love is my miracle

27 years ago today, Andy and I were married in little hilltop church in Kentucky. 

The bridesmaids wore tea-length royal blue dresses with big puffy sleeves.  I wore self-made ivory satin, overlaid with hand-beaded lace.  My hair was not as big as I wanted it to be on that June day in 1987; in retrospect, a great mercy. 

I loved Andy then, I really did.  And he loved me, too.  He really did.  But we were barely into our 20’s, and as sweet as the day was, we didn’t have a clue. 

 photo:  Andy Bruner

photo:  Andy Bruner

Like Paul says in the famous love chapter of I Corinthians 13, I was a child and I understood as a child.

When it came to love, I didn’t know I would need anything more than nice.  I'll be nice to you, you be nice to me, and we'll be just fine.  That's what I thought.

But it turned out that Love was more than nice, and "just fine" was really not the plan God had.

Love is so much more, and it does so much more.

Love is strong, and passionate about justice.

Love doesn’t just let the mess have its horrible way.

Love doesn’t give up. 

Love is vulnerable, but in the fiercest way:  digging deep, pulling out the pain, living real.

Love is the truth. 

Love doesn’t live in lies. 

Love doesn’t need to pretend or deny. 

Love rejoices in the truth. 

Because the truth, no matter how difficult, sets us free, and that’s what Love came to do.

Love wins our freedom, and so it never overrides our free will. 

It waits and it hopes and endures.  

Love lets us choose.  

And it keeps on loving, no matter what.

Love, for me, has been the great healing force of my life. 

When there was no way, Love made a way.

Love found us where we were, and it did not leave us there alone. 

And that is a miracle to celebrate every single day.

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the embracing cross

This past February, Andy and I went to Italy.  We walked, we ate pasta, we drank wine, we looked at lots of art.

We went to Florence:

 "David" by Michelangelo, at the Accademia

"David" by Michelangelo, at the Accademia

We went to Venice:

 "Paradise" by Tintoretto, at the Doge's Palace:  the largest canvas in the world

"Paradise" by Tintoretto, at the Doge's Palace:  the largest canvas in the world

We went to Rome:

 Sistine Chapel Ceiling by Michelangelo, at the Vatican

Sistine Chapel Ceiling by Michelangelo, at the Vatican

Now, I love art.  Going to museums and art galleries is absolutely my idea of a good time.  But, in Italy, after one whole day, I was overwhelmed.  

We were in Florence, and we'd been at the Accademia to visit David at 8 a.m., then walked around a town where there's an elaborately decorated church on every corner and sculptures tossed into every nook and cranny.  

We wound up at the Uffizi Gallery that afternoon, looking at the work of one master after another.  Botticelli, Titian, Raphael, Caravaggio, Michelangelo--all stacked in, floor to ceiling, because there just aren't enough walls to mount everything side by side.  Oh, and over in the corner there?  That angel was painted by da Vinci.

I felt like my eyeballs were going to explode, bludgeoned to death by art.  

There was JUST SO MUCH OF IT.

Lately, I have felt bludgeoned by religion, too, because in my world, there is just so much of it.  

Now, I love God.  Thinking about God and his grace and how He loves and redeems is absolutely my idea of a good time.  I care deeply about my faith and how to live it out.  

But honestly, I get overwhelmed with religious stuff.  Think this, believe that, put your hand up for this, keep it down for that, and how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? 

Sometimes I think it's a good thing that the disciples didn't have social media.  Imagine the "who's going to be greatest in the kingdom" Twitter blood bath.  

I don't care too much any more about anybody's perfectly parsed 24-hour-day antifluvanomian justifisanctional middispensationalism.

I've gotten to the place where I just look to see how somebody's great theology ends up treating people.  

You say you're speaking for God?  

Here's my one question:  how do you treat people?  That's all I want to know.

If you treat people badly, I'm not much interested in what Scripture Clearly Says to you.

