Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Life-changing magic

The Life Changing Magic of Reading Your Bible

Thanks to her new television series, Marie Kondo and her "life-changing magic" have been all over my social media lately, eliciting a series of love-it and hate-it responses. Honestly, I'm not even interested in directly interacting with Kondo's show or book here, but before I begin what I have to say, I know that somebody's going to see the above image, immediately feel defensive, and respond with something along the lines of, "I don't agree with everything she says, but I did find Kondo's advice on _____ really helpful." So allow me to save you the trouble right at the outset.

I get it. I appreciate a clean closet, too. Go ahead and fold your T-shirts in whatever kind of origami makes your mornings easier. And feel free to purge that tangled mess that's metastasizing in your garage. I, too, enjoy being able to actually park a car in there, so I'm not silently judging your tidy home. But, at the risk of pulling a full-on Jesus juke, I do want to mention three brief points and push back a little against this
seeking-joy-through-simplifying impulse that Kondo seems to embody:

1. God is kind of a maximalist. Even a bit over-the-top rococo at times. I mean, how many kinds and colors of butterfly does one planet really need, anyway? And don't get me started on the sheer number and variety of birds and flowers—really excessive. And how about PEOPLE? So many kinds and colors and shapes of people everywhere you turn, just cluttering up the space and taking up His time!

But in all seriousness, if God delights in both the spare simplicity (deceptive simplicity, if you ask me) of the Mongolian steppes, and in the wild multiplicity of the Amazon jungle, then so can we. Whenever "my cup runneth over," I should not respond by asking Him to please try to show a little more restraint. When His kindness fills up our homes to bursting, the correct first response is "Thank you!" So I recommend that we refuse to purge the clutter until we have first received the clutter with gratitude. Every sweater that no longer fits is, first, a gift that was given by a good God. Every excess kitchen gadget is something that you've been blessed to receive, even if it was just for a short time. As the proverb says, "where no oxen are the manger is clean, but much increase comes from the strength of an ox." Mess and clutter can be evidence of laziness and greed, sure. But quite often, mess and clutter are simply the evidence of a full and productive life.

2. An ongoing lack of joy is symptomatic of deeper trouble than the jumble of cords and coffee cups on your desk. Again, I'm not saying that stuff can't present temptations, but the problem isn't in the stuff. The problem is in the heart. Always. Our anger, frustration, impatience, loathing, and every other ugly weed we produce is growing not from the pile of broken crayons in the junk drawer but from the rot in our own hearts. So if we must minimize something, I suggest we start with that inner mess first.

3. Bad news: We actually can't clean up that mess by ourselves. However, good news: There is someone who can. The Spirit of God is the one who can fully clean up the mess you've made of your heart. (And, yes, you have made a mess of it. And so have I. And so have we all. Don't let the tidy exteriors fool you.) Jesus is the only one who washes us clean on the inside so that love, joy, peace, patience, and all the other good fruit can start to grow where the weeds once were. So please, don't try to make the occasional "spark" of joy become a substitute for the unquenchable flame of joy that comes from a new life in Christ.

In other words, even if you pare your purse collection down to just one sleek, all-purpose handbag, you can still manage to carry yourself to hell in it. New year's resolutions can be helpful, but a slim waist and a tidy closet, as good as they may make you feel for a short while, are not going to cure anorexia of the soul. Stop starving yourself, and start feasting on the words your spirit needs in order to thrive. Open the Bible. Read the Word. Meet God there. That, my friends, is the lifelong habit where the real life-changing "magic" is found. In His presence is fullness of joy. At His right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Based on a true story

"Um, excuse me?" I am kneeling next to a newly planted row of tomato starts and pulling weeds when I hear a woman's voice from over my bent shoulders. Several small businesses share the busy alley next to our back yard garden, and I assume the voice is speaking to someone else. I do not look up. With the back of my gardening glove I brush some loose hairs away from my eyes, and I continue weeding, tossing a few more invasive cheeseweed seedlings onto my growing pile. But then I hear the voice again, louder this time, "Hello? Miss? Excuse me."

Because of the steady stream of foot, bicycle, and car traffic that passes by the garden each day it's not uncommon for passers-by to stop and say a kind word or two about the new raised beds or about how nicely our plants are coming along. "Oh, hi," I say, rising stiffly from my knees and turning to face the voice, "Sorry. I thought you were talking to someone else just now." I smile and wait for her to speak. She has stopped her vintage bicycle next to our bent chicken wire fence and rests her hands on her narrow hips. Her eyes are a blue so pale that I seem to be looking not at the eyes themselves but at two vacant holes in her head through which I can see the cloudless sky behind her. I reach over and grip the splintery handle of my shovel and lean my weight into it so that I can stretch my legs. I look at her expectantly. She does not smile back.

After running her eyes over the whole garden plot, she finally says, “Well,” with a voice as crisp and sour and cool as the stalks of rhubarb growing behind me, "I just was riding by here and couldn't help noticing what you're doing, and I have to say that I am genuinely shocked. What, in god’s name is this heap of dead plants?"

"Oh those?" I chuckle a little. "I'm not keeping those, actually. I'm just going to toss them in the compost when I'm done."

"I figured you weren't planning on keeping those. And I’m appalled. That's why I stopped—it looks like you're killing them."

