To see it on the calendar, this week appears all innocence and grace. Seven days lined up in a row, neatly strung together by mornings and evenings, full of expectation and promise. Little did I realize that it was a malevolent beast waiting to pounce and wreak havoc on my simple, easy life.
Not that I was completely unaware. I knew this week was going to be busy with organizing and executing a church dinner. I expected trips to Sam’s Club and late nights of baking and centerpieces. What I did not expect were missed writing deadlines, late nights of pastoral care, and the ache of being far from family when I most needed to be close. And what I certainly did not expect was my husband's having to conduct a funeral for a mother whose children will grow up without her. Children the same ages as ours.
How deceptively simple that calendar looked last week. How benign.
On weeks like these, it’s easy to fall back on truisms--“You never know what the future holds” and “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” and “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger”—all in some half-hearted attempt to make sense of the chaos swirling around us. But I want to tell you that they are all lies. Dreadful, terrible, sugar-coated lies.
Because while I didn’t know that the future held, God did. And He let it come anyway. And I’m not so sure that grace means that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle. In fact, I’m pretty sure that God does routinely give us more than we can handle; and I’m pretty sure that, more often than not, it does break us--if not physically from the sheer exhaustion of living, then emotionally from the sheer exhaustion of feeling.
So that on weeks like these, you find yourself longing for a better place and a better time. You find yourself longing for Home and Him. And I wonder if that wasn’t what He had in mind all along. In giving us more than we can handle, He forces us to turn to Him. In allowing things that break us, He ensures that only He can bind us back together. In our weakness, we find His strength. In our brokenness, we find His healing. And in our dying, we find His resurrection.
I’m beginning to believe that this is where faith starts. Faith starts at the tomb, not at the manger; faith starts with the dying, not with the living; and faith starts with seeds falling into the ground
, not with the final fruit. So that for all the joy, all the beauty, all the wonder that this life holds, it is the pain that makes space for faith. The pain makes space for us to long for something better; the pain makes space for us to cry out for something greater. And we find that something—we find Him--not by avoiding the grave but by walking right through it.
I can’t predict that next week will be any less chaotic or that all the brokenness will suddenly disappear with the turn of the calendar. Time does not heal all wounds. But I have hope in Someone who does. It's a hope that doesn’t always see and a hope that doesn’t always understand, but it is a hope that is real and beautiful and life-giving. And it is a hope that ultimately rests, not in my ability to endure the pain, but in His power to bring me back to life when I cannot.
Recently, I shared
with you that I’ve been given the opportunity to write a book. I’ll be doing this over the next several months and engaging in a period that I’ve heard authors refer to as a sort of pregnancy—the time when your ideas are privately taking shape, growing unseen, and are eventually birthed to a waiting world. So I suppose, taking this perspective and given the length of the gestation period (the book’s due to release in spring 2014), it looks like I’m expecting a baby elephant.
I also shared with you my firm conviction that the dreams that we hold dearest are often the very ones that God intends to use, that they are in our hearts precisely because He
placed them there. I realize that this could have come across as overly simplistic--that it could have sounded a little too “Pollyanna/Mary Poppins/Climb every mountain”-ish—especially to those of you who are struggling through a low point right now. And yet, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the path of dreaming “never did run smooth.”
There are days when things are not working out as you planned, when you feel less than enthusiastic about the dreams stirring inside of you, when you want to pitch the whole thing and walk away. There are days when all you want is to escape your calling, and to do so, you wish that you could become someone else entirely.
There are days when you feel like Jeremiah.
The opening chapter of the book of Jeremiah contains a beautiful text that confirms that God sovereignly plans and ordains our callings. When God comes to Jeremiah, He assures him of that, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (ESV)
And yet, twenty chapters later, Jeremiah curses the day he was born. The very thing that gave him comfort at the beginning of his ministry was the very thing that he wishes had never happened.
Jeremiah feels like God has tricked him—that by making him the way He did, by appointing him a prophet from birth and placing that “burning fire” deep inside of him, He has doomed him to a life of misery. So that as much as Jeremiah wants to escape his calling, for all the trouble that it has caused him, he simply can’t because God had made him that way. The very thing he is resisting is the very thing that he can’t stop doing.
He calls it a “burning fire shut up in [his] bones.”
When I was in college, I attended a church whose pastor routinely gave this piece of advice to anyone considering vocational ministry: “Only do it if you can’t do anything else.” He wasn’t denigrating the value of ministry so much as emphasizing that ministry (like any other calling) is fraught with hardship, discouragement, and heartbreak. And in those moments, the only thing that will keep you going is the sure knowledge that God has made you for this—that there is nothing else you can do because you have that “burning fire shut up in your bones.” It is so much a part of you that it is knit it into the very fabric of your being.
