Consumed

Earlier this year, I was stunned to hear that an acquaintance of ours had been diagnosed with Stage IV esophageal cancer. We didn’t know Jeff Stables really well. Our paths had only crossed for a brief time while we worked as youth ministers at a local church and he served as the area director for Young Life. But I remember Jeff having an insanely crazy amount of energy and an incredibly deep love for teenagers. At the time of his diagnosis, Jeff was serving with his family in Scotland, still working with Young Life, loving on people in Jesus’ name.

As we followed the updates on Jeff’s condition and his health worsened, my heart broke over and over for Jeff, his wife Becca, and their three young boys. I wanted them to have more time together. I wanted Becca and the boys to be spared the pain of parting from the man they loved as husband and dad. Following their story drove me to my knees in tears at times, lifting them up to the God who sees, the One who knows the end from the beginning. And I was deeply convicted watching the beautiful grace with which this family met their “hard.” I saw faith that hurt and doubted but ultimately hoped in the goodness of God. Faith that blossomed in the crucible.

On December 7, 2015, Jeff realized the end of his faith as Jesus hugged him home. And my mind and heart have spun for the last week, alternating between grief for his wife and sons and wondering over the mystery of why this parting had to happen right now. My Facebook News Feed has blown up all week with tributes to Jeff. Many made me cry. A few made me laugh out loud. Most were from people I’ve never met. Every few hours, new posts would show up, waves of Jeff’s influence rolling in and crashing over the shores of our collective grief.

Jeff was only 37. That seems far too young to die. A wife is without her love, and three young boys are without their dad. The inevitable, excruciating “why?” wells up. And then there’s all those posts piling up on Facebook, each one a life changed by Jeff’s love for Jesus and his desire to share that love with people. Why take one who was so passionately pursuing God’s purpose?

Seeking answers to those questions is like chasing the wind. Pursuit of the “why” is futile. It is God who we are to chase, Him who we are to seek. If we chase the “why,” we find only more questions. If we chase God, we find the One who “does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men” (Lamentations 3:33), but who lovingly acts in accordance with His eternal purposes. We find the One who “is good to those whose hope is in him” (Lamentations 3:25). “Though He brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love” (Lamentations 3:32). God is gracious with our questions and generous with His compassionate love, even as He requires that we rest in His sovereignty.

As I pondered Jeff’s passing, something that Jim Elliot wrote kept coming to mind.

“‘He makes His ministers a flame of fire.’ Am I ignitable? God deliver me from the dread asbestos of ‘other things.’ Saturate me with the oil of the Spirit that I may be a flame. But flame is transient, often short-lived. Canst thou bear this, my soul–short life? In me there dwells the Spirit of the Great Short-Lived, whose zeal for God’s house consumed Him. ‘Make me Thy Fuel, Flame of God.'”

Jeff was consumed by a zeal for sharing God’s love and salvation. He offered himself as fuel for God’s Great Cause–“reconciling the world to himself in Christ” (II Corinthians 5:19). The number of Jeff’s years was short, but the impact of his years is eternally long. Yesterday, I sat in a packed church peopled with hundreds whose lives were influenced by Jeff’s short-lived flame. As Christ-followers, can there be any greater testimony at the end of our days than to say we were consumed by the God who created us, fully expended for His eternal purposes even to our last breath?

In John 12:24, Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” In the last week, the fruit of Jeff’s life has been so overwhelmingly evident. And though Jeff’s death is heart-wrenchingly sad, I can’t help but think that he died well because he lived well.

This morning, I was sitting in church, thoughts of Jeff and his family still weighing on my heart. As the service came to a close, a quote from C.S. Lewis appeared on the screen:

“Once in our world, a Stable had something in it that was bigger than our whole world.”

I know this quote is about the birth of Christ, but my mind immediately snatched on a play on these words: “Once in our world, a Stables [Jeff] had something in it [Jesus] that was bigger than our whole world.” How blessed we have been to see Christ in Jeff. My prayers to Becca, Luke, Levi, and Ian–may God be husband and daddy, sweetly present in all the empty places.

