Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Rescue of the Red Tulip

Tulips don’t last long around here.  Heavy honeysuckle drooping from above and a thicket of brush below makes the perfect habitat in which rabbits thrive.  They come each April and tear through the backyard, nibbling to the dust tender shoots that are just beginning their spring stretch to the sun.  After 7 years of battling, I finally quit trying to plant new bulbs and gave up as the old ones withered away from gnawing.  All were lost, except for that one determined bulb by the side of the shed.  This year it once again fearlessly pushed up with new hope.  To be honest, I wasn’t even sure what color it was….pink?  orange?  purple?  It had never grown full enough for me to know.  Until this year.

This year, I decided to come alongside the tulip and wage war with chickenwire.  I fashioned a cage of sorts around the stem and staked it secure with some garden supports.   I was determined that this spring, I would enjoy that lone tulip and find out what splash of color I had been deprived of for so many years. 

I was pleased that the cage was holding firm in spite of the early spring winds.  The rabbits seemed to be busy elsewhere, too.  But I couldn’t stop fretting about the growing tulip and so when I saw that it was just about to bloom, I decided to bring it inside to enjoy on the kitchen window sill.  In Grandma’s pink vase, the bud curved toward the light as I hoped eagerly for pink or peach, or a nice purple or yellow.

The next morning, I came downstairs for breakfast and to my great dismay, the tulip had indeed opened.  Like a teacup flooded with blood.  Bright red blood.  The color I least enjoy in spring’s palette.  There’s just something about a bright red splotch meddling with the pastel pinks, purples and fresh greens of spring that rubs me the wrong way.  I want to pare it out, like a bruise on a banana.  Red is too fevered, too ignited for spring.  A summer color?  Yes.  Pant with the marigolds and petunias around the mailbox post and wait for the watering can.  Retreat to the fall?  Please.  Join the seeping green pigments that fade into the saffron and carnelian of autumn.  Only kindly let this season of new life ease in with the shades of chicks and lilacs.

As I looked at the unfurled tulip with my own lips pursed tight, I decided to make the best of the situation by taking a few snapshots.  At least I could practice with the different settings on my camera and find what the morning light might reveal.  And what a revelation was in store!  Snapping away at upward angles, I realized that the harsh red interior I saw while looking down was actually wrapped in a beautiful melon exterior that could only be seen when looking up.  As the shutter clicked, my sharp thoughts began to soften.  Disappointment gave way to appreciation.  In the end, I took one of the most graceful photos I’ve ever captured.   Grandma would’ve been so pleased to see her vase holding such a lovely flower.  

Ultimately, the rescue of the red tulip was really a rescue of vision.  It became apparent to me that when I spend my time looking down on situations, I’m bound to get caught up in dusty, dried out thinking.  Looming over my days with a heavy head, I only see where the rabbits have nibbled me to the dirt.  And with the sun at my back, I cast shadows onto the very life I am hoping to see flourish.  But as I turn my angle, point my eyes upward and get a face full of His light, I find so much worthy of praise.  The views that await me when I choose that gaze are hidden treasures that not nearly enough of us ever encounter. 

Do we desire the beautiful life?  It’s there, already purchased and ready to be lived.  But the claim check is a turn of the head, away from the earth and toward heaven.  Followed by a turn of the heart, away from thoughts that shelter privation and toward an expectation of the unlimited goodness of God. 

Luke 13: 10-13
On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all.  When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.”  Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Good Son

first published at TheMobSociety, 

Beloved child, gift of God,

I’m writing this now, for such a time as may come when my thoughts are too distracted to tell you how deeply you are loved and what praise I have offered heaven because of you.  I’m writing now, as your Dad and I are watching the world through your 6-year-old eyes, when life’s worst temptation means sneaking an extra cookie after dinner.  Now, when there is no millstone of waywardness around our family’s neck.  I pray this letter never has a need for sending.  But if we should endure a squandered season with one of our children, there are things the others need to know, truths that will likely go unshared in the tumult of the prodigal’s journey. 

