Abraham and Five Year Plans

Five years ago I sat on a couch staring at my husband across the room. I still own the couch, but it now bears battle wounds of small children, the latest of which is blue marker on its’ arm. That night, the couch was clean and smooth. And our world had just jumped out of its orbit.

There was going to be a baby. Five years ago this weekend we suddenly knew the initial emotions of being parents. We knew the timing was horrible. We had no idea the turmoil that year would hold.

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I was 29. We had just celebrated his 30th birthday. We had walked off the plane from a fantastic vacation in Florida that week. We headed home to our still new-to-us church where we were thriving and to life as we knew it. I was in my last semester of grad school, hoping to be finished with a dead end job I hated by the end of the year. The puzzle pieces seemed to coming together for me. Until that night when it seemed like someone grabbed all the pieces and threw them up into the air to land at random.

For three months I walked around numbly, not knowing why God thought I needed a child, convinced I was being punished for some latent evil or stupidity. Then our pastor resigned. I got mad at God. I usually try to avoid being mad at God because generally it doesn’t do any good and seems like a waste in the end, but I was mad. For two weeks I walked around mad. And then our landlord told us he had sold our house and we had a month to move. Suddenly I had no energy left to be terrified or mad. I knew I had to give up the illusion of control I thought I owned.

I pitied myself. I let every possible emotion eat away at me. I knew ultimately that circumstances were so far out of my control that God had to be in control and that I was in the safest place to be- in His sovereignty, under the shadow of the Almighty. At times though, I would be afraid to take a breath, not knowing what might come next.

For two months a new normal tapped its rhythm. When everything seemed to be settling, I developed preeclampsia. And had a baby eight weeks early. And spent five weeks in a NICU with her.

Five years and two beautiful healthy little girls later, I live in the house that our pastor owned and sold to us. The last five years have been jammed full of joy and dotted with sorrow. There have been births and laughter. There have been deaths and tears. There have been changes and struggles and adjustments.

I read the story of Abraham to my girls. I read about God asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. I’m tempted to skip the story. I don’t want to explain to my 4 year old why God would ask a daddy to kill his own son. I don’t want to endure the empathetic thoughts about giving up my children. But I read the story and I answer the inevitable questions as best as I can. But the story has new revelations for me. The picture of sacrifice and rescue that God showed Abraham and Isaac on that mountain is clearer than it has ever been.

As I read and answer, my heart aches, wondering how Abraham could have given up his son, his only son for God. As a parent I writhe at the thought. And then as a child of God, as a recipient of grace, I realize that writhing I feel is how God felt when He sent His only begotten son, Jesus. And paradoxically, He gave up His son to gain me, to gain many sons and daughters.

I cover my little girls with blankets before I go to bed for the night. I look at their perfect sleeping faces and I wonder how I could be so undeservedly blessed. Each night I get to tuck them in is a gift. I wonder how I ever thought I didn’t need their lives in mine.

The only way I could scrape the surface at truly understanding the implications of my own redemption was to become a parent myself. God is brilliant, to give us families, in order for us to understand Him as our Father. He knew that I needed to know and believe that He loved me. He knew I had to feel that ache inside to be startled by the gift He gave.

A few weeks ago I took my youngest daughter for an ultrasound. I knew going into the procedure that there was nothing seriously wrong. The doctors had basically told us what the issue was. But there was a part of laying her on that table that felt a little too much like placing her on an altar. What if something deeper was wrong? What do parents feel who know there is something seriously wrong?

I went back to Abraham in my mind. He was called to give up what he loved. He complied. And he still believed that God would provide the sacrifice, whether that provision was Isaac or (ultimately) the ram that ended up in the thicket. And the irony of the whole story is that Abraham was rescued from having to sacrifice his son by God, whose plan was to sacrifice HIS son to rescue the world. In giving up Isaac, both Abraham and Isaac saw the glorious picture of redemption to come. When we give up, we look back at the glorious picture of redemption. There is no sacrifice that we endure that God has not made already. Most often this story of Abraham is taught as a neatly packaged heroic “God comes in as an 11th hour genie and spares Abraham from tragedy” kind of tale. But when God doesn’t prevent sorrow or hardship, what do we have left from this story? We have to know that Abraham “trusted God more than what His eyes could see” (S. Lloyd-Jones) and that regardless of our outcomes, God has still provided His own son as a sacrifice for us. All that we are asked to give up, freedom, youth, time, loved ones, convenience and ease, security, whatever it is, is already under God’s sovereignty. His sacrifice has already provided our escape. Our resurrection is guaranteed and sealed, by an altar shaped like a cross, by an open tomb.

