Playing the Flame Game

It has now been two weeks since the violence at Charlottesville.

I have spent that time trying to compose my thoughts; trying to put words to the chaotic torrent of emotions pumping through my veins in time with my heartbeat.

I am numbed by the hatred, anger, and racism so prevalent in our nation. My grief is so heavy, it feels as though I’ve swallowed a boulder. Leaden. Dense.

“If you’re not feeling the weight of these times in your belly, that’s more likely indifference/detachment than the peace of Christ.”
– Jonathan Martin

My current emotional state is reminiscent of the day I found out Nancy died.


The troopers came into our house, pinching her license between their fingers. “Is this your daughter?” they asked my parents. When my parents nodded yes, they continued speaking from a place miles away. I strained to listen, but it was only through a great effort that I heard what they said next, as it felt as though I’d been suddenly thrust under deep water.

“She got into a car accident today and she didn’t make it. I’m so sorry.”

My bones turned to rubber and folded underneath me. I collapsed into the current of the water and it began pulling at me, slowly at first than faster and faster. As it spiraled madly around me, I flailed, trying to break the surface, trying to inhale the lungful of air I so desperately needed. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t see. The boulder that had taken residence somewhere in my gut weighed me down further, pulling me deeper by the minute. I eventually managed to grab a conveniently placed doorframe and pull myself to the surface of the torrent, only to discover that I was still unable to breathe because the boulder knocked the wind out of me. Wild-eyed and gasping, I wept. Emotions beyond the realm of words poured out from a place deep inside me that had been irreparably broken.


There are five stages of grief.

The first is denial. This isn’t happening, this can’t be happening, we tell ourselves. Some of my white brothers and sisters are still stuck in this stage of grief. This is a defense mechanism, our mind’s way of rationalizing otherwise overwhelming emotions. It helps offset the immediate shock of the loss. It acts as an anesthetic through the first wave of pain. It grants us to survival to the second stage.

The second stage is anger. As the denial begins to wane, the pain reemerges, as intense and raw as we left it. We are still unprepared. However, since we can no longer deny the reality of the situation, we deflect it away from us in outbursts of anger.

I am currently camped in the angry stage of grief. I don’t think that I’ve ever sat down and written a blog post while I was this angry before. I try to spare those who read my posts the full intensity of the fire that runs hot and wild through my veins.

But unfortunately, not being angry is a luxury I can no longer afford. This anger is important.

Attitudes that I thought we as a nation had condemned, and belief systems that I thought we had dismantled have resurfaced with a horrifically ravenous fanaticism. Conversations that I never thought would be necessary on this side of history have become the norm. Groups of people have been repeatedly devalued or ignored by other groups of people scrambling to ensure that they remain in power. It’s sickening.

I need to sit with this anger against white supremacy, tight and hard in my chest. I need to feed this fire against injustice, hot and fierce and dangerous. I need to guard this flame against racism, carefully cultivating it into something productive, allowing it to give me direction and mold me as it runs its course. This fire is valuable. It is a fire that has burned its name on my bones and seared its name on my flesh. It is an anger that will not easily be doused from my memories – nor is it one that should be.

Yes, friends, I am angry. I am angry, because I am grieving.

“If we hand our sons and daughters a faith exposed as racist, misogynistic, unconcerned about creation and the poor, they aren’t wrong to leave it.”
– Jonathan Martin

My heart is broken for my brothers and sisters of color, for the marginalized and the oppressed. My heart is broken by both the silence of some of my white brothers and sisters, and the excuses that some of the others are offering on behalf of groups that are not worth defending. My heart is broken by the flippancy with which the President is treating these issues in an increasingly divided nation. My heart is broken by the labels which we’re using as weapons to further divide us and choke empathy. Simply put, my heart is broken.

“The purpose of life is not just to be happy.
The purpose of life, my love, is to feel.
You must understand that your pain,
is essential.”
– Christopher Poindexter

Matthew 5:4 says that those who mourn are blessed, because they will be comforted. In the Greek, the word for mourn here is pentheó, which can also be translated lament or manifested grief – i.e. a grief so severe that it cannot be hidden; a grief that takes possession of a person. It can also be translated to grieve over death – and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Thus, this Beatitude could just as easily read: blessed are those who lament their sin, for they will be comforted. I used to think the implications of this verse were merely personal, but I’ve since realized that to lament your own sin is to lament all sin, because as you acknowledge your sin, you realize that the same root bears the same fruit. This is why in Isaiah 53, Jesus was prophesied to be “a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.” He knew the ramifications for sin more intimately than anybody. He perfectly knew perfection; thus He grieved over imperfection.

It is imperative we face our own darkness before we can fight against the evil so prevalent in our world – lest we become like those we are fighting against. History attests to this. America was involved in World War II against Germany and the Nazis, while simultaneously placing Japanese Americans in internment camps. Without the humility to look in the mirror, we become hypocrites. None of us are beyond the reach of our own fallen nature, in spite of the best of intentions. “The authority of compassion,” Henri J. Nouwen writes, “is the possibility for each of us to forgive our brothers and sisters, because forgiveness is only real for those who have discovered the weakness of their friends and the sins of their enemies in their own hearts, and are willing to call each human being their sister or brother.”

