Thursday, April 11, 2019

Soul, Look Up

The heaviness settles in. The despair circles, threatens. The questions multiply, the doubts form quickly.

Some days it doesn't seem to take much. News of natural disasters, of devastated families, of broken marriages, of broken churches.

Other days, the first hint of my own sin can send me spiraling.

What is there to do, when this despair is coming for us in quick measure?

Soul, look up.

What will I find?

I will find hope, an eternal, unfailing hope. A hope at the first word spoken, a hope offered so freely, a hope that penetrates this broken soul, that heals again and again. Hope that is firm, though I be slain. Hope that leads to joy, hope that is unseen but living.

I will find light, the creator of light, the Light of the World, the illuminator of my path, the one who makes light from dark. The light from the Word, the light that leads.

I will find peace, the Prince of peace, the perfect peace that comes when my mind is fixed outside of my own life and circumstances and this world, the spoken peace, like a river, the peace to which I am called, the peace that surpasses all.

I will find rest, deep seated rest for my soul. Rest by him who needs no rest, rest offered, rest given, rest promised eternal. Rest for those heavy laden, rest for those laboring, rest for the hurting, a healing rest.

I will find good, not the good that makes sense of the world, but the One who is always good. Who means good for me, who has promised good. Who because of his own good, has imaged some good in me. The true source of good, my trustworthy good God.

I will find love, steadfast, abounding, never ceasing, extending. Patient and kind love, love incarnate, who came down to live broken in this world. Love that encircles, stronger than despair love, everlasting arms of love.

Soul, look up. 

Thursday, February 28, 2019

What Life Looks Like, 2.5 Years In

It's been awhile, folks. Can you believe we have lived in South Africa now for 2 and a half years? Some days I can hardly believe it; other days, our years in the States feel like decades ago. Time is a funny thing, isn't it?

Thankfully, we have learned so.very.much in our years overseas - in general, much of the initial culture shock has worn off [hallelujah], although we now deal with culture fatigue (more on that another time). I thought it would be helpful to give you a glimpse into some of the day to day realities of our life here.

It is February, and it's the middle of the summer. On Tuesday, it was 97 degrees Fahrenheit. Happy summer [to this born and bred Wisconsin girl]. One major bonus that I have the doors and windows wide open nearly every day, and that is glorious. Also note: I haven't touched or seen snow in three years.

A lot of people come and go in our life here. Family visiting. Short-termers. Friends from church, our pastor. I counted at one point that the girls have enthusiastically welcomed and said goodbye to over 30 people in 2.5 years. They open their hearts so quickly, so fully, and keep giving, even as people must leave. Recently, though, one of the girls asked, "Why do people keep leaving? Why do they come, just for a short while, and then have to leave again?" This will be an ongoing joy and challenge, and sorting through grief is something we have been working on with our young kids.

We deworm our kids. Yes, you read that right. We have actually never dewormed our cat [hmm] but every six months or so, the kids all go bottoms up so we don't have to deal with other things in the bottom region. So far so good, in case you were wondering.

Medical care is much less expensive in South Africa. We've been in and out of the ER for $40. If you need a root canal, come visit and we'll get you a good deal! It will even out, we promise!

Safety is a real concern, but isn't it everywhere? Here, I'm learning to be a bit more street savvy. Things like: don't carry your cell phone in your back pocket. Don't keep your bag on the seat next to you. Drive through red lights sometimes/don't linger at intersections.

We had our first break-in last November in the middle of the night. Amazingly, the girls slept through it all, and Ben and I are working on sleeping well again. I often reflect on the Psalms and what they've taught me about safety.

There is a lot of dirt and mud [as I've written about before]. I've decided I don't care that 90% of the kids' clothes are stained/have holes, which means I'm much less anxious about life and they can play without my harping. Win win. Our kids also go barefoot nearly everywhere. This might be an adjustment when we visit the States later this year, when they learn the concept of "no shirt no shoes no service." How rude.

