Eternity Is Just Around the Corner

I’m not much for television or movies. We live in a rural area where there is no cable service, and we don’t subscribe to satellite. Our television is mostly a delivery mechanism for the occasional rental from Redbox or Netflix. My husband and I have been to the theater three times in the last 5 years, and one of those trips was taking our daughters to see Frozen. Our choice of entertainment runs more toward the literary spectrum–there’s nothing better than settling in with a good book on a quiet evening at home.

But I am a child of the ’80s, and I still remember with great fondness many of the shows I grew up watching–some as first runs and some in reruns. I cheered every time Laura Ingalls bested Nellie Olsen. I wished for a brother like John-Boy Walton. The Fonz was alright, but I had a major crush on Chachi, although no one held a candle to Bo Duke. Wonder Woman was my girl, although I didn’t envy her the outfit. And I used to jump off anything I could find while imitating the Bionic Woman sound effects. They are running through my head right now as I write.

The fabric of all that ’80s nostalgia includes a goofball in rainbow suspenders doing headstands on a couch. Back then, he was just Mork from Ork. But Mork became more than just a kooky, offbeat alien. He was the character that introduced the world to the incredible talent of Robin Williams. Given Robin Williams’ subsequent success, even someone like me, whose forays into pop culture are few and far between, would have to live on another planet to not have experienced at least one of his many memorable movie roles.

In the wake of his death, I have read lots of articles about his success, his warmth and likeability, and his struggles with addictions and depression. Clearly, Robin Williams was loved and admired by those who knew him personally, and his passing will rend more than a few hearts. However, as is often the case when someone dies in such a tragic way, people’s thoughts immediately turn to asking why and trying to find meaning in the heartbreak. To that end, many people are using his death as an opportunity to speak out about mental illness and suicide prevention. While these are certainly worthy messages to take from his tragic death, there is a much greater message for those of us who are Christ-followers.

Since I heard of Robin Willliams’ death, I haven’t found myself wondering so much why he chose to take his own life as I have wondering where he is spending eternity. I don’t know where Robin Williams was at with the Lord or what decision he made about Christ. Only God knows. But we all make a decision about Jesus, and what we decide matters forever.

I’m not thinking these thoughts because Robin Williams was a celebrity. I ponder these same things any time I hear of someone dying. And it’s not because I’m morbid or bothered by the idea of mortality. It’s because in the last few years, God has been awakening in my heart an urgency for the Gospel. I can no longer look at people and see them only in the here and now. I look at them and wonder about the eternity that lies ahead. I look at them and feel desperate for their salvation.

Evangelism. Too often as Christ-followers, we like to talk about it, but we don’t like to do it. Awkward, nervous, pushy, crazy, weird. Those are all words that come to mind when most of us think about sharing our faith in Christ with those who are not believers. Yes, it feels like all of those things at times, but what is that to the fate of someone’s soul? I mean, do we get this or not? Do we really get that the Great Commission is the reason Christ has left us in this world? Can we surrender to being briefly uncomfortable so that another person has the chance to escape eternal torment?

Would we still hold onto our discomfort as an excuse if we knew we were someone’s last chance to hear of Christ’s salvation before they died? When we fail to share Christ, we tend to think, “Well, God will give me another opportunity.” But the urgency isn’t about us. It’s about the lost. What if they don’t get another opportunity to respond to the message of Jesus?

Recently, I was reading a book with my oldest daughter that talked about the great diversity among people in this world–the places we live, the way we dress, the languages we speak, the religions we practice, the homes we build, and the holidays we celebrate. This was not a book by a Christian publisher, so I was completely struck as I turned to a page near the end and saw an illustration of a lonely hilltop, gravestones scattered across its rounded hump and a lone shovel planted in the ground. The book pointed out that even though we are so very different as people, there is one way in which we are all alike–we all die. Mortality unites us all. Some people die after long bouts with horrific illnesses, some drift away in a gradual decline, some people pass abruptly in tragic accidents, some fall prey to criminal violence, and some people die by their own hand. But we all die. And no matter how good or bad we are, no matter how much we are loved or hated, no matter what we have done on this earth or failed to do–none of us are prepared for what waits on the other side without Christ. The Gospel matters desperately.

In Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams’ character John Keating says, “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” That’s a true enough statement–words and ideas do have the power to change things in this world. But there is only One whose words and ideas have the power to change things for eternity.
And He is Jesus, the Living Word of God to man. And we, His followers, are the way He has chosen to reveal Himself to a world in need of eternal change. Christ has not made evangelism an option. It is the heartbeat, the very breath of His plan for rescuing lost people.

