Thursday, August 25, 2016

Politics, etc.

Gmail is freaking me out lately.

Today I was reading an email about some meeting dates and times, and I noticed that gmail put in a prompt called, "Add to Calendar."  I clicked it, and it did add the date to my calendar.  Then I added the location to the calendar item, and gmail automatically mapped it for me on google maps.  This is convenient but invasive.  I've also received notifications on my phone telling me that I am late for an appointment or need to get on the road to an airport to make my flight.  These have been based solely on emails I've received, and not even calendar items.

Shawn says we don't have to worry about whether Hillary or Trump becomes the next president, because Google--having total access to our "privacy"--will be the government before anybody knows it.  Shawn (although he might have been joking) is generally right about these things.  He said that the whole Y2K thing was ridiculous and would amount to nothing, way back from the very beginning, when everyone was panicking (and even his own wife bought a few furtive gallons of water to hold in reserve).

We watched a documentary on George H. Bush last night, and I teared up remembering what a dignified president he was, motivated for the good of our country and the good of the world, making decisions based on sound reason rather than personal gain or party politics.  Unfortunately, that seemed to be the undoing of the Republican party.  I guess the Republican party didn't appreciate being disregarded in favor of sound reason.  Newt Gingrich saw his chance and leapt upon it.  I think GHB's biggest mistakes were in trusting his party to support him, and in granting too much credit to the masses, believing that they would be able to understand what was best and vote accordingly.  He was a good person, and he mistakenly assumed that the majority of people are motivated by morality and reason, as he was.  He didn't realize that people are selfish, lazy and greedy.  They are.  We are.  This is the problem with every political system.  The sinful nature of man wrecks every social system from socialism to capitalism.

Capitalism works a little better than the other systems for awhile, because it is actually based on the premise that man is greedy and will be driven to attain for himself.  So it starts out realistically.  But then it implodes, because the reality is sordid.  In a vicious Darwinian pattern, the strong gain power over the weak, the weak become bitter and hostile, and class wars ensue.  This becomes a pathological situation when democratic voting is supposed to make the decisions.  Factions are pitted against one another, resulting in anger, hatred and violence.

Democracy is also flawed by the fact that, in a voting environment, the people who promote themselves as politicians are never the solid, quiet, humble people who would be best qualified to serve.  This played out in living color in the Republican primaries, where a host of arrogant, aggrandizing adversaries all competed for the nomination, and none would back down for the good of the nation, or even the party.  The end result has been disastrous.  It was already broken anyway, but just like President Obama did with healthcare, the Republicans took the broken machine of their party, dropped it into a pit, and ran a tank back and forth over it a few times until it became an unrecognizable heap of rubble.

I guess the good point about a monarchy is that, being born to the position, a king doesn't have to campaign for his office, and therefore doesn't necessarily need to be brash and boastful.  You could get a humble and wise king, once in awhile.  Maybe.

Socialism and communism are doomed to fail before they begin.  You just can't realistically throw a bunch of unredeemed people together and expect that they will all cooperate and share for one another's best.  Even in churches, which are supposed to function this way (see 1 Corinthians 12:12-31), where the bulk of the people are supposed to have been redeemed and to have begun the process of being sanctified, where they are supposed to esteem sacrificial love above all else, selfishness still rears up and wrecks things.

So yes.

When I was a girl, washing dishes in the kitchen sink, my mother used to come up behind me and say, "Don't waste water.  There will be a day when you will wish for clean water from a faucet.  Mark my words, the persecution is coming."

Seems she might have been righter than we'd hoped. But the Bible does tell us there will be tribulation, and the forces of evil will conquer the saints on earth (Revelation 11:7, 13:7).  Of course, this is only on the current, fallen earth.  There is still our sure hope in the new world to come, the new, redeemed creation of God, the eternal kingdom where we will enjoy everlasting life.

