Sunday, September 28, 2014

Salvation, not Tragedy (but almost)

An instant is all it takes to radically change the course of a life, or lives. A nanosecond. One slip.

How will I sleep tonight? The world has not stopped rocking since 2:00pm this afternoon, when everything slid sideways and almost slipped away. This was almost a story of tragedy. I cannot even get my mind to wrap around how tragic it almost was, and if I venture there at all, I am still, almost eight hours later, overcome by trembling that comes from inside somewhere I can't identify. Everything hurts as a result--my head, my jaws, my biceps. Too tightly clenched to keep out the possibility of the reality that almost was.

And yet, this is a story of salvation, not tragedy. I must get that reality to latch on. It wasn't what it could have been.

I cannot bear to relive it all right now to tell it, but compiled here is the content of two email conversations and a face-to-face conversation with one person who was able to rush to me in person and catch me before I blew apart. All happened this afternoon, one with my pastor and the final with another friend who knows well how to bear burden with genuine empathy.

Dear Pastor D:
I am home right now with all four girls, and we are safe and sound. But we had a near tragedy today, and by God's mercy (and I'm not even exactly sure how) we are alive and no one is physically hurt.

My phone is dead from being submerged, so email is the only way I have to communicate right now.

It was interesting that you talked about hikes and waterfalls today. Just this week, Jill (the littlest girl) told me she wanted to see waterfalls. I had not taken them hiking at all this summer, so we planned to go to Dupont after church today. We also had two of Emma's friends from her cross country team with us, Brittainy and Emily.

We talked about your sermon while we had a really quick picnic in the pavilion area at church and then went out to Dupont. When Jill saw Triple Falls, she was ecstatic and even more excited about the people walking around on the big, flat rock area at the midpoint. She wanted to go there. I was likewise excited about her excitement, so we all went down the many steps and out onto the open rock area.

We read the sign that said "no swimming or wading," and everyone understood it. But even so, in just an instant, Jill, the baby, went to sit down on the rock near the water--not even at the edge. The water must have been higher very recently, because the rock was slimy and wet and she immediately slid INTO the water. I was only an arm length's from her, but the water took her too fast for me to grab her. I had to jump in. I managed to grab her and literally hurl her back toward the rock plateau where the four bigger girls (Brittainy, Emma, Jane, and Emily) had already gotten down flat on their stomachs and were reaching for her. Emily was able to reach Jill's hand and pull her out, but I couldn't get back. The water was pulling me away and though it wasn't deep, it was slightly inclined and completely slimy and slippery. I honestly thought I was going to die with my girls' hands outstretched trying to reach me.

But Emma and Brittainy made a chain and Brittainy came in after me. She was able to grab my jacket sleeve and pull that much into Emma's reach. Emma held us both until a woman we didn't know appeared and pulled me in, so Emma could get Britt back up.

The girls all seem to be doing OK. We are all alive and lost only a phone and have some skinned knees. But I am shaken to the core and can't yet even grasp how close it was, nor shake the image of my baby with one arm out to me, crying, "Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!" while being pulled out of reach.

Brittainy's mom met us back at the church parking lot to pick her up. I was honestly praying that maybe somebody would be there then, somebody I could just share the experience with, but no one was. I did tell Britt's mom, and she was wonderful and prayed with us all and even said she was glad Britt was there to help because my little ones would not have been able to make and hold the chain to get me out.

I don't know what we need, if anything really, other than prayer to settle us again, for us to see God's provision and rescue and not just the horror and fear. I just really needed to have the story told, I guess. I still feel like I might break apart into a million pieces, thinking how close we were to losing that little girl, and how close it was for me, and how at risk Brittainy was, and the other girls trying to reach me but not sure whether I was going to be OK. 

My friend said to try to focus on the image of God pulling us from the water, and I am trying. But the whole thing is too vivid, and this existence too precarious. When I sit still, the trembling begins again. My friend says it won't always be this vivid. I hope that is correct, except that then, am I walking blindly again into purposeful obliviousness about this unsettled peril of living? Annie Dillard said that if we could even begin to grasp who God really is, then we should never enter his presence without crash helmets on.

How will I sleep tonight? When I try, in a few moments, I will go get the little one and bring her in with me. Just the last hour apart from her has been almost more than I can bear.

When each girl was a newborn, I sticky-tacked an index card to the wall next to the head of my bed with Psalm 4: 8 on it: I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O LORD, cause me to dwell in safety.

Tonight I am not sure what that peace is, exactly. But I know it is true that You Alone, O LORD, cause me to dwell in safety. I can do no thing at all to contribute to this, it seems.

