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People are Not Puzzles

As luck (or more accurately the Lord) would have it, I have been alternating reading two books which seem to have little, if anything, in common. The first is a modern work written by Ian Leslie called Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It. The second is Norman’s MacLean’s short story “A River Runs Through It” in which he beautifully and honestly explores the relationships between the men in his family and the Montana past time of fly fishing which they all share.

I told you they didn’t seem very connected; however, the Lord used the strange pairing of these two books to push more deeply into my heart a truth which I already know but for which I am in need of constant reminders: people, though often puzzling, are not puzzles. They are mysterious image-bearers of God we are invited to love, not solve.

The Difference between Puzzles & Mysteries

In Curious, Leslie draws a distinction between puzzles and mysteries.

“Puzzles have definite answers… Puzzles are orderly; they have a beginning and an end. Once the missing information is found, it is not a puzzle anymore. The frustration you felt when you were searching for the answer is replaced by satisfaction.

Mysteries are murkier, less neat… Progress can be made toward solving them…but they don’t offer the satisfaction of definite solutions…Puzzles tend to be how many or where questions; mysteries are more likely to be why and how…We have a tendency to prioritize puzzles over mysteries, because we know they can’t be solved.”

This distinction helps explain why people (myself included) can get sucked into a vortex solving crossword, Wordle, or Sudoku puzzles. It we stick with them long enough (or glance to the answer key often enough), we will experience the satisfaction of completion.

According to Leslie, mysteries, which require more of us, “have a longer half-life than puzzles,” as they are “more challenging, but more sustaining.”

Puzzling People

It is far easier to stereotype people than to actually know them. In fact, sometimes the people who are the hardest for us to wrap our minds and hearts around are those with whom we spend the most time and whom we love the most.

The tension of “A River Runs Through It” depends on the complexity of relationships between two sons and their loving father. While the three have nearly mastered the art of fly fishing over decades of sharing it as a hobby, they are far from mastering or even beginning to truly understand one another.

At the end of the story, reflecting on the death of his brother, the narrator makes two stunning statements of truth that must be paired together. The first: “You can love completely without complete understanding.” The second: “It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.”

When I am lazy or grasping after a false sense of control, I tend to turn the people I love the most into puzzles, looking for a solution that will lead to a sense of completion and satisfaction. I do this in marriage, motherhood, and even in the ways I think about myself. I have found myself often lately looking quizzically at my teenage sons, trying to find the missing bits of information that might “solve them.” I don’t say this aloud, but thoughts like, “Once they ____” or “If they only could ___.” betray that I am making them into puzzles.

However, God doesn’t invite me to solve them. He invites me to love them in all their mystery.

Inviting Mystery

As image-bearers of an infinitely mysterious God, people are complex and deep, changing and growing constantly. Proverbs 20:5 tells us, “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.”

I long to be and to become a woman of understanding who is patient and humble enough to draw people out. However, weekly, I feel as if I am operating above my pay grade in seeking to love people who puzzle me. God has been slowly teaching me to leave space for mystery, both in my relationship with him and my relationship with others, especially those closest to me.

We will spend eternity unpacking and exploring the glorious depths of our mysterious Triune God. So it seems that our time on earth is well spent when we practice appreciating the mystery within his individual image-bearers. I am fighting to learn to leave space for the depths in those I love most deeply to cry out to the depths in our God (Psalm 42:7).

When I lack wisdom in how to approach them or love them or serve them, I am slowly, fitfully learning to ask him for the perfect wisdom that he gives freely without any reproach (James 1:5). While they remain mysteries to me, their hearts are uncovered and laid bare before his eyes (Hebrews 4:13). He knows who they are, how they operate, where they are headed, and what they need far more than I ever could. For now we see in part, as in a mirror dimly, but one day we will know fully when we are fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Sweet & Sore: Thoughts on Kingdom Goodbyes

Our Christmas cards still hang on an often-seen door in our home. And it is not because I am that tardy on putting decorations away. It is because those Christmas cards are worth so much more than the cardstock on which they are printed; they represent a web of kingdom relationships that stretch all over the world.

Kingdom living assumes that life will be a series of sweet and sore goodbyes. I don’t know how I missed it for so many years of reading the Scriptures. Perhaps I just scanned through the beginnings and ends of most of the epistles, assuming they were merely introductions and conclusions. Perhaps I was naive enough to think that relationships remained relatively stable for adults and churches. Either way, it has taken me a few decades of ministry and kingdom partnerships to realize that great love opens us up to (temporary) great loss.

Sweet & Sore

Underneath and preceding the epistles were webs of human relationships held together by the person and work of Christ. These significant gospel relationships in the early church compelled the Spirit-inspired writing of much of the New Testament . Apostles wrote to congregations peopled with those whom they either knew dearly or longed to know dearly. When Paul wrote the letter to the Philippians, he had in mind Lydia whom he had met by the river, the jailer whose hide he saved in such a way that he was truly saved, and the formerly demon-possessed girl whom he had helped free (see Acts 16).

