Taking Heart

Come And Look! (Worth More Than These)

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Oh! I heard surprised delight in his voice. Quick girls, come look! Jeff called, urgent yet tender. We left what we were doing, scrambled into the kitchen, and followed his gaze through the slatted blinds. I picked up our three-year old so he could see the feathered, fuzzy head of a baby sparrow perched on our windowsill.

It sat there unaware of our family huddled over the sink on the other side of the glass. It must’ve fallen out of its nest, Jeff thought aloud. But when I raised the blinds, it flitted, first to a nearby tree where an adult sparrow sat, then away and beyond our view. It was off to bear witness elsewhere.

~~~

Jesus once taught about sparrows. Not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father, Matthew records him saying. Not one of them is forgotten before God, wrote Luke.

It’s interesting because he could’ve phrased it as a universal blanket statement that would be just as true. “Every sparrow is remembered” or “all sparrows fall only within his knowledge.” Instead, he spoke in the negative. I think it was to make sure we know that with God’s care for those who run to him, there are no exceptions.

It’s as if Jesus knew there are those of us who would read, “God loves the world” and think, of course God’s love is for all people— just not me. Like he knew there would be moments we feel, of course God’s care never ceases in theory — it just kind of has right now. So Jesus says: No, not one sparrow is forgotten by your Heavenly Father. No, not one sparrow falls apart from him, and the good news is that you are of more value than many sparrows.

I don’t know if things have felt noisy to you lately, but they have for me. My thoughts fly disordered between how a grieving friend is doing to the theological problem of suffering to NY Times headlines to what prominent Christians are writing to whether or not my faith will endure.

I love theology and my mind constantly turns over truths, analyzing, weighing, and applying them. But I’m coming to recognize that sometimes we can only hold one or two thoughts in view at once. This is one of those times for me. So I’ve been asking God to cut through the noise and simply remind me of his love for me. And as I pray for the sick, grieving, serving, and isolated, I’ve been asking God to let loved ones know they are loved by him, because truly they are.

JI packer wrote in Knowing God,

“What matters supremely, therefore, is not, in the last analysis, the fact that I know God, but the larger fact which underlies it—the fact that he knows me. I am graven on the palms of his hands [Isa. 49:16]. I am never out of his mind. All my knowledge of him depends on his sustained initiative in knowing me. I know him because he first knew me, and continues to know me. He knows me as a friend, one who loves me; and there is no moment when his eye is off me, or his attention distracted from me, and no moment, therefore, when his care falters.”

Even as we struggle and grapple to make sense of our competing thoughts, growing and needing to grow in our knowledge of him, what matters most is that he knows us. He knows us and loves us. His care shown in creation, his gift of breath and life, his burden-bearing on the cross. These all testify to God’s unwavering love for us and those we love.

Even the birds beckon, Come and look.

The older saint you love in the nursing home— not forgotten by him.

The prodigal living under your roof— not out of his reach.

Your grieving friend and exhausted health care co-worker— never out of his mind.

Your sick family member— there is not a moment when his care falters.

And you— worth far more than many sparrows.

Taking Heart, Truth & Orthodoxy

Not But, So

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A few months ago, God said no. I’d been praying he would stop something from happening, something that would harm people I care deeply about but was powerless to control. But what I feared might happen did happen, and it sent me into a funk.

This isn’t my first encounter with unanswered prayer, but this one hit hard. Perhaps because I was weary. Perhaps it was because it seemed like all God had to do was one simple thing and all would be well. Now because he didn’t, people would suffer for it. So, echoing Jesus’ storm-tossed disciples, I leveled my own charge against God, hurling it as a question.

Don’t you care?

Then, I didn’t rage, I withdrew. My anger came out in the prayers I didn’t pray. God will do what he will do, for his glory, I know. Why bother if he won’t answer?

I’ve been fighting for faith and losing.

~~~

Hard questions aren’t new to people of faith. It is appropriate for those who believe in a God who is both loving and powerful to wrestle with questions about the presence of suffering in his world. Scripture is full of such questioners: psalmists, prophets, Job, to name a few. Martha, the sister of Lazarus too.

Jeff spoke today on the raising of Lazarus, and of Jesus’ lingering when his friends called for him to heal the dying man. Jesus arrives, too late and without apology, and the grieving sister’s words spoken at Jesus’ feet resound with me.

“Lord if you had been here my brother wouldn’t have died.”

Her words are an indictment. Jesus, you could’ve done something. You say you loved him, but you didn’t answer.

