Taking Heart, Writing

Magnanimity and A Book Deal

Two years ago, the kids cleared the living room and, with the help of my sister-in-law, put on a short play based on Sally Lloyd-Jones’ Baby Wren and the Great Gift. In it, a newly hatched baby bird (ours had a paper beak tied around her head with string), observes the other animals in her canyon with awe. As each tumbles, swims, dives, or soars, she exclaims, “How wonderful!” Just as she wonders, “What can I do that’s wonderful?”, the sun sets (our 9-year old stagehand held up a red blanket behind the couch at this point). The wren bursts into song for all the beauty around her. Eagles, whose soaring she’d admired, turn to her and say, “You are little, but your song fills the whole canyon. How wonderful!”

The image of this baby bird singing catches my imagination. The whole story does, really. The way she is filled with wonder at the rest of creation. How her wonderful gift flows out of her in thanksgiving. The way the eagles speak to her so kindly of this gift. It’s different than other children’s stories for the small and insecure. There’s no proving or comparing and ending up better than. Instead, there’s freedom and joy, a spirit of generosity and unselfconsciousness in the way she joins the rest of creation, doing what she was made to do. She is the magnanimous man G.K. Chesterton writes about, who is great but knows he is small.

I first heard about Chesterton’s magnanimous man on a podcast episode with authors Jonathan Rogers and Kelly Kapic. Talking about Thomas Aquinas’ understanding of magnanimity (greatness of spirit) and pusillanimity (smallness of heart), Kapic says,

The reality is God has given gifts. And to actually always shy away and go, “I don’t have anything. I don’t bring anything”— that can be just as problematic as thinking you’re the answer to everything. It’s a problem to say, you’re not an answer to anything.

…We need to be willing to believe people when they point out gifts we have, cause gifts are more often— not always, they need work and cultivation— but they’re often more what you might call natural to us…Part of what Aquinas is saying is you have gifts, and when people are helping you see those gifts, recognize, believe that is from God, and now use it. You have a responsibility. Not in a bad way, but in a joyful way. Like, look what he’s giving you and use it. You’re good at the flute. Don’t be shy about it. Help us. We’re enriched when you play, and we’re impoverished when you don’t.

I love how communal this vision of gifts is, that it’s through the voice of others that we learn how we are uniquely designed to help others flourish. And that in this way, we worship God. I also love the sense of grace in all of it. “As each has received a gift,” writes Peter, “use it, to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Pet. 4:10). Gifts are truly gifts, freely distributed by God himself to be recognized, received with gratitude, and used for good. In another article, Kapic explains that magnanimity is not trying to be great apart from God, but employing “gifts as an expression of worship and as a way to help others.”

Here’s why this way of thinking about gifts is so helpful for me. Part of what sanctification has looked like in my life has been God reframing my thoughts of greatness, or more specifically, my own desires for greatness. Which is to say, he’s humbled me. Through the years, he’s increased my contentment and joy in the hidden things that are of great worth to him. He’s been discipling me in refusing to believe that what is impressive to the world, even the Christian world, is always impressive to God. To value the small and insignificant, because he does too. I am not there yet, but by his grace I have grown.

It’s been hard at times then, having been disciplined by God regarding these things, to know the difference between true humility and small-heartedness. Beset with self-doubts and fear of my own pride, and sometimes just in ignorance, I’m often slow to admit I have anything to offer. I want to grab a basket and put it over my lamp because it’s safer. This way I won’t make mistakes. Won’t sin. Won’t be tempted to boast. Won’t fail. But, here is God’s immense grace to me, it’s been the body of Christ who’ve come around me time and time again, patiently speaking courage into my heart. Recovering my hidden lamp from the corner, they’ve handed it back to me saying, “Here’s your gift. Use it.“

I signed a book contract earlier this month. It was an unremarkable process insofar as I did what I believe are the normal things. I wrote, I submitted to a publisher I truly appreciated, I waited, and I heard back. But the process was also an unveiling for me, God in kindness drawing out an admission from my heart that, and this feels strange even now to say, I do want to write a book.

