Letter #10: Advice about shopping

Dear Aglet,

I’ve noticed two attitudes toward shopping: in one view, it’s a fun, recreational activity; in the other, shopping is a cringe-inducing, groan-worthy chore to be gotten out of the way with as soon as possible.

I’m somewhere between the two extremes; I act like I have the second attitude because I suspect I inwardly have the first one and I don’t want to admit it. Any shopping spree tendencies I have, I actively suppress. Repress. Squash.

(This is mostly because I hobnob with Job’s proverbial turkey, as will you unless your parents do something extraordinary. I’ve got no plans to be a business tycoon or a world dictator, so you, Aglet, will probably start out your life without much excess.)

Both kinds of people, curiously enough, are prey to the same trap of impulse buying. The first sort does it out of a desire to have the thing–whatever it may be–and there is pleasure in obtaining it, so there, they’ve bought it. Dangerous habit, maybe, unless you’ve got plenty of funds to spend without thinking through what you buy.

But the other sort of person might do the exact same thing, just for a different reason! I’ve seen it and done it myself, Aglet. You finally succeed in dragging yourself to the store for some long-contested necessity, and then one of two things happens: either you spend as much time as you can, comparing price and quality and agonizing over the perfect, thriftiest choice; or you scan around for the nearest, cheapest thing that will fit the bill.
Depends on the day.

And then you just…buy it. You probably don’t go home to think about it first, because that would mean coming back up later and shopping again. And when you finally take the thing to the counter and it rings up and IT’S NOT ACTUALLY ON SALE LIKE THE PRICE TAG SAID IT WAS, you probably don’t contest it, because like whatever, just get me out of this place.

And that’s where you have GOT to strike a balance between the two extremes, Aglet (talking more to myself here). You MUST choose between saving your money and saving your pride. The silly part of your brain is going to tell you, “Now, Jo, just man up, tough it out, and pay the extra money.” But Don’t You Listen, Son.

The person who rationally thinks through “I have this much money set aside for this, and I can’t afford to just buy something on impulse” will probably make herself motion to the cashier and ask to put the thing–whatever it is–back. And it will not feel good, or cool, or adult-y.

It’ll probably feel cheap, and miserly, and OH-My-Goodness-It’s-Just-A-THING-Why-Can’t-I-EVER-Make-A-Decision? But you can handle it, Aglet, and the next morning will be a new morning, and you can try again to find whatever-the-thing-was-that-you-needed.

And (cross your fingers), maybe you won’t have buyer’s remorse.

So here are two practical pieces of advice about finances–and they’re pretty much the only assets I have to give you, so far, so listen up:

  1. Decide whether you care more about (a) taking care of the resources you’ve been given or (b) avoiding feeling “weird” because you realized you can’t actually afford that thing just now.
  2. Ask God for enough, and no more. There’s a great proverb (30:7-9) that goes like this:

“Two things I request of You
(Deprive me not before I die):
Remove falsehood and lies far from me;
Give me neither poverty nor riches–
Feed me with the food allotted to me;
Lest I be full and deny You,
And say, “Who is the Lord?”
Or lest I be poor and steal,
And profane the name of my God.

What I’m not saying is that having a lot of money is inherently bad or evil, or that you must take a vow of poverty to please God. What I am saying is that “poor” and “rich” don’t always mean what we think they mean, and a very little may be enough if, through it, you are reminded that it is God who provides what you need.

You may be given lots of money to take care of, Aglet, in which case you’ll need godly wisdom and a generous heart.

Practically speaking, a smaller budget (if you stick to it) might give you a built-in defense against your equally built-in bent toward materialism.

Love from your future (hypothetical) grandma,

Jo

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Letter #9: In Defense of Letter-Writing

Dear Aglet,

Let me explain something. I’m writing these letters to you during the tail-end (or maybe it’s smack dab in the middle, I don’t know) of a cultural shift from print to web. From handwriting to typing to texting.

Bookstores to e-books.

Cabinets to clouds.

Even noting this fact makes me a grandma, I’m so late to the game.

My point is, people my age aren’t writing letters to each other. It makes me really sad. See, I love checking the mail, because there’s nothing like the feeling of opening the mailbox and seeing my name on a good, well-stuffed envelope, which some nice person thought to send me.

[Note: we don’t necessarily count the nice lady or fellow who sends the bills in this group of people, however worthy they may be].

AND. And and and. What I love even MORE is sending such a letter. Oh, the joy that comes to this introvert when she has the chance to write down all her thoughts in a hopefully-coherent-but-still-poetical way and then bombard some poor soul with the whatever-it-is that gets written down.

It’s a lovely sensation. It’s so lovely that I’m borrowing from forty years in the future when you might actually be in existence, Aglet, and sending you these letters now. I don’t expect a reply–which makes it easier.

I’m also writing a dear friend in real life, and realizing how much patience is required in letter-writing. I had to wait to send the letter, and I have to wait a few days to properly imagine his opening the letter, and then wait a few more days to even begin anticipating a response.

I’m realizing how much patience I do not have.

