Hold On Loosely

This morning as I drove the kids to school, a blade of light cut through a hole in the clouds in that divine way, you know, the way that feels like God is descending through the clouds to rest his glory on your shoulders, and you feel blessed, and particular, the center of the universe.

Then, the world tilted. I saw the solar system in all its blackness, the sun at the center, our blip of a planet lolly-gagging its way around on its invisible gravitational beltway, pirouetting until one patch of cloud over one city in one county in one country on one continent shifted just enough that the light that was already on its way to us was blocked by some accumulated water droplets and ice crystals hanging in the firmament, except for one spot, where it was free to shine directly into our atmosphere, and lo, the light arrived, and I got to witness it.

Look at the sky! I tell my kids every single time we’re in the car or walking somewhere or making breakfast.

Yeah, yeah, it’s beautiful, they say, and go on with their blessed, particular lives.

I remember being their age, the center of my own universe. I remember seeing my immediate wants and needs right before me, seeing only myself, my desires, my planet of purpose and every other molecule sent to serve my unfolding story. I lolly-gagged about, pirouetting my way through the day, blathering on about all my troubles, all my stresses, my worries, my fears. Admittedly, I still do this; we all do. As a parent, however, I think we’re given the gift of perspective, the ability to see our children as their own selves, separate and distinct and not the center of the universe. Hopefully this gives us our own perspective shift more regularly, from center of the universe to blip on a lolly-gagging planet, right alongside them.

So much of my mothering these days feels like taking hold of my teenagers’ shoulders to help them see beyond this moment. Look, this is not so big. Look, this is where this road might head. Look, you only see right now, but I have decades of life in the rear-view mirror, and I can give you a glimpse, at least, of what is yet to come, how much larger the world is, how your life is much smaller and simultaneously more beloved than you can grasp.

Mothering teens feels like dropping seeds in front of their path and dousing the ground they walk on, hoping something might take root, and then watching what happens next. I’m forever watching what happens next in a way I didn’t when they were younger, when I felt some sense of power and control over whether they live or die. I was just trying to keep them from killing themselves in one hundred small ways everyday—don’t run into the street. Don’t touch the hot stove. Don’t ride your bike without a helmet. Eat your vegetables. After every single one of those phrases you could tack on “or you might die.” So much of parenting little ones was keeping them from physical harm while trying to help them grow up with as few injuries, mental and physical and emotional, as possible.

With teenagers, though, I’ve traded my leash and collar for casting visions of what once was, what could be. Here is what I learned in a similar situation. If you choose A, here are some potential scenarios. Here’s how it could play out. You might want to guard your heart. You might want to turn this way instead of that. I don’t know but I’m guessing that if you choose B, this is what might happen. You can choose that, but it might hurt on the other side. It might not turn out the way you hoped.

But in most things it’s their choice now. My teens are adults-in-training. For years they’ve been the center of the universe. But now, every once in a while, the light must streak through the atmosphere and right-size their pirouetting planet. Now is the time to begin awakening to the expansiveness of their world. They will always be, in some ways, the center of their personal universes. We’re all the main character of our lives, but in order to operate with any kind of grace and love, sometimes we have to surrender the first person POV and see. Look.

Now is the time to practice adulting. Now is the time to try out some of their own paths. Now is that time because I still have two or four or eight years with them, depending on which kid we are talking about, and there is space and close distance to catch them when they make mistakes, to guide them, to pour as much love and reassurance about their bearing the image of God. But mostly I get to watch, and love, and watch.

There’s a word I was reminded of this weekend by David Brooks, NYT columnist, that captures this kind of watching: beholding. I have the distinct pleasure as their mother to behold their beloved-ness, behold the image of God in them. No one could have cued me into this privilege, to witness the becoming of my children, to behold. I like “behold.” The past tense of it could be “beheld,” to be beholden by someone is to be held.

These days my teens need to be held, loosely. Sometimes what I want to do is cling tighter. What I want to do is direct their paths and protect them from all harm, like their lives are on rails and I’m the railroad engineer. What they really need are guardrails and GPS. (How many metaphors can I toss into this post?) Instead, God whispers, Hold on loosely. They need clear guidance, yes, but I need the heartbreaking understanding that they might choose to turn left when I thought they should turn right. They need grace to make the decisions, and grace when they turn around. Isn’t that what the Generous Father does for the Prodigal Son? He lets him go and he welcomes him back.

“I think I made a mistake,” one of these image bearers said to me the other night. 

“If this is the biggest mistake of your teen years,” I said, “then I think you’re going to be okay.”

Oh, there are so many mistakes to be made. I made so many mistakes. I keep making mistakes. The blessing we have as their parents is the ability to give them grace and mercy and forgiveness now, with these first mistakes, so when they inevitably make bigger mistakes later, they remember their God, who kneels down and does not condemn them either, who will pull them up, whisper in their ear, This is not the end of the world, and give them hope for tomorrow, who will run to them on the road and meet them before they’ve even reached the doormat of their Father’s home.

He will behold them, and he will call them “my beloved.” They will be held. This is what I want to instill in them, now, that the light shining through the clouds is meant for them, and it’s also meant for all. They are beloved, and they are one of many other beloveds. Behold, dear one. You and you and you and you are loved.

