Speaking Up

With thanks to Reverend Reginald Green.

I was raised to be a nice girl. In my household of origin one of the biggest compliments you could pay a child was to say that they “don’t complain.” For myself, and I’m sure, many little girls out there, being a nice girl was synonymous with being quiet, with grinning and bearing it, with laughing it off.

Well I’m a big girl now, and I’m done laughing it off.

I’ve heard some lament that social media used to be a “fun” place; it used to be a “nice” place. It’s still like that, many times. But as of late, many have made the conscious decision to use the forums that we have to speak up. Because to me, social media can no longer be just fun, no longer be just nice. In an increasingly fragmented society, the current reality is that social media are becoming important meeting-places for civic conversation. At least on my newsfeeds, ideas are shared, articles are dissected; in some 2-D way, we can celebrate together, we can lament together. There’s a lot that is ugly, for sure, but there is a lot that is civil and even fruitful. And this messy back and forth makes up, in part, the hard work of democracy.

Obviously, we cannot contain our conversations to the virtual realm. Even and especially when conflicts arise, it becomes even more important to lean into those conversations and to lean harder into those relationships. To follow up on the phone, to make invitations in person. This is awkward, and it goes against our first inclinations. But this, too, is the hard work of democracy. It’s the work of persuasion –not bludgeoning, intimidation, or mockery – but invitation into entering a different way of thinking. And no one responds favorably to an invitation from somebody they don’t trust.

I have faltered in this, for sure. I have been tempted toward fight or flight, running for cover. I’m grateful for the young woman who tracked me down at church and followed up. I’m grateful for the standing tea date we have. I’m grateful for the local grandma who calls it like she sees it. She’s calling it from a different viewpoint, but I respect that she owns her opinion and doesn’t mince words. I’m grateful for the standing playdate we have for our little girls.

Because here’s the truth about silence: it’s easy. And it when things are hard, the conflict-averse among us want to believe that life is all kittens and rainbows, that the “nice” thing to do is to ignore the unpleasantness. But silence and denial are the best way to stay complicit in the decline of justice. At its most benign, silence perpetuates the status quo; at its worst, silence and its close cousin, tone policing, are used as tools to shut down the marginalized. Silence always serves the privileged.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had much to say on the topic of silence: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”; “To ignore evil is to become accomplice to it”; “We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.” In certain times, in certain places, God has raised up people to speak: we see this in the figure of John the Baptist, the voice crying in the wilderness, calling his people to repentance; we see this in John the disciple, who while exiled on the island of Patmos heeds God’s call to “Write!”; we see this in Jesus himself, who has choice words for the powerful, hypocritical elite, but who blesses the poor in spirit, who speaks gently to the little child, the leper, the criminal, the prostitute. The Jesus who came as an outsider, a stranger in a strange land, a foreigner, an exile.

This is the Jesus of the whole Gospel, the Word made flesh, God incarnate. The Jesus who, when he stood in front of a synagogue for the first time, opened a scroll and read from Isaiah: The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. He did not shy away from our need; he came, he preached, he healed, he died, and he rose again so that we can have hope through him to defeat the evil in this world. As Philippians 2 tells us, Jesus did not stay aloft in his heavenly realm; eschewing power and privilege, he stooped to us, became one of us. He showed up. May we show up where it matters: may we run to the margins; may we stand in solidarity. May we use free speech in all its forms: speaking, writing, organizing, petitioning.

May we speak up. May we preach a whole Gospel as well.

There’s another side of this, too: as quickly as we are wont to speak, we must be twice as ready to listen: to be slow to speak, quick to listen, and slow to get angry. Similarly, the late great Fred Rogers reminds us that “listening is where love begins.” May we listen well to each other’s stories; may we, as Atticus Finch tells Scout, “climb into someone’s skin and walk around in it.” When we listen we cultivate a teachable spirit; indeed, listening, and listening well, is at the heart of humility itself. I’ve heard it said too that what really changes us in the end is the books we read and the people we meet, but this is true only if we listen well, if we are open to change.

May we do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly – ever so humbly – with our God.

The Christianity I know calls us to a gentle and quiet spirit, to proclaim our faith with gentleness and respect. Surely I, and most of us, have a ways to go in cultivating these attributes, and we must repent, repent, repent of the ways we have missed the mark. But gentleness, quietude of spirit, and respect are not disparate from speaking up: in fact, they are inextricable. If we are firm in our convictions, steeled in our desire for shalom, our minds covered in a quiet peace that surpasses understanding, we will be free to treat others as we wish to be treated, free to welcome the stranger. Because perfect love drives out fear, we, out of the abounding love shown in Christ and given through the Holy Spirit, can speak and act not from the shackles of our own self-interested fear but from the freedom of sacrificial love. Fear points us further inward and consumes us; love points us outward to the limitless beauty and potential of the Other, towards true shalom.

That’s why I believe that the true work ahead of us is to press forward in radical love, in conversation and in practice. Do we, as Christians, really believe in “overcoming evil with good”? Do we really believe that when the “light shines in the darkness”, “darkness cannot overcome it”? Do we really believe that “love never fails”? Do we really believe that God can heal the sick, make the blind see, make the lame walk? Do we really believe that God can raise the dead? If so, we can believe that when we speak up for our convictions and speak against evil, when we extend a hand in mercy and generosity, when we stoop down to hand a cup of water to the least of these – that God is there. That for the hard questions about borders and security, the tensions between caution and hospitality, between liberty and equality, that God generously grants wisdom, that our lot is secure, that he will make the boundaries fall in pleasant places. But that, first and foremost, we are a people to whom God has not given a spirit of fear but of power and love and a sound mind.

Truth be told, I’m not that worried about Trump. To me, DJT’s ascension is a reflection of our broken society: we put him up there, we can take him down. What I believe deserves our time and energy is the mobilization of a movement: resistance against, to be sure, and with that the work of restoration for the world that we want to see. A renewed moral vision that requires we pass through the place of dissent and out on the other side to a place of cooperation, a movement through critique and into synthesis, a breaking away from the forces of tyranny and toward, always toward, a more perfect union. It’s hard work, and messy. But I see it happening around me, and because of that I have hope both for our country and for Christianity in America. But for me, it begins with Jesus’s parting words before his ascension: to “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature.” May we fight for the good we want to see. May we never be silent.

