A Few Unfinished Thoughts about Gratitude

I’ve had quite a few people ask about my blog, since I haven’t posted since September. The reality is that most of what I post here is pre-writing for my book. I put up ideas I’m having trouble hashing out on my own, and your responses help me see where I’m going. Lately, the book hasn’t required much pre-writing, plus it is taking up all of my writing energy. That’s a good thing for the book! Once I’m out of this rather intense overhaul of my book structure, I will probably get back to more frequent blogging. In the meantime, here are some back-of-the-napkin scrawlings about gratitude.

I used to think that gratitude was about being thankful for the small things, about shrinking my desire to fit what I have in front of me. That’s not gratitude at all. If I love someone, I don’t just give her ONLY small gifts. But I do sometimes give small gifts. Imagine if I gave that friend a small gift, and she immediately assumed that, since the gift was small, she should stop wanting the larger gift she’d had her heart set on. Would you call that gratitude? I wouldn’t. In fact, I might even call it ingratitude. It feels… minimizing to me as the giver. There’s no joy in it. No joy in receiving a gift and letting it disappoint me for any subsequent gifts. No joy in giving a gift only to have the person think I’m capable of less than they had hoped rather than more.

Gratitude doesn’t want less, it wants more.  It simply doesn’t expect more of what’s in front of it because it knows the real, ongoing needs of life are more than any one thing or person or moment can fill. It loves the thing in the moment for being the thing in the moment, but may continue to long for other, greater things.

Abundance and loss both grow a space in me for more. More joy, more love.


I went shopping for a dining room table this weekend. I went to the fancy furniture store to get ideas, and I promptly fell in love with this stunning oval walnut table with a beautiful architectural pedestal under it. It’s a work of art. It also costs almost as much as I paid for my car. I’ve been daydreaming about this table for 24 hours since I met it, imagining how I thought it might look in my dining room, thinking about how it would feel to sit on it.

I didn’t measure my dining room until a full 24 hours after my little shopping excursion. Not before, not even immediately after I fell in love with the walnut table. As it turns out, the oval table is about 6” longer than my current table. Not a lot, but enough that I’d have to get rid of my bar stools by the counter and even then the whole thing would be cramped. I put my existing table where the oval table might realistically go, and it makes the whole space (living room and kitchen included) feel cramped and cluttered. I don’t care how beautiful the table is, if it makes the space around it feel more cluttered and noisy, it’s not good for my dining room.

I thought, “Well maybe if I move the book case out of the dining room…” And then I’m moving other things to find a spot for the rather large book case that I actually really like in the dining room. Worst of all, if I move my dining table away from the window, I lose one of my favorite features of this home—a spot to sit at the table where I have a view of the mountains. I don’t want to lose the beautiful view I already have, no matter how pretty the table is.

The beautiful walnut table is a no-go. But the only reason I know that is because I know my dining room better now. It took longing for the walnut table to get me to really SEE my dining room, what its potential is and what its constraints are. I’m grieving the walnut table a little bit. It just felt so RIGHT when I saw it. The urgency to capture something so beautiful and hold it in my life can sometimes be mistaken for a feeling of destiny or fate. It feels like the right thing, so it must be. But the truth of it is that sometimes finding something more beautiful than what I’d hoped for isn’t about grasping onto the beautiful thing but about growing my imagination. It’s hard to let go of the beautiful thing that is better than what I had imagined before. It is easy to think that, since it has stretched my imagination beyond its previous limitations, there is nothing conceivably better. It’s easy to fret that giving up the beautiful thing means going back to my old dreams. When, in fact, the whole point of the beautiful table may have been to stretch the dreams to begin with, to give me eyes to see the potential, to really see the space I have ready to receive the beautiful table.

A Tale of Two Loves (Part 2): Love in the Age of Fear

This is the second in a series of blog posts about two kinds of love. I’m currently writing about the first kind, constrained love. (If you go back to read the other posts, start from the bottom. They are in reverse order.) This is a process blog. In this case, that means I’m writing about constrained love in an effort to write my own way out of it. Because once I’ve seen it, I couldn’t live in it even if I wanted to.

A few weeks ago, a friend recommended a New York Times Op Ed called “Motherhood in the Age of Fear.” She describes the constant fear that mothers are expected to live under, fear that any little thing could lead to catastrophe for their kids. Or fear that they’ll be judged for their lack of fear. The layers of fear over motherhood are thick and complex.

Two things stood out to me. The first is the label, “Age of Fear”. It is such an apt description of our era that I went looking to see other people using it—they must be. But apparently they’re not, or at least not yet. So let me be the first to echo it. I think that phrase “Age of Fear” will resonate far beyond the scope and moment of that OpEd.

The second is that fear is seen as a facet of love. And not just a biproduct or a sadly necessary part, but something so critical that if it’s not therein sufficient quantities, people call child protective services. ‘I don’t know if I’m afraid for my kids, or if I’m afraid other people will be afraid and will judge me for my lack of fear.’

