Junky Art

We love a God of beauty.
Beauty
Beauty
We worship a God of art, of music, of literature.
Michelangelo's Pieta
Michelangelo’s Pieta
We serve a God of perfection.
Perfection
Perfection
We adore a God Who gives us only His best.
Samantha
God’s best
Why, oh why, then do we consistently offer Him art that is, to put it bluntly, junk?
Why do we think that music that is dull and overly simple is what is best for inspiring our hearts to worship?  Why do we think that literature that is bland and is bad storytelling will turn our minds toward thoughts of God?  Why do we think that art that is commercialized and overly sentimental will cause our imaginations to soar to the heavens?
Perhaps this is harsh.  I will fully admit that there are artists (in the full sense of the word) out there who inspire awe in the hearts of all those who come across it.  But this is not the norm.  Not anymore, that is.
It used to be that Christians artists were at the top of their craft.  They were respected and admired throughout the world.  Think Bach.  Think Correggio.  Think Milton and Tolstoy.
Correggio
Correggio
It is not this way anymore.  The secular world no longer looks up to Christian art to lead the way.  Instead it sneers at Christian art and views it as subpar, something to be shunned rather than something to inspire.
To paraphrase James: my brothers, this should not be!  The lack of excellence in our art indicates to the world that we serve a God who is less than excellent.
Much so-called religious art is in fact bad art, and therefore bad religion. ~ Madeleine L’Engle
Oh, we could do so much better.  We could open ourselves up to the power of the Holy Spirit rather than to the power of the market.
Fellow artists, let God inspire you.  Open yourself to that which you cannot control.  Ignore the sale; ignore what you think people want.  Listen instead to the Spirit.  Listen to what God is showing you through your work: “my proper place is as a servant struggling to be faithful to the work, the work which slowly and gently tries to teach me some of what it knows.” (L’Engle)
Let your art sing.  Let it soar.
Those who are not artists, be discerning.  If it is good art, if it inspires you and sets your imagination soaring toward God, then support it.  If it is bad art, don’t support and sustain it simply because it involved the name or image of Christ.
I know that my words do not reach many, but I dream of a day when those who claim to follow a God of beauty and excellence are once again those who  produce that art which leads the entire world in soaring to the heights, are once again those who produce the art which therefore points the way to God.

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Still Following the Signs

I sit in the early morning, looking out the window at the wind making shimmery the leaves of our cottonwood, and remember Kristina.  It is the third anniversary of her death (link), and it sometimes still feels as though we are stumbling through the dark.  So much hurt and fear back then, so much hurt and fear all around us now.  In this world, it will always be so.  There are glimpses of light that keep us going, slight breaths of a hope that keeps our eyes searching the gloom for that bright and beautiful future that is promised, but it is easy to get distracted by the ugliness all around.  I am drawn back to a post I wrote soon after Kristina’s death.
pain of death
In the middle of this pain common to all of us who live in this world, as we sit surrounded by those who love us, it is tempting to add a veneer of softness, to speak in clichés that turn raw, ripped-open pain into a lie.  Sometimes this is even encouraged among those of us who follow Christ.  Yet to do this denies that we are real, that our hearts can be ripped in two, that our pain and loss can suffocate and almost overwhelm us.  To do this denies that Christ is real, that His body and heart were also ripped apart.
Forsaken
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

When God seems not to place much importance on whether we are free from pain or suffering, it is difficult not to live in a state of paralysis.  It seems a formidable task both to acknowledge the depth of pain we feel and also to acknowledge the depth of God’s love for us.
We see this pain in the world around us.  We see it all throughout the Bible.  Abel.  Abraham.  Joseph.  Moses.  Uriah the prophet…murdered for prophesying while Jeremiah was allowed to live.  John the Baptist…Jesus’ cousin.  All of the apostles…Jesus’ closest friends.
Understanding why Kristina had to die is hard.  I might never know the reason.
Kristina
God’s purposes are not for me to understand His plans: His plan is for me to understand Who He is…Faith is this unwavering trust in the heart of God in the hurt of here.” ~ Ann Voskamp

