Church & Ministry, Taking Heart

Why We Care

At the playground, my youngest sits in a lopsided plastic car on springs and calls me using an imaginary phone. Ring Ring!…Now you pick up—no, hold the phone like this! I’m her substitute sibling while her real ones are in school, so she’s sticking by me more than usual.

She runs to play, then back to sit on my lap. Out to play, then back again.

She pulls out a notebook from her narwhal backpack and “reads” it. Mark 35. Now you read it. Say “God made the world.”

She attempts to walk up the slide.

She asks all her questions.

She is loved with an everlasting love.

I think about this as I watch her stand in front of me in all her three-year-old fullness. She’s hilarious and expressive and curious and so, so, fiercely loved.

Do you really love her more than I do?, I ask God, heart swelling with the answer I’ve been meditating on.

I’ve been thinking on this love in light of a picnic our family attended recently. It was a gathering for Staten Island pastors and their families, hosted on our friends’ wide church lawn and complete with bouncy house, unlimited cotton candy and popcorn, and all-around fun for the kids. PK’s need love too, said a fellow ministry wife. It was so thoughtful and generous, and the Chang kids had a blast.

Seeing everyone gathered in for prayer though, that’s when it hit me, God’s love. Particularly, God’s his love for the people living here on our island. Each pastor’s family—called to love and serve the people here— stood a living witness to me of this love. A testimony that God sees and remembers those on the “forgotten borough”.

This conviction deepened in conversations as I listened to individual stories of how God called these men and women to their churches. They are proof to me that God loves those we have loved and have prayed for, and that he loves those we don’t yet know but hope will come to know him. The Good Shepherd is seeking out his lost sheep on Staten Island. That he would call under-shepherds here for this task is evidence of his pursuit of souls. Of his care.

One of the most, if not the most, unfair charges I’ve ever leveled against God in ministry was about this care. When the needs have been great and the stakes high. When I had cared deeply, but couldn’t do anything to stop the things that would harm those I loved. When he could have stopped these things, but didn’t.

At that time, God spoke to me his assurance that all he does is not in spite of, but because of his care. But I see another way now that I have been wrong to raise such accusations against God, either out loud or deep down in unspoken ways.

I would accuse God of not caring, but why did I care, if not because he did?

What if I cared because God cared?

I mean this not just in the sense that I was like him in my caring, or that he commanded me to care. I mean, what if the very fact of our being where we are—hearts breaking for the suffering and brokenness around us—is in and of itself an act of God’s steadfast love toward those we would accuse God of not loving?

I think I’m influenced by Luther’s work on vocation here. Our callings, according to Luther, are not just jobs assigned by God. They are “masks” of God behind which he actively works in the world. God himself milks the cows through the milkmaids, he said. This is what I was so convinced of through the presence of those ministry families at the picnic—God’s active love for Staten Islanders in the calling of men and women to serve our churches. He loves through our love.

Perhaps this is what John meant when he wrote that though no one has seen God, his love is perfected in us when we love one another (1 John 4:12). The moments my heart is moved with compassion, the conviction to intercede and do good for another, these are acts of my joining God where he is already at work, where he actively cares and has already been caring. In our love, the love of our unseen God is made visible.

Recently, I have watched many of my friends get hit with wave after wave of trials as they serve God—in difficult church dynamics and with a break-in and floods and health problems and loss. I’m walking with some of the godliest people I know as they navigate unfulfilled, good desires. I see parents at a loss for what to do with prodigals and I can’t shake the faces of some of these wandering young people from my mind. I join with believers as they pray for the sick and newly widowed and abused. I scroll my news app through reports of wars and floods and horrible things people to do one another.

The temptation for me has been to lower my head in despair while my heart slowly hardens to God who could fix it all in an instant, but chooses not to.

But what if I care because he cares?

What if it is God himself who prompts my compassion, conviction, lament, prayer, and a desire to act in response?

How often have I known such love, the care of the invisible God made tangible through the concern and compassion of one of his children? And when I’ve received this love, didn’t I know it to be, in a very real way, the love of God?

This makes a difference in the way I think about prayer, especially when overwhelmed by the needs around me. Luther has said, “Prayer is not overcoming God’s reluctance,” and I think today how prayer is not overcoming God’s indifference either. I am not charged with reminding God of those he’d forget otherwise. Rather, my prayers—for the world, for unreached people, for the suffering, widowed, fatherless, doubting, prodigal—are being prompted by his word and Spirit because he so loves.

I need to remember this as I parent too. God has loved my children from before the foundations of the world, and in his coming, death, and resurrection. My loving is a participation and expression of his vast, wide, deep, long-suffering care, it is a drop in the ocean of his tremendous love for my kids. This knowledge of his love for them anchors me when I’m anxious about their souls and futures and wellbeing. And it brings me to a deeper knowing of the love that surpasses knowledge when I feel my heart explode with affection for my little one at the playground.

