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

 

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