Sappy and Green

I enjoy making new from old. dripping_tree_sap

Last summer in an unplanned flash of creativity, I crafted an outdoor iPod music station. I had a riot pairing my imagination with a stack of wood from weathered apple crates. Today, that music box stands erect, like a soldier at Buckingham Palace, ready to deliver play-listed tunes into the springtime green of our backyard.

Last week, as I unpacked my musical re-creation from it’s winter storage, my mind recalled a recent conversation with a friend. He and his wife are battling cancer — again. The situation is fragile. Emotions are volatile. The future uncertain. Questions ooze from every conversation. Predominant among them is: “Why is this happening, again?”

Life is seasonal. In my friend’s case, cyclical. The chapters of our living stack side-by-side and layer a story. Some of the chapters read with discouragement and despair in our pursuit of happiness. Others have plot lines wrapped around self-affirmation and high-minded morality. And some are penned while walking the slender path that’s illumined step-by-step with a sanctified glow.

We all wander and weave a journey that brings us to lung-burning climbs and leg-aching descents. None are immune from life’s frustrations and setbacks. Each of us cycle through joy and sorrow, breaking and building, closed doors and open.

Hindsight is the gift of reflection. A glimpse backward helps us piece together personal themes, the development of relationships, and circumstances that are more purpose driven than random. In our looking back, we see the progression of being torn down and built up. We see Someone at work.

For those who follow Jesus, our life is a steady plodding toward restoration. In every circumstance, our hope is immovably anchored in the surety of God’s plan of renewal. Deep within, we’re “ever full of sap and green.” * We’re alive and growing by the Spirit of grace.

As you page through your story today, be it joyous, painful, or commonplace, remember that every moment is an opportunity to worship. Believe that your life is not a fate-driven tragedy. A hopeless endeavor. A cycle of needless pain. We are all being broken down and built up. We are green, sappy, deeply loved people being transformed from the old and broken into fruit-bearing newness. In all things, may we be vibrant ambassadors who step with trust into the wonderful mystery of the story God is writing.

* “The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God. They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green, to declare that the Lord is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.”
Psalm 92:12–15, ESV

When I Couldn’t Toot My Horn

She and her band of merry musicians were treated like royalty as they made their perennial trek from the hormone-ravaged halls of the junior high to the prepubescent kid-ranch called elementary school. Their quest was to excite jubilant throngs of students with a buffet of instrumentation upon which they would indulge their aural appetites. At the end of their feasting, each 5th grade student was to select an instrument they would begin learning the following year.

Curious and wonder-filled, I sampled the symphonic spectrum. From the trill of flutes to the blats of brass to syncopated percussion beats. How excited I was to end my conscription in piano purgatory and broaden my musical expression.

In the parade of valves and pads and sticks and slides, my heart found camaraderie with the brass section. Specifically, I was enthralled by circular turns of tubing and hand-muffled sounds. I was fascinated by the range of tones traversed with the simple repositioning of pursed lips. My imagination brought forth a scene in which I played my horn to summon the King’s hounds for a fox hunt. Yes! I had made my decision. I wanted to play the French Horn.

Alas, there was no horn tootin’ in my future. Instead, I would squawk sounds like angry water fowl with my mother’s clarinet.

The dictum of “no” to the French horn and “yes” to the clarinet has provided enduring perspective. I can grumble about the trajectory my orchestral career might have traversed had my lips trilled into a metal mouthpiece instead of sucking a reed. Such speculation is packed with presumption. Still, passions are powerful. They need tending in the mix of the “no’s” and “yes’s” that lie along the tentacled paths we wander. Paths that criss-cross and spread and tangle and stretch.

I ponder my path. Often. I search-out roads to personal fulfillment, service, success, and rest. And as my journey lengthens, I come to deeper understanding that my feet fall not just upon a happy trail of “yes”, but also “no” and “wait” and “yes…but.”

A recent collision with “no” revived the melodic memory of a French horn’s bellow. My story has a chapter with that unrealized dream. A yearning that drifted – for a time – in restlessness. And now my soul seeps a fresh grief.

So what do I do with my French Horn nixing and other encounters with “no”?

Day after day, I reaffirm human dignity, acknowledge fallibility, and hope for alternative paths to flourishing. I fight commiseration and plead for the humility to submit to the Father who soothes our hurt with a holy poultice of grace and forgiveness. Healing comes through a faith-filled “yes” to the Sovereign who makes rightful claim on every creature and every action.

