Thursday, June 30, 2011

Welcome to Texas

My mom, dad, and brother came to Austin for a few days. We traveled to San Antonio on Thursday by way of San Marcos (shopping) and Gruene (dinner at the Gristmill) to meet Andy and welcome him home. Friday we visited some of my favorite places in Austin and had dinner at Black's Barbecue in Lockhart (best brisket ever). Saturday we all went out to Fredericksburg for the day and drove over to Luckenbach, which was not at all what I expected. Sunday we went to church at the Austin Stone and heard an incredible sermon, then went to the Gospel Brunch at Stubb's BBQ, then kayaking on Town Lake. Monday we visited Waterloo Records and Book People before saying good-bye. I loved spending time with my family in North Carolina and back here in Texas, and I cannot wait to see them again. I love you guys so much! Thank you for being such wonderful travelers, friends and support to us. My only regret is that I didn't take more pictures.

Dancehall in Gruene, Texas

Mom and I pose outside of the Gristmill. Notice I am holding the first of many of the weekend's boxes of leftovers!

We got to Mt. Bonnell on Friday at mid-morning, to try to avoid the heat of the day. Mom, Dad & Grant are climbing the 106 steps to the top.

It's so good to have Andy back home!

Since Dad accidentally cut our feet off in the previous picture, Andy and I took this one to make up for it.

Andy and Grant checking out the camping gear at Whole Earth Provision Company, and Grant, of course, avoiding having his picture taken.

After church on Sunday we went to Stubb's Gospel brunch which was delicious. But I was too busy eating to take any pictures!`But after all that food, it was time for some exercise, so Andy, Grant and I went for a kayak trip on Town Lake. Andy got brave and took a turn on this rope swing.

Grant is being outdoorsy!

Grant, Andy & Austin

Andy's early birthday present from my mom and dad- two camping chairs from Cabela's. Hopefully we'll get to use them somewhere other than the living room this summer. :)

Andy & Dad enjoying the extra space to watch TV.

Comfortable. :)

I love you guys! Already miss you, come back and see us soon!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Don't settle for the stick

Andy came home from Malaysia on Thursday of last week. I was on cloud nine that day. My mom had driven with me half way across the country earlier in the week, and my brother and dad flew into Austin on Wednesday. The four of us made our way to San Antonio on Thursday afternoon to welcome Andy back from a month away from home. On the way, we stopped at a gigantic Cabela's outdoor world in Buda, TX. We looked a little bit like city mice come to the backwoods store, but we found some goodies to take with us anyway. One of my prizes was a set of two small tennis balls- for Gatsby, of course. They appealed to me because they were supposedly made "tuff"- and since Gatsby can usually crack a tennis ball in half in about a minute, I thought I'd give the sturdy Cabela's version try.

Sure enough, the balls lived up to their name. Through days of ball playing- with my dad, Andy and even Grant- Gats has not broken the ball. All of those days were really good days, and I'll put some pictures up here in a little while. But as today approached, and reality starting setting in, the balls were not the only thing that turned out to be "tuff." Sometimes I deal with disappointment by hardening my heart. Rather than admitting that I'm fearful, sad or frustrated, I sometimes will let a shell form around my heart. When that happens, I can be callous, unloving or downright mean. Knowing that my family was leaving made me sad, not just because I miss them- though I do miss them- but also because I knew that once they left, I'd be alone with a lot of the things that hurt and disappoint me once again, those ongoing circumstances in my life that I have done my best in, but still hurt and discourage me.

Once my family drove off for the airport today in their rental car, my sadness, disappointment and frustration returned full-force, and rather than taking it to the Lord immediately, I decided to run errands. Productivity usually just hardens me more. The more efficient I become, the more frustrated I can get with my circumstances. I suppose it's because I start feeling powerful over inane things- like mailing packages and buying gift cards- but still feel powerless over the great disappointments in my life, and this angers me.

