vigorous resistance

Killing me is hard.

Long, busy days flow over into time reserved for community and grace. I grow tired and angry and resist the opportunities to meet with others to show love, to be loved.

Without exception, doing battle with me is treacherous. It always seems most dangerous and inevitable after periods of peace and calm before the Lord. Seemingly out of nowhere the self wells in rebellion. That this follows such precious moments feels counterintuitive and yet perhaps that is the root, the logical initiation of the cycle: Growing up and in knowledge of this good and gracious King will only bring about change. We cannot help but be changed by time spent in His presence.

“All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful,” Flannery O’Connor poignantly observed.

I know (head knowledge know) that Psalm 22, He has done it! He has accomplished His ultimate saving purpose and it is my day-to-day dealing with, well, me that undermines that knowledge. It is that painful change.

My daughter and my husband like to catch snakes. I have seen it many times. It most often involves a long stick or pole for pinning the animal’s head to the ground so they can carefully move in to grasp it and avoid a bite.

My sin nature that lies beneath looks a lot like that writhing snake body resisting capture, resisting being held, resisting being beheld. I am liable to bite. As a redeemed creation, how can that be? Perhaps because if I am fully seen, fully known, there is no hiding the ugly, slithering side of self.

Paul says something along those lines in 1 Corinthians 13. We have dim, not fully developed view of ourselves. Seeing Him face to face will reveal full knowledge. And “then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

I am already fully known despite my resistance, my lack of ability to trust His all-knowing love, His grace. I am already beheld and He has not turned away. And there that verse is smack in the middle of yes, love. It is the love chapter that soars with descriptions that most certainly look unattainable. Does any one really love without envy or arrogance or irritability or resentfulness? Does anyone really endure all things?

I do not.

This forces me to that dim mirror and to the killing of self. The hard and painful ache of change.

Reading through that entire chapter, I find joy in verse 9. “For we know in part and prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.”

WHEN THE PERFECT COMES.

I could stop there and look fully, contentedly.

The answer is yes. It has to be. Yes, someone really loves without envy or arrogance or irritability or resentfulness. Someone has endured it all. That would be Him—the Perfect.

He has come and in His coming there was a treacherous battle. It was on a cross and the writhing, slithering snake of self was destroyed.

It wasn’t me that was killed. It was Him.

This makes my painful change not so painful anymore.

It makes learning to be beheld possible. It makes my resistance futile.

I am able to move back to peace and calm before God. I am able to behold Him who is perfect love. I am able to trust His gaze and the change it brings.

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lifted up

Wrestling and writhing uncomfortably in the night, he had no ability to be still. Something about this Man in this place was simply undoing this leader of the Jews. His education in the rabbinical law should have dispelled the discomfort. His knowledge should have been enough but there was something about this Man he could not avoid and he knew it.

So in the dark he went searching and for what he was not completely sure. Hid did however know there was only One place to go for the answers he needed.

Nicodemus approached Jesus in the night. His timidity was overshadowed by his restless heart. He knew his own education would likely be ridiculed if he were seen turning to the Man who was not appropriately educated. This expert among the Jews was seeking deeper truth and this Man might be able to reveal it in the dark. What Nicodemus did not yet know was that this truth can not be hidden. This truth is the Light of the world and cannot be covered by the dark.

Jesus cut to the heart and plainly revealed the need of Nicodemus who struggled to follow the teaching.

“How can these things be?” Nicodemus rebutted.

Patiently, the true Rabbi led this searching one where he had to go. Carefully the Light of the world cut through the clouded reasoning with an example Nicodemus would fully comprehend. Jesus used Nicodemus’ OT knowledge (Numbers 21) to give a glimpse of himself.

Moses in the wilderness with the Israelites who have once again forgotten their rescue, their faithful God. Relieved of their slavery, led out on the way to a promised place, they grow impatient and cry out “why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die?” These people insinuate that God is not good. It is the lie that leads us to doubt, fear, lack of gratitude. It is sin. So the fiery serpents slither in and the poison of doubt takes hold. Some die, and again, the cry for help rises. Again gracious God relents in love.

Moses was instructed to put the fiery serpent on the pole.
Moses lifted it up.
People looked and lived.

Now Jesus calls Nicodemus to look to Him and live. Jesus tells him that He, the Son of Man, must also be lifted up.

Serpents spouting poison was not a new story. Nicodemus knew it full well. That story went even further back. The lie could be traced to Genesis. “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made.” (Genesis 3:1)

It began with the serpent in the garden casting doubt, insinuating God is not good. In their moment of weakness, a man and a woman believed that lie was true. They took the poison lie and ingested it. This fall they took for us all. The Israelites couldn’t stomach it. We now still sputter and choke and gag on the lie.

When Adam and Eve recognized they were bare before God, exposed, they took to hiding from His presence in the trees. That deep and wide chasm ached and the poison instilled fear and insecurity where once was rest and trust.

Mighty God was not through with them, with us, when by all standards He should be. Refusing to send them out exposed, He took the life of an animal to cover them, cover shame. Driven from the garden for their own protection, they fled to a dark world–one that now still writhes and groans for relief, redemption, and rescue.

So greater rescue was coming and Jesus wanted Nicodemus to catch the vision.

Like Nicodemus in the dark, we look for answers. We are drawn to the Light. When we draw near, we are able to see. And if we get close enough, we see the Son of Man lifted up. If we dare to look upon the dreaded tree, we will find our rescue. For it is on that tree that Jesus became the ugly insinuations and held fast while the evil one writhed and fought.

He dispels the lie.
It was crucified there.
He was willing to take on the lie, the insinuations, the sin as He remained there suffering on our behalf. There is no way to miss the truth when you look at the Son of Man lifted up: 
God is good. God loves us.

And the Son of Man was again lifted up, lifted in life. He rose from the fall, from the death that overshadowed us all. The night is gone. The lie is not true. He has purchased the rescue we all need. Our lack has been supplied. Our nakedness has been covered.

This year’s art show theme is “lifted up.” We are seeking entries that reflect this idea that can be traced from the garden, to the Israelites wandering, to the death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. If you would like to participate, please visit cotachurch.com for details on how to enter. The deadline for entry is March 4.

Waiting on Shrinky Dinks

Staring hard through the dirty oven window I watch mesmerized as the cut out shapes begin to curl and bend. I am instantly transported to second grade and the absolute marvel of the Shrinky Dink. Coloring hard on that rough side of the paper with stunted colored pencils I could never fully get the desired finish.

Watching the transformation, however, always amazed me as I tried to wrap my brain around the concept. There seemed to be so much danger and mystery in that paper, that miracle in the oven.

This piece of flimsy paper in the oven just shrunk down to a charm for my necklace! It is now strong and unbreakable and something to cherish.

Recently I discovered that Shrinky Dink makes plain, pages of this magic material for creating your own designs—whatever you want! Gleefully, I purchased two sets excited to return to second grade splendor. Surely my kids would delight along with me. We eagerly followed directions and feverishly drew delicate designs ranging from Darth Vader to Wes Anderson characters.

We carefully followed instructions, step by step, to Shrinky Dink glory.

I watched my kids watch the transformation. As their designs contorted and writhed on the cookie sheet, I reassured them that the directions said this would happen. Confidently I told them not to worry. The pieces will right themselves, flatten back out and they would be pleased with the results.

Success and relief followed and they marched on merry ways. Once their interest waned, I continued experimenting with other ideas of my own. Watching oh-so-intently my last experiment began to curl over upon itself as none of the other designs had done. Though I’d read and re-read the directions, worry slipped in. I frantically looked over the directions again:

“Bake approximately 1 to 3 minutes. After piece lies flat, allow an additional 30 seconds of baking time to complete the process. Occasionally, a piece may stick to itself. If this happens, cautiously reach into your oven and pull pieces apart. Allow piece to complete the baking process.”

I was anxiously trying to determine if this was one of those “occasional” moments that required my intervention. I am notorious for burning myself. Going in to the oven was not ideal. I kept telling myself to trust the process as I could not take my eyes off of this curled up sheet.

Do I open the oven? If I try to pull it apart, do I do it bare-handed? Will I make it worse? Can I remove the whole tray to repair it and put it back? Will it just uncurl on its own? This doesn’t look right!

As I watched the timer on the oven nervously and felt it wasn’t going to recover I began to open the oven to intervene. I reached for the hot tray and could not determine if the piece was on the way to retracting and unfurling. I pulled out the tray and set it on the counter only to see that it was immediately beginning to harden in the greatly undesired position. So I put it back into the oven and quickly closed the door and let the Shrinky Dink do its shrinking. It finished without any more interruption and turned out lovely.

That 1 to 3 minutes felt like forever.

Sometimes I think the Holy Spirit nudges me at the oddest of (occasional?) moments. My white knuckle grip on the oven door while frantically deliberating the fate of my Shrinky Dink (and how desperately my oven needed cleaning) was one of those times.

It looked an awful lot like my messy life.

God has given me clear and explicit direction throughout His written word. I try to read it every day. I pray and ask God —at this stage of my life where even the simplest things sometimes are impossible to recall—to make the word of God the one thing I do recall. I pray that He would allow His Spirit to seal it within me, that I would know the truth. I read and re-read. I pray. I write.

Yet, somehow, when I am waiting and staring hard at my circumstances, I focus intently on the process over which I have no control. I panic. I wring my hands. My intervention must be necessary. I must get in there and fix this situation. Forget what the directions tell me to do. Ignore that it is a hot oven.

The process is frequently not pretty with contortions and changes that look like mistakes, failure even.

This is when I feel the gentle tug of His sweet Presence. “Be still.”

“Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” Psalm 27:14

“Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices!” Psalm 37:7

“I waited patiently for the Lord, He inclined and heard my cry.” Psalm 40:1

I think of Eugene Peterson and his explanation of what it means to wait on God, wait on God in prayer: “Waiting in prayer is a disciplined refusal to act before God acts,” Like anything that requires discipline or denial, I am not very good at it. Here is where actually following the directions leads to real change, real success.

There are multiple circumstances in my life right now where I am so caught up in the details and micromanaging them. They are things I am praying about, saying that I am trusting God with and yet they just don’t look right! Surely it’s time for me to open the oven and start fixing things.

Perhaps I will get burned. I may even interrupt the process. I am beginning to find that when I loosen my grip just a bit and look again to the beautiful and mysterious Creator who’s at work, instead of the circumstances, I can trust His process. He is trustworthy. His directions infallible.

