Beautiful-Terrible Stories

Bedside Table

One of the bright spots in my long winter was some wonderful reading. I doubt if I’ve ever enjoyed such a delightful stretch of back-to-back great fiction. Not that the stories themselves could be dubbed delightful. They were not. Every one was rather intense, to be quite honest. Beautiful-terrible stories – if you know what I mean.

The first was a children’s book. My sweet friend Jenny recommended this one on Instagram. Jenny and I go way back. She lives in West Virginia now, but she used to live in the rental house adjoining my boys’ piano teacher. I knew Jenny from church, and during lessons, I’d hike the short, wooded path to Jenny’s door, and invite myself over for a 30-minute chat. We were soul-sisters from the start. Jenny, at the time, was mom to a baby, my own boys spanning the tweens. She’s now a boy-mom of three, social media posts like déjà vu – her tribe and her life nearly mirroring mine, apart from location. And when Jenny recommends a book, I’m the first to grab it.

This morning Kyle was awake well before the birds, not sleeping. The pot of coffee already cold by the time I joined him. I was nuking my first cup when he told me, “I can see why you liked it. The book was good.” Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster. He was skeptical at first. It being for children, and there’s an actual monster, a bit of a stretch when your profession is math. But oh-wow-this-story.

“That’s how it works, doesn’t it? We are saved by saving others.” Nan wiped her nose with the back of her hand. She looked down at Charlie’s face… 

And.

“That’s what it is to care for a person,” Toby said. There was not even a hint of mocking in his voice. “If you’re not afraid, you’re not doing it right.”  

Which is all you’re getting. You’ll have to read the rest for yourself.

Book two. Also Jenny, indirectly. Another Insta-post a year or so ago, my first introduction to Kristin Hannah. Talk about intense. I don’t know how she does it, but you live in her stories. Every horrible scenario, you’re sucked so far into the drama you’d best not put the book down until you find out just exactly how the whole awful thing comes out. Last winter it was The Nightingale; I commented on that one in a previous post. This winter, The Great Alone, and a girl named Leni, drug to Alaska by her POW father. And I’m smack in the middle of a grueling Minnesota winter, reading this brutal Alaskan tale, long winter nights being the least of the darkness in this particular story. So intense, I confess, I skipped four chapters. A few weeks later I chatted with another Kristina at our MOMs group at church. She’d grown up in Alaska, and I had to ask. The Great Alone – is it a true picture? She’d read the book, and pretty much, affirmed it.

From the horrors of child-labor in nineteenth-century London, to the oppression of alcoholism in darkest Alaska, of course my third winter novel, a Holocaust story. All the Light We Cannot See, and true to its title. I know how to pick ‘em. But actually, it wasn’t me. Picking this one – a story itself. Valentine date with my husband at Barnes and Noble, drinking coffee, and he tells me I can choose one book. So I pull up iPhone notes, scroll through lists from my neighbor Sandy and the past years’ CT book awards. I’m carrying a stack toward the Starbucks counter when I pause in an aisle and ask for a suggestion. From God, of course. We do this thing, once in a while, where I ask HIM – Is there a book I should read? And there it is, lowest shelf, first thing to catch my eye. I add to my pile, order my Flat White in a mug, start reading. Hooked from page one, and feeling quite certain. Whispering thank you. The book from my husband is also from Him. I make my purchase, carry it home to bedside table. (Kyle’s winter project. While I’m reading books, he’s making furniture out of reclaimed wood.)

And oh-my-breaking-heart. Talk about another beautiful-terrible story. Like the previous two, a breathtaking tome about the lives of children. I finish this one, and the obvious hits me. At least two of these are Pulitzer books, and maybe this is a list I should peruse more often. It’s March and I head to the local library.

Which brings me to present. Current read, still history, still raw. This time The Underground Railroad. And I’m not sure if it’s too many weeks of heart-stretching themes, or the onset of spring after all this winter, but I’m reluctant to read it. Every night before sleeping, my time for fiction, close to halfway through, and it’s not the book. The book is prize-worthy. It’s just that I’ve learned by now it’s sure to go bad for this girl, Cora, and every evening I’m bracing myself, not wanting, I guess, to face more horrors. Tales too true, too close to home, and near in history. Which I admit, is the genius. Authors saying YOU NEED TO KNOW.

And that’s how it works, doesn’t it? If you’re not afraid, you’re not doing it right.

Let me end with this. A bit of nonfiction. Just now, on my Kindle, a scholarly book I’m reading with Steph. Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times. No irony there. 

