Scars Of My Stumblings

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“This is the great work of man: always to take the blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation to his last breath.”

+ St. Anthony the Great

I dared to shower, I dared to answer some work emails.  Meanwhile my five year-old and my three year-old dared to destroy.  A school library book and a fake plant.  I asked, exasperated by the thoughtlessness of it,”WHY?”.

They said, one tearfully and the other with a barely-suppressed grin, “I don’t know.”

I can relate.

Why did I snap at my husband over a minor offense?  I don’t know.

Why didn’t I pray instead of flinging myself at the to-do list, heedless of filling my cup before washing cups?  I don’t know.

Why didn’t I listen attentively to my preteen at bedtime when it seemed he was down, because I was ready to be done for the day?  I don’t know.

But I do know.

I know that I like to choose me over:  you, them, that (obligation, responsibility, good).  Sometimes it’s easier to choose the right way; sometimes it’s extremely difficult; sometimes I fail.  Daily I have reason to pray “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  Daily I have the absolute obligation to forgive others their sins as well; if I do not I cannot expect mercy myself.  I am not a healthy person responsible for chastising the sick for their poor state; I am a sick person in need of a Physician, and I must help the other sick ones in my care to choose to follow the Physician’s instructions as well.  Am I letting the Doctor address my illness?  Am I following His treatment plan?  Am I getting better and better?  My children will see.  My spouse will see.  It is not enough for my words and beliefs to be correct; so also must my behavior, speech, and love reflect Christ, must honor Him, must spring from the healing He is doing in my heart and soul.

There is a beautiful hymn that I often have on repeat when I need a reset.  It is good medicine for me, especially this part:

You Who did fashion me of old out of nothingness, and with Your Image divine did honor me; but because of transgressions of Your commandments did return me again to the earth from whence I was taken; lead me back to be refashioned into that ancient beauty of Your Likeness.

Blessed are You, O Lord; teach me Your statutes.
I am the image of Your unutterable glory, though I bear the scars of my stumblings. Have compassion upon me, the work of Your hands, O Sovereign Lord,
And cleanse me through Your loving kindness; and the homeland of my heart’s desire bestow on me
By making me a citizen of Paradise.

I certainly bear the scars of my stumblings.  God’s healing and forgiveness does not take away all the brokenness from our sins.  Some relationships never truly heal, some temptations will dog us to our deathbeds.  But we do know that God’s love is great, warm, merciful, and powerful.  He is meticulous and persevering in mending us, healing us.

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The book and the plant will never be as beautiful and perfect as they once were; they look a bit shabby and patched-up, but they are no longer bound for the trash; that’s something, right?  Mended things are a bit more humble, aren’t they?  Wouldn’t we all benefit from a strong dose of humility?

I have this hanging in my kitchen; a constant reminder to remember my own brokenness and sin as I raise these dear children, as I interact with my husband, as I try to be a good friend, daughter-in-law, neighbor, and parishioner.  May God enable us to heal, forgive, mend, be mended, persevere, and live holy lives “by humble love”.IMG_6223

 

 

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From the Same Mouth

Oh, God will insist on healing us.  The sin which clung comfortably for years will be outed, exposed, dealt with in full.  I have been a follower of Christ for around twenty years now, and there is never a season in which some sickness of soul hasn’t been singled-out for surgery.  He doesn’t operate on all of them at once; such would surely overwhelm and kill us outright, but as much as the soul can survive; one dark corner at a time, He works to weed out evil and plant holiness.

He is ever patient, ever kind.  When my children are with me at the table, they know the rules of manners and etiquette, but too are aware that I will not snap at them for exposing a mouth full of chewed food if their head is tipped back in roaring laughter at some joke.  One day I will address the elbows on the table, or the slouchy posture, or the slurping, but not all at once; it would make for a tense table.  God does not mind accepting his sin-sick, wayward children; nay, He runs to them full-tilt and embraces them.  But He does, He will, heal them, patiently and thoroughly, because of His great love.  Because He knows that sin is like an aggressive cancer, never content to affect just a small part of a man, but that it seeks to consume him whole.

It was, perhaps, about fourteen years ago that God began work in me on the sins of the tongue, particularly in the area of how I speak about others when they’re not present.  By God’s grace, I have been greatly healed over the years, and though I fail at times, the incidences are fewer, and are accompanied with an immediate shame and regret, which is a mercy!  There has been one practice in particular that has been my aid in taming my tongue, and I thought to share it here in the case that it may help others as well.