And I am staggered by the weight of that truth and that mercy.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

A Blessing for a Friend, as He Takes on a New Challenge

When I first came to the Christian faith, it was in a Baptist church in a small college town. I remember that the pastor, who became a good friend during those years, each Sunday ended the worship service by praying the same blessing over the congregation, and then he would finish with, "Now let's go out and be the church." It was an encouragement to active obedience in representing God to the world in love.

On my last Sunday there, before leaving to move to this town to take a job which that pastor helped me get by giving me a glowing personal reference (I was actually hanging around the church office when the call came in, and he announced to all of us gathered there, "That's the call! I have to go get Rebecca a job!""), he called me to the front of the worship area and prayed the blessing over me specifically.

As the years passed, I forgot some of the words, but four years ago, a dear friend was heading off to college, a bit fearful and uncertain, and I wanted to offer the same blessing to him. I found my old pastor with the help of Google and emailed him, asking for the complete wording again. He was thrilled to provide it, and to know that at least pieces of it had stuck with me all those years. (I think we all like to know that somehow, God really does use us to have impact somewhere, sometime. He does.)

He told me then that is was part of an old Scottish benediction.

Today we heard that as dearly beloved children, we are called and energized and empowered to step out in confidence to take on the tasks God puts before us--even though we may not perform perfectly. We will fall short. Some things will go undone; some may not work as well as we hoped. In some cases, we may fall flat on our faces. But as dearly loved children, we are still to be active--to do what we are called to do without fear of failure, because we are perfectly justified and nothing can change that state. God's love for us is not conditional upon our performance. That fits with the Scottish benediction of those years ago.

A rather new friend in my life is stepping out now in faith into a new calling. I have great confidence that all will be well--more than well: excellent. But there are questions and a lot to manage, plan, sort out. There are people to enlist and delegate to appropriately. It is a challenge, and it seems daunting today. But as a dearly loved child, confident that his favor can never be lost in the Father's eyes, he can still step out, still go, into the unknown and do. Even as we lack confidence in our own abilities, we can have certainty in God's. He will not fail. He will equip. He will multiply every seed of our human efforts as we lift our gifts up to him. As we go.

This blessing today is for that friend.

As you go, may the Lord Jesus Christ go ahead of you, as planner and preparer of your way.
As you go, may the Lord Jesus Christ go behind you, as finisher and completer of all that is left undone.
As you go, may the Lord Jesus Christ be over you, watching over you and yours.
As you go, may the Lord Jesus Christ be under you, to pick you up when you shall fall (and you and I will).
And as you go, may the Lord Jesus Christ be in you, incarnating his love now and forever more.


As you go, go as a dearly beloved child. Held, equipped, instrumental, and never forsaken.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

A Letter of Love

The details of a loved one's life are never tedious.

That's what I found myself thinking as I read a real, handwritten letter from my dad earlier this week.

Letters are so rare, so to find one in my mailbox was a real treat. I remember the days when checking the mail used to be exciting--there might be something in there from a real person. Now, it's mostly advertising junk and the occasional bill that doesn't come electronically. So a real letter from a real person--it almost feels surreal.

I love my dad's handwriting. It implies that he is in a great hurry. The letters slant so far to the right they appear to be running across the page. I feel like I must read quickly before they tumble off the righthand margin. I imagine that he is trying to write as quickly as he thinks. When I handwrite, as I do in my prayer journals, it is in part because I intentionally want to slow down my thoughts and let them take full shape. Handwriting lets me process outside of my own head, often a very good place to be. But I don't sense a slowing in his letter, which is interesting, because his life has very much slowed down from what it used to be.

I hear his voice in the words he uses too. He grew up in a fairly rural area of West Virginia. There are colloquialisms and word choices he uses that are common to no one else I know. ("Kindly," for instance, shows up in unexpected ways.) It's his voice there on that page. When I read it a second time, it's even more his voice.

The content is not anything someone will find in my attic decades from now and use to rebuild important events in human history. He tells me about his day and his health. His breathing was good enough and the temperature cool enough that he sat on the porch for an hour. A simple pleasure he can't always enjoy. The day he made two trips to the grocery, and the friend he saw there. "She looks beautiful," he says. "I always worried she was too tired and thin, but today she looked rested and healthy. I'm glad. I was kindly worried about her." He tells me what he made for dinner, and why--a superfluous bounty of squash had arrived at his door when he was out at the store. He doesn't know who the giver was, but "that was nice of them."