"Yesss? Um, I guess I am," I respond with a nervous laugh-cough. "Take that!" I say, leaning sideways and yanking a young dandelion out of the carrot bed. I intend it to be a lighthearted joke, but it flops somewhere in the dust near the bicycle tires and dissolves into the gravel.

The cyclist widens the pale blue holes in her head and tightens her lips. Clearly I am not making a new friend. After a long and uncomfortable pause, the words, "What in the world?" shoot toward me, and I resist the urge to duck. "How can you even call yourself a gardener? How can you treat plants this way?"

I blink.

I blink again, speechless, and tighten my grip on the shovel.

"Well? Do you call yourself a gardener?" she demands.

This is a relief, a question I can answer. "Oh, well, yes. An amateur, but yeah, I guess I'm a gardener."

"Ha!" she says. I can taste something bitter on the back of my tongue as she opens her mouth to continue. "Correct me if I'm wrong here, gardener, but last last time I checked, gardeners are people who love plants. Gardeners are people who nurture plants. So explain this!" She flings her hand toward my little pile of wilting dandelions and pigweed seedlings and then turns with raised eyebrows to scan the alleyway—as if she is trying to find somebody willing to join her in her triumphant outrage.

"Well, this is actually an important part of caring for the vegetables I planted here." My voice has a bit of a nervous shake in it. I can't believe I'm having to defend my weed pile. "This is what nurturing a garden looks like."

"Oh right. Then why are you brutalizing perfectly innocent seedlings? Seriously. Why do you hate plants so much?"

"They're weeds, not good plants." I resist the urge to roll my eyes.

"Says you. The difference between a so-called 'weed,'” she says, making scare quotes in the air with her fingers, “and a 'good' plant [more scare quotes] is just your opinion. You have no right to determine which plants should live and which should die. What do you have against them, anyway? What right can you possibly have to inflict your opinion on every other plant?"

I stare at her for a moment, trying to weigh whether this is some kind of satire, some kind of practical joke. But her cold eyes are glaring so widely that I can see the whites completely encircling the blue. ”Well," I begin, "I have gardener's handbook that I can check whenever I'm not quite sure which kind of plant I'm looking at. But after a few years of seeing these things grow up, you get pretty good at identifying..."

"What! You have this book, so now you're some kind of expert? Seriously? These things look just like all the other plants around here. They're really not that different. See that one? It’s not even touching the ones next to it. Not hurting a thing! And anyway, they're tiny. Look at them! Totally. Harmless. And if you just gave them a chance, you might actually learn to see the unique beauty in them!”

"Actually, I..."

"I am dead serious," she continues, "I cannot understand how any gardener could do...this." She broadly sweeps her arm toward the weed pile again. "If you really loved plants—if you were a real gardener—you would treat them with care and help them grow and appreciate them for what they are." She crosses her arms, satisfied in the irrefutability of her argument.

Suppressing the chuckle that is trying to escape, I cough into my shoulder and glance around the alleyway, looking for a hidden camera. Maybe this is some kind of skit for reality television. But no, I see nothing.  That’s the thing,” I say.  “You're missing the point. I love the plants that are supposed to be in the garden. I love these snap peas. I love the carrots. And if I love these plants, then I have to root out the invaders.” I point to a dandelion.

"Look. This is total discrimination. Either you love plants or you don't. You are obviously a plant hater. You're hurting plants. There's the proof!"

"But if I don't get rid of the bindweed, then it will get rid of my snap peas. I am not raising a garden in order to eat bindweed for dinner. You’re welcome to try some, however, if it would sooth your conscience.” Sarcasm is getting the better of me, and I can feel my suppressed smirk has surfaced. I can’t straighten it out quickly enough, so I look down at my dusty shoes and pretend to scratch an itch on the bridge of my nose.

I’m sorry,” she says, not sounding sorry in the least, “but I don't know why people like you take these things so simplistically. Not everything is so black and white. The concept of a 'weed' is just a social construct, and nobody needs to take sides here. There should be harmony among all plants—no! exceptions!” She pounds her handle bar to punctuate those last two words and then sighs. “Bindweed and snap peas can peacefully coexist."

I look up at her pained expression and exhale slowly so as not to outright guffaw in her face. “Uhh, not really. Not without doing serious damage to the snap peas. Not without choking out the plants that are the whole point of this garden."

"You have got to be kidding. You are a total weedaphobe! I knew it! You're afraid of bindweed! This is so unbelievable. You're acting out of irrational fear. I mean, look at these things. Look at how tiny and harmless those little bindweeds are." She leans her bicycle toward my tomato bed and points them out to me for my edification. “They have these beautiful white flowers. Beautiful! What are you afraid of?"

"I'm not afraid of them. I just know what they will do if I let them grow unchecked. If I call myself a gardener at all, I will call a weed a weed and then I'll cast it into the outer darkness, so to speak.”

"Ahhh, so then what about the ones over there?" She points to the opposite side of the alley where a small forest of thistles and dandelions have sprung up next to the neighbors’ dumpster. "You think you're going to get rid of all the so-called 'weeds' in the world? Think again. They are stronger and more resilient than you think."

