a dose of gladness

flowersThis morning, as the dog ran in the park, I sat on a bench, leaned back, and lifted my face—and then had to squint because the sun hung in the air so bright it seemed to make the blue of the sky and the edges of the young leaves almost pulse with intensity.

It felt too sharp.

Friday night my husband came home from his inner-city school and went straight into our bedroom. I followed him in, took one look at his face, and shut the door behind me. Between tears, he shared with me one tragedy after another he’d learned of that very day. The violence and dysfunction in several neighborhoods had spilled over, and several students and one teacher had endured trauma and loss and setback.

No matter where you teach, there is always hardship. No matter where you live, there is always heartache. But we’re learning that when you teach in an inner-city school, when you live in an under-resourced neighborhood, the hardship and heartache seem to be the norm rather than the exception. The students and teachers at Dave’s school are always going through something, but this past week, there was simply too much. Their young, vibrant principal called a special meeting Friday and, in tears herself, relayed to her staff one story after another after another.

“We have to love each other,” she told them at the meeting’s end. “We have to encourage each other and love our kids and get rest. This is really, really hard.”

Yes, it is.

After Dave told me everything, and we cried together, he lay on the bed and fell asleep. And I went out and explained to our kids and our guest that it was going to be a slightly different evening than we’d planned. And our wonderful guest said that was perfectly all right.

The weekend rolled on. Soccer on Saturday morning and an evening spent with friends; church on Sunday and then, unfortunately, lots of homework. But underneath was heaviness.

So this morning, between sending Dave and the kids off to school and getting to work myself, I took the dog to the park and thought and prayed about the hard things I know about and all those I don’t, and then I just needed to sit down.

And the sunlight was too bright.

How, God, when you know all the darkness, all the sorrow, all the hurt and pain and evil inflicted by humans upon each other—and even on themselves—how does the sun still shine? How is the sky so blue, the trees so green?

If I were you, clouds would hover above the sites of such tragedies; trees would stand bare and stark in sorrow at what they have seen; the sun would hide; and the grass and flowers would shrivel in horror at what we humans do to each other, at what some humans must endure.

And yet…

And yet, the sight of a tree breaking into purple flower still caused me to smile—just this morning.


I don’t know, but I do know that in the midst of all this, we need gladness in small doses and large, to whatever degree we can take it.

So today I pray that for a few particular students, one particular teacher, a couple of graduates, a student now in search of a new school. I pray that something—like purple flowers, the brilliant blue sky, the squinting-ly shining sun or the gleaming green of the trees—makes them smile today in spite of everything. Better yet, Abba, may a fellow human, bearing your image and your presence, make them glad.

In spite of everything, may they sense a love that cannot be explained or seen but which is real, is true.

Is you.

Chester and the Galaxies

The tree that dropped these leaves was so beautiful I had to stop the car to take pictures of it. Then I noticed the carpet of leaves on the sidewalk.

About an hour ago I took a break from the article I was writing and went to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee. Scurrying across the linoleum was a bug. Thinking it was a box elder beetle (Jake did a recent science project on these; they’re funny looking bugs), I got down for a closer look. It was a tiny cricket, smaller than Chester in Cricket in Time’s Square (I read this as a kid and then again to my kids last year–great book) but delicate, just as Chester looks in those beautiful drawings by Garth Williams (who also illustrated Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little).

I pushed a crumb on the floor closer to the cricket, but it jumped. Up, up, up, a good six times higher than its own height, then landing on its feet. Amazing! I did it again. Then I just watched, as the cricket put out its incredibly thin, sensitive feelers to test before it took each step. Somehow its long, folded jumping legs moved in stride with its much shorter front legs, and a few seconds later, it had made its way under the stove and was out of sight. Smart cricket! I don’t remember the last time I swept under there!

“Chester” made me think of a conversation I had on Wednesday with one of the international students I tutor. “What do you want to work on today?” I asked her at the beginning of the session.

Her reply was immediate: “Bible.”

“Hard stuff again?” This would not be the first time we’ve discussed a Bible lesson. She is newer to the English language than many of the other international students in the class, so the discussions move too quickly for her, and on top of that she has no background in Christianity or the Bible.

“I don’t understand what we are talking about, and I have a test tomorrow.”

What they have been talking about is internal and external evidences, the canon, and plenary-verbal inspiration. Many of our non-Christian students WANT this. With educations steeped in the scientific, they want to sift through evidence; they want “proof” outside of experience.

But this student, though raised in the same kind of setting, is asking different questions. “How do YOU know?” she asked me a few weeks back. “What was a time God showed He was real to YOU?”

I’ve shared Patrick’s story; I’ve talked about moving to Japan and moving back. I’ve talked about comfort even in times that started out difficult and stayed difficult.

So this day I skipped the canon and started with general revelation.

And I got a little excited.

“When I took a walk yesterday,” I told her, “I noticed all the colors in the trees. Beautiful. And then I noticed these little plants—someone told me they are called ‘Chinese Lanterns.’ They’re amazing. And when I think that each winter these plants and trees cease operations, huddle into themselves during the cold months, and then are brought to life again in the spring, I am in awe!”

