Suffering

suffering w: christ

… that I may know Christ and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Phil. 3:10-11, NKJV)

I’ve loved this verse since my college days… “marching orders” for how my friends and I planned to take our campus for Christ. In the midst of studying at the library and dining at the cafeteria, we would gather for worship and all night prayer vigils. We had the fervor of the gospel burning in our hearts — literally, we saw nothing as more important than telling our friends about the life adventure that awaited them if they chose to follow Christ.

The thing is, in my fervent reading, I think I focused on the “power of his resurrection”. I don’t think I dwelt long enough on “the fellowship of his sufferings.” I mean, what does it mean to be “conformed” to the death of Jesus, anyway?

Christians just finished celebrating the Easter holiday. We reflected on the awesome mystery of redemption and atonement accomplished in the cross of Christ. We tried to imagine the despair of the first disciples as they stood by helpless, watching the Son of God undergo a friend’s betrayal, a sham trial, brutal beatings, and Roman crucifixion. And we tried to identify with their hopelessness after they laid him in the tomb and rolled the stone to seal it shut. We can’t really know what it felt like, though. Or can we?

I’ve known something if helplessness and hopelessness these past few weeks.

Benjamin’s recent battle with ulcerative colitis has worn us, wearied us, beaten us down. And even though this suffering doesn’t directly stem from sin on his part, it is a result of living in a world broken because of the fall. The effects of sin surround us. We’re all affected. Each one.

B sickSo as we wade through the mire of disease and unknowing, as we ask the Lord for healing and wait for His response, we find something in common with Jesus and His followers as they experienced His death. A kind of fellowship.

Mystery. Despair. Helpless. Hopeless… but not for long.

Sunday is coming.

“He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.” 

(Matthew 28:6 NIV)

Spring

I hear songbirds this morning, heralds of spring. The renewal of the earth is all around me… in budding trees, in chickadees, in green blades of grass pushing through dormant mats of brown.

 

And I’m forced to consider God’s promise to make all things new.

spring butterfly

Maybe God puts us in hard places, impossible places where the future is bleak, disease-ridden, and barren so he can show us what renewal really looks like.

One thing I know, our future depends on God being the incomparable, faithful, rejuvenating God he claims to be. Our hope is rooted in the character of God, who alone has the capacity to do something utterly new.

Lift up your eyes on high and see:

Who created these?

He who bring out their host and numbers them,

calling them all by name;

because he is great in strength,

mighty in power,

not one is missing.

Why do you say, O Jacob,

and speak, O Israel,

“My way is hidden from the Lord,

and my right is disregarded by my God”?

Have you not known, Have you not heard?

The Lord is the everlasting God,

the Creator of the ends of the earth.

He does not faint or grow weary;

his understanding is unsearchable.

He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.

Even youths will faint and be weary,

and the young will fall exhausted;

but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,

they shall mount up with wings like eagles,

they shall run and not be weary,

they shall walk and not faint.

Is. 40:26-31

Transplanted

It’s not the land of my birth, but it is the land of my growth, of my becoming… my forming.

Indiana.

Sunrise

I am formed by rich red kitchen walls tinged with splatters of bacon grease and pancake batter on Saturday mornings. Clinking silverware and stacking clean plates from the dishwasher remind me that early morning chores call as faithfully as the sunrise. And I am transformed by meals at the kitchen table shaping this family into one that loves good food and conversations that always end up about movies.

And I am formed by the Indiana clay under my fingernails as I plant and weed and tend red lillythe roses and lavender in my garden beds. The hostas in the shade and lilies in the sun have taught me about blooming and pruning… necessary ingredients for growth. The redbuds we planted out back with their spindly branches and magenta blooms never fail to enchant. Every spring, they tell me that new life lurks just beneath the surface, merely waiting for a warm sun-kiss.

I am formed by three boys whose ever-bouncing, climbing, running feet found mud puddles to splash and balls to kick. They saw forests and imagined new worlds. They saw boxes full of Legos and built spaceships. They saw me and knew I could be trusted. What a gift. And every once in awhile, I convinced them to slow down and notice the caterpillar creeping along a leaf… which fostered in me a bit more childlike wonder.

