Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Repositioning


Is there anybody out there who wants to be child-centered at the holidays but battles their inner Martha Stewart?! It’s like I have an angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. Their conversation goes something like this:

Angel: “Oh, look at how lovely it is to see you and your family decorating your tree together! The kids are getting big enough to help out. They love to open the boxes, discover forgotten ornaments, and reminisce about who made them. It is just heart-warming.”

Devil: “Yeah, but the kids keep hanging several ornaments in one place and weighing down the branches. You should just move them when they are not looking. It won’t hurt their feelings if they don’t see you do it!”

Ugh. It is embarrassing, but it is true. Every Christmas, I desire to be a mom who is more about the process than the outcome, but the frustrated interior decorator in me fights back. Everyone else seems to be having a good time, but inside of me, it is all-out war!

Once the initial decorating is complete, I spend the rest of the month trying to keep things picked up so that it continues to look lovely and feels peaceful in my home. The irony is that there is no peace when I am constantly trying to keep things clean! Can anyone relate?

We have a new nativity set that was given to us by my parents last year. A few weeks ago, the kids unwrapped the figurines and marveled over them one by one. Later, I placed them on the chest of drawers at the bottom of our stairs so that we could see them often and enjoy them throughout the season.

The next day, I noticed that the wise men had meandered a bit. The shepherds and the animals had also journeyed across the credenza. The kids had obviously been playing with them. I tried to resist the OCD urge, but it got the better of me…I stopped and took the time to tediously rearrange the figurines the way I thought they should look. I made sure they were properly aligned and that they took up the whole space…you know, like it would look in an ad in a magazine. Pleased with my work, I went on with my day and forgot about it.

But, try as I may to keep order, I keep finding those silly people repositioned when I’m not looking. Every time I rearrange them, I turn around and find the whole crew crowded up around the baby.

And, I know why! When my kids picture the story of Jesus’ birth, they imagine that everyone wanted to get a good look at the baby. They suspect that whoever was there wanted to get right up in Jesus’ grill. Of course, they did!

My kids really got me thinking about my preconceived idea of that manger scene. Do I really think that those shepherds who saw angels were really going to come find the Messiah and then just hang back as if they were onlookers at a golf tournament? Polite clapping, anyone? I don’t think so! The Bible reports that the shepherds said, “Let’s go straight to Bethlehem to see what has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” (Luke 2:15b) Then, it states, “They hurried off and found both Mary and Joseph, and the baby who was lying in the feeding trough.” (Luke 2:16) They were excited! They were in a hurry! They made a beeline for the baby! And, I bet they wanted to see what had happened up close and personal.

What about those wise men? Now, the Bible says they didn’t arrive until Jesus was a toddler, so placing them in the nativity scene is all wrong, but we can still imagine that once they got there, they didn’t hang back. Matthew’s gospel tells us that the wise men came to see Jesus for one purpose: to worship Him! Even if they reverently brought their gifts and laid them at His feet, do you really think they stayed at an arm’s length? They were looking for the star long before it appeared, and they traveled a long way to see the fulfillment of the prophecy. Don’t you imagine they wanted to touch the baby? Don’t you imagine they wanted to see if all of this that was prophesied was real?

I think my girls have the right idea. I told Bryan about the way they kept repositioning the figurines. That night, he came downstairs from tucking them into bed and reported that the nativity scene upstairs was in the same condition. It makes me smile from ear to ear. How can we hear from God if we are not willing to draw near to Him? I want to be close enough to read His lips!

Years after Jesus’ birth, when children were trying to get close to Him, His disciples corrected them, but Jesus replied, “Let the little children come to me, for such as theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 19:14, Mark 10:14, Luke 18:16) Three of the four gospels tell this story. The message must have needed repeating. Jesus was saying that unless we are willing to crawl up into his lap like little children, we will not inherit the kingdom of God. We will not be able to receive all he has for us unless we are willing to draw near like children do.

Psalm 84:3,10 says, “Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young—a place near your altar, Lord Almighty, my King and my God…better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere.” If little children and even the birds find their home in the presence of the Lord, then so should I.

Oh, God, draw me closer! Pull me in! Show me who you are! Help me reposition myself so that I can receive all you have to give me.

The crowd at the manger remains on my credenza. There is not a breath between them. There is no order. In fact it is outright chaos. They are elbowing each other trying to see who is going to get a closer look. I think the baby likes it.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Hand You Were Dealt

My husband really enjoys playing poker with the guys. Next to golf, poker is one of his favorite ways to relax with friends. For Christmas 2005, the kids and I gave him a deluxe set of poker chips in a nice, sturdy silver case. A few months later, while my mother stayed with us, Bryan left for a guy’s night out, poker set in hand.

At the dinner table, my mom asked Caroline (then 4) to tell her what Daddy was doing that night. “He is with his friends. They’re putting a puzzle together,” she replied. I giggled. “How do you know that?” my mother asked, amused. “Because he has puzzle pieces in his lunchbox!” Caroline exclaimed.

I have a life-sized picture of that in my mind...a bunch of grown men just hanging out around the table eating Doritos, drinking Mountain Dew, and…putting together a puzzle! Caroline obviously didn’t have a clue about poker!

The rest of us, however, have at least a general knowledge of the game. Your success depends on several things (not the least of which is the ability to bluff, which is why I cannot play worth a hill of beans). It depends more, though, on the hand you are dealt—and your ability to play that hand well.

Two nights ago I was talking to a friend on the phone. She was encouraging me to participate in a weekend retreat that she insisted would help me heal. She prodded, “Of all the people I know who need this, you are the one who just HAS to go.” I know this friend’s heart, and I am confident she would not steer me toward something unless she thought it would benefit me. But, I had to wonder, what is it about me that makes me the ONE person she knows who needs it most? Pride getting in the way, I had to inquire, “Is there something you see in me that makes you want me to go? Is there something in my healing process I am overlooking?” “No,” she said, “I just thought about people I know who have been dealt a really crummy hand, and you come to mind.”

Nice. But, I get why she said that. Anybody who looks at what has happened to me in the past few years can see that I have suffered a lot at once. And, most of it has been completely out of my control. Taking in her remark, I began to get indignant with God. Yeah! I really have been dealt a crummy hand! What’s up with that, God?

Yesterday, I perused my pastor’s “e-votionals” and came across one titled, “Right Now with God.” He discussed the importance of (and the difficulty of) living in the present. He told the story of a woman in prison for murder who maintains to this day that she is innocent. She says she tries to think about what life was like before prison and what it will be like after she is released. She rarely thinks about where she really is. My pastor, mulling over her statement, asked, “How many of us who are free sentence ourselves to a prison of a lost yesterday and an unknown tomorrow?”

Great question. I often have a very hard time enjoying my present. Bryan and the kids, not so much. But, me? Yep. I’m flat out bad at it. It takes a lot for me to lose myself in the moment. It happened once this week that I know of…I was jumping on the trampoline with the girls, and I lost track of space and time. But, it was brief. And, for me, the occurrence is rare.

Last night I was looking at some family pictures from 2006. It was a tough year. I felt sick most of that year and didn’t know why for a long time. My mother-in-law was dying of brain cancer. Bryan and I were chunky—not just a little chunky. And, we looked tired. Because we were. We were young and overwhelmed (parenting three children under age 5) and we were just trying to stay afloat.

But, as I looked at those pictures, I realized that struggle was not the only story of 2006. I saw all three of my adorable little girls with their arms entwined around each other on so many “ordinary” days. I saw innocent times with lots of backyard play and summer fun. I saw dress-up and creek exploration. I saw mealtime and park time and snack time and birthdays and all of the regular stuff of life—all of the “present” moments. And, I remembered it was oh, so good. It was good!

I began to think about what my friend had said: “You have been dealt a crummy hand.” And, I thought about my heart’s subconscious agreement with that. Then, I thought about my pastor’s question: “How many of us who are free sentence ourselves to a prison of a lost yesterday and an unknown tomorrow?” I wondered how many moments I had missed in 2006 (or in any other year, for that matter) because I was imprisoned by my discontent with what had happened or my fear of what might happen. All at once, as if branding my soul, God opened me up and poured in the truth where bitterness had taken root: “You, my beloved,” He said to me, “have been dealt a very, very good hand.” He was right.

Maybe I don’t have a royal flush. But, who would call four aces and a two a bad hand?! We are so often tempted to define our lives by our disadvantages, our trials, our misfortunes, and our pain. I don’t know why it is, but that is just human nature—sin nature. I will always talk about my pain because it has certainly changed me. And, I believe that others who are hurting can benefit from knowing they are not alone in the struggles of life on this earth. There is much to be learned in the school of suffering. But, mark my words: my misfortunes do not define my life! And, they certainly have not dominated it! I pray that I will forever characterize my life by my blessings. They far outnumber my hardships. Furthermore, spiritually, I have inherited EVERYTHING that Christ has been given from God. The Bible says I am co-heir. It says I am entitled to everything the firstborn son has. Wow!

What cards are in your hand? How are you going to play them? Are you sentencing yourself to a prison of a lost yesterday and an unknown tomorrow? Or, can you freely rest in the present? Just because you live in this country and you can read this blog on your computer, it is likely that your present is very, very good indeed.

