Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Of Brick and Straw

~This entry was written two years ago on our 15th wedding anniversary.  

You know the story… the three pigs, the three houses, and 2 very different outcomes.  What made the difference?  The materials with which the houses were built.  On the 2 ends of the spectrum are the straw and the brick.  I want a life built out of brick… but never would have thought that the straw would be part of the process.

As a child, like so many others, I grew up in a semi-functioning family.  The stress fractures that had been present throughout my parents’ marriage became too great when a poor economy resulted in a job loss.  This proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back resulted in the ultimate demise of my parents’ marriage and of family life as I knew it.

This week, we received what could have been devastating news.  After 17 years of faithful and productive service, my husband’s lucrative job was to come to an end.  We had had some inclination that as the result of another bank merger, this could be an outcome.  Yet we had little idea what and when the ultimate decision would be made.  Here we are.  With 5 children and little savings left due to the economy, we are more than ok.  We’re grateful.  For life, for family, for health, for a challenging marriage that has withstood the storms (both internally and externally) of 15 years, for friends who have walked through those storms with us, but most of all, for our loving God who wants what is best for us and is relentless in providing it.  In His upside-down economy, what is best is rarely what we would choose, yet it is ultimately what will bring us joy, peace, restoration, and healing.  We are grateful.  This is his best for us. 

“The biblical detail about using straw in brick-making is puzzling to some.  How, they ask, could the addition of straw as an ingredient make bricks stronger?  In Egypt the mud-straw combination was commonly used to strengthen building blocks.   It also prevented the bricks from cracking or losing shape.  Modern investigators have run tests to show that when straw is mixed with mud the resulting bricks are three times as strong as those made without straw.  Fluids in the straw release humic acid and harden the bricks.  To this day, after thousands of years, mud-brick monuments still stand in Egypt. (The Good News)”.

I’m struck that when we allow the Lord to take the straw of our lives… the hurts, heartaches, disappointments, and yes, our blatant sinfulness, he can mix it in with the mud of the world…  job loss, illness, the end of a significant relationship… and use it all to build something stronger.  Yet it is only after that mixture spends significant time in the refiner’s fire that it becomes strong.  Strong enough to withstand the storms of life.  Strong enough to play a part in giving others temporary shelter when their storms come.   

What am I doing with the straw in my life?  Too many years have been spent coddling the hurts, regretting the past, and harboring an unforgiving spirit.  The straw remains not only weak, but highly flammable given the right environment.  My desire is to loosen my grip on the straw and hand it over to the Lord.  Only then is He able to resume His work as the great potter.  Only then will the strengthening and building begin.  I have a choice. 

And so it is.  Life is built, brick by brick.   A series of daily choices.  I pray for the faith, strength, and courage to believe that our Lord wants what is best.  That he will take the broken pieces of my life and create something beautiful for His glory and enjoyment.  That the fires of life will not last longer than needed, but long enough to produce strength.  And that eventually, we will not speak in terms of straw, bricks, and fire, but of roads paved in gold.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Only Thing to Fear...

I’m particularly persnickety about what books we choose to read aloud as a family.  I have my own personal stack to be read, as does each of my children, but we like to keep one family book near the dinner table (or on the screened porch) to be read together after dinner.  The “to-be-read” list is a long one, so it is a rare occasion when we read a book out loud a second time.  However, when I found an out of print copy of George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin from one of my favorite collections (Illustrated Junior Library), I decided to make an exception.  I read this book to my boys several years ago, but our youngest was not old enough to be included.  At that time, I had a teenager, a toddler and 4 and 6 year old boys in the house, so I was too bleary-eyed to remember much of it.  In reading the book aloud again (with more sleep and life perspective under my belt), I feel like I’m reading it for the first time.

Several days ago, we meandered into a scene where the little princess, Irene, is alone in her bedroom.   Bounding in through the open window is a frightening creature.  If you’re familiar with the story, you’ll recall that there are subterranean goblins who are plotting against people living above ground.  The goblins only come out at night, and they have pet-like beasts which dwell with them.  It is one of these horrifying creatures that  invades the room.  Irene is terrified, and instead of running up the stairs to a place of safety, she reacts out of fear and darts from her room, down the stairs and out the door of her palace into the dark of night.  “It was foolish indeed – thus to run farther and farther from all who could help her, as if she had been seeking a fit spot for the goblin creature to eat her in at his leisure.”  And then came the line that stopped me.

