Taking Heart, Truth & Orthodoxy

Today We Wait

I never thought much about that Saturday, not until I read this page to my daughter. Years later, the phrase, imagined by the author of how the disciples felt that day, would rise to the forefront of my mind as I walked through my own loss:

We will be sad forever.

Today, the Church calendar leads us into remembrance. In between yesterday’s and tomorrow’s services, we embody in real time the hours between the first Good Friday and Easter. He was crucified, died, and was buried, our church recites weekly. That Jesus, God incarnate, died and stayed dead in a borrowed tomb is central to the Christian confession.

On this side of the resurrection, our minds often jump from cross to victory, but the gospel accounts don’t do that. All four writers walk us through Jesus’ burial, and as I read the accounts, I am surprised by how physical, how tangible the descriptions are. Those of us who have seen death up close recognize the details as common— decisions about what to do with Jesus’ body, how and when it would be prepared, where he would be laid to rest. These are the logistics of death. They are mundane. They are utterly and unspeakably awful.

I think of that first Holy Saturday, of the ones who loved Jesus now bereaved and bewildered, reckoning with the fact that they were waking up and Jesus was still dead. How crushing it must have been to lose not only Master and Friend, but their hope. Did they question what all their years with the rabbi had meant, what their proclamations of him being the Son of God amounted to, now that he was gone? “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” one follower would say the next day, not knowing he was speaking to the risen Savior himself (Lk. 24:21).

They did not know that as they wept, he lay lifeless for their redemption. They could not understanding what was to come.

I see Holy Saturday as the stark contrast between warranted despair and grounded hope. If the disciples had not walked through those horrible days— if Jesus had not really died, and I mean “really” in its being in congruence with the tangible, material, gruesome reality of death in this world — we would remain under the full and just wrath of God (Rom. 5:9-10). And if, lying in the tomb, his heart did not begin to pump and his lungs never drew breath again, if his body did not grow warm and he did not stand to leave his grave clothes behind, truly it would be right to be sad forever. Our faith would be futile, we would be dead in our sins, found to be liars, and of all people most to be pitied (1 Cor. 15:12-19).

As I get older, I find this Saturday increasingly meaningful. Above all, I am reminded that the events we remember this weekend are the basis of any hope we have as believers. As the years go by and life feels more complicated, I am more certain that the simple truth of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ are worth staking my whole life on. I am increasingly convinced that I have nothing to boast in except the cross of Jesus Christ, and that he who loved me and gave himself for me is worth following. We walk this way between his resurrection and his return, not by sight, but by faith in what God has done and what he has promised he will do.

And as I await my own resurrection, my losses accumulating until then, Holy Saturday is a tangible reminder in the waiting that there is unspeakable joy to come. That God is good and wise even in the most painful trials, and that at the dawning of the new Day, there will be glory beyond imagination for those who put their trust in him.

Easter is coming, but for now we wait.

And beloved, though today we may wait, Easter is coming.

Church & Ministry, Motherhood & Family, Taking Heart, Truth & Orthodoxy

Don’t Be Alarmed If It Feels Like Death

“Go where you wanna go. Do what you wanna do. Believe in yourself.” Sesame Street is playing in the kitchen where my boy has been camping out in front of the HomePod, making requests to Siri. He’s enjoying the music when I hear him think out loud to himself, “Do what you wanna do”? No…you can’t do what you wanna do.

My little guy’s statement, unprompted and so obvious to him, is a bit like the child calling the emperor naked. In our world, self is king and doing “what you wanna do” is the only true way to live. Authenticity is heralded as the supreme measure of what is right. Trust in self a given good. He doesn’t know yet what a counter-cultural sentiment he’s expressing.

My four-year old’s critique isn’t one I am meant to merely rail against “culture” though, it is firstly a reminder for me.

These days, I’ve been sorting through the pull of desires and responsibilities. There are some things I want to be doing, which make the things I ought to be doing feel more onerous than usual. I have been at this— walking with God in my particular spheres of life— long enough to know that I can’t just shirk what I ought to be doing, but the slog of it had been creating a bit of dissonance in me and probably a bit of self-pitiful bitterness too.

I told Jeff yesterday that I wish I didn’t have this other thing I wanted. It was easier to say “yes” to the ought to when I didn’t have desires to do otherwise. I’d rather just not want than say no to what I wanted. To be sure, there are times when God calls us to reevaluate our priorities, to rest, to say no to duties we can no longer shoulder. I am in the middle of such a season. But my more recent struggles aren’t so much a matter of being over capacity as much as the reality that sometimes, I just want to do what I want to do, even as I do what I ought. Which is why some of Jesus’ hard words in the gospels have been actually coming to me as comfort this week.

