His face.

I looked into those dark eyes and wasn’t completely sure he even saw me. Newborns have questionable focusing abilities, right? But I was already memorizing his every tiny feature and tuned in to every faint sound, every little movement… AND. I. ADORED. HIM.

And then as real as the rhythm of my own heartbeat I heard the unexpected words, “That’s how I look at YOU, Marge.”

In those days, God’s voice wasn’t one I listened for very often. I’d sort of given up on the God of my childhood. That God was mostly critical and waiting for me to fail and looking at me with irritation and disappointment.

But for some reason I still believed God was my Father and saw me as His child. And looking at my own son, my firstborn, I realized for the first time in my life what that actually meant – the bone-deep, fierce, nothing-will-ever-shake-my-love-for-you kind of DEVOTION.

And the startling truth was that it was a completely one-way deal at that moment. That little guy couldn’t do even one thing for me. He couldn’t help himself, let alone help me with anything. There were no conditions to my love for him. No reciprocal agreements between us. He couldn’t do anything for me, but I knew I’d do ANYTHING for him – sacrifice for, fight for, die for. Without one moment of hesitation.

And God whispered to my heart, “That’s how I look at you, Marge.”

While my perspective and focusing abilities are questionable, He is gazing intently into my face; He’s already memorized every feature of my soul and is listening intently to every cry of my heart. And His face is soft with love for me.

While I have not even one grand accomplishment to offer Him, His heart is BURSTING with affection for me.

While I am mere hours-old in the whole span of eternity, God has carefully planned for my life and committed Himself to me – for all of my days. He will fight for me. He has already died for me.

On the day I first saw my son’s face, I also saw God’s face in a brand new way. And it was an important mile marker in my God-journey: God’s defining posture toward me (toward you, too!) is as a loving mother bent over her newborn – attentive and adoring and ALL IN. He loves us BEFORE we ever grow up enough to love Him back.

So – happy happy happy birthday, Zach!!! From day-one you’ve been a Gift to us, and a picture of the Grace we longed for. We are so proud of you – the man of integrity you are, and the life and love you and Jessie are building together. Love you BIG!!!

~August 2, 2017~

 

LOOK AGAIN

We thought we’d invented her name; we’d never seen or heard it anywhere else, and it wasn’t in any of our Baby Name books. I think we started with “Kirsta”, which WAS in the book, and kept tweaking it until we landed on “Kira”.

And then she arrived. Our beautiful little dark-eyed treasure. Our Kira.

While still in the hospital we heard from some friends that they had OTHER friends with a daughter named Kira, and their friends said the name was originally Persian, and meant “sun”.

And we loved the name even more then. How perfect that our happy little baby girl – who was MOST content when held heart to heart with us – had a name that brings thoughts of warmth and light and life.

Over the years we heard more. “Kira” has meaning in Slovakian culture, and in Ugandan and Burundian, too. In Russian it can translate as “leader of the people”, and in Japanese “kira kira” means glittery or shiny. It’s the title of a book and the name of a Barbie doll and has some connection to the River Nile.

But as her mom, I mostly think of sunflowers when I ponder the name. And when I ponder the girl I think of her love of being heart-to-heart, from day-one and every day since.

Today, on her twenty-second birthday, Kira got a small tattoo that says “look again”. It’s the way she lives her life – taking the time to look beyond the surface of a person, to see their heart and their intrinsic worth that relies not a bit on what they can do or not do, offer or not offer to the world…

“Look again” says the person in front of me is always worth the pause, the interruption. It means things are not always as they seem, so if I’m gonna jump to a conclusion, make it a hope-filled and grace-filled one.

Kira asked the tattoo artist to copy the words as I wrote them. My imperfect handwriting is part of the message… Life is not perfect.

Look again, because life doesn’t always happen as we’ve planned. Look again and keep looking for God at work, because you might not see Him in this first minute, but you will see Him eventually. Because He’s faithful. He’s there.

Sunflowers and looking again and this beautiful young woman’s birthday – today has been full of joy. Happiest birthday wishes, Kira!!!

~ June 13, 2017 ~

The Gift, continued.

When Gary returned Cameron to the Dog Pound, the staff had told Gary he could also return the dog license paperwork to them and that would save the next owners the cost of the license. Sometimes having those expenses already covered is an incentive for someone to choose that particular dog when they come looking to adopt, apparently.

Gary said he’d do that soon.

