Woven with Thanks

Last night, somewhere between midnight and 4am, I spent a good portion of an hour lying awake for no good reason. This is par for my course as a pregnant mom of a toddler (who still wakes up at least once a night because he needs a graham cracker/there’s a moose in his room/he got lonely). I don’t think I’ve actually slept a whole night through since sometime in 2012. But that’s not the point.

During these midnight musings, I have learned that our parents lied to us as children. If you just close your eyes and lie there quietly, well, it will be quiet and dark. It will not help you fall asleep, and you mind will not suddenly think to itself, Oh, she’s trying to sleep; I’ll quit bothering her with the task list for next week and the panic about whether potty training is damaging her child’s psyche. Since I’m too lazy to be one of those people who say, “Well, I guess I’m not sleeping, I should probably clean out the garage,” and I’m too pregnant to take large doses of sleeping pills, I knew there had to be another way to quiet my mind. So I turned to prayer.

Not prayer that I would fall asleep quickly. I’ve tried that once or twice in the past, and I’ve come to the conclusion that God’s not really in the Ambien business. No, I start praying through the needs of my friends and loved ones. (That’s where Facebook really comes in handy. You know exactly what kind of prayer your friends need, even when they haven’t asked for it, if you know what I mean.) I usually get through several before I start to drift off.  

I haven’t found anything that calms my spirit in the middle of the night like bringing the people I love before God. Not only does it bring peace, but in my intercessions for others, I find God speaking to me. Take last night, for example.

I was starting to run through my list of people and their needs, when that nagging voice of some Sunday school teacher from childhood piped up, “Always begin your prayers with thanksgiving,” (presumably so God doesn’t think you’re taking Him for granted and ignore you). For a moment, I thought, Well how am I supposed to thank Him for divorce or mental illness, Mrs. Holypants? Hmm? But then He showed me a picture of how we can thank Him in even the most joyless situations.

I suddenly imagined our prayers as a basket or cloth being woven. We go in and out, up and down as our lives and circumstances change. We weave the threads of supplication and intercession all through a framework of joy and thanksgiving. Lord, give strength and wisdom to my single-mom friend. Thank you for the ways you have provided for her and the people you have surrounded her with to support her. The struggles I am praying for on her behalf lead me to recall how faithfully God has upheld her even in the midst of a life-storm. Father, bring peace and healing to the one struggling with depression. Thank you that she is bringing awareness to her condition and that she is encouraging others. I want to see her mind and spirit healed, but in the meantime I rejoice in the courage and boldness she has found and in knowing that her transparency is going to bless others.

Thanksgiving is an absolutely integral part of our prayer life. It’s not a magic password to the throne (Thank you, God, that all of the past seasons of NCIS are on Netflix. Ok, I’m listening. Did you see Season 10, Epsiode 5? I mean, yes, go ahead with your request. Um, yeah, could you heal my friend’s sister’s cousin’s dog? I think he’s got mange or something yucky.) Prayer is about change. The more I pray, and the more I find ways to thank Him, the more I am changed, which I believe is the true purpose of prayer.

Prayer, in my personal opinion, is not meant by God as a means for us to manipulate the divine providence and sovereignty. If it were, no one would die from cancer, parents wouldn’t bury their children, and the innocent wouldn’t suffer. So Mrs. Holypants from 4th grade is right, we do need thanksgiving if we are going to have a meaningful prayer life.

Not because it gives us points towards answered prayers, but because as we thank God, we see where He has already answered our prayers and provided for us in ways we never thought to ask. In light of His faithfulness revealed by our thankfulness, we see how pain and tragedy really are part of God’s merciful plan to draw us into a deeper knowledge of Him. Our sufferings become less about how we feel or how we are affected in the immediate, and more about how God’s grace is weaving through a story that began long before us and will continue long after us.

Thanksgiving fills us with hope. It reframes our perspective. It reminds us of God’s promises and His faithfulness that never fails. It reassures us that His mercies are new each day, just as we need them.

 

How are you thankful?

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Tuesday’s Truth – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Welcome back! Today I want to share with you another that was inspired by my reading about the ancient kings of Judah and Israel. I have to say, when I go back and dig through the Old Testament, I am often quite surprised by the level of treachery, violence, and corruption that existed in those days. If these were action movies instead of the Bible, I’d probably steer clear of them. I guess it is true, like Solomon said in Ecclesiastes, that there is nothing new under the sun. I find it interesting that God did not sugar-coat the history of His people. Many times in the accounts of the kings we are given this basic formula: King X did A and B which were good in the sight of the Lord, but he also did C, and so he did not obey God completely. Sometimes it’s just a plain, “King X did evil in the sight of the Lord and turned the people from Him.” Wow. Not how I would want to be remember for the next 3,000 years. I also find it interesting which events were included in the accounts of the kings, as some of them seem obviously important, while others feel more obscure. Each day, I’m excited to see what will happen next.