Photo by Onur Kurtic

The Universal History of People Doing Whatever They Feel Like Doing

In those days there was no king in Israel. People did whatever they felt like doing. – Judges 17:6

I’m reading Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones right now. At the same time, I’ve been trudging chapter by chapter through the book of Judges in the Bible. The confluence of these two narratives is striking. Both books make me weep over humanity’s desperation.

The book of Judges begins with violence and dominion and ends in chaos. “At that time there was no king in Israel,” the last verse of Judges states. “People did whatever they felt like doing.”

Dreamland has a parallel feel to it. In an effort to ease our collective pain—the pain of poverty, the pain of oppression, the pain of addiction, the pain of illness, the pain of suffering—people will do whatever they feel like doing. There is no king, no governing sense of right or wrong that can stand up against the will of the people, who ultimately become slaves to painkillers, to the rush of wealth, to the hazy and unrealistic dream of a pain-free life. Dreamland is an incredible look at the complex roads that led us to the opiate epidemic in this nation. There is no one reason why we’re here. There are many. Some, maybe even all, of those roads looked altruistic and virtuous to the people who walked them. In the end, they’ve led to death.

The Book of Judges is a painful, violent cycle of dominance and war followed by rescue and order, for a time, until the next generation comes along. People do whatever they feel like doing and are left to their own devices. When suffering, oppression, and strife happen as a result, the people cry out for help from the Lord. A deliverer/judge/military leader rises up from the community to protect Israel, sometimes just, and other times unjust. Peace prevails for a time, and then the people forget about God and do whatever they’d like again, taking matters into their own hands.

The story is summarized in essence later in the Bible, in the first few chapters of Romans, capturing the same cycle from Judges in a more universal view: So God said, in effect, “If that’s what you want, that’s what you get.” It wasn’t long before they were living in a pigpen, smeared with filth, filthy inside and out. And all this because they traded the true God for a fake god, and worshiped the god they made instead of the God who made them—the God we bless, the God who blesses us. Oh, yes! (Romans 1:24-25 MSG).

The heart of Bible stories plays out over and over again throughout history. People who gain power seem to become addicted to power, are hungry for more and more, and are willing to sacrifice other people’s lives in order to acquire whatever they think will satisfy their desires, only to be left wanting even more. It’s happening in Russia and Ukraine right now. It happened in ranchos in the Mexican state of Nayirit. It happens the world over, generation after generation, in small towns and between nations and in our immediate families, my gain for your loss, my growth at your expense. The god we worship is the god we’ve made: our things, our source of security, our country, our national boundaries, our bank accounts, ourselves. The god we serve is a voracious god, a bottomless pit of need.

On the other hand, the God Paul says we’ve traded in for a false god describes himself as compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, faithful, forgiving, merciful, mighty, and loving, the wonderful counselor, the everlasting father, the prince of peace. When it comes to joy, his cup overflows. When it comes to love, it’s higher and wider and deeper than anything we can imagine. That very God made himself known fully through the God-Man Jesus, the one whose name forms the foundation of our religion’s name and ought to be the central focus of our faith.

The subversive message of Jesus—what gives life meaning—is not the acquisition of wealth, or power, or domination. It is love. If we place ourselves under the Lordship of Christ, we say that our lives are no longer ruled by our own gain. Our lives are no longer ruled by that voracious hunger. Our lives are no longer ruled by our own desires. Our lives are no longer ruled by our pursuit of a pain-free existence.

Our lives are ruled now by the rule of love: Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them”(Matthew 22:37-40 MSG).

When love leads, all else comes into alignment. You cannot covet and love. You cannot abuse and love. You cannot envy or slander or steal or kill or commit adultery and love. Any of these actions is outside the bounds of love and therefore against God, who has given us, in love, the Holy Spirit to guide the way to a meaningful life and a peaceful world, in communion with each other and with God, who sees our failings and faults and loves us back into relationship with God and with others.

Faith, hope, and love are the preventative measures against such things, and humility, justice, and mercy are the restorative measures when things have fallen apart.

It’s the simplest, hardest message to live out. The global challenges I find myself sucked into in the news cycle are beyond my control, but I can seek to live a life of love where I am at. I can seek to be a force for good in my family, in my home, in my church, and in my community. This is my sphere of influence, the place where my small act can make a difference to subvert the powers and principalities that oppress the marginalized, with the love and grace of the God-Man I have chosen to follow, who holds me in his grip and whose peace he promises to give.

Featured Image: Chaos during an earthquake by Jose Guadalupe Posada, ca. 1880-1910. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum.

The Sound of Snow Falling

Earlier this week as I was standing outside waiting for our new puppy to quit chewing on leaves and sticks and discarded seedpods and pinecones and get down to business (you know, business), the snow began to fall, and it sounded like static electricity, or sand sifting constantly, or a far-off snake rattle, or the clatter of a million maracas in the distance.

I have been trying to be a better listener.

On my way to a doctor’s appointment a week or so ago, I tuned in to a podcast episode of On Being with Krista Tippett. She interviewed Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist (who knew there was such a thing!) in an episode called “Silence and the Presence of Everything“:

“An attentive listener, he says silence is an endangered species on the verge of extinction. He defines real quiet as presence — not an absence of sound but an absence of noise.

When I step outside with my dogs and wait for them to stop their sniffing and bustling about so they can get down to business, I have been trying to be a better listener. I have been trying to leave my cell phone inside and let my senses take in the wonders of our small corner of the universe.

