We Have Lost More Than We Never Imagined

Imagine a child who has never lain back in the grass just to feel thin leaves whisper against his earlobe, never watched cloudplay to find a story told for him alone, never learned to hear the separate song of robin, sparrow, chickadee. How can he hear the separate song of loneliness, sung by the owl-eyed little girl, the skinny immigrant with his beautiful eyelashes, the old lady liver-spotted with near 100 years of secrets, stories, songs?

How can a poverty of imagination purchase empathy?

Imagine a child who has never lain on the bedroom floor with Peter Pan, Treasure Island, Hardy Boys, never plucked out a tune on unfamiliar instruments, never learned to look for shooting star.

How can he dream, who never dreams?

How can he plan for tomorrow, who lives in the never-quiet racket of today?flower-bird

How can a poverty of thought purchase purpose?

Imagine a child nourished on binge-watching, blinking neon games, portable noise. There is no end to thumping bass and chime of inbox, the unceasing prattle of friends (no more waiting, even, for a phone call).

There is no waiting, period. There is no delayed gratification, no longing, no patience needed. And we are surprised when impatience bears its ugly fruit.

Where do they come from, the children with their guns? Where is this carnage born? Is it a failure of legislation? Of health care? Of education? Of parenting?

Or is it simply that we have forgotten how to sit, quiet? It takes quiet to see—are you surprised? Sit in a nickel arcade and try to see your neighbor’s heart, try to see your own.

We have forgotten how to see what others see, forgotten how to slip into their shoes.

We have forgotten how to imagine, how to dream.

We have forgotten how to listen, how to wait.

We are always loud, forever moving. Why then are we surprised when there is no peace? We are paying for the sins of omission.

Without quiet, there is no thought.

Without thought, there is no thoughtfulness.

Without thoughtfulness, there is no empathy.

Without empathy, there is no remorse.

Without imagination, there is no vision.

Without vision, there is no reason for hope.

Without hope, there is no reason to live.

With nothing to lose, there are no inhibitions.

We sow the wind, and we shall reap the whirlwind. (Hosea 8:7)

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

― Wendell Berry

Hyggelicious

So the Danish. The Norwegian. Scots and Canadians and Alaskans. How in the world do these nearly-Arctic people survive winter? Not only are the temperatures rock-bottom, but it’s so dark, so very dark. I don’t know about you, but I’m about done with winter, and I see the sun on a near-daily basis. I’ve been doing some reading on Scandinavian happiness, which is consistently off the charts. The Danes in particular have been getting a lot of press for their concept of “hygge,” (pronounced ahh-choo and gesundheit, I’m pretty sure). It seems our chilly friends have figured out the secret of blissful winters, even in their very cold climate. Candles, fireplaces, light, soft blankets, lots of books, friendly feasts and mulled wine all have a little something to do with it. It’s fascinating, especially for a Southern girl who misses summer nights on the front porch. I’m on a campaign to hygge-up my winter routine and break the winter blues this February, but I’m no expert. My best suggestion for happy winter nights? Brinner.

Mmm! Breakfast for dinner is always a favorite round here. I’ve successfully roped my friends in for lots of brinner nights, and the smorgasbord (see what I did with the Swedish there?) of baked goods, bacon, steaming sausages, cheesy eggs, and bowls of fruit is happy enough for Pharrell and Bobby McFerrin both. Throw in some coffee and have yourself a merry little midwinter.

The best thing about brinner is you aren’t running out the door to get to work, so you get to go a little above-and-beyond with your breakfast dishes. I’m not one to get up at the crack of dawn and make pastry, but I can do it in time for supper. Do a little savory and a little sweet, or better yet, invite some friends to contribute their favorites, and brinner can be a beautiful feast. Good enough for hygge-loving Danes!

Here are some of our favorites:

German “Puff Pancake” with Butter Syrup, recipe credit: http://www.melskitchencafe.com/german-pancake-butter-syrup/

This is really good with a warm fruit compote or jam if you want to skip the syrup, but that butter syrup is kind of to die for, too. It turns the whole thing into something reminiscent of gooey butter bars.

