The Very Best Thing

There were beautiful flowers, delicious dishes, and lots of stories and laughter with family.

But this is the best thing that happened today.

My husband baptized our son into the faith.

And God’s family got a little bigger.

***

He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. ~ John 1:11-13

From One Attitude to the Next

A rare Sunday skipping church, home with my boy who has the flu. My world is all Pedialyte,  Tamiflu, vomiting, and Phineas & Ferb.

Outside it looks like the flu too. Blank gray sky, wet brownish ground, still-bare trees. Winter’s leavings. But the goldfinches are starting to shine a sunny yellow and two days ago it topped 70 degrees. We soaked it up with windows down and radios blaring, knowing it wouldn’t last. Yesterday it was 45 and raining. Thirty degree shifts in 24 hours is par for the course in a Michigan spring. But it does seem to make us all a little sick.

As I write this, Sunday school is getting out and people are pouring their coffee and placing cookies on napkins in the library at my church. My husband will be walking between there and his office and the sanctuary, talking with his flock and getting things in place for worship. The kids (minus one) will be bouncing and running through the halls, slaloming past the old ladies with their walkers. Chatting and laughing will filter through the air until people find their way to the sanctuary and settle down as the first notes of the prelude emanate from the piano.

It’s a time of transition from one place to the next, one attitude to the next. Like March. Like Lent. We’re now in the second half of that liturgical season, a time when it is easy to forget about what we intended to do or not do. I have read three of my five books for Lent. Tomorrow I start Here I Walk: A Thousand Miles on Foot to Rome with Martin Luther. I’m excited to begin my armchair pilgrimage, the story of going from one place to the next, one attitude to the next.

It is now fifteen minutes before the service begins. The microphones will be in place. The sound check done. The choir has finished running over their song and are now milling about with friends and grabbing a last cup of coffee or popping throat lozenges. I run upstairs at home to tell my son to take another sip of Pedialyte but he says his stomach doesn’t feel very good, so I decide to wait another fifteen minutes. I wonder when to try the Tamiflu. It’s been a few hours with no vomiting and I don’t want to get him started again, but I also know that if he can keep the nasty stuff down it will help shorten the whole ordeal.

So often we resist what is good for us because it seems unpleasant in the short run. And maybe it is unpleasant. March is unpleasant. The self-denial of Lent is sometimes unpleasant. Certainly contemplating one’s own sinfulness or mortality is unpleasant.

I understand that molting feathers is unpleasant as well. But without sloughing off the old drab colors of winter, the goldfinch will not find a mate, which is his purpose in life. He first needs to lose his old identity as an olive-gray bird before he can embrace his new identity as a drop of sunlight. He doesn’t do this himself. He doesn’t decide one day to molt his old feathers. That is something outside of his control. Just as my son cannot decide to be well and will the flu virus out of his body. Just as we do not simply decide to be holy and then do it in our own strength.

I hear those first notes of the prelude now. The worship service is beginning. So I need to stop my chatting. I need to make that transition from one attitude to the next. I can’t be among the saints and sinners at church this morning. I can’t join my voice to theirs in song. But I can commune with them and with our God in prayer. So that’s what I’ll do now.

Right after I check on my little boy.

Rocky Mountains Reflections: The Landscape

My, my, how the week just gets away. April slipped out while I was busy with other things and now it’s a full week since I had the good fortune to be here.

Rocky Mountain Foothills, near Denver

And here.

Moraine, Rocky Mountain National Park, CO

And here.

Rocky Mountain National Park, CO

Compared to many of you, I’m sure, I have lived a very sheltered life close to home. It’s not for want of desire to travel. As a child I was wildly jealous of my best friend and her frequent travels to places beyond our small town. She summered in these mountains at a camp called Cheley. You can see it here if you look hard.

Cheley

Don’t see it?

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She spent her summers riding horses (something else I longed to do, as all girls do at some point) through this landscape.

