Taking Heart

Your Achingly Beautiful Perseverance

I’m not sure about the exact numbers, but a good portion (maybe most) of the books I’ve read for leisure in the past few years have been memoir. So many things about the form captivate me. The intersection of storytelling and deep reflection, the invitation to walk the landscape of the memory through well-crafted vignettes, the masterfully-woven themes that slowly emerge. The best ones simultaneously awaken in me a sense of beauty and heartache, no matter how mundane the stories themselves may seem.

Every person carries stories that, if you knew them, would break your heart.

At an airport gate, a young man sits next to me and we make small talk. He tells me why he feels nervous about returning home, about who he’s leaving behind on the East Coast. Friends he’s made and a girl he likes. He begins to tear up. Sorry for dumping this all on you, he says, clearly surprised he said what he did. I tell him that I’m a pastor’s wife and that I’m used to it, people telling me these types of things, before letting him change the subject.

My healthcare provider tells me about what’s going on in her social circles as she works on my back— emergency room visits and disease and suicide. She says it seems like everyone she knows is going through something, and I murmur my agreement as I lie facedown on the table.

During a conversation with a friend, It feels like everyone we know in ministry is getting beaten up. Maybe that’s ministry though. Then a pause. Maybe that’s just life.

This does seem to be the plotline for many these days, hard thing after hard thing. Yet in the midst of it all, I’ve noticed another theme slowly and persistently begin to emerge in the lives of dear ones I know.

I hear it in the voice of fellow workers in ministry. They preach, and pray, shepherding flocks through the devastation of a global pandemic and the destructiveness of indwelling sin. They visit the unrepentant, pleading for them to turn to the grace of God. They are tired, but are not giving up hope that God loves his people.

I read it in the words of friends texting for prayer, chronically ill or caring for those who are, facing loss or mourning unfulfilled hopes. We are all praying for healing, for God to grant them the good desires that he withholds without explanation, but these friends also ask for grace to trust Jesus, courage to love others better. They continue to love the weak and hurting, even as they themselves cry out for relief. All I want for one friend is for her suffering to stop, but she is asking me to ask for more— for rest in God’s love and mercy, for joy in his faithfulness, for hope in his promises, and for endurance.

I sense it in the songs sung by the sinner-saints meeting weekly in our small, local church. Battered and broken, we declare the goodness of Jesus, believing God hears and receives us, that he sees and remembers.

I saw it on the other end of that flight with the tearful young man, where over the course of a few days, I caught up with those who knew me when I was fresh out of college. In even the shorter conversations, I got glimpses of what they’ve been rejoicing in and what new or old things continue to be difficult. Many are walking through loss, uncertainty, and trauma— yet still seeking Jesus, still committed to being in his church. And this time, I was the one crying in the airport on the way home, moved by how clearly I witnessed in them the faith described by Peter in the Scriptures. Though they have not seen God, though they don’t see him now, they love him still (1 Peter 1:8).

I am experiencing in real time the perseverance of the saints. And like the best of stories, it is both heartrending and achingly beautiful.

The Apostle Paul wrote that suffering produces endurance, and from that character, and then hope. I have been thinking lately about why he’d write hope there— not love or godliness. Or why not just end at “character”? Why make hope the culmination here of what God does in the midst of suffering? I am beginning to see now that God does not just make his people stronger or more righteous through trial. We all know that sometimes difficulties make us stronger, that suffering can produce character even without God in the picture. But for believers in the heat of affliction, something otherworldly emerges: a hope against all hope, a faith that perseveres.

I have never had trouble believing that God raises the dead, but that he keeps his own until the end— the longer I have been a Christian, the harder it’s been to trust. It sobers and humbles me now then, how God is using the trials of those around me to deal with my unbelief. Through the fire, I am seeing the precious genuineness of the faith of God’s children, and I stand silenced. The people of God have always been a persevering people, a people learning to hope against hope. And this hope is miraculous in its very nature.

Christian perseverance, Christian hope, is not a fake-it-til you make it, silver-lining way of dealing with suffering. Neither is it flashy, spiritual triumphalism nor self-reliant grit. It is salvation worked out with blood, sweat, and effort and worked within by the Holy Spirit. It is the tested faith of those who have found safety in the one who has been a refuge for all generations. Its beauty is like that of century-old forts, made of solid stone, enduring battle, the elements, and time. We have tested it and found it to be trustworthy, but it still takes faith to believe it will continue to stand in time to come.