  • 2 T. butter
  • 6 large eggs (about 10.5 ounces)
  • 1 cup milk (I use 2%)
  • ½ t. vanilla extract
  • 1 cup (5 ounces) all-purpose or white whole wheat flour
  • 1/4 t. salt
  • Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Put two T. butter in a glass 9X13-inch baking dish and pop the pan in the oven to melt (but don’t let it burn).

Combine the eggs, milk and vanilla in a blender and process on low speed until smooth, 10-20 seconds. Add the flour and salt and blend until just combined; the batter should be smooth but not overblended.

Take the preheated, buttered pan out of the oven and swirl the butter to coat the bottom of the pan. Pour the batter into the pan and immediately return to the oven. Bake for 20 minutes until the pancake is puffy and lightly browned on the bottom and edges.

Butter Syrup:

  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • ½ cup buttermilk
  • ½ cup (8 T.) butter
  • 1 t. vanilla extract
  • 1 t. baking soda

In a big old saucepan (it will foam and triple in volume at the end), combine the sugar, buttermilk and butter and bring to a boil, stirring often. Reduce the heat and simmer for 7 minutes. Off the heat, stir in the vanilla and baking soda until well-combined. Serve warm over pancakes.

 

Polenta and Mexican Eggs

Polenta isn’t something I grew up with, but it is essentially a mixture of ready-to-fry grits. It comes in a tube; simply slice like you would slice-and-bake cookies, and fry. The key to this dish is timing. Start by getting the toppings ready to spoon on while the eggs are hot. You can set the table with bowls of beans, salsa, avocado, cheese, and cilantro and let everyone serve themselves.

  • 1 tube polenta
  • eggs, 1 or 2 per person
  • black beans
  • salsa
  • 1 avocado, chopped
  • shredded cheddar
  • cilantro

Fry up the sliced polenta and pile on beans, a dollop of salsa, and a sprinkle of cheddar.  Top with fried eggs over easy.  Sprinkle with cilantro and serve with avocado slices on the side.

 

Banana Cottage Cheese Pancakes

This recipe is quite flexible and can be modified to suit your needs.  The pancakes are delicious — moist and dense, with a consistency somewhat like crepes.  Best served with maple syrup or fruit preserves.

  • 6 eggs
  • 1 1/4 cup cottage cheese
  • 2 T. cooking oil
  • 1/4 t. salt
  • 2 small overripe bananas
  • 1 c. flour
  • milk, as needed

Combine eggs, cottage cheese, oil, and salt in a blender.  Blend until smooth.  Add bananas, one at a time.  Slowly add flour, by tablespoonfuls, until well incorporated.  If the mixture is too thick, add milk, by the teaspoon, until it blends smoothly.  Cook on a lightly greased skillet or frying pan until golden.

 

Baked Oatmeal

I have made this with almond milk to satisfy a non-dairy request and it was great!  You can mix up all of the dry ingredients and wet ingredients separately the day before and combine just before baking if you want to prepare ahead.  Serve with whipped cream if you want to be decadent (or yogurt if you don’t) and fill up on a big bowl of fruit salad.

  • 3 cups rolled oats
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 2 t. ground cinnamon
  • 2 t. baking powder
  • 1 t. salt
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 eggs
  • ½ cup melted butter
  • 2 t. vanilla extract
  • ¾ cup dried cherries
  • ½ cup chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  In a large bowl, mix together oats, brown sugar, cinnamon, baking powder, and salt. Beat in milk, eggs, melted butter, and vanilla extract. Stir in dried cranberries. Spread into a 9×13 inch baking dish.  Bake in preheated oven for 40 minutes.

 

Baked Blueberry-Pecan French Toast

This is meant to be soaked overnight and baked in the morning.  If you are having it for brinner, throw it together in the morning and soak all day, then bake before supper.

