Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Empty Vessels

“On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, "They have no wine." And Jesus said to her, "Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come." His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you." Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, "Fill the jars with water." And they filled them up to the brim. And he said to them, "Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast." So they took it. When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, "Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now." This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.”
‭‭John‬ ‭2:1-11‬ ‭ESV‬‬

At this point early in Jesus’ ministry, His mother and brothers (v. 12) were still with Him. When the unnamed hosts ran out of the wine they needed to fulfill their hospitality duties, Mary approaches Jesus and presents the need. She doesn’t tell Him what to do about it or even ask Him to respond in a certain way. She simply says, “They have no wine.”

That place of emptiness and inability to do what God has called me to do is, honestly, where I wake up most days. My first prayer, before I even get out of bed, is “Lord, I can’t do this. Will You please help me? Show up and show off. Give me Your strength and wisdom to do what You want me to do, and protect me from anything that would injure or aggravate my back and joints.” I understand how it feels to be out of resources, to be an empty vessel with nothing to pour out.

After Mary presents the need, the next step is expectant obedience. She tells the servants to do whatever Jesus says, which in this case is to fill the empty jars with water, 120-180 gallons of water. This is very far outside of my life experience, but it hardly seems like a quick chore. In March we had no running water for a couple of days because of a plumbing repair, and it wasn’t a quick and easy task just to fill our pitchers, buckets, and pots with water in anticipation of that need. How many times during the trips back and forth to the well, river, or cistern did the servants ask themselves what the point was or grumble inwardly or outwardly about this task that appears to make no sense? But they are well enough trained and obedient to see the task thoroughly through, filling the jars “to the brim.”

Then Jesus commands them to draw some out and take it to the party planner, who in puzzlement tells the bridegroom that this water-become-wine is better than all the wine served to that point in the feast.

In the time it takes to fill six large stone water jars with water and take some to the master of the feast, Jesus has created approximately 150 gallons of superb wine. (How many people were at this feast, anyway??) In today’s standard wine bottle volume, based on the ESV conversion of ancient measurement to gallons, that would be 1,524 bottles of wine. If the particular jars held 30 gallons, it would be even more. He responds to need and emptiness not with criticism or rejection, but with superabundant provision.

Charles Spurgeon makes this comment on John 2:11:

“It is a blessed need that makes room for Jesus to come in with miracles of love. It is good to run short that we may be driven to the Lord by our necessity, for he will more than supply it. If we have no need, Christ will not come to us. But if we are in dire necessity, his hands will stretch our to us. If our needs stand before us like huge empty water pots, or if our souls are as full of grief as those same pots were filled with water up to the brim, Jesus can, by his sweet will, turn all the water into wine—the sighing into singing. We should be glad to be weak so the power of God may rest on us” (Spurgeon).

Lord, we bring our emptiness to You. We bring the fullness of our griefs to You. Thank You for our necessity, inadequacy, and weakness that prepare us for Your power to shine forth for Your glory. Fill and transform us. Draw others to trust You because of Your glorious goodness and might in our lives. We ask these things in the name of Jesus our Savior. Amen.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle {Book Review}

In the new book A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle, Sarah Arthur depicts a legacy that is not without complications, as was L’Engle herself. The foreword and introduction lay out the structure and organizing premise of the book, that L’Engle saw many seeming polarities as “both/and” where most would see “either/or.” Thus, we have chapter headings such as “Sacred and Secular” or “Religion and Art.” This structure suits Arthur’s subject well.

Madeleine L’Engle, the writer known best for her fantasy classic A Wrinkle in Time, was a mainline Episcopalian whose fiction and non-fiction reflected that bent. Her writing polarized evangelicals. The literary and visual arts community has drawn inspiration from her, especially from her non-fiction book Walking on Water. She spoke at conservative evangelical Wheaton, Calvin, and Westmont colleges, and her papers and journals are archived at Wheaton. Other evangelicals have vilified her ideas as New Age in Christian dress or even as demonic (178-181). This book acknowledges the critics in the latter camp but emphasizes the former, quoting extensively from the artists and writers L’Engle befriended, mentored, and influenced through her words.

Sarah Arthur has thoroughly and closely attended to those words, not only in L’Engle’s published works but also in a number of talks (at Wheaton and Calvin Colleges, for example) available online. This book also reflects her investigation of the books and articles, both positive and negative, written about L’Engle. One of the greatest strengths of her work is the breadth and depth of interviews she conducted with L’Engle’s family, with writers like Philip Yancey  who joined L’Engle in  the writing group the Chrysostom Society, and with artists and writers such as Makoto Fujimura and Leif Enger (Peace Like a River). Such a collection would not be complete without quotes from her dear friends the evangelical poet Luci Shaw and Barbara Braver, the flatmate of her final years in New York.

