Burls and Guys

“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed;
perplexed, but not driven to despair;
persecuted, but not forsaken;
struck down, but not destroyed;
always carrying in the body the death of Jesus,
so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.
For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.

So we do not lose heart. Though our outward self is wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For this light and momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen, but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

For we walk by faith, not by sight.”
2 Corinthians 4:8-11,16-18; 5:7

I once sat in on a sermon where the pastor speaking posed this question: what is the best meal a person could ever eat? People in the audience chuckled, and a few brave souls raised their hands and ventured a guess. “My mom’s home cooked lasagna,” claimed one. “Olive Garden bread sticks!” another chimed in. “Definitely a well made steak,” shouted a third.

“No,” the pastor continued. “The best meal a person could ever eat is the meal that follows a marathon. It doesn’t matter what the meal consists of – it could be bread and water – what matters is the hunger that was created by the activity that proceeded it. If you’ve run a marathon first, that will be the best tasting bread you’ve ever eaten and the most deliciously refreshing water that you’ve ever drank – I promise.”

Recently, I tested the pastor on this point. I am serving as a wilderness trip leader at a camp in the Adirondacks for the summer, and so naturally, I went on a couple of training trips with my co-leaders during preseason. One of the trips was a canoe training trip. As Murphy’s Law would have it, our canoe training trip coincided with the worst torrential downpour of the millennium. I’m talking rain coming down so heavily that you could go from comfortably dry to drenched to the skin in 0.002 seconds. The you can’t quite keep your eyes open kind of rain. It was a cold rain. It was a furious rain –  the alright now, who angered God? kind of rain.

It was utterly m i s e r a b l e.

I have nothing against rain. There are few things I enjoy more than curling up with a good book and a cup of hot cocoa, listening to rhythmic patter of rain against a window. I grew up in an old farmhouse with a tin roof, and I spent many nights being sung to sleep by the soothing sound of rain against the roof. But there’s an important operative difference between those scenarios and this one – in both of those ones, I’m happily dry and comfortable; in this one, I’m shivering and exposed.

And as if the rain wasn’t bad enough on its own, it was soon accompanied by a thunderstorm. Again, nothing against thunderstorms. I just prefer enjoying their beauty from the safety and warmth of my house.

Anyone who’s spent a significant amount of time outdoors knows that rain, while an inconvenience, is at least tolerable and manageable for the sole fact that you can keep moving as needed. With a thunderstorm, however, arises several complications. First of all, you can’t be on water for obvious reasons. Which, as a canoeing group of five people desperate to get to the spot where we could make camp for the night, this was more than a minor inconvenience. Secondly, you want to avoid open areas (and thus avoid being the tallest point around.) We had to portage the canoes along a well worn path if we wanted to keep moving forward. But the canoes are made of aluminum, which is another thing you don’t want to be in close proximity to during a thunderstorm.

Inevitably, we were forced to come to a complete halt. We sought respite along the side of the path that we had been portaging on, under the trees. We then assumed “lightening position” (a sort of crouch where you make yourself as small as humanly possible, tucking your head down, and keeping your feet together so you don’t have more than one contact point with the ground – a position that frankly, I thought we had only learned ironically) on top of our lifejackets and waited it out.

I’m sorry, did I say earlier that merely canoeing in the rain was utterly miserable? No no. This was utterly m i s e r a b l e.

After the half hour that lasted a lifetime and aged me twenty years, we were finally able to plod on. The rain hadn’t stopped, but the thunderstorm had. Soggy, we slogged on, arriving at our campsite like wet dogs with our tails between our legs. We fanned out – some setting up tents and tarps, some working on dinner. Through it all, the rain droned steadily on.

But let me tell you this, chicken rice stew has never tasted so good. (From the way my male co-leaders raved about it, you would have thought I’d missed my calling as a chef.)

I didn’t run a marathon, but that night, lying in my tent, still slightly damp from the day’s events, the pastor’s words echoed in my memory: The best meal a person could ever eat is the meal that follows a marathon. It doesn’t matter what the meal consists of – it could be bread and water – what matters is the hunger that was created by the activity that proceeded it.

Immense hunger leads to immense gratification.

“If you don’t feel strong desires for the manifestation of the glory of God, it is not because you have drunk deeply and are satisfied. It is because you have nibbled so long at the table of this world. Your soul is stuffed with small things, and there is no room for the great.”
– John Piper

Detours

I don’t know about you, but it’s much easier to fantasize myself as a “good” Christian when I’m not behind the wheel of a car. When I’m driving, suddenly it’s as if this totally different person emerges. I promise, every time I drive, every other driver on the road that day is conscientiously driving in such a way as to intentionally annoy me and make my driving experience as miserable as possible. It’s this weird thing. Don’t people know that the left lane on the highway is intended for people who want to go fast, not take a leisurely Sunday drive? Also, I wasn’t aware that turning signals are so difficult to turn on. Nor was going the speed limit.