But very early the next morning we received a phone call from the Pound, and the director carefully asked if we were still planning to turn over the dog license paperwork. I was a bit confused as it had hardly been a day since we’d returned Cameron and it wasn’t REQUIRED that we return the license, it was just a nice gesture if we chose to do that. So I told her we planned to but just hadn’t gotten to it yet. And still she pressed me! Could we bring it soon? Like, now? There was someone there who wanted to adopt Cameron!

I quickly asked Gary if he could take the paperwork to the Pound before he went to the office, and he agreed. We were both puzzled at the pressure, but the director seemed pleased and maybe relieved. It was just a bit strange.

Later that evening, Gary finally had a chance to tell us the rest of the story.

When he’d arrived at the Pound that morning to turn over the paperwork, there was just one other car in the parking lot. Rundown and raggedy, the car had seen better days. Inside, waiting for his arrival, was a mom and her two kids, a teenage boy and a younger girl. They had maybe seen better days, too. All three were very sweet, and the mom especially was very appreciative of Gary making the effort to bring them the license paperwork. She said quietly to Gary that money had been a little tight lately, but it was her son’s 18th birthday and all he wanted was a dog, and Cameron had caught his eye…

Gary was teary eyed as he told us the story, and I got big tears, too.

But Kira got big faith. “Well, now I understand! I knew we were praying for God to open doors, but I couldn’t see why He’d let us get Cameron and then have to take him back. But now I see! It was so we could help that family get that dog! So the boy could have a dog for his birthday. He’s gonna love Cameron!”

Oh my.

Yes. Indeed.

And that day Kira began to believe God had the perfect dog already in mind for us, too. I sorta thought the perfect hamster still sounded good. But you don’t mess with childlike faith.

So she prayed, and she searched online for dogs that fit our criteria. I cautioned that we would move VERY slowly with the next dog we considered for adoption; we didn’t want to have any more heartbreaking trial runs…

And about three months later, Kira mentioned she was seeing this dog on the Humane Society website that seemed perfect. (Almost too perfect?) He was small/medium size, cute as a button, and he’d been at the Shelter for six weeks. (If he was perfect, why wasn’t he already adopted?) I was not eager to pursue this, but Kira insisted, and she did have an IOU from us, after all.

So we went for a visit. We walked through the same doors God had quite literally closed for us three months before, and we met two-and-a-half-year-old Doc.

Doc was not terribly impressed with us, honestly. He played with us a little, but didn’t cuddle. Kira commended him for not snuggling with strangers, and explained to me, “You wouldn’t lay your head down in a stranger’s lap, either, Mom.”

Good point.

We learned Doc’s family had moved here from Indiana, and couldn’t keep him at their new home. He didn’t like most other dogs but did have one little dog friend he enjoyed playing with at the Shelter. He was white; a mix of Poodle and West Highland Terrier, they told us. Oh, and he didn’t like bikes or vacuum cleaners.

We talked and prayed and came back for another visit, and finally decided he was meant to be a part of our family.

And he fit. Perfectly.

He went to the door when he needed to go outside. We discovered he could sit upright, balancing on just his bum with his front legs folded in front of his chest. He knew how to “shake” paws. He’d wait at the bottom of stairs till we gave permission for him to come up. He stayed off furniture, till we gave him permission; and then, he’d always choose the highest spot with the softest cushions. He didn’t chew on shoes or get into trash cans.

And mostly – he cuddled. He LOVED to cuddle. Kira had been right – he just didn’t cuddle with strangers.

And suddenly, we’re dog people! I never thought we’d have a dog, could never see us with a dog. But now couldn’t imagine our family without him.

Then about six weeks in, Doc gets seriously ill with a rare virus. It’s especially uncommon for our part of Ohio, and it can be fatal. It’s also transmissible to humans. Suddenly we’re fighting for his life. And a little bit afraid for our own.

Our vet has only ever seen two such cases, and neither survived. But she digs in. She fights for our Doc. And Doc fights, too.

And I’m realizing, I’ve been calling Doc a gift to our family since the day we brought him home. I truly think great big Angels kept him company at the Shelter and also spread their wings to keep him from anyone’s view during his six weeks there, before we found him, because God was keeping Doc for US. He’s God’s gift to us – and our Enemy is trying to steal God’s gift!

So I began to pray fierce, commanding prayers, telling Satan to take his hands off God’s gift. And slowly Doc got better. And by Christmas we had an all-clear report.

Thank you, God, for good gifts.

We had Doc for ten years. Man, he was so loved. He understood our jokes and protected us from the UPS guy and helped us provide MilkBones, Inc. a hefty profit year after year. He was such a patient listener! He stayed close when someone was sick or sad.

He saw us through the year of two weddings and an aneurysm.

