freshly-named eagle scouts, the kind of place that makes you believe that the simple life is actually still possible.
As usual, we ran into a friend or two, exclaimed on how big the children were getting, and caught up on all the family news--who was having babies, how so-and-so’s husband was recovering from his stroke, and affirming that yes, it was wonderful to be so close to home after all those years away. This last weekend also marked Homecoming Sunday at the church
my husband pastors. And while most of those faces were new to us, for everyone else, it was a family reunion of sorts, a time of reliving old memories and making new ones.
There’s something about small towns and small churches. They offer us a sense of security--the security of being known, of not having to lay out the pieces of who you are, of knowingly exactly where you fit in the puzzle of human relationship. You’re the accountant or the librarian. You’re Jack’s mother and Bill’s daughter. You’re the girl who won the high school tennis tournament ten years ago. And somehow, knowing your place in all this inter-connectedness seems to make life more manageable.
One of my favorite authors, Alexander McCall Smith
, describes this phenomenon as it plays out in a quiet Scottish village: It was a Scotland of quiet manners and reserved friendliness, a Scotland in which nothing much happened, where lives were lived unadventurously and sometimes narrowly to the grave. The lives of such people could be read in the local kirkyard, their loyalty and their persistence etched into granite: Thomas Anderson, Farmer of East Mains, Beloved Husband of fifty-two years of…. and so on. These were people with place, wed to the very ground in which they would eventually be placed. The urban dead were reduced to ashes, disposed of, leaving no markers, and then forgotten; memory here was longer and gave the illusion that we counted for more. It was a simply matter of identity, thought Isabel. If people do not know who we are, then naturally we are less to them. Here, in this village, everybody would know who the other was, which made the crucial difference. (Friends, Lovers, Chocolate, 230.)
And yet, this need to be known is so fundamental to our humanity that even in big cities—those havens of anonymity and obscurity—we still find a way to carve out our own micro-communities. NYC has Greenwich Village, SoHo, and Little Italy. San Francisco has Chinatown, and London has Notting Hill. All in an attempt to give ourselves a sense of continuity and identity, a place where we can be known and we can know others.
And really, this is the way it must be. We are people made in the image of an omniscient, relational God—so why should it surprise us that a significant part of our souls cannot be at peace unless we are known
as individuals? Why should it surprise us that the children of an all-knowing God must, not only know, but be known
I was thinking the other day about how many of us struggle through this particular challenge of identity, specifically in wanting others to know us as individuals, to embrace us for who we really
are, not simply who we project ourselves to be. Listen to the conversation among my generation and you’ll quickly hear words like “community” and “transparency” and “honesty.” We are desperate for others to know who we are. And yet, at the same time, we dare not risk them finding out--we dare not risk revealing our deepest secrets unless they reject us altogether.
This is why ultimately only He
can fulfill of our need to be known. Only the One who already knows us, right down to the very hairs on our head.
Only the One who has known us since our first moments of existence
. Only the One who will know us to the end of our days
. Because only this One--only He--knows us completely, and yet still loves us unconditionally.
And suddenly, in the words of Alexander McCall-Smith, “we count for more.” And when we do, our small, quiet, individual lives are invested with significance and purpose and meaning. We are known and we are loved.
is what makes all the difference.
One of the best things about living where we do is that we are within minutes of the Blue Ridge Parkway and some of the most beautiful country on the east coast. This last weekend we decided to take advantage of the break in humidity and take our kids hiking on a nearby trail. We got an early start—early for us anyway—and soon we were winding our way up the side of a mountain, absorbed in all the beauty and intricate detail of a September morning in western Virginia.
For the most part, it was pretty uneventful—the children’s initial enthusiasm cycled through the expected stages of hyperactivity to drooping shoulders to eventual pleading to be carried up the hills. For my part, I offered obligatory cautions about not getting too far ahead of us on the trail, not throwing sticks, and not eating acorns--although (“But, Mommy, did you know…”
) I've been informed that technically
We were walking along a particularly steep section of trail that ran just above a mountain stream when my daughter suddenly took off at breakneck speed. Apparently, despite my warnings, the sheer wonder of reaching the water below was too much for her. My maternal imagination kicked in with visions of her stumbling and careening over the edge, and I was just about to offer another warning when her six-year-old brother beat me to it.
“Sister, slow down! You’re going to fall. Just be patient
And suddenly my heart soared. Did I hear him correctly? Not only was he looking out for her, but he understood to connect her recklessness to a character quality! As far as parenting goes, this was a back-to-back win. Especially in light of the fact that we’ve spent the last three weeks working through a small book called Get Wisdom.
It's designed to teach children core Christian virtues like love, thankfulness, and yes, even patience. I think each lesson is meant to involve my reading through the associated Scripture and then engaging the children in meaningful dialogue about how the highlighted virtue plays out in their lives. In reality, I usually make it through the Scripture and our “meaningful” dialogue devolves into a discussion of the existential quality of boogers.
I wasn’t sure how much impact it was having.
So here, in this one blissful moment on a wooded trail in the middle of the Blue Ridge Mountains, my hope of actually rearing these three children to responsible adulthood was restored. And, like the well-read parent that I am, I knew that I needed to affirm this moment with my son.