The writer of the gospel seems to anticipate this apparent contradiction between Jesus’ love and his purposeful delay. He gives us insight on Jesus’ intentions up front: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”

Jesus didn’t linger because he didn’t care. He loved them, so he stayed, and his friend died.

Not but, so.

As hard as it was, Jesus’ love would lead Martha to deep loss. His love meant he’d mourn by her side. His love also meant in due time he’d deliver her out of her pain into joy. Soon he’d be the one to die and rise again, all for this love.

This difficult word is written for we who wonder if the unanswered prayers to spare us from suffering are a sign of God’s indifference. “So” tells us that our trials aren’t due to God’s anger or his cooly calculated plans for his glory. All things in his plan, even our suffering, comes from perfect love.

Jesus’ love for us led him to his own crucifixion. And his love now leads us to and through our own crosses. “Remember this,” Charles Spurgeon once wrote, “had any other condition been better for you than the one in which you are, divine love would have put you there.” We may not understand his ways, but we can be assured of his heart.

The word of God has much to say about suffering, and in the end there is no simple answer. There certainly is no answer that doesn’t require faith.

I still don’t understand what God is doing. I still don’t know how this story will unfold. But I needed the assurance of Jesus’ love-driven “so” today. This way, whatever happens and however difficult it may be, I’ll know this: It won’t be because he doesn’t care, it’ll be because he does.

Taking Heart

The Shadow

IMG_8834.jpgOur current reality looks like that of countless other families. Remote schooling, staying in, praying for loved ones working the hospital wards, praying for those we know with sick family members. We are trying to be vigilant, adjusting to this “pause”, missing our church and friends.

There are moments of joy at home, and these are gifts. Reminders of God’s continued goodness to us even now. There’s news of heroism in the hospitals, stories of courage and selflessness. But over it all is a palpable heaviness. I am bracing, with millions of others, for worse to come. For many the worst they feared already has arrived.

We all feel the shadow of death upon us.

Ever since the rebellion of our first mother and father, death has loomed large over humanity, and we have lived in its shadow. For those of us who are anxious, its reality has always been on the forefront of our consciousness. Even while walking through green pastures and by quiet waters, the mountain Death has been in our periphery, our worst fears lurking in its darkness. We’ve always been aware we are inching our way toward it, towards death— our own or that of our loved ones.

For others, the reality of death only hits home occasionally, when our own health falters or someone we know passes away. In this season though, waking and sleeping to news of COVID-19 ravaging the world, our country, our cities, we can no longer push aside the reality of our fragility and mortality. We fear for our parents, our children, our friends, ourselves.

The truth is, tomorrow has never been promised to us. We’ve always been surrounded by dangers on every side, and from our first newborn cry been headed towards our final breath.

We’ve been walking through the valley of the shadow of death all along.

But as King David declared when he sang of walking through the same way, our Shepherd has faithfully kept watch over us. Even when we’ve foolishly thought ourselves alive and safe by our own doing, he has protected us. While we’ve been unaware, he has led us, gifting us each day out of his good pleasure.

And he has done more than just helped us navigate the darkness. To those of us living in the land of darkness and the shadow of death, Christ’s came to rescue (Mt. 4:16). His coming was as the dawning of the sun, and though death still destroys, it is no longer the final victor.

So yes, we’ve been walking through the valley of the shadow of death all along, but the good news is that there’s another mountain, and the one who conquered on Calvary now casts his light upon us. Therefore, we number our days, knowing they are as fleeting as breath, but do so with great hope. And my prayer is that we, that I, would not waste this time of uncertainty and fear by not turning to the Shepherd of our souls.

Believers, the fact that we still have life and breath means God has a purpose for us, an urgent and holy calling to love others and to glorify him. There is work left to do, and he bears us up and will walk with us even in the dark days ahead.

Beloved prodigals on the run, perhaps without the distraction of busyness and leisure, you are being forced to reckon with life’s bigger questions. You have been granted today because he is patient and merciful. Our Father waits to be gracious to you, and we long to celebrate your return. Why do you delay? Would you trust the one who made and loved you unto death? Turn to him in faith and see how he will walk you to the end of your days and beyond.

Anxious friends, who’ve long felt the shadow upon you and feel like you can barely see now. Look to the one who is the Light. Know that through our struggle to trust Jesus daily, he has been training us for such a time as this. Let us fight to be anchored in the truths that have steadied us through the years and faithfully proclaim them now. He still promises peace beyond understanding. He still cares for us as we bring our fears to him. He still is Conqueror. He still is our good and wise King.

