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.

 

Frozen Faith

My oldest daughter turned five recently, and like many young girls her age, she is a Frozen fanatic. Elsa is the coolest chick on the block in our house…correction, make that universe. I’m astounded at the glut of Frozen loot. The deluge of licensed toys is to be expected, but If you can wear it, eat it, smell it, or hear it, there is a Frozen version of the item in existence. From lip gloss and bean bag chairs to jelly beans and alarm clocks to Campbell’s soup and fruit snacks, there’s a blizzard of Frozen products that you can’t escape. My daughter has perfected what I call the Frozen squeal. When we are in a store, and I hear that noise come out of her mouth, I know I’m about to be shown some Frozen item that has caught her fancy and then told “I would love to have a Frozen fill-in-the-blank.” It’s enough to make a parent moan, “Let it go!”

All joking aside, I do think Frozen is a wonderful movie. Sure, it’s beautifully made and who wouldn’t love all those frosty scenes of winter wonder, but what I really like is its message. Romantic love cannot save the day. Sacrificial love comes to the rescue. I see parallels to the Gospel. We are all broken people, and just as Elsa cannot control her innately icy powers, we cannot contain our sinful natures and avoid the devastating consequences of a life apart from God. Elsa thinks that giving her powers free reign will bring her peace and happiness, but doing so only compounds the misery. But Anna loves her and is desperate to reconcile with Elsa and rescue Arendelle from its frozen curse. Like Anna relentlessly pursuing Elsa to her own peril, Jesus comes after us, holding out His love and laying down His life. It is Christ’s sacrifice that calls us to true freedom. It is His love that breaks the curse of sin in us and teaches us to love. If my daughter is going to pick a movie to adore, this one has themes I don’t mind her pondering in her young heart.

Since seeing the movie last year, my daughter has constantly reminded me that she wants a Frozen birthday party, and most importantly, she would like a Frozen cake. Now I like to cook and bake, and thanks to training from my dear mom, I can do both quite handily. My mom was so thorough that she even taught us how to make decorator cakes, and this skill has come in handy many times in life, especially since having children. However, it also comes with a certain sense of expectation and obligation on my part. Because I CAN create a cake my child will enjoy, I feel like I MUST create the most wonderful version of it my amateur skills can handle. This leads to visions of cakes that are often time-consuming and challenging to deliver. Every year, I promise myself that next year, I’ll make something simpler. The next year rolls around, and I find myself upping the ante. And the reason I put myself through this is pretty easy to figure out. While I’m not fond of the mechanics of making decorator cakes, I love the creativity of the process, starting with a nebulous idea in my head and watching it take shape in cake.

My daughter’s only request was that all the major characters except Hans be on the cake. But as I contemplated exactly what type of Frozen cake to make for her, I couldn’t get the picture of that gorgeously frozen precipice, the North Mountain, out of my head. What if I could replicate that in cake–how awesome would that be?!?!

So I figured Frozen being as popular as it is, I would be able to do a quick search on the Internet and find someone else who had already created the North Mountain in cake. That way, I wouldn’t have to think through the nitty-gritty of how to engineer it. Well, I did find several cake photos where someone had created their version of the North Mountain, but no one had posted details of how they did it. So game on, I knew this cake was going to be a doozy.

After considerable pondering, I came up with an idea I thought would work. I baked my cakes–I needed three–and ran into my first obstacle. Two of my cakes erupted like a volcano in the oven. There was chocolate lava everywhere. In all my years of baking cakes, I have never had this happen, and given the gargantuan cleanup effort, I hope I never do again. After baking two more cakes, I finally had the building blocks for the North Mountain. But now came the sketchy part–how to take three perfectly rounded, level cakes and make them look like a steep mountain ridge.

My dining room table was littered with cooled chocolate cakes. My frosting was made and ready to go. But for hours, I walked in and out of my dining room, thinking, measuring, scribbling rough sketches, and nervously glancing at my carving knife. I knew what I wanted the end result to look like, but I couldn’t completely see my way from point A (three perfectly round layers) to point B (the North Mountain). What if I made a wrong cut? I’d have to make more cake, and I was really sick of making chocolate cake by this point. What if I almost finished, and the whole mountain collapsed? Could my daughter live with North Mountain rubble? Could I? I was completely…frozen, unwilling to risk my cakes all because I couldn’t totally see my way through. I wanted to know it would absolutely work before I was willing to plunge my knife into all that chocolatey goodness.

Now cake, even Frozen cake that a 5-year-old is banking on, is really NOT important. But I started thinking about how I’m like that in my faith sometimes. I’m pretty clear that God is calling me to something, but because I can’t see what it is or how to get there, I just stay still. God has been taking my husband and I through a very strange and uncomfortable season for quite a while now. I don’t think I’ve ever been so uncertain about where God wants us or what ministry He has for us. I have no idea what God is making. I want to do His will. I want to take the right steps, make the right cuts. I just have no idea what they are.

I wish things weren’t so veiled. I have prayed for clarity and understanding. I have not prayed for release because if God is training us, I don’t want to cut the lesson short. But over the last few months, I have realized that while I cannot step out ahead of God’s clear direction for the big picture, I also cannot remain frozen, failing to act on His direction in the “little” things. I can minister to the teens God has graciously continued to place in our path. I can care for and encourage the few remaining friends we have in our community. I can share Christ with those God has planted in my life who don’t know Him. I can grieve with those who are suffering because we are walking in its shadow. I can love on the husband and daughters God has blessed me to have. I can hold out the hope of Christ anytime and anywhere that God gives me opportunity. I can spend sweet time with my precious Savior. I can submit to His loving discipline and mysterious sovereignty. By God’s grace and in His power, I can do all these things while still completely, utterly in the dark about His plan and where it’s taking us. I not only can do them, I must. God does not call us to a frozen faith.

My sweet daughter enjoying the finished product

My sweet daughter enjoying the finished product

I stood in my dining room, looking at those cakes, and finally realized I just had to take the plunge. If I waited to cut those cakes until I could see my way clear from rounded layers to the majestic North Mountain, I’d be serving my guests unadorned chocolate cake. So I picked up the knife, and I cut and cut and cut, working my way through it one stroke at a time. Did I get everything exactly right? No. But nothing went too far off track either. And the sweetest surprise was this–cutting my first two layers and realizing that two of the wedges I removed, when turned on end, perfectly formed the silhouette of the upper ridge of the North Mountain. It’s amazing what can happen when you choose stepping out in trust over remaining frozen in fear.

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.