What can we do when everything inside of us wants to turn tail and run from the painful possibility of God’s loving best?  Can we truly trust in the heart of God?
Puddleglum
We often learn best through story.  One story that helps to show us what to do is written in C.S. Lewis’ story of Narnia, The Silver Chair.  Two children (Jill and Scrubb) and one Marsh-wiggle (Puddleglum) are given by Aslan (the Christ-figure) four signs with which to find the lost prince of Narnia.  They completely botch the first three signs which leads to their imprisonment with a madman who is chained to a silver chair.  The fourth and last sign is that someone “will ask you to do something in my name, in the name of Aslan”.  The madman entreats the three travelers to free him, who says:
“Once and for all, I adjure you to set me free.  By all fears and all loves, by the bright skies of Overland, by the great Lion, by Aslan himself, I charge you –”
“Oh!” said the three travelers as though they had been hurt.  “It’s the sign,” said Puddleglum.  “It was the words of the sign,” said Scrubb more cautiously.  “Oh, what are we to do?” said Jill.
It was a dreadful question.  What had been the use of promising one another that they would not on any account set the Knight free, if they were now to do so the first time he happened to call upon a name they really cared about?  On the other hand, what had been the use of learning the signs if they weren’t going to obey them?  Yet could Aslan have really meant them to unbind anyone – even a lunatic – who asked it in his name? … They had muffed three already; they daren’t muff the fourth.
“Oh, if only we knew!” said Jill.  “I think we do know,” said Puddleglum.  “Do you mean you think everything will come right if we do untie him?” said Scrubb.
“I don’t know about that,” said Puddleglum.  “You see, Aslan didn’t tell (Jill) what would happen.  He only told her what to do.  That fellow will be the death of us once he’s up, I shouldn’t wonder.  But that doesn’t let us off following the sign.”
That doesn’t let us off following the sign.

We aren’t guaranteed that anything here on earth will turn out all right.  We try so hard to grasp at that security, to bring it into existence, but it simply is not there.  Instead, if we have nothing else (and we do have so much else!), if we can turn to and trust nothing else, we have the cross.
After his wife of only four years had died of cancer, C. S. Lewis said, “If only I could bear it, or the worst of it, or any of it, instead of her…But is it ever allowed?  It was allowed to One, we are told, and I find I can now believe again, that He has done vicariously whatever can be so done.  He replies to our babble, ‘You cannot and you dare not. I could and dared.’”

And so we find that perhaps, after all, it does not matter why.  It does not matter whence came the hard thing or even that it may be painfully hard.  If God ever had to prove anything, at the cross He proved His love, His promise to work for the best of all He created.
It is not a bad thing to seek for the why’s and how’s and from where’s.  God is able to handle our questions, our fears.  Yet if we never get any answers, if we never know the reasons, if we never understand, then we who have chosen to follow Christ, who have allowed Jesus to be the Lord of our lives, we who have embraced His sacrifice of love…
We aren’t let off following the signs.

Sketch is Rembrandt’s The Three Crosses

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Stomach Doubt

Sometimes it is a hiding in the two a.m. darkness.

Hiding

Sometimes it is a wrestling with something only partly known.

Wrestling

Sometimes it is a stumbling around in the dusk that is almost nightfall.

Stumbling

It is a doubt about God that is common to all who are awake and alive.  Whether you believe in God and at times doubt His existence or you disbelieve in God and at times doubt His absence, it is an experience of humanity.
Frederick Buechner speaks of head doubt and stomach doubt.
Head doubt can happen at any time and about anything at all.  I can doubt the existence of God, the true fabric of reality, even the evidence of my own senses if the mood is right.  When these doubts descend, I usually keep living my life as I have been living, continue to act as though I still believe, and in the end it eventually comes out right.
I have never experienced stomach doubt.  Perhaps only those who whose faith is the strongest, the saints among us, have experienced this kind of doubt.
I believe that Jesus did.  When He cried out “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”  I believe that He was engulfed in stomach doubt.  He had, as Buechner said, “looked into the abyss itself and found there a darkness that spiritually, viscerally, totally engulfed Him.”

 

I don’t know that I am strong enough to withstand that kind of doubt.

