The Way God Comes to Us

God is easy to miss.
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Every once in a great while he comes in the earthquake, the fire, the lightning flash of glory.
Which is, is it not, the way we most often pray for him to show up? We pray for him to reveal his presence in a miraculous, unmistakable way.
We plead for the glory of a healing, not the glory of a sunrise.
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The miraculous presence is not usually what any of us receive, and when he does not show up in the way we hope desperately for, we feel abandoned.
Sarah Clarkson writes of this feeling of abandonment in her struggles with mental illness:
But he never arrived in the shattering display of strength that I thought was the only way he could answer my prayer. So I felt betrayed. … I assumed God was absent because he didn’t come in the way I thought he would. I didn’t yet have an imagination that was healed enough to picture a power that could cherish and heal me as I was — not discarding what was broken in me, but making of it something precious and new.
Jesus is God enfleshed, the perfect image of the invisible God, and when I read the stories of Jesus after the resurrection to find out how God comes to us, I most often see him coming into life in its real and inescapably common places.
I see Mary at the empty tomb desperately pleading with a gardener.
I see two men meeting a stranger while walking down the road.
I see Jesus making breakfast on the shore after a night of fruitless fishing.
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Jesus doesn’t approach from on high, but always in the midst of people, of real life. He approaches in the midst of the questions that come out of real life.
The sacred moments, the moments that pull back the veil and reveal God with us, are often the everyday moments.
God most often comes to us not on high, but in the fragile and often hidden beauty of our everyday moments.
It is these very everyday moments which,
if we do not look with more than our eyes or listen with more than our ears, reveal only … the gardener, a stranger coming down the road behind us, a meal like any other meal. But if we look with our hearts, if we listen with all of our being and our imagination — if we live our lives not from vacation to vacation, from escape to escape, but from the miracle of one instant of our precious lives to the miracle of the next — what we may see is Jesus himself. ~ Frederick Buechner
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This is my prayer for you as you read this: that in the glimpses of beauty that come to you in your darkness, you will be able to see the kindness of God who does not often zap away the bad pieces of your life but who instead died to bind them all up in his love.

Our Beloved Enemy

There have been times when my hurt and grief overwhelmed me and turned my face away from God.
Times when sorrow turned my inmost thoughts to darkness and I “blamed God for it with fierce, hot breath and yet ached for his touch at the same time.”
Wrestling with God
We all wrestle with God at times, shoving against him in the darkness of our pain and doubt.
We wrestle like Jacob by the river. We wrestle, hurling our accusations while at the same time refusing to let go until he blesses us.
And isn’t this what most often happens? We fight against God without being able to let go of him.
I strike at him with my pain while being unable to rid myself of my anguished desire for his love.
He was the cause of my grief, the opponent, and the peace I craved all in one enigmatic, awful Beloved. I could no more walk away from his existence than I could walk away from my own desire for breath. ~ Sarah Clarkson in This Beautiful Truth
Wrestling with God
Do you know the story?
Jacob, deceiver, heir to God’s covenant promises, is heading home after twenty years in exile. Home to the land God promised him.
He sends his family and servants across the river Jabbok, but stays behind to spend the night on the shore alone. We don’t know why.
Suddenly, out of the darkness, a stranger leaps at Jacob and they fall to the ground, wrestling through the darkness. All night they struggle until just before dawn when Jacob realizes who it is that he has been grappling with.
God.
God is the enemy whom Jacob fought there by the river, of course, and whom in one way or another we all of us fight — God, the beloved enemy. ~ Frederick Buechner in The Magnificent Defeat
In the realization that it is God who is wrestling with him, Jacob refuses to release his grip, just as he has refused to release his grip all night, but in his pleading for a blessing, his grip of violence becomes a grip of desperate need.
Wrestling with God
God is our beloved enemy because he promises us everything, but before he gives us everything, he demands of us everything. “Before giving us life, he demands our lives — our selves, our wills, our treasure …” Buechner
Will we give them, you and I? I do not know.
Only remember Jacob, limping home against the growing light of dawn, a shadow of one to come.
Remember Jesus of Nazareth, staggering on broken feet out of the tomb toward the Resurrection, bearing on his body the proud insignia of the defeat which is victory, the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God. ~ Buechner

Art credits: Jacob Wrestling by Gustave Doré; Jacob Wrestles by Gerard Hoet; Jacob Wrestled by Charles Foster

Hope Changes Nothing

Today I needed this post from several years ago. Maybe you need it too. Peace be upon you all.

