Church & Ministry, Motherhood & Family, Taking Heart

A Better Vantage Point

FullSizeRender

Jeff and I attended a pastors and spouses retreat this week. All the costs were completely covered– it was a generous gift from God through the retreat center. My parents took care of the kids for a few days, and we had a good time with other couples in ministry. We ate and rested well.

During the retreat, we decided to hike up the mountain on the property. It was the perfect combination of strenuous enough to be interesting and short enough to be survivable (for me). We talked and caught up as we followed the trail one mile up, comparing heart rates on our watches for fun and asking Siri about our elevation every now and again.

At one point, the trail seemed to end abruptly by a small waterfall. The next tree markings were visible only after we climbed up a set of large wet rocks streaming with water from the overflowing fall. Here, it looked as if part of the mountain had been plowed through, and I stopped to wonder aloud at how the massive rocks came to rest the way they did. The Ice Age was Jeff’s guess, and though we weren’t sure about the geology, it wasn’t hard to imagine a glacier moving through the mountain to expose bare rock, leaving huge stones in its wake and paving a miniature gorge for the waterfall and stream.

Soon, we arrived at a small lookout and were taking in the nice, though not exceptional, partial view, when another couple hiking down toward us pointed to a wooden cross 30 yards away marking the actual overlook. We made our way over and as we reached the rock ledge, trees by the trail gave way to a clearing with a stunning, 180 degree panoramic view.

Close to us by our left, about 300 feet below, we saw the retreat center buildings. In the far distance, 20 miles out, mountains filled the horizon. A set of almost indiscernible white lines on the base of one, we identified as a ski resort. A slight break and dip in the ranges toward our 2 o’clock, the Delaware Water Gap. Between us and the mountains, a valley of smaller, rolling hills covered with leafless trees and scattered patches of evergreens. At almost 2000 feet elevation, the view was so far and wide, I was dizzy from disorientation. “We’re not used to seeing this far out,” Jeff said.

The next day, back in our room, we talked and prayed about ministry and heavy things on our hearts. And as we prayed, I thought again of the huge rock formation on our hike and whatever had left it behind. I thought of how there is only One who knows how they came to be not only because he directs all things, but because he was there as witness to its history. And in view of God’s eternity, I was comforted.

I remember being fresh out of college and talking to older people who seemed to throw around years when they spoke. As a student and in your twenties, thinking about next semester is thinking about the future, and waiting one or two years for anything feels unbearable. We wrestled with questions regarding God’s will, which often meant knowing what to do the coming summer or next year, or maybe plans for after graduation. But these elders, who in retrospect were probably not too much older than me now, tossed about decades like semesters. In a few sentences, they’d talk about spending ten years in this country, then seven years in that one, now going on four here. Because of their age, their view of time was different than mine. Their perspective, unsurprisingly, meant when they spoke about the future, they were was less anxious, less urgent, less impatient.

Though I am now old enough to need to recalculate my age every time my daughters ask and I can’t recall off the top of my head how long I’ve been back in Staten Island, I’m still young. Young enough to give into anxiety about the near future, to be utilitarian in my decisions— wanting visible, guaranteed results to think something is worth my time. I get restless in the mundane and give up too easily when prayers are not yet answered. I feel worried when God doesn’t meet me experientially in the few hours I set aside to be in prayer and the Scriptures. I wonder if I’m missing his voice if I don’t hear from him this very instant and I get frazzled over hiccups in plans for family or ministry.

But, God. From the beginning, through the ages, thousands of years from now, he was and is and will be. In my restless, anxious toil, meditating on God’s eternal nature is often the force behind the seismic perspective shift I need.

When longing for swift deliverance, Christians are exhorted to remember that our view of slowness is not his. That though ten years may sound like a hundred to us, to him a thousand are as a day. That his purposes for our suffering go far beyond our years and through unsearchable paths into eternity.

