Joy without reservation

IMG_0239This weekend I visited my family with my three youngest. Early Thanksgiving celebrations were underway so we made the 3 hour journey to stay the night with my mom and dad. We had a lovely visit, reconnected with extended family, and enjoyed great food. But for me, something about this trip was different.

For most of the family, it was their first time meeting baby John. John’s entry into our family was unexpected. Unlike our other three children, we didn’t discuss or plan or decide to have another baby. There was no fanfare, no hoopla, no great exclamations. Just a positive pregnancy test and the acknowledgement that the remainder of my year would be solely focused on this new little one. My plans were about to be upended.

This weekend, I watched my grandmother snuggle our precious boy, her 5th great-grandchild. I listened as my parents laughed at the stories of my 4-year-old. We took pictures of great-grandfathers with their great-grandsons and marveled at how big the older ones have gotten. And strangely, it was all new.

Maybe it’s the unexpectedness of John’s arrival. Maybe it’s the knowledge that four women very near to me have lost six pregnancies in the last year. Maybe it’s the wisdom of motherhood at 38. But I saw with fresh eyes the joy of family, not just for me and my house, but for our entire clan.

IMG_0255In a new way, I saw how my little man is a gift not just to me, but to an entire family and to the world at large. Like a huge stone dropped into a glassy pond, waves of joy radiate outward until no one is left untouched. And our lives, our simple feed-the-kids, fold-the-clothes, earn-a-living lives bring joy and value far beyond our home just because they exist.

At the same time this awareness percolates into my consciousness, I’m mindful of the losses. Families celebrate holidays without sons, husbands, and fathers. Empty arms long to hold sweet-smelling, milky-mouthed infants. Former husbands and wives negotiate the loneliness and complexity of life apart. Parents worry over teens that are off track. Cancer threatens.

For a moment, I question my right to this joy. What right do I have to unabashed joy in the midst of all of this suffering?

It’s a trick question that comes from a faulty assumption. In truth, I don’t have a right to joy, not more than anyone else. I have not earned rewards while others have earned suffering. The joy of our lives today is a gift. It’s a gift to be received with open arms and without reservation. It is a deposit and a sacred trust.

Lord willing, we have many days ahead of us. Some will be like these, overflowing with celebration and joy. Others will be dark and difficult. We cannot know when the tides will turn and when the bright skies will turn gray. It is not for us to know or even consider. What we must do now is live and love each day, embrace what is given us, and trust the Giver who does all things well.

When you ask about what’s next

Nearly four weeks ago, our family welcomed a beautiful boy. We’re in a time of transition, learning to integrate a new little one into our rhythms and routines. The weight of pregnancy and delivery are lifting and I’m beginning to think about nitty-gritty of real life that is soon to re-emerge for us.

Our new boy, 24 hours old
Our new boy, 24 hours old

The last 10 months have had a singular focus — growing and caring for a healthy baby boy. Physical limitations have precluded nearly all thought and effort beyond this aim. Now, I find myself asking old and familiar questions. What is next? How do my work, family, and spiritual lives coexist with these new responsibilities? Should they? Is there room for writing? Do I have anything to say? What life do I want?

I make mental lists of pros and cons, considering the sacrifices required by each apparent option. I act as if I’m standing in a buffet line, chosing the roast beef and mashed potatoes over fried chicken. But our lives are more than a series of choices that have been laid out before us. Our lives are to be conduits of God’s love and his glory. We exist to find pleasure in him and in that delight, we demonstrate his greatness to a jaded and questioning world.

But we rarely know ourselves. We rarely see at the beginning of an endeavor God’s design, his purposes, and the ultimate beauty he intends for us. If our choices are based solely on what we see, what seems right to us apart from God’s leading, we miss the joy he has for us.

In the hormone-filled haze of pregnancy and postpartum life, I began to ask the wrong questions. I had been asking, “What’s next?”

I’d been asking for clarity about what I want. Instead I need to draw nearer to God, to know him more, and to be willing to follow where he leads.

George Muller once said:

I seek at the beginning to get my heart into such a state that it has no will of its own in regard to a given matter. Nine-tenths of the trouble with people generally is just here. Nine-tenths of the difficulties are over come when our hearts are ready to do the Lord’s will, whatever it may be. When one is truly in this state, it is usually but a little way to the knowledge of what His will is.

Today, as I nurse a little one and clean counters and prepare dinners, I pray for friends and family who are hurting — those with health problems, those reeling from divorce, those longing for babies, those struggling to raise the babies they have. But for me, today, I ask only, “Draw nearer. Make me willing.” I will continue on the path ahead of me until he answers.

When change sneaks up on you

31days-2014-250So often, as we draw nearer to God and he removes our heart of stone and gives us a heart of flesh, we come to see the world differently. Compassion replaces disdain, concern replaces judgement, pity replaces scorn.

But we can also experience times of spiritual atrophy in which we outwardly appear the same, participate in the same activities, and use the same words, but our once softened heart becomes hardened yet again. This condition can sneak up on us unawares and we can become hardened without realizing it. Simple things like schedule changes, life transitions, and new routines can separate us from the daily spiritual renewal that keeps our hearts soft.

What is the remedy?

No amount of spiritual activity can shield us from this slipping. Spiritual activity, done out of obligation and not love, can actually contribute to the hardening.