Lament recognizes the struggles of life and cries out for justice against existing injustices (page 23).

The author is talking to us – to me – those whose lives tend toward mostly easy. Whose most awful stories sit on bedside tables, bound in fiction. He challenges us to know our history. To enter, lamenting, the brutal nonfiction of countless others who’ve lived it real. To tell their stories. Sweep, Alone, All the Light, and Underground Railroad. Nan, Leni, Marie-Laure, Werner. Cora. Fictional children from our world’s sorted history. Lament in story. So I might know.

 

Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster by Jonathan Auxier
The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times by Soong-Chan Rah

Snowshoes & Snakes

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It’s SPRING here in Minnesota. This week’s temps matching the date on the calendar, which is always cause for celebration. Winter snowfall breaking every record, and school cancelations, too. But there’s an end in sight, birdsong expressing for all of us, sheer delight. Every morning I crack the window by my bedroom chair, dark sky waking pink to early light. Maple scooches in tight, eager as I am to catch a whiff of the changing season, tail thumping, my soul’s agreement. Spring and resurrection go hand in hand.

Just last week Angie and I exchanged Tuesday morning coffee for a snowshoe hike through winter woods. Her parents’ eighty acres joins the Campbell’s three, snowmobile tracks crisscrossing the well-worn paths of resident deer. We follow both, chart our own course, too, exertion and conversation, a blend to rival Caribou.

We’re on the homestretch, my heart beating fast, part workout, mostly passion. We’ve been enjoying a riveting discussion. About SIN. LOL. I know. Who gets excited about a topic like this? Me, I guess. I confess.

And it’s this – confession – I’ve been noodling over every day since. Earlier this week, Nils home for spring break, the two of us relaxing on living room chairs, catching up. He’s talking about college classes, the ones he likes, and the ones he doesn’t. Friends and girls and the ups and downs of being twenty. There’s this ministry down in Cedar Falls, he leads worship, leads a small group of guys. And lately, he tells me honest, it’s felt a bit like a burden. I seek explanation, and he tells me this. How all they ever talk about is sin and confession. It seems to be the primary focus, drilling down deep into dark and hidden places, and bringing to light every wrong done.

This burden of sin. Every day for forty straight, I give up indulgence and read prayers of confession in my Lent devotions. It was Pastor Sean’s sermon last Sunday, too. Hard to be a Christian and avoid this topic. We are bound by sin.

It’s this topic, too, I discuss with Angie, crunching through knee-deep snow on a late winter morning. Is it true we are bound?

I have two choices when it comes to sin. One is to think, “I know I’m going to sin today, so I’m glad I have Jesus to forgive me.” Or I can think, “I’m glad Jesus is with me today, and he can keep me from sinning.”

I’ve said it this way to students at church, my own kids, too. Now I say it to Angie as we leave the woods, high-stepping over drifts as we turn toward home. “Sean says it’s both.” One Tuesday morning gathered for prayer with staff at church, and I’d shared my quote with coworkers. Pastor Sean saying it’s not one or the other, we’re all nodding in agreement, and I’m nodding, too. Because of course we know. It’s both.

If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves (1 John 1:10). We can all quote that, and mean it.

And then Angie tells me about this little boy and what he’d said to his mom when he’d been caught red-handed in his own foolish crime. This is just who I am.

Just as I am, without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me… 

And I’m thinking about another little boy, grown up now, chatting with me here on the couch. He was eight years old, give or take, when I’d asked him to join me for a summer walk. He’d been caught in his sin, too, and I’d decided it was time to tell him a story. This story I’ve told at least a dozen times since, most recently to the kids at AWANA. And you could have heard a pin drop that night as the kids sat spellbound hearing a grown-up woman giving real-life confession to her own pathetic sin. I couldn’t stop lying. I’d told the kids, like I told my own son when he was just about their age. Years of lies, and I shared my example, a story so real, the kids gasped out loud. And then I looked at those children like I’d looked at my own son all those years before. I couldn’t stop sinning, and you can’t stop either. Which is where most of us. Stop. End of story.

It’s just who I am.  

But is it? Really?

Because I’m here to tell you, the rest of that story is about a miracle that happened.

The long version involves a tale about a rattlesnake, and a man with a gun, reptile guts being blown to kingdom come. Which is why the boys love it. But it makes my point and then some. That’s what Jesus has done to your sin. I explain to them, like a teacher once explained it to me when I first heard the story. Jesus blew mine up, too. That sin of lying, blown to smithereens. Jesus doing for me what I couldn’t do on my own. 

So Nils sits on the couch and he says, “Mom, sometimes I just don’t have much to confess.” And I’m thinking maybe it would behoove us to talk a bit more about the MIRACLE of what Jesus has done, instead of staying so focused on those things that might bind us.

So is it both? He forgives and He gives? Yes, of course, both. But what if we really understood what He’s GIVEN?

So I say this, knowing there are some who would cringe at such a confession. “Son. The best possible thing is to have nothing to confess.” Because this means it’s Jesus doing His work, and me just reaping the benefits of what He’s always promised. And isn’t this, honestly, the very best version of our Good News Gospel?

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Galatians 2:20

(It really is) for freedom that Christ has set us free. Galatians 5:1

And just outside my window there’s a bird singing like the song in my heart, praises for spring and resurrection.

Heir

Limbo Brothers

A few nights ago Kyle and I watched the movie Instant Family. It was Felipe’s idea. He’d watched it in the theater with Marcella, and he’d told us then, you’d like this one. And then, again, at the Village retreat, back in January. Adoptive moms chatting around a ginormous dining room table at the Linden Hills Mansion, and they’d said it, too. You should see it. And so finally, this week, we did.*

We were talking about it still on Sunday. Kyle and I, sitting by a sunny window at Chipotle, eating burritos, picking up takeout for boys still sleeping at home. That girl, Lizzy, she asked the same question Felipe asked, a couple of years ago. “Why did you adopt us?” And we’d given our answer.

God told us to.

He’d been telling us, actually, for several years. When Grant was a little boy, he saw a picture of an orphan from Sudan, and he asked lots of questions. His questions led to prayers and conversations. And then, years later, the summer of 2005, we went on a mission trip to Ukraine, and we met Katya. Katya lived on the streets of Odessa, came to English Camp with a missionary family. She took a liking to Kyle. Spent ten days with her scrawny arms draped around his neck. Before returning home from Europe, we enjoyed a long layover in Switzerland. Driving our rented Audi toward our mountain retreat, we’d asked this question. “What if Katya could be adopted?” Luke burst into tears from the back seat. He had not known what to make of that wild girl hanging all over his dad. Later we inquired, found out Katya could not be adopted. But God was getting us ready. And then a couple of years later a friend from church returned from teaching at an orphanage in the Philippines. Michelle told us about three little boys who needed a family. The oldest boy was named Anderson. We wondered if Anderson was supposed to become Anderson Anderson. Again we inquired, found out there was another family already in the process of adopting the three brothers.

And so we waited. Not really pursuing, just waiting for God.

We can see now what God was doing. Getting us ready. Making sure we’d say yes when the time was just right. All those years, and of course, He knew. He’d already chosen. You.

You – Felipe and Jimmy. He’d chosen you for our family.

The fictional parents in Instant Family were incomplete without Lizzy, Juan, and Lita. Our family – the nonfiction Andersons – were incomplete without Felipe and Jimmy. I believe this is true, and I believe God knew.

And He CHOSE YOU. Do you know what this means? Do you understand how amazing this is?

In a few short months some things will be changing. Addresses, for one. Dad and I will probably be sharing an address with Pop and Grammy in Cambridge. Felipe, maybe, will be sharing an address with Uncle Brian in Andover. Jimmy’s address will likely be Crown College. Nils will get his mail, for one more year, in Cedar Falls. And then, of course, there’s Des Moines and CO Springs. That’s SIX different locations for this one big family. Which I will admit, means some pretty big changes. But it doesn’t change for one minute who we are.

It struck me this morning, reading my Bible, what an awfully big deal inheritance is. To be an heir means you get to share in the family fortune. This means our five boys will someday divide up what’s left over after twenty-one years of private school education, college for five, 20+ years of investing in athletic activities and musical opportunities, plenty of friends on various mission fields, a dog, and (we hope) a future lake house where you can bring our grandkids. Which is to say, don’t hold your breath regarding that family fortune. The Lamborghini’s on you.

But. It also means – all of you, whether birthed or adopted, get ALL of the benefits of being an Anderson for the rest of your life. And that, if I do say so myself, is quite awesome.

But. Don’t miss this, too. HE CHOSE YOU! He – as in the God of the Universe. He chose you, not just for our family, but for HIS. I’m convinced of this. All the evidence – a lifetime of Him getting this Minnesota family ready – and a lifetime of Him getting two Colombian brothers ready – and there is no other way any of this could have ever happened. Which is to say this, too. At the same time God was choosing Kyle Anderson to be an earthly father, He was also showing you, in all kinds of ways, that He had every intention of being your Heavenly Dad.

