Motherhood & Family, Taking Heart, Truth & Orthodoxy

The Belly of my Ship

I don’t like missing worship, she told me as we streamed service. Which I was both sad and glad to hear.

Days before I knew I’d have to miss service, I was telling a few women how Easter was my favorite day of the year. I love catching a glimpse of heaven in the congregation’s boisterous singing. I am glad for the permission to unbalance my feelings for a moment, to lay aside the tension of holding the “not yet” of God’s promises and allow my heart to fully rejoice in Christ’s victory over death.

Instead, I attended service in pajamas, streaming it online with one of my girls who’s at the tail end of Covid quarantine. And though I’m grateful for our tech team who made that possible, it’s not the same as hearing the voices of God’s people fill the church. Not the same as feeling my faith rise as another takes my hand firmly, looks me in the eye, and tells me, “Christ is risen.” Instead, I spent a good chunk of the day in bed, wiped by an illness which has circumscribed much of my life for 20 years, though I’ve only recently received a diagnosis. Instead, I called another family member recovering from surgery for a brain aneurysm.

Christ is risen indeed.

I say this without irony, definitely without sarcasm. Because although I didn’t get to taste the soul-anchoring celebration I look forward to every year, Easter was an invitation nonetheless. To call to mind the sure, steadfast anchor for my soul, a hope that enters behind the veil (Heb. 6:19-20). Or, to borrow another nautical term, to turn my attention to my ballast.

I first learned about ballasts while reading up on the old church building where I worshipped as a child. After a cross-Atlantic journey to NY, the immigrants who founded the church had used ballast stones from their ship to build their sanctuary. Nowadays, ships use water pumps and tanks instead of these stones, but the purpose is the same. In order to keep vessels stabilized, weight is added below water-level to counteract the effects of the weight above it. Especially in rough seas, the ballast keeps a ship maneuverable and prevents it from becoming top-heavy and tipping over.

I feel as if this Easter, instead of attending the party above deck, I was walked down to the belly of my ship. The reality of the resurrection is not just a fact in history, a tenet of the Christian faith, or an event to be celebrated once a year. It is of first importance, an ever-present reality that keeps us whether we are consciously turning our attention to it or not. It steadies believers through storm and gale, so we are not shipwrecked. It is a ballast for life.

In one of my favorite passages, the apostle Paul wrote a series of counterfactuals describing the dreadful reality that would have been if Jesus did not rise. If Christ were not raised from the dead, he writes, our faith is futile. Because if Jesus’ lungs did not fill with air on the third day, the Bible and its gospel is a lie. If there weren’t a moment in time when his heart hadn’t been beating– and then (hallelujah!) began to pump again, there is no forgiveness of sin. No life after death. No hope beyond the grave. Christians are the most pitiable of all people if Jesus did not walk out of that tomb, leaving his grave clothes behind. (1 Cor. 15:14-19)

Then he goes on to say, but. But Christ has indeed has been raised from the dead (1 Cor. 15:20). So, the implication is, the opposite is true. The gospel is true and the Scriptures are reliable. Those who have died in Christ will live. We are not in our sins. We are not to be pitied.

What’s more, Paul explains, is that Jesus’ resurrection was not merely a reversal of death. It was the beginning of a new kind of life. The life Jesus rose to was of a different quality than the one he’d laid down at the cross. His body, sown in dishonor, was raised in honor. Sown mortal, he was raised immortal. Sown in weakness, raised in power. He was the first man to be resurrected this way, but as it was with him, so it will be with us (1 Cor. 15:42-49).

This is my sure and steady hope in life and death. In pandemic quarantines, and chronic illness, and uncertainty about loved one’s health. In anxiety, and weakness, and broken bodies, and struggles with sin, and the world’s innumerable sadnesses. That Christ was the firstfruits of those who have died, his resurrection guaranteeing the harvest to come. That when he returns, those who belong to him will be likewise transformed. That the resurrection seals all God’s promises as true. That I do not speak to, look to, or hope in a dead God, but one who lives and reigns forever. That I am truly forgiven. And that Jesus is still alive, even when it doesn’t feel like Easter.

Beloved, our faith is not futile. Not on Good Friday, Resurrection Sunday, Easter Monday, or any day that follows because Christ is still risen.

He is still risen indeed.