In his memoir, Life is Mostly Edges, Calvin Miller offers this: “Letting go of any drive releases the soul, and those who can’t quit struggling in an attempt to realize their dreams will be the last to realize them.” (p.265) There is a delicate tension between the consuming drive for desire and a settled trust that we are walking a gracious and satisfying path. A path that includes “yes” and “no”. French horns and clarinets.

So, as we take another step into life this day, may we embody this perspective:


“The life that intends to be wholly obedient, wholly submissive, wholly listening, is astonishing in its completeness. Its joys are ravishing, its peace profound, its humility the deepest, its power world-shaking, its love enveloping, its simplicity that of a trusting child.” (Thomas R. Kelley, A Testament of Devotion, p.28)

Perfectly Scripted

For one hour each week, everyone in the room had to acknowledge my amazingness. For sixty minutes I lived in celebrity. Elevated and set apart from every other classmate. I was a fourth-grade prodigy. Not of math or music or English, but penmanship.

I was the King of Curves. The Sultan of Script. A veritable Michelangelo of the big fat pencil.

My mastery bought me exemption from those monotonous, mind-numbing exercises of tracing-out row upon row of alphabet soup. While my buddies toiled, their hands cramping from the perplexities of capital ‘Q’ and lower case ‘b’, I sat aloof. Distanced by my special skill, I contentedly surveyed the hoard of scribblers, peacefully counting the minutes until recess.

I remember those moments with satisfaction. An appropriate pride in something I could do well. I felt special, distinct, unique. And those feelings were legitimized through peer review and an authoritative declaration from Mr. Olthoff. I had achieved success!

Now here I sit, thirty-five years later, reliving tales from fourth grade that mean…nothing? The spotlight is gone. My calligraphic skill has atrophied. And the memory of my triumph lives only in the annals of my mind. But those elementary school experiences affect me still. Through those recollected scenes I interact with what’s true and good about me.

I’d like to dwell there.

But juxtaposed against my scripting finesse is a string of disappointments and embarrassments. Frustrations and regrets. Moments of remorse and shame. And a collection of caustic words that cling to me like hot tar.

Is there sense to be made of life’s dichotomy?

In his Institutes, John Calvin said, “…we are impelled by our miseries to reflect on the Lord’s good gifts, and we cannot sincerely yearn for him until we have first begun to cease being pleased with ourselves.”* I would enjoy walking around this day, acknowledged repeatedly for my neat handwriting. To hear from random strangers, “Hey! I’ve heard you can craft a sweet lower case ‘z’!” Instead, reality is a blend of good coffee and dirty diapers. Sunset walks and orthodontics. Birthday parties and chemotherapy.

Why? Because both grace and misery lead us to majesty.

Calvin reminds us that we were made to live for more than accomplishments or accolades. Certainly, it is right to celebrate beautiful handwriting. But such things should be not an end, but touch points that propel us higher, and farther, and deeper into our desire for God. After all, what’s pleasurable about my penmanship is sourced from Who is truly pleasurable. And through enjoyment of Him and his generous gifting we learn to love Him. To trust Him. To give back to Him as we persevere through frustration and sickness, discouragement and tragedy, name-calling and lies.

I’ve never learned so much by not doing schoolwork. Don’t tell my kids…


*John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, translation by Robert White, p.1

The Crying Man

Graveside.

He’s standing there now. A woman sits crouched at his feet, shaking with sobs. The grave has engulfed her brother, who was precious to her.

Slumped on His shoulder is another woman. Sister to the first, her fingers ebb and flow with constriction upon His shoulder, syncing with erratic bursts of breath that flirt with His neck. His body gently resonates with her waves of sorrow. The woman’s ever-freshening tears have darkened the front of his cloak, bringing a poignant unity between them.

He finds his emotions building as cries from black-clothed mourners continuously loop their cacophonous wail. Closing His eyes, scenes flash across his mind with rapidity – the dead man, these sisters, shared meals, raucous laughter, late-night conversations, confrontations.

His eyes begin to burn as they prime a flow of salty grief. His mouth is dry but he reflexively swallows. Plagued with emotional tightness, His throat resists. Thorns and thistles. Life and death. This is the curse.

