Why Staying in the Moment Isn’t Always Best (Or, Why Southern Summers are a lot Like Midwestern Winters)

snowfall 

Understandably, winters in Chicago were long and hard.  Still, I enjoyed them more than most of my friends and neighbors.  I’ve always imagined that my Texas childhood created a snow deficit deep inside of me that no amount of Midwestern cold could fill up.  As much as we all longed for spring come March, I was never sad, even then, to see snowflakes fall.

The hardest thing about winter for me was always the thaw.  Those of you with experience living in frigid climates know what I’m talking about.  The thaw is that period (maybe it comes once, maybe it comes and goes repeatedly, every winter is different) in which the sidewalks and streets are impassable.  Snow has melted and refrozen until not even a polar bear could walk the ice safely.  Or, layers of snow have turned to slush all the way through, and it’s impossible to move without icy meltwater pouring over the tops of my boots.  Pushing a stroller through the muck and mess of a thaw?  Absolutely impossible.

The hardest thing about winters in Chicago?  Not being able to (safely) leave the house.

The hardest thing about summers in Florida?  Not being able to (safely) leave the house.

Obviously, we’re no longer in danger of breaking our bones as we slip and slide on the sidewalks.  But when my daughter asks at noon whether we can go for a bike ride, all I can think is “heat stroke.”  It’s 95 degrees and very humid and I actually convince my kids to watch another half hour of tv rather than take them outside.

There are bright spots in both seasons.  Here, swimming pools dot the landscape like weeds and as long as I’m willing to walk the gauntlet of sunscreen application (which always requires chasing the two-year-old around the house and listening to the seven-year-old whine that her face is white), we can enjoy being outside without too much pain.

In Chicago, the compensation came with sledding and snowman building.  As long as I was willing to bundle up three children in snowsuits and long underwear, we could forget the discomfort of cold noses and tender fingers for an hour of fun. 

In Chicago, I loved to sit directly on the warm radiator cover and watch snow fall past our third-story window.  In Florida, I sit on the small sofa and watch that day’s thunderstorm pile up in the west.  Seeing the palm fronds flatten in the wind and sensing the house go dark, I like to imagine that it’s cold outside.  The reality feels more like getting hit in the face with solid swamp, but I keep the door shut and pretend.  It’s very cozy.

More than cabin-fever and long hours spent indoors, these two seasons in these two places share a mood of longing.  In Chicago, I yearned for warmth and color.  In Florida, I want crisp air and sunshine that doesn’t burn like fire. 

I’ve often felt guilty about giving in to this mood.  As if desire is always an altogether bad thing, a temptation to ignore the good gifts right in front of us.

I think that is sometimes the case. 

However, occasionally we only recognize the best things in life because we’ve longed for them and waited for them.  Tulips in spring.  The first day in fall when the humidity plunges.

The goal, I’ve decided, should not be some stay-in-the-moment mental trick we play on ourselves, but a more straightforward acceptance of goodness in the present and desire for something else.  And why should these be mutually exclusive?

I love Florida’s daily summer thunderstorms.  I love the wind, the dark clouds, and thunder rumbling all afternoon.  But I am also eager for cooler temperatures and hours that can be spent outdoors.  Summer, here, is about enjoying and longing.

And when the cooler days come, I’ll say goodbye to the thunderstorms with no regrets, knowing that I loved them in their time, but the thing I’ve really wanted, the thing I am now prepared to enjoy, has finally come.

Hope justifies longing.

 “But hope that is seen is no hope at all.  Who hopes for what he already has?” (Romans 8:24)

 beach going

A Sweet Tooth Reborn

the Apple bins 

I stopped eating sugar three months ago.  Well, to be perfectly honest, I still treat myself a bit on the weekends.  And birthdays.  I’ll never pass up birthday cake.  But Monday through Friday, and even most of the time Saturday and Sunday, I sweeten my oatmeal with banana, I omit even the agave syrup from my smoothies, and I say no to every dessert, piece of candy, and slice of gum.

I’ve known for years that sugar wreaks havoc on my body.  First, it was just my hormones.  A direct link between dessert and my inability to get pregnant.

Highly motivated, I changed my diet.  I had three miracle babies.

Then I went back to the cookies and ice cream.

I moved to Florida.  I found a new doctor.  He ordered a battery of tests.  The news wasn’t good.

I don’t want to die of a heart attack or a stroke before I see my babies have babies.  Once again, I am highly motivated.

I’ve had a fierce sweet tooth for as long as I can remember.  If you had asked me when I was a child what my favorite food was, I promise you I would have said Cadbury Cream Eggs.  Potato chips and popcorn, I can take or leave (though, of course, I take them frequently!).  Chocolate chip cookies in the freezer will haunt me until every single one is gone.

When I first traded ice cream for mint tea after dinner, I felt sorry for myself.  It seemed unfair.  I imagined that everyone else could eat chocolate as often as they liked without fear of diabetes or heart disease.

My husband and children pour on the maple syrup while I frown and grumble over sprouted grain toast with none of my favorite blueberry jam.

