Taking Heart

My Boy’s Question, and Mine Too

Doubts are the messengers of the Living One to rouse the honest. They are the first knock at our door of things that are not yet, but have to be, understood. – George MacDonald

He held my hand as we walked through the church lobby. My brave boy had made his way up from the basement, across the church, and to the second floor to tell me about the tornado warning. We were making our way back to the basement when I heard sniffling. “Are you afraid?” He nodded, and I saw his tears. So I held him, and we prayed.

Why did God make tornadoes?, he’d asked me the week before that warning. His question is evidence of his growing understanding of the world and of the Christian claim. At four years old, he is making connections: God made everything. God loves and does what is good. The destruction and death caused by tornadoes are not good. Not knowing how to hold all of that at the same time, he wants to know why? He’s not the only one in our family asking.

For my son, it was tornadoes. For me as of late, it’s been the suffering of beloved, the sinful actions of professing believers, the evil done by man to others who bear the image of God. Why do you allow such things, God? Why do you ordain them? Why haven’t you answered? My why’s rode in on the tail of weariness and persistent discouragement, and an inexplicable sadness that descended on me like clockwork every night.

Why do I believe all this again?

It feels silly, maybe presumptuous as I write it now, but I think I honesty believed I was done with doubt. It isn’t that I’ve ever felt my faith to be particularly strong. Whether because of temperament or experience, I live with a keen awareness of its smallness. Often it feels as if I am just a razor’s edge away from falling into a chasm of unbelief. Sometimes, it’s only when I feel my heart steadied in the congregation— as we worship, recite the Apostle’s creed, take communion — that I realize how shaky it’s been. Even times I feel most certain of what I confess to be true, I know the surety to be a gift for today, not necessarily guaranteed for tomorrow.

In highschool, I grappled intellectually with what seemed to be contradictions between faith and science. In college, the exclusive claim of Jesus among other faiths and the veracity of the Bible. Guilt drove me to questions of my own salvation and an outright declaration to God that I didn’t believe he could love me. For a time doing campus ministry, I just felt a lingering uneasiness about my faith as I fielded questions from skeptics. In the aftermath of miscarriage and as a foster parent, I doubted God’s goodness.

In each instance, God mercifully met me, and in hindsight, doubt was a signal that my faith was being forced to mature in painful but vital ways. Still, I think I’d hoped I’d come out to the other side of it enough times to avoid reliving that rug-pulled-out-from-under-you sensation, the disorienting fog of uncertainty enveloping all that seemed clear just moments before. As I’ve brought my questions to God during this new round of doubt, I’ve seen the anger that drove it, and behind that anger, grief. In this, I’ve found a companion in Job.

I used to plow through the first 37 chapters of Job, the back-and-forth poetry between Job and his friends. I knew the gist of those opening arguments— Job suffered deeply and demanded a counsel with God, his friends blamed him for all that happened to him— and I thought that was all I needed to know before getting to the good part, when God finally shows up. This time, my stomach tensed as I saw Job’s friends grow increasingly angry at him, their charges crescendoing from well-meaning but mistaken to hostile. And when Job spoke, I nodded, underlined, cried, and soaked in his words.

There are many good, helpful answers addressing the problem of pain and evil, but it isn’t my intent to draw them out here, only to say that I felt the mercy of God in giving his people such an account as Job’s. I think of the way people turn on songs and put playlists about heartbreak on replay when they are hurting, and the way we are helped somehow by listening to recording artists expressing our pain with their music. Job gave words to my grief, anger, and perplexity.

At times, dealing with the dissonance of knowing God is in control in the face of evil and pain, it feels like the only two choices put before me are to either reject the Scriptures, or to resort to dealing with suffering as a theoretical construct, as if Job’s children didn’t die, as if his disease-ridden body wasn’t made of flesh and bones. Job disciples me in a different direction though, urging me to go to uncomfortable places beyond a simplistic, unfeeling theology or sinful unbelief.

The complicated reality of life as a believer in a fallen world is that deep despair and great faith can reside in the same person at the same time. Job curses the day he was born, but refuses to curse God. It’s his insistence on the goodness and justice of God that makes his suffering so difficult for him to understand. He holds God responsible for his suffering, yet won’t say God is or does evil. Job won’t stop believing and because of that, he won’t stop asking.

The climax of Job has God establishing his right to do as he chooses. Here, the line is drawn in the sand between doubt and rebellion, questions asked in good faith versus the demand that we be judge and God be accountable to us. Job, having hovered that line, repents for the way he’s crossed it. But it isn’t the theological argument itself that settles things for Job. The resolution is found in his encounter with the One he’d been calling to question. Job exclaims after being forced to reckon with God’s questions for him, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (Job 42:5.)

