Shannon Woodward is a Calvary Chapel pastor's wife, editor, speaker and has had the privilege of writing or co-authoring 14 nonfiction books, including Inconceivable: Finding Peace in the Midst of Infertility (Cook Communications) and A Whisper in Winter: Stories of Hearing God’s Voice in Every Season of Life (New Hope Publishers). Though out of print now, you can find A Whisper in Winter in eBook form on Amazon. Her writing has also appeared in three Chicken Soup For the Soul books, Tyndale’s Mysteries of the Bible, and in a number of magazines and anthologies.
She was formally a writer/Senior Editor for The Word For Today and Calvary Chapel Publishing, an adjunct faculty member for Imago Dei Bible institute in Redmond, WA, and was a columnist for Christian Women Online.
Mother's Day.. From the point of viewpoint of an infertile womanI wrote this article several years back when I was writing and editing for Pastors.com. It describes the feelings I wish I had shared with my pastor back when I was the woman crying in the pew. Now that my husband is the pastor, we handle Mother’s Day differently. We don’t single out those who have been blessed with children of their own. Instead, we celebrate all the women in our church — all the sisters, the aunts, the Sunday school teachers, and yes, the moms. We acknowledge the gentleness, the compassion, the love and the nurturing spirit that God has poured into them, and that they share so freely with all the children who cross their paths.
* * * * *
“I’d like to have all the mothers stand for prayer,” the pastor said.
The sanctuary rustled with movement. On my right and my left, in front of me and behind, a sea of women stood to their feet. For the first time ever, I was allowed to join them.
Rising, I clutched Zachary close. He was 4 days old.
From his seat next to me, Dave reached up and laid his hand against my back. At his touch, I turned my head and we caught each other’s eyes. No one else but he understood exactly what this moment meant to me.
One year I had fought tears all the way to church – dreading what I knew was to come – and cried all the way back home again, reliving the long, awful moments when I’d stayed glued to my seat while seemingly every other woman in the church rose to the honored position.
Another Mother’s Day, though I’d tried hard to keep my eyes locked on the hymnal in the pew rack before me, compulsion made me look. Scanning the crowd, peeping between the rows of standing women, I’d spotted only girls sitting down, only girls too young to bear children. When I realized I was the only adult woman not standing, I had to drop my head to hide my tears.
One year I almost couldn’t sit through the prayer. I almost left.
I wanted to be happy for the other women, and I’d try to agree with the words the pastor prayed, but all the while I’d be missing my mother – and all the children I couldn’t have. During those unbearable prayers, sitting in a seat of shame, I’d pray too. I’d pray it would all end quickly, and we’d be equalized again in the pews.
Dave knew every part of that. He knew how long I had waited for this invitation.
The pastor began. “Lord, we ask that you equip these women for the task you’ve laid before them. Fill them with your wisdom.”
I need your wisdom, Father.
“Bless the children you’ve entrusted to their care.”
Yes, Lord – guard him and bless him.
“And bless these mothers for the sacrifices they’ve made.”
I hadn’t sacrificed a thing. All the sacrifices had been made for me, by a birth-mother who was undoubtedly, at that moment, grieving deeply.
While the pastor continued praying, I snuck a peek at the people on risers at the back of the stage – who were all sneaking peeks at me. Those members of the choir, those friends, returned my look with congratulatory smiles. They’d prayed Zachary into my arms.
The pastor began to wind down. Zachary made a small noise and popped one arm out of his blanket. When I turned to my left and tilted my head to tuck his covering closer, my gaze landed eye-level with a woman in a pew across the aisle, a woman I knew, a woman who was sitting.
It was Lynn, a woman I had met only a few months back at our church’s worship retreat. When Dave had told the crowd clustered around the bonfire that I was infertile and we needed their prayers, Lynn had put her arms around me and shared that she too was infertile.
She felt my gaze, looked up, and tried to smile with the same forced movement my own lips had attempted in years past, every time my own eyes had caught the glance of a mother proudly standing.
My heart leapt across the aisle. I’m you, I wanted to shout. I’m still you.
She turned away.
I took my place next to Dave and together we stared at our blue-blanketed gift. Zachary yawned, his lips a perfect oval, his tongue a curled sliver. When he closed his mouth again, his chin quivered and he pursed his tiny lips.
Though my heart was full, grief lingered in a corner. There was room enough still for the pain of those past Mother’s Days. I remembered. I would always remember.
I knew the hollow ache inside Lynn. I wanted to tell her that little had changed. I’d thought that the coming of an eight-pound gift would erase the ache, but it didn’t. Instead, the love that sprang inside me forged a new place. It didn’t fill the emptiness. I was an infertile woman entrusted with a child, allowed to mother that child and love him and watch him grow. But I knew already – just four days into my new life – that the pain of the old life had followed me.
I was Lynn. I’d just been allowed to stand for a brief prayer.
I thought I might tell her all that as soon as the service ended. I looked across the aisle for courage.
