Friday, May 30, 2014

Holy Ground

I remember the Sunday I wept in the darkness of the Omaha Playhouse.

As the lights had dimmed, the music had swelled, and I had come undone.  When my voice gave out, my heart had groaned along as the worship pounded from the stage.
Blessed be Your name
On the road marked with suffering
Though there’s pain in the offering
Blessed be Your name
And I thought of my own painful offering.  I thought of my baby’s back being ripped open, of the words “we think he will live,” of the longest day of my life.

At the time, we were sandwiched between surgeries – two complete, and one on the horizon.  Each day we cleaned his picc line and swabbed his back and coaxed him toward health, knowing that once he was healthy we had to go back and do it all again.

So that Sunday, in between surgeries, I sat in the playhouse where our messy, honest church met and I let my heart break with the worship.  Though there’s pain in the offering, Blessed be Your Name.

A few minutes later, our pastor opened the Book and led us to the desert with Moses.  He painted pictures of this shepherd, hiding in the hills, spending his days with his sheep.  Then, out of the normalcy and hiding, a bush erupts and God speaks and nothing is ever the same.

And he asked us about burning bushes.  “What holy ground are you missing because you haven’t opened up your eyes to the fire of God in your everyday?”  So I grabbed my pen (as I do) and scribbled out the request, “I want a burning bush.  I want holy ground.  I want more of You.”  And even as I wrote the prayers, I felt the anger rise.  Finding burning bushes felt as obtainable as climbing Everest.

Because when your child is being held together by wire, it’s hard to do much more than just survive.

And then, as soon as I wrote the prayer, I forgot it.

The days turned into weeks and Caleb’s frailty turned into strength.  Slowly, the calendar ticked its way towards June and the onset of surgery #3.  The other two surgeries had been emergent – we checked in to the hospital with no idea of the danger and pain that was ahead.  We hadn’t had any time to prepare, to imagine, to think.  We just had to act.  And while that was unnerving, the plus side was that we hadn’t had any time to prepare or to imagine or to think.

The night before the third surgery, I laid wide awake in bed imagining all the potential outcomes and pain.  I thought of Caleb being sedated, of kissing him goodbye, of the scalpel.  Even as he woke up, jovial and cheery and reaching for me with those pudgy baby arms, I imagined how differently he would look after a day of sedation and slicing.

As we sat in the waiting room and watched the impossibly slow clock mark the hours that Caleb had been in surgery, I felt more peace and presence.  The prayers almost seemed to take tangible form and sit next to us, the unseen but ever present companion.  And then those merciful words, “They’re closing him up.  It went really well.”

I paced by the elevator doors, waiting to be allowed to go to him.  But a different door swung open as a quietly resolved nurse grabbed me by the arm and whispered, “We need you, Mom.”  Briskly, we rounded the corner in the OR to find Caleb on a gurney, writhing and moaning and wailing.  I gaped at him – this was so unlike our other surgeries.  His health had actually heightened his awareness of his pain.

His health had actually heightened his awareness of his pain.

The nurse whispered, “We can’t get him to settle down, and we really need him to be calm.  We tried a paci, changing his position, even morphine.  But nothing seems to be alleviating the pain.  We need you, Mom.  He needs you.”

She hadn’t even finished her sentence before I was throwing back to blankets, pushing aside the spinal drains, thrusting my hands into the bloody sheets, and climbing into the bed with my son. 

Propped up on his side, I wrapped myself around him as he writhed and wailed.  I pulled his head in to my chest and started humming our favorite lullaby.
You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.
You make me happy when skies are gray.
You’ll never know dear, how much I love you.
Please don’t take my sunshine away.
They wheeled us – tangled up together and weeping – from the OR to our private room.  I hummed in the darkness with the monitors keeping time as his wailing turned into moaning and his frantic breathing slowed to a regular, sleepy rhythm.  Listening to my heart, feeling my warmth, he drifted off to sleep and the nurses exchanged satisfied smiles over my head.  “He needed his mama.”

I had done my job but I couldn’t move.  I felt glued to the bed, watching my son’s anesthesia-swollen face, listening to him moan in his sleep, feeling like my heart was shattering.  Sometimes, “pain” just doesn’t do the feeling justice – it was stronger, rougher, more consuming.  I gasped under the weight of it.  There was something deep inside me that couldn’t settle.