Jesus said it this way:  "You'll know the Real Deal by the Real Fruit."  (Matthew 7:15-20)

If God is love, and we're the branches of that vine, then we have to be love, too.

Pretty simple, I think.

So, a week after that day in Florence, we were in Rome, at the Vatican.  I was pretty wigged out on art and religion by that point, but there was no way I was going to leave Italy without taking a look at the Sistine Chapel.  

The Vatican, though, is like IKEA.  They know you only want that one chair from the kitchen department, but they are going to make you walk past every cushion and pillow and floor lamp in the place, just in case you find something else cute on the way.

Like this fabulous camel.  Totally on the wish list.

By the time we finally got to the Sistine Chapel, I could completely understand why Michelangelo had painted himself into the Last Judgment as a flayed skin.  I felt like if I saw another 8-foot-tall cherub or embalmed Holy Father, I was going to shriek. 

Then we came around a corner and found this, in a little alcove, all by itself:

 Vatican Museum

Vatican Museum

The Embracing Cross, it's called.

It's Love.

Simple.

Direct.

Unadorned.

The ultimate statement of theology:  God loves us so desperately, that He is willing to die for love of us. 

While we are sinners.  

Before we get it all just right. 

Before other people have gotten it just right, He loves them, too.

And when I don't know what God wants me to do about all the pain and suffering and insanity of the world?  

This, I think, is the cross I'm called to carry:  the embracing cross.

To know this one thing:  God loves me this much, and so I must love others.

Most days, I don't know anything more than that.

And, strangely, it seems to be enough.

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and they lived egalitarianly ever after

It's funny how Andy and I ended up in an egalitarian marriage.  We didn't do it on purpose.

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We were both raised in traditional, conservative Christian households, where the assumption was man=leader, woman=follower.

We had been told, "This is God's design for marriage."  We thought it was true, and we tried to make it work.

Andy was supposed to be the stalwart, adventuresome spiritual leader.  On the inside, he felt young and scared and incompetent.  

But it was wrong to be that way, so he covered it up.

I was supposed to be meek and submissive and to let my husband do the talking for me.  On the inside, I was mad because I had important things to say, and I couldn't figure out what I was supposed to do with the brain God gave me.  

But it was wrong to be that way, and my anger turned into depression.

It looked fine on the outside, because we both knew how to  play the game.  But our insides were way different from our outsides.

Andy was looking at pornography, and I was getting suicidal.

After we got deeply, painfully, agonizingly real with each other, our relationship grew into something completely different.

We learned Andy was not strong all the time.  He needs love and attention and reassurance and care, just like I do.  

We learned that my voice is a valuable gift, and not something to be locked inside my head.  I need respect and affirmation of my gifts and abilities, just like he does.

We found that real unity is what we wanted, not role-playing.

And as we experienced that real unity, we both discovered the incredible freedom that comes with being loved and accepted and celebrated for exactly who you are.  

We ended up egalitarian, and now we wouldn't have it any other way.

I know there are individual proof texts telling wives to submit.  But there are also individual proof texts telling us to have our heads covered, telling slaves to submit to masters, and telling us not to eat bacon.  We're good at picking and choosing.

The scriptures say things like, if the Son has set you free you are free indeed (John 8:36).  And:  you're free, so don't get tangled up in slavery again (Galatians 5:1).

So God would make me free, but then my husband would somehow be designed and called by God to curtail that freedom?  

I don't see how that works.  

So I've gone out of the individual proof-texting business and I'm going with a model that seems to fit the bigger picture of scripture, and also the joyful life I have.

The question that people ask is this:  "Who makes the final decision when you disagree?"

Answer:  NOBODY.

Our unity matters to us way more than any decision.

99.9% of decisions just don't matter all that much.  We decide together, and sometimes one of us has a stronger opinion, so we go that way.  No big deal.  Happy to do it. 

If we have gotten to a place where we are so divided that "somebody" has to make a final decision that we can't both agree with?  Our unity is in deep trouble, and we will backtrack, regroup, and work it forward.