Thus, with Google tracking everything, here is my manifesto:

I am a Christian.  I believe the Bible, and I worship the God who created the Universe and revealed Himself through the Bible.

I believe that there will be no other remedy for the sickness of sin in the world than the remedy of Jesus Christ's redeeming death and resurrection.

I believe that the cleansing forgiveness of Christ enables us to receive new, God-infused hearts, placed in us by the power of the Holy Spirit.

I believe that our hope is in the coming of a New Heaven and a New Earth where God Himself will care for His people and reign in incorruptible righteousness and power, forever.

My hope is in the unfailing love of God and His promises of full redemption, salvation and glorification for those who put their faith in Him.

Hard times will come, but for those who persevere, the end will bring deliverance and joy.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Peace about the big questions

Big Questions:

(1)  Why would God ever create the Universe, when He knows everything, and He knew sin would come in and wreck it, and He knew He'd have to send a Redeemer to die an excruciating death to restore it?

(2)  Since God is sovereign, almighty and in control of everything, how do our choices play into our destiny?  Where does responsibility lie? 

(3)  If God loves the whole world and has compassion on all He has made (as the Bible says), if He desires that all men come to saving knowledge of the truth (as the Bible says), if He is not willing that any should perish (as the Bible says), and if He is also sovereign, almighty, perfect in power and able to do whatever pleases Him (as the Bible also says), then why doesn't He save all men?

These questions roil around in my mind.  I don't have good, solid, tight answers for them.  I have some raw ideas about them, thoughts about the non-coercive nature of God, thoughts about whether or not every human is called by God, thoughts about the necessity of contrast for definition.  Half-baked, unsatisfying thoughts.

Sometimes I almost figure something out, but the answer isn't simple.  I read a book that explains things, but when I set the book down, I can't remember the explanation.  The same perplexing questions surface again and again.

A hostile person asks me, "Why does God get credit when we do something right, but it's our fault when we do something wrong?  How is that fair?"  I think that in this case, it comes down to the origin of all things and the difference between a Holy God and a sinful mortal man.

God, the Creator, made all things good.  Every wrong thing is a result of the entrance of sin into the world, and humanity (at the urging of Satan) brought sin into the world, where it now pervades and perverts God's originally good creation.  No longer is anyone ever born good (except Jesus).  All humanity is born into sin, in need of a Savior.  In our flawed flesh, we naturally sink to do the wrong thing, every time.  Whenever anyone does the right thing, it is a miracle of God, overcoming the evil that besets all creation.  This is true whether the person knowingly obeys the Lord or not.  God allows His beauty--in physical nature and in the hearts of men--to surge forth and remind us that He is real.  So I guess I do have an answer for this particular question, although the hostile person is not open to it.  Also, I understand his struggle with the paradox.  It hinges on being able to comprehend that we are not on an equal footing with God; He is God, and we are not.

How do we find peace in a Universe that is too huge, too paradoxical, too frightening and confusing and beautiful and complex?

I read Psalm 131:

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up;
    my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
    too great and too marvelous for me.

But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
    like a weaned child with its mother;
    like a weaned child is my soul within me.

O Israel, hope in the Lord
    from this time forth and forevermore.


Friday, August 19, 2016

Exploding tea bags and Aldi's gluten free bread

It's been an intense couple of weeks.  We had an unwilling house guest.  He is gone now, leaving a bare refrigerator and a sense of empty quiet, contiguous peace, and impending dread.  Not quite relief, but I suppose I can try to see it that way.  Schubert stands bewildered in the upstairs hall, lonely.

I'm taking the day off.

To that end, I stayed in bed until nearly noon, reading and journaling and reading old journals.  Also praying, if that redeems the fact in any way.  At one point I went to the kitchen and ate a bowl of sliced peaches in yogurt (plain yogurt made from whole milk).

Eventually I took a long bath, dumping in a double portion of Epsom salt and sprinkling the surface of water with many droplets of lavender essential oil.  It's a fairly hot day, so I ran the bath just on the warmer side of lukewarm.  At lower temperatures, I can stay in longer without getting woozy.  I soaked for a very long time, even after my timer signaled that twenty minutes had passed.

