His is a Terrible Love

 To hear my blog post read aloud, just click the play button. If you’re reading this in an email, you may have to click here to hear the post on my site.

 

There is darkness in all of us.

The Road

It is a part of being human to feel the weightiness of the absence of God.
And there is an absence of God in this world.  The Bible we profess speaks of it.
The prophets and psalms all speak of Him who is not there when He is most needed.  The author of Hebrews strips all of our pretense away when he speaks of Noah, of Abraham, of Gideon and David and the rest who “all died without having received what was promised.”
It is the anguish of glimpsing the briefest glow of the light of presence without being allowed to bask in the sun.
Glimpse of light
It is a terrible love, this love of God for us.  It is a love that means His absence as often as it means His presence.  It is a love that Jesus speaks of when He utters in His darkest moment the piercing cry of Where are you, God?
You who are in heaven for us, why are you not down here in hell with us?

Light of presence

It is a terrible love that speaks of carrying our own cross, that utters the truth that all ye labor and are heavy laden.
It is a terrible love that wounds, or allows the wounds, before the healing can come.
It is a terrible love that weeps at the death of a friend, of Lazarus.  They are tears that speak of the absence of God.  Of the part of God in the very body of Jesus who would not save the life of His own friend.
This is, after all, the Gospel.  It is terrible before it is beautiful.  It is darkness before it is light.
Darkness before light
We all labor and are heavy laden.  We work so very hard to pretend that it is not so, but even when we are appalled at the darkness, we cannot help but listen to Jesus because we see in Him not only the darkness of being without God but the glorious light of what it looks like to be with God.
It is out of the absence of God that He becomes most present.  It is out of the whirlwind, out of the storm that God first speaks to Job, answering Him not with answers but with Himself.
It is out of darkness that we first begin to perceive the light.
Paul says that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.  God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.  God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are”, and he points to “the apparent emptiness of the world where God belongs and to how the emptiness starts to echo like an empty shell after a while until you can hear in it the still, small voice of the sea, hear strength in weakness, victory in defeat, presence in absence.” ~ Frederick Buechner
Rembrandt
The cross itself is a symbol of defeat before it is a symbol of victory and it, too, speaks of the absence of God.
When the absence is all that we see, when we are tempted to see in it a well of doubt that could lead us into atheism or at least into becoming agnostic, there is yet something else to see as well.
It was out of the darkness and absence that God first spoke.  “In the beginning…the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”
Darkness is upon our faces as well, a void that sinks deep into our hearts.  And perhaps it is necessary for the reality of this darkness to fold itself around us for us to be able to glimpse the reality of the word that God spoke into the darkness, “God said let there be light, and there was light.”
And there was light
It is a terrible love that is offered to us, and perhaps we must face the truth of the terribleness before we are capable of accepting the love.

Art credits: Three Crosses sketch by Rembrandt; Supernova photo by NASA

edited from the archives

He Is Saying Your Name

To hear my blog post read aloud, just click the play button. If you’re reading this in an email, you may have to click here to hear the post on my site.

 

 

I have lived deep in pain.
When I wanted a baby and God said not yet.
pain
When my brother called and said of his pregnant wife, it’s cancer.
cancer
When my Papa died the day my baby was born.
death
I have lost friends and family, I have been disappointed and lonely.
As have most of you.
You, too, have received the doctor’s call, heard the rejecting words, felt the crippling fear and doubt.
When you are in the middle of deep, dark pain, you are blinded. Your body curls in on itself, your eyes darken with tears. You look for Jesus, desperately searching for Him, but you cannot see Him.
In the deepest pain, He is closest.
tomb
Mary stood at the tomb, searching for Him. In the middle of her deepest pain, she searched for His dead body but was blinded by her grief. Angels spoke to her and she could not see. Jesus, the One she searched for, stood behind her and she thought He was the gardener.
empty tomb
And then.
Mary.
He is right here. As close as your very breath. And He is saying your name.
Look up. Wipe your tears away for just a moment and listen.
He is saying your name.
He has not left you. He is there, speaking to you. Can you hear Him?
hope
He died and is alive and because of that resurrection, there is new closeness with Him.
I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.
There is resurrection and now there is intimacy that was not possible before.
alive
In the middle of your deepest pain, do not wonder anymore where Jesus is.
Turn around. He is right there behind you. Closer than He’s ever been.
risen
And He is saying your name.