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We need to come up short and be startled by the grace of God. It is too easy to say the words “grace, sacrifice, death and resurrection, and to not understand what pain our salvation cost God.

Five years ago I had no idea how much God loved me. It may sound silly to say, but I had no idea how He could use what I viewed as a series of mistakes and misfortunes as an altar where, like Abraham, I had to offer up what I most treasured in order to understand the sacrifice of Christ.

When we give up what we most want, we can clearly see the glory and love of our Father.


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Summer Stillness

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I took an inadvertent break here through July. Some people announce their breaks, others give a schedule of who will blog for them or that they have prepared posts ahead of time. I did neither. I planned to post, but didn’t. Summer time has its own unique rhythm, for writing and reading. It does not mean that writing and reading do not occur. In fact often, these activities occur more.  But, our mind and souls move differently as the seasons pulse. July was full of movement, people, laughter, sunshine, and very little physical stillness leaving behind wonderful memories of sand covered, salt scented children. I love being busy. I like mental activity as well, but during some seasons, it is hard to correspond physical movement with quality mental activity. Driving on car trips to visit gorgeous places and amazing people provide plenty of time to think, but little time to write out thoughts or process them well. I made the decision early on in July, that rather than pound out words for the sake of hitting the “publish” button, I would process internally, to absorb the life around me, to enjoy the gifts God has given me. I like to plan, but I have learned that plans can only be gripped with a loose thread rather than an iron chain. Instead, sometimes life just comes and writing as a reflection of life sometimes requires less planning and more merely existing.

When wars ravage the Earth, and God’s people are sent fleeing from homes and livelihoods and all earthly possessions, it is hard to sit on a beautiful beach and not feel overwhelmed. Overwhelmed because I do not deserve to sit on a beach while others suffer. Overwhelmed because I realize that the same God I praise for the calm, breezy beauty around me is the same God who has promised good to those fleeing their homes. Overwhelmed because I begin to imagine myself in their shoes and become terrified. Overwhelmed because our Father has told us not to be anxious and that can only happen through His grace. Overwhelmed because our minds cannot comprehend the suffering that some endure, pulling them closer to the cross, to Christ’s image, while others seem to live without care. Overwhelmed because over all, the Creator of the Earth has made each life, cares for each of His children, and will hold each of them without failing.

There are instances each day where my little children do not understand why we are doing what we do. They do not see the larger picture of why we leave the beach at a certain time or why ice cream at 8am is not the fabulous idea it seems to them. They do not know why bedtime tonight is part of the plan for tomorrow. They do not connect why certain choices we ordain for them now, like educational options, cultural exposure, social activities, or event the books we read are carefully planned, thinking of their individual needs, their future mental abilities, or the view of God we hope to give them. In the same way as small children, we cannot see all that God is doing in our world and lives. We live, trusting that our Father loves us, more than we even love our own children. This is the love that compels us to rest, to breath in and out, to know there is a future joy for us.

The peaceful beach, the calm summer evening, the laughing family time, the afternoon with friends, the joy of living are all foreshadowed slivers of God’s good nature. The happiness we know compared to the pain that now exists, is a tiny piece of the joy we will know. The beauty around us gives us the promise that God is not broken, that He will heal us, cure our pain, and right all wrongs one day.

Times of quiet are sometimes not quiet at all. They are often the busiest flurry of activity, thought, and noise. There is a point to being quiet, not adding to the noise. In times of noise, in times of silence, the words of Psalm 146 echo off the caverns of our hearts.

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, through the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, thought its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns. The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah. Come, behold the works of the LORD, how he has brought desolations on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire. “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted in the earth!” The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah.


Psalm 146

 

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Continuing

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Growing up, I had a pastor in the house (He was my dad). With a resident theologian nearby, I became familiar with an incredible amount of Biblical and historical material at a young age. There was a vast array of commentaries, Bible study tools and various books a few steps away from me at all times. I had Bible verses and characters and stories all memorized and categorized in my little brain. My worldview was established very early – through the lens of Biblical plots, terminology, and concepts.

My daughter is three years old, and suddenly we have been thrown into the “WHY” year. I stress at times, wondering how she will learn all the same information I had without a resident pastor in the house. But, if you tell your preschooler a few Bible stories, and mention a few connections between life and Godliness to them, you will launch yourself into a barrage of questions –  seemingly out of nowhere that send you scrambling for just the right answers – for the preschooler and for yourself perhaps. As in any field of study or skill, teaching the concepts are sometimes the best way to fully grasp the answers.

