Saturday, June 15, 2013

Strong Hands

To lead them with strong hands
To stand up when they can't
Don't want to leave them hungry for love
Chasing things that I could give up

I'll show them I'm willing to fight
And give them the best of my life
So we can call this our home
Lead me 'cause I can't do this alone.

-Sanctus Real

            What do you do when you plan a beach day and you wake up to a hissing sound from the water heater and you empty out the closet and find everything soaked from a leaky pipe? Well, if you are my husband, you patch the pipe, clean up the water, leave the rest of the mess for the next day, and take your family to the Chinese restaurant for lunch and then to the beach for an awesome afternoon. Not that this was accomplished without some shouting from everyone and a bit-just a bit-of whining from the kids. Not that the mess is going to be fun to deal with in a little while, or that we are thrilled that we will have to throw out the majority of books and games that were in that closet. But we did have a great afternoon, and I was honestly relieved that it was only a leaky pipe, since we have had to have plumbing repairs done quite recently AND had to replace the ancient washer and dryer which both gave up the ghost on the same day. Tough times don’t have to be altogether bad times.

            While we were at the beach, we found a live sand dollar. None of us had ever seen a live one before. Of course we put it back after looking at it, because you can buy dead, dried sand dollars at any local souvenir shop. We also played with hundreds of harmless, beautiful little jellyfish, the nearly transparent kind. As my husband was holding one of these small treasures in his large hands, I looked at his hands and thought about how they have the power to destroy. He could have easily crushed those tiny creatures. He chooses gentleness. He chooses to be kinder than is required or necessary. He is meek. The definition of meekness is not weakness; it is “power under control”. This pretty much sums up my Freddie, the man who could not kill a moth when he felt her heart beating, but also the man who I know could kill a lion if his family was in danger. The man who does what he has to do to keep this fragile little ship afloat, including a second job teaching online classes. In this economy, a third income is often necessary, especially for people with kids. I am glad his second job can be accomplished via the laptop in the living room, because we can be together.

            A father’s presence is important. A recent study showed that well over half of high-achieving students have involved fathers. I know many single moms who do a fantastic job, but it just must be so much harder on their own. I cannot imagine trying to do this whole parenting thing without my husband. I know that I was probably much more obedient to my mother than I would have been had I not had the shadow of my father looming over me, even when he had to be away on a business trip. My own kids are the same. They kind of disregard me, because moms just nag you and go psycho on you, but they generally do what they are told anyhow because Dad will be upset and disappointed if they don’t. My husband is the kind of dad you just don’t want to disappoint-not because he is mean, but because he is genuinely hurt and surprised when the kids don’t do what they are told. He is also good at making the consequences fit the crime and is reasonable about it, whereas I am the one to try to dole out some ridiculously exaggerate thing like, “You can’t go anywhere again, EVER, for the REST OF YOUR LIFE!” Yeah, they take that seriously.

            On the way home yesterday, we passed, for the thousandth time, the spear hunting museum. I don’t know why there is a spear hunting museum in our county, but there is. Hardly anyone goes there, for even we Lower Alabamians who are fierce about our right to bear arms are kind of horrified by the idea of looking at dead animals that were killed for no reason whatsoever. There are certain ethics involved here. There is rumored to be an elephant in the museum, murdered before killing elephants became illegal .Whether this is actually true or not, most people I know would agree that there is nothing manly about killing animals with a spear just so you can stuff them and brag about it. As we were passing the museum, my girls commented on how much fun it would be to hear their dad question the spear hunter dude as to his logical reasons for slaughtering animals and causing them undue pain and suffering. My husband grew up around guns and hunting and fishing and has no problem with killing animals for food (although he personally chooses not to), or killing vermin that invade his home (as humanely as possible), or gently releasing a suffering creature from its pain, or shooting, say, a rabid dog or some other dangerous animal that is attacking or threatening human beings. All of this is Biblical and right, but in all cases should be done with a minimum of pain inflicted on the animal. That’s called good stewardship. Deliberate destruction or torture or neglect of God’s creatures, or any kind of pointless, random act that harms an animal, is shameful and probably even sinful. This is what my husband, a man of God, has taught his children.

            He has also taught them this-to be kind and compassionate to everyone, and treat them with dignity and respect. You don’t have to like them or agree with them or anything, but there is nothing to lose in being nice and gracious to people. He has taught them that when you get frustrated with the guy on the phone who is just doing his job working for the cable company, you have to back off and realize that he is not the one who is actually responsible for the fact that the cable company is lousy and doesn’t follow through. Then you have to apologize and tell him that you know it’s not his fault. And when the waitress in the restaurant is doing her very best even though the people in the kitchen haven’t done what they are supposed to do and they are shorthanded because of poor management, you smile at the waitress and thank her for her efforts and give her the most decent tip you can afford, because her job is not easy. You don’t make fun of people because they talk funny or aren’t very smart or can’t run fast or look different from you, and you don’t go around being self-righteous just because other people sin different from you. Be humble. Be brave in the face of adversity and get up every day with the attitude that you are going to do what you have to do and it’s going to be okay because God is going before you and stands beside you.

