Wednesday, March 25, 2015

with child: God saves

My friend Lindsey is hosting a motherhood series on her blog called "with child."  This week I wrote the guest post about motherhood, failure, and the gospel.  You can read my post at Lindsey's blog Redeeming Naptime.  Please check out Lindsey's great posts on faith and parenting while you are there.  The series will continue through next month with a different mom posting each Tuesday.  Thanks for reading!

Here is an excerpt of my post:

"...Our identity needs to be rooted in something unchanging, something that cannot be taken away. Ultimately motherhood is no more guaranteed than anything else in this world. We may not get to be mothers, we may lose our children through tragedy, and ultimately, our children will grow up and move away from us. What will we be when there are no more mouths to feed and tiny tears to dry?..."

Thursday, February 26, 2015

further up and further in: novels and our spiritual journey

This week I started Middlemarch by George Eliot for the third time.  This time I'm determined to finish it.  I tried reading it in high school, and never got into it either from it not being more like Jane Austen or it being a little too advanced.  In college it was assigned for my British Novel class my junior year, but I had a stack of 11 novels to read that spring semester along with the rest of my homework and too many extra curricular activities, so a poor skimming of the first 100 pages or so was as far as I got.

It's funny to find myself enjoying a book that I had not enjoyed two times before, but this is certainly not the first time this has happened to me.

I always tried reading books that were a little too advanced for me when I was younger, for two reasons: I loved reading and was always looking for something new to read, and because I would certainly take pride in reading a book that was considered too difficult for someone my age.

Against my mother's advice I tried reading A Tale of Two Cities in 5th grade.  I had seen the Wishbone episode with the terrier starring as Charles Darnay and didn't think it could be too hard.  That book was soon set aside after reading a confusing chapter about a knitting woman and references to a revolution I hadn't studied yet.

In junior high I slaved over the pages of Emma after loving the movie with Gwyneth Paltrow.  I finished it, but the story was much richer and easier to understand when I read it over again in high school.

In high school I spent over a year reading War and Peace off and on.  As an adult I read Anna Karenina with much less effort and better comprehension.

As I considered these misadventures and failures in reading, I thought about my spiritual life.  In high school I got emotional in an apologetics class when the teacher suggested that children didn't really understand the gospel when they accepted Christ at a young age.  I spoke up and shared that my conversion experience as a four year old was very real, and I knew that I had accepted the gospel to the level I was capable of at that age.  At that time in my life, I was seriously doubting areas of my faith, but deep down I knew that the day I accepted Jesus as my Savior in our apartment in South Carolina, something had changed and altered the course of my life.

I think saying someone could not have a genuine spiritual experience when they are a small child would be like saying I could not read when I failed to finish A Tale of Two Cities in 5th grade.  I was certainly capable of reading at that time, and had been reading for a number of years already, but conceptually there were ideas I could not yet grasp fully.  As I advanced in my understanding and experience of the world, more and more books have opened up to me, but I was not less of a reader as a 6-year-old than I am now.  The day words began to have meaning instead of being mysterious symbols I could not comprehend, I became a reader and have been one ever since.

Similarly, I think our spiritual journeys often parallel the experience I had with reading.  When I accepted Jesus at four, there were many concepts and truths I didn't understand fully or even knew existed.  Grace and sanctification, joy and trust, propitiation and redemption.  Words that I could never have defined for you on that couch in South Carolina, but Jesus was starting a work in my heart even then.

As we grow in our faith there are often watershed moments.  When I first began to really understand grace, I had already been a Christian for a very long time.  It was a face-palming moment.  How could I have been so blind to a grace that has been here all along?  This concept is so integral to my faith. Why had I fought against it for so many years?

The longer we are Christians, the more time we have to understand a God so big and so great that even after we have spent thousands of years with Him in heaven we will only have dipped our toes into the unfathomable depths of His being.

There is no shame in recognizing how much you didn't understand about your faith when you first started, whether as a child or much later.  There is no shame in realizing how wrong you may have been about God even as you grew to love Him.

