New Things, New Places

The run of this blog has officially run its course. I loved my blogging years, and I am happy to say I am moving on to a different, but related, season of writing. If you enjoy my writing, you can now find me once a month or so at the Torrey Gazette.

I am enjoying the benefit of writing in community and of having an editor, and I am grateful to be included in the collection of writers that Joshua Torrey has assembled. It is a strong team, and I think you would enjoy most of the things you find there. Hope you join us.

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An Acceptable Day to the Lord

Amid the typical blog posts and social media debates this week regarding the practice of Lent, one post was remarkable. Suzanne Marshall’s guest poston the PCACDM blog enCourage took the position that some practice of Lent, ideally practiced in community, is a commendable and even beneficial practice. This is not the historic or confessionally Presbyterian belief regarding Lent, so to find such an article in an official PCA publication is noteworthy. A number of good and godly writers have examined the ways in which Lent is not a biblical practice, and is incompatible with the Reformed and Presbyterian confessions. In the same way, a number of excellent resources presenting the questionable history and development of Lenten practice are available from qualified authors. However, Suzanne Marshall offers women the hope that participating in Lent will prepare their hearts for worship on Easter, and will awaken in them a greater love for Jesus. This is a serious claim that deserves a serious examination.
Marshall addresses a very real problem that believers of both sexes through all of church history have battled. We have all, at some point, found ourselves in the middle of a sermon, having no idea what has been said because we have been preoccupied by upcoming lunch, unfinished tasks, or other cares of our daily life. As she so poignantly noted, we find ourselves on a Sunday afternoon wondering how we have let the resurrection be snatched from us. The idea of practices such as Lent and Advent appeal to hearts seeking greater communion with God. Our lives are so full of chasing after what we will eat, what we will drink, and what we will wear, but we long to seek after the kingdom. Doesn’t something like Lent and Advent re-orient our mind to seek first the kingdom, like Jesus commanded in the gospels?
The Lord, speaking through Isaiah, tells us no. In Isaiah 58:3, the people of God ask, “Why have we fasted and You do not see? Why have we humbled ourselves and You do not notice?’ The Lord tells His people that their fasts are not acceptable to Him.

“Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed
And for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed?
Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the LORD?” Isaiah 58:5

Instead, He calls His people to active obedience and seeking the good of neighbors. He asks his people to seek justice for the oppressed, and to feed, clothe, and house the poor. He calls for self-denial, not in hope of hearing from God, for they have already heard from him, but in order to provide for others. The sack cloth and ashes are abandoned. The “bowed head” turned inward, is lifted up toward neighbor.

“Then your light will break out like the dawn,
And your recovery will speedily spring forth;
And your righteousness will go before you;
The glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
You will cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’” Isaiah 58:8,9

Self-deprivation is not the way to seek God. So what are we to do? Suzanne Marshall begins her article with “I wasn’t prepared, at least not in my heart. . . Why not prepare for Easter?” and ends with “when April 21 rolls around, I want to be ready.” So how can we prepare our hearts? Does the Lord give us guidance? Does he answer the very real struggle Marshall addresses? Of course He does. The Lord is faithful. He does not hide himself from us. In the same chapter that he says the inward focused fasting is not “. . . an acceptable day to the Lord,” he points us to a day that is acceptable, and a regular practice that will turn our hearts toward the Lord.

If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath,
from doing your pleasure on my holy day,
and call the Sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the LORD honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly;
then you shall take delight in the LORD, Isaiah 58:13, 14

The reformed practice of weekly remembering the Sabbath to keep it holy answers the need Marshall’s article describes. This is the regular habit of denying ourselves to which the Lord calls us. Instead of depriving ourselves of an item or practice of our own choosing, we set aside our work, and our pleasure, at the Lord’s request, to devote one day in seven to the Lord alone. We gather in worship to receive the grace of word, prayer, and sacrament. It is in these means of grace, faithfully sought out each week, that our hearts are softened and awakened more and more.
Setting aside more than a month to prepare for a single day of worship short circuits the rhythm built into us from Creation. Spending 40 days in self-imposed fasting steals and undermines the very Sabbath rest provided by the Lord. Suzanne Marshall notes that “The long struggles and long-term projects in my past produced more lasting impressions than events quickly hurdled.” She is so right. The Christian life is a marathon, not a 40 day sprint.
Do we want to be ready to celebrate the resurrection, or the incarnation? If you, like Mrs. Marshall, want to be ready on April 21, begin with this next Sunday. Turn away from little fasts of your own choosing, of what you will eat, or drink, or wear. Instead, seek the Lord where, and how, He has promised to be found; in the ordinary means of His grace.

