Sunday, December 4, 2016

Advent Sunday #2- Today the manger, tomorrow the throne

For unto us a child is born, 
to us a Son is given, 
and the government will be on His shoulders. 
Isaiah 9:6

I keep up with the news on my iPhone. This week I've scrolled through headlines about the new administration's plans for taxes, leadership, foreign policy. I try to take it in and think through it before saying anything. But one headline I read this week got me thinking about something that I'm just too excited not to write about. What will the headlines say when there is a final shift in government? What will the coverage be like when Jesus is finally the King? I imagine something like this...

Jesus Cuts Military Spending to Absolute Zero as Wars Cease

Holy Spirit Guides Soldiers and Healthcare Workers into New Career Fields 

Slums and Ghettos Restored to Green Space, Former Residents Help Design New Housing Nearby

Taxes No Longer Necessary as Generosity Abounds in the Nations 

When I think about the visitors who saw Jesus upon his arrival, I wonder if they could envision news like this, too? The Wise Men who traveled so far. Or the shepherds who had been commissioned by a choir of singing angels. Or Simeon, who was waiting to see the Messiah before he died. They all knew that there was much more going on than just the birth of a baby.

We picture them in a stable, surrounded by animals. Mary looks serene, her hands clasped together at her breast. Joseph steady beside her. Everyone peers into a manger and looks at a newborn. We gather there with them this time of year. Today, all of us meet at the manger. But one day, we will gather in a throne-room. I love baby Jesus in the manger. I sing about his birth and celebrate the sweetness of this Christmas miracle. But, like these others, I crave His majesty even more.

King Jesus!!! How I long for your rule and reign. How I long for you to come back to this Earth and restore all things! You will repay every injustice- from the great ones that cause millions to suffer, to the smallest that have broken my own heart. Of Your rule and reign there will be no end. In that day, You will guide us into the best life. You will give us peace and rest. You will teach us to truly love one another, and to care for all that You have created. I see You now in your manger, and, though I celebrate, I wait to see You on your throne. Help me to wait well. Amen.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Advent Sunday #1- The Season of Taking

It's Advent. Over the past few years, I've come to love this season more and more. Andy and I bought an Advent wreath a couple of years ago and started having Advent suppers on the Sunday nights that lead up to Christmas. We eat in the dim light of the candles from the wreath in the dining room, and then afterwards read a verse or two and sing a hymn.

This year, I'm starting something new. I'm going to write around these Advent days, as well. I don't have a plan for this. I'm just going to write what comes to my mind as I reflect on this special season.

This morning, as I sat with my cup of coffee, I thought about the Advent of the Prince of Peace. I wonder how many people, after such a tumultuous election season, are glad to see this season of peace and goodwill toward fellow man come upon us? The timing couldn't be more perfect.

The election completely aside, I'm personally ready for a little more peace. Our cross-country move and new jobs have given us plenty to work through this autumn.

So while thinking about peace, I was struck by this verse from Isaiah 53, a familiar prophecy for this season of expectation.

The punishment that brought us peace was upon him. Isaiah 53:5 

This oft-quoted verse struck my teacher-brain as a little out of the ordinary. Because punishment doesn't usually bring peace. I've faced a situation at my new school where I had to punish a student for using his cell phone during class. When I noticed him on it while I was speaking, I walked over to his desk and asked for his phone. He held it up and away from me and asked, "Do you pay the bills?" This type of belligerence does not make for a peaceful start to any day. But neither does the punishment that I had to dole out afterwards. In fact, after having his phone removed, according to policy, this student made life a lot worse by punishing me (and the rest of the class) by acting out for several days following this incident.

Good parents, teachers and leaders have to punish wrong behavior to maintain order and protect the others in their care. My students rely on me to act justly so that no one person's behavior robs the others from the opportunity to learn. But, punishment is uncomfortable, frustrating and difficult. I lost a lot of sleep about the situation I described above. Punishment feels bad. Whether you're the person giving it, or the person receiving it. We have an expression, we teachers, about this sort of situation. We hope that in giving out a punishment like this to one student that the others will see that you mean business and will follow the rules and not have to face punishment themselves. We call the punished student the "sacrificial lamb."

When I thought about that expression, I saw the connection between punishment and peace. Jesus Christ is our Sacrificial Lamb. The one time sacrifice that took away the sins of the world. Punishment is necessary because justice demands it. Our God is a Just and True King. He must punish sin because, if it were allowed to go unchecked, it would swallow all of us whole. There would be nothing left. Nothing worth saving.

So He intervened. By punishing. Choosing the Sacrificial Lamb. And that Lamb takes. He takes away sin. And that is the key. Peace cannot exist in a sin-soaked world. Peace, true peace, only flourishes where sin is completely absent.

So this Advent Sunday, I am celebrating the season of taking. Lots of people are shopping these days- me too- preparing to give. It's right to think of this season that way, too. But for today, I'm grateful for the taking.

Blessed Jesus, thank you for taking away my sin. Thank you for removing sin so far away from me that I can experience peace. Jesus, please help me to see that when I choose my sin, I reject your perfect peace that you have offered to me because you were punished instead of me. Help me to choose what is better. Amen. 

Monday, August 1, 2016

Bye-Bye Austin

At this time next week, I'll be on my way home. It's weird writing that. After six and a half years in Austin, Texas, it's time to go back to North Carolina. I don't really have pretty words to write today. I guess that suits moving, though. Everything is semi-chaotic. Precious things go into boxes... maybe even some of the intangible things that make us who we are... so that we can get through to the next station. Maybe one day, I'll unpack those things and will feel the wave of emotion, and have better words. For now, though, I guess I'm just going to keep it kind of practical and write about the move itself.

Why are we moving? 

