Friday, October 13, 2017

Gifts of Grace, Falling Like Leaves

I love fall. It is my favorite season. It contains the perfect temperature, the most beautiful colors, the richest smells, and the most brilliant light. When I think of fall, I can imagine a warm hug from my Creator.

But personally, fall has also been a season of great loss. It has become a time of year that good friends have moved away. This could appear as some great cosmic prank. But with the right perspective, I am beginning to understand that God often uses dichotomies like these to teach me more about His holiness and my humanity.

Love and loss. Joy and suffering. The tree cannot bud again in Spring without losing its leaves in Autumn.

I just finished reading Vaneetha Rendall Risner’s book The Scars that Shaped Me. I’ve been following Risner’s writings on her blog and the Desiring God website for a few years now. So when I saw that she had written a book, I bought a copy right away. It is a phenomenal work of wrestled faith. And I find such encouragement from her writing. Not only is her story compelling, but her renewed perspective is truly a gift the Lord has given her.

Multiples times throughout the book she refers to our need for two kinds of grace: delivering grace and sustaining grace. She says, “they are both essential for the Christian life. And they are interconnected” (p. 164). I want delivering grace in many areas of my life. So much so, that sometimes I forget that I am being showered by a grace that is intended to sustain me. 

It is this kind of grace that we often complain about. Risner quotes a Bible study teacher who once said, “You never hear anyone in the Bible complaining about the parting of the Red Sea. Everyone loves the grace that delivers us. But the Israelites, like us, were dissatisfied with daily manna.” Yet that is literally what sustained them in the desert for forty years. I echo Risner’s question: “Were there times when my prayers for deliverance were answered with the gift of sustenance?” (p.161).

There are so many ways to approach the concept of God’s “No’s” and “Not yets.” But one way is to look for the sustaining grace in God’s closed doors. The times when He loves us enough to say “no” to our desires or requests to be rescued, in order to administer the sustaining grace of His presence.

As Risner encountered pain after pain (in the form of a crippling disease, the loss of a child, and a painful divorce), she learned the very important lesson that seeing God’s glory was a far greater gift than being rescued from her suffering. And she began to see that God’s “no’s” in her life were actually His mercies—for they were what shaped her.

I can take great comfort in that. And I too am beginning to see—with the perspective of “Jesus colored glasses”—the truth that I would not trade my sufferings for ease. They are gifts. For God meets us in our pain, and He draws us close to Himself in our needs. “Suffering and sorrow,” Risner says, “are God’s invitation to know him better” (p. 49).

Paul refers to this when he talks of the thorns in his side. In 2 Corinthians 12, he says,

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 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.

In that same vein, Risner refers to George Matheson, a Scottish hymn-writer and preacher, who admonished with these words about his sufferings: “Teach me the glory of my cross; teach me the value of my thorn. Show me that I have climbed to Thee by the path of pain. Show me that my tears have made my rainbows.”

I read these words months ago. Yet God has an amazing way of hammering home an idea when it has begun to burrow into my mind. Last Sunday evening I was pretty much ready to post this article on my blog when something (and pure exhaustion) prompted me to hit pause. I could finish it later. The next evening at Bible study, the group was discussing Philippians 1:12-26, and I found myself very glad I had waited.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul presents another perspective on suffering. In verses 19 and 20, from prison, he says, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. Paul understood that the grace being bestowed on him daily might not be physical deliverance. He was most concerned that he would maintain the ability to honor God with his whole life (or death).

Our Bible study group spent some time pondering Paul’s revolutionary mindset. What would it look like for us to live like Paul, with God’s heart forefront in our minds? And aside from the thorn passage from 2 Corinthians, do we ever catch ourselves asking to be delivered from something that Paul wouldn’t?  I honestly haven’t thought much about the great apostle, but this week, these aspects of Paul’s character and faith have astounded me. I can safely say that Paul had and embodied a beautiful theology of suffering. I have much to learn.

So back to what I’ve learned as God keeps nudging me towards this topic:

A few months ago, some dear friends encouraged me to listen to podcast from the Allender Center. I’ve had the page bookmarked on computer ever since, but when I began commuting out to Des Plaines every day for an internship, I knew I needed some good podcasts and sermons to listen to during the ride. One particular podcast, “Restoration of the Heart, Part 1,”  stuck out to me. Referring to the shame of our brokenness, the speaker said, 
“There is this idea that there’s a point in your Christian walk where you get better and better... but the Christian life is actually a life of greater need and dependence. It is so counter intuitive. We can’t do anything without God. It is not shameful that we need God more—that we haven’t gotten this ‘Christian thing’ down. That is the design. Deeper and deeper need. And in that, we find restoration. We are becoming more and more what we were intended to be.”
I don’t know why this hadn’t occurred to me before. Maybe the wording just came at me from the right direction. But it was if lightning had struck. My need for God’s grace will only increase as I continue to walk as a Christ follower. Seeking God for the same things over and over again is not a sign of spiritual immaturity, but a recognition of my continual need for Him and His presence.

