Monthly Archives: February 2017

Leaning On The Bier

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We spoke of death quite easily
When you were only old
But health was yours
And theory checked our fears

We spoke of When, not If, but still
The When was down the road
And years were yours
And time, it checked our tears

Now When is feeling imminent
And hearts are breaking down
And words are hard
When leaning on the bier

Drought Resistance

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But blessed are those who trust in the LORD
and have made the LORD their hope and confidence.
They are like trees planted along a riverbank,
with roots that reach deep into the water.
Such trees are not bothered by the heat
or worried by long months of drought.
Their leaves stay green,
and they never stop producing fruit.
(Jeremiah 17:7-8, New Living Translation)

What does it look like to “trust in the Lord”? What does it mean to make him your “hope and confidence”? I’ve been wrestling with those questions over the past couple days – ever since my Dad reminded me of Jeremiah’s words.

Part of the answer lies in the alternative: trusting in “mere humans” and relying on human strength. Do that, Jer’ says, and you’re cursed. Not necessarily damned, but certainly doomed. Like a “stunted shrub in the desert… in the barren wilderness, in an uninhabited salty land.” With “no hope for the future.” Dismal words. Dismal picture. Dismal life.

“But,” he says, it doesn’t have to be that way. You can be like a riverside tree, “with roots that reach deep into the water.”

Look at the picture above. The landscape looks pretty brown and barren. Lots of weeds, but no crops. But the tree is flourishing. Green, leafy, healthy. Why? Because down to the right of the trunk, below the canopy’s shade, is a river. Not much of a river here, but water, nonetheless. And the tree’s roots reach through the brown soil deep into the ground where the water sits.

This particular tree, a few miles west of Ethiopia’s capital city, is a prayer tree. Christians from nearby villages meet here to pray in its cooling shade. In the midst of a dry and weary land, they come together to put their trust in the Lord; to make him their hope and confidence. And they—like the tree—aren’t afraid of the drought, but stay green and fruitful.

I’ve been through some wilderness times. I feel like I’m in the wilderness now. But there’s something different this time. More than ever before, I know I can trust in God. I know he is worthy of my trust, hope, confidence. It’s not easy; I’d really like to be able to just move forward, to pop out one more resume and get the job I’ve been waiting for, to be done with the waiting and wondering and wandering.

But he’s faithful. And even when I can’t see it, he’s growing fruit in me…and maybe even through me. And I don’t have to fear the drought.

Re:Connect and Re:Create

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A couple years ago I reconnected with a college friend. I was looking at a church’s website and saw an unusual, but familiar, name. Turns out it was my friend, now on staff at the church. It also turns out that she, like me, is a writer. Early this year, my friend invited me and a number of others to guest post on her blog with the theme, “Re:create.” Specifically, in her words, “we’re thinking about create with a healthy dose of play and how both can lead to transformation.

My post combines several elements: a relationship that transformed how I view the Bible; an appreciation for God’s creativity; and a healthy dose of “sanctified imagination.” You’ll need to click over there to see what that means (at least until I post about it myself).

I’d love it, of course, if you would read my guest post on my friend’s blog, “Miracles in the Mundane.” But don’t stop there; look at some of the other things she’s written—like the story of her son deciding to grow his hair to donate for wigs for kids. Check out other guest posts (the “re:create” series will run most Wednesdays), like this one that offers some helpful insights into those pesky New Year’s Resolutions.

The blog can be found at https://milagromama.wordpress.com/.

Help! My Church is Closing!

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I recently learned that my church was going to close. Well, my church campus, anyway—one of three campuses the church has around the city.

It doesn’t look much like a church in the traditional sense. We meet at a middle school: the main service gathers in the Multi-Purpose Room, while the youth and children fan out to classrooms and the library around the campus. But for many, this middle school is the only church they have ever known, and they have come here at 10:00am every Sunday morning over the past four years. For these, it might as well be the whole church that’s closing.

Others moved from the main campus, which has met for more than ten years at a high school eighteen miles away. They made that move for a variety of reasons: to be part of something new, to support the leaders of this new work, or simply to attend church closer to home.

Whatever brought each person to this location, each will feel its closure uniquely; each will navigate the change in his or her own way. Are there right and wrong ways to navigate? Probably. More helpful, though, would be to speak of healthy and unhealthy ways. I want to help us navigate healthily.

Sit on the ash heap
It begins with recognizing this for what it is: Change, but not only change. It is a loss—a death in some respects—and loss and death are traumatic events. They are to be grieved and mourned.

In the Bible’s epic story of suffering, a righteous man named Job loses everything of value to him in a matter of hours. His tremendous wealth—crops, flocks, herds, and servants—is wiped out or stolen by marauding bandits; and all his children—seven sons and three daughters—perish in a great storm that collapses the house they were celebrating in. But that’s not all: soon he is afflicted with “loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head;” they are so devastating that his friends scarcely recognize the man. Even his wife, reeling from her own loss, tells Job to “curse God and die.”

