Author Archives: gaimee

The Artful Arranger

Every once in a while I splurge and buy a bouquet of flowers from Trader Joes. I snip the edges, throw them into a plain vase and consider that a victory in the flower department.

My arranging skills leave much to be desired. Not so with my mother-in-law. Amma, as I lovingly call her, has a way with flowers. It’s as if they speak to her and tell her where to arrange them so as to create a beautiful bouquet. You can hand her a pile of random, clashing flowers and sticks, yet she can somehow, in a matter of moments, turn them into the envy of any housewife.

I watch Amma during our visits to Texas. Her eyes naturally gravitate to flora. She notices every blade, bush and begonia. Withour her saying a word, I can see her mind rushing ahead of her into arrangements that perfectly suit each one.

Amma comes from India, a world of strong spices, rich colors and saris that are equal parts modest and revealing. She is as stunning as her culture.

We have a beautiful framed picture in our home of Amma and Appa on the day of their wedding. Amma tells me that she looks nervous and frightful in this photograph because she was, indeed, both of those things. This picture captures her wedding day which also happened to be her second time meeting the man with whom she would spend the rest of her life.

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When I asked Amma how she felt about being arranged, her calm acceptance amazed me. She explained that arrangement, when done well, happens within a very unique and loving environment and presupposes parents’ deep knowledge of their children.

A beautiful arrangement, be it musical, floral or marital, must be preceded by an artful arranger. These arrangers must be keen observers and intimate knowers of their subject matter.

As I look out upon a world and a future that can so often seem chaotic and random, I find myself deeply comforted by the presense and power of an artful arranger. Just as Amma knows her flowers, our God knows His children and His creation. Just as Amma’s hands are naturally adept at twisting and bending and ordering strands and pieces and petals, our God is completely capable as He arranges and directs the strands of history and humanity. His transendence and His cosmic knowledge pair perfectly with His immanence and His intimate knowledge.

At the end of a bumbling yet beautiful life, King David finds great comfort and confidence in the able hands of this perfect arranger God whom he knew intimately. “He has made an everlasting covenant with me, ordered in all things and secured” (2 Samuel 23:5).

Our artful God arranged the painful display of His perfectly beautiful Son on the Cross. In this awful arrangement, He assures us that our brokenness need no longer obscure our beauty.

He knows His children the way Amma knows her flowers. His scarred hands arrange the lives of His children, poising them and positioning them for our great joy and His great glory.

He doesn’t simply throw us in some water the way I do my poor little purchased flowers. He tends and nourishes, draws out and tones down, prunes and pushes His flowers to their fullest potential.

I find great hope, great peace, great comfort knowing that my life, my children’s little lives, and the lives of his global family are being arranged by the Artistic and Able One.

Firm Truths for the Frail

Confession. I haven’t really been studying the Word lately. But it has been studying me  and finding me frail.

Since finding mold in our home and facing the facts that insurance won’t cover water damage done by floodwater, our family has been in triage mode. Almost all spare time has been going to remediation and repairs and our home and our hearts feel like construction zones.

When we first found mold, my motto was, “Let’s destroy as little as possible.” But, the extent of the problem must determine the intensity of the solution. Thus, within a few weeks, we had laid the infected rooms’ walls bare down the studs. Every fiber of my order-loving being wanted quick repair and restoration. Especially during the time of COVID when everything else feels utterly out of control, I longed to control the timeline of getting our home back in order. But you can’t rush remediation and restoration.

If we had, all our efforts would be wasted. Putting up brand new dry wall and covering it with a fresh, clean coat of paint would do precious little if we did not deal with underlying issues and get rid of all the mold.

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All the while, the Lord has been working the gospel deeper into my grumpy heart and showing me his character. My sin is far more insidious and infectious than mold. As much as I naturally want to slap a new coat of paint over it and buy some cute accents to spruce up my soul, God loves me far too much to let me do so.