            My husband has strong hands and a strong heart. As a teacher, he impacts many students every day of his life, often without even realizing it. As a husband and father, he is superb. He is loving. He is tough when he needs to be. He is funny and he is tender. There is no subject that the kids feel uncomfortable discussing with him, and he turns every small outing into an adventure and a learning experience. When he messes up, he acknowledges it and asks forgiveness. He isn’t perfect because nobody is, but I would say he qualifies for the Dads’ Hall of Fame. He looks to God for answers because he knows that he cannot do this on his own. He listens and he loves. He leads his family with strong hands.

            Happy Fathers’ Day, Fredzy My Love!!!
This is our resolution
Our answer to the call
We will love our wives and children
We refuse to let them fall

We will reignite the passion
That we buried deep inside
May the watchers become warriors
Let the men of God arise.-Casting Crowns

Monday, June 10, 2013

Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God

“‘Cause I am a sinner
If its not one thing its another
Caught up in words
Tangled in lies
You are the Savior
And you take brokenness aside
And make it beautiful

-Leslie Jordan

                In 1741 Jonathan Edwards delivered a sermon which was to become famous and would also contribute to the Great Awakening, a short-lived revival which swept across the nation. Thousands were converted-or were they? In my opinion, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” was effective in converting a few, bringing some back, and frightening many. “Over the summer of 1735, religious fervor took a dark turn. A number of New Englanders were shaken by the revivals but not converted, and became convinced of their inexorable damnation. Edwards wrote that "multitudes" felt urged—presumably by Satan—to take their own lives. At least two people committed suicide in the depths of their spiritual distress, one from Edwards's own congregation—his uncle Joseph Hawley II. It is not known if any others took their own lives, but the "suicide craze" effectively ended the first wave of revival, except in some parts of Connecticut.” –George Marsden

                As a piece of literature, Edwards’ sermon has merit. As a sermon, it has little, as far as I am concerned. Edwards meant well, and the extreme always makes an impression. There are lots of well-meaning people in the world who teach wrong theology.

                The wrath of God is like great waters that are dammed for the present; they increase more and more, and rise higher and higher, till an outlet is given, and the longer the stream is stop’d, the more rapid and mighty is its course, when once it is let loose. ‘Tis true, that judgment against your evil works has not been executed hitherto; the floods of God’s vengeance have been with-held; but your guilt in the mean time is constantly increasing, and you are every day treasuring up more wrath; the waters are continually rising and waxing more and more mighty; and there is nothing but the mere pleasure of God that holds the waters back that are unwilling to be stopped, and press hard to go forward; if God should only withdraw his hand from the flood-gate, it would immediately fly open, and the fiery floods of the fierceness and wrath of God would rush forth with inconceivable fury, and would come upon you with omnipotent power; and if your strength were ten thousand times greater than it is, yea ten thousand times greater than the strength of the stoutest, sturdiest devil in hell, it would be nothing to withstand or endure it.” –Edwards

            Lovely, isn’t it? It does not sound at all like the loving God, the Abba Father whom I worship and serve. God is not angry with us. He is grieved at times, but He made His peace with mankind when Jesus came, and the debt was settled at the Cross. Yes, there always have been and always will be consequences for sin. When we do the wrong thing it has a negative effect on others as well as ourselves. We live in a fallen world where bad things happen. But God is not angry with us.

            I have tried to figure out where some of the strange ideas people have regarding The Rules actually originated, and I have to say that a lot of blame must be placed on the Puritans. If you were having fun, you were sinning. You had to dress a certain way, act a certain way, speak a certain way, and think a certain way. Holidays were by and large not celebrated, and heaven forbid that anyone play cards or dance or read anything that wasn’t religious. It was a pretty grim life, and the people were ruled by fear. This, however, has not changed for many Christians. They view Christianity as a religion, which it was never intended to be, rather than a relationship with a Father who loves His children and wants to give them good things.

