Friday, December 23, 2011

Shepherds

Shadowed they press down the sloping hill,
Groping their way in the still-thick dark,
Past black-mouthed caves heavy with night
To one where fire-light flickers still.

There was glory on the hillside, that they knew—
But the light has faded—can this be the place?
Go inside, one says, and cough a little—
They are only shepherds, and only a few.

Outside the wind sways the bowed brush low
Murmering deference—blessing—prayer.
It swirls the loose hay on the rough stone floor
And lifts the ruff of a placid cow.

Oh chill air, tingle with this child’s strong cry—
Oh stars, burn clearer in greeting Him
Whom the universe thrilled to, time ago
When first it sang its created song!

At dawn, the plowman will creak from his bed—
Stretching as always in the cold half-light.
And his wife will turn her hair up in a knot
And pin it wearily, so she can make bread.

And the innman, who counted his money and smiled
Last night will count it again today
And fasten the bag with a satisfied shake—
Only shepherds gaze at the newborn child.

Slowly the light of the new day grows
Warming the mouth of that place, where, tired,
The mother sits and rocks her son
And thinks a little, and knows what she knows.

And leaving, one shepherd lags from the rest
Inhuman voices still ring in his ears
His unseeing eyes bright from within—
From the daystar light that still burns in his chest. 

©2003 Deborah King

Read more poetry here.  

Sunday, December 4, 2011

My New Heros

So the title of this post probably made you think it was about something serious. Um, no. I'm not in a serious mood right now. I'm in a "write about my secret guilty pleasure (henceforth no longer secret)" mood. Ahem.

I sometimes get asked the question: "So, how many years were you in college, exactly?" To which I respond glibly: "mumble mumble." "I'm sorry, what was that?" "Er, I said 'fourteen.'" "Fourteen?!!" Yes. You heard right. I am utterly insane. It was either school or the mental institution.

While I was doing my fourteen years of time, I was made to read all manner of books. I read books which discussed chiaroscuro and Caravaggio and Ionic columns. I read books designed to explain French conditionals and Greek declensions and Hebrew roots. I read books elucidating hamartiology and gnosticism and amillennialism. I read books about linguistics (with titles like ‘Ergativity’ and ‘The Syntax-Semantics Interface’) that made my eyes cross. I read scholarly articles coming out my ears. And then I wrote a book full of jargon that only about three people in the world can understand. And finally I got kind of tired of books that featured words like antipassive and antinomianism and antidisestablishmentarianism. (Okay, so I don't know if I ever actually read any books with that word in it.)

When the last word was written and my professors' John Hancocks were safely on the dissertation paperwork, I packed my scholarly tomes in cardboard boxes galore and lugged the forty or fifty library books littering my living room back to the library. I moved halfway across the country and promptly got a library card.

I can't be certain, but I think the first thing I checked out was "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets." It was November, and I blew through the rest of the series by Christmas. A host of other fun books followed, none of whose authors even toyed with the idea of using the word ontological.

So now you know my guilty little secret. I am a children’s fiction addict.

Although I don’t limit myself to one genre, I especially like fantasy fiction. So I was very excited to run across an author that, in my opinion, is one of the cleverest, cleanest, and all-around most enjoyable to read that I’ve found in years. This guy makes me actually tempted to write him fan mail, which is saying something.

The author I’m talking about is Rick Riordan. (Some of you have heard me rave.) His first children’s series is called Percy Jackson and the Olympians, and includes five books, each better than the last. The basic premise is that the Greek gods (you know, Ares, Zeus, Aphrodite) are still populating the world with demi-god hero children. The gods themselves turn out to be rather deadbeat parents, but their kids are full of vim and vigor, taking on monsters and quests with admirable pluck.

Having finished his first five, Riordan apparently thought the Roman gods deserved a fair shake. I’ve just completed The Lost Hero, the first in a new series of books that introduces fresh characters and brings in old ones as well, some the children of Greek gods, others children of Roman gods. Basic plot summary: Jason, Piper, and Leo team up to rescue the goddess Hera/Juno, who’s been kidnapped by a mysterious sleep-walking woman. The catch? They have only a few days to find her—oh, and simultaneously rescue Piper’s (human) father, who’s being held captive by giants.