Where the untrained eye sees warped and twisted circumstance, the clarity of the Gospel lets me focus instead on finished work. The finished work is the part that astounds. We cannot comprehend the height and depth and breadth of His love—the mystery and majesty that take what is twisted and distorted and shapes it into something beautiful and glorious.

A cross that most certainly looks only like death and destruction and humiliation is somehow, someway nothing short of absolute beauty. Without this process, without this reshaping we do not have the depth and durability and finished work.

Christmas has come

The wee hours of Christmas morning, maybe even still Christmas Eve, I recall heart racing as I huddled under the covers with dad’s digital green glow watch. Not able to necessarily “tell time,” I stared and waited for the numbers 5-0-0 to come across the face for that is when I was instructed to return to my parents’ room. This seemed an eternity staring hard at the glowing face, anticipation building. It wasn’t long in reality, in the larger context of tired parents who’d been up late to assemble, to set up, to lay out.

They (I would later understand) were equally excited about what was to come and their plans were delightful but because they were the parents, they knew the appropriate timing. They knew what should be—for their sakes and mine. Even on the simplest of levels, fatigue and health, they had my best at heart. I had no realistic sense of this, only the promise of what was to come and my own unbridled excitement and limited knowledge that it would.

Over and over again God teaches through my children and He uses my own childhood and perspective gained as a parent now looking back. I fully recognize now their cooperation, their giving, their kindness and gentleness in the face of my impudent longing.

Our great God has held fast by His own gentleness and encouragement in long, dark hours.

Abraham comes to my mind. The promise—the calling of what anyone of stature and prominence would have during that time and place—to have a family name that stretches boundlessly throughout generations. To have the stigma of barrenness eliminated, erased. The promise fulfilled would do just that, but the timing must be right. He endured for more than 25 years just to receive Isaac. For Sarah and Abraham to watch month to month while evidence of pregnancy evaporates—dirt and heat and filthy rags reminding the waiting weary. Hopeful hearts diminish to the point of “helping God.” It must be time they demanded—their own timeline pulling a handmaiden into the plot. It’s like any of us fumbling in the dark, all the way to our parents bedroom, insisting in the dead of the night that morning is here!

Hard consequences chase foolish decisions in moments of second-guessing faithfulness. Just ask Eve.

I think of John the Baptist who knew that he knew from inside the womb. Ready, proclaiming, unworthy to unloose sandal straps. He speaks truth. He knows that Christmas is coming. He’s seen Him with his own eyes, but locked away on the whim of a guilty leader he awaits the morning. He doubts his own assurance in dark hours, sending word by disciples to Jesus: Are you the one to come or shall we look for another? (Matthew 11) He waited, expecting, believing and found all confirmed the moment a drunken Herod succumbed to take his life. Our God is faithful to the end, in the darkest of moments—never asking more than what He himself fully gave.

Today we look hard at the time, the times anticipating all the promises, all the good we know to come. Our own longings and long hours weigh heavy on heart and mind. Wasn’t it more than this we were promised? He has plans for good, we know.

A groaning world groans louder, longer. The ache of the broken, the lost, the angry thunders loud all around. Rumors of wickedness flourish, and worse the rumors are true. “As with a deadly wound in my bones, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me all the day long, ‘Where is your God?’” (Psalm 42:10)

The world asks the taunting question while we turn again to Christmas, and a baby.

Mary’s excitement over an angel’s pronouncement must have faded some as whispers around from family and friends suspected the worst. Joseph surely fumbled with words and felt face warm with shame when he stared hard at the love of his life and tried to take in the prospect she could be pregnant without him, without any man. Surely this is not the way God intended.

Yet once again He sent word of encouragement, of assurance. Angels appeared. Cousins cried out. A baby lept for joy. Shepherds witnessed in amazement and went searching for themselves. The wise from afar recognized the signs and followed to logical resolution—the King has come.

The singular Word of all—of encouragement, of rescue, of promise fulfilled—was made flesh. Because He was, because He is, we can hold fast in the dark. We can stare hard at the light of His promise under the cover of a dark place and know the promise is true. Every longing will be filled to overflowing. Real rescue is palpable and Christmas has come. This day. Every day.

the Prince of Peace

Once, a very long time ago, there was a land full of people.

It was an extensive society with a great history. There were stories of triumphs and failures, of peace and war, of unity and division.

These people lived in a land that was growing weary. For thousands of years people had lived and died here. Some had lived long and happy lives and died quietly in their sleep. Some had lived but a brief breath of a moment. Others had lived “normal” lives with happy days and sad days, rich days and poor days. Regardless of the life lived though there was a dark cloud of discontent that had settled over the land. The people living there now could not remember a time without the cloud of discontent.

There were stories of another time, maybe even another land nearby where days were only sunny and delightful and full of life. Some of the grandparents and great grandparents still told stories of the sunny days in the happy place. They would explain that everyone living at that time did not grow tired. People were not hurt, not sad, and they lacked nothing. They never got sick. They had all they needed and more. Many people would scoff and laugh at these stories. It was difficult to imagine and those days, that place, just seemed like fairy tales to the people living here and now.

These days were plagued by people who did not have what they needed to live. For some people in this land, that meant they were hungry many days. Some people, however, had so much food they made themselves sick. Some people, even for some of the kids, did not have a safe place to live. Others lived in homes with high walls and barbed wire so no one else could enter. Some had broken hearts. Still some had angry or lonely hearts. There was great lawlessness and frequent chaos. People worked hard but did not ever achieve what they’d hoped. Whatever the case, this place no longer had sunny, happy days.

There was one family living in this time—the dark time—that had heard the stories of a happy place not so far away with sunny days. Not only had they heard the stories, they’d seen them. Their great-great-great grandfather had written the story down. He had written a book that not only told of the sunny days in the glorious place and plentiful food and happy hearts, it told of a man. He was the main character of great-great-great grandfather’s book. He was known as the Prince of Peace.

It was a fantastic storybook! It told all about this good and kind man who was also rumored to be an heir to the throne of this glorious land. When the family would read about him, they would always whisper the part “heir to the throne.” The story told of how he would concern himself only with loving others. It told of how he would give away riches to anyone living under his rule. It told of how he made beautiful places and delicious foods just by saying a word. He taught people to love one another and live together with joy. And everything he did was for the good of his people living in his glorious land. He just sounded too good to be true.

Great-great-great grandfather Hope had passed the story and the book down to his son and to his son and to his. Now the family of Hope lived here in dark and desolate times and found it hard even for them to believe. They would leave the book on the shelf. They had once read it regularly and found it gave them encouragement, but as the days seemed to grow longer, always with more work to be done, they read the story less and less.

The youngest of the family, however, refused to let go of the Hope family storybook.

His name was Trust. He had, as soon as he was old enough to read, asked every day to take down the story book from the shelf so he could study it for himself. In the beginning, his mother Weary would not often let him see the book. She was afraid that the worn pages would tear and the Hope story would be marred. She also knew that her husband Busy would not be thrilled with the idea. He didn’t object to he book for mere subject matter. He objected because it was one of MANY things he considered a waste of time.

Staying after school for a game of tag—waste of time. Reading the comics—waste of time. Reading books not necessary for work—waste of time. Busy always had more to do and why would he give up time he could be using productively?

Trust was relentless. As days seemed to only grow darker, and longer, Weary would relent. She knew Trust had little to be excited for and he was an obedient boy. She wished for him to have the joy that her own father-in-law had had before he died. Her father-in-law, Provider, had held fast to the Hope family story. As he had aged and grown sick, she thought he might have let go of the Hope story, but he did not.

She knew that Busy would not be home to see Trust read the book, and if he did not see, he would not know about the waste of time.

So like his grandfather before him, Trust would read the story and find himself thrilled by the Prince of Peace. Even when his own school and work day was long. Even when it was well after dark and he felt like his mom, Trust would at least open the book. Though hardly anyone believed the way he did, Trust thought in the deepest, quietest places of his heart that this dark and sad time could not be all that there was. He believed and he could hardly even admit this to himself in his room all alone—that there really was a Prince of Peace and he really did live in a glorious land and he really did take care of all his people and he really was (whisper) heir to the throne.

When Trust was very young he would tell people unabashedly about the story. They would nod and smile and pat him on the head. As he had gotten older people would smirk and stop listening. So he stopped telling. He so wanted someone else to be excited with him. He had often thought of entrusting the story to his very best friend at school—Ornery. Ornery was a good friend though Weary wasn’t always sure about that. What Trust loved so much about him was that once he was your friend, you knew he would never not be your friend. If nothing else, he was loyal.

After much worry and internal debate, Trust decided to share the story with Ornery. It was hard to find time since everyone his age not only went to school, they all went to work for several hours after school. They even worked on weekends. Today was a special early release day from school and they did not yet have to be at work. He had ceremoniously led Ornery to his room, shushed him along the way, closed and locked the door. Ornery was a little confused by the big ta-doo Trust had made but he also thought this must be something good. Whatever it was, Ornery was curious. Trust carefully slid the book out from under his dresser. Trust instantly was overwhelmed with the excitement of the story. He talked fast and furious as explained the book, and the story, and described the Prince of Peace. Even though he spoke so fast Ornery could barely keep up, Trust still whispered heir to the throne.

When he finished speaking he stared at Ornery expectantly and nervously. He knew this would not end their friendship but it might make it a little tougher. Ornery stared down at the pages of the book and then at his friend. Slowly a grin spread across his face. This was the best story he had ever heard. It was beautiful and exciting and full of hope. “May I hold the book?” he asked Trust carefully.

Trust was so relieved that Ornery was even interested, he handed it over gingerly and held his tongue on telling him to be careful with it. Ornery turned it over, turned pages slowly, felt them between his fingers. It was an amazing book. What amazed him even more though was the obvious belief that Trust had in the story. He loved the idea of believing like this. He sat quietly looking for a long time. So long that Trust became nervous that his mom would want to know what they were doing.

Finally Ornery spoke. He explained that years ago he had heard his great aunt tell a similar story to his older brother. He had been expected to listen but could not sit still long enough to pay attention. After hearing Trust explain it, all came rushing back. The memory of visiting his great aunt in the Old People Place, the weird smell in her room, her breath that smelled like cheese when she tried to kiss him hello. But now this story was familiar. She had told it with a twinkle in her eye and he had ignored it. Just like his brother Erratic had.

He flipped again through the pages and stopped short as he reached the end of the book. Trust was eagerly awaiting its return. Ornery just stared though. “What about this ripped out part?” he asked casually.

“WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?” Trust replied loudly. “Nothing is ripped. I take great care of that book and mom will kill me if I don’t,” he said as his voice got higher and more nervous.

“Right here,” Ornery pointed.

How he could never have seen it before, Trust did not know. The hours he’d sat studying and pouring over its pages. This was the last page, the very end, next to the cover. As he looked he could clearly see it had not been haphazardly ripped out, it had been carefully cut maybe even with a sharp edge. It was cut cleanly, up until that last fiber near the top of the page. You could see the torn feathered edge at the top part where it had been pulled free at last.

He was appalled, devastated, confused. Trust stared hard and his eyes began to water. First for fear for himself, and then for disappointment. It didn’t make sense. The story ended well, it wasn’t like you finished reading and thought something was missing. Why would a page be gone? Who would take it out? Why? As his mind sped along every theory it could muster he could only murmur aloud.

Ornery looked at his watch. “I have to go,” he said flatly. “The Farmer expects me early since we got out early.”

Trust nodded as he left. He was numb with disbelief. As he began to grasp the notion that someone deliberately removed whatever was at the end of the book he began to think about who it could possibly be. In his lifetime hardly anyone looked at the book. In his mother’s maybe only a few more. Beyond that he did not know.

He had to know and he had to find the missing page.

The following day Trust talked to Ornery about it at school, probably too much. They had to sit out of recess because of talking during the lesson. They did get to sit close enough though to continue the conversation. They agreed that the page had to have been removed for a bad reason. If it was something good, why would it be removed? Then again, maybe it was something someone thought was crazy or too good. They could not agree on motive but they could agree they wanted answers.

Their plan developed throughout the day. The best they could figure was to start with Trust’s house. Since it had been there for years, at least see if possibly someone at home took the page. On Thursdays Weary cleaned the house of their neighbor up the hill. It was one day the boys knew she would not be home for at least a two hour stretch.

Next Thursday they would have to sneak away from school during recess, take a look around, and make it back before the kids were called in. Trust had NEVER considered anything like this before but he could not explain the weight of what he was feeling. This was something so big, he just knew it.

On Thursday they began a frantic search of the small house. Nervous and excited they were still careful to return things to their original positions so that there search would not be discovered. They checked kitchen cupboards, bedroom bureaus, the desk Trust shared with his older sister. They looked carefully through mom’s only personal space at the end of her closet. Nothing. Their time was quickly running out.

Standing in the main hall of the home, Trust realized he had to search Busy’s desk. He’d almost started there. If he was wrong and he messed something up there the consequences would be severe so he’d subconsciously avoided it until now. He began to rummage. It did not take much, however. There were several cubbies on the mid section of the front of the antique desk. There were envelopes standing on end in the second cubby that Busy used for mailing off bills. Slid further back from all the envelopes was a yellowed sheet. He immediately recognized the texture and size and even the cut and torn edge. He motioned to Ornery as he pulled it out.

As he unfolded the sheet he realized it was more than he could have imagined. It had to be the too-good-to be true option. There was a map. There were directions. There were beautiful drawings. He could not fathom what he was seeing. He could not believe it had been removed from the book.

Ornery brought him back to reality as they realized they only had six minutes to get back to the school yard. They ran fast, Trust with a giant smile on a dark day with discontent all around.

That afternoon he soaked it all in. He knew he would have to return the map to its hidden spot or risk being discovered. He recognized locations on the map. Everything did not have the same name now, but he could tell based on a couple of major landmarks in town. He knew where the old church was. It had long since been unoccupied. People worked too hard. There was no time to rest, to go to church. This map pointed beyond the old church and down a side street that no one in their right mind would drive, much less walk down—the Robber’s Highway. These were definitely walking directions. The map’s final destination was what mesmerized. There was a gorgeous colorful picture sketched there. He did not understand all that he saw, but it looked like a golden road, jewels everywhere, trees drenched in fruit he had never before seen, bright light, and oh-so-sunny skies. It was as if that one corner of the map lit up the rest of the dark page.

The road to get there was quite dangerous. Everyone knew that those who had completely given up to broken hearts, to anger, to hunger, to the worst of the worst spent time along the Robber’s Highway. They hid in the darkest places. There were dumpsters and a couple of shacks nearby. There were stories of people stealing, killing, destroying.

This map led down this road and it looked like through a what was drawn to be a dark and scary overgrown forest. At the edge of the bright and beautiful spot it looked as though there was an enormous stone wall. In other words, getting to this place must be nearly impossible.

He looked at the margin of the page and recognized Busy’s handwriting. There were notes scribbled here. One said Strength, May of 1990. The other said Creed, September of 2012. He wondered if Strength could refer to his great uncle he heard about. He was a huge man, powerful, scary if you did not know him. He did the hardest work around with the greatest ease. People from all over would come to him for help and he almost always did. Trust had never met Strength. He knew he’d been in a terrible accident and didn’t live past his 30th birthday. He didn’t know the date of Strength’s death but thought maybe this was what it meant. He just didn’t know if had anything to do with this map or if his dad had used it to jot down notes before he’d realized what he was writing on. Perhaps if he knew who Creed was it would make more sense.

At school that week Trust found that answer without even trying. In his history class they were talking about local historical figures. Turns out Creed was a local lawyer who had been known for his innate sense of justice and his desire for righteousness. He was also known as a brilliant man. Some thought he was a genius. He knew the law inside and out and was able to apply it and use it and help others with it. He firmly believed that if people just knew and understood the law, their land would be a better place.

The teacher explained that after years of service he believed he could find a way to restore their great society. He thought he knew of a way to eliminate discontent. He set out to teach the outcasts that they just needed to know the law.

People thought that Creed had lost his mind as he’d aged. The teacher lowered her voice as she explained that he began to believe in some crazy stories of living happily ever after with a prince in another kingdom, somewhere without lawlessness. That is not something that will be on your test she said. It is only local hearsay she said. Sadly, Creed died out on the Robber’s Highway she explained. The vagrants there did not appreciate being told they needed to obey the law. He was found bloodied and bruised at the edge of the mysterious forest. It was a mysterious story on its own but now considering Trust’s map discovery, it was miraculous.

That evening at dinner was rare because Busy made it home in time to eat before the kids had to go to bed. Trust was particularly geared up over his newest discoveries. Though he thought he might be a bit daring to ask, he could not resist. (They were after all studying this in school.)

“Dad, have you ever heard of Creed? Creed Justice?” he asked at the table. Busy looked mildly surprised and said yes and wanted to know where he’d heard of him.

“We are studying local history and our teacher told about him today and about how he was killed back off the Robber’s Highway.”

“Wow, what are they teaching you guys these days? Why in the world would they give you those kinds of ugly details?” he replied.

“Well, we weren’t supposed to know about how he died or how people thought he was crazy at the end and looking for a way out.”

“Out of where?”

“Here.”

“I don’t know what you mean, son.”

“The teacher said we aren’t supposed to talk about it but that Creed was trying to point people to another place, a better place, ruled by some kind of prince.” Trust said as if he was unsure, even though he was absolutely positive. He didn’t want Weary and Busy to know how much he knew of the story and the implications, much less begin to understand that he actually thought it was all true!

“Well, that sounds a bit much,” Weary said as she stood to collect plates.

“This sounds like a waste of time to me,” his dad replied as he picked up his brief case and headed to his desk. Trust would have been worried except he’d slipped the page back into its spot this afternoon while mom vacuumed. He had copied down every detail of the map he could. He’d tried to recreate the intricate drawing. He written his dad’s scribble notes in the same spot.

He helped his mother and his sister with the dishes and then hurried to his room. He locked the door and opened the book. He pulled out his hand copied map and studied it some more. What if Strength had also died trying to get to the sunny place where the prince ruled? He thought. I mean, what else could this place on the map represent he thought. What if someone who’d needed help came to Strength because they had heard of the prince and the glorious land. What if he had tried to find the way?

And Creed, he was such a smart man. People thought he was a genius until they thought he was crazy. What if he knew something Strength did not? What if he had recognized a better way?

It was hours before Trust could fall asleep and when he did he dreamed of an amazing place where people did not work all day and all night, where people did not go hungry, where his dad would be willing to waste time. He dreamed of people being kind and helping one another, obeying the law. Just before morning light he dreamed of the Prince of Peace. He felt warm and relieved and peaceful. In the dream he came and looked Trust in the face. Trust told the Prince about the beautiful place he was thinking of and how he longed to find it. The Prince smiled and said, “I am the way.”

Trust woke suddenly. For a moment he thought the Prince was there. He could not handle it. When he realized it was only a dream, his excitement dimmed and yet he still felt hopeful.

As he worked at the grocery the following afternoon, he stared out the window onto the sidewalk. He saw a young boy asking a lady leaving the store for some change or a piece of bread. The lady almost looked sympathetic for a moment and then quickly put her head down and moved past the boy. This boy didn’t go to school. Trust had seen him before but had been told to stay away from him. Someone said his mom had worked near the Robber’s Highway. Trust couldn’t image. He didn’t know how it could be safe. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the second half of his roll from lunch. He reached down for his dustpan and took it to the front door to empty. He didn’t even look at the boy as he handed him the bread and hurried back in.

As the door closed behind him, his decision was made. He was going to try and follow this map. There are too many people with too many hurts. We cannot go on like this. Maybe it’s dangerous. I dreamed of the Prince of Peace. He said he was the way. I have to know. Maybe I’m going crazy like Creed.

But he didn’t care.

He nonchalantly told Ornery the next day that he was going to follow the map. Without missing a moment, Ornery said I’m going too. Trust was surprised and happy. Ornery looked nervous though.

“What is it?” Trust demanded.

“I have to tell you something.”

“OK.”

“I am afraid you will think I am crazy,” Ornery explained.

“Really? After all I’ve told you lately? After saying I want to follow a map to who knows where, a map that leads through some dangerous spots? Please, just tell me.”

“Well, I had this dream,” Ornery began. Trust immediately began to shake on the inside and held his breath without even realizing it. “We were in the beautiful place from the map. And, well, I saw the Prince of Peace.”

Trust stared with his mouth hanging open, eyes welling with tears.

“He talked to me,” Ornery continued. “He said, ‘I—Trust cut him off mid-sentence.

“He told you he was the way, right?!” Trust almost shouted.

Wide-eyed Ornery stared back. Now his mouth was hanging open. “HOW DID YOU KNOW?”

“I had the same dream.”