But she was gone.
* * * * *
Three deaths had occurred there; three deaths in about that many years. The first had been a drug overdose. The second was an accidental homicide, which happened when an estranged ex-husband showed up with a gun, threatened his ex-wife, and shot her new boyfriend. The boyfriend lived. The ex-husband died when his 14-year old son, trying to defend his mother, picked up a two-by-four and hit him over the back of the head.
My husband brought groceries to the family and spent a half-hour trying to comfort a group of people who showed no interest in comfort. “I’m glad he’s dead,” one said, and the rest agreed. Though I can’t imagine the boy escaping regret for the whole of his life, he showed no remorse on that afternoon when Dave sat ready to point the way to forgiveness.
We tried to reach out again, not long after, when Dave spotted the owner of the property, J.D., out near the mailbox. J.D. lived in a travel trailer off to the side of the mobile home, which he had rented to the other family. We’d just returned from the grocery store and had a box of donuts in a bag between us. Dave handed the donuts to J.D., chatted with him a bit, and then suggested that they get together for coffee.
“I might like to do that, Pastor,” J.D. said. Dave left our number and told the quiet man to call anytime.
But coffee never happened. A week turns into a month pretty quickly, and months slip by before you catch what’s happening. Once in awhile, one of us would mention J.D. and the coffee idea would resurface. But before it could come to life, J.D. was gone. One night, after several drinks with his live-in girlfriend, J.D. fell asleep … and she shot him.
Three deaths; three long yellow strips of crime scene tape. I was sick of the sight. But one afternoon, before I realized what I was doing, I stopped my car directly in front of that unpruned bush. Reaching into the branches, I pulled out a section of that tape and tore it away, then brought it home and tacked it to the bulletin board above my writing desk.
We don’t know the number of our days. We only know that we have this hour, this minute, this second. I don’t want to forget the frailty of breath. I want no regrets.
Next to that strip of yellow tape I’ve posted a favorite quote. Most of us go to our graves with our music still inside us.
Today, I want to sing.
Little House in the Snowy WoodsHappy first day of winter! Here’s a memory from a few years back. I’m hoping for more of the same this year.
I am living in a snow globe.
Every handful of minutes, the wind visits the alders and maples and evergreens surrounding our house and sends a shower of white billowing about. Inside this globe, I sit in front of the woodstove and watch the orange glow on the other side of the tempered glass. The sounds of David Lanz’s Christmas CD fills the house. To my left, our 15-foot Christmas tree towers. If I had my druthers, the massive fir would be draped head to toe in white lights; for the pleasure of my children, I opted for the green, red, blue and yellow variety.
Fourteen inches of snow presses against the outside walls. Larry is so intrigued with the seldom-seen blanket of white that he keeps insisting I let him go investigate. The dog doesn’t own enough dignity to stay on the porch. He doesn’t understand that snow is not for lying on — at least not longer than the time it takes to make a snow angel. “Silly pup,” I tell him. But he just grins and smacks a trough with his snakey black tail.
If you could enter this snowglobe and sit awhile, I’d offer you a taste of our tradition. Since the year we married, 21 years ago, I’ve been making homemade cinnamon rolls to celebrate our first snowfall of the season. This year’s batch is fresh from the oven (a twin batch just went into the freezer for later baking). The moment I pull the pan from the oven, I slather creamy swirls of cream cheese frosting over the spiraled tops. It melts on contact and drips its sweet, buttery self down between the crevices of cinnamon and sweet dough. Dave likes a big pat of butter on his, and a glass of ice cold milk on the side. I give him the largest roll; he finishes in a half-dozen bites and heads straight back to the kitchen. From my perch on the couch, I listen for evidence, and when it comes — when I hear the sound of the spatula sliding into my stoneware pan and the clink of the butter dish cover being lifted — I smile. He’s waited months for that second helping.
More snow is expected tonight. Maybe we’ll have ourselves a repeat of last night. Maybe we’ll don our winter gear and walk again along the trail that borders our property. At most any other time, we’d have companions on that trail. Bikers, walkers, rollerbladers, and those on horse-back would share our travels. But last night, we owned the world. In an hour of trekking, with only the brightness of snow at our feet to guide our steps, our only company was the creaking of heavy-bowed trees.
I hear those trees now. Every so often, a white-coated branch gives up the battle and drops to the ground, trailing shivers of dust as it falls. I’ve spent most of the morning listening, and looking skyward. I’m watching for boughs, but I’m also looking past those massive sentries — and thanking the God who lives beyond. This scene is His gift … and I’m grateful.