For me, the good-son of Jesus’ parable has always been the more intriguing character.  How long had he been striving to do right in order to balance his brother’s wrongs?  How did his relationship with a clearly loving father become so aloof and duty-bound?  I think I might know, having been a good-daughter once myself.  

I imagine that when the prodigal son disappointed his father, the good-son was anxious to please. 

When his father was deceived, the good-son determined to live beyond reproach.

When the family name was sullied, the good-son worked tirelessly to bring it honor.

When the family was sorrowed, the good-son tried to humor, deflect, overcompensate, desperately wishing a return to his childhood days that skipped lightly by. 

In the end, I imagine the good-son despaired that no amount of effort could bandage the wound that had been torn open in the family.  And his father may never have noticed the collateral damage at his feet, with his eyes turned ever to the horizon.

In those darkest turns of the sun, you too, good-son, may grapple with a rising sense of resentment and jealousy.  You’ll pitch from wanting to disown your sibling to a frenzied determination to force his restoration by sheer will.  And then you’ll feel shamed to harbor such emotions, as a good-son would never allow a  heart so darkened.  You’ll commit yourself to deeper prayer, hoping that your zeal will somehow move God’s heart to action.  And you’ll silently thirst for quiet times of affection with us, reprieves from the madness when we talk only about you, freely, intentionally and without the nagging sense that there is always another conversation going on inside Mom’s head that has nothing to do with the child before her and 
everything to do with the child who has fled.

You see, a prodigal’s wanderlust compels his siblings on a journey, too, against their wishes, without their permission.  Ironically, both these journeys end at the  throne of grace and the Heavenly Father’s heart of love.  The prodigal must come to understand that not even his deepest rebellion can exclude him from the Father’s embrace.  And the good-son must come to realize that no height of obedience can earn him a single nod of the Father’s approval.  The lesson for both is learning that the Father’s love has nothing to do with being good at all.  It has everything to do with the perfect, finished work that has already been done for them by the great-Son who went on a journey of bleeding sacrifice 2,000 years ago.        

And so if we should find ourselves in the midst of rebellion, I want you to know that we might forget to tell you that we love you.  We’ll probably assume you know that we’re proud of you.  We may be too prayer-worn to ask if you have prayer needs of your own.  Forgive us, precious one.  It will never be our intent, but may often be our flaw.  As your earthly parents, we will undoubtedly fall short of our heart’s desire to love you lavishly.  But if you can grasp what the good-son of Scripture did not, that the Father’s love can never be merited, only freely received, then you will have grasped the key of grace and the door into the Beloved will be open to you.  Seek shelter there during the storm and wait until the bright morning star rises upon our family with healing in His wings.

I love you , I do, 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Winter Daffodils

(written in early March)

Last week while fetching kids from the bus, I noticed daffodils emerging from the mulch.  Little arrows in earth’s quiver, sunbursts ready to launch.  But snow was in the forecast. “Poor things,” I wrung my thoughts out.  “It’s been such a mild winter.  They just couldn’t resist a peek at the sun.”  I pulled my camera out, took a few snapshots.  Something in me needed to capture the image of those tender shoots.  They spoke with powerful clarity what I had been struggling to explain to myself for awhile.  Conflicted months of pushing forward, pulling back… dreaming big, settling for small… straining to discern the whisper then resigning myself to the wind…this persisting discontent of my soul, I realized, was rooted in the fact that I had become a winter daffodil. 

            Have you ever found yourself in a season of confused timing?  Everyone advises “be safe,” but you feel this inexplicable hunger for the “what else”?  I’m in a season like that right now, the triplets finally in school all day and my creative juices simmering on life’s backburner.  10 years of teaching in my pre-mom pocket make a classroom return the reasonable move.  But while that season was certain, this has been a slow, unfolding process of sensing, yearning, wondering about what comes next.  There’s turmoil about ending my stay-at-home-mom era, too.  Some days, I’m chomping for a new adventure while others I’m quite content to do laundry…be at the bus stop… volunteer at school on Wednesday afternoons.  Sure, I know I could do the work again but I don’t think I could muster the love.  This time around, my heart is reaching for Jesus in a reckless way that has nothing to do with predictability or common sense.  That’s why I feel such connection to those daffodil shoots. I, too, find myself pushing out of a protective space toward an unknown destination that is calling me upward.   