“Grant, Lord, that I may know myself,
that I may know Thee.”
– Augustine

Humility is a cornerstone of Christianity. To know God is to be humbled by Him. As you are humbled by Him, you are able to better love others, because the gospel is the great equalizer. The ground is level at the foot of the cross. There is no Jew or Greek, there is just people. Jesus said Himself that the two greatest commandments are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. These are not two unrelated commandments, but rather the second commandment hinges on the first. If you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, the natural outpouring of that is to love your neighbor. 1 John 4:20 states that “whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” We are all created in God’s image, thus no person or group of people is better than another. This scarcity mindset – that “there will not be enough for me if they benefit too” – is eradicated by the gospel. There is enough equality for all.


I don’t truly remember the days following Nancy’s death. I was in a fog; everything is blurred at the edges. But this I do know – in that time of deep grief, I was not alone. I was not left to drown in an endless pool of blackness. People held me, cried with me, and laughed with me. People reminded me to eat. People squeezed my hand and rubbed my knee, assuring me that they were going to journey through this with me; that they were there if I needed anything. In particularly, my childhood best friend Aurora did not leave my side for days. She slept with me every night, ensuring that if I woke up I wasn’t alone with my thoughts and darkness. Aurora sat with me, listened to me, loved me. No one told me that my grief was out of place or that I was overreacting.

During this season of immense political and racial turmoil, we would all do well to take a lesson from Aurora. We should be the faces of compassion to our black brothers and sisters – listening more than we speak and validating, not undermining, their grief. We don’t have to understand everything perfectly to love well. Aurora gave flesh and bones to love during my season of deepest grief; let us do the same.

My prayer is that our anger will be repeatedly kindled against the immense injustice experienced by our neighbors, so that we will cease playing the blame game, and begin playing the flame game.

“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

Ephesians 6:12

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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

 

Under Construction

“Almost all of the really beautiful, profound things God is going to do in your life are going to take place over a long period of time, through a lot of ordinary.”
– Matt Chandler

Since I’ve lived in New York State my whole life, I, like all true upstaters, am immensely adept at complaining about the cold, bleak winter that darkens about six months of the year (give or take). It’s a point of solidarity among New Yorkers, something that you can reference to a complete stranger and likely receive an earful on.

However, I don’t actually hate winter. I grew up right outside the snow belt and a recipient of Lake Effect Snow, so winter is like an old familiar friend to me. I enjoy how muted and fresh the world looks under a fresh blanket of snow. I like to ski. I like to sip hot chocolate, curl up next to a fireplace and immerse myself in a book. I like wool socks, scarves, and cardigans.

Yet, in spite of all that, this year I needed it to be spring in a way I haven’t previously. It has been a long, dark, cold few months in my personal life. I am sick of the outdoors reflecting my inward state.

I am ready for growth.

“For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks. Its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.”
– Cynthia Occelli

To be clear, I am not intimidated by winter – both inwardly or outwardly.

As someone who struggles with depression, the seasons serve as a source of continual personal encouragement to me. The seasons are a tangible reminder that change can be beautiful and that everything is impermanent. I am not going to get perpetually stuck in the winter months. Spring will come. Beauty will burst forth, and I will reap what I’ve sown. And, I’m certainly not scared of struggling. Shaming struggling is a facade. Everyone struggles; there’s no reason for shame. Thus it’s a facade I refuse to participate in.

But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I am relieved that it’s finally spring.

“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.

And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.”
– Albert Camus


Was it Necessary to Do It?

I tell you that ant is very alive!
Look at how he fusses at being stepped on.
–  Mary Oliver

Even my church building has been a source of ready encouragement to me.

About a year ago, the church that I attend, Goodwill – New Paltz, finally had the privilege of opening the doors of its permanent location for the very first time. Together, we rejoiced as a church, as this is something we had been praying for consistently for the better part of a year and a half. Previously, we had been meeting in the Community Center in town, which, though accommodating, presented its own unique set of challenges. Fellowship was significantly hampered after church due to the fact other groups also used the building and we had to vacate the premises by a certain time. Not to mention the extraordinary outside effort and time it took each week to completely set up and tear down all of the chairs, tables and instruments required for both services.

And, not only did we finally have a permanent location, but the building that my church gets to call its home is, by no exaggeration, one of the most historically significant buildings in the Village of New Paltz. (Interestingly, though the building itself dates back to the Civil War era, my church was founded in 1729 – prior to the American Revolution.)

Feeding the 5000: Transforming a Steakhouse into a Church

The building that now houses my church has traditionally been at the center of the culture and hubbub of community activities. (Coincidence? I think not. God is good.) In fact, in 2004, the building was officially declared a landmark by the New Paltz Village Historic Preservation Commission. The two-story, 3,200 square foot brick building that sits on the corner of North Chestnut Street was initially built as a Village Hall in in 1864. However, it has worn a variety of titles throughout its history. It has been a traditional theatre and a “moving-pictures theater” on multiple occasions, (usually both at the same time,) as well as an Opera House, Community Center, and various restaurants. It has also housed a hardware store, a school of ballet, a barber shop, and a shoe repair shop. It has even briefly housed residents! It has hosted everything from basketball games to barn dances.

