Promises

Promise me you’ll never leave. Promise you won’t tell. Promise to help me, no matter what. Promise you’ll never hurt me. Promise you won’t turn your back on me. Promise you’ll never give up on me. Promised me you’ll never forget.

Promises. We ask for and give them so easily. What does a promise mean to me? To you? Why are promises important?

For the last month I have been reading about promises kept, even at the most difficult times. About soldiers who risked their lives to save a woman who had earlier shielded them from the sword of her own countrymen. Not only did the soldiers save the woman, but they rescued her whole family as well. In the midst of a raging battle, the soldiers fought their way down city streets, back to her home, bringing her and her family to safety. They did this not because they loved her, not because they were a search and rescue team, not because they feared her. The soldiers rescued her because she asked them to and, in gratitude of her mercy toward them, they promised her they would. It was as simple as that.

I also read about a nation tricked into making a treaty with a neighboring village. The villagers claimed, rather convincingly, to be something they were not. The nation would never have entered into the treaty had they known the truth. Even still, when the national leaders discovered the deception, they honored the treaty. One day, a coalition of five enemy states attacked the village. Without hesitation, they called on the very nation they had deceived and pleaded for military support. As a man of his word, the national leader agreed. He then traveled with his entire army throughout the night until arriving at the village. The next morning, and for what seemed like days, they waged war on the invaders and successfully defended the villagers in perhaps their most difficult battle ever. Why? Because in allying themselves with the villagers, they had made a promise, of not only peace, but of unity.

Promises. What kind of promises have you made? Have you ever been tricked into making a promise? Or maybe you just feel like you didn’t get what you bargained for?

I read about another promise. The promise of a father. He was the father of the two soldiers and of the deceived national leader. The father had raised his children to be strong, faithful, compassionate, wise, loving, patient and honest – not because he told them to, but because he too was all those things. Their father had never made a promise he didn’t keep and he never would. In honor of their father, these sons did the same. A promise made was a promise kept.

For the last month or so, I have spent most (not all, but most) of my writing time deep in preparations for our summer play and camp. I have so much I want to write about that I’ve begun to envision the topics piling up before me like a stack of sweet pancakes just waiting to be devoured. But there is no time for self-indulgence, there is a script to be written! So, in an effort to be faithful to my blog and my commitments at the same time, I have combined the two.

By now, some of you recognize the soldiers, the woman, the leader, the villagers and the Father as characters from the book of Joshua, and our focus for this summer’s program. These last few days, as I think of the story of Joshua, I see a sweeping account of a Father’s faithfulness to his children and his determination to keep his promises, no matter what the cost. As a testimony to their Father, the children live with the same passionate, sacrificial integrity.

Do I take my promises and commitments seriously? Will I honor my commitments even when they fail to meet my expectations? Will I keep my promises, no matter the cost? Am I aware of how my faithfulness reflects on the Father who risked everything for me? The Father who promised He’ll never leave. Promised He won’t tell. Promised to help me, no matter what. Promised He’ll never hurt me. Promised He won’t turn His back on me. Promised to never give up on me. Promised me He’ll never forget. That’s a Father worth keeping promises for – am I willing? Are you?

Something to think about!

Hungry Anyone?

If anyone had told me a month ago, that my next favorite book would be about a futuristic society that punishes their citizens with high-tech, Hollywood style gladiator games, I would have thought they were crazy. But when my cousin showed me The Hunger Games movie trailer on his phone at Christmas, I was hooked before I even had the book in my hands! My daughter and I spent two nights reading it aloud to each other, alternating chapters. Shouting when it was time to trade the book, “Hurry! Give it over!” or if the person reading paused to catch her breath, “Keep going! Read! Read!” On the last night, we stayed up until 2:00 a.m. sustaining ourselves with granola and chocolate just so we could make it to the end. Which of course was only nominally satisfying….because it is a trilogy!!! We devoured the next two books in a matter of days.

A book that keeps me up at night is one thing. Lots of books keep me up at night. So how do I know if a book’s really gotten to me? If, when I get about 50 pages or so away from the end, I stop reading, because I just don’t want it to be over, don’t want to let the characters go. When I pick it back up, I take my time, savor those last few pages. Even with my daughter waiting anxiously to talk about the final book that she’d already finished, I read the ending slowly, mourning its passing with the turn of each page.

The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins, hardly lacks attention on the blogosphere. In fact, I may be the last blogger in the world to write about it. That’s why I am not going to give the standard review, critique the book or conjecture about whether this trilogy is a rip-off from a Japanese novel with a similar plot, as apparently some have suggested. (The one thing I have to say regarding those rumors is that good writing requires hard work, creativity and talent, and while these books might not rise to the level of classic literature, they are riveting. That doesn’t happen by accident.)

For those of you wondering if you should read the book, I will offer these general thoughts: Many people may be turned off by the overall concept, the graphic violence or the complete lack of anything spiritual in such a dark world, but the novel itself isn’t dark, like say The Golden Compass. The Hunger Games trilogy is about hope and the power of life to endure, spring up even, in the most neglected of places. If your kids read it, I suggest you read along with them so that you can discuss it together. My daughter and I are still talking about it!

So why am I really writing this post? What do I have to share of any real substance? Well, perhaps nothing more than to say this book confirms the relevance of Christianity’s message and the power of its imagery even in our post-modern world. I am not suggesting The Hunger Games is a Christian book or even that the author was using Christian themes. In some ways, I think Collins was avoiding religion altogether. Why else would she have created a society who faced death every day, but spent so little time thinking about the afterlife or searching for meaning? Don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining! Just acknowledging that some of the treasures I found hidden in this book were likely not put there on purpose.

*Spoiler Alert* The next several paragraphs contain some spoilers. I tried not to give away too much, so I think you could read it without ruining the books or movie, but proceed at your own risk!

First, I find that the premise of the story – that a higher power, The Capitol, rules over the masses by deceiving, oppressing, enslaving and dividing them, causing them to fight one another instead of their real enemy, the sinister President Snow and his government – is not all that different than the spiritual battle depicted in Christianity. Are we not being deceived on a daily basis? Are we not oppressed by doubt, fear, self-righteousness, pride and resentment? Do we not war with one another, if not with swords and guns, then with words and emotions?

