Borrowing Praise in the Pew

Have you ever come to church in turmoil or sadness, feeling rattled, asking questions, with heavy weights and the wrong kind of fear?

I praise God for the many times this hasn’t been my lot, but there are enough times where it has been to leave a strong memory of what it’s like and to notice when I see someone who looks to be in that spot.

Everyone stands to sing and for one reason or another the words aren’t coming out. Maybe they’re choked by tears, because there’s nothing theoretical about what’s being sung, it’s all utterly real and has stunned you in the farthest reaches: “I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ Name.” Or maybe they’re too dissonant to what you’re walking through. Perhaps singing, “O, Death, where is your sting?” seems impossible when you feel sucker-punched by death or its effects have dramatically altered the life of someone close to you.

Whatever the difficulty in life: disease, divorce, death, betrayal; this difficulty may leave us feeling very out of place in the middle of the worshiping body of Christ. But I’d like to share my experience in the pew during some difficult times. It’s a testimony of the Spirit’s gracious care. Through the tears or hardness or pain, God has reminded me of something very kind: His body is One. He’s put me in the middle of pew after pew of His children, some of whom are singing full-throated, robust praises. Some have their hands raised and some have faces that are beaming like light, unobscured.

Even when I can’t sing or raise my eyes, the soon-to-be-married bright young woman five rows up can do it for me. When I can’t lift my arms to clap, the 7 year old down the aisle can clap on my behalf. And when my hand is too weak to raise in praise, the man up ahead with a couple littles squirming around and a wife about to have another, can lift his. This is the body of Christ and each one of us is apart of it.

When one part of the body is weak, the other parts take up the slack. When one part is strong, it pours itself out for the rest.

There is a danger for the suffering, the danger of anger and bitterness toward the strong. It’s an attitude that begrudges them their faith and circumstances, and makes a mockery of it, as if to say, “If you were in my shoes, see how strong your faith would be!” But this attitude is like a man who has a broken arm deciding to break the other arm out of a sense of spite and twisted fairness. We are all part of One Body.

Praise God that there is an alternative to that kind of soul-shriveling envy. We can borrow the strength of strong. We can praise by proxy. We can give thanks that someone else is happily proclaiming the words that stick in our throat. We can say amen to the truths we know, but can’t speak.

And by God’s grace, there may be a day not far off when our eyes are clear and our hearts bursting when we sing with all our might to the God who is with us in the valley. Perhaps just a few rows away from us someone will need to hear our voice penetrating into their heaviness, they’ll need our hands lifted up, offering what they can’t, with their whispered amens to it all. And we’ll do it for them, because we are members of one another in this body that belongs to Christ.

What Does a Sad Ending Mean?

Trials are kind of like being jerked out of a sunny day and being thrown down into a well. It seems that all there is down there is dirt, no light, close air and claustrophobia. It can seem more like a pit than a well. But I’m reminding myself that God only ever puts his children in places where water will eventually flow. It may be a desert or a dark night, but he never leaves us alone.

How do we weather these times? How does a family who’s lost a dad, or a parent who’s buried a baby, or a woman who’s been betrayed, or couple longing for a child, weather the pain, the loss, and the fear?

I’ve asked myself that quite a bit as we’ve watched others walk these roads and tasted our own grief over an abnormal baby brain and an unknown future.

The other day the kids and I were heading home in the van and Eliza was finishing up a book in the back seat. Seth was reading the last chapter along with her, not having read the rest of the book. He commented to her, “It looks like it’s going to be a happy ending.” She responded, “Oh, I don’t like happy endings. That means the book is over.” Then she gave this insight, “But when things are scary or sad at the end, you know there will be another chapter or book coming.”

I can’t tell you the relief I felt as I remembered that a tragic ending means one thing: there’s another chapter coming. No matter how pit-like the well we’ve been tossed into, we’ll be at the King’s right hand someday, just like Joseph went from thrown in a hole, sold down the road, and ended up as Pharaoh’s right hand man, we too, have a future that’s beyond any we could dream up from the bottom of a well.