Hold On

Why do we expect a life free from ugliness?
ugliness
Why do we think that we should ease through life surrounded by comforts?
discomfort
Why do we think that we should be exempt from pain?
pain
hurt
God promised, after all, that life will be hard, that life will be full of trouble.
cross
And He promised that it would all be okay in the end.
He didn’t promise that we would see the end while still in this world, but He promised that it would be okay.
Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end. ~ John Lennon
So many died while still hoping for Messiah, still believing that He would come.
He came
And He did.
So many of us will die while still hoping for God to come and make everything beautiful again.
He is coming
And He will.
But not only that.
If that weren’t promise enough for you.
Not only has He promised that everything will be okay, but He promised that while it is still not okay, He will never leave us.
So hold on. Be still and hold on to those promises with everything in you and you will find that joy and peace that goes beyond anything that is happening around or inside you.
Hold on.
You who are watching her die before your very eyes.
Hold on.
You who are hurt by the one who should protect.
Hold on.
You who are frightened by all you see around the world.
Hold on.
You who feel like your life doesn’t matter.
Hold on.
Hold on.
He will never leave you. And someday it will be okay.

Art credits: dead rose photo by Deb Knoles; Christ on the Cross photo by Asta Rastauskiene; Nativity by Antonio da Correggio; Tulips in sunlight photo by Kirk Sewell Photography

Whatever Is Necessary

What do we do with the truly awful things of this life? With a loss of love, with a deep constant pain, with a fear that pervades our depths?
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 Discouraged
 It is dangerous to attribute it all to our not loving God enough, although perhaps we could say that is often the case.
Our faith is, as CS Lewis once said, often only a house of cards.
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He always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down. ~ CS Lewis A Grief Observed
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We walk around, believing that our foundation is solid, but in truth we are playing at faith. Our house needs a good breath of wind, for if it is never allowed to fall, it can never be rebuilt to last for eternity.
If my faith is only steady enough to endure this life, wouldn’t I want God to blow it down with whatever wind is necessary so that I can endure to the end?
I’m not sure.
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I think I want this, but fear holds me back. Fear of what God, in His infinite love and wisdom, might deal out.
He never promised to be gentle.
Is any pain at all worthwhile if it brings us closer to Him, closer to the sort of life with God that Jesus lived?
The given answer should be yes, but I hesitate and pull back at the brink of giving it.
Which means that I do not yet desire God above all else.
Not truly.
Do many of us?
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We give our hearts over to so many things other than God. . .As long as our happiness is tied to the things we can lose, we are vulnerable. ~ John Eldredge Walking With God
If God is truly enough, if He is what we need for happiness, for contentment, then we should be able to let go of those we love, endure that deep pain, rise above the pervasive fear, because we still have Him.
It is God who remains when all else is gone. It is God who fills us up with Himself so that we do not need anything or anyone else.
In truth, when we lose, when we hurt, we have more of Him than we have in the comfort and in the ease. That in itself should make us turn from the easy way.
For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. ~ Philippians 3. 7-12
If only I could believe that. Truly know it and live it.
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But without the pain of learning it.