Working my way through the gospels, I’ve been reminded of how committed Jesus was to giving a realistic view of what it would look like to follow him. He warned his disciples of persecution (Matt. 5:10-12, 10:23; Luke 12:21) and spoke of daily life with him as taking up his cross (Luke 9:23). Loving God will look like hating our own life at times (Luke 14:26). It is so complete a surrender of our own desires and a right to self that Jesus calls it death (Luke 9:24-25).

The force of these verses are not merely their predictive value, but in the promises Jesus holds out. Our death to self precedes our finding true life in him. We die as seeds, forfeiting all we know for the greater glory of a life that bears much fruit (John 12:24-25). These promises are gold. But what I am helped by today is something a bit more peripheral. It is the way that in them, Jesus resets our expectations of life with him.

I’ve always been a bit taken aback by Jesus’ words to the scribe who said to him “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” Instead of affirming his desires, Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matt. 8:19-22). It always felt a bit harsh to me. Now I’m seeing it as a mercy.

In our first years of marriage, Jeff and I would reflect on how surprised we were at how much we were enjoying it. We had braced for the worst, having been taught since we were teens about marriage— how sanctifying it is to be bound as sinner-saints to another, how it is not easy being exposed and continuing to love in the daily grind of real life. We went in with joy but also a bit of trepidation at the hard work we knew would be entailed in keeping covenant with one another. In hindsight, I probably could have used a more balanced view of marriage, including more of the joys. Still, I’m grateful because I can’t imagine having gone in wearing blinders, how confused I would’ve been had my expectations for it been different.

Jesus knew the scribe had prematurely declared his devotion. Whatever he imagined it’d be like to be a disciple of the Teacher, suffering, homelessness, and scorn needed to be added to the picture. Count the cost of following me, Jesus said in another instance, like a builder of a tower or a king before war. If you aren’t willing to bear your own cross, if you are not ready to be so committed to me that it looks to others like you hate your own life, you cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:25-34).

For those who by grace now follow him, there is a way in which God mercifully sets our expectations so that when things are truly hard, they aren’t compounded by our bewilderment that they are so. “Do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you,” wrote the apostle (1 Pet. 4:12). Jeff has reminded our church often that the uniform of the Christian is the armor of God, not Hawaiian shorts and a t-shirt. I’ve found that though this isn’t always the case, sometimes what I need most is just that recalibration of my expectations. That image of being dressed for warfare silences my alarm that “something strange is happening” when I don’t feel like life is a vacation.

I’m not exactly sure why it helps me as much as it does, these reminders that the Christian life is costly. Maybe it’s because I’ve come to instinctively take cross-bearing as a given and forget I didn’t walk into this life blind. Perhaps it takes away some of the doubt and guilt I feel when there’s a discrepancy between what I want and ought to do. Or perhaps I’ve just needed the assurance I’m going the right direction, like getting a call from a friend a few miles ahead on a road trip. “It’s a bit winding and you’ll pass by a Chick-fil-a billboard,” they might say, and the sign-holding cows come in view just as you wonder if you’ve lost the way.

Either way, I’m receiving this mercy today, the reminder that if it feels hard to follow Jesus, to obey him and love him, to sacrifice my own desires to know him better, it’s normal. Don’t be alarmed, he’s telling me, if it feels like death. He’s walked this way before, and it’s just as he said it would be.

Truth & Orthodoxy

God Among the Crowds

“Can I just have 15 minutes?” is my request, delivered with more edge than I expected. Sometimes, I just don’t want anyone touching me. Which is to say, my body hurts, I’m tired (or busy), and I don’t want anything else asked of me right now.

I think I used to imagine Jesus’ relationship with the crowds like that of a speaker with an audience: They’d listen to him in large numbers like a sold-out stadium, then gather around as people might surround a guest lecturer after a talk. Even with a sizable group, listeners instinctively wait their turn and respectfully give the famous person some breathing space. Being a mom of 4 has changed that perception.

As long as I’m at home, there is no escaping our little crowd. I could be sitting on the mat in front of the stove and somehow it’s now their new favorite hangout. Not only am I no longer alone, the kitchen floor becomes strewn with books and toys. Case in point: Since I wrote that last sentence, a metal bowl has been placed on my left arm and two kids now flank me, holding clementines for me to peel. Another has pointed a large stick in my face.

“Please don’t sit on my arm.”
“I’m not sitting on your arm!”
“Yes, you were. You were JUST sitting on my arm.”
“I’m not sitting on your arm now.”

