Saturday, August 24, 2013

Dry Lawns and Promises

I mowed the lawn today. It's that time of year when everything is slowing down; it's drier and the grass isn't shooting up every week. I get to the end of a row and turn, and second-guess. Did I mow that line already? Or is it the line left from a week ago? And so I mow it again, just in case, and by the time I decide the yard is finished, I am hot and sweaty, longing for refreshment...and I am not satisfied that I really succeeded in mowing the lawn.

Today I feel like death is becoming that way to me. I've seen it before. It's happened before. I'm tired of it; tired of the grief, tired of the pain, the ramifications. I am resigned. It is the same line mowed over and over, and it doesn't seem to benefit anyone or anything. There is no refreshment. I am apathetic. It is old and dry.

But then I think of Job who suffered death and grief beyond anything I can imagine, and I hear his words, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him," and I know I believe it. The words from a new song by Andy Gullahorn repeat over and over in my mind:
They say God listens to our prayers,
When you're suffering, He holds you.
I don't feel Him anywhere,
That doesn't make it any less true.
 I listened to those words earlier this week, and while I was hit by the stark truth I wondered, "How do I prove that to people? How do I say, 'Yes, this is the God I believe in, and I do not doubt Him'?"

My friend Joann died yesterday morning after a brief battle with cancer, a form of leukemia. Hers was a hopeful case, despite the shock of it to her and all of us who called her friend. The doctors caught it early, she started chemo and responded well. On top of that, her two brothers were a 100% match for a bone marrow transplant. Despite the hiccups, really, everything looked toward a healthy, hopeful recovery. We rejoiced with her, we prayed with her. We prayed for her husband and young son, for her extended family. She and her husband encouraged us with their trust in God's hand, no matter what.

And then a few weeks after the transplant, her husband sent out word that Joann was sick. And then we got the word that the cancer had returned and it was acute. Then a coma...then death. No miracle of healing. No grand stories. The same old, same old specter swept in and dried the field. One more notch on the death belt.

I'm writing this out of grief. I'm not angry or bitter. I'm tired, yes. I feel like I'm going over the same row that I've already mowed. I wish Joann's story had the ending of another young mom I heard about last week who had had stage 4 cancer, but has recently received a clean bill of health. The doctors can't find any trace of cancer in her body. I know that God can do that. I've believed it for Joann. I wonder if I needed to hear about this other mom last week so that I could remember God's sovereignty and omnipotence. Joann didn't die because He's not capable of miracles and of healing.

So why did she die? I don't know. But I know I trust God and that His promises are true:
"I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die," Jesus said to Martha after her brother Lazarus died. (John 11:25 & 26)
"Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you." (Deuteronomy 31:6)
"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)
"I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." (John 16:33)
"For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope." (Romans 15:4)
As I've been writing this, I've glanced out my window at our vegetable garden. While the lawn may be dry and slow-growing at this point of the summer, the garden is lush with fruit. Ruby tomatoes weigh down emerald branches, waiting for me to reach out, pluck them and enjoy the burst of tangy sweetness. They will refresh my body as God's promises refresh my spirit.

In the midst of suffering, there is always hope. I know that if God's promises were only true when they played out the way I think they should, or when I feel them, they wouldn't be promises, and God wouldn't be God. I will trust Him and enjoy the fruit that He has for me.




Friday, August 02, 2013

Parables and Seeking Truth

This morning I read Jesus' parable of the sower and the seed in the book of Mark, chapter 4, followed by the final chapter of Through a Screen Darkly, by Jeffrey Overstreet, and some thoughts converged. Always a little dangerous, I know, especially because these converging thoughts led me back to a conversation from my student-teaching days, which is now about twenty years ago. Time flies and all that.

Anyway, it wasn't the parable itself that hit me this morning, it was the context surrounding it. After Jesus told the story, his disciples pulled him aside and said, "Um, so what do you mean?" I love that, because it's such a human response, and so often my response. "Would you mind giving that to me line by line? I didn't catch it." In Jesus' response I can imagine him shaking his head a little sadly, maybe even in frustration. At one point he says, "But if you can't understand this story, how will you understand all the others I am going to tell?"