 

One morning recently, I was reading about a king of Israel named Jeroboam. (2 Kings 14:23-29) Now, the first king of Israel after Judah and Israel split was also named Jeroboam, and he was one bad dude. He’s the guy all the other kings are compared to. In fact, often, their reigns are summed up, “He did what was evil in the Lord’s sight and followed the sins that Jeroboam son of Nebat had caused Israel to commit.” The Jeroboam we’re talking about today was not this first king, but a later namesake. The first Jeroboam was not a person I’d want to be named after. And yet, here we are, a couple hundred years later, and we have another Jeroboam. In the second verse about him, we see that same description just mentioned. He was an evil king. Not just a morally ambivalent king. Not a king with a mixed record. He was bad to the bone.

 

Here’s the interesting thing. God pulled out one main accomplishment from Jeroboam’s reign to include in the Bible. 2 Kings tells us that Jeroboam’s main feat during his 41 years as king was to restore many of the borders of Israel. This was important because during the reigns of the last few kings before him, Israel had been almost constantly under attack by her neighbors. The passage from 2 Kings 14 tells us that God saw the trouble that the Israelites were experiencing, and that they had no friends or allies to help them, so He stepped in and gave Jeroboam the ability to rebuild and refortify the borders of Israel. At first that doesn’t seem too surprising, since God often had saved His people from their enemies. If we think, though, a little more about the situation, we can see that this was really quite an extraordinary thing for God to do.

 

For one thing, the Israelites had been incredibly disobedient and unfaithful. In past times their faith and obedience had wavered (these were the people God had called “stiff-necked” back in Exodus), but never before had they been so completely dismissive of God. They ceased to obey His rules for worshipping Him, they began worshipping many of the false gods from neighboring lands, they killed His prophets when they didn’t approve of the message, and so on and so on. The people of Israel weren’t a bit backslidden, so to speak, they were in full-out rebellion against God. This was true from the king all the way down to the lowest classes of people. These were not a people who deserved, or even sought, God’s deliverance. And yet, God had compassion on them and rescued them from their troubles.

 

The second thing I find interesting about this situation is God’s choice of deliverer for His people. In most of the other cases where God delivers His people from something, the person He chooses to do His work is someone faithful and obedient to Him. He chose Noah to save animals and people from the Flood, Moses to deliver the Israelites from Egypt, Joshua to lead them out of wandering and conquer their enemies, Gideon to deliver them from the Midianite raiders, and David to conquer the Philistines. And yet here we have Jeroboam, a notably bad guy, tasked with protecting and defending God’s people and their land. Why did God choose to use Jeroboam, rather than raising up a righteous hero? I don’t know. The Bible doesn’t  give us a lot of information here. I don’t even really have  a speculation. But what I do see is the truth that God sometimes uses truly bad things to make something good happen.

 

Here are just a few other examples of how God used bad people or situations to make good things happen for His people (which today includes all of us who believe in Him, not just the people of Israel):

  • God used the treachery of Joseph’s brothers (selling him into slavery in Egypt) to bring Joseph to power so that millions of people could be saved from starvation through his clever handling of food supplies before and during the massive famine that came over the Middle East.  (Genesis 50:20)
  • God used the captivity of His people by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians to allow Daniel to become a powerful advisor who spread the knowledge of God among the most powerful men of the day. (Read the whole book of Daniel – it’s fascinating!)
  • God used Cyrus, the ruler of the Persians, and arguably one of the  most ruthless kings of his era, to initiate and help fund the rebuilding of the walls and temple of Jerusalem, which had been destroyed 70 years earlier. (Ezra 1:1-4)

 

If you were to search through the Scriptures, I know you would find many more examples. As Paul said in his letter to the Roman church, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

 

Do we always see the good that God is going to bring about from the beginning? Surely not. When his brothers threw him in a pit, when they sold him to slave traders, when he was unjustly imprisoned, did Joseph know he would be a savior of many? Not in the least. When young Daniel was rounded up with his friends, separated from his family, forced to adapt to a new culture and a new language, did he know that he would counsel some of the most powerful men in all of history, or that God would use him to proclaim prophecies that are still being studied, thousands of years later? No, he couldn’t have even imagined it.

 

We live in a world where bad people and bad situations are abundant. We could spend all our time asking why God allows these people and things to exist, to continue. The philosophical and theological debates would be (and certainly are) endless, without any conclusion that satisfies everyone. The truth is, we don’t really know why God allowed evil to ever exist, and why He now allows it to continue. My feeling is that the reasons and relationships are far too complex for us to understand, even if God were to reveal them directly to us. I wish there were no evil. That is what makes Heaven such a wonderful concept – a place completely without evil must be unimaginably wonderful.  But such is not our situation here, no matter what you conclude about the nature, origin, or continued workings of evil. However, we have a clear promise and precedent in the Bible that God is bigger than the evil people and evil events of the world. He doesn’t just protect His people from evil, He doesn’t just teach us valuable lessons through the evil and painful things that happen to us, but He actually uses what we see as evil, bad, and unredeemable to do good for us in ways that we could not have anticipated or imagined.

 

I wish that I could say that this truth explains away all the pain and suffering in the world. I can’t. Evil actions cause pain. Joseph, Daniel, the Israelites – they all suffered real pain from their situations. If you have experienced something terrible in your life, there is no denying the pain you have felt. Evil, even when God uses it for good, is still evil. I can’t promise that you won’t experience pain, or that you will quickly see the ways that God intends to bring good out of your bad situation. Joseph, Daniel, and the Israelites waited decades to see God’s provision through their sufferings. The fact is, you may not even see the results in your lifetime. I don’t know how God is going to work in your individual situation. What I do know is that He is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and that if He used bad for good 3,000 years ago, He’s still using bad for good now, and He will continue to do so in the future. Such a promise cannot erase the pain and suffering we will all experience, but it can give us a hope to cling to, a rope to help pull us up out of the depths and into a  more brightly lit faith.

