Taking Heart

Grief and Gratitude

And just like that the girls have come to the end of their school year. I know “just like that” is an understatement. But it’s honestly what it feels like. These long months have passed in a blink.

I am grateful. Proud of the ways my daughters have been more resilient than I understood they were being at the time. I think of that morning I saw my brave girl reading at her desk, sitting in the Zoom waiting room for so long I asked her what was going on. Her class hadn’t signed on when she thought they would. She’d been doing so well virtually, I didn’t think to ask until then if it was hard being apart from the rest of her class. She nodded. Then the tears came. Oh, my sweet, tough and tender-hearted girl.

It’s been a tough year, but my kids have flourished and grown, and are healthy and well. There is so much to thank God for.

I also feel a sense of loss for them, more than I’d expected. It started when it finally hit me they’d really come the end of the school year without learning in-person with the amazing teachers they’ve come to love. Jeff felt it too. When he brought them to the school on the last day for ice-cream, he watched our oldest running in the field with her friends. “She got to just be a kid,” he said.

Grief and gratitude. There have been good reasons for both this year. The world is so broken and God is so faithful. Neither truth negates the other, and today my heart is experiencing the interwovenness of both.

It was the same this Sunday, our first day back at church in person after half a year apart. Months ago, Jeff had come home to find me crying. I missed singing with our people so much, longed for the day the worship team wouldn’t be standing in front of an empty sanctuary. Still the joy of gathering again yesterday was mingled with sorrow as I realized how many hard things remain unchanged. Some dated to before the world shut down and some since. There were faces missing— one beloved now worships with the Lord; many other beloved are drifting from the faith.

There is space for both lament and thanksgiving in the Scriptures, and not in a compartmentalized way either, as if they are to be kept for separate places and times. We see it as we read the Old Testament, how at the rebuilding of the temple, some “wept with a loud voice” and others “shouted aloud for joy” so that “the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping” (Ezra 3:13). The legitimate grief of those who’d known the glory of the former temple was expressed alongside of the equally legitimate joy over the new one.

It’s interesting to me that it says both the weeping and joyful shouting were loud. Holding both grief and gratitude is not like mixing cold and hot to get a tepid middle temperature. They don’t balance or cancel each other out. The voices of both were distinct, yet not easily separated. It can often feel that way in life. In the midst of a global pandemic, even more so, I think.

Our lists are long with staggering losses and life-giving graces. There are thousands of reasons to weep. And just as many to give thanks.

So we lament loud. God, we’ve lost so much! There is so much yet to be mended and made whole! How long? Have mercy, come quickly, and make it right!

We praise loud. Lord, for all that has been and is being restored, for all the foretastes of kingdom come, for the grace seen and unseen, we cannot thank you enough!

We will cry and we will shout. We will rejoice and we will mourn. And it’ll be ok if we can’t tell apart the sound of one from the other.

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.

Truth & Orthodoxy

The Common, Hard Things

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“You’re so proud.”

Such were the insightful words of a dear, straightforward friend after I shared about my time in prayer. More specifically, I told her that I had told God, “My heart hurts…a little.” It was pretty big for me to admit out loud, to God and to another person, about my heartache. But she was referring to my attempt to play down what actually had hurt quite a lot. I laughed because she was right, and more than 10 years later, I’m thinking again about what she said.

Ever since I was a kid, I prided myself in not making a big deal out of things my peers did. I probably thought of myself as more mature, saving my sympathy for things I thought were real problems, not boy or friend drama. There were so many people going through worse things, how could my friends or I complain about our lives? I don’t know what it was that made me start comparing people’s difficulties so early on. Certainly pride was a factor, though I think not the whole reason.

Part of comparing people’s suffering had to do with trying to make sense of the world. As a child, I was moved by reports of famine abroad or serious illness closer to home. I didn’t know how to reconcile such terrible suffering with less horribly difficult things, and I didn’t think I should make a big deal out of my relatively easy life. I knew God was involved in our day-to-day, but I couldn’t see him as sympathizing with our daily burdens. Not when there were so many others who suffered more. Not when he himself already had gone through so much for our salvation.

The moment more than 10 years ago when I admitted that my heart was hurting (albeit, toned down with “a little”) signified a breakthrough for me in learning to come to God with suffering that in my mind was insignificant but felt hard nonetheless. As I started to give God just a little leeway into my hurt, he broke through in compassion with words Jesus spoke at the famous feeding of the four thousand.

