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What Makes a Handful?

"You sure have your hands full!" said the older woman in Target, watching me try to corral four independent-thinking and adventur...

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Two Blogless Months, and an Informal Poll

It has been exactly two months now since my last blog entry, and it's not that *stuff* isn't churning in my head, it's that so much of it seems so personal to me and the path God has me on right now that I'm not at all sure anyone else would want to read it, so I haven't written it out. Acknowledging that, though, caused me to remember that while I do hope some of the things I wrestle with, learn, worship through, etc., are beneficial to build up and encourage others, the real reason I have always written is because I feel compelled to, as an act of worship. I have always written first to make a concrete record of worship, second to work out my own salvation (or sanctification) by making myself grasp what might otherwise be fleeting thoughts and hold on to them long enough to complete a thought, pursue a leading, ferret out a mystery that is being revealed. In that regard, writing has been a sort of mental and spiritual (and often emotional) discipline for me.

But lately, I've turned far more inward, and I'm not sure that's a good thing. For me, for worship. I have no idea whether any of you who read do so on a regular enough basis to miss the entries when this blog lies dormant for so long. I'd love to hear feedback on that if you have something relevant or encouraging to offer. If not, then silence will communicate just fine, thank you. I know what silence means.

So, then, for this informal poll. If you read, and you're reading this because you have interest, I would like to ask whether one of these topics in particular is interesting to you. All have been on my mind, some have come out in partial pieces in my prayer journal or in emails to friends, co-workers, fellow church goers. I think I ought to spend some time putting discipline back into place to finish what I started on one or more of those topics and try another entry sometime in the next week or two. As an extrovert and highly relational person, I think I could be spurred on to get my rear in gear and do it if you provide the proverbial kick. So cast a vote, if you feel at all inclined:

The all-mighty, all-powerful, all-just Jesus is the one who kneels rather than stands over both those he forgives and those he condemns. (From John 8)

Martyrdom, living sacrifices, and our rightful place in relationship to God's altar. (Romans, Revelation, and common thought in the church today; this one's been brewing for years, but came up in today's sermon, so it seems like maybe it's ripe.)

Discerning between "prescriptive" and "descriptive" passages, and why we get them so confused--AND why doing so messes up our view of the right roles of Savior and believers.

The key thing to remember when we want to ask, "God, don't you care about my life?" (From Mark 4-5)

That's probably enough for now. Those keep resurfacing, so what say ye? Any thoughts or direction for me as to which one I might start with?



Tuesday, October 28, 2014

This Is Life: The Present

Annie Dillard, at the young age of 28, wrote a book that won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a collection of her own reflections on life and nature and faith, the confusing signals she gets from observing creation, the emotional and intellectual battle to respond to worldly stimuli, the wonderings of a woman who wants to know her place in the universe, if she even has one. In one chapter, she describes something she calls "The Present." That's present as one refers to time, not present as in a gift.

The Present, as she describes it, is a sense of reality that is realer than real--an acute awareness of the aliveness of the very moment one finds oneself in, completely devoid of self-consciousness. The Present is rarely more than instantaneous, for as soon as one realizes one is experiencing The Present, it is instantly replaced by awareness of self, which removes its edges and the individual once again finds herself shrouded and suppressed in the mundane.

There have been a few times in my life when I have known exactly that sense of being fully and totally alive in The Present the way Ms. Dillard describes. (I am so tempted to call her Annie, though I don't know that I've ever met her; however once, on a beach, I met a woman of about the same age, throwing a stick into the waves for a boisterous Labrador to fetch, and talking of sea and sand and sky and air and energy and consciousness in a way that reminded me so much of Annie Dillard's thought processes and style that I wondered if maybe it was she. I didn't ask, fearing destroying her privacy no matter who she was. She could have offered her name if she had wanted.) Even that thought interjecting itself into this piece is evidence of how much today has been a day lived in The Present, the swirling, energized, chaotic, emotionally and sensationally present Present.

It was an alive sort of day. Not all of them are.

What's different about today? If I analyze it too much, it will dissipate into the mundane. I know it. But I can't stop myself.

Somewhere in it all is the absolute understanding that today is today, and today is life, and today is valid in and of itself. It is not the "waiting for what comes next" which has described the vast majority of my existence up until this moment. Today had work in it. It had frustration in it. Phone tag and a tussle with a gate lock and a minor burn and mail that still didn't arrive even though it's been promised for days. It had children's needs and laughter and tears and homework that went on too long, a meal that was far below par but accompanied by outrageous laughter and too-loud music, empty refrigerator shelves, a visit from a friend bearing chocolate and an aquarium that will shortly house a mouse I'd rather not meet, and above all else, a compassionate listening ear and heart of love. And that was all real. It had enthusiastic anticipation for an upcoming event and frankness and celebration of the Spirit of reconciliation. Philosophical musing with someone far away, remembrance of a loved one passed on, the heavy promise of mortality, the hope of something much more.

And this is now, and this is real. Today is exactly what it was meant to be. It isn't less. In its lack of being remarkable, it isn't a day to write off as failure to rise to the potential of a remarkable day for a remarkable person with a remarkable life to lead and legacy to leave.

It is what it is, and it is enough. Somehow that realization is more energizing and encouraging to me than if it had been a day of some extraordinary success.

I think that's what Annie Dillard meant when she said she experienced The Present. It is a sense of full experiential awareness accompanied by peace and security in the rightness of the ordinary, which is operating exactly as it should completely apart from any constraint to the clouded perception that distorts our self-centered awareness and makes us cry for something more than what we have been granted.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Salvation, not Tragedy (but almost)

An instant is all it takes to radically change the course of a life, or lives. A nanosecond. One slip.

How will I sleep tonight? The world has not stopped rocking since 2:00pm this afternoon, when everything slid sideways and almost slipped away. This was almost a story of tragedy. I cannot even get my mind to wrap around how tragic it almost was, and if I venture there at all, I am still, almost eight hours later, overcome by trembling that comes from inside somewhere I can't identify. Everything hurts as a result--my head, my jaws, my biceps. Too tightly clenched to keep out the possibility of the reality that almost was.

And yet, this is a story of salvation, not tragedy. I must get that reality to latch on. It wasn't what it could have been.

I cannot bear to relive it all right now to tell it, but compiled here is the content of two email conversations and a face-to-face conversation with one person who was able to rush to me in person and catch me before I blew apart. All happened this afternoon, one with my pastor and the final with another friend who knows well how to bear burden with genuine empathy.


Dear Pastor D:
I am home right now with all four girls, and we are safe and sound. But we had a near tragedy today, and by God's mercy (and I'm not even exactly sure how) we are alive and no one is physically hurt.

My phone is dead from being submerged, so email is the only way I have to communicate right now.

It was interesting that you talked about hikes and waterfalls today. Just this week, Jill (the littlest girl) told me she wanted to see waterfalls. I had not taken them hiking at all this summer, so we planned to go to Dupont after church today. We also had two of Emma's friends from her cross country team with us, Brittainy and Emily.

We talked about your sermon while we had a really quick picnic in the pavilion area at church and then went out to Dupont. When Jill saw Triple Falls, she was ecstatic and even more excited about the people walking around on the big, flat rock area at the midpoint. She wanted to go there. I was likewise excited about her excitement, so we all went down the many steps and out onto the open rock area.