Our duty to the Gospel matters, and it matters now. Eternity is just around the corner.

And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. — II Corinthians 5:18b-21

 

 

Advertisements

In Need of a Good Topping

Six years ago, my husband and I bought our first house in the dead of winter. It was a momentous decision, committing ourselves to a mortgage and embarking on the journey of making this place into something we wanted to call “home.”

Hubby running the stump grinder and creating a big mess for me to rake out

Hubby running the stump grinder and creating a big mess for me to rake out

For starters, we knew there were 27 very large stumps scattered throughout our 3-acre yard that we needed to grind. Grinding them isn’t so bad as that just involves standing around while running a big, noisy machine. Ask my husband—he got that job. But raking out the stump grindings is bicep-busting, dust-eating drudgery. I should know because I scored that lovely duty.

Then, there were the mountains of “prickers” to unearth. These weren’t your ordinary variety of soft, green “prickers.” They were purplish-red, hard, and thick with a truly evil degree of tenacity. Removing them could be used as part of a torture regimen. Armor would have come in handy. There were also large chunks of quartz to move that would have been lethal to our mower blades come spring. We loaded and hauled enough rock to start up our own landscaping business. During a visit to our home, my in-laws were so impressed with the size of these rocks, they filled the back of their SUV with some prize specimens and strategically placed them in their beautifully manicured backyard. But the most daunting job was picking up large sticks and branches scattered throughout our yard and hauling them to the woods to dump. In our first 6 months in the house, we engaged in “stick duty” for hours nearly every weekend.

A few months into all this yard work, as spring burst forth in a whirl of blooms and leaves and pollen, the reason for all those sticks in our yard became obvious. Our yard had areas that were open, but most of it was sparsely wooded—enough grass that we were going to have to mow it, but a lot of trees to mow around.

A photo of part of our backyard shortly after we bought our home--it was full of trees. Most of these trees would turn out to be dead.

A photo showing part of our backyard shortly after we bought our home–it was full of trees. Most of these trees would turn out to be dead.

As spring took hold, instead of a glorious canopy of green, we had a bunch of toothpicks interspersed with lots of trees badly in need of some arboreal Rogaine—they were completely bald on top but sprouting leaves lower down. Only a few trees actually had a full head of hair if you know what I mean.

Thus began 18 months of serious tree work. We felled. We sawed. We hauled. The brush pile in our woods began to resemble some odd rendition of Burning Man, and we gave away firewood like it was candy because of course, this house had nothing that allowed us to burn wood. We joked that if either of us lost our jobs, we could always start a tree service because of our vast experience.

Finally, all that remained were the dead trees that were either too large or just too close to the house for us to do the work ourselves, so we brought in a professional tree service. In all this time, we had anxiously watched the trees that were bare on top but had leaves lower down, hoping they would resurrect themselves and praying they wouldn’t die because we were ready to give up moonlighting as lumberjacks.

But the second spring, those trees had died back a little more, so we asked the tree service we hired if anything could be done. They told us the trees would have to be topped—a fancy term for cutting off the dead limbs until all that remains is the part of the tree that is still producing leaves. This process requires a tree climber to scale the tree with chainsaw in hand and painstakingly cut each and every dead part of the tree. He then seals the open places in the trunk and branches caused by the pruning to protect the tree from further damage and deep-feeds the tree’s roots to encourage its recovery. It’s a costly procedure, but if you leave the dead limbs, the tree will inevitably die. The roots continue to divert most of the tree’s energy and resources into reviving the dead limbs at the expense of the limbs that are healthy. So the tree dies back a little more each year until all that is left is dead limbs.

Most of the trees we had topped back in 2009 are doing well now. Looking at them today, you would never guess they were half dead just a few short years ago. When they were first topped, they had this stunted look, but new growth has sprung up from the very places that were pruned until the awkward scars are no longer visible. Our neighbors also had trees that were dying back, but they chose not to have them topped. Those trees are mostly bare now, each spring bringing them a little closer in their march toward death.

Lately, as I’ve pondered this season of my life, I haven’t been able to get that picture of those pathetic trees out of my head. Day after day, they waste their energy trying to bring life to dead limbs. They don’t realize it’s impossible. They don’t know it will cost them their life in the end.

The trial that God has allowed into our lives in the last year and a half has dealt so many blows. How I have wished at times that its damage had been limited to that first painful strike. But it has killed off so much more. Like a malicious pest, it has bored its way into so many areas of our life, killing off things we cared about so deeply—our connection to a beloved church community, friendships that we treasured, and ministry that we loved. We are left looking up at a bunch of dead limbs where once there was a beautiful green canopy under which we lived, served, loved, and felt loved. It is ugly, and if I look on those dead limbs, the pain is nearly unbearable.