  • 1 French bread baguette
  • 6 large eggs
  • 1 cup milk
  • ½ t. nutmeg
  • 1 t. vanilla
  • ¾ cup packed brown sugar, divided
  • 1 cup pecans, chopped
  • ½ stick plus 1 t. butter
  • 2 cups fresh blueberries, rinsed and drained

Butter a 9×13 baking dish. Cut 1 ½ inch slices from the baguette and arrange in one layer in the dish (about 6-8 slices). Whisk together eggs, milk, nutmeg, vanilla, and ½ cup brown sugar in a large bowl and pour evenly over the bread. Refrigerate mixture, covered, until all liquid is absorbed by the bread, at least 8 hours and up to 1 day.

When you are ready to bake and serve, preheat oven to 350 F. Toast the pecans in a skillet in one layer over medium heat, stirring often. Toss with 1 t. butter.

Sprinkle pecans and blueberries evenly over bread mixture. Cut remaining ½ stick butter into pieces and heat with remaining ¼ cup brown sugar in a small saucepan, stirring, until butter is melted and sugar is dissolved. Drizzle butter mixture over bread and bake mixture 30 – 40 minutes or until any liquid from blueberries is bubbling.

 

Quick Cheese and Sausage Grits

I use the basic recipe for cheese grits from the Quaker Instant Grits box, with a few changes. They recommend fake cheese, like Velveeta; I always use sharp cheddar. I tend to eyeball, it, too—white grits ought to turn a nice pale orange if you have enough cheese. Quaker omits pepper, I use it generously. And in this case, I have listed crumbled sausage as an optional ingredient.

  • 4 c. water
  • 1 c. instant grits
  • 1-2 c. shredded cheddar
  • 1 c. cooked, crumbled breakfast sausage (optional, but yummy)
  • pinch of garlic powder
  • pinch of salt
  • pepper

In a heavy saucepan, stir grits slowly into boiling water. Beware, grits will pop and spatter as they heat up. Cover and reduce heat to medium-low. Cook 4-5 minutes or until thick, stirring frequently. Add sausage, cheese and spices, stir until cheese melts.

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Dear Atheist

“I have never seen much point in getting heavy with stupid people or Jesus freaks, just as long as they don’t bother me. In a world as weird and cruel as this one we have made for ourselves, I figure anybody who can find peace and personal happiness without ripping off somebody else deserves to be left alone… And I have learned to live, as it were, with the idea that I will never find peace and happiness, either. But as long as I know there’s a pretty good chance I can get my hands on either one of them every once in a while, I do the best I can between high spots.” — Hunter S. Thompson

“Don’t you love Jesus?’ Well, I thought an’ I thought an’ finally I says, ‘No, I don’t know nobody name’ Jesus. I know a bunch of stories, but I only love people.”  — John Steinbeck

There is something really appealing about discarding religion. What, after all, is the point of orienting your life, limiting your choices, around a fairy tale? And what could it be but a fairy tale, all this talk of gods and heaven? Haven’t people spun a thousand deities to explain the inexplicable? A god for blazing comets, for the rare and creepy eclipse, a god for messy birth and haunting death and crack of lightning? You could sit up late night after night, drive yourself mad with The Big Questions, prod into suffering and origins and eternal destiny, and not answer any of it to your satisfaction.

Or you could flip a switch, turn it off. Live, instead, for today, for pleasures that can be physically felt and successes that can be financially measured. Love the people you love and be done with the ones you don’t. Be practical. Be down to earth. Be free.

But the questions still nag, if you are a thinking sort of person. How did we get here and where are we going? What tripped the trigger that ignited the Big Bang, and how can biology explain laughter, or love? So once in a while, maybe after a few glasses of wine or when the power goes out, you ponder. You pull out the biographies of great people and consider what pushed them, what claims they made of Truth and Beauty.

Maybe, like Holden Caulfield, you wish, just sometimes, that you could pray.

“I felt like praying or something, when I was in bed, but I couldn’t do it. I can’t always pray when I feel like it. In the first place, I’m sort of an atheist. I like Jesus and all, but I don’t care too much for most of the other stuff in the Bible.”  — J.D. Salinger

It’s tough to pray when you’re pretty sure nobody’s listening. But if nobody is listening, if we’re floating in the void? Then it’s hard to sleep at all.