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The Jesus Question

The Passion. What just happened inside as you read those words? Did your heart dip in solemn worship of the Christ? Were you washed in a wave of sad, beautiful joy? Did you pause, stilled by the bigness of God’s love and the extravagance of Christ’s sacrifice? Or did you zoom on by, wondering what I’d say next? Perhaps, you started tuning out, thinking just another Easter post. Maybe you even tripped over those words, stumbled because they don’t mean much to you and you’re not even really sure you want them to. Wherever they find you, I hope you keep reading.

We can spend a month or more preparing for Christmas, but how much time do we spend welcoming Easter? And yet, Christmas is the seed of something wonderful, while Easter is the bloom in all its bright glory, its sweet fragrance suffusing eternity. This is a time our hearts should make much of. All history, all eternity turns on these few days.

I purposed this year that I would live this Easter season more mindfully, both in my own heart and in how my family honored this time. And while I’m sure God would say there is still much room for improvement in how mindful I have been of Him, how He has blessed me as I have deliberately turned my heart and and the hearts of my family toward Him! No matter what’s gone on this week, there’s been a holy hush in my soul, a sweet perfume of His Presence in our home. As we washed each other’s feet on a blanket in the backyard, pored over the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ suffering, crunched on homemade latkes, smiled over bowls of matzo ball soup, and reflected on the rich symbolism of Passover–God was there in the sweet, the funny, the solemn. My heart has lingered over Jesus–who He is to me and who I want Him to be to my children.

There is this striking passage in Mark 8 where Jesus is talking with His disciples. He’s just miraculously fed several thousand people, ticked off the religious leaders, and healed a blind man. People are talking about Him. He’s causing a stir. And Jesus asks His disciples, “Who do people say I am?” They start rattling off everyone else’s opinions until Jesus stops them with an arresting question, “But who do you say I am?”

That cuts to the heart of things, doesn’t it? It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about who Jesus is, we have to come before Him and answer that question for ourselves. And we are accountable for what we decide. Our eternity hangs in the balance. We can’t come to God based on who we are or what we’ve done. The only way to God is through Jesus and what He’s done. The world calls it His Passion, and it is. But I’m praying this Easter season that you will know it as your Salvation.

This isn’t something I’ve done before on the blog, but I’ve decided to share an original story if you’re of the mind to read it. I love to write fictional short stories that are blended into real Biblical narratives. I wrote this particular story several years ago around Easter time. The idea came while reading Matthew 21:14. It’s just after Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in what would be the final week before His crucifixion. With His greatest suffering bearing down, Jesus is in the temple, healing the blind and the lame. Reading this verse, I began to wonder, What would it have been like to be a person He healed just days before He died? What would go through your mind, his violent death coming on the heels of your miracle?  And the seed of a story was born. While Amasai is not real, he represents people who very much were. People who Jesus healed, people who saw Him die, people who had to decide just like you and me, Who is Jesus?

I hope you enjoy the story, and I wish you the happiest of Easters!

The Burden Bearer

 

Anything But Mundane

I saw the title Letter to my readers upon my death, and I was undone. I huddled in the corner of my sofa, sobs rolling over me. I had missed Kara’s “voice” the last few weeks–that special gift she had for piercing the heart with truth in such a sweetly compelling way. I hadn’t expected to hear it again this side of heaven. And yet, here it was, a final post reaching back from eternity in a bittersweet goodbye. Tears blurring the words, I stared at my Facebook page and exhaled a deep, shuddering breath. It was like looking at the last gift under the Christmas tree. You want to open it so badly, and yet you wish you could just leave it there because you know when you open it, that’s it. There’s no more.

You see, Jesus took home a treasure on March 22. A treasure named Kara Tippetts. I never had the privilege of meeting her or talking with her. And yet when my 5-year-old daughter asked me why I was crying, I stumbled through an explanation about who Kara was until she simply asked, “Is Kara your friend, Mom?” “Yes, sweetheart, yes.” And in all the ways that count, it is the best word to describe how I feel about her.

