Fear & Thankfulness in the New Year

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I tend to be pessimistic about the future. It’s sort of a whiplash result of my internal idealism—I can always imagine perfection (be it for the moment, day, or year) and reality never measures up—hence the ever-churning game to get ahead of my own expectations to be ready to accept whatever life throws at me.

But I think there is a sort of sinfulness to pessimism. Because (while there is a truth to be acknowledged that we live in a fallen world), an everyday pessimism is, after all, looking at what God gives you and saying “it wasn’t good.” And I admit I have all too often found myself stealing myself against joy and love out of fear of what might be taken away.

The ladies in my church have been learning in Ecclesiastes this year about the gifts God gives—that it is not just comfort and companionship and good honest labor that are gifts from God but the ability to enjoy them at all. That enjoyment and contentment in what God has given you is itself His gift.

I find myself convicted by how many times I have slapped away the joy of His gifts because I knew they might not be permanent. Have you ever felt this way? Aren’t you sometimes heart-frozen by the fear that loved ones, or a job or house, or children, or the future, or friendships might disappear—or maybe even simply not turn out as good as you hoped they will be?

Such striving when He calls us to rest.

This is, after all, a not trusting His Goodness. It is believing the Evil One’s lie that He is not Good. That He won’t be Good in the future. Or that if temporal things were taken away He would not be Enough for us, sufficient for me.

And the silly thing about it all is that He has been so so so so Good to me all my life. He has never given me reason to doubt His goodness and only a thousand reasons to trust in His tender loving care. And even in the darkest of times: He has been enough.

And so as this New Year begins I am attempting, by His Grace, to take my pessimism and fear to His throne of love and lay it at His feet. To proclaim thankfulness for the gifts He has given me one day at a time: knowing and trusting that He knows exactly what is best and good every step of the way.

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” (Psalm 23:6)

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5 Secrets to Surviving Winter in New England

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new england winter

 

I like to tell people I was made in a warmer climate. California-girl raised in New York: winter in my memory is an eternal wasteland spent shivering by indoor heaters and staring wanly out at the bleakness outside for about six months straight while struggling to stave off seasonal depression. It wasn’t until I married my New Hampshire husband and moved to Boston that I discovered five secrets to surviving winter in New England. Did I say survive? What about thrive? They are as follows!

Secret #1) Invest in Down

If you’re like me you own any number of coats comprised of cotton, wool, and cold-resistant synthetic materials. THESE DO NOT COUNT. They may look warm, or sound warm, (wool, after-all, starts with a reassuring “w,” amIright?) but for the perpetually cold and the New England onslaught of sub-freezing temperatures they are NOT warm ENOUGH.  You need down. Several inches of it. Good to -20°F and reaching your knees. The key here is not just that you are warm, but that you are SO warm you can step outside and not even notice the change in temperature. You’re so warm the FEAR of being cold is completely irradiated. Miss your bus and stuck on the side of the road? Tossed into a snow ditch and lost to the world for 5 hours? You’re SNUG AS A BUG IN A LITTLE DOWN RUG!

Bonus points: A down coat with a down hood and pockets—I’ve found I don’t even need to bring (read: remember to bring) a scarf, hat, or gloves because the down hood and down pockets keep my extremities encased in warmness. Also consider investing in Canadian-made knee-high, water-wicking snow boots. (I’ve had great success with these from Pajar. Black is always fashionable!) Double-bonus points: a fluffy down comforter for your nightly delight!

Secret #2) Don’t Put Away Your Christmas/Winter Decorations

Let’s be honest: November is still Fall. You have a lingering summer tan, the occasional leafy tree, and the bustle of holiday preparation is carrying you through. The almost-Thanksgiving through post-New Years season is such a rush of holiday adrenaline you might actually be enjoying the cold. Until January.

Mid-January hits and all the fun is over. I made the mistake one year of bringing our my spring decorations on a hot day in February: THREE MONTHS of COLD, SNOWY, SLEETY MUD TOO EARLY!

