Furrowed

Oh God, I am furrowed like the field

Torn open like the dirt

And I know that to be healed,

I must be broken first

Andrew Peterson, “The Sower’s Song”

My face is furrowed. It isn’t furrowed in the regular sense of the word — like my eyebrows are knit together. This year, my face became furrowed by a new scar.

A few months ago, I learned that I had a minor form of skin cancer just under my right eye. I had battled a small blemish for over a year, trying to get it to heal. It never did. After a biopsy, the spot was confirmed to be basal cell carcinoma. And so the date was set. After we returned from our whirlwind vacation overseas, on Easter Monday early in the morning, I would be numbed up and have a piece of my cheek carved away.

The procedure I underwent is called Mohs’ surgery, named for the doctor who created the process. I suggest doing an internet search on the term if you’d like to see some truly horrific pictures. The doctor takes away the cancerous cells to the best of his ability. He also takes what he considers to be sufficient “margin” — enough healthy cells to create a border between the location of the cancer and the healthy, unaffected skin nearest the site.

This process is mind-bending. While you lay on a reclining chair in one room, lab technicians down the hall look at a piece of your face to make sure they “got it all.” When the doctor is satisfied that you’re done, he uses a tiny torch to cauterize the site and help it heal. The smell of my own burning flesh is not one I will soon forget.

The first couple of weeks of healing were uneventful. The most traumatic part was the first glance at the stitches — seven of them, marching uniformly in vivid purple across my upper cheek. But once the stitches came out, I was optimistic about the healing of what would amount to an extra-deep laugh line underneath my right eye.

Then, two weeks later, some purple sprung up under the skin. Swelling began. Was it an infection? No. My body was in rebellion. A hematoma had arisen. It had to be lanced. More bandages. And now, some work.

Beneath the line that rests on the skin, there is an angrier area. My skin wants to harden up. Scar tissue is setting in, making my upper cheek a lumpy mess. It is in need of some work. “Your best friends,” the doctor said at my third post-op visit, “will be time and massage.”

Now, and for the foreseeable future, an alarm on my phone sounds every hour. Ten times a day, for one minute each time, I must massage the scar. But to say “massage” is too kind — I must push down hard, exerting pressure and breaking up the hardened tissue underneath the skin. I must keep at it. I must exert little bits of hard effort, a small amount at a time. I hope to win out over the hard scar tissue through time and consistency. However, I should not expect overnight results, and I should not expect to rest from the effort anytime soon.

The experience has served to remind me that little things we do every day often matter more than big things we do every once in a while. Consistent effort, little bits at a time, bear regular, bountiful fruit more than big, occasional efforts. Our flesh desires the big, showy payoff performances. But long-lasting fruit comes with little bits of faithful investment.

So please keep going to the gym a few times a week. Keep reminding your kids to put their dishes in the dishwasher. Keep texting that friend even though you haven’t seen her in awhile. Keep opening that Bible every morning. Keep showing up at church early to serve. To paraphrase Annie Dillard, how you spend your days is how you spend your life.

Also — how quickly can scar tissue set into our souls? We all know areas that the Holy Spirit wants us to press on. It causes us pain. It requires effort. Quite frankly, we don’t want to enter into it. The first cut hurts. Our natures make us want to become atrophied and give up for lack of observable results. After the initial sting, we may think the work is done. But the process of repentance is borne out over days, months, and years of dying little deaths and pressing forward into little resurrections.

It is meant for our good by a good and kind Father, and it will bear the peaceful fruit of righteousness in the end. (Hebrews 12:11)

Galileo and the Reckoning

Musically speaking, I grew up in the 1990’s. Natalie Merchant, the Indigo Girls, the Cranberries…these were all my favorites. There was no better anthem for high school and college life than the Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine”:

I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind

Got my paper and I was free

Or who didn’t love Natalie Merchant’s “Jealousy” in the wake of a bad breakup?