When Paul wrote to the Ephesian church, his heart swelled with sentiments and prayers for the congregation with whom he had spent the longest time on his many missionary journeys. It is clear through the tears recorded in Acts 20 that the parting of Paul and the elders of the Ephesian church was a painful yet purposed parting. When John wrote letters from the island of Patmos, he likely had specific faces and families, conversations and converts, relationships and real-life memories in mind.

Kingdom living is an invitation to love people deeply and hold them loosely. My military friends have taught me so much about kingdom living because, more than most civilians, they understand concepts that are necessary to living as elect exiles on this earth. Like the Roman centurion who approached Jesus about the healing of his beloved servant, military families understand what it means to live life under a greater authority (Matthew 8:5-13). When the powers that be say move, they move, whether it feels natural or not. Due to their constantly receiving new orders, those in the military learn to love deeply, growing deep roots, even when they know they will be repotted. I am fighting to learn from them, but my heart shrinks back from relationships when I know that deep love can and often will lead to what feels like great loss.

This summer we have sent out multiple sets of friends who are far more than friends. These are the kind of people who can read your soul with one quick glance. Having done so much life and ministry together, we finish each other’s stories and sentences. There is no need to back-fill stories since we have spent decades in the trenches of life and ministry together. Goodbyes like these tempt me to harden my heart, but they also remind me that a Good God prepares and empowers us for this kind of kingdom living.

The Pierced Hand that Parts Our Ways

The hopeful hellos and the gripping goodbyes we experience as believers on this side of the New Heavens and the New Earth are not haphazard. Behind the coming and going and the pairing and parting is our Triune God. God, the Father, providentially postures and positions his people for his glory and our good (Romans 8:28-32). Jesus, the Son, parts us with pierced hands and a burning heart, knowing full well the weight of human goodbyes. He who knew the joy and awkwardness of introductions (read the calling of the disciples) also knew the tearful, tearing pain of parting (read the parting words of Jesus to his cronies in the Upper Room). The Jesus who bids us part ways with people and places we have grown to love knew the searing pain of leaving his mother in the care of his best friend from the Cross (John 19:26-27). God, the Holy Spirit, translates our unintelligible sighs at parting into prayers of purpose (Romans 8:26-27). He reminds us of what is true and buttresses our faith for the future with recollections of God’s past faithfulness.

While the world frowns upon the ordering of authority, we know that God’s thoughtful and perfect ordering of His people is a gift and a mark of ownership. In a letter to a friend, Amy Carmichael wrote, “It gives a peculiar sort of confidence that even we – we who are nothings – are being ‘ordered’ in our goings. It is very good to be ‘ordered’ by our beloved Lord.”

The Ultimate Reunion

Kingdom goodbyes lift our eyes from our temporal habitats to our ultimate home. Like a river whose streams unite and split, unite and split, unite and split until they reach their final destination, kingdom relationships move with purpose to a clear and everlasting end. From this perspective, the goodbyes we say to those whom we love and with whom we have worked as gospel partners are necessary steps toward a deeply desired end. Our goodbyes enable God’s glory to spread further and deeper to new people and places. Though the spaces between the streams may have spread, the ultimate destination is the same.

And what a destination it is! We get to work towards and wait upon the day we will dine at the marriage supper of the Lamb together. And, oh, the stories we will share and the remarkable faithfulness we will remember from our different stations and seasons. Until that day, let us continue to love deeply and hold loosely as those lovingly ordered by our agape authority!

Hefted like a Herdwick

I love reading about both vocation and location. In a world that is increasingly full of generalists and largely globalized into a strange digital sense of sameness, learning about people who are experts in one job and/or one place is refreshing. Reading about their place and their task strangely resharpens and refocuses me on my own place and my own task even if they are quite literally world away.

Providentially, I picked up a book that caught my eye at the used book sale: The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape by James Rebanks. Written by a shepherd from the Lake District of England, the book captured my imagination from the start. After being introduced to the area and the arduous work of shepherding Herdwick sheep on the fells (which means craggy hills, it seems) It is not hard to understand why the author chose to return to them after being the rare shepherd’s son who received an Oxford education.

In addition to exacerbating my desire to visit England, the book left me briefly wondering if I should try my hand at farming. But then I realized that I can barely keep my succulents alive in one of the sunniest climates in that States and struggle to herd my three children on the daily. Ultimately, the book led me to deeper intimacy with my own shepherd even though the author did not likely intend such an outcome.

Hefted Sheep

The book begins with an introduction to a shepherding term: hefted. In its noun form, a heft is a piece of upland pasture to which an animal has been hefted (which doesn’t help much if you don’t know what hefted means). In its adjectival form, hefted describes a sheep that has become accustomed and attached to a particular area of upland pasture.

