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“A job at the end of the world. A salary killer for a big petroleum company. I don’t know why I did half the things I’ve done, but I know this is where I belong. Surrounded by ex cons, fugitives, drifters, assholes. Men unfit for mankind.

“There’s not a second goes by when I’m not thinking of you in some way. I want to see your face, feel your hands in mine, feel you against me. But I know that will never be. You left me and I can’t get you back. I move like I imagine the damned do, cursed. And I feel like it’s only a matter of time. I don’t know why I’m writing this. I don’t know what can come of it. I know I can’t get you back.

“I don’t know why this has happened to us. I feel like it’s me, bad luck, poison. And I’ve stopped doing this world any real good.”

Thus begins the movie, “The Grey,” one of my absolute favorite films. Admittedly, my cinematic tastes often tend to run a bit dark, and this movie is no exception. In it (and I recommend reading this with caution, as I am about to spoil the entire plot), Liam Neeson plays John Ottway, a man who loses his wife to an illness and goes to Alaska to hunt wolves for a petroleum company. As he is making his way out of the snowy Alaskan wilderness, his plane crashes in a vast wasteland, leaving a handful of survivors to fight for life in the midst of an intense blizzard. To make matters worse, a pack of enormous wolves begins to pick them off one by one, forcing them to move into a nearby forest.

Ottway believes the wolves are threatened because the humans are close to their den, so Ottway tries to steer the group away from where he thinks the den might be. The wolves follow and continue to kill off the men, until Ottway is the only one left. In a fit of desperation, he raises a rough, honest prayer into the sky:

“Do something. Do something. You phony prick. Fraudulent motherfucker. Do something! Come on! Prove it! Fuck faith! Earn it! Show me something real! I need it now. Not later. Now! Show me and I’ll believe in you until the day I die. I swear. I’m calling on you. I’m calling on you!”

Ottway looks to the sky in a nearly frantic search for some sign of acknowledgment, a miracle, a helicopter, a person, a divine hand to reach into the stark barrenness and save him. His face wears the stern look of a man whose heart is afraid.

But the sky remains replete with soggy, ashen clouds. There is no hand, no helicopter, no sign of a miracle.

“Fuck it, I’ll do it myself. I’ll do it myself.”

Ottway continues on, but it isn’t long until he finds himself in the very place he was trying to avoid all along: the wolves’ den. Ultimately, it is suggested that Ottway dies in the den, but manages to take the alpha wolf with him.

So, yes, it’s a dark film. Everybody dies.

Which isn’t exactly unfamiliar in the human condition. Many people I know said this movie was very anti-Christian, sinful in its depiction of death, suicidal tendencies, and faith. I found it rough, but also honest in many ways.

Sometimes, that miracle never comes. A long wait may never have a culmination. It would be quite naive of me to think that every prayer I pray will have an affirmative answer. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say most of the important prayers I’ve prayed have not been answered affirmatively. There are many that remain as-yet unanswered.

And that’s okay. Every time I think I have God figured out, He does something (even if doing something can sometimes mean doing nothing) to prove me wrong. He is, as ever, enigmatic and inscrutable. Realizing this has added some realistic perspective to my idealistic nature. For a long time, this disappointed me and even made me wonder if God was truly involved in the day-to-day affairs of His creations. Now, if I’m honest, it doesn’t faze me.

Perhaps this is a bit cynical, but it seems to me to have some healthful benefits. I’m no longer expectant of the miraculous. I have experienced the death of expectation, which has led to greater life satisfaction in many ways. I am happy when goodness comes; I’ve learned that disappointment and hardship are inevitable, but so is happiness, and one will just as surely follow the other just as spring follows winter, as surely as death follows life.

Ottway seems to accept this in the end, but he doesn’t allow the alpha wolf to take him without a fight. To me, that’s the encouraging part of the movie: in the face of certain, inevitable, imminent death, you still push on. When the miracle doesn’t come, when the answer you so desperately hoped for doesn’t pan out, you continue living the life you have left.

Ultimately, Ottway decides that the little bit of life he has left doesn’t need God, and I know that many people choose this. I’ve chosen it before and I can respect why people might choose not to believe. God doesn’t work like we think He should. The world doesn’t look the way we think it should look. Realism and cynicism mess with our idealism, our grand visions of all the utopian possibilities that could be, if only the world could just cooperate with itself.

I can’t give a pat answer as to why you should believe that God is involved and He cares. On bad days, even I don’t know why I believe it. Even the answers I’ve learned over the years can be downright unsatisfactory. But maybe I believe because it’s still possible to see goodness even while surrounded by such profuse evils. Maybe I believe because I look around into the wild world and still see immeasurable beauty. Maybe I believe because I continue to fight to believe. Sometimes the fight is all there is.

No matter what comes (or doesn’t come), we can at least press on, plucky and mettlesome, knowing that somewhere along the way we will encounter a surprising thing: the pleasant knowledge that we fought well. When I look back at the end of my life and see that I lived with fire and spirit and fought for goodness, I will see that I lived a good life, even if many important prayers were denied or unanswered.

And maybe that’s the biggest miracle, the greatest answered prayer of all.

The Beach

In the dream, I am fishing with my friends. I am just about to bring in my nets as my boat sails past the beach, where I notice smoke coming up from a small fire.  I don’t think anything of it and return to my work. It’s been a bit of a rotten day for fishing. We haven’t caught anything, and it seems like nothing will ever go right again. My friends are talking in hushed voices as I do my work by myself, but I don’t feel left out, really. I have been reminiscing and pensive these past couple of days, because my best friend died. Was killed, in fact. He was the one you could count on to lead the pack, who always seemed ten steps ahead of everyone else. And he was.

He was way ahead of me, that’s for sure. He knew I would run, just like the others. He told me it would happen, even as I stood there adamantly insisting that I would never run, betray, or wound. He caught me in plenty of other ramblings, too. But that last time…well, let’s just say I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut since then. As much as I thought I loved him, I couldn’t — wouldn’t — save him.

