Tiny Frogs and Big Skies

Tiny Frogs and Big Skies

A week ago I walked head back to receive an expansive blue sky spread wide over a meadow-panorama of tall grasses studded with morning glories.

A week ago, I bent low over a muddy pond edge to scoop up a thumbnail-sized brown frog, marveling up close over its tiny bright eyes, diminutive spots, and four impossibly small frog feet.

A week ago, I tugged the long pistil from a honeysuckle blossom to taste the sweetness of a single, perfect drop of nectar on my waiting tongue.

honeysuckle 2In the country, it seems, things are both bigger and smaller than they are elsewhere.

Big skies, open fields, majestic oaks so thick we’d have to join several sets of hands to hug them all the way ’round. Tiny gem-like wildflower blossoms, subtle fragrances, quiet, far-off whippoorwill calls. The country woos me with her large and showy and her quiet and small.

She does them both so very well.

In some ways, it reminds me of a sermon I recently heard. The pastor mentioned two seemingly opposite but parallel threads that run through the Bible — grace and responsibility.

{So, this tension between opposites plays out not only in nature, but in Christianity too.}

meadow

He assures us, that, yes, they can co-exist. They don’t have to cancel each other out. The Bible isn’t all grace, nor is it all responsibility.

If it were all about grace, we’d never take up our crosses and follow Him, we’d never stretch ourselves, we’d never grow, we’d never experience the closeness God desires for us. We’d continue along with our checkbox religion, putting tick marks in front of go-to-church-on-Sunday and say-grace-at-meals. We’d go through the motions once a week and then continue on with our comfy, secular lives because if it’s all grace, then, really, what does it matter?

If it were all about responsibility, we’d quickly grow discouraged trying to serve a stern, never-good-enough God whose standards of perfection we could never hope to attain. We’d fall down and decide never to get back up because it would be simply hopeless. We wouldn’t have a Savior who holds out His hand to help us back up, whether we deserve it or not.

morning gloryWhile this theology tidbit was shared in a sermon whose main subject was something else, I can’t stop thinking about it. That tension between grace and responsibility, the acceptance that two seemingly opposite concepts can run side by side throughout our Christian lives — well, it’s what I’ve been searching for.

I’ve spent time in Responsibility churches and they drove me out into the world, rather than closer to God. And I’ve spent time in Grace churches, and they made me feel comfortable and complacent and didn’t push me to grow. Church was either a slap in the face or a pat on the back, and, frankly, neither fit.

Since I know that a life — or a church — that falls too heavily on either path doesn’t work for me, how do I embrace this holy paradox? How do I walk two paths at the same time? How do I know what percentage grace and what percentage responsibility I need?

***

At the farm, I help Dad drape green mesh over the entire blueberry patch to protect the ripening berries. The berries have just started to darken, a few blue-black orbs tucked amongst the green, and the birds are ready to eat their fill.

So we take the flexible green netting and drape it over the trellising already in place for the berries {wooden crosses with thick wire strung between them}. “Wait,” Dad says before we get started. He takes a tool to the gear at the end of the wood post and ratchets it down so the wire is nice and taut — our scaffolding is ready.

jasper field

If we loosen up either end too much, the wire collapses and is useless. If we tighten either end too much, the wire breaks, and the whole thing falls down.

Isn’t that kind of like our dual lives of grace and responsibility? Some days we may need to ratchet down the grace end, while other days, if we’re honest, it’s time to tighten up on responsibility.

I don’t know how to do this dual grace-responsibility life, so I scramble to figure it out. Take this away, add this in here; do this, don’t do that. And, I quickly find I’m playing God– rather than praying to God. I realize there is no easy five-step method for balancing grace and responsibility {though I wish there were}.

It’s not about our perfect performance as much as it’s about walking these parallel paths with Him;
it’s about relationship …
about learning to desire Him as He desires us …
about knowing that His thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways are not our ways — and learning to sit with that, even if we can’t fully comprehend it.

thumbnail frog 2Back at the pond, I’m on the hunt for wild black raspberries. It’s too early, and I only find green cluster after green cluster. I ramble along the woods edge, a lush, large growth of honeysuckle and wild berry vine {and probably poison ivy}, searching for a tiny black gem. Finally, I uncover just three ripe berries, tucked under some leaves.

I tuck one, then two, into my mouth and relish the tiny explosion of sweetness.

Redefining Brave

Redefining Brave

 

She Who Is Brave Is Free.

Hello Adventure.

Live Out Loud.

I know these sayings will appeal to my tween daughter and her friends. I carefully align the cardstock, smooth it down, and load the mat into my diecutting machine. I cut the sayings in black, pink, and turquoise, and diecut some trendy arrows as well.

On Saturday morning, I carefully lay out the sayings, arrows, chevron papers, foam brushes, and both matte and glitter mod podge on the table labeled “Make Your Own Canvas.” Nearby, is a station for the nail lady to do her thing, and the other table, covered with a couple yards of white jersey printed with a feather motif, is our “DIY Dreamcatcher” station, complete with beads, feathers, fibers, fabric strips, and metal macrame hoops as bases.

