Dear Coffee: A Letter

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Dear Coffee,

This is hard for me to communicate, because I really do love you.  I can’t think of starting my day without you.  But I think we need to end our relationship.

We’ve been together a long time, haven’t we?  We met in college, freshmen year.  I had stayed up till early in the morning studying for my Philosophy 101 final, and you ran me over.  I had never tried anything like you before.  You were fun and exciting.  You had so much variety.  All those other drinks wore too much sugar or artificial ingredients.  But you.  You were bold, and you didn’t care what anyone thought of you.  I was drawn to your originality.

Part of what was so interesting about you is that you had travelled so much.  You had seen the world.  Ethiopia, Hawaii, Turkey, Columbia, Peru, Nicaragua.  Yes, this made it hard at times, since you seemed to flip personalities like a switch.  On Monday you’d be Italian, on Tuesday French, Wednesday dark, Thursday light.  But all your traveling did have it’s advantages.  You really knew how to blend well with others.

One thing that kept it exciting is that you had so many different names.  Sometimes you asked me to call you Breve.  Other times, Espresso.  And of course, my favorite, Mocha Latte.  You were a mystery to me.  And yet, you were unmistakable.

But as time went on, I think I got a little too attached.  At first we were seeing each other a few times a week.  But soon enough I needed you everyday.  It seemed harmless at first, and the withdrawal symptoms were not worth it too me.  So I kept going.

I was in a good routine.  You and a bagel with butter every morning.  But then life got more stressful and I wanted more of you.  I started emptying my pockets after lunch just to scrounge together enough change to buy you.  Then after dinner I found I couldn’t get by without you and and some sweet delight.

What was once exciting had become routine.  You became commonplace.  Where I once appreciated your variety and boldness, it eventually became “any old you” to get me through.  I didn’t care if you were stale or rancid.  That could easily be covered up.

So where does that leave us?  I am saying goodbye, but I don’t know if this is goodbye for good.  I sure hope not.

Please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying.  It’s not you.  It’s me.  I just have some things I need to work on in myself.  I’ll understand if you move on.  I would too, if I were you.  I’m not worth it.

Please don’t try to call or text or show up in my kitchen cabinet.  I don’t think I’d be able to handle the temptation.  I think it’s best if we grind this thing to a halt.

Sincerely,

Joseph

“Why does God allow evil?”

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“Why does God allow evil?”  To ask this question, to even entertain it, is like walking onto a highway, traffic speeding in both directions.  It is sure and sudden death if I attempt to answer it.  But that is not my intent.  I cannot answer it, yet I cannot leave it alone.

It is a legitimate question.  Yet, for some reason, it has always seemed strange to me.  It feels like the question has gotten to it’s destination too quickly.  Like trying to swallow vitamins without water.

Why does it seem strange?  Maybe because there are two ways to ask it.  I can ask with a sincere, genuine, truth seeking heart, or because I am looking for a scapegoat, and I want to escape the idea that there is a God that I might be held accountable to.  If it is the latter, then it does seem strange.  Because, then, where would I stop with this question?

It is easy to ask: why would a good God allow Hitler, genocide, rape and abuse?  Why illness that eats away at our insides and debilitates us?  Why poverty and hunger?  Why oppression?  Why does he not stop these things?  Why did he create a world in which these things are possible?

But then, what is stopping me from asking why God allows Monsanto to exist?  Why does he allow us to rape the earth and to grow food that does not nourish us?  Why does he allow soil erosion and water pollution?

What about lesser things?  Why does he allow college to be so expensive?  Why does he allow cubicles?  Why does he allow us to build toilets that are so tall it feels like I’m sitting on a bar stool?  Why does he let my cuticles rip and tear?

By no means do I intend to mock the question.  Rather, if it is the intent of the questioner to find fault, and to absolve himself of responsibility, then where does he stop?  When would he ever take responsibility for himself, or any decision, or any circumstance that he finds himself in?