Throughout life, I’ve questioned enough to solidify my own personal beliefs and worldview, but I never questioned the reality of God. I have trampled through a few figurative minefields, confirming my belief in the goodness and love of God. I am determined to teach my children about God in a way that reflects His grace and goodness and without tripping into clichéd language and un-intentional theological pitfalls.

So, we have started on the quest to read Bible stories regularly, to teach her about sin, about our neediness, about Christ’s sacrifice, about redemption and about how each of these things affects every day life. We pray, we talk about Bible verses, and we try to help her understand that by Him all things consist – along with all the implications of that concept. Recently, some of the questions that have come out of her mouth are:

 

  • Will God be mad if we do X?
  • What does Amen mean?
  • Why do we pray at bedtime?
  • God will heal my boo-boos, right?
  • Are Jesus and God the same?
  • Will God be happy with us if X happens?
  • God will not love us anymore if we do X, right?

I have been extremely careful to explain to her that God loves His children no matter what. I was floored the day she mentioned some action and proposed to me that God would not love us anymore if something specific happened. Here in a little three-year-old brain was a question with which adults grapple often. I realized, sitting there in a mall parking lot, that the oldest human struggle between good and evil was taking place. In the parking lot, on a rather boring day, I was talking about God’s grace to future generations,  denying imaginative views of a fair weather God.

Once again, I saw God at work in His ordaining of parenthood. Parenting is not an egotistical boost where we see beautiful little creatures, looking just like us, carrying on our best character traits while prancing around in adorable Ralph Lauren clothing. Parenting is a reflection into the window of God’s nature.  Parenting forces God’s nature to glint and bounce like sunbeams into the glass, piercing our sight. These questions from little mouths, learning about and processing thoughts on faith, drawing connections between Heaven and Earth, make parents constantly indulge in thoughts about our beliefs. While we may not doubt God, the re-telling of our beliefs reinforces our own faith. We look at the whys of our convictions from new angles, with new perspectives. These little people who drop crumbs on our floors and climb in our beds at unearthly hours of the morning are a means God uses to make us continue in the things WE have learned and been assured of, to strengthen our resolve as we continue trusting in Christ. God, as a loving Father, is revealed to us more clearly as we watch and hear these small creations learn, think, connect, and question.

There is a distinct reason that the Bible uses the analogies of parent and child and the language of generational continuance in faith over and over. Throughout history, stories of Scripture are given from one generation to another. Tell a few Bible stories that you learned as a child, share a few connections, and suddenly the faith of past generations meets the rising faith of future generations. Be strong in the Lord and the power of His might. Continue in the things that you have learned. Over and over, the plea is given from one generation of Christians to another – learn, believe, share, teach, remain steadfast.

This generational connection occurs between biological parents and children. It also occurs between spiritual parents and children. Paul refers to Timothy as his son in the faith. The analogy of parenting, of teaching and nurturing, while simultaneously growing and modeling, holds firm even beyond biological confines. This is discipleship in its most organic form. But, the incredible reality is this – we tend to think of parenting and discipleship as one sided and nothing could be further from the truth. I may not learn from my daughter in the sense that she is not teaching me Greek translations of the Bible. I may not learn new Biblical facts or figures from her. But God is using her existence and her questions to teach me more about His nature, His sovereignty, about His ordination, about His calling of sons and daughters to Himself. He is teaching me that His power to draw future generations goes beyond the stacks of commentaries, beyond the seminary degrees. Those things are needful, but He  transcends their presence and absence.

The concept of continuing in beliefs goes far beyond feeling empowered and inspired during a week of camp, a semester of Bible college, or a weekend conference. Rather, it is a way of life on the dripping rainy days, and in the routines of brilliant sunshine. Continuing means knowing or finding the answers to questions; it is the belief that finding unknown answers is a worthwhile endeavor. It is the understanding that questioning is normal and right and that God’s sovereignty is stronger than any doubt. Find one of your kids or a friend’s kid, or a kid who no one will hang out with. Let them ask you a few questions and you will suddenly view a broad canvas with God’s loving care surrounding you, stretching far away beyond yourself, arching over you, from one generation to another.

 

Dandelions and Violets

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Spring in New England means a delightful and dramatic return of living and growing things outside. This year a bevy of a dandelions, liberally seeded by an exuberant two year old last year sprung into bloom, dotting the yard with yellowness. We also played host to wild violets, delicately commandeering our yard, gardens, walkways, and any possible corner and crack.