We read the sign that said "no swimming or wading," and everyone understood it. But even so, in just an instant, Jill, the baby, went to sit down on the rock near the water--not even at the edge. The water must have been higher very recently, because the rock was slimy and wet and she immediately slid INTO the water. I was only an arm length's from her, but the water took her too fast for me to grab her. I had to jump in. I managed to grab her and literally hurl her back toward the rock plateau where the four bigger girls (Brittainy, Emma, Jane, and Emily) had already gotten down flat on their stomachs and were reaching for her. Emily was able to reach Jill's hand and pull her out, but I couldn't get back. The water was pulling me away and though it wasn't deep, it was slightly inclined and completely slimy and slippery. I honestly thought I was going to die with my girls' hands outstretched trying to reach me.

But Emma and Brittainy made a chain and Brittainy came in after me. She was able to grab my jacket sleeve and pull that much into Emma's reach. Emma held us both until a woman we didn't know appeared and pulled me in, so Emma could get Britt back up.

The girls all seem to be doing OK. We are all alive and lost only a phone and have some skinned knees. But I am shaken to the core and can't yet even grasp how close it was, nor shake the image of my baby with one arm out to me, crying, "Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!" while being pulled out of reach.

Brittainy's mom met us back at the church parking lot to pick her up. I was honestly praying that maybe somebody would be there then, somebody I could just share the experience with, but no one was. I did tell Britt's mom, and she was wonderful and prayed with us all and even said she was glad Britt was there to help because my little ones would not have been able to make and hold the chain to get me out.

I don't know what we need, if anything really, other than prayer to settle us again, for us to see God's provision and rescue and not just the horror and fear. I just really needed to have the story told, I guess. I still feel like I might break apart into a million pieces, thinking how close we were to losing that little girl, and how close it was for me, and how at risk Brittainy was, and the other girls trying to reach me but not sure whether I was going to be OK. 


My friend said to try to focus on the image of God pulling us from the water, and I am trying. But the whole thing is too vivid, and this existence too precarious. When I sit still, the trembling begins again. My friend says it won't always be this vivid. I hope that is correct, except that then, am I walking blindly again into purposeful obliviousness about this unsettled peril of living? Annie Dillard said that if we could even begin to grasp who God really is, then we should never enter his presence without crash helmets on.

How will I sleep tonight? When I try, in a few moments, I will go get the little one and bring her in with me. Just the last hour apart from her has been almost more than I can bear.

When each girl was a newborn, I sticky-tacked an index card to the wall next to the head of my bed with Psalm 4: 8 on it: I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O LORD, cause me to dwell in safety.

Tonight I am not sure what that peace is, exactly. But I know it is true that You Alone, O LORD, cause me to dwell in safety. I can do no thing at all to contribute to this, it seems.

And I am staggered by the weight of that truth and that mercy.


Sunday, August 10, 2014

A Blessing for a Friend, as He Takes on a New Challenge

When I first came to the Christian faith, it was in a Baptist church in a small college town. I remember that the pastor, who became a good friend during those years, each Sunday ended the worship service by praying the same blessing over the congregation, and then he would finish with, "Now let's go out and be the church." It was an encouragement to active obedience in representing God to the world in love.

On my last Sunday there, before leaving to move to this town to take a job which that pastor helped me get by giving me a glowing personal reference (I was actually hanging around the church office when the call came in, and he announced to all of us gathered there, "That's the call! I have to go get Rebecca a job!""), he called me to the front of the worship area and prayed the blessing over me specifically.

As the years passed, I forgot some of the words, but four years ago, a dear friend was heading off to college, a bit fearful and uncertain, and I wanted to offer the same blessing to him. I found my old pastor with the help of Google and emailed him, asking for the complete wording again. He was thrilled to provide it, and to know that at least pieces of it had stuck with me all those years. (I think we all like to know that somehow, God really does use us to have impact somewhere, sometime. He does.)

He told me then that is was part of an old Scottish benediction.

Today we heard that as dearly beloved children, we are called and energized and empowered to step out in confidence to take on the tasks God puts before us--even though we may not perform perfectly. We will fall short. Some things will go undone; some may not work as well as we hoped. In some cases, we may fall flat on our faces. But as dearly loved children, we are still to be active--to do what we are called to do without fear of failure, because we are perfectly justified and nothing can change that state. God's love for us is not conditional upon our performance. That fits with the Scottish benediction of those years ago.

A rather new friend in my life is stepping out now in faith into a new calling. I have great confidence that all will be well--more than well: excellent. But there are questions and a lot to manage, plan, sort out. There are people to enlist and delegate to appropriately. It is a challenge, and it seems daunting today. But as a dearly loved child, confident that his favor can never be lost in the Father's eyes, he can still step out, still go, into the unknown and do. Even as we lack confidence in our own abilities, we can have certainty in God's. He will not fail. He will equip. He will multiply every seed of our human efforts as we lift our gifts up to him. As we go.

This blessing today is for that friend.

As you go, may the Lord Jesus Christ go ahead of you, as planner and preparer of your way.
As you go, may the Lord Jesus Christ go behind you, as finisher and completer of all that is left undone.
As you go, may the Lord Jesus Christ be over you, watching over you and yours.
As you go, may the Lord Jesus Christ be under you, to pick you up when you shall fall (and you and I will).
And as you go, may the Lord Jesus Christ be in you, incarnating his love now and forever more.

Amen.

As you go, go as a dearly beloved child. Held, equipped, instrumental, and never forsaken.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

A Letter of Love




The details of a loved one's life are never tedious.

That's what I found myself thinking as I read a real, handwritten letter from my dad earlier this week.

Letters are so rare, so to find one in my mailbox was a real treat. I remember the days when checking the mail used to be exciting--there might be something in there from a real person. Now, it's mostly advertising junk and the occasional bill that doesn't come electronically. So a real letter from a real person--it almost feels surreal.

I love my dad's handwriting. It implies that he is in a great hurry. The letters slant so far to the right they appear to be running across the page. I feel like I must read quickly before they tumble off the righthand margin. I imagine that he is trying to write as quickly as he thinks. When I handwrite, as I do in my prayer journals, it is in part because I intentionally want to slow down my thoughts and let them take full shape. Handwriting lets me process outside of my own head, often a very good place to be. But I don't sense a slowing in his letter, which is interesting, because his life has very much slowed down from what it used to be.

I hear his voice in the words he uses too. He grew up in a fairly rural area of West Virginia. There are colloquialisms and word choices he uses that are common to no one else I know. ("Kindly," for instance, shows up in unexpected ways.) It's his voice there on that page. When I read it a second time, it's even more his voice.

The content is not anything someone will find in my attic decades from now and use to rebuild important events in human history. He tells me about his day and his health. His breathing was good enough and the temperature cool enough that he sat on the porch for an hour. A simple pleasure he can't always enjoy. The day he made two trips to the grocery, and the friend he saw there. "She looks beautiful," he says. "I always worried she was too tired and thin, but today she looked rested and healthy. I'm glad. I was kindly worried about her." He tells me what he made for dinner, and why--a superfluous bounty of squash had arrived at his door when he was out at the store. He doesn't know who the giver was, but "that was nice of them."

And as I read, I realize these everyday details that I'm not there to live through with him seem so much more valuable because of our distance. And that the details of a loved one's life are never tedious. I want to know.

I don't mean to suggest a litmus test for love. If you grow weary of the same old, same old from someone in your life, I don't mean to suggest that you don't love that person. (Something in the fact that you are there hearing those details, even if you are weary, still suggests love, doesn't it?) But yet, when I notice how precious they are to me, I realize the affection I have for him. It is a gift. I shouldn't take it for granted. So I will keep this rare letter, and maybe one day my daughters will try to decipher the racing letters, and envision an ordinary day in their grandfather's later life, and want to know him more, and actually, by reading it, they will know him more.