But few things are worse than hitting construction while on the road. As a person who already struggles with punctuality, hitting construction while driving is the stuff of nightmares for me. When I come to a complete standstill on the road, sitting in a vehicle intended for motion, it rapidly becomes undeniably clear that the Lord is not finished with me yet.

And so it follows that I’m not the world’s biggest fan of detours either. I don’t want to add twenty or more minutes to my drive. I want to go straight and arrive at my destination at the time I was expecting.

But that’s not how detours work.

Perhaps the reason I hate detours so much is they’re all too familiar to me. My entire young twenties thus far have felt like one detour after another. I have ruthlessly and painstakingly planned, and yet, no sooner do I place the finishing touches on a plan than God deems it necessary to place it under construction and send me on a detour instead. I have been in and out of school, jobs, churches, and ministries. I’ve planted only to be uprooted and sown without reaping. If you want to know the truth, it’s immensely discouraging.

The rain keeps coming down; I keep plodding on. I’ve even been forced to halt entirely at times and wait out a storm.

Ironically, I’ve only realized I had an expectation that my life would look differently than it does in this cosmic undoing of it. I don’t know what exactly I thought my life would look like, but I definitely thought that by this point if I wasn’t already married, I would at the very least be in a serious relationship to that effect. I thought I would be done with my Bachelor’s degree and in a job I loved. I thought I would be settled somewhere.

I thought a lot of things.

At the very least, I thought my life’s trajectory would be straightforward and somewhat “normal” looking, as opposed to how it has actually looked.

But, this past semester, finally fed up with watching my plans crumble and tired of trying to make things look differently than they do, I cried out angrily to God from my own personal Valley of the Shadow of Death – a valley marked with loneliness, broken relationships, directionless ambiguity, and monotony.

“Why?!” I demanded angrily. “Why me? Why whywhywhy WHY?!”

The Lord answered me out of the whirlwind and said:
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—
surely you know!
Or Who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or Who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”
(Job 38:4-7)

“And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.”
(1 Kings 19:11b-12)

“Be still, and know that I am God.
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!”
(Psalm 46:10)

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways My ways,”
declares the Lord.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are My ways higher than your ways
and My thoughts than your thoughts.”
(Isaiah 55:8-9)

The issue was not that I was asking why – or even that I was angry. God is big enough to handle both of those things. The issue was that I was demanding an answer for my situation as a condition for contentment. I was willing to struggle, but only with the stipulation that I knew why I was struggling. God wanted me to cease striving, and know that He is God. It was almost as if I heard Him sigh and say

Oh my sweet girl.
My beloved creation.
Don’t you know Me yet?
Trust Me.
Though in your heart you may plan your way,
It is I Who establish your steps.
It is I Who is your confidence.
I AM WHO I AM.
I Am working all things together for your good.
(Proverbs 16:9, 3:26, Exodus 3:14, Romans 8:28)

Making plans is not wrong. Nor is desiring to be a wife and mother, or aspiring to finish college, or working towards having a successful career. None of these things are wrong, or even ignoble aims. The problem is when we start holding things with clenched fists instead of open hands. Because if God is not God of the detours, He’s not God of the successes.

“What harm can happen to to him that knows that God does everything, and who loves beforehand everything that God does?”
– Madame Swetchine

Burls

I love being in the Adirondacks in the summertime. There’s so much greenery and it smells like nostalgia and the happiest parts of my childhood. The sunrises are only surpassed by the sunsets, and the sunsets are only surpassed by the vivid clarity of Adirondack stars. But perhaps one of my favorite details of all is the overabundance of burls among the trees in the Adirondacks. A burl is an abnormal spherical growth on a tree that looks like a giant bark-covered wart. It can be near the roots of the tree, nearly anywhere on the trunk of a tree, or even encircle the trunk of the tree entirely. I used to find them hideous obstructions, an aesthetic disgrace, and now I find the opposite to be true.

Though scientists have yet to ascertain precisely what causes a burl to form on a tree, the common assumption is that a burl is formed as a reaction by the tree to some kind of trauma – damage to the exterior of a tree, an insect infestation, a virus, or a fungi, to name a few. Although the burl may look unhealthy, it doesn’t typically affect the overall health of the tree. Moreover, because a burl grows with the tree that it’s attached to, removing a burl while the tree is still alive can cause more harm than good. Unlike the wood grain in a tree, which runs in one direction, the wood grain of a burl is chaotic and complex, and thus highly prized by artisans, making it the most valuable thing a tree can create.

