because we need hope, peace, & comfort

I have been writing and thinking and praying a lot about hope this fall. There are many reasons I crave hope this season. Like the headlines flashing across our screens and calling to us from the morning paper, and the usual stress of trying to balance home, church, and family life. (And our family’s life now includes our twin daughters going to kindergarten full-day. Despite the great school they attend, it’s been an adjustment for all of us!)

We have also experienced waves of greater-than-usual overwhelming circumstances in our lives and in the lives of our family and friends. Like a hurricane that “breezed” through (pun intended) and left a ton of chaos in its wake;  friends who’ve had miscarriages; a friend battling leukemia; extended family health issues requiring more care from my husband and me; the death just last week of my great-aunt Julie; and a bit more travel than usual for me this fall.

As I’ve tried to take stolen moments along the way to pause, be still, and know that God is God (Psalm 46), I feel how much I need comfort for my own heart. Not only does chaos swirl without, it also rises up from within. I need a peace that’s bigger than the messages I feel bombarded with and *wish* worked, but just haven’t – like “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” or “look for the rainbow after the storm.” While I’m all about the rainbow and the strength needed to keep moving, I need something that lasts as long as the storm.

And the only thing I’ve found that can outlast the storm is the hope of a God who is there. A Jesus who meets us in the storm, and then rides it out with us. As I spoke to a group of beautiful women, including many family and friends, at my aunt and uncle’s church in Columbia, South Carolina, last week, I was praying hope over their hearts, and I spoke the words I myself need to hear – a few of which I’ll share below. May your heart be encouraged as well … in all the places where you find yourself in need of hope, peace, and comfort today. 

john-16-33-quote

 

john-14-27

 

 

 

 

 

when anxiety overwhelms: a mother’s tale of Hurricane Matthew

It was a mother’s worst-case-scenario. My  husband and I had finally made time for a much needed one-night retreat away from it all. Our children were staying with their beloved grandparents; we would be gone for a total of  24 hours, barely a few hours away. We disconnected from internet and cell phone signal was spotty. God met us right where we needed it, and when it was time to leave the next afternoon, we were aware of fresh winds of the Spirit breathing life into our hearts and our relationship.

But then there was Hurricane Matthew. We had assumed we were safe – that it was turning away from us.

Imagine our dismay when we had driven only a few feet and were practically floating through an unexpected flash flood – and this was in our SUV! We quickly switched into panic mode. For us, that meant my husband went super-calm and quiet, and I wanted to talk about it all. [We both quickly realized that this wasn’t working: lessons learned in a decade of marriage – and yes, you’re welcome.] Our focus was that we had to get home to our kids. We must. There was no other option.

One-and-a-half hours later, the situation was deteriorating quickly. More unexpected huge puddles on the road. When I checked the satellite radar, it showed us tracking right along with Hurricane Matthew’s new and unexpected path. Evening was falling and flash flood warnings were increasing.

We finally gave up and found a hotel that wasn’t yet full in which to stay. Then we had to call the grandparents and the kiddos and try to act brave and calm about the decision that had my mother’s heart trembling: we couldn’t make it back before bedtime as planned, and we were going to try again in the morning as long as Hurricane Matthew allowed.

Needless to say, it was a long night.

As we surveyed the damage the next morning, we decided that we were going to risk it and try to head back to our “babies.” So we did. And God used the prayers of many to clear a path for us back home. It was a joyous reunion and a relief to give and receive hugs, laughter, tears.

And there’s a picture there, right? How anxious I am! How anxious we are collectively as a culture/nation right now!

We look around us and want to be anywhere but *here* – whether that’s the dark side of a cancer diagnosis, the turmoil of parenting challenges, a hurricane that’s wreaking havoc in your community, on the eve of a presidential election that has us all twisted in knots inside, in the midst of racial tension, stuck in a hard family relationship, etc. We want relief. We want a way out, or a promise that we’ll make it through. Or, even better, our people with whom to ride out the storms of life – literal and metaphorical. 