What’s so great about  Riordan’s books? A lot of things. For one, his characters are just super likable. Second, the plots are tightly woven sequences of events that characterize good writing at its finest. Nothing is wasted. Nothing is left hanging. Every subplot moves the story along toward the resolution of the overarching question. On top of this, the books are educational. (Groan.)  No, no—wait! In a fun way. I promise. Riordan, a former history teacher, retells the Greek and Roman myths in a manner sometimes frankly hilarious. Take the following passage, in which Jason and his friends encounter the legendary King Midas.

“So,” Jason said. “All this gold—”
The king’s eyes lit up. “Are you here for gold, my boy? Please, take a brochure!”
Jason looked at the brochures on the coffee table. The title said GOLD: Invest for Eternity. “Um, you sell gold?”
“No, no,” the king said. “I make it. In uncertain times like these, gold is the wisest investment, don’t you think? Governments fall. The dead rise. Giants attack Olympus. But gold retains its value!”
Leo frowned. “I’ve seen that commercial.”

Of course, most of us have heard of Midas. But since reading The Lost Hero, I can now tell you the Aeolus and Boreas were gods of the winds, Medea was the wife of Jason until he dumped her for someone else, and that when I order a venti latte at Starbucks, a particularly astute barista might think of storm spirits instead. For someone who likes trivia as much as I do, it’s a particularly satisfying combination.

Right now, I’m waiting with anticipation for the second book in the series (Son of Neptune) to come out. I’ve already got my hold in at the local library.


Thursday, December 1, 2011

Crossroad Counselors

Mistakes can be costly. I've found that true through painful experience this year. In my role as graphic artist I make the initial decisions about what our publications will look like and say. Ideally, other, wiser eyes should catch my mistakes. But still, twice now, something seemingly insignificant has slipped past my eyes and the eyes of the other proofreaders and gotten printed. And then, too late, someone sees it. And hundreds of dollars of printed material are rendered unusable by one fatal word or image.

Not too long ago, I made a decision that seemed harmless at the time. Before I knew it, I found myself teetering on the brink of losing a friendship that I didn't want to lose. By God's grace, everything was resolved. But it left me shaken, like a person whose car swerved just that close to the edge of a deep, deep ravine.

As I look at my planner today, my never ending to-do list has written on it the word "forms." It means the forms for a short-term missionary assignment with Bibles International that I'm putting off filling out to write this blog; the forms that ask me to describe myself and why I am qualified to be a missionary, why I should be allowed this greatest privilege of being sent out by the church to the world, why anyone should invest their money and their prayer time in me. And the truth is, I don't know the answer. Because I know myself, and I'm pretty much a mess. Even at my best intentioned, I blow it. I speak when I should be silent, or I am silent when I should speak. I fail to love because I am afraid. I fail to give because I am seeking my own good. I hurt people because I'm focused on myself.

I could go on. I find the expectation of perfection a heavy load to bear. It's why I'm glad to know in the deepest part of my soul that Jesus bore it for me. When I fail, when I sin, I go to God and ask for His continued cleansing (1 John 1:7). Then I get up and go on, knowing I've put on Christ's righteousness like a garment that covers all my shame (Rom. 13:14; Phil. 3:9; Rev. 3:18).

In my ladies' Bible study, we're looking at the life of David. David was a man God had blessed and favored. He had placed him in a position of power and influence. Everything seemed good. Until David blew it (2 Sam. 11). He ignored the multitude of good things God had freely given him and reached out for the tantalizing forbidden thing. As Kay Arthur puts it in our study guide, David progressed through a sequence of crossroads. At each one, he had the opportunity to choose good or evil, right or wrong, God's way or his way. But in each case, he chose the seemingly easier path. It took a hard punishment--the death of his child--to bring him around (2 Sam. 12).