            “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince: and yet ’tis nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment: ‘Tis to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffer’d to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep: and there is no other reason to be given why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up: There is no other reason to be given why you han’t gone to hell since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship: Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you don’t this very moment drop down into hell.” –Edwards

            Loathsome? Abhors? Wrath? Abominable? These are not the words I believe God uses to describe us or how He feels about us. He LOVES us!! He sees us as BEAUTIFUL, regardless of the fact that we are indeed sinners. We are broken. We are indeed wretched, in and of ourselves, but He is not dangling us over a fiery pit-although admittedly we often dangle ourselves there. Not only can He “bear” to have us in His sight, but we are the apple of His eye. He wants us to talk to Him, to petition Him, to praise Him, to thank Him, to love Him. He wants us to be His children and His friends. Jonathan Edwards was misguided-but he was not alone. Even now, it is not uncommon for Christians to be told that bad things happen to us, like, say, infertility, because of unconfessed sin. Or maybe our child gets sick or our air conditioner breaks or our dog gets hit by a car-because we haven’t been tithing. This formulaic approach is utter nonsense. It is an attempt to figure out how to work the “system” and get God into a box so that we can understand how to make Him do what we want.

            The Bible says that God rains down blessings on the just and the unjust. It’s in there. God does not work according to any kind of twelve-step plan. Those ideas are man-made and have little to do with God. We should live in obedience to Him and seek His will and follow His precepts as far as we are able, but we will stumble and no one can keep the Law. It is an ideal and a pattern and an example, but it is impossible for humanity to achieve. If it wasn’t, there would have been no need for Jesus. Jesus-the friend of sinners. The One who also set an example of love and mercy and grace. The One who told everyone to drop their rocks and go on home, because He was the only one qualified to judge or condemn the woman taken in adultery.And then-oh and then, what did He say to her? “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” It’s beautiful, and all the more so because we ARE that woman. God shows us mercy every day, and he doesn’t just “put up” with us, but DELIGHTS in us! We are not abhorrent to Him. He looks and He loves and He pities. He wants to dance with us every day, to the Song of All Songs.

            We are not sinners in the hands of an angry God. We are sinners in the hands of a LOVING God. “Come, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Notice that He promises rest, but He doesn’t promise perfection. He promises to stay, but not to always prevent those trials which may very well be mercies in disguise. He promises pleasures forevermore, the goodness of God in the land of the living, mercies that are new every morning, living water, treasures in Heaven, and greater glory. All we have to do is choose to receive His grace. It’s a heck of a good deal.

            I hope you will join in the dance with the Divine.

Yes living, dying let me bring
My strength my Solace from the Spring
That he who lives to be my king
Once died to be my Savior

That he would leave his place on high
And come for sinful man to die
You called it strange, so once did I
Before I knew my Savior.

-Aaron Schust

Monday, June 3, 2013

Shadows and Deserts

“It's not all bad. Heightened self-consciousness, apartness, an inability to join in, physical shame and self-loathing—they are not all bad. Those devils have been my angels. Without them I would never have disappeared into language, literature, the mind, laughter and all the mad intensities that made and unmade me.”
Stephen Fry

                One of my students told me several weeks ago that she admires me for being real. I was grateful for the compliment, as I am pathetically grateful for any word of encouragement. I dislike public praise intensely but that doesn’t mean I have less of a need than anyone else for occasional validation. I am not overly fond of large crowds of people; I prefer small groups and one-on-one conversations. That does not mean that I want to live in isolation. I often cannot attend get-togethers for various reasons including transportation issues or other commitments, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to be invited. By nature I am somewhat introverted, although I no longer consider myself shy. I love people and I want to have friends, although I am not a Joiner who has a need to belong to lots of organizations or go running from event to event. Some people do and that’s fine; it’s just not me. My husband is my best friend and I honestly prefer his company to anyone else’s. That may be weird, and it’s also probably weird that as a general rule I am more comfortable around men than women and more comfortable around older people and young adults than those nearer my own age. I am not sure why any of these things are, they just ARE.

                I probably shouldn’t overanalyze myself. My dad used to tell me that being shy was a prideful thing because it means that you think people notice you a lot more than they actually do. He was right. I mean, probably a dozen people actually read this blog and twenty-five percent of those are related to me. I don’t really write it for other people as much as I do for myself anyway, although if what I write helps or inspires others, so much the better.  To quote Eeyore, “Thanks for noticing me.”  Writing is one of my “mad intensities” as is reading. There is something in me that causes me to love the things I love with a great passion- writing, reading, teaching, God, my family, my friends, animals. Over the years I have traded one obsession for another as a result of an addictive personality or OCD or whatever name experts want to give it. But in talking to artists, writers, musicians, and so on I realize that this is all part of a creative mind and personality. It’s weird, yes, but it’s not crazy or anything.

