Faith Hatching: God, Depression and Our Broody Hen

Faith Hatching: God, Depression and Our Broody Hen

I’d never actually seen a hen go broody and hatch out chicks. We’ve always tried to collect the eggs before a good cache formed that would tempt a motherly chicken. Anyway, most of our girls were bred purely and heavily for egg production and don’t have strong instincts left to do anything other than let us take their eggs away each day. But, this spring, my daughter needed a science project and her beloved bantam hen seemed desperate to raise a family. So, we let the hen collect some eggs and we let her sit.

A chicken changes when she goes broody. She has a job to do and she takes it very seriously. Her body stops making eggs and she needs less food and water. Her usually placid temperament can become fierce. She is immovable from her nest. For twenty one long days she is focused on nothing but keeping those eggs and the chicks growing within, warm and close to her breast, her feathers fluffed out as a covering.

Yesterday, we arrived home after a long day of activities. My daughter came home with a friend and, both being chicken loving gals, the first thing they did was run out to the coop and check on the hen. To their joy they found that the four eggs were perfectly pipped and zipped and four beautiful little chicks were nestled under the mother hen.

I went out to meet the new additions and I was surprised at how much this new life stirred up in me a sense of wonder. Maybe a hundred chicks have made their way through my hands to the coop or broiler pen and none of them have struck me with quite the same awe. Those chickens all arrived in boxes, a day old, after having been hatched in an incubator and shipped from some industrial producer. These ones appeared as if by magic, from the very ordinary eggs that make their way to my kitchen each day. Only, there was one significant difference. They had been tended. They were chosen and set aside and given the loving, all-consuming care of a broody hen. These fuzzy little chicks with bright eyes and strong beaks appeared out of the ordinary, miraculous event of being brooded upon.

I had the thought after stroking the back of one of those soft baby chicks, that I can be like that mother hen. There is potential for life all around me but the things that will grow are the things that I tend.

As I put more words to my thoughts I realized that this is a pondering that’s already been done by some other English speaker. Hidden in our language is proof that someone else watched a hen and her chicks and saw the power therein. We humans are brooders, too. We take thoughts and we nestle them and coddle them and keep them fresh and warm in our minds. Life grows out of our broodings.

I took this old English truth and I felt guilt creeping in with its accusations. Its own kind of brooding.

That struggle with depression, it’s all your fault…

You just need to think on what is true…

Memorize more Bible verses…

You need to control your thoughts and make them happier and more thankful…

I remember as a teen in Maine being chosen as a delegate to the American Legion’s Girls’ State. Girls from high schools around the state spent one week learning about government and how to be a patriotic, good citizen.  One of the first things the older ladies taught us (and the only thing that I remember) was a little chant: “To be enthusiastic we must act enthusiastic. Oh, boy, am I en-thu-si-astic!” I thought it was the most ridiculous thing in the world.

But how often do I feel guilty for not living this way? I should just get out of bed in the morning and act enthusiastic. Just Be Happy. Make thankful lists to brood on. Count it all joy, baby.

And on the days when I just want to collapse from exhaustion and sadness, let’s add failure to be en-thu-si-astic as topping on the self-hate sundae.

Last night I sat with dear people, in a sweet little circle, as we gathered for our church’s community prayer time. And, I prayed maybe the least en-thu-si-astic prayer ever. It was good and long but consisted of something like, “Lord, life feels super hard right now. Would you please bring joy into these things? But actually, I don’t even know if you want to answer that prayer, because you might just want things to be hard. So, anyway, I guess I trust you. Amen.” Thankfully, the saints picked up where I left off, and they hoped and they had faith and we prayed, together. They even prayed for joy. Like the real thing. Not the en-thu-si-astic kind.

Earlier this week, recognizing that low place I am so prone to sink to lately, I pulled out Martyn Lloyd-Jones old book of collected sermons entitled ‘Depression’. Cheery title, eh? Sometimes cheery isn’t what is needed. This is what he said about depression and I would guess at least the start of his take on ‘brooding’:

“The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul: ‘Why art thou cast down’- what business have you to be disquieted? You must turn on yourself, upbraid yourself, condemn yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself: ‘Hope thou in God’- instead of muttering in this depressed, unhappy way. And then you must go on to remind yourself of God, Who God is, and what God is and what God has done, and what God has pledged Himself to do. Then having done that, end on this great note: defy yourself, and defy other people, and defy the devil and the whole world, and say with this man: ‘I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance, who is also the health of my countenance and my God’… The essence of this matter is to understand that this self of ours, this other man within us, has got to be handled. Do not listen to him; turn on him; speak to him; condemn him; upbraid him; exhort him; encourage him; remind him of what you know, instead of placidly listening to him and allowing him to drag you down and depress you.”[1]

In the throes of feeling down and depressed, there are a million thoughts that run through my mind and want to sink me. Most of them are related to how much of a crummy failure I am. Lloyd-Jones says during those times I need to take myself firmly in hand and speak truth. There are a lot of true things we can speak, and be thankful for, like how comparatively good our life is (because it is extremely good when looking at the rest of the world’s struggles, right?). Being thankful and counting blessings are great acts and like exercise, strengthening even if we don’t immediately feel the benefits. But sometimes, if you are like me, counting blessing when you are feeling really low can produce an immense amount of guilt over not feeling more en-thu-si-astic. How crummy do you have to be to feel so crummy when life is so good? Let’s just crawl back in bed and pull the covers over my miserable, blessed head for a while.

But, according to Lloyd-Jones, the truth we are to speak is not about ourselves and our circumstances but about God. Not me. Not life circumstances. God.

Who God is, and what God is and what God has done, and what God has pledged Himself to do.

But, honestly, this morning, when I thought about these words, and went to brood upon the truth of God Himself, it was hard to get there. It felt a little flat because my faith in the reality of God was kind of shaky. This is what happens sometimes, when I start sinking. It was hard to feel genuine while thinking about God and how good He is.