The began to plan for their trip to find the glorious place. They knew the direction they needed to head and they knew it would be dangerous but did not think it far. Still, they wanted to be sure they had plenty of time to get there without being noticed as gone. The only logical opportunity was next week. On the fourth weekend of the month, kids were allowed to have a Saturday off from their apprenticeship. Rarely, Weary would let Ornery sleep over on that Friday night. Occasionally, Ornery’s mother would let Trust stay over. They decided they would both say they were staying at the other’s home. This way they could leave Friday afternoon. It didn’t get dark until 9:30.

The week seemed to go on for months. They could not wait until their journey.

Friday afternoon finally arrived and the boys met behind the grocery store. They had decided they would not try to bring a weapon of any kind. It seemed like the logical thing to do considering they were headed for the Robber’s Highway. Somehow much of this did not seem logical so they were going without. They did however bring jackets and masks. They thought it best to wear some sort of protective gear for the overgrown area, if they made it through the highway.

The made their way past the old church. Kudzu covered the side of the building and wound up to the roof peak near the steeple. It didn’t feel right. As they looked at Trust’s map the turned the corner and saw darkness ahead. This was more than the usual cloud of discontent. This was a deep darkness, visible everywhere. There were two men ahead on the left side of the road who looked as though they could barely stand. There was a woman opposite them in torn clothes and matted hair. A little boy sat at her feet crying. She rolled her eyes.

Ornery touched the sleeve of Trust’s jacket. They pulled the masks down over the faces and moved forward. They stayed in the middle of the road and both barely breathed. The lady perked up and half smiled. She asked if they had any money on them. The boys shook their heads no simultaneously. The sped their pace. “You don’t gotta be like that!” she yelled and the little boy cried louder. They heard a scream down the alley. They thought someone was saying help. They looked straight ahead.

The two men stared at them. One whispered to the other as he stumbled their way. The boys moved faster. “Get over here!” The man yelled through crooked yellow teeth. Trust froze. He had always been considered an obedient kid. Sometimes he didn’t like the way he always listened to older people. He knew he didn’t have to listen to this man and he was scared, but for some reason he stopped. The man was in front of him breathing heavy with an evil grin.

“Where you two goin’?” he demanded. “You don’t live around here.”

“No, we don’t.”

“Then WHERE DO YOU THINK YOU ARE GOING?”

“We are following our map, just passing through.” Trust sputtered.

“You don’t know the way,” the man slurred.

“The Prince of Peace is the way,” Trust said trying to sound confident.

Fear flickered in the man’s eyes and he backed away from the boys. He grabbed the other man by the crook of the elbow and they stumbled into the dark together.

Trust grabbed Ornery and the moved off the highway in the direction of the overgrown path at the edge of the massive forest. It was dense and dark, but you could almost see a soft glow deeper in. They were afraid and excited. As they moved closer to what looked like used to be an entrance. They saw massive trees overgrown with vines of all types. There were massive thorns everywhere. It was an immensely tangled mess.

It looked like this was the end. There was no possible way they could cut through this, even if they’d had the tools. It was like nothing they’d ever seen. Ornery was sure he’d seen a snake slither under the far corner. That was unacceptable.

They looked at one another. I don’t know what I was thinking Trust thought. Then he said it.

“You were thinking we’d find a way. You were thinking we’d be heroes. You were thinking everyone could follow us and find relief. Find comfort. Find him.”

“Yes,” Trust replied.

There is no way through he said suddenly through tears. They held onto one another, though they had never done that before. Trust cried not caring what Ornery thought anymore. Ornery patted him on the shoulder. It was quiet and still.

The boys noticed a fragrant smell. Trust breathed in deeply and stopped crying. He looked up at the top of the tangled mess and saw multiple rose blooms. He must be smelling them. He dropped his head again.

He turned from the dense overgrown area and saw a warm and radiant light moving ahead of him. He reached out and grabbed Ornery’s arm hard though he didn’t mean to. Ornery lifted his head. He clearly saw it too. The light moved closer and the closer it got, the more they could see it wasn’t a light, it was the shape of a man—but not like any man they had ever seen. It was him.

The instant they fully recognized who they were seeing, the could not withstand it. They both fell to the ground, excited, trembling, out of control.

“Boys,” came the most radiant, comforting voice they had ever heard.

They both slowly looked up at the Prince of Peace. “Ornery, Trust, get up.”

He knew their names. They could hardly contain themselves as the stood before him.

Trust spoke, “We thought we could find your place. We had a map. Busy said no. Creed might be crazy. There is no way through.” Trust didn’t make sense as he spoke. It seemed clear before the words got tangled on their way out of his mouth.

“I am the way,” the prince answered, just as he had in their dreams.

He moved past the boys and began to walk straight into the thick overgrown path. The boys didn’t know what to think. As he walked he didn’t just glide through, untouched. The thorns began to sink into his skin. He began to bleed.

The boys were horrified. This doesn’t make sense they thought. If this is the way to his place, he knows how to get there. He is not like us, he should not be hurt. But he was.
The snake they’d seen earlier slithered through and under. Clearly the prince was unafraid, but he was hurting. He pushed through and his strength began to move the mass of branches and vines and thorns. He was clearing it as he went. It was not easy, but he was making progress.

He told the boys, “Follow me.”

Carefully they moved ahead.

He continued on. By now his clothing had ripped. The sharp pointed vines and branches were leaving terrible marks on his skin. He breathed heavy.

They followed slowly and suddenly heard a shout. The drunken man from the highway charged at them. He held a bat. He swung wildly and the prince stepped between them and the man. He took the blow. He bent low and then stood again. The drunk man was afraid and fled. There was an immediate bruise across the side of the prince. He turned back into the brush and continued ahead.

The boys were undone. “Please, you are hurt. There has to be another way.”

“I AM the only way,” he replied. “Just follow me.”

They both were crying now, watching as he moved slowly, deliberately, powerfully, and painfully ahead.

It seemed like hours. It seemed like evil was all around and yet the warm glow of his presence held it at bay.

Finally they saw a giant stone wall. It was massive and thick and looked like it weighed tons. The more they looked, the more they realized it wasn’t only a wall, but a gate. It looked as though it could possibly be raised but not without some massive piece of equipment. As they strained to see the top, the glow radiating from over the top was incredible. They thought they could hear some kind of music even. They couldn’t begin to fathom what it might be like on the other side.

The prince looked worn. There was so much blood. His skin was torn in places and he breathed heavily. “It’s time to go in,” he said.

“But how?” Trust said almost exasperated.

“I am the way,” he said almost with a smile.

The Prince of Peace reached down and began to lift. It was a struggle, but he slid his fingers that were calloused and worn beneath the edges of the massive stone. For the first time Trust could see his hands were already scarred. He strained and pulled and the sound of the stone grinding on the pieces next to it was overwhelming. The crevice now visible between the ground and the bottom edge was blinding. The light from within pierced the darkness all around. He lifted slowly, steadily.

The boys shielded their eyes.

“Go in,” he said as he strained with his might to hold open the massive stone.

They looked at each other and then walked across the threshold. As they crossed over,
they could only gasp at all the beauty before them. They’d never seen the sky so bright and clear and beautiful. There was not a single cloud of discontent. Birds chirped. The wind whispered sweetly. The air was rich and fragrant. Ripe and glorious fruit dripped from the tree branches and a bubbling brook ran between the trees. Cozy cottages dotted the green hillside. Peace rested on this place. They felt strong and restored immediately as they crossed into the land.

As he lifted further the massive stone gate cracked and was loosed from its bindings. It groaned and scraped and began to fall. The boys looked on in horror as it was began to fall and the Prince of Peace was crushed beneath its weight. It fell back and out and the sound of its landing on the forest floor was unlike any they’d ever heard.

They ran to where the prince lay slain. They screamed and cried and buried their red faces in the folds of his garment. His blood was now on them.

Trust felt a powerful hand upon his shoulder. A more delicate one rested on Ornery’s. They looked up to see Strength and Creed looking down at them.

“He’s dead!” Trust cried out.

“He has opened the way,” came Creed’s reply.

“So what,” said Trust.

“So what? It means everything!” said Strength with excitement in his voice. “This is his land and he has called us here. He called you here but there has never been a way before. He is the way, he made the way.”

“We dreamed there was a place like this and it is more than we could have asked or imagine and now that the door is open, anyone can come,” he continued.

“I thought if I taught people how to follow the law, how to behave and do things the right way, I would be rewarded and people would be allowed in,” Creed explained. “But no matter how hard I tried it was never enough. It only created more lawlessness.”

“My strength was weakness compared to his,” Strength agreed.

“But what now?” came Trust’s quiet, sad voice.

“Now you go and invite everyone in,” Creed said.

“Of course I will, but it will not be the same if he is not here,” came Trust’s reply.

The boys could hardly stand to leave. The slain prince was still beautiful. This place was like nowhere else. They were excited, confused, somewhat frightened, but Strength and Creed helped them up and told them you have to go and tell everyone that the story is true, the way is open, and they are all invited.

Bewildered they made their way home. They passed by the church and found that the vines were no longer growing up the sides. As they traveled, their excitement grew the more they thought of what was ahead. They thought of telling their parents that all their burdens were gone. Weary would find rest. Busy would be still. The angry ones would find peace. The sad people would be happy. The hungry would be full. The sick would be well. The broken would be repaired. The lost would be found.

For the next couple of days the boys told anyone and everyone they knew of all that had happened. They told them they could come along. To their dismay, some scoffed and laughed. Others thought it sounded silly and they couldn’t afford to take time off of work to see if it was true. Many listened. Many thrilled to the idea that they could live a new life in a bright and beautiful place. People talked and readied to leave.

Trust and Ornery led the growing group back across their town and down the Robber’s Highway. They reached the edge of the forest and were delighted to find light breaking out across the hills and through the overgrowth. The way was still open.

When they crossed the threshold again on the third day, every hope was fulfilled. There was joy and laughter and peace. There, on the throne, was the heir. He stood and welcomed them in.

grief and glimpses of glory

To be alone with me
You went up on a tree
~Sufjan Stevens, To Be Alone With You

When my brother died I looked for him everywhere. I knew without a doubt that his faith had become sight and now he’d seen the King. I know where he is.

Left here on the faltering gray earth though I’d found my sight frequently dimmed. So I would look for him. When the sky was particularly beautiful, I would stare hard at the edges of the lit-from-within clouds thinking I might see a sliver of his healed and whole face. When I drove down the road, I would look to the passenger seat and think for a moment of his nearness. Maybe I could see the outline of him there. When I was out and about, I would often find the shapes of young, shaved-head men. I’d catch sight of one walking away, see the back of his head, and imagine it was him.