The process thus far (still only just beginning!) has also been soaked with the grace of God’s people. Possibly my favorite part of receiving an offer was being able to tell those who’ve been praying and cheering me on, excited for the doors God might open for me. I forgot all about magnanimity vs. small-heartedness talking to friends this week about the book contract. It goes to show you…anyone can write a book!, I’d said. But they didn’t laugh or let what I said slide and, before we left, prayed for me and this good work God has assigned to me.

The publisher is taking a risk on me, I know, a relatively unknown writer with a very small platform. Yet I am encouraged that in extending an offer, they have also in effect said, “Hey, we think this is a need for God’s people, and we believe you are called to meet this need in some way.”

You are little, but we think your song will help others.

I remembered the story of the baby wren recently after listening to a song about how we’re made to join creation in praising God. I won’t stop singing, I won’t stop singing / These lungs were made to sing your praise, were the lyrics. I thought of the wren’s song. Like her, I am little. And like her, a song rises unbidden in my chest nonetheless, one I was made to sing.

Writing

Learning in Exile

The last 5 days of remote learning have made me want to cry more times than homeschooling for 4 years ever did. The girls really have been great and their teachers are wonderful. Still, it’s stressful for everyone all around.

Distance learning isn’t my first, or even second choice, but isn’t that what life is like these days for everyone? We’re educating kids, celebrating birthdays, getting married, birthing babies, grieving deaths, and worshipping together the best we can given the circumstances. Yet when it comes down to it, what we end up settling with can feel like just that— settling.

Ours is not the only time and place the people of God have been asked to live, work, love, and worship in less-than-ideal circumstances.

I think of the prophet Jeremiah. Build houses! Plant gardens! Start families! Pray for your city! Seek God!, he instructed. Not strange things, except that God’s people were to do this in Babylon, the land of their captors.

It is to these exiles that God declared, “I know the plans I have for you. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jer. 9:21). Deliverance would come, but not for another 70 years. Until then, they were to live life where they found themselves. And as they lived, they were to trust.

Maybe our times are not as unusual as we think.

On the framed glass my daughter faces as she sits in her virtual classroom are words by Charles Spurgeon.

“Remember this, had any other condition been better for you than the one in which you are in, divine love would have put you there.”

As we gear up for a week of school, they are for me. They tell me, Yes, you are frustrated, sad, pleading for all this to end soon, and rightfully so. But don’t forget you do this as one who is loved by the Sovereign of the universe.

Beloved, we are not living God’s contingency plan.

We walk into the week loved by a God who is committed to our good.

Our children sit down for class beside the One who is working all things for their flourishing even now.

So here’s to the next 5 days of Google Classroom and Zooming kids. To leaning on grace and trusting his ways, here where divine love has placed us.

Writing

God of Naps, God of Justice

The cousins ran around today, occasionally coming to the dining table to graze on leftovers, settle on laps, and complain about what someone else did or didn’t do. The adults had lingered after the meal, our conversation meandering as it usually does. We talked about old computer games, the Atlantic article about the Romanian orphans, and the way our churches have talked about race these past years. It was precious time. With both healthcare workers and at-risk family members, we’ve only been reunited recently after months apart.

Later as I put our youngest down for a nap, I thought about how it’s been hard to pray, to feel God is near and hear him in his Word. He had started some deep work in me a few weeks into quarantine as I processed a slow but long-coming burnout. But the past few weeks I’ve only been able to think and feel over issues of racial injustice. With my sweet girl snuggled on my chest, I wondered how I could approach God about personal restoration while engaged with the pressing issues of injustice in our country.

I swayed with baby girl in the carrier, and the thought came, gently.

You care about both. Why can’t I?”

With that came a reminder that these last few weeks, I had cared for the little one in my arms. If I had space to love my children while lamenting and responding to systemic racism, why wouldn’t God be able to care for each of his own while breaking down strongholds of evil in the world?

