Writing

Learning in Exile

The last 5 days of remote learning have made me want to cry more times than homeschooling for 4 years ever did. The girls really have been great and their teachers are wonderful. Still, it’s stressful for everyone all around.

Distance learning isn’t my first, or even second choice, but isn’t that what life is like these days for everyone? We’re educating kids, celebrating birthdays, getting married, birthing babies, grieving deaths, and worshipping together the best we can given the circumstances. Yet when it comes down to it, what we end up settling with can feel like just that— settling.

Ours is not the only time and place the people of God have been asked to live, work, love, and worship in less-than-ideal circumstances.

I think of the prophet Jeremiah. Build houses! Plant gardens! Start families! Pray for your city! Seek God!, he instructed. Not strange things, except that God’s people were to do this in Babylon, the land of their captors.

It is to these exiles that God declared, “I know the plans I have for you. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jer. 9:21). Deliverance would come, but not for another 70 years. Until then, they were to live life where they found themselves. And as they lived, they were to trust.

Maybe our times are not as unusual as we think.

On the framed glass my daughter faces as she sits in her virtual classroom are words by Charles Spurgeon.

“Remember this, had any other condition been better for you than the one in which you are in, divine love would have put you there.”

As we gear up for a week of school, they are for me. They tell me, Yes, you are frustrated, sad, pleading for all this to end soon, and rightfully so. But don’t forget you do this as one who is loved by the Sovereign of the universe.

Beloved, we are not living God’s contingency plan.

We walk into the week loved by a God who is committed to our good.

Our children sit down for class beside the One who is working all things for their flourishing even now.

So here’s to the next 5 days of Google Classroom and Zooming kids. To leaning on grace and trusting his ways, here where divine love has placed us.

Writing

God of Naps, God of Justice

The cousins ran around today, occasionally coming to the dining table to graze on leftovers, settle on laps, and complain about what someone else did or didn’t do. The adults had lingered after the meal, our conversation meandering as it usually does. We talked about old computer games, the Atlantic article about the Romanian orphans, and the way our churches have talked about race these past years. It was precious time. With both healthcare workers and at-risk family members, we’ve only been reunited recently after months apart.

Later as I put our youngest down for a nap, I thought about how it’s been hard to pray, to feel God is near and hear him in his Word. He had started some deep work in me a few weeks into quarantine as I processed a slow but long-coming burnout. But the past few weeks I’ve only been able to think and feel over issues of racial injustice. With my sweet girl snuggled on my chest, I wondered how I could approach God about personal restoration while engaged with the pressing issues of injustice in our country.

I swayed with baby girl in the carrier, and the thought came, gently.

You care about both. Why can’t I?”

With that came a reminder that these last few weeks, I had cared for the little one in my arms. If I had space to love my children while lamenting and responding to systemic racism, why wouldn’t God be able to care for each of his own while breaking down strongholds of evil in the world?

These days, we are surrounded by the hurting. Our family has been praying for exhausted black friends and neighbors. Those who’ve felt the effects of racism their whole lives— “I can’t sleep,” she told us, “I’ve had nightmares. It could’ve been my husband.” We are remembering those who have died, and are still dying, from Covid-19. We pray by name for their family members who are reeling from grief. During protests in NY, we prayed for a neighbor in a local police precinct working nonstop and an Army friend, a husband and dad just returned home after months overseas, who was almost deployed to the protests. Our church hasn’t met physically for months and we fear for those drifting from the faith. We continue to mourn with others who were suffering before Covid-19 and George Floyd’s murder. Cancer, trauma, sick babies, marital strife, and mental illness don’t relent for pandemics and protests.

The needs are so great it is hard not to feel like it’s either/or. The world is constantly telling us we need to choose sides for those we care about, choose which one of God’s commands we should obey. Do you care about the health of the immunocompromised or the historic oppression of blacks in America? Do you tend to the flock God has given you or do you honor his image bearers outside church walls? Do you care about your physical neighbor or the people Jesus said was your neighbor— the person in front of you or the needs of marginalized communities? Do you seek to be an agent of change in the world or a faithful mom at home? Do you want mercy or justice? Do you pray for them or do you act?

This is a trap.

God does not pit the cries of the hurting against one another in a cosmic duel. He is not conflicted in himself. He does not need to simplistically choose the more worthwhile of two good causes or the lesser of two evils (though, admittedly, sometimes we do). His love, power, and ways have no limit, and as we consider who he is, he destroys the false dichotomies we too easily take as a given.