And if it is, there will be plenty of times that you will find yourself precisely in Jeremiah’s position—both hating the struggle and knowing that you can’t escape it because God Himself formed you this way. There will be plenty of times when it feels like a burden, times when you want to walk away, times when you will shake your fist at Him and say, “I didn’t ask for this. Why have you made me like this?”
For me, the “burning fire” has been a combination of being analytic and outspoken. It is both my greatest strength and my greatest weakness. It is the very thing that drives me to write, but it is also the very thing that leads me to be overly critical, noisy, and self-righteous. And I’ve hated myself for it. I’ve always wanted to be the quiet, demure one—the girl at the party whose very presence lends an air of sophistication and elegance–and yet, I always end up being the girl animatedly arguing some political or theological point. I inevitably wake up the next morning with a mental hangover and mountains of regret. “Why did I have to do that? Why couldn’t I have just kept my mouth shut?”
Ultimately though, it’s not about keeping my mouth shut. And it isn’t about achieving some mystical balance between the extremes of not caring and caring too much. Instead, it’s about finding a way forward, about transcending that type of one-dimensional thinking, so that you can pursue a greater reality--the reality that despite your frustration with yourself and despite your disappointed dreams, you know that God has “made you thus”
for a reason. You know that He is shepherding and guiding you, that His Spirit is actively maturing you, and that even in the darkest valley, He is walking beside you and will bring you back into the light.
And this is requires faith. Not faith in your dreams or yourself, but faith in His providence and faith in His goodness. This requires believing that He has made you fearfully and wonderfully
, that He did knit you together in your mother’s womb to fulfill a specific purpose, and that everything about you–even your dreams--are ultimately from His hand. So that in your darkest moments, this faith will manifest itself in obedience; an obedience that some days will simply mean putting one foot in front of the other and continuing down the path that He Himself has laid for you.
Every year during the first few days of January, my husband and I have a meeting in which we attempt to set goals for the coming year. I’ve never been one to make New Year’s resolutions
, never been one to go in for all that guilt and self-reliance. (Truth be told, it’s probably because I know that I could never accomplish them. In my case, it wouldn’t be so much a question of self-control as general absentmindedness—I’d simply wake up one morning and forget about my resolution entirely.) But while I’m not one to make resolutions, I am one to dream. So that’s what we do—this husband of eleven years and me—we sit and dream and plan and reach for the stars on cold January evenings well after our children are tucked in bed.
Several weeks ago, I stumbled across a yellow legal pad that has been at the center of those meetings. On it, we’ve chronicled our goals for the past eleven years. On it, we’ve strategized and organized and neatly categorized them into 1-year, 5-year, and 10-year plans. Some have been eerily prophetic; others, hilariously naïve. Our first year's goals included eventually owning “forty acres of land” (because as my father-in-law says, “They’re not making any more of it.”) and having “a couple kids.” Today, we own ½ acre and don’t “have
kids” but we are
a family that includes three marvelously creative and unique individuals, none of whom I could have imagined ten years ago.
Looking over that legal pad reminded me of two things---
1) how foolish we are to think we can plan our own paths
2) how kind and wise God is to give us dreams that He wants to fulfill
I grew up in a church tradition that, while perhaps unintentionally, was often suspicious of personal dreams and ambition. We had just two choices on the shelf, after all—pleasing God or pleasing self. And while I don’t really believe it was intended to be that simplistic, to an impressionable teenager, this often presented itself as the need to choose between doing what God wanted and doing what I loved. What no one seemed to clarify was that a life well-lived would undoubtedly involve both.
My parents believed in dreams though. And they believed in Providence--the kind of Providence that made each of their five children unique and would ultimately lead each to very different callings from finance to design to music. They never pressed the false dichotomy that I felt but instead taught us that all of life was to be lived with joy and faith, all of life was to be lived for His glory regardless of what we ended up doing. Still I don’t think it really sunk in for me until adulthood. I remember privately agonizing through high school, desperate to prove to God and myself that I would follow “His will” if only He would reveal it to me. All the while never realizing that He already had and I already was.
In fact, as I look back, I realize that I was doing His will every time I followed in obedience, every time I loved another person, every time I longed to see His glory. I also realize that I was doing His will every time I sat down to write, every time I read and reread books that stretched my thinking, every time I reveled in and pursued the dreams that He had already placed inside of me.