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Now, I love my state. I could never live in Colorado because of the water factor. It’s hard enough living in mid-Michigan when you grew up with sailboats and freighters and seagulls and drawbridges. But I understand why Colorado sucks people in.

I mean, who wouldn’t want to be surrounded by this?

Rocky Mountains

And this.

Bear Lake, Rocky Mountains National Park, CO

And this.

Rocky Mountains

And this.

Leaving the Rockies

It is fantastically beautiful, inspiring us to stop and reflect on our own cosmic insignificance — were we not made by the same creative and loving hand as each of those mountains. Yet we are known as intimately and cherished as closely. The same God who caused the earth to push up Long’s Peak…

Long's Peak at Bear Lake, Rocky Mountains National Park

…causes the earth to push up the mountain crocus.

Mountain Crocus

He bids us leave our homes, get out of our cars, get off our duffs, and start to climb.

ClimbingUp

He calls us to seek higher ground, not for safety’s sake, but so that we can see the world closer to His vantage point.

Rocky Mountain National Park

He calls us to love and care for this incredible planet, and for all of the living things He put here for our enjoyment and education and inspiration.

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And to pass that love and sense of responsibility down to our wide-eyed children.

Tina and Micah

He calls us to notice the shade of the dirt…

Abandoned Mining Operation?

…the sound of the river…

St. Vrain River

…and the chaotic flight of the swallows.

BirdWatching

My first trip to the Rocky Mountains was entirely too short. But I will be back, with husband and son in tow. Because beauty like this is meant to be shared.

Friends1

Amazing Grace on Good Friday

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (Romans 5:6-11)

Jesus didn’t die for people who had cleaned themselves up, gotten their act together, stopped sinning of their own power and volition, or kept the Law perfectly.

He died for the weak. For the ungodly. For sinners. For his enemies.

That’s us. We weren’t just not “living our best life now.” Who would die for that? No, we were in opposition to God. We were thumbing our noses at him, flipping him off, and actively working against him because we wanted to do what we wanted to do.

And yet, he made it possible to be reconciled, restored, resurrected.

While we were his enemies.

That’s amazing grace.

And if he died for his weak, ungodly, sinning enemies, how should we treat those we view as weak, ungodly, sinning enemies?

If you’re a Christian, find someone today to whom you can show the love of Christ. If you’re not, thank you for indulging me in this post. And if you find the Christians you know to be unloving, please forgive us, because even when you’ve been reconciled with God, you still make mistakes and you still need grace. (I know I do.) Maybe do some reading of the Bible yourself (I’d suggest the Gospel of John and then the Book of Romans). Or better yet, team up and read it together. I’m certain great, spirited conversations will follow.

Entering a Season of Joyful Anticipation

I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’m still recovering from a fantastic extended weekend of great food, family, friends new and old, and lots and lots of cleaning up. I managed to somehow be involved in three Thanksgivings: one at my in-laws’ with fifteen people; a quick visit to my aunt & uncle’s house to see them, my parents, and one of my cousins; and one at home a couple days later with eleven people that I actually prepared singlehandedly.

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It ended up being a very multicultural Thanksgiving. My mother-in-law invited four international students who wouldn’t be able to be home over the holiday. Our Kenyan friend Grace we have known since she was nine and her father Jeremiah was attending seminary in Grand Rapids. She brought three friends: Korean Grace who grew up in China, Korean Grace who grew up in India, and Nigerian Oyin who grew up in Nigeria. The meal we had at our home on Sunday night was our little family and eight Bhutanese-Nepali friends from one of the congregations that uses our church building for their church services.

It was fun to share the story of the first Thanksgiving with our Nepali friends who had never heard it. And it was fun to discover, through my mother-in-law’s careful genealogical research over many years, that my husband Zach has two ancestors who were actually on the Mayflower! Thinking about that distant connection gave new meaning to the very old story.