And boys. HIS inheritance is HOLY WOW! Let’s just say His family hits the jackpot BIG. Here’s a sample from one of my favorite letters:

I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. Ephesians 1:18-19 

And how about this one:

“What no eye has seen,
what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived”—
the things God has prepared for those who love him…
1 Corinthians 2:9 

You get the idea.

Here’s what I’m saying. The answer to your question, Felipe – about why did we adopt you? – is the best answer ever. We adopted you because GOD TOLD US TO. And that answer is worth an inconceivable fortune.

In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ,
in accordance with his pleasure and will.
Ephesians 1:5

 

*Quick disclaimer to grandmas and parents of young children reading this blog. I do not endorse this movie for all audiences, due to its bountiful use of colorful language.

Lent

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When I was a little girl I loved the season of Lent. I grew up Lutheran, and for some odd reason, I especially liked being at church. The Lenten season meant extra services on Wednesday evenings, with candle lighting and “special music”. Sometimes I’d be chosen to sing a solo, making it all the sweeter.

I’ve spent my adult life in a Free Church – EFCA – which is not to be confused with the Free Lutherans. A distinction I’d never made until last Sunday at our Open House for Luke and Ali, Aunt Bonnie and Uncle Dick, Covenants themselves, asking questions of Pastor Randy. Our variety of Free has to do with doctrine and governance, and practically speaking it typically means we have less tradition. We rarely light candles, although we did take a leap of faith this Christmas Eve, our new worship leader somehow talking Operations into allowing fire to be passed up and down the rows in our auditorium.

We are not Lenten people at Constance Free, but for a handful of years we did experiment with Ash Wednesday. This I believe was initially inspired by youth group leaders, those more inclined toward creative expression and experiential worship stations. We even ordered ash, applying it to foreheads with a scripture blessing. I thoroughly enjoyed this throwback to my liturgical roots, somber preparation for the holy season.

Most years I do what I can to lead myself and family through some semblance of preparation leading to Easter. When the boys were small we’d light a trail of seven candles, counting down to Holy Week. Good Friday was my favorite, but somewhat dreaded by little boys, who accidentally dubbed it Black Friday instead, and with good reason. We’d close curtains and turn off lights, using candles and quiet voices. And I, being teacher turned said-youth-group-leader, prepared a day’s worth of reflective experiences – stations of quiet crafts, picture books, journaling questions, and sacred music. Just what every little boy wants on his school day off. Mid-afternoon, just before official torture set in, we’d gather around the table for a pseudo-Passover supper, usually takeout from Dino’s Gyros. Later we’d head to church for our Good Friday service – one tradition observed yearly at Constance. Heading home, spring evening turning dark, boys eagerly anticipated flipping every light switch within reach, the ban lifted, Easter Sunday within sight.

Recent years we’ve left decisions about Lent practices to adulting sons. Like the candle-lighting of Advent, voluntary fasting and Black Friday observations vary as young men lead themselves or their families toward new traditions. My own preparation tends toward devotional reading and an attempt at giving up self-indulgence for the seven long weeks ahead. This year especially, winter being what it is, another twelve-ish inches of snow in the weekend forecast, and seven more weeks to Easter feels just short of eternal. My attitude not unlike little boys being asked to use quiet voices for just five more hours. Which may as well be forever.

This morning I sit longer than normal in my bedroom chair, ice packs on back and elbow, nursing injuries from yet another fall on driveway ice. I download a new book, recommended by Stephanie at Starbucks last night. We’d been forced to choose quickly, the barista giving us our five-minute warning a half hour sooner than expected. Prophetic Lament, no cheery title, but apropos for the season, and I’m just halfway through the introduction, when I know for certain this book is from HIM. God’s gift for the Lenten season. “Shalom requires lament.” This is how the author starts it, enters my story, pulling me in.

There’s no sun this morning through bedroom window, clouds likely filled with tomorrow’s snow, thick and dreary. But daylight is lasting longer, and temps are rising, albeit slowly, and Lent leads to Easter as sure as winter turns spring. And I think about lament and resurrection, how they’re always connected. Even as a child, I sensed this beauty, the black of Good Friday and the white of Easter, and to miss the one is to cheapen the other. “Lament and praise must go hand in hand.”*

* Prophetic Lament by Soong-Chan Rah