But now . . . I’ve had an epiphany.  I’ve realized something I might have noticed sooner if I hadn’t been preoccupied with feeling sorry for myself.

It was last Friday night.  The week had been long, I was tired, and I decided to start the weekend off with a special treat.  I would make chocolate chip cookies.  And not just any chocolate chip cookies.  The very best.  The cookies from a cookbook called The Best Recipe.  A cookbook that more than delivers on its title.

It was nearly nine o’clock when I sat down to taste those cookies, so sure that I was about to taste the goodness I’d denied myself all week.

After the first bite, I thought there was a mistake.  I pictured my hand dumping in the cupful of brown sugar and wondered if I had miscounted.

My husband sat beside me at the table, and I asked, “Do these taste funny to you?”  His look said, “What are you talking about?” and so I understood that the cookies only tasted strange to me.  They were so, so sweet.

Unbearably sweet.  I felt as if I were eating pure sugar, could almost feel the grains of it crunching sickeningly between my teeth.

This sweetness was no longer sweet.  It was awful.  One dimensional.  Flavorless.

Here is the sweetness I’ve enjoyed all these months: the syrupy sweetness of a ripe peach, the crisp, tingly sweetness of ice-cold watermelon, the tart-sweet of blackberries, and the mellow, warm sweetness of a candy-colored sweet potato.

God has given me so many kinds of sweet: a whole spectrum of flavor and texture and color. 

I never knew.  Never truly tasted what was always right in front of me.

How often do we do this?  Drag our feet and feel sorry for ourselves when all our father-God wants is to give us something good?  Something better than the one-note flavor of whatever substitute we’ve provided for ourselves?

This thing I’ve been calling loss?  Turns out, it was no loss at all.

When Literal is Lifeless

books by color

I recently came across news of another Gallop poll that attempts to sort and label people according to their beliefs about the Bible.  You know the polls I'm talking about.  Inevitably, they use catchwords like "literal" and "inspired" to tidy diverse opinions into neat categories.

I think I understand and sympathize with what is meant by statements like "I believe that the Bible should be read literally."  However, I always bristle at that word literal.  In my mind it makes Scripture sound too much like a set of instructions for assembling IKEA furniture.

Now, before I step on anyone's toes (oh dear, is it too late?), I should say that I do understand that theologians who use the word literal use it to mean something like the word straightforward.  In their view, to read literally is to read straightforwardly, without twisting the meaning of the text to suit our own purposes. 

They understand that the Bible is made up of diverse genres.  They know that poetry must be read as poetry.   History as history.

And yet, while I don't exactly disagree with this approach, I wonder if it doesn't compress the Word into a more human-sized package. 

History is history, yes, but what if history is also more than history?  What if it happened and is happening?  The story of a people long ago and the story of you today?

It may be the poetry lover in me, but I find that only metaphor gives me a sense of the Bible that seems more God-sized, less me-sized.  The Word is the Son of God, the Word is a lamp, the Word is a sword, the Word is food, the word is life.

This might not seem like very good news.  Too often, I would rather have an instruction manual (especially where work and motherhood are concerned) than a person.  I would rather go hungry if it meant that I could have every choice made for me.  Every question answered.  Every complex issue explained and categorized.

But we are so much more than IKEA furniture.  Instead of a lifeless history lesson, we’ve been given a history that lives.  Instead of diagrams, we’ve been given poetry.  Instead of to-do lists, we’ve been given wisdom. 

Hold the Bible tightly but your interpretation lightly.  I read that somewhere recently.  I can understand why it makes some believers nervous.  We’re meant to be building our houses on rock, not shifting sand, right?

Yes!  God’s word is solid and true, but, too often, our interpretations, those ideas we like to keep in neat little packages lined up on mental shelves . . . well, they are less so. 

The risk of holding too tightly to our own understanding is that we can no longer be unsettled by the word of God.  If we cannot see its somewhat wild, messy beauty, we risk assuming that we have God all figured out.  We may assume that our lives look just as they should.

In The Cloister Walk, the poet and Christian Kathleen Norris describes her lifelong determination to “focus on the fuzzy boundaries, where definitions give way to metaphor.”  It was a determination born in her one day in fourth grade math class.  Her teacher, exasperated that Kathleen had once again failed to give the right answer, said sarcastically, “You see, it’s simple, as simple as two plus two is always four.”

At that moment, Kathleen had an epiphany and, without thinking, spoke up: “That can’t be.”  She writes: “Suddenly, I was sure that two plus two could not possibly always be four.  And, of course, it isn’t.  In Boolean algebra, two plus two can be zero, in base three, two plus two is eleven.  I had stumbled onto set theory, a truth about numbers that I had no language for.  As this was the early 1950s, my teacher had no language for it either, and she and the class had a good laugh over my ridiculous remark.”

The Bible contains truth solid enough to stand on.  To build our lives on.  But it’s far from simple.  It’s alive.

Book of Quotations: Why I Have Fewer Answers Now Than I Once Did

this is me

I keep a book of quotations.  It looks exactly like any other journal, but it’s for a different kind of journaling.  Journaling with the words of other writers, if you will.  Here I scribble down quotations from all kinds of books: poetry, theology, memoir, literary theory, fiction, you name it.  I write down anything I want to remember.

