In the Snow, Beneath the Pines

Gentle Reader,

You will notice that the variety of bodies is stunning. Just as there are different kinds of seeds, there are different kinds of bodies—humans, animals, birds, fish—each unprecedented in its form. You get a hint at the diversity of resurrection glory by looking at the diversity of bodies not only on earth but in the skies—sun, moon, stars—all these varieties of beauty and brightness. And we’re only looking at pre-resurrection “seeds”—who can imagine what the resurrection “plants” will be like!

– 1 Corinthians 13:39-41 (MSG)

I stood shivering in the cold, despite layers of clothing, my eyes, never of too much use in the darkness, scanning the yards ahead of me anyway, watching for any sign of trouble. My warm breath mingled with the frigid air, swirling clouds ascending to the treetops above. Weak lamps cast a pale yellow glow, unable to compete with the beauty of the stars above, but useful in their own way. Laughter and screaming filled my ears, never mind that they had all been instructed to be quiet. Panting and full of good cheer, a couple of teenagers fell at my feet, soaked to the skin but not seeming to mind.

I hadn’t planned to be there, in the snow, beneath the pines. Hadn’t anticipated earning a new nickname that I shall not reveal here because reasons. Hadn’t dreamed of climbing on a stage and lip syncing to “The Schuyler Sisters” with someone with whom I apparently share a brain. Hadn’t longed for sleepless nights. Hadn’t pictured myself in suddenly deep conversations. And certainly hadn’t, in any way, thought that I would be so thoroughly and completely embraced.

Drenched in love of the most wonderful variety.

All following hard on a year filled with harshness, with brokenness and rejection. I hardly know how to handle such acceptance. I’ve come to expect glares, frowns and tight-lipped whispers when I enter a room. Grown accustomed to the fear associated with knowing you’re being talked about – because you dared to disagree, because you went outside the accepted boundaries, because you aren’t perfect and wonderful and exactly what everyone wants you to be at all times. Believed that every bit of gossip and petty meanness was exactly what I deserved. Wondered if I really was that unwanted, undesirable and unloved.

So to have a group of people actually want you around… Encountering nothing but smiles and laughter…

Frightens and delights in equal measure.

Helping at a youth retreat is work, no doubt. My whole body feels it today. Neck aches from headbanging. Side of my hand throbs from pounding it on a table while shouting, “One two three four, JFK, FDR!” I’m not sure I will ever be warm again after giving my coat, scarf, gloves, snowpants and boots to people who claimed to have “packed everything!” Definitely had a moment when I thought duct-taping them all to the side of the lodge was a good idea.

But I’d do it again.

The things they said:

“You’re so fun and young, like one of us. But then we can talk to you about real stuff and that’s cool.”

“Would you pray with me for a second? There’s this thing going on…”

“You brought M&Ms? Hand ’em over!”

“Can I sit by you?”

“Ugh. Why don’t the boys shower? Their hallway smells like butt.”

“I frickin’ love you.”

“You are the prettiest!”

Makes a lady feel all bright and snuggly inside. The gooey, chewy center that she tries to hide all exposed but, for the first time in a long time, she’s okay with her tender heart beating loudly for all the world to hear. She is not trying to defend herself or be anyone other than the woman God so carefully designed and placed into this context. She wants to wrap her arms around all of them, teen attendee and adult leader alike, because she loves them so. She’s full of life, overflowing with it, and wants nothing more than to be a gracious, healing presence, soft and gentle and kind and warm. She hopes to be, empowered by the Spirit, a safe, comforting port in the storms, to provide the shelter of a listening ear and a shoulder to lean on for any and all.

For every compliment they gave, I had the joy of showering them with words of affirmation in return. I got to watch their eyes light up with wonder that someone saw good things in them, told them that they are smart and capable and a powerful force for good in the world. I got to watch them take steps, some microscopic but real, of belief. Belief in God, belief in themselves.

What a privilege that is.