Sometimes I think in church we recommit ourselves to God over and over again, not just as an adjustment in the trajectory towards Him, but in face-reddening shame, feeling like we were never Christians in the first place.  Sometimes this may be true, but I think we are missing the fact that we are works in a process of sanctification.  No acceptance of the gospel equals spiritual perfection.  If that were true, we'd all need a do-over because none of us are perfect.  That's why we need Jesus.

If I had been told I didn't understand reading as a child because I couldn't yet read Tolstoy or Dickens, I probably would have quit right then.  If teachers thought they had to have their students reading Paradise Lost in kindergarten, they wouldn't try teaching children to read at all.

I think we do this with children or the childlike when teaching spiritual truths and concepts.  Children's ministries suffer when people think that children can't fully understand the gospel.  People with disabilities can be neglected altogether because they do not have the attention span to sit through a normal Sunday school presentation and tend to be disruptive.  Jesus was willing to share the good news to people of all levels.  He asked for the little children to be brought to him.  He stuck with the disciples even though they repeatedly misunderstood His teachings and calling.  In fact Jesus even said we have something to learn from the way children accept the gospel, "I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it."  Luke 18:17

God doesn't expect us to get everything right at the moment of salvation, so we can rest knowing that our spiritual experiences are genuine even if we don't have all the pieces yet.  We can go forth and share the gospel with confidence knowing that we are all works in progress, and newer, deeper spiritual experience doesn't negate the effect the gospel has already had on our lives.

It's not failure when we admit we don't understand everything.  Knowing that we don't know everything is the posture of a learner.  The only failure is in refusing to learn and grow beyond where you are currently.

If I never moved on from Dr. Seuss and Curious George to read deeper and more complicated works of literature, my life would be less rich and my understanding of the world far narrower.  I would not have ceased to be a reader, but I would have missed out on so much.

So let's run further up and further in, chasing God through our lives, seeking to understand Him better and better each day.  Some days we may feel like giving up, as I did reading novels that were out of my depth, but I promise, those moments where God reveals to you something you never understood before but struggled with your whole life, those moments are worth the journey and the struggle to get there.

Monday, February 16, 2015

when we don't want to read: moving from apathy to prayer

21 Christian men were beheaded this weekend by the Islamic State.  It’s trending on Facebook as Christian friends across America share their horror and a call to pray for our brothers and sisters that are being persecuted and killed.  21.  And that’s just the deaths that were made public.  Who knows how many Christians have died anonymously today, their churches burned down, dying in the darkness of a brothel, or beaten to death for not denying Christ.  

But I brush past it.  I look to other posts about SNL’s 40th anniversary or a baby’s birthday or anything, anything else to help me forget the distant horror and my inability to prevent these things from happening to my brothers and sisters.

I shudder at my apathy, my attempts to move on before sitting with this tragedy and praying for the ones who lose everything for the gospel.  The gospel that I have the audacity to say means everything to me as well.

So I stop, I try to think, make myself reflect.

I think about my family.  My family.  The one thing that helps me connect the dots of empathy when others suffer.  What if my husband was on that video?  What if today my daughter was stolen from me and sold into slavery?  The stabs of pain that rise instinctively in my heart make the souls of sisters who lost their husbands, brothers, fathers today appear in my mind and rest in my heart. Screams buried in pillows and unconsolable weeping on the floor.  Crying out to God for vengeance, to God for mercy.  Or no words, just Spirit groaning that we cannot, dare not utter.

When I stop and think, and reflect on the God these men died for so bravely... I understand the God in my Bible better than I did before I woke up this morning.  I understand why God will judge and avenge.  What father will not seek justice when his children are brutally murdered before him?

I understand better why the Jews cried out for God to repay their enemies after they were oppressed and killed by their adversaries.  I understand why Jesus is coming back and will separate the wheat from the chaff.  Because my soul wants vengeance, I want justice for every innocent person that dies worldwide.  For every child that dies without a choice, for every child that loses their parents, for every wife that loses her husband, for every parent that loses their children.  I want to scream, “No more!  Jesus, precious Jesus, please come back!  No more bloodshed!”

