Joplin: A Story of Loss and Recovery

Eight years ago today, a third of my town was wiped away by a tornado. “Wiped away” probably isn’t the best wording, though; “chewed up and spat out” fits better. On May 22, 2011, an EF-5 tornado roared into the southwest edge of Joplin and carved an arc up through the heart of our community before churning off to the east where it dropped memorabilia from its trip in fields and yards almost 70 miles away. This week, like many other third weeks of May since the tornado, has resurrected memories of that fateful Sunday evening simply because we are squarely situated in tornado season, even if Joplin isn’t technically in the middle of tornado alley. My family sat around the TV on Monday night of this week, watching weather alerts every few minutes as ominous cells manifested on the radar, doing their centuries’ old dance from southwest to northeast. Some smaller tornadoes wreaked havoc on roofs and trees in communities nearby, but Joplin was spared this time.

That week in 2011 exists in a space in my memory that is an odd mix of crystal clear images and blurred recollections, accompanied by emotions such as fear, mourning, frustration, and pride. So much changed for all of us in Joplin because of that one storm. The numbers give a partial picture of those changes: 7,000 homes destroyed, 500 businesses lost, and 161 people killed. But change is best described in narrative, and those of us who were here that day have lots of stories to tell.

My family’s story originates from the fringe of the tornado’s path where our status as “unharmed” would draw us in a unique way into the heart of the destruction. We were residence directors for a small Christian college that sits on the north end of town. We had plans to celebrate my husband’s birthday that evening; the dorm had just closed the day before and we could have free reign of the large dorm lobby that our tiny apartment was attached to.  But as the party time approached, so did the storms, with large, dark clouds bubbling up in the west. We watched the wind kick up, and when things started looking bad, my husband suggested maybe we should head to the basement at about the same time we heard the tornado sirens.

I’ve spent much of my life in the Midwest, so heading to storm shelters is nothing new to me. But that 30 minute stint in the basement of the dorm felt different. Even though we were two miles from the tornado, I have never seen the sky go black like that in the middle of the day. We emerged from the basement to find leaves and small branches from the trees littering the lawn around the dorm. Unsure of what exactly had happened, we went up to the television in our living room but couldn’t get any reception. We realized something was up, and we pulled out a radio, scanning for the local talk radio station, and listened in horror as the newscaster started listing off some of the locations in town that he knew had been hit. One of the intersections he listed had an apartment complex that a few of the students from the college had just moved into for the summer. (The birthday party was set aside; it was much, much later that evening that my husband and I would eat his cake standing over the sink, both of us in shock and speaking in half sentences to each other.)

“I’m going to check on them,” my husband told me as he laced up his hiking boots and threw some supplies into his pickup. I sat at the kitchen table, frozen with the horrific realization that all the places being mentioned on the radio spanned the breadth of the city. I stuck an imaginary pin in my mental map of Joplin every time the newscaster listed out another place with tornado damage. But even then, I was thinking that the tornado must have performed a crazy, drunken dance, stepping down in random places as it stumbled across town. I tried calling my husband to let him know that the damage must be pretty extensive. My call didn’t go through though. My anxiety spiked.

Several minutes later, he called me. “I had to drive through front yards to get down here, Jess. You can’t even imagine the damage. There are trees everywhere, power lines down all over. The further south you go, the worse it gets. I’m gonna try to keep going til I can get to 20th Street.” And that was it. That brief call was a miracle; the cell phone towers damaged in the storm meant that cell service was spotty to nonexistent. The time between that call and his arrival back at the dorm was a blur. Was it an hour? Two hours? I don’t remember. All I remember is he pulled up and several college kids spilled out of the pickup, disheveled and shaking. He had managed to find these kids when he got to the apartment complex, but not the two of them that he had been specifically looking for. Equally grim was his report about what he saw.

“After driving through all the yards and side streets, I was so disoriented. There weren’t any street signs anywhere. I had no clue where I was. I stopped a cop to ask him where 20th and Connecticut was. He told me I was standing on it. There wasn’t anything there but piles of rubble,” his eyes were wide as he relayed this to me. Each corner of this intersection had something major on it: a credit union, an apartment complex, a bank, and some duplexes. He told me he had searched for the two girls but couldn’t find them anywhere and so had managed to pick up other college students who recognized him across the intersection.

I remember busying myself with the college kids, getting them food and drinks as we continued to try to make contact with the two girls and make a list of everyone else we knew in the tornado’s path. Because that much had become clear by that point: the tornado had not just touched down in a few places. It had bulldozed a path a mile-wide through the middle of town.