Then, there is the love story. Peeta, who represents hope, practically oozes all things good and light. He is a baker, an artist, a natural leader and a man willing to sacrifice his own life for the one he loves, Katniss. In fact, at one point he dies and – wait for it – comes back to life. I’m pretty sure I don’t have to spell this one out for you, but the material’s too good – I can’t not write about it.

At a pivotal moment in their relationship, when they are far from home and in danger of dying, Peeta gives Katniss a locket with pictures of her mother, sister and best friend, Gale. Gale, like Peeta, is in love with Katniss; however, Katniss is unsure of who she loves, unsure if she is even capable of love. While Katniss doesn’t know what she wants, Peeta is unwavering in his love for her. When she needs him, he is there. When she pushes him away, he loves her from afar. When she’s at her worst, he loves her anyway. As they look at the pictures of her family and Gale, Peeta offers Katniss his life, asking her to let him die in her place – he wants her to live, to be happy, to marry Gale and have a full life, even if that means giving her up, giving everything up. That, my friends, is sacrificial, selfless love – the truest form of love there is.

Do humans universally long for this kind of love? A love that sacrifices oneself to save another? If our music, movies, plays and books are any indication, then we must. Images of heroes surround us – heroes that can save us, from loneliness, grief, pain, danger, self-obsession, self-loathing, even death. So it should come as no surprise that so many people love these books. Whether we know it or not, the story stirs something deep within us.

Finally, as a baker, Peeta literally feeds and nourishes people in a starving community. This, I imagine, was no accident on the author’s part because he is ultimately the one who satisfies Katniss’s deepest hunger. I can’t help but smile a little at his name, which is actually a homonym for a kind of bread eaten by millions of people the world over. But I wonder if as Collins was writing Peeta, she considered the One who truly satisfies.

We, every one of us, are part of a Hunger Game. Only this is no game. This is real. Look around you. Think about it. Why are you here? Who’s really in control? Are you still a slave to the unseen powers of this dark world? Do you know who your enemy is? Are you hungry? Starving for the truth? Desperate for something…or someone to satisfy your soul?

He’s out there, you know. Your Rescuer. The One who said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” is all the food your starving soul needs. And He’s the only chance you have of getting out of this arena alive.

Unexpected Gifts

Do you remember that Christmas present you always wanted but never got? I found mine while reverently flipping through the Sears Wish Book, eyes wide, excitement bubbling through my veins. I circled the picture over and over, practically cutting a hole through the paper with the tip of my pen. Then, when I showed my parents, they promptly informed me that a Barbie Dream House was not in the budget nor would it fit in our two bedroom apartment. Even after a letter to Santa and some earnest prayers, come Christmas day, among all the presents under the tree, there was no Barbie Dream House. So goes life. Sometimes, we ask for one thing and get another.

Most of the time, such disappointments are small and quickly forgotten. But at other times, they hurt. Imagine the child who wants a set of paints or a guitar but the parents keep buying soccer balls and shin guards. Might such a child wonder, “Do my parents even know me? Do they care at all?” A good and genuine gift – material or not – is one that says, “I know you and I love you. I know you and I love you.”

I think that’s why we’re often confused when we ask the Lord for one thing and He gives us something else. Doesn’t He know us through and through? Doesn’t He love us more than anyone ever could? Scripture tells us that God gives good gifts to his children – we just have to ask. Then why do we ask for work and find none? We ask for friends and are still alone? We ask for healing and death comes anyway? We ask for answers and are left with more questions? What then?

Lately, I have really wrestled with this. It’s not that I think He can’t hear me. I know He can. And it’s not even that He’s silent. In fact, He’s talking to me all the time. But sometimes I feel like we’re having two different conversations. I ask for an apple and He answers with an orange. I ask in English and He answers in…well…God language.

One particularly frustrating night, I picked up the book Beyond Opinion. After flipping to the chapter “The Role of Doubt and Persecution in Spiritual Transformation” by Stuart McAlister, I skeptically began reading. What? Doubt? Me? Never! To my surprise, I found some nuggets of truth, a new perspective, and it’s radically altering how I view the Lord and my relationship with Him.

Do you remember what happens between Moses and the Lord in Exodus 33? I consider it one of most beautiful moments in Biblical history. At first, the Lord, angry with the Israelites for their rebellion, tells Moses to take the people and go on without Him. Like a forsaken lover, the devastated Moses shamelessly protests; the Lord immediately and lovingly responds. With an almost palpable tenderness, they lay bare their hearts, declaring their love and devotion to one another. In that moment, raw with vulnerability and heavy with expectation, Moses realizes that nothing else will do but to know and be completely known. Boldly, confident of his lover’s love, Moses beckons to the Lord, “Now show me your glory.” Time almost seems to stand still.

With passion for His beloved, the Lord agrees…but there’s a twist. The Lord only allows Moses to see His back, lest Moses die. I don’t know about you, but I might have been disappointed, hurt or even angry. After such an intimate exchange, how could God not know what Moses really wanted? The usual, standard answer would be that the Lord was protecting Moses – and that’s true. The Lord did protect Moses and He did it with moving, powerful, symbolic, almost prophetic imagery of the coming Christ. (I could write a thousand paragraphs about that, but not today!) There is no doubt that the Lord was protecting Moses, but perhaps there’s even more to it than that.

What if what Stuart McAlister, Alister McGrath and Martin Luther believe is also true? That God was indeed showing Moses his glory because God’s glory is present even in “the back parts of God”.  Perhaps Moses, and we alike, must be “forced to turn our eyes from contemplation of where we would like to see God revealed, and to turn them instead upon a place of which is not our own choosing, but which is given to us. We like to find God in the beauty of nature, in the brilliance of an inspired human work of art or in the depths of our own being – and instead, we must recognize that the sole authorized symbol of the Christian faith is a scene of dereliction and carnage.” (McGrath)

We want to see God’s glory….just so long as that glory is powerful, beautiful, awe inspiring…and safe. Yet the core of our faith rests on Jesus, who was humiliated, violently tortured, brutally murdered and abandoned by his Father; the same Father in whom we’re asked to put our trust. Are you willing to look at that God? Do you want to see all of Him?