The sound of the wind is different in winter, is different when there’s snow on the ground or in the air, when it’s gusting from the north or whirring from the west or whipping up and over our roof and into the pool of lawn. The wind is different through the spruce needles, a rustling like the stirring of sand on an empty beach, different than through the pines, which whisper a shhh are you listening, shhhh, shhhh, shhhh, different from the oaks and other deciduous trees that croak and moan and sway numbly, their eyes closed, bearing down and letting go of whatever limbs they can’t hold anymore.

You have to stop moving so quickly in order to do this kind of listening. You have to let go of the notion that forward momentum is a constant necessity. In doing so you make room for the pregnant pause, the silence that is not absence but presence, holy, sacred presence, the wind, yes, but also the chittering squirrel, the alert pup, the cawing crow, the bending blades of grass under the snow.


Photo by Adam Lukac from Pexels

2022 Resolutions: Recover

The last few years, I haven’t made a resolution list like I have previously but instead sought a word from the Lord.

My word for 2016 was “clarity,” and much was made clear to me in 2016. By the end of 2016, I changed jobs that eventually brought us back to Ashland. My word for 2017 was “build,” to build on new confidence and direction, and by the end of 2017, we moved into a new home and back into this community. In 2018 it was “resolve,” and for 2019, it was “grow.” 

This strange practice in 2020 weirdly prepared me for one of the most troubling and physically exhausting years of my life. “Make space,” God said.

So funny!

I didn’t have a word in 2021, not one written down anyway. I think I was too tired for it. To make amends, the word that defined last year for me was “rest.” I learned the importance of rest in 2021. I remembered my worth separate from a steady paycheck and productivity. I experienced grace and love from my God and my family just because I am me. I rested in nature. I rested in the comfort of smallness and the steady rhythms of a quiet life. I also took long naps and slept deeply for many hours. It was glorious.

But that’s all done now. It has been a full year of rest, and as I turned the corner into 2022, I began to ask more of my body. Are you ready yet? I whispered to her. Do you think you can climb this hill? Do you think you can do this meditation? Do you think you can begin to recover?

That is the word I have for 2022: recover. It captures much of what I hope to achieve in list form this year and defines the stage of healing I feel like I’m in now, recovery. Recovering is returning to a normal state of mind, health, or strength. My body is surprising me with its renewed strength, with its resilience, its healing. I was not sure we’d ever be back here. I don’t want to abandon what I’ve gained in my year of rest, a soul-level peace I value as the best consolation prize I’ve been given in this year of suffering.

With this return to health, and with this being my 40th year, I have a renewed list of resolutions for 2022. I’ll be sharing some of these at Root & Vine as well, in additional detail, but here they are in summary:

  • read a chapter a day of scripture, beginning in the gospels
  • read 40 books (I read 39 last year, crushing my goal of 24, so here’s to beating myself in 2022)
  • workout 3 times a week with my daughter
  • retreat with Brandon at least once this year
  • complete The Family Bible Devotional, Volume 2 with my children by the end of this year
  • hike and eat with my mom at least twice a month
  • make a will
  • routinely compost kitchen scraps
  • explore one state or national park a month (this includes our plans to go out west in July this year)
  • schedule one event/webinar/podcast/speaking opportunity a month to promote American Honey and The Family Bible Devotional
  • secure an agent for Some Bright Morning (my novel)
  • write at least two essays to add to my second essay collection and begin seeking publication
  • participate in #napowrimo
  • begin writing a second novel by the end of 2022

What are you resolving to do in 2022? Do you have a word or phrase for your year?

Cover Photo by Sebastian Voortman from Pexels

Cranial Nerves and the Ongoing Post-COVID Journey

It’s been 21 months since my initial bout with COVID. I’m still not 100% recovered, maybe 80%? It’s hard to recall what “normal” looked like; I sometimes remember charging forth into every day with deep wells of ambition, staying up late into the night writing or working on a project, leading meetings, spending so much of the day thinking… it all seems so full, and fast-paced, and impossible now, still.

So, I’m not really sure how close I am to how I used to be anymore.

What I do know is that I am slowly getting better, still. Yesterday, I went to a physical therapist for the first time. She spent 90 minutes with me, sharing about the cranial nerve and patterns doctors who deal in dizziness are seeing in post-COVID patients. She talked about the brain stem and the neck and walked through the many and varied wonky symptoms I’ve experienced in the last nearly two years, stuff I never experienced previously. 

I wept some, because I do that now in response to pretty much anything but especially when I feel grateful. I’m grateful to have access to doctors who take COVID and post-COVID issues seriously. Grateful to be heard and understood and validated. Grateful for inklings of answers. Grateful for pathways forward. 

The exercise she gave me involves shaking my head yes and no for one minute each, focusing on a spot on the wall during that time. I did this yesterday once. “Do this twice a day, at 80 bpm, until this seems stupidly easy, and then slowly increase to 120 bpm. Don’t push it,” she warned, “We don’t want you to trigger another 45-day headache.”

Shaking your head yes or no shouldn’t be an issue, but the truth is I’ve carried my head around nervously for the last year and a half, careful to keep steady and avoid the destabilizing feeling of being on a boat when I’m not. I shouldn’t have to think about how to shake my head, or if to. Sometimes I feel like I move like my 80+ year-old grandmother, I move so tentatively. That isn’t normal, right?

