Babies and the Sovereignty of God

Sometimes we come to points in our lives where we seriously question the sovereignty and wisdom of God. While I know this is ill-mannered and audacious, I still do it.

I had one such moment 25 years ago when I found out that I was pregnant with our fifth child. Did God not know that I was seriously under qualified to raise 5 children? Did he not know that we were struggling with other things in our lives that made the idea of another child impossible? Did God not realize that I had two friends begging Him for children and they were being ignored, while my womb was like that of a teenager who merely had to stand downwind from a teenage boy to get pregnant? There I was, fertility personified, and to use Biblical language poised to become heavy with child.

We were living in Cairo and had just moved from one part of the city to another 1/2 hour away. The day I went to the doctor, we were expecting a group of 20 students to arrive from the United States for a study abroad program that my husband directed. It was a chaotic time and there was little chance to be alone and process the pregnancy, never mind the bigger issue of the sovereignty of God. I hid my growing stomach under Bill Cosby sweaters, all the rage at the time, and managed to go four months before having to let people around me know. At that point I was slowly becoming used to the idea and so could come up with clever quips to snap back at the insensitive words of not so well-meaning friends and acquaintances.

The reality was that my other four children were over the moon. They couldn’t have been happier and wise friends of mine reminded me that I would far rather have 5 children than just one or two, but I thought I had told God that four was perfect.

I gave birth two weeks ahead of schedule in a hospital on the banks of the Nile River to Jonathan Brown Gardner. The moment I looked at him my questions to God dissolved in his soft baby skin. He was perfect in every way. Never had I been more aware of the glory and wonder of 10 fingers and 10 toes, a suck reflex, and eyes with perfect vision that slowly took in the world around them after first fixating on the face of a mother, and that mother was me.

At 22 inches long and 6 lbs 12 ounces, he was put into my arms and in an instant I was overwhelmed with love for this child and the wisdom of God. I knew a love for this child that was infinitely bigger and stronger than my circumstances – he was perfect.

Today that baby turns 25. He is a wise 25-year old with an old soul. Fluent in Greek, he is getting his masters degree at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Greece.

I am just one of a number of women who through the years has had babies and pregnancy give them life lessons on the sovereignty and deep love of God. I join the ranks of Sarah, wife of Abraham who had the opposite problem and tried to take things into her own hands; Hannah, who begged for a child with agony too deep for words; Elizabeth, wife of Zechariah who in her old age conceived, much to the surprise and gossip of those around her. And Mary, the blessed Theotokos, who said the words “How can this be?” to an angel who told her she would have a child, only to come to know her beloved son as the author of salvation.

As the months go by what confuses and confounds ultimately allows us to bear witness to God’s sovereignty in the form of a baby. Happy Birthday to Jonathan Brown Gardner. You are an extraordinary gift from God and I can’t imagine life in our family without you!

Reclaiming Lost Things

We used to rent out our beloved cottage in Rockport for a 9-month season. From a financial standpoint, it was smart. From an emotional one, it was awful. At the end of each rental period I would walk into the cottage with a sense of dread. How had the renters treated our beloved space? How had the cottage survived a group of strangers? What would be broken? Dirty? Irreparably damaged?

The first thing we would do is clean. We would scrub and polish until it regained some of the sparkle. Then I would redecorate. I would change things around and make it ours again. I would reclaim it for our purposes.

When something happens that you have no control over – losing a job, having to leave a country, getting a cancer diagnosis, a death, a pandemic, or a myriad of other things in life – you feel like your life is not your own. Things are happening to you and around you. Things that you did not choose. Your place and purpose suddenly change, and you are left in a tornado of doubt, fear, anger, and loss. Part of recovering is reclaiming.

How do you reclaim what is lost?

How do we reclaim our spaces, our bodies, our marriages, our places of refuge, or our very identities that sometime feel lost in crisis, betrayal, or death? How do we reclaim our faith? How do we scrub, polish, redecorate, and reclaim?

It’s a slow process, but the spiritual truth to this is profound. Perhaps the biggest piece is realizing how little control we really have over things that happen to us. It’s a paradox to be sure, but reclaiming is about getting honest, admitting that there are very few elements of our lives where we have control. We cling tightly to so many parts of our lives, imagining that we have far more control than we actually do. Our hot fists hold on, like a child that doesn’t want to relinquish their favorite toy. “Mine!” we cry. “It’s not fair.” “Why us?” “Its’ my life.” So many responses, but all in the same hard-held fist.

After realizing how little control I do have, it’s about moving forward with what I know. Taking back what is lost.

