Identity and Children

IMG_3420.JPG
“Has your wife held the baby yet?” The nurse asked Nathan. No, not yet, she didn’t know if she could, he told her.

“Oh she needs to! Make sure you bring her down here as soon as she can!”

It seems strange to think of having to ask to hold your newborn baby, but the world of the NICU is different from our mentally romanticized birth ideas. The day after Nathan’s conversation with the nurse, three days after our daughter was born, we walked down to the NICU and asked the nurse on duty if we could hold our baby. She pulled a big chair over for me. I waited while she rearranged wires and clipped back blankets that wrapped the tiny bundle. She found a tiny pink hat, which now lives in a box in my basement, and secured it on the small, fuzzy head. She then handed me the 3lb baby. I made a comment to the nurse as I took the baby and suddenly, her big eyes, which were open for the first time that day, jerked from the other side of the room toward the direction of my face the instant she heard my voice. I held her as long as I could before she had to be returned to her isolette.

A friend who had a baby shortly before me told me that as soon as she held her baby, all doubts about being a mother faded and she felt so proud to be this little person’s mother. I listened, happy for her, but I wasn’t sure I believed that I would have the same experience. Having a baby came with a lot of attention and expectations that mostly embarrassed me. I had a difficult time placing my identity as a person, a woman, a daughter, a mother, into categories that I understood.

People promised me that as soon as I saw my baby, I would feel pride and joy. They promised there was nothing like holding a baby and being called someone’s mom. Being someone’s mom was the last thing I had planned for myself and it came with plenty of negative connotations in my mind – real or conjured.

Thrown into the NICU world, I found that I no longer had a familiar identity. The nurses called us “Mom and Dad” or referred to us as our baby’s mom and dad. They never used our first or last names. We suddenly existed only as the parents to this helpless infant within those walls.

I looked at that white bundle that was mostly composed of swaddling blankets. I watched her eyes turn to mine. Slowly, and yet without warning, that promised mantle of motherhood draped itself over me. Out of nowhere, I was ready to claim that baby, that helpless little blob, who mostly slept and rarely cried, as MY child. I no longer cared that I knew nothing about babies. I no longer cared that my world was turned upside down like dumped out purse. I had a baby girl. She was mine. She knew my voice and I knew she knew my voice. I fell in love.

While it was still a bit strange, I gradually grew used to being “Mom” to the nurses. The next week, signing in to the NICU, the receptionist asked if the mom knew I was coming to visit. I told her, I am the mom, laughing, but without reservation or embarrassment.

And the parents I knew were right, there was nothing like the pride that I felt in claiming this small nugget as my own baby.

And so, as a child of God, the parallels of birth, adoption, and identity became real when this little baby stormed the gates of my impenetrable heart. Suddenly, the reality that God could feel the same way about me – even more – than I did for this little baby was strange and wonderful. Not only by Him do all things consist, not only is He Creator and Sustainer, but He redeems and claims His children without demand or payment, thanks to Christ’s death and resurrection. Just like an infant without ability or usefulness, I stand before Christ, loved. God looks on me and sees the blood of Christ – the identity marker that denotes I am His child – and He takes joy in me. There is no reservation from God, no waiting to see what I can do for Him, no expectation that I will perform at top standards. There is simply the joy and pride that I am His child.

Christ’s baptism underscores His identification with humans. After His baptism, God’s voice was heard after saying, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” He was identifying Christ as His Son, and He was expressing His joy and pride in him. And, in addition, when we are hid with Christ, God recognizes us as His children. He has expressed His joy and pride in us, already, through His beloved son. Recently, I heard Russell Moore explain it this way. “If we are to stand in the grace of God…it will be because we realize that we are coming through the veil of a broken body and poured out blood. It is knowing God is pleased with me because I am in Christ.”