Immediately before that, he says something that seems absolutely insane.
"You are permitted to understand the secret about the Kingdom of God. But I am using these stories to conceal everything about it from outsiders, so that the Scriptures might be fulfilled:
'They see what I do, but they don't perceive its meaning. They hear my words, but they don't understand. So they will not turn from their sins and be forgiven.'" (Mark 4:11&12, NLT)
He used the stories to conceal things from outsiders so that Scripture could be fulfilled? What kind of loving God would do something like that? Why wouldn't He desire people to turn from their sins and be forgiven? Why wouldn't He make things so clear that even a child could get it?

I've gone over these verses many times over the years, I've heard good sermons preached about them, and even though I get them on one level, I find I have to think through them all over again when I return to them. I have to go back to who I know God to be based on all of Scripture: He is loving. He does not desire any to perish. He provided the one and only way for us to be rescued from self-destruction: Jesus. The problem is mostly that Jesus himself is an enigma, a stumbling block. And God is, too.

So Jesus told stories. And really, that was the best way to make his truth so clear that a child could get it. How many times have my kids truly understood things because they heard a story rather than a lecture? It's just that as adults we tend to hear a story and scoff, "Well, that's just a tale. Let me give you reality."

In his final chapter of Through a Screen Darkly, Jeffrey Overstreet hones in on a point he's made throughout his book: that the art of cinema is one that can lead us to the truth that is in Christ and in God. If we will see it, though, we have to actively engage it rather than letting it wash over us. Sure there is a place for pure entertainment, but much of movie-making is an art, and Truth (with a capital T) can be found in some of the strangest places. He writes how he is encouraged to see more Christians engaging this art with thoughtful intention, and as a result, engaging our culture more effectively.

Overstreet talks about a Christian arts festival he attended that showed films from Flickerings 2003, a venue for short films by Christians with strict limitations. Some of the restrictions included "Refrain from the use of popular religious symbols, including the cross. No church scenes. No conclusions that involve a conversion to Christianity," etc.
By these rules, Flickerings' founder coaxed Christian artists away from the simplistic, didactic, sentimental and condescending qualities often found in contemporary Christian art and entertainment, nudging them toward the language of metaphor. This unsettled some artists. they worried that viewers wouldn't "get their message." It's true--some didn't get their message, but some did. And some got more than the filmmakers had ever meant to convey. (p. 328)
 And I thought of the disciples asking Jesus for a translation, and Jesus telling stories so only those truly seeking him would "get it" (and even then we have to ask a lot of questions--which builds our relationship with him...I wonder if that's on purpose). And I remembered teaching the Medieval morality play Everyman to a group of Christian high school seniors. We delved into the story Everyman portrayed--a good-works-saves-you story, and we talked about the culture of that time where the majority of people couldn't read the Bible for themselves so had to rely on these defective plays for biblical understanding. One of my students asked, "But if this is all they had, how could they learn the truth?" It's a question that has resonated with me ever since, because I see so many things in our world that don't present the truth. I mean, most Christians don't present the truth, whether through words or conduct. We are certainly a faulty picture of Christ.

But God is actively at work, and His Truth is inescapable for any seeking it, no matter how badly the tale is told. And as believers, we need to let Him tell the tale through us, which may mean that our own lives will be strange stories that will either draw or repel others. I wonder, too, in this day and age where the written word is undervalued and visual media is the primary source of information and entertainment, if movies are the modern parables and morality tales.

The Truth is there for those who seek it.

"He who has an ear, let him hear."


Thursday, June 27, 2013

Seeing Things Darkly, Seeing Things Clearly

There's nothing like seeing random thoughts, memories, experiences, and a movie collide. It happened to me yesterday. I'm not sure what I expected would happen, but apparently that's what did. I'm still sorting it all out.

I'm reading Jeffrey Overstreet's Through a Screen Darkly: Looking Closer at Beauty, Truth and Evil in the Movies. Even better, I'm reading it as part of an online discussion group with whom I've read some other fabulous books this past year such as The Mind of the Maker which I reviewed last summer. Add to this fun, the author is contributing to the discussion, which makes for intriguing interactions. Overstreet wrote movie reviews for Christianity Today for a number of years, and his work still involves movie criticism, but he's also a gifted author and has written a terrific fantasy series, The Aurelia Thread.

So to say the least, the book is amazing. I have never been a connoisseur of movies; Kraig and I typically watch videos that require little brain engagement--something we can watch at night after the kids are in bed and we're doing some jobs that require hands and not brains (folding laundry, anyone?). But I do like to dissect things--I've always enjoyed literary criticism, or art, and dissecting movies is no different. Also, even though my movie viewing is fairly lightweight, I am always evaluating what I see and holding it up against the grid of what I believe. This book helps challenge that and is forcing me to think more.

