1 Thessalonians 4 is part of a letter from Paul to the Christian church in Thessalonica. The chapter begins with the kinds of subjects that make people feel condemnation hot around their necks: sexual immorality, lust, and passion right out of the gate. These are the impurities (verse 7) Paul pits against a clear expectation of holiness, honor, and sanctification.
If the early church was anything like our churches today, they would’ve met these verses ripe with potential for missing the point.
One of the more illuminating moments in our marriage happened on the night when Nathan and I came to terms about The Leak. I don’t recall the particulars of our conversation anymore, but knowing me, I had likely cried and talked in circles for some time, trying to simultaneously figure out a point and make it. Knowing him, he had likely listened patiently and with a furrowed brow, putting forth a valiant mental effort to sift through what I was saying in order to hear what I actually meant.
We were talking about being busy and about the toll it was taking on things. That detail I do remember. Nathan had been working especially long hours: weekdays and -nights away from home on training exercises, weekends spent at his desk trying to keep up with everything that had piled on while he was away. Times like these are par for the course every so often with military life, but accepting that fact doesn’t necessarily make them easier. As is typical in our relationship, the feverish pace was leaving both of us beyond tired—but where his exhaustion was physical, mine was emotional. I felt like I couldn’t remember the last time we had invested together in our relationship, and I wasn’t sure I believed I could anticipate that changing anytime soon.
Look at Genesis 43, and you will see a man named Judah. He is vowing to keep his youngest brother, Benjamin, safe on a trek to Egypt. Famine has gripped their land severely, and Egypt is the only place where food can be found.
And Judah said to Israel his father, “Send the boy with me, and we will arise and go, that we may live and not die, both we and you and also our little ones. I will be a pledge of his safety. From my hand you shall require him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, then let me bear the blame forever. (Genesis 43:8-9, ESV)
If you know the story, you already know that in Egypt there is not only food but also Joseph, the long-lost, we-sold-him-into-slavery brother who is now (unbeknownst to his family) more or less the prime minister. Amazingly, the survival Judah’s family needs is resting not in the hands of an outsider but in the hands of a brother. Somewhat hilariously (maniacally?), Joseph is playing games, planting “stolen” gold cups in his brothers’ sacks of grain and keeping them all on his leash as a result.
The Joseph stuff is typically what gets noticed on first glance. But if you take a step outward, you see that Judah, not Joseph, is the big miracle of this story.
We have settled on a name for the wildly moving mass of unborn boy that is taking over my torso. It is still a few months ahead of our son’s arrival, and we’ve known his gender for only a handful of weeks—still, it feels like this process of deciding took forever.
Any name my husband liked, I couldn’t stand, and vice versa. (We knew it would be this way. The disagreements were foreshadowed early in our marriage, when Nathan told me he loved the Puritan practice of naming children after virtues: Patience, Chastity, etc. I twisted up my whole face at him in response.) This time around was the same as with the naming of our daughter: one of us would toss out an idea, and the other would immediately make a faceor say, determinedly and disgustedly, NO.
But we hashed it out, because names are important. This boy will wear his forever: infancy, childhood, awkward teenage years, early adulthood, old age—as long as he is privileged to live. The sounds made by his name will reverberate on people’s ears when he first introduces himself. The way the letters appear together on paper will become some people’s first impression of him. These are the silly, real things we talked about when talking about the name. Names are important. And we were more than willing to be determined and disgusted about them until the final question was, to our estimation, decided well.
In Genesis 32, a man and a nation get a new name.
Writing class, senior year, undergrad. It was over ten years ago now, and still I remember Katie’s take on a particular assignment. Our professor had told us to write with honesty about ourselves. Something like that. I remember the gist of the assignment only because of how Katie fulfilled it. We went around the room, reading what we had put together, and it was all sentiment and cheap disclosure until we got to Katie, who said things like:
I’m so selfish that sometimes I wish I could take other people’s things, so I wouldn’t have to be jealous anymore.
I look in the mirror sometimes and tell myself I’m prettier than another woman is. It gives me smug satisfaction to think like that.
I often want to lie about myself to my roommates and friends, to make them think I’m better than I am.
I looked down at my own version of the honesty assignment and was suddenly ashamed to see things like I’d love to be published someday and I’m a farm girl at heart. Hardly gut-deep. Aligned next to Katie’s version of honesty, I found that my own lacked an important kind of bravery and candor. It made me wonder: Just how honest am I, when it comes to me?
Last week, crammed into a house far to small for all of us, my (ever-expanding) family of origin gathered as a whole for the first time in two years. We relished the in-person hugs and the introductions of family members who hadn’t yet met. We caught up on the kind of news that gets forgotten or breezed over during Skype and Facetime chats. We laughed about the same old stories and made fools of ourselves playing ridiculous games. We sat around for hours over breakfasts, lunches, dinners. More than once, we wore pajamas well into the afternoon.
