Letter to Grief (reposted) and a book to purchase

[repost from December 21, 2014]

All is not calm and bright, is it? This time of year is more often chaotic and dark as we scurry around with our never-ending Christmas to-do lists, flitting from one festivity to another. And for many of my close friends, this Advent season brings unimaginable grief. I feel it with you. And so I jumped at the opportunity to join in a “Letters to Grief” event hosted by Kate Motaung coinciding with the launch of her book by the same name. This letter – it’s for you, my friends grieving loss this season. Whether that loss is of a parent or a child or a pregnancy or a job or a clean bill of health or a dream or a marriage – the loss of hope and community too often follows in its wake. Let this be a small reminder that no, you are not alone, and yes, it feels excruciating. Cry, and sorrow, for we are not Home yet. But grieve with hope, for Home is being prepared for all those clinging to the hope of our Redeemer Jesus Christ.

***

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. …

[read the rest over at Kate Motaung’s site where I am featured today as part of her book launch, Letters to Grief, which will be one of my first reads in 2015]

Sorrow-well-300x300

reflections on my story

20140617-071914-26354591.jpgTen days ago, I celebrated a milestone birthday. Not one of the big “decades,” but one that felt significant nonetheless. Birthdays are great opportunities for reflection, and every year I enjoy writing a bit about the year prior and anticipating the year ahead. In March of this year, I did a retreat that could be the title for my story: “When Good Girls Get It All Wrong.” This past year has been a year of realizing more and more of the ways I get it wrong when I trust my goodness instead of God’s abundant grace. My story is one of the prototypical “good girl.” I am the oldest of three children with two younger brothers. I attended private Christian school through eighth grade and my worst nickname was “Goody-Goody.” The transition to public high school was terrifying and faith-activating. While experiencing being made fun of for being a Christian, my youth pastor wisely identified this as a form of persecution for my faith. And all of a sudden, God’s Word came alive to me. Passages like this one in 1 Peter 4:12-14 made sense to me for the first time:

“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.”

When it was time for college, I ventured out to Wheaton College, hundreds of miles from home. I still am amazed at that courage as an 18-year-old who had never lived anywhere but my small hometown in South Carolina. Those four years were full of long, important conversations that can happen in the context of “all freedom/no responsibility” and halfway through college, grace flooded in for this good girl. I was months away from being a Resident Assistant to a hall of 50 freshmen and sophomore women, and God found me through his grace as I realized how much I needed him. I could not rely on my try-harder goodness to carry me through what had become a crippling bout of anxiety-induced insomnia. The summer between my sophomore and junior year is fondly remembered as “the summer of grace,” when grace flooded into my Christian life – transforming what had been black-and-white into full color. Not unlike when Dorothy in Oz travels from tornado-torn Kansas to the yellow brick road leading to the Emerald City.

I will fast forward a few years to the next major turning point of faith for me: Christmas of 2003 which was bookended by news of both parents’ cancer diagnoses. Yes, you read that right: BOTH. My mom received her diagnosis December 23, and then when we gathered as a family again on December 31, Dad shared that he, too, had been diagnosed with cancer. My parents had always been healthy, and I had taken them for granted. This shook me as a young finding-my-way elementary school teacher who assumed life would continue as it always had. The gift to my faith in the midst of this season of questions and wondering how I would make it through is that I questioned. Really questioned and had to wrestle with a God who did not guarantee “the good, healthy and happy life” to his people. I often felt like I was questioning alone – because so many in my well-meaning Christian community jumped to, “It’s going to be fine!” or wanted to give pat answers that failed to connect with my heart. This journey through questions, doubt, darkness prepared me for the next stage of calling: pursuing a graduate degree in counseling from Westminster Theological Seminary outside of Philadelphia.

My parents both survived (and have been cancer-free for over a decade) and my faith deepened; and the gift of counseling has been the gift of walking with others through their questions, their pain, their suffering; their untold stories of tragedy, grief, loss, abuse, dreams imploding. And it has been the gift of witnessing hope emerging, slowly and painfully at times like a butterfly getting used to its new wings as it emerges from its cocoon. My own hope rehabilitation journey in seminary included the unexpected gift of meeting and marrying my pastor-husband, who persevered despite much resistance from this battle-weary woman who had been through a few too many break-ups by that point to easily entrust my heart to another. Being married to him has been good and beautiful and hard and sanctifying all at the same time, often in the same moments.