The laugh finally escapes, despite my best efforts. "Believe me. I am fully aware of how resilient they are. That's why I'm out here doing this again for the umpteenth time this summer. But I am certainly not trying to single-handedly take down every weed in the world. I'm not even trying to get rid of the ones next door. It's my garden I'm concerned about. I am focusing on the weeds right here because they are the ones I’m responsible for. I am focusing on the ones that are trying to take over my good plants."

"Are you kidding me? 'Good plants'? These plants that you're killing had just as much right to be here as those peas do. In fact, I bet a lot of them were here first. But obviously you're too closed-minded to appreciate what they have to offer. Do you realize how useful and beautiful some of these plants can be? Look at this dandelion you've ruined. If you had just let it grow, it could produce lovely yellow flowers and friendly little fairy puffs! But ooooh. It's scaaary, isn't it? Can't let it grow freely, can you?" She snorts. "I guess you're afraid of flowers, too. Flowerphobe."

I roll my eyes toward the sky. A redtail hawk is riding an updraft directly overhead, scoping out his lunch options. Then I turn my gaze back to the lady’s face and look hard through her sky-colored eyes. "This has nothing to do with fear. It has everything to do with wanting to take care of my peas. It has everything to do with loving my garden."

"So pulling plants up by the roots. You call that love?"

"Yes. I do." My nose is starting to itch for real now, so I rub at it with the back of my wrist.

"Well. If that's what you call love, then I would not even want to imagine how you'd treat the things you hate. Look at how damaged those poor little plants are."

I look. And I smile a broad, genuine smile. "Yes. Totally damaged. Isn't it great? And once they're all dead and rotted and decomposed in my compost heap? Then they will be given the opportunity to return to my garden. At that point they will be welcome. But not before."

"Garden hater." She climbs back onto her bike. "Plantphobe."

"Come back in a month or two, and I'll let you have a bite."

She snorts again. "Oh really. Of what?"

"Bindweed, if you like."

She narrows her pale eyes and opens her mouth as if to respond, then closes it again and pushes off without a word. I listen to the crunch of gravel under her tires as I lean my shovel back against a T-post and return to my knees to take care of my tomato starts. The soil is warm between my fingers. Come July, there will be fruit.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Three years

On this day in 2012, Jonah was diagnosed with cancer.

A month earlier, after our annual family reunion, our boys had returned home tan and tired from four days of swimming and playing and staying up late with the cousins they see once a year. The other boys quickly slept off the fatigue, but Jonah’s exhaustion seemed to linger.

At first we thought he was simply in a blue mood, missing his cousins. Or perhaps he was nothing more than bored after coming home to our quiet routine after a week of constant activity. We gave him extra chores to do. I handed him a shovel and set him to work digging out roots of a shrub we had cut down in the front yard. He did the work sluggishly and with limp arms. We gave him pep talks. He yawned his way through them. We tried to keep him busy. He lay down on the couch, the bed, the floor at every opportunity. And then he came down with a fever. After testing positive for strep, he stayed in bed for most of a week and completed a ten-day round of antibiotics. But afterward he looked more pale and sickly than he had before.

We shuttled him to lacrosse practice, where he wheezed his way down the field. Our highly active, athletically competitive boy merely walked up the field, loosely holding his stick, while his teammates rushed and spun past him toward the goal. That’s when I began to feel uneasy.

Then Jonah’s fever came back. His face and lips by now were almost yellow, and he complained of constant dull pain in his arm. His swollen tonsils and intensely sore throat returned. He would not get out of bed, and his room gradually took on the stale smell of fevered breath.

We brought him back to the doctor, but this time Jonah did not test positive for strep. His spleen was enlarged and his energy low, so the doctor suspected a textbook case of mono—textbook except for his age. That was unusual. He told Jonah to rest up and come back for a follow-up visit if he wasn’t feeling better soon.

Within days, Jonah’s health rapidly deteriorated. On the morning of his follow-up appointment, he could not walk. His breath was shallow. He cried when we asked him to stand. We had to carry his weak, pale body to the car. He could not even sit up in the back seat. After one brief visit with Jonah, and a negative test for both strep and mono, the doctor sent him straight to the hospital for bloodwork.

Jayson had to carry Jonah through the doors and push him down the polished hospital hallways in a wheelchair to the lab. After the blood draw, Jayson started back with Jonah toward the automatic sliding doors when the lab technician came running after him, calling, “Wait! Don’t go anywhere. Jonah’s blood counts are at critical levels, and the doctor needs you to stay.”

That was at dinner time. At home, I was halfway through preparing a meal for my cousin who had recently given birth to a baby girl. Waiting apprehensively for news on Jonah, and grateful to have my mind and hands occupied, I rolled out dough and washed lettuce. Then Jayson walked through the back door and delivered the heavy news. My joints seemed to turn to liquid.

By bedtime that night, Jonah was in a hospital bed ninety miles away in Spokane, with an IV in his arm and chemo dripping into his veins.

•  •  •  •  •

That was August 20, 2012. If you’ve followed my blog or social media posts (hashtag "prayforjonah") through Jonah’s treatment, you know about a lot of his story since then. We have slogged through dark swamps of distress and sailed on deep swells of blessings. This cancer has laid Jonah flat on his back—on hospital beds and on Hawaiian beaches. We are not finished with this extended season of testing, and we, like all of you, don’t know what new trials may come. But we are grateful now to be nearer to the completion of Jonah’s treatment for A.L.L. leukemia—a three-and-a-half-year adventure that is leaving us all with a bigger vocabulary and a deeper faith and a greater understanding of the strength and joy that God brings through suffering.