My friends are getting loud next to me. I look over, perturbed, but they’re talking to a man on the beach, the one who had started the fire. I follow their gaze back and listen to what’s being said:

“Hey, maybe you guys should try fishing on the other side of the boat,” he says.  Yeah, whatever.  The guy’s a kook who clearly doesn’t understand that if fish aren’t on one side of the boat, they’re likely not on the other.  But, my friends look to humor him, so I pitch in. Let’s get this over with as soon as possible.

So, we let down the nets again and leave them for a couple of minutes.  I look back to the man behind the fire but I can’t see his face.  Maybe he expects us to bring him some fish to cook, if we catch any.

I’m pulled out of my reverie as I realize the boat is tipping to the side.  Half in a panic, I rush to the nets and discover them breaking from the thousands of fish caught inside–thousands upon thousands, breaking strong braids of thick cording.  I get the odd feeling of deja vu and turn my face to the beach.  I look again at the fire and the man sitting behind it stoking the flames. I don’t recognize him at first, so I squint, trying to find his eyes through the haze of smoke coming up between us.

Either this is an apparition, or I am most certainly hallucinating. It’s my best friend. Alive. Sitting by the fire like nothing happened.  Yes, it’s an hallucination for sure.  As soon as I think this, the smallest hint of a smile plays on his face and he slightly shakes his head.  He knows what I just thought in my head. No, it’s not an apparition. This is just the sort of thing he would do.

I throw caution to the wind — it’s one of the things I’m best at — and I jump off the boat and swim to the shore to greet him, unsure of anything in my head at this point.

I stand up and wring my clothes out a bit as I walk over to him, losing excitement with every step. If he’s really here, really real, really alive, I don’t know that I can face him after what I’ve done. My steps grow awkward as I draw nearer. He’s watching me the whole time. The slight smile has vanished from his face and he is looking at me with that piercing gaze of his, looking into my soul. Looking concerned.

“Hi,” he says. “Come have some fish with me…I see you have plenty to share.”  I have to laugh a bit, as overflowing and breaking fishing nets have become sort of an inside joke between us. He is quite peculiar. He always has been. One time, we were all on the boat and there was a huge storm–a squall, practically, and he would’ve slept right through it if we hadn’t woken him up to tell him we were all going to die. I remember then, he just shook his head at us, walked outside, said one word, and the gale-force winds instantly calmed to a balmy summer breeze. And now he wants fish. After dying a few days ago. I’ve never had a friend like this, and I know I never will again.

He smiles up at me when I laugh, and I sit with him and eat as the others come. They had taken up the nets, tied up the boat, and embraced our friend as they also joined the repast. Their faces convey the shock that I am feeling, but our friend doesn’t pay any attention to our obvious confusion, concern, and wonderment. He makes small talk for a while and then drops off into silence. The others cautiously talk to each other for a while to break the tension of the silence, but my friend and I just sit there, staring into the flames, not speaking.

After a bit, my friend stands up and brushes the sand off his hands and clothes.  “Come with me,” he beckons to me as he begins to walk off along the beach. I have time to shoot my friends a glance as I walk after my best friend and teacher. They look around at one another and cautiously walk after us a ways, so as to give us privacy but still remain close. I suppose they feel as I do — now that our friend is back, we can’t bear to be apart from him. After all, we spent the last three years together almost exclusively. And nobody was closer to him than me. Except I don’t feel that way. Not now. Not after what I did.

He stops walking and looks at me. I am taken by surprise and almost continue to walk along, but I turn back, and he has a look on his face that I’ve never seen before.  “Do you love me?” he asks. I know he is addressing my betrayal of him, and I choke out the words, “Yes, I do.”  He searches my eyes for a moment and says, “Feed my lambs.”

Feed your lambs? Huh?  I’m sure my look betrays my confusion because he asks me again, “Do you love me?” I repeat, “I do.” He puts his hand on my shoulder and looks into my eyes and says, “tend my sheep.”  I think I might be getting it. He must mean for me to take care of the others.

I nod cautiously and we start walking again. But he stops again and says, “Do you love me?”  And then I lose it. I realize the gravity of the whole situation. What he’s really asking me. The fact that he asked me 3 times, the same number of times that I betrayed him. Does he really not know if I love him? Is he unsure of me? But I know him well enough to know there’s no way in the world that he wouldn’t know. I’m crying as I tell him so.  “You know everything!  You know I love you!”

I’m about to run off in shame when he grabs me powerfully by the shoulders and looks into my face once again. But this time, he’s smiling with compassion. “Feed my lambs.”

Relief floods over me, like nothing I’ve ever experienced. He’s not doubting my love, but he knows I’m doubting my love. This is his way of restoration. His way of saying he forgives me. His way of saying he loves me and still wants me in his service, as his pupil, as his brother, as his friend.

We’re smiling as we continue walking along the beach. After a while we are both composed and he’s telling me all these things that will happen in the coming days. I’m going to die too, he says in not so many words. I’m concerned, of course, but still glad in the moment of our reconciliation. But I’m also still me, so I look around at the men following behind us a pace and say, “what about them?”

But he raises his eyebrows and says, “What is that to you? You follow me!” And somehow, I’m comforted. Because I know that he’ll be in this with me. That he loves me individually and is the crux of my purpose in the world. We walk along together as he shares more with me, and I am happy.

The dream shifts and I am in the future, sitting at a table with my friends. We’ve been praying for weeks to seek guidance, and now we’re all looking around at each other. We’ve just finished praying and somehow we’re all speaking different languages, things I’ve neither heard nor learned before. And I feel something stir inside of me. Someone. It’s him. I’d know that presence anywhere. I haven’t seen him in body in a while, but he explained that he was leaving, and that someone was coming back to help us. I didn’t understand it at the time, but this feels so real. So like him.  He’s still peculiar, I suppose. He leaves, and promises to send a helper, but it’s really him, in a way, and the helper now apparently lives inside of me, because I can hear his thoughts and feel the weights of glory and knowledge of the law in my heart. It makes no sense. And it’s just like him.