Taking Heart, Truth & Orthodoxy

Today We Wait

I never thought much about that Saturday, not until I read this page to my daughter. Years later, the phrase, imagined by the author of how the disciples felt that day, would rise to the forefront of my mind as I walked through my own loss:

We will be sad forever.

Today, the Church calendar leads us into remembrance. In between yesterday’s and tomorrow’s services, we embody in real time the hours between the first Good Friday and Easter. He was crucified, died, and was buried, our church recites weekly. That Jesus, God incarnate, died and stayed dead in a borrowed tomb is central to the Christian confession.

On this side of the resurrection, our minds often jump from cross to victory, but the gospel accounts don’t do that. All four writers walk us through Jesus’ burial, and as I read the accounts, I am surprised by how physical, how tangible the descriptions are. Those of us who have seen death up close recognize the details as common— decisions about what to do with Jesus’ body, how and when it would be prepared, where he would be laid to rest. These are the logistics of death. They are mundane. They are utterly and unspeakably awful.

I think of that first Holy Saturday, of the ones who loved Jesus now bereaved and bewildered, reckoning with the fact that they were waking up and Jesus was still dead. How crushing it must have been to lose not only Master and Friend, but their hope. Did they question what all their years with the rabbi had meant, what their proclamations of him being the Son of God amounted to, now that he was gone? “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” one follower would say the next day, not knowing he was speaking to the risen Savior himself (Lk. 24:21).

They did not know that as they wept, he lay lifeless for their redemption. They could not understand what was to come.

I see Holy Saturday as the stark contrast between warranted despair and grounded hope. If the disciples had not walked through those horrible days— if Jesus had not really died, and I mean “really” in its being in congruence with the tangible, material, gruesome reality of death in this world — we would remain under the full and just wrath of God (Rom. 5:9-10). And if, lying in the tomb, his heart did not begin to pump and his lungs never drew breath again, if his body did not grow warm and he did not stand to leave his grave clothes behind, truly it would be right to be sad forever. Our faith would be futile, we would be dead in our sins, found to be liars, and of all people most to be pitied (1 Cor. 15:12-19).

As I get older, I find this Saturday increasingly meaningful. Above all, I am reminded that the events we remember this weekend are the basis of any hope we have as believers. As the years go by and life feels more complicated, I am more certain that the simple truth of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ are worth staking my whole life on. I am increasingly convinced that I have nothing to boast in except the cross of Jesus Christ, and that he who loved me and gave himself for me is worth following. We walk this way between his resurrection and his return, not by sight, but by faith in what God has done and what he has promised he will do.

And as I await my own resurrection, my losses accumulating until then, Holy Saturday is a tangible reminder in the waiting that there is unspeakable joy to come. That God is good and wise even in the most painful trials, and that at the dawning of the new Day, there will be glory beyond imagination for those who put their trust in him.

Easter is coming, but for now we wait.

And beloved, though today we may wait, Easter is coming.

Truth & Orthodoxy

God Among the Crowds

“Can I just have 15 minutes?” is my request, delivered with more edge than I expected. Sometimes, I just don’t want anyone touching me. Which is to say, my body hurts, I’m tired (or busy), and I don’t want anything else asked of me right now.

I think I used to imagine Jesus’ relationship with the crowds like that of a speaker with an audience: They’d listen to him in large numbers like a sold-out stadium, then gather around as people might surround a guest lecturer after a talk. Even with a sizable group, listeners instinctively wait their turn and respectfully give the famous person some breathing space. Being a mom of 4 has changed that perception.

As long as I’m at home, there is no escaping our little crowd. I could be sitting on the mat in front of the stove and somehow it’s now their new favorite hangout. Not only am I no longer alone, the kitchen floor becomes strewn with books and toys. Case in point: Since I wrote that last sentence, a metal bowl has been placed on my left arm and two kids now flank me, holding clementines for me to peel. Another has pointed a large stick in my face.

“Please don’t sit on my arm.”
“I’m not sitting on your arm!”
“Yes, you were. You were JUST sitting on my arm.”
“I’m not sitting on your arm now.”

Maybe I used to picture how tired and busy Jesus might be, constantly surrounded by crowds. Now I feel it in my body.

I opened the Scriptures this morning, and I watched Jesus walking by the sea, then making his way up a mountain. He sits down. And that’s when the crowds come.

“The lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute, and many others,” the text says. “And they put them at his feet, and he healed them” (Matt. 15:29-31.)