I have a friend at church who is often reminding those of us who will listen that God's writings to us are love letters. I love that. A letter of his love from Father God. In the details of my own life, which are many and at times tyrannical in their urgency, I far too often find myself reading that Father's love letters to me with all the affection I might feel reading an instruction manual for changing a lightbulb in the microwave. Looking for the instructions. Trying to meet my grown-up responsibility and check off that one thing for the day. Ugh. Forgetting that these words are what I need, for my good, to know him more, to hear his voice in the pages, to delight in his view of this life and this world and all his great purpose in it.

His fingerprints are all over my life. I know it. He's writing my story into this greater one, and when I shake myself awake from the tyranny of the urgent, there it is: His voice. It's not in the whirlwind of all the requirements of the day. It's not in the fire of other people's expectations and judgments. It's in that still, small, quiet voice, aware of the other turmoil, but holding steady beneath it and above it and speaking to me, like my earthly dad--come into my story, be comforted, be held, know that it's all for a purpose, I have taken care of it, and I'll never let you go. The book isn't a burden. It's a love letter.

And the ember of affection ignites.



Saturday, May 31, 2014

What Makes a Handful?

"You sure have your hands full!" said the older woman in Target, watching me try to corral four independent-thinking and adventurous girls all under the age of 12 a few years ago.

When Miriam turned five, my dear Uncle Sammy spoke truth by declaring, "Now you're officially a HANDFUL!" She always has been. Birthday #5 just made it official.

It's rarely quiet around here. Right now, we have multiple cooking projects going on for a church feast tomorrow. The music blares. If no one is hurt or angry right this moment, just wait a bit. In every room, something is broken, missing, or stained (or all of the above). The socks never match. The Tooth Fairy never comes on time. Bedtimes observed? Ha! Not in the last few years. I've lost about as much of the good silverware as I have left from that registry years ago. I can't name one possession intact that I would call an heirloom, and the bank account is already all committed before even the first of the month has arrived.

Are my hands full?

You bet.

Full of kindness.

What's God's eternal purpose in redemption? Why did he do it, make you and me and all these hand-filling people and then hang with us, pour out himself for us, mess and all?

Ephesians 2: 7 "...so that in the coming ages (that's all the coming ages, folks, forever) he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus."

His whole plan is to be KIND to us for all eternity. To pour kindness out, immeasurably.

I once did a word study on Kindness, and about the same time heard a sermon which dealt with God's pouring out that kindness from "the hollow of his hand." Kindness has to do with usefulness--the needed things. And God's active hand is meeting all our needs, so if you have it, you must have needed it, and in his kindness, his hands opened up and poured out to you that which is most needed. That's kindness.

By design, I'm a "glass half-full" person. Optimism and positive expectation were my default position for the first two-thirds of my life for sure. But the reality of living broken in such a broken world does eventually have an effect. There has been much reason for grief and mourning, internally, externally, at my own hand and from the hands of others. My own demeanor has changed from one of bouncy, energetic, arms wide open toward heaven in gleeful expectation to one of a more somber mood--my own empty palm extended in the midst of tears and uncertainty, from the knees, or even lower.

But that doesn't change the Source of kindness, or the availability of it.

"Comfort, comfort my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended and that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins."

Double from his hands, to my open palm.

Let the crazy rule in this home. Joy runs like a current beneath it all.

Are my hands full?

You bet.



Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Gospel Coalition, Keller, and Tullian Tchividjian

I'm a little heavy hearted the last couple of days learning about what might be another schism occurring among some of our more respected Christian leaders and a pretty well-trusted organization.

I have a lot of respect for Tim Keller and every Tchividjian I've had the opportunity to meet, read, learn from. Tullian's focus on grace is like cool streams of water in the desert to me. Tim Keller's straight talk has unpacked a lot of gospel for me as well.

I have to admit, I am not knowledgeable enough about the differences being debated to have much of an opinion regarding the reasons for the decision to part ways. I'm a bit saddened by it. But at the same time, I have to remember that nothing is lost in God's economy. He magnifies his name and his purpose in this creation. Even this will work to that end.

Another such separation stands in history as an eventual positive for church growth.

It's at the end of Acts chapter 15.

There came a point when Paul and Barnabas had to go separate ways. Barnabas--the "son of encouragement"--the one who was brave enough to go to Paul in the first place to see if his transformation from persecutor to believer was real. Barnabas brought Paul to the other apostles and presented him as the real deal, threw his optimism and support behind Paul when no one else would. Later, though, a "sharp disagreement" is recorded and the two went separate ways. But the church grew stronger in more places because of their eventual separation than it would have if they had continued to travel and preach together.

Nothing is wasted in God's economy. He will use it. Maybe Keller's crowd NEEDS to hear more about performance and obedience, and Tullian's crowd needs the refreshment of freedom from oppression. Both have a place in this journey of working out our salvation. God knows what he's doing. He will meet all the needs of his communities. But I do hope these two men, and all those working with and supporting them, can just do this well, without slander or hardship or sweeping anything under the rug.

We will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Even when there are disputes and disagreements between brothers. I pray for these men, that their instrumentality won't be lessened because of this, but magnified in spite of it.


After I posted the above, Tullian Tchividjian made some remarks on his own website which are worth reading. I think his comments reflect the "sweet spirit" we all hope to see in one another and in our leaders who are in the public eye. Read Pastor Tullian's letter here: Reflections on My "Break Up" with The Gospel Coalition. 

Friday, May 9, 2014

Who's the Mother?

I wonder when Mother's Day will begin to feel like my day instead of my own mother's day.

I've been a mom almost 15 years now. Fifteen times around the sun. Fifteen times this Sunday in May has come up on the calendar. And 15 times I haven't felt like it's for me, but for her.

She's not here. I bought no Mother's Day cards this year. No minutes turning into hours reading and re-reading and rejecting and re-visting all the super-sentimental poetry and fake memories someone who doesn't know either of us crafted in a cubicle somewhere and passed on to a designer who laid the words out in a swirly script and sent it on for embossing and production. Mass production of heartfelt emotion.

I didn't even visit a store with a card rack this year.

I guess 15 years of parenthood just doesn't ever replace the previous however many decades of being in relationship with a parent, especially a mother. She's the first thing I ever knew.

It's still her day. It's not mine.

And I miss her.


Thursday, May 1, 2014

Can a Christian Know True Despair?

Some things should be used rarely and with great discretion. I would say both cilantro and the word "despair" fall into that category.

The Bible seems to agree. Cilantro isn't mentioned even once. (Though its seed, coriander--a vast improvement over the soapy herb--gets two mentions.) And despair--only four times: Twice in the Old Testament and twice in the New.

I was once told by a Christian church leader that "real" believers should never know the condition called despair. (I didn't ask his opinion on cilantro.) The Hebrew word is yaash (pronounced yaw-ASH). It means desperation without any hope. It's as low as you can go. The Greek, which we find in those two New Testament mentions, is exaporeomai (ex-ap-or-EH-om-ahee, if you're brave enough to try it; I just can NOT get the emphasis in the right place). It means the same thing, essentially, though qualified as "utterly at a loss without a way through." No way out.

I think of the Israelites out of Egypt, with their backs up against the impassable Red Sea and the Egyptians bearing down on them. No way out, or so it seems. But is that one of the places in the Old Testament in which we are told someone experienced despair? No. It isn't. Because really, they were not in despair. God was already making a way. He directed them to move forward even though they couldn't see where to go: move toward the sea. That body of water, in his hands, became their deliverance, though they could never have imagined it or done it themselves. Scripture does not record that they felt despair in that situation, even though I expected it might. Perhaps it isn't recorded because in that case, it was not a truthful desciptor.

Three of the four biblical mentions of despair do indeed seem to support my former advisor's position--that those who really believe do not have a personal relationship with utter hopelessness. Let's look at them.