Those interviews highlight the strengths of Arthur’s subject. First, L’Engle was unique in the way she pioneered a specifically Christian union of faith, art, and science. She freed and paved the way for Christian fantasy writers like Stephen Lawhead, and string theorists have validated some of the self-taught physics behind the series beginning with A Wrinkle in Time. L’Engle didn’t come to a personal faith in God through theologians but through reading theoretical physicists like Albert Einstein.
“Einstein wrote that anyone who is not lost in rapturous awe and amazement at the power and glory of the mind behind the universe is as good as a burned-out candle,” Madeleine wrote years later. “I had found my theologian!” (100-101).
For some evangelical readers, including myself, L’Engle gave too much credence to some scientific ideas and interpreted Scripture in light of them instead of vice versa, but that does not negate the significance of her accomplishment in this area.

The second and most beautiful legacy portrayed here is L’Engle’s friendships and mentoring. It was her friendships, her loyal community, that saw her through the times of attack on her faith and writing. Her friendship with Luci Shaw lasted decades and survived great losses, distance, and theological differences. Shaw came to L’Engle’s bedside in the hospital after a near-fatal car accident and in her final days in a nursing home. L’Engle’s flatmate and Shaw both cherish the memories of reading Compline when they were together of an evening in L’Engle’s home. Interviews with numerous younger writers describe L’Engle’s generosity in giving her time, prayers, and advice when they sought her out after a talk on a college campus. Such talks and Walking on Water (perhaps my favorite of L’Engle’s books) have mentored 2 generations of Christian artists to date and are likely to continue bearing fruit and growing her legacy, should the Lord tarry longer.

The more difficult parts of the book are those which address L’Engle’s weaknesses. This is most evident in the chapter “Fact and Fiction.” L’Engle shared perhaps too much truth about her children in the fictional but semi-autobiographical Meet the Austins series, but her family (and at times L’Engle herself) recognize that she fictionalized some of the stories in her memoirs. She had a tendency to regard the perspective in her journals as the absolute truth of an event, which could leave others feeling she rejected the validity of their differing experience of the same event. The most heartbreaking part of this whole section is the discussion of her youngest son’s death due to liver failure caused by alcohol abuse. He could never escape or live up to the pedestal his mother placed him in the fictional Rob Austin version of himself, and addiction was his response. Arthur includes an insightful and thought-provoking  response from author and blogger Sarah Bessey to this tragedy:
“My children need to know that they’re not copy to me. They need to know that their spiritual questions or moments or lives are not here for anyone else’s consumption.” But she also recognizes that this is hard for a lot of writers, “especially when parenting is a huge aspect of your life—a huge aspect of your own spirituality and awakening and how you understand God, how you’re moving through the world.” As with many women writers, “Faith is deeply connected to mothering for me. And how do I write about the ways mothering has been transformative, how it’s become this crucible, without turning my children themselves into content?” (164-165).
These are good questions for any blogger or memoirist to ponder, and I found this whole chapter challenging.

Overall, A Light So Lovely is a clear, thoughtful reflection on the impact in the kingdom of God made (and being made) through L’Engle’s life and words. Sarah Arthur has done a masterful job of gathering and organizing primary sources according to the predominant themes at play in L’Engle’s legacy. This is not a biography intended to introduce L’Engle to a reader unfamiliar with her works. Before diving into this book, I would recommend having read at least A Wrinkle in Time, Walking on Water, and The Irrational Season or Two-Part Invention from the Crosswicks Journals memoir collection. Devoted readers and L’Engle fans will find kindred spirits in this book, even though the author does not turn a blind eye to her subject’s faults.

N.B. Zondervan sent me a complimentary prerelease copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, August 24, 2018

One Year at Wingshadow

This post was intended for May, our anniversary month in the new-to-us house, but Ebony's illness and death altered the trajectory of the end of May and much of June. Since then, I have received and had to decline a bucket-list opportunity that required travel too strenuous for me, celebrated Father's Day with a family movie, held down the fort without Special Agent Hoover's help so Amore could move his mother to north Texas, started chiropractic treatment, hosted a foster dog for 5 exhausting days, and tried another foster dog for a week who turned out to be a keeper (but still exhausting...ha ha). We wrapped up the summer with a week of Minion Camp and a big family celebration of 2 milestones that occurred within days of each other.

(Another milestone, the eighth anniversary of this blog, passed unnoticed in that blur, save in my heart and mind. Happy belated birthday, Crumbles!)

The chiropractic treatment, with a specific practitioner at the prescription of my physical medicine/pain doctor, seems to be helping, although I'm sore for a day or so after each one still.