But… I could think about chickens. Throughout the day my daughter brought me updates on what those little chicks were doing. And, with a full and genuine heart I thought about those little miracles of tender care. I thought about how small they are and how their mother is keeping them covered with her wings. I brooded on the sweetness of that relationship between the helpless chicks and their passionate mother hen.

And that is when a miracle broke into my heart.

Suddenly, it hit me. My hope isn’t in my ability to brood over God; it is in the truth that He broods over me.

The first verses in Genesis describe God as hovering over the earth before His work of creation. Did you know that this word can also be translated as ‘brooding’? The same word is used later on in the Biblical narrative to describe how God cares for his people like an eagle hovering over her young.

“In a desert land he found him, in a barren and howling waste. He shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye, like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them aloft.”[2]

The very first image of God, the first story He tells us about Himself, is that he is brooding over His creation. We were born out of that hovering and when he calls us his children we know that he is hovering over us still. God loves us with the immovable love of a broody hen; a love that sacrifices and a love that tends and protects. He loves us with a love that waits us out, and sees us break through the hardness and walk into new life. His tenderness is mighty. A two pound little bantam hen will puff herself up and with fierceness chase away a full sized dog when she senses her chicks are in danger. Our almighty God is hovering over us with all the passion of that hen with her brood.

I shall yet praise Him!

God’s people once sang a song praising his faithful care and again, called to mind the image of a bird protecting her young. Psalm 91, verse 4, says, “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge.” In talking about this Psalm, my sweet friend, Brooke, writes about being so close to the Lord that she is “smelling the feathers.”[3] Isn’t that a beautiful image? Can you breathe deeply and smell his pinions that surround you? What if you are in a desert land, maybe even the barren and howling waste of depression and anxiety? Can you smell them then?

I breathed deeply today and I could smell the feathers.

When I couldn’t quite manage to chant my way into being en-thu-si-astic and when even my praises seemed flat, God met me exactly where I was. He met me in the chicken coop. I love this God. I’m so thankful for the reality of His hovering presence, and I pray that you would know it wherever you are and however you may be feeling today. Praying you, too, would breathe deep and smell those feathers.

Peace to you~

Lara

broody hen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression, p. 21

[2] Deuteronomy 32:10, 11

[3] Brooke Mercier, https://smellingthefeathers.com/my-heart/

Hoping in the Smallness of Christmas

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I lost my faith yesterday while driving to the grocery store. It happened while the sun shone on sparkling snow and my favorite Christmas music filled the car. While hearing songs about the Jewish Messiah, long awaited, and at last come, I realized how much I wanted it to be true. I longed for this messiah. And, strangely, in the face of my need and longing, my faith faltered. I saw my heart, so small and needy, and I thought I must just be imagining that it’s true. Suddenly, Christmas was just a story. Just a porcelain nativity set with fake gold trim.

My mind has done the work of belief. It’s researched and studied. It’s questioned and sought answers. As answer after answer after deeper answer has come, I’ve started to trust with my intellect that the Bible is true. That Christianity, with its explanations and historical accounts, is factual. My mind doesn’t cause me to doubt.

But it’s my heart. It’s my little heart that wants so much to believe that causes me to lose faith.

So yesterday, as an agnostic, I walked into the grocery store to buy the last of my Christmas supplies. Somewhere, I thought, there’s something higher. There’s another world around and mingled with this one, with spirits and powers and things I can’t see. But, I can’t know it. It’s impossible to know what’s true. We’re too small to hold it. We’re all just needy guessers.

And, I walked through the aisles with other souls around me filling their carts. There was the mother with tired eyes. The baby in a car seat was sleeping, a knitted hat circling the little head that I could just see through the quilted cover. The mother studied with hurried and tired exactness the fruits and vegetables. An elderly couple smiled back at me as they moved slowly and took their time, choosing their holiday foods and scratching things from their list. I stood in line next to a well-dressed middle aged man. He had a bachelor cart, filled with some locally brewed beer, a rotisserie chicken and some items from the salad bar. I wondered if he had children, even though his cart had nothing to indicate he’d be feeding any, and if so, if he’d be seeing them this Christmas. I hoped that the sweet lady that bagged my groceries, as she managed the busy day shift, would be spending Christmas at home. She has a new baby boy, just a few months old. I know that while she smiles and places my eggs and bread so carefully in bags, that her heart is somewhere else.

I left this store that’s always full of hungry people, and I drove again through the white world. And, I wondered. What is true? I see beauty and brokenness everywhere, all mixed together and shaken up. I know that there’s love and hate and anger and sadness and laughter and joy and self-sacrifice and selfishness and it’s all contained in each one of us. Ancient, orthodox Christian doctrines would also tell me that this is true. We were created by God in His image… we have the fingerprints of the divine on our souls that make us valuable and beautiful beings full of worth. The people in the grocery store are so beautiful. I see that. And yet, there’s something wrong. I can feel it when I’m doing something as simple as standing in line to pay for my groceries. There’s something heavy weighing on us and it’s not just when we’re watching the latest heartbreaking crisis on the news that we know it. Even in the mundane, or celebratory moments, there’s an ache in our humanity. Weeds have sprung up in the garden of our hearts and pain has poured into the labor of our relationships. In smallness we toil. In the shadows of Eden, there’s an ache for an old glory. A restoration. For something to make it all better.

Once, I stood in my farm kitchen with some ladies who’d come to save my soul. I looked into their eyes and I saw their sincerity. But, when I told them that we could never agree because of this one thing that I believe, that Jesus is God, they admitted it. They pleaded their case with me and, looking aghast at each other, exclaimed, “Why! If Jesus was God that would mean that God would have had to sleep and eat just like us. God would have even had to use the bathroom! Don’t you see? God could never do that! He’s too holy, too majestic.”

And, as they spoke, the truth of what they said came washing over me. If Jesus was God that would mean God would have had to … be just like us.

…Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Philippians 2:6-8

God. Emptied, in the form of a servant, in the likeness of men. In human form, humbled, hanging on a cross. God in the smallness of human life and the humiliation of death.