Neurological healing and recovery takes a long time. I don’t have brain fog anymore, most of the time. I don’t need to nap every single day, just every few days, especially if I’ve been active, talking to people for several hours in a row and also walking. Performing any complex activity that involves using multiple senses and areas of my brain simultaneously still wears me out in ways it never did before, provoking headaches and brain fog. My brain doesn’t get as exhausted as it did last year, when trying to run a strategy session sunk me into massive and weeks-long migraines. The headaches are smaller now, warning signals from my sweet, terrified brain to take a break and rest. 

So that is what I try to do. 

Neurological issues and autonomic nervous system disorders are private struggles. There’s no cast or crutch or cane that signals, I’m still quite sick actually. I am grateful that I seem to be recovering, the wells of energy seem to stay full longer, and my physical endurance is improving. I even went back to the gym this week. I even did yoga a couple of weeks ago. 

But my brain is not done healing. Waking up this morning with a pounding headache and that slow brain feeling was discouraging. I overdid it yesterday, what with all of the nodding yes and no, the driving, the evening holiday gathering. Today, I will have to make up for that energy deficit and give my brain some more space to rest, again.

I share all of this because there are still so many people who don’t believe that COVID can hurt them, at least not seriously, and yet here I am. No pre-existing conditions. No history of migraines. Just an adrenal hormone imbalance and 21 months of ongoing and varied symptoms that disrupt my daily existence. COVID can be life altering.

The reality is that there is still so much unknown about why some people who are 40 years old get COVID and have no symptoms and other 40-year-old people get COVID and die, or why people in between, who maybe had no initial symptoms develop neurological issues that last for months, or maybe a lifetime, who knows? No one knows. We won’t know for a long time, until scientists and doctors can conduct studies and analyze data and publish reports. We’re only able to operate on emerging trends, hunches, and patterns people are seeing in a whole host of people, the young and the old, the weak and the strong.

Maybe someday we’ll know and be able to say, you with this blood type, you with this DNA, you with this specific combination of tendencies, you need to be more careful. You are more susceptible to the long-term damage COVID inflicts. But no one knows. You could be sick for days. Or weeks. Or months. Or years. Or die. Or not be sick at all. No one knows.

So how now shall we live?

This is a strange space in which to operate, because I love the life I have now, but it is not the life I had pre-COVID. You can grieve the life you lost and also be grateful for the life you gained. You can hold both truths in your hands. Isn’t that the reality of loss, no matter what it is you’ve lost? I miss the team I led. I miss being a leader and a problem solver, a strategist and a creative thinker. I miss this part of me, the part that is handicapped now by damaged nerve endings, the part I am aware may never be fully restored.

But I also love the life I have now and am grateful for the space and flexibility to rest, to write, to cook, to walk, to be with my family, to observe the natural world around me, to appreciate silence and slowness, to dwell and linger in God’s peace and quiet, to revel in it in ways the busy life I led before did not permit. There’s so much space, here, now.

I think this is what we are called to do, to go on living in the capacity that we are given, even if your world is smaller or feels insignificant. It isn’t. I am worthy and valued because I am. That’s it. No performance review or checked off list is required to validate the importance of your existence. Just being is enough. And out of that worthiness pours gratitude for every single falling snowflake, every single whispered “me too” of shared experience, every single shared smile or tear.

Don’t you just love to be alive? Isn’t it just wonderful?

Cover Photo by Dzenina Lukac from Pexels

American Honey: On Marriage and Memoir

Brandon and I had been married for about three seconds when we decided that we would be awesome at marriage ministry. Because we were clearly awesome at marriage. For those three seconds.

Neither of us knew 18 years ago what it meant to be equipped for marriage ministry. To “minister” is to tend to the needs of someone else. We thought the way to practice marriage ministry was to turn outward from our marriage and inspect other couples, tell other couples what they should do to have the best marriage now.

But what we needed to do was turn inward, to learn how to tend to the needs of each other. To be married. To stay married. To practice marriage. To minister within our own marriage.

It turns out we’ve been practicing marriage ministry now for 18 years and haven’t sat with a single couple for premarital counseling. We haven’t led a marriage retreat. We haven’t served on staff at a church or set curriculum on sex and money and fidelity.

There’s a Christian saying that marriage isn’t meant to make you happy; it’s meant to make you holy. I kind of hate that. Mostly because such one-liners are thrown out as if they contain all truth and that’s it, there’s nothing else to say. Obviously if you are not happy in your marriage it’s because that isn’t what it’s about; it’s about holiness and that’s the end of the conversation. 

But what is holiness except the profound deepening and widening of our understanding of God’s love for us? What is holiness except the experience of having your heart enlarged and beaten and restored, spurred on to love others more abundantly? What is holiness except the manifestation of the fruits of the Spirit?

And the fruits of the Spirit are first love, then joy, followed by peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. A marriage that is made holy has turned inward to each other’s needs, and by doing so, refracts the Spirit outward. Love and joy. Holiness and happiness.

Brandon and I have had 18 years worth of opportunities to not merely look out for our own personal interests but to tend to the interests of each other. Many times we’ve failed. Sometimes we’ve succeeded.