Learning to live in light of our present blessings is a form of worship. Will you try something with me? Look around you. What does your NOW look like? I see my little girls chilling out in a cozy living room glittering with twinkle lights. I smell the pizza I ordered an hour ago so that I could chill out, too! I hear the carefree sounds of an episode of Phineas and Ferb. I taste the ice cold Diet Dr. Pepper I am drinking so that I can “wake up” for Night of Praise rehearsal at church tonight. And, I feel the tap, tap, tap of the keys on my laptop while snuggling in the soft, red throw blanket on my couch. A pretty great present, if you ask me. In every sense of the word.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

An Honest Question

At the Moran household, the Christmas season started earlier than usual this year. When we found out Caroline is allergic to nearly every pollen God made, we decided to scrap our tradition of going to cut down a real Christmas tree. We had to grieve the change. All of us like the look, feel, and smell of a real tree. And, we have always made great memories hunting for one. Alas, wisdom told us that holding onto our tradition was not worth sacrificing our child’s health, so we made the switch. Looking on the bright side, we don’t have to worry about how long this tree will last, so we put it up on the day after Thanksgiving, blasted the Christmas carols, lit the “Christmas wreath” candle (I’ve got to have the smell somehow!) and got to enjoying the holidays.

Both of our girls have taken our cue by really jumping into the celebration. Caroline has been taking piano lessons for a few short months, but she is pounding out the melodies of her favorite carols. I love finding her practicing when no one is watching. She has also led our family in lighting the advent wreath at the dinner table, looking up corresponding Scriptures, and singing together. Having big kids is fun. Last night, we watched “The Nativity Story”. It is a non-animated version of the Biblical account of Christmas. I enjoyed the thoughtful questions that my children interjected as we watched. Some days I cannot believe what they already understand. It blows my mind.

But, it was what occurred after the movie was over that really got me thinking. Our movie discussion led to a dialogue about Heaven. Conversations in our household often do. I told my girls about a book I read last week titled, “Heaven is for Real” by Todd Burpo. It is a pastor’s story of his four-year-old son’s trip to Heaven and back. Sounds far-fetched, but after checking references and reading the book critically, I am confident it lines up with Scripture and that it is entirely probable it is true. Caroline and Mary Claire’s eyes lit up as I told them about little Colton’s story. They begged me to show them the book and read from it. As they nestled themselves in bed, I read aloud some of my favorite passages. Caroline asked me to let her take the book to school so that she could read it during her free time. I was struck by the passion she expressed when she said to me, “Oh, Mommy, I want to go to Heaven so badly! I want to see it! I want to be there!” After I put her to bed, I thought to myself, “What eight-year-old kid says stuff like that?” And, I praised God for making a life-altering change in my family.

If this was the only time my children had said they want to go to Heaven, I would not blink, really. But, they talk about it ALL the time. Seriously. We played a game at the dinner table one night called “Would You Rather”. We took turns giving each other questions like, “Would you rather play in the snow or go to the beach?” And we threw in a couple of dilemmas like, “Would you rather lick an elephant or kiss a lizard?” It was silly fun. Then, Mary Claire piped up, “Would you rather live forever or …?” I honestly don’t remember the second part of her question, but I do remember Caroline’s response. “Well, Mary Claire, I want to go to Heaven, so I don’t really want to live forever.” Mary Claire clarified, “That’s what I mean. You will live forever in Heaven.” “Oh,” Caroline replied matter-of-factly, “Then, I want to live forever, of course!”

You know the Scripture in Deuteronomy (6:7) where we are instructed to talk about God, “when we sit in our house, when we walk along the road, when we lie down, and when we get up”? Well, we do. And, in the last three years, invariably, when we have talked about God, our conversation has turned toward the eternal. Since we lost Audrey, life is different. Not just bad different. Good different, too.

Can I ask you an honest question? Do you want to go to Heaven? No one is looking at you, so just get real and acknowledge the truth in your heart. What is your gut reaction when you hear the question? Let’s try one more. Do you want Jesus to come back?

I have discovered that the answer to these two questions is an excellent diagnostic test for the health and maturity of our faith. Less than three years ago, my answer to both questions was “no.” You might think that was because I was not too interested in spiritual things or didn’t spend time studying my Bible or talking with God. And, you would be dead wrong. I was passionate about my relationship with God. Why, then, did I not want Jesus to come back? Why didn’t I desire Heaven? Two reasons, I think: 1) A wrong view of the present world, and 2) A wrong view of Heaven. In short, I had an improper perspective. I didn’t see myself and my life in light of God’s bigger plan.

I was really attached to this world, even if that meant overlooking how many things are wrong here. In some ways, I thought I was invincible. I remember thinking not too long ago that I didn’t want Jesus to come back before I got married and had children. With each passing phase of life, that list just got longer and longer. There was so much I wanted to live for—and that was not bad in and of itself. But, suffering has lifted the veil from my eyes. I am no longer under the impression that this world (in its present state) is a good place to live. My eyes have been opened to the impact of sin—the rampant destruction it causes. And, I have tasted the bitterness of death. Once that happened, my perspective was broadened. I started paying attention to suffering in other parts of the world and to suffering throughout history. I stopped living blindly in my relatively wealthy and comfortable existence. God showed me why we need a Savior and why He simply must come back to redeem His people and this place we call home.

One of the verses of “Joy to the World” reads, “No more let sin and sorrow grow, nor thorns infest the ground. He comes to make His blessings flow, far as the curse is found, far as the curse is found, far as, far as the curse is found.” That last phrase makes an impression on me. We don’t often take the time to think about how far-reaching the curse really is. Some evidence? This is the verse most often cut out when people want to shorten the hymn. I have a version printed from the internet which doesn’t even include the verse. My awesome Casting Crowns Christmas CD has a version of Joy to the World that also leaves out this verse. We sing “He rules the world”, but we don’t understand how far reaching His rule will be and how much will change when He returns. The curse extends over people, but it also extends over the earth. God’s Word says He intends to redeem it all.

Once we change our perspective on this world, though, it is imperative that we increase our understanding of Heaven. If we understand the impact of sin and death on earth and we do not have a clear Biblical picture of where we are going from here, we risk despair. Opening our eyes to the reality of the world as it is can be quite depressing without seeing it through the lens of eternity. Just turn on the news. I didn’t watch it for 2 years straight because I couldn’t handle how sad it was. Once I began to study Heaven—really mull it around in my mind, dream about it, imagine it—I obtained a sense of purpose I never had before. Rather than making me want to leave this sorry place, it made me want to stay and do what God made me to do until I get to go home. Isn’t that interesting? That is why I want my little girls to have a love for Heaven—not just so that they can see their sister again, but so that they will live out the rest of their days here with purpose, joy, and hope.

I used to shut out sad stories, try not to think about other people’s pain for too long, and I avoided the news like the plague. Now, I watch it a little every day. I don’t have to pretend that evil and suffering don’t exist. I don’t have to put them out of sight so that they will be out of mind. In fact, I embrace them because they give me a greater compassion for others, a greater thankfulness for my own blessings, a deeper longing for Christ’s return, and a more urgent motivation to share the gospel with boldness.

Here’s something worth noting: I didn’t get my new perspective by osmosis. You know, we joked about it in school…we wished we could just sleep with our books under our pillows and wake up ready for the test! Ah, but reality is that anything worth knowing requires study. It requires intentionality. I have pursued a knowledge of Heaven, I have asked God to reveal more about His plan to me, and I have made a concerted effort to change the way I think about—well, about almost everything. This new perspective was hard-earned. It was a result of chasing after God in the midst of the refiner’s fire. And, He is not done with me yet.

So, I ask you: What was your answer to the question? Do you want to go to Heaven? Note that I am not asking, “Do you want to go to Heaven when you die?”. I am asking, “Do you desire Heaven?” If your answer is no (or any shade of “yes, but…”), then let me issue you a challenge. Start by praying. Ask God to show you why you don’t desire Heaven. Ask Him to increase your desire for it. Ask Him to loosen your grip on this world. Ask Him to show you how thinking about eternity could improve your here and now. Then, Christian sister or brother, study! Devour Scripture. Eat it up like you need it to survive. Seek out books about Heaven. I guarantee that as you do, road blocks to your personal spiritual growth will come crashing down. We simply cannot enjoy the abundant life without having a clear picture of where we are going.

Finally, make it part of your worship as you contemplate Christmas and Jesus’ birth. As you celebrate, ask God to draw you a picture of the fullness of His plan. Christ was born. Christ died. Christ arose. Christ will come again. The writers of our beloved Christmas carols knew the secret. They knew that the world is under a curse, they longed for a “better and enduring possession” (Hebrews 10:34), and they looked for Jesus’ return. They knew that God’s redemptive work did not stop at the cross or even at the empty tomb. Consider the message from a few of my favorites:

From “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”

“O come, thou Dayspring from on high, and cheer us by thy drawing nigh; disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadow put to flight. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”

From “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”

“For lo, the days are hastening on, by prophet bards foretold, when with the ever circling years come round the age of gold, when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling, and the whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.”

From “Angels From the Realm of Glory”

“Saints before the alter bending, watching long in hope and fear; Suddenly the Lord descending, in His temple shall appear. Come and worship, come and worship, worship Christ the newborn King.”

May your Christmas worship and celebration be full of the hope of Heaven!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Gold Seal

I hope you’re prepared for Christmas. Ready or not, here it comes. You may still be looking forward to giving thanks, but Target and WalMart have moved on. Everywhere you go, decorations are going up. I am usually diametrically opposed to bringing out the Christmas stuff before the turkey is digested, but this year I decided that starting the celebration a little early wouldn’t hurt a thing. Caroline and I made a Christmas playlist on our iPods last night. The worshipful music of Christmas really gets me in the mood.