And then I think about Jesus Himself, dying brutally on the cross, no stranger to suffering.  Dying for us, dying that mercy could be extended even to the ones who killed Him.  

Mercy.  My God, the God of the 21, is not only a God of judgment.  But a God of mercy.  And He waits, in His waiting for judgment there is mercy.  I remember that there is mercy because all the murderers and the murdered are all children of God, sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. He gives one more minute, one more hour, one more day, one more year.  One more chance for the murderers, the ones who murder innocent people and the ones who murder in their heart, for the adulterers, for the liars, for the coveters, for the abusers, for the thieves, for the gossipers, for the apathetic, for the careless, for the victims.  One more chance for every one to come to Him, because He made us, He loves us, and wills that none should perish for eternity even though we die temporarily... He has mercy because our eternity is hanging in the balance, and He wants us to spend it with Him.

Most days judgment and mercy are hard to reconcile.  But today, if I stop and reflect, they are clearer than ever before.  Today I’m praying for justice, and praying for mercy.  Today I’m praying for comfort and peace for the sufferers, and that the oppressors would meet the Prince of Peace.  I’m praying that the blood that was spilled would not be forgotten, and trust that God who sees even the sparrow fall, will not let it be in vain.

Today I will not pass by, and will petition the God who sees all to have mercy and judgment in His time.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

pregnancy and the presence of God

Last year when I would get home from work after a busy day running summer camp, Tim would ask me, "Did you feel the baby kicking today?"

I would shrug, feeling the panic settle in as I softly responded, "I don't know."  Then, I would pause and listen quietly, focusing my attention to my womb and wait for the tell-tale pop that reminded me she was still moving, heart beating, legs kicking, arms flailing.

When I wasn't thinking about her, I often didn't feel her move.  When we would hear her heartbeat at the doctor or go to an ultrasound, it felt like I left her in the room when we went home.  It didn't feel like she was present with me once I couldn't hear her heart or see her moving.

I think that I often feel this way about the presence of God.  Just like Lucy was present with me wherever I went for the whole pregnancy, so God has been present with me wherever I go for many years. And when I don't attend to Him, when I'm not listening quietly for Him, focusing my heart, I feel like He's not even here.  There are times, like the ultrasound or hearing the heart beat, that His voice is so clear, or I see His movement in the world.  And it is easy to feel like I left Him in those moments, that He was present then but present no longer.

"And He said, "Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord." And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind.  And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.  And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire.  And after the fire a sound of a low whisper."  1 Kings 19:9-12

I must admit, that just as I was often too busy or mind-gone-crazy to feel my own baby kicking inside me,  I often miss the whisper of God and feel like I'm alone.

It's hard to hear Him when life is loud, and everything is screaming for your attention; from media to people, there are a thousand things to distract us from God.  It's hard to hear Him when depression envelops you, when suffering is sapping your physical and emotional strength, when a good God seems far away from your bad circumstances.  It can even be hard to hear Him when life is good, when you feel happy and content, and the pleasant times distract you from a God that may have a plan to shake up your comfortable life.

So I'm trying to practice being in His presence, by listening for His voice, and watching to see what He's doing in the world.  Similar to my experience being pregnant with Lucy, if I'm not thinking about God, I'm probably missing the signs that He is present.  I'm also trying to listen to the promptings that make me uncomfortable.  Knock on that neighbor's door.  Talk to that family at church.  Email that friend I haven't spoken to for awhile.  Forgive that person that didn't even know they hurt me.  Be more organized with the time and resources He has given me.  Use the gifts that He has given me for His purposes, not bury them or use them for myself.

