His is a Terrible Love

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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

Five Years of Writing

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.
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Five years.
Five years of writing in this space.IMG_2529
Much has happened in five years.
Our family has moved.
We have doubled our number of children.
We have lost loved ones and gained many more.
My writing has improved; I grow more and more into my own writing-self as I write each week.
My blog has grown, slowly rather than by giant leaps and I find that this is how it should be. I am, after all, a mommy to four very little girls.
I find that I am content with my smallness, content simply to write with no expectations for more. Yet sometimes I wonder if God is calling me to more.
It is a fine balance, this staying content. To not feel greedy for more while also not being fearful of the same possibility. How well I achieve this high wire act depends on my day and how much sleep I had the night before.
In honor of this five year mark, and in preparation for sending out my book to be read and judged, next week I will begin a quest for more subscribers, a quest in which I hope you will join me. (It will involve giveaways…a few of my favorite things!)
Perhaps God has more public spaces prepared for these words I write; perhaps He desires for me to continue writing for just a few. While I suspect that I will feel a bit of relief if smallness is His choice, I only want to remain faithful to Him.
In the meantime, and regardless of the result, I will continue to practice my art, being faithful to cultivate whatever talent has been given. I will continue to learn how to craft my words, enjoying the beauty of weaving words and visual art together and enjoying the search for wisdom and understanding that I pray lies beneath my weavings. I will continue to explore this small life around me as well as the larger culture of the world in an attempt to love God better.
I will write, as I have written every week for five years, of the way that God makes all things sacred. I hope that you will continue with me and I pray that you will be helped by these words.
As I end every blogging year, I finish with this prayer:
Whatever the reason for my writing, here I am in this space.  I will continue to obey, even though it is hard and often causes my heart to feel fear.  I will write.  God will listen.  I pray He will continue to be pleased.

This Waiting Made Sacred

We all go through times of waiting.
Waiting
Hoping
Perhaps all of our lives are spent waiting.
Patient
My waiting usually looks impatient and discontent.
My waiting usually is spent trying to arrive.
If all of our lives are supposed to be made sacred, how can this waiting become sacred? How can this waiting become beautiful?
If all of our lives are meant for God’s glory, how can we lean into this waiting instead of resisting and pulling back?
Lean in
Expectancy
Henri Nouwen, a Dutch theologian, writes about waiting as an active kind of waiting.
He speaks of those at the beginning of the Gospels (Mary, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Simeon, Anna) as waiting with a sense of promise. A promise that allows them to wait. Nouwen says that the secret of waiting is the faith that something has already begun.
Active waiting means to be present fully to the moment, in the conviction that something is happening where you are and that you want to be present to it. ~ Waiting for God
It is a waiting that knows the waited-for thing has already begun.
Like planting a seed and waiting for it to emerge. Like seeing the plus sign on the pregnancy test and waiting to hold the baby in your arms.
It is a knowing that there are beautiful things happening in the darkness. It is a knowing that even though you cannot see, it is growing.
Growing
Becoming
It is a giving up of control because none of us quite know what we are waiting for when God is involved.
Rather than waiting for a job or a baby or a spouse, we are waiting for whatever God chooses to give. We hold our expectations and dreams lightly, with cupped open hands, knowing that whatever comes is ultimately the best thing of all.
It is a giving up of control but it is a gift of surprise and adventure, of something even better than what you had imagined.
Eyes wide open
It is a waiting with eyes open and breath held in expectation. Expectation of beauty and excitement.
Sacred waiting
This is a waiting I can lean in to. A beautiful, sacred waiting that glorifies God.

Art credit: Final photograph of crab apple blossoms by Kirk Sewell

Small is Sacred

These feel like frightening times. The world at large keeps crashing into my small frame of reference.
Burning
Crashing
It doesn’t feel as though I can do anything against the hatred, fear, and violence that keeps cropping up all around us.
Violence
Part of my helpless feeling comes from my own world currently being very small.
My world
Full of littles
My days revolve around nursing babies, napping toddlers, and newly-become elementary students.
What I have to give, what I have to offer to stem this dark tide is small.
Our season in life leaves little room for discretionary income and time.
Hard season
I wonder if anything I do makes much difference.
In this season of Advent, this season of preparing ourselves for the biggest Gift of all, the gifts that I bring to our God, to our world, seem insignificant, tiny.
Leaving my own book to read one more story aloud? Trifling.
Baking cookies to give to our neighbors? Inconsequential.
Giving up a meal out to purchase toys for a toy drive? Insufficient.
Yet as I read still another version of the Christmas Story to my girls I am reminded that an act does not have to be big to be sacred.
Small
Small acts of kindness to those I know, small smiles and gentle words in passing to those who seem different from us, small gifts to strangers are all as sacred and beautiful as the act of preaching to thousands.
Light
You don’t have to have endless resources to be able to change the world.  You don’t have to accomplish something enormous to let a glimpse of light in to the darkness.
After all, what is Advent but the remembrance that it was the smallest, most fragile gift of all that was sacred enough to change our world forever.
Smallest Gift