It has also piqued my interest to see movies I would never have thought to watch, and why, yesterday, I clicked on a YouTube link to watch the 2004 documentary, Born Into Brothels. You just never know what kind of dangerous territory you may enter when you read, "Jennie knew, as I and so many others have discovered, that Zana Briski's documentary is bursting with joyful surprises and unforgettable characters. She knew that the darkness of the context only makes the lights flare out all the brighter, making this a veritable Fourth of July extravaganza." (p. 188)

The "unforgettable characters" of this film are the children of prostitutes in the Calcutta red light district. Briski, a photographer, went there in order to record and spread the word of the dire straights people live in in this part of the world. What she hadn't counted on was the curiosity of the children, and she ended up handing out cameras to these kids and teaching them photography. In the process, she saw their world through their eyes, and she recorded it for all the world to see. Overstreet writes, "Even sinful behavior, seen through the lens of a child, can tune the delicate intruments of our hearts so we see things the way they should be. By giving us beauty with the ugliness, joy with the pain, laughter with the groans, these revelations give us a vision more complete and more affecting than any slideshow of poverty and pain half a world away" (p. 189).

The beauty is inescapable. The eyes of these children are dark liquid pools that sparkle to life as they grin. When they are solemn, you feel the weight of their lives. They have wisdom beyond their years and certainly beyond their academic education. And yet it was like they were my Indian neighbors' children who play with my kids. This girl and boy are the children of affluent, educated parents who can travel back to India to see family every couple years. Yet they are as spiritually needy as the children born into brothels, and they have the same beauty as any creation of God. I was humbled, as I thought of how, more often than not, I'm annoyed by these two kids who tend to push my patience, show up at inconvenient times, and get into fights with my kids even as they long to play with them and be friends.

These children of the brothels were like the brother and sister I've been taking to VBS last week and this who live in the apartment complex within a mile of our home. It's a low-income complex that I've known only by reputation for eighteen years until I drove into it for the first time last week. I've gotten to know some of these kids and their parents through my daughter's school, but only at school, not at their homes. In the past couple weeks, I've had to evaluate my attitude. When I drove there after seeing this film yesterday, my mind kept superimposing images of chaotic Calcutta over the neat, quiet townhouses in that complex. What stories were the silent rows hiding inside? It made me wonder if the places were really that different...and if they were really that different from my own white-collar neighborhood. No, I don't live in a city of millions packed in tight quarters, much less even have remote experience with brothels, but isn't my hometown as lost as Calcutta? Aren't the children at my kids' school and in our neighborhood made in the image of God as much as the children that Zana Briski connected with? What am I doing to touch their lives? Am I doing all that I can to seek the beauty in them and help them connect to the Giver of True Beauty?

I am awash with this storm of thoughts and am still trying to process this. It was all so familiar, perhaps in part because there were cultural bits in the film that reminded me so much of my childhood in the Philippines. And I think it was also familiar because it was such a true picture of humanity. The joy in the film made the sorrow that much more poignant and real. So much more something that must be opposed.

I'm praying that I will be faithful to what God wants me to do to take part in this battle.






Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Return of Brown Bear

 I didn't expect to have a sequel to our story, much less such a happy ending. But God has a way of surprising us with joy, particularly when it fosters our children's faith in Him.

Yesterday morning I got a call from the secretary at Clare's school.

"You were the ones who lost the bear, right?" Ms. D asked. "Have you found him?"

I told her we hadn't.

"Well, I think we may have him. When I came in this morning, there was a bear on my desk. Is your bear tan with eyes you can barely see?"

"Um, kind of. Maybe it's him! We'll come check!"

I tried to keep the kids and me grounded as we got ready to go to the school. "It may not be him," I warned. "After all, he's not really tan, more caramel." (And it's an elementary school where kids often bring their stuffed friends, and it has been a week-and-a-half...) But there was a chance! Evie and Jon discussed the pros and cons.

Eventually Jon and I arrived at the office; he dashed to the door while I followed with bated breath. We stepped inside...and there was Brown Bear, looking fit as ever, and waiting patiently for a little boy to swoop him up in a death-grip hug.