 

It seems hard to pray that someday I might be.
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Faith Is Not for the Timid

Christianity is frightening.  It is not for the timid.
Sacrificing to the gods
The ancients knew they could not control their world and thus offered sacrifices to the gods in an attempt to exert some control.
controlling nature
We moderns have deceived ourselves.  We think that we control ourselves, our environment, the things and even the people that surround us.
It is this, our self-deception, which makes Christianity so wild and dangerous.
That faith can be only the gift of God emphasizes the scandal of our human condition ~ the scandal of our absolute dependence on Him. I have to depend completely upon what very largely I do not know and cannot control.  ~  H.A. Williams
This giving up of ourselves to that which we cannot control is terrifying.  It is a blind leap into the void.
A blind leap
Yet our belief that we can have some control over our own lives is really just a shutting of our eyes to reality, a whistling in the dark.
We cannot control what happens to us.  We are able to control only our response to what happens, and a giving over of ourselves to that which we cannot understand means giving over the only thing we are capable of controlling.
It is a giving up of all control.  And in return, it is a wild kind of freedom, a dangerous adventure to which the ending is known but not all of the steps along the way.
It is invigorating, lavish, and exhilarating.
Joy
It is abundant.

 

Art credits: plaque depicting scene from the “Aeneid” by Sebastian Brant and Johann Grüninger ; rock garden photo by Jim O’Connor; photo of girl on edge of canyon by Edmilson Sanches

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Tolerance or Love?

Listen to them argue. Watch as each shakes her head and smiles condescendingly while the other is speaking passionately about what she thinks is right. It often seems that surface level respect doesn’t go very far. Those who support each group seem to vilify the other, speaking out ugly words of disrespect and hate. There will always be someone with whom we disagree, someone we are vehemently sure is wrong.
Angry
Arguing
What do we do with this? What do we do when we disagree, both with those we call brother and sister and with those who do not believe? We are exhorted by our leaders and our culture to be tolerant to those around us. Everywhere we turn we are pleaded with to show tolerance to anyone who is different, anyone who thinks or behaves differently than we do.
And what does that tolerance look like? We are told by our world that we are to stay open-minded, that we are to live and let live, that we should not put up any claim to truth. We are told by the world surrounding us that we can disagree with anyone we want, can believe anything we like, as long as we keep it to ourselves.
Disagreeing
This is what our world says. But what about us? Is this what we who are Christ followers are called to be? Tolerant? Is this really all that we can manage, all that we can aspire to do? Tolerance is easy. It doesn’t require anything of either party. It relieves us of all responsibility. It costs us nothing. Tolerance shrugs its shoulders and walks away, leaving you to your own devices. Tolerance doesn’t care.
“And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” ~ Matthew 22.39
Love is much harder. Love costs our comfort and our time. Love affirms the reality of the other person, culture and way of life. Love takes the trouble to get to know the other person and find out what makes them beautiful. Love wants what is best for that person or culture.
Comforting
Consoling
Helping
Knowing
It was love that brought the world to oppose an apartheid regime in South Africa, not tolerance. It was love that lead Martin Luther King to pursue civil rights, not tolerance. It was love that drove William Wilberforce to lead the British parliamentary campaign to abolish the slave trade, not tolerance.
It was love that sent Jesus to the cross on our behalf, not tolerance.
We live our lives in contact with people who are different. We are surrounded by those who look, dream, think, and believe differently than we. We therefore must pray for strength to choose the harder way. If we are to be Jesus to those around us, if we are to make a difference for Him in this world, we must have the strength to choose love rather than tolerance.
“Love must confront Tolerance and insist, as it has always done, on a better way.” ~ Tim Keller in Generous Justice
Why is love so much harder than tolerance? Why does it require more from us? Part of the reason is that love is asks us to be discerning. Love sometimes asks us to work toward change yet sometimes asks us to see the gray in others rather than viewing the world in black and white alone. It is difficult to see in gray. Life gets harder when you see things from other points of view.  Straight lines get hijacked and carry you off to the unknown.  Solid perspectives grow a little blurry and you begin to take a softer view of those you disagree with.
Black and White
Adding more shades
Seeing in gray
The more we meet people who were raised differently and the more we read authors from other places and times and faith traditions, the more we begin to catch a glimpse of how much our view of God, of the Bible, of the world around us is colored by our own place and time and faith tradition.
Just as with every place and time and faith tradition, there is truth to be found and there is misunderstanding.  Tolerance allows us to be lazy, to choose what we believe and let others walk on their own path. Love requires that we listen, that we look at those before us with wisdom. As we take the time to know another and love them, we begin to realize that there is something even more important than figuring out what is right and what is wrong.
No human here on earth is my enemy.  We who claim the name of Christ are all trying to love Jesus and obey God’s words.  Rather than those who disagree with us being the enemy, being one who is deliberately misinterpreting God’s words, being one who picks and chooses what they will believe, those who see things in a different light are mostly just trying their best to follow Jesus.
Just like we are.
Words
Perhaps they are interpreting Scripture incorrectly, but perhaps we are the ones who are wrong. Grace.  It is easy to receive and devilishly difficult to dole out freely.  We spend so much time either being determined to get it right at the expense of our relationships or trying so hard to tolerate the differences around us that we quit looking at the person with whom we differ.  Yet when we look closely and intently we can see the gray shades of Jesus in the face of the person before us.
And then it is easier to love.