So what’s the secret? LEAVE YOUR WINTER DECORATIONS UP! Don’t box up the festive. Leave the evergreen branches out! Your winter plates. Red bows and napkins. Plaid blankets. Maybe de-Christmas a bit in mid-late January (but then again I know people who leave up their trees all year long). Think medieval yule-log and breath it into your house. Bring in pine-cones from outside and make table-runners and window decorations. Cut out paper snowflakes. DIY. Do what you gotta do to make your house festively WINTER for the long months of… actually winter. (Read: in New England, through most of April.)

Secret #3) Take Up a Winter Sport

I credit this tip to my husband. Winter in his childhood is a season of hallowed and happy memories because winter meant perpetual romps through snowy forests and competitive X-Country Skiing. I did neither of these things. I stayed inside till I looked like a pale, atrophied ghost of sadness.

You NEED to get outside. Vitamin D. General back to nature-ness. Healthy activity. Ward off the stir-crazyness. So many good reasons.

The easiest activity is obviously to just start walking outside (see aforementioned investment in good boots and coat). Honestly this doesn’t appeal very much to me. Other options include skiing (if you gots the monies), X-Country Skiing (if you has the lands), or ice-skating. I’ve chosen ice-skating. Even if I only get out to skate twice a winter that’s about a 200% improvement on not going out at all.

Secret #4) Take a Vacation Between February & April

Two years ago we took a real, 10 day, out-of-state vacation in July. TERRIBLE IDEA. Do you know when New England is really nice? In JULY. New England summers are sublime. Falls are fantastic. Spring is surprisingly short but very nice. WINTER IS SIX MONTHS. When should you go on vacation? WHEN IT’S AN ARCTIC WASTELAND OUTSIDE.

Repeat after me: I will not go AWAY on vacation during the nicest months in New England.

If you’re going to GO somewhere: go in February-April. A trip during these months not only breaks up the long, cold monotony but also gives you something to look forward to and a much-needed vitamin D boost.

Why not earlier in the year? Well, like I’ve said, the holidays carry you through till January. January is the real beginning of winter, it’s the buckle-down-and-stay warm month. No point skipping out. It is also historically the most likely month to have storms so best to avoid for canceled flights. Honestly, February goes by pretty fast but it’s your call. I recommend March or April for a vacation. March because it’s the last official month of winter. April because, in the words of T.S. Elliot,

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

April gives you all hope and no fulfillment. It’s a tease of a month. Cruel and heartless. It’s snowed three times this past April. Leave if at all possible.

Secret #5) Embrace the Dutch concept of Hygge

Do you know what the best part of it being cold outside is? the WARMNESS inside. Hygge (“hue-ga”) means coziness in Dutch, but for the Dutch “hygge” coziness transcends physical sensations and incorporates the soul. It’s tapping into what makes winter togetherness cozy and embracing it fully.  The hot-cocoa after the snowy-romp, the fire on the hearth while it snows outside, the flannel-blanket-cuddling with a loved one while the earth outside is swathed in white. Hygge gets the Dutch through winter and it can get you through to!

Tips? Invest in a few jars of your favorite hot-cocoa mix. Wear flannel pajamas and have plaid throws on your couch. Eat dinner by candle-light. Have people over and feast on soup and french bread. Read over-sized books. Marathon-watch a TV series. Better yet? Watch movies WHILE drinking hot-cocoa WHILE wrapped in a plaid blanket in your flannel pjs WHILE drinking MORE hot-cocoa while snuggling somebody you love who is ALSO drinking hot cocoa. You get the idea.

Bring our your bright copper kettle on and pull our your warm woolen mittens. Fluffy slippers. Candles. Polar-bear mugs and penguin plates. Soups. Stews. Tea. & Company.

Did I mention CHOCOLATE?

And don’t let it up for four months. Worried about putting on pounds? SEE THE BEARS. You are trying to get through WINTER without all the sleeping. No guilt! The extra layer will not only keep you warm: if it’s from chocolate it’s worth its weight in happiness.

And there you have it. 5 Secrets for Surviving a New England Winter! NOW GO GET COMFY!

