Stone of Help

As I mentioned in my most recent post, the last several months have been hard ones at our house. We’ve been under a fairly high amount of stress, and as a result, none of us has been our best selves as of late. No, that’s putting it too mildly. We’ve all been impatient with one another, unloving and prone to anger. Thankfully, the source of all that strife is in the rearview mirror (aside from a few little odds and ends that we’ll be dealing with for a few more months, but they’re totally manageable).

Now, we have a “mess” to clean up. We have to go back over the last year or so and really take a hard look at ourselves, both as individuals and as a family. To that end, I decided some time ago that we needed to have a kind of “reset,” something involving a spiritual application and a project we would all do together, something that we could point to and say, “This is when we made a decision to do, be, and live better.”

The idea for exactly what that something would be hit me when a co-worker shared Ephesians 4:2 from The Living Bible: “Be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love.” If that ain’t a great verse for a family on the mend, I don’t know what is!

We did a pretty deep dive into the first sixteen verses of the chapter:

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

We talked about growing in Christlikeness. We talked about the importance of love first. We talked about unity and how to get and maintain it, as well as why it is important in a family and in the body of Christ. And the way we maintain that unity is through four things (all mentioned in verse two): humility, gentleness, patience, and love. So that’s what we chose to focus on for our project.

First, I bought some supplies on Amazon—acrylic paint, paint pens, a sealant, and a bag of large basalt stones for painting. (You can enlarge any photo by clicking on it.)

I figured it would be a good idea to paint the rocks with the base coat before the event, so that’s what I did. Two coats of white acrylic paint were plenty to prepare our “canvasses.”

We sat down with the paint pens and some scratch paper. I told everyone to come up with a design that would help them remember what the word meant (per our discussion).

After about thirty minutes, we sealed them, and they were ready to display alongside a print of the verse I hired someone on Etsy to design. We chose to put everything in the foyer of our house because it’s a space we all walk through multiple times a day. We have to pass it often, and that keeps it on our minds. It’s a way to practice the commandment found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

The act of putting it on a wall also gave us a chance to discuss exactly what an Ebenezer or “stone of help” is (1 Samuel 7 and Joshua 4). We explained to the kids how Israel used them to memorialize what God had done for them, to keep from forgetting his kindness and deliverance. And that’s precisely what God did for our family—he protected us (both from the world and ourselves) and delivered us in our time of greatest need. Amen.

Here are close ups of the rocks we painted. (If you’re wondering, I’m “be gentle.”)

Martha, Martha, Martha…

When it comes to the three well-known siblings in Bethany, Martha always gets short shrift. Lazarus was the one with whom Jesus rested and dined. He was the one over whom Jesus wept and the one he raised from the dead. His sister, Mary, is known for sitting at Jesus’ feet to listen to the gospel and for the lavish anointing of his head with costly spikenard. Martha, however, is rarely praised. In fact, most women are admonished not to be like her. She’s a frantic doer forever caught up in seemingly petty details. She’s a scrubber of floors, a washer of laundry, a server of food. In any sermon I’ve ever heard where she plays a part, she’s described in less-than-complimentary terms. Hence, I’ve always imagined her with strands of hair flying out of her mitpachat and flour on her sweaty, crimson face. Maybe that’s why no one’s ever written a book about having a Martha heart in a Mary world.

But I don’t think that’s fair. True, Martha doesn’t appear to be a contemplative soul. No, she’s a woman of action. She gets stuff done. And I think by examining what she does we can begin to see the surpassing excellence of this early disciple and perhaps learn from her example.

Rather than dwell on Luke 10:38-42, the story that is most often told of Martha, let’s look at John 11:1-44 when Lazarus is raised from the dead. Naturally, Lazarus is the human star of the show here. After all, he’s the one that comes walking out of the tomb wrapped in burial linens, but Martha shouldn’t be forgotten.

Despite her grief, she comes to meet Jesus while Mary remains in the house, and she makes four pretty amazing declarations:

  1. Jesus, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.
  2. I know that if you wish it, you can bring him back.
  3. Even if you don’t return him to me now, I still trust you because I know I’ll see him again at the resurrection of the saints.
  4. I believe you, Jesus, are the Son of God.

Those are some bold words, and—to my mind—a very courageous declaration of faith. Four days after burying her brother, after ninety-six grueling hours of mourning and all the work that comes with it, she stops. She wipes her tear-stained face, comes to meet Jesus, and asserts the truth she has learned from him.

