Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Clinging in the Noise

For the last few years, I've read a blog by a girl who moved to Uganda and adopted 14 girls. Obviously, the logistics of her life are a little bit different than mine. But we have the same Good Shepherd, and so a lot of the things she shares are things that I can learn from as well. Last week I read this excerpt from her blog:

I choke because my every day life begins to feel small compared to the expectations. And He breathes truth that a life is not made by lives saved or bellies fed or words written. To adore the one who created the Heavens and the Earth, to give thanks for who He is and all He has given, to worship and commune with Holy God, whispering in the quiet, clinging in the noise, believing in all circumstances – this is what makes a life large.

Clinging in the noise. Lately, I've begun to feel overwhelmed by the "noise;" tattered and tired and torn, like a small child lost in a big city. Lately, the end of my rope has reminded me of my endless need for a God who has no end. My fear and exhaustion have reminded me that I have a good and loving Father who has provided a safe and quiet home for me, and that it's strange that I would choose to live like an orphan instead. Lately, I've even felt confident enough in His love to believe He wants me back; to reach out to Him with my last burst of energy. But lately, I've felt that I've forgotten how. I want to cling, but my grasp is weak.

As I wrote today, I was reminded of a similar forgetfulness, a similar desperation-- a season of grief so breath-taking that I felt unable to do the very thing I knew I needed-- cling. This poem dates back to February 2008:

i've been here before
heart spilled on the floor
knees brown
from hitting the ground
three feet inside the door

You were there too...
i remember You
You got down
with me on the ground
and You held me like You knew

...You swept my heart up too.

Obviously, the logistics of my life in 2008 were different than they are now. But reading this prayer reminded me of God's rescue; His clinging to me when I had lost the strength to cling to Him. It reminded me that His grasp is firm even when mine is not. And because of that, my orphan heart is being healed.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Fully Known, Fully Loved

 I've written a lot about how my husband, Michael, has transformed my understanding of Christ's love by modeling it himself in our relationship. It makes sense that relationship has been of the most profound "classrooms" for my Christian education, since God Himself chose to reveal His character not through a booming, impersonal voice from Heaven but through relationship! Jesus Christ came in the flesh to embody God's character, not just to proclaim it.

This weekend another special person in my life is here visiting me; another person who has taught me about Christ's love and character. Jesus reveals Himself as husband to those who trust in Him (John 3:29), but also as friend (John 15:15). When I was in high school, I prayed for a friend. Alice transferred to my high school a few months later. At one point, I felt estranged from most people in my peer group. There were nights when Alice would choose not to go to a party that I wasn't invited to, in order to spend time with me. There were other times when I estranged myself from my peers; I lied in order to cover up a secret I was ashamed of. Alice called me out on the lie and wanted me to confess. Then she hugged me and said she was still my friend. 

After high school, I went to college almost a thousand miles away. I never moved back home. That means of the eight years we've been best friends, six of them have been long distance. Alice has committed the time to stay in touch with me; to know my story, even when it meant taking time away from her own to call me, come visit me, or write to me. This weekend, that has been the reality that has moved me the most; Alice knows my story, good and bad. She knows, for example, that I lied to her face in high school. She has witnessed my triumphs and my failures. And she has had to call me to repentance more than once. 

One time, when Alice was studying abroad, she said to me, "It's such a gift when someone knows all your dark secrets and still loves you anyway." Alice knows me, and she has seen my dark secrets firsthand. But she hasn't abandoned me. She has witnessed me struggle for years with insecurity and rebellion, but she hasn't shamed me. Like the lie in high school, she hasn't coddled me or condoned all of my behavior. But like Jesus when he encountered the woman caught in adultery, a "worst of sinners" in the ancient world, she protected me from my accusers and helped to restore me. This weekend during Alice's visit, I feel restored. But I know that she loved me and was willing to sacrifice for me when I was still picking up the pieces. 

In a way, that is what it's like to know Jesus. It's to be fully known-- good and bad. It's to know He sees my darkest secrets and most shameful experiences. It is not to hear Him coddle or condone them. But it is to experience His protective arms around me while He receives the stones my accusers had aimed at me. It is to hear Him say, "I love you and am committed to relationship with you now, not in ten years when you've got it all together." 