And as I read, I realize these everyday details that I'm not there to live through with him seem so much more valuable because of our distance. And that the details of a loved one's life are never tedious. I want to know.

I don't mean to suggest a litmus test for love. If you grow weary of the same old, same old from someone in your life, I don't mean to suggest that you don't love that person. (Something in the fact that you are there hearing those details, even if you are weary, still suggests love, doesn't it?) But yet, when I notice how precious they are to me, I realize the affection I have for him. It is a gift. I shouldn't take it for granted. So I will keep this rare letter, and maybe one day my daughters will try to decipher the racing letters, and envision an ordinary day in their grandfather's later life, and want to know him more, and actually, by reading it, they will know him more.

I have a friend at church who is often reminding those of us who will listen that God's writings to us are love letters. I love that. A letter of his love from Father God. In the details of my own life, which are many and at times tyrannical in their urgency, I far too often find myself reading that Father's love letters to me with all the affection I might feel reading an instruction manual for changing a lightbulb in the microwave. Looking for the instructions. Trying to meet my grown-up responsibility and check off that one thing for the day. Ugh. Forgetting that these words are what I need, for my good, to know him more, to hear his voice in the pages, to delight in his view of this life and this world and all his great purpose in it.

His fingerprints are all over my life. I know it. He's writing my story into this greater one, and when I shake myself awake from the tyranny of the urgent, there it is: His voice. It's not in the whirlwind of all the requirements of the day. It's not in the fire of other people's expectations and judgments. It's in that still, small, quiet voice, aware of the other turmoil, but holding steady beneath it and above it and speaking to me, like my earthly dad--come into my story, be comforted, be held, know that it's all for a purpose, I have taken care of it, and I'll never let you go. The book isn't a burden. It's a love letter.

And the ember of affection ignites.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

What Makes a Handful?

"You sure have your hands full!" said the older woman in Target, watching me try to corral four independent-thinking and adventurous girls all under the age of 12 a few years ago.

When Miriam turned five, my dear Uncle Sammy spoke truth by declaring, "Now you're officially a HANDFUL!" She always has been. Birthday #5 just made it official.

It's rarely quiet around here. Right now, we have multiple cooking projects going on for a church feast tomorrow. The music blares. If no one is hurt or angry right this moment, just wait a bit. In every room, something is broken, missing, or stained (or all of the above). The socks never match. The Tooth Fairy never comes on time. Bedtimes observed? Ha! Not in the last few years. I've lost about as much of the good silverware as I have left from that registry years ago. I can't name one possession intact that I would call an heirloom, and the bank account is already all committed before even the first of the month has arrived.

Are my hands full?

You bet.

Full of kindness.

What's God's eternal purpose in redemption? Why did he do it, make you and me and all these hand-filling people and then hang with us, pour out himself for us, mess and all?

Ephesians 2: 7 " that in the coming ages (that's all the coming ages, folks, forever) he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus."

His whole plan is to be KIND to us for all eternity. To pour kindness out, immeasurably.

I once did a word study on Kindness, and about the same time heard a sermon which dealt with God's pouring out that kindness from "the hollow of his hand." Kindness has to do with usefulness--the needed things. And God's active hand is meeting all our needs, so if you have it, you must have needed it, and in his kindness, his hands opened up and poured out to you that which is most needed. That's kindness.

By design, I'm a "glass half-full" person. Optimism and positive expectation were my default position for the first two-thirds of my life for sure. But the reality of living broken in such a broken world does eventually have an effect. There has been much reason for grief and mourning, internally, externally, at my own hand and from the hands of others. My own demeanor has changed from one of bouncy, energetic, arms wide open toward heaven in gleeful expectation to one of a more somber mood--my own empty palm extended in the midst of tears and uncertainty, from the knees, or even lower.

But that doesn't change the Source of kindness, or the availability of it.

"Comfort, comfort my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended and that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins."

Double from his hands, to my open palm.

Let the crazy rule in this home. Joy runs like a current beneath it all.

Are my hands full?

You bet.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Gospel Coalition, Keller, and Tullian Tchividjian

I'm a little heavy hearted the last couple of days learning about what might be another schism occurring among some of our more respected Christian leaders and a pretty well-trusted organization.

I have a lot of respect for Tim Keller and every Tchividjian I've had the opportunity to meet, read, learn from. Tullian's focus on grace is like cool streams of water in the desert to me. Tim Keller's straight talk has unpacked a lot of gospel for me as well.

I have to admit, I am not knowledgeable enough about the differences being debated to have much of an opinion regarding the reasons for the decision to part ways. I'm a bit saddened by it. But at the same time, I have to remember that nothing is lost in God's economy. He magnifies his name and his purpose in this creation. Even this will work to that end.