Does she talk

The way I do

Is her voice reminding you

Of the promises

The little white lies too

The music was bitter and cynical, and I relished it being that way. It was the tone of that whole generation.

Occasionally when I’m cleaning the house, in need of a shot of energy, I’ll turn on a Pandora channel with these artists on it. I find amusement in seeing if, while I’m scrubbing the bathroom sink, I can still sing Dolores O’Riordan’s entire descant at the end of “Dreams” without taking a single breath. I sound terrible, and the echo in the room only magnifies the horror, but I’m having fun and the bathroom is getting clean.

My children and husband quietly roll their eyes.

The other day The Indigo Girls’ song “Galileo” came on. If you’re not familiar with the song, it wrestles with the idea of reincarnation. The writer despairs that she will never “get it right,” and wonders if she’s doomed to repeat the same mistakes in lifetime after lifetime.

How long till my soul gets it right?

Can any human being ever reach that kind of light?

I call on the resting soul of Galileo

King of night vision, King of insight

In the writer’s mind, Galileo was the only person who ever got it right — he found the truth and was twice accused of heresy for it. He died under house arrest, and now his soul is at rest.

Until her friend brought up the idea of reincarnation, the writer thought her mistakes were only to blame on her childhood. But now, she says, she might need to look back further: “And now I’m serving time for mistakes/made by another in another lifetime.” Faced with this dark reality, the only hope is that, as a result of her failures, at least we’ll avoid a nuclear holocaust:

If we wait for the time till all souls get it right

Then at least, I know there’ll be no nuclear annihilation

In my lifetime

At the end of the song, the first line of the chorus repeats again and again: “how long? how long?”

As “Galileo” played in my house the other day, I heard my youngest son quietly filling in a background vocal at the end: “How long until the reckoning…”

He was repeating the closing strains of Andrew Peterson’s song “The Reckoning.” This song has become “mandatory thunderstorm listening” in our home, as Andrew witnesses a storm and calls to mind how the Lord promises to return and set all things right.

Immediately I was struck with the difference in worldview here.

How long until this curtain is lifted?

How long is this the song that we sing?

How long until the reckoning?

…I know you hear the cries of every soul tonight

You see the teardrops as they roll tonight

Down the faces of saints

Who grow weary and faint in your fields

And the wicked roam the cities and the streets tonight

But when the God of love and thunder speaks tonight

I believe You will come

Your justice be done, but how long?

hourglass-4-1312475-1599x2132Behold in stark relief the difference the Gospel makes: hope. Christians long for the end. We look forward to it, because we know the outcome doesn’t depend on us “getting it right.” Christ has gotten it right for us. Though the idea of a holy God returning to earth and exacting justice on evil might inspire fear, ultimately we are at peace because our lives are hidden in Christ.

Hope is at odds with cynicism. We cannot carry both at the same time — they repel one another. We must put one down. Lately I’m realizing how much I’ve been carrying cynicism around. It’s a security blanket for those of us who’ve been disappointed. If we don’t “get our hopes up,” we won’t be let down.

This ugly, dirty security blanket of cynicism prevents me from looking people in the eye. I am afraid of them. I am afraid of getting hurt again. Being lied and gossiped about again. Being misunderstood again. I am more like the cynical believer in reincarnation than I am the hopeful Christian.

Because I am fortunate in my friends, every once in awhile, a fellow Christian breathes new life into me with words of hope.

They then addressed themselves to the water; and entering, CHRISTIAN began to sink. And crying out to his good friend, HOPEFUL, he said, “I sink in deep waters, the billows go over my head; all his waves go over me.”

Then said the other, “Be of good cheer, my brother; I feel the bottom, and it is good.”

…Then I saw in my dream that CHRISTIAN was as in a muse awhile, to whom also HOPEFUL added this word, “Be of good cheer, Jesus Christ maketh thee whole “; and with that CHRISTIAN brake out with a loud voice, “Oh, I see him again! and he tells me, ‘When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee'”.

