Sunday, April 29, 2012

Marshes and Marshwiggles

     At some point in my life, I lost my imagination. 

     I don't mean misplaced it temporarily, like I do my cell phone at least once a month. I lost the ability I had as a child to see the wonder and creativity with which God infuses even the most ordinary things in the world.  There have been times in the last year or two where this lost friend briefly sparked, drawing near with its light and warmth, only to grow dim yet again as the business of life dampened its glow.

      A recent hike through a swampy woods on a blustery, 50 degree day in Northern Michigan rekindled that spark.

    I'll be honest - this was not where I intended to be. My plan for the day involved an NBA game and a nice cup of Cherry Chocolate coffee while vegging on my sofa, but here I was on a trail hemmed in by barely budding trees and surrounded by lots of wintery grays and browns. I don't mind wearing clothes with those lovely earth tones, but if I had to be hiking, I expected more from Spring.

     The dullness and potential serenity of this woodsy jaunt could not restrain my 6-year-old caffeine-in-a-bundle, Vincent; his equally frenetic friend Marilee, who was at times literally a blur; and my 12-year-old son Braden, who gamely tried to keep up with the other two.  Vincent took the lead (as he reminded us again and again - "Stop! Wait! I'm the leader!").  Makeshift wooden gun in hand, he fearlessly led us through a gray/brown maze of lingering winter bursting with wolves, superheroes, villains, and invisible zombie giants, as Marilee screamed at...something, I'm not sure what.  Bugs, maybe.

    I must have absorbed some of their energy, because I soon realized this ordinary woods offered a smorgasbord of very cool things. Uprooted trees might not actually be zombie forts, but they were pretty awesome in their own right.  So as the kids screamed and wildly shot giants with their stick guns, I fired up the camera app on my first generation Droid phone and started to see the mystery and wonder of the woods.

     I kept halting their breakneck progress to take pictures; I couldn't help it. Hints of beauty poked through everywhere. Cold, clear streams trickled over smoothed pebbles and under fallen birch branches. Yellow marsh lilies pushed their way through the dead reeds of the slowly warming swamp, pressing against an aging wooden boardwalk.  Almost without my noticing, the child in me reignited a spark of creative life, seeing a late Spring work its miracle where before I had only seen winter's lingering weariness and decay.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Redemption and Hope in a Broken World

         Scripture provides numerous examples of followers of God trying to reconcile their belief in a perfectly good, loving, and powerful God with their circumstances:
  •  Joseph, who was sold into slavery before languishing in Egyptian prisons for years in spite of God’s very personal interaction with him; 
  • David, “a man after God’s own heart,” who spent years of his life on the run from a homicidal king; 
  • Job, an extraordinarily godly man who lost everything; and the disciples of Christ, all of whom faced considerable persecution.
     While some religions view pain as an illusion, an obstacle to be overcome through the correction of the mind, Christianity believes that pain and suffering are very real.  As a result, followers of Christ have sought to develop a theology that provides a coherent framework for understanding this dilemma. Christians face the difficult task of embracing the reality of evil and making it compatible with the existence of God as portrayed in Scripture: all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good. 
     Christians have developed different responses to explain why the goodness of God is not compromised in the face of evil, even evil that is apparently unredemptive in any fashion.  Perhaps good things such as free will more than compensate for the pain experienced during life; perhaps, as in John Hick’s appeal to mystery, there are unknown goods that make up for the suffering we see; perhaps there will be a system of rewards and punishments in place after this life that will adequately provide a framework in which one will see the justice and love of God vindicated.  

     Defenders of the Christian faith have developed these explanations, or theodicies, to better understand the ways of God.  A theodicy, rather than being a mere defense of the compatibility of God and evil, seeks to proactively show God’s reasons for allowing evil to occur.  And even though Scripture allows one to peer into and analyze the issue of pain, Scripture often seems less concerned with the defense of God’s character than with the development of individuals as they seek to handle the difficulties in life. 

     This is the religious or emotional aspect of pain, as opposed to the philosophical or apologetic: rather than question the existence of God because of the presence of pain, the religious aspect of the Scriptures helps the believer whose faith is tested by trials.

   The question moves from, “What kind of God could allow this to happen?” to “What is the proper way for me to view instances of suffering and pain?”  We often expect God to meet us on our terms; from a Scriptural perspective, we are required to meet God on his terms. 

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Shoveling the Drive of my Soul

     A strange winter blanketed Traverse City, Michigan this year.

     It didn't snow much; for a town that relies on tourist dollars, no snow news is bad news for snowmobilers and skiers. Personally, I wasn't terribly disappointed - I think I shoveled my drive three times.  But my kids wanted to sled, to build snowmen and make snow angels and fight from snow forts, to have a reason to come inside shivering and miserable and drink too much hot chocolate made with real milk and chocolate syrup.  They wanted a winter that froze their bones, with snow that glistened in the sun, hung on the trees, and buried us in our drive for five or six school days.