I'm thankful for a God who knows my story and who stands in the gap that I've created in order to transform it. And I'm thankful for a God who gave me a friend like Alice to help me understand what that looks like. 


 Photo: At the Dallas Farmers Market!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

A Ship Wasn't Made for Safety

Three years ago, I went to Europe on a mission trip of sorts. While I was there, a group of German Christians prayed for me. The prayer I remember most clearly went something like this. "When I see you, I see a sail boat. The Holy Spirit fills the sails and directs the ship where He wants it to go."

I walked away feeling encouraged but not particularly amazed by the prayer. "How nice," I thought. "A sail boat is a nice picture." 

Two years ago, Michael and I were just beginning our marriage, and we were finding that our radically different personality types presented some, er, challenges. I'm a highly emotional, highly energetic visionary type. He's a very stable, emotionally cautious, nuanced counselor type. Around that time, we met a South American couple (at a bonfire of all places!), and they asked if they could pray for us. They said, "When we see your marriage, we see a sailboat. Hannah, you're the sails. You feel the wind of the Spirit and want to go wherever it's blowing. Michael, you're the boat. Your stability and strength provide structure and sustainability. Each needs the other in order to get anywhere." 

That was a pretty powerful moment for us. The picture of the sailboat God had given me years before had come back, on a different continent, from different people, in a different setting. What someone saw in Germany was elaborated on a bit more in Texas. And it came at a time in our marriage where that kind of encouragement and affirmation-- and explanation of what we had just done in signing up to do life together!-- was much needed. 

This morning, Michael and I spoke in church together about the ministry we've begun in downtown Dallas. We shared some of the fears we had about leaving our "bubble" to live among an unknown group of people and pledge to do life with them for the next two years. We so enjoyed speaking together, even though preparing together (remember, we're personality opposites) was a little, er, challenging! Probably more to come on that later. 

When we finished speaking, this is what the pastor said. "As you were speaking, a proverb came to my mind. "The safest place for a ship is in the harbor. But that's not what ships were made for." 

The pastor's words, although seemingly generic, spoke deeply to me. It was as if God was saying, "I see your marriage. I've seen it since before you even knew it would happen-- in Europe I spoke to you about it. I built your marriage. I put the two of you together to create something complementary. And I have a purpose for your marriage. I built it for a reason, for a voyage, for an adventure that won't be safe, but will be fulfilling." 

Today I'm praising a God who sees me. Who both delights in how He has created me and yet has given me a teammate so complementary. I'm praising a God who, in Christ, has been directing my life by the wind of His Spirit in ways I couldn't foresee and still can't imagine. And in the wake of sharing my fears of the unknown in front of my whole congregation, I'm praising a God who has called me to a life that wasn't made for safety.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Summer Greek

One of the things that has kept me busy this summer is Intensive Greek. On June 4th, I started Greek 1. Today, I got my Greek 2 midterm back. In other words, it has been moving! I'll admit that my anticipatory thoughts and feelings about Greek were along the lines of, "I need to get this over with so that I can get to the good classes." In other words, I was viewing the biblical languages as a necessary evil of sorts; most likely, not something I would enjoy in the process.

Greek has been hard work. It has included sleepy-eyed study sessions and random mnemonic devices that make me the crazy person muttering to herself in Kroger (OK, maybe that's not a new thing since studying Greek). But it has also made the story of Scripture come alive to me in a way I couldn't really have imagined before. 

I could probably write a blog post a week on the things I'm learning about Jesus through the original language of the New Testament, but it would be an insufficient summary because the glory that I'm seeing is coming in glimpses-- sort of the way the sun emerges from behind a moving cloud for a few moments of splendor on a cold, gray day-- after the cloud cover has returned, the memory of the feeling remains but the opportunity to say, "Wow! Look!" has passed. I'm hoping that as I continue to study, my image of Jesus in the Scriptures will grow clearer and more defined so that I'll be able to do just what my professor is doing for us now; showing us The Word-- Jesus-- and saying, "Wow. Look." 

He is, after all, what the Scriptures are about. 