For our family, a typical Christmas season includes at least one trip to Hallmark for cards and wrapping paper. In my opinion, greeting cards are one of the biggest rackets on the planet. Those suckers can cost upwards of $5 a piece! But, can’t a well-timed and well-worded card just make your day? Maybe even your year? I think so. And, you know it is a Hallmark card when you see that gold seal on the envelope. If you don’t recognize the gold seal, you probably didn’t grow up in America. If there is one thing we are good at as a nation, it is advertising. We know our brand names here. And, Hallmark’s signature is that gold seal. It is supposed to be a symbol of the quality of the card—a mark of its worth and value.

But, have you ever thought that the gold seal might just be a little misleading? The outside may have a gold seal, but it doesn’t guarantee that the card inside is truly a Hallmark card. Even if it is, the card inside could be less than tasteful . Or, maybe, the person giving you the card has ill-intent. Maybe what they wrote inside the card wasn’t very nice. My point is you really don’t know until you open the envelope. The outside of things can be very misleading. Things aren’t always what they seem.

On the day that we buried Audrey, I faced the cemetery with trepidation. I had been in so much shock that I had wanted nothing to do with the physical aspect of the funeral preparation and burial. It was just too hard for me. Bryan and our dads did the difficult work of meeting with the funeral director and making decisions. So, while I helped plan the celebration of Audrey’s life that we held in the church, I had essentially no idea what was going to take place at the cemetery. Feeling like a lamb walking to the slaughter, I took a deep breath and approached the tiny coffin under the green tent, all the while trying to understand that it was really my little girl inside. I don’t remember anyone else around me. I hope someone held my husband’s and my children’s hands. Maybe I did. All I remember is making a beeline for my baby.

I had chosen not to see her after the accident. I had put her in the car seat of my friend’s van on that morning, kissed her goodbye, and blown her a kiss as I watched the vehicle drive away. I remember very clearly the smile on her face. That was the last time I laid eyes on her physical body. There had been three days of separation from her since that fateful moment, and I was coming near to her body for the last time on this earth. It was surreal.

At the side of the casket, I collapsed to my knees and placed my arms over it. I remember asking the orientation of her head and feet. I wanted to hold her so badly. My mother knelt down beside me. All at once, I remember being aware of the casket. It was white with a textured fake-velvet look to it. It felt like a cheap box of chocolates. I was horrified. I shot a distressed look at the man from the cemetery. It seemed like such an unfit way to send my child out of the world. I was always fastidious about the way I groomed and dressed her. The three matching dresses I had just purchased for my daughters for Christmas that year—smocked with snowmen—had arrived just in time to bury Audrey in one. My airways were constricting as I came to the realization that I was going to have to bury her in this crummy, cheap box. Sensing my disgust, the funeral director said, “Ma’am, I’m so sorry. It was all we had in stock. We just don’t need coffins this size very often. I told your husband that we could order something better, but we would have had to delay the funeral.”

Letting that news sink in, my mother and I knelt in silence for a while. Then, I saw her reach around the side of the coffin and pick at something. She began to chuckle. “Oh, God,” she said, “There is a gold sticker on the side of this thing! Do you mind if I take it off?” Some of the last few minutes at my daughter’s side were spent picking a stupid little gold sticker off of her coffin. It was one of the weirdest moments of my life.

I wish that were the end of the weirdness at the cemetery, but it wasn’t. Our pastor said some lovely and truth-filled things (that I admittedly don’t remember), and that was the only good thing about the burial. After his brief sermon was over, an odd woman emerged with a cage full of white pigeons. (Apparently, this is a service offered free of charge by the funeral home and was billed as something that may be “concrete” and meaningful for my children, so my husband, in his grief, said, “Why not?”) The woman made a corny speech about releasing the birds and symbolically releasing Audrey’s spirit. Then she proceeded to pull out a battery-operated jam box and play the reggae version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” (About now you may be thinking, “Are you kidding?” Trust me, I wish I was.) I wanted to shove the woman, bless her heart. She really was trying to help. But, this could not have been more incongruous considering the hopeful, Biblical service we had just had at church. And, it could not have been less of a representation of our family’s heart or personality than it was. The woman handed the birds to Bryan and I and the girls and then coached us when to let them go. I hate birds, by the way. I didn’t want to touch them. But, I was trying to cooperate. I think I may have shaken my head and laughed. Again, I was horrified.

I don’t want to give the impression that any of the weird things about the burial were Bryan’s fault. Really, he was merely letting the funeral home do what they were supposed to do best. But, it was devoid of the meaning we needed to feel victorious over the death of our child. In short, it felt like a cheap representation of the truth. The irony was that a gold seal, which usually indicates quality and worth, symbolized for me the utter emptiness of the world’s take on death.

Things aren’t always what they seem. Never had that been so glaringly apparent to me as it was kneeling next to my baby’s coffin that day. God was already helping me to see that though this looked like the end, it was indeed the beginning of something very significant. Not only was it the beginning of Audrey’s eternal life unmarred by sin and death, but for me it was the commencement of a journey to gain an eternal perspective and to live with eternal hope. It looked as if I were putting my daughter into the ground in an ugly cardboard box, when the truth is that she will be coming out of that box in a glorified body on resurrection day!

I don’t think I had ever given that a thought before. Not only does the Bible promise Heaven for those who trust Christ, it also promises that when Christ returns, there will be bodily resurrection for believers. And, it promises a human existence on a resurrected earth—the New Earth. Read Paul’s diatribe on bodily resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. He says we are to be pitied more than anyone if we only hope in Christ for this life and we do not believe we will be raised just as Christ was raised (v 19). Verses 42-43 say of the resurrection of the dead, “Sown in corruption, raised in incorruption; sown in dishonor (as I feel Audrey was buried), raised in glory; sown in weakness, raised in power.”

That gold sticker has come to symbolize for me the stamp of the world on death. It is the world’s seal of approval on the hollow (or, at the very least, shallow) explanation of what happens to a person after they die. There are many beliefs, but only one that is true, only one that comforts. And, I have found that even amongst Christians, we have not spent near enough time studying the subject. It is uncomfortable and inconvenient. We figure we can put it off. But, our hollow explanations do not cut it when we are putting a loved one’s body in the ground. We must know more. That is why I have made it a passion of mine to study what the Bible has to say about what awaits us. And, I am so excited about what I have learned. It has changed my life. Will you let it change yours?

As we approach Thanksgiving, I hope you will join me in celebrating the amazing gift of eternal life we have inherited as believers in Jesus. “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe.” (Hebrews 12:28)

And, as we approach the Christmas season, let us do so with great joy. Let us remember that Christ’s birth was the answer to the world’s groaning since the first sin. Emmanuel: God with us. The fulfillment of God’s promise to send the Messiah is proof that He will also fulfill His promise of Christ’s return. May we learn to long for it!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Does Time Heal All Wounds?

Bryan told me that our friend Tim recently took his 11-year-old, Hannah, to a homecoming rally. Tim lamented that, instead of hanging out with her like he expected, he ended up waiting for her while she talked with her friends. Poor daddy! I remember sitting next to Hannah’s car seat when we first became friends with Tim and Bethany. Hannah was just a 10-month-old, chubby ball of cuteness. I loved everything about her. (Still do!) She learned to walk on top of my kitchen table in our first apartment. We fed her Oreos late into the evening to keep her occupied while we played cards. Probably not the most responsible thing, but we adored her! I wanted a baby of my own so badly then. That was when Bryan and I were just wide-eyed dreamers. Laughing about how things change, Bryan commented, “We are old now.” Yeah, in some ways, I guess we are getting there. But, it’s against my will! Lately, I’m so mad about time passing the way it does! But, I’m not mad for the reasons of the average Joe.

One night, as I was taking a bath, I thought I heard and saw one of the kids at the bathroom door. They often get out of bed after being tucked in. But, I realized I was just imagining things. My mind ran away from me and began to draw pictures and create scenes…I wondered, if it were Audrey at my door, how tall would she be? Would her head now be doorknob-high or higher? I tried to imagine her standing there in her nightgown. What would it be like if I could still call her name out loud, even if I could call it in my “mom” voice? I’d say, “Audrey, why are you out of your bed? I just tucked you in.” And, she’d say something like, “Mommy, I’m really thirsty,”…to which I’d reply, “Go get yourself a sip of water, and then get back upstairs.” As she scuttled away, I’d yell after her, “I love you! I’ll be there to check on you in a few minutes!” Then, I’d go up in my nightgown and hug her one more time and smother her with kisses for good measure.

Coming back to my cold, hard reality that night, I began to ponder the passing of time and getting “old”. I do the same today. Today is Audrey’s Heavenly birthday. It is the day we struggle to celebrate, the day she entered glory and ran into Jesus’ embrace. Since Audrey’s death, three years have gone by against my will…three years of time and space traveling in the wrong direction. Three years far away from the time I could remember what it felt like to hold Audrey and hear her voice. Three years since I took care of her every need day in and day out. Three years since I saw her play with her sisters. Three years since I had three children and the world seemed right to me. And, contrary to the wisdom of the world, I am not one step closer to accepting her death. If you read my very first blog, then you know that last year, at the second anniversary of her death, we had not yet purchased a permanent marker for her grave. Another year has gone by, and still I cannot bring myself to buy one.