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Raising the Resistance

Well, it’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and though that proverbial arc bends towards justice, it still has a ways to go.

That is, more or less, what I told my six-year-old this morning as he was getting ready for the day. How to explain that today we celebrate a hero of resistance and reconciliation, but that there is still so much to resist, so much yet unreconciled? That is the tension we live in, isn’t it: an in-between space of celebration and lament. Too much celebration and you’re living in a delusion; too much lament and you lose sight of hope. The Church, the people of Christ, has a long way to go in fully inhabiting this tension. We want shalom, and we want it now. Too many of us want to believe we are living in a post-problem world. It’s a convenient narrative, to be sure.

My children are mixed; my husband is white, and I’m Asian-American. No pun intended, but it comes with a heritage that is a mixed bag. There are some problems in this world our family can choose to ignore; there are others, however, particular to mixed families. No one yet has asked why mommy’s skin is brown, and daddy’s is fair; no one, yet, has declared that we don’t “match,” as I’ve heard declared about other interracial couples. At this stage of the game, my kids accept their reality. Talk of race is not something to ignore, or something about which to be ashamed; at the same time, we are matter-of-fact about matters of power and discrimination. Days like MLK Jr. Day are a convenient entry point into these conversations, but they can’t be the only entry point. The story of racism and ongoing complicity of privilege is not just for the history books, it is current events: it is the air we breathe. And we all want to raise just, upright, law-abiding citizens: some of us, I dare say, want to raise fighters, resisters, revolutionaries. People who do not normalize hate but who fight for the good. Lord knows we need it in these times.

How to do this? I’m learning, for sure. The other day I sat in a lecture where the speaker drew a favorite analogy of Christian speakers everywhere. It’s about counterfeit money. It goes something like this: People who are learning how to detect counterfeit bills don’t spend a lot of time learning about what fake money looks like. Instead, they spend their time studying real money. That way, when a counterfeit comes along, they will know in their gut it doesn’t add up. They’ll have been so familiar with the real deal that they can spot a counterfeit easily.

It struck me at that moment that raising children is the same way. How do we keep them on the straight and narrow?, we ask. How do we make sure we are raising adults with integrity, compassion, and courage? From the time they are in utero, it seems, we wring our hands over the choices they have yet to make on the school bus, on the playground, at the frat party. And beyond.

It makes my head spin to worry about these yawning futures. Intuitively, we know that they work we do today, day in, day out, somehow informs those choices they will make down the road. And whether we realize it or not, the way we are living our lives in front of them today is teaching them: this is real.  The way we parent, the way we do marriage, the way we show masculinity (toxic and fragile or secure and self-giving?), the way we show femininity (passive and manipulative or courageous and gracious?): this is real. The values with which we surround them help inform their vision of the good life, whether it be security, success, material wealth, pleasure, justice, inclusion, faith.

It goes deeper than that. The communities that we choose to have them in shape their idea of who gets to be included, and, more tellingly, who gets excluded. The authorities they know in their lives tell them who gets to have power: Is it men? Are there women? What is the color of their skin? The accent with which they speak – northeastern American, or are other voices important to be heard? Other languages?

One of the many reasons I love my church is that it is really good at having different voices up front. The pastor has the leading voice, of course, but those who pray, who give testimonies, who invite the congregation into mission and service, and yes, those who preach: they are men, and they are women. They are white, and they are black and Asian and Latino. It is not perfect; no church is. But for Easton, CT, that’s a pretty diverse roundtable. It goes further than checking off the race box, even the gender box: it’s about authority, and it’s about power, and who gets to share in it. Power, I argue, is the real issue of our day.

My aforementioned oldest, the six year old, loves power. Of course he does; he is a little boy. He loves superheroes and policemen and ninjas. For a while there, much of his dinner table conversation revolved around a TV show about Lego ninjas. For a while there, it was fine. Kind of boring, but fine.

Most boys will want ninjas and Batman and Optimus Prime in their lives: that’s inevitable, and a harmless part of being a kid in our culture.  These figures send messages about heroism that are generally benign; I have even been known to quote Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben: “With great power comes great responsibility.” But we ought not stop there. The stories we give our children, even in childhood, shape their sense of the good life and how to participate in it. So why not populate their imaginations with real life heroes who resisted evil and shared their power and fought on the side of justice? These are the stories that will shape their vision of what is real: what is good, and what is worth fighting for. And, with that, what it looks like when people miss the mark, and how to respond to it.

One book we’ve gotten as a hand-me-down, the Children’s Book of Heroes, is a beautiful look at heroes through time: historical ones, like Abraham Lincoln., Mother Teresa, Annie Sullivan, and Jackie Robinson, as well as fictional ones, like Odysseus, a knight named Sir Roland, and a little black girl named Tashira.

And then there are the Magic Treehouse books, for which Sam has fallen hard, and he’s gotten his three-and-a-half year old sister obsessed, too. These books about a time-traveling brother and sister pair are so good that they’ve basically come to form the backbone of the Language Arts, Social Studies and Science aspects of our homeschool. Through the Magic Treehouse series, Sam has learned about figures like Squanto, George Washington, and Clara Barton; he’s introduced to a staggeringly broad swath of history from the Ice Age to Pompeii to the Civil War and beyond.

As with anything, there is much to critique about the Magic Treehouse, but the books have provided a handy starting point in our conversations. Just this morning, I asked Sam, in not so many words, why he thought racism was a problem during the time of the Civil War. “Because… they liked having slaves,” he replied slowly, the wheels visibly turning. And yes, doesn’t power like to maintain itself? It’s a conversation that is ongoing, but we’ve started it. Because institutionalized racism and the maintenance of power are not one-off conversations to be had on the third Monday in January. In fact, to reserve the conversation for times like these are to distort our children’s understanding of the nature of racism itself, of the insidiously corrupting nature of power itself. It’s the air we breathe. And to ignore these issues is like living in a smog-filled room your whole life, without ever knowing how fresh the air could be outside. Or pulling others out into the fresh air with you.

In these early years, raising the resistance is a delicate matter. We ride that tension of despair and hope, celebration and lament; they are so small that feeding them too steady a diet of either is unhealthy. But that’s exactly why we train them up in the way they should go: we point them in the right direction, we populate their lives and their imaginations with heroes who don’t ignore nor buckle under evil, but overcome it. And we parse out our wisdom in doses, as they are ready, as they mature; we talk honestly about the issues of our times, the way power is abused, the way groups are marginalized. We equip them with stories and with strategies. We teach them to pray. We feed them the Word that reminds them to welcome the stranger, to love your enemy, to pray for those who persecute you, to lay down your life for others as Christ did for you. To rely on the Holy Spirit in all of these things.