Maybe I used to picture how tired and busy Jesus might be, constantly surrounded by crowds. Now I feel it in my body.

I opened the Scriptures this morning, and I watched Jesus walking by the sea, then making his way up a mountain. He sits down. And that’s when the crowds come.

“The lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute, and many others,” the text says. “And they put them at his feet, and he healed them” (Matt. 15:29-31.)

This week, Jeff served our church in a way he always has. For some reason it caught my attention differently this time. And when I paid notice, my gratitude for my husband swelled. That’s what happened when I saw this crowd surrounding Jesus. I saw my King with fresh eyes.

In an earlier chapter, the moment they recognized him in town, people “sent around to all that region and brought to him all who were sick and implored him that they might only touch the fringe of his garment” (Matt. 14:35-36).

All the sick in the region?

I look across the street at my neighbor’s house and imagine what it’d be like to see homes empty out in Staten Island. If everyone chronically or critically ill went to seek healing all at once at the same place. Who would they bring? Would I go for my back pain? How uncomfortable would it have been to be among those pressing in to touch him? To hear people yelling out for help, their voices so persistent that the disciples would plead with their Master to tell them to stop.

Then I saw Jesus, literally surrounded by the broken.

The lame.
The blind.
The crippled.
“And many others.”

I saw him bending down to speak, to listen to a request, to touch, and to be touched.

What kind of Love must this be to not only acquiesce to, but welcome such a crowd? What power would stoop so low? What humility to heal and then, unwilling that the weak would faint on their way home, in compassion prepare a meal for thousands? How tenderly, how kindly, how joyfully he serves. What a sight it was to behold!, even if only in my mind’s eye.

In the future I may remember this scene in the context of motherhood, of Jesus as example to follow, (how do I treat my little flock that, at this very moment, is talking to me about June birthdays, pushing me off the couch, and pulling my hand off the computer keys. “I’m hungry, I’m hungry!” says the arm-tugger.) But right now, I’m just marveling at my King. He is the God of the broken, who welcomes the weak. The God who serves the crowds.

We answered this question after church on Sunday: “What difference would it be make for you to see the church as a hospital for sinners and not as a waiting room for a job interview?” This morning the Lord answered for me: Seeing the sick, I’d behold the Physician among them, and having seen him, my heart would love him so.

Taking Heart, Truth & Orthodoxy

Not But, So

IMG_8993.jpg

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, Truth & Orthodoxy

2020

IMG_8146.jpg

 

He leadeth me: O blessed thought!
O words with heavenly comfort fraught!
Whate’er I do, where’er I be, still ’tis God’s hand that leadeth me.
He leadeth me, he leadeth me, by his own hand he leadeth me;
his faithful follower I would be, for by his hand he leadeth me.
(He Leadeth Me, Joseph Henry Gilmore)

 

I can’t believe she was born less than a year ago, I’ve been saying.

I suppose it’s time to start setting goals and planning for the decade, but today I’m still looking back. I only have approximately 10 journal entries for all of 2019, so I’ve been relying on my photos to jog my memory as I reflect.

The year started with my rounded belly. There’s that photo of me sitting in the church office when we thought I was going into labor early. The selfie from L&D. There are significant events like her welcome home and baptism. We’ve got some family trips in there. But mostly the camera roll is filled with everyday graces. Of learning, of friends, of play. And of children, imperceptibly but steadily and undeniably, growing.

I look back at a journal entry from twelve months ago, my list of hopes for the year, and I can’t say those have all panned out. What I thought would be important at the time wasn’t what was on my mind two days ago as the decade closed. Some desires, God hasn’t granted. Yet apart from what I have intentioned, my life has been brought to me moment by moment, and I have been changed.

It strikes me then that the thing that matters most about last year is this: I have been led through it.

As I think about 2020, I am hoping to keep some habits and lose others. I will, by grace, continue to bring to God yet unanswered requests. I still have some key words I want to try keep in focus. I want to follow Jesus more closely, to love and know him more deeply. But as I follow, I will rest in the truth that thus far he has led, and he will lead me still.

The other day as Jeff held the baby, she had a death grip on his shirt— as if she could fall while he held her up. So it is that though our following and God’s leading in many ways is one and the same, what matters much more than our sheepy resolve to follow, is our Shepherd’s commitment to lead. My hand holding onto my kids looks the same as theirs holding mine, but my vigilance matters the most as we walk.

Know this dear one, whatever the strength of your resolve, into each new day of the new year he goes before you. And at the close of each, he hems you behind.

Lead us, oh Lord. We follow after you.