Monday afternoon, an EF-5 tornado cut a mile-wide furrow through Oklahoma leaving death and devastation behind. Monday night, over 1100 miles away, I tucked my eight-year-old daughter into bed. As we normally do, we prayed together before she fell asleep. She wanted to continue to pray for “the tragedies in Boston and Connecticut” and then innocently asked if there were any more tragedies that we needed to pray for.
As I struggled to find words to tell her that, yes, in fact, there had been a tragedy just that afternoon, I realized how quickly she was losing her innocence. How quickly she would have to learn that tragedy is a recurring theme of this life; how quickly she would learn that some weeks you feel like you’re being pummeled again and again by the brokenness around you.
And yet, learning how to engage tragedy is one of the defining marks of maturity.
When tragedy occurs, it’s easy for us to respond in one of two ways. We either try to ignore it entirely—to shut ourselves off from the pain—or we use it to further our own agendas. After a tragedy, politicians show up in plaid shirts and hard hats to express solidarity and promise relief while posing for photo-ops that will run nicely in future campaign ads; journalists rush to report the facts and jockey for titillating details, seemingly immune to the grief unfolding in front of their very cameras and microphones. And those of us in the church? Well, we’re tempted to craft sermons and build entire eschatological paradigms on the backs of those who suffer. Every disaster, every crisis, every pain can easily be interpreted as judgment against a nation who condones ____________. (Fill in the blank with your sin of choice.)
And while I most certainly believe that God can use natural disasters to get our attention, I think we’re missing something when we respond this way. In Scripture, when a disaster was a direct result of God’s wrath toward sin, He took credit for it. He sent His word through His prophets and expressed in meticulous detail the specific reasons for the tragedy. So when God exercises His judgment, it is no capricious, half-hearted attempt—be sure that He will make His reasons known, even if He has to enlist a whole passel of major and minor prophets to do it.
And yet, every tragedy—every heartbreak, every pain—is an opportunity for us to repent. Every tragedy is an opportunity to take one step away from our sin and one step further on the path of obedience. And we must be careful not miss this opportunity in our eagerness to prophesy against the sin of others. We must also be careful not miss this opportunity in our eagerness to avoid the cliché of doomsday prophesying.
Because even if we don't know the specific reasons for suffering, that same suffering can be redemptive.
Even for those who watch from afar, tragedy can be a time of drawing us back to Him if we let it. Tragedy can draw us back to Him because it can humble us in a moment and strip us of all that we were relying on instead of Him. Tragedy can draw us back to Him if only because it reminds us that the only safe place in this broken world is in His arms.
And so when tragedy comes, we must repent.
We must repent of not remembering the fragility and brevity of life.
We must repent of not cherishing every good and perfect gift that comes from above.
We must repent of the complacency and self-righteousness that convinced us that we could care for ourselves.
We must repent of valuing material things and consuming them in our own lust.
We must repent of making ourselves the center of our own existence.
We must repent of ignoring the pain of others until it finally smacks us in the face with the horror of its Technicolor details.
And ultimately we can do this--we can repent--not because He is an angry God who targets small school children if we don’t get our act together, but because He is a merciful, good God who is our only hope in a world that is this devastated and this broken. We can repent because we are confident that when we finally draw near to Him, He will draw near to us because His judgment was poured out when the earth shook and the sky went black 2000 years ago.
So when tragedy tears into our safe, hermetically sealed lives, while we must not use it as a way to condemn others, we must
allow it to humble us and bring forth the fruit of repentance in our own lives.
A repentance that takes shape as we gratefully hold our little ones close even when they whine and make messes and consume every ounce of our available strength. A repentance that takes shape as we willingly and joyfully return to the to-do lists and housework because we finally understand the blessing of having a house to return to. A repentance that takes shape as we intentionally free ourselves from the talons of materialism and offer our resources to those who suddenly have none. A repentance that takes shape when even in the face of the unthinkable, we proclaim with Job that we know that our Redeemer lives,
and that one day He will stand upon the earth.
A repentance that knows that because He lives, nothing can separate us
from Him. Even tragedy itself.