We want them to have such a rich, steadfast vision of the Good that they are so accustomed to it, that they are satisfied only under those conditions, that they simply cannot stand the bad, that they must work to change it. That in places of power they look around and notice there are people missing, and invite them in. That under oppression they resist, and persuade others to do the same.  That they, like Christ, will do this under great cost to themselves.

When it is tempting to fall into despair over the state of things, we remember Fred Roger’s exhortation to “Look for the helpers.” With due respect to Mr. Rogers, I want to add to that: “Be the helpers. And raise them up.” In a world that is hurt and hurting, fight for the shalom. If we raise them right, they will, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finding God in the Everyday: What Mary Taught Me

For weeks now, I have tried to write. My computer is filled with half-drafts of mediocre writing on promising topics, all abandoned for lacking sufficient amounts of pathos. I think maybe I’m one of those writers that writes best when in the midst of a bout of drama. Last Advent season, my nerves were afire with a desperation befitting the season and with personal indignations, large and small. (It doesn’t take much.) And I wrote.

But this season is not like that. It is one of those seasons when life is chugging along just, well, fine. Our new baby David is two and a half months old, sleeping (thank the Lord), and impossibly gorgeous, which doesn’t hurt. After the initial shakeup of a new baby plus starting homeschooling (a topic for another post) and a hospitalization within the same two-week span, we have settled into that sort of rhythm in which moderate amounts of productivity are punctuated with the general joys and annoyances of having four kids six and under. If you’re not sure what this means, here it is: one moment, you are having this amazing conversation with your six-year-old on the Book of Revelation (!!), or keeping your overzealous two-year-old from affectionately trampling his baby brother all while he murmurs savagely, sweetly, “Best fwends, best fwends.” The next moment, you are whipping around furiously in your kitchen just trying to get the creamer into the coffee while the newborn screams in his bouncy seat, the three year old spills her milk and you cross to the other counter only to find you are out of paper towels, while simultaneously stepping on raisins. But the hubby put in a shiny new sink this week, so there’s that. In general, I can’t complain.

How is one supposed to write under these conditions?

At this time of year, my thoughts always turn to Mary, the mother mild. Or so says Christmas lore. The Bible tells us that she is “highly favored” – in all our minds this translates to docile, doe-eyed, invariably lovely. We picture her sitting up shyly in her bedchamber (Christmas stories require elevated diction such as “bedchamber”), gazing with maidenly apprehension at the angel Gabriel. Or we might picture her dutifully attending to housework, like sweeping an already immaculate kitchen floor. Mary is tame, and we like her that way.

What I have been thinking about recently is what life must have been like for Mary before the momentous arrival of that angel. How, in her pubescence, she must have been busy with wedding preparations. How she must have been calculating in her mind the tremendous life change she was about to face, going from someone’s daughter to being somebody’s wife, the cost of it, the weight. All the while, she never could have anticipated such a thing as an angel’s arrival, a message from heaven itself, that she would bear the Messiah.

I like to think of Mary as thick-skinned, steely, a fighter. I mean, you’d have to be to live the life she lived, the stable birth, child being the Messiah, all of that. But it’s evident hers was a strength borne of submission to what God was asking of her and a faith in his promise that He would make her able. He said, You’ll get pregnant. Like any of us in her position, she asked, stammeringly, How? He said, The Holy Spirit. She said, Sounds good.

This kind of openness does not happen suddenly. This wasn’t the beginning of God’s work in her life. Mary had been pursued by her heavenly Father since before she could understand it. In her life, he had been working, speaking, forming; his presence was with her, his hand always upon her.

For Mary, her heart had been preparing, all along. Her ears had been attuned to the voice of her Lord. Her eyes had been adjusted to the presence of the light for, indeed, she had been living in it this whole time. Like a disciplined athlete she had trained faithfully through the days and nights, doing the grueling work of obedience that no one ever saw, making herself ready, making herself strong, so that when she finally stepped into that arena she was primed for it. She put her hands to the work in front of her; she immersed herself in the Word; she said yes again and again to the promptings of the Lord in the ordinariness of her days. To be sure, each yes meant a dozen different nos: no to distractions, no to self-pity, no to fear. But it was a wide open yes to wherever God wanted to take her. And when an angel arrived at her doorstep, he was just the visible proof of what she already knew to be true: God is alive and moving here. He speaks to me, he knows me, he loves me so. He sees me. Even in the dark rooms of this modest little house in this backwater town, he sees me.

I remember this as I go about my day, wiping the applesauce off each tiny mouth, picking up the socks, correcting, reproving, reminding, again and again, the rhythm of life’s work in ordinary time. And no, I won’t birth the Messiah, I won’t wake to an angel standing in my bedroom. But that was somebody else’s story, not mine. My prayer tonight is that I remember his presence, working, always working, speaking, always speaking, through the minutes and the hours and the days of this banal, blessed life. And when those eureka moments happen, when that light does break through, I don’t want to be found blinking: I want to be ready for it. After all, that is what Advent is all about.

When Millennials Become Parents: Or, the Most Important Thing I Can Do as a Parent

So if you’ve looked at the internet once in recent years you’ve probably noticed that millennials have gotten a fairly bad rap. And if you’re like me, you’re probably sick of reading about how our parents have spoiled us beyond redemption and that’s why we’re a bunch of entitled, directionless twits living out an extended adolescence while lacking important things like grit. But bear with me for a second because I do want to weigh in.

One thing we’ve heard is how “coddled” the millennial is. I recognize that the term “coddling” has been used, more often than not, disparagingly, and in worst cases, as a diversion – a way to silence voices that threaten existing power and stand on the side of justice. This is not okay. And this is not the kind of coddling that most of the time is talked about.

Instead it seems to me that what we are really talking about when we are talking about coddling is the issue of a strong, and perhaps misplaced, self-reliance.

There comes a point sooner or later as we get older that we have to decide: What are we going to rely on in this world? Do we rely on authority? (No – this is a post-Vietnam, post Watergate, post punk-rock world. Where have you been the past 50 years?) Do we rely on financial security? (No – we came of age in a financial crisis, and our student loan debt is eating us alive.) Do we rely on relationships? (Sure… until someone changes their mind in the name of self-actualization… maybe it will be me… so, I guess, no.)

