starry night: when we find ourselves in unexpected territory

Not sure if it’s denial or just complete rebellion, but we broke out a 1000-piece puzzle to work on for Christmas, even though we’re moving in a few weeks.

And, friends, this is not your normal puzzle. No, no, this is Van Gogh’s Starry Night, a thousand pieces of beautiful insanity requiring a magnifying glass, good lighting, and (probably) an inordinate amount of sheer stubbornness.

So, I’m in.

starry night: when we find ourselves in unexpected territory

Up close, Starry Night has trillions of faint lines that look like bones – a tibia here, a broken fibula there – and the subtlest shades of color make the light seem to fall against blue-black darkness. It has scratchy marks you’d never notice until looking intently at a magnified thousandth of it. None of the pieces give any indication what the big picture looks like.

We’re making slow progress on it while procrastinating through more responsible moving and house-selling duties. The last time we worked on puzzles was when I was pregnant with Finnegan, and I could justify slowness and rest with the contractions of early labor and all the other discomfort of late pregnancy. And in a way, we’re right here again – we’ve been pregnant for months, bursting at the seams in this house we’re overflowing out of, and restless for this new season, new structure, new routines.

We’ve been in labor for this move for a long time. Years.

We thought we wouldn’t be here this year. Actually, two years ago we thought we were spending our last Christmas here, and last year we were absolutely certain we would be living somewhere else by now.

But we’re still here. It’s a “finally suddenly” feeling; it seems too fast after all the slow waiting, and I want to hold on to certain pieces while flinging others into oblivion. It all melds together though. Just like days, years, memories, brushstrokes – they refuse to sort cleanly; they bleed into each other.

We are hip-deep in selling the house – repairs, paperwork, phone calls, oh my – and since it’s December, we’re also up to our ears in gatherings and festivities. Texts about scheduling and signatures come in rapid fire, and my phone sounds like it’s dinging “Carol of the Bells” on just one note.

We strive for margin, and in our striving sometimes we lose more white space. We imagine life to look a certain way, and it violently veers an entirely different direction.

I need to stop for a minute, slow down, and put a few of these pieces together; get some perspective.

I turned 41 last week.

(This is a good time to mention that last summer, Chamberlain asked what scallops were – lines, not shellfish – and I told her they were sort of like waves, and pointed to a nearby wooden crate with scalloped edges as an example. “Oh, like those?” she asked. “Those are scallops?” She was pointing to the wrinkles on my forehead.)

I’m 41 now, and we’re moving, and none of this looks the way I thought it would. We have a back-up plan to rent from a generous friend, but we haven’t found the right house to purchase, we don’t know exactly where we’re going, and we’re not really sure what we’re doing.

I’m not really sure what God’s doing with us.

But I’ve been looking way too closely at one or two pieces of this, and they are only thousandths of the picture. I know He sees the whole picture. I know He has a thousand reasons for having us where we are. But not knowing what those reasons are, or where He is sending us, or what He is doing, is hard.

I told a friend that this not knowing is doing many of the same things to me that fasting does – it brings up the dross, the hard questions, and tests my willingness to receive hard answers.

It also tests my ability to trust Him for good answers.

He and I have been talking about it a lot (a lot) lately. I’ve asked Him over and over, and He keeps saying, It’s a surprise, Love.

I’ve mouthed off something about not liking surprises and He hasn’t stricken me down. I’m the one who finds presents early, shakes them and squeezes them, and hides them in new places just to be a stinker.

Sheer stubbornness. See, told you.

But the season feels off, unfamiliar – it’s not the way it’s supposed to be. It’s not what we envisioned. We don’t picture the cramped house, people overflowing out of bedrooms, the special needs that interrupt daily interaction and normal activities, and children losing years to poor choices and mental illness. I talked to a woman recently who is also struggling through this season, wanting life to be the way it is supposed to be, instead of revolving around her husband’s addiction.

It’s not the way it’s supposed to be, because we never envision the angry, distant family member, or the job loss, or the person who’s always been there but suddenly isn’t because death took them too early.

None of it is what we expected, dreamed of, or asked for.

He meets us in the mess we are in, whether the mess is from our own choices, or the choices of someone else, or because He has a surprise in store to teach us that we’re not in control.

He’s telling me that when you find yourself where you never thought you’d be, He’s positioning you for something you never could have planned.

On that starry night, Mary probably never imagined her first experience of childbirth and motherhood would occur in unfamiliarity, in a barn, in the dirt.

Maybe Jesus was born where He was because we needed to know it is okay for things to not look the way they’re supposed to. Maybe it was so we’d know we have a King who doesn’t fit the mold. Maybe it was a thousand different reasons.