So maybe your thoughts turn to that rare handful of people who claimed a corner on truth, claimed to know the ways of God. What did they really know? There’s Buddha, Mohammed, Moses with his burning bush. There’s even a handful of nutjobs who thought they were God. Take Jesus. What can you make of him?

“Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have founded empires. But on what did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded his empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men would die for him.” — Napoléon Bonaparte

“If what Jesus said was good, what can it matter whether he was God or not?” — Kurt Vonnegut

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell.” — C.S. Lewis

Screen Shot 2018-02-08 at 8.49.31 PMYou’d like to say with Vonnegut that it doesn’t really matter whether he was divine, but  if he wasn’t, then he’s nuts, and if he was, well, then you’d have to deal with that. So you play with the idea. If God did come down to walk among us, what would that look like? What would you expect? Probably some pomp and circumstance, right? Some bling, mind-bending miracles? And you’d look for wisdom, of course, for justice, for kindness. The world wouldn’t just keep spinning, oblivious, would it? Wouldn’t there be judgment and power and Kingdom Come?

Jesus? Well, you can see the wisdom, the kindness, and if tales are true, a sprinkling of miracles. But no power to speak of. No grand entrance. Kind of a lowly fellow for a god.

“The world takes us to a silver screen on which flickering images of passion and romance play, and as we watch, the world says, “This is love.” God takes us to the foot of a tree on which a naked and bloodied man hangs and says, “This is love.”  — Joshua Harris

“I want neither a terrorist spirituality that keeps me in a perpetual state of fright about being in right relationship with my heavenly Father nor a sappy spirituality that portrays God as such a benign teddy bear that there is no aberrant behavior or desire of mine that he will not condone. I want a relationship with the Abba of Jesus, who is infinitely compassionate with my brokenness and at the same time an awesome, incomprehensible, and unwieldy Mystery.” — Brennan Manning

If Jesus was a god, if he was God Himself, he certainly had a strange way of showing it. No big shazam. No thunderbolts of doom. And you have to admit, that kind of love, if that’s what it was, is almost incomprehensible. From creator to crucified? From all-powerful to penniless? The whole story is epic and haunting and strange.

In point of fact, you don’t like to think about it, and if the power would just come back on, you’d watch Netflix instead. But sometimes you wonder.

einstein-albert-classroom-blackboard-professor“I couldn’t get Him out of my head. Still can’t. I spent three solid days thinking about Him. The more He bothered me, the less I could forget Him. And the more I learned about Him, the less I wanted to leave Him.” — Yann Martel

“I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene….No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus.” — Albert Einstein

There’s something appealing about that man, something that all the other morally upright and mystical people just don’t have. You don’t get the sense that he’d rather hang out on a mountaintop all day, unhinged from reality. You don’t get the sense that if he could he’d smite his enemies and laugh like a lunatic. If there is a God, holding power that loosely? Inviting worship without compelling it? Well, that’s the kind of god you’d like to have.

“The irony is that while God doesn’t need us but still wants us, we desperately need God but don’t really want Him most of the time.” — Francis Chan

And so you swill that last bit of cabernet and stare into the fireplace. The godless life works fine, mostly, and no doubt you can do what you want when you want to. But it surely would be something to know real love. It would be nice to grapple with a truth that’s big enough for all of the questions you throw at it. And if there is an answer to all the hows and whys, it would be better to know than not to… wouldn’t it?

“I came to Him because I did not know which way to turn. I remained with Him because there is no other way I wish to turn. I came to Him longing for something I did not have. I remain with Him because I have something I will not trade. I came to Him as a stranger. I remain with Him in the most intimate of friendships. I came to Him unsure about the future. I remain with Him certain about my destiny. I came amid the thunderous cries of a culture that has 330 million deities. I remain with Him knowing that truth cannot be all-inclusive.” — Ravi Zacharias

“The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.” — Timothy J. Keller

“It is Jesus that you seek when you dream of happiness; He is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; He is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is He who provoked you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is He who urges you to shed the masks of a false life…” — John Paul II

“Turn around and believe that the good news that we are loved is better than we ever dared hope, and that to believe in that good news, to live out of it and toward it, to be in love with that good news, is of all glad things in this world the gladdest thing of all. Amen, and come Lord Jesus.” — Frederick Buechner

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Will the real Jesus please step forward?

