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.

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
s

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

Come And Look! (Worth More Than These)

IMG_9986.jpg

Oh! I heard surprised delight in his voice. Quick girls, come look! Jeff called, urgent yet tender. We left what we were doing, scrambled into the kitchen, and followed his gaze through the slatted blinds. I picked up our three-year old so he could see the feathered, fuzzy head of a baby sparrow perched on our windowsill.

It sat there unaware of our family huddled over the sink on the other side of the glass. It must’ve fallen out of its nest, Jeff thought aloud. But when I raised the blinds, it flitted, first to a nearby tree where an adult sparrow sat, then away and beyond our view. It was off to bear witness elsewhere.

~~~

Jesus once taught about sparrows. Not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father, Matthew records him saying. Not one of them is forgotten before God, wrote Luke.

It’s interesting because he could’ve phrased it as a universal blanket statement that would be just as true. “Every sparrow is remembered” or “all sparrows fall only within his knowledge.” Instead, he spoke in the negative. I think it was to make sure we know that with God’s care for those who run to him, there are no exceptions.

It’s as if Jesus knew there are those of us who would read, “God loves the world” and think, of course God’s love is for all people— just not me. Like he knew there would be moments we feel, of course God’s care never ceases in theory — it just kind of has right now. So Jesus says: No, not one sparrow is forgotten by your Heavenly Father. No, not one sparrow falls apart from him, and the good news is that you are of more value than many sparrows.

I don’t know if things have felt noisy to you lately, but they have for me. My thoughts fly disordered between how a grieving friend is doing to the theological problem of suffering to NY Times headlines to what prominent Christians are writing to whether or not my faith will endure.

I love theology and my mind constantly turns over truths, analyzing, weighing, and applying them. But I’m coming to recognize that sometimes we can only hold one or two thoughts in view at once. This is one of those times for me. So I’ve been asking God to cut through the noise and simply remind me of his love for me. And as I pray for the sick, grieving, serving, and isolated, I’ve been asking God to let loved ones know they are loved by him, because truly they are.

JI packer wrote in Knowing God,

“What matters supremely, therefore, is not, in the last analysis, the fact that I know God, but the larger fact which underlies it—the fact that he knows me. I am graven on the palms of his hands [Isa. 49:16]. I am never out of his mind. All my knowledge of him depends on his sustained initiative in knowing me. I know him because he first knew me, and continues to know me. He knows me as a friend, one who loves me; and there is no moment when his eye is off me, or his attention distracted from me, and no moment, therefore, when his care falters.”

Even as we struggle and grapple to make sense of our competing thoughts, growing and needing to grow in our knowledge of him, what matters most is that he knows us. He knows us and loves us. His care shown in creation, his gift of breath and life, his burden-bearing on the cross. These all testify to God’s unwavering love for us and those we love.

Even the birds beckon, Come and look.

The older saint you love in the nursing home— not forgotten by him.

The prodigal living under your roof— not out of his reach.

Your grieving friend and exhausted health care co-worker— never out of his mind.

Your sick family member— there is not a moment when his care falters.

And you— worth far more than many sparrows.

Taking Heart

The Happiest Of Days

IMG_8672

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

Some Questions On Being

IMG_4511.jpgI prepped to teach on Titus last Sunday. I thought long the week before about the relationship between life and doctrine, and personally, about my calling as a woman and mom in the home a la Titus 2. I was reminded about the goodness of my work in loving my family.

It turns out Sunday morning had us waking up to sick kids and me texting that I’d have to forgo church responsibilities to stay home. Funny how God did that.

See, if you ever want evidence of my feeble faith, send me a sick baby. Give it a few nights and you’ll hear my sleep-deprived, “For what purpose God??” (Read: “Whyyyyyy?”) And it isn’t wholly my grumpiness speaking here. I actually feel justifiably upset about the seeming meaninglessness and inefficiency of these small trials.

I’ve been sitting in Ephesians 1 all week, savoring glorious truths a few words at a time. (Which, incidentally may be partly due to the fact that, in my sleepy haze, I can only hold a few words at a time.) After a night of little faith, as I wondered what practical good could come out of my sleep-deprivation, God answered through these words— that we should be holy and blameless before him.