I felt like the heat was just making my anger worse, so I thought it would be a good idea to take Gatsby & Daisy out to the lake after Andy got home from work. Andy agreed to that idea and the four of us headed off, my attitude as sour as ever. I barely looked at Andy or even the dogs as we drove the curvy road out to Volente Beach. I knew my heart was hard, so I did pray, as earnestly as I could, for God to change my heart- even though I didn't really feel like softening at that point.

When we got out to the beach, I threw the "tuff" little tennis ball for Gatsby some, and Andy did as well. It was about the most together thing we could do at that point, given my affinity for keeping Andy at arm's length when I'm in a mood like this. At one point, Andy said, "Aww, the ball is broken." Apparently Gatsby had finally conquered the tiny "tuff" ball, just in time for Andy to throw it back out into the lake. Gats went after it, of course, but the ball was no longer able to float. It sunk down, and while I watched my little dog swimming vainly in circles looking for a ball that had completely submerged, I felt even more anger and disappointment.

"It's like that, isn't it?" I thought to myself. You think you're going to do something fun and good, and then it all turns into a gigantic disappointment. Gatsby was pitiful to watch, so I called him back and found him a stick. He sniffed it out and seemed sort of interested when I threw it into the water, but once he got back out to the place where the ball had sunk a few minutes earlier, he completely ignored the stick and once again searched for his ball. This was just too much for me. I called him again and when he got to the shore, I said, "The ball is gone. Get used to it. Life is full of crushing disappointments." And with that, I went to sit on a white plastic pool chair that someone had dragged out to the beach.

I stared at the deserted beer cans that littered the area and thought about the people who must have been out at Volente over the weekend, no doubt having a good time and looking forward to the rest of their lives, thinking that everything is going to be one really fun party. I remembered feeling that way the first time I came out to Volente Beach, as a newlywed, before the reality of life and sin and selfishness crushed so much of what I had hoped for. I thought of the many ways that I have fought to maintain hope and do what I believe is right, to no avail. I felt like Gatsby, still looking for a ball that's in pieces at the bottom of the lake, hoping vainly for something that's no longer available to me. The dreams I had- they're gone. Better learn to just be content with what I have. Make the most of it. Be a good sport and play the card I got dealt, blah, blah, blah. As if to convince myself that I was arriving at a profound truth, I shouted out loud to Gatsby, who was back in the water, once again looking for that dumb ball, "Just learn to appreciate the stick!" I looked away from him then, and said out loud, "This isn't what I thought it was going to be like."

I thought that people were going to like me. I thought I was going to be understood. I thought I was going to feel like I had a purpose everyday. I thought that I was going to desire to sacrifice my own desires out of great love for my husband and other people. I thought I was going to find great joy in loving and being loved. But that ball sank.

I don't know how much time passed, enough time for me to stare into my bleak future and see that I was always going to be without purpose and that I would always feel disappointed and angry. Staring into my future gave Gatsby enough time to come up from the water and make his way down the beach a little ways. Just about the time that I was going to tell Andy how terrifying it was all going to be, something drew my eyes away from the dismal days ahead and toward my black and white buddy. There he was, my persistent little friend, running toward me with joy and excitement- a big yellow tennis ball in his mouth.

I threw both of my hands into the air, lept to my feet and shouted with joy- "YES!!!!" For some people, a dog finding a tennis ball on the beach is just a coincidence. But I know that God has always chatted with me through Gatsby. I know that tennis ball was more than just a lucky find. There I was, feeling so sorry for myself, certain that all things good had dropped to the bottom before I'd really gotten a chance to enjoy them. That the only thing to do is to make do. I was so sour over it, I was trying to convince my dog to give up with me. Misery loves company- even furry company. But Gatsby has always been my hero for listening to God (I swear the dog can hear Him or something) and not me. He knows not to settle for the stick. He kept on going, until God provided Him the very thing his heart desired.

Look, it might seem crazy or coincidental to you- and that's okay. But I know that the hardness in my heart melted the second I saw that yellow felt. I knew that God was saying to me, "Persevere. I will bring you new joy."

