spiritual musings


I’m not very girly. I don’t wear a lot of makeup, and you usually can’t tell when I do. I don’t get the point of fingernail polish and I’m not really sure what Pintrest is. Because of this, and a few other reasons, I never expected to have a girl. I mean, if God gave you children based on your personality, I would be that mom with half a soccer team’s worth of sons in the back of a minivan or maybe a suburban (but probably a minivan. I don’t find myself too cool for a minivan.).

But, God does not give us children according to our personality; He gives us children according to our need. I don’t think I mentioned it on here but for a while – 9 months, give or take – I was pregnant. About 2 months ago I gave birth to a little girl and was sort of in shock to find that there would be another female in our little family. Of course the moment you hold your baby for the first time you find that this was the baby you really wanted all along, the baby you needed, and slowly the changes in my future have been sinking in: joy that there will finally be someone to watch Pride & Prejudice with me; horror and dread that I will have to fix someone’s hair. (I don’t even fix my own hair. A ponytail is a legitimate and respectable hairdo as far as I am concerned.)

For some reason, even though I’m not into crafts (what IS the point of scrapbooking, anyway?) it was really important that I make something for my little girl, and I knew exactly what that something would be:

For the last few weeks I’ve been working on this little quilt in whatever spare time I have. Which isn’t much, what with a new baby and a toddler (not to mention a husband) on my hands. I used this tutorial, except instead of a real charm pack I used fairy tale prints.

Sleeping Beauty

Peter Pan. One of my favorites. I cut all the squares of this one wrong but I’m not showing a closeup of that.

Little Red Riding Hood

Snow White. My other favorite. Unfortunately there’s only one square of it because that’s all the fabric I could find.

Cinderella

Frog Prince

Emperor’s New Clothes

Wizard of Oz

Three Little Pigs

And the back:

is

The Princess and the Pea

So, baby girl, may your life be an amazing adventure and unbelievable story. May you do grand things but, more importantly, be a grand person. May your heart be filled with courage, compassion, and generosity; may you experience real friendship, genuine kindness, and true love. May you see the prince within the frog (and pray your parents see him, too!). Fight against wrong, search for truth, set things right, and push back the darkness. On your quest for justice and beauty may you only experience the smallest amount of hardship and sorrow necessary to keep your heart tender. Build your home with wisdom and let your life be marked by extravagant love and childlike wonder. May you never discover any kind of vegetable in your bed, but especially not peas, and may you always know your mama loves you enough to rip out an entire quilt binding and start over just to make it prettier.

And most importantly, may your life be a part of The Great Story.

Sometimes fairy stories may say best what’s to be said. – C.S. Lewis

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We had the privilege this week of seeing yet another friend we haven’t seen in AGES. Years and years. He’s in the military and moved away a few years before we moved to France, although I think we saw him a few times before we left. Anyway, in the intervening years, he married and we hadn’t met his wife. But they were in town this past week and we met for lunch and had a great time catching up (or meeting, as the case may be).

We discussed how living somewhere different and meeting people with different perspectives changes you and how you see God. Jake & I told them how we had (are still having) a very difficult time relating to church people after we returned, that they kept offering trite clich├ęs and churchy advice that just didn’t help. When we were facing a deadline to move out of our last available housing, with no idea where to go, one guy told us, “Well, that’s great! You know God will give you an answer by then.” I just stared at him. Because I did NOT know that. Maybe I’m missing it in the fine print or something, but nowhere in my Bible does it say that God owes me anything. He does not owe me a place to live. He does not owe me food. He does not owe me life, or health, or answers to all my pressing questions. He is not indebted to me in any way.

I think people were trying to encourage us with this idea that God is somehow obligated to provide for His followers. I guess that might be comforting for some people, to believe that God “has to” do something for them, that He is somehow forced to meet their needs. I don’t buy that. I think it’s a very little view of God. I mean, I know there are verses that say God provides…but you have to look at the whole thing, not just a few pretty verses. Let’s look at Job, an entire book. Here is a guy who’s done everything right, so God should definitely be obligated to take care of him…but no. Everything he has is destroyed – not just “my house burned down so I don’t have my photo albums anymore” but like all his kids died. And God allowed his own health to be wrecked. Things never got that bad for us – at least we were all still alive and healthy, no oozing boils to speak of – so really we should be pretty grateful for what we DID have. Like a car to live in if all else failed.