In non-shepherd terms, the sheep don’t need to be fenced on these hills which are common land. Though there are no barriers or barricades, the sheep don’t want to leave their particular pasture and place. Rebanks explains hefting in the following manner:

“Beyond our common lies other undenied areas of mountain land, other fells, farmed by other commoners, so in theory our sheep could wander right across the Lake District. But they don’t because they know their place on the mountains. They are ‘hefted,’ taught their sense of belonging by their mothers as lambs- an unbroken chain of learning that goes back thousands of years.”

Essentially, hefted is another way to say these sheep have found their deepest and preferred home. This seems strange, especially when you realize that the fells to which they are hefted are not an easy-living environment. In fact, the Northern Lake District fells are extreme pastures with harsh winters, which leads me to the next point.

Herdwick Sheep

My knowledge of sheep reaches to the level of the average preschooler. They say bah. They start out white. They get dirty. We get wool from them. They are not the brightest of animals, thus they need the near-constant care of a shepherd.

But, as I learned from the book, not all sheep are created (or should I say bred?) equally. Herdwick sheep are a prized commodity among shepherds in England because of their hardiness which has been passed on for thousands upon years. Having wintered within their mothers in the biting weather on the harsh landscape of the fells, the lambs become tough cookies. If they can survive the fells, they can thrive on any other pasture in England, thus, explaining their place as a prized stock. Those who shepherd Herdwick sheep take great pride in their choice flocks largely because they have taken great pains to keep them alive, constantly caring for them and thinking for their welfare.

Below, Rebanks describes the importance of the winters in raising a true Herdwick sheep:

“These cold, hard, wet weeks are when Herdwicks come into their own. Few other breeds would survive the winter here carrying their lambs in their bellies…the bond between shepherd and flock is formed in these cruel months.”

As I read about this prestigious breed of plucky sheep, I found myself praying that God would shepherd me and our flock to be like them.

Hefted to the Good Shepherd

The more I read about the incredibly monotonous and grueling yet deeply thoughtful and considerate work of being a shepherd, the more I found myself worshipping the One who is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep (John 10:1-18). God could have chosen someone from nearly any vocation to replace the apostate King Saul, but he chose a shepherd boy. David, who knew the sobering and strenuous work of shepherding, brought that knowledge into the task of leading God’s people (1 Samuel 17: 31-37). The Scriptures, from the Old Testament all the way through the New, are laced with shepherd and sheep language describing God’s interactions with his people (Isaiah 40:11;Isaiah 53:6-7; 1 Peter 2:21-25).

Rebanks’s detailed descriptions of caring for his flock included his waking up early with the sheep chief on his mind and not stopping to pause until all their needs had been met and ailments addressed. I found his three rules of shepherding helpful as I seek to be a spiritual shepherdess to our own little flock:

“First rule of shepherding: it’s not about you, it’s about the sheep and the land. 
Second rule: you can’t win sometimes. 
Third rule: shut up, and go and do the work.”

However, I could not help but contrast his rules with our perfect Shepherd who always wins and has already done all the work. While my prayers for myself and my flock have not changed, they have deepened and grown more descriptive. I want us to be like a Herdwick flock, only I want us to be hefted not to a particular place, but to a particular person: the person of Christ who is our Perfect Shepherd.

The Transition to Teens: Showing Hospitality to the Strangers in Your Own Home

As a family, we are committed to practicing hospitality. This does not look like a Pinterest-inspired meal with neatly-folded napkins and elaborate, earthy centerpieces. It looks like a commitment to make space for the other and to seek to see the stranger and the alien in our midst. It takes effort and intentionality. It often causes stress and stretches us. But it is worth it because God is worthy.

As those who have been recipients of the hospitable God who makes space for us to such a degree that he actually stepped into space to save us, we reflect his image even in our shoddy attempts at showing hospitality to others. God’s word commands it, and his love compels it.

I thought I had been stretched appropriately in this arena; however, lately, I have been learning a new form of hospitality: making space and room for the resident aliens in my own home (our teenagers).

Resident Aliens

Teenagers are strangers, even to themselves. Outside of their initial growth as babies, at no other time are they changing, growing, and stretching so much (physically, spiritually, emotionally, relationally). It helps me to remember this God-ordained reality when the boys with whom I have shared my heart and my home for fourteen and fifteen years suddenly seem like an alien species. Their voices are different, the synapses in their brain are being re-circuited, and hormones are rising like sudden tsunamis that neither of us expect.

Their interests are changing (sometimes daily), and that often leaves me feeling like I’m lost without a map in uncharted territory. As soon as I get my mind around being a skater-mom and start to understand skateboard brands, they have moved on to surfing or videography. I knew that the teenaged-years would be a transition for them, but I don’t think I knew it would be such a transition for me as well.

