Surprised by Paradox: a Review

In Worldviews class, our teacher quoted Robert Capon’s lines: “Man cuts the wine of paradox with the water of consistency,” and deep inside me, the words rang clear and true.  My soul knew that categorical propositions don’t explain all of reality and the human experience, and contrasting wine and water seemed an eloquent metaphor.

I’ve written before about the paradox of being a Third Culture Kid. There are many more paradoxes I live with, such as

  • God’s sovereignty and man’s free will
  • a woman’s veil affirms beauty and highlights humility
  • writing is simultaneously blankety-blank hard and life-giving
  • the human body is both sacred and broken

Enter a beautiful, thoughtful new book: Surprised by Paradox by Jen Pollock Michel. I love that its title joins the lineup of  the other rich surprised books: Lewis’ Surprised by Joy and Wright’s Surprised by Hope. And I love, love the creativity in its cover design! If you could judge a book by its cover, this book would already be a winner. This is my copy as I read it, with a pen to make notes and a pansy on a stem for a book mark.

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Five years ago, I read Jen’s first book, Teach Us to Want, and found her words and way of thinking so compelling, honest, and practical, that I’ve been following her ever since. When I read that she was looking for volunteers to join the launch team for her Paradox book, I applied, and was delighted to be accepted.

I’ve spent much of my life looking for answers to questions, solutions to problems, explanations to mysteries. In the last few years, I’m finding that more than answers, I need Jesus. More than tidy formulas, I need the wind of the Holy Spirit blowing through me. Jen says paradox is the tension between certainty and mystery, and in that space, we meet God.

It’s true.

Since I tend to be all-or-nothing, either-or, the concept of paradox in my relationships, daily life, and my perception of God gives me a third way–an option that fits reality and frees me from needing to scrunch unwieldy, vast ideas into tidy, stackable boxes. And the current Postmodern air we breathe is kind to a book like this, when other eras might have labeled it as heresy. These days, most of us aren’t satisfied with Bible-thumping, simplistic explanations that don’t acknowledge the complexity of the issues, and we’re open to mystery, ambiguity, and paradox.

But claiming paradox isn’t a cop-out. It’s not fixing an easy answer onto complex questions, and it doesn’t mean we can’t be sure of anything. In fact, paradox delights in certainty. Jen wrestles well intellectually and theologically, taking in the wisdom of orthodoxy and her current gritty  experiences, and inviting us to recognize the wonder and humility of holding opposing ideas in tension. Her footnotes reflect wide, respected, delicious resources. Jen’s theology is sound and conservative, not pop evangelical, which makes me feel that I can trust her. I even felt that in the sections about Grace and Kingdom, she sounds very Anabaptist.

 

We are not saved by effort, but neither are we saved from it.

We don’t vote the kingdom into office; we live its compelling hope every day.

A kingdom life is always a nonconforming life, and subversion is a form of witness.

The book covers four themes that reflect Jesus’ life:

  • incarnation: His birth
  • kingdom: His public ministry
  • grace: His crucifixion
  • lament: His resurrection and ascent

The section on lament spoke most deeply to me. It’s rare to hear such profound honesty and powerful invitation to weep over what God weeps.

Lament tells us there are complaints worth raising, and God’s suffering assures that someone hears.

From the epilogue:

Let us have certainty when it’s available; let us have humility when it’s not. Let’s remember that paradox, with its attendant wonder, is its own way into the meekness of wisdom James describes in his letter.

Mystery draws us to wonder, which is also to say the limits of our wits. But rather than our finitude bringing us to despair, paradox can cause us to praise.

In the month coming up to the book release date, Jen shared weekly video chats with the launch team. These were lovely points of connection with her as a person and with the content we were reading. But she really had my attention on launch day with these:

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This screen grab shows a pair-a-ducks a friend gave her, used to help TCK’s debrief their experience. The clean duck illustrates their yay feelings, and the bandaged, dirty duck illustrates the yuck feelings. Since I’m a TCK and a pushover for a good pun, this pair-a-ducks fit me perfectly.

We can hold both the yuck and the yay of our experiences, not discounting or denying one at the cost of the other. Embracing all the aspects of life and all the complicated realities of loving God and our neighbors makes us bigger and better people, with wide hearts that are more prepared to worship–which is the ultimate reason He created us for.