The first occurrence is in 1 Samuel 27:1. David, in the Psalms, certainly shows us that he knows despondency, but what about despair? In this passage, we find him relentlessly pursued by Saul, to the point that he knows Saul will never, never give up until he has David's life. It may seem David is out of options and despair is nipping at his heels, but that's not how the word is applied. David does something that seems pretty unthinkable. He flees Saul, and where does he go? Straight into the camp of his enemies, the Philistines. Remember Goliath, whom the boy David slew? PHIL-IS-TINE. David took out the Lord's enemies' hero, and now, in his desperation to escape his own enemy, he finds the Philistines a safer bet. After all, it was in the killing of their giant that King Saul's heart was turned against David, filled with uncontrollable jealousy and rage that would not relent. David recognizes the full-tilt passion with which Saul desires to destroy him. Saul is nothing short of consumed with intent to annihilate David, and it is Saul who will then know despair as David slips away to the lesser enemy. David's state of persecution is not, to him, a cause for despair. Instead, he says that when Saul can't find him to kill him, it is Saul who will spiral into that state of utter hopelessness. His unsated bloodthirstiness will send him into desperate emptiness, hopelessness.

Score one for my advisor. Under extreme duress, David did not despair. (And by implication, neither should I, right?)

Next we find the word in Ecclesiastes 2:20. Qoheleth is lamenting the ongoing toil of this life and recognizing its futility and frustration. We work and we work and we work, but we can make for ourselves no guarantee that our profits--if any--will move forward in the wisdom and purpose we desire. With his hope set on the work of his own hands, Qoheleth gives his heart over to despair--utter hopelessness. Not even those who work with wisdom, knowledge, and skill can save themselves or redeem their own efforts well, not even one of them, in this life. Outside of the hand of God (9:1) is nothing but despair. But in the hand of God, the only truly wise place to be--a different story altogether. Score two for my advisor.

The third and fourth usages are found in 2 Corinthians, and for the structure of the argument, I'm going to jump ahead to number four first. 2 Corinthians 4:8, Paul, in writing to the troubled church, states that his current state (and possibly theirs as well) is one of perplexity, "but not driven to despair." Things are bad, but still, his hope is in the "surpassing power of God." Sounds like a third point for the argument that real believers persist in faith so that they do not know the actual condition of despair first-hand.

But I would say, because of the last one, that the scriptural evidence is that they do not know despair in these particular circumstances. Because 2 Corinthians 1:8-9 pushes back against that claim that never will a Christian be so deep in the pit that knowledge of despair moves from gnosis (conceptual head-knowledge) to epignosis (personal, relational, intimate knowledge).

"For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death."

Been there? Paul has. I have. I was told I couldn't. I was told I didn't have enough faith. I was told that no physical circumstance could be bad enough to make a "real believer" feel "utterly burdened beyond [his/her] strength" and "despair of life itself." And here is Paul, the very one chosen by God in a blinding flash of light to take the gospel to the world outside of Judea, an eye-witness to the resurrected Christ, one given a vision in the Spirit of all that is to come, one who knew utter transformation in himself now stating quite specifically that he has also, even in going about the very work assigned directly by God to him, known utter affliction to the point of despair. No way out. None. Death upon him.

And there is validation in that moment. I thought I was a vessel of God's wrath. I thought he had to have abandoned me if I could feel so completely hopeless and trapped and anguished. I thought it meant my faith had not been real if I couldn't hold on to peace and contentment in the midst of suffering. Why do we sunshiny believers feel like we have to push this "happiness doctrine" on one another with such force when here, Paul wants us to know that he, too, has been there? Not only ready to give up, but actually doing so. He was done. Beyond his strength. That was reality.

We don't get to know the specifics of the circumstances Paul experienced but it seems from the text that the cause was conditions outside his own heart. This is not just a spiritual struggle. It was something physical, material, that happened in Asia. Persecution? Betrayal? Illness? All of the above, and then some? It isn't just that he got a little case of spiritual influenza and had to pep-talk himself back into the zeal and fervor he's known for. No, something attacked him, and perhaps his angels were delayed in coming to fight on his behalf, but whatever happened, it broke him. Paul too could break. I did.

But praise be to God, who overcomes. He didn't leave Paul there. He didn't leave me there either. Paul came out of Asia. And in looking back, he can see that God had purpose, and going forward, he can tell the troubled Corinthians that they can take comfort and find peace in his experience for their own. "But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead."

He raises the dead. He reaches those in despair. He gives a way out where there is no way out.

The fact that he does so is not evidence that there was no real reason for despair. On the contrary, the reality of despair is the evidence that we need a GOD outside ourselves to reach into our helpless estate and do what we cannot do for ourselves. "On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us AGAIN."

Beloved, it may not be completely over yet. The sea has parted. The clouds have lifted. The blows have stopped. The path out of Asia has been traveled. But what comes next?

All I know is that "On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again."

For now, may I say that Paul was afflicted so that I, and you, could share in his comfort and salvation? Perhaps I was afflicted so that you can share in my comfort and salvation. And if it comes again, remind me of your own story, and that despair is real. But we rely not on ourselves but on the God who raises the dead.

He is faithful.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Why Ascension Matters

It's Good Friday, and last year, the day hit me with just the reassurance and comfort and grace that I seem to stay hungry for all the time. You can read about that here.

While I have reflected again, especially with the morning's anxieties, on the proof of God's love, this year, I can't stop talking to the girls about the Ascension. I guess it's a new understanding for me, so much more rich and personal than I had realized before, and so I want to talk about it, want them (and you, if you're interested) to glory in it with me.

If you've been reading these Contents for a long time, then you know I've struggled with the physicality of my existence and the spirituality of our faith experience. (Some examples of that ongoing wrestling with longing for the physical, walking by sight: Knowing Face to Face; Crying "Abba! Daddy!"; Waiting for God)

That background about my longing to "have a God with skin on" is important for me in understanding why Jesus had to go away. Why couldn't he stay here, eternally, walking with us on this planet? Wouldn't that be better for us, to be able to find him somewhere, even if it meant we had to use Delta to track him down while he was doing some serious Kingdom Building on another part of this little rock?

That time will come. But for now, for me to know, really know, that I am secure, he had to go away. He had to leave so that I could know my future is sealed.

As a kid and even an adult believer, I typically just thought of the Ascension as the event that marked the reality of Jesus' words on the cross: "It is finished." It's done. He went home. Yes, John tells us that he said he was going to "prepare a place for us," and I believe it. That's cool. I'd like a place prepared. A house with many mansions in it, the shade of my own fig tree. Sounds good. Whatever he's got in mind, I'm sure I'll be content with it. But it is so much more than that--the reason he had to leave us!

Think about what happened just last night, all those years ago, in Gethsemane. He wrestled and writhed under the knowledge of what he was about to take on. We can't even imagine it, because we've been steeped in sin and its damages all our existence. But it had not touched him. Not one inkling of it lived inside him, and he dropped to his knees in a garden--harkening back to the place he first put his beloveds, where they were safe and pure and with him in the beginning--and said, "I'll take it, Father. ALL of it, onto myself." Every lie. Every murder. Every act of adultery. Every short word. Every broken promise. Every theft. Every manipulation. Every violation of justice. Every single time his own honor was rejected, discounted, diminished. Every word of slander. Even every stroke of the hammer that would drive the nails into his own flesh hours later. And all that pain that comes from all those things.

I see it like a never-ending thunderhead, rolling black and violent and oppressive, from all four corners of the Earth and being funneled onto this one beautiful, humble man. I know what it is to be as innocent as I can be, and to be blindsided by a kind of unexpected violence that cut me to my soul--but this is me, a sinful woman already, who has caused hurt and damage. And by comparison, the affliction I have experienced is just momentary. It cannot compare to the volume of evil he took onto himself--the words say "he became"--for us. How did he even bear that moment of taking the sin of the world? How did that in itself not kill him?