 

Keep holding on!

Tuesday’s Truth – It’s Not Okay

Welcome back! I hope you all had a wonderful weekend, especially all you amazing moms out there.

 

You’ll notice that the title of this week’s post is “It’s Not Okay”. Wow…how is that for some truth? But truth it is. There are a lot of things in life that are not okay. It’s not okay that thousands of children are abused every single day. It’s not okay that my beautiful friend was just diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. It’s not okay that three young women spent the last 10 years in captivity in the middle of an Ohio suburb. It’s not okay that my niece was born with a heart defect. It’s not okay that buildings collapse and kill people because someone was too greedy to ensure the building’s safety. It’s not okay that my best friends lost their daughter before she was two months old. It’s not okay that every day spouses are being cheated on, teens are being drawn into drug and alcohol addiction, children are being orphaned, lives are being lost before they’ve really been lived. The list just keeps going. No matter what you believe about why there is evil or pain in the world, you can’t escape the truth that it is there.

 

I almost feel unqualified to even be talking about this subject, because right now there’s not a lot of pain in my life. I am happily married, we have a comfortable house and a steady income, we’re surrounded by loving family and friends, and I’m 5 months in to an uncomplicated, relatively painless pregnancy. The scary thing is, I know that any of that could change at any moment. Pain, trial, suffering, whatever you want to call it, could pop up any day. In fact, one of these days it will. I don’t know what it will be, or when it will come, but I know that there is something down the road that I am going to have to face, whether I like it or not.

 

So often, Christians try to sell our particular brand of belief by talking about how much better life is once you accept Christ as your savior and have a personal relationship with God. On the one hand, that is true. There is absolutely nothing better than a personal, intimate relationship with a merciful, powerful creator. It changes everything. But it does nothing to change the fact that you and I will  have awful things happen in our lives. The Bible is pretty clear about this. Jesus promises, “In this world you will have troubles.” (John 16:33) His brother James, in his letter to the believers who had been scatter from Jerusalem due to extreme persecution, speaks of trials and suffering as a given in the life of a Christian. (James 1:2) We sometimes forget about it here in America, but Christians have been persecuted by economic oppression, torture, and death from the very beginning up to the present day. And even Christians who don’t suffer for their beliefs still suffer. The friends and family that I mentioned earlier, none of them are suffering because someone doesn’t like that they believe in Jesus; they are suffering because the world is a broken place.

 

God created our world to be a beautiful, peaceful, perfect place. We still see the traces of that perfection and beauty in nature, in certain relationships, in very precious moments in our life. But when evil entered the world and gained a foothold, nothing could be perfect anymore. That’s the thing about evil – it ruins everything. There is absolutely nothing in life that is completely perfect. The wonderful joy and love that comes with a new baby is only reached through months of discomfort and hours of extreme pain. The most beautiful mountains of our planet claim the lives of many who are lured in by the challenge of conquering them. Many of the most majestic animals in nature survive by hunting and killing other wonderful creatures. Man, who creates beautiful works of art and amazing feats of engineering, cannot live long without fighting and warring, whether on the battlefield, in the courtroom, or in the living room. We seem a doomed world.

 

And doomed we are. As we just saw, no one escapes the trials of a life lived on earth. There is no religion that is able to erase suffering. Some promise it, but none delivers. Now you’re probably thinking, “What a terrible thing to say. This blog is about glad hearts. I’m not feeling particularly glad at the moment.” And you would be right. So far, I’ve only given you the bad news. I wish I could tell you that it will all get better. I wish I could “sell” Christianity to you right here by telling you that if you surrender your life to God and accept Jesus Christ as your savior, all the suffering in your life will disappear. Many, many people would gladly tell you exactly that. But as I said earlier, that’s simply not how it works. Don’t despair, however, because there really, truly is good news in all this suffering.

 

What is the good news? God is the good news. Over and over again in the Bible, God acknowledges the suffering we must endure. He is not blind or deaf to our sufferings. He does not promise to remove our pain here and now. He does promise a heaven that is free of sorrow (Isaiah 25:8). He also promises to stand by us in our trials and to redeem our sufferings. Let’s quickly look at the passages from the Bible that show His promises:

  • God’s promises to be with us
    • When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. (Isaiah 43:2)
    • God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. (1 Corinthians 10:13)
    • Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for You are close beside me. (Psalm 23:4)
    • My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness. (2 Corinthians 12:9)
    • He alone is my refuge, my place of safety; he is my God, and I trust him. (Psalm 91:2)
  • God’s promises to redeem our trials
    • You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. (Genesis 50:20)
    • God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. (Romans 8:28)
    • For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. (James 1:3-4) (Romans 5:3-4)

 

That’s a lot of truth right there, friends. God doesn’t promise that we won’t face pain and suffering. Sometimes, I confess, that terrifies me. I hate the certain uncertainty of a future suffering. I have to walk a thin line between realism and pessimism. The comfort and the victory come when I remember God’s promises, when I recall that I will never go through pain that doesn’t result in something good, and I will never walk through a valley alone.