These days, we are surrounded by the hurting. Our family has been praying for exhausted black friends and neighbors. Those who’ve felt the effects of racism their whole lives— “I can’t sleep,” she told us, “I’ve had nightmares. It could’ve been my husband.” We are remembering those who have died, and are still dying, from Covid-19. We pray by name for their family members who are reeling from grief. During protests in NY, we prayed for a neighbor in a local police precinct working nonstop and an Army friend, a husband and dad just returned home after months overseas, who was almost deployed to the protests. Our church hasn’t met physically for months and we fear for those drifting from the faith. We continue to mourn with others who were suffering before Covid-19 and George Floyd’s murder. Cancer, trauma, sick babies, marital strife, and mental illness don’t relent for pandemics and protests.

The needs are so great it is hard not to feel like it’s either/or. The world is constantly telling us we need to choose sides for those we care about, choose which one of God’s commands we should obey. Do you care about the health of the immunocompromised or the historic oppression of blacks in America? Do you tend to the flock God has given you or do you honor his image bearers outside church walls? Do you care about your physical neighbor or the people Jesus said was your neighbor— the person in front of you or the needs of marginalized communities? Do you seek to be an agent of change in the world or a faithful mom at home? Do you want mercy or justice? Do you pray for them or do you act?

This is a trap.

God does not pit the cries of the hurting against one another in a cosmic duel. He is not conflicted in himself. He does not need to simplistically choose the more worthwhile of two good causes or the lesser of two evils (though, admittedly, sometimes we do). His love, power, and ways have no limit, and as we consider who he is, he destroys the false dichotomies we too easily take as a given.

Consider that the God of Scripture is the God who punishes the wicked AND turns persecutors to martyrs. (Ex. 34:7, Acts 9)

He tells his people to act justly AND to pray without ceasing. (Is. 58, 1 Thes. 5:17)

He responds to individual sufferers AND the collective cries of the oppressed. (Ps. 28, Ex. 2:24)

He calls us to care for the widows, orphans, and strangers AND to be diligently faithful in our own homes. (Deut. 10:18, Eph. 6:4, Tit. 2:3-5)

He teaches us to be silent before him at matters too great for us AND to speak up for those who have no voice. (Ps. 131, Prov. 31:8-9)

He is full of grace AND truth. (Jn. 1:14)

He loves justice AND mercy. (Ps. 33:5, Mic. 6:8)

He upholds the sparrows AND the universe. (Matt. 10:28, Heb 1:3)

I know this isn’t as simple as it looks on paper, that walking in the world requires discernment and wisdom. That we need nuance and God’s voice as we make difficult, sometimes heartbreaking, either/or decisions. Still, I want to be fiercely both/and in all the ways that reflect him.

So by his grace, I will pray for the safety of my NYPD neighbor and for police reform. I will keep learning and educating, preparing the summer self-study material my daughter asked for on African American history, and I will step back from conversations when I don’t yet have the weight of experience or knowledge to contribute. I will ask God to restore me from burnout and for the healing of the nations. l will seek his help to be faithful in keeping place and to leverage my place for his glory. While considering with others around the table what God would have us do outside of my home, I will serve brunch and referee sibling fights inside it.

I am loved by the God who loves the world. And in this knowledge I will rock my baby to sleep as I pray for his justice to roll down like waters, his righteousness an ever-flowing stream.

Writing

The Prayers I Need For This Mess

(On Instagram)

Sometimes the mess is sign of a growing, inquisitive, cruising baby. Sometimes it’s a reminder that, indeed, real people live in this house. Sometimes it’s a mark of generous hospitality— open doors and shared meals. This is where, I believe, people snap a photo and post it under #blessthismess.

But sometimes the mess isn’t material fit for social media. Sometimes the mess is in our hearts and in the hearts of our children. Sometimes it’s the mess of our trials, caused by sin (ours and others’), and evidenced by our troubled souls. We are disordered on the inside. And we need much more than God to “bless this mess”, as if we were sheepishly asking him to sprinkle some goodness on top of a sinkload of dirty dishes.

Most days, I need a better hope and greater grace. I need different prayers.

Like: God, by your power give me faith to trust you as I walk through this mess. You are too wise to err and too good to be unkind. I believe it, help my unbelief.

And God, forgive me for my part in creating this mess. Form in me a clean heart and renew in me a desire for you and your ways.

God, in your wisdom use this mess to make me more like Christ. Help me receive trials as discipline. You are working in me a harvest of righteousness and peace to come.

