Monday, July 18, 2016

Christian Lament

By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion (Ps. 137:1, ESV).
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?How long will you hide your face from me? (Psalm 13:1, ESV)

In light of recent world events and the ongoing sorrows of everyday life in this fallen world, we do well to remember that rejoicing is not the only appropriate emotional response to the life circumstances God assigns us.

My Bible reading lately has been in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Lamentations, and a bleak stretch it is. Israel has persisted in disobedience and idolatry for so long and to such an extent that God sends Assyrian and Babylonian forces to conquer them and carry most of the people away into 70 years of captivity. Jerusalem is besieged and sacked, the temple is destroyed, and the Glory has departed.

In the face of such catastrophe, faith does not demand that we put on a plastic smile when our hearts are breaking. God does not desire us to be false with Him. Grief is a spiritual discipline, too, and at times the only right and appropriate response.

Godly grief expresses itself in the laments of Scripture. Job's speeches and Lamentations fall in this category, and individual or corporate lament is the largest subcategory of the Psalms (which fall under the broader heading of lyric poetry). Scholars estimate that at least a third of the Psalms express lament; a few examples include Psalms 13, 22, 40, 59, 74, 88, and 109.

The Thomas Nelson Study Bible describes Biblical lament this way:
In the lament psalms, we hear the strong, emotional words of sufferers. These are words written by real people in very difficult situations. Sometimes the forcefulness of the psalmists' complaints against God is shocking. But these godly sufferers know that God will not be angry with their honesty, for even when they scream at God, it is a scream of faith (887).
These are the prayers for the sleepless nights and weary days, for the seasons when we feel like Bilbo Baggins, "too little butter spread over too much bread," for the days which seem more Romans 7 than Romans 8, for hospital rooms and funeral homes. The sheer multitude of laments in Scripture bears witness that hardship is a commonplace in life in a broken world, yet God desires to fellowship with us in the midst of suffering as we cry out to Him. What is more, they offer us a guide for how to do so and give us words when we have no words.

Although no strict pattern applies to every lament, common elements include
  • an initial cry to God,
  • the list of complaints,
  • a profession of reliance on God,
  • a presentation of reasons God should intervene (such as past covenants, promises, and actions that shape the psalmist's expectations of the future),
  • specific requests for deliverance and action, and
  • a resolution to praise (TNSB, 887, and Leland Ryken, How to Read the Bible as Literature, 114-115).
These elements may occur in any order or repeat, and some may not appear at all. Psalm 88 never turns the corner from lament to praise, which gives me comfort and confidence that I don't even need to pretend to or force an emotional pivot point before God.

However, Israel incurs God's displeasure and discipline when they whine and complain. What's the difference between grumbling and lament?
In my understanding, there are at least four areas of difference:
  • Audience: Grumbling speaks about God to other people; lament addresses God directly in prayer. This resembles the difference between gossip and conflict resolution.
  • Content: Complaint disputes God's previously revealed character; lament seeks to reconcile God's character with circumstances that seem to contradict it.
  • Attitude: Grumbling stems from a heart of unbelief; lament worships in wounded faith.
  • Result: Whining produces rebellion; lament limps forward in obedience as best it can.
Amid all the disasters and crises in the daily news and the personal trials facing friends, family, and ourselves, it comforts me to know that I can pour out my heart like water before the Lord (Lamentations 2:19) and mourn with Him as well as dance for joy. Learning about lament set me free to do that, even writing my own laments from the patterns above, and I have found the Psalms to be helpful guides to prayer in times of trouble. May you also find blessing in these thoughts as you grow in relationship with God in the hard times as well as the glad.

(The new book A Heart Set Free, by Christina Fox, also addresses and guides the reader through the process of lament. It is very well-reviewed, but I myself have not yet read it to weigh in. If you had, feel free to share your two cents in the comments. A review may be forthcoming once I have a chance to read it, in which I will update this post at that time to include that link.)

