Thank Heaven for Little Boys

If you asked me to tell you the first word I would use to describe today, it would be “miserable”. I’m dealing with the almost unbearable discomfort of the last days of pregnancy, I’ve got a cold or allergies or something (like I could breathe before that anyway!), my sleep was fitful, short and interrupted last night, and my toddler was crying about everything this morning. Everything seemed wrong. Going to the Walmart 5 minutes down the road seemed like an epic journey that I might not survive. ( I did, by the way. And only forgot one thing on my list.)

And yet, if I think about it for a minute, today has been an amazingly blessed day. Blessed for so many reasons, but mostly because of that same dramatic, crying toddler from breakfast. The boy who sang our favorite lullaby, “Edelweiss,” to me while snuggling on my shoulder because he saw me crying from the pain I was in. The boy who helped load and unload the grocery cart, even though he can barely reach, because he wanted to help his mama. The boy who joyfully snuggled up with me to listen to my birth relaxation cd’s (I may ask him to be my coach at the hospital). The boy who spent an hour gleefully watching the men at the “‘struction site” pouring concrete for a garage (extra thankfulness for a gracious family friend who invites said construction-crazed toddler to “help” at the worksite).

20160520_123250

This boy is in paradise. A very dirty paradise. 

My sweet son’s compassion for his family and his untempered joy at things that would seem so small to us truly blesses me daily. I love how he tells me every day about how we are going to go to Heaven and see God and do so many fun things (He strongly believes that a significant part of Heaven has to do with candy. Toddler theology). Yes, he still asks “why?” 8,436 times a day. Yes, he still cries about not being able to wash all the dirt off his toy trucks. And yes, I’m still a little nervous about how I’m going to handle two (two, two!) little boys starting soon. But this I know: God has put these boys in my life for a much bigger purpose than I can begin to understand. I mother them, nurture and teach them; but they recreate me in the image of the Father by the way they love and stretch and challenge and teach me.

From the moment I found out I was pregnant with each of them, until death do us (temporarily) part, I will be thankful. Thankful for the hugs and kisses and made-up songs. Thankful for the sleepless nights that remind me to pray. Thankful for the constant reminders that I cannot rely on myself. Thankful for being entrusted with a responsibility that I know I don’t deserve.

Thank Heaven for Little Boys…

Refuge

Happy Friday!

I just wanted to leave you with a quick thought for this weekend.

Yesterday, I saw a flyer for one of our local churches, advertising its mid-week meeting for the Hispanic community.

It was called “Refugio de Amor”.

Refuge of Love

Is your church a refuge of love? Can broken people come there to find shelter, or is it just a country club with a prayer service?

What will you do this week to make yourself and your faith community a refuge of love for those who need shelter for their souls?

Where will you go for refuge in your own trials?

Copyright 2013 Jessica Weeks

 

Meditate on Psalm 46 this weekend:

God is our refuge and strength,
    a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
    though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
 though its waters roar and foam,
    though the mountains tremble at its swelling. 

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
    the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
    God will help her when morning dawns.
The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
    he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Come, behold the works of the Lord,
    how he has brought desolations on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
    he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
“Be still, and know that I am God.
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth!”
The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Somebody’s Baby

Hello again. Last time I wrote, I talked just a little about how having a son has been changing my life. Today I want to share a profound way that my son has changed my perspective.

 

To start, I have a confession to make, and this is something I’m really not proud of. So here goes. Sometimes when I’m out and about and I encounter a person who is somehow ‘odd’, I get a little uncomfortable. I know intellectually that there is no reason to be, but it’s an occasional gut reaction. And, sadly, I imagine that I’m not the only one who reacts this way.

 

There’s something about our human nature that reacts poorly to those we perceive as different. It’s the basis for all prejudice, be it racism, sexism, ageism, or any other form of discrimination. To an extent, our snap judgments help us quickly process the myriad of inputs we experience as we go about our lives, so they are useful. But when it comes to people, we need to use our metacognition – our ability to think about our thinking – to reach the truth, not just first impressions.

 

As I said, I have often found myself confronting these first impressions, and my usual rebuttal to myself is to go through the litany of “You don’t know them or what their condition really is; they’re just as important and valuable as everyone else.” Which is completely true. The problem was, I was addressing a gut reaction with a mental process. Sometimes that works, but often we need an emotional response to an emotional problem. We need something to strongly affect our core in such a way that it changes not only the way we think about things, but also the way we feel about them.

 

That is exactly what happened to me when my son was born. I remember one of my first forays into the outside world after he was born, I encountered one of the regulars at the store I was visiting, a person who, on first impressions, can make me feel a little uncomfortable, even though I know that I have no reason to be. This time, though, a new thought went through my mind: “He is somebody’s baby.” Just that. Just imagining, for a second, that at one time, he was a tiny, precious newborn, no different from his peers; someone small and helpless and sweet, and just as perfect as every other baby. Someone who was the absolute center of his or her parents’ heart. The moment I realized that, it completely changed the way I look at people. It spread not just to those who make me uncomfortable on first glance, but also to the people who irritate me, the people I am quick to judge.

