Cast Down

Damp paper pots, seedlings standing resolutely within,

Nestled into deeper dirt, room therein to sink their reaching white roots.

Sixty degrees under overcast skies; gray in the greenhouse.

Agitation, or just plain grumpiness, anyways

“Lord, help me find You, sense You, see You”

Watering can heavy against my palm, tilting and pouring

Currants, lemon, peppers, onions, radishes, lettuces, promise.

Into the house where the vacuum is humming and the mop is swishing across the floors

Johnny Cash on the record player and a board game spread out on the table

And my spirit a bit lighter, the day remaining gray.

Sometimes the soul casts about, feeling a want, a thirst, feeling bereft of a something, or a Someone.

Why art thou cast down, O my soul? And why art thou disquieted within me? Hope thou in God; for I shall yet praise him, Who is the help of my countenance, and my God.   Psalm 43:5

They’ve said that God never distances Himself from us, but that we distance ourselves from Him

Which may be true or perhaps

He withdraws to teach us to miss Him, to thirst aright, to feel the chill of gathering dark, when the Light recedes

As a parent pauses, the children struggling at this thing or that, not rushing in as heroes

Allowing roots to press deeper and for faith to find an answering

Can I trust the One on the other side of my hopes

Are You there and unabashedly loving, closer than my breath, every atom of me held together because You are?

The day continues gray but outside the birds are singing.

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On Faith, Life, and Refugees

A guest post by Andrea Bailey

We are not listening to each other. I hear conservatives accusing liberals and other conservatives that they have bought into liberal biased media hype. I hear liberals accusing conservatives of being hateful and intolerant, all the while not listening themselves. I hear those genuinely concerned for truth asking questions and being overwhelmed, not sure who they should trust. I hear so many proclaiming boldly which media sources can be trusted and which ones cannot, authoritatively dismissing legitimate questions and reasonable discourse. I hear fear and pride.

If only it were so simple. If only we could know with certainty which sources to trust. If only that source could outline all the answers. If only we could trust that facts and news could come to us without bias or could be completely neutral.

Speaking to those who seek to follow Christ, at this intersection of faith and life, there are no simple, axiomatic solutions. We must seek wisdom. The application of truth requires wisdom and is never simple; rather, its progress is often slow and it requires discernment, effort and humility to learn.

For those who claim the name Christian, how do you know truth? Where do you turn for truth and the wisdom to live it out? How does that truth teach you to stand in these matters? Is truth ever just rational or logical belief? Is it not also experiencing God in the details of our physical lives, authenticating and revealing more fully that which we also know and confess?

It seems possible that in these matters of loving others, we have erred too much on the side of reason. We have not experienced truth in that way which helps us to fully know it, through our physical, everyday experiences, entering into the physical, everyday lives of those we are called to serve.

Where do we think we can experience the grace and mercy of God more than in entering into the struggles of those whom He has taught us to love? But have we entered in?

Christ spent his time with the poor, the marginalized, the broken, the suffering, the sick—these are the ones he most often gave the gift of His physical presence. Loving others carries a cost but did Christ not show us how to love when He came to show His love for us?

God’s love for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the sojourner is undeniable throughout Scripture and His commands for us to care for them cannot be dismissed. And so it is needful to consider how we were taught to love.

Are we only supposed to love and welcome others when it is safe for us, or doesn’t cost us too much, even though the ones seeking our help are suffering or dying? When God calls us to love the sojourner, did He say only if they believe in Me and it will not threaten your safety?

I recognize that this type of thinking has the potential to conflict with national security, but does it have to? Can we rally for stronger security measures while still advocating for our government to give us the ability to welcome those who are suffering, in accordance with the teachings of our faith? Does our faith allow us to ignore the sufferings of others in the name of national security?