And suddenly I know what I must do. We followed him for 3 years, watching him feed the hungry, open the eyes of the blind, raise the dead, heal the cripples, speak brilliantly and hang around with outsiders and untouchables, thinking that all the while, that was his main work here. But it wasn’t. It was me. And the other few in our little band of brothers. And now it’s my main work. Bringing others into our group, so that they can bring more into our group. This is about people, and it starts with me. Here. Now.

I wake up, but I’m not Peter. I’m 2,000 years removed, but nonetheless a product of his realization. I make the same mistakes he made — moments of insane hubris, betrayal, times where my words do more harm than good — but I feel that same stirring inside of me that came upon him. I’ve never seen Jesus. I don’t know what he looks like, but I know his voice. It lives inside me. Every day I deny, every day I fail, and at the end of each day he asks, “Do you love me?” And I cry because I don’t trust myself. I cry because I hurt him, and because I hurt others. I cry because I know every day of my life will include a denial of some kind. I tell him that but he doesn’t even address it, really. He just knows my heart and says, “Feed my lambs.”

Blessings

It’s been a while since I’ve attempted poetry, so here’s a sad something: 

 

Although the sun is up and running

Little of life appears to be stunning

and real faith is truly rewarding

as I’m told by the gospel of saint someone

the name keeps fading

as I’m bugged by the incessant grating of the ceiling fan that clicks all summer

like a tachycardic jazzy drummer that tries my patience

and loosens my concentration

ah but God — take pity on me

though my Deity might be a simple somebody

carrying a light bulb

is there a silver lining?

somewhere is the sun shining?

Somewhere, is someone jamming to Barbra Streisand and the way we were

All failures and connoisseurs of ill-fated love?

no, there’s a heavy heart that gets no lighter

a low in life you won’t get over

there’s a spell of sorrow I’m under

like I’m filled with the hopes and tomorrows

of a blind woman who lives in doubt

and wonders if the sun went out

if it’s just a midnight that never passes

In a black scene wearing black sunglasses

Maybe someday spring will call

things will change, oppressors will fall

And while I wait for joyous laughter

while I wait for death’s disaster and a sweet hereafter

while I wait for a midlife crisis

where death dons cheap disguises

I’ll count my blessings in the shadows

this is the last song I can sing

and will it put you to sleep tonight?

like when the humans play with muppets

guest-starring in a world of puppets

I’m the odd one out but fit right in where all the wicked cool dreams begin

in which I’m cast as the American president

your friend and personal spokesman

an apprentice of idiocy and heartlessness

but my heart is really digging this

and I’m blessed with a silly stupid smile of great empower

like if Macbeth had a Disney hour

I’m God’s downtrodden distant cousin

with a history that taught me little if nothing

I’m difficult to tell the truth to

all soft winds that whistle through

inoculated to the criticisms

I’m all giant ears that cannot listen

All the satire and dark sarcasm can’t deter my enthusiasm

I won’t miss the hate

instead I’d like to do the right thing but not at this minute

You’ll have to study and know me before

and look into my eyes

straight into my eyes

they’re soft and green

with the mellow sheen of moss

And obscene in dealing with a loss

this is the last song I can sing

and will it put you to sleep tonight?

I know the score like Annie Oakley from the Wild West

and maybe I’ll sing a dirge as the sun sets

because the sun sets on all that we know

sets on all that we love

sets on all that knits the world together

All the stillness, all the wild weather

A face, bare with sweetness

All lovely things that make life worthwhile

a touch, perhaps the scope of a smile

I’m home, oh home where the heart is

Arrhythmic in a beauty sleep

there’s no fragile beauty we can keep

only a swan song that sings on and on

this is the last song I can sing

will it put you to sleep tonight?

 

 

 

 

 

Driving Lessons

I haven’t written anything at all on this blog for quite some time, so I thought I’d try my hand at some fiction: 

My mother-in-law was driving the car when the world changed forever.  The cruise control was on as we flew over a patch of black ice.  I had been in the back seat in between my twin boys, one of whom had hit the other in the face with his rattle.  I remember how grating the crying had been on my ears, but I imagine it was only because I had had such little sleep. Upon recollection,  I can’t see why it was so bad.  I would give anything to hear that crying again.

But it wasn’t to be.  The car flew off the road and into a tree where we waited for half an hour for another car to pass and help us. My mother-in-law suffered a few broken bones, as did I.  But my boys were too young, and the force of the impact killed them both instantly.  And I sat for half an hour, pinned between the carseats, knowing they were dead.

My husband was on business in Japan, and I had to be the one to tell him that he would never hold our sons again. It nearly tore the entire family apart.  He refused to speak to his mother for quite some time, and he could barely look at me.  It was hard to look at him because every time I saw his eyes, I saw the eyes of Elijah and Noah.  When I looked at my husband, I was looking into the face of Loss itself.

The pain of losing my boys never left, but it did change.  Life carried on, and our marriage carried on.  And, in time we found ourselves talking of having children again.  Five years after the accident, I gave birth to Lily, and we were joyful for the first time in what felt like centuries.

As she grew up, we told her about her brothers, but could never say how they died, and every time we took her for a car ride, we never mentioned the boys. We were careful, and perhaps overly cautious.

When Lily was 15, her father passed away.  My world had shattered once again, shattered like the tinkling glass of the windshield that he went through.  For all of our carefulness, it seemed like we couldn’t escape the confines of all the cars that seemed for all the world like so many coffins.

Lily had doted on her father, and she missed him terribly, but we clung to each other in the midst of our pain and grew closer because of it.

I decided that I was going to teach her how to drive, that it would be the most grueling experience of her life up to that point.  If nobody else lived, it would be her, and I would be the one to show her. I would show her because I was the only one left, the only one never in the driver’s seat when worlds collapsed.

I took her everywhere–gridlocked cities, icy boulevards, hairpin turns on mountainsides, and she performed beautifully.  With each passing day, I became more and more reassured that she would make it.