And he was so steady and so courageous when his health began to fail and he was in pain.

What a good, good boy. We miss you, Doc-man! Love you always. And, happy birthday.

~ April 3, 2017 ~

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The Gift.

“We should probably get Kira a dog for her birthday.”

I knew my husband was speaking English, but the words could not have been any more confusing to me had he spoken a haphazard collection of Mandarin Chinese vowels.

Wait. A dog? Why? This is so random and… just random! Did you say “probably”? I don’t understand the “probably”. A dog? Like, a living dog? I’ve already shopped for her birthday gifts – THEY’RE ALL WRAPPED ALREADY. Her birthday is in three days. We’ve never discussed dogs. Well, not REALLY discussed dogs. Why are we now discussing dogs?

What I actually said out loud to Gary was something like, “Really? You think?”, because I’m articulate and quick on my feet like that.

Gary said he’d been thinking about it lately because Kira is turning ten, and ten seems like an age when kids can help care for a dog, and we’d often told her we’d think about a dog when she was old enough to take responsibility for it…

Which was all true. Also true was that when I’d said we’d “think” about it when she was older, I had actually meant we’d think more thoughts on it and no doubt decide we should not get a dog.

Then came the God-card: “It just seems like God made Kira with a deep love for animals, and I think we should honor that in her.”

Oh, snap.

Honestly, Kira had wanted a pet since she was old enough to talk. She’d wanted a dog for years, and we’d always put her off. Then when she started asking for a horse, we decided a hamster might be a good compromise. So we’d adopted hamster Zoe.

Though Zoe liked biting more than cuddling, Kira loved her fiercely. We even nursed Zoe through an upper respiratory infection, complete with vet visits and hamster-sized doses of antibiotics. Zoe survived the pneumonia, and several months later died peacefully in her sleep. Kira decorated a lovely hamster casket-box and we buried Zoe in the back yard with a solemn ceremony and a sweet prayer by Gary. Friends sent sympathy notes and one even brought flowers. All of the feels, man.

We’d spent a few months mourning Zoe, and then we adopted Mufasa. Mufasa was also deeply loved; an accomplished escape artist and a handsome, sturdy little hamster dude. And still going strong when Gary brought up the birthday dog idea.

Frankly, my plan was to keep adopting hamsters for Kira one at a time until she left for college.

But the birthday dog idea quickly took on life between me and Gary, and it truly did seem like God was prompting an addition to our family. Which meant we had to move fast. AND we immediately established some guidelines: no puppies; already house trained; medium or small size; no yippy barkers, and he or she had to enjoy cuddling with a ten-year-old girl named Kira.

Our first call was to the county Humane Society, and we arranged to go for a visit the next day with the ONE medium-size dog they had there at the time. The next day was a Saturday, so we were REALLY cutting it close for a Monday birthday surprise, but it felt like the right thing to do. And we didn’t know where else to go looking for non-puppy adoptions, anyway.

Saturday afternoon we arrived a little before opening time at the Humane Society, so we sat in our car praying some more over the dog decision in front of us. I remember praying specifically that God would open and close doors as He knew best, and lead us to the dog that would fit our family perfectly.

While we were praying, another car pulled up and the people went inside, because it was now past opening time. We followed the other people inside shortly after – only to see them disappearing into the visitation room with “our” dog.

They had first dibs on that cute little guy because they’d walked in first, while we sat in our car praying for God to open and close doors for us. Huh. Go figure.

The Shelter had no other medium size dogs, so we figured that was that. God must have another plan; we’d give Kira an IOU on her birthday and let her help choose her dog later.

Good plan.

Kira loved her birthday IOU, and soon after, she invited a friend to go with us looking for a dog to adopt. This time we went to the local Dog Pound, because there were still no small or medium size dogs at the Humane Society.

Now, unlike the Humane Society, the Dog Pound has all kinds of dogs that have been brought in off the streets, with unknown histories. The dogs aren’t really tested for temperament issues or medical issues or adoptability. So I was concerned about choosing a dog there, and praying again that God would open and close doors and lead us to a dog that fit us perfectly.

And that’s when Kira spotted soon-to-be-named-Cameron. Love at first sight. He was a beagle mix, friendly but not yippy/barky. Medium size. Handsome guy.

I kept praying, “God, if this is not the dog for us, please close this door.” And there was nothing. No fire alarms telling all of us to evacuate the building. No Dog Pound staff member telling me someone else had dibs on this dog. Nothing.

So Cameron walked to the car with us, and home we went. Well, first we had to stop at the pet store to load up on everything we needed. Which, we honestly had no idea what we needed. A flea shampoo seemed an obvious choice, though.