 

And then something truly miraculous happened in my heart. I began thinking more and more about this idea of a parent’s love for a baby. I thought about how much I love my son, a love that I couldn’t even begin to imagine before he was born. As I was thinking about it, I realized that God loves my son far more than I love him. That realization has helped me so much in trusting God to care for my son. And then I realized that God loved all those people, the ones I struggle with judging and loving, as much as He loves my son. That was an amazing realization, because it dawned on me that God’s love for humanity is so much more than a kind, general benevolence. I love my son with an indescribably fierce and all-consuming love, and yet God loves him, and by extension everyone, infinitely more than that, because He is infinitely more capable of loving than I am. Wow – that changes the way I look at people when I begin to understand the way God sees them. Mind officially blown.

 

But then God decided to take the smoldering shreds of my mind and completely destroy my old ways of thinking about one person in particular. The one person I had the most difficulty forgiving, the one I was the quickest and harshest to judge. Myself. It was like God spoke clearly to me and said, “You know how much you love that little baby you’re holding right now? You know how deep, and fierce, and strong that love is, how you are constantly telling him that there is nothing that can change your love for him, that you love him no matter who or what he decides to be? Now, do you remember how you just figured out that my love for everyone is infinitely greater than that? Do you realize that you are one of those people? I love YOU infinitely more than you love your son. You, One-Who-Fails-Daily. And I sent my Son, whom I love even more than you love your son, to die for you. Even though you can’t begin to deserve it, even on your best days.

 

Very rarely do you get such clear spiritual breakthroughs, and to have three of them cascading all at once left me speechless. To change how I see my community, my child, and then myself, to begin to really appreciate the value God has placed on each of us, to have even a fractional understanding of how great a price He paid to redeem us – this changes everything.

 

My hope and prayer for you is that you begin to see how treasured you are, and that you look at those around you with a new appreciation of their worth. May God blow your mind too!

Jesus, I Am Nesting, Nesting

Hi there. Yes, I am ashamed of missing the last two weeks of posts. I have been consumed by late pregnancy exhaustion and the irresistible need to have everything perfectly in order for this coming baby.

 

There it is, I’ve been nesting when I should have been writing. With the help of my miracle-working mother, I’ve gotten the whole house clean, organized, and presentable (yay to getting the car all the way in the garage again!). Thanks to my fantastic husband (whose first words after work most days are, “How can I help you now?”) we have all the furniture assembled, arranged, and repaired as needed. Thanks to Amazon and UPS, we have all the great baby gear and gadgets that we “need” but can’t find at our local Wal-Mart (the pinnacle of shopping in our tiny town). And thanks to my tireless washer and dryer, all those tiny clothes, blankets, bibs and cloth diapers are clean, folded, organized, and ready to go.

 

I have to admit, I’ve loved the whole process. Probably because I never got the must-scrub-whole-house-with-toothbrush type of nesting urge. That would be awful. But I have loved preparing our home and our life for this little guy.  It was so much fun to browse through pages and pages of baby stuff online and choose the things I thought would be most useful, most fun, and most representative of us and our son. I have delighted in folding and organizing each impossibly tiny onesie and matching every pair of ridiculously small socks (are their feet really that little???).  It is exciting to just sit in my rocking chair and look around the nursery, imagining it with its future occupant. It’s been a very satisfying experience.

 

When I first starting thinking about this post, it was really just going to be a fluffy little excuse for why I haven’t written in two weeks. The title was a fun play on the hymn, “Jesus I Am Resting, Resting”. (Those who know me well know I can’t resist a parody or a musical pun…it’s just how my brain works.) But as I thought about it, something clicked on in my head, and I imagined Jesus nesting, so to speak. Go there with me for a moment. When Jesus left the earth for Heaven after his resurrection, he had a few key roles to fulfill between then and his return. One of those things that he is doing is preparing a place for us.

 

Whether you think of it as a mansion, a home, or a room in God’s house, all of us who are believers know that Jesus promised a special, wonderful, individual place for each of us in the heavenly kingdom. (John 14:2-3) Just as I have been preparing a special place for my son in his new home, Jesus is preparing a special place for me in my future home. If you still think the pregnancy hormones are playing with my mind and I’m a bit loony, check out these parallels between my nesting, and Jesus’ preparations in Heaven.

 

 