Which leaves only one thing to rely on, really: we rely on ourselves.

We are the true rugged individualists, although we have been trained too much in consensus-seeking to explicitly own it.

We rely on our own hopes and dreams, our own visions of self-actualization.

We rely on our wanderlust, our career ambition, our inner compass, wherever it may point: for most of us, it’s up, up and away.

We rely on a good buzz or a satisfying lay.

We rely on our talents, our creativity, our ability to talk our way out of a situation, our uncanny way with code.

We rely, pretty much, on ourselves. In a shifting, uncertain world, we know we can rely on what will be there at the end of the day: our feelings, our logic, our bodies. Our. Selves.

Which is a great plan, until you come to the end of yourself. It’s taken me my entire twenties and a good part of my thirties to reach the end of myself. To realize that all the education, all the raw talent, all the strength of my “inner compass”, did not equal Me. It took me until very recently to realize the strength of the grip that these things had had on my life, on my self-worth, and to name them for what they were – idols—and then to offer them up and burn them on the altar.

Because as much as we’ve been told “Follow your dreams!” and “You are so special!” and “You can do anything you set your mind to” – we get out there, and we get disappointed, and we get our hearts broken, and the world bangs us up a little till we are forced to ask ourselves: maybe I am an imposter. Maybe I can’t meet expectations; maybe I am not worth the investment (time, emotions, finances). Maybe I am not my degree, or my intelligence, or my way with people, or my fill-in-the-blank. And if I am not that, what then?

It’s then that we make our way to the cross.

The cross, that dialectical symbol of both death and resurrection: the place to offer our idols and our burdens, to nail them, and then to take up our true selves. That place of both truth and grace: where we reckon with the full weight of our pain and our sin, leave them there for Christ to deal with, and then to rise up in His strength. No longer to rely on our own abilities, left to sail by our own compass: but resurrected as His child. Claimed, named, led to where He wants us to go. And fully empowered by his Holy Spirit to do the tasks set before us, and to live into our crazy beautiful unexpected identity.

But we, we who are in control of our lives, we who are the masters of our destiny, captains of our fate – we don’t like to just leave things for other people to deal with. We’re talented and capable. We’ve got it.

As a parent I see my kids flexing their own strength, testing their own limitations. It’s a good and healthy thing to do, and we parents encourage their efforts. Of course, part of the process is missing the mark. Sam just started out in T-ball, and it’s a great place for him to exercise effort – and to learn where he has room for growth. One night after practice, he came home with Andy and told me how he’d run a lap with the team but “couldn’t keep up.” So as parents, we responded in grace: we bought him a pair of cleats, although we’d initially bristled at what seemed an unnecessary expenditure. But we responded in truth, too: “That’s okay.” And that was it. No need to compare his running to that of others on the team; no need to reassure him he would magically be an Olympic runner someday. (And no need to get our own image and self-worth wrapped up in our kids – now that’s trouble.) Because truth is, he will not always be the fastest on the team; he may not always be able to keep up. And that’s okay. It really, really is. Because that’s grit: not identifying with our failures…. And not identifying with our successes. And getting out there, time and time again, to play the game.

And because sometimes, truth is just as much what you say as what you don’t say. I read somewhere that our verbiage is sometimes just a way of us trying to control a situation. We speak because we need to justify ourselves in the eyes of others; we speak because we want to make things, make ourselves, make others feel okay (usually, about us). And on the other side is silence: a release of control, an understanding that we don’t have to fix everything. There was a temptation on my part to point out, “But you threw with more accuracy than most others,” or “But you’re faster than others at sprinting short distances.” I wanted to fix where it seemed wrong. But he wasn’t in tears about not keeping up; his spirit wasn’t broken; he was, I’m proud to say, rather matter-of-fact. So we took his lead and we let it go, we handed him the cleats, with the promise of: these might help. But with the implicit caveat: at the end of the day, don’t rely on your shoes. Don’t rely on being the fastest, or the strongest, or the smartest, or the best pitcher, so that you can feel okay about yourself. What you can rely on is that we love and accept you, no matter your performance. What you can rely on is that you love the game and play hard, and that’s good enough for us. We need to teach our kids that they can be vulnerable in front of us, and that we don’t explain away the weaknesses or the pain, nor do we shame them for it, but we embrace them in it.

What if we realized we were loved the same way? That our heavenly Father saw the truth about us – shortcomings and all – and even with that, responded in grace? Could we offer back to him the things we cling to in order to feel okay about ourselves? Could we release control and embrace vulnerability? Could we trust him with our true, imperfect, clumsy, fearful selves? Could we believe he really does have our best interests at heart?

My daughter Gracie’s favorite song for bedtime is Jesus Loves Me. Of course it is, right? Classic children’s tune; solid choice. But repetition after repetition, the grace and truth of the words came washing over me. How simple and plain, this love song from God:

Jesus loves me, this I know

For the Bible tells me so.

Little ones to him belong

They are weak,

But he is strong.

Yes, Jesus loves me.

Yes, Jesus loves me.

Yes, Jesus loves me.

The Bible tells me so.

And I’ve learned: the most important thing I can do as a parent is not to inflate their self-worth, not to instruct them in how to succeed in pretty much anything without looking like they’re trying. Rather, it’s to point them to Jesus. To say, You feel so small sometimes. So do I. You are weak sometimes. So am I. And that’s okay. Because he is strong. And it’s in his strength we can rely. And we can be still and quiet in that truth, and in Him find our rest.

 

 

Reclaiming “Helper”: Thoughts on Women and Submission

“Womens are just helpers.” Her words came out of the blue at the dinner table that evening. I don’t even remember what we were discussing, but with her small yet sure voice, her grave eyes, her tiny, narrow shoulders set, these words – Womens are just helpers ­­– were Grace’s contribution to the conversation.

I blinked. “… Where did you hear that?”

True to two year old style, she said nothing, smiled, and giggled her way out of the subject.

The statement rankled me, for several reasons. One, I had no idea where she picked it up. Was it something we had read in a book? Was it from Sunday school? Or was it… something she has just… noticed?