Christmas is hard to take in.

It’s so much easier to imagine a God that is far away. He’s somewhere in the sky separate from us. He set things in motion and then took a hands-off approach. He might be keeping tabs on what we’re doing, and he might hear our prayers sometimes, but he’s big and we’re small. He could never be one of us.

But, Christmas says differently. It says God doesn’t think the way we do. His story is so big that he can enter our smallness.

And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” Luke 2:10-12

This year, my thoughts turned to Christmas early. My very first Christmas card came in October. The dear friend sent it before Halloween, not knowing if she would be alive this week before Christmas. I spoke to Tamie a few days ago, from her hospice room in a nursing home, and she sounded embarrassed about sending her cards so early. She said, “I just didn’t know…” and her voice trailed off. My heart ached with that familiar pain of knowing that my friend is going to leave us soon.

In October, she had already decorated her room for Christmas. The nurses called it ‘Christmas village’ and paused by her bedside a little longer to stand by the small lit tree and listen to Christmas music. Tamie told me, “I know it’s early but I’m going to enjoy Christmas. And, I’m going to leave everything just the way it is until I’m gone. I won’t pack everything in boxes. It’s going to stay Christmas.”

I want it to stay Christmas, too. I want Christmas to sweep over this hurting world and to make it all better. And I want it to stay. I want it so much that I feel like I’m asking for a fairy tale ending. I’m begging for a ‘happily ever after’ but this broken down world tells us over and over again that those don’t exist.

As a child, it used to be so easy to believe in Santa and to hang my empty stocking for him to fill. I wasn’t cynical. I didn’t think about my smallness in the face of a big world of empty stockings on Christmas Eve. I went to sleep with faith. I rested, knowing that in the morning I’d see my hopes fulfilled. And, without fail, my stocking was near bursting when I woke. Do I dare to hope that there’s a real version of this story?

Can I bring my small and needy heart to be filled at Christmastime?

Maybe we’re not just imagining because we’re weak and needy, but our weakness and our needs point us to something real. We long because we are made to long. Maybe in our smallness He’s seeking us.

Driving home from the grocery store, with all these thoughts going through my mind, I started to pray. I prayed like it was all true. I prayed like there is a God who became man and understands our weakness. I prayed like He cares about me and my children and my husband and my hurting friends and family and the strangers I saw in the grocery store.

And, as I prayed, belief came sweeping back in. I took Christmas in my hands, held it tight and let it be mine. And the God who doesn’t despise smallness was there. One holy night, He took the hope of the world, wrapped it in swaddling clothes and placed it in a manger. This was the sign he gave to the humble shepherds and it’s still the sign he gives to us if we believe it. He’s willing to enter into a stable or a car full of groceries and He’s even willing to fill up a human heart. What makes it so hard to believe is the very thing that makes it genuine. It’s the longed for true ending of every story we’ve ever hoped to believe.

May our hearts be full of the smallness of Christmas, friends.

Grace to you and peace~

Lara

The Taste of Ashes and Redemption

The Taste of Ashes and Redemption

Somewhere in my blood there’s likely pagan ancestry mixed there with the puritan. Far back there might have been grandfathers or grandmothers that danced around trees in the moonlight. I thought of this once, during a time when I was tired. If I were a pagan I could look around at the world and find objects that give me a feeling of wonder, like the ocean or trees, mountains or moon, and I could make them my gods. My gods would think the way I do so their judgments would make sense to me. I would dance to make them do the things I want, like bring the rain or give me babies or heal my loved ones. Yes, I thought, maybe I could be a pagan.

The trees would be the first gods I’d bring to life. For all my love of the ocean, I am a shore dweller. Roots appeal to me and so does the idea of being firmly grounded. When I had my babies, the midwives encouraged me to try water births. But always there came a point when I needed to be out of it; frantically I needed to have my feet on something solid. When in labor with my third son, the nurses let us leave my room and walk in the woods behind the hospital.  It was a warm day in May, and my husband and I paused beneath a hardwood tree with a wide trunk and fresh, new leaves. Leaned against it, breathing deeply, I felt the pain stop as the labor continued. Finally I felt myself grounded, with the roots of this giant tree stretching deep into the earth beneath me. Drawing from the strength of that immovable tree, I felt new life moving through me unhindered. When we went back inside to the hospital room, I tried to bring the strength and rest I felt under the old tree with me. Before long my baby boy was in our arms. My husband calls him now ‘the boy who notices things.’ Yesterday I walked with him in the woods, just he and I, and again I understood why my husband says this. This boy loves the winter snow because of the tracks. He pointed out ones made by squirrels and rabbits. He showed me how to tell the coyote tracks apart from those of the big-pawed black dog romping around us. He took me off the path to see where the squirrels have a hole in the ground to store their food, and the log they sit on to eat in the sunshine, with the debris scattered around like crumbs left on the floor by children. We followed deer tracks and saw where they’ve been biting off the delicate buds of beech trees. He remarked to me, “I am so glad we don’t live in the city.” I smiled with him, and pointed out the trees stretching out as far as we could see up the hill and against the blue-grey winter sky.

During these winter months, when I sit in front of our warm woodstove, I sometimes think of a book I read once called, ‘The Trees in My Forest’, by Bernd Heinrich.

He said, “I’m sure the BTU equivalent of energy captured by a growing tree has been calculated to the third decimal point, but to me that figure provides less meaning than the heat I feel when I burn a stick of wood in my cast-iron stove. Two or three dried split pieces of rock maple can make it glow red-hot, warming the stove and the house. Heat is a form of energy. The source of energy, captured by the trees’ leaves, is the sun. Multiplying the potential energy of those two to three pieces of split wood by the untold thousands of logs accumulating in the trees all around me, I am awed by the sheer magnitude of energy that drives life, passing from one form to the next. The energy captured by trees and other plants will eventually be tapped by bacteria and fungi, by insects and other herbivores, and then passed on to birds and other predators, like us.