And this is also a reminder that I need both types of grace. “Both [graces] showcase God’s glory,” Risner says, “but in different ways. In delivering grace, we see God’s glory. Everyone can see the miracle he has wrought for us. And usually our lives are easier as a result. . . but with sustaining grace, people can see the miracle he has wrought in us. Our lives are easier because our perspective is different. With sustaining grace, we must continually go back to God. It is not a one-time thing.”

God is continually humbling me with His sustaining grace. While I yearn for deliverance from the pain of loss, loneliness, and fear—these things all hold a purpose. Just as the leaves must fall in order to bring new life, God’s power is made perfect in my weakness. It is in the asking, the seeking, that I am sustained by grace, to press on with the presence of my living God. 

Monday, September 4, 2017

Pillars and Threads

Coping is not the same as healing. And, if I’m observing correctly, it is also the exact opposite of processing. That’s where I found myself this summer. My shelves are full of books I anticipated reading along the lake shore or curled up on the couch. Yet I found myself unable to exert much emotional or spiritual focus. I barely cracked open one of these books.

The reading I did do, I consumed like my life depended on it – middle grade fiction of every sort: historical fiction, realistic fiction, stories with diverse characters in diverse settings, and even my very first graphic novel series. They were fun and informative, and fuel for children’s literature articles I’m work on, but most of all, they kept my mind distracted.

But a few things happened this summer that reminded me how much of a rut I’m in. A new health concern arose. My hours at work got cut, forcing me to piece together three part time jobs (including a library internship!). And I had a bike accident that left me achy and bruised. Together, these three events helped me realize what I may have learned all along if I’d read those books. However, seeing these lessons played out in real life made them tangible pillars to look back on.

My lowest times are when I allow my mind to dwell on the “what ifs” and the “why nots.” I’m not that into pep talks or self-motivation, and in the same way, I tend to shy away from reading scripture just to console or inspire. But I am a master at the other side of the coin—letting twisted and untrue messages permeate by brain.

Until this year, I had never heard of Martyn Lloyd-Jones. I’m not sure why. But in the last few months, I have heard this quote from him no less than five times:

“Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself?”

He goes on to reference Psalm 42, in which David gives us the epitome of self-talk:

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my salvation and my God
. (v.11)

Questioning God should not become a pattern in our lives. But the Lord desires honesty. Honesty in prayer and honesty in the ways we speak to ourselves. If I am raising up the events of this summer as pillars, that means I need to continually speak truth about them in my heart. My body is weak—but He is strong. My financial security is unsure—but He provides. The seemingly unexpected can happen and send pain searing through my limbs—but God is my wise protector.

It is so easy to look at the jumbled mess of our lives, the things that don’t make sense and dwell on these. It takes a lot of work to shift my thoughts to an eternal perspective. I read an analogy in the First5 Bible study app the other day which, describes this perfectly. Teaching on Job 21, the author writes:

 “One of my favorite memories as a little girl was watching my grandmother cross-stitch. I remember the first time I watched her nimble fingers stitch a mess of x’s into a masterpiece. I usually sat on the floor at her feet looking at the underside of her work-in-progress. We had a little game where I would try to guess what she was making. But the underside was such a mess! From my perspective it was an indistinguishable mishmash of string and knots. But what was utter confusion to me was perfectly known to her. She was looking at her work of art from the front. I was only looking at the back.

Job and his companions are trying to guess God’s plan. Job says, “Can anyone teach knowledge to God, since he judges even the highest?” (Job 21:22). Knowledge comes from God; we don’t tell Him anything He doesn’t already know. Whether wicked or good people, whether blessed or afflicted circumstances, God is in control. He has a plan that we simply can’t see from our perspective. God has knowledge. God imparts wisdom. God judges rightly. In our suffering, God is doing something.

Suffering isn’t at all like the game I played with my grandmother. We aren’t just passing the time trying to guess what God is up to. We are often sad, lonely, hurting and afraid. But our best guesses won’t make that pain go away. In fact, if we get the picture wrong or begin to doubt that there’s a masterpiece in the making, we can hurt even more. 