If that is the disposition of the questioner, then it puts him and God in opposite corners of the ring, with the world and all it’s problems in the middle.  The questioner, by implication, says to God, “Look at this mess!  If you would only prove to me that you can take care of what you created, then I might think about following you.  But until then, tough sell.  I’ve got my own problems to deal with.”

If this is the spirit of the questioner, then it seems that he is missing something obvious.  For, what really is the problem with the world?  Isn’t it us?  Aren’t we the ones that have messed things up so badly?

“So, if we are to blame, and if God is powerful, then he should fix us.”

Can a husband stand before his wife with coldness in his heart, and say, “Make me love you”?  Can the surgeon do his work if the patient squirms?

“That’s just it,” the questioner objects.  “The surgeon should tie that worm down before he works on him.  Knock him out with some anesthetic.”

So is it actually a question of control?  Are we equating power with control?  “If God is powerful, he should be able to control all things.”  What if power is more than just control, though?  I can control my six-month-old daughter’s actions because I am stronger than she.  But, if as she got older I stopped controlling all her actions physically, and started manipulating and controlling her through my words, I would be seen as an unloving father who never cared about her own will and desires.

To exercise control in this way is not loving.  If power is only control, it is merely the act of breaking the will of another, and subduing it to your own.  For God to be controlling and loving would be a contradiction.

So what does it mean for God to be powerful?  Could it be this, then?  That God has the power to redeem and renew, and to make something beautiful out of something horrible?  Is he loving in that he gives us the will to decide between good and evil, and to live this life according to our convictions, yet powerful enough to begin the redemption process as soon as we turn toward him in an act of surrender, from no matter how far we have strayed?  To restore that which has been marred beyond recognition?  To wash us white as snow in the blood of the Lamb?

But all this does not seem to answer the question of why there is evil in the world.  The wife commits adultery; the husband is angry and left grieving.  The mother was told there isn’t an ounce of good blood in her body; the fatherless daughter feels helpless because the doctor’s don’t know what to do, and she is scared of being left all alone.  The migraines never cease, and the neurosurgeon has her on medication that is making things worse.  The stuttering boy is never left alone, and is incessantly teased by his peers; he just wants to get through a school day without garnering attention.  The body gnaws with pain, night and day, and the doctor’s have done everything they can; he wonders if he’ll make it through his thirties as he watches his three young children play.

“Why, O LORD, do you stand far away?  Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Ps. 10:1)  Is this all we are left with then?  Another question?

Maybe there is a difference between asking, “Why does God allow evil?” and “Why did you allow this, God?”  Again, the disposition.  In Psalm 10, the writer asks his question, then goes on to lay out all of his potent observations about the wicked.

In arrogance the wicked hotly pursue the poor…
the one greedy for gain curses and renounces the LORD.
…all his thoughts are, “There is no God.”
His ways prosper at all times….
His mouth is filled with cursing and deceit and oppression…
in hiding places he murders the innocent.
His eyes stealthily watch for the helpless…
he lurks that he may seize the poor…
The helpless are crushed, sink down, and fall by his might.
He says in his heart, “God has forgotten,
he has hidden his face, he will never see it.”

The innocent, the poor, the helpless.  All oppressed and crushed under the might of the wicked.  He calls God to action.

Arise, O LORD; O God, lift up your hand;
forget not the afflicted.
Why does the wicked renounce God
and say in his heart, “You will not call to account”?

And then, he speaks what he believes to be true about God, in spite of his observations.

But you do see, for you note mischief and vexation,
that you may take it into your hands;
to you the helpless commits himself;
you have been the helper of the fatherless.

In the beginning he asked, “Why, O LORD, do you stand far away?”  He does not ask this question in order to absolve himself from responsibility or to blame God.  He asks with a sincere heart.  He does not receive answers to his questions, yet he knows that this is not the way it should be.  The wicked should not prosper.  The innocent, poor, helpless and fatherless should not be oppressed and crushed.

Isn’t it from their very mouths that this question flows most justly?  The poor, the hungry, those who weep; and not least of all, those who are hated, excluded, reviled, and spurned (Luke 6:20-22).*

Maybe it is not such a strange question after all.

