Contentment Between The Fences

IMG_2528  It was as I read The Mountain of Silence by Kyriacos Markides, as he interviewed the Eastern Orthodox monks of Mount Athos in Greece, it was as I heard how they drew near to God.  Ceaseless prayer, certainly, but also a unique perspective on life’s twists and turns sets them apart.  They use the word “temptations” differently than we do; not as luring desires to sin (though they can be such) but any circumstance of life, whether on the surface quite good, quite benign, or altogether bad.  It could be a headache or a pay raise.  It could be a compliment or a slight.  It could be a disease or an unexpected inheritance.  Each circumstance cannot be judged as good or bad in itself, because we do not know how we’ll go through it, with God humbly or without God proudly.  They believe that any situation can be to our spiritual benefit if walked through humbly, prayerfully, and leaning into God for strength and direction.  Similarly any situation can be to our spiritual detriment, if it distracts us or distances us from intimacy with God.  A disaster loses it’s strength, a windfall loses it’s ecstasy.  All temptations are held at arm’s length, are not allowed to disturb the innermost peace that Christ gives to each of His children.  Because the point isn’t that life goes well for us, but that our relationship and intimacy with God deepens and grows.  I put the book down and I thought.IMG_2554 IMG_2572 IMG_2598  God knew.  He knew I’d marry a plumber with a plumber’s salary.  He knew we’d have a passel of children and that I’d care for them at home, not contributing to our income.  He knew he’d send us off to Chile for six years of mission work, incapable of laying aside money for savings.  He knew all this; He knew money would be tight and my fences would at times seem to be too narrow.  That bills would give me a choking feeling and that I’d be tempted to think that we weren’t good enough as people or as Christians because we didn’t have an account that could absorb the blows of life without scraping bottom.

I found the perfect farm for us.  A stone farm house built in 1740 with plenty of room and open hearths (I have a strong desire to cook over coals, see), and even one of those split dutch doors in the kitchen.  It has a library where all my books could take residence comfortably.  Deep window sills and wide plank floors.  Twenty acres of farmland and Swiss-style barns for animals.  A dream.  And a million dollars out of our price range.  It calls for fences wide and open, so wide you can’t see the end of them, that just disappear over the horizon.  Such is not what God gave to us.  We can see our fences in a glance; we know our present limit well.  We know it each month when the bills come in and we have to breathe deep.

What did it mean to trust God within our fences?  To walk as dearly beloved children rather than as disappointments?  To not be ashamed of what we cannot do, and to be grateful for what He has given us?  Because how do we know what He is up to through our narrow fences?  Is it character, is it humility, is it perseverance?  Whatever it is, can I not dare to believe that He knows best how wide our limits should be in order that we might seek Him hungrily?  So I took my eyes off of someone else’s fences, someone else’s possibilities and I looked within my own fences; what did they contain?

_MG_4991 _MG_5026 IMG_1030 IMG_1057 IMG_1092 IMG_1129 IMG_1146 IMG_1147 And I near wept.  Within my fences are things that are all out of proportion; too many blessings for such a small space.  Four darling children running about, one in Heaven, and one kicking in my belly.  The astounding miracle of being able to send three of them to a wonderful private Christian school.  A beautiful Victorian home with a massive yard that we should never have been able to buy at such a cheap price.  The best neighbors one could hope for.  Two beehives, a dream come true that each day makes me awe-filled and amazed.  The ways that God meets me in the grocery store; finding a pork roast for $5.00 that feeds us for six meals.  The friends he surrounds us with, the extended family who love us.  These fences are near to bulging with God’s mercy.

In all these blessings and in all our hardships, peace is not a maybe.  Not if we lean-in to God in all of it, come medical bills or vehicle break-downs or a plentiful honey harvest.  I can say along with the Athonite monks and my dear Orthodox friends, “God provides”.

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Master Gardener

This isn’t how it’s done.  You brush before the dentist appointment and clean before the maid comes and certainly you pull the weeds before the Master Gardener arrives to look things over in your garden.

