Rudolph, Isaiah, and the Best Years of Our Lives

We stumbled and bounced into the post office, three of us at one time, bundled into hard to move winter coats, with a large pile of crisp white Christmas card envelopes in tow. When we enter small spaces, it can sometimes feel like quite the dramatic entrance. I never know who might trip, if someone will stop and stand still because something “scary” looms ahead inside the doorway, or if the smallest child will suddenly decide she doesn’t want to be held and simultaneously doesn’t want to stand on her own two feet. I negotiate how doors will be opened with a child in my arms, with a four year old who either believes she can handle the world on her own and needs to open even the heaviest doors alone or gets distracted by her imaginary friends, and with the kind attempts – or lack thereof – from strangers to politely help up with said doors. Sometimes the opening of doors and falling into rooms can be one of the trickiest parts of going places with children.

So, into the little post office we bounced. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer stamp posters were decorating the wall, to the delight of my daughter. “Rudolph!” she squealed. An older man attaching stamps to envelopes turned around and gave the girls a big smile. The two girls entertained themselves as I bought some (Rudolph) stamps. The man was the friendly sort, chatty but not overbearing, obviously happy at the sight of two little girls. I started placing stamps on envelopes, with a break in the action for both girls to send envelopes down the letter shoot before they darted under the counter where the man and I were working. He was still talking to them and then he looked up at me with a smile and said to me words I often suspect and don’t dare to voice. “These are the best days of your life, you know.” He said it cheerfully, with no regret, but only enthusiasm.   He told me he had three children, eleven grandchildren, and six great grandchildren. He told me raising his children was the most fun he had in his life. Everyone says time goes fast, but this statement was specific, pointed.

My birthday was this week. For some reason, there are certain years that stump us. The years that are in between the milestones make me pause more than the milestones. These sorts of years remind me that while things like birthdays and Christmastime return annually, but the years never recur again. There has been a bit of pause for me in the last few months. Watching my baby turn into a little girl in four short years and my second baby valiantly fight to keep up with her older sister is an everyday reminder of the overexposed speed that life travels. Suddenly, another birthday is here, one baby face is growing older, and another baby is running and talking. Someday I will be able to type with two hands because there will not be two girls wriggling on and over and around my lap as I write. Perhaps I am odd, but I can get caught up in what my childhood expectations of my life were and in anxiety about what the future may bring. Instead, I am better off realizing that NOW is the life that I am living. The past has left and the future will be in God’s hands. I cannot live with regret about the past, frustration about the present, or anxiety about the future. I can learn from past mistakes, live fully now, and realize God will care for the future.

I’m trying to finish up some books I started awhile ago. In The Luggage of Life, Frank Boreham touches on Isaiah,

It is the intermediate stage that tests the mettle of the man. It is the long, fatiguing trudge out of sight of both starting-point and destination that puts the heaviest strain on heart and brain. That is precisely what Isaiah meant in the best known and most quoted of all his prophecies. He promises that, on the return from Babylon to Jerusalem, ‘they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint/ Israel is to be released at last from her long captivity. Imagine the departure from Babylon—its fond anticipations, its rapturous ecstasies, its delirious transports! Those first steps of the journey were not trying; they were more like flying. The delighted people walked with winged feet. And the last steps—with Jerusalem actually in sight, the pilgrims actually climbing the mountains that surrounded the holy and beautiful city—what rush of noble and tender emotions would expel and banish all thought of weariness! But Isaiah is thinking of the long, long tramp between —the drag across the desert, and the march all void of music. It is with this terrible test in mind that he utters his heartening promise: ‘They shall walk and not faint.’ They would fly, as on wings of eagles, out of Babylon at the beginning; they would run, forgetful of fatigue, into Jerusalem at the end; but they should walk and not faint. That is life’s crowning comfort. The very climax of divine grace is the grace that nerves us for the least romantic stage of the journey. Farewells and welcomes, departures and arrivals, have adjusting compensations peculiar to themselves; but it is the glory of the gospel that it has something to say to the lonely traveller on the dusty tract. Religion draws nearer when romance deserts. Grace holds on when the gilt wears off.