He expertly, methodically, thoroughly exposes my sin and lays me as bare are our walls. He won’t rush me to restoration. He will apply the gospel to my soul and my life, letting it sink in for days, weeks, even years. For he knows his stuff. He wisely detects the deeply hidden, deeply diseased areas of my heart which need exposure to the light of his presence and the fresh wind of the Holy Spirit to be fully restored.  And he takes his time like a master works man who has no other time table than his own. He will not rush the process that is intended to prepare me for an eternity with him; that would be cheating himself and me in the long run.

In the middle of the restoration process for our home (and apparently the matching process that is going on in my heart), I feel frail, exhausted, and exasperated.

Today, through some Scriptures in the Isaiah 40’s, the Spirit reminded me of some firm truths that comfort frail frames. In these caboose chapters of the long prophetic train that is Isaiah, God’s people are in exile. They are frail, to say the least. And yet into their frailty, God speaks firm hope. Isaiah 40 begins with “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.”

Our Frailty, His Firmness

In our frailty, his words remain firm. Contrary to popular belief, when we find ourselves exposed to the core, we don’t need to be strengthened with lies about our own strength, invincibility, or permanence. Rather, we need to be reminded that we, by God’s own might and mercy, are intertwined with heart of the One who is.

A voice says, “Cry!” And I said, “What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers and the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flower fades,  but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:6-8).  

If I were given an assignment to comfort an exhausted, frail people, I don’t think I would naturally start with the aforementioned phrases. At first listen, they certainly don’t sound encouraging or strengthening. But the source of the Christian’s strength is not found in self, but in the strength of the character and nature of our God. Thus, the most strengthening God can do to comfort his people is to expose their frailty that they might more lean into his firmness. Thus, Isaiah is told to proclaim, “Behold your God!” (Isaiah 40:9) pointing them away from their obvious frailty to his firmness and faithfulness.

Our Frailty, His Fragile Care

In our frailty, he won’t fracture us. He treats the frail with the same fragile care one might employ if one found an injured baby bird. Though his power is gigantic, his demeanor is gentle.

Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him and his recompense before him. He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom and gently lead those that are with young  (Isaiah 40:10-11).

Later, in Isaiah 42, God promises, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench” (Isaiah 42:3). He loves us with a love fierce enough to expose our frailty but a faithfulness and gentleness ready to support and strengthen us.

Perhaps you find yourself as exposed and bare as our walls. In your frailty, may you find the firmness only to be found in the faithful God!

He Turns Futility Into Fertility

Futile. When my fingers grow weary of tracing the silver lining, this is the word that dances through my heart and mind.

For my boys, classrooms once filled with collaboration and creativity have collapsed into packets of worksheets that often feel futile.

Last night, after putting our youngest to bed, we ripped open a wall that I had carefully painted last week only to find more mold. I went to bed with a few tears hitting the pillow as the word futility seemed to sink into my already-heavy heart.

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Perhaps we are not the only ones who feel like they are facing down futility. When every day feels like more of the same and there is no clear light at the end of the quarantine tunnel, futility feels like it is leaking into the crevices of every part of our lives. Small business owners wonder if their efforts to move online and create a sustainable niche  are futile. Teachers wonder if their efforts to make learning through a screen engaging and interactive are futile.

Today, I am fighting to bring all the seeming futility into his presence and place it all into his hands. I am fighting to trust in my heart what I know in my mind to be true: anything and everything placed into his thoughtful care can become fertile.  If a master gardener can use most anything in his or her compost pile, slowly letting even decaying matter turn into an active fertilizer and growth agent, then we have great hope that the Master and Maker of the universe can turn even futility into fertility.

Mold-infested walls and a disrupted, crowded home can become growth agents in the lives of our family.  I have had tunnel vision for three weeks, working overtime beside my husband to try to bring order into our disordered home. But this morning,  I am having to entrust even those seemingly futile efforts to him. Perhaps living in the midst of a construction zone will be more fruitful in their souls than the ordered safe haven I have been frantically trying to restore for them.

My ways are not his ways. His ways are so much higher and deeper and more mysterious than the plans I draw in pencil and then try to solidify with Sharpie.  I long for smooth sailing, but the Lord has concocted quite the perfect storm for us these past few weeks. I have tried to fight the waves, but now that I am tired,  I am asking him to teach me how to float. Floating requires a calm, trusting  spirit, not a sinewy resolve. The latter comes much more naturally to me than the former.