Which leads me to the second, more bothersome thing about it. To what extent is this true? Those simple words –“just” and “helper” – are loaded terms. So how could I untangle them in my mind, retaining what’s good and true while correcting the rest?

To understand this “just helper” phenomenon, you’d have to go back, of course, to Genesis 2:18. After having creating Adam, God says, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (that’s the New International Version); “I will make him an helpmeet for him” (King James Version), or, from the At-Least-They-Were-Trying people, “I will make him a helper as his partner” (New Revised Standard Version).

Even in this brief catalog of scriptural interpretation, there’s a little bit of massaging of this term helper. Clearly the English word helper itself is not enough to encompass the shades of meaning this Hebrew writer intended.

Today, “helper” is almost patronizing. We get a good laugh when a preschooler announces that he “baked cookies, and Mommy helped.” The way we hear it, the helper is the one who stands to the side, awaiting orders from the one Really Doing the baking: the helper passes the measuring cups, dumps the flour, goes around the bowl a couple times with a whisk and then is maybe allowed to lick the spoon. But we all know who really made the cookies. A helper is just that… just. A. Helper.

But. Thankfully there has been quite a bit said on this term helper in contemporary Christian circles. In fact, Genesis 2 was the passage Andy and I chose for our wedding (eight lovely years ago). Our pastor, the legendary Dave Swaim, delivered a fantastic homily which defined helper as much more than “just.” He reminded us that in the Bible, this term helper – ezer, in Hebrew – is used most often to refer to God himself as the helper of his people. A helper is one who comes in strength. An ezer is a strong helper.

As I’ve looked at it recently I’ve been intrigued that ezer is so often referred to as military aid. In the Bible, kings and cities act as ezers to each other; and most importantly, God is an ezer to his people Israel time and time again. In just one instance, the prophet Samuel cried out to God to be their ezer against the approaching Philistines:

As Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to attack Israel; but the Lord thundered with a mighty voice that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion; and they were routed before Israel.  And the men of Israel went out of Mizpah and pursued the Philistines, and smote them.

(1 Samuel 7:10-11)

Say what you will about smiting and whatnot, but the Bible is clear: an Ezer is no joke.

An ezer stands equal, wielding her own mighty power, bringing her own valuable resources. An ezer does not cower, does not capitulate, does not hesitate to bring herself – all of herself – to the one she’s pledged herself to. I’ve heard it said once from a woman who I love dearly and admire deeply that that’s what submission in marriage is: to bring all of oneself. To not hold back in fear or reserve (1 Peter 3:6). But, basically, to bring it. Bring all of it, bring it with respect, bring it in love, and bring it confidently. A submission of writing is an offer: a “here you go,” take me or leave me. Submission is an offering.

It’s another dirty word, submission. But to submit to your husband like a ruler of a mighty city submits to another – by boldly giving her hundreds of chariots and precious fighting men, at great cost to herself — how empowered then is the state of submission. How incredibly beautiful and… necessary.

Because here’s the thing. When you look at the thousands of battles being waged around us – economic injustice, sexism, racism, abuse, rape, the list goes on – there is no mistaking it: we are at war. But it’s a war being waged on the most elemental aspect of humanity, and that is our hearts, our minds, our very souls. In Ephesians 6 the apostle Paul tells us:

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

This passage is worth quoting in full if only to point out that Paul is not talking about literal helmets and shields here. The way of Christ is not the way of the sword (Matthew 26:52). He’s talking about arming ourselves with the “mighty power” that God offers, our source of hope as we make our way in this banged up, bloodthirsty world.

And here is what really gets me. This passage here, this whole bit about the armor of God, which ends with “Finally…”: this comes after a bunch of often-controversial stuff about family roles, marriage, submission, et cetera (Ephesians 5). But here, Paul is summing up the point of all the aforementioned relationships: to help us to be strong in the Lord and to fight this battle of bringing restoration to a broken world. He is setting us up in the most effective formation: it is about preparedness for the battle; it about what helps us to “stand firm” to the end.

Which we cannot do alone. Like the kings of Israel we need our ezeta to have our backs, to get on the front lines. In a world where – let’s be real – the forces of evil are alive and well around us, even battling within us, it is all hands on deck. And it doesn’t surprise me that often it’s poverty-stricken areas, it’s morasses of injustice, it’s ravaged parts of the globe that are more likely to authorize women into ministry leadership. These places are well-acquainted with “the powers of this dark world”; these are people that bear the battle scars sometimes even literally, and not only the men. Here, it really is all hands on deck. Here, the women come in authority and with the strength of the Holy Spirit. Here, there is not the luxury – or the lie – of opting out.

But the battles are not limited to these places; here, it is simply more visible. The lies of the Enemy are insidious no matter where you go. And the place where we must identify and exercise our God-given gifts is exactly where we are.

So women: I say, bring it. Bring who you are: the tangled knots of insecurity, the mighty words of truth you bear, the flood of compassion you hold. Bring it to him who made you and will equip you. Do it if only because, if you’re married, your man needs you to, for God knows he is fighting his own battles. Do it because the world needs you to. Do it for you, because you want to step into who God created you to be. Do it so your daughters watch and learn.  Put on that armor of God and stand in his strength. Because, Woman, you are not a “just.” You are a warrior, and wherever you are, you are needed on the front lines.

On Real Love

This Valentine’s Day my husband Andy and I woke up to a sick toddler, no hot water in the bathroom, and the second coldest day on record for Southern Connecticut. The night had been both too short and too long, filled with breaks for Children’s Motrin, cups of water, the vomit that ended up in our bed and — as we only later discovered — in our daughter’s hair.

And then there was the cold. We live in New England so we are used to cold, but I mean, this was cold – like, winter advisory not to leave your house cold. So sick little one and all, we skipped church and stayed in, soothing our feverish girl, scooping breakfast bowls for the boys, and scraping their contents off individual chair rungs, while Andy intermittently investigated what we learned to be a frozen pipe.

Happy Valentine’s Day to us?

But somewhere between the neverending oatmeal, the steaming pile of sheets and washing my daughter’s hair in the kitchen sink, I looked over at Andy and thought: We’re doing it. This is it. This is love.

This unglamorous procession of daily sacrifice, this liturgy of requests called across the kitchen – Can you wash this? Would you bring me that? – this, this is the libretto of love in the trenches, the choreography of our devotion, the work of art we are creating, one sleepless night at a time.

