Monday, June 13, 2016

Surprised By Beautiful Easy and Messy

"I became a Christian as a result of this loss," he said. "Tragedy or opportunity? The lines get blurred on this side of heaven. Perhaps the tragedy lies in not seizing the opportunities."                            --Carolyn Weber in Surprised by Oxford, p. 397.

Today I finished reading Surprised By Oxford by Carolyn Weber. I also put my father on an airplane back home to Boston and waited to hear if the surgeon thinks the lump he removed from Mike is a cancer relapse.

I began the book months ago, relishing it slowly. It's a coming-to-faith memoir of a Canadian graduate student who traveled to Oxford University to study English Literature. Beautiful writing about literature and faith, it is a 400-page delight to me, a writer with an English degree.

Dad came on Friday for his third visit in six years, which is to say I've spent more time with him in the last six years than the previous 25 put together. But this time it didn't feel like making up or catching up. It felt like a plain ol' visit with your dad, who lives far away. It felt regular and normal.

The things we did before we did again:
We ate wings from the round table at D's.
We toasted — this time to Columbia, Singapore, Boston, Houston and Daryn, who isn't with us this time and whom we miss. (Cheers!)
Wayne and Dad slipped out to share a beer.
We sang all Dad's old favorite songs, and this time everyone already knew them.

We weren't forging new territory, and we weren't making new traditions; we were keeping old ones.

This is no small thing, even though relationship status quo is a plain ol' regular, small thing.

I said goodbye to my father at an airport without crying for the first time in a lifetime of saying goodbye in airports. It felt so, so good. And easy.

From the eternal perspective of grace, I began to see everything with new eyes. Especially my relationships. Especially my relationship with my father. Through grace, I now realized I had so much. Loving him was like giving away pennies when I was rich beyond measure. And somehow my coffers never lessened; in fact, they seemed fuller for the giving. Having my identity in an eternal Father gave me the freedom to explore better how to love best.                  --Carolyn Weber in Surprised By Oxford. page 439. 
We prayed and we kissed and they wheeled Mike to the O. R. I read in the waiting room and finished the last chapter just as the desk called me and took me back to Mike. The surgeon came in long enough to shake hands and repeat he think it's a fatty cyst, but they're sending it for pathology to be sure. Mike dressed and stood. We hugged and kissed and cried relief in recovery, something we haven't had to do in 16 years.

Dad texts (Dad texts!): Just landed. all ok.

Another notification tells me Wayne checked in at Yard House in Atlanta for a late lunch with his daughters on their way to Birmingham.

...a happy ending makes up not only for a lot, but for everything. And then some. ... Often, it is messy, but that's okay. Abundance tends to look that way.                                                              --Carolyn Weber, Surprised By Oxford. page 428 and 439.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Coming Out: I Want To Be Joshua

Facebook is my social media neighborhood, and if you're friends with me there, you might have noticed I've become more political in the last year. This post is by way of explanation.

I'm a southern girl. which is to say Mom and Grandmommie taught me to be socially gracious, pleasant, and complimentary — polite at all cost. Because of their fine examples, my introvert tendencies, and almost 50 years of practice, I'm the Polite Ninja.

Controversy makes my skin crawl, my stomach knot, my blood pressure rise, and both sleep and appetite to evade me. I'm a middle child and, hence, a people-pleaser. I could go on and on, but suffice it to say, I don't know how to do politics publicly.

But I'm beginning to take issue with my generations-long "polite at any cost" path. The price is too high now, because this is not my grandmother's America anymore.

Our nation moves farther and farther left. For example, the Democrat Party of President Kennedy was more conservative than the Republican Party of today. Socially we are going the way of post-Christian Europe. Economically, we are moving toward socialism, a philosophy and social experiment called evil by our beloved President Reagan, which doesn't seem like ancient American history to me. The drift has felt, until recently anyway, like one inconsequential Conservative concession at a time, none of which was foundation-shaking alone.

I am the frog in the proverbial kettle.

When you add them all together and top the boiling concoction with President Obama's most recent executive orders and SCOTUS's recent rulings, we are likely witnessing the end of marriage, family, and gender as defined by a biblical worldview (historically the view of Americans) in American society. Have we learned nothing from the fall of Rome?

Christians are to blame. Me, to be exact, and maybe you, too. I have done a terrible job of passing on my Christian faith and values to those around me. Oh, I've done a superlative job in this with my children and as a leader in my church. But I'm talking about acquaintances, neighbors, store clerks, the mail carrier, and my kids' Geometry teacher and PTO president. In other words, the people with whom I am the Polite Ninja. When I and Christians like me leave a vacuum in a society's values, another worldview is happy to fill the void. So here we are, on the precipice of the systematic dismantling of the nation I love and feel obligated to preserve.

