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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The Father Younger than We

It started in the Autumn. There was a birthday in our house. A four year old’s birthday. We left babyhood behind forever, heading officially into the realm of little girl hood. She converses with me in sentences and paragraphs, flits through an imaginary world complete with “pretend friends” who interact with her, states her opinions quite decidedly, and makes observations about the world that make us laugh, make us shake our heads, and make us fully aware that she is a rapidly maturing human being.

Then I began a new hobby of pulling out gray hairs fighting their way from the depths of my hair to the surface, shouting for the world to see. Less than vanity, it bothered me because it was a sign that life was passing by, that youth is farther past me than ever before. While age is just a relative number, it is after all, a non-negotiable figure.

My birthday came at the end of the year. It is always the non-landmark birthdays that bother me. They launch me closer to the milestones and the silent, encroaching progression is worse for me than the actual reality of age. I began to feel restless, unsettled, anxious, worrying about worrying. Worrying about what the rest of life holds.

Without realizing it, worry becomes a part of our life, even when we do not recognize it as worry. It begins by hearing someone’s bad news and feeling sympathy. Sympathy turns to empathy, where we envision similar circumstances upon ourselves. We hear too many news reports in a day and our processing attempts lead to worry. In my world, the distracted nature of my current life leaves me little time to process my thoughts from beginning to end. Instead of trusting a good God, I build a collection of random facts, speculations, headlines, observations, probable health hazards, and simplified answers to childish questions about complex realities. I teach my daughter Isaiah 41:10 to help her diffuse worry about monsters in closets. I repeat it to myself to deflect fears that clamor to be heard.

I was scrolling around the other day, landing on Sally Lloyd-Jones’ blog. She had highlighted a favorite GK Chesterton quote of mine from Orthodoxy.

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
    G K Chesterton

God is our eternal Father, who never ends. He does not begin or end. He is both older and younger than we are. He is timeless. The Creator of beauty, the author of redemption, sustainer of life, and the essence of love does not plot the harm of His Children has an eternal presence, allows us a childlike confidence in Him. He is constant, the Father of light with no shadow of turning, and yet as Chesterton says, He makes each daisy separately, the designer of creative repetition.

Stop worrying, I remind myself. Age is not a reason to worry, because our Father is in fact, younger than us, unhampered by sin’s decaying process. While day in and day out propels me closer to older age, my God is timeless, unbounded by age or the sin wearied monotony of our world. He carries the loving joy of a child and the loving mastery over every piece of life on earth.

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Babies and Somewhat Sacred Writings

There were no organic cotton blankets in the rustic venue. There were animals hovering nearby, probably devoid of their rabies shots. There were no aromatherapy candles to give calming ambience, and instead the scent was probably nauseating to a woman with a brand new baby. The carefully written birth plan was non-existent. It was dark and cold.

The arrival of Baby Jesus is a common enough story, even to people who don’t consider Christianity to be for them. But why is it that Christ’s advent is as a baby? Have you ever heard a story so often you slightly lose the significance? Why a baby? Until a few Christmases ago, the record of this birth as central to the Scriptures merely seemed to me like a logical way to get onto the planet – by birth, like the rest of us. He could have dropped as a man out of the sky and onto a beach or desert. There could have been no record of His early life and we could have met Him at the baptismal waters with John the Baptist. But, recently, I began to see more significance to the infant incarnation.

There is plenty to read about Christ’s identification with man and vice versa. There are the points about temptation, suffering, and fully understanding humanity, minus the sin nature of course, that need Christ to have lived the entire span of a human life. But, the words of II Timothy 3:15 came to mind as I read to my daughter one day. “…From childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” The Apostle Paul is affirming with Timothy his legacy of faith, encouraging his continuance in believing and spreading the Gospel. From childhood, infancy really, Timothy has known the truth of Christ, of his family’s faith, as it became his own faith.

It can feel awkward and forced to use theological language with a baby. I wanted to teach my children the importance of Christ’s birth, without the awkwardness that comes from making a toddler say “incarnation” (however amusing that might be). My conundrum of toddler development and theological communication was solved by a few storybooks, along with a fresh awaking to the powerful wisdom of God.

Both of my children love books. As their developmental stages occur, they become fascinated with babies. Real babies, baby pictures, baby faces, anything to do with another little person have fascinated them. Board books with the Christmas story, Song of the Stars, and The Jesus Storybook Bible (by Sally Lloyd-Jones) are a few of the Christmas books we read. One day, my mental light switch turned on. We read the story, looking at the sheep, pointing at the angel, touching the star. When we turned the last page and saw a stable scene, with a manger, and a baby inside that manger, my daughter’s excitement became infectious. “Baby, baby, baby!” she squealed while she pointed and smiled and traced the face with her finger.