But I still care about my floors being clean [may have something to do with having a crawling baby]. So I sweep three times a day, and mop at least twice a week. This barely keeps it in shape.

You will likely never hit a deer on the road in South Africa; but chances are high you will hit a cow, goat, horse, dog (check, saaaad face), or monkey.

Speaking of monkeys, they are basically like squirrels in the States. Except that they will reach in your window, steal your bananas, and then sit 10 feet away eating it while cheekily watching you [true story, ask my parents].

Have we told you about our three tries rule? When we first arrived, a coworker wisely shared that we should expect that it will take three tries to get anything accomplished. At first, this was incredibly infuriating. Now, we are so elated when something gets taken care of on the first or second try. How efficient!

Ironically, it did take us three tries to get our baby's American birth certificate with the correct date and all from the American consulate. So, there's that.

Much of what we own, especially outside things, are for the community and so we must be prepared to share. Regularly there are kids we don't know playing on our swing set and Ben's smoker has properly fed well over 200 people in the last few years.

Pop-ins are common, and can happen at any time. Ben may have answered the door shirtless around 6am one day, and I've had to hide late at night in my yoga pants when the knocking began. General rule: be prepared.

While we feel accustomed to life much more these days, we still get really frustrated some days at the internet (or lack of, usually). We still are trying to sort out how to have deep and meaningful relationships here. We have not figured out how to exercise regularly, or stay in healthy rhythms (our sweet baby may have impacted that). The deepest loss felt frequently is that of family - not just family time, but also family connectedness.

And no matter how long we are here, we are confronted every day by the fact that even though we may look like we fit in some circles, we really don't. There are so many cultural differences which impact that sense of belonging. We are reminded that, actually, the goal isn't to belong - we already belong to Christ - rather, we live faithfully and sacrificially and hope that in some way, God is using us to further his kingdom and his love.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Tidying Up in the Image of God

The new year is full of hope and expectancy for many people; a time to start afresh, to develop better habits, to become more disciplined. What's more perfect than signing into your Netflix account, only to be greeted by the renowned Marie Kondo and the promise that tidying will bring you the happiness you were looking for.

While I love simplifying life and tidying as much as the next thirty-something millennial mom, from the first episode of Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, my radar was on high alert. While Marie herself is friendly, sweet, and encouraging, elements and core beliefs of her method raised concerns for me.

During my time in seminary, I was introduced to the idea that, as Christians, we need to not only be doing biblical hermeneutics (the art of discerning what a particular biblical text is communicating) but also, importantly, cultural hermeneutics, which could be described as the art of discerning what a particular cultural "text" is communicating. Why is this important? Because we are participants in and partakers of culture, we need to be carefully considering what exactly it is that we are receiving through various cultural "texts."*

Back to the "text" of Tidying Up with Marie Kondo: is there anything wrong intrinsically with the concept of paring down one's material possessions, of organizing a closet, or keeping a tidy home? Of course not. But what should be raising red flags for Christians are the subtle (and not so subtle) messages throughout the show which are communicating a variety of anti-biblical philosophies.

The Promise of Happiness

On the first episode, Marie Kondo says, "the ultimate goal of tidying is really to learn to cherish everything that you have, so that you can achieve happiness for your family." (More thoughts on the concept of cherishing the things we own here.) While initially this confident promise for happiness sounds so very appealing, and well, attainable, we ought to be the first to recognize the subtle lie in this sentiment. Will it make you happy to let go of material possessions, to minimize your stuff? If you have ever spent time bringing order to an area of your home or garage or office that particularly needed it, you likely can resonate with this sentiment. It does feel good to tidy. What is it about tidying that brings such satisfaction? Kondo would say that when we free ourselves of the things that do not spark joy and cherish the things that do, we find happiness by prioritizing what is most important to us.