Then there’s Paul. He got off to a rocky start but after that he was like a Christian rock star, God should definitely take care of him…but he spent the rest of his life going from prison to shipwrecks to beatings to stonings to prison to shipwrecks to whippings and so on, until (according to tradition) he got his head chopped off. Somehow God didn’t owe him food or a blanket in prison, but He owes me living quarters that include central air conditioning? I think not.

I know I’ve written about this some before, I’ve just been thinking more about it lately and trying to process my anger over it – anger toward both God and other people. I may not have bought into the idea that God owed me a place to live, or reliable income, but I did buy into the idea that He owed me an explanation for it. (Another churchy platitude – God allows trials in your life to comfort others.) I mean, that is actually in the Bible, I just think it’s been churchified. If my kids died like Job’s, I don’t have a Mickey Mouse hip* what God wants to do with that in the future, I would be really pissed at Him – and anyone who tried to comfort me by telling me I could help other grieving parents down the road. Who cares about that? The point is, He doesn’t owe me an explanation for that season in our lives any more than He owed me a way out.

He wasn’t less God when all 7 of Job’s kids died. He wasn’t less God when Paul was getting 39 lashes…again. And He isn’t less God if I don’t have a home. My circumstances may not be what I want but they have no effect on His abilities – just because He doesn’t do what I want doesn’t mean He’s not capable of it. And He’s not accountable to me to explain why He does (or doesn’t do) the things He does.

*One of Jake’s friends in France said that once. He was trying to say “give a rat’s ass.”

The whole reason Jesus came was to die…so, if Herod had succeeded in killing him when he was small, would it have been as redemptive as the cross? Was the redemption in the actual blood, or in the willingness to lay down his life? Because if it was the blood – which seems more theologically correct – in theory Herod could have succeeded and, redemptively speaking, it wouldn’t have made a difference.

Also, with my son a full-blown toddler, I am curious to know what Jesus was like at this age. Since he was sinless, did he throw tantrums? If he did, that would mean that my son’s screaming and hitting and crying are merely a developmental phase, something to just ride out…if he didn’t, then I am dealing with sin in my child’s little heart and that requires a much more proactive stance. (It sounds silly but really, theology can strongly affect your parenting. I have some friends who don’t believe in depravity – basically, that everyone is sinful – and instead think that everyone is mostly good. The way they discipline their children is wildly different from how I expect I will discipline mine, because I do believe people are born with a sinful nature.) And if he didn’t throw tantrums, can you imagine Mary’s horror at her other kids’ behavior when they came along? When really, they were just being normal (probably sinful) kids.

I was reminded this past week of an unfortunate event that took place in our area earlier this year. The original idea was grand – shoes would be donated for extremely poverty-stricken children in Central America. And some artsy people would decorate shoes and “auction” them and the proceeds would be sent to these children.

Then the event’s vision and purpose was re-directed. Instead of sending the actual shoes, all the donated shoes would be auctioned and the money would go to purchasing shoes locally for the children (this is a great idea, to support the local economy). Except…the idea became really muddled. I visited a women’s small group just before this event and was dismayed to learn that it was a crafting day for them. I am not opposed to crafting in general; I just don’t do it. Because I suck at it. Anyway so some of the ladies’ daughters had a party to “decorate” these shoes for the event, and this small group session was dedicated to “fixing” the “decorated” shoes. Basically you had a bunch of scuzzy flip flops with rhinestones and bows hot-glued on, with an ungodly amount of glittery puff paint. (Let me be clear: any amount of puffy paint is ungodly. Any amount of glitter is ungodly. Glittery puff paint is, by definition, ungodly.) And one of the moms cheerfully reassured us that “All the shoes that aren’t ‘bought’ (because let’s face it, some of these won’t be bought) will be donated to poor people here!” and I was utterly aghast because THESE SHOES WERE AWFUL. Awful, awful, awful. They were ugly and old and dirty…and that was before the rhinestones.

