What My Afghan Friends Have Taught Me About Abundance

This year my heart is uniquely primed for Thanksgiving (and I most certainly don’t mean that my turkey is already prepped and my house is prim and proper). As I prepare to stir gravy tomorrow, I am deeply aware of the ways the Lord has been stirring my heart through an unexpected, God-given friendship with an Afghan family.

I thought I was bringing them groceries, but God knew they had much to give me. This brave family who literally lost everything trying to get out of their country through the Kabul airport has given me the precious gift of perspective. I am seeing the abundance around me with their eyes.

Photo by Karen Sewell on Unsplash

We have given them puzzles and rides and help with paperwork, but they have given us much more. They have shown me that we can become so accustomed to abundance that we lose our ability to be recognize and appreciate it.

Seeing our country and our lives through the eyes of newcomers has left my heart filled with gratitude for things I have grown to expect as an entitlement.

I drive by parks and playgrounds without thinking twice; however, my friends have taught me to savor the simple excitements of swinging on swings and chasing squirrels.

Outside of the present pandemic vaccination conversation, I tend to not think much about my children’s vaccination cards; however, receiving yellow vaccination cards was a hard-fought victory for our friends. W celebrated like we had won the lottery when we finally had cards for each child in our hands.

It’s easy to become demanding and narrow in our friendships. We want to hang with people who “get us” and share similar interests. Befriending someone when neither of you can speak to each other outside of body language has reminded me that we often make friendship more complicated than it needs to be. I don’t know any Farsi, but I have been reminded lately that mutual feelings of deep care don’t need translation. Eyes and souls have a language all their own.

I get frustrated when I lose my keys, yet my friends have literally lost everything and continue to press forward with patience and hope. They have to wait in lines for everything: shots, appointments, buses. Nothing is efficient, and everything requires patience and persistence. Having been successful lawyers, artisans, and managers in their country, they have to work their way back up.

Stepping into their lives has also shown me the abundance of selfishness and self-interest in my own heart. Sure, I want to serve and be helpful. But I want to do that when it is convenient and efficient, not when it is costly and circuitous. I want to help solve problems with simple fixes, but life is far more complicated and nuanced than my flat solutions. God did not offer quick fixes, but sent Jesus to be the three-dimensional, in-flesh solution to the problems we could never fix. The more I realize the wisdom of his perfect solution, the more humble and deeply dependent I become.

It seems fitting and right that the Lord has had me meditating on Psalm 104 this week. The entire psalm walks through habitats and habits. Every created things has its place, knows it place, and lives within designed dependence.

These all look to you, to give them their food in due season. When you give it to them ,they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground (Psalm 104:2730).

We, who are supposed to be the “very good” of creation demand, disobey, and seek to live independently. We forget what creation cannot forget: we are deeply dependent upon God for life, breath, and all things. This reality is the seedbed of gratitude. When we realize that all we have has been bought for us at incredible cost, when we see all as undeserved gift, we are inching towards a true spirit of thanksgiving.

May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in his works who looks on the earth and it trembles, who touches the mountains and they smoke. I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being. May my meditation be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the Lord (Psalm 104:31-34).

I complicate thanksgiving when I tie it to my circumstances rather than the unchanging character of our Creator who became creation to save his creation at great cost.

Whether you find yourself in want or plenty tomorrow, I pray that you would know an abundance that scarcity can’t scratch and abundance cannot aggregate.

An Austere Beauty

Sometimes beauty shows up most clearly on a backdrop of barrenness.

I have known this theoretically and biblically, but this past weekend, I experienced it physically. My boys are in a phase where they have become obsessed with the National Parks System, and I am not complaining. They get it honest from their grandparents who have become second-career park visitors. Since we are privileged enough to live in a state which boasts nine National Parks, my boys have set their sights on visiting all of them.

Having visited Joshua Tree (the closest to our home), we decided to visit Death Valley, the next-closest park. Sounds inviting, right?

When I think of National Parks, I imagine epic waterfalls, treed forests, towering animals- in a word abundance. Not so much in Death Valley. Boasting the hottest, driest, and lowest point in the Western hemisphere, Death Valley is a land of scarcity. As it receives less than two inches of rain per year, it is not exactly a welcoming place. In fact, the National Park rangers do an excellent job of scaring you with warnings of death by overexposure and dehydration.