I've heard that something like 1000 people move to Texas a day. Austin is constantly being brought up as one of the best, most vibrant cities in the US. There are good jobs here, decent schools, great parks, amazing restaurants. It is a beautiful city. I do not disagree. So why are we leaving when everyone else is coming?

Because we have Story Lamm, and I want to share her with my family. Everyone tells you how much having a baby changes everything in your life. Everyone is pretty right about that. It's complicated and difficult to raise a baby in a city where you have no family, especially when both parents work. There's no doubt that we've had a lot of support this year from our Hill Country and BSF communities, but there's really nothing like family. I want my parents to see Story grow up. I want her to know them and learn from them. I don't write much about how awesome my parents are. I should. My parents are generous, supportive and wise people. They've learned so much over the years, and they continue to learn and grow. They love Andy like he is their own flesh and blood and show him the respect he deserves. They hurt when he hurts, they are joyful when he is joyful, and they've been pretty unselfish in trusting him with their daughter- no strings, no guilt-trips. And Story is the apple of their eye. I've never seen my dad be more ga-ga over anything. And that's as it should be. There is a lot of injustice in the world. Good people often go unrewarded for the things they do. Jesus said it would be this way. He told us that as we did good in His name, we would suffer because He had suffered. I've seen that happen to my parents in different ways over the years. I've seen them do the right thing because that's what Jesus wants, and things haven't always turned out so great. It's not like they sit around and complain about that sort of thing. They just keep on serving others and worshiping God. But, sometimes, even in this broken place, there is just reward for faithful servants. And one of the things that turns about in good families from time to time is that children desire to come back to the people who raised them. Not to re-enter the nest, because a healthy family always sends their children out from the nest at the right time, but to share their own nest with their parents. Obviously you can also be a strong family and live all over the place. I know lots of friends in that situation, as well. But, sometimes it works out that you can spend some precious years closer together. And what better reward is there for faithful, loving, unselfish parents than to have their children choose to live nearby? So that's what this is really all about. Nest-sharing. Story- sharing. Not that I haven't flooded them with pictures and videos all year, but a Granddaddy should be able to hold his baby girl's baby girl. And we're moving to make that more possible.

When are we moving? 

My parents fly into Austin on Friday, and will be driving home with me and Story starting next Sunday, August 7th. I start my new job at Cape Fear High School on August 22.

Andy is staying in our house in Austin for a little longer, at least through the end of September. He's got some commitments to wrap up at work, and he will be looking for a mechanical engineering job in North Carolina. Prayers for a new job in the Fayetteville or Raleigh/Durham area are so appreciated! We are trusting God to provide.

How are we feeling? 

For me, I'm feeling ready. We had a massive cookout at the beginning of July and filled our house with students for the last time. Since then, I've been packing a little bit each day during Story's naps. I've also gotten together with friends for good-bye lunches or coffee, and Andy and I have been visiting some of our favorite places in Austin for the last time. Then, of course, we had to say good-bye to Gatsby.

My amazing friends who serve God in other countries have talked to me about the importance of good good-byes. Their wisdom has been a blessing to me, because I hate good-byes and would rather lunge forward than dwell on the past and present. But they were right (thanks Robin, Leslie and Laurie) Being intentional about saying good-bye has me feeling more settled into the reality of this change than I would be otherwise. But, it's also an emotionally draining process. And after weeks of watching things come to an end, I'm ready to start a new beginning.

Andy would have to speak for himself on this issue. It's a harder process for him than for me. Though there have been things that I have enjoyed in Austin, it's never been home for me. But Andy loves this place and does feel home here. Like me, he is tired of the oppressive heat and over how crowded everything is becoming. But, if he could have it any way, he'd probably just want to buy some property outside the city, build a house and a garage for his tools, and call it done. ;) Fortunately, our marriage doesn't work that way. I left home six and a half years ago for him, and now he's leaving home for me. Greater love has no one than this... We're hoping to find our home together.

What are we going to miss? 

For someone who never wanted to live in Texas, there are a lot of things that I'm going to miss about this place. I'm going to attempt to list some of those things here, but I know I won't get all of them. Here we go, in no particular order.

Holly Thurman, and the BSF North women's class
our house on Dijon Drive
people with the last name Glace
flying H's
Torchy's queso
Horton boys
spring-fed watering holes
cappuccino from Cafe Medici
afternoon playdates with Cal, Scout and Marshall
Scott's "face"
playing so much soccer
pick a trail, any trail... there are so many trails
Shiner and St. Arnold's
walks around Town Lake
the social acceptability of wearing yoga pants to anything
Teo and Amy's
margaritas with teachers
Captain Mitochondria and his band of merry men
Monday morning staff meetings (did I really just say that? not so much the Mondays, or the mornings, or the meetings... but yeah, the staff... those were GREAT people to start the week with)
Terra Toys
The Jackson Seven
Another witty quip from John
It's 5 o'clock at Jake's house
seeing the face of a graduated student appear at my science lab door
the oaks in my front yard
Milburne and Veterans Park pools
day trips to Bourne and Fredericksburg
Tim Hawks keeping it real
sour grape soda from Big Top
Rounders pizza
Friday night lights
sharing a fence with the Wolski's
Zilker Park on Sunday afternoons in February- 65 degrees and sunny
Alamo Drafthouse
Good Friday service at the Long Center- a service that celebrates the unification of the Church, rather than separatism and denominational division
The "Drunk Debutante" Fair
City Wide Garage Sale
The Turkey Trot
Whole Earth Provision Company
Sunsets at the Oasis

What can't be listed, though, is the feel of this city. I first came to Austin to see Andy while we were engaged in September 2009, and I developed a quite unexpected crush on it during that first visit. It was somehow part big city-with shops and restaurants, art and culture- and part small town. Everyone certainly didn't know everyone, but everyone seemed to be sharing a mutual love for this plot of land in the center of Texas. And it made them smiley, and friendly and happy, like little girls giggling over a secret shared on the playground.