Who am I, that this should be something I get to do?

I forget sometimes that this body of mine is fragiler than most. That’s the thing about walking around with an organ that’s doing it’s level best to kill you; when you get a reprieve from the pain, you feel energized and free and so you forget all the caution and warnings and go all in. I was blessed with a few hours’ release from the sharp stabs in my side. So I took all the hugs and knocking about that I could get. Then it came screaming back, a tangible reminder of my desire for resurrection wholeness, and I had to steal away for a moment to let the tears fall.

Then I kept taking the hugs and the knocking about.

It was worth gritting my teeth for them. It will always be worth gritting my teeth for them. Because they need a person, who isn’t a parent because what do parents know, to be present. To be willing to handle the discomfort in the service of true life and love.

I curl beneath a heavy blanket, dog on one side and coffee on the other. I know I have yet to truly begin processing all that I witnessed and participated in this weekend. My journal awaits, ready for the deeper notions and feelings, the things that I can’t write here but are safe before God’s eyes. It will soon come spilling out in sentences that make sense only to Him.

For now, this. Utter physical exhaustion. A glowing soul. Spirit full of love given and received. Mind entranced by thoughts of what might be next. Pessimism obliterated by optimism. Miraculous, divine and unexpected loosening of heart-knots.

Without doubt, supremely blessed.

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Sketches: Dirt

Dirt

Gentle Reader,

It’s really hot. It’s stupid.

So, let’s talk: dirt. (Prompt submitted, once again, my my own brain).

I could have been a farmer’s daughter.

My great-grandparents owned a farm in Idaho, near but not quite in the panhandle, where there is a town named “Onaway” because it’s on-a-way to elsewhere. He played on a traveling baseball team part of the year. She taught in a one-room schoolhouse at one point. My dad and his four brothers spent many hours out at their place, forced to bake something every Saturday morning before being released to run through the fields and orchards, chucking rotten apples at each other and jousting on bicycles.

My dad’s first job, around age 14, was working for another farmer, driving tractors and moving big, metal sprinkler poles. The kind with wheels attached. (Google if you don’t know what I’m talking about). He’s the quiet sort, so it didn’t bother him to be out on his own, working in the dirt.

It doesn’t bother him now, either. Though the great-grandparent’s farm was eventually sold and it never worked out for my own parents to buy land and raise animals that would never be slaughtered because we would get too attached to them, he still works in the dirt. Mows the lawn, prunes the roses, plants trees. He hates the heat this time of year (as do I), but he finds being out there, taking care of things, relaxing.

Perhaps the funniest thing he’s done when it comes to dirt and plants was the time he allowed an offshoot from a rosebush to grow in the middle of the yard. Drove my mom nuts. She wanted him to cut it down. He mowed around it week after week, wanting to see what it would do. The fact that it annoyed her was just a bonus, of course.

My mom would always plant geraniums or petunias in pots, lining them up neatly on the stairs that led up to the porch. When I was about 13, I began helping her with the process, learning how to gently spread the roots and place them in deep, soft, wet soil so the plants wouldn’t go into shock. I found it very soothing – me, the not-outdoorsy, doesn’t really like to get dirty person, completely fine with plunging her hands into a bag of potting soil. If my memory serves correctly, one year, I think the last year we lived out on the two-and-a-half acres in the single-wide trailer, I did all of the geraniums myself. They always looked so happy in their terracotta pots, deep green leaves and red blooms reaching for the sun.

I turn to my own plants when I’m feeling anxious. There’s something immensely satisfying about chopping a woody rose cane to the ground. Nothing better than watching the vegetable garden spring from seeds to delicious food. I could do without having to weed, but even that isn’t bad when done in the morning, when it’s cooler, while listening to music or a podcast. I send the ladybug army in to eat all the nasty, destructive little creates. Sit on the back porch and watch the birds flit from tree to tree, the ones that we snagged at a giveaway because we bought our house at the wrong, worst time and had no money to put into landscaping. Admire the baskets hanging from the pergola, fresh vines draping over following a ruthless pruning.