Yet, this inhospitable land also boasts an austere beauty. Those who dwell therein (namely the kangaroo rat, roadrunners, and some brave horned sheep) have learned to live on the edge of existence.

I couldn’t help but see an obvious spiritual parallel. Much of the Bible was written in the context of the desert and desert places play a prominent role in the Scriptures. There are far more deserts and waste places in the middle of the Scriptural story than there are gardens and lands of abundance. Those take a prominent place in the beginning and the end of the story (which is really the beginning of a restored heaven and earth for eternity).

The older I get, the more I find myself in dry, arid places (literally and figuratively). I see friends panting for life-giving water in the desert wastes of both childhood and adult cancer and bereavement. I have friends who are dwelling in what would seem to be the lowest points on the spiritual topographical map. I have friends looking down on empty cribs who feel like they are in the spiritual badlands.

But these friends will learn the secret that God teaches us best in the desert places: the gift of austere beauty. Speaking in the power of the Spirit, Isaiah (another dear desert-dweller) speaks of a coming day of abundance.

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing…For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; in the haunt of jackals, where they lie down, the grass shall become reeds and rushes…and the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall up upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 35:1-2; 6-7; 10).

In the meanwhile, we walk in a land of austere beauty, of subtle sustenance. Lord, give us eyes to see the beauty all around us. For, even in the most inhospitable places of the soul, you have made your home within us.

An Austere Beauty

An aura of austere beauty,
A land of superlative extremes,
Rocky heights and sublime depths,
The stuff of both space and dreams. 

That anything could make its home
In such an inhospitable place –
That life should be sustained here
Is an exhibit of His glory and grace.
 

Your design portfolio’s diversity 
Speaks of your infinite mind;
Your desert’s delicate balance
Stems from your heart so kind.

The Maker of Death Valley
Knew a thing or two of each:
Deserts, valleys of weeping,
And a cross His people to reach. 

He who sustains an ecosystem 
In the extremes of such a place
Will surely keep His children,
By, for, and with His steady grace.

Gladness Isn’t Glibness: A Preemptive Perspective for the Hurting during the Holidays

The holiday season is upon us. This means scrumptious food, seasonal decorations, and a whole smattering of unspoken, though deeply felt shoulds.

While many people disagree on when you should buy your tree or how long you should brine your turkey, our culture loudly agrees that we should be glib during the holidays and that the festivities and food should drown our the pain we feel in the depths of our hearts.

But, the Scriptures say believers should be glad, not glib. While glibness implies a giddiness which is often insincere and/or shallow, the Scriptures call for gladness which is rooted in the unchanging character of God and the deep works for God rather than changing circumstances.

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“It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High; to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night…For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy” (Psalm 92:1-2; 4)

“I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord! Our feet have been standing within your gates, O Jerusalem!'” (Psalm 122:1).

In the Old Testament, gladness is often correlated with oil which represents the Holy Spirit. The first time Jesus opened the Scriptures during his public ministry, he quoted from the prophet Isaiah who mentioned the oil of gladness which would replace mourning in time.

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, he has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn, to grant to those who mourn in Zion- to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;” (Isaiah 61:1-3).

The gladness the Scriptures speak of is cultivated through worship as a discipline and accompanies the presence of the Holy Spirit. In Psalm 92, which I quoted above, the writer connects gladness to the works of God. However, this statement was not spoken cheaply or lightly. In the Psalm, we hear an honest outcry that the wicked seem to be flourishing (Psalm 92:6). However, time spent in the presence of God and a fresh anointing with oil (Psalm 92:11; 13), the psalmist is given new eyes to see the same things differently. The situation has not changed; the psalmist’s perspective on the situation has. Thus, his ability to be glad in the works of God and the nature of God in whom “there is no unrighteousness” (Psalm 92:15).

Don’t let the subtle shoulds of the season demand a surface glibness. Rather, hear the should of Scripture which invites you to gladness that can coexist with honest disillusionment, deep grief, and trying circumstances.