And this is where my memory goes fuzzy again. I remember the next few days as a jumble of tangled snapshots. We eventually made contact later that night with the two girls we had been looking for. One of them came back to the dorm with her parents who had come to town from Georgia simply to help her move into that now flattened apartment. We put them up in the dorm because we had lots of vacant rooms, and that began the steady stream of visitors who would occupy the dorm for the rest of the summer. By the next day we were housing several displaced families who either worked for the college or who were connected to the college through family or friends.

My husband quickly got involved in a distribution center at our church, while I stayed behind to operate the brand new B&B we had acquired. I bounced between the TV with reports about the damage; the laundry room where we did mountains of laundry for the families staying in the dorm; and the kitchen because no matter the crisis, people still have to eat and it’s always been a way I feel like I can contribute. I had endless conversations that week—with the families who needed to talk about what they had experienced, with friends who called because we all craved connection that week as we learned more and more of the grim details of the destruction, with college students who were desperate to know of the condition of their college and the town they had just left, and with the school officials who realized that our quiet-during-the-summer campus could be a potential boon to a community that would need an army of volunteers to put it back together.

Story upon story emerged from the tornado zone. There were strangers who pitched in to help with search and rescue. Neighbors with chainsaws who helped clear trees from streets. Dozens of first responders from communities all around us who transported those needing medical help. Local congregations that opened up their facilities in a variety of ways for those affected by the storm.

And the volunteers. From as far away as the coasts to all the places in between. In the weeks following the storm, tens of thousands of volunteers would pour into Joplin to assist with the debris removal and recovery. My family’s role in our city’s recovery would be to house some of those volunteers. The college would eventually set up a housing system that utilized the dormitories on campus for groups assisting with recovery. Some of the groups were church groups, other groups were utility workers sent from states far away to help restore the city’s infrastructure, and other groups were civic-minded volunteers who just wanted to help.

That summer was one of the biggest challenges I faced in my role as a residence director. It stretched our family in ways we couldn’t have imagined and didn’t always appreciate. But it also created bonds and helped contribute to the sense that we were all in it together, whether we had lost a home or loved one or we came through relatively unscathed.  I was proud of us as a town—the work we did and the way everyone pitched in. It meant that the devastating losses were not the end of Joplin’s story. Instead, hope, perseverance, selflessness, sacrifice, unity, and goodness were hallmarks of this town’s recovery.

 

The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy

My friend Lancelot Schaubert is revamping his website, turning it into a multi-contributor site with all sorts of pieces about the liberal arts. I get to contribute pieces on fictional works that I’m reading, and my very first piece has been posted. Click on the link below to check it out.

The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy

I’ve also created a resource to help readers learn how to read reflectively. People who study these kinds of things say that we are reading even more text on a daily basis than we did thirty or forty years ago, but we all know that the way we read that text, which is primarily on a screen of some sort, has changed. We skim and hurry and blow through pieces, and this may work when catching up on sports scores or brushing up on news headlines. But that kind of reading doesn’t serve us well when it comes to fiction. We’ve got to adapt some different strategies to help us read stories and get as much out of them as we can. This resource will help you do that.

Raising Adults

When he was tiny, my son had fine, blond hair, and most of the time it stuck straight up in the air. The effect was fluffy and downy, and when you took in that feature along with his enormous blue eyes, he looked like a quizzical chick.

He’s sixteen and there’s nothing fluffy about him now. The quizzical look has been replaced by determination and a hungering-for-adventure kind of expression.

This week, it became perfectly clear where we are on our parenting timeline.

On Tuesday we talked about college.

On Wednesday night we went to parent-teacher conferences to talk about his schedule for his senior year.

On Thursday afternoon he will go for his first job interview.

And on Friday he will go to homecoming with his (first) girlfriend.

I stood at the kitchen sink last night feeling a little bit like I was gasping for air because time is moving so fast and I can’t keep up. I was also feeling sad because all these firsts mean that a whole bunch of lasts come with them. I find that a joy and an ache are both there in equal measure as we watch all these events unfold. If I’m honest, I’m not worried about him navigating all this new stuff (even though I still worry about pretty much everything else).

He’s becoming a young man, which is exactly what we want. No one sets out to raise a child, even though that’s in our vernacular. We set out to raise adults. So why are we all surprised when it happens?

 

What I’ve Learned (On Suffering)

This week has been an interesting one for my family. My husband and I are down at the VA hospital in Houston, Texas for a week-long test that we hope may give us some more information on his seizures. It’s day three now, and since my husband’s tests confine him to the room, and I’m without a car, it’s been a quiet week, a slow week, even a boring week. Generally, we humans shy away from these kinds of moments, but interesting things can bubble to the surface of our hearts and minds only at these times, and I’ve had a lot of time to think. Here’s just a sampling of what has gone on in my head.