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Of those who are no longer allowed to come safely to our shores, is it possible that they might also have learned and believed the Good News—that God loves them and welcomes them to believe and be healed? Is it possible that they would have believed, especially in a land where they are shown welcome and are given the freedom to believe? But for now they cannot come. For now they cannot hear. For now, is it not more likely that they will think of America, that Christian nation (as it is believed to be), as a nation who worships a God that does not care that they are suffering?

To love is to sacrifice.

As Christians, can you claim to value and cherish life and then stay silent while it is denied to those who are in danger of losing theirs? Have you supported and sacrificed when those seeking to care for the ones who have already lost so much in this life, need help?

Let’s bring it closer to home—when you see a young single woman, trying to care for her child on her own, have you helped? Or have you referred her to government programs and then supported policies that make her life more difficult?

When you see adoptive or foster families struggling, sacrificially loving children who have lost or have suffered, have you entered in? Have you given of your own time? Has it cost you anything to help care for those lives which you said you were for? Has it changed the way you live?

If we have not entered into the lives of those whom Christ taught us to love, sacrificially giving of ourselves, is it possible that our unaffected lives mock their suffering? It is possible that our unaffected lives are the very thing which cause them to doubt God’s love for them?

And so today, to all who claim the name Christian, I invite you to enter into the lives of those who are suffering. Only in entering in can we more fully experience that which we know. Only in entering in can we more faithfully demonstrate the love of God for those who are suffering. Only in entering in can we see the power of love in the face of fear because only in entering in can we know more fully that perfect Love which drives out all fear.

 

Andrea Bailey directs a faith-based ESL program serving refugees and immigrants in her local community.

A Heritage of Holiness

We all stood in a lopsided circle-of-sorts and belted out “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow”, also known as the Mennonite anthem, or by it’s number in the old hymnbook, #606.  It’s the sort of hymn that soars and climbs and doesn’t trace back upon itself.  It’s the sort where the parts shine, the deep bases rumble the floor and the sopranos caress the rafters, and the altos and the tenors fill and expand the space between with silken harmonies.  And this family knows how to sing.

It was the bi-annual Weaver family get-together weekend, my husband’s mother’s side of the family.  And here’s just where the peculiar begins…they are all ardent followers of Christ.  All of them.  Not just nominal Christmas and Easter Christians, not Christian-because-my-parents-baptized-me Christians, but people who love, serve, and have a day-to-day relationship with the living God.  A whole family of them.

What a rarity.

When the roaring hymn ended, someone spoke into that trembling goose-bumpish silence, “Thank you Lester and Helen.”  They would be Dustin’s grandparents, singularly beautiful people who birthed the seven children who birthed the rest of those standing shoulder-to-shoulder in that lodge’s great room.

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I am no family historian, but I do know some things about Lester and Helen.  Lester was one of the first Mennonite pastors to minister in a black congregation.  Many tried to dissuade him.  It just wasn’t done.  Pastors weren’t paid in those days, so he worked full-time and ministered in the evenings and weekends, and it’s said that Helen never complained or begrudged the workload.  They were humble, devoted, and lived sacrificially.  Clearly their children saw that faith wasn’t an outward form to act, but an inward reality to nurture.

These were people who cared about the right things.  I remember feeling sorry for them when I’d see pictures of their home later in life, a single-wide trailer.  For some reason I had this deep, ugly prejudice that people who lived in trailers had somehow failed at life.  I don’t like to admit that, but there it is.  But who could but smile when they looked not at the trailer, but at the gorgeous flowers Lester had planted all around it, and him there in the photo smiling proudly?

When they died, there wasn’t much to give to their children, because they’d given themselves away all their lives.  They lived open-handedly and gratefully.  They were rich in love and generous with it.

We stood in that circle, the descendants and the married-ins, and acknowledged the weight of lives lived well.  How far the ripples go out from holy lives lived in our presence or our memories.

It begs the question:  what will be the heritage we leave for our children, and our children’s children?  What will they see that we valued most?  What will they glean about God by our relationships with Him and others?  Do we live sacrificially?  Do we live humbly?  Are we getting the right things right?