Every one of those moments has led me to this momentous announcement: We are never going into marriage ministry.

Instead, I present to you American Honey, part of our love story, the gritty, raw, honest, vulnerable, humorous, painful, complicated story of attraction and fidelity, parenting and gender role reversals, careful intimacies and, as Dinty Moore put it, “the occasional bison.” It is a quest to understand how I came to be a woman with weak boundaries, and what it might take to fortify those walls.

It is also only part of our story, albeit lots of parts, parts that were hard, parts that shattered trust, parts that took a long time to heal. This exploration of self is an exploration of part of my story, of how I experienced and worked through a challenging season, of how I processed my past with the objective of understanding the nature of yearning and attraction.

How did this happen? Why am I how I am? Who am I?

Memoir is not the whole truth, but it is an effort to write my way into and out of a situation and find my truth (with a nod to The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick).

Our hope—Brandon’s and my hope—is that this lived experience ends up being the marriage ministry we imagined we might have someday. The writing of American Honey made me a better person and a better partner. Maybe this one story can serve as a buoy for others, a quiet whisper that reassures the reader that they aren’t alone, these picture perfect marriages you imagine have their own piles of ghosts and skeletons.

And guess what. There’s hope. Hard, gentle, persistent hope.

(Adapted from an article I wrote called “Marriage as a Spiritual Practice,” originally published on the now-defunct blog, Off the Page.)

Sifted As Wheat

Sometime around 2005, the “everything happens for a reason,” feel-good faith of my college years shattered. I had had two miscarriages and health complications that accompanied those losses, and to tell you the truth, God did not feel real close, or real good, or real loving. In fact, I didn’t feel anything for God except grief and anger. You promised me the desires of my heart! I wailed. What kind of a God are you?

I wrote a poem at the time (below) in response to something Jesus said to Peter in Luke 22:31-32:

“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”

Luke 22:31-32

What does it look like to be sifted as wheat? 

Wheat is sifted to remove the inedible chaff. It gets in the way of the edible grain. Here is what threshing and sifting wheat looks like:

This does not look fun to me. 

Simon, Satan has asked to beat you with a whip until the useless parts of who you are fall away, and then Satan’s going to toss you around a while in a big basket to let loose the remaining chaff. Jesus might as well have said, Simon, this is going to hurt like hell.

There are lots of these metaphors in Scripture. God is the vine, and we are the branches. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit… (John 15:2). He will sit as a refiner and smelt the priests like gold and silver to remove any impurities and sediment from them (Malachi 3:3). On and on, God does the work of disciplining and cleaning, purifying and preparing his people. And then he restores them.

That kind of sifting takes its toll. There have been multiple seasons since 2005 when I have felt raw, as if I’ve spent that time scrubbing my skin with abrasive soap. Or how about refinishing a piece of wooden furniture? (The metaphors are endless.) As God strips away each layer of varnish, I have heard, You are not this. I am not this. I am not that. You are not that. We are not this. This is not of me. This is not who we are. That rawness brings a certain tenderness and sensitivity. Things that are not of God rub me the wrong way. Misappropriations of Jesus evoke a visceral reaction in me. 

It takes energy to keep declaring what God is not like, refuting platitudes, mythbusting the junk we pick up and carry around with us as if it’s from God but it isn’t, it’s actually just chaff, loads and loads of chaff clinging to our socks and irritating our necks. Have you ever loaded hay bales onto a wagon and felt the powder of chaff on your skin? It’s awful, trying to pick away all of those small pieces.

It’s far easier to just strip down. Take a shower. Rinse clean. Start fresh.

But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail.

So much sifting has been happening in the church over the last decade (or more). God is very busy separating the wheat from the chaff. He does it in our individual lives and he does it on a grand scale, an apocalyptic peeling back to reveal the true nature of things. We watch the train wrecks and rightfully lament, Is there anyone righteous left?

Has your faith endured through all this sifting? Has your faith endured the fallout of pastoral moral failures, of political strife, of pandemic pain and disagreement and death, of personal crises and losses and so much damage, so much trauma, so much brokenness? 

I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail.

And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.

Here we are. We are here. We have spent so much time defining God by what God is not. As the chaff lifts on the wind, and we are stripped bare, and the clear fresh water rushes over our skin, the voice in the wind whispers, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 

What are you doing here, Peter? Peter, do you love me?

When you have turned back, strengthen your brothers. 

The threshing floor is clear. It’s time to stop carrying around the chaff that God has stripped away as evidence for what he is not and start being the wheat that is, being the branch that bears fruit. It’s time to put away the remaining chaff of cynicism, apply the balm of Gilead that is Jesus, and return. Turn back to a faith that is sincere, a faith that is sifted, strengthened, and renewed.

“There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. There she will respond as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt.”

Hosea 2:15 NIV

As I was writing this, a friend sent the following encouragement from Reverend Dr. Glenn Packiam.

Return to sincerity. Strengthen your brothers. Start with Jesus.

“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Romans 12:9,21 (NIV)

(Poem from Pruning Burning Bushes. Cover photo by Antony Trivet from Pexels)

Sarah Ruins Jeremiah 29:11

Pete Enns has ruined Exodus, Isaiah, and Christmas, so I thought I’d take a stab at ruining one of the American Christian’s favorite Bible verses, an oft-quoted, stenciled, and memorized Jeremiah 29:11:

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Jeremiah 29:11

(Pete Enns is a biblical scholar and author of several books, including The Sin of Certainty, The Bible Tells Me So, How the Bible Actually Works, and more. If you aren’t familiar with his work, it’s quite good. He also has a podcast called the Bible for Normal People.)