And then we had twins. I have talked about my journey of motherhood often on this blog, so I’ll leave it to prior posts to fill in those gaps. [suggested: Trusting God When You’re Expecting, Part 3: A New Chapter Called “Bed Rest“;  Tiny Miracles; Twins: The First Month; Confessions of an Angry Mom, part 12, & 3A Prayer for Potty TrainingTears and TransitionsFor the love of poetryIdentity lessons from “Angelina Ballerina”The one voice that matters mostMind the gap]

Needless to say, for two control-freak parents addicted to self-sufficiency and independence, twin daughters has by far been the best and hardest part of our lives as we find our way back to grace over and over and over again.

Where am I now? Full of anticipation for the next years or decades of life left before I go Home. I want to write. I want to write of hope amidst imploded dreams and war-torn hearts. I want to give voice to suffering and permission to speak of tragedy and to ask the hard questions we too often paste over with faith platitudes. I want to connect with you, my faithful readers, friends, family. I want to hear and share stories yet untold and unheard. To celebrate grace and life and beauty in all its forms, and to beg for redemption and healing for all the pain that creeps in uninvited. I want to laugh, to create art, and to unleash creativity in a million little ways. Join me? I’d be so honored.

 

 

when tragedy strikes, where is God?

I awoke to a clear blue sky sunny with the cheery light of early summer. I texted my friend, “What a beautiful day for your wedding!” We slowly woke up on this Saturday morning in June.

And then peace was shattered as I heard of a shooting from the evening prior that left a 17-year-old and a Norfolk police officer dead. What chilled me was both how close it happened to our home (ten minutes away), and that the boy who died, Mark Rodriguez, was the son of acquaintances – a fellow pastor and his counselor-wife, Carlos and Leigh Ellen. Carlos pastors Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Virginia Beach, a church planted by the church where my husband is one of the associate pastors. We’ve often prayed for the Rodriguez family and their young church. And now. How to process?

Empathy is helpful to me as a counselor, yet it also means I can feel the emotional impact of an event that does not personally affect me. And I can be weighed down by it. Such as a national tragedy or the nightly news. And this. Well, it’s shaken me. I wonder how on earth I would ever get through such a tragic loss as a parent. And I feel angry at a world in which a high school rising senior would be killed while driving home to make it in time for his 11:00pm curfew. How did his parents get the news? In an extended interview, Carlos talks about retracing his son’s route when his son did not get home in time despite a text to his mom saying he’d dropped off his friend and was headed straight home. He speaks of seeing the car, the ambulance, the police and sirens and flashing lights. He speaks of crying out, “Where is my son?!” And finally getting the answer from the detective, “He’s deceased.” Then of calling his wife … and their stunned disbelief. A car accident with some injuries is what he first thought – but this. It’s a thousand times worse. More tragic, more apparently senseless, more awful. To be randomly shot by a madman with a gun from inside his car. That’s losing your son to the very worst and most irreversible brokenness of this world: murder.

I went to the Christian school’s memorial service for Mark Rodriguez on Sunday afternoon (two days after his death) to be on hand as a grief counselor. I was, instead, counseled by many who are grieving with hope the life of a remarkable man. I saw a picture of a young man wise beyond his years, with the secret of this wisdom being no secret at all: it was the Lord to whom he was surrendered. The God he loved to lead others to worship. His mom said, “All he ever wanted to be was a worship leader,” and fellow students spoke of his joyful (even goofy at times) way of leading them in worship. His mom, Leigh Ellen, spoke of his blog post about heaven – his last one, written less than two months before he died. She talked about his journal that revealed someone “even better than who we thought he was. The Mark you remember is the real deal.” For the mother of a teenager to speak these words – that alone communicates volumes as to the character and integrity of Mark Rodriguez. I was comforted to hear both parents hold in tension the reality of grieving their son’s death (no minimizing or denying this reality) with a deeper seated hope in resurrection life. His father, Carlos, said that there is no question that Mark is alive and with the Savior he loved. They even asked this Christian community to reach out to the family of the shooter, to offer comfort for their grief. They hold no malice (although I am sure there are questions) because they are resting in God’s sovereign goodness over every detail of their son’s life. Psalm 139 that speaks of every day ordained for us before our lives start – this is how a parent can say, “Mark got exactly what he wanted – to be with the God he loved so much. God took our son home, and he did not live one minute shorter than he was supposed to.”