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Humility and Thorns

 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 ESV

For some time now a precious friend has been nudging me to reread Andrew Murray's little book Humility. I put her off for a while, remembering 16 or 17 years ago when I first read it. During that reading, a mission department colleague at our church asked a carload of students, "What book are you currently enjoying?" "'Enjoying' doesn't seem the right word," I said, "but I'm reading Humility." "What do you mean by that?" he asked. "Does a person really 'enjoy' a punch in the stomach?" I said. "I didn't realize how proud I was until I started reading this." It's a good book but not a pleasant one. (But maybe that's just me.) That disillusionment may be the point of the whole exercise. On this reading, the book proved similarly convicting, but now, in the midst of 6 years and counting of chronic pain, the section on "Humility and Happiness" also proved comforting, in the bracing sort of way that a spray of antiseptic comforts a cut finger, cleansing it so it can heal well, but stinging in the process. Commenting on Paul's thorn in the flesh, Murray wrote this:
Paul's first desire was to have it removed, and three times he asked the Lord that it might depart. The answer came that the trial was a blessing; that, in the weakness and humiliation it brought, the grace and strength of the Lord could be better manifested. Paul at once entered into a new stage in his relationship to the trial. Instead of simply enduring it, he most gladly gloried in it. Instead of asking for deliverance, he took pleasure in it. He had learned that the place of humiliation is the place of blessing, of power, and of joy (81-82).
Let us look at our lives in the light of this experience and see whether we gladly glory in weakness, whether we take pleasure, as Paul did, in trials, in necessities, and in distresses. Yes, let us ask whether we have learned to regard a reproof, just or unjust, a reproach from friend or enemy, trouble or difficulty into which others bring us, as, above all, an opportunity of proving how Jesus is all to us. It is an opportunity to prove how our own pleasure or honor are nothing, and how humiliation is, in very truth, what we take pleasure in. It is indeed blessed--the deep happiness of heaven--to be so free from self that whatever is said about us or done to us is lost and swallowed up in the thought that Jesus is all (84).
Accept with gratitude everything that God allows from within or without, from friend or enemy, in nature or in grace, to remind you of your need of humbling, and to help you to it (90).
Crumbles, I'm not there yet. My family is still experiencing multi-layered, variegated trials, with the emotional roller coaster of things appearing, at last, to level out, only to plummet again. After a few months of relative respite, widespread joint pain has flared back up with a vengeance. Temporarily, God gave grace to help and serve other family and church members, but as we moved toward summer it became apparent that I would be on the receiving end of help instead.
We expected a wrist surgery which would render me dependent on others even to put on my ankle braces and tie my shoes, but the expectation has been delayed and transmogrified and may now shift to the lower body on the opposite side. As my grandmother would have said, I "can't win for losing" as far as health goes. The therapy for one body part makes another body part angry, and the "good" side complains forcefully about the extra workload.
In the midst of this nosedive, I have felt trapped. Stuck. Unable either to move forward or to stay put. Telling me to glory in weakness, to take these trials as an opportunity of proving how Jesus is all to me, to accept these things with gratitude because God has allowed them? That feels like telling an armadillo to spread its wings and fly: impossible.
Then again, the late, beloved Prof Howard Hendricks of Dallas Theological Seminary used to say, "The Christian life isn't hard; it's impossible." By this he meant that only the Holy Spirit dwelling in the believer in Christ could enable the Christian life; it couldn't be achieved through the efforts of the flesh, the old self. The standard the Scriptures lay out is not "good enough" but "perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). Jesus Christ the God-man is the only one ever to fulfill this, and only His Spirit can fulfill it in us, though we only experience that inconsistently and imperfectly on this side of death.
Suffering is cause for gratitude because, like this uncomfortable little book, it exposes the places where I've been trying to cope in my own pathetic strength, and that opens me up to a greater experience of Jesus as all.
The last 2 weeks have brought a lot of opportunities for that, from the unexpected shift of pain treatment focus to a couple of extra health tasks that seemed to come out of nowhere and can't be resolved easily. On top of trying to discern the way forward and just keep going with that, there are still hurting people around me. In addition to my own self-pity tears, plenty have also been shed for them and for my hometown, which is still reeling with shock and grief from the ambush of police by a sniper last week.
Having confessed my pride and ingratitude, I also request your prayers: for wisdom for my doctors and for us; for protection and healing of soul and body; for provision of every sort of need generated by these circumstances; for patience and strength for the family members helping me; and for grace to glorify God in my many weaknesses and accept the pain with the same gratitude I have for the more pleasant, comforting, and comfortable gifts He gives. And I suppose, if you're feeling daring, you could pray for the Lord to give this armadillo wings.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Ebony's Arrival Day

June 2016
Eight years ago today, Ebony joined our family. After Somo died around Memorial Day 2008, Steinway and Amore were lonely. For at least a week, Steinway would sit on the mat staring at the front door as though waiting for his buddy to return from a walk. Amore missed his fuzz therapist and personal trainer. I missed him, too, but I was still somewhat shell-shocked from his final days and not as quick to look for his successor. Whenever the time came to adopt another, I was already asking God for a healthy dog who would be a good and loving companion for us both.

As soon as A. had returned from a mission trip to Guatemala,  the search commenced. We scavenged for candidates and kept detailed bookmark folders of our favorites. We considered Chiweenies (Chihuahua-dachshund mixes), dachshunds of all varieties, terrier and beagle mixes, and we drove around town meeting and greeting a few but without agreement.