And you know what? Poor people deserve better than that. Because they are PEOPLE. And if you wouldn’t be caught dead in a pair of shoes, you and your mother should be ashamed that you would even consider dumping them off on the less fortunate. Poor women want to be pretty just as much as rich ones, they just choose (hopefully) to feed their kids instead of reveling in the heavenly goodness of cashmere. Just after high school I participated in a tornado relief effort and part of that was sorting donations. And I almost threw up – which is saying something, I have a fairly sturdy digestive system – at some of the things people would donate. Like, disco outfits. IT WAS THE YEAR 2000. Disco had been dead for quite some time. But the worst, the absolute worst, was the used underwear. There I was, 17 or 18, with a few part-time jobs and fully cognizant of how scarce money can be at times…and I was furious that people would take underwear off their unwashed bodies and put them in a bag to donate. For just a few dollars, you can buy a 6-pack of underwear at Wal-Mart. Even I, at 17, could afford that.

It is disgusting to me that anybody – but ESPECIALLY Christians – think that recipients should be grateful for an item for the mere reason that they didn’t have it before. “Well, they should be grateful to get these worn-out shoes with rhinestones hot-glued everywhere, because they don’t have any shoes.” Shoes that incite shame are not much of an improvement over no shoes. Your attitude should be more like, “Well, I shudder to think of putting these on my feet so I can only imagine that everyone else would be just as horrified to wear them. Instead, I’ll give something I would like to receive.” If you are going to give to the poor, or a disaster relief effort, imagine that your best friend’s house just burned down and they have nothing. Now you may go to Wal-Mart, or Target, or wherever, and pick out the underwear and socks you would get for your friend who has none. If you are too good to shop at Wal-Mart or would be embarrassed for your friend to think/know that you shop at Wal-Mart, then go wherever you would go to clothe your friend in need. I don’t think God is very impressed when we say “Oh, I’ll get this to give away because it’s so cheap” (I have overheard some of this as people purchase things to donate for Christmas). But He probably IS happy when we say, “I would have LOVED to get this toy as a kid – heck, I would still love to get it – so I’ll get this one for my Christmas kid instead of the thing that costs $2 and will probably break before you can get all those maddening twisty-ties off it.”

Donating should be giving a gift. If you’re not proud enough of something to wrap it up and give it to someone who knows you, someone with a face and a name, then you have no business donating it to a poor family at Christmas. And if you are a Christian, you are called to give good gifts – because God gives good gifts, and you’re supposed to be trying to be like Him. Please don’t give trash to people and think you’re being generous and participating in “the spirit of the season,” and PLEASE don’t say you’re doing it in honor of Jesus.

Today Jake & I visited a new church in the area. I was ok with it until the pastor went off on a tangent about missions. He said he did not believe in “short-term mission trips” here and there, scattered, but instead believes a church should adopt an area and go back, year after year, to build relationships with the people and pastors and educators and so forth. I fully support that. He said the church hadn’t picked an area yet, but he suspected it would be a certain South American country, because there is a church of that nationality that meets on their campus, and that would be a fantastic resource for them: these people would know their way around, would have connections, and could teach them the language. I started to get concerned, because if a church body hasn’t agreed on something like this a pastor doesn’t have any business announcing his personal opinion from the pulpit. That’s cause for “discipline” in an elder-led church. But then he said, very passionately, “And we’re not gonna go to the Southlake [wealthy] area! We’re gonna go to the poorest part, to some hellhole where people need the gospel…” and I checked out. Because I was PISSED. OFF.