I’m also realizing that the wells of suffering are a place where we get to drink more deeply of his grace than we ever have before, a place where our thirst for him is drowned in knowing him more deeply. This doesn’t mean that we want the suffering, but rather that what gets us through is his presence. When suffering comes our way, we can recognize that there’s more going on here than just the universe dealing us a bad hand. God has a story He’s writing and we’re meant to be transformed in the telling.

This passage has always been a favorite, more so now.

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. ” (Romans 5:1-8 ESV)

Jesus’ sorrows were deeper than any other human being. He bore our sin. He is the picture of perfect suffering, which is such a comfort because he wasn’t giddy about it and we’re not meant to be either. Rejoicing in our suffering isn’t gleeful, trite, happy-go-lucky suffering. It’s a kind of suffering that has hope and the way it gets to that hope is first by enduring, or getting through it. Jesus endured the cross. He got through it. From endurance comes character, then hope. And hope is able to rejoice. Why? Because it’s had love poured right into its heart because of Christ’s grace toward us on the grounds of His death for us.

Also, this rejoicing can’t and doesn’t undo the pain. Jesus didn’t suffer any less, because of the hope He had. He still suffered every bit of the suffering God ordained for him and it still was the full dose of God’s wrath. His pain wasn’t mitigated by His foreknowledge. This is such an important thing to keep in mind when either you or someone you know is walking a hard path. Knowing Jesus gives us hope, but it doesn’t take away the pain. It isn’t meant to. The pain is actually God-ordained to produce things in us that would not be able to be produced any other way. Knowing Jesus is meant to give us reasons to rejoice alongside the pain. They walk hand-in-hand, one doesn’t cancel the other out.

We’ve had some good weeks at our house. It feels like an upswing. I suppose that’s why I want to write about suffering and pain, because writing about it in the worst of it is pretty difficult. But, I’m hoping that by getting my thoughts down now, they’ll be here for me when I can’t see my way through the trials as clearly. And I hope they’ll be a help to anyone reading too, by God’s grace.

He split rocks in the wilderness and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep. He made streams come out of the rock and caused waters to flow down like rivers. (Psalm 78:15-16 ESV)
He split rocks in the wilderness and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep. He made streams come out of the rock and caused waters to flow down like rivers. (Psalm 78:15-16 ESV)

Because What’s a Poem Between Friends?

“Look Up”

O Soul, Sorrowed Soul,
Look up to Him that treads the way,
Look up to Him who will not stay
Far off, but in the night will pay
The debt you owe and use your pain. Pray,
And He will once again make day
To glow on horizon’s bend and
Grant the peace the serves to mend,
To calm, contend and keep at bay
The fears that foment. Yet they will lay
Down and bow to Him who thunders, “Still.”
And wills the miracle: trust, obey,
With surety, glad-faced, without dismay.

O Soul, Weary Soul,
Look up to Him who knows your frame,
Look up to Him who makes His name
To be a balm for wrung-out shame-
Filled mothers, wondering if His claim
On them will hold at story’s end, again reclaimed!
We’ve heard it said, “He isn’t tame.”
And we believe, the evidence showing in our lame
And injured gait that was His aim.
His plot line, our fate, to suffer maim
And bear the heat, the fire, the flame.
So, dross distilled, with clearer voices to proclaim:
Alleluia to the God who came, who reigns.

winter
winter

Loosening the Noose and Matching Socks

Sometimes the best thing we can do is just the next thing.

We live out our faith by matching socks, instead of recounting our pain. We mock death and Satan by doing the dishes instead of crying in our soup. We pick up our sword by laughing at suppertime instead of staring off into the what-if’s of the future. We trust and obey by kissing fat cheeks.

When all of life is winter, what’s left to do but take the hill? Put on boots, walk in the snow and let the wind burn my cheeks on the way down. Be exhilarated, chuckle when you realize the snow went all the way up your pant leg. Go so fast that the tears of living run sideways out of your eyes.

take the hill
take the hill

I’m not commending some kind of pull yourself up by your boot straps and shove the pain away kind of getoverit-ism. Real people have real sorrows and they need to really grieve. I’m simply saying: what then? We must live.

Sin is like a noose around our necks. It wants to tighten and tighten and paralyze us. Sometimes trials act the same way. God gives us something big: a hardship, an unasked for difficulty and it just squeezes us so tightly that we can’t think about anything else! Pretty soon, it starts taking over our identity. Our trials can become badges we wear that let everyone know: this is who I am. It’s a precaution really, it’s like we want our fragility to be acknowledged, upheld. So we wear our suffering. We hold on to it and protect it. We dare not smile or talk about the weather or people might think we’re OK.

I’ve had this little song in my head that we used to sing growing up, “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.” It always struck me as simplistic, cliched even. But God’s not afraid of a cliche, when there’s truth to be mined from it. Sometimes a cliche is just the thing to keep us from taking ourselves and our suffering too seriously.

Obedience and trust bring so much freedom. Trusting God that He’ll hold onto this trial for me. That I can come up for air and shock my 6 year old with my air guitar skillz and let out a belly laugh in the face of something scary. So often, I’ve no idea what to do in this unchartered place, but there is security in obeying.

I won’t presume to tell someone else they should be happy in their suffering. There are different kinds of trials and different kinds of people. There is intense acute pain, and there is the chronic long haul, of which we find ourselves. Wisdom is knowing that love is a tailored thing. But I will presume to tell myself to be happy. And there is one way for me to get to that happiness: trust and obey.

Trust God, trust His plans, His love, His commands. Match socks, do dishes, get a cup of coffee and explain long division, again. Laugh. This is your life, your portion, your work, your joyous children, your special child. Trust and obey and LIVE because that’s what Jesus does. Sing it with me, “Because He lives, I can face tomorrow..”

facing winter
facing winter

When God Roars in our Suffering

This year I decided to read the Bible chronologically for the first time.

Did you know that Job comes toward the beginning of Genesis in the chronological version? I didn’t. So, I was surprised, yet somehow not surprised, when a couple weeks ago, I found myself in Job. Sometimes God is subtle, sometimes not so much.

Finishing up the book of Job coincided with Titus’s eye surgery a week and a half ago. Immediately following the surgery, I was pretty euphoric. He did beautifully, his eyes are much straighter, he can focus a few feet out from his face, and we have wonderful doctors. All good things; it went about as well as we could have hoped.

But the days following his surgery, I found myself in an unexpected state of grief. His eye surgery did just what it was supposed to do: it straightened his eyes. But, somehow I had this crazy idea that it would be a kind of cure-all, that with his eyes fixed, he would be able to make the connections with people I’ve been so hoping for. Of course it didn’t do that. So I found myself mourning what should have been a reason for thankfulness.

In the days of feeling flattened by the disappointment that I didn’t see coming, I’ve felt my beliefs tested, my fears magnified, my strength sapped, my feet walking in a valley with no views to faraway mountaintops to keep me going. I also found myself in Job 38.

In Job 38-42 God tells me some big things about Himself, and his tone is not of the warm fuzzy variety. It’s more like a ROAR. Sometimes I’ve heard people say or have said myself, “God’s big enough to handle your questions, he can handle your fears, etc, bring them to him.” And I think that’s completely right. God can handle them.

But, sometimes the point isn’t whether God can handle them, it’s whether I can handle God’s answers to my questions, fears and doubts. Do I want him to answer? Am I ready for the questions He brings to the table? Must his answers meet my felt needs? Will I receive what he has to say with humility and trust, covering my mouth with my hands, silent and chastened?