One day, she hit a rabbit that was trying to cross the road.  It appeared seemingly out of nowhere, and she screamed and started to cry when she hit it.

“Pull over,” I said to her.  The country road we were on had a soft shoulder, and she coasted easily over and shut off the engine.

“If you’re crying in the driver’s seat, you won’t be able to see well enough to keep going.  You’ve gotta pull over when that happens.”  I was facing her, and she had her head in her hands. Lily nodded in agreement with me, and we sat in the car for a while as she pulled herself together.  And we kept going, knowing once again the dark feeling of life lost.

The day before her 16th birthday, I had planned the ultimate driving test–one that would require as much from me as it did from her, if not more.   I clicked myself into the passenger seat, and she asked me where we were going.  I told her to head East and get on the main road to Chicago.

About 10 minutes into our journey, I began the story.  “Your grandma was driving, and it had been so long since I had slept…”

By the time we got into the heart of Chicago, my daughter was in tears.  I directed her around tight city corners and she kept saying, “I need to find a place to park. Where can I park, so I can cry?”

But there was no place to park.  The city was packed, the few spaces along the streets had been taken up, and we had no change for a parking meter anyway–I had made sure of that.

“Lily, there is no place to park.  Sometimes you cry, and there’s no place to stop, so there’s only one thing to do–you have to keep going.  You have to muster up your courage and drive through the tears. Be careful, but keep going.”

I remember her half glance at me through red-rimmed eyes, the headlights of the passing cars glinting off the rivulets running down her cheeks.  She only paused for a second, but then nodded in understanding.

I knew she understood, because she never once had an accident.  She had many more tears, many more nights of hot cheeks and puffy eyes, more close calls and more hardship.  And, she had even more days of pure joy, more moments of ease, times of smiling and times of doting on the man she married, and later on, her children. My grandchildren.

Bless her heart, she kept driving. We both did.

A Glamorous Deception

If you are even minutely involved in modern society, you will know that kids today (I know, I’m a bit young to be saying “kids today”) are into some pretty weird stuff.  The airwaves are filled with insipid, messed-up former Disney stars, sparkly, angst-filled undead creatures, the pre-pubescent voice of post-pubescent Justin Bieber, and the graceful words of the new vernacular–“adorbs,” “cray-cray,” and “totes” (as in, “This pic of the Biebs is totes adorbs,” to which I might respond, “You’re totes cray-cray” or some version of that which isn’t insane).

I poke fun, but really, this generation is all rhyme and echo of my own. In my day (I know, I’m a bit young to be saying “in my day”), we listened to Paula Cole, BBMAK, and Cypress Hill, watched “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (apparently vamps are never out of style–just go back to Anne Rice’s novels and the first undead soap opera, “Dark Shadows”), and used words like “like” (every other word), “as if,”  and “the bomb” (as in, “Paula Cole’s like, the bomb,” to which I might reply, “As if!” if I were a valley girl).

I personally had my own brand of weirdness.  I forewent watching the traditional Saturday morning cartoons like Animaniacs and spent my morning chilling with Bob Ross’ painting shows.  I read a book a day, played basketball in the driveway and listened to the Broadway cast recording of “Evita” while rollerblading in circles for hours at a time.  I can admit it now, mostly because I’ve accepted that I was a quirky, lonely kid–and because I am no longer lonely or a kid, and my quirkiness has taken on different, cooler forms–I was uncool before uncool was cool.  However, when I was just entering my teenage years, I got involved in some things I am not proud of, one of which was the occult.  I wasn’t just in the vampire slaying crowd (though that was also a big area of interest for me), but I downloaded magical spells off the newly-created internet, researched old demon legends and Satanism (though I was a professing [read: false] Christian at the time).  I messed around with tarot cards, fortune-telling, and thought a lot about holding seances. I believed in reincarnation and a very real spiritual world–a world I knew next to nothing about.  And, true to the occult name (“occult” means “hidden”), I kept most of those things a secret from my family during the three-or-so years I was involved.

It’s interesting to me that the word “occult” means “hidden.”  When you mess with the occult, a lot of showy things can start to happen because the occult is a doorway to Satan.  I know people who’ve used Ouija boards (thankfully, I never did), and had immediate and powerful demonic encounters.  I’ve had a few of my own even without the Ouija board.  God says He’ll grant us more than we can ask or imagine, but Satan has his own brand of that promise–he’ll show us things more horrifying and more often than we asked or imagined if we open the door to him.  And, believe me–if you use the occult, you’re opening that door.

Perhaps you scoff that there is anything dangerous at all about playing with a cardboard “toy” that you can purchase at Toys R Us, or  playing with a deck of cards with a few weird symbols on them, or lighting some candles and mumbling a few words in repetition.  But if you read the Bible, you know such things have ominous meaning.  Do we really have to be so addicted to personal experience that we ignore the warnings in the Bible and the warnings of many who have tried the occult and found it scary and oppressive?

Admittedly, there have been perhaps two times in my life after my initial exploration of the occult when I have been tempted to use it again–both times after becoming a Christian.  Circumstances during those times were such that I was craving both answers and direction, and God was giving me only enough knowledge for the moment–which apparently wasn’t quite good enough for me.  God was quietly exercising my faith, and Satan loudly tried to prey on my desire for more.  Thankfully, the temptations passed, and I didn’t give in.  If you saturate yourself with the Bible, it’s easier to bear up under temptation.

I think Satan preys upon our desire for the glamorous, the showy, the obvious.  He preys upon the boredom that has come with so much ease-creating technology, and on our collective cultural desire for interesting distractions. So, he draws us in with a spectacle, a carnival, a magnificent hall of mirrors pinging objects of horror and intrigue off into an ever-narrowing stripe of infinity.  You’ll probably accumulate a lot of “interesting” stories by dabbling in the occult–probably more “interesting” than you’ll accumulate while carrying your cross behind Christ. But, if you continue down that occult path, only death lies at the end.