Eighteen months ago, I began blogging
, in part to finally prove or disprove this theory. I wanted to fully commit myself to a dream in order to see what He would do with it. I guess, in a way, I wanted to put my big toe in the Jordan to see if the waters would part. To that point, I had been writing bits and pieces but only as a hobby. I think it was my way of not having to commit, a way of inoculating myself from disappointment. What if my dreams weren’t God’s dreams for me? What if I failed?
I would just play it safe; and while that meant that I may never know what God could have done, I would also never have to face the possibility of seeing my dreams crushed.
But I soon found that I couldn’t play it safe. Every article I wrote and every query I sent flamed the passion that was burning inside of me.
And slowly I realized that God Himself was the one nurturing and cultivating my dreams. He faithfully sent the right people to encourage me and faithfully sent the right rejections to keep me in my place; until one day, He finally gave me the courage to accept that as much as I loved writing, He loved me writing as well.
Back to the yellow legal pad. One of those silly goals that my husband and I wrote down over ten years ago was that I would write a book. Shortly before Christmas, in large part due to blogging, I signed a contract with Moody Publishers
to write that book. I signed a contract that will enable me to do what I love at the same time that it will serve His people on a broader scale. I signed a contract that will enable my thoughts to be embodied in paper and ink and type and give me a chance to truly earn the appellation of “writer.”
I am humbled. I am grateful. I am scared. And I have never before so strongly believed in Providence.
The next several months of writing will probably be similar to the last several years—I expect to wrestle through fears, doubt, and discouragement, to swing from heights of elation to depths of despair. And while I have plenty more that I want to share about this unbelievable opportunity, at this point, I just want to sit in awe. To publicly acknowledge the kindness and wisdom of God and to remind myself that the God who gives dreams doesn’t abandon His children in the middle of them.
Each of us has different dreams; and each of our yellow legal pads should have different goals on them because He was made us distinct. Writing may not be your passion, but it is essential that you pursue whatever is. It is essential that you surrender not only to what you love but to the fact that God wants to use what you love for His kingdom. It may not end up being your profession, but it will be your calling. It will be something that only you can do--something that only you can contribute.
So this year--in this brave new world of 2013--find what you love to do, surrender to His hand, and know that a kind, sovereign God put those dreams inside of you in the first place. And because He has, this same kind, sovereign God will, in His own way and in His own time, bring them to pass. Not simply for your joy, but for the joy of His people, and I’m convinced, for His own joy—for His own secret delight in watching His sons and daughters become all that He has created them to be.
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This week, we’re in the middle of sending out Christmas cards. And while I’m sure Martha
would not approve of my timetable, I think that we’re actually doing quite well. For the last two years, we didn’t even send cards so the simple act of ordering them is, in my mind, significant progress. And thanks to my husband (the organizational guru), all the recipients’ names and addresses are neatly typed into a spreadsheet, ready to be printed onto easy-stick labels. But because he’s been doing most of the prep work, I didn’t realize until last night that we had nearly 200 names on our list.
As I sat there reading over them, I couldn’t help but feel a little sad, a little nostalgic, and surprisingly a little guilty, all at the same time. Because we’ve moved so often, we’ve collected a lot of friends; but the danger of this is that it is very hard to keep up with them all, and so if I’m completely honest, many of names on our list easily classify as “Christmas card” friends—those friends that once held a prominent place in our life but now, due to time and distance, whose friendship is rooted more in memory than daily relationship. (“Christmas card” friends are cousins to Facebook friends.) And while I’ll unabashedly indulge the nostalgia--there’s something irresistible about savoring the memories attached to each name--I find myself fighting the guilt, the guilt that tells me I’ve failed in some way because I haven’t been able to maintain over 200 intimate relationships.
Our culture has a funny perspective on relationships, and often we don’t realize how much it shapes our own until we find ourselves struggling through real-life ones. Romantic comedies have taught us that we need some kind of mystical Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks connection or our marriages are doomed, and for the last two decades, shows like Friends
have taught us that the only valid friendships are those that are close, intimate, and never ending. You know the type—a group of five to six friends who live in a common location and get into all kinds of exploits as they navigate the ups and downs of relationships, careers, and life. The appeal of these shows isn’t simply the quirky characters and inside jokes—it’s the community, the sense of belonging, of having friends that “get” you and accept you regardless of how often you mess up or how silly you act. And slowly, this is what we’ve come to expect from our friendships too. We begin to think that the only legitimate ones are those that play out over long conversations in coffee houses and involve perfect chemistry.
As Christians, we generally spot the false expectations of romcoms--we know that they set us up to be dissatisfied with normal relationships--but I’m not certain that we’ve been as successful in recognizing our unrealistic expectations about friendship. In fact, sometimes I wonder if we’ve tried to be a “Friends Lite” (minus the whole sexual promiscuity thing) and in doing so, have set ourselves up to be very disappointed when friends move on, to feel guilty when every relationship isn’t deep and meaningful, or to be disenchanted when no one in our church seems to “get” us. We have become so captured with some idealized notion of friendship that small, normal, warm relationships are no longer enough.