And as Advent began on Sunday, Zach (who is also my pastor, in case you didn’t know) made a poignant connection for me. The same distance in time that exists between us modern Americans and the Mayflower existed between the close of the Old Testament and the coming of Christ as a baby in the manger. Four hundred years. Four hundred years from when God said this:

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” – Malachi 4:5-6

to when God said this:

But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” – Luke 1:13-17

I think about those four hundred years of waiting, listening, wishing for a word from one’s God, wishing for fulfillment of a promise. And I believe I shall think on it all during Advent, in a time in our world when it can feel like God is silent and everyone simply does “what is right in his own eyes.”

Tonight we’ll finally have time to decorate the house for Christmas. On our pre-lit tree, I believe there are four hundred lights. One tiny light for every dark year of anguished waiting. Altogether they make a bright and beautiful light and will point me toward the one Light that was soon to make His humble entrance into His creation, in order to redeem it.

Choosing the Hard Way

Today my son turns five.

Explorer

I took this photo at Woldumar Nature Center last year when he and I were “hiking” through the woods. I stood back, proud to see that he ignored the stairs and chose instead the natural path. Instead of the easy way, he chose the harder way. If this picture had been taken in the fall, it would put me in mind of “The Road Not Taken” by Frost.

Then in the car a week or so ago, the boy and I were listening to Hard Way Home by Brandi Carlile. When the song was done he asked, “Why doesn’t she take the easy way home?”

“Sometimes,” I answered, “you have to take the hard way. And anyway, sometimes it’s more interesting than the easy way.”

This seemed to suffice. We arrived home and he went off to play and I’m sure he has given it no more thought at all.

But in the next five, ten, fifteen years of my boy’s life, he will have many opportunities to choose either the easy way or the hard way. If the easy way is the path of least resistance, an unchallenging, popular path that leads him to a sense of entitlement-because-I-breathe and success at the expense of his faith or his self-respect, I hope he chooses the hard way, the little-bit-strange way, the peculiar way of hard work, personal responsibility, earned trust, generosity of spirit, and faithful devotion to God, family, and friends. I hope he has the strength to eschew the cultural stairs, endure the stares he gets for being different, and press on toward a meaningful life amid a culture that is all too often focusing all of its energy on meaningless things.

And I hope that, as we guide and love him, his father and I will have that strength as well.

Happy birthday, Calvin. Let’s take the hard way together.

The Hardest Month to Dream

Iced OverFebruary is a month during which we are tempted to dream of the future (probably because the present is so ugly and, frankly, we’re getting sick of it). Whether it’s limited to dreaming about the feel of the warm sun on bare arms and the smell of soil and grass and grilling meat, or if it’s that lake home you want to retire in, February gets us to dreaming. We imagine trips to far-off (warm) places. We think about the goals we have for our working life. We dream of a bigger house, a less stressful schedule, a few days to get caught up.

The cruel reality is that even while February causes us to dream it simultaneously works to crush our spirits, snatch those dreams away, and tell us they are impossible (or at least the timing isn’t quite right yet). The thermometer outside the kitchen window seems to mock our dreams of warmth. Our checkbook solemnly shakes its head when we look to it for some extra money for plane tickets. News of housing markets and job markets drags our dreams down until we realize we are where we are and we will go no further (for now).

February is a hard month in which to practice contentment. And yet, for many it is a time in which we are called to give up a little, to stop thinking so much about our outward selves (like what we have or don’t have, what we can do or can’t do) and focus on our inner selves (our besetting sins, our humble place in the order of things, our desperate need to be washed clean).

I already mentioned to you the 40 Bags in 40 Days thing that I and many others are doing during Lent. And I find as I go through things that I’ve saved (“because I might want to use that later for X, Y, or Z”) that I am an expert at packing away dreams for later. I keep a shelf or a table or a stool, even though I have no place for it in my house, because someday I might have a bigger house and more room and I’ll want it then. I keep books on crafts I will probably never do, as if no one will ever publish another book on the subject. I keep pots for plants I will never have in my house because they would just get eaten and regurgitated by my cat, but I keep them because they are pretty or were a gift.

