Forced Faith

My second son’s birth was difficult. Due to an awful experience with the epidural for my first son, Joshua, I opted out of the procedure for my second son. Joshua was 7lbs. 13oz. and, convinced by the doctor this sweet baby boy would be about the same, I figured I could manage the pain. As it turned out, the doctor was slightly off on his estimate. Two pounds off to be exact. Nathan was 9lbs. 13oz., which equated to several hours of sheer misery. Much of the labor pain was in my back and I remember looking at my mom at one point and whimpering, “I can’t do this.” Without missing a beat, she looked straight at me and responded, “You have to.”

Fast forward to last month. Nathan had been floundering in middle school since his first day last August. He struggled, without success, to fit in and acclimate to the student culture he encountered every day. But over the course of seven months, it became apparent that it just wasn’t working. He was bullied relentlessly and called “nerd” or “geek” nearly every day. Needless to say, it wore on him. Slowly but surely, it whittled down his spirit and bruised his heart. Finally, when the bullying turned to threats one day, we made the difficult decision to pull him out of school and homeschool him.

When people around me got wind of our decision, I heard words like “brave” and “courageous.” I was routinely told how impressed people were by my boldness. But the truth is, I wasn’t feeling brave. I’m still not. I simply did what was necessary for my child. If I was truly honest, I’ve never had any aspirations to be a homeschool mom and I still don’t. I don’t have a fire or passion for it. But what I do have a fire and passion for is my son, and in that moment, that was enough.

As I walked out of the middle school that day, terrified of the reality I had just created, I whispered in my heart, “I can’t do this.” Immediately came the words I had heard once before, some 11 years ago; this time, however, they were uttered by my Heavenly Father. “You have to.”

There is another mother who must’ve no doubt wrestled with an exponentially more heart-wrenching decision. Exodus 2 tells us that a Levite woman conceived and gave birth to a son during a time when every Hebrew baby boy was being sentenced to death by a jealous and fearful pharaoh. So that woman hid her son for three months. But according to verse 3, “when she could hide him no longer, she took for him a basket … and put the child in it and placed it among the reeds by the river bank.”

I can only imagine the agony she would’ve experienced as she knelt by the water’s edge and gently placed her infant son in a basket, not knowing what would become of him. I picture her, head lowered, tears streaming down her face, uttering the same words I did to a God she prayed was listening. “I can’t do this.” But somehow, perhaps hearing the same “You have to” that I heard, she pushed Moses into the river and into the hands of God.

I think we would all agree that Moses’ mother personified bravery like few others. Being a mother myself, the act of releasing your child with no guarantee of their safety or even survival, seems inconceivable and would require an unimaginable level of courage. And yet, I imagine that if we were able to have a conversation with her, Moses’ mother would dismiss our accolades and praise. She would insist that she simply held onto her faith in God with a death grip and did what was necessary. The truth is that to keep Moses in her home meant certain death. Her only chance to save him was to release him.

As the story goes, her faith not only saved Moses, but also made quite the impression on generations to come.

Scripture doesn’t tell us much about Moses’ mother. We learn a few chapters later, amidst a lengthy genealogical account, that her name was Jochebed. She was Moses’ father’s sister and she also bore at least one other son, Aaron, and a daughter, Miriam. But generally, that is the end of her story. And yet, centuries later, the author of Hebrews felt led to include her in a list of the greatest faith heroes of the Old Testament. Sandwiched between tributes to Joseph and Moses, there is a beautiful, straight-forward verse extolling Moses’ parents for their faith.

 

“By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.”

Hebrews 11:23

I doubt that Jochebed set out to be a hero of faith. I’m sure, wading in the Nile River, kissing her son’s forehead for what she thought would be the last time, she simply longed for her child to be okay. Her entire world was floating in that basket and, like any mother, she must’ve wanted nothing more than to keep him from harm.

I don’t know about you, but I find that often times my faith is forced. As was the case with my son, I had no choice but to put my faith in God. Out of alternatives and fearing for Nathan’s emotional safety and security, faith in God became my only option.

Sometimes, faith is a conscious choice. There are situations where we stand before a fork in the road and we can either follow God or follow our own inclinations. And other times, God pushes us to the very edge of a cliff and all we can do is jump. Standing before an infinite abyss, we cry out to God, “I can’t do this.” But knowing there is no going back, the Father whispers to our soul, “You have to.” And gathering any courage we have, no matter how little, we close our eyes and leap.

In those moments, I have found that every single time God brings me to that place, one of three things happens: God catches me, He reveals a bridge, or He gives me wings. You’d think by now that I wouldn’t be surprised by God’s provision and yet, in my smallness and humanity, I am continually humbled and amazed by the lengths God will go to in order to save me.

I don’t know what this next season with Nathan will bring. I am uncertain and want nothing more than an assurance that my child will be okay. I feel ill-equipped and unable. But thankfully, similar to Jochebed, I have just enough faith to leap. Just enough faith to wade into the river and trust that God will provide the right current to take us where we need to go.

Finding Rest

I am going through a study about King David and this morning, I sat down to read the first half of 2 Samuel chapter 7. I couldn’t get past the first verse. I tried but I just kept coming back to it. “Now when the king lived in his house and the Lord had given him rest from all his surrounding enemies…” It stopped me dead in my tracks. Did you catch it? “…rest from all his surrounding enemies…”

Do you need rest today from your surrounding enemies?  I sure do.  My husband does. My children do. So do my extended family and best friend. We all do.  Our enemies are relentless, aren’t they?

I don’t know about you, but this time of year, I find that my enemies are stronger, more persistent, less forgiving. The irony is that during the advent, I somehow believe that my enemies should be more manageable and farther away. After all, my heart is softer, my faith burns strong and bright and my spirit seems lighter as I raise my awareness of the birth of my Savior. But no such luck.  As busyness crowds my days and I try desperately to cram as many moments into every hour that I can, my enemies circle, ready to strike.

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I’ve also realized that my enemies this season are so much different than those I encounter the rest of the year.  Every December, what used to be just a mall becomes a new and nearly impossible battlefield.  Merely walking through the doors, I encounter an endless onslaught of foes, ranging from greed and temptation to impatience and discontent. I visit friends’ houses, see their flawless holiday decorations and jealousy silently sidles up to me and whispers in my ear lies about my inadequacy. I hear about Christmas gatherings I wasn’t invited to and a heavy coat of rejection appears comfortably on my shoulders.

I could definitely use rest from all of that.

And those are just the invisible enemies. There is a whole list of adversaries that are so much more visible and difficult to disguise.  Divorce, death, financial hardship, depression, wayward children and innumerable other sorrows. Trying to navigate the holidays with such crushing burdens feels like going to war every morning.

In the New Testament, Jesus invites us “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” In both the Old Testament and New Testament verses mentioned here, the word rest has the same meaning: to take ease, to refresh, to cease, to be quiet.  Can you imagine what it might be like to truly rest today, tomorrow, this week, this month? To be quiet in the midst of all the noise filling our lives?

Jesus came to give us rest, to refresh us, to quiet our spirits and our hearts. 

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I have several nativity scenes around my house. Thinking about each one and visualizing all the key players in the scene, not one of them looks frazzled or frightened. Granted, they are figurines and therefore products of human minds and hands. But still, we all take for granted that on that one night, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, they all rested.  They ceased their own chaos and they were quiet. Two years later, the wise men left whatever business they were attending to, fled their impending enemy King Herod, and searched for the one who would bring them rest. They chose to pursue the giver of rest at any cost.

Do we pursue rest at any price? Do we intentionally say no to the unceasing string of demands and to-do’s and choose quietness? Do we take time to be refreshed, to take ease? We need to. We desperately need to. Our enemies are numerous and ruthless.

This morning, I am praying for rest from my surrounding enemies. I am requesting the Lord grant me what I so badly need but often forget to ask for. As my husband is away, working to provide for our family, I am praying that he receives rest from his surrounding enemies. As my children walk the halls in their schools, I am praying that they find rest from the enemies who wish to destroy their gentle hearts. I am petitioning for my friends and family as enemies lurk around every corner.

Holy God, give us rest from our surrounding enemies. Help us cease. Refresh us. Deliver us from the daily foes of demand and hardship. Remind us to be a shepherd, to rest from our toiling and visit the manger. Grant us focus like Mary and Joseph and let us be consumed with only you. Rain on us wisdom like the wise men, forethought to cease our daily laboring and vision to see what is most important. As we draw near to the manger, hold our enemies at bay and grant us rest.

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Fight Club with David

One of my children struggles with depression and it is heart wrenching. It is heart wrenching to see a cloud of sadness envelop him more often than it should. It is heart wrenching when I hear him tell me that nearly every day is hard for him. And it was heart wrenching last night when I found a note on his door conveying heavy thoughts and emotions.

I sat on the stairs after I found that note and wept. For what felt like an eternity. I wept because it’s unfair that at such a young age he should have this impossible battle laid out before him. Not even a teenager and the deck already seems stacked against him. Most likely, he will fight against this his entire life.

I want to fight it for him. I would gladly shoulder it and free him of the weight, if only life worked that way. But sitting on the stairs, all I could do was cry out to God in anguish and desperation.  I bartered, I begged, I pleaded, I threatened.  Finally, when I was empty and dry, I quietly whispered, “I just can’t fight this. This demon is bigger than him and it is bigger than me.” Immediately, God whispered a response.  “But it is not bigger than Me.” 

Suddenly, like a flood, the dam broke and tears turned into rivers streaming down my face.  My head in my hands, I shook and heaved with a perplexing combination of fear and faith. Fear that this demon would never truly relent.  Faith that God would provide and protect.

In that moment, the familiar story of David and Goliath, found in 1 Samuel 17, came to mind.  While I’ve read it, heard it and told it more times than I can count, last night it brought much needed revelation and comfort.  On a Tuesday night at 10:49, sweet, strong David came to my rescue and reminded me how to fight.

Lesson 1: Reduce your giant to what you know.

In 1 Samuel 17:36, trying to convince King Saul of his ability, David reminds the king that “Your servant has struck down both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them…”

David had never killed a Philistine.  In fact, he had most likely never killed any man. But just because he hadn’t engaged this particular enemy before didn’t mean he wasn’t able. In a remarkable moment of clarity and wisdom, David was able to view his present battle through the lens of his past victories. He drew confidence for the impending conflict by likening the foe before him to the ones God had already helped him defeat.

We can do the same thing.  We should do the same thing.  While I have not battled childhood depression before, there is a long list of other enemies God has faithfully helped me engage and defeat.  Parental divorce, multiple miscarriages, countless moves, financial hardship, just to name a few.  And at the other end of every one of those struggles there is a glorious portrait of God’s provision and victory.  This enemy may be new, but my God is not.  He is the same God that won my last war.  He is the same God who delivered me time and time again.

Lesson 2: Remember the equation.

After receiving a nasty insult from Goliath, in verse 45, David responds.  “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel…”

I love this verse. It has such power, such promise, such perfection. While our enemies don’t come at us with swords, spears or javelins, they still come at us fast and furious. And although the vehicles and methods of attack are different, their inability to outperform God is the same. Everything we are fighting simply fails and falters in His presence.

“You come to me with…”  Fill in the blank. Death, divorce, addiction, depression, bankruptcy, and a thousand more enemies. They all lose power when they come against the name of the Lord. It doesn’t matter what the components are; the equation never changes. God’s power will always be greater than whatever we are facing. It’s simple, brilliant math every single time. Our foes are less than; our God is more than.

Lesson 3: Reach for the right weapon.

I have imagined countless times young David kneeling at the river choosing his stones. I have visualized the way the stones, in the right hands, triumphed against a giant. This truth is beautifully summed up in verse 50.

“So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and struck the Philistine and killed him. There was no sword in the hand of David.”

Rereading this verse, the second sentence seemed new and compelling in a way I hadn’t noticed before.  “There was no sword in the hand of David.” It’s as if the author wanted to be sure we didn’t miss that. He wanted to be certain that we understood that David’s only weapons against an inconceivable opponent were a sling and a handful of stones.

The truth in this is that we don’t need swords in our own hands.  We need stones in God’s hands. How often do we reach for a sword with our own strength when all that’s required for the job is a few rocks with God’s strength? We tend to believe that the size of the fight should determine the size of our arsenal.  A bigger enemy calls for a bigger sword.  When in fact, a bigger enemy calls for a bigger God. Graciously, they don’t get any bigger than our God.

David knew what was before him.  He knew its potential to destroy.  He also knew his God and used what he knew to become the hero in one of the greatest underdog stories of all time.

So bring your stones. Bring a few pebbles, for that matter. The weapon isn’t important.  Either is the enemy. The field of battle doesn’t matter nor what it looks like. What matters is the victor. What matters is that the battle is the Lord’s. It is His to fight and His to win. Our stories are not yet finished. My son’s story is not yet finished. Although today it may appear that there is so much against him, the glorious truth is that God is for him and therefore, victory is certain.

“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?”

Romans 8:31

Circles of Strength

Several years ago, a good friend and I set out to bake and decorate a three-tier wedding cake for a mutual friend. The baking went off without a hitch. The decorating, however, ushered in a few glitches, primarily when it came to the stacking of the layers. We put the bottom tier on the cake board, positioning it just so and then proceeded to set the second layer on top. Mission accomplished! Or so it would seem.

As we moved on to the third layer, we noticed the second tier was sinking ever so slightly into the base layer. Not to be deterred or discouraged, we continued. In fact, we were so confident in our ability that I actually flippantly asked my friend, “How much lower can it sink?” It wasn’t long before we had an answer. Much lower. Much, much lower.  It was now 1:00 in the morning the night before the ceremony and we had a sinking wedding cake on our hands.

As we surveyed the situation, we realized quickly that our confection creation needed some serious support. We even wondered if such a thing existed in the bakery supply industry. With little time for deliberation however, we sent my friend’s husband to the basement where he cut some dowels and jerry-rigged some platforms to hold up the cake layers. It worked. In a pinch.

A couple days later, I received a call from my baking co-conspirator. She informed me that she had been to the cake supply store and they did indeed make a product to stabilize and support multi-tiered cakes. The product was called “Circles of Strength”.  The irony of the name was not lost on us.

Fast-forward many years to last Monday. I ran into a new friend in the grocery store and we began chatting about school, and eventually about kids. Over the next few minutes, the friend revealed to me that both of her children were playing multiple sports and excelling at all of them. Her daughter had been personally contacted and recruited for a high-level team, while her son was making considerable strides in his athletic endeavors as well. As I listened to her legitimately proud diatribe on her children’s successes, I sank a bit. You see, we don’t produce stellar athletes in the Herring house. When it comes to sports performance we are smack dab in the middle of the average category. While our kids can kick a ball and swing a bat, there are certainly no phenoms in this household.

I’ll admit that hearing about other kids’ trophy worthy performances stings a bit. Okay, it stings a lot. It leaves me feeling less than. Furthermore, it finds me reaching for other levels of competition that I can retaliate with. As others boast about their son’s baseball championship, I access my own arsenal and retaliate with my son’s academic excellence.

But I wonder, when I mentioned Josh’s aptitude for math, did my friend sink a bit? I wonder, as we walked away from the conversation, if we both felt a little lower. If we were both wrestling with feelings of inadequacy and inferiority.

“We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.”

Romans 15:1-2

The Greek word Paul uses for “build up” is oikodome and literally refers to the base or support of a building, such as a house. Or perhaps a cake. While I realize that cake decorating was a nonexistent hobby in Paul’s time, I’m pretty sure that he was telling all of us to be Circles of Strength. Much like I needed Circles of Strength to support my sinking cake, as mothers we need Circles of Strength to support our sinking spirits. When our children are failing or struggling, we need Circles of Strength to rally around us. When our choices are difficult and our paths unclear, we need Circles of Strength to provide direction and vision. When we feel inadequate, we need Circles of Strength to remind us that we are all in this together.

What if all moms adopted this approach? What if we rallied together to become Circles of Strength? What if we met in grocery stores and preschools, at soccer games and school assemblies and had different conversations? What if instead of starting each interaction with “My child”, we asked about your child? What if after each bragging right, we were required to exercise vulnerability and disclose something not quite as glossy about our child or ourselves? What if, when asked how our kids are doing, we responded honestly and openly? And what if we looked for ways to rescue the ones who are sinking?

I want to be a Circle of Strength to the moms in my world. If you’re a mom who can’t make a cake to save her life, let me be a Circle of Strength and rave about the way you use your time to play games with your son. If you’re a mom whose kids don’t even know what a homerun is, allow me to be a Circle of Strength and celebrate your child’s perfect score on the Science test. If you’re a mom whose daughter didn’t make the cheerleading squad or school play, I will be delighted to be your Circle of Strength and marvel at that same daughter’s gentle spirit and kind heart. And if you’re a mom whose home looks more like a page from the Toys R’ Us catalog than a Better Homes and Garden spread, allow me the privilege of being your Circle of Strength and cheering you on in your unwavering commitment to your children.

As moms, we need to work together to encircle each other and celebrate the victories that really count. There are always opportunities to elevate ourselves, but those opportunities usually leave some spirits sinking on the sidelines. Instead, God calls us to build each other up.  He calls us to “bear with the failings of the weak.”  He calls us to support one another, to please one another, to love one another. He calls us to be Circles of Strength.

Loving the Limp

One day in the car, when my now adolescent boys were much younger, we posed a silly question just to see how they would respond.  We asked each of them, “Are you a lover or a fighter?”  My oldest son, with a sweet smile on his face, replied, “I’m a lover.”  Turning to my younger son, we heard him declare emphatically, with fire in his eyes, “I’m a fighter.”  At the time, my husband and I laughed knowingly since even at the young age of 3, he had already demonstrated just how much of a fighter he was.

The truth is, he comes by it honestly.  I am also a fighter.  I rarely accept things at face value and fight hard against stereotypes and assumptions.  I take a stand on social issues and approach obstacles with relentless tenacity.  I fight for what I want.  I fight for what I believe.  I fight for my family and my friends.  I fight when I feel cornered or threatened.  I am a fighter.

My fighting nature also shows up in my faith.  Over the years, I have consistently grappled with Biblical truths and principals, often getting angry with God and putting up my fists.  Trusting Him is difficult for me and usually only comes when I am exhausted from struggling against His will.  I find that the hardest, but most important lessons I’ve learned often come at a great price.  I don’t learn easily or quickly and I find that nearly every hurdle I clear in my faith follows a long season of wrestling with God.

For this reason, I feel a bit of a kindred spirit with Jacob.  In Genesis 32, Jacob sends his wives and children ahead of him on their journey and he remains behind.  That night, “a man wrestled with him until the breaking of day.”  As the night unfolds, it turns out that Jacob is quite a fighter.  The struggle doesn’t end until the man touches Jacob’s hip socket, putting it out of joint.  Realizing he’s beaten, yet refusing to relent, he demands a blessing from the man.  It’s then revealed that the man is God, who in turn blesses Jacob and renames him Israel.

When dawn breaks, Jacob continues with his journey, however, he now walks with a limp.  When I’ve considered this outcome in the past, I’ve viewed the limp as a hindrance, a punishment, a nasty side effect of the evening’s events.  However, lately I’ve seen the gracious blessing in the limp.

If we think of it from a medical or physiological perspective, the limp indicates that something didn’t heal properly or fully.  When someone breaks a bone, sprains an ankle or pulls a muscle, the goal of the physician is to completely restore the wounded area to full use.  Healing is declared when we are “as good as new”, when the affected limb functions as well as it did prior to the damage.  The crutches only go away when the leg is 100%, when it can bear the full weight of the person.  The goal of physical healing is complete restoration with no residual pain or discomfort, as if the injury never occurred at all.

And yet, spiritually, I believe that a limp is exactly what we should want after we’ve wrestled with God.  I find that when I do battle with my Father, when I go to the mattress pitting my will against His, there is only resolution and restoration when I come away utterly different than when I began the struggle.  In other words, I don’t want to be restored to my previous condition.  I don’t want my heart returned to its innate human nature.  I want to be changed.  I should be changed.  I need to be changed.  In the midst of the fight, God’s “injury” should leave me transformed with little resemblance to my prior appearance.  I should be walking with a limp.  Furthermore, that limp should remind me every day, every moment, that I wrestled with my God and because of that I am a new creation.  Because He touched me, because He chipped away, no matter how painfully, at my humanness, there is less of me and more of Him.

I wonder if Jacob was grateful for his limp.  I wonder if every uncomfortable step was a glorious reminder of the evening his God blessed him with a new identity.  I wonder if he lay in bed at night favoring his injured hip, recalling the magnificent dawn that broke after the Great Physician had His way with not only his body, but his heart as well.

There’s no doubt about it.  Being a fighter is tough business.  If all my wrestling with God were actually to present physically I might be in a full body cast.  But I can’t imagine not fighting.  I can’t imagine missing out on the blessings that inevitably come to me after the struggle.  I wouldn’t trade the pain for the magnificent glimpses I get in the midst of it all.  I will continue to fight.  It’s in my very nature.  And after every conflict I will limp.  But I will also be limping along a little closer to God.

 

 

Good

Being a mom is hard. I encounter nonstop comparison and competition from every direction. From blogs telling me the best way to feed my kids to books instructing me on how to raise them, there is no shortage of guilt inducing materials. Facebook posts remind me how someone else did it better and all sorts of mothering propaganda tells me that, in one way or another, I’m falling short.

Parenting my middle child is an area that frequently leaves me feeling inadequate. He is a challenging child and we have had ongoing struggles for years, struggles that have gone largely unsolved. During these long, hard years, I have made mistakes and not always handled him with love and grace. There have been ugly moments when I have lashed out at him rather than his circumstances. Over time, these missteps have produced great sadness and guilt. Although I know that’s not the mark of a redeemed life, it is the curse of humanity and, especially of motherhood.

Fortunately, that’s not how God intended us to live. Instead, as He shapes and sharpens us, He whispers in our ears words of grace and healing. He acknowledges and celebrates each rough edge that becomes smooth, each harsh angle that becomes soft and each selfish inclination that takes a turn towards humility. I live for those whispers. They sustain me and move me forward. On days that I feel significantly less than, they remind me that He has made me more than. In the midst of self-condemnation, the whispers are the glorious instances when we have ears to hear and we believe and internalize the truths God sings over us.

Due to my son’s struggles, we are having to radically change his diet and it is hard. It is especially hard getting an 11 year-old to accept the sacrifice of his favorite foods. He hears “no” all day long and his choices are minimal. In spite of the difficulties, however, he has risen to the challenge with fortitude and determination that profoundly betray his youth.

That brings me to bedtime a few nights ago. As I tucked my son in bed, I praised him for how well he was handling the change. I remarked at his positive attitude and his resolve in sticking to the diet. A young man of few words, he simply nodded and smiled with a hint of pride behind his grin.

As I lay in bed that night, the whisper came quickly and softly. Reflecting on the exchange with my son, God simply said, “You did that. That resilience, that determination, that fortitude, he got that from you.” I turned that over in my mind and I could see the truth in it. For eight years, I have been pursuing answers relentlessly and fought tirelessly for solutions. I have tried nearly everything I came across and considered every piece of information, regardless of how small or seemingly insignificant. And all that time, my son has been watching.

Tears rolled down my cheeks as I realized the profound impact I had made on my child. The truth that such remarkable character in him could be the result of my example was both exhilarating and humbling. I basked in that concept for several minutes before the next whisper came. The words of Matthew 25:21 echoed in my ears as God’s gentle voice declared, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

In the New Testament, there are several Greek words used for “good”, however, there are two that dominate the text. The first is the word kalos, which means good or beautiful in the sense of being valuable or virtuous, primarily related to use. In other words, kalos can be translated as being beautiful or good for some external use. But the word used in Matthew 25:21 is agathos, which has a different meaning entirely. Agathos is an intrinsic or internal good. It is not good simply for use or value, but it is a penetrating, inherent good.

“Well done, good and faithful servant.” Not beautiful or useful servant, but good servant. What a glorious whisper. What a gracious truth. That God would call me good in the midst of all my humanness.

I suspect that God whispers such truth far more frequently than I recognize. I suspect that if I am still enough for long enough, God will not just quietly utter his grace, he will shout it. If I can quell the voices of the world, the words of comparison and inadequacy, I will no doubt hear the marvelous song of the creator echoing through every step of my journey. I will hear and know and believe that my God finds me good.

Blooming in Winter

Georgia weather is, above all else, unpredictable.  Particularly in the late winter and early spring, the temperature may fluctuate as much as 30 degrees from one day to the next.  While this irregularity takes a significant toll on my wardrobe choices, the bigger impact is on my emotional state and well-being.  By mid March, I am simply done with cold.  The allure of evening fires and hot chocolate has passed and I am enticed instead by the scent of barbeque and swimming pool chlorine.  But despite my hoping and wishing, winter maintains its grip as it holds spring defiantly at bay.

A certain plant in my front yard, however, refuses to let winter dictate its progress.  Just the other day, I glanced out my window and saw the hibiscus bush outside my kitchen displaying its first scarlet blooms.  38 degrees, damp and windy and yet that brazen plant had the wherewithal to unleash bright crimson flowers that had no business appearing in such weather.  Either ignorant or indifferent to the climate, it went right ahead and bloomed in winter.

Can we say the same?  Do we bloom in winter?  When our surroundings and circumstances are at their worst, do we display our best?  Do we disregard the temporary climate of our lives and choose to demonstrate beauty and grace?  Or do we instead allow the weather around us to influence and determine our countenance and attitude?  Personally, I find that while I want and intend to follow James example and “count it all joy when I meet trials”, I often choose to worry and complain.

The truth is, my winters are so mild.  God is so gracious and merciful to me and my trials are so small in the light of His provision.  I have been reading the Minor Prophets lately and if anyone had an excuse not to bloom in winter, they would be at the top of the list.  Take Habakkuk for example.  Habakkuk saw the great sin of his nation Israel and wondered at God’s inaction.  When he questioned God about it, the response only brought forth more inquisition and confusion.  God informed him that another nation, even more sinful and abhorrent, would be used as the tool to punish Israel.  For two chapters, Habakkuk and God converse regarding the impending capture and persecution of Israel.  No doubt Habakkuk must have wept and grieved over the conditions his people would be faced to endure.  He realized that a relentless, unforgiving, gripping winter was headed right towards him and the nation he loved.

Faced with the reality that was before him, Habakkuk had a choice.  Winter was upon him and his response hung in the balance.  And he bloomed.  He bloomed with life and love indescribable.

“Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s;
he makes me tread on my high places.”  Hab 3:17-19

 In verse 18, the word Habakkuk chooses to use for rejoice is guwl.  Hebrew is a very visual language, which for me makes the translation even more powerful.  It turns out that guwl means “to spin round (under the influence of any violent emotion such as joy or fear)”.  To spin round under the influence of joy.  Despite all that Habakkuk was inevitably going to endure, he surveyed his circumstances and chose to “spin round with joy” in the Lord.  If that’s not blooming in winter, I don’t know what is.  I love to think of Habakkuk (whose name means embrace by the way) on his knees after hearing what the Lord revealed to him.  I love to think of him feeling the chill in the air and hearing the roar of the wind as it grew ever nearer.  And then, I love to picture him standing up and spinning with joy before his God.  Spinning with joy because he knew God would be faithful, because he knew God would be righteous and he couldn’t contain his praise.

I want to be just like Habakkuk and my hibiscus bush.  I want to bloom in winter.  I want to brace myself for whatever I am enduring and choose to proceed with great beauty and worship.  I want to display grace and joy despite the situation.  I want those around me to declare that I have no business blooming in such difficult circumstances.  But most of all, I want to spin round with joy and proclaim that God is my strength and my salvation at all times and in every season.

Joseph and the Monkey Cave

I have been on a journey with my son for over seven years.  Since he was three years old, we have endured heart-wrenching struggles and difficulties.  We have fought for answers that never come.  All of this searching has culminated in a hotel room in Jacksonville, Florida where we have come to seek a solution and a path for desperately needed change.  And as I lay in a hotel bed tonight, it struck me that this journey strangely mirrors another journey I took seventeen years ago and it brings me an exhilarating sense of anticipation mingled with promise.

In 1994, my brother and I spent six weeks in Europe and Africa.  One week of our stay was spent on the small island of Zanzibar located just off the coast of Tanzania.  The island is the native home of the Zanzibar Red Colobus monkey and we were determined to find the primate in its natural environment.  We stayed in a small hut on the beach and it wasn’t long before a group of school kids offered us the chance to realize our dream.  For a mere one thousand shillings, they would take us to the infamous Monkey Cave where we would discover droves of Red Colobus.  So we handed over the money and began our quest.  After walking along the beach for nearly a mile, however, we diverged into a local village where we ducked under clotheslines and through fenced yards.  Another half mile later we found ourselves in grassy plains under a sweltering sun.  Still another mile into the journey we descended into the island forest.  Needless to say, the journey was a bit confusing.  At each landscape, we expected the destination and yet, each landscape brought only more questions and frustration.  Our anxiety grew while our hope waned.  At long last, we approached the Monkey Cave with giddiness and delight.  And low and behold there wasn’t a single monkey to be seen.  We turned to our guides in disappointment only to have them tell us, “Sorry, no monkeys today.”

Seventeen years later, I am on another journey to a different Monkey Cave and it could not be more ironic.  Like my excursion through the landscapes of Tanzania, this journey has found me traversing landscapes that I never expected.  I have encountered struggles and obstacles I could not have imagined.  I have walked the vast and beautiful beaches of God’s provision but I have also trudged through the oppressive plains of His perceived absence.  I have trespassed through the territories of friends and family and found comfort in their backyards.  I have wandered through the woods of doubt and desperation seeking His face around every tree trunk and boulder.

After all this, I have arrived at the Monkey Cave.  And I am terrified.  I am paralyzed by the fear that after such a long journey, after such a shattering struggle, I will find no monkeys.  I am gripped by a panic that my God will turn to me and say, “Sorry, no monkeys today.”

But while the fear is staggering at first, the truth slowly moves me to hope.  You see, my God is not a god of false hope.  He is not a god who asks us to follow and then has nothing for us.  In fact, He always has more than we hoped for.  We plod along hoping for mere survival while God, in His majesty and graciousness, has victory in His back pocket.  We give Him our shillings and, in return, He gives us life in abundance.

I am reminded of Joseph, another sojourner who may identify with the Monkey Cave. What began as a sure road to fame and fortune moved swiftly to a cruel joke, to slavery, to servitude and eventually to imprisonment.  I expect Joseph didn’t anticipate any of that.  I expect every twist in his story brought questions and confusion.  I imagine that a dark prison cell found him wrestling with the faithfulness of his God and the purpose in his predicament.  Yet the end of the story is glorious, isn’t it?  While Joseph hoped to merely endure his circumstances, God’s story usurped those lowly ambitions and painted a breathtaking picture of deliverance and blessing.  As he announced himself to his brothers he declares in Genesis 45: 5, “And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.”  God sent him to preserve life.  Life.  That’s what Joseph found in his monkey cave.  Profound, gracious life.  Joseph didn’t just see a few monkeys, he had monkeys crawling all over him.

Psalms 119: 49-50 says, “Remember your word to your servant, in which you have made me hope.  This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life.”  Scripture is full of promises for our good.  Full of promises for our protection and provision.  Full of promises for our salvation.  Full of promises that the Monkey Cave is not empty.

Tonight I will find rest in that.  Tonight I will find comfort in God’s promise of life.  I know very well that I may not be at the end of the journey.  Tomorrow may reveal just another clothesline to duck under or a new terrain altogether.  But eventually, I will reach the Monkey Cave and when I do, I will kneel with my hands held high and my head bowed low.  I will humbly thank the God who brought me there and declare His monkeys glorious.

 

 

My Village

Back in 1996, Hillary Clinton wrote a book entitled It Takes a Village.  A naive 24 year old at the time, I thought the concept ludicrous and outlandish.  The idea that I would need an entire village to raise my child seemed downright insulting.  Of course, that was before I had children.  That was well before I understood, with great empathy and thankfulness, that a village is exactly what it takes.

In light of yesterday’s tragedy in Connecticut, the truth of this is painfully applicable.  When I heard the news, I have to confess that it knocked the wind right out of me.  For several moments, I struggled with a great weight on my chest and I fought against the reality that assaulted my idyllic life.  As the day trudged on, I wrestled internally trying to make sense of it, trying to see God’s hand, trying to discern his breath amidst the loss.  The truth is, there is no sense.  But the truth is also that there is God’s hand.  Somewhere.  Although I can’t see it now, I’m certain it’s there.  And as I searched, a truth occurred to me both tragic and comforting.  A glimpse of God’s grace in my own life and family.

I think it’s safe to assume that in order for the young man responsible for this tragedy to carry out such a horrific course, there was a gaping failure somewhere along the way.   As I see it, one of two scenarios dominated this young man’s life.  Either he didn’t have a village, or the village failed him.  Both of these possibilities are terribly disheartening.  You see, thirteen years of parenting have shown me that a village is not just desirable, it’s critical.  The more people around our children, the more individuals who know them, their propensities, their inclinations and their struggles, the more encouragement and accountability there is.  What if our young shooter would’ve had that kind of involvement?  What if someone had been watching for signs, for inconsistencies, for pain and hurt?  What if someone, anyone had recognized even a small diversion from an otherwise straight path?  What if his village had been on diligent watch?

Hillary Clinton may have written the book, but the early Christians owned the idea.  Acts 2:44 says, “And all who believed were together and had all things in common.”  Being a believer for the better part of my life, the verse has always led to a quick association with material possessions.  I’ve pictured the early Christians sharing food, clothing, shelter and other very tangible resources.  But I expect I haven’t grasped the fullness of the verse until now.  In actuality, I imagine that the primitive yet untainted followers had so much more than just material possessions in common.  They had struggles in common, they had victories in common, they had emotions in common.  And they had child-rearing in common.  As they “were together”, the children would’ve benefited from the wisdom, experience and love of, not just their parents, but all the elders around them.  They would’ve soaked up all the richness and beauty of the village.  Centuries later, we can see just what that village produced.  Our faith, our very certainty in a loving God finds many of its roots in a profound village that shouldered their responsibility with great strength and grace.

I love my village and my gratitude to them is well beyond mere words.  There is a circle of friends and family around my children that is irreplaceable.  There are grandparents who share the wisdom of their years and infuse daily a sense of perspective and legacy.  There are aunts and uncles who find glimpses of themselves in a younger generation and nurture selflessly.  There are friends, who act more like family, who engage and guide my children, never stopping to consider that those children are not their own.

My village is unwavering in its commitment to my children.  My village sees the worst and tirelessly commits to altering it into the best.  My village always loves, always perseveres and always hopes.  My village is the very hands and feet of Christ.  My village rocks.

While the events in Connecticut shake us to the very core, there is another tragedy at hand.  There are children in every corner of this world that have no village.  From New York to Nepal and Budapest to Bangladesh, there are children who are emotionally alone and it breaks my heart.  My prayer for our world is that the pervasive curse of loneliness would be lifted.  That villages would rise up around the brokenhearted and that Acts 2:44 would come profoundly to life.  What an amazing change we would witness if we were truly together and had all things in common.  While it may seem like wishful thinking, I’m an optimist and if my village is any indication, then I’d like to believe that anything is possible.

The Walrus and the Father

I don’t know how God does it.  Every day He holds his hand open, allowing us to stay or go.  Every minute He is in the process of letting us go, leaving us to choose a path towards him or away from him. The reality of this is sobering and convicting.  And utterly amazing.

My oldest son has slept with a blanket and a small stuffed walrus nearly every night of his life.  Tomorrow he turns 13 and as I tucked him in tonight, he announced that he won’t be sleeping with them anymore.  While I understand his decision, it is a symptom of something much larger.  He is growing up.  He is moving consistently towards self-sufficiency and capability.  And that move, unfortunately, is necessarily away from me.  He is leaving a little and I have to let him go.

Letting go is so hard.  It is, without exception, the hardest element of my job as a parent.  Tonight, as I close another chapter, I am longing for the past and grieving the move forward.  The thought of packing away a much loved blanket and a walrus leaves my heart heavy.

Of course the hope is that as I let my children go, they will, in some intangible way, remain tethered to me.  That as they journey and experience life, their hearts will linger at home.  I imagine that this is the hope and heaviness God wrestles with constantly.  As he holds us in the palm of his hand, there is the persistent truth that we are free, at any moment, to walk or run away from him.

In Luke 15, Jesus tells the parable of the prodigal son and the father in the story leaves my soul humbled and thankful.  I imagine the father sitting in the kitchen when he sees his son in the doorway.  As his son speaks and requests a blessing to leave, the father fights to maintain his composure, shell-shocked by what he’s hearing.  What can the father say?  To follow his heart would be to say no, to refuse his son the blessing.  But to follow a greater love for his son would be to let him go in hopes that he would someday soon return.  So, with an anguished heart, he lets him go.

Perhaps that night he leaves the porch light burning, hoping the son will come to his senses and return.  He lies awake listening for the sound of his son, for the echo of a shoe on the gravel driveway, for the screech of the screen door.  But nothing.  Days go by, nothing.  Weeks, nothing.  Months, nothing.

I am convinced that the longer the son was away, the more urgent the father’s worry became.  I wonder if there was ever a moment that the father wasn’t thinking of his son.  How many times during those long months did the father rise in the middle of the night, go to the window and strain his eyes for the shadowy figure of his son?  How many mornings did he wake up, pack a bag, and start down the road only to realize he couldn’t continue?  How many hours did he spend wondering, waiting and wishing?

Then one day, the son comes home.  I like to think it was one of the nights the father spent at the window.  I imagine him, eyes searching the horizon until he sees a shadow.  An animal?  A man?  Maybe a wandering traveler.  But this figure looks familiar.  There’s something about the walk – the way he swings his arms and length of his strides.  The father rubs his eyes, anticipating the vision to leave, but it doesn’t.  He steps onto the front porch and there is no longer any doubt.  His son has returned.

The father runs through the darkness setting off a series of chaos and commotion in the neighborhood.  Neighbors are peering out their windows, some standing on their porches.  They watch their dignified neighbor sprint down the street still wearing his bedclothes.  They are intrigued as he reaches his son with outstretched arms, nearly knocking him over with the weight of his emotion.  They stare as he weeps.  But the father is oblivious.  He doesn’t notice the lights on around him, the open doors and windows, or the row of suspicious neighbors.  He doesn’t see their puzzled expressions.  He sees only one thing – his son.

Just like the son in the parable, we have the opportunity to leave.  It is the blessing and curse of free will.  We can leave when we choose.  However, we can also return when we choose.  That is perhaps the greatest and most glorious promise in the story of the prodigal son.  Although God may let us go, he also remains steadfast in his waiting for our return.  While we may wander off, he never does.  He is always watching and waiting for our homecoming.

Letting go is painful.  It is heart wrenching. But I am so grateful for the example God gives.  As I let my children go a little bit more every day, I will take my cue from my heavenly Father.  I will look to Luke 15 and the glorious depiction of a father who lets his child go with grace and welcomes him home with love.  I will count on that example in the coming years.  I will rely on it to give me the strength to hold my arms open. To hold them open each day, ready to release my children into their own futures, but equally ready to receive them back home.