Edited from the archives

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Missing The Goal

My older two girls have been a little crazy lately.  Their emotions have been all over the map and they bounce from playing beautifully together to screaming and crying and hitting in less than a nanosecond.  I’m not sure why it has been so extreme lately, but one thing I’m learning as a parent is that often the thing behind the wildly veering emotions is their goal for the moment.
Reading
A child’s main goal, as well as a major goal for the rest of us if we are honest enough to admit it, is to please themselves.  They haven’t yet learned the paradoxical truth that when playing with others, if you want to keep the pleasure of the play, the goal must be pleasing the other person.  If a child continues to aim toward their goal of pleasing themselves, they instead begin aiming crazily at different targets every few minutes, and end up not hitting any of their goals but hitting their sister instead.
Fighting
It seems as though staying focused on your main goal in life should be easy.  Yet as often as we adults act like children, we quickly discover that it most definitely is not easy.  Instead of continually aiming at the goal of pleasing God, we aim instead too often at the pleasing of ourselves and begin careening from thing to thing, from emotion to emotion, and we end up hitting those we love best.
Sword Fighting
I love how one of our Church Fathers, Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296–298 – 2 May 373), describes this as a charioteer who forgets where he is supposed to be driving his horse and instead simply drives as fast and as hard as he can.  He says that such a charioteer would “often drive against those he met, and often down steep places…thinking that thus running he has not missed the goal – for he regards the running only, and does not see that he has passed wide of the goal.”
Athanasius says that this is the source of all evil: the changing of our goal.  We turn away from God and drive ourselves toward other things, often not even seeing that we have missed the way.
When I am careening from one activity to another, seeking after success for my children; when I am veering from one emotion to the other, leaving my family as casualties in my wake; when I am uncertain of what I should do next, then I have changed my goal and am not even aware that I have done so.

Stealing the Toys

I am more like my children than I like to admit.  I have trouble keeping to my goal, to my purpose in life, but often I can see the signs and often those signs help me to raise up my head, look for how far away from my goal I have strayed, and ask God to carry me back into the race again.
The True Goal
Hopefully I can teach my girls how to do likewise.
I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.  Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it.  But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead.  I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.  ~ Philippians 3.12-14
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Fairy Tale Truth