Here's another thing to know.  

This kind of unity doesn't fall down in a shower of rain.  It doesn't happen accidentally, automatically, or overnight.  We wept bitter tears and sweated blood for it.  We spend time on it every single day, because we are not letting go of it. 

But it's worth it, so worth it, and we love living egalitarianly ever after.

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one thing i know for sure about parenting

I felt pretty confident as a parent when I was younger.  This I attribute to a number of factors.

  • I was 23 years old and I didn't have a clue.  Ignorance was, as they say, bliss.
  • I was the eldest of 7 children.  There was always a baby in the house.  I knew what to do with little kids.  Feed, change, sleep, repeat.  Snuggle, read books, play, repeat.
  • I thought that if you did everything right, then your kids would turn out right.  (Having failed, apparently, to check out the first few chapters of Genesis where God parents the first two humans and they go completely off the rails.)

Now I'm 47, and in the process of all this parenting, I have become a whole lot less confident of my capacity to make things work out right, because:

  • I don't have as much control as I wish I did.
  • My kids all came standard with free will.  Part of the factory installation package.
  • The whole big, broken world full of pain and sorrow is out there, and I can't keep it from hurting my babies.

Don't get me wrong, there's a bunch of stuff I think is important, when it comes to parenting.

Do justice.  Love mercy.  Walk humbly.

Apologize.  Laugh.  Rest.

Balance that freedom and responsibility thing with your kids, one developmental stage at a time.

And, while you're spinning all those plates:  deal with your own junk.

(Maybe you're not sure if you have junk that needs to be dealt with, but this is your lucky day.  I have created a handy-dandy assessment tool that will let you know, for sure, if you have junk or not.  Here it is:  Are you a human being?  If the answer is yes, then you have junk.  If the answer is no, welcome to our planet and enjoy your stay.)

But at the end of the day, my perfect parenting (which exists only the realm of pure fantasy) guarantees pretty much zippola.

My kids get to choose.

And other people get to choose.

And all those things collide out there in the real world.

Which leaves me in a place that sometimes feels pretty scary.

But, in the process of learning that my parenting capacity is woefully limited, I have experienced this other one whole beautiful thing, for sure.

Here it is.

1.  God is at work, and His love never fails.

When I have failed as a parent.

When my kids have made bad choices.

When other people have made bad choices.

No matter what.

God is at work, and His love never fails.

This is one of those things that we know to be true in our heads, because the Bible tells us so.

But I've also found it to be true in my heart these past few years.  I've lived through it now, and I know that I know that I know.

The best and most amazing transformations, both in my own life and the lives of my children?  Those have come when I could not.  

When I could not do one more thing.

I had tried and tried and tried and fixed and fixed and fixed and I just could not.

And then God.

(This probably surprises one whole person.  Me.)

I'm thinking about this now, because tomorrow is college move-in day.

And I just need to remind myself of what I know for sure.

God has been at work.  He will be at work.  

His love never fails.

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the summer of being-with

This has been the summer of being-with. Being with my children.

Being with my husband.

I planned it that way on purpose.  My nest is emptying, and I want it to empty well.

The best way I know, to do things well, is to spend time together and build connection.

So being-with has been Priority 1 all summer long:  to laugh together, to be in awe of beauty together, to work on projects together, to have important conversations together.

To celebrate the now, to wear around the truth that we can still be connected, even when  we don't live in the same household any more.

To get a glimpse of what lies ahead besides uncertainty and goodbye.

Today, 10 days before college move-in day, this prayer of St. Augustine resonates with me:

I behold how some things pass away that others may replace them, but Thou dost never depart, o God, my Father, supremely good.  Beauty of all this beautiful, to Thee I will entrust whatsoever I have received from Thee, and so I shall lose nothing.

But in the summer of being-with, there's also a sense of waiting for the quiet that will come at the end of summer.  When we drive back up the trail of tears (aka I-35), when the new uniforms are donned, and the front door slams, and it's me and the dogs again, most days.