The temptations I face are different from David's. Still, I can identify with the crossroads mentality. Here I stand, at the brink of my life. My vision extends into the future only a few paces. I'm tempted to be shortsighted and pick the path that looks easiest, most enjoyable.

A few weeks ago, I taught our teen girls a lesson about trusting God's standards. We memorized this verse together: "Your testimonies are my delight; they are my counselors" (Psalm 119:24). I don't know about the girls, but I know that verse was intended for me. I've made enough mistakes to know that the results can be devastating. I've sinned enough times to know that the momentary pleasure is never worth the grief that follows. I'm standing at the crossroads, afraid to step my toe over the line because I know the pain of failure, the regret that comes from past mistakes, the costliness of my sin. And this is the good that comes out of it: I toss all my own way of thinking out the window and cling to what God has to say like a lifeline. I take God seriously when He says,

Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
   and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
   and he will make straight your paths.
Prov. 3:5-6

Take a deep breath, Debbie. Be counseled by God's words. And step forward.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Caramelized Onion and Goat Cheese Pizza


I probably won’t post a lot of recipes on here. But I did kinda make this one up. I think it’s pretty amazing. You should try it.

Caramelized Onion and Goat Cheese Pizza
Makes 2 amazing pizzas.

Ingredients
2 pre-made pizza crusts (I used Freschetta’s Artisan Golden Wheat, which was good)
1 jar of pizza sauce

Toppings
1 sweet onion
3 tbsp. butter
3 tbsp. sugar
2-3 links sweet Italian sausage
2 medium tomatoes, sliced
1 red bell pepper, sliced
1 package baby bella mushrooms, sliced
15-20 leaves fresh basil
1 small package (4 oz.) goat cheese, crumbled
16 oz. mozzarella cheese, grated

1. Slice the onion thinly and separate the rings. Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the sugar and stir until dissolved. Add the onions and stir. Cook until onions are soft and a deep golden brown. Set aside.
2. Brown the Italian sausage in a frying pan.
3. Slice the tomatoes, pepper, and mushrooms and grate the mozzarella.
4. Spread the pizza sauce over the crusts.
5. Add the toppings! I add them in this order: tomatoes, pepper, mushrooms, sausage, caramelized onions, basil, goat cheese, mozzarella.
6. Bake in a hot oven (400 degrees) for about 25 minutes.

Et voila! C’est delicieuse!

This is my favorite combination, but it is also great without the sausage. I’ve also tried it with eggplant, which is pretty good, too. It takes a little longer because you have to slice and salt the eggplant (to draw out the bitter juices) and then sauté the eggplant before adding it to the pizza.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Thoughts on Prayer

So I've been thinking a lot about how I approach the spiritual disciplines I seek to practice regularly: prayer, singing, reading the Bible, giving, and, as we did in our church's service this morning, taking Communion. I suppose that last one is not technically a spiritual "discipline," but rather an 'ordinance.' But it fits in with my thoughts here, really. Just give me a second.

Prayer is probably the first one God started poking me about. For me, prayer is hard. Prayer is like taking your vitamins. You know they'll make you feel good, but man, they sure stick in your throat. I have a hard time with prayer for multiple reasons. Like the fact that the first things I usually want to pray about are the things that I want from God. The last things I tend to get to are the people around me (or far away) who live with much more difficult circumstances than I have ever faced. Or the spiritual well-being of my enemies. Yeah. Or for God's kingdom to come and how I can help with that. This is why I've been embracing opportunities for corporate prayer more and more the past few years. Because it makes me do it. It makes me pray for the church--the people God says are like part of my body, so much so that if they suffer, so do I (I Cor. 12: 26-27). It helps me learn to love people that I desperately need to love. (I mean really. Isn't this why women pay several hundred dollars a year to go to the gym and take an exercise class when they could pay $12.99 for a DVD and do it in their living room with the same exact effect? Thankfully, prayer meetings have no membership fees.)