Gone is Lazarus.

The man, Jesus, weeps.

A tear pushes through the dust of Palestine that lightly coats His cheek. A second tear chases the first and nestles in His beard. His chest undulates with erratic heaves as He tries to dampen the outburst of grief welling inside. The woman at his shoulder shifts her arms to hold Him, briefly suspending her grief to offer comfort. He loved her brother. Great friends. Death has robbed their joy.

Jesus fully enters this interlude of grief. On His heart rests mankind’s dilemma and the burden of loss. He embraces the deep soul sorrow of separation through death. He doesn’t rescue by cueing the next scene. Instead, He stands there.

Crying.

Unashamed. Feeling the pain of life in His humanity.

Through His tears, Jesus offered uniquely human streams of compassion for his friends. Streams of anguish for our cursed humanity. Streams of love that foreshadow another flow.

Jesus is not above our pain. He is the answer to it.

Read the whole story in John 11.

Great Frustrations

Nacho is our dog. He’s small in stature but large in personality. Some bark, some bite and lots of swagger. He’s endearing in a too-tart lemonade sort of way; you can only take so much of the little buddy.

This week Nacho’s endearment to me lessened. Here’s a short string of email exchanged between Katrina and me.

From: Katrina
To: Chris
Subject: The dog ate…

your ear phones….

I guess he climbed up on your desk and got them.

~ The informer of bad news.

———–
From: Chris
To: Katrina
Subject: RE: The dog ate…

I hate him.
———-
From: Katrina
To: Chris
Subject: Re: The dog ate…

Oh, Sweetie….  you’re cracking me up.  Just makes me giggle having you hate the dog.

———-

At least someone can laugh.

As I mourn the demise of my beloved ear phones, I’m pondering this thought: “Reality is the greatest ally of God. It is the things you cannot do anything with – the useless things – and the things you cannot do anything about – the necessary things – that tend to do something with you!” (Richard Rohr, From Wild Man to Wise Man, 115)  Does that mean my dog’s affinity for everything but his food is a poignant reality through which I can learn more about God, and myself?

Like dog-chewed ear phones, life’s frustrations have many looks: lost car keys, checkbook balances near or below zero, the family game night that morphs into family feud, funerals, another gray hair, a reduction in work hours, colonoscopies, icy roads, leaky diapers, mirrors that reflect too big, too little or the wrong shape, a terminal prognosis and vomit-covered carpet in the middle of the night. Ah, life!

Ever wanted to escape reality – at least the bad parts? You know, close your eyes, count to three and all becomes unicorns, butterflies and kittens? Such fairy tale thinking ends when we open our eyes to reality where the useless, the necessary, and the frustrations of life do something with us. But how, and why?

The struggles of life chip-away at our cleverly crafted façades – pretty façades we build to mask our truest thoughts about life, ourselves and God. When frustrated, we must answer this question: what do I do when I don’t get what I want?

I wanted a nice set of ear phones. I had them – for a while. Their destruction upset me. How should I respond? Do I complain, pout and have a pity party? Do I lock myself in my man cave and grumble? Do I storm around the house accusing everyone of negligence? Do I kick the dog and call it good? (just kidding – mostly)

When frustrated, emotional pull, cleverness or a re-doubling of effort is not what God wants from us. Like Rohr said, God wants reality to do something with us. He allows struggle to thwart our comfortable ideologies. Like spiritual rolling pins, the trials of life smooth, shape and flatten us. They extrude us toward a finished product that is “mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:4)

God encourages us to face life head-on. To be worked-over by reality. To be honest about our inabilities and inadequacies. To grieve life’s brokenness. To acknowledge the pain of disappointment and loss. And in that process He graciously paces alongside, waiting for us to sit, rest, trust and surrender to Him. John Owen had it right: “Faith and worship will bring rest and satisfaction, when reason will only drown us.” (Spiritual Mindedness, 96).

Life is messy. Broken. Frustrating. Chewed ear phones are functionally useless, but spiritually priceless. Life’s frustrations aren’t roadblocks. They’re opportunities to engage my story with God’s story. Often I don’t know what God is up to. Reality is not predictable, and many times unreasonable. But that’s the point. God uses the good, bad and incoherent to do something – a wonderful something – with me, and with you. When we let Him.