Often times, God seems to have his people march around the perimeter of the impossible, exposing their apparent futility.  He had Abraham and Sarah sit long in their infertility.  He commanded Moses to camp the escaping Israelites right beside the Red Sea. He had Joshua march his rag tag, exposed troop around the formidable walls of an established and fortified city.  He had the disciples stare at a crowd teeming with growling tummies. He let Lazarus’s corpse sit in a tomb for days. He did not call in legions of angels to get his Son down from an instrument of shame.

He did these things, not to subject us to futility, but to showcase his fertility. He is the Master of Life. He speaks and things become. Marching around the perimeter of what seems impossible, we are forced to lift our eyes to him for whom nothing is impossible! In God’s time, Abraham’s aged arms cradled Isaac. In a moment, the sea parted and God’s people proceeded through on dry ground. Impenetrable walls fell at the sound of horns as God’s people watched in wonder and amazement. A little boy’s lunch was multiplied in the hands of Christ to feed the crowds. Lazarus stepped out of the tomb pointing to the  day when Christ would walk out of the tomb as the first fruits of Resurrection life!

Oh, that our eyes would be fixed on the fertile one rather than the seeming futility of this season, whatever it looks like for each of us.

The Year the World was Weaned

The world is being weaned right now. Weaned off of consumerism, weaned off of unprecedented liberties and freedoms, weaned off of the addictive illusion of control, weaned off of busyness. That’s an awful lot of weaning, and the weaning process is not always easy.

I remember when we were making our first poor attempts at weaning our firstborn son.  We were on a summer project with college students living in a musty hotel room as a family of three, yet we decided it was the right time to wean our breastfed son. He went on what we infamously call “the milk crawl,” much like Gandhi’s nonviolent salt march. He refused to take formula. We tried to put the formula power into applesauce, yogurt, and even ice cream to get him to get the nutrients he needed.  After a few days of the hunger strike, we landed on a compromise: whole milk. And thus the weaning fiasco concluded.

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Weaned From
We would do well to remember that we are not the first society that needed to be weaned off of worldliness. In fact, hundreds of years ago, William Wordsworth identified such a need in the English society in which he was raised in his poem, “The World is Too Much With Us.”

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

Busyness, hurried living, consumerism and greed, dissipated passions and lack of wonder. The same insufficient sources of sustenance they sought to feed themselves then, we have been seeking to sustain us in our era.

COVID, with the new order (some might say disorder) it has recently ushered in, has begun a worldwide weaning. To be certain, many of us are refusing to graduate into more mature levels of sustenance, shifting our consumerism from physical shopping carts to online shopping carts and diverting our illusions of control into smaller projects like our homes or hall closets. To be honest, I have done all  of these things in different moments of the past seven weeks; however, I am learning to repent when I find myself craving the milk of the ways of the world. I want to be weaned well so that I might find myself like the Psalmist described himself in Psalm 131.

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I  do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul,  like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time and forevermore! Psalm 131:1-3. 

Weaned To
Weaning implies a shift from what has been one’s steady source of sustenance and a shift toward a new source of sustenance. While we may not have had a say in the weaning process initiated by an invisible virus, we do have a say in our shift towards a new source.

For the believer in Christ, to be weaned off the world and old habits opens up the invitation to feed on fear and worry or to feed more deeply on the Word of God. In his providence, our good father will use this time of upheaval to mature his children. He can wield a pandemic in his hands as a tool by which to wean us from dependence on earthly and visible things that he might train us into mature, settled dependence upon himself.

This process might be bumpy and we may even revert back to old habits.  No one promised weaning would be wonderful or enjoyable. But the believer has meat to eat that the world does not understand or see. We are invited to feast on the bread of life. We have offered to us the better manna from heaven to which the white, flakey stuff from the wilderness provision pointed (see Exodus 16 & John 6:35-40).

Jesus said to them,  “I  am the bread of life;  whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). 

The Greek verb come in v. 35 is present progressive which implies continuing ongoing action. The one comes and keep coming to me will be fed, will be satisfied, will be sustained.

