“The inbound train is an express train and it will not stop.”
I hear the station’s announcement system over the piano and strings playing in my earbuds. Sure enough, the train shuttles through quietly. At the intersection of the tracks and the road, red and white bars have previously lowered themselves without ceremony. Lights flash on and off without sound.
The piano in my ears arpeggiates in rolling consistency, almost in time with the chug of the train. It’s a short train, just a few cars of busy people who live in the far out suburbs of Chicago. They ride the express to their high-paying jobs while it is light in the morning. On their way home, their seats on the train will be lit with a greenish glare, revealing their heads bent down at 45 degrees, both absorbed and bored by their cell phones.
Behind the train rises a clutter of litter. One piece of white something rises above, caught in a current. It whips around with surprising grace, tracing after the route of the train until it passes out of my view.
The violin and cello rasp in their comforting earthy way, and tears freeze on my cheeks.
After my dad died, I felt like I had been shouting at a locomotive. The will of God would not stop for me and my childish voice. The sovereign path of the Almighty was predecided and nothing I could say would change that.
It’s been four and a half years since I sat on the steps in my backyard and mentally watched the locomotive go by. And I told God I felt like he hadn’t heard me.
It only took a few months for me to see myself as a passenger on the train again. Maybe I didn’t have the authority to call for a stop at any given station, but I was en route to where God was going. I knew my work as a missionary had purpose and my goals were more or less seated in the expectation of his Kingdom advancing.
I still expect the Kingdom to come, but without explictly working for that end, it’s hard to know where I stand, or sit, or ride. Getting off the missionary train has meant that I sleep more, spend more time with my kids, and feel a lot more confused about my life.
Today, I know less than ever. I’m like the white something fluttering noiselessly behind the express train. God is going somewhere. I want to go too.
Today I noticed the little nest is gone. Outside the kitchen windows of our rental home, there are three wooden perches built for birds to nest in. This summer, when we moved into this home, our whole family watched attentively as a robin settled into a prebuilt nest. She spruced it up a bit and laid her fabulously fragile eggs. She hovered obsessively over them, and after they hatched, she fed them with religious consistency. After a week or two, the baby birds would stick out their necks and circle their heads around wildly in search of food until their mother fed them and sat on them. Then one day, the birds were gone.
This fall, my ten-year-old son and I have enjoyed the antics of a particular squirrel who frequents the now barren bird perches. One day, the squirrel sat there shivering with his tail draped inadequately over his back. John couldn’t stand watching him without offering him succor. He wanted to get him a blanket, but I told him there was no way it would work. The squirrel would run away before letting a human put a blanket on him.
Last week, I noticed the squirrel had placed a few bulky nuts in the dried out nest. I told John about it when we were headed off somewhere in the van. “It’s like he said to himself, ‘oh what a nice little basket for my nuts.'” John chuckled with appreciation at my humanizing the squirrel’s inner monologue. And I felt this: who else in my whole life would have found that funny? It was a moment of friendship.
Today the nest is gone. It probably toppled out of its perch, unable to hold onto the oversized nuts. I feel a little regret, because I’m not sure if John got to see the squirrel’s little basket.
I will try to remember to ask him. I will try to remember how the chuckle sounded when I told him and the way his shoulders shook a little. He’s almost a preteen and more often than not, his reactions seem chosen. Like there is a shelf of ways to laugh, emphatic expressions, and disinterested shrugs. They are the right ways to act when one hears something funny or epic or lame.
He has always desired what is right. And I know he has to obssess for a while about being thought of as “right” by his peers, whose acceptance is a discombobulated puzzle. Please God, let him have seen the funny little basket of nuts so we can both remember the simple squirrel and the mama bird who knew when her babies were grown.
He saw several men standing off aways, wrapped in the tell-tale lepers’ bandages. They were following Jewish protocol by avoiding contact with those who were healthy. But they had heard of Jesus’ powers and compassion and knew he could heal them too.
Interestingly, Jesus mirrored the attention the lepers were paying to the Jewish law. He replied to their requests by telling them to go show themselves to the priest, who would verify their healing. This was according to instructions given for lepers in Leviticus. Jesus honored the respect that the lepers showed for the law.
Heading out to find the priest before they were actually healed would have been an act of faith. But these guys had nothing to lose. As they were obeying Jesus’ instructions, they were healed. One of the former lepers turned around and ran back to Jesus, thanking him profusely.
I imagine Jesus laughing in agreement with the man’s overwhelming joy. This particular man was a Samaritan, and Jesus noted that he was the only one who came back to give thanks, even though he was a “foreigner.” In other words, the Jewish men had forgotten to thank Jesus because they were focused on following the rules.
Jesus affirmed the Jewish men’s observance of the law by healing them in a way that worked in concert with what they had been taught. But he also affirmed the way the Samaritan remembered that his healer was a person, not a system.
cultural norms Jesus affirms
All cultures have their protocol. For U.S. Americans, Thanksgiving and the weeks leading up to it is chock full of unconscious cultural norms. Many of these, I believe, are customs that Jesus would affirm.
Spending more time with family and friends
Expressing gratitude for the good things in our lives
Baking and cooking for each other
Appreciating the beauty of the changing seasons
Planning on overeating (not sure Jesus would get behind this one, although he was certainly into feasting!)
Most cultures around the world have some form of harvest festival, when joy is shared over the provision of the year’s crops. So it’s not like Americans came up with Thanksgiving as a purely Christian concept. But a general sense of acknowledging God pervades the “I’m thankful for…” conversations and Facebook posts this time of year.
Like the one Samaritan leper went along with the 9 Jewish lepers, we can participate in Thanksgiving customs by joining in what everyone else is doing. And there’s a lot of value in that.
stepping away for a moment
We get a peek into Jesus’ personality in this parable. He appreciates tradition. But he also appreciates people going beyond what’s expected and acting with sincerity. The Samaritan treated Jesus like a real person, not an icon.
It’s almost like the automatic nature of cultural norms makes it hard to do them with full consiousness and sincerity. We participate in traditions because they feel right or because people are expecting us to do them. But like the Samaritan former leper, we can step away from the pack for a moment to bring a deeper level of sincerity to our traditions.
What would stepping away to thank Jesus look like for you? How can you acknowledge that Jesus is a person who has healed you and given you all these things? The answer will be different for all of us. But here are some ideas:
call Jesus by his first name
When you have the chance to state publicly what you’re thankful for, dare to include Jesus’ name in your thanks. It’s culturally normative to say, “I’m thankful for”… but not specifying to whom you’re thankful! It’s also usually acceptable to say, “I thank God for…” But identifying Jesus specifically is often going a little far. So try stepping aside from what’s expected by acknowledging him in front of others.
use your imagination
In a quiet moment, employ your imagination to bring to life in your mind the scene of the former leper thanking Jesus.
Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks.
Imagine this scene happening right in front of you, in your living room or wherever you are. Now put yourself in that healed person’s place. You are standing in front of Jesus, or kneeling or bowing. What profuse thanks does he deserve? What has he done for you that no one else could do?
The truth is that Jesus is always with us, and imagining him standing in your living room is not that far from reality.
make a meaningful list
Pick a number that’s significant to you. Maybe it’s your age or the number of years you’ve been married. Maybe it’s the number of months since you lost someone you loved or the address number of your new house.
Now, make a numbered list either mentally or on paper of things you’re thankful for associated with that thing. The larger your number, the more specific and creative you’ll have to get.
Writing down your list gives you the opportunity to save it and reflect on next year. But the list approach is also handy for occupying your mind in a constructive way when writing it down is impractical. If you’re having a hard time falling asleep, a thanksgiving list is more interesting than counting sheep! Other opportunities for a mental list are when you’re standing in a long line or when you’re feeling especially grumpy (which may be due to standing in a long line! Black Friday, anyone?)
Let’s make the season of Thanksgiving personal this year. We can get creative and intentional as we give thanks to the person of Jesus, who has so generously transformed our lives.
I’m just going to lay out here some of the reasons this post has been getting stuck in the pipeline of my brain:
Abiding with Christ is supposed to be a positive thing, so it doesn’t do to compare it with grief.
Abiding with Christ is not really a neatly packaged idea in the Bible. Is my shorthand way of referring to this concept appropriate?
Grief can come from so many places, some of them villainous toward God and his people. Will it be confusing for people who are taking into account the destructive potential of grief when I compare it to abiding with Christ?
Sometimes it’s risky to think in new ways. So bear with me as I explore this topic without giving parenthetical comments at every turn. I recognize that every person’s experience with both of these topics is unique — aha! Our first similarity!
Both grief and abiding with Christ are happening in the background while life goes on
Whatever its source, grief resists being segmented into one moment of our lives or another. I remember driving to work one morning and a tender song came on the radio which turned my thoughts to my dad, who had passed away 9 months prior. It happened to be my parents’ wedding anniversary, and as I drove, I opened my heart to God.
I grieved the loss of my parents’ marriage as old folks.I expected them to forever be strolling on the beach together, walking more slowly as time wore on, but always together. Heart disease took my dad early. Now my mom takes walks on the beach by herself.
When I arrived at work, I was nowhere near composing myself. I tried to stuff my heart back in and get a hold of myself, but it was not happening. I ended up texting my team to let them know I needed a little time. I just went ahead and told them I was having a hard morning “because of my dad,” which they understood. I miss that team.
Truly it only took 15 minutes or so for me to find my emotional bearings and get to the meeting. But the tension remained underneath my sincere interest in my work: my family has lost something we’re not getting back.
Now, four years after my dad’s passing, that tension remains in my heart. I don’t always feel it, but it’s always there, pulling at my insides, reminding me that life is not what it should be.
Weirdly, abiding in Christ works this way too.
On another instance when I was supposed to be heading into a meeting with that same team, I had been reading Revelation in a quiet library. I found myself wrapped up in wonder about Jesus revealing himself in glory. I was crying as soundlessly as possible, and although I had somewhat composed myself for the meeting, I just had to share with the team when I got there. (My team was made up of other believers in ministry with me. Quite a luxury!) I was obnoxious and loud about it. I imagine they had no idea what to say, because I wasn’t being very socially predictable. And then it was time to go on with our meeting.
For the rest of the day, I carried around this burning in my heart that our Lord is risen and real, and that one day my imagination will be proved paltry in comparison with his actual glory.
You may have ascertained that I am an emotional person.
But even for those of us who live more in their heads than in their hearts, the truth is that we’re all living in two realities at once.
Grief reminds us of this as often as we think of the person, place or thing which we have lost. There is a reality in which that good thing was present. And there is also the reality in which that good thing is absent. Two realities carry on inside of us.
The truest reality for Christians is that we are always abiding in Christ. We are seated with him in the heavenly realms. [What?? What can that possibly mean?] It’s impossibility of being fulfilled in this tangible reality means that there is another reality in which we have a chair next to Jesus.
(Can you imagine? You’re seated next to Christ at dinner and he asks, “how was your day?” Then he offers to pray for you after you’ve poured out your heart about your hopes and difficulties. I want to go to that dinner where somehow everybody gets to sit next to Jesus.)
If grief creates a layer of tension in our lives, held taut between this life and the one we’ve lost, then abiding with Christ is another layer of tension, held between this life and the one we’ve been promised. We become multilayered people.
Both grief and abiding in Christ add a layer of tension to our lives
If we want to be healthy while living a multilayered life, we have to give focused attention to the hidden layers at times. If we do, they will support us and become part of our fabric. If we don’t, they will unravel and make us dis-integrating people. (Our position with Christ doesn’t change even if we let that layer unravel. But our awareness of it, our appreciation of it, and the extent to which it influences our daily lives can disintegrate, which creates a whole mess inside of us.)
This focused time needs to be characterized by a few common elements, in my observation:
Free from distraction,
Respected by those who love us (free from unnecessary interruption),
Marked by honesty with God, (free to say or feel the “wrong” things)
Free to be emotional or not.
Parents of young children notoriously struggle to find this kind of time, but God’s grace is abundant. He can do so much with just a few moments of time. Also, one way the Church can be a family to one another is enabling time like this to happen for parents and other caretakers of young ones. Our children will be well-supported by healthy, multilayered parents.
One of the big differences between grief and abiding with Christ is that our attention to grief tends to be on an as-needed basis. And many believers seek to pay attention to our abiding with Christ on a daily basis.
An even more significant difference is that grief will one day be resolved, but abiding with Christ will become all there is. The tension will be absorbed in the reality we’ve been longing for. That which was will become part of the beauty of that which will be forever.
The truest thing is the one that will be true the longest.
A tongue twister for the brain: Some things are true today that will not be true tomorrow. Those those things are less true than other things that are true today but will also be true tomorrow. The things that are the truest are the things that will be true forever.
Relativism has been seen as a butcher’s knife to the systems of western religion. “What’s true for you might not be true for me.” “The only absolute is that there are no absolutes.”
But Christians could gain from the postmodern reassessment of truth. Indeed, we’ve worked hard on repackaging the ageless truth of who God is and what he wants from us without diminishing the gift of what’s inside the package. These efforts are laudable. Unfortunately some of our response to relativism has been to wield a butcher’s knife of our own, and seek to shred this opposing worldview into pieces.
Relativism is based more on experience than on logic. Logic in itself is not Christian, but Christianity can mostly be explained using logic. What if Christianity can also be explained using relativism? I know I may be freaking some people out. I’m still on the orthodox team. I’m just exploring ideas.
There are some things that are true today that will not be true tomorrow. It is raining. (That’s why I’m writing and not taking my morning walk.) Tomorrow it may not be raining, so it would no longer be true to say, “It is raining.” (Logic would insist that it is still true that it was raining on Saturday. But relativism focuses on experience, so if I am not presently experiencing rain, the important thing is that it is not raining.)
The trouble comes when we give equal weight to the truths that are true today compared with the truths that have always been true and will always be true.
Does that make sense? Here are several truths: It is raining today. God rewards the faithful. I have 27 things on my to-do list. My children are entrustments from our heavenly Father. We made plans to hang out with friends tonight.
Flattening out all those truths means I’m giving them the same level of attention and basing decisions on them equally. Treating them all as similarly significant to me at any moment is to forget that some truths are truer than others because they last longer.
There are at least two ways that remembering the relativity of truth can help us walk in the light of eternity :
#1. Assigning hierarchy to truth. It is true that there are 27 things on my to-do list. (I like detail, okay?) It is also true that my kids are an entrustment to me. The latter is more significant than my responsibility to my list.
Some of the items on my list reflect how valuable my children are to me. But which truth will be a weightier influence on my mentality and focus today? I say to myself, “It will be a good day if I get all 27 things done.” But what if I measured my day this way: “It will be a good day if I care well for my kids”?
#2. Turning jealousy on its head. Jealousy is based on the truth of the moment. “Why does she get to [fill in the blank] while I’m here doing [fill in the blank?]” The disparity between our lifestyles or opportunities is very real right now. But the question based on the longest-standing truth is, “What will eternity look like for each of us? Will my Father reward me in the long-run for serving him patiently here and now?”
Side note: we often are most jealous of the life we thought we’d be living. Discontentment is born when our present reality doesn’t meet our expectations. The thing is not that our expectations are ill-founded and unreasonable. They’re just ahead of the game! The truth is that there is a time when Christ will be all in all, he will make everything right, and he will reward the faithful.
The truest thing is the one that will be true the longest. That’s why, after losing his family at sea, the hymn writer could say, “It is well with my soul.” I’m sure his feelings were about as stormy as the waters that wrecked his loved one’s boat. But he anchored himself in the truest of truths.
Our days on earth are like grass; like wildflowers, we bloom and die. The wind blows, and we are gone— as though we had never been here. But the love of the Lord remains forever with those who fear him. – Psalm 103:15-17
What goes in the compost bin? It took us a few weeks to figure that out. At our new house, we have a big black compost bin next to the garden that previous owners left here. It was pretty much full of compost when we got here, which is disgusting. But what’s weird is that it’s still not ready to be put in the garden. There are still tiny egg-shell bowls and blackened banana peels. No way I’m spreading that stuff out yet.
It turns out that it takes FOREVER to turn organic garbage into food for the garden. It’s not like this week’s apple cores turn into next week’s fertilizer. It’s not even ready next month. More likely, next year’s fertilizer is now being gathered when I slide the orange peels from our snack into the compost bin.
Basically, if you are engaged in the process, you will need just a few months to get the compost you want. On the other hand, if you put all ingredients into the compost bin and forget about it, you can count on obtaining the usable compost only after a couple of years.
This makes perfect sense if you think about what’s happening. An apple core has a certain molecular structure, determining its shape, colors, smells, etc. When compost is ready, it no longer looks like a bunch of apple cores and other stuff rolling around in the barrel. It looks like dark, rich soil. But the apple molecules are still there.
It takes time to transform something inedible into something that can nourish plants. Interestingly, those plants then become something edible, and the cycle continues.
I think this compost process is somewhat illustrative of what’s happening in our inward character. Whenever I screw up or do something well, that experience becomes part of my history. I imagine that God and the world are keeping a register of all my successes and failures. The big moments are highlighted and last longer.
Maybe this is the world’s way, but this view of God’s way is too passive. He is not sitting back and grading our lives with a red pen. He is a teacher, a mentor, and a parent. He is a gardener.
Even my biggest failings are compostable. Yes, our failures and our successes become part of who we are. But God is able to take the materials that these experiences are made of and turn them into fertilizer for future growth.
How does this happen? How do we make sure this happens? What is our job? As usual, the answer is not in list format.
Our job is to be a garden with a compost bin. Everyone is a garden, but not everyone has a compost bin. Every time we fail and every time we succeed, we can put the memory of that into the compost bin.
What the heck does that mean? It means that when we talk and think about what we’ve done, that’s what it is: it’s something we did. It’s not who we are. Who we are is the garden, and what we’ve done is the compost.
To be honest, one of the things I’m happiest about having done in my life so far is teaching my boys to read before they started kindergarten. I read books on how to do it, and I built in the habit of working on phonics a few times per week when they were about a year away from starting school. Both boys did fine. Now I’m teaching my daughter, who is four and will start school next fall.
Here’s where the whole compost thing happens: I have the positive experience of my boys learning and getting those “aha!” moments when the words become more than sounds to them. I remember also the times when they were super unmotivated and I wondered if we would ever get moving again.
When my boys started school, I had a choice about how to view our success. I could gild it with shiny metal and put it on my shelf. It would have a plaque that says, “ALLIE IS A GOOD MOM BECAUSE HER KIDS READ EARLY.” When people marvel at how well my boys do with reading, I can pull out my trophy and say, “Yes, I taught them myself!” This way of viewing my success makes it very hard for it to become fertilizer for my garden. It sits on a shelf and remains static.
And what’s worse, I might put pressure on my daughter to learn to read early, not because I think it’s good for her, but because I don’t want to lose my trophy!
What I have endeavored to do instead is to keep it practical. I am thrilled that my dudes kill it when it comes to reading. I followed some simple instructions. I may not have been able to do it if my kids were developmentally challenged or if our lives were too chaotic at the time. I recognize the cooperation of my boys and the encouragement from my husband and others. My assumption is that anyone could do this with their kids, given the same support.
My hope is that having this attitude about our success enables it to remain organic, growing and changing, and capable of being broken down by God into fertilizer for future growth.
How would this look with failures? (Kudos to you if you’re still reading! Hang in there, we’re almost done!)
Failures can be turned into little grave markers that we plant in our yard. The last 5K I ran felt like an ugly failure. Since the previous 5K, I had gained about 10 lbs. I had trained some, but not very diligently. I was uncomfortable and frustrated. And I haven’t run a 5K since.
Have I turned that failure into a grave marker? Have I set it up in my memory as an RIP to my running habits? Maybe. I’m planning on signing up for another 5K in a couple weeks. But…I haven’t actually signed up yet. I’ve been running, but I feel really embarrassed about my last race, and I’m pretty sure I will have my worst time yet.
I think I’ve immortalized my failure somewhat. I need to turn it into back into small pieces. The 5K was hard because I had gained weight, not because I’m an illegitimate runner. I had gained weight because of lots of poor eating decisions compounded into each other. Also I had a stressful year and I’m older, so my metabolism is even worse than before, which I didn’t realize was possible.
Lord, help me to put that failure in the compost bin, so you can break it down and use it as fertilizer in the future. Running 5Ks is a way of keeping myself motivated to be healthy; it’s not always effective, but at least it’s me trying!
I would like to turn that failure into a linear success story. To chart the breaking down and the growth. But that’s not my job. God’s job is to tend his garden, and he is in charge of how the compost is created. His way is usually undercover, slow, and mysterious.
It can take years to turn our experiences, especially our failures, into compost. But that nourishment is so much richer than a book you can buy at the store or a 45 minute podcast. Lord God, use your organic process to make us the kind of soil where your word can produce a good crop.
Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.
Any minute my kids are going to wake up, and I’ll shut off my laptop so I can be with them. My middle son is almost always up at exactly 7am, which is the time they’re allowed to wake up. His biological alarm clock is both accurate and faithful.
This week, I’ve been learning a lot about boundaries on work. It’s a new thing for me, being paid by the hour/by the article. It’s also a new thing to be “paid” at all. Before this season of our lives, my husband and I were missionaries. So it’s not that we were paid to do missions work; we were supported by donations, so we could put all our efforts into serving.
There were boundary issues with that lifestyle as well, as any minister, and probably most nonprofit leaders, can testify. (I hear the kids now. 7:05.)
I suppose the logical way to learn this new balance would be to take cues from my old way of balancing.
Notice the signs that I’ve overstuffed my life (not wanting to see any humans ever, even if they’re my offspring; eating cold leftovers even if I’m not hungry; etc., etc.)
Talk with my husband about how I’ve worked myself into a pickle. Promising more output than I have capacity to produce. He probably thinks to himself, “Here again? If this territory isn’t pleasant, at least it’s familiar.”
Carve out an hour or two of quiet so I can reassess my motives.
That last bit is the part I always forget that I need. I remember the first time it dawned on me that motives are important. I was at a Christian retreat, in the middle of a stuffy worship session (stuffy because the air in the room was being breathed by so many people.) I was doing the things you’re supposed to do during worship time when the thought came to me, “You do not receive because you ask with wrong motives.”
I left the stuffy room and stood by the lake. I felt crazy and wild as a young person who had never snuck out of her summer camp cabin and always listened carefully when the rules were being explained (I still listen on the airplane to the oxygen mask talk. It’s not something I’m proud of).
My chest was burning with the question: what are my motives? I didn’t even get answers to the question. The answer is always kaleidoscopic and always unfolding. There is good mixed in with bad. It all becomes increasingly complicated, as I realize there are more than two possible colors.
Rather than understanding myself better—and needing less time to sort out my motives—I find myself needing more time and less talking on my part. More listening and more resting to get things in order.
That’s what I need today. More listening and more resting. More enjoying what is before me and not worrying so much about whether I’ll accomplish all the things I said I could do. To those readers who practice Sabbath-keeping (i.e., taking a day off because God is bigger than work), may it be a refreshing one for you. And may we all find those boundaries that bring rest.
Here are a couple articles I’ve written recently for BibleStudyTools.com (I would add nice pictures and stuff, but I’m going to go make pancakes with my kids!)