Not everyone is as slow to understand God’s ways as I am. Many people, with and without children understand the implications of God’s love for His children. While my head knew that my identity was secure in Christ, my heart did not understand how that nice, neat solution worked. When I took that infant into my arms, saw her eyes turn to find mine, and recognized her as my child, I began to understand how God’s love for His people is unending and unconditional. I knew that God could look on me and be happy simply because I was His. I understood that He could be satisfied and proud to call me His child – because He sees the satisfaction of wrath in the shadow of the cross. When He looks at His people, He sees one identity. He sees His Son, Christ – a Christ who has covered us, completed us, and marked us as children of God. And He is well pleased.

On the night you were born

 

 

IMG_3101.JPG

“Heaven blew every trumpet and played every horn, on the wonderful, marvelous, night you were born.” (Nancy Tillman, On the Night You Were Born)

 

I can still smell the soap scent. Medicinal, sharply clean, pleasant and unpleasant at the same time. This scent will never cease to connect between my olfactory system and my memories of churning nerves.  It is the scent that was on my hands when the doctor told me, ” Your body is rejecting pregnancy.”

 

There always seems to be a high level of emotion surrounding the birth of a child. Emotions vary widely. Whether there is sheer joy, nervous anticipation, or the blatant sorrow that Genesis 3 confers on humanity, the emotional states surrounding these tiny newcomers is tightly woven.

 

My doctor was right. My body was rejecting pregnancy and so my daughter was born, a tiny baby girl at 3 lbs, 6 oz, just about 8 weeks early. Becoming a parent has doled out measures of dramatics and normalcy. Her birth was one of the more dramatic moments of parenting, ironically at the beginning of the trek. Four years ago this weekend, Psalm 125 churned through my head over and over.

    1 Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever.

2 As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the LORD surrounds his people, from this time forth and forevermore.

I found great comfort in the strong strains that these words declared. A mountain, solid, unmovable. Unshaken.  I had never known sickness like that weekend. My experience of becoming a parent was not a run of the mill, bundle of joy handed to me in a tightly wrapped blanket sort of experience. I held my baby for the first time when she was three days old. We waltzed with wires and adjusted tubes to hold her. But I held my baby. She and I were fine.

IMG_2600.JPG

 

Sometimes I say “God was good to me” and He was, more than words can tell. But is God good when the ending is not as happy? Yes, of course.

Looking back on those verses in Psalms 125, I remember thinking I could have faced death and yet those verses would have still been true. Because in those verses, I hear hints to a ripped veil in the New Testament, blood spread on a mercy seat, and all things working together for good for those called by God. I see a promise of secure hope as a reward for faith. Not my best life now. Not the resolution of discomfort into a pain free life. But the promise that being loved, called by, and cared for by a Heavenly Father leaves my future unshaken, by faith in the power of the resurrection of Christ.

For four short, flash-like years, I have been a parent. When I wash my hands somewhere and smell the medicinal soap scent again, my mind goes directly to the remembrance that my trust is in Christ, in God as a good Heavenly Father. I look back each year, not only in delighted celebration of my daughter’s life, but in the fact that God revealed incredible grace through this child, in merciful ways. In His kindness, He chose to reveal His nature to me by giving me undeserved blessings, now and forevermore.

IMG_2700.JPG

If four years of being a parent have taught me anything, it is that God, calling Himself my Father, loves me more than I can fathom. When I look at my child, I can see this love through a veiled layer of comprehension. When I think further that He gave up His own Son, in order to make me His child, the understanding becomes more than my mind can fathom. I really cannot imagine. I really don’t possess that kind of love in my natural state. But being the recipient of that sacrificial love, makes me a very grateful imaginer.

And so, each October, I will think back with profound emotions, deep gratefulness, and a fixed hope. I know that a Father loves and cares for us. I can breathe in the expectation that those who trust in the Lord cannot be shaken, from this time forth and forevermore.

10,000 Reasons and More

DSCN2876
According to Carl Trueman, what preachers do all the time is “teach theology in the face of death.” This weekend, the conference I was attending closed out with everyone singing 10,000 Reasons. I first sang this song in July, standing in church next to a friend whose husband, a pastor, died two years ago, today. Before he died, he wrote numerous emails, rich in theological depth, wrestling with sickness, but full of trust in God.