But it makes it easier, in a way, to think of our communication in terms of days, weeks, and months, rather than the previous manner of hours and minutes, when a flurry of texts could be sent simultaneously. [In your case, Aglet, communication is decades away, which is at once delicious and terrifying to consider.]

Patience is a learned gift.

What a blessing, then, for someone who desires patience, to have a chance to learn it, and, I pray, learn it well! I love tangible things–even something as simple as opening a real mailbox, rather than clicking on a button which then does its code-y thing and redirects me to more code that’s been translated for me to read. The latter is cool enough, but my opening of the mailbox: that is the miracle.

To be reading what someone far away wrote down for me. To be able to understand without the aid of some other technology. To know that time was taken in the writing, and deliberation taken in the sending.

We appreciate what we think is worth waiting for. And, in the waiting, we have the privilege to hope–a peculiarly human thing to do, I think.

Sincerely,

Your Grandma, Jo

 

Letter #8: For Jonah-days

Dear Aglet,

I’ve started writing this probably five times over the past few weeks. Just now I saw that it’s my thirteenth blog post I’ve written a draft for and not published. They’re about various, unimportant things: one is called “Purple hair dye and communion wine” and I think it’s about dressing up as Madam Mim for Halloween.

In other words, I’m not sure I have anything worth saying, but I’m writing anyway.

That last sentence may end up being my autobiography in one sentence.

I tried doing NANOWRIMO for the fifth or sixth year in a row, and all I have to show for it (so far) is one page, handwritten on front and back, about a young preacher’s wife who moves to a town called Marysville, TX, where it’s always dusty and dull and she has to do good all the time and she misses the trees in Arkansas.

I don’t like how it’s heading, so I’m retiring that story, maybe forever.

Everything ends in autobiography with me, Aglet, which is a real shame, because I’ve not gone and done a whole lot with my life thus far. Hence, I’m not sure I have anything much to say. There have been some Jonah-days here lately–days where your soul feels like the grayest of days in November, and it doesn’t seem like anything can make it better.

There have been wonderful days too–days like today, when the sun came out and various poems by e.e.cummings and Gerard Manley Hopkins kept popping cheerfully into my head and distracting me.

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

I cry about everything, mostly, even lovely things. Even while laughing, sometimes. I heard my dad’s voice and cried; heard a sad song and cried; thought about what it would be like to have cancer and cried; thought about what it would be like to have someone I loved have cancer and cried.

Worried about what might happen tomorrow, or in five years. And cried.

It’s ridiculous, especially because I have been down this road so many times, and I’ve made a choice over and over and over not to fret about what happens next (or five years from now), but instead to trust God, who’s infinitely worth trusting.

I need help trusting God and being more honest than simply stuffing my fear into my pocket and pretending that means I don’t have it anymore. Jonah-days will come to you. Whether you’re terrified of things not turning out perfectly or whether you think you’re so strong that hard times will just bounce off whatever rationalistic armor you’ve been layering on as a defense against overwhelming emotion–something will happen that’s too hard for you, Aglet.

You’ll have to decide where to run and what to do when you are overwhelmed with fear, or depression, or anger, or grief, or any of a thousand troubles that won’t be a reality anymore when we’re in God’s presence. But they’re reality now, and they needn’t be pointless. If, when you discover you’ve been horribly wrong about something important, you yield to despair, thinking you’ve ruined everything and you somehow can’t ever fix what could have been, you’ve missed something.

You’ve missed (and when I say “you” you better know I mean “I“) grace, in a way, and the precious illustration of your own desperate need for grace. Feeling heart-sick, or lonely, even feeling rage at the wrongness of the world–all these may drive us to prayer: to wrestling with how on earth lovely things and wretched things exist together, and to asking our Father to fix what’s broken, to fix us.

So yes, on Jonah-days, read Hopkins, read cummings, even read Whitman, but most of all take comfort in knowing that God is both good and great, and He blesses the poor in spirit.

Love, your grandma,

Jo

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Letter #7: Heading West

Dear Aglet,

I’m heading west with my parents and a sister–it’s my turn to drive and I find myself completely Hyped. Up. on caffeine, mentally penning a letter to you, my dear, future, hypothetical grandchild.

You might be tempted to think it’s because I’m bored by the treeless terrain of the Texas panhandle. Most people where I live say there’s nothing here.

But I find the nothing beautiful.

I love being able to see to the horizon, feeling how the land goes on for so long. And as the sky expands, growing bigger and bluer and wider, I feel my soul expand in a way I can’t explain, quite. I start feeling more hopeful, maybe, more at ease, than when my view of the heavens is restricted by the tall pine trees.

Not that I don’t like trees–I do like them (just ask my college president)–and I’m glad to be where I am, generally, but every now and then, it’s nice to go west and stretch a little.

I’ve inherited it from my dad, I think: the restlessness that occasionally comes and can’t be shaken off or distracted. Herman Melville prescribed for this rising of the spleen a good long sea voyage, but for my family, the cure is going west until the wonderfully desolate land meets the sky. Perhaps the two cures are not very different–both satisfy the urge to see far on all sides. Both calm, at least for a time, the crawling feeling of confinement.