It raises the question for me – well, so many questions actually. There are the typical ones about why and how come and this is not fair. But the questions I want to live with moving forward are these:

(1)  How could I live a life like Mark’s – completely surrendered, longing for Jesus, true through and through – so that those who know me best could say, “She was even better than you thought she was. Not because of her goodness, but because of her Savior to whom she was surrendered.”?

(2)  When I am cut, will I bleed gospel like Carlos and Leigh Ellen? For that’s what’s so poignant. It is the gospel flowing out in their pain that is so compelling. But don’t take my word for it. Watch their interviews here. It is worth every bit of the 20 minutes for all four parts.

How can I live like Mark? And grieve like Carlos and Leigh Ellen? Through drinking deeply of the gospel. A gospel that shows that God’s in the very middle of the tragedy. He is the God who’s not only sovereign in it, but faithful through it. He is the God intimately acquainted with grief. The God who knows what it is to lose a son to senseless murder. For isn’t that the story of the cross? He is the God who hates death and sin and brokenness so much that he allowed Jesus to be murdered that death and sin and its brokenness might be reversed – eradicated – that love would win through an empty tomb and a stone rolled away. Resurrection. Life after death. Hope amidst tragedy that frees a community to grieve and laugh and hope again. 

 

Easter morning: “be free and have fun”

cropped-232323232-fp5367-nu32-6-572-77-wsnrcg336548-63932-nu0mrj.jpg
“Hear the bells ringing, they’re singing that you can be born again!” That melody floats through my head this morning. The melody that drew me into salvation as a child of 4-years-old who inquired what it meant to be born again, and then was … Keith Green’s invitation set to music.

Another phrase that seems to capture what Easter means for me this year, today:

Be free and have fun!

I overheard these words spoken by a grandmother sending her grandson off to play at a park a few weeks ago. And they have reverberated through my mind and heart ever since. Not only as such a good (different) parenting focus, but the words I need to hear from a resurrected Jesus this morning, every morning.

Easter means I am free and so are you who are united to Jesus by faith. Free from sin, free from slavery to the effects of my sin and others’, free from anxiety and worry, free from performance on the treadmill of perfection, free from my past and my failings, free from others’ judgments or opinions, free to say “no” to doing too much, free to love – to serve wholeheartedly – to create.

Free to have fun in the truest sense of fun. To be creative, to delight in a world that can be as delightful as it is broken. To have fun doing harm to evil (thank you, Dan Allender, for this poignant phrase from the “To Be Told” seminar I attended last month).  To have fun with my daughters and not only be a disciplinarian. To have fun with my husband and in so doing make both of our loads lighter. To take myself more lightly and laugh a little easier. To have fun doing what I don’t give myself permission to do in my quest for achievement and success: to have fun painting, reading novels, blogging, sharing a cup of coffee with a close friend, making life and our home beautiful.

What about you? What could it mean to live in the light of Easter morning? Of the empty tomb calling out to you – “be free! and have fun!”? Where are you still living under the weight of “Silent Saturday”? Of the agony of Good Friday?

Three posts I recommend for your perusal. “We are the Sunday morning people” by Lisa-Jo Baker, “Woman, Why?” at (in)courage, and “We Need All the Days of Holy Week” at Grace Covers Me.

Enjoy … be free … have fun! The tomb is empty; Jesus our Lord is risen; death has lost its darkness and sin has lost its power. 

 

eulogy for Uncle Ashby

In memory and celebration of the life of a dear saint now in glory, Uncle Ashby, upon news of his passing through the pearly gates early this morning of Friday, March 7, 2014 in Columbia, South Carolina.

For all the saints who from their labors rest
Who, Thee, by faith before the world confessed
Thy name, O  Jesus, be forever blessed,
Alleluia, Allelu/

Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress, and their Might
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well-fought fight,
Thou in the darkness drear their One True Light,
Alleluia, Allelu/

O, may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold
Fight as the saints who know they fought of old
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold
Alleluia, Allelu/

The golden morning brightens in the west
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed
Alleluia, Allelu/

But, Lo, there breaks a yet more glorious day
The saints triumphant rise in bright array
The King of glory passes on his way
Alleluia, Allelu/

There is no better hymn to sing through tears and smiles as I pause in Panera this Friday morning to remember the great and gentle saint known as “Uncle Ashby,” my great-uncle, the brother of my paternal grandmother, Emma Davis (who preceded him into glory over 32 years ago). What I first knew of him was his kind thoughtfulness and generosity to support me on various short-term missions endeavors throughout high school and college. He and his beloved Aunt Dot were eager to support my ministry not only financially but through prayers and encouraging phone calls. Throughout the years, they would always call to hear the report of how I saw God at work through these experiences. He was a gospel cheerleader, as it were. And he lived it out. Always eager to listen when he himself had the greater stories of God’s faithfulness to share, stories he would talk of only when prompted and asked about.