Two of my children are of voting age and neither lived in the Reagan era. Although it doesn't feel like it to some of us, Reagan was a long time ago. We are not that country anymore, and I have been waking up to that hard truth over the last months.

I am part of the generation that birthed a generation who are embracing the very socialism we called evil not so long ago. That, dear friend, is an epic fail.

This season of unorthodox American primary elections tells us we are at a crossroads in our country, and no matter how uncomfortable for me to bring my social engagement to such a place of social faux pas, I am doing it. I am doing so because our son Adrian recently attended a private Christian college where, to my surprise, there are lots of Christian students supporting Bernie Sanders.

The conservative Christian kids are feeling the Bern. Let that sink in. Christian, we are failing.

There are social progressives that label themselves Christians and stand directly opposed to biblical social mores as dictated by God's precepts plainly stated in scripture, whose infallibility we in American Christianity no longer agree upon.

When we abdicate our biblical mandate to pass our faith and our biblical social values to the next generation, we become a godless society and have no one to blame but ourselves.

We have forfeited enough — too much, actually. So I'm coming out of my comfort zone and joining the public discourse.

Social media feels like a safe place to start. I can post thoughts from the distance of my keyboard and my screen and hope to make a difference, but most of my friends are like-minded and that means I'm not converting the views of others to Christian values. But it's a start.

Beyond that, we need to make a difference by socially engaging the people we come into contact with each day one-on-one. For me, face to face is scary.

But if we don't, we may find ourselves not only going the way or Rome, but also the way of ancient Israel. 

After Israel wandered in the wilderness for their unbelief, they were about to finally enter the promised land. God warned them that when they entered the land of promise and experienced life blessed of God (That was a good life, indeed!), they would be tempted, in their ease, to forget God.

Then it shall come about when the Lord your God brings you into the land which He swore to your fathers ... to give you, great and splendid cities which you did not build, and houses full of all good things which you did not fill, and hewn cisterns which you did not dig, vineyards and olive trees which you did not plant, and you eat and are satisfied, then watch yourself, that you do not forget the Lord who brought you from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (Deuteronomy 6:10-12).

God commanded Israel to teach his precepts to their sons and daughters, reminded them of his instructions on how to live as a holy society before him in what we know as the book of Deuteronomy. He warned them of an upcoming temptation and not to succumb to it. But succumb they did.

After Israel's godly leader who was valiant and full of faith (Joshua) died, the people buried him in the hill country of Ephraim, and...

All the generations also were gathered to their fathers; and there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord, nor yet the work which He had done for Israel. Then the sons of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord ... (Judges 2:10-11).

I cannot go the way of Israel a a lamb to slaughter. I must resist if there is a shred of hope that it's not too late for America. So I'm getting my brave on and defying my Southern charm and fighting the political and cultural fight. I will do it through social media and in my real life as much and as often as possible, so help me God. And I will need God's help. The Culture Warrior suit makes me sweat.

But it's a suit I will wear because losing our nation to humanism or secularism and nationally turning our back on all God has done and blessed to bring us into this land I have always known as the land of plenty is not a viable option.

I want America to stay great. God has shown societies of people how to do that in his word.

So I want to be Joshua, the scared but faithful man who needed to hear the life-giving words, "Only be strong and very courageous; be careful to do according to all the law which Moses My servant commanded you. do not turn from it to the right or to the left... (Joshua 1:7)."

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Best Kind of Leaving There Is

Milestones are funny things. They just show up right in the middle of your ordinary days. If you're lucky, they warn you with a feeling in your gut that this is important — pay attention. Today was one of those days.

Today, our son Adrian announced he was leaving our church fellowship.

It feels like the end of an era. Our family of five won’t worship together anymore. Not on Mother's Day next week, not on ordinary Wednesday nights, and not on Easter Sunday.

And this is a good thing.

It means he's ready. He's a man of his own faith now after 21 years of our leading, teaching, correcting, watching, praying, coaxing, rejecting, repositioning, forgiving, cheering – and receiving a little of each of these on the parent end along the way, too.

God has opened a ministry opportunity to Adrian that has been blossoming slowly. Just over a year ago, he began playing acoustic guitar in the band at another church in town for their Wednesday night youth services. As of Easter Sunday, that role has expanded into worship leader of an entirely new Sunday service. Their church is growing, and beginning a new service was their way to expand. It's a modern, contemporary service with all brand new music. Think Jesus Culture and Elevation Worship. 