When the girls arrive for Julianne’s 11th birthday party, all is ready. The basement is so newly finished, wood stain hangs heavy in the air, and sawdust still lingers in corners. Brush strokes mark the one-coated white trim, but we are simply too excited to wait for perfection.

11 bday

The girls — all 13 of them! — arrive and busily head for the stations.

I whip up a batch of mom’s punch (cranberry, pineapple and orange juices spiked with ginger ale and dolloped with lots and lots of rainbow sherbet, which melts into a delightful pink foam) and deliver the snacks to the new basement wet bar area, within easy reach of the craft stations.

The girls loudly sing along to Julianne’s music mix while they arrange papers and apply mod podge, tie fabric strips and slide on beads, and have their nails done.

***

Later, I think of the wild and free tribal motifs and sayings that so appeal to my girl and her friends.

Paired with cute graphics on tunics and matching leggings, brave’s become a fashion statement. Mixed with burlap and feathers, chalkboard and arrows, brave’s all the rage in trendy decor.

dreamcatcher sign

But, I can’t help but by struck by how unpoetic true bravery is. It’s hard and scary and messy. It doesn’t come with a matching fringed handbag or glitter nail polish.

  • It’s speaking the truth you know in your heart — even when the other person won’t understand — and certainly won’t agree.
  • It’s standing up for that truth under the intense weight of another’s scrutiny or disappointment, or, even, anger.
  • It’s being excruciatingly honest with yourself and listening to God, even when it takes you way out of your comfort zone.
  • It’s asking: “Really, God, are you sure?” {because you think He has to be kidding}, but scraping together just enough resolve to follow His leading.

A friend who is kind and gentle, yet fiercely brave, sent me this blog post from Sarah Bessey a few weeks back. Sarah says:

In the moments when we wonder why we bother, when we feel futile and small and ridiculous, when we feel misunderstood and mischaracterized, when we are paying a price, it’s in those moments that we learn the truth about being brave: it doesn’t always feel good. … I think we like to talk a lot about being brave because the actual doing of it is so freaking terrifying. And tiring. And ordinary.

We tend to think of brave as lightning-bolt bold, when more often, it’s everyday-ordinary — small-yet-resolute, incremental steps toward a goal or decision.

Me, personally? I like the lightning bolt. I like obvious and definitive. It’s easier. It’s certainly more glamorous.

But, being faithful in small, listening to God’s quiet leading, taking little steps — it’s hard. We want satisfaction now. We want results now. We don’t really want to go through the slow, steady, messy process of sorting it all out.

We want to trust in God big at the outset and then fall comfortably back into our good old lukewarm faith, so we can get back to business as usual.

But, He has other plans. He desires slow, steady, and subtle, because
in this, we depend on Him.
In this, we must trust in Him.
In this, we are tied to Him

every.

single.

excruciatingly.

slow.

step.

of.

the.

way.

And, in this, we grow closer to Him, and stronger in our faith.

This process of real-life bravery isn’t tidy or neat. It can’t be summed up in a stylishly Pinnable image or confined to a acronym-laden hashtag.

Our lives of brave faith will be continually complicated and evolving and hard to explain to those not in our shoes.

Our lives of brave faith will be a run forward and a slide back, and then two slow steps forward, and another step back.

Our lives of brave faith will be unique to each of us and will never look like what the Christian next to us is doing.

Our lives of brave faith will always require of us open eyes, minds, and hearts– but, also, the sheer tenacity and courage to slog through the days we’re tired, the days we question our own decisions and others question us too, the days we don’t see any progress, the days we fall down.

Our lives of brave faith will require us to continually turn back to God, the source, because we are in no way equipped for this.

And, that, I think, is exactly what He wants.

 

Finding October

Finding October

October — how you get away with anything!

You are equally charming with brilliant sun streaming through leaves of gold, as you are with brooding-grey-black skies and whipping winds. We’re happy to take you in shorts and tees, cherishing the year’s last hurrah of warmth. Or, if you choose — changeable you — to swirl in with chill rain or morning frost, we relish the chance to cocoon {for the first time since March} in jeans and sweaters, or with blankets in front of a freshly laid fire. Coffee, tea, and hot spiced cider, cupped in cool hands, with steam rising, on newly dark mornings — this is something to be savored!

golden leavesYour burgundy, hot-pink, red, salmon, orange, yellow, chestnut, russet raiment strewn over hillsides — and, later, ground — takes our breath away. Last year, we thought your leaf show was the best in a decade, but you’ve done it again, demonstrating our Maker’s artistry in show-stopping fashion.

