Rutherford in Paris

I’m sitting in my favorite coffee shop. This morning’s flavor of music here is not my jam, so I’m glad I brought my headphones. I’m listening to jazz from Paris, dutifully caring for myself. Cliché, but here it is: when Louis Armstrong starts singing about chestnuts in blossom I smile. And I’m sitting beside the window on purpose so I can see the sky. I thought about not getting a latte, but this morning it was a wise choice.

Meanwhile, I’m reading Samuel Rutherford’s ebullient reflections on the loveliness of Christ and browsing essays by Marilynne Robinson, a decidedly Calvinist Christian, a dauntingly brilliant thinker, and a major literary figure of this generation. Rutherford says “Rest, with Christ, will say more than heart can think or tongue can utter,” and if that isn’t the truest thing I don’t know what is.

Lately when I get time to myself I spend it on maximum-strength rest. I need space in my head and my heart. Sometimes I can’t find it, and most of the time I can’t even look for it. I start to feel like I’m drowning. “Rest, with Christ” is oxygen. Yesterday I met my pastor at this same coffee shop and he reminded me of another Calvinist writer, John Newton, who wrote of the cordials Christ bestows on an infant heart hungering for the gospel. That’s why Rutherford went into my bag this morning.

On a morning when I wake up fighting my darkest sorts of feelings, which is it? Is it April in Paris, or is it the Loveliness of Christ? I’ve learned to listen to a lot of secular voices in my adulthood after a thoroughly Calvinist and Puritan childhood. I use these two descriptors rather unfairly, as anyone who lives within them will insist, but I use them in their stereotype-meanings. The poster I made in Sunday school, which my mom probably still has on her bedroom wall, reads “If heaven is our homeland, what else is this earth but our place of exile? –John Calvin.”

After I finish typing this I’ll drive across town to the behavioral health offices at the hospital in an ongoing, uphill attempt to be whole and happy. Christ, unmediated by common grace, simply could not effect this important aspect of wholeness no matter how much I were to devote myself to him. There, I said it: the Bible is not all you need.

But reading Rutherford reminds me that there are less secular methods of self care, and I know them too well to forget or reject them, even if they (like everything else) have potential pitfalls. Couldn’t I care for myself in no other way than “Christ’s cordials”? Rutherford’s sentences make me nod and wince in alternation. A poetic rejection of the world for the sake of love’s expression is good and even true. A life that doesn’t avail itself of April in Paris in this “place of exile” is foolish.

When I criticize myself via internal childhood voices for running to sources besides Christ for wholeness, joy, and rest, what I’m remembering this morning is that all those sources can be oriented within a Gerard Manley Hopkins-esque theology of creation that is as ebullient as are Rutherford’s love letters. Oriented this way, every little thing is valuable to my soul on a morning like this, from orange leather shoes and orange Italian latte cups to Newton, Rutherford, and Marilynne Robinson. It just isn’t either/or.

Ultimately, I can attest to the all-surpassing loveliness of Christ right along with Rutherford, because there is a place my heart goes that nothing else can cure, and Christ can cure it, oh! yes, he can. The best Christian spirituality is learning what it means to belong to him, and this is a school I try to attend, however distractable I may be.

The reality for Rutherford’s original audience was very different from my own. He was writing to friends in deep affliction and even persecution, sometimes writing from prison. Perhaps this is where his modern disciples risk mistranslating him: by reading him out of context. I could have all that I need if I had nothing but Christ, unmediated through Sacrament or sacrament, but that is not my context.

I, for one, will not entertain my own doubts about my faithfulness to Christ when I answer my hunger for creature comforts. This world is his and it is not evil or even unlovely. Everything is beautiful.


On Gardens and Generosity

I’ve always been enchanted with gardening, and I can remember happy moments out with the house before the rest of my family was awake when I was just a kid living in Tennessee. I can remember my crop of sweet banana peppers and deep purple beans, sneaking a sun-warmed tomato from Mom’s buses, and gathering a bouquet of day lilies and sweet peas from hill by the alley. I always thought it’d be something I’d enjoy, but I never got serious about it until college, when for two years I had the privilege of living with a professor and his wife on two acres of immaculate, British-style garden and lawn. They had it all, and they worked full time for it. I helped them, and I learned to love the work and the sweat and the bug-bites and scrubbing it all out from under your fingernails at the end. Now I’m dipping my toes in myself and have enjoyed even more than I expected the process of creating a beautiful space on my porch and in the raised bed I’ve cultivated in our community courtyard.

One of the main reasons I love gardening so much is the spiritual aspect of it, and the things I’ve learned during the hours of pulling weeds, mowing grass, turning soil, watering faithfully before the sun gets hot. As I grew to appreciate the disciplines, the slow and steady labor, the patience and faithfulness and consistency required, the importance of weeding out what shouldn’t be growing and nurturing what should, I realized how dearly I wanted my children to grow up in a garden, learning the same lessons and pondering the analogies to our own lives. I am so thankful to be at the beginning of this journey and seeing it become a reality as Jacob “helps,” burying his chubby little paws in the irresistible dirt, splashing in the watering can, even learning to drag the house around. It’s not just that I want him to know where his food really comes from and how good it can taste, I want him to stop and think about how we cultivate ourselves, too, and what happens with a weed in your heart when you don’t get to the root but just tear off the leaves.

Another spiritual lesson caught my attention this afternoon while I was sitting in church. There is an elderly couple that brings an exuberant bouquet of fresh cut flowers to grace the front of the sanctuary every Sunday, from their own garden. I am always amazed at just how lovely and dramatic it is – larger than life. Clearly they spare no expense. I thought of the disappointing peas I harvested too late this week and how I’d not availed myself of that blessing when it was the right moment, and rather than growing better, it lost its value. There is a truth about basil pesto: the more you make, the more you’ll have to look forward to. The plant thrives on giving itself. I’ve been smitten by perennial wildflowers lately and have spent my free moments perusing books from the library, determined to form a plan to leave some of that beauty behind when I leave this property. That was the composition of the bouquet at church this Sunday, all lilies, and more of them than you’d believe. It occurred to me that to leave them be instead of choosing to bring them to share wouldn’t give you an advantage. They are there for the having, and they’re not there for long. I thought of taking some cuttings from the hydrangea across the yard for my table at the beginning of this week, but my procrastination was rewarded by ongoing drought and a shriveled plant. I missed my chance.

That burst of color at the front of the church got me thinking about generosity. Generosity is a temporal thing. It is the act of giving what we have, now, instead of saving it for later. Generosity happens when we don’t think about what it might be nice to have then, it thinks about what it possesses now and how it can be enjoyed to its fullest potential. Generosity might wear you out, but you do it. It might empty you, but you give it. Because right now you are not worn and you are not empty, and later there will be later’s strength and resources to offer up. Saving today’s for tomorrow is a waste. Tomorrow you will have Wednesday Grace.

Happy Birthday to Me

or Real Life Is All about Re-Allocation.

For my birthday, Jacob gave me an uninterrupted night of sleep and a 5:30 wake-up time, which means instead of going back to bed after feeding him, I’m up for the morning and setting out to break blogger rules by posting a whole handful of things I’ve been musing lately.

For my birthday, Mike’s giving me a required doctoral organ recital he must attend at 5:00 p.m., and a sweet family I’ve just met is giving me childcare, which means I’m actually going on a date with my sweetie tonight for the first time since we moved to Indiana. Ohmygoodness.


Last year I knew I was an adult when I spent my birthday money on groceries for the week.

That’s kid stuff.

THIS YEAR I know I’m an adult because I gave myself my birthday money and then spent it on last month’s groceries. All I wanted for my birthday was a $0 balance on our credit cards, groaning under the weight of a cross-country move and a summer of unemployment. So we wrote ourselves a check from our investment account and paid down our credit cards.

Oh, and did I mention I got a beautiful Yamaha piano for my birthday too? Yeah, that was money in our investment account, too. We had to scrape things around from here to there and back again to come up with that cash, which meant we waited several weeks to go get the piano after we’d set our hearts on it. A little Craigslist beauty in the hills north of Kentucky, bought almost-new from a university for a young daughter and barely touched for 18 years. Ours now, and looks brand new. Glitch after glitch forced us to wait till this week to get it, and some more birthday money I happen to know is on its way is going toward a tuning on Monday. I can hardly wait. Giddy doesn’t begin to describe it. Deep joy and anticipation, more like. I feel my soul seeping back into me, just contemplating the hymns I’ll play on that thing again.

What I’m learning at the outset of this adventure called Being an Adult is that real life is all about re-allocation. I’ve learned a big important lesson about wealth this year. I’d say we have it. But as I was struggling to balance numbers on my spreadsheet late this summer I’d keep having to close the books till the pit in my stomach settled. The numbers in the investment account, gift from a generous grandma, which in our dreams we’d earmarked for part of a down payment on a house someday, were getting smaller and smaller. I wrestled with feeling guilty that it was nearly gone, feeling despair that we’d gone and spent so much.

I prayed.


Not very often.

And then one day it hit me: Wealth is not numbers on a page and a chunk of cash is merely a representation of wealth, not wealth itself. Meaningless, really, without our assignment of personal value to it. The thing I realized is that we’re still very much in possession of most of what we’ve spent this summer: A few essential pieces of furniture making our new home comfortable, functional, beautiful, and welcoming to our friends. A pipe organ. A beautiful piano. Those things are worth more in personal value than what we spent on them, and the truth is that both of the musical instruments, if we sold them for their real value, would give us a 200% return-on-investment. At least.

God has been generous to us and looking at numbers on a page to assess how we’re doing is childishness. I’ve got what I wanted for my birthday and more besides: A few minutes rocking my sleeping boy, a date night with the love of my life, the most beautiful Yamaha piano I could’ve imagined owning, and, well, an almost-zero balance on those credit cards. Sure, none of it is new wealth, but in re-allocating it I’d say we’ve made ourselves richer.

We grasped onto this verse when we read it about 6 weeks before we were married and it has shaped our thinking:

By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; by knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches. –Proverbs 24:3-4, ESV