The Brilliant Colors of Jesus

Autumn is my favorite time of year.
Autumn
Colors
The cool, crisp air striking your skin, the blazing bonfire scent filling you up with every breath, the crunch of leaves underfoot. Most of all, the leaves. The dazzling display of fiery colors that fill your sight in every direction.
Dazzling
Those radiant colors that inspire poetry and art are, I recently discovered (or perhaps rediscovered as I feel sure I probably learned this at one time during my elementary school career), actually the true colors of the leaves. The green that we see for most of the year, the green that fills up our springtime and summer, is just the tree-feeding chlorophyll covering up the brightness. It is not until the tree is no longer making food, not until the leaves are beginning to die, that their true colors blaze out.
Green
I want that.
Changing
Oh, how I desperately want that.
Becoming
As I age, as my body moves closer to death, I want for the colors of this life to begin to fade away and the colors of Jesus in me to blaze out.
Beginning
From the moment we choose life in Jesus, we are changing.
Fading
Little by little, day by day, the green of this world starts to fade.
Shining
Little by little, choice by choice, the light of the life to come begins to shine.
Light
The older I become, the more I want people to look at me and see Jesus. I want the colors of me, the colors of my natural self, to fade away. I want the brilliance of Jesus to take over.
Brilliance
At the end of my life, my body will be bent and wrinkled, dry and withered. My prayer is that by then my own self will be so one with Christ that when people look into my eyes, they are taken aback with the dazzling display of Jesus that fills their sight.
Dazzling
What are some of the lessons that Mother Nature is teaching you about our common Creator? She speaks loudly if we will only listen.
Beauty
Creation
Nature
For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. ~ Romans 1.20

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.

The Weight of Holy

I am evangelical all the way down to my toes.
High Church
In many ways I am proud of my faith tradition. I will be the first to admit that we have our troubles, things with which I don’t agree, but there are many things I think we get right.
I am grateful for our emphasis on the Bible, our insistence on a personal relationship with God, our reliance on Jesus’ sacrifice to make us clean.
There are a few pieces of Christianity I think we miss out on, though.
Depth
One of those pieces is our loss of depth when we focus on individual relationship with God over communal relationships with God. This is a subject I’ll have to explore in a different post.
For this week?
We also lose a sense of the sacredness and holiness of God when we focus solely on a personal, intimate relationship with God.
Weighty
In our casual services, in our emphasis on God as friend, we forget sometimes how other God is. He is holy, which means separate.  Apart.
He is not like us. He is so far above us that we cannot begin to comprehend Him. We are not worthy to stand in His presence. We cannot meet His gaze. To see His face is to die.
Sacred
We attended a Lutheran church service a few Sundays ago.
I was struck by the ceremony, the honor and respect with which they treat all things belonging to God: in particular, the Word and the Lord’s Supper.
Every move was accompanied by a genuflect before the table holding the Bible and the Communion. There was a reverence to that portion of the service that was weighty.
Holy
Set apart
There was a hush of holiness over the proceedings that I do not see in my own tradition. As each person came up to receive the bread, they were looked in the eye and told “This is His body which was broken for you”. As each person came up to receive the cup, they were looked in the eye and told, “This is His blood which was shed for you”. As each child came past with their parents, a hand was laid on their head and a blessing given on them.
It was holy and it was personal.
As each server of the bread and wine came to their turn to be the receiver, they bowed before the Word and the Communion. Not in worship of those items, but in reverence for the One they represent. In a recognition that God is holy and has declared these things to be sacred.
Holiness

Reverence

Our whole lives are to be sacred. I recognize that there is no separation between sacred and secular in our everyday lives. That is the premise behind this very blog. Yet it serves us well to be reminded every now and then of the absolute holiness of the One who makes everything sacred.
Nothing is sacred without God.
Cathedral
Sometimes we forget how much more sacred is the Giver than the gifts.
Sometimes we lose the weightiness of holy and in that shallowness can float upward until we believe that we are closer to God than we truly are.
The weight of holy
…and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne. And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald…From the throne came flashes of lightening, and rumblings and peals of thunder…Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!