 

*I am indebted to C. Anderson for this valuable insight.

 

Pushed over the edge

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Part thirteen.

We were happy together in our house in the trees, yet our minds and hearts remained restless.  We were brimming with questions.  We wanted to find our “calling.”  We’d wonder, “How could this be all God has in store for us?  Working, raising a family, being involved in our church.  There must be more.”

This was not helped by the fact that I continued to read books and listen to sermons on the subject of missions.  One book that particularly influenced me at the time was Francis Chan’s Crazy Love.  He made me want to do something out of the norm.  Something that required risk.  This theme of “taking a risk for the kingdom of God” was repeated in many of John Piper’s online sermons that I listened to.

I have never been on a “missions trip.”  Rachel went on a good many, both in high school and college.  What she loved most about these was the common sense of purpose, working together with others towards a common goal, whether it was caring for orphans or building a structure or moving dirt.  She would come home from those trips feeling unified with her teammates.

Here in the suburbs it felt like just the opposite.  We felt isolated and purposeless.  We longed for a deeper and richer sense of community.  Play groups with the kids, small groups with other couples, and even accountability groups within the church did not seem to be meeting our needs for friendship and community.  These groups felt separated from real life.  There were abstract questions and conversations to “dig deep” into one another’s lives, but never time to cultivate the soil that deeper relationships require.  This was perhaps where much of the discontentment stemmed.  I would hear Rachel’s reminiscings and we would talk about our philosophy of community.  It seemed that only one thing could consummate our communal longings: full time missions.

I vacillated though.  Deep within I wanted to just settle down, but Rachel was not excited about the prospect.  She wondered if I was merely going along with the flow, doing what I saw my friends doing, or that which I felt others were expecting me to do.  And there was some truth to that, because that is what I mainly saw – friends and family, settling down, working, loving, teaching and training their children, being committed to their church for a very long time.  To me, there seemed to be something special about such a long term commitment.  Rachel valued such commitment, too, but only if it led to growth in community and a common sense of purpose and mission.  And that is precisely what we were not experiencing.

To complicate matters, we were newly married and adjusting to life together on a grand scale.  Rachel still felt that I was too connected to my old life.  That is, my life before I was married.  She wondered if she married me and my family.  Me and my friends.  Me and my interests.  And I, on the other hand, subconsciously expected things to continue as they were.  The same family routines, the same friends, the same pursuits and interests.

So there were two things at play.  One, a need to get away from all that was comfortable to me, so that we could be more unified in our marriage, and two, this desire for purpose in our new life together.

With these thoughts ruminating in the recesses of my mind, I listened and read.

On a Friday afternoon in August I was on my way home from work, listening for the second time to John Piper’s sermon “Proclaiming the Excellencies of Christ Among the Nations, Not Prosperity.”  As he spoke, I felt like he was speaking directly to me:

No, it isn’t for lack of money that there are 1,568 peoples with no missionaries.  It’s because we have so much.  The comforts of the West have made us soft and cautious and fearful and indulgent and self-protecting, instead of tough and risk-taking and bold and self-controlled and self-sacrificing.

Was I being pushed over the edge?  In such moments it is hard to discern all of the inner-workings of the mind at play against the outside influences of conversations, books, articles, and sermons.  But here I was.  Questioning if indeed I was called to become a missionary.  “When I die, what do I want people to remember me as?  What do I want my children to remember about me?  My grandchildren?  What kind of legacy will I leave?  I don’t want to be remembered as self-indulgent.  I want to be remembered as a risk-taker.  I don’t want to be ruled by the love of money.  I want to be free from money and give all for the sake of this great cause.”  I said that I felt a burden for these unknown peoples to know Jesus.  Surely if I pursued this great mission I could protect us from falling into self-indulgence.

At that moment, I decided that we would not pursue the image of the “American Dream” that I had in my head.  No.  Instead, we would pursue this Great Call.  We would be Risk-Takers.

There was only one path to take.  Move to St. Paul, join John Piper’s church, and become missionaries.  I resolved to tell Rachel as soon as I got home.