It was late afternoon now and Gary was working that evening. So the first order of business, the bath, fell to Kira and me. I’m not really sure how clean Cameron got in that bath, but Kira and I had a good swim workout. The Medium guy seemed to have a Large strength and an Extra Large mind of his own.

I heard faint alarm bells, but also had complete confidence that God had opened and closed doors, so we were good, right?

Then Cameron discovered leather chairs were better chew toys than the things purchased at the pet store. And little girls were easy to push around. And biting hands was fun, too. Peeing in the house after just being outside was also a favorite pastime. And howling.

Oh man.

Zach came home from football practice, and Cameron seemed a bit better behaved when interacting with Zach; he was calmer and seemed to “listen” to Zach. And we noticed the same when Gary came home later. Cameron seemed better all around when interacting with men.

Well huh. That’s not good when we really wanted a pup who would bond with Kira.

Then we all went to bed. And by “all” I mean all the humans in the house, and by “went to bed” I mean we all lay in our beds with pillows covering our faces trying to drown out the howling. Cameron was in a large crate with a soft bed, close enough to Kira to hear her breathing. But nothing stopped the howling except Gary laying on the cold floor right next to that crate, all night long.

On the floor. All. Night. Long.

When morning dawned, Kira announced that maybe Cameron wasn’t the right dog for us. “When he bites me, he doesn’t even comfort me afterwards!” Oh sweet girl.

Gary had been out for a morning walk already with Cameron, and again, Cameron was fairly well behaved when Gary was nearby. But with Kira’s words we all admitted the same: Cameron needed to go back to the Pound. He was not the right dog for a ten-year-old girl. At least, not without some very intense training, which we just didn’t have the time or resources to invest.

They’d said we could “return” him if we discovered any health or behavior problems, because they don’t do any such screenings. So before Gary took him back to the Pound, we all sat on the floor in a circle with Cameron and prayed over him. We prayed he’d have a long and happy dog life with new owners who would fit him perfectly and love him forever. We took pictures. He panted and smiled. He nipped at Kira a few more times. We hugged him goodbye.

And off he went.

……

Iris time.

It might have been a nice, neighborly gesture. Or it may have been a hint. Our neighbor LOVED his big yard and expansive gardens. He spent many hours tending flowers and vegetables and keeping mulch beds pristine. He even trimmed and shaped the trees in his yard.

We tried to mow our grass regularly.

So when Mr. Neighbor offered me some iris bulbs – rhizomes?! – one mid-summer day, with instructions to “let them dry a bit and then plant them”, I felt some pressure to perform.

He made it sound easy, but that brown paper bag full of rhizomes MOCKED me every time I walked past it in the garage. I don’t have a good history with planting things like that… One Fall I planted a big batch of crocuses with a friend, only to later learn we’d placed the bulbs in the dirt wrong side up. Yep, bulbs require proper positioning. Had no idea. Shockingly, no crocuses bloomed that next Spring. None.

So it wasn’t a matter of me having anything against beautiful irises popping up in my yard sometime next year; the issue was getting them from rhizome state to popping-up state – under the watchful presence of my very passionate gardening neighbor. If I planted them and they didn’t survive – he’d know. If I did not plant them at all – he’d know.

The choice was clear, of course. But my husband didn’t want us to sell our house immediately and relocate to a place where no one cared about their yards, so…

That bag of rhizomes continued to mock me. And as time went on, it became more a shout of urgency to GET THOSE THINGS PLANTED. I wasn’t completely sure how much time they needed to “dry a bit”, but as Summer weeks turned into Fall weeks, I was pretty sure we’d reached “dry enough” status. And yet. The pressure to do it well joined forces with the angst surrounding doing it at all – and bumped smack into a super busy season in our household, where it felt like I was dropping balls all over the place already…

So I prayed. It was a simple prayer, really: Father, you know Mr. Neighbor will notice if I don’t plant these things. I don’t have time to plant these things TODAY, but I’m trusting You to give me some time SOMETIME. Before they’re totally dead. If rhizomes can even die? No idea. But anyway – I really need some time to plant these things! And I’m going to trust You, God, to reserve some time to get this done. Thank you! Amen!

And I prayed that prayer EVERY time I noticed the paper bag full of rhizomes sitting in the garage, awaiting my attention. At first, of course, the prayer was mostly a desperate bid to ward off the growing anxiety about getting it done. But as I prayed it more often – for MANY more weeks – I began to believe what I was saying.