We have One. He fought his way through the depths of hell itself to be with us. It was costly [he died] – but miraculous [God raised him to life]. And it’s the only Hope I know that’s so sure and secure it is called, “an anchor of the soul.”

When the storms of life hit (perhaps literally), where do you turn? How have you known the peace of Jesus even in the very middle of the very worst troubles in your life? 

Real hope for troubled times: Jesus knows

I woke up this morning to all the alerts: not only my own alarm, but warnings about flash flooding and plans rearranged and then the burden of these headlines:

  • Another shooting and more riots in Charlotte, NC – Lord, when will this end? Heal us, Father. We pray for justice to prevail  – for healing that is as real and as deep as the racial brokenness of our country. Give us ears to listen to one another in order to understand, not to judge. Break down all of our defenses through the strength of Love
  • More info on the terrorist suspected of massive plots in NYC and NJ – Father, I’m afraid. It could be our neighborhood next – or our mall. 
  • An apparently failed ceasefire in Syria – there was an attack on the aid convoy. – Lord, for all of those who need aid and help desperately, find a way. Give courage to the men and women risking their lives to deliver this aid. Let us who live comfortable Western lives not grow numb. Show us how we can help our neighbor, though that neighbor be halfway around the world, and keep us from being blind to the neighbor living next door to us or down the street from us. 

This list could go on and on. And our response (or at least mine) is to feel the fear like a pit in my stomach and the instant tension in my shoulders. I want to find a refuge to run to with my family where no harm can touch us, and where we can bring everyone else who needs help with us, too.

I’m not alone in this desire. And there is a refuge promised One Day. Because of this Future Hope, we take comfort in Jesus’ words from over 2000 years ago, and we can serve for justice and peace now.

matthew-24-encouragement

I want to read the promises side-by-side with the headlines. Jesus brings perspective and best of all – his presence in the promised Holy Spirit to all who find refuge by faith in Jesus.

Because of Jesus’ Presence, I can take a deep breath, go downstairs and hug my children and cook breakfast and serve in my little corner of the world.

Because of Jesus’ Presence, I can be fully involved in the here-and-now while also seeking how I can be part of the global concerns because they affect fellow human beings worthy of dignity since they’re made imago Dei.

Where do you take refuge in these troubled times? How do you balance the reality of the here-and-now demands on your life with the global concerns impacting us? 

 

 

Lent as a rehearsal of the gospel

cross desert

For a contemplative – which is what I am in many, many more ways than I’ve been willing to admit – Lent is a season rich with treasures. There are worship services full of meaning: Ash Wednesday to launch Lent; Good Friday to meditate on the suffering of the cross; and then the glorious climax of Easter Sunday at its end. There are thoughtful devotional resources. This year I’m reading “Journey to the Cross” which I found here at TGC, written by Kendal Haug and Will Walker out of Providence Church Austin. The church worldwide is led into a season of denial leading up to Good Friday, and then the church universal celebrates joyously on Easter Sunday. 

It’s a rehearsal of the gospel story. Not only in the obvious way – the season of repentance, remembering, self-denial, that ends with a day of remembering Jesus’ suffering for our sake; and then three days later, celebrating resurrection life with the empty tomb on Easter – but also in our own hearts.

Each year I face the reality that the law cannot save me. Regardless of how low I set the bar for Lenten denial (“just” abstaining from sweets, or “just” not using non-essential phone apps) and repentant engagement (“just” loving my family better, or “just” noticing the homeless in our city and praying for them) – I can’t do it. On a “good” year I might last two weeks before I break Lent. Then I inevitably do what I try to do when I forget that Jesus did it all. I try to be better; I try harder; I invite more accountability; I set the bar lower or higher.

And my striving never works. It doesn’t produce the result of a more disciplined life. Instead, it produces a heart desperate for the rescue of grace. A heart that comes to Good Friday painfully aware of my inability to stay awake to repentance even for 40 days. A heart that cannot make itself righteous. A heart that needs resurrection hope. A heart that is rescued only by turning away from self-denial and embracing the life of the dying-now-resurrected Savior.