Another such separation stands in history as an eventual positive for church growth.

It's at the end of Acts chapter 15.

There came a point when Paul and Barnabas had to go separate ways. Barnabas--the "son of encouragement"--the one who was brave enough to go to Paul in the first place to see if his transformation from persecutor to believer was real. Barnabas brought Paul to the other apostles and presented him as the real deal, threw his optimism and support behind Paul when no one else would. Later, though, a "sharp disagreement" is recorded and the two went separate ways. But the church grew stronger in more places because of their eventual separation than it would have if they had continued to travel and preach together.

Nothing is wasted in God's economy. He will use it. Maybe Keller's crowd NEEDS to hear more about performance and obedience, and Tullian's crowd needs the refreshment of freedom from oppression. Both have a place in this journey of working out our salvation. God knows what he's doing. He will meet all the needs of his communities. But I do hope these two men, and all those working with and supporting them, can just do this well, without slander or hardship or sweeping anything under the rug.

We will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Even when there are disputes and disagreements between brothers. I pray for these men, that their instrumentality won't be lessened because of this, but magnified in spite of it.

After I posted the above, Tullian Tchividjian made some remarks on his own website which are worth reading. I think his comments reflect the "sweet spirit" we all hope to see in one another and in our leaders who are in the public eye. Read Pastor Tullian's letter here: Reflections on My "Break Up" with The Gospel Coalition. 

Friday, May 9, 2014

Who's the Mother?

I wonder when Mother's Day will begin to feel like my day instead of my own mother's day.

I've been a mom almost 15 years now. Fifteen times around the sun. Fifteen times this Sunday in May has come up on the calendar. And 15 times I haven't felt like it's for me, but for her.

She's not here. I bought no Mother's Day cards this year. No minutes turning into hours reading and re-reading and rejecting and re-visting all the super-sentimental poetry and fake memories someone who doesn't know either of us crafted in a cubicle somewhere and passed on to a designer who laid the words out in a swirly script and sent it on for embossing and production. Mass production of heartfelt emotion.

I didn't even visit a store with a card rack this year.

I guess 15 years of parenthood just doesn't ever replace the previous however many decades of being in relationship with a parent, especially a mother. She's the first thing I ever knew.

It's still her day. It's not mine.

And I miss her.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Can a Christian Know True Despair?

Some things should be used rarely and with great discretion. I would say both cilantro and the word "despair" fall into that category.

The Bible seems to agree. Cilantro isn't mentioned even once. (Though its seed, coriander--a vast improvement over the soapy herb--gets two mentions.) And despair--only four times: Twice in the Old Testament and twice in the New.

I was once told by a Christian church leader that "real" believers should never know the condition called despair. (I didn't ask his opinion on cilantro.) The Hebrew word is yaash (pronounced yaw-ASH). It means desperation without any hope. It's as low as you can go. The Greek, which we find in those two New Testament mentions, is exaporeomai (ex-ap-or-EH-om-ahee, if you're brave enough to try it; I just can NOT get the emphasis in the right place). It means the same thing, essentially, though qualified as "utterly at a loss without a way through." No way out.

I think of the Israelites out of Egypt, with their backs up against the impassable Red Sea and the Egyptians bearing down on them. No way out, or so it seems. But is that one of the places in the Old Testament in which we are told someone experienced despair? No. It isn't. Because really, they were not in despair. God was already making a way. He directed them to move forward even though they couldn't see where to go: move toward the sea. That body of water, in his hands, became their deliverance, though they could never have imagined it or done it themselves. Scripture does not record that they felt despair in that situation, even though I expected it might. Perhaps it isn't recorded because in that case, it was not a truthful desciptor.

Three of the four biblical mentions of despair do indeed seem to support my former advisor's position--that those who really believe do not have a personal relationship with utter hopelessness. Let's look at them.

The first occurrence is in 1 Samuel 27:1. David, in the Psalms, certainly shows us that he knows despondency, but what about despair? In this passage, we find him relentlessly pursued by Saul, to the point that he knows Saul will never, never give up until he has David's life. It may seem David is out of options and despair is nipping at his heels, but that's not how the word is applied. David does something that seems pretty unthinkable. He flees Saul, and where does he go? Straight into the camp of his enemies, the Philistines. Remember Goliath, whom the boy David slew? PHIL-IS-TINE. David took out the Lord's enemies' hero, and now, in his desperation to escape his own enemy, he finds the Philistines a safer bet. After all, it was in the killing of their giant that King Saul's heart was turned against David, filled with uncontrollable jealousy and rage that would not relent. David recognizes the full-tilt passion with which Saul desires to destroy him. Saul is nothing short of consumed with intent to annihilate David, and it is Saul who will then know despair as David slips away to the lesser enemy. David's state of persecution is not, to him, a cause for despair. Instead, he says that when Saul can't find him to kill him, it is Saul who will spiral into that state of utter hopelessness. His unsated bloodthirstiness will send him into desperate emptiness, hopelessness.