Another reason I struggle with prayer is that I have a hard time focusing on the task. I'm kind of ADHD like that. Praying in the kneeling posture has never worked well for me. (Sorry, all you hard-core kneelers.) I get more prayer done while my hands are busy with a menial task like driving than while staring at my bedspread with my legs falling asleep under me. If you're ever walking in my neighborhood and see me out taking a stroll, you might notice my lips moving. In in effort keep my mind on what I'm doing, I might just be praying out loud. It helps.

You know, we have to be creative in fighting the Devil. After all, he's pretty crafty himself. (Ephesians 6:11: "Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.") And one of the crafty lies he likes to feed me is this: "Prayer, Debbie, is ineffective. It does nothing. If God wants to change something, He will. If He doesn't, He won't. Why bother?"

On my bad days, I sometimes swallow this lie. But recently, it tends to make me mad. "You know what, Devil," I say, "The fact of the matter is, I serve an incredibly big God. There is absolutely no problem that is outside the realm of His ability to fix; no person He cannot reach; no amount of money that He cannot provide; no circumstance He did not know about from before the beginning of time. AND, on top of THAT, there are a bunch of things He has explicitly promised in His Word He WILL do for us. So pretty much, your lie has backfired. Because now I'm gonna pray better than I would have before. Before, I might have just asked God rather timidly for these things. But now, I'm gonna pray like this: "You, God, are bigger than these problems, bigger than our sin, bigger than our weaknesses, bigger than our enemies, and definitely bigger than the stupid Devil. Provide for us because You said You would (Mat. 6:30). Change us because You said You would (II Cor. 5:17). Strengthen us because You said You would (II Cor. 9:8). Save us because You said You would (Ps. 57:3). And do this for Your honor and glory."

When I pray like this, I'm in pretty good company, too. I mean, look at Hezekiah, in II Kings 19:15, 19: "O LORD the God of Israel, who is enthroned above the cherubim, you are the God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth. ... So now, O LORD our God, save us, please, from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, O LORD, are God alone." This how David prays in II Samuel 7:22, 25: "Therefore you are great, O LORD God. For there is none like you, and there is no God besides you, according to all that we have heard with our ears. ... And now, O LORD God, confirm forever the word that you have spoken concerning your servant and concerning his house, and do as you have spoken." And the apostles: "Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, ... And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness." (Acts 4: 24, 29). In each case, there's an appeal to God's greatness, His character, His promise.

I have to think that when I pray this way that God is honored more than when I pray timidly, unbelieving. Of course, I have to qualify that I'm not talking about demanding God bring a certain outcome that I want. But I'm pretty sure God is pleased to answer our prayers when we ask Him confidently to do the things He's already promised to do, the things consistent with His character, with the kind of God that He is.

The idea of praying like God is actually listening and going to answer applies to the other spiritual disciplines I mentioned above. When I sing, do I do it as if God himself is truly my audience and the object of my worship? When I give, do I do it in faith that God will take the little I can give and use it to build His church here and around the world? When I read God's Word, do I come to it as if it is really "living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword" (Heb. 4:12)? And when I receive Communion, do I take it like Christ's sacrifice had a true and ongoing impact on my soul?

In short, do I perform the spiritual disciplines in my life in faith that the God I serve is utterly worthy of them? If I don't, why in the world would anyone watching be attracted to this faith, this so-called Christianity?


Friday, November 11, 2011

Longing

I'm currently re-reading a short collection of poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay that I've had for years (Selected Poems). I love Millay's style, even when I disagree with her philosophy on life. In my mind, she's up there next to Frost in her ability to capture something of what C.S. Lewis described this way: 

"the inconsolable secret in each one of you--the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that settled the matter ... But all this is a cheat ... The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things--the beauty, the memory of our own past--are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers." (The Weight of Glory)

Millay was not a Christian. But her work frequently expresses the longing Lewis described--a wordless aching for something we've never even seen; an aching ultimately filled only by seeing the perfections of Christ and becoming in reality what we (Christians) are currently positionally. As 1 John 3:2 says, "Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is."