When This World Becomes Just Too Much

ISIS
Ferguson
Tunisia
Greece
Our world is broken. It is fallen.
Cancer
Infertility
Loneliness
Joblessness
Our lives are broken. They can be dark.
That there can be ugliness in this life is not questioned by anyone. No one would argue with the idea that we all go through times of darkness, times of weeping, times of where in the world, where in all of this hurting world are You, God?
If the question then is not will I suffer, then the question must be what will I choose when I suffer.
When I hurt, will I believe that God works for the best in everything or will I wonder whether God is working at all? When I ache, will I believe that God is most present when I am at the end of myself or will I wonder whether God is really in anything at all? When I don’t know how long I can hold on, will I believe in God when I cannot see Him through the dark or will I wonder if the darkness is all that there is?
What do we do when we are sinking, when we are drowning, when we are at the end of ourselves and are pleading for relief?
Paul
Paul pleaded with God to remove his thorn. He begged God three times for release. The first two times? Heaven was silent. The third time? God said no.
Christ
Jesus asked if there was any other way but the Cross. God’s answer? No.
Why do we think it should be different for us? Why do we think that we should be exempt?
If God is most present and works most powerfully when we are at the end of our own limits, then shouldn’t we want to lean into our suffering rather than try to escape it?
Paul chose to boast of his weakness, to be content with his hardship. He chose to immerse himself in his thorn in order to gain more of Christ.
We don’t have a choice about whether we will hurt.
Our choice is in how we will respond.
Rembrandt
Will we spend our time begging for respite? Will we beg God to take it away and then curse Him when He does not?
Or will we receive our suffering as a gift? A gift with a purpose, even though we may never know the purpose. A gift with a promise, a promise of grace and God’s presence.
When God says no, when God says My grace is sufficient for you, instead of arguing with Him about it, instead of fighting Him with all of your strength, ask Him to help you get to the place where you can receive your adversity as a gift from a loving Father.
A gift that brings you more of His grace. A gift that brings you more of Him.
I have learned to kiss the waves that dash me against the Rock of Ages. ~ Charles Spurgeon

Art credits: The Apostle Paul sketch from 1514 A.D.; Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane by Orazio Borgianni; The Three Crosses by Rembrandt

Why?

Why?
It is a cry that explodes from a pain-filled heart. It is a cry that whimpers from a lonely soul.
It is a cry that propels its way out of all who hurt in one way or another.
Why did my twenty-six year old sister-in-law have to die in such a horrible way?
Kristina
Why did my Papa labor in pain to leave this earth on the very same day that that I labored in pain to bear my daughter into it?
Papa
Why do my friends suffer illness and miscarriage and even death while we still are young?
Stephanie
Why?
And yet I have to wonder: what would we get if we got an answer to our questions of why?
Would we gain satisfaction? Would it really change anything if God sat down in front of us and explained everything to our face?
We would still have to face the empty chairs. We would still be faced with the memories of pain.
Job asked why. He didn’t just ask, he demanded the chance to ask God why. He shouted for the opportunity to plead his case before God.
And God came.
He came not with reasons but with glory.
God didn’t reveal His ultimate plan, He revealed Himself.
God didn’t show the reasons for what happened, He showed His face.
And Job?
Even covered with sores and ashes, he looks oddly like a man who has asked for a crust and been given the whole loaf. ~ Frederick Buechner
In answer to all of our questions, may God be gracious enough to give us Himself.

Terrible Love

It is Thanksgiving time and there is light.

Happy kids eating

Happy eating

Fine dining
They sit around the table laden with food, this family bound together by blood.  There is light and laughter, talk of sports and of God, there is caring and kindness between generations.  There are eyes shining bright, shining with love and with joy in the company around them.
And there is darkness.
There is one who is recently bereft of the comfort of spouse, struggling to find what is normal.  There is one who sits heavy with the weight of marriage that is harder than expected.  There is one who wonders if anything they do will ever seem good enough.
There is one who struggles with getting older, one who struggles with trouble at work and money that slips through the fingers, one who wonders if there is anything good coming when they can’t see what lies further down the road.
The Road
There is darkness in all of us.  It is a part of being human to feel the weightiness of the absence of God.  And there is an absence of God in this world.  The Bible we profess speaks of it.  The prophets and psalms all speak of Him who is not there when He is most needed.  The author of Hebrews strips all of our pretense away when he speaks of Noah, of Abraham, of Gideon and David and the rest who “all died without having received what was promised.”  It is the anguish of glimpsing the briefest glow of the light of presence without being allowed to bask in the sun.
Glimpse of light
It is a terrible love, this love of God for us.  It is a love that means His absence as often as it means His presence.  It is a love that Jesus speaks of when He utters in His darkest moment the piercing cry of Where are you, God?
You who are in heaven for us, why are you not down here in hell with us?