Maybe one of the reasons is to show us that our expectations and plans fall short. Maybe we would settle for mediocrity when we were made for more.

…. The rest of his days he spent…wondering and pondering why he had not found a way to the East. He blamed the unknown continent that barred his way. It never occurred to him to be grateful that the unknown American continent had been in his way. Otherwise he and his men would have starved to death on the endless way to Asia.

For the world was three times as wide around as Columbus had believed.

– Ingri and Edgar D’Aulaire,  Columbus

Maybe we dream too small, too stubborn.

Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

– Ephesians 3:20-21, ESV

Saul the Pharisee never dreamed of becoming Paul the Evangelist. Peter, as a young fisherman, never imagined growing up to be the Rock the church would be built on. Columbus never planned on discovering America. John Adams, Abraham Lincoln – neither of them had any idea as children that they would be presidents who would direct and define our nation’s history.

And until the angel told her, Mary never imagined being the mother of the Messiah.

But when her plans were changed she gave the sacrifice of praise. Mary sang her magnificat though she never imagined being pregnant and unwed, shunned and suspected by society for the rest of her life. When she was engaged to Joseph, she didn’t think her wedding would be compromised by pregnancy and scandal.

All through history, none of the great figures and heroes had any idea what the big picture of their life would look like. They only saw a thousandth of it at a time, like you and me.

Except for Jesus. He was the only one who knew what He was getting into – way beyond inconvenience and into the depths of messy humanity. That’s where He chose to meet us.

And He is still meeting us here, right now, wherever we go.

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the second day: when we don’t know what’s ahead

We walked the woods and I wandered to the spot where we buried someone precious a few years ago.

the second day

The piece of bark was just laying there, right over the grave. This skin torn off of a living thing, leaving it exposed, vulnerable, and in pain.

Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.

I think often about this “second day” space: this time between heartbreak and victory, between the bloody cross and the empty grave, when we don’t know what’s ahead.

We hoped for something huge and desperately longed-for, but it was thrown in our face and spat on. We didn’t know what was coming.

We tried to build a fire for warmth and light, but we’re still freezing, the smoke is getting in our eyes and we can’t see anything else.

We thought those contractions meant we were close to delivery, but found out we were only dilated to one and a half centimeters.

When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world.

The Kingdom is on the cusp of something amazing and huge. He is waking up His people in a way we haven’t seen in our generation, and maybe in a way He hasn’t done in many generations. This is a great time to be His people, but we have to endure the hard work of waiting.

We walk a tense line between faith and not moving ahead of God to push fruit, forcing something to work on our own. We don’t want to miss His move of certainty by stepping without Him, tired of waiting for the prophets and giving the sacrifice on our own. We don’t want to build the golden calf in our impatience for God’s answer, as the Israelites did when they squandered their loot from Egypt in making a work of their own hands to worship.

For weeks now, God has been reminding me that He restores, redeems, and refines us in our encounters with Him. And we often encounter Him in our need, in the quiet, dark place of the second day where we hurt and have no answers and are brought face to face with our need for His light, His answers, and His comfort.

In this second day space He is putting things back together for His people, as though He was working in the dark soil of our very foundation and identity, and making things right in ways they have never been before.

So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.

– John 16:20-22, ESV

The second day is a day of smoldering ashes. Our woodstove is the grave of that tree. We lay on more kindling and push things around a little closer to the coals.

We shut the door. We watch.

The smoke starts spinning in there, the coals start glowing and flickering. It’s only a matter of time before you hear it – the deep whoof, the sound of ebullition — all is bright and burning.

It is the second day. We’ve been waiting for a long time and the momentum is increasing, and God is about to ignite something ferocious, contagious, and powerful for the Kingdom.

“Does bark always come off in the shape of a heart?” Cham asked.

No, I told her. Only God does that.

praying shelter: how we bring safety to our streets

You can’t possibly have missed it, the news is everywhere. Facebook is alight with grief and opinions, the talk shows are full of hype and outrage, and the celebrity news anchors are still speechless but that hasn’t stopped them from sharing clichés and propaganda.

praying shelter: how we bring safety to our streets

And none of this is about race or racism. It’s a problem, but it’s not the root issue: there’s always a Thing behind the thing. And that is what needs to be dealt with, or the other thing will just keep happening.

The Thing behind the thing is multifaceted. We could call it evil, but that’s also cliché – what we have is a culture of fear and pride, people insecure in their identities and their mission. And as a result they are unsafe.

Unsafe. As in, they might not be safe, but also, they might not be safe to others, either. People who have forgotten they are the Beloved are afraid, and afraid people do stupid things.

The enemy seeks to kill, steal, and destroy and his primary weapon is fear. But his other weapon is distraction.