This perseverance says that though I do not yet see God making all things right, he will do so one day. That though I do not feel like what he has ordained for me is good, he who gave his own Son for me will not withhold from me anything truly good. It says that though I am weak, and confused, and uncertain about many things, God remains steadfast in his love and unchanging in his ways. That though things all is not right, he still indeed is good. That what is seen may lead me to despair, but there are realities beyond what I can see that give me reason to hope. Not the least of which is the truth that Christ lived, died, and now lives.

I have felt this hope in the handshake of the strongest of believers. A widow at the end of a receiving line of her husband, a pastor’s, funeral. They’d lived through the cultural revolution. She’d worshipped in the dark with her children, curtains drawn. He’d survived harsh labor. She took my hand, looked me in the eyes, and spoke, her voice gentle and firm, Ganxie Zhu— an expression of praise. And I wondered if she was here ministering to us rather than the other way around.

I have also seen this tenacity in the saints who feel themselves to be the weakest. I think of how sometimes the smallest of plants can be surprisingly hard to uproot. I’ll tug at the tinier weeds in the garden, assuming they’ll come out with no issue, only to have the stems snap where they meet the soil and the roots remain intact. Here is the woman who, in the absence of tidy answers, remains sure of what she hopes for, certain of what she does not see (Hebrews 11:1). The weary servant of God who confesses that while he is pressed, he is not crushed, he is perplexed but not driven to despair (2 Corinthians 4:8-10). Both have tasted and seen that the Lord is good. God has been faithful to keep his promises, and they know there is more reason than not to continue to trust him now.

And I witness it in the lives of believers all around me now. In the absence of seeing, in suffering, their hope is being forged and proven, because, who hopes for what he already has? (Romans 8:24). Ours is a supernatural faith, and it’s only when it’s against all odds that we know, surely, it must be upheld by a supernatural strength.

We may not all have memoirs in the pipeline, but, oh, what stories we will have to listen to and tell in ages to come. Whether God’s strength working in us means we will one day find ourselves sprinting across the finish line, or whether we feel for sure we will be limping, inching, and clinging onto dear life up to it, we will declare him faithful who has kept us. Through stories of darkness, dangers, grief, and trial. Of faithful endurance, inexplicable peace, and hope that has not put us to shame. By God’s grace, I’ll have a few to share. Dear, persevering saint, you will too.

Taking Heart

The Threads We Catch

I don’t remember exactly what I was thinking about as I sat on the train from DC, just my bone-weariness and the weight of the stories of the suffering. Leaning back into the headrest, eyes closed, I prayed, or maybe just thought, “Is life on earth just sorrow after sorrow and only that?” The question still hanging in the air, I turned to look out the window just as we crossed the Susquehanna river. The sun was setting on the horizon, and the water caught and reflected back its radiance. The beauty was familiar yet breathtaking. What I saw with my eyes, I knew in my soul as God’s answer.

I’d asked if life on earth was filled with sorrow and sadness only. He spoke before I uttered an amen.

I have been meditating lately on the mystery of the good. That there is still such beauty and joy to be found in this world and in our lives, broken though they may be. For me, the consideration of why this evil? is linked experientially to why this good? It is the flip side of asking about God’s sovereignty in suffering, me recognizing that his ways pertaining to the good and beautiful are just as inscrutable to mortals as his ordaining the bad.

The question first arose as I’d held my newborn son on a hospital bed. Having just walked through a season of grief where I couldn’t perceive God’s reasons for my suffering, I realized I was equally unable to comprehend the scope of his purposes behind the good. I held my son to my chest, pressed my face into his fuzzy head, and wondered, why? Not, “why is there good in this world” in the abstract, but why this blessing? Why for us? For me?

“Because God is good and he gives good gifts,” was the answer Scripture held out for me then, and still does now. No specifics I could grasp, just sufficient reason in who he is and what he wills, leaving me to reverent wonder and grateful praise.

Sometimes, I think in trying to correct the false notion that God is only good when we get the things we want, we can shy away from seeing his goodness through his gifts. I may uphold the truth that God has loving purposes for suffering while failing to see his gracious heart and divine wisdom behind every blessing. It’s true that God is not good because he gives us good things. But the Scriptures teach he gives good gifts because he is a good Father (Mt. 7:11, Ja. 1:17). It may seem obvious, but it is something I need to deliberately meditate on.