  • We both want the best for the one we love. For me, that means having his clothes cute, clean and snuggly, making sure everything is safe, and adding in all the cute touches I can. I want my son to have the best I can give him. Jesus is able to take it further, because the place he is preparing is not just really good, but it is perfect. He doesn’t have to be budget conscious, nor does he have to worry that any detail will be unappealing. When I get to my heavenly home, it will be the ultimate in beauty, comfort (both physical and spiritual), and I will not be able to find a single fault with it.
  • Another thing Jesus and I have in common is that we are preparing our special places with the future occupant in mind, tailored to his or her individuality. That’s why my son’s nursery has blues and greens and forest animals rather than purple and glitter and My Little Ponies. In the same way, my room or home in heaven will not be the same as yours. It won’t be institutional and generic, like a convent, or even like a 5-star hotel, but will be perfectly tailored to you, as Jesus knows you. I can’t say exactly what that means in Jesus’ form of interior decorating, but I know that when we each walk into our heavenly homes, we’ll instantly feel that we are truly home, and we’ll think, This is exactly right for me.
  • On the other hand, our work of preparation is also reflective of us, the nesters. I picked woodland critters as a good neutral, slightly masculine theme for my nursery because I knew I would be welcoming a boy. However, I have no idea if he will share my love of hedgehogs (if not, he will probably not love that nursery) or if he will care that I chose the dark wood over the light for his furniture because it seemed more classy to me.  I don’t know for sure how the details will play out, but I am pretty confident that every room, house, or mansion that Jesus is preparing for us will contain clear and undeniable marks of his involvement. When you sit in your heavenly living room, not only will you feel that it was made just for you, but you’ll probably say to yourself, That bit over there, nobody other than Jesus would have thought to put that in. Also, Jesus had lots of experience with woodworking, so I’m expecting some pretty fabulous furniture and trim.
  • Another element common to both of us is excitement. With every onesie or sleeper that I fold, I get a little more excited about meeting, holding, and caring for my little boy. The simplest things, like arranging the blankets in a drawer or opening the bottle of baby lotion get me teary-eyed with anticipation. Jesus is no less (probably even more) excited about our arrival in our heavenly homes. His work is far more vast than mine, but I don’t think for a second that any of it is a drudgery to him. As he builds and prepares, he thinks of us, friends, and looks forward to the day that he can show us around the place he has made just for you and me.
  • Finally, we have something in common when it comes to time. I have a due date that is 10 days away, but in reality, this little guy could come tomorrow, or he could hold on until the beginning of October. I know it’s coming soon, but no one, not even my doctor, can tell me exactly when it will be. The certainty that my child will be born cannot change the uncertainty about when it will happen. In the same way, we are certain that Jesus is coming back, and he is going to take all of his sheep to their new, forever homes. He promised it, so it is certain. And obviously, every day that goes by is one day closer to it happening. But even though we know it is certainly coming, and coming sooner every day, we don’t know when it is coming, because only God the Father knows. Even Jesus doesn’t know when he’ll be sent back for us! (Matthew 24:36) No prophet, preacher, or Bible-decoder can tell you the date and time. I like to think of Jesus experiencing the same excitement and anticipation in waiting for our arrival in heaven as I do in waiting for the arrival of my baby.

 

So there you have it, friends. I’m nesting. Jesus is nesting. And neither of us are scrubbing walls with toothbrushes, I’m sure of it.

 

I hope these thoughts make you feel precious, treasured and loved, because you are. The savior of the world delights in you enough to spend thousands of years in heaven preparing a place specifically for you to enjoy for eternity. I spent a couple months preparing a room that will be inhabited for a few years. If that’s all I did for a child I already love more than I thought it was possible to love, I can’t even imagine the kind of love Jesus has for me, for you, when I think about all he has done, in coming to earth, dying on the cross, preparing heaven for us, and eventually returning to defeat sin and Satan for good.  It doesn’t even begin to compare. He loves you, precious one. More than you can imagine.

 

 

Tuesday’s Truth – You Better Find Somebody to Love

Hello again! I know, I’m a day late with this one. It’s not even very long, so that’s not my excuse. Mostly, I was letting an idea marinate, to see if it was what was really supposed to go up this week. And I think that it is. Today I want to share with you something that seems so simple, but yet is often so difficult for Christians to put into practice. It’s one of the central features of Jesus’ life, and yet probably the one we least like to imitate. What is it? Simply put, it is loving sinners. I’m not interested in discussing specific lifestyles, actions, or choices that you or I believe are sinful. That’s not what’s at issue here. The sin isn’t the issue; our action is. Let’s use a bare-bones definition of a sinner – anyone who has not believed in salvation from sin through the death of Jesus. That’s who we’re talking about this week.

 

We like to say that we love sinners and want to bring them into God’s family. But many of us (I’ve been guilty of this too) only love people “outside the fold” in an abstract sort of way. We don’t go outside of the church and love them (socialize with them, care for them in times of need, encourage them, etc.); we hope that they will “get saved” so that they can be like us and then we can really love them.

 

Why do we do this? I think there are lots of different reasons. Sometimes we are afraid that if we associate with people who don’t follow all the same rules as us (this can even apply to other Christians sometimes, sadly) we will become “less saved” and fall into sin. If we associate with someone who uses profane language, we’ll start using it too. If we socialize with someone who drinks too much, we’ll become alcoholics as well. If we befriend someone who’s living with their boyfriend or girlfriend, we’ll become sexually immoral. While we certainly need to be on our guard to not be sucked into sin or worldliness, we are promised that we have not been given “a spirit of fear, but one of power, love, and sound judgment.” (2 Timothy 1:7) God doesn’t save us and then allow us to be weak and fragile in the face of sin. If that were true, wouldn’t He just transport each person to heaven as soon as they believed, because they would be too delicate to remain in the world? We need to have more faith in the spirit God has placed within us. If we are loving the lost in the way that God has called us to, we don’t have to worry about being dragged away from Him.

 

Sometimes we avoid people we see as sinners because we just don’t know how to interact with them. We may have been sheltered by our parents during childhood, and by our church during adulthood, that we feel that we have nothing in common with those outside the church. They don’t understand our “holy-speak” and we don’t understand the things that they enjoy or that they are upset by. This is a legitimate obstacle, but one that must be overcome if we want to claim that we really love the lost. How do we do it? A little bit at a time, I think. Look for ways to find common ground with the unsaved around you. If you were homeschooled, went to a Christian college, and then worked in a parachurch organization, you probably don’t want to start out trying to connect with a biker gang. Baby steps, folks. What about the neighbors who have kids the same age as your kids? Or maybe fellow athletes on a community team? Start by finding the things that are the same about you, and hopefully they’ll see the differences between you in a positive light that turns them towards Jesus. (Which means that you’ll have to be careful to make those differences positive!)