He was delighted to hear that I was engaged to marry a man in training for full-time ministry as a pastor, and he and Dotty sent their support through a card and beautiful bouquet of flowers. They eagerly received us as visitors when their health failed and their care was transferred to a nursing facility, he asking after Seth’s seminary study and ministry positions and then delightedly meeting our twin daughters when we brought them for a few visits.

As he talked and as Dad filled in the details he was too humble to discuss in the first person, I gained the picture of a saint who labored for his captain in a “well-fought fight.” After injured in combat during World War II, the trauma of that experience sent him into a mental breakdown. In this painful time, God found him. And when God healed him, he devoted the remainder of his life to full-time ministry, preaching throughout the low country of South Carolina and as an Army chaplain. Dad described this gentle man as “on fire” when he stood behind a pulpit to preach about the good news of Jesus Christ in the Scriptures.

Uncle Ashby was the picture of a devoted husband to his beloved Dotty through her share of difficulties and suffering to the very end of her life. His face lit up to speak of her, and it is only natural that he would follow her into glory but a short three years after her passing. And he loved his family. He loved us, his great-nephews and great-nieces (and our children) as if we were his own grandchildren. In many ways, he was the paternal grandfather we never knew while we were the grandchildren he never had. He was thoughtful and kind, sending cards on special occasions and calling to commemorate big life events for each of us (marriages, births, graduations).

sunriseWe will miss this kind soul, while rejoicing that he is in glory. At daybreak today, glory broke open for this man to see face-to-face the realities he had lived out by faith to the very end. The King of Glory whose gentleness and kindness this man reflected so well is even now embracing a fully restored and glorified Uncle Ashby. I imagine there was quite a party this morning in heaven as they welcomed him home! We grieve; they rejoice. And one day we too will rejoice to be welcomed home by this one who has gone before.

Earth has lost a man who brought joy until his dying days (evidenced by the weeping of the nursing staff who loved him so much), and this is a void that will not be filled. I am reminded of the travesty that death is for all of us left behind; how very unnatural it is that life should end. And yet in the tears there is hope, glorious hope, that death is never the end for those who trust in Jesus Christ as their own Savior and Redeemer. Grief now; glory later. And so we press on in hope as Uncle Ashby would have us to do, continuing to labor until we, too, like him will end the well-fought fight and rest in the welcome of our Savior.

why “hidden glory”?

I’ve been thinking about why I have the blog title that I do – “hidden glory” seems obscure, not very focused or necessarily clear in what it’s about. Yet it fits my purpose for blogging. Writing for me is a way of seeking meaning out of what can be confusing about life; writing is part of my quest to find the glory that is hidden all around us. So at times that means I’m writing about parenting; other times it’s a book review; or a counseling topic; or my meditations on a passage of the Bible; or reflections about my own life; or just observations in general. In all of these, I am inherently seeking the Truth and the Light {coincidentally what my daughters’ names mean} that I believe can and will be found there.

Our lives are tragically flawed yet beautifully redeemed. That’s my hope; that’s a summary of the glory hidden where all who seek may find.

I’m reposting my very first blog post from September 13, 2005, about my title:

Hmm…my first post. There’s a lot of pressure…so I’m just going to start with the quote that inspired the blog title.

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” ~the apostle Paul in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians

We are glorious beings. Yet the glory is hidden. Beneath sin, failings, and simply the frailty that comes with being human.

I desire to explore this strangely beautiful dichotomy in which we are appointed as image bearers of hidden glory. And to invite others into this journey with me.

Spring hope and restoration

Restoration. I often feel like spring is a picture of restoration as the world’s life seems to be restored after the (apparent) barrenness of winter. With someone who is definitely affected by the dark, cold days of winter, I often feel like my heart awakens with spring every year. I love warmth and sunshine. This year’s long-in-coming-spring felt trying for me. But it came. And in that there is a hint of the Future Restoration all of creation is waiting for (whether they realize it or not). 