God isn’t neat, tidy, predictable or tame. Just think of Jesus for a minute. He showed up in some unexpected ways, didn’t He? After entering the womb of a poor, unwed, teenage virgin, He was born amid scandal and worshiped by mystics and the dregs of society. He acted in some unexpected ways, too. The Israelites asked for a savior who would conquer their political enemies, bring national freedom, and raise Israel up to rule over all the earth, eternally. But the King of Kings preferred to socialize with outcasts and eventually submitted to humiliation, defeat and death on a cross. Through means no earthly soul could predict, the Lord attained complete victory, spiritual freedom and eternal life for all people who would receive it.

So, when you contemplate the miraculous work of the cross, do you, like me, see the Lord’s strength and glory prevailing in spite of Christ’s suffering, humiliation and defeat? I once envisioned Christ as somehow outside of it all. But He wasn’t…if anything, He was more present, more alive, more aware of His experiences than we who live with veiled hearts have ever been. Christ wasn’t victorious despite defeat. He was victorious in and through defeat. He wasn’t strong despite the appearance of weakness. No! He was strong in and through His weakness. And He wasn’t glorified despite his humiliation. Rather, He revealed His glory in and through humiliation. In the cross, and even in the manger, we find that “God reveals himself through a contrary form. It is the back of God, which is revealed – but it is God, and not another.” (McAlister)

Recently, while meditating on God’s glory as revealed through the degradation of the cross, I imagined Jesus there – beaten, broken, humiliated and hanging on a tree. He looked like any other brutally tortured, dying man – but He wasn’t any other man. He was God. All the power of the universe, wrapped up in the flesh of one man, and nailed to a cross. The Lord, the Mighty One, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, a picture of human weakness. Then this word came to mind: vulnerable.

In Jesus, the Lord Himself became vulnerable – vulnerable to all that mankind could throw at Him. And it was in and through that very vulnerability that He rescued a cursed creation. Sometimes the Lord reveals his power with a mighty arm, but at other times He places us, as He did Moses, on a Rock, hides us in the palm of His hand and then shows us a side of Himself we’ve never seen before. He does this because He, the Great I AM, longs for us to know Him…all of Him…even the back parts.

Suddenly, I am overcome, breathless at the thought that through some divine mystery, I might actually encounter the Lord in and through my weakness and suffering. That in those cold, dark places, if I watch with the eyes of my heart, the Lord will reveal Himself to me. That He and I, for a moment, might share even a thousandth of the intimacy experienced between the Lord and Moses.

Can I be that vulnerable? What do I need to do Lord? And I hear: “Give. Give. Give. Give, yourself to Me.” The Lord knows us and loves us. He gives us, always, the perfect gift: Himself. We may not always get what we expect, or even what we asked for, but we always get Him. And for once, I see the possibility, I long to respond and give Him the only gift I ever can: Me. All of me. Warm, expectant and trembling ever so slightly, I find myself whispering, “Lord, show me your glory.”

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. II Corinthians 12:9-10

But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. I Corinthians 1:27

 

Why I Love “Revenge”

Confession: I love the new television drama Revenge. It’s a bit like eating a heaping plate of cheese covered, chili soaked, French fries…so delicious and yet so wrong. For those of you unfamiliar with the devilishly delicious show, it is basically a contemporary re-telling of The Count of Monte Cristo. And by contemporary I mean two things: 1) in a modern setting, where the main character is a woman and 2) NOT for children! Actually, in light of recent content, I am still determining if it is appropriate for me.

Oh, but there’s just something about watching a young, victimized woman exact revenge on her filthy rich, powerful and morally corrupt perpetrators, while posing as the beautiful, wealthy, sophisticated, girl-next-door. Who hasn’t dreamed of possessing such power, poise and endless resources? Even if just for a moment. The temptation to avenge oneself is forceful…it thrusts itself upon us when we least expect it. One minute I’m changing the radio station in my car and then I find myself devising scathing, witty comments with which to slay my enemy’s soul when next I see him.

Thankfully, such reveries are quickly interrupted by a harsh dose of reality upon remembering that I am not  clever, cold or courageous enough to act on my imaginations; which, after all, is a good thing. Fear really does come in handy sometimes. Revenge, a nasty, violent affair, often inflicts its greatest wounds on the avenger.

The main character, Amanda (a.k.a. Emily) initially experiences great success in taking down some of her fringe enemies – those who are guilty by association. Yet, like a lioness closing in on her prey, she circles closer and closer toward her main targets, the people who destroyed her family. This made for especially entertaining television at first, as every Wednesday night Amanda skillfully destroyed another immoral, hypocritical elite…so much reward for so little time invested.  That’s how they get you! I knew it was coming, the inevitable slow down. As expected, complications arose and now the story moves about as fast as a car stuck in mud…but it’s too late. I’m hooked!

However, for the first time we are beginning to see the cost of Amanda’s quest. Life rarely goes according to plan and even the resourceful “Emily” is not omnipotent. Revenge, we see, is a complicated, messy business. We find ourselves asking: What about Daniel, the man who’s fallen for Emily? Will he have to pay for the sins of his parents? What of Victoria, Daniel’s mother, and Amanda’s archenemy, who’s horrible actions are often the result of a lonely and desperate life? And what about Amanda, who Emily has locked away in a small, dark room of her heart? What happens to such a person, consumed by rage and obsessed with revenge? Can they ever know contentment again? Can they love? And if not, can they ever really live?

Revenge may not be the kind of show that inspires people (Well, let’s hope not anyway!) but it does raise some interesting questions. And for now, it holds my attention. Can it go on for years? My initial thought is “NO!” I want an end to this story and truth be told, if it goes on too long, I’ll probably lose interest. But a bitter heart can last a lifetime, and some people will wait forever to see someone “get what’s coming to them” even if only vicariously.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him;  if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:17-21

Adventures of First Year College Mom – Tip #3 Beware the Addled Dad

In our family, whenever we travel, Doug is what we call the “Cruise Director”. He books lodging and transportation, plans driving routes, makes sure the house is in vacation order and that the car is road ready. He just has a general command of the situation. This held true for our first official college drop off too…or so I thought. 