I am prone to taking life with all its attendant blessings as a given— givenness not in terms of it being a gift, but as it being an impersonal default. Perhaps this is one reason why gratitude is so important for God’s people, why we are so often exhorted to give thanks. Because we are wont to live as deists, as if God programed the world and left it to run by itself, interrupting only intermittently in the form of the rare miracle or painful trial.

In reality, the only reason the universe does not completely unravel, ceasing to exist this very moment, is because God is upholding it by the word of his power (Heb. 1:3). The truth is the sun rises today on the good and evil because God calls it forth from its chamber as an intentional act of grace (Mt. 5:45). Not a sparrow falls to the ground without his knowledge, which is to say each one is completely within his scope of care (Mt. 10:29). All that happens today, bad and good, he has ordained freely and consciously in his perfect will.

Thus, gratitude for the good things he gives is more than about finding a way to emotionally balance out the hard ones. It is not an adult version of the lollipop after a shot at the doctor’s. To recognize God’s hand behind the good we receive from him is to remove our blinders and see the world as it truly is, filled with his mercy and grace in thousands upon thousands of specific ways. We are recipients of blessings we’d never have thought to ask for, of good gifts we could never have earned even if we’d worked our whole lives for them. Blessings are gifts to be traced back to our loving Father who grants them out of his creativity, faithfulness, and good pleasure. To thank him is to train our hearts to recognize his steadfast love and active involvement in our lives and in the world.

When my children were infants, I was hyperaware of the fragility of their lives, the way their tomorrows were not guaranteed to us. I’d lie down to sleep and, with my head on my pillow, look at them through their crib slats. They were swaddled and so small, and me drifting into unconsciousness meant I had to leave my vigilant-mom post. More than once, my last thought before sleep was the simple request that God allow them to see morning. Each day with them that followed such a prayer felt like a tangible answer from God. A gift, and if I were to probe further into the whys, a mystery.

Really though, today is no different for all of us. Every breath we draw is freely and gladly given by God who sustains our lives by his will and power. We receive our daily bread from his loving hands. And this is just life in its barest form. Even in a world that is groaning for redemption, he fills our days with the good and beautiful— with laughter and open skies, with timely encouragement and faithful words, with work to do and people to love and be loved by.

We put together a last minute escape room for our kids last month, a special birthday celebration for one of our girls. The Chang kids worked impressively as a team, retrieving hidden messages from between piano keys, in a narrow-necked bottle filled with colored water, inside a board game. Jeff and I did pretty well too, I thought, linking clues together for the passcode to a tablet containing messages from aunts and uncles which in turn led to a final “laser” protected clue. The kids loved it, and we loved watching them love it.

What if I walked through life as my kids in that escape room, I wonder, looking out for the intricate ways God has woven goodness and mercy in and through all my days? I have a hunch that I’d be less irritable in the day-to-day, more aware of God’s nearness, patient with those he’s called me to love. In awe of his attentiveness and goodness, might I grow in humility and contentment, abounding in thanksgiving as my prayers slowly conformed to the kinds of petitions described in the epistles (Col. 4:2, Phil. 4:6, Col. 2:7)? Might it even help me to feel more keenly his presence and kindness in the practical graces and consolations he gives in the midst of trials?

What if we were more attune to the ways the good, lovely, admirable, and praiseworthy things in our lives are evidence of his wise and perfect care for us?

Faith in Christ means we hold onto promises regarding the eternal, fixing our gaze on the unseen. But the Holy Spirit also lifts the veil that keeps us from truly seeing the things right before us. As Christians, we recognize the eternal and unseen behind, beneath, and upholding the temporal and earthbound. The good we are given is not meted out by some distant algorithm, but from a Person, in his divine purposes and steadfast love. We know that the Father who did not spare his own son for us is the One who graciously gives us all things (Rom. 8:32). Surely his ways are beyond tracing out. Still, the threads we catch of them here and there inevitably lead us back to him.

I watched the skies the rest of my train ride, grateful for the way God was loving me through rolling clouds and flashes of lightning in the gathering darkness. While I was pouring out my heart to him in the train car, the heavens had been pouring forth speech over me, and God in his kindness had me turn to catch a bit of their message at just the right time. They spoke beauty and glory. They declared that he is God and that there is still good in this world. Even now, they proclaim this. And to their praises, I add my Amen.