I think that few things encapsulate the beauty of what God does in us through trials – through detours, rained out canoe trips, and loss – better than burls. The tree does not stop growing because it has been afflicted. It does not cease reaching towards heaven. Instead, it stands boldly, rooted, proud. Daily wearing the scar of the battle that it has undergone and survived, an ongoing invitation to others to be vulnerable and honest with where they’ve been, what God has brought them from, and the beauty and value God has created from it. It is an opportunity to rejoice at God’s salvation, preservation, and redemption.

“For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.”
Isaiah 55:12

I have spent these past six months feeling immensely vulnerable and exposed, shivering in the unrelenting rain of my trials, forced on a detour that I didn’t choose. But God is in the business of making all things beautiful (Ecclesiastes 3:11), and I’m excited to see the burl He will create out of this season – a burl that boasts of His glory and grace. Also, through this season, God has awakened in me a hunger for Him unlike any I’ve ever known. My appetite has been whet through my circumstances, and I have truly never met a better meal than the Bread of His body and the Wine of His blood. I don’t expect I ever will. Man does not live on bread alone (Deuteronomy 8:3, Matthew 4:4), and nothing tastes sweeter than Jesus.

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry,
and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
John 6:35

“Taste and see that the Lord is good;
blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him.”
Psalm 34:8

“Why does God allow us to spend so much of life in the heat of the battle?
Because He never meant for us to sip His spirit like a proper cup of tea. He meant for us to hold our sweating heads over the fountain and lap up His life with
unquenchable thirst.”
– Beth Moore

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
Romans 8:18

 

Everyday Joy

“To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness,
but life without meaning is the torture of restlessness and vague desire –
it is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.”
– Edgar Lee Masters

Recently, I’ve been feeling very restless with the monotony prevalent in my life. I’m tired. I’m tired of the day to day, mundane routine that my schedule has sorted itself into. I’m tired of being in college. I’m tired of being broke consistently. I’m ready to be onto the next stage of my life, doing ‘bigger’ and ‘more important’ things. I’m ready to step into adulthood.

However.

I’m wary of slipping into a “destination addiction” of sorts. I’m wary of idolizing the idea that true happiness, true joy is just around the next bend in the road. Because the fact of the matter remains that if I’m not content in the here and now, then I won’t be content in the there and then. Period. Mic drop. That is a fact.

You know why? Because contentment is not rooted in surrounding circumstances. It is rooted in Christ. And I have Christ now. So what else am I looking for? What else could I possibly need?

As long as I’m looking for contentment elsewhere, I’m setting myself up for inevitable and continual disappointment. My circumstances should not have the power to dictate my joy. The gospel should be enough to bring me to my knees in worship, adoration, and humility every day. As Dan Mohler says so succinctly in his sermon entitled “Becoming Love,” we don’t really understand the gospel. We have too many issues. We have too many rights.

We ought to have Jesus. 

“Each day presents a new opportunity to experience God…this is a sacred expectation!”
– A.W. Tozer

“See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called the children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1ab)

I’ve been struggling with insomnia for over a semester now. I haven’t been having issues falling asleep, but rather staying asleep. Every night almost without fail for the last several months, I have woken up at some point between one and four in the morning, and am typically unable to get back to sleep for a minimum of two hours. I had 8ams everyday of the week except Wednesday last semester. On Wednesday, I worked at 7am.

Needless to say, I quickly got very tired of this (pun entirely intended.) I require quite a bit of sleep, and don’t always function the best without it. Finally, in a rage (and as a last resort – perhaps right there is the problem), I prayed about it. (Well, more accurately, I whined to God about it in the semblance of prayer.)

God, I’m sick of this. I don’t understand why you’re doing this to me. It’s unfair. I’m tired. I’m in school and working. I don’t have the stamina to be losing 2+ hours of sleep every night. 

I know. Not my proudest moment. Looking back on it now, I can practically hear God gently smirking at me.

Be careful of the questions that you ask God. Because He just might answer you.

My precious child, those are hours you could be spending with Me. 

Ouch.

Who am I to demand anything of God? He owes me nothing. (See Job 40.) And thankfully, He is not willing to let me stay in the place of terrible arrogance where I presume that He does. He loves me far too much for that. He loves me too much to leave me in a place of complacency and pride.

God doesn’t want me to only understand enough of the gospel to save my soul. He wants me to understand the gospel to the point that my life is transformed by it. 

cardboard-testimony

To say it another way, (a more theological way), Jesus didn’t just die on the cross to save me for my eternity future (heaven.) He saved me for my present (earthly life.) He saved me for the now.

Wow.

God literally loves me enough to allow me to struggle with insomnia. He loves me enough to allow me to experience grief through the death of my sister and brother. He loves me enough to allow me to fight depression. He loves me enough to not always allow things to work to my advantage or how I expected them to work out. He loves me enough to allow me to find value in the menial monotony of life. He loves me enough to be faithful when I am faithless, because He cannot deny Himself.