The poem “Christmas Eve” by Christina Rossetti captures the depths of gladness the Incarnation brings.

Christmas Eve” by Christina Rossetti

“Christmas hath a darkness
Brighter than the blazing moon.
Christmas hath a chillness
Warmer than the heat of June,
Christmas hath a beauty
Lovelier than the world can show;
For Christmas bringeth Jesus,
Brought for us so low.”

When We Confuse Lamps and Light

Even the most brilliant and brightly burning lamps go dim. When we confuse lamps and light, we place ourselves (not to mention the lamps) in a precarious position.

My boys are in the phase of the teenage years when music standings matter. They can tell you who released a new song and how well it is doing. The constant shifts in ratings make my head spin. One week, an artist is the brightest shining lamp, the next week he or she is a discarded piece of history.

Sadly, what is true of popular culture is often equally true within Christian circles. People flock to sit under the teaching of the brightest, lightest lamp. They hang their hope on a borrowed light and often miss the chance to more deeply connect with and worship the source of all light.

Both John the Baptist and his cousin Jesus knew the important distinction between lamps and light.

In the prologue to his gospel account, the Apostle John wrote the following of John the Baptist:

“There as a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light” (John 1:6-8).

Later, when speaking to the Pharisees about his cousin John the Baptist, Jesus said, “He was a burning and shining lamp…But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John” (John 5:35 & 36).

Coming from Jesus, this appellation is an incredible compliment. We know from Matthew’s gospel account that Jesus thought highly of his cousin, saying in his eulogy, “Among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11). Yet, Jesus loves John and his followers enough to keep the distinction between light-bearer (lamp) and source (light).

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When reading about Jesus and his cousin, I was freshly convicted of two sins. First, I had to admit my sinful tendency to rejoice and glory in bright and shining lamps (the gifted communicators and insightful leaders God has risen up) but to miss the the light both sent and ignited them. Second, I had to admit that, in my flesh, I want people to make much of this lamp. When I slip into this, I have bought the deeper lie that any light I have in some albeit tiny way originates from me or my own merit.

Paul’s word to the prideful Corinthian believers challenges my flesh when it wants to confuse lamp and light:

“What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (2 Corinthians 4:7).

Yes, Jesus has called us the light of the world (Matthew 5:14). Yes, he doesn’t light a lamp to hide it under a bushel (Matthew 5:15). But every lamp gives off a borrowed light. When people see our lamps and “see our good works” it is that they might give glory to our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16). He alone is the Light of the World, the One who lit the stars like we light backyard tiki torches.

We are lit, and we are sent. But we are contingent and dependent on the source of all light. In days marked by cults of personality and throngs of people deeply identifying with charismatic leaders, let us not be among those who confuse lamps and light, for our good and God’s glory.

Suffering Sharpens Sight

Suffering and grief make our brains feel fuzzy and forgetful. They make us fatigued and sleepy, body, mind, and soul. But they sharpen our sight, if not in the moment, in the longterm.

I remember reading a book written by a Vietnam veteran who wrote honestly not only about the horrors he saw in Vietnam, but also about his experiences of color and beauty in Vietnam. It wasn’t that the colors changed or were brighter there; it was more that living on the thin edge between life and death made him see more clearly both the beauty and brokenness of earth.

Corrie ten Boom, while living in the nightmare that was a concentration camp, talks about moments of being utterly stunned by the beauty of a bird or a small flower or blade of grass.

Suffering trains our eyes not only to see sharply but also to see through. Suffering cuts through the gauze of this earth and removes its shiny veneer. It exposes much of the laughter of earth as hollow and many of its pleasures as transitory.

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In her poem “Thy Friend and thy Father’s Friend forget not.” Christina Rossetti poetically captures the sight that suffering offers.

Friends, I commend to you the narrow way;
Not because I, please God, will walk therein,
But rather for the Love Feast of that day,
The exceeding prize which whoso will may win.
Earth is half spent and rotting at the core,
Here hollow death’s heads mock us with a grin,
Here heartiest laughter leaves us tired and sore.
Men heap up pleasures and enlarge desire,
Outlive desire, and famished evermore
Consume themselves within the undying fire.
Yet not for this God made us: not for this
Christ sought us far and near to draw us nigher,
Sought and found and paid our penalties.
If one could answer, ‘Nay’ to God’s command,
Who shall say ‘Nay’ when Christ pleads all He is
For us, and holds us with a wounded Hand?”