 

I don’t know what it is in your life right now that’s not okay, but I know that every one of you has something that you are struggling with or that is causing you pain. Even in the goodness of my current situation, I encounter daily trials. It doesn’t matter if you are dealing with something that seems minor or catastrophic to others; whatever your pain is, it is painful to you. I’m so sorry that I can’t promise you a pain-free life. What I can tell you is that not once have I seen God desert someone in their suffering. I’ve watched people go through the most terrible things, far worse than most of us will ever endure, and every time, something good has been the result, when those people trusted God to redeem their suffering and stand by them through their trials. Whatever it is that you are walking through right now, I encourage you to let God walk through it with you, and to bring you something good on the other side.

 

Take heart, friends.

Real Hearts, Real Joy #1

         Welcome back, friends! I am excited to introduce the first in a series on how God is working in the real lives of real people. Over the next several months, I will have the privilege of introducing you to people who have found God to be faithful in both the ordinary and the extraordinary. Their situations may echo something in your own life, or they may not, but in either case, I hope that you will hear what they have to share and be encouraged.

Today we will be hearing from Sarah, who has recently had the opportunity to prove God’s faithfulness. In February 2011, Sarah and her husband found out that they were expecting their first child, a little girl, whom they named Elliana, meaning “God has heard”. Certainly it seemed that God had heard their prayers for an addition to their family. Sadly, at 26 weeks into Sarah’s pregnancy, they discovered that Elliana had a very serious heart condition. Elliana was born on October 22, 2011, and underwent surgery to begin repairing her heart within a few days. After 7 weeks, it became apparent that though Elliana’s spirit was very strong, her heart simply could not keep up. After a couple of very difficult days, she passed away on December 13. In the midst of all these struggles, the question on many minds was, Where is God in this? We all wanted to find some reason why God would take such a beautiful little girl away after such a short time with her family. Colt, Sarah’s husband, answered the question very well when he said that the answer was not to be found in Elliana’s healing or death, but in the way that God sustained them through all of the ups and downs of her short life. I can attest to the fact that though she was with us for such a short time, Elliana made a big impact on my life, and the lives of many others. It is Sarah’s hope, as well as mine, that by sharing the things learned through this difficult time, others will be encourage to look for and find God’s faithfulness to them, no matter what the circumstances.

CL: Thank you for being willing to share with us, Sarah. To start off, can you tell us, in just a few words, your understanding of who God is?

Sarah: God to me is someone that wants to be involved in every aspect of my life, whether large or small.  I believe that He is worthy of our praise, affection, love, and devotion.  I believe that who He is should always be at the very center of who I am.

 CL: You have recently experienced some significant trials in your life. Prior to entering this time, how would you have described your trust in God?

Sarah: I trusted God to do what He saw fit in my life, but I never expected it to bring pain.  So, in a way I trusted Him to bring blessing because I was serving Him.  I knew it wasn’t Biblical, but it was easy to think that if I just lived my life the right way, only good would come.

CL: You found out midway through your pregnancy that your daughter, Elliana, would be born with a serious heart condition. What were your first thoughts?

Sarah:  My first thoughts were, “There is no way”, “They must have made some mistake” and “How could this be happening to us?” You hear about other peoples’ stories of difficulty, but you never think it will happen to you.

CL: How did God sustain you during your months of waiting?

Sarah: The first few weeks were by far the hardest.  My world seemed tossed into turmoil with trying to not fear, thinking maybe I had done something wrong, and trying to find some sort of normalcy.  God worked on me a lot during that time, challenging me with His word and beginning to show me what it meant to cling to His truth and believe it for myself.  Up until this point I had believed the Bible, but I had never had a situation like this in which I had to cling to His promises with every ounce of my being. 

CL: Was it difficult to make the choice to open your heart to your daughter even though her future was so uncertain?

Sarah: Truthfully, that was not hard for me.  From the beginning I loved our baby.  By the time we found out about her heart I had already enjoyed almost 2 months of feeling her kick, and each movement allowed me to dream about what she was like.  Her uncertain future brought fear, yes, but it never remotely changed how much I cherished her.

I think when we first realized she would have a difficult start I looked at Colt and there was this kind of knowing that this changed nothing.  We knew that no matter what it took, we would be with her every step of the way.  I wholeheartedly believe that if she were still with us, we would be doing that now.  It never would have stopped. 

We both also loved her from the moment we heard a baby was coming.  None of that ever changed just because her heart didn’t form the way most do.  Through the course of her life, God granted us the ability to see, even for a short season, all the unique attributes that were clearly hers.  I look back and see every moment we cherished with her as an absolute gift. 

 CL: What were some ways that God made your heart glad during Elliana’s time with you?