In this season I’m thinking a lot about reclaiming and being reclaimed. I remember our Rockport cottage as it would once again become ours, its beautiful interior being scrubbed and made new. The same thing is happening during these quieter days, where time loses meaning and days blend together into the season of a pandemic. If I’m willing, I experience an inner housecleaning and reclaiming that can only take place when I lay down my right to control, when I allow the hard inner work of repentance and trust to replace the anger, frustration, and the “it’s not fair” that floats barely under the surface. Perhaps its really when I realize that reclaiming is really about being reclaimed.

My fist opens. My body relaxes. And, over time, my soul is renewed and reclaimed.

Dry Seasons

Photo credit: Brooke Mackie-Ketcham

The sounds of summer rain and thunder add music to my afternoon. We have had some glorious days of blue sky and perfect temperatures, days that dead poets used to write about, but last night rain came to water our earth. Then today, torrential rain has come while thunder booms in the background. Downtown Boston, visible from our upstairs guest room and my office, is grey with fog and mist.

I am a lover of sunshine and all things bright. I love yellows and golds, white lights and golden glows, sunshine that takes over the shadows. But in this area, rain is critical. The grass has been like straw and dust comes up from the ground as we walk on it.

Since I was a little girl, I have heard the Biblical metaphor of Jesus being the “living water.” I grew up singing a bright, bubbly song “Drinking at the springs of living water, happy now am I, my soul is satisfied…” While the tune was catchy, the song gave a false illusion of happiness – like it was something you conjured up and could keep forever just by drinking at those streams.

The song also neglected to describe what dry feels like. A throat parched, longing for water. Skin dry and flaky. Eyes burning and dehydration drying up all tears. Feet kicking up dust everywhere you walk. I have lived in several deserts around the world and I know dry. I know what my skin and nose feel like. I know that when it rains it floods because the earth is so hard the water cannot sink in. I know how the land looks and how my body feels.

Dry. Bone dry. So dry in fact, that you begin to see mirages of water everywhere – a trick of the mind to give hope to the one dying of thirst.

When you are bone dry, water in any form is a blessed relief.

The land is not the only thing that has been dry. My heart and life have been dry – bone dry and longing for respite. As much as I believe that Jesus is living water, I have also come to believe that there are seasons of dry in our lives; that no matter how much we drink at those springs, we may still feel dry and parched.

There are times when it helps to analyze feelings,  when evaluating what is going on and how I feel is important and necessary. There are other times when no matter how much I evaluate, no matter what I change, I still have the same feelings. So I continue to walk through the dry days and times, pressing ahead, knowing that seasons pass, new seasons come, and the dry will someday change to a cool, refreshing respite.

Rain– sweet, redemptive rain to water the earth and bring relief to dry, parched land. Faith – to believe that even in seasons of drought, Jesus is still here- offering water to thirsty souls.

This is my world and this is my heart today.

Crashing Waves; Crashing Idols

We walked along the ocean on Saturday morning. The sun had not yet broken through the clouds and it was grey and misty. The waves were high, crashing and covering the rocks, receding quickly as another one crashed.

I love the ocean. I love it in any weather. I love it for its beauty, its complexity, its strength, and its sound – the sound of my childhood vacations.

Often ocean waves feel safe, but not on Saturday. On Saturday I was glad I could stand on a solid rock above the tide and watch from twenty feet away. The waves felt like they could and would take out anything that was in their path, doing what the wind and current bid them to do.

I thought about the way the pandemic has crashed over the world, much like the waves on the rocks. I thought about how much it has crushed and crashed over our plans. From postponed memorial services to postponed weddings to virtual book launches, because the in person plans are no longer an option, our plans have been crushed. With tears we have fought the hard decision making, finally realizing that whatever it is we are planning must be postponed, canceled, or rethought.

It has also crashed and crushed our idols. Whatever our idols are – be they job security, government protection, economic security, business, the stock market, public speaking, living overseas, the perfect wedding, graduations, traveling, leisure, entertainment, sports, church ministry, academic success – it cares not. All of our idols have crashed, and if you are like me, you are picking up the pieces, wondering why you ever put your trust in something so fragile.

At the beginning of February, I was excited about some incredible opportunities. After the disappointment of the summer and our forced return to the United States, life was beginning to settle down. I had just celebrated my birthday. I was beginning a community health initiative in Kurdistan with my husband and I scheduled to travel there in late March. I had been asked to do a Ted Talk at Boston University. I was doing well at my job. I had written a grant that looked promising for the University of Raparin. I had even been nominated for an “Extraordinary Woman in Healthcare Award” for an organization in Boston. I kid you not. This is all strangely true!