Jonah’s final spinal tap—his 25th—is scheduled for early November. And Jonah’s final dose of chemo—after 3 1/2 years of taking it every single day—is slated for December 3. You can imagine what a delightful Christmastime this year’s is shaping up to be!

So thank you, yet again, all for your ongoing, faithful prayers and gifts and words of encouragement. The light at the end of this long, narrow tunnel is burning steadily brighter. Jonah will not be considered cured until August of 2017—five years from his diagnosis. In the meantime, he will continue to return to Spokane for monthly checkups at the hospital, and, as some of the side effects may not appear until further into his life, we ask for your continued prayers for his full and complete healing, and peace for us, his parents, especially after his treatments end. I'm told that the "watch and wait" phase can be as great a test of faith and patience as any of the intensive phases of treatment.

For now, however, we are grateful to have come this far, and Jonah is looking forward to December 3 with great anticipation. To be done with chemo is a tremendous milestone, and December 3 sounds like a perfect day to throw a big, joyful party. I hope that, wherever you are on that day, you will celebrate with us.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

No Place at the Table

Yesterday morning, I was reading a thoughtful essay on the history of American race relations that our friend Brendan wrote for the Theopolis Institute, and his words, combined with the news of Harper Lee's upcoming sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, reminded me of a brief conversation I once had with my grandmother. She told me a little story about a woman who came to live with her family in the 1930's. This seemed like as good a day as any to share it:

• • • • •

My Grandma Fran in high school at her home in Marissa, IL
About six months before my grandmother died, I was sitting next to her on the floral sofa in her sunny basement apartment at my parents' house, looking through a dusty shoebox full of old photos. As the brittle and faded images emerged from the box, they brought with them dozens of stories of small-town life in southern Illinois: high school dances, grade school plays, baseball games, and Sunday afternoons on the porch with fresh-squeezed lemonade and homemade ice cream.

But the one photo that I remember most clearly was a black-and-white image on a penny postcard—a solemn full-length portrait of a slender middle-aged black woman in a ruffled satin dress. I turned the card over to check for a name, but the back side, apart from the printed address of a St. Louis portrait studio, was blank.

This was the only photo of a black person that I had pulled from the entire shoebox, and I wanted to know more. Who was she?

Grandma took the photo in her arthritic fingers. She considered the photo quietly for a moment, the sound of a clock quietly tsk-tsking on the side table. I could smell her faint perfume mingled with the Bengay she rubbed daily onto her aching joints. Then she cracked a thin smile and began her story.

The woman's last name was Smith (that's all I can remember now), and she had been a friend of Grandma's mother, my great-grandmother. Miss Smith had grown close with the family—working for them as household help—back in Missouri when both my Great-Grandma McCreight and Miss Smith were young women. After my great-grandmother married, Miss Smith remained single and continued to live and work in St. Louis, but she corresponded regularly with my great-grandma for many years.

Eventually—close to twenty years later, I would guess, when my grandmother was in high school—the letters from St. Louis stopped coming. My great-grandmother was concerned by the silence and wrote Miss Smith to find out if something was the matter. Miss Smith, it turned out, had fallen very ill and was now facing a long, slow recovery during which she was unable to earn enough money to live on. "Well, of course Mother asked her to come and live with us," my grandma told me. But Miss Smith resisted the invitation for weeks, maybe months, until at last she was no longer able to put food on her own table. Then she moved to Marissa, Illinois, to live with my grandmother's family.

"We just loved her," my grandma said. "We really did!"

"We really did!" She said it with emphasis, as though it might come as a shock to me. And it probably was a shock to the people that lived around her childhood home. As you can imagine, in a southern town in the mid-1930s, not every citizen did "just love her." Grandma's father was well respected in the community. He served as the postmaster, appointed by President Calvin Coolidge himself, and just about everybody knew him. His family, with its collection of freckled redheads, was a fixture in town. People liked them. But the town ordinances specifically forbade black people from taking up residence within city limits—even, apparently, as house guests. Some of the neighbors must have complained because my great-grandfather had to go before the city council to obtain a special provision that would allow Miss Smith to live with their family.

Grandma said that over time "everyone" fell in love with Miss Smith, once they got to know her. Perhaps it was true. Perhaps. I hope so. But the fact remained that she was the only legal black resident of Marissa, Illinois, at that moment in history. The only one. And only on account of a special legal exclusion granted to my grandfather.

Honestly, it's hard to believe that everyone "fell in love" with Miss Smith the way my grandma remembered it. My grandmother was hardly more than a child at the time, and both the region and the era suggest that not everyone would have tried to get to know Miss Smith, let alone welcome her with open arms. And who knows what head shaking and finger pointing took place behind the family's backs?

Miss Smith lived in the McCreight family home for an extended period—for well over a year. All six kids, my grandma said, adored her. My great-grandparents loved her. She was a tremendous help and comfort to my great-grandmother who suffered from debilitating asthma attacks. She was an old and dear family friend. And yet… She lived upstairs in the hot, drafty attic by herself. Grandma said they tried to give her a better room in the house, but she wouldn't take it. And at family meals, Miss Smith could not be convinced to sit with them. Only on special occasions would she join the family at the table.