Jeremiah and Me: A History

In the infant years of my faith as a college student, discovering this verse and verses like it (Isaiah 42:16, for instance) were both deeply encouraging and anxiety producing. As a young person in high school, I had ideas about what I’d like to do as an adult, but when I became a Christian at age 18, suddenly a new layer was added to my career pursuits. Now it wasn’t just a matter of finding a job I was good at and doing my best at that job. That wasn’t enough. I was a follower of Jesus now. What did God want me to do?

That someone, like God, had a plan for me, I reasoned, was good news. I was grateful he cared that much about me to have a plan for my life. But when was he going to clue me in?! Should I major in this subject, or that subject? Should I teach or should I write or should I try to teach writing? Should I attend this college or transfer to another college? Should I marry this guy, or should I wait and marry some other guy? Should I marry at all?

What are your plans for me, God? Show me! I pleaded. I grasped at whatever signs I could find, trying to divinate God’s particular roadmap for my life. As I moved along through my college years and into young married life, the pleas continued. I earnestly sought the Lord’s will in all things. This man? This job? This house? This church? No? How about this job? Baby? No babies? O Lord, I prayed again and again, What is your will?

Where is God’s plan when things shatter?

Not very long into marriage, I had a miscarriage with a side dish of health complications that lasted for eight months. When it was okay to try again, we swiftly became pregnant and then unpregnant, a second time. 

Suddenly, Jeremiah 29:11 seemed like a bunch of BS, right alongside other verses that promised that God would give me whatever I wanted or asked for if I delighted in him. I loved God. Wasn’t I faithful enough? Hadn’t I delighted?

For so long I had buttressed my faith with all of these promises of prosperity without acknowledging, reading, or understanding the context of the verses, and as a result, when hard things began to happen, my faith in a God of Good Fortune was shaken. What was I to do with all of the bad things happening?

I’m not the first to ask such a question, of course. Job, the oldest book in the Bible, wrestled with the question of suffering 3,500 years ago, and we’re still wrestling with it today. 

So, is Jeremiah 29:11 untrue? Does God have a plan and a purpose for your life? Or is it something else?

When it comes to prophecies, it’s not personal.

This is the first truth about Jeremiah and the prophets: It isn’t personal. We want it to be personal, because that’s the kind of faith many of us were raised in: we were invited to have a personal, saving relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. 

But the prophets spoke to the nation of Israel. Every “you” is a “you plural,” not “you singular.” We could say instead “You people” or “Y’all” for pretty much all of our favorite passages. Unlike our Americanized, individualized approach to Christianity, the Jewish people saw their relationship and standing before the Lord as a community, systemic. We the People. Not me the person.

God is concerned with all of humanity’s progression towards healing, reconciliation, and peace. Not just my particular path, my day in and day out life choices. He just wants me to live, and live abundantly (John 10:10).

While God does know the plans he has for me, plans to prosper me and not to harm me, plans for my hope and future, I should not take this to mean a very specific, tactical plan that I may miss or screw up, like taking the wrong job, or not marrying the right guy. No, these plans God has are universe-sized, plans to reconcile all of humanity to himself, plans for love and joy and hope and peace and every other good thing. 

I’m involved in that plan, but I am not the center of that plan… praise Jesus in heaven. My involvement is to do my part to love God and love others. By working together to fulfill these two commandments as a people of God united in spirit as the body of Christ, we might collectively bring heaven to earth. No single one of us is going to achieve that plan and purpose by ourselves.

There were false prophets and there were true prophets, and the true ones usually brought bad news.

The second truth about Jeremiah is that no one looked forward to hearing from Jeremiah. He was rarely there to bring good news. In fact, the letter in which Jeremiah penned Jeremiah 29:11 is preceded by a throwdown between Jeremiah and another prophet, Hananiah. Many of the Israelites were living in exile, kicked out of Jerusalem and under the rulership of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. As you can imagine, the Israelites were not happy with these arrangements.

Hananiah told the Israelites that it would only be a little while before the awful King Nebuchadnezzar was out of power—like two years!—and then Israel would have victory! God’s going to come in and break Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon. You just wait. It’s going to be awesome.

In front of all of the Israelite priests, Jeremiah told Hananiah, “From early times the prophets who preceded you and me have prophesied war, disaster and plague against many countries and great kingdoms. But the prophet who prophesies peace will be recognized as one truly sent by the Lord only if his prediction comes true” (Jeremiah 28:8-10 NIV).

In response, Hananiah says that not only will Israel be free from underneath Babylon’s rule, all the nations will be free, and it’ll only take two years. Ka-pow! Shake and bake, baby!

Isn’t that what we want to hear, right now? This present suffering is only going to last a little while and then just wait. God’s gonna come and show those enemies of ours what’s what.

Instead, God speaks through Jeremiah and says, nope, it’s going to be worse than what you think. Everyone is going to serve Nebuchadnezzar. God has a word for Hananiah: “Listen, Hananiah! The Lord has not sent you, yet you have persuaded this nation to trust in lies. Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘I am about to remove you from the face of the earth. This very year you are going to die, because you have preached rebellion against the Lord’” (Jeremiah 28:15-16 NIV).

