Category Archives: love

Letter 45: Cupcakes and Wide Phylactories

Yesterday was my wife’s birthday, and I took it upon myself to bake her birthday cupcakes.  I like to bake, and I have even begun to venture into the world of baking from scratch.  But that applies only to things I am quite familiar with, bread and cookies.  From long experience with packaged mixes, I know roughly what I want, and what to look for.  But cakes remain a terra incognita of sorts, and so I entrust myself to the wisdom and industrial science of Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines.

But it was not merely a boxed mix.  It appealed to our higher aspirations.  It contained special frosting mix and a genuine icing bag to use in frosting the cupcakes.  My efforts at laying on frosting have been less than successful, but armed with such tools and directions, I had hopes that I, too, could create a confection worthy of the finest bake shops.

My efforts yielded some perfectly ordinary cupcakes.  It took me until my fourth cupcake to apply the frosting so that it completely covered the cupcake with one go.  In the end, some did not get frosting at all, but I had my one cupcake to properly decorate and present to my wife replete with candles.  I was pretty pleased with how it turned out, because I wanted to do something nice for her.  Before I brought it in to her, I took a picture.

And therein lies the trouble.  I wanted to post the picture to Facebook, that repository of the odd effects of our lives.  So in part, my motivation for posting the photograph was to show how we were celebrating my wife’s birthday, sharing a bit of our loves with family and friends.  But I wanted something too.

At first, I was going to introduce the picture apologizing that it was not on par with the work of a cousin who is a professional baker.  That would shift the focus from celebrating my wife’s birthday to the cupcake.  Worse, it would make the present of the cupcake to be less than what it was.  No, I could not say that, so off those words went into the ether.

But I could not let go of the desire for people to admire my cupcake, and, by implication, me.  So I tried another tack, attempting to describe my labors as producing something worthy of my wife.  Again, this subtly shifted the focus.   “Please look at my cupcake, and sing my praises for making it.”  A voice cleared in my head.  This would not do.  The focus and the point must be about my wife.  So I simply wrote, “Happy Birthday Dear,” and left it at that.

All of this took little more than a minute in the privacy of my mind.  It seems somewhat contradictory sharing it here, as if trying to draw attention to my virtue.  But I do offer this because I really wanted people to tell me what a wonderful cupcake I had made.  It speaks of the vanity that is in us all, sometimes masquerading as a sense of emptiness that needs filling, and brings me to the point I want to make.

In Philippians 2:5-11, Paul tells us, “Let Christ himself be your example as to what your attitude should be. For he, who had always been God by nature, did not cling to his prerogatives as God’s equal, but stripped himself of all privilege by consenting to be a slave by nature and being born as mortal man. And, having become man, he humbled himself by living a life of utter obedience, even to the extent of dying, and the death he died was the death of a common criminal. That is why God has now lifted him so high, and has given him the name beyond all names, so that at the name of Jesus “every knee shall bow”, whether in Heaven or earth or under the earth. And that is why, in the end, “every tongue shall confess” that Jesus Christ” is the Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phillips, emphasis mine)

I’m wondering if that is what is meant by “carrying our cross.”  It wasn’t so much that Jesus suffered, though He certainly did.  It is more a sense of forgetting of self, not, as I often do, because of a sense of self-negation and an earnest desire for approval.  Rather, Jesus so thoroughly full of Himself, and understood Himself completely, that there was no need to pay attention to Himself in that way.  The usual ups and downs that so assail us in no way changed who He was.  Secure in that, He could, and did, do anything, and underwent the slings of outrageous fortune in no way changed the fact that Jesus was God, even if no one else chose to recognize Him as such.

As we close out the year, this episode brought to mind that I should work on cultivating that same sense of self-forgetfulness.  That no one will have to ask if the cupcake was good, because the focus is on the recipient, where it belongs.

st-augustine-reading

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Letter 34: To Those Who Wait in the Dark

Today was one of those strange days.  My wife suffered a depressive episode.  It was an odd reversal.  As she talked about what she was feeling, she suddenly paused and asked me, “Is this what you feel like?”  I had to tell her, yes, that is what it feels like, and that is what you’re going through right now.