In the spirit of taking the day off, I will write a vapid blog post about food, because food is a surprisingly neutral subject, at least when it is primarily tea and toast.

I've been meaning to make a public service announcement about gluten-free bread for quite awhile.  I'd all but given up gluten-free bread, because it is nearly always profoundly disappointing.   

My Aunt Marilyn once hosted us in her home and provided a most delicious gluten-free brown bread, which she toasted for me for breakfast.  This was by far the best gluten free bread I have ever eaten.  She said it was from Costco, and we do not have a Costco.

Outside of Aunt Marilyn's delicious gluten-free bread, Udi's is supposed to be good.  Everybody says Udi's is the best.  People I meet proclaim its praises, and reviews I read analyze its virtues.  Not me.  I don't care for the stuff.  Once, I will grant you, I had the stomach flu, and after the major purging was past, and I just wanted a plain old piece of white toast, nothing else, I remembered an ancient, rejected loaf of Udi's in the back of the freezer.  I asked someone to toast and butter a slice for me.  At that point in time, in that circumstance, I was grateful for Udi's.  However, I cannot say that it is good.

As I mentioned, I had all but given up on gluten-free bread.  Still, a person needs a slice of toast, or even a sandwich, once in awhile.  So I'd taken to buying Aldi's bread now and then, not because it was good, but because it is fairly inexpensive, and it serves a purpose in a pinch.

Aldi's "whole grain" gluten-free bread is a pale brown color, and quite brittle and gritty with black specks in it.  The main ingredient is brown rice flour (I believe).  It's pretty horrible.

One day I was shopping late past the noon hour, becoming pathologically hungry.  I realized that it would behoove me to pick up fixings for a quick sandwich upon my arrival at home.  Aldi's was, however, out of "whole grain" gluten-free bread.  The only gluten-free bread available was the white bread.  Desperate, I grabbed the tiny loaf.

Upon arriving at home, I quickly made a sandwich to assuage my hunger and can I say... can I just say... the Aldi's white gluten-free bread is totally different from the "whole grain" gluten-free bread.  For one thing, it is quite elastic.  It bends without breaking, like a normal piece of bread.  It has a pleasant texture and even a fairly nice flavor.  The slices are very small, yes, but they are good.  Absolutely palatable and very decent.  A grilled cheese sandwich made with Aldi's gluten-free white bread and Aldi's sliced Gouda cheese is literally delicious.  I think even a person who was not forced to eat gluten-free would find this sandwich to be delicious.  The bread also makes very good toast; I prefer it with almond butter.

Here is another brand of gluten free bread.  It was more expensive and from a fancier store.  The loaf was larger than Aldi's loaf.  I thought I'd try it.  I was sorry.  It tastes like lightly sweetened play-doh.  Do you know why I bought it?  Because Aldi was out of gluten-free white bread when I last went there.  Apparently other shoppers have discovered what I discovered. 

I've also discovered something about tea bags.

We'd been having a great deal of trouble with our tea bags exploding when we made our tea.  It's disconcerting to near the end of your mug of tea, and inadvertently suck in a mouthful of floating tea leaves.  On a number of occasions, I've had to catch myself to prevent reflexively spewing the contents of my mouth.  Even our premium tea bags were bursting routinely, much to my chagrin.

We finally figured out what everybody else probably already knew.  You have to add the tea bag to the hot water after you've poured the water into the mug or teapot.  You should never pour the hot water over the teabag.  Pouring the hot water over the teabag makes the teabag burst.  I'm sure you already knew that.  It took me a long time to learn, but I'm grateful to know it now.

So, I'm off to continue enjoying my day off, with a large mug of lemon ginger tea, in which the teabag is blissfully unexploded.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Playing in the garden

Today the heat index was predicted to be 100.