Pastor Josh has remarked on numerous occasions that: “To know that we get to be the stewards of this jewel of New Paltz – to me, the most iconic building in the Village – comes with a sense of great joy and great responsibility.”

IMG_2011

Stupidly excited. God is moving in New Paltz, and it’s a privilege to be a part of that.

Turning a restaurant into a church is no small feat, however. Thus, for the better part of the first few months that we occupied it as a church, it was in a state of obvious construction. At this point, everything that is left to do is primarily cosmetic, but there was something very cool about worshipping God in a space that was still in the process of realizing its full potential.

After all, aren’t we all in a state of perpetual construction before Him?

“We, in Communion with Jesus Christ are a Community of friends and families who love and trust Him and passionately pursue the Christ-like Character essential to fulfill our Commission to change our lives and world for Him.”
(Goodwill’s purpose and identity statement)

We live in a society that rewards and celebrates the “big things” – starring in a play, releasing a single on iTunes, getting a metal at the Olympics. Social media has only contributed to this propensity to play into the highlight reel of our lives. But what’s not seen by the masses is the hours of rehearsal, the voice lessons, the frustrations, and years of daily pushing the physical limits that led up to each of these individual successes.

What’s not seen by a visitor of Upstate New York in the spring is the winter that proceeded it. What’s not seen by a visitor of my church now is spackle behind the painted walls; the long days put in by Doug Jeffries and many unnamed others to transform a restaurant into a functional church.

We need to stop waking up and waiting for something wonderful to happen. We are that something wonderful. Let’s make it happen.

“Wrong will be right when Aslan comes in sight.
At the sound of His roar, sorrows will be no more.
When He bares His teeth, winter meets its death,
And when He shakes His mane, we shall have spring again.”
– C.S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe


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 15:55-57

One of my least favorite phrases that has wormed its way into the Christian vernacular is: “God gives His hardest battles to His strongest soldiers.” (It’s right up there with: “God helps a man who helps himself.” Gag me.)

I detest this cliché for a myriad of reasons. First of all, it’s not Biblically grounded. It completely

  1. Disregards that the only way any of us stand a chance in battle is because of Who God is, not because of who we are. Please. Let’s not get presumptuously cocky. (I don’t know about you, but pride is never something that my Bible speaks of highly. But maybe you have a different translation?)
  2. Ignores how someone becomes a “strong soldier.” As aforementioned, just like most success, becoming a soldier is preceded and continued by a string of minute decisions daily, small, uncelebrated, and sometimes even unnoticed acts of obedience.

To be entirely transparent, I have often longed that the battles that God has given me to face and carry – my brother’s stillbirth, Nancy’s untimely passing, my depression – could be re-gifted to some other soldier. Not that I would ever wish sorrow on anyone else. But at the same time, I whine at God, why me?

I often get FOMO amongst my peers. Many of my friends my age have graduated college at this point, and are either in grad school or beginning their careers, getting married, or starting a family. I’m still struggling to keep my plants alive, and am not even yet settled enough somewhere to get a pet. My plans have been written and re-written over the course of the last few years, as what I want has changed, and I’ve been forced to take time off of school for the sake of my mental health (I’m actually on a leave of absence from school right now.)

In a way, experiencing grief so young feels like I got robbed of what remained of my youth, and was catapulted into adulthood without my consent or even any sort of warning. I was a senior in high school when Nancy died, on the cusp of finally experiencing the “best years of my life:” getting to discover who I was apart from my parents and hometown, and make irresponsible decisions without remorse. (I may have done that last thing anyway.)

I have often told God that if He wanted to place the calling He has on my life on someone else’s life, I’d be cool with it. (I’m not yet sure what He’s calling me to, but He has made it abundantly clear to me that He has work for me to do.) Because, the paradox of all of this is that “to much is given, much is required” (Luke 12:48).

I have been given much, therefore much is required of me.

I personally would rather lie low. I’m rather fond of my bed. I’d be okay with just sliding by, unnoticed and uncelebrated, leading a “normal” life with “normal” activities. Unfortunately, that is just not accessible to me. God wants (and even demands) more for (and of) me.

So in trusting Him, I’m striving to celebrate the ordinary: this season of harrowing internal construction, even if it doesn’t look exactly how I had imagined or how I would have preferred. Fortunately, weather* it’s spring or winter, my Jesus is consistent in all seasons, and the gospel only gets sweeter with time.

“Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you have died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, Who is your life appears, then you will also appear with Him in glory.”
Colossians 3:2-4, emphasis mine

*entirely intentional.

 

Celebrating the Struggle: The ‘Already’ and the ‘Not Yet’

Reeling in “get tos.”