I think the Age of Fear and what I’m calling Constrained Love go hand in hand. When I first read the phrase the Age of Fear, it resonated because I recognize that I’m a citizen of the Age of Fear. I’m a born and bred citizen, not naturalized. It’s not something I adopted deliberately, and it’s not something with its roots in the last few years. When I first read about the Age of Fear, I thought, “well of course—9/11. This is the result of the constant threat of terrorism.” But I don’t think that’s it. I remember the roots of the Age of Fear being there when I began having thoughts of my own, back around the time the Berlin Wall fell, when the Internet was being born. If anything, it should have been the beginning of a more optomistic, hopeful time. But hope with a grain of fear in it is a different animal.

I remember my dad (who spent a year in Germany in the 70s) reminding me every so often that if the Third Reich could happen in Germany, it could happen anywhere. I remember arguing with Vicky (my childhood best friend) about whether people are inherently good or evil. Vicky loved the optimism of Anne Frank, “I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” How could she think that, after what people had done to Anne Frank? Anne and my friend both seemed naive. Whatever peace we found seemed tenuous, fragile, in need of protection from evil empires, maybe even from ourselves.

Like so many people in my age, I looked to ideology to protect me. To protect me from myself and from other people. So much of my faith and the way I interacted with life was shaped by the compulsion to acknowledge the evil at our core and to fear it.

Fear does strange things to hope, turns it into something different. It makes hope conditional. I hope that if I do things just right, I can avoid or eliminate the things I fear. I can shelter myself and my family from crisis by avoiding the mistakes of the past. We can put up a fence so high that the creeps won’t get to us. When Faith, Hope, and Love change to Fear, Hope, and Love, they all end up warped. Fear is the little bit of sand in the shoe that can drive us to take the wrong path. The leaven in the dough that I’ve seen wreak destruction in my own life.

When fear is the root, we protect ourselves from our selves and from each other. Last week I read a book by Rebecca Manley Pippert, who in some ways was before her time when it came to acknowledging vulnerability. She was all about recognizing our faults. It was published in 1989, when I was 10. But looking back at the book through the lens of the last 30 years, I can see the grain of fear. It’s worth quoting Pippert at length because she captures the spirit of the time in a way that I can’t do retrospectively:

“There is something truly wonderful and remarkable about us all. We have a capacity for love, an appreciation of beauty, and moments of genuine courage. But unfortunately, that’s not the whole story. We want to believe that the essential ‘us’ is who we are in our best moments, when everything is going our way, when nothing is thwarting or threatening us. We want to believe that we are what we project to the world: nice, respectable, competent people who have it all together. Fortunately or unfortunately, life doesn’t let us get away with our charade. Sooner or later, whether through a difficult relationship with a berating boss, a demanding spouse, a difficult child, or simply through overwhelming or infuriating circumstances, we are confronted with our darker side.

“Has it ever struck you as odd that, for all our sophistication, we modern people have a remarkably naive understanding of human nature? Living at the end of history’s most murderous century, we flatter ourselves that we are basically good people who occasionally do bad deeds. The founders of our nation were not so naive. The very political institutions they contructed for us, founded on concepts like ‘checks and balances,’ are testimony to their assumption that human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions. People with power cannot be trusted too far. History hardly indicates that our problem has changed—rather, that it is we who have developed short memories. We are struggling the the symptoms of an age-old disease, which we have lost the capacity to diagnose.”

Do you see what I see? The idea that to get to the good, we have to contain the evil? The idea that our bad selves dominate and that our main line of defense is fierce PROTECTION? I hardly mean to pick on Pippert. Honestly, I may be reading fear into it because it had such a strong mark in my own life. It was a view so pervasive that 10-year-old Amy unquestioningly and enthusiastically repeated it. It’s really subtle. So much so that it may just be me displacing my own thoughts onto what Pippert is saying. But I see the idea that the answer to this darker side of ourselves is in our institutions and our traditions. And while they certainly need to protect us, I think we (I?) leaned on them entirely too much. And I suspect this: that there is a bright and direct line between what I remember (and the subtle thing I see in Pippert) and the Age of Fear we find ourselves in 30 years later.

Think about the Late 80s. We were decades past the world wars and Vietnam. We were inches away from winning the Cold War. The Berlin Wall fell the same year Pippert published that book. We had used the power of our military and our culture to dominate evil in the world. The world never seemed brighter than in the late 80s and early 90s. But I think in our victories, we were scared. Scared of one another and of ourselves. Frightened of the creeping immorality in our neighborhoods, in our homes, in ourselves. We had seen the end result of letting the evil in human hearts run rampant, and it was terrifying.

We kept looking for the seeds of evil so we could protect ourselves before the problem got dangerously big. We became proactive. Preemptive.

The news outlets built for war turned the same camera onto car accidents, kidnappings, plane crashes.

The government institutions that had helped us battle evil on an international scale were repurposed for pre-emptive war. And for war on evil within our borders—The War on Drugs. The War on Crime. The War on Poverty.

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.”

I am definitely not the first person to point out this repurposing of militaristic approaches to international problem-solving. But I see another layer of it. This didn’t just happen on international and national levels. It happened in our schools, in our churches, in our homes. We looked inward, we looked deeper, we saw the darkness within and decided to make sure we were battling it preemptively. Leave no room for evil at home. Or else… or else we might become the next Nazi Germany? Or else… [insert bad thing here] might happen again.

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.”