Did we see this coming, ten years ago – ten! – when we met on the fourth floor of a dorm in Cambridge, Mass.? Could we foresee this mortgaged future the summer we were twenty-two, when the afternoons stretched before us like the green along the Charles River, when evenings tumbled open on the cobblestone and rumbled along the Red Line, stopping who knows where? I look at those pictures of us and we were so… dewy then, all teeth and hair, like life itself was one big juicy fruit, ripe for the picking. And we were ready to devour it, seeds and all.

And we did. And here we are.

***

Sam and Grace were playing house. Well, a version of it.

“Let’s drink from this coconut,” said Sam. Pause, as I listen from the kitchen. “Okay, we drank from a coconut. Now, let’s go to town. What do you want for dinner? Burgers or pizza?”

“Burgers,” said the two year old, who has never had a burger in her life.

“Okay, burgers,” said Sam. “Okay, now let’s go to sleep.”

“Okay, good night.”

This dialogue must have been cobbled together from books (“Let’s go to town”? What is it, 1955?), a photograph of Andy and me sipping a coconut during our honeymoon in Jamaica, and a small amount from real life, in which Andy and I fall asleep at 9 pm after a crazy night out at Shake Shack. Whatever the origins of this brief love story, I love it.

I love the humor in it, yes, I love the mundane details of the fast food date, but I especially love that the romance of married love has not been lost on them: that yes, there is a time to clean the vomit out of your daughter’s hair, and there is a time to lay on the beach and have a grown-up drink. (And to take pictures for posterity, so that there is proof that once upon a time, you were cool.) And I hope my kids watch us and learn that Real Love, True Love, in-the-flesh, grown-up love, is made up of many things: it’s more a garden than a vase of long-stemmed roses. Because here is what I’ve learned since twenty-two: love isn’t something you consume; it’s something you grow. It’s a thing borne of muck, needing water, sunlight, and attention to detail in order to thrive, each a form of love, a kind of pouring out. C.S. Lewis wrote of “The Four Loves” the Greeks had; still others note six. In any language, there’s probably not an exact number, as all loves – as our love, this great love of my life – mature over time, winding their way in and through the years, blooming, fragrant, bucking the dirt, surviving the frost, stretching their roots: a gorgeous ecosystem, a hard-won harvest, a miracle of the most ordinary kind. It’s a pot of hot coffee on the counter every morning; it’s a red envelope left on a pillow at the end of a long Februrary 14th. Marriage is for the faithful, and I’m not just talking about sex. It’s a million faithful little gestures over the course of a day, choosing the other over self, choosing love, choosing love, choosing love.

So this Valentine’s Day, I want to say, I love you sweetie. I just really, really do, in a thousand different ways. And I can see the thousand different ways you love me. (Thank you for fixing that frozen pipe.) And I’m sorry this Valentine greeting comes two days late… but, I guess we were a little busy that day.

Facebook Fast: Day 01

I don’t know if this really counts as Day 1, since I logged into Facebook this morning, saw that a bunch of other friends will be fasting Facebook over Lent, and then, after some thought, later announced my own Facebook break. So it’s more like Day 0.5.

(Any Christian calendar nerds out there can tell me if today is Day 0 or 1?)

And today is Ash Wednesday. Sadly, the kids and I did not go anywhere to get our ashes today. But here are pictures of Sam and Grace from two years ago to make up for it. Daddy put their ashes on at a campus service. Weren’t they sweet, and as one colleague said, looking sufficiently penitent?

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By the way, I explained the concept of fasting to Sam yesterday and – on his own – he said, “Like fasting from Legos?” Um, YES! In his own words, it’s about “not doing something and when you want to do it, it makes you think of God.” YES! But… no, I did not make the poor kid fast from Legos, that would just be cruel. Legos are like his play and education and oxygen all at once. We’re still working on finding an appropriate fast for Sam. But as I ponder that, you may be asking, in the first place:

Why Fast?

So what is fasting, you may ask — some kind of antiquated self-flagellation we’re bringing back for kicks? Some kind of legalistic Extra Credit for getting into heaven? No and… no. I grew up in a highly conservative Evangelical environment that despised any form of legalism: that is, perceived ways of “earning” God’s salvation/favor. This is not that (and frankly I find the term “legalism” itself somewhat problematic, but that’s a subject for another post).

As you may guess from my blog name, Grace is what it’s all about for me. Not my middle daughter, though she’s cute, but I mean the incredible grace of God that is the heartbeat of our Christian faith and is enfleshed in Jesus Christ, “full of grace and truth.” And, as I’ve come to learn, it is precisely the grace of God that compels me to want to experience more of who He is and the goodness of the life he has to offer by engaging in practices that help me refocus and build spiritual discipline. To that end, we fast.

Lent, the 40 days before Easter, is traditionally a time for Christians to fast as it allows us to clear all the clutter from our lives to make room for what God wants to give us. To silence the noise in our hearts so that we can be free to hear him. To come to deep repentance (that is, turning and walking away from) of our vices, big and small, so that we can glorify God most fully — a glory that is embodied in his resurrection on Easter Day, the end of Lent.

One may liken it to a kind of Buddhist self-emptying. But, like much of the Christian life, it reaches beyond self-death into a sort of resurrection: who am I on the other side of this attachment? Or more importantly, what is God offering me on the other side? Who is God showing himself to be, that I just couldn’t see before?

It’s a time of learning about ourselves too: what makes us tick, or rather, what we have relied on to make us tick. Presumably, we run on the Holy Spirit. In reality, most of us run on a dose of the Holy Spirit and a great many doses of Fair Trade Coffee. One year, I decided to reverse that. It was 2011, my first baby was about eight months old, and I gave up coffee. Yes, I felt like I was dying. Some days. But hey, it made me pray a lot more. It made me – sometimes – send up a word of Help! to Jesus instead of reaching for that fourth cup of Liquid Attitude Adjustment. And you know what? It made me appreciate coffee a whole lot more. In the end: win all around.

Which brings me to: we get to break the fast on Sundays in Lent, too. Think of it like a mini-Easter: a small taste of the bliss that is to come. Less a time to gorge on your forbidden fruit, and more a time to relish the sweet, sweet victory of Jesus’s resurrection and the possibility of renewal that that brings. If heaven sounds far-fetched, try abstaining from coffee for six days and then drinking it on Sunday. Like a party in your mouth, yes. But also? Like a wake-up call about the things (also known as Idols) in our lives we’ve let enslave us, and how free we can be when we give ourselves fully to Jesus. Basically: when we let Coffee be Coffee and God be God. Boom.