And then came mid February. Death came with the force of a mighty wave, followed by border closures, shelter in place orders, travel restrictions, and cancellation after cancellation. The trip to Kurdistan was canceled. The Ted Talk was canceled. The grant was on hold. The community health initiative would begin, but slowly and in a completely different way. My brother’s memorial service was postponed. And believe me, I did not get any award. Instead, I curled up on my couch in tears most mornings, plans canceled and idols crashing, hands outstretched to God.

The pandemic waves have come with a mighty force, and have washed away any illusions I had about safety, security, and who I was. I am like one of the small snail shells that is taken by the waves, at the mercy of the sea and the tide.

Peter Mommsen in the Plough Quarterly writes this: “Whether or not this plague, like the biblical ones, is a punishment, it certainly is apocalyptic. I don’t mean this in an end-of-the-world way, but rather in the literal sense of apocalypse as an unveiling – a revelation of how things really are. This crisis has ripped the cover off certain truths about our souls and our society. Some of these truths are ugly.”

On the one hand, this could be deeply depressing, and some days I do sink into a sort of abyss. After a cup of strong tea and talk with my husband, who has the gift of both humor and helping things seem not so bad, I usually rise. I am not a phoenix rising from the ashes, but rather like one of those shells on the rocks, waiting patiently for the waves to calm down or the tide to change. I am left with a strange gratitude.

I did not know how dearly and closely I held some of the things I have lost, did not know how difficult it would be to give them up. Since last July and my floundering return to the United States, my questions have continually been “What is the next right thing?” and “With all the noise in my head, how do I figure it out?” I thought some of those things were indeed falling into place, but it turns out – that has not been so.

I don’t have answers either for myself or for you, if you perhaps find yourself in a similar position. I still feel like I could go under the wave any moment, gasping, unable to find my way to the surface.

Beyond answers, what do I do? I have found routine to be a good friend. A job, which I am more than thankful can be done from home, takes up some of the week. I do a lot of baking, a great deal of reading, and some just staring out at our bird feeder and thinking. And I try to walk, to strengthen my body and my mind.

At the beginning of February, I wrote an essay for A Life Overseas that I titled “On Safety and Sanity.” At the time that I wrote it, borders were not closed, shelter in place orders had not been given, but people were beginning to hear the roar of the waves that were to come. In that essay, I talked about “bookending with the Psalms” – starting with the Psalms and ending with the Psalms.

As the waves threaten to overpower me, as my plans and idols crash, it is there that I go, and I am not disappointed.

My soul is downcast within me;
    therefore I will remember you
from the land of the Jordan,
    the heights of Hermon—from Mount Mizar.
Deep calls to deep
    in the roar of your waterfalls;
all your waves and breakers
    have swept over me.

By day the Lord directs his love,
    at night his song is with me—
    a prayer to the God of my life.
*

*Psalm 42: 6-8

The Oxygen of Faith – Pre-Paschal Reflections

Every year before our Paschal celebration I write a reflection. I usually write it after a busy day of services and preparation, a quiet moment before heading to the church for the midnight liturgy. This year, like the world around us, has been completely different.

Last year we traveled eight thousand miles and spent an entire month’s salary to get to our home parish for Pascha. That’s how precious it is to us. This year, though we live 20 minutes away from the church we are under a shelter in place and like Christians around the world, are live-streaming the service.

But I still find myself reflecting on this life-giving faith during a quiet moment. A few years ago, I was finishing up a film project with a friend of my son’s. We decided to go out for lunch before he headed back to New York City. We began talking about faith in general and the conversation then veered toward my faith in particular. He began asking questions. I don’t remember all of them, but I remember with absolute clarity saying to him “My faith is my oxygen.”

Every time we breathe we take in the life giving gas of oxygen. It enters into our respiratory system from outside our bodies and goes into our lungs. It crosses into the alveolar membranes and capillary endothelium, arriving in our blood stream and settling in our red blood cells, ready for a complex transfer system to every cell in our body. Anyone who has read about COVID-19 has a better appreciation for oxygen, the lungs, and the entire respiratory process.

My faith is like oxygen, my soul the lungs. I need it to breathe, to function, to get up each morning. I doubt, I scream, and I cry out to God for the pain and unfairness in life. I have sleepless nights, I have occasionally been in the intensive care unit needing life support for my failing faith, and I am too often a pitiful representative of my Christian faith. But ultimately I still choose it. To give it up would be like losing my ability to breathe.

In all my faults and flaws, I know deep within my soul that I am woven into the tapestry of his redemptive plan, and that somehow that matters.

And this is what I reflect on this evening. At 12 minutes before midnight, we will tune into our service. The entire room will be dark. A bell will chime once each minute until midnight. Then we will see the priest light one candle. We will hear him sing “Thy resurrection, O Christ our Savior, the angels in heaven sing. Enable us on earth to glorify you in purity of heart.” He will come out and say “Come, receive the light.” Though we are all over the Greater Boston area, we will move forward as one as we light our candles at home.