The dirt, and what it produces, is delightful.

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And Now, The Fish Slapping Dance

Giggles

Gentle Reader,

My house is a disaster. Really. We’re down to the last room in the Grand Epic of Replacing the Floor, which means everything in my bedroom has been shoved into the guest room and everything in the guest room has been shoved into what passes for an office (that nobody ever uses) and there is detritus everywhere. The dogs can’t figure out what’s happening to their environment; in protest of the disruption, they knock over bathroom wastebaskets and generally behave badly.

I don’t know whether to laugh, cry or decamp to the nearest cheap motel.

Attempting to see the humor seems the best choice.

Did you know that Christians aren’t supposed to have a sense of humor, though? I didn’t until recently. Again, belatedly I learn that I have been doing my life all wrong. Must have lost the instruction manual. Apparently we are supposed to be deeply serious people, always and ever concerned with ruining everybody’s good time.

How sad.

Jesus went to parties, you know. As in, He was invited to parties all the time and saw no need to avoid them. Heaven certainly sounds like it’s going to be a gigantic, forever-long party, full of light, laughter and good food. For what is being in the presence of God if not happiness? If not constant smiling?

Is life serious? Of course it is. It’s also absurd. A friend texted me a couple of hours ago, relaying a story she’d seen on the news of a man who broke into a house and began doing laundry. Not his laundry. The laundry that belongs to the people whose house he broke into. Yes, theft is a sin, but that’s funny. What sort of burglar thinks, “You know, I’ll just do some washing up for these fine folks that I’m robbing?”

There are two sides to my personality; one is very serious, dark and afraid, the other ever-amused and struggling to hold back giggles at inappropriate moments. This particular blend is what it is. At nearly 34, I’ve about given up on attempting to reconcile how I can, at the same time, be both numbingly anxious and laughing so hard tears spring to my eyes. That is, I suppose, humanity.

I believe in learning, study, contemplation. I also believe in a good pie to the face. I don’t think God minds a good joke. In fact, I think He laughs. Give yourself permission to do the same. Allow yourself to see the funny, the farcical. Perhaps, in so doing, the proverbial silver lining is found.

William Makepeace Thackeray (one of the best names ever) wrote in his novel Vanity Fair,

The world is a looking-glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face. Frown at it, and it will in turn look sourly upon you; laugh at it and with it, and it is a jolly kind companion.

When I frown at the world, when I dwell on all that makes me sad and scared, I find more things to be sad and scared about. When I do the work of looking up and smiling (for it is work, as all choices are), I find more things to smile about. That’s not pop psychology or self-help babble, nor is that a substitute for medication or therapy, if needed. (Real talk: I am beginning to become annoyed at having to place this disclaimer in my writing so often. I wish that anyone who ever reads here would simply, somehow, know what my position is and that I’d never have to state it again). It’s taking ownership of our thoughts an attitudes, something we are advised to do throughout Scripture.

And now, The Fish Slapping Dance. Not because it means anything. Not because it must be analyzed. Because it’s 17 seconds of sheer, unbridled silliness. It’s okay to giggle over this and promptly replay.

Bonus content: The Spanish Inquisition compilation. (Yes, I love Monty Python and yes, Michael Palin is my favorite. Some of my fondest memories involve acting out absurd, stupid sketches with old friends, both original and ones that we blatantly stole from this British comedy troupe. Please don’t sue us, gents. We have no money).

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Content Yo Self

Along theWay @ mlsgregg.com

Gentle Reader,

I love Parks and Recreation.