Sarah: There really were many times God brought joy in our weeks with Elliana, and even before she was born. It had been a couple months that we had known about her heart condition, the three surgeries that would be required, and the extra care that would be needed, and the bigger she got the more I looked forward to meeting her, no matter what the days ahead entailed.  I will never forget the joy and yet nervousness I felt about what lay before us when I went into labor and Colt rushed me to the hospital (an hour away).  Ten hours after we got to the hospital she was born, and I cannot express the indescribable joy and pride that I felt looking at our daughter and hearing her first cry.  When I got to hold her for 2 minutes before they had to whisk her away, it was incredible.  It was in that moment that I knew I had been created to be her mother.  This was what I was made for.  She just stared back at me content and curious. I will never forget that moment, filled with awe, joy, and a peace that no matter what would come, God would be with us and we would get through it.   

Elliana holding Sarah’s hand in the NICU

CL: Did Elliana’s life teach you anything new about God?

Sarah: Her life taught me that no matter what you face, God will be there.  I had an idea of this concept before, but more than ever I cherish my walk with God.  He is my delight and my joy. Even though I hope and pray there is not further pain in the days ahead, such as we have gone through, I know without a doubt that God will get me through. 

            Her life also taught me more clearly that His ways are not necessarily our ways.  Though I would love to tell a success story of how she got better and is alive today, she isn’t.  God sometimes doesn’t do what we want Him to do and it doesn’t mean that He isn’t just as good and just as faithful.  I have learned that God sometimes uses our pain and our weakness to show His power.  Though the pain we have walked through has been unimaginable, He still brings hope.  How is that? you may ask. The God who can perform miracles, yet sometimes chooses not to, still decided to perform a miracle in the healing of my heart.  So even though God didn’t give me what I asked for, and chose to ask us to give up our only child, I am honored that He felt that with Him, we could make it through this.  Even though He said no to what we asked, He did say that His grace is sufficient.  It truly has been. Though I hope and pray no one goes through anything like what we have been through, I do hope others will see that through our pain and weakness He will be strong and give us His grace if only we will let Him.

CL: Elliana passed away after just seven weeks with you. Do you feel that your trust in God has changed since then?

Sarah: Yes, trust to me is not trusting God to do what I want or even what I prefer.  Trust is literally giving up the reins and saying “God, have your way, even if I don’t understand it.”  I don’t think that kind of trust comes from living life when everything goes the way you hope.  It is a different way of living life and a different way of seeing that which He has given you. Even now, choosing to trust God is a choice I have to make daily.  My faith isn’t something I “feel,” at least not very frequently; it has become what I must have each day to make it through.   He has to be my source, or I fall apart.

CL: In what ways does God make your heart glad now, even as you are still grieving for your daughter?

Sarah: Probably the biggest way has been through our joy in expecting our second child.  Just 2 ½ months after Elliana passed away we found out we were pregnant again.  Now, 27 weeks along, we recently found out we are expecting a little boy and that he is healthy and strong!  What joyful news for us! We have found that after all we have walked through, we cannot take a day for granted.  Expecting and giving birth to a healthy child is a huge gift that many parents take for granted, and I can say for us it is one of the biggest blessings we will ever be given.  I still struggle with trusting our child’s life into God’s hands, knowing that only He knows the future of this little one. and of all our lives as well.  But, His grace truly is sufficient for each and every day.  So, no matter what comes, He is faithful and full of goodness.

            Another way that God has made my heart glad is in memories of Elliana. It may sound odd, but God has helped me remember her with joy and hope.  I loved being her mother and it was one of the greatest joys of my life.  I can look back, and even though she died, I would never change any of it.  Yes, I wish she were here, but even knowing what would happen in advance, I would go through it all again because of the joys of loving her.

        Another huge blessing God has given that I am able to rejoice in is my husband.  God has brought us together in ways I never thought He could do through the grief of losing our child.  Because of the pain we have faced together, we can look at life and be thankful for all we have been given.  Even in the midst of the pain, God has given us times of such deep joy, laughter, and a love for life that I can only attribute to Him. 

 CL: Is there any advice you can offer to those of us who want to help a friend or family member through a difficult loss?

Sarah: The biggest blessing for me has been those people who are willing to sit and listen.  They don’t try and solve the problem or the pain of grief; they simply are there with me to hear whatever I have currently been working through.  A mother who lost her 18 year old son shared with me the most helpful, compassionate words she heard in her process of grieving, given by a friend: “I will never tire of hearing stories about him.  Even if they’re the same ones over and over again.  I’ll always be here to listen.”  That to me is one of the greatest things a person can do.  No matter if the day is full of joy or sorrow; they are there to help by simply being there. 

              Our pastor also said something to us that has been so true for my husband and I.   He explained that in the body of Christ our sorrows are halved and our joys are doubled.  I believe that is what the body of Christ is meant to be, caring and loving even in the midst of hurt that is unspeakable. 

CL: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Sarah: Sometimes we strive to live a life of comfort and ease without pain.  However, I am reminded that if pain is not in our life at all, we really aren’t living.  We live in a fallen world, and to experience no pain is really not possible.  It is through our pain that God can pour indescribable joy into us, and a hope unlike any other.  Still, God leaves the choice to us, will we let trials create distance between us and our relationship with Him, or will we cling to Him, allowing Him to transform us and make us more like Him?  Somehow through the pain of losing a child, God has brought an even greater understanding of who He is and through this heartache; I have learned even more clearly how good He is.  How awesome that we serve a God who is not only faithful, but brings hope in the midst of despair, joy for sorrow and complete restoration to our hurting hearts.