As I have felt scared about tomorrow and scared about a year from now and scared about 5 years from now and 10 and 20, God hasn’t comforted my fears and questions with a warm gooey brownie hug. He has roared in my face and reminded me of His power and might and my smallness. He has indeed answered me, but it has been with the shout of a father who yells for his child as they are about to step out into busy street, unaware. He has grabbed my arm and snatched me up from danger and terrified me with his love. He has kept me from the peril of repeatedly indulging my doubts and fears.

“Then Job answered the Lord and said:
“Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you?
I lay my hand on my mouth.
I have spoken once, and I will not answer;
twice, but I will proceed no further.”

God’s roars are kindness. It is kindness to be frightened by The Lion who terrifies you to keep you from harm.  It is kindness to have your grievance aired, then lay your hand on your mouth. When Shasta is waiting at the tombs in the darkness of night in The Horse and His Boy, Aslan comes and roars to scare away the jackals that are coming to eat Shasta. Shasta doesn’t know that Aslan is protecting him, he is simply scared witless at the lion that he hears roaring. He’s afraid the lion will eat him, he doesn’t know The Lion is keeping him from being eaten.

And that’s what God does for me and for his children. He gives us a hair-raising fright at the picture of who He is, the demonstration of His power, His wisdom and abilities. Then we collapse in his arms, with meekness and trust. He grips our hand tightly and we dare not wrest it away. We know this is our Father, He loves us, He’s leading us on. We can’t see the mountaintops ahead or how it will all work out, but we can see Him and there’s nothing but kindness in his face.

“For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” 2 Cor. 4:6,7

As an aside, I’d like to say that this blog remains simply a place for me to say what God’s teaching me, to try and get it down, so I don’t forget it; a place where I hope to encourage whoever might be reading, occasionally bless my kids, and ultimately bring glory to God. Please take it for what it’s worth. It’s a small slice of a much bigger picture of real life.

Grateful Uncertainty

I’m very thankful for the support and love we’ve received since the post on Sunday, mainly in the form of emails and facebook comments. If you’ve ever wondered whether you can minister to someone through technology via email, facebook comments, or texts, be assured, you can. And we have been the humbled recipients of that.

I, especially, have felt buoyed and strengthened, almost normal at times.

A friend asked me a week or two ago, if I was feeling ministered to by the Lord. And as I stopped to think about it, the answer was a definite yes. It seemed the Lord was going out of His way to make his care and presence obvious. A 9 month pregnant friend drove all the way across the Cities in the snow to bring us a meal the evening of the MRI, another friend who lives 5 states away had a package delivered the day we received the bad news of his MRI results with the beautiful lyric, “When all around my soul gives way, He then is all my hope and stay.” Even the music on the annoyingly chipper radio seemed subdued and reverent. And there were many other things that will stay anonymous, but were real kindnesses from God through His people.

Yet I’ve been the toddler whose dad is is giving them a hug after some big disappointment and they are kicking, screaming, crying and simply want what they want. They don’t want the comfort until they’ve come to accept the reality that they’re being denied something. I’m beginning to accept our reality, which means I’m slowly feeling His embrace as the loving thing that it is.

Right now I am incredibly grateful for the uncertainty that we are walking in. Initially after the MRI it seemed likely that Titus had this degenerative and fatal condition, but after a group of doctors met to discuss it last Friday, they still believe there is another option and that Titus could “just” have a static disability that would not get worse with time, but would reveal itself as he grows. What blessed uncertainty. If I’m given the choice between really bad news and waiting with a more hopeful option in play, I prefer the latter.

The uncertainty has allowed me to put the scary diagnosis possibilities on the back shelf of my brain and stay in the present, day by day realities. There will be more testing and eye surgery next month and therapy, but overall, the uncertainty has removed some of the paralysis, so I can just be thankful for Titus: thankful that he’s chubby, that he smiles, that he turns his head more now, that he coos. And mostly just thankful that he’s our son.