I find myself continually grateful that Jesus lived through this phase himself, thereby acknowledging and sanctifying these years. I find myself in places of deeper dependence upon prayer than I have since those early newborn days. I am having to keep shorter accounts. I am daily confessing my idols of control and facing my own insufficiency. In fact, the pages of my Bible are growing thin in a few places.

“Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling” (1 Peter 4:8-9).

Peter challenged the early church to remain fervent or earnest in their love for one another, knowing that they would need God’s abundant love to cover a multitude of sins, mistakes, and missteps in their attempt to do so. The Greek word, ektenés, translated earnest or fervent, literally means “stretched out fully” and is the root word for the English terms “tense” and “tension.”

I am so thankful that Peter chose to use this word, as it aptly describes the tension and the strain involved in loving one another earnestly and showing hospitality to one another, even to the ones who live in our homes. These verses leave me clinging to another verse:

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given to you” (James 1:5).

A Delicate Dance

Teenagers need both space and presence. Loving my teenaged boys looks like a delicate dance with lots of stepping on toes, apologies, and tearful conversations on both sides. But it is an incredible dance that leads me to both dependence and delight.

Our Dance

I struggle to get the spacing right
As we learn a new kind of dance. 
I loved our past choreography-
Its simple steps, your typical glance. 

There’s a depth now to your eyes,
Matching the mystery in your soul. 
We still move in a partnership, 
But I’m a bit unsure of my role. 

You keep growing and changing,
Finding your own tempo and pace.
Balancing proximity and distance 
Requires great measures of grace.

I’m learning to let you lead, son.
You are learning you know how,
We’re both preparing for a future 
When another will kiss your brow. 

The dance isn’t always graceful;
We’ll step on an occasional toe. 
But know it’s my distinct delight
 To dance with you as you grow.  

These resident aliens are keeping me on my toes and on my knees. What a privilege it is that God would entrust them to me.

Lessons from the Border

Our first mission trip as a family was an assault on the senses. We took in so much in such a short amount of time while moving at such a dizzying rate that I am just beginning to prayerfully process nearly a week later. Two particular images keep coming to my heart and mind: the tidiness of a tent city and the cartwheeling son of a fire-breather.

The Tidiness of a Tent City

Our first full day in Tijuana, we went to serve at a shelter for those seeking asylum in the United States (currently waiting at the border). When we parked the car, I was overwhelmed by the dirt, feces, and subsequent flies in the street. I held my son’s hand tightly as if to protect him from all he was seeing for the first time. Thus, you can imagine my shock when we walked into the semi-open-air shelter of corrugated metal to see a tidy little city of well-kept tents. The place was immaculate by any standards, but especially considering the fact that over one-hundred-fifty women and children were living in such a small space.

The families living in the shelter seemed to take great pride in the fact that they were among the lucky few who had shelter, food, and bathroom access for three months. As we were playing with the children, I even found myself feeling something like jealousy at the kind of community they had become. The children acted like siblings to each other, and the adults stepped in to love, direct, and even correct the children, even those who were not their own.

Having so little, they had a vibrant, generous, ordered community life that few Americans experience though they have so much. We gave them medicine, but they gave us the better medicine of a joyful heart despite jarring circumstances (Proverbs 17:22). Those tidy tents taught me a thing or twenty about community, gratitude, and grace.

The Cartwheeling Son of a Fire-Breather

We all know the statement that truth is often stranger than fiction, but it can also be sadder. After three incredibly long days of helping put on multiple medical clinics, our crew loaded up in our over-filled car to head back home. We anticipated the long wait time at the border and I thought we were accustomed to the things we would see as we waited, but I did not anticipate the way one of the side-acts would since take center-stage in my mind.

As we were waiting in the long, slow lines of traffic, my eyes were drawn to a father and his two sons. Leaving the younger child in the stroller, he stopped and began a fire-breathing act along the barricade. While the fire-breathing tricks initially did their job in grabbing my attention, the son of the fire-breather stole my heart. Seeking to help his father earn some change, he began doing some unbalanced and unpolished cartwheels and handstands of his own.

At the time, I catalogued this act along with countless others who were performing songs, playing guitars, and selling their wares. But this one was different, as the Lord would continually bring it back to mind and memory.

As many times as I have read or taught on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, you would have thought I would not have missed the moment. But I did. I fell right into the role of the priest: “Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side” (Luke 10:31). We are usually quick to assume the worst about the priest, but it is likely he had been serving all day, fulfilling his priestly duties, and meeting needs in sacrificial ways. Having “clocked out,” and being wearied from service, few would fault him with following convention and tradition to avoid an unclean situation with someone who was not even among his flock. But he missed it. He missed his chance to see and experience and become more like the Savior whose coming he eagerly sought. And I did the same.

Cartwheeling Son of a Fire-breather

Cart-wheeling son of a fire-breather,
As you did your tricks, I turned away.
I tried not to notice your plight,
Yet you come to mind everyday.