The enemy attacks, distracts, tries to keep us from praying on the offense against his schemes – and sometimes it works. But if we are alert and aware of it, we can use it to divert our focus to something more powerful, like going from simply praying against an attack to praying for the hearts and repentance of the attackers.

We stop hacking at the branches and start attacking the root, because two can play that game and God’s already declared us the winners. We can do more than thwart enemy plans. We can also cause his players to defect to our side.

We can let people know they are safe. We can let them know they are loved. We can remind them they are the Beloved.

I don’t mean this in the vapid, politically-correct kind of way that throws around the word “love” like it’s the latest trendy hashtag and we can’t disagree on anything without calling it hate. We can and should disagree. We can and should hold firm to our deepest beliefs even if it offends people. And we should be safe to do so. We should be loved and loving whether we agree or not.

This is not rocket science. This is maturity.

We can’t make everyone feel safe and loved. But we can pray against fear, pride and insecurity. We can pray for people to have mature identities instead of just impassioned knee-jerk ignorance.

We can pray safety into our streets like there’s no tomorrow. Because for some tonight, there’s no tomorrow.

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We can pray deep and wide: deeply and often for our neighborhoods and our families, and wide and scattered over the intersections and businesses of our cities. In His authority we can cover these places with safety.

We can pray for government buildings, sidewalks, and bus stops. We can pray security into people as we pray over their homes, their workplaces, their driving routes.

Because all of these lives matter. Yours and mine and theirs.

We can pray shelter over each other, flinging it wide, everywhere we go.

in pieces: why we need to remember we are the Beloved

It happened when a six-year-old was crawling on the kitchen counter to get a cup out of the cabinet. She slipped and dropped the cup, which landed on several other dishes next to the sink, including Vince’s favorite mug…the handle of which immediately broke into three pieces. Did I mention it was handmade pottery?

in pieces: why we need to remember we are the Beloved

She knew it was her fault – an accident, a sad loss, but not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things. But when it came to apologizing, something flipped.

“I didn’t break it!” she insisted. Technically, this was (sort of) true…the cup she dropped is what did the breaking. And yet she was the one who dropped it.

We went round and round with the logic of this, but the real battle wasn’t logic. The real battle was two-fold, part of which was admitting the truth — because if we admit the truth we must also admit responsibility for our part in it. The other part was fear clouding her identity, and she forgot that she is more valuable to us than a broken dish.

Sometimes we need to be reminded that we’re the Beloved so we can be secure enough to face the truth.

It’s imperative that we teach this to our kids. If we don’t, we’ll end up raising a generation of middle-aged juveniles who would rather be willfully out of touch with reality than admit their own mistakes. And we really don’t need any more of those.

Avoiding truth and responsibility are both rooted in fear, and given enough time they distill into narcissism. We think of narcissism as something that values self over others to an extreme measure, but the truth is that it’s the essence of insecurity.

And our culture is full of it. We diminish our own value out of insecurity, and then entirely eliminate the value of others in self-defense. Like a bully who picks on the weak to hide his own fear, the nation that justifies slaughter and harvesting of body parts for scientific advancement is a nation steeped in its own self-loathing.

We don’t need to look to ISIS for atrocity. We have evidence of the most barbaric acts on video, in our country, against our most vulnerable, for profit. It has occurred without the influence or design of any religion. It does, however, have the backing of an inflated government and a culture drunk on its own narcissism and insecurity.

It’s not that these videos show how wrong abortion is – abortion is wrong whether it is done for profit or not, whether it happens in the third trimester or not, whether the baby is wanted or not. What these videos reveal is how debased we are as a culture that it takes something this barbaric to wake us up to the evil of it.

If we deny what is so clearly shown here, we are willfully out of touch with reality – because if we admit the truth, we must also admit that we are responsible.

Our culture is responsible. Our silence is responsible. Our turning away, not wanting to be made uncomfortable, is responsible.

And I want to say, I’m sorry. We have dropped it, we have caused breaking, we have allowed a culture to grow up around us that divides the unborn into pieces for profit, and doesn’t even care if the heart is still beating or not.

I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

While no life is perfect, every life is beautiful and has purpose beyond being relegated to a bunch of line items for Planned Parenthood.

Sometimes we need to be reminded that we are the Beloved. You, reading this. Me, typing this.

This one, with this face.

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photo source

He was only six months younger than this one, with this face.

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We see a culture rising up out of this that knows what it is to take responsibility. We see generations who are willing to look reality in the face and say No more of this, not on our watch. We see families and churches stepping in to do more than say they are pro-life but are also showing that they are pro-child – adopting, fostering, providing, and praying. We have a culture that is moving from the relative comfort of shaking their heads in disgust over headlines to stepping into the front lines to stand up for children, born and unborn.