I have a feeling that I'm going to need what Anne Morrow Lindbergh says:

Sinking down through the upper layers of articulateness--leaving them behind--through thoughts--through emotions--down to where everything is dark and still and formless.  I feel I must sink to the bottom of the well before I can be renewed or creative again.

Because, while it's been a great summer, and pretty much the summer I planned and hoped for, it's also been an extrovert's summer, all this being-with.

And at the end of it all, I'm looking forward to another kind of being-with.

Being with me.

I need to be with myself.  

To be still.  To breathe.  To listen to love.

To process things in the ways that make sense uniquely to me.

And in the end, to be grateful for all I have received, and to trust for the goodness yet to be.

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why do I write?

I ask myself this question sometimes, during all the hours I spend at this computer desk. Why do I write?  What is this about?

And there are a bunch of reasons, I think.

I write because I can.  It's just a thing I can do.  It's not always easy or fun, but at the end of the day, I write because I can.  I can't do math, and please don't ask me to fix anything with moving parts.  But I can write.

I write because it helps me process.  My head is like the inside of a refrigerator.  There may be all kinds of stuff in there, but until you open the door and the light comes on, you have no idea what you've got.  And for me, writing turns the light on, helps me figure out what I've got.

I write because writing helps me make meaning out of the mess.  God redeems.  And writing about all the ways He redeems helps me participate in the redemption.  It's not always easy to put the bad, the mean, and the ugly out there for everybody to see.  But the point of it is not that life is hard and things are broken (although this is often the case).  The point is that God redeems.  I've seen that in my life, and I get to say so by writing about it.

I write because writing connects me to other people.  I love putting something up on the blog, and having somebody say, "Thanks.  I needed that today."  I can't be everywhere that my friends are.  But the internet can.  And that's pretty cool.

So primarily, I write and publish here on the blog.  (Thanks for reading!)

I've been able to guest-post a couple of times this year at Covenant Eyes, and also at A Life Overseas.

Right now, I have a short article up at CausePub called Love in a Green Skirt.  I'd love for you to click over there, read, and even vote if you want.  (It's the story of one of my favorite God-moments, when He showed up for me on the beach, wearing a green skirt, some tattoos, and not much more.)

But the big thing I've been working on these last few months is--deep breath--a memoir of my life overseas, depression, and recovery.  Untitled and first-drafted, as of yesterday.  I'm already thinking of stories I left out and madly second-guessing everything I put in.  But it's a first draft.  And I'm really happy to have something that feels (somewhat) complete.

I'm putting this out here today mostly as an accountability thing.  Because ever since I told Andy that it was done and let him read it, I've been freaking out.  And I think that unless I say something about it here, it will get no farther than a couple of good friends and my kids' Christmas stockings.

So, that's me being brave for today.

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how much good does it take?

How much good does it take, to offset all the gunk?   I wonder this for my clients.  For all the wounded people who come in with a world of hurt and a pack of lies eating them up inside.

How many times will I need to say, "You're a person of value.  Your voice counts.  Your opinion matters.  You get to choose."

And I wonder this for myself.

How much will I need to hear that I'm loved and accepted, before I stop doubting and wondering and slamming the door?

I know these things are true, but how long is it going to take, to get it through my thick head?

Of course, people have studied this positive-to-negative ratio, and it turns out that about three positive comments to one negative is what you need for minimal functioning, at least for a team in the business world.  The actual number is 2.9013--it's called the Losada Line, in honor of Marcial Losada, who did the research.

If you happen to want a high-functioning team, you need 5.6 positive comments for every single negative one.

Interestingly enough, John Gottman came up with a similar number when he researched married couples.  He found that couples need 5 positive remarks for every negative remark as well.  And, Gottman found that couples who got divorced had a ration of .777 to 1.  I think that translates into four negative comments for three positives.  At least .777 and 1 are almost the same, right?  (If my math skills have not failed me yet today.)