 

Finally, I think a huge reason we neglect to actively, tangibly love sinners around us is arrogance and pride. We have our list of the really bad sins, and people in our lives who commit one of those sins are just too “dirty” for us. We can’t be friends with that guy at work, because it might expose our children to the evil in the world if they found out how he lives. We can’t let our daughter invite the neighbor girl over to play because her mommy doesn’t have good enough morals. We see ourselves as “good” and “pure” and these others as “bad” or “corrupted” and we’re afraid that they will rub off on us, or somehow diminish our goodness. We think that it is a case of oil and water, and that mixing is simply  impossible.

 

Friends, that’s not how it works, for so many reasons. First off, you are not so great. Before you were saved, you were, in the eyes of God, just as lost as the most sinful person you can think of. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11) In His mercy God saved you, and in His mercy He can save others. There is no award for being saved, because you didn’t earn it or accomplish it. If God can love and have grace and mercy for the lost, surely you should be able to. If you are not a slave to sin, it is because Jesus paid for your freedom, and not because you were inherently strong or good.

 

Second, the sin of others can’t just “rub off” on us. It’s not like the flu – it doesn’t just spread, I promise. I’ve spent a lot of time around a lot of people with all the different brands of sin, and I haven’t become ensnared by any of them. But don’t ask me, ask Jesus. He spent more time with the lost than most of us ever will, and yet he remained without sin. Jesus loved a fraudulent tax collector (Zacchaeus – Luke 19:1-10), an adulterous woman (the Samaritan at the well – John 4:1-26),  and so many others that he and his disciples were infamous for their associations with the moral and religious outcasts (Matthew 9:10-11, Mark 2:15-16, Luke 5:29-30, Luke 7:34).  Jesus didn’t see his righteousness and purity as something to be jealously guarded and protected, but as something to be shared. He knew the importance having faithful friends who loved and worshipped God and set that example for us in his choosing of the disciples. We all need a community of people who share our faith and can encourage us. But Jesus also showed us how important it is for us to let the love we receive from our relationship with the Father spill over into the world around us, particularly to those who have not yet experienced the love of God. Jesus didn’t come so that good, moral Christians would have something in common; he came so that the sinful, the lost, the broken could be saved, healed, and restored (Matthew 9:12) And that is the job he left to us when he returned to the Father (Matthew 28:19-20, Acts 1:8).

 

To wrap this all up, I’m not sure exactly why this is what I felt compelled to write about this week. Perhaps it will be a timely challenge and reminder to some of you. Maybe it will convict someone. I know it has challenged me just thinking about it, evaluating how I live in relation to the lost around me. Do I judge, or do I love? So often Christians feel that we have the right, the responsibility even, to judge the sinners around us. But we don’t. Of all the commands and instructions and responsibilities that God gives us after we are saved, judging is not one of them. Not the unsaved, not the saved. He kept that job all for Himself. I get so frustrated by people who claim to be Christians, but then make Christianity so unattractive by loudly and obnoxiously judging and denouncing sinners. Yes, sin is a problem. It’s a huge problem. It’s the problem. But we don’t win people to Christ by telling them how terrible they are and how they are ruining society. We don’t make Christ attractive by proclaiming our own goodness and righteousness. It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict people of their sin, and it is the kindness of God that leads to repentance, not our bashing or our boasting. (Romans 2:4)

 

Loving the lost is a risky proposition. It opens your eyes to see people the way that God does. It allows for the possibility that you will care about someone who refuses to answer the call to salvation. You may see those you love lost for eternity. God calls us to love the way that He does, and that kind of love opens the door to all sorts of pain. God’s heart aches continually for the lost who refuse His loving advances. And yet the rewards are just as infinite. When you see the lost saved, broken lives made new, sick souls healed, and people transformed by the power of Christ, there is nothing more amazing. You get to be a witness to something that causes all the angels to rejoice. I don’t know how God is calling you to love those around you. But I do know that He is calling you to it. Please seek Him this week, and don’t just wait for an answer – get out there and start loving some sinners!

 

Peace!

 

 

 

Tuesday’s Truth – God Cares

Hello friends,

I had several possible things on my mind to talk about with you all today, but in light of the recent and ongoing devastation across the Midwest,  it seemed to me that the only true thing you need to be reminded of today is that God cares.

Yes, these tornadoes are natural occurrences, yes, they’re a part of life in certain areas, yes, they happen year after year. Those of us who don’t live through tornado season each year sometimes forget how frightening and destructive they are until we see the pictures of the really big ones, like the one that swept through Oklahoma this week. We don’t think about the shattered lives or the decades-long impact that a single terrible storm can have on a community, and on individuals. Then something like the Moore tornado hits, and we are all suddenly aware of the reality of natural disasters. It shakes us.

We can barely predict things like tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires, blizzards and earthquakes. There is little we can do to prepare for them, and absolutely nothing we can do to stop them. All that makes them incredibly frightening and devastating. I won’t begin to get into the discussion of whether God causes or allows these events, and why some areas and some people are destroyed and others spared. Theologians can debate that issue back and forth till the cows come home, and still never come up with a solid answer. And really, the answer to that question isn’t all that important. What is important is for us to remember that none of these events escape God’s notice. He’s not like the much-criticized FEMA, late to the game and without the right equipment. He knows that on our planet, these sorts of natural disasters are going to happen, and even when He doesn’t stop them, He deeply cares about those who are affected.