So this year, as I’ve been aware of my inability to sustain any sort of meaningful Lenten fast – I say, “help me, God!” And I thank God that he has. That he sent Jesus whose ministry started with the test (and the passing!) of the wilderness temptation. Jesus who followed the Spirit into this very wilderness testing, passing the test I will always fail.

True Lenten fasting uncovers the layers of our hearts where we struggle to trust this Jesus who did it all for us out of love. True Lenten fasting leaves us longing for more of Jesus and hopeful because in the Spirit through faith we have Christ within us – the hope of glory. (Colossians 1:27)

the glittering mess of Advent

Every December, it surprises me. Meaning, the juxtaposition of “the most wonderful time of the year” with the reality of how far I am from being able to fully embrace the joy proclaimed to me in every Christmas song and story and glittering decoration. I know I’m not alone in this. For I  hear your stories – maybe not yours specifically, but in sitting with multiple stories of suffering and disappointment and hope deferred throughout almost a decade of counseling and a few decades more of friendship and family relationships, I have a fairly good sense of the ways life breaks us.

And for some reason, I find myself each Advent/Christmas season battling to find the hope that surrounds me like no other time of year. I struggle because at the deepest part of who I am, I know that Jesus’ coming as a baby changed everything for the better (while I also see so much that doesn’t fit with a redeemed world). I find deep comfort that his incarnation – God with us – was a literal game-changer for the human race. That Jesus was “born to set Thy people free/from our sins and fears release us/let us find our rest in Thee.” That I am to “fall on [my] knees/O hear, the angels voices/O night divine/O night when Christ was born.” And I crumble inside with the best of you at the emotion of it all – of God being made like us, like a tiny baby, utterly vulnerable to the ones he created.

But then I begin to get angry and sad. For if Jesus was born to set His people free, why on earth are we so chained up to others’ expectations and our own inward voices of shame? And why do we Christians hurt  each other in the church when we are all simply trying to love one another the best we know how? Why do “Christian” politicians infuriate the culture-at-large with offers to pray in the wake of tragedy and apparently no (or minimal) actions behind these prayers?  Why do news headlines daily proclaim a new form of terror?

And to bring it home and make it more personal: why do I have friends still struggling with infertility?

Friends grieving parents taken too soon?

Friends who have suffered unspeakable tragedies of abuse when they were children who could not protect themselves?

Why are friends stuck in marriages that feel lifeless? (Or why are there friends who are newly divorced despite months/years of trying to reconcile?)

Why does cancer still strike in the most unexpected of ways and times to friends in the prime of their life/ministry?

And if I dare to be courageously honest, I have a few questions of my own. Like how did I get to be so battle-weary and exhausted when I thought I was fighting for the gospel of justice, truth, beauty, and light in the name of Jesus, in the strength of his grace, and for the sake of his glory?

Why does every recent December feel depressing, as a time when I am more likely to feel the weight of the world’s sorrows instead of the hope of the Savior’s joy?

Why does Christmas seem to come up short from how I remember it as a child?

I am beginning to realize anew that the only answer to these weighty, angst-filled questions is in trying to hold in my feeble hands the glittering mess of Advent.

It’s not unlike the abundant blue glitter that one of my 5-year-old daughters sprinkled with abandon around her room earlier this week. There was literally a path of blue sparkle that looked like a rug placed on our white (!) carpet. A glittering path that led to their mini-Christmas tree. As I vacuumed it up, I surprised myself by beginning to laugh instead of growing more angry and frustrated. I laughed because it was beautiful. Any of you who have ever had the *privilege* of vacuuming up large quantities of glitter know exactly what I’m talking about. It glitters and sparkles and changes in the light, and as I vacuumed clean white paths through the blue, the vacuum cleaner began to sparkle, too. (Because it has a see-through compartment.)

And that’s when it came to me.

This is a metaphor for Advent’s tension between the beauty that will be (which began to break through in the incarnational mystery of Jesus) and the mess that we continue to make with this beauty.

