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.

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.

Taking Heart

Continually

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I need Thee, O I need Thee,
Every hour I need Thee!
O bless me now, Savior, I come to Thee.
– I Need Thee Every Hour

The girls are in school and we are in a new season. While I’m not exactly swimming in free time, I’ve been afforded a bit of mental space and time (albeit with toddler and baby). But with this gift of margin, I have found myself anxious, even paralyzed at times. There’s so much I want to do but not enough time to do it all. How do I choose what gets done and what doesn’t? Where should start?

This anxiety isn’t new for me. A refrain in my tenure as a stay-at-home mom has been the struggle of feeling like I’m not accomplishing all I should. Some of my problem is practical— I need more realistic goals and expectations. Some of it is spiritual— the ongoing struggle against perfectionism and asceticism.

God is speaking to these things even now. I have been coming to “aha!” moments with gladness, then stopping and realizing I’ve had these “revelations” before and have either forgotten or not thought to apply them this time.

In Psalm 71:3, the singer cries out: Be to me a rock of refuge, to which I may continually come; you have given the command to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress.

The continually is a comfort for forgetters like me.

In education, there are different types of curriculum. The “mastery” ones stay on one topic and move one once the learner has “mastered” it. “Spiral” ones spread out one topic over time, progressively bringing the learner to a different level each time a topic is repeated. I am hoping that the reiterations of truth God is speaking to me now are going deeper than before. That God is patiently weaving multi-spiral lessons into my life and I’m just seeing one strand of color resurface for now. Or maybe I’m just giving a chance to learn what I never mastered. Whatever the case, I am glad that God is not upset that I need him to repeat himself. Again.

Continually.

Do you need him to speak to you words of grace and truth today? Are you frustrated that you still need help? Still need comfort? Still need healing? Still need correction?  Do you imagine he is as frustrated as you are? Picture the most patient and kind teacher you know. Times that by 1000 and you’ll start to get a clearer picture of what God is like.

Beloved, take refuge in your infinitely gracious God today. Our fleeing to God for help is not a one and done thing. As our Father, he delights in our coming to him. As Lord, he receives glory as he gives the command to save. He does not tire of repeating himself and will not rebuke you as you come to him once more.

Taking Heart

Gaius

IMG_9670“Unfortunately, no other information about Gaius has survived,” I read. I pause and store this fact (of lack of facts) to come back to.

The unknown surrounding the life of the recipient of an epistle (3 John, specifically) is strangely comforting to me. Although, I shouldn’t say ”strangely” since I’m predictably drawn to such stories of hidden, Godward lives. I wouldn’t dare to say I identify with these saints as if I’d number myself among them. But their stories refresh my heart and recalibrate my desires. And they give me relief from the soul-shaping pressures of what is showcased and applauded in the world and much of Christian ministry today.

We minister, work, raise children, and live life in an age where we’re presented with constant, often instant, measures of success. The Bottom Line. Likes. Reach. Church Attendance. Conversions. We admire those who manage to bring in more of the above. We study how they made it. We listen to their talks and hope to one day share the same stage.

It is exhausting, discouraging, confusing, and our hearts know something is off here.

Which is why I am grateful for Gaius, whose hospitality was commended by John: “Beloved, it is a faithful thing you do in all your efforts for these brothers.” And I wonder how appealing such praise would be to most of us today, to be told we are doing a faithful thing.

I wonder if we’d opt for other adjectives: It is an effective and productive thing you do. It is an unprecedented and amazing thing you do. It is a groundbreaking and world-shaking thing you do. In the office, at home, in ministry, on social media, how many of us would consider being called “faithful” high praise?

But God rejects our terms and pays no heed to our metrics. Because, yes, you can be famous, highly effective, and praised while walking with God— but you could also gain the world and lose your soul. Because, if God saw success like we did, how would Jesus have measured up, finishing his ministry with 12 disciples—one a traitor— a mere 120 in the upper room after his ascension?

Scripture shows us it is his job to makes things grow, ours to be good and faithful servants. Thus, I am asking for grace to reject the world’s descriptors of a thing well-done and choose to do the faithful thing. As one who is beloved by God (as Gaius was described by John), to do the faithful thing in midnight baby feedings, in everyday marriage, in speaking to my children, at church, in writing. And in of it to leave the measuring to him.

I am asking for eyes to see past the screen, the praise of people, my own legacy.

And I am asking for a heart that daily works toward his praise in both senses– for the glory of his name and for his precious words of encouragement when I see him face to face.

Beloved, we may be forgotten by the world, but we will never be forgotten by him. And on the day of Christ, we will see that nothing was worth pursuing more than his welcome and well done.

Motherhood & Family

Greater Is He

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(from Instagram)

I felt the fall last night, the pain of childbearing. In the beating my body has taken in birthing and caring for a newborn. In the toil of raising sinful children. In my own hard-heartedness.

***

I’m sick of dealing with sin.

I think that to myself after refereeing another bedtime squabble. Nothing new, but it’s the mundanity of the self-centeredness that gets to me, that pervasive inward curvature of sin. I think about what it would be like to raise children in a pre-Genesis 3 world. I’m tired and mad and tired.

I retreat from their room when the Spirit speaks: Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world (1 Jn 4:4). A cheery voice calls from across the hall, “Mom, can we pray together?” It is a divine invitation.

I‘m still angry, but what am I going to do? Say, “No!“? So I reenter. First, anything you’re thankful for? Then, more accusatory than I‘m proud of, anything you need to say sorry for?

Their confessions catch me unguarded and convict me. They share specific moments from the day I hadn’t noticed. They give humble insights on their weaknesses. They apologize and forgive. My heart softens. We talk about friendship and family and seeing each other’s sin. I’m asked for verses that will help with a particular struggle with the flesh. We talk about Christ’s forgiveness and the Spirit’s help.

Then we pray.

I pray the gospel over us, over me. It is sheer grace I am able to do so. God himself turned the tide; he spoke, he invited, he softened.

All in spite of me, my sin, and the fall.

***

“Sometimes when I’m in a bad mood, it’s hard to do the right thing,” she says.

Me too, baby. But, praise be to God— greater is he who is in us than he who is in the world.