-from “The Last Difficulties,” The Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan

Oh, how I want to be Hopeful — to sink into the bottom of difficulties and see the good approaching! To bear the burden and not faint; to release the cynicism and speak hope to a fellow Christian, as so many have for me; to remind them of the Reckoning, when all things will be made new.

Come Lord Jesus! How long, O Lord?

Christmas, Whidbey Island

Today is the solstice: the darkest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. I heard a friend say that she loves the nativitysolstice, because it means the sun has been flung back northward again. Imagine that: the cosmic ping-ponging of a star so much larger than ourselves, hemmed in, we like to think, by gravity and our calendars.

“It’s our turn,” says the Northern Hemisphere, and Australia and the South reply, “well, alright, then,” and send the sun back. We will trade again in six months, when my children’s necks are sticky with sweat and the fireflies dance under the trees.

It is fitting that in the darkest days of the year, we celebrate the first advent of the Lord Jesus. The people who have walked in darkness behold a great light, and He makes all things new (Is. 9:2; Rev. 21:5).

He must be made low to rejoice with the Father on high (Phil.2). He was foretold in the Garden, on the day the gate was flung closed and locked (Gen.3). And He would conquer through lowliness, in the form of a man. God in the manger. Creator with no place to lay His head (Luke 9:58).

In the early chapters of Breath for the Bones, Luci Shaw explores the idea of metaphor, word made flesh. She reminds us that the centerpiece of God’s creative imagination is Bethlehem, “…site of the Incarnation, flash point of the joining of heaven and earth, invisible and visible reality, transcendent and material.”

She shares this poem from her colleague, Loren Wilkinson. May it bless you as you consider the Word made flesh this week.

Christmas, Whidbey Island

Not in the waves, not in the wave torn kelp;

Not in the heron by the lake at dawn

Nor owls’ haunting of the wood,

Nor rabbits browsing frightened on the lawn;

Neither in the widening whirl

Of seashell, galaxy, or cedar burl,

Nor in the mushrooms’ bursting of the humid ground

May God the fathering be found,

If not found first in Bethlehem,

In thistly hay, on hoof-packed earth,

Where a girl, cruciform with pain

Grips manger boards in child birth.

There in the harsh particular,

In drafts, and stench of cow manure

The squalls of Christ, Creator, sound;

Where God grasped not at Godhead in a child

There only will the God of life be found.

Now, if we upon this wave-shaped bluff

Stand in the straw of Bethlehem

Then God shines out from everything;

The agate in the surf, the withered flower stem,

The fish that gives its body for the seal,

The flesh, the fruits that form each common meal,

The dance of pain and love in which our lives are wound;

Since Christ was flesh at Bethlehem,

In all the world’s flesh may God be found.

Linkage

I have just two things for you today.

One, if you have had it up to here with political advertising like I (and my children) have, head over to this Random Political Rhetoric Generator for a couple of laughs. You can take important stands like, “I want an America where internet pirates and violent video game makers cannot corrupt our cherished national parks.”

Two, this article by Carl Trueman is a highly influential one for me when it comes to music in the church. I return to it now and again to recalibrate and ask questions of myself and others: What Can Miserable Christians Sing? Here’s a taste:

A diet of unremittingly jolly choruses and hymns inevitably creates an unrealistic horizon of expectation which sees the normative Christian life as one long triumphalist street party — a theologically incorrect and a pastorally disastrous scenario in a world of broken individuals. Has an unconscious belief that Christianity is — or at least should be — all about health, wealth, and happiness silently corrupted the content of our worship? Few Christians in areas where the church has been strongest over recent decades — China, Africa, Eastern Europe – would regard uninterrupted emotional highs as normal Christian experience.

Trueman wrote a follow-up piece for the 9marks blog earlier this year that is also worth a read.

How Many Hours are in a Mile?

Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All nonsense questions are unanswerable. How many hours are in a mile? Is yellow square or round? Probably half the questions we ask — half our great theological and metaphysical problems — are like that.