But I digress. The first week of May marked one year in residence at the house in my parents' neighborhood. After months of deliberation, we named it Wingshadow. The trees overarching two sides of the house remind me of the shadow of God's wing over us, protecting us. Several verses from the Psalms refer to this:
Keep me as the apple of your eye;
hide me in the shadow of your wings,
from the wicked who do me violence,
my deadly enemies who surround me (Psalm 17:8-9).
How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings (Psalm 36:7). 
Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
for in you my soul takes refuge;
in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
till the storms of destruction pass by (Psalm 57:1).
My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food,
and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips,
when I remember you upon my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me (Psalm 63:8).
In the wilderness, whether minding his sheep or fleeing from Saul, David, the shepherd-king, had perhaps observed mother birds sheltering their young under a wing in stormy weather and taken similar refuge in Yahweh when he so frequently needed protection.

On a similar note, David wrote, "He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler" (Psalm 91:4). The version of this Psalm in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer reads, "He shall defend thee under his wings, and thou shalt be safe under his feathers."

Little did we know when we moved how much we would need that truth in the forefront of our minds. It has been another hard year in a series of hard years... almost a decade of them now. We lost Cindy, Ebony, and Amore’s favorite job he’d ever had (when his employer was acquired). We’ve had health setbacks, home maintenance surprises, and family crises of varying degrees. The Moore family home no longer has any Moores living there.

Yet we are no less sheltered beneath the shadow of God’s wing. No hard or happy thing can touch us unless He permits it, and He only appoints what is for our good and His glory. So it is for you, dear Crumble, if you are His child. Courage, dear heart!

Here are the first 16 months at Wingshadow in photos (minus the gazillion photos of the young nephews here, which I omit out of respect for their privacy, but which do very much exist... should their grown-up selves ever come across this post and take offense).

Monday, August 13, 2018

Love Notes: for My Mother's 70th Birthday

There are so many lovely parts of Mom’s  character I could mention in honor of her birthday: her service, her generosity, her cooking, and plenty more. Instead of saying a little bit about a lot of different qualities, I’d like to focus on one action she has repeated over and over again throughout my life: her love notes.

The first time I was ever away from home for longer than just a sleepover at a friend’s house was for Camp Goddard in 5th grade. I was nervous about it and not at all sure I wanted to go, but fear of missing out won the day and I signed up to go. Mom wrote a little note for every day I was gone (maybe one for morning and one for evening) and sent me with a big Tupperware container of chocolate chip cookies for my cabin. I was so surprised when I opened my duffel bag and saw those notes, and they really did help me get through the week with less homesickness.

This continued through all my school years. Even when I wasn’t going out of town, there were a lot of days I would open my lunch sack and find a sticky note on my sandwich wrapper reminding me God loves me or telling me she was praying for my book report or choir audition or test… whatever she thought I might be anxious about that day. Sometimes she would add a little Pass It On encouragement card from the Christian bookstore down the block from our house, and I would carry it around in my pencil case for… probably the rest of the year.

When we moved last year and I went through some memory boxes, I found more of her notes, including the ones she wrote for a mission trip to Tennessee that I chaperoned during a college summer. Part of my responsibilities included driving  a small group of teenagers in the 15-passenger church van through winding 2-lane mountain roads to pick up the children we were serving in day camp. We were all nervous about that! Not only did Mom write me a note for each day, she looked at the calendar, thought through what was supposed to be happening on each one, and wrote the notes as though on the given day and not a week or two in advance. She told me things such as my sister’s medical test having gone well, her and Dad arriving safely at their vacation destination, and my sisters having a good time with the woman staying with them in our absence.

The last time I remember Mom writing me special notes for a trip was when Amore and I moved to Bangkok, Thailand, halfway around the world. Even though I believed it was what God was calling me to do, I missed the family so much that I think I started crying before our flight even left the runway. I definitely remember crying in the international security screening line at LAX. Once again, Mom came through for me with a couple of weeks worth of daily or twice daily notes to help family not feel so far away.

Now she sends me encouraging words by email or text or a phone call, and I’m the one writing notes. Amore got at least a couple of dozen in his bags last year when he needed to travel so much to help his family.

Mom, you are a treasure. Thank you for loving us so well when we’re with you and making sure we don’t forget your love when we’re apart. Happy 70th birthday! May the Lord richly bless your 71st year with joy and strength. We love you! In honor of your Irish heritage, “May you live as long as you want, and never want as long as you live. Sláinte!”

a few sunrise photos from our old backyard... God's love note reminders to me

Monday, June 18, 2018

I Wait for You {From the Archives: Ebony's Greatest Hits}

originally shared June 2014

Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you,
and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you.
For the Lord is a God of justice;
blessed are all those who wait for him.
Isaiah 30:18, ESV

Ebony and I are creatures of habit. We like the routines and rhythms of a day at home without appointments. (Amore craves more variety, except first thing in the morning.) The first expectation of every day--well, after Amore hits snooze on the alarm clock at least once--is that he opens the door of Ebony's crate. Ebony shoots off like a rocket down the hall, Kong in his mouth, because the Kong usually still contains the bedtime cookie from the night before. By the time we slow and decrepit humans get to the coffee pot, Ebony is sitting on the love seat drooling, tail thumping like the drum in a military band. When we sandwich him there, hot beverages in our hands, he either drops the Kong in our laps or throws it at us, (depending on the value he has assigned to the kind of cookie inside). This is his way of asking us for help in extracting said cookie, which sometimes is easier said than done, especially before our first cup of coffee.