These broken places of grief, betrayal, loss, and deferred hope – they are real and they are tragic in an exponentially greater way than a 5-year-old glitter tantrum (oh – did I leave that part out? The reason that she created such a display was out of anger that she was in time out – it was a mess intended to annoy me.).

But this I cling to – in hope against hope – that the mess twinkles, sparkles, glitters in the light of the Christmas tree. The Christmas tree that became our salvation as it became a cross. This tragedy of the tiny babe grown up and offered up willingly as the most tragic of sacrifices for the most unworthy of offenders. You and me.

Ann Voskamp says it well in her Advent devotional:

The Cross stands as the epitome of evil. And God takes the greatest evil ever known to humanity and turns it into the greatest Gift you have ever known. … If God can transfigure the greatest evil into the greatest Gift, then He intends to turn whatever you’re experiencing now into a gift. You cannot be undone. Somewhere, Advent can storm and howl. And the world robed for Christmas can spin on. You, there on the edge, whispering it, defiant through the torn places: “All is grace.”

 

 

What Tragedy Teaches Us (guest post at TGC)

I will always remember the summer of 2014 as one bookended by two tragedies that struck close to home. The first happened on the evening of May 30. As 17-year-old Mark Rodriguez was driving home from his Christian school’s graduation, he was shot and killed by a madman firing randomly. The madman then killed a police officer and wounded another before being shot and killed himself. That terrible evening in Norfolk, Virginia, seemed particularly tragic for Rodriguez, the son of a pastor and Christian counselor.

What’s amazed me in the wake of that tragedy is watching the way Jesus has shone so brilliantly through that young man’s life, testified to by his parents as well as his own writings and photography on his blog, most notably a post on heaven. As his parents grieved in the days after his death, they graciously accepted interviews during which they spoke of their clear hope in the resurrection:

Our son is not dead; he’s alive, and we believe we will see him again. Mark wanted nothing more than to be a worship leader. And you know what? He got exactly what he wanted.

Two Questions 

As I sat and watched his family and the local Christian community grieve, find hope, and paint a picture of a young man wholeheartedly devoted to Jesus, I asked myself two questions. … [Click over to The Gospel Coalition Blog to read the rest here.]

A year ago: remembering tragedy and finding hope

A year ago today, tragedy shattered one family – intruding into an otherwise sunny summer afternoon and stealing two in its wake. Darkness seemed to win, leaving all of us in our church community in shocked grief at losing Karla and Katharine.

One year ago, we all sprang into action. Seeking comfort through what we could offer the bereaved and surviving husband and daughter, and sharing many, many tears together.

One year ago today – I’d never witnessed a dad telling his daughter the unspeakable, seen them collapse into each other with shared sorrow and grief-torn hearts.

One year ago today, I’d never seen the beauty of a church community activated by tragedy, becoming family for the deeply bereaved, restoring them to health one meal and embrace and shared tears at a time. I’d never felt such a deep sense of call – of being made for such a moment, to walk into the wake of an unimaginable tragedy and find this was holy ground. I did not go alone. God was there. He held us together, and he has been in our midst. Tragedy left its mark, but it does not win in the end.

A year ago, I never knew that laughter and smiles could return – that joy could be had – that comfort could be known even with questions unanswered and hearts laden with sorrow.

A year ago today, I could not have penned the words below (a letter to grief featured on Kate Motaung’s site) for I had not lived them yet. I have been changed, and so have we all. Let us not forget, and let us not stop seeking to comfort one another and to press into hope. Hope that light dawns after the darkest of nights, that it will one day dawn again. Forever restoring and healing and redeeming we who have walked through the valley of the shadow of death.

*****

Dear Grief,

You have claimed many friends in 2014, and I have been touched by you as well. The worst part is that the church has too often refused to own you as she should. She has proclaimed a gospel of health and wealth instead of the message of the Man of Sorrows acquainted with grief who promised suffering for all who take up their cross to follow Him. And in those moments when the people of God feel like they have no refuge, you cackle and seem to win. You whisper lies, saying that there is no hope, and that God is as distant as the well-meaning friends who disappear after an initial rally of support.