Book Review: Heir to the Raven by John W. Bush

I have reviewed a good number of books over the years, but this is the first time I have had a a chance to review the type of fun fantasy I love to read for a mental vacation. The fantasy genre is a lot more difficult than many think, and I have recently become discouraged when reading modern fantasy literature. Either the author is trying too hard to be someone else (Tolkien or Pratchett or Martin or Rowling) or they push past daring and end up pornographic. When a cyber acquaintance asked for volunteers to read her husband’s new fantasy novel, I jumped at the chance, and I was not disappointed.

Heir to the Raven offers all the best of modern fantasy literature without the tawdry and depraved. It is political, intricate and delightfully readable. Bush draws on his military and diplomatic careers to build a world of believable characters, both noble and common, engaging in universal struggles. There are kings, both weak and strong. There are supernatural powers both for good and evil. There is unexpected death, spies, fantastical beasts, and unexpected glory. A warrior princess is forced into diplomacy, an academic is called to arms, and an illiterate peasant girl is much more than anyone suspects.

Delightfully, Jandaria and Belgorsk aren’t copies of say Middle Earth or Westeros, nor are they thinly whitewashed post apocalyptic America or Europe. Bush creates a world that houses his story completely, and is internally consistent, but it doesn’t become a character of its own. There is history there, but the action is driven by the present. There are unique words, and common words used uniquely, but no new language. The unique world is comfortable in all the right places, allowing a reader to slip into it, and ride the narrative.

About 2/3 of the way into the story, the supernatural elements of light and dark faie, faie touched, and changlings, slip into the background as the action of war steps to the fore. It is a natural flow of the story, but I hope that these elements will be further developed in subsequent books.

Heir to the Raven is a fun read, and there is every indication the entire series will be exactly the fantasy reading so many readers are looking for.

Over the Crashing of the Waves

Water is a fickle friend. The calm lake in which we swam and fished for four days turned angry early Friday morning, launching a relentless assault of waves upon the beach. All day the crash and roar had been a rhythmic white noise behind our activities, in or out. When I got the baby down in the evening and descended the stairs to see what the rest of the family was doing, I was certain I could hear snatches of music. I wandered the “cottage” looking for the source, but I couldn’t track it precisely with the Lake raging in my ears. Finally, I abandoned my search and stepped out on the back deck to watch the waves. Here I realized, Evelyn, my father’s wife, was playing scales on her flute, and some of the notes had landed in my lake deafened ears.

On the Lord’s Day we rest from our labour, but the unrelenting waves of a world broken with sin still thunder in the ears of many. My aunt waits restlessly for a hip. My friends Becky, Jeremy, and “Little” wait for a suitable heart. Jobs and family and the weight of a world broken with sin smash against the lives of too many. Still, the Lord’s Day comes, week after week, not so the waves will stop, but so we can worship over the waves.

Is life raging? Come participate in the means of grace. We strain to listen to the word preached over the ongoing roar of life. We speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs so that snatches of our corporate songs may land in sin and pain deafened ears. The rhythm and melody of corporate worship on the Lord’s Day will carry through the thunder of life’s white caps like a flute on a stormy night. Are you burdened? Then come, and worship, above the crashing of the waves.

What Is A Friend? My review of Why Can’t We Be Friends? by Aimee Byrd

Amy Mantravadi and Rachel Miller have both written excellent, very detailed reviews of this book. I commend them both to you.

I was excited to be a part of the launch team for Aimee Byrd’s newest book. As I’ve written in the past, I have enjoyed the Mortification of Spin podcast for several years, and one of my summer books last year was Byrd’s No Little Women, which I highly recommend. I have been surprised at the backlash Aimee has received in the lead up to this book. The number of people accusing her of actively sabotaging marriages has been startling and unjust. Reading Why Can’t We Be Friends has confirmed to me that as a culture we don’t really know what friendship is.