Lately, I have been pondering all that we have lost in this season. And when I think on it too much, I am desperate to bring those dead limbs back to life. My time, my thoughts, my energy are consumed with pushing life back into them, and I can’t nourish the leaves I have left for my sorrow over the ones that are gone. In those moments, I am like those trees, hopelessly lost in a futile battle to resurrect what is dead.

I don’t know why God has allowed so many branches in our tree to die. I won’t pretend to like it. It is the hardest thing I have ever endured. But I know God has a purpose even for the evil He allows to touch my life, and I know it is redemptive, transforming, refining—even right now when it often just seems harsh and unjust.

I know that He loves me. I know He’s the Climber who can cut away my dead limbs, bind the wounds left by His pruning, and feed me with the deep well of His grace and mercy so that I can heal from this season.

I don’t want to look like my neighbors’ trees, withered and defeated. I want to look like the maple in our front yard. Before we had it topped, it was particularly pathetic. That tree lost nearly half its height in the pruning. It now graces our yard with a stately, tempered beauty.

I am tired of gazing on these dead limbs. Climb up, sweet Jesus. I am trusting You for the day when I will have a beautiful canopy again.

Training Tells

I still remember the morning I found out I was pregnant with our first child. I worked a part-time job that I was mostly able to do remotely from our home, and it happened to be one of my days off. My husband had already gone to work for the day, and I didn’t want to tell him over the phone. I wanted to see his face, and I wanted to tell him in a more creative fashion than just blurting out the words. So my news was going to have to sit and percolate all day long.

DSCN7348

My canine confidant Hitch

A few minutes passed. I raced down the stairs to our kitchen. I talked to myself out loud about the idea that we were going to have a baby. I tried to settle down, but I was a jumpy bundle of energy. I absolutely wanted my husband to be the first to know, but I thought I was going to bust wide open if I didn’t tell someone soon. I looked at the clock and saw I had at least 9 hours to go before my husband would be home from work. So I did what any sensible woman would do. I ran into the garage, barreled into our dog Hitch, wrapped him in a bear hug, and spilled my secret. I remember his furry neck against my cheek, plush and warm against the bite of cold December air that frosted the garage. I remember pulling back and smiling at the quizzical look in Hitch’s eyes. He wasn’t sure what was going on that had induced our manic cuddle, but he knew it was something big. Hitch and I celebrated all day long, and having Hitch’s confidence buoyed me for the long wait until my husband arrived home that evening.

For a while now, I have been feeling this pressing urgency to share about God and His Word and the things He teaches me as we spend time together. In this season He has been leading me through the last 2 years, there has been this constant call to come away with Him and revel in my time with Him. It’s a deepening of our friendship—-marveling at His holiness, enjoying His beauty, pondering His ways, learning to see the world with His heart. It has been both discipline and delight. God tenderly reassures me of His love and encourages me with His precise attention to my struggles and hurts. He also persistently convicts me of my sin and the things I still hold more tightly than Him. I am utterly convinced that nothing is more important than the all-out pursuit of my Savior, and yet, this is only possible with great intention and deliberate focus. My flesh must be trained to respond to the heart God is building in me. Left to itself, my flesh will always take the easy way out.

I want Christ so much, and yet I am a slow learner. Nearly every day, I let the busyness and distractions of life tear me away from the Lover of my soul when I know that my rest, my life, my joy, and my satisfaction are in Him. It’s like eating junk food, skipping the gym, and then wondering why I don’t see a six-pack peeking back at me in my mirror. The pursuit of Christ isn’t possible without strict training.

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. — I Corinthians 9:24-27

These verses bring to mind a Memorial Day backpack from several years ago. I was still single at the time, and one of my regular hiking buddies and I decided to do a 2-day backpack over the long weekend. We got a late start, so the first night out, we only had enough time to hike about 4 miles, climb the first big ridge, and pitch our tents. We cooked dinner by flashlight, sweating in the sultry evening heat. We went to bed with about 25 miles ahead of us, but plenty of time to cover them over the next 2 days.

Backpacking doing a very reasonable 13.5 miles in 2 days. I don't have any photos from the epic backpack--you don't stop for pictures when you're doing a 25-mile day!

Backpacking a very reasonable 13.5 miles in 2 days. I don’t have any photos from the epic backpack–you don’t stop for pictures when you’re doing a 25-mile day!