Recently I did something that is rare for me. I turned my social media platform into a soapbox and deluged my long-suffering friends and family with post after post highlighting the atrocities of Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia physician who provided illegal late-term abortions and who is now standing trial for the murders of eight people—one woman and seven infants.
Here’s the status I posted just prior to the full-out blitz: FYI: I don't usually get invested in "issues" on FB, but I intend to devote space and attention to promoting the Gosnell trial here, on my twitter feed, and perhaps on my blog for the simple reason that this is not an issue. This is not about where you stand on abortion. This is about the inalienable right to life. This is about a man who psychotically and systematically stole that right, murdering children for decades. This is about the media who won't cover it, and an American conscience that can't be troubled to hear about it.
The reason I chose to do this was because the story had been largely ignored
by the mainstream media; but thanks to the leadership of people like Kirsten Powers
and Mollie Hemingway
, men and women of conscience were leveraging the power of the internet to bring the story to light.
Trust me, that was the easy part.
Now it’s time for us to do something much more difficult. Now that we’ve exposed the horrors that were found in that inner-city clinic, it’s time for us to speak as vocally and as passionately about the healing that is found in Christ. Because the only thing more dangerous than ignoring evil is acting as if evil were stronger than grace.
One of the reasons I normally hesitate to post and write about sensitive issues like abortion is not because I’m afraid of push-back but because I know that for many men and women, abortion is not theoretical. It is not a political issue. It is the shadow that dominates their lives. And when stories like this hit their newsfeeds, that shadow darkens and their silent prisons begin closing in, suffocating them in clouds of shame, sorrow, and brokenness.
If you’ve never cried with a woman as she finally unburdens her greatest secret--if you’ve never been the one holding onto that secret--you may not understand what I’m talking about. I’m talking about an overwhelming sense of shame that can set the stage for a lifetime of brokenness. I’m talking about an event so formative that it can make every setback after it seem like judgment from God. I’m talking about a pain that can make men and women spiral out of control in a desperate search for redemption and healing. I’m talking about the fact that if we’re not careful, we can add to that pain and lock the prison down even more.
You see, when we talk only about the evils of abortion without also talking about the superior grace of Christ, we essentially tell these men and women that what they believe about themselves is true—we tell them that they are beyond redemption. We tell them that their sin is stronger than Christ Himself.
This danger is so great, so likely, that often I’d rather simply avoid the conversation altogether. But that is no longer an option. Over the next few weeks, we will undoubtedly talk a lot about what happened at 3801 Lancaster Avenue; but as we do, we must be careful to talk MORE about the power of Christ’s death to free us from sin and the power of Christ’s resurrection to conquer death. Even the death that we inflict on our own children.
We must not for one minute speak in such a way that leads our brothers and sister to believe that this sin is more powerful, more definitive, more captivating than our beautiful Christ. We must tell them that Christ is stronger and that not only does He have the power to forgive,
He has the power to give back
. We must tell them that He has the power to restore, to bring beauty from ashes, to bring life from death. We must tell them again and again until they believe it.
Yesterday, a friend who has worked with post-abortive women sent me a link to this film
produced by Piedmont Women's Center
in upstate South Carolina. In it, a mother gives testimony to finally finding healing and experiencing the power of grace. And when she did, when she was finally free, she was also finally able to love those same children she had lost. “God said, ‘It’s okay. They’re your children. You can name them, and you can love them now.’”
So my dear friend--my dear brother who flinches every time you hear the word, my dear sister who cannot function for the guilt even these decades later, hear me and hear me well:
Because there is no condemnation in Christ, you are free to love those little ones that you once did not. Because there is nothing more powerful than Christ, He can restore what you lost. Because there is no death that is stronger than Christ—even the gruesome death that reigned in a squalid, inner-city abortion clinic—you can finally find life in Him. Because this is the gospel: Christ does not simply forgive, He restores. And He gives back, He gives back, He gives back.
So we will sing—we will sing for you, dear brothers and sisters, because you cannot yet sing for yourselves—we will sing so all can hear,
You don’t have to spend much time in the Christian blogosphere before you encounter the stories of those who have been hurt by the Church. These first-person narratives are often raw and unsettling—they include details that most of us would rather not know, and ones that once we do, we can’t easily erase from our minds. These stories are unusually transparent and reveal a pain that is clearly lingering. Because of this, it’s easy for some to discount them as exercises in self-absorption and unhealthy introspection. After all, shouldn’t we leave the past in the past? Can’t we just move on?