Taking Heart

My Boy’s Question, and Mine Too

Doubts are the messengers of the Living One to rouse the honest. They are the first knock at our door of things that are not yet, but have to be, understood. – George MacDonald

He held my hand as we walked through the church lobby. My brave boy had made his way up from the basement, across the church, and to the second floor to tell me about the tornado warning. We were making our way back to the basement when I heard sniffling. “Are you afraid?” He nodded, and I saw his tears. So I held him, and we prayed.

Why did God make tornadoes?, he’d asked me the week before that warning. His question is evidence of his growing understanding of the world and of the Christian claim. At four years old, he is making connections: God made everything. God loves and does what is good. The destruction and death caused by tornadoes are not good. Not knowing how to hold all of that at the same time, he wants to know why? He’s not the only one in our family asking.

For my son, it was tornadoes. For me as of late, it’s been the suffering of beloved, the sinful actions of professing believers, the evil done by man to others who bear the image of God. Why do you allow such things, God? Why do you ordain them? Why haven’t you answered? My why’s rode in on the tail of weariness and persistent discouragement, and an inexplicable sadness that descended on me like clockwork every night.

Why do I believe all this again?

It feels silly, maybe presumptuous as I write it now, but I think I honesty believed I was done with doubt. It isn’t that I’ve ever felt my faith to be particularly strong. Whether because of temperament or experience, I live with a keen awareness of its smallness. Often it feels as if I am just a razor’s edge away from falling into a chasm of unbelief. Sometimes, it’s only when I feel my heart steadied in the congregation— as we worship, recite the Apostle’s creed, take communion — that I realize how shaky it’s been. Even times I feel most certain of what I confess to be true, I know the surety to be a gift for today, not necessarily guaranteed for tomorrow.

In highschool, I grappled intellectually with what seemed to be contradictions between faith and science. In college, the exclusive claim of Jesus among other faiths and the veracity of the Bible. Guilt drove me to questions of my own salvation and an outright declaration to God that I didn’t believe he could love me. For a time doing campus ministry, I just felt a lingering uneasiness about my faith as I fielded questions from skeptics. In the aftermath of miscarriage and as a foster parent, I doubted God’s goodness.

In each instance, God mercifully met me, and in hindsight, doubt was a signal that my faith was being forced to mature in painful but vital ways. Still, I think I’d hoped I’d come out to the other side of it enough times to avoid reliving that rug-pulled-out-from-under-you sensation, the disorienting fog of uncertainty enveloping all that seemed clear just moments before. As I’ve brought my questions to God during this new round of doubt, I’ve seen the anger that drove it, and behind that anger, grief. In this, I’ve found a companion in Job.

I used to plow through the first 37 chapters of Job, the back-and-forth poetry between Job and his friends. I knew the gist of those opening arguments— Job suffered deeply and demanded a counsel with God, his friends blamed him for all that happened to him— and I thought that was all I needed to know before getting to the good part, when God finally shows up. This time, my stomach tensed as I saw Job’s friends grow increasingly angry at him, their charges crescendoing from well-meaning but mistaken to hostile. And when Job spoke, I nodded, underlined, cried, and soaked in his words.

There are many good, helpful answers addressing the problem of pain and evil, but it isn’t my intent to draw them out here, only to say that I felt the mercy of God in giving his people such an account as Job’s. I think of the way people turn on songs and put playlists about heartbreak on replay when they are hurting, and the way we are helped somehow by listening to recording artists expressing our pain with their music. Job gave words to my grief, anger, and perplexity.

At times, dealing with the dissonance of knowing God is in control in the face of evil and pain, it feels like the only two choices put before me are to either reject the Scriptures, or to resort to dealing with suffering as a theoretical construct, as if Job’s children didn’t die, as if his disease-ridden body wasn’t made of flesh and bones. Job disciples me in a different direction though, urging me to go to uncomfortable places beyond a simplistic, unfeeling theology or sinful unbelief.

The complicated reality of life as a believer in a fallen world is that deep despair and great faith can reside in the same person at the same time. Job curses the day he was born, but refuses to curse God. It’s his insistence on the goodness and justice of God that makes his suffering so difficult for him to understand. He holds God responsible for his suffering, yet won’t say God is or does evil. Job won’t stop believing and because of that, he won’t stop asking.