Only daily seeking of God through his word, sincere prayer, and humble confession can keep us steady on the path of soft-hearted, God-fueled love. It’s only in seeing our moral bankruptcy before a Holy God, and daily receiving the mercy offered us through Jesus, that we can continually look on the struggling with compassion and grace. Otherwise we will forget the unfathomable patience of our God and grow increasingly impatient with our fellow man.

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. (Ezekiel 36:26-28)

When it’s you that needs to change

In his book Spiritual Depression: It’s causes and cure, D. Martin Lloyd-Jones gives essential advice when we find ourselves having lost our joy in the faith. He says this:

spiritual_depressionThe main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. … You must turn on yourself, upbraid yourself, condemn yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself: ‘Hope thou in God’ — instead of muttering in this depressed unhappy way. And then you must go on to remind yourself of God, Who God is, and what God is and what God has done, and what God has pledged himself to do.

Bumper stickers and memes express a similar idea when they say, “Don’t believe everything you think!” to which I add “Don’t believe everything you feel.”

I find myself leaning on this counsel daily. The challenges of late pregnancy, including physical discomfort and emotional discontent, have left me feeling a combination of useless, disoriented, and afraid — emotions uncommon for me. As these feelings come in waves, I can choose to give in to them, to believe them, to allow them sway over my attitude and behavior or I can talk back to them, preach to them, confront them with what I know to be true.

31days-2014-250The greatest asset with which to resist these emotions is Scripture. I’ve found that as meditate on pertinent passages the words seep into my soul. They salve the wounds and soften the dry and cracked places. They heal. They correct with a perfect blend of grace and conviction. I can recount scores of verses that have provided comfort, correction, and timely guidance during times of struggle. My charge is to believe these words an then act as if they are true, even when my emotions tell me otherwise.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)

This post is part of 31 Days of Change. See the entire series here.

Choosing the wrong burden

In my prayer journal this morning, I mentioned a family by name who is struggling to receive the grace that is offered them in Christ. I scribbled the following words in my red moleskin, “Tweak their hearts and help them to see the glory of the cross, the weight of their sin, and the lightness of Christ’s burden.”

The last point resonated with me and I followed with, “Help me to see it as well. Remind us all that it is his yoke that is easy and his burden that is light.”

As much as this family needs to feel the lightness of Christ’s burden, so do I. So often I choose the carry the wrong burden. I feel the weight of the world on my shoulders, anxiety grips my heart and fear consumes my thoughts because I’ve chosen the path of unbelief. How often have I, out of concerns for my own life, my own family, my own provision picked up a burden of my own making instead of the burden of Jesus?

31days-2014-250How often have I failed to believe Him even though he promises that if I seek him first, he’ll take care of the rest? And yet, I struggle to believe that his burden will really be lighter than my own. Instead of choosing the path of open-handed love, I tighten my fists and cling to my own conceptions of enough instead of resting in the true abundance that is knowing Jesus. I’m stingy with my time, my money, and my affection as if holding onto those things will multiply them more than giving them away.

So today, I pray for those who struggle to see the beauty of abundance found in Christ and as I do, I add my name to that list.

This post is part of 31 Days of Change. See the entire series here.

When you change and they don’t

Reflections on Romans 14

31days-2014-250When we first come to experience a profound spiritual change, whether it be through an initial conversion experience or a subsequent deepening relationship with God, we are often shocked that others do not see with the same clarity what we have just come to realize.

It’s important to remember our former ignorance of spiritual things as we deal with others. We can quickly find ourselves impatient and unloving with those who have not yet discovered a truth that has become so dear and precious to us.

As we continue to grow in Christ, we realize there are truths that we have taken hold of that others cannot yet see. There are also those who have made spiritual discoveries to which our eyes are yet to be opened.

The spiritually mature determine not to pass judgement on others and resolve to never put a stumbling block in the path of one whose faith is weaker. This is the way of love. They say come alongside me as I share and celebrate the changes God is making in me. They build up the weaker believer and encourage her in the faith without disparaging her for discoveries yet to be made. They endeavor to become people of righteousness, peace, and joy as they walk together the road of faith.

This post is part of 31 Days of Change. See the entire series here.

Finding grace during the wait

31days-2014-250These days, inner change has been difficult. While the physical changes I’ve undergone have been plain for all to see, inwardly I feel as though change has ground to a halt.

My soul is fed not only by worship, prayer, and service but also by study. Yet, my mind has not been as sharp. My ability to focus has diminished. The deeply theological reading to which I am accustomed has been replaced by simple stories and novels. As a result I’ve been out of sorts.

The Christian life is meant to be one of outward focus, of love for God and others. The mercy of God compels us to consider the needs of others before ourselves. But by its very nature, pregnancy has moved me toward inward focus, my body imposing physical limitations that are foreign. Every sphere of life has felt the strain — work, home, and church.

Yet, there is grace. Words memorized long ago remind me that my standing before God is not altered by the tasks I accomplish in a day. This surprise event was known to the father long before two microscopic cells collided in sacred, hidden spaces. His promises are true not only for me, but for the little one we will soon meet. He knows me. He knows my boy. And it is good.

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you; (Jeremiah 1:5)

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

This post is part of 31 Days of Change. See the entire series here.