Given the constant extravagant input of energy into the forest and into life, it is a small wonder that the evolution of the most extraordinary complex creatures, as well as human civilizations, has been possible. After looking at trees, and heating coffee on my woodstove, it is not difficult to comprehend how life can proceed toward incredible complexity, such as a hummingbird or moth, in a seemingly “uphill” direction from chemical chaos.”

I read those words once, before a walk in the woods. One thing I’ve always had trouble with, in thinking about scientists that don’t believe in a Creator, is how they manage to reconcile the wonder all around them in the natural world with lack of design and intention. But here, I thought, maybe this is it. Maybe they have a way to wonder enough at the world, that the world itself becomes god enough to be its own creator.

On my walk, after reading Heinrich’s words, I tried to share in his wonder; to be an atheist and to still experience awe. Just for a moment, I stood in the snowy woods with that quiet that only winter can produce all around me. I looked around me at the trees. I let myself think deep about the energy in their roots and in their trunks and branches and multiplied across trees as far as I could see in every direction. I tried to let go of every religious presupposition and just feel energy swirling around me. And there, in that attempt to empty myself of faith, something swelled in me that affirmed again that it wouldn’t work. From the core of me rose words that make atheism impossible. At the height of experiencing wonder and beauty and awe, the words, “Thank you,” swelled up beyond my control. I couldn’t stop them. There they rose; reaching beyond myself and these woods toward One my soul has started to know.

Long ago a woman stood underneath a tree, gazing up at its branches laden with fruit, and listened to the lying words of the devil. He planted doubts about the goodness of God in her mind, and she became the mother of all doubters.

A true daughter of Eve, I’ve had a tendency to be a great doubter. For years and years my favorite hymn was one that contained the lines, ‘Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love…” But somehow, as the days and years go by, I’m forever becoming less of a skeptic. He has loved me with a keeping strength. I feel it working, tilling my heart at times, and the worship that rises from that overturned soil is for Him alone. Long ago, with those first meager glances at the tree of Calvary, He planted a seed in my heart and now even my doubts have become tools to break apart hard ground and let my roots go deeper.

A pastor in Manhattan, Timothy Keller, once said, “A faith without some doubts is like a human body with no antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask the hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person’s faith can collapse almost overnight if she failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection.”

I’ve learned to notice and to lean into my persistent questions and not to leave them unattended. Some wonderful day I trust that all these doubts will pass away forever, but until then they propel me to use my mind and my heart together to seek and to know. Always, so far, these times of honest questioning have given birth to deeper faith.

Jesus has always been willing to listen to and answer an honest question.

When the hungry crowds pressed in around him they asked, “What must we do to be doing the works of God?” Jesus’ answer was that they must believe in him.

Another time, when asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus said that it was to “…love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”

These things aren’t pretty sayings to stick on the refrigerator and feel inspired to be a better person. They are crushing if we know ourselves and we’re left to ourselves. Those who have tried to love anyone, and to love them completely, know this. The only one I naturally love with all my heart, soul, mind and strength is myself. Life has been a long and sobering revealing of that reality. This inability to believe in God and to love Him is at the core of what the Bible calls sin. From it every other sin sprouts as we work to fill a hungry place in us designed for worship.

If it were not for another tree, one without roots and branches, we would all be left to our own means to try to fill that void. We would make our own gods, each a reflection of our own hearts. We’d stay self-worshipers ever growing more self-holy. We would be designing and furnishing our own Hell.

There are so few today that see the cross as beautiful. But some, untangling and pulling weeds of doubt as they walk ever closer, fix their gaze on the tree where Jesus hung, cursed, not for His but for our own transgressions. Here we find the restoration of our worship.

I drew strength the day my son was born from a massive and glorious tree. There was something sacred and holy about that moment as I leaned against its solid trunk.

But hours later, when I held that baby in my arms, it wasn’t to the tree that I whispered my thanks.

There are times when I can almost hear the mountains, waves, moon and the great trees singing a song that causes worship to rise in my soul. But if I try to sing to them my voice is lost to the wind. They have no ears to hear my voice and no words to answer.

In the Bible the prophet Isaiah describes a man who goes into the forest and chooses a strong tree. He cuts it down and with part of it he kindles a fire, warms himself and bakes bread. Another part of the tree he carves into a god and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!” (Isaiah 44:14-20)

About this man Isaiah said, “He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, ‘Is there not a lie in my right hand?’” (Isaiah 44:20)

Over and over again the Bible shows us God’s people falling down before false gods of their own making. Their deluded hearts lead them astray and they feed on ashes rather than on bread and living water. And this is my heart as well.

God has proven Himself faithful to me in countless ways. He has saved me and made Himself known to me. He has met me in prayer and He has opened up His Word and my eyes to see His story. I’ve shared in all of the blessings He’s poured out on His people, most importantly the treasure of being able to be near Him.

I’ve shared in the shame of His people as well. I’ve held lies in my right hand. Even as His child, I’ve had times of turning my back and wondering if there might be some other way. I’ve complained about His ways and tried to provide for myself because I didn’t think He would give me what I need in the future even though he has never failed me in the past. I’ve clung to the people in this life that give me a sense of security while being too afraid to draw near to the God who loves me better than my dearest friend. I’ve been bitter and full of worry. I know what the ashes of idol worship taste like.

But, amazingly, I’ve also shared in the redemption of His people. I’m a branch that has been grafted into the promises.

The passage in Isaiah goes on to say,

“Remember these things, O Jacob,
and Israel, for you are my servant;
I formed you; you are my servant;
O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me.

I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud
and your sins like mist;
return to me, for I have redeemed you.

Sing, O heavens, for the Lord has done it;
shout, O depths of the earth;
break forth into singing, O mountains,
O forest, and every tree in it!” (44:21-24)

The beauty of these words makes my heart ache in worship.