Some days since my shoulder surgery have been different. While the bones heal on the right side, I must sleep on my left side. Many nights my body protests this at some point and I move to the reclining love seat in the living room, currently my only alternative for pain-free sleep. On those mornings, Allen hits snooze back in the bedroom. When his feet hit the floor, he opens Ebony's crate. Ebony flies down the hall, with or without the Kong, and takes a flying leap from halfway across the living room into my lap. On these days I awake to a jolt followed by a flurry of kisses, tail wags, and possibly a Kong thrown at my face.

Ebony has a very keen nose and ears and typically is so attuned to my whereabouts that we could accurately have named him Shadow. If he weren't crated, he would probably follow me into the living room on my uncomfortable nights, just as his predecessor Steinway did. (Steinway was not crate-trained. We tried once, and he growled something about did we feel lucky and to make his day.)

This Monday morning I had relocated to the recliner at 2:30 am and settled back into a sound sleep. I didn't hear the coffee or tea maker through my ear plugs but awakened to a sense of movement and the light coming on in the adjacent kitchen. Amore trudged past the table and made his way to the coffee.

What? No flying Labradoxie tackle? No Kong in my lap? I asked Amore where Ebony was. Had he forgotten to open his crate?

No, it was open. Ebony, he said, thought I was still asleep in the bedroom and had settled in there to wait for me.

Didn't he tell him I wasn't there?

Yes, but he didn't believe him. I'd have to go show him myself.

Drawing on the ninja skills apparently acquired during the night, I tiptoed walked as quietly as I could down the hall and peered into the room. Ebony had stretched out in the prettiest "down" you could want to see, his face towards my side of the bed with his Labrador ears aimed like satellite dishes at the pile of pillows he thought was me. His Kong lay on the floor beside him, cast aside in his preoccupation with the bed. Clearly, he was not going anywhere without his mama, and he'd wait as long as it took.

"Ebony," I said, "I'm back here, sweetie."

He bounced up and pivoted to face me, all in one springloaded motion. His tail started wagging and he bounded toward me, stopped, turned back for his Kong, and raced past me down the hall to resume our usual routine.

In the moment, I laughed at his misunderstanding and smiled broadly at how loved and cherished it made me feel. Where "Special Agent Hoover" is concerned, there will be no man left behind, especially not me. As I've pondered the memory in my heart for a day or two, though, I've asked the Lord if He had something more He wanted me to learn from this.

If Ebony in this experience were analogous to me, and I were analogous to my heavenly Master (which, granted, demands tremendous suspension of disbelief), similar to the sheep-shepherd metaphor of the Scriptures, what might this teach me?

First, Ebony's dedicated expectation challenges me to keep hoping, keep waiting on God when I'm growing faint in my prayers and answers seem long in coming. In that morning, his routine didn't matter; his Kong didn't matter; a cozy nest on the love seat didn't matter. All that mattered was waiting on his master. Do I do that, or am I quick to give up and look for solutions and satisfaction elsewhere? Too often, the latter.

Second, Ebony's immediate specific hope (that I would get out of bed) was disappointed. He was waiting for the wrong thing, or for the right thing in the wrong place. In my case, what am I waiting and hoping for? Ultimately, the only hope certain not to disappoint is hope in God and in the Word and promises of God. Paul described this to Titus this way:
waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ (Titus 2:13).
The "what," then, is the glorious appearing of our God and Savior Jesus Christ, the consummation of all the promises of God. We are waiting for God Himself.

Where or how should I wait? The context of the above verse offers one answer to that question:
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works (Titus 2:11-14).
When I yield to the grace of God's training, I learn "to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions." Grace teaches me, us, "to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age." The comely, appropriate, obedient way to wait for our Blessed Hope is to live increasingly in accordance with Christ's self-giving "to redeem us from all lawlessness and purify for Himself a people for His own possession who are zealous for good works." The grace that meets us as we are does not leave us as we are. Insofar as my life doesn't look like that, I am waiting for Christ's return in the wrong place, in the wrong way.

This is impossible in and of myself. Thanks be to God that I don't have to live in and of myself. Rather,
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20).
He will enable even my waiting as I turn my face toward Him. He waits to be gracious to us. He exalts Himself to show mercy to us. Blessed are all who wait for Him.