I’m so grateful for Jen’s careful, curious, wise work in Surprised by Paradox. Read the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, and order your copy!

 

 

The Work of My Hands

Most of my day job requires sitting at a desk and working on a computer. It’s all good, and I enjoy it except when I get tired of being in an office by myself, when I go trotting up and down the halls looking for someone to talk with.

When I get home in the evenings, I want to avoid the computer. I want to do something with my hands, something tactile and less flat than paper and a monitor. Recently, that compulsion became very intense. I felt a deep, driving need to make a big layer cake. I’d never made a caramel nut cake, but I found a recipe on Pinterest, and simply had to make it. It was going to be a big, fancy cake, and I was going to take it to the fellowship dinner at church. Because whenever I make a lot of food, it becomes a small problem when my housemate and I can’t or shouldn’t eat all of it.

I bought the nuts one evening. The next evening, I made the caramel sauce for the icing and toasted the nuts in butter. The next evening, I made the four cake layers. That took me to Saturday, when I made the icing and put the layers together. I used to make small layer cakes to sell, and it was fun to find that my fingers still knew the motions.The steps of making it aren’t important here but they demonstrate how it was something to do with my creative, nervous energy every night and that I had to strategize how to manage the project. People who think single women have lots of time to do stuff don’t think about how all hosting and cooking and cleaning and grocery shopping and appointments has to happen outside long work day hours. But I digress. This was about baking a cake.

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The icing was complicated and didn’t turn out like the recipe promised, so I improvised and evolved an icing that tasted like the moon and the stars but will be impossible ever to replicate. The cake didn’t look like I’d imagined, but when I drizzled caramel all over it just before serving it, it looked mostly like the ooey-gooey, fancy, whopping cake I’d wanted to make.

Never mind that when I cut it into slices,  a quarter of the pieces toppled over onto the table. It was still a yummy, scrummy, rich, delectable cake that people picked off the table and licked off their fingers.

The point here is that I HAD to make a cake–a big, crunchy, meaty, caramelly, mile-high cake. I wasn’t going to be satisfied until I made it. It didn’t look like I intended to, and it actually tasted better than I’d imagined, but the point was making it.

I’m a process person. I often like getting to a place almost more than arriving. Those nights, after intense days at the office, all I needed was to work with my hands and handle butter and nuts and hot, soapy water. It unified all the layers of my self, and relaxed me, maybe because it was something I could DO.

Several years ago, in another intense season, I felt the same kind of urging but with a different medium. As that day progressed, I knew that I had to go home and paint a pineapple with chalk pastels. It was going to be a big, colorful pineapple. That’s all I knew. I’d never painted a pineapple before, but now was the time.

When I was ready to start, I discovered I didn’t have the size paper I needed to make the pineapple as big as I needed to make it. So I went on a search. Newspaper would do the job very well. I took the paper and my pastels and some Google images to the picnic table and started sketching. This is what happened.

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There was pink in the pineapple, because I intended it to be an expressive, whimsical pineapple. It turned out to be a lumpy, textured, prickly pineapple, larger than life, which is just what I wanted. My favorite feature, apart from the pink, is the defining black strokes here and there.

I’m sure any art teacher would criticize how the darks are on the wrong sides of some leaves, but I don’t care. In that moment, I was using my fingers to create colors and texture that soothed my soul. I can’t bring myself to throw away that yellowing paper hanging in our kitchen because it always takes me back to that sweet, fun, surprising evening.

I’m learning to pay attention to the times when I feel my face scrunched and puckered into a tense lines, as well as the moments when I breathe deep and slow. Those are the moments when peace and rest seep into the cracks of my heart and make me feel newly-made.

Some of my friends feel their tension melt away when they work with soil and green things, or walk their dog, or ad lib at the piano, or watch the stars, or knit complicated patterns, or clean windows (which will never happen to me). What I love about doing things with my fingers is that it unifies the physical and emotional layers in me, focuses me on the project at hand, and I lose myself in it. For a little while, nothing else matters. This is not about escape. Neither is it about perfection, mastery, or being Instagram-worthy. It’s about being self-aware and entering into the ways we function best.