Why Facebook?

Because it’s how you spell TIMESUCK in my heart language.

Because it’s what I do when I’m bored/feeling blah/craving interaction/pissed/stressed.

Because I’d rather be reading/writing/doing yoga/talking with my spouse/playing with my children/calling a friend/organizing my sock drawer than scrolling through my feed for the 671,998th time that day.

Because we forget sometimes that the number of “likes” we get doesn’t substitute for a friend’s in-the-flesh smile or a good belly laugh with the girls.

Because maybe I’ve given it too much space in my life, and I want to come back to appreciate it for what it is – and no more than that.

 

So here we go: 40 Days of Facebook Fasting to be chronicled here. By the way, you will still see me posting blog updates on Facebook, but that’ll be through my synced Twitter, which is not nearly as much of an issue for me. Yet.

Poem: Song of Praise

Sometimes, the praise is deep. And sometimes, you can only respond with a poem.

 

 

Song of Praise

 

What is it like

When the dawn finally breaks?

Is it a roar

Of trumpets, a throng

Of angels, a blaze of fire,

A victory drum?

Or is it a hum?

 

It is like today, a rainy afternoon.

“Look, a rainbow,” my son says,

And his sister and I

Look up at the sky.

“No, not there,” he says,

And points. It is a scattering

Of rainbows there on the ground,

Pools of color, inky

Majesty, miracles of light

And water, there

In the driveway.

How easy it was for him,

How faithful was he to his call:

To run, to jump, and then

To stop,

To stoop,

To look, so as

To see.

 

If I could inhabit

His child’s eyes

Would I see what was so precious

And plain? Would I give myself equally

To play and to pause,

Could I be still long enough,

Could I surrender?

And after a breath, could I speak –-

A rainbow! –- and bid others

To gather round —

Come and see­ –-

 

In the cracks

Of pavement what the storm

Has formed, this ordinary

Grace. Could I point

To the place where what

Was broken is now covered

And filled, could I dare

To accept that yes, this gift

Is for me: this promise

That we were never

Alone, that Water is

Gentle, that hope

Is the province of Light

And children.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Dead of Winter: Reflections on Hope

There’s a reason it’s called the dead of winter.

Though I’ve lived through thirty-two winters, there comes a time each winter when I begin to doubt that the spring will ever come again. Oh, I know objectively that the snow will thaw, the days will lengthen; but the cold seems endless, the darkness punishing. Right now, it seems, this winter will be eternal. Right now, it doesn’t seem worth the wait.

Have you ever been in a winter so dark and deep, you believed it would last forever?

This week I stood at the kitchen counter, shoulders heavy, back to the kids, peeling a manufactured orange. The day had been a catalog of colossal parental impotence. My children’s interactions with friends that turned mean-spirited, ugly. The reality that sin spills over, that that’s the nature of entropy. That we will come to place of feeling powerless, lacking in hope.

And while I was dealing with my own thousand failures, in that day, in myself and in my children and in the ones who met with them, I saw the failures of not just individuals but of generations.

Because as human beings, we are subject. Subject to the sins of our fathers and mothers, who were subject to the sins of their fathers and mothers before them. We repeat the mistakes and the monstrosities; we each do it in our turn, despite our best efforts. We scream when we should be silent and we are silent when we should speak. We turn ravenous eyes on the meagerest of sins and are blind to the vastest, most insidious violations. We are loosed from our homes into the world where the children of others are making their mistakes the way their own families knew how. And our children carry the curse. We see the flash of rage in our sons’ eyes, and recognize our fathers. We hear the note of wild fear, the self-hate in our daughters’ voices and we hear the voices of generations of women flinging blame, indicting themselves, running for cover, taking the ship down with them.

Souls configuring and reconfiguring themselves to the warped shapes of the souls nearest them.

On our own, we are beyond screwed.

We are nailed.

And I realize:

That’s what the cross is about.

We nail our mistakes and our catalogs of failures because at the end of the day, we have no choice.

We are already there, nailed by the hammers of sheer human inertia. We are there, bound up in the ways we hurt, and we hurt, and we hurt again, till our blood runs together and it’s impossible to separate out whose rage, whose despair, whose fear belongs to whom. Individuals and families and nations alike. We are there – we are all complicit.

We are the dead of our own long winter.

We were dead in our transgressions…

And that is why we needed a Savior who resurrected.

… but because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions.

It is by grace you have been saved.

Grace. A startled daisy in a war-ravaged field. A stroke of light on a winter’s day.

And I met it there, standing at the counter.

“Yup!” A sudden, bright little voice.

I turned around, half-there. “Yup, what?”

“Yup,” said Sam, apropos nothing, “I want to have kids someday.”

He was standing on a chair with a giant grin on his face, like he was about to give a speech.

“And you’re going to be a grandmother,” he said. “And Gracie is going to be an aunt. Aunt Grace!”

“Noooooo,” came the impish two-year-old protest from downward-dog position on the kitchen floor.

“Yessss,” said Sam, “and I am going to be Uncle Sam. Hey! Like the fourth of July!”

And then kids’ laughter, breaking through the fog.

Wow, I thought, so we are not completely screwed after all. In this banged up world he actually believes being a parent is something to wish for, to hope for.

Hope.

Sam’s words came out of thin air, or maybe they didn’t. His words were themselves like a battalion of angels, sent to tell me that despite myself, despite himself, despite all the pain that my children had and would ever endure and inflict – that we must still stay in the business of the giving of life.

And maybe that’s what hope is: it’s a grace in itself, the gift of a future in which redemption is possible – in fact, is already given. His name is Jesus and it’s in the reality of his resurrection we live. If we really believe that God can raise the dead, he can redeem anything. From the smallest infraction to the ugliest violation, to the shattered, the turned-inside-out.

What you meant for evil, God used for good. Those were the words of a brother whose siblings had faked his death and sold him as chattel and still he believed there was a God who could save. And the end of his story is one of a family restored and an entire people rescued: hurts not just patched up but made beautiful and useful somehow. A world artfully orchestrated by a sovereign God to cover over our fatal choices. The mystery of grace. The gift of hope.