Where Brown Bear has hidden this past week is a mystery. Jon informed me that Brown Bear had come down in a space ship to Clare's school, but I haven't seen the space ship. Maybe it's hidden by an improbability field.

"Where was he while he was gone?" I asked Jon.

"At a fwend's house," Jon said.

So there you have it.

But can I just say, it's hard to find something sweeter than this:



Saturday, June 08, 2013

A Boy and His Bear

Last Monday our family experienced one of those tragedies that every mother prays will never happen: the loss of a lovey. Jon's dearly-loved teddy, Brown Bear, went missing, and we have not been able to find him.


Brown Bear joined our family about ten years ago when he was given to Keren after one of her hospital visits. He was a soft, cuddly creature with a royal blue shirt from Kohl's Kids to Children's Hospital of Detroit. Over the years he sat on shelves, adorned beds, and got stuffed away in bins. Then last year, somehow, magically, like the Velveteen Rabbit, he became Jon's favorite and was dubbed "Brown Bear."

Brown Bear and Jon have had many adventures, and this is not the first time Brown Bear has performed a disappearing act. Typically, though, we've known exactly where he was and he was brought home post-haste. He's spent a day at Jon's buddy Michael's house. He's done two overnights at Grammy and Poppa's (partying with the stuffed friends there, I told Jon). His latest shenanigans involved staying at Jon's cousins' up north...though thankfully Grandma and Grandpa were returning a day later than us and could bring him home. So yes, Brown Bear is a little sneaky. But this time he pulled a trick that none of us can solve.

When we realized Monday night that Brown Bear had gone missing, I wasn't too concerned. I thought through our events of the afternoon (which, unfortunately, involved at least two outings) and tried to remember when I'd last seen our plush friend. Maybe he'd been left at Clare's school playground when we picked her up? Maybe he'd snuck into Mrs. Donna's house when we went for Clare's piano lesson? My mind was a blank. Jon, thankfully, went to bed without a problem and barely asked after his friend.

Tuesday brought no answers and I tried not to worry...and not to mention the missing bear to Jon who whiled his day away without concern. Wednesday went well, too, but no Brown Bear. It wasn't until Wednesday night that I think Jon realized something was wrong, and as I tucked him in, he started to cry for his bear. It was devastating. It didn't help that I was pretty sad about it, too. I mean, this was Brown Bear we were talking about! He'd been in the family for a decade and was one of those little things that linked Keren and Jon. He was Jon's close companion who cuddled so adorably under Jon's arm and flew so fantastically when thrown in the air. I wanted to burst into tears along with my boy, but knew I had to be strong and help him find something positive in the midst of sadness.

"I think, Jon," I said, "that Brown Bear has gone on another adventure, and this time it's a really big
one. Maybe--" I thought of Jon's favorite naptime audio stories of Winnie-the-Pooh, "Maybe Brown Bear thought that he would be like Winnie-the-Pooh and go on an expotition to the North Pole. Or maybe he's on an expotition to somewhere else exciting since Pooh has already found that."

More tears, but Clare and Ev got in on it adding their ideas as to Brown Bear's adventures. Jon eventually eased off into dreamland and I drew a ragged breath of relief. It was helpful, though, to imagine Brown Bear off on adventures, and I thought maybe I'd start writing some little letters from Brown Bear to Jon. Ideas started percolating.

I was a bit concerned the next day because every time Jon brought up Brown Bear his sisters supplied wild possibilities. Ev called out, "Jon! I got a letter from Brown Bear and he's gone away forever!" Great. Real helpful, Dear. And hey, that letter idea was mine! Clare posed the thought that perhaps he'd been stolen. Another joyful consideration. But little by little, Jon was drawn into the play and soon had Brown Bear shooting off in a space ship. Brown Bear has since joined up with Winnie-the-Pooh and is exploring the 100 Acre Wood, along with other places. The sweetest thing was what I discovered by Jon's head when I went to wake him from his nap that day. During rest time, Evie had created a little book that Brown Bear had "written" to Jon to tell him where he was and how he was doing and how he remembered his time with Jon.

So it would seem that Brown Bear has left our home to adventure out into the wide, wide world. I am thankful for imaginations and love surrounding my little ones here at home so that they can embrace his adventures that salves sore hearts. I will admit, mine still has a bit of an ache. But then I picture Brown Bear headed off to Pooh's house for some honey and sweetened condensed milk, and I can't help but smile.