 (pp.72)

I always skimmed over the walking part of that verse. It seemed like that action had to be included to make the analogies complete, but was otherwise superfluous. But a good part of our life includes the walking, perhaps sometimes impatiently, perhaps sometimes wearily. The days spent doing whatever it is we do without seeing grandiose or world altering results are walking days. The phases when accomplishment seems elusive, but work is in process are walking days. We repeat many days over and over without feeling like they are different. We remember time in clusters of days, sometimes with outstanding moments glimmering like stars.

Whether they are the best days of our lives or the worst, they are our lives. I do not know if I am in the best stage of my life. I suspect I may be. There is certainly plenty of happiness and gratefulness surrounding me. I know that years can be hard and life can hold suffering. But the constant is that the God who holds us up when we run, soar, or walk is the God who never changes. He is the God who sent His Son to give us the only comfort and joy in life and death. We look at Advent with anticipation, at Christmas with joy, and through that lens we can see our whole lives. I am not sure that God carries the perspective that there are best days of our lives. We feel that on a human level. But He cares for us completely, at all times. He grants us the years to live, rescues our souls, bears us up as we move through this life. The only way we can run, soar, or walk is by His grace and providence. His is the love that never changes. He is the one that remains the same. And that, through the best years and soaring years, the low years and the walking days, is the great promise in which we find hope.IMG_0248.JPG

Uncharted Monotony

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Four years ago last week, we brought a little five pound, five week old baby home to live with us.  I remember being terrified the entire first 24 hours she was home. My husband and I took turns sitting up with her overnight that first night.  I think we stayed up partially because she was restless and fussy, but partially because we were afraid to fall asleep. It seems funny now, it wasn’t like she was going to raid the refrigerator or draw on the wall or use scissors unsupervised (all activities she has since indulged in).  But there was this incredibly fragile human in our house now and all the territory was uncharted and a bit scary.

Last week, I handed this same little girl a five dollar bill, a handwritten note requesting a loaf of bread, gave her instructions to wait in line and be polite, and sent her into a bakery by herself.  At first, she wondered out loud who would open the door for her.  I reminded her she usually opens the door for me.  Then, she placated herself with the idea that some Good Samaritan would smile upon her and kindly open the door.  And with that happy thought, off she ran.  She returned a few minutes later with a loaf of bread tucked under her arm, change in her pocket, and a humungous smile on her face. The note returned with her, carrying  a message back that she had been very polite.

Everyone tells me that time goes so fast. I don’t need their reminders, but I don’t mind them either.  Days and weeks and years repeat over and over. These are probably some of the happiest days of my life, I tell myself.  It is sad to me that these happy days are so short, but I am grateful for their presence at all.  Some days the overwhelming feeling that I carried that first night, an undercurrent of excitement and anxiety about the future, making me catch my breath, comes back.  I watch as the days back away off of the calendar. I watch as the children grow taller, older, and more independent. I wonder what they will be like when they are grown. But then I stop myself before that thought is fully formed.  I want each day to be here, now, not the future.  Never before have I wanted to future to stall more than now.  Nor do I wish to dream about the future I am not promised.  It is easy to dream as a child.  It is with greater caution that an adult dreams.

Each month and year repeats. Each one sends us deeper  into uncharted territory as parents, as our children grow, as children of God. We live the same months over and over again each year, marking off the same holidays, rituals, and every days.  But each day is unique and different. As a Creator and Father, God has made each story and path and day new.  We exist in His image, but individually created for unique purposes.  I love how Chesterton puts it in Orthodoxy. “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. ”   Days repeat themselves. The Cross remains the same. The Heavenly Father never changes. But, His creativity and that of His world is boundless, His grace is unending, every day.

My children grow, as children have since time began.  It is how a life lives.  Each life is different.  Each stage is unknown.  Each path is uncertain.  But what is certain is the promise that God’s mercies are new each morning.  That He renews His mercies daily.  While our salvation is fixed and firm, it is worked out continually.  I love this tension that occurs, most visibly paralleled, when one loves a child.  They are born at a fixed point in time.  The love we have for them continues on and renews over and over.