I wonder how God felt when He made things with His fingers. I wonder if it’s anything like I feel when I make stuff with my hands.

It’s not the same thing for everyone, but I think everyone should find the thing that makes their soul sing, and make time for it at least once a week. Only, I won’t make a huge cake every week.

Related post: Battery Recharging

Melancholy and Dazzling Light

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Closing down one year and turning the page to another always makes me a simmering mess of melancholy and excited, reliving sweet memories, shuddering at hard memories, anticipating and apprehensive and curious about what’s next.

Writing things out helps unscramble the mass of the months and moments, sifts the favorites from the non-favorites, and reminds me of what is true.

Here is a sanitized, public-reader-appropriate list of 2018’s high points. Those closest to me know the crazy and the agony parts, the hysterical and impossible and guffawing and sparkling moments that we shared this year. But that stays with us. This list is neither chronological nor ordered in priority, but savored, round and round, like pearls on a string.

2018

  • Introducing 40 women to doodling at a women’s retreat. Helping them find their inner artist.
  • Traveling to KS with friends and singing in a concert for Nelson & Hannah’s wedding.
  • Tea with mentor friends, late, after an age-long day. Tears. Decision. Unutterable peace.
  • Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Butterworth
  • 2 visits to NYC.
  • A Makers Weekend where a pile of friends made stuff and talked and ate food and talked and talked.
  • A late-night invitation to neighbors on my birthday. Fire and jackets and stories. Laughter and star light.
  • Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
  • A week auditing a Christian anthropology class in a seminary.
  • A week in Greece. Sunshine. Sunshine. Sunshine. Sunshine. Swimming. Family. Unbelievable food. Sunshine.
  • This concert of peace. In the heat of summer. In the front row. Healing tears dripping off my chin.
  • Thanksgiving Sunday. Carnegie Hall. Messiah. 500 voices.
  • Connections in my new church, surprising and sweet.
  • An Ola Gjeilo concert where the composer was the accompanist and we heard him improv “Ubi Cartitas” with music heard only that one time.
  • Rings of friends, arriving alone or in dozens, in our living room. Rollicking laughter. Stories. Art parties. Tea.
  • Educated by Tara Westover
  • Friends who took me in as one of their family. Different states. Different occasions. So much love.

2018 brought me choking anxiety and peace, sobs and shrieking laughter, a staggering, preposterous torrent of blessings, joy, and love so deep and so tall, there is no way to measure or describe it.
This reality tells me to walk into 2019, hands opened wide for more.

My Book Comes In Spanish

These days, I listen to endless conversations and questions and hand-wringing about technology and the changes in communication. It’s a live issue, and I care that we navigate this uncharted landscape with wisdom and prudence.

I understand the insidious pull toward more, more, more connection. I feel the dopamine rush of what shows up in my feed. When I feel alone, I know how easy it is to slip into a virtual world to feel surrounded with happy, caring people.

But I always feel like a dinosaur because I don’t see that this plethora of communication options is an enemy. Technology has given me wide, enriching friendships and opportunities that was never an option for my grandma. I’ve published a book without ever meeting the printer. I paid someone to transpose the book into an e-book, and never met her and never read the ebook, but now and then Amazon drops deposits into my bank account from people who’ve bought it. I regularly email and message friends that I never see in person. I LOVE Whatsapp to help connect with family and friends across the Atlantic and the local hills.

Technology is not my enemy. I say that with deep gratitude, not cockiness.

And just recently, my book got translated into Spanish and is now available as an ebook, and I never met the translator, facilitators, or publisher. It just happened with networking, courtesy of the world wide web. And a lot of trust and patience and vision.

In 2010, a friend (whom I’ve never met) emailed me about getting my book into Spanish.

I really really want to see this happen, for a couple reasons. The top two are that 1. A girl’s value in Central America is defined much more heavily by her getting married than here. They need to hear the truth in your book 2. Our girls do not have encouraging resources available like in English. They devour all they have, all we can lend to them, and ask for more. And they deserve more, I think.

Then someone else emailed to ask if they could translate the book into Spanish, and the technological ball slowly started rolling, and here we are.

