Friday, June 29

Good Gifts

God in the Yard: Week Four

Sometimes the thoughts take longer to come.  This week there was a question that lingered in the air with no place to land.  What is celebration?  Under this Crabapple tree, celebration means the apples haven't started to fall.  Yet.  Celebration is a party.  An invitation to others.  The release of a tension.  The elements of celebration:  remembrance, extravagance, familiarity.  What have I celebrated?  I made a short list.  What would I celebrate next?  I came up empty.  

Nothing forseeable to celebrate.  It can't be.  What crowds it out?  Ungratefulness. Entitlement.  Or perhaps humility and trust.  It could be either way.  Was I unwilling or just unknowing?

A friend stopped by, returned an item loaned, shared her current hopes and fears.  Good choices are all around her plate, but which one to partake of?  I said, "Take the path you want."  I know that sometimes there are only good choices, not always one holy and one repugnant to God.  He can give a selection, just gives it, and any one we choose we simply put our fingers around it and smile.  And he puts his arms around us and says, "I'm so glad you like it. Let's enjoy it together."

He has done this for me... given me what my heart longed for.  Given the gifts of answered prayer.  In this season, this home in Denver, he's redeemed an old burdensome job, given purpose in ministry, provided a "boundary of dwelling," helped my son (helped me with him), provided for an anniversary dream, gave me a community of mothers different from me, made our finances sure, provided a husband's love of his job, his wife, his children, took away the fear for the future.  I began to wonder even early on, "Will all things be answered here?  All the things I prayed in that borrowed bedroom with heavy hearts and sighs?  Will he bring them all to the table and settle them?"  He has done that one-by-one.

He is in the habit of giving, loves to give good gifts.  And more are coming.
More are coming!

I will celebrate when the prayers I pray come to fruition.  There are more redemptions. Why shouldn't there be?  He is making all things new.
I made a list.
I await the chance to celebrate.

Saturday, June 23

First Chapter Books

As a parent I'm no different than any other; I have a list of  things that I can't wait to do with my kids.  The hardest part is waiting for them to be old enough to play catch, take hiking, or go to the theater.  Reading chapter books aloud to them was at the top of my list.  We do read alouds during our school year every day, but those selections have a specific purpose, and they aren't always designed with my youngest in mind. 

The Phantom TollboothThe Boxcar Children Bookshelf (The Boxcar Children Mysteries, Books 1-12)Their first personal read-alouds usually begin around the time they are five and they have some connection with my own childhood.  J's first read aloud was The Boxcar Children, a book I loved so much that I convinced my best friend to check it out from the library on my card.  She promptly lost it and I paid the fine on her behalf secretly hoping she was really just keeping it because she loved it as much as I did.  B's first read-aloud selections were a little different because he shared a room with his older brother so bedtime stories were for both of them.  But I chose The Phantom Tollbooth with my math-minded, artistic B in mind, remembering when a teacher read it aloud to our class while we made thickly colored wax crayon drawings of the story.  

Stuart LittleNow it is summer.  And as I snuggle in with five-year-old S before bed we get to read something together that's just for pure fun.  The first one I picked for the two of us was Stuart Little by E. B. White.  I remember getting the set of books by E. B. White when I was a child and reading them all at least twice.  (My oldest absconded with my set and did the same thing.  Only the tattered, coverless pages are left.)  We both enjoyed Stuart Little though I wonder what he thought about the ending since the story never really concludes.  But then again, maybe it's good for him to know that sometimes our hardest searches will come up empty and what we learn to live with is hope.

Rabbit Hill (Puffin Modern Classics)The second choice is Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson.  We are only one chapter in, having broken it into two sittings, and the vocabulary is beyond him.  Sadly, I take on the role of dictionary during much of our reading, but most of the time I just let the words hover over his head and see if he shows an interest in knowing them.  I know it's ideal to read above their level, but this one might be just a bit too high.
Old Mother West Wind
If we can move through this one quickly enough, I'd like to introduce him to Thornton Burgess' animal stories.  I found an old edition at a library sale years ago and those stories are delightful.  And after that I want him to hear...