“….. But that is the way fear serves us; it always sides with the thing we are afraid of.”

Now I don’t consider myself a particularly fearful person.  Of course, there are the biggies – death of a loved one, chronic illness, safety for our children from the evils of the world.  But I’d suggest that we all are fearful at a much deeper level.  Our fears are often unspoken and often unrealized, and we have become extremely sophisticated in our management of them.  Although our outward behaviors appear to be unrelated, at their core is the same propelling motivation: “ I can make life work on my own terms.  I will not be disappointed. “  And therein lies the great mystery of the human condition:  the very strategies we implement on a day-to-day basis undermine the true joy and contentment that we are ultimately seeking.

~Some of us manage fear by being quiet… Others by talking incessantly.

~Some of us manage fear by achieving…. Others by failing to try.

~Some of us manage fear by erecting high barriers around the heart...  Others by demanding more out of relationships than they could possibly provide.

~I try to avoid the fear of disappointment by engineering "the ideal"... My husband tries to avoid the fear of disappointment by wanting too little.  We both strive to control our worlds in very different ways.

Same disease.  Different symptoms. We all are uniquely gifted in the way we try to become masters of our own little universes. Thank goodness our strategies don't work.  If they did, well, then I really would be in control of my life which would be overwhelming.  Nevertheless, we keep trying. Hoping that we can control life and subdue the fear of ultimate dependence.

Oh –  back to the rest of the story. The Princess and the Goblin is worth a read for children and adults alike, so I won’t give away any “spoilers.”  But I will say that eventually, Irene learns to react less from her own fear and insecurity only when she decides to trust the one who loves her deeply…. Regardless of circumstance.  She can’t see the big picture and has to rely blindly on the character of the one who does.  A lesson for us all.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

I'm Both

Mid-summer in Charlotte. Lungs tire easily while laboring to extract oxygen from the thick, syrupy air.  I’m a fair-weather runner.  I don’t run when it’s too cold, and I don’t run when it’s too hot.  A few days ago, I arose to find that we’d been given an unexpected remission from weeks of incessant heat.  The air was a crisp 56 degrees.  It was an opportunity not to be missed.  I laced up my shoes and stepped out into what felt like the first hints of autumn.  My run was particularly enjoyable.  The air was cool and clean, the paths were peaceful, and the music on my ipod calmed my soul. I had temporarily defied the gravity of my own lethargy, had risen early to challenge my muscles and lungs, and had pushed through the last leg of the run. Upon arriving home, I was tired, but the kind of tired that was deeply rewarding.  I had done something good for my body.  I felt refreshed and healthy.  And then…  I promptly ate a handful of Oreo cookies.

I would like to think of myself as being increasingly health-conscious.   We eat organic foods whenever possible, limit our red meat intake, consume whole-wheat rather than white breads and pastas, and encourage exercise as a life-long habit.  But then there are the Oreos.  My kryptonite.  And sea-salted dark chocolate almonds from Trader Joes.  Against those, I have little power.  I would like to define myself in terms of health, not indulgence, yet both are true.  I am both healthy and indulgent at the same time.  A paradox of sorts… or rather a more complete picture.  I am both forgiving and critical.  I am gracious and demanding.  I am deeply flawed yet wonderfully made.  If I deny either side of the equation, I hold an unrealistic picture of myself. 

And if I am both at the same time, then I need to acknowledge that the same is true for others.   Those who I hold closest and in highest regard have the capacity to fail miserably.  And those who I find hard to love, well… there is another side to that equation as well.

During a sermon on forgiveness, Tim Keller used a caricature artist as to illustrate the way we often view difficult people.  The caricature artist takes his subject’s most demonstrative characteristic and exaggerates it.  He then captures it on paper to be frozen in time.  For instance… if the subject has slightly large ears, the artists creates those ears to be far larger than life, then in drawing them, dooms the subject to a likeness that is unchangeable. 