Have our hearts been captured by other loves; work, financial gain, busyness, entertainment, comfort, food?  What do we hold tightly to, what is in our hands clenched tight, the things we won’t give up in order to live open-handedly towards God and our neighbors?  If God invited us to serve him in a third world country, what would we be afraid of losing?  Our home?  Our independence?  Our savings?  Our safety?  Our comfortable couch, familiar snacks, and cable tv?

These are weak loves.

And strong idols.

If we at all desire to leave for our children a heritage of faith, we would do well to consider how those who’ve impacted our lives most lived.  Sacrificially, humbly, and holy.

Faith Like Perfume

It’s four days into summer break and it’s been four days of rain and gray.  Which keeps all the four inside with me with no open spaces to vent their considerable energy.  I directed some of that energy into cleaning projects.  While de-junking the boys’ room we unearthed three library books and a bevy of orphaned socks.  We had a great shoe trying-on-athon and managed to part with the scrappiest of broken velcro sandals.  School papers were purged and backpacks cleaned out, and I felt I could exhale a bit.

I can’t sing any worship song these days without blubbering.  We’ve visited many churches but have yet to find that peaceful certainty from God that “this one” is “it”.  Oddsfish though, in all this uncertainty and bumbling, my faith is strengthening.  I feel it like a firm floor beneath my feet, sure and steady.  It comes as the whispered assurance daily, “You are held.  God knows.  He is in control.  Trust.”

It isn’t logical; that my faith would be stronger in the midst of disconnect with the Body, disconnect with our beloved vocation of overseas missionary work.  But so it is.

I’d always heard that perfume is made of potently stinky (and disgusting) ingredients.  That smelled full strength they’d near knock you over, but at a certain dilution they round out a sweetness, a freshness, a zing.  In there is castoreum, a product of a castor beaver’s genital scent sac.  Or musk, a sexual secretion of the male musk deer.  Or ambergris, which is, simply, whale vomit.  But put together, at the right dilutions, in the master hand of a perfumer, something altogether surprising and pleasant is made.

So in the oddest of ways, via suffering and flagging hope, disappointment and heartache, my faith and trust in my heavenly Father have grown.  This is both a mystery and a grace.

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On Being a Particular Pack Mule

God fits the back for the burden.

-Irish proverb

There is the weight of the everyday. The irksome crumbs all splayed over the counters where lunches were packed with all sorts of fits and starts.  The treadmill of laundry and the marathon of assigning dust to it’s place.  Imposing shalom on jumbles and smudges and the trailing remains from where one child read, or took off shoes, or cut paper, or such and such.

That is part of the burden, but not the bulk weight of it.

How is it that the invisible burdens are so much heavier than the ones in plain and frequent sight?  The inner fight of, and fondness for, sin.  The niggling question mark in my mother heart; do my children see God?  Do they long for Him at all?  Will they respond to His love with a life-long faith?  The agonizing examines at day’s end:  Oh, God, are you pleased with me at all?  Am I meeting Your expectations?  Am I hearing you right?

That is part of the burden, a large part.

There is also the corporate bit, the deep concern over the Church, that it shine with the gospel’s pure light, that it offer sound teaching and true water to thirsty souls.  That it not mash-up with the pervading culture’s mores to make the good news more round and less definite.  To smudge the stark lines and make of the Word a sea of gray.

That feels like the straw too many and my knees tremble under the load.

Fortunately, God “fits the back for the burden”.  He strengthens trembling knees and shores up the sagging spine.  He smiles into the face of the mule bent low and whispers, “Arise, strong one, I give you my strength”.

What can I say to Him?

When He who so lovingly burdens me, so lovingly encourages me, so lovingly shores me up?  What but, “Oh!  Amen!”

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On Flailing

It can feel like he bursts awake; that going from sleep to wakefulness involves crossing a painful threshold of sorts.  This is exacerbated by awakening strapped-in in his carseat.  Total silence, then piercing wail.  His bald head turns tomato-hued and his nose breaks out in a sweat.  Then the hands, the flailing.