Here's a couple of my favorites from Millay:

Assault
I had forgotten how the frogs must sound
After a year of silence, else I think
I should not so have ventured forth alone
At dusk upon this unfrequented road.
 
I am waylaid by Beauty. Who will walk
Between me and the crying of the frogs?
Oh, savage Beauty, suffer me to pass,
That am a timid woman, on her way
From one house to another!

Wild Swans
I looked in my heart while the wild swans went over.
And what did I see I had not seen before?
Only a question less or a question more;
Nothing to match the flight of wild birds flying.
Tiresome heart, forever living and dying,
House without air, I leave you and lock your door.
Wild swans, come over the town, come over
The town again, trailing your legs and crying!

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Of Space Heaters 'n Rock 'n Roll


I live in an apartment in a big old Victorian house in the historic district of Grand Rapids, known as Heritage Hill. My apartment is on the third floor, and has dormer windows, and sloping roofs, and wood floors (never mind that they’re flaking varnish, they’re wood, okay?), and a sink with two faucets, and built-in storage units under the eaves, and cute radiator-type heaters. It only lacks a claw-foot bathtub to be perfect in its quaintness. It’s an efficiency apartment, and I sleep in the walk-in closet, which means I wake up to the sight of all my clothes hanging in a neat, color-coordinated row at the foot of my bed.  

My closet - and bedroom
I like my apartment for a lot of reasons, including the above-mentioned quaintness, and the fact that I get to take walks down streets filled with houses that look like they marched straight off the streets of “Meet Me in St. Louis,” and for the fact that it fit my budget, which pretty much every other apartment in Grand Rapids did not do. Apparently, however, it also fits the budget of assorted college students, down-and-outers, and wannabe teen rock stars. 

Like I said, I like my apartment for a lot of reasons, but the teen rock stars are not one of them. Said wannabe teen rock stars like to start practicing a set of pulsing and rather unimaginative songs around 11 or 11:30 at night, just as I’m crawling into bed with the intention of getting some shuteye.  Instead, I lie awake, staring at my row of sweaters, my brain thrumming, and my imagination vivid with scenarios of timidly knocking on their door in my pajamas and begging a crowd of unruly teenagers to “Please keep it down?” (I’m not the confrontational type.)

Last night, however, I accidentally discovered what I think may be the solution. Remember those nostalgic radiator-type heaters I mentioned? Turns out they and I don’t have the same ideas about how often they should put in some heating time. (I don’t control the thermostat in my apartment.) I, preferring to be warmer than not, have resorted to a small space heater that does a reasonable job at taking the chill out of the air, considering my apartment is all of 300-some feet square.  Unfortunately, the wiring in my apartment is also a bit temperamental. By trial and error, I’ve discovered that two of the outlets can’t handle the space heater for long without tripping the circuit breaker. One of them makes the overhead light in my closet go out, which is strange, because it’s one of the furthest outlets from the closet. 

Whenever this circuit-breaker tripping happens, I always feel a little guilty, thinking my neighbors might suddenly be reading their remedial English textbooks or watering their marijuana plants in the dark because of me. So I avoid those outlets now. Up until last night, though, the outlet in my closet (strangely unconnected to the overhead light) never seemed to have a problem, merrily letting the space heater run all night without circuit-breaking even of any kind (to plagiarize Oscar Wilde: “I have no brother, I never had a brother, and I don't intend to have a brother, not even of any kind.” I digress.). I assumed that I had sole dominion over the wiring for this outlet. 

I found out different last night. The space heater was running like normal, valiantly puffing hot air out into the main room. I was concentrating on my laptop, licking a spoonful of cream cheese frosting, and playing with my hair. I didn’t really notice when the boom-boom-boom started up downstairs. Didn’t notice, that is, until two things suddenly shut off simultaneously. The rock ‘n roll beat. And my space heater.

Yep. I think I’ve found the solution to my teen rock star problem.  Never mind that my apartment’s a bit chilly. At least I’ve got some peace and quiet.