 

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 persevere?
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)

Suffering Gladly for the Sake of Something Greater

suffering gladly
suffering gladly
My first inclination is to avoid suffering at any cost.
I cringe a little when I read Scripture passages about embracing suffering in order to reach a desired end:
we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance …
For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory …
For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ … to also suffer for his sake …
Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
One earthly shadow that has recently helped me to better understand this truth is childbirth.
I suffered labor pains willingly, even gladly, for the sake of birthing my babies. Even when it came time for the fourth baby, even when I knew what lay ahead of me, I suffered gladly for the sake of something much greater.
I have a suspicion that if I only knew what eternal glory was waiting for me I would bear my sufferings much more gladly.
 I claim I trust God’s love for me, trust that his end purpose for me is good and beautiful, beyond anything I could have asked or imagined, yet when it comes to his methods, I push back and fight, unwilling to be still and trust.
The fruit we are given is not always what we expect or want; it may even be bitter, but we are secure in knowing that it is given to us out of love. ~ Kathleen Norris in Acedia and Me
It is easy for me to be attracted to the idea of becoming like Jesus, to the idea of the grace of God bringing me into eternal glory.
It is much harder for me to recognize that grace when it appears in my life as suffering.
In the depths of our confusion and anger, we ask: ‘How can this be God’s love? Where is God in this disaster?’ For grace to be grace, it must give us things we didn’t know we needed and take us to places we didn’t want to go. As we stumble through the crazily altered landscape of our lives, we find that God is enjoying our attention as never before. ~ Kathleen Norris
My deep desire is to be able to trust in the reality of God’s providence and love enough that I will suffer willingly, even gladly, in order to gain the purpose for which God created me.

Do Not Despair in the Darkness

Sometimes I cannot see a way out.
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Sometimes the darkness is simply too great; I cannot fathom that there could be any way through to the light.
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I, or ones I love, have been enveloped in this kind of murkiness before. Some of those I love feel lost in it right now.
I would venture to suppose that you could say the same.
It is tempting to despair when faced with this kind of desperateness.
It is tempting to believe there is no way out.
It is tempting to decide there is no rescue coming.
The earliest Mothers and Fathers of our faith have taught that this is, indeed, a temptation.
The early monks recognized in despair
“the most vicious and self-defeating temptation of all, that of losing trust in God’s providence and love.” ~ Katherine Norris
When we are in the middle of the deepest darkness, Satan is right there with us, whispering in our ears, “There is no hope. God is not here. He does not care. There is no rescue to be had.”
I have heard the whisper.
I have been tempted to believe it.
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Hold on to hope, dear one, even if you can only manage the tiniest shred of it.
Your diminished imagination cannot begin to comprehend the vastness of possibilities God has at His fingertips.
“I must never, at any moment, presume to say that there is no way out for God because I cannot see any. For it is despair and presumption to confuse one’s pittance of imagination with the possibility over which God disposes.” ~ Søren Kierkegaard
God’s way through the darkness will most likely not be the one you imagine.
His way will most likely not be the easiest, the most comfortable, the most pleasant.
It will, however, be the best.
His way through will be the best for you, for those you love, for those around you.
He promised.
So do not despair. Do not give in to the temptation to give up your trust in God’s providence and love.
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He loves you. He is working.
He will bring you through the darkness, He will give you glimpses of the light along the way, and the light will be that much more beautiful for having once been hidden from your view.
The Light is, after all, only hidden. Never absent. Never that.
He is with you always, to the very end of the age.