Listen, sometimes the ball sinks. Sometimes life doesn't go the way you planned. Sometimes your hope seems lost and the practical, common sense thing to do would be to learn to appreciate the stick. But when that kind of thinking is void of the absolute truth that hope is real and joy can be found because there is hope and joy in God, then that common sense is really a lie.

I know it's not going to be easy. But I believe. I believe that He is real, and He is good and that even when my heart wanders and hardens, He is able to remind me- even with a tennis ball- that His joy is still out there for me, and maybe it's closer than I think. So I'll keeping seeking Him, I'll keep persevering toward Hope and I guess I won't settle for the stick, after all. Thanks for the reminder, Gats. Good boy.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Words that move us forward

I live for good words. Words propel me forward. We have kayaks, you know, and sometimes we float along together, kayak to kayak, letting the current move us. But eventually, we'll begin to float in the wrong direction, or our stomachs will rumble, signaling that it's time to get back to shore and dinner. In those times, we grip our paddles, dip them authoritatively into water and- move. Words are the paddle in my life. No matter where I'm floating- in crystal waters or stormy seas, at some point, a word will come, dipping deeply into my spirit and move me on. Some words came this week- and while I'm sailing along, thrust forward by their impact, I'll write them down here before I forget them and wait for the next ones to do the same thing.

They came from two completely different sources, but together they pushed me forward- like dipping the paddle to one side of the kayak and then the other ensures that you'll stay on course. I didn't know what the first paddle-strike was about, really, I just read it and stopped- paused- re-read, closed my eyes and knew- this is beautiful, powerful and true. Here it is- a paragraph from the very first chapter of Chris Cleave's Little Bee.

On the girl's brown legs there were many small white scars. I was thinking, Do those scars cover the whole of you, like the stars and the moons on your dress? I thought that would be pretty too, and I ask you right here please to agree with me that a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar makers want us to think. But you and I, we must make an agreement to defy them. We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived.

After those words dipped in and came back up, truth dripped down and around until the next words came and evened it all out. Power followed by purpose. The purpose stroke came from Larry Crabb's God's Love Letters to You devotional.

God says: My Spirit is telling My story to your psychological culture, a culture that actually believes woundedness- how others treat you-is a more serious problem than selfishness- how you treat others... Live for your relational comfort and your joy will be shallow and temporary. It will not free you to love. Live to know the truth of My story of forgiving love, and you will be deeply unsettled by how profoundly you need forgiveness. You will discover, slowly but surely, the power of My ongoing forgiveness and Presence to change you into a person who loves.

Wounded. Scarred. These are not things I like to think about on beautiful June days. Sometimes I'd rather paddle around those things, forgetting them, justifying my actions in them or complaining about the injustice and pain of it all, than to go through them. But the words- His Words- insist that I move through, not around, and that I accomplish His purpose for me in the journey. I cannot avoid the pain or His constant beckoning to go through it authentically with Him so that I can actually become like Him. So the words move me into it, changing me with each stroke, bringing me into the middle of it so that I can finally come out once and for all.

The change is good, and the only real thing. The only good thing. I love when Jesus said, "Why do you call me good? There is only one that's good and that's the Father." Goodness is not a real thing, it's a byproduct of something real. I liken it to the smell that comes from freshly baked chocolate chip cookies- it's just something that comes from the real thing. Sure it's nice, but without the cookie, there's nothing to substantiate it. This is why I hate cookie flavored candles and that sort of thing- without the real thing- the smell is mostly frustrating and sometimes a little sickening. Goodness is just like that. Goodness is a fruit of the Spirit- it's something that naturally occurs from an authentic relationship with Jesus Christ. Without the relationship, there's nothing to substantiate goodness, and, like the synthetic flavors in those candles- false goodness mostly just stinks and very often sickens me. Yet I want to be seen that way sometimes, you know? I want to be good. A good wife, a good American. A good teacher. A good Christian. But what an idiot I am to desire goodness. Who in their right mind says, "I want to smell a chocolate chip cookie?" No one. "I want to eat a chocolate chip cookie." Now that's another story.