Finally we saw a dachshund mix the shelter had named Rex. The description said he was super-sized; as it turned out, he was around 35 pounds, considerably bigger than Somo or Steinway or the other pint-sized candidates. After a little research into the shelter where he was living and other possibilities there, we planned an evening visit.

The volunteer couldn't find him at first. A black dog pressed against the back wall of his crate on the bottom of double-decker kennels proved well nigh invisible. Checking and double-checking the tags against the print-out we'd brought, she finally found him and was astonished she hadn't met him before in his four-month residence.

She led him out to the courtyard and handed him off to us. He was tentative at first but quickly warmed up to the Milk-Bones we had brought along. (My husband has a natural way with animals; I'm not too proud to bribe them.)

We interviewed a couple of other candidates. The other strong possibility was a brown, Benji-like terrier mix with a very outgoing personality.

After talking the decision over at home, praying together, and "sleeping on it," we decided on Rex the super-dachshund. Well, actually, my beloved recognized I was smitten and honored my preference.

The next day, July 11, 2008, I brought Rex home while Amore was at work.

No, he wasn't in trouble already. The shelter advised using the crate for housetraining him.

Also, we decided he would be safer there until Steinway decided he was a friendly.
We renamed him Ebony. Not only did he ably fill the roles of buddy for Steinway, fuzz therapist for Allen, and personal trainer extraordinaire for both of us, he has also become our court jester on many needful occasions. When Steinway breathed his last a few weeks before Ebony's first Arrival Day celebration, Ebony helped me through.

There is no "he loves me, he loves me not" fickleness to his affection. After five years, I have no doubt that this little guy loves me. And his treat ball. And his squirrel dude. And his blankie. . .

Ebony's first afternoon at Wits' End

Ebony also inspired one of the very first blog posts here, the poem "Sermon on the Sofa" and the post "I Wait for You," among others.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

An Unexpected Guest

Once upon a time, an ordinary woman sat down at her ordinary kitchen table to eat an ordinary lunch. She had written an emotional letter that morning and felt sad and spent. Through the blinds and out the window, an extraordinary color caught her eye. That flash of light blue and white on top of the swingset-become-garden-structure didn't belong there. Had a fragment of someone's plastic grocery bag blown up there?

She parted the blinds to look and saw an extraordinary sight: a blue parakeet.

In another ordinary home in this ordinary neighborhood, an ordinary family's pet bird was out of her cage. Maybe her cage was being cleaned. Maybe she was socializing with her family. A door opened to the wide, extraordinary world beyond, and out she flew.

Out the door, over the fences, through the trees she flew, until she landed on this woman's swingset.

The woman went out to look, and the parakeet allowed her to approach quite close.

The bird wasn't sure if this woman were friend or foe. It tilted its head first this way and then that way. It took three side-steps to the left, then to the right, back and forth and back and forth. Then it flew away, but it didn't fly far.

The woman didn't want to frighten it, so she scattered some seed on the patio and went back inside to watch. The bird stayed in its new perch in the poplar tree.

After a while, when the other birds came to eat their lunch, the parakeet came, too.

The parakeet, which was showed by the white ridge above its beak that it was a girl parakeet, liked the woman's birdseed. It ate and ate and ate, and then it flew back to the top of the swingset and later to the tree.

When the woman's husband came home, he tried to make friends with the parakeet, but she wasn't sure about him either. This time she flew off into the crape myrtle, just far enough away to stay safe but near enough to keep an eye on him.

As the sun declined in the western sky and all the wild birds came to eat supper, the parakeet came too. She really liked the seed here.

She flew back into the poplar tree, and the woman wondered where she would spend the night. She had made some phone calls to try and find the pretty bird's family, but so far without success.

The next morning, the woman went back to the kitchen window when the sun rose. She was holding her breath to see if the parakeet had survived the night. When the cardinals, the finches, and the sparrows came to forage for their breakfast, the parakeet came too, then returned to the poplar she liked. All that day, and the next, and the next, the parakeet rested and ate in the woman's backyard.

It rained, and the woman worried, but the parakeet found shelter in the poplar and survived the storm. It turned cold at night, and the woman worried, but the parakeet survived the cold.

The woman decided that, as long as the parakeet was living in her garden, the parakeet needed a name. She said so to her husband. He was not surprised. He had lived with the woman long enough to know she loved finding names for things.

They considered Tiffany, because of her beautiful blue color, and Juliet, because of its elegance, but nothing quite fit. Then the woman knew.

