The Good of Friday

lonely-man-appI felt trapped. Separated from home by a landmark bridge and 500 miles, my studies at college were the loneliest of my life.

Buried in snow and differential equations, I had tapered. My existence seemed shunted, bound by the limit to which the frigid atmosphere of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula could carry my warbled pleas. I was singular, distanced from the familiar, the enjoyable, the comfortable. I felt unprotected and undefended. Monsters of despair bullied my self-talk and clawed at the empty space of me.

Still, in the dim of self pity I desperately tended a flickering hope. My spirit stretched toward Spirit as neediness found readiness in another. In a Man who knows rejection and isolation, for there was a time that He was lonely, too.

Lonely because of me. I’ve said ‘no’ to Him. Deserted Him. Ignored Him — over and over. You have, too. Even His Father distanced himself in this Man’s most desperate moment. Together, we have turned our collective back and willingly cast this Man aside.

Today we remember our rejection of Him. In my remembering, I want those college days near me. To feel fresh the pain and longing. To sit again in the desperation and frustration of wanting to be wanted. To be connected, known, and loved.

We are not trapped on a celestial orb, abandoned and alone, traversing in elliptical nothingness. We have been rescued from isolation. We need no longer be lonely. That is the “good” of this Friday.

Because of the Man, Jesus.

“He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”
Isaiah 53:3, ESV

Delightfully Difficult

Number twenty-two. The copper anniversary. Whoever designated anniversary themes must have figured if you made it to 22 you could risk giving a copper-themed gift to your spouse. Copper is great for circuit boards and statues, but as an anniversary present? Seriously, what’s a guy to do? I find consolation in my navigation around the “wax” theme of the 16th anniversary, as well as “feathers” for number 18. I propose we simplify and modernize. How about a, “dinner and a movie” theme for every year?

As part of our recent anniversary celebration, my wife moved a few wedding treasures into prominent view. Slightly more than arms-length from where I sit is the figurine that sat atop our wedding cake. Side-by-side in a convertible car sit a porcelain bride and groom – wide-eyed and pensive. They embody hope, innocence, and shameless dreams. Their faces evoke laughter and sunshine and the thrill of oneness. They symbolize humanity’s best sentiment for togetherness.

Yet veiled by the idyllic cuteness of our Precious Moments™ pair is something contrary to a fairytale sculpting of happily ever after. Our wedding cake couple has secrets. A close look reveals damage and scars. Here a chip, there a crack. Tin cans that once dangled from the car’s bumper have been ripped from their anchoring point. This marital duo is not as they were that January day when they nestled secure in a thick bed of white frosting. They’ve changed.

Such is marriage. A refining endeavor of being broken and changed.

In a recent reading of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, I attached myself to the character Levin. He’s traditional, stubborn, and idealistic. He’s a self-aware dreamer in tension with life’s realities. After some favorable twists of circumstance, Levin’s marital dream comes true as he weds his true love. Here’s Tolstoy description of Levin’s thoughts, still very new to his role as husband:

“Levin had been married three months. He was happy, but not at all in the way he had expected to be. At every step he found his former dreams disappointed, and new, unexpected surprises of happiness. He was happy, but on entering upon family life he saw at every step that it was utterly different from what he had imagined. At every step he experienced what a man would experience who, after admiring the smooth, happy course of a little boat on a lake, should get himself into that little boat. He saw that it was not all sitting still, floating smoothly; that one had to think too, not for an instant to forget where one was floating and that there was water under one, and that one must row; and that his unaccustomed hands would be sore; and that it was only to look at it that was easy; but that doing it, though very delightful, was very difficult.” (Anna Karenina, Part V, Chapter 14)

Easy is the story of that wedding cake couple with painted-on smiles and forever young features. Easy flowed our dreams of marital life, twenty-two years ago. Easy was the dress rehearsal.

Then we stepped into the boat.