Your earnest, eager desire to please,
To add to your dad’s dangerous show
As if your life depended upon it
Shakes all that I think I know.

Tired from serving, I sat and watched,
But now, I wish I had run –
Through traffic, past convention –
To point you to God’s Son.

You don’t have to grab his attention;
You live always under His sight.
And, unlike me, his broken servant,
He never turns away from your plight.

I don’t want to keep being the priest who missed his moment with the Lord he served. I want to have eyes wide-open to encounters with the Christ who in the words of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “plays in ten thousand places/ Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his/ To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

I don’t want to be led by convention or convenience. I want to be compelled and controlled by the love of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:14-15).

The Best Ten Minutes of My Week

Scott Van Pelt does a segment on his sportscasting show called “The Best Thing I Saw Today.” If I were to have a church planting show (which would be weird) I would have a segment called “The Best Ten Minutes of My Week.” Only it would not change, as the best thing that happens every week has been the same since the beginning of our baby church a year ago.

It may not seem like much to an outsider looking in. It definitely doesn’t start in a fancy manner. In fact, it starts with an early morning trip to a neighborhood grocery store. The receipt simply shows a loaf of fresh bread and a plastic jug of grape juice. But, even as I pour the juice into tiny plastic cups, I get excited for what will come.

We are a small, but growing church of around fifty adults weekly (and a slew of precious kids and teens). We worship in a borrowed space. Often our sound system does not work right. One time our baptismal leaked into the basement. There is usually something to giggle about after the service. But every week, after we hear the Word opened up and are carefully pointed to Jesus, we line up for a family meal. Thus begins the best ten minutes of my week.

There is no hiding in a small church plant. We know each other, which means we know each other’s beauty and the brokenness. We enjoy each other’s gifts and often experience each other’s besetting sins. But as our people line up to receive the bread and the “wine,” I am brought to tears each week.

I watch as my husband and our co-pastor offer a personal blessing to each of our flock. I watch downcast eyes and dispositions change as our people are reminded of the truths of the gospel. I watch them eagerly receive a piece of simple bread (sometimes too large a piece when my hubs is handing out the elements) because they know they are starving for the grace and strength that only Christ can provide. I watch my husband offer his children the bread of life as a peer and sibling in the Lord. I watch our two pastors humbly offer each other the bread and “wine” that they both so desperately need.

We line up to receive and remember and reenact (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).

And in those few moments in the family meal, I temporarily forget all the work of rearranging chairs and making coffee and cleaning bathrooms. People are hungry to hear the truth, not only those who know and forget and know and forget, but those who have not yet known. I need to eat this bread and drink this cup with these people. Every week. This is why we are working alongside Jesus as he establishes this local flock.

Greater than the miracle of manna in the wilderness is the reality of God’s love displayed on the Cross. Better than meat delivered by ravens is the Spirit’s delivery of the Scriptures to hungry hearts.

Madeline L’Engle introduced me to two powerful lines from a Conrad Aiken poem entitled “Bread and Music”:

“Music I heard with you was more than music, 
And bread I broke with you was more than bread;”

Those lines perfectly capture our experience Sunday by Sunday. Bread eaten with this flock is more than bread, not because of anything we do, but because of what Jesus has already done.

Our ten-minute meal fuels us for the week ahead where we will fumble through our days attempting faithfulness. Our ten-minute meal gives us a taste of the abundant love we will need to remember if we are to cover over each other’s faults and foibles in the coming few days (1 Peter 4:8). Our ten-minute meal levels the classes and divisions that the world will use to categorize us as soon as we walk out the doors. It makes us siblings and peers at the table of our impartial heavenly Father.

Every week in this church planting adventure there are unexpected hurdles or hard conversations or heavy burdens. But those only make me more eager for the joy I expect for the best ten minutes of my week.

Let Loneliness Lead You to the Faithful Friend

Underneath the noisy newsfeeds and behind the flowery photo opps with lovely lattes, many women are living what Thoreau called “lives of quiet desperation.” I know this because I feel it myself, and I regularly hang out with women who share the same sentiments. Beneath the busy schedules and surface relationships, many women are starving for authentic friendships.

When Mother Teresa visited the affluent Western world, she was wise enough to make the following observation:

“In the developed countries, there is a poverty of intimacy, a poverty of spirit, of loneliness, of lack of love. There is no greater sickness in the world today than that one.”

The Long Loneliness

Dorothy Day who helped found the Catholic Workers Movement and lived faithfully among the poor and working classes had her own sense of poverty: a relational one. As a single mother and as an ordinary believer living in the already/not yet of the kingdom of God, she experienced what she called “the long loneliness” all of her life.