I pack away all these tiny dreams. But sometimes, it’s best to just let those dreams float away. Sometimes dreams become burdensome. And I think that when they do, it’s a pretty sure sign that they are not the right dream for the time being.

Are there any “somedays” that are making you feel guilty for the procrastinating rather than joyful with anticipation? Any old dreams stuffed in your basement or attic that really ought to be set free? It’s never too early for physical or mental spring cleaning. Maybe it’s time to put on some grubby clothes and get to work clearing out those old dreams to make way for reality–and maybe for one worthy dream you’ll actually pursue.

Thoughts on Submission(s)

We all run in various circles. I don’t mean that in the sense of having no direction, just a dog chasing its tail and not getting anywhere. I mean it more in the sense of social and professional circles.

In the two main circles in which I find myself running about, the word submission has two distinct meanings.

This is what submission looks like for a dog. We humans shy away from this sort of vulnerability.
This is what submission looks like for a dog. We humans generally avoid this sort of vulnerability at all cost.

In the circle labeled Writing, submission is a noun (a story or a poem sent to some contest or publication) or a process (the act of sending that story or poem to that contest or publication).

In the circle labeled Faith, submission is always a verb (us submitting to God, husbands and wives submitting to each other, us submitting our plans to God’s will).

In practice, these can feel like the same thing for several reasons.

1. It’s not easy. Submitting a story, querying an agent, sending your tender literary child out into the world–it’s hard. Taking the first step in handing control of your work over to someone else and risking their rejection is difficult in the same way it is hard to trust someone else with control of your life and happiness. It’s kind of scary at first. Submission of any kind requires courage.

2. It’s a long process. Waiting is the name of the game if you are submitting stories to magazines or entering contests or sending out queries. It will usually take months to receive a response and in the meantime you can feel like you’re in a kind of literary limbo. When you hand your plans over to God you can feel that his timing and yours do not always (usually) match up one to one. It’s going to take longer than you want it to. Submission of any kind requires patience.

3. You have to keep doing it, over and over. Submit, get rejected, repeat. That’s the process you need to follow until your work matures, hits a nerve, happens to be timed just right. You can’t give up. Similarly, submitting to God is not a one-time thing–it’s an ongoing process. You have to do it daily. You’re never done submitting. Submission of any kind requires persistence.

4. Eventually, it pays off. You can’t publish something if you don’t submit it, and if you are a good writer who is consistently trying to improve your craft, eventually you will get published. In the same way, submitting to God or to a spouse can seem at first as if you’re getting the short end of the stick–you lose the control over your daily life, you turn over the fulfillment of your needs to someone else. What if they get it wrong? What if they neglect you? But the reality is, God is better at fulfilling your needs than you are, and a loving spouse is as well. Submission of any kind requires trust.

Courage, patience, persistence, trust. Do you have those qualities? Which one do you do best? Which is hardest for you right now? If you’ve shied away from submitting your writing and sharing it with the world, what is holding you back?

Don’t let fear of rejection keep you from submitting. Everyone gets rejected. But if you never submit, never turn anything over out of fear that once you do everything is beyond your control, you can never be the writer or person you were meant to be. If you’ve been given the gift of being able to write well, that gift was given for a reason. Use it. Share it. Submit it to God. And for goodness’ sake, submit it for publication!

Sweet December (or…Be Careful What You Pray For)

For those of you who don’t know, I tutor a very nice Chin family in ESL once a week and have been doing so since they arrived from Burma/Myanmar two years ago. The parents struggle, but the two school-aged boys, Moses and David, are doing quite well, especially Moses who is now asked by many of his Chin friends to come with them to appointments to translate. (Aside: it seems to me that refugees have more appointments than anyone I have ever met.)