He hurts for each person who loses a loved one or a home or a prized possession. He feels the anxiety of those searching for missing family, even though He knows right where they are. His heart breaks with the hearts of the first responders who must mix their joy in rescuing people from the rubble with the sorrow of recovering each one who was not so lucky. Sometimes we don’t see how God could care when these kind of things happen. It can be hard to understand that God loves us and cares about us when He doesn’t keep bad things from happening to us. Like we talked about last week, God’s promise is not that He will keep us from any pain or suffering, but that He will be with us and make something good out of even our worst experiences. In the same way, God caring about us means that He is always near to us, always eager to comfort and heal when those terrible things do happen.

To show you what I mean, I’m just going to let the Word of God speak straight to you, no commentary needed.

  • 1 Peter 5:7 “Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you.”
  • Psalm 9:12 “For he who avenges murder cares for the helpless. He does not ignore the cries of those who suffer.”
  • Psalm 138:6 “Though the Lord is great, he cares for the humble.”
  • Psalm 146:9He cares for the orphans and widows.”
  • Hosea 14:8 “I am the one who answers your prayers and cares for you.”
  • Matthew 10:29-31 “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” (Also Luke 12:6-7)

God cares for you, friends. He cares if you’re having a tough day parenting your children. He cares if a coworker was unkind to you this week. He cares if you are struggling in your marriage. He cares if you have been the victim of a crime. He cares if you have been affected by a natural disaster. Whatever is hurting you, He cares, and you can take your problems to Him, expecting love and compassion. Don’t be shy about going to Him with your troubles, your fears and your pain. He cares!

When Your Heart Doesn’t Feel Glad

The focus of this blog is joy, gladness and thankfulness. The background is cheerful, the topics are often meant to leave you feeling a little bit better than when you started reading. But the fact is, sometimes life hurts. To be human is to experience pain. I see this everywhere, it seems. The sweet little baby suffering from an incurable, painful immune disease; the vibrant, lively school boy who is now in a rehab hospital recovering from being hit by a car while biking with friends; the young daughter of missionaries suddenly struck with a life-threatening disease that has caused her organs to shut down; the mother with painful joints that refuse to heal; the marriages that are barely hanging by a thread;  the newborn who underwent open heart surgery to repair a congenital defect at just 6 days old – my heart breaks for them. Why is there so much pain? Why are these good people suffering so much?

I find that I am wholly unsatisfied with the answer, “Because we live in a fallen world of sin.” My niece was not born with a heart condition because of sin. My friends did not lose their first child because of sin. Children don’t get hit by cars because the world is fallen. Fathers don’t lose their jobs because people are sinful. Don’t get me wrong – sin does cause pain. Always. But it is nonsense to say that all pain is simply the result of the fall of man. It’s just too simplistic. And it makes it cruel and meaningless. When we give sin in general as the cause of our common pain, we make God out to be unjust and unloving if he allows us to suffer simply because someone else made bad choices. Sin is cause, but it is not the cause.

Why, then, does God allow us to suffer? Even more, why does He sometimes seem to cause our suffering? Years ago in college I took a course on C. S. Lewis. While his Mere Christianity and Chronicles of Narnia are perennial favorites, I often come back to one of his less-beloved works, The Problem of Pain.  I appreciate the way Lewis seems to think of every argument I’m going to raise, and addresses it before I can protest. While the book covers a lot of theological and philosophical ground, I find myself drawn to two specific sections, one on the goodness of God, and one on the problem of human suffering. While Lewis’ discussions on these topics can’t answer the specific why’s of each individual situation, they do provide a framework in which we can begin to answer the questions of our own pain. I want to share with you a selection of excerpts from The Problem of Pain, and offer a few of my own thoughts on them.

(All quotations taken from: Lewis, C.S., The Problem of Pain (2001). New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.)

The Goodness of God

“By the goodness of God we mean nowadays almost exclusively His lovingness; and in this we may be right. And by love, in this context, most of us mean kindness – the desire to see others than the self happy; not happy in this way or in that, but just happy. What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven – a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves’, and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all’. Not many people would formulate a theology in precisely those terms; but a conception not very different lurks at the back of many minds.” 

Do we not often find ourselves guilty of such thinking? Don’t we feel that if God loved us more, we would suffer less? The twin lie to this is that God gives greater blessings to those He loves more. I can’t think of anyone God loved more than Jesus Christ, but I also cannot think of anyone who suffered more pain than Christ.

“When Christianity says that God loves man, it means that God loves man: not that He has some ‘disinterested’, because really indifferent, concern for our welfare, but that, in awful and surprising truth, we are the objects of His love. You asked for a loving God: you have one. The great spirit…is present: not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, nor the care of a host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests, but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artist’s love for his work and despotic as a man’s love for a dog, provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between the sexes. How this should be, I do not know: it passes reason to explain why any creatures, not to say creatures such as we, should have a value so prodigious in their Creator’s eyes.”

If you have been an artist, or a pet-owner, or a parent, or a spouse, you can begin to understand each of these kinds of love, perhaps even several. But you will never be able to understand what it is to have every one of those kinds of love directed toward the same object. God’s love for us is wholly incomprehensible.

“The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves, is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial menaing to the word ‘love’, and look on things as if man were the centre of them. Man is not the centre. God does not exist for the sake of man. Man does not exist for his own sake. ‘Thou has created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.’ [Revelation 4:11] We were made not primarily that we may love God (though we were made for that too) but that God may love us, that we may become objects in which the Divine love may rest ‘well pleased’. 