When I looked out the window again it was 5:15. For the first time at that time, unlike the endless string of five-fifteens before it, there was a little hint of light. Enough to show the shadows, but also just enough to glimpse the slope of the slide on our swingset, the patch of earth under the snow. They often come together, the shadow and the light, but it’s the light that’s dynamic, that’s truly in charge. And in this slow dawn is the promise of a future, that spring will come again. And every time how this spring surprises us, how lovely, this gift of hope and grace.

 

Coming Clean

Maybe it’s just the new year, maybe it was the three-day weekend, but I feel like a lot of us are trying to finally get our houses in order. For Christmas, my brother Mike gave me the book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo (thanks bro!), which apparently has become such a sensation that the word “kondo” has become a verb. We took the first step to kondo-ing our house this past weekend and ended up with five or six enormous garbage bags of clothes, plus a few furniture odds ends, to donate. We drove away feeling lighter, freer, and high as a kite. It was that much of a rush.

While this book is, as it promises, changing my life, so are a couple of other books on my shelf. One is Grace-Based Parenting by Dr. Tim Kimmel, and one is a book on ministry given to me by a friend.

Both of these books ask some pointed, even hard questions about your most important ministry tool: the heart. And as I’m reading these books I’m sitting there thinking, Dang. I have some heart work to do.

One of the great temptations of ministry is to pretend to have it all together. What started out as a true desire to serve God and serve others can morph into a desire to perform. Yes, we want to please God, but we want to please people too. We start to perform for other’s praise and approval; we start to do things for the sake of looking good.

We work on having a polished veneer, but on the inside, things are dusty, cracked, in need of repair.

This past year I have had the incredible privilege of joining a Bible Study on Wednesday mornings. We read the book of Matthew and DIG IN, having these beautiful, profound, challenging conversations. Lately a lot of our focus has been around the condition of our hearts. Especially in Jesus’s hard words to Pharisees: the so-called religious experts who did all the right things but whose hearts were far from God.

This may come as a shock to some, but at Bible studies I just love to wax poetic, and in these past studies it’s been about the ways that God calls our hearts to purity and integrity.

As a bonus, I love it when the ladies there rave about my kids’ adorableness and good behavior.

Because obviously we are always this poetic, adorable, and well-behaved.

Until. Until you run into your Bible Study leader at BJs on a busy Tuesday afternoon. Your hair is a hot mess and your kids may or may not have dried snot on their cheeks. Your cart is full of non-poetic items like frozen chicken nuggets and toilet paper. Most incriminatingly, you may or may not have been legitimately hissing at your children while standing in the checkout line and/or physically manipulating the five-year old away from the scanner because it was faster than asking him nicely.

Let’s be real, nobody looks elegant while standing in checkout line with several small children, except for maybe Brad and Angelina, and they would never shop at BJs. (They probably don’t even need toilet paper.) I don’t even think my Bible study leader saw the mess that was us. And had she seen us, she probably would have been incredibly kind and even funny about it. The problem was me: on one level, the impatience I had with my children; and on another level, my desire to keep things looking polished on Wednesday mornings when I was privately unraveling on Tuesday afternoons.

Because here’s the truth. We joke about Brad and Angelina, but in reality, everybody craps. Spiritually and otherwise. And there’s no shame in someone seeing you buying the toilet paper.

But we tend not to let it all hang out at places like Bible studies (which, for the record, is a fabulous place to let it all hang out). We save the true ugliness for behind the closed door, for the people closest to us. And it’s in that moment when you haven’t had your first cup of coffee yet, the kids are fighting and there’s already oatmeal on the floor that the true condition of the heart will be revealed.

And who we are when nobody’s looking is who will eventually sneak out from perfectly groomed images. It will determine – empower or inhibit – our effectiveness in serving the world around us.

My life lately has taken a decided turn for the public. And for those going public for the sake of the Gospel, we learn quickly what’s okay and not okay to put out there. Inspirational Scripture, definitely. Inspirational stories about God’s work in our lives and our amazing feats of obedience to him, yes. Funny, self-revealing stories about our quirks and “messes” (I spend too much time working out!! My kid has homemade Greek yogurt on his hand-knitted beanie!!): OK. But embarrassing, possibly exposing stories about the real-time “messes” of our hearts: our pride, our envy, our rage, our distrust of God? These give us pause.

It’s too scary, too vulnerable, to let people in. So we fix up the outside while covering up the ugliness that’s within.

Or sometimes, we have become so good at polishing the outside that we’ve even been able to deceive ourselves.

We all need a deep cleaning sometimes. Sometimes we are so dirty even our eyes are clouded to our own mess.

As I’ve been pondering those three books, a song came into my heart. It was this old song I used to listen to in my parents’ minivan circa 1991. And the lyrics came from Psalm 51:

“Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;

Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow….

Create in me a pure heart, O God,

And renew a steadfast spirit within me.

Do not cast me from your presence

Or take your Holy Spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation

And grant me a willing spirit to sustain me.”

And then it all came together. The invitation from God was clear:

Get your house in order.

Put it in my hands.

Come clean. Come to me.

I imagined my heart as a house. I felt God saying, Stop obsessing over the surface of things: shiny counters, dusted mantles. That’s well and good, but there are some things in your storage areas that need attention, things that guests do not see. Go down there and rummage through the old junk you’ve let sit for ages: the impatience, the anger, the pride, the covetousness, the deceit. Get rid of it. Because it’s keeping you from coming clean before God.

And because try as you might to keep things looking perfect, one day someone is going to come over and open a pantry door and have an old cookbook fall on their head. Because here’s another truth: you can’t deepen friendships if you don’t let them in, really let them in. And when you get to know people, really get to know people, one day your stuff is going to come out and smack them in the face. How about instead of waiting for that day, we invite our friends into our nasty basement and ask them to help us clear out the crap? Sometimes it takes someone else’s eyes to tell us when we are just holding on to our junk. And how light we can feel when we finally hand it over to God and let him deal with it. Because in his faithfulness, he does.

Jesus reminds us that it’s “out of the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks.” We can try to keep things under control, but sooner or later, the condition of our heart will be revealed. That’s why I’m so thankful for grace: that we can take our hearts to Jesus. That we can trust him with it. We can ask him for the clear eyes to see them ourselves. And I’m thankful that when we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us and purify us from all unrighteousness.

And when our heart is right, that’s when the truly good stuff can come spilling out.