Somehow American Christians have bought into this idea that working among the poor is somehow more noble, more spiritual, than working among the middle class, or the wealthy. Maybe it’s the modern Protestant version of penance, I don’t know. Or maybe we just flipped what the church was doing in James, and are now showing preference to the poor – which is still sin. But there’s this idea that poor people need Jesus more than rich ones, and so those who give up everything to go live in an inner city – or, even more impressively, a slum – are doing more for God’s kingdom than my friends who are struggling to make ends meet in the suburbs. Where, I would point out, God has clearly placed them, at least for now. This theme of “go join the poor” is popular at their church too, and every time someone says something to the effect of “If you’re not living in the ghetto you’re not in God’s will” they’re like, “BUT WHAT IF GOD CALLS YOU TO THE SUBURBS?” What will happen there when the salt and light flees for a more hip locale?

I don’t think it’s bad to go to a poverty-stricken area, either for repeated short-term trips or for a lifetime – but if you are doing it because you think that somehow the souls of the poor matter more to Jesus than the souls of the rich, then I would strongly suggest you reconsider because it looks suspiciously like you are trying to earn greater favor with God, to rack up more brownie points by doing something “difficult,” or because you get more points for a poor person’s salvation. And I also think that picking a place for your church to partner with based solely on its level of poverty looks suspiciously like poverty tourism.

While we’re on the subject of things being “difficult,” I submit that a “hellhole,” as this pastor so eloquently put it, may in fact be an easier mission field than one where people do not have such visible, pressing needs. When you are locked in a daily struggle for food – and I mean ANY food, not just getting a store to triple your coupon – someone coming along and telling you that the Almighty God cares about you and can provide for your needs, that sounds really appealing. (And on a side note: trusting God to provide one’s physical needs does not, in fact, constitute salvation. I am merely saying when life is physically difficult, you are acutely aware that you need all the help you can get.) But when someone is perfectly able to meet their own needs, thankyouverymuch, you are faced with the problem of convincing them of their spiritual poverty. When someone literally lives in a garbage dump, I would assume they have a better framework for understanding “This is how you are on the inside, without Jesus” than the guy who has a flatscreen and a car that gives him directions and a phone that can tell him what clothes to wear based on the weather forecast. How do you explain spiritual destitution to someone with a thousand channels in their cable package and some horrifyingly expensive reds in their custom wine rack?

(Note: I am by no means demeaning mission work in impoverished areas. I am trying to illustrate that different types of mission efforts are difficult in different ways. Working among the poor might be physically difficult but spiritually rewarding, while working among the more wealthy might be physically easy but spiritually difficult. Jesus Himself said, after meeting with the rich young man, that it is particularly difficult for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God. But He also loved the young man, and He also said that it IS possible – even for the wealthy – to enter God’s kingdom.)

Yes, people who live in a hellhole need the gospel. But so do people who live in expensive apartments. And so do people who have 74 acres in the country, and so do members of the royal family, and so do single moms, and so do your next door neighbors…it’s everyone. We will all be equally empty-handed when we stand before God. All people need the gospel, and their income doesn’t change the value of their souls.

I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately. This is probably at least in part due to Jon Foreman’s Fall EP getting some very substantial play time in my car (although it’s not as death-centric as Winter, just pensive) but also because I went to a funeral last weekend for a 6-week old baby. It was my 16-month-old son’s third funeral; at that rate I don’t see a way to raise him without a keen awareness of mortality. It is easy to say “she was too young,” but what you really mean is she didn’t die of old age. Every single one of us – 6 weeks old, 29 years old, 76 years old – we’re all exactly old enough to die. Whatever comes after death is just one breath away, one heartbeat away for me and for everyone I love. This is very sobering.

I have also been pondering the custom of making a memorial service/funeral upbeat. This is understandable when the deceased has lived a life worth celebrating – I have been to funerals of even those who were “too young” that were a genuine celebration of their life and faith – but it seems to happen even in cases where there is not much to celebrate. For example, a few years ago I attended the funeral of a man in my extended family. Many years before, when this man was young, his mother died and he demanded his share of the entire estate – effectively telling his father he wished he were dead, too. And he had nothing to do with the family in the intervening years. But at his funeral, the pastor – who didn’t know this man, as he hadn’t attended any church – kept talking about what a great guy he was and how he loved his family and what a strong faith he had. Maybe this guy did love his wife and two dogs but he sure didn’t love the rest of his family. I kept looking around, thinking someone should stand up and call the guy a liar and wondering why we were all just sitting there, accepting his words even though we all knew he wasn’t telling the truth. It was just communal make-believe, I assume to make the widow and the guy’s parents feel better.