But the weeds, see, they grow as deep as they grow tall; they’ve sunk right down into the earth and are anchored tight.  If I’d caught them sooner…if…

But now the stems are thick and thorned and cut my hands to ribbons when I try to pull them out.  I thought I was smart, back before I called the Master Gardener in desperation on the tan phone in the kitchen, I thought I could just saw off the visible tops of the weeds-grown-feral.  At least give the impression that jungle wasn’t taking over.

But no.

The weeds took it as a pruning, not a severance.  With renewed vigor they thrust up more stems, stalks, and canes; startling hellish exuberance bursting out of the ground and choking out the flowers.  It was worse than before.  I called the Master Gardener, resignation and pleading and wouldn’t He just come and set it to rights again?

And there He is, looking through the garden gate.  He turns and looks at me, me looking at him through the kitchen window and so ashamed.  His intensity is hard to read.  I put down the dishrag and hear the screen door slam behind me and I twist my hands together while all sorts of excuses climb my throat and fill my mouth.  I clamp my lips over the words, He and I both know what happened here.

I gesture to the weeds and my shoulders sag.  My tongue pushes the other words aside and lets out “Help”.

He smiles.  He smiles and leaps over the garden gate and comically opens the gate for me from within.  I walk in and He shows me some baby weeds that I can pull.  He rolls up his sleeves and begins to work.

I hear Him in the weeds, grunting and pulling and felling those giants.  A dull ache begins in my chest and I struggle to get full breaths.  I see his torn hands and sweat and how the weeds come out one-by-one.  I see the tall one with the black flowers, Pride-of-Life.  Pain lances through me.  It is felled beside Vainglory with it’s profuse orange blooms.  Down comes Ambition and Envy and Discontent.  They lie in a pungent heap, their wild long roots twice the length and width of the weeds themselves.  I have the oddest impression that the roots look like fingers and they even seem to reach back towards the soil in animated longing.

He sees my look.  “Yes, we’ll have to burn them.  Left there they’d replant themselves by morning.”  I turn back to my little pile of baby weeds and examine the roots of one.  Tiny fingers, faintly moving back towards the dirt.  I scream and fling the weed down.  He laughs at me.

“Yes, sin is that way, even when so young.”

We work and work, hauling wheelbarrows full of weeds to the fire pit.  His hands-I can hardly bear to look at them, cut and bloody.  Whenever I think we’re done, He shows me a weed masquerading as a flower; these He is ruthless with, yanking them out with furor.  I hold my hand over my heart where the pains throb and throb.  “We must at all costs prevent these from going to seed.  The weeds that deceive and trick are the deadliest.”

I winced as he pulled a beautiful red one down; it had looked like a kind of rose.  He saw my saddened face and came near.  He held the roots before my eyes so I could see the eerie reaching tentacles and spoke forcefully, “False-Humility.  Give it no quarter.  None.”  I nodded.  Seeing the roots breaks the spell.

We stood beside the fire pit and watched the wretched weeds crackle in the flames.  The roots curled inwards and blackened into coiled claws.  He stood beside me, so vigilant.  It was as if he suspected one would leap out of the fire and make a run for the garden.

My garden…it looked like a war zone.  Craters and holes and just a smattering of flowers that survived the weeds’ onslaught.  He followed my gaze.  “Yes, it looks empty now, but we’ll do some planting to fill it in.  The more beneficial plants that we can cover it in, the more difficult it is for weeds to find a home.”  He poked the last reaching roots into the coals, his bloody hands gleaming in the firelight.  Oh how costly has been my negligence.

“Tomorrow we’ll plant.”

——————————–

Day broke and we stood together before flats of strange and wonderful plants.  One looked so cushy and dense that I was surprised to find it hard as rock and unyielding.  “What is this called?”

“That is True-Humility.  It is a ground cover that forms a thick and armor-like covering.  It’ll protect the other plants from invading weeds and keep the soil’s moisture in.”

“And this?” I asked, fingering a spectacular flowered bush with the most outlandish purple blooms.

“That is Kindness, and it blooms continuously.”

We planted Joy, Peace-in-all-Circumstances, Love-Bearing-All, Perseverance-in-Trial, and Sorrow-for-Sin which smelled sweetly in spite of it’s sad drooping leaves.  The garden was empty no longer, feral no longer, and the Master Gardener smiled widely, as did I.