If something in Sarah’s story connected with you, we would love to hear about it.  Are you struggling with a loss right now? Let us know so we can be there with you.

As always, may your heart be glad!

MASH

Hello friends! I’d like you to go down memory lane with me a bit. Come with me back to the days of middle school and high school. Depending on your age, it may be a longer trip, so if you’re over 30, I’ll give you a head start. 10, 9, 8…okay, here we all are. If you are of the feminine persuasion, as I am, you’ll probably remember a game called MASH. For all you guys out there who didn’t know girls existed when you were 15, and if you did, you had absolutely no idea what they were talking about when they were together, you’re just going to have to follow along.

If you didn’t play MASH as a teenage girl, I’ll clue you in. No, it is not a game about army hospitals during the Korean war. That wouldn’t be very fun. MASH is an acronym for Mansion, Apartment, Shack, House. Basically, the game was like a huge fortune teller that would predict who you were going to marry, where you would live, how many children you would have, etc. Sometimes the MASH gods were smiling, and you would get paired with your (for that week) crush, and you would live in a mansion with your 3 adorable children. Other times you would know that the MASH gods were angry and needing some small sacrifice because you would be paired with the most odious male in your acquaintance, and you would be doomed to live in a shack with him and your 47 children.  No one ever took it seriously, but it was a great way to pass some idle time on a bus or at a sleep-over.

Well, today as I was sorting through some mementos of my high school days (read: throwing out junk that mattered a lot 10 years ago, but now I have no idea why I kept it), I found a paper napkin covered in my best friend’s handwriting. Turned out that it was a game of MASH. I suppose the only reason I had stuffed it in my box of mementos back then was because it paired me with the most wonderful, beautiful, kind, talented, romantic guy in the world (read: the guy I had a crush on because he wasn’t already taken by one of my friends) That had to be it, since the rest of the game prophesied that I would be an auto mechanic on welfare with 13 children. I had a good laugh reminiscing about the crazy high school days, and then I wadded it up to throw out like the rest of the trash.

But then it got me to thinking. I can still clearly remember my 17-year-old self thinking that I couldn’t possibly be happy in life if I didn’t end up with that guy. I hoped and prayed that somehow God would work it out so that my whole like could revolve around the process of winning his heart. I knew that one day he would wake up, so to speak, and realize that I was a beautiful, alluring, talented, extremely desirable girl, rather than the awkward, overly loud, intimidating, somewhat bearable she-beast that he had heretofore seen me as. (Note: Me at 17 was a lot more like description 2 than I would like to admit). I’ll let you skip to the end of the book here: we didn’t end up together. He ended up with a string of several girls that were the complete opposite of me, even on my best day. I ended up with a man who saw me as beautiful, alluring, talented and desirable without having a revelation from on high. I am incredibly happy, and do not regret that my “dreams” didn’t come true.

I would imagine that we can each think of at least one situation from our past where we desperately wanted things to go one way, but in the end they went in a totally different direction. And for most of us, we don’t even need to think back to high school. It might be something from last year, last month, or last week. We often don’t have the final say in the situations of our life. And all too often, we accuse God of making the wrong decisions for us. He really shouldn’t have let our husband get laid off, or our wife get cancer, or our car get totaled, or our child get accepted into a college 2,000 miles away. Those things weren’t in the plan that we so carefully drew up for God. Apparently He wasn’t paying close enough attention when we told Him how our life was supposed to go.

Silly little human. 

Would you let your son play in the street just because he said that’s what he wanted? Would you let your daughter eat only jelly beans for a month because she just doesn’t like carrots? No, you know what is best for your child, and you will make that best happen, whether your child would like you to or not. So often we forget that God is our Father in every sense, not just in some master-overlord-originator way. He loves us in a way we can’t understand. He is constantly nurturing and protecting us, even when we don’t notice it.  He knows what is best for us, and sometimes, just like the three-year-old who doesn’t understand why she can’t subsist on jelly beans, we don’t understand why we can’t have it our way. God does not work for Burger King. He doesn’t take orders. Yes, He absolutely hears our prayers, our requests. He knows our desires. And what’s more, He wants to fulfill the desires of our hearts. In fact, He knows what we really want, going far beyond what we say we want. He understood that my desire as a teenage girl was to be loved completely, far more than my desire was for the attention of a certain boy. And He was faithful to fulfill the real desire of my heart. He did it in His way, in His timing, and for His purpose for me.

You may be looking at something in your life right now that is not at all the way you planned or expected. You may be praying for God to change your circumstance, to make it all better, as it were. There is nothing wrong with that. Tell Him you’re hurting. Tell Him you didn’t see this coming, and that you don’t know what to do next. Ask Him to help you find your feet again. Admit that you need His help. I can guarantee that He is not sitting on His throne in Heaven whipping the rugs out from under people just for the fun of seeing them scramble. Remember that we only see the immediate effects of the changes in our life; we cannot see where the changes will lead in a year, ten years, or a hundred years. God’s plan for you is good. His plan is for you to know Him intimately, to trust Him deeply, and to enjoy Him fully. To achieve that plan, there may be bumps (or even mountain ranges) along the way. The path may diverge greatly from the plan you mapped out for yourself. Sometimes you may be completely bewildered and feel lost. Take heart, dear friends, for just as your own children do not always see how closely you watch over them, you may not feel that the Father is protecting you or guiding you, but you can be certain, without a doubt, that He is indeed watching you, ready to pick you up if you stumble, to soothe and heal when you are hurt. He has never abandoned you, even in your darkest moments, and He never will.