I’ve learned that I am uncomfortable entering the suffering of others
That hallowed ground is one I would rather not enter
I am content, instead, to skirt the boundaries of that cold and arid land
Watching from afar, offering well wishes and a sympathetic nod

Until the one suffering has my very own heart

I’ve learned to take small steps into his world of pain
To close the distance by walking that sacred territory
Stepping nearer and nearer until I am filled with the vibrations
Of fear, pain, anxiety, frustration emanating from him
And I can feel the burning heat from his brow or
The clammy coolness of his hands

I’ve learned that these forays into his suffering
Are experiences with a world that makes strange bedfellows
Of darkness and light, pain and goodness, sorrow and joy
And I cannot have it one way or the other
Both come, sometimes simultaneously, creating a riotous confusion
That leaves me marked (yes, this is inevitable at times)
But also deeper, more compassionate, wiser, and more loving

I’ve learned that the edges of things are not where we were meant to be
We have been called to sidle up to burning bushes
We have been asked to shoulder crosses
We have been commanded to bear burdens
In the center, here, we feel heat and splinters
We taste blood and tears
We hear muscles groan and mouths sigh

I’ve learned that my presence, up close and invasive
Speaks love and support and compassion and
“You are not alone”


The “How” to Our Habits

Part 2 of 3

I recently had the opportunity to preach at the college where I teach. The sermon was entitled “Let God Retrain Your Habits.” I wanted to share it here in print, so I will be breaking it up into parts and posting them as a three-part series. Part 1 is available here and Part 2 is available here.

Here’s the reality we have to accept: We can’t manufacture heart change. We can’t transform ourselves simply through practicing a series of new habits. The only way habits and disciplines change us is when they are done in conjunction with the presence of God. That reality is why I started this series with “why” instead of “how.”(See Part 1 of this series.) If we start with the “how,” we easily miss out on the “why,” but if we start with the “why,” it inevitably leads us to the “how.”

So what does the “how” look like? The original title for this piece in its sermon form was “Let God Retrain Your Habits.” So it makes sense to start at the beginning: “let God.” Retraining our habits doesn’t mean we do it on our own. We do it by submitting to God and inviting God to work. We let him do the work. One of my favorite moments from the Chronicles of Narnia occurs in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader. In this book, we meet a self-absorbed brat named Eustace. Eustace manages to accompany Lucy and Edmund on an adventure to Narnia, where he makes a general nuisance of himself and tries the patience and compassion of everyone who is with him. During their journeys, the Dawn Treader crew stops at an island, and Eustace discovers a beautiful gold bracelet in a cave. He decides to put it on and because of its size, he’s able to shove it all the way up to the upper part of his arm. He falls asleep with the bracelet on and when he awakens, he makes the terrible discovery that he’s no longer a boy. He’s turned into a dragon. The bracelet is part of a hoard of dragon’s gold, and Eustace is wrapped up in a curse of some kind that has turned him into a dragon. The bracelet that fit easily and loosely on his arm as a boy is now painful and bites into his dragon flesh. Worse, Eustace can’t communicate with Edmund and Lucy or anyone else. His experience as a dragon is difficult and strange as he is forced to adapt to his new reality. One night, Eustace has an encounter with a unique lion who seems to want to help Eustace become a boy once again. The painful key to this process is that Eustace must claw his dragon skin off before dipping himself in a magical pool of water. After doing this several times on his own without success, he submits himself to the lion’s claws after the lion tells him, “’You must let me undress you.’”

Eustace describes it this way to Edmund later on, “’The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt.’” Eustace realizes that the painful wounding of the lion, who we all, as readers, know to be Aslan, is the only way to healing. Eustace then says, “’He (Aslan) caught hold of me—I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d had no skin on—and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment.’”Retraining your habits must start with the work of God, not with your own sheer willpower. It is painful to submit to his training, but it is the only effective way of learning new thinking and new practices. Let God do his work in you.

But the next part of the how comes from the person we have let in to do the work: God himself. The “how”will always lead us to “who.” And this person is the only being capable of effecting this kind of change. We know from Exodus that God identifies himself as “I AM,”and that in Isaiah he can also be known as “Immanuel” or “God with us.” He is by his very nature “being” and “presence.” He is with us. He is both the author and recipient of our disciplines, but he is also with us as we do them.

We don’t think about this very much when it comes to this conversation about habits. We tend to think of it this way: I am going to practice the habit of daily Scripture reading for God. Because God needs you to read to him? Because God needs you to show him how good of a Christian you are with your daily reading habit? It would be better to construct the sentence this way: I am going to practice the habit of daily Scripture reading with God.