And we could do that, we could let things lie if spiritual abuse weren’t an ever-present reality, if it didn’t regularly make headline news. We could move on if pastors didn’t tell seventeen-year-old girls that they were “God’s gifts”
to fulfill them sexually. If victims of such abuse were not made to feel that they were somehow responsible or that they would hurt “Christ’s cause” to speak about it.
And I guess we could leave well enough alone if spiritual abuse didn’t cut both ways. If ministries didn’t routinely supplement budgets by underpaying staff with the caveat that they’ll be eligible for welfare. If pastors’ wives and children weren’t targeted for the sake of simply existing. If 1,700 pastors didn’t leave ministry every month
—many out of despair and discouragement.
But they do.
And so we must talk about spiritual abuse, because we must remember that the danger isn’t in how dramatic it is but in how common it is. The danger of spiritual abuse isn’t simply in the extremes but in how quickly, how easily any of us can use another person’s love of God to pursue our own goals and our own agendas.
I myself don’t have a salacious story to offer—no tragic account of childhood abuse or breaking away from some cult-like congregation. And yet, my husband and I have wrestled through the pain of working in the Church, of rejection and false accusation, of feeling abandoned by those to whom we looked for advice and care. We’ve also watched as friends have walked darker paths and still bear scars from those who wielded power over them. And we’ve watched as they have wandered from church to church—not because they’re troublesome—but because they’re looking for Jesus and He’s simply not as present in most churches as He should be.
So when I speak about spiritual abuse within the Church, I do so from a place of trying to grapple with the brokenness of Christ’s body. It is not about adding fuel to the fire or airing grievances. It’s not about “getting back.” (Although this will be a legitimate temptation for people who have been deeply hurt.) When I write about spiritual abuse, I do so with the express purpose of finding healing, of learning to be whole again.
Because while my husband and I have chosen to stay
in the organized church—even to make it central to our lives--the choice didn’t come easily. It came through tears and brokenness and times of angry questioning. It came through feeling abandoned by God and wondering why He thought it was such a good idea to gather a bunch of dysfunctional people together in the first place.
Yet, for all that I don’t understand, I do know this: Jesus is the only answer to the brokenness.
Rejecting the Church will not heal the pain.
Harboring bitterness will not heal the pain.
Denying these stories will not heal the pain.
Only Jesus can.
A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across Ezekiel 34
in which God speaks against those who have abused and scattered His flock. He speaks against their greed and self-service and warns that He is coming against them in judgment and vengeance. But to the broken, hurting lambs, He says this: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out... I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered... I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.
This is where you find healing. This is where you find wholeness. This is where you learn to love again. You find it in the tears that flood your pillow as you cry out to Him. You find it in the questions that you bring to Him. You find it in His love and you find it in His justice--in arms ready to hold you at the same time that they are ready to fight to protect you. You find it in Jesus, the Good Shepherd.
And when you do, when you find His healing, you may also discover that you can return to His broken, messy flock. Because in returning to His Church, you’re not so much expressing confidence in His people as you are expressing confidence in Him. And in returning to His Church, you may also find that you can point the way for other hurting, broken, dirty sheep as well. You can point the way to the true Shepherd of their souls.
This is what has happened for my husband and me. By committing ourselves to Jesus, we’re learning to open ourselves again to the love and beauty of His people. We’re learning to trust Him enough to walk into the arms of a congregation who loves well. We’re learning to trust Him enough to receive the healing and restoration that only His body can offer. And we’re learning that even though we may walk through dark valleys, He will always come find us, and He will always lead us home.
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.
Sometimes in this life, the Light doesn’t seem to shine very brightly. Sometimes darkness seems to be winning. Last Friday morning, when a killer entered a Connecticut elementary school, it was precisely one of those times.
And while we were initially absorbed with what happened and how it happened, we are now left wrestling with the question of why
it happened. Undoubtedly over the next few days, we will discover bits and pieces of the story. We will hear about mental illness, previous altercations, worrisome signs, and we will cling to these scraps as some sort of explanation for horrors that simply cannot be explained.
But even as the details become clearer, I’m afraid that it will become increasingly harder for us to truly understand. As the details take shape, we will be tempted to isolate this tragedy, to relegate it to the result of a broken mental health system or a society glutted with violence. And while we must have those conversations, we must not forget that what happened on Friday is part of something larger than any of us. What happened Friday in those now sacred halls was one more attempt by the Evil One to fight a battle that he has already lost.
Those of you who are literature buffs may remember Shakespeare’s play Henry V.
The story climaxes as a young King Henry successfully leads his ragtag English army to victory over superior French forces at the Battle of Agincourt. During the battle, when it becomes apparent that the English will prevail, a band of French soldiers slip behind the English lines to do the unspeakable—they slaughter the young boys who had been left at camp.
In Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film
adaptation, the fighting on field abruptly stops when the air is pierced with high-pitched screams of panic and anguish. The soldiers rush back to camp to discover their boys--their sons--murdered. Viewing their lifeless bodies, a war-hardened Henry wails, “I was not angry since coming to France until this instant!” War is one thing—that is business—but there is a code of honor, a code of warfare that is supposed to keep the innocents safe. But as we were reminded last Friday, the Evil One does not play by the rules.
Especially when he is on the run, especially when he knows that he has been defeated. Instead, the Evil One lashes out in fits of senseless, puerile rage because he knows that the only thing left to him is the possibility of inflicting suffering as he flees. As the Apostle John recorded in The Revelation, “Woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath because he knows that his time is short.”
This is also why, despite all the coming conversations about mental health and gun control and school security, we will never be able to make sense of what happened that cold morning in Connecticut. We will never be able to make sense of it because there is no explanation, there is no reason, there is no point.
When the Evil One attacks, he destroys all that is natural, all that is good, all that is beautiful, all that is just. And he does so by attacking the weakest among us.
This randomness, this refusal to play by the rules is precisely what makes him so terrifying and why it is easy for us to fear him. Deep in our souls, we know that for all our precautions, for all our legislation, for all our whispered prayers, we cannot predict where he will strike next. And so, even as we desperately pray for the Father to deliver us, we wonder whether or not He will. And sometimes in the worst of the battle, when the skies are darkest, we don’t even know if He can.
As Henry and his men stand helplessly surveying the carnage, a French herald rides into the English camp. Snapping from his stupor, Henry lunges at him, throws him to the ground, and is seconds from impaling him when the herald cries out that he is come seeking terms of surrender. Soul-worn and body-weary Henry responds simply, "I tell thee truly, herald, I know not if the day be ours or no."
Translation: I don’t even know who is winning anymore
In this life, in the muck and mire, in the sweat and tears, we too don’t always know who is winning. It seems very likely that the Evil One prevailed on Friday. If the grief and pain in our hearts is to be believed, he certainly did. But he did not.
Instead the grief and pain must remind us that we grieve precisely because things are not as they should be; and the fact that things are not as they should be promises that one day they will be.
The fact that the Evil One acts in such deranged, malicious ways proves that he is helpless; his very struggles testify to a prevailing and conquering God. Because in battle, only the winning side has the capacity to be generous, to spare the lives of its enemies; the losing side cannot risk it.
And so we endure in hope and longing. We wait not in fear, but in power and love and sound minds. Power that enables us to continue the fight against the darkness. Love that allows the pain to seep into the corners of our well-guarded hearts and break us so that we weep—deep, guttural wrenching sobs—with those weep. And sound minds that remind us that we do not despair as those who have no hope; we know this is not the end.
We know that for the all times that the Evil One tries--for all his cowardly acts of violence, for all his desperate attempts—he is not winning. Christ has conquered; the Evil One is defeated and he is fleeing the battlefield. Through His own valiant struggle, our King has made him a weak, pitiful, paltry, powerless fool; and through His own victorious resurrection, our King can give life even to those the Evil One tries to destroy.
This is all we can know. This is all we can understand. And yet, it is enough. It is enough to know that even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death and even as we cry to our Father to deliver us from the Evil One, we do not fear because we know that He is with us and we know that He already has.
10 years, 7 months, and 3 days of marriage, my husband and I are officially looking for our first house. That 10 years, 7 months, and 3 days has included multiple job changes, seven household moves (both interstate and international), and a variety of living situations--everything from rentals, to living in other people’s furnished homes, to a parsonage. But now, after 10 years, 7 months, and 3 days, for the first time in our married life, we are actually on the verge of settling in and putting down roots.
As you can imagine, it’s a high point for us as a family. And it comes with a great job in my husband’s field and a move to a fantastic region that really does offer “all the amenities of city life combined with the tranquility of a mountain arts community.” I’ve also had some unexpected opportunities open up for me personally, and our children are a constant source of laughter, love, and joy. Life is good.
And I’m having a hard time with it.
Something complicated happens when you go through a difficult season like we have for the last several years. In our case, it was an extended period of un- and under-employment, complicated by devastating interpersonal conflicts and private uncertainties. Things were so topsy-turvy at times that we wondered if the world would ever right itself. Thankfully it has and slowly we’re coming out of it. But even as we do, I’m realizing that regaining our bearings isn’t going to be as simple as getting the dream job and finally settling down. It can’t be, because our circumstances weren’t the only things affected in that difficult time. Our souls were too.
I think it’s simply that when you go through hard times, you become so accustomed to being strong, to protecting the ones you love, to being on guard, that it’s easy to see everything as a threat--even the blessing of God. So much so, that when the drought finally ends, when the rains finally come, your soul has become so dry and dusty that the healing water can’t penetrate. Instead, with each drop, with each shower, you find yourself asking, Can I really embrace this from Your hand? Can I really let down my guard and feel again? Can I really trust You?
And you discover that embracing the goodness of God requires as much faith as enduring the time of suffering.
You find that you must actually learn how to bless the Lord as He gives as much as when He takes away; you find that you must learn how to be content in abounding as much as in being abased. And like everything else in this crazy life, you learn that it takes faith. Faith to believe He is good so that you won’t fear His blessings, always waiting for the catch. Faith to believe He is sovereign so you won’t rely on yourself, convinced that you made the rains come. And faith to believe that He loves you, so that you won’t keep protecting yourself, always defensive and aloof.
Ultimately it is faith--that when the blessings finally come—allows you to accept them with an open hand and simply say, “Thank you for this gift! I love it.”
My daughter, not surprisingly, appears to have the same philosophical bent of her scatter-brained mother. On her first day of second grade after being homeschooled for nearly two years, when her teacher asked if anyone had any questions, she raised her hand and asked,“Why are we here? I mean, why are we made the way we are—why do we have hands, why do we have feet? Why do I have to go to school? Why do we sit in seats? I mean, WHY?”
He’ll never make that mistake again.
As long as I can remember, she’s been this way, and whether it’s nature or nurture or some complicated interplay between the two, I don’t know. But just like me, she prone to distraction and going “off with the faeries.
” A couple years ago, while she was swinging, gazing up into the sky, her baby-fine hair blowing in the wind, legs pumping against the air, she abruptly exclaimed: “I know-- maybe… maybe the world is like a great big dollhouse. And people are God’s dolls. Maybe we’re just God’s dolls!” Or maybe, like her mama, she needs to learn how to have a little fun now and again without over-analyzing everything.
But what if she’s right—are we just God’s dolls? Over the last
few years, many of us have gained a renewed vision of God’s sovereignty and His overwhelming majesty. We’ve
What do you do when things are so bad that there’s really nothing more to say?
Ridiculously, I keep talking.
It’s tragic really because I always know exactly when I should stop. I sense it—that quiet moment, that break in the conversation, that instant when the Spirit says, “Enough.” But for whatever reason, I find security in words, always believing that just the right combination will unlock the pain and bring sense to your momentarily senseless world. Like a magic spell or Open, Sesame. Give me enough time and enough letters and I can fix it. I can fix you.
And so I talk. And talk. And talk.
I talk when all I really should be is quiet, when all I really should do is listen. Listen to the pain, listen to the heartbreak, listen to the grief. Listen for the One who can heal it all.