“I know God has a purpose in all He does. It seems that God is most often glorified not through the ease of our lives, but in the trials. Contrary to much popular religious teaching we need not be “healthy and successful” for God to give evidence of His faithfulness, in fact Christ exalted the Father through suffering for us; most Apostles were martyrs, and we are called to take up our cross and follow. Does this mean God doesn’t care about our physical well-being? It can’t. There is a close connection in the Word of God linking his death for our sins with our health.”

You’re rich in love, and You’re slow to anger

Your name is great, and Your heart is kind

For all Your goodness I will keep on singing

Ten thousand reasons for my heart to find

“These past months have given many opportunities to meditate on texts

like these:

Praise the LORD, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy

name. Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits–

who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems

your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who

satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed

like the eagle’s. Psalm 103:1-5 

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our

iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by

his wounds we are healed. Isaiah 53:5 

Then we must also consider, what of the ministry of Jesus? He forgave

sin. He healed the sick. He raised the dead. Not all were forgiven,

not all were healed, but it happened.

All doubt about God’s concern for our physical well-being is

removed, however, with the Gospel. The Gospel is this: Christ died for

our sins on the cross and rose from the grave on the third day. In

Christ we gain forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Spiritual

healing, physical healing, emotional healing,– in Christ we are a

new creation. By faith in Christ this is all ours. He heals all His

children.

 I just can’t tell you when this healing will happen!

I have forgiveness in Christ now. I have been cleansed, but the

process of sanctification continues until one day I will stand in Him

complete. So, God may choose to bring temporary healing here, but the

certainty is one day healing will be complete when my body will be

glorified in the resurrection.

Christ is risen and these promises are ours! This promise is mine. 

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the

mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come

true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” 1 Corinthians 15:54 

That day is coming.”

 

Bless the Lord, O my soul

            O my soul

Worship His holy name

Sing like never before

            O my soul

I’ll worship His holy name.

 

As the words of 10,000 Reasons rolled from slide to slide on the screen this summer, tears rolled into my eyes. I had watched these friends suffer. I had prayed as he grew weaker. I listened as he spoke of his Redeemer. As they blessed the Lord despite their impending earthly loss.

 

And on that day when my strength is failing

The end draws near and my time has come

Still my soul will sing Your praise unending

Ten thousand years and then forevermore

 

As his strength was failing, he wrote….

 

“If you and I pray for healing and it doesn’t come, will God have

failed us? Or will we have failed God? Is that why we hesitate to pray

boldly?

 It can never be said that God’s power was inadequate or that our

prayers were inadequate if we simply pray as Jesus taught us to pray.

Jesus bids us pray in His Name. That means we are praying in

dependence on His power and in submission to His will. To commit our

prayer to Jesus’ will is not a “cop out” it is total submission

in faith to His will. It is a part of that faith we proclaimed in

Christ at our conversion…

 I come as a sinner to Christ. I have nothing to offer for my

salvation, but I confess my need. I believe His promise that the blood

of Jesus Christ is sufficient to pay for all my sin. I believe in His

resurrection from the dead. In Him I am cleansed, totally, completely

and forever. And as sure as I will stand before Jesus with a cleansed

spirit and soul, I will stand before Jesus with a glorified body. In

Christ I am saved.”

 

We read as he wrote about mortality, pain, faith, and future hope.

I stopped singing this summer in that church service, sadness over death and joy in resurrection power jammed in my throat.

 

“My foremost prayer must be that Christ would be glorified in my body,

and in yours, whether by life or by death.

 I know that He is being honored in my body now in ways in which He was

not honored in the past… I have also learned how dependent I

am upon Him.

 Now, God may want to keep me in my present physical condition. He may

choose to heal me. He may will to bring me quickly home. Any option is

to His praise and glory.”

 

Two weeks after he wrote these words, he went to Heaven to sing praises unending.