Chris and I watched the show as it aired live. We’ve watched it completely through several times on Netflix. We can quote entire scenes word-for-word. Chris shares Ron Swanson’s love of woodworking and breakfast foods. At any given time I can be heard singing Jean-Ralphio’s classic, “Technically I’m homeless!” Both of us appreciate the beauty that is the Knope/Wyatt relationship. If we believed in spirit animals, mine would be April Ludgate and his would be Andy Dwyer. Chris Traeger and Ann Perkins are amazing land mermaids. Tammy 1, Tammy 2, Jeremy Jamm, Bobby Newport, Lil’ Sebastian…

Don’t worry – I didn’t forget the joy of Tom and Donna:

We are lit-er-ally P&R super-fans.

“Treat yo self” is a wonderful idea. In a culture that’s all about work, work and more work, as well as remaining constantly connected through social media and smartphones, it’s important to build a little space in our lives for relaxation. Eat a cupcake, see a movie, buy an expensive pair of shoes (that you’ve saved money for. Hashtag Dave Ramsey). In moderation, there’s nothing wrong with “treat yo self.”

But you know humans.

We just can’t seem to do anything in moderation.

In our Western, industrialized, competitive context, we swing from frenetic labor to “I’m going to go into major debt because I want that boat” without much thought. We are always striving, in work and in play, to keep up with…someone. Something. It’s rather ill-defined. We know for certain, however, that we are always and inevitably coming up short. Nothing is ever good enough. We are never good enough.

So onto the next deadline so we can get the next iPhone that we’ll have to make payments on by logging more hours.

Strangely, despite all the overtime and the missed vacation days, we lack discipline.

Really, we do. It’s not good that 40 hours a week is often understood to actually be 60, with little to no overtime pay. Or, if overtime is given, a tongue-lashing from the numbers guy comes along with it. “Yes, we need you to do this project that requires 87 hours of work but you have to get it done in 39.5. Kthanksbye.” There is no satisfaction accompanying a job well done, because the job is never done.

No discipline Monday-Friday equals no discipline on the weekends. Stay up too late, sleep too long, spend too much, drink too much, eat too much, shop too much. Hungover, emotionally or physically, we head back into the workweek, the ever-revolving hamster wheel of tasks and expectations.

On and on it goes.

Paul wrote:

…I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.

– Philippians 4:11b-12 (NKJV)

We don’t know how to do any of that. We don’t know how to be content in plenty. We don’t know how to be content in leanness. We don’t know how to be content, period.

Because we’re looking at the wrong things.

The big house isn’t going to silence the soul-gnawing sense of desperation. The corner office isn’t going to make the sacrifice of family and friends worthwhile. The string of letters on the parchment paper won’t bring peace. The money in the bank won’t achieve security.

Paul goes on:

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

– 4:13 (NKJV)

We quote this verse out of context all the time. I know I have.

Paul is grateful, and in spite of periods of difficulty, he has learned to be content (v. 11). Note that he learned this! He did not rely on favorable circumstances for his joy and strength. He found these in a higher source: in Christ (v. 13).

Asbury Bible Commentary

Doing “all things” isn’t about achievement. It’s about facing whatever the day holds in the knowledge that Chris is always present. Does that mean we deny problems? No. Force ourselves to shun treats? Of course not. Put simply, “all things,” for the believer, are mere things. Seasons. Times. Moments that pass. Christ is the end-goal, the treasure.

Knowing this is the only way that we can be content, and out of that contentment arises the ability to set boundaries. I don’t have to do the work of three people. I can say “no.” I don’t have to buy this thing that I don’t have money for. I can enjoy what I already have. Understanding that Jesus is King and that we are His children means that we don’t have to strive. We don’t have to get caught in the rat race or possess all that is shiny.

Of course, we cannot attain this perspective on our own. We’re not amazing like that. The only way we can conclude that this life, this world is not all there is and that something else matters a whole lot more is through the power of the Holy Spirit. We have to ask for His eyes. We have to ask Him for faith.

So, yes, work hard. And treat yo self. Just remember, neither in the working nor the treating does contentment lie.

Find it in the arms of Jesus.

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Photo Credit: Kaylah Otto
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