I used to dream of living out here, of having a ranch near Saint Jo, Texas, where I’d live, hermit-like, in a small yellow house with a little dog named Joe Gargery and a big sheepdog named Chesterton (“Chester,” for short). The dream is still appealing, especially when I feel the impatience of loving imperfect people or the ensuing, awful realization of my own glaring flaws. Then the independent spirit comes upon me and I want to be off where uncertainty is gone and I can see with clarity.

I crave certainty, Aglet.

But when I am told what to do, or how to do it, I resent it like the wretch I am, and I prefer the former ambiguity. At least control my own indecision.

Paul, in his letters, said he’d learned the secret of being content in any situation. I think I’ve learned the opposite–I manage to be restless and discontent any time, any place. But I wouldn’t call it a secret or a gift.

Slowly, very slowly, maybe I’m learning that I’ve had many plans and many dreams, but that happiness doesn’t depend on them turning out perfectly, or even coming true at all. That’s not to say I should suppress all my desires and ambitions, more that I should be wary of where I hang my hope, and my heart, and my happiness.

I find myself in my early twenties and I’m thinking about what I want my life to be like, about what would possibly fulfill me, and I sense that the stakes of living a worthwhile life are at once terribly high and wonderfully low.

If I think that this is all there is, I ought to scramble to get all I want and make all the happiness I can, even if it only lasts for a little bit.

If I think there’s something else, though–something beyond this world and this life–it at once raises the stakes and lowers them. I would have more of an urgency to do what’s worth doing, regardless of how exciting it feels at the time, knowing that my source of satisfaction is in Christ. It would mean I could choose what I do and be motivated by more than simply what makes the most money, and yet my job wouldn’t be what fulfilled me.

And it would mean that your future, hypothetical grandfather (my “Mr. Mister”) needn’t be a flawless sort of Mr. Darcy in order for us to love one another or find joy together. It would mean, even, that I might never meet Mr. Mister and my life would still have meaning and fulfillment. I might go on great adventures and weather awful sorrows.

Anything might happen, or nothing.

Life would still be a gift.

Sometimes tears come in the loveliest of situations, reminding me that this isn’t all there is; that I haven’t experienced perfect joy yet; that there is a longing that won’t be quite answered by anyone or anything, wherever I live. Even the open horizon becomes monotonous, and I grow bored with the same mountains that astonish me. My capacity for gratitude is smaller than I want it to be, and my appetite for wonder is really pretty dull.

It’s curious that such a yearning could be a comfort, or that a desolate place could be beautiful. Strange, that horizons bring hope, or that feeling so small could bring joy.

Love, your caffeinated grandma,

Jo

Letter #6: The Power of Words and the Absence of Coffee

Dear Aglet,

Yesterday was sunny and gorgeous and I was glad just to be alive, breathing in the spring air.

Today was dark and rainy and I hadn’t had any coffee.

If local weather patterns and the absence of caffeine make as much of a difference in my mood when I’m a grandma as they do now, heaven help us, Aglet. Specifically, heaven help you.

Possibly by the time you’re around, they’ll have discovered caffeine is this CRAZY addicting drug (no way!) and they’ll regard my generation as the last of the foolish human societies who imbibed ridiculous amounts of this drug in an attempt to become as gods and work around the clock without consequences.

Maybe it’ll be illegal by the 2040s, and caffeine will be the drug of choice for business men and women, the only ones who can afford to enhance their alertness with impunity. Some poor menial will get busted Thursday because his eyebrows were raised too high during a boring staff meeting.

There’ll be a society formed to help wean people off their caffeine dependencies, full of men with disheveled faces and women with crazy hair, all horribly grouchy, attempting to function as normal human beings.

It’s in that age, Aglet, that I’ll tell you of the delightful days when was young, and getting together and drinking caffeinated beverages was the thing to do. My own parents got me started on it and thought nothing of it–how they’d just reduced their daughter to one of those weirdos who is bummed out all day FOR NO REASON except they’re tired, also for no reason.

There’s almost always reasons, Aglet. People like to blame sad days on the weather, or their hormones, or not having had their fix (of coffee), but I’m not sure why we can’t just sometimes have sad days and admit there might be valid reasons for being sad.

It’s okay to be sad sometimes.

There are lots of reasons to be sad in this world, Aglet. They have a lot to do with how the world is and how the world ought to be, and all the myriad of instances where that doesn’t line up.

I forget how powerful words are, either to lift up or to tear down. They can also wear someone down, through a consistent negativity that’s like clockwork in its accuracy. A thoughtless or impatient word somehow comes out faster and easier than does a kind word.

Tonight my lovely mom–your great-grandmother–noticed I was down and came to the college to talk with me. She bought us ice cream and told me some stories about when she was in college. Later I did some talking, and she listened, and I realized that the kindest thing she’d done was to notice that I seemed sad and ask me about it.

How often do I take the time to ask people if they’re alright? I’m not saying I need to badger people to tell me every detail of what they’re thinking, but if I had to pick a thing that’s truly worth spending time on, it might be in making myself available to listen, or speak good words to someone. Not out of an attempt to fix them, as if being sad is always a thing we must fix (often we don’t have the power to heal their situations), but out of a consideration for the person. Out of a love for them.