And there we sit. She and me. Side-by-side in a weathered skiff upon life’s ocean. Happy and sore. Disappointed and surprised. Broken but joyful. And always dreaming as we paddle into the delightfully difficult.

Together.

Hot Pursuit

Nearly twenty-two years of the same stealthy preparations. A pre-dawn routine executed with precision. On this particular morning, I sought extra discretion. My mission was to slip away unnoticed. Avoid interaction or confrontation. No words. Simply brush her cheek with a kiss and leave her sleep undisturbed. Gently close the bedroom door, descend the stairs, and traverse the minefield of aging floorboards without setting-off a creak or groan.

My destination: the office. The goal: a quiet morning of coffee, reading, prayer – you know – the litany of good, noble, and righteous things that are fodder for humble tweeting.

I wish there was something tweet-worthy in those moments. My morning maneuvers that day were a cover-up. A ruse. An attempt to distance myself from the week’s tension. Tension with what, I’m not sure. I can’t pinpoint a particular issue or conversation or event. Life just felt like a slow plodding through fog and a 45-degree drizzle. I don’t enjoy being wet or cold and those days gave me feelings of wet and cold. I responded with observable annoyance and emotional withdrawal. And as I began that day in question, my aim was continued retreat…to somewhere…alone.

I slipped out the door and was soon bunkered in my dimly lit office. My escape seemed assured. The coffee was poured, email checked, and Bible open. I was alone, and it was quiet.

Until my computer loosed a tinker bell chime. A new iMessage. From my wife.

My cover was blown.

Here’s our brief exchange:

my wife
    Are you meeting someone for breakfast?
me
    No. I’m in my office studying. I meet my mom at 8.
my wife
    Can I come up and have a meeting? 🙂
me
    a meeting?? about what?
my wife
    Just a couple things I started to write but are complicated. Easier to talk.
me
    ok

Ugh. She was on to me, hot in her pursuit. I was hemmed-in. Trapped. She was coming to crash my pity party. What did she want to talk about? “Complicated” is code word for “you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do, buddy!” I found small consolation in her use of a smiley face emoticon.

I sighed, then slouched in my chair. I was upset and disappointed. Not with her, but me.

I didn’t want to see her. Well, I did…and didn’t. I was seeking escape so I could spend time floating like deadwood in the mental whirlpool of ‘woe is me.’ I wanted to craft my case for why I deserve better. That morning I wasn’t interested in reason or rescue. I didn’t want to chat.

But she did. And she’s my wife, so we talk.

She is also the person I fear the most. 

I fear her, not because she is unkind, but because she knows too much — too much about me. Marriage necessitates deep, personal revelation. A sacred vulnerability brought forth through committed trust. With transparency comes risk in our engagements because neither she nor I are free from mistakes. We misjudged and misinterpret. We make assumptions. We say things we shouldn’t and cause each other pain. This reality can be frightening. Sometimes distance seems a safer choice. It did for me that morning.

But marriage is a covenanted oneness. A relationship that pursues and protects and breaks into early morning darkness. It brings warmth to a cold heart. It protects from the mist that dampens a spirit. How wonderful is it that someone who has experienced the most offensive, disgusting, repulsive things about you makes the willful choice to seek. To find. To confront. To love.

My wife has heaps of grace and saintly patience for this stubborn man. I am blessed, and grateful.

I really did hope to escape that morning. On occasion I need some time by myself to get straightened around. My wife knows that and gives appropriate space.

She also knows when to track me down.

Bumblebee Pilots

Side-by side we sat in a Chevy Chevette.

In a cemetery.

Two men. Confident and scared. Teacher and student. Father and son.

Tree-filtered breezes meandered across the polished yellow hood and through windows hand-cranked to full openness. The contrast of the car’s deep space black vinyl interior gave the impression we were pilots of a man-sized bumblebee. A masculine carriage, it was not. But that was of little concern.

Because I was under siege, pinned-down by a series of moments strung together with a thread of terror. I could not master the mechanical dance between the brake, clutch, and accelerator. Stooges, those three. Starts and stops and stalls was their schtick. A humiliating assembly of cyclic failure – which I didn’t find funny.

