Church & Ministry, Motherhood & Family, Taking Heart

The Invisible God Who Sees Me

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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.

Truth & Orthodoxy

Learning How To Handle Abundance

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My life is filled with good things. As I write, my sweet boy is crawling around the room babbling to himself, every now and then coming to check in with me, snuggle, and play. My two girls are still asleep after a late night yesterday— one of them stayed up to help me clean while waiting for daddy to come home. So I sit in a now tidied-up room in a home I love. I write with a relatively clear mind and healthy body. The sun rose again this morning as it does every day, and I remember its glory I witnessed during Monday’s solar eclipse. I hear footsteps upstairs now. One little lady is up and calling for me.

My life is filled to overflowing with good and sometimes I don’t know how to handle it. I don’t merely mean sentimentally, though at times my heart does feel so full it could burst. And I don’t mean how to handle all the cuteness of my fuzzy haired boy or handle the messiness caused by my energetic, playful, artistic girls.

What I mean is that I often struggle with knowing what it means to respond to all this good, or as Paul writes in Philippians, how to “abound” and “have plenty,” in a Godward way. It may sound like I’m overthinking things, and maybe there’s a hint of truth in that, but stick with me for a moment here. I have a hunch that I’m not alone in this.

A few weeks ago, I read a fascinating NY Times magazine article, “Losing It in the Anti-Dieting Age.” In it the writer shares an anecdote about how she decided to stop dieting only to realize she didn’t know how or what to eat. She writes about seeing a nutritional therapist and learning to eat in an intuitive-eating class. In it, they took small pieces of food, starting with a raisin, and learned to eat food as if they were “aliens who had just arrived on Earth and were learning what this thing called food was and why and how you would eat it.

Ever since Adam and Eve took of the fruit and ate it, our relationship with things of the Earth has been complicated to say the least. Because what God made is good, there is good in the world. The skies proclaim his glory, people reflect his worth. But with sin’s entrance came the distortion of good things.  Food is one example of this, but it is just one category among all created things has the potential to be confusing, twisted, or misused.

After the Fall of man, we have elevated created things to the place of God and misused what we have toward idolatrous ends. We are tempted to find satisfaction in people and things rather than God and to use them for our own glory.  Furthermore, with sin came an element of fearful anxiety cast over our days, the entrance of loss and risk in a world now inhabited by thorns. We make friendships, work, buy houses, and start families knowing we could lose everything we have in an instant. And even with all the good we have, in the back of our minds we are always aware of countless others who are presently suffering.

In a world East of Eden, filled with good things but also of temptation, uncertainty, and suffering, it is then a struggle to know how to handle the “good things” in life– the created things that God has declared good. Like someone learning to see a raisin in a healthy way, we often need to undo and relearn our relationship to created things.

Apart from God, we only see glimpses of the purposefulness behind the universe and all it contains. But as Christians, our relationship to created things is redefined by our knowledge of the Creator to whom, for whom, and through whom all things exist. And as we grow in the faith, God teaches us how to relate not only to trials in life, but to the good, the blessings he chooses to give.

For those who struggle with temptation, guilt, fear, or anxiety in dealing with good things from God, here are some ways to start rethinking and receiving God’s gifts.

Receive good from God as a gift. (Or, receive with thanksgiving.)

I’ve written about how when my son was born, I struggled with reconciling such enormous blessing from God with the suffering I witnessed around me. Why God, why such blessing? I wondered. And God’s answer to me was simply that he is a good God who gives good gifts (Ja. 1:17).

I cannot make sense of the good things I have because I don’t deserve any of it. But I don’t need to deserve it to receive them as gifts. I am called thus to turn to God in thanksgiving, to the Giver of every good and perfect gift. And when I meditate on the heart of the Giver, I am drawn to him not to his blessings as ultimate, but to see his grace and surrender to his wisdom.

Receive good from God as a sermon. (Or, turn to God in worship.)

God speaks through the goodness of created things. As a Creator, his nature is reflected in his works— his beauty in the skies, his abundance in supplying our physical needs, his wisdom in creating our bodies, his lovingkindness in the care of others.