Sunday, June 17


Most mornings before the children rise, I have been able to be outside in the yard.  Sitting under the Crabapple tree, feeling the acceptance of nature.  I woke up yesterday, shunned the chilly morning and chose the couch.  Book and journal and pen I began.  The crowding started immediately:  stale, gritty, inanimate, lifeless surroundings.  The room did not speak.  Grabbing my sweatshirts, I quickly rejoined the reality that calls.

The moment I opened the door I knew it was the place of God. Surely nature, too, has omnipresence.  The breeze was blowing already.  The leaves were twittering and whispering.  The birds were mid-song.  The green healing from the hail was in process.  The Coreopsis bloomed without me.  I wasn't the one to create it. I just joined it, wanting to be a part of its story. 

God too is always at work whether we're aware, whether we trust, whether we understand or not.  However, days and weeks go by when I do not enter his reality.  Sadly the inanimate rules my mind and heart. It's not a leaving that I have to do, but an entering. Ever present, ever powerful, ever loving, ever purposeful. Whether or not we choose to take notice of him, he is always there being who he is and we can join his story.  

Opening my book I read this from A.W. Tozer.  "Always a living person is present, speaking, pleading, loving, working and manifesting himself whenever and wherever his people have the receptivity necessary to receive the manifestation."  This was my firsthand experience.  Nature was the object lesson.  

Earlier in the week I had contemplated what it is that nature communicates that words cannot.  Perseverance.  The true-grit nature of it.  The never-give-up-doing-what-is-right aspect.  We humans have a stopping point.  We push through a little of the rough, maybe even a hail-like stoning or a wind.  But we give in when we look around and listen to outside voices.  When we think a disaster has won, we let it. Quit. Move.

Nature stays put. And takes the hit and re-creates the beauty over and over.  The tender leaves might wait a year to return from the hail.  The tree takes on a new form and purpose after the fire.  The bird will learn to fly.  The tree will produce seed though so many thousands were left unfurrowed for naught last year.  The bird will sing when none answer.  

To be consistent in my one thing is to take that image of God and push it out of the soil, expose it to all that is nourishing and let it continually be both the inner and outer covering.  God is continuous. Nature follows suit. I want to be like my maker.  

Friday, June 15

Read it Again

My summer reading theme this year is "Re-Reads."  Last year I caught up with various sub-cultures a bit as I read through some of the most influential books from the past 10 years.  This year, I'm catching up with my former self and standing her back-to-back with my present self, measuring the distance between.  I'm re-reading those books that had significant influence on me, maybe left me breathless, and asking the question, "Does this book still hold its place?"

These books are attached to moments and experiences.  When I read them I endured a hard/interesting season of life, pondered a question, sought out a perspective.  As I re-read the books, I'm looking back to where I was the first time, seeing where I've changed, how life took turns I wasn't expecting.

The list is significant.  But the moments re-lived may be more overwhelming.

East of Eden
East of Eden
To begin I've picked up the book that began my love of Steinbeck, East of Eden.  I took it along on a roadtrip with my husband up California's Highway 101 through Steinbeck country. Three years into marriage.  One church down.  Seminary educations in full swing. Childless and idealistic.  This story gave me a dose of reality I couldn't relate to and yet couldn't shake.  Have I seen and understood more of this reality in the time in between?  And just when I had my Steinbeck collection all in matching orange spines, why did Penguin go and change the design?
The Pursuit of God
The Pursuit of God

Secondarily, I've re-opened The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer on my Kindle.  This is one that I read during our impossible journey years ago.  When we were packing up everything to put in storage for an undetermined amount of time, I kept this book out knowing I needed what it had for me.  While waiting, praying, crying out to be heard, hoping, sighing, living without a home, without a job, or a purpose  I'd put our two kids to bed in our borrowed rooms at my parents house and go out on the arbor swing and just let Tozer teach and calm my anxieties.  Our current season is the opposite of that one.  Will Tozer still give clarity toward a fuzzy future?