Your problem is that you cannot be predicted nor defined. You come as a unique visitor to each of us, rarely on time and often in disguise. You hide yourself in many forms, putting on a mask of anger to make us feel strong instead of weak. Sometimes you sink deeply into the soul, bringing depression and despair that seems impossible to escape. If left unchecked, you can cause me to live entirely on the surface of life in order not to look within and acknowledge your presence there.

Jesus Christ knows you better than any of us. He is “the man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). He bore the weight of what grieves God on the cross and conquered it fully in His resurrection. He took away the sting of death – sin – saying that you, Grief, no longer have the last word. Hope takes away your bitterness, leaving us a cleansing sorrow in its wake. Hope allows us to acknowledge you without surrendering fully to you. Hope frees us to look you in the eyes as you enter our hearts and communities, and to weep freely with those who sorrow. We the Redeemed can meet you without despair; acknowledge you without empty clichés; join with others who dwell in your shadow without demanding answers or reasons.

Sorrow well

So come, dear grief, teach us to sorrow well because of the hope of a risen Savior who will make all things new and eradicate your presence from our broken world entirely when He returns again. You will not own us, though you may visit us more frequently than we would choose. We will not turn away from your presence in our own lives or those of our friends and family. And thus we strip you of your power to isolate, turning your presence into a sign of longing and an invitation to draw nearer to those suffering in your wake.

Five Minute Friday: hope

Even when I don’t find time to write in between Fridays, it is good to know FMF always awaits me at the end of each week. Five Minute Friday (FMF) is a community of bloggers writing for 5 minutes unedited on a given topic. Learn more from Kate Motaung here.

****

photo from 801seminaryplace.wordpress.com

photo from 801seminaryplace.wordpress.com

It comes like the first ray of light at break of day, defying the darkness that has reigned and declaring that there will again be morning and evening. 

Hope hovers over darkness and tragedy and despair. Waiting. Waiting to be noticed. Waiting to reveal itself at the proper time. Hope is what gives freedom to grieve and mourn and cry. It is hope that says I can grieve the losses woven into my story and I won’t be undone. Hope gives me strength to enter into the tragedy when I don’t have words and I feel paralyzed. But because of hope – I take a deep breath, and we step out of the car and we embrace the husband who has just lost his wife and daughter in a tragic way. Hope became his chorus as we wept together. Him saying – “we are resurrection people – we are resurrection people.”

It is much more than a thing with feathers that alights and drifts and is barely noticed (sorry, Miss Dickinson, I must beg to differ with you). It is weighty like an anchor teaching us to hold on despite all evidence to the contrary. 

Light will dawn again.

****

when you dread summer (and not for the obvious reasons …)

I’ve been procrastinating this post for awhile. It feels like if I don’t write it, it won’t be true. Yet we all know that’s about as effective as saying you’re not hungry when your favorite dessert shows up on the after-dinner tray. (I caved and totally ate the peanut-butter pie while out for dinner last night.) Sometimes I wonder if I’m too negative or brooding. But, hey, that’s what writers are known for, right? And add “counselor” to my job description, and it’s a wonder I don’t spend all my moments looking at/being weighed down by the dark side of life. For there is much darkness that is real. And yet the light wins in the end, and I have hope that it’s already breaking into this broken-down world. 

But sometimes the weight of all the burdens catches up with my soul. And I’ve felt like I can’t quite rise to the occasion of being fully present in my life lately. Part of it may be “compassion fatigue,” experienced by full-time caregivers, health providers, and ministers. That would fit my life description since as a mom to 4-year-old twins, pastor’s wife, and counselor, I am all of the above. So I’m sure that’s a portion of the mist that seems to shroud the days.