Then there’s God. God is glorious, but He’s not glamorous.  He has wowed me with certain experiences, but that’s the exception to the rule. God is no cheap parlor magician–His is the unchanging, still, small voice of humility, not the irresolute, loud, boastful voice of hubris.  God’s hall of mirrors shows us, but that same stripe of infinity changes our image progressively to look more and more like Christ the further into infinity we go.  It’s a path that ends (and begins) in life.  Sure, sometimes it’s not much to look at.  The way is humble, stony, thorny, and it doesn’t promise the seeming ease of other paths, but it’s really the only way to go and end where your truest heart wishes to be.

A thought grows up just as humans do. They start off fumbling, weak, small, but nourish them and they’ll grow powerful and stout as oak trees.  Starve a person, and they die.  Starve a thought, and it, too, will die.  And, if your thoughts are for spectacle, or curious for easy answers, I advise that you be very wary.  I am an extremely curious person by nature, and in younger years I gave myself carte blanche to research and learn as I wished.  Yes, I learned.  I learned that not all learning is helpful.  I learned that sometimes, a satisfied curiosity is not worth the price.  I learned that we cannot exchange the glory of the immortal God for some lesser counterfeit. Sometimes you have to let a thought simply die. Sometimes we have to learn to not be so fixated on our own entertainment. I learned that this whole idea doesn’t apply only to the occult–it applies to anything that draws you away from God, whether it be a culture that follows its every whim, an apostate teacher, or personal sinful desires. We don’t have to experience everything to learn from it, and I’m still learning this.  Wisdom can be a killer of intrigue, of glamour, of ease, of worship of  the wrong things.  And, wisdom can be life-giving.  We can get involved in some bad stuff over the course of our lives, but we don’t have to stay there.  Life, goodness, truth…all await you on the other side.

In God We Trust

I wrote this poem for a class I’m taking called “Living in God’s Presence.” It’s a wonderful class and I’ve enjoyed learning new things about my walk with God there, so I thought I’d share some of that here:

In life there are two friends

One, the fair-weather sort—fickle, absent, and shallow

The other dependable, stable and present

To whom will I turn when the storm waters rise and the waves threaten to steal my breath?

I see those friends standing by and watching as the waves overtake my eyes

Blurring and distorting my view of them

I reach my hand, but whom shall I choose?  In whose hands do I place my life?

I reach for the faithful friend and find myself in good hands.

When it comes to such trust my talent is of no consequence

“How trustworthy is the one I turn to?” Not “how good am I at trusting?”

For I fail in such ways, sometimes expecting a stone in place of bread

Or fearing a snake will rear up and strike, should I request a fish.

Forgive me for such thoughts, Father, for I have been weak.

In paradox, the storms have taught me to trust You more

For in the most shadowy nights, the stars luminesce all the clearer

Just as the Sun glows hotter and brighter

After the rains unceasingly, gently cleanse again and ever again this soiled earth

After darkness, You are light, where no shadows dwell

After rain, You are perfect and clear, beautiful as the sky

Teach me again when the tempest comes and the dark descends

That Your hand is ready to take hold and guide me through shadow and rain

Knowing that on the other side of trial, I will find myself clinging to You, You who are life itself.

And through the long ages, to forever, may I live in complete enjoyment

Of Your guiding hand and trustworthiness

Continually plumbing the depths of who You are,

Rejoicing that I will never see the end.

 

(I borrowed some of my thoughts from other poems/psalms/devotionals I’ve written, but it’s all true, and I’m grateful to be learning this lesson)

 

Filters

Many people in this world argue that “perception is reality.” However, I would amend this statement and say that our perceptions can easily set up for us a form of deception that is only just passable as reality. Sometimes our perceptions really do reflect the true state of things; at other times, what we see is not always what is really there. The filters through which we see things can greatly impact what we see. There is a certain level of naïveté in the person who sees all of life through rose-colored glasses, for example, just as there is naïveté in the person who only sees darkness in the world. In either case there is a deficiency of judgment–neither one perceives life as it is, and our filters can do the same to us in impairing judgment.

There are a great many filters through which we can see things. Our families of origin, experiences, personalities, and ways of thinking about life can all either enhance or taint our view of the world, and our view (or lack thereof) of God. It has typically been my tendency in life to view God in the light of life’s experiences; thus, my view of Him has traditionally been tainted and wrong, for all intents and purposes. It’s common to feel the need to perform and earn the affections and respect of others, and many of us are ingrained with that mindset over the years of our lives.

I always told myself, even before becoming a Christian 5 years ago, that God did not make me to be mediocre, and I always pushed myself to perform well under all circumstances. It’s been a snare for me, because I never felt like I would ever be happy in life, that I would always be looking around the next corner for the bigger and better thing. I’ve had a life of adventure and relative success because of it, but also a life I didn’t enjoy much until recent years.

This never seemed to mesh well with the idea that Jesus’ yoke is easy and His burden is light. I thought all my hard work and efforts to “measure up” were what God wanted from me. I saw the Bible as a list of commands–a harsh, rigid manifesto of sorts from a God who was unrelenting and onerous–someone who wanted only my infinite admiration and perfection as the price of His love. But where does this leave room for Jesus? And where did I even get this idea of God?  I have my hunches, and now that I’m a Christian, I’m revisiting all the old opinions I trusted for so long.  Is the Christian life all about “measuring up?” Are Christian living principles the be-all and end-all of what we’re called to on this planet?  Is God a distant taskmaster, demanding obedience in exchange for love?  Is He quiet so often because He doesn’t care? Or worse, since He doesn’t often make Himself known in the way we would like, does He even exist?  I’ve had many of these questions myself and know of many others who’ve had the same. But, I’m learning a new way. A better way.

Maybe God is not to be seen through the lens of those who’ve been harsh with us. He is not the abusive or absentee parent. Love is not a weapon He uses to coerce. He displays no indifference, but only passion–passion for us. The word “passion” itself comes from a word that means “guts.” It is a visceral, physical reaction to something that stimulates you to the core of your being. That’s how He feels about us. It’s why He physically came to earth and died an horrific death to save us–compassion. Passion.  For us. For His children. For His dust-bunny creations.