He  l o v e s  me.

“When hardship comes your way, will you tell yourself it’s a tool of God’s grace and a sign of His love, or will you give into doubting His goodness?
Here’s the bottom line. Right here, right now, God isn’t so much working to deliver you to your personal definition of happiness. He’s not committed to give you a predictable schedule, happy relationships, or comfortable surroundings. He hasn’t promised you a successful career, a nice place to live, and a community of people who appreciate you. What He has promised you is Himself, and what He brings to you is the zeal of His transforming grace. No, He’s not first working on your happiness; He’s committed to your holiness. That doesn’t mean He is offering you less than you’ve hoped for, but much, much more. In grace, He is intent on delivering you from your greatest, deepest, and most long-term problem: sin. He offers you gifts of grace that transcend the moment, that literally are of eternal value. He has not unleashed His power in your life only to deliver to you things that quickly pass away and that have no capacity at all to satisfy your heart.”
– Paul David Tripp, New Morning Mercies

“The great paradox of the Gospel is that God’s love drove Him to do the unthinkable: become naked and exposed for those who rejected Him. We, who exposed ourselves through disobedience, are “covered” by the nakedness of Christ’s obedience.”
– Pastor Joshua Stewart

To get that – to truly understand the gospel – is to be transformed. There is a paradigm shift in your thinking. To know Jesus is to be changed by Him. (See James 2:14-17). Loved people love people. Forgiven people forgive. People who know mercy show mercy. There is no other way. It is a simple rule of logic.

“The gospel is such a revealing of man’s value. It’s not a revealing of man’s sin – it’s a removing of man’s sin. The cross removes man’s sin, it doesn’t expose man’s sin. It removes man’s sin to expose his value and his created purpose.

The cross brings destiny back into the picture – you can write legacy again.

YAY.

I don’t have to be disheartened. I don’t have to let life speak louder than truth.”
– Dan Mohler, Becoming Love

Oftentimes, we fixate on the last three years of Jesus’ life: His “ministry” years. Um. What about the other thirty? His whole life was a ministry. His existence in the flesh was an act of grace. You cannot properly appreciate His “ministry” years without acknowledging that it was those thirty years – those years that we know so little about, those years of silence – that equipped Him for the years we do know about and spend a lifetime studying. Those menial years full of monotony, those years of practicing obedience, prepared and enabled Him to act in continued obedience – even when the destination was the cross.

“For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for Him.” (Philippians 1:29)

“But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when His glory is revealed.” (1 Peter 4:13)

What a privilege it is to know and serve Christ. I am overwhelmed, humbled, and so thankful.

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Proverbs 1:7a)

“‘Where is God?
Where can I find Him?’ We ask.
We don’t realize that that’s like a fish swimming frantically through the ocean
in search of the ocean.”
– Ted Dekker

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:4-7)

img_0573

(If you click on the picture, it will bring you to the song “Ever Be” by Bethel Music. I have been saturating my mind with these truths recently, and wanted to share access to the song with you. This picture is taken at the Rock, a place we camp out at Beaver Camp, from a spot I’ve spent many quiet moments with God. Note the worship tree.)

 

For further encouragement, check out this sermon that was preached by my home church entitled “So Loved” by Pastor Joshua Stewart.

Kaleidoscopic Oceans

“To have been loved so deeply, even though the one who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever.”
– J.K. Rowling

How do I begin? By all accounts, today is just like any other day. It’s just another Saturday. There are no holidays dedicated to the third of December. There are no parades. It’s a day that can easily slip by, undetected and unannounced.

And for most people that’s exactly what happens. It slides by, unnoticed. It’s difficult not to envy those people.

December is always a hard month for me, but this year it is especially so. This year is the first year that December 11th falls on a Sunday since it did five years ago – the day police arrived on my doorstep with my sister’s license in hand and my worst fear was realized.

My sister was dead. And what was previously unimaginable was my new reality.

This year is the first year since my sister passed that each day leading up to December 11th falls on the exact same weekday it did prior to her death five years ago. And somehow, that makes everything feel closer.

I can’t help but remember the Amy of December 3, 2011. She was so innocent, and so young. The Amy of December 3, 2016 is much more than five years older than her.

How do I capture how deeply devastated I was on that day? How do I describe the journey since? Grief is a tricky thing to describe, as no two people who have encountered it have seen or experienced exactly the same thing. No two relationships are identical. No two people are identical. So no one grieves identically – even if the grief is over the same person. It’s terribly isolating.

Grief is a kaleidoscope. But rather than just being something that you look through, it is a monster that engulfs you. Sometimes it’s all you can see. Your perspective is entirely changed as you look at life through the fragments of colored glass. Things are distorted. Even the things you once knew and loved look completely different. And just when you feel like you’re beginning to make sense of the “new normal,” the floor is knocked out from underneath you. Everything spins. And when you’re finally able to right yourself and make sense of your surroundings again, the picture that you were starting to familiarize yourself with has changed. And so on and so forth. Eventually, it’s hard to be motivated to stand up again. Or bothering to familiarize yourself with the new picture within the kaleidoscope.

Of course, take my words with a grain of salt: I’ve been trapped within a revolving kaleidoscope for five years now, and I’m a little dizzy.

Grief is an ocean. Deep and mysterious. Some days, the tide is low. The ocean is calm. The sky is blue. All is peaceful. Other days, there’s a hurricane brewing. The tide is high. The ocean is no longer inviting, but dark and dangerous. It’s a place where you could easily drown if you don’t tread carefully.

It would be easy to lose my identity in my grief. After all, what is one person to an ocean? Nothing.

Fortunately I know the Creator of oceans. He also happens to know the number of each and every grain of sand in existence, tucked alongside of the knowledge of the number of hairs on my head.

I am so deeply known and loved.

And this – this is where my identity begins.

Nancy and I were so intrinsically linked – so much of who I was, or who I thought I was before she died was tied to her. She drew out the best in me, while still allowing me to be myself. She “got” me. She was my hero and best friend. She was the type of person who inspired those pithy sayings that all the rest of us peasants aspire to. The world lost a beautifully precious soul on the day she died. I grieve for those who never got to know her.

Ever since she passed, God has been steadily working at reestablishing the foundation of what forms my identity. Not because the things I identified myself with – such as being a good student or as a singer or actress – are inherently bad things, but rather because they are only good things when they are superseded by greater truth. My identity is not, and can never be rooted in what I do. It has to be rooted in what God has called me: Beloved. (Which is actually what the name Amy means.) I am loved – not because of what I do, but in spite of what I do. I am beautiful, because of the work that God has accomplished through the Gospel in my life, not through my own effort or strength. As C.S. Lewis so succinctly sums it up, “When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed, but increased.”

I have been given my own personal thorn in my flesh to serve as a constant personal reminder that His “grace is sufficient” for me (2 Corinthians 12:9). I have struggled with depression since Nancy died, and it has been a harrowing – and exceedingly humbling – experience, to put it mildly. It is likely something I will wrestle with for life. To be perfectly honest, if I laid the years of my life side by side, and had to rank them, 2016 would probably not be at the top of the list. Or even near the top of the list. It’s been a hard year for me personally, for a myriad of reasons. But even in the midst of this, in the midst of such an insanely difficult year, I am overwhelmed by God’s grace and favor towards me.

My depression, as dark and oppressive as it seems some days, does not have the power to snuff out hope. It does not have the power to diminish beauty. And it certainly does not have the power to lessen my God.

I write about it now, not because it defines me, but because I think that vulnerability and honesty are the antidote to prideful isolationism. As Sheila Walsh so beautifully says, “My brokenness is better bridge for people than my pretend wholeness ever was.” I am no longer ashamed that I struggle with depression, because I have realized that it is not something that defines or cheapens me. It is not who I am. I am not a depressed person; rather I am a person that struggles with depression. Maybe that all seems like rhetoric, but the difference in those two statements, when applied, is key. Depression is something that brings me closer to people, because it’s created a deeper empathy within me than I ever could have cultivated without it. It has made me slower to speak and quicker to listen. It has helped me to be less hasty in my judgements of others. Not to mention, I was loved before I struggled with it, and I am still loved now.

I have wrestled with depression more consistently this past year than I have previously. Not because my life is less beautiful than it has been previously – but perhaps because in some ways it has been more so. This year, I began seriously dating someone for the first time – and it has been a wonderful wonderful thing. It has not been perfect – far from it, as we are both flawed individuals – but it has been good. Experiencing this relationship has been living breathing proof in my life of God’s faithfulness and I am so thankful. I never imagined that such joy could be mine in communion with another person following Nancy’s death.

“I do not know a perfect person. I only know flawed people who are still worth loving.”
– John Green

That isn’t to say that it’s been easy. You see, I know exactly what I am risking to love another person so openly and vulnerably. I know what it means to lose. Grief is the price of love. But I refuse to allow the fear of loss to creep into my life and paralyze me from doing the best thing humans are capable of – which is to love.

I will not live a life void of love to protect myself. What kind of life is that? Worse than no life at all. I will love, and in 2016 I was given the chance to love in a new and profoundly deep way – a way I have never loved before. I have wept for what is at stake in loving so deeply, and for the fact that Nancy will never have the chance to meet him or vice versa – at least not on this side of heaven. But I rejoice in this gift, in this capacity to love and go on loving. No matter how distorted things look through the kaleidoscope or how deep the ocean seems, this is one thing that will not be distorted or drowned: love is worth it.

Thank you Nancy for teaching me that and modeling it for me. I am proud to say that legacy will not die with you.

“Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us and His love is made complete in us.”
1 John 4:11-12

Hard Pressed, Yet Still {So Indescribably} Blessed

“Where, oh death, is your victory?
Where, oh death, is your sting?

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
1 Corinthians 15:55-56

A punch to the gut. That’s what it felt like. A merciless, taunting, punch to the gut that left me speechless and unable to breathe.

“Is this your daughter?” the trooper had asked moments before, holding up Nancy’s license for Mom and Dad to see. When they nodded silently, the trooper continued woodenly, “She was in a car accident this morning and died instantly. I’m sorry.”

The world around me tilted wildly as my mind struggled to process this information.

Dead? How could my sister be dead? She was one of the most vibrantly alive people I knew. It didn’t make sense. Nothing made sense…

I was angry, but didn’t know who to target my anger towards. It was no one’s fault. However, I came to resent the ease and poise the trooper stoically carried herself with as she talked with us about the situation. The logical part of my brain recognized that she was just doing her job and being professional. However, I still raged against her internally, although she was just the messenger. DO YOU REALIZE THE GRAVITY OF WHAT YOU JUST SAID? DO YOU REALIZE THE FACT THAT MY LIFE JUST CHANGED FOREVER? HOW DARE YOU BE SO UNPERTURBED. HOW DARE YOU. DO YOU REALIZE?

Out of reflex, I thought, I need to talk to Nancy about this. She’ll know what to do.

Reflex thought or not, I immediately kicked myself for having it. Amy, you idiot. You CAN’T talk to Nancy about this. That’s the whole point. That’s why there’s a situation to begin with. She’s gone. 

I didn’t know how to come to grips with the situation. I didn’t know how to understand it. Throughout my entire life, Nancy had been a constant presence. I didn’t know the world without her in it. Suddenly everything seemed very harsh and cold.

The weight of this knowledge settled into my bones, exhausting me instantaneously.

I was tired for three years.


At the time when it happened, I remember thinking, (in a rare moment of clarity) This is when faith counts. This is when faith becomes just that: faith, “the assurance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen.” The way I see it, I have two choices before me that will determine the course of the rest of my life: 

1: I can walk away from my faith and everything I previously claimed to believe since it doesn’t feel true right now, or
2: I can trust in the midst of confusion, knowing that God is in control even when I don’t understand His ways. 

Two choices. Two very different outcomes.

One life hinging on one decision.


I’m eternally grateful that I chose to trust. It has single-handedly changed my journey of grief more than the dozens of other decisions I’ve made since.

To be clear, the fact that I had faith did not change whether or not I grieved.

I’m still as human as anyone else. To this day, I still miss my sister. And I’ve come to the realization that I always will. Her absence has become it’s own kind of continual presence in my life.

However, the fact that I had faith did change the orientation of my grief. I was not grieving for Nancy. No, for the Christian, to die is gain. I was grieving for myself, for the loss of the presence of my dearest friend and confidante on this side of heaven.

With distance that time provides, and the graceful restoration that God is faithful to supply throughout time, I’ve actually grown to be exceedingly thankful that I lost someone so beloved to me so young.

Am I saying I’m thankful my sister died? No. Am I belittling the necessity of grieving or the emptiness that ensues when you lose someone you love? Not in the least. But I’m saying that in spite of all those things, in spite of how broken and alone and low I’ve felt at points since my sister passed away, I am thankful.

My sister’s death taught me the truth of the gospel and God’s sovereignty with the intense intimacy that nothing else could have. And now I have the joy of walking in that truth for the rest of my life. For that, I will forever be grateful. What an incredible privilege! I will even go so far as to say that experiencing the loss of my sister was perhaps one of the best gifts that God has ever given me.

Does it make sense? No, not even a little bit. Not how I understand logic to work at least. How can something so awful become something so beautiful? How can something so terrible be morphed into something so wonderful? You see, these are questions that I still don’t fully understand myself, but Christians get the divine honor of pondering. How can something so painful become cause for celebration? The only answer I have is to point to the cross, to Jesus’ resurrection, knowing that this glorious mystery begins and ends there: at the place where death was defeated and true life was born.

“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.”
1 Thessalonians 1:13-14

“If there is no resurrection from the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that He raised Christ from the dead. But He did not raise Him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only in this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people to be most pitied.
But Christ has indeed been raised, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”
1 Corinthians 15:13-20

Realizing what the gospel is, well, it’s enough to change your life.


To be honest, since Nancy’s death I’ve gotten into several car accidents. Some just due to inexperience, others due to weather. Based on the amount of car accidents I’ve been in, and the caliber of some of them, I should be dead.

But I’m not.