What if my care is evidence that he cares? It is not the whole case for his love, not even close, a partial fingerprint perhaps. But it’s what he has brought to me this week. And at the very least, it is setting a course correction for my own heart.

This is the reminder then, for me. Maybe for you too. To take heart when those we love are going through dark days because God loves them too. He has not forgotten the ones we fear he has forsaken, and he has not overlooked the needy we have been called to serve. Your brokenheartedness, your tears, your pleading, your lament, your service, your pursuit, your waiting, and your prayers on their behalf— these are evidences of his remembrance and love.

Beloved, he cares. And you do because he does.

Taking Heart

Come And Look! (Worth More Than These)

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

JI packer wrote in Knowing God,

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

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

Even the birds beckon, Come and look.

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

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

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

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

And you— worth far more than many sparrows.

Motherhood & Family

A Surprise

 

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I heard the door open downstairs and their excited shouts followed. Mom! We have a surprise for you! Mom! Come, look!

She handed them to me, my firstborn, with anticipation. Tiny wildflowers, purple and white, thoughtfully arranged. She and her sister had gathered them bike riding with their dad. Their mini-bouquet fit in the palm of my hand. I thanked them, hugged them, and put the gift aside.

Hours later, when everyone else was asleep, their flowers found me. As I cleared items thrown half-hazardly onto the cubby by the front door, I saw the small bunch of stems and petals so eagerly gifted to me a few hours before. They were slightly dried out, pressed under the weight of papers, clothes, and miscellaneous items. They were beautiful.

I can’t explain what happened except that I had looked at them before, but now I saw them. To be thought of during a trip out. To be unexpectedly considered by my daughters. To have them pause enough in their play to think of what would delight me. The flowers were beautiful and I felt it, the undeserved goodness of such a gift, of the childlike abandon with which my girls loved me, of the lavish kindness of my God.

“God is so, so kind. He didn’t have to say yes, but he did,” said a friend a few months ago about an answer to a long prayed request. His words, and the way he said them, with awe and humility and joy, are still fresh on my mind.

Consider the lilies of the field, Jesus said once. Consider— stop and truly see. He clothes them in his generous creativity. Not because he has to, but because he wants to. How much more does he care for us, even we of little faith?

Beauty speaks an intrusion, I heard a Christian counselor say a few days ago about anxiety.

Come.

Look.

Consider the lilies.

See what I have for you.

God, by your Spirit keep my eyes open.

You didn’t have to give me any of this, but you did. You didn’t have to give me these flowers. My girls. My life. Your Son. But you did.

You don’t have to care about me, but you do. And you are so, so kind.

Taking Heart

Some Questions On Being

IMG_4511.jpgI prepped to teach on Titus last Sunday. I thought long the week before about the relationship between life and doctrine, and personally, about my calling as a woman and mom in the home a la Titus 2. I was reminded about the goodness of my work in loving my family.

It turns out Sunday morning had us waking up to sick kids and me texting that I’d have to forgo church responsibilities to stay home. Funny how God did that.

See, if you ever want evidence of my feeble faith, send me a sick baby. Give it a few nights and you’ll hear my sleep-deprived, “For what purpose God??” (Read: “Whyyyyyy?”) And it isn’t wholly my grumpiness speaking here. I actually feel justifiably upset about the seeming meaninglessness and inefficiency of these small trials.

I’ve been sitting in Ephesians 1 all week, savoring glorious truths a few words at a time. (Which, incidentally may be partly due to the fact that, in my sleepy haze, I can only hold a few words at a time.) After a night of little faith, as I wondered what practical good could come out of my sleep-deprivation, God answered through these words— that we should be holy and blameless before him.

He spoke to me of my being chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world for this reason (Eph. 1:3-4). He reminded me of his commitment to work all things to my good and his purposes— to my conformity into the image of his Son. I had forgotten about that.

So I’ve been thinking about this being made more into Christlikeness. And I’ve been seeing that my why’s and search for productivity and purpose and usefulness in glorifying God often miss this vital ingredient, the aspect of what God is doing in me and the call to be like Christ.

In the (possibly false but sometimes helpful) “being” vs. “doing” dichotomy, I gravitate to the latter. I’ve always had the desire to be helpful. The fear of being useless and the desire to hear “well done” on something truly well-done and most of all from God, are deeply rooted in me.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always thought of “being” as important, and I thought I had the relationship between who we are and what we do pretty well sorted out. We act out of who we are. (Which is true.) God cares about the heart behind what we do. (Which is also true.) Therefore, (this is where I start veering), I need to be who I’m supposed to be so I can do what I’m supposed to do to God’s glory without being disingenuous. I’ve never doubted the importance of being made more like Christ, but the fundamental orientation, the driving heart motive, usually leans “so I can do more, or right, or better.”