I go to him all murmurs and soothes.  I go about unfastening his five-point harness, threading his flailing arms through the straps, worming him out of his winter coat, all while he protests the event of waking, the nature of straps, the empty feeling of his belly, and all griefs in general.  It would be a very quick maneuver if he wouldn’t flail about.  Sometimes he flails his arms right back into the straps and sleeves like some magical reverse Houdini trick.

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“Be still and know that I am God.”  -Psalm 46:10

It’s an easy verse to remember, but easy to forget too.  I flail.

Have you ever seen an adult flail?  Maybe they were trying to ward-off a piece of wedding cake to the face or a dive-bombing bee.  When we are surprised or frightened our arms jerk about wildly, like they learned an awkward form of kung-fu while we were sleeping.  I find it more amusing than I probably should.  Also, people tripping, that too is funny.  I digress.

How about an emotional or spiritual flail?  Have you seen that?  Have you experienced that?  I know I have, and I know in my bones that it isn’t the slightest bit funny.

“Flail” has two meanings, one a verb and one a noun.  To flail is to, as we would expect, wave about like mad.  As a noun, a flail is a stick with a swinging part on the end; used agriculturally and, notably, as a weapon when used with a spiky iron ball on the end.  Both cause punishing impact; one for separating wheat and chaff, the other for brutal violence.

How do you respond when you’re falsely accused?

How do you feel when you discover a friend has betrayed your trust?

How do you react when that diagnosis comes in and it is the very worst of news?

How do you feel when “I do” turns into “I don’t anymore”?

Do you flail?

Do you sort of wish you had a flail of the weapon-variety for exacting some revenge?

“Be still and know that I am God”.

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My prayer bench.

Some people just really need to have the fire extinguisher right on the kitchen counter.  Or the pepper spray in the purse.  That’s what having a place for prayer right in my home feels like.  It’s where I can go and be safe, be covered, be held.  Be still.

We hauled that old bench home from Chile in a cargo crate.  It isn’t pretty.  It’s all sorts of mismatched-whatever-from-wherever boards.  It was clearly a utilitarian piece; in fact the man I bought it from was using it as a workbench (atop it sat a respectable dresser with its varnish drying and also pooling onto the bench).  When I told the man I wanted to buy the bench you could see him try to smother the confusion that someone would want the old bench and not the shiny dresser atop it.  “Gringas…”

I need that place, I need it to be in my visual orbit.  Because even if I’m not leading a busy life, I am perfectly capable of living an ignorant one; not tapped-in to God, His whispers, His shouts, His love and leading.  I can go about my own way in an alarmingly easy fashion.

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A dear friend once said words so very wounding.  And they weren’t true words, they were sort of flailing words themselves, weapons and wild swinging, meant to hurt.  I flailed right back; dark anger poured up my throat from a boiling heart, and words that sliced flew out my lips and struck back.  If I could have been still after she had wounded me, if I could just have sat with my injury and let God hold me…if.  But I flailed and we both bled and the wounds never healed right and the friendship was a broken thing, no matter how we tried to avert our eyes from the scars.

If Henrik knew on waking that I would come for him, that his belly would be filled, and that there was no reason to panic, would he still flail, would he still turn red and cry out?

If I know at those moments of horror/offense/anger/fear that He will hold me, that He will guide me, that He will fill me and heal me, why do I yet find my arms flailing and my stomach dropping, and my faith so very fragile?  How much easier for him to draw me close if I weren’t thrashing about?

“Be still and know that I am God”.

When I get Henrik out of his carseat, and I scoop him up into my arms, and his cheek lays plush against my shoulder, and his last shuddering cry fades to peaceful breathing, right then he remembers, he remembers that I came before and I came this time, and someday he’ll learn that I’ll always be there and will no longer fear.

And when all the worsts rear their ugly heads and my forehead comes to rest on my prayer bench, I remember the same and dare not to fear.