God, in your kindness give me grace as I deal with this mess, the fallout of sin. Your power is made perfect in weakness, and though I am weak, you are strong.

God, in your sovereignty redeem this mess. You are working all things, even this, for good— whether for me or for the sake of others— and though I can’t see what you’re doing now, turn this around for your glory.

God, this is the blessing we seek in spite of, through, with this mess.

Strengthened faith.
Clean hearts.
Holiness.
Grace.
Redemption.

Kyrie Eleison, Lord have mercy
For your glory
In Christ’s name
Amen.

Writing

The Eucatastrophe Of Human History

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Come behold the wondrous mystery
In the dawning of the King
He the theme of heaven’s praises
Robed in frail humanity
In our longing, in our darkness
Now the light of life has come
Look to Christ, who condescended
Took on flesh to ransom us.
– Come Behold The Wondrous Mystery, Matt Papa

“I’m the star holder!”, she’d announced earlier in the week. Now our girl stood on stage with her class, center-back row. She recited the gospel account of the wise men with the rest of her class as she held a golden star at her side, waiting until the time for it to rise in the east.

A few years ago, I stumbled upon the word that describes what moves me most about Christmas. Eucatastrophe. Coined by Tolkien, he defined it as “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears.” This “good catastrophe” is, as Tolkien describes,

…A sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief. (J.R.R. Tolkien, On Faerie Stories)

These days, I feel the shadow of death. This morning, I read and journaled, and thought about how a dear one was in the very chair I sat in a little over a year ago. Cancer has taken her body since, and I grieved that I hadn’t had more time to know and love her. I have felt the shadow lately as sin deepens and widens fissures in relationships and ministry. I feel it in how scary it is to live in a post-Genesis 3 world, as I shrink back from real and imaginary dangers that threaten what I love most. I think of Tolkien’s stories, and how it is in the absence of all hope of that rescue comes. I’ve given up hope on some fronts, though I know I haven’t truly, not completely. Perhaps you could say I am waiting for rescue.

Advent gives me permission to think intentionally about the waiting that was the context of the incarnation. I imagine the force of history barreling on and on while the people of God carry the weight of ancient prophecies yet unfulfilled. I think of intertestamental times and what it would’ve been like to be on the other side of the virgin birth, to reckon with God’s silence of hundreds of years. I think of humanity’s sure and final defeat if not for the baby born of Mary.

This is what captures my heart at Christmas–  that the story of Christ’s birth, like the whole of the Christian claim, is not one of denial. Our faith is one that is meant to be tested in the face of real life in the real world. The “thrill of hope” we feel of the incarnation comes in the context of deep darkness. In the birth story: Mary, the mother of God, will have a sword pierce her soul. Her baby is born into a life of lowliness and suffering, to be murdered as a criminal at the hands of sinners. A maniacal ruler orders a massacre in his raging jealousy at the news of a newborn Jewish King. In the story of humanity: rebellion against God, unbelief and helplessness, doom and despair.

Into this darkness, Christ was born. That God himself would come and dwell with us, and become one of us to take on the darkness for us, no one could have hoped for in their wildest dreams. But he did, to those who had no hope, he came. He came unexpectedly but decidedly, and the darkness has not overcome him. And so, as Tolkien wrote, “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of man’s history.” While death’s shadows loomed, the Word became flesh and entered as light.

References to light are woven throughout Christ’s birth narrative. He was to be the “sunrise visiting from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death”, prophesies Zechariah (echoing Isaiah.) John describes Christ as the one in whom “the life was the light of men”. The glory of God shines on shepherds as they watch their flocks by night. And a star rises in the east because a virgin has borne a son.

Just as the rising sun cannot be held back by the night, with the turning of the incarnation, came our sure and strong rescue. All those years he seemed silent, God did not forget. Though it was a long time coming, he fulfilled his word. And because he came, suffering in this life does not the final word. Sin ravages but will not have the victory. Death’s days are numbered and we have hope beyond the shadow. We look toward our dwelling with him in the land where there is no night.

The hopes and fears of all the years, met in the birth of our Christ. Here is the dawn of the eternal day and of joy, joy beyond the walls of the earth.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.
Isaiah 9:2