Monday, November 23, 2015

The Gospel: New and Yet the Same

I had a difficult night's sleep where I seemed to be worrying and fretting about many things (to paraphrase Jesus in speaking to Martha of Bethany). It was one of those nights where I tossed back and forth, never sleeping deeply, my dreams punctuated by lots of things, big and little, that are making me anxious.

It didn't help that I woke up a little before 2 certain that I'd heard gunshots outside. We live in a small city and we're in an area near a now empty lot, so I suppose it's possible -- though it's also possible I heard firecrackers (that happens too) or a car backfiring or just a loud noise that my brain transformed into something much more anxiety producing.

I finally fell a little more asleep in the wee small hours, though I never felt like I slept as deeply as I needed. Which is all the more reason to be grateful for the thoughts I woke up to, which are simply this: the gospel never changes. The same gospel at work in the lives of the apostles, saints, and martyrs is the gospel at work in me. The same gospel that freed my great-grandmother and set the hearts of so many others in our family to dancing in delight is the gospel I get to dance to today.

Isn't that amazing? It's true that God's mercies are new every morning (great is your faithfulness!) and that those mercies are new and fresh in each generation, each person, in a different way. But our hope, while as fresh as the new dawn, is also as old and older than the sun. God doesn't change, and neither does his life-giving word. Our hope is rooted in his eternal changelessness and yet new and fresh as he stirs it into the swirling waters of this day, this me, this life. The gospel that spoke to my anxiety and fears in the night is the same gospel that shines brightly in the light of the morning. We have this sure and certain hope.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Hard Times Come Again No More

I first learned the beautiful song "Hard Times Come Again No More" from Emmylou Harris. It was written (in case you don't know -- I didn't until recently) by Stephen Foster, the wonderfully prolific 19th century songwriter who also penned "Beautiful Dreamer," "I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair," "My Old Kentucky Home," "Camptown Races," and "O! Susana!"

Oh, and "Slumber my Darling," which you really need to hear here, performed by Alison Kraus with Yo-Yo Ma, Mark O'Connor, and Edgar Meyer. 

The sweet girl and I were listening to Foster's music today as part of her 1850s history unit. We played the Emmylou Harris version, of course, but we also listened to the deep, rich tones of Mavis Staples and the gravely gravity of Johnny Cash.

This is a song that travels well.

And I don't know -- but on top of all the heartbreaking news recently regarding Syrian refugees and escalating terror attacks in so many places -- I heard this song with a bigger lump in my throat than ever before. Those first two lines feel like a siren call to prayer.

Hard Times Come Again No More
(Stephen Foster)

Let us pause in life's pleasures and count its many tears,
While we all sup sorrow with the poor;
There's a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh! Hard times come again no more.
'Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard Times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh! Hard times come again no more.

While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay,
There are frail forms fainting at the door;
Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say
Oh! Hard times come again no more.

There's a pale drooping maiden who toils her life away,
With a worn heart whose better days are o'er:
Though her voice would be merry, 'tis sighing all the day,
Oh! Hard times come again no more.

'Tis a sigh that is wafted across the troubled wave,
'Tis a wail that is heard upon the shore
'Tis a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave
Oh! Hard times come again no more.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Confessions of a Bake Off Watcher

It's been a very busy November with mountains of writing deadlines and plenty of other work and ministry. I feel I've been going at quite a galloping pace! It's not always been easy, especially since I'm continuing to work through some health issues (and just recently finished a round of antibiotics).

In the midst of all this busyness, I've found myself working a lot of very late nights and early mornings. Sometimes those are the best hours right now for writing and thinking, when the house is quiet and I can push through larger sections of work than I can when I'm working in the cracks and crevices of the day. I have discovered that I am becoming more of a morning person all the time -- which just makes me laugh. All those years I dragged out of bed for early commitments, and now I am often awake early and can't get back to sleep. I find my mind is fresher and usually more creative in the morning.

All this work has meant very little down time, especially for reading or any sort of creative writing that isn't immediately work related. When I've needed brain breaks, I've been indulging in bits of episodes of the Great British and Great Irish Bake Offs.

If you haven't caught these shows, they're great fun, especially if you enjoy watching other people bake. I love both the actual baking and the goofiness of the competition. These shows are terrific little opportunities for character studies: it's fun to notice which contestants take themselves and their baking as serious art, which ones bake like it's relaxed therapy, which ones cheerfully deal with mistakes and try to incorporate them into something creative or at least presentable, and which ones completely melt down (like chocolate?) when in crisis. The editing of the shows is intended, of course, to make these bake offs look as competitive and tense as possible, but I find it sort of goofily endearing, especially since they are a lot less over the top about this stuff in the UK than they are on American television.

It's also so much fun to contemplate creativity as you watch them approach their ideas. Some of them have these incredibly cool and creative ideas and can't carry them out at all while others are cautious in their ideas and meticulous in the execution. Some of them are so confident that it borders on cocky and can't get overly deflated even when their stuff falls apart, and some of them are so incredibly insecure that the cameraman tends to focus on their anxious eyes as they work. It's the insecure folks, I'm discovering, who often turn out the best things...and then look delighted and surprised.