Bonhoeffer on "Cheap Grace"
I've been reading a lot of Dietrich Bonhoeffer lately, and I find his thoughts about "cheap grace" to be both timely and much-needed in the church today. It's popular right now to talk about our "freedom in Christ," but so often that phrase is merely a convenient smoke screen behind which people hide so that they can indulge in their secret (or not-so-secret) sin. How we need to get back to one central question: Will this please the heart of God? After all, we are not our own, but were bought with a price. And as we read in Romans 14, no freedom is greater than love for our brother. If what we're doing will displease God, misrepresent Him, or cause a brother to stumble, it needs to go. But enough from me. :) Here's Dietrich:
"Luther always looked upon grace as the answer to a sum, an answer which had been arrived at by God, not by man. But his followers then changed the 'answer' into the data for a calculation of their own. That was the root of the trouble. If grace is God's gift of Christian life, then we cannot for a moment dispense with following Christ. But if grace becomes how I choose to live my Christian life, it means that I set out to live the Christian life in the world with all my sins justified beforehand. I can go and sin as much as I like, and rely on this 'grace' to forgive me, for the world after all is justified in principle by grace."
"The Christian life now means nothing more than living in the world and in being no different from the world; it means, in fact, being prohibited for the sake of grace from being different from the world."
"We have gathered like eagles around the carcass of cheap grace, and there we have drunk the poison that has killed the life of following Christ."
"What happened to all those warnings of Luther against preaching the gospel in such a way as to make people feel secure in their ungodly living? Was there ever a more terrible or disastrous instance of the Christianizing of the world than this? What are those three thousand Saxons put to death by Charlemagne compared to the millions of spiritual corpses in our country today?"
"This cheap grace has been no less disastrous to our personal spiritual lives. Instead of opening up the way to Christ, it has closed it. Instead of calling us to follow Christ, it has hardened us in our disobedience. Perhaps we had once heard the gracious call to follow Him and had even taken the first few steps along the path of discipleship, only to find ourselves confronted by the word of cheap grace. Was that not merciless and hard? The only effect that such a word could have on us was to bar our way to progress, to seduce us to the mediocre level of the world.
"Deceived and weakened, men felt that they were strong now that they were in possession of this cheap grace--whereas in fact they had lost the power to live the life of discipleship and obedience. The word of cheap grace has been the ruin of more Christians than any commandment of works."
"To follow in His steps is something beyond defining. It gives us no intelligible program for a way of life, no goal or ideal to strive after. The disciple simply burns his boats and goes ahead. The old life is left behind, completely surrendered. Discipleship means Jesus Christ and Him alone ... When we are called to follow Christ, we are summoned to an exclusive attachment to His person. The grace of His call bursts all the bonds of legalism."
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
A Life Record
I learned all this when I found and skimmed Martha’s six-ring, refillable, 2001 personal planner in a nearby thrift store. Tucked in among the other planners–some oversized, some slightly scuffed, some just plain nasty-looking, the small, earthy-colored tapestry cover caught my eye and drew my hand into the book bin. I loved the feel of the planner in my hand and the ease with which it unzipped. I knew instantly I’d buy it–even before I discovered Martha inside.
It startled me a bit to read such personal information about a stranger, but like a voyeur who happens upon a wide-open window, I kept looking. I found out that Martha went to the symphony in January, and that the Austen in her life had the same birthday as my middle sister. I learned that Martha had had a library book due back February 2nd, her new ID card expired in March, and she met a friend for coffee in early April.
But around that same time–early to mid April–Martha recorded a Wednesday afternoon doctor’s appointment … and then another for the following Monday. By Thursday she’d added a new name, with the word “oncologist” after his title. In the flip of just three more pages it became clear. Martha had cancer.
It must have been a late-stages discovery, or such an aggressive cancer that the treatments didn’t touch it. For despite a flurry of doctor visits and scribbled notes about the side-effects of the prescriptions and treatments she tried, by summer of that year, Martha stopped writing in her planner. Standing along the back aisle of the thrift store, with canned music floating overhead and the cry of an irritated child somewhere to my left, I turned page after page, wanting to see Martha’s handwriting, wanting to find one indication that she’d lived to anticipate fall or Christmas or 2002. But Martha’s entries ended.
I lost a dear friend to cancer last year. I said another good bye just three months later. But both those women knew Jesus. Both knew that death was nothing more than opening a door and seeing, finally, the face of the One they loved most. So despite missing them, my grief was laced with joy. I knew where they were and Who they were with.
I couldn’t rest on that assurance with Martha. I hadn’t seen a single piece of evidence that she belonged to a group of fellow-sojourners or that she stopped at least once a week to turn her face heavenward. And no, a planner can’t capture the full essence of a heart or indicate the thoughts a dying person directs toward God. But I saw no evidence. Not even a hint.
And so, standing there in that dingy thrift store, surrounded by strangers, I grieved another, and reminded myself that our mission field is really no further away than the next person we meet.
"It is a moment of light surrounded on all sides by darkness and oblivion. In the entire history of the universe, let alone in your own history, there has never been another just like it and there will never be another just like it again. It is the point to which all your yesterdays have been leading since the hour of your birth. It is the point from which all your tomorrows will proceed until the hour of your death. If you were aware of how precious it is, you could hardly live through it. Unless you are aware of how precious it is, you can hardly be said to be living at all.