The exuberant two year old has turned into a three year old whose exuberance has only been punctuated with self assertion and initiative. Her joy of living reigns free and flowers possess no pass when she decides to fully enjoy her little world. And so with the spring came bouquets of dandelions and violets, hyacinths and tulips, any flowers within her reach picked in handfuls and delivered with kisses and sheer excitement.

She would grasp the flowers, and run to me calling for my full attention. Her enthusiastic gift giving required equally enthused receiving. Once she secured my delight, the adventure to bring more beautiful and living things into the house immediately resumed.

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Dandelions and wild violets are not the finest of flowers. They are mildly pretty as wild things, but bring their own category of annoyance of a yard owner. To many homeowners, subduing the earth means eradicating these flowers. They bring color and variety to the world and serve a purpose in their own right. But they fade and they wilt rather quickly. However, there was a peculiar beauty in them for me. I found myself smiling and matching her delight as she ran, fist clenched full of yellow and purple. She saw wonder in this life around her and her instinct was to share it with the people she loves best in all the world right now.

God created His children to enjoy Him. The Westminster Shorter Catechism begins with “Q. What is the chief end of man? A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.”
In our fallen world, we see the beauty and structure of a perfect Father. We enjoy the gifts He gives us. He grants us the joyful ability to converse with Him, to see His hand in creation, to mirror Him with our creativity, to share our hope with those around us. By participating in these abilities He has given to us, we too offer gifts to Him as a way to glorify and enjoy Him. Our gifts are, in reality, like those dandelions and violets. Unnecessary, fading, and incomparable to His gift of redemption. But He still delights in our living and moving and enjoying. I certainly don’t need the piles of dandelions I was given this spring. But I treasured them because they symbolized life and joy. I didn’t need the bouquets of violets and hyacinths when I had vases of roses. But violets became as beautiful if not more so than roses because they were given with sheer enjoyment and passion. I didn’t really want the two blooms from the lone tulip plant plucked off the stem the very day they bloomed.

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But I took those short blooms, salvaged them, joining  them with lilacs into a reconstructed and simple bouquet. God takes His children, and our gifts, and our failures, and in our souls He salvages the the beauty of His creation by looking at Christ. He takes the mess and the temporal and the unvaluable and makes it treasure in which He delights because He sees Christ. He looks on us and sees life. He created us for joy and thru Christ, we share this gift. The delight in dandelions and violets should never be discounted because God has ordained that they serve a purpose. Just as He has ordained that we live fully in Him, living, moving, glorifying, and enjoying.

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When All Is Made New

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Not to belabor children’s books, but I read the account of Heaven in “The Jesus Storybook Bible” by Sally Lloyd-Jones to my daughter recently.

“I see a sparkling city shimmering in the sky glittering, glowing-coming down! From Heaven… and from the sky… Heaven is coming down to earth! God’s city is beautiful. Walls of topaz, jasper, sapphire.  Wide streets paved with gold.  Gleaming pearl gates that are never locked shut.  Where is the sun? Where is the moon? They aren’t needed anymore.  GOD IS ALL THE LIGHT PEOPLE NEED. No more darkness! No more night! And the King says, ‘Look! God and his children are together again. No more running away.  Or hiding. No more crying or being lonely or afraid. No more being sick or dying. Because all those things are gone.  Yes, they’re gone forever. Everything sad has come untrue. And see – I have wiped away every tear from every eye!’And then a deep, beautiful voice that sounded like thunder in the sky says, “Look! I am making everything new!” (pp. 346-7)

As I read, the happiness came.  I was happy to read this particular book myself, hearing the familiar words and message in a fresh way. It made me happy to read such beautiful, descriptive language about Heaven to my daughter. I can tell her there is a happily ever after for the children of God. In simple but rich words, I can explain that we anticipate a time when everything will be made new.

This description of Heaven is our joyful hope.  The good intentioned defenses of doctrine, the glittering personalities in churches and beyond, the out of control Twitter feeds, the strivings, the evening news, the lost friendships, the frustrating weeks, the job promotion, the platform building, the intellectual prowess, the creative achievements, the human accomplishment on Earth is not where our final hope is rooted.  These are the things in which we dabble because God is honored through our participation in the culture of our present world. But no present city can bring the joy that this city will hold.

The hope that is in us is our future hope. The reason for our hope is that we are children of God by His love and through the work of the cross.  We are at peace with God through the blood of Christ- and one day faith will be sight. The culminating hope of Heaven is so beautifully described in these words, paraphrased for a child to understand and for an adult to treasure. The love of God anchors us and this future hope propels us.

“Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” Revelation 4:11