The Lives of Dry Bones (An Announcement)

“… unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”

John 12:24

***

It is the dream-come-true moment that lodges itself in our memories.

The day the baby was born. Or the day you wore the cap and gown. Or the day you moved in.

It isn’t that you’ve forgotten. It is only that time does heal and dreams-come-true are complicated. They ask so much of you. When you are changing diapers in the night or ripping out weeds for a new garden you do not have much energy to spare for looking back.

Which may be why I have written so much about dreams-come-true and so little of letting them die.

Because no dream lives that has not yet died.

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Some call this surrender. They describe it as letting go. Giving back to God. Release.

I prefer to call it planting.

First there is the dream. It seems to have come at once from somewhere deep within and somewhere so far beyond yourself that the only explanation is divine. God has whispered, and your eyes are now open.

That is the seed.

Then comes the next day. Which turns out to be not all that different from the day before. The dream appeared to be so real, so startling and immediate, but life seems not to have noticed. Life is much the same as ever.

We each have our own way of living these days. Some of us wrestle and rage. We cry and we grip and we will not let go until, utterly spent, we drop the seed and we bury it.

Others of us begin to doubt almost immediately. I can live without this, we say. Maybe it was never meant to be, we tell ourselves.

This is how dreams die. How they are buried in dark dirt.

This is how we live with dry bones.

***

Waking up is difficult. Resurrection, even of the figurative sort, can be painful.

T.S. Eliot warned us:

April is the cruelest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

It is painful to dream again. To risk a broken heart. To walk through a valley of dry bones and say I believe.

But, oh friends, I am convinced. It is the only way to live.

***

I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them. … Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.

On Monday, an envelope stuffed with papers arrived in my mailbox. I knew it was coming, but I still caught my breath when I saw it there.

It sat on the kitchen table while we gathered groceries and medications and swimsuits. School begins on Monday, but we were squeezing in one small family vacation before calling summer quits.

Late at night, with our bags packed and our kids in their beds, I read the papers. I signed the papers. There was no time to visit the post office, so I packed the papers with everything else the next morning.

We drove north toward Ithaca, New York. The Finger Lakes, they call them. It’s a storybook landscape of mountains and water and red Dutch-style barns. The kind of landscape I found only in books when I was a child growing up in Texas.

Just the right landscape for a dream-come-true.

Now that I’ve left those papers at a post office in Ithaca I can tell you this:

Dry bones do live and this autumn and winter I’ll be writing a book.

I’ll be writing a book for Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group.

This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. … Then you will know that I am the Lord.

And I pray, Let it be to me according to your word.

Let it be, let it be, let it be.

***

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***

Depression and the Gift of Grief

The world is loud and terrible this summer. It is as if the entire planet has tilted on its axis and dipped us all in nightmare.

The grass outside my bedroom window is dotted with yellow maple leaves. I don’t know if this is because summer is already ending or because the largest and oldest of the maple trees is dying. Perhaps it is both.

Land and growing things are broken, nations are broken, bodies and minds are broken. And we respond by shouting at one another.

 

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I indulge in shouting some days, but, mostly, I respond by retreating into silence.

When my children explode over cracked Legos and the last popsicle, I struggle to stay with them in the noise. I want only to slip away, to climb the steps to my bedroom, to sit in the curve of the bow window noticing yellow leaves on the lawn outside.

The world grows louder, and I grow quieter. Sometimes, this feels like wisdom, but I know it is also weakness.

It requires strength to share our stories. To risk being misunderstood.

It requires faith to tell small stories. To believe that what seems to be inadequate is of value.

When my fourth child was born, my body struggled to make milk for her. The hormonal peaks and valleys of that process seemed to switch a lever in my brain.

I became depressed.

I had so many reasons to be happy, but depression sucked all emotion from my mind and filled the emptiness with anxiety. I can remember sitting in my comfortable, soft rocking chair, holding my baby, and trying to remember why I had once cared about babies or repairing old farmhouses or ordering seeds for the spring garden or anything at all. I could no longer remember why it mattered if any of us ever got out of bed.