A few weeks ago, I taught from 2 Kings 8:1-6 about a widow whose land is restored, and the way this seemingly obscure story is included in the Bible to speak to us of a much greater hope of restoration.

8 Now Elisha had said to the woman whose son he had restored to life, “Arise, and depart with your household, and sojourn wherever you can, for the Lord has called for a famine, and it will come upon the land for seven years.” So the woman arose and did according to the word of the man of God. She went with her household and sojourned in the land of the Philistines seven years. And at the end of the seven years, when the woman returned from the land of the Philistines, she went to appeal to the king for her house and her land. Now the king was talking with Gehazi the servant of the man of God, saying, “Tell me all the great things that Elisha has done.” And while he was telling the king how Elisha had restored the dead to life, behold, the woman whose son he had restored to life appealed to the king for her house and her land. And Gehazi said, “My lord, O king, here is the woman, and here is her son whom Elisha restored to life.” And when the king asked the woman, she told him. So the king appointed an official for her, saying, “Restore all that was hers, together with all the produce of the fields from the day that she left the land until now.”

Parts of my talk are included below – praying you will be encouraged by the hope of restoration wherever you feel the longing for it most today.

Have you ever lost something very precious to you? Maybe not valuable in terms of price but irreplaceable because of what it was. While visiting my parents in South Carolina over Christmas, I lost the pearl ring my parents gave me for my 30th birthday. I didn’t realize I had lost it until we arrived back in Norfolk. I just assumed I had already packed it some place really “special” but couldn’t find it when unpacking. I searched through all of the usual places, multiple times. I called and asked my mom to look for it, which I assumed would be like looking for a needle in a haystack since it could have been anywhere. And it didn’t show up for weeks. I considered it gone forever. Imagine my relief and joy when I pulled on a pair of pants to find it comfortably lodged deep in the pocket. I felt like I had received it back again! Isn’t that what makes restoration almost better than the original gift? You had counted it as lost, and then it’s restored. Webster’s defines the verb “restore” as

Verb

  1. Bring back; reinstate.
  2. Return (someone or something) to a former condition, place, or position.
Synonyms

return – give back – renovate – renew – rehabilitate

This is a small, trivial example of something lost that’s been restored. What do you find yourself longing to be restored today? Maybe it’s the weight of relationships that are broken and feel lost forever – maybe with a parent, or a child, or a spouse, or a friend. Or maybe you are in the process of losing a home or a job due to financial stress, unemployment, or your new orders. Perhaps you are losing an entire way of life as you anticipate a major change on the horizon – whether it be a joyful change like marriage or having children, or bittersweet such as retirement or kids leaving for school or college. Maybe you find yourself in a much darker place than anything I’ve mentioned yet as you deal with the loss of someone close to you through death, or the loss of hope through miscarriage or infertility, or the lingering loss of childhood or innocence because of past abuse. And in all of these losses, what often accompanies them is a loss of faith or trust in God and his goodness. Is God going to come through for you when you feel like you’ve lost everything that matters to you – or if not everything, the one thing or person that mattered the most? Is restoration even possible?

Our story today says yes as it highlights God as the one who provides and the one who restores. As we think about it together, we’re going to look at God’s provision and restoration from three perspectives: 

(1) God’s restoration for the Shunammite woman

In 2 Kings 8:1-6, we see a woman who experiences God’s provision and abundant restoration in her life. First, we need to do a little background on her life to remember her remarkable history. In 2 Kings 4:1-37, we are introduced to this woman who is wealthy and hospitable, building a room for Elisha to stay in when he passes through their town. She’s the woman who was given a son by God in repayment for her kindness after years of apparent infertility. And she’s the woman who loses her son unexpectedly at a young age to death, and then seeks Elisha’s help when he dies. What happens next is one of the greatest miracles in the Bible. She receives her son back when Elisha restores his life to him in a resurrection miracle. All of this happens before this chapter of her story begins.

It opens with bleak circumstances and yet we see the first evidence of God’s care for her: God’s provision of a warning. Israel is going to be hit with a seven-year famine (no small thing for an agrarian society), presumably as part of God’s desire to wake them up from their idolatry. This woman will be spared because she is given a warning by Elisha of what’s coming. We see her faith in her response described in verse 2, “So the woman arose and did according to the word of the man of God.” What she left behind was no small thing. We know that she was wealthy and that she was comfortably settled, and she leaves all of this behind to go live in the land of the Philistines (enemies of Israel). This would not have been a comfortable place to live by any stretch of the imagination.