The rest of the list:
Walking on Water by Madeleine L'Engle
Ordering Your Private World by Gordon MacDonald
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright
Men and Women in the Church by Sarah Sumner
Working the Angles by Eugene Peterson
Gift from the Sea by Ann Morrow Lindbergh
Night by Elie Wiesel
Entering His Presence by Don McMinn
The Skilled Helper by Gerard Egan
Native Son by Richard Wright
Sacred Companions by David Benner
Bittersweet by Shauna Niequist

Sunday, June 10

The Effort of Growing

God in the Yard: Week Two
"Spiritual life and growth is complicated by the question of whose job it is to keep our lives from falling into nothing." -- L.L. Barkat
This week, the Salvia were engorged with blooms, the Columbine were coming to their grand finale, the Jack Frost was saying a sweet good-bye with his dainty blue flowers, the Hostas were just emerging with force and fullness.  And this week we had a hailstorm.

There was utter helplessness in my chest that night. All the beauty that I had partnered with the plants to create was decimated.  Cleared away.  I could do nothing to save them.  I could only hope they would endure into the next season.  As I deadheaded the beds last night I found myself encouraging them onward.  You don't have to fall into nothing.  There's still life left in you.  Keep trying to grow.   I'll help.

Around me, lives are falling into nothing.  Friends who once had strength are currently powerless.  Those in a place of influence are finding that fewer and fewer are paying attention anymore.  Among them is a sense of general ineffect.  And though their great griefs tug at me, in some sense it reassures me that everything is as it should be.

It's the ebb and flow.  One cannot be hot all the time, though we fool ourselves into thinking it's possible.  My experience says that the ebbs are what's real and the flows are really a sort of appearance.  What's for certain is the rhythm.  When we are full the thing that assuredly comes next is a great emptying.

If that's true, then is there anything that can be done to keep my life from falling into nothing?  And if there is, then does that effort fall to me or to God?

Years ago, the depths of my Calvinism would have pronounced, "Whatever will be, will be."  Through the miracle of wandering homelessness I saw that in the end there's nothing I can really do.  No one is truly self-made.  In recent years,however I felt more of that effort falling to me, a sort of gift from God who says, "In this season you can take some of the reigns, but be wary of snakes in the way of the horse."  I recognize the partnership we keep with God much more readily, and as a result my part has risen from nothing to actual service.  And still when we fly he keeps us aloft; when we fall he inclines to rescue us.

I believe it's my job to preserve my soul because there are not six degrees of separation that will do it on my behalf.  Not my identity. Not my husband. Not my reputation -- my previous story.  What grows me is my service, my following a prompting, my disciplines, my open heart, my seeking... and my falling.  And yet, I also believe it is God's job to preserve my soul because the Spirit of God has been given that role to move, to prompt, to focus.  It is a partnership of sacrifice and submission, not primo and secundo, but as in most things of love, it is both/and.

I do not know how my garden will fare this summer.  Once the leaves are gone, and they are not all gone, how can the plant produce its food?  But I believe that the earth will replenish; that it is far more enduring than I.  Everything is as it should be.  And everything will be changed.

Sunday, June 3

Sitting Under Trees

Week One: God in the Yard.

A small space I tend to overlook is the foot of a tree.  I remember sitting under trees during rain showers, swinging from their branches and scraping the dirt away from their roots with my shoes, buring treasures at the base of their trunks... when I was a child.  I remember the different feel of the bark of Aspens, Maples, Oaks. I loved being next to something that was bigger than myself knowing it wasn't out to surprise me.  Once I nailed a sign to a tree and after a while the tree began to ooze its blood through the hole and it made me sad.  My botanist father sighed.

Sitting under trees is an activity left for children.  They don't have a list of pressing things.  They seek rest when they need it.  They follow whims and imagination.  When we encountered this tree last week on a hike through Kasha-Katuwe my children instantly ran to climb the roots.  I stood back to take the picture.

We have three large trees in our yard; a Silver Maple, a Colorado Blue Spruce and an Austrian Pine.  I never sit under them.  I walk around them with wariness like I'm an intruder.  I know they leave hands sticky, let insects move up and down their barked highways, drop things from their branches.  I'm concerned that they too thoroughly shade my garden and might kill our new grass.  I avoid the trees.

Last Friday, I sat under a tree for the first time in years.  It was out of necessity; the grass all around was wet but this young Cottonwood had a broad, dry root protruding from the soil at its base.  I leaned against the bark, velcro to my shirt, and watched my children play at their games.  My freckled skin needed shade for that hour and the heart-shaped leaves provided it.  Having my journal handy I pulled it out and wrote a few thoughts.  An adult friend walking past, taking the children out to the field, whistfully commented that she wished she could be where I was.  I felt childish; perhaps I should have been working too.

