I Cannot

I hate admitting that I cannot do something.  I have experienced quite a few tragedies that occurred because I was unable to swallow that thing inside of me that rises up and prevents me from asking for help.
clenched fist
The one notable exception is raising children.  I am all about seeking out advice when it comes to my children (which is its own problem because too much advice leads to indecision which invariably leads to paralysis).  This is not by any particular virtue of my own, rather it is because I am completely terrified of irreversibly messing up another human being.
Messing up my own life, however, is fine, because whatever the thing is, I can do it.
Even if I cannot.
This causes a definite problem, however, when it comes to my faith.  I want to be able to be good enough, to make myself righteous enough, to climb up the ladder and reach God all on my own.
Tower of Babel
I would have done well in Babel.
I want to do it myself so that I can then take credit.  I want to be proud of my own accomplishments.  I want, in short, to seek and worship myself.
Worshiping Self
God, however, is quite clear.  We can never rise up to Him, so He, in His infinite mercy, came down to us.  
Coming Down
This is folly and this is scandal.  It cannot be understood by our own reason and intelligence.  This is offensive.  It offends our pride to know that there is nothing for us to do.
God is too high and holy and our sin is too deep and depraved for us to be able to reach God.
Our souls become crippled and cramped by trying to rise to the highest height.  The end is despair, or a self-righteousness that leaves room neither for love of God nor for love of others. ~ Emil Brunner
It hurts as a crucifixion always does, but I must crucify myself and admit that I cannot reach God.  I cannot be good enough and I cannot make myself righteous.
So God descends to us at Christmas and finishes His descent on Good Friday.  What is His goal and where does He end His descent?  He ends where we belong.  In Hell.  Our rightful place is separation from God, which is hell, and God descends down to hell.
Fires
Jesus experiences our separation from God and despairs of loneliness from God so that we can be free of it.  He descends all the way down so that He can lift us out and reconcile us to God.  It is the only way.
Reconciliation
If the only way to receive God’s Spirit and nevermore to be separate from Him is to admit that I cannot do it, I will crucify my pride every single day and bow my head to the ground in worship and thanksgiving.
I will confess: I cannot.

Art Credits: Construction of the Tower of Babel painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger; The Three Crosses by Rembrandt

The Beauty of Gray

The older I get, the more gray shades I see in our world.  An expansion of colors, a deepening of my perceptions, these nuances that make my life richer are a bit astonishing.
It was much easier when the lenses I wear saw only black and white.
Lily Black and White     Analise Black and White     Cross Black and White
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.
The more I meet people who were raised differently than I was raised and the more I read authors from other places and times and faith traditions, the more I begin to catch a glimpse of how much my view of God, of the Bible, of the world around me is colored by my 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.  There are many issues of our faith that I have been rethinking and restudying lately, asking God once again to teach me His way.
Issues like the role of women in the church and in the family, homosexuality, how science and the Bible fit together, what the inerrancy of the Scriptures really means.  On some of these issues I am changing.  On others I remain.  Yet on all of these issues and more, as I read and study I realize something that is 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 me being the enemy, being the one who is deliberately misinterpreting God’s words, being the one who picks and chooses what they will believe, those who see things in a different light are just trying their best to follow Jesus.
Just like I am.
Perhaps they are interpreting Scripture incorrectly, but perhaps I am the one who is wrong.
Grace.  It is easy to receive and devilishly difficult to dole out freely.  I spend so much time wanting to get it right, sometimes from good motivation and sometimes from pride, that I quit looking at the person with whom I differ.  I see black and I see white, and the sharp edges of truth keep me from seeing the gray shades of Jesus in the face of the person before me.
Lily Four Shades     Analise Four Shades     Cross Four Shades
It is easier to look at the black and white of an issue, because to see the gray of a person is to see Jesus.  And seeing Jesus is always hard.  Looking at the face of Jesus has a way of changing you deep down where it hurts.
There is a reason why Jesus said that the most important thing is to love.  Loving God and loving people is more important than getting it all right.  He didn’t say it was the easiest thing.  Most things with Jesus aren’t.
Loving others has a way of hijacking the straight lines of your life and carrying you off to the unknown.  Loving Jesus has a way of blurring your sharp edges and softening the contours of your heart.
It is painful and it is frightening.
Lily All Shades    Analise All Shades    Cross All Shades
And those gray shades are beautiful beyond words.

 

Thanks to Kirk Sewell for turning the colors of my photographs into various shades of gray.  You can see more of his work at http://photographybysewell.webs.com