Dust to Days

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water paints

Sometimes I’m amazed by the life I lead. Unlike most children, I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about the future (it can only be supposed that when one thinks about marriage at 3, one falls to planning fame, fortune, and offspring by 11, 12, and 13). It was always, “Imagine when you’re 18 and I’m 16!” I’d say to my sister (16 being the age Liesl was seeing Rolf in the Von Trapp gardens: 16 was full of promise). “Imagine when you’re 23, and I’m 21!” and “How many kids will I have when I’m 25?” (My mother already has 2). Imagine when…

Yet here I am now—older than I dared imagine, life careening on year after year.

I never thought I’d spend so much time thinking about money. I spend a good deal of time on money: making money, finagling budgets, calculating taxes (dreaming of returns), bonuses and raises and laterals, estimating down-payments, comparing health-care packages, and planning for retirement.

This is not, mind you, due to working in finance.

No, indeed. Most people don’t know what I do for work and that’s partly due to its being so complicated. “Political big-data” was easy enough at my first job—then my second, “marketing for pharmaceutical consulting” had an alluring (albeit ambiguous) ring to it.

But what do I do now? Well. Today I spent the morning in a dungeon, subterranean, windowless room under a Boston skyscraper. We were removing (recently rediscovered) plans for said skyscraper—enormous scrolls so coated in dust they sent billowing clouds of white smoke into the air upon disturbance (and I and my companions into coughing fits). Documents coated in nearly 25 years of neglect—untouched since I myself was a baby.

Forgive me, perhaps this is why I am a little nostalgic today—this step into the past.

From dust thou art, and to dust thou shall return.

We unearthed plans for storefronts with my childhood color pallet and kiosks from the space age: relics of a bygone late nights spent stressing by architects and engineers.

I have the task of assisting in bringing order to this abandoned chaos—to sift through these dusty, antiquated plans like some kind of modern archeologist.

Not all days at work are so romantic. Most of the time I work in the office with contracts, invoices, and proposals. But other days include something special—like touring a new building we’re constructing (the cutting edge of all things green)—or the one day I buried a children’s book (in ceremony) under one of Boston’s next-most-hottest-spots.

Little me. So old, somehow.

Rushing home from work to make a spectacular dinner, squeezing in the cleaning and the shopping and the volunteering for church, then falling into bed exhausted.

Stolen moments of joy—my husband and I sharing the secrets of our lives together.

Moments of humanity: simple and unheralded.

Getting pizza when we’re too tired to cook (and it being positively perfect pizza).

Sitting whole hours in silence—holding one another—reeling from bad news, new grief, holding each other’s pain.

New stories of old stories. “When I was sixteen, I…”

Surprise over who we once were. Thinking about who we will become.

I find I must still learn to think about the now. I’ve always tried to live in the moment: to appreciate the peculiarities which make each day special. But I’ve also always been an idealist—whether about the past or future, and I find myself in a time and space which I never imagined.

How do I spin the tapestry of my life today? how do I tell its story?

I can not always live—now in the in-between catch of breath between what was and what is coming.

These years keep going by. They are ours only for a little while.

 

Of Marys and Marthas (at the death of Lazarus)

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Do you know where in scripture I love Jesus the most? When He’s talking to women. These passages fascinate me: they stop my heart and inevitably bring me to sweet tears.

Whereas Christ speaks in riddles to the Pharisees, parables to the crowds, and to his own disciples be gives speeches which I find endlessly frustratingwhen the Lord speaks to women in the scripture he is suddenly incredibly clear, incredibly tender, and my heart breaks and melts towards Him.