I am formed by sure-changing seasons, sometimes subtle, sometimes brash. By soft grass and smiling daisies and sticky humid days passed poolside. By falling leaves, apple daisies and lavendarpicking, and bonfire crackles in the crisp night air. By chilled still bare tree-patterns against stormy skies and the hush of fresh-fallen snow. And by robins digging, creeks trickling, and buds bursting while rain pitter-patters on the window. They’ve taught me to watch, listen, and expect beauty at every turn.

I am formed by family time on the olive green couches. Guitar strumming, scripture reading, hearts singing, quiet praying time — inconsistent, but forming just the same. We’ve sought to listen to each other and to God. Together. Sometimes questions go unanswered, but we ask them anyway. Our belief in the One who knows all is strengthened in the asking.

I am formed by hospital beds and emergency rooms, by disease and unknowing. Struggles not just with tight budgets and traffic jams, but with temptations and tempers and immune systems. I have grabbed hold of Hoosier grit. It tells me that keeping on is better than giving up. And that friends who stand with you in the darkness love to celebrate with you in the light.

And I am formed by my partner in life. Marriage has taught me about giving and receiving Hand Holdingand how to be true. My dear one has loved me well and patiently listened while I railed against the hand of the One who loves us best. He stands beside me, stands up for me, stands to protect me, and stands with me in the place we’ve made home. His strength has softened me, and his softness shows me that loud and quick are not necessarily the only way to get something done.

Oh Indiana, I’ve still yet to mention homeschool co-ops and history clubs and milk runs to Rockville. Dunes camping, summer projects, tour buses, farmer’s markets, and state fairs are all part of life that has become mine. How you’ve changed me. How you’ve taught me. How you’ve welcomed this California transplant and encouraged her to grow.

Thank you.

fall trailside

A Touch

I woke up this morning thinking of the Widow of Nain.

Cemetery Statue

As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out—the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her.  When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.”

Then he went up and touched the bier they were carrying him on, and the bearers stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.  Luke 7:12-15

Jesus doesn’t shy away from the wailing and the grieving.  He perceives the hopelessness and breaks in.  Not concerned with propriety, he stops the funeral procession mid-step. He sees what’s  broken and sets it right.

He knows… a mother shouldn’t have to bury her son.

… … …

A little over a week ago, my friend’s son took his own life. Today is his 15th birthday.

And every time I think of my friend, my heart breaks. Somehow the darkness became so dark, her son didn’t see any other options.  For the rest of their lives, my friend, her husband, and their other children will have an indelible blot on their stories… a pain to share that words fail.

So when I think of the widow of Nain and how Jesus touched her, I think, “Sure.  Jesus brought her son back to life.  It’s easy to believe he’s good.  Easy to believe he’s the Son of God.  Easy to follow him after something like that. ”

But my friend’s son… he’s not coming back.  Somehow, the Destroyer got ahold of his mind and convinced him that there are some things that Jesus can’t touch, can’t redeem.  He took the pen and wrote the ending to his story, “There’s no hope. Period.”

Does Jesus still have a touch in the midst this kind of pain?  When questions swarm unanswered, does Jesus still step in and set things right?  Will they ever “be right” again?

I don’t know.  Some things simply lay beyond my understanding — sad things and glorious things.

But, I do know that when questions scream beyond reason, or when I feel like I’m breaking at the seams, the cross stands firm.  The unshakeable act of Jesus Christ dying on a wooden cross to pay for my sin shines true in the darkest night.  He saw this grief.  He saw these tears.  He saw these questions and went to the cross with them in mind.

There are answers at the cross, because there’s love at the cross. Love that reaches beyond the this-is-not-what-we-were-created-for pain of death.  Love for the grieving, and the hopeless, and the lost.

heavens

Have you felt the touch of Jesus at the cross?

 

cemetery statue photo: © Ladykassie | Dreamstime Stock Photos &Stock Free Images

Why wait?

 

When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately.  I must stay in your house today.”  Luke 19:5

I remember waiting for the bus to take me to ballet class.  Mom taught piano lessons after school, and I wanted to dance.  So, even though I was 13 or 14, I took the bus.

Shiny cars zoomed by as I sat on the bench alongside Whittier Blvd.  Every one moved with direction and purpose, the traffic thick with exhaust fumes and rattling mufflers.  I seemed to be the only one waiting.

Of course, if I wanted to catch the bus, I had to get there before it arrived.  The bus driver wouldn’t wait for me.  He didn’t know I would be there.  He would just pass by the spot if the bench was empty.

Waiting for him was the only way to be sure that I’d be there when he got to the bus stop.