And Austin is sort of like a playground. I remember marveling at how thin most people are in this city- especially since there is food everywhere. But I think that's because as much as Austinites love food- they love activity as much, if not more. As you drive through the streets, scoping out colorful bungalows and new homes with the clean lines of modernity, you'll likely be accompanied by scores of cyclists, whizzing by (hopefully) in the bike lanes. When you drive over one of the bridges crossing Lady Bird Lake (Town Lake for real, though), you'll see kayakers and SUP-ers year round. All around the city there are people playing in volleyball, soccer and softball leagues- both kids and adults. And everywhere you go, even in 100 degree weather, someone is out for a run.

Still, that doesn't quite capture the essence of Austin. I'm not sure that you can put it into words. In Biology, we talk about the principle of "emergent properties." Essentially, it's the scientific actuality that the sum is greater than the individual parts. Their contributions to the shared entity are somehow transformed beyond what they are on their own. Austin has emergent properties. Austin is an eclectic, wonderfully weird amalgamation of people, education, belief, culture, language, and style. The city's motto is "Keep Austin Weird." Yes, please.

Sadly, though, I feel like the city is changing. Moving to Austin is now a national trend. Trendiness can be a good thing. It brings the best minds and ideas together, and that seems like it would be good for everyone. And, it is, in a lot of ways. But, inevitably, there is a loss of something genuine when a place becomes trendy. Andy and I went to a couple of our favorite places on South Congress last weekend, and it's hard to describe, but things just felt different than they did years ago. The city is shinier than it was when we got here. It's more crowded, and more expensive. The organic charm of a city, once composed of lovers of diversity and individuality, seems diluted by people striving to be in the right place at the right time with the right people.

Nevertheless, this city will always hold a special place in my heart. Because, though the city will change, I'll have memories of special places and precious people who made Austin the friendliest, most open city I could ever hope to live in. I'll tell a story that brings these thoughts together. The first spring that Andy and I moved to Austin, it was an El Nino year. The heavy rains made it possible to take our kayaks down a chronically dried-out creek that runs through the Barton Springs Greenbelt. It was a rush careening down the little rapids, and we were struggling a bit with our lake kayaks, which were really too big for the task at hand. At one point, we both hit a section at the wrong angle and flipped the kayaks. We managed to get out easily enough, but we were struggling to flip the kayaks right-side up. All of a sudden, people who were out enjoying a day of sun along the creek shore were splashing through the rushing water toward us. Several big guys helped Andy right the kayaks and we were soon on our way. I remember smiling and waving at the friendly faces as we moved downstream- dogs and kids splashed in the water, music was playing, people were eating chips and drinking beer. That memory will always be Austin to me. Friendly people, enjoying life, happy to put themselves into the water's roar to help out a sojourner.

So off we go. Just a few more days, a few more good-byes. Am I sad? Not really. I'm happy we were here, happy we became a family here. Happy that we took the time to put down roots in a place this sunny and friendly and fun. I'm thankful for the incredible lessons that we've learned here. And I'm never going to forget the people that God put in our lives to help us with some tough lessons He wanted us to learn. Last night, we climbed the steps of Mount Bonnell for the last time. We took in the view of the skyline, we marveled at the mansions below. And we waved good-bye to this shining, prosperous city. Austin, we wish you well. God bless you and keep you... weird. ;)

"Graffiti" is famous in Austin. This one can be found at Joe's Coffee on South Congress. 

Mayfield Park at the foot of Mount Bonnell, where some beautiful peacocks live.  

Lake Austin behind us. 

Skyline from Mount Bonnell. 

Bye-bye Austin! 

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Greatest Gatsby

There's a line in the movie The Holiday that I really like. Jack Black's character is beginning to fall for Kate Winslet's character. Black's character is a Hollywood composer, and he writes Kate's character a song. As he plays it for her, he says, with a smile, "I used only the good notes." Today I'm writing something that I've dreaded for years. I'm writing about the life and loss of my best friend. I'm not smiling as I write. I'm crying. But, I'm going to use only the good words. Because, if anyone deserves only good- it's Gatsby.

Gatsby got sick last Tuesday. He stumbled just walking through the kitchen and nearly fell over. When I checked his gums they were gray. I called Andy, who had just left for work. He took Gats to the animal hospital where they took x-rays and did bloodwork. His heart beat was irregular, but everything else looked good. He was put on fluids and a lidocaine drip for the day. I spent the day sick with worry. At fourteen and a half, I know that each day is a gift. But the vet called in the mid-afternoon, saying that Gats seemed to be doing better, and I gleefully picked him up that afternoon. When I first saw Gats, he was not his usual, "Get me outta here!" self. He seemed tired. He looked old. We got him home, and comfortable on his sofa. I sat with him, and loved on him all evening. Andy took care of everything so that I didn't really have to get up at all. Gats can't let me leave the room. He has to follow me. So, it was best for me to just sit still with him there. Deep in my mind, I thought that the end might be soon.

But, as Gatsby did so many times in his life, the next day, he rallied. After some eggs and sausage and a little haircut, he was his spunky little self. We spent Wednesday, Thursday and Friday in a hyper-grateful state. We took in every moment we had to snuggle him, to tell him we loved him, to cherish the feel of his fur on our toes as he lay down under the kitchen table. We received it all with ever-expanding joy, just like we always have.

