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

Your Achingly Beautiful Perseverance

I’m not sure about the exact numbers, but a good portion (maybe most) of the books I’ve read for leisure in the past few years have been memoir. So many things about the form captivate me. The intersection of storytelling and deep reflection, the invitation to walk the landscape of the memory through well-crafted vignettes, the masterfully-woven themes that slowly emerge. The best ones simultaneously awaken in me a sense of beauty and heartache, no matter how mundane the stories themselves may seem.

Every person carries stories that, if you knew them, would break your heart.

At an airport gate, a young man sits next to me and we make small talk. He tells me why he feels nervous about returning home, about who he’s leaving behind on the East Coast. Friends he’s made and a girl he likes. He begins to tear up. Sorry for dumping this all on you, he says, clearly surprised he said what he did. I tell him that I’m a pastor’s wife and that I’m used to it, people telling me these types of things, before letting him change the subject.

My healthcare provider tells me about what’s going on in her social circles as she works on my back— emergency room visits and disease and suicide. She says it seems like everyone she knows is going through something, and I murmur my agreement as I lie facedown on the table.

During a conversation with a friend, It feels like everyone we know in ministry is getting beaten up. Maybe that’s ministry though. Then a pause. Maybe that’s just life.

This does seem to be the plotline for many these days, hard thing after hard thing. Yet in the midst of it all, I’ve noticed another theme slowly and persistently begin to emerge in the lives of dear ones I know.

I hear it in the voice of fellow workers in ministry. They preach, and pray, shepherding flocks through the devastation of a global pandemic and the destructiveness of indwelling sin. They visit the unrepentant, pleading for them to turn to the grace of God. They are tired, but are not giving up hope that God loves his people.

I read it in the words of friends texting for prayer, chronically ill or caring for those who are, facing loss or mourning unfulfilled hopes. We are all praying for healing, for God to grant them the good desires that he withholds without explanation, but these friends also ask for grace to trust Jesus, courage to love others better. They continue to love the weak and hurting, even as they themselves cry out for relief. All I want for one friend is for her suffering to stop, but she is asking me to ask for more— for rest in God’s love and mercy, for joy in his faithfulness, for hope in his promises, and for endurance.

I sense it in the songs sung by the sinner-saints meeting weekly in our small, local church. Battered and broken, we declare the goodness of Jesus, believing God hears and receives us, that he sees and remembers.

I saw it on the other end of that flight with the tearful young man, where over the course of a few days, I caught up with those who knew me when I was fresh out of college. In even the shorter conversations, I got glimpses of what they’ve been rejoicing in and what new or old things continue to be difficult. Many are walking through loss, uncertainty, and trauma— yet still seeking Jesus, still committed to being in his church. And this time, I was the one crying in the airport on the way home, moved by how clearly I witnessed in them the faith described by Peter in the Scriptures. Though they have not seen God, though they don’t see him now, they love him still (1 Peter 1:8).

I am experiencing in real time the perseverance of the saints. And like the best of stories, it is both heartrending and achingly beautiful.

The Apostle Paul wrote that suffering produces endurance, and from that character, and then hope. I have been thinking lately about why he’d write hope there— not love or godliness. Or why not just end at “character”? Why make hope the culmination here of what God does in the midst of suffering? I am beginning to see now that God does not just make his people stronger or more righteous through trial. We all know that sometimes difficulties make us stronger, that suffering can produce character even without God in the picture. But for believers in the heat of affliction, something otherworldly emerges: a hope against all hope, a faith that perseveres.

I have never had trouble believing that God raises the dead, but that he keeps his own until the end— the longer I have been a Christian, the harder it’s been to trust. It sobers and humbles me now then, how God is using the trials of those around me to deal with my unbelief. Through the fire, I am seeing the precious genuineness of the faith of God’s children, and I stand silenced. The people of God have always been a persevering people, a people learning to hope against hope. And this hope is miraculous in its very nature.

Christian perseverance, Christian hope, is not a fake-it-til you make it, silver-lining way of dealing with suffering. Neither is it flashy, spiritual triumphalism nor self-reliant grit. It is salvation worked out with blood, sweat, and effort and worked within by the Holy Spirit. It is the tested faith of those who have found safety in the one who has been a refuge for all generations. Its beauty is like that of century-old forts, made of solid stone, enduring battle, the elements, and time. We have tested it and found it to be trustworthy, but it still takes faith to believe it will continue to stand in time to come.

This perseverance says that though I do not yet see God making all things right, he will do so one day. That though I do not feel like what he has ordained for me is good, he who gave his own Son for me will not withhold from me anything truly good. It says that though I am weak, and confused, and uncertain about many things, God remains steadfast in his love and unchanging in his ways. That though things all is not right, he still indeed is good. That what is seen may lead me to despair, but there are realities beyond what I can see that give me reason to hope. Not the least of which is the truth that Christ lived, died, and now lives.

I have felt this hope in the handshake of the strongest of believers. A widow at the end of a receiving line of her husband, a pastor’s, funeral. They’d lived through the cultural revolution. She’d worshipped in the dark with her children, curtains drawn. He’d survived harsh labor. She took my hand, looked me in the eyes, and spoke, her voice gentle and firm, Ganxie Zhu— an expression of praise. And I wondered if she was here ministering to us rather than the other way around.

I have also seen this tenacity in the saints who feel themselves to be the weakest. I think of how sometimes the smallest of plants can be surprisingly hard to uproot. I’ll tug at the tinier weeds in the garden, assuming they’ll come out with no issue, only to have the stems snap where they meet the soil and the roots remain intact. Here is the woman who, in the absence of tidy answers, remains sure of what she hopes for, certain of what she does not see (Hebrews 11:1). The weary servant of God who confesses that while he is pressed, he is not crushed, he is perplexed but not driven to despair (2 Corinthians 4:8-10). Both have tasted and seen that the Lord is good. God has been faithful to keep his promises, and they know there is more reason than not to continue to trust him now.

And I witness it in the lives of believers all around me now. In the absence of seeing, in suffering, their hope is being forged and proven, because, who hopes for what he already has? (Romans 8:24). Ours is a supernatural faith, and it’s only when it’s against all odds that we know, surely, it must be upheld by a supernatural strength.

We may not all have memoirs in the pipeline, but, oh, what stories we will have to listen to and tell in ages to come. Whether God’s strength working in us means we will one day find ourselves sprinting across the finish line, or whether we feel for sure we will be limping, inching, and clinging onto dear life up to it, we will declare him faithful who has kept us. Through stories of darkness, dangers, grief, and trial. Of faithful endurance, inexplicable peace, and hope that has not put us to shame. By God’s grace, I’ll have a few to share. Dear, persevering saint, you will too.

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

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

IMG_8993.jpg

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.