 

Bless the Lord, O my soul

            O my soul

Worship His holy name

Sing like never before

            O my soul

I’ll worship His holy name.

 

Last night, once again, I stood among a crowd, singing these words. I had to stop singing again. And as I listened to hundreds sing, there was a glimpse, like seeing a sliver of the moon, of praises unending. We know that the resurrection power exists in Christ. Ten thousand reasons for our hearts to find. We understand that in Him comes the grace to suffer here, to praise always, and to know the power of the resurrection eternally. Preachers teach theology in the face of death.

“As saints of old still line the way, retelling triumphs of His grace, we hear their calls and hunger for the day, when with Christ we stand in glory”

 

10,000 Reasons – Matt Redman

O Church Arise – Keith and Kristyn Getty

Carl Trueman – http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2011/12/christmas-and-the-faith-and-co.php#sthash.A1LtgO5b.dpuf

Italicized text – Richard Glenny, 2012

M&Ms and the Call of God

I laughed to myself recently when a woman asked me a question that could be classified as “parenting advice.” I was standing in a crowd, chatting with a random stranger from New York City who had a five-month-old baby girl strapped to her, discussing pacifiers, thumb sucking, and sleep patterns. I, who am the Queen of Makeshift Parenting, was doling out parenting tips. Like you should be telling anyone anything, I laughed to myself. I, who forget to change diapers and drag my children to Starbucks with iPads and cake pops while writing academic papers, will most likely not be writing Parenting magazine’s next advice column.

It was an ironically humorous moment that I had with myself. But, on the other hand, I am constantly amazed that being a mother to my children is the one thing that I have never questioned myself on my ability to do. And, by no means do I credit myself with this instinctual epiphany. Only God could give instincts and intuition that I found myself possessed with upon suddenly meeting my oldest daughter. Despite second guessing most of the steps I’ve taken in my life, I have never felt more myself than being these two little people’s mom. I may forget to buy enough ingredients to assemble a fruit and vegetable pirate ship for lunch, but I can read their minds. I may change diapers in the most inordinate places, but I can anticipate their emotions, their imaginings, and their small joys.

Obviously, I make mistakes, like giving my 16-month-old a bite of an M&M, transforming her into an M&M fiend who shrieks and hyperventilates when she sees an M&M bag. I know I will make many mistakes. I know there will be errors in judgment, things I would not do over again, words that I wish I could swallow down into my throat. I know there will be days when I am completely confounded by their actions, words, and attitudes. But when I scan through parenting articles and the scads of comments arguments that follow them, I find it odd how much of what we consider “parenting” does not really matter.

Even though there will be mistakes, my confidence is high and my stress is low, because I know ultimately, it is God who must place His hand on their life. I will do my best to steward this responsibility that He has, for reasons only He knows, believed best to drop into my life. I will model moral living in front of them. I will teach them good habits of life and what having strong character means. I will teach them to work hard. I will teach them to be virtuous, to be kind. I will teach them everything I can and model for them, as much as God gives me grace to do so.

I believe these are things that responsible parents do. However, whether I am a good or bad parent to let them suck their thumbs or eat M&Ms, or whether I live well or stumble and fall in front of them matters not. While I will be the best parent I can be because I want to be responsible, what really matters is that they learn that God loves them, that He is a trustworthy and good Father. What matters is that they learn to trust His word, to know what His will is (from His word). I will teach them to read so that they will be able to read and understand the Bible. I will show them the beauty and truth woven into the world- so they will see Christ around them, even within the darkest examples of need. I will teach them that the Cross is the only thing to which they can cling in a fallen world. I will encourage them to have large souls and love learning, so they understand that God, the author and sustainer of all, is not limited by time or space or geography and that His love and grace are boundless. But ultimately, no matter how hard I work to teach these things, it is only the call of God that will capture their hearts and turn their eyes to see His glory. As St. Augustine, speaking of his mother, writes, “Not of her gifts do I speak but of Your gifts in her.” I will fail miserably as a parent by many standards. I am without ability to mold or change my children. Rather, it is the gift of God when He calls them to Himself.

Someday, it will not matter if my children had a thumb or a pacifier. It will not matter if they had a blanket or co-slept with me, ate adequate servings of organic vegetables, or any other preferences that I might force on them. They may wear braces, they may not learn Mandarin, and they may have to look up a word in order to spell it correctly. While some of these issues are important to quality of earthly life, what I hope most is that they hear and understand the voice of God. Our goodness, baseline moral code, amazing standards of cleanliness, organizational and social skills, and access to a world-class education are not our strengths. Like Samuel in the Old Testament, I pray that they hear the voice of God calling them, that His hand is on their lives, and that His grace is their strength.

 

 IMG_1856.JPG

Want, Fear, & Grace -A Review of Teach Us To Want

 

Jen Pollock Michel. Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition, and the Life of Faith. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2014. 221 pp

 

“But, I just love THINGS!” A beautiful woman married to a missionary pastor stood, laughing in our house, recounting a conversation she had had with her husband. She was describing the struggle between wanting and going without – leaving their comfortable life with a house and jobs and heading into a ministry, giving up luxuries and items that might be considered “extras.”

This quote often comes to my mind when I hear conversations about desire versus denial. Many of us struggle to reconcile our wants with what we believe God requires of us – death to self and therefore, to all that we want. Whether it is materialism, tangibles, ambition, self-gratification, or spiritual pride, each of us grapples with putting our loves and wants in order.

Jen Pollock Michel has plunged into the theology of desire and emerged with the masterfully written, Teach Us To Want: Longing, Ambition & the Life of Faith.

I started the book, intrigued by the title alone, given my own experiences of ambitious longing and wilderness exile. I was not disappointed as I delved into the beautifully crafted paragraphs.

With engaging narrative, Jen Pollock Michel weaves an incredible blend of personal experience, Scriptural lessons, and literary, philosophical, and theological concepts. With clear but enticing artistry, she unfurls for the reader a verbal image of the complex state of our human hearts and the lavish grace of God. Using the Lord’s Prayer as a frame, she sketches the natural human bent toward desires that pursue fleeting pleasure and push against trusting the goodness of God. She creates colorful narrations of conversion, temptations, loss, and gain. The images she builds are descriptions in which readers can find themselves mirrored, no matter how differently individual circumstances may have fallen.

Taking on our natural human desires, Pollock Michel shows Christ’s grace that pulls us from the fear and complacency found rooted in sin’s curse, transforming it to a brave pursuit of our God given desires. She writes,

And here is how desire becomes corrupt: wanting derails into selfishness, greed and demanding ingratitude when we’ve failed to recognize and receive the good that God has already given. Trust is at the center of holy desire: trust that God is good and wills good for His people…When we refuse God’s good, when we mistrust God’s intentions, when we clamor for self-rule, we exact the cruel price of suffering.” (pp 84-5)

 Just as Eve and Adam failed to trust God’s good plan and exacted a cruel price of suffering, so we wrestle with the same tension in our desires – we want and yet distrust the Giver. We want the wrong things – the fruit that looms ahead, looking lovely and shiny, rather than the intangible communion with a God whom we must trust. And only by God’s gentle goodness and grace, as our lives unfold, do we learn to trust that what He gives is enough for our desires.

The pages are rife with references and allusions to a diverse set of writers, theologians, and thinkers from St Augustine, NT Wright, and Tim Keller, to Madeleine L’Engle, CS Lewis, Edith Wharton, and Annie Dillard and many more. Rich with thought, the book is a synthesis of beauty, goodness, and truth; beautiful theological truths, stated in flowing and captivating phrases.

Jen Pollock Michel is able to diffuse our common thought about desire. She makes a compelling case against the fear of want and the negative connotations of desire and ambition. She writes, powerfully convincing her readers that God desires His children to want, but rather than wanting the temporary fruit, we must want Him, to desire His grace, His good will. She encourages her readers to want, to desire fully, the life of faith found in a lavishly generous Father.

IMG_2862.JPG