In contrast, Mary waits at home, only rising to meet the Messiah when Martha returns and whispers, “The Teacher is calling for you.” Like her sister, she says, “If you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died,” and then she falls at Jesus’ feet in tears. She doesn’t make any statements like Martha. All she knows in this moment is grief, and judging by what Scripture says, she cannot see past it. She cannot fathom the possibility of resurrection or the life everlasting.

But Martha can. She knows it just like she knows how long to leave a loaf in the oven or the best way to mend a torn garment. Her words tell me as much. Now, ever the pragmatist, she worries about the stench that will come out of the tomb when the stone is rolled away, so we know her faith is still far from perfect. She believes Jesus can bring her brother back; she just doesn’t understand the particulars. And the particulars matter to her the same way they did to Thomas, Nicodemus, and Phillip. Those people—like some of us—long for evidence and explanation. We need to put our hands in his wounds. We come with our questions in the dead of night and strive to wrap our heads around the resurrection using what we know of biology. We beg Jesus to show us the Father. Our Savior understands this, and rather than withhold what we need or chastise us for it, he patiently waits while we touch and ask so that we may know.

I like Martha because, when it comes right down to it, I’m a lot like her. I work hard and accomplish much. Sometimes I don’t accept things on face value and have to learn them the hard way. And though my faith has come to me via a very circuitous route and doesn’t always look bright and shiny, it’s mine. I’m thankful she’s included in the Gospels because she, like so many people we meet in those pages, is real. And what she believes is, too.

 

 

Enough Already

I review hundreds of Christian books a year—skimming and scanning them to see what’s trending and what might be beneficial to share with our readers. These come from every publisher imaginable, and many of the works that cross my desk are solid. Writers are pushing into new territory, making biblically-sound arguments, and faithfully teaching the Word of God. The hot topic du jour changes, of course. One year, brokenness was on everyone’s mind. Being “messy” and “real” had a heyday too. The Enneagram is still going strong. Perennial topics like grace, peace, and love are never in short supply. And the leadership books…oh, the leadership books. Have mercy.

However, since I began this work seven or eight years ago, one thing has remained constant: Women’s books are pastel. And I mean that both in terms of visual design and substance.

These are two books I recently received in the mail. What do you notice? What do they have in common? Pleasing robin’s egg blue covers with pink accents. Feminine font. Encouraging titles. And flowers. Always flowers.

I read a few pages of each of these offerings and promptly put them on the giveaway pile at the office. The first reason is because we need books that apply to both genders and a wide variety of ages, and these are specifically aimed a female audience in a certain stage of life. The second is because the message of each is very self-focused, and we need writers who can speak on topics that pertain to the church as whole.

My gripe is not with these two publications in particular, but the overall market for books aimed at Christian women. I did a quick search on Amazon looking for top sellers, and here’s what I came up with.

Each cover (save three) is decorated with flowers, leaves, and vines. And the ones that don’t Make use of other common visuals—a feather and a butterfly (which symbolize freedom or lightness) and a pair of hipster casual tennis shoes (being messy or real). Ladies, I guess we never get tired of taking pictures of our feet, do we?

Perhaps this is my personal preference showing as I’m not a fan of overly-feminine things, but I feel like these covers say a great deal more about the books’ intended audience than they do about what’s inside the works themselves. The message I’m getting isn’t “Drink deeply from Scripture,” “Combat what’s sinful in yourself,” or even “Renew your mind.” It’s “Be soothed,” “Love yourself,” and “Stop trying so hard to be perfect.”

Now, I will say that several of these are Bible studies, which is a far cry better than a first-person book that uses Scripture as a reference. However, to be honest, I’ve picked up many a women’s study over the years hoping to find something challenging and convicting, something that compels me to look at God’s Word (and myself) differently. And so many times, I’ve come away feeling disappointed.

Having never read any of these books, I can’t speak about them in particular. However, most of the Bible studies I’ve tried just aren’t deep enough. They’re too focused on how I feel about a passage from the Bible or how it speaks to my experience. Call me crazy, but if the goal is to die to self, to crucify my flesh with its passions and desires, to decrease so that he might increase, my feelings and experience don’t enter into it at all.

John’s Gospel ends with as clear (and tantalizing) a closing sentence as any in the Bible: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:30-31). Not “that you may feel like God loves you” or “that you may feel he’s your Savior.” It’s that you may believe and, by believing, you may live.