All photographs this week are by Kirk Sewell. You can purchase canvas prints of many of his gorgeous photograph artwork on his website: photographybysewell.webs.com

Exploring Goodness and Freedom

We are in the middle of moving, so I will be fetching from the archives for the next two or three weeks. Enjoy!

Is there such a thing as good?
Fall Colors
Light through Crocus
Not the sort of good that is only good because it results in some desired, practical outcome, but the sort of good that is good in itself.  Inherently good, intrinsically good.
Wildflowers
Fall leaf
It would be arrogant to think that such a question could be fully addressed in this small place, but perhaps this space is sufficiently large at least to begin the wonderings.
This is a question containing quite a breadth of meaning, so it is worthwhile to ask it again: is there anything that is good in itself, apart from any practical value it might have?
What would it look like if the answer was no? What would our world look like if we believed that there was nothing that was good apart from its practical value? (I hasten to insert, however, that belief of some truth is not quite the same as truth itself.)
If there is no such thing as good, then that which is good becomes the same as whatever thing that I want.
Fighting
When all that says “It is good” has been debunked, what says “I want” remains. ~ C.S. Lewis in Abolition of Man
If good is the same as I want, then we become nothing but bundles of desires chasing after what will satisfy.

American Flag

Freedom.
We in the United States love the idea of freedom, yet even that idea has changed over the years.
Freedom, for most of the time that the major religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) have existed, meant the freedom to choose what is good; it involved responsibility and even the idea of self-denial.
If you asked most Westerners today, even those belonging to Christ, freedom means being able to do what pleases me.  It means doing whatever I want.
Trying to steal the scooter
Sword fighting
Trying to steal the trike
Those belonging to Christ might add “as long as I do not hurt others”.
Yet even that caveat seems to apply only to short-term harm and not to anything long-term such as caring for our earth and being committed to justice.
Look at our world and see the belief that there is nothing that is purely good, that freedom means the ability to follow my own desires.
Look at Christ, however, and see that if good does exist than freedom is the freedom to choose that good rather than being controlled by what is not good.  Freedom means responsibility and self-denial.  If there are things that are purely good, than those things should always be chosen for themselves and not for any practical value they might confer.
Sunset over pond
Sunset
Autumn tree
Lily
Many of those who pursue freedom are not truly free at all.  They are controlled by their own passions and desires, forced to spend their lives chasing after what will satisfy, yet never finding it.
Those who freely choose to be controlled by Christ, however, are choosing to control their desires and to harness their passions in pursuit of that which is good.  They will be satisfied.
Once again, Christ turns the wisdom of this world upside down and gives the good gift of true freedom to those who voluntarily offer their own freedom to Him.
Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.

Clutching at Gold Stars

We’re moving, so I’ll be fetching from the archives for the next two or three weeks. Enjoy!

It is a difficult and forever-long process, this learning how to make everything sacred.
It is also beautifully rewarding.
Learning how to make all things in your life sacred takes focus. It takes the sort of focus that teaches me how to be single-hearted towards God.
Focus
She is good at being very focused and single-minded, my youngest. Especially when she needs something.
The dreaded event of all mothers everywhere, her special lovey simply had to be washed at bedtime one night. She just couldn’t understand why she didn’t have her bunny.
Washing bunny
“Bunny?” “Bunny is taking a bath, darling. I will bring you Bunny as soon as she is dry.” “O-hay.”
“Can I read you a bedtime story?” “Bunny?” “Bunny is taking a bath.” “Bass? Bunny?” “Yes, a bath. I’ll bring you Bunny when she is done.” “O-hay.”
“Let’s talk about our day, shall we?” “Mommy? Bunny?”
I sigh in frustration, yet feel a small stir in my heart.
What if I were that focused in my pursuit of God, my pursuit of making all things in my life meaningful?
What if I blocked out more of the mindless stories I read and the meaningless discussions I have online in order to pursue God? What would that look like?
You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in You. ~ Isaiah 26.3
Have Mother, Will Travel
I read about a mother and daughter on a trip together through the world. During their journey, the mother speaks of a friend who accomplishes a marvelous amount of things during a day:
What’s allowed her to realize her dream where so many others fail, including me for many years, is how carefully and sanely she chooses exactly where to spend her time and energy…Kristin’s life illustrates that it takes more than passion and a lot of work to make a dream work–it takes focus. What you think about matters, a lot. Your thoughts drive your actions.
The mother continues to talk about the myriad of women who choose to please others, to accommodate others, rather than choosing to stand up for themselves and their families.
She says that many of us choose to be “good girls going for gold stars, instead of clasping tight the gold of our lives by living as we truly desire.”
This has the scent of truth that makes me pause. If I substitute “living as God desires”, this touches something deep in my heart.
How many times have I said “yes” to an activity, to a time commitment, even to a service opportunity, simply to please someone else or to create a certain image of myself?
So many times those “yeses” have cost me and my family. They have kept me from clasping tight the gold of obeying God’s desire that I should, for this season, focus most on these little disciples running around my feet.
My disciples
I want desperately to be single-hearted. I desire to chase after God, to pursue and focus on only what He has called me to do rather than to fritter away my moments on activities that attempt to please others.
What does this look like? How do you do this in your own life? How do you carefully and sanely choose exactly where to spend your time and energy?
Do you have a goal, a purpose or mission statement for your family? Do you have a lens through which you filter every request, every moment’s choice?
The mother in my book says that “change happens in the small moments, when a sliver of light finds its way through the cracks”.
To help herself to focus, “I wrote down every single thing I did in fifteen-minute increments for three entire weeks…I asked myself a thousand times a day before acting – and, miraculously, speaking – What am I creating with this choice right now?”
I want to see everything around me as sacred, to be single-minded in pursuing God and His desires for me. I want to choose with intention rather than feelings, excuses, or circumstances. I want to please God rather than man.
I want to clasp tight the gold instead of aimlessly grasping for gold stars.