On a macro level, laws are used to govern conscience. We outlaw things like straws and suicide. We address tragedy with more laws. (How many laws are named after people who have been kidnapped or murdered?) We look for the kernel of evil and fence it in, building bigger and stronger fences every time the barrier is breached. The children are our future, we need to show them our love by making the world a safer place. World war: Never again!

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.”

We’ve amped up our medical technology. We’ve found vaccines for any conceivable virus. We’ve honed our cancer treatments. We’ve mapped the genome. We’ve started talking realistically about eliminating death. We show our love for our ailing family members by throwing every dime we have (or don’t have) into their care. Long hospital stays and prolonged deathbed agony: Never again!

Without big wars, death on a much smaller scale terrorized us. 17 years after 9-11, we are still plugging gaps in our borders where terrorists could trickle in. Almost every large building in the country has cement barriers to prevent someone from driving an explosive-loaded car into the bottom floor. We love our country and our businesses and institutions. Terrorism: Never again!

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.”

On a family level, protection becomes a weapon of love. We put up internet filters. We learn to watch for signs of child molesters in our schools, churches, and families. We hover over our kids as they wander the neighborhood, as they walk to and from school. We acknowledge (not incorrectly) that evil can go undetected, can even flourish within the confines of our homes, so we watch for it diligently. We love our children, so we must do ANYTHING we can to prevent these bad things from happening to them. Kidnappings and sexual abuse: Never again!

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.”

And on an individual level, we protect ourselves. This I the most obvious to me in my own life. I’m constantly on the lookout for patterns of behavior that led to my divorce. I remember this paranoia hitting a fevered pitch when I spent some time speculating whether the cute guy I’d met on the trail was a homeless drug dealer. When fear reigns, every possible risk has to be accounted for or eliminated. I show my love to myself by vigilantly watching for any sign of repeating the same mistake twice. Divorce: Never again!

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.”

Because we love, and because we have learned to express love as fear, we protect our loved ones from the evil outside and the evil within themselves. The effectiveness of my belief system (in my case, evangelical Christianity, but that is certainly not the only example) is evaluated based on its effectiveness at stopping evil, at protecting me from others and from myself.

Pippert asks, “Does God make a difference?” If I can’t answer yes to that question, there’s not much point in engaging with God. But WHY I think God makes a difference matters so much. Is it because I think it makes me safe from the evil in me and those around me? My city on a hill is a place where children are safe, where the environment is pristine and the dolphins thrive, where terrorists can’t get in because we’ve eliminated all of their entry points with giant fences. Otherwise, what good is it? It is not only my right, it is my primary, God-given responsibility as a loving person to see the sprouts of evil in myself and those around me and root it out.

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.” It’s everywhere, in all of us. The statement is not untrue, but oh, what have we done with it?

Fear is like a ghost whispering in our ears at every opportunity: “‘Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.’ Never again! Protect what you love! Evil will not pass the same way twice! If you’ve learned enough from your last encounter with it, you can and must move heaven and earth to prevent its like in other places!”

Fear is sensitive, it detects the evil around me better than anything I know. It protects me and the people I love. Fear is my friend.

Or is it? What if fear cannot live alongside what may be the two most powerful weapons we have? What if fear does not leave room for hope (or it’s close cousin, resilience)? What if fear isn’t a symptom of love, but runs love out of any space it occupies?

If you’re not on board with those questions, ask yourself this: what have we gained from letting fear rule? I know my answer to that question: Not safety, not happiness, not community, not love. When we plant fear, the only yield we get is more fear.

Abuse: It’s Not Only Where the Bruises Are

This particular topic has come to me three completely unrelated ways in the last week, so I decided to write an open letter to church leaders. I hope it’s helpful.

Dear Church Leader,

If you’re like me, you grew up in the church and heard many teachings about the sanctity of marriage, about what’s an acceptable reason for divorce and what is not. Guidelines. If we stay in them, we’re safely in God’s will. To start with, I don’t think that’s the best way to read the Bible. I agree 100% with my pastor, who preached recently that “It (the Bible) is not nearly as good at telling you want you can and can’t do as it is at telling you what the heart of God is.”

That said, what I heard over and over was the divorce is okay if there’s been adultery (Matthew 19:8-9), if there’s a non-Christian spouse who wants to leave (I Corinthians 7:15), or if there’s been physical abuse. Note that I did not list a scripture for that last one. Because there isn’t one. Have you heard or even taught that? Christian teachers throw that one in because… we love the people we’re teaching and we know in we hearts that some behavior is just not okay, whether you can find a passage in the Bible that spells that out plainly or not. But that’s as far as we’ll go outside the lines that are clearly drawn in scripture. If there are no bruises… well, we’re in a gray area there. Marriage is sacred and we absolutely need to press into the pain and difficulty, fight for our relationships.

But…

Consider that you may have a blind spot. That physical abuse may not be the Most Awful Thing that should push us past the boundaries of Bible-based guidelines, but simply one manifestation of something more insidious. It’s a blind spot I had myself until I went through my own divorce and started hearing the real stories behind other people’s divorces, the stories that they’re often reluctant to voice to counselors or church leaders, the brutal truths they’re shy to bring to the light. The stories whispered to me accompanied by a “I’ve never told anyone this, but…” Consider that by not really seeing these situations, we may be unintentionally burdening people with relationship guidelines.

