Church & Ministry, Motherhood & Family, Taking Heart

The Invisible God Who Sees Me

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God is the remembered one. But this does not mean we are forgotten—not by him. Not by a long shot. In fact, being remembered by him means we no longer fear being forgotten by the world.
– Zack Eswine, Sensing Jesus

I always plan on– or at least think about– writing more, but then, you know, life. Not the fighting bad guys, moving mountains, here’s my trophy kind of life. More like, life that fills my days but often finds me wondering as I’m brushing my teeth at night why my body is giving out when I haven’t even left the house in two days.

As a new mom coming out of ministry, I struggled with days and weeks like these. But over the years, I have been learning to be grateful for them. And part of my discipleship from restlessness to grateful contentment has been through an example found in an unexpected place.

In a world where we’re constantly publishing where we’ve been and what we’re accomplishing, living life behind the scenes is getting increasingly difficult. If the older generations drove around Benzes as a sign of getting along well in life, millennials showcase experiences. And whether of food, vacations, family life, or social causes, the everyday feel of social media sharing makes it feel like everything– even the ordinary– ought to feel meaningful and immediately fulfilling.

We live Coram Deo, and so every part of our lives is significant. But as a generation, our definition of significance has been shaped in large part by our culture such that we have trained ourselves to be unprepared for when the mundane feels ordinary. Couple this with our need to see immediate results, and we grow restless when ordinary work requires waiting and faith. We are like children who plant a seed and rush to the garden the next day expecting to pick blue-ribbon pumpkins. Or, like my daughter, who the morning after finding out I was a few weeks pregnant with our son, wondered aloud why my tummy wasn’t big yet.

As Christians in life and ministry, we often mix the longing for public, quick, measured results with our understanding of the work of God. Whether at home as we raise our children, at church helping other Christians grow, or in the work of evangelism, we conflate our understanding of success with God’s purposes and plan. Surely if God was in my parenting, it wouldn’t feel so hard and I would feel more fulfilled. Surely if I were following God’s will, ministry would look more glorious, people would grow more quickly, and we’d have more good news to report to our supporters.

So we grow weary and we lose heart. We mistake our periods of waiting in ministry with our not being in God’s will. We continue to care for our families but without a sense of God’s commission behind our daily service of love, longing to move onto accomplishing greater things on a stage that isn’t set up to a domestic scene.

Cue the book of Ruth.

In our Bibles, this four-chaptered gem follows the book of Judges. Judges contains some of the most disturbing accounts in Scripture as the author details Israel’s moral decline through the years following their exodus and settlement in the Promised Land. Repeatedly in Judges, the people are described as doing what was “right in their own eyes” as the writer immerses us in a full-sensory experience of what it looks like when the people of God cease to live as though that’s what they are. Reading the book of Judges is like walking through a national crime scene.

One commentary describes Judges this way:

Readers encounter shocking accounts of violence, sexual abuse, idolatry, and misuse of power. Before the book is over, gruesome scenes of bodily mutilation and dismemberment are disclosed. While Judges portrays the worst with regard to bad behavior, such realism was included to reveal something important about life and human nature apart from God.

But then comes Ruth. Another writer describes the transition from Judges to Ruth like “turning from the field of a bloody battle to gaze at a quiet pastoral scene.” If you didn’t grow up on these stories, the change of scene is actually quite jarring.

From sky-high scenes of a national cycle of sin-judgement-repentance-deliverance-repeat, the writing pans out then zooms hard into the lives of two struggling women living in the time of the judges. In the grief of bereavement and widowhood we meet Ruth and Naomi. We find that even amid Israel’s rebellion, God is working to bring his own to himself. Ruth, a foreigner, has readied herself to leave her family and the gods of her land in courageous commitment to Yahweh– the God of her mother-in-law, her God now.  Demonstrating self-sacrificial love for Naomi and courageous allegiance to God, she leaves with her mother-in-law to live with the people of God. There she finds work in the field of a godly man, who in contrast to many described in Judges, has not chosen to do “what was right in his own eyes.” Boaz would welcome Ruth and Naomi with hospitality, leverage his resources for their good and safety (as called for by God’s law), and finally, act as Ruth’s kinsman-redeemer.