Sometimes, my grandma recalled, Miss Smith would sit on the floor when there weren't enough chairs. "I just couldn't understand why she would do that!" Grandma said with a chuckle. “Dad would offer her his chair. We always told her to come have a seat with us! But every time, she'd say, ‘Oh, no. I know my place. I know my place.'"

That phrase, “I know my place," was, for me, the hardest part of the story to hear. My grandmother shook her head at it, unable to understand, all those decades later, why this house guest of theirs would choose to say such a thing. To her it seemed a little funny—a personality quirk, perhaps. But it made me wonder why my grandmother's family, for all their kindness, did not insist that Miss Smith sit with them at the table. Why did they not downright forbid a clearly unhealthy woman from inhabiting the most miserable room in the house? Why, if they truly loved her, did they not take her by the hand and lift her off of that floor and give her that chair and refuse to take no for an answer?

Miss Smith said she knew her place, and my great-grandparents did not—or could not—help her to un-know it. Everybody "just loved her," but she still had no seat at the family table.

A year or two later, after her long recovery, Miss Smith returned to St. Louis and continued to write letters for a while, but she eventually lost touch with the family. Grandma never heard what became of her. But I wish I knew. Did she eventually marry? Did she have any children of her own? Are some of her grandchildren or family members still living right there in Missouri? Living, perhaps, in Ferguson at this moment? What small part, for good or ill, might my grandma's family story have played in the greater narrative of the events that happened there this year? And what small part will the words and actions of my own family play in events yet to come?

My grandma's family was, I realize, more welcoming than many white families would have been at that time and in that place. But their love, it seemed, was incomplete. At the end of the day, Miss Smith still knew, or believed she knew, that she was not truly welcome. Not really at home. Not fully party of the family or the community. That phrase, "I know my place," remains a painful echo from my own family history—a history that is not, after all, quite as distant as I might wish it to be.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Comfort, comfort ye my people

Today is the fourth day of Christmas. Today we continue to welcome the arrival of the incarnate King—the Word made flesh. Today we continue to give gifts to our children and to sing of the birth of the Second Adam. Today we again raise our glasses and our voices in celebration of the event that marked the beginning of a new humanity—the beginning of all things made new. Today our spirits rejoice in God our Savior who has visited us in our low estate.

Today is also the Feast of the Holy Innocents—a day that, according to the church calendar, commemorates the massacre of the infants by king Herod following the visit of the magi. Today, many churches around the globe remember that loud lamentation—the voice of Rachel weeping for her children because they are no more.

Today is the collision of two feast days, one of joy and the other of mourning. And today, I feel both the weight of that glory and the weight of that grief.

• • • • • •

Last night, as I lay awake next to the low hum of the humidifier, trying to relieve the pressure from a splitting sinus headache, I received a Facebook notification on my phone—a friend asking for prayer for her son and husband who were lost in the dark and snow on a mountainside in central Idaho with a search and rescue team sent out to find them.

My heart raced. Jayson and I had just spent the afternoon driving slowly home from Spokane and knew how icy and treacherous the highways were. We ourselves had slid on the road and seen cars being towed from snowy ditches, and I could only imagine how much more dangerous the driving conditions must be on a winding mountain road. We prayed for the safe return of these two men and for peace for my friend as she sat up during the long, dark hours waiting for news.

Still unable to sleep, I read another prayer request sent out by yet another friend. This time, my heart fell into the pit of my stomach. Earlier in the day another friend of mine and her husband had left home with their daughter, a former classmate of Jonah’s, to drive her to Montana for a visit with friends. As they drove on those same icy, snow-covered roads, they were involved in a collision that injured my friend, but that killed their daughter instantly.

I spent a good part of the night with an aching head and a breaking heart, praying and praying again for these dear families—and particularly for these mothers. Both of these families have already suffered through tremendous trials, long periods of uncertainty, and pain of body and spirit. And yet both of these families, in the middle of their various struggles, have shown all of us what it looks like to have joy in the midst of trouble. These mothers in particular have been an ongoing example to me of selfless love, steadfast patience and joyful encouragement—women who pour themselves out to bless those around them.

As I prayed, I wondered, not for the first time, at the sudden and severe providences of God.

• • • • • •

I know that at times like this, Reformed Christians like me tend to toss Romans 8:28 around like some kind of magical band-aid: God works all things together for the good of those who love Him, so turn that frown upside down! But trusting in God’s mercy and kindness, believing that He is doing good in the direst circumstances, is not always an instant cure for a broken body or a breaking heart.

Does the reality of pain and death undo the truth of that verse? No. But I also cannot pretend to know exactly how God is working all things for our good. Why must these families, of all people, be given this additional weight to bear? Why this? And why them? I don't know the answer. But I remind myself that God is working for the good not only of those who suffer but also for the good of those who are witnesses to their suffering.

Knowing how these women, these friends of mine, have repeatedly expressed their deep trust in the goodness of God while facing life-altering trials is something that has certainly worked for good in my own life. In many ways, it's through seeing the example of other suffering saints that I found courage to face smaller trials in my own life—and that prepared me for facing some of the hardest days of Jonah's cancer treatment. For that I am grateful. But knowing that God is doing good through these hard moments does not mean that the moments cease to be hard.