While on the cross, having become our sin, his Father had to turn away. He had to. It's who God is. It's how bad sin is. It's what he would have had to do to us if Christ had not been willing to be that man who took it all. It's what we deserve. It's NOT what God left it to be, though. But sin is that bad. A God who is perfect in righteousness cannot be where sin is, and certainly cannot be joined to it in unity. It had to go. On the cross, Jesus was our sin, and God had to turn away or else cease to be God. And he did.

He turned away. Forsook his only Son, whom he loved. For you. For me. For us.
But the story's not over.

After he died, he was taken down and placed in a tomb and it was sealed. Why do we bury people? And why are there rules about that burying? It's about purification. Death breeds impurity--disease, corruption. The dead must be dealt with, and burial allows the process to take care of the impurities. The surface is not made impure by a buried corpse, as it would be if the corpse were left exposed. And that's what Christ's burial is--the purification of all that sin. It is taken into the ground and dealt with. With finality.

But the story's not over. The power comes. The very power of the God who creates. It's the same power to resurrect. He who gives life gives life AGAIN, and he does it for Jesus and he does it for you and he does it for me. Resurrection power, after the grave. I've glimpsed it here. A child almost dead, expected to die, returned not only to life but to vigorous life. It's a shadow of what we're talking about here and what is to come for all who believe. Life. I don't think we even truly know it yet, but there it is before our eyes to consider: Life after the grave.

But the story's still not over yet. Because after he appeared to many, and they believed to carry forward the Kingdom work he had for them, then he left. He was lifted up, he Ascended to heaven. And that's so much more than just going away. It's not a "So long and thanks for everything" kind of goodbye. It's not even just a closure on the "It is finished" statement.

Get this: It is our PROOF that his work is sufficient. It's good enough. It's a done deal. The bargain is sealed. Your sins are gone. They are removed from as far as the east is from the west and they are never coming back and because of that you can and will be with the God who cannot be in the presence of sin. You will be united with him. Because the Father accepted Christ, who had become sin for us, back into his presence.

If even any residue of that sin remained with him, unpurified, hanging on to haunt us all later and sprout again in the new Earth, then God the Father could not have received the Christ back into heaven. The Ascension could not have happened. But it did. And the future is written, and we're in it, with him, perfectly, forever.

The fact that Jesus is not here any longer is our proof. His work was good enough. It is settled. I am his.

Praise!

Happy Easter, beloveds. He Is RISEN and ASCENDED!



Friday, March 21, 2014

What Was Meant for Evil

Did you ever experience something that you know has to be evil, but yet you cannot deny the good that came from it?

Think of Joseph, youngest of 11 sons of Israel, the favorite. His jealous brothers could not bear the favoritism nor Joseph's superior attitude. They did the unbrotherly thing--tossed him into a hole, sold him into slavery, told the father the boy was dead. I can pretty comfortably call that evil.

Joseph found himself in a foreign country, where he is seduced by a married woman. When he flees from her, she lies to save face for herself, claiming he didn't reject her--instead, he molested her! He gets thrown into prison. Deep, dark, dank prison, for YEARS. Years of his life evaporate in that darkness, foreshadowed, perhaps, by the dry well that held him at his brothers' hands. I can pretty comfortably call that evil.

But what was intended for evil, God worked for good. God brought good for Joseph and even for Joseph's brothers out of that sequence of evil events. Joseph became a leader--second in command of all of Egypt. And in that position, Joseph also was used to kind of do a number on the people of Egypt too. He knew severe famine was coming, so he had to plan ahead. He "taxed" the people's produce at outrageous rates to store up for the seven years of starvation. I wonder how they might have groaned over this foreigner--Pharaoh's Yes-Man--taking so much from them now to hold for later, when he would sell it back to them. And so he did. He sold it back to them until they had no money left. He then traded grain for livestock until they had no livestock left. He then traded grain for land until they had no land left. And finally, he traded grain for human service, until everyone except the priests in Egypt were bound to work Pharaoh's land for no pay; only the right to keep some of the produce again to feed themselves. Meanwhile, in Goshen, set apart from the Egyptians geographically, the sons of Israel and their families thrived and multiplied and had enough to eat.

What they had meant for evil, God had used for their own good.

I need to remember this. There is evil all around. It touches everything--even those areas of existence that we still hold up as good. That is what total depravity means: not that everything is completely rotten, but everything is altered by corruption. Evil is everywhere. God does not stop it the way I might want him to. But the testimony is that he uses it for good. All things work for 1) his own glory (Proverbs 16:4), and 2) the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28). All things? Even those that are so easy to call evil? That is the challenge to believe.

I had a great privilege this month to interview a bold Christian athlete who completed a grueling and extremely dangerous physical trial at the end of February. The ten-day event afforded him a lifetime's worth of spiritual lessons. Several have stuck with me, but one in particular keeps coming back: the blessing he now sees in darkness.

At one point on his journey, he had to pass through a treacherous Alaska gorge, hauling behind him a heavy sled with all his survival needs on it. Frigid, running glacier water--deep enough to submerge a man, especially one tethered to a sled bearing scores of pounds of weight--flowed below him as he had to creep along narrow, winding, rocky, uncharted, ice bridges and catwalks. And he did it at night, in the dark.

I do not like navigating in the dark. I do not like darkness, as a general rule. I am not talking about the quiet of the evening, under a starlit sky. I am talking about debilitating darkness. Darkness that hinders. Darkness that does not allow one to see the needed steps, the goals ahead. Darkness that oppresses and renders one helpless and even depressed. I want light. I want vision. I want knowledge. When met with darkness, most of us seek to change it. We turn on lights. We use flashlights, headlights, street lights, candles, torches, runway lights, lighthouses. Human history clearly depicts the need to push back against the darkness, to try to set it right. The very opening chapter of Genesis proclaims that this is good and necessary: In the beginning... God separated the light from the darkness. He contained the darkness even then. Let that which God has seen fit to separate, no man again put together.

And here, in that type of debilitating darkness, my new friend had to navigate for his very life in order to achieve the goal of finishing the race. He is on the other side now. The race is over. And looking back into it, he says he can be thankful for the darkness. If he had taken that route in the daylight, he believes he almost certainly would have been overwhelmed by all the deadly obstacles in his path. He would have turned back. He would have given up. The journey truly was too great for him. The darkness hid that truth. But one small, uncertain step at a time, he depended on his Jesus to take him through, without any vision for where he was going. And when daylight came, the terror of the darkness was in the past.

Daylight did come.

And darkness was used for good.

What else might we label blatantly evil, and reject outright in our own unwillingness to let God use it for good?

I have a new counselor. A human one. I think, finally, I have found a good fit. When I mentioned to him that something I have always labeled blatantly evil might, possibly, in God's hand, actually be a gift God uses for good, he did not disagree. He did not shove me backward into my former thinking. Instead, he said I might be on the verge of a liberating breakthrough that will not only be used for my good, but for others' good, and for letting the omnipotent and incorruptible God out of a tiny box I have held him in, so that his glory too may be seen. God is bigger than the evil that is in and around us. That is the point of the gospel. None of it is outside his ability to use for his purposes.



Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Rejecting Gothard and Recovering Grace

I want to bookmark this testimony here and hope that others who have struggled with legalism and the trickle-down effects of wolves in sheep's clothing like Bill Gothard will find hope in truth.

