Forever Winters and the Coming of Spring

Please forgive my writing hiatus. I’ve been swept away by the coming of spring and the rush of energy that follows. Every morning I wake up and something new is popping out of the ground or shooting off tree limbs—the world around me transforming so fast I can’t keep up. My counters and table tops are overwhelmed with the white and golden and pink things I’ve collected and haphazardly stuffed into whatever containers are available. 

The world is new, refreshingly so.

One aspect of spring I find particularly encouraging is its consistency. Winter is dreary, cold, and dark. It’s hard to imagine a warm day full of sunshine when I’m huddled inside staring in disbelief at the thermostat. But just when I’m about to believe that this year winter might actually last forever—spring shows up. It is consistent in coming every single year. It never fails.

My freshmen year of college I made some poor decisions that landed me in a desperate place. Overwhelmed by class expectations, failed relationships, even the general bleakness of February, my entire world felt dark and hopeless, like winter. I vividly remember walking back from class one Friday afternoon, the reality of my situation falling heavy on my shoulders. It was just too much.

I was walking on autopilot, not really comprehending my surroundings, when a spot of yellow interrupted my dreary contemplations. A clump of daffodils were just beginning to flower along the roadside. Surprised out of my dreary contemplations, I stopped and actually looked around me—seeing the world for the first time in what seemed like months.

It’s too early for daffodils.

No other flowers were blooming on campus, in fact nothing else was blooming anywhere. And yet here were three little daffodils, sprouting up in all their hope-filled glory, as if they’d been intentionally buried in that exact spot months before and had spent all winter germinating in secret glee, anticipating the happy moment when they’d pop out of the dirt and interrupt my trudge of misery.

As cliche as it sounds, those little yellow flowers gave me just enough hope to push through a desperate moment, a reflection of a greater hope that later I would learn to cling to. I needed to believe that something was bigger than what I was experiencing, that my current reality would not be my forever. 

I fight to avoid platitudes, so my hope is that these words don’t come off general and stale. I’m not about handing someone a bandaid when they’ve got some serious wounds. But humor me in the possibility that there really is something out there as persistent as spring. Someone out there who is bigger than our current struggles and circumstances, someone that is constant, consistent, and faithful—like daffodils—to show up in our winters. 

I believe in this faithfulness because I have seen it, experienced it, and I know it to be true. I hope this season, in whatever circumstances or struggles you are experiencing, that spring surprises you with hope for something greater. 

Flying North | Part Two | On Remembering

I visited my grandmother at her nursing home last week. It’s been almost three years since I saw her last, and I wasn’t prepared for how much she had deteriorated. I mean, I knew she had dementia, but as I sat by her bed holding her wrinkled hand I struggled to connect the rosy-cheeked, cheerful woman I remembered with the pale and skinny form lying next to me. 

She didn’t remember who I was and I didn’t expect her to. In fact, she slept almost the entire time I was there. To help pass the time a nurse mentioned a hymn-sing scheduled for 2, which pulled a bright memory to the front of my mind. 

I’m sitting on a piano bench next to Mom-Mom in the sunlit study, fumbling through “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” The chords feel too big for my hands, but she belts straight through my blunders with the determined gusto of a freight train. Yes, let’s go to the hymn-sing.

We wheel into a room that smells like mothballs and stale breath. There’s an old piano in the corner that Doris, the home’s chaplain, will play. She’s a tiny, elderly black lady with the energy and enthusiasm of a five-year-old. The piano is her throne, the room her kingdom, and she knows each resident by name. I’m enchanted. 

Doris starts off with “Oh When The Saints’” in an upbeat bluesy rasp that animates the room. The lady in front of us is particularly excited, waving her worn fingers back and forth. Her pale pink nails glimmer whenever they hit the afternoon sun, as if reaching out for something in front of her that only she can see. We sing a few more hymns, and I glance at my grandmother— even in the midst of the music she’s fast asleep. 

It’s an elderly gentleman’s 90th birthday, and after we sing to him, Doris asks if he has anything special to say to those gathered. Even though he relies heavily on a walker, there’s something graceful in the way he pulls himself erect. He adjusts his position so he’s facing the audience, and with the seriousness of a soldier, he begins quoting Churchill.

Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.

It seems a strange thing to say in this context, and the words drop in the silence. A slight, almost awkward pause, and then Doris is thanking him and plowing into the next song. My lips follow automatically with the lyrics, but I’m still chewing on those words, letting them fill up my skull. 

