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, Truth & Orthodoxy

If We Are Kings and Queens

“You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve,” said Aslan. “And that is both honor enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth. Be content.” C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian

Jeff and I arrive at our tiny cabin after dark, but the pines are still up. Throughout the night, I wake to watch their sparsely needled tops swaying over us. In the morning, they are no less mesmerizing. They wave without bending, their slender trunks shooting straight from dirt to sky. I feel my spine straighten, mirroring their posture. Shoulders back, daughter of Eve.

The poet Mary Oliver wrote, “Everywhere I go I am / treated like royalty, which I am not. I thirst and / am given water. My eyes thirst and I am given / the white lilies on the black water.” I feel this on our trip to the Catskills, the sheer grace of the world before and under me. That our thirst would be quenched by its rains, our hunger for beauty satiated with tiered waterfalls— who are we, if not of noble blood?

In our fervor to maintain the greatness of God, Christians can diminish the dignity of our humanity in ways that aren’t as biblical as they seem. Self-deprecation comes naturally to me, and in my brokenness it often feels right to slouch in a corner, to make myself small under shame for fear of doing wrong. The enemy of my soul would have me believe that’s where I belong. At the window by the pines though, the Spirit speaks to me of a better way.

There, I think of the biblical poet who, in light of creation’s grandeur, asked God: What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him (Ps. 8:4)? It isn’t hard for me to understand his wonder. One look up on any clear night will fill me with a sense of humanity’s smallness and the surprise of God’s ongoing care. But it’s the follow-up to the question that comes to life for me now, maybe for the first time ever:

Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet.

Ps. 8:5-6

These verses have always struck an unexpected note for me, the way the psalm doesn’t continue to dig into our smallness in order to put us in our place. Reading “what is man?,” I half-expect the psalm to segue into the bad news-good news presentation of “You’re a nobody, but you are loved!” But the psalmist doesn’t take that route.

Here is our place in this world, granted by the Creator himself. We are created a little lower than heavenly beings. No, we are not God, but neither are we nobodies. We are rulers, crowned with glory and honor, given dominion over the earth.

This Edenic understanding of our humanity as expressed in our rule over creation is different from what we Americans usually associate with royalty. We think of celebrity (they’re famous!) or wealth (they’re rich!), high social standing or fantastical romances. What Psalm 8 unearths about our royal natures is far weightier than those things— calling, dignity, glory.

Oliver wrote she was treated like royalty although she isn’t. Perhaps it would be truer to say that we are treated like royalty because we are. Our first father and mother were rulers, blessed to cultivate and create in the world as representatives (images) of their Sovereign. Though fallen, we are still their children, and as such, kings and queens just by virtue of being human.

The pines showed me what it might look like for me to walk aware of the glory that crowns us. They stand tall with their own particular glory, fully arrayed with an honor that rightly belongs to them. They need not make themselves smaller or larger than what they are. They are unashamedly and fully themselves, and yet nothing about them is vain. A Korean-American actress recently said, “It’s an honor, just to be Asian,” and in the woods, the phrase comes back to me with a twist. It is an honor, I think, just to be human.

Counterintuitively, this stirs up a new kind of humility in me, one that doesn’t pummel me into submission, but lifts some of the weight off my drooping shoulders. It may be self-evident, but still worth remembering that we didn’t choose our existence. We didn’t cause ourselves to be, and yet here we are. We didn’t create this world we inhabit, and yet we have inherited it. What do you have that you did not receive?, the apostle Paul wrote. Our dominion as humanity is derivative. God crowns us, he has put creation under our feet. But that’s the thing, we really have been granted glory, honor, this world. I am born and look!, here is drink for my parched throat, beauty for my thirsty eyes.

This is cause for trembling too, I realize, our being sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. Sin takes on new gravity when we consider that if we are rulers, our rebellion is not only treachery, but tyranny. We may have relinquished our ability to rightly govern this world under God, but as image bearers we still have the power to alter the course of history like no other created being. No matter what, we always exercise some form of dominion. And when we operate outside the Creator’s bounds, we rule as madmen, destroying the earth and harming those around us. Here I see that humility is not a shrinking back, but a taking up. It is a weighty thing to be human, to bear the responsibilities of one created for glory with others similarly crowned.

Here’s another thought— Jesus became man. We who are in Christ are co-heirs with him because the ruler of the universe took on flesh and became a servant unto death (Rom. 8:17). If we are rulers on this earth by birth, we become royalty in the everlasting kingdom by rebirth (1 Pet. 1-2). Our humanity is being redeemed and we worship one who is forever fully God and fully human. Can there be anything more incredible about our humanity than that? That Christ shared in it not to reject and despise it, but to restore it to us and us to it?

I am still feeling my way through what it means to live with this newfound sense of honor and dignity in my humanity. But I am beginning to see how it fuels awe-filled gratitude, strips away my compulsion to compare, girds me with a kind of quiet courage.

I do not need to walk with the projected confidence of someone trying to invent myself or command the room. I am not elbowing my way to my place, because it has already been granted to me. I seek to stand with the steadiness of heart my King had when he, knowing where he came from and where he was going, wrapped a towel around his waist and knelt to wash and dry feet.

Read the gospels and you’ll see how Jesus restored the dignity of all he encountered. How he defended the despised, how he touched and asked questions and listened. Something about the way he moved among us communicated that each broken person still bore his image, still was bestowed with the honor he granted them at creation. He is doing this for me now.

So, here I am. Truth I’ve long known in my head is making its way down into my heart and backbone. I stand as daughter of Eve, and I am content to take my place. Truly, it is an honor.

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)

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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.