I want to share with you one such passage that spoke to my heart recently. It was about Mary & Martha. Now, if you’re like me and were raised in the church, immediately the “busy Martha” story pops into your head. You have heard or read an endless amount of ink spilled over the famous tale. You probably have very clear images of the two sister’s differences in your mind: Martha, busy, bossy, and running the house, the DOER, coming and standing over Jesus and insisting that he TELL MARY TO HELP ME!* And Mary: silent in the story, almost an aside, quietly listening and worshiping at the savior’s feet: commended, for “she has chosen the better part.”  You’ve read articles about the differences between service and worship, and have been told to “Be a Mary not a Martha!”—and all these things are probably true, and I need not go over them. And maybe even in this story you see Christ’s tenderness speaking to every anxious women’s heart: when Mary, beside herself, confronts and appeals to the Son of God and he responds by repeating her name like a soothing lullaby to a child.

“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary.”

But this isn’t the story I want to talk about. Nor is it the OTHER story about Mary, the anointing one. Mary of Bethany comes off pretty well in scripture, she’s listening at Jesus’ feet, she’s anointing him with perfume: and apparently John even assumes she’s famous because before he begins the story of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus he basically says, “btw, this is the Mary who anointed Christ’s feet with expensive ointment, ok?

The scene is set at Jerusalem as Jesus has been sent for by Mary and Martha because their brother Lazarus is ill.

And the scripture says:

“Now Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus.”*

Did you notice what it says there? We talk all the time about Jesus’ family and disciples but he also had friends: he knew these three siblings in Bethany, mentioned multiple times in scripture. Here are these three non-disciples and Jesus loves all three of them. Both sisters. He loves Mary and he loves Martha.

Then things get interesting. Jesus hears Lazarus is ill and (for reasons of his own: to show his love and glory by raising Lazarus from the dead, maybe?), instead of going right to them he waits several days till after Lazarus has died. … Till after Lazarus has been dead SEVERAL days. Then Jesus goes to Bethany.

When the sisters hear the news, that Jesus is approaching, they have two very different reactions (in keeping, I write with a smile and a wink, with their temperaments). Martha rushes out of the house to see him (with burning questions, I imagine, in her mind), “but Mary remained seated in the house.” (Hurt? Afraid? Shy? Resentful? Overcome?). We’ve all been there, right? Tragedy strikes and while some of us run to the those who will help, others of us hide in our room.

It’s Martha that first runs to Jesus.

Has she been scanning the horizon for Jesus? Does she have a speech rehearsed? Her heart is burdened and she knows exactly to whom she needs to speak to.

She runs to Jesus and she says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Is she accusing? Is she simply stating the facts? I think, from Jesus’ response, that what is at the heart of Martha’s question-statement is a tempestuous, storming desire to know. This is the “I believed you!” reproach and the “I believe you.” hope all wrapped into one.

And Jesus meets her doubt with honesty and tenderness. I can almost see her staring into Jesus’ face, her eyes bloodshot from weeping (or bleary and strained from holding the tears back—from being strong), and what follows is a rather intellectual (but no less personal) exchange about death, life, resurrection, eternity, and belief.

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?

She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.

Wow. We all know the “Resurrection & The Life” passage from Tale of Two Cities! Did you know it was from Jesus revealing himself to Martha? Time after time Jesus’ veils his identity in scripture, but with Martha (like with the woman at the well) he says: I. AM. HE. And Martha believes. In no uncertain terms! She knows.

Now it’s time to get Mary. “As soon as she said this, she went and called her sister Mary.” Martha returns to the house, gets Mary, and whispers in her ear, “saying in private, “the Teacher is here and calling for you.

Big-sister-move-much? Was Mary hunkered down by herself? Waiting for a chance to sip away from the mourners? Was she avoiding Jesus? Or merely modest and circumspect about entering the presence of the King of Kings? Did Jesus actually call her or is Martha embellishing? Who knows. But Mary finally responds. She needed a call. But she goes.

Now when Martha went to Jesus, I get this sense that she ran out of the house when nobody was noticing (at least nobody follows), and she finds Jesus on the road. Mary, however, brings an entourage. Not on purpose. They just follow her, “supposing she was going to the tomb to weep there.” Mary’s grief is so great she draws every other hurting person after her.

But she’s not going to the tomb. She’s going to Jesus.