The Lord has hidden some things from us regarding Titus and he’s chosen to place us on this journey of heartache and unknowns. It’s a journey that is requiring me to learn how to receive. I know that it’s more blessed to give than receive, and I’ve always wanted the bigger blessing.

But God’s got a humbling work to do in me. He’s got steadfast love and compassion spilling out everywhere, they’re coming out of his fingertips through his people, and only a fool would turn away from that kind of receiving.

walking in the tall grass
walking in the tall grass

Please pray for Titus and all of us. We can’t see what’s in front of us, but we know who we’re following and He’s never led us astray.

A Hard Providence from Our Loving God

The past two months have been hard. Well, even longer than that, but especially the past two months.

We’ve been dealt a blow regarding our son, Titus James. Without going into great detail, it is enough to say that he has some brain abnormalities and we do not yet know what all that will mean for his life and abilities, or even the length of his life.  The doctor tells us that we should do as much as we can to help him grow and develop, regardless of how bad it might be, and so, between doctor visits and lots of testing, that’s what we’ll do.

This has been a hard and bitter providence as we’ve contemplated the grim worst case scenarios told to us by the doctors. I feel as though I’m on the Dawn Treader in Narnia in the Lone Islands approaching the terrifying darkness: The Island Where Dreams Come True, and the terror sets in as we realize, just as Lucy and Edmund and Eustace did, it’s really our worst nightmare come true. I cannot contemplate anything worse on this earth than losing a child.

Regarding this possibility, I’ve moved from grief to denial to grief to hope to grief to denial to grief to acceptance and so on. I am slowly getting some footing, for today at least. Our journey with Titus is largely hidden from us. We don’t know what it will be, we don’t have a concrete diagnosis, we don’t understand all that’s going on in his brain. But I’m finding real comfort in remembering that God does know all these things. Nothing is hidden from him.

And here’s what I know for myself: I know that tomorrow I’m going to get up and love Titus and each one of the people under our roof. Tomorrow I’m going to fix food and teach little people and get my oldest to her orthodontist appt. I’m going to do tummy time and sweep the floor and have the fireplace going. I’m going to light a candle and put on Christmas music and really smile at each of the kids. And I’m going to cherish every moment with the baby son that I longed for and prayed for and was finally given. He is a tender undeserved gift.

And some days I’m just going to scrape by and dinner won’t be made and the house will be a mess and I’ll rewash the same load of laundry in the washer for a week because I’m too tired and sad and overwhelmed to figure out how to get it to the dryer. And no matter which type of day I’m having, my God will still be kindhearted.

I also know that we can’t walk this road alone. The past few months have felt lonely, lonely because we knew even less than we know now–just a vague: something’s not right. And how do you ask for prayer for that? Most people just want to convince you that everything’s fine. And I wanted to believe it so badly.

So, I will write about this trial, when I have the ability. I’ll ask for prayers. I’ll accept the (beautiful undeserved) support from God’s people who love us and love Titus, I’ll share as much of my heart as I’m able. And when I’m not, I’ll still be here, probably more in need than ever. But the Lord has not forgotten us. He has not forsaken us. Our pastor quoted part of this passage today and it was a balm:

“Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing!

For the Lord has comforted his people and will have compassion on his afflicted.

But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me.”

“Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?

Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.

Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands..” Is. 49:13-16

No, just as I can never forget for one millisecond my nursing son, even more so the Lord cannot and will not forget us. So whenever I’m feeling despair, I will remember that the Lord has compassion on his afflicted. He has graven us on his hands. He’s written our names in a Book. He became weak for us: the weak. He became helpless for us: the helpless. And he loves this son of mine immeasurably. He made my son in His own image and because of Titus, my picture of God is becoming more of who He really is. I have a lot to learn.

pregnancy after miscarriage

It’s not an easy topic for me.

But it is what I’m living with day after day.  And in my naivete I thought it would be easier.