Not that I have already reached the goal or am already fully mature, but I make every effort to take hold of it because I also have been taken hold of by Christ Jesus.  Philippians 3:12

Yes, that.  I am not claiming perfection, just good progress.  It is a simple practice and can save much grief.  Have you ever had the terror of realizing you had accidentally called someone and they were privy to your words without you knowing it?  Did you anxiously try to replay what you had said, hoping you hadn’t spoken meanly?  What if you did not have to fear such?

And here is the practice:  when in company and a person comes up in conversation, imagine that person physically present.  Let your words, your facial expressions, your tone, be as though visible and audible to that one whom is the subject of talk.  Oh how it changes everything.  Rather than commiserating in the gossip or denigrating conversation, you defend, you look for the good, you remind those around you of how you share in that person’s faults and foibles, and how hard it is to live a holy life in this world.  You sow compassion and understanding, rather than derision.  What a difference it makes in the heart, in the conversation, and in the course of one’s life!

Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.  Proverbs 18:21

Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends.  Proverbs 17:9

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.  Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.  The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.  James 3:3-6

From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.  James 3:10

I had begun, just barely, to exercise this restraint, and had been at it for less than half a year, when a friend came to me and said, “You have really convicted me.  When we are together and we all begin talking about _______, you never join in; you always defend her.  I just wanted you know that I noticed that and felt my own words were wrong.”  Such is the power of even trying, however imperfectly, to bridle the tongue and speak love!

The more obvious sins of the tongue were easier to stop; the honey-dripping gossip, lying, vilifying another, sowing discord among friends.  Harder by far was controlling the smirks and eye-rolling and sneers which communicated fully as much as words could.  To honor as present the subject of conversation not only in words but in non-verbal communication as well; oh the battle!  This one is not won, but I feel it ever so much is on His agenda for my healing.  Already He gifts me with sickness of heart when I fail at honoring and loving as I should; even with sickness of stomach when my words and gestures have been harsh and unkind.  Oh the end of the day recounting; how bitter to realize I’ve fallen into the same old sickness head over heels!  For this reason we pray “Lord, have mercy!”  Again, from Paul…

Not that I have already reached the goal or am already fully mature, but I make every effort to take hold of it because I also have been taken hold of by Christ Jesus.  Philippians 3:12

My hope is in the Physician who does not give up on me, Who patiently and keenly goes to work on me once again.  Though perfection is not mine, I see progress, especially in the quick conviction in my heart when words form within that are black, that beg to be spoken; there is this invitation to choose love over the witty and biting remark.  And God is giving me that recognition, that clarity of vision, to see the blackness fully, to know how words that are sweet to the tongue are bitter to the stomach, to weigh the deep regret that will follow against the gratification of letting them fly.  It feels like the slowing of time, Matrix-style, where one is able to see the bullets flying and somehow avoid them carefully, though they are truly passing at such a speed that one should not be able to see them.

So, there it is, if it may help you as it does me; imagine the subject of conversation really and truly present, and let your words and expressions be changed and made loving and holy as a result.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.   Psalm 19:14

Visibly, and Invisibly, Human

It was the first time I didn’t even get the dust off of the furniture.

There are some baseline standards I like to reach before guests arrive at our home:  floors swept and mopped and vacuumed, bathrooms cleaned, dishes washed, toys and paper clutter put away, furniture dusted, a candle lit, and something tasty baking in the oven.  It’s mostly about my pride and somewhat about my guests.  I want to create a welcoming space, yes, and I want approval.  Scads of it.  No, seriously, tell me everything you love about my home.  Sigh.

See, I want you to see me without my failures sprinkled about.  And since I can’t talk about my promotion at work or my new exhibition at a local gallery or show you pictures from my latest overseas jaunt, I dust.  I bake, I clean like mad the half hour before you arrive.  This home is my canvas and I want you to approve of the effect.

It’s childish.  And not in the cute way.

“She’s patiently waiting for you to notice her new dress”, whispered my friend to me, as her young daughter shifted her weight from foot to foot in the hush of the church lobby.  I smiled; how I know that feeling.

“Wow!  Your dress is so beautiful!  Is it new?”

She beamed, she smiled down at her frock with a look of sheer pleasure and nodded.

We all want that, don’t we?  Crave that approval, that admiration.

Well.  It’s probably a good place to be right now; with dusty furniture and other humbling markers of domestic failure all about.  The last few weeks have seen us adapting to our new little Tobi (and worrying through two health scares with him) and each of the children coming down with nasty colds.  It feels like I never stop moving; I’m like a pinball being ricocheted from the laundry room to fold a load, to the diaper changing table to change a poo, to the bathroom to wash it out of the diaper, back to the table to throw the sopping diaper into the diaper bin, which I see is now full, back to the laundry room to start a load of diapers, running back to the dining room to stop Henri from plummeting out of his highchair, back to the kitchen to get a dishrag to wipe up spilled milk, detained there by the overflowing soup pot, and on and on.  Dusting the furniture has been bumped WAY down the list of priorities.

untitled (20 of 28) untitled (21 of 28) untitled (23 of 28) untitled (24 of 28) And I realize anew that I can’t do it all.  I have no new frock to display, just a tired old dress smeared with spit-up.  I am oh so visibly human.