But when my goodness is attacked, I feel so wounded. This year, people said I was not good. Not a good wife. Not a good teacher. Not a good Christian. And it wounded me. Terribly. I tried to react rightly- sometimes so that I would be seen as good- sometimes because Jesus told me to- sometimes because I thought I'd lose my mind if I didn't choose somewhere to stand on things. I'll let Jesus sort the motives out Himself- in any case, the whole mess of it- the attack on my "goodness" and my subsequent positioning here- in June- left me with a scar. A scar that I sometimes stare at disgusted. For so many months, I was fighting tooth and nail to keep myself, my marriage, my reputation among men- from that scar. I thought the scar was ugly, something I was never supposed to have. Never did it occur to me until these words that He put it there for a reason- that scars always have a purpose, a story, a truth and beauty- if we will just choose to see it. This is why He sends the words when He does, I think- because He knows when it's time to stop avoiding or denying and move forward with finality and purpose.

So I read those words and I realized that my goodness doesn't matter at all. That is something that I knew well once, but that I forgot and exchanged for the lie that goodness does matter- that it is, in fact, the most important way to attain worth. I believed that because I felt surrounded by people who believed that goodness was more important than truth, and wounds more sacred than scars. I believe that wounds are precious to Jesus sometimes, but since these Words, I am starting to see that it's the scar that contains the real beauty. Because the scar means that the wound has healed and that we've chosen not to waste our lives nurturing our pain, but instead have trusted and followed, forever changed, but more His than ever. Forgetting the wound means that I realize that my own pain is nothing in comparison with the pain that I am capable of inflicting-on Him and others- when I choose my selfishness over faith in Him. But even though I wound Him time and again because of my slavish devotion to me- He loves me enough to send me words, and tremendous bouts of joy, or patience or clarity. He loves me enough to remind me that I was never "worthy" or good, so why in His name did I ever get upset about people saying that I wasn't good? What difference does that make anyway? Do their words have ANYTHING at all to do with how He feels toward me? No. Not at all. But see, it's His Words that have pushed me out of the whirlpool of lies that said, "they have some say in how He feels about me." Praise God for Truth pushes me forward before my life capsizes under the pressure of lies like that.

It's June- a year of wounds are behind me- and I find myself realizing that the whole ordeal was a chance to experience truth and live like Him. I was talking to Him about this sometime between the paddle-stroke from Chris Cleave and the counter-stroke from Larry Crabb, and I asked Him if I had failed (to be honest, I already knew the answer.) You did fail, Meredith, He said. But somehow tenderly- not like He was angry or even all that disappointed, but just sort of sweetly sad that I had just now- a year later- realized that it was an opportunity from Him dressed up as an attack from others. I see it now. Through the scar, I see the truth. He never left me. He doesn't listen to lies. I don't have to either. And I should trust. I should forgive. I should love. Because that's what He's always doing for me and what He always wants to do through me. Scars-His scars- are the reminder that life with Him is sacrificial by nature. But there are no scars on the dying. He is alive. I will live too.

Our striving for goodness tells us to avoid scars in any shape, form or fashion. Hide them. Lie about them. Cover them up with something else. But scars save us. So wound me again- I will heal. There is nothing that can be done to me that He cannot take care of. And we'll agree- He and I- that those scars are a mark of our togetherness and that they are beautiful because it means that we are living- and we'll forgive and we'll love and the Words will keep moving us forward- together.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Sweet Baby Boy

Usually, when I come home for a visit, I'm excited to spend time with people I know really well. I don't usually think of Fayetteville as a place to meet new people. It's a place to enjoy the familiar and sink into relationships that are already broken in, and just enjoy them for a little while. But, this trip, there is one exception. There's a new man in my life, and I wanted to spend a little bit of intentional time getting to know him while I was here this summer. His name (I think) is John Palmer Kells and I'm told he is about the size of a banana at the moment. I've seen a picture or two of him, and from what I can tell, he's going to be a cutie. I won't officially know until October, but I know that to me and his very excited parents- he is already precious.