My mom needed to do taxes tonight, and instead spent two and a half hours visiting over some ice cream. And oh, how I love her for it.

Letter #5: A Small Yellow House

Dear Aglet,

I am writing a memoir, which is ridiculous considering how young I am and how far I have to go yet before I have any wisdom or experience or whatever. Somehow it’s more excusable, I think, to write about one’s childhood to someone who is younger, and a future hypothetical grandchild certainly fits the bill. So here you go, you and whomever is unfortunate to stumble across these silly letters in the meantime. Read, if you want to, the first chapter of a (hypothetical) book entitled “A Place Called Waldo: Some Essays About Growing Up Slowly.”

Love, your grandma,

Jo

Before I came on the scene, there was a young though balding man with a fiery red moustache and dishwater-blue eyes whose wife was young and trim and black-haired. She had brown eyes. Their house was nice and small and it sat on the corner of N. Methodist Street in a town called Red Oak. There was a porch, complete with swing, and the house was paneled a pleasant, light yellow. In the backyard there grew some grand old pecan trees, and in a small corner, a dusty, overgrown path circled a lovely mossy well. Lemon balm curled up over the stones of the well, and peppermint plants.

I don’t have much to say about the man and woman when they were really young; I don’t know what they talked about or what they did for fun. By the time I knew them they were the parents of four kids, soon to be five, and my father had lost a little more hair and my mother wasn’t quite as trim. Their eyes were the same as before, though. I don’t remember doing anything but playing in the yellow house; in the yard with the chickens; in the garden with the garter snakes; in the stinky but eminently climbable photinia tree. Playing, playing with my two older sisters and my brother, Tim. We made up all kinds of games, and all of them are a blur in my mind. The best and most dangerous game was flying.

My mom had, and still has, some knack for carpentry, and built not just a double-bunk bed, but a triple. Three beds were stacked with the three girls sleeping one on top of the other, Lydia (the second-oldest) probably a good eight or nine feet above the floor. “Flying” involved climbing to the top of the structure and jumping off with arms spread, until the unceremonious thump onto the carpeted floor ended one’s short, but thrilling, flight. Often my knees ended up braced under my chin, so that my teeth clacked and the breath was knocked out of my chest. The worst episode, however, happened to Lydia, then around seven or eight years old. For some reason there was an old army helmet on the floor having belonged to one of our grandfathers during a world war; perhaps Tim had been playing soldier. Somehow when Lydia flew from the bed, she landed in such a way that her head struck the very real, very hard helmet. I have a vague feeling that my parents put a stop to flying soon after that.

I have glimpses of life at Red Oak, mere flashes of memories, more like short, moving photographs than things that happened tangibly. A snapshot here, a snapshot there, of birthdays and parades and one, single snow day, which covered the back yard in an inch or two of easily spoiled white wetness and melted within a few hours. I remember that my obsession with candy motivated most of my actions as a four year old, and drove me on one occasion to eat every Milk-Dud my brother had hoarded so carefully, leaving only one piece in one of the boxes as a pitiful penance. When my father took me to work (a great treat), my time was divided into three occupations: weaseling candy from his colleagues; hiding a spiky rubber ball in his file cabinet for him to find later; and being terrified of the “dragon” outside his office. In one of the trees that scraped next to the window, there was a compact, black thing attached to a branch, which moved every so often and made strange noises which both frightened and fascinated me. I still am not willing to say for certain the dragon was a security camera, because how can one ever know for sure?

There was a church we attended where, depending on whom I sat with, I was bribed with candy to behave during the service. Mrs. Moon always gave Big Red cinnamon gum, but Mrs. Anita only shushed. You had to wait until after the service to get the good stuff, from the pastor when he stood by the doors with an offering plate full of candy for the children. There were acolytes at the church, who impressed me with their robes and responsibilities of lighting and extinguishing the candles in the sanctuary. If you had asked me my life’s ambitions at age five, they likely would have been two-fold: to be an acolyte and to eat candy. My favorite part of the service was hearing the grownups recite the creeds—it’s one of those snapshots I mentioned earlier. There are green glass windows, which though blurry, let in the sunlight in a uniquely Sunday-morning manner, and the pew is very hard and my legs can’t reach the floor, but my back feels the pew resonate with the voices of the congregation as they say the same words as they did the week before, in the same way as they did the week before: “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

As it turned out, we moved from Red Oak shortly before I was old enough to acolyte (if that can be a verb), and we didn’t recite the Lord’s Prayer in the new church we attended. One would think the old rhythms would have faded over a decade and a half, but they haven’t. Snatches of creeds and liturgy remain: “…I believe in God the Father, Maker of heaven and earth…suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried…come to judge the quick and the dead…” Recently I visited a church which had congregational reading, and while the words were familiar, and it felt strangely comforting to be speaking the same things as everyone sitting around me, my adult tongue was a little halting in its response.