Since we planted some bedraggled clearance hydrangeas a couple of weeks ago, I figured some proactive watering might be in order.

It was already about 80 when I went out this morning, in basically the garb I had worn to bed the night before.

Back in the day, I always used to garden in the morning, in pajama-like garb.  I would feed Jonathan his breakfast, park him in front of Sesame Street, and go out to water, fertilize, weed and deadhead during the hour of Sesame Street.  Somehow, doing it before I was "dressed" for the day made gardening feel like play instead of work.  I remember working peacefully alone, feeling thankful and amazed that I had perennials and they were actually blooming.  I hummed as I toted the sprinkling can from bed to bed, front and back.  Around the time I figured Sesame Street was wrapping up, I'd head back in, and there would be Jon, usually rolling around on the floor in front of the sofa.

Then one day my neighbor, the one on the southeast side, nonchalantly mentioned to me, "Did you know that Jonathan comes over and rings my doorbell at about 8 every morning, and asks to come in for a snack?"  A lovely person, she said it kindly, perhaps with a twinkle in her eye.  "No," I replied, aghast.  "Really?"  She chuckled and said, "I didn't think you probably knew, since he usually only has his diaper on."

That put a bit of a damper on my gardening habits.

Here, in our "new" house, the gardens were rather unruly when we arrived.  We've worked on cultivating the front gardens, but over the three years we've been here, we haven't given much attention to the back, and this year they have progressed from "rather unruly" to "totally out of control."  So we started trying to tackle one bed at a time.  Our most recent project has been the upper terrace behind the garage, a shady spot with good access to a water spigot.

I'm on the lookout for a rhododendron.

In the meantime, we've put in hydrangeas, astilbe and columbine, as well as a bleeding heart.  I'm getting excited for next spring already!

But yes, right now the name of the game is to keep these little guys alive in the heat and dry weather we've been having.  They wilt in the noonday sun every day between 11 and 2.  Today I watered early, and I hope I watered well.

Besides putting in the plants, we've mulched and placed some stepping stones to help us get around in the garden and access everything.  I cannot tell you how much I love stepping stones.

This morning I cavorted from stepping stone to stepping stone, swinging a full sprinkling can, watching the water cascade in an arching spray, dazzling white sparkles of light caught in droplets dampening and refreshing my plants.  I felt like a ballerina.  I felt like a woodland fairy.  I felt like a child.  Barefoot, wearing pajama capris and a pink tee shirt, I immersed myself in water, dappled sunlight, fragrant cedar mulch and rich black dirt.

I get dreadfully dirty in the garden.

Of course I took a shower in the end.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Joy in the morning

Psalm 130 is the cry of my heart these days.

From the NIV:

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord;
O Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.

If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins,
O Lord, who could stand?

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in His word I put my hope.
My soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.

O Israel put your hope in the Lord,
for with the Lord is unfailing love
and with Him is full redemption.
He Himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.

Here's what I noticed this time:

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in His word I put my hope.
My soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.

O Israel put your hope in the Lord,
for with the Lord is unfailing love
and with Him is full redemption.

Yes.  I am waiting.
I am hoping in the faithful promises of God.
I am painstakingly learning about trust in a gritty, front-line-trench sort of way.

But God is good.  He is full of love and mercy.  And He promises good things:

For His anger lasts only a moment
but His favor lasts a lifetime;
weeping may remain for a night,
but rejoicing comes in the morning.
~Psalm 30:5 (NIV)

Those watchmen and I, we're waiting for the morning, watching for the sunrise.

We wait in hope for the Lord;
He is our help and our shield.
In Him our hearts rejoice,
for we trust in His holy name.
May your unfailing love rest upon us, O Lord,
even as we put our hope in you.
~Psalm 33:20-22 (NIV)

Unfailing love.
Full redemption.
Morning joy.
Yes, please.  

Monday, August 1, 2016

Contentment and such things

This morning I awoke at 5:42.

