the 6 gifts of failure

Ten years ago, our marriage failed.  The way we had designed it was a disaster, and it collapsed.   In the aftermath, we were able to build something completely new together, and that's been amazing and wonderful.  I love the relationship we have now. The happy ending is great, but lately I've been thinking about what God did in the mess itself.   He didn't just wave a magic wand and make it go away.  He used the mess to teach me, and He gave me these gifts through failure.

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to cuss or not to cuss

To cuss or not to cuss, this is the question. In my last post, I substituted the word "behonky" for...someotherword.  And then I started to wonder why.

Why wouldn't I just say that word over here on the blog?  Discretion?  (As one of kind friend suggested.)  Fear?  (Which was my first guess.)  What?

I really don't have a problem with cussing.  I think calling certain words bad words or cuss words is, by and large, a cultural construct.

I mean, why can I say "dam" but not "damn"?  I can call a donkey an ass, right out loud in church.  But my sitter downer?  Nope.  Behonky it is.

There are words that some people think are cuss words, and other people think are fine.  Ask my husband.  He says the word "crap" is a cuss word.  Just as bad as that other cuss word.  Both of which just mean poop anyway.  Which, as far as I know, is perfectly fine to say?  If not, I'm sure y'all will let me know.

Some days I come home carrying a whole bunch of bad stuff, and the nice, acceptable, sanitized words are just not sufficient to express the horror.  And that's when I go to cussing.  And crying in my bathtub.

I know the Bible talks about cursing, but as far as I can tell, cursing is contrasted to blessing.  We're being told to bless and not curse.  Use our words to help other people, and not to hurt them.  Don't do violence to other people with your words, your hands, your life.  This is way bigger than a cussing verse.  It's an abuse verse.

The kind of cussing I'm talking about (like, poopy only, you know, more so) isn't about abusing other people.  It's about describing the harsh realities of life.  Poop, both in reality and metaphorically, is a huge part of it.  These things happen.  They are bad.

And "bad" is a wormy little word with practically no meaning.  And certainly no shock value for the shockingly terrible things that happen in this world.  I need somewhere else to go, linguistically speaking.

As a writer and a thinker and a human being, I want to own the language and use it to express what I experience.  Why can't the bad words be mine?  The bad experiences sure are.

A few years ago, a dear friend of mine stood beside me on one of the worst days of my life and said, "This sucks."  Ten years later, I still remember those two words (one baddish) as one of the best things anybody ever said to me.  I'd call that blessing, and not cursing.  But I know people who would wash their kids' mouths out with soap for saying "this sucks."

I feel a fair amount of freedom in this area.  I really do.

So why don't I just go ahead and cuss on the blog?

Well, mainly I think that if I go ahead and throw one out there, then that one word is what many of my readers will hear, and the rest of the message will get obliterated by concern over that one word.  I can get in all the cussing I need on my own time.  I don't need to make other people crazy with it.  We have bigger fish to fry here.  And I can live with that.

But I realized, while thinking this through, that cussing is a very personal and important freedom for me.  It represents acceptance.  Sounds crazy, I know.  Bear with me.

I jumped/fell/got pushed off the perfect bandwagon a few years ago.  Before that, I was always having to be careful about everything, because so many many many things were bad and unacceptable and potentially loaded with judgment and punishment.

When perfection got me worse than nowhere, I decided to give grace a chance.  I started telling things like they were.  There was cussing.  Because it was just so bad, there were no other words.

The grace thing seemed to work out pretty well between God and me.  God got it, and He loved me all the time.  Even when life was cuss-worthy, and I said so.

After a while, I started wondering if other people could have that kind of grace for me, too.  To call poop poop when life was poopy.

And that's when the cussing went just a little bit public.  Just with the people I really wanted to be close to.  Not because I wanted to offend my nearest and dearest.  But because cussing is a quick and easy test.   If I can't cuss with you, I'm going to have to censor everything else too.  It's good for me to know that up front.

Can you handle who I really am?  What I really think?  How I really feel?  

Is it OK to be myself, even if I'm a little bit ugly?  Am I acceptable to you when I am less than perfect?

Or do I have to spend all my time figuring out what your rules are, so you won't be offended by my pain, my anger, my mistakes, my imperfections?

Those are the real questions.

And to my loveys, well, y'all know the cussing is the snowflake on the very tippy top of the ice berg.  And somehow you manage to love me anyway.