It’s silly I know and yet it is comforting. In this lifetime of ours there is much emphasis on sight, on vision. So much of what we believe is correlated to what we see.

Round the clock news channels offer us a continuous view of all that is happening across the gray globe, be it good or evil. If I listen only to these voices though I would absolutely be focused on the latter.

This week, Doris, the wife of a dear Godly friend went to be with our good and gracious king. She’d languished long, aching to go home. Gary had lamented alongside his bride. He wanted her restoration and rescue although separation was an obstacle of heart and mind.

She looked angelic every time I saw her. The brilliant white hair and glorious pale skin and a touch of pink. Despite pain and sadness she still had an impish grin. Faithful 68 years of marriage gave them both a glow of the bridegroom.

I think now the loss is cavernous. When life has grown up around you, intertwined, united with roots so deep, the loss can only tear and undo and hurt. Like the upending of a great and weathered tree, roots are exposed. The dirt flies, the groans are loud and long. The hollow must ache and pull like nothing else. Suffocating.

The eyes tell us she is gone. We see her there, but not.

I think that was a big struggle for letting go of my brother. I did not get to see him again. The brutality of death would not allow it. My mother and I so longed to just see a glimpse of his skin again. Just to graze his freckled arm with a fingertip. To see and know he’d gone on. Maybe that’s why I looked for him everywhere. To my puny mind, I’d not seen his end. I had only had lunch with him at Moe’s, listening to him tell funny stories and watch him laugh with my son and daughter. I had only hugged him that last time, grabbing him, feeling his absolute solid physical presence.

My need to see him however was superseded by his vision now, vision I long to have.

It is vision I pray for Gary.

My brother’s faith became sight; he has seen the King.

Doris sees Him now as well.

I read this week of a dear family friends whose two youngest daughters suffer a rare and fatal brain disease. They work hard every day to to care for, enjoy, treasure their girls despite knowing the ache of separation is all too close, too real. Yet their faith holds fast.

They also cling to greater vision. The immediate and unrelenting now forces them to focus on things they cannot now see. The ache and desperation provides greater perspective. Their perspective grows every day as does their vision. It is a vision of glory, of God’s goodness in the darkest moments. It is trusting in what they cannot yet see.

I long for this vision. To step back and get a good glimpse. I think of 2 Kings 6 and the prophet Elisha as he prays for his servant to have vision. Early in the morning the servant finds that he and the prophet are surrounded by the horses and chariots of a greatly troubled Syrian king. He was greatly troubled because somehow this prophet knew what he was going to do before he was going to do it. It was irritating.

The king sought to seize the prophet.

“What do we do?” was the cry of the servant and the calm and measured response came from the man of faith, of sight. “Do not be afraid.” Elisha prayed for the servant to see—and did he.

“so the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.”

In the moment of fear and desperation, the servant only sees the enemy and imminent destruction. He needed vision and Elisha knew it.

It is the vision we all long for whether we know it or not. We are called to trust. On occasion we are offered a glimpse of eternal proportions.

The only one we are called to fear is God. And He is the one who gives us the sight, for there is nothing He does not see. (Hebrews 4:13, Psalms 33:13)

So I pray now for the hollow and lonely places of those who are hurting and alone after 68 years of communion and oneness. I pray for those who daily deal in the reality of things we only dare whisper to one another. The faith and vision of the King is enough for us all. The tree He went up on has reach even deeper than the roots of the oldest around.

Restored vision is achieved here. This is where we behold full-on the glory and majesty of all we hope for.

When we gain perspective, when faith becomes sight, when vision is restored it is because we understand that the story is not about me. I am not the central character upon whom all hope is laid. Our struggles, our suffering, our grief does not end here with us.

All the world would deceive, would turn us over, like the reflection in the concave mirror of the spoon. Everything is upside down on this side of eternity, us alone, at the center. None can withstand the pressure of being the center of the story. To be the center means being suffocated, eventually killed.

Thankfully that One is not us. That One was killed. That One did upend the tree when He burst forth from that dark, deep, buried place.

We are pressed down, held under, we face the broken, sinful, wretched curse of death. Yet it is in the darkest places that our eyes strain to see a glimpse of light. And here in the dark, it is somehow easier to spot the light. As we draw nearer to it we begin to gain greater vision, to see the story clearly. Here we find freedom to breathe freely as our faith becomes sight.

“So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.”
2 Corinthians 5:6-9

no discernment in the dark

Bombs and gunfire and fear.

Fridays are fun days and Paris is that place, that place that conjures love and food and romance and wine and wistful getaways. This twisted Friday the 13th tore a hole in the heart of that city and those of us across the ocean who sat mesmerized.

It was not unlike that September day when our minds tried to assimilate, make sense of the horror unfolding before our eyes.

This cannot be. Not again.

Can you believe this? Can you see it?

People cut down. Made small by mad men, sick with sin. Desperately sick, desperately in need. Men who, with their own devices, hurt and destroy in a feeble attempt to heal their own empty hearts.

This pervading evil has reached full mass and boiled over out of black and empty hearts. They have filled full with the rancid that will not soothe or comfort or restore. And when the venom they thought medicinal is ingested and does not repair the way they thought it would, their hearts and minds frantically writhe and fight and spew it back on those who dare to disagree. Not even those who disagree, even just those who exist outside of their venom-induced hallucination. The poison has gone down deep, so deep that it’s not just those in disagreement, it is all those that are other. Others upon whom they have thrown their assumptions. It is a path with no boundaries, no borders, no safe places. When we cast upon others assumptions and judgments that are not ours to make we end in ugly, dark, despairing places. The boundaries have disappeared. All has become dark.

Their own failure is highlighted, their own lack of peace is so glaringly obvious. And just like the hurt and angry cornered animal, they lash out in a most dangerous fashion. Their own hurt must morph, must move on. They push it out in hopes that they will eventually be soothed. Violence begets more violence and the solutions allude.

There is no relief. There is no comfort.

This is a fight we all face.

There is a darkness within. It is birthed from a conversation we should’ve never entered. The whispers of the slithering serpent are lies that should never have been entertained. Once we’ve listened and the venom makes its way in, we feel we are worthless and must fight to make people hear and understand. We think we must achieve to please God. God will only be pleased IF we DO this thing. Fill in the blank.

There is a blank that has to be filled in. He will only be pleased if you kill the infidel. If you bring a meal to the family in need. If you donate this amount of money. If you behead the unbeliever. If you sacrifice your children to their own devices. If you detonate yourself. If you volunteer enough time. Without the safety of those boundaries, without a well-lit path, it is easy to lose your place. Even the things that seem good are missing the mark. There is no discernment in the dark.

The blank is actually a deep and dark chasm that will never be satisfied.

At least not when it’s left to us to fill it.

It doesn’t matter what you put in the blank, as long as you are putting something in it. If you are filling that dark, gaping hole with some performance of your own you will not find relief, or repair, or rescue. Left to our own devices, we will self destruct.

The only answer is that we are not the answer.

We are not seeking an achievement. We are seeking an antidote. The venom of the evil one has invaded all.

Like men who are bolstering their own absolute fear by lashing out, we must lay down our weapons and defenses. We have to recognize our need can only be met by One.
This One who covers us all, fills us up, heals the hurt, soothes the pain, repairs the brokenness.

He is the one that walks the streets of Paris even now. He sees the broken and is there to heal. He sees the grieving and is there to comfort. He sees the angry and is there to calm, to forgive. He is paving a way back. He is creating the safe place. He is leading His own back home.

For those of us who’ve seen the Healer at work because we’ve been healed ourselves, it is time to point the stranded, the struggling, the suffering to the only One deep enough, wide enough, more than enough to fill every black void. We struggle and strain and stretch thin and feel we don’t have answers. We only need point to the One who does.

He is never stretched thin. His reach is enough. His outstretched arms have borne it all—the bullets, the bombs, the hatred, the fear, the loathing, the insignificance. He has disarmed the enemy and staved the venom and crushed the serpent’s head.

pity parties and answered prayers

“All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.” ~Flannery O’Connor

I felt small, and not the good kind of small. Not the kind that meant the black you wore was flattering and the muffin top was less visible. This was purely the less visible kind. The kind where you are feeling less than. This was the kind that makes your cheeks burn hot. As I walked fast and furious I recounted the slight. It made me walk faster and push back tears.

What was really a simple miscommunication made me feel left out and alone. I tried to fight the feeling and be positive. My response was “I can walk on my own, listen to some music along the way.” When I couldn’t find my earbuds, I erupted.

Not finding them wasn’t simply frustration over an item misplaced. It also signaled something deeper. I had many sets of nice earbuds, hardly used. My ensuing irrational train of thought began there. They were rarely used because I was rarely alone. There was always a child nearby in need and to luxuriously block out what was going on with music was close to unheard of. Yet this one moment (that I was trying to make the most of) I couldn’t even do that because I couldn’t find any earbuds. I couldn’t find any earbuds because one of the kids that always needed something had invariably taken them because they’d damaged or lost their own. Flustered and moving faster, I paced and let angry thoughts run wild.

No one cares that I don’t have a way to listen to my music, they don’t even care that I was left out to begin with. I’m not on the radar at all. Where have I gone wrong that I give up all I have for my kids and this is what I get?

Now that kids are in school, I am looking for a job. Employers see a resume with holes gaping of years spent not in the paying world’s work force but in that one that goes without paycheck and little other notice. I tell myself that is my calling and I did what I was supposed to do.

I recall a recent impromptu phone interview that had awkward pauses as I tried to make myself sound valuable, sound knowledgeable, sound big. I floundered. The memory recent is humiliating as my value in those eyes is directly tied to my hours in, pay earned, contacts made.

My thoughts go further to years back accepting a job as a magazine editor. I took the position with three kids at home, one school age and two others not yet. Two days into the job, I found myself explaining to the publisher I’d made a giant mistake. Those kids were my primary responsibility no matter how much I wanted to be an editor, to design pages, direct photo shoots, write stories. I needed to be there for them first.

As I walked and cried and sweated with no music to soothe. I only grew angrier.

I prayed.

God. Help. Please.

This is an ugly cycle. This is going nowhere. This is a pity party.

Please help me see You move, You answer prayers.