The days must be getting shorter, because the sun was not beating down on me from the uncovered half circle of window above our curtains.  A soft pink sunrise illuminated the room, gently.  My eyes, scratchy from auto-immune dryness, stung as I squinted up at the beauty, but it was so worth it.

Gentle wisps of horizontal pink cloud glowed against a lightening gray sky.  I don't get to see such a sight very often.  My heart thumped with blessings as I peered up, taking it in.

I've been thinking about contentment.

Yesterday Shawn and I were walking in the park, on the shady side.  I noticed how the leaves on the trees near the trail looked like paper cutouts, flat and crisp, while in the distance the foliage blurred to a mist, layered above brown river and green bank, frothy beneath white sky.  In-between stood vertical tree trunks, gray and linear, dappled with various amounts of sunlight.  The beauty of the world is quite overwhelming, even right here, practically in my back yard, on an ordinary summer weekend.

We get over-used to all this beauty, all this grace from God poured out around us as He waits for men to turn their hearts to him.  We forget that we deserve hell and destruction, that everything good is a gift, an anomaly.

The pain in the world, the wickedness and violence and conflict, these are all things that arise naturally from humanity's rebellion against the Lord.

The beauty, the wonder, the remnants from His original creation, these are all undeserved blessings, signs He left to point us to Him, to set eternity in our hearts.

We become discontented and grumbly when we think we deserve grace.

But that is ludicrous.  Grace is, by definition, undeserved.  Grace is when you are bequeathed a blessing that you did not earn, and for which you could never qualify.

Pondering the nature of grace can do wonders to help you grow in contentment.

And yet, I think there is a good side to discontent, to understanding that the wrongs in the world are terribly wrong, and wishing for justice, healing and deliverance.  If we were not somewhat discontent with the way sin has perverted our world, we would never seek a solution.  We would never seek a Savior.  We would not be able to understand that heaven is a destination other than this world.

It is a fine line, a hard balance to strike.  There is a key to discerning the difference between a righteous discontent over the effects of sin, and an unrighteous discontent over what we wish we had but cannot seem to attain. This key is in recognizing what we think we deserve, recognizing whether our attitudes are comprised of grateful acceptance or entitlement.  Craving grace is a good and holy thing, as long as we keep in mind that grace is always undeserved.  To truly crave grace, one must recognize one's own helpless condition apart from grace.  Those who truly crave grace must be humble enough to admit their great need.  Prideful people demand what they deem to be their right, as humans, and they put great stock in their humanity.  They believe that they deserve good things, and they become angry and bitter when they do not receive them.  This is unrighteous discontent.

I keep a bookmark in my Bible.  It has a quote on it from Jeremiah Burroughs (1648).  He said:

Christian contentment
is that sweet, inward, quiet,
gracious frame of spirit,
which freely submits to
and delights in
God's wise and fatherly provision
in every condition.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Defining stress

I tend to think of stress as a weakness.  Not only that, I think of stress as something that is in the head, something brought on by the sufferer.  It is a punishment, I assume, for being weak-minded and less of a person than other people, less able to stand up with grace in adversity.

Recently we put some plants into one of our gardens.  Here we are nearing the end of July, and on one of the very hottest Saturdays of the year, Shawn and I got up early, before the brunt of the heat, and planted three new hydrangeas that we found on clearance at Lowe's the previous evening.

Usually it seems that plants which have suffered neglect in the garden center at a big-chain-home-improvement-store must be tough.  Those that are still around, sitting on the clearance shelf as summer passes its peak, they have some survival power.  A plant purchased in early May, fresh from the greenhouse, preened and pruned and portioned with plenty of fertilizer to produce a burst of blossoms, this plant can do nothing but go downhill in my garden.  In my garden, it will have to gut out its existence in average soil, and compete for sun, and probably not be watered quite often enough.  But if I get a struggling survivor and release it from its pot, massage its cramped roots out of the root ball, give it a spot of its own with some sun and moisture, then it might actually thrive.