“God, I know you care about this, because You care about my neighbor, and it’s important to him. And I know You see these busy days of mine – and You care about me, too. And I’m going to trust You to give me time to plant these irises, when the day is right for it…”

And strangely, that busy season of praying about irises and feeling like I was dropping balls and not meeting expectations all around – changed to a season where I learned to trust (again!) that my Father is good and way more generous and gentle with me than I am with myself. And it was in the PRAYING that I remembered that, not in the receiving of an answer to the prayer.

But as Love would have it, there came a certain beautiful day in November when the answer arrived, too. It was warm and sunny, as all the Fall days had been so far that year, and would continue to be for another month or so. (Strange weather, really, for our part of Ohio!) And Gary was off of work that day, and the two of us went outside together, him to rake leaves and me to plant some well-dried rhizomes.

And I felt God whisper to me, “I saw this day long ago, and I’m so glad you trusted Me to give it to you. Enjoy!”

Then, because God loves pizazz, a bunch of big, gorgeous, extravagantly purple irises popped up in our yard early the following Summer. Wow.

“Iris time” soon became the two-word prayer to calm my heart whenever life felt urgent and I felt not-enough. When something good needed my attention but the time to attend to it truly wasn’t there. When I needed to trust more in God’s faithful provision than in my own careful planning. Or when I was just tired, and the thing I needed most was His gentle whisper, “Rest, my love, I’ve got this.”

“Iris time” whispers grace and quiet into the waiting days, and then runs joyfully toward the wondrous pizazz of God’s goodness.

Iris time reminds: He is God. I am not. And He can be trusted.

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Bring it.

I’m not saying “he’s not my President”.

I’m not saying Hillary would have been a better choice. I’m not saying she would have been a worse choice, either. (Neither got my vote.)

I am saying I think this man is not emotionally healthy; he’s petty and pompous and unkind and seems to think “the truth” is whatever words are coming out of his mouth at the moment. He’s not dignified or well-spoken or gracious. He’s impulsive and immature. He thinks highly of his own intellect and his own opinion, and gives little consideration or attention to any perspective that differs from his.

And that’s just what we see of his PUBLIC person.

In the past I have voted for candidates who’ve gone on to win their elections, and of course, I’ve also been on the losing side at various times. Sometimes if “my” candidate lost, I’ve had concerns about how a particular issue would play out in the realm of the winning person’s influence i.e. the laws that might be passed or the precedents that might be rolled back.

But this election result doesn’t carry that same kind of concern for me. Mostly because, as far as policies and issues are concerned, Mr. Trump has been so all-over-the-map on almost Every Single Thing, that I’m not sure anyone knows exactly what his agenda is going to be once he actually has the power to implement something. I think he likes to keep people off balance, and he accomplishes that by throwing red herrings and moving the target – frequently.

So, no, my concerns for this new presidency are not the normal dismay one feels when one’s candidate has lost an election. Mr. Trump can’t seem to keep his own commentary consistent, so who knows what he’ll actually address let alone accomplish while in office. Eventually we’ll see whatever his impact is going to be on the economy and culture and civil liberties and world affairs and the health of our planet and a thousand other things.

But here’s the thing I AM concerned about: a whole bunch of Americans voted for a vastly unqualified, immature, emotionally fragile, arrogant, know-it-all, divisive bully. Most voters likely made that choice out of heartfelt personal convictions, with possibly a few reservations on the side. They had some expectations of him when they voted, and some hopes. And now we have AS OUR PRESIDENT a vastly unqualified, immature, emotionally fragile, arrogant, know-it-all, divisive bully. Whatever it is that we want our President to be to us individually and collectively, and whatever expectations went along with a vote for him – this is the list of the qualities Mr. Trump brings to the table.

You want your President to be a leader in fixing your economic struggles? He brings his arrogance to your table. We want our President to address the racial tension and gun violence that fractures our communities? He brings his divisive bully persona to the table. You want him to be a voice of hope and courage as we have terrorists plowing over people at Christmas carnivals? He’s pretty busy defending his easily bruised ego on Twitter most mornings, so you’ll have to get in line for that hope-and-courage talk.

Frankly, I don’t expect Mr. Trump to deliver even one presidential-type benefit to any of us. As somebody once said, you don’t get bread from a hardware store. Oh, he’ll have an impact on our lives, but it’ll be collateral impact as he’s squinting at his own image and focused on his own needs.

But, but, BUT. There is good news.