For the last year of my life, I've had on instant replay a paraphrase of something Charles Spurgeon said regarding discernment. I need to find the direct quote, but the gist of it is this:
The real challenge to a Christian in this world is not acquiring the ability to discern right from wrong; it's the ability to discern right from almost right.

Legalism will use 99% truth to promote 1% of a tiny lie that destroys grace. Discerning that 1% is the challenge Spurgeon was referring to.

This account of one woman's deliverance into grace after a childhood and young adulthood steeped in Gothard's form of legalism gives great hope for all who call on the name of the Lord.

It is for freedom you have been set free!

http://www.recoveringgrace.org/2013/05/from-clear-conscience-to-clear-thinking-journey-from-guilt-to-grace/

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Strange Math

I saw myself in a seedling today.

The girls and I keep trying. Keep trying to grow something in the city. We planted some seeds indoors. We put romaine lettuce and celery stumps in water to resprout. We keep trying. But it's winter. The sun has stayed mostly hidden. It has been overcast, skies full of snow and more snow. The light can't seem to penetrate the darkness for long.

So I have some very leggy spinach seedlings, and some romaine that looks branchy rather than bushy.

Today the sun came out. I carried all my pots and loaf tins outside to the deck. Reach! Reach for the sun, little seedlings! Photo-synthesize to your hearts' content!

I expected to come back to find them lush and dark green and robust. But the opposite happened.

After stretching so long and so hard in the oppression of indoor incandescence, they simply wilted and fell over in the presence of The Real Thing.

And I saw me in those weakling seedlings.

As a new believer, I burst forth from the old and into the new with a robust vigor. But life being what life is, it always wants to get in the way of fervor. We blow on a coffee cup to cool it down. Pressure in a balloon rushes to get out, rendering that delightful toy a flaccid remnant of uselessness. And darkness always tries to smother light. I knew it was the Light I craved, and I reached and reached and reached for it, even in life's oppressive darkness that shrouded so much of it from me. So while the seed was strong, I too soon got  covered over, and I couldn't get the Light I needed to grow strong. When tested, I wilted like today's new green did.

When did I thrive? When I was a new believer in the world. When did I stretch and shrivel? When I was a young believer in a closed-off Christian subculture. Christian job. A loyal and beloved but small assortment of Christian-only friends. Very conservative church which emphasized retraction from the greater culture and community rather than engagement of it.

It occurred to me today that like the occasional cold weather out of doors functions to harden and strengthen the young plant so that it can stand strong, so also interaction in the real world strengthens the believer for life's hardships as they come--and confidence to stand and not wilt when they do. 1 Peter 1 speaks of the "tested genuineness of your faith." Testing proves to me that my faith is real. And so, perhaps the "always indoors protection" for the seedling, which lets it sprout and grow but not in vigor and strength and fortitude to survive is rather like the "always protected" covering of the Christian ghetto, never letting one's faith be strengthened with the fortitude to be the iron in the spine needed to face the reality of the Light that shone into the depths of darkness, exposing all for what it really is.

Some years ago, I had an email correspondence for a time with a children's book author named Paul Owen Lewis. He had, by choice, become something like a modern-day hermit, and it was rare, I was told by his publisher's representative, for him to correspond with anyone. But I bought thousands of copies of one of his children's books, a visual masterpiece called Grasper, about a young crab who cannot grow as long as he stays in the shallow water protected by rocks at the edge of the surf. But when, one day, against all advice, Grasper ventures up to the top to look out over the rocks, he finds a magnificent world, full of color and activity and challenge and danger. His friends think he has lost his mind to venture out. But when he comes back, he has grown. He is much, much bigger. They can't understand it! When he risked the outside world, he grew. When he stayed in certain safety, he didn't.

Mr. Lewis said the book was a parallel for his own spiritual journey. He knew he needed to get out of the rocks of his own life, which were holding him back. He knew it was good not only for himself but for others. And yet, his fear was great. So he taught through books what he hoped others would learn and he thanked me for promoting his heartfelt message.

A few weeks ago, the daughters and I went to see the movie Frozen. As a general rule, I dismiss most Disney princess movies, and only endure them because I have daughters, who have friends and dress-up clothes and on and on and on. But this one was different. The character Elsa has a gift that doubles as a curse. In her immaturity, the trait, untrained, unhardened by testing, can be dangerous. But rather than guide her through careful testing toward growth, her frightened parents instead suggest that she simply close herself off from society, from the world, to protect her from judgment and protect others from harm. Much later in the story, when she MUST come out, it becomes clear that she doesn't have the needed strength to function, and things get far worse before they get better.

Testing and being challenged are necessary for real growth. The idea that we should shrink away to live in safety, it seems, may be the very worst thing we can do for ourselves. It is true that "we have this gift in jars of clay." We are oh, so fragile! But our focus is wrong. We say, "We have this gift in Jars Of Clay," and focus on the jar and the clay--me, me, me. I am weak. I am molded dust. I am nothing but dirt with a pretty glaze on the outside.

Instead, however, should we not say, "We have THIS GIFT"? The gift is ours. It is not going to be retracted. What is the gift? Permanent, unalterable, unmerited favor. God's shield for us, against absolutely everything we could encounter that would harm us, from the inside or the out, is his favor. Psalm 5:12 says it: You cover him with your favor as a shield. Ephesians 6 reiterates the power of that shield: powerful to extinguish every flaming dart that is shot against us.

Why do we fear, then? Why do we hide away in our sheltered places, as if anything out there in life's challenges might soil or damage us? We have THIS GIFT: God's permanent favor. We can't mess this up, but if we are to be strengthened, we must see for ourselves how very strong he is, his promise to hold and keep us, to always provide for our needs in the moment of need--in the fiery trial.

I don't want to be a weak seedling, lapsing back into the soil because I could not reach the light when I needed it to grow. I don't want to be a tiny crab, miserably molting but never growing, and missing the opportunities of life more abundant out of self-protective fear. I don't want to cover my challenges so that I never mature to meet them. And I don't want to hide the Light that is in this jar of clay under a bushel so that others too may never know it for themselves.

Funny, isn't it, how in God's economy, so much is upside down and out of what we think the order ought to be? One must lose his life to save it. One must venture out of safety to mature. One must take chances and depend on something bigger than one's own self to know one's self fully.

It's strange math.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Living in the Cross-Hairs



There’s a saying that I’ve been told too many times to count. I clung to it once before, believing it too. It goes something like this: “God will never put on you more than you can bear.”

Those who say it claim it’s biblical. But I can’t find that promise in my Bible. In fact, absolutely everything about the story in that book and my own life experience says the contrary. It’s all more than we can bear.

From the Hebrew people living in slavery, crying out in agony to a God who saw their suffering, and knew, to the sheep without a shepherd, aimlessly lost, weighed down by the insufferable and never satisfied burdens of their “spiritual leaders,” the ones Jesus looked on with pity and compassion. I am here.

Then there is the demoniac in the mnaimion, breaking chains and cutting himself and bellowing in the midst of the dead, unforgotten. Pursued, individually.

Tell me they bore up under the lashings and tossings of this life. I will disagree. I will tell you instead that I believe they broke. I believe they caved. I believe they came to know their own frames, that they, too, were but dust.

I had that break too. I still wonder about it, but I suppose I had to come to know my frame. To think anything other than how very fragile I am is perhaps to make an idol of my so-called strength. Who am I fooling?

Will he let one of his beloved break? Oh, yes. Break, yes. Perish, no.

I once heard that the term “perish” has more than just the connotation of actual loss of life to it. It has more to do with loss of function. The example given was that of a coffee mug, shaped by a potter’s hand to hold liquid and to be held in the hand of a person. Designed for a purpose. But should the mug be tossed onto the tile floor, it will shatter. It is not annihilated. Its parts are still there. But it has perished—broken, it can no longer serve its function.