I love how much truth can be found in fairy tales and myths.  I love that God chooses to give us glimpses of Himself and His Word in the words of storytelling throughout time.
Reading Fairy Tales
We often view Christianity as rules and laws, as limitations on our freedom.  We wonder why God puts so many limits on our fun.  I recently experienced a switch of perspective.
I am reading Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton.  In his book, he points out that in fairy tales, there is always an “if”.  You may go to the ball IF you return by midnight.  You may marry the princess IF you never let her see a cow.
The Princess
All the dizzy and colossal things conceded depend on one small thing withheld. All the wild and whirling things that are let loose depend upon one thing that is forbidden. ~ Chesterton
Everything beautiful and glorious that cannot be understood is dependent upon a condition that equally cannot be understood.
In fairy tales, this does not seem unjust.  If Cinderella asks her Fairy Godmother why she has to be home by midnight, the Godmother may reply “why should you go to the ball for any amount of time?”  If the miller asks “why can’t I let the princess see a cow?” the fairy may reply “why should you get to marry the princess at all?”
Wild and fantastic
Fairy tales never focus on the condition.  The condition is so small as to seem irrelevant.  The focus is on the dazzling, the wild, the fantastic vision.
We don’t focus on the vision.  We focus on the limitation.  We wonder why we must not get drunk instead of marveling at the beauty, the deep color, the richness of the wine.  We wonder why we must only marry one person instead of living in wonder at the existence of sex.
No restriction on sex seemed so odd and unexpected as sex itself…keeping to one woman is a small price for so much as seeing one woman…It showed, not an exaggerated sensibility to sex, but a curious insensibility to it. A man is a fool who complains that he cannot enter Eden by five gates at once. ~ Chesterton
What a beautiful change of viewpoint!  To look not at the limitation but at the wonder of the permission.  To not complain about being asked to keep our words pure but to wonder at the startling glory of language.  To not gripe of not being allowed to eat all that we desire but to be astonished at the wild and vast expanse of color and taste of food.  To look upon the dazzling, wild, fantastic vision.
Vision
In Christ, all is made sacred, so search for Him everywhere.  Look for Him in the stories and fables, in the myths and fairy tales that you read.  You will find Him there.

Stories

Art credits: Fairy Tales by Jessie Willcox Smith; Fairy Tale Barnstar by Arman Musikyan; In Fairyland by Richard Doyle; A Fairy Tale by Dorothy M. Wheeler; The Fairy Tale by Walther Firle

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Trees

I couldn’t live where there were no trees – something vital in me would starve. ~ Anne of Green Gables
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Forest snow 1
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I love coming across new evidence of God’s love for us.
I have always loved trees, have always felt much like Anne did about living without them, but the most I’d really thought about them in terms of their relation to God is what an amazing job He did in creating them.
GlorietaDCICampingBravesVacation 123
IMG_3456 - Copy
I recently listened to an interview with a couple of artists on Mars Hill Audio Journal.  It was only a minute or two of the entire segment, but they mentioned that after the human face and figure, trees are the main focal point for artists. Whenever there is a tree in a painting, it automatically draws the eye to it.
Why is that true?  One of their hypotheses was that it has something to do with our deep subconscious knowing that we need trees to survive, our knowing that we depend upon trees for life.  I wonder, though, if it is even deeper than that.
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My mind is drawn to the tree that God chose as our point of obedience.  We chose foolishly and we disobeyed.
My mind is also drawn to the tree that God chose as our point of redemption.  He chose beautifully and we were saved.
God has chosen trees for great purposes.  Did He have those purposes in mind as He created trees?  I wonder.
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Trees are often used in God’s Word to show strength and constancy.  One of my favorites is the Psalm that says that a man who delights in and meditates on God’s law is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in season and whose leaves never wither.
I wonder.  And I imagine.  I can imagine that God knew that He would create Man to love images, to hunger after metaphors to help explain the unexplainable.  I can imagine that same God, before He ever spoke light into being, planning out His world to contain specific metaphors of meaning, just because He loves us.  I can imagine Him planning His trees to look a certain way, planning to use them in a particular manner, so that we would see them and draw meaning from them and be satisfied, just because He loves us.
Perhaps that is a stretch.  Perhaps it didn’t really happen that way.  But it seems like something that would be just like our God: to carefully plan out His creation in the way that would give His children the most joy.
Dad Light 4
Doesn’t it?