Since I won't be able to be here for any official showers to celebrate baby Kells, I wanted to do something special for Lacy while I was here, so our friend from college Tracey came up on Saturday for lunch and a little celebration. Where there is chocolate, there is a party, right? Here are some pics from the day.

I made these cupcakes, even though Lacy & John aren't 100% certain that baby boy is going to be named, "John Palmer." Maybe seeing the name on cupcake flags will help them become more certain. :)

Lacy has spent many hours at the pottery place downtown. She made me a complete set of dishes with mine and Andy's story written in Latvian for my wedding present- best Latvian gift ever. So when she wanted to spend some time painting pottery to hang on the walls in the nursery, how could I resist?

Lacy's picking out plates- nice side shot of the baby bump.

Lacy & Tracey got to work right away! I needed a little inspiration, so I looked through some books for ideas.

I found some owl pictures in one of the books and decided to have a try at painting an owl for John Palmer,since I love birds. I'm not an artist by any means, but this was fun and relatively easy.

Tracey painted this boat, which was perfect for her, since she's a Coastal Carolinian.

And this tree was done by John Palmer's very excited Momma.

Even though you can't see it in this picture, Lacy is, in fact, barefoot and pregnant.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Stories that Need to be Told- A grace-filled place

For some reason, this story has been on my mind for weeks now. I suppose I need to write it down, even though it's a story that doesn't make me sound too good. No matter. It's a good story about a good person and a good lesson that I needed to learn.

My Junior year of college, I took a religion course at NC State called Introduction to Christianity. My professor was a woman who looked to be in her early sixties, and I wish so much that I could remember her name. I remember her face and her salt and pepper hair, and the sound of her voice. I remember that she was a good teacher, the kind that made me think, even back then, that I was getting a great education for a steal.

I took her class in the fall. I remember watching the leaves begin to turn on Hillsborough street in late September, and I was filled with excitement. Not just because autumn was coming, but because my college boyfriend- who spent his summers guiding fly fishing trips in Alaska- was coming home soon. We'd dated for years and had plenty of ups and downs, but to this day, I still consider him one of the best friends I've ever had.

My professor wouldn't tell us her own religious background, something I recognized as a clever choice, given her audience- college students who would love to find any excuse to discount their instructor's teaching and blow the class off. She was smart and tough, and spoke accurately and truthfully about the Bible- as much as I could tell, anyway. I had been a Christian for about a year but I knew a good bit about the Bible. I liked her, especially when she debunked the then hot-topic of Mary Magdalene being Jesus' wife- thank you, Dan Brown. (who I greatly respect as a writer, but I think he must have made life hellacious for theologians) She had my respect, but I was young and excited to see my boyfriend, so I admit she didn't have all of my attention.

Though she wouldn't share her religious views with us, she did share a little bit about a personal problem she was going through that semester. Her mother was ill, and as the weeks dragged on, I could see that she was growing more and more weary. She missed class sometimes, and would inform us at our next meeting that her mother's health was digressing quickly. I remember feeling empathy for her, even through my lightning hot excitement in those final weeks of waiting in September and October. While my heart anticipated something good, hers anticipated something tragic, and I felt bad for her- but not bad enough to study as much as I could have.

But for all my anticipation of something sweet, I actually met with something sour in the end. When my boyfriend got home, I was crushed to find out he hadn't been truthful with me about some things. I was devastated- it wasn't the first time. We'd injured each other plenty of times- you do that when you're growing up together like we did, especially when the Lord is not in the right place in your relationship. But even so, this hurt surpassed anything I'd felt up until that point. I felt betrayed and I was distracted beyond reason. Disappointment and confusion enshrouded my mind- keeping anything good or worthwhile at bay for what seemed like weeks. In retrospect, I don't remember how long this lasted, but I remember that during that time, my professor encountered the full brunt of the storm in her life- her mother passed away.