The most recent accident I was in paralleled the accident that took Nancy’s life (almost) perfectly. I was going around a corner and I hit black ice. My car began to slide uncontrollably. I was absolutely terrified. A tree shattered the driver’s side window, causing an explosion of glass and noise.

It was only when my car came to a shuddering halt on the side of the road that I gave myself permission to cry. I didn’t understand why God had allowed me to survive another accident…particularly an accident so similar to Nancy’s. And yet here I was, unscathed again. Crying. I was an emotional wreck for weeks afterward.

And yet I know that I will not die a moment before I’m supposed to, nor did Nancy die sooner than she was supposed to (Psalm 139:16). I know this because God is in control and knowing that, I have the confidence to live fearlessly.

Understand, I don’t mean the kind of “fearless” that is used to justify stupid life choices. I mean the type of fearless that permeates through everything  – the type of fearless that is evidenced in a quiet confidence, an understanding in Who the Lord is and who I am in relation to Him. I mean the type of knowledge that only comes through trials and heartache and grief.

Not living in fear means living in freedom.

Yes, in knowing all these things, how can I be anything but thankful for my sister’s death?

“Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made;
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.”
– Hymn, The Love of God

On the Subject of Pain

Image

“He says, ‘Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” Psalm 46:10

 

I had someone tell me recently that truth is subjective. And upon first appearance, that seems like a lovely notion. It eliminates any possibility for conflict and judgement – because while you may not agree with someone’s viewpoint, it doesn’t matter, because at least they’re doing what’s “true for them” and they’re happy. And you’re doing what’s “true for you” and you’re happy – so everyone’s happy, right? Everyone wins.

Wrong. Ultimately, everyone loses. If there is no such thing as absolute truth, than the logic only follows that nothing, in fact, is true. If nothing is true, then we are all wandering around blind, with no greater purpose than ourselves to live for. And if that is the case, my friends, then we might as well live as we will, because everything we do is meaningless (see Ecclesiastes for more on this topic, specifically Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 for the conclusion of the matter). We will be forgotten after we die anyway, so why accommodate to others? Who honestly cares? I want x, y, and z to happen in my life, and I frankly don’t care how I achieve those things. I need to look out for Number One, because no one else is going to do it. And if I offend someone along the way, too bad. At least I’m abiding by what is true for me. I’d hate to be hypocritical.

Lack of absolute truth only results in mayhem. Where does the moral code come from? There has to be an Ultimate Standard to draw from. Why do we as a society deem one action “bad” and another “good” if the standard varies from person to person? Understand, I’m not claiming that everything is black and white. There are grey areas, even in Scripture. However, I am claiming that there is something larger than life that allows for certain absolute truths; things that are true for all men in all times through all circumstances. Joe Schenke, the Dean of Students at Word of Life Bible Institute in Pottersville, NY once defined truth this way:

“Truth is that which is consistent with the mind, will, glory, and being of God.”

Some other attributes of truth include (as taught in the same sermon by Schenke):

  • It is revealed, not not invented.
  • It is unchanging, even though our beliefs about truth change. Beliefs cannot change a fact, regardless of how sincerely they are held.
  • It is not affected by the one professing it.
  • It is narrow. Contradictory ideas cannot both be true.

I say all that in order to simply say this: God is good. I realize that this is not necessarily a popular thing to say, and in fairness, I want to clearly state the perspective from which I’m coming from, recognizing that I’m claiming something that may strike people as ignorant and hopelessly optimistic. I am an unashamed believer in Jesus Christ – He is the Savior of my soul. In the words of C.S. Lewis: “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but by it I see everything else.”As a believer, it follows that the Bible is the starting place from which I draw my conclusions. Not to do so would be inconsistent with that which I claim to believe. I know that the subject of the goodness of God, or the existence of God Himself is a divisive one, especially in reference to pain. However, as previously stated, the denial of truth does not make it any less true; and therefore, not believing that God exists does not cause Him to cease to exist.

Now to address the question, if God is good, than why do bad things happen? How can such a “good” God allow such atrocities? It’s certainly a fair question. Looking at the prevailing pain in the world around us, it seems inconsistent to argue that God is simultaneously good AND sovereign. We don’t want to accept that. If God is sovereign, why doesn’t He eliminate pain? It’d be easier to believe in a good God if He was rendered helpless, unable to intercede on our behalf to prevent pain. Or it’d be easier to believe in a God that was sovereign but disconnected and disinterested in our lives; therefore making our pain of no consequence to Him. It is hard to accept that God possesses both attributes. But it is vital to understand if we are to experience a relationship with Him that goes deeper than a superficial fandom.