Score one for my advisor. Under extreme duress, David did not despair. (And by implication, neither should I, right?)

Next we find the word in Ecclesiastes 2:20. Qoheleth is lamenting the ongoing toil of this life and recognizing its futility and frustration. We work and we work and we work, but we can make for ourselves no guarantee that our profits--if any--will move forward in the wisdom and purpose we desire. With his hope set on the work of his own hands, Qoheleth gives his heart over to despair--utter hopelessness. Not even those who work with wisdom, knowledge, and skill can save themselves or redeem their own efforts well, not even one of them, in this life. Outside of the hand of God (9:1) is nothing but despair. But in the hand of God, the only truly wise place to be--a different story altogether. Score two for my advisor.

The third and fourth usages are found in 2 Corinthians, and for the structure of the argument, I'm going to jump ahead to number four first. 2 Corinthians 4:8, Paul, in writing to the troubled church, states that his current state (and possibly theirs as well) is one of perplexity, "but not driven to despair." Things are bad, but still, his hope is in the "surpassing power of God." Sounds like a third point for the argument that real believers persist in faith so that they do not know the actual condition of despair first-hand.

But I would say, because of the last one, that the scriptural evidence is that they do not know despair in these particular circumstances. Because 2 Corinthians 1:8-9 pushes back against that claim that never will a Christian be so deep in the pit that knowledge of despair moves from gnosis (conceptual head-knowledge) to epignosis (personal, relational, intimate knowledge).

"For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death."

Been there? Paul has. I have. I was told I couldn't. I was told I didn't have enough faith. I was told that no physical circumstance could be bad enough to make a "real believer" feel "utterly burdened beyond [his/her] strength" and "despair of life itself." And here is Paul, the very one chosen by God in a blinding flash of light to take the gospel to the world outside of Judea, an eye-witness to the resurrected Christ, one given a vision in the Spirit of all that is to come, one who knew utter transformation in himself now stating quite specifically that he has also, even in going about the very work assigned directly by God to him, known utter affliction to the point of despair. No way out. None. Death upon him.

And there is validation in that moment. I thought I was a vessel of God's wrath. I thought he had to have abandoned me if I could feel so completely hopeless and trapped and anguished. I thought it meant my faith had not been real if I couldn't hold on to peace and contentment in the midst of suffering. Why do we sunshiny believers feel like we have to push this "happiness doctrine" on one another with such force when here, Paul wants us to know that he, too, has been there? Not only ready to give up, but actually doing so. He was done. Beyond his strength. That was reality.

We don't get to know the specifics of the circumstances Paul experienced but it seems from the text that the cause was conditions outside his own heart. This is not just a spiritual struggle. It was something physical, material, that happened in Asia. Persecution? Betrayal? Illness? All of the above, and then some? It isn't just that he got a little case of spiritual influenza and had to pep-talk himself back into the zeal and fervor he's known for. No, something attacked him, and perhaps his angels were delayed in coming to fight on his behalf, but whatever happened, it broke him. Paul too could break. I did.

But praise be to God, who overcomes. He didn't leave Paul there. He didn't leave me there either. Paul came out of Asia. And in looking back, he can see that God had purpose, and going forward, he can tell the troubled Corinthians that they can take comfort and find peace in his experience for their own. "But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead."

He raises the dead. He reaches those in despair. He gives a way out where there is no way out.

The fact that he does so is not evidence that there was no real reason for despair. On the contrary, the reality of despair is the evidence that we need a GOD outside ourselves to reach into our helpless estate and do what we cannot do for ourselves. "On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us AGAIN."

Beloved, it may not be completely over yet. The sea has parted. The clouds have lifted. The blows have stopped. The path out of Asia has been traveled. But what comes next?

All I know is that "On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again."

For now, may I say that Paul was afflicted so that I, and you, could share in his comfort and salvation? Perhaps I was afflicted so that you can share in my comfort and salvation. And if it comes again, remind me of your own story, and that despair is real. But we rely not on ourselves but on the God who raises the dead.

He is faithful.