Adrian is planning worship services, leading a new band, coordinating musicians, singers, technicians, overseeing sound equipment, and answering to the youth minister and the senior pastor. He prefers to see his position as lead worshipper rather than Worship Leader.

About a month ago, our pastor of worship was on vacation, and Adrian filled in. I hadn't seen him lead worship since he had begun doing it weekly at Northside Baptist, and seeing him lead worship that day was like watching him do what he was created for. I've since described it like this: He is more "himself" when he's leading worship than when he's doing any other thing he's ever done. 

This morning, he told his musical worship story from the beginning, when he bought an electric blue electric guitar from my cousin on an installment plan in 6th grade, determined to learn to play. After switching to acoustic soon after (How do I thank you, John Mayer?), he begged to be a part of our praise band, and was finally welcomed aboard at the tender age of 13. He led his first youth worship service in September 2009.

For eight years, from the second row, I watched him  grow musically, spiritually, physically, emotionally, mentally. He's been frustrated, exhilarated, challenged. Things have gone great, badly, according to plan, and off key.

Until Mike's mother passed two years ago, we had the blessing of four generations of Gonzálezes in our church. Because of this, some in our church family, even some Gonzálezes, may not see Adrian's leaving as a good thing — but it is.

Maybe one day he'll be back; maybe not. But that's not the point. The point is that God can use us if we avail ourselves to him, and often that leads us away from places of familiarity, places where we've settled into complacency, and places where ministry is comfortable, predictable, and hence, easy (if that can be said of ministry – ever).  

It will be good for Adrian to expand his identity beyond being the PK, beyond the shadow of his father's ministry, which Adrian called a legacy this morning. It's time. It's the next step in Adrian's growth as his own independent adult with cord cut.

We want him to stand tall in the light of God on his own, not hanging onto his dad's coattails, but standing firm upon his foundation of faith and ministry, and looking forward with his guitar strapped firmly over his shoulder and his songwriter-heart fixed on Him who will lead the way into a ministry all his own, not attached to his father. We would never want to limit him or hold him back.

One morning twenty plus years ago, I snapped his footed pjs back together and lifted him, clean diaper, from my bed and stood him up on the floor to hold on to the edge. He cruised down to the foot of the bed, where he sat down, turned around, and crawled out of my bedroom without so much as a glance behind him. Before I stood up and followed him out, I said to myself, that's just the first of many times he will leave me. Little did I know how much I would need each small leaving. They would build upon one another with growing consequence and graduate in degree of separation. That is as it should be — we both needed the practice.

Today we celebrated all we've watched God do in Adrian's life. Our pastors, including his dad, his uncle, a fellow band member, and two that were his youth pastors, drew near to him and blessed him in his going. Now his new ministry opportunity can begin without division, but with blessing and a sending out, in the fullness of joy. It's a both/and, not a either/or proposition, and the best kind of leaving there can be.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

I Must Be Mad

I just gave 70 hours of my life to a television show. On the surface it's about materialism, ambition, and overindulgence in sex, cigarettes, and booze. I almost quit watching Mad Men. It offended me on so many levels.

I only stuck with it because there was so much buzz about this show, and now I was wondering why on earth? So I kept watching, and in so doing, I got my answer.

Beneath the debauchery is a feast of the messy incongruity of humanity. Flawed people. Complicated relationships. Insight into professional competition, the creative process, the arc of family dynamics, the bleed of professional relationships into personal ones. Personal insecurity. Regret. Hope. Themes like loyalty, honesty, fidelity, marital collapse, success and failure, generosity and greed, courage and fear, creativity are all explored across the backdrop of the '40s - 1970 in American culture. Add to the setting racism, Vietnam, politics, religion, sexism, the arms race, and Buzz Aldrin landing on the moon.

The character development was brilliant. By the end, it was almost exclusively a narrative, and slowly, over seven seasons, you move from the one-dimensional keep-up-with-the-Joneses superficial facade of these characters to the innermost depths of their human souls.

They are people you come to love, not only despite their shortcomings but because of them. You become so invested in them that they frustrate you and break your heart, mostly because you love them so fiercely while you hate them for their self-sabbotage. Sounds like a few people you love in real life, doesn't it. Sounds like you and me.

A few favorite highlights:

The sibling-like relationship between Don and Peggy and this scene in particular:

The complicated and lifelong love between Don and Betty:

The last time we see Don and Roger together and how they each give the other his blessing:

When Stephanie tells "Dick" he's wrong, he's not her family, and then leaves him standing there alone. There are implications, ironies, identity issues, and hope for Don's future this moment gives him even though it seems like anything but a gift --  all this is wrapped into this exchange.

