Monday, March 20, 2017

A Shadow of Beauty

I woke in darkness to the jingle of my alarm and the chatter of birds. Perhaps the birds knew it was the first day of Spring and were thus employed with extra jubilation, but my suspicion is that they greet every morning with such exuberance. I listened to their Lauds—their morning prayer-chant—with a slow smile on my sleepy face. Finally pulling myself out of bed as the sky became a deep rose-gold. I never can decide if I like sunrise or sunset better, I'm glad I don't have to—I can simply like them both for their own sakes. 

Being the first day of Spring meant it was my friend-and-co-worker's birthday, and I had offered to make breakfast for the office. As I toasted English muffins and poached eggs in my cast iron skillet, I turned around to rinse my hands and saw a lovely moment: a reflected shadow. The sun coming through my antique windowpanes lit up the tawny dried grasses in the bottle on the sill, but the shadow it cast made them look like fresh wildflowers. I paused my poaching liturgy to snap a photo of the spiritual reality bowing before my eyes. 

There are times in life when all we can see are the dried grasses of our dreams or best laid plans. No matter which way we look at them, they are brittle, dried up, monotone kindling tucked in the corner of the sill. But maybe the problem is that we keep looking at the broken dream or the mislaid plan, whilst God is nudging us to turn around and look at the reflected shadow. When we turn, we see flowers outlined on the wall. We see the contour of each stem and leaf; each pod becomes a glory of its own. The dried grass looks different from this perspective, looks fresh and lovely and renewed. 

Sometimes the shadow is full of beauty, not mere darkness. Sometimes the shadows that fall on our lives are not snuffing out the sun, they are the evidence that there is sunlight. Without light there couldn't be shadows cast, after all. All would be utter darkness, impenetrable, blinding. For darkness, as well as overpowering light, blinds the eyes after time. But shadows are a mix of light and solid things; they are the delicate darkness dappling the wall.

One of the darkest things I have witnessed is my faithful sister being turned out of her home and her marriage. We could only stare at the pieces all around, the shattered lives of those affected, with shock and disbelief and horror. How did this happen? Those pieces looked sharp and irreparable and bleak. In many ways, they are. But when we stop looking at the shards and begin to see the light shine on them, through them, around them, we see the shadow reflected on the wall. We see Beauty and hope springing out of dead things. It isn't the restoration or reconciliation we hoped for, but other good things are germinating. There is Beauty in the shadow, as well as beyond it. There is light high beyond the reach of darkness, as Samwise discovered in Return of the King:
“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 light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”

The Fall and all its evil is but a small and passing thing from God's perspective. There is Light and there is Beauty that evil cannot touch. There is unseen Reality that cannot be destroyed, even when all the seen is turned into so much ash and concrete dust. The truth is that God is Real—He is high and beyond the reach of evil. God is the Light of the world, and it is His light spilling on and through and around us that casts a shadow of Beauty on the wall of life. Many times we get too busy looking at ourselves to see the whole Beauty-filled outline; to see the Light by which we see—but He is there, prodding us to turn around and see what the Light has made new.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Unbreak My Heart New

Normal life and my normal self died a few years ago. The problem is, I keep expecting my normal self to resurrect—to look out at me from the mirror again, to take up residency in my heart and home. I keep expecting to be who I was. . .and I keep getting surprised when I'm not that person anymore. The carefree, wide-eyed, faithful-to-have-quiet-time, thoughtful person I used to be sustained wounds so deep that she died. That person is buried under a pile of ashes. Cancer. Death. Divorce. Things that weren't supposed to touch my family torched us. Many of my own hopes and dreams have burnt out, adding their ash to the grave of the person I used to be.

i am desperate, 
if nothing else, 
in a holding pattern 
to find myself.

i talk in circles, 
i talk in circles, 
i watch for signals, 
for a clue.

how to feel different. 
how to feel new. 

How do I get out of this dichotomy? I so often behave in a way that I despise. I know the right thing to do, yet shrink from doing it. I want to go back to who I was or forward to feeling—to being—new. . . anything but this horrible stuck feeling, this stagnant 'living' I've been attempting. The holding pattern never becomes a flight plan and I'm getting desperate. Desperation can push us over the edge, can push us to depression, can push us into a rut, can push us into despising who we've become. In my desperation I've made rash decisions—hoping that a change in life-circumstances would change the dull ache, the incessant indifference into incandescent joy. Hoping I could go back to who  was.

[But,] no one can unring this bell, 
unsound this alarm, unbreak my heart new. 
God knows, i am dissonance 
waiting to be swiftly pulled into tune.

The echoes of the Fall reverberate in my heart, my thoughts, my whole life. . .and it can't be unrung. Carefree me has become careworn and careful—careful not to get hurt anymore. The more I try to gather up all the pieces, to hold them and order my own steps, the less disciplined, purposeful, and joy-filled I am. The more I grasp at control, the less of it I have. Life spins at a crazy pace with no stillness. 