Art Credits: statue is Grief by Daniel Kornbau; all other photos are my own

New Life in the Darkness

This has been a particularly hard few weeks, so I hope you will enjoy this post from the archives as I take a short break from writing in this space. Peace to you.

Darkness.
There is darkness outside at three in the morning and there is darkness inside of ourselves from which we cannot escape.
Darkness.
There is darkness in the middle of a storm and there is darkness in the destructive aftermath when the sun is shining.
Darkness.
Darkness
There is danger in the dark and there is fear, but is it the darkness that we fear or is it whatever lies within the darkness that we cannot see?
We light candles and we plug in nightlights and we busy ourselves to do whatever is necessary to hold the darkness at bay.
Lighting Candles
What are we really afraid of? Are we afraid that God is not there in the dark? Are we afraid that God is only in the light and if we enter into the darkness, whether it be the darkness of loss or of sin or of depression or even of death, we will lose the glory of His presence?
Yet in the darkness was where the glory of His presence was found, within the dark cloud over Mt Sinai when He made His covenant with His people Israel.
Yes, there is death in darkness.
And
There is new life in the dark.
New life
In fact, life can only begin in the dark. A seed sprouts underground and a baby grows in the womb and even Jesus was raised into His new life in the dark.
In the darkness of a cave.
We see the afterwards of the resurrection, the earthquake and the angel and the glorious, blinding light.
But the resurrection itself?
It happened in the dark.
It happened in the dark, in the silence, with the smell of damp earth and the roughness of rock all around.
And if new life can only happen in the dark, well then,
instead of doing all we can to avoid it, perhaps we should lean in to the darkness, lean in to our fear.
Perhaps if we do, we will discover a new life that could not have been found otherwise.

All photographs are my own, copyright 2021 Made Sacred

Weaving Trials into a Tapestry (plus a giveaway!)

Please join me in welcoming to the blog my dear friend, Amanda Wen.
Amanda and I lived in the same town in Illinois for several years, worshiping together at the same church. Our lives have matched up almost eerily. We were musicians together, playing on the worship team at our church. We had our babies together, the first three of mine only a few months apart from her three (although she quit having babies before I did!). It wasn’t until we had both moved that we discovered we were also writers together, and now we are birthing our debut books together!
I have written before that people learn best through story, that the Holy Spirit can often teach us things through a good tale that we would never have understood otherwise. Amanda’s novel is a beautiful example of this. Be sure to comment at the end for a chance to win a signed copy of Amanda’s novel, Roots of Wood and Stone!