Succumbing to numerous resets, I struggled to gain ground toward acquiring stick-shifting skill. During each re-collecting, I’d direct my gaze past the windshield and upon the root-heaved asphalt further along. I yearned to cruise the curvy paths, deftly marching through the gears. But that required something I did not have. And at the time, I was beginning to think never would.

Amidst this battle between man and machine, my passenger-seated father was calm, fully immersed in saintly patience. From the noisy barrage of a high-revved engine and grinding gears emerged phrases of gentle instruction and well placed encouragement. Over and over, he renewed his commitment after each false start. He loved me well.

That scene from my 16th summer is a highlight, still vivid in the present because of its ongoing effect. I now fill the office of father and have spent time in the passenger seat. That seat is revelatory. It has brought forth some of my finest, and most despicable behaviors. It has frustrated and badgered. It has made me laugh and wonder and cry. That seat demands much – day after day.

There are many tasks and requirements we as students and spouses and parents and professionals do because we must. That’s our reality, and it is good. Even so, how we engage our compulsory duties is a strong indicator of who we are, what we value, and how we grant our trust.
 
Recalling my rough road to mastering a manual transmission brings to mind this quote from Thomas Watson: “To do duty without love, is not sacrifice, but penance.” (All Things for Good, p.88) My father had a duty to teach me how to drive a stick shift. But in that necessity, he chose long-suffering, patient love. He went beyond himself, and through his risk of releasing control I felt his side-by-side care for my development as a young man.

I have wandered into loveless duty and found – indeed – it is punishing. A snare of ungrateful effort. A joyless enduring, pock-marked by missed opportunity.

Yet, today is new! Mercy abounds, and each relational intersection is a divinely planned setup for us to love with patient kindness. To give not only because we should, but because it is our desire.

With the onset of a new season of school and activities and fresh routines, my desire that those things I want to do – as well as my duties – be done with tangible, sincere, freely-gifted love.

Like that which was given to me on a breezy afternoon in a car the color of sunflowers.

Finger-Painted Turkeys

“If I love the Lover, I love what the Lover has made. Perhaps this is the reason why so many Christians feel an unreality in their Christian lives. If I don’t love what the Lover has made – in the area of man, in the area of nature – and really love it because He made it, do I really love the Lover?” 
~ Francis Schaeffer, Pollution and the Death of Man, p.93

It’s on my desk. And the bookshelves – both at home and the office. Some hangs in my workshop. I’ve stuffed pieces in my wallet and tucked remnants in my journal.

What is ‘it’?

Drawings. Paintings. Clay sculptures and handmade cards. Paper-Mache masks and glue-soaked construction paper collages. A thoughtful note. A lumpy figurine. Gestures of grace from my children, my wife, and my friends. Items imbued with the personality and affection of their creator.

A critic’s eye might judge some of it weird. Unbalanced. Random. Kitschy. Disproportionate. Novice. Not good. Who can argue that a multi-colored handprint transformed into a Thanksgiving turkey lacks the technical mastery of Van Gogh or Rembrandt? And that sacred sandwich bag of rug wool I have on display? Even Picasso would raise an eyebrow at such quirkiness.

But I treasure every bit. Such things – artistically right or wrong or strange – are born from love. They are the out-worked expressions of joy and pleasure whose value is granted by their maker.

I have a box full of such expressions. Years of crayon-colored papers, pipe cleaner people, and stationery with handwritten notes that have enhanced relationships and deepened friendships. Simple items that have sealed my heart to a child and fortified my marriage covenant. Tokens that celebrate rich legacies and challenge toward a noble future. Friendship ebenezers. No matter the quality or shape, I love those who have created on my behalf. Their love for me flows through their handmade expressions.

Just like God.