It was a quintessential scene for me and I can't even find a clip on You Tube. Apparently I'm the only one who saw so much happening in this scene.

My all-time favorite Mad Men moment was when Adrian, who was the impetus of my watching it to begin with, came in last night and sat beside me for the final 20 minutes and the evening of conversation about all things Mad Men couched in our own family dynamics, incongruities, and flawed love for one another.

I almost didn't post about Mad Men because I'm a pastor's wife and I'd never do anything as a Christian leader to be a bad example or lead poorly. There was plenty of raunchiness in Mad Men to be sure. There was a time in my life when I would not have watched. There was also a time in my life I would have watched but not talked about it for fear of being judged or potentially being a stumbling block to a fellow believer. I've now reached the time I have watched and am telling about it.

In the end, I decided to write about my experience with Mad Men for two reasons. One, because the sex and the booze and the overindulgence were ultimately portrayed as the destructive forces they are in real life. And two, I feel inspired by Don Draper, who inwardly struggles with all the conflicted and conflicting parts of himself, public and private, past and present. As Don Draper grows as a character in this series, his identity crisis remains constant.

We'd all be the better for it if we could find a way to consolidate all the pieces that make up our own lives and accept the sum total in the lives of our loved ones. Maybe, just maybe, we could stop being Ad Men ourselves in our own type of advertising agency who try to pitch ourselves as some truer, safer, better version of our real selves to potential buyers. In reality, we're all broken and in crisis. The beauty comes not from trying to cover it up, but by facing our brokenness head-on and learning redemptive ways to move forward.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Easter: When God's Answer Is No

There are so many extraordinary parts of the Easter story: a Passover meal with bombshell news, a mob gone wild, the crucifixion of an innocent man, and, of course, the rolled-away stone with its angel and empty tomb. It's easy to overlook the Garden of Gethsemane.

Jesus was about to face the express purpose for which he came to this planet, and he was having second thoughts. He had volunteered to leave heaven and be born a helpless babe to an imperfect mother in a primitive time for a gruesome reason. The plan was to squeeze eternity into burial cloths of human flesh and die a torturous death he didn't deserve. It took some humbling, but Jesus did it willingly (Philippians 2:2-5).

And we know from Hebrews 2:2 that he endured the cross for the joy set before him, that joy being the reconciling to himself the crowning creation he crafted in his image.

But in between the humbling and the joy, there was this mess in the Garden of Gethsemane.

No one gets through this fallen life on earth — or even the abundant life, for that matter — without facing hard things. Even for Jesus, it doesn't look pretty. He was sweating it out. He begged and pleaded for Plan B. He forsook sleep that long dark night.

And God ultimately answered his prayer with no. He does this sometimes. They're not our favorite moments. We don't tape them on scrapbook pages for safekeeping or pin them longingly on Pinterest, swearing to ourselves that we'll never forget this inspiring moment.

But maybe we should scrapbook the moments when God tells us no. Maybe we should go to Gethsemane and kneel. Plead brazenly for Plan B, and sweat God's answer, and be brave and whisper, "Not my will but yours," and be shocked that we really mean it. And then sweat some more.

That way, when we face our Pilate, we will be uncannily empowered to keep our moths shut. When we are mocked, we will feel only compassion. When we face temptation, we'll be single-minded and bent on holiness, sacrifice, and service. And when others marvel at how well we're enduring our ordeal, we'll invite them to paradise with us.

Don't get me wrong. I don't relish going to Gethsemane to do battle with God's will. I'd much rather sleep through the uncomfortable realness of that excruciatingly hard-fought surrender like the three disciples did. I'd rather close my eyes to that awkward moment than stare down God's will until I finally blink.

But I can't — because I know this: the well-rested but ill-prepared disciples fled the scene at the cross, but the sleep-deprived, battle-weary Jesus was victorious. Gethsemane is vital to victory. Don't shy away from going there because it doesn't look pin-worthy, and you're afraid of what that Gethsemane struggle might say about your faith.

Are you facing hardship? You may have heard it said, "Take it to the cross," but might I suggest you take it to Gethsemane instead?

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Lament for Paris: A Psalm

It is dark, Lord; I cannot see the way.
Is evil to win another day?
Hear me! Hear the grief,
Anger, outrage, fear.
Write it down, Lord,
In your book,
the anguish here!


Open your eyes, Lord; open mine.
We are wounded
Bleeding. Still.
You know this
Horror suspended there.
Pray there be no more.