Time goes fast and we “do it again” every day.  The uncharted roads and paths are the chances for God to prove His faithful care to us.  He gives us new stages that burrow into the repeated months.  And just like the days when we send our children into unfamiliar territory and watch over them carefully and with pride, so He does the same for us.

The days bring new challenges and twists.  But there is a constant Father who delights in watching His children grow and thrive, who sits up at night to make sure their needs are met.  That is a fixed joy that does not change. 

If I Have to Repeat Myself

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“Stop it, get down, take that out of your mouth, don’t blow bubbles with your milk, stop climbing on that, take the string off of your neck, stand still, sit still, talk quietly, don’t stare, please don’t eat dirt, don’t pick up the baby…”

“Yes, of course you can have a snack, yes, I am getting your snack, honey I am making your lunch right now, I promised we would have lunch, get out of the refrigerator, yes, here is your lunch now….”

“Sweetie, there are no monsters in our house. No, none. The shadows don’t have to scare you, its just light reflecting in a funny way. There are not spiders in the bed, I promise. No, no monsters outside either. Yes, of course you are safe. You never have to be afraid with Mommy and Daddy with you.”

Do you ever feel like you repeat the same conversations about 6,237 times a day, at least seven days a week? I do. Some days, I am so tired if repeating myself that I am at a loss for words. Nothing comes out, and I’m sure I have glazed over eyes as I stare blankly at the hazy figure that is my child.

I read a piece of child development advice that noted how preschoolers need instructions repeated often. This is because they are constantly learning. Once they have learned a new piece of information, they have to figure out if the old rules apply to this newly acquired knowledge. My daughter has this need for repetition. We tell her no, yes, not now, later over and over. Night after night, we discuss monsters and shadows. I try to remember how the context of her world is so new and unknown. And as soon as I have that thought, I remember how often I forget or disregard God’s instructions and promises.

When I was young, I observed to my mom that the Israelites in the Old Testament must not have been that smart or spiritually astute because they had to learn the same lessons frequently. Naturally I later realized they were living without myriads of examples and a completed Bible. And the longer I live, the more I can identify with the doubts and disobedience of the Israelites, while having myriad examples and the Bible.

Repeatedly, God gives us good promises and instructions that help us recognize those promises. Be anxious for nothing, but make your requests to God with thanksgiving (Philippians 4:6). Do not be anxious about your life, God will provide what you need (Matthew 6:25). Those who trust in the Lord cannot be moved (Psalm 125:1). Fear not, I have redeemed you, you are mine (Isaiah 43:1). There is no more condemnation (Romans 8:1). The same promises and instructions are given from the beginning of time to the end of the Bible.

Why did God give us the command to take part in Communion?   I Corinthians 11:24     “ And when He had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’”   Because He knows we are forgetful children. And like Israel had celebrations multiple times a year to remember God’s care, we have multiple times to remember His salvation and goodness. Because every time something new and scary enters our periphery, we tend to forget His promises. We take a new job, we move to a new country, we have a new baby, we suffer loss, we undergo change, and stress and we have to learn again that God’s unchanging Word always applies. A new day dawns and my child figures out how to peel a banana and suddenly she doesn’t think I need to fix her meals for her any longer. But I am still there to buy bananas and make sure she doesn’t fall off the chair reaching them. Our lives may change, but God’s salvation, promises, and sustaining care does not.

We take Communion to remember the Cross. We attend church remember God’s grace in saving us. We read His word to refresh our wonder in His redemption plan. We grow and learn, stumble and fall, question and weep, but God will always be there to repeat His love, to remind us of His promises, to uphold His saving care for us.   The blessing of repeating ourselves to little ones is that in doing so, we have a tangible reminder that God does the same thing for us patiently and lovingly.

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(This post was originally found at Domestic Kingdom. Since it was posted, Gloria Furman has moved her writing home to
gloriafurman.com)

Wants and Wishes

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Most of us, whether we realize it or not, want to believe that God is good.  Being October, the month my oldest daughter was born, I find it impossible not to reflect on God’s goodness as a Father and Creator. The writing I have done here this month is part of that reflection.  So I was delighted to write today for Jen Pollock Michel’s series Found Wanting about my desire to believe that God was a good Father.