And I’ve got it all backwards.  Because you see, I was getting my house in order and beautiful so that I would be perceived as “in order” and “beautiful”, soul-deep.  Like my home was an inanimate extension of, and physical evidence of, a put-together me.  Why wasn’t I going straight to the source and working directly on beautifying my soul, rather than on the rooms that contain us, eternal us?  This is, after all, just a house, but the souls within it?  Eternal.

I am chronically short-sighted.  I focus on the don’t-matters and leave the truly-matters to flap in the wind as they will.  I see this in my parenting, and I shudder.  I’ve hustled the herd to bed so that I could mindlessly scroll through the news feed; reading about other people’s lives and “liking” cute pictures of their kids while my own went to bed without my attention to their end-of-the-day thoughts.

Oh.  So.  Human.

It’s tempting to end this with a rousing appeal to my dear readers to join me in some challenge to become more holy and less prideful and some such.  But God sometimes drops a heavy stone into our laps because He wants us to sit with it a while; not just figure out how to best roll it off without pinching our fingers.  Let the heavy thing sit; learn the lesson deep and true; let the weight sink right into you.  The weight for me?  Seeing how much of me is still governed by securing the good opinion of others, and relatedly, how little of me is governed by securing God’s approval, God’s smile.

How is the dust laying round about the soul?  Has anyone been mindful of the clutter in there?  Is it in fit condition at all?  Oh that I would care half as much for the daily maintenance of the eternal as I did for the temporal!  Lord, have mercy!

 

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

This Pilgrim’s Progress

I laid my forehead on the time-worn wood of my desk.  Sunlight was creeping over the leaves of the orchid there; an orchid that is slow-in-blooming.  It has had a flower bud, tightly closed, upon it’s spike for months now.  It confounds me, this swelling promise that remains so very much in a posture of waiting.  Get on with it, grouses my heart, and show me your beauty!

I laid my forehead there and I prayed, in a way I learned from some wise one once, that:  “God, I worship You, not the You that I can conceive of, but You as You know Yourself to truly be.”

Because I know quite well that I see Him through “..a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” (1 Cor 13:12)  That is a great hope, is it not?  That we will not always grope about in the dark as concerns Him?  That all the present mystery will have an answering “Aha!” in eternity?

I laid my forehead there and tears stung my eyes.  You see, can’t you, what a mess I am?  I do not suffer from low self-esteem (in fact, I think the error lies in the other extreme, obnoxiously high self-regard), so do not think to cheer me and lift me.  What I need most, oh yes, is the one who says, “Oh my, yes, you are a mess, and haven’t given to God all that you could.  You are inconsistent in prayer, quick to angry impatience with your children, prideful, and willfully ignorant of your own sins.”  That I could feel as firm medicine.  That I could hold in my hands as a map showing where I’d wandered from the path and how to repent (to turn around) and walk in the right way again.

It does matter how medicine is administered, doesn’t it?

Once, while living in Chile, I had an ear infection which spread to the skin tissue on my face, a very serious thing which demanded an aggressive regime of two shots per day for five days of a powerful antibiotic.  I would go into the clinic and ignominiously expose my derriere for the medicine.  Some nurses were quite adept and gentle, and I’d feel barely a pinch.  Some would jab mercilessly.  The difference was stark.

In the spiritual life as well, there are administrators of medicine and varying methodologies.  There are jabbers, ones who seem to take a hidden delight in inflicting pain.  Even though they are giving a needful cure, they do it in such a way that swallows up all the love in the intent.  There are the silent ones who, hoping not to cause you pain, withhold from you the medicine you desperately need.  There is little real love within them, they preserve their own peace at the cost of your life.  There are the gentle ones who, though they injure you, try to do so as little as possible while still delivering the medicine.  They bring love and empathy and grace in their eyes.  They say to you the life-giving words.

“Though the Lord may give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself any more, but your eyes shall see your Teacher.  And when you turn to the right or when turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’ “

(Isaiah 30:20-21)

They give you a map of return from your current wandering, they remind you that Jesus himself walks with you and will ensure your safe return to the good way, if you but keep company with Him.

These brothers and sisters are of inestimable worth.  I want to become like them; a loving helper to any and all who need that help.  That is just another way of saying that I want to be like Jesus, that is my pilgrimage, my journey, my aim.