trials

The tombstone, set on a small patch of windswept prairie in Rural Sedgwick County, Kansas, is stark in its simplicity.
George W.
Died Apr. 6, 1871
Aged 4 days
Child of W. F. and S. E. Stevens
On a facing side, further tragedy is etched in granite for all to see.
Sarah E.
Died May 13, 1871
Aged 30 years
Such grief was sadly common on the Midwestern frontier, and for Sarah’s widower, William, this was just the beginning of his litany of loss. Less than two years later, he’d bury his four-year-old son, Arthur. In 1876 he and his second wife, Dorcas, would lose their infant son, Ivon. In 1877, Dorcas herself would die, followed in 1878 by one-year-old Mark and in 1879 by both his six-year-old daughter, May, and 24-year-old son, Isaac. and twin tragedies in 1879 with the loss of his six-year-old daughter, May, and his 24-year-old son, Isaac. In fact, of William Stevens’ fourteen children, only six would live to adulthood.
How could a person cope with so much tragedy? How could one emerge from loss upon loss with an intact faith? Yet by all accounts William’s faith remained steadfast. Perhaps it was lessons learned from his preacher father, or the helping hand of a neighbor in a time of need. We don’t know exactly, so I decided to fill in the blanks through fiction, a story which ultimately became the historical timeline of my debut novel, Roots of Wood and Stone.
In the novel, a character endures the loss of his wife and son in a matter of days just a few months into settling the prairies of Sedgwick County. And Jack Brennan isn’t shy about his questions. His doubt. His anger at the Almighty. “I stopped talking with God altogether,” Jack says in one pivotal scene. “Either he didn’t exist, or his purpose was to gut me like a fish. Either way, I was through.”
I must confess I’ve been where Jack was, and it didn’t take anywhere near the level of tragedy he endured to bring it about. But I’m comforted by David’s example in the Psalms. He raged at God on occasion. Hurled all kinds of accusations at his Creator. But God didn’t condemn David for his very human emotions. In fact, he called David a man after His own heart.
If we bring our anger, our devastation, our confusion, and our doubts to God, rest assured He can handle them. No matter what vitriol we spew at Him, He remains faithful and steadfast. And in His time, and His way, we will see that faithfulness. We will see His love. His healing. God may not calm our storms, at least not right away, but He will carry us through them. He’s done it for me. He did it for William Stevens.
As for Jack Brennan? Well, you’ll just have to read the book to find out.
A postscript, if I may. Remember those six Stevens children who survived to adulthood? One of them, Mattie, was my great-great grandmother. She and her husband, Francis Little, homesteaded not far from her father, in a large white farmhouse that inspired Roots of Wood and Stone. And Francis’s memoir, A Kansas Farmer, not only provided a wealth of information as I researched for my novel’s historical scenes, but it cemented the family legacy of faith. It’s clear from those almost-century-old typewritten pages that Francis and Mattie themselves carried a strong faith in Christ, and I know from my mom’s research into our history that every generation between theirs and my own has sought to follow Jesus. It is their legacy of steadfast faith I sought to honor in my book, and—more importantly—instill in my children.
Whatever you’re going through, you aren’t in it alone. And I pray that God will help you see how He’s carrying you through. How He’s weaving your trials into a beautiful tapestry.
What do you know about your own family history? Any inspirational stories about your ancestors you’d like to share? Leave a comment for your chance to win a signed copy of Amanda’s debut novel, Roots of Wood and Stone! (Giveaway ends February 5, 2021. Due to shipping costs, we can only mail to a U.S. mailing address.)

Amanda Wen

To find Amanda Wen’s blog and short stories, visit www.amandawen.com. Readers can also follower her on Facebook (@AuthorAmandaWen)Twitter (@AuthorAmandaWen), and Instagram (@authoramandawen).

A Psalm of Collective Lament

Lord have mercy
Lord have mercy.
We are lost, are broken, are despairing.
Our world is wandering in darkness.
Our churches are falling into division.
Our hearts are mired in filth.
Rise up, O God!
Defend your people!
Rescue your world!
We are lost without you.
Lord have mercy.
Thee we adore
Thee we adore.
You are goodness and beauty.
You created all,
flinging the stars into space and crafting the ladybug’s wings.
You are power and strength.
With your right hand, you held back the seas.
With the breath of your mouth, you took down city walls.
You are love and mercy.
You took the very powers of sin and death into yourself so we wouldn’t.
You forsook the companionship of your Trinity so we could be with you.
Thee we adore.
Into Thy hands
Into Thy hands.
Though the world grow dark,
I know who you are.
I remember what you have done.
Though my heart be filthy,
I trust your heart toward me and our world.
I know all the reasons I adore you.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth I desire but you.
Whether you come to the rescue today
or wait for another thousand years,
Into Thy hands.
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.