I love that phrase because it honestly depicts an ongoing struggle with feeling alone or never fully known or at ease. We all experience it though to differing degrees and in differing seasonal lengths. As an introvert who does ministry, I feel loneliness both acutely and chronically. Usually when the creeping sense of sadness and aloneness starts to creep in, I try to busy myself to avoid it. Fill the schedule. Work on a project. Read a new book. Get things done.

But as I age, I am learning to lean into loneliness even though it feels scary and vulnerable. For loneliness is a costly invitation to walk more deeply towards our faithful friend, Christ.

Long More, Not Less

I used to deal with unfilled longings like Whack-a-Mole. When one came up, I immediately sought to shove it down and pretend it never showed itself. But this approach to longing and life is more Buddhist than Christian. Desires, as much as they may cause us to ache, remind us that our hearts are made for far more than even the best this earth has to offer us. Piercing desires are homing devices that keep us aligned with our true North and help get us back to our eternal nest.

As such, I am learning to sit in the loneliness I sometimes feel. In the moment, I am learning how to drag such seemingly unmentionable hungers to the throne room and tell God honesty what I feel. I love how Robert Hugh Benson, a spiritual writer from the early 20th century, captured Christ’s desire for our honesty:

“As our God he knows every fiber of the being which he has made; as our Savior he knows every instant in the past in which we have swerved from his obedience; but, as our friend, he waits for us to tell him.”

I tell him how alone and unseen I feel. I’ve done that for a while. But lately, I have also been honest enough to express my frustration and lack of faith to him as the One who could ultimately fix these feelings but, lovingly and patiently, lets them persist. I bring my wrestling with him to him, and he listens. In my complaining about lack of kindred friends, he shows himself to be the epitome of a faithful friend. What a gracious friend we have in him! What a wonder!

Long in the Light

While I have always been comfortable being honest with God, being vulnerable with people has been a slowly-acquired skill for me. To even let my precious, trustworthy husband of sixteen years into the battles of my brain and the howling of my heart takes effort and courage. I often can’t do it until I am so tired and needy that I have no choice. I usually wait until we are both about to fall asleep because its takes me all day to gather the strength to be so exposed. But over the years, the time it takes to drag my longings into the light has shortened. I am beginning to wonder if this should be a more real measure of maturity than a sanitized, sacrosanct soul.

When we walk in the light, others open up about their longings. This does not mean we seek to meet each other’s longings or fix them (though often our reflex will be to try to do so), it simply means that we validate those longings and point each other to the One who will meet them all, whether sooner or later. I love how Henri Nouwen (another brave struggler with long loneliness) captures it, “It is in the intimate fellowship of the weak that love is born.”

Long for the Faithful Friend

God is such a good and faithful friend to us that he has given us ready-made language to express the deepest, most seemingly unutterable desires of our hearts. In the Psalms, our dearest, most faithful friend has provided prompts to help us share vulnerably in the safety of his sheltering presence.

“The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant. My eyes are ever toward the the Lord, for he will pluck my feet out of the net. Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted” (Psalm 25:14).

There are literally innumerable reasons to praise God since he is inexhaustible in both the quality and quantity of his goodness. But lately, I have found myself camped out in the reality that the God of the universe would call us friends (John 12:15-16).

May this short poem from the book The Friendship of Christ by Robert Hugh Benson remind you of the faithful friend you have in Christ this morning and for eternal mornings.

“He is as good as he is great.
His love is as ardent as it is true.
He is as lavish of his promises as he is faithful in keeping them.
He is as jealous of my love as he is deserving of it.
I am in all things his debtor, but he bids me call him friend.”

The Inflation We Tend to Encourage

I’m not usually one to keep up with economic trends like inflation, largely because I don’t fully understand it. However, even as someone who is accustomed to exorbitantly high West Coast gas prices, the cost of filling my car with gas is something I can no longer ignore.

I may not understand inflation, but I sure am discouraged by it. All this inflation talk has had me thinking about the kind of inflation we tend to encourage: the inflation of earthly knowledge.

We live in an age of competing knowledge where armchair experts claim to know better than everyone else. We love to clean on phrases like “Clinically-proven” and “Studies have shown.” In our day and age, people tend to wield knowledge like a weapon, using statistics, studies, and even sometimes sermons to try to decimate intellectual sparring partners.

Don’t get me wrong. I love knowledge and always have. I take great joy in learning and teaching all kinds of things. And I hope that I have passed such a passion for learning on to my children. But knowledge (not even knowledge of spiritual things) is not the end all be all; being known by God is. There are plenty of people with parades of accolades after their names who have knowledge but are not known by God and growing to know him more.

When writing to the church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul addresses a sinful inflation that comes from thinking we have superior knowledge to others.

“This knowledge puffs up but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God” (1 Corinthians 8:1-3).

Through James, the Scriptures offer us a similar plumb line or a standard against which to measure our knowledge. Writing to believers in the early church, he draws a clear distinction between wisdom from above and earthly wisdom.

“Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealously and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (James 3:13-18).