We still get to decide every day what WE’RE going to bring to the table. We can work for justice and do the right thing right now; walk humbly and be kind everywhere we go.  We can welcome a stranger and sit with the lonely. We have neighbors who need a hand with something, or a hug, or even just a moment of being noticed, being seen. We can look around for the ones power has forgotten and the ones religion has oppressed, as Glennon Doyle Melton says, and we can set a place for them, eat a meal together, and listen well. We can serve, be generous, and love our neighbors as ourselves.

Those tasks don’t rest with the President; those are ours. Our calling and our purpose and our joy. That’s what WE get to bring to the table. Let’s do it.

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~January 11, 2017~

A few things.

img_3806A few years ago we received a mysterious email, asking our permission to publish a photo that had been taken of our basketball hoop. Which was odd, since our basketball hoop had been mounted on the garage for years and is hardly picture-worthy let alone anyone’s pick for publication in a coffee table book! But as it turned out it WAS our hoop, though not from our garage; it was the hoop standing on the farm property that Gary and his family had moved to when Gary was a toddler. The property used to have barns and horses and a couple of homes, but more recently just trees and a stream and one lone basketball hoop standing the test of time. Also memories; lots of memories.

It seems a gifted photographer and a setting sun casting shadows through an old tree make for a beautiful photo, a truly poignant capture of a moment. And it was a tearful joy to see that old hoop from “the farm” on the pages of that coffee table book three Christmas’s ago when the book was finally published and I surprised Gary with a copy of it under our tree.

Then this past summer we sold that farm. It was time. But, really, it sold with a huge mix of emotions for us. So many memories… And Gary drives past “the farm” several times a week as he travels to work, so the memories stay fresh. And he and I and our grownup kids notice the changes to the property as the new owner clears away brush and cuts down trees and puts his own stamp on that piece of land, on that piece of our hearts.

Shortly before Christmas this year our son Zach was driving past the farm and had a beautiful thought. He quickly brought his wife Jessie into the project, and Kira and Holden, too. And on Christmas morning Zach carried a small wood table into our family room and set it in front of Gary and told him that beautiful piece of craftsmanship was cut from the wood of that tree on the farm, the tree that used to stand beside the basketball hoop.

The new owner had graciously allowed Zach to sift through the cut tree branches, and Zach chose a few pieces to take home with him. He cut and crafted that little table for his dad, made from one thick slice of the tree; and then he took another piece of that wood and made an ornament for our Christmas tree. The ornament is etched with a simple drawing of a basketball hoop, and the words “the farm”.

Zach, Jessie, Kira and Holden collaborating and creating those treasured gifts for us. Wood pieces remembering and honoring heart pieces. My husband’s tender tears, and all of us quiet and deeply grateful for good gifts from a good Father.

This Christmas, these have been a few of my favorite things.

 

~December 27, 2016~

 

Warning: Labels

I read labels. I love labels. It’s kind of my thing. I must have had a bad experience with a lack of labels at some point in my history, which now makes me rely on labels rather than on oh, I don’t know, instinct? Luck? It might have to do with how similar whipped cream and horseradish sauce look on a buffet line WHEN SERVED IN LITTLE UN-LABELED BOWLS, for goodness sake. When roast beef sandwiches and Jello are both on the menu – an absence of labels is a problem, okay?

Here’s a label that was pretty helpful at one point: Israel, God’s chosen people. Some years after God said to a man named Abram, “I will make you into a great nation”, that promised nation came to be called “Israel”. And over time that name gathered traditions and well-loved heroes and some villains and glories and losses and expectations. Until one day the label no longer looked very much like the original intentions of its Creator. Israel was intended to be a picture of God once again walking hand in hand with His beloveds, not in a perfect Garden but rather this time in a broken world, redeeming the brokenness and enjoying sweet fellowship, the Father and His children together. But by the time Jesus, the true Prince of that nation, came on the scene, He was so different from the recognized label that HE wasn’t recognized by His own people.

Okay, so “no label” can be a problem. See horseradish surprise, above. And unexamined or inaccurate labels are also a problem. See “the Messiah of Israel ‘should not’ arrive on earth as a baby born in a barn.” One solution to these label problems is re-working the label; a better solution is getting to know the essence of the THING itself. Spending real time in real relationship with the THING makes the label irrelevant.

The fact is, though, today I’m not concerned about horseradish sauce or the incongruity of Messiah in a manger. I’ve experienced the truth of those things now. But there are other labels on my mind at the moment.

Like the label “Trump voter”. I see that label and I assign a whole list of ingredients to the person wearing it. Mostly bitter-tasting ones, honestly. And completely correlated with my feelings about Mr. Trump himself.