The Years the Locust Ate

I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten…you shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you…
Beauty
A beautiful set of verses in Joel.  Verses filled with hope, with new life and new beginnings.
Drought
Yet I hate with all of my being that there were entire years that were eaten by locusts.  I hate that people had to endure that pain and despair before they could reach the end point of being satisfied and praising God.
The memories of those years don’t go away.
And the LORD restored the fortunes of Job, when he had prayed for his friends.  And the LORD gave Job twice as much as he had before…And the LORD blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning.  And he had 14,000 sheep, 6,000 camels, 1,000 yoke of oxen, and 1,000 female donkeys.  He had also seven sons and three daughters…And after this Job lived 140 years, and saw his sons, and his sons’ sons, four generations.  And Job died, an old man, and full of days.
Flourishing
Another beautiful set of verses in Job.  Verses filled with hope, with new life and new beginnings.
Devastated
Yet Job still endured the loss of all that he had.  He still watched all of his children die and, as any of you who have lost children know all too well, no number of new children can ever take away the pain of losing those who came before.
It is a heart filled with mixed emotions, this kind of hope.  It is joy and excitement over the beauty of what lies ahead and it is sorrow and grieving over what happened in the past.
Autumn Blazes
This is life.
Life and Death
It is beauty that is tinged with sorrow.  It is love that is colored by loss.  All who live deeply are affected.  None are exempt except for those who choose not to love.
God speaks beautiful words about our future with Him, words filled with promise, words filled with satisfaction and praise and joy. What do we do with this apparent contradiction?  How do we get from this common suffering to a perfect life filled with perfect joy?
One option is that it is all a big hoax.  None of this hope is true; it is all just a ruse to keep us from rebelling too hard against our lot in life.
Those who have known God long enough to catch a glimpse of His character, though, know that He is not given to such cruel jokes.
Jesus with Samaritan Woman
If you keep God in the picture, this God who is the very definition of love, than you are left with the answer that it is somehow all worth it. If God is who He says He is, if His words are trustworthy and true, then somehow the end is so brilliantly glorious that it will eclipse the darkness that came before.
Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.  ~ C.S. Lewis
So what do we do with this hope that is so full of wildly contradicting emotions?  I don’t understand how this sort of ending is at all possible when the sorrow seems so great.  Yet like Abraham, we are asked to keep trusting in the face of apparent impossibility.  Trusting that what God said to Abraham is truth for all: “Is anything too hard for the LORD?”
Light
On our best days we are able to trust that, in the end, we will be so seized by the sight of His face that we will fall to the ground at His feet in pure adoration. And all that came before will be as a vacuous mist that is chased away by the brilliant light and heat of the sun.

Art Credits: Sunlight Through Tulips photo by Kirk Sewell; Christ and Samaritan Woman painting by Siemiradzki; Sunlight Through Trees photo by Kirk Sewell

Follow the Signs

May we continue our conversation from last week?


Reality is hard.

Our family has become steeped in pain and loss.


Many others suffer far greater tragedies.

Reconciling the hurt with the heart of God is hard.

It is tempting to add a veneer of softness, to speak in cliches 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.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

All through the Bible, God seems to not place much importance at all on whether we are free from pain or suffering. 

Abel. Abraham. Joseph. Moses. Uriah the prophet. John the BaptistJesus’ cousin. All of the apostles…Jesus’ closest friends.

Understanding why Kristina had to die is hard.


I might never know the reason.

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, A Holy Experience)

Can I trust in the heart of God?



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 muff the first three signs which leads to their imprisonment with a madman who is chained to (you guessed it!) 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, which is where I will pick up our story:

“Once and for all,” said the prisoner, “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 okay. I wish we did have that promise. 

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 I find that perhaps, after all, it does not matter why. It does not matter from whence came the hard thing. 


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, 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. 

Art Credits: Photograph of Cross wooden statue by Asta Rastauskiene
; Marsh-wiggle picture (I was not able to find the original); Rembrandt’s The Three Crosses  

Thanks also to my wonderful Dad who gave me some of the ideas in this essay.

This is Hard.

Grief is hard.

While the rest of us can return to our lives and, for at least a few hours, forget, my brother is faced with his new reality every moment of every day.



The loss of his beloved, now a single daddy…

Reality is hard.

I want to know God and part of knowing Him must involve reconciling what I see around me to what I know of Him through His Words.



The seeking results in ideas and wonderings that reverberate through my heart.

You have walked with me through many of my searchings in the darkness. Will you join me for a few more?

Does God send suffering? Does He send pain?

Some would recoil at the idea. 

But why? We see pain result in good all the time in our world. Go to any hospital and look around.

I talk with my youngest brother about this.



He of the scientific bent points out that many things that sometimes have “tragic” results are very important to the existence of the earth, even to our own existence: without wildfires, ecosystems would collapse; without seismic and volcanic activity, our earth could not refresh itself; hurricanes aid island ecosytems; the gene mutations that sometimes produce cancer prevent us from all being clones.

The Bible seems to suggest that God does, at least sometimes, send bad things:

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life…But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. ~ II Corinthians 1

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” ~ John 9

Perhaps, though, whether or not He sends them doesn’t matter. 

Bad things happen.


If God doesn’t send them, He certainly has the power to stop them. Yet He chooses to allow them to happen.

Well, take your choice. The tortures occur. If they are unnecessary, then there is no God or a bad one. If there is a good God, then these tortures are necessary. For no even moderately good Being could possibly inflict or permit them if they weren’t. Either way, we’re for it. (C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed)

Either way we are left trying to reconcile these things with the God that we know to be good.

We are left trying to reconcile the hurt with His heart.

There are tears everywhere and God catches them, puts them into His bottle.

God is always good and we are always loved. Loved enough to be shaped into goodness of Christ Himself. (Ann Voskamp, A Holy Experience)

This reconciliation is hard.

How have you done this? How have you reconciled these hard things with the character of our God?

Will you join me next week as I search through these ideas even more?