You don't even have to be overwhelmingly negative.  You can just be pretty equally negative and positive, and that's a bad place to live.  Toxic to your marriage.

(Of course there are other factors involved, and maybe the negative comments are just the 4th horseman of the apocalypse, but you'd have to read Gottman's fabulous book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work to figure it out.  There's your link, straight to Amazon.  Go buy it now.)

This is pretty disheartening to me some days.  I feel like there's no way to pile up enough good words to block the tsunami of garbage that comes our way.

But I'm kind of hoping that I can count more than just straight-out words on the positive side.  

Because Scripture does say that the heavens declare the glory of God, and that every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father of Light.

So the positive words help a lot.  They really do.

"God delights in me."  I'm going on live on those four words for the rest of my life, I think.

And these words from Brennan Manning:  "Define yourself radically as one Beloved by God.  This is the true self.  Every other identity is illusion."

But I'm going to count the good gifts like chocolate, and Jimmy John's #6 Vegetarian, and walks on the beach, and Widor's Toccata, and sunsets and stars, and my crazy little poodly dogs.  Travel to faraway places and the ever-changing beauty of the earth.  Crepe myrtles and sages and lantana that bloom even though it's 100 degrees outside.

All the people I love, and who love me back, in ways that heal and comfort and sustain me.

The time and the prayers and the tears and the laughter.

I'm counting all that.

When I acknowledge and revel in every single bite and drop of blessing, when I let all the good stuff in, when I stop blocking it with being scared of vulnerability and loss of control.

Because, a door is a door.  When I keep everything locked down safe and tight, I may keep out some bad stuff, but I also lock out the good stuff.

When I open myself to the whole package, believing that God is good all the time and that He loves me, no matter what.

Then, the numberless blessings.  

They are goodness enough for all the gunk.

For all of us.

(I did what passes for research here on Wikipedia, by the way.  Since I am such a scholar.  http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Positivity/negativity_ratio)

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it never hurts to be vulnerable

I heard my husband say this to one of our kids on the phone a couple of days ago: "It never hurts to be vulnerable."

(Things I Love About My Husband, Number 4,682)

We talked about it later, and I said, "But that's why we're not vulnerable.  Because we're afraid that it will hurt us."

And we talked about the fear we have of losing a relationship if we say something that might not be acceptable to the other person.

What if we hit that person's hot button on politics or abortion or homosexuality or gun control?

What if we use a word they don't like?

What if they want something and we don't?

What if we're vulnerable, and they reject us?

We concluded that if we're not vulnerable, we don't have a real relationship anyway.  

We might have the illusion of a relationship.  

But it's not a real relationship, if we can't be vulnerable and still be acceptable.

Mike Yaconelli puts it like this:  "People who pretend, have pretend relationships."

So.  If you want real, it never hurts to be vulnerable.

But.  If you haven't had a lot of practice being vulnerable, or if there is something you experience as deep and dark and shameful, and if you've gotten a lot of messages from your nearest and dearest about how important it is to be perfect--well, being vulnerable can feel like a big huge leap into the abyss.

Pretend relationships seem like better than no relationships, when we're standing on the edge of that cliff.

And this is where I would say, find somebody who is safe and start to be vulnerable.  

For many of us, a safe place for vulnerability might be a counselor or a pastor or a close friend.  It could be a Celebrate Recovery group, Alcoholics Anonymous, or AlAnon.

Some of us have tried being vulnerable, only to have it blow up in our faces.

We got told to read our Bibles more.  To pray better.  To just stop it, because Christians don't do those things.

And here is another genius thought from my husband.

He says what if you had a leaky toilet, and you got a handyman to come and fix it.  But instead of fixing it, he made it worse and left you with a geyser in your bathroom instead of a simple little leak.

You would not conclude that toilets could not be fixed.

You would conclude that the guy was an idiot, and then call in somebody reputable.

