Archive for October 2010

Lessons from Head Lice, Part 2:Community is Contagion and Cure

October 19, 2010
Korean War - HD-SN-99-03118

Image by US Army Korea – IMCOM via Flickr

In the last installment, a little bug had become bigger than God to me. Silly isn’t it? But, sadly we mortals are given to such short-sightedness about these things: too-few coins, or a centimeters growth of tumor, or a rift between you and the one you love–we magnify our weaknesses all the time. James McDonald has made an equation of it: Big God= small problems; small god= Big problems.   And the wrong focus will fill us with unrelenting self-pity and frustration and unanswerable bursts of  questions and angry upraised fists.

Yet the weeks  I endured of the patient combing-out of each of my eight children’s infested heads tutored me in perseverance, and strengthened the spiritual muscles of thanksgiving and faith and humility I would need for a very great struggle ahead.  The seeming triviality of this trial was really a microcosm of the Gospel–the shame that sucks up and sours all of life, the endless cycle of re-infestation with sin, the longing to just be clean as you load the washer again, the desperate reaching out for strength to endure, and at last, the blessed relief of repentance and rest found only in the One  who gently invites, ‘just come  as you are’.  And the repetition of this cycle of repentance and rest builds stamina.  Because, as  Alaistair Begg’s said,  ” Our patience in adversity produces wonderful security regarding the future.” Begg’s meant our eternal security, but I found  present security in Him, too.  And so the Father prepared me well for what lay ahead.

For as  I sat on the couch one night,  with a particularly vibrant-hued head in my lap, swiping at eggs, the phone rang.  I heard terrible news.  My brother, only fifty-three at the time, had just suffered a massive stroke, and was in the ICU.  There was  much intense prayer among us.  Yet he died.

I know that in the  few weeks duration of his suffering, my brother’s  own heart was being prepared for the future.  He had made a committment to Jesus as his savior as a young man, and I know that on his bed of affliction the Father was calling his prodigal home.  I will never understand why my brother was taken, leaving a wife and three heartbroken children. I said at his funeral that God is good and no-one will ever accuse Him of doing wrong. I spoke necessary words then, words that pointed to Jesus, who is our only hope.

I was not shaking my fist at God because I had been prepared in the discipline of giving thanks despite difficult circumstances, and so I  thanked God for the things I knew were true in this confusing crisis:  that my brother had re-united with his estranged wife, and they were joyfully planning a re-committment ceremony. That he had taken time, even time away from work, to purposefully  mentor his troubled son.  He had spent his last precious hours on earth restoring some kingdom order to his life.

I  was thankful as well that God sent my sister to that family ahead of time, before the crisis, and she was there with them in their time of need, to provide comfort and Godly wisdom and prayer.  Her ministry was that of presence.  She sat by my brother’s bed for hours, reading the scriptures out loud to him, and sometimes she was silently praying.  She listened to all the weeping and venting and the regrets.  She was Jesus with skin on to that benighted clan.

This  preaching of the ‘gospel without words’ —  usually a specious cover for those ashamed of the gospel  (and its accompanying aphorism is wrongly atttributed to Francis of Assisi, who neither did nor said it)  is often the only appropriate response to deep grief.

Remember Job’s comforters.

A soul  folded into the fetal position does not respond well to lots of talking. Two words like these will do: “Jesus wept.”   The Son of Man wept with the sisters who said to him, ‘where were you,  O God, when I needed you?’    Those of us who observe deep grief can feel great anxiety in the face of  these seeming unanswerable questions, and so we stupidly seek to fill silences, and have a fatal temptation to fix complex problems with platitudes.  We need to trust in the sovereignty of God ourselves, and  really believe that love never fails, and then speak only with fear and trembling. Grief is a holy ground we walk upon.

Some of God’s family walked  well, taking up our griefs as their own, and showed us sacrificial love.   When we needed housing for the funeral, our oldest and dearest friends took us in for the weekend, though they understood the risk of head lice–that though we thought we were free of nits, our infestation had been  recent.  I thank God that there are  such safe havens of hospitality and unconditional love.

Some reward for their sacrifice they got!  Nits in the hair of all the kids, and one child has hair past her waist, another a tendency towards dreadlocks.  Yet my friend was determined to endure even this humiliation and inconvenience to the glory of God–there would be no complaining!  That family will be recompensed for their  service, it will be returned to them, pressed down and overflowing, in heaven.

Such refreshing given to a weary pilgrim has a prophet’s reward. Still, some of us want a showier ministry– and so we drive with an empty tank, past the wounded Samaritan, multi-tasking and texting as we go, leaving little margin in our lives for the neighbor with no bread and great need.   But who is the faithful  servant, the one who comforts the fainting heart, or the one who just twitters his report of the calamity?  Facebook friends are often faithless ones.

I think it is those simplest things we do that have the amplest reward in  heaven, because they are often done with the least thought of self.  ‘What’, we say as we shake our heads in wonder at the return on our meager investment — ‘it was just a cup of cold water!  It was only a hug!’ Oh little faith! It was really a benediction! Those humble deeds are sometimes the most eloquent of sermons, for they are often the best means of changing a sufferer’s focus and helping him to know the Father’s goodness. That is the mystery of face-to-face community. It can be a carrier of the worst disease. Or it can be a container for God’s richest blessings. Oh, what He longs to pour out on his His people, but for our little faith.