Now a children’s book is rarely considered a sacred writing, even when retelling the sacred truths of the Bible. And my daughter was more excited about the picture of a baby than about the implications of Christ’s incarnation. But, the brilliance of God’s plan to send a Savior in the form of a little baby brought a cascade of amazement to my mind. This Savior, Christ the Lord, made Himself human flesh so that we could identify with Him, completely – from the earliest beginnings of our comprehension. He came as a newborn human, giving even a baby the chance to know Him, to know His grace, before he or she can even say His name. He identified with the creation He came to save, with the smallest of us. God’s masterful plan to seek, save, and draw many sons to glory unfolds in unfathomable wonder as a child begins to learn about a Savior through a connection with baby, similar to herself. “…From childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings…” is completely possible thanks to the masterful plan God.

I realized, once again, that God’s redemption is both clearly simple and incredibly astounding. His plan is so simple that from childhood, the gospel can be understood. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, confess with your mouth that you are a sinner, and believe in your heart that the resurrection is true. Children begin early to learn WHO Jesus was – once a baby just like them – and is – the risen Lord of the universe who seeks and saves. His plan is so meticulously perfect that no human could have drawn such a beautiful plan to redeem mankind. No human could have considered all the implications of Christ’s incarnation, like coming as a baby to identify with His treasured creation from the beginning. The tiny details included in the redemption plan make one marvel at the brilliance and compassion of a Creator and God.

The scholarly works written on the birth of Christ are numerous. Sacred writings are carefully preserved. The birth of Christ commenced the fulfillment of the greatest tale of love ever. It brings nations and tribes and people together to celebrate. The message of the gospel spans centuries, intelligence levels, and generational divides. Promised from the beginning chapters of the Bible, Jesus came to Earth, as our Rescuer, our promised Deliverer, to break sin’s curse, offering humanity the only freedom from death’s prison. Christmas celebrates the Gospel – the good news that Christ came to win His treasured children back from death’s grip. The account of this birth becomes the delight of babies squealing over books that show the rustic, lowly advent of our Savior, thanks to the wisdom and masterful design of the Creator and Redeemer of all. We can celebrate the advent, the birth, the coming of Christ, reveling in the knowledge that the Creator and Redeemer would come and identify with His creation of the lowest age and place.IMG_5430.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.

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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

 

In Defense of Fairy Tales

It is Children’s Book Week and since I already talked about books earlier in the week, I thought I’d stay on the path.

My three year old loves stories of princesses and princes, almost a little more than I like. There are numerous articles encouraging parents to discourage the princess effect and princess adoration in their daughters. I occasionally wonder if I’ve ruined any chance she has at high self esteem, self confidence apart from a man, and so forth, already- at three years of age. Then I remember the sovereignty of God rules our lives, not the advice of child psychologists and writers. So I look for balance where I can, but I’ve been surprised to find incredible themes of truth paralleled in her princess stories.

Take the story of Beauty and the Beast. One night, while imagining ourselves into the Beauty and the Beast world, she stopped playing and started telling me about the story. Suddenly, she looked up and said, “Belle took her daddy’s place in the Beast’s cage, Mommy.” I stopped and said, “Yes, she did. Because she loved him.” Without reacting I casually said, “That is like the way Jesus took our place and died on the cross for our sin. Because He loved us so much.” She looked at me seriously, quietly thinking thoughts that I couldn’t read. I plowed ahead, “And Belle learned to love the Beast, just like he was, even though he was ugly and scary.”

 

I sat there on the bed with her, considering how clearly Belle loves like Christ. She takes the place of her beloved father. He is old, he will die anyway, but a young, intelligent woman gives up her life so that her father can go free. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13   Then she loves the Beast because she sees beyond his gritty exterior and finds value beyond his monstrous persona. She believes there is something worth loving and saving there, just as Christ saw us. In the end of course, the father is saved, the Beast is transformed to a handsome prince, and love wins.

The other popular fairy tales, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Snow White, even the more recent adaptation of Frozen, have similar elements. There is always a character(s) in need. There is always a a character who saves. There is a character imprisoned and there is a character who sets free. There is a character who is deceived by evil. There is a character who undoes the effects of deception. There is a rescue, a fulfilled hope, and a happily ever after….Just as there is a needy people living on Earth and a loving God who meets our ultimate need thru the Cross. And, He will one day fulfill our hope, providing us with a happily ever after where Christ and His redeemed people will be united for all time.

 

Fairy tales linger in our broken world of dark art and literature. Deep down we long to hear about the hero and the rescued because we are aware of our own neediness. We crave the “happily ever after” because we long for the day when “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Revelation 21:4

 

I love that my daughter’s “comprehensive” knowledge of fairy tales has made the story of God’s love for us and Christ’s work of redemption easy to connect for her. I do not want her hope to be in men, but I do want her to hope in the man, Christ Jesus. PThe wonderful thing about the story of redemption is that it does not hide. It is not just a discussion for Sunday dinner. In our coming and going, we see themes of the gospel in something as simple as story about a princess and a monster. If the reality of Christ’s work on the cross propels us through each day, we will easily recognize how to share this beautiful redemption with our children.

*congratulations to Carol, winner of our Made For More giveaway!

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