Part twelve.

The Treehouse

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Part twelve.

We stayed in the hospital for two nights, taking advantage of every moment of rest when the nurse took Micaela after feedings at night.  I was only able to take two or three days off work.

After answering a hundred questions from the nurse about Micaela’s health, everything from vaccines to car seats to Pediatricians, we stepped out into the bright sunlight.  I pulled the car around and cautiously strapped Micaela into her car seat for the first time, wanting to make it as secure as possible.  Her head seemed so delicate, and I feared that any bump might send her head flying upwards from her body, severing her neck completely.  Rachel took the extra new-mom precaution of sitting in the back with her on our way home.

Somehow, we managed to get the apartment painted and half-unpacked during our those few days with newborn Micaela at my parents.  I know we had plenty of help from friends and family, Mr. Miller  painting “Nurture” in our bedroom, and “Dynasty Celadon” in the living room.

* * * * *

The evening light shone bright in through the tall windows.  For the first time, we were on our own.  Money was tight, but that didn’t seem to matter.  And as the light shone into our home, so it did into our marriage.

It is hard to remember anything hard, dark, or difficult from those precious four months.  That is to say, even the hard things now seem like faint and distant memories.

The sun is slowly rising, not yet risen
Silhouettes of tree branches slowly
Deepening into their true form.
I perceive, also, hints of color.
Is color held in the leaves or by the sun?
Surely, without the sun there would be no green,
Yet at noon, we know and bow beneath
The holy whiteness of its blaze.
But within white, all other colors lie.
My daughter’s eye has yet to learn
Their distinctions, my fallen eye
Can only worship the hands
That made the sun
And painted color with its light
Onto every living thing on earth
And all yet unearthed.

Every time it rained harder than a drizzle, rain would stream and splatter into our little sunroom, which we had hoped would be a cozy reading nook.  So we set up our desk at the edge of the room, and it became a deep frame to sit at and look out into the trees, to sit writing or reading at the desk.  Three steps up into our yellow kitchen, we spent many hours preparing many meatless dinners.  Through the door behind the refrigerator, we would hear the landlord yell at his family, anger breaking hearts.  His empty promises of things he would fix also echoed in our ears.

There were the hot nights, sprawled on the third floor, all windows open, both ceiling fans running full speed, and a fan in the window, trying  to suck some freshness into the steaming jungle of our bedroom.  Rachel slept sporadically, between feedings which seemed to last for hours, sometimes falling asleep on the wooden rocking chair.  I would get up at four, sometimes three in the morning to prep for work.

Rising in darkness to take a seat,
Though you cannot see His feet,
Everyday you wait and long to meet

And stare at His radiant face.

We were tired, but for the first time, we were truly happy together.

It seems like each period of our marriage brings with it particular meals.  Almost every morning it was Greek yogurt, sliced apples, bananas, chopped dates, and pepitas.  On the weekends it was french toast made with Ezekiel break, with Greek yogurt and berries dolloped on top.  For dinners we regularly resorted to a bed of arugula with black beans, tomato and goat cheese with a lime dressing.

We did a lot of walking at that time.  Just about every evening we’d head out after dinner, admiring the architecture of the homes in our neighborhood.  We’d talk about the things we did or didn’t like about each house, already taking mental notes for the day (if that day ever comes) when we would be able to afford a house.  Regardless of the course we’d set out on, we usually managed to end up in front of a brick house with a slate roof, and every manner of nook and cranny, windows looking out in every direction.  A trove of delight and imagination for children, and space to read in front of a window while the rain pattered.

On Saturdays we would often walk to the local Farmer’s Market for produce, eyeing up all the food too expensive for us to buy.  I always had a particular ache for the baked goods stand, and it was near torture to walk by the apple cider donuts without picking up a fresh bag to-go.  Instead, we’d fill the bottom of our stroller with huge portobello mushrooms, a loaf of bread, and arugula. Splurging for us was purchasing a basil plant which we sat on top of the board which covered our kitchen radiator.  In the evening we’d pluck leaves off and cut them up with scissors to blend up in our salad dressing.