For the most part, Doug is a pretty steady guy, not prone to emotional highs and lows (except for the usual Type A impatience, frustration and anger) and so sometimes I honestly forget that he has feelings. Terrible, right? I know. I know. Keep reading…you can mentally lecture me later. As we prepared to leave that morning for the school, Doug was his typical, high-intensity self, wishing everything had been done faster (we had plenty of time) and that we had packed less. (I’ll cut him some slack on this one – he is a man living with three women.) After spending an hour trying to fit everything in our four door sedan – which he did  masterfully – he jumped in the front seat, turned the key and…nothing. The battery was dead. Why? Because he had left the radio, interior lights and GPS on the entire time he was packing the car (and my battery is kinda old). I bet some of you have already figured out where the jumper cables were. Of course!  In the trunk, under about 30 pairs of shoes, 75 t-shirts and, well, everything else!

As he worked on digging out the cables and jumpstarting the car, I went inside to grab breakfast, which I suddenly had time to eat. Did I abandon him? Well, have you ever been around Doug when he’s in a hurry and something goes wrong? Best to give the man a little space. A couple minutes later, as I’m walking by the front door shoveling a spoonful of Cinnamon Toast Crunch into my mouth, I heard Jacquelyn say “Woa! Why is it smoking!?” Did I hear her right? Nah. Can’t be. She must be seeing things. Smoke? Silly girl. I was so confident in my cruise director, I just went about my business, enjoying my little breakfast time. When I went back outside, Doug explained that, yes indeed, the car had been smoking. Turns out that because my battery terminals were badly corroded, the red cap to the positive terminal was hidden, and the negative terminal was, for some crazy reason, painted red, Doug mistakenly reversed the charges. Doug. My Doug. Responsible, experienced, alert, cautious, has-jumpstarted-a-car-a-thousand-times Doug, reversed the charges. That is when I started to worry….maybe he is a bit addled after all.

Thankfully, the battery wasn’t damaged and, after Doug corrected the connections, we were able to recharge it. Finally, we were off! Now, this was far from our first drive to her school. Yet somehow, Doug managed to miss the exit. (Sure, I could say “we” missed the exit, but remember: I wasn’t really paying attention because my “cruise director” was supposed to have everything under control.) It’s no surprise that our GPS diverted us into downtown Boston which meant so much traffic and so many stoplights that our average speed was probably something like 12 mph. Show of hands: How many of you want to be trapped in a car with a man who has had the morning this guy’s had? Exactly!

Shortly after we got back on the highway, Christina pointed to our digital gas gauge which displays how many miles we have left before we run out of gas. Here’s what it looked like:  O  – yup. Zero. Zero miles left. There we were, on a highway jammed with August North Shore Weekenders, with virtually no gas in the tank. Trust me when I say that every one of us prayed so loudly and fervently you might have mistaken us for all for Pentecostals. (Not that there’s anything wrong with Pentacostals.) At the next exit, we sat through 3 red lights, staring at the gas station just across the street, fighting off visions of pushing a stalled car and desperately trying to will ourselves through the intersection. So close…so close. Come on, Light! Change! Change! Oh God, please, let us have enough gas. Please!

Well, praise God, we made it! And there was a Subway there too; so God provided gasoline and lunch. And from that point on our trip was fairly “normal”, if you can call anything our family does normal. We arrived at the school and moved all of Jacquelyn’s stuff up to her steamy room on the unairconditioned third floor. I’m not sure where Doug was but I helped get the maintenance people in to fix the broken beds and even had them bunk the beds for us. I could’ve waited for Doug, but by that point I had figured out that he was just, well, not himself. Better to leave it to the professionals. (And by “professionals”, I mean some college kids working maintenance.) Sometime later, Doug arrived with a refrigerator from a nearby Wal-Mart (is that where he was?) – one with a real freezer to fit the ever important pints of ice cream. What a guy! It will come as no surprise that he had to wait in the check-out line, with a dorm fridge, for over 20 minutes. It was just not his day.

After 4 hours of unpacking and organizing, we said good-bye to Jacquelyn and Emily (her roommate and friend from church), but only for the night. They were off to orientation meetings and we were off to find dinner. Do you find it odd that the school sent us off campus for dinner at 5 and then wanted us back at 7:30 for a dessert reception? Traffic was so horrendous that by the time we checked into our hotel and had dinner it was 8:00! We had our first dinner without Jacquelyn at Bertucci’s in Peabody. Sure, we’ve had dinner without her before…but this was official. Oh yeah, and we made a final run to Target for those last few items. Doug bought her a pink and black tool kit. Such a dad thing to do! But seriously, every girl should have her own tool kit. And, no, we never did make it back for the dessert reception. Man, school hadn’t even started and I was skipping already.

The next morning we were due on campus by 8:45 a.m. for an official welcome, after which we spent a very busy day taking care of business – bank accounts, job applications, etc. We closed the day with the school’s Commitment Ceremony and a speech wrought with all sorts of sentimental images – like the first time your child went off to school, or learned to ride a bike, or what it will be like to set the table with one less plate. My goodness…just stick a knife in my heart, why don’t ya? Was this guy trying to make us cry?

Saying good-bye was rough but Jacquelyn cried so hard that I couldn’t cry at all; I was just too worried about her. Doug didn’t cry either, but it was difficult for him to actually get in the car and drive. He stayed and watched her go until she walked completely out of his sight. Christina? She could have filled a bucket with her tears. As a reward for our long days and heavy hearts, we drove to Cape Ann to walk along the beach and then visited Rockport. We watched the sunset from a little cafe where we had dinner. We also bought Christina a sparkly butterfly ring and ice cream, which cheered her up sufficiently. And what about Doug? Well, after dinner and a coffee he drove us home. No dead batteries. No missed exits. No empty gas tanks. Just our very own cruise director back at the helm.

Tip #3 – Beware the Addled Dad – Just because your husband is all business about this college thing – you know, writing the checks, lamenting about how the payments are gonna destroy your retirement, making sure she has all her legal paperwork, setting up her bank account, buying her a hammer and an allen wrench – remember, that somewhere deep inside, this is shaking up his world, even if he doesn’t know it yet. I suspect this is even more true for dads of daughters. After all, it’s his job to protect his little girl, and now what’s he to do when she’s out from under his roof, living among strangers in a strange place? So be kind, be patient and be prepared. You never know when you might need to fix a broken bed, remind him to stop for gas or just squeeze his hand and tell him it’s all gonna be alright.