Sure, I can function. I eat and sleep…most of the time. I hold down the fort and even want to think about my future some days. I hope for more children. I figure if that doesn’t happen I can live with it. I find joy in things. I cry a lot, but I can manage it, even if I have to live this way for the rest of my life. I have loads of fun with Caroline and Mary Claire. I dream about Bryan and I finally moving along in the same groove for the same kingdom purpose, and I get excited about what God has in store. Nevertheless, I think to myself, “I would love to know what my life would be like now if the accident never happened.” When I start to try to imagine it, I feel defeated before I begin. It is a useless train of thought. Agitated, I begin to rage helplessly against time-- not because I care that I am getting wrinkles or that I can no longer tolerate caffeine after 4 p.m. if I want to get a good night’s sleep. I rage against these three years because they seem to have taken me farther and farther away from my baby. It’s like I was put on a boat I didn’t want to get on and set adrift, only to float far away from where I wanted to go.

They say “Time heals all wounds.” Uh, no it doesn’t. “D-U-E, duh!” Caroline recently said (and so hilariously misspelled). No, time has not healed this wound. And, I don’t think it will. I’m not being pessimistic or fatalistic. I’m just being honest. I know what people mean by this phrase. I have experienced other deaths in my life. And, to some extent, time has lessened the sting. But, those deaths were in the proper order of the universe. And, those people were not essential to the fulfillment of my every hope and dream. I have experienced other kinds of loss—even great loss—but so far I have had either the hope of earthly restoration or the promise that another dream will be able to fill the shoes of the one I could not have. Not so with my precious baby girl. Nobody, no thing can take her place. How is time supposed to make me more ok with this?

If time won’t heal this gaping wound, then what will? We know Jesus was a great healer. But, we probably recall how He made paralyzed people walk, gave sight to the blind, and even healed a woman who had been bleeding for years. That really isn’t the kind of healing I need. My heart is irrevocably broken. Good thing God remembered to mention that Jesus heals broken hearts, too. In fact, God says that is one of the reasons He sent Jesus in the first place. Isaiah 61:1 says, “The Spirit of the Lord God is on me (Jesus) because the Lord has…sent me to heal the brokenhearted…” That is good news. I don’t have to count on time to make things better. God has planned for a real, live person (a loving and omnipotent one at that) to take care of my heart. Psalm 30:2 says, “Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you healed me.”

If Jesus heals the brokenhearted, though, then why do I still feel so awful? I know I belong to Him, and I have cried out to Him time and again to heal me. Why do I still grieve as I do? Why does it feel like I am walking along in life with a gaping hole blown through my chest? I think it is because I am. Other translations of Isaiah 61:1 read, “The Lord has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted.” And, Psalm 147:3 says, “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” Based on my personal experience, this wording makes more sense to me. Binding up a wound is a lot different than making it magically go away. Eventually, the wound closes up. The bleeding stops. Maybe the pain subsides a bit. But, at the very least, the scar remains. The bigger the original wound, the bigger the scar. I don’t know much about major injuries, but I don’t think I am wrong in assuming that sometimes, if you survive a terrible injury, you may have lifelong pain associated with it. It may not have killed you. The doctors may have wrapped it up, put it in a cast, or even performed surgeries. But, that wound may not be totally healed this side of Heaven. And, so it may be with a broken heart. At least it seems that way to me.

I really don’t mean that to be a downer. If God wanted to wave a magic wand and make my pain go away, I am sure He could. But, I am learning that if I can understand what God promises me—what I can count on Him to do—and what He doesn’t promise me, then I can live with less disappointment and bitterness and instead see God as loving and sovereign. I can see Him as someone who made plans to address my needs (and Audrey’s) and who has much bigger plans in mind for me than what I can perceive now.

Knowing what I do about God being the “binder of my wounds”, I still have a love/hate relationship with time. On the one hand, it has taken me far away from the dream I once had and has been the bearer of empty promises to heal me. But, on the other hand, time is the one thing taking me into the future God has in store for me. And, that future includes my baby girl! Though it is contrary to everything I can perceive and feel, the more time that passes, the closer I am to Audrey. Every day I live I am one day closer to seeing her again. One day closer to watching her walk through my doorway and hearing her ask me for something only I can provide. One day closer to seeing her daddy toss her in the air and kiss her cheek. One day closer to seeing Caroline’s and Mary Claire’s arms lovingly wrapped around Audrey’s neck so tight she cannot escape. One day closer to introducing her to adorable cousins who have been born since her death. One day closer to telling her everything I’ve wanted to say…like how desperately I tried to protect her, how sincerely I enjoyed her, how completely I wanted her, and how resolutely I am looking forward to everything God has planned for us…

When I consider that time is the only thing between me and my future with Audrey, time looks less and less like the hapless boat that took me away from her. Instead, the years ahead start to look like the hurdles I have to clear before I reach the finish line. Maybe someday I’ll be able to face the anniversary of Audrey’s death and see these hurdles in my rearview mirror as accomplishments instead of ominous reminders of what might have been.

Again, I let my mind wander. I imagine running and running, bounding over giant hurdles, year by year, sweat beading up on my forehead, gaining momentum with each step, all the while keeping my eyes on the prize: my beautiful little girl, smiling from ear to ear, shouting my name. She is waiting for me. She is cheering for me. Her arms are open wide.

Bring on the wrinkles!


video
I love you, Audrey. Happy Heavenly birthday! I am too weak of heart and mind to imagine all of the good things you are up to, too full of doubt to believe God in every moment as I would like, and too selfish to be as happy for you as I should. But, thankfully, God won’t let that keep you from enjoying His perfection until I get there and see it with my own eyes. Tell Thomas I’m jealous! Tell Jesus I need to touch His hands! Say a little prayer for Mommy. It’s hard waiting down here. But, there’s only time between me and you, and time is in God’s hands.

(This video was taken at Mary Claire's preschool Thanksgiving program just two days before Audrey died.  Bryan said, "Audrey, sing Daddy a song."  And, this is what she sang.  Many, many of our friends and family members have enjoyed this video with us.  I will always consider it a gift from God and a reminder that He is indeed "Strong!".)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Battle for my Heart

Our family has a new obsession: snakes, cockroaches, rodents, raccoons, alligators, and wasps. Weird? Yes, but nothing less than cool when they are removed and relocated by the nicest punk biker dude in Louisiana. Billy the Exterminator (on A&E) has been visiting our family room every evening for a few weeks now. My girls just love to watch him catch icky critters. Bryan hates snakes, but he also has a strange attraction to being scared by them on TV. I can play along, as long as I don’t have a need to call Billy to MY house.

Wouldn’t you know that last week I started hearing suspicious scratching and scampering noises in the attic over my bedroom! The first time I heard it, I nudged Bryan, “Do you hear that?!” I asked. He snored on, largely ignoring me. I thought to myself, “I have got to quit watching that show.” Then, again the next night, I heard the same sounds. This time, I made sure to wake Bryan up for the action. Yep. Definitely something up there. We began to imagine what kind of awesome creature might have found its way into our house. Maybe a possum? A raccoon? We decided we needed to investigate. Bryan texted me the next day, “Billy is out killing roaches in a mobile home. Do you have the number to another exterminator?” We coped with humor until we found out that our visitors were not so cool. We have rats. Come on friends (who make a little fun of me for keeping my house so clean) (you know who you are), laugh it up. I am the neatest neat nick on the planet, and I have rats. Yuck!

Maybe I would have kept laughing, despite being grossed out, if the next day had not added more trouble. I swear, when it rains, it pours. November is already a hard time for us, as we face the anniversary of Audrey’s death on the 14th. So, when we found ourselves responding to my eight-year-old Caroline’s severe abdominal pain with a trip to the ER, you can imagine where our minds went. We suspected that the antibiotic we had given her may have been making her tummy hurt, but we were surprised by the crocodile tears that preceded vomit and pain so great it made her yell, “Oh, God, let me die! Somebody help me!” Those are words that would break any mother’s heart and buckle her knees. Caroline looked pretty sick, and my mind went all kinds of places it shouldn’t have gone. As I watched her lying on the x-ray table, her face a pale shade of gray and her eyes rolling back in her head, I fought the fear of losing her, too. It was excruciating. Thank God for my strong husband who was also struggling but who helped to hold me up. With raised eyebrows, he firmly encouraged me to “keep it together.” By the grace of God, a little IV fluid and some anti-nausea drugs seemed to get things under control. After I knew the real danger had passed and Caroline was acting like herself again, I began to ponder how much one person can take. God, how much can one person take?

When we got home, Caroline was feeling great, but I collapsed on the couch. We had just picked up Mary Claire from a friend’s house, and she was anxious to tell us about her school day. She had been the “star student of the week.” On Monday, she took a poster full of pictures to school and shared about her family, friends, and interests. Then, at the end of the week, her teacher directed her classmates each to write her a personal letter. Bryan, Caroline, and I all lay on the couch like battle-weary soldiers while Mary Claire, grinning from ear to ear, sat on our fireplace hearth reading the letters to us one by one.

I could not believe the fearless way these children expressed themselves. Whether they were discussing common interests (“I am a Longhorn fan, too. They really need to do better.”), lavishing compliments (“I like your hair. You do make people laugh. You have a good voice in music. You rock me out!”), expressing sympathy (“I am so sorry that your sister is at Heaven. Do you miss her?”), or providing encouragement (“You spread joy in the class. I like that in you. Keep it up!”), they did it with abandon. The simple purity of these children’s soft hearts broke my heart, increasingly hardened by the day’s events. As I listened, I wept, and God’s Spirit began the work of mending the damage incurred.