Once I heard someone ask the question, “Would you be happy if you could have Heaven, with all its treasures of life and wellness and beauty, with reunion with loved ones and all that Heaven contains, if only God were not present?” Like the thank you that rises beyond my control when witnessing beauty, this question forever affirms my faith.

No, I wouldn’t be happy if He were not present; this God that I will never be forgotten by but that I must be told to remember. No god of my creating can replace the God who formed me. Would I rather have a god in my control or a Sovereign who has made my sins lift like the mist? All the energy in the world, most literally, cannot fill my soul as He does. Only the One who has etched by hand and thought, and is the source of all, can fill me with true worship. This breaks forth just as it does with the heavens, earth, mountains and forest- yes, even every tree. My worship is restored through His redemption of my soul and with each remembrance of it. Yes, with the rest of creation I will break forth into singing, “…for the Lord has done it!

God’s Gentle Parenting (Or Why I Love the Bible)

God’s Gentle Parenting (Or Why I Love the Bible)

There’s a beautiful pick-your-own strawberry patch in Vermont that I love to visit with my children every summer. It’s been many years and many lovely trips, but there is one moment that will always rise above the rest as the most memorable. I had four little ones; a baby strapped to my back and three others under the age of five. We went early but still the strawberry patch was busy with mostly older ladies and couples who were all serious about getting their berries for the freezer and jam. A few gave the kids quick smiles as we passed and went right back to work. I got down to business as well and started picking as soon as I had everyone settled in spots with plentiful red berries. I kept my children in my peripheral vision and they all seemed content and plopped berries in their little boxes.  It was one of those ‘this is the way life is meant to be’ serene moments. Until, my oldest started yelling…. and I do mean yelling… “MOM!!! He’s peeing on the strawberries!!” I’m sure my head wasn’t the only one that quickly turned and saw my little country-raised three year old peeing across three rows of strawberry plants. The next fifteen minutes are fuzzy. Somehow four kids and a half-filled flat of strawberries made it into the van and part way home without me making eye contact with anyone.  I remember driving along thinking, ‘I can never go back there… ever…”

But, somehow, this week found me picking berries at the same farm, with much older children and a toddler (diaper securely fastened!).  My kids are great, hard workers, and they also love strawberry jam, so they were motivated. We were there at lunch time, and the field was full of children and their mothers. One little boy, uninterested in picking, had wandered off; it looked like he might have found a friend his age and started running around the field. His mother noticed and yelled, “Oliver… Oliver, get back over here!” Her voice was loud enough for everyone in the berry patch to hear and her tone showed her obvious displeasure. With drooping shoulders he slowly made his way back over to her.  She directed him back to picking berries. “See… look at those kids over there.” She pointed to my group of pickers. “Look at how those good little kids are picking berries. Why don’t you start picking like them?”  I cringed. I wanted to go over and grab Oliver’s small hands and say, “Little One, don’t feel bad. On a different day you might have seen these ‘good little kids’ running around like wild things and maybe even peeing on the berries.”

This time, we left with three full flats of strawberries and a few quart baskets held in little hands for the ride home. And, as I drove, my thoughts were still on Oliver and his mother. My thoughts were also on my own children and my own heart when I call them or need to correct them. I prayed for us; I want to laugh and play and rejoice loudly but when I need to speak harder words to do so with quietness and close proximity. When I call my children back from wandering, I want to use the same tone that I would use if it were their birthday and it was time to have cake and ice cream. I delight in my children, even when they are straying, and I want my voice to carry that truth.

As I drove, and pondered the value of quietly correcting my children, I thought of times when my husband has had to speak with one of our boys after church when they were getting a bit too rowdy. I’d see him draw the boy away from the crowd; a father’s hand on his child’s shoulder and his knees bent to look in the boy’s eyes. In that moment, his words aren’t heard by anyone else because they are low and gentle. Instead of seeing the boy’s shoulders droop, I’d see them get taller. I’d see him want to be a man and to do what is right. Most people don’t notice the interaction at all. There isn’t a scene, there aren’t raised voices.  There is no public shame. But the boy is noticed and spoken to and corrected in the quiet presence of his father.

And, I thought, isn’t this just what God does with us?

I spent the summer I turned fourteen with my grandmother. I had a little upstairs room all to myself with a window that looked out over a farm pond, a long field and the sunset. It’s the first time I remember really reading the Bible. I didn’t have commentaries, the internet or even a church family to learn from; just a leather covered New King James version and a lot of time on my hands. Maybe in hindsight it would have been good to start with one of the gospels, like Luke or John, that would have been easier for me to read and gain some context for understanding the rest of the Bible, but I didn’t do that. I just picked it up and decided to read straight through from the beginning.

And, miraculously, that young teen understood and fell in love. It was the start of not just time in a book, but of a relationship with the Author. They were my first moments of being that child with my Heavenly Father pulling me aside and leaning over me; telling me the hardest, sweetest, most beautiful story ever told. Pointing out the ways He’s seen my heart and my actions straying and correcting me with a patient gentleness; assuring me of His love for me now. And, I think most significantly, showing me His attributes and His character and allowing me to know Him. There in that westerly facing room, still a child and alone but for the Spirit of God, I fell in love with the Word of God, both written and manifest in Jesus.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14

I remember those moments so well that it’s hard to believe so much time has passed since that first summer. The other night my family was all outside playing; I had been tagged and was frozen. I stood admiring my family and the beautiful place we get to live. I looked up at the pointed fir trees, felt the glory of God in nature, and I wondered, ‘what would I believe if I had never read the Bible?’ I tried to separate out everything I had read from what I felt right at that moment. Later I wrote about it in my journal:

What if I didn’t have God’s Word? That is what I wondered as I stood frozen in our game of ‘ball tag’ tonight. I’d know that there is something more powerful than me. I would know that the world was designed and created. I would know there is a battle between life and death. I would feel it even in myself… the struggle to stay on the side of life with goodness and kindness. I would know that there is beauty… and that I can’t quite enter into it… that it is something outside of myself in an almost painful way.  I would know love… the deep love of a mother. I would see the amazing design in each of my children… I would know they came from me and yet I didn’t make them. I think I would know there is God because of prayer… I would want to speak to him and hear him. But I think I would be afraid. I wouldn’t know if God was good or bad or if He loved me. I would be so crushed by His power and the unknown.

And then, while still pondering, I thought of that little children’s hymn, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so…” Just from studying his creation I would know a lot about God and myself. But I wouldn’t know the gospel… I wouldn’t know that God had entered into His beautiful and yet fallen creation in order to redeem us or of the staggering depth of his love. I might know things about him, but I don’t think I could really know or trust him.

After the game that evening, I sat by our small pond and watched the row boat that had drifted from shore. It was floating aimlessly. I thought of how without the Bible I would have been floating through life on the currents of my feelings. So often, my time in the Word has been that time of being pulled aside and corrected by my Father. The Word exposes my sin; not just the actions but my thoughts and the bent of my heart. I might come to the Word saddened by the evil in the world, or the wrongdoing of others, but when God speaks to me it’s about the tangled knots of sin in my own heart. It’s my own sin that I see crushing Jesus on the cross, and the work Christ did there becomes devastatingly personal in a heartbreakingly beautiful way. “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace and with his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5) God lifts my eyes to see not just my sin there with Jesus but the death inside of me dying with him. The Word made flesh, dying a fleshly death, so that in me, the Word can bring life.

I return to the Word, and to the cross, over and over and over again. This summer I’ve been reading through the book of Hosea, part of the Old Testament and written hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus. And yet it is all about Jesus. From beginning to end the Bible contains the cross, the ransomed life and the Father calling to his wandering children.

Come, let us return to the Lord;

for he has torn us, that he may heal us;

He has struck us down, and he will bind us up.

After two days he will revive us;

on the third day he will raise us up,

that we may live before him.

Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord;

His going out is sure as the dawn;

He will come to us as the showers,

as the spring rains that water the earth. (Hosea 6:1-3)

 

It’s raining again this morning as I sit here reading these ancient words. While the rain pours down outside my window, watering my tomatoes and green beans, the words from this long ago prophet are once again watering my soul.  Since I first picked up that Bible as a young teen, there have been a lot of spring rains, many wanderings and many returns. Throughout it all God has remained the same. He has never been the loud and frustrated parent. He has never been embarrassed by my lack of maturity or ashamed of my fumbles. But He has continued with his effectual call, desiring me to return to Him and to His Word. I don’t think it will ever cease to amaze me that it’s not just for our salvation that He calls to us, but it’s for our and His own delight.

The Lord your God is in your midst,

a mighty one who will save;

he will rejoice over you with gladness;

he will quiet you by his love;

he will exult over you with loud singing.

Zephaniah 3:17

 

 

 

 

What I Need to Say Before ‘Thank You’

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Thanksgiving. I know it’s really important. Not the turkey or cranberry sauce and eating pie all afternoon… not even the Pilgrims and Squanto.  It’s the act of remembering, appreciating and being grateful. Being grateful to Him. It matters; it’s important and it’s good.

But I can’t just turn on thankfulness like a faucet. That deep appreciation and thanks isn’t pouring out of me right now.  And, he’s not an account in the sky where we need to deposit our yearly dose of thanksgiving before we carve the turkey and pass the mashed potatoes. He’s not the universe or ‘The Unknown God’ of the Athenians in the book of Acts. He’s Someone. He says, ‘I Am.’ He tells us about himself because he wants to be known… and he already knows each of us intimately. So, before I give thanks, I need to give honesty. I need to come to him with the questions weighing on my heart and making the thanks feel inauthentic. He’s real and I need to be real as well.

So, God, before I come to you with my thanks, I’m going to be honest and come to you with my sorrow.

Pressing down on me as I roll out pie crust is a weight of sadness for a woman I don’t even know well; we only spoke a few times. But her loss is so significant that just hearing about it has crushed part of me. Less than a year ago, we sat together after Sunday school and talked about her oldest daughter, just nearing school age. She wasn’t sure what she should do this year. We talked about the pros and cons of home, public, or Christian schools. And God, the whole time we were talking, you knew. You knew that a couple of months into her kindergarten year, that sweet five and a half year old girl would come home with a sniffle and be gone a week later. And it doesn’t make sense. It’s hard to get a thank you past the big, heavy ‘why?’. This doesn’t feel right. I don’t understand you in this.

But I keep going today with preparations for Thanksgiving. As I peel apples and make rolls, I’m thinking of another friend. We have her big, goofy dog in the front yard as a reminder that she’s not in a position to take care of him and that the future is unknown. It weighs on me every day; this feeling that things aren’t the way they are supposed to be. I bury my face in the thick fur of her sweet dog, with his tail that wags even when we’re pulling out porcupine quills, and I wish the world was just as sweet and gentle. And I need to tell you, Lord, that it just doesn’t feel right.

There are things that are so broken. I need to check in with my sister and find out if a little girl is at her house for Thanksgiving. This little two year old spent the first year of her life in my sister’s home and now comes back for visits. I am thankful that they have that time together, but, God, it still hurts. I know when my sister hugs that little one, they both remember their hearts have been broken a million times and will probably break a million more. The hardness of the foster care system and most of all the hardness of this world breaks people. It seems like you could do something. Like you should have done something already. It doesn’t make sense, Lord.

And God, I’m sorrowful because I’m so lonely this year. This is the first Thanksgiving I’ve experienced without a grandmother somewhere in this world. I want to hear Grammie B ask me what I’m thankful for and hear her say, like she always did, that she was thankful for her salvation and for all of us. I want to know Grammy J is in her kitchen today, sifting flour, baking up a storm of pies and mincemeat bars and getting Grampy to peel the apples. But they aren’t here. I know my grandfather’s heart is breaking today as well and I could just cry and cry. I know I need to thank you, but I want to tell you that I don’t like how this works. Death and leaving and being apart. It seems so wrong and I wish it wasn’t this way.

I also need to tell you about the guilt I feel when I even think of thanking you. I have a five and a half year old daughter as well. She’s so excited about learning how to make pumpkin pie this afternoon. She’s happy and chatty and she’s alive. I am so, so thankful… thankful it wasn’t my daughter you chose to take away. And, tomorrow, my family is going to be home together. Our own puppy will be looking for crumbs on our dining room floor and my husband, who makes me feel safe and understood, will be there with us. My baby will climb on my lap to put his fingers in the whipped cream on my pie and take it for granted that I’m his momma and I will never leave. I have so many reasons to be thankful. You have blessed me in every way. And the contrast between my thanks and others’ sorrows makes me feel those pangs of guilt. I know life isn’t ‘fair’. I don’t understand your ways, Lord.

And, God, I need to come to you with yet another emotion. It’s fear. As I think of all the good things you’ve blessed me with, like a home and family, bountiful food and healthy children, I’m reminded of how fragile these blessings are. They could be gone in a breath, a moment, with a missed stop sign or with a spark from the woodstove. Nothing here is secure. As soon as I start thanking you for these things I hold so carefully, I am reminded that you might take them away. I’m afraid because I love them so much. And, the reality is that when I look around at the hard things in life, I don’t completely trust you. Your ways just don’t make sense to me.

So that is the reality, Father. I have sorrow, guilt and fear. But you knew that. You are acquainted with all that’s inside and even before I say the words, you know them already. You know and you want me to come to you with them. Thank you for caring. Thank you for wanting to hear them just as much as you do my words of appreciation. Thank you for caring about me… right where I am. For real.

And this is when the real giving of thanks begins. We’re real together. Jesus is the ‘image of the invisible God’. We know you because you revealed yourself and your character to us in a way we could understand… as a human. And you were fully human… You wept. You were tired. You asked to be spared suffering if at all possible. And, you trusted, somehow in the mystery of the Trinity, that the character you have shared for all eternity, the Father’s love and justice, was enough to make the suffering, the weariness, the tears all worth it in the end.

You tell me it will all be made right. It is going to be okay.

For now, you are weeping with those who weep.

The reality of that is big enough for my sorrow, my guilt and my fears.

Thank you, Lord.

Yesterday, my baby came up to me and lifted up his arms. I reached down and picked him up and held him close. He wrapped his pudgy little arms around my neck and we rested for a minute, heart to heart. I was filled to the brim with love for the little guy, and with sudden wonder, I realized that he was feeling the same thing. He was in my arms, snuggled in and feeling love for me, too. We just held on for a moment, and thanks filled every fiber of my being.

That’s how I want to be with God this Thanksgiving. It’s good to count our blessings. It’s good to remember we have been given so much.

But, ultimately, the Giver wants to give us Himself.

I am so thankful that God isn’t just a power, but that he’s real and responsive and feeling. It means that I can come to him, lift up the reality of my heart and let myself be held for a while. I can rest in his arms and be thankful. Thankful not just to him or for him… but I can be thankful with him.

For I am sure that neither death nor life,

nor angels nor rulers,

nor things present nor things to come,

nor powers, nor height nor depth,

nor anything else in all creation,

will be able to separate us

from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:38-39

The Provision of Friendship

IMG_0500We had a booming year for cucumbers; there are jars and jars of bread and butter pickles and some experimental dills. Next to them are jars of green tomato salsa, green beans and a long shelf full of little sweet dumpling squashes.  On the floor, five gallon buckets with oats and wheat berries wait to be turned into fresh bread all winter long. This time of year, with nine of us at the table and snow days ahead, there’s a drive inside to have the pantry shelves and freezer full. Just like a mother mouse finding seeds in the brown grasses, I find myself pushing my cart through the grocery store with an eye for what will keep.

I think of my great-grandmothers; Isabella came on a boat from England with a store of knowledge. She knew about finding herbs and roots and how to make people well. I imagine her, with small Charles and little Lucy trailing along behind, studying the Maine woods; an early scientist identifying plants and a doctor tucking her prescriptions away in a basket or apron pockets. When Lucy was a mother herself and held my grandmother in her arms, it was still natural to look to plants for food and medicine. But, as time passed and pharmacies with strong, effective remedies grew, it didn’t seem valuable to hold onto these old ways.  So, this fall I turned to Amazon Prime and put in an order so that the cabinet would be stocked with children’s Tylenol and cough syrup and vapor rub. The pantry has cans of ginger ale and Gatorade for those seemingly inevitable belly hurts with little ones.  I know Isabella and Lucy would have been thankful for a storehouse of these simple things that I can take for granted, like a way to so quickly bring down a fever in a small, hurting child. Still, there’s a wistfulness inside that makes me long for a walk in the woods beside these grandmothers, bent over the leaves and digging in the dirt for roots and being taught some of the old ways.

We had our first snowflakes last week. They came down in intervals with a cold sleety rain. My husband says he’s making an appointment to get snow tires on the van. The children want to know where their snow pants and boots are and we locate tubs and make sure everyone has sizes that fit.  Everyone has grown a size or more since spring.

There’s a fire in the woodstove every day now. And, rows and rows of firewood neatly stacked outside ready for little boys to see how high they can stack it in each other’s arms and still make it up the porch steps and through the house without dropping any; little boys that are strong for their age and grin when I tell them, “thank you for keeping our family so warm.”

I think we’re nearly ready.

I love the sense that we are prepared and can face days of being snowed in and still be warm, with food on our table and hot cocoa in our mugs.

But, even with all the coziness and feeling ready for winter days ahead, the last few weeks have been hard for me. I know there are people who struggle with dark, hard, debilitating periods of depression. I’ve had days of feeling down and melancholy, but never to the point where I would alarm a doctor if I filled out a questionnaire. So, it was surprising to me how heavy I have felt. There were some days when I could barely function. My kids had half-hearted schooling and minimal mothering with movies to keep them quiet. A couple of times, after getting a bare bones meal on the table, I would go straight to bed when my husband got home from work. I had nothing to give, no joy in anything, no desire for anything except to be alone in the dark and quiet.