And the label “evangelical” – because apparently a lot of “Trump voters” called themselves “evangelical” in exit polls on election day. And not long ago I would have called myself an evangelical, based on my view of God and the message of His kingdom and gospel. But if it’s true that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump, I don’t know what the heck to call myself now because THAT is not me.

So maybe it’s time to deal with these labels as label-problems rather than as identities of some kind. Because if I can think in terms of the WHOLE person who voted for Trump, and if I know that person as a friend and someone I care about, then I know more about them than how they voted a few weeks ago. I know that she’s fun and funny, and he’s a diehard Cleveland Browns fan; he came to my father’s funeral, and she and I can spend four hours chatting over coffee; he gave me a ride to the airport one time, and I took them a meal after their second baby was born… When I know some of the essence of that person because we have a RELATIONSHIP – the label seems silly. ANY label seems silly. Maybe initiating a conversation that brings us together would bear better fruit than slapping on a label that keeps us apart.

And maybe I don’t have to “divorce” the evangelical church, or make some big pronouncement that “I don’t belong with evangelicals who voted for Trump.” Maybe I should just be me and love God and love people. Because the people who know me will know ME, not a label. And I don’t know what that word means to them, anyway! Their history, their story, has shaped what the label “evangelical” means for them. Maybe it’s a positive image, or maybe it’s a hurtful one. But it’s always within my power to love, and I can LIVE the message of God’s Good News – that His love is big and He’s all about inviting us to come close. My LIFE can invite others into the beauty of a relationship with the Creator when it’s my life they’re reading rather than a pre-printed label. And life-reading happens when we’re up close and personal with each other.

So I guess I don’t want labels to be my thing anymore. I mean, certainly put ’em on sauces in a buffet line! But I want to do better at keeping ’em off people. And I want to take the time to express real love to the people I bump into today, rather than flashing them my favorite self-made label and hoping they gather some good vibes from it or something.

Putting away the labels now. Hoping we all can.

 

~December 16, 2016~

Narrower

“You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it.” (‭Matthew‬ ‭7‬:‭13-14‬ NLT)

The gateway to life is very narrow…

I think sometimes christians read that as, “only vigorous pursuit of holiness and righteous living will get you into heaven…” And, in fact, the rest of that chapter even talks about needing to “do the will of the Father” and bearing good fruit…

So with that measuring stick in mind, christians can approach the “narrow gate” with some confidence if they’ve spent a lifetime pursuing God, weeding out sin in their life and bearing some recognizable fruit. But here’s the thing. When we get nearer that Gate, I think we’re going to realize it’s so narrow, there’s no room for all the good stuff we’re carrying. Our fruit won’t fit through. Our spiritual accomplishments won’t fit through. The people we’ve influenced toward the Kingdom – they can’t fit through the Gate with us.

There’s just room for us, heart to heart with Jesus. We look into His face, we know we have nothing good to offer, and we realize we have absolutely no way into God’s Kingdom except that Jesus says, “I know you; you’re mine.” We lean into Him, and we’re in. That’s how narrow the Gate is.

And I wonder if the truth that the “road is difficult” as we move toward the Gate – is mostly true because we’re carrying all the to-do lists. We’re pursuing all the spiritual disciplines with much discipline and little joy. We’re pruning dead branches and pulling stubborn weeds under a hostile sun with barely a Sabbath rest, forgetting that grace isn’t just for the narrow Gate; it’s for the road, too.

So do we ACTUALLY believe salvation is by grace alone, or do we ACTUALLY think some of us earn it?

I was reading this past week some of the discussions surrounding pastors Brandon and Jen Hatmaker, as they recently spoke about their views on sacred homosexual marriage. And I think those discussions demonstrated again that when we forget how narrow the Gate is, we make ourselves the gate-keepers; and we are just not very good at that job.

Many christians seem to struggle with the question “Is God okay with homosexuality?” For many, this question puts the “narrow gate” front and center of the discussion. Their thinking is, “Homosexuality is sin, the Gate is narrow, the Gate doesn’t change just because culture changes, so we christians must stand against ‘normalizing’ homosexuality.”

Some of that same “narrow gate” thinking shows up in the election season rhetoric concerning how christians “should” vote. Have you heard the one about “I just don’t understand how any christian could vote for a ‘pro-choice’ candidate”?

And addictions: can a Christ-follower really struggle with a heroin or pornography or gambling addiction? If they’re “truly” a christian, wouldn’t those things be pretty quickly replaced by other, better fruit?