Let me tell you about what a hard heart in a relationship can look like. Whenever I read that passage, I think of Pharoah, whose heart was hard. Who used and abused the Hebrews until they were empty shells of people. Who paid a high price to keep them with him because he could not bring himself to relinquish power. Do not discount that even though Christ has come, some hearts can still be hard like his, even hearts of people in the church…

It comes down to this: there are spouses who will use their partner’s willingness to sacrifice themselves for the relationship to destroy the person and destroy the relationship from the inside. There are people who are in the marriage with no intent to honor their spouse. Not just in the heat of the moment, but as a state, as a trajectory. Often, they get something out of preserving the marriage (respect in the community, free child care, or maybe divorce will cause them to lose their business or a lot of money–I see that one a lot). Sometimes, preserving the relationship is just about enjoying the power of it. They mistreat their spouses verbally but convince the abused spouse that it’s the victim spouse’s fault they’re not being treated honorably.

So you have a hard-hearted spouse who knowingly causes pain with no intent to rectify or repair the relationship and an abused spouse who leans into the relationship in spite of pain because when you’re married that’s what you do. The spouse who leans in may not know the pain-causing spouse is lying to them. (Sometimes to the extent of leading a double life.) The abusive spouse USES their goodwill and desire to work on the relationship in spite of the difficulties to get what they want.

The really insidious thing is that if the abused spouse doesn’t know the facts about the situation, doesn’t realize the abuser is lying, the relationship problems look on the surface like normal relationship dysfunction. One sermon I heard talked about yelling at each other, and that if you think you’re emotionally abused because you’re being yelled at, you’re mistaken. The fact is, sometimes it isn’t abuse, but sometimes it IS. If it’s being used to cover lies and cover patterns of behavior that are incredibly damaging to the abused spouse and to the relationship, it’s probably abuse. If it’s being used to control someone it IS ABUSE. Abuse is about power, about using whatever tool is available to maintain power in the relationship for selfish ends. Even physical abuse is about power. There are marks and bruises, but the real toll of it is that the physical beating hammers home lies in the victim’s mind that enable the abuser to maintain control.

Think about the Hebrews under hard-hearted Pharoah again. Imagine giving the Hebrews conventional boss-employee relationship advice. “Sometimes a job will require you to sweat and strain in the sun. That’s just what it takes sometimes to do right by your employer, to do your job. Man up and do what needs to be done.” It’s not untrue. But applied in the wrong situation, it could be incredibly damaging.

Be careful when you give blanket relationship advice. Of the people in these situations I’m describing, who do you think is listening to your teaching? Really hearing it with their hearts? The people who use marriage to get what they want while dishonoring and tearing down their spouses? Or the people who desperately want the relationship to work and keep trying anything they can find to make things better, who are willing to sacrifice themselves for it and do it again and again? It’s the latter. Emotionally abused spouses (often not aware they’re being abused) read all of the books, go to therapy (often by themselves), listen to the sermons–they try EVERYTHING. And all the while the abuser is telling them the dysfunction is their fault. So they’re trying everything and blaming themselves for failure when the relationship is actually failing because the abuser is tearing it apart. Conventional relationship advice given to abuse victims can actually enable the abuse by layering shame on top of the psychological power the abusers already hold. 

The worst part about this situation is often that it ends up being the abused spouse who has to pull the trigger on the divorce. Abusers are in the relationship for a reason, and they aren’t looking for a way out. Why should they? They’re having their cake and eating it too. This is particularly awful in the church. Abuse victims already feel bad because they think the relationship problems are their fault. They stop being able to cope–sometimes without really understanding why–and feel compelled to divorce. Since the abuser is good at appearances and lying, they shame the abuse victim for seeking divorce, often using the church leadership or teaching as a weapon.

There is unfortunately not an easy way to discern when this is going on. There’s no set of rules you can apply that will magically root out when someone is abused and when they’re simply tired of dealing with the difficulties that everyone encounters in marriage. I wish I could provide some. I will simply suggest the following:

1. Don’t be quick to judge or assume. Unless you know the person really well already, is HIGHLY unlikely you know enough to give practical advice. Remember those “I never told anyone this before, but…”s? In my experience, those almost always come out AFTER the separation or divorce.

2. If you don’t have a close enough relationship with the person coming to you for advice, build one. Speak life into the person, speak God’s truth, be kind. If her heart needs softening toward her spouse, God will do it. If her spouse’s heart is open to softening, God will do it. If there’s abuse that is hiding like I described, being reminded of her value in God’s eyes will help her recognize it and speak up about it. Love and truth will eventually push everything that is not love and truth to the surface.

After all, the heart of God is relationship, isn’t it? Draw near to Him and to each other. All of the other laws hang on that. 

Say Your Big Dreams Out Loud

Today I turn 39. That’s a big number. For me, 38 has been a year of becoming bolder and thinking bigger. It’s been a year of learning to own my dreams and to believe in them. It’s been a year and a half since I began writing a memoir. It’s been almost that long since I registered the Trivial Circumstances domain name, unsure WHAT I would do with it but more certain about WHY. Writing used to be something I did in the wee, dark hours of the morning, quiet and alone. Writing was a solitary activity and I liked it that way. I wrote things I wanted to share, but sharing was the end result, not part of the process.