“How can I thank You?  I love it.  I’ll keep after it better now, I promise.”

His smile left his face.  He dropped his eyes to the soil and stooped down.  There, right there at our bare feet, was a new weed pushing up through the soil.  It grew before our eyes, sending out leaves and flowers and fragrance all in fast-forward.

“Behold, Arrogance.”

He bent over and yanked it out and my heart felt a twist within of pain.

“Dear one, do not promise such.  Promise only that every morning you will call Me for help.  Every morning we must come in here and search for that which destroys and get it before it takes deep root.  This is a daily job, not one that should wait, no, not even a day past trouble begins.  As strong as the Virtues are, they are not immune to being destroyed by weeds.  You must call me every morning, you must or death will reign in this garden rather than life.”

I felt the pains leave my chest and warmth spreading from my heart, outward to my limbs. He embraced me and I leaned in to Him.

“Call Me in the morning, dear one, every morning.”

“Yes, Master, yes.”

 

When You Feel Stuck

IMG_4638 It can seem like the whole world has it figured out.  You know, that whole life thing.  Where they’re going, how they’re going, what they’re about.  And you?  Well, you’re kind of plowed into the sand.  Stuck.  Surrounded with a bunch of not-yets and maybe’s and head-scratching huh’s.

I was going to be a missionary in Honduras, bouncing along deep-rutted jungle roads with international teams with a notebook and a camera and a steady stream of chatty Spanish. I was going to be the storyteller, the photojournalist writing down the ways in which God was moving among churches all over Central America.  We were going to be sent and supported by our home church.  Our home would be used as a furlough house for other missionaries, a place of blessing.  And then it all sort of came apart.

We were alarmed and saddened by changes in beliefs in our home church and had to make the painful decision to part ways.  Our mission board had to let us go from our assignment (you sort of need a sender (home church) to be sent).  Suddenly here we are, here for the foreseeable future; Dustin, I, and our four children with one on the way, in a three-bedroom house.  I’ve gone from planning how to use the house for guests to playing furniture Tetris trying to figure out how to fit all these littles into these few rooms.

We looked for a bigger house, preferably with some acreage so that I could exert some of my other latent dreams, like raising dairy goats and chickens and such.  Time and again we’d find great little farmettes, out of our price range or too far from Dustin’s work or the kids’ school.  Oh, God, couldn’t this dream come true either?

I take walks in the yard to clear my mental clamor.  I watch the bees sipping in the bucket pond I made for them, sitting on the water hyacinths, their abdomens pulsating slightly as they drink deep.  I watch them chattering to one another at the hive entrances.  I smell the tomato plants and take in the full beauty of a nasturtium bloom.  I rub the fuzzy skin of the hard little peaches on the tree, and the thanks start tumbling out.  And the surrender, that too.  Surrendering daily my wants, my desires, my dreams, saying “yes” to God’s will and reaping peace in the process.

Oh yes, I really have prayed, “God, I’ll still love and serve you even if you never let me have chickens.”  Because whatever our hands hold tight to can be fashioned into an idol by the mere compression of want.  The crush of desire.  I don’t want my hands full of idols; I want them lifted and open, worshipful.  I want the dreams of God for me, which are way too big to fit into my clenched hands.

So, when you’re stuck…

1.  Take a walk, in your yard or your apartment or your city block, and visually see your blessings.  Ramble on some thanks.

2.  Name your dreams to the Father, spread them out on paper if they are many, and surrender them.  Hold your unclenched hands up in worship and ask for God’s dreams for you to claim first place in your heart.

3.  Realize that you are in a place of waiting, which is not the same thing as being stuck.  More like God saying “wait here”.  Waiting is hard, but aren’t we made to do hard things?  How else are we to grow up in our faith?  Or are we impatient children who stamp their feet and demand their prize “NOW!”  We must remember that God’s purposes are worked out in His timing, not ours.  Wait well.

4.  Keep hope alive by keeping near to the Father in prayer and scripture study.  Seeking His presence daily will remind your soul what it is made for most; worship, delighting in God and being loved thoroughly by Him.  If that fire is kept burning, your external circumstances lose a bit of their weight, a bit of their immediacy, and incessant noise.