The story goes like this. After days of ministering to the crowds, healing the lame, blind, crippled, and mute, Jesus approaches his disciples about getting food for the people. The disciples protest the impossibility of this task, and Jesus performs a miracle, feeding four thousand plus with seven baskets of leftovers to spare. I had known this story since I was a child, but for the first time, I noticed Jesus’ motivation for multiplying the bread and fish.

“I have compassion on the crowd because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And I am unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way.” (Matthew 15:32 ESV)

Jesus, who’d fasted for forty days early in his ministry, was concerned about a crowd who hadn’t eaten for three. He didn’t compare his capacity and trial to theirs. He knew some of them would not be able to handle the journey home, and in his kindness, was unwilling to send them away empty. He didn’t say, “I’m doing important things like healing blindness and sickness, bringing about God’s kingdom. You find food on your own.” He didn’t harshly rebuke them, “I didn’t eat for forty, you should be able to survive three.” He had compassion on them, the Scripture says. In the same way, he has compassion on us.

A few weeks ago, I told a friend how tired and unmotivated I’d been feeling. I wouldn’t have minded the fatigue if my mind were sharper and soul healthier. If I were out of commission physically, at least I could be getting some reading or prayer in. But I was reminded again that try as I may to separate the parts, I am an embodied soul, and my body, mind, and spirit are interconnected in complicated ways. My lack of productivity, both outwardly and inwardly, contributed to low-level guilt. I was also tired and cranky. And I was frustrated that I was being knocked out by something so common— a healthy first-trimester of pregnancy.

Then she spoke words I believed were from God to my heart. “Just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s not hard.” (Thank God for kind friends who speak truth!)

So I have been thinking again of the gift of approaching God with our common, hard things, and want to share some of what I’ve been learning.

Common, hard things remind us of God’s infinite mercy and power.

If God were finite, he’d need to split his time, attention, and power accordingly between global crises and individual personal requests. The news cycle and “compassion fatigue” reveal our limited human capacity to care, much less act, in response to the suffering we witness in the world. Oftentimes we assume that God is like us, triaging the needs of billions and prioritizing the urgent ones first.

Some people think going to God with the small things in our lives belittles him, making him small in our own eyes. This is true if we only ever go to him with our own wants and needs. But our heavenly Father is big enough to handle both requests for his kingdom to come and for our daily bread. He is powerful enough to shoulder our troubles and the burdens of the rest of the world day in and day out.

I’ve heard people say they don’t pray because there are so many other important problems in the world for God to tend to. I know what that feels like. Often, God provides in small ways that matter to me, and as I’m thanking him, I am embarrassed that he answers my “dumb prayers.” I’ve been trying to stop calling them “dumb” and instead think of them them as “sparrow” requests, granted by God who cares for lowly sparrows and numbers the hairs on my head (Matthew 10:29-31).

Because God is infinitely powerful, no burdens are too heavy for him. Because he is infinitely merciful, none insignificant. He knows our frame, knows when there are things that will leave us too faint to walk home, and is willing and able to provide the bread and fish we need. Learning to come to him with our common, hard things reminds us of the greatness of his compassion and the limitless of his power.

Common, hard things deepen our sympathy for others.

There are trials we all recognize as legitimate suffering— serious illness, death of a loved one, persecution, and the like. But it’s harder to minister to people when they are not as strong as we are, not “getting over” things as quickly as we would, not enduring with attitudes we think they should have. We grow impatient with such sufferers. The problem with having a measuring chart that relativizes our suffering is that it hinders us from ministering to those whose trials are deemed less difficult. Thankfully, Jesus is not like us.

Jesus endured all we face: loneliness, rejection, temptation, pain, loss, tiredness, and more. He knows all of it, from Everest-sized suffering to pebble-in-shoe trials. Yet he doesn’t wait for us to approach him with our problems only to respond, “I endured. Why can’t you?” Rather, because he was tempted in every way as we are, our High Priest mercifully sympathizes with us in our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15).

Likewise, as we learn to admit to God that the common trials in our lives are hard, we no longer see ourself as better than others who suffer. And as we receive comfort from him in our trails, we are able to comfort others with his divine comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

Common, hard things humble us so we can receive grace and give him glory.

Marriage and parenting are God-given mirrors, revealing to ourself our true selves. Since becoming a parent, I’ve seen how impatient, unmerciful, unkind, and all-around nasty I can be. But the most humbling thing for me hasn’t been merely seeing how sinful I am. The most humbling thing has been realizing how I’ve pridefully judged others who I thought were impatient, unmerciful, unkind, and all-around nasty. If my trials were uncommon and suffering extreme, I may find a way to excuse myself. But being put through the daily, common grind and temptations others face— and failing. That has been humbling.