“With” and “for” are prepositions. Prepositions are tiny little words, yet they can pack a powerful punch and alter the meaning of a phrase drastically. When you do things for God, your turn wholesome habits into proofs of your supposed devotion to him—which sounds incredibly conceited. When you do things for God, God becomes a taskmaster who is always disappointed by your inability to stick with something—and you become imprisoned to your view of God. When you do things for God, you don’t even have to love him, but it gives you just enough sense of entitlement that you feel like you can manipulate God into doing what you want.Doing things for God is not wrong, but it can lead to dangerous places, like bondage and arrogance. Suddenly, God becomes beholden to us because of all that we have done for him.

Here’s what God has to say about doing things for him without wanting to walk with him. In Isaiah 1:14, God tells Israel, “I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts, they have become a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing them.” He is saying to Israel, “You are doing them for me, not with me.” And in Amos 5:21, he says, “I hate, I reject your festivals, Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies” because they weren’t doing them with God. God himself prescribed the feasts and the gatherings and the sacrifices. But something had become hollow and hypocritical about the way Israel practiced these things, and it was rooted in a false picture of God. Sometimes the reason and the way we practice disciplines says more about who we think God is than anything else. So don’t implement new habits for God. You can’t do anything to impress him or to ingratiate yourself with him. He can’t be manipulated, and he sees through your façade.

Instead, implement new habits and disciplines with God. If God himself initiated the relationship with you, then he doesn’t expect you to treat him as if he is a silent partner or a long-distance lover. He is with you because his name is I AM and Immanuel. Even when you try to figure out how to express your love for him and grow in that love for him, he is with you and wants to help you do that. He is your father and just like any good dad who does stuff with his kids, God wants to work with you. A recent event in my own family reminded me of this reality. Our son Josh is sixteen-years old, and when he started driving this summer, we gave him our 2000 Honda Accord. It’s a great car and still runs, but it’s showing its age. The shiny top coat and the paint have been rubbing off in spots. Josh asked if he could repaint those parts, and we started this process of auto body work with him. My husband is an incredibly talented man and knows how to do so many things, but this was a brand new area for him too. Our son did a lot of research on his own, but when it came time to paint the car, we knew we couldn’t just let him do it by himself. One Saturday, they both went out to get all the supplies before heading to a friend’s warehouse to do the work. My husband called late in the afternoon to give me an update on their progress. I could tell it had been a long day by the tone of his voice. But he said, “Josh had no idea what he was doing when he got into this project. And I know that he wanted me to rescue him. So that’s why I’m here because that’s what dads do: they rescue their kids.” My husband didn’t just rescue our son that afternoon, he worked with him on every single step of the process. He was with him because that’s what dads do. You have a Father who has not only rescued you but has been with you every single step of the way since then.

Jesus used the image of a yoked team of oxen to show us that he bears our burdens. I think this image works when talking about habits too because in the same way that Jesus is helping us by bearing our burdens, Jesus walks with us to help us develop better habits. He doesn’t expect us to muscle our way through this process on our own. In fact, I think he is grieved to watch us stumble through this, fighting him off in attempts to prove ourselves to him, like bullheaded toddlers who exclaim over and over, “I do it myself!”

Sometimes we experience God’s presence and power like Eustace did when Aslan restored him to boyhood. It smarts, but we know that it is the only real way to be changed. David pictured Immanuel this way in Psalm 139, “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, you are there. If I take the wings of the dawn, If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, Even there Your hand will lead me, And your right hand will lay hold of me” (Psalm 139: 7-10). God’s presence is relentless and bigger than anything else we can manufacture on our own. But God is also pictured as the lamb by both Scripture and Lewis. Lewis shows us this side of Aslan as well in Voyage of the Dawn Treader. After the children reach Aslan’s country, they encounter a lamb who bids them to come eat breakfast with him, and our own heads are swimming with biblical references to Jesus as the lamb who takes away the sins of the world and the lamb who was slain, and even another breakfast that Jesus had with his disciples after his death. He met them on a shore to share a meal with them, remind them of his love for them and their love for him, and he would later remind them that he would be with them “to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). God’s heart has always desired to be with his people.

This lion/lamb figure isn’t just the stuff of children’s books or thousand-year old Scripture. Today, this lion/lamb roams the contours of your life, knows your every temptation and failing. He is with you and he loves you, so what would possibly keep you from letting him retrain your habits?

Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation.
Literary quotes from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis (New York: Harper Trophy, 1980).