This is a great mercy and mystery— how often God’s people have found that on the other side of that “door of things that are not yet, but have to be, understood,” is God himself. So Job is interrogated in a whirwind, and Thomas is invited to touch Jesus’ wounds. The disciples wonder at this kind of man who rules the waves, and the man who prayed “I believe, help my unbelief!” witnesses the healing of his child. It is a pattern in Scripture, God in his kindness revealing himself to those who use what little faith they have to cry out to him. He meets doubters, so that those who had once heard of him, now see him. This is the testimony of my own life, so that doubt, though unsettling, is not quite as scary as it used to be.

Faith, no matter how small, is a gift from God. I know it to be true to my core, the way I have believed in times I thought I’d fall, the way it has been sustained with a supernatural strength not from myself. Sometimes, the questions we hurl in desperation to the sky signify our refusal to let go of the mustard seed of faith entrusted to us, even though we walk weary and broken in this world. Sometimes our whys come because we are holding onto this precious gift in a world where tornadoes exist. So we pray, whisper, and wail the whys as doubt knocks hard on the door. Because there is good reason to hope that God himself will meet us on the other side, and Jesus has promised seed-sized faith will be sufficient until then.

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.

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

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.

Taking Heart, Truth & Orthodoxy

The Resurrection Is Not A Footnote

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Question: How does Christ’s resurrection benefit us?
Answer: First, by his resurrection he has overcome death, so that he might make us share in the righteousness he obtained for us by his death. Second, by his power we too are already raised to a new life. Third, Christ’s resurrection is a sure pledge to us of our blessed resurrection.
(Heidelberg Catechism)

Easter Sunday is my favorite day of the year. I love meeting together as a church after having corporately embodied the wait between the cross and the empty tomb. I love waking up ready to sing resurrection songs with God’s people. I love hearing of the hope we have because Christ lives and joyfully declaring to one another “He has risen indeed!”

It has not always been this way though. I have not always looked forward to Easter with such anticipation. I suspect this is so for a number of reasons, including my own spirituality and progress in the faith. But in large part, it has had to do with my lack of understanding regarding the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection.

Back when I served in campus ministry, going on regular short-term missions, we would share the gospel here and abroad using an illustration. I would walk through creation, sin, Jesus’ death, and his promise of salvation and did it so often (maybe hundreds of times) it became second nature. But as often as I presented it, I still had to make a conscious effort to remember to tell people Jesus did not stay dead.

At the time, my understanding of the resurrection largely centered on its apologetic force— Jesus defeated death and Satan, proving he was truly God. Thus, we could be sure his teachings are trustworthy and that he was able to bear the weight of our sins. While this is by no means untrue, seeing the resurrection primarily as the greatest of Jesus’ miraculous signs pushed it to the background. More than once as I shared the gospel, I’d have to backtrack to say, “Oh yes, and Jesus also came back to life! Because, he is God and more powerful than death!” 

Without knowing it, I was missing a key pillar of the Christian hope. Since I grew up in the church, I know I’m not alone in this. While we see it as fundamental to our faith to understand the meaning of his death, we are a little hazy on the subject of his subsequent life. But there’s something wrong when the resurrection of Christ is not central to our understanding of the gospel.

How do we know this? 1 Corinthians 15.

The Apostle Paul, addressing the Corinthians about their doubts over a future physical resurrection of the dead, brings them through a thought experiment. He writes,

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. (v 12-13)

Did you catch that? If Christ has not been raised, Paul says, then his preaching is in vain. The believer’s faith is in vain. To Paul, the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ is no mere footnote — helpful but okay to gloss over– it is essential to the Christian faith. He goes on to list some implications of the hypothetical, “if Christ has not been raised.” 

According to Paul, if Christ has not been raised…

We are believing manmade lies. (v. 15)

We are still in our sins. (v. 17)

Those who have died trusting Christ are facing God’s eternal wrath. (v. 18)

We are the most sorry and pathetic people in the world. (v. 19)

This list shows just how devastating it would be if Jesus did not rise from the grave. But why are these things so?

Well, because the apostles claimed Jesus came back to life— and if he didn’t, they are liars.

Because if Jesus were still dead, it means he has not satisfied the wrath of God for our sins. In other words, if he did not rise, he is still under the curse of sin and has not finished paying the debt of sinners. Furthermore, “If Jesus had stayed dead, it would have proven that death had a rightful claim over Him, and since death has a rightful claim only over sinners, Jesus’ remaining dead would have meant that He was a sinner and not our Redeemer.” (“The Resurrection of Christ”)

Because if Jesus has not paid for sins completely, there is only fearful judgment awaiting believers in death. Those who died believing in Christ for eternal life would find they trusted him in vain.