This week, Jeff served our church in a way he always has. For some reason it caught my attention differently this time. And when I paid notice, my gratitude for my husband swelled. That’s what happened when I saw this crowd surrounding Jesus. I saw my King with fresh eyes.

In an earlier chapter, the moment they recognized him in town, people “sent around to all that region and brought to him all who were sick and implored him that they might only touch the fringe of his garment” (Matt. 14:35-36).

All the sick in the region?

I look across the street at my neighbor’s house and imagine what it’d be like to see homes empty out in Staten Island. If everyone chronically or critically ill went to seek healing all at once at the same place. Who would they bring? Would I go for my back pain? How uncomfortable would it have been to be among those pressing in to touch him? To hear people yelling out for help, their voices so persistent that the disciples would plead with their Master to tell them to stop.

Then I saw Jesus, literally surrounded by the broken.

The lame.
The blind.
The crippled.
“And many others.”

I saw him bending down to speak, to listen to a request, to touch, and to be touched.

What kind of Love must this be to not only acquiesce to, but welcome such a crowd? What power would stoop so low? What humility to heal and then, unwilling that the weak would faint on their way home, in compassion prepare a meal for thousands? How tenderly, how kindly, how joyfully he serves. What a sight it was to behold!, even if only in my mind’s eye.

In the future I may remember this scene in the context of motherhood, of Jesus as example to follow, (how do I treat my little flock that, at this very moment, is talking to me about June birthdays, pushing me off the couch, and pulling my hand off the computer keys. “I’m hungry, I’m hungry!” says the arm-tugger.) But right now, I’m just marveling at my King. He is the God of the broken, who welcomes the weak. The God who serves the crowds.

We answered this question after church on Sunday: “What difference would it be make for you to see the church as a hospital for sinners and not as a waiting room for a job interview?” This morning the Lord answered for me: Seeing the sick, I’d behold the Physician among them, and having seen him, my heart would love him so.

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

The Happiest Of Days

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It was good to be out for a few hours today. It was good for the kids to be under the clear sky discovering the ocean (the baby), making castles (the big girls), and throwing sticks at the waves (the boy). It was good for me to breathe deep, feel deep, and sense the darkness give way a bit.

I cried over my baby girl yesterday as I put her to sleep. Her folded hands rested tenderly on my neck and as her breathing deepened I thought of how quickly a year has come and then gone. I cried because I haven’t taken every moment in, because I’ve been restless to do other things and missed out. I cried because as sweet as these moments are, there’s a sense that they decay a bit, like old reels of film, as time passes. They’re never the same when we relive them in our minds, and that made me sad.

I heard a writer say once that all true stories are sad stories, even the happy ones, because they’re over. These good days will pass, was my sentiment, and I mourned for what I haven’t even lost yet. I probably also cried because my heart has been heavy, and fleeting moments of joy seemed too weak to withstand the hard things.

But today though, out in the open air, I enjoyed the sweetness of memory-making without the sting of decay. I was reminded that the feel of my toddler’s hand in mine, the goodness of looking at my boy’s sand-covered toes, the castle moat filled with carefully collected rocks— they are realer and truer and more lasting than I know.

Because though there are hard and horrible realities in this world, they will not last forever. And when Jesus returns, it isn’t our moments of happiness that will feel fleeting. The Bible says it’s our present trials that will seem light and momentary on that day.

In contrast, the goodness of God in his creation, our deep enjoyment of one another as image bearers, moments of comfort, rest, and his Presence— these are not as fleeting as I may feel. They are meaningful foretastes of the world that will be, a world without shadows, a world without decay, promised to all who trust in Christ.

God sends us the stuff of the world— things we can feel and taste and see— to remind us that as surely as his goodness still fills the earth, the World we await is realer than real and surer than sure. The Christian hope is not to just escape this world, it is the restoration of all things when Jesus returns; a new Heavens and a new Earth is coming, so real that this life in comparison would have felt like a dream. And God fortifies our hope for this reality as we look at the things of this world with eyes of faith.

I’d like to think that in ages to come, these passing moments with my baby and today’s time outside on the beach will not diminish but grow in significance. That as we all look back, we will find the moments we grieve losing were not actually lost to us. Perhaps we will see them with more clarity, not less, as we understand them as lovingly crafted by God so we would not lose heart while awaiting the happiest of days. Maybe then we will know our sweet moments as they truly were, clearly and in living color, even better than we’d known at first.