You are quiet; Are You there?
To cast thee our care?
On our knees, no words to form
But grope with despair, lovelorn
Where are You? Where are You?
Speak to me:


You see.
     You hear.
          You care.
               You wait!

It's quiet.
              I hate!

You love —
It never, ever fails.
You promise —
Yea and amen,
Even when it makes no sense —
I hope.

It is dark, Lord. I cannot see the way.
Is evil to win another day?

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Ready or Not: A Kind of Scary Adventure to the Middle-Aged Soul

We have college and high school children. Life right now is replete with two working teenage daughters who can't yet drive themselves to and from their part-time jobs. On the girls' portion of my to do list is to schedule job shadowing, senior pictures (a carryover from August), a few college visits, and scheduling driver's ed classes.  The dog is overdue for vaccines, the car for an oil change, and the bushes for trimming. The new windows we installed last month still hang naked and exposed. It's November and I haven't baked Mike's September birthday cake. You're getting the picture, right? Life's symphony is at its crescendo. 

It's no surprise that my quiet time (I hate that term and all others that inadequately describe living out my love relationship with God, which is seldom quiet time.) has devolved into merely another responsibility I am only partially fulfilling. This and many other things I typically find enjoyable have become weights that are pulling me under. Activities that I've long loved I now loathe and neglect. I find I'm ridding myself of them in an effort to manage it all. In so doing, I'm robbing my own life of joy in the name of surviving the climax otherwise know as middle-age.

Because something had to give, and I'm the grown up in this cacophony, I did what is expedient: I amputated joy and pleasure, thinking they were non-essential and expendable. They are not.

I'm working my way through Karen Dabaghian's A Travelogue of the Interior: Finding Your Voice and God's Heart in the Psalms. 

The title captured me. My own interior (Oh yeah! I have one of those.) is on life support, threatening the need for yet another amputation. I was becoming "less me" with all the radical cuts. It's time to reclaim my full self, find my own voice, and again see God's heart, more good things I had cut myself off from.

But pondering my life's experiences to find their meaning, to better know God, andto allow the melding of the two to shape who I am and who I want to become? Well, that require time and quiet, commodities that are rare in this stage of life. This middle aged mom-wife-professional-lover of God-writer-homemaker-Sunday school teacher-caregiver to an aging mother needs a tour guide back to her interior. Desperately.

The writer in me loved the idea of a travelogue.  

Travelogue: a movie, book, or illustrated lecture about the places visited and experiences encountered by a traveler. 

Maybe I could actually start writing again. Maybe I'd uncover something worth knowing and saying. 

I'm a third of the way through this book, and most of it is highlighted yellow. There are writing prompts sprinkled through the text, resting places in this journey I've yet to slow down to take advantage of. But I will on my second trip through this book, and I can't think of a single book I've read twice. It's that good.

Karen shares her own trip through the Psalms in the context of a class she took which required she write her own psalms. Her self-described bad poetry is creating a desire in me to write my own bad poetry. 

She has an entire chapter called On Writing Bad Poetry, God love her. She shares some of her own poetic attempts at interacting with the themes of the Psalms the way the psalmists did — by wrestling with her own beliefs, experiences, what she knows of God through both relationship with him and his word, and what God might be saying to her right now. 

Well, yes please. (I remember doing that. I've been here before. Ah, yes, of course. It's my own interior.)

Her psalms are short, concentrated writings that get right to the point. Short and concentrated would fit right nicely in my life these days, not to mention that this writer could use the discipline of getting right to the point. Are you even still reading?

Okay, so I'll get to the point. I think I might give poetry a shot. Yes, I said that out loud because I still can't believe I even had the idea, much less like it, or worse, want to attempt it.

I'm an English major, and I'm terrified of poetry. I don't think I know how. I don't even know what distinguishes good poetry from bad. It's a genre reserved for the literary elites. Writing my own feels intimidating, much like my naked and exposed, neglected, new windows.

I will use Karen's advice as my goal and standard. "The important thing is that you write what you really mean and that you labor to say something specific and not generic." Karen Dabaghian, A Travelogue of the Interior.

Taking on something new right now makes me want to throw up, but not taking this trip back to my interior will kill me. So surely it's worth an unfortunate encounter with the toilet bowl.

I may or may not share my psalms here because I may or may not be brave enough.

But I do want you to know for the sake of accountability. I am reclaiming me, the real me on the inside. I needed to say that out loud in the hearing of a witness or two for fear of not following through. 

And if you can relate to any of this, I dare you to take an expedition back into your own interior. Psalm-writing is optional. 

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