We planted these three hydrangeas around the water meter, because then if they get big, they will provide a screen around something unsightly.  That's my plan, my hope.

We planted them, and then we planted two other little plants I'd found: ajuga, I think they are called, but I am unfamiliar with the species.  As we worked, I decided I wanted to move some coral bells, dividing and spreading them around.  We worked as fast as we could, on the west side of the house while the sun was in the east and we had some shade.

Honestly, Shawn worked, and I stood by, determining where I wanted to position the holes, reaching in to arrange some dirt around some roots, showing Shawn with my hands where I wanted to divide the coral bells, feeling among the stems and leaves for spaces.  He worked hard, scooping roots from the earth, shoveling dirt and sweating, droplets of fluid dripping off his face.  I got surprisingly filthy for how little work I actually did.  After we placed all the plants into the ground, Shawn went around to the garage and retrieved a few bags of mulch, which he carried to the garden, split open and dumped out.  I spread the mulch around the plants after he had done all the work.  He lets me feel good about trying to be a help.

We finished before 10 a.m., which was a mercy because it was already stifling.  Coated with sweat and mud, we retreated to the air conditioning inside, desperate for iced tea and showers.

Later, sitting on the sun porch, we looked out the windows at our handiwork.  The sun, having climbed high in the sky, beat down hard on the new hydrangeas and the newly rearranged coral bells.  Although we had watered them generously, they looked miserable, droopy, inside-out.

The plants were stressed.  I realized, as I evaluated them, that stress is not "in the head."  Stress is a real thing that happens to something, be it a plant or a person.  Stress is when adverse conditions, real conditions, like heat or drought or displacement, cause a specimen to wilt.  Sorrow and loneliness and fear, these are real things that contribute to human stress, and they are not illusions, not pretend, not simply "in the head."  Nobody chooses to feel sorrowful or lonely or afraid.  These things come upon us when circumstances cause us to lose things we love or to be straddled with things that weigh us down, or (worst) both.

The worst thing you can do to a stressed person is to belittle his stress.  Telling him that he ought not be stressed does not lesson his burden; it only adds guilt and shame to the negative emotions already crushing him.  It's much better to offer some compassion, some understanding, to validate the pain and offer comfort and strategies for coping.  Would you withhold water from a stressed plant with the idea that the plant ought to be able to tough it out and buck up?  Of course not!  You would give it water in hopes that it would receive enough of what it needed to pull through the stress and begin to thrive again.  You should not be afraid of "spoiling" a stressed person by offering mercy and compassion.  Rather, you should pour out mercy and compassion in hopes that they will lead to comfort, healing, and eventual flourishing.

Stress does not always last.  With proper care, the effects of stress can be reversed.

I grow zinnias in my front yard.  Earlier this summer, I was thinning them, and as I pulled them out of the one spot, it occurred to me that I needed some colorful fill in another spot.  I'd pulled the extra flowers out crassly, taking little to no care.  Still, there were roots on the ends of them, so I carried them over and stuck them into the bare spot.  Literally, I stuck them into the ground and piled some chunks of clay soil around them to try to prop them up.  I dumped some water on them and hoped.

For a number of days, my transplants looked nauseated.  Their tops curled downward and their color went pale.  But they were still alive.  I kept watering them at intervals.

This is what they look like now:

I think it is a miracle.  It took so little: just the idea to stick them into the ground instead of into the garbage, and a few applications of water.  They overcame their stress and bloomed.

With some love and compassion, we can do the same for the stressed people in our lives.

"I'm sorry you are going through this," we can say.  Or, "I would be upset too, if that happened to me."  Or, "I love you.  I'm here for you.  I'll stay with you as long as you need me."

Just as stress is a real and powerful force of destruction, compassion is a real and powerful force for healing and restoration.  Compassion fills longings and frees souls.   Compassion can alleviate stress in a most miraculous way.