-CS Lewis, From A Grief Observed

Book Review: Real Love for Real Life

“Home is the school where we learn that love shows itself in the details.”

My friend Laura and I just finished up Andi Ashworth’s Real Love for Real Life: the Art and Work of Caring. I wanted to take this opportunity to heartily recommend it.

We live in a culture that has largely farmed out caretaking to paid individuals, and Andi posits that perhaps this shift has undermined the value of unpaid caretaking. Whether it be to our children, our parents, or our neighbors and friends, special care in the mundane (and the not-so-mundane) can feel like an overlooked skill.

Parenting is the most obvious battleground for this struggle. Who hasn’t felt as though no one notices or appreciates their efforts in care for needy little ones or the home in which they live? Andi encourages us on the road of day-in and day-out caring for our kids. Keeping our eyes on Christ, who gave His life to serve, we can find encouragement and endurance for the road ahead.

Andi reminds us of the value of taking time to celebrate as a family in recounting her family’s annual Valentine’s dinner. She gives examples of hospitality to strangers and neighbors. She recounts friends’ faithfulness in preparing for her son’s rehearsal dinner at their homeReal Love for Real LIfe. She also reminds us of the importance of prayer in care for people.

Reading this book, I felt called back to the wisdom present in Edith Schaeffer’s Hidden Art. Andi encourages caretakers in creativity and the careful art of fostering homes and environments designed as havens for those who shelter there.

All the while, Andi maintains an eye towards balancing the need for rest and play amidst the tasks that might fill our days. I found her perspective on saying “no” — to many good things, in order to say “yes” to the best things — refreshing.

The book also provides a sweet glimpse into the life at Art House, where Andi and her husband Charlie Peacock (“Chuck”) encourage artists and musicians with hospitality and prayer. I’ve been an observer of their ministry for years, so this element of the book was a treat for me.

Rabbit Room Press was responsible for the reissuing of this gem. You can buy it here.

Desire Like Dynamite, Jayber Crow, and A Rocha

I had a dream that the mountains cried like a child for their mother

There was poison in the seam and I saw eastern Tennessee flooding under

Black the hope, the Holy Ghost

a deaf man hears inaudible thunder

The hush, the chill, the iron will of man

Sweeping everything in sight…with dynamite

The other day I was driving down the road listening to Sandra McCracken’s latest album, Desire like Dynamite. The title song is maybe my favorite on the album. In it, Sandra compares “the iron will of man” across the landscape to our struggle with will and desires within us and our children.

Then suddenly, I encountered one of those blessed moments of connection that happen with good art and literature. I was back in the concluding chapters of Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow, watching Jayber sleep in the Nest Egg, a treasured bit of forest on a neighbor’s farm:

Everything there seemed to belong where it was. That was why I went there. And I went to feel the change that that place always made in me. Always, as soon as I came in under the big trees, I began to go slowly and quietly. This was not because I was hunting (I hunted in other places), but because in a place where everything belongs where it is, you do not want to disturb anything. I went slowly and quietly. I watched where I put my feet. I went for solace and comfort, for a certain quietness of mind that came to me in no other place. Even the nettles and mosquitoes comforted me, for they belonged where they were.

At the end of the novel, the Nest Egg is gone, sacrificed to the iron will and carelessness of man.

I dreamed I heard the sound of the last Great God bird singing

Lying in the trees I could hear the ax machines that were ringing

This is like a fable to be told but I’d rather put it down

Will we choose the noise of our desire,

Or the hope that makes no sound?

Those who have ears, as the smoke it clears

will see things as they are

to bend the will, you first must change the heart…

If you’d like to read about Sandra’s visit to Mr. Berry’s farm, go here.

Also, please consider giving to the Nashville A Rocha project, which encourages people in integrating faith, creation care, and hospitality. You can get some music for a small amount of support to their campaign, which ends on July 2.