Suffering can help us to see earth as “half spent and rotten to the core.” Suffering can aid in focusing our longing and hope on the lasting land of the New Heavens and the New Earth. Pain unsettles us and points our hearts back to lasting promises, so that we can say with Peter, “But according to his promise, we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13).

In our suffering, we have the opportunity to see the Suffering Savior as he is. In our suffering, we have the invitation to be held by the Wounded Healer.

For the believer in Christ, suffering is punctuated and purposeful. It will come to an end in the presence of Christ. There, we will see him as he is and all things as they should be (1 John 3:2).

May our suffering, be it minute or monumental, commend to us the narrow way which leads us to the broadest places of His presence.

On Authenticity

Authentic is a buzzword these days. Authentic cultural cuisine, authentic, hand-made goods, authentic connection, authentic ingredients in baby food and make up. Authentic anything really.

The constant cry for authenticity emerged from the backdrop of decades of synthetic, mass-produced, largely-plastic everything. Assembly-line-produced, shrink-wrapped, cookie-cutter capitalism has been coloring society, beginning with the Industrial Revolution and climaxing in the late 20th century, the church and religious experience sadly included.

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Unsplash

Postmodern people want authenticity in relationships and religion, in jeans and in Jesus. Thankfully, even before the postmodern culture, people longed for truth. The Apostle John was the first of the gospel writers to seek to contextualize the gospel to his particular culture: the Greco-Roman culture. John longed to introduce the culture to the Jesus with whom he had personally walked, talked, laughed, and cried.

What authenticity is to our present culture, truth was to the culture John sought to address. As such, it is not surprising that the Greek word aléthinos which is translated “true, authentic, genuine, or real” appears consistently throughout John’s writings (the Gospel of John, the letters of John, and the book of Revelation). In fact, 23 of the 28 uses of this word meaning true or authentic are Johannine.

John was clearly concerned with presenting the Greco-Roman truth-seekers with the deepest, most authentic truth which was found in the person of Christ. He shows the surrounding culture that God is serious about authenticity as well.

John introduced Jesus as “the true light which gives light to everyone” (John 1:9). He records Jesus having told the woman at the well from Samaria that he was seeking “true worshippers” who would worship in both spirit and truth (John 4:23). Jesus told his disciples that, in him, the Father sent His “true bread from heaven” (John 6:32). Jesus reminded those who followed him that the Father who sent him was true (John 7:28) and that his own judgement was true (John 8:16).

In some of his last discourses with his closest friends and disciples, Jesus called himself “the true vine” (John 15:1). In his prayer to the Father on the eve of his death, he addresses his Father as “the only true God” (John 17:3). Later, when John was speaking about the Cross of Christ as an eye-witness, he reassures his readers that “his testimony is true” and that he is “telling the truth” (John 19:35).

Either John (and the Jesus he records) did not have a thesaurus or an expansive vocabulary or he was being quite intentional with his use of the word true.

In a world of thousands of claims of truth, John wants his readers to know that the deepest, fullest, most veracious truth is found In the Triune God. Our absolute God is absolute in His authenticity. What He says and does and thinks is true, authentic, genuine, and real.

While it is not wrong to want to purchase authentic handmade goods and have authentic conversations and express our authentic feelings, we must understand that underneath these pangs for authenticity lies a soul-deep need for an authentic encounter with the authentic God.

What John’s audience needed to hear back then we need to hear today. There is a God who is authentic in all He is and does. And He knows our hearts in all their awful authenticity (both the positive and negative connotations of the term). He experienced live authentically as the God-man and he bore an awful death on our behalf. He invites us into an authentic relationship with him. It doesn’t get more authentic that that, does it?

Oh, that we would be pressed even deeper into our desire for authenticity.

Be a Bellwether

“Be a bellwether!” You don’t see that on motivational posters hanging in classrooms. You don’t hear it in pep rallies or board meetings. But you should!