“Buddy, that’s exactly right. Patience is exactly what we need right now. We’ll get down to the creek very soon, but if we’re impatient and run, we might fall and get hurt. Good job!”
His faced beamed and he gave me one of his signature lopsided grins.
“Thanks, Mommy. (pause) You know where I learned that?”
“From Get Wisdom
“Nope. I learned it from Kung Fu Panda: Secrets of the Furious Five
(the giant whooshing sound of my hopes evaporating)
“You didn’t learn it from Get Wisdom
“No, not really. I learned it from Kung Fu Panda”
Later, after we'd returned home, I was reliving this moment along with the beauty that had surrounded us--a beauty in which every branch and every rivulet seemed to speak His name—and I realized that maybe my view of God was too small. Because truthfully, God isn’t a God that can be contained. He is so big that He fills the mountains and the streams and the valleys and when you have eyes to see Him, He just starts popping everywhere! You can’t hold back His wisdom either. You can’t contain it in a book of virtues or ten-minute sessions at breakfast. No, this God, this marvelously transcendent God, is making Himself known throughout the world and displaying His character sometimes in things as inconsequential as a child’s DVD.
I wonder if this is part of the reason why the Scripture tells us to talk about Him to our children “when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up.”
It’s not that we must attempt to make every moment a “spiritual” one--it’s that every moment already is by the sheer magnitude of His presence.
And even while we faithfully teach our children about Him, we must also remember that He
is faithfully teaching our children as well. Because no matter where they go--no matter if they sit down or rise up or walk by the way or wade in a creek in the mountains of Virginia--there will be glimpses of Him everywhere.
And if you're lucky enough, and you're a six-year-old boy, and your momma lets you, you might just be able to see His wisdom in Kung Fu Panda: Secrets of the Furious Five
In our family, metaphysical epiphanies strike at the most unassuming moments. Like when we’re heading home from a less than stellar trip to the grocery store, having exhausted nearly a week’s worth of patience in explaining why we aren’t buying Lucky Charms and Jolly Ranchers and why it’s not a good idea to go twirling down the pasta aisle, arms outstretched. I was following a white exterminator’s van, trying to navigate through an unfamiliar section of town because our normal route was blocked, when my eight-year-old daughter piped up.
“Mommy… (thoughtful pause) I just wonder, ‘Why am I me?’ Why don’t I have somebody else’s life? I mean, why can’t I see different things or do different things? Why am I me
I snapped to attention. Forget the Lucky Charms and blocked streets, this was a “teachable” moment.
“That’s such a good question.” I said. “In fact, people ask themselves that question all the time. I mean, why am I a Mommy? Why am I driving home in my van? Why do I have three children? These kinds of questions are the things that we all ask about our lives, and--”
“Not me, Mommy,” said my six-year-old son, quickly correcting me. “I never ask myself those questions--I like my life.”
Like most epiphanies, this one was quickly eclipsed by more interesting things—namely, arriving home and racing to see who could turn on the Olympics first. The moment lasted a bit longer for me though because it came on the heels of a conversation that I’d had with my husband the previous weekend. We were out celebrating our eleventh anniversary (apparently while the tenth anniversary nets you a Caribbean cruise, number eleven involves Chipotle, Starbucks, and back-to-school shopping). As is natural on this kind of occasion, we were talking over the years that had led us to this point. Because here we were in our early thirties, with three kids, living in yet another state, finally settling into our first house and none of it could have been predicted that day we first exchanged vows over a decade ago.
There’s a part of you that can’t help but wonder what would have happened if at any point you had taken a different route? If a particular street hadn’t been blocked and you had simply taken the road you intended to. And you realize that you could have been something--somebody
--very different entirely.
This kind of backward longing is most tempting when things aren't as they should be. When life is difficult, when a marriage is struggling, when you feel like you’ve lost yourself along the way. And you being to believe that maybe, just maybe, you were meant to be someone else after all. That who you are today was not who you were supposed to become. And even if you were, in these times, you wish--like my daughter--you could be someone else entirely.
But the reality is that this life—the one that you are living right now—is a given
It’s not that we have no choice in the matter and it’s not even that our mistakes and failures don’t affect the outcome. It’s just that we’ve become too enamored with our own ability to shape our lives, with our own ability to control our destinies, with our own ability to be whoever we want to be. And we forget that today--who we are in this moment--is as much a gift
as the day we first entered the world. We get so busy longing for the life we wish we had that we're not thankful for the one we’ve been given. The given life.
To live not just as if your first breath were ordained, but that every breath after it was as well. To believe that even as each choice presented itself, the hand that offered the choice was His. And to know--despite its twists and curves— He made the road run straight
before you and led you exactly where you were meant to go.
This is where we must live. We must live in this moment. We must live as we have been called.
We must be precisely who He made us to be.
Because once you reach that place, once you recognize that the given life
, like all of His gifts, is a good one—well, in that place, it doesn’t much matter why you’re not someone else. All that matters is that He has given life to you
, that He has ordained that you
would exist, that He has made your
life to be useful and reflect Him in a unique way.
And once you reach that
place, you can say, with the confidence of a six-year-old, “Thank you--I like my life.”