Oh, that we might be weaned well from the world and to the abundant sustenance of Christ.

*Photo by Mehrshad Rajabi on Unsplash

Hanging Harps: Hope on Hiatus

How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? 

Though written thousands of years ago in a specific time and place, Psalm 137 resonates strongly with Christians of every age whose hope has been on hiatus, who are in danger of hanging up their harps.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars, we hung our harps…How can we sing the Lord’s song while in a foreign land? If I forget you, Jerusalem, may might hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth If I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy. 

God’s people sang this mournful song in their exilic journey from their home to the foreign, strange land of Babylon. They had once been a jubilant, hopeful people, singing spontaneous songs of praise and gratitude on lyres and harps. They had known a home where they belonged, where they were understood, where life was as it was meant to be. However, through the complexities of their own sin and refusal to seek and serve God alone, they were led into a dark exile. Nothing was familiar, everything and everyone seemed harsh and unwelcoming. They were close to giving up, they wanted to hang up their harps.

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While Syrian believers can sing this Psalm with a depth of understanding foreign to most Christians, every Christian at some point or another can and should empathize with our exiled ancestors.

While we have never been to Eden, to the world of shalom for which we were tailor made, our hearts remember and long for the home country we have never seen. Our hearts hum the tune of hope and home, even though we can’t quite remember the words. Our disappointments and sense of foreignness remind us that we are indeed exiles on this earth, those looking for a better country, trying to find the way back to the home they never fully knew.

When a baby dies, when a spouse leaves, when a body betrays us in illness, when a child struggles to find friends, when the best the world has to offer leaves us hollow, we ask with the saints of old, “How can I sing the Lord’s song in this strange land?”

When physical hopes have continually been rearranged and/or ruined, it is natural to want to hang up our harps and to harden our hearts. Hope deferred makes the heart sick. 

But that is only half the story.

Desire coming is a tree of life.

God’s people hung on in exile through the dim and far-off promises of the prophets that God would come and bring them home, that while this foreign sojourn felt endless, God had plans of hope and a future. And when they came home, the harps and the hope that seemed futile were picked up and used to sing songs of joy and relief.

So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For, “In just a little while, he who is coming will come, he will not delay,'”and “But my righteous one will live by faith. And I take no pleasure in the one who shrinks back.” But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved. Hebrews 10:35-39. 

As tempting as it is to hang up our harps and to leave our hope on hiatus, we must cling to the promises God has given us. Some days we may only be able to barely hum the tune, but we must ask our Father to keep our home song in our hearts as we pass through a hash and strange land.

As impossible as it may seem now, we will one day sing with the returned exiles a very different song.

When the Lord brought back the captive ones of Zion, we were like those who dreamed; Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.” The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy. Restore our fortunes, Lord, likes streams in the desert, those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping,  carrying seeds to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them.Psalm 126. 

The Sieve of His Sovereignty

Even in all the Coronavirus purging, there are a few children’s book I refuse to let go. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is among them. After a day  of childhood catastrophes like the dentist finding a cavity, stepping on a tack, and the toppling of his ice cream cone while dreaming of a better life on another continent, the little boy concludes the book remembering, “Mom says some days are like this, even in Australia.”

We have had our own Alexander-like week around here. On top of quarantine life and its higher stress and anxiety levels, we found mold in two of our rooms, making our living conditions even more tight. I found out that my beloved godmother is all alone fighting cancer in a hospital in New York the same day that my husband’s father fell, breaking his rib. On top of the big things, there were smaller things like washing the key fob to our only keyless start car and increased sibling spats do to the proportion of people in our home and space compounded with weeks of time.

Needless to say, it was not our favorite week. There was both beauty and laughter, even in the midst of the hard. Our friends graciously found a way to bring us meals while keeping social distance. People are checking in on us and praying with and for us. While it is easy to want to prematurely collapse the tangible needs and tensions in our lives, it is our prayer that our children would watch and experience God’s faithfulness in real time through all of it.

In His Nest
As my godmother’s favorite hymn is “On Eagle’s Wings,” I have been studying Psalm 91 this past week, desperately seeking to find refuge from tarp-covered rooms and deep internal heaviness.