And, with your love, things are significantly less poopy.  Maybe, at some point, I will need less of the cuss words.  Thank you for your patience, meanwhile. You are grace to me.

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butterfly soup

We all know what happens to slimy, grubby, little caterpillars.  They eat a lot (all us parents are real clear on this one, thanks to Eric Carle), spin cocoons by the light of the moon, and emerge as Very Beautiful Butterflies. birdwing butterfly, Madang, Papua New Guinea, by Andy Bruner, 2001

What I never knew, until a few years ago, is what happens inside the cocoon.

If I thought about it at all, I figured it was caterpillar spa world:  a little massage, sauna, and hot tub, drink your cucumber water, swipe your credit card, you're done.

The reality, of course, is far more complicated.  And I would pass out in 2 minutes if I really had to try to understand it, so I went to my friend Wikipedia, who generally puts things in terms I can comprehend.  This is what Wikipedia says about butterflies and cocoons:

In the life of an insect the pupal stage follows the larval stage and precedes adulthood (imago). It is during the time of pupation that the adult structures of the insect are formed while the larval structures are broken down. Pupae are inactive, and usually sessile (not able to move about). They have a hard protective coating and often use camouflage to evade potential predators.

Pupation may last weeks, months or even years.

Did you catch this?  The adult structures of the insect are formed while the larval structures are broken down.  A source I read a while back called it "mitochondrial stew."

Here's what happens in the cocoon:  butterfly soup.

And that doesn't sound good me.

Even though I may be slimy and and grubby and small, the caterpillar life looks pretty good, when pupation is my next option.  

I do not go there gladly.  Kicking and screaming, more like.

We don't want to be broken down and remade.  We don't want to be inactive.  We don't want to be helpless against predators.  We don't want to be in a process that may last weeks, months, or (merciful heavens) years.

You know what Job said:  "The thing that I feared has come upon me."  (Job 3:25)

Yeah.

But.

God promises us that He is making all things new.  (Revelation 21:5)

And it seems like He is committed to our healing and our wholeness in a way that we are really not.

We'd like to be better, but we'd like to control it on the way.

And God says, "I have better things for you that your little caterpillar brain can imagine.  Enter in."

Coming undone is how we get remade.

For our slimly larval selves, on the journey to imago and adulthood, pupation is part of the process.

Unless a grain of wheat fall.

So.

No matter what.

No matter how soupy, no matter how stuck, no matter how long.

We trust in Love.  We trust in Grace.  We trust in Home eventually.

Where are you in the process?  

What's your cocoon look like today?

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I put my hand over my mouth

I am not especially good at living with paradox.  It's too disorganized for me.  By definition, there are no straight answers or to-do lists.  I want to think it all through, box it up with the correct label, and put it in storage.  But it just won't stay. Lately I've been spending a lot of time with people in pain.  I guess that's what counseling is anyway.  But I've also started volunteering as a chaplain at our local hospital.  And so I spend a lot of time being with people who are wrestling with sickness and pain and even death in an immediate way.

I keep running up against this problem.  People God loves, who are in pain.  People God loves, who suffer injustice and abuse.  And it just makes me kind of crazy.

So a couple of weeks ago, I was supposed to arrange a lesson for our Sunday School class but then I forgot and so at the last minute I grabbed this Rob Bell video called "Whirlwind."  It's about the book of Job.

Job, the man whose life epitomizes pain and suffering and loss.  Everything he values is taken from him.  In one horrendous incident after another, he loses his wealth, his family, his health.  Then his friends show up to tell him that "Everything happens for a reason.  God is good, so if bad things are happening to you, it must be your fault.  If you'd just admit what you did wrong, this mess would fix itself."

After 36 chapters, God finally responds, but He doesn't give a point-by-point sermon on the theology of suffering.  Instead, He composes a poem about the wonder of nature.  Around 100 verses of it.  He starts off with the sea and the clouds and the dawn and the light and the snow and the rain and the stars.  And then He goes into the lioness and the ravens and the mountain goat and wild donkeys and oxen and ostriches and horses and hawks and the hippopotamus and crocodile.

Here's the thing Rob Bell does in "Whirlwind" that just gets me in the heart.  He quotes it all.

When you read it in your head--well, when I read it in my head--it's so easy to skim and skip and try to get to the point.