I’m thrilled that Spanish-speaking women can have free access to material that can potentially encourage, give perspective, and cheer as they live their Plan B. I hope my book helps them to hear God’s heart for them, and that although marriage is their design and a beautiful gift, it is not life. Jesus is life, and He is utterly good, true, and beautiful.

Feel free to pass around this link to your Spanish-speaking lady friends. The Spanish ebook for Life is for Living is FREE and only a click away.

Three cheers for technology!

Treasures in Secret

It’s a secret!

When I was growing up, secrets were about birthday gifts, or what was for dessert, or who was coming for a meal.

We’d pull our shoulders up to our ears, arch our eyebrows, eyes shining, and relish the word: it’s a SEEE-cret!

I’m grateful beyond words that my childhood didn’t have the heavy, ugly secrets that some children need to carry. In my world, secret was a word of relish, delight, and anticipation, and I still love surprises, when a secret bursts all over me.

But I’m not a child now, and there are a lot of things I don’t know. Questions and unknowns are a big part of my life, and sometimes the unsurety nearly wrecks me.

How I can know what to do?

What’s the best way forward?

Why did that happen?

How will that end up ok?

Songs and sayings don’t really help. I can sing “Do not be afraid, for I will be with you” or “Be still, my soul” but the fear doesn’t go away. The anxiety still acts like it’ll choke me.

Theologians might say I need to live with faith. That’s supposed to take care of a lot of questions.

Psychologists could call me to live in mystery, open-handed, and sit with the questions.

I call it living with tension and a creased forehead.

Then I read Cry, the Beloved Country, a story of deep loss, solid love, and unanswered questions. Near the end of the book, the protagonist reflects:

Why was it given to one man to have his pain transmuted into gladness? Why was it given to one man to have such an awareness of God? And might not another, having no such awareness, live with pain that never ended? …And might not another feel also a compulsion, and pray night and day without ceasing, for the restoration of some other valley that would never be restored?

It was not for man’s knowing. …It was a secret.

A secret?

A secret is a word of wonder, excitement, eagerness. It’s light and buoyant and nothing fearful.

My childhood connotations of secrets have given me a way to think about the unanswerable, impossible questions that cloud my brain. You might say it’s a mind game, but it helps me. It doesn’t change anything except the lens through which I look at the world, and the way I see God and His inscrutable ways.

When I call things a secret, I see God’s eyes shining in anticipation of when everything wrong will become untrue. And the things that break His heart now, He carries in His heart as His own secret sorrows. Pain and questions are not nothing to Him, and He knows grief.

I know that there are riches found in secret places, and that He sees everything in secret, and that darkness is as light to Him. I can trust Him with His secrets because I utterly trust His character, His intentions, His unending love. My mysteries and questions are not mysteries and questions to Him. This is all I know, and it is enough. For now, His secrets are safe with Him.

The sun tips with light the mountains. …The great valley…is still in darkness, but the light will come there. For it is the dawn that has come, as it has come for a thousand centuries, never failing. But when that dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and bondage of fear, why, that is a secret.

 

Stretched Out Spaces

It was not a good day. I’d woken up in a cloud of sorrow for myself and my loved ones. My heart stayed heavy from hard conversations and many things that should not happen.

Then I sent an embarrassing typo in a letter to 65 people and couldn’t just shake it off. I felt stupid and inept.

Then, mid afternoon, a dead battery at work kept me from doing my job. It was a special size–half the length of an AAA battery–and there were none on campus. I didn’t have time to run to town to get one, but I needed to take time.

On the way to town, I said no to ice cream and no to chocolate. I couldn’t afford a sugar rush when I was already so stressed. Instead, I turned on brass band music. Loud. I love trumpets because they’re so powerful and delicate at the same time. They can blast you away, then caress your soul in the next second. They can be playful and exuberant and serious in the same phrase. (Recommending: “Amazing Grace” and “Hallelujah Chorus” by Canadian Brass.)

On the drive to town, surrounded with trumpets and a soulful tuba, I looked for colorful leaves, sunshine, and perspective for my woes.

I thought of the gentle, buoyant man I met recently. He’s a retired nurse, a photographer, and jazz enthusiast. He told me he was on his way to pick up a new camera that day because his old one broke and his friends tell him he’s not dressed without his camera. What he didn’t tell me was that he was also going to see the doctor. At that visit, the doctor told him his stage 4 stomach cancer is in remission, but the man knows it could go into metastasizing rage anytime.