During the next few days, I found myself still feeling traumatized by the trip to the ER. Then, the exterminators showed up with traps. Oh, yeah…on with the business of getting rid of the rats. As my mother said, “Off with their heads!” I asked the professional rodent trapper, “Will I hear the traps shutting?” He said, “Probably not. But, one man did hear it and then the rat flopped around for a while.” Are you serious? I was going to be sleeping in a house of horrors. I was totally disgusted. And, again, I was asking God, “REALLY?????” To top that off, the exterminator said to me on the way out of the door, “You should probably call a plumber today. Your hot water heater is leaking.” Sure it is.

Weeks like this make me want to crawl in a hole. Pull the covers up over my head. Wave the white flag. Cut my losses. In short, they make me lose heart. But, I consider the precious letters written by Mary Claire’s classmates and I am reminded that at one time my heart was purer, more hopeful, more willing to risk, more free. And, I see this whole thing for what it really is: a strategic, sustained assault on my heart. I have often been called a “Pollyanna”. Indeed, I am most inclined to look on the bright side of things. But, instead of that being a quality that people admire, it has often been criticized. I have been told to “manage my expectations” and have been called naive. From the beginning, there has been a steady assault on my heart. To this day, Satan is trying hard to squash what God created in me. The enemy wants me to give up, quit hoping, quit believing God. At the very least, he wants me to be so afraid to try anything or take a risk that he can keep me at bay. Well, I’m onto him. “Nice try, Satan,” as Joyce Meyer says.

I’ve talked before about Satan’s goal for those of us who are already saved. If he cannot win our souls for eternity, then while we are here he wishes to render us useless. He wants to take us out of the game. Essentially, he wants to kill us while we are still alive. How does he go about accomplishing that? He assaults our hearts. The Bible says to “guard your heart, for it is the source of life.” (Proverbs 4:23) Did you catch that? The source of life. The enemy wants to crush the very LIFE that God intends for us. Jesus said he came that “we might have life and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10) We have lost the ability to experience abundant life when we have lost heart.

Some may ask, as I have, “Why should I keep trying to guard my heart when there is a constant barrage of difficult circumstances that I cannot control?” Some may lament, as Bryan did this week, “It feels like I am fighting a war with a cardboard box for a shield.” But, I am encouraged by Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5:8) We may feel like we are hanging on by a thread, but if we can see Satan’s schemes for what they are and if we can refute the lies we hear, we can keep our hearts pure. We can continue to believe the truth and to hope and to risk. And, then we can count on the glorious reward promised to us: We will see God. I think that is as much a promise for the present day as it is for our future in Heaven. If we can ward off the assault of the enemy, we can see God, even in the midst of the most challenging circumstances. And, He is beautiful.

So, call me Pollyanna, but I am going to recount the story of my week from a different perspective. I am really grateful that we have the money to pay the exterminator and that there is somebody out there crazy enough to catch rats for a living. The ER doctors and nurses were absolutely wonderful with Caroline and gave us everything we needed. Despite all of the complaints, we still have access to excellent medical care in this country. I may not like the governmental ideology of “redistribution of wealth”, but if God decides to help out the urgent care center, the hospital, the pest control company, and the water heater company in one week with our money, who am I to complain? He gave the money to us anyway. And, I am overwhelmed by thankfulness for our church family who responded immediately to my request for prayer while Caroline was sick. They have been tremendously encouraging, knowing that we are facing the anniversary of a tragic death and battling many fears.

Yes, my heart is under attack. But, I can see it for what it is. And, I know I have to fight with all that is in me. I heard Sarah Palin speak at the Women of Joy conference in October, and she said, “Overcomers keep a soft heart in a tough world.” This kind of attitude is not for the weak. But, I want to be an overcomer, not a victim. God is calling me personally to a life marked by a deeper thankfulness and a closer walk with Him. He is calling me to prayer. Not the kind I already know how to do, but the kind that is disciplined, fervent, and recorded for the purpose of watching for results. God is aware of the assault on my heart, and yet he is drawing me under His wing, asking me to let Him keep it pure so that I can see Him. How about you?

(We would all do well to remember a time when our hearts were not sin-free, but soft. I have included the following letters from Mary Claire’s classmates because if I don’t repeat them in their entirety, I cannot do them justice. I hope that reading them will bless your heart, maybe make you shed a tear like they did me, and make you wonder why we don’t talk to each other like this every day. Guard your heart! Blessings to you.)

Dear Mary Claire,

I did not know that you like animals. I am so, so, so, so, so sorry that your sister Audrey passed away. I have a baby cousin, too. You bring joy to us! I love the picture that you drew.

Your friend,
Kayla

Dear Mary Claire,

I did not know that you like cats. You are a nice friend. You do your best work. I like dogs and cats, too. Do you like rabbits? Do you want to come to my house? Do you like the beach? I do like the beach. I like the picture of the kitten.

Your friend,
Van

Dear Mary Claire,

I am sorry about your baby sister. She is so cute! I learned you like dogs and cats. Do you like dolphins, too? You are very helpful and a good friend. You are also compassionate, pretty, and joyful. I love art, too! Do you want me to make a self-portrait of you when I get home today? I like the picture of your dad and your sister.

Your friend,
Lindsey

Dear Mary Claire,

You like kittens. Why? You are helpful and sweet. We are Longhorn fans. They have got to do better! I like the firework picture!!!!!!! I like your hair!

Your friend,
Drexel

Dear Mary Claire,

You spread joy around the world! What flip were you learning in gymnastics? You are the best reading buddy in the whole world! Your drawing is the best! Did you like the Washington Monument?

Your buddy,
Alyssa

Dear Mary Claire,

I did not know that you had gymnastics lessons. What is it like there? I think that Audrey was very sweet. You are very funny. I cannot believe we both went to Washington, D.C.! My favorite picture was the fireworks behind the monument.

Your friend,
Sam

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Author and Perfecter

Some of us are afraid to go anywhere without make-up. Come on, ladies, admit it. You don’t want anyone to see what you really look like under there. And, I get it. I’m not married to my make-up. I go places without it. In fact, I’m pretty sure the PE coach at the elementary school chuckles at me every morning when he sees me pull up in my minivan to drop off my girls at school while still wearing my bathrobe. But, I digress. The fact is I like to wear make-up. (People don’t smirk at me when I wear make-up.) Even if I get all soapy and fix my hair, I just don’t feel finished without putting on my make-up. It helps me put my best face forward, so to speak. Even though I know God made me the way He wanted to and that He doesn’t make mistakes, I don’t really like the way I look as much without make-up as I do with it. Maybe that’s vain, but it is true.

I have begun to recognize, though, that there is much more than make-up covering my true self. Rewind to a few weeks ago when I was afforded the opportunity to look at myself in the mirror…not without make-up, but without God. You heard me correctly. I saw what I look like when I am au natural…me, unaltered, in the flesh, striving on my own, floundering without God. And, I wasn’t pretty. I didn’t like what I saw under there. No one should have to see that! Let me elaborate…

My mom and I attended the Women of Joy conference in San Antonio. We were so excited to finally get a weekend away together (the first since the birth of my daughters nearly 9 years ago). We were even more pumped about what God is doing in our family. We set out on our adventure asking God to show us more about joy. Both of us have experienced an inordinate amount of pain, and we both wanted God to show us how to live here and now, anticipating the future, with joy. After a night to rest on the Riverwalk and hear the inspiring voice of Sarah Palin, we felt like we could take on the world for Jesus! My faith had never seemed so strong.

Fast forward less than 24 hours. While I was still in San Antonio on “retreat”, something painful occurred (let’s call it a set-back), the details of which are personal and not necessary to make my point. It is sufficient to say that Satan knew just where to punch me. I had thrown my whole heart into moving forward with my life trusting God, and he had let me down. He had allowed me to hurt one too many times. And, I was done with Him. (I told Him that myself, so you don’t have to gasp and worry that I’m being irreverent. He already knows how irreverent I was.) I raged and screamed prayers. At first, they were desperate pleas for help. But, they dissolved into angry, bitter, contemptuous, snide remarks. I told God I didn’t believe in Him (funny, I was still talking to Him, though…or, out loud to no one—CRAZY!). I cried all night long. I did not get one lick of sleep. I felt utterly desolate. I would not listen to a word of encouragement from my mom. In fact, I think I physically pushed her away and yelled at her. I could not worship on Sunday morning. I could not dream of spending one more minute listening to someone tell me their line of bologna about how God will come through for you. I just could not do it. I thought my life as I knew it was over, and I was not sure how I was going to change everything to match my new point of view that God did not exist. We skipped the end of the conference and I drove home to face my new life…and who knows what that meant! I was utterly lost. What a change from the freedom and power of the previous day!

Later that day, as I faced my “set-back”, I was physically wiped out. My kids sat on the bed with me and read books while I let an ice pack tend to my whopping headache. And, as I lay completely vulnerable to the world and its attacks, God began to tend to my wounded soul by His Spirit. I may have been done with Him, but He wasn’t done with me! Miracle of all miracles! You mean, I practically cursed him (ok, really cursed at Him), and He still wanted to pursue ME? Unbelievable. And, true. As the next several days wore on, God built my confidence up again. He showed me by the responses of the people around me that He was still at work and that the success or failure of everything does not depend upon me. It depends upon Him. I had never felt so free.