When I stopped trying to nurse my baby, and the last of my milk dried up, the depression lifted. A severe mercy.

It meant that I knew happiness again.

It meant that I knew sadness again.

Healing looked like a renewed capacity for both joy and sorrow.

This morning I read these words from Psalm 105:

Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name;

make known among the nations what he has done.

Sing to him, sing praise to him;

tell of all his wonderful acts.

And I remembered what had happened to me after my daughter’s birth and knew that I did have a song of praise.

Thank you, Lord. Thank you for healing me enough to grieve.

 

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Lent: A Love Story

I thought there was only one way to tell the story. I was sure there was only one way to begin.

The beginning was the black page in my own little copy of the wordless book. The beginning was the black bead on the bracelet I made in Vacation Bible School. The beginning was the first bullet point in every gospel tract I’d ever seen. The beginning was that first brick on the Romans Road to Salvation: we all have sinned.

Sin, separation, estrangement: this is how the story always began.

***

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***

I thought I knew the story. I thought I had it right.

It began with a great debt. I owed this Christ everything. This is the story I was taught, and this is the story I believed.

This is the story that has shaped my whole life. And this is the story I still believe.

But I spent years crawling my way back to the beginning of the story. And ten years ago, I arrived. Desperate with pain and unmet desire, I let go of that black page. I let go of the blood-red, and I let go of the white.

I’d spent my whole life clinging to my own cleanness, my own goodness, trying to pay back the debt I owed, but it no longer mattered. The only things that mattered were these: was I known? Was I loved?

***

When belief unraveled, when it no longer seemed to matter if I was good, I heard this: I see you.

God didn’t care if I was good. And he didn’t care if I believed. But he cared that I was hurting.

Because he loved me like I love my babies. And he held me like I hold my babies.

He held me until I could say, like Job, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.”

***

It is Lent, and I am thinking about sin. I am thinking about the Love I encountered ten years ago.

My prayer these weeks has been the same every day. It is brief and simple: search me, O God, and know my heart. The result has been surprisingly straightforward. It has felt like God placing a mirror right in front of my face.

I can’t help but see what the mirror reflects, and I cringe. I see something ugly, something so buried I would never have discovered it on my own, and I feel the expected shame. I’d like, just for a moment, to forget what I’ve seen. But then another thought occurs to me: it takes such love to hold up that mirror. Thank you, God, I whisper. Thank you for loving me enough to show me this.

It’s as if God is the friend who won’t let me leave the house with spinach stuck between my teeth or toilet paper clinging to my shoe. What a relief it is to have a friend like that.

***

And so, I have finally arrived at the black page. The black bead. The first brick. But I am not afraid. I am not ashamed. At least, not for long. Because I know what comes next. I know about the blood-red, and I know about the white.

And this story?

It is a love story.

***

Because We Have Not Yet Arrived at the End

“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

–          James Joyce, “The Dead”

***

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***

I want to write spring stories. I want to write glorious endings.

And why not? I am the storyteller. I am the one tap, tapping at this keyboard.

I know that others in this world are observing spring’s first blooms and taking walks on balmy nights. My snow-covered world is not the world in which everyone is living. I am winter-weary, and I want to move on to other themes.

But I have ceded control over my own stories. I have made a promise (to myself? To God?) to write stories rooted in my own particular place and this particular time.

And this place is snow-covered.

And Easter is still a long way off.

***

On Saturday I walked the halls of a large art museum. I listened to echoes. I stared into the deep brown eyes of a woman who died in Egypt thousands of years ago. Her funeral portrait is lifelike. It hangs at eye level. She looked about my age. We might have been neighbors, I thought.

After that, each work of art seemed connected to some soul. The silversmith who worked the bracelet. The painter who held the brush. The model who sat for hours. The dancers portrayed in silk. The anonymous ones who wove the tapestry.

