Taking Heart, Truth & Orthodoxy

If We Are Kings and Queens

“You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve,” said Aslan. “And that is both honor enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth. Be content.” C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian

Jeff and I arrive at our tiny cabin after dark, but the pines are still up. Throughout the night, I wake to watch their sparsely needled tops swaying over us. In the morning, they are no less mesmerizing. They wave without bending, their slender trunks shooting straight from dirt to sky. I feel my spine straighten, mirroring their posture. Shoulders back, daughter of Eve.

The poet Mary Oliver wrote, “Everywhere I go I am / treated like royalty, which I am not. I thirst and / am given water. My eyes thirst and I am given / the white lilies on the black water.” I feel this on our trip to the Catskills, the sheer grace of the world before and under me. That our thirst would be quenched by its rains, our hunger for beauty satiated with tiered waterfalls— who are we, if not of noble blood?

In our fervor to maintain the greatness of God, Christians can diminish the dignity of our humanity in ways that aren’t as biblical as they seem. Self-deprecation comes naturally to me, and in my brokenness it often feels right to slouch in a corner, to make myself small under shame for fear of doing wrong. The enemy of my soul would have me believe that’s where I belong. At the window by the pines though, the Spirit speaks to me of a better way.

There, I think of the biblical poet who, in light of creation’s grandeur, asked God: What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him (Ps. 8:4)? It isn’t hard for me to understand his wonder. One look up on any clear night will fill me with a sense of humanity’s smallness and the surprise of God’s ongoing care. But it’s the follow-up to the question that comes to life for me now, maybe for the first time ever:

Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet.

Ps. 8:5-6

These verses have always struck an unexpected note for me, the way the psalm doesn’t continue to dig into our smallness in order to put us in our place. Reading “what is man?,” I half-expect the psalm to segue into the bad news-good news presentation of “You’re a nobody, but you are loved!” But the psalmist doesn’t take that route.

Here is our place in this world, granted by the Creator himself. We are created a little lower than heavenly beings. No, we are not God, but neither are we nobodies. We are rulers, crowned with glory and honor, given dominion over the earth.

This Edenic understanding of our humanity as expressed in our rule over creation is different from what we Americans usually associate with royalty. We think of celebrity (they’re famous!) or wealth (they’re rich!), high social standing or fantastical romances. What Psalm 8 unearths about our royal natures is far weightier than those things— calling, dignity, glory.

Oliver wrote she was treated like royalty although she isn’t. Perhaps it would be truer to say that we are treated like royalty because we are. Our first father and mother were rulers, blessed to cultivate and create in the world as representatives (images) of their Sovereign. Though fallen, we are still their children, and as such, kings and queens just by virtue of being human.

The pines showed me what it might look like for me to walk aware of the glory that crowns us. They stand tall with their own particular glory, fully arrayed with an honor that rightly belongs to them. They need not make themselves smaller or larger than what they are. They are unashamedly and fully themselves, and yet nothing about them is vain. A Korean-American actress recently said, “It’s an honor, just to be Asian,” and in the woods, the phrase comes back to me with a twist. It is an honor, I think, just to be human.

Counterintuitively, this stirs up a new kind of humility in me, one that doesn’t pummel me into submission, but lifts some of the weight off my drooping shoulders. It may be self-evident, but still worth remembering that we didn’t choose our existence. We didn’t cause ourselves to be, and yet here we are. We didn’t create this world we inhabit, and yet we have inherited it. What do you have that you did not receive?, the apostle Paul wrote. Our dominion as humanity is derivative. God crowns us, he has put creation under our feet. But that’s the thing, we really have been granted glory, honor, this world. I am born and look!, here is drink for my parched throat, beauty for my thirsty eyes.

This is cause for trembling too, I realize, our being sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. Sin takes on new gravity when we consider that if we are rulers, our rebellion is not only treachery, but tyranny. We may have relinquished our ability to rightly govern this world under God, but as image bearers we still have the power to alter the course of history like no other created being. No matter what, we always exercise some form of dominion. And when we operate outside the Creator’s bounds, we rule as madmen, destroying the earth and harming those around us. Here I see that humility is not a shrinking back, but a taking up. It is a weighty thing to be human, to bear the responsibilities of one created for glory with others similarly crowned.

Here’s another thought— Jesus became man. We who are in Christ are co-heirs with him because the ruler of the universe took on flesh and became a servant unto death (Rom. 8:17). If we are rulers on this earth by birth, we become royalty in the everlasting kingdom by rebirth (1 Pet. 1-2). Our humanity is being redeemed and we worship one who is forever fully God and fully human. Can there be anything more incredible about our humanity than that? That Christ shared in it not to reject and despise it, but to restore it to us and us to it?

I am still feeling my way through what it means to live with this newfound sense of honor and dignity in my humanity. But I am beginning to see how it fuels awe-filled gratitude, strips away my compulsion to compare, girds me with a kind of quiet courage.

I do not need to walk with the projected confidence of someone trying to invent myself or command the room. I am not elbowing my way to my place, because it has already been granted to me. I seek to stand with the steadiness of heart my King had when he, knowing where he came from and where he was going, wrapped a towel around his waist and knelt to wash and dry feet.

Read the gospels and you’ll see how Jesus restored the dignity of all he encountered. How he defended the despised, how he touched and asked questions and listened. Something about the way he moved among us communicated that each broken person still bore his image, still was bestowed with the honor he granted them at creation. He is doing this for me now.

So, here I am. Truth I’ve long known in my head is making its way down into my heart and backbone. I stand as daughter of Eve, and I am content to take my place. Truly, it is an honor.

Taking Heart

The Threads We Catch

I don’t remember exactly what I was thinking about as I sat on the train from DC, just my bone-weariness and the weight of the stories of the suffering. Leaning back into the headrest, eyes closed, I prayed, or maybe just thought, “Is life on earth just sorrow after sorrow and only that?” The question still hanging in the air, I turned to look out the window just as we crossed the Susquehanna river. The sun was setting on the horizon, and the water caught and reflected back its radiance. The beauty was familiar yet breathtaking. What I saw with my eyes, I knew in my soul as God’s answer.

I’d asked if life on earth was filled with sorrow and sadness only. He spoke before I uttered an amen.

I have been meditating lately on the mystery of the good. That there is still such beauty and joy to be found in this world and in our lives, broken though they may be. For me, the consideration of why this evil? is linked experientially to why this good? It is the flip side of asking about God’s sovereignty in suffering, me recognizing that his ways pertaining to the good and beautiful are just as inscrutable to mortals as his ordaining the bad.

The question first arose as I’d held my newborn son on a hospital bed. Having just walked through a season of grief where I couldn’t perceive God’s reasons for my suffering, I realized I was equally unable to comprehend the scope of his purposes behind the good. I held my son to my chest, pressed my face into his fuzzy head, and wondered, why? Not, “why is there good in this world” in the abstract, but why this blessing? Why for us? For me?

“Because God is good and he gives good gifts,” was the answer Scripture held out for me then, and still does now. No specifics I could grasp, just sufficient reason in who he is and what he wills, leaving me to reverent wonder and grateful praise.

Sometimes, I think in trying to correct the false notion that God is only good when we get the things we want, we can shy away from seeing his goodness through his gifts. I may uphold the truth that God has loving purposes for suffering while failing to see his gracious heart and divine wisdom behind every blessing. It’s true that God is not good because he gives us good things. But the Scriptures teach he gives good gifts because he is a good Father (Mt. 7:11, Ja. 1:17). It may seem obvious, but it is something I need to deliberately meditate on.

I am prone to taking life with all its attendant blessings as a given— givenness not in terms of it being a gift, but as it being an impersonal default. Perhaps this is one reason why gratitude is so important for God’s people, why we are so often exhorted to give thanks. Because we are wont to live as deists, as if God programed the world and left it to run by itself, interrupting only intermittently in the form of the rare miracle or painful trial.

In reality, the only reason the universe does not completely unravel, ceasing to exist this very moment, is because God is upholding it by the word of his power (Heb. 1:3). The truth is the sun rises today on the good and evil because God calls it forth from its chamber as an intentional act of grace (Mt. 5:45). Not a sparrow falls to the ground without his knowledge, which is to say each one is completely within his scope of care (Mt. 10:29). All that happens today, bad and good, he has ordained freely and consciously in his perfect will.

Thus, gratitude for the good things he gives is more than about finding a way to emotionally balance out the hard ones. It is not an adult version of the lollipop after a shot at the doctor’s. To recognize God’s hand behind the good we receive from him is to remove our blinders and see the world as it truly is, filled with his mercy and grace in thousands upon thousands of specific ways. We are recipients of blessings we’d never have thought to ask for, of good gifts we could never have earned even if we’d worked our whole lives for them. Blessings are gifts to be traced back to our loving Father who grants them out of his creativity, faithfulness, and good pleasure. To thank him is to train our hearts to recognize his steadfast love and active involvement in our lives and in the world.

When my children were infants, I was hyperaware of the fragility of their lives, the way their tomorrows were not guaranteed to us. I’d lie down to sleep and, with my head on my pillow, look at them through their crib slats. They were swaddled and so small, and me drifting into unconsciousness meant I had to leave my vigilant-mom post. More than once, my last thought before sleep was the simple request that God allow them to see morning. Each day with them that followed such a prayer felt like a tangible answer from God. A gift, and if I were to probe further into the whys, a mystery.

Really though, today is no different for all of us. Every breath we draw is freely and gladly given by God who sustains our lives by his will and power. We receive our daily bread from his loving hands. And this is just life in its barest form. Even in a world that is groaning for redemption, he fills our days with the good and beautiful— with laughter and open skies, with timely encouragement and faithful words, with work to do and people to love and be loved by.

We put together a last minute escape room for our kids last month, a special birthday celebration for one of our girls. The Chang kids worked impressively as a team, retrieving hidden messages from between piano keys, in a narrow-necked bottle filled with colored water, inside a board game. Jeff and I did pretty well too, I thought, linking clues together for the passcode to a tablet containing messages from aunts and uncles which in turn led to a final “laser” protected clue. The kids loved it, and we loved watching them love it.

What if I walked through life as my kids in that escape room, I wonder, looking out for the intricate ways God has woven goodness and mercy in and through all my days? I have a hunch that I’d be less irritable in the day-to-day, more aware of God’s nearness, patient with those he’s called me to love. In awe of his attentiveness and goodness, might I grow in humility and contentment, abounding in thanksgiving as my prayers slowly conformed to the kinds of petitions described in the epistles (Col. 4:2, Phil. 4:6, Col. 2:7)? Might it even help me to feel more keenly his presence and kindness in the practical graces and consolations he gives in the midst of trials?

What if we were more attune to the ways the good, lovely, admirable, and praiseworthy things in our lives are evidence of his wise and perfect care for us?

Faith in Christ means we hold onto promises regarding the eternal, fixing our gaze on the unseen. But the Holy Spirit also lifts the veil that keeps us from truly seeing the things right before us. As Christians, we recognize the eternal and unseen behind, beneath, and upholding the temporal and earthbound. The good we are given is not meted out by some distant algorithm, but from a Person, in his divine purposes and steadfast love. We know that the Father who did not spare his own son for us is the One who graciously gives us all things (Rom. 8:32). Surely his ways are beyond tracing out. Still, the threads we catch of them here and there inevitably lead us back to him.

I watched the skies the rest of my train ride, grateful for the way God was loving me through rolling clouds and flashes of lightning in the gathering darkness. While I was pouring out my heart to him in the train car, the heavens had been pouring forth speech over me, and God in his kindness had me turn to catch a bit of their message at just the right time. They spoke beauty and glory. They declared that he is God and that there is still good in this world. Even now, they proclaim this. And to their praises, I add my Amen.

