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
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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, 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.

Taking Heart, Truth & Orthodoxy

2020

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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.

Motherhood & Family, Taking Heart

Of Mice And Men And God Whose Purpose Stands

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The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own’, or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life – the life God is sending one day by day: what one calls one’s ‘real life’ is a phantom of one’s own imagination. -C.S. Lewis

Him: Can I go run in the leaves?

Me: No…Why?

Him: So I can jump in them and be happy!

“The best-laid schemes of mice and men / often go awry,” goes the poem, and the incidence of things going “awry” seems unusually high lately. Sickness, unexpected calls, frustrating inefficiencies (making a wrong turn and watching the time to destination jump up exponentially, anyone?), kids being kids.

So I’ve been walking around, muttering to myself, of mice and men, of mice and men.

I say I’ve been muttering, but a better word for it would be grumbling. I have been grumbling about interruptions from people, my circumstances, and the general state of being human which guarantees my making mistakes. But I am fighting, and failing but by grace still in the fight, to pivot my perspective around Proverbs 19:21.

Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand. 

Few things show my sinful desire to be God, and my inability to be him, like my plans do. More specifically, the interruption of them. Again and again in the Scriptures God challenges those who pridefully make our plans apart from him, confident in our own ability to carry them out. God frustrates the plans of persons and nations and in doing so shatters our illusions. We thought we were more than we are, surely we were deluded. Truly, truly, he alone is God.

And this is a good thing. The firmness of his plans and sureness of his purposes.

Because it means that even when our best-laid plans are toppled, we are not left alone to be tossed to and fro by circumstances. And instead of a resigned shoulder shrug, “well, of mice and men,” we have resounding truth: God’s purpose stands.

Our lives are not dependent on our own limited vision and meticulous planning. Nor are we ultimately at the whims of other people, sickness, traffic, and our own mistakes. Rather, our steps are determined by God who created and redeemed us.

Our God is mighty and there is none like him, dwelling in the high and lofty places. Yet in his mercy he bends his power to help us and sets his wisdom toward planning our lives. Now our loving Shepherd who willingly gave his life for us, tenderly leads his sheep along the paths laid out for us. And the good news is that though we may grumble at the frustration of our plans and the One who ordains interruptions, circumstances, limitations, he still is determined to do us good. He continually works all things for our knowledge and love of him, our Christlikeness and fruitfulness, our joy and his glory.

Thus, I am hoping to grow in receiving the interruptions that seem to mark my days as God-ordained invitations.

A mistake, something I overlooked that I feel like I shouldn’t have—

He is helping me to put to death the perfectionism which suffocates grace.

Tasks taking longer than expected—

He is challenging my lifeless idol of productivity. “Can you do what I do? Do you really have power? Can you give life?”

A fussy baby on my hip, a hungry 3-year old by my side, as I stand in a how-did-it-get-so-messy-again-already home—

He is making me more like Christ, and giving me a chance to choose to believe these words even as I type them.

Cries of “MOOOOMMM” from the other room—

He is nudging me on, giving a chance to join him as he works in the lives of others. (How often the interruptions come in the form of the precious little people living in my house who I profess to serve!)

A boy wanting to jump in leaves and be happy—

He is beckoning me to stop and rest, to not miss his gifts, and to trust the One who gives good gifts I did not even know to want.

Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand—

He is building my life. Bringing it to me day by day, moment by moment, interruption by interruption.

The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands. – Psalm 138:8