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his pinions and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. Psalm 91:1-4. 

While many have been repeating this psalm almost as a mantra against the dangers of COVID-19, it is significant to know that the psalmist is not promising a danger-free, trouble-free existence. Rather, the psalmist finds hope in the protection and nurturing care of the father in the midst of pestilence, traps set by a broken world, conflict, and plague.

This psalm shares a similar imagery with a song of God’s faithfulness written by Moses in Deuteronomy 32. In both, the Lord is depicted as a powerful bird protecting and caring for his people.

He found them in a desert land, and in the howling waste of the wilderness; he encircled him, he cared for him, he kept him as the apple of his eye. Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that flutters over its young, spreading out its wings, catching them, bearing them on his pinions, the Lord alone guided him, no foreign god was with him. Deuteronomy 32:10-12. 

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The Sieve of His Sovereignty
In Deuteronomy 32, God’s people are depicted on his wings for training, whereas in Psalm 91, God’s people are hidden in safety under his nurturing and sheltering wings. If we read his sheltering protection to mean that nothing dangerous or uncomfortable will ever enter our lives, we completely miss the point.

Dangers befall us on every side, but no danger, no perceived evil comes to us without first passing through the sieve of His sovereignty and passing through the feathers of  his faithfulness.

He absorbs it first, taking the bite out of the blow. And if the blows hurt (and they do), we would do well to imagine them without the insulation of His powerful indwelling presence.  Before the news reaches our hearts, it passes through his scarred hands. Just as Christ took the sting out of death, he takes the evil out of the evil, allowing only trouble that he promises to work for our good and his glory.

When there are nettles in the nest (or mold spores in the walls), we know that his all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving hands have allowed it and have purposes for it beyond what we can see or imagine.  That doesn’t mean we have to pretend that all is fine in the nest or chirp pretending through the pain. It does mean that we take refuge in him, we press further into his breast, and we trust in his proven character.

The writer of Psalm 91 hints at this when he connects a motivational cause to the clause  that begins verse 4, “He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge.” After the semi-colon, the writer gives us the reason for his confident fleeing to the refuge of God: his faithfulness is proven.

The Hebrew word translated faithfulness, emeth, literally means firmness, faithfulness, truth. God’s character is firm, solid, and sure. When one chooses a shield, one ought to consider the qualities of the material of its makeup. Our shield is stronger than diamond, it is the proven goodness of our God’s nature. And the Hebrew word translated shield here is not a small handheld shield, but more like an encompassing shelter in the middle of the battle, a dugout, or a trench. We don’t and cannot even hold it, it holds us.

If you are having your own Alexander week, rest in the refuge that holds up under the heaviest burdens.

 

 

 

Truth to a Twig

“It is not enough to remember. We must hear it again. Prayer is the act in which we hear it again. It is not enough to carry memory verses around with us; we need daily encounters with the resonant voice of God. Prayer is that encounter…We pray, we listen. God speaks his word again and we are restored and renewed in our commitment.”

Eugene Peterson, To Run With Horses

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I know John 15. I have some of it memorized. I have studied it countless times. I could tell you all about the Greek word meno, which means to abide.

That being said, I need to hear it again and again, not from my own voice or even an excellent book, but from the gentle whisper of God himself. I need His Spirit to knead the same truth into my same heart that keeps forgetting. Poetry helps me to hear the same thing more deeply, forces my heart to lean into old truths in new ways.

This week the Lord brought my soul back to John 15, the vine and the branches, in a personal way that revived my quickly shriveling, straining heart. I am so thankful the vine is patient with His branches, gently telling His truth again to twigs.

My little, fretting branch,
What is bothering you?
As others look so green,
Worry taints you blue.

My nervous little twig,
To you the xylem flows.
From my roots it climbs,
Enriching as it goes.

 Tired from your straining,
You are bristled and bent;
Remember to rest again
In grace that won’t relent.

Beautiful bough, you are fed,
Life sap floods these veins.
I promise it will reach you.
My living hope remains.

There, there, little branch,
Your color has returned.
I in thou and thou in me,
As abiding is relearned.