We may feel stuck, but we truly aren’t; this waiting place is large and wide and there’s work for us to do.

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It’s the Sound of Slicing Celery, and Other Reasons I Love My Work

IMG_1323  Perfectly ripe avocados in a simple lemon juice/salt/cilantro dressing.IMG_1597  Working venison together with pork and bacon for deer sausage.IMG_1283  Cooking over dead-fallen branches for lunch on an old oven grate._MG_5079  Putting up garden bounty._MG_5067 IMG_1050  Honey harvest from our bees, twenty-five pounds our first year.IMG_0966  Salsa and more salsa from our prolific tomato harvest.IMG_0444 Strawberry shortcake, need I say more?

“Why on earth would you want that?”, puzzled my husband with bewilderment in his face as I oohed and aahed over a manual washing machine.  “Do you know how much work that would be?”

“Ah yes, dear, but it’s the sort of work I like best.  And imagine the arm muscles I’d have.  No gym needed, and we wouldn’t need to depend on electric!”

Can you hear him sighing?

We were at Lehman’s, a store specializing in all things old-timey and non-electric (though they do offer electric items too, like a kick-butt dehydrator that I covet).  Dustin had surprised me on our way home from Montana with a trip to the store that I’d only encountered online before.  I danced around the aisles of wood-burning cookstoves and kerosene lamps in utter glee.  Everything in there is useful and well-made.  I was in pioneer-wannabe heaven.

I settled on 5 yards of cheesecloth, a butter paddle (for removing buttermilk from homemade butter), and a rapid laundry washer (which is like a metal plunger that washes clothes, sucking the dirt up and out, very useful when my kids come in covered in mud!).  My mother-in-law smiled as I happily showed her my washer.  “I tell people all the time that you were born in the wrong century.”  Yes and amen.

Dipping candles, working with my bees, gardening, canning, drying, sewing, and pinning out the laundry in the breeze; how do I have time for it?  I get asked this now and then, usually by someone who is shaking their head at me.  I turn the question around, “How do people have time to run their kids to five activities a week or keep up with a television show or work out in a gym or serve on committees and such?  We all make time for life-giving work, whatever type that might be, work that feeds our souls and nurtures our families and communities, we apply our hands to those tasks.”

It is far from drudgery for me to pull weeds for hours.  As my hands work my mind is free, free to think and dream and ponder and wander.  Then there are the tactile delights, like digging my finger into honeycomb and feeling the wax give way and how the warm honey and waxy bits feel on my tongue.  The feel of dough under my hands when it reaches that magic elasticity that means it’s done.  The way cold water seems to permeate to my very bones on a hot day of garden work.  Don’t laugh at me, but even the feel of the water slipping over my hands in sudsy glory while washing dishes holds a delight for me.  It is the work I like best.

Today the cucumbers needed attention.  So four quarts of refrigerator pickles are sitting on the counter cooling down on a folded tea towel while a 5-gallon crock of diced cucumbers, peppers, and celery sits in a salt brine for canning sweet relish.  I love the sound the knife makes when slicing through the crisp, cold celery.  I love the fresh scent of the cucumbers.  I like this work.  I am grateful that these tasks are mine to do, mine to teach to my children in time.

This is a rambling bit of gratitude about work.  Of course there are rancorous and irritating things to say about the work of my hands, but those are nothing but common woes, weeds among the flowers.  Will you perhaps think of what you love about the work God has given you?  Will you share some thoughts below?

A smile and a wave from me.

For The Love Of Money…

“How much do we think about it? How much do we structure our lives and decision-making around it? Of course we need to be wise stewards, but when does that intentionality turn to intimacy and worship? Paul’s plea is a plea for contentment and simplicity, not for relentless counting, budgeting, and price-checking. The goal is not to have very little money, but to think little of money.”     -Marshall Segal

 

Read the rest of Segal’s article here:  A Booby Trap in the Christian Budget

I’ve never had enough of it to go wild with it; never been tempted, say, to fork over a couple grand for a string of pearls or a designer dress.  But that isn’t really the point, is it?  It is the real estate it occupies in our minds and hearts and souls; exacting penny-pinching frugal obsessiveness faring no better than lavish, selfish spending habits.  Even giving, as Segal points out, can become obsessive; we fixate on how much we won’t spend.  