I think this began with an email I woke up to one morning. The words were from a close friend and her news was devastating. Not only did my heart break and bleed with empathy for her pain and anxiety for her future, but old hurts from my own life were broken open. Old fears resurfaced and the world that had seemed bright and full of kind people seemed dark and deceptive and full of evil. It overwhelmed me. I couldn’t pull out truth or Bible verses to lift the weight because everything seemed so meaningless. Why had God created a world with so much darkness to begin with? The presence of the darkness just swallows any joy in the flickers of light. I was heavy and dark and only desiring quiet.

But, with seven children busting through my bedroom door and begging for snacks or to be read stories, that desire to be still couldn’t be satisfied.  I’m sad to say that it wasn’t with joy that I tended to their needs but it was with a discouraged drag of my feet. It was overwhelming to see, when I stopped feeling the motivation to sweep or pick up, how quickly our house became a disaster of puzzle pieces and crushed food and random sticks and rocks from outdoors. The chaos made me want to retreat even more.

And, it wasn’t just from the kids and the messes that I wanted to retreat. I didn’t want to answer the phone, emails from friends wanting to make plans made me cringe, my husband picked up groceries on his way home, and I started day dreaming of how I would take a six month sabbatical from church. The darkness I was giving into wanted to isolate me. The darkness wanted to drag me into a place where I couldn’t receive love or hear truth.

A while ago I made a commitment to myself. It was shortly after we moved down this long dirt road and into a place where it would be easy to become isolated. I made a decision to listen to that voice that pops up sometimes and tells me to withdraw from church or friends or social interactions; to listen, recognize it and to do just the opposite. If I start hearing lies run through my head like…

You’re just tired… you need to take a break from church or having people over and spend time with just you and God in the woods and quiet….

No one really cares about you so don’t bother them with your troubles… you should be strong enough to handle it yourself, anyway…

Don’t call that friend… she’s so busy… there are more important things on her plate than listening to you talk about yourself… 

When I start thinking thoughts that if followed through would separate me from people, I know it’s time to send an email or pick up the phone. It can feel so humbling to send an email saying, “I am feeling really down this week. I don’t even know why… but if you get a chance to call sometime I could really use a friend to talk with.”

And, just like storing food on pantry shelves or medicine in a cabinet, I try to prepare for times when I barely have the strength to reach out. I try to give stores of friendship to women in my life so that they can call on me when they barely have strength as well. The truth is, this world does have a lot of shadows and murky areas, and we are going to feel the weight of sad things. And, we just weren’t designed to go it alone.

Our church is really wonderful about providing meals to people who are sick or who have just had a baby. I have had seven babies while a part of this church family and on average have received probably eight to ten meals each baby. Not to mention when I broke my wrist and was delivered lasagna five or six times (I’m not exaggerating… the kids started asking what kind of bread we were having with our lasagna instead of what was for dinner). Preparing meals and caring for people in this way is such a kind, wonderful way to live in community. But, honestly, this was so hard for me to accept. As an independent New Englander, I know I can plan ahead and put meals in the freezer and we can do just fine on our own. I always had the urge to say, “Thank you anyway, but we don’t need help. Don’t put yourself out on our account.” I’ve had to learn and be stretched and to grow in the area of receiving. Receiving meals and receiving relationship. It is so much easier to be the strong one offering a helping hand. But to accept the hand that’s offered, or to reach out and ask for a hand, is so much harder for me. It’s coming to terms with both my need and my worth. It’s admitting that I’m weak and believing that I’m worth helping.

Several times in the last couple of weeks I’ve needed to do both. The ladies in my church have a prayer group where we share requests through email. I sent off a couple of humbling emails. I have had to answer the phone and respond to emails and say ‘yes’ to getting together with friends, some of whom reached out just because I had admitted I was struggling. One friend brought me and my kids into her house for an afternoon and we shared the sweet medicine of laughter. She’s a friend that I have a big store of history and vulnerability piled up from years of truthful conversations, so I didn’t need to say much. She knew why things were hard and we could just spend time together pushing the darkness back and letting in more light.

Today, I just got home from a visit with another dear friend. Earlier this week I couldn’t imagine packing up all the kids and getting us out of the house and being energetic enough to visit. But I said yes. And, I’m so glad I did. More light came pouring in.

I finally feel like I’m coming out of that darkness that wanted to swallow me and isolate me. Some courage is seeping back in and some energy is starting to flow again. As it does, I find myself being so thankful. Not just for the stores of food to keep us fed or medicine to keep us healthy, but the store of community that God has blessed me with; friendships and a connection to a church family that has been tended and preserved through time.

One of the last things Jesus told his friends, after he had washed their feet and fed them a meal, was that he had a new commandment for them. “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. “

For a long time, the mark of being right with God had been holiness.  Jesus was drawing his people together and giving them a new mark. His disciples are known by their love for one another; the humbling, sacrificial, self-exposing, grace-extending love of Jesus pouring from heart to heart.

If you feel alone today, and like there’s a cloud or weight of darkness, please take the one little (though I know it can be so hard and daunting) step of reaching out and letting someone know you are feeling that way. I would love to have a cup of tea with you and hear your story, whether you are feeling strong and happy or whether you are discouraged and down. Since distance is an issue, sometimes the telephone or email has to serve as our virtual tea table. But those thoughts that tell you it’s a sign of weakness to reach out or that nobody wants to hear just aren’t true. God created us with a need for one another. He knew that in all seasons, the joyful bursts in summer, the cold and biting days of winter and all days in between, we do best when we are together. The love and truth and grace he wants to pour on you and me, he so often pours through the words or touch or listening eyes of a friend. My lesson this month has once again led to a prayer… may he give us the strength and the grace we need not only to give, but also to receive this kind of love. And, may He produce in us the commitment and authenticity to work and grow stores of this kind of friendship, which is more precious than any wealth of provision on pantry shelves.