I guess I’m not really old enough to be writing a memoir, if that’s what this rambling story is. I ought to be out living rather than reminiscing about what life was like when I was a kid. If this story is worth anything to me and to you, maybe its worth will be in remembering a long, lovely childhood and recognizing that endings aren’t all bad. I am trying to grow up now, after an awfully long time of not wanting to, after a great effort to cling to the person I was and the people I knew then.

Letters to Aglet #4: Take Notes

Dear Aglet,

Grandma Jo here. I can’t help it–every time I think of how the world might be when you’re growing up and I’m growing old, I wonder if you’ll still use pencil and paper or if everything will be typed onto a screen and stored in a cloud. That just sounds futuristic. Not that it doesn’t happen plenty now, but at least these days there are young dinosaurs like me who still do things the old-fashioned way. Well, sometimes.

Recently some classmates and I got in trouble with a professor for not having taken notes during a guest’s presentation. That got me thinking about why it’s even useful to take notes: why it is necessary that every member of my class jot down several lines of incomprehensible summary of the speaker’s life-story (wasting paper and KILLING TREES, aaaaah) when the reality is that probably none of us would keep whatever notes we took. All that paper would just be thrown away/recycled by those of us who care enough to make the effort.

Well, Professor argued, it would have looked professional. It would have shown that we cared. It might have indicated that we appreciated the time the speaker took to come talk to us. And it would have been a gesture of respect for his life-story.

SO, take notes, Aglet. Be professional. Take notes.

Also. When there is something that you want to remember, take notes.

Around the same time this whole professionalism-thing happened, I realized what a horrible note-taker I’ve been at church. I found all these bulletins with absolutely nothing on them, and then I found one–exactly one–with notes from a sermon that I had come back to again and again since the fall when it was preached. One, Aglet, out of two-and-a- half-years-worth that I might have had.

I remember admiring people who took notes during the sermon. Not when I was a kid, mind you–back then I just drew doodle and passed notes with my siblings. But when I was older and realized what a good thing it is to have a preacher who preaches God’s Word, then I would look over and think, hey, good for that person, writing this stuff down. I didn’t think about why they were writing it down until church changed and I was relying on my memory for things I’d learned and ways in which I’d grown. I didn’t have any specifics–I could maybe remember certain topics or passages my pastor had gone through, but most of what I had was a vague sense that, yeah, this man preached the Bible and I was thankful for it.

Except for this one sermon.

It’s on prayer, Aglet, and I’m not going to try to recreate the sermon for you (I can’t, anyway), but I’m going to write down on here some things that I remember because I took notes that Sunday. It’s more for me than for my future hypothetical grandkid, honestly.

It starts out like this:

The evidence of following Christ is bearing fruit, living in obedience to Christ (John 15:4-8). Jesus is the source of our bearing fruit.

And then I have written three wonderful Scriptures having to do with God’s assurance of keeping those he saves:

John 6:37. John 10:28. Romans 8:38-39.

Abiding in Christ is not the way we bear fruit. It’s the means by which God causes us to bear fruit.

What follows is a mixture of Bible passages and questions and applications and it seems that I personalized them somewhere along the way. So modify the pronouns accordingly, Aglet.

1. Be a woman of the Word (2 Peter 1:21)

-If it’s really God’s word, how does my treatment of it show my attitude toward God? (John 14:15; Deuteronomy 6:6)

-Let testimony about God drive me to worship God and live in Christ (Colossians 3:16)

And then I’d written:

“Oh God, help me delight diligently in Your Word.”

2. Be a woman of prayer

-Pray simply

-Pray humbly (Luke 12:32)

• God delights in giving us gifts because it glorifies His goodness.

• We come boldly only because of Christ.

-Pray expectantly (Job 38)

• When He doesn’t give what we want, how we pray demonstrates how trustworthy we believe God to be.

-Pray regularly

• We pray, not only when we need something, but because we find rest and love and satisfaction in Jesus.

The last thing I’d written down was something I’ve probably known most of my life, but that Sunday it pierced me like a lightning bolt and it was as if the news were brand new:

Christ called me before I wanted anything to do with Him, and claimed by His grace my wayward heart.

Write down the important things, Aglet. And don’t take for granted that you’ll always have a faithful pastor to teach and re-teach you the glorious Gospel. Don’t even take for granted that you’ll have weird, random letters on the internet penned by your weird, future, hypothetical grandparent.

Take notes, sonny.

Merry Christmas,

Your (increasingly strange) Grandma,

Jo

The Story of My Life

The power at my house went out around 8:00 in the evening, and so we all went to bed early. I’ve been tossing and turning for the 4 ½ hours since then, and I think I know why.

I need to tell you a story.

This story begins with an early memory, such an early memory, in fact, that I can’t place it for certain. It might be from when I was four or three or even two. It’s just a glimpse—it’s like watching a fifteen-second clip, and I can only reconstruct what must have been its context. For those who care, my sister says these kinds of memories are called “snapshot” memories. Or maybe it’s “flashbulb” memories, I’m not sure.

Anyway, one of these memories is just of me and my mom, where she draws me this simple diagram and explains it, clearly and simply.

If we were talking in real life, I’d ask if you had a pen and paper so I could draw it out for you, it’s that clear in my mind.