It is always good to be reminded that we are not the center of the universe, but how sweet a thought that we were created not just for God’s pleasure but so that He could love us. You and I were made to be loved. How amazing!

“But God wills our good, and our good is to love Him (with that responsive love proper to creatures) and to love Him we must know Him: and if we know Him, we shall in fact fall on our faces…Yet the call is not only to prostration and awe; it is to a reflection of the Divine life, a creaturely participation in the Divine attributes which is far beyond our present desires. We are bidden to ‘put on Christ’, to become like God. That is, whether we like it or not, God intends to give us what we need, not what we now think we want.”

God is not Santa, not a fairy-godfather, responsible for meeting our demands. His every action in our lives is enacted with the sole purpose of making us more like Him, more as He created us to be.

Human Pain

“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” 

God doesn’t enjoy our pain, but He is well aware of its effectiveness in getting our attention.

“If the first and lowest operation of pain shatters the illusion that all is well, the second shatters the illusion that what we have, whether good or bad in itself, is our own and enough for us. Everyone has noticed how hard it is to turn our thoughts to God when everything is going well with us. We ‘have all we want’ is a terrible saying when ‘all’ does not include God. We find God an interruption. As St. Augustine says somewhere, ‘God wants to give us something, but cannot, because our hands are full – there’s nowhere for Him to put it.’ ” 

This was made clearest to me when my dear friends lost their infant daughter. Though their pain was extensive and excruciating, from the moment they knew she was at risk they had held her with open hands and had kept their hands open once she was taken, fully trusting that God had something to give them and with which to bless them. You can read more about their story here.

“God, who has made us, knows what we are, and that our happiness lies in Him. Yet we will not seek it in Him as long as He leaves us any other resort where it can even plausibly be looked for. While what we call ‘our own life’ remains agreeable we will not surrender it to Him. What then can God do in our interests but make ‘our own life’ less agreeable to us and take away the plausible source of false happiness. It is just here, where God’s providence seems at first to be most cruel, that the Divine humility, the stooping down of the Highest, most deserves praise.”

“What is good in any painful experience is, for the sufferer, his submission to the will of God, and, for the spectators, the compassion aroused and the acts of mercy to which it leads.”

I have been truly amazed by the wonderful ways I have seen people, especially believers, rise to the occasion and support the suffering. Meals, transportation, listening, mourning with those who mourn, financial provision, childcare, taking over details, helping with daily living – so many go out of their way to ease others’ pain. God works to make us more like Him not only in our own pain, but in the pain of those around us.

“The Christian doctrine of suffering explains, I believe, a very curious fact about the world we live in. The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God…Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.” 

Oh, how we need this reminder that we are not home yet, that we have more waiting for us. Our present sufferings are nothing compared with the joy we will receive one day (Romans 8:18). I love what Lewis points out here: that though we have troubles now – real and painful trials – they are not the whole of our experience. God is so merciful to us, every moment of every day. Each flower blooming in spring, each leaf with its own autumn color, every kind word from friend or stranger, each moment of rest…They are like springs of water to our dry, weary souls.

Why Me?

I don’t know what your pain is right now. I don’t know exactly what it is that God wants to say to you or give to you. I have a hard enough time understanding what He is doing in my own trials and sufferings. But I am sure of this, friends, that every trial, every pain is purposed to make you more Christ-like, more obedient, and more sure of God’s love for you. It is not calculated destroy you, or to separate you from your Heavenly Father. Even though He may be allowing or even causing your suffering (for His own perfect and good purposes in you) He is ready and waiting to comfort you, to reassure you of His unwavering love for you. Even in your deepest sorrow or most searing pain, you are not alone or abandoned.

How has God used pain to get your attention? How has He blessed you in your suffering? Feel free to make this a place to share your sorrows and your joys!

 

Annie, Get Your Bible

“Anything you can do, I can do better; I can do anything better than you… Anything you can be, I can be greater; sooner or later I’m greater than you.” So go the famous lines from the musical Annie Get Your Gun. A catchy tune, and also irrefutable proof that Annie Oakley and Frank Butler were Christians.  How do I know? Because no one can turn something miniscule and mundane into a fierce competition like Christians.

Just spend a few hours at a conference of senior pastors, youth pastors or Sunday school directors. What’s your attendance? How many programs do you have each week? Have you built a new “worship center”? How many missionaries do you support? How many satellite campuses do you have? Have you published a book? Do you have a 3D gaming system to get the kids interested? (I won’t even address the absurdity of that…imagine how many more continents would have been reached for Jesus if St. Paul had just had an Xbox and some plasma screens…we wouldn’t even have to send missionaries to Africa!)  It goes on and on.

The people asking these questions often don’t really care about the answers. They’re not hearing that you were called to a church with a weekly attendance of 60 and now it is up to 100. A 66% increase doesn’t make them bless the Lord for what He’s doing in your congregation.  All they really want to hear is that whatever you have is not as good as what they have. Sure, when they took over their church, there were 1,500 attendees, and now there are only 1,000, but it’s still much bigger than your church. And of course, we all know that God is far more active in a megachurch than in a small congregation. I grew up in a megachurch, and yes, God was indeed working there, but not because we had thousands of people. These days I go to a church that could fit 10 times over into the sanctuary at my childhood church.To put it another way, there are more people that attend the church of my youth than live in my entire town now.  And yet, God is incredibly active in my current church, not because we’re big, or because we’re small, but because He has a plan for us.  That’s how God works. Not by statistics, but by design.