You can even get away with breaking my heart. So far, you’ve brought me two deaths and a diagnosis. And, still I wait for your color-riotous days and dense velvet nights with anticipation

I am nearly convinced you are going to do it again. As the dog and I walk, my heart feels scraped raw, so tender any slight touch makes tears well.

basket of pumpkinsThe caller ID Friday night puts me on high alert even before I hear the familiar and kindly voice of our pediatric rheumatologist. Yes, we’d had blood drawn the day before to check key inflammation markers for my 10-year-old daughter with a rare autoimmune disease. Yes, she had been steroid-free for almost four months. Yes, she had relapsed last time steroids were withdrawn.

Two numbers come back high. Not alarmingly high, but they signal cause for concern. We schedule another blood draw for 8:30 Monday morning.

After I drop her at school late, I ache inside with uncertainty and worry. She seems tired. That ankle is still hurting. {Knee pain had started this whole thing three Octobers ago.}

She looks so pale. Isn’t she too skinny now that she’s dropped the steroid weight? {She was pale and skinny right before the relapse. It was so obvious from that one photo– we should have known something was going on.

And, that scrape on her knee– it looks like it’s getting infected, and if it does, that in and of itself could start a whole chain reaction and put her already compromised immune system on dreaded hyperdrive.

Yet, as I walk, October, you woo me with your colorful abundance. Even as I struggle to release my worries, I can’t help but be smitten by your vivid intensity.

handful of leavesYou remind me how life persists even in the face of death, how so often beauty and pain mingle.

You make me recall that carefree weekend at the farm last year, right before tragedy struck. On a woods ramble, I noticed an anomaly on a twisted honeysuckle vine — a fresh, nectar-ready blossom side by side with the red berry it should have already become — June on the same branch as October.

But, in a way, doesn’t it make sense? Isn’t October herself a dazzling final display of life before winter’s death? Aren’t the colors her leaves’ last slow, spectacular exhale before expiring?

***

I hear the smile in his voice even before he gives me the good news. Julianne’s numbers have come back into the normal range. It turns out that the same enzymes that mark muscle inflammation due to disease and damage can also be affected by intense physical activity {that old muscle breakdown inherent in building new, stronger muscle}.

If this is it, my reason for false alarm, so be it. If my daughter — who could barely get off the floor three years ago — can now dance now for two days in a row at a recent convention… If she can tap and dance hip hop and jazz, for six hours straight, so much that it raises her CPK, well, glory be.

And just like that, you flaming, fickle, fantastic month, you’ve launched in me a praise stronger than my past October hauntings could ever be.

Strands

Strands

My fingers fumble. Little tendrils already escape the confines of my crude French braid, and her golden hair finely frizzes as it dries. We start over.

She’s a willing model, my girl, enduring these awkward attempts in a way her older sister never would.

I spritz more water on, draw the part straight down the center of her head, first angling the comb down her forehead to use her nose as a guideline. Even this part is difficult for me.

{I believe there are two types of moms: those who can do hair and those who can’t. I will leave you to guess which one I am.}

We watch YouTube tutorials, and a particularly helpful one shows me how to hold the hair strands as I braid. I gain a sense of rhythm and proficiency in my braiding while holding the strands in this fashion, so different than the haphazard way I was doing it before.

***

I’m visiting my parents’ farm, and as I so often do here, I head to the woods to talk to God. Here, each step leads me farther from my workaday life where His voice is distant and muddled and closer to Him. Here, we talk. Here, prayer comes effortless.

But today’s walk is not blissful or revelatory; instead, it’s an ugly outpouring of my failures:

God, I feel like I’m right back where I was three summers ago. Everything you guided me to, everything I started for you has either come to an end or slowed to a trickle. I’m afraid I’ll just fall back into my comfortable old life — the work, the kids, the house — and forget.

What now, God? What now?

The answer doesn’t come quickly, but rather, a month later during a long car drive: You hold the strands, Beth. You braid.

***

I don’t like this answer, because I know what it means. I don’t have permission to just focus on one or two aspects of my life anymore. God’s upping the ante.

I’ll be holding and plaiting together the strands of a life that’s full and complex — one that includes paying work as well as occasional blogging; managing kids in pre-K, 5th, and 7th grades {and the requisite homework and activities}; engaging again in volunteer roles like Sunday School teaching, Girl Scout co-leading, and helping out at school; managing our household and serving as a loving wife and mother; as well as caring for myself, mind, body, and soul.

God’s not condoning over-scheduling, nor does He expect perfection, but He is telling me these past three years have been training for this. I had to be shown how to pare my life down to one or two simple strands so I could hold those well. Now my fingers are more deft, and I’ve learned how to hold my life’s central strands firm and secure while plaiting in the others.

I know I will have days — or weeks, or months — when my fingers slip and life becomes a tangled mess. And, I know I’ll be tempted to let go of the unruly pieces like I used to — instead of stilling and steadying my fingers and working calmly on through.

But, there will also be moments when my braiding is rhythmic and proficient,

when God shines through …

and coats the strands glorious.

Are you like me? Are your life’s threads slippery and hard to grasp some days and thick, long and tangled on others? Is God’s calling you to hold and plait these strands together — to make art out of a life that’s brimming, intricate, and often messy?