I don’t know if women continue to choose these books because it’s what they truly want (or think they should want) or if they’re afraid of taking on something more substantive. But I am painfully aware of just how many books are being marketed to Christian women and what they contain. We are being well and truly shortchanged.

One of the best-selling new non-fiction books of the decade—Rachel Hollis’ Girl, Wash Your Face: Stop Believing the Lies About Who You Are So You Can Become Who You Were Meant to Be—is the natural and obvious outcome of this trend. 1.6 million copies of her work found their way into women’s hands in 2018. Its message? According to Hollis herself, “You, and only you, are ultimately responsible for who you become and how happy you are. That’s the takeaway.”

“What sets this book apart is — this sounds so lame to say—is my voice,” Hollis told the AP. “I’m not an expert. I’m not a guru. Anything I’ve ever done, the work I’ve done, has always been like your girlfriend telling you what worked for her.” That’s what women are paying to hear, and the thinnest veneer of Jesus imaginable makes them think they’re reading something of eternal value. Both Alisa Childers and Laura Turner have written outstanding reviews pointing out the shortcomings of and the dangers inherent in Girl, Wash Your Face, so I won’t belabor the point by adding my two cents. However, one line from Childers’ review is relevant here.

“I’ll be honest,” she writes. “Reading this book exhausted me. It’s all about what I can be doing better and what I’m not doing good enough. How to be better at work, parenting, and writing. How to be less bad at cardio, sex, and you know, changing the world.”

So many flowery books about peace and balance. So many books about how we are enough and need to stop the crazy-making attempts at human perfection. And yet Hollis’ book—which encourages us to do more and try harder because, dadgummit, we’re the captains of our ships and the mistresses of our own destinies—is flying off the shelves. We’re consuming contrary messages, neither of which will ever soothe. Instead, we’re left anxious and troubled about many things, forgetting we can choose the good portion.

There are topics like cosmology, pneumatology, Christology, soteriology, and eschatology to study, and books about them aren’t in short supply. So why do we consistently settle for anything less? Why are we all so concerned with finding peace here on earth (and in ourselves) when Jesus clearly tells us, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword….And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:34, 38-39)?

I firmly believe that women are capable of serious theological study. We are created in God’s image, gifted with minds to explore everything from hallelujah to the hypostatic union. It’s time to leave our Pinterest-perfect faith quests behind and start demanding more of Christian publishers…and ourselves.

What’s the Value in That?

Monday, I watched this 60-second documentary about dogs and went spiraling into an existential crisis of sorts.

It wasn’t the senior dogs that nearly had me in tears, though their sweet graying faces were touching. It was the moment the dogs were taken to an assisted living facility. “Most of these people are lonely,” says Kim Skarritt, the founder of Silver Muzzle, via voiceover as senior citizens pet dogs and smile broadly at the camera.

I’ve been struggling to find balance in my life as of late. Being a mother has a way of sucking up all the spare time in a day, making it difficult for a woman to pursue her personal goals and dreams. I’ve wanted to spend more time writing essays and stories of my own, but with a full-time job and a family to take care of, that can be a little dicey. Every hour I spend has to come from somewhere else, so I typically end up waiting until the end of the day (when I’m already drained). That means I’m either losing sleep or precious hours with my sweet husband, whose company I very much enjoy, but I keep on doing it because—dadgummit—writing is my great purpose in this life!

And then I watch that video and think about homeless animals and lonely senior citizens, both populations shoved to the margins, things we’d rather not think about. Then there is the current immigration crisis to consider, the one that is forcibly separating families at the border and sending children to detention centers. I can’t forget that there’s racial injustice everywhere or the fact that white people are falling down rabbit holes of hatred. On any given day, there are 428,000 children in foster care. The suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have drawn my attention to the fact that suicide is on the rise in the United States. In fact, it has risen nearly thirty percent since 1999. Oh, and opioid abuse has reached epidemic status.

I haven’t done a singlething to combat any of this suffering. But, hey, at least I wrote that short story I’ve been noodling on, right? Yay for me!

In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus tells his disciples that when the final judgment comes, “the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’” (Matt. 25:34-40).

There ain’t word one in there about the arts, folks. I was bored to tears, and you entertained me with your dazzling prose. Not even in The Message version.