May I suggest, however, that what is responsible for that happy feeling of satisfaction when we bring order to disorder is actually the image of God in us. Who was the first to bring order to the world? God himself, in Genesis 1, where we read that he brought form to what was formless, and it was good. Following creation, the first task God gives to humankind is one of bringing order - Adam is to keep and cultivate the garden, and to classify the animals God created. God is an orderly God, and as his image-bearers, we reflect his orderliness in various aspects of our lives.

So when we experience that feeling of satisfaction or happiness for the good work of tidying that we have completed, rather than look to the clean closet or fewer possessions that we own for lasting joy and proper perspective in life, let us look to the Creator of both joy and order, and rejoice for his image in us.

The Animistic Element

In each episode, Marie begins her time in the home of her clients by finding a special spot, kneeling, and greeting the home in prayer-like fashion, "to thank it for protecting you." Additionally, she encourages her clients to hold and thank each item after determining that it indeed, does not spark joy for them, and ought to be discarded. While nothing religious is specifically mentioned in the show, Kondo herself has said that her method is partly inspired by the traditional Japanese folk religion Shinto, where inanimate objects are actually believed to possess a divine spirit or energy (kami). In Shintoism, cleaning and organizing things can be a spiritual practice, both through recognizing kami and kannagara (right way to live).

What seem like gentle and harmless touches ought to bring to mind Romans 1:25 for Christians, "they exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator." How easy it is for us to turn our focus from the Giver of the good gifts to the gifts themselves! How important it is that we protect our hearts against worshipping things rather than God himself.

In some places I have lived, the animistic element was clear: idols in peoples' homes, goat skin bracelets to venerate ancestors. In Western cultures, animism, which is the attribution of a living soul to inanimate objects, plants, and natural phenomenon, is less obvious but still a dangerous and penetrating message. Marie Kondo's show is a clear example of a cultural text which is promoting animism, and without careful attention, we can find ourselves sucked into this empty philosophy.

"Oh great, she's going to tell me to quit watching the show."

Christians often fall on two sides of culture: one large group chooses to withdraw from mainstream culture, in an effort to protect itself against the infiltration of anti-biblical messages. A second large group fully participates in and enjoys all varieties of culture, but without consideration for how the anti-biblical messages are likely affecting them. I would suggest that faithful Christian living in post-Christian times looks like engaging culture through a biblical lens. Engaging culture means that we must be participating in it, at least to some degree, and not withdrawing for our own self-preservation. Employing a biblical lens means that as we consume cultural texts, we are filtering the messages carefully against what we know to be true from God's Word. At times, wisdom may dictate that we stop consuming a particular text, or avoid certain texts altogether. But it is essential that Christians engage with culture if we are to have a voice in the world for dialogue and for God's truth.

In the end, God tells us to live wisely. Our time on earth is precious, and limited. If we decide to consume a text like Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, let us be wary of the empty philosophies presented, and do so with a biblical lens, attributing our satisfaction from tidying to the treasure of God's image in us and ensuring that our gratitude is focused toward the Giver himself.

*Much thinking and writing on this issue can be attributed to Kevin Vanhoozer. His book, Everyday Theology, is an excellent example of cultural hermeneutics in practice (find it here).

Friday, January 18, 2019

Motherhood Brought Out the Worst in Me

I looked into her little face, and it’s as if all nine months of carrying her evaporated in that moment – she was here, an actual person, a part of me, but fully her own. My early entrance into motherhood was blissful. I was in love with my baby. Our days were spent mostly together, I missed her terribly on the days that I worked, and I just couldn’t believe how sweet it was to be her mama.

Until she hit fifteen months. I remember thinking at that time, “what happened to my sweet baby?” after a particularly intense meltdown. As she grew in independence, I grew in insecurity. I thought I knew my baby. I thought I understood her, her needs, her desires, her developing personality.

Apparently I did not know. There was so much I did not know. [There is still so much I do not know.]

Every job I’ve ever held – including cleaning up vomit from behind a toilet during one summer’s hotel housekeeping job and wearing wooden clogs while disappointing people with the truth that I wasn’t actually Swedish during another summer’s waitressing job – I’ve succeeded at. I’ve worked hard, and I’ve done well.