So I’m writing a paper for grad school. (And yes, I did give in and enroll, but that’s a story for another day.) Here’s my assignment: What evidence do we have for the existence of Jesus outside of the Bible? Do we have any proof that he was a historical person at all?

Was he, like Shakespeare, a real person about whom we might have some inaccurate information handed down—history made myth?

Was he, like King Arthur, a fictional character whose lovably delusional fan club believes he was real—myth made history?

Or is it all true?

Who was this guy?

History is so much like detective work, adding up evidence, building a case. It’s fascinating, all the bits and pieces fitting together, making a puzzle that often has some obvious holes, then standing back and examining the whole picture. But it’s also really interesting, in this case, to watch the detectives work.

On the one hand is a group who’ve always believed Jesus was a real Jewish peasant circa Zero AD, but have worked and worked to discredit anything substantive that has been said about him. They tend to say things like, “Sure, he was a good teacher. But his followers never meant to imply he was God. That part got added in later.”

On the opposite side are those who think he was as historically valid as, say, Thor. “Sure, Paul worshipped him,” they’ll say, “but only a ‘heavenly’ version of him. Nobody ever thought he was a flesh-and-bone human.”

Funny, he can be human, or he can be god. But how could he ever be both?

It’s the age-old dilemma for Christianity. We understand a holy-and-divine Lord of All the Universe, remote, perfect, all-powerful. Or we can get our heads around a wise and salty teacher, relatable, tolerant, inspiring. But we have an awfully hard time understanding God made flesh. And so the heresies tip back and forth like a teeter-totter:

He was God, and he never actually died on the cross, and anything stained by unholy flesh is wicked.

Or he was human, the miracles are bogus, and of course he never “rose again.”

Or maybe we’re all gods-in-the-making, and he’s our best exemplar. Be good, be nice, be like Jesus.

The Christian story is wholly unique in its “fully human, fully God” doctrine. You can pick from a dozen either-or religions, but this one is, right down to the core, a mystery. All of the justice, purity, power, and goodness of deity packed in to a person limited by a breakable body, “tempted as we are but without sin” as Hebrews 4 has it. It’s a theological conundrum that begs the big question—why? Why in the world would omnipotent God condense himself in time and space to be born in a barn? “What is man, that thou art mindful of him?”

I like that my God can’t be easily explained, can’t be reduced to a mathematical theorem. I like knowing that a lifetime of study can only scratch the surface, that sometimes the best we can come up with is “mystery.” It quite makes sense to me that God is bigger than the human mind can unravel. Otherwise he wouldn’t be much of a God at all.

It’s also intriguing that this God (if he really exists) refuses to dispense proof positive. I heard an atheist lamenting this on a podcast this week (fascinating show—you should really check it out). If he’s God, the question goes, why doesn’t he wave his magic wand and drive our doubt away? Where are the flashy miracles? Why can’t I ask him to show up and see his giant invisible finger write on the wall, “It’s me!”

If he’s God, he certainly could do that, and, Christians would say, he does do that from time to time. But ever since Moses went up against Pharaoh as the Jews’ first apologist, God has steadfastly refused to make anyone believe.

“Pharaoh’s going to ask you who sent you. Tell him it was I AM.”

“Come again?”

“My name. It’s I AM.”

“I am what? What does that mean? Can’t you have a normal name, like Thor, God of Thunder?”

“No.”

“What if he doesn’t believe me?”

“Throw your staff on the ground, and it will become a snake.”

“OK. Cool.” Ten minutes later… “Um, I Am? Pharaoh’s magicians can do the same trick.”

“Then turn water into blood.”

“All right.” Ten minutes later… “Yeah, they can do that, too.”

“Tell him I AM sent you. Let my people go.”

God lets the Moses-Pharaoh showdown drag on through ten plagues (which were miracle enough for the open-minded, but dismissed by the hard-hearted. Locusts? I mean, that’s not really a miracle. Hail? Have you seen my dented wagon? State Farm still owes me from last year.)