Last May, I was frustrated with my life the way it was where I was. I flew down to Seattle and Portland to be a tourist and visit friends. I was also considering moving. I wanted change in my life that was radical enough that I was considering selling my house and joining the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, stationed in Seattle. If I’d been able to get more money for my house, I would have done it. Writing was big to me, but I didn’t see it as the direction of my life. Doing big things meant doing them FOR OTHER PEOPLE. Exclusively. That’s what Christians do, right?

One stop on my trip was with a friend from college who has become a successful writer (like, multiple bestsellers successful). I wanted to talk to him about writing, but instead I made some excuses and ran away right after dinner with his family. I was intimidated. I felt like my own dreams and efforts didn’t matter much in the face of so much success. Why would I presume to waste his time? Never mind that this friend and his wife had made me dinner and shared their joyfully chaotic family life with me for the evening. Never mind that they would have been happy to talk with me about anything, really. They’re lovely people. I let the fears in my head get to me in a big way.

I shared this with Rebecca, another college friend I was visiting. I shared my writing dreams, my insecurities around my successful writer friend, my embarrassment over my insecurity. A few weeks after I got home, I received a package from her in the mail. It had some amazing 90s Star Trek stationery (!), a pencil that said “You Got This,” and a card that says “Say Your Big Dreams Out Loud”. She wrote me a note about being happy to be “seeding” my project. I can’t tell you how much that package meant to me. It was the beginning of sharing my dreams with the world. And what I found was that, when I feel inspired, I can share that inspiration with others. They LIKE it. When I’m excited, people want to be a part of my dreams. How cool is that?

From Rebecca’s encouraging seed, my writing has grown from a solo endeavor to a socially engaged activity. Sharing my writing has gone from something I dreaded to one of my favorite things about it. It’s not just that I talk to more people about what I do, involving others is quickly becoming and integral part of my art. Here are some highlights:

  • This blog, of course. Being able to write my heart and hear from people who are on the same path is life-changing for me. And I’ve really only been at it in earnest for about two months. I can’t wait to see what comes of it over the next year.
  • I’m helping start and lead the Creative Collective, an  organization for artists of all shapes and stripes. We meet once a month to inspire and help each other. People re-arrange their work schedules to come to this thing. We did our first showcase a few weeks ago, and it was AMAZING. Nearly 100 people came and everyone had so much fun we had to shoo people out the door after. Every month, someone does what we’re calling a “mini master class.” I’m on deck for May. I’ll be dusting off some of my art theory brain cells from grad school to do a talk about the presence of the artist in art. I couldn’t be more excited.
  • In the last two months, I’ve performed twice at one of the largest performance venues in the state. Twice. Once acting (which is hilarious to me) and once telling a story I wrote. Remember: a year ago I could barely even bring myself to tell people I was writing a book. Now I’m sharing my stories with hundreds of people (thousands if you count the radio broadcast and podcast).
  • I have three people on deck to start a Trivial Circumstances interview-style podcast! I know nothing about creating podcasts, but I already know it’s going to be awesome. I can’t wait to help other people share their stories. What an honor.

From Rebecca to my friend who writes to me about EVERY blog post to supportive co-workers to my writing critique group to people who find me at church just to tell me my writing meant something to them, I’m beginning to understand what acknowledgements section of a book is all about. I cannot do this by myself, nor would I want to.

I suppose you could look at all this and dismiss it as a craving for recognition or attention. Sometimes I think that might be it. But what I’m learning is that so much of the value I find in creating has come from the meaning my creation has for other people, the work it inspires them to do themselves. It’s not that I care that much about people thinking I’m awesome. What’s incredible is seeing the fire that starts in them when it’s ignited by my spark.

Art isn’t meant to function in a vacuum. Dreams aren’t something we’re meant to carry alone. They have a life of their own, a life that requires care and cultivation from more than one person. I hope that 39 is the year when I can empower others in their dreams and creativity the way Rebecca and others have empowered me.

Share Your Trivial Circumstance

The sole purpose of this post is to create a space for YOU, my blog reader, to share a moment in your life where you could see God’s meaning and purpose for you. Those miracles of meaning that show up in the details of your life. The moments when God’s involvement in your mundane existence shines in a way you can’t deny. For me, some examples are:

  • The time He gave me red boots. I knew that if he cared enough about the color of my boots to , He cared deeply about every aspect of my life.
  • The time I was enjoying a particularly beautiful day, and I told Him how much I was enjoying His work. He responded, “I enjoy you enjoying it.” Enjoying Him is not an obligation when I knew it’s for our mutual joy.
  • The time I was worried He was about to send me to some concrete jungle somewhere. I cried out to Him next to the beautiful wooded creek near my house, “You can’t take me away from this!” He responded, “I knew you would be here when I put this creek here.” I knew He would take care of me no matter where I go.
  • The time I became instant friends with a woman through our shared trauma. We weren’t naturally drawn to each other at all. We bonded immediately, and every step of that friendship has shown how he’s built the two of us to work hand in hand. Our strengths build one another and so do our weaknesses.

Share your Trivial Circumstance in the comments!

Combat Lies with Creativity

These are some thoughts I shared in an artist co-op meeting recently that the group asked me to write down and share.