This motherhood gig was different. I was not succeeding, or at least, I could not tell, which was perhaps more terrifying. If my child’s behavior was indicative of my success, I was a total failure. [Still am some days, according to that measure.]

So I worked harder. I read books, I talked to other moms, watched them carefully. What does success look like, I wondered. I despaired shortly after my second was born when a friend told me, “it only gets worse from here. I know you think this is hard, but it gets so much worse.” [Note to self: don’t ever tell a young mom this.]

Before I had kids, I was patient. And kind. I was slow to anger. I was giving. Now, with little ones watching every move, I was irritated. I was exasperated. I was harsh. Most of all, I was deeply selfish.

Motherhood brought out the worst in me.

[My husband would agree, bless him.]

But here’s the thing: I’m so thankful. Motherhood has exposed sinful attitudes I did not realize I was harboring. Motherhood has revealed more weakness than I ever expected of myself.

God may use a variety of life circumstances to break us down, to show us our need for him. He’s been using motherhood in my life for seven years now. Some days it’s truly painful. 

Jesus says of the Father, “every branch in me that does not bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit” [John 15].

Prune this branch, Father! Take away these ugly, dead twigs of anger, selfishness, of impatience, unkindness, so that the abundant fruit of kindness, of love and selfless giving, of hope and faith may increase in this branch.

Often, when sin is blatantly exposed in my life, I easily slip into self-condemnation. I'm not just a struggling mother; I'm the worst mother. My kids deserve better than me. But Jesus would say, “abide in my love.” It is only because of his love, his life and death and resurrection, that I can meaningfully love my kids and pour my life out for theirs. 

The worst will come out again, I’m sure of it. There is still death in me, so long as I live in this broken world. But so long as Jesus is pruning, there is hope. So long as I am abiding, there is love.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Grace Enough


Last night, I found a darkened room and threw myself on the couch, and for a moment, thought about all the legitimate things that were difficult at the moment. It was pity party time. Time to wallow in my difficulties and discontent. Time to welcome the tears and relish the misery. That will make me feel better about life, won’t it?

As we all know, it’s unlikely.

It didn’t do much for Jonah, as he sat under that scanty tree, that the Lord had given as shade the day before, wallowing. Pity is never God’s preferred path for us.

Elizabeth Elliot once wrote, “to love God is to love his will. That which He gives we receive… God shields us from most of the things we fear, but when he chooses not to shield us, he unfailingly allots grace in measure needed. It is for us to choose to receive or refuse it. Our joy or misery will depend on that choice” (Secure in the Everlasting Arms, 19).

After all, she would know.

Do we get to handpick that which God gives? Sunshine is my favorite, Lord. Can you make the storm clouds go away? As if we were selecting our favorite foods? Yes, please, I’ll take the chocolate cake. No, no thank you on the snap peas. I’ve never liked those.

Rather, we acknowledge that every thing, good or difficult, that the Lord brings into our lives serves a purpose. Both the sunshine and the storm clouds. Both the chocolate cake and the snap peas.

When he chooses not to shield us, when he brings storm clouds and offers snap peas, he allots grace in measure needed. Have you experienced this? I can look back over the darkest moments of my life, and see his grace, unfailing. I think of the most difficult seasons, and recall his grace, boundless. He always offers grace; we just need to pry open our tightly clenched fists to receive it.

To receive the storm clouds and snap peas, and the grace along with it.

To trust that he has got this.

To trust that he knows what’s best for us, because he is our good Father.

To speak our fears to him, sometimes aloud, because there is so much peace in giving them over to him.

To give them over to him again, the next night, as we lie in bed, trembling in our thoughts.

To accept the hard things along with the good things, the happy days alongside the sad ones, the life along with the death.

And, we get up off the couch, tears falling as they may, and press on in the day. Not because the darkness or sadness has left us, but because his grace has been given to us.

And that’s always enough.


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