But when it comes to emotional stuff, when we reach out for help and find ourselves dealing with idiots (and there are lots of them out there, so it's inevitable), somehow we conclude that nobody could possibly love and accept us, and that our emotional world is broken beyond hope of redemption, and we must die lost and alone.  (We catastrophize in these situations, you know we do.)

Of course emotional risks are the big ones.

But they are also the most rewarding, when they pay off.  And I think the pay off is worth trying--again and again and again, if you have to--until you find other people who get it.

Who are sick of pretend.

Who want to be real.

Who know that it never hurts to be vulnerable.

Because the weird thing about vulnerability is that it seems like weakness at the time, admitting how bad things are.  But once you've told the truth, the lies don't control you any more.  There's freedom.  Power.

The truth sets you free.  

Somebody said that once, and it appears to actually be true.

Over the past couple of years, I have developed a teensy little addiction to TED Talks.  A couple of my favorites are Brene Brown's talks on vulnerability and shame.  She's funny, she's real, she's so worth listening to.  So here you go.  (One of my favorite lines is, "We're falling apart and it feels great!")

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCvmsMzlF7o]

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=psN1DORYYV0]

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i can't make you love me

Why does a good God let bad things happen? And if He lets bad things happen, is He really good?

And if He lets these bad things happen, and theoretically/theologically He is good, why would we want to hang out with Him anyway?

We dance around these question all the time in counseling, and in life.

They're hard to get out into the open, if you grew up religious like I did.  (I'm sitting here feeling really anxious right now, I'll confess.)

But the thing is, some of my clients are braver than me when it comes to telling and yelling and cussing out the pain of the bad things they've endured, and a God who's inexplicably absent.

And I have to sit there and say, "I have a theological construct for this, but I bet you already know what it is," and sure enough they can quote chapter and verse.

But the knowledge in their heads doesn't do much for the hurt in their hearts.

They are just pissed.  And confused.  And feeling like they, and their pain, should matter more to God.  It feels like He should fix it, if He can.  And He doesn't.  And the theological constructs become an insult to the pain that just won't quit.

So I sit and listen and sometimes I cry.  And they go home.  And I go home.

Sandra Martin, a wise lady I know, said just this morning:  "We are offended by process.  We prefer miracles."

Yeah.

I know best how this world should be run:  my way.  My miracle, just the way I want it, on demand.

And sure, I hear the offense, the demand, the arrogance--the rank stupidity, let's be honest--that lives inside me when I say this.

But it is so stinkin' hard to let go of what I think is best, and to receive God's provision in the meantime.

Or even to see that there is a provision, if I'm mad enough.

My supervisor was talking about the incomprehensible interaction between the sovereignty of God and the free will of humanity--that wilderness where promises are made, and only 400 years later, fulfilled.  And then not in a way anybody expected or understood or even much noticed at the time.

He said (here comes the theoretical construct) that God wants us to love Him of our own free will.  And He wants that so much that here we all are today, with the consequences of thousands of years of free will--ours and everybody else's--run completely amok.

Waiting for That Day.

I guess we can mostly see this on the good days, when the sun is shining and the kids are healthy and we're fresh from a day at the beach.  When the consequences are not so noticeable.  But when it's dark and there's a Diagnosis and we don't think we will survive to see the goodness of God in the land of the living--well.  Those days are another story.

My kids play this Bon Iver cover of Bonnie Raitt's "Nick of Time" around the house some days.  (When it's played at our house, it's played full-blast.  So if you hit the play button below, crank it up to get the right effect.)

And today, Bon Iver has been ringing around in my head as maybe what God would sing to me:  His longing for me to love Him.

His willingness to lay down the control, and to let me love Him only if I choose.

Not as a theological construct.

Not as an explanation to stick in my head.

But as a cry from the heart of the Lover of my soul.

"I can't make you love me."  (Well, He could, but He won't.)

And today, anyway, it's been good for me to shut up with my arrogance and my demands and my need for a miracle, my way.

And just to listen to the One who loves me, and refuses to force my heart.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q3VjaCy5gck]

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