Perhaps it helped that she knew it would only be seven years, for we see her journeying back after seven years. Her land and her home are now gone, and she must appeal to the king for it. What we see now is a second aspect of God’s care for her in his provision of perfect timing. As she enters the king’s court, the king “just happened” to be asking Gehazi (Elisha’s servant) to tell him about Elisha’s miracles. And Gehazi “just happened” to be telling him about the resurrection miracle when the woman herself walks into the king’s presence and Gehazi announces her, “…here is the woman, and here is her son whom Elisha restored to life.” The king is intrigued and asked the woman herself to recount the story. He is duly impressed, and as a result, appoints an official with the instructions, “Restore all that was hers…” and not only that, but also “all the produce of the fields from the day that she left the land until now.” This is abundant provision, over and above what she requested or expected.

What we see through this short narrative is a God who provides and who restores, caring for the needs of one individual woman and her family. Do you wonder why this particular story of this particular woman is included in the Bible for us? I find great comfort in the reminder that our God is a God who is in the business of restoration. And that our God goes about restoration one individual at a time. He is not only the God of global restoration of all things, but He is also the God who is in the business of restoring individual lives.

(2) God’s message of restoration for Israel

The original audience, Israel, were also sojourners like this woman, sojourners not by choice but by captivity. They must have wondered whether they would have homes and land to return to one day. Imagine what great comfort they would find through this story! For them, the sermon would have been something like the following:

  1. You will be restored to your land after exile – there is an end in sight
  2. God notices, cares, and orchestrates details to make his will come to pass for his people
  3. Do according to God’s word like the Shunammite woman and God will provide and restore

(3) God’s promise of restoration to His people today

Those points are certainly not irrelevant for us today, who also live as spiritual exiles who are not home. If we think of the big picture of the story of what God is doing in history, we also are ones who have had a home that we left (the Garden of Eden). We are now in captivity to sin, to futility in our work and to pain in child bearing/raising. We are awaiting restoration of all creation and a perfect home with God who will make all things new. But we have even more hope as we wait than the Israelites did because we can now look back to Jesus Christ. Just as the woman’s restoration of her land hinged on the son restored to life, so does our restoration depend on the Son restored to life.

During Easter we particularly contemplate Jesus’ death more than any other time in the calendar year, and we also celebrate Jesus’ resurrection life as the high point of the church calendar. It is the highlight of Redemption – of God’s global Restoration story. For in Jesus restored to life, we all have hope that we ourselves will also be restored to life after death and that even now our hearts are restored from sin’s captivity. Jesus came to begin the process of returning all things to their former/rightful condition, place, and position. With his death and resurrection life, He promises to bring back and reinstate all those who believe in him to a place of unbroken relationship with their Creator. The ripple effects of such a restoration are to be seen and experienced most vividly in our restored relationships with one another and in our joint restoration efforts to restore cities, communities, all of creation to its intended glorious state.

What could this really look like for you and for me as we face the death of friends, financial difficulties, life stress, overbooked schedules, health problems, broken relationships?

God agrees that your life and this world is broken, it is far from his original intent and the glory it was created to display. Don’t let the brokenness keep you from seeing the perfection of the God who created it all to be good, and who is on a global renovation/restoration plan to make it so again.

Don’t let the weight of your sin keep you from experiencing the restoration of grace and forgiveness guaranteed by Jesus Christ.

Remember who we were created to be and what the world was created to display, and mourn how far we have all fallen. But dare to hope and pray and work with the God who is in the business of restoration. 

When you break Lent (and it breaks you)

Lent.

The period of 40 weekdays that in the Christian Church is devoted to fasting, abstinence, and penitence.

I chose what I thought would be four hard but do-able items for my Lenten fast this year. Call me an overachiever, or more accurately, an over-estimator of my own strength. A month ago I posted about my hopes for Lent. How hard could it really be? And how refreshing and empowering could it be! In taking away many of my heart’s distractions – phone apps, Target, sweets, t.v. – I assumed that God would replace my heart’s misplaced affections with a renewed love for Christ and the people around me.