She finds him right where Martha has left him: he hasn’t changed, he’s in the same spot. And at the sight of Jesus she THROWS herself at his feet! WEEPING. And she says exactly the same thing that her sister said before her:

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

And Jesus’ response? He is troubled in spirit—and he weeps. Oh, Lord!

He weeps with her!

The Son of God stops and grieves with Mary and the other mourners: even while knowing he will raise Lazarus in just a few short moments.

Do you see the parallel? Two women. Two women loved by Jesus. THEY SAY EXACTLY THE SAME THING. Same words.  And Christ responds to each in exactly the way they needed. He doesn’t tell Martha to “shut up,” he doesn’t tell Mary to “suck it up,” he meets mind with minds, truth for questions, and tears with comforting tears.

So are you a Mary or a Martha?

Both are loved and known by Jesus. You don’t have to choose one. Personally I feel like I take turns being these two women. Sometimes you need someone—someone you utterly trust—to be honest with you. And sometimes you just need to be held as you weep. Sometimes we run to the Lord with our doubts and questions (as Job did): knowing he will be straight with us, and sometimes we take our unutterable sorrow to him and learn that He Himself in all His love and power is the answer, and that before His “face questions die away, what other answer would suffice?” (Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis).  

Christ was able to love these two women in exactly the way they needed to be loved just moments apart.

This is our Savior.

Waiting for us: arms open, ready with his answers and his tears.

Because we are so loved.

 

*Martha serving text from Luke 10, ESV, emphasis mine.
*Mary & Martha & Lazarus text from John 11, ESV, emphasis mine.
Painting: “The Poem of the Soul” by Louis Janmot.

I am Not a Republican

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Portrait of a Girl. Hands in red and blue paint

I recently made a discovery. I am not a Republican. 

Having never voted Republican this really shouldn’t have surprised me—but it did. I had always mentally considered myself a Republican by default

Perhaps the conservative reading this is now making the same mental jump. If you’re not a Republican, then surely you’re than a Democrat? I’m not, although I’m pretty sure that a few of my Facebook friends are convinced I’m a liberal after sharing some articles critiquing Trump.

It’s a very odd feeling, people thinking I’m a liberal.

Because on the flip side I know that actual liberals (among whom I count many of my near and dear relatives) have me in a most decidedly conservative camp—complete with “home-schooled,” “large family,” “Christian,” and “pro-life” labels stamped on it. I mean, how much more conservative can you get?

Republican!

But what if you have all the above labels but don’t believe in protectionism or imperialism? What if you actually kind of care about the environment, or don’t necessarily think a social safety net is evil? What if you want higher taxes? (Just kidding on that last one.) 

Party-less. 

I mean, how ironic is it that in a country which prides itself on the full-body embrace of diversity, we insist on understanding politics in terms of two groups? Perhaps this was why our founding fathers disliked a strong centralized government: they knew the only way to all get along was to allow states, unique in their cultural, geographic, and economic make-ups, to be different.

“But what’s the point?” you may ask. What’s the point of a label—old or new?

Everything and nothing. 

As a Christian I am called to live as a stranger in a foreign land. This land, our own beloved America, is not my home. I am called to seek the welfare of the state I live in but my primary goal in every aspect of my life is to glorify God—to live the Gospel: to BE Christ to my family, neighbors, co-workers, friends—to invite them into the messy imperfection of my life and show them my wonderful Savior.

I am a Christian, not a Republican.

But here’s the rub. Maybe, Christian brother or sister, you do agree 100% with the Republican platform (or at least more than any other platform.) I believe the time has come to disassociate. I fear that the label “Republican,” once merely a term for those who believed in political “conserving,” has become synonymous with American Christendom and has furthermore become associated with evil. Not just folly, not just differing opinions, but actual evil. You can argue all day about the degree and verity, but I don’t think it matters: we are called to not even have the appearance of evil. Suffer, says Paul in 1 Corinthians, for the gospel: not for doing what’s wrong! (And, I might expound, not for being associated with a party which reeks of corruption, greed, tyranny, racism, bigotry, lies, and more!). It’s not enough that most of Christendom disapproves of the current president: we’ve worked so hard to make Christendom synonymous with Republicanism that Trump is the defacto representative to the watching world! To our shame. Do you not see that our witness, our reputations as Christians and as the Church, is being dragged in the mud with the filth of politics? 