Sometimes, in an effort to push back against the prosperity gospel, we neglect to see that though God speaks through suffering, he also speaks in his endless supply of good things. The sun rises and rain falls— that is a sign of his goodness to all creation, to both evil and good. The skies proclaim his handiwork, day to day pouring out speech, declaring his glory. We breathe in his air, we walk on his earth, we enjoy the company of others made by him in his image.

All the goodness in creation is a sermon meant to harken our ears to the Preacher and turn to him in worship. As one pastor said, we don’t honor the Preacher by ignoring the sermon (quoted here.) As we guard our hearts against thinking God only speaks in blessing us, we don’t need to ignore the ways he does speak to us in giving good gifts. Rather we can see his character in the things created and turn to him in worship.

Receive good from God as a postcard. (Or, long for home with hope.)

Because we live in a world where death and sin have yet to be swallowed up, our enjoyment of good is often tainted with sorrow. We are sorrowful over our inability to enjoy good gifts today with those who have passed on. We endure the uncertainty of knowing those we love aren’t guaranteed safety and longevity. We are aware that every vacation must come to an end, each peaceful stretch on life’s road will eventually come turn into a place of struggle. As another has written, the “prospect of pain threatens our pleasure.”

We live in the time in between Jesus’ resurrection and return, after the beginning of the restoration of all things, but not at home yet. And so, all of our enjoyment of created things, though real, is still a flicker. Our delight in God’s good gifts are in a sense still fleeting. The flickering and fleetingness, though meaningful and wonderful, point us to our lasting hope at the end of the road. Only at the return of Jesus will our joys never be followed with sorrow, our gains never threatened with loss.

The good gifts from God we enjoy today are “postcards from the lasting city that are meant to be handled, admired, passed around, stuck on the fridge.” They are truly good but they are still shadows of what is to come for those who believe in Christ. So we enjoy these postcards with great hope and anticipation of a place filled with only good and eternal joy.

Receive good from God as a stewardship. (Or, seek to be generous.)

Sometimes, when we consider our lack of merit in receiving good from God, we are tempted toward guilt and introspection. Who are we to receive such good? And while there is an appropriateness to feeling our unworthiness, we are not meant to stay there because all we’ve been given is not just for our own sakes, but for the sake of others.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul exhorts the church in Corinth to give generously so that their abundance may supply the needs of others. He references the Israelites gathering manna, saying “As it is written, ‘Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack’” (2 Cor. 8:1-15).

Rather than merely feeling guilty about our lives being relatively struggle-free compared to others or even fearing that the trials of others will come upon us, we are called to willingly enter into the suffering of others to bring relief. Whether this means having the time and emotional capacity to intercede for the hurting or financial means to give to someone who lacks, all we have has been allotted by God to us to use for others. We are merely stewards of the created things we have however much and for however long God chooses to entrust them to us.

My life is filled to overflowing with good. Little things like a curbside find of a like-new infant push-walker we’d mentioned would be nice to have but weren’t going to buy or opening up the fridge for a late night snack to find fried chicken wings Jeff brought back from church last night. Important things like our wedding anniversary we just celebrated, three sweet little people in our home, and a cherished church family.

And I am learning to receive all this good and more from our gracious God— in thanksgiving, worship, hope, and generosity.

“For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” (Rom. 11:36)

Truth & Orthodoxy

This Is Helpful

From the ESV Study Bible‘s Introduction to Ecclesiastes (italics/bold mine):

One can see the Preacher’s most distinctive contribution from the way he uses the term “find out” (see note on 3:11). Every human being wants to find out and understand all the ways of God in the world, but he cannot, because he is not God. And yet the faithful do not despair but cling to God, who deserves their trust; they can leave it to him to make sense of it all, while they seek to learn what it means to “fear God and keep his commandments,” even when they cannot see what God is doing. This is true wisdom.

and,

The history of salvation is the grand overarching story of the Bible; embracing it gives coherence to all of life. It calls each of God’s people to own the story, and it dignifies each one with a role in the further outworking of the story. Nevertheless it is impossible for any human being to fully grasp how his or her decisions will contribute to God’s grand scheme; and Ecclesiastes helps people to see that they do not have to understand this. Each of the faithful, by “fearing God and keeping his commandments” (12:13), participates in ways that he cannot “find out,” trusting that God will take care of the big plan.