Each room revealed more of the vastness of our world. So many people live on planet earth today, I cannot even conceive of them all. But add in every life in every place and each time for all of history? My small mind struggles to believe there is a God who has known and loved each one.

***

The end of the story is always the best part. It is the place where the messiness of the middle is resolved. The point where pain is redeemed and suffering fades into something beautiful. It is the place where I want to pitch my tent.

But I do not think we are always given that choice.

I keep seeing one particular crucifix. I encountered it in one of the museum’s rooms of medieval art. It was carved out of wood and out of anguish. The Christ figure was elongated and emaciated. Reaching tendrils of warm wooden hair seemed to say that this is pain without end.

This is suffering unfinished.

I drove long miles between the art museum and my house, and I thought about the crucifix. The carving was small enough to hold with one hand, but I wanted it to be bigger. I felt the heaviness of all those lives, like shades in every corner of the galleries. I wanted Christ crucified to be big enough to heal every soul for all time.

And I wanted it finished.

As I drove, snow began to tumble through the air. I could see it churning in the light of streetlamps and headlights. As it dusted rooftops and cornfields, I could feel winter settling back in for a longer stay.

***

We privilege endings, but we live in the middle.

This place is snow-covered.

And Easter is still a long way off.

 

Advent (Day 4): O These Many Holy Nights

“… the weary world rejoices …”

We are baking together, the little boy and I, but I am also listening to the radio.

It is 75 years since the kindertransport brought German Jewish refugee children to England. An elderly man is speaking. He was only seven when he boarded that train. Only seven when his mother and father made a promise they would not be able to keep. They promised they would join him.

He still has the small hairbrush his mother tucked into his case.

I am listening to the refined voice of this now elderly man, but I am seeing the face of my own seven-year-old son. I do not think I can bear it.

What are Christmas candies and frosted cookies to a world with so much pain?

 

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“Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices! ”

Some of the old maple trees that gave this home its name are waving pink, plastic ribbons. They are marked for removal. This week the tree man will come with heavy machinery and sharp blades, and we will say goodbye.

I will find it easy to say goodbye to the headless trunk covered in poison ivy vines. I will not find it so easy to witness the fall of the other tree. This tree is crowned with green leaves in summer, yellow leaves in fall, but it is hollow. Standing in front of it, I can see blue sky through a hole that is shaped just like a child’s drawing of a heart.

I feel a kinship with this tree. I know this is what love does. It rips you right open.

We are discussing Christmas gift ideas when my friend suddenly confesses that she can’t stop imagining the loss of her two-year-old daughter, her much-loved only daughter. I tell her I understand. This pain is love’s shadow.

It sends us to our knees.

I am blessed with four children. Which means I have been on my knees for a very long time. It isn’t such a bad place. There are angel voices here.

 

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“Behold your King! Before Him lowly bend!”

The shrieking radio, that bearer of bad news, is on again, and my daughter says, “More war? Why is there always more war?”

She places her frosted angel back on the table. I lay my own sugared bell beside it.

I think about that interview. How the little boy grew up. How he visited a Holocaust museum in Israel. There, on the wall, he found a photograph of prisoners in a concentration camp. Among those gaunt, wounded faces he discovered the face of his own father. A man he had not seen since that day when promises were made.

It occurs to me only now that my Father is also among the wounded. I can’t seem to articulate to my daughter why it matters. Why it makes such a difference.

I only know that it does.

Ours is a world of violence and loss. It is also a world of small hairbrushes packed with love. A world of Christmas cookies baked with love.

A world being healed by the wounds of a king.

 

“And in his name all oppression shall cease.”

 

These Farmhouse Bookshelves

Ours is a house full of invalids. Which means this week little has been written but much has been read.

Really, the hardest part of a cold for me may be the burning, tired eyes. I should probably just close them, but I don’t want to waste all of this lying-abed time with actual resting. Reading, that’s where it’s at.

Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live. – Gustave Flaubert

 

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A friend recently gave me a copy of the new memoir by Kimberlee Conway Ireton: Cracking Up: A Postpartum Faith Crisis. I gobbled it up. Though, I should tell you, this is a book worth taking slow. In fact, the short chapters and brief, fragmentary interludes ask for it (but I was being greedy).

This is a simple story, simply told. I don’t mean that it’s simplistic. Rather, it is beautifully spare. Sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking.

Ireton hangs the story of the faith crisis she endured after the birth of twins on the scaffolding of the liturgical church calendar. The result is an exploration of one soul’s dark night that is both unique and universal.

This is the big story of Christ written very small. And that is something worth praising and worth seeking out. Advent, Lent, Easter … those are big stories, and we can become too much accustomed to their familiar contours. Sometimes we need to read them again in small ways. I am grateful to have read them here, in the small story of one year in one woman’s life.

How glad I am that I didn’t miss those cherry blossoms, that they caught at the corner of my vision, that I turned my head and saw. ‘They’re pretty,’ Doug said. But they were more than pretty. They were the color of hope. – Kimberlee Conway Ireton

Speaking of babies (oh dear, I am sometimes not very good with transitions), if you have had a baby within the past few years then you probably know this next book. You know it because I sent you a copy. Yes, this is my go-to gift for new babies: Psalms for Young Children by Marie-Helene Delval.

We are so skilled at introducing our children to Bible stories. We decorate their nurseries with Noah’s-Ark-themed prints. We talk about Jesus while they glue cotton balls to pictures of sheep. But the Psalms? Sadly, the book I spend the most time reading can be the one I spend the least time sharing with my kids.

Of course, I do think children should be introduced to the actual Psalms. During Lent last year, my daughter read the same Psalm to us every night at dinner. The repetition was powerful and needful. However, I also think children, especially young children, can benefit from an age-appropriate introduction to the questions, concerns, and poetry of the Psalms.

What you will find in Psalms for Young Children are paraphrases written in child-friendly language. But they are not watered-down, exactly. They are Psalms from a child’s point-of-view, and they are lovely and prayerful even for the adult reading them at bedtime.

God, when I’m in my bed / at night, I think about you. / And then I’m not scared of / anything. I can fall asleep / quietly and in peace. – Psalms for Young Children

I hesitate to make this next recommendation. It is almost as if I want to pause, to make sure you are ready to appreciate a book like this. I’m afraid that sounds selfish, prideful. Really, I think my motivation is only this: I love this book and I feel so very protective of it. It is one of the most powerful, most devastating books I have read in a long time.

The book is Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. Wiman is an accomplished poet and was, until recently, editor of Poetry magazine. Seven years ago, he was diagnosed with an incurable cancer. This is a reflective book about life, art, and belief, and it was written in the valley of the shadow of death.

I’m afraid putting it like that makes it sound rather lovely, but Wiman will not let us forget this valley is made up of hospital rooms, searing pain, and medications almost worse than the disease they’re meant to fight.

It would be wrong to say that Wiman returned to the Christian faith of his childhood after being diagnosed with cancer. Though, on the face of it at least, this is true. Rather, I think Wiman would say that cancer revealed to him the God who had always been there, a presence revealed through absence..

This is not a book for those who feel quite comfortable with the Christian faith. This is a book for anyone who finds the language of belief too often a hindrance rather than a help. This is a book for mystics and lovers of poetry.

This is an uncomfortable, even difficult book. It’s central emblem is not the empty tomb, but Christ crying out his forsakenness on the cross.

It is also a book I found to be so wise and true, I copied whole pages into my journal. The paperback edition doesn’t arrive till spring. I suggest buying the hardcover. If you are like me, you will fill it with notes. You will look forward to reading it again, wrestling with it again, even before you’ve read it through once.

To fling yourself into failure; to soar into the sadness by which you’ve lived; to die with neither defiance nor submission, but in some higher fusion of the two; to walk lost at the last into the arms of emptiness, crying the miracles of God. – Christian Wiman

 

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