They stir up something that’s been in me for quite some time—an uncomfortable feeling, like I’ve eaten too much candy and it’s not sitting right on my stomach. Perhaps its the result of getting older or that death has started stealing my ties with this generation, but I feel this owing. And not in the specific sense he’s referring to, but in a wide and incomprehensible way, like a thousand tiny threads of previous lives and past sacrifices have woven together to compose all the intricacy that is me. It’s a debt of existence, of heritage, of livelihood, and I don’t know how to properly appreciate it. I feel like a child who can’t remember to say thank you. 

As the music crones on in the background, I look at my sleeping grandmother. I’m overwhelmed with a rush of gratitude, and I affectionately squeeze the hand of this woman who gave life to my father, who has given life to me. It’s not an owing to make you feel guilty, no, it’s an owing to make you remember. I think this is the best way I can respond, by remembering.

I want to hear every story, I want to chase down every thread connected to my existence. My grandmother may not be able to remember, but I can. And my children can. And so on and forever, a heritage of remembering. 

Insta-Envy

It’s 2:33 in the afternoon and I’m sitting in the doctor’s office, waiting on an appointment. I automatically pull out my phone, enter my passcode, and open the Instagram app—the brown polaroid-looking one that I’ve purposely placed within one-touch access. No new followers. Darn. My thumb slides upward across the smooth screen. Images flash across my eyes, sinking somewhere inside my visual cortex where my brain processes an opinion before my thumb breaks contact with the phone.

I know people say it’s a long way between your head and your heart, but in this case my thoughts have sprinted there and back in less than an instant, and my brain is immediately inundated with cheap assessments and critical perspectives.

“Did he really just post another picture of his breakfast?”

or

“She didn’t ‘like’ my sunset photo last week so I am not ‘liking’ hers.”

or

“That picture is too perfect, they must have spent hours editing it. What a waste of time.”

These thoughts are actually occurring inside my head, reverberating against my skull while I sit placidly in the quiet waiting room. And though I’d never dream of vocalizing them, they’re still happening, aren’t they? So on some level my heart must think they’re true—that people like so-and-so better than me because they have more followers, or that I’m better than so-and-so because my artistic coffee cup picture with the creamy swirls has more “likes”. 

Seriously? Let’s take a moment to call out how trivial this is. This reckless comparing, this insta-envy, based solely on our own interpretations of how we want our lives to be perceived—because let’s be real, I’m not the only one who thinks like this. And what’s crazy is this is nothing new. Humanity has been doing the comparison deal for thousands of years, way before the first after-workout selfie ever graced the insta-world. 

I know I talk a lot about the Bible, but it’s because it has a lot of good things to say that I believe to be true. Anyway in it there’s an old proverb that says, “a tranquil heart gives life, but envy makes the bones rot.” Another version describes it as cancer spreading through our bodies.

This is how Instagram makes me feel, like there’s something rotten inside, envious thoughts multiplying through my body like cancer, poisoning my heart with quiet little lies about how I should be, about how others should be, about how life should be.

So I deleted my Instagram.

Now before you go all, “Well that’s a bit drastic”, hear me out. Ideally Instagram is a good thing. It’s a creative hub for people to express their personality and share their experiences, whether that be through cute puppy photos, throwback Thursdays, or pixilated sunrise shots. It’s a tool that’s meant to encourage laughter, beauty, and community—feelings of goodwill and happiness for our fellowman.

But I don’t think it does that for most people, for me anyway. I think it leads a lot of its users to discontent, gossip, and envy. So I’m choosing not to have it in my life for the time being. I’m not trying to guilt-trip the world into getting rid of Instagram, I would be naive in assuming that deleting an app could cure mankind of it’s comparison problems. But I do think this provides an opportunity for you to examine you’re own insta-intentions, because like a mirror these intentions reflect the state of our hearts. Are you okay with posting a less than perfect picture? Do you feel inferior when your photo has less “likes” than someone else’s? And let’s not limit envy to an Instagram only issue. Who in your life are you comparing yourself to, and are your expectations realistic?

We’re all just people. Imperfect people. But we have the capacity to love each other well, to believe in and encourage the best in each other. I don’t need an app on my phone to tell you that.

New Year Angst

Call me cynical, but I’ve got a hard heart when it comes to New Years resolutions. Of course I’d never say that out loud, but I don’t think I can take another exercise check list or personal goal chart. I can’t help rolling my eyes—I’m so over it.

I realize I’ve got a bad attitude, but let’s be honest for a second. As much as I’d like to be, I’m not an achiever. Somehow I missed that self-discipline gene. But, being the dreamer that I am, I’m great at convincing myself that I actually am one.