First, she draws a large circle, with two stick figures inside—one big and one little. I’m not even sure they’re full stick figures; they’re more just like smaller circles. The figures in the circle, she tells me, are like God and you, Jo. When you’re in the circle with God, that’s when you’re happiest because that’s when you’re obeying him. But sometimes, Jo—here she draws a line from my figure to a place outside the circle—sometimes you decide not to obey God; you might lie, or do something naughty, and that keeps you away from God. It’s not happy, being outside God’s family circle, she says. But do you know what God does, when that happens? He comes—she draws a line from the God-figure towards mine—and brings you back to where He is—she completes the route from the two figures back into the circle—because He loves you and He knows that’s where you’ll be happy.

Is it a perfect analogy? No, probably not. Is there such a thing as a perfect analogy that three-year-olds can understand? If you know of one, please oh please let me know about it.

I’m sure at some point there was discussion of four-year-old repentance, and this particular conversation, I feel sure, was more in response to little me having done something requiring disciplinary measures than specifically sharing the gospel. The memory’s just slightly hazy.

However, there’s the beginning of my story, as I see it. God saw fit to put me in a family where the parents talked to their children about Him when they were young, and it’s something I haven’t forgotten. Now, that very fact used to make me feel insecure about my testimony, as if, somehow, it wasn’t a very powerful testimony at all; that maybe I should live a little more dangerously/stupidly so I’d have a “real” story to tell. I’m pretty sure there’s a verse about that; pretty sure Paul says that’s a terrible idea. Which it is.

If I can just interject something here—in between the beginning of this story and the end (which isn’t really the end, just the chapter I’m on at the moment)—it’s to say that often I’m tempted to be humble about the wrong sort of thing. I look back and reflect on choices I’ve made and things I’ve done, and I think, man, Jo, what an idiot. You haven’t learned anything. You thought you were all smart at such-and-such an age, and you really had so much growing to do.

Well, okay, that’s fine, up to a point. Humility about my own efforts? Yes please—I need more humility than I have. The danger is that, in focusing those negative thoughts on what my past has looked like, I forget God’s great work in my life. In trying to negate my own worthiness, I risk negating God’s power in having changed and continuing to change me into the person He designed me to be.

Do I continue to grow and become more mature? Yes, I hope so and I pray that’s the case. Will I probably look back at this very blog post and think, ugh, you sound as if you had it all together, which you didn’t. That doesn’t change God’s role in all this. I forget so many times that we can boast in who Jesus Christ is, and in what He’s done for us. The trouble is remembering that during the times when I have messed up, and all I really feel like doing is crawling in a hole until the elephants forget me. So here’s me, remembering.

Once there was a little girl named Jo who, as we’ve seen, often had to have a disciplinary talk given her, involving a circle and two stick figures and God. I lied a lot back then. And I stole candy one time from this store called David’s, and when I tried to share the loot, my mom marched me back into the store to apologize through my tears. That did the trick.

I know my parents had several talks with me about Jesus and how I could be saved, but I always point to one day in the backyard when my seven-year-old brother told me all he knew about God, and I prayed and was saved. Now I know there’s all kinds of opinions of just how “saved” a five-year-old can be, and that’s fine. Debate it all you want. Here’s what I knew: I’d been taught that God was great, and that He was good. I believed it. I’d been taught that I fell short of who He wanted me to be; that I’d disobeyed and “gone away from the family circle.” I believed that. And I’d been taught that He loved me so much He sent his son, Jesus, to die on the cross for me, thereby bringing me back into fellowship with Him. I believed that.

Was that the end of the story of salvation? No, of course not. But it was a good beginning, and I think there are many things children can know and understand, even if they no knowledge of the intricacies of theology and Scripture and, yeah, all those gloriously confusing grown-up things.

As Jo grew, her outsides looked pretty dang good, spiritually. She knew all the Sunday School answers, and she was pretty much the top of her AWANA class at memorizing scripture. Looking back, it’s so tempting to negate all that, knowing how much of my success at AWANA was driven by competition and pride at being the best. But God was working.

Inside was kind of a different story. From the age of eight to when I was twelve or so, I remember really struggling with the assurance of my salvation. I was terrified of hell; I had a recurring nightmare involving judgment and the end of the world and a whole lot of darkness. I still remember bits of it, and it still frightens me just a little. I’d wake up in the night crying; asking God to save me from hell. I wasn’t convinced, I guess of a couple things: 1. That I’d truly done all I needed to be saved and 2. That He would keep His word and keep me.

Fast forward a few years: a move to a different town, a different church, and one lady—about my mother’s age—who shared with me something that changed my life. I don’t know how we’d gotten started talking, but I respected her for her kindness and her gentleness towards me and my family. When we’d joined the church, I had publicly rededicated my life to Christ. I wanted to have a certain date in my mind; a date on which I knew that I believed in God. So I did, and it was one of the scariest things I’ve done—still—because I actually took the microphone the preacher was offering me and said something mumbly about why I was making the decision.