Years ago, as a teenager, I remember telling a mentor about my deep fear that God won’t use me. He gently push backed, with grace I didn’t understand at the time, maybe that isn’t the main thing. Evidently, I still need this pushback, and received it in part last week through a powerful article on mental health by Alan Noble. In it he writes,

Usefulness is the sole criterion for the World, the Flesh, or the Devil. But you have no use value to God. You can’t. There is nothing He needs. You can’t cease being useful to God because you were never useful to begin with. That’s simply not why He created you and why He continues to sustain your being in the world. It was gratuitous, prodigal. He made us just because He loves us and for His own good pleasure. Every other reason to live demands that you remain useful, and one day your use will run out. But not so with God. To God, your existence in His universe is an act of creation, and it remains good as creation even in its fallen state.

We were made for God’s pleasure, not his use. He made us because he loves us, because he is good, because it pleased him. Even more, according to Ephesians 1:12, he redeems us and makes us his “that we who were the first to hope in Christ might to the praise of his glory.” Here Paul doesn’t write that we might do things to the praise of his glory (though certainly we do). More fundamentally, we are made to be to the praise of his glory. And this isn’t a command, but a statement here. God has come through great lengths to make us his because his intent is to glorify himself through what he does for and in us.

As image-bearers, we give evidence to his “prodigal love”, his powerful sustenance, his wonderful creativity, and more. As those being recreated into Christ’s image, we give evidence to his wondrous grace, his redeeming love, his infinite patience, his holy nature, and more. Who we are brings glory to him because what he is doing in us is glorious.

Ephesians 1, along with thoughts about our lack of use value to God, is simmering in my heart. God’s truths are an elixir for my anxious doing and as the Spirit continues to stir, I am catching the waft of healing soul-questions. Questions arising from the suspicion that I have often headed in the wrong direction with my “why’s”. Questions that reorient and help my heart to rest, that comfort, that have me praising God for his other-worldly wisdom.

For others who seek God’s glory but have trouble working from a place of peace, other restless doers like me, perhaps some of these questions would serve you as well.

Dear beloved, chosen in Christ from before the foundations of the world, redeemed for the praise of his glorious grace.

…What if you glorify God not just by what you do, but by virtue of who you are?

…What if the most glorious display of his goodness is not in our works, but his workmanship— us (Eph. 2:10)?

…What if we believed that just as Adam and Eve were the glorious apex of creation, we believe our being remade into the image of Christ (us, the church) is the glorious apex of the new heavens and earth?

…What if, when the day of Christ comes, the most God-glorifying work done in the world is not done by man, but God himself? What if the most God-glorifying work done in our lives is that which is being done in us?

…What if we believed with God that this work was good? (Phil. 1:6)

…What if God desires to draw attention to his wisdom, power, grace, and kindness most chiefly in Christ’s work done for us? (Eph. 1:4-10, 2:7)

…What if the biggest question isn’t what you would do for God but who he himself is making you to be to the praise of his glory?

Taking Heart

Continually

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I need Thee, O I need Thee,
Every hour I need Thee!
O bless me now, Savior, I come to Thee.
– I Need Thee Every Hour

The girls are in school and we are in a new season. While I’m not exactly swimming in free time, I’ve been afforded a bit of mental space and time (albeit with toddler and baby). But with this gift of margin, I have found myself anxious, even paralyzed at times. There’s so much I want to do but not enough time to do it all. How do I choose what gets done and what doesn’t? Where should start?

This anxiety isn’t new for me. A refrain in my tenure as a stay-at-home mom has been the struggle of feeling like I’m not accomplishing all I should. Some of my problem is practical— I need more realistic goals and expectations. Some of it is spiritual— the ongoing struggle against perfectionism and asceticism.

God is speaking to these things even now. I have been coming to “aha!” moments with gladness, then stopping and realizing I’ve had these “revelations” before and have either forgotten or not thought to apply them this time.

In Psalm 71:3, the singer cries out: Be to me a rock of refuge, to which I may continually come; you have given the command to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress.

The continually is a comfort for forgetters like me.

In education, there are different types of curriculum. The “mastery” ones stay on one topic and move one once the learner has “mastered” it. “Spiral” ones spread out one topic over time, progressively bringing the learner to a different level each time a topic is repeated. I am hoping that the reiterations of truth God is speaking to me now are going deeper than before. That God is patiently weaving multi-spiral lessons into my life and I’m just seeing one strand of color resurface for now. Or maybe I’m just giving a chance to learn what I never mastered. Whatever the case, I am glad that God is not upset that I need him to repeat himself. Again.

Continually.

Do you need him to speak to you words of grace and truth today? Are you frustrated that you still need help? Still need comfort? Still need healing? Still need correction?  Do you imagine he is as frustrated as you are? Picture the most patient and kind teacher you know. Times that by 1000 and you’ll start to get a clearer picture of what God is like.

Beloved, take refuge in your infinitely gracious God today. Our fleeing to God for help is not a one and done thing. As our Father, he delights in our coming to him. As Lord, he receives glory as he gives the command to save. He does not tire of repeating himself and will not rebuke you as you come to him once more.