Consider that the God of Scripture is the God who punishes the wicked AND turns persecutors to martyrs. (Ex. 34:7, Acts 9)

He tells his people to act justly AND to pray without ceasing. (Is. 58, 1 Thes. 5:17)

He responds to individual sufferers AND the collective cries of the oppressed. (Ps. 28, Ex. 2:24)

He calls us to care for the widows, orphans, and strangers AND to be diligently faithful in our own homes. (Deut. 10:18, Eph. 6:4, Tit. 2:3-5)

He teaches us to be silent before him at matters too great for us AND to speak up for those who have no voice. (Ps. 131, Prov. 31:8-9)

He is full of grace AND truth. (Jn. 1:14)

He loves justice AND mercy. (Ps. 33:5, Mic. 6:8)

He upholds the sparrows AND the universe. (Matt. 10:28, Heb 1:3)

I know this isn’t as simple as it looks on paper, that walking in the world requires discernment and wisdom. That we need nuance and God’s voice as we make difficult, sometimes heartbreaking, either/or decisions. Still, I want to be fiercely both/and in all the ways that reflect him.

So by his grace, I will pray for the safety of my NYPD neighbor and for police reform. I will keep learning and educating, preparing the summer self-study material my daughter asked for on African American history, and I will step back from conversations when I don’t yet have the weight of experience or knowledge to contribute. I will ask God to restore me from burnout and for the healing of the nations. l will seek his help to be faithful in keeping place and to leverage my place for his glory. While considering with others around the table what God would have us do outside of my home, I will serve brunch and referee sibling fights inside it.

I am loved by the God who loves the world. And in this knowledge I will rock my baby to sleep as I pray for his justice to roll down like waters, his righteousness an ever-flowing stream.

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.

Writing

The Eucatastrophe Of Human History

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Come behold the wondrous mystery
In the dawning of the King
He the theme of heaven’s praises
Robed in frail humanity
In our longing, in our darkness
Now the light of life has come
Look to Christ, who condescended
Took on flesh to ransom us.
– Come Behold The Wondrous Mystery, Matt Papa

“I’m the star holder!”, she’d announced earlier in the week. Now our girl stood on stage with her class, center-back row. She recited the gospel account of the wise men with the rest of her class as she held a golden star at her side, waiting until the time for it to rise in the east.

A few years ago, I stumbled upon the word that describes what moves me most about Christmas. Eucatastrophe. Coined by Tolkien, he defined it as “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears.” This “good catastrophe” is, as Tolkien describes,

…A sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief. (J.R.R. Tolkien, On Faerie Stories)

These days, I feel the shadow of death. This morning, I read and journaled, and thought about how a dear one was in the very chair I sat in a little over a year ago. Cancer has taken her body since, and I grieved that I hadn’t had more time to know and love her. I have felt the shadow lately as sin deepens and widens fissures in relationships and ministry. I feel it in how scary it is to live in a post-Genesis 3 world, as I shrink back from real and imaginary dangers that threaten what I love most. I think of Tolkien’s stories, and how it is in the absence of all hope of that rescue comes. I’ve given up hope on some fronts, though I know I haven’t truly, not completely. Perhaps you could say I am waiting for rescue.

Advent gives me permission to think intentionally about the waiting that was the context of the incarnation. I imagine the force of history barreling on and on while the people of God carry the weight of ancient prophecies yet unfulfilled. I think of intertestamental times and what it would’ve been like to be on the other side of the virgin birth, to reckon with God’s silence of hundreds of years. I think of humanity’s sure and final defeat if not for the baby born of Mary.

This is what captures my heart at Christmas–  that the story of Christ’s birth, like the whole of the Christian claim, is not one of denial. Our faith is one that is meant to be tested in the face of real life in the real world. The “thrill of hope” we feel of the incarnation comes in the context of deep darkness. In the birth story: Mary, the mother of God, will have a sword pierce her soul. Her baby is born into a life of lowliness and suffering, to be murdered as a criminal at the hands of sinners. A maniacal ruler orders a massacre in his raging jealousy at the news of a newborn Jewish King. In the story of humanity: rebellion against God, unbelief and helplessness, doom and despair.

Into this darkness, Christ was born. That God himself would come and dwell with us, and become one of us to take on the darkness for us, no one could have hoped for in their wildest dreams. But he did, to those who had no hope, he came. He came unexpectedly but decidedly, and the darkness has not overcome him. And so, as Tolkien wrote, “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of man’s history.” While death’s shadows loomed, the Word became flesh and entered as light.

References to light are woven throughout Christ’s birth narrative. He was to be the “sunrise visiting from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death”, prophesies Zechariah (echoing Isaiah.) John describes Christ as the one in whom “the life was the light of men”. The glory of God shines on shepherds as they watch their flocks by night. And a star rises in the east because a virgin has borne a son.