With exams approaching, I had a final paper to turn in for my religion course, and try as I might, I could not stay focused. My emotions seemed to consume me. I gave them the freedom to choke the life out of any effort I put into anything. I let my emotions have a lot of control over things back then- something I'm glad that God has dealt with since then- even though it's been a painful and difficult process in my life. But at that point, I was floundering, and I felt like I had no choice but to tell my professor the truth- sort of.

I've said this before, but I had a root of deceitfulness born into me that nothing could uproot but the power of the blood. I could lie to anyone about anything at any time to try to keep my nose and my name clean. It was scary. Before I became a Christian, lying didn't really phase me. After I became a Christian, lying began to bother me a lot, but I still did it because the truth was terrifying to me. That's another thing God dealt with severely- and now I HATE lies with greater passion than I feared truth. At this point, even though I didn't like lies, I still told them. I was still living in a lot of fear.

So I felt bad about emailing my professor, who I respected and felt sorry for, and telling her a lie. But I did it anyway. I felt like if I told her the truth- that my boyfriend had lied to me and I was grieving over it and couldn't keep myself together- that she would tell me to just suck it up and finish my paper on time. So I beefed the truth up a little bit and told her that I had been engaged and my fiance had broken up with me. I thought the fiance thing made my heartbreak sound more legit. I asked if I could meet with her to discuss an extension for the giant paper that was due any minute. (Served me right, I guess, when my fiance really did break up with me years later and I had to go to work and be a human being no matter what).

We met in her office, and I can't remember much about the room itself, except that the light from her desk lamp was a soft yellow, but that even in the warmth of this hue, there was an almost tangible sadness that seemed to surround us. My professor had a subtle strength about her, but when I was with her alone in her office, I could feel the grief leaking through that shell of strength. She looked at me intently through tired eyes from the other side of her desk while I explained my "predicament." I remember hating the words that I was saying, even though, at the root, there was some truth. I was too heartbroken and lacking in self discipline to finish on time. I needed mercy. But I remember HATING that I had exaggerated the situation to make her feel sorrier for me. As I looked at her, I thought, "I am scum. You deserve better than this. Your mother just died, for goodness sake." I said something that conveyed those feelings to some extent because I distinctly remember saying that I was so sorry to bother her with this after the loss of her mother. But she just looked at me with an excruciatingly honest expression and said, "Hey, loss is loss." She gave me an extension, and I walked out of that office both ashamed and amazed, fully aware that I had just been in a place absolutely overflowing with both sadness and grace.

Years later, I repented of my habitual lying. Afterward, I went back to some of the people I lied to and told them the truth about things. And if I could find this professor, I would do the same. I've tried. I can't find her. So maybe that's why I feel like I need to tell her story. Because she so beautifully embodied Christ-like grace to me. At a time when she could have easily given in to her own sadness and no one would have thought the less of her, she tenderly and quickly extended mercy without question- when I most certainly did not deserve it. "Loss is loss." I will never forget those words.

I've been thinking about this story this afternoon, and reflecting on the impact it had- she had- on my life. Because I didn't deserve grace. I was an emotional wreck, I lacked discipline, I was a liar, and thinking back on it, it was profoundly disrespectful to lie to her, especially in her time of grief. But she gave it so freely, without question or requirement. And her grace made me hate the bad things I was guilty of, and desire to become better.

This past year, I was in emotional pain and I was not lying about it. I went to someone with that pain and rather than meeting grace, I was told that I was "overly sensitive." That response, which seemed so void of grace, caused me to grow angry and I wrestled with greater sin because of it. When I consider these two experiences, I believe they illustrate an important principle: When we enter a grace-filled place, the blessings we receive are more likely to cause us to mourn for our sins and desire greater good. But when we encounter a place where grace is absent, fear takes over and all other forms of sin are encouraged to grow.

At the end of the semester, my professor told her students her denominational affiliation and position in ministry. I think, had she told me at the beginning of the semester, I would have discounted her in my arrogant foolishness. But in December I knew, without doubt, that this woman, regardless of her position and/or denomination, was most definitely a minister of God's grace. And I will always consider that lamp-lit office of hers, one of the saddest and most beautiful grace-filled places I have ever been.