The whole story sounds radical and dramatic, and in many ways it is. But recently I have been struck lately by the hiddenness of it all. Turn back the reel and let’s consider: What did Ruth’s life look like to her as she lived it?

Ruth’s life looked like choosing to follow the God of Israel and a resolute decision to love a bitter mother-in-law. (Call me “Mara,” which means bitter, Naomi had said.) It looked like weathering through the difficulties of immigrating to a new land, looking for work to support herself and her mother-in-law. The story’s action rises at the kindness of a God-fearing stranger acting with integrity and kindness, but not with swooping heroic deeds which would be seen worthy of internet fame. Even the happy ending of a new marriage and a baby boy’s birth are still relatively hidden, ordinary scenes. It’s just the story of one family, it would seem, experiencing the faithfulness of God in their grief and his providence in difficult circumstances. The story of faithful, godly people choosing generosity and obedience to Yahweh.

The book of Ruth is in many ways a story of hiddenness, but it isn’t an ordinary story. “Boaz fathered Obed, Obed fathered Jesse, and Jesse fathered David,” and we feel the ellipsis at the end of Ruth . Through Ruth would come David– the king after God’s own heart that the nation of Israel needed desperately — and later, through David, the Great King and Redeemer, Jesus.

My attitudes about the hiddenness of much of the life I’m called to live in as a wife, mom, church member, Christian, person, etc. pivoted around the following commentary:

The secret providences of God guided the personal tragedy of the loss of Ruth’s husband and father-in-law, personal choices to leave her country and commit to the God of Israel, and seemingly random events in the harvest fields of Boaz. These led directly to King David and the King of Kings. God works in mysterious ways. Ruth “is the only instance in which a book is devoted to the domestic history of a woman, and that woman a stranger in Israel. But that woman was the Mary of the Old Testament.”

The fulcrum that my heart turned on was this: that God would care about and use all the bitter and sweet providences in the domestic lives of two ordinary women. And that he would use their hidden obedience to accomplish eternal purposes way beyond their scope.

Ruth is the only instance in which a book is devoted to the domestic history of a woman.” The impact of these words on me has rested on the idea of domestic life as a sort of antithesis to public, glorious work that produces immediate results. It is hidden, it seems small and insignificant to those who are looking to be world shakers and history makers. But that God sees the parts of our labor hidden to others, that he is working with a view of time and place beyond us, that his loving providence is behind every grief and joy in these hidden places. This knowledge brings consolation and courage to me and to all who would seek to obey him in ways hidden to the rest of the world.

In our day-to-day living, God speaks truth to our restless hearts yearning to be acknowledged for what we do: What we need most is not for other people to see us, but the knowledge that he sees. What we need most is not to see immediate fruit, but trust in the purposes and timing of the One who makes things grow. The tearful intercessions offered in the closet, the service in his church, the burden borne for one another in love, the work in our homes, the hospitality extended to strangers. He sees. He is working. Our lives, offered to him, are never overlooked, never forgotten, never wasted.

At the end of the book of Ruth, we are left marveling. Against the backdrop of national tragedy and amidst personal sorrows, God has worked in the domestic lives of two ordinary women to redeem them, their people, and ultimately, the world. We are led to wonder at the wisdom of his hidden purposes, the kindness of his redemption, and the graciousness of his sovereignty.  Through Ruth, we have been given a glimpse of the workings of an invisible God who is fulfilling his unseen purposes through hidden people and places.

This is our King and Redeemer. He is invisible, yet sovereign. His ways are mysterious, yet always wise and always good. And though the lives we live unto him may be hidden from others, they are always significant because he has us in his sight.