As a culture, I think we are seeing the limits of the ability of facts to combat lies. More information exists than every before. Then there’s information about the information. And then there are arguments about what facts are true and what are not. I can think of a lot of reasons this might be happening, but uncovering the truth in a sea of information seems to be getting increasingly difficult. There is some amazing scientific work going on. There is some perhaps-less-amazing study of human behavior (judging from what gets sifted down to me through the news, Facebook, etc.) But being an informed person no longer seems to pack the punch that it used to. Information seems to be losing its power to help me navigate life in a meaningful way. It does less and less to help me combat the lies in my head about who I am, why I am on this planet, how I should behave toward my fellow human beings in the time that I have.

Where do those lies come from, anyway? As a Christian, I believe there is a spiritual entity who is the “father of lies”. He is jealous of God. He can’t make anything himself, so he uses all of his formidable strength and intelligence to try to destroy what is and what is good. We often think of good being the cessation of bad, particularly moral good. I stopped drinking, and my life got better, etc. But I think, in fact, good is infinite. God spoke the universe into being and it has been expanding ever since. He saw it and it was good. Good doesn’t stop evil, evil stops or obscures what is good. Lies obscure what is good, distort our perception of it, but they do not have their own raw material. Lies eventually end in the ultimate cessation of good—Death.

Unlike Satan, people have creativity. However, our power to create is not raw. I can creatively combine sounds on my violin. I could even make the violin from a tree I grew from the ground. But I did not create music itself or even the idea of the tree I used to make the instrument. The raw materials came the universe, from God, not me. Since I am imitative at my core, the power I have is in what I choose to imitate. I can either imitate the lies constantly poured into my ear like poison from the Father of Lies or I can imitate the creative goodness that has been exploding into being since the foundation of the world. Imitate death-dealing lies or life-giving creativity. If Satan’s lies stand in opposition to God’s creative power, my creative act becomes a weapon against the evil of the universe, potentially one much more potent than facts (or “facts”). “Because no Good has a limit on its own nature but is limited by the presence of its opposite, as life is limited by death and light by darkness. And every good thing generally ends with all those things which are perceived to be contrary to the good.” (Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses) The more we reflect the the creative Light, the more we are unstoppable.

Why “Trivial Circumstances”?

“Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some to see.” C.S. Lewis

I grew up hearing my dad opine about Gemütlichkeit. It’s a German concept that combines coziness (which my introverted American mind associates with solitude) and community. It’s the warm feeling of friendship around a fire, a shared pot of tea and the discussion of a good book, the comfort that comes from joining of mental and emotional forces with a true friend. He always prioritized people and relationships—growing up, we spent summer weeks road-tripping from friend to relative to friend. As a teenager, I rolled my eyes and responded by diving into French Existentialism, drawn by the solitary but existentially engaged figures found in the writing of Sartre and Camus. “Hell is other people”, truth must be grappled with in the face of expectations from others. The Big Ideas were larger than life in every sense. Instead of traveling to visit friends, I traveled to see art, to experience ideas. I read to feed my intellect.

I listened for the voice of God in doctrine and theology. I knew the Bible backwards and forwards the way a student preparing for a test knows a textbook. I studied the rules and form and moral structures spelled out in it. The morals of the stories written about presumably real people where the focus was the lesson more than they lives they described. I was dedicated to a God who made sense, whose philosophy was structured and tidy—identifiable, understandable, consistent. I served a God who commanded. It was an economy of beliefs where God’s laws provided wisdom, comfort, and protection from difficulty in exchange for obedience. Christ’s death simply took away our inability to conform to His wishes and adjusted the balance book when we screwed up.

That worked for awhile… until it didn’t. In my mid-thirties, I began to feel the strain of my theology on the relationships that were important to me. I faced the question of whether I would attend my best friend’s (hypothetical) same-sex wedding. As a guardian of Truth, as a warrior in the battle for our culture, I had an obligation to use my life to model what was good and true and righteous. But I loved my friend. And I struggled. Then I read a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. With eyes fresh from the story of a man who died trying to assassinate an ideologue for the sake of Life Together, I read the book of John for the umpteenth time. I saw—for the first time—the Christ the Pharisees criticized as the “Friend of Sinners”.

As I started to catch glimmers of something new and different, my thirteen-year marriage to someone who shared my background and ideologies collapsed. The economy of beliefs failed me spectacularly. I grieved by running away from the rules that seemed broken, the obligations that I thought would protect me but hadn’t. And there, in the middle of hookups and way too much alcohol consumed alone on my couch binge-watching “The Good Wife”, I found what I’d always thought was a cliche meant for people who didn’t already go to church—Christ in the middle of my pain and weakness, closer and more real than I ever realized He could be.

The Friend of Sinners didn’t speak the language of obligation or condemnation. He didn’t do an altar call or recite the Ten Commandments at me. He didn’t argue predestination versus free will. He sat with me in my difficulty. He was simply there, and He found small, loving, kind ways to show it. He cared about my heartache, my broken ambitions, my desires—straight down to the color of my boots. He re-awoke the desires of my heart and made sure I knew that what He wanted more than anything was to talk with me about them. When I couldn’t see Him in the big ideas any more, He surprised me by meeting me in the small things of my own life. He introduced me to Love in and through the trivial circumstances.