Yet I’m also a girl who *loves* summer and all that it means. Beach days, bright sunshine, late sunsets, crickets’ songs and lightning bugs. This year I cannot seem to rise to my usual “summer love.” And it bothers me. Winter blues? Well, I always expect those. But summer doldrums? They’re foreign to my existence. Sure, summer is different now since having children because these are weeks and months without the break of preschool for them. My summer reading (and project) list must be shorter now than the fall-winter one, because I actually have less time alone rather than more. But this alone doesn’t seem to explain the low-grade numbness I feel (if numbness can be felt).

Then I consider our recent history – the history of my church community. And tragedy seared us about midway through last summer. I find myself cringing within, emotionally bracing for impact as the season turns and it’s summer again. It was a beautiful, typically-bright July afternoon when trauma struck through the deaths of a mom and her daughter, leaving darkness in its wake for the surviving husband/father and daughter/sister. It was one of the greatest privileges of our lives for my husband and I to be able to be first responders to their grief. To sit and cry with them when it was all so fresh and so confusing. To simply offer our presence and our tears. It has been beautiful to watch our community of faith surround them and carry them through this past year. It has been evidence of God’s grace to witness the strength of these two as they have learned how to do life anew together.

And because of the carrying-with of their grief, traces of those tears still remain in my heart and soul. I would have it no other way. That combined with a year of nonstop everything and insufficient rest is probably contributing to the distancing I feel from what’s good and true and beautiful of life, and of summer particularly.

What will be the path of finding my way back to joy? Of refusing to let darkness write the story of this summer through the never-ending dread? It will be simple yet difficult. Putting one foot in front of the other. Speaking of my struggle while it’s in the present (not waiting for the retrospective – “it’s all over and here’s how God met me”). Creating structure for my soul and our family that includes lots of rest, refreshment, and fun. Soaking my soul in the words of hope whether I feel like it or not. Words like,

“In this world you will have trouble. But, take heart, I have overcome the world.” – John 16:33

Yes, dread is a normal emotional response to past trauma, and yes, compassion fatigue calls for rest and a break, but no, it won’t have the last word. Jesus has overcome whatever it is you and I dread. This is reason for hope. Hope that looks like walking out of the mist and embracing what’s good and real and true about life, especiallysummer.

Five Minute Friday: tomorrow

We arrived home yesterday from a great several days’ getaway/conference in Orlando at The Gospel Coalition. More on that in a future post. Too much to process for now! Let’s say that returning home has been equal parts wonderful (twin 4-year-olds’ enthusiastic welcomes are the best!) and rough (where are the tropical breezes and the deep conversations?). Parenting is not for the faint of heart … I might have said that once or twice before?

I come here to Five Minute Friday, sliding in before midnight … to write in my favorite of regular blog activities. Five minutes of free writing on a given topic, hosted by Kate Motaung.

****

photo from macstuff.net

photo from macstuff.net

Tomorrow.

Cue the theme song from Annie here. No, really, let’s talk about tomorrow. Tomorrow is when I will not be plagued by the sin and shame of parenting struggles. Tomorrow I will get organized, and work out, and write more, and be more loving. It is the holding place for all of my attempts at self-improvement and hoped-for answered prayers. 

No wonder tomorrow can feel so uncertain. Yet it is also hope-filled.

I lost it tonight when she kept crying uncontrollably, insisting on her way when I kept telling her she could not have it. I was patient and calm for about all of one minute, and then I unleashed my anger in a tirade of frustrated words. A parent at her wit’s end. A parent who feels out of control, as out of control as her daughter does. She was tired, up way past her bedtime; and I was tired of parenting (as was my husband). I just wanted her in bed and out of the way. And yikes, that sounds awful. That is (and was) raw emotion.

But I stepped away for a minute. Prayed, took a deep breath, and came back to her forgiving arms. We cuddled in close and I heard her whisper “‘give you” in response to my request for forgiveness. And I whispered to her about the promise of mercies that are new tomorrow. Strength for obedience that we both need. Grace to forgive that we’ll both need, too. And freedom not to be tied to today’s failures. 

Only in that hope can I face any of life’s tomorrows.

***