How many times have I have bitten my nails in fear or felt tears welling up with sadness during the most harrowing moments of a good story—a story that I already knew would have happy ending? Knowing the end—knowing the good to come—does not take away the tension or the tears. How much more so when the story is the one lived out before our eyes in real time? If even Jesus, who knew that Lazarus would soon step out of his tomb alive, wept at the death of his friend, we might weep as well.

The valley of the shadow of death is a place none of us hope to find ourselves. And yet all of us will walk through it sooner or later. As I lay awake last night, I ached for my friends who were walking there at that very moment. God does promise to be with us in that dark place, but He does not promise to swoop in and remove us from it. He may not take us out of the presence of our enemies. But He does prepare a table before us there—even in the presence of the last enemy.

God is working all things for good. Can it be true? Even this? Even cancer? Even loved ones lost on an icy mountainside at night? Even (I can hardly type the words) the death of a child? All things working together for good? All things?

I still believe it. It is peace and comfort. It is a hope that, in these dark hours, keeps us from despair. But it is not an anesthetic that can be clinically injected into our troubled souls to immediately take away the pain. 

• • • • •

It is Christmas. During this season, we remember with joy that the Light has come into the world. But this day also reminds me that the story does not end there. Light did come, but the world did not comprehend it. The Lord of Glory was born into a dark world that would spill the blood of the innocent—and that would, in the end, spill the innocent blood of the Son of God Himself. The sky would go dark. The earth would shake. And through those hours of deepest darkness, when the Light of the World seemed to be extinguished forever, God would, definitively and perfectly, unexpectedly and gloriously, work all things—yes, all things—for our good.

This morning, I woke to bright sun shining through snowy branches and sat up, hoping for news from my friend whose husband and son were lost. I checked my news feed and read her update with the report of their late-night rescue with such relief that I cried. I was overwhelmed with grateful joy. And as I thanked God I remembered my other friend whose daughter is no more. And I wept again, overwhelmed by the terrible loss. I was still wiping away tears when my youngest son ran into my room and bounced on my bed declaring, “It’s Christmas again!” And so it is. Oh, tidings of comfort—and joy.

The sunrise from on high has visited us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. —Luke 1:78-79

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

Here we are, already at the end of another year full of reasons to be grateful. I'd love to have written a nice, newsy Christmas update to include with all the greeting cards we would have sent out to friends and family this month. Maybe the news update will still happen, but having only just gotten my computer back after two and a half weeks in the shop, I now find myself busily catching up on all the computer work I should have gotten done during that time. So the Christmas card mailing is not happening this year. It's honestly a bit of a relief to put off all the printing and labeling and mailing  until next year, but I'm sorry not to send you all something festive to hang on the refrigerator. 

Here, however—in digital form—is this year's card, arriving not in your mailbox but in your news feed. Feel free to print it out, stick it on your fridge, and pretend it came with a stamp!

Many blessings to you and your families this Christmas! 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Taste Not

Nakuru, Kenya. 1991.

The girls from my Form Two class at the international school had collected in the white-walled lunch hall where bright, equatorial sunlight lay in blinding streaks across the heavy wooden tables and the polished concrete floor. The double doors on either side of the room were open to the breeze—a long breath of eucalyptus and red earth and damp grass, fresh and warm after the drenching Kenyan rains.

I was attending the boarding school as a day student—the only non-boarder, the only American, and the only white student in my class—during the five months that my father taught journalism at the nearby university. Having arrived halfway through my eighth grade year, I was only just beginning to understand the manners and customs that shaped life at the school, and no hour of the day presented a steeper learning curve than the lunch hour. I had learned to wait to sit until our teacher sat, to always eat with my fork in my left hand and my knife in my right, and to never call "pudding" dessert as I would at home. I had also learned that food choices here were determined by more than a simple matter of preference.

Mlle. Dubois from Nice, who taught us French, presided over the table that day. She stood alone at our head, beautiful with her sun-freckled cheeks and long brown curls, hardly looking older than us thirteen- and fourteen-year-old girls. She bowed her head slightly and led us in a hastily mumbled, "Bless us and these thy gifts, which we receive from thy bountiful goodness." A prayer generic enough to offend few and to please none.

She sat abruptly and stiffly. We sat loudly and awkwardly, all creaking chair legs and gesticulating arms and angular teenaged knees beneath our green uniform skirts.

We poured glasses of iced lemonade from a plastic pitcher, and our conversation trickled lazily around the table, changing accents as it flowed from girl to girl, while we waited for the food to arrive. A hadada ibis landed heavily in the tree outside, bouncing its weight on a thin branch, and began hollering its name, over and over, to the iridescent starlings that pecked for their lunch on the trim lawn below. “Hadada!” he hollered, “Hadada!” As if hungry for acknowledgment from any listener—even the lowliest of birds. As if he were afraid the world might forget his identity. As if he hoped his nervous bravado might be taken for confident laughter. “Hadada!”