            However, the more I respond, the more I’m surrounded by winter.  I’m sure it’s the Son encouraging me and it sure does feel good to be chasing after Him.  But nipping winds question and veiled skies critique.  “You’re an English teacher.  Do what you know.”  “How long can your husband shoulder these expenses alone?”  “Do ministry on the side and get a real job during the week.” “What makes you think anyone wants to read what you’ve written?”   Oh, how the winds blister and the skies frown and I begin to think that this journey to meet the Son has been rash and impulsive afterall.  I start to wonder what it takes to ungrow, retreat into the predictable darkened dirt.  I get out my resume and start thinking about subbing in the fall.

            But once a living thing starts growing toward the Son, the urge is irreversible.  It was the Son, afterall, who carried me through the darkest days of infertility and miscarriage… who calmed our fears about providing for triplets on half our income… who brought the overcomer’s smile across my face as the surgeon spoke the word “cancer.”  In those winters, the Son sheltered us against the biting gales of doubt and uncertainty.  In time, winter eased into spring’s warmth… infertility was transformed into fruitfulness…lack was replaced with abundance…the frightful diagnosis ended in victorious life.   This is the warmth I need to remember now as I’m pushing forward.  The Son is going to be there with all the succor I need.  So push on, little daffodils.  Your aspirations encourage mine and soon enough, I’ll be blooming, too.            

Being confident in this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.    Philippians 1:6

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Learning to be made

A house full of triplets comes quickly undone so there are always lessons in teamwork being taught ‘round here… navigating through the bathroom in harmony, bringing plates and cups to the sink after meals and making beds before heading off to school.  But six year olds aren’t quite up to snuff on the finer points of making a bed, so they “unmake” theirs instead.  Pillows, stuffed animals and tickle blankets must land in a neat pile on the floor so Mom can quickly do the harder task of straitening sheets and smoothing quilts while teeth and hair are brushed.
Matt, first born by a minute, has perfected the art of sleeping under his covers in a state of near immobility.  I find the layers of cotton and fleece still lined up, neatly folded over where my hands smoothed them as I tucked him in the night before.  30 seconds to pull the sheet and comforter up and fold it down again.  Done before you can say “classic type A personality.”

Josh, second-born at the heel of his brother, has perfected the art of cocooning himself tight within his nightly nest, spinning and spinning til all the threads of his covers are woven snug round his body.  I know with certainty that a 3-layer tangle requiring a nutpick to unfurl awaits me.  Some days starting from scratch is the only option as he has so completely wrenched things out of order that the mattress itself hangs off its foundation.  Nowhere near done before you can say “classic marcher to a different drumbeat.”

While passing the boys’ room last week, I sorted through the morning routine in my mind.  2 beds, wildly different at dawn, but ultimately tamed, once a mother’s hand pressed in.  One required little smoothing, but attention was needed nonetheless.   The other required much attention, but it was never so wrecked that I couldn’t put it right.  And then the whisper...  Aren’t we all like morning beds before the Lord?  A place made for resting in Him, now knotted and unraveled from the day’s trundling, waiting for strong hands to come and remake us?

Some of us, the type-A ones, try our best to keep the sheets in perfect uniformity, striving to live that “neat as a pin” life.  But ultimately, we still have tempers that need smoothing out, motives that need straitening, low thinking that needs pulling up and bad habits that need folding down.  There’s no way to live in a fallen world and not need a touch from the Father’s hand.  But we’re not to worry.  Jesus paid a dear price to gift us our grace and when we embrace His sacrifice, we honor Him and the One who loves us fresh each day. 

Others of us have beds with layers so jumbled and foundations so dislocated that understanding how to get it back on track seems impossible.  But we’re not to be  discouraged.   There’s wisdom in realizing this utter lack of offering.  That’s what brings a mangled life to grace.  It’s the seeing that no matter how wrecked the bed, the Father’s love for the child will bring His strong, gentle hands alongside…hands that strip away the mess if needed, reposition the life on a solid foundation and deftly remake what has been so completely unmade.