And so it will begin. for three hours we will celebrate the resurrection, periodically shouting Christ is Risen in every language we can think of. Our faith will be reaffirmed and I will breathe in its life-giving oxygen. In this, and this alone I rest.

Christ is Risen! In Truth He is Risen!

Longing for Isaiah’s Light

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. On those living in the land of deep darkness, a light has dawned.

The Prophet Isaiah

Snow is falling outside my window. In the abstract and theoretical, it is beautiful. The flakes are big – the stuff of fluffy snow, easy to shovel, brilliant for play. A couple of inches have already accumulated. I see it on the ground and the top of our bird feeder. Birds are wisely taking cover – not willing to venture out and gathering in a nearby hedge.

Outside my window, downtown Boston – usually easily seen at this hour, is hidden by the clouds and fog of this winter storm. Inside the contrast is palpable as white lights cast a welcome glow on this grey morning. The dark and fog are kept at bay, not allowed in infringe on the light in our home.

I am lost in thought, wordless longing in my heart. It’s an other-earthly longing – a longing for wholeness, for wrong to be made right, for the broken to be fixed, for the hurt to be healed, for my own soul to rest instead of restlessly wander.

How weary we all grow from tragedies – the only thing that seems to connect us in this disconnected world. And even tragedies bring on the cynics and the tragedy police, willing all of us to grieve more than we are able when the crisis happened half a world away.

How I long for Isaiah’s light. How I long for the light to dawn. Like a sleepless night where I just can’t wait until the clock tells me it’s time to get up, like an endless trip where I can’t wait to land, like a boring talk or class that I think will never end – no, none of those do justice to the deep longing for a world to be made right and the light to dawn. It’s a longing all its own.

I look over at the white lights, noting how their glow creates warmth and hope on this grey day. This is what light does. It illuminates, it radiates, it brings hope. This is why we long for Isaiah’s light.

This longing for Isaiah’s light takes me into the New Year, urges me on to a faith that is based not on an ideology, a mantra, or a dogma, but on a person. “In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.”

Isaiah’s light, a light that shines in the darkness – a light worth staking my life on. The day is still grey, but the light shines on.

Fingerprints of Grace

My friend Robynn sent me a gift today. It was a series of photos from a book, a lament and liturgy for the death of a dream.

We live in a world that loves to fill up space with stories of seemingly impossible dreams achieved. Our movies, books, and essays tell these stories in striking cinematography and poetic prose. We read these stories as people who are starving. Starving to believe that dreams do come true. Yet, for every dream achieved, there are many that die, even more that are broken.

Broken dreams don’t make for good cinema, but they are the cry of many in our world. The woman trying desperately to get pregnant; the young man dying of cancer, begging to be healed; the mom aching for her wandering child to come home; the asylum seeker desperate for safety; the child reaching out for love; and those of us with seemingly lesser dreams may watch those dreams die and are helpless to revive them. What we dream of, what we long for so deeply does not always come to pass.

What I so wanted has not come to pass…

I read the Liturgy that my friend sent me and I wept. I wept because I have witnessed lost dreams. I wept because I am a part of lost dreams. I wept because witnessing dreams die leaves you broken and vulnerable, unsure of yourself. You no longer trust your well-honed instincts, you question everything. And all too soon, you harden and what used to be dreams turns into apathy. You hate yourself for it, even as you understand how it happened.

But perhaps I wept the most because my dreams were and are too small.

I write this in the fading light of the evening. It is quiet, save the soft murmurs of voices in the next room. The sun reflects off a pine tree outside with an aching beauty.

I think about the hidden graves of broken and dead dreams. It was less than a year ago when I wrote about dreams becoming reality, when I told some of my story of longing and ultimately the fulfillment of a longing. Sadness spreads over me as I remember the joy and anticipation of last summer. Was it so recent? Can things change so quickly? Ask anyone who has watched a dream die and they will nod an emphatic “Yes!” Dreams can die in an instant.

So let me remain tender now to how you would teach me…..let me be tutored by this new disappointment. Let me listen to its holy whisper, that I might release at last these lesser dreams. That I might embrace the better dreams you dream for me, and for your people.

But this I have found in the past and now, in this present time: in the warehouse of lost dreams, in the graveyard of dead dreams, God does not abandon me. I feel his comfort all around, I see his “fingerprints of grace.”

“My history bears his fingerprints of grace…”

And I know that I can rest.

Here in the ruins of my wrecked expectation, let me make this best confession: Not my dreams O Lord, Not my dreams, but yours be done.*

Amen.

*All quotes are from A Liturgy for the Death of a Dream from Every Moment Holy.