"And Jesus said, "If you believed Moses, you would believe me, because he was writing about me." John 5:46


Friday, July 13, 2012

A Photo of the Future

Just a few months ago, a friend of ours wanted to take some photos of us downtown to add to his portfolio.  It was fun for us to see just a little bit more of our "neighborhood"-- a part of Dallas that we had hardly visited up until that point. 

At the time, we thought, "We really should come downtown more often. But we could never imagine living here."  

A week after the photos were taken, we found out we had been placed right in the heart of the city for a two-year live-in ministry.  I'm not sure if there's such a thing as prophetic photography, but if so, this is it! 

It's funny how we are now so passionate about living in a place we never imagined we would be able to survive, much less enjoy! It seems that despite my thinking I know best about who I am, what I want, and what I'm capable of, I'm usually proven wrong. I'm glad that God's imagination is bigger than mine.  

Monday, July 9, 2012

Discouraging Pain, Encouraging Promise

I have a bad back. 

I'm pretty young to be saying something like that, but it's true. I've had chronic pain since high school, even though I've seen a number of doctors and undergone a number of treatments.  It's just one of those things. 

At our church, anyone is welcome to come forward to receive prayer during Communion. I often ask for prayers for healing when I am there.  One lady has prayed for me a number of times, so this past week I asked if I could pray for her about anything. Guess what she said? Back pain. Hearing from her-- the "prayer lady"-- about her own back pain reminded me that my physical brokenness is not unique. When I take the time to think about it, I'm reminded that the nagging discomfort in my back isn't just about me.  

Here's what I mean.  I didn't have some major injury or surgery gone awry that resulted in my condition.  I don't have a well-known illness or food allergy that flares up. I just have a bad back. When I wake up in the morning or lie down after a long day, I'm reminded that things are not quite right with my body. But then I look out my window and see someone hobbling down the street, working hard to awkwardly propel his body forward. I visit my grandmother and notice how slowly she moves for the searing pain in her knees. I watch the news and see countless homes destroyed by heat-induced wildfires that have ravaged the Midwest. I hear from my friend in Eastern Africa and am reminded of the thousands of Somalian families displaced by drought and famine. It seems that things aren't quite right anywhere

According to the Christian story, there is a reason that things aren't quite right. When sin entered the world, it fractured it. A people and a place originally created to enjoy perfect peace in relationship with God, our world literally suffers as a result of sin's polarizing presence.  From the eco-system shutting down, to rain refusing to come, to twenty-three year old spines decaying, "creation groans" and mourns the disconnection from its Maker. Each time I feel the dull ache in my back, I remember my need--and all of creation's need-- for rescue from the brokenness of sin. 

God secured our rescue through Jesus. In dying on the Cross for our sake, Jesus paid the price sin demands-- death. In rising again from the grave, He made manifest the very first taste of creation fully restored, untouchable by the sting of sin and death. The Bible calls him "the firstborn" or "first fruit" of our redemption-- He died and rose to show us what life can and will be like for all who trust in Him, for all who come to Him for rescue.  

How does that story comfort me in the daily grind of persistent pain? It is better than any doctor visit. Any healing or relief from the reality of this broken world, though I welcome it, will only last for a time. Eventually, death will take its toll and my body will decay. But to know that Christ has secured victory over death itself-- and that I belong to Him through faith-- means that a healing awaits me that will erase even the memory of pain. It means I can offer the same reminder of hope to a friend who may never find the "right" doctor or whose cancer may not disappear this side of Christ's return.  

In a way, I'm thankful for the pain. It keeps me alive to the story I'm a part of-- the story of our world. Creation. Fall. Redemption. Restoration. It keeps me alive to the longing for Christ's return and the hope of seeing all things-- from my back to the eco-system-- fully restored. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

What is Freedom?

This past week, Michael and I were talking about freedom. He was saying that a trend in our culture is to think that freedom means uncommitted; unencumbered; totally independent. He shared from his own story how he used to think that "romantic" freedom meant being completely free of commitment to anyone. He shared that he was surprised to find that marriage-- a relationship of total and unending commitment-- led him to a greater experience of "freedom" than he ever imagined. 