Gatsby's life was a cascade of blessings. Anyone who really knew him already understands this, and to anyone who didn't- who thinks of him as just a dog- there's no use in trying to explain. He wasn't really a dog. He was a ministering spirit. An agent of grace. As I age, I learn more about more about the mysteries of the God I serve. I've recently become attached to the imagery of God's hands slipping on earthly gloves. That the way that He exposes his love to those of us occupying this lonely planet is through the things He creates to walk with us here on it. Surely there is truth in this. Isn't that exactly what He did with His own Son? He put on human skin and walked among us. Then He left for a while. He left His love behind, though. That's really all we've got here. And I think, because He is always creating, and always giving grace, that sometimes, as He continues to work amongst these lost souls, he puts His fingers into dog fur, and touches us with softness that humans cannot ever attain. That was the essence of Gatsby- the softest touch of God's grace.

Gatsby was everything good. He was brave and fiercely loyal. A protector and a friend. Through the years people have told me that Gatsby was my "first child," and I always have received that as a compliment, but it isn't actually true. My relationship with Gatsby was much less about me taking care of him than it was about him taking care of me. I suppose that we took care of each other for those fourteen years. But I still think that he gave me much more than I ever gave to him.

He was meant to be my roommate. I was going to be a sophomore in college at N.C. State, and was moving into my first apartment in the fall, my first time living alone. I was angry and rebellious of heart in those days- the spiritual low point of my life. I was actively running away from God and rejecting His ways. My mom took me up to Raleigh to get me registered and, on the way home, we picked up a News and Observer and found a listing for Cocker Spaniel puppies somewhere outside of Goldsboro. We drove to the kennel on our way back to Fayetteville. When I first saw him, he was running around nipping at his litter-mates, a little black and white blur. He rode in my lap on the way home, and, just as we pulled onto Water Oaks Drive, I knew something in my heart had started to change- it was the first breach in the wall of anger that I'd built up. I confess that I've read the story of Joshua and the walls of Jericho with skepticism before- how could a loud noise actually bring down a city's walls? I suppose the same way that a sleeping puppy can tear away at self-centered, hard heartedness.

He went everywhere with me while I was in college. I could barely stand to leave him. When the weather was nice, I'd let him ride in my Jeep to campus. I rolled the windows down just enough, and he would just sleep in the Jeep for hours while I crammed sciencey things into my brain. He hated my giant textbooks, and would sometimes lie on top of them when they were strewn all across my bed so that I would pay attention to him instead of molecules and reactions. We took hundreds of walks, sometimes meeting up with my friend Katie to stroll and chat around Lake Johnson, often taking off down I-40 to Umstead State Park, where he could run the trails off-leash. When we moved to a different apartment in Cary, we lived at the back of the complex. Our porch was on a downhill slope that was covered in grass at the top and red clay at the bottom. I would sometimes leave him out back for hours on end, the sliding glass door open so that I could hear his demanding barks when he would toss the ball through the slats of the porch railings. He spent those years with a reddish orange tint to his fur. No matter how many times I washed him, that clay wouldn't really come out. Neither of us cared.

He loved hiking, and we went all sorts of places in the North Carolina mountains and Piedmont. Once, he slid down a waterfall in the mountains. I think I screamed as I watched his rapid descent stopped by a rock. It was one of many ridiculous scares I had. Once we were skiing in Colorado and got a call from the vet telling us that he was Ehrlichia positive. I thought he would die while we were on the trip. But he never showed any symptoms his whole life. When I lived in a second floor apartment in the animal hospital I worked at, he once fell through the insulation in my closet to the hallway in the floor below. I didn't even know it had happened until he showed up at my front door. I couldn't figure out how he had gotten there until I went downstairs and saw the hole in the ceiling. Another time, I was about to go mountain biking with a friend. We were leaving the animal hospital apartment, and I happened to glance back at my apartment window, only to see Gatsby walking out on the roof! I'd left the window open, and he'd walked out on the roof to try to find me. This was because he and I used to go out on the roof often, sitting up there watching the traffic below and the nights sky above- dreaming and praying. Then there was the time that he was attacked by a viscous female pit bull on Thanksgiving morning. I was giving the boarded animals their food and medicine that morning at the animal hospital. I let Gatsby accompany me on these rounds, but I knew the dog-aggressive Pit was in a cage near the front, so I left him in the treatment area. But the door separating these two sections of the hospital was a swinging door that didn't latch, and he must have pushed it open to follow me. I didn't know he was behind me when I opened the Pit's cage, but she saw him and lurched. I've never seen anything happen so fast and so slow all at the same time. She went for his neck, but he turned at the last second and she caught him on the haunches. He cried out with a sound that I will never forget and pray to God I never hear again. I tried kicking her. I pulled things off the walls and threw them at her, but nothing worked. I screamed out "Jesus! Help me!" There were no other humans in the hospital. After what seemed like forever, I completely lost my innate self-preservation. I no longer feared being bitten or attacked. I was going to save my dog, or I was going to die trying. I lunged at her face. She still had Gatsby's haunches in her mouth. I punched her in between the eyes again and again, but she still wouldn't let go. Finally, I got my hands around her neck and began to squeeze. Her mouth loosened, Gatsby ran free. I picked her up by the throat. Rage coursed through me. I could see blood and I knew how close we had come. My whole body shook and I wanted to kill her. I could have done it, and I wouldn't have felt any remorse. But I threw her into the women's bathroom and slammed the door shut, instead. Dr. Faircloth came shortly after and sewed up Gatsby's wounds. If the bites had been on his neck...