Some use the verse, about the plank in the eye, to say that we shouldn’t judge others.  I think it is rather clear that we are to judge others in the way that a good physician judges the symptoms of a disease; he assesses what is causing harm and ruin and attempts to stop the destruction and encourage healing.  Clearly, the physician needs to be healed as well to do his work properly.  There is no arrogance in offering medicine and help when we are able.  Judging is essential, in medical diagnosis and spiritual diagnosis as well.  Of course it must be done in Christ, that is, with all His love and hope and mercy in our eyes and actions and words.

I will end this Pilgrim’s ledger with this early Puritan prayer:

Searcher of hearts, it is a good day to me when thou givest me a glimpse of myself; sin is my greatest evil, but though art my greatest good; I have cause to loathe myself, and not to seek self-honour, for no one desires to commend his own dunghill.

My country, family, church fare worse because of my sins, for sinners bring judgment in thinking sins are small, or that God is not angry with them.  Let me not take other good men as my example, and think that I am good because I am like them, for all good men are not so good as thou desirest, are not always consistent, do not always follow holiness, do not feel eternal good in sore affliction.

Show me how to know when a thing is evil which I think is right and good, how to know when what is lawful comes from an evil principle, such as desire for reputation or wealth by usury.

Give me grace to recall my needs, my lack of knowing thy will in Scripture, of wisdom to guide others, of daily repentance, want of which keeps thee at bay, of the spirit of prayer, having words without love, of zeal for thy glory, seeking my own ends, of joy in thee and thy will, of love to others.

And let me not lay my pipe too short of the fountain, never touching the eternal spring, never drawing down water from above.

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Gloriously Underfoot

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This.

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I’ve been handing over the spoons and kettles, a little more each year.  I oversee, I do the tricky parts.  Yesterday I announced to Sophia, as we walked home from the bus stop, that she’s cooking dinner that night.  This provoked all sorts of jealousy among the boys, who also love cooking.  They knew they’d get a minor role though, so all in all they were pleased.

“Get the chicken from the refrigerator, cut the plastic wrapping, drain the blood and rinse the inside and outside with running water.  Oh yeah, and pull out the innards”.

“The inners?”

“The innards, the internal organs that are included.”

The liver and heart plop out into the sink and Sophia remarks dryly, “I didn’t need to see that”.

I remember not to assemble the ingredients beforehand; that’s a temptation with kids, to lay it all out in a controlled, tight way.  Because having other technicians in our tidy lab is jarring.  But it’s all a part of the learning, right?  To find things, to know where the tool to solve the problem lives.

I showed Sophia how to tuck a wing behind the back, she did the other.  I drizzled olive oil over the bird and she rubbed it in, masseuse-like.

“Take a bit of the salt in your hand and rub it around the chest cavity”.  Sophia peered into the fleshy cavern and jerked back.

“EWWW!  MOM, I can’t put my hand in there”.

“You will do it.  It’s part of cooking.”  Sophia makes a sickly face.  Reuben musters up some macho bravado and volunteers to do it.

“No, Reuben.  Sophia will do it.  You can do it next time.”

My daughter knows how stubborn I am.  She also knows how big her heart swells with joy when she conquers a fear.  In goes the salty hand, done.  She smiles.  We tie up the legs and sprinkle herbs atop and lay the whole bird in a bed of salt for roasting.

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Sophia learns pancake making.

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I learn how not to take over.  Coffee helps.

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I realized it, you know, how God lets me learn through messes.  He’s so patient, so very patient.

There’s something in the end result that He loves that much, so much that it’s worth all the mistakes and false starts and dripping batter and all that time spent.  Because, He doesn’t really need us, you know.  Just like I don’t need my kids in the kitchen; in fact, I could get everything done in half the time with nigh half the mess.  But the end of it would be that they wouldn’t know how to cook.  And I wouldn’t have the pleasure of seeing them go from cracking the egg right down the cabinet front to cracking it with ease and confidence and whipping the whites into a perfect merengue.

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We made a Christian Passover meal one year.  We ground up the grains, we made the matzo bread, we roasted lamb, and made charoset.

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We remembered Jesus’s broken body as we broke that matzo bread in pieces, we remembered his shed blood in the dry red wine.  This food prepared together, with our own feeble hands and broken efforts and hope, brought us to remember Him who came to set us to rights, to reconcile us to the Father, to begin fashioning us now into His beautiful likeness, that we reflect His glory like the moon does the sun’s brightness.  To join us to the patient Father who invites us to come and learn, who does not despise our weaknesses, but makes haste to cover them with His grace.  I feel that side of Him when I hand my child another egg to crack after one is pooling at our feet on the hard tile floor.

May we teach as we are taught by God; patiently, lovingly, and with a smile.