Taking Heart

Mourning

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Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 

“Do bad people live on this continent?” my sweet girl asked as she lay in bed. “Yes, bad people live everywhere.” What about here, she wanted to know, in our neighborhood? She was afraid. Was the door locked? What if someone bad tried to come in? She wanted me to give her my word, tell her no one could ever come in and take her away.

“You know, God will always be with you, no matter what happens… Do you want to pray to him that no one will come take you away?” She did, so we prayed, and her little heart was comforted. And my heart started breaking in a new way that night– in the knowledge that though my girl would have believed whatever I said (and though we live in a safe neighborhood) I could not give her the absolute promise of safety she wanted because we live in a fallen world.

The painful reality of living in a broken world punctuates our lives in thousands of ways. Sometimes they are pinpricks to the heart, like realizing how we live in a legitimately scary world as we talk with our fearful child. At other times, this reality is a heavy shadow cast over our days and weeks, with fresh images from the devastation of war or natural disaster. Still other times, our pain is personal, so close and so deep it threatens to crush us completely.

I have wondered at times what it was like for Jesus to walk on this earth. How could he have lived here without being completely overtaken by sadness every moment of every day? He knew the world untouched by sin. He knew the beautiful intention of the Father in creation. And then he lived, breathed, and suffered in the devastation wrought by our rebellion. A witness to broken bodies, hardened hearts, warring nations, hateful unbelief, how could he have been joyful, which he must have been as one filled with the Spirit?

While he walked our soil, Christ declared one feature of Christian blessedness this way: blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessedness, mourning, comfort, all three come together in our Savior, a man filled with the Spirit and yet familiar with sorrows. Jesus knew the resurrection that laid ahead and pressed on for the joy set before him. Still, he wept over death and destruction. Though not as one without hope.

Scripture speaks to us in our darkness and gives us many reasons we can grieve with hope. He has purposes we have yet to see and we trust him. In comparison to the glory ahead, our troubles are light and momentary. Still, we grieve. And far from carrying platitudes and quick fixes, we enter into dark places with Christ and weep. We who know how things were supposed to be have the most reason to grieve over and in the world we live in. We know that unlike what others may say, this isn’t how things always have been. We know from the depths of our souls this is not how it was meant to be.

And in these places, dear ones, he is near to us. He is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. In the fire of our mourning, he is forging hope that because of his suffering, there is comfort awaiting us– a new day when our hearts will be healed and the world is restored.

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more,
neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore,
for the former things have passed away.

We live in this strange in-between as believers in this age. In between Jesus’ two comings, he has resurrected, but we still have not. So we wait for the day he comes and everything sad is going to come untrue. And as we wait, we cling onto the truth that our Savior who is lifted on high is also a man familiar with sorrows, near to us even as we cry for him to come and make things all things right again.

Maranatha, come O Jesus.

Taking Heart, Truth & Orthodoxy

To Keep Me From Becoming Conceited: A Thought Experiment

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“Only by surrender to our proper human place can we glorify and enjoy God the way we say we want to and the way he requires.” – Sensing Jesus, Zack Eswine

I was dreaming recently about what it would be like not to be beset with my particular set of social, physical, and emotional weaknesses. If I weren’t so prone to anxiety… If social situations didn’t make my stomach hurt… If my body were stronger and I had a bigger capacity… And it all seemed so ideal.

I didn’t realize though, that I was neglecting a key variable in this thought experiment. That is, until a wise friend said a few days later, “Maybe if you were able to do all you wanted to, you would come to the end of your life and say, ‘Look at how productive my life was.’ But because you can’t, now you’ll say, ‘Look at what God did.’”

Truth.

God has countless, hidden purposes in our weaknesses, and I would never claim that guarding us against pride is the only, or even main, reason why he assigns us our trials. But in the Scriptures and in my life, it is one of them.