When we know we are the Beloved, we’re not afraid of the truth. Insecurity is no match for people who know they are image-bearers. And those who recognize their own value are those who also value the lives of others – not as a commodity for personal gain, but a person with inherent value — because they are also the Beloved.

not overcome

We’re usually pretty good about using up leftovers and not having science experiments in our fridge, but twice now we’ve accidentally fermented pineapple.

It’s okay, though. We’ve been learning a little about probiotics over the past few years, and after some cautious investigation we discovered that it is not only edible, but full of beneficial microorganisms. Usually a bit more planning is involved to turn various foods into healthy fermented goodness, but apparently you can also do it by completely avoiding the kitchen during seven weeks of morning sickness.

not overcome: choosing to rise when conditions are rotten

One afternoon while I’m doing some research, Cham brings me a book and asks me to read to her. She wants Fancy Nancy – and well, it could be worse. (Amelia Bedelia, I’m looking at you.) But still, I’m in the middle of something.

“Oh…do you really want to read that?” I ask. “Don’t you want to learn about water kefir instead?”

“No.” As in, No way, you weird loony.

And I give in, consoling myself by giving every hoity-toity character a voice like Effie Trinket. May the odds be evah in your favah.

Last week was a vacation, of sorts — more of a staycation meant to be a “workation” to get some projects finished — some studying, some writing, some time together, some catching up. It started well, and was going well, until the middle of the week. And without meaning to, the week turned into something else with a phone call.

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

– James 1:2-4

That brave lady I’ve mentioned before – the one who taught me to fold fitted sheets, make soup, and see in the dark — had taken an early morning trip to the ER, and by the time I got there, things weren’t looking good and a medivac team was on the way to fly her to Anchorage. My dad met me in the lobby and whisked me to her room.

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.

– James 1:12

She was unconscious, tubes and lines everywhere. The nurse filled me in and said her heart had stopped for four minutes that morning, and they did CPR and brought her back — and when I heard that, my heart stopped a little, too. I stayed with her till the medivac team came. She was freezing; I kept my hand on her forehead and prayed. I kept asking the medics if I needed to leave, if I was in their way, and they said No, you’re just fine, and worked around me, priming lines, switching out bags of fluids and medications, and passing instructions to each other. And I whispered in English and prayed in tongues over my Baptist grandma for thirty minutes or more until they were ready to put her on the other stretcher and wheel her outside.

I was in the parking lot, on the phone with Vince, when the helicopter lifted off. I watched her fly.

Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.

– James 1:16-18

We spent several days on alert, on the phone, on edge, on our knees. That first day I was fine and faithful, but the second day I turned somehow and was in tears constantly. I plowed through typing up the kids’ curriculum for the new term, and realized I was crying. I finished submitting Upside Down for paperback, remembered Grandma, and cried again. I did the dishes, wiping my eyes with the same towel and I didn’t even care. The whole day alternated between tears and productivity. Repeat. Repeat.

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Know Jesus, know peace – and even still, that peace has to be fought hard for when we confront loss, and not everyone is equipped the same way to handle it. For some, it looks like control or anger, in the same way insecurity often looks like pride or narcissism. For others, fighting fear looks like grief, on edge.

A mother watches a son fall further into depravity and she grieves and prays. A woman faces betrayal, fear, and upheaval, and a community prays for a family’s future and safety. A city walks on edge, unnerved over terrorist threats and lost lives. We face sin that has fermented into awful, putrid heartbreak in a million directions.

A Baptist uncle speaks of trusting in God’s will and sovereignty, and his charismatic niece speaks of trusting in God’s goodness and truth. And really, we’re talking about the same things.

We sit and wait, wanting answers in the midst of emergency, and we either ferment into faith or fear. Our choice determines what will we be when life takes an unexpected turn — enduring or decaying, rising or rotten. Something healthy, or something sickening.

Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.

– James 1:19-20

Seven days after her heart stopped, she woke up and did a little physical therapy. The next day, my husband sat with her in her room and made her laugh. She told him how much she misses her cat, he charmed her socks off, and they prayed together.

Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.

– James 5:11

You are so very blessed.

The best way to see in the dark is not to keep stumbling on, but to reflect the One who created light with a Word.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

– John 1:5

And we are still praying, and so grateful for healing and progress that amazes doctors and glorifies God. This woman in her eighties who finally retired last summer, who raised five boys and then put in more than her fair share of time with me — this is the lady they tried to keep sedated but, well, she kept waking up because you can’t keep a good woman down, and the odds are always in our favor.