About three weeks in, I broke Lent. Fully and completely. Not just one day, but I think it was about every day of the week and I broke every single “fast” multiple times. I rationalized why for each of them.

  • Going to Target will help me stick to our family budget on some key grocery items like Kashi cereal and goldfish.
  • “Non-essential” phone app category expanded dramatically. I started Lent with 6 icons on my home screen that I deemed “non-essential.” I’m ending Lent with twice as many.
  • Television is the only way that my husband and I can really share down time together after busy days in the midst of a busy week
  • I really just “need” a quick pick-me-up. Nothing like a bite of chocolate to do that.

My response to breaking Lent? First, my typical pull-yourself-up-by-your-boot-straps approach: “Just try harder, Heather. Get it together. You can do it!” As this failed, I descended to self-blame, punishment, guilt and shame. “This is really not that hard. There are millions of people in the world who LIVE without these things daily, and you can’t just go without for 40 days?? What is wrong with YOU?” That also got me nowhere fast.

And then I realized that maybe this is the real purpose of Lent. To reveal (again) that I cannot fulfill the Law. Any law – of God’s eternally perfect law, other people’s expectations, or my own standards. Maybe Lent is meant to show me how little I can do in my own strength, and therefore how MUCH I need Jesus and His life, death, and resurrection that we celebrate at Easter. Truth echoed in these verses from Romans 3:19-20 –

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

Breaking Lent is one way that the law breaks me. It’s a beautiful breaking, for it leads me to the One who restores and makes new. If I didn’t practice a Lenten fast this year, I would be that much less aware of my helplessness to gain eternal life and a relationship with God on my own strength or efforts. And so, in an upside-down backwards way, breaking Lent has broken me of trying and pointed me in desperate hope to Jesus whose death we remember this week and whose life we celebrate next Sunday. Listen to this hope found in Romans 5:6 and 21 –

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. … so that … grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

As we round the final corner of Lent, walking into Holy Week’s somber reflections, let us remember that we cannot earn Easter on our own merit. Our best trying leaves us hopeless. Let us fall in our weariness and allow Jesus to pick us up and bring us with Him to the cross and then the hope of the empty tomb this week and always.

2013: the year of NEW

20130107-073027.jpg

New. It’s a word that conjures up freshness, a clean slate, a beginning, something unused, not old. Like this exquisite sunrise we witnessed on New Year’s Eve. I don’t often get to see a sunrise because I’m just not “a morning person” but this was an unexpected benefit of getting up at 4:30 am that day to drive back home before toddlers became too cranky. It was breathtaking and glorious. I want it to be the picture of this new year dawning, of every day dawning. One of my favorite bloggers, Ann Voskamp, names her years, and I thought that I would follow that trend this year. I want it to be new. In every way.

To experience God’s mercies that are new every day (Lamentations 3:22-24).

22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
24 I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.”

To live out of the new heart I’ve been given by God in the Spirit (Ezekiel 36:26-27).

26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.

To put off the old self, put on the new self created to be like Christ (Ephesians 4:24, Colossians 3:10).

24  … put on the new self,created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

10 … put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.

To experience a taste of the future when our returning King comes to make all things new because even now, I am part of this new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17).

17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!

I want to fight sin in a new way, and to see new grace instead of dwelling on old hurts, failures, sins.

Less complaining, more thanksgiving.

Less thinking about what I want, more thoughtful considering of what the Spirit wants.

A posture of listening. (I am so quick to talk, to speak, to offer my “wisdom,” to think I know better.)

To see my children anew and delight in them.

So much about my life has felt mundane, monotonous, difficult. And I am tired of complaining about it and then feeling stuck and defined by it. I want this year to be different. I want to experience new freedom from sinful anger, discontentment, and complaining. I don’t want to repeat old cycles of sin that are so well-learned by me. I want to know a newness that permeates every part of my heart, life, world, neighborhood, church, community.

For starters.

How? Empowered by the Spirit of Christ, who is the source of all things NEW, a few thoughts as I’ve had time to reflect and ruminate during this first week of 2013:

  • Renewal of the mind = memorize Romans 1, 8, 12 (as per Ann Voskamp’s plan) and begin the 2-year Bible reading plan by Whitmer
  • Take Voskamp’s “Joy Dare” to purposely focus on gratitude instead of complaint
  • Weekly “state of the union” with Seth to connect about marriage and our lives (an idea I’m indebted to Jim & Marsha Petty for – my wonderful landlords when I first landed in Philly for seminary)
  • Focus on my children when I’m home with them – less texting, escaping to technology via email/Instagram/FB/etc, less talking on the phone, maybe even fewer visitors and play dates so that I don’t miss these years.
  • Read 40 books. Life –changing ones, preferably. I’m off to a good start with Seven by Jen Hatmaker. Revolutionary, in a word. (Thanks for inviting me to read this with you, Katherine.)