But it’s not just pastors and churches that get involved in the holy war of Christian competition. As individual Christians we take the bait just as easily. Who is asked to sing for worship more often? Whose Bible study has more attendees? Who chairs more committees? Who is better friends with the pastor’s wife? Who is invited to golf with the elders more often? Who has better behaved children? Who has a Sunday school room named after them? Who went to a more remote location as a missionary? Who is suffering more for Jesus? And on and on.

We are constantly caught up in the mania of trying earn more crowns, more “Well done, good and faithful servant” accolades, store up more treasures in heaven. Because we want to be the biggest and best, even in heaven. I know it sounds a little cynical, and it seems that I am saying that all of us are only working for our own selfish gain, not for the Glory of God.I’m not.  I don’t think it’s that bad, or that cut and dried. But I do think that we have a real problem as a global church, and we need to wake up and smell the coffee.  It all boils down to some bad theology that we have let ourselves believe for more than two thousand years.

That bad theology goes like this: If God loves you, He will bless you with a big ministry, happy family, and widespread influence. If you love God, you will do your best to build a big ministry, have a happy family, and gain widespread influence. You know what HE says?  “If you love me, you will obey my commands.” (John 14:15) And what are His commands? Love the Lord with everything you are (Matthew 22:37) and love one another (John 13:34). That’s all. Nothing about building programs, foreign travel, or plasma screens. Nothing about trying to be better than others.

Even Jesus’ closest friends struggled with this concept. Just moments after Jesus explained his coming death and resurrection to them, they got bogged down in an argument over which one of them was the best disciple. (Luke 9:46) They came to learn, however, that God’s view of success, obedience and blessing are wholly unlike ours. We want to do what others are doing, be blessed as they are being blessed. The problem with that is that God doesn’t have the same plans for us. His plan for your life is not anything close to His plan for your neighbor, your brother, your mother or your best friend.  If He had wanted everyone to be the same, He would have stopped with Adam. But no, He has formed billions of unique people in the millennia since Creation, and has designed a completely unique plan for each one of those people. (Jeremiah 29:11) Isn’t that amazing? I have a hard enough time coming up with 7 unique dinners a week; I can’t imagine making a different life plan for each of several billion individuals.

The disciples each were given a different path to follow, even though they had all received the same command to “go and make disciples.”(Matthew 28:19) Some stayed in Jerusalem, some traveled around the Roman Empire, others may have gone as far as India and China. We know that at one point (Acts 15), Paul showed up in Jerusalem to meet with the leaders of the church in Jerusalem, specifically Peter and James. Paul could have felt inferior because Peter had spent several years with Jesus, or because James was brother of Jesus. Peter and James could have felt inferior because Paul had started many churches, while they just had the one, or because Paul was an apostle to the wealthy Greeks and Romans, while they were shepherding the impoverished, oppressed Jews. They could have had a veritable pastoral Olympic games. But they didn’t. They combined their strengths, sought the Lord, and worked together to advance the Gospel.

So what about us? What do we do with all of this? Well, we need to do a few different things. First, we need to realize that God has a unique plan for us, and then thank Him for it. When we wish we were someone else, or that we had someone else’s life, we are basically thumbing our nose at God and telling Him that He made a mistake when He created us. When you were born, your parents didn’t have any choice over what you would be like. They couldn’t choose your gender, haircolor, athletic ability, personality or musical talent. They might try to push you in a direction that is different from your natural interests or desires because of their own hopes for you. But God is not like that. He was able to pick every single one of your characteristics, and He put you together just the way He wants you.

Second, we must stop comparing ourselves to others. That is true across the board, more specifically, we need to stop comparing the work that God has given us with the work that He has given someone else. Your work may be caring for AIDS orphans in Africa, or it might be raising your own children in Austin. Neither one is a lesser calling. Both are about bringing children up to know and love the Lord. Your work might be to develop microfinance opportunities for women in India, or it might be to approve loans in Indiana. Either way, you are helping people improve their lives and you have the opportunity to show compassion, integrity and kindness. Your work might be teaching English in China, or you might be teaching English in Chicago. Wherever you are, you are filling minds and inspiring students, and you have the opportunity to obey God by loving them. God is not so narrowly confined that He is only served when we are working in a full-time, official ministry capacity. He is served whenever we love those around us and give Glory to Him.We must stop seeing ourselves as greater or lesser than others.

Finally, we need to seek His will for our lives. That could be a whole post (or a whole book) on its own. The short version is that we need to use our individual gifts, talents and interests to obey His command to love others. If you can’t stand children, you probably aren’t called to start an orphanage in Thailand, no matter how great the need seems. If you can’t carry a tune, God’s plan probably doesn’t involve you leading the choir. But He may be calling you to plan and host a fundraiser for that orphanage, or He may be asking you to be a part of the greeting team, because those are where your skills and interests lie. God made you as you are for His purpose and His plan. Don’t become arrogant by trying to follow your own plan, as if you know better than God. Humbly approach Him and ask Him to show you what it is that He sees as special about you, what it is that He put in you specifically so that you could serve Him. Because you are infinitely special to Him. He has never, not even once, compared you with another, and He has no intention of starting. Be free in that knowledge, free to be and do what He designed and created you for.