The series is a collection of stories that, to quote Jen, “…tell a part of the story that God is telling through us, even the beautiful and complicated story of being human and becoming holy.”  Read through the different contributors that are part of this project and see God’s hand at work in many lives. So enjoy my post, and the posts of others, as well as Jen’s beautiful writing on her site.

 

**I recently wrote about Jen’s book Teach Us To Want in a post here.  It is a book you will not want to miss reading.

 

 

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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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.

 

A Terrible, Horrible, No Good, and Wonderful Day

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I woke startled, realizing I had slept later than planned. I stumbled into the hallway and noticed the Swiffer mop propped outside of the bathroom, left there by my husband, after an attempt at “post-sickness” bathroom cleaning. At 6:45am, my day commenced as I re-cleaned vomit from corners of the bathroom that I didn’t know existed– a bathroom that had JUST been scoured the previous day.

By 10:00am that morning I had re-scoured the bathroom, been spit up on multiple times, and changed my children’s clothing twice each, thanks to typical small child issues. I was annoyed, aggravated that some days make life seem like a sadistic wheel of repeated tasks, trapping me, messing with my mind. As one task finished, another mess sat laughing at me from the corner. On top of my aggravation, I expressed my frustration in a way that made my little girl cover her face with her hands, in tears. I hate seeing her suffer at the expense of my own shortcomings.  It was, an epic failure of a day, as a parent, as a human.

As I considered how the day had gone, and how it should have gone, I tried to tell myself that everyone has “those days.” I tried to think of ways I could be a better parent and wife. I tried to remember that some days I am a great parent, who is patient and fun.   Surely those good parenting days outweigh the bad parenting days.

Reality often crumbles the pedestals we camp out on. The reality is that every day we live is an epic failure – without Christ’s redeeming power. We have no goodness of our own, no strength within ourselves to be patient, kind, loving, and wise. No matter how hard we try. Our hope can only be in Christ and His gospel that transforms us. (2 Corinthians 3:18)

What does this truth of failure and transformation mean for us? Christ, as our Savior, is sitting at God’s right hand, interceding for us, saving us, keeping us, even as we show our sinful natures to our children. And, He is also able to help us live well with our family and others. (Romans 8:34) Through the power of Christ’s work on the cross for us, He has taken our self proclaimed good days, which are like polluted garments, (Isaiah 64:6) and our bad days that are equally trashy and scoured them clean Himself. He removes the need for our pitiful human efforts and makes us instead, into treasures redeemed for His glory.

The words from the hymn, Arise My Soul, Arise, came to my mind.

He ever lives above, for me to intercede;
 His all redeeming love, His precious blood, to plead:
His blood atoned for all our race,
 His blood atoned for all our race,
 And sprinkles now the throne of grace.”  

 When I wrench life away from my children by wounding their spirit, Christ’s blood remains poured out. It atones for my horrific, life quenching sins. That blood covers our acknowledged “bad” days, and our piously “good” days. His blood is sufficient to draw out children to redemption despite our best and worst efforts.  The implication for us is that, as His children, Christ is interceding for us. His blood, poured out once, has paid for our sin – not just one time, but through every single moment of each day.

Our days on Earth are only of value to our families, to our churches, or to our workplaces as Christ’s redemption is realized in our lives. While our children should not suffer at their parents’ expense, it is important to remember that God is a powerful Father, working in their hearts to teach them the neediness of humanity and the beauty of redemptive transformation. Despite our best efforts, He is the one who captures and keeps their souls. We are to be responsible stewards, but even our stewardship is empowered by the cross.

The truth is that without those terrible, horrible, no good days, we would fail to see and want the wonderful reality of His grace. On the days when frustration builds and threatens to trample us, we see our need for the cross. Without these days we would sail through our lives, proud of our abilities and righteousness. The next time that epic day of failure comes to visit we can give thanks for our scars, confident that Christ has battled sin and won for us. We embrace His strength, knowing that in this strength, we are not captive to scars, wounds, and failures, but freed and living by His mercy.