That is what it means to be about the Father’s business, I think. That’s what I should be doing. People young and old give up and die every day because they think no one cares about them. I could reach out and tell them otherwise. People everywhere are in need of food and clean water, access to better education and childcare. I could help them get it. People are strangers, even to their neighbors, and social isolation is crippling us emotionally. I could shut this laptop and walk down my street. What is an essay—even one that’s well-crafted—in the face of all that? If I throw the last 5,000 words I’ve written into the abyss, what would it change? Probably nothing. I tell you what—sometimes writing feels as pointless to me as chopping decorative pillows.

However, writers are fond of defending their craft as absolutely necessary to the human condition. Ernest Hemmingway said it requires one to “sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” From someone who cut language pretty close to the bone, that’s a bit melodramatic. Neil Gaiman said, “Tomorrow may be hell, but today was a good writing day, and on the good writing day nothing else matters.” Really, Neil? Nothing else? According to Maya Angelou, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” I can think of a few.

Books are friends, portals into the soul, journeys taken on magic carpets, a way of saying what cannot be said any other way. Yeah, we like to pile on and puff it up for looks. Phillip Pullman believes that, “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” And I’ll stop with that, because I can get behind this sentiment—even if it was said by a self-proclaimed “religious atheist.”

Hell, even the fact I can sit here and kvetch about all this on my Mac from the comfort of my middle-class home (with Solomon Burke on my record player for goodness sake) requires me to admit the staggering amount of white privilege I enjoy—yet another issue in need of a solution.

So, yes, it’s safe to say that I’m questioning a great deal about my “passion” as of late. Writing to inform, to persuade, and to educate—I’m feeling pretty okay about that—but beyond those goals (none of which I would dare label as “noble”) I’m of two minds. Can I continue to spend time writing in a world where my cat has it better than a lot of people? Can I, in good conscience, spend hours working on an essay when I could be helping ESL students better express themselves?

Nathalie Sarraute said “the act of writing is a kind of catharsis, a liberation.” Those are two words a lot of people don’t know the meaning of, much less could ever hope to experience. And what are catharsis and liberation worth when there are millions of people struggling to keep it together or feed a family on a few bucks a day? I don’t think there’s much catharsis to be had in a box of Kraft Mac & Cheese, but I could be wrong.

Finally, dear reader (and if you’ve managed to hang on this long, I salute you), all this navel-gazing is not meant to heap hot coals on your head. My judgment extends no further than the rather roomy confines of my own flesh and bone. This uncertainty is mine and no one else’s, and this post is only a marker for those who, like me, are finding their way.

In My End Is My Beginning

Georgia. From the Greek, the feminine form of George, a word meaning “a tiller of soil” or “farmer.” The name fits seeing as how the state is filled from border to shore with farmland. But while some folks settle in and work the earth, more often than not, it’s a place people pass through or end up marooned in by some sad twist of fate. Think about it…

Gladys Knight got here on a midnight train, leaving sunny California to return with her man in his shame and failure (whoo whoo!)

The brokenhearted Marshall Tucker Band arrived on a Southbound, one that took them to the place where “the train runs outta track.”

It’s the place where innocent men are hung because of backwoods Southern lawyers, where good men settle down with their hard lovin’ girls, where it’s easy to think it’s raining all over the world.

Seems like no one who comes here is very happy about it (except Ray Charles who made a fortune singing about moonlight through the pines, but let’s not bring him into it.)

Like many, I’m a sojourner in the thirteenth colony, brought here against my wishes. I’d lived in Georgia once before when I attended Valdosta State University, where I earned two bachelor’s degrees and hooked me a husband. But when I lost my teaching job and scatted on back to sunny Florida, my adopted home state, I was glad to shake the red clay from my feet. Little did I know that less than a decade later, I’d be back and settled in a city much farther north—Atlanta, the pit of the peach state.

This sprawling metroplex, now known as “The Hollywood of the South,” was established in 1837 as the end of the Western & Atlantic railroad line. Unlike other capitals, it’s not on a river or a coast, a locale easily accessed by waterway. It’s tucked firmly, stubbornly some might say, in the right breast pocket of the state. And though six or seven major roads can get you here these days, don’t count on any of them being faster than that original train. Oh, and it’s original given name? Terminus, which means “final point” or “end.” How fitting. (Thanks to The Walking Dead for that little factoid.)

So yes, it’s safe to say I’m not head-over-heels in love with this place. I miss the ocean and fresh seafood, saw palmettos and mangroves, eating oranges straight off the tree and the taste of homemade Key Lime Pie. I miss endless green golf courses and hidden freshwater springs and manatees. I even miss anoles.