“The everyday. It is not merely ennui, pointlessness, repetition, triviality; it is beauty as well; for instance, the magical charm of atmospheres, a thing everyone has felt in his own life: a strain of music heard faintly from the next apartment, the wind rattling the windowpane; the monotonous voice of a professor that a lovesick schoolgirl hears without registering; these trivial circumstances stamp some personal event with an inimitable singularity that dates it and makes it unforgettable.” Milan Kundera, The Curtain

Red Boots

RedBootsWalkingIt had only been a year since my divorce. I was being careful about budgeting, taking toddling steps into an adulthood discipline at 37. That said, I’ve lived long enough to know that shelling out extra dollars for shoes and handbags typically paid off since the quality is so much better. So, I’d made the one-hour trek from my home in Anchorage to the nearby ski resort town, Girdwood, where I knew the resort gift shop carried good boots. I walked in and there they were—beautiful, bright red, Doc Marten-style, lambskin boots. Warm, comfortable, and unforgettably cute.

“Can I try these on in a size 7, please?”

“The red ones? Oh, everyone LOVES those boots. That’s actually the last pair and they’re size 2. I’m sorry. How about the ones next to them? The black ones in the same style.”

If I hadn’t seen the red ones, I would have been all over the black ones, so I tried to get excited about trying them on. “Yeah… Size 7, I guess. Please.”

My feet are really size 7-1/2 and the 7s were a little too snug. “Do you have a size 8?”

“Yeah, but they’re in the display down by the pool. Can you come back in a little while? We’ll bring them up to the store for you to try them on.”

“Sure. I was planning to go for a hike in the woods anyway. I’ll come back afterward.”

It was a bluebird Alaskan fall day. The kind that reminds you that you’re breathing because of the cool freshness of the air in your lungs. I walked, I talked to God, I enjoyed the trail with Him. “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it,” what a glorious thought, God. All of this—you made it and I get to enjoy it.

It is beautiful, isn’t it? I’m enjoying you enjoying it… Ask me for something.

I want those red boots!!…Oh wait. No, no, no. That’s not a good answer. Ummm… I would like eyes to see the work you’re doing. Yeah, that’s a righteous kind of thing to ask for, right?

You already asked for that and I’ve already given it to you. Go on… ask me for something. What do you want? Honestly.

Ok, honestly… I’d really love those red boots. That’s what’s in my heart right at this moment. Red boots.

OK

“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” (James 1:17) Really? Every good and perfect gift? Many people I tell this story to are completely dismayed that when God told me to ask for something, I didn’t ask for world peace or parents for orphans—the Big Things. He’s not a genie granting one wish before disappearing. I have and continue to pray for peace, for Big Things (although I will admit my gifts are more in the small things at this point in time. This blog is called Trivial Circumstances for a reason.) But if every good and perfect gift is from Him, can’t I ask for those and red boots? There is no shadow with Him due to change—His goodness does not shift from one person to another, one situation to another. It pours out abundantly, filling my life to overflowing. His wealth poured out on me in one area of my life doesn’t detract from His goodness in another area, and it does not leave someone else impoverished. His goodness is beyond my capacity to contain. And His lavish giving challenges me to give lavishly—how can I not?

I wonder how these boots are going to come to me. They’re friggin expensive boots—I’ll blow my entire clothing budget for six months on them. Maybe someone will walk out of the resort and hand them to me for free…?

When I got back to the store and walked up to the counter, a box of boots was waiting for me. I opened it— they were red, and they fit perfectly. I paid for them and walked out wearing them, heart overflowing and tears in my eyes.

That was an amazing gesture of love, but it didn’t stop there. I had blown my budget on those boots. I needed a hat and a new bra. In my honest moments, I admitted that I also really wanted some new leggings. I eyed some cute slouchy hats and leggings everyone was raving about on Facebook. Oh well, I will be responsible. I don’t need leggings. I can live with the bras and hats I have a little longer. And I have red boots from God. I’m more than content. A few weeks after I got my boots, I went to a baby shower put on by a woman who owns a clothing boutique. I won a silly baby shower game. The prize? A bralette, a slouchy hat, and some matching leggings. The hat was aqua and the leggings were aqua and red, a perfect combination with my red boots. God didn’t just give me red boots, he gave me an outfit.

RedBoots2

Every time I face difficulty and doubt God’s goodness, I think of my boots. I have much greater difficulties in my life than finding footwear. But now I know that, if God cares so much about what I’m wearing that he’ll give me an outfit of my heart’s desire, He will not let me go through greater difficulties unless they are worth it, for Him and for me. “But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them.” (Luke 12:27-30) If He is faithful in the small miracles, He will be faithful in the big ones, too. Him caring about my boots does not prevent Him from caring about my home, my job, my church, my city, the country, the world. My boots remind me that He can and will take care of the Big Things, too. Every good and perfect gift. All of it.

Law and Freedom

What were the first words out of God’s mouth when he gave the Hebrews the 10 commandments? “Thou shalt not…?” Nope. There’s the build-up to the 10 commandments, with all of the awe-inspiring pyrotechnics and sound effects, of course. But when the real show begins, when he stops the introduction and starts in on the meat, the first thing he says is:

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exodus 20:1)

This is a line God repeats over and over again as he gives the law to the Hebrews.