Every year when January rolls around, I come up with a fantastical improvement plan covering all areas of my life. Am I going to read my Bible more? Well yes of course, I’m going to read the whole thing twice. Exercise twice a week you say? Bump that—I’m going to run every single day. And do Crossfit. And eat three incredibly healthy meals per day. I’m caught up on this unrealistic achiever high for about week, until inevitably—as they do every year—my resolutions fail. I make excuses. I’ll do better tomorrow. I get discouraged. I feel guilty. And then I just give up. 

You see why I’m cynical? Why bother even starting the cycle, when I know I’m only going to be disappointed in myself.

When I react like this, I know it reveals something very important about where my heart is. I’ve thrown up a well-constructed self-protective wall to shield a real and nasty danger. Call it pride, self-reliance, works-based righteousness—however you choose to define it—a part of my heart desperately wants to be defined by what I do. 

Don’t get me wrong, I think were were meant to do things well. The alternative would be everyone being terrible at stuff, and well that would just lead to anarchy, chaos and one huge suck fest. We can and should take pride in our accomplishments. But ultimately I don’t think we are meant to find meaning in them.

So quick Bible moment, I think this is what’s going on in the book of Galatians. Paul, the author, is frustrated at the church at Galatia because they’ve been preaching that in order to be a true Christian, you have to be circumcised, essentially submitting themselves back under the law, saying salvation is contingent on what one does. Worth defined by works. 

Paul’s pretty adamant about how dangerous this belief is. Take a quick look at what he says:

“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision (works), Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” Galatians 5:1-4 (ESV)

Grace! So sweet in its acceptance and so easily rejected in a moment. And yet I think it’s the key to my resolution issue. I get it, my goals tend to be unrealistic, I know it’d help to trim them down to attainable levels. But really what I need is grace, because grace gives me the freedom and joy to keep going in a moment of failure. Instead of throwing in the towel when I’ve failed, when I’m tempted to tie my worth to what I’m doing—I can preach grace into my heart.

So back to that whole resolution thing. I’m going to try out a few, and this year I hope they work out. But more importantly I hope I remember my worth isn’t based on whether I accomplish them or not. I have been saved by faith. I have a Father who desperately loves me and who has infinitely answered for my shortcomings. And it really is true, his mercies are new every morning. 

O Sinner, Come Home

On Friday my grandmother died. It feels harsh to write it out like that, so blunt and factual, but I don’t really know how else to put it. 

The reality of death is a paradox to me. Death is natural. All things decay and die, second law of thermodynamics, the natural order of this world. And yet in my spirit, there is an uncommonly strong resistance to it. Death doesn’t feel natural. There is something in me that protests against it, that knows by instinct there is something more and that I was meant for whatever that something is. I don’t think we were meant to die. 

But we do, the reality of death is everywhere. At first it hits you hard in the face, like freezing water smashing against warm skin. And then it filters in slow, sinking deeper and deeper into you with every remembrance of the person gone until before you know it, it’s lodged itself so firmly inside it becomes a part of who you are. Grief is such a strange process. 

Grieving is necessary, but so is celebration. In fact I think the two go hand-in-hand. My grandmother was a strong woman. As many of her friends and relatives affirmed to me, she was a “real firecracker” and “Ms. Buie, well she’d shoot you straight.” Of all the people I’ve ever met, I don’t think I know anyone who worked as hard as she did. She taught me how to use a broom, how to clean a kitchen, how to shuck corn and snap peas. You’d have to fight her to get her to sit down, and if you turned around she’d be at it again, finding something else to do. If only I could be half has hardworking. 

My grandmother wasn’t soft, and she wasn’t easy to get along with all the time, but she was always thoughtful. She never missed my birthday. If I missed her call, she’d sing happy birthday to me in a voicemail. In the evenings, she’d drive her scooter to the porch so she could read her Bible while watching the sunlight fade across the farm. She was so lovely. 

I miss her. I miss her in a way I don’t think will ever fade away. Not completely.

The thing about death is that it makes us take a good hard look at life. It forces us to look at the people we love, it shines a flashlight on our every day doings, on what consumes our time and our thoughts. It begs a question of importance and necessity. What actually matters? 

As my grandmother was dying, we sang her favorites hymns to her. I don’t actually remember the name of one of the last songs we sang, but I know I’ll never forget the words. 

“Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me; see on the portals he’s waiting and watching, watching for you and for me. Come home, come home, you who are weary come home. Earnestly, tenderly Jesus is calling, calling O sinner, come home.” 

I don’t know what life after death is like. I don’t really understand heaven. But I like to think that when she finally let go, she opened her eyes and Jesus was right there in front of her in all his warmth and glory, arms spread wide for her to run into.