It’s not just creature comforts I’m kvetching about either. For the first time in my life, I’m six hours away from my family, which left me feeling adrift and isolated at first. But I’m starting to understand the value of that kind of distance.

Before I left home, there were many things to which the answers seemed sure. Why? Because I lived in an echo chamber, surrounded by people who looked, thought, and acted like I did. Consensus doesn’t call for much in the way of soul searching. Here in Atlanta, however, I’m away from kin and have had to build a larger social circle to compensate. Sharing space and time with a more diverse group of people has proven to be one of the greatest blessings (and causes for growth) I’ve ever experienced.

For the first time in my nearly 40 years on this earth, I listen more than I talk. I have sat wide-eared with people I’ve grown to love and value, and they’ve revealed so much. They told me how they grieve over tributes to the Confederacy in town squares or carved into Stone Mountain. To them, the latter is a blight on an amazing creation of God, and each statue, plaque, or obelisk reminds them that racism’s roots run deep in the state we all call home.

As a lover of all things historical, I once argued that such monuments should be left unmolested in order to preserve history (and avoid repeating it). However, knowing that these objects cause others pain, seeing it writ large on the faces of fellow image bearers of God, compelled me to revise my opinion.

That unsettling revelation led me on a paper pilgrimage, and I read books like Blood At the Root: A Racial Cleansing In America by Patrick Phillips, White Awake by Daniel Hill, The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege by Ken Wytsma, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, March by John Lewis, and Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson. With each volume, I’ve been challenged, forced either to defend or amend things I once thought settled, and while it can be challenging, it’s been well worth it. The work has reframed my understanding of the legal system in America, helped me see the ways we confuse patriotism and nationalism, and broadened my view on immigration and belonging.

The distance has also required me to look at my faith with fresh eyes. For too long, I went along with what I’d been taught, and while there’s nothing theologically amiss about the doctrine I grew up with, it never felt fully mine. I had never been obliged to step up and own it. Being here allowed me not only to find a place I can call my own for the first time; it also drove me to the Bible and theology texts of all shapes and sizes. The process has shown me the shocking scope of things I didn’t know, and that is cause for both great humility and expectation.

When my the pastor says, “I ask you, Christian, what do you believe?” I stand with my brothers and sisters and say….

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

I recite it and know in a way beyond words that what I believe is true. That it is solid. That it will hold. That it will never be found wanting. That’s well worth a little geographical discomfort.

In “East Coker” the second of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, he closes with the following stanza.

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

And that’s precisely what I’m doing. I am “still and still moving / Into another intensity / For a further union, a deeper communion.” Georgia, despite being the last place I wanted to live, became the place where I needed to be. What I saw as an end was actually my beginning.

Once again, Eliot says it better in “East Coker” than I ever could:

To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
    You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
    You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
    You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
    You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

In this place, this state and time, I have learned that what I “do not know is the only thing [I] know.” Here in this strange, broken, and somehow beautiful territory, I have become a farmer of sorts, one who turns over the soil of her own heart, removing weeds that hinder growth, sowing good seed, and watering it in faith.

Yeah, Georgia ain’t much, but it’s home.

But I Thought…

Since I became a foster-to-adopt parent in 2015, I’ve learned a lot about assumptions. Just like our boys, my husband and I are white. We’re both just shy of 40, the perfect age to have two kids under the age of eleven. Because of these two facts, many people assume they’re our biological children.

Oftentimes, that is a blessing. We don’t have to tell people their story or make our sons feel awkward or different if we don’t have to. Other times, it has been a hindrance. People assume our youngest is acting out because he’s willful or because we’re lax when it comes to discipline. But the truth is that he is coming to us from a hard place and is still working through the trauma that sent him on the long journey to our front door.

People assume things about adoptive parents, too. This is why I shouldn’t have been confused when a woman I had dinner with recently said, “Well, after you’ve been through the pain of infertility, your children must be such a blessing.” She finished the statement with a knowing wink and a pat on my hand that set her bracelets to jangling. “The Lord certainly heard your prayers, didn’t he?”

Here’s the thing. My husband and I didn’t struggle to conceive, give up, and “settle for” adoption. On the contrary, I’m likely as fertile as the Nile during flood season. We chose not to have biological children for reasons both personal and medical, but when God started leading us to adopt a sibling group here in Georgia, we obeyed.

When I revealed this fact, she sat in stunned silence for a moment, trying to process the information.