Adventures of a First Year College Mom – Tip #2

I knew it would be crazy – this last summer before college. Summer’s always a little crazy for us anyway. But this summer, with the shopping and paperwork and all of the “lasts” – the last visit with this friend, the last visit with that friend, the last sleepover with discipleship group, the last trip to Sonic, the last night watching Suits and Gilmore Girls, the last drive in her car, the last late night bedroom dance party, the last trip to Tulmeadow for ice cream, the last dinner with grandparents – this summer left me not only exhausted, but emotionally drained. And by drained, I mean sucked dry like an Oklahoma creekbed during the dustbowl. “Tired” doesn’t even begin to describe how I feel.

Looking back, however, I am so grateful for the last couple of weeks we had together. First, Jacquelyn stopped working two weeks before she left, in part so that she could be more available for Faith Quest, our church’s summer camp. I had mixed emotions about Faith Quest happening just a week before she left, but as one of the directors I had to be there; and in the end it was a blessing. As a family, we had little choice but to spend every night together and we ended up enjoying a shared experience. Then, each night we went home (usually after some McFlurry’s) and stayed up late talking….or making rice krispie treats and watching Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer. (No, I have no explanation for that.)  In past years, Faith Quest has sometimes been a strain on our family, but this year I believe we had more joy than ever.

The last week before the big move, Doug and I both took some time off work and I tried to schedule work or personal errands during those hours when Jacquelyn was off having a “last” something with one of her friends. We were trying to protect our time as best we could.  Of course, as often happens, my plans began to fall apart – particularly at work, where Murphy’s Law seemed to be in full force. I fought the urge to flip out or break down and just kept asking God for help, trusting him with the timing and making adjustments as necessary.

We were careful to protect the time we had set aside for dinners with grandparents, visits with neighbors and last minute shopping. I also made some of Jacquelyn’s favorite meals that week (Tomato Basil Pasta Salad, Chicken Fajitas and, of course, Potato Pancakes) and let her order out one night from her restaurant of choice – which ended up being potato pizza from one restaurant and fried pickles from another! Then, I found out that, on her own, she had decided to devote her last two days entirely to family and packing. She couldn’t have given me a nicer present.

During it all, I could feel our time together running out.  In some ways, I felt alot like I did when I was pregnant: the time was coming, she needed to go, it was the right thing to do, but, man, was this gonna hurt! I described it to my mother as being on a train I couldn’t get off. I wanted to plan something special but not too sentimental and sad for our last night. After some prayers, a little divine inspiration and God’s good timing, I was able to arrange a suprise visit with our friends-that-are-like-family, the Davidsons, at Tulmeadow Farm. Jacquelyn knew we were having ice cream, but she didn’t expect to see her friends there…in fact, they had just flown back that day from a trip to Texas, so she wasn’t expecting to see them before she left for college at all! She was surprised and so happy. We enjoyed our ice cream and sat around talking and laughing until it was dark out. It was perfect.

We finished the night off by driving to Doug’s old childhood home in West Simsbury and letting the girls climb on the big rock on the cul-de-sac green, one of their favorite places to play when visiting their grandparents before they moved. On our way home, we drove around with the windows down, blaring our family songs and singing along. Last year, while on our cross country trip, the song Don’t Stop Believin’ by Journey kind of became our theme song (mostly due to the line “it goes on and on and on and on”) but since then, it has kind of stuck. We also listened to Party in the USA, The Gambler and Sweet Caroline. The good news is that the sun had set and we were moving, so noone could see us our hear us!

While driving along with my hand out the window in the wind, I suddenly felt like we were on our cross country trip again. I was instantly reminded of all those days and nights on the road together, of all the amazing things we saw and did together. Suddenly, I was filled with an overwhelming sense of gratitude.  I’ll admit, I had fun driving around and singing in the car that night, but thank goodness the music was loud…that way noone noticed when I was too choked up to sing. “Come on, Nichole, it’s OK, enjoy these moments. Enjoy them,” I told myself.

We went home to some last minute packing, a little disco dance party in Jacquelyn’s room (um, without Doug, that is) and the new episode of Suits. I was amazed, utterly amazed, at the gift of time God had given us that night…that week…that summer…last summer…her whole life. What a joy it has been to have her with us these last 18 years. What a gift.

So Tip #2: Take, Make and Enjoy the Time – Time is a gift. Give yourself, your son or daughter and your family the gift of time. And when, like me, you find things falling apart all around you and can’t figure out how you are going to get everything done, say a prayer and let God, the creator and keeper of time, empty your days of what doesn’t matter and fill them with what is important.

Trusting in God’s Goodness

You know that point in a movie, where two people fall in love but there is a secret between them? They look into each other’s eyes, he touches her face, she leans in for a kiss…but all the while someone is holding back. Even we, as an audience hold back too. As long as there’s something between them, the love relationship is incomplete.  Usually it’s something silly, like the girl isn’t really a princess, or she is a princess and is pretending not to be. Or the guy isn’t really a superhero…or maybe he is a superhero posing as a clumsy reporter. Silly or not, there’s a morsel of reality in there somewhere. Because after all, in fact after the fall, there is always something between us.

When God first spoke creation into the world, including the universe, the earth, the animals and us, he pronounced it “good” – good because he created it, good because he made it so. But then after the fall, we became painfully aware that on our own, apart from God, we lack goodness and light. We are naked and ashamed. We deal with this painful awareness in a variety of ways. The first thing Adam and Eve did was cover themselves up and hide. Sound familiar? Maybe if I dress myself in good behavior and never let anyone see the real me, maybe then I’ll be OK. Or instead of hiding my sin, I’ll expose it to the world, thinking perhaps that if I can make my behavior culturally acceptable, then I won’t have to feel bad about it anymore. Or maybe I’ll just try to be the best at being “bad”.