Trust me, I’m know the benefit of community, of small group settings that foster deep, spiritual bonds. But I’ve also been in situations where the bonds didn’t happen easily, where it took a long time to begin to be true friends, where we felt obligated to force a sense of intimacy because of our shared expectations about friendship. But in doing so, we actually became less authentic and essentially guaranteed that we wouldn’t achieve the very relationships we longed for.
Instead, I think we need to remember that one of the greatest benefits of community is the opportunity to live with people who wouldn’t naturally be our friends, to live in close proximity with people who don’t always “get” us. (This is also one of the benefits of spending time with extended family.) And while words like transparency, accountability, deep, meaningful, and connectedness may be the watchwords of our generation, we must recognize that these things are the by-products of commitment--they come after choosing to live life together, not before. We must also accept that they are not necessarily the measure of whether or not a relationship is worth having. Sure, it’d be lovely if we all had relationships like those on Friends
—where every friendship is deep and meaningful and close and never ends--but those relationships are scripted by Hollywood screenwriters, and the ones scripted by the Divine Screenwriter are usually messier, more chaotic, less consistent, and don’t play out as we expect.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t pursue deep friendships when they come (we all want the kind that C. S. Lewis describes here
); I’m simply suggesting that when our other relationships aren’t as fulfilling as these or when old friends become “Christmas card” friends, we shouldn’t see them as failures. These relationships are not inferior; they are simply what they are—opportunities we once had to walk with a fellow pilgrim along a portion of this life’s journey.
So now, whenever I’m sorting through my Christmas card list, instead of feeling guilty, I’m going to take the opportunity to revel in the Providence that allowed each one of these people to be part of my life for a given moment; I’m going to marvel at the Wisdom that made our lives intersect in order to sanctify us both; and I’m going to rejoice in the knowledge that one day, through His Grace, we’ll have the chance to live in true friendship for the rest of eternity.
(Hungarian National Gallery)
On Monday, Britain’s Royal Family announced that Prince William and his Princess Kate are expecting their first child. Apparently the announcement
came sooner than planned because Kate had to be hospitalized for dehydration and exhaustion–simply put, she is in the throes of severe morning sickness and is puking her guts out. And suddenly we realize that all it takes to shatter the illusion of a fairy tale life is a bit of hyperemesis gravidarum
Ironically enough, the royal announcement came on the first Monday of Advent
, the season of the Christian calendar that marks a time of preparation for the coming Christ Child. Traditionally Advent is spent (much like Lent) in quiet reflection, fasting, penitence, and longing for not only Christ’s birth but for his return to earth. We know folks who strictly observe these weeks—meaning no sweets, no parties, no early Christmas presents… until Christmas Day when all heaven breaks lose. Feasting in abundance and presents every day for the next twelve days (yes, those twelve days of Christmas
) until everything culminates in the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6.
But this level of devotion is rare, and Advent is usually reduced to simply a time of busyness and holiday preparation--a seasonal nesting syndrome if you will. Still, even in secular society, there are remnants of the expectation and longing. There are still the Advent calendars dispensing their tiny bits of chocolate each day and what child can’t help but be filled with anticipation at the promise of coming gifts.
This year, the juxtaposition of these two events—the beginning of Advent and the hospitalization of a princess for morning sickness--once again reminded me of how very earthy, how very real this whole season is. So rather than feeling compelled to create some spiritually serene, mystically enchanted Christmas season, maybe it’s time that we remember the realities of the first Advent. For Mary at least, the weeks prior to Christ’s birth were anything but peaceful or silent. For her, the coming of the Savior was marked by swollen ankles and the longing to be delivered—not only from sin but from the weight of pregnancy itself.
It’s been over three years since my last pregnancy so I dug out my What to Expect When You're Expecting
in order to remember what those weeks prior to Christ’s birth would have been like. They would have included:
>Changes in fetal activity (more squirming and less kicking, as the baby has less room to move around)
>Heartburn, indigestion, bloating
>Occasional headaches, faintness, dizziness,
>Nasal congestion and occasional nosebleeds; ear stuffiness
>Leg cramps at night
>Increased backache and heaviness
>Pelvic discomfort and achiness
>Increased swelling of ankles and feet, and occasionally of hands and face
>Itchy abdomen, protruding navel
>Varicose veins of the legs
>Easier breathing after baby drops
>Increased pressure on bladder after baby drops
>Increased difficulty sleeping
>More frequent and more intense Braxton-Hicks contractions
>Increasing clumsiness and difficult getting around
>Fatigue or nesting syndrome
(Oh yeah and an 80 mile walking trip. And a stable.)