Light of presence

It is a terrible love that speaks of carrying our own cross, that utters the truth that all ye labor and are heavy laden.
It is a terrible love that wounds, or allows the wounds, before the healing can come.
It is a terrible love that weeps at the death of a friend, of Lazarus.  They are tears that speak of the absence of God.  Of the part of God in the very body of Jesus who would not save the life of His own friend.
This is, after all, the Gospel.  It is terrible before it is beautiful.  It is darkness before it is light.
Darkness before light
We all labor and are heavy laden.  We work so very hard to pretend that it is not so, but even when we are appalled at the darkness, we cannot help but listen to Jesus because we see in Him not only the darkness of being without God but the glorious light of what it looks like to be with God.
It is out of the absence of God that He becomes most present.  It is out of the whirlwind, out of the storm that God first speaks to Job, answering Him not with answers but with Himself.  It is out of darkness that we first begin to perceive the light.
Paul says that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.  God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.  God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are”, and he points to “the apparent emptiness of the world where God belongs and to how the emptiness starts to echo like an empty shell after a while until you can here in it the still, small voice of the sea, hear strength in weakness, victory in defeat, presence in absence.” ~ Frederick Buechner
Rembrandt
The cross itself is a symbol of defeat before it is a symbol of victory and it, too, speaks of the absence of God.
When the absence is all that we see, when we are tempted to see in it a well of doubt that could lead us into atheism or at least into becoming agnostic, there is yet something else to see as well.
It was out of the darkness and absence that God first spoke.  “In the beginning…the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”  And darkness is upon our faces as well, a void that sinks deep into our hearts.  And perhaps it is necessary for the reality of this darkness to fold itself around us for us to be able to glimpse the reality of the word that God spoke into the darkness, “God said let there be light, and there was light.”
And there was light
It is a terrible love that is offered to us, and perhaps we must face the truth of the terribleness before we are capable of accepting the love.

Art credits: Three Crosses sketch by Rembrandt; Supernova photo by NASA

When Praise is a Sacrifice

Sacrifice is hard.
I suppose that is clear from the very definition of the word.
The idea of a sacrifice of praise seems a strange sort of concept.  We tend to view praise as spontaneous, as rising from our rising and joyful emotions.  How can such praise be a sacrifice?
Easy to praise
Easy to praise
That sort of praise is not such a sacrifice.  But what about the praise that comes from a woman who has just lost her child?  What about the praise from a man who does not know how he will feed his family?  What about the praise from Christ-follower who lives every day in fear of torture or death because of Who he follows?
Through Him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge His name. (Heb. 13.5)
The praise of the one ravaged by cancer, the praise of the one dying inside from loneliness, the praise of the one who isn’t even sure that God is really there…these are a sacrifice.  These are that sacrifice of praise.
Suffered years of illinesses
Steph – Suffered years of illnesses and still chose to try to praise God
Kristina - died of cancer, leaving her husband and baby behind
Kristina – died of cancer, leaving her husband and baby behind, yet still sought God while alive.
But how?  How is it even possible to praise God while living through such circumstances?
Through Him
Through who?
Look back just one chapter.
…looking to Jesus…who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. (Heb. 12. 2-3)
How?  By looking to Jesus.  By looking to the One who was able to offer up His own sacrifice of praise while enduring the physical pain of the cross, while enduring the emotional shame of the cross, while enduring the heartbreaking separation from His own Father.
Jesus - crucified, humiliated, abandoned, yet still offered praise to God
Jesus – crucified, humiliated, abandoned, yet still offered praise to God
By keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, and therefore off of ourselves, we are given courage and strength to do what we think is impossible.  We are kept from growing weary and fainthearted.
By fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, we are able to continually offer up a sacrifice of praise.  An offering of praise that endures all time and all circumstance.  An offering of praise that is beautiful to God.

Art credits: Sunlight through tulips photograph by Kirk Sewell Photography; photograph of Jesus carrying the cross sculpture by Asta Rastauskiene

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, 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

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)