"We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God.  The world is crowded with Him.  He walks everywhere incognito.  And the incognito is not always easy to penetrate.  The real labor is to remember to attend.  In fact to come awake.  Still more to remain awake."  C.S. Lewis

Sometimes the Holy Spirit tells us to do something big, but most often I think it is the little acts of obedience, the daily dying to ourselves, that pleases God and draws us closer to Him.  Communing with the Lord through prayer and obedience makes me feel so much nearer to the God who is there, present with me, whether I feel it or not.  I want to stay awake to His presence. I want to see Him everywhere.

A couple months after summer camp was over, after hours of difficult labor, I finally held my precious baby in my arms.  The face I had been longing to see for months stared up at me with her big, beautiful blue eyes.  The little girl I longed to know was present with me in a deeper way than ever before.  I could hear her voice, touch her hands and feet, and hold her close.  Everyday I get to know her better as I hear her laugh, hug her, play with her, go for walks, read with her, nap on the couch, and watch her grow.  Each day is filled with her visible, tangible presence.

I find hope in the fact that, while it can be hard to feel the movement and hear the whispers this side of Heaven, there is a day coming where we will see His face.  Just like my pregnancy was for a time with Lucy, so the time distant from the incognito Jesus will end.  We will hug Him, sit with Him, talk with Him, and collapse before Him in adoration because He, the One we have been longing for and waiting for, will be with us forever.  We will rest and laugh in His presence and this waiting, this pregnancy, will seem like a dream in comparison to that glorious reality.

Never forget that when He seems far, when He seems absent, He has promised that He is close.  "Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." Matthew 28:20

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

watch, wait, see

Lately, I've been reminded of how often I miss things.  I've often allowed distractions whether inside my head or outside of it to make me miss the things that are right in front of my eyes.  A hurry, rush, distract mindset keeps me from a watch, wait, and see kind of life, the kind I ultimately desire.

A few weeks ago I finished reading "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek," a book of reflections by Annie Dillard from living next to and observing a creek and the life surrounding it and in it for a year.  I read it over the course of a few months, which was not the best way to read it, but I loved it despite struggling to sometimes grasp the overarching structure, which was fully revealed at the end.

The thing I learned, the thing that changed me from reading it was a reawakened desire to see, to be present and watch for things I would otherwise miss in my daily mental distraction.

Around the time I finished the book it finally started getting warm here in Chicago.  My daughter and I go on frequent walks together through our neighborhood, soaking up the sun I missed so badly, and my baby girl meeting the sun for the first time after spending her first months of life trapped inside by late fall and a long winter.

Now I watch, I try to see things I would normally miss.  So like Annie waiting on the bridge for muskrats, I look to see things in places that are familiar, waiting to see something new.  I saw a bird with black and white markings with a red badge on its chest, a kind I had never seen before in the next door neighbor's tree.  I marveled at the nearly naked trees exploding into vibrant green after the spring rain last week.  I saw bird droppings fall from a tree.  I stopped to breathe and smell lilacs.  I watched squirrels carry their trash turned treasure from the garbage cans along the fence.  I saw a tree bloom beautiful pink blossoms one day, and returned to see the petals covering the sidewalk a couple days later.

And I watch my baby.  I watch her take in everything for the first time.  I see her look up into the trees and gaze at the branches, stark against the blue sky.  I watch her grip the tray of her stroller, sticking out her little chin, braving the spring wind, looking like a tiny sea captain of a ship she can't steer.   I see neighbors smile at her whether or not they make eye contact with me.  I hear her babbling and cooing to the trees, the flowers, the wind.  I watch her give in to sleep and wait for her to wake up and discover more of the world surrounding her.

I'm seeing the beauty, the gifts around me, and the newness of life in spite of the brokenness around me.  

It isn't all idyllic in a Chicago neighborhood.  There were emergency vehicles on our block the other night. A man passed away a few houses down. We've seen graffiti on garages, on stop signs.  There are streets full of potholes.  There are homeless men peddling at the corner.  One look at the Tribune in the morning can sour your day to there being any hope in a violent city like this.

Pascal said, "Every religion that does not confirm that God is hidden, is not true."  The brokenness is often the blinder, the shield against seeing the God who heals and creates, the God who makes all things new.

The brokenness is evident not just among humans but in the world of creatures as well.  In the second half of Tinker Creek, Dillard spends time focusing on the violence in creation.  Animals eating their own young,  the mating ritual of praying mantises, bugs and animals living parasitically off of each other, the river floods.  Even in a pastoral setting with few humans to cause trouble, there is violence, there is pain.

Prolonged study of nature, be it the created world or mankind or both together, will dazzle the observer with breathtaking sights of beauty and bitter signs of corruption.  Things are beautiful and things are broken.

"Reading about nature is fine, but if a person walks in the woods and listens carefully, he can learn more than what is in books, for they speak with the voice of God."- George Washington Carver

I want the voice of God to speak to me in sunsets and spring rain, but could it be that the voice is just as loud when I walk by the dead body of a pigeon, a fallen tree, a smelly sewer grate, a one-eyed dog?

"For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - His eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse." Romans 1:20

Perhaps the voice that shouts to me of the divine nature of God when I see the stars in the Northwoods is the same voice that screams inside me when another child is shot on the south side of my city, when someone dies too young, too soon.  The voice that cries "all is not right" begs me to recognize that there must be something, Somebody who is right, who is good.  That this world wasn't made for violence, and one day it will be violent no more.

Can the brokenness that hides God help us find Him once again?

Can the glimpses of beauty remind us there is something Beautiful behind it?

Will we be saved by observation that leads to sorrow that leads to repentance?

We took a walk last week and passed the house that was visited by emergency vehicles a few days earlier.  Our little neighbor was running through the grass and laying dandelions and tulip petals on the porch steps.  "I'm decorating the porch for my neighbor who died," she told us solemnly.  Beauty in brokenness.

The world around us is one grand parable of a hidden God that will make Himself known to children and those with child-like hearts. He will speak in the splendor and the suffering.  We must wait, watch, and see that we may know and understand.  Open eyes may lead to our salvation.

"Jesus asked, "Do you see anything?"  He looked up and said, "I see people; they look like trees walking around." Once more Jesus put His hands on the man's eyes.  Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly." Mark 8:23-25

We can't stop looking for the God who gives sight to the blind, makes the lame walk, and the deaf hear.  The God who made things perfectly is renewing that which is broken.  Whole or shattered, He is still here amongst the pieces for those who look for Him.

"And He who was seated on the throne said, "Behold, I am making all things new." Revelation 21:5

Thursday, April 10, 2014

the lake: poem & song

the waves crest white with foam
not ice
the thaw has settled in

my fingertips test the lake's shallowest place

though thawed still frigid

breathe in deeply, the wind races by

cuts across bike path and sand

first time by the water, sun's warmth

her face
she smiles and laughs, eyes full with wonder

we will return, not this week but maybe next

is coming and the waiting won't be long

one last look as we return to the car, not goodbye

good day
we'll see you again soon


Poem & song inspired by our daughter's first trip to the Lakeshore.

Friday, March 28, 2014

"Speak Lord, Your servant is listening."

I tune things out.  Tim alerted me to this one day a few years ago at my parents' house.  I was having a nice conversation when Tim interrupted, "Do you realize two of your sisters are trying to talk to you and one is crying in the next room?"

Embarrassed I defended myself by saying that if you grow up in a house with 13 people, you'll have to tune some things out if you want to get anything done.  There is a little truth to my defense, but it was indefensible to let my sister cry while I chatted away.

Since having a baby of my own, I've noticed that I still tune out most things, but I'm always ready to hear her voice.

When she is laying down for a nap, I quietly catch up on tasks, listening intently all the while for the first whimper that signals nap time is over.  I check regularly whether I hear a sound or not to make sure I haven't missed her cry.  But when I do hear her, it is unmistakable.  I know her voice so well; the voice of my baby. Five months of intensive one-on-one time has attuned me to her voice, even when we are in a large crowd of people.

My sensitivity to my baby's voice is a sensitivity I long to have to the voice of God.