Isn’t it just like the Lord to take a simple slice of life, the mundane task of making beds, and use it to call up a much deeper foundational truth?  One glimpse of those beds and I’m reminded that before I came to Him, I was a Romans 3:10 girl; “As it is written, ‘There is none righteous, no, not one…” And then one whisper of the Spirit and I’m lifted to Ephesians 2:8;  “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.”

 What joy, to know that I’m not asked to achieve perfection according to my insufficient effort!  What gladness, to know that I’m never too ruined to be repaired!  What peace, to feel accepted now, because of a scarlet white covering spread wide over my life, tucked firmly there by a finished work not of my own laboring.  I rejoice that He restored in love what was mangled by sin.  And I thank Him that the real task isn’t about learning to make a life, but rather learning to let my life be made by Him.  
What life-slices has the Lord used to show you His love and gift of grace? 
How have you shared these foundational truths with your children lately?

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Wisdom of Squirrels

I wish I had been looking out the kitchen window that day…peering left toward the neighbor’s house where the wind-beaten fence makes the yards.  It must have been a sight, that squirrel with the bulldog gumption.  Incisors sunk into the impossible haul.  Claws scrabbling backward, awkward, up the pin oak bark.  As much as I bemoan their birdfeeder raids and flower bed thievery, kudos to the squirrel that managed to hoist that pillow to his nest some 30 feet above the ground.
An ingenious plan at first.  Why assemble a nest of dead leaves in constant need of resupply?  Why not filch a pillow, tear a hole into stuffing and enjoy a cozy, weather-proof nest all winter long?  Except that winter rains and snow have a way of seeping in and turning comfy, fluffy, snug into soggy, lumpy, intolerable.  I don’t know how long the pillow had been crooked in the oak branches.  I only noticed it when tufts of white batting began to drift to the winter lawn below.  After searching for the source, I found it there, high amongst the forks.  Several twigs bandaged like fingers in white gauze jutted from the main pile where the squirrel had triumphantly stuffed the pillow. I shook my head in equal parts amazement (what a clever scheme!) and disdain (what a waste of time and energy and now a mess for me to clean up.)  That’s how my mind read it:  a great idea, but an even greater failure.
A week or so later, I noticed the pillow cover dangling from the crook in the tree… a tattered reminder of an effort for naught.  The enterprise had been abandoned and the white flag fluttered in surrender.  The squirrel had gone back to gathering crunchy dead leaves for his nest.

As I considered the amazing pillow adventure, I came to realize that there was much wisdom to be gleaned from the way the squirrel moved past his failure.  He had tried something new, something unknown.  It held promise and seemed to be a good decision in the beginning.  But ultimately the plan fell through and needed to be jettisoned.  Not unlike so many grand plans of my own…the crafting site…the countless efforts to organize the triplets’ clothing…the diets and exercise regimens.  The difference, however, was that the squirrel moved on without regret…no wringing of hands, no berating himself for time lost, no worrying about the expense of backtracking and rebuilding.  Just a carefree Matthew 6:26 attitude, an easy going Phillippians 4:6 mindset about the future, a confident Matthew 7:11 approach to each new day.  So often, my response to failure comes straight out of Lamentations and lingers there for weeks.   But isn’t the squirrel’s method how our Heavenly Father wants us, His highest creation, to greet each new opportunity?  Feisty pluck layered over a foundation of calm assurance in His ultimate good plan for us?

To be sure, calm without pluck is an incomplete picture of who we are in Christ.  Jesus paid for us to be partakers of His inheritance and we’re encouraged to pursue those blessings with grateful hearts.  As new creations in Him, we should never strive to line our lives with the dead, lifeless “it’ll do” of this fallen world.  We are called to abundant life through Christ (John 10:10), believing that His lavish love for us includes a soft pillow to rest on.   When we do this, we elevate His name and shine the light of His goodness to others who are still constructing lives out of that which is fading away.