Whom do we love? And by whom shall we be known? By our savior? or by our president?

What do we really want as Christians? I think at heart we want all these awful problems to just go away. I know I do. I would prefer to live in a society where I was comfortable

Because we’re afraid. 

We live in an increasingly violent and hateful society. All that is good—innocence, commitment, piety—is despised. We live in fear of ridicule. The media delights in making Christens out as bigoted, hateful, Bible-thumping, women-hating, hypocritical (and secretly-perverted) CRAZY people—(and using as their examples actors or else real people much of the actual church considers apostate or fringe-cultish at best). 

We live in increasing fear of loosing our jobs. Losing our businesses, schools, or occupations. We experience hostility in the work place. (I personally have been turned down from a job due to being too religious—“not the right cultural fit.”)

We live in fear of our children being taken away. We do not yet fear for our lives but isn’t it sometimes easier to face death (clear, instant, and a gateway to glory) rather than ongoing daily shame, social ostracization, and suffering?

Yet this is what we are called to. If we really believe in eternity, salvation, and the dire need of the lost: then we are to abandon all and follow Christ, knowing that as they hated Him they will likely hate us. But oh! brothers and sisters, let them hate us for being Christ-like! Let them hate us for the GOSPEL’s sake. Not for for a party-platform, and thereby association with swindlers, tyrants, racists, and revilers. 

So what if we’re party-less? So what if we no longer have a home? We have a building from God: a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. (2 Corinthians 5:1)

It is time to disassociate: to break ties and bind ourselves to Christ. Christians do not belong to one political party. And when your political party blinds people to hearing the gospel, something is wrong. 

Here we are going about our daily gospel-spreading lives and you throw a political party into the pot, and do you know what? 

The gospel is hard enough.

The Gospel: that while we were yet sinners: Christ died for us. 

This is hard enough!

This gospel is our only valid identity, the only label worth having: Christian, bought by Christ, lovers of Truth, Justice, and Mercy. And we ought to care a thousand times more that we are known for our love and willingness to sacrifice every physical comfort for the sake of Christ and His gospel than by ANY political platform or affiliation.

So let’s throw aside every weight that encumbers us. We are setting real stumbling blocks and gospel-foolishness before ears that need to hear and hearts that need to be won. Let’s not muddy the waters with political affiliations. They don’t matter.

The gospel does.

What to do? When Life Is Going Well

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hand poppies field

From June 2017

I am overwhelmed today by a sense of how many people in my life are suffering. Countless people around me are hurting and grieving, the long list includes: miscarriages, mothers with cancer, newborns with cancer, death of newborns, death of pastors, murder, suicide, job loss, home loss, chronic illness, and more.

I don’t remember another time in my life where so many things were piling up on top of each other (never mind a few US shootings and fires and bombings abroad).

The irony of it in my case, though, is my own life is swimming along pretty well. I am head over heals in love with my husband—who recently told me that I was the most adorable creature in the whole world (oh, be still my heart). While on the one hand this year has been a difficult in terms of grad school, travel for work, and frequent times spent apart, yet when I compare it with all that’s going on in family, friend’s, and co-worker’s lives I realize I have only long lists of things to be thankful for: Job, Housing, Food, Church, Health, Life, Family, Salvation.

And so I find myself staring at my days and hours and going, what is all this blessing for?

I know that suffering in this life is a given: we are sinners in a fallen, broken, hurting world. Nor does being a Christian somehow buy you an easy-pass, in fact we are told to expect suffering… and more of it! We will suffer like Christ, and mourn with those who mourn. We are not taken out of the world but bring the light of Christ into it. We are only promised that in our suffering we will never be alone: and that there will be a future day when all suffering ceases and every tear is wiped away.

The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.  ( Psalm 34:18 )

He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. (Psalm 147.3)

My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever (Psalm 73:26) 

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. (Revelation 21:4)

We are called to bear one another’s burdens. I know there will be a future day when I will have burdens to bear, and where family and church will swoop around me with loving arms. But it is not this day. Today I am one of the strong ones. Today I am shouldering other’s burdens.

Today I have strength to pray. Do you know that in Colossians 4:12 Paul describes prayer as “wrestling?” I heard a speaker once explain how this is incredibly comforting. Because we expect prayer to be easy: but it isn’t. It’s actually a struggle. It’s a struggle of mind, body, and spirit. Isn’t it a comfort that it has always been so? And in Romans 15:30, Paul encourages the brethren to “strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf,” —we enter into the struggle of our brethren through wrestling and interceding for them in prayer. Let us not neglect this!

Today I have enough money and a Generous God. One of the marks of the early church was their radical generosity: giving not just out of excess but against their own personal comfort and needs. Even Jesus in Matthew 6, when he reminds us to “Look at the birds of the air, they neither sow nor reap nor store away in barns and yet your Heavenly Father feeds them: therefore do not worry about tomorrow,” he then follows that up with “therefore go sell your possessions and follow me.” Our security in our Father’s tender knowledge of our physical needs and abundant provision for our spiritual ones should prompt us to radical generosity. What physical things can you be doing to help those suffering around you? Can you give your time? Can you make meals for those too overwhelmed to cook? Can you watch somebody’s children or cover a financial bill?

Today I have enough love. I believe the more we grow in the grace of the gospel, the more tender our hearts become to the sufferings of those around us, the more compassionate and empathetic we grow, and the more we will feel other’s people’s pain. Someday we will be like Jesus: and weep over cities and strangers. How else could it be? If the Lord is faithfully growing your tenderness: then today you have enough love. For that one person in your life who needs you to be Christ’s hand’s and feet.

 “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)

Today I am one of the Lord’s strong ones: giving as He would have me give. Tomorrow I may be broken, and then I will pray, “He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength.” (Isaiah 40:29) Perhaps you will be God’s strength to me on that day.

We all take turns between these two halves of living.

Little Children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:18)

A Year of Reading Part 3: On The Books Never Finished

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book unreadLooking back over a year of 40 books has given me ample opportunity for self-reflection. It’s drawn my attention to the two conspicuous omissions which I purposefully left off my list: the book I put down and the book I have yet to finish reading.

The Book Put Down

I can remember only three books in my life which I have consciously put down. Of course there have been plenty of those forgot-to-keep reading books, those one chapter reads you pick up while at a friend’s house, or give back to the library, or that dreadfully boring book like Moby Dick which makes you turn the last 400 pages in an absent-minded forgetful kind of way. But by put down I mean slammed down with revolted decision: I mean really interesting books which you chose not to finish.

One of these three was a Freudian-psycho-sexual analysis of Queen Victoria & Prince Albert. Bizarre. The other two were for the same reason and by the same author, the last one just a month ago.

The troublesome author? John Steinbeck.

I love Steinbeck, and am revolted by him, too. We have had a strange relationship, he and I. When a beloved literary professor recommended East of Eden I tried to read it—but put it down only a third of the way through. The synopsis I got online said it was about the consequences of adultery (and the lurid descriptions I had already endured did not bode well for a novel devoted to a moral precept I was already thoroughly convinced of).

Years later, my husband and I stayed in John Steinbeck’s writer’s studio in Monterey, California—a darling little cottage just our size.

When I picked up East of Eden for the second time (I had, on reflection thought the lurid passages not-so-shocking when viewed from the married state), the familiarity of his 411ws+zkdpL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_California descriptions washed over me in waves of nostalgia. I am myself a Californian, and he was describing places I knew and loved.

There is no denying Steinbeck’s an amazing author. His ability to get behind the human psyche and in just a few words paint a picture which is tantalizingly familiar and physically tangible is magnificent. My second attempt at East of Eden left me in no doubt that it was a masterpiece. And despite one (or two) truly wicked characters, they are pitted against good ones, and the theme of the book is love: and what is real love? It was a deeply moving (and, I believe), over-all a very true book. It also had a happy and redemptive ending.