I had an amazing relationship with Gatsby. I would say that he was my dog, but really only because he felt like he needed to protect me, and because I had him longer. The truth is that Gatsby was always Andy's dog too. God's grace is amazing like that. You'll have some good gift that you think is yours, and then discover that God intended it to bless someone else all along. Gatsby is a pretty friendly fellow. But he's discerning. He would warm up to most people once they threw the ball a couple of times for him. If you threw the ball for him, and he still didn't like you, there is only one explanation- you are a bad person. Anyway, Gatsby liked lots of people, but he only ever really, really, really loved one other person besides me- and that person is Andy. We both remember when this happened, actually. Andy and I had been dating for a couple of weeks and we decided to go on an adventure- the first of many. ;) So, we headed off to a state park and Andy brought along some fishing poles. I brought my Cocker Spaniel. And I'd say that the best thing that Andy caught that day was Gatsby's heart. We have a picture of the two of them on that day. Andy's squatting down on the ground with Gats in between his legs. Somehow, even in the picture, you can see that they are already connected to each other. That connection deepened intensely after we got married. I've written before that Andy and I faced some unexpected challenges after we got married. Things got tougher than either of us could have ever imagined. I used to feel really sorry for myself in those days. I was away from my family and couldn't figure things out. But, in time, I realized that it was really Andy who had it the worst. He was truly alone in those days. Everyone turned on him, letting him know with word or deed, that he was not living up to their expectations. I was a primary perpetrator of this blaming and betraying. Hurt turned to anger inside of me and I changed from the fun-loving, solid girl that he'd committed himself to, into someone frantic, confused, demanding and broken. Gatsby had this uncanny ability to remain loyal to me, and yet- and I am not making this up- call me out. I will never forget one day when I was fussing at Andy. We were both sitting on the sofa. In these times, Gatsby would always position himself beside Andy. They would sit there silently, together. Andy's eyes would be down, but Gatsby would stare at me- not angry or desperate, but pleading with me to stop. But this one day Gatsby went beyond just using his eyes to plead, he actually placed his paw on my leg. It was like a person, or more than a person, even. That paw touched me and I completely shut up. Those were hard, hard times. And throughout them, Gatsby stuck by Andy. He was and always will be, the best family that Andy has ever had. In the hurt that Andy has had to shoulder, he hasn't ever had anyone more loyal and loving than Gatsby. As much as Gatsby loved me, he might have loved Andy just a little bit more... I can't be sure. But maybe. Just maybe. Gatsby's relationship with Andy was different than with me. Because Gats always had to take care of me. I was always needy of him. He always saw himself as my protector- he physically and emotionally took care of me every day of his life. But Gatsby saw Andy differently. He saw Andy as his protector and his friend. When Andy would go to drill weekends, Gatsby would lie on the sofa and stare at the door all of Friday night, waiting for Andy to come through it. He reverted to his protector role for those days, but when Andy got home Sunday afternoon, he would relax again. Dad was home.

Andy also loved Gatsby for his sense of adventure. We took him all sorts of places in Texas. We kayaked on spring-fed rivers- Gats would perch on the bow of Andy's kayak and jump into the water whenever he felt like it. We drove to the Pacific and the two of them dashed into the freezing water in Santa Monica together. We snuggled by the campfire and curled up together in a tent in Yosemite National Park. We all sat together on the rim of the Grand Canyon. We hiked the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachians. We bought a little blue kiddie pool for him to cool off in when he played ball in the backyard in the summer time, and he helped us build a hippopotamus out of snow one Christmas, little snowballs forming around the fur of his legs as he bounded through my parent's white backyard.

But as much as he loved adventure, he also loved for all of us to be home together. The last precious memory I have of my boy comes from this past Friday night, just before he took his turn for the worst. Andy, Story and I had been out to dinner, and Story and I got home before Andy. We let the doggies out in the yard with us while we watered some plants. Andy arrived, and Gatsby and Daisy trotted off to greet him as he pulled into the driveway. A moment later, Gatsby came around the corner of the house to find me and Story, where were were finishing up with the watering. His face said, "Dad's home! Come on! Everyone is home!" Hours later, he fell asleep in my arms at the emergency clinic. His heart, always so full, always so strong, needed to rest.

These past few days have been some of the worst of my life. The emptiness that Andy and I feel is incredibly painful. We have two parallel tracks- one that is full of gratitude for God's amazing grace. We have so many wonderful memories with our boy. Some of them have been shared here, but there are so many more. And we know that God was incredibly gracious to us. His sickness last Tuesday allowed us to really cherish our last days with him, even though we weren't aware that they were the last ones. We had been praying that Gats would be able to make the move to North Carolina, but we now see that it would have been impossible to have endured the loss while we were apart from one another. And we love that Gatsby's last day was spent at home with Momma and Story, and that in the evening, Dad came home and we spent a few happy moments like any other Friday night before his heart failed. But the emotional track wrecks us. We keep on crying. There are moments- like Saturday morning when Story picked up one of his tennis balls and looked for her buddy- when we miss him so much we can't do anything but cry and pray together.

Last week, my devotion was about God's kindness. It came from Luke 6, when Jesus tells his disciples to love their enemies, to do kind things for them, to pray for them. And He says that they should do this because God is kind to the wicked. In the past few years, I've learned a lot about how to love others while also drawing boundaries (because this, too, is an expression of love) I'll likely be working on this for the rest of my life. And yet, I know, as we all do, that we are given so many chances every day- to make the choice to be kind. Jesus asked us to choose kindness, because that's what God does. But He says it's not enough to just be kind to the people who like you. He says that anyone can do that (although, some people actually don't follow through on being kind, even to the people who are kind to them). Jesus wants us to be kind to everyone, because God shows kindness, even to the wicked. It's hard to understand this. In our "grace for me, justice for everyone else" mindsets, it's hard to actually follow through, on a heart level that leads to acts of kindness. When I consider the things that have been going on this summer- fear spreading like wildfire, abuses of power, acts of terrorism, murder of the innocent- the madness of it all- I see the difficulty, and yet the dire need for humanity to do what Jesus said to do. Can we? Can I? Can I be kind? It's hard. It really is. I just keep asking Jesus for help. Help comes, sometimes wearing black and white fur. In all of my life, I do not think I'll ever understand God's kindness any better than I did through Gatsby. Because when I was most selfish, most wicked, God gave me the greatest gift that I could ever receive. He gave me fourteen years of grace.