We do much the same thing, particularly with someone who is difficult to love.   We tend to look at that person and see the attributes which are most irritating… or most unlikeable… or which cause us great pain.   And then we exaggerate them and freeze in time the picture that we have created.  It works out nicely, you know.  As long as I can convince myself that the person who is causing me pain is primarily evil, or selfish, or suffers from some deep neurosis, then I feel a certain relief from obligation.   But if there were another side to the equation, well that just complicates things.

Many of us go through life rather unaware that we make assumptions about others, draw our own caricatures, and file them neatly away in our mental sketchbooks.  This is particularly true when we’re looking at those closest to us.  We think we have them figured out.  We forget that there is always another side to the equation.  There is no doubt more than we see.   Or unfortunately care to see. 

So what is the antidote to assumption?  How can we look beyond the mental caricatures that we have created in order to see the multi-dimensional people who God actually created?  How can we begin to see them as “fearfully and wonderfully” made?   The antidote to assumption is curiosity. 

So if my husband (theoretically, of course) is distant or aloof, I could take his behavior personally (theoretically again), OR could I become curious as to what is going on in his job… or with his friends… or in his heart…

If my relationship with a dear friend becomes strained, do I assume that she’s just being selfish or (fill in the blank with whatever you may assume), OR am I willing to be humble and vulnerable enough to ask if I’m the offending party…  or if there is something else going on in her life that may have nothing to do with me…

Am I willing to be curious about those closest to me?  Those I’ve known for most of my life?  Those who I think I have figured out? 

A healthy dose of humility and curiosity does have its con's.  I may find out that I was wrong.  That there has been more to love in another than I had imagined.  That I’ve lived too much of my life drawing caricatures rather than enjoying whole people.  Yet it is with that revelation that freedom begins.  Freedom from assuming, incorrectly sketching, and missing people for who they actually are.  Freedom to see the whole picture, and freedom to love well.  Oh yes, and freedom to enjoy both my brisk run and my Oreos.  

Sunday, June 12, 2011

"... and these are a few of my favorite things" ♪

I hadn’t talked with our eldest daughter for several days when she called and asked what we’d been doing.  I paused, trying to muster up something substantial.  Coming up empty-handed, I winced as I answered, “The same thing I was doing last time we talked.  Trying to gain some semblance of order around the house.”  Again.  And chances are good that the next time we speak, the answer will be unfortunately similar.  I’m not a perfectionist.  I do prefer order and cleanliness in my home, but can’t ever seem to crawl out of the hole of “piles and stacks” long enough to achieve rest on the level ground of “routine maintenance needed.”  I have friends who seem to have it all together.  Their homes are comfortable, but orderly.  The countertops seem to stay clutter-free.  Their family’s coats and shoes find their ways to their assigned places with minimal effort.  Their floors rarely show evidence of traffic.  I choose to like them anyway.

This morning, as I was mapping out my plan for the day, I felt a subtle yet significant shift of perspective occur. It dawned on me that I actually have a choice to make. I can wallow in the frustration of living in “clutter purgatory,” or I can choose to look beyond the stuff to something greater.  I choose the latter.

I am deeply grateful for…

~ Bits of scotch tape adhered tightly to my wooden floors, capless markers banished hopelessly under my couch, scraps of yarn and paper dripping throughout my house and small handprint smudges made from pastel–chalk hands accidentally decorating the wall. There is creativity abounding in my home.

~ Scattered weapons.  Light sabers, daggers, broken cap guns and wooden swords that have been worn down to only traces of the original paint as a result of many battles. I have little boys in whose very souls the Creator planted seeds of justice, goodness, and the drive to fight for all that is good and right. I have fine young men who will one day fight for all that is important, and they are in training… in my home.

~ A clumsy pile of muddy, worn, and sometimes companionless shoes that were deposited right beside the shoe basket. Their owners have quickly shifted from the adventures of exploring the creek, jumping on the trampoline, and straining to see their favorite fish in the pond toward the next exciting venture inside. There is anticipation in my home.

~ An unfinished Star Wars Monopoly game that has taken up permanent residence in the center of our family room on the coffee table (and the surrounding floor)… Because the big brother came home from college and took time to play.  I have children who love and enjoy each other in my home.