I memorized this in college when I was first beginning to try to kill the monstrous idol of academic pride I had fed my entire life up until that point. I borrowed David’s prayer for truth in the inner parts and wisdom in the secret heart (Psalm 51: 6) . I sought to trade my prideful, noisy knowledge that wanted to make itself known to the watching world for the kind of knowledge that can rest quietly and peacefully in the heart of one has wisdom (Proverbs 14:33).

Earthly wisdom puffs up self, creating swollen, easily-inflated (and equally-easily-deflated) egos, whereas godly wisdom builds up others. Our culture and our flesh flaunt the former and shun the latter. In fact, the Greek word that Paul used while writing to the Corinthian church about earthly knowledge, phusioó, literally means to over-inflate by blowing or to cause to swell up. Scripture juxtaposes such breathing which swells up with the wisdom that comes from the pneuma or breath of the Holy Spirit. Such wisdom sustains and fills us, but not so that we think more highly of ourselves but, rather, so that we think more rightly about God, self, and others.

Earlier in the same letter to the puffed-up Corinthian Church, the Apostle Paul clearly equated the person of Christ with the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 8:24). Drawing out this reality, the Apostle Paul further explained to these contentious believers that it made no sense to boast in men or the wisdom of men when you have all things already resting in Christ (1 Corinthians 3:21). I wish I did not find so much of the Corinthian church in and around me, but I struggle similarly to them still.

Tomorrow night, we are headed to an academic awards night for our eighth grader. ‘Tis the season. But I find myself praying desperately that he and our entire family (beginning with me) would be marked by true wisdom that can only come down from above. Like most things in God’s kingdom, such wisdom is not gained by granted as gift to those with space. The only need for such wisdom is to be deeply aware of our need for authentic wisdom and deeply suspicious of its cultural counterfeits.

I am fighting to be weary of all inflation, not only the economic kind but also the academic kind. Our wallets may deflate a bit each day due to inflation, but, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can encouraged and appropriately filled with the kind of knowledge that does not inflate self but rather builds up others.

When Fiction Strengthens Faith: Willa Cather and Love for the Local

We live in Southern California. My driver’s license and return address stamp have told me so for more than a decade, but it is only recently that my heart has been telling me the same. It seems strange that, in a time when everyone seems to be fleeing our state, God has been growing our roots physically, spiritually, and relationally deeper into it.

Many who visit here fall quickly in love with San Diego’s perma-perfect weather. Tourists are captivated by her coastline and tummies are tantalized by her taco trucks. But this love is a surface sentiment that largely ignores the brokenness of our city.

Ours is not a blind love for our local region. The longer we have lived here, the more I see the ugliness underneath the shiny veneer: the systemic housing issues, the promiscuity, and the prevalence of sex-trafficking break our hearts. So do the girls who strut the streets wearing next-to-nothing who have bought the lie that they are their bodies alone. The fact that so many here do not know their right hand from their left (to borrow a biblical phrase from the book of Jonah) leaves me in tears at least once a month.

But this is not a post about Southern California, it’s a post about learning to love where you live in an eyes-and-hearts-wide-open kind of way. God often uses fiction to strengthen and buttress my faith. And lately, as I read Willa Cather’s classic novel O Pioneers!, I found myself resonating with the protagonist Alexandra’s realistic but resilient love for her land. While we are clearly not homesteaders, God has called us to pioneering ministries on the West Coast.

The Heart of a Pioneer

As the daughter of a Swedish pioneer, Alexandra Bergson knew first hand the hardness of the Nebraska land. Cather captures this harshness writing, “In eleven long years John Bergson had made but little impression on the wild land he had come to tame. It was still a wild thing that had its ugly moods; and no one knew when they were likely to come, or why. Mischance hung over it. Its Genius was unfriendly to man.”

Despite summers of drought and pestilence, Alexandra continued to love and invest in the hard land even after the death of her father left her in charge as a young, single woman. When family after family gave up attempts at pioneering and homesteading to head back to already-tamed East Coast cities, Alexandra exclaims, “Sometimes I feel like I am getting tired of standing up for this country.”

Yet she persisted in her pioneering spirit and anchored her heart in Nebraska. Returning from a trip to look at some farms nearby, Cather writes the following about Alexandra’s love for her locality:

“For the first time, perhaps since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning. It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious. Her eyes drank in the breadth of it, until her tears blinded her.”

While I don’t drown in the beauty of our desert landscape marked with light brown, dark brown, and sandy brown, my eyes fill with tears when I think about out city and its people. I find myself crying as I pray for God to open people’s eyes to the glories of the gospel here in Southern California. I, too, grow tired of defending our love for this lost place and its particular people who are stamped in the image of God. I know our California politics are progressive and that it is considered a land of hippies, fruits, and nuts, but God has good in store for people here. He has sheep that have not returned to his fold.