Before my emotions could be allayed, I was angrier even. I put aside so many things to be this mom. I can’t even say it’s a job I have done well. I have sat in dentists’ offices with the nurse explaining half a dozen cavities and died a little thinking I was too tired to help floss so many nights . I have sat across the table from a teacher telling me again that this child will not sit still and listen and there are others who deserve this spot in this class. I have had teachers send notes home that they made my child buy a lunch because what was packed did not look like enough. That’s what happens when you are all to happy to let a fourth grader pack his own lunch when time is short. It’s not like I’m a stellar mom with star students and athletes and no discipline issues. This job wasn’t done well and now all of these years of “experience” count for nothing when you want a job so someone somewhere will notice you, will deem you worthy.

God, please help me.

I think of scripture. I know the answers. I’ve known them all my life. How now does that get me out of this hideous pit? I know that I should not live by my emotions. You act on truth and let the emotions follow.

When the emotions grab hold it is so hard to shake them.

I am ready for the meat. The meat to be the gospel truth healing my heart. I am ready to see the power of God’s word remaking me. How do I break free?

I tell myself the truth. I am a child of God. He is sovereign. He sees me. These years are important, not wasted. The eyes of the world may not see success but there is so much it will never see.

I don’t want to be like this, worried about what others think. Worrying about be considered valuable and not small. I have prayed often to be more than this selfish me, to have more of Him and less of me.

I am trying to hold fast to truth. In that angry, emotional moment, I struggle so hard to hold on to it.

I believe. Help my unbelief.

My night ends with a loving husband, listening, patiently. I tell him I KNOW the answers. It just seems like a great time to feel that they are true. When does faith become sight? How do I get to the reality of the words?

I cried. A lot.

The following day I found what I always find after that kind of night, swollen puffy eyelids and under eyes, a terrific addition to my smallness.

The next day, for some unknown reason, my husband asked me to take a short business road trip with him while kids were in school. As we drove, my mind again wandered to my future, this next step with kids in school. Previously I saw it wide open, fat with optimism. I could go and be anything. Now a few weeks in and job prospects thin at best, it’s a different landscape.

I think again about feeling small. Why do I feel so small? I am putting my identity into what I do. Suddenly, gently, the Holy Spirit nudges and I recognize a prayer is being answered. How I couldn’t recognize it is instantly astounding. I have prayed time and time and time again. “More of you and less of me.”

Rarely do we like to think of answered prayer as such a painful process, or at least I don’t. In my small mind, there is a magnificent thought of only happy people in happy places with no job losses, or illnesses, or suffering. Answered prayer is healing and peace and smiles and rainbows.

I thank God as I realize yet again when I always seem to forget: This is not about me.
I am praying for Him to increase, for me to decrease AND HE IS ANSWERING MY PRAYER.

Words of CS Lewis immediately come to mind: “We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.”

It hurts to feel small. It hurts because I am wanting it to be all about me. When I focus on me, me, and then me some more, perspective skews wild.

Donald Miller said it beautifully: “The biggest lie I have ever contended with is this: life is a story about me.”

The anger melts. Frustrations fade as I once again find my great God faithful.

“For the word of the LORD is upright, and all his work is done in faithfulness.” Psalm 33:4

My anger, my sadness shows a distinctive lack of trust, of gratitude. I spent years enjoying the people, the gifts He has so graciously given. Then like a spoiled child, I stomped around saying I’ve gotten no credit for this. I could have had a job where people pat me on the back, say nice things, pay me money, take notice. I deserve credit! Give me Yours!

There it is, the absolute heart of the gospel. He did.

He has given me all of His credit. There is nothing He has withheld from this spoiled child. He laid it all down and I am demanding what? Something else? His earbuds, perhaps?

There is nothing He does not notice.

He’s making a way even now. This God who made the heavens by a word, is continuing to patiently remake me. He is gently stripping away the subtle idols I have put in His rightful place. Being a mom does not overshadow being His child. Being an editor does not make me more valuable to the Creator of the universe. I don’t need a title, a bullet point on the resume, a salary to be someone. (Even now the flesh cries out, “a salary would be nice though!”) UGH.

When I was young, people would wear bracelets with PBPGINFWMY printed on them. I thought they were silly and now I think I need one. Please be patient, God is not finished with me yet.

love letters

“Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”  1 Peter 1:8-9

When I was in college, I fell in love.

The man I would eventually marry was a student at the University of Connecticut. I was a student at Texas A&M. The semesters we spent apart seemed long because the love of my life was 1,786 miles away.

No one was emailing, much less text messaging. There were phone calls, but they were expensive, 15 cents a minute is a lot for poor college kids. What we had instead were actual love letters. These letters on a page spelled out words that relayed a story of love—literal love letters. He took the time to consider me, my feelings, to relay his own. He let me know his plans and his thoughts about the future, our future.

Checking my university mail box was an essential part of my day. It informed how my day went. If it was a letter day, if I heard that I was loved and thought of and cared for, things were oh-so -good.

If it was not a letter day, I would survive but I would also wonder if he had thought of me that day. I wonder how much he cares, if it meant anything that he’d skipped a day on letters. The distance hurt more when our communication lagged.

We had letters. We had plans. Now we’ve had 22 years of marriage, five kids, 12 homes. We now can look one another in the face and speak the words we want to say and when we are apart there is texting and emailing and cheaper phone calls. Our relationship is more than enhanced by our communication. It is dependent upon it. Our words to one another keep our relationship alive. The events of my life are not fully lived until they have been shared with my husband. They seem fictional until he knows about it. The reality of making choices, moving ahead only happens when he has spoken and responded.

I am thankful to have this kind of relationship. As deep as it is, it is only a distant second to the life-sustaining relationship with the God of creation. He has spoken to me, before that, he spoke me into existence. And His word, written and alive, is the one that holds me together.

The incomprehensible, life-giving word of God, the word that has the power to bring the dead back to life cannot be contained. As a writer, the very idea of attempting to capture it—in words no less—is daunting, an impossible task. There is no capturing, no taming of this power, this power that holds all of creation together.

Hebrews 1 makes the power clear:

“God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,  having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.”

He upholds the world and all of life by the word of His power. My existence is at His mercy, is only possible because of His word. Consequently the only thing I can do is work within this realm where He has made me, designed me, and given me the words I write to attempt to honor that same Word of life that gives me my own.

God’s greatness is unsearchable in a world where everything is searchable.

Because God is God, when He speaks there is a physical response. Creation has no option but to respond when the Creator is speaking to it. The Word is life. The Word sustains life. The Word came to restore life.

God spoke, we were created. God speaks, we are redeemed. God’s Word alive is a person, the Person. John 1 tells us plainly:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.”

It is no coincidence that John chooses to call Jesus the Word of God. These letters arranged spell out words that reveal the Word, the living Word whose name is Love. Just as Jesus is our life, our resurrection, the written word of God is our life, our directive. It is our direct connection to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

It is our love letter.

The days I wrestle and thrash and doubt the most are likely ones when I have not checked that mailbox, looked inside to find He wrote to me. I survive, but I miss what He has written to me. Doubts are allayed. He reveals His thoughts, His desires, His plans for my future—our future together.

It is relevant in this very moment. Hebrews 4:12-13 “For the word of God is living and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

On its face, these verses have always struck a certain fear within me. This does not sound like a love letter I think. A piercing sword sounds painful. Naked and exposed are not things I’d like to be. I have heard these verses so many times in so many ways. Yet, I look again.

They are talking about, describing the written word of God. And then there are pronouns for the word of God: His, Him. This written word of God is alive, but how can that be? When God speaks, there is a response in creation. It must be this way. God’s written word is no less powerful. Jesus is the Word of God. Here we find Him. In this verse, on this page, on every page. If we will just look.

He is our love letter.

These verses though, still sound scary. Because of this living Word we do not have to fear. We will survive the piercing of the sword because He was pierced. We can be laid bare before Him because He was naked and exposed for us. This Word discerns our thoughts and intents because He made us, He knows us.

We still feel the sting of separation, the fear of exposure. As exiles waiting to be rescued, we look for encouragement.

So we keep reading.

“Since them we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

There is the encouragement for the moment, the promise for our future together. He has gone ahead. He has made a way.

Though we feel far and long for that face-to-face relationship, we can hold fast to this love letter.

Our lives are made real when we speak with, commune with the Word of God. We gain life, real relationship when we let the Word of God speak His truth and graciously encourage and change us.

We find a life-altering, eternal relationship with the Word of God, in the word of God.

1 Peter 1:23-25. “Since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God for All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever. And this word is the good news that was preached to you.”

these aren’t the little things

I didn’t plan to have a fifth child. Actually that is true of the fourth as well. Regardless, it is symptomatic of an underlying idea that I think I am actually in control of something which is pretty funny in and of itself. That fourth child, that fifth, remind me of the Ephesians 3 prayer that closes with the acknowledgement that God can and does do more than we can ever ask or imagine. They are light in a lot of dark places.

Number five came along when all the other four had survived until school age, made it past my fumblings and failings long enough to make into the educational system where someone else could be responsible for their well being for more hours in the day. From the moment I saw that second line on the pregnancy test, I immediately cried out with thanksgiving. Anyone that knows me can easily testify that is not my normal first response to anything. And yet, the grace of God overwhelmed me with this last unexpected gift.

Perhaps it was a foreshadowing of his attitude and nature as number five has had a grateful heart from so early. He thanks me for everything I do for him. Part of it is purely that childlike contentment that seems to allude us once we pass about second grade. But his gratitude is humbling, contagious. I’ve seen it affect others. In turn I am grateful.

So as I approached this school year with apprehension and as much courage as possible, I still dreaded the day this light would go into another realm to brighten others’ days the way he has every one of mine for five years.

The struggle is more than just his departure, it is what it means for me, at home, alone. I have always wanted to work, to find value in a salary and achievement. With my first kids it was such a wrestling match with God. I kept trying to find a way to do more, to be more. He kept providing a way for me to be home, with more kids. This approaching departure from that pattern did not assuage my angst. If I am honest—which I a more often not—in the recesses of my mind I always thought I would “become something” when I had the time to myself.

We live in a world that explains this is only possible outside of home or when a paycheck is involved. It is an ongoing battle for me. It includes my recently inaugurated job search. The kids will be gone, I have to “do” something more. I need to be more than, well, me. As I have not yet found any such job, there is a vague sense of defeat already.

As apprehensive as I was about this moment, my little man was that thrilled. His excitement was palpable. He was so prepared for this departure that I was and am amazed. Here I believe is the contribution of four much older siblings who talk of lives away from home. He idolizes these older brothers and sisters and desires to emulate them. The only natural progression is to go to school the way they all do: junior in college, junior in high school, sophomore in high school and fifth grader pave the path.