My point is a simple one: Even your faith, dear one, is given by God. Hebrews 12:2 says, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” In other words, God created my faith. He started it! I didn’t dream it up in my own head and then construct it. God did! It was His idea in the first place. Not only that, but He is the one that sustains it. He perfects it. And, He is the one who will bring it to completion (Philippians 1:4-6).

God has given us the choice to believe or not to believe. But, God is sovereign, and He will have His way. Not as much depends on you as you might think. I’m not advocating getting lazy or being rebellious. We will respond to God with joyful obedience when with grateful hearts we recognize His great love for us. But, listen friend: When you mess up or you just cannot find the strength to believe God for one more second, He will continue what He began in you (whether you like it or not!). This provides tremendous comfort to me! How refreshing!

Corrie Ten Boom once said that she did not have a big faith in a small God, but rather a small faith in a big God. Amen. My little mustard seed of faith will be enough for even the grandest of tasks because my God is big! It is not about me. It is about what God began, what He wants to accomplish, and what He already promised He will complete. It was true for Jonah. He tried to run from God’s calling on his life, but God had His way, didn’t He? Our rebellion and our unbelief cannot stop God. And, His long-suffering, patient, loving presence will be there to nurse our faith to health when it is ailing.

If you detect even a hint of truth in what I have written, then God has probably already authored your faith. Is it ailing today? Are you having trouble believing? Tell Him. God knows what you look like without your make-up on. Let Him nurse your faith back to health. He doesn’t abandon the works of His hands.

“Those who know your name trust in you because you have not abandoned those who seek you, Lord” Psalm 9:10

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Chosen in Weakness

October is a great month for baseball fans in Texas. How about those Rangers? Star player Josh Hamilton hit two home runs just last night. He has hit more home runs against the Yankees than anyone else in post-season history. That is something to shout about! But, the best part of the story, in my opinion, is that Josh is shouting about Jesus’ power in his life. When the Rangers won their first playoff series in franchise history a couple of weeks ago, the team chose to celebrate non-traditionally. Usually, an MLB win of that magnitude dictates that the locker room be drenched in a champagne downpour. Not so for the Texas Rangers. They chose to honor their MVP Josh Hamilton, a recovered alcoholic and born-again Christian, with a ginger ale toast. It was a fitting and respectful tribute to a beloved team leader and a testimony to the whole world.

I wonder if Josh, shortly after leaving his old way of life, would have ever guessed that he would be honored, not just for his great athletic prowess, but for his bold witness for Jesus and for his decision to repent, submit his life to God, and walk in a new light? My guess is that he did not. I have a little experience watching men who have fallen from grace, and shame and guilt usually follows. They wonder, “How could anyone ever respect me again? How could I ever have anything to offer?” God’s truth, though, is topsy-turvy, isn’t it? Josh Hamilton may have made some poor choices, may have been going in the wrong direction, and may have been a slave to alcohol at one time. But, now he is the hero—in every way.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. God intentionally chose Josh Hamilton. You know why? It brings GOD glory. It points to the restoration only God can effect. God got Josh out of the way (a heavy dose of humility, anyone?) so that God himself would be magnified (very publicly, I might add) in a generation that desperately needs Him. And, people listened. The Rangers’ non-traditional celebration made front-page sports news the very next day. 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 says, “God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the strong, and God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise. God has chosen the despised and insignificant things—the things viewed as nothing—so that he might bring to nothing the things that are viewed as something so that no one can boast in his presence.” Weird, isn’t it? God actually chooses the misfits to show the world that it is God who saves—not our own human strength, discipline, or goodness.

Last weekend, my parents had a celebration of their own: a 40th wedding anniversary. We don’t see many of those these days, and I know why. It is hard to keep it together. Marriages face great challenge. Like Bryan and I, my parents’ marriage has survived infidelity. And, instead of putting that chapter of their life in a dark closet somewhere so they don’t have to look at it anymore, they chose to celebrate their anniversary by being the humble object lesson of their pastor’s sermon on forgiveness and restoration (find it on www.nhbc.net, October 17). As one family friend remarked, “That was more church in one Sunday than I have been a part of in 52 weeks!” And, it really was.

From beginning to end, Mom and Dad’s anniversary celebration was an illustration of 1 Cor. 1: 27-29. North Highlands Bible church is a cozy congregation led by a self-proclaimed stutterer (though I have never heard him miss a beat). According to the pastor’s story, he was told in seminary that he would never be able to “cut it”. But, after hearing sermon after sermon full of heart-engaging, life-changing truth, I am convinced that they were dead wrong! He isn’t focused on getting numbers. This man wants to pastor his flock and to develop healthy disciples. He is going to be faithful with the few God has given him, and he is doing it humbly and excellently. On Sunday, he told my parents’ story in light of God’s truth, and he interviewed them. They spoke boldly and honestly, but neither of them had prepared speeches or fancy rhetoric. They promised yet again to commit their lives to one another and to what God will do with their future. I am confident that Mom and Dad’s story breathed life and hope into people who are fellow strugglers, pilgrims on the way to Heaven. At the end of the service, we all clapped and sang Matt Myer’s song, “Love will hold us together, make us a shelter to weather the storm. And, I’ll be my brother’s keeper so the whole world will know that we’re not alone.” A lunch honoring my parents capped our time together. We ate nachos while we listened to some of their favorite music like, “Band of Gold” and “Little GTO.” It was a room full of ordinary people celebrating an extraordinary God. The whole thing literally rocked!

It is amazing how God is magnified when we are honest. Amazing how people respond to weakness and foolishness and insignificance. Amazing how people respond to God’s love and forgiveness and healing power. It touches a chord deep inside all of us. You mean, God can still use ME? You mean, he knows what I’ve done, where I’ve been, who I’ve been…and he still wants to use ME? You mean God can fix THIS mess? Yes.

Here is some great news: You don’t have to be a major league baseball player to bring hope to those who think God could not possibly fix their mess. All you have to do is tell your story to whomever will listen. You are the owner of your story. There is no victory in hiding from it, no matter how shameful. Your mistakes don’t define you, but your story does. How are you going to tell it? How is it going to end? To some extent, you decide. Life is the mysterious dance between God’s power and our free will. He is sovereign. God begins a good work in us, and he brings it to completion. But, we have a choice about how we will respond in each and every moment. Those of us who have been saved by grace can choose how we want to project our story to the world. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather tell it myself instead of having others tell it incorrectly! Bryan and I are the only ones living inside this marriage, and we are the only ones who know what is true. God speaks into our lives behind the closed doors of our home most of the time. And, privacy is alright, in and of itself. But, it is not always the greater good.

There are some who would say that if, after 20 years, my parents are still talking about their pain, that they are not “moving on”. Some would want them to “put it behind them” and for it to be “over” once and for all, especially those who are concerned that my father is going to get labeled or stuck in a place of shame and guilt. And, some would say it is foolish for me to be so honest about my marriage, warning that it further damages my husband’s reputation. I have even been advised by a Christian family member to take my blog off the internet. That same person advised us to move so that we can “start over”. I understand the heart of those who are concerned. But, my answer is a simple one. Yes, we can say “goodbye” to the chains that held these precious men in bondage. But, we cannot say “adios” to our stories! There is no starting over. How we wish it were possible! But, this is our story, and we’re sticking to it.

Sure, it isn’t the easy way, but nothing good in life comes from taking the easy road. Just before my parents’ anniversary, Bryan and I revisited our dilemma about whether or not to be forthcoming, to use our story boldly and openly in ministry to others. Bryan met a stranger who recognized his name only through my blog. It sent him into a tailspin. “What must that person think of me?” he wondered. He began to listen to all of Satan’s most convincing lies. “You’ll never be able to overcome this. You really are a bad person. Sarah will never truly forgive you. Everywhere you go, you will be exposed for the fraud that you are.” In tears, he begged me to stop my blog. I was grieved—for so many reasons. I quickly acquiesced, though. I don’t want to cause him pain! By the next morning, Bryan had changed his mind. He came to me and asked me not to stop doing what I am doing. I am overjoyed to report that, as a team, we are going to fight the good fight. The narrow road is the one that pays off. It is the one that says, “I will listen to Truth before I will listen to any other voice.” It boils down to whether or not we really believe what God says. Is Jesus’ forgiveness complete? And, is there more than this life?

Yes, it may make my shy Daddy uncomfortable to stand up and speak in front of his church, to let them know who he was before God changed him. And, my blog may cause Bryan to suffer some. But, I’m not afraid of that anymore. I know the truth. My dad and my husband are so much more than their mistakes. Even before Jesus got hold of my dad, he was a hard worker, a faithful provider, a good daddy, and a loving husband. My husband’s story, though different (he accepted Christ at age 7), proves that sin is not a respecter of eternal destination. But, even though he was running from God in some aspects, God’s hand never left him. Bryan still did a lot of good in those years. And, people need to know that. We must tell our stories. God’s Word says, “And who will harm you if you are passionate for doing what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear or be disturbed, but set apart the Messiah as Lord in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you…For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” 1 Peter 3:13-15, 17. God says that we will be blessed—not harmed--if we suffer as we faithfully, prayerfully, and passionately tell our stories for the good of others! Peter goes on to compare our earthly suffering to that of Christ, who, “after being put to death in the fleshly realm” was “made alive in the spiritual realm.”