In our daily devotional, we have been going through 1st Samuel.  At the beginning of the book, Samuel, the child of Hannah's prayers, is called by name in the middle of the night.  He mistakes it for the voice of the old prophet Eli.  Eli, groggy with sleep, tells him to go back to bed.  This happens three times before Eli "realized that the Lord was calling the boy." (1 Sam. 3:8)  Eli then instructs Samuel to go back to bed, "and if He calls you, say, 'Speak, Lord, for Your servant is listening.'" (1 Sam. 3:9)

The Lord then speaks to Samuel, telling of the downfall of the house of Eli.  Samuel shares the word of the Lord with Eli, which Eli accepts as the Lord's will.  Samuel continues serving the Lord, and the Scripture says that "the Lord was with Samuel as he grew up and He let none of his words fall to the ground." (1 Sam. 3:19)

Eli is a tragic figure in the book of Samuel. He knew the Lord, but he has raised worthless sons that have been leading the people away from God with their wickedness.  Eli is rarely, if ever, hearing the voice of God anymore. It says earlier in the passage that "in those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions." (1 Sam. 3:1)

I often identify with Samuel in this passage, wanting the simplicity of the words, "Speak Lord, for Your servant is listening," to be the theme of my life, the story of my days, the echoing cry of each minute I breathe.  I want ears that not only hear the voice of God, but listen to it, and obey it.

Though I have long identified with Samuel, I fear becoming like Eli.  I'm afraid that years of disobedience, or half-obedience may deaden my ears to the voice of the Lord, the voice calling my name in the quiet hours of the night.  I'm afraid that I won't be ready to hear His voice, afraid that I will become complacent and miss it.  Like Eli, I might miss the voice of God because I am out of practice and no longer attentive, instead of waiting to hear His voice at all times like I wait to hear my baby's voice.

I am not young Samuel anymore, hearing the voice of God for the first time.  I have heard the voice of God in my life and responded to it.  God has been with me. But mine is not a story of perfect obedience, and there are days that feel like the word of the Lord is rare.  Times that I'm in danger of becoming the house of Eli, instead of the faithful Samuel.

Why don't I always listen?  I'm afraid to listen because I'm afraid of the call to repentance, the voice calling me to smash an idol, to give more, to love more sacrificially, to stop living like my life is about me and my plans, to start losing this life to Jesus instead of scrambling to save it for myself.

What I forget though, is that every time I listen, God reminds of this first: "I love you Abby."  The words that I so desperately need to hear always precede the words I'm afraid to hear.  I am loved by God, and His kindness leads to me to repentance. (Romans 2:4)  I repent because of God's love for me, out of love for Him.

Dallas Willard writes, "Our failure to hear His voice when we want to is due to the fact that we do not in general want to hear it, that we want it only when we think we need it."  I want my desire to hear the voice of God to supersede my fear about what He might say, or what I hope to hear Him say.

The reason I can hear my baby's voice above all others is I practice listening to it.  I strain to hear it. Sometimes I even imagine I have heard it and then check and find she is still sleeping quietly in the bedroom.  I am ready at any given moment to hear her voice and drop whatever else I am doing immediately.  I know her voice from practice and I hear it out of attentiveness.

I don't want to just listen to God when I have an important decision to make and need direction.  I want to hear Him calling me to a better attitude as I wash the dishes, I want to hear Him speak of His love for my neighbors as I walk down our block, I want to hear Him when He calls me to little acts of faithfulness throughout the day.  I want to hear the call to repentance, the call of mercy bringing me back from my sin.  I want to hear the voice that says I love you not because of the things you do, but because I am love, and you are my beloved daughter.  I want to practice attentiveness to the voice of God so I'm ready whenever He calls, not just when I want to hear Him.

Relationships collapse when the lines of communication are broken.  We all want to be heard, but it's much harder to listen.  I'm ready to stop talking at God and start listening.

"A man prayed, and at first he thought that prayer was talking.  But he became more and more quiet until in the end he realized that prayer is listening." -Søren Kierkegaard.