May He make your heart glad!

Spring is a Cruel Mistress

I’ve always liked Spring. My birthday is in Spring, Easter is in Spring, there are flowers and baby animals that come out in Spring. Spring is charming, beautiful, smells of clean breezes and flowers, and is warm and delightful. Spring is also fickle, teasing, volatile and unpredictable. Basically, Spring is the woman that every mother warns her son about. Spring is the cruelest mistress of all.

I am learning that principle like never before. When we lived on the East coast, Spring came around each March and wreaked her havoc until mid-May. She blossomed and bellowed in cycles, brought sunshine and rain alternately and generally made lives glorious and miserable as she saw fit. We’ve all met that woman, right? Now that we are in the West, I’ve discovered that Spring, Western-style, has adapted to fit her environment. Just as everything out here is a little more wild, a little rougher around the edges, so is cruel Lady Spring.
I usually enjoy Winter. I like pulling out my sweaters, drinking hot chocolate, waiting for Santa (or my husband, whichever brings more goodies), baking cookies and playing in the snow. But as any of you from high latitudes or high elevations will doubtless agree, there comes a day, about mid-way through February, when Winter suddenly gets old. You can’t bear to look at another pot of soup, you scream, “Whyyyyyyyy?!?!?” when there is snow in the forecast, and you get excited if the mercury rises above 40. Other than wanting to ski once or twice more this season, I am so over winter. So over it, in fact, that I would even stoop to breaking up on Facebook just so I don’t have to actually see Winter again.
 
You see, I’ve got my eye on this pretty young thing called Spring. I think the attraction is mutual. She’s been quite a flirt lately. The temperatures have been in the 50’s and 60’s since Sunday, I’ve been riding my bike each day (without donning my ski gear!), there are birds singing as the sun rises, and little buds are adorning each tree. The only problem is, she’s playing hard to get like a champion. Just today, the skies clouded over, and the weather stations predicted a combination of snow and rain. There will be another cold snap, I’ll have to put the bike away for several days, the flowers will take for—ev—er to bloom, and Winter will stick around like an ex who just doesn’t get the message. But Spring has caught my fancy, and now I’m hooked. People keep warning me not to get to excited, that Spring is just going to break my heart. I know she’s no good, but I keep hoping that she’ll change for me, that it will be different this time. Those people can be disparaging all they want, but I know Spring is going to come around and settle down. And when she does, I’ll be here.
As I thought about my new obsession with the arrival of Spring, I realized that it is such a metaphor for the way most of us view life. We are continually in a cycle of longing for something, receiving it, and then becoming bored with it. Speaking from a female perspective here, we break our life up into milestones that we think will make life complete when we reach them. We tell ourselves, “I’ll be really happy and content when…” When I get a boyfriend…When I graduate…When I get another degree…When I get a husband…When I get a house of my own…When I have a baby…When the kids go to school…When the kids all get married…When we get to retire…When we finally have grandkids…the list keeps going, until your at the end of your life. Perhaps it is okay at the last to say to yourself, “I will finally be truly happy and content when I reach Heaven,” for that is the only one of these “When I…” statements that is true. I’ve made it through about half the list, and indeed, each milestone has brought joy, but I am still not completely content. I still wish for the next thing in the list. I’ve been convicted though, that I need to stop putting so much emphasis on next. 

To be sure, the movement of life is exciting and rewarding. The possibilities that lie before us are part of what keeps us going when the here and now is discouraging. However, when we put the greater balance of our mental and spiritual energies into focusing on that which has not yet come, we harm ourselves in a variety of ways.
  1. We harm ourselves by diverting our attention from those things in our current life which do bring joy and blessing. It is as if we are being given birthday presents, and we only care about the one we will open last. How foolish! We need to be focused on being grateful for the gifts and gladness that we have been given in the present (insert your pun or cliche of choice here).
  2. We harm ourselves by trying to escape from the refining and perfecting effects of our present troubles. James 1:2-4 tells us that we should count or consider our troubles as joy because of the strength and endurance they can produce in us if we allow God to use them in our lives. Just as a marathoner has to run miles 1-25 to get to mile 26, we have to experience all the parts of life to experience any of them.
  3. We harm ourselves when our attention is distracted from the present because we are likely to miss opportunities for joy. We sometimes are unaware of a chance to take advantage of our current circumstances in a way that will bless either ourselves or others because we are only thinking about the future.
  4. We harm ourselves by setting ourselves up for disappointment. We’ve all heard the saying, “Don’t count your chickens before the eggs have hatched.” When we spend our mental energies dreaming and planning for the future, we run the risk of creating a fantasy for ourselves that can overtake our reality. When, as is often the case, real life does not live up to our fantasy world, we find ourselves depressed, discouraged and in despair. This is not to say we should have no hopes for the future. But we must be careful to avoid letting our hopes become driving, consuming fantasies.
The future is a wonderful thing, full of hope, and possibilities, and potential. We should all look forward to the future with joy and anticipation. Let us not be caught in the trap of living only for the future, though. We have been given the incredible gift of time, in that we can hold on to parts of the past through memories, we can enjoy the present moment, and we can hope for the future. Keep in mind that the only one of those times that we can actually live in is the present, and as such, it should be our main focus. Enjoy the present, for it is indeed a gift.