A friend of mine recently loaned me the book, Give them Grace by Elyse M Fitzpatrick. In it, the author writes that before the fall, God bestowed on people a benediction, a blessing: “It is very good.” Since the fall, we have been consumed with trying to recover that “goodness”. Our striving for morality, power and success are merely attempts to bestow the blessing of goodness on ourselves. We even compete for it. I try to be better than you, and if I think you’re better than me, I’ll try to find ways to knock you down. Like Joseph and his brothers, for example: Joseph was a “good” boy, but his brothers were “bad”. When Daddy favored the “good” boy, what did the brothers do? Why they tried to kill him, of course. Sounds extreme but jealousy and anger and attempts to harm (whether physically or emotionally), those aren’t such foreign concepts, are they?

When and how will we ever be “good enough”? When can I come out of hiding? I’m tired of dressing up in morality, which weighs like a heavy coat in the summertime. I want to be free…to live, to love, to dream, to be me. But I will never truly be free as long as I am trusting in my own goodness…proving my own worth…or just trying to get through a day without every bit of goodness and light sinking into the black hole of shame that seems to reside deep inside my gut.

Trusting God’s goodness sounds simple at first: “God is good. All the time!” or “God works all things together for good.” Neat little packages that sum up all of life’s problems in seven words or less, no questions asked. Until the day comes when you can’t ignore the questions. Why did God allow my brothers to sell me as a slave? Why am I in prison for a crime I didn’t commit? Why are my parents divorcing? Why did God take my father from me? How can I keep my house when I’ve been out of work for a year? Why is there so much pain? And more and more pain? Then I find myself crying out, “Come on, God! You are the creative master of the universe. Surely you can find another, easier, better way to work it all out for good!”

So what does it mean to trust in God’s goodness? I don’t have all the answers…I may not even have any, but I will at least share my thoughts. First, and foremost, we trust in God’s goodness because we have no goodness of our own in which to trust. All my attempts at goodness will fail, and ultimately, the weight of dragging that morality around will wear me down, making me self-righteous and bitter. God’s goodness is my only hope.

Second, trusting in God’s goodness means recognizing, believing and accepting that everything he has ever created or done, he has intended for good, and that he is still in the process of working that all out …. for good. Before the fall, he called his creation good. And since the fall, all of history has told the beautiful, majestic, sweeping romance of his passionate love for humanity and his creative work to restore his creation to goodness. He loves his creation. He loves us. He longs to restore us to himself, to his goodness. If God’s intentions towards us and towards all of creation are good, and if his ultimate plans are good, then what questions are left to be asked?  

Maybe life is a lot more like a Dickens’ novel than I previously thought. Think about how his novels begin….with all sorts of odd characters and subplots….so many, that after several chapters you read a name and think “Wait, who is this guy?” only to find out he’s already appeared twice, once 75 pages ago and once 120 pages ago…and you still aren’t sure how he’s related to the main character. As you trudge through chapter after chapter of seemingly unconnected story lines you find yourself asking, “What on earth am I reading? Will he ever get to the point? Is there a point, at all?!” And then, as the book nears its ending, Mr. Dickens, in his usual fashion, masterfully weaves each story line together into one beautiful masterpiece, so rich and warm and touching that you nearly find yourself standing atop a mountain shouting “Beautiful! Marvelous! Wonderful! Every word, every letter, every moment spent was worth this ending!” Well…that’s how I feel, anyway. 

All of creation – past, present and future – is God’s novel, a love story that often masquerades as a mystery. Whether we like it or not, we are living, breathing characters in his story. We don’t always appreciate his style and we’re often confused, wondering about the meaning and importance of certain characters and events, questioning motive, conflict and purpose. We anxiously await the next event, anticipating all the possible outcomes. We laugh, we cry, we lament, we rejoice.

Unlike Dickens’ characters, though, we have free will. Even though God holds the pen, he invites us to write our story with him. Every day we face hundreds of choices, some big and some small. And somehow, those choices matter. The mysteries mount as we consider that God is not only the Author of Life, he is the main character! Add to that, the fact that he exists outside of time, and therefore, already knows the ending and we are nearly convinced that this is nothing more than a sensational mystery novel.   

But wait, don’t give up! God’s novel truly is a divine love story. Right now, we are just living in the mucky middle of a long, complicated story, fraught with mystery and suspense, in which every detail – every jot and tittle, your choices and mine, good and bad –  He, in his creative power, will work together for good. For his good. For my good.  For your good. I know that you’re anxious and afraid, or bored or worn out or angry or hurt, but God is good and he loves you. He knows this is difficult for you. He entered the story and lived among the snarling weeds and creeping darkness. And in his mercy, He told you the ending, so that when the “night has been too lonely, and the road has been too long, and you think that love is only for the lucky and the strong”  you could take hold of his promise that He has already overcome the world, remember that He has loved you with an everlasting love and look forward to that day when he takes you into his arms and wipes away every tear from your eyes. 

If you know all this and believe all this, but you’re still holding something back, ask yourself why. (I pose these questions to us all – whether we’ve taken that first leap of faith or not – because we are, each of us, still in the middle of our story, his story.) Are you trying to hide something from the Author of Life? He already knows…and he loves you anyway. Have you shut the door of your heart because you fear being hurt again? That works for a while…until the cupboards go bare and your heart is starving and you’ll eat anything except that which really satisfies. Or are you believing a silly lie? After all, why else would the daughter or son of the King settle for a life wandering the streets, digging through people’s trash for food and sleeping on the cold, hard pavement? Your Father, the King of Kings, awaits you. In fact, he’s running toward you with his arms open wide, eyes sparkling, because after all, he’s got a party planned, a feast prepared and your name is written on his heart. No more wandering. No more settling for scraps. No more lies. No more holding back. You are the prince. You are the princess. Your superhero has come. Ridiculous? Nah. We all know that truth is crazier than fiction.

Joseph – Arrogant or Naïve? or perhaps more aptly titled… “Me? Naïve?”

As many of you know, I have spent the last 5 months studying and writing about Joseph, the son of Jacob, for Faith Quest, our church’s summer camp for kids. Each year, at the beginning of summer, our pastors begin teaching about the same character we will explore at Faith Quest. As I await the sermons, I vaccilate between joyful expectation and fearful anticipation. While I love to hear the pastors’ perspective, I also dread finding out I was wrong! Especially considering that, at this point, our script and curriculum are pretty much done…off to the printers…signed, sealed and delivered. During most sermons, you can find me furiously scribbing notes and practically holding my breath, hoping the pastors don’t drop a theological bomb that obliterates any premise on which our script is founded, because by now the teenage cast is already memorizing lines! All this after the script was already read and approved by one of the pastors. Wow…maybe I need a vacation.