So, with bag of toe shoes and leg warmers in hand, eager not to miss him, I’d wait.  And even though everyone else around me hurried by, I knew that to get where I wanted to go, I’d wait.  Waiting wasn’t fun, but dancing was.  The hope of dancing was worth the wait.

How like Zaccheaus.

Zaccheaus knew what he wanted.  He wanted to see who Jesus was.  He was curious. He wanted a glimpse.

But, his height, or lack of it, hindered him.  So he ran ahead to a tree along the road, scrambled up and waited.  He waited for who he knew was coming.  He got way more than he expected.

First, he did get to see Jesus. From his tree branch, he had a clear view over the heads of the crowd. That was all he wanted — curiosity satisfied.  But, then he also got Jesus’ attention.  At that spot, Jesus looked at him and called him by name and invited himself to dinner.

From then on, Zaccheaus needed more than just his curiosity satisfied.  He needed his soul satisfied.  Jesus would turn Zach’s world upside down, inside out, forever changed.

All from waiting alongside the road Jesus was taking.

I want to wait like that… expectant.

Instead impatient because it seems answers are taking too long.  Instead of anxious because I wonder if God remembers us.  Instead of fearful because what Jesus asks of us might be hard.

I want to wait knowing that whatever God has planned for us will be way better than what we’re hoping for, way more than what we expected.

There’s a spot.  A place where Jesus will look at me and call me by name and invite me to feast.  And if I’m not willing to wait, I might miss him when he passes by.

So maybe waiting is less about biding my time and more about positioning myself to see Jesus.

Thanks, Zaccheaus.  I’ll take that.

 

What’s in a Name?

The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means “God with us.”  Matthew 1:23

 

The prophet long ago delivered a wild prediction — a virgin giving birth.  And an even wilder promise — God is with us.

What about the circumstances of a virgin bearing a child requires a name like Immanuel, God with us?

The promised nearness of God… God approaches the pure and innocent.  “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”  The untainted, unjaded, unscathed heart welcomes God, believes the hope of “God with us.”  God has not abandoned us.  He is near.

freestockphotos.com

But history passed thousands of years from the time Isaiah uttered those words to the day God fulfilled them.  The people waited, hoped, longed for the one who would come and ransom them from their captors.

And they didn’t always wait well.  They grumbled.  They succumbed to outside pressures and forsook the calling to be God’s people.  In their waiting they grew impatient, they wandered, and became enslaved.

I’m know something about waiting.  Having been pregnant three glorious times, I know the build of anticipation, the hopes and fears of all the months of changing body and growing life within.  I know the thrill of birth, the joy of the actual arrival… and the new set of hopes and fears that come with the bundle of energy called “baby.”  Immanuel showed himself each time; God was with us.  He is still with us providing the wisdom and patience to see these boys into men.

But the waiting I’m learning about now won’t culminate in a new little boy to love and care for.  It’s a different kind of waiting with new anxieties and fears.  It’s a waiting for direction, clarity, a path to be revealed that is good and honors God’s call on our lives.  So far, Immanuel has been silent.

What if we get to the end of this year in Orlando and Immanuel has stayed silent and the path elusive?  What if we come to the end of this journey without clear direction as to what’s next? What then?

I guess we can take a cue from the way Mary and Joseph handled the challenge of being the couple God selected to fulfill this wild prophesy.  Notice the pronoun — “they named him Immanuel.”

Even in the prediction, God promised the unity of mind that the couple would need as they found themselves in the midst of God’s plan.  They would need to rely on each other as they walked the difficult road ahead of them.  And they would need the promise of His presence.  “God with us” — we are not alone.

O Father, as you reveal your plan to us, as we wait with expectation, give us the fatih to walk in obedience, hand in hand.

Thank you for the promise wrapped in your name, Immanuel.

Displeasing the Lord

“In the spring, in the time when kings go off to war… David remained in Jerusalem.”  (2 Samuel 11:1)

So begins the tragic downfall of Israel’s king.  This chapter pains me in the reading.  David becomes the bad-guy.  He’s no longer the victim of a deranged King Saul’s wild jealousy.  He’s no longer the courageous leader of a band of misfits.  And, he’s no longer the whole-hearted worshipper of a holy God.

Here, he be becomes restless, greedy, lustful, adulterous, deceiving, and murderous.  How is it that those words describe the man God has chosen to shepherd His people?  But they do.  The Bible doesn’t hold back the ugliness of David’s failure.