So often during the Christmas season, we’re looking for some kind of transcendent experience; we’re looking for some deep mystical truth; and we become so fixated with finding the wonder that we end up missing the reality. We end up missing the wonder of the reality, we miss the joy of the mundane.
By sanitizing Advent in our minds (and our practices), we miss the beauty that God used a bloated, tired, moody, helpless, pregnant woman to bring His Son to this earth.
And suddenly there's hope for us--especially when you remember that (according to What to Expect
) Mary's emotional state would have included
>More excitement, more anxiety, more apprehension, more absent mindedness
>Relief that you’re almost there
>Irritability and oversensitivity
>Impatience and restlessness
Now we begin to recognize ourselves. Now we see the true emotions of Advent. Because as any woman can tell you, this is exactly what prepping a family for the holidays feels like. The same excitement mixed with anxiety, the same irritability mixed with joy. And yet remarkably, in His wisdom, these may be the very emotions that we need to experience in order to truly desire the coming of the Christ Child.
Because when you find yourself exhausted in the preparation, when all the baking and the buying and the cleaning and the visiting and the wrapping and the decorating suck the last of your energy and you find yourself physically, emotionally, and spiritually drained; when you reach this point—here in your weakness, in your inability, in your desperation, in your limitations, in your longing to be delivered from it all--you’ll finally experience Advent as Mary once did. And here, you will finally understand why we long for Emmanuel to come,
why we long for Him to deliver us, why we need Him to give rest to our weary bodies and our even wearier souls. And maybe it's here, in the longing and the expectation that comes only from human weakness and from having spent our last reserves, that we can truly find meaning in the birth of our Savior.
(In honor of the 2012 Presidential Election and whatever other controversial conversations you find yourself in today, I'm reposting this piece from October 2011. You may also want to check out this advice from C.S. Lewis about how to argue like a Christian.)
So today’s million-dollar question is this: Can a butcher and a vegetarian be friends? This slightly absurd question has been rolling around inside my head for the last couple of weeks. For whatever reason, all at once, I’ve found myself wrestling through challenges to several close relationships. And while it’s entirely possible that I am just a very difficult person to get along with, I prefer
to think that the issue lies more in the fact that I’m a human being interacting with other human beings. And that my relationships, like everyone else’s, are often interrupted by differing opinions, dreams, beliefs, and values.
I’ve also realized that we human beings have funny ways of resolving these interpersonal tensions. Most of us end up doing one of two things. We either simply avoid the relationship altogether and make friends only with people who like us and affirm our value systems. Or we rally the troops and come out fighting. Either, the butcher and the vegetarian simply never meet or the vegetarian stages a protest outside the butcher’s shop, while the butcher inside makes snide remarks about grass-eating radicals.
I’ll be honest, I’ve done both. But I’m coming to realize that there’s something wrong
with both as well. While these responses are all too human, they are not at all Christian. Because usually the thing that’s driving them, first and foremost, is fear. And the simple truth is that fear is not a Christian virtue
In fact, just the opposite is the case. Our faith actually frees
us from from fear and empowers
us to live lives marked by courage and openness. Our faith looks to Jesus and realizes that if ever there were a relationship doomed by differences, it is His with us. Our faith also recognizes that He made a better way and understands that this way is love.
So it is love that we must bring to our relationships, not only those that are easy for us, but especially to those that are difficult. And lest you, along with the butcher, think me a wild-eyed hippie, I’m not talking about that superficiality that masquerades as love and minimizes the differences between people. I’m talking about a courageous love that looks the differences square in the face and commits to wrestling through them together. A love that says I’m willing to hear and
I’m willing to speak. A love that casts out the fear
that drives us to silence and keeps us from honestly sharing ourselves with each other. Even if--in the end--we don’t agree.
And yes, I’ll quickly recognize that differences between people can at some point preclude them from traveling through life together. (As Tevye
reminds us, "A bird may love a fish, but where would they make their home?") Still, this is a far cry from having simple love-filled relationships with people who are different from us. In the end, we may not be able to agree, we may have profound and honest objection to each other’s choices, but as Christians, we will always be able to love.
Over the weekend, our family ventured up the mountain to the annual arts and crafts fair held in my husband’s home town. You might remember that I’ve mentioned
this one-stop light community before. It’s the kind of place where you regularly run into friends and neighbors, the kind of place that publishes a weekly paper with the latest quilt guild news and pictures of freshly-named eagle scouts, the kind of place that makes you believe that the simple life is actually still possible.