My concern is that in all of those scenarios, someone has defined “narrow gate” according to THEIR particular collection of beliefs and biases. And if we do that, we are looking at other people who have trusted in Christ, who have some different-from-us views and behaviors, and we are saying they can’t possibly be “in” – “because the Gate is ‘narrow’ and they’re never going to fit through unless they drop THAT baggage and burn THOSE warts…”

But see, even IF (big IF) those things in those other believers’ lives are actually unhealthy and unholy, when they approach the Gate it’s as narrow for them as it is for you. The baggage and the boulders and the warts don’t fit through the Gate, either. It’s just them, heart to heart with Jesus. They look into His face, and they know they have nothing good to offer. But Jesus says to them, “I know you; you’re mine.” And they lean into Jesus, and they’re in. That’s how narrow the Gate is.

So, back to that big IF.

We’re quick to say that scripture tells us we’ll recognize Christ-followers by their fruit. But maybe we need to be remembering that while man looks at the outward, God looks at the heart. Maybe looking at fruit is the best WE can do, as far as “judging” another. But it’s good to keep in mind that it’s a limited perspective, this fruit-judging thing; God looks WAY deeper than fruit to make His true judgment. And that should remind us all to remain quite humble as we look across a room to judge another; we can’t see nearly as perfectly as we’d like to think we can.

And as for many christians saying they need to stand against a changing culture because “God’s standards don’t change with culture” – I think we need to remember that what is true in current (or past) North American culture is not a universal standard of any kind, to begin with! If it’s actual Biblical Truth, it’s true in current day Syria as much as in 1300’s China. In the 1800’s wild American west and in current day Haiti.

Knowing who God is and what God thinks will ALWAYS have a context – not because God changes, but because we experience the limitless God within the limits of our time and place and culture and understanding. What we “know” about God is the tiniest fraction of all there is to know about Him; so let’s be humble in expressing what we think HE thinks about our favorite cultural hot button issues.

Because the Gate is narrower than we thought. And WE are not its keepers.

~November 6, 2016~

Give us this day

I always spoke the words with a kind of odd reverence, with a deliberate slowing and an emphasis that said this, this right here, needs capital letters and quotation marks and special notation: “The Day… We Left… The Nursing Home.” It was pretty close to pre- and post-apocalypse. It was a Big Deal. “The Day” was pivotal.

When Gary and I first married, we both worked at one of the Nursing Homes his family owned and operated. Gary was the administrator, I was the social worker. For ten years we loved doing it, and then, we didn’t quite so much… Lots of things pointed to it being time to move on, but mostly it was God leading us into a new season, with lots of confirmations that He was with us, that we’d be okay, and our five-year-old son and our soon-to-be-born daughter would be okay, too.

So we left our jobs. Gary’s parents sold the Nursing Home, and Gary started into a new business venture with a friend. For us, it was new territory: not a whole lot of financial cushion, no regular salary, baby on the way, learning to trust God in new ways for daily bread, and His presence with us the thing we looked for most. The Day We Left The Nursing Home was a turning point.

Have I mentioned that I’m big on planning, I’m not a risk-taker, and I like security? Yeah. Non-regular-salaries don’t fall into place easily with a heart that looks for soft resting places and lots of… cushion.

In the early years of marriage we pretty much sailed through life, but The Day We Left The Nursing Home was the beginning of a new dependence on God. BEFORE, we had been self-sufficient, but The Day We Left The Nursing Home we were clearly no longer self-sufficient and we began to see and trust God’s heart toward us, and to look for His sufficiency. By necessity! Daily necessity.

Then one day it somehow occurred to me: God didn’t look at The Day We Left The Nursing Home as anything particularly significant! He didn’t suddenly have to kick it in to high gear to take care of us from that point on. He’d been our security all along, even when we were taking the credit for that…

With God, there’s no “before that thing” and “after that thing”. There is just… Him. And us, held securely by the Father who sees it all before we even have a clue about what’s coming down the road toward us.

I am reminding myself of that lesson again, now twenty years after the first time I learned it. Tomorrow Gary and I celebrate our thirtieth anniversary! Yayyy!! (#joy) And next week Gary goes for a second surgery, to do some more repair work on the cerebral aneurysm that took us by surprise last December, and that we thought was all behind us now… (#trustingGod)

I’m reminding my heart that God’s not wringing His hands, not frantic, not surprised. “The Day We Learned Gary Has A Brain Aneurysm” is just – the day we learned Gary has a brain aneurysm. It’s the day we heard scary words and realized in new ways that we aren’t in control. But God never thought we were. God has us. God.Holds.Us.

So today I’m trusting Him. And tomorrow I’ll trust some more. And the cushion I need most is already HERE. It’s Him.

 

~May 24, 2015~