How is this God’s plan?  Did God really write this part of David’s story?  And what about Bathsheba’s story, and Uriah’s, and the baby’s?

Even though the future holds contrition and repentance and forgiveness for David, this stain never completely disappears from his family.  David does come to know the mercy and grace of the Lord in a deeply personal way, but tragedy still threads the storyline.

There is no “happily-ever-after” for David and Bathsheba.

I wish scripture included more on Bathsheba.  We know her beauty tempted the king.  We know she came to him and slept with him — willingly?  We have no record of her reluctance, only of the fact of her conceiving.

We don’t even know if she knew about David bringing Uriah home from the front lines to give him an opportunity to sleep with his wife — an opportunity Uriah valiantly forsook.

Did she suspect David’s involvement in the death of her husband?  Did she know that David had plots of murder within him?  Did David even know it of himself?

Bathsheba mourns Uriah’s death even as she carries the murdering king’s child.  What internal conflict must she also carry?  Did her friends know of her distress?  As they mourned and wailed with her over the death of her faithful and upright husband, did they know of her secret liaison with the king?

When David brings her into the palace to be his wife, was the reunion marked with joy or tension?  Did she distrust him?  How could she not?  Did she love him?  Could she love him? Did she embrace the sick child she bore David, or did she shun him as a blatant reminder of their sin?

The chapter ends with this terse observation:

“But the thing David had done displeased the Lord.”

(2 Samuel 11:27)

 

 

The statement echoes in my heart and leaves me wondering, how far will God let me go in my sin before he brings the conviction that leads me to repentance?

Thank heaven that I can never stray so far that his mercy can’t reach me.

Oh God, keep me near you, never straying, ever nearer to You.

Do you know…

…you’re beautiful?  Do you know that you were put together with precision and care?  Do you know that the Creator of the Universe takes absolute delight in just thinking of you?

You wonder how I know.

I know because God saves the best for last.

At the beginning of time, when God started speaking this amazing world into existence, he pulled water molecules together and made “ocean” — teeming with manatees and clown fish and sea coral — he said, “It is good.”

 

 

And when he stretched out majestic Rocky Mountains, made towering Sequoias touch the sky, and painted the nuances of orange day lilies, he said, “It is good.”

 

 

 

And even when he launched Mars, Venus, Neptune, and Saturn into space and speckled the sky with stars and galaxies far beyond our comprehension, even then, he said, “It is good.”

But before he was finished, when God wanted to crown all the good things he had created, to add the piece de resistance, he reached down into soil and created human — the one God image-bearer.  He touched and moulded and pulled and shaped the first human body into existence.   Then, to add the spark, God breathed into human’s nostrils and oxygen filled lungs, blood flowed in veins, consciousness infused brain matter. (Gen. 2:7)

So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

And God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. (Gen. 1:27, 31)

 

So from here you may still be wondering, “Ok, Julie, so God was pleased with the first man and woman he made.  But they messed up big time.  They rejected God’s plan and got entangled in sin.  And ever since then, men and women have been making a huge mess of this amazing world God made.  How does that make me beautiful?”

One question.  Of all that God created, which piece did he choose to rescue?  For which bit of creation did God choose to die?  To which segment did God offer eternal life? (Ok, so that was 3 questions.)

You.  He rescued you.  He died for you.  He offers real life to you.

So, that’s how I know you are beautiful.  Because the Creator of the grand canyons and lady bugs looked at you and said, “She’s worth it.  Yes, she’s made mistakes and she is sometimes a little selfish or impatient (ok, maybe more than “a little.”)  But she’s mine.  I don’t want to live without her.  I’m dying to have her near me.”

He didn’t do that for rocks and rivers, no matter how spectacular.

So, the next time the beauty of a sunrise takes your breath away.  Or the next time you are taken in by the intricate pattern of a butterfly’s wing, or enraptured by the nuzzle of puppy… remember.  In your Father’s eyes, nothing else in all of creation holds a candle to you.  Nothing.  He’s crazy about you.

He thinks you’re beautiful.

So you are.

Period.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

I’m learning the power of writing in community.  Check out this amazing post about diving in deep to face our fears from my new blogging friend, Jennifer Dukes Lee at Getting Down with Jesus.

 

The Gaze of Trust

We met with a new doctor for Benjamin in Orlando last week.  Like others in her profession, she sees the disease, huge, foreboding. We see it as reality, but not defining.  Ulcerative colitis isn’t a period at the end of a life sentence for Benjamin.  It’s providing context for his story… and mine.

I’m drawn to the words of my story, to get them out.  So, here are bits of my journal, my honest heart before the Lord of mercy.  I pray you find a piece of your story as I share reflections on mine.

____________________

November 6, 2011

God, I need more of you.  

I need to see you, to adore you here, in the unknowing.  I don’t really know anything accept that I am afraid.

Afraid B’s not going to get well.  Afraid of him bleeding.  Afraid of the long, slow road of healing.  Afraid of harsh medicines that don’t heal the problem, only arrest the symptoms.  My fears pile up waiting for you to address and consume them.

How can I be so fearful?

Is this what lack of control feels like? Sleepless nights with stomach in knots, mind racing, weight on my chest.  Anxiety, God, is what this is.

Where is your peace?

I need to know what to do today.  How to help him today.  I wish my hugs could make him better.  I wish homemade chicken soup was all he needed.  Every day he’s not better, honestly, I feel like I am failing him.

How could he be so ill on my watch?

When he was a baby and having trouble sleeping, I would let him cry it out, and I would cry outside the door, hating to hear him struggle, but knowing he needed to learn how to sleep on his own.  It wrenched my heart and I asked you then what you were trying to teach me, through his struggle.  I didn’t get it then — or now.
Trust me.
I want to trust you.  I thought I was.  I am… I only want to do what you say.  But, you’re silent.  Where is the way to walk?  I’ll walk there.  I just don’t know where…
___________________
November 11, 2011
In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him.  Yet at present, we do not see everything subject to him.  But we see Jesus…                                                       Hebrews 2:8-9
I want to be subject to Jesus.  I want my life to reflect his glory.  I want to live in humble obedience to him.  That’s the only way life makes sense.
I’m definitely not experiencing “everything” subject to me!  My world has twisted completely out of control.  What I thought I knew about health and my ability to produce it seems shallow and vain in the shadow of B’s illness.  And, yet, this passage seems to be saying that seeing Jesus sets things right, in order.
Oh Jesus, you are my everything.  Really, there is nothing else to hold on to.  Health is fleeting.  Money runs out.  Possessions rust.  People disappoint… and die. Fill up my vision.  Be what I see.  Be my hands and feet, pointing others around me to you.

Bringing him to Jesus

On Sundays I try to slow down, reflect a bit on on the week, plan for the next.  This morning, while the apartment is quiet and the ticking clock on the wall accompanies my thoughts, I thought I’d share a bit more of our journey with Benjamin’s health.

We’ve come a long way from this spot last year… a point to celebrate, really.  But, the questions are still there, and we are still waiting…

_____________________

November 12, 2011

“Some men came, bringing to him a paralytic, carried by four of them.  Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus, and after digging through it, lowered the mat the paralyzed man was lying on.  When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven… I tell you, get up, take up your mat, and go home!”  Mark 2:3-11

I’m always amazed when I read this passage at Jesus’ response to the faith of the men on behalf of their injured friend.  I wonder if the men were disappointed at first that Jesus only said, “Your sins are forgiven.”

They were expecting healing.

I wonder if the man was healed at that point, only didn’t know it.  How did his legs grow strong enough for him to stand?  Was there a physical change?

Did the paralytic also have faith?

So, then I wonder, is this sickness Benjamin is experiencing a matter of faith?  Do we not have enough?  Have we not prayed enough?  Isn’t healing still available?

I know God isn’t a magic genie.  I know He doesn’t hold out answering our prayers for when we have jumped through enough hoops.  His ways are his own.  Mysterious.  Good.

I know that.

Benjamin’s condition just makes me sad right now… so sad.  There is a death, a mourning over the loss of good health.  The future seems cloudy and unsure.  But, I do believe that God’s ways are best.

Just because His ways aren’t mine doesn’t mean they aren’t good.

photo: www.weekendwordsmith.blogspot.com

Maybe we’re still digging through the rooftop to bring him to Jesus.  Maybe there is still work God is doing elsewhere in us that is keeping the healing at bay.  I want the same kind of faith those friends had…

… A faith that’s not content to let the crowds get between my son and Jesus.  He needs a touch from the only One who truly brings healing.

 

Father, do in me what needs to be done so we can hear you say, “My son, get up, take up your mat, and go home!”