One night we were watching Good Will Hunting when a few innocent spiders rappelled down from the ceiling.  The first few swiftly met their death, but then there were more and more.  Soon we paused the movie to track down the source.  There was a faint trail on the ceiling, leading to the bathroom.  It was like a scene out of a horror movie.  I turned the light on, and their they were, pouring out of the light.  I panicked.  I wanted to scream.  Rachel ran and grabbed the hand vacuum.  “Use this!” Rachel yelled, shocking me out of my frozen stance.  Vroom!  I swept those poor critters right into their oblivion.  From that night on I feared they would creep out of the vacuum and show up on my face in the middle of the night.

It was also the first time we had written music together.  One afternoon I sat on the floor with my guitar, plucking out some simple chords, while Rachel wrote lines inspired by a story we had recently read from Mark 2.  Jesus’ disciples plucking heads of grain, while the Pharisees looked on in disgust, condemning them for doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.

On the sabbath day
Jesus – walking through the fields of grain
As they made their way
They plucked some heads of grain

The grain in their hands
Into their mouths
Something to eat
In the quiet heat
Of the afternoon

Looking from afar
The eyes of the pharisees
Saw their hands
Rubbing grain
The standing grain
The falling chaff
Busy fingers
Busy fingers
On the sabbath day
We rest today
Why do you pluck?
Why do you rub?
The standing grain

This day of rest he gave
To know by whom you are made
And how you are sustained
The Lord of life is here

Rest now in me
Freedom I bring
Every need I meet
In all I give
Rest in who I am

This grain from my hand
All this I give
Rest in who I am

Living in that apartment, we had come to what felt like a period of our own Sabbath rest.  I see myself looking at Micaela, propped up in the corner of our love seat while I played guitar, singing hymns to her.  Rachel takes a break from the stove and walks to the doorway framing the kitchen above the living room.  She leans against the frame, smiling as she looks over at us, then starts to sing along.  We are happy together in our house in the trees.

*Poems by Rachel

Part eleven. Part thirteen.

The Memo on the Mount

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Dear _________ PA Office:

As we enter the final quarter of this year, let this serve as a friendly reminder that PTO days are given to you as a gift.  Just as you expect a bi-weekly paycheck and benefits from us, so we expect you to show up on time, everyday.  Going over your allotted PTO days is unacceptable, and grounds for immediate termination.

Happy Fall!
HR

* * * * *

Happy fall, indeed.  I have made it.  Vacation is just four days away.  Nine days away from my cube.  Eight days at the beach.  Five PTO days burned.  Five of my six remaining, that is.  After next week, I am hoping for smooth sailing till Thanksgiving.  Then, another coast through till Christmas.

One day.  One precious golden day.

What shall I use this day for?  Shall I save it for the week of Christmas?  Will I make it that far?  I must decide now under what circumstances I would squander this one, precious phial of PTO.

The standard head cold will not do.  Fever?  I think I can bear a low-grade fever at work.  Besides, they say rest is the best thing for such an illness, and working in a cube is fairly restful.

What if I’m sick to my stomach?  No.  I suppose that’s why there’s a trash can under every desk.  For a quick grab, bend, and release.  (It certainly wouldn’t do to carry one around all day.)

A virus?  The air is so dead and sterile at work, I doubt a virus would survive the trip from me to a co-worker.  No risk of contamination if that’s the case.  But maybe I should do my research first.  May depend on what kind of virus.

I know.  What is the one thing I absolutely need to do at work?  Type.  A hangnail?  I suppose I can still hunt and peck.  Maybe if I accidentally punched through a window and had tiny shards of glass stuck in my hand, with a massive bandage wrapped around it.  No.  I can hear them now.  “You could have used your nose.”  Then they’ll pull out their HR Bible and turn to the Memo on the Mount: “And if your right hand causes you to miss work, cut it off and throw it away.  For it is better that you lose one of your hands and keep your job than that your whole body go into unemployment.”

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