Granite outcroppings and cumulus clouds. Canyon cutting rivers and hot springs. Dandelion seeds. A rolling fog. Frolicking Gold Finches and Sequoia trees. A water strider. A kernel of wheat. The buzzing fly. All joyful expressions of God’s creative pleasure. Gifts to be savored and experienced and enjoyed.

And so are we.

We have worth because our Maker formed us in love. Crafted and shaped with grace and truth, He infused us with identity. His verdict? Good – no, very good!

The lead-in quote to this post challenges me to be a better lover. To seek deep satisfaction in God’s creative mastery. To handle with care and discernment all of His creative progeny. To love Him by loving what He’s made. 

Like my children’s penciled stickmen and water colored rainbows, I treasure the fruit of God’s creativity. I celebrate his animate and inanimate and human handiwork. I honor His work, and love Him better when I celebrate how He’s made me – even with my shortcomings and defects and disproportions and failures. Whether I feel like a messy finger painting or Michelangelo’s David, my value can never be blemished.

 “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights! Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his hosts! Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars! Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens! Let them praise the name of the Lord! For he commanded and they were created. And he established them forever and ever; he gave a decree, and it shall not pass away. Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy wind fulfilling his word! Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! Beasts and all livestock, creeping things and flying birds! Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! Young men and maidens together, old men and children! Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his majesty is above earth and heaven. He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his saints, for the people of Israel who are near to him. Praise the Lord!”
~ Psalm 148 ~

My Favorite Picture

Last week I was overwhelmed – again. It was déjà vu from two years ago. All those hallways and galleries and glass cases and tiny spotlights. It doesn’t take long for me to get lost in the varied and sometimes loose interpretations of art at The Art Institute of Chicago.

But this time, while indulging in Monet’s impressionist beauty and marveling at intricate hand-sewn tapestries and pausing over Picasso’s intriguing depictions, my thoughts floated to another piece of art. A picture – and it’s my favorite.

It’s an unfinished piece. Even so, it’s wonderful in its present state. The artist continues to work on it – daily refining, enhancing, reducing and adding. It’s a complicated work that I ponder and probe closely. In the details I perceive bits of anger and pain. Joy alongside sorrow. I discover sections that exude bright laughter and coy smiles. Happiness. Gentleness. Attentiveness. Kindness. Love.

Two figures are central to the piece. The artist has captured them speaking. Their mouths are nondescriptly shaped, so I’m free to envision a confounded effusion of words – some shouted, some whispered, some savored, and some unsaid. Their intricate faces, focused upon each other, are both quizzical and knowing.

Layered deep into the picture is a warm acceptance that blankets cool, undulating anxieties. Shadowy tones of doubt and fear are present, but carefully bound to the perimeter. Wonder and celebration effervesce from the picture, seeking to capture and enthrall each observer.

Stepping back for a broad view brings forth soft, strong, tender, and compassionate characteristics. Taken as one, this picture is simultaneously fully feminine and wholly masculine. Each part necessary, yet independently special. It’s a mysterious collective. A deeply personal picture that’s common in its representation, but unique in its presentation.

This extraordinary piece was in The Art Institute of Chicago last week – for about two hours. Then it walked out the door, down stone steps, passed between the majestic and beautifully oxidized pair of bronze lions and onto a sidewalk along Michigan Avenue. That piece – a masterfully crafted picture – is my marriage.

More than twenty years in its progression, God continues to paint my marriage with vibrant colors of grace, mercy, patience, and love. Despite moments of resistance, He gently knits together the souls of my wife and me. Closer. Tighter. Singular. Intimate. We are bound with cosmic sacredness.

God’s sings with pleasure over our bittersweet union. And in the safety of His purposed design we cling to our covenant. We fight for it. We trust it. We rest unified, gladly reflecting back to the Artist the beauty of our oneness.

The gift of marriage is a spectacular display of creative love. A man. A woman. Fit together with God-given complementarity. A blessed picture of the redemptive, life-giving relationship of God and His children.

Me and my wife. Together.

That’s my favorite picture.

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24, ESV)