What Habits Signify

Part 2 of 3

I recently had the opportunity to preach at the college where I teach. The sermon was entitled “Let God Retrain Your Habits.” I wanted to share it here in print, so I will be breaking it up into parts and posting them as a three-part series.

When we talk about habits, it’s important to establish the why first (see Part 1 of this series). But it is equally important to understand what is going on when we practice disciplines and what they signify. Remember my working definition for disciplines and habits: a set of regular and routine practices that place us in a position to commune with God, experience his love, and be transformed for our good and God’s glory. These practices by themselves don’t change us, but they provide even more opportunities for God’s Spirit to work in us because our habits can and should bring us into greater communion with God himself.

Richard Foster’s classic book entitled Celebration of Discipline is so helpful in a conversation like this. I want to share two things from his opening chapter: First, while these habits that we are talking about have many outward manifestations, they are primarily about inward changes. A beautiful cycle gets created in this process. God is working on me, he is transforming my innermost being. And because of that inward change, I am moved to do things. For example, I pray out of gratitude because of what God has already done inside me, and then when I pray, I am moved to love God even more because I realize that I have been given a beautiful gift of conversation with God. My increasing love for God then opens me up even more to his transforming work in my life. Habits work best when they transpire because of how God’s spirit is already at work within us.

It’s when we take the outward or visible action and turn it into requirements or displays of righteousness (or the lack thereof), then we become arrogant and pharisaical and we become imprisoned to our own standards. This is how you read news stories about preachers who appear to be holy and righteous by their deeds and then one day get arrested for soliciting a prostitute. When habits get divorced from the presence of the living God and they are used simply as a litmus test for someone’s walk, we turn into hollow men and women void of the fruit of the Spirit, and we create hypocritical communities that miss out on the transformative power of God.

We cannot turn these actions into proofs of a changed life and heart, nor can we use these to measure others and their own walk. Jesus himself said that it isn’t what we do that makes us unclean. It’s what is inside us and comes out that makes us unclean. Practicing certain habits is never about the habit itself; it’s always been about the inward transformation of the heart.

Second, Foster reminds us that using habits or disciplines as a way to curb or dominate sin will always fail. Our temptation when we have a sin habit is to tamp it down by practicing another spiritual habit in its place, hoping that our hard work and efforts will bring about the change we desire. They won’t. Ultimately, your sin habit isn’t the problem; your heart is. And until you plant yourself by the living water, you will continue to struggle with that sin habit.  

Here’s what I mean by this. Say you struggle with pornography. Your initial instinct is to get an accountability partner, pray more, go on a media fast, and set up apps on your computer or phone to block you from certain sites. These are not bad things, but they won’t take care of your problem. Because your problem isn’t with pornography. Your problem is lust. Or maybe you struggle with a bitter and angry tongue. It comes out of you in brutal tirades or caustic comments to friends and family. You may try to work on this problem through breathing exercises, Scripture memorization, and a tally sheet for yourself that keeps track of outburst-free days.

These things may all be helpful practices, but none of them will fix you. Too often, we have adapted the psychological theory of behavior modification for the spiritual life. We think that if we just do certain things, eventually we will change or our hearts will be magically transformed. And so our sermons and our teaching become little more than “do this,” “don’t do that,” or “try harder.” Heaven must weep because we have taken the good news of Jesus and his grace and love and turned it into a fairy tale with our behavior modification approach to our sin. Trying harder won’t fix us. The only thing that works is a concerted movement toward the Holy Spirit.

Psalm 1 foreshadows the image in Revelation and says that the person who lives close to God and his word is like “a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither.”  Our habits don’t change us. Time spent rooted in God’s love is what will change both our heart and our actions. So plant yourself by the river of life.

The “Why” Behind Our Habits

Part 1 of 3

I recently had the opportunity to preach at the college where I teach. The sermon was entitled “Let God Retrain Your Habits.” I wanted to share it here in print, so I will be breaking it up into parts and posting them as a three-part series.

Asking about someone’s personal habits has always felt a little intrusive to me, like asking someone to tell you who they voted for. Last week, I read an interview done several years ago with the recently departed Eugene Peterson. The interviewer must have sensed this same tension because she phrased her question to him this way, “This may be an audacious question, but what spiritual disciplines do you observe?” (italics mine) I think she knew that digging into the what, how, and why behind someone’s habits is pretty personal stuff. A few years ago when one of the college girls in my small group had an assignment to interview someone who was healthy, it felt a little bit like my life had gotten put under the microscope, and I wasn’t sure if I would stand up to the scrutiny. When we sat down, she asked me questions about my diet and other lifestyle habits, and we finally made our way to exercise. She asked me what I did for exercise, and then she asked me the question that I always feel a little bit sheepish about answering: Why do you work out?