As usual, we ran into a friend or two, exclaimed on how big the children were getting, and caught up on all the family news--who was having babies, how so-and-so’s husband was recovering from his stroke, and affirming that yes, it was wonderful to be so close to home after all those years away. This last weekend also marked Homecoming Sunday at the church
my husband pastors. And while most of those faces were new to us, for everyone else, it was a family reunion of sorts, a time of reliving old memories and making new ones.
There’s something about small towns and small churches. They offer us a sense of security--the security of being known, of not having to lay out the pieces of who you are, of knowingly exactly where you fit in the puzzle of human relationship. You’re the accountant or the librarian. You’re Jack’s mother and Bill’s daughter. You’re the girl who won the high school tennis tournament ten years ago. And somehow, knowing your place in all this inter-connectedness seems to make life more manageable.
One of my favorite authors, Alexander McCall Smith
, describes this phenomenon as it plays out in a quiet Scottish village: It was a Scotland of quiet manners and reserved friendliness, a Scotland in which nothing much happened, where lives were lived unadventurously and sometimes narrowly to the grave. The lives of such people could be read in the local kirkyard, their loyalty and their persistence etched into granite: Thomas Anderson, Farmer of East Mains, Beloved Husband of fifty-two years of…. and so on. These were people with place, wed to the very ground in which they would eventually be placed. The urban dead were reduced to ashes, disposed of, leaving no markers, and then forgotten; memory here was longer and gave the illusion that we counted for more. It was a simply matter of identity, thought Isabel. If people do not know who we are, then naturally we are less to them. Here, in this village, everybody would know who the other was, which made the crucial difference. (Friends, Lovers, Chocolate, 230.)
And yet, this need to be known is so fundamental to our humanity that even in big cities—those havens of anonymity and obscurity—we still find a way to carve out our own micro-communities. NYC has Greenwich Village, SoHo, and Little Italy. San Francisco has Chinatown, and London has Notting Hill. All in an attempt to give ourselves a sense of continuity and identity, a place where we can be known and we can know others.
And really, this is the way it must be. We are people made in the image of an omniscient, relational God—so why should it surprise us that a significant part of our souls cannot be at peace unless we are known
as individuals? Why should it surprise us that the children of an all-knowing God must, not only know, but be known
I was thinking the other day about how many of us struggle through this particular challenge of identity, specifically in wanting others to know us as individuals, to embrace us for who we really
are, not simply who we project ourselves to be. Listen to the conversation among my generation and you’ll quickly hear words like “community” and “transparency” and “honesty.” We are desperate for others to know who we are. And yet, at the same time, we dare not risk them finding out--we dare not risk revealing our deepest secrets unless they reject us altogether.
This is why ultimately only He
can fulfill of our need to be known. Only the One who already knows us, right down to the very hairs on our head.
Only the One who has known us since our first moments of existence
. Only the One who will know us to the end of our days
. Because only this One--only He--knows us completely, and yet still loves us unconditionally.
And suddenly, in the words of Alexander McCall-Smith, “we count for more.” And when we do, our small, quiet, individual lives are invested with significance and purpose and meaning. We are known and we are loved.
is what makes all the difference.
I grew up on stories of Amy Carmichael and Mary Slessor and Isobel Kuhn. When I was young, I prepared myself for a future of grass huts on far away continents with limited supplies of food and medicine, battling back the forces of darkness with mosquito netting and late-night prayer meetings. In high school, my dreams turned to running an orphanage for middle school boys in (of all places) a lighthouse. We were going to live by the sea and I was going to be a combination of Jo March and Maria von Trapp. Except there were no plans for a Colonel von Trapp or Professor Bhaer, simply a black lab and a pick-up truck.
So here’s my question: how did I end up living a polite, quiet, life in middle American? How did I end up being a pastor’s wife, dressing up in my heels and stockings on Sundays and making pies and casseroles through the rest of the week? And how did I become the mother of three beautiful (although somewhat crazy) children who to date have had no significant issues save speech lessons and milk allergies?
I’m asking because I’m not sure that I know.
If you’re a regularly reader to SAL
, you know that our family has had our share of difficulties
—some related to ministry, some simply the pressures of adulthood—but over the last year, God has brought us into a season of blessing and stability. We recently bought our first home, my husband has a job that he loves (and does well), and I’m in the full swing of motherhood and domestic life.