A pair of best friends from India, Pooja and Sejal, sat on either side of me and leaned forward to speak in shrill, hurried whispers over me. From time to time they would include me in their banter, but they often interspersed their musical English with Hindi slang that I could not decipher, and now their stifled giggles formed an unseen barrier that I could not cross. Mlle. Dubois raised one perfectly shaped eyebrow their direction but said nothing.

The door to the kitchen squeaked open, and a row of servers walked into the lunch room carrying large beige plastic trays and the smells of fresh bread and oniony gravies. My belly rolled thunder, and I clutched my side, hoping no one had heard. At each table, a member of the kitchen staff in a wrinkled white apron placed a dish of overcooked mixed vegetables. The kitchen door swung open, shut, open shut. Then followed a basin of steamed pudding with a pitcher of warm vanilla custard to pour over it—something sweet to entice us to finish those limp vegetables.

We girls, with all of our varied religions and languages and nationalities and shades of ebony and mahogany and copper and pink, might have formed some kind of heartwarming, we-are-the-world postcard of global peace, gathered as we were around that under-salted bowl of vegetables. Green beans and lemonade. A bloodless communion. We took and ate—Catholics, Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, and we assorted flavors of protestants all serving ourselves from the same dish. Warm bread arrived next in towel-lined bowls, and we ate from the same loaf. Conversation began to build, and chatter about boys and maths and field hockey filled the air: “So, which house is going to win the tournament?” “Ha! You really think he’s cute?” “You got an A? Oh, shut it. That exam killed me!”

Then came the platters of meat.

I looked toward the Form Three table across from ours and made eye contact with my friend Angela Wahome. She smiled warmly. Her teeth had been recently repaired in Nairobi after a collision with a field hockey stick during one of our P.E. matches. They shone against her dark, even skin, and I admired their new, artificial whiteness, even as I wore my own whiteness like an outdated shirt. Not long after I had arrived at this school, Angela had sought me out, in her quiet and unassuming way, and had introduced herself to me. That I was the only white student in my class had made me uncertain of where I might fit in. That my class was an unfamiliar crowd of teenagers claiming a half dozen different religions made my own faith seem less comfortably certain. But Angela was a Christian. I was a Christian. To me that seemed bond enough. We were sisters, and she had become an anchor to my unmoored soul. I smiled back.

One of the kitchen staff rounded the corner and laid a covered dish on the table. He lifted the lid, saying, simply and softly, "Pork,” before moving on to the next table. The well browned roast, sliced thick and smothered in gravy, smelled of Sunday afternoons at my grandmother’s house. Comfort food. I usually gave little thought to what sort of animal had given its life for my lunch, but here in this room full of girls from every tribe and tongue and nation, the question could not go unanswered. We might break bread, but I could not break beef with the girl to my right or to my left. Every imaginable religious dietary restriction seemed to be represented in that room, and every restriction had to be honored. We were cut off from one another by a carving knife.

I picked up the platter of steaming pork, took a slice, spooned on a little gravy, and passed it to Pooja, a Hindu, who, still giggling, took a couple slices and passed it down the table. Some girls took and some passed it on without allowing so much as a finger to touch the meat. Today it was surprisingly good—tender, well salted, and more peppery than usual. On days like this I thought of the Sikh boy in my class, a vegetarian, and pitied him for what he must not taste, must not handle, must not touch.

Minutes later, the kitchen door swung open again, and a few more servers in aprons carried new platters of meat through the little lunch room, calling, "Beef! Beef!" A dozen or so Muslim hands shot up, and the servers worked their way along the tables, ladling cubed beef onto the plates of those with their hands in the air. Sometimes if the pork looked nasty, I'd opt for the beef along with the Muslims, but most of the time I ate the meat of the day without comment.

My Pakistani friend Shabnum sat across the table from me and was eating and talking in her animated way with another girl, gesturing with her fork as she spoke between bites. When the server neared our table and again called, "Beef!" Shabnum froze. She pulled her hands back from the table and dropped her fork and knife with such a sudden recoiling, as if they had transformed into a pair of serpents. She stared at her plate. She turned and stared at the server. She looked back to her plate again with wide-eyed horror. “What— What—“ She struggled for speech. “What is this? What are we eating?” Her dark eyes moved from face to face along our table, searching for reassurance.

“It’s pork,” Mlle. Dubois said bluntly.

In the bustle of the noisy lunchroom and in the excitement of sharing gossip, Shabnum had not heard the word "pork" when the server had placed the platter on the table. The meat was dark like beef, and none of the girls around her were used to paying attention to food concerns other than their own. Nobody had noticed Shabnum's mistake.

“Oh my god. Oh my god. Ohmygodohmygod. Oh my GOD!” Shabnum’s chest rose in quick, shallow breaths. “Oh no. Oh hell. Hell! Oh God,” she continued in a hoarse whisper, pushing her chair from the table with a screech against the smooth floor. She held her hand to her heart and ran out the open door and down the slope toward the hockey fields, whispering panicked curses as she went.

Mlle. Dubois set down her fork without a sound. The room had gone nearly silent, and she looked down the table at our bewildered faces. I could hear the sound of my own chewing, and the noise of my teeth working seemed strangely offensive. I stopped and held the wad of half-chewed pork inside my cheek. We had several Muslim boys in my class, but Shabnum was the only Muslim girl. None of us knew what to do. Or to say. Or even to think. We looked to our teacher whose face showed that she was clearly as uncertain as we were. At last she said softly, “Pooja. Hannah. Sejal. Go after her and see if you can cheer her up.”