The common, hard things in my life have been used by God to surface pride in the ability to resist temptations I thought myself above. I didn’t think I’d be the mom with the kid screaming in the store, caring more about my image than my child. Until first trimester of this pregnancy, I didn’t understand the temptation to distract myself with entertainment on my smartphone. I didn’t think my ability to be reasonable and patient was so rooted in my good health until facing constant fatigued and nausea. And I didn’t think there was so much pride and judgment sinisterly lurking in my heart.

1 Peter 5:5 says that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (ESV). It is scary to think about being opposed by God. But the child of God has great comfort in knowing our Father works to humble his children. He disciplines us not just for the sake of putting us in our place, but that he may give us grace: grace in forgiveness, grace in his provision for our needs. And as we receive his grace, he receives all the glory.

When we don’t think we need him in our day-to-day, common, hard things, we miss the gift of his nearness, care, and forgiveness. When I push through ministry, family, friendship, and pregnancy on my own strength, I miss out on a chance to receive the grace of God and display his power being made perfect in my weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). I miss out on the opportunity to show those around me that anything good in me comes not from me, but from Christ.

Our infinite God joyfully welcomes not only his strongest saints, but lovingly carries the weakest of his fold. So I’m hoping to learn to come to him more readily with my feeble heart, mind, and body. I am hoping that together we’d receive help to endure things we feel only ought to hurt “a little” and that we’d help others do the same. All so that ultimately we’d be witnesses to the boundless compassion and power our loving Heavenly Father.

Church & Ministry, Motherhood & Family, Taking Heart

A Better Vantage Point

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Jeff and I attended a pastors and spouses retreat this week. All the costs were completely covered– it was a generous gift from God through the retreat center. My parents took care of the kids for a few days, and we had a good time with other couples in ministry. We ate and rested well.

During the retreat, we decided to hike up the mountain on the property. It was the perfect combination of strenuous enough to be interesting and short enough to be survivable (for me). We talked and caught up as we followed the trail one mile up, comparing heart rates on our watches for fun and asking Siri about our elevation every now and again.

At one point, the trail seemed to end abruptly by a small waterfall. The next tree markings were visible only after we climbed up a set of large wet rocks streaming with water from the overflowing fall. Here, it looked as if part of the mountain had been plowed through, and I stopped to wonder aloud at how the massive rocks came to rest the way they did. The Ice Age was Jeff’s guess, and though we weren’t sure about the geology, it wasn’t hard to imagine a glacier moving through the mountain to expose bare rock, leaving huge stones in its wake and paving a miniature gorge for the waterfall and stream.

Soon, we arrived at a small lookout and were taking in the nice, though not exceptional, partial view, when another couple hiking down toward us pointed to a wooden cross 30 yards away marking the actual overlook. We made our way over and as we reached the rock ledge, trees by the trail gave way to a clearing with a stunning, 180 degree panoramic view.

Close to us by our left, about 300 feet below, we saw the retreat center buildings. In the far distance, 20 miles out, mountains filled the horizon. A set of almost indiscernible white lines on the base of one, we identified as a ski resort. A slight break and dip in the ranges toward our 2 o’clock, the Delaware Water Gap. Between us and the mountains, a valley of smaller, rolling hills covered with leafless trees and scattered patches of evergreens. At almost 2000 feet elevation, the view was so far and wide, I was dizzy from disorientation. “We’re not used to seeing this far out,” Jeff said.

The next day, back in our room, we talked and prayed about ministry and heavy things on our hearts. And as we prayed, I thought again of the huge rock formation on our hike and whatever had left it behind. I thought of how there is only One who knows how they came to be not only because he directs all things, but because he was there as witness to its history. And in view of God’s eternity, I was comforted.

I remember being fresh out of college and talking to older people who seemed to throw around years when they spoke. As a student and in your twenties, thinking about next semester is thinking about the future, and waiting one or two years for anything feels unbearable. We wrestled with questions regarding God’s will, which often meant knowing what to do the coming summer or next year, or maybe plans for after graduation. But these elders, who in retrospect were probably not too much older than me now, tossed about decades like semesters. In a few sentences, they’d talk about spending ten years in this country, then seven years in that one, now going on four here. Because of their age, their view of time was different than mine. Their perspective, unsurprisingly, meant when they spoke about the future, they were was less anxious, less urgent, less impatient.