Art credits: Grief by Bertram Mackennal; Children at Prayer by Antoine Édouard Joseph Moulinet; Risen Christ on the Lake of Gennesaret by David Teniers the Younger

How to Surrender to God Under the Weight of This Pain

We had an ice storm followed by a few inches of snow in our part of the country last week.
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beauty
It was beautiful.
And it was destructive.
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Tree limbs were down, power was out in many parts of town,
and my birch tree.
bowed down
Oh, my poor birch tree.
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I don’t know how to adequately describe to you how much I love trees.
Perhaps with this tidbit: I decided against attending a certain college because there were not enough trees flourishing on campus.
Or perhaps with the way my heart resonates with this: I couldn’t live where there were no trees — something vital in me would starve. ~ Anne (in Anne’s House of Dreams)
It hurts something deep within me to see our birch tree so weighed down, to see branches that once stretched up to the sky now brushing the dirt.
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Yet there is also something deep within me that feels much the same way after the events of this past year.
You too?
Impeachment, pandemic, shut-downs and sheltering in place, more shootings, social protests, election …
We are all weighed down and weary, our souls tending to brush the dirt these days rather than stretching up to the sky.
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I look at our birch tree, look at the way she surrenders and bends rather than resisting and breaking, and want to react the same way when circumstance weighs me down.
I want to surrender to God, surrender to what the Spirit is doing inside of me, rather than pushing back and resisting to the point of breakage.
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No matter what the weight, I trust that our God loves us and wants what is best for us.
When all that is heavy in our world and in your life causes you to doubt this, simply turn your eyes toward the cross.
The cross is the answer to your questions of Does God really love me? Is God really good? Does God really have the power to rescue me?
Yes. A resounding yes.
He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give him all things?
See how heaven ordered such deep pain for the salvation of the world and for your soul, and know that if His deepest pain will never be wasted, neither will yours. ~ Matt Papa
I want to be like my birch tree, surrendered to the Spirit, trusting the heart of God, as he works his glory in me through this current sorrow.
trusting
One day, just as he promised, the weight of this world will melt away in the light of the Son himself and we will spring upward to meet him.
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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.

all photographs copyright 2021 Made Sacred

The Defeat Itself Becomes Victory

There is much suffering in our world.
suffering
Much pain, grief, loneliness, disease, fear, death.
abnormal reality
These are normal on our planet. No one escapes.
This suffering reveals the defeat of man, the defeat of life itself, and no number of advances in technology or medicine can overcome it.
Yet their very normalcy is abnormal. It is not how our world was created.
perfect creation
Disease and death is not the way we were intended to live, yet our sin has broken our world and our very selves, and here we are.
It is into this abnormal reality that Christ comes. He comes not to remove our suffering but to transform it into victory.
transformation
God through Jesus transforms even our ultimate defeat, death, into victory, into an entrance into his kingdom and into the only true healing.
The Church comes, then, not simply to help us in our pain but to make us a witness to Christ in our sufferings. She comes to make us martyrs.
A martyr, in the words of Alexander Schmemann, is “one for whom God is not another — and the last — chance to stop the awful pain; God is his very life, and thus everything in his life comes to God.”
If we only come to God to stop the suffering, if we only turn to him for comfort in our pain, we miss the chance to become who we were created to be. We miss the chance to become more truly human.
We miss the chance to be made more closely into the image of God.
Rather than merely receiving comfort, we could become a witness to others of Christ himself. We could become one who beholds “the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God.” We could become the victory for those around us.
pain into glory
We could gain the glory of Christ.
Through (the witness’) suffering, not only has all suffering acquired a meaning, but it has been given the power to become itself the sign, the sacrament, the proclamation, the ‘coming’ of that victory; the defeat of man, his very dying, has become a way of Life. ~ Schmemann
This is the way of God. Flipping the things of this world on their head. Pain becomes proclamation. Suffering becomes sacrament. Defeat becomes victory. Death becomes life.
Don’t settle for a dry crust when you could feast with the King.
Surrender to God, to whatever he wants to do through your suffering, and allow his Holy Spirit to transform that suffering into a sacrament of life.
defeat becomes victory
It takes submission, and this is hard. So very hard. Yet God has promised. Your surrender to him allows him to turn your defeat into victory, and that victory leads you into the only true healing.
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
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.

Art credits: Resurrection by Luca Giordano; all other photographs are copyright Made Sacred 2020