Since the last time we were together, we have added three members: two babies and a fiancée. We’ve changed for the better: degrees begun and completed; jobs changed; promotions earned; homes rented, purchased and sold; engagements announced; babies born. In all this change, there has been much to congratulate and celebrate.
But we are also the same as we were before, so there is still plenty to mourn. In this little family alone, hearts are heavy under aches that haven’t gone away, unmet desires that haven’t faded, strains that haven’t been eased, questions that haven’t been answered, and griefs that haven’t worn fully away. And we can still hurt one another in the same tired, old ways. And we can still be our most selfish, spiteful, ugly selves when we’re together.
When I was in fifth grade, in the weeks and months that led up to Christmas, two men in our church learned that they had brain tumors. One of the men was a man named Gary. The other was my dad.
Gary’s tumor had been discovered first, and as I recall, it came with a prognosis more grim. His tumor was cancerous, and something about it (either the location or the shape of the tumor or both) made surgery cuts especially complicated. My dad was cancer-free, and we were told that physicians removed tumors like his most commonly of all.
Still, each of the two men required a procedure that involved the work of sharp instruments in his head, so that Christmas was a stressful one for both our families. My parents found solace in a new friendship with Gary and his wife, and I think the feeling was mutual. Both couples were about the same age with a handful of kids, both worked hard to make ends meet, both were facing complicated decisions about doctors, hospitals, surgeries, and radiation, not to mention added financial strain and the all-too-real awareness that everything could change in an instant. They became close. That’s how my parents found out about The Comment.
Our girl was born two months into my husband’s six-and-a-half-month deployment to Afghanistan. It was late afternoon there when she made her arrival, and his company was out on a mission. There had been a firefight, on account of which he hadn’t slept much and he needed to write and submit some reports to higher headquarters urgently. He didn’t have much access to civilian emails during that time. And the (typically reliable, typically lightning-fast) Red Cross message that a hospital nurse supposedly dispatched to him on my behalf never made it to the Middle East. The result of all this was that Nathan didn’t know about his daughter’s birth until two afternoons later, almost 48 hours after the fact.
Two a.m. local time, he finally called me. “I just found out,” was how our first parental conversation started. There was an uncharacteristic jitter in his voice, and it laid bare some of his feelings about the new and uncharted waters we were in. I could hear it instantly: he was curious, tentative, apologetic, proud, thrilled. But three minutes after I had answered the phone, duty called again, and he had to hang up. He hadn’t even had the chance to hear a Cliff’s Notes version of our first child’s delivery. Initially I was tempted to be upset about this: Wasn’t he at least entitled to a quick overview?
Then again, the more I thought about it, I wasn’t sure if anyone—certainly not I—could have properly remembered the events that had happened two days earlier.
Our daughter is 19 months old, and today she spent half an hour in our kitchen, squeezing herself into and out of a box meant to hold clementine oranges. All four sides of the packaging around her were emblazoned with the clementine brand name: Cuties. Appropriate.
“Mama, howp,” came the request whenever her little feet became stuck in the corners.
She is enthralled by soapy bubbles in the kitchen sink, by the recycling truck’s weekly visits, and by the multicolored twinkle lights our neighbors strung along their front porch last night. Falling rain produces more excitement in her than any little body could contain. She gets agitated about the vacuum, keeping her distance and keeping aware. When her fingertips get wrinkly after a warm bath, it baffles her that she can’t lick the creases away.
Reading today’s portion from Luke 18, the first thought that came to mind was her look of sheer wonderment yesterday at bedtime, when together we peered over the half-curtain in her bedroom to see those Christmas lights.
“Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Luke 18:17
There was so much awe and thrill in her eyes. Her jaw was slack from one end to the other. Muted twinkles reflected off the curves of her cheeks.
She didn’t want to even acknowledge her crib. Not her PJ’s. Not the blinds as they closed in front of us. “Wites,” she kept saying, pointing back toward the window.
Colorado Springs, 1999. My first real job as a writer.
I was 17, and I had been chosen by the editors of a teen magazine to write a column every other month for a year. “Lisa’s Line,” they called it. They had flown me to Colorado by myself for a weekend photo shoot, to get the next January’s cover image and a few more pictures for accompanying my columns. The editor in charge of choosing me that year, Andrea, had flown in for the weekend as well. She and I were staying in the same hotel, and I was positively awed by her.
Andrea asked if I would meet her for breakfast at the hotel restaurant on the day of the shoot. So I found her at a table that morning, sat across from her, and tried to mirror her beautiful posture without being obvious about it. (Was it the way she held her shoulders? Were they forward or back? Or up?) I tried to say intelligent things and to not hold my fork awkwardly. I was embarrassed that my hair was still a little damp.
She told me why they had picked me: they liked my writing and it seemed I had solid faith. Since the magazine had a distinctly Christian focus, they were looking for a teenager who could be a distinctly Christian role model for their readership. That was ironic, considering what happened not moments later.