I woke up early the next morning, and I was overcome for some strange reason with this incredible desire to knock off all 25 miles that day and be back in my own bed that night. Now I hiked regularly, but I rarely exceeded 15 miles in a day. But something inside was just pushing me to challenge myself. When my friend woke up, I excitedly pitched my idea, and he agreed to go for it. This particular circuit we were doing was shaped like a figure eight, with lots of lung-busting climbs up ridges and knee-busting descents down them. We were each carrying fully loaded backpacks of probably about 40 pounds. After eating a quick breakfast, we took off down the trail. After about 5 miles, our route actually passed right by the trailhead where we had started and where my Jeep was parked. As we hiked by, I glanced over. There it was just yards away from us, top down, vinyl seats baking in the rapidly building heat.

As we hiked past the lot, it occurred to my friend and me that we could very easily drop off our backpacks at the Jeep and do the remaining 20 miles carrying just a few pounds each in our daypacks. That thought lasted for about 10 seconds before we were both like, “Nah, let’s go for it fully loaded!” You might be thinking at this point that we were both a little off in the head, but if you’re a hiker at heart, there is great satisfaction in pushing yourself to see where your own two feet can take you. And anything you can do to up the ante just makes the whole experience that much sweeter. There is a bit of the masochist in every true hiker. So on we went with our heavy loads.

We climbed very steeply, coming to a burn area just around midday. The grade steepened as we made our way over, around, and through charred trees. I felt like my head was a piece of popcorn that had been nuked in the microwave too long. It throbbed in time with my staccato-beating heart, cooking in the unrelenting sun. I was sure it must be steaming. Any moment, it was going to explode into a blackened, burnt puff. I glared at the damaged forest and wished for just one scraggly sapling to cast the slightest thread of shade. When we reached the top of the ridge, a leafy canopy of unburned trees beckoned us onward.

And that’s how the rest of the day went, climbing and descending ridge after ridge, until finally we found ourselves down low again, walking through the forest on a fairly gentle grade, just a few miles from the Jeep. We came to a stream crossing where there were some large flat boulders. Without really talking much (conversation had long since died out), we each dumped our packs and sprawled on a boulder, relishing the cool draft of the water and the airy lightness of empty backs. We lay there for an hour. My feet slowly stopped throbbing, and I remember thinking that I really could just sleep on that boulder all night. I didn’t need dinner or water or a tent. I just wasn’t going to move until morning.

At this point, we only had about 2 miles left. But the effort it took to push ourselves off those boulders, strap on our packs, and finish was greater than any of the preceding 23 miles–miles that had been much more physically demanding. Those last 2 miles were excruciating. I hiked them by sheer will and discipline. There was no enjoyment. I’m not even sure I had a coherent thought. But all the years of doing long, hard hikes just kicked in and drove my muscles home.

See, I woke up that morning with an incredibly great desire to hike 25 miles with a full backpack. That desire was an important part of actually doing it, but by itself, it wasn’t enough. It took all the training and discipline of years of hiking and the strength and endurance it had built in me to actually finish.

Walking with Christ in an intimate fashion is the same. The Spirit ignites in us a great desire for Christ, but we must let Him train that love into purposeful obedience. Discipline without passion is legalistic bondage. Passion without discipline is spiritual hype.

Pursuing Christ doesn’t mean that we strive harder. Striving harder is not only a guarantee of failure, but it makes you a moving target when what God wants is a still subject whose soul is at rest in Him. God does not want to chase us through a maze of distractions, busyness, and personal pursuits, no matter how well intentioned some of them may seem. He will come after us, but how much better to be found running toward Him than running around in circles, hoping He catches us?

Pursuing Christ means making an intentional choice over and over each day to submit our time, our activities, our relationships, our very selves to living IN Him. We put ourselves in a position of surrender, so He can train us. Only Christ can grow His heart in us, so we want what He desires. Only He can build the muscles of our faith, so we will have the strength and endurance to follow where His desires lead us. All good athletic training involves some degree of pain. The same is true of God’s spiritual training–suffering is a key element. But what was good for Christ is good for us.

Recently, I was reading two very different passages in the Bible, but they so aptly describe what I’ve been feeling inside as God trains me in this difficult season. After the resurrection, two disciples are making their way to Emmaus, and Jesus walks with them. During most of the conversation, they are unaware of who is talking to them until their eyes are opened as He breaks bread with them.

They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” — Luke 24:32

Oh, how God has made my heart burn as He has broken bread with me in the stillness of morning before my children awake! How He has opened His Word to me in such intimate, ministering fashion if I come before Him without distraction and care clouding my heart.