'This is the day which the Lord has made,' says the 118th Psalm. 'Let us rejoice and be glad in it.' Or weep and be sad in it for that matter. The point is to see it for what it is because it will be gone before you know it. If you waste it, it is your life that you're wasting. If you look the other way, it may be the moment you've been waiting for always that you're missing.
All other days have either disappeared into darkness and oblivion or not yet emerged from them. Today is the only day there is."
~ Frederick Buechner, in Listening to Your Life
I spent yesterday with two of my very favorite short people. They're now four, but I remember when they first arrived ...
Mark and Taryn's twins are only a month old, and already I have a favorite. It's whichever one I find myself holding.
Wednesday night, I held Duncan. We stared at each other all during worship. I don't know what he was thinking during that time; I was marveling at how much he'd grown in the few days since I'd seen him last. He didn't smile at my expressions or respond to my questions. That will have to wait a bit. He just watched.
While Dave instructed everyone to turn to 2 Samuel 5, I sat rocking Duncan and feeling a little rebellious. I wasn't turning to 2 Samuel 5, but I was listening. After just a few minutes, Duncan made "I'm hungry" movements, so I took the bottle Taryn handed me and started feeding him. He eats like a champ--just the way Zac ate when he was new. Get down to it, do it like you mean it, don't dawdle. And then he spit up--just like Zac used to after every single feeding. I sat wiping and burping and feeding Duncan, and wishing I could turn the clock back and have my own baby again for five minutes.
With his tummy full, Duncan struggled to stay awake. How do month-old babies already know to fight sleep? More evidence of what a good teacher Dave is. Duncan didn't want to miss a word.
But he lost his battle. His eyelids succumbed to gravity, and I was abandoned. I looked at his almost-not-there eyebrows, his nearly invisible eyelashes, and the barely noticeable flaring of his tiny nostrils. I watched the ripple of miniature muscle along his forehead as he furrowed those little eyebrows. Was he dreaming of empty bottles? I placed my finger in his hand and both watched and felt the curl of his fingers as he responded.
It was that hand that captured my thoughts. I turned the palm up and traced each finger, pondering the fact that those hands have yet to test the waters. They haven't yet moved in response to a thought ... good or bad. He hasn't used them yet to pick flowers for his mother, or pet a dog, or clap with delight. Nor has he used them to pinch his sister, or pilfer one of her toys. Those hands are untested, but all the potential is there. As I sat tracing those little fingers and wondering what Duncan would choose to do with his hands as he grew, I prayed God would guide him.
And then I looked at my own hands, and wished again I could turn the clock back; wished for a chance to go back and pick more flowers, and steal less toys.
Casting CrownsA few weeks ago, when Dave was getting ready to take a run to the dump, we tackled a pile of boxes which had been stored in a covered area along with our hay. Spying one dilapidated box, I told Dave, “I think those are the last of Cindy’s things.” A woman from church and her two children had lived in our travel trailer a few years ago, and she’d left a couple of boxes full of things she no longer wanted. The shoes on the top of that box were hers — so I almost suggested that Dave just toss the whole box. But at the last minute, I said, “Maybe I should take a quick peek first.” I’m so glad I did. Inside that box were old pictures, old letters, and a diary that had belonged to my mother when she was just a teenager. I don’t know how Cindy’s unwanted shoes found themselves on top of such a treasure, but while Dave was driving to the dump, I was sitting on the couch sorting through my memories. I’ve much to tell about what I found there. But for today, let me tell you about Garrett …
He was the tallest of my first graders, and probably the one with the best memory. Six-year old Garrett Smith loved two things: dinosaurs and Star Wars. On his first day of first grade (which happened to be my first day on my own as a teacher) Garrett asked me if I’d like to hear the opening lines to the Star Wars movie. He then stood with his head high, legs locked, and hands on his hips, and began the soliloquy he’d memorized from watching the movie: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away …”
He knew the whole thing. And it so delighted me that I made frequent requests for encores throughout the year. “What was that opening line of Star Wars, Garrett?”
Because of the efforts of his mother, Ann, Garrett had an in incredible vocabulary. Whenever he got an idea, he wouldn’t say, “How about this?” or “I know! Let’s ….” Instead, he’d raise his index finger in the air and say, in his high, six year-old voice, “Mrs. Woodward, I have an EX-cellent suggestion!”
Garrett’s face and voice came alive for me when, while sorting through my newly rescued pile of letters and photographs, I came upon a lavender, dinosaur-stamped envelope. “Mrs. Woodward” was written across the center in distinctive first-grade handwriting.