And that’s when I heard it, not with my ears in but a place much, much deeper.
Take off your shoes.
Without thought or even consideration, I latched my toes around my heels and kicked my flats to the floor.  And then He spoke again.
This.  This is your burning bush.  This is your Holy Ground.
And quietly, I felt the edge of my covers being pulled back.  I felt Him climb into the bed with me and wrap Himself around me and sing me lullabies and shush me with His presence.
All that you feel for your son, I feel for you.  You are my baby.  My heart breaks for your pain and for his.  And right now, I am the only thing that will settle your restless, grieving heart.  You need your Papa.
As He pulled me in to Him and I listened to the rhythm of His heartbeat, my tears slowed and my heart quieted.

Nothing had changed.  I was still wrapped around my broken son in a hospital bed.  But so was He.
The three of us were all tangled limbs and broken hearts and blood stained rags and comforting songs.  And somehow that made all the difference.  He is not absent from our pain.  He is not far removed or apathetic or indifferent.

He is the moaning mother, who climbs through the blood and wounds and groans to be close to her child.

He is the ever vigilant father, who records breaths and watches relentlessly and drips tears onto the face of his son.

He is the man of sorrows, immersed in the pain and sorrow and aches of his babe.

And He is the heart of hope – who stores our tears in bottles and promises that one day every one will be wiped away.
20 Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. 21 When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. 22 So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”John 16:20-22

Maybe burning bushes have to live in deserts.  Maybe Holy Ground and suffering go hand in hand.  Maybe that’s what makes the Promised Land so sweet.

And maybe that’s what changes everything.
Blessed be Your Name
when I’m found in the desert place
though I walk through the wilderness
Blessed be Your Name.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The first recorded sit-in

We all know about Rosa Parks’ courage in 1955 when she refused to leave her seat on the bus. The law in Alabama was that blacks had to move to the back, or stand, if seats were needed by whites. Her actions resulted in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. taking a lead role in the fight for civil rights for African-Americans. Asked years later if she was afraid on that December day in Montgomery, Rosa Parks said, “I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.”

Two millennia earlier, Paul and Silas may have participated in the first ever-recorded sit-in. Here’s how it happened. Paul and Silas were accused of being Jews (guilty!) and of “disturbing the city” (they were preaching about Jesus). I told you the story last week of how Paul and Silas were beaten without a trial, thrown into prison, and then a series of amazing events led to the salvation of the Philippian jailer. The next morning the Roman magistrates heard the news and just wanted to get rid of these two men. They sent their police to the prison to say, (and this is the Foxian translation) “Hey, we have great news! Your two men that we beat to a pulp yesterday, publicly? You know the two? Well, they can go free! In fact, the magistrates send their blessings and their best wishes for these men to be in peace.”

They expected the two men to be overjoyed, but instead Paul said, “So, you beat us publicly. And we are uncondemned. There was no trial, was there Silas? No, no trial. And, here’s the big one. Ready? We are Roman citizens.” At this point the two brutes must have gone pale and started sweating. But Paul was not finished. “And after we were beaten as uncondemned Roman citizens, we were thrown into prison and placed in stocks. Let’s review. Beaten in public. Thrown into prison. Put in stocks. All as uncondemned Roman citizens. And now the magistrates would like for us to receive their well wishes of peace and prosperity as we leave quietly out the back door, which by the way, I notice doesn’t exist anymore, thanks to my God. No, gentlemen, we will not leave. We will stay right here in prison until the magistrates themselves come and escort us out the front door.”

And they did. With apologies.

I don’t believe that Paul was thinking about himself and about his wounded pride at being beaten unjustly. He certainly wasn’t “suing for damages” from the Roman government. It wasn’t about Paul at all. He took a stand for the sake of others’ freedom in the city to worship Jesus. He was thinking about Lydia, a slave girl, and a Philippian jailer. He would write to the church later, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” That’s the question to ask before we play the protagonist in anything. Is this for me or for others?

Make no mistake. There is a time to turn the other cheek when you’ve been slapped. There is a time to allow yourself to be wronged rather than take a brother to court. There is also a time to take a stand, or stay in your seat. Not to protect your own interests but to protect the interests of others.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

We should be shocked not at God's wrath but God's grace

(This is part 2 of a post series based on a presentation by Ray Ortlund on the love and the wrath of God. For the context of this quote, click here.)

The wrath of God is a constant reality in our world every day. As Bob Dylan sings, "Everything is broken." We will never succeed in building our ideal world without God. He keeps breaking our self-exalting, oppressive dreams.
That is the wrath of God. And his wrath is the problem addressed by the gospel. The answer is in Romans 3:24-25: ". . . Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith."

To "propitiate" is to satisfy the wrath of God, so that his love can be unleashed. We who are in Christ are no longer under God's condemning wrath (Romans 8:1).

That is the most surprising fact of our existence. We should not be shocked at the wrath of God. We should be surprised at the grace of God, especially considering that God absorbed his wrath against us into himself at the cross. God rescued us from God. This is propitiation.

Leon Morris wrote:
The Bible writers have nothing to do with pagan conceptions of a capricious and vindictive deity, inflicting arbitrary punishments on offending worshipers who must the bribe him to a good mood by the appropriate offerings . . .

If the propitiatory death of Jesus is eliminated from the love of God, it might be unfair to say that the love of God is robbed of all meaning, but it is certainly robbed of its apostolic meaning. The writers of the New Testament know nothing of a love which does not react in the very strongest fashion against every form of sin. It is the combination of God's deep love for the sinner with his uncompromising reaction against sin which brings about what the Bible calls propitiation . . .

Thus the use of the concept of propitiation witnesses two great realities: the one, the reality and seriousness of the divine reaction against sin, and the other, the reality and greatness of the divine love which provided the gift which should avert the wrath from men.

Monday, May 19, 2014

A slave girl and a jailer

No, it’s not a country song, though it would make a good one. It’s a story right out of the Bible, about two unlikely characters who came to faith in Jesus in first century Philippi. The slave girl was possessed of a spirit of divination, by which she made lots of money for her owners who used her as a fortune teller. Paul exorcised her demon and cancelled her sorcery’s license in one fell swoop, and for his troubles he ended up being beaten with rods and locked in stocks in the inner prison. That’s where we meet the jailer.

We don’t know much about this man. Tradition says that he was a retired Roman soldier, too old to fight with the Roman army, but not too old to work in the local prison. He was comfortable with using violence when necessary, but happy when he could make it through a night without a fight. He had finished processing the two newest prisoners, Paul and Silas, shoved them in their cell, locked them down, and was hoping the rest of the night shift would be uneventful. You cannot make up a story as fantastic as what was about to happen.

Because on this night, at midnight, the other inmates heard a sound they had never heard before in a prison, especially out of the mouths of men who had just been beaten to a bloody pulp. What would normally provoke a vile spewing of venomous curses produced something completely different in these two new inmates. Paul and Silas were singing praises to God. The rest of the cellblock was shocked into silence. But we are just getting started, here. Singing prisoners was surprise number one. As the concert continued, the second surprise of the night happened. An earthquake shook the ground violently, leaving all the prison doors open and every prisoner’s shackles loosened. The ultimate surprise was next: Not one prisoner escaped. They were all free and they could have run away, but no one did. That brings two questions to my mind: First, why did God cause the earthquake that opened the prison doors and set the captives free? Second, why did all the prisoners stay right where they were when the doors were opened? There’s one answer to both: God loved a Philippian jailer and had plans for him. Had even one of the prisoners escaped, the Roman government would have required the jailer’s life. I love the irony in that: Their escape would have cost the jailer his life. But Jesus’ life paid for his escape. When the jailer took out his short sword and prepared to kill himself, thinking the prisoners had run away, Paul yelled to him to stop. “We are all here,” Paul said.

The jailer ran and fell down before Paul and Silas and asked that question that, dear reader, is more important than any other question you could ever ask: “What must I do to be saved?” And the answer that Paul and Silas gave is so simple: “Believe in the Lord Jesus.”

Believing in the Lord Jesus and giving Him your life is the most powerful thing any of us can do. Not just for salvation; it is the best way to grow in your faith. It is the best help in avoiding sin. It is the best path to making a real difference in the world. It is the best way to lay up treasures in heaven. It is the only way to find fulfillment and success and significance in this life.

Believe in the Lord Jesus!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

We will never ungod God

Recently I had the pleasure of hearing Ray Ortlund address the Porterbrook study group here in Omaha on the topic of the love and wrath of God in the Old Testament. He chose to address this topic because "there is a widespread misconception that the Old Testament is a book of wrath, while the New Testament is a book of grace, as if the two testaments had different angles on God". He went on to dismantle this misconception by showing both that (1) there is more wrath and judgment in the New Testament that some people think, and that (2) there is more love and grace in the Old Testament that some people think.

I wanted to share a few segments from his presentation because I thought it was brilliant (to put it mildly). This will be the first of two portions I wanted to share from his talk. I don't say this often, but you owe it to yourself to read every word of what follows...

Love is intrinsic to God's being and spontaneous in its outward flow—within the Trinity, first and foremost. Jonathan Edwards preached that, in heaven, we will all be deluged in an ocean of the love of God. It's just who God is.

By contrast, his wrath has to be provoked. We have to prod him and prod him to draw wrath out of him.

And we did. We provoked to wrath the most sweet-natured person in the universe.

God is the easiest person in the universe to get along with. There is no necessity in God that he judge us. His whole heart is biased toward loving us. But we forfeited his willing delight in us by our rejection of him in Adam and in our own choices.

We are all nice people here today. The problem is we are all nice, evil people. And God will never make peace with evil. His wrath is not a moody vindictiveness or a petty woundedness.

His wrath is his solemn determination that:
  1. we will never ungod him
  2. we will never bring his government down by our protests
  3. we will never veto his joy by our self-pity
  4. and his love will triumph for all who don't mind being loved by God as God.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Faith, not doubt, opens hearts and homes

Lydia came to faith in Jesus Christ when she heard the Gospel preached by Paul, and the Lord opened her heart. She did not come to believe by doubling down on doubt. Zaccheus came to faith in Jesus Christ when the Nazarene invited the vertically-challenged tax collector to clamber down the sycamore and let the Lord come to his house. He did not stumble through doubt-clouds and somehow find his way to truth. Nicodemus visited Jesus at night, not because he doubted the veracity of Jesus’ claims, but because he wanted to understand them. Even Thomas, made famous by first doubting the rest of the disciples’ claims that Jesus was alive, did not come to believe because of his doubt. He was kept from faith for a while because of it, and when he finally did believe, he was chided by the Lord with these words: “Have you believed because you have seen Me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Do you know what Lydia did when she became a Christian? Lydia opened her home. I love that. The Lord opened her heart. And Lydia opened her home. She did not go to seminary. She did not start a ministry. She did not go on a preaching crusade. Not that any of those are bad. But Lydia opened her home. Edith Schaeffer said once, “Every Christian home is meant to have a door that swings open.”

I believe it’s one of the first and finest fruits of the Father’s followers. He opens our hearts. We open our homes. Jesus said to Zaccheus, “Come down, I’m coming over to your house for supper.” When Levi, also called Matthew, the tax collector met Jesus, what was the first thing he did? He had a party and invited all of his tax collector friends over. He opened his home to Jesus and a big pile of lost people who needed to meet the Savior.

There’s the story that is told of a South Carolina judge, Alexander Sanders, whose wife called him home one day because something terrible had happened. Their little girl’s turtle had died, and she was absolutely inconsolable. As a three year old, she just didn’t understand the ways of life and death. The judge offered to buy her another one. “No! It wouldn’t be the same one.” He tried everything, and finally said, “Well, we have to have a funeral for Carl.” She looked puzzled, so the judge told her a funeral is where they invite all of her little friends over, and have ice cream and cake and lemonade and play outside and celebrate the life of her turtle. That did it. She was very excited about that, and so she and her father started to plan the party and who to invite. Then it happened. The turtle stuck his legs out. Then his head. The father was relieved and knew his daughter would be, too. But when he looked at her expecting to see tears of joy, she said, “Daddy, let’s kill it.” What’s the moral to that story? It’s not, “kill turtles.” No. The moral is, “everybody loves a party.” So, have one. Invite doubters, skeptics, and others who don’t know Jesus.

The answer, my friend, is not blowing in the wind. The answer is written in God’s Word. Don’t celebrate doubt. Investigate the truth. Read the Bible. Talk to someone who knows Jesus. Come to my house for dinner. We would love to meet you and tell you why we believe.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

A Call for Super-Moms to Hang Up Their Capes

I reach down and scoop up my chubby, wriggling baby – giggling limbs and thunder thighs under one arm, brand new outfit from grandma under the other. This recent gift of a bright yellow hoodie with HANDSOME emblazoned on the front and the unexpectedly boy-ish “jeggings” are demanding an immediate wardrobe change. So even though it’s the middle of the day, and even though it will my break my “never launder more than necessary” rule, I just have to put him in these precious clothes.

Easier said than done. As I lay him on the floor and start tugging on his onesie, his movements (and attitude, I might add) change with ninja-like skill. With a banshee scream, he launches himself sideways, twists his upper body, wrenches his foot around, and flails with all of his might. 20 minutes later, I have managed to dress him. It was like wrangling an eel.

And despite my best efforts to remain patient and light-hearted, every kick of the leg had amped up the slowly growing volcano in my chest. Little by little, the frustration mounted until I spun him around and erupted, “Why are you fighting me? I’m just trying to help you! Not everything is such a battle!”

And even as I say it, I recognize myself in his rebellious, struggling little limbs. I recognize it in my heart and I recognize it in my motherhood.

Some women waltz into motherhood with the thrill of achieving their dream - finally being able to embrace their lifelong desire to raise a little one, spend days upon days decorating sticker books, and rocking quietly with their babe in the softly filtering moonlight.

I was not one of those women.

When I signed up for children, I didn’t really know what I was getting into (though, if we’re being honest, no one does). And as I was called into endless boo-boo kissing and storybook reading and sleep sacrificing and giving, giving, giving, I entered in much like my little baby – kicking, screaming, writhing – determined that I knew what was best, determined that I would do this my way.

My house would always be presentable. Aromatic candles, freshly cut flowers, soft music, and sweet iced tea – my home would be one of welcome and warmth. Then I had three sons in 4 years. With their vivacious existence came a world of muddy shoes, pet earthworms, massive blood stains (seriously, it looks like someone died on our carpet), and sloppy wet kisses. And for years, I struggled and writhed and fought as my dreams of a tidy home slipped slowly through my constantly cleaning fingers. With every mop of the floor and every ignored, “Come play with me, Mommy,” I fought against the false ideas of motherhood that reigned in my head.

The house is a good, tangible example of the struggle, but this pattern holds true across the board; the raging perfectionist and the contented mother are constantly at war in me. The perfectionist begs for clean toilets and flawlessly maintained relationships and consistently quiet moments with God. All good things. And the contented mother begs for spontaneous sand castles and naps on the lawn and focused conversations about Batman and space to write. Again, good things. So I work hard to appease them both, to stretch the 24 hours into just a few more, to give when I have given up. And so I struggle and I writhe and I fight.

And I can’t help but wonder if Jesus looks down at me with the patient (but maybe weary?) eyes of a mother trying to dress her little babe. I can almost hear Him whispering, “Why are you fighting me, child? You can’t put on this garment of motherhood by yourself. And if you’d just hold still for a moment, I would guide your arms, your head, your whole body into this outfit I’ve chosen for you. You can’t do it on your own. Love, why are you struggling so?”

Because when it comes down to it, I have no more ability to be a good mother than my one year-old has of dressing himself. I cling to my visions of perfect motherhood like the losing end of a tug-of-war rope. I tug and twist and dig in my heels, determined to give a little more, to love a little more, to work a little more. And at the end of the day, I’m only blistered and sore. For all my wriggling and struggling, I can never make this mommy-calling fit just right.

But maybe I’m not supposed to.

As I zip up the blazing yellow hoodie, Micah smiles up at me with one of those smiles. The kind that leaves me muttering, “My word. How can I love you so much?” I tug the hood over his head as he giggles, half delighting in the play and half thrilled to be free of my dressing-grip.

And I feel the Father tug at my own hood a little too, as He whispers instructions and grace and life into my motherhood. He reminds me that He chose my outfit, He clothes me each day, and He zips up the garment marked “Beautiful.”

All I have to do is let Him.

Happy Mother’s Day to me.