Somehow, in the midst of all that Sunday morning mania, God speaks to me. The question from recent sermons that keeps coming back to me is: “Do I think Joseph is arrogant and prideful or naïve and innocent?” Well…can it be that both are true? Can’t naïve people also be arrogant, know-it-alls? I mean, seriously, why are they so naïve anyway? Could it be because they fail to see outside themselves and their own limited perspective?

The description of someone as naïve often presumes a sort of innocence, but I think this presumes too much. After all, none of us is really innocent and all of us are, on some level, selfish and prideful. Sure, there is the kind of naiveté of those who’ve never been exposed to certain sins, horrors, darkness and evil, but that is not the naiveté I am talking about. Nor is it the kind one could attribute to Joseph. He had been exposed to all sorts of evil and sin. There is no way he was unaware of his father’s, mothers’ or brothers’ rivalries, sin and jealousy – unless he was stupid, which he was not.

I think Joseph was naïve because, in a way, he chose to be so. In my studies, one of the commentators (at this moment I can not remember who or what book but it belonged to my pastor and I’ve since returned it to him) addressed this issue of Joseph’s naiveté very well. Here’s the jist or at least what I remember: Naïve people often go about their business oblivious to the effect they are having on others, or perhaps they see the effect, but don’t understand the cause or take the time to address it. This, however, does not lessen the effect or absolve the person from some level of responsibility. And no, being naïve about being naïve does not excuse you from being naïve.

So when I caught myself thinking, “Wow. Glad I’m not naïve,” I figured that was a red flag. And surprise, surprise! Guess who is a little naïve about being naïve?

I hear you asking me “However is it that you, Nichole, could be naïve? You are so well versed, experienced, wise and perceptive!” Ahahahhahaha! I make myself laugh! My goodness! It wasn’t until I was in my 30’s that I realized my grandmother’s warning to “never put your hand down the sink drain, even if the garbage disposal is off because there is a button inside it that could turn it on by accident” was a well-intentioned lie. You can imagine how hard my husband laughed when he broke the news and told me the truth!

You see, my first instinct is to take everyone at their word. Why, after all, would anyone say anything other than the truth? That last question may be the very reason I am not good at strategy games. I mean really – spending hours trying to figure out a way to trick someone or trying to anticipate how they are going to trick me? Oh honestly! I just don’t have what it takes for that kind of thinking.

But does this mean I am innocent? That I do no wrong? Or hurt others less than not-so-naïve people do? Of course not. It just means that I always get caught!!! Or more specifically, I lack ingenuity, sophistication and the ability to hide my emotions or beguile anyone. When I sin and hurt people, it’s simple, obvious and not very clever – but it’s still wrong.

In recent years, I have found myself in more than one of what we’ll call “working relationships” (that actually have nothing to do with my job) where I believe the people I was partnering with were, in some way or another and for some reason or another, threatened by me. “Ridiculous!” you say. And so did I. But again, isn’t that just naïve? Before I even knew I had stepped on a person’s toes, he or she was already biting mine off.  A good friend warned me to never fight back and to see such people as “a threatened, cornered, fearful animal.” This was wise advice, though difficult to follow when said animal follows you down the street snapping at your heels until you are clear out of town!

My refusal to accept the fact that some people might be threatened by me only complicated matters. And while it may seem like humility, it was really nothing but naiveté or perhaps chosen ignorance. And maybe even a little bit of pride? Didn’t C.S. Lewis explain how some forms of warped humility are really just pride in disguise? And wasn’t I arrogant to think that I couldn’t possibly threaten anyone? After all I am so humble and just want to be loved. Yet, even if (and I say if) that were true, I am also strong-willed, forceful, determined and will gladly take the lead where others fail to do so. So do you think there’s the slightest chance that my actions might have, once or twice, conveyed the message “Hey lady, you’re not cutting it. I’ll take over from here.”? And, well, might that be exactly what I was thinking?

Arrogant. Prideful. Naïve. Joseph, I feel like I know you so well!

Joseph may not have been guilty of any intentional, well-planned, sophisticated sin, but I think he was guilty, as we all are, of thinking too much of himself and failing to see (or refusing to see) not only the effect of his actions, but the reality of the lives of those around him. Did he stop to think about the effect his coat or his dreams would have on his brothers? If not, why didn’t he? And if yes, then, goodness gracious, why did he act as he did? Just about anyone who reads the story is immediately struck by his lack of restraint. We find ourselves screaming silently at the pages, “Joseph, are you crazy? Are you stupid? Are you asking for trouble?” In my opinion, there is only one answer: in his pride he couldn’t resist and in his arrogance and naiveté he failed to foresee the results of his actions. 

What an excellent word of caution to us. We must always and ever be looking to God for his wisdom and direction because on our own we are consumed and blinded by our very selves. Pride is insidious, seeping into and discoloring the fibers of our richly woven being. Even in our humility we may be arrogant. Even in our naivete we may be hurtful. But thankfully, God is with us, and His thoughts are higher than our thoughts and His ways better than our ways.

I think in God’s time, He has cleansed us once, for good. The work is finished. For eternity, we are clean. But here and now, inside of this dimension we call time, we are still in the process of being cleansed. Are you naive? Ask him to help you see clearly and be on the lookout for every mucky thing in your life; then the let the Lord wash it clean. He may need to scrub a little, or a lot, and sometimes it’ll hurt. But remember how soft the skin and sweet the smell of a baby just after a bath? Ahhhh…it’s worth it!

For Jacquelyn

Each year our church holds a celebration to honor students graduating high school. Students and parents both get to speak. The following is what I wrote and shared.

One of my favorite memories of Jacquelyn is from when she was about 2 ½ years old. We were planting flowers – the kind that come in the little plastic six-packs. We separated the flowers from the little planters and then, one by one, we dunked them in water, planted ‘em in the ground, and then filled the holes back in with topsoil. I remember that she especially enjoyed that dunking-them-in-the-water part.

When we finished, I said, “OK! Time to clean up!” And right away, she got to cleaning up. I turned to pick up a few scattered garden tools and from behind me, I could hear her singing, “Clean up now! Clean up now!”