False prophets face mortal consequences.

God deals with false prophets severely. Two months after this interaction, Hananiah died. Not only this, but two other false prophets, people in the community of believers who spoke lies in God’s name and committed adultery with their neighbors’ wives, these prophets as well were punished and killed by Nebuchadnezzar, a foreign king. 

Don’t miss this: God is not condemning the foreign king who is ruling over the people of Israel. He’s condemning the priests, the prophets, the speakers and teachers who all claim to follow God but are not speaking the word of the Lord. Instead, they are behaving like politicians, delivering what the people want to hear instead of what the people need to hear.

Leaders who persuade other people to trust in lies face mortal consequences. Jesus had the harshest words for the chief priests and the teachers of the Law. Woe to you, Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. (Matthew 23:13-39 NIV). The false prophets had sweet words that made the people feel good, despite the information being false. The same is true today. Smooth talkers and people who say only what the people want to hear might win some over in the short term, but sooner or later, God’s gonna cut you down, as Johnny Cash says. 

There’s hope in that for the powerless, and there’s warning in that for those of us in leadership, who hold power to sway and persuade. The burden of responsibility for leaders is substantial, and the temptations of power are great. The warnings of the prophets are often directed at the leaders, and the consequences are dire. We would do well to heed the warnings of the prophets.

True prophets speak the truth, even when it’s grim.

The prophets saw the crises in the community of believers, and fire burned in their bones. It’s the prophet’s job to rattle the cages of complacency and pride in the community. Prophets see the consequences of action (or inaction) and warn the people of what life will look like if they continue down this road. The prophets spoke to specific circumstances of disobedience at specific times in history, and yet, we can learn from history, we can glean truth from these specific events.

After Hananiah died, Jeremiah wrote a letter to the leaders of the people throughout Babylon, all those who were exiled and living in foreign lands. It isn’t going to be two years, he said. It’s going to be 70. Seventy years! Here’s what God directed the people in exile to do:

“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

Jeremiah 29:5-7

Get comfy. Live your lives. Don’t expect this burden to ease up for a while. In fact, seek the good of the place you’re stuck in, even if it’s a foreign land.

Prophets delivered promises of hope for the nation of Israel… in God’s timeline, not ours.

All of this leads up to Jeremiah 29:11. God tells the people, when it’s been 70 years, I’ll bring you back to your land, as I promised. “For I know the plans I have for y’all, plans to prosper y’all and not to harm y’all, to give y’all hope and a future.” 

You, plural. You, the people. You, nation of Israel. You, people of God. This suffering will not last forever. 

Even when God deals harshly with his people, rebuking them, stripping them down, and humbling them, he always promises salvation, hope, healing, and restoration. There is always an “and yet.” The disciplinary hand of God also lifts the chin of the shamed daughter and folds her in his arms.

After some more false prophets are condemned by Jeremiah and God, Jeremiah writes of the discipline Israel will endure and the eventual restoration of Israel, the true good news and what the future forecast is, according to God’s timeline. It is coming, it will be fulfilled, and it is fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ, who declared the kingdom of God is among us, now.

Prophets compel us to action.

God uses his prophets to cause a disturbance and shake us out of our complacency, to sound the alarm about the direction we’re headed and reroute us back to God, back to “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6-7a). What does that look like when you’re in exile, when you aren’t where you thought you’d be, when your plan and your purpose don’t align with your reality, when you’re mixed in with a group of people and leaders who do not reflect your values, do not respect your customs, and do not follow your God?

Build houses. Settle down. Seek the peace and prosperity of the town where you live. Be here now. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Act humbly, now. Love your God and love your neighbor as yourself, whether you turn to the right or to the left, because in either direction, you can love. In either direction, there is God. 

And his plan and purposes are good.

(Photo by Johannes Plenio from Pexels)

The New Self

Good Saturday morning, friends!

I took a little break the last couple of weeks from the newsletter while the fam and I were on the road for vacation. Vacation felt different this year for me. In the past, I have run a long marathon at a sprinter’s pace all the way up until the last minute of my workweek so that I could “shut it off” for the duration of vacation.

It was busier than normal leading up to vacation this time, but nothing like in the past. I pulled no late-night writing sprees. I fit what I could into the time I allotted and then rested. Out of necessity, rest has become such a high priority in my life in the last year that there’s no hesitation in my “Yes” driven brain to say “No,” firmly and adamantly, to over-stressing my body and mind.

As a result, there was nothing to “shut off” on vacation. I shifted my placid, peaceful existence from my deck in Ashland to a deck in South Carolina. I set down my computer for the majority of the week and picked up some great books I’d love to tell you about sometime. I gave my brain a break from writing and allowed my body to do what it was able to do, testing it a little to see how it would handle additional physical activity. 

What I’ve learned in the last 16 months of chronic illness, doctor’s appointments, and diagnoses is that rest is serious business and recovery is molasses slow. There have been several times in the last year and a half that I have said out loud or to myself, “I think I’m starting to feel like myself again,” and then three months later, I look back at that period in awe and wonder at how not myself I really was. And then the cycle repeats.