Gatsby, I love you and I miss you. Thank you for being our friend. So loyal, so brave, so fun. Thank you for being ours. You are our family, Buddy. We pray that God, in His creativity and grace, would allow us to see you again. But know that our hearts are forever better because you were ours. We'll never really be worthy of you. But we promise to try to live out the lessons that you taught us about kindness, gentleness, faithfulness and love. Peace be with you, my sweet, sweet friend, just as you always brought peace to us. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Summer morning revelation

The past few days have been perfect. Story and I have been soaking up the fun and the sun. No longer chained to a rigid schedule, we've enjoyed sleeping later and having some cuddle time with daddy before he leaves for work. I've cooked breakfast every day- "eggy cheese" is Story's favorite. We've walked and gone to the pool. Yesterday, we met up with friends for an afternoon play date. The happiness and contentment of these days has overwhelmed me. Yesterday, when I journaled during my quiet time, all I could do was rejoice in the day that the Lord has made. Today's journal entry was a contrast.

Last night, I fell asleep watching reruns of "Murder, She Wrote" on Netflix. But I awoke and checked my phone before getting in the bed. I had a message from a recently graduated student, whom Andy and I know through BSF. The message said that another boy we know through BSF had been struck by a vehicle while riding his bike. The message said to tell Mr. Wermel what had happened and asked us to pray. In my sleepiness, I didn't understand the severity of the situation. Andy was in the garage working on the Jeep, and I didn't want to disturb him. I figured that the boy would be pretty banged up, probably have some broken bones, but that he would be okay. I said a quick prayer for him as I trotted off to wash my face, and then I went to bed. This morning, I checked my phone and saw these words- "he didn't make it."

Today is a beautiful day. Story had eggs and some fresh raspberries and then we played on the living room floor together, the sun streaming in through the blinds, flooding the room in gorgeous light. But there's a weightiness to this morning that I didn't feel yesterday when I basked in summer blessings. I've been struck by the reality that a boy Andy had a chance to talk to about death, heaven and the eternal kingdom now knows more than we do about those mysteries. It was only weeks ago that our Revelation study asked us to consider what happens to believers after they die. How could anyone have known that this fourteen-year-old would experience the answers to those questions so soon?

There's a part of me that wants to escape this reality. I want to go to the outlets and shop for a swimsuit for our vacation. I want to go outside and mow the grass. I want to go to the pool and splash around. I want the sounds of summer to wash over me and take this reality from my mind. But I chose to sit on the sofa and approach my King, instead.

I wrote in my journal that Revelation was such a BIG, HEAVY, REAL book to me now. I wrote that it "keeps on knocking." I know that it is really Him- He keeps on knocking. Knocking on my life and reminding me that there is more than laundry and shopping lists and trips to the pool. Sure enough that's a part of the reality, but there's more, and He won't let me forget it. I opened my devotional that I received as a good-bye present from Hill Country, and I literally gasped when the reading for June 8 came from Revelation 3:14-22. I opened my Bible, and my eyes went straight to verse 20 "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock!" 

Wait a minute. I don't want to open the door to a King who lets children die. I moved from the sofa to the kitchen, trying to clear the breakfast dishes and my mind. But fear gripped my heart. The rest of that June 8 devotion is about Refiner's fire- it's about how He allows tragedy, but that He's sovereign over it, letting it all work together so that His suffering servants can be a part of building His Kingdom. That knocking is an accompaniment to the rebuking, the disciplining, the suffering that comes with being His.

Then I don't want to be a builder of that kingdom. I don't want to be a part of it if it means that You'd strip me of everything. He was their child.

But, who can deny that there's more to this life than the veneer of summer sunshine? Why do we love it so much, if not for the fact that so much of life is its opposite? I know that I am basking in it because of the hardships of the year- my own tiny sufferings. God forbid that I choose to believe that getting away from the suffering is the point of it all. He knocks so that I won't make that choice.

I believe that His original design didn't include any of this suffering. I believe that He will one day restore His creation to that design. No more suffering, no more tears. And in the meantime? There are vacations and impossibly carefree days. There are also text messages that say "he didn't make it." This is the reality in which I live. This is the reality in which Story lives. And I can't keep her close to me for any longer than He sees fit. So what am I to do?

Open the door. Open the door to the King of Glory- the only One with the Authority to set into action the final, good plans. And allow the reality that there is more to fear than the death of my child to become the anchor of my life. There is a darkness, an eternal separation, that follows rejection of Truth. This is the greatest loss. This is the loss that He stops at nothing to prevent. He allows suffering in the lives of His people, and uses it to spur them on to tell this Truth.

In truth, I find this terrifying. None of it is easy, but all of it is real. So while I will still thank Him for these sunny mornings, and will fully take in the simple pleasures, I've asked Him to help me arrange my life according to His authority. A slain Lamb, a suffering Servant, a King of Kings. One day I will see You face to face, just as this boy has done today. God willing, together, we will proclaim that You are worthy to receive glory and honor and power and praise- just as we studied in this book we call Revelation.

Monday, May 23, 2016

In this room...

This is a picture of the lab set up for my last dissection. I'll miss this place more than these words can capture. 
I spent this morning packing up my classroom. I took down my street sign poster that says "U Turn in Homework, U get better grades." I plucked all of the graduation photo announcements, going back three years, from my bulletin boards and sealed them into Ziploc bags. I took down Planet Preston, carefully tucking the blue-and-silver Styrofoam ball into a box.

When I came to Hill Country five years ago, I was a decent enough teacher, I guess. I had the opportunity to watch excellent teachers in North Carolina, and I learned a lot from emulating them. I'll forever be in their debt. And I was a pretty passionate worker. During my time here, I've worked a lot of hours, and taught a lot of subjects. I told a couple of other AP teachers last week that I've gotten more sleep as a new mom than I did the first year that I taught AP Bio- they could relate. I leave here with more knowledge and more experience, but, none of that stuff was on my mind as I packed up today. Because the most valuable things I learned while in this room can't be packed up in a box.