The Apostle Paul had a thorn, a trial, that he pleaded three times for God to remove. But God said no, saying to Paul instead these well known words, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). At times I have seen my weaknesses used this way, as the lightning rod for God to display his greatness and power. But lately, I have been camping out a few verses back to where Paul writes of his thorn and says, it was “to keep me from becoming conceited” (2 Cor. 12:7).

In the calculations I was making which resulted in a picture of my ideal self, I had not accounted for one weakness that isn’t merely human frailty, but an insidious, deadly, and corrupting sin in me— pride. With my friend’s words of truth factored in, I’ve been thinking again of what it would be like if God removed all the weaknesses I wanted him to. But this time I shudder.

You see, if it were up to me, I’d be super human.

I’d be fearless, confident, and competent. A force to be reckoned with, I’d be, for all intents and purposes, limitless in strength, wisdom, and capacity.

I wouldn’t need to eat or sleep or sit down or go to the bathroom because I’d be doing more “productive” things. (“Are you an ascetic?” my sister has asked, and with good reason.)

I wouldn’t be needy, and would ever be in the position of giver rather than in need of others.

And, come to think of it, I guess wouldn’t need God.

I am not unlike our first mother who listened to the voice of the serpent. You will be like God! — not in the sense of being his representative, but his replacement. Like the builders of Babel crying, “Let us make a name for ourselves!” my heart in it’s twisted depravity yearns to say, “Look at all I’ve accomplished (for God)!”

But this is not the way of our Lord. God does not take delight in the strength of men (Ps. 147:10). He is never the beneficent of our works, never in need of our productivity. He alone never slumbers nor sleeps (Ps. 121). He alone is always at work (Jn. 5:17). God destroys the wisdom of the wise and discernment of the discerning. He makes foolish the wise and does not choose the strong. And he does this so no human being might boast in his presence (1 Cor. 1).

Just as Paul’s thorn was given to him by God’s grace for the sake of his own soul, sometimes God guards us from ourselves through our weaknesses. The very weaknesses we pray for God to remove may be God’s grace to us, for the sake of sparing our souls. God only knows who we would be not only apart from his saving grace, but for gracious trials from his Fatherly hand.

I know partially the danger I would be to myself and those around me if I were unencumbered by weaknesses. It is scary how much harsher I would be to others and how much credit I yearn to take. Through my weaknesses, God is in some ways keeping me from being tempted beyond what I can bear.

Even more importantly, God knows I would be blind to his grace, power, and lovingkindness if not for his work of bringing and keeping me low. Our Lord delights to show himself glorious as our powerful, kind, and gracious Giver and Sustainer. His righteousness is on display as he lifts up the powerless and defends the weak.

God wonderfully takes our work, bound in time and fraught with weakness, and accomplishes his eternal purposes through them. And when we come to him in humility, in recognition of the reality of our dependence, how kindly he supplies our needs and reveals his grace. All these things he does to the praise of his glory, giving us the most precious gift of all, true knowledge of him in a loving relationship.

As God is shedding the light of grace upon my weaknesses and limits, I am coming to a very different conclusion today in myIf I were/weren’t…  thought experiment. Could God be doing the same for you? Maybe he is, in unexpected ways, answering our prayers to spend and end our days proclaiming truly, Look at all God has done– through, in, and for us, to the praise of his glorious grace.

Motherhood & Family, Taking Heart

You Don’t Become Superwoman Overnight

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My daughters are not good eaters but I can’t complain, because apparently I’ve never been a good eater either. My dad tells a story of when I was an infant, and how my mom called him at work in frustration after I threw up all the food she’d painstakingly fed me over the course of an hour. I like this story because it gives me a plausible genetic-predisposition excuse for how my girls eat, but more so because it gives me a glimpse of my mom as a first-time momma.