In that sweet time of personal training comes the transformation Jeremiah described. As a prophet who suffered greatly for speaking God’s Word to his people, Jeremiah bitterly complained to God about the reproach that had come to him for faithfully proclaiming God’s message. He didn’t want to be the target of his people’s hatred for uttering God’s judgment. He was weary of the scorn it brought him, and yet here was his conclusion:

But if I say, “I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot. — Jeremiah 20:9

When our hearts are taken with Christ, we cannot hold Him in. He will come out in our lives not because we are trying to show others Christ, but because we cannot keep our lives from speaking, our mouths from declaring what He has trained into us. Training tells. A heart set on fire by God must burn, and like any good fire, it must spread. And it will not matter what the flames cost us.

But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge. I will tell of all your deeds. — Psalms 73:28

 

The Fire and the Flood

My husband and I are mountain people through and through. At any given moment, if you were to ask either of us where we most want to be, the quick and sure response would be “the mountains.” If that’s not the answer you get, call the police because someone is obviously impersonating us.

For most people, vacation means warm locales, sandy beaches, and doing as little as possible. For us, vacation means brisk alpine days, rugged peaks, and hiking as much as possible—the harder, the better because the most beautiful places often require long miles, quad-busting elevation gain, or both.

I am too pale to ever love the beach—it’s just not worth the endless tubes of SPF 100. And both my husband and I are possessed of an absolute inability to sit still and do nothing for any appreciable length of time. The most stir-crazy hours of my life were spent in Costa Rica, waiting for a friend to finish “laying out” on the beach. I’d been dragging her all over the country from one activity to another for nearly a week, so I had promised her one morning to just relax. I paced the small curve of beach like a chained dog, while she stretched out on her towel in languorous rapture, oblivious to my fitful march. I finally followed a sketchy path into the jungle and found a colony of leaf-cutter ants to watch—not exactly high energy, but better than sizzling like a buttered tortilla in the sand.

My husband is even more allergic to inactivity than I am. I mean, this is a man whose nicknames have included “Mountain Goat” and “Engine of Destruction.” While serving as best man at a friend’s wedding, he once climbed a tree dressed in a full tuxedo, heedless of me standing at the bottom, yelling, “Don’t forget, those tuxedo and shoes are rented!” My husband will walk into a house with a soaring cathedral ceiling, and the first words out of his mouth as he points upward are “You know, drill some holes, bolt in a few holds, and you got yourself a pretty decent climbing wall.” You get the picture—this is a man made to move.

Although my husband and I have very different personalities, we are absolutely bound by our shared love for challenging ourselves in the high places. And when it comes to mountains, for us, there is no place like the Rockies. And when it comes to the Rockies, though we’ve hiked a lot of beautiful places along this range that runs from the United States into Canada, I guess the stretch that feels most like home turf would have to be the alpine peaks and cirques of Rocky Mountain National Park.

One of the backcountry alpine gems that make Rocky Mountain National Park so special

One of the backcountry alpine gems that make Rocky Mountain National Park so special

We first ventured into Rocky Mountain National park on a short backpacking trip that we tagged onto the end of a cousin’s wedding. We were hooked and vowed we’d come back for more. We returned a year later, both of us in pretty good shape from a long summer of road biking and hiking, and kicked off an epic 2 weeks of long hikes into the backcountry. We ticked off a couple peaks and a slew of alpine lakes. We had all kinds of weather from Indian summer days to negative 30-degree windchills and snow. But it’s a trip we both remember with great fondness—something about that time went deep into our hearts and took root.

A panorama of Mirror Lake

A panorama of Mirror Lake

On the last day before we went home, we drove a long way up scenic, winding Poudre Canyon to a remote trailhead and hiked into Mirror Lake—a place so isolated it seemed we really had left the rest of the world behind. I remember returning to the car, tired and happy. We drove back through Poudre Canyon in a mixture of sun and rain, black storm clouds overlaid by a vibrant rainbow visible in our rearview mirror for miles. In 2012, much of that canyon went up in flames consumed by the High Park Fire, one of the largest wildfires in Colorado’s history. I was in the park while that fire raged. I watched the black and orange flames roll over the top of the peaks of the Mummy Range and mourned the destruction of such a ruggedly beautiful place.