Because to have staked our lives on a Christ who was not raised is utter foolishness. It is to suffer persecution for one who will not save, to labor in life and ministry for nothing, to trust in someone who cannot deliver.

If Jesus did not come back from the dead, we too are dead in our sins. We have absolutely no hope. But, wait! Paul goes on to declare, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”

So, looking again at the list above, because of Christ’s resurrection…

We can trust the testimony of the Scriptures.

The early believers either were or had access to firsthand witnesses to the resurrection. The tomb was empty because Jesus’ lifeless body was raised with power and transformed to a new body with an indestructible life (Heb. 7:16). Jesus ate with his disciples to prove he was no ghost or vision. Those who had abandoned Christ at the garden now boldly proclaimed his Lordship, even unto death, because they had seen the Risen Lord.

Thus, our faith is more than morality and psychological wellness, right living and positive thinking. It is founded on the historical reality of a man who was declared dead and then seen more alive than ever before.

We are justified.

Romans 4:25 says Jesus was “raised for our justification.” His resurrection is proof our debts have been paid and the Father no longer has wrath stored up for those who take refuge in Christ. Herman Bavinck writes of Jesus’ resurrection as, “the guarantee of our forgiveness and justification” and, “a divine endorsement of his mediatorial work, a declaration of the power and value of his death, the ‘Amen!’ of the Father upon the ‘It is finished!’ of the Son.”* 

Therefore, when plagued by guilt over our sins and doubts about our salvation, we look to the cross and to the empty tomb. The cross shows us Christ has borne our punishment. The empty tomb assures us there is no longer any more of our punishment to bear.

We will live though we die.

Those who trust in Christ are saved from the wrath to come. While we still grieve over the unnaturalness and sting of death, there is such hope. For the believer, pardoned for sin and brought into the family of God, death has become a doorway into life eternal. Not only are we promised salvation from the wrath of God, but Christ is the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”

Many Christians think of life after death as a disembodied, ephemeral, dreamlike existence. Nothing could be further from the picture Scripture paints for us. Jesus went through great lengths to show he had risen into a real, material body. The Christian looks forward not to an escape from the physical world, but a renewal of creation at Christ’s coming— the New Heavens and New Earth and where we receive glorious, immortal, material bodies (Rev. 21, 1 Cor. 15:48-49).

How can we be sure we will be raised in this way? We have seen the firstfruits of Christ. In farming, the firstfruits was the guarantee that the rest of the harvest would be good. It was proof of what was to come for the remaining season. Jesus was not the first person to ever rise from the dead. But he was the first person to rise from the dead into an imperishable body, raised in glory and power (1 Cor. 15:42-44).

We have a sure hope of resurrection because one who is the Son of Man, now glorified, has put off his perishable body and put on immortality (1 Cor. 15:53-54). And what has happened to him, will happen to those who are in him.

We are not to be pitied.

Though the Christian life is difficult. Though we are discouraged and downcast. Though we labor and see little fruit. Though we mourn hardheartedness and the wreckage of sin. Though we weep over prodigals. Though we are hard pressed on every side, perplexed, and afflicted.

Christ is risen.

What assurance of our forgiveness! What courage as we labor to serve him! What power over sin! What comfort as we live in broken bodies! What hope as we walk with believers through death into victory!

Christ is risen indeed!

Crown Him the Lord of Life! Who triumphed o’er the grave.
Who rose victorious to the strife for those He came to save.
His glories now we sing, Who died and rose on high,
Who died eternal life to bring and lives that death may die.

 

 

 


*Herman Bavinck writes of the resurrection as being:
1) Proof of Jesus’ messiahship, the coronation of the Servant of the Lord to be Christ and Lord, the Prince of life and Judge. (Acts 2:36, 3:13-15; 5:31; 10:42)
2) A seal of his eternal divine sonship (Acts 13:33, Rom. 1:3)
3) A divine endorsement of his mediatorial work, a declaration of the power and value of his death, the “Amen!” of the Father upon the “It is finished!” of the Son. (Acts 2:23-24; 4:11; 5:31; Rom. 6:3,10)
4) The inauguration of the exaltation he accomplished by his suffering. (Luke 24:26; Acts 2:33; Rom. 6:4;Phil 2:9)
5) The guarantee of our forgivenesss and justification. (Acts 5:31; Rom. 4:25)
6) The fountain of numerous spiritual blessings: the gift of the Spirit (Acts 2:33), repentance (Acts 5:31), spiritual eternal life (Rom. 6:3f), salvation in its totality (Acts 4:21)
7) The principle and pledge of our blessed and glorious resurrection (Acts 4:2; Rom. 8:11; 1 Cor. 6:14)
8) The foundation of apostolic Christianity (1 Cor. 15:12ff)