In his great pain and grief, Job—who had been honored as one of the greatest in the city—goes out of the city to sit on the ash heap, where garbage and dung were burned. On the ash heap he nursed his wounds; on the ash heap, he cried out to God and tried his own heart.

Of course, there is no ash heap for us to sit in today. (I suppose you could trek out to the local dump!) Still, we need to get alone, reflect on the loss, and name the hurt, as one of our pastors said. What am I feeling – anger? hurt? betrayal? sadness? shame? On the ash heap, journal in hand, we can silently name these emotions. We can cry out to God knowing, from Job’s experience, that God can handle all that we feel and say.

Sit with friends
Learning of Job’s great loss, several friends came to sit with him. I love how the English Standard Version says it: “They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him” (Job 2:11, emphasis added). Those are friends we need: people who are aware enough to recognize our hurt and care enough to sit with us – even going so far as to make an appointment together to come together. One of my mentors called these our “3AM friends”: the ones we can call at three o’clock in the morning and know they will pick up the phone!

Sitting in silence. Job’s friends sat with him in silence for seven days and nights. They just sat. No words. Just silence. Henri J.M. Nouwen describes this type of friend:

The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not-knowing, not-curing, not-healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is the friend who cares.1

Nouwen emphasizes that care must precede cure. Indeed, “cure [without care] can often become offending instead of liberating.” And silence is often best—and usually the first—evidence of care.

Sitting with questions. Here we need to move away from Job’s friends, for after a week, the silence and stench must have gotten the better of them; when they opened their mouths, little grace came forth. Friends who care will ask more than state. It’s not as easy as it sounds; for even questions can condemn, and tone of voice can betray an inner judgment.

(Want to try an experiment? Read the following question out loud four times, emphasizing a different word each time: What are you thinking? Read it once more, emphasizing both the first and last words. Do you notice any difference?)

Good questions are hard work. They probe beneath the surface, get beyond circumstances, express concern. What are you feeling? is often better than What are you thinking?, for loss and hurt are, by definition, feelings. But we also need help thinking right, for great grief can bring about a spiritual vertigo in which up seems down and right seems left. Yet thinking and feeling cannot be divorced: we can think all the right things, but still feel completely out of sorts. We can feel alone in the midst of the most loving community; feel lost while staring at a map; feel numb even as our heart experiences the deepest of pain.

Sitting again with silence. Nor are answers critical, at least in the moment. Sometimes the best question comes at a time when the heart (or the head) cannot provide an answer; but the question nonetheless sits and simmers, waiting for the best time to be answered.

Someone asked our pastor’s wife how she was doing with the decision to close the campus that had long been part of her and her husband’s dream for the church. When the question was asked, she was in the midst of caring for others’ hurts; but later, in the quiet of her own thoughts, she realized that she, too, was hurting – that she, too, needed to sit on the ash heap.

Face God and worship him
For 37 chapters, God is silent in the face of Job’s complaints and his friends’ condemnation. When he finally speaks, we hear little gentleness in his voice. He answers none of Job’s plaintive questions. But he also does not chastise Job for asking. He simply and convincingly emphasizes the vast difference between himself, the Almighty Creator God, and Job, the created. Deeply humbled, Job confesses:

My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.

Job got his wish: an audience with God. But it wasn’t what he expected. Indeed, it was so much more: he gained a new understanding of God; he saw God anew. And in the seeing, he was brought back to the place he’d started: to worship (see Job 1:20).

In my own seasons of loss, I have moved away from the self-pitying question, Why? and sought new revelation of who God is. It’s not easy, and I don’t make the shift easily or consistently. But it’s much more satisfying to look for God in my hurt than to wait in vain for the because that I may not like. And God is so big, so multi-faceted, that there is always a side to him I haven’t yet seen. Indeed, Jesus suggests that knowing God will take an eternity (see John 17:3).

Back to church
Yesterday was our last Sunday at the middle school. It was a time of tears and celebration, of remembering and looking forward. We recognized, thanked, and applauded the dozens of men, women, and children whose labors made “church happen” for the past 200-plus Sundays. We thanked—and were thanked by—the school staff whose facilities we borrowed and cared for. Then we folded the chairs, packed up the room dividers and sound equipment, and loaded the trucks one last time. And then we ate pizza and tacos together.

Next week will be different. Some will go back to the high school campus, but not at 10:00am. Some will visit other churches, wondering if they will find a community anything like what they’ve had these past few years. Others will waken to a hole, a vacant space they’re not quite sure how to fill.

Each heart will be smudged with just a bit of ashes. But ashes can be good fertilizer. Where death and burial are, Jesus offers resurrection.

1 from Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life, by Henri J.M. Nouwen. Ave Maria Press, 1974. 38.