The climax of Job has God establishing his right to do as he chooses. Here, the line is drawn in the sand between doubt and rebellion, questions asked in good faith versus the demand that we be judge and God be accountable to us. Job, having hovered that line, repents for the way he’s crossed it. But it isn’t the theological argument itself that settles things for Job. The resolution is found in his encounter with the One he’d been calling to question. Job exclaims after being forced to reckon with God’s questions for him, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (Job 42:5.)

This is a great mercy and mystery— how often God’s people have found that on the other side of that “door of things that are not yet, but have to be, understood,” is God himself. So Job is interrogated in a whirwind, and Thomas is invited to touch Jesus’ wounds. The disciples wonder at this kind of man who rules the waves, and the man who prayed “I believe, help my unbelief!” witnesses the healing of his child. It is a pattern in Scripture, God in his kindness revealing himself to those who use what little faith they have to cry out to him. He meets doubters, so that those who had once heard of him, now see him. This is the testimony of my own life, so that doubt, though unsettling, is not quite as scary as it used to be.

Faith, no matter how small, is a gift from God. I know it to be true to my core, the way I have believed in times I thought I’d fall, the way it has been sustained with a supernatural strength not from myself. Sometimes, the questions we hurl in desperation to the sky signify our refusal to let go of the mustard seed of faith entrusted to us, even though we walk weary and broken in this world. Sometimes our whys come because we are holding onto this precious gift in a world where tornadoes exist. So we pray, whisper, and wail the whys as doubt knocks hard on the door. Because there is good reason to hope that God himself will meet us on the other side, and Jesus has promised seed-sized faith will be sufficient until then.

Taking Heart

Grief and Gratitude

And just like that the girls have come to the end of their school year. I know “just like that” is an understatement. But it’s honestly what it feels like. These long months have passed in a blink.

I am grateful. Proud of the ways my daughters have been more resilient than I understood they were being at the time. I think of that morning I saw my brave girl reading at her desk, sitting in the Zoom waiting room for so long I asked her what was going on. Her class hadn’t signed on when she thought they would. She’d been doing so well virtually, I didn’t think to ask until then if it was hard being apart from the rest of her class. She nodded. Then the tears came. Oh, my sweet, tough and tender-hearted girl.

It’s been a tough year, but my kids have flourished and grown, and are healthy and well. There is so much to thank God for.

I also feel a sense of loss for them, more than I’d expected. It started when it finally hit me they’d really come the end of the school year without learning in-person with the amazing teachers they’ve come to love. Jeff felt it too. When he brought them to the school on the last day for ice-cream, he watched our oldest running in the field with her friends. “She got to just be a kid,” he said.

Grief and gratitude. There have been good reasons for both this year. The world is so broken and God is so faithful. Neither truth negates the other, and today my heart is experiencing the interwovenness of both.

It was the same this Sunday, our first day back at church in person after half a year apart. Months ago, Jeff had come home to find me crying. I missed singing with our people so much, longed for the day the worship team wouldn’t be standing in front of an empty sanctuary. Still the joy of gathering again yesterday was mingled with sorrow as I realized how many hard things remain unchanged. Some dated to before the world shut down and some since. There were faces missing— one beloved now worships with the Lord; many other beloved are drifting from the faith.

There is space for both lament and thanksgiving in the Scriptures, and not in a compartmentalized way either, as if they are to be kept for separate places and times. We see it as we read the Old Testament, how at the rebuilding of the temple, some “wept with a loud voice” and others “shouted aloud for joy” so that “the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping” (Ezra 3:13). The legitimate grief of those who’d known the glory of the former temple was expressed alongside of the equally legitimate joy over the new one.

It’s interesting to me that it says both the weeping and joyful shouting were loud. Holding both grief and gratitude is not like mixing cold and hot to get a tepid middle temperature. They don’t balance or cancel each other out. The voices of both were distinct, yet not easily separated. It can often feel that way in life. In the midst of a global pandemic, even more so, I think.

Our lists are long with staggering losses and life-giving graces. There are thousands of reasons to weep. And just as many to give thanks.

So we lament loud. God, we’ve lost so much! There is so much yet to be mended and made whole! How long? Have mercy, come quickly, and make it right!

We praise loud. Lord, for all that has been and is being restored, for all the foretastes of kingdom come, for the grace seen and unseen, we cannot thank you enough!

We will cry and we will shout. We will rejoice and we will mourn. And it’ll be ok if we can’t tell apart the sound of one from the other.