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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Cosmic Sledgehammer or Eternal Redeemer

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I used to think of God as a kind of harsh teacher who would send one lesson after another, periodically spaced, into my life. In this picture, I envisioned that I would head through a hard event and if I could learn the corresponding lesson quickly, the event would end, I would get everything right and then God could be happy and love me. I would then be free to scamper along merrily, until it was time to learn a new lesson. Then He could hammer in another scenario and I would repeat the scene of learning and pleasing Him. These events would repeat one after the other, Him smashing down the hammer of learning, and me responding appropriately and with complete surrender to make sure He was satisfied.

We do not want hard lives. We do not want to suffer. We do not want to be afraid. There are various levels of suffering in our world. There are places in the world that know of more intense suffering than I can handle mentally. Then there are troubles with money, sad relationships, divorce, infertility, monetary struggles, loss, and general fear. I don’t really feel like I have suffered in great measure. Life has been easy, and almost too pleasant. My cynical side says, “you have it too good, something has to correct itself.” After life goes along smoothly for a time, I begin to wonder what might happen next… But, then, everyone’s life is different and what is hard for one person does not come to another’s door. When the potential for hardship looms, it leads me into a place where I am forced to remember that God is loving. That even in the hardest circumstances, God is my help, my salvation. He is the resurrection and life.

I often live afraid of suffering. I’m more afraid of being afraid of suffering than I am afraid when actually going through something hard and trusting God in the process. But ironically, in some respects, it is easier to be in a place where I have no choice but to trust because the circumstances are so far beyond my control that I have no illusion of having options. I like to think I can control my life and minimize risk. That too is faulty logic. I admire people who say that they want to be closer to God and they know they will suffer in the process. I would never pray to bring suffering on myself. I am too weak. And yet, I know there will be hardness and pain in life, regardless whether I pray for it or pray to avoid it.

The hard part of living in this broken world is to understand why, if God is good, there is suffering. Really, the suffering is not because God is good or bad, but because there is systemic evil haunting us since the Garden of Eden. The fall and the resulting need of redemption is the root of suffering’s stem. The truth behind all of the brokenness is that God is there, always present, helping His beloved children along THROUGH the suffering that the fall has cursed them with, not sending hammers down on their heads to make them stronger or more valuable to Him. His children are of value, otherwise, why the need for a redemption plan? He is the one who said, “don’t”, in the beginning. But we did. So, now He holds us close as we suffer under the effects of that original disobedience.

I once thought God was the sledgehammer. I thought He dangled it over the heads of His children, just waiting for the perfect opportunity to judge us for our missteps, to teach us valuable lessons, to make us more incredibly and mindlessly obedient.

And then I became a parent. And I am by far not a perfect parent, as He is. But in no imaginable scenario would I ever tauntingly discipline my children “just because”. (I have read some sadistic discipline advice that does advocate creating teachable moments for children, to test their obedience, but that is wholly unbiblical or extra biblical, whichever word you like.)  No, rather, when the child falls down because they were told not to walk on the ice, or the second child gets hurt because the first child created a harmful situation, or, fill in the blank…., that is when we remind them of how they could have avoided the situation, remind them that obedience matters, remind them that we all are in desperate need of Christ’s help, and comfort them and help them with every shred of breath we have. Of course there is natural frustration at times, because we are not perfect. No normal and healthy parent wants to see their own child suffer. But we know they will, at times. And so we prepare them and help them and comfort them and encourage them as much as we can through these hard times. And that is how God cares for us, but with infinitesimal perfection.  The effect of the fall wasn’t God’s revenge on His creation. Instead, He took the evil of Fall and created good from it – the incredible path back to His arms through Christ on the cross.

There is no possible way in which a cosmic sledgehammer would create the plan to redeem His children when they had enraged his wrath by disobeying His command. A loving Father, however, would look at His children’s disobedience and find a way to rescue them from the tangles in which they were trapped. A cosmic sledgehammer would stand by and watch suffering of His creation with snark and cynicism. A loving Father sacrificed His son to rescue the poor souls who distrusted and still distrust Him. When children fail to trust, we reach out again and again, assuring them of our care and love. Most religions have a God or god like figure who exacts some sort of penalizing retribution upon disobedience. But our God is one who looks in pity with grace and says, forgive them, they do not know what they do. He looks at suffering children and says, come and rest, give me your burdens, cast your cares on me, I am the resurrection and the life. The perfect Father, the perfect Savior, is the one to whom we trust our lives and our souls, as little children who need to be held.

10,000 Reasons and More

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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