I’m changing my filters these days. I grew up with one person in particular who contributed to a negative impact on my view of God, though my own perception was the true culprit.  I always thought God was like this person because that’s what I grew up with, what I expected all forms of life to contain. But after I became a Christian, God put certain new people in my path–people who have loved me without condition. They rarely express their love for me explicitly in a verbal way, but they make the reality of it known through their actions, which has been far more important for me. They always have an encouraging word for me, a hug, a term of endearment, a way of emphasizing the bond we share. They take interest in my life and invite me into theirs. They look out for me, guard me, cry for me, lift me up in prayer, rejoice with me in victories, share opportunities, think of me fondly, and talk with me just as well as they listen, learning and teaching in the process of friendly interaction.  Why do I base my experience of God on the people who’ve wounded me deeply, and not more like the people I’ve just mentioned? They are a far better representation of the character of God.

I’m not saying that our view of God should be based on others, because if we viewed Him exclusively in that light, He would be imperfect and fragile. We would have no hope resting in a god made in our own image. But humans learn via analogia, or by analogy. Our experiences of others have surely affected our view of God in some way (the reverse is certainly true as well). But this should not be an indecent thing. There are examples of goodness and godliness scattered broadcast throughout the world. God blessed me by bringing such people into my life. They are helping to change the faulty views of God I had previously possessed. It took a couple of years for me to realize it was happening. Love crept up on me slowly, deliciously, warmly, like the blue-orange glow of the horizon when the Sun is about to rise. Now it’s apparent. God is more like the good people you know than the bad. Don’t look to your bad experiences and relationships and base your relationship to God or view of God on that. It could very well be that you’re not seeing Him through the right filters. In reality, He’s beyond anything brilliant and beautiful that we can imagine, graciously giving us little images of Himself along the path to help light the way home. And in these little images, these little lights, we see reflections of His light, the most glorious star to ever exist.

Son…You are my favorite star.

The Communicable Nature of Love

Some people are perpetually thankful for the gifts and opportunities God has given them. Every once in a while I will hear one of them say something like, “Lord, why have You given me all this stuff and just showered me with all this great love and success?”  Francis Chan said something similar about the success of his book, “Crazy Love,” about how he just didn’t get why God has always shown him favor. In giving it some thought, I realize that God’s act of love to one person (like Francis Chan) can be an act of love for others (like me).  I read that book and got a ton out of it. I listen to Francis Chan’s messages and get so much from them. God loves Francis Chan. God loves me. And God uses Francis Chan to communicate a bit of that love to me and others like me. I feel that way about all I come into contact with. God has showered me with love, success, and opportunity. Maybe He’s showered you with the same. We can’t keep it to ourselves, because maybe we are supposed to share it with someone else, and be that expression of God’s love for them.  Someone once said, “You are the only Bible some people will ever read.”  Let people read you, and see that your message is love.

Suffering

A few years ago a group of 23 missionaries went to Korea and got abducted by the Taliban.  The last day they were all together as a group, one of the ladies still had a Bible with her and ripped it into 23 sections and passed it to each person so they could have some encouragement before they were separated to be killed.  They each released their life to Jesus one at a time.  “Whatever will bring You the most glory, whether it be my death or my life, I ask that of you. Kill me if it will bring more glory to You. Let me live if it will bring more glory to You.”  A couple of them were killed, but the others returned to their homes unharmed.  The odd thing was what the survivors had to say to each other after several weeks and months of being back.  They all would remark to each other, “Don’t you wish we were still there? Don’t you wish we were still imprisoned by the Taliban? We were in this pit and I remember being fearful but I remember being so close to God. I had this intimacy with Jesus and I’ve been reading the Bible and trying to get it back but it’s just not the same. It’s not the same!”

Maybe this is why the disciples and apostles of Jesus wished to be counted worthy to suffer for the Name.  They knew that communion with Christ meant sharing in His suffering, and I can tell you from personal experience that I feel furthest from Jesus when I’m at my most comfortable.

It’s been a bit of a weird year for me thus far. I graduated college in December and began my Master’s degree studies at Phoenix Seminary in January. In May, I moved into my first apartment and got a new job the week after that. The first week of June, I made my first trek to Europe with my mom and stayed there until the 16th of that month. From that point, I worked two jobs, working as many as 26 shifts in a row at one point. In August, my car died a rather painful death, so I got a new car at a smoking deal, an orange Kia Soul that has WAY more features than I could ever possibly think to want.  That same month I resumed grad school studies. Earlier this month I quit my old job and in a couple of weeks I will begin singing at my new(ish) church. There have been a lot of changes, and not all of them good. In June or so, Satan started attacking very heavily, most of it revolving around my old job (a job that was very dangerous to do), and a big loss I experienced in my family.  Satan attacked violently, and that is one of his favorite weapons to use against me. I can’t say what all took place, but I have never experienced spiritual warfare to the degree I experienced it this summer.

Satan doesn’t really get it, I think. If he had just left me alone with all the good things that had been happening, I might’ve ended up rather far from God. It’s incredible how good times can lead to simply wanting to maintain the status quo. But when the trials started, I ran to God, to family, and to a few trusted friends and mentors to surround me in prayer (I confess I should’ve gone to them sooner than I did; Pride will tell you that you can handle it on your own, but trust me, it won’t work). In the course of my life, I don’t think I’ve suffered much, but I notice that when the suffering comes, I run to God. In fact, it was during my greatest period of suffering that I became a Christian (this coming December 19th marks my 5th year in the family of God).