If you knew my mom, you would probably agree with the man who stopped me a few weeks ago at church to tell me, “your mom is a superwoman.” Her capacity for working to serve others and enduring difficulty is super-human. That’s why it’s strange for me to imagine her calling my dad at work about a feeding session, and that’s why I enjoy the Faith-was-a-terrible-eater story so much. It reminds me my mom didn’t become superwoman overnight.

Some of you may be in the thick of learning how to keep a home, be a wife, or survive as a mom. You may be looking at the superwomen in your lives— your own mom, a godly older woman, or a friend with more children— and hang your head in shame for being so weak and struggling so much. I know how it is. Today, I want to encourage you to remember, these superwomen didn’t get there overnight and they didn’t get there on their own.

As a mom with three littles, my daily agenda most days is still usually “make it through the day.” So the just-married and first-time mom stages aren’t so far behind me that I don’t remember how hard they were.

I remember, as a newlywed, being surprised at how much time was spent on food. Pre-marital counseling prepared me for a lot, but I did not expect meal planning, shopping, prepping, cooking, and cleaning to be so taxing. Three meals a day, seven days a week– and repeat again with no end in sight!

I remember the terrible morning sickness of my first pregnancy. I remember being sad because I wanted to have more kids but didn’t think I’d ever be able to make it through pregnancy again.

I remember the never-ending day that was in actuality the first few weeks after the birth of our eldest. The theme of my days were “I need Thee every hour!” because truly, I didn’t think I could make it through the next sixty minutes.

And I remember the struggle of figuring out the dynamics and choices involved with having children and being a ministry family. 

A few months ago though, Jeff and I joked about going on vacation with the baby when my parents took the girls away for a few days, and I wondered at the fact that five years ago, we’d never have thought “Wow, we just have one kid at home— how relaxing!” We are still young parents and far from being out of the woods, but even in the last six years I’ve noticed one important theme as a homemaker and parent— God grows our capacity over time. 

Some may see the repeating tasks of homemaking and child-rearing and wonder if it’s monotonous and mind-numbing doing the same thing day after day. Yes, there is an aspect of repetition and it is important to maintain perspective in the mundane everyday tasks that make up our days. (I’ve written about it here and here.) But I’ve also found great satisfaction learning that though the tasks of keeping a home and caring for children do repeat, over time, we get better at them. In other words, in doing our daily tasks of service over and over, we become more effective and efficient in doing them and grow in our capacity to do more good to love others.

Over time, in the kitchen, our hands move a little less clumsily at the cutting board and we get better at throwing together a meal for last minute guests. At the changing table, we become able to wrestle down the squirming poop-er deftly enough to continue our conversation with the two older kids about speaking kindly to one another. In matters of the heart, we learn to engage our children better, and discern more quickly whether they need a hug, a swat, a nap, or all three (not all at once of course). All of this doesn’t happen because some people are born with super-capacities– it comes because of all the time spent each day in the kitchen, at the changing table, engaging the heart.

To use gym language, God is the perfect trainer and the daily tasks involved in housework and caring for children are our reps. Our Trainer knows exactly how to push us a bit (a lot) past what we feel is possible or pleasant, because not only is he enabling us to serve others now, he is preparing us for the good works he’s planned ahead. God increases our capacity not so that we can gain mastery and control, but because as we do our tasks in love for those around us, he has other tasks and training lying ahead.

Day by day, God is training us in the work he’s called us to not only physically but spiritually. In putting us in positions of weakness, he gives us a chance to recognize our need for his strength and grace in our work. He gives us a chance to see his grace at work in the day-to-day and his wisdom in ordering our days and seasons as homemakers and parents. I think one reason he does this is so that we can testify to his sustaining presence and comfort to give courage to others, even after we have moved to the next struggle.

So, for the newlywed fumbling around in the kitchen or the first-time mom wondering how you’ll get through the next day, know that there is grace for you today. Grace from God to sustain you, and grace in how he is teaching you skills and lessons you will be able to employ in the future for the sake of serving others. It may be hard, and in a sense it’s supposed to be, but trust your wise trainer and gracious sustainer. The same One who has given daily grace to those you look up to is the One who is training you today.

And to the one who looks like superwoman to another, would you consider testifying to her that you didn’t get to where you are overnight? Is there a way you can speak grace and truth into a younger person’s life, apart from the “just you wait and see how it gets worse!” the world seems to offer? Would you remember how God showed you grace in the past, as he continues to do today?

“By the grace of God, I am what I am and his grace toward me was not in vain.” (1 Cor. 15:10).

“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph. 2:10)

Taking Heart, Truth & Orthodoxy

Looking Unto Jesus

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If you’ve studied physics (or ever played QBasic Gorillas), you know it only takes a slight difference in launch angle to completely change the trajectory of a moving object. Likewise, in the Christian life, there are many seemingly subtle nuances which actually have massive impact on our worship of God and lives with him.

I enjoyed this devotional from Charles Spurgeon on “Looking Unto Jesus” and am struck by the fact that though there is a world of difference between looking to Jesus and looking to ourselves, sometimes the initial shift feels so slight we don’t realize we’ve turned our gaze inward.

Sometimes, it isn’t until we find ourselves despairing, doubtful and discouraged that we trace back our struggles to trying to find hope in ourselves and our own faith or spirituality. And sometimes, we need to hear someone articulate for us the difference between hoping in Christ and hoping in self to make that connection.

So, here’s an excerpt from the prince of preachers today:

“Looking unto Jesus.” (Heb. 12:2)

It is ever the Holy Spirit’s work to turn our eyes away from self to Jesus; but Satan’s work is just the opposite of this, for he is constantly trying to make us regard ourselves instead of Christ. He insinuates, “Your sins are too great for pardon; you have no faith; you do not repent enough; you will never be able to continue to the end; you have not the joy of his children; you have such a wavering hold of Jesus.” All these are thoughts about self, and we shall never find comfort or assurance by looking within. But the Holy Spirit turns our eyes entirely away from self: he tells us that we are nothing, but that “Christ is all in all.” Remember, therefore, it is not thy hold of Christ that saves thee–it is Christ; it is not thy joy in Christ that saves thee–it is Christ; it is not even faith in Christ, though that be the instrument–it is Christ’s blood and merits; therefore, look not so much to thy hand with which thou art grasping Christ, as to Christ; look not to thy hope, but to Jesus, the source of thy hope; look not to thy faith, but to Jesus, the author and finisher of thy faith. We shall never find happiness by looking at our prayers, our doings, or our feelings; it is what Jesus is, not what we are, that gives rest to the soul. If we would at once overcome Satan and have peace with God, it must be by “looking unto Jesus.” Keep thine eye simply on him; let his death, his sufferings, his merits, his glories, his intercession, be fresh upon thy mind; when thou wakest in the morning look to him; when thou liest down at night look to him. Oh! let not thy hopes or fears come between thee and Jesus; follow hard after him, and he will never fail thee.

“My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness:
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.”

( June 28, Morning by Morning. Tip: Access Charles Spurgeon’s Morning & Evening daily devotional at Biblegateway.)

Yes!

The Christian’s hope is not how much faith he has. It is in Jesus who trustworthy.

It is not in the progress in sanctification she’s making or how she is doing spiritually compared to others. It is in Jesus who sanctifies.

It is not in yesterday’s experiences or our own “decisions for Christ.”  It is in Jesus’ finished work on the cross and his ministry of intercession for us today.

It is not in our promises to “do better next time.” It is in he who finishes the work he began in us.

It is not in our penitence and sorrow over sin, but he who receives and purifies repentant sinners.

It is not in our fruitfulness as branches. It is in the life-sustaining vine.

It is not in our faithfulness as sheep, but the Shepherd’s steadfast care.

Dear Christian, look to Jesus today.

And take heart. Because in the final count, what matters most won’t be how well you did looking to him, but that his gaze was ever upon you.