I know the reasons that lots of people have for working out: to lose weight, to gain muscle, to better their heart health, lower cholesterol, all that. Those are marvelous reasons and do play a role in my decision to exercise regularly. But that wasn’t what I told her because those aren’t my primary reasons for working out. I had to be honest. Why do I work out?

To eat cookies.

Honestly. I have a sweet tooth, and while I can curb those cravings, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eliminate them completely. This means that I still eat brownies and chocolate chip cookies. But I know that baked goods don’t do anything for my overall health or weight, so I work out.

I also should confess that if there was an incentive like cookies for studying my Bible or a chocolate cake that waited at the end of every fast, I would be all in. I don’t always make the best decisions and my intentions aren’t always pure. I’ve been walking on this earth for 40 years now. I’ve been following Jesus for over 30 of those years, and he has tenderly shown me when I’ve missed the point about the habits in my own life, reminding me that he is the focus of my habits.

Some ground work before we get any further: When we talk about habits and disciplines, we typically split them up this way. “Habits” refer to physical things: diet, exercise, our use of time. While we save the term “discipline” to refer to our spiritual life: solitude, prayer, fasting. I don’t think we should do that. You are one person. Your physical life and spiritual life should not be separated. We should be more integrated in our approach to these ideas. In fact, if some facet of our physical life is broken, it comes out of brokenness in our spiritual life because these aren’t really as separate as we think they are. Today I will use “habits” and “disciplines” interchangeably because my own journey has shown me that I can’t segregate my self into categories. Here’s what I mean by habits and disciplines: a set of regular and routine practices that place us in a position to commune with God, experience his love, and be transformed for our good and God’s glory. And maybe just maybe this refers to everything from how I use my time to exercise to fasting and prayer.

When we talk about habits, we often want to jump right to a discussion about the “how” because habits and disciplines require doing and we want to know how to do them. I know from conversations with students over the years that the “how” is important. Way too many students have said to me, “I wish I was more self-disciplined.” And I want to say to them, “You know that’s not how this works, right?” Just wishing for it won’t make it happen.

However, we can’t just dive into the “how.” We need to establish the “why” first because the “why” helps us get our heads and our hearts right. If you don’t know why you are building habits, or if you have the wrong idea about why habits and disciplines exist (we exercise to eat cookies, right?), then the rest of the conversation doesn’t lead to health and spiritual maturity. Instead, it will lead to bondage and arrogance.

Here’s what I mean by the wrong “why.” When we think habits and disciplines play into the conversation about salvation, we are wrong. Sometimes we slip into thinking that our habits are attached to our salvation. These don’t save you. Remember the simple truth of Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Then there’s the rest of us: we know that our habits don’t save us. Instead, we struggle with everything that happens the moment after salvation. Some of us act as if it is our own works that sanctify us. When we finally manage to successfully practice a habit or discipline, we mistakenly assume that we have done the transformation. Nothing could be more untrue. We don’t practice disciplines to sanctify ourselves.

Both of these represent the wrong “why.” God justifies you and sanctifies you. Period. You can’t qualify or add caveats to that. Don’t cling to what you do as a way to earn God’s favor. That is a misunderstanding of both God’s grace and how habits and disciplines work for us.

Here’s why we practice certain habits: God loves us. I read Scripture, I pray, I practice saying “no” to my desires all because of God’s great love for me. Don’t ever reverse the order of those things. God doesn’t love me because I do those things. Here’s what happens if I do things to get God’s love. I become motivated by guilt, shame, and fear. These three things are crippling and will kill any love I have for God. Instead, I do things because he is the one who has loved me, redeemed me, and called me friend. His love motivates me. Guilt, shame, and fear don’t have a place in this scenario. He took care of my guilt and shame a long time ago, and his perfect love continues to drive out my fear. His great love propels me to practice habits that I wouldn’t normally if left to my own devices.

The spiritual habits or practices that I engage in are nothing more than an attempt to align my life with his love. To live in that love. Remember my definition of habits and disciplines. When I embrace solitude and silence, I open myself up to hear God’s voice. When I practice the habit of prayer, it reminds me of who God is and who I am in him. When I set aside daily time to read through Scripture, I re-center my heart and mind in the reality of God’s presence in this world and that I do nothing that he is not a part of.

God’s love is always flowing toward me, and when I let him retrain my habits, I put myself directly in the path of that love. I become like the tree of life in Revelation that is watered by the river of life that comes straight from the throne of God (Revelation 22:1-2). I must always start with God and his love for me, by planting myself firmly next to his river.