~ Tellingly height-specific rows of smudges across the windows in our sunroom, made by fingers and noses pressed hard as wonder-filled eyes welcome the chickadees, house wrens, gold finches and occasional downy woodpecker who have come to feast at the birdfeeder. There is love of God’s creation in my home.

~ An un-manicured backyard in need of tree-removal, weeding, pruning, and an occasional mow.  There is a daddy who chooses to play with his children in my home.

~ A little voice that intrudes upon my coveted quiet time of the day - my bit of heaven in the form of a cup of coffee, a quite moment, book in lap and pen in hand... Because I have a little boy who could have chosen a sibling, but who chooses me to play a game with him.  I have simple pleasures in my home.

~ Traces of the frayed ends from sheer coral ribbon… From tying what felt like thousands of bows on our daughter’s wedding invitations proceeding one of the most joyful weekends in our family history.  I have thriving young adults who have emerged from my home.

~ Towering stacks of beautiful old yellowing books waiting to be re-shelved in our home library… Because my children have befriended hundreds of perilous adventures, brave heroes, quirky characters, and faraway places as their very own.  I have a love of good books in my home.

~ Empty boxes of cereal left in the pantry, empty boxes of popsicles left in the freezer, and granola bar wrappers sprinkled throughout the van… Because my children are growing like weeds and they are consuming food proportionately. I have strong, healthy bodies in my home.

~ Guitar picks that pop up unexpectedly like long-lost Easter eggs from last year’s hunt – in the dusty corner of the bathroom, under the box of crackers, wedged in the floor vent.   I have music filling my home.

~ Empty cups of Pinkberry yogurt sitting on my bedside table that really should be thrown away but seem to keep resurfacing…  Because I have a sweet husband who spoils me (too often) with trips to get yogurt, backrubs, a forgiving spirit and kind words.  I have 17 years of fidelity, love and commitment in my home.

My house isn’t spotless, perfectly organized or immaculately decorated.  But within it’s walls, I can choose everyday to bask in the presence of boundless life, energy, joy, and beauty.   And when our daughter calls to check in next week, I assume that I’ll tell her that I’m doing “The same thing I was doing last time we talked.  Trying to gain some semblance of order around the house.”  Only then, rather than a wince, I hope to produce a grateful, knowing smile.

 “People throw away what they could have by insisting on perfection, which they cannot have, and looking for it where they could never find it.”  Edith Schaeffer

Friday, June 3, 2011

Will proclaims the Latest Wingfeather "A Winner"

A Critic's Review of The Monster in the Hollows

The following review was written by a guest author, Will Silander (11 yrs).  Will is an avid reader who also enjoys strategizing and implementing various forms of battles, creating all things electronic, playing the piano, and spending hours in the creek behind his home in Charlotte, NC.

     Andrew Peterson is one of my favorite songwriters. I was SO excited when I found out that he did not only write songs, but was also an author and had written two books, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness and North! Or Be Eaten. These books, also called The Wingfeather Saga,  were suspenseful, fast-paced, and cleverly written. I sped through both in less than a week. After reading the books, I had several unanswered questions, and was hoping he would write a third book that would answer at least some of them.

Andrew Peterson and the Silander kids at "Meet the Author"

         This past Spring, I was fortunate enough to meet Andrew Peterson when he came to Charlotte to speak about his writing. He showed some of the sketches he had made of various creatures, people and places from the first two books. The drawings of The Fangs (villainous reptilian creatures) looked almost exactly like I had imagined them from his description in the books. I was thrilled when he announced that he was almost done with a third book, and that it would be available in May.

         The third book in the Wingfeather Saga, The Monster in the Hollows, was even better than I had hoped. It tied up many loose ends left dangling from the first two books, and also introduced some interesting new characters such as Guildmadam Olumphia Groundwich and Madam Sidler, the Librarian. This book is packed full of action, adventure, and suspense, while weaving humor and lighthearted fun throughout. If you like reading the books of C.S. Lewis, JRR Tolkien, or Edith Nesbit, I would highly recommend The Wingfeather Saga. 

Will is also the creator, producer, and musician for the following promotional video:

 Hop on over to www.rabbitroom.com to place your order!
For the rest of the story:  visit here