I glean four major teachings from this passage:
1) God wants us to not only turn from evil, but be passionate about doing good. He wants sold-out followers who seek the things that matter to him.
2) If we suffer while we are doing the right thing, God himself will bless us. In other words, there will be ample compensation, so keep going!
3) He wants us to be prepared to tell others why we have hope in him. That will probably require telling our story, even if it brings us shame or embarrassment.
4) As we put to death our own flesh (all of its fears, its pride, and its desires), we will become alive in the spiritual realm. The more we submit to God’s plan for our lives—whether or not it was OUR original plan, the more our hearts will come alive. Here, and only here, will we find true satisfaction.

How will non-believers ever see that God really has the power to fix our messes if we do not open up our mouths and say so? God has shown us in the life of Paul and in the life of David that those who mess up the most can become the most outspoken and inspirational witnesses of God’s grace…the most effective evangelists and leaders. Ironic? In the world’s eyes. But, God is bringing to nothing the things that are viewed as something so that no one can boast in his presence.

Are you afraid your weakness or your foolishness have hurt your witness? Don’t be deceived. God has chosen you—yes, you—to lift his name high. If you have turned to him and if you are being restored by him, then he is proud of his work in you. He has chosen you to tell your story, even as you hammer out your faith in the workshop of the real world. The time for Christ’s return is drawing nigh. He wants to be exalted. God and God alone. Who will call out to the world in humility, “This is where I’ve been, but this is where I’m going because of Christ!”? Who will boldly say, “Come with me!”?

Josh Hamilton will. My mom and dad will. Bryan and I will, with God’s help. Give me a pen and paper. Give me a podium and a mike. Lemme at ‘em!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Prayer That Rescues

“On him we have set our hope that he will continue to rescue us
as you help us by your prayers.” 2 Cor. 1:10-11

Rescue: v. To save somebody or something from a dangerous or harmful situation; to prevent something from being discarded, rejected, or put out of operation.

Most of us don’t live everyday life thinking we are in need of rescue. We tend to reserve that word for firefighters who knock down the doors of a burning building to save someone on the second floor or for daring helicopter operators who pull stranded motorists from vehicles caught in a raging flood. The word “rescue” conjures up images of life and death situations. But, I submit to you that we are, in fact, in need of rescue more often than we think. Whether we recognize it or not, our joy, our peace, our effectiveness for Christ, and our very lives hang in the balance.

As Christians, we are engaged in a monstrous spiritual battle. As hard as we may try to maintain the illusion that we live in a “basically good” world, everywhere we look there is evidence that we live under the curse. On Thursday, the national news reported that a troubled college student committed suicide when two classmates secretly videoed him having a homosexual encounter and then posted it on the internet. I am grieved to the core of my being as I consider the many layers of pain in this story. It illustrates the worst of the devastation of the fall. Those kids--all of them--needed rescue.

We need not look to the news to be reminded of the spiritual battle all around us. In our own social circles, marriages are caving in, people are battling depression, adults are trying to heal from their dysfunctional childhoods and not mess up their own children in the process. In our homes, we may be fighting against discontent, strife, or disappointment. We may be grieving. If we are honest with ourselves, we recognize that all of us, at one time or another, need rescue from something. In truth, our own resources fall far short of our need and the needs of those around us.

What will we do when our friends reach out to us in a time of desperation? What will we do when we have exhausted all of our strength and face an enormous challenge? What will we do when we need rescue? I hope we will learn to pray. I am perplexed as to why God has created prayer as a means to move his hand. After all, he is mighty and sovereign, the one who brought everything into existence with his very words. How could my words have the power to rescue someone from danger? I don’t know, but they do. James 5:16 says, “Make this your common practice: Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed. The prayer of a person living right with God is something powerful to be reckoned with.” (The Message) What a thought! My prayers are a powerful force to be reckoned with. I like that.

I’d have trouble believing this Scripture, but I’ve seen it in action. When we first lost Audrey, one of my friends prayed specifically for sleep. I don’t know why. She just said she felt called to pray for sleep. And, truthfully, with the exception of that first night, I have slept peacefully every night since. I actually had more of a sleeping problem before my daughter died than after. Is that a coincidence? I don’t think so.

Another friend called and told me that she was praying for joy. She has continued to remind me at each of our meetings since (for three years now) that she is still praying for joy. I’m not always joyful, but I have had a lot of joy in the midst of some pretty terrible circumstances, and I think that is a miracle and a direct result of prayer.

And, ironically (but not accidentally), many people told us they were praying for our marriage following Audrey’s death. They all knew that the death of a child often ruined marriages. Pridefully, I thought we didn’t need that. I couldn’t see how our strong marriage and love for each other could possibly be threatened by Audrey’s death. But, what I didn’t know was that there were other issues lurking in the dark at the time. God was not surprised. He knew. And, he was already calling people to pray for our marriage. By the time the infidelity came out a year later, I believe we had been bathed in so much prayer, we could not be destroyed, even though, by the world’s standards, we should have been. We were literally rescued by prayer.

In her book, Get Out of That Pit, Beth Moore says, “We have a God-given invitation—if not responsibility—to join the process of someone’s divine deliverance from peril or pit.” Many of our friends and even strangers have responded in obedience to the call to pray, and we have been the beneficiaries. Because of these faithful people, when the pit beckoned us, we were not pulled in.

God gives us a great illustration of the direct correlation between prayer and rescue in Acts 12: “So Peter was kept in prison, but prayer was being made earnestly to God for him by the church. On the night before Herod was to bring him out for execution, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, while the sentries in front of the door guarded the prison. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared, and a light shone in the cell. Striking Peter on the side, he woke him up and said, “Quick, get up!” Then the chains fell off his wrists.”(Acts 12:5-7)

Studying Peter’s miraculous, narrow escape from execution lends insight into how we are to respond to the needs all around us. Prayer was being made “earnestly” for Peter. This implies intensity and persistence. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us to pray for “our” daily bread. He shows us to pray for our own needs and to intercede for others. The word “daily” implies that we cannot stop at one prayer! We must take our needs to God day after day until he answers! Like manna in the desert was good for one day, our prayers must be offered fresh to sustain us each day. The church (implying the body of believers, not just one person) prayed like this for Peter.

The prayers for Peter were timely. Peter was in grave danger. It was the night before Herod was to execute him. The church’s prayers literally rescued Peter from death! I also believe prayer can rescue people from being one of the living dead—Satan’s plan to render us impotent while we still exist, to stagnate us in our sin or our pain. We must be sensitive to God’s timing as we pray. Sometimes, we must drop to our knees immediately when we learn of a need. We never know why the Spirit is motivating us to pray. Time may be of the essence!

In Peter’s situation, the church prayed, but God did the rescuing! Don’t you just love that? You see, the church didn’t run down and try to break Peter out of jail. They didn’t petition Herod to let him go. They knew when they had reached the end of themselves and only God’s power was enough. When God himself intervened, Peter’s prison cell was flooded with light. Where there was night, hopelessness, and little time left before demise, the Lord brought light, hope, and life. When Peter’s chains fell off, it was a miracle. No human being could have caused that to occur. It was a supernatural act of a sovereign, almighty God, seemingly in direct response to the prayers of his people.

I love that Scripture teaches us that nearly 2000 years later, God still responds mightily to the earnest and timely prayers of his people. But, only He brings the light of life into our own dark places and still performs miracles when they are necessary. When we need rescue, we need none other than the one true God.

Do you need rescue today? Is there someone you know who does? Stand on the promises of Scripture, and participate in the divine miracle of deliverance through prayer. Pray earnestly, pray right away, and pray as often as you can! Then watch what the Almighty can do. I think you’ll be amazed.

And, my friends out there—you know who you are—be on the lookout for God’s rescue. I’m praying for it. I’m trusting Him for it. I’m counting on it!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Staying with the Herd

We love to watch the DVD series “Earth” and “Life”. Have you seen those? If you haven’t, you should. They are an amazing testimony to our infinitely creative Maker. I had no idea some of these creatures even existed. And, the way God made them to survive their specific environments…well, it is simply awesome. Learning about the diversity and complexity of the universe (at least the part we know about) humbles me. It makes me look small and God look really big.

Though the millions of animal species are so very different, there is one thing they have in common: danger. Almost every animal has a predator. My kids and I have learned to squint and prepare for the worst when we see a baby animal who stumbles away from its mother. We know this spells disaster. Likely, this little guy is in for a terrible surprise. Most animals are made for their packs. They need to stay with their herds. This is how they survive. It isn’t just the baby animals, either. Going it alone just isn’t smart. So it is with the Christian life.

If we want to survive, we need to stick together. Like the rest of the animal kingdom, we humans have a predator. He is just waiting for someone to devour. When we separate ourselves from other Christians, suddenly we find ourselves in the crosshairs. Can Satan take away our salvation? No. But, mark my words, he can take away everything else unless God says “no”. Let’s put it this way: He will do his level best to destroy us. He can steal our relationships, our witness, our effectiveness for Christ, our motivation, our passion, our joy, our peace, and our hope. He can make our life on this earth a wasteland. What could bring him more pleasure? If he cannot get our souls, he takes aim at the rest of our earthly life. Nothing is off limits. If we want to protect ourselves, we need to stay in the herd.

What does “staying in the herd” actually look like? Hebrews 10:25 says, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” This passage is typically used to advocate church membership and attendance. I’m not disagreeing with that. But, I think it means much, much more. This is especially true if going to church means getting up on Sunday morning, putting on our best clothes, putting on our best self, greeting one another with a “hello, how are you?” without giving an honest answer, and arguing with our family all the way home. I know I’m not the only one who has occasionally experienced this kind of “church”.