Inside, I found two math pages. The first question on the first page showed six milk cartons lined up next to the number “6” and below, three milk cartons lined to the right of the number “3.” Big as life, Garrett had written “9” on the line beneath the problem, just like I’d taught him. He knew the next answer, too: “1 + 7 = 8,” and all the ones that followed. In fact, he’d received 100% on this paper. On top of the front side, I’d drawn a smiley face and written Great! On the flip side, I’d written Wow! Page two sported a colorful gold fish looking up at Garrett’s answers with bulbous, astonished eyes. Garrett had taken the time, on this picture, to color all his answers with blue, green or yellow crayon. Again, all his answers on this paper were correct. For his efforts, I’d given him a Yipee! on on side, and the coveted Super Duper! on the other.
Garrett had received his prize … and for whatever reason, he wanted to give it back to me. I don’t recall the conversation that occurred when Garrett handed that lavender envelope to me and I opened it to find his two perfect math papers. But I’m fairly certain I didn’t make the connection I do today. Today, it seems pretty clear to me that Garrett was doing what I’ll do when I reach the end of my life and face the One who gave it to me.
He was casting crowns.
The twenty-four Elders fell down before him and worshiped him, the Eternal Living One, and cast their crowns before the throne, singing, “O Lord, you are worthy to receive the glory and the honor and the power …'” –Rev 4:10-11 (TLB)
On Faith and Tumbling
Eloping is not for the faint of heart. But then again, neither is marriage.
I honestly can’t believe that twenty-nine whole years have gone by since we said, “I do.” That number sounds as big as a hundred to me, yet the fullness of my marriage feels much younger. But I also don’t feel 52 (about to turn 53). I feel exactly 23 years old, which happens to be the age I was when I ran off with Dave.
Someone once said that a great marriage is made up of two great forgivers. To that I say, “amen and thank you,” because Dave is the greatest forgiver I know. And that’s truly the secret to our longevity. I have had very little forgiving to do these past 29 years; the work has almost entirely been his. He is absolutely the kindest, gentlest, most patient man I’ve ever known, and I have learned the most about who Jesus is by seeing Him live through my husband. I so often wish I hadn’t made so many mistakes along the way, and if I could have a “do over,” I would take it in a second. I would go back and apply all that I’ve learned to my marriage, and my parenting, and my friendships, and all my other family relationships. I would be more loving, less selfish; quicker to say “yes,” slower to deny; less impulsive, more thoughtful and far-thinking.
We don’t get do-overs, though. We just have to take the lessons we gather and use them for today and tomorrow.
For our anniversary this year, we took a spontaneous, three-day trip to Ocean Shores. While walking with Dave along the shoreline the first day, I spied the most perfectly round, beautifully orange little rock. I picked it up and rubbed it between my fingers, and marveled at the smoothness of its edges.
I showed it to Dave and told him I was keeping it. And he said, “You should paint “29” on it.”
Yes, I should. I might. Right now, though, that little rock is in a jar on my kitchen windowsill, along with about forty other smooth-and-rounded rocks I couldn’t help collecting along that shoreline. Black rocks, gray rocks, one green rock, and a few other orange ones like the first that I found.
It took me awhile to find the orange ones. At one point, holding my ground in the surge of an incoming wave, I thought, “Just one more. I want just one more orange rock.” And right into my mind came a verse I’ve been meditating on lately, one I’ve needed a bunch. “The Lord will fight for you; you need only be still” (Exodus 14:14). Just be still, my heart heard. So I stopped where I was, and I turned to look shoreward, and as the tide drew back out, leaving me standing in its wake, I watched as one last orange rock somersaulted toward me. It skittered and rolled and tumbled right to my feet — a gift from the Author of Exodus.
As I was bending over to pick it up, a dozen thoughts hit me at once. I thought how nice it was of God to give me that one more rock. I thought about how flat and smooth it was, and I wondered how many tides it had endured to reach that state of perfection. And I thought how very like that rock we are. Life is a series of giant waves and small irritating grains of sand and wild, tumbling rides. One after the other after the other, all doing precisely what God designed them to do. And one day, when our square parts and our rough edges have been worked over and chiseled down and polished smooth, we’ll take one last tumble — not knowing it’s the last — and He’ll reach down and scoop us up and carry us home, where we’ll be displayed forever as a trophy of His grace and patience and power.
I’m still tumbling. But I have a lot of faith that God is using it all to smooth me. And today I have a new sense of gratitude for the ride.
If Moody Were Still Alive, I Would Hug Him For This
There are many professed Christians who are all the time finding fault and criticising. They criticise the preaching, or the singing. The prayers will be either too long or too short, too loud, or not loud enough. They will find fault with the reading of the Word of God, or will say it was not the right portion. They will criticise the preacher. “I do not like his style,” they say. If you doubt what I say, listen to the people as they go out of a revival meeting, or any other religious gathering.
“What did you think of the preacher?” says one. “Well, I must confess I was disappointed. I did not like his manner. He was not graceful in his actions.” Another will say: “He was not logical; I like logic.” Or another: “He did not preach enough about repentance.” If a preacher does not go over every doctrine in every sermon people begin to find fault. They say: “There was too much repentance, and no Gospel; or, it was all Gospel, and no repentance.” “He spoke a great deal about justification, but he said nothing about sanctification.” So if a man does not go right through the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, in one sermon, they at once proceed to criticise and find fault.