So, in an effort to trap some of those intangible items, I'm trying to throw words around the things I've felt so deeply here, the things that have changed me into the teacher I am today. They're hardly duct tape, and they don't seem sufficient to describe all that has happened, but they're all I've got. Here are the most precious things I take with me when I step out of this room for the last time.

Comparison is the thief of joy. This wisdom was shared with the Hill Country staff at the first in-service I attended in August 2011. I think the context was in helping Hill Country identify who we are as a school, so that we can make wise choices as we grow. But those words have impacted every aspect of my life. They're the reason I sometimes take long breaks from social media. Who hasn't experienced something perfectly good, only to look on Pinterest and see someone else doing it way better, and then felt completely deflated? These words have encouraged me to continually go back to God to find my value, rather than looking around me to try to one-up or, more often, crumble under the pressure of the images that surround our lives.

It doesn't matter. No, this isn't an ode to apathy. It's an expression that Robin and I used to say to one another after we read Tim Keller's The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness. The gist is that according to the Bible, it doesn't matter what others think about you- good, bad or ugly. That message is fairly widespread these days, but what Keller emphasizes is that it not only doesn't matter what others think about you. It doesn't even matter what you think about yourself. What matters is what GOD thinks about you. And when you belong to Him, through faith in Jesus Christ, it turns out that He's crazy-nuts about you. Like two people madly in love. Or like a parent with a child. Now that I have Story, and I think about how I am crazy-nuts about her... especially when I first pull her out of the crib in the morning, and she is so wonderfully heavy and perfectly round and impossibly soft. The love that I have for her in that moment- it's unspeakable. And she hasn't done anything. She's just mine. It's all that matters between us. That she's mine. God feels that way about me, and there really is true freedom in that.

Margin. After watching some Andy Stanley sermons and reading a book with this title with the Hill Country staff, and after my own personal supplementation of some Tim Keller podcasts, and the encouragement of friends and family, especially my husband, I finally started to practice margin as a regular part of life. In our overly-busy, YOLO culture, margin is a concept that's not simply forgotten. It is, in some ways, risky. People who develop the habit of saying "no" risk the disapproval of others and the opportunity to get ahead. But, the principle of margin- in your time, your finances, your emotional health, your relationships- it's not really something you can actually live without. You can survive without margin, but you can't live. This year is really the first year that I've walked away from things- work, opportunities, "stuff"- to be able to live with a little more margin. Andy and I find ourselves healthier financially, mentally, emotionally and spiritually as a result of those choices.

Shalom. A couple of years back, our spiritual director chose this word to be sort of a "theme" word for the year. It turned into a joke of sorts because it was used so frequently in meetings and lesson plans, but it wasn't all for naught. Most people know that shalom means peace, but Biblical shalom is not just the absence of conflict. Shalom is a concept that involves a deep sense of spiritual, emotional, physical and relational wellness. Conflicts arise, and I've seen my fair share of conflicts while I've been here. In private education, conflicts come and conflicts go, but sometimes the resolution offers something hopeful and real that shows us something about the heart of God. In the Bible, God instructs His exiled people to seek the shalom of the city of their exile, to bless it with their presence, to build it up while they are there. This context is huge because it shows that, with God's help, we can build on ground that we didn't choose for ourselves. I've seen a lot of people at Hill Country be part of situations that have not been their choice- tough situations that have involved hurt feelings, misunderstandings, broken hopes and major disappointments. And yet, in so many of those situations, I've seen many different types of people, work in their unique way to create "shalom" in this community. I hope that I've been one of them.

Love does. Bob Goff wrote a book with this title, but his message was working its way into my life long before I read it for staff development. I think that, of all of the messages that I'm packing up today, this one is the most precious and also the most fragile. Because it's a lesson learned from brokenness- my own, and the brokenness of others. If you have any moment in your history where you have felt rejected, misunderstood, or betrayed by a Christian (and probably most people do), then you'll understand the shaky emotional and spiritual ground on which I stood when I first started teaching here. Life had dealt me an unexpected soul-wound that hadn't even really started healing. There were a lot of people God put into my life during this time He used to help me heal, but, two of the most important are a set of very different brothers. I remember when I met these boys, I would do a lot more talking at them than listening to them. I would assume things about them, try to "preach at" them- and tell them I was trying to "speak the truth in love" and "challenge" them. And that actually was true. I've always had a heart for them, and wanted the best for them, but I was absolutely terrible in my delivery. My pride was too tightly wound around my words for them to be life-giving. I came across as a "know-it-all," rather than someone gentle and humble, like the Lord Jesus. Gradually, I realized that my words and actions were the very type of thing that can turn people off from Christianity, leaving them feeling gutted and worthless. But by God's grace, these boys kept talking to me, telling me honestly how I made them feel, and each conversation was a chance to change. And I did change. Not just with them, but with a lot of kids. I learned to listen as much, if not more, than I talk. I stop what I'm doing now, and look into kids' eyes, and ask them the hard questions, but only when the time is right. I don't feel like I have to force that now. Somewhere in my lessons with the brothers, God taught me how to adapt my timing and my questions to the person, rather than expecting the person to meet my demands in my timing. Sometimes, when the occasion is right,  I do speak the truth in love. But I find that the truth that I'm speaking has a lot more to do with who God is, and what He has promised is true about these kids, than giving some angle on life that comes from my personal experience. Paul wrote to the Romans that they were supposed to really love other people. Not just to pretend to. He later told the Corinthians that even if they said wonderful, wise spiritual words, but didn't love in action, their words would amount to no more than an annoying, empty sound. I know that sound. It still reverberates in my life from time to time. It's a heart-breaking sound. But God gave me so many chances here, to learn the most excellent way. I learned to love in this room. And that is the thing that can't be packed up, but that's okay. There's been a lot of love in P1B. But it never stayed here. It went out with the lives that shared it with me. Such things were never meant to be contained.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