But when Rob Bell quotes it all out loud, it's an overwhelming barrage, a verbal landslide.  And by the time he gets to the ostrich, I'm saying, "Stop, stop, I'm still trying to figure out the raven!"

Which is exactly the point.

"I put my hand over my mouth."

There are billions of things I just don't know.  I don't know when the mountain goat is going to give birth.  I sure don't know why so many bad things happen to good people.

I know Creation groans.  I know it's horrible and I hate it.

And somehow, somehow--I know.  I know, for sure, that my Redeemer lives.

And lately I have started to think that what I'm really being called to do is to live in the paradox.  To experience this pain and this hope together, without trying to quantify it or explain it.  Which, it seems to me, is way harder and more exhausting than my preferred box-it-up-and-label-it method.

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transition sucks

Transition sucks. I have been thinking about this for several days now, and I'm not sure there is much more to say about transition than this:  it sucks.

I know people have written big long books about it.  And they're probably good books.  Of course information is a helpful thing--knowing what to expect, if there are different stages, if there are certain things you can do to manage it.

But essentially, transition is a grief process.  There's a lot of loss on the way to the new normal.  Loss, by definition, is going to be painful.  And you just can't completely control that.  Anybody who says otherwise is selling something.  Probably their book.

It's OK to be sad.  Even really, really sad.  It's OK to be weak.  Even really, really weak.

I know sadness and weakness are horrible feelings.  I hate them myself.  But when God says, "My power shows up best in weak people"--well, I think there's something to that.

I remember having that experience, living overseas, when I was so DONE that I couldn't even get out of bed.  I was in a profoundly difficult transition between the way life used to be, and the way life would need to be afterward.  I just lay there in my grief and pain, and somehow knew that God was there, loving me.

I had no framework for the idea that I could be completely useless and completely loved.  But it happened anyway.  I had that experience that Ephesians 3 talks about--experiencing the love of God, even though it is so great I can't understand it.

And then...well, it still took a while for me to change the way I lived.  I think I have a tendency to be a human bop-bag.  Knock me down with the truth, and I will bounce right back up to be stupid with lies again.  I can look back over a 10-year period of my life and see that same pattern over and over and over again.

It finally, finally got through to me a year or so later.  I was at this retreat at a church in Austin, bawling my eyes out in front of this pastor and saying, "When will it ever be enough?"  And this man looked at me and said, "It is enough already."  Words straight from God to me.

I think I had been in a process--probably my whole adult life--leading up to that moment to finally be ready to hear that I don't have to do one thing more.  God loves me.  And I can just be who I am, where I am, and He loves me.

Even if I have been in this place before.  Even if I should be able to look ahead and know that it's going to be worth it in the end.  Even if I feel like I should have this figured out so it won't bother me so much.  Even if other people think I should be managing it better, more gracefully, more spiritually.

Today, in my pain and in my confusion and in the constant transition that is my life, Jesus loves me, this I know.   I am weak, but He is strong.

Transition sucks.  And God is good.  All the time.

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Easter Monday

The Chronicles of Narnia are my favorite books in the world.  They were the first books I ever bought with my own money, when I was in 7th grade.  I have read them aloud to my own children so much that they can predict the passages where I will cry while reading. Reepicheep's speech about going down with his nose pointed East.  A stable that's bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.  Further in and higher up.

But most of all, where Aslan un-dragons Eustace.

Eustace, as you know, was the kid nobody liked.  He wandered off while being bratty, and found a dragon's treasure cave.  He fell asleep in the cave and woke up a dragon.  Which was fun for a while, until it wasn't any more.

Then he tried to un-dragon himself, but he couldn't.  Finally Aslan came, slashed off the dragon skin, and threw Eustace into a pool of clear water to grow a new skin.

So yesterday was Easter, and our pastor reminded us of this scripture in Romans 8:11:  the power that raised Jesus from the dead lives in you.

And we all just sat there.

As we often do, when the pastor says something profound.

On Easter Sunday, we're all into Christ the Lord is Risen Today, Alleluia.  And the Easter lilies and new dresses and egg hunts and ham.  I love all that stuff and it's a wonderful day.

But on Easter Monday, we wake up to the same job and the same marriage and the same crazy relatives and the same problems we had during Holy Week.  And the power that raised Jesus from the dead seems like...honestly, not much.