In its present day vernacular a bellwether is a trendsetter, an indicator of the future, or a gauge for future trends. (e.g. the Apple corporation is the bellwether for technological advances). By this definition, I am, by no means, a bellwether. I might be one of the latest adapting humans I know. I still own an iphone 4. I like paper calendars. I listen to CDs in my car.

However, the term actually came from a shepherding practice used in the Middle East and Europe.

When leading their flocks full of personality, some shepherds actually learned to lead through a few sheep. They trained a few particular sheep to listen closely to their voices and to be attuned to their location. Eventually, the shepherds placed a bell around the neck of these “wethers” (thus, the term bellwether). The bellwether served as twofold help to the shepherd. First, the shepherd could listen for the sounds of the bell which would indicate the location and his flock. Secondly, other sheep would follow the bellwether as it followed the shepherd.

This original definition of a bellwether has become a beacon for my heart and soul. In a culture full of influencers, this is a kind of influence I can wrap my heart around. David, the Shepherd-turned-king of Ancient Israel, knew a thing or twenty about leading stubborn animals. His expertise leading animals colored the way He saw the Lord as His own Good Shepherd, as seen so obviously in Psalm 23, but also in Psalm 32.

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eyes upon you. Be not like a horse or mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle, or it will not stay near you. Many are the sorrows of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in the Lord (Psalm 32:9-10).

This entire psalm describes the blessing of being forgiven through honest confession and walking in constant humility and dependence. David knew a thing about being a horse or mule without understanding, as he had stubbornly ignored the Lord and forcefully gone his own way into adultery and murder. He uses his painful experience to call others to stay rather than stray, to invite God’s people to be humbly led by their Good Shepherd.

Stay close to His staff, for He leads to still waters even through valleys shadowed by death. Be attentive to His Spirit’s gentle nudges and slight course corrections. Allow yourself to be led. Make it easy for your Savior-Shepherd to guide you. Be a bellwether whose life helps others find and follow their Good Shepherd.

A Psalm of Life
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Tell me not, in mournful numbers, 
   Life is but an empty dream! 
For the soul is dead that slumbers, 
   And things are not what they seem. 

Life is real! Life is earnest! 
   And the grave is not its goal; 
Dust thou art, to dust returnest, 
   Was not spoken of the soul. 

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow, 
   Is our destined end or way; 
But to act, that each to-morrow 
   Find us farther than to-day. 

Art is long, and Time is fleeting, 
   And our hearts, though stout and brave, 
Still, like muffled drums, are beating 
   Funeral marches to the grave. 

In the world’s broad field of battle, 
   In the bivouac of Life, 
Be not like dumb, driven cattle! 
   Be a hero in the strife! 

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant! 
   Let the dead Past bury its dead! 
Act,— act in the living Present! 
   Heart within, and God o’erhead! 

Lives of great men all remind us 
   We can make our lives sublime, 
And, departing, leave behind us 
   Footprints on the sands of time; 

Footprints, that perhaps another, 
   Sailing o’er life’s solemn main, 
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother, 
   Seeing, shall take heart again. 

Let us, then, be up and doing, 
   With a heart for any fate; 
Still achieving, still pursuing, 
   Learn to labor and to wait.

A Word to Long-Waiting Souls

I know Reformed circles don’t do patron saints, but if they did, Abraham would be the patron saint of long-waiting souls.

In the past month, I have met with women who are waiting for God to provide friends, spouses, children, relief from searing losses, salvation for their children, and clarity. These are named and known longings, but they are often outpaced by our unnamed and unknown longings.

In reality, we are all long-waiting souls, some of us are just more aware of our waiting than others. As believers, we are, all of us, waiting for the world to be the world God intended. As believers, we are, all of us, waiting for ourselves to be the people God always intended.

Waiting can feel excruciating and isolating. It shakes us to the core to wake up daily wondering if today might be the day. Waiting disorients even the most deep-rooted souls.

We can read the story of Abraham and Sarah as a neat whole. We can delineate setting, rising action, climax, falling action, and glorious resolution. But when this aged pair was living the lines we read, they could not.

We feel a ten-second or ten-verse pause between promise and fulfillment; they felt the agony of silence and doubt. We see crystallized moments of clarity and revelation; they felt the chaos of wondering as they were wandering, wrestling to believe God despite everything their senses told them.

I’ve been thinking about Abraham and Sarah and that grand sweeping promise of children more numerous than the stars in the sky and the sand in the desert. I’ve been wondering if, looking up at the night sky on sleepless nights of silence in the long wait, the stars seemed to mock them. I’ve been wondering if, looking down at blistered, wrinkled feet covered with the sands of the desert, they questioned if God would ever allow them to sit down and enjoy the children which followed their faith.

Stars & Sand

It was certainly all stars and sand,
But not in the way we planned.

Though the call had been so clear,
The fulfillment felt not-so-near.

The adrenaline of initial obedience
Weathered and lost its expedience.

The neat story you read as whole,
We lived slowly as a daily dole.

The stellar display every night
Mocked our still-childless plight.

The sea of sand we did traverse
Seemed the promise in converse.

Now, past the vale of star and sand,
We see promise peopled as planned.

His ways are worth the weariness.
His face well worth the teariness.

One day, my long-waiting friend, we will see the full trajectory of His good plans. We will sit in satisfaction in His presence, seeing and experiences the fruit of fulfilled promises. Until, then, hope in the Lord. Be strong and let your hearts take courage; wait upon the Lord (Psalm 31:24).

The Need for Frontiers

Since moving out West, I have found myself fascinated by literature about the frontier. What made people leave the comforts of acred land nestled with shade trees and by an abundance of water risk everything to move to a draught-stricken, untamed, and often uncomfortable land? Was it truly just a lust for land and stars and space? At what point does the risk overrun the reward of such wanderlust?

I am not the first to question these things. Much wiser and more eloquent writers have spent their lives dug into these questions which seem to grow in the parched soil of the West, Wallace Stegner, John Steinbeck, and Seamus Heaney being among my favorites.

Raising three boys, I am watching the hunger for frontiers in my own home. Whenever our stringent schedules allow, we find ourselves longing for some new hike to explore or middling mountain to conquer. When we first moved here ten years ago, I remember reading a plaque at one of our favorite regional parks about mountain lions needing thousands of acres to satisfy their innate need to roam. I watched as my then-young pack of boys ran every which way, needing their own vast territories. It seems mountain lions, little men, and their mothers still need such space.

Whenever we steal away from San Diego to find new frontiers, we enjoy ourselves, but we never leave satisfied. Even on the car ride home, fresh off of a hike (smelling less-than-fresh), we are planning our next adventure. We may not be homesteaders in Conestoga wagons, but I think the same spirit drives us both, separated as we are by centuries and technologies.

Frustrated Frontiers

If some humans are hard-wired for frontiers, all humans share in the frustration that comes when the sought-out frontier cannot carry the weights we have placed upon them. The disillusionment and insidious distilling of disappointment we feel even when we have seen and experienced natural beauty evidences that we are made for more than this life.

In his short story The Red Pony, John Steinbeck explores the theme of the disappointment that comes when we reach the limits of our frontiers. The grandfather in the story is stuck in his memories of his frontier days, though they have long past. He continues to tell the same stories, much to the chagrin of his family.

“It wasn’t Indians that were important, nor adventures, nor even getting out here…It was westering and westering… When we saw the mountains at last, we cried- all of us. But it wasn’t getting here that mattered- it was movement and westering.”

After years of telling the same stories, Grandfather finally admits the frustration on the end of frontiers, whether physical or metaphysical.

“Then we came down to the sea, and it was done…There’s no place to go. There’s the ocean to stop you. There’s a line of old men along the shore hating the ocean because it stopped them.”

Our boys have wanderlust to visit the national parks. They get it honest from their momma who gets it honest from her parents. But even the most amazing natural wonders will stop them like the ocean stopped grandfather. Even in the modern world where frontiers barely exist, we continue our westering. We simply place the frontier line as a certain level of lifestyle or a far-off benchmark of achievement. If we can’t go west anymore, we instead seek to go up- up the ladder of success, following the way of more. More money, more possessions, more adventure, more travel, more influence, more fame.