Yes, I wanted to say, neither of us fancied children. Yes, when we did choose to adopt, we never considered an infant. Yes, we wanted more than one. Yes, we chose a child with special needs. And no, we’re not crazy people with a martyr complex.

As Christians, we assume we know what adoption is all about. For instance, we know that God executes justice for the fatherless (Deut. 10:18) and that pure and undefiled religion requires the care of widows and orphans (James 1:27), but when it comes to carrying out that high and holy calling, obedience doesn’t always come easily.

It certainly didn’t for us. We dragged our feet at several points in the process, scared out of our minds by an adoption horror story or alarming statistics. But God was patient with us, and despite our fumbling, halting steps, he led us to where we find ourselves today.

And our adoption story—like most folks’—isn’t chock full of Hallmark Channel movie moments. There are tearful, emotional days that end with my husband and I talking in the dark, admitting to one another what big, fat failures we are. But there are also ones filled with small miracles and mercies—good behavior at school, a successful afternoon speech therapy session, a peaceful family dinner. We treasure each one of those days because they mean we’re making progress. Still, more often than not, parenthood has left us singing “Life In Wartime” by the Talking Heads: “This ain’t no party. This ain’t no disco. This ain’t no fooling around.”

We assumed we knew what we were getting into. We were wrong. Oh brother, were we wrong.

Adoption has been both harder than we ever expected and more rewarding than we anticipated. Just as he was when we started this whole crazy mess, God has been with us every step of the way. And for some reason, I can’t help but assume he’s been enjoying himself immensely.

A Far Way On To Dawn

The winter solstice is upon us, and tonight will officially be the longest night of the year. And, brother, if there ever was a year that demanded a dark night, 2016 is it. I won’t belabor the point by listing many of the challenging and disheartening things that have taken place since this January 1st, and I won’t try to ameliorate them by pointing out the many bright spots the year offered either. To do that is to dwell in the temporal, and relying on the things of this world for our emotional equilibrium is foolish at best.

However, as I stand on the edge of 40, I must admit that the darkness is a little harder to shake off than it used to be. It’s not because I’m growing cynical (though that has happened to some degree) or because I feel lost. On the contrary, I understand myself and my purpose in this life better than ever before.

I think it has something to do with perspective. With a few decades behind me, it’s easier to see things as they are. In middle age, we recognize that time (for us at least) isn’t infinite, some endless skein of hours that spools itself out into perpetuity. The scissors come, the thread is severed, and there is an end to things as we know them. Losing my grandfather to Alzheimer’s Disease, praying for a friend who, though only 42 and the mother of two young girls, learned she has lymphoma, watching marriages end in divorce and death all impressed the same inescapable fact on me—nothing in this life is guaranteed.

In this hard year of bitterness and animosity, with thoughts of mortality in mind, I came across this page in Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and it stopped me cold.

somethingwicked

 

The character having these heavy thoughts, Charles Holloway, is a 54-year-old amateur philosopher and library janitor who bemoans the loss of his youth and potential. (Though — slight spoiler alert — there’s a great moment of redemption for him in the book.) As someone who has been awake at 3:00 AM several times this year, I concur that it is a hard hour, a sharp and lonely sliver of time. With the house sleeping around you and the world outside the window quiet and still, it’s easy to believe you’re the only soul left and that all else is darkness.

But unlike Mr. Bradbury, who considered himself a “delicatessen religionist,” I believe in “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes. Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days.” I take comfort in the words of Paul who tells us, “We do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 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 Cor. 4:16-18).

This year, our family used an Advent wreath at home for the first time, and I have found that the intentional lighting of candles, of discussing what they mean, and allowing them to focus my attention on Jesus has been restorative. Yes, there is darkness, but there is also hope. There is love. There is joy. There is peace. Why? Because there is Christ, the center of our celebration. He is where our hearts must dwell, and he is the only source of true comfort in a world that seems to have skidded sideways.

On this, the longest night of the year, and every night of my life, I will not stare at the darkness. Instead, I look to the white candle in the center of that wreath, the one that represents Jesus—the God-man who came to redeem and will return to rescue. I sing the last three verses of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” in expectation, knowing that my waiting will not be in vain, for the Dayspring is coming.

Oh, come, O Key of David, come,
And open wide our heav’nly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

Oh, come, our Dayspring from on high,
And cheer us by your drawing nigh,
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

Oh, come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Oh, bid our sad divisions cease,
And be yourself our King of Peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!