Just as the rising sun cannot be held back by the night, with the turning of the incarnation, came our sure and strong rescue. All those years he seemed silent, God did not forget. Though it was a long time coming, he fulfilled his word. And because he came, suffering in this life does not the final word. Sin ravages but will not have the victory. Death’s days are numbered and we have hope beyond the shadow. We look toward our dwelling with him in the land where there is no night.

The hopes and fears of all the years, met in the birth of our Christ. Here is the dawn of the eternal day and of joy, joy beyond the walls of the earth.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.
Isaiah 9:2

Writing

Loving Others Is Worth The Risk

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If you are sufficient for your task,
it is too small.
– John Piper

Expect great things from God.
Attempt great things for God.
– William Carey

I love board games. Actually, I love fast-paced games with quick rounds (like, Taboo, Tangrams, or Codenames.) I’ve never been into longer games, especially ones that require strategy (think, Monopoly or Settlers) and I used to say it was because I didn’t have enough patience for them. But in recent years I realized the real reason I didn’t like them: I’m a sore loser.

I don’t want to invest an hour into a game that I might not win. Connect Four is preferable because even if I lose, I can insist on another round–and win it! Is that bad? Probably. Ok, ok, yes it is. But these are just board games, so, not a big deal.

I’m realizing though that my aversion to losing does not only manifest itself when it comes to game night, that I am by nature risk-adverse because I hate failure and would rather not do something than do a less-than-excellent job. This shows in board games, yes, but also in other areas of my life.

This year, God has me in places where I’ve been serving out of weakness, in situations where he has given me enough skill to be of service to others, but not with so much natural ability that I feel I’m excelling. And while some may say, “This is the best way to serve– so God will look great when he helps everything go awesome-ly!” that’s not how it’s been. Rather, he’s allowed me to flop, falter, and at times, fail, and I’ve walked away wishing there were someone else who would take over or feeling silly for trying in the first place.

But I am grateful. Because as I reflect on these experiences, the thing God has been impressing on my heart lately is this: Do not give up. Because risk, for the sake of loving others, is right.*

First, risk for the sake of others is right because what I have is not mine. Paul says that all I have, I have received (1 Cor. 4:7). We are all stewards of our gifts, opportunities, relationships, jobs, and possessions. All that I have came from and belongs to God. So for me to withhold my time, gifts, love, and service out of fear of failure is to, like the wicked servant Jesus spoke of, take the one talent I’ve been entrusted with and bury it in fear or laziness.

Secondly, risk is right because as a steward, life is not about me. There are some that would encourage us to pursue our passions for our own sakes– for the possibility of fulfilling our dreams. There’s nothing wrong with dreaming, but as Christians, we are not told to pursue our own glory or fame, much less to do so in the name of Christ.

So I think instead of the people in history who have attempted and done great things for the glory of God. For them, working toward national reform (King Josiah) or abolishing slavery (William Wilberforce) was never about self-actualization. But neither were they restrained by fear. Rather, they took risks and dreamed big because they were not thinking about themselves. They were pursuing the glory of God and the good of others.

My life is not my own. It has been given to me for the sake of loving God and loving others. For me, then, it is sinful self-centeredness to be motivated out of self-protection and fear of failure.

So here’s the challenge: Christian, how are we being called to take risks for the sake of love? Fruitfulness in ministry is not guaranteed just because we pour out our hearts, prayers, and time– but it is worth it because our hearts, prayers, and time are given to us by God and because people are worth it. Developing your creative gifts for the sake of building up the church is worth it even if you’re not the best, because it’s not about you being the best. Receiving critical feedback in service to others is worth it because you are learning how to maximize your return for the King.

And here’s the comfort: Christian, you are in the most secure place to take risks. Why? Because, for one thing, nothing that is done for Christ is ever in vain; as long as your service is done unto God, he sees, he knows, and he receives your acts of service as worship to him. We may look at outer appearances, but God looks at the heart. And what may look like loss to the world, is gain if it brings us closer to our Christ.

Furthermore, as you risk, you are also secure because your “worth is not in skill or name / In win or lose, in pride or shame / But in the blood of Christ that flowed / At the cross”. (My Worth Is Not In What I Own)

In other words, you are held firmly in Christ, apart from your works, because of his work. As God’s worksmanship, we joyfully walk into doing the good he has already prepared for us (Eph. 2:8-10) but we who do good in the kingdom of God never do so for our ultimate sense of purpose and acceptance. Our worth is found in Christ. Our joy and hope are not tethered to results in ministry, acknowledgement from others, or our own flawless performances. Thus we are the most free people, liberated to lavishly love others.

Praise God! May we risk it all, for the sake of others and his great name.

 

 

* Though I wasn’t thinking about it as I wrote, I absorbed the phrase “risk is right” from a helpful small book written by John Piper called, of course, Risk is Right. It was helpful for me in making a major family decisions a few years ago, and I recommend it!