You may be looking at your life as a jumble of frayed thread and messy knots. But there is a patient hand with tender, nimble fingers stitching the masterpiece of your life. You can trust Him. Don’t judge the brilliance of His artistry from the wrong side of the fabric.”

This summer, I was caught looking at the wrong side of the fabric. In coping through fear, loneliness, and pain, I focused on the inter-woven pieces of my life, and not the full picture. These threads aren’t meant to be untangled. We are exactly where God has us. Scripture reminds us constantly of God’s perfect sovereignty in our lives, so why is it so hard to see it? I’m learning that it is a daily choice. To wake up in the morning and say, “I choose to lift up these bumps in the road as reminders of God’s faithfulness.”

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Longing and Dreaming, a Lesson for this Sensitive Soul

You are not mistaken... the calendar and the weather channel have made it very clear that summer is upon us. Please bear with this rather delayed reaction:

Some say that winter is the hardest season of the year. I’m not going to lie. It’s difficult to trudge through the dark and the dreary. But for me, Spring is often the hardest.

I wrote in the fall and winter about leaning in, embracing the weight of my circumstances and tilting intentionally towards God’s grace. But as the days began to get a little warmer and the rains fell more freely, I forgot to lean in. Even before naming this mental and spiritual discipline, I can recall the worst seasons being those without that intentional shift in my perspective.

And so, this Spring I found myself seeping into a certain kind of numbness; a usable vessel, remaining still, gathering dust on the shelf. I read a lot of books and articles that inspired and provoked me, but I couldn’t seem to transfer those static words into life-giving reflections—either privately penned or worthy of sharing. This conundrum did cause me to reflect, however, just in a different way. Why was it that I could write in angsty times and even periods that felt like the depths of despair (to quote the incomparable Anne), but this numbness would cause my thoughts to clam up?

After some time, this realization came to the surface: I have a sensitive soul. It’s taken me a long time to articulate this, not because it’s something I fought against, but because I didn’t know what to call this heightened alertness to the “off”, the chaotic, and the empty. It is exhausting work, being so sensitive. Most days I’d rather not be. And that’s when numbness sets in the deepest.

But cutting myself off from the sensitivity of pain, fear, and loneliness also means thwarting grace. Not capital-G Grace, because that is ever-flowing from the Throne. But the grace needed to even see the big-G grace, the beautiful simple moments that make up each day, and the intricately woven thread of all the days put together. Thwarting grace means the sunsets aren’t as bright, the blossoms aren’t as full, the music isn’t as sweet.

And I don’t want that version of life. I’m the person who finds joy in the shadows cast because the sun is brighter still, the flowers with a million intricacies, and the solid reverence of a harmonized tune. God made these things to bring me joy. And that is what they should do. Further still, my joy in them is one of the many ways I can bring Him glory.

It’s when I let the weight of my circumstances cloud my perceptions and actions, that they are cloudy indeed. How do I reconcile this painful perceptiveness of circumstances that have me yearning for more? And why does yearning have to hurt so much?

The well-quoted C.S. Lewis put it this way: "If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probably explanation is that we were made for another world." Such a pity that I have dreams waiting to be fulfilled on this side of heaven. And that's saying a lot, as someone who has been called a horrible dreamer. It's not even a topic I seek out very often. Yet when a friend recommended Suann Camfield's The Sound of a Million Dreams, I reserved a copy at the library right away.

God has the most amazing way of bringing the right book at the right time. And I’ve learned not to question it, especially in the numb times. So on Memorial Day, with the sun shining through my front windows, I sat down with this little book and read it cover to cover. Then two days later, I read it again, this time taking six pages of notes. Needless to say, it left an impression. In discussing the themes of dreams and longing, I found that Camfield was actually speaking my “language.” At many times, I was sure she was reading over my shoulder or at least siphoning off thoughts from my own mind.

What’s more, in between all this, I witnessed the tangible promise of a full arch rainbow. After months sitting useless on the shelf, that’s all it took for my perspective to tumble into focus. Standing at the lake shore, watching the last vestiges of color seep into the atmosphere, three things came to mind: God’s design is true, God’s promises are true, and God’s timing is true. Now, I knew these things to be true before I saw that huge arch of a rainbow, but apparently I’d forgotten. It is so easy to forget. With a million and a half other thoughts shooting through my mind, it takes great discipline to safe-guard Truth.  To put it another way, taking my thoughts captive and making them obedient to Christ can sometimes be as hard as herding squirrels.

But what does this have to do with dreams?