I think the writer of Hebrews knew a little about human nature, the fallen world, and God’s call to holiness. I think he knew what a challenge it would be to engage the enemy alone. I don’t believe he meant that walking into a church building and hearing a sermon would be enough. I think when he said, “don’t give up meeting together”, he implied our need for close relationship with other believers—through thick and thin. Look at the context. Read all of Hebrews 10. The writer points out that sacrifice is no longer the way to atone for sin since Jesus has become the living sacrifice to pay for it once and for all. But, while we still live in a sinful world, we need to remind each other to hold tight to the hope we confess (v. 23), we need encouragement to spur us on toward love and good deeds (v. 24), we need to stand side by side as we face persecution (v. 32-34), and we need to remember the way we first came to faith so that we can confidently persevere (v. 32-39).

This “herd mentality” is a concept I’m warming up to as I mature in my walk with Christ. I imagine I’m not alone. Group living is, quite honestly, exhausting. Just keeping up with the life of the family who lives under my roof is complicated. Why in the world would I want to invest myself in other people and their problems and open up myself, my family, and my internal life to public scrutiny? Because God says I need it. And, I am seeing the truth in that, especially as I press on to really put Christ in the center of what I do…especially as I aim to make my perspective an eternal one. The enemy HATES it. If I want to do anything for Christ that is of consequence, I need my Christian brothers and sisters.

Making the decision to join a church family is step one. No church is perfect. But, church can consistently feed you with Truth, and it can connect you with like-minded individuals and families who are on the same journey. Step two is developing deep and lasting friendships with a select few with whom you are totally honest about your life. In my opinion, this is where protection from the enemy is to be found. I’m not necessarily talking about an “accountability partner” who questions you constantly about whether or not you’ve had your quiet time (though, that is not an entirely bad idea). I’m talking about people who know all of your stuff and love you anyway. I’m talking about people you can watch football with, worship with, throw birthday parties with, and pray with. I’m talking about people you admit your mistakes to. People you allow to see you mess up—big time. People you can call when you don’t have it all together. People who won’t let you make a big decision you’ll later regret. People who won’t let you give up on your marriage and other commitments. People who don’t want to see you compromise and people who don’t want to see you hurt. People who will give you Scripture when you need encouragement and people who will pray earnestly when the last thing you want to hear is Scripture. People who know WHAT you believe and WHOM you believe. People who won’t let you leave the herd. People who genuinely care to see God finish the good work he began in you.

Hebrews 10:25 says that we need to meet with these kinds of friends “all the more as we see the Day approaching.” I believe that God is calling us to increasingly deeper relationships with other Christians because Satan knows his time is short (Revelation 12:12). There are certainly challenges that come with investing in a “herd”. It takes time, it can be painful. But, there is no other way to protect ourselves. We need encouragement so that we can persevere.

I am so grateful for the “herd” God has given Bryan and me. So much has happened in my herd in the last few weeks that I can’t even begin to list it here. It makes me tired. But, it also inspires me. The leaders of our herd are not spring chickens any more. We may be slow learners, but we are grabbing hold of God’s promise to protect us when we stick together. We are learning to fight for each other in prayer, encourage one another, laugh with one another, and practically help one another. I am witnessing victories—big ones and little ones—as we deepen our ability to be real with each other, especially amongst the men.

Men, I’m going to call you out, here. I think it is unnatural in some respects for you to engage the herd. After all, some animal species don’t tolerate more than one male. Hippos, for example. I think one of the “Life” DVD’s shows hippo males fighting for the rights to all of the other females. The one that loses out has to leave the vicinity. Sorry, dude, find some other hippo group to conquer and rule! Hear me: I’m not being trite or condescending. Bryan reminds me all the time, “Sarah, I’m not a woman.” And, I’ve gotta tell you, I’m relieved. What I’m saying is that with respect to our need for each other, God does not discriminate. I think men and women alike need the encouragement of friends. And, men, if you want to be the leaders I know you desire to be, you can’t do it alone. It is too hard. I’ll plead with you on behalf of the wives I know…Please reach out to each other! Please don’t let each other go! Please don’t forsake meeting together! Please fight for each other’s families! Please don’t let the enemy corner your friends!

Brother, sister: Have you decided that being part of the herd is just too vulnerable? Have you decided it is too much trouble? Have you forsaken the safety of the herd? If so, you are in the crosshairs of the enemy. Going it alone just isn’t smart. Find a friend or two who knows WHAT you believe and WHOM you believe, and dive into a deep, real, and lasting friendship. Meet together often. There is safety in numbers.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Myth of the Fireproof Suit

I have often wondered in the last few years what people do without Christ. The suffering I have endured has been intense, and I honestly have questioned how I would still be standing up each day without knowing—really knowing—that what God promises us in the Bible is true. Jesus has saved me from the depths of despair time and again. He continues to pick me up out of bed each day, give me purpose, and give me hope. But, the road I have walked down has been hellish. I don’t claim I have suffered more than anyone else. I just know it has been hard. So hard…even with Christ.

Every day, all over the world, terrible things happen to people. Sin and death wreak havoc. And, they are not respecters of people—Christians and non-Christians alike suffer. In fact, suffering is one of God’s lesser known promises. It is all over the New Testament. Check it out. It is sobering. “In this world you will have trouble…” John 16:33.

Sometimes suffering surprises Christians. We can get a false idea that believing God and trusting Him means we will be protected from suffering—at least the really bad stuff. I don’t know if I ever consciously believed that. But, I sat at Audrey’s bedside every night, sang Jesus Loves Me with her, and prayed for her safety just like every “good” Christian mom does. I wouldn’t have asserted that my prayers would have kept her from all harm, but I did think they might help a little. I have learned so much since then about what it means to trust God…and what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean bad things won’t happen to me—even really bad things.

Maybe you are beyond that place, well-aware that trusting God doesn’t spare you from suffering. But, there is another false belief many of us unknowingly hold that I think can be just as problematic. We believe that when we suffer, we will somehow be spared the pain of the process—the grief, the fear, the anger, the uncertainty, the sadness, and the time it takes to deal with it all. I don’t know exactly how that belief has crept into our doctrine, but I think it can cause a lot of unnecessary guilt.

A dear friend of mine who is a strong believer just found out she is pregnant. The first two weeks were terrible for her. There was a lot of confusion at her doctor’s office concerning the health of the pregnancy—and actually about its mere existence. It was stressful enough to cause the best of us to go crazy. She experienced severe anxiety during the uncertainty. After her hormone levels were proved inconclusive, she spent the better part of a week and a weekend wondering. On Monday, after an ultrasound, she was told there was no baby. She grieved. Then, four days later, on Friday, she was told that there was, in fact, a baby—and it looked perfectly healthy. She celebrated and praised God for a miracle. On Saturday, once the worst had apparently passed, she was still crying. Her husband was baffled. She also felt confused by her fear and her sadness, especially after she was given good news.

My friend spent two straight weeks on her knees, faithfully calling on God to give her peace. And, she felt it. But, she also experienced every other emotion known to man. And, I think she would admit to feeling guilty about that. I think she would admit that she thought—even if just for a minute—that if she just prayed harder or trusted more that she would not feel the negative emotions.

I’ve been there. Not in the same circumstances. But, I’ve been there. Here is some truth, Christian sister: Faith—even a deep, dynamic, personal, relationship with Christ—does not spare us from all of the natural, human consequences of suffering. Expecting otherwise is like expecting to walk through fire and not get burned. Our faith is not like a fireproof suit! We cannot tumble off of a motorcycle, slide through flames, and come out unscathed on the other side. That only happens in the stunt show at Disney World.

Our faith helps us in many ways, but it does not shield us from all of the pain in life. One woman who lost a child describes it this way, “Our faith keeps us from being swallowed up by despair. But I don’t think it makes our loss hurt any less.” (from God is Good, Alcorn). Randy Alcorn goes on to explain that the family’s faith, “kept their pain from incapacitating them…God stood with them in their pain, but God did not remove their pain.”

While that may sound like bad news, I really mean it to be encouraging. We can quit feeling guilty when we cannot experience our own suffering without flinching. Speaking of his wife’s battle with cancer, C.S. Lewis once said, “We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.”

When we lean into suffering instead of trying to avoid it or be immune to it, I think there are real spiritual treasures to be found. It is in the process of working out our faith, particularly in suffering, that we find out who God really is and are transformed into the likeness of Christ.

Many of us have Romans 8:28 memorized (“We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him and have been called according to his purpose.”). But, do you know what Romans 8:29 says? It says that “those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his son.” In other words, God’s purpose for my suffering is Christlikeness. It means that God defines “good” in terms of what makes me more like Jesus.

This is freeing for me. God is interested in using each part of my life—including my sufferings—to make me more like Jesus. He knows changing me isn’t going to be pretty. He knows that I will go through the fire, and I will get burned. But, he is there, refining me, meeting me at each turn, reaching into my fear, my doubt, my sadness, and my anger. And, he is long-suffering. He is not going to give up on me, even if it takes a lifetime. He is there to make my suffering count for something. He will be there cheering me on when, broken and bloody from this life, I cross the finish line.

Are you hurting today? Feeling guilty because your faith isn’t “strong enough” to keep you from doubting, feeling loss, being disappointed, or getting angry? Cut yourself some slack. You aren’t wearing a fireproof suit. Lean into your suffering. Feel it all. Take each pain to God. He is more than able to make what he wills of it. And, he promises it will work out for your good in the end.