Yet, all of those frontiers have oceans that will stop us dead in our tracks.

The Father’s Frontier

The reality is that we were made for the inexhaustible and the eternal. Eternity has been stamped in our feeble hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11). We were made to live in the context of an unlimited God whose wonders never cease. In the words of C.S. Lewis, we are wired to keep going “further up and in further in!”

Our hunger for beauty will always outpace the beauty of this broken world. Our need for newness will always be frustrated in our sin-aged world. The shiny of a new home or a new season of life or a new toy will always become scratched. This is a severe mercy that pushes us into the Father’s frontier.

The only ocean we will encounter on that frontier is the never-ceasing ocean of His love. If, rather than seeking to move “westward,” whatever that means for you, we commit to moving deeper into His love and the knowledge of Him, we will never be ultimately disappointed (Romans 5:1-5).

Hymn-writer Frederick Faber perfectly captures this reality in “The Eternal Spirit.”

“Ocean, wide-flowing ocean,
Thou, of uncreated love;
I tremble as within my soul,
I feel Thy waters move.
Thou art a sea without a shore;
Awful, immense, Thou art;
A sea which can contract itself
Within my narrow heart.”

If other frontiers are leaving you frustrated, come join the march of the saints towards the Father’s frontier. Such a pilgrimage will last for an eternity!

Sons are Slippery

I cry during commercials and movies, but I weep at weddings. I can usually hold it together when the bride walks toward her groom, but I officially lose it during the mother/son dance.

As a mother of three sons, I cannot help but imagine myself in that position in the future. In a moment, my mind flashes back through a montage of memories with each of my boys: dancing in the kitchen, watching them ride a bike for the first time, remembering the first time they failed at something significant that broke their heart.

What seemed impossibly far off when they were toddlers toting their blankets becomes more realistic every year. One day, I will send these boys off, not merely to kindergarten or the prom, but to their own future. While they will always be my sons, the intervals between check-ins with their mother have been slowly lengthening. I remember being nervous to leave them for a thirty-minute jog when they were infants. I remember mutual tears at preschool drop-offs. As recently as this year, I cried tears dropping them off for middle school.

Sometimes I want to cling to them, to try to clutch them too close, to corral them in realms I can control. But the best way to hold these boys of mine is with one hand tightly holding the Lord and one hand loosely holding them.

Seamus Heaney’s poem Mother of the Groom perfectly captures the slipperiness of sons. While I don’t know if the Lord has marriage in store for my boys, this poem captures a mother’s heart and the slippery nature of sons well.

“What she remembers
Is his glistening back
In the bath, his small boots
In the ring of boots at her feet.

Hands in her voided lap,
She hears a daughter welcomed.
It’s as if he kicked when liften
And slipped her soapy hold.

Once soap would ease off
The wedding ring
That’s bedded forever now
In her clapping hand.”*

Heaney’s mention of a voided lap and her clapping hands reminds me that there is joy in every season. My older boys have long since vacated my lap. Their disproportionately growing feet barely fit in my lap these days. But they will never vacate my heart. And, as one who has hope in the Lord, I can smile and even clap at the future (Proverbs 31: 25).

Photo by Vytis Gruzdys on Unsplash

For this season, God has entrusted these boys to me. These days are slipping by and these boys of mine are growing increasingly slippery. But the Lord who has entrusted them to me has a love that is steady and sure. To teach them to stand firm in him is one of the highest calls on my life.

I don’t want to pitter away these precious days filled with sweaty socks and deepening voices and constant snacking. I don’t want to miss the fleeting moments that happen as we drive to school or on our occasional hikes. I want to bottle them up and treasure them in my heart.

As I raise them, I have to fight the urge to place my deepest identity in mothering. Such an ill-founded identity will fail them as quickly as it will fail me. My deepest identity must be found in being the beloved of the Lord, the daughter of the Perfect Father, the dwelling place of the brooding-like-a-mother Holy Spirit. As I fight for this identity, my prayer is that it would bleed into their own.

Then, when my lap and these bunk beds are voided, I will still have a lifetime of being siblings in Christ with these slippery sons of mine.

*Seamus Heaney. Opened Ground. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998, 66.