So here's an important thing I learned a few years back.  When I look at scripture and it says cool stuff and I look at my life and I see that my life doesn't match up to the cool stuff that scripture says, then the problem is not with the cool stuff in scripture, but with me.

And the problem I think I have with the power that raised Jesus from the dead is that I would like to tame it.  I want to control it.  I don't want it to come in and make too much of a mess.  I want to keep it clean around here.

C.S. Lewis says this about Aslan, "He is not a tame lion."

He will slash you open if he has to.  We know that this is true.

And I would prefer to un-dragon myself, thank you very much.

And so, the power that raised Jesus from the dead lives in me.  Little and stunted and squashed down into a corner, I think.  Because I am afraid of what it will do if I invite it to be what it really is.

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you gotta wanna

The other day I saw this quote:  "If at first you don't succeed, then maybe you should do it the way I told you to in the beginning." That's funny.

But lying beneath that quote, there's a misconception we often live by:  that all the people in my life who are doing the wrong thing would be fixed if only I--or somebody--would tell them the right thing to do.

But change is so much more than instilling accurate information.

What's really needed is a change of heart.  You gotta wanna.

And I don't know any way to change the heart of another person.  Usually my own heart is more than I can deal with.

This is a good news, bad news situation.

First, the bad news.  I can't finagle a way to make other people do the right thing.  I can't talk them into change.  Or control them into it.  Or cry them into it.  Or nice them into it.  Or even (as a Good Christian Woman) submit them into it.  It's really up to them.  I can make an offer.  That is all.

Now the good news.

When I stop trying to pick the splinter out of everybody else, I'll finally notice the log that's lodged in me.  Initially this is not a fun part of the process.  It's so much more entertaining to be distracted by the misdeeds of others.  But (and if I say this often enough, maybe I'll finally get it) the truth sets you free.  Most especially, free to receive grace.

I believe that grace, combined with truth, is the only thing that can change our hearts.

The Cross means that there is grace for me in place of judgement, so it's safe for me to face the truth.  To admit what's wrong and ask for help.

And the more I receive grace, get in touch with my wrong-doing, and turn it over to God to deal with, the more He deals with it.

And the more He deals with it, the more redemption I see in my own life.

And the more redemption I see in my own life, the more hope I have for all the people around me who are being crazy for no good reason.

I start to believe that God might make a way where there seems to be no way.

I start to see that Amazing Grace is amazing because it's amazing.  It makes no sense.  It's out of our control.  It extends to all of us.

Even to those who would be so much better off if they'd just listened to us in the first place.

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get real

Mike Yaconelli says that so many times we are pretending in relationships.  And when we're pretending, we're relating to each other on the basis of who we are not. I think that is such a profoundly challenging thought.  How many times am I, for whatever reason, pretending?  And then relating to other people based on who I am not?  And even relating to God on the basis of who I am not?

When I pretend to myself, we call that denial.

When I pretend to someone else, we call that...hmm...being nice?

Honesty is not all that easy.  Human beings have a long history of throwing on the fig leaves and running for cover.

I have to know I am safe and loved, in order to be honest.  I think most of us have a problem with knowing that we're safe and loved.  We all have those sneaking insecurities, those what-ifs, those little anxieties that keep us covering up.

And instead of real relationships, we end up with pretend.

The thing is, everybody loves a fairy tale.  We all want to live in a palace with the prince, happily ever after.  With the birds and the squirrels doing all the housework.  Pretend looks like the happiest place on earth.

Until it's not.

And then we have to fight our way out of a lifetime of pretend, to step out into the light of real and true and honest.  As challenging and difficult as that fight may be, it's a fight worth fighting.  Because it will set us free.

Free of who we are not.

We are not strong and brave and competent and together and perfect and cheerful and smiling all the time.  Honestly?  That is a horrible burden to bear.

The truth is, we are broken and scared and impaired and tired and needy and sad and anxious and depressed sometimes.  And we need to be in relationships that can handle the honesty of our humanity.

God knows all these things about us, and He loves us.  All the time.  We are the ones who pretend, and keep ourselves slaving away in the far country.

When we know God loves us, we can take a chance on the people around us.  Find the ones who celebrate our "no," and who love our limits, but who see our strengths, and encourage us to keep growing.  Who make it safe for us to stop pretending.  Who make it possible for us to be free.

Who join us in relationships that are all about who we are.

Broken.  Scared.  Sad.  Tired.

Human.  Unique.  Precious.  Beloved.

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