Not that being pregnant now isn’t a blessing.  Not that it isn’t exciting and wonderful and anticipatory.  It is.  And I thank God for it.

But it’s also scarier.  Like the shine has come off of the penny.  And it’s more real– less myopic, if that makes any sense.

Strangely enough the easiest person to talk to about the new baby is my 5-year-old daughter Eliza.  Probably because every single time we talk about the new baby in mommy’s tummy, when we end, she always finishes up by saying, “if this one doesn’t die.”

All our plans and hopes and speculation may happen, “if this baby doesn’t die.”  She couldn’t be more right.  She acknowledges and actually speaks out loud what I am thinking most of the time and don’t have the guts to say.

Plus, by saying, “if this baby lives,” she is remembering the baby who didn’t live.  Not many people do that.  I’m sure it would be a hard thing to do, if you’re a friend.  But, I’ll speak for myself when I say, remembering matters.  It’s validating, albeit sad, to fill out a form at the doctor that lists this pregnancy as my 5th, even though, if/when this baby is born it will be my 4th child to bring home.  It’s validating, because, at least in some small clinical way, it’s remembering.

Remembering with words matters.  Speaking things out loud matters.

What a gift to me that Eliza gets it.  And what a gift that she isn’t taking this new one for granted.  She doesn’t pray for it to be a girl or a boy.  She just prays that he or she will live (although, without realizing it she’s started to refer to the baby as “her”).

I pray the same thing as Eliza.  And I spend a lot of time praying that God would make me treasure Him so much, that somehow, if I lost another, I would grab hold of Him in the darkness, and be willing to trust that He is good.  Again.

Tomorrow is my 16 week checkup.  This baby is more than twice as old as the last one lived to be.  What an impact those short weeks of life and subsequent death had on me.  They have made me more thankful and less entitled about the past 16 weeks of new life.

Romans 8:18

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us.”

grace on difficult days

Everybody has rough days.  Hard days.  Painful days.  Difficult days.

It’s one of the things every human has in common, isn’t it?  It’s easy to become myopic on these days.

Lately I’ve been trying to recognize what God’s grace looks like in my life on these difficult days.  Intellectually I know that God’s grace may very well be the difficulty.  But in the midst of it, I rarely feel this.   Although knowing it does make a huge difference.

Anyway, today I’m making a small list of how God’s grace is felt by me in the hard moments.. sometimes moments that string along for days or weeks.

1) I feel God’s grace when my 5-yr-old daughter sees my difficulty and ministers to me by offering to play with her younger sister in the other room.  Thank you Lord.

2) I feel God’s grace through a husband who’s willing to do whatever it takes to make sure his wife is well-cared for.

3) I feel God’s grace when phone call from a stranger jars me out of some unhelpful thoughts and unwittingly reveals that my life is really a string of blessing upon blessing.

4) I feel God’s grace in Advil Liquid Gels.

5) I feel God’s grace in a messy house that is evidence that we have friends who like us enough to come to our home and stay for a few hours.  I wish it lasted longer.

6) I feel God’s grace in a schedule that is empty today, but full tomorrow, and keeps me from drowning at home.

7) I feel God’s grace in the ministry of His Word.  It is powerful.  It is active.  It contains the power and Person of the Gospel, which I need.  Everyday.

8) I feel God’s grace in the gift of prayer.  The Spirit and the Lord Jesus make it possible for me to pray to God the Father.  They cover me and utter for me.  They bring me to the throne of a Tender Father, not a wrathful one.

9) I feel God’s grace in the sun heating up my back as I type this.  And a house with many windows that lets it stream in.  And when I’m done I will turn around and soak it in on my face and my eyeballs.

10) I feel God’s grace in that, when I sat down, I only had 4 or 5 things to list as His felt grace for today, but He is faithful in showing me many more.  More than I could ever record.

How are you experiencing His grace today?