Meet My Companion

I don’t like him. I want him to leave. I want to say “Bye!”, “Don’t come back!”, “Get out of here!” More strongly, “I hate you!”, “You’re hurting me, and my friends, and I wish we’d never met!”

Harsh words. Words that I’ve spoken, at least in my thoughts. They’re part of an ongoing dialogue with my companion. His name is Suffering. I think you know him too. He gets around despite being rude, unwelcomed, difficult and intrusive.

Lately I’ve been having some pretty frank conversation with God about Suffering. Suffering has been visiting with friends of mine and their 3-month old daughter. They aren’t especially fond of him either. He showed-up unexpectedly – shockingly – in the midst of a joyous celebration. His arrival brought a suffocating heaviness that continues to loom and strangle. The reality of Suffering’s stay has brought sadness, tears, questions, confusion, anguish and anger. As Suffering mingles with my friends and their family, I am repulsed by the shadow he casts. He’s dark. Despicable. He infuriates me. I want to scream “How dare you!”, “Who do you think you are?”, “You’re audacious!” I want to kick and claw and punch and beat this invisible plague. I want to run. And cry. I’ve been pleading to God for peace and wholeness for my friends and for a life so fragile. I want things the way they are supposed to be – or at least the way I expect them to be.

In my pleading I was finally able to quiet my spirit enough to step to the edge of my faith. There, with Suffering beside me, I petitioned God. I begged for understanding and help with receiving the struggles of life against the backdrop of His goodness and sovereignty.

Help arrived a few days ago as the Spirit reminded me of a difficult truth: “To this [suffering] you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.” (1 Peter 2:21). Called is an interesting word choice. It means invited, beckoned, summoned, commanded, asked. I like being called to dinner, but called to suffer? Invited to suffer? Commanded to suffer? No room for the prosperity gospel here.

As I wrestled with this summons to suffer, God brought me these words: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9) Thanks, God, but this is disconcerting. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad for the grace. It’s the part about being weak that doesn’t set so well. I like competence. I like control. I like predictable, steady and routine. I don’t like surprises, even on my birthday. I could do without the weakness of unanswerable “why?” questions: Why a brain tumor? Why a father crippled by cancer? Why another lost job? Why can’t things just work out the way I want? Why, why, why?

Cue the Apostle James. James has amazing practical theology, but his counsel on suffering only confounds my thinking. In fact, he seems to be taking God’s side (go figure). James says followers of Jesus are to be joyous in suffering. (James 1:2) Really, James? Called to suffer with joy? You’re stretching me here, God. I’ve asked you to stretch me gently. I thought we had a deal.

Then a whisper: “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all — how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32) Ah! There it is. How could I miss it?

God knows Suffering. Suffering’s most heinous work was visited upon His Son, Jesus. God the Father and Jesus the Son understand Suffering’s schemes. The pain, anguish and loneliness. The desperate cries for relief from the Son to the Father. In His death for sin, our Pioneer, our model for living the human life – Jesus Christ – showed us that suffering is ultimately about obedience and glorifying the Father. That’s why God calls us to suffer. The Cross displayed the beauty of joyous suffering. (Heb. 12:2) As Christ followers it is reasonable that we should also suffer.

But we don’t suffer alone. God is active in our suffering. He allows it – not because he can’t stop it or because he isn’t good. God is loving, not vindictive. Sovereign, not reactive. Suffering is God’s catalyst to deepen our understanding that without Jesus Christ, nothing else matters. Our personal suffering unites us with Christ and His suffering. In this union a doorway opens to intrusions of divine grace. These intrusions are gifts given with perfect power, received best in moments of weakness. Such grace bolsters our hope and grows us toward suffering with joy. 

So, Suffering is here to stay. He is with my friends, and my father. He is with me. He will visit each of us. Be encouraged by the following words from an old saint who welcomed whatever God planned for his life – even visits from Suffering. Give Suffering room as you give God glory.

“Lord, You know what is better for me; let this be done or that be done as You please. Grant what You will, as much as You will, when You will. Do with me as You know best, as will most please You, and will be for Your greater honor. Place me where You will and deal with me freely in all things. I am in Your hand, turn me about whichever way You will. Behold, I am Your servant, ready to obey in all things. Not for myself do I desire to live, but for You – would that I could do this worthily and perfectly!”
 – Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