But pluck without calm is also incomplete.   We’re to weave our work with fingers flying open, ready to let go of baggage that’s holding us back, agreeable to seasons of change and always trusting that our Provider will supply our needs no matter how rash or rushed or imprudent we’ve been with the building of our nests.  He knows full well about locusts that consume our days, perhaps even our years and He doesn’t want us to look around at what has been devoured but rather upward at what His storehouses yet contain for us to receive.   

So why don’t I drag more pillows up into the trees of my life?  What keeps me from embarking on that believing, that pursuing of New Covenant blessing?  After considering the squirrel’s journey, I think my hesitation stems from the prospect of dealing with failure’s residue…lost time, wasted resources, the awkwardness of coming up short in the eyes of others.  Too often I try to determine the outcome of an opportunity before deciding whether it’s worthy of a leap of faith and I’m cowed at the remembrance of other past failed efforts.   At the heart of the matter, I still struggle with fully letting go…of my ability to control, of my need for man’s approval, of condemning thoughts that keep me scrounging for autumn’s fallen.      I know these traits are deadwood in my life, but they’re familiar and safe and no one questions a crumbling nest when every other nest in sight is crumbling as well.  It’s the squirrel with the audacity to drag a pillow high into a tree that gets the scrutiny, the whispers, the frowns.   And some days, many perhaps, I’m just too battered by those fiery darts to heave the heavier load, and so I opt for the lighter leaves.   

But lately, I’ve been coming to know the rain.  Not like the squirrel knows it, as an adversary that brings ruin to his labor, but rather as the gentle rain of the Spirit.  Pastor Jack Hayford* teaches about the dual purpose of this symbol and it’s easy to see why a loving God tends to us like a spring shower.
The Spirit’s rain comes “first, as refreshing where there has been dryness and barrenness (Joel 2:23-29).  Second, as restoration where there has been loss (Isa. 28:11-12).” 
And isn’t that exactly what I need as the foil to my preoccupation with maybe-failure?   The Spirit finds me there in Deuteronomy 32: His “teaching falls like rain…on tender plants.”  After the bruising of my critics – external and internal – the Spirit comes with just-right droplets of refreshing to build my wincing spirit up again.  And because He gives to overflowing, the Spirit rains again.  He rescues me in Isaiah 43, and “sends a new stream to carve a way through the wasteland” of my dashed dreams.  I am cowed no more.  Even the enemy’s fiery darts thrown toward my life’s kindling meet their end in water:  Ephesians 6 sees me delivered a third time by the powerful quenching of the shield of faith which repels the accuser and allows me to focus on all of the Father’s grace toward me. 

Spring’s coming and the lion winds will be knocking loose the remnants of the brown leaf nest soon.   A new one will be built with green foliage for the summer as the squirrel contends with a cycle of constructing that which is bound to be deconstructed and looks for ways to hinder the rain from trickling in.  I’ll be busy at my nest-building, too.  But because of one squirrel’s wisdom, I’ll spend a lot less time in endless analysis, worry and regret.  This season I plan to build with expectation, peace and trust.  And unlike the squirrel, I’ll be building a nest that’s available to the rain.  Lots and lots of rain.  


Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Pack Rat

As my second-born cupped his latest “collection” in hand and elbow-kneed his way into the van, I had to smile. Carefully, he deposited each treasure into the cup holder next to his seat…a paperclip found in the parking lot outside the grocery store, a rock with a sparkly glint, a feather from the dead bluejay that we pass each day on the walk from the bus stop.  These and a dozen other motley items constitute this child’s current trove, the things he promises to turn into an invention when he grows up.  He’s the child whose first blink set the gears of an unplummable mind in motion and it’s a whirling I know well.  My own childhood was full of compulsions about collecting, though unlike his prismatic tastes, I was a homogenous collector.  I used to walk around my grandfather’s farmyard with a brown grocery bag in hand, picking up every chicken feather I could spy.  And I had a stack of magazine-clipped horses that I kept in an old manila folder under my bed.  These were the early indications of my budding packratery.