I understand logically why we don’t wish to suffer. It’s painful. It’s uncomfortable. It either forces us to grow or pushes us into a pit of bitterness. But spiritually, I see the value of it. It reminds me of Christ’s suffering on the cross. It reminds me that this world is not my home, that I can share a small part in the pains that Jesus endured, His humiliation and rejection. Paradoxically, it reminds me that there is hope, that suffering will not last forever, that rejection and humiliation are not the end of the story, that I can share a deeper relationship with Jesus through such things, and that He will give comfort through times of suffering.

Jesus has been described as the Comforter.  Why do we need a comforter if we’re already comfortable?

I think of Stephen. Right before he was stoned to death he saw Jesus.  Or Shadrach, Meschach, and Abed-nego, when they went into the furnace, and God was in there with them.  The examples are everywhere!  They all shared something in common: they counted everything as loss compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ as Lord. For His sake, they lost everything, and counted everything as crap just to gain Him and be found in Him, without righteousness of their own that came from the Law but having a righteousness that came only through faith in Christ.

It’s not about masochism. I love to enjoy myself and have fun. I spend lots of time with my friends and family. I love to hang out, chat, go to movies, go on road trips, and just let loose and pursue adventure, and I see God in those things, enjoying them right along with me.  It’s not about wanting suffering, it’s about wanting Jesus enough to bear up under the strain of life and all the fiery arrows Satan shoots in your direction. You’ve probably seen romance movies where a man and woman don’t get along very well until they’re thrust in the midst of some incredibly perilous situation, and then they fall in love.  It’s a bit of a bad analogy, but that’s sort of what it’s like. There is something about having a relationship with someone in the extreme lows of life that endears them to you in a way that could never be had by simply experiencing good with them all the time.  It is through suffering that we experience our deepest communion with God and others.  About 6 years ago my dad took off, and I remember exactly who was with me when I saw him for the last time. She is now one of my best friends. It’s not necessarily because she happened to be there, but we bonded very closely in that moment and that bond hasn’t broken. Jesus was there too, and that bond hasn’t broken either. It has been stretched and strained at times, but the more we go through (suffer through) together, the stronger that bond becomes, and lesser things flee away.

Get alone with Him. If you’re suffering, go through it with Him and let Jesus enter into it with you. He knows what it’s like, and then some. Take heart. Whatever it is you’re going through, you’re not alone. Even if there’s no one else, Jesus is right there with you, and a relationship with Him is worth everything.

Everything happens in threes, so it is said. When we arrived in Copenhagen that final morning, it was the third time we had been to Denmark in less than 2 weeks, and the end of a magnificent adventure.  We awakened easily enough and had a final coffee at the International Café.  Dear Gina, whom we had met on our first day, was there, and we said our goodbyes to her as we enjoyed our drinks.

We had been instructed to meet in the Wheelhouse Bar at 7:30 to wait for our bus to the airport.  It was not too long of a wait once we got there, but I sped around the ship a few more times, looking for people I knew and finding no one to say farewell to.  I was sad that I had missed Miguel and several others that I had wanted to see again.  I had seen Linda the night before and we said our goodbyes on a crowded elevator, tears streaming down her cheeks as she hugged me, saying an “I love you” before the doors closed.  Linda and my mom had grown especially close and both had cried when they said their farewells.  I was sad to also have missed Bohovina and Raj, our friends and companions in Germany.  Time had run very short, though, so I made my way back to the Wheelhouse Bar, and we were ushered off the ship one final time.  I looked at its massive hulk over my shoulder once more as we got on the bus, and we were shuttled to the airport.

In spite of the small amount of sleep we had gotten the night before, we were wide awake, thanks to the wonderful effects of coffee, the legal addictive stimulant that had helped to fuel us each day of our trip.  We stood in line to scan our passports and get our tickets at the airport, the lines thick and twisting in the stark-white, sterile expanse.

My mother and I were laughing together, thinking of all the fun.  We started quietly singing “Yesterday” by The Beatles and smiled at each other, recalling our British pub lunch from the day before, and how we had sung along to The Beatles at our lunch table.  We had come on the trip not knowing how we would get along together in such close proximity, but were pleasantly surprised to learn that sometime over the course of my progressive ascent into adulthood, we had become friends.  Mom and I had long been close but frictional in that closeness, much like polar opposing magnets.  We both have mile-long stubborn streaks and different interests, but love for one another.  We’ve been to Hell and back together, and this trip was our little taste of Heaven.  It brought us even closer, and I am happy to now have that memory to hold onto for the rest of my life.

There were a few people standing behind us as we talked, and one of them called out to me: “Hey! Are you that girl who sang last night?  You did great!”  I laughed and said thank you, and we chatted for a while, discovering that all of us were from Arizona.  We moved through the line and were directed to another line to check in our luggage.  I was recognized for singing by a few people in that line as well, and each time I laughed—nobody has ever recognized me in an airport before, and certainly not for singing. It was a pretty nifty feeling.

I had had my champagne that Mark had given me in my carry-on bag before realizing that it couldn’t be carried on the plane, so I did a quick shuffle of items in my bags, hoping and praying that the champagne bottle would survive in my checked luggage without breaking and drenching all of my clothes and souvenirs.  The guy behind the check-in counter was helpful in that and very friendly (I have yet to meet a Dane I didn’t like), and we made our way through the airport to find our terminal.

When we got into the main center of the airport, I was shocked at how much the Copenhagen Airport looks like a shopping mall.  Stores were everywhere, selling everything from clothes and accessories to electronics, alcohol, cosmetics, and groceries.  Mom and I sat and had something to drink while we waited, trying to work ourselves up to finally going through the airport security line.  It wasn’t too long before we had finally mustered ourselves into it.

We got in a long line for security and on our way, we ran into Raj and Bohovina!  We were all so pleased to have caught each other and exchanged hugs.  We had seen each other on the ship a few times after we had spent the day together in Germany, and they had come to watch me perform at the karaoke finale.  They paid me a compliment about it and said how glad they were to have met us.  We didn’t have long to say our goodbyes, as the line was moving rather rapidly, so we said goodbye rather wistfully and then departed.