I’ve been that mug. Once full to capacity with optimism and joy and hope and purpose; then smashed against the cold, hard surface of this treacherous existence, shattered, fragmented, unable to function as I was designed. He let me break, completely.

But so did the Christ—break, completely. For me. For you. Yet he didn’t stay that way. There’s resurrection power in this story. For me. For you. Because of him.

I can glue a cup back together. It may possibly function again at that point, but maybe not. My power is so very limited. But resurrection power—that’s outside of all of this. And that power is his glory. He let me break. For the last year, he has been resurrecting me. I am finding my purpose again, and it’s greater too in the knowledge of my own limitations. Because of knowing that I can break, and be resurrected again—it’s even a requirement in order to receive the full spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.

This life is too hard, and we are always living under its attacks. Life in the cross-hairs. Someone really is out to get us. And we often help. We wreck ourselves. We wreck others. Others wreck us. Sometimes circumstances of life cause the damage, even if no one in particular was directly responsible. It’s just a mess. Why would we ever think breakage isn’t likely?

“The bruised reed he will not crush,” we hear, and I do cling to that one. But the crushing, I think, is more in the ultimate sense of perishing. Though I’ve lived it, it’s still a mystery—how this breaking but not crushing works. Perhaps that’s like the burning bush—clearly consumed but not consumed.

Is there encouragement here? I hope so. Because here I am, and not of my own doing. He let me break. He freed me of idols in so doing—good things, things he designed, but things I put too much of my hope in instead of him directly. And now he is mine, even if they never will be again.

I did not perish. But I did break. You may too. I hope I can just tell you though, that it isn’t the end. The one who knows you is also the one who grapples for you, and who will again lift you up and set you on your high place. Fear not.




Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Is Grace Really THAT Big?

Your friend is faced with a decision so difficult, that while you want to help, you also feel a twinge of gratefulness in your own heart that it is hers and not yours to make.

She's endured to the breaking point. Even beyond. No formula works or even seems to apply except in theory. Sometimes, there just isn't a right answer. Sometimes there isn't a fix. No simple platitude can change the reality. And she has to choose.

She's always been the good girl. She's evaluated the options. She's studied the ideals. Taken the advice too much to heart. But there is no ideal here. And now is the question: Continue suffering as you have been, in faith that the point is the suffering? Or try to exchange the known for the unknown, also in faith?

Whatever is not of faith is sin. Is there a converse to that? When the only options are to stand still or to take a step, both require faith, and both can be terribly frightening, especially for the ones who have been trained that we must be good, choose good, do right always. What if she's wrong? Who or what waits to respond--karma? Or grace?

How big is this grace, then? If she says, "I don't know which way is right, but I'm going to take this step," does grace still cover? Is it that radical? There is no certainty. There is only very little confidence. The term doesn't even seem to fit, that's how uncertain this is.

Is it really true that nothing can separate us from his love? Nothing? Is a step into the utter unknown, when done in faith--because at this point there is absolutely nothing left but faith--covered, even if in some mysterious cosmic scheme, it was "wrong"? Or maybe even only slightly more wrong than the other wrong. Where does grace fit in when the only options are two evils?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Dragonfly (And Why I Keep Its Symbol Around)




It has always been a personal delight for me to see symbolism in God’s creation. God is the greatest Artist there is, and in his design, I see revelation. I see evidence of his story told in the constellations in the sky, and in the blood-tipped white petals of the cross-shaped dogwood blossom. I see his mercy new each morning, illustrated in the smoothly washed sand when I’m the first person to hit the beach at sunrise. I wonder at his perfection every time the Fibonacci ratio makes its appearance again in yet another way, from biology to economics to architecture.

But one motif that keeps coming up in my life is found in the dragonfly. I think now, it’s time to tell about the dragonfly.

I grew up in the midlands of South Carolina on what was once my grandfather’s farm. There’s always been a pond there, and around that pond for much of the year, one could always find dragonflies hovering, darting in and out. I’m not a big “bug” person, really. I don’t mind the little weevils in their sandy vortices that we would dig out as kids. I’m not big on actually touching crickets or grasshoppers, but for the most part, they don’t bother me. I simply cannot abide the presence of a spider though. Just being in the vicinity of one can push me close to the razor’s edge of insanity, fraught with panic and the soul-need for personal possession of napalm. But I’ve always liked dragonflies, never feared them, even sought them out when in a place they are likely to call home. I love their mechanical-looking bodies, reminding me of biological precursors to helicopters. I love the freedom with which they lift and take off, the unexpected speed, the complete lack of concern for gravity. I’ve never seen one crash. I also love the varied colors. What extravagance, that a simple bug would know what it is to offer up aqua and cobalt, royal purple and cardinal red, while moving at speeds often too fast for the human eye, at least, to follow!



A lovely art tile I spotted and could not afford. Clear evidence that others see the art in the dragonfly as well.

But the life of the dragonfly is really what makes this connection. The dragonfly lives most of its life underwater, in its nymph form. It doesn’t start there, though. A male and female dragonfly actually mate in the air. (OK, I think that in itself is pretty cool.) Then the female will lay her eggs in a pond or marsh and leave them. The eggs hatch and the nymphs may spend a season or several (up to four years) in that water. The nymphs are hideously ugly—brown and lumpy. Some appear to have a knot on the back, like a bent-over hunchbacked creature. Everything about them seems to imply being tied down, limited, bound to something less than that which they were meant for, considering they came from parents soaring above that condition in freedom. But the nymph doesn’t stay there. In time, when the days are accomplished, it will come up out of the water. The ugly brown exoskeleton will crack, and something totally new will emerge—the mature dragonfly, with, in many cases, vivid colors and more importantly, perhaps, the ability to fly. And away it goes, to its mature purpose of freedom and beauty and other-ness that the nymphs, I fancy, cannot possibly imagine.

I see a parallel in that for our lives. There is the before-knowing God imagery, in which we are lowly and bound and helpless, and can’t even see the purpose for which we were made. There is the idea of going into the water, not unlike baptism, and emerging a new creation, free to live the life more abundant. (I will here head off any objections, I hope, regarding baptism by immersion. I myself am, by choice, Presbyterian, and we pour or sprinkle rather than immerse, but I think both modes have validity that is supported in scripture. Remember that the ark which transported Noah and his family to salvation received the waters both from above, in the form of rain pouring down, and from below, when the deep rose up. Perhaps the two positions are even by God’s own design—as he does pour out his Spirit on us, but also calls us to die to self and rise again as one coming up from the depths of the tomb with Christ—and by arguing about the mode, we miss the greater point altogether.)

And then there is the end of earthly life transformation. The old, dead shell of the nymph remains behind, but the transformed creation lifts off and leaves the old world behind, at least for now, not unlike the spirit of a believer exiting the body at death. I see the metamorphosis like God’s promise to take his beloved to himself, even when the body has breathed its last. I see his faithfulness being promised in the example of the dragonfly.

So that is the background for this story, and how this motif has come to mean something to me. Earlier this week, I was in the traffic line waiting to pick up kids from school. A man from a car behind me got out of his car (in the pouring snow and sleet, no less) to come ask me what my license plate meant. I drive a bright blue Volkswagen New Beetle, and the plate reads DAMSLFLY. Next to it is a bright pink decal of a dragonfly, placed to replicate the angle of attack most creatures (but not the uniquely designed dragonfly) must take to achieve lift and break those surly bonds of earth.

And so, I told him the story of its significance to me. I summarized then, because of the cold and the terrible weather. Here, I am going to tell it in more detail.