“The fact is,” says some one of this class, “the man did not touch my heart at all.” Some one else will say, “He was all heart and no head. I like a man to preach to my intellect.” Or, “He appeals too much to the will; he does not give enough prominence to the doctrine of election.” Or, again, “There is no backbone in his preaching; he does not lay sufficient stress on doctrine.” Or, “He is not eloquent;” and so on, and so on.
moodyYou may find hundreds of such fault-finders among professed Christians; but all their criticism will not lead one solitary soul to Christ. I never preached a sermon yet that I could not pick to pieces and find fault with. I feel that Jesus Christ ought to have a far better representative than I am. But I have lived long enough to discover that there is nothing perfect in this world. If you are to wait until you can find a perfect preacher, or perfect meetings, I am afraid you will have to wait till the millennium arrives. What we want is to be looking right up to Him. Let us get done with fault-finding. When I hear people talk in the way I have described, I say to them, “Come and do better yourself. Step up here and try what you can do.” My friends, it is so easy to find fault; it takes neither brains nor heart.
~ D.L. Moody, from “TO THE WORK! TO THE WORK!”
What are your thoughts about that? Although it might be risky to do so, I’ll tell you mine. And yes … I’m almost certain to sound defensive.
We’ve been in the ministry for seventeen years as of two days ago. My husband is the pastor; I am not. I cringe whenever someone refers to us as “the pastors,” because I am the pastor’s wife, not the pastor. My role is to serve him as he serves the church. I have failed often in that job, but I am constantly praying that God will help me to do better.
I’ve watched again and again as people have come into the church, loved it, rolled up their sleeves, worshiped with us, studied with us, worked side by side with us, prayed with us, taken meals with us, laughed with us, and sometimes cried with us. I’ve watched their enthusiasm when they agree with a decision my husband has made, and I’ve watched the varied reactions when they don’t. Some are mature enough in the Lord that they know their preferences won’t always make the cut. Those show patience, grace and acceptance when things go a different way than they’d like. But others become angry and combative. Either they challenge my husband (and the board) openly, or they begin a campaign behind the scenes, gathering fellow murmurers and nurturing disunity. And I sometimes wonder, Are they not reading God’s word?
“Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door” (James 5:9).
“Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you” (Hebrews 13:17)
“But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them. You may be sure that such people are warped and sinful; they are self-condemned” (Titus 3:9-11).
I think for many critics and murmurers, they are simply disoriented. They’ve lost perspective. They have forgotten that democracy is an American concept, but not a Christian concept. And so they try to bring democracy into the church. “If we can just sway enough people to our side, we can rule by majority.” Not so. Not even remotely so. Christianity is a theocracy, and God is our King. And it doesn’t matter if 70 percent, or 90, or 99 percent of the people disagree with God’s clearly stated Word; it will stand for eternity. You can never legislate the truth away. But maybe that’s a blog post for another time.
I guess the reason why Moody’s words resonated so deeply with me is because I know so well the man that these occasional critics take their aim at. I see all those things that others do not have the opportunity to see. I know all the nights when he stays up late praying about a person he’s concerned with — someone God has laid heavily on his heart. I know how much it weighs on him when people are hurting, or when they’re beginning to wander to the edge of the fold, or when they’re being lured by the enticements of the world. I also know how often he shows grace to the ones who are grumbling against him, and the times he has known of the sins of someone, but not exposed them. Instead, he has prayed with and for that one. I’ve seen times when people have disagreed with a decision he’s made, and I know he could very easily make them see why he had to make it, but he refuses, because the doing so would expose the sin of someone. Instead, he takes the criticism and speaks not a word. Oh, those times I want so badly to set it all straight. I want to defend him; I want to spill the beans myself, if only so that people can see how godly his decision was, and how necessary. If you only knew how many times I’ve thought, When we all arrive in heaven, this will all make sense to people. They’ll see how they’ve misjudged him.
The critics don’t always consult with one another while they’re lining up, and so it’s sometimes a little humorous to hear the opposing complaints of back-to-back prophets. “You’re too community-minded,” one accused, and within a few weeks another said the opposite. “You’re not community-minded enough.” I still find that funny, in a sad way.
The truth is, my husband is just a man. He’s been called by God to shepherd all those who walk through our door, and to feed them big doses of the Word. That’s a daunting task, and one that absolutely none of his critics have ever tried to do. If he were pompous or flashy, brash or cocky, I might understand how he could be a lightning rod for criticism. But he’s the most humble man I know. He studies hard; prays much; pours over God’s Word so that he can represent Him well, and approaches the pulpit with utter humility. Those are some of the things I love the best about him.