And Good Shepherd, in this present darkness we cry out to you for mercy. You who laid your life down for your sheep will not abandon us now. For your name’s sake, lead us through this valley until we reach the city with no sun or moon, where your glory gives its light and its lamp is the Lamb (Rev. 21:23).

Taking Heart

The Happiest Of Days

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It was good to be out for a few hours today. It was good for the kids to be under the clear sky discovering the ocean (the baby), making castles (the big girls), and throwing sticks at the waves (the boy). It was good for me to breathe deep, feel deep, and sense the darkness give way a bit.

I cried over my baby girl yesterday as I put her to sleep. Her folded hands rested tenderly on my neck and as her breathing deepened I thought of how quickly a year has come and then gone. I cried because I haven’t taken every moment in, because I’ve been restless to do other things and missed out. I cried because as sweet as these moments are, there’s a sense that they decay a bit, like old reels of film, as time passes. They’re never the same when we relive them in our minds, and that made me sad.

I heard a writer say once that all true stories are sad stories, even the happy ones, because they’re over. These good days will pass, was my sentiment, and I mourned for what I haven’t even lost yet. I probably also cried because my heart has been heavy, and fleeting moments of joy seemed too weak to withstand the hard things.

But today though, out in the open air, I enjoyed the sweetness of memory-making without the sting of decay. I was reminded that the feel of my toddler’s hand in mine, the goodness of looking at my boy’s sand-covered toes, the castle moat filled with carefully collected rocks— they are realer and truer and more lasting than I know.

Because though there are hard and horrible realities in this world, they will not last forever. And when Jesus returns, it isn’t our moments of happiness that will feel fleeting. The Bible says it’s our present trials that will seem light and momentary on that day.

In contrast, the goodness of God in his creation, our deep enjoyment of one another as image bearers, moments of comfort, rest, and his Presence— these are not as fleeting as I may feel. They are meaningful foretastes of the world that will be, a world without shadows, a world without decay, promised to all who trust in Christ.

God sends us the stuff of the world— things we can feel and taste and see— to remind us that as surely as his goodness still fills the earth, the World we await is realer than real and surer than sure. The Christian hope is not to just escape this world, it is the restoration of all things when Jesus returns; a new Heavens and a new Earth is coming, so real that this life in comparison would have felt like a dream. And God fortifies our hope for this reality as we look at the things of this world with eyes of faith.

I’d like to think that in ages to come, these passing moments with my baby and today’s time outside on the beach will not diminish but grow in significance. That as we all look back, we will find the moments we grieve losing were not actually lost to us. Perhaps we will see them with more clarity, not less, as we understand them as lovingly crafted by God so we would not lose heart while awaiting the happiest of days. Maybe then we will know our sweet moments as they truly were, clearly and in living color, even better than we’d known at first.

Writing

The Prayers I Need For This Mess

(On Instagram)

Sometimes the mess is sign of a growing, inquisitive, cruising baby. Sometimes it’s a reminder that, indeed, real people live in this house. Sometimes it’s a mark of generous hospitality— open doors and shared meals. This is where, I believe, people snap a photo and post it under #blessthismess.

But sometimes the mess isn’t material fit for social media. Sometimes the mess is in our hearts and in the hearts of our children. Sometimes it’s the mess of our trials, caused by sin (ours and others’), and evidenced by our troubled souls. We are disordered on the inside. And we need much more than God to “bless this mess”, as if we were sheepishly asking him to sprinkle some goodness on top of a sinkload of dirty dishes.

Most days, I need a better hope and greater grace. I need different prayers.

Like: God, by your power give me faith to trust you as I walk through this mess. You are too wise to err and too good to be unkind. I believe it, help my unbelief.

And God, forgive me for my part in creating this mess. Form in me a clean heart and renew in me a desire for you and your ways.

God, in your wisdom use this mess to make me more like Christ. Help me receive trials as discipline. You are working in me a harvest of righteousness and peace to come.

God, in your kindness give me grace as I deal with this mess, the fallout of sin. Your power is made perfect in weakness, and though I am weak, you are strong.

God, in your sovereignty redeem this mess. You are working all things, even this, for good— whether for me or for the sake of others— and though I can’t see what you’re doing now, turn this around for your glory.

God, this is the blessing we seek in spite of, through, with this mess.

Strengthened faith.
Clean hearts.
Holiness.
Grace.
Redemption.

Kyrie Eleison, Lord have mercy
For your glory
In Christ’s name
Amen.