Throughout my lifetime I have had many people tell me that they look up to me – especially in recent years. They mean that figuratively, of course. (In the literal sense, I obviously look up to everyone.)

It is always immensely gratifying and humbling to be told that. However, what a lot of people don’t realize is that the attributes that they admire – “my” strength, “my” wisdom, “my” resilience – are attributes that have been borne of grief and pain. They are a direct result of what I’ve walked through and the faithfulness of my God in the midst of my pain. What a lot of people don’t realize is that the product of what they see in the day to day – the poise with which I’m able to carry myself and the things I’m able to accomplish – is the product of many lonely nights spent weeping and crying out to God, many days of just going through the motions, many days of making microscopic decisions of obedience in faith, even when I didn’t feel like it. It has not all been glorious or beautiful. In fact, more has probably been gruesome than beautiful or noteworthy. I actually am of the opinion that I look quite hideous when I cry.

I’m not sharing this to proclaim how “amazing” I am and toot my own horn, but rather to display the incredible faithfulness of my God. I know how often I’ve felt alone or even diminished by my struggle with grief and depression. Ironically, it seems to be a self-fulfilling prophesy. In my experience it’s been all too easy to withdraw from people and isolate myself – which means it’s pretty easy to convince myself that I’m all alone and that no one understands because no one else is struggling the way I am. And how easy it would be for that perspective to remain unchallenged if I isolated myself and didn’t allow for others to speak truth into my life. Because the fact of the matter is that I’m not alone. Others are struggling and hurting. But unless you’re honest with yourself first, you can’t be honest with others. And it took me a longer time than I care to admit that I was struggling, because honestly, I’m a prideful person. I like being okay and pulling myself up by my own bootstraps (isn’t that the American Dream?)

Asking for help felt like admitting defeat. 

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As it would turn out, I was just admitting that I was human. 

It has been a rough few semesters for me. I had to take some incompletes last semester due to how crippling my depression became around the five year anniversary of Nancy’s passing. I’m still in the process of finishing the work. I’ve also had to withdraw from a few classes this semester due to some personal setbacks early on this semester – meaning my college graduation is likely put off by another semester.

I’m tired.

However. I don’t “have to” struggle. I “get to.”

This doesn’t have to be my story. It gets to be. I have a story, not of defeat or failure, but rather one of victory; the story of how a girl was able to still finish college in spite of losing her sister at the onset, due to the faithfulness of her God. So it took her a little longer – so what? All the more time for God to be glorified. After all, as a Christian I don’t fight for victory. I fight from victory. Death is already defeated, and Jesus is risen. I serve a living God.

 “And Lucy felt running through her that deep shiver of gladness which you only get if you are being solemn and still.
– C. S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe


“I am increasingly suspicious that laughter and tears are not opposites, but that somehow, in their fullness, the two run into one.”
– Diona Southcott


“There is a kind of happiness and wonder that makes you serious. It is too good to waste on jokes.”
– C. S. Lewis

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Beaver Lodge, Beaver Camp. I’ve spent many hours in worship, quality conversation, prayer and stillness here. 

“Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them He said: ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow Me cannot be my disciple.'”
Luke 14:25-27

Jesus didn’t “have to” come to earth. He “got to.” He chose love over fear.

If that’s what Jesus did, what other choice do I have? There is no other choice. I get to choose love over fear. As Thomas Merton so eloquently puts it, “Our job is to love people without stopping to inquire whether or not they’re worthy.”

Now, I am in no way Jesus. But I have the privilege of knowing Him. And that changes everything, including my suffering.

Especially my suffering.

To be clear, it doesn’t change the fact that I suffer. Being a Christian is not some get-out-of-jail-free card that acts as a prevention against suffering. Do not pass go. Do not collect two hundred dollars. In fact, it is just the opposite. It invites it. After all, if you want to look like Jesus, you’re going to get some scars.

As Romans 8:16-17 states:
“The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God. And if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him.

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Imperfect yet thankful.

If Christianity prevented suffering, wouldn’t everyone convert? (I mean, it follows right?) However, as my pastor says, Christianity is a terrible religion – because it’s not based on your merit. It’s based entirely on Christ’s merit. Being a Christian is not all sunshine and unicorns. In fact, the gospel is the story of Jesus being nailed to a cross – the most tortuous way that the Romans had devised to kill people. And they were experts at killing people. They thrived on it.

But the story doesn’t end with Jesus dying on the cross. It ends with Him defeating death – the ultimate consequence of sin – by being resurrected back to life.

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

My suffering is not the end of my story. It’s the beginning of a tale of God’s eternal glory.

“There is always enough grace for you, Amy.”
-Jarron Widrick

(a reminder from a beloved friend of mine recently that I think everyone needs)

Adventure in Hope

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Last spring, I decided to get a tattoo – partially in memory of Nancy, and partially for my own sake, as a constant personal reminder. I got the words “adventure in hope” written as a permanent reminder and memoriam on my upper left hand shoulder. It was a phrase I had coined upon initially moving to New Paltz, after years of debating how I wanted to honor Nancy. I wanted something simple but meaningful to me – words I would carry with me as a banner going forward in my life, and a reminder of where I came from. I finally settled on the phrase “adventure in hope” for these reasons:

  • I want my life to be an adventure. I want to love boldly, live joyfully, give freely. In truth, I think that my life already is one. I think that loving people unconditionally is the most adventurous thing you will ever do, and is entirely too rare.
  • Also, the term adventure reminds me of the summers I spent serving at Beaver Camp, the place that introduced me to adventure, my previously unexplored capabilities and interests, and my love of ministry.
  • Hope is a concept that became deeply meaningful to me after my mom had a stillbirth between Lorilee and Sadie Mae’s birth. It was then I discovered what a “living hope” meant (1 Peter 1:3-9). In retrospect, I can see how God used that time to prepare me for an even more devastating loss, the death of Nancy. The penmanship of the word hope on my tattoo is written in such a way that is intended to mimic Nancy’s handwriting.
  • But why the phrase “adventure in hope?” Simple. Adventure is both a noun and a verb, and hope is both a noun and a verb. Meaning they’re both things that exist in their own right, but that they’re also things that you can actively do. In my life, I intend for them to be paired together; I intend to adventure in hope. Both in knowing God, and in making Him known. (Yes, my tattoo has a dual meaning.)

The problem with knowing God is that you get a tiny taste of perfection on this side of heaven – in this woefully imperfect world. This longing to be with Christ only increases and makes some days on this fallen earth nothing short of torturous. My heart is broken by this dark, sin-encumbered world, and the despair we’re seeing as a result.

But that’s nothing – as one of my closest friends, Rachel Musteen so succinctly puts it: “God lives in a state of perpetually having His heart stomped on.”

“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.”
Philippians 1:21-24

“As Christians, we live in the ‘already’ and ‘not yet.'”
– Pastor Joshua Stewart

As I was reminded so boldly at a wedding for two dear friends of mine recently:

“Your ministry matters.”
– Dierdra Moran

You might not know the impact you’re having. But if you’re still on this earth, it is for a purpose. Cling to that truth. And rejoice in it. Your struggle is not in vain or pointless…ever.

I serve an intentional God.

“…all the days ordained for me were written in Your book before one of them came to be.”
Psalm 139:14bc

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. 

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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)

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(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

Wrestling (Always Winter, But Never Christmas)

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
-C.S. Lewis on Aslan, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (emphasis mine)

“…we have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.”
Hebrews 6:19

I’m going to be very honest here: some days, it’s really hard for me to believe. Some days, faith just seems too simple a response to the complex issues relentlessly plaguing our world. Is God really enough? Is He really in control? Because if He is, I for one would like to know where the hell He’s at.

Especially in recent years, I have been increasingly disillusioned. The church has disappointed me. Those closest to me have let me down. My only brother was stillborn, and my oldest sister passed away in a car accident. Christian culture as a whole seems very trite and fabricated to me, and thus, to be perfectly honest, I don’t particularly care to engage in it.

I have been wrestling, and it’s gotten sweaty…maybe even a little ugly.

In a world overrun with disease, death, natural disasters, corruption, racism, human trafficking, and inequality, how does a God Who claims to be good and sovereign fit? There is so much evil and chaos. Why isn’t He intervening?

Sometimes it seems like I have more questions than answers.

The only way I know how to answer the questions I just raised is by raising more questions: is God, in fact, not intervening? Or is He simply not intervening the way I would like or expect? And does this basis alone, the fact that I don’t get to dictate how God works, enough to dismiss His existence? Because obviously, if God doesn’t work the way I want or expect, it only follows that He doesn’t exist. That’s just simple logic right? If God (a Being presumed omniscient and omnipotent) doesn’t fit into the box I want Him to fit in, He must not exist.

Personally, I know I’ve been extremely hurt and disappointed by some of the circumstances I’ve gone through. And that accounts for only one person. I can’t imagine that I’m the only one. But is this alone enough evidence to deny the existence of a Being greater than myself? Is this alone enough to unseat my faith? Is faith merely something I cling to in ignorance simply to console myself when painful circumstances arise?

After all, faith is all about what feels good and what makes concrete sense…it has nothing to do with intangibles beyond what we can see or comprehend. It’s intended to cater to us, and our whims – it has nothing to do with God. That would clearly be ridiculous.

So if that’s the case, I can just decide when God exists according to when He is and isn’t convenient for my purposes.  Easy. Problem solved.

Or is it?

“A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word, ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell.”
C. S. Lewis

Does a faith that only has merit apart from pain and suffering actually have any merit at all?
I mean, by definition, it is either always true or it is never true: it is as plain as that.

The interesting thing is, whether you subscribe to a belief in God or not, you still yearn for justice. In fact, you demand it. Where does this desire for justice come from? Why do we have any sense of morality at all? Could our desire for justice as a human race alone be indicative of a higher power?

Is the issue actually with God? Or is it with us? Let’s get to the root of the problem here.

In order to have unfulfilled expectations you must first have expectations. In order to be disillusioned, you must first believe something. This is simple logic. And the most common, basic argument I hear against Christianity (with surprisingly little variety) is: “A good God wouldn’t let ‘bad things’ happen to ‘good people.'” And if that is truly the case, I’m wasting my time – as indicated above. There are a lot of presuppositions that are wrapped up in that statement. So, let’s unpack it a little bit, shall we?

If indeed a good God wouldn’t let “bad things” happen to “good people,” then based solely on what we see in the world and our understanding of what a good person is, I’d say we have every right to deny the existence of a God entirely. Or, at the very least we have the right to be resentful toward the God that does exist, if not only for allowing “bad things” to happen to “good people,” but furthermore for claiming to be good in the first place if He really isn’t.

But, if indeed a good God would let “bad things” happen to “good people,” then we have to accept that to believe in Him and follow Him is not some sort of contract that guarantees our safety, comfort, and protection. Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you?

The statement “a good God wouldn’t let ‘bad things’ happen to ‘good people'” indicates three major presumptions:
one, that God is good,
two, that there are good people, and
three, that we don’t live in a just world because bad things do in fact happen to good people.

Does a book as archaic as the Bible have anything to contribute to such a relevant discussion? I mean, does the Bible even address any of these problems?

Rest assured, it certainly does. In fact, the Bible is a book devoted to addressing problems just like this one.

According to the Bible, the entire premise of the argument is undermined immediately due to the fact that there aren’t technically ‘good people’ to speak of. Every human is sinful and flawed and possesses a hopelessly impaired judgement. Romans indicates that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). By this definition, then, ironically, it follows that it is our own fallen nature that is the direct harbinger of injustice into our world. Because if all people are innately bad, then to receive any goodness at all is actually to receive something we don’t deserve.

So, technically, justice is what we’re experiencing. We live in a world full of pain and darkness because the consequence of sin is death, not because God isn’t good. Still pretty bleak, I know.

“The White Witch? Who is she?” [asked Lucy.]

Mr. Tumnus: “Why, it is she that has got all Narnia under her thumb. It’s she that makes it always winter. Always winter and never Christmas; think of that!”

“How awful!” said Lucy.

(The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, again emphasis mine)

At least it would be, if the story ended there. Just like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe would be if Aslan never came to help the Pevensies bring about the dethroning of the White Witch and restoring Narnia to the way it was intended to be.

Can you imagine how the story would read? “And they all lived miserably ever after.” Who would honestly want read such a story? Evil triumphs over goodness, and even the smallest of the remaining flickerings of goodness are eventually snuffed out. Enjoy a life of hopelessness, kids.

“If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”
– C.S. Lewis

But the story doesn’t end there. It goes on to culminate in an epic battle in which, not only is the White Witch defeated once and for all, but, many Narnians are literally given their life back through Aslan’s breath. However, there is a point where it does seem that the White Witch has conquered and Narnia will eternally be subjected to a state of  bitter winter with no Christmas. Early on, Edmund Pevensie had aligned himself with the White Witch in ignorance, unaware of the costly ramifications of this choice. And thus, too late for him to change his mind, it is established he belongs to her. His blood is her property. The only way for him to be able to stand for Narnia and with Aslan is if he is bought back. This requires an exchange. Aslan offers himself as a sacrifice for Edmund. And in arguably the most emotionally jarring, sorrowful moment of the book, Aslan is killed – willingly – at the hand of the White Witch.

This is a moment that has been immortalized in my imagination forever. The palpable silence that descended with the murderous hand of the White Witch upon Aslan. The serene sadness behind Aslan’s gentle eyes. The terrified roaming eyes of the White Witch, even as she attempts to stay calm and collected. She knows the power she holds in that moment is borrowed – it is not something she could have achieved of her own accord. This unsettles her, even as she delivers the final blow to her enemy.

Aslan draws his last breath, and his majestic body goes limp as his life shudders to a halt.

The entire body of the White Witch exhales a visible sigh of relief. Somehow, up to that point, she had this terrible suspicion that she was being duped somehow. It couldn’t really be this easy – could it? She had been hoping for Aslan’s demise for longer than even she truly knew, but was paralyzed in the knowledge that she was incapable of matching with his strength and power. And yet, here he laid before her, lifeless, defeated by the Deep Magic and his own goodness.

It. Is. Finished.

Edmund has been redeemed and is no longer in bondage to the White Witch – but at great cost. And defeating the White Witch apart from Aslan’s wisdom and power is essentially impossible.

When I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for the first time, I was unsure as to whether I even wanted to turn the page after Aslan died. What else was left to be done? What story could follow such a tragedy? But sometimes the difference between sorrow and victory is only a matter of turning a page.

Lucy and Susan are depicted as walking aimlessly following Aslan’s death, completely distraught about what they just witnessed and uncertain of how to proceed. Suddenly in the midst of their mourning they hear the Stone Table crack and Aslan’s body is immediately gone. They turn to find Aslan behind them, somehow even more majestic than before. More magic? Indeed. Magic deeper than even the Deep Magic.

“But what does it all mean?” asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer.

“It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”

C.S. Lewis is painting a meaningful picture here of the hope we as Christians have in resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:12-22):  an essentially “deeper magic” than the traditional categories of death and decay. Jesus’ resurrection defeated death – the consequence for our sin – once and for all, thereby defeating the evil forces of this dark world. Aslan is a picture of Christ, and Edmund Pevensie is a picture of all of us and the dire situation we’re in apart from Christ. We live in a world that is in the cold wintery clutches of evil, and yet something within all of us longs for something better, for a thawed Narnia. We recognize the world isn’t as it’s supposed to be. This is extremely relevant and noteworthy, because it is this recognition that causes a lot of people (myself among them) to get very frustrated with the deteriorating state of things in the world when God is powerful enough to stop it from occurring. I raise my puny fist toward heaven and demand that God answer for Himself. “How dare you! What do You have to say for Yourself?” I cry, my finite perspective bristled against His infinite one.

Funny, how infinite answers have a way of silencing finite ones every time.

You see, all of my questions I’ve asked as I’ve wrestled essentially boil down to one question: is the gospel enough?

Oftentimes, within the private wickedness of my own heart, I anticipate it not being enough. I anticipate the gospel failing me and all of the skepticism I’ve received as a result of my faith finally coming to fruition. And yet, the crucifix doesn’t disappoint, even in the crux of a problem – actually, I would argue, especially in the crux of a problem. I’ve found that the beauty of the cross has only increased throughout my life.

Do I really believe what I profess to believe? Because if so, than the suffering and injustice that surrounds me shouldn’t surprise me. They point straight back to the problem of sin and the need for redemption. We are all living, breathing testimonies of how desperately grace is needed to meet us in our broken state. History also attests to our inability to fix this issue with sin and injustice ourselves. We are not even strong enough to overcome the evil within us as individuals, let alone the evil in the world. We need something beyond ourself. This is why Jesus came to die. However, suffering is even built into the redemption story. Jesus is betrayed by one of His closest friends. He is brutally whipped. He is scorned. Nails are driven into His flesh. Crucifixion is a terrible, terrible way to die.

But Jesus’ crucifixion is not the end of a story of defeat. It is the beginning of a story of victory where death works backwards.

So, why did God choose do things this way? Why did He allow suffering to be built into the very circumstances that directly lead to our redemption? I have to guess it’s to teach us. To indicate to us that He is still in control: even in a world overrun with evil, His purposes will not be thwarted (John 19:11). After all, He allowed evil to be used in accomplishing our redemption.

 The question shouldn’t be, “Why does a good God let bad things happen?” but rather, “Why does God take such a single interest in humanity to allow us to experience things that will overwhelm us with His grace?”

As a Christian, we can walk in the assurance of knowing that while we can readily anticipate suffering, the separation between suffering and glory is oftentimes only a matter of turning a page.

“Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in His sufferings in order that we may also share in His glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”
Romans 8:17-18

(This blog was partially inspired by a song by Relient K entitled In Like a Lion: (Always Winter). You can listen to the song here.)

Token Christianity

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.'”
Romans 1:16-17, ESV

My generation of believers loves to discuss the idea of “relevant faith.” It sounds edgy and modern, as if our generation has stumbled upon something in the Bible that all the generations prior to us failed to notice. We love to discuss theology over our dark-roasted coffees, do Greek word studies, and wear earrings from the missions trip we went on to that impoverished nation that one time.

Of course, far be it from us to allow those discussions to actually alter our lifestyles. That would be close-minded and offensive. It also has the potential to make us look a bit irrelevant, which, as previously stated, is not the goal. We must yield to the idols of Tolerance and Political Correctness at all costs. Far be it from us to talk about Jesus. Don’t you know that His name is one of the most offensive and divisive of all?!

We’ve grown up in a world where we’re inundated by advertisements, much more so then generations previous. They’re everywhere we turn. And with the emergence of the internet, they infiltrate into our personal life. They show up as we peruse through our various forms of social media. They’re on the side of the web pages as we do research for papers. It seems as though everyone is trying to sell something to us.

I would even make the argument that the emergence of social media is one thing that has aided in this explosion of advertising. We want to portray ourselves a certain way, and social media is one venue we have to do such. We control our image. In a sense, we determine the “advertising” of our own life. All of us are journalists. All of us are photographers. We can generate our own media at anytime. This is a very recent phenomenon. In the past, there used to be “gatekeepers” that controlled what made the cut – what was newsworthy and what wasn’t. The internet has eliminated this.

With all this media noise, how can we be expected to siphon through it to make informed decisions? How can we really be sure in any decision we make? There’s so much information available to us at any given point, and new information is being shared all the time. It’s impossible to keep up, much less determine the legitimacy of the sources providing it. How can we know anything? The obvious conclusion is we can’t. We must remain carefully undecided about everything, lest we appear ignorant by having an opinion. We must remain apathetic towards everything, lest we look foolish in our passion. We must be carefully guarded, intelligently educated individuals who are faithful to plead the Fifth at every heated discussion. Appearing gutless and vapid is far preferable to having an opinion, obviously.

And so, the stage is set for the emergence of token Christianity.

You’re all familiar with the brand of Christianity I’m talking about. It’s the “feel good, God is love, you do you” Christianity that has so deeply penetrated my generation. “Do what makes you happy,” “follow your heart,” and “do what feels right to you,” are all pithy sayings that run in this same vein of thinking. And just to clarify, I’m not denying that happiness is important. Life is short. However, my question is this: is it the most important? The problem with allowing these types of clichés to dominate your thinking as a Christian is that it sets your personal fulfillment and individual autonomy up to be more important than all else.

This kind of thinking has led to a generation of cross-wearing Christians that have forgotten the Cross.

In an age of such heavy advertising, it’s hard to promote something that doesn’t necessarily “sell” very well. The temptation is to amp up the parts of faith that sound appealing and sweep the other, less inviting things under a rug somewhere.

I understand the temptation, friends. I’ve been there. But, I’m going to be very honest with you here: to create a gospel message that intended merely for mass appeal is to distort the gospel. I understand. Your intentions are good. But to “advertise” God’s love apart from God’s justice undermines the purpose of the gospel. Yes, it was love that energized it. But it was justice that required it. It was God’s justice that needed to be fulfilled. God’s love for us does not eliminate our need for redemption. It does not eliminate the fact that we are depraved sinners. In order to understand the gospel, people must first be made aware of the fact that they’re sinners in desperate need of a Savior. Repentance must take place. The incomplete gospel message is a different message entirely. Therefore, to take one attribute of God and set it up against His other attributes is a form of idolatry. You are then not worshiping God, but rather an ideal.

“By the way,” C. S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, “This point is of great practical consequence. The most dangerous thing you can do is to take any one impulse of your own and set it up as the the thing you ought to follow at all costs. There is not one of them that will make us into devils if we set it up as an absolute guide. You might think love of humanity in general was safe, but it is not. If you leave out justice you will find yourself breaking agreements and faking evidence in trials ‘for the sake of humanity,’ and become in the end a cruel and treacherous man.”

My concern in this separation of God’s love from His justice – this splitting of hairs, to borrow a popular colloquialism – is that it not only eliminates the need for repentance and the gospel, but it also aids in the mindset that you can pick and choose truth for yourself. You can create your moral palette to taste rather than to truth. This makes the Bible out to be a buffet, where you determine what you consume based on how you feel. You don’t have to allow it to infringe on your personal freedom. The Bible is not meant to be digested like that. It is intended to be consumed in its entirety, like a wholesome meal.

As Matt Moore writes in a recent blog post, (see blog post here), “A ‘Christian’ faith that calls sin what it is but lacks love, mercy, and grace isn’t very Christian. Likewise, a ‘Christian’ faith that embraces the ideas of love, mercy, and grace, but refuses to submit to the Bible’s teaching on sin and repentance isn’t very Christian. The former fleshes out in angry, loveless religion that does not point to Christ; the latter fleshes out in God-belittling, powerless religion that does not point to Christ. And in my opinion, based on my understanding of the Scriptures, neither of these faiths has any kind of saving power. It is the holy faith of Christ characterized by love and truth that saves.”

Jesus loved. But He loved enough to speak truth. Can you imagine if Jesus had came to earth, and in His omniscience, said to the Pharisees (infamous distorters of the gospel), “Well, what you’re doing is all wrong, but I mean, whatever man. You do you. I just want you to be happy.”

Imagine.

You see, Jesus did want them to be happy. But in the true sense of the word. He desired them to find their fulfillment in Him, rather than the approval of those they were leading. He knew that calling sin “expressing yourself” and “celebrating individualism” was to celebrate death. He understood that truth and happiness are not mutually exclusive. Am I preaching a health and wealth gospel? By no means! Having a relationship with Jesus does not mean that the rest of your life will be painless and perfect. It instead means that you realize that there’s more to this finite existence than the present circumstances. There is deeper hope than what can be seen. You have no need to fear, because your eternity future is secured by grace, not by merit. This knowledge causes a paradigm shift in your thinking that radically changes the perception of the world around you.

When we belittle sin, we belittle the gospel. And when we are so paralyzed by the fear of being offensive that we don’t speak truth, we’re ineffective. Not to mention that conforming to the world to “sell” Christianity is a bit oxymoronic. We’re instructed to be in the world and not of it. People are longing to see authentic faith. Don’t undermine your own testimony through faulty notions of “reaching more people” that way. It’s beautiful to be passionate about something when that passion is not misplaced.

It’s not that the gospel is more relevant now than it has been in the past, it’s that it’s always been as relevant as it is today. It’s a message people need to hear in it’s entirety.

We are accountable to what we know. My prayer for my generation is that we will cease to be cross-wearers, and start to be cross-bearers.

 “Then Jesus told His disciples, ‘If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.'”
Matthew 16:24

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