This wonderful family invited my family to come to their apartment Saturday night for a celebration. This was right after I had asked them if they planned to celebrate Thanksgiving. They swiftly told me about “December One,” which they called Sweet December, and which, in my limited understanding of what they told me (there’s a difference between being able to speak English and actually speaking English after all), seemed to be a celebration of when they first arrived in America, like their very own personal Thanksgiving. I gladly accepted the invitation, despite my fear that I would again be served intestines, and started thinking of a way I could serve myself at the meal.

As my husband typically works Saturday evenings, just my four-year-old son tagged along with me on Sweet December. When I got to the Lian home, I could tell from outside that the place was full of celebration–kids yelling, people singing, lights on in every room–and I assumed that the already large family had invited some other friends from their church, which meets in our church building Sunday afternoons. Moses met me on the dark porch and explained that we would go in once the song was done. A moment later, he opened the door.

You know how Lucy must have felt seeing Narnia for the first time? Or how Dorothy surely felt when she opened the door of her dark gray house and was confronted with the bright and colorful world Oz? That’s kind of how it was when Moses opened that door. The dark concrete porch was awash in golden light and instead of seeing the dozen people I expected, it was more like fifty. One hundred deep brown eyes in tanned faces. Plus the children who were running about and playing. Altogether I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to place the total number of people in that one apartment at about 75. At least two thirds of that number were seated on the floor in the living room, facing the front door, and looking at me and my son as we squeezed in and added our shoes to the veritable mountain range that already blocked the front closet and much of the front door.

Moses pointed me to two empty kitchen chairs along the edge of the sea of people seated on the floor, the only two chairs I saw in the entire room. Now, being one of only two white people there (the other being my son), and being a good liberal arts graduate and stuffed full of oodles of white guilt from all of my white professors, I felt distinctly uncomfortable sitting “above” all of the Chin people in the room. Heck, even if I sat my 5’9″ self on the floor I would tower over these petite people. So I told Moses no, we would sit on the floor. But he again gestured to the chairs.

Then I looked to my immediate right and saw their pastor and his wife seated on a sofa in the front of the room. I realized that they had given me the chair because my husband is the pastor of our church and I, his wife, would be honored the same way he would. Coming from a country in which they are persecuted for their Christian faith, the Chin have the utmost respect for clergy. So I sat down and tried to figure out how I had thought I was coming to a family gathering when I was now so obviously in a church service. At least I wouldn’t have to worry about being offered intestines.

After another couple songs, I sent my son upstairs to play with the other small children, many of whom already speak English like natives. He gleefully joined them and I didn’t see him much for the next hour. Back in the living room, Moses took the chair next to me in a valiant attempt to help me understand what was going on. While people were talking he would lean in and say in his very soft voice, his words slurring together, that this was a prayer or this was announcement time or this was a group song. Most of the time I couldn’t quite make out what he was trying to tell me because, despite it being a church service, the din from the children upstairs, in the kitchen, on the staircase, and even sometimes in the living room, was constant and seemed fairly loud to someone who grew up in the Lutheran church with a very German sense of decorum (i.e., no talking, no fidgeting, and certainly no messing with the keyboard or standing right in front of the speaker and staring up at her as though you were a living pulpit…which, as you may have guessed, happened later that night).

But the wonderful thing about being part of a worldwide body of believers is that even if you aren’t quite sure what someone else is saying, and even if you only catch occasional words (Abraham, Hosanna, Jerusalem, Christmas, December, God is good) you still know the story. Moses gave me an English Bible and told me the passage that Pastor Hrang’s wife was going to speak on. Luke 2:11-… well, to be honest, I’m not sure where she ended, so I kept reading until verse 21. The story of the angels announcing to the shepherds that Jesus was born and the shepherds going to see the baby in the manger.

And even though I speak very limited Chin (I know that watermelon is dawnzuk–though I’m sure I’m spelling it wrong) I could still follow some of her sermon. I had to fill in enormous gaps, but when you know the whole story of God’s people, it is not difficult to do. She mentioned Moses, so I thought of Moses being sent as the deliverer of his people Israel from the whips of the Egyptians. Then I thought of Jesus the deliverer, sent as a little baby to save the world not from human oppression but from spiritual death. She said Hosanna and so I knew she was talking about Palm Sunday, when Jesus road into the streets of Jerusalem on a donkey, entering to the shouts of people asking him to save them. She moved her hand up, looked to an unseen hill, and I knew she was talking about those same people yelling “Crucify him!” and taking him to Golgotha to be executed.