As I aged, the chroma of my collections also deepened:  albums full of unpeeled stickers, popsicle sticks from a summer of cousins, remnants of fabric from Grandma’s sewing room, quotes from Reader’s Digest in neatly labeled envelopes.  I went through phases of stamps, yarn, pressed flowers, pinecones.  When I decided to become an English teacher I scrounged for old textbooks that might be headed for the dumpster.  I sketched out lesson plans for novels I didn’t know if I’d ever have to teach, but just in case.  30 years later, my hobbies still center on collections: seeds for gardening, paper for scrapbooking, old documents for genealogy.

Usually my gathering starts with a practical purpose.  The popsicle sticks and yarn were for making fabulous God’s Eye tree ornaments.  Remember those from VBS?   The quotes would make great discussion starters in class.  Scrap fabric would make a lovely quilt.  Pressed flowers were for bookmarks and pinecones were for bird feeders.   But some of my collections are pointless, like the tangerine wings I find around the butterfly bush in the side yard each summer or the box full of cat whiskers in my top dresser drawer that I’ve gathered just because.  

What draws us to make these piles?  For me, I think it has something to do with imagining a second chance, dreaming ahead, knowing that mundane pieces can be part of a glorious whole.  The age-old foiler of plans, of course, is time.  Until Heaven, we aren’t getting free from its fleeing and so the piles grow as purposes lie in dormant daydreams and we attack piles of laundry and dishes instead.  I feel sad sometimes when thinking of the projects that won’t be created and of the time wasted in collecting for them.  I wonder what it would be like to have no desire for the constant pursuit of gathering. 
Then one day while in the midst of that regret, God whispered into my spirit, “I’m a pack rat, too!”  Startled at the thought, I looked and found the tell-tale signs, right there in His Word.

"You (God) keep track of all my sorrows.  You have collected my tears in your bottle."Ps. 56:8

 "See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands..." Isaiah 49:16

"Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered."Luke 12:7

What a flood of reassurance comes in knowing that even with an entire creation to oversee, our Heavenly Father spends part of His day gathering mindfulness about the ones He loves.  A wall of bottles, salty water filled, connecting our sorrows to His tender heart toward us.  A brag-book, abounding with pages of the children who bring Him delight, chiseled on palms that carry the world.  And an endless stack of paper next to His throne for the tally marks counting strands of hair, like my cat whiskers, just because.  
I know what drives me to collect, but why does God?  Perhaps because I’m created in His image, the things that spark me originate first in His catalyst.
Packrats love to repurpose the seemingly broken or spent and that’s also very central to His nature.  
“…beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning…” Isaiah 61: 2
Packrats dream forward and so does He.  
“For I know the plans I have for you.  To bring you a future and a hope.”  Jeremiah 29:11  
Packrats imagine possibility in pieces before the whole can be seen and His attention to detail follows the same pattern.  
“…God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, 
just as he wanted them to be.”  1 Cor. 12:18

So the next time I’m tempted to bemoan the piles of packratery in my basement or tap my foot impatiently while the kids pick through stones on our way into the doctor’s office, I’m going to pause and adjust my view.  See the thread?  The collecting is a connecting to a Father who also stops to stoop low and gather broken pieces to Himself.  It’s the ribbon marking the page where He has scripted my name in His hands.  It’s the wispy strand that He never overlooks, that gets counted just because…..just because He loves us so.    

Picking up the pen

I haven't blogged in about 2 years. I think most of my creative juice was squeezed out during the triplet toddler years and certainly after my cancer journey, I had pretty much wrung myself out at the old blog. I thought perhaps those unwritten years were a new season that I was entering, when in fact I think it was a time for refilling and reenergizing. The kids are in full day school now and I've had a good long stretch of recuperative naps on the couch and study in the Word. There's no getting away from the fact that my mind continued writing, even when my hands were busy with a hundred other obligations. I feel now that it's time to set them once again to the pen, or in this modern way of writing, to the keys. God's been so busy writing in me and I realize that, as a result, I am so hungry to write for Him. So off I go!