When discouraged about the slowness of his Kingdom’s advancement in ourselves, our families, and our churches, we look to the God of ages past whose view of slowness is not the same as ours.  We remember that, “He has moved like rapids — quickly and vivaciously — and startling to see. But the Spirit also moves like a glacier — subtly and cumulatively — and sometimes so imperceptibly that the believer might be unaware of his work.” It may seem slow from my vantage point, but his movement through history is steady, unimaginably powerful, unstoppable.

God’s eternal view of time directly speaks against my need for fast answers, quick fixes, and instant results. He is not working on my timeline– and his eternity is good news for me. As a parent, my discipline is unkind when I feel the pressure of time and am unsure of the future. I begin to demand immediate perfection from my children, correcting in fear, not faith and love. God though, does not panic at the passing of time, nor does he resort to flustered last ditch efforts in his dealings with me. His eternity means patience with his impatient children.

Sometimes, in his goodness, God gives us glimpses of his good purposes, lookouts if you will over a few years of our lives. At the retreat, Jeff and I were placed in the same room we had been in two summers ago. We’d gone with our church and I was barely surviving. As I surveyed the room this visit, I could still see the set up we had then– the girls on one bed, the pack-and-plays side-by-side for our foster boys, and just enough floor space to walk from the entrance to the bathroom. I remembered not being able to sleep, being anxious about sick kids, and feeling upset toward God about both.

The days felt so long back then, so it surprised me how two years could fly by and find us at the same location but in such a different place. The boys are with another family and we welcomed our now almost 18 month old since then. There have been new beginnings in writing, headway made in homeschooling, lessons learned in life and ministry.

But there is still all I have been slow to learn, prayers God has yet to answer. I see recurring requests and repeated struggles thematically spanning years through the pages of my journals. There are new unknowns my mind fills with threatening futures. We all carry sadnesses yet to be healed, questions yet to be answered. There are long walks through the valleys of the shadow of death still to come.

So we look at our everlasting Rock (Is. 26:4).  One day, we will ascend the heights, having received the eternal weight of glory, to where our deepest sorrows will seem “light and momentary” and the longest seasons of darkness, “a little while” (2 Cor. 4:17, 1 Pet. 1:6).  Until then, we trust our eternal God has a view of our lives so complete, and from there his purposes so spectacular, we would be dizzied by its vastness and beauty if given a peek.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You return man to dust and say, “Return, O children of man!”
For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.
Psalm 90:1-4 (ESV)

Church & Ministry, Motherhood & Family, Taking Heart

The Invisible God Who Sees Me

IMG_5282

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, Truth & Orthodoxy

I cried reading this this morning

I haven’t cried reading a book for a long time, but as I read this today, I did with gratitude that I, having been redeemed by Christ, am given the grace to live and act in a way that pleases my Heavenly Father. The fact that he would be moved  by my obedience- done in love and with his aid… that is so precious to me.

We can think it’s a mark of spiritual sensitivity to consider everything we do as morally suspect. But this is not the way the Bible thinks about righteousness. More importantly, this kind of spiritual resignation does not tell the truth about God… Our God is not a capricious slave driver. He is not hyper-sensitive and prone to fits of rage on account of slight offenses. He is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Ex. 34:6). “He is not hard to please,” Tozer reminds us, “though he may be hard to satisfy.”

Why do we imagine God to be so unmoved by our heart-felt attempts at obedience? He is, after all, our Heavenly Father. What sort of father looks at his daughter’s homemade birthday card and complains that the color scheme is all wrong? What kind of mother says to her son, after he gladly cleaned the garage but put the paint cans on the wrong shelf, “This is worthless in my sight?”…There is no righteousness that makes us right with God except for the righteousness of Christ. But for those who have been made right with God by grace alone through faith alone and therefore have been adopted into God’s family, many of our righteous deeds are not only not filthy in God’s eyes, they are exceedingly sweet, precious, and pleasing to him. (p. 69-70)

–  The Hole in our Holiness- Keven DeYoung,  (bolded mine)