To all those in our church who love unity more than their own preferences, who have the grace to submit on nonessential things, who understand the structure God has established in the church (which was all His idea, by the way) and who are willing to participate in that structure and share their spiritual gifts with the body, who serve Jesus with us, who pray for us, who believe the best in us, who overlook our faults instead of highlighting them, and who have demonstrated their love for us over and over — thank you. You have brought great joy to us, we love you deeply, and we are grateful to share this journey with you.
And to the critics, I would only echo Moody. “Come and do better yourself. Step up here and try what you can do. My friends, it is so easy to find fault; it takes neither brains nor heart.”
the gift "How could I ever prepare for an absence the size of you?" ~ poet unknown
Some losses are, to borrow a phrase from my grandfather, "no bigger than a minute." These small absences are insignificant in the scheme of things, and easy to measure. You work your tongue up into the gap in your mouth and probe the space your tooth once occupied. You plunge your hand into the pocket where your wallet should be. In those "no bigger than a minute" cases, the loss is really no larger than the space it inhabited.
But when the loss is the size and shape of love, it defies measurement.
My mother committed suicide when I was twenty-six. If a detail is needed, it's this: she suffered from manic depression. The whys and hows of her death don't alter the pain we suffered; they don't buffer our hearts or close the book. We've been walking this loss for seventeen years and we've yet to spy the end of it. It's so dense we can't punch our way through, so high we can't see the sun.
I've marked my grief by the milestones I pass. She wasn't there when my doctor told me I was infertile. She wasn't there when I went shopping alone for our soon-to-be-adopted son, and followed a mother and pregnant daughter from rack to rack, eavesdropping on a conversation that should have be mine. Nor was she there the day Zachary was born, or the day he took his first steps, or the day he became a brother to Tera. At each of those milestones, her absence thickened the room and dulled the light.
Every milestone hurt but for some reason the most recent had a disproportional sting. In September of last year, four boxes of books arrived on my front porch. I yanked open the first and pulled out a book--a book with my name on the cover. There's no explaining the thoughts and feelings that rush over you when you hold that first book in your hands, when you realize the task is truly finished. I'm not sure even a writer can put words to that moment. But even while I sat there holding that book, a shadow fell across the moment and stole a piece of my joy. She wasn't there to share this milestone.
I grieved anew for weeks. What would she think? What would she say? I knew of course, and yet I wanted to hear it straight from her. I thought again of the selfishness of her death, and how the ripple of that one moment has yet to strike a shore. My frustration was palpable. I couldn't remedy this lack. I couldn't take a single action that could pry the words I needed from my mother's lips.
Early one Sunday morning, still stinging, I went out to my office (a separate building behind our house) to search my files. I was teaching the 3-4 year olds at church that morning and needed a particular item for our craft. I had a notion that deep in the back of my files, I'd stored--for some unknown reason--an old report from college. For my required special needs course, I'd written a fictional account of my nonexistent, vision-impaired son, Alex. I'd had to create a diary of his daily activities for an imaginary week in our lives. The cover to this report was what I was after on this morning--it was transparent blue plastic, just what I needed for our Sunday school craft.
I smiled when I saw it. How had I remembered that? I flipped the report over and released the tabs, pulled the pages out and tossed them in the garbage. I didn't need the report. I didn't even know why I'd kept it all that time. But I was glad I'd kept the plastic cover.
Later that afternoon I went back out to my office to find a book and noticed the garbage needed emptying--especially with the added pages I'd thrown in that morning. Walking over to pick it up, I glanced down and saw that the report had separated itself into two halves, one flopping forward and one flopping back. And right in the center, tucked down deep, I saw just the edge of a half-sheet of paper. An inexplicable nudge made me reach down into that shadowy spot and pull out the page. Holding it up, I saw familiar, lovely handwriting, and read this:
Shannon, Dad and I really thought you did a terrific job on your story. You sure write well. Love you much, Mom
Her words held me like a hug. I cried, and reread her note over and over. And then I found a frame for it, and placed it near my desk where I can see it easily. I can't count the times my eyes have drifted to her words. God brought me a gift--a whisper across the years, a nod of approval, a touch from a hand I long to hold. He brought me what my mother couldn't, on her own.
I will never stop missing her. But I've realized something odd: I know my mother better today than the day we buried her. I suppose that's because I'm a mother myself now, so I understand the pride she felt for us and her gladly-made sacrifices. I recognize, now, those times when she gave her portion to us and lied about not being hungry. I understand the odd combination of love and anger and fear that filled her heart those nights she waited up to hear my key turn in the door. I know the questions she had about the future, and her place in it. I know her better, and if she were alive now, she'd be my friend.
I know my Father better, too.
"The heart knows its own bitterness ..." Proverbs 14:10
Craig was only twelve, but that was two years more living than I had under my belt, so naturally I believed him.
"I know why that old German lady is crazy," he told my cousin and me, gesturing to the house next to his. His was the in-between farm, flanked on one side by my grandparents and on the other by the lady in question.
I didn't doubt Craig. He knew just enough more about everything else that we never thought to question his facts.