As crucial as it is to talk about God’s love for us first, we cannot neglect our love for him. And it is right to put this second because the apostle John reminds us that “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). God’s amazing love ignites my own love, and my love for him is demonstrated in how I follow him and do what he wants me to do. We all know that love is not a squishy romantic feeling. Loving God doesn’t mean we sit around feeling warm fuzzies toward him. C.S. Lewis tells us in Mere Christianity that it is “an act of the will.” And Scripture says it this way in the form of the Greatest Commandment: “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” Loving God requires everything from us; it is all-consuming.  Our loving God is as active and dynamic as his love is for us. Loving God means practicing certain habits, remembering that we don’t do these things in order for God to love us. His love is already established, and now we have the opportunity to work out our love for him by including in our daily lives certain movements and actions.

Love has to be our “why” when we talk about habits and disciplines. If we don’t start here, nothing else will work like it should, and the movements that should be life-giving end up becoming draining. Let God’s love for you and your love for him be the impetus for all your habits.

Donne and Undone

I was a reader long before I was a writer, so fiction has always felt like my heart language. My earliest reading forays were in small storybooks filled with bunnies, a seal named Sammy, and a boy named Danny who had a pet dinosaur. My young imagination took flight because of the words birthed by others’ imaginations. Poetry occupied a space in my heart right next to fiction, and that came in the form of a black-and-white-checked book full of Mother Goose nursery rhymes. I can still recite to you lines from the poetry of Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky, and in a box in my attic is a tattered workbook from third grade that pushed me into the realm of crafting my own haiku and limerick poetry.

Laura Ingalls Wilder and L.M. Montgomery and Robin McKinley formed the backbone of my reading as girl. Reading ventures in my teen years brought others like Jane Kirkpatrick and Harper Lee and Mark Twain home to my soul, along with school readings in William Shakespeare, e.e. cummings, and John Donne. This list doesn’t even account for the dozens of Saturday morning family trips to the local library, the joyous policy at the bookstore where my mom worked that allowed her to bring home brand new books to read and return to the store in mint condition (oh, how I treated those books like precious gems), and the textbook anthologies in English classes all throughout middle school and high school.

I recently ran across a quote in one of the new texts I am using in class this year: “I could perhaps live without writing. I don’t think I could live without reading” (Alberto Manguel). This quote sums up perfectly my own deep connection to reading. Books have always been my home, even my refuge, my escape, and, at times, a cheap form of therapy for me.

But one of the things that I appreciate more the older I get is the way fiction and poetry work as vehicles for truth and beauty. Sometimes this truth comes in the form of a reminder about the world as it is. Stendhal, the author of the novel The Red and the Black, states it this way in the comment of one of his characters, “Ah, Sir, a novel is a mirror carried along a high road. At one moment it reflects to your vision the azure skies, at another the mire of the puddles at your feet. And the man who carries this mirror in his pack will be accused by you of being immoral! His mirror shews the mire, and you blame the mirror! Rather blame that high road upon which the puddle lies, still more the inspector of roads who allows the water to gather and the puddle to form.” Fiction and poetry have a way of helping us see our worlds for what they are, not what we want them to be. But the reverse is also true: these mediums that aren’t always necessarily based on reality help me see what could be and what is possible.

Creative works, whether they are fiction, poetry, or drama, get at deeper truths, though, than mere reflections of our reality. Stories expose us to some of that “deep magic” that makes up the very fabric of the universe, regardless of the faith background of the author. (I am grateful to C.S. Lewis and Eugene Peterson for both ideas in that sentence.) Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner showed us the powerful and universal longing for redemption with the simple line, “There is a way to be good again.” And who hasn’t felt the sucker punch delivered by conditional love while reading King Lear? Cordelia’s pure love for her father brings us hope again and shines brightly like a lodestar throughout the play. Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis reminds us of the universal need for purpose and belonging and the devastating consequences that ensue when those are removed.

John Donne stopped me in my tracks a few weeks ago, when I read his poem “Hymn to My God, in My Sickness.” Donne was sick enough that he thought he might die, and this poem was birthed out of that experience and the musings that can only come through suffering. As with many other Donne poems, an extended metaphor makes up much of the poem. He compares his doctors to cartographers, while he is the map. He believes that he may pass per fretum febris (through the straits of fever) to the west to die, but then he turns the theme of suffering sharply to hope on just three lines:

What shall my west hurt me? As west and east
In all flat maps (and I am one) are one,
So death doth touch the resurrection.

This. This is why I read novels and poetry. It all comes down to moments or pictures or phrases that arrest me. That remind me that death isn’t the end. That move me to worship.