Spread a Little Hope, Part 2: Orphans and Widows

Greetings, Reader! We are going to talk today about a specific area in which you can spread hope to the world around you. If you haven’t read my first post on the subject, go check it out. It’s okay, I’ll wait for you… Alright, got it? Good, now we can move on.

So, I’ve been reading the Bible a lot lately. Even if you don’t, stick with me, because I think you will agree with what it has to say here. The specific book I’ve been focused on is the book of James, which is historically accepted as being written by the brother of Jesus. I mention that to point out that he would have been very familiar with the teachings of Jesus, who is recognized by Christians and non-Christians alike as having quite a bit to say regarding the right way to treat other people (He was pretty big on caring for “the least” among us). Here’s what James has to say: “Pure and lasting religion in the sight of God our Father means that we must care for orphans and widows in their troubles.” Other translators have used the words “undefiled” and “unblemished” instead of “lasting”. Let’s focus in on what the author is saying here. He’s assuming that there are kinds of religion, and a multitude of ways that people express their religion. James makes the unequivocal statement that none of those things matter if they don’t put a high priority on caring for the disadvantaged and socially oppressed. I think we can all agree that a lot of religion has historically been defiled and blemished by its adherents. Crusades, ethnic cleansing, suicide bombers, forced conversions…the list could go on and on.

Why do religious people get caught up in defiling their religion? Because they have lost the focus of what “pure and lasting religion” is really about. It is not about power, it is not about mandating any form of belief or behavior, it is not about earning a better place in heaven. It’s about love. Jesus, that famous brother of James, put it pretty clearly: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Not a lot of wiggle room there. And I can’t think of a single religion or a belief system that would disagree, except for perhaps Utilitarianism, which is not real popular… Caring for those who cannot care for themselves is a universal moral imperative. We innately know that it is the right thing. And yet, we often do a pretty abysmal job of following this imperative.

Not that we don’t want to do it. Organizations and movements which at the very least claim to help the “orphan and widow” abound. Many of us are content to let them do the actual work, while we send them some money. Isn’t it nice that we can help out these “poor folks” without ever having to interact with them? (Note the sarcasm.) Our governments are also have a finger in the pie. With this being an election year, we are going to continue hearing a lot of very strong opinions as to how much the government can and should be doing to help the “least of these” in our society. There are some valid reasons to be having that debate, but that’s really not what I’m concerned with. Because the imperative we’re talking about today didn’t say anything about pure and undefiled government (as if!) being characterized by caring for the financially and socially downcast. It was about religion, and religion is about people. James (and Jesus) mean us. I see you there, looking at the person next to you. Cut it out. I mean you. You need to be caring for the orphan and the widow. Sure, it’s not what you were planning on when you got up this morning, but it’s where we’re headed now.

Still with me? Good. Let’s make this practical. So you don’t have an orphanage right down the street from you?No streetchildren wandering in front of the bus stop on your way to work today? Sorry, you’re not off the hook just like that. The fact is, there are orphans and widows in your town, and there are lots of ways to find them. Community services centers, churches, synagogues, mosques, and a whole variety of non-profits in your community can all direct you to those in need.

But even more than just looking for the actual orphans and widows around us, let’s think about what James really meant by calling our attention to those two specific groups of people. In the first century, your position in society was tied to the position of the men in your family. Your father, your husband – they determined where you stood in the eyes of the community. So to be without that father or husband practically meant that you had no place in society. You were totally at the mercy of others. Often, those others didn’t feel very compelled to care for you. They had enough to do to take care of themselves, or so they thought. James said this wasn’t the case. Not only did people have the ability to care for others, they had no choice – he says we “must” care for the orphans and widows.

In our society today, there is a much wider variety of people who are what we might call financially disadvantaged or socially oppressed. Race, geography, education, religion and politics are all contributing factors. All of those factors need to be addressed. But that’s not the imperative we are talking about here. What did James say? He said we much care for the oppressed “in their troubles”. Not in the socio-historical background of their troubles. Not in the generational cycle of their troubles. He said in their troubles. Where they are right now. The care we are to give is immediate, obvious, and effective.

What does this mean for us? It means giving up our free evening and babysitting to give a single parent a night off to have fun or pursue a hobby or work on his or her degree. It means mentoring children who do not have adequate parental involvement. It means sitting and listening to a friend who has just lost her husband for hours even if you have other things that “should” be done.  It means welcoming a refugee or immigrant and making them feel like a part of the community. It means visiting the elderly lady on your block that hardly ever gets out of her house. It means loving and helping those around you without expecting to get anything in return.

Trust me, Reader, in writing this I was just as challenged as you are right now. I know I’m not anywhere near close to perfect. But I’m trying. Because when I come to my last days, I want to have been part of something pure and lasting.

Peace Be With You