And then a few weeks ago I began Steinbeck’s The Long Valley. I’d read Of Mice & Men some time ago with no ill effects so thought I’d give good ol’Steinbeck another go. The Long Valley is a collection of short stories which mostly take place in California’s Salinas Valley. Each story pulls you in with eerie humanness of his writing—the almost-adorable couple, the pretty ideal, the fascinating scene, the beginning of manhood—and then just when he could resolve the story he ends it: the protagonist hopeless, possessed, crying, or dead.

I am glad I do not live in a world of Steinbeck’s making.

Each story was so fascinating—and then so gruesome. I kept reading one after the other hoping the next would end happily, maybe this time Steinbeck won’t ruin it all.

The book had me in its depressing grip—I was forcing myself to keep reading the last few short stories to the end of the collection so I could say I read it, when my husband (talking to me online) gave me this piece of wisdom:

You don’t have to finish bad books, love. It’s very freeing when you decide a book isn’t worth reading all the way through—don’t give the author the pleasure.

Don’t give the author the pleasure.

It sounds strange but what he said is amazingly true. There is a a kind of pleasing the author in reading. For reading is a kind of war, is it not? A battle-dance between you and the author. The author has an idea, a vision, a story to tell, and he presents it to you. And you? You can be won over, you take a willing step further into the world of the book, you can read, enjoy, praise, and share. Or you can put it down. You can step away. And if everybody were to put the book (or article, fake news, etc) down, the author has lost: and what they have written fades into oblivion.

In one of my favorite “writer-verses” in Ecclesiastes, Solomon encourages his son to hold fasts to the scriptures and warns him, “Of the writing of many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” (Ecclesiastes 12:12B)

To the writing of books there is no end.

As a writer I am acutely aware of the excess of literary thought committed to paper. I am myself an example of the inexhaustible impulse to write and record. I know it is a gift and I don’t exert any particular strain to contain it.

But I realize its limits.

There is no end.

There is no end to what could be written: most of it rubbish which will be forgotten.

There are words worth reading and books worth putting down.

We have a limited amount of time.

The Book Never Finished

There is another book I left conspicuously off my list. The Bible. Technically I read several biblical books, however when I looked back over my long list of mostly-Fiction I realized I didn’t read it nearly enough—not when I clearly had so much time.

Don’t get me wrong, time for pleasure reading is a wonderful gift, and reading is excellent for the improving of the mind and the honing of one’s God-given literary talents. But personally, I admit to you that I feel a pang of sadness rather than pride when I look back and see how much time, which could have been devoted to knowing my Savior better this past year, was spent on a lesser and far less lasting purpose.

There is another “writer-verse” which is one of my favorites. It is at the end of the book of John, where he says (and I can almost feel his heart swelling with the enormity of what he writes): “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (John 21:25)

All the books in the world.

I think one of the reasons I often don’t read more scripture is that there is indeed a battle going on—and not only against flesh and blood (my own laziness, tiredness, etc)—but also “against the powers of this present darkness,” (Ephesians 6:12) who would so dearly prefer us to swallow Steinbecks than to sup at the table of the Word.

download2My brother-in-law recently shared with me how he was reading about Jacob wrestling with the Angel of the Lord: refusing to let him depart until he had received a blessing. And he did receive a blessing. Reading scripture is like that, he shared, wrestling with it until you receive a blessing. And isn’t it wonderful that when you wrestle you will be blessed?

And so in conclusion of this long year of reading my heart is full with many things.

My heart brims with thankfulness: for the hours of dead time turned to better purpose, and for discovering a few really good authors—some insightful and wise, others delightfully human.

My heart is furthermore resolved: to strengthen my arms to wrestle with the Word.  To not depart until I receive its blessing.

And lastly I am comforted: that for as many books as I’ve read or put down, finished or not finished, there is a Word which I’ll never be done reading, which I’ll never be finished with, and (thank God), will never be finished with me.