For me, the painful part was knowing that she was suffering, and wanting to do something about it.  I wanted to lift her spirits, to get her out of the dingy, grey pit into which she had fallen.  But I couldn’t think of anything.  So, we went for a drive, enjoyed the sunshine, and got a bite to eat.  We talked some.  I tried to listen, but mostly I said nothing.  There was a lot of silence.

As wrong as it seems, that helped.  I would have thought that a more active effort would have yielded results.  Get her mind off of things.  Encourage her.  Get her to see that the troubles oppressing her were small indeed.  I would have thought that I could draw upon my own experiences to help her.

But maybe she didn’t need help.  Looking at it now, I think that what she needed was for me to be there.

My Old Testament professor told us that Job’s friends went wrong the moment they opened their mouths.  If only they had kept silent and kept witness.

Our desire to do something I think says more about us.  The focus comes off the one suffering to what we can do.  Being present cedes the initiative.  You watch, and wait.  Perhaps more will be asked of you, perhaps not.

waiting-cat_00446090May I not tire in the waiting, O Lord.

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Letter 25: The Sign of Jonah

In recent weeks, I’ve been feeling a lot like the prophet Jonah.  You may remember him chiefly for being held captive inside a large fish for three days.  That’s certainly the part I remember from Sunday School all those years ago.  But that’s not the part I’m thinking about.

If you remember the story, God instructs Jonah to go to Nineveh to declare God’s punishment on them.  Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, which had subdued Israel, and now ruled them as a client state.  We can think of it today in terms of being asked by God to travel to an ISIS camp to declare God’s judgment upon them.  Jonah, of course, wants nothing to do with this, and so he takes a ship bound in the opposite direction.  Why?

We have to wait for the end of the book to find out.  In Jonah 4:2-3, the prophet explains himself.  While the mission would seem to be an Israelite’s dream, Jonah knows better.  God isn’t going to smite the Assyrians, He is going to have mercy on them.  And Jonah won’t abide that.  He pouts indignantly.  It’s not clear what he hates more, God’s mercy itself, or his own role as an agent of that mercy.

God is nothing if not patient.  Previously, He had Jonah swallowed by a great fish in the face of a terrific storm.  Jonah was saved from certain drowning, and after repenting of his desire to flee God’s call, Jonah was released to obey that call.  He could appear before the Ninevites as living proof of God’s mercy.  Since Jonah remained recalcitrant, God tried yet again.

While Jonah kept his watch over the city, God caused a gourd vine to rise up to shelter Jonah from the fierceness of the sun (4:6).  The next day, God took the vine away, sending a worm to eat it.  As if that were not enough, God then sent a hot wind off the desert and a blazing sun.  Jonah was scorched, so he pouted, again.

At this point, God chooses to confront Jonah directly.  Why is Jonah so upset?  He has done nothing to help the vine grow or preserve it from pests.  Yet Jonah is so distressed about its fate that he wants to die.  But what, then, of the city of Nineveh, teeming with humans made in the image of God, or the many animals within its limits?  Does God not have the right to be upset about their fate?  Does He not have the right to show mercy?

For the past several years, I have felt increasingly out of touch with the church I attend.  Most of the people I have known, and consider friends, have left.  I do not have much in common with those who remain.  I would much rather be somewhere else, and yet there I remain, and Elder of the church.

Is my discomfort a sign that I should leave, or a sign that God wishes stretch me?

Jonah was clearly stretched.  It amazes me that having received such an extraordinary demonstration of God’s mercy, he could not extend that grace to others.  But am I all that different?  I struggle to extend grace.  I get hung up on others’ sinfulness.  I don’t want to be seen condoning it.  So how do you hate the sin, yet love the sinner?

If I am to serve them, I must love them.  But if that does not come naturally, what then?  Only God’s love and love them, and He can only love pour that love through me if I yield to it.  We make it sound the simplest thing to do, yet I am finding it so hard.  It’s the funny thing, we all yearn to be used of God, but we rarely give a thought as to how He might choose to use us.

Pray for me.jonah

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