I’d love your feedback on Segal’s article, which I think truly deserving of a slow read.

 

On Daily Kicking

It’s like finding a stiff wad of forgotten used tissue in a jacket pocket.  Or a moldy container of leftovers in the back of the refrigerator.  It’s the hair in the drain and the frightening herd of dust bunnies under the bed.  Gross and unwanted bits in our lives that we weren’t aware were lurking about.

Sometimes it’s as though God shoves a mirror in front of our soul and we can see them then, those awful blots, things we thought we’d long since gotten rid of.  Out of sight, out of mind, so God helps us see.

It hurts.

In the last few weeks we’ve been vacationing in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and spending time out in Montana.  We’ve caught waves, dug our toes into sand, enjoyed family, hiked, rafted, kayaked, and fly-fished.  We are all brown and heart-happy.  But God came along too, as He is wont to do, and He showed me some things I’d rather not see.

Sticky pride, for one.  Superiority. A judgmental spirit.  Just as I’ve been seeking to grow in humility and wisdom….oh Lord, have mercy.  Will I ever learn?  Will I ever have a pure, humble heart?

My soul recoiled at the sight of my sin; it would willingly explain away or slap some blinders on, anything but fully see.  “I’m sorry, God, I’m so sorry.  Please restore a right spirit within me, please forgive my proud words and thoughts.  Help me to walk in humility.”

Light bends around the corner and I remember that victory in the Christian life isn’t about giving sin a kick in the face and walking triumphantly away, never to deal with it again.  It’s seeing our sin, confessing it, seeking forgiveness, and then being attentive day by day to just how it gained a foothold in the first place and drawing a line there.  Defending that point of entry and daily kicking, knowing that the Enemy is wily and will try other doors when one is shut. Just like when we’ve emerged from the sin of selfishness and have begun giving to others, we might find that we stumble into yet another mire, of pride in what we’ve done, which is stickier yet and harder to detect.  It flies below the radar of our self-evaluation at days’ end; it takes God’s Spirit to reveal it, it takes God’s mercy and love to sustain us as we see all that black within us when we thought we were finally making progress.

So I thought about my gardens and how I prune back my plants because I care for them and want them to be healthy and not unruly.  An unkempt garden isn’t the work of a loving gardener, but a lazy, disinterested one.  So I must endure the Lord’s pruning, chastising, and training.  I must remember that the Enemy would wish me to grow wild and thick and choked on my own fullness, a breeding place for disease and rot.  But my Father lovingly prunes me for my good and for the good of others.  I have to bear seeing the black, knowing full well that He’s bringing about the white.

So we kick, yes, we bite our tongue when that critical word wants to sail out, we resist the pull of selfishness and go wash the dishes rather than curl up with our book.  We listen to our spouse’s grievances against us without giving vent to an angry retort.  We kick.  And we fail too, when we kick with just our own willpower, our own strength, when we forget that God is ready and willing to strengthen us, to go before us, to fight for us.  That there’s a difference between holy kicking and petulant flailing or proud stomping.

It is so humbling, how deep and frequent the pruning needs to occur.  I hesitated to write this post, because my humiliation is so deep that I wonder that any of my words could be trusted to be of good use.  I feel not quite ripe enough to speak.  Not faithful enough.  Not holy enough.  I am a plant clipped back and bare, all my pretty foliage and flowers carefully stripped away.  But, I thought, as my leafy mask fell to the ground about me, maybe it’s helpful to speak from the place of brokenness and shame to the others who are being pruned too, disciplined too, loved fiercely too.

It’s okay to be the vessel being formed, the wet clay being molded, to not have arrived yet, to be in-process.  It’s okay as long as the hands are trusted that shape us, that we lean-in to the Father’s loving correction and not away from it.  That we live transparently and honestly and humbly, and that we speak from an awareness of all the work yet needed to be done within us, which kicks our pride most injuriously.  IMGP4162