As I mentioned earlier, I am a terrible dreamer. I’m a have-a-plan kind of girl; dreaming often feels a little too wishy-washy and dramatic. Yet at the same time, I am someone who longs. And for a sensitive soul, this can be very dangerous. As I read Camfield’s book about dreams and longing, I was washed with a new perspective on each. I wish I could paraphrase what she had to say, but that wouldn’t do it justice, so I will quote it at length. Bear with me:

“We long for relationships we’ve never had, intimacy we’ve never known, joy, peace, contentment that escapes with the fickleness of a hopping toad. We long for wounds to stop bleeding, forgiveness to begin healing, and disease to relent. We long to create, to work, to matter, to love to know, to be known. We long for purpose. . . We long to live in such a ways that when memories illumine and fade in the hearts of others, they are savored with fondness, even if it’s only by those few souls who had the courage to dance alongside us through the muck and mundane. . .

This is the way it is with life, and this is the way it is with the Stirring [the phrase Camfield uses to describe the Spirit-filled nudging that prompt her dreams]. We often have no choice but to live with the longing in both the doing and the becoming, to accept the difficult truth that maybe we’re not living the life we’ve always imagined ourselves living or that we will never achieve all that we’ve aspired to accomplish or that there will always be a version of ourselves that we long to become that will, despite each good intention, be smothered by the dirt of our sin. . .

Perhaps the most delicate (and maddening) intricacy of longing and what sets it apart from our dreams, is that. . . longing propels us into the dark holes of our souls, shining light on those things that we yearn for so deeply but have little hope of ever coming to be. Saudade, the Portuguese call it. “A vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present” (from Aubrey Bell’s In Portugal). As we grapple with our longings, we face the stark reality that they very well may spend a lifetime lying with the crumbs on the floor. . .

Longing is anguish. And yet longing is beauty. Its paradox carries within it a mixture of pain and grace that causes the human race to thirst for that which is unquenchable, but also that which will someday drift from outside the reach of our fingers and slide to rest in the palms of our hands. Because the truth about longing is this: it rightfully reminds us that God pressed eternity into the fabric of humanity so that when yearning moans from the deepest recesses of who we are, we have no choice but to wet our lips with the sound of his name and beg for the only home that will ever satisfy all our needs. The unattainable nature of suadade postures us toward paradise like nothing else can. . .
And so longing must be confessed. And longing must be embraced. And longing, if it is not to suffocate us as we wrestle with the Stirring, must always be accompanied by faith, faith that there is a vast space that one day will relieve us from the aches of this earth. The unattainable will finally be made whole. For longing without faith is longing without hope—and that’s not the people we’ve become. . .

Our dreams and our longings often become so entangled we lose sight of how to pull them apart, to separate their strings and put each in its rightful place. A space exists between them in which we need to make peace. We need to make peace with our home.”

That last bit hit home. This is what life on this earth is made of, the disentangling of our dreams and our longings. We were not made for here; but here we are. Here is where God has placed us to seek His face, His beauty, and His grace. If we weren’t in a place where longing exists, we wouldn’t need a Savior.

And here I am: full of longing, full of my need for Christ, with dreams in my hear that I am often too afraid to voice. The lie I tell myself is that I can be free to dream when I am less afraid. Well, that is where faith and courage come in. Fear will always exist, I need to constantly ask God to out-balance my frightened heart with trust in Him and Holy Spirit-filled gumption. Oh how much easier said than done!

But back to the rainbow which spoke these three things: God’s design is true. God’s promises are true. God’s timing is true. When I get wrapped up in the tangles of dreams and longings, I need to remember that the goal of this mess is becoming the person God created me to be. Camfield gently reminds me of this fact: “If we believe God only ever cares about what we want to do when we grow up, we’ll forget that his primary purpose for us lies in the person we choose to become” (p. 54). If we believe that, we will never really fail. The fruit of our dreams will ultimately not be about the destination, but the process. And if we stop telling God what we can and aren’t able to do, He may surprise us still! His design is true. His promises are true. His timing is true.

I need more rainbow-filled-sky moments. More reminders. More pillars in the desert to point the way. Because there will always be times when it seems easier to seep into numbness than confront my flawed self and thwarted dreams. Camfield describes her own struggles with this and assures me that the Designer’s hand is indeed behind this reconciling of longing and dreams: “the becoming causes me to recognize my sin for what it is—part of me whose ashes will always struggle within—but it also forces me to listen, and by faith believe, that I still belong to the song of the redeemed” (p. 124).

I am still a far way off from being call a good dreamer. But I am slowly learning how to welcome their sound. And that makes all the difference. 

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