She was nodding, so I went on. I talked about the wonders of the human foot, that so small a base (and only two of them) could hold up a person as tall as the head of our international student program. She grinned.

“When I look at all of that, I think, ‘There must be a designer. This could not have come about by accident, by an explosion.” She’s shaking her head now, though I know she has learned nothing but evolution in her schooling. “I think that this must have come out of the mind of a Being far greater than I, Someone who was able to think of each tiny, tiny detail—down to the atoms and molecules—as well as the hugeness of planets and galaxies and how it all works together.”

I was breathless by now, and her eyes were shining. But I’m not finishing this post by saying that she made a decision that afternoon, though we moved from general revelation to special, from the stars to the Bright and Morning Star who came down for us to view him up close and personal and then died so we could really know Him (not that I used those words! J). No, this very special student is on her own journey, and I want the Holy Spirit of God to move her heart in that personal, beautiful way He has until it is her own decision and not one unduly influenced by me or anyone else.

But I finish this post with amazement at the general revelation He has given—from “Chester” currently hiding out under my stove to the galaxies and planets revealed to our weak eyes through the Hubble and Kepler telescopes. I finish with a sorrow-mixed awe at the power of storms like Sandy and what they tell us about our own incapacity and the mighty strength of the God who created wind patterns and waves that groan and heave with the weight of the Fall.

Take a walk today. Crouch low and notice the details. Look up high and watch the wind bend branches and trees as thick as our bodies. Google images of stars and planets (here’s a Web site I found today: http://www.spacetelescope.org/images/archive/top100/).

Get a bigger picture.

And let’s be amazed, awed, wowed together.

Here are some of those Chinese Lanterns–now I finally know what the red version in my yard is. They’re beautiful.

Gray or Glory?

Em and cousin Grace enjoying each other's company last week in Philly

“There’s one! See the purple!”

I followed Em’s pointng finger. Flowers sprouted straight from winter-dark branches, like they’d split the bark and sprung out full-blossomed. The tree literally erupted with spring.

It was yet another drive to-from school, and we needed some magic. “Let’s look for beauty,” I’d told Em, and spotting brilliant yellows, pinks, and lavenders transformed the trip.

Yesterday morning, as I drove home from work, I didn’t have beauty on the mind. I was weighed down with decisions, the busyness of the day ahead, and struggles I knew others were experiencing. Suddenly purple caught my eye.

Here I am.

Holy Spirit whisper.

I resisted, focused on the gray of the leafless trees, the asphalt, the cloud-scudded sky.

But more, more, more, one spot of color after another.

How long will you resist me? And why? What good will your focus on the gray accomplish? Look at ME.

“Your Father in heaven gives good gifts to those who ask him.” Matt. 7:11

I wasn’t asking for any gifts (how ungrateful, since it’s ALL, honestly, gifts)—and I was trying to stay in my funk, in my “gray,” despite His offers and gifts of beauty, of delight—of Himself!

As I looked at a spring-budding world, a world being transformed from gray to color, wakened magically to new life, I realized how strange, silly even, it was to assume that the God creative and powerful enough to do THAT would be unable to fix me! To fix all the problems I saw.

The focal point of my gaze was magnifying the gray, overwhelming all the God-color.

Today PJ and I walked at the dog park.

Though most owners do pretty well at cleaning up after their pets, it’s still a poop minefield. Above was a blue sky and fluffy clouds, pines standing straight like guards, flowering trees spreading branches wide like they were trying to hold hands.

Lots and lots of beauty. But me…well, I was too busy looking down, watching out for poop, to notice it much.

In Isaiah 6:3 the seraphim above the throne of God say, over and over, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

The WHOLE earth is full of His glory.

So the problem, again, isn’t His absence, it’s my focus.

Am I going to focus on the gray? The poop?

Or am I going to walk ahead with confidence, trusting that God will “lead me in the path of righteousness,” that He will “make all paths straight,” not just mine.

In her book One Thousand Gifts, Ann Voskamp writes, “…I only deepen the wound of the world when I neglect to give thanks for early light dappled through leaves and the heavy perfume of wild roses in early June… The brave who focus on all things good and all things beautiful and all things true, even in the small, who give thanks for it and discover joy even in the here and now, they are the change agents who bring fullest Light to all the world.”

Two years ago, on a trip to Kenya, we had the amazing opportunity to go INTO the Kibera slum, the second largest slum in the world. A giant man who grew up in it and who still lives and ministers there, took us in, leading the way through the maze of shacks. I watched out for more than poop as I placed each foot, but at one corner my eyes were drawn up to a barred window that had a bright, cheerful curtain. A small jar of wildflowers sat on its sill. Tears came to my eyes and I thought, “You’re here, Lord, even here!”

If I focus on the gray, the poop, I will be overwhelmed, but if I focus on His beauty, the glory of God pinpointing its way through the gray, I have hope: I can pull the gray TO the glory. It’s there; it’s available.

George Washington Carver, who certainly had plenty of gray in his against-the-odds life, said, “I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in.”

If we will only tune in.

Look for the Glory!

Extra quote (just ’cause I love it): “God writes the gospel not in the Bible alone, but on trees and flowers and clouds and stars.” Martin Luther

Maddie, thoroughly enjoying some of the glory in Philly last week