The shows are really as much about people and personalities as they are baking, but I'm still learning new baking terms and concepts. I doubt I will ever try many of these things in my own kitchen, but I have found myself thinking a little more creatively about my own baking lately because of it, and I have a feeling I may end up working some of my newfound baking terminology into a story at some point! In fact, I was thinking a murder mystery in a bake off tent just might prove to be an intriguing plot.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Remembering What We Can Do

Yesterday I had a moment where I was completely focused on what I could not do. Have you ever caught yourself in a moment like that? It was humbling.

For years, twenty-three plus of them (ever since we got married) we've sponsored a child through Compassion. We've been blessed to have had relationships with three different children in that time, one of whom is now grown, a wonderful woman with whom we are still in touch.

In recent years, our monthly giving commitments have grown harder, not just with Compassion but with everything else. Our decision to stay in mission and ministry in our small town, and the various work the Lord has led us to (all part-time and self-employment) means we live lean and a bit adventurously. That last part has never come naturally to me, quiet and uncourageous woman that I am sometimes.

Some months we are able to pay our bills and meet our giving commitments, and some months we aren't. In those months, in order to keep lights on and food on the table and medicines paid, we sometimes fall behind on other things that don't seem to have the same immediate urgency. (Sometimes we also squander where we shouldn't...just because we're relatively poor doesn't mean we don't sometimes make stupid budget decisions, or give in to the whispering that tells us we deserve to eat out or we really need more books.) I have been grateful beyond words that even on the months we've fallen behind, Compassion has been willing to work with us. And that the Lord continues to provide us enough work that often, when I am paid for one of my self-employed writing or teaching projects, we are able to catch back up. I always feel better when that is the case.

We are in one of our lean, adventurous quarters right now -- end of the year is always particularly difficult for us -- and yesterday an envelope arrived from Compassion. I opened it, and several pictures fell out into my hand. Pictures of unsponsored children. The enclosed letter asked for generous giving to help them and other children like them who are in need.

The guilt I felt in the first moments when I saw those pictures was palpable. Our bank balance at the moment is at serious low-tide. We've had two recent gifts from friends that have been designated for other things than immediate spending (one is to ensure that we can spend a few days at the end of this month with our beloved parents down in Virginia) for which I am overwhelmingly grateful, but we're behind on bills and have fallen into the hole just trying to cover the month's day-to-day expenses.  In other words, my immediate heart's response to seeing those pictures was an anguished "I can't."

And the "I can't" made me feel crippled. I literally almost put the pictures aside. I didn't want to look at them because, narcissistic fool that I was, I had about seventeen seconds of only thinking about myself. Poor me, not capable enough to support my own family, much less give the way I want and long to.

And then I heard the still, small voice. You know the one! The one that said, simply, "you can pray for them." The one that didn't want to brook my navel-gazing nonsense, and who simply wasn't interested in the fact that I sometimes put justifiers in front of the word "pray," as in "we can only pray," or "there's nothing I can do in this situation but pray." There is nothing mere or only about prayer.

So I started looking at their faces and reading the backs of the cards. I've put them on the kitchen table and I'll go back to them and read more. I will be praying for these children.

Sometimes it's not what we can't's remembering what we can do. I am deeply thankful that God got my attention on that yesterday.

Friday, November 06, 2015

An Open Letter to the Story Idea That is Fast Slipping Away

Dear Story Idea,

Please come back.

I know it has been about 36 hours since you first came to me in my Thursday morning shower. I know you really, really wanted to be written down right after that, when you were fresh and when all the creative connections were still firing in my brain.

I know it's not your fault that you chose to come on one of the busiest days of my week. During a season of huge amounts of work deadlines that I am struggling to meet. During a time of real financial stress. In the midst of ongoing weirdness with my health.

I planned to get back to you later yesterday. And again last night. And again this morning. And after I got some of my work done. And housework. And school time. And helped my daughter through a really hard day. And cried for a while.

I didn't know how my tiredness and discouragement would send you into hiding.

I've been feeling pretty lonely, and having you drop in yesterday in the midst of everything that feels so fragile and tiring felt really great. I'm sorry you couldn't stay longer.

It sure would be nice if you'd come back to visit. I promise I will try to be ready with a pen this time.


Monday, November 02, 2015

The Great Circle of the Saints

Yesterday was All Saints day. It turned out to be a difficult one for me (for reasons which don't need to get written about this morning) but all day long, even in the midst of stress and tiredness, I found myself remembering deep down how grateful and glad I am to be a part of the company of saints.

During opening worship service yesterday, I found myself dwelling again on the image of that great company all connected. When it was time to go downstairs with the children for Sunday School, I couldn't help but want to share that with them.

So I had our little crew hold hands in a circle. We thought about how we were there that morning to worship Jesus together. Then I asked them to think about how big the circle would be if we expanded it to include all the grown-ups still in the service upstairs.

And if we included all our fellow Christians in town -- other people at other churches who had gathered to pray and worship in Jesus' name that morning.

And if we included all the other saints on out into the city.

And if we included all the other followers of Jesus in our country.

And all the other followers of Jesus in our world today.

And all the other followers of Jesus who have ever lived, present and past, since the beginning.

I asked them to imagine how big that circle would get. (One of the kids suggested bigger than Jupiter, which made me smile.)

I asked them to throw into the picture the bright company of angels.

I asked them to imagine all of us standing around God's throne forever, worshiping and loving God forever.

So very, very grateful to be part of this family!!