God always gives enough light for those with eyes to see. He’s not interested in arm-wrestling skeptics.

So is there any extra-biblical evidence for the existence of Jesus? Yes, as it turns out, there is. Out of the four major historians of the first century Roman world (Tacitus, Josephus, Plutarch, and Suetonius), three mention Jesus. That is to say, three non-Christian—agnostic, apathetic, and/or antagonistic—historians (two Roman, one Jewish) comment on the life and death of an obscure, impoverished, rabble-rousing carpenter in a backwater province. Furthermore, a pair of cranky politicians dither about what to do with those crazy Christ-followers who worship Jesus as a god, despite Rome’s best efforts to torture them into recanting. A satirical playwright skewers Christians for their cuckoo naivety. And an anonymous artist sketches a donkey on a cross, graffiti captioned “Alexamenos worships his god.” It’s hard, on the face of evidence, to argue that Jesus never existed. But maybe it is just as hard to see him for who he is: Immanuel, God With Us.

For more information… Here’s a decent summary of the extra-biblical evidence for Jesus’ existence. And here’s a more detailed scholarly look at it.

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Kate’s Magic 8 Ball

Kate, circa 1986:

Magic 8 Ball, will I ever have a house with secret tunnels and an elevator?  Don’t count on it.

Will I live among gypsies in Spain?  My sources say no.

Be a teacher?  You may rely on it.

Marry the red-headed boy?  Outlook not so good.

Write a best-seller?  (Magic 8 Ball laughs hysterically.)  

Me:  Is this thing broken?

When you think about it, all of the deep questions we have about the future boil down to yes or no.  The combinations may be endlessly complicated (will my house in Spain among the gypsies have secret tunnels and will I be a novelist with red-headed children or a spinster teacher with 22 dogs) but bit by bit, they are all yes or no questions.  Well, duh!  But this is an important point.

That thing you want settled most right this minute is a binary proposition.  God, will I have children?  May I move to the mountains?  Should I go for a Ph.D?  Should I send my kids to boarding school in a far-away country?  For prayers big and small, we are waiting on a yes or a no.  (I’ve often heard  that the third option is “wait,” but really that’s just a slow yes, so we’re back to the first two.)  Two choices?  Gosh, that simplifies things.

Let’s take an easy example.  Take the boarding school question.  Let’s say your kids are driving you batty and you are really hoping for a yes.  You give the Magic 8 Ball a vigorous shake and it comes up “very doubtful.”  Well, bummer.  But you still have two options.

Option one: misery.  You look down the long years until they head off to college and realize that, nope, it’s not likely they are going to graduate early.  Nary a prodigy in the bunch.  You have another dozen years to go, and you are going to wake up every single day with a scowl, refine your yelling abilities, pout, and complain to anyone standing nearby.

Option two: contentment.  The prospect of a dozen years of misery sounds kind of, shall we say, miserable, so you decide to breathe deep and be grateful.  You hang up some cat posters about silver linings and cups half full and buck up.

But what if the Magic 8 Ball magically offers you positive words?  “It is decidedly so.  Without a doubt.  As I see it, yes.”  Now what?  You still have two options.

What will you choose in the waiting?  Misery, or hope?

Think about the big prayer of your heart ten years ago, twenty.  What was the answer?  What did you do with it?

Did misery ever add a day to your life, worry a happy hour to your day?  Was joy less joyful when you chose to be present in a good moment instead of bracing for a bad?  How many times do we wish for a time machine while we wait?  But even if you could see the future, you’re still looking at a pair of simple options.  It’s either going to be a yes, or it’s going to be a no.  And either way, you’ll have a choice.

I’m starting on a read-the-Bible in a year plan (check it out here — this is a great little app) and for a few days have been following Abraham’s story.  Now here was a guy facing a sloooow yes.

Abraham:  God, will I have children?

God:  Yes.

Abraham:  I’m like, old.

God:  Definitely not getting any younger.

Sarah:  I’ve got an idea.  There’s this maid…

Abraham:  That’s genius!

God:  sighs.

Abraham (like me) has trouble waiting joyfully.  I mean, he does wait.  Just not very placidly.  Maybe he paces a little, kicks things.  He and Sarah brainstorm a great way to give God a hand that involves sleeping with the help and goes, as expected, badly.  What if he’d just… waited?

What if I trusted, hoped, but didn’t spend all my time looking ahead?  What if I looked around instead, noticed the small gifts, embraced the season?  What if I chose life?

Abraham and Sarah’s ache was deep, as all the childless know.  There is a waiting — for healing, for reconciliation, for validation, even for death — that is painful.  No cat poster can fix what’s happening behind half the doors on your street.  And yet, no one can take away the choice we all have, every day.  Deuteronomy 30:19-20 lays it out.  “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days…”

So what’s the big question bugging you today?  Maybe it’s yes, maybe it’s no.

What will you do with it?

Whom do you love?

For if you love those who love you, what reward will you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing out of the ordinary? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? (Matthew 5:46-47, HCSB)

I’m hurt, and if I’m honest, I’m angry. Sad to say, there isn’t one without the other. When someone lets the sharp words fly, they slice me right off the vine. I’m not abiding any more, I’m cut off— from joy, from peace— shriveling, rotting, drying out. It’s so hard to choose the vine over the justified (in my mind) ugliness. Love? Love them? My lip curls, my heart hardens. I don’t want love. I want revenge.

But that’s not the way I see myself. I think of myself in kindly terms, as a noble-minded, sanctified child of God. Sanctimonious, more like. I’m the emperor with no clothes. I’m the pious Queen of Hearts. Off with her head! If I happen to glance in a mirror, I see a little girl hurt; I want to console, to coddle. It’s a fun house mirror, not true. A real mirror would show— I want to return evil for evil, painful blow for blow. I do not truly love.

Jesus’ prying questions expose a rancidness in my heart I’d rather not acknowledge. He knows, knows I am the one forgiven much but stingy with forgiveness in return. He knows that I need grace absolutely as much as the one who hurt me. After all, I sin against Him, but He gave up everything for me anyway.

Mother Teresa reportedly hung a poem on the wall of her Calcutta children’s home by a fellow named Kent Keith. The poem advises that although our motives may be questioned and our kindness rejected, we should do good, be honest, forgive, and love anyway.

Screen Shot 2017-12-07 at 11.04.05 AM
By Manfredo Ferrari – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35010569

Hmm. Love is hard. Love anyway. Between me and God it’s clear, my heart is a long way from His kind of love.

You might say there are two kinds of people in the world. Those who love you, and those who do not, those who are like you, and those who are very different. One group is generous and gracious, the other often critical and mean-spirited. And yet, according to Jesus, there is only one way for us to respond, His way— with kindness, gentleness, and respect. In short, with love. As He says,

“You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. For He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”  (Matthew 5:43-44, HCSB)

Jesus’ questions for His audience at the Sermon on the Mount pack so much insight that they easily expand to press on me half a dozen more.  Whom do I love, personally, practically, with word and deed? Only the lovable? Do I pride myself on the kindness I lavish on a lucky few? Do I think of myself as praiseworthy for the way I treat my husband, my children, my parents, or my friends? Do I expect a deeply felt thank-you-very-much when I spontaneously serve my household or my church?  Well, don’t look at me for reward, Jesus seems to say. To love those who love you is to meet the bare minimum standard.  It’s not extraordinary.Screen Shot 2017-12-07 at 10.59.54 AM

What is extraordinary is to love the person who makes me most uncomfortable. The one who just yesterday insulted me, the one who’s hostile and rude. To love both the people who flat-out sin against me and the people who look like they would if they had the chance. To love my political enemies and the irritating ones who won’t leave me alone, the one who betrayed me or the one who lies like a rug. That guy, he’s the one I ought to serve. That’s the Jesus way.

Fine. It’s easy enough to structure my life so that I just don’t cross paths much with unkind or scornful folks— at least not in my free time. Surely the extent of what Jesus expects is civility when it’s unavoidable, right? It’s the Miss Manners gospel— be ye polite. Surely we don’t have to seek out difficult people, sit next to them, invite them over on our day off?  Right?