                I have to be extremely careful not to drive myself and other s insane. I try not to expect too much from people lest I drain them completely. I am very, very cautious about giving away too much of myself to others. I know I can give it all to God and He can bear it in a way that human beings cannot. When I was younger I had impossible standards for others which were only a reflection of the standards I had for myself. Ultimately, I broke. I have broken many times since, but not irrevocably. I still sometimes expect too much from family and friends-expect them to understand what cannot possibly be understood, expect them to never hurt me or let me down in any way. That is not fair. What I really try to do is accept others the way I want to be accepted. I try to be for my students that person who will listen and care and not judge, and will see the potential in them and not ever simply write them off.

“If you meet a loner, no matter what they tell you, it’s not because they enjoy solitude. It’s because they have tried to blend into the world before, and people continue to disappoint them.”
Jodi Picoult

                I have never been able to quite “blend in.”  If you are different, it’s just not possible. Now, of course, my very large size makes it more difficult than before. I used to wear grays and browns and blacks hoping that it would make me sort of disappear, but when I realized a few years ago that it wasn’t working anyway, I decided to start wearing what I like, including the bright colors that are supposed to be a no-no for middle-aged stout ladies. And people do sometimes stare and giggle, and students make fun of me behind my back, or sometimes pretty much right in my face, and I just ignore it. I hate my fat, but I LIKE my clothes and my hair, and I have as much right to wear pretty things as skinny people do. Take that, Abercrombie and Fitch. And by the way, to those who whisper, “She’s gonna break that chair,” just know that I have never broken a chair. I have fallen out of a few, due to sheer clumsiness, but I have never broken one. I am smart enough to figure out where I can and cannot sit, just as I am smart enough to know when people are making fun of me.

                I’m trying to be real here, as real as I have ever been. What I loved about working with very young children was that there was no judgment, just smiling acceptance and trust. Teenagers aren’t so kind-well, some of them are-but the great irony is that they say they hate hypocrisy and legalism but they themselves condemn one another and everyone else on the basis of appearances and other surface-level junk. I choose to love them in spite of this, because the reality is that inside, they are terribly insecure and many of them have suffered great pain. Most of the kids I teach are good-hearted and compassionate, but a few have let bitterness take root and grow and because of this they seem to take great pleasure in hurting others. I myself was extremely arrogant as a teenager, setting myself above others and saying that I was smarter than almost anyone else and I did not stop at sometimes saying cruel things. I thought it would lessen my own pain, but it actually made me feel worse which was why I didn’t do it very often. I think that’s true of most people. Maybe I am being idealistic, but I think that deep down, very few people are actually so mean that they don’t feel at least some guilt about their unkind behavior.

                I try to think about what is the “Christian” response to being mistreated, made fun of, left out, etc. I try to recall the Golden Rule. I remind myself that I am a child of the King and that no one else’s opinion actually matters. But all of these are the same old platitudes which, even though true, can sometimes ring hollow when you’ve been dealing with the same crap over and over for forty-two years. I leave the first five years of my life out of it because before I went to school, no one told me that I was fat, and no one told me I was weird except my siblings who were pretty weird themselves. But I find myself in this great dilemma now because every time anything happens, I get the idea that no one likes me and I logically know this to be very untrue. Then I go from that to doubting every ability, every relationship, every aspect of my life and personality.  I get to self-analyzing and using this blog that most people don’t even read to vent the fact that everyone knows-the world is a cruel place.

                It is a cruel place indeed, sinful and fallen. I try to also see the beauty that is in it and most of the time I succeed because God’s grace and glory cannot be denied. I have been blessed so far beyond what I deserve that at times it overwhelms me. Why, then, do I let the pain and fear and worry overshadow the goodness of God in the land of the living, without which we would all surely despair? Sometimes I feel as if I am totally alone..and yet:

“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was a light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

                Tolkien was right. The Shadow is only a small and passing thing. The enemy would like for us to think it is more, that it is bigger and more powerful than it really is. My reality is that there are students who do not like or respect me, but there are more who do. There are people who have utter contempt for me and for everyone in general, but there are people who care. There are days that are bad and days that are good, times when nothing seems to go right and everything is a desert, and then the streams and rivers are filled with good rain and it’s all okay again. This is just life-the world and the way things are-the way things have been since the day sin and death entered Creation. There are no easy answers .I keep seeking and seeking and I find only glimpses of Truth and sparks of Divine. The moments of clarity are rare but lovely. The times of refreshing are fulfilling. And if for a season I must retreat into my books and be sustained by prayer, then so be it.  I have to stay real but I also have to stay sane. To trust in that light and beauty beyond the Shadow is all I have, all any of us have. It is all that matters, in the long run. Trust…and hope.


“The world is indeed full of peril and in it there are many dark places.
But still there is much that is fair. And though in all lands, love is now
mingled with grief, it still grows, perhaps, the greater.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings