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.

Taking Heart, Truth & Orthodoxy

When You Don’t Know What You Need

IMG_6345

I lay in bed too tired to think, not knowing where to start — children, church, marriage, friends, my own soul? It had been a long time since I had talked to God about it all and I was at a loss at what to ask. The words came to mind as I struggled to pray:

Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

~~~

“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matt. 6:7-8)

Once, during a particularly long kid-induced stretch of sleep deprivation, I stood in front of a store counter and had to stop myself mid-sentence to tell the associate, “Sorry…I have no idea what I’m saying.” Even with a clear mind, I dread calling customer service most days. I dislike having to think on my feet during the unpredictable exchange. Is the person on the line going to be rude? Pushy? Honest? Competent?

If you’re like me, you might script what you’ll say before calling customer service so you’re not bumbling when the person picks up. But imagine if the person we’re calling already knows what our problem is and how to fix it. Imagine they are glad we called, speak kindly as we make our requests, and patiently offer help.

“Pray even though God knows what you need,” some may say, apologetically even and on the defense. Because, why bother talking to God about what he already knows I need? It’s a fair question and with good answers, my mind is less troubled than it used to be about it. Providence makes prayer effective, and God’s sovereignty has become the bedrock I stand on as I make my petitions. Still, I have often failed to consider that this truth— that God knows what I need before I offer a word in prayer— is more than a prompt for questions about divine paradoxes. It is even more than just rebuke against the babblers Jesus speaks of in Matthew 6.

What I am experiencing these days is not pray “even though” God knows. No, no, not as a concession. Pray because he does.

God’s knowledge, I am finding, is my assurance and sweet comfort for all his children.

Because when you’re young and think you know what you need, you can only see it as redundant to speak to God about it. But then, you live longer. And as life’s complications and sorrows and hard lessons come, we begin to see that maybe we don’t know what’s best like we thought we did.

And what do you ask God for then? What happens when your feelings can’t be trusted? When your mind is unable to make sense of things to form a coherent request? When your foresight has failed and your problems outweigh your wisdom? When you’ve run out of solutions and suggestions to offer to God?

Where do you start when you don’t even know what you need?

There are so many good things we can pray, much is modeled in Scripture for us. For deeper knowledge of God, for deliverance from trial, for perseverance through it, for greater joy, for more love. But never is the call to prayer a request for information from God.

I think of kids. How readily they go to mom and dad for help, and how often their needs aren’t even known to them. Babies just cry. Older children may carry their complaints, tears, calls for justice. Still, usually parents can tell if they’re just tired and hangry, or truly sad and discouraged, or hiding jealousy and wanting revenge. If we, imperfect parents, know our kids enough to give them what they truly need, how much more the Father whose parenting every good mom or dad faintly shadows?

Our Father, says our Elder Brother, knows what you need before you utter a word. Therefore, you are not heard because of your flowing eloquence, the strength of your passion, or the might of your wisdom. You are heard because you are known completely and loved deeply. You are known because through Christ, you belong to God. And you are invited to God’s throne room, not to offer him tidbits he doesn’t know, but to receive mercy and find grace to help you in time of need (Heb. 4:16). The nature of the help may vary, but always it comes from one who knows exactly what you need.

~~~

Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Thus beloved, we pray. And when we don’t even know what to ask? It’s okay. My children don’t need to know much to get my help, only that they’re not doing so great and that Mom can do something about it. So it is that as we walk with Jesus we will come to times when we can only be sure of two things: One, our need is great and two, there is only one Person who can help. And as it turns out, in these moments, that may be all we really need to know.

Motherhood & Family

A Surprise

 

IMG_4342.jpg(From Instagram)

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.

Motherhood & Family, Taking Heart, Truth & Orthodoxy

Existential Angst, Baby’s Breath, & The Preacher

IMG_4370She would’ve napped for longer if I put her down in the crib, but I let her fall asleep on me because I love the feel of her in my arms. “You love this age,” my sister said to me recently— I really do. I love the way she still fits, her chubby thighs, and her soft baby breaths.

Baby snuggles are one of God’s answers lately to my existential angst.

“There is godly way to pursue things in the world and sinful ways to pursue spiritual things,” one of my professors said once. His words worked to shift something in my foundations, my concrete paradigms of the Christian life. They also point a finger at the vestiges of sin in me. In particular, a sinful way I try to pursue the Kingdom is to demand direct ties between my good works— whether through writing, at church, or in my home— and visible fruit. This is part of my bent as a big picture person (NF, for you Myerrs-Brigg-ers) who is always looking for connections. It’s why I write, and read, and think. But in the everyday, it means I often try to find peace and purpose through productivity. The measures are ostensibly spiritual— but the trap is that in seeking to justify my work through results, I am seeking to do sacred work while still walking by sight.

This desire to know without a doubt that I am accomplishing all I should do, and in everything doing things of eternal consequence, bears bad fruit. I’m prone to fretfulness over my own effectiveness, to perfectionism in what I do, to anxiety over wasted time, and an overall inability to rest. It also leads to, “Why-do-I-feel-so-tired-and-like-I-didn’t-do-all-I-should-but-it’s-not-like-I-wasted-time-today-so-did-I-make-the-right-choices?” and the aforementioned existential angst.

Motherhood has been sanctifying here. In part, it has limited my ability to spend time on explicitly “spiritual” work so that I need to trust God’s words on the sacredness of secular work. It has led to more exhaustingly “unproductive” days than one. But it also has been the sphere of life I’ve received gracious correction through the comfort of God’s good gifts.

As a seeker of meaning, I find myself circling back to Ecclesiastes every so often, and I have been camping here recently. Here the Old Testament Preacher grapples with the question of life’s purpose. He cannot find it in pleasure, wealth, wisdom, or toil and so again and again speaks of life feeling meaningless, “a chasing after the wind.” His answer ultimately though, is not to deny pleasure, wealth, wisdom, or work. Rather, he declares:

He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man. I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man. (Eccl. 3:11-12)

The reason the Preacher cannot find meaning in the temporal is not because it is bad, but because on every side he pushes against mystery. As eternal beings, our hearts grasp at the strings to connect all we do to the eternal. But in our finitude, we cannot begin to trace them all. Thus, the Preacher’s answer for my longing to find my security and justify my life through my works is worship. God alone, he says, does work that endures forever. We cannot add or take away from it, we cannot even fathom the sum of it. And so, we fear him who does eternal things. And our role here? We are called to “be joyful and do good” as long as we live, and to receive from God the gifts he gives.

Eric Liddell, missionary and Olympian running, said once that when he did, he felt God’s pleasure. In contrast, his competitor is depicted in the movie Chariots of Fire as describing his races as “10 lonely seconds to justify my existence.” The Christian, justified by Christ and delighted by the Father, does not need to justify her own existence. We work, yes, but as a gift. And we receive all he has to give during our few days under the sun, trusting that he who is over the sun is building something that lasts through the good we do.

As we surrender our self-justification, God gives us contentment and the ability to enjoy his gifts and our toil:

Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink andfind enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions  and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.

Through the Scriptures, God dismantles my idolatry of productivity and success, silencing the voices of accusation and judgement of a twisted conscience that does not allow for rest or mistakes or a sense of God’s pleasure. I can delight in the things of this world— my work, my children— and receive the contentment I feel in loving and serving them as good. As I learn to walk by faith, to surrender my need to understand and justify my own existence on my own terms, I rest with the little one snuggling in my arms. I receive this rest— and her— as given out of an overflow of God’s love.

We celebrated a birthday in our family this week, it flew by like a highway mile marker, giving testimony that the years indeed are a breath. We each shared why we were thankful for the birthday girl. We enjoyed a meal at one of her favorite restaurants. We delighted in each other. Food and drink, family, presents, and a sudden declaration of “BEST DAY OF THE YEAR!” by one being honored— all gifts. All from God who “keeps us occupied with joy in our hearts.”

Yes, the years are a but a breath, but they are so filled lavishly with good things by the unspeakably good God of infinite worth, power, and wisdom. Knowing this, I will work and rest today, and in worship, breathe it in.

Motherhood & Family, Taking Heart

No, I’m Not A Pro

IMG_6454.jpg

It hit me over Tex-Mex after a doctor’s appointment last week. I paused from my burrito, looked at Jeff and said, Can you believe we are going to have 4 kids? Can you believe we have 3?

I’m 37 weeks pregnant and baby girl could arrive any time. My doctor jokes about how I’m a “pro” going into my fourth labor and delivery, but the truth is, I don’t feel much more prepared for this baby than I felt 7+ years ago. If anything, three kids deep, I feel less sufficient for the task. Weeks (or days) away from meeting our fourth, I don’t feel as capable as I might have thought I’d be by now.

It’s not just the number of kids, really. (Though when I was pregnant with our first I couldn’t imagine how people made it past one.) I remember being discharged from the hospital with our firstborn and thinking, “That’s it? They’re just going to let us take her?” That we are allowed to be parents at all is still as shocking to me. As a mom of three, the enormity of the task of motherhood continues to dawn on me daily in new ways as does my inability to carry it out as I ought.

There is much more mystery in parenting than I had anticipated. I never expected to always have the right answers, to know what to do at all times, but I don’t think I ever realized how incredible it would be to be firsthand witness to a child’s life. As parents, there’s no one else who knows your children as well as you do and it’s easy to start feeling like you’ve got them figured out. At the same time, there is so much we are still learning about our children, so much hidden in the depths of who they are that we are only beginning to see.

It’s not just that each child has a unique combination of personality and preference,  strengths and weaknesses. It’s been fun to watch these aspects of their personhood be revealed, to learn who’s good at what, to be able to anticipate their different responses to circumstances, and to know how to help them differently. But there is a deeper reality that has become more apparent to me these days. That is, the fact that my children are daily interacting with the world— and with me— as embodied souls.

It’s not that I didn’t know this before, that my children have souls, but the reality of it is  becoming increasingly evident to me. I see it as we talk and they give me insight on how they interpret the world. I see it as they struggle to do good, as they grapple with their fears. I see it as they become aware of the brokenness in and around them.

I see it when one of them calls from the bed, “Mom, I have a question— it’s a Bible question!” It turns out she doesn’t just want to know some facts from Scripture, but what to do with her knowledge of falling short of God’s standard. We sit and talk through how difficult it is to be sorry and how hard it is to forgive.

The whole day, I have interacted with her primarily as caretaker and in-charge momma, now we speak as fellow struggling sinner-saints. We talk about how Paul wrote about the waging war inside us, of not doing the good he wanted to do, of doing the evil he didn’t want. I struggle too, I tell her, and we will continue to until we see Jesus. But he forgives us. He can change us. “I think I get it now,” she says sweetly. We hug and say goodnight. I have not been granted a chance to hear her thoughts and feelings, I have been gifted a chance to glimpse the inner workings of her soul.

My children are immortal beings with eternal souls. I would say this takes my breath away, but I don’t want to give the wrong impression. It feels less like witnessing a pretty sunset at the beach and more like standing at the precipice of a mountain. The view is incredible but my sense of helplessness at the top of sheer rock is almost overwhelming. To be entrusted with the care of souls is beautiful and terrifying at the same time. It is a holy task.

When I spoke to my daughter, we weren’t just interacting as thinkers. I couldn’t just operate out of my knowledge of religious truth, philosophy, or child psychology. Parenting is soul work. As she tried to make sense of what she knows and feels to be right, her own experience of being unable to carry it out, and her fears about the implications of her failure, her heart was making sense of truths with eternal consequences. My children are daily learning to live their lives before the face of God, of the reality of sinful nature, and hopefully, learning the wonder of the gospel.

Thus it is with fear and trembling that I prepare to welcome our newest family member into the world. I am not a pro. I could never wear any motivational mom gear because I am not #momstrong or a #bossmom by any measure. I don’t say this just because I know I should, but because I feel my own insufficiency more deeply and the weighty task of caring for these souls to be increasingly heavy. Yet I think there may be one thing I dare say I have grown in since not-so-baby-anymore #1, and that is turning to the one who is sufficient.

Many years ago, I may have crumbled into discouragement and fear at this growing sense of the enormity of motherhood, but by grace, I am learning to lean on grace. I have grown a bit, I hope, in running more quickly to my eternal refuge and help, to the one who welcomes weak moms and those who feel like they don’t know what they’re doing. I am recognizing more quickly that as I start feeling like panicking from the heights, that this is a call to trust. It is a call not to dwell on my lack but at his willingness to give grace, to finish my declaration of weakness with James 4:6’s but he gives more grace.

I have found there are one of two great temptations we are faced with when standing before tasks too great for us. First, the world would encourage us to turn inward at this point, to self-help and positive hashtags. But many of us have fallen enough times into the foolish self-confidence of Peter, who after declaring that he was different than all the other disciples, that he’d never deny Christ, found himself weeping at the end of the night. We have had enough of our own declarations of strength and subsequent failures.

The second temptation though, when we find ourselves trembling, is to try to pass off our unbelief as humility. Just as as soon-to-be-king Saul hid among the luggage even after God made clear his calling, we may walk in something that looks like humility, but actually is unwillingness to trust in his grace.

We, however, are called to a third way. To declare as Paul did, that though we are weak, our God is strong. As Christians we are freed not only to admit, but boast in our weaknesses and hear our God declare the sufficiency of his grace over us. His power is made perfect in our lack, so we stand confident in the strength he promises to give us to face the tasks he calls us to. Whatever your particular temptation in the face of God’s calling, know this — God gives more grace. He delights to show himself merciful to the humble and needy, and when you turn to him in your weakness, he receives glory by showing the sufficiency of his grace.

So here I am, in the last stretch of pregnancy, still learning to trust God with the life of my baby. Only instead of just wondering whether her heart will beat until we hold her in our arms (which I still grapple with anxiety about), I am trusting God for grace to care for her soul and the souls of her siblings.

I don’t know what you are being called to these days, whether it’s parenting or something else, but I do know that our sense of inadequacy and insufficiency often serves to remind us that God calls us to holy tasks too great for us. Maybe the reason why your particular task seems so huge is simply because it is huge. To live in obedience to God, to love as he loves, to trust and obey, to persevere through suffering– these are no small things whatever the context.

Whether in church, work, friendship, or family, we need not be strong on our own. We need not cower because of our inability. Though we may stand trembling at the precipices of God’s tremendous calling for our lives, we can trust.  Fully aware of the beauty and enormity of the tasks he has granted us, we look to him. Truly, our tasks are great and we really are insufficient for them, but even so, he gives more grace.

P.S.  I’ve been away from the blog for a while because I’ve been working on another writing project– but I hope to be posting more regularly again! They’ll probably be shorter posts so I can get them out more often, but hopefully they will be still be helpful. 

P.P.S. At the advice of a friend, I’m starting an Instagram account for this blog that I plan on using more regularly. If you’re on Instagram you can start following @keepingheartblog.