First day jitters were nonexistent for this one who knew his friends were waiting for him in the classroom. (Kids he’s never met are already friends in his mind, be it the playground, the classroom, or passing by on the street.)

Approaching this day made me ponder Abraham taking his promised child to that mountain top. I too, bore a child in old age. Mine was unexpected delight. I cannot fathom the strain and the foreboding as Abraham followed God’s directive to do away with this long-sought-after, long-awaited light of his life that promised so much more for future generations. Surely his knees were feeble beneath him climbing to that inevitable place. Mine were, just getting out of the car to find the kindergarten classroom.

Abraham followed through. But God followed through first. He provided a substitute to foreshadow The Substitute for us all. And there is the origin of gratitude.

My kindergartener hardly looked up from the table once he found his spot. He immediately chose a crayon and went to work. I didn’t drag it out to appease my own pitiful departure. My brave and beautiful fourth went happily to her classroom.

The older siblings have graciously been given a new venture in a Christian school. When I say given, I mean it wholeheartedly. It was another unexpected, highly unlikely happening at the hand of God. As I left them at their new school, I thanked God for delightful surprises like these–this child I didn’t expect, this school I didn’t think possible.

As soon as the quiet approached and I understood where I now find myself, I focused on being thankful, dwelling in the gratitude. Thankful to my Better Way who has provided all along the way. The One who is in control despite my illusions of such. I thanked Him and then thought of my new life without kids during the days. I still have much responsibility for them, to them, even when they are not in my presence.

I thought of the parable of the talents. Immediately I think, I am that guy who only was given one because I don’t have much responsibility, no job of significance. In attempting to stop the negative strain, I thanked Jesus for this role even while thinking I am something of failure alone. Being a mom is not the role of great value, but there is even less of me when they are away. I am not the one with the 5 talents who doubles the fortune. But as in Matthew 25, I want to be faithful, to be commended for being faithful over a little. I prayed as I drove home alone, “Help me to be faithful in the little things.”

I believe He answered immediately:

“These aren’t the little things.”

I gasped.

My precious people are not the little things. I have made them this in my hierarchy of provable success. This life I have been given is not of little significance. There is great responsibility. This is my assignment for this moment in time. Yet I have continued to make plans, believe I am in control, and think I need so much more.

The plans have been made for me and they are those of the Ephesians 3:20 and the Isaiah 29:11 kind. It’s better than I’d hoped for. It’s more than I can ask. I have a future and a hope, whatever that may be. And I am following my kindergartener’s example by clinging to gratitude in this moment.

i am in the way

“I do not know You God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.”
~Flannery O’Connor

This is the ‘i’ society.

iPhone.
iHome.
iCar.
iFood.

While Apple may take credit for the little ‘i’ naming phenomenon, it has more than caught on. Most likely this is because the ultimate little ‘i’ is well, me.

When anyone at any time could “go viral” in a virtual world, it is no surprise that much of life begins with ‘i.’ It’s all about self, making things available for me, to me, about me. Communication via the latest tech has made it the ‘i’ in isolation. It is a selfie nation run wild wielding selfie sticks threatening to pound one another into internet oblivion.

The ‘i’ we project is usually filtered, flattered, and false. When we are actually—not virtually— faced with who we are in real community, how and what do we do with our “me”-ness? Our little ‘i’ issue?

Unfiltered us is often ugly. When we can’t cover, we want to fix.

A friend and I recently lamented our personal struggles, the real, the daily, the disappointing behaviors we admit and long to have repaired. We ache to be made new. We rejoice in redemption received and wrestle with sanctification. We want to be fixed.

The desire to fix, however, often fixates us on us. This is where the problem lies. What’s wrong with me? Someone help me. How do ‘i’ fix me? It is the unpleasant cycle that returns us to the ‘i’ issue. Recognizing the need is essential. We usually stop there though and focus on the need while problems only loom larger.

We can trace this family problem to garden lies that were all about this small ‘i.’ There is something little ‘i’ am missing, a knowledge ‘i’ need. This is the small ‘i’ lie: it’s all about me.

It’s why Flannery O’Connor’s pleas in her prayer journal resonate to my depths, “I do not know You God because I am in the way.”

Little ‘i’ am in the way! Help me push myself aside.

I find my struggle reminds me of the upside down economy of God’s kingdom. There was a man with a bit of an identity issue, who in a moment of frustration—perhaps righteous rage even—took the life of another. He covered it up. When the deed was uncovered (and his little ‘i’ confronted) he ran. He ran to hide his ugly little ‘i’ problem. He could not, however, outrun the solution. In Exodus 3, as he lays low shepherding a flock, content with the quiet he meets the Word we all need.

“And Moses said, ‘I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.’  When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’  Then he said, ‘Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ And he said, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Then the Lord said, ‘I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey… And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.’ But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?’ He said, ‘But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.’
Then Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ And he said, ‘Say this to the people of Israel, “I AM has sent me to you.”’
Moses is given his calling in the midst of hiding and readily admits his own insignificance, his own lack of authority. Moses is more than acquainted with his own short comings, his little ‘i’ problems. (Return where I am wanted for murder?) I have issues that need addressing. If you are sending me, what can little ‘i’ say that will possibly make a difference? Then comes the answer that we all desperately need.

I AM WHO I AM.

Relief.

Rescue.

Can you feel the exhale?

Little ‘i’ is no longer an issue.

This is insignificant ‘i’ before the face of I AM. There’s no need to tack on some meaningless object to that name, no iPhone, no ithis, ithat. I AM is the Word alive, the Creator and Sustainer of any and all. There is no hiding in obscure, filter-filled, avatar-laden, alter-ego worlds. This is where we build the altar and lay that little ‘i’ on it. This is where we bow low. This is where the focus shifts and the little ‘i’ that leaves us ultimately alone and isolated is replaced.

Discernment is possible because we have shifted, held down the shift on that small ‘i’ and find capital I AM is all there is to need. Faced with Author, Finisher, Healer, Redeemer, rest is readily available. Fretting forgotten.

It is not a superficial shift. It is the sanctifying variety. It is facing I AM who created, who knows. He knows about the buried bodies. He knows about the running and hiding. He knows about the little ‘i,’ the insignificance, the ugly. He burns it away and we are left with focus restored. I AM knows what needs repair.

He knows because He was there. He answered the call when they sought Him in the Garden of Gethsemane. We exerted our little ‘i’ in a garden, creating the problem. Big ‘I’ in the garden solves our problem. In John 18: “So Judas, having procured a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, went there with lanterns and torches and weapons. Then Jesus, knowing all that would happen to him, came forward and said to them, ‘Whom do you seek?’ They answered him, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ Jesus said to them, ‘I am he.’”

This I AM, the living Word of God, spoke the truth about his all caps existence. The power of those words overpowered those armed and ready to arrest. Verse 6 tells us that “when Jesus said to them ‘I am he,’ they drew back and fell to the ground.” The big I in the garden always trumps the little ‘i’ there.

And perspective is regained here.

Though the power of His Word spoken was enough to defeat his captors and flee, instead I AM submitted fully. He submitted to death on a cross. He let go of self.

Let us follow this lead.

Let us let go.

Eyes off ‘i’ and on to I AM.

We have the opportunity, the ability to cast the care there. To cast it where it is redeemed, restored, swallowed up. We can acknowledge the need and rest in the rescue. The problem is solved and now we initiate a new identity. We are made for bigger things, bigger than us.

Our small and fragile finite fixing is overshadowed:

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

We plead, “push me out of the way.” We fix our eyes on I AM and find the only way to know the One who fixes us.

the thorn isn’t leaving

I look for tidy answers to tiring days. Those long days, moments discouraging seem to run me down, even during what should be sabbath rest. It’s as if attacks are more prevalent when we’ve celebrated worship, rejoiced in The Victory. I can run down lists of all the ways the kids are awry and how I long for it to be made right. Running down the list though is more like running down the kids, pointing out flaws. The consequential sting spreads and aches and I swell hurt. I recognize myself. These short comings and failures are equally my own.

So I look for happy, quick-fix answers.

There is a verse for this somewhere, some devotional that tells me I am not a bad parent. They will “get it” and grow up and be kind and love others, even their own siblings. My own weaknesses overwhelm those thoughts and I recall 2 Corinthians 12 and Paul receiving the not necessarily quick-fix answer in the face of fleshy thorns, trials, hurts, longings for those he’s been striving to bring along in the faith.

“My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” (NKJV)

I have plenty of that last part to go around. So if it’s made perfect here, He’s made perfect in this weak fleshy moment of mine and my kids, where is it? When is it becoming perfection? How do I see it?

I know it is true and authentic and applicable today. I believe it is true. Is this the faith without sight? Because it doesn’t look like strength is abounding when a child says they are no longer sure they believe. It doesn’t feel like strength when tempers flare, egos swell, and no one “likes” each other anymore.

Perhaps this isn’t a simple solution I am offered. Maybe underneath that isn’t what I am really seeking, or more importantly really need. The need is to first acknowledge the need, for the need to fulfill the intended purpose and drive me to that intimate space, that quiet where I meet Strength. How else is anything made perfect? Flare prayer with instant results would not teach or train or accomplish heart mending at deepest levels for the long term. It would only be instant gratification and a moment fixed in a world overflowing with these things. And those are not the things that last.

I need to need Him, to long for Him, to ache for repair and the repair begins here when I meet Strength. I only begin to glimpse that as I go to my knees in these times, the times when I recognize I cannot do this. The shortcomings fall long and failures pound me down to the earth.

This is where I find Him.

We all want the simple, smooth answers. We request ________, He grants__________.

The simple. The slick.

I think relationships that only exist this way may not actually be relationships. Could this God who is relationship in and of Himself, possibly want more from and for His children? The gritty, zipper-stuck-push-and-pull of a true knowing, true relationship. He isn’t content to leave me slick and falsely satisfied. We aren’t moving on without the knowing that comes in the struggle, the gritty moments.

Consider those you truly love, truly know. Not the idols, the idealized versions of someone you think you want to know. Knowing comes with that rub, the rubbing off of the rough edges, the changing one another.

“Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” (ESV) Proverbs 27 tells us for a reason. That sharpening means we are having the dull, the useless parts filed away. It does not feel good. It does, however, accomplish His purpose.

God wants us here. This is where, this is when we know Him. When we know strength.