My closest friends in the whole world, outside of family, are Jawan, Becky and Sarah. They are the people I would drive miles out of my way to see. I weep when they weep and rejoice when they rejoice. My heart is lifted when I see I have a message or email from them. They are my friends. I love them.

If I spent hours talking to, texting, or messaging, them while ignoring my family, that would not be friendship. It would be an unhealthy relationship. If I talked to them about my hopes and dreams and the deepest part of my soul and didn’t share any of that with my husband, both my friendships and my marriage would be in very unhealthy states. I love those women, but I have never had a candle light dinner with either of them, because that’s not what friends do. As Aimee points out in her book, friendship isn’t exclusive.

The thing is, healthy limits are a part of healthy friendships, regardless of the shared or differing sex of the participants. My friendships with Jawan, Becky and Sarah doesn’t threaten my marriage, not because they are women, but because they are my friends.  The relationship I have with my husband is unique and exclusive. My friendships are not. In fact, as Aimee points out, my friendships with those women don’t threaten my friendships with other friends like Natalie and Jocelyn and Suzanne. Friendship doesn’t work that way. When Jawan introduced me to Becky, she didn’t lose part of her friendship with me. We both gained a shared friend, and the many benefits of that.  If I ever behave to my friends in the way I behave to my husband, I would have crossed lines that friendship is not designed to cross. The objections to other sex friendships assume that friendships will always lead to crossing those lines, but true friendship doesn’t.

The problem with both the hook up culture and the purity/courtship culture is that every interaction with the other sex is as a potential sexual partner. This is unhelpful and unnecessary; it is also learned. Friendship in any context will fail if we expect all human interaction to result in a unique, exclusive relationship. We will be dissatisfied with every point of contact. Friendship should be our normative definition of intimacy, with sexual partnership properly identified as rare and exclusive. In this case, cross sex friendship should be the antidote to, not the casualty of, a hyper-sexualized culture. The more inclusive our friendships, the more personal, but less novel and exclusive, the individuals with whom we relate will seem.

All the redeemed, male and female, make up the bride of Christ and are sons in the Son (p 136)

Why Can’t We Be Friends is about friendships and faithfulness in the body of Christ. Aimee takes solid, and uncontested biblical truths, and makes the good and necessary application of them to our relationships with the other sex. She then roots those relationships in the outworking of the local church and the means of grace. Byrd’s words and application, from beginning to last, are about faithful friendship within the covenant community of God and it is this context I think her detractors are missing. Aimee isn’t calling us to seek out the other sex just to prove we can. Nor is she calling for a general “free for all” attitude to interpersonal relationships. She is calling Christians to be the covenant community we are called to be. Her words echo Paul’s admonition to Timothy, “Do not sharply rebuke an older man, but rather appeal to him as a father, to the younger men as brothers, the older women as mothers, and the younger women as sisters, in all purity.” 1 Timothy 5:1-2 (NASB)

I hope a lot of people actually read this book for its content, instead of disagreeing with it blindly, or hunting the perceived heresy. If that can happen, we can begin to have the real conversations about friendships and wisdom between the sexes.

The Power of Ordinary.

More than four years ago, I wrote about the experience of coming “home” to the small town life I was so desperate to escape in my teens. As we embark upon our fifth summer here in New Brunswick, I realize that our life is exactly as I expected, yet completely unique. The things that have become our favorite things carry with them the comfortable memories of my small town childhood on the opposite side of this huge land. Yet they are uniquely stamped with this place so as to be inseparable from it.

One of the unique qualities of life here at the end (or beginning) of I-95 is the casual way many of us cross an international border. Last week a friend left my house telling me she had to cross into Maine for sunscreen before she went home. Our bonus doodle had been to a foreign country a number of times before she ever ventured into another province of her own country. That our favorite ice cream is made and sold in another country is no barrier to our enjoying it. That worn-out stereo-type of summer trips to the local ice cream stand gets a bit of a face lift, when a passport is involved. Sprinkle on top the oddity that 3/4 of the children are citizens on both sides of that border, and we suddenly have an experience all our own.