After that, there were fewer things I could understand. No more familiar words, though she gestured several more times to the cross. But it was enough. I knew the story.

During this service there were also several prayers given by several people. I could recognize only the words Christmas and Amen. That, too, was enough.

Perhaps the strangest thing I witnessed that night was when everyone in the room prayed individually, not silently or taking turns as you would in an American church, but out loud and all at once. A cacophony of loud and fervent voices lifted to God in adoration. It took me so much by surprise I felt extremely uncomfortable for a moment (remember: German Lutheran). And I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that all speaking at once might not be looked upon favorably in the pages of Scripture (husband tells me it’s 1 Corinthians 14:26-33).

All the same, I felt compelled to join my thoughts and prayers with theirs and offer them up aloud to God (though at a much more restrained volume–God’s not hard of hearing, after all). And further checking into that Scripture shows me that it is talking about an orderly worship service and speaking in tongues. This service was certainly orderly and any speaking in a different tongue from the one everyone knew seemed to be done by me. So I thanked God for bringing these people safely out of a land of persecution to a land of religious freedom. I thanked him for the opportunity I have had to serve a few of them. And I asked him to show me and my church how we could serve them further.

And that’s where I went wrong.

There are prayers that God seems to take a long time to answer–months, years, decades, lifetimes. And there are prayers that God answers almost before you’ve said Amen. This was one of the latter kind. The service ended, strange food (though not intestines) was served, my boy came into the room for a doughnut hole and some water, his hair plastered to his head with sweat from running around constantly, and a woman asked me (through Moses) if I knew if there were any other people at the church who could help her niece and nephew with their homework.

Ah, yes. Homework.

One of my primary gripes when coming home from my ESL tutoring with this family for the past two years has involved the boys’ homework. In a large city with as many refugees and immigrants as ours, I simply can’t believe we don’t have a better system for intensive English instruction as the primary discipline of a new transplant and instead send students home bearing pointless and inane worksheets that will never help them succeed at life or even secure a job (like the crossword David was supposed to fill out last December in which every answer came from the song Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and ‘Twas the Night before Christmas–seriously).

Immediately I wanted to help these young people. Then I thought of how many junior high and high schoolers are in the Chin church and how many willing volunteers we might get from ours. The numbers didn’t match up. One thing that might make it more feasible would be if we had one big tutoring time scheduled at a central location that all students needing help could get to, transportation being an issue for almost all of them, and that the volunteers could easily reach. Like the church.

I asked Moses and this woman’s niece (I really couldn’t hear her name in all the noise) if they thought that those who wanted homework help could stay after their church service ended around 4:00pm. It would be so much easier to get volunteers to come to a central place. If we had even three people there for a couple hours, how many kids could we help decipher instructions, understand complicated concepts, write with proper grammar?

Remember a week ago when I posted this little gem:

I wonder if you’ve ever had the same epiphany, that your life, energy, and efforts were too focused on yourself. Assuming the world doesn’t end in a few weeks, what are you going to do differently in 2013? Where will you put your efforts? Will you spend your time entertaining yourself and thinking of ways you can further your goals? Or will you conscientiously look for ways to serve? I want to look beyond myself and I pray for the passion and focus to do so. I want to be one lone oak leaf that, in dying to self, can live in such a way that my efforts ripple outward and touch every corner of my pond.

Yeah.

And on Sweet December I foolishly prayed for more service opportunities to present themselves. But I hope I’m not a big enough fool to ignore a very clear answer to prayer. Now I must trust that the God who answered that prayer will also give me success in finding volunteers to fill the need. So if you’re a praying person, maybe you’ll say a little prayer for me today.