"Lucy," she said. "We must call her Lucy, Lucy the Valiant, like the queen of Narnia. Our back garden isn't exactly Narnia, and she flew out an ordinary house door, not a wardrobe door. All the same, she left her comfortable, known, safe world, passed through a doorway, and entered a world with temperature swings, uncertain shelter and supply of food and water, and all kinds of dangers. She has survived thunder, rain, cats, hawks, and germs she couldn't have imagined before. Yes, Lucy. That will be her name while she's here."

For eight days Lucy the Valiant lingered in the garden, coming to the porch to feed whenever the doves and sparrows and chickadees did. The woman thought how this parakeet in a world of sparrows was a bit like the Christian in this life: in the garden, but not of the garden; a pilgrim far removed from her true home. Lucy's courage and grit encouraged the woman to be a little braver, too.

On the ninth day, the woman didn't see her in the morning or at noon, but Lucy returned in the late afternoon and evening to feed. On the tenth day, the woman once saw a bright, pale flash flying between two neighbors' trees, and that might have been Lucy, but she never came back to the woman's yard again.

The woman worried some but tried not to. The same God who had sustained Lucy through the early days of her pilgrimage, the same extraordinary God who saw an ordinary woman's heavy heart and sent a blue parakeet to lighten it, could sustain her still. She could have been reunited with her family. Lucy could have expanded her territory as her flying muscles strengthened and found a yard with a better supply of water as well as food. The woman may never know.

If Lucy ever returns to the woman's yard, however, she will have a friend there.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Juneau Town {Lone Star to Last Frontier, 2015}

For the backstory, please see the post, "Courage, Dear Heart!" This post is mostly photos, so e-mail readers may prefer to view the Web version of Juneau Town {Lone Star to Last Frontier, 2015}.

Of the Alaskan ports we visited last year, Juneau was our clear favorite, both for the town itself and for our whales-and-glacier excursion. Upon first introduction, the state capital with a small-town feel was shrouded in mystery.

Once ashore, the public art, flowers, and buildings old and old-fashioned charmed us immediately.

We didn't go inside, but Wyatt Earp's gun reportedly hangs over the bar here.

Sculpture adorning the public library

The streets of Juneau were full of flowers.
Then we met and fell a little in love with Patsy Ann. "Who is that?" you ask. Technically, we didn't meet her, but we did visit her memorial and read her story.

The English bull terrier Patsy Ann lived in the days before ship-to-shore radios and clockwork schedules provided details of ships' arrivals and docking plans. Although born deaf, she somehow knew not only when a ship drew within half a mile of the shore but also where it would dock. The sailors learned to let her guide their preparations. The sign next to her statue said that when she died, a small crowd watched as her coffin was lowered into the channel near where the statue now stands.

Juneau displayed a sense of humor we appreciated, too.

"Established: A Long Time Ago"

What's more, three of life's essentials were available in the main downtown area: coffee, books, and fudge.

This local roaster sells the best dark roast we've ever had: Black Gold.

Mom and I visited the lobby of the state capitol building, but renovations had closed it to visitors.

Meanwhile, Dad and Amore hiked up the hill a ways to visit the oldest Russian Orthodox church in North America, named for St. Nicholas.

If I should forget all the rest of the town of Juneau's appeal, however, this last experience is the one I would wish to keep. Before gathering at the meeting point for the whale-watching excursion, we ascended the Mount Roberts Tramway.

You recall, of course, how mist-veiled and overcast the city was throughout the morning. As the tram climbed, we broke through those clouds, and glory greeted us.

The brilliant blue sky and sunshine had been present all along, but we couldn't see them looking from below the clouds. We had to move through them and gain a higher perspective to see the light.

At the time and often since, even this week, this has vividly illustrated to me an aspect of the Christian's earthly life. In some seasons, our souls are overcast and all we see are mist and clouds and grey from horizon to horizon. Life may feel bereft of color and light. At least, that's all we see and feel if we're looking around at our circumstances and up to the limits of our human vision.

If we enter the "tram" of God's Word, however, it shifts our perspective up, breaking through the clouds to behold heavenly spiritual realities. The Holy Spirit shows us the sun is still shining, the mountain peaks still stand, and the color and beauty are still real and present, even when we can't see them from below.

The apostle Paul wrote of this phenomenon in his letters:
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory (Colossians 3:1-4 ESV).
For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:17-18 ESV).
Feelings and sight can yell so loudly that this seems impossible. It does require effort and intentionality, but the effort to yield our earthbound perspective to the Lord's eternal one in Scripture will not go unrewarded. Even brief, regular glimpses of the truth and glory hidden in the living and written Word can sustain us through the mists and clouds.

If you too are in a grey season, dear Crumble, may the Lord encourage you and fortify your spirit to set your mind on things above, on the glorious, unseen, eternal realities of life "hidden with Christ in God."