The source of my hope for NEW is here in an ancient prophetic book, Isaiah 43:18-21 –

18 “Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
19 See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.
20
… I provide water in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland,
to give drink to my people, my chosen,
21 the people I formed for myself
that they may proclaim my praise.

Connecting Christmas with the Newtown Tragedy

stars at night

Darkness. Black darkness. Tiny beams of light come through. But it’s still night. We still wait. We can’t see clearly, and we don’t know when daylight will arrive. Yet aren’t the stars brighter because it is so dark? They are not visible when the sun is at full strength. We await Light. The true Light sent into the world, whose first coming [Advent] we celebrate during this season. But all it takes is the horrific story of a deranged 20-year-old committing the most senseless tragedy to date in an elementary school in a safe, postcard-perfect New England town that had a single homicide on its record of the past 10 years – all it takes is this one story to remind me, to remind us, that there is a greater Advent we await. Our king came in weakness and vulnerability the first time, but when he returns next, there will be no question of his power and his strength and all evil will flee before him like darkness at dawn’s first light.

Come, thou long-expected Jesus, born to set Thy people free. From our fears and sins release us; let us find our rest in Thee.

The only way I can reconcile the Newtown tragedy with this season is to see it as a study of contrasts. The darker the light, the brighter the star shines? The God who came, and who is coming again, came to the unsuspecting and unaware. But not to take life senselessly – he entered to give life abundantly. Many asked “why?” Why would a powerful God, the Creator of all, stoop to take on human flesh in some mysterious and lowly way? Love. Love that beautifies and gives life to the one loved. Many still ask why – why come to a virgin? Seems humanly impossible. Why come poor and not rich? Why come to a lowly city? Why spread the news first to those despised in society [shepherds]? Unlike all of the “why” questions we’re asking about the Sandy Hook tragedy, these “why” questions are beautifully inexplicable. Underneath all the search for why and theories as to what caused Lanz to do what he did is a search for safety and protection that we are never guaranteed on this side of heaven. I shiver with fear to write these words. I feel the “survivor guilt” of being able to hug my two daughters when there are 20 sets of parents who waited in vain for their children on Friday. I feel the anxiety mixed with nausea when just imagining what it would have been like to wait for  my child who had been senselessly murdered. I said to a friend in jest, “Another point for homeschooling.” Yet the sobering reality is that I cannot protect my children in any place, at any time. I cannot guarantee their safety. This is a call for me to entrust my fear to the God who banishes fear, who has prepared a safe place where sin cannot enter, death is no more, and tears and mourning are forever banished.

Because I worship a God who came near, I can have faith to picture what you won’t see in any news report. We see the images of weeping parents without their children. But what would it be like to imagine our Father God welcoming these little ones home on Friday? Rescued from the evil of the world, now safe forever from the power of the Evil One to hurt and destroy. They were not embraced by their earthly parents on Friday, but could they be embraced by God their Father through faith in Jesus? Who knows but that many of these little ones had the child-like faith Jesus tells us we are to emulate. Now they see the reality we hope for during Advent.

Even more so, I know that I can trust this God who came near. In the midst of heart-wrenching suffering and sadness, I was reminded by our pastor this morning that our God is a Father who knows what it’s like to have a child unjustly murdered. He allowed Jesus Christ – his only Son – to die for the sin of the hurt and rage and brokenness of all the human race so that we might be saved from sin’s death sentence. So that we can hope for full justice even in such a tragedy. So that our own sinful brokenness might be healed and we would know comfort in the midst of unspeakable pain.

No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground; he comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found

As there are new corners touched and hearts broken by sin’s curse through this tragedy, I can hold onto hope that Jesus is coming to bring joy when he reigns with truth and grace and that even now the comfort of the Christ-child (God come near – Emmanuel) can be tasted in the midst of a dark world. We wait for dawn in the dark blackness of night. But it is coming. He is coming. Come soon, Lord Jesus!