This funeral for the baby – this pastor said that it was a day for celebrating, because she was in a better place. He spoke words of comfort to the parents, assuring them that they had done everything possible to care for the gift entrusted to them by God. I had/have 2 problems with this: 1. the cause of death had not yet been released, and the surrounding circumstances were somewhat suspicious, so unless this guy was also the coroner I don’t think it’s appropriate to state with certainty that either parent was not at fault and 2. the father wasn’t even there because he was in prison. Do you know how awkward it is to hear someone repeatedly address an absentee in a public speech? It’s awkward. This time I kept thinking someone should point out to him that Dad can’t hear you, you can stop talking to him. Once again it was a man of the cloth just running his mouth to make the people on the front row feel better.

I’m not sure what is the right thing to do. It would be really depressing to go to a funeral and hear “This guy squandered his life. He was selfish and treated special people like crap, and it is possible he is burning in hell.” Or, “There are so many things this child will never get to do. And that is really, really sad.” But it’s not really encouraging to hear things you know aren’t true, either. I think it does a great disservice to the afterlife beliefs of Christianity (which are, after all, the point of Christianity) to treat death so lightly that it doesn’t faze you to lie about it to a room full of hurting, questioning people.

There is a “nature center” in the neighborhood we are staying in. It’s a little piece of wooded area, a protected reminder of what the land here used to look like before the sprawling houses, manicured lawns, fences to keep everyone to themselves, and all the concrete. I run there on the days I get to but half the purpose of running is to get lost in my thoughts so I don’t always notice. But today I took Asher there so the child can experience something besides air conditioned shelter and I saw. I saw the brown leaves covering the path though it’s nowhere near autumn, heard them crunch underfoot. I saw the trees drooping with withered leaves, ready to give up. I saw the the line where the water in the pond should be, feet above where it is. I saw the sandbar where the water had retreated to expose part of the pond bottom. I saw the creek so dry Moses and the children could cross without needing any manner of miracle.

I felt like I was looking at my heart, dry and withering, little pond of faith shrinking and leaving cracked dry ground behind, like lips split and parched. I looked at the ground and I know, from flash floods in my memory, that a lot of rain all together will not help much; the hardened ground does not remember how to accept the water. It needs a slow, gentle, steady rain that falls for days and days to soak in first, to softly prepare it for the moisture to come. As much as I would LOVE for a swirl of miracles to magically end this chapter in my life, maybe it won’t be like that. Maybe it will be small things, hardly noticeable at first, gentle graces that begin the healing and change.

Send some rain, would You send some rain?
‘Cause the earth is dry and needs to drink again
And the sun is high and we are sinking in the shade
Would You send a cloud, thunder long and loud?
Let the sky grow black and send some mercy down
Surely You can see that we are thirsty and afraid

But maybe not, not today
Maybe You’ll provide in other ways
And if that’s the case

We’ll give thanks to You, with gratitude
For lessons learned in how to thirst for You
How to bless the very sun that warms our face
If you never send us rain

(But, Jesus, would You please?)

– Nichole Nordeman, “Gratitude”

I don’t want to give thanks. I don’t want to give thanks for the sun when even the sky seems faded from its rays and my skin feels seared just from walking outside. I don’t want to thank God for providing when it doesn’t look anything like what I want it to. (One of my favorite lines from a song is “This is not what I thought I had been praying for” and I always found the irony humorous…until now.) But I am trying. I am trying because maybe the action will train my heart in the correct response, though it doesn’t feel natural. And maybe it will keep my heart just soft enough to receive the miracle of grace when it comes.

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