I recently finished Amy Boesky's memoir What We Have, in which she describes her attempts to live unafraid despite the hereditary cancer that had killed nearly every woman in her family.  Toward the end, she writes: "Now, I wanted to ask the right questions, not give the right answers.  Was that what it meant to grow up?"

This is exactly what growing up has meant for me.  Fewer answers.  Better questions.  So much less fear.

When I was a child, I assumed that the adults around me had all the answers.  Maybe all kids think that.  I imagine it's the only way to keep the enormity of the whole strange, unfamiliar world at bay.

Here are just a few of the things I once thought I knew (or, at the very least, was sure I would know once I found the exact right book or expert): what happens when we die, why the innocent suffer, the eternal fate of those who've never heard the name Jesus, how to get children to sleep all night in their own beds . . . I'll stop there, but, trust me, I could go on.

I'm afraid that I, like so many Christians, have taken the imperative in I Peter to "be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have" just a little too far.

There is only one answer that we can all give with total confidence: Jesus. 

Do we need to have answers neatly packaged for every question that plagues our culture (gay marriage, government debt, capital punishment, organic food vs locally grown)?  Big, important questions proliferate all around us on a daily basis, and I applaud those who are (let's recall the rest of I Peter 3: 15 here), with "gentleness and respect," seeking out answers.  But our faith does not rest on these things. 

It's okay to say, "I don't know."  More often than not, it's the only honest answer we can give.

"Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror, then we shall see face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known" (I Corinthians 13: 12).

If answers were what really mattered, we would be given them.  Instead, we've been told to love and not to fear.  We can't go wrong if we stick to that.

One day every question will be answered (and I imagine that many questions will simply disappear because they never really mattered).  These answers will come, not with words, but in a face.  We shall see face to face.

In his novel Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis, an English professor who loved words, put words in their proper place: "I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer.  You are yourself the answer.  Before your face questions die away.  What other answer would suffice?  Only words, words; to be led out to battle against other words."

I too love words, but words can’t get me out of bed some days.  On those days, I get up and keep going only because I glimpse the face of the One who made me, the One who knows me, the One who yet loves me.

There is a River

Shenandoah

(That's my brother-in-law and two of my nieces perched at the top.  Not pictured: my own children who had just fallen into the water and sat, crying, in a wretched, soggy pile at the water's edge.)

The name of this blog ("There is a River") comes from Psalm 46:4: "There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells."

I didn't know what this blog would look like when I began writing it in May.  I think I sensed that it would not be topic-driven, and this still seems accurate to me today.  Instead, I would say that this blog is focused on a particular perspective rather than a particular subject.

This blog explores the perspective of a Jesus-following writer, reader, wife, and mother who is looking for hope and beauty wherever it can be found.

I like to think that my spiritual perspective is not an example of Christian pie-in-the-sky thinking but, rather, more like pie-right-here-and-now with the promise of so much more to come.

But, really, my perspective has little to do with pie and everything to do with water.

"There is a river" points us to a place, the place where God's glory dwells, but, even more importantly, it testifies to a presence that is not contained by the flood-gates of heaven.  This river washes us, it transforms us, and it quenches our thirst forever.  It is here and now as well as there and then.

It is "the fountain of life" (Psalm 36:9).  It is the man of sorrows who promises that whoever "believes in me will never be thirsty" (John 6:35).

I've been listening to the new album by Josh Garrels.  It is beautiful and wise (and free! Download your own copy here).  In the song "Farther Along," he sings, "go down into the river" and "let the flood wash me."

My hope is that "There is a River" (the blog) reads a lot like this song sounds.  Click through below to track # 3 and enjoy.

 

Stories

back on the shelf

 

It's been said that there are only half a dozen stories.  The claim is that writers only recycle and reimagine the basic plotlines that have existed for hundreds of years. 

Obviously, six is an arbitrary number.  Still, I think it's important to remember that most stories do share a kind of creative DNA.  Whether that DNA is labeled "quest," "metamorphosis," or "forbidden love," every story is a combination of utterly unique detail and shared structure.

It seems that stories have been a part of God's plan for his creation from the beginning.  And I do mean the beginning: "And God said, 'Let there be light."  The first storyteller.  The first story.

He's been telling stories ever since.

I've found that I cannot comprehend my own life or the universe in which I live apart from stories.    There are the big stories: creation, fall, redemption.  There are stories within those stories, like the deliverance, wandering, and homecoming of the Hebrew people after slavery in Egypt.

And then there are the stories God is telling in every single human life.

Like those found in Scriptures, myths and novels, these human stories are beautifully unique in their details, but they too participate in the shared elements of story.  Creation.  Fall.  Redemption.  Romantic  Pursuit and Love.  Deliverance.  Wandering.  Homecoming.

I often wish I could smooth away all the complications in my life.  I pray for God's blessing and hope he keeps tragedy at bay.  But, I know that if my wishes always came true I would be left with a life that is no life at all.  With a life that tells no story.

Which do you prefer: the blank page of a comfortable existence? 

Or, a work of art?

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