I am all dissonance, the wrong sounds at the wrong times. Saying 'no' when I want to say 'yes,' and 'yes' when I should say 'no' has emptied me. I keep running away from the open arms of Jesus, looking for acceptance from just about everyone else. It's never enough from anyone else, though. The more I look for acceptance from others, the less satisfied I am. Their acceptance rings hollow. All I want is for God to pull me into tune, into step with Him. But running my own way, singing my own song, makes it impossible to walk in step with, or be in tune with, God. My life feels like a cacophony in unconnected, chaotic bursts. 

i know the further i go, 
the harder i try, only keeps my eyes closed. 
and somehow i’ve fallen in love 
with this middle ground at the cost of my soul.

C S Lewis once made the observation that “We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road, and in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.” Indeed, I know that the more I run away, the more I 'try harder,' only plunges me further into the darkness of trying to control what only God can. I've fallen in love with mediocrity, inadequacy, and complacency at the cost of my soul. I've chosen indifference so many times that I can no longer feel. . .and I'm terrified of remaining thus.

yet i know, if i stepped aside, 
released the controls, you would open my eyes. 
that somehow, all of this mess 
is just an attempt to know the worth of my life

I want to reach back in time and unmake the mess my life and my soul have become. The more I try to experience meaning and depth, the less I can feel. My desire for control—so I can be free, so nothing else can hurt me—has spilled acid-like onto other people, burning them, hurting them, haunting me. I can't feel pain and empathy to much depth anymore—I've burnt myself out. I'm left with hands full of ashes. The ashes of relationships, the ashes of my emotions—a grey film between me and real life. Is this what being a leper feels like? To not feel. . .to not know I'm being burnt when I'm on fire? 

The more I grasp at life, the more I try to hold onto meaning, the more I want to experience feelings, the more they flee and the less I have. Jesus was right, of course: Whoever loses his life for my sake will save it, but whoever insists on keeping his life will lose it... I keep insisting on life as I think I need it or want it. The more I do, the more enslaved I become. Rather than being satisfied, I am insatiable. Rather than being disciplined I am reckless. Rather than really loving God and others, I run from them and shut them out. Rather than being hurt, wound—and am insensible to the pain I cause. The more I want to feel, the more indifferent I am. Must I remain enslaved to this dichotomy? Where does change come from? Because it certainly does not come from me or from trying harder. 

Change comes like a breath of fresh air into a musty room—it comes from the hovering, order-bringing, healing Holy Spirit Himself. Change – renewal – can only ever come from God. The more I surrender control, the less chaotic life might be. When I submit myself to God, the enemy has to flee from me, and so I am free. This is the the true paradox: that I must submit to be made free, that surrender leads to life. 

I cannot go back to my normal, carefree self. The quivering of the Fall has shaken my life. I have been rent, broken, and buried. But the Resurrection and the Life is at work in me. He has fallen into the ground and died, bearing much fruit—and He calls me, calls us, to do the same. The breath of life will not fill my lungs the same way it did. . .but perhaps the Breath is a person who will expand my breathing, who will give me deeper life—life etched by sorrow and shaped into something more Beautiful than carefree me could have been. 

I'm desperate for new life. To be a string tightened into tune, no longer wanton but free to be in harmony. No. . . Not desperate. I am confident that there is Hope for new life, for retuning and renewal. That Hope is the Anchor for my soul, to keep me from spinning in the circles of a holding pattern. He holds me steady in the storm—and when the time is right, the Anchor is drawn up and the Wind is given full reign to guide the ship. All things have their times and seasons, their proper channels and right order. When the sail submits to the Anchor even in the storm, or to the Wind under the hand of the Captain, it is then the ship is most free.


1. Sleeping at Last (Ryan O'Neil), Mercury

2. C.S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity

3. Luke 9:24 TLB (The Living Bible copyright © 1971 by Tyndale House Foundation)

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Wandering in Wantonness, Yearning for Freedom

Why is it that the more I desire freedom, the less of it I have? 

Am I too irresponsible with the freedom I do have? Do I hold so tightly to my freedom that I crush it, like a child might crush a flower in their hand in their effort to protect it? I know that love can be bruised, and even extinguished, if held too tightly—I have been the constrictor and constricted at different points in my life. Love cannot flourish without freedom. 

So too, freedom cannot be true freedom without boundaries, else it becomes anarchy or licentiousness: "[Freedom] requires efforts, it presupposes mental and moral qualities of a high order to be generally diffused in the society where it exists" said John C Calhoun. Freedom must be tempered with morality, or the free-will of one may suffocate or imprison the will of another. Self-determination can easily become selfishness. When I rejoice in my deliverance rather than my Deliverer, I have made an idol out of a gift. 

My history tutor succeeded in teaching me at least one thing in my eight weeks of Oxford learning: Rights entail responsibilities. According to the Declaration of Independence, freedom is a God-given right. Life is a right. Private ownership of things [not people] is a right. With these rights then, come responsibilities. A right is a moral duty, a rule of conduct; it is a just claim and a privilege. When we want a right without assuming the responsibility it entails, it will crumble. Thus, when I want freedom on my terms, I find what I have called freedom is hollow, crumpled in my grasping hand. When I buck the parameters given because they feel confining, am I asserting freedom of will or willful selfishness? 