Ev's Letter from Brown Bear







Sunday, February 17, 2013

Three Things I Have Loved, Four Things I've Adored


Valentine’s Day has come and gone again with varying emotions… Does exhaustion count as an emotion? I’ve felt that way about Valentine’s Day at times over the past few years as my kids bring home a class list of all the valentines they need to write out, and Mom gets to help her dear ones put all of these together and make sure they get to the right place at the right time. Romance? Candlelight dinners with hubby? Not so much. Despite this, I will say there is a lot of love going around, and as crazy as school valentines get, I am thankful for a time to focus on the ones I love.

I am also thankful—so thankful—for the One who loves me most, often in spite of me. I had this paraphrase from Proverbs running through my head the other day: “Three things I have loved, four things I have adored…” In the past month, I ran into three popular ideas that are actually kind of skewed, and was reminded of four truths that I love.

The first idea was “God never promised us a rose garden.” When I heard it, something rang wrong. It’s such a common phrase, and there’s a lot of truth in looking at life realistically and knowing it won’t all be fragrant and beautiful. Yet this time I thought, “But God has promised us a rose garden!” He’s promised us His peace, His love, and in the future, perfect happiness with Him. What’s more rosy than that? The thing is, roses have thorns, and we will experience pain, trials, stretching and suffering along with the beauty as we walk through this life. In fact, the roses are all the more beautiful because of the thorns. They are a vital part of that rose garden God has given us. I love Him for that.

Second, how often have you heard the phrase, “God won’t give you more than you can handle”? It’s always bugged me, but I couldn’t put a finger on why.Then a facebook friend shared a note posted by a woman she knew who had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s at age 38. “Contrary to popular opinion,” the woman with Parkinson’s wrote, “I think that God quite often lets us face more than we can handle, so that when we do get through the hardship, we can say, 'Not me. I didn't do this; it was God.'” That’s it! I love that it’s not about me. It’s about letting God work so people can see His glory and come to know Him.

The third idea seems to dovetail with the other two: I read a blog post called, “The Myth of God’s Unconditional Love.” It was a catchy title, and the content was engaging, but I realized as I read that the theology was off, the author never clearly defined what God’s love was, and his examples lacked context. But I have known ones who believe that we might take one awful misstep and Christ will say, “Sorry. I said I died for you, but that’s one thing too much. You’re out.” I have a problem with this idea. Yes, God is just and sin must be judged. I would never argue that. But that was the whole purpose of Christ’s death—that we can be forgiven because the sin-price was paid. Yes, there will be consequences for sin, even for those who have accepted Christ, but we are held in His hand, sealed with His Spirit, and have the promise that once we are born into His family, He will bring us to maturity. This I love. This I can live for.

And the final thing I love? That even though I feel like the older I get, the less I seem to know, God knows me completely, and loves me. To quote a friend who blogged about this recently: “Jesus knows me, this I love.”

Happy Valentine’s Day! May the truth of these loves go with you in the year to come.

Friday, February 08, 2013

When All Else Fails, Use the Driveway for Sledding


…Though, to tell the truth, nothing actually failed. I was just too lazy to take the kids to a real sledding hill today.


“You should take the kids sledding,” Kraig said as he headed to work this morning, bravely facing a morning commute that would involve snowy roads with an underlying layer of ice that had closed schools for the day.

“Maybe…” I said noncommittally.


It’s not that I haven’t taken the kids sledding before, or that they wouldn’t have behaved well. That wasn’t my concern. We’ve had wonderful outings; just a couple weeks ago we bundled up to meet friends on a lovely, snowy day, and had the snow hill all to ourselves. I was glad we’d made the effort that day. In fact, this year we’ve gotten out more than any other year, taking advantage of real snow. Last year we barely had one snowfall. There was just enough to slide down our driveway.


But there it is. We can sled down our driveway, and today that’s all I wanted to do. It’s not a huge slant, and it makes for a slow slide, but it works when push comes to shove (and trust me, you usually have to do both to get things moving). So when the day flew by with a fairly quiet morning at home, followed by lunch with Grandma and Grandpa, then a dental appointment for Clare, it made sense to enjoy the great outdoors from the comfort of our own driveway. I don’t regret it, and as you can see, the kids didn’t either. Added to the fun was a visit with neighbors we rarely see due to vastly different schedules. Imaginations took flight, sleds slid and slushed, cheeks grew rosy and laughter rippled.


The Warnemuende sledding hill had opened for business.