Art credit: last photograph by Kirk Sewell (R K Sewell Photography)

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When It Is Hard to Believe

I am wrestling with the difficulty of believing God.
God's Words
I suppose it would be more accurate and honest to admit that really I am wrestling with why I don’t believe God much of the time.
This struggle to believe manifests itself in different ways at various times and seasons in my life, but currently I am noticing it in two particular ways.
Trusting Him with my girls
One struggle I have is in believing that God truly loves my children.
I know.
When I say it like that, it seems ludicrous.  We are talking, after all, about the same God who gave up His only Son so that my children could be with Him forever.
Trusting His plans for them
Yet I worry about my babies.  I worry about their safety, about whether they will survive to adulthood (although sometimes I think that it might be me who causes them not to survive), about whether they will suffer some horrible trauma along the way.  I worry about whether they will learn to love God most of all and whether they will love people.  I worry about my children…which means that I am not believing God.
God has promised that He loves my children even more than I do.  He has promised that He will do what is best for them and that He will give them what they need.  But I still worry.  Why?
Part of the trouble is that I don’t trust in what God’s best is.  I know that sometimes His best is painful and even when I can trust in that for myself, I often want to protect them.  It is truly ridiculous that I would want to protect my children from God, but there it is.  Deep down inside, I sometimes believe that I know better than God, that my goals for my children are more important than God’s goals for them.
I don’t know why I wrestle with this.  When I state it so plainly, even I can see the foolishness of it.  It should be easy to believe.  Yet it is not.
Holy Spirit
The other struggle I currently have is in believing that God’s Spirit will truly guide me through life.  I have trouble believing that God is interested in all areas of life.  Can I really trust the Holy Spirit to guide me in my parenting?  Can I really trust the Holy Spirit to show me the best way to train, disciple, even educate my children?  Does God’s Spirit care about a business, a household, a career?
Method Books
I don’t believe it and so I want to rely on books, on methods, on other people to tell me how to raise and teach my babies.  Yet if Jesus is before all things, if all things hold together in Him, and if Jesus sent His Holy Spirit to us to guide us and teach us Jesus’ truth, then He truly is interested in showing me how best to live my life.  All aspects of it.
Why is that so difficult to believe, so hard to rely on?  It seems like it should be simple.  God has never broken a promise; He has proved over and over that His way and His love is best, that His Spirit is faithful to show us truth.  I am foolish to doubt the faithfulness of such a God.
The Israelites Doubting
Yet I do.  I am like the Israelites who refused to believe that God would provide enough manna on the sixth day to provide for the seventh or that He would provide enough harvest bounty in the sixth year to provide for the seventh year of Jubilee.  I doubt and I worry.  Yet even through the doubt and worry I still keep plodding forward, step by painful step, begging for God to help me trust Him, desperate for more of His Spirit.
I trust that He will.  “I believe; help my unbelief!”

Art Credit: The Golden Calf by Esteban March

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Hope Changes

Hope.
Tulips
It changes nothing.  It changes everything.
How do you endure?  When everything around you is falling apart, when all that you love on this earth fails you, how do you keep going?
It happens to all of us.  At some point in our lives, whether early in life or late, we sit in stunned silence while our world crumbles.
Pummeled
What do we do?  What do we do when we or one we love is living in the middle of unimaginable pain?  What is it that keeps us going, that lets us perservere?
Hope.
It changes nothing.  It changes everything.
Hope doesn’t heal the sick or take away the pain.  It doesn’t fill the stomach or bring your loved one back.
Focused on Death
It changes nothing.
Hope gives you a glory-full vision of the end of your story.  It gives you a glimpse of the beauty, the joy, the perfection that is promised.
Focused on Hope
It changes everything.
When you know the end of the story, when you know that Christ wins and that we will be with Him forever, it gives us the power to bear anything.  Anything.  When you can see the end of fear, the end of despair, the end of pain, when you can see the adventure, the rest, the wholeness that waits for you, you are sustained in the now because you know that this, too, shall pass.
So hope.  Hope in what is promised.  Hope in what God has promised through the power of the resurrected Christ.
For you who have just received that 3 a.m. phone call, you who walk dazed from your doctor’s office, you who saw your child drift away, you who wish desperately for a child, you who sit weeping in a corner, who think that you will always be alone and unloved, for all of you who live in darkness and doubt…
Broken
there is hope.  Beautiful, glorious, resurrection hope.  So breathe deep of this hope.  Let it fill you up with peace and joy so that you are able to endure all things.  For He who is our hope is coming.
Hope
It is promised.  It shall be so.

Art credit: last photograph by R.K. Sewell Photography (photographybysewell.webs.com)

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