I stumbled onto Kara Tippetts’ blog Mundane Faithfulness last fall and was instantly hooked. She was a Christ-follower, a young mom, a pastor’s wife facing terminal cancer. She wrote with utter heart, words that tore into my soul, convicting and encouraging all in the same breath. And always, her posts pointed to Christ. Christ. Christ. Christ.

I don’t think I have ever afforded to a virtual stranger such a tender place in my heart. As her health worsened and death drew near, I struggled to articulate to family and friends just why exactly I was feeling such a deep sense of connection to Kara and her family.

Certainly, Kara embraced suffering. She embodied the idea of suffering well, struggling for a tender, transformed heart even as God wrote a story with her life that she didn’t want. Kara wrote with raw transparency and poignant honesty. Her painful submission to God’s plan and her sharp sorrow over leaving her “loves” simmered in her words. Pondering the sweet photos of Kara with her family and friends that appeared on her blog often built a knot of sadness in my throat. But as I really considered just what made me sit up and notice Kara, what made me take her so to heart, it’s that Kara made me sit up and notice Jesus.

Because I only started following Kara’s blog a few months ago, I’d only ever seen photos of her while she was ill until recently. I read a story about her and came across a photo of Kara and her husband taken before she was sick. In it, she has a long, glorious mane of blond hair and a megawatt smile. It was a vision of Kara I’d never seen. And yet, when I look at the cancer-ravaged pictures of Kara, those are the ones that most take my breath away. There is this deeply serene God-light in her eyes, a beauty not of this world that radiates, outshining the grief and pain. It is the light of one whose eyes are fixed on Jesus. It is the light of one whose love is fixed on Jesus. It is the light of the Spirit shining where He is abundantly welcomed. You couldn’t read Kara’s words without knowing that she absolutely adored Jesus and fought to trust Him fully in all the hard places He led her. She painfully chronicled her doubts and fears, and yet she always ended with this testimony–that Jesus would be there with the grace she needed. Kara’s honest admission of need always met with a resolute declaration of faith.

One of the many beautiful things about the Gospel accounts of the time leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion is His prayer for the disciples and those who would believe in Him in generations to come. What selfless love that Christ’s thoughts were directed toward His followers even as the climax of His own suffering approached. In this too, Kara showed me Jesus. Reading her blog, I was always blown away by her overwhelmingly other-centered perspective. You would expect someone dying from cancer to be somewhat focused on their own sense of pain and loss. But Kara always seemed eminently concerned with how her illness and death affected others–her husband, children, family, and friends. As I read her final post, this letter she had composed to be published after her death, I was overcome by her tender expression of gratitude toward her community of blog followers and her passionate plea to pray for her family. Even in her last words, she was gently comforting us “strangers” who mourn her passing and sweetly directing our hearts toward her precious family. All I could think was, There you go again, Kara. Only a heart filled with Jesus can bleed love so abundantly to others.

I don’t know if Kara’s family will ever read this, but no tribute to Kara would be complete without addressing her dearest loves. Jason, Ella, Harper, Lake, and Story Jane–you are the ones for whom my heart is broken. The hard just keeps crashing down, and the empty places must seem huge. But God has you. Oh, how He has you. I pray God’s Presence will be so sweetly near and real to each of you. And may the legacy of faith that your wife and mama left bloom in you until that sweet moment when you all come together again in Jesus.

For a woman whose blog was named Mundane Faithfulness, Kara’s faith was anything but mundane. It was epic and beautiful and convicting. When I first heard of Kara’s death, I thought, Man, I’d love to see what Kara would write about that moment when her eyes locked with Jesus. On second thought though, I’m guessing Kara had no words, just consuming joy as Jesus hugged her home. I couldn’t wish anything better for a friend.

 

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

 

 

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.