View looking upstream from our prayer rock at Horseshoe Falls

View looking upstream from our prayer rock at Horseshoe Falls

My husband and I returned a couple more times to Rocky Mountain National Park. Dreams and plans and prayers were birthed in that place until it pulled at our heart strings something awful whenever we left. We decided the name of our first child while on its trails. When we became youth ministers at our church, we spent a precious evening praying for each of our teens perched on a rock above Horseshoe Falls. Here, the Roaring River cascades over the Alluvial Fan into Horseshoe Park. This area of the park was catastrophically altered by the failure of a dam in 1982. In the fall of 2013, this landscape was again forever changed by massive rains that caused severe flooding and brought a deluge of water and rocks down the slopes. As I followed news of the flooding, it saddened me to see that peaceful place where we had prayed buried under rubble and mud.

It has been hard to watch as a place we love has experienced a succession of natural disasters in the last 2 years. We loved the beauty that was, and we wanted it to stay the same. And yet as I think about the devastation and damage caused by wildfire and flood, I can’t help but think that our life in the last year has been like those peaks and valleys—hard hit, burned by injustice, flooded with pain, forever changed by wounds we never expected. Somehow in the last few years, the havoc wreaked on this place we love has mirrored our own journey with Christ.

I’ve looked at photos from the fire. New trees will spring up to cover the burned-out ridges, but right now, it’s ugly and messy. It will be a long time before that canyon boasts swaths of stately conifers in the charred scars left by the flames. I’ve looked at photos from before and after the flood. In places, the landscape has been completely changed as rivers raced down slopes, shuttling rocks and mud; breached their banks; and forged new courses, creating channels where none existed. The old way it looked, the old way it was, is gone.

I realize it’s such a convicting metaphor for how God has been working in our lives this last year. I know God is not the cause of the wounds we have received. I know He is grieved and weeps with us. He does not relish the fire and flood, but though His hand could have stayed them, He chose to let them pass on through and roll over us. Looking at our situation, people have often lamented in awkward, hesitant words that we must wonder how God could do this to us. I’m sure there is suffering God could allow in our lives that would tempt me to agonize over that question, but not this time, not this trial. I am convinced that it broke the heart of my Lord to allow the fire and flood to fall on us, and so I am just as convinced that He must have had a very good reason for letting them come.

God’s ways are always beyond us, but sometimes they are easier on the heart. We can readily accept when He comes like a warm campfire on a chilly winter night—the kind we want to sit around and roast marshmallows. It’s harder to take when He comes like a searing wall of flames—the kind that scorches everything in its path, making ashes of the things we wanted to keep. We welcome God when He comes soft and gentle like a cool rain on a blistering August day. But sometimes, we need more than a pattering shower. So He comes like a flood, tearing old things away in His torrent, raining new things down in His rush, carving new channels where none existed, and forever changing the landscape. And we weep for what we miss. And we mourn for what we lost, and that is okay. God knows how hard it is to see the seed of beauty in our burned-out, flood-ravaged lives. But by faith, we can know that seed is there. Before the first sprig of green pushes up through the blackened earth, it is there. Before the flood waters recede, it is there. It is there because He is in the fire and the flood. There is no suffering He allows that is not meant to bring greater beauty to our lives and to His Kingdom.

I’m convinced that in those moments when we feel completely wrecked by God’s hand, He is actually at work in our lives in ways that only fire or flood could accomplish. Suffering testifies to His transforming power working in us and His tender Presence walking with us. This is why we can “consider it joy” even when God’s hand on us is heavy. We say that we want to be more like Christ, that we desire for God to change us. Well, sometimes, to be changed by God is to be ravaged by God—not ruthlessly, recklessly, or callously, but lovingly, purposefully, and tenderly.

Whenever I am tempted to despair under trial, reading Lamentations 3 always brings me this surging sense of hope. Here, Jeremiah recounts in great detail his own ravaging by God, and just when you want to cry, “Stop!” because you can’t take hearing any more of this man’s pain, the story takes its turn into beauty:

Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for a man to bear the yoke while he is young. Let him sit alone in silence, for the Lord has laid it on him. Let him bury his face in the dust—there may yet be hope. Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him, and let him be filled with disgrace. For no one is cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone. – Lamentations 3:21-33 (NIV)

It’s been a “Lamentations 3” sort of year for my husband and me, awash with wounds and pain that have nearly staggered us at times as we have stumbled together side by side on this path on which the Lord has placed our feet. We have wanted off so badly at times. Although we have been blessed to have each other’s steadfast love and comfort in this trial, some hurts go so deep only God can fully understand what we’re feeling and minister to us. But somewhere in the haze of pain, there has always been a keen awareness of God’s gaze firmly fixed on us in tender love and compassion.