The reason this world is so broken is a direct result of the sin that exists therein. What is sin? Anything that contradicts the will, character, and word of God. A quick theology lesson: God created the world without sin. However, He loved the human race enough to give men a choice as to whether or not to follow him. The first humans, Adam and Eve, chose to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which they were expressly told not to do by God Himself. In eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they disobeyed Him and committed the first sin (see Genesis 3 for more details.) Romans 5:12 says that: “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.” So, in Adam, we all fell. Any one of us would have made the same decision he did. So why did God even give Adam and Eve the option? Because He loved them (and us) enough to give them the power to choose. He granted us free will because (to quote C. S. Lewis again): “though it makes evil possible, [it] is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.” Love that is coerced isn’t love at all. God loves us enough to allow us to choose Him.

But I still haven’t answered the nagging question, how can a good God allow pain? Doesn’t He want us to be happy? Yes, of course. But His desires for us are so much larger for us than satiating the desires that we think will make us happy. More than happiness, He wants us to be holy. In Elisabeth Elliot’s book Passion and Purity, she records a conversation that captures this mindset well:

“The blue eyes filled with tears. ‘Doesn’t He want me to be happy?’ (I heard an echo of Eve in Eden).

‘He wants you most to be holy.’

‘Miserable and long-faced then. Is that what holiness has to mean?’

‘Has to? No. Not only doesn’t have to, but can’t. Real holiness can’t possibly be miserable and long-faced Jane. Holiness means ‘wholeness.’ Comes from the same root as hale–you know, hale and hearty. Healthy. Fulfilled.’

‘Well, that has to mean happy.’

‘That’s what it means for sure. The problem starts when we make up our own minds what will give us happiness and then decide, if we don’t get exactly that, that God doesn’t love us. We slither into a slough of God-hates-me self-pity.’

‘But you just said He wants us to be happy. He must want to give us what we want, doesn’t He? I mean, within reason.’

‘He wanted Adam and Eve to be happy, but He didn’t give them everything they wanted. He knew it would be the death of them. So they got mad and decided He didn’t love them and was being stingy when He told them not to touch the fruit. How could He love them if He didn’t let them have it? They put more stock in the snake’s reasoning than in God’s.”’

I am not in anyway trying to belittle pain. I am simply stating that I serve a God whose sovereignty supersedes pain. In knowing that God is good, I can trust in His goodness, knowing He only allows things for my betterment. Because He loves me enough to place circumstances in my life that force me to recognize my inadequacy and need for Him. It’s easy to claim a faith when it’s never tested. The contents of our hearts are revealed in trial. Only then do we start to recognize the depths of our depravity. Until we come to the end of ourselves, we will tend live in our own strength, whether advertently or inadvertently.

Job is the classic example of a righteous man that underwent trials of massive proportions. In a matter of a few days, he lost his wealth, his children, and his health. As he sat in the ashes scraping off his sores with a piece of broken pottery, his wife inquired, “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!” To which Job replied, ” You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:9-10).

Yes, and how would we recognize pain if we had never experienced good prior to it? To experience great loss means you first have been blessed enough to experience great joy. It is God’s grace that allows us to experience good in the first place. We are not entitled to blessings. God is not our heavenly vending machine.

I have recently realized that I have a very low view of God. This was unsettling, to say the least. In working through my own grief of the death of my dear sister, I’ve recognized how very shallow my view of God is. As A. W. Tozer describes it, “To admit that there is One who lies beyond us, who exists outside of all our categories, who will not be dismissed with a name, who will not appear before the bar of reason, nor submit to our curious inquiries: This requires a great deal of humility, more than most of us possess, so we save face by thinking God down to our level, or at least down to where we can manage Him.” I am definitely guilty of this. But really, my question in the midst of trials should not be “Why me? I don’t deserve this.” Instead I should be humbled that God loves me enough to take such interest in me that He is willing to allow events in my life that will overwhelm me with His grace.

The key difference between believers and non-believers is not that believers never experience pain. In fact, based on Job, there doesn’t appear to be any immediate correlation between righteousness and adversity. BUT there is one between godliness and grief. And that difference is, believers have hope. We can rest assured in God’s goodness and love by virtue of the fact that He sent His Son to die on the cross for our sins. But the story doesn’t end there. He was resurrected, defeating death, the ultimate consequence of sin. So as believers, we can claim victory over this life and our circumstances through Christ. Yes, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 15:55-56.)  We know that our immediate trials are not all we have to look forward to. As Paul writes, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18). Our lives are not dictated by circumstances, but rather truth.

“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”

“Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes, not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

“For we live by faith, not by sight.”

(1 Corinthians 4:8-9; 16-18; 5:7).

 

 

Passages for further study:

  • 1 Peter 1:3-9
  • James 1:2-4
  • Hebrews 4:14-16
  • 1 Corinthians 1:3-5
  • Isaiah 55:8-9
  • Psalm 119:49-50, 71-72
  • Psalm 34:18
  • Romans 5:1-5; 8:28, 31-38