He paused to check our privacy, glancing discreetly to the right and left. "Yep, I know the reason." His voice dropped to a hushed, conspiratorial tone--as if he had to hold himself back; as if there was such power in his twelve-year old vocal chords that the wind might carry his gossip across the fields and right into the woman's kitchen.
We leaned in close to catch the details and block a little of that betraying breeze.
"Her heart is broken," he said. He sat back and looked at our faces, waiting for the full effect of his words to settle over us before explaining. When satisfied we were sufficiently awed, he continued. "Her son died in the war, and her husband couldn't take it. One day he went out back to the barn ... "
We turned as one to look at the weathered red building at the far end of the woman's pasture.
" ... tied a rope to the rafters ... "
Our eyes widened.
" ... and hanged himself."
I shivered, and stole another quick glance at the barn that had once contained a dead, swinging-from-the-rafters body. Craig's story was a doozy, all right, and I supposed that explained things fairly well. I supposed that would be heartache enough to account for the woman standing on her porch on windless nights and singing at the moon in German. But for some reason, even hearing that story, I wasn't nearly as afraid of the barn and its ghost as I was of the living corpse in the farm house.
I'd heard her night songs myself over the years. Safely tucked in Grandma's back bedroom, my heart would lurch at the first notes of grief. Even with the fields and walls between us and my grandparents in the other room and a hound dog out back who I was pretty sure could chomp a leg in two with one focused bite, my blood still froze at the sound of all those foreign words. I'd listen without breathing until she finished her wailing, and I'd pray every time that she wouldn't get a sudden notion to take her show on the road and make an unappreciated appearance at the back bedroom window.
Late that same summer--the summer of Craig's enlightenment--I saw the woman for the first time. One warm night, while seven of us girls (sisters, cousins, and a girl from down the road) camped out in a big yellow gazebo on Grandma's patio, I unzipped the tent to run in the house and check on the bathroom. Just as I shoved my feet into my barn boots and began to cross the twenty feet to the house, I heard the first of her plaintive, ghosty notes hit the air. I stopped in my tracks, turned, and caught a glimpse of the old woman leaning on the railing of her back deck, staring toward the barn. The moon was so startling bright that night that it lit up the fields and the fences and everything in my line of vision; so bright I could see her upturned face and gaping mouth from two farms over. Her dirge drifted over the corn stalks, straight to me.
This time, I knew the story behind the song. Craig's whispers rose in my memory like a mournful violin and played between her words, buoying her notes, holding her melody, dropping away at all the right parts so her soul could be heard unhindered.
I could almost speak German that night.
Of course, I never understood exactly what she sang. I only heard the heart behind the notes. And as the years have gone by and I've found my own railings to lean against and my own grief songs to sing, I've come to realize how alone we really are, in the end. You can hold my hand or hold me in your arms; you can pull me close enough to feel my heartbeat, but you'll never really know the deep-down language of my pain--nor I yours.
When we've had a loss so big that no one else can touch it, that's when we most need God. He speaks German, and Anguish, and Regret, and all the other languages of the heart.
I hope she learned that. I hope on one of those lonely nights, with her heart wrung out and her face turned up toward heaven, that woman stopped her song long enough to hear Him sing back.
"He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds." Psalm 147:3
“ I hate the work of those who fall away; it shall not cling to me. A perverse heart shall depart from me; I will not know wickedness. The one who has a haughty look and a proud heart, him I will not endure.” ~ Psalm 101:3-4,8 (NKJ)
Five of the eight men accused of murdering my young friend shuffle into the courtroom. I am in my usual place, sitting next to Rachel’s mother, third row from the front. Dead center. The bailiffs won’t permit us to sit any closer to the defendants.
I’ve lost count of how many trips we’ve made to this courtroom. Only four months have passed since this gang of men allegedly kidnapped, beat and murdered Rachel. They left her in a gravel pit, where her body lay for two weeks before we found her. Her voice has been silenced for four months, but I can still hear her laughter. Her ashes wait in a small box by her mother’s bedside for the day when Denise is ready to part with her, but I can still see her smile and the startling blueness of her eyes. Eighteen years were not enough time to drink in the beauty of Rachel.
And there, in front of me, are five of the men we believe to be responsible--the men who stole her from us. I fight the tears that threaten to hinder my vision. I want to see. I want a clear view of those men. I want to try to understand how any one person—-let alone a band of eight—-could treat a human being so inhumanely. I hope to see something in their stance, their gaze, their expressions that will answer for the frenzy they poured out upon her.
But I find no answers, and I don't see a shred of remorse. One orange-clad prisoner smirks in our direction. Another flashes an obscene gesture.
And I understand, then, why the guards keep us three rows back; why they won’t let us closer. I thought it was simply for our protection, but I understand, suddenly. The feelings that churn in me clarify the truth: They’re protecting the defendants from us.
O God, I am weary. Sin creeps among us, searching for fertile ground. It wiggles doorknobