The Peony’s Soul

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Slowly, they bud, as the lilacs fade, as the days grow warm and long

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One by one, they pop open, bursting bright raspberry shades across the lawns

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They open wider, flinging ruffles and ripples across our paths

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They are generous benefactors, stacking pillows of pink and magenta in front of our eyes

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The slanting sun shimmers in the distance as the bowers of bright pink smile and bounce in the spring breeze

And if you look deeper, inside – as often happens in life – you find that more than the surface color and shine exists. Farther in, tucked away, only slightly hinted at, there lives a completely different color and texture, hidden from first view, but ever so beautiful and surprising as you peer beneath the garish surface of a peony.

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Hearing Voices in the Spring

Spring is the same year after year.  Flowers shoot up through the ground and bloom. Trees carry buds which flower and morph into yellow umbrellas and then into green canopies, lighting up against the gray, wet skies.  But the fabulous part of this whole Spring production is that while each Spring carries the same template, no two Springs are the same. No two daffodils are identical. Each year, the shining canopies of fresh leaves are unique.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about writing in my voice. By this I mean, whose voice I am really using as I write. Is it me, is it who I want to be, is it who I think someone else wants me to be? Or have I been avoiding who I really am, so that others can think I am someone that I really not.  Sometimes we work so hard to avoid being ourselves that we end up forgetting who and what really composes our true self. There’s a tight balance between the control required to produce quality work (in writing, in art, and in music,) and between being a voice or an expression that truly mirrors the soul within us.  Creativity is more control than it is wild expression. It takes time, maybe even years to stop writing or producing for someone else, to truly be oneself, but to meld the learning from others and the self awareness inside into a quality performance.

Take a child.  Children copy.  And then they make connections between what they copy here and what they learn there and what they think inside their own brains. And they often “think for themselves.”  At some point in life, what they (we) produce is a compendium of mirrored thought and original thought.  I used to think that every piece of productive, creative work had to be entirely original. Then slowly, I realized that artists everywhere form their identities, at some point,  by depending on others.  Some stay close to modeled templates, maybe improving or changing slightly. Some release themselves like birds from a cage and go off to build their own fantastic nests.

I’ve come to think there is nothing inherently right or wrong with either path, as everyone’s capacity for creativity is different. The important thing is to find, within one’s creative template, a voice so unique, so individual, that no one could be that voice but the owner, and then to keep that voice alive and heard.

Don’t stop your voice because it might sound like someone else’s voice.  Don’t chop off your tree branches because your neighbor has the same tree.  Don’t be afraid to produce and create and plant a new flower that no one has ever seen, in case they compare it to ones they have seen.  Just walk out into the fresh, flowery scented air, and breath and let your voice carry over the breezes.  Eventually it will find the perfect landing spot and erupt into a canopy that is the exact fit  for your universe.

Deep In Monkey Bread

Have you ever tried to make monkey bread with actual monkeys? OK, well neither have I, but I did with the closest thing to little monkeys you can find – a four year old and a 21 month old. A lazy Sunday morning, snowed in again, this time by a second blizzard, seemed like the perfect setting to make monkey bread with two short helpers. There was nowhere to be, no time limits, no rushing. Just us in the kitchen, white lights plugged in, scented candle lit, the silent white snow drifting from the sky to the ground.

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It was not quite the calm, Pinterestly, smiling fun I had in mind. I was tired, a little bit over the snow mounting up to the kitchen windows, and generally not feeling patient. The culinary scenario often goes like this these days: I begin the kitchen process. Oldest child drags her small chair to the counter. Youngest child drops everything she is preoccupied by and leaps like a flea for her chair, pulling with all her strength, frantically yelling “HEP!HEP!HEP!” (Meaning she wants to help, help, help, as well. NOT,  that she needs help.) We situate ourselves, usually with them in the exact place I need to stand in order to achieve any progress and me, waltzing around them, stretching arms between them, or giving the oldest directions for things she can handle.   And quite typically one or both of them falls off their chairs during the session. I often find myself grabbing the youngest off of her chair, holding her, and attempting to cook one handed.

There is no efficiency to this cooking style, no therapeutic relaxation. I am lucky to read thru a recipe, understand it, and get an edible result from it. Hopefully, the girls will at least learn how to cook someday and will not sustain long term trauma from falling off chairs, associating cooking with hitting their heads on the floor.

There are days when I can reasonably handle this arrangement with my tiny chefs. There are days when I banish them from under my feet so I can just make a meal unstressed. There are nights when I cook after they’ve gone to dreamland and I remember there can be a therapeutic quality to the whir of the Kitchen Aid, the stir of a spoon in a pot, the aroma of finished.

Monkey bread blizzard day was not a day I could handle well. Like I said, over tired, over snow, I really just wanted to put the bread in the oven and sit on a couch with a cup of coffee and hypnotize myself with the spiraling snowflakes. The recipe was a tiny bit involved, with many steps and re-reading of the recipe.

IMG_0378There were approximately 2,067 questions from the four year old. There was near tumbling off the chairs. There were don’t touch instructions. There were repeated don’t touch instructions. And a few more. And saving from more near tumbling. And explaining and showing how to make the tiny dough chunks. And how NOT to make the dough chunks. And requests to not eat the dough. And fishing dough out of the baby’s mouth. And more directives not to eat the dough. And answering more questions. And explaining that I was not upset, but that listening to instructions is important. And please don’t reach for the knives. And please don’t play with the dough. And please keep rolling the dough if you want to help. And please stop eating the dough. And getting more dough out of the little mouth. No, do not bite my finger. Please stand on the chair right, you will fall off. Why will you fall off? Because you are not standing up correctly. No, it is not ready yet, it has to rise, then we bake it. Why does it rise? Because it has yeast in it and that makes it puffy and light. What does rise mean? To get higher in the pan. No, we are not baking it right away, I just said that. Please roll the dough in the sugar. Please don’t dump sugar over it. No, not all the sugar in one spot. No, roll the dough in the sugar. Ok, take turns. It is her turn. Because you just had a turn. Don’t eat the sugar. Ok, ALL DONE! Good job, go play.

Are you stressed?  I’m exhausted just remembering it. But, the beautiful thing is that I still love my kids. Of course I do. It would be unnatural if I didn’t just because they asked questions and did not listen. And I will cook with them again. And I’ll get frustrated again and wonder why I cook with them.

And as I was standing there, rolling my eyes at the refrigerator instead of in the direction of the girls, I thought about how much I question God. About how much I want to do things my way. About how often I don’t trust that the plan is good enough. How I think that I need to tweak the plan somehow. That perhaps if I rolled the dough and dumped more sugar over it, it would taste better, because more sugar is always the best, right? Because I cannot trust that less is sometimes more. Because I cannot believe that the plan does not include me being utterly happy right now, this very moment, and throwing forever to the wind. Because, obviously, if I do not have everything that my surrounding culture tells me I need, even the best-intentioned culture, then God’s way of doing things is not good enough and I am missing out. Because living in the wilderness or the desert is clearly God sending me on a dead end path, not the path to milk and honey, glory and delight.

My little four year old is learning about her world. My little 21 month old is copying and trying her best to keep up. Both of them are incredibly determined that they can exist without help, that they have life figured out, right here, right now. And while, I am often impressed by their life savvy, I clearly know they do not have everything figured out. I know that they need to learn that all the sugar does not need to be dumped onto one section of the dough.

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I am not so foolish to think that my children understand their neediness at this age. They are naturally learning and will learn by hearing things over and over and by falling off chairs and getting up again. And I am grateful that God is patient with me. I am comforted knowing that no matter how often I believe the lie that my way or the more shiny way is better than God’s, He will still look at me and see Christ’s blood. He will still wrap me in His arms and call me His child. He will see the work of the Cross and remind me with gentle love that He knows better than I, because He has given me everything I need for life and godliness in Christ. He, the Author of my faith, the Finisher of my faith, the ultimate creator who created an unfathomable redemption plan will not rob me of happiness. I need to remember that my Father invites me to participate in this life of faith, to increase in knowledge, because He loves me more than I can fathom. And my tiny chefs, who try to roll dough while doing ballet while standing on a chair are my constant reminders that a perfect Father plans a perfect path in perfect love.

Why Christmas Lights Matter

She kept saying that she was making things beautiful. This is the first year she has actually been able to really help. Only one ornament broke. She was so excited to be a part of what we were doing.  So now, the tree is up. And lit. December is here.  And we forge ahead, into the end of the year, as new moments and memories, still unrealized, wait to join our rituals. DSC_0273

Lights, warmth, company, food, laughter, presents, memories, hope and good wishes. These are the images that march through our minds when we think about Christmas – in our non-cynical moments.  These are the feelings we crave and hope for each year. And these are also why holiday seasons are hard when our memories are not all happy, when health has broken down, when loss is a gaping hole in our hearts, when our expectations are violated, leaving us sad and empty.

It’s fairly easy to remember Christmastime as a pleasant part of childhood. But as we age and life breaks on us like waves on the sand, it can be harder to conjure the feelings of hope and joy that are scrawled across cards and commercials. Conflicted feelings of happiness and anxiety, hope and fear fight and battle for the seat of honor at our table.

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But why, despite loss, life, and harsh reality’s glaring presence, are we still drawn to the Christmas season?

Because in the darkest season on Earth, light came. Because in our sickness,  a physician who heals wholly, completely, came. Because on the coldest night, there is warmth for the heart. In the middle of isolation, there is acceptance. In our loneliness, we are made the friends of the eternal God.

Because in our losses, a Father suffers with us, because He too, once gave and lost  – so that we could be His children. Because with our isolation, Christ remembers that a baby born in a manger was left alone, to die under our sin, so that we would be free from the darkness, the cold, the emptiness, the violated expectations in our lives.

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The expectation of future joy and peace replace the holes left by the need of grace and redemption.  And, while some see the activity of the Christmas season as superfluous, we must see it as the mirror of a beautiful redemption.

We make beauty around us because our Creator is beauty and His creation cannot resist following His lead.  In our deepest, farthest, almost unknown places of our souls, we crave everything that Christmas brings. We crave purpose and meaning and belonging. Those are gifts found only through Christ.

We watch the brilliant Christmas lights as they shine into the dark wintery nights.  We crave light.  We crave beautiful light that will open our hearts and make us know what we want and who we are meant to be.  We long for our Creator and Father, our Redeemer.

DSC_0284As the trees go up and the decorations multiply and the music cheerfully lilts, find the beauty of Christ in the shimmering and the sparkling.  Watch the lights shine across miles of shops and homes and landscapes and take comfort that no matter what memories of Christmas surround you and no matter what dread encloses you, there is peace from the Prince, promised and complete, propelling us through the cold darkness, to a warm Spring, to resurrection power and glory.

 

 

Identity and Children

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“Has your wife held the baby yet?” The nurse asked Nathan. No, not yet, she didn’t know if she could, he told her.

“Oh she needs to! Make sure you bring her down here as soon as she can!”

It seems strange to think of having to ask to hold your newborn baby, but the world of the NICU is different from our mentally romanticized birth ideas. The day after Nathan’s conversation with the nurse, three days after our daughter was born, we walked down to the NICU and asked the nurse on duty if we could hold our baby. She pulled a big chair over for me. I waited while she rearranged wires and clipped back blankets that wrapped the tiny bundle. She found a tiny pink hat, which now lives in a box in my basement, and secured it on the small, fuzzy head. She then handed me the 3lb baby. I made a comment to the nurse as I took the baby and suddenly, her big eyes, which were open for the first time that day, jerked from the other side of the room toward the direction of my face the instant she heard my voice. I held her as long as I could before she had to be returned to her isolette.

A friend who had a baby shortly before me told me that as soon as she held her baby, all doubts about being a mother faded and she felt so proud to be this little person’s mother. I listened, happy for her, but I wasn’t sure I believed that I would have the same experience. Having a baby came with a lot of attention and expectations that mostly embarrassed me. I had a difficult time placing my identity as a person, a woman, a daughter, a mother, into categories that I understood.

People promised me that as soon as I saw my baby, I would feel pride and joy. They promised there was nothing like holding a baby and being called someone’s mom. Being someone’s mom was the last thing I had planned for myself and it came with plenty of negative connotations in my mind – real or conjured.

Thrown into the NICU world, I found that I no longer had a familiar identity. The nurses called us “Mom and Dad” or referred to us as our baby’s mom and dad. They never used our first or last names. We suddenly existed only as the parents to this helpless infant within those walls.

I looked at that white bundle that was mostly composed of swaddling blankets. I watched her eyes turn to mine. Slowly, and yet without warning, that promised mantle of motherhood draped itself over me. Out of nowhere, I was ready to claim that baby, that helpless little blob, who mostly slept and rarely cried, as MY child. I no longer cared that I knew nothing about babies. I no longer cared that my world was turned upside down like a dumped out purse. I had a baby girl. She was mine. She knew my voice and I knew she knew my voice. I fell in love.

While it was still a bit strange, I gradually grew used to being “Mom” to the nurses. The next week, signing in to the NICU, the receptionist asked if the mom knew I was coming to visit. I told her, I am the mom, laughing, but without reservation or embarrassment.

And the parents I knew were right, there was nothing like the pride that I felt in claiming this small nugget as my own baby.

And so, as a child of God, the parallels of birth, adoption, and identity became real when this little baby stormed the gates of my impenetrable heart. Suddenly, the reality that God could feel the same way about me – even more – than I did for this little baby was strange and wonderful. Not only by Him do all things consist, not only is He Creator and Sustainer, but He redeems and claims His children without demand or payment, thanks to Christ’s death and resurrection. Just like an infant without ability or usefulness, I stand before Christ, loved. God looks on me and sees the blood of Christ – the identity marker that denotes I am His child – and He takes joy in me. There is no reservation from God, no waiting to see what I can do for Him, no expectation that I will perform at top standards. There is simply the joy and pride that I am His child.

Christ’s baptism underscores His identification with humans. After His baptism, God’s voice was heard after saying, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” He was identifying Christ as His Son, and He was expressing His joy and pride in him. And, in addition, when we are hid with Christ, God recognizes us as His children. He has expressed His joy and pride in us, already, through His beloved son. Recently, I heard Russell Moore explain it this way. “If we are to stand in the grace of God…it will be because we realize that we are coming through the veil of a broken body and poured out blood. It is knowing God is pleased with me because I am in Christ.”

Not everyone is as slow to understand God’s ways as I am. Many people, with and without children understand the implications of God’s love for His children. While my head knew that my identity was secure in Christ, my heart did not understand how that nice, neat solution worked. When I took that infant into my arms, saw her eyes turn to find mine, and recognized her as my child, I began to understand how God’s love for His people is unending and unconditional. I knew that God could look on me and be happy simply because I was His. I understood that He could be satisfied and proud to call me His child – because He sees the satisfaction of wrath in the shadow of the cross. When He looks at His people, He sees one identity. He sees His Son, Christ – a Christ who has covered us, completed us, and marked us as children of God. And He is well pleased.

Want, Fear, & Grace -A Review of Teach Us To Want

 

Jen Pollock Michel. Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition, and the Life of Faith. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2014. 221 pp

 

“But, I just love THINGS!” A beautiful woman married to a missionary pastor stood, laughing in our house, recounting a conversation she had had with her husband. She was describing the struggle between wanting and going without – leaving their comfortable life with a house and jobs and heading into a ministry, giving up luxuries and items that might be considered “extras.”

This quote often comes to my mind when I hear conversations about desire versus denial. Many of us struggle to reconcile our wants with what we believe God requires of us – death to self and therefore, to all that we want. Whether it is materialism, tangibles, ambition, self-gratification, or spiritual pride, each of us grapples with putting our loves and wants in order.

Jen Pollock Michel has plunged into the theology of desire and emerged with the masterfully written, Teach Us To Want: Longing, Ambition & the Life of Faith.

I started the book, intrigued by the title alone, given my own experiences of ambitious longing and wilderness exile. I was not disappointed as I delved into the beautifully crafted paragraphs.

With engaging narrative, Jen Pollock Michel weaves an incredible blend of personal experience, Scriptural lessons, and literary, philosophical, and theological concepts. With clear but enticing artistry, she unfurls for the reader a verbal image of the complex state of our human hearts and the lavish grace of God. Using the Lord’s Prayer as a frame, she sketches the natural human bent toward desires that pursue fleeting pleasure and push against trusting the goodness of God. She creates colorful narrations of conversion, temptations, loss, and gain. The images she builds are descriptions in which readers can find themselves mirrored, no matter how differently individual circumstances may have fallen.

Taking on our natural human desires, Pollock Michel shows Christ’s grace that pulls us from the fear and complacency found rooted in sin’s curse, transforming it to a brave pursuit of our God given desires. She writes,

And here is how desire becomes corrupt: wanting derails into selfishness, greed and demanding ingratitude when we’ve failed to recognize and receive the good that God has already given. Trust is at the center of holy desire: trust that God is good and wills good for His people…When we refuse God’s good, when we mistrust God’s intentions, when we clamor for self-rule, we exact the cruel price of suffering.” (pp 84-5)

 Just as Eve and Adam failed to trust God’s good plan and exacted a cruel price of suffering, so we wrestle with the same tension in our desires – we want and yet distrust the Giver. We want the wrong things – the fruit that looms ahead, looking lovely and shiny, rather than the intangible communion with a God whom we must trust. And only by God’s gentle goodness and grace, as our lives unfold, do we learn to trust that what He gives is enough for our desires.

The pages are rife with references and allusions to a diverse set of writers, theologians, and thinkers from St Augustine, NT Wright, and Tim Keller, to Madeleine L’Engle, CS Lewis, Edith Wharton, and Annie Dillard and many more. Rich with thought, the book is a synthesis of beauty, goodness, and truth; beautiful theological truths, stated in flowing and captivating phrases.

Jen Pollock Michel is able to diffuse our common thought about desire. She makes a compelling case against the fear of want and the negative connotations of desire and ambition. She writes, powerfully convincing her readers that God desires His children to want, but rather than wanting the temporary fruit, we must want Him, to desire His grace, His good will. She encourages her readers to want, to desire fully, the life of faith found in a lavishly generous Father.

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Savoring

 

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I walked into a farm store today to buy lettuce.  The entirety of summer growth was stacked plentifully across the wooden tables.  Why, I wondered, is it that the season seems to come into completed and near perfection right at the end? Why do we realize what we have, often only near the end of the season?

We take for granted what we have much of, while we have it. Even time, although we know it passes quickly, sometimes stretches  out ahead of us, like a desert, for as far as our mind can comprehend. When something is about to slip from our grasp, from our view, we sip in the last dregs, slowly yet furiously, refusing to acknowledge that we may have squandered our bounty.
But even though we meander through life, trying to sip and savor and seek and find, sometimes perfection is an exacting muse, beauty is an illusive sprite.  We chase and watch, but often the true desire of beautiful perfection, beautiful completeness, is to make your breath catch in your throat a little bit, to make your heart hurt just slightly, deep down knowing that the placid perfection of a moment does not last.  Every now and then, we catch a moment, a morning stream of light, an afternoon at the beach, an evening where all is calm. A portal into a perfect world breaks into our view.

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Sometimes the most painfully beautiful part of the summer is the end.  It is painful because warmth and green and growing life cannot linger on forever.  But the excruciating draw of these long sunsets and golden days is the hanging on, savoring, inhaling, trying to capture time that slips away like sand washed back in a diamond studded wave. Gorgeous tension stands overtly before us. The glorious summer, the winding toward the end of summer. The beauty of life, the ephemeral nature of beauty, perfectly complete contrasts with the ever changing messes of humanity. The world is held at bay by a few minutes of perfection.

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What we really know is that in the middle of this broken universe, there is a promise of beauty, a hope of eternal glory, of complete perfection through the cross of Christ. There is a beautiful resurrection behind a broken veil.  There is a something greater than the broken, a Father who will fix all things. There is more to existence than the mundane, because through a perfect and beautiful Creator, all things consist. There are a thousand little moments that are held together by Him. Every now and then, one perfect moment captures our hearts. It makes us look twice. We find that portal into the world of the beautiful. And without trying, God’s beauty comes and compels us to watch the enchanted sunset on a summer night. Perfection taunts us like the clear, still water surrounding us. And having seen these moments we are richer. We are equipped to savor the moments, to seek for beauty, and to head into a thousand other sunsets.

 

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