I suppose I must’ve left my sunglasses on my head or something, because an alarm went off when I walked through the metal detector.  I was signaled over to get a pat down by a friendly if somewhat intrusive security agent. I hadn’t been to an airport since the new TSA regulations had taken effect, and had been dreading getting the TSA royal rubdown.  It wasn’t quite as bad as I had feared.  I was ushered through without a hitch and we went to our gate.

As soon as we arrived at the gate, we were informed that our gate had changed, and was now on the opposite side of the airport.  So, we walked to the new gate.  When we got there, we were informed that our gate had been changed again and was on the opposite side of the airport.  Tiring of what was turning out to be a goose chase, we sat in the center hub, equidistant from all gates.  Eventually, we wandered over to the proper gate, where our passports were scanned.  I was selected at random for yet another pat down by security, this time in a private back room next to the terminal. The agent was very friendly; I was slightly nervous.  Again, they found no bombs or illegal weaponry and let me pass.

I’ve been trying to learn Danish for some time, so I grabbed a Danish newspaper from the newsstand and read it while listening to my iPod’s Dansk playlist in the crowded terminal.  We were finally called to board and discovered to our happy surprise that we had been upgraded to Economy Extra, and had 2 seats together.

Our last flight on Scandinavian Airlines had been like a little trip to my own personal circle of Hell. Sure, it promised amazing things to come on the other side, but the process of a transatlantic flight can be slightly traumatic.  Picture it: No matter where you sit or happen to be going, there will be at least one horribly smelly person on your flight.  The engines drone on and on without variance, almost making one yearn for turbulence just to break the monotony, the gruesome sense of being in suspended animation.  Eight seats are stacked across three rows. Everyone stares straight ahead, bodies contorted into unnatural positions, legs suspended at the same angle for countless hours, feet ballooning like twin Hindenburgs, positively yearning for the cart of overpriced drinks and mushy food that would make prison inmates riot to come your way, for scorched coffee and another inevitably boring movie starring some insipid Hollywood celebrity, thinking that one more minute of the mental hospital-like environment would prompt you to happily open the emergency door and get sucked into thin, hazy air.

I am, of course, exaggerating terribly.  Long flights aren’t terribly fun, but the destination is what propels you to keep taking such flights.  Before the plane takes off, I spend my time people-watching.  They wind slowly through the center aisle, some looking for their seat, others looking for free space to stow their bags in overhead bins, each carry-on telling a story of a long time away from home.  I wonder about those stories, if any of those people have had a great adventure or are coming home from a great heartbreak.  Airports can be places to cry, places to hide, or places to discover; everyone looks for something to find, and airports can help people find plenty in this world.  I wonder what these lined-up, thoughtful looking people in the aisle have found.

Our seats were excellent on the flight.  I enjoyed being at the window seat and looked out longingly at Copenhagen.  As we took off, we flew over the coast, and I caught my last sight of the Emerald Princess, looking stately as it waited for its newest set of passengers to dazzle, and I missed it thoroughly.  We passed over Oslo as the movies began (everyone had their own personal TV screen and a great selection of movies, music, even video games to choose from, and you could also watch the flight path and the world below, if you so desired), and I silently said my goodbyes to my homeland.  Soon we were over the Shetland Islands of Scotland, enjoying a glass of wine at 35,000 feet.  Not long after that, we were over Greenland, taking pictures of glaciers as they covered mountains, meeting an icy Atlantic at the coast, the thermometer telling us that below, it was -75 degrees outside.

I listened to Billie Holiday’s melancholy “I Must Have That Man” as we passed over Nova Scotia, thoughtful over how quickly the return flight seemed compared to the flight over.  Soon we were over Boston, preparing for our descent.

I hadn’t been to New York in 11 years, and I took pictures from the plane as we descended over the iconic skyline.  We exited what was perhaps the best flight I had ever been on, and wound through customs in New York.  The passport line was incredibly long, and in the line, someone waved over to me and asked if I was the girl who had sung on the ship the night before.  I couldn’t believe I was still getting recognition for that, and we had a nice chat as we waited.

Our flight wasn’t scheduled to leave for several hours, so we sat outside the airport for a while, parked under a Sun that felt foreign on our skin, listening to a type of urban percussion I had not heard for years.  It was a sound that felt comfortable and welcome, like a visit from an old friend, though it was only the sound of honking horns, shouting accents indigenous to Jersey and Brooklyn, and the restless hum of humanity bustling through the streets, busy with Heaven knows what.

We went to the terminal for Continental and were directed to hop a shuttle to the terminal on the other side of the airport, to the United counter.  We went back and forth a couple of times, trying to figure out where our plane was.  Eventually, we found it and made our way through security.  No TSA groping this time.

We split a sandwich and I had a Green Machine smoothie to perk me up a bit before another long flight.  We sat next to a couple in the terminal who were also on the Emerald Princess and from Arizona, and chatted with them for a while, as they had also recognized me from singing the night before.

When we boarded the plane, we were told that the only in-flight entertainment being offered was DirecTV, and we had to pay for it.  So instead of indulging, we napped from New York to Arizona, waking up shortly before we descended over the nighttime desert, the few twinkling clusters of light on the ground that were visible looking like cruise ships on dark waters.  Depressing.

We landed in Arizona and stepped off the plane into a demoralizing and ungodly heat.  One step, and I felt my blood start to evaporate in the 100+ degree temperatures (and it was 10PM).  I was thoroughly sick.  We called the number for the shuttle to pick us up as we grabbed our luggage (the champagne from Mark had happily made it intact) and went to the curb to wait for pickup.  We didn’t have to wait for long in the heat, thankfully, and we were transported to our car.

In spite of the sleep we had had, we were both exceedingly tired as Mom drove down Grand Avenue to get home.  Along the way, we got pulled over by a cop and my mom got a speeding ticket with a hefty fine.  We got to her house and I pulled my car out of her garage, marveling at the now-foreign feeling of driving.  As she pulled in, I noticed that she had two flat tires.  And, as soon as she parked, her car battery died.

Welcome home.

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