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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Affirm My Narrative, Please.

The priest said that he had only ever met the victims.  He wondered where all these crummy types were who were willfully hurting, using, and oppressing his parishioners.  It seems they were all elsewhere; he’d only met the people grievously injured by them, righteously bearing their crosses of undeserved suffering.

The most dangerous thing you can do in a relationship is to challenge someone’s narrative; to challenge their story about themselves, however gently you might do so.  Our narratives are tailor-made, and the tailor is too often deceived.  We remember with affection all the good we do (or intend to do, someday); we glance away from our errors, our sins, the ways we’ve pained others, besides, we remember how provoked we were, and really, it’s understandable.  If only people knew how much we constrained ourselves they’d appreciate our self-control.  Too often our friends nod comfortingly, they empathize, they echo back to us, and they soothe.  It’s seen as the good office of the friend, to be supportive no matter what.  Affirm my narrative, please.

Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.

-Proverbs 27:6

As iron sharpens iron,  so a friend sharpens a friend.  

-Proverbs 27:17

 

What a good and painful gift it is to have a friend who lovingly dares to pierce our narrative; to say, “No, the plot did not twist in that way; you were at fault and you remain so.”  Then we have to play back the reel, removing our pride-tinted glasses and/or our blinders.  We, if we are brave and humble even for a moment, have to see our narrative ring false.  If we can bear that without shoveling excuses or justifications over our turned shoulders, we approach honesty, then guilt, then repentance.

But it could, and it often does happen, that instead we dig in our heels; we believe our narrative as infallible.  We regard the wounding friend as the enemy; we see their words as weapons and not instruments of healing.  We seek and find a soothing balm in understanding friends; ones on “our side”.

The friend who dared, who risked on our behalf to enlighten our darkness; they are left to watch us carry on in most-certain wrongheadedness and willful pride.  They have a double portion of hurt, for they offered in love to help us see that which was destroying us.  They tried to deliver the medicine for the sickness; unpleasant medicine, to be sure, but needful.  They were then wounded in turn, in anger, for daring to question our narrative.

Lord have mercy on us and make us humble; finding in the wounds of a friend Your own loving correction and faithful leading.  Make us brave to see clearly, and to love fully.408196_10151676557058352_643068089_n

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!

 

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”.

Beautiful Are The Feet

She brought in a loaf of homemade bread, two quarts of tapioca pudding, a slab of cornbread, a jar of peanut butter, and a basin with a towel resting inside.

A visit from Great Aunt Mary.  She was bringing snacks and a sacrament.

You’ve got to let her take her time.  “Would you like a cup of tea?”  “No, no, no,” she waved it away like a invisible fly.  “A glass of water then?”  “Maybe, but after…”, and here she bustled away from the kitchen where we’d been laying out the goodies she brought.

In a trembling voice she announced that she’d come to wash my feet.

This may beg some explaining.

feetIt was the servant’s job, back in the dusty old days of dusty old streets in Jesus’ time, to wash the feet and rinse them clean of travel’s filth.  To get low to the ground, the very definition of humble, and serve.  It’s something we do in the Mennonite Church, even though our feet aren’t dust-covered usually and we’d all probably showered that morning.  It is a sacrament, a visible act that has a sacred meaning; more is going on than meets the eye.  We learned it from Jesus.

“…It was just before the Passover Feast.  Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father.  Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love…”

Great Aunt Mary called me a few days ago.  You can tell when she’s on a mission, there’s a certain dogged quality in her voice that is not to be put-off.  Because most of the time she’s delivering a blessing, and once a heart makes up it’s mind to bless, it’s likely be in earnest.  “I’d like to come over and bring a treat and visit with you.  I’ll come at 2:00.”

“…Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist…”

Mary hastened to the basin with intent leaning her forward, almost as if she were walking uphill rather than across a room.  She lay the basin on the wood floor like an invitation and I pulled two chairs up.  I left and filled a pitcher with warm water at the kitchen sink, thinking while it filled that you just never knew when the holiest moments of your life were going to surprise you by showing up on an overcast Thursday.

“….after that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him…”

Mary felt our homelessness with a keen pain.  Mary has been washing feet since her earliest days; eighty-some years of performing the sacred, humbling, simple act of washing the feet of another.

She called my feet beautiful.  She said verses as she cupped my feet, one at a time, scooping the warm water over them tenderly.  “Fearfully and wonderfully made”, she would say, and in the next moment would tell me some bit of news about a friend’s health.  I love the convergence of holy and ordinary and wonder how often we mistake one for the other.

Mary’s a real foot-washer.  She gets the towel in between all the piggies and up the ankle. Some ladies scoop one swoosh of water over your foot, quick pat you dry, and done.  Not Mary.  She figures that anything done for Christ must be done well.  I love Mary.

My turn.  My heart is painfully wide as I take her feet.  I do a good washing, following her example.  As I bathe those old, beautiful feet, I think how I’ll always remember this moment, remember this saint who brought me a sacrament and how she loved on purpose.

“…When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place.  Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them.  “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am.  Now that I, your Lord and Teacher have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”  -John 13

A tight hug, standing there barefoot together, the afternoon light slanting over the floor.

…How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!'”  -Isaiah 52:7

How beautiful her aged feet, her aged hands, her earnest love that comes out in tapioca pudding and tall loaves of bread and water forming rivulets over my feet.

On Smallness

Let’s get this out of the way, before I’m tempted to hide.

I’m a writer, but not a paid one, nor a lauded one, nor a known one.

I’m a learner, but not a titled one; I had no college education, no special letters trail my name.

I am small.

I have many jobs, but no paychecks.  I shop at Goodwill not because I’m a trendy hipster, but because I can’t afford new clothing.  And, okay, I’m a big recycler.

I am an almost and a not quite.

I have some beauty, but not the wow kind.

I am small.

I walk among the beautiful, the intelligent, the skilled, the known, the wealthy, the fashionable, the educated, the cool.  They are my friends.  I love them.

Walking among giants and my neck hurts from looking up.

It’s amazing what a monstrous ego and swollen pride can reside in a small person.

Like a big black crow in a tiny cage.  Beating against the bars and wanting more room to soar.  Cawing for attention.

I wish smallness would live with humility in tight friendship.

i wish that I was as humble as my circumstances.

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