But what you may not know about me is that I never really had any plans to be here. I never had any plans for Prince Charming to sweep me off my feet and even if I had, they certainly didn’t include marrying a pastor. A missionary perhaps--but only if he planned on living in a grass hut, learning countless native dialects, and contentedly eating grubs with the chief of the tribe. Instead, I married a man best suited to a quiet rural life, happiest puttering around his country parish, making plans for chickens and gardens, and putting down deep roots.
So here, over eleven years later, I’m still coming to terms with it all.
It’s not that I didn’t expect to be involved in ministry—that has always been a significant part of my life as my parents were teachers in a small church-based school—but I guess I never expected to live a “normal” American life. Growing up, because of my parents’ work, we often struggled to simply get by. I learned very early the difference between want and need and as a result, I think I actually was a lot happier than some of my peers. (To this day, I can still get a thrill out of something as simple as eating out at IHOP.) On top of that, we also suffered a house fire when I was five and spent the next decade rebuilding our home bit by bit with the help of friends and family.
Still what we lacked in finances, we had in abundance in faith and dreams. We lived on 10 acres of family homestead, complete with fruit trees and gardens, woods and a creek. We never lacked for books, music, imagination--or British television. My dad believed strongly in Christian education and made sure that his both his sons and daughters
received one. And when I announced that I wanted to study the Humanities for the sheer joy of it, for the sheer joy of discovering the world that God had created, instead of trying to dissuade me and guide me to something more practical, he simply said, “That sounds fine. College is too expensive not to love what you’re studying.”
We were living Radical
long before David Platt ever suggested it.
So coming into adulthood, I don’t think I had any dreams of financial success or settling down into the routines that are assumed by so many Americans. And yet here today, I find myself living a life that is polite, domestic, and comfortable. In a word, the American Dream. I’ve also discovered that this “dream” can come with a lot of angst. How can you spend money on extra clothes for your children when you know that there are children in this world who have no shoes?How can you indulge in the luxury of dieting and exercising when men and women around the world are expending legitimate sweat and tears simply working to provide a few morsels of food for their evening meal? How can you enjoy the blessings of family when your friends’ marriages are falling apart and you know other mothers who are facing life-threatening illnesses and may not even live to see their children grow up?
Of course, you help where you can. You send money. You pray. You even go when God calls. But still, you return to your lovely home and air conditioning and full pantry. And on Sunday, you worship God together with other believers in freedom and comfort. And soon, the blessings, all the milk and honey, start to feel like burdens. Maybe you don’t have this problem—maybe it’s the opposite for you. Maybe you grew up in such comfort that it’s hard for you to let go of it. But maybe, like me, you grew up with deprivation and you find it hard to let go of that too. Maybe you have a hard time accepting the blessings of God.
Because what I’m discovering is that as much as some people have to surrender to the possibility of deprivation and instability, some of us have to surrender to stability and comfort when He chooses to send them. And I’m learning that it takes as much faith to accept blessing as it is does to accept trial. It means believing that all
things come from His hand—wealth, poverty, stability, trials--and it means learning to be content and thankful and full of joy in whatever circumstances He chooses to place us.
Even when it is the best of them.
I really didn’t think twice about sending my two oldest children to a minor league baseball game with their grandparents two Fridays ago. If I had, it was probably only to think about how much they would enjoy it and how much I would enjoy the down time after a week of sickness and VBS. What I certainly didn’t think about was the possibility of having a terrific storm come up and learning, when we called to check on them, that they had been evacuated to the belly of the stadium. And that the lights had just gone out.
Like most summer storms, this one went as quickly as it came, but unlike most summer thunderstorms, this one left extensive damage. We were lucky though—none of our trees came down and we never lost power. Within hours, the children were home, tucked safely into bed, and seemed generally nonplussed by the whole event. The only thing my six-year-old had to say about it (in his typically understated way) was “It was very windy. I was a little bit scared.” And that was that.
Or so I thought.
Then suddenly that same six-year-old started asking me to check the weather each morning, and that same six-year-old started needing to see the hourly forecast before he went outside to play. Then he started watching the clock and coming in early if the forecast threatened rain. He started jumping at the slightest breeze and one day, with his chin quivering, doing his best to hold back tears, he asked to go home while we were visiting a mountain overlook. He didn’t like the wind. It all came to a head when at a Fourth of July picnic, this same nonchalant little boy clamped his hands over his ears and ran screaming inside when sky turned stormy.
And then I knew we had a problem.
Despite our attempts to console him, despite reasoning with him that mommy and daddy would protect him, despite praying with him and gaining his verbal affirmation that “God is bigger than the storm,” this little boy simply doesn’t trust the weather. And truthfully, I don’t blame him.
When you’ve experienced something traumatic—whether it’s a storm or an illness or a broken relationship—you know better than to let yourself ever get caught in that situation again. You’re smarter for it. You learn to guard your heart. You learn to scan the sky and look for the warning signs. And you consider yourself, not so much living in fear, as having become older and wiser.