Though I am now old enough to need to recalculate my age every time my daughters ask and I can’t recall off the top of my head how long I’ve been back in Staten Island, I’m still young. Young enough to give into anxiety about the near future, to be utilitarian in my decisions— wanting visible, guaranteed results to think something is worth my time. I get restless in the mundane and give up too easily when prayers are not yet answered. I feel worried when God doesn’t meet me experientially in the few hours I set aside to be in prayer and the Scriptures. I wonder if I’m missing his voice if I don’t hear from him this very instant and I get frazzled over hiccups in plans for family or ministry.

But, God. From the beginning, through the ages, thousands of years from now, he was and is and will be. In my restless, anxious toil, meditating on God’s eternal nature is often the force behind the seismic perspective shift I need.

When longing for swift deliverance, Christians are exhorted to remember that our view of slowness is not his. That though ten years may sound like a hundred to us, to him a thousand are as a day. That his purposes for our suffering go far beyond our years and through unsearchable paths into eternity.

When discouraged about the slowness of his Kingdom’s advancement in ourselves, our families, and our churches, we look to the God of ages past whose view of slowness is not the same as ours.  We remember that, “He has moved like rapids — quickly and vivaciously — and startling to see. But the Spirit also moves like a glacier — subtly and cumulatively — and sometimes so imperceptibly that the believer might be unaware of his work.” It may seem slow from my vantage point, but his movement through history is steady, unimaginably powerful, unstoppable.

God’s eternal view of time directly speaks against my need for fast answers, quick fixes, and instant results. He is not working on my timeline– and his eternity is good news for me. As a parent, my discipline is unkind when I feel the pressure of time and am unsure of the future. I begin to demand immediate perfection from my children, correcting in fear, not faith and love. God though, does not panic at the passing of time, nor does he resort to flustered last ditch efforts in his dealings with me. His eternity means patience with his impatient children.

Sometimes, in his goodness, God gives us glimpses of his good purposes, lookouts if you will over a few years of our lives. At the retreat, Jeff and I were placed in the same room we had been in two summers ago. We’d gone with our church and I was barely surviving. As I surveyed the room this visit, I could still see the set up we had then– the girls on one bed, the pack-and-plays side-by-side for our foster boys, and just enough floor space to walk from the entrance to the bathroom. I remembered not being able to sleep, being anxious about sick kids, and feeling upset toward God about both.

The days felt so long back then, so it surprised me how two years could fly by and find us at the same location but in such a different place. The boys are with another family and we welcomed our now almost 18 month old since then. There have been new beginnings in writing, headway made in homeschooling, lessons learned in life and ministry.

But there is still all I have been slow to learn, prayers God has yet to answer. I see recurring requests and repeated struggles thematically spanning years through the pages of my journals. There are new unknowns my mind fills with threatening futures. We all carry sadnesses yet to be healed, questions yet to be answered. There are long walks through the valleys of the shadow of death still to come.

So we look at our everlasting Rock (Is. 26:4).  One day, we will ascend the heights, having received the eternal weight of glory, to where our deepest sorrows will seem “light and momentary” and the longest seasons of darkness, “a little while” (2 Cor. 4:17, 1 Pet. 1:6).  Until then, we trust our eternal God has a view of our lives so complete, and from there his purposes so spectacular, we would be dizzied by its vastness and beauty if given a peek.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You return man to dust and say, “Return, O children of man!”
For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.
Psalm 90:1-4 (ESV)

Taking Heart, Truth & Orthodoxy

Christmas For Every Longing Heart

One of the more difficult parts of the holidays to navigate is the expectation to make happy memories and for things to be cheery. It doesn’t really make sense that a date on the calendar or a few weeks declared the “holiday season” would magically make things wonderfully happy, but for whatever reason we expect or hope for it which deepens the disappointment when things are not merry and bright— when instead of peace, there is strife in our family and hurting relationships. When there are unfulfilled secret hopes in our hearts or we are in the midst of grieving loss. When we’re burnt out from serving and maybe just tired from normal life and don’t feel particularly Christmas-y.

Personally, this year has been one with great joys and deep sorrows, and in light of this I am meditating on two prayers we can pray this Christmas as we face things we struggle to reconcile with the joyful celebration of Christ’s birth:

Jesus, this is why you came.

Jesus, come again soon.

Continue reading “Christmas For Every Longing Heart”