A few seconds later, I turned around and there she was, merrily singing along, pulling the flowers up out of the garden and placing them back in their little packages. “Clean up, now! Clean up, now!”

For those of you who know Jacquelyn, you can see that this story is so her. A concrete thinker, an obedient daughter and a diligent worker who aims to please. Jacquleyn, as your parents, absolutely nothing could change our love for you, but truth be told, you have made it really easy for us. You’re kind, compassionate, sentimental and an amazing big sister. You always look for the best in others and never want to leave anyone behind. While some say you appear quiet and standoffish at first, those who have the privilege of getting to know you will attest that you can out-talk and out-yell and out-laugh the best of them. One of my favorite things in life is to be with you, especially when we are tired, and laugh until we can barely breathe. And your love for others is so loyal and so passionate, that once a person has found their way into your heart, they can rest assured they have a friend for life.

As you have grown, it has been our joy to watch your desire to please us and do the right thing, transform into a desire to please and serve the Lord. As a teenager you faced significant challenges, and your faith and determination to cling to the Lord through it all has humbled and inspired us. We can only imagine what joy this brings Him and what a powerful witness it is to others.

That day when we were planting flowers together touches my heart for another reason which lies in the innocence of a 2 year old girl, who after an hour of digging, watering and planting, was ready to pack it all up and put it away. No regrets, no tears. For me, the planting was a means to an end. But for you, the planting was fun. It was like a game any two year old plays – building with blocks, playing in the sand, making play-dough sculptures – you played, you built, you created and you didn’t need a result or something to hold onto.

In the words of the great philosopher…and country music star…Martina McBride:

You can spend your whole life buildin’ something from nothin’
One storm can come and blow it all away, Build it anyway
You can chase a dream that seems so out of reach
And you know it might not ever come your way, Dream it anyway
You can love someone with all your heart, for all the right reasons
And in a moment they can choose to walk away, Love ‘em anyway

Jacquelyn, we are so excited to see what God has planned for your life. And we want to encourage you…. if God calls you to build, build. If He calls you to dream, dream. If He calls you to love, love. Whatever the Lord calls you to do, we pray that you do it with all your heart, demanding nothing from Him in return.  Because for you, life is about one thing: being with God – wholeheartedly, passionately, completely with God. The results are up to Him. In this life, things may not always turn out like you expect them to…or some days fear may nearly paralyze you…but if the Lord calls you to do it, do it anyway.  For you are His servant. He has chosen you and not rejected you. So do not fear, for He is with you; do not be dismayed, for He your God. He will strengthen you and help you; He will uphold you with His righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:9-10)

Remember that, cling to the Lord and with that joyful faith of the little girl who once planted flowers for the sheer fun of it, leave rest up to Him. We Love You!

Life is Pain (Revised)

At first, I thought it strange that on the same night my 18 year old daughter went to her senior prom and my 11 year old daughter returned from her first overnight, school field trip, I found myself reading an old poem I wrote to my grandmother before she passed away. Then these words drifted through my mind: this is the long good-bye, somebody tell me why. I think these words, despite the rest of the song’s lyrics (The Long Goodbye by Brooks and Dunn) which are about a failing romantic relationship, speak to a timeless truth of life and loss.

 I’m not sure when I first understood that my children are not really mine. I’ll admit, I am a little slow when it comes to the obvious. So while most of you probably knew early on that your children are gifts from God, entrusted to your care for a season, I naively assumed those moments would last forever. The mommy-hold-my-hand moments, the mommy-bake-cookies-with-me moments, the mommy-can-we-color moments, the mommy-your-my-whole-world-and-i-never-want-to-leave-you moments. Those moments. Do you remember them?

Tonight, as I watched my oldest drive away from me and toward a life that she lives almost entirely apart from me, I couldn’t help but remember that in a few short months she will leave for college. And while I rejoiced with my youngest that she conquered her fears of sleeping away from home, a familiar sadness settled in my soul. Here she goes…she’s on her way too.

A child’s primary goal is to leave her parents. From the very start, even in the womb, the main purpose of her development is to get out, get away, separate and live on her own, apart from me. The child who once shared my body, who was quite literally “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh”, emerges, sits up, crawls, walks and then at last, runs. And while she returns at first for a steady hand, and later for a steady heart, those moments when I see her walking toward me grow further and further apart. She is going, she has always been going.

How is it that life should be so much about good-byes? You may say I am being extreme, but think on it for a moment. Can you name a person in your life that you will not, at one time or another, have to say good-bye to? We lose everyone unless they lose us first. Perhaps the Dread Pirate Roberts was not just spewing works soaked in bitterness when he said “Life is pain…anyone who says differently is selling something.” I believe he was expressing a timeless truth.

I’d like to take his words one step further and suggest that life is pain because life is loss. This is the long good-bye. I’m sure there are lots of philosophical and theological conversations we could have as to why but that is not my reason for writing this. I do not live as a person with no hope, no compass, no anchor. I know the way and I know the answer. But even in the light of eternal hope and glory, we walk in the shadow of death. I need not fear. But I hurt. Everyone hurts. Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something. Don’t buy it.

Please don’t mistake me for a cynic! Rather, I like to consider myself a realist – a Christian realist, if you will. If we ignore the truths, even the truths of this world, how can we honestly interpret our reality? Even more so, how can we genuinely relate to others, especially those who don’t have the hope of Christ? There is great danger in minimizing life’s struggles or buying into the notion that as Christians we have to slap a smile on every situation.

So, my message to you (if I must have one) is that perhaps, rather than railing against the painful realities of life, rather than running from, ignoring or burying pain, rather than seeking revenge or retaliation, rather than raising our fists at God, we would be better served by deeply and honesetly accepting the truth that life, while filled with joy and daily miracles, is also fraught with loss, pain and suffering.

We waste so much energy denying reality and battling that which we can not change. Maybe instead we could let go and let the pain wash over us. Maybe we would find peace in Jesus’ words: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) Maybe then we might see that God leaves no void he isn’t planning to fill. That all of the empty, aching caverns left behind by life’s losses, are potential reservoirs crying out to be filled by the only thing that will ever eternally satsify.