There’s an awkward pause while I wait for an encouraging answer. It never comes. The only answer I hear is the patiently repeated question,

What are you doing out of the ordinary?

Extraordinary love starts when I quit licking my wounds and pray for my adversary. What might she need? What could I give?

As it turns out, loving unlovable people is kinda freeing— it flips my attitude on its head, replaces my grievances with something closer to joy. Who knew? Forgiving, service-oriented, beyond-the-ordinary love isn’t just powerful for the recipient and the watching world. It’s powerfully healing and life-giving for me, too.

In a sermon (“Loving Your Enemies,” November 17, 1957), Martin Luther King, Jr. said, Screen Shot 2017-12-07 at 10.54.50 AM“I’m foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love somewhere, men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed. And then we will be in God’s kingdom.” Even the most recalcitrant? Maybe Mr. King was thinking about angry Alabamans with their angry, snarling dogs, but I suspect when Jesus issued the challenge, He was thinking, too, about the likes of me.

If you love those who love you…

Whom do I love, anyway? Whom will I love on today?

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The Best Book You (Almost) Never Read

Maybe it’s the book you rescued from a yard sale, or the one you left abandoned on a shelf for years because the cover was awful.  Maybe it’s one that was mis-shelved at the library right between two of your favorites, and you found yourself looking at it on a whim.  Maybe you happened to hear two people randomly mention it within a few days of each other and then saw a copy on a friend’s coffee table.

Sometimes the best books are the ones we almost never read.

It’s definitely true in the publishing world that many of the most legendary classics are books that almost never saw the light of day…

Poems by Emily Dickinson, discovered after her death.

An unusually fat grade-school novel by an unknown writer rejected 12 times in a row (Harry Potter).

A quirky little picture book about some tea-drinking bunnies that was self-published because no one else wanted it (Peter Rabbit).

Even Moby Dick reportedly sold only 50 copies during Melville’s lifetime.

If you’ve ever read a book by Agatha Christie, Mary Higgins Clark, John Grisham, James Patterson, Madeleine L’Engle, Louis L’Amour, Dr. Seuss, or Margaret Mitchell, you’ve met an author in those pages whose books narrowly escaped dying in a dresser drawer, unpublished.  And it’s not just fluff fiction:  books by Chinua Achebe, E.E. Cummings, Jack Kerouac, William Golding, Alice Walker, James Joyce, George Orwell, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Yann Martel have been insulted, misunderstood, and unceremoniously shot down time and again.  And some that were printed in the author’s lifetime moldered on the bookstore shelves until the writer was dead and gone for decades (ever heard of Jane Austen?)

Aspiring writers often moan about the devilish catch-22 of getting anything published without platform when platform is so hard to achieve if you haven’t been published.  But our problem is hardly new to the internet age.  (Joseph Heller himself felt it, too.)  Loads of manuscripts pile up on publishers’ desks, and the poor guys/gals have to sort through the Pulitzers and the drivel without the help of a crystal ball.  They’re searching for the needle in a papery haystack.

At Blackwell’s in Oxford, I saw a great display of books wrapped in brown paper with just a handwritten teaser on the front.  “Wildly imaginative story about a shipwreck, a tiger, and the meaning of life.”  “One victim, a dozen suspects, all stranded on a luxury train in a blizzard.”  “A puzzle book written in exquisite prose, perfect for fans of so-and-so.”  What a super idea!  Pick the book blind, not for its reputation or its famous author or its fancy cover art; let it speak on its own terms.

Last year my reading resolution was to review the books I read (on Goodreads, Amazon, wherever).  What if next year’s reading resolution went something like this:  for every book I read because I already know and love the author I’ll try one by someone unknown?  For every bestseller I’ll browse the shelves for one I’ve never heard of?

What if we don’t let the big shots in New York dictate what we’ll read this year, but look for the treasure in the brown paper bag?

You can click on my Want-to-Read pile at Goodreads for some inspiration if you want.  But I’m on the lookout, too, so give me your best suggestions below.  What’s a book we’ve never heard of that you know we’d all love?

What’s the best book you almost never read?

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