I first wrote all of those words while I sat by a river. Going down to the river to swim is another summer story stretched too thin. Here, in a town built between two rivers, the swimming holes are almost as numerous as the families. Our very favorite is actually a shallow water fall. The children body surf the little rapids from pool to pool, eventually slipping into the deep basin carved by gallons of water poured over thousands of years. They laugh and shout, and scramble back over the rocks to do it again. In past years I have joined them, treading water near the last lip in case one of them found themselves in need of assistance. This year they are all confident swimmers, and I have a smaller doodle to mind.

Bonus doodle sat in the pebbles and tested them all for fitness in her hand. She even tasted one or two, and watched, fascinated, as an ant discovered it had inadvertently trapped itself in the tulle trimming of her shirt. The children would stop to smile at her and laugh as they made their way back to the place they had designated that day’s starting point. She was already a part of a summer tradition bigger than her.

There is no other Jackson Falls, or Houlton Farms Dairy. The place is the memory, not the generic backdrop. The longer we live here, and as the middle doodles ask me and their older sister to recount memories from other places, I realize that this is what childhood is. I am not building a vessel in which they will be formed. The vessel of their childhood is built by God, and I am just filling it, day by day, with the ordinary that will become their memories. I’ve never been a “making memories” kind of Mom. We live life in our own way, and we pick things we like to do, so we do them again. Somewhere along the line an ordinary day becomes a story. I never know which day or place it will be.

There is a reason all the summer tales feature these tropes of ice cream and swimming holes. Despite our professed yearning to go fight a dragon or solve a mystery, our life stories are made of more ordinary things and from them is built a unique, extraordinary life. It is the simple tales of ordinary things that resonate with our souls because they remind us of the ordinary things we have done that are uniquely ours.

Sanctification and March Snow

The snow pack in March is a sedimentary formation of snow, ice, and road sand. This time of the year, we are all eager for warm rain, and green points from the ground and tree branches. Instead, we get more snow. It’s disheartening to watch the white flakes blanket the road, and swirl over the windshield in a lazy folk dance. I want spring. I want the snow to go away.

The Carrier native nation who live in the Interior of B.C., where I was born and raised, call the late spring snow “the snow to take away the snow.” Were those eagerly anticipated warm rains to fall, the drops would skate lightly across the crusted surface, bounce along frozen ground, over flow the sill frozen rivers and streams, and collect in basements. Too much rain, would be a very bad thing. The spring snow, however, doesn’t pool, or stream down hill. Instead the fresh flakes blanket the wind hardened snow dunes, melting in the warming sun, and pockmarking the crust. The shell that would have resisted rain gives way beneath the gentle pressure of its own kind. Layer by layer the strata of snow peels away. Grey grass appears around the edges, and damp puddles color the banks of the icy streams. Spring is brought by the last snows.

The grey banks along the road are not the only things about which I grumble. The circumstances of life are significantly less within my control than I believed they would be when I was a child. I grumble about snow, and other things equally out of my control. The Lord deals with all of these things in the same way. He teaches me contentment in my circumstances by giving me more of it.

The gentle sameness of life is the most effective tool by which my hard heart is softened, and turned to fertile soil. When truthfully examining my personal history I must admit that the times of drastic change are more likely to reveal previously unknown crusts of anger and bitterness in my heart, rather than being transformative on them. Instead, it is in the momentary sameness that I am gently melted.

In the same way, the Lord changes us all through the sameness of the ordinary means of Grace. The weekly rhythm of Word, prayer, and sacraments settle like spring snow on our cold hearts, warming us in a way that thunderstorm events cannot. It is in the soft sediment of ordinary that He has appointed to speak, and mold, and cut away the cold death of our sin. The erosion of that crust happens so slowly that I am not aware of when the layers are melted back. I just realize, one same day, that I am seeing the green shoots of growth I hadn’t seen before.

This is the power of ordinary things applied regularly. Daily practice improves skill. A single drop of water or a few grains of sand can carve mountains. Snow can melt snow. The word preached and prayed and in sacrament can do no less. The snow on Sunday brought visible grass today. The word on Sunday is at work still.