There are a variety of ways to read that:

I could read it as a reminder of who he is, and what the Hebrew’s relationship is to him. “I’m the guy who brought you out of slavery. You belong to me, now, not the Egyptians. My house, my rules. Why? Because I said so.”

I could read it as a reminder of what he just did to the Egyptians, and that he could do that to them. “Remember the plagues? Remember the frogs and the dead first-born sons? Remember the Red Sea parting then drowning the Egyptian army and all of their horses? Yeah, that was me. You’d better do what I say or else you’ll get what’s coming to you.”

But if I remember how he has proven to be a good Father, that he sent His son to die for me, that that son set us free for freedom’s sake (Galatians 5:1) with his life, that he believed in our freedom so much that he submitted to our freedom to kill him… Maybe, just maybe, what God is talking about here is freedom. “I’m giving you the law, but first and most important part of that is to remember that I delivered you from slavery.  These are the things you shouldn’t do because… I love you and I rescued you and I want you to be free.”

The woman caught in adultery wasn’t the only one receiving grace

The sermon topic at our church this past Sunday was the story of the woman caught in adultery. I noticed for the first time that there is grace in unexpected places in this story. Radical freedom. The grace here is not just for the woman condemned to be stoned. But first, let’s find the traps, the prisons that grace explodes, because they are in unexpected places, too…

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery.”

Well, there’s one trap. They caught her committing adultery. People talk a lot about how they might have done this and the fact that, while she couldn’t have committed it alone, she was being punished alone. Definitely a trap, but not the sneakiest one.

“And placing her in the midst they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery.  Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?’  This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him.”

Clearly, they are laying a trap here for Jesus. They said it thinking they would test him, trapping him into their net of judgment.

But look closer.

“Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women.”

Can you hear it? The catch in their voice? The whimper of pain from deep in their beings, the desire to be freed from their obligation from Moses? They are watching Jesus, the friend of sinners, freeing people right and left from the bonds of their sin, healing them from its consequences. A few verses earlier, he had just spoken about rivers of living water, about quenching deep, soul-sucking thirst. Living water resonated deeply for everyone who heard, and suddenly everyone in the area began to discuss whether he was the long-awaited savior. They felt hope for their thirst. The pharisees—the men who wanted to stone this women caught in adultery—countered with scripture they knew as well as their own names, “This can’t be—he came from the wrong place. Scripture says he was supposed to come from Bethlehem.” It’s too good to be true. They counter with the the only truth they know.

If I have learned anything in my short life, it is that everyone thirsts, deeply, painfully. Longing is our state of being if we can cut away the distractions. The hearts that leapt at hearing Jesus talk about living water. But… is it too good to be true? You’ve seen this sort of denial, in stories if nothing else. The prisoners blinking in the sunshine after years in the dark. Am I really being freed? Am I really being seen? If a prison is all you know, you may run back to it when confronted with freedom.

“Moses commanded us to stone such women.” 

If you are God, you commanded us through Moses to judge one another. How, HOW exactly, “prophet”, “SAVIOR”, can we accept that the grace you’ve offered is from the same God who told us to judge? We are doing the job you gave us to do. How do you have the freedom to give grace when you have bound us to our role as judges?

“Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.”

Think for a moment about the other times God wrote something with his finger in the Bible. There aren’t many. Exodus and Deuteronomy specifically say that God wrote the ten commandments on stone with his finger. Think about these two situations—when Moses received the ten commandments, God was distant, on a hill in a thundering cloud. The Israelites daren’t draw near, the closest thing they got was stone tablets with laws inscribed by the finger of God. They didn’t get the person, the got the writing. Here, Jesus is writing, but no one can see what he wrote, or at least they don’t remember. Every eye is trained on HIM… the PERSON of Christ. The Word made flesh. When God wrote with his finger the first time, all people could see was the Law. This time, all they could see was the Person, the Person who would die to be with them. 

“And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.”

ZING! Hoo boy, are we ever happy when the pharisees get their comeuppance here. That cut-to-the-core, take-a-look-at-yourselves-homeboys approach makes so many people want to stand up and cheer. But it occurred to me that they might have actually been relieved not to have to follow through. Sure, it is pharisees who will later successfully kill Jesus over things like this, maybe even some of the same ones who walked away in this story. But consider for a moment, is it possible they were relieved, even just this once? That the oldest went away first, not because they were convicted most by Jesus’ words, but because they were the most tired and ready to be done? Tired of carrying the weight of the law when they only have two hands? Happy to acknowledge their own shortcomings in exchange for a chance not to have to follow through on the awful punishments commanded in the Law, even if it was just once? Imagine a high school principal on vacation, seeing teenagers commit a crime and walking away without saying a word because, for once, he can.

“Judge not lest you be judged” is not a command, it is a statement of fact. To the same degree I cannot offer grace, I cannot accept it. If I commit a wrong, I bear the weight of that one wrong and I can accept forgiveness for just that. But when I start judging, I bring the weight of the sins I’ve judged to the table with me every time I seek grace. Jesus didn’t just free the woman in a trap, he offered an out to the pharisees. The presence of the person, of love incarnate, the Word himself, obliterated the trap of judgment and law enforcement. He gave grace to the woman, but he gave the Pharisees the ability to accept grace by abdicating their role as judges. Radical, explosive grace that swept past and through the woman to her accusers.