For the Moms

Last week I was talking to our AP coordinator about the upcoming AP Bio exam (stay with me, this isn't actually a post about AP Bio- I promise) In the course of conversation, I confessed to her that I had no idea where the four-function non-graphing calculators were. I had them ordered from Amazon for last year's AP Bio class, because the College Board restricts the use of graphing calculators on the exam, and few students, if any, have a non-graphing calculator once they hit high school. So the school footed the bill for a class set, and we used them last year, but I had no idea where I stored them after the exam was over. I blame pregnancy.

Telling her was a way to fully admit my own incompetence. Pregnant or not, I'd lost them, and I was ready to own up to my mistake and buy new ones out of my own pocket. I'm sure the school would have been gracious enough to have purchased calculators again, but I was too embarrassed to raise the issue. I had plans to make a trip to Office Depot and scout out calculators on my own time.

But on Tuesday morning, during my planning period, I noticed that a drawer in my classroom was ajar. I never use this drawer, so it was weird that it was open. I certainly hadn't opened it, and it's in an area of the classroom that's not really accessible to students. I looked into the drawer, which was empty aside from a cardboard box with black tape stretched across it, with the word "Amazon" typed in blue. I reached in and pulled the box out. There, written in my own hand, were the words "AP Bio Calculators."

I'm writing about this today because it's Mother's Day. And the appearance of those calculators was such a mom move. I'm not talking about mom-brain causing me to misplace them in the first place (though that might have something to do with it) I'm talking about the appearance of the very thing that I needed in the exact time that I needed it. I mean, I'm not an expert on being a mom, I'm still learning a lot about this role every day, but, from what I can tell, anticipating needs has a lot to do with mommyhood. I think it just comes with the territory.

Mothers anticipate the needs of their children. It's what we do. That's why our bags are stuffed with wipes and snacks and hand sanitizer. That's why we schedule our outings around nap-time. That's why we're always exhausted. But this week, I was reminded of where that instinct comes from.

I know that the Bible tells us that God is our Father. God decided to reveal himself through that chosen role, and I think there's a lot of significance in that. Jesus came as a man, too, and I don't take that lightly. I figure that a lot about God is best revealed through masculine characteristics. But, I think limiting God to our human idea of masculine characteristics and roles limits who He is.

I'm not saying that God is a woman. But I am saying that when God created humankind in His image, He created us male and female for a reason. He intended for there to be dads and moms. And I think there's something really significant in that. All of humanity has significance because all of it is made in His image, which means that women, especially moms, represent some aspect of who He is. And that's pretty amazing when you think about it.

I spend a lot of time thinking about Story's needs. She had chicken twice yesterday, should I give her something else today? How spicy is that? Does she feel warm to you? Does she have enough clothes for the summer? Should I put her in a sweater, it's sort of windy outside? Is the TV on too much? Is it too loud? How long did she nap? Does she need to stay up a few more minutes before I put her down so that she will be on schedule? Does she need some Tylenol before she goes to bed because that tooth is coming in? When was the last time she had a bath? Does she need to be changed? And on and on and on it goes. But that drawer getting propped open for me this week reminded me that Someone is thinking of me in a similar way.

When I get Story dressed up for church, I tell her that she is beautiful, that God made her fearfully and wonderfully. We love that part of Psalm 139, don't we? But today I'm reminded of a verse a little further along that tells us that God thinks of us so much, so often, that His thoughts outnumber the grains of sand (Psalm 139: 17-18). And that just sounds so maternal, doesn't it? Mommas are always thinking about their children. I am the one who tiptoes into the nursery and watches Story sleeping. I'm the one who sends Andy text messages mid-day saying, "I miss Story." I know that Daddies love their children, too. But it's just different. And I think it's cool that the difference tells us something more about the image of God.

Like, it's amazing to think of the Creator of the Universe thinking something sort of like this, "Meredith's students have that AP Bio exam on Monday. She still hasn't remembered where the calculators are stored. I need to make sure that she gets them. Did I prop that drawer open enough? Maybe just a half inch more? Is the box visible? Maybe if I show a little more of that Amazon tape?" It humbles me even more to think that I didn't pray about this situation. I didn't even think to. It's not like I even asked Him about the calculators. He just made sure that I had them, because that is His nature, as a Parent, as a Provider, as One whose thoughts are always for us.

Another reason it's important to remember this about God is that being a mom is super hard. It's exhausting, and, even though the whole #momfail thing is a joke in our culture, when moms actually do fail, it can be a pretty devastating thing. I know people whose lives have cavernous holes in them their mothers left behind. Moms, as people, we're infected with the same self-centeredness and insecurity that infects all of humanity. Even when our intentions are good, we can utterly fail our children. And yet, we are, in many respects, the foundation upon which lives are built.

So God, please help us. Keep up with us, so we can keep up with them. Pour into us your Spirit, your love, your energy, your peace, your understanding, your wisdom, your patience and your kindness. Help us to anticipate their needs as you anticipate ours. Give us eyes to see them, in all of the beauty with which You created them. Train us to worship You instead of them, because making them our idol is to inflict upon them a life-wound. They need to learn to worship You alone. Keep us from fearing failure or the criticism of others, and free us from the burden of comparison. And for those of us who have been wounded by mothers, heal us and give us a vision for what You would have motherhood look like. And thank you, for this incredible opportunity, to take part of this revelation of Yourself to the world. Thank you for letting us be moms.

Happy Mother's Day.