We glanced at each other nervously but stood. Cheer her up? How? Here we were, an American Presbyterian and a pair of Hindu girl friends, sent to bring good cheer to a young woman suffering from some kind of unspeakable turmoil of soul over a piece of pot roast. What were we supposed to do? Tell jokes? Sooo, two Hindus and a Presbyterian walk into a bar…?

We stepped carefully down the damp grass and whispered to each other. “Did you see what happened? Was it just the pork?” “Yeah, she ate it on accident.” “She thought it was beef.” “That was kinda scary.” “Completely. You think she’s OK?” “I don’t know. What do Muslims believe about sinning on accident?” “I have no idea.” “Where did she go?”

We wandered across the lawn until we turned the corner of the pool house, where we found her in the shadows, pressing her back against the cool cinder block wall and staring at the fast-moving clouds overhead. She did not look toward us, but we could see wet streaks marking both cheeks. Her arms were folded tightly around her tall, thin body. “Shabnum?” Pooja said. No answer. “Um, I’m really sorry. Um. Are you OK?”

Shabnum uncrossed her arms and pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes. “No,” she said.

“I’m sure it will be fine,” Sejal said brightly. Shabnum did not uncover her eyes. Sejal looked at me and shrugged with a forced smile still on her face.

“Yeah,” I added. “It was an accident, right? God will forgive you, right?” I felt a shudder go through me. Do Muslims believe that Allah forgives? What about understandable mistakes? I wondered. I didn't know what I was saying.

“No!” Shabnum flung her arms down. She turned her red, watering eyes toward me, and I felt my own begin to burn. “You don’t understand!”

Pooja and Sejal both stepped toward her to put a hand on her shoulder. I stayed back, uncomfortable in both my skin and in my soul. The air was growing warm, and the humidity felt like weight. Shabnum shrank away from their reach, but Pooja tried again, “Shabum, I’m sure there are millions of people who do stuff like this—who eat the wrong thing or do the wrong thing on accident. It’s totally understandable.”

“I mean, it was a complete accident, yeah?” Sejal said, “'Cause you thought it was beef. Allah knows that, yeah? He knows you thought it was beef, so it wasn’t, um, a sin or whatever.” Sejal looked back at me and shrugged again. We were foolish girls wading into waters blacker and deeper than we could tread. My neck itched, and the air grew heavier.

“Oh God!” Shabnum shouted at the grass. “You don’t understand!” We three would-be comforters looked at each other in confusion. “Oh hell!” Shabnum shouted again. “ I might be going to hell!” The last word cracked in her throat. She slid her back down the rough wall, sat on the damp earth, clutched her knees, leaned her head back, and sobbed.

A bell rang. Students from the lunch room began to fan out across the lawn toward the various classroom buildings. Several girls looked down the hill toward us with curiosity. Angela stopped walking and looked at me with concerned, questioning eyes. I stuck out my lower lip and shook my head. She grimaced and walked on. 

“Oh God!” Shabnum wailed again, seemingly unaware of how her voice carried across the school grounds.

“Allah won’t send you to hell for eating pork by mistake!” Pooja said with a kind of vehement certainty that surprised me. “He wouldn’t do that!” She sounded almost offended.

Shabnum's tears fell on her white blouse and formed an uneven pattern of translucent dots where they landed. “You don’t understand.” Shabnum repeated. “You don’t understand. You don’t understand.” And I didn't.

How could I understand? I could not understand what it was to feel the crippling fear of damnation. I could not understand how anyone could find hope of relief from a god who, it seemed, might send a repentant teenaged girl to hell for a cafeteria mix up.

I wanted to tell her something about guilt and forgiveness, about freedom from shame, but I found no words. In my remaining months at the school with Shabnum, we would never again speak of this incident. We would proceed as if nothing had happened. Shabnum would laugh, and I would laugh with her, and we would pass the plates of meat around the table as we had done before. But the memory of those moments would trouble me for many weeks and months. Even now, decades later, when I push my grocery cart through the checkout and see the headlines on women's magazines that say "Eat without Guilt!" I sometimes picture Shabnum's thin form shuddering with guilt and fear next to the pool house. And I wonder what more I might have said.

Mlle. Dubois appeared at the top of the hill. “Time for class,” she called to us. “Are you ready?” We looked at each other, unsure of what further good we could possibly do, and unsure of whether to leave Shabnum alone in her misery. Mlle. Dubois sighed. “No? O.K. Ten more minutes. Then come to class.”

We nodded and turned back toward Shabnum’s crumpled figure. She was biting the side of her hand as she wept, and the three of us stood in silence and listened to her muffled sobs. We watched her shaking shoulders and felt the humid air rustle our polyester skirts. “Hadada!” hollered the bird in the tree. “Hadada!” another laughed in return. “Hadada! Hadada! Hadada!” The joke seemed mutual now. The starlings pecking the grass did not look up.

“Shabnum?” I said quietly when her weeping had calmed to sniffs and sighs.

“Please go,” she whispered. “Please go away. You don’t understand.”

“Hadada!” In the branches overhead, an ibis continued to laugh.

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