Motherhood & Family, Taking Heart

Pay Attention: The Trees Are Singing

Every day you wake up in a world that you didn’t make. Rejoice and be glad.
– Jonathan Roger
s

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.
– Mary Oliver

~~~

The trees invited us to pay attention today.

The kids set out with empty bags; I held my phone for photos and a plant-identifying app. We must have been a sight to behold, how they yelled excitedly and crouched in the middle of the sidewalk, shoving leaves into their Dr. Seuss totes. One man stood in front of his house and just looked at us. At one point I walked straight into my boy who’d suddenly dove between me and the stroller I was pushing. When I turned to help him up, I saw him sitting next to the red-yellow-green leaf he had spotted and gone for. The fiery red ones especially took my breath away, but we got them all, yellows, reds, greens, browns, and every combination of autumn’s colors.

We’d done a walk like this a few weeks ago, but this time, we learned names. So the five of us didn’t just collect “maple” leaves. We collected silver, red, amur, and sugar maple leaves. We didn’t just bring back “oak leaves”— but pin, swamp white, northern red, and scarlet oak leaves. I was so proud when at the end of one walk (we went out twice), my boy, with a full bag, picked up and showed me a leaf he noticed he didn’t have yet.

In the middle of a pandemic and election season in our divided country, leaf hunting might seem like just a nice kid-friendly, socially-distanced activity, a distraction of sorts. In a way it was a good break for me from heeding the beck and call of things that felt urgent, but it was more than that. I was glad when my son showed me his leaf-find, because it meant he was learning to pay attention not just to trees in general, but to each tree we’d stopped under, and to this one in particular. Our naming trees was a kind of noticing, and when we notice in God’s world, we gather kindling for praise.

We returned home, bursting with leaves and worship. I pointed out to them that God could have just filled the world with one generic tree. On that third day of Creation, he could have said “let there be trees” and filled the earth with forests of trees as I draw them– cartoon broccolis that vary only in size, with an occasional circle in the trunk as an owl’s perch. But, praise God, we don’t live in that kind of world. Instead, we emptied the kids’ bags into a box and pulled out green ash, black gum, sweet gum, and honey locust leaves. There were 15 or so species of trees they had gathered from, and these were only the ones with leaves already shed on the sidewalk we walked on. We even had a mystery leaf we’re not sure the app is right about, so the plan is to hunt down the tree again.

What kind of brilliance and creativity must it have taken to fashion all the trees we found within that two-block radius of our house, I wonder. What kind of power must God have to uphold the outermost galaxies and oversee every single tree we encountered today?

Sometimes it’s easy for me to imagine God using his power as brute force, accomplishing great and good purposes, but in an impersonal, blunt way. Knowing God flung planets into space by a simple word fills me a sense of awe at his strength. But studying the differences between types of oak leaves furthers my understanding of his power while offering insight about how he wields it.

Recently, I watched a painting tutorial where the instructor warned beginners not to focus too much time and effort on the first detail they worked on. The reason is that they’d probably get tired and end up with one section they loved that wouldn’t match the rest of the piece. That God doesn’t lose steam— that he is powerful and wise enough to pay attention to the smallest minutiae of creation— honestly stretches my faith. That he uses his strength and mind with precision and creativity in the world offers me comfort and hope. He is big enough to hear my small voice in a broken world (Matt. 6:6-7). He is precise enough to be trusted to handle the details of my life with care (Matt. 6:25-34). And he does not just write my days in a way that is utilitarian, but beautiful (Psalm 136:16).

One of my girls loved pointing out the different reds of the leaves today. I imagine the earth, resting on its axis as on an easel, and God joyfully painting our little corner with the touches of the crimson, pink, and peach that filled her with such delight. Our Creator’s heart must have been so filled with love of beauty as he generously paid attention to every detail of the place he was preparing for us to inhabit. Eden’s trees were not only good for food, but pleasing to the eye. East of the garden, the trees still are his handiwork.

After we labeled our finds, the kids burst out into a spontaneous song about the cherry plum leaf. Today they sang about a tree, but one day the trees themselves will lift their voices. From the cedars of Lebanon to the redwoods of California, the forests will sing for joy when Christ returns. If you listen closely now, you can catch the neighborhood trees rehearsing their doxology.

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.
– Psalm 24:1 (ESV)

Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
before the Lord, for he comes,
for he comes to judge the earth.
– Psalm 96:11-12 (ESV)

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.

Taking Heart, Truth & Orthodoxy

Not But, So

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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.