He spoke to me of my being chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world for this reason (Eph. 1:3-4). He reminded me of his commitment to work all things to my good and his purposes— to my conformity into the image of his Son. I had forgotten about that.

So I’ve been thinking about this being made more into Christlikeness. And I’ve been seeing that my why’s and search for productivity and purpose and usefulness in glorifying God often miss this vital ingredient, the aspect of what God is doing in me and the call to be like Christ.

In the (possibly false but sometimes helpful) “being” vs. “doing” dichotomy, I gravitate to the latter. I’ve always had the desire to be helpful. The fear of being useless and the desire to hear “well done” on something truly well-done and most of all from God, are deeply rooted in me.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always thought of “being” as important, and I thought I had the relationship between who we are and what we do pretty well sorted out. We act out of who we are. (Which is true.) God cares about the heart behind what we do. (Which is also true.) Therefore, (this is where I start veering), I need to be who I’m supposed to be so I can do what I’m supposed to do to God’s glory without being disingenuous. I’ve never doubted the importance of being made more like Christ, but the fundamental orientation, the driving heart motive, usually leans “so I can do more, or right, or better.”

Years ago, as a teenager, I remember telling a mentor about my deep fear that God won’t use me. He gently push backed, with grace I didn’t understand at the time, maybe that isn’t the main thing. Evidently, I still need this pushback, and received it in part last week through a powerful article on mental health by Alan Noble. In it he writes,

Usefulness is the sole criterion for the World, the Flesh, or the Devil. But you have no use value to God. You can’t. There is nothing He needs. You can’t cease being useful to God because you were never useful to begin with. That’s simply not why He created you and why He continues to sustain your being in the world. It was gratuitous, prodigal. He made us just because He loves us and for His own good pleasure. Every other reason to live demands that you remain useful, and one day your use will run out. But not so with God. To God, your existence in His universe is an act of creation, and it remains good as creation even in its fallen state.

We were made for God’s pleasure, not his use. He made us because he loves us, because he is good, because it pleased him. Even more, according to Ephesians 1:12, he redeems us and makes us his “that we who were the first to hope in Christ might to the praise of his glory.” Here Paul doesn’t write that we might do things to the praise of his glory (though certainly we do). More fundamentally, we are made to be to the praise of his glory. And this isn’t a command, but a statement here. God has come through great lengths to make us his because his intent is to glorify himself through what he does for and in us.

As image-bearers, we give evidence to his “prodigal love”, his powerful sustenance, his wonderful creativity, and more. As those being recreated into Christ’s image, we give evidence to his wondrous grace, his redeeming love, his infinite patience, his holy nature, and more. Who we are brings glory to him because what he is doing in us is glorious.

Ephesians 1, along with thoughts about our lack of use value to God, is simmering in my heart. God’s truths are an elixir for my anxious doing and as the Spirit continues to stir, I am catching the waft of healing soul-questions. Questions arising from the suspicion that I have often headed in the wrong direction with my “why’s”. Questions that reorient and help my heart to rest, that comfort, that have me praising God for his other-worldly wisdom.

For others who seek God’s glory but have trouble working from a place of peace, other restless doers like me, perhaps some of these questions would serve you as well.

Dear beloved, chosen in Christ from before the foundations of the world, redeemed for the praise of his glorious grace.

…What if you glorify God not just by what you do, but by virtue of who you are?

…What if the most glorious display of his goodness is not in our works, but his workmanship— us (Eph. 2:10)?

…What if we believed that just as Adam and Eve were the glorious apex of creation, we believe our being remade into the image of Christ (us, the church) is the glorious apex of the new heavens and earth?

…What if, when the day of Christ comes, the most God-glorifying work done in the world is not done by man, but God himself? What if the most God-glorifying work done in our lives is that which is being done in us?

…What if we believed with God that this work was good? (Phil. 1:6)

…What if God desires to draw attention to his wisdom, power, grace, and kindness most chiefly in Christ’s work done for us? (Eph. 1:4-10, 2:7)

…What if the biggest question isn’t what you would do for God but who he himself is making you to be to the praise of his glory?