I think I am starting to feel like myself again, you know? But it’s a different self than pre-COVID. This self can’t handle the stress of pushing beyond her mental capacities like she did before, lovingly and passionately. This self seems highly functioning, but she loses more words than she’d like, and when she types, sometimes she forgets how to spell words and lets Google help. (This is an embarrassing admission for the writer who prides herself on spelling and grammar.) This self still rises slowly and works as much as she can, with breaks, and then takes walks, slowly, and then sits on her deck to absorb the chaos and chatter of the natural world in her backyard. This self can only focus on one thing at a time and doesn’t hear anyone else when she is required to text or think or read. This self is abstaining from alcohol most of the time, sleeping eight hours a night, drinking just one cup of caffeinated coffee and 80 gallons of water, and eating ice cream whenever she darn well pleases.

This self never thought she’d be so grateful to do things like golf 18 holes with her daughter and not die, or boogie board at the beach and not die, or paddle board in the marsh and not die, or walk for hours on the beach and not die. There’s so much I have taken for granted every day of my life, until March of 2020. Since then, every day I breathe without pain in my chest, every day I don’t notice my own heart beat, every day I manage to laugh and cook and stand and talk all at once and be present with no brain fog leaves me in awe and wonder, tears forming in gratitude at the amazing and miraculous way our bodies can heal, do function, are able to still do things they worried they might not ever be able to do again.

This self will never go back to being her old self again. And isn’t that a wonderful, beautiful thing?

“You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”

Ephesians 4:22-24 NIV

Enter Through the Narrow Gate

“Enter through the narrow gate,” Jesus told his disciples. I’ve been thinking about this narrow gate for a long time, bewildered that God would make a small entrance into his kingdom on purpose to keep people out. Jesus says the only way to the Father is through the Son, that the Son is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and so the way is very narrow, the gate only Jesus. 

The verses that wrap around this short passage of Scripture instruct the followers of Jesus not to judge others, to knock and the door will be opened, to judge a tree by its fruit, to watch out for hollow disciples who say “Lord, Lord,” but don’t practice what they preach, to build on a solid foundation and not a foundation of sand. They come on the heels of the beatitudes and conclude the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). 

I’ve been reading the narrow gate verses as morality warnings: do the right things, and you can enter; do the wrong things, and you’ll be left out. But what “things” are we actually talking about here? What message has Jesus preached all throughout the gospels? Does he lead with the law, or with love? 

Which brings me to this question: Why is there a gate in the first place?

There needs to be a gate because humans love to build walls. We build walls and fences to keep the unwanted out. Every brick and block is a “thou shalt not” we stack—thou shalt not be this color, this gender, this sex, this poor, this hungry, this smart, this nationality, this sinful, this class, this disabled, this political party. Brick by brick, we define who is allowed in and who must stay out. The walls grow ever higher. We perch on top, legs dangling, and scoff at those who can’t scale the fence to enter.

The Pharisees spent the entire gospel story trying to catch Jesus. Their laws hung on the walls, plain as day, but somehow Jesus kept evading them. “The law says… what do you say?” they asked. They wanted to trap him and say, “Ah, see? You’re breaking the law.” But Jesus knew a different way, a way past the walls. A way beyond the fences. 

Jesus installed a gate through all of our “thou shalt nots.” It’s narrow, because there is just one great thing that is required to pass through all of that judgment: Love. The way is narrow. It’s one God wide. 

The narrow gate opens to a broad field of freedom, rolling hills of mercy, forests of grace. On the other side of the gate is unconditional love, love that is wide and long and high and deep (Ephesians 3:17-19). Forget those walls: There is absolutely nothing that can separate us from the love that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:35-39). 

That’s the paradox of the narrow gate. “Enter through the narrow gate,” Jesus instructed his followers. “For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it” (Matthew 7:13). What gates and roads does the world recommend we take for success? Power and corruption trample over innocents and deprive the weak of food, shelter, and freedom to stock the wealthy’s storehouses with more money than they know what to do with. The paths of the world preach fear and hate. They spin conspiracies and poison water. They perpetuate lies and evade justice. They use the lives of others to advance their own agendas. They tell anyone who will listen, “Be afraid,” “Watch out,” “Be outraged.” The paths of power are broad and the gates of hate are wide.

“But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life,” Jesus declares, “and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:14). Jesus tells his disciples that he is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). He tells his followers they will have trouble in this world, but they should take heart: Jesus has overcome the world and its walls (John 16:33). He says through him there is an abundant life (John 10:9-10). He says in him there is freedom (Luke 4:18). He calls the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the ones who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure at heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness blessed. Actively blessed. Loved by God. Inheritors of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5).

The narrow gate isn’t barred by a list of rules and laws you have to answer correctly before entering—that’s the walls on either side. The narrow gate is open to those who ask, seek, and knock. It is through this narrow gate that we discover the most expansive, inclusive path of love.

The narrow gate is narrow because it is hard to knock down the walls we’ve constructed, walls thick with prejudices and discriminations, hatred and fears. It is hard to chisel loose the junk that’s cemented there and dump it at the foot of the cross. But there’s a narrow gate of love that welcomes us in, calls us to set the dynamite against our walls and detonate. The narrow gate of love asks us to surrender our guarded opinions over to the Lord so that he can make that whitewashed wall bright with the graffiti of mercy, redemption, and love.

Love is harder than hate.
Enter through the narrow gate.