Here, bowed low, I find immediate relief and strength for the moment. When I recognize that this too is in a sovereign plan, I can breathe. When I remember  Strength was truly perfect the moment He went up on a cross, that moment when onlookers only saw weakness, I can know it isn’t all on me. I am not alone and there is a work in progress—in them, in me.

It is the Jacob wrestling the angel reality, the push and pull for souls in Sodom. It is Paul pleading repeatedly to have this thorn removed.

Paul receives that answer. This thorn is not leaving. This particular trial is necessary now for humility, for purpose accomplished. So Paul leads by example, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (ESV)

There is no other way to truly know Him, unless we know Him in the struggle. When we can wrestle and then declare His grace all sufficient. When bad is worse and He is still more than enough, it is only then that we do know.

When it doesn’t look like strength, when it doesn’t feel like strength, I have to let go of the perception and hold fast to the reality of God.

I hold fast to the God who knows me and is enough.

secret identity

“Super ladies? They’re always trying to tell you their secret identity…think it’ll strengthen the relationship or something like that. I say, ‘Girl, I don’t wanna know about your mild-mannered alter ego or anything like that. I mean, you tell me you’re uh Super, Mega, Ultra Lighting Babe, that’s alright with me. I’m good…I’m good.'”

~Frozone, The Incredibles

Laughter subsides, reality pops back. Art reflects the culture, a cartoon character goes straight to the almost unbearable truth of a world that is content to focus on the masks we all wear rather than the reality behind them. Furious pace of electronic connection buries people. It shovels dirt into this hole where we are trying to bury the truth.

I certainly don’t post video of the argument my kids had over who ate more oatmeal cream pies out of the box I bought yesterday, or upload selfies from the time I cried my eyes swollen, overwhelmed with ache that one of my children is hurting or that I have hurt someone else, again.

As we all starve truth and gorge on the emptiness, we find ourselves anemic, weak, distorted in our view of reality. We are engulfed in “reality” everything. Yet there is this vague acknowledgement in the backs of our minds that this is anything but. The momentary shot of adrenaline approval—whether it be a like, a view, a follower—is a fleeting fancy with no tangible sustenance. (And if you are here thinking that those things can result in the tangible, they can. It’s not, however, of the life-giving variety.) We are not fed or fulfilled. So we do it again, like the Pavlovian dog or the rat trained in the maze.

The anorexia of the soul consumes.

We shovel some more.

Born into sin, we immediately and innately sense our ultimate need, our lack, and we yearn for more and better. We seek approval. After our divine design was marred in the garden, we instantly began to mar one another and assign blame for our ensuing lack of security. Once we have lost sight of identity given by God, we reach for the first fig leaf we can find to cover and just try to act natural.

This ongoing attempt to validate ourselves, to find ourselves valued, to find ourselves loved, most often results in that same reach for the leaf. We cover the unmentionable aspects of ourselves, revealing only what we think is acceptable, desirable, beautiful, in hopes it will garner the affection we crave. It is the starving of our true selves.

After awhile, we forget the Truth. We no longer know who we are, lost in the mad shuffle of shifting morals and madness. We think we will find rest, relief for our weary souls by feeding elsewhere, online. We emerge with the secret identity well-hidden, only our Super Selves on display. We may parade in a mask of bravery, courage. It is not really what we want. The deepest need is not met.

We will exhaust every avenue, changing anything and everything about the truth of who we are. If we aren’t married, maybe marriage? If we are married, perhaps divorce. If we are young, let me just be older. We have aged, if only we were young again. Don’t have money, work really hard to make as much as possible. Change hair, change eyes, get thin, surgically alter my physical identity, gender even. I will find a way to fix myself, to change to something, someone better. I know I will like who I am now.

Herein lies the ugly secret. Here is what we are trying to cover in that hole. Like a Poe character attempting to hide the evidence in the floorboards, it will not be silenced. Whatever we project, whatever we think we want people to see is not only not reality, it isn’t even what we want known. We want to be fully known just as we are and fully loved that same way.

We can undergo a total physical transformation, inherit all the money we could ever want, land the perfect job, wear the perfect clothes but when we wake up in the morning, it is still just us. The exterior can look however we want. Circumstances will always fluctuate. It is still just people striving, shoveling.

None of us can change what actually needs changing.

There is only one true Super Hero. There is only One capable of validating you. And the you He validates isn’t Ultra Lightning Babe, or because you’ve gotten 100,000 followers or because of how you look, or feel, or act. He validates the mild-mannered alter ego. He falls in love with the one behind the mask, the secret identity you. He rescues the you He designed. It is the you He made you to be.

When there was nothing admirable, lovable, delightful in your identity, He sacrificed His own perfect internal beauty. He gave it up, gave it away. This is the One to whom every knee will bow, every tongue will confess. And. He. Loves. You.

He designed you. He works from the inside out, the upside down of the world. He created the identity that can only be complete in Him.

David wrote it magnificently in Psalm 139:

“O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
 you discern my thoughts from afar.
 You search out my path and my lying down
 and are acquainted with all my ways.
 Even before a word is on my tongue,
 behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
 You hem me in, behind and before,
 and lay your hand upon me.
 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
 it is high; I cannot attain it.
Where shall I go from your Spirit?
 Or where shall I flee from your presence? 
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
 If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! 
If I take the wings of the morning
 and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, 
even there your hand shall lead me,
 and your right hand shall hold me.
 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
 and the light about me be night,”
 even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day,
 for darkness is as light with you.
For you formed my inward parts;
 you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
 Wonderful are your works;
  my soul knows it very well.
 My frame was not hidden from you,
 when I was being made in secret,
 intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
 Your eyes saw my unformed substance; 
in your book were written, every one of them,
 the days that were formed for me,
 when as yet there was none of them.
How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
 How vast is the sum of them!
 If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
 I awake, and I am still with you.”

He made you. He knows you. He loves you.
The proof is in the action, not in the uttering of words, or typing words on a page.

He didn’t like your post. He didn’t follow you on Twitter. He didn’t send a friend request on Facebook.
He went up on the tree and laid down His life. And for all of our shoveling, we could not bury this Truth.
When He came back from the dead, He brought your identity with Him. Your secret identity is not a secret to Him.

learning how to die

“That’s the whole spiritual life, learning how to die.”

~Eugene Peterson

People say they want to die to self.

We, however, have an innate natural fear of death and dying to self is no easier a feat than regular death. Really death of any kind is something we all would like to avoid.

I’ve decided people don’t really know what they are really saying.

This, like any difficulty I know about or encounter, is something I choose to run from and not to.

A spiritual life by death is daunting and I’m fully aware that I am not capable. I have demonstrated that I always choose self. Even when I think I’m not, the motives are frightening.

However, I have children.

As it turns out, that it is an excellent method for learning to die.

Having kids is the single hardest thing I have ever done.

Giving birth on its own is like a death of sorts. The physical pain and exhaustion and opening of your body in a way never thought possible feels like you may be dying.

Literally ripped apart, the body is broken and gives up to another life.

The pain, the fear, the sheer exhaustion of birth may have actually been the easy part.

When a child reaches maturity and you consider all you have poured in and that nothing is how you thought it would be, this too is a kind of death. The death of a desire or a dream.

Let me just give birth every day to not have to see, to feel, to endure these kinds of things now.

When the freshman in college says he doesn’t believe any more what he has professed to believe all his life.

When they slide up next to you to tell you they love you only to follow up with the story of how they are in dire trouble for foolish actions or what they would like you to buy them.

When they invite you to lunch with a friend and you realize it’s only because they need you to foot the bill.

When the embarrassment of “mom” being nearby is enough to make them take two steps away, pretend they don’t know you.

When it’s mother’s day and they hem and haw and shuffle feet anxiously waiting until they are free to go.

When you hold fast and they only pull away.

Motherhood does not look like this—at least not in the movies, not on television, not next door, not on Instagram or Pinterest.

This is where it feels broken, given up, swept under, less than.

To be at the middle of life and have nothing to show, no achievement to point to. There is no stellar career. This is not a neat and orderly home. There is not a beacon of spiritual leadership here.

There is the dry ache of eyes that have no tears remaining. Dryness all over, that sense that you’ve nothing left to pour out.

These people are just looking for a way out even though you have given up everything you had to bring them in. It is a hurt like none I’ve ever known.

I can’t figure out if I am dying to self or if they are killing me.

I look for any kind of evidence that there is love and only when I look up and away from me and the mess and disappointments do I find truth.

When I think that my kids are forcing my own spiritual death, I remember this is the calling. The Savior led me this way.

Looking up to him on that cross, enduring far beyond all I can imagine, I know as awful as it is to behold, it is life coming from death. His journey to the cross did not end with death.

It is in remembering this that we find life: And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. {Phillipians 2}

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. {John 12}

How must He feel when I say I don’t believe, when I always ask and never thank, when I am embarrassed to say I am with Him, when I try to escape our time alone.

We are called to this same death that brings life, but we have to remember in the midst that we are loved, not alone.

For Christmas last year my dad made a decorative guitar for me. He has taken up woodworking and cherishes the time and effort he puts into the work.

He searches barns and roadsides and specialty shops for unusual and unique pieces that he can transform into something beautiful. And he does.

The guitar he made has several different types woods and is pieced together in a glorious design. When he gave it to me, he included a wooden nameplate that he had burned with the name of the piece.

We hung it immediately I and I kept the label nearby on the windowsill.

I admire the work daily.

Somehow it is easy to miss the life in the midst of death. It is easy when the focus is on all that looks awry. The noise, the failures of life tend to draw our attention away from the finished work.

As awful as giving birth—the process—can be, the resulting life is like nothing else. The mere fact that life comes of that brokenness is astonishing.

When I had my fifth child, I was in the final throes of childbirth, baring down and pushing with all I had. My head was down and eyes closed focused only on the pain.

Then I realized the doctor was speaking to me, “Amy, look up.”

I opened my eyes and there, half out of me was my precious David screaming like, well, he was dying.

He was coming to life in this world and it was as if my broken pain was instantly gone. My focus changed and I was renewed by life.

While battling feelings of loneliness, I recently stared hard at my dad’s creation hanging on the wall. I know it is a symbol, a reflection of his love. I looked at it and yearned to know my cries are heard, difficulties understood.

I asked my Father to show me again.

I reached for the nameplate, picked it up and turned it over.

There I found something I’d not seen before. My dad had written on the back side of the wood. His signature was there, the artist signing his work. He had also written a note to me:

You are greatly loved by me Amy

-Dad

Undone, tears came again.

I am no longer dry when I fix my eyes on the finished work.