This sweet lady came up after the service and told me something I never would have imagined. She said that she had struggled with the same sort of doubts when she was my age. She encouraged me in my desire to have a certain date that I could defend against the enemy’s lies that I somehow had not done enough, or that I’d imagined the whole thing, or that God wasn’t faithful to save. With her words I realized I wasn’t alone—that people of all ages struggled with doubt, and that I was important enough to her for her to share her story with me.

It was also around that time that I started writing prayers in all my journals instead of normal entries. My sister and I joke that, once I hit eleven or twelve, my old journals cease to be as interesting/embarrassing/fun to read back over. You can still find mentions of events and phases, but there’s a lot of “Dear God’s,” and “Heavenly Father’s” to wade through. I’ve become increasingly thankful for those prayers, silly as some of them were. Remember how I said it’s a temptation for me to think that I’m always starting from scratch spiritually—that nothing that’s come before has really been anything of worth? Well, yeah, none of my goody-two-shoes effort has been of worth, but those journals are a testimony to God’s working in one preteen girl’s life, and some of that teenager’s concerns are going to seem pretty silly, in hindsight.

Did I mention that I still had a problem with pride? Well, I did—pride, and what others thought of me, timidity (another thing altogether from humility!)—these marked my inward life. I had an ungracious, hostile mindset toward one of my sisters, which I halfheartedly would attempt to fix every now and then, when the guilt got too uncomfortable. Over the years I let the broken relationship stay broken, until I’d pretty much hardened myself against listening to her or trying to understand her. It might be helpful at this point to be reminded of the parable of the prodigal son—especially the ending. See Luke 15:)

It’s such a lovely, lovely story, what with the father running indecorously down the road to meet his wayward boy. But there’s a sour note that comes when the elder son refuses to celebrate his own brother’s return. It’s not fair, are his words (sort of). I do everything right, and no one notices. He does everything wrong, and you celebrate.

Oh, God. That was me. That older brother who didn’t have enough understanding to see that his father’s love for both of them was made evident in his grace for the one “who did everything wrong.” As if the older son had done “everything right.” NO! He hadn’t. He lacked any sort of love and compassion toward his brother, who had been running to darkness and was brought back to the light of his father’s love. His brother, whom God had brought back into the family circle.

It’s funny, what ways God chooses to make Himself known in our lives. His grace takes many forms: more than once in history, God’s mercy has been displayed through a baby. At this point, my story intersects with the stories of others. I can’t tell their stories, because I am not them and they aren’t my story. This is what I know, however: God brought me and my family into a situation where there couldn’t be all this faked unity in public and lack of grace in private. He began to soften my grace-less heart, and gave me love for someone I hadn’t yet met. Slowly, He mended my relationship with my sister, and I praise Him for it.

That was the previous chapter in my life-story, and its effects are still being seen in the current chapter. There have been other things that have happened; other things I’ve learned and am continuing to learn. I have seen Him restore good, old friendships that I had let die, and, despite how lukewarm I can be, I have seen how He draws me back—even if that means taking me through times of despondency and emptiness. I have realized more and more that faith is a gift, that the very desire to know God is given by God Himself.

I have seen that God is very great, and that He is very good.

 

If you ask me, I will tell you all this in person. If you have a question, either about my story or about the God I’m talking about, leave a comment and I’ll figure out a way for you to contact me.

Thank you, so much, for reading.

<><Jo

 

Letter #3: In Which Grandma Jo Goes Blind

Dear Aglet,

If, by the time we meet each other, I happen to have gone blind, here’s why.

I am in the habit of staring at sunsets. Isn’t that awful? I’ve been told since I was a little girl not to look at the sun, and that doing so would hurt my eyes and eventually blind me, but I can’t seem to help it. I’m sure you’ll never disregard what your elders tell you solely for your own good, Aglet, but I’m telling you now that if you ever decide to disobey, you better have a durned good reason for doing so.

I have a great reason for staring at the sun when it rises or sets. Here it is: it’s beautiful. And I’m drawn to the sight, even though I know my eyes aren’t strong enough to handle all that light.

[That is why they told me not to, isn’t it? Something like that? Oh well, I guess it doesn’t matter now. Not now that I’m blind and I can’t see what my own (imaginary) grandkid looks like.]

I’m frustrated that I can never look at the sunset for as long as I’d like to. I can only take a glimpse, then look away–and when I glance again, the lighting’s changed just a little. It’s like taking a new and lovely photograph with every blink.

Someday you’ll be reading this and thinking, “Grandma, grandma, grandma. You were/are so strange. You chose looking at a couple of boring old sunsets over preserving your eyesight into your old age.”

I’ve already apologized in a different letter for being strange. Get over it, Aglet.

Here’s what I hope, though. I really, really hope that people can still notice sunsets in that weird, dystopian future I imagine you growing up in. Sometimes it feels like we humans are losing our ability to appreciate anything that isn’t technological or made from a machine. And while I’m here wailing the same warnings older people have been wailing since the invention of the wheel, I may as well say this.