Until your caution turns into fear
Until your “wisdom” starts to look a lot like paranoia
Until you let your experience cloud everything else your life.
Then you know you have a problem.
Because as much as I understand my son’s fear, another part of me worries that as long as he lives in that fear, he’ll never be able to experience the joy of an ocean breeze whipping around him or the majesty of a summer thunderstorm. And as long as any of the rest of us continue to live in our fears—no matter how justified they are—we’ll miss the joy of so many things too. Family, community, church, friends, life. Sometimes even God Himself.
So now I’m trying to figure out how do I help him learn to trust again? How do any of us learn to trust again? How do you learn to feel the breeze without panicking? How do you stand on the mountain overlook, drinking in the winds that carry the hawk and eagle without wanting to go home? How do you face the vast ocean and delight in its mighty winds when at six you were evacuated to the bottom of a baseball stadium and the lights went out?
And maybe more to the point for the rest of us, how do you learn to love again when your heart has been broken? How do you learn to let down your guard when you’ve been hurt? How do you move past being cynical to being sensitive once again? How, like for me, do you learn to stop jumping to conclusions when everything in you wants to run screaming into the building to get away from the storm?
I’m not certain of the exact process, but I know it takes time. Not time by itself, but time for God to work. Time to let Him to rebuild the brokenness. Time to let Him heal you. Time to let Him to lead you one hesitant, terrifying step at a time. Time for you to learn how to trust Him again.
Because maybe, what we all need to recognize is that rebuilding trust doesn't ultimately mean learning to trust the weather or our churches or even another person again. Rebuilding trust means learning to trust Him. It means believing that when the storms do return, He will be right there to wait them out with you. Even if it's in the belly of a minor league baseball stadium.
It might be that I was finally bottoming out from the adrenalin rush of the holidays, my New Year’s inspirations had reach their last fizzle and pop, or I was at my limit of small children cooped up for one month too long. It probably was a combination of all of them. Call it the winter blues, but these last dreary days before spring are always hard for me. I find myself exhausted, drained, and generally out of sorts.
My husband is quick to pick up on it—usually after the third night in a row that we’ve had hot dogs for supper—and so this weekend, he came home from work, packed me up, and shipped me off to a guest bedroom in a friend’s basement. My instructions: to sleep, read, and most importantly rest.
It was quiet, dark, and cool. It was lovely.
We human beings sure have a hard time taking a hint. Winter is the perfect time to hibernate. But instead, while the earth around us is shutting down and going dormant, most of us (myself included) actually insist on INCREASING our productivity. Shorter day-light hours? No problem, we’ve got Day Light Savings Time and electricity. Cold weather that invites you to snuggle up in a blanket and read? Nope, got a heat-pump for that one. Now get up and be industrious. Bad road conditions that any sensible being would take as a sign from God to stay inside? Snow plows, four-wheel drive, and tire chains.
We’re really just like children.
One of the infuriating ironies of parenting is that children simply don’t know how to rest. After those first new born days of sleeping for what seems like 24 hours in a row, they come out of hibernation and no matter how hard we try, we can’t seem to convince them to go back. This world is just too interesting, mommy is too warm and snugly, and feeding is too satisfying to be interrupted by sleep. Even if we can eventually get them on some kind of healthy sleep rhythm, when they get a couple years older, they inevitably fight bedtime and wake at ridiculously inhumane hours asking for breakfast.
You’d think that something as inviting, as refreshing, as sweet as rest wouldn’t be so hard to pass up.
But it is. And it is one of the very first things that we adults abandon in our self-sufficient quest for productivity and success. So much so, that God Himself--who doesn’t actually need rest – had to model it for us in case we missed the point. (Which we did.) From the seventh day of Creation, to the Sabbath mandates of the Old Testament, to the promises of eternal rest, our Father has been on a quest to teach His children how to sleep through the night. And just like our children, we have resisted Him, confident that there are better things to see and do in this world than rest.
But just like our children without proper sleep, when we refuse to take His cues about our limitations, we become cranky, out of sorts and nearly impossible to deal with. And just like our children when they become that way, the best thing to do for them is to impose nap time--to force them to rest. So if, like I was, you’re feeling that generally displaced moodiness that comes so often this time of year, maybe it’s time you found a guest bedroom in a friend’s basement. (You can drop your kids off at my house on the way.) Turn off the lights, cuddle up under the covers, and do what your Father has been trying to get you to do along. Rest in Him.
I've just emerged from a husband-imposed, 24-hour period of hibernation.