 
One could just take the license plate at face value. DAMSLFLY is for “damsel/lady” and “fly” for “bug.” As a woman, I drive a VW bug, therefore it is the “ladybug.” That’s cute, perhaps, and sufficient. But it isn’t really what it’s all about.

Going on three years ago, my mother was in the hospital, near the end of her five-year battle with breast cancer. My family and I headed south to go see her. At the time we started out, we had no idea it would be the end. We did not even pack appropriate clothes for the days that were to come. Upon arrival, though, it was clear that in just the matter of the few hours it took to get to her by car, she was rapidly slipping away. She had moments of wakefulness, but her pain was great and her lucidity questionable. The next day, it was clear that the end was near. Very near.


My mother was the youngest of three children. Her older sister had passed away, also from cancer, six years before. My grandmother, however, was still living, having just celebrated her 100th birthday less than five months before. She was in a nursing home where she could get the daily care she needed physically, but her mind was still sharp as it could be. There was no way to keep from her the information that her baby girl was not going to come home from the hospital. As the daughter in the family, and the one who had first told her that my mother had cancer, it was my role to go to Grandmama and break the news to her.

On that Saturday morning, I prepared to do just that. I remember that I lingered at my parents' house—one more cup of coffee first. I was dressed and ready to go, but a bit reluctant, dreading the tears and grief that I was about to introduce. Practicing the words, how I would hold her hand. And then, right as I was about to step out the door to go to her, the phone rang. My dear grandmother never had to hear the words spoken that her baby was not going to live. After waking that morning, she ate her small breakfast and leaned back, content they said. She closed her eyes, and peacefully breathed her last. On Saturday, July 9, Grandmama slipped into glory, just moments before I would have been arriving to bring her the worst news a mother can hear.

I see great mercy in that, even though it was accompanied by great grief and no small amount of shock, to lose one of the most influential and omnipresent women in my life right before the other.


We all spent as much time that day and the next with Mama as we could. On Sunday, as the day grew late, my father and brothers and all our family members began to disperse to homes. I chose to stay with Mama. I wanted the time alone, near her, knowing there wouldn’t be much. She wasn’t conscious, and she was receiving a heavy infusion of pain medicines to keep her that way, actually. I sat on the edge of her bed and held her hand. I talked to her awhile, not sure that she could hear, but wanting to try, just in case. And then I arranged my comfort blanket—the fisherman’s afghan she gave me when I went away to college—on the guest sofa and prepared to try to sleep myself. I couldn’t. So I got out my computer and checked to see if any of my close friends were online at that hour. No one was. I browsed over to Youtube then, for no real reason, and somehow landed on a video of the life cycle of the dragonfly. Intrigued, as usual, I played the video. It may not have been this particular one, but if not, it was one quite similar:

And then, comforted, I closed the computer. Just at that moment, my mother stirred in her bed. I got up to go to her, and over the next few moments, it happened. Her spirit slipped from her, and left the empty shell behind. Of course, I couldn’t see the spirit rise up, but in faith, I know it did. Can the other nymphs beneath the surface tension of their watery world look upward and see their brothers and sisters’ freedom? Do they even think to try?

Thirty-six hours had passed between my grandmother’s transformation and my mother’s. A little more than thirty-six hours after that, on a July day that exceeded 100 degrees, we gathered under a tent to say goodbye to my grandmother. My mother had not wanted a memorial service of any kind, and we were craving closure and shared community. So again, in a way, the almost simultaneous timing of their passing seemed by design to fulfill a need for those of us left behind.


In addition to the cousins and family members who traveled in for the service, I was blessed to have two in-laws and two like-family friends come from across state lines to attend—to be there for me. Let me never forget the sustenance I received when I stepped from the car in the family processional to see them there, waiting to be nearby at such a difficult time. After the service, my two friends, Cathy and Jeremy, came to the extended family luncheon provided by the funeral home. Even though I imagine it might have been difficult for them to be there, meeting almost everyone all at once for the first time, for me, it was a gift. A piece of today’s home intersecting with the home of my childhood and my historical identity. I needed them, and they were there.

But while Cathy easily slides into group settings with skill and confidence, Jeremy is more one to support from the sidelines, and in this case, it positioned him well to notice something I never would have seen had he not pointed it out. Just outside the dining area were a pair of glass doors leading to the outside. And buzzing around persistently at those doors was a bright blue dragonfly. It would light on the stair rail, and then lift off to hover at the door. Then light again on the step, circle around and come back. My mother and grandmother shared the same favorite color: blue. And there was the very thing that God had used to comfort me just a day and a half before, in our presence, like a reminder: “I have not left you as orphans,” and “My word is truth.”

I was still marveling at the brilliance of the creature, there in the city setting, far from any known water source, when my mother’s first cousin, Pauline, approached me. She had a folded paper in her hand. “Rebecca, I want you to have this. I printed it out this morning. It’s a story your mother sent me. I thought you’d like to have it.” And right there, I unfolded that sheet of standard white copy paper and found this printed on it, in 14-point type:

The Dragonfly

Once, in a little pond, in the muddy water under the lily pads,
there lived a little water beetle in a community of water
beetles.  They lived a simple and comfortable life in the pond
with few disturbances and interruptions.

Once in a while, sadness would come to the community when one of
their fellow beetles would climb the stem of a lily pad and
would never be seen again.  They knew when this happened; their
friend was dead, gone forever.

Then, one day, one little water beetle felt an irresistible urge
to climb up that stem.  However, he was determined that he would
not leave forever.  He would come back and tell his friends what
he had found at the top.

When he reached the top and climbed out of the water onto the
surface of the lily pad, he was so tired, and the sun felt so
warm, that he decided he must take a nap.  As he slept, his body
changed and when he woke up, he had turned into a beautiful
blue-tailed dragonfly with broad wings and a slender body
designed for flying.

So, fly he did!  And, as he soared he saw the beauty of a whole
new world and a far superior way of life to what he had never
known existed.

Then he remembered his beetle friends and how they were thinking
by now he was dead.  He wanted to go back to tell them, and
explain to them that he was now more alive than he had ever been
before.  His life had been fulfilled rather than ended.

But, his new body would not go down into the water.  He could
not get back to tell his friends the good news.  Then he
understood that their time would come, when they, too, would
know what he now knew.  So, he raised his wings and flew off
into his joyous new life!

~Author Unknown~

It was all so surreal. The timing of both women’s passing. The mercy in that. The analogy I had made in the hospital room. The sense of being held upon seeing my out-of-state friends. One of those friends pointing out the timely visitor. The subject matter of the email. The undeniable feeling that a Person outside of ourselves wanted me to know that none of this is just random, that he is faithful to keep his promises, that what seems to be the end is not the end, and that we grieve but not as those without hope. Hope.

Among those of us who see significance in events like these, strung together, there is variance of opinion about what is going on. I, for one, do not believe in reincarnation. I don’t think it was actually my mother visiting us at that day. Nor do I believe that the dragonfly has now taken on some extra sacred identity. It is not an icon. It is simply a motif in my life—a recurring theme, which reminds me of God’s presence and power and trustworthiness, and his personal concern for me in times of trouble. I’ve said before that I don’t believe in coincidences. I also don’t believe that when God shows his goodness and mercy and faithfulness to one of us, it is for just that person alone. I think we have a responsibility to share how he has showed himself, so that others too can be encouraged.


And that is why I share with you now, this story of the dragonfly and its significance to me.

An out-of-place Cardinal Meadowhawk dragonfly, spotted outside the door of the Edisto beach house my brother, cousin, and my family rented to gather with our loved ones and remember the years spent there with Grandmama, Mama, and my Aunt Fran. Leslie saw it first and took better photos than I have to share.