Sometimes poetry’s distilled nature expresses for me in a few brief words what has been floating around, amoeba-like in my own heart and brain. I appreciate the lines from Elizabeth B. Rooney’s poem “Mute”:

 Can there not be
A silent, flaming
Leap of heart
Toward Thee?

Or what about Emily Dickinson? Her tightly-worded and condensed poetry leaves me thoughtful and awe-filled:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant. . .
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind

Or this one:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops – at all

I am undone when I read works like these. I appreciate non-fiction and its direct, no-nonsense approach. My fawning over poetry and fiction here says nothing at all about my love for Robert Fulghum (he was my first experience with the personal essay form in middle school), Annie Dillard, or Joan Didion.

However, novels, plays, and poems are powerful precisely because we aren’t always expecting to be pierced to the heart by their ability to speak truth and beauty. I am indebted to the storytellers, poets, playwrights, and songwriters who continually smuggle deep things into their works, things that slow me down, that leave me speechless, that reveal God to me, and that make me say, “me too” and “thank you.” My life and my faith would be the shallower without them.

The Constancy of Change

I helped a friend move out of her office a week ago. We met around 5:30, packed her personal items in a handful of boxes, and then lugged those and a few pieces of furniture out to a truck and trailer. This was a job she loved and one that until a few days before she didn’t have plans to vacate, so the moving out process was accompanied by some tears, a fair amount of confusion, and substantial dose of frustration.

She managed to secure another job very quickly, and we talked a few days later about all the changes happening to her in such a short period of time. My friend thrives on challenges and adventures, so I have no doubt that she will do well in the long term even as she grieves the loss of the old job and adjusts to the demands of the new one.

I, on the other hand, tend to avoid change, and I am especially suspicious when people package change with words like “adventure” and “challenge.” I like my routine. Several years ago, in fact, I frequented our local Panera enough that the staff only had to ask me, “Do you want your usual?” when I walked up to the counter. I sit in the same section at church. I take the same route to work every day. Friday night is, more often than not, pizza night in our house. Predictability, familiarity, rhythms—all these words speak comfort to me. (This is all in great contrast to my husband who will do things differently “just because.” We are good for each other. Most of the time.)

I’ve been feeling petulant and full of self pity lately as I navigate the landscape of my life that has been shifting like a shimmering mirage at the horizon. After I finished helping my friend move, I got home and started to dig through my emotions to see what was underneath. A small group that we have been a part of for a few years is coming to an end. The peer-tutoring center that I manage at the college campus relocated this summer to a prime spot inside the library. My family has decided to change churches. My kid is driving. (My feelings about this last one prompted this post.)

None of these changes is all bad. Take the move of the peer-tutoring center. We have a brand new home and are better equipped to serve more students. This is a wonderful thing. As I was making the staff schedule two weeks ago, though, I realized that our new location and some major changes to our college course schedule meant that I no longer had a good feel for high and low traffic times. For the last few years, I could tell you which days each week we were more likely to see students in our center, and I even knew which weeks were more likely to find our schedule full. I don’t know that this year. I took a wild guess two weeks ago and then watched as that guess didn’t hold up to the reality of tutoring requests just during the first week we were open. This beneficial change means that for at least the first semester in our new home I will be back to tracking trends and feeling like I’m wandering in the dark like I did when I was brand new to this position. I’m not crazy about this prospect, so I have to remind myself that the discomfort I feel is temporary and will result in long-term benefits.

But the other changes, like the small group disbanding, those are harder for my love of constancy. These are people who have walked with us through some tough spots in recent years. We’ve all shared heartache and loss and grief and frustration. We’ve had honest conversations about our own shortcomings as well as others’ and the messy ways those intersect. We’ve challenged each other, prayed for each other, and laughed together until the tears streamed down our faces. My natural inclination is to want this exact group of people to stay together always. I don’t want the group to change because I am known and loved and I feel comfortable with them. But I have to remind myself that we have already experienced change: we sent off one couple to work overseas, we welcomed another couple looking for community, we adjusted as another couple took on more traveling because of their work caring for missionaries. And the reasons we are now parting ways are good ones: a new baby, grad school opportunities, and other service opportunities. We have reached the end of a season, and it’s time to enter a new season.

My petty, selfish side thinks that change sucks. The more mature side of me comes out occasionally to acknowledge that change brought me my husband, my son, the job I currently have and love, those friends in that small group whom I love dearly. Many of the beautiful things in my life came about because of some change—in me, in my circumstances, and even as the result of change in someone else’s life. The change that I’m experiencing now is uncomfortable and even painful at times. Hanging with the awkwardness and being present at every moment mean that I open myself up to the possibility of an expanded heart, a wider vision, and a deeper understanding of not only myself but the unchanging God who journeys with me into each new territory.