A year and half ago, when the first wisps of this trial began to swirl around us, I distinctly remember a night that I couldn’t sleep for thinking about what was happening. I came downstairs and began to pray. I had been reading a devotional called God Calling for several months. It’s arranged by calendar days, but I had fallen a few days behind. As I prayed, I sensed God urging me to turn to the devotional reading for that day. This is what I saw there:

The Hardest Lesson

 Wait and you shall realize the Joy of the one who can be calm and wait, knowing that all is well. The last, and hardest lesson, is that of waiting. So wait.

I would almost say tonight, “Forgive Me, children, that I allow this extra burden to rest upon you even for so short a time.”

I would have you know this, that from the moment you placed all in My Hands, and sought no other aid, from that moment I have taken the quickest way possible to work out your salvation, and to free you.

There is so much you have had to be taught—to avoid future disaster. But the Friend with whom you stand by the grave of failure, of dead ambitions, of relinquished desires, that Friend is a Friend for all time.

Use this waiting time to cement the Friendship with Me and to increase your Knowledge of Me.

In a holy hush, I wanted to whisper, “Wow!” But all I could do was weep in awe of a God of such precise sovereignty that He could take words written 80 years ago and breathe them into my heart at my exact moment of need. I was awash in His love, its soothing stream soaking my anxious, desperate soul.

Yes, God allows us to be ravaged by adversity, but oh how He loves us in the process! Oh how it breaks His heart to see our pain! Oh how quickly and tenderly He works to save us, to make sure there is not one moment of unnecessary pain! Waiting is so very hard while we are laid open, bleeding, desperately crying out to Him for relief. But I am convinced that if we could see His face with our hearts—see how His eyes are tenderly trained on us and weeping with us even as He allows the pain to come—we would know that His is the greater hurt, watching His beloved suffer and yet knowing it must be.

For me that night, reading those words—it was God setting His precious face before me and saying “See, how I love you! See how My heart breaks over what is about to pass!” It was a stake in the ground, declaring the absolute certainty of God’s goodness and love beyond all the pain and devastation the days ahead would bring. It was my first glimmer of beauty in the suffering, and those moments of precious communion have fed and sustained my faith through this trial.

God is always good. We say it all the time. But if our faith can really absorb the hard truth that God is good even as He allows us to suffer, then I think nothing in our earthly intimacy with our Savior surpasses the rich dichotomy of His goodness and love coming to us in the fire and the flood.

Living Through the Days Between

I love Easter. Every year, even as I groan at the arrival of warm weather and the hint of summer humidity I can feel in its balmy breath, I look forward to the celebration of Christ doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. I love the shiver of anticipation I always feel on Palm Sunday and the somber sweetness of Maundy Thursday. On Easter morning, I can’t wait to sing “Up from the grave He arose” with its crashing crescendo. And unlike Christmas, I’m never tempted to get wrapped up in the hype of trees, gifts, and lights…do we have enough lights???

A bunny bringing treats doesn’t hold much appeal for me. Maybe it’s because I’m not a big fan of chocolate or candy in general, except those little Peeps. Puncture the plastic wrapping, let them get slightly stale for a few days, and you’ve got yourself a real treat. Of course, you don’t need Easter for Peeps because now they come in pumpkins, snowmen, trees, and hearts for a year-round dose of marshmallow-y goodness. Anyway, I digress. The point is that I can do without Reese’s peanut butter eggs, gargantuan chocolate rabbits, and pastel M&Ms. Now, a bunny bringing a gooey cinnamon roll or a flaky slice of blackberry pie a la mode—that’s a bunny who would have my number.

And then there is the other Easter tradition of coloring eggs. Dying eggs is just plain tedious. As we all know, if you’re going to make them look halfway decent, you can never stop with just letting them marinate in the dye. There’s glitter and sequins and wraps and stickers, and don’t forget the little wax crayon for writing secret messages. Then, it never fails—you always end up cracking the prettiest eggs or losing track of them in an Easter egg hunt. Anyway, what a perfectly good waste of a dozen edible eggs! Unless you’re one of those weirdos who actually eats their Easter eggs…yeah, enough said.

But really, for me, the spiritual significance of Easter is just so precious that I don’t want to be distracted from the intensity of remembering Christ’s sacrifice in all its crushing pain and Christ’s victory in all its wonderful completeness. This year though, I have to confess that a glimmer of sadness has been building as we get closer to Easter. It calls up bittersweet memories that swirl in my heart and can’t seem to find a place to land.

A last photo of my dad and my daughters taken that final Easter weekend

A last photo of my dad and my daughters taken that final Easter weekend

Last year, my family got together as we often do on Easter weekend. We ate way too much food, engaged in a messed-up Easter egg hunt with eight people hiding them and one child hunting them, talked about things none of us can recall, snapped a few photos of the newest grandbabies, and then went home. An ordinary day, like so many Easters from the past—a little quieter maybe, a little more low-key because our parents are getting older, and so are we. But a milestone passed that day without any of us knowing it. The whisper was there, but we didn’t hear it over the loudness of everyday life. A week later, my dad began a downward spiral that landed him in the hospital the following weekend. Two weeks later, he was gone. During those final weeks, dad was rarely conscious or lucid. Easter had been our last family gathering with dad, our last chance to have real conversations with him.

And so there has been an edge to the approach of Easter this year. When a believer dies, we love to quote the words from I Corinthians 15:55: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” And I feel like we say it as if death should have no sting for the believer. But we were never created to die—physically or spiritually. We were never created to be apart from God or the ones we love. We were not made for that rupture. That is why death hurts even when it’s believers who must say goodbye to each other.

I read these verses again around the time my dad died, and I was struck by the context:

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

The sting Christ’s death removes is not the grief of losing someone we love. That parting is real, and the pain runs deep because we were not created to know death. The sting Christ’s death removes is that sin holds no power over us in life or in death—it cannot separate us from God here or in eternity. Sin does separate us temporarily from those we love here on earth, but because of Christ, it cannot keep us separated from them in eternity. The victory Christ’s resurrection brings is that physical death cannot hold us. Death still comes to us, but we are with Christ and with our loved ones who have also placed their trust in Him.

Christ has absolutely conquered sin and death—that victory was complete on the first Easter. But our experience of that victory comes to completion when our perishable bodies are clothed with the imperishable, our mortal bodies with immortality. Until then, we stand in Christ, victorious over sin and death, but still touched by them on this earth in ways that break our hearts.

I often think about the days between Christ’s crucifixion and the resurrection, and I wonder about the thoughts and emotions of his family, friends, and followers as they lived through that time between. Christ’s death took most of them by surprise. Just as they hadn’t been expecting His death, they weren’t looking for His resurrection. They believed His death was final.

Can we imagine the staggering pain of saying goodbye to Jesus? Think of who He is to us—Love, Hope, Truth—and imagine being parted from His Presence. Could there be a greater grief than to say goodbye to the Lover of our souls? Their parting from Christ was temporary. His victory over death was never in doubt in the heavenly realms, but it was a bleak impossibility for those left behind. They had to live through the days between Death and Life. Christ had tenderly prepared them for this time, giving them all the truth and hope they needed to cling in faith to His resurrection. Yet instead of their grief being tempered by hope, they suffered as those who had no hope.

When someone we love dies, the rupture of our spirits rends us because we were created to love in a world without death. But where there is Christ, another dynamic is also at work. Death can part believers, but it cannot keep us apart. For those left behind, we are living through the days between death and life. They are excruciating. At times, it may seem that they will break us. But we can live these days as the disciples did—knowing the hope of resurrection but not living in its promise, “grieving like the rest of men, who have no hope” (I Thessalonians 4:13). Or, we can embrace the pain of parting, tenderly aware of the empty places left by those we love who have died, but grieving as people who “believe that Jesus died and rose again…” and “that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” (I Thessalonians 4:14)

We will all lose someone we love. Sin’s ripples spread wider and wider, and death catches us in its wake. It is not whether we will live the days between, but how we will live them. A few years ago, a dear friend very unexpectedly lost her husband. As I was writing a card to her one day, God brought the idea to mind to tell my friend that her husband was as much in her future as he was in her past. How He has graciously reminded me of that same truth in this last year—that my dad is not just a part of my past, he is in my future! I miss my dad, but oh how I want to grieve him in the hope of Christ, feeling the pain of his parting graciously blunted by the comforting certainty of sweet reunion. Our grief can showcase our pain and fears, or it can demonstrate the power of the Gospel at work in our lives.

We tend to think there is a great gulf between life and death, but it only seems that way. We think of it as a veil of blackest wool—heavy and barely penetrable. Instead, it’s more like the filmy strands of a cobweb. It seems thicker at some times in some places, and other times, it thins so much, we wonder that it holds together for the holes. Sometimes, it is surreal for me to think that my dad is gone from this earth. A strangely new sadness pierces me as I remember again that he is beyond this time and place. But other times, often in the stillness of night, I find myself wondering what he is doing in heaven at that very moment. And in those moments, it comes naturally to me to ask Jesus to say hello to my daddy for me. That is the delicate balance of living through the days between, waiting for Easter to come.