“You didn’t tell me you had stage 4 cancer when you introduced yourself to me,” I said later.

“I can’t let a disease define me,” he said.

I also remembered an interview I’d heard with a young woman whose dura mater is damaged from a lumbar puncture gone wrong. The connective tissue of the dura can take months and months to heal. When the hole recurs, her cerebral spinal fluid leaks from the hole, forcing her to complete bed rest. She has traveled the world and climbed mountains in the last year, and then bent over wrong, and busted the hole open again. She remembers the agony of being horizontal for seven months, and she fears that will happen again. She’s been flat for a week now, waiting to go to patch the hole, which is a dangerous, unpredictable ordeal in itself.

And I think I’m stressed and troubled?

On the drive from town, I kept looking at the sunshine (a rarity in these parts) and kept groping for perspective.  “I don’t have stage 4 stomach cancer. I don’t have a cerebral spinal fluid leak. Thank you Jesus. Thank you Jesus. Thank you Jesus.”

Those people’s positivity in the face of crushing pain and fear shames me for my complaining, and tells me to be quiet and observe.

Sorrow expands the soul. If I let it.

Joy does the same.

And beauty. That’s why I sometimes listen to trumpets. Loud.

To be unmoved by sorrow, joy, or beauty means our souls can’t become larger, fuller, more developed. Pain and sorrow don’t diminish a soul by default. It is selfishness and bitterness that make the soul wrinkly and withered, small and ugly.

Only the soul that knows the mighty grief
Can know the mighty rapture. Sorrows come
To stretch out spaces in the heart for joy.
– Edwin Markham

Amazed to Witness Such a Thing

I’d heard friends talk about Gilead for several years. I’d seen it was a best seller, and heard authors quote it. It must be good, so I picked it up. Read through the first page or two. Nothing happened. I put it down. A couple months later, picked it up again. Nothing happened again. Blah.

I resigned myself to missing out on what everyone else was enjoying in the book.

Then one recent Saturday morning, my brother-in-law mentioned it in a family email. He said Gilead resets a person like a good night of sleep, and he wanted to discuss it with someone. I decided valiantly to try the book again, trotted up to the library, brought it home, and was absolutely taken in, like a fuzzy blanket wraps you up and you can’t untangle yourself.

Maybe it was the air, the leisure I was feeling, or the invitation to discuss. Probably it was mostly that I was mellow enough to absorb the words that had no great action, no shimmering plot line to pull me forward. It was the slow, steady beat of an aged man’s heart dribbling out of his pen to write messages to his young son, and he wrote so beautifully and lovingly that I read half the book that first day.

A dying pastor is writing to his young son, not yet seven. Seeing life and people and love through those old, gentle, wizened lenses felt sacred and sweet,  like I couldn’t get enough sweetness. It’s sweet but not cloying. Insightful, but not ponderous or stuffy. Full of love and longing but not sentimental or fluffy.

There is a reality in blessing. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but acknowledges it, and there is power in that. (p. 23)

I’m glad it’s not just pastors who can bless when they pronounce the benediction. All of us can bless each other, and when we say simple words like “Bless you” (not for sneezes, but for big assignments and partings and dilemmas) we acknowledge and affirm the sacredness of that person and that moment, which is an enormous gesture to receive from anyone, a privilege to pronounce on someone, and something to practice generously. What if we sprinkled blessings around like confetti?

The next lines need no commentary, only long pauses to think about the lines for several days. If you read the book, let me know what you think!

Memory can make a thing seem to have been much more than it was. But I know she [the newborn] did look right into my eyes. That is something. And I’m glad I knew it at the time, because now, in my present situation, now that I am about to leave this world, I realize there is nothing more astonishing than a human face. (p. 76)

 

There is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and there need not be, because in any specific instance it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality. It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal. (p.238)

 

There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient. (p. 243)

 

Wherever you turn your eyes, the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a willingness to see. (p. 245)

Not long ago, I was driving in a dusk of golds and blues, and remembered these lines. I aspire to living in this wonder:

So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word “good” so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing. (p. 246)

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