And in everything, have a Glad Heart!

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!

Dead or Alive?

Welcome!

I have something important to share with you today. Just keep in mind that I said “important,” not “fun.” You’ve noticed that I’ve been digging into the New Testament book of James lately. Of all the New Testament books, it is the one I find most challenging and practical. I want you know that any time I share a challenge like what I’m about to share, it is something I am working through as well. I’m right there with you, not up on a mountaintop shouting down at you.

Think back to our last talk about James. What did he say made our religion or faith “pure and lasting”? Right,  caring for the abandoned and oppressed. Good job! If you were sitting here with me, I’d give you a big gold star 🙂 Let’s move on now, and see how James cautions us against developing a worthless, lifeless faith.

I love James because He always seems to address the very thing I need to work on. If you are familiar with James, you know that he is big on telling us how our words can affect others. If you’re not familiar with him, check out James 3. In James 1:26 he tells us that neglecting to control what we say can make our faith or religion dead and worthless.  James says that everything we say should be governed by the law of love, meaning it does no harm to anyone. That’s pretty hard, isn’t it? I know that I am becoming much more aware of the effect my words have on other. If we don’t control what we say, our faith is worthless. Trash. Burn it up, and throw it away. Put it out on the curb. That’s not the kind of religion I want. You?

Do you have a problem controlling the words that come out of your mouth? Maybe you are really good about not swearing, but do you gossip? You might not use profanities, but do you yell at your children? You may be really good at biting back snarky comments towards your coworkers, but do you constantly criticize your spouse? Governing our words by the law of love means that we control the content and the tone of what we say – to everyone. We say those things that build others up, not tear them down. Yes, you’ll have to correct your children, you’ll disagree with your spouse. It is inevitable, and it is right. But when you do, before you speak, consider how the words and tone you are choosing will affect your target.

There’s another trap waiting here. Are you, like many of us, really good at controlling what comes out of your mouth, but inside you snarl and nag and belittle? If you are, you have probably realized that you can only keep those things inside for so long. You can keep the harsh thoughts about your boss, the frustrations with your relatives, the self-condemning to yourself for a while, but eventually they are going to burst out, and not necessarily at the object of their wrath. You may find yourself yelling at your kids, when really you’re angry about the person in your office who keeps stealing the credit (and the snacks). How to change this? Two things: First, make sure you have a person or two in your life that you can share some of those real frustrations and disappointments with – before they get to the explosive stage. Second, ask God to change your heart. Ask Him to clear away the angry, critical or judgmental nature you have. This is critical, because eventually, whatever is in our hearts comes out of our mouths.

 

Oh, but you say, “I don’t want religion, I just want to have faith.” Okay, let’s look at that. Growing up in Evangelical circles, a common catchphrase was, “I don’t have a religion, I have a relationship [with God].” Well, sure, as a Christian, I am convinced that my belief in Jesus allows me to have a relationship with God that people in other religions do not have. But I still am pretty sure I have a religion. I have a set of beliefs in a specific deity and reality that I am devoted to, and I show my devotion through a common set of traditional actions. Sounds like religion to me.

Outside of Christianity, there are also a vast number of people, especially today, that do not want to be part of “religion”. Can’t say that I blame them all that much. Much of the really awful stuff of the past, well, forever, has been at least sponsored and condoned, if not outright instigated by those who claim to be part of “religion”. I don’t want any part of that either. But just as I don’t want to give up being a human because there are so many evil people in history, I’m not going to give up on real religion just because it has been misused in the past.

I think another reason that I like James is that he is blunt. You never have to say to yourself, I wonder what he really means? So today, James tells us that if we have faith that is not coupled with good deeds or loving actions, then our faith is dead and worthless.  Did you get that? Was he in any way vague? I didn’t think so. If you’re feeling like a little extra-credit work here, go read James 2:14-18. Wow. If you need to read it two or three more times, I can understand.

James doesn’t pull any punches. You have to have faith and good deeds, or else you don’t have either. A lot of people don’t like to go there. It’s too sticky of a question, too difficult of a balancing act between salvation by faith or by works. Well, the great news for us is that James isn’t “other people”. And he definitely “goes there”. The way he says it, he doesn’t seem to think that it is a balancing act at all. It’s like having two feet to walk. If you have a left foot, but not a right, you wouldn’t argue that you can walk just fine. You have to have faith and loving actions, or else you are going to be stumbling around.

I happen to live in a town that has a lot of New Age and Buddhist influences. Nearly every street has houses or shops with Buddhist prayer flag garlands hanging on the porch or in a window. We have more yoga classes per capita that anywhere I’ve ever lived. And yet, what many of these people have is “faith” that somehow, someday if they recite enough mantras or positive thoughts or prayers to a universal spirit, things will all work out. That can be pretty unsatisfying when life hits really hard. It’s okay when you’re stressed about work, but when your child dies, or when your husband leaves you, you need a faith, a religion, that is real and alive, not dead and worthless.

So how do we have that living, breathing, active faith? Well, let’s review. In our previous talk about James, we saw that “pure and lasting” religion means caring for the abandoned and oppressed. Today we saw that worthwhile religion means taking control of how we use our words, letting them be ruled by the law of love, which means that our words can do no harm to others. And finally, we saw that living, active faith is characterized by a life of actions that do good for others. It’s like a big circle, the ultimate recycling symbol. Loving Words -> Loving Actions -> Living Faith. And back around.