I want the bit in my teeth so I can have my head. I want to come and go as I please at work, but I need to be subject to the hours of operation, to be available to my co-workers. All the other hours of the week are my own. If I squander my mornings with sleep, having stayed up too late, is that the fault of my work for being too early, or my own, for being undisciplined? And if I feel stifled at work by having to remain indoors on a lovely day, haven't I chosen a job that is predominantly indoors? I have chosen to be subject to that parameter by choosing this job over another. Have I stifled my freedom to go hiking or to sit on my porch to read or write? By no means. There are certain hours of the day when I have chosen not to pursue those things, but they are still mine to pursue on off days and off hours. Further, I couldn't afford car insurance or gasoline, housing or food if I didn't have a job, so I would be less free to live in a mountainous state to hike in if I didn't have my job. 

Freedom has its framework, keeping it from becoming an amorphous, languid, insipid dissipation. I am only free to communicate in writing if I obey the rules of grammar. I am only free to hike if I have strengthened my muscles; taken care to feed my body the right proteins, fruits, and vegetables; looked up a route and driven to it. I can't hike in Buena Vista if I don't get in my car and drive two hours away in the right direction. Because I live in this place, I necessarily do not live in any other place. Is that somehow not free?

I now come back to love not being true love without freedom. When you feel like you have to love someone back because they care so much about you, is that really love or obligation? By very definition, the word obligation means binding. And while freedom involves duty and staying within morality—like a thought is only free to be expressed and understood when it is bound by proper punctuation—it is not binding, or non-freedom. A thing cannot be itself and its opposite. This is why God gave humans freedom of will. Yes, taken out of its parameters it is turned into anarchy, self-indulgence, and licence—these broken forms being the heartbreak and death of millions and millions throughout history. 

Yet what a difference it is to freely give love, without feeling we have to! If we were obligated to love God because He loves us, rather than being allowed to choose to love Him, that would not be love. It would be duty, it would be bindingly obligatory, it would be dull and colourless. I have tried to cause my heart to love warmly because I was loved and felt I must love in return. I have tried to be friends with people who were so needy for love that they grasped at friendship and affection. These relationships do not work. They frustrate and wound both people. When the Bible says we love because God first loved us, it does not mean that we feel we are expected to love God because He loved us. It means we are overwhelmed, awed by His love for us. We are humbled by His love and we want to return it, we want Him to be loved, too! This real love appears similar to loving out of duty, but the difference is in the heart. We gladly lay down our lives, give of our time and heart with no trace of resentment or drudgery.

Freedom is not unrestrained frolic and revelry, as our culture often thinks. That is the definition of wantonness. In fact, wantonness is said to be, "resistant to control, willful; a discordant sound." I shuddered at this definition, because it so accurately describes my heart. I resist control in my heart and in my words. I am willful and selfish. The older I get, the more I find how self-absorbed I am. That makes for a discordant strain in God's harmony. Like Melchor in The Silmarillion, or the little farandolae in A Wind in the Door, I sing my own song, thinking that it is better to be myself than to be part of the mighty chorus, the rooted, life-giving farandola. I want to do my own thing rather than being confined by doing what others want. And in some ways, that is good. I shouldn't go along with the crowd of our culture. But I am a member of the Body of Christ, not an individual. It is freedom to live with, to serve with, to give myself for Jesus—and He says I do that by being part of His body. I don't lose myself by being part of Him. I do not make music by singing my own song, I make discord. When I sing with the host of heaven and the saints, we shake the universe with the song of Ill├║vitar, the mighty chorus vibrating life and creativity and joy into every atom and galaxy.

All this time I have been grasping at wantonness, lack of restraint. I have not been yearning for freedom after all, I have been craving self indulgence: 
"Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint; but blessed is the one who heeds wisdom's instruction" (Prov 29:18 NIV).  
Or as the ESV says, "Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law."  
Prophetic vision and the instruction of wisdom are our parameters; they are the complete thought bound in a sentence, the melody of the symphony. The head of the Body is Christ—the Head has the eyes, and through the brain, the eyes communicate to the rest of the body what it should do. The wisdom and the vision come from Christ through His prophets, apostles, and teachers. I have rarely found these people leading a church, but I have shared many a meal with them around a table, exchanged letters and calls with them, read their books, and lived and worked alongside them. 

Freedom is not unrestraint—that is wantonness. Yet it is not a binding cord, either. Freedom is not a chain, it is a channel. A river that overflows its banks is out of control, damaging property, sometimes killing people. People who cast off restraint are said to run wild, often doing much more harm than a surging river or stampeding [uncontrolled] herd. "That which we restrain we keep within limits; that which we restrict we keep within certain definite limits; that which we repress we try to put out of existence" (Century Dictionary, 1902). When I try to cast off restraint, I am not pursuing freedom. When I seek God's wisdom, it represses sin in me, crucifying my flesh so that I might be fully alive to Christ in my spirit. When I seek God's vision, when I heed wisdom's instruction, then—and only then—am I free.