[But seriously, can’t you see Grandpa Cave Dweller shaking his fist at the youngsters on the first unicycles hewn out of the cave walls? “Durn kids! Always playing with their useless, newfangled toys! Now, when was a youngster…”]

What I was going to say, Aglet, is that while it might seem silly to say “beware of technology” and it might seem foolish to resist all the change that’s happening in the world, there’s something to be said for listening. Listen to older folks when you can, especially when they talk about their lives and what they’ve learned. People like to talk, and if you can learn how to really listen, you have a shot at gaining wisdom when you’re young.

One of my favorite books is called “The Giver,” by Lois Lowry, and it has to do with memories and emotions and what it means to be human. It takes place in a society in which nothing seems to be lacking…except, curiously enough–grandparents. The Old, in this society, are kept by themselves, perfectly tended to, perfectly comfortable, while the younger members of the society go about their practical, smooth-running occupations. There’s no overlap between the generations. And it’s tragic.

You should read the book. I think that what you might find is that the lack of grandparents only reflects the loss of many other things that make us human.

There are certain memories I have that I hope I will get to pass on to someone–if not you, then someone else. There’re certain experiences that I hope are universal to the human soul.

Sunsets are one of them. Holding my niece for the first time is another. Playing hide-and-seek in the curtains with my nephew. Seeing someone I love smile. Reading words that assure me of God’s presence. Listening to the third movement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D.

All sorts of strangely specific things that conjure up a swelling in my heart. These things are real, somehow, in a way that watching other people’s lives on social media can never be real.

In Sunday School, when the teacher reads Genesis 1.1 and a kid pipes up with “Did He create smartphones,” the teacher says God created the minds of humans with the ability to make smartphones, and in that way, He’s responsible. And yes, there’s a deeper truth there about human tendency towards creating and how that reflects the creative aspect of God’s nature.

My point is that it’s easy to think we humans are so clever to have designed this or that new innovation. We look at our own creations and congratulate ourselves.

Look at what God has done. Look at what He still does, every day. That sunset or that sunrise is just one of an infinite number of things God creates every day to display His glory. The way our bodies work is marvelous, and scientists discover new aspects to His design all the time.

Another book I think you should read is by C.S. Lewis, called “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.” Heck, if I haven’t lost my vision completely by the time you’re born, I’ll read it to you myself. And oh, I can’t do justice to it here, but there’s a place near the end that I love. I’ll only say that when I read this book, I’m not ashamed of my fascination with sunsets, rather encouraged.

I’m looking for a place where I can look at the sun in all its glory, and not look away.

Love, your grandma,

Jo

 

Letter#2: Very Important Advice

Dear Aglet,

This morning, as I sat drinking the watered-down concoction the cafeteria likes to call coffee, I was struck by this thought, a thought I thought important enough to record here for your sake. Ready, here it is: When I am old, I won’t be young anymore.

I know, I know. Profound. As you read this, I would imagine you are thinking one of two things: either “Wow, Grandma Jo got a lot wiser when she got old,” or the opposite of that. I can read your mind, sonny. “This makes so much sense about how she is now…”

The reason I thought of this is, well, I don’t know what made me starting thinking it. Whatever. I was just thinking that someday I won’t look young like I do now. Old people are pretty in a different sort of way. My friends won’t look young and pretty and handsome either. We’ll all be judged on a different scale–by how we act and whether we have the wisdom of years.

Obviously, your grandma has some growing to do on that last point. Hahaha.

What was I saying? I keep distracting myself with funny thoughts. Will I be like that when you know me, I wonder?

“What is Grandma Jo laughing about?”

“Oh, something she did/said/thought amused her.”

“But it’s been a whole two days since then!!”

I like my sense of humor because it can turn my life into this running sit com, full of mishaps and ridiculous misunderstandings that seem, at the time, world-ending. I get mortified easily, but give me a couple days and I can’t stop laughing about whatever the mortifying thing was.

Like the time I felt called to defend the honor of my father’s mustache. It’s a long story, but it culminated with me half-yelling at the offensive person that, “when he gets to be my dad’s age, his facial hair will probably look bad too!”

It was a terrible comeback, one of my worst yet.

I did eventually apologize, but in the interim I would think about it and just laugh at how ludicrous the whole thing was.

Facial hair (somehow!) reminds me of what I wanted to say in the first place. I wish that people my age could see one another in the future. I think it would give us all a lot more humility if we could a). look in the mirror at our fifty-year-old selves, and b). realize we look no better/worse than any other fifty-year-old.

Future grandmas and future granddads, if they could see each other’s seventy-year-old selves, wouldn’t place as much stock on what their twenty-year-old selves looked like. One of these days, I will not be young, and even when I smile, it won’t look quite the same. Boys will begin balding, and eventually we should probably all stop wearing flip-flops and shorts.

That’s okay.

None of that mattered in the first place. And even though I slip into thinking it matters now, what matters is whether people commit to loving each other beyond years and beyond appearance.

The most beautiful elderly couples I’ve seen aren’t beautiful simply because they’ve stuck together for all these years. The best ones are the ones who still treat each other as if they are precious and beautiful. They were never thinking of their outsides when they fell in love with the beauty of something inward.

Till next time, Aglet.
Your Grandma, Jo.