Loving the Place of Your Exile

It did my heart good to find a fictional character who embodied a pioneering calling to a particular place. So often I find myself dreaming of greener pastures or easier spiritual climates. I want to feel less lonely and less like an exile. For the sake of comfortability, I want to be surrounded by an abundance of people who think like me, look like me, and approach the world the same way I do; however, God has called us to a place where those people are hard to come by. Sometimes I am tempted to grow embittered by the dryness of our desert-like spiritual climate which mirrors our physical draught-stricken soil.

God used Willa Cather’s Alexandra Bergson to strengthen my faith this week. Through this fictional character, I saw a picture of what it might look like to live out God’s calling to his elect exiles, as seen through the words of the prophet Jeremiah:

Thus say the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I h ave sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters…Multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I send you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (Jeremiah 29:4-6&7).

Alexandra loved her land and its people in the way that God asked the exiles in Babylon to approach Babylon. This is the same way that I imagine God wanted Jonah to love Nineveh: with an honest, persistent, eyes-wide-open love. For when Jonah ran away to a more tame and comfortable land, the Lord rebuked him and reminded him of his love and pity for such a lost city (Jonah 4:8-11).

When we are tempted to run from our posts or begrudge the places of our callings, may we borrow God’s strength and love for our locations. May we ask God to give us his eyes to see the same places with a different sight.

And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season, we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunities, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith (Galatians 6:9-10).

Inscape in an Escapist World

Our newsfeeds, both the ones in our minds and the real ones that capture our attention, constantly bid us to escape from our realities. They invite us to wish we were on a secluded, tropical island or exploring the French Riviera. They tell us that if we could only get a new set of mid-century modern furniture and some macrame hanging plants, our lives would be richer, simpler, and more beautiful.

Our escapist culture allures us, whether explicitly or implicitly, to run away to external things for renewal and refreshment. On the backdrop of such an escapist world, inscape, a concept termed by the Jesuit poet Gerard Manly Hopkins, resonates deeply.

The Dearest Freshness Deep Down Things

Hopkins used inscape to describe the unified and complex characteristics that give each thing its uniqueness, and he captures this concept poetically in his famous poem God’s Grandeur where he wrote, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”

While the world bids us look out, Hopkins invites us to look deeper into the things, places, and people all around us. When I find myself imagining that a trip to Hawaii would satisfy me, Hopkins would invite me to fight to see the beauty of the Hibiscus flower growing in a pot in my own backyard. When I find myself buying the lie that what I need is a new set of circumstances, Hopkins gently invites me to ask God for new eyes to see the same things more deeply and differently. With the help of the Holy Spirit and an attuned focus, the mundane drives to soccer and baseball practices with my sons become opportunities to see who God has made them with fresh eyes.

When the world lures me to run away, Hopkins bids me grab a spiritual shovel to begin digging for a dearer freshness deep down the things and people in my present life. Hopkins can say this because he knew that those who dig deep enough would eventually find God, the Creator, at the bottom. For freshness can only come from the abundance of the life-giver and source of all refreshment: the Triune God.

The Dearest Freshness Deep Within Us

Scripturally, we see a similar invitation in the Word of God. Although Christianity is the farthest thing from navel-gazing and looking for life in things and people themselves, Christ gives his children new eyes to see God in all things. The Scriptures are replete with terms like “inner man,” “within,” and “the secret place” which reminds us that God sees us all the way through. While the world looks upon the outward appearance, God looks upon the heart or in the inscape, to borrow Hopkins’ term (1 Samuel 16:7).

Our God desires truth plastered not only on our newsfeeds and walls but more significantly within our deepest parts: “Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart” (Psalm 51:6). The psalmists found hope and stability knowing that even if the earth gave way and the mountains slipped into the sea, God is in the midst of his people therefore, they would not be moved (Psalm 46:2-5). Similarly. the Apostle Paul prayed that the church in Ephesus would be “strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Ephesians 3:16-17).

Freshness without our sin-flawed hearts only happens by grace through faith in Christ. For Christ alone had truth in his inmost part and wisdom in his inmost place. He alone constantly drew strength and life from the source of life. He always saw as God sees, looking past appearances to the reality. Yet, he took within him the foulness of our sin, drinking to the very dregs the wrath of God we deserved. After rising and ascending to the Father, he sent us the Spirit who would dwell within us, making his home in us and inviting us to make our home within the Triune God.

The Holy Spirit within us gives us the dearest freshness deep down at the soul level. Even if outwardly we are wasting away and the world around us is fading, yet inwardly, we are being renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16-18). By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are invited to begin to see as God sees and to think with the very mind of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:16; 1 Corinthians 2:16). As such, we don’t need to escape our circumstances, but we need to run and hide in the arms of the One who lovingly ordered our circumstances (Psalm 16:5-6). We get to ask him to show us more of himself deep down in the places and people of our everyday lives.