In order to grow I feel like I need permission.  To grow as a counselor -- something I've become by default -- I need to feel like I'm allowed to push the one I'm helping.  To grow as a leader I need other leaders to say, "Come on.  We think your growth is a good idea.  Keep trying."  To grow as a teacher I need permission from the world to continue to follow my gut for my own kids.  To grow as a writer I need permission -- maybe just from myself -- to set aside time to write.  To grow as a wife I need to feel like what I'm doing is what he needs me to do.  To grow as a Christian I need permission to grow on my own sometimes without taking a group along with me.

Cottonwoods don't seem to need any permission to grow.  If they happen to park their seed by the water and they have enough space they'll continually grow.  And they don't just do it adequately.  They pile on gigantic branches, gain heights of  nearly 100 feet and are considered majestic and magnificent.  They spend their 70 years thirstily sucking the water from the ground and continuing to do what they were made to do.  There is much to learn from their consistency and persistence.

This summer, I'll practice sitting under trees.  I'll fail sometimes. I'll miss a day.  I'll be misunderstood.  I'll fear that, like Lent, I'll miss the point and the practice will not produce a purpose.  It will be easy for others to label me as "odd".  But something is there to be learned and enjoyed.  I'm not a child anymore.  Here we go.

Cultivate these things. Immerse yourself in them. The people will all see you mature right before their eyes! Keep a firm grasp on both your character and your teaching. Don't be diverted. Just keep at it.  (1 Timothy 4: 15-16)

Saturday, June 2

Right Up To The End

J is front row on the left at his eighth grade continuation ceremony.
My oldest son is in a small charter school.  He was home educated through 6th grade and we had various reasons for making that switch when he entered 7th last year.  This May, he graduated from eighth grade.  I think academically he accomplished some great benchmarks this year.  His teachers challenged him and enjoyed him.  However, his last week of school consisted of watching The Lord of the Rings (in his teacher's defense they had just finished reading and writing essays on the Hobbit), ultimate Frisbee, yearbook distribution, locker clean-out, random school-specific standardized testing, an awards ceremony, continuation ceremony, a day at an amusement park and a school bbq.

S's Kindergarten graduation from his once a week Options class.  S is in the plaid shirt.
My other two sons continue to be home educated.  B finished 4th grade and S finished Kindergarten.  Their last week of school was nothing like their older brother's.  S's final task was to daily read through his last four lessons in Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons.  We played some math card games and he participated in some of what his brother was doing too.  We were covering the Revolutionary War so B was typing up a paragraph on Washington as the first President, creating a book jacket book report on Johnny Tremain that we had read aloud, trying to at least make his over-ambitious rag-rug until a potholder, mapping out major war battles and watching a video about Yorktown.  In addition he continued to do some fun multiplication drills online, finished reading through the book of Exodus with me, and reviewed about a dozen spelling rules.  On our last day, after he'd finished up all of the above, we did our traditional oral review quiz that happened to take over an hour.  Then we proceeded to plant the front garden and map out our family road trip.  The learning never ends.

To say their last weeks were decidedly different is a bit of an understatement.  But I don't have final grading to get done like J's teachers do and B&S and I get to intersperse slacker fun activities through the year rather than cram them all into the last week.  Our last week is always one of productivity and pushing through to tie-up loose ends and wrap-up notebooks.  And our last week is never easy.  When we are a week away from being done for the year we start salivating for the outdoors, taking our work upstairs near the windows or outside on the deck.  We linger over lunch because the sandbox is such a nice place to finish the meal with a Popsicle.  We have to push ourselves back inside because the garden seedlings pushing through the earth are too distracting and steal our focus.  But we make the academics happen all the way to the end.

It's exhausting.  But when that final review is done and the notebooks are complete we heave a sigh of relief.

And then we hop in the car for a roadtrip and listen to Adventures in Odyssey tell tales of early America, visit a few museums of American history, hike through areas of geological peculiarity... I just might count vacation as school days for next year.