As he shared, I immediately thought of our own country's story and the holiday we just celebrated. It's easy for me to think that "Independence Day" is about the breaking of a commitment (to England) and the celebration of the newfound freedom it entailed.  And in a sense, it is! The colonies ended a relationship with England and thus became "free" from its foreign power.  But their intent in breaking out of one commitment was never to remain uncommitted.  Rather, the first Americans rejoiced that the relationship they experienced as oppressive was removed so that they could form a government they experienced as just!  

The 4th of July is a holiday that celebrates freedom-- not freedom from commitment, but freedom from oppression!  After fighting tirelessly for freedom from a foreign power, the first Americans didn't rejoice at their newfound lack of commitment to anything. Instead, the men and women of our nation gloried in their freedom to commit to each other; to form a government that would honor and care for its citizens. They bonded together, worked together, committed to each other-- to form a new family of people that would protect, serve, and work for the good of each other. 

The Christian story is also about freedom; freedom from (a foreign power)  securing freedom to (commitment to right relationship). When Jesus inaugurated his ministry on earth, these were his words. 

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,

       to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
As persons created for relationship with God, it is ultimately not a country-- or a dictator, warlord, or corrupt government-- that oppresses us. Sin is what enslaves us, and is in fact what makes leaders and governments corrupt in the first place! Sin is ultimately what we need freedom-- deliverance-- from. On the Cross, Jesus sacrificed Himself in order to attain that freedom.  He waged war against sin itself, and rose victorious over it.  Freedom from sin therefore doesn't leave us uncommitted, but makes it possible for us to bond to God.

The Christian life is about freedom-- not from commitment, but from oppression.  Like the first Americans who rejoiced at the freedom to commit to each other, and like a man or woman who finds total love and acceptance in the faithful commitment of a spouse, we are invited into a life of intimate relationship with God. It is a life of commitment-- made possible by the work of Jesus Christ who won freedom from the oppression of sin-- for all who come to Him.  

That is worth celebrating! 


Monday, July 2, 2012

Layer By Layer

This past weekend, we were surrounded by beauty. We went to the state park and experienced the surprising landscape of the lake. We had two whole days to rest and be together, which was healing and rejuvenating. We unashamedly took time to enjoy artisan cheeses (yes, that counts as beauty!!!), wine, and local food. We read together from great books and encountered their rich language and moving narratives. The phrase that kept coming to mind at every turn was that of the Psalmist, 

"He restores my soul." 

During sweet moments with Michael over the weekend, I reflected on the past two years of our marriage. His steady love and presence in my life has changed me.  I don't react to things the same way I would have two years ago. I have grown to trust him. When he approaches me for an embrace, I no longer wonder whether he ceases to see me as a person; his tenderness over time has proven to me that I am not an object to him. And yet, even noticing the changes that have taken place-- the transformation that has occurred in my heart as a result of his love-- I still find places within me that resist. His willingness to sit quietly in the car while I study Greek continues to surprise me. "My education is really worth a sacrifice for you?" His disinterest in my dressing provocatively still sometimes causes me to wonder. "You really don't want me to play the part of your trophy?" His tenderness and patience when we're in a argument always undoes me. "You really have the character to respond kindly to what I just said? You're really apologizing to me?" The phrase that kept coming to mind about this transformation was, 

"...layer by layer." 

These two thoughts are related. To be a Christian is to enter into life with God. It is not just to check a "box of beliefs" about history or the afterlife. It is to commune with-- to be in unbreakable relationship with-- the God who weds Himself to us. It is (as I've discovered and shared time and again) in many ways like a marriage.  To be a Christian is not to merely assent intellectually to certain maxims; it is to let God restore our souls. And how does it happen? Layer by layer. There is immediate transformation and newness when anyone puts his or her trust in Jesus for the first time. But there is also a long, slow, gentle process of restoration that continues throughout this age. Restoration will be complete one day! Those who are in Christ have certain hope of that. But until then, Jesus is gentle with us. He restores our trust, our self-image, our faith, our ability to believe His words, our sexual identities, our motivation for doing acts of kindness, our thoughts and feelings, our very souls....layer by layer. 

It is a good and kind thing of Him. If he redid all of me in an instant, I might die of the pain. But He is patient. He restores my soul layer by layer. It's nice to be able to reflect on the transformation that has happened even as I await with hope the transformation that is yet to come.