Best

God’s Words are often difficult to understand.
I don’t understand why this is so, why God wouldn’t want us to easily understand Him and His ways, but that is a wondering for another time.
All throughout His Word, God makes promises about what will happen when we approach Him. He makes promises about how He answers when we ask Him for something. He makes promises about what He will give if only we would ask.
Sometimes those promises seem to be contradicted by the reality we can see.
Jesus tells us that if we ask, we will receive.
Jesus tells us that if we ask together with others, we will receive.
Jesus tells us that if we ask in His name, we will receive.
Jesus promises that if we are just persistent enough, just have faith enough, just beg Him hard enough with our faces to the ground and our tears falling like blood in desperation, He will give us what we ask for.
This is not what we live.
This is not what we live when a young mother dies of cancer. This is not what we live when a child lives her life in chronic pain and then dies. This is not what we live when a family is torn apart by depression.
So how do we reconcile this? How do we reconcile the promise with the life lived in this world?
Because Jesus also made other promises.
He promised that we would have trouble in this world, that storms would come against us, that we would be hated by this world in which we live.
Did He lie? Is He crazy?
Or is there something deeper within His words that we have trouble understanding?
Is there something deeper that we cannot see from our place here on earth, tethered as we are to the physical, unable to grasp the spiritual all around us?
From one who is stumbling along in the dark along with the rest of you, here is what I believe based on what I read in God’s Word as a whole.
What God does is not always what I want. What God allows is sometimes more than I can comprehend. What God gives is often too hard for me.
What God accomplishes is always best.
Best for me, best for someone else, best for our world. Just…best.
Not painless, not comfortable, not happy.
Best.
I know from my own experience as a parent that best is often painful and unpleasant. My children often are unhappy (to put it ridiculously mildly) with what I decide would be best.
When Jesus tells us to ask in His name, rather than His name being a magical incantation to get what we want, perhaps it is a way of living, of remaining in Him as He is in His Father.
When Jesus tells us to ask alongside of others, rather than it being a way to coerce others into asking for what we want so that we can manipulate God, perhaps it is a way to allow the Holy Spirit to work in our hearts in a way that cannot happen on our own.
I don’t know.
As my Papa would say, “Well, I’ll tell you.
I don’t know.”
Here’s what I do know.
When I look at God’s Word in its entirety, whether that be the whole of Scripture or the whole of Jesus’ life, I see a God who is ultimate power and who is ultimate love.
And I see a God who has a plan that makes absolutely no sense while in the middle of it all. A plan that seems, frankly, insane while you are watching it all unfold.
A plan that, at its ending, is better, is more beautiful, is more glorious than anything I could have imagined or asked for.
A plan that is best.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And He was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”…  And He said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.
And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back – it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; He is not here. See the place where they laid Him. But go, tell His disciples and Peter that He is going before you to Galilee. There you will see Him, just as He told you.
I think perhaps that is why He gave us Jesus. To show us what the end will be even when the middle seems to be crushing the life out of us.
That end?
Best.