   But it hasn't been that kind of winter.

    This spring has been equally odd. In early March, we hit a stretch of eighty degree days, shattering all kinds of records. Confused trees budded; lost ducks returned too quickly; allergies wreaked havoc six weeks early. That was right after the worst snow storm I remember since moving here 15 years ago. We got 30 inches in about 24 hours at my house: heavy, blustery snow that snapped trees and power lines, ushered in states of emergency, and immobilized two minivans in my driveway for a couple days.
     Now we are back to normal, but the grass, flowers, and cherry trees don't know they aren't supposed to be out and about yet, and the frost is taking its toll on their cheery buds. We wanted a spring that gently and beautifully eased us from the snowpocalypse into the ordinary Jimmy Buffet summers of Traverse City  We wanted to shop at Menards, foolishly buying flowers in the heat of the moment that we could actually plant, not move inside every night for four more weeks.

  But it hasn't been that kind of spring.

  My life has had some Traverse City winters.

     I didn't like them; I wanted them to be real winters too. I don't like to grieve a little bit, or be slightly depressed, or just a little disappointed.  If I have to experience a spiritual or emotional winter, I want both barrels so it's worth my time.
     It's one thing to feel kind of down and just mope through the day; it's quite another to curl up on the sofa with an appetizer sampler platter from a local restaurant and bury my depression in The Road and deep-fried anything.  Now that's an emotional winter.  That's what I prefer - not because I like it, but because I can wrap my mind around the problem.  I want to shovel the drive of my soul until my back aches.
     I know I can't get around it, but I don't like just vaguely miss my Dad after watching We Bought A Zoo! That's like having a low-grade inflammation that makes me just queasy enough to feel slightly out of sorts.  I want The Road; I want my loss to hit me like a hammer, to lay me low, to MATTER. I want life to stop as my emotions get snowed in by a blizzard of grief, burying my happiness, snapping my schedule in a way that might take days to fix. I want a really good excuse for hot chocolate.

   That kind of winter.

    My life has had some Traverse City springs. 

    In my heart and soul, I want lilacs and beautiful flowering weeds to slowly and steadily push through last fall's unraked dead leaves and this winter's lingering piles of dirty snow so these persistent annuals can bring their beauty to my soul's decrepit yard.
     I want the hibernating couch potato side of me to overdo my first relational spring hike with my wife.  I want to rake my heart's yard not because I have to, but because the promise of summer love compels me.
     When it comes to spiritual spring, I want to see my character explode, my relationships blossom, my career be full of new momentum and life.
 But that's now how life often works.  

     Winters both spiritual and physical have corroded my soul. They eat slowly away at me, not cold enough to freeze me or brutal enough to move me.  They just...fester.  Nothing is strong enough to break or shut down anything, so I never pay attention like I should.  But there is also nothing to skate, sled, or ski on either. It's a season where nothing has to be ventured, and nothing is gained. It is Laodicean Winter.

   Springs both spiritual and physical tempt me with the promise of renewal, then turn on a moment's notice and freeze the new life that began.  Habits are gone! Until they emerge as methodically as ever.  God is close! Until He's distant. My ADD is contained! Until my brain freezes for a day and leaves my angry, desperate, and isolated. I finally know how to parent! Until I ignore my kids, and snap at them before the coffee kicks in in the morning, and we ride in silence to school.

That's how winter and spring usually work. 

     Ending this post on a really positive note doesn't seem honest.  I believe God honors honesty, and He knows my heart.  He made winter and summer; He knows what it means to be cold and lifeless, as well as to have warmth and hope. He knows I  sometimes don't know why I am unexpectedly cold, surprisingly hopeless, or oddly surprised by tenderness and love.

     He knows how He intended winter and spring to be in the world He first made. He know how they actually are now.

     He also know what summer is for, and that I'm waiting for the warmth of the Son.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Bridging the Chasm

   Gary Fritz, writing about a time he was with someone who was dying: 
     "Imagine, if you will, knowingly chatting with and touching someone who would soon be doing the same with the risen, victorious Jesus Christ. Perhaps that is an odd thing to consider. 
     I realize full well that a significant chasm exists between our world and the 'hereafter.' As Christians, we do not embrace the Egyptian-like belief in sending the dead into the netherworld with possessions and tokens that will help them in the afterlife.  But it was tantalizing to imagine that a person who would soon be "there," I could reach out and almost touch eternity.  When I touched her hand, I was keenly aware that she would soon be touching Jesus. 
     The sensation was like one I had when watching the end clips from the movie The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, specifically the scene in which the wardrobe stands alone in an otherwise empty room, its door slightly ajar, and emanating from within it the unmistakable, beckoning light that could only be shining out of Narnia... 
     This was the anticipation of a faithful pilgrim who was ready to leave this vale of tears, the 'shadowlands,' as C.S. Lewis called life here, and move 'further up and further in.'"
- Gary A. Fritz, "Heaven's Gate," in Touchstone