In My Little Hall of Fame: Dr. Al Mohler

October 4, 2010

Image by james.thompson via Flickr

This question that haunted Dr. Al Mohler is one that has deeply troubled me. “In those days of crushing anguish, humiliation, and confusion, was there no one who could have stood between that boy and that bridge? I  was troubled as well that no Christian voice was speaking out about Tyler Clementi’s terrible end.   His reasoned, compassionate response is one of the major reasons I am overcoming my fear of the SBC, and agreeing with my husband that it is time to commit to our local congregation, despite its overfondness for “Robert’s Rules of Order”.

And  they did a wonderful job in selecting our new pastor.

So thank you, Dr. Mohler.  You continue to speak with great wisdom on those issues that raise blood pressures  because they reveal our hearts.   You consider well those “borderline” questions which resist easy answers, quoting Thielcke, who once argued that we learn more about ourselves and our most fundamental convictions by considering these issues,  such as birth control and IVF, and yoga,  and the hypocrisy of divorce in the church, and so your in-box is filled with the insults of your critics. But I admire you even more for the civility and courage with which you address the things of first importance, those Gospel issues, as when you denounced those who would seek to synergize Genesis  with Science, and dilute it of the reason for the second Adam’s death on the Cross.  With your Christlike demeanor and well-reasoned answers for the hope you have within, you continue to allay my Baptistphobia, and nervously we are  preparing to sign on the dotted line.

My Favorite Things: Hardly Strictly Bluegrass–With Added Links–Enjoy a Virtual Festival!

October 2, 2010

Dr. Ralph Stanley

I love Bluegrass Music.

It is the ancient sound of  mourning –an exile for his homeland, the mother wailing for a breathless infant, the prodigal groaning when he has wasted it all.  It is also the sound of joy that comes in the morning — the sound of the songbirds serenading the  sun rising over a still lake,  the lonesome moan of the train that brings your baby back to you, and it is the hoot of the owl,  rising to meet the moon between the gnarled branches of an old oak tree. It is the sounds of things that catch your breath, and then all of it comes out of your mouth in a kind of keening, that longing for the  One who made such beauty, and Who longs for us to see His reflection in it.  It is the mysterious sound of the eternity in our hearts.

One of the few benefits of living in a land where  my righteous heart is continually tormented by the conduct of my neighbors, is my close proximity to this free music festival.  It is the gift of financier Warren Hellman, but to me it  feels every year like a gift straight from the Father’s heart to his benighted child, who is a stranger in a strange land.

Last night I saw T- Bone Burnett, who generously opened his set up to introduce up-and-coming artists like the Punch Brothers, the Secret Sisters, Karen Elson, and a trio he found busking on the streets, the Americans–it was an amazing show.  Elvis Costello surprised us with two songs.   T-Bone played several haunting songs of his own.

Today I am going to wander about, discovering new sounds  from this embarrassment of riches, but you can look for me at the Rooster stage at four watching Buddy Miller, with my husband (who surprised me this morning by taking the day off!) and my nephew who is providentially visiting from Israel.  If Emmylou is the queen of these days, and Hellman its king, Buddy Miller roams the five stages as its disguised prince, mingling with the paupers to watch the shows, but  more often onstage,  to add his thrilling guitar to the mix.  I hope  Patty Griffin joins him, because I missed her yesterday,  and that he plays Mark Heard’s “Worry Too Much” –Heard is the “Cyrano de Bergerac of Rock and Roll”, as T-Bone once said on a tribute album to Heard at his untimely death.

The only downside to Hardly Strictly is the terrible choices one is faced with–RoseAnne or Elvis?  Buddy Miller or Gillian Welch?  Wistfully I choose Buddy, and console myself with the haunting melody “Time (the Revelator)”, that  Welch and David Rawlings use to tear up the stage at the Cambridge  Folk Festival, on YouTube.

I appreciate these newcomers who faithfully preserve these sounds for their generation–like Sunday’s ‘can’t miss’ show, those Julliard-trained musicians,  The Carolina Chocolate Drops, or RoseAnne Cash with her Daddy’s list.   I love the families that play together, like the Del McCoury Band, or Earl Scruggs’.  I love the women who sing together haunting harmonies of love and loss,  like  EmmyLou Harris, Allison Krauss, and Gillian Welch.

But best of all are those old guys–they are so unashamed of the gospel, which has deep, deep roots in this music. I am still haunted by Ralph Stanley last year singing ”Oh Death” to this crowd all taking  their pleasures  in the warm sunshine, reminding this Vanity Fair that they were all only a mist that would soon pass away-–it was an electrifying moment–you could feel the conviction settle all over them with its brooding cloud.  Brave man.

So  I pray for many such moments today, and that I myself would have the boldness there to speak about the hope I hold, that the sting of death is gone for me.  Sometimes that hope rises up so clear and strong, and then you have the reason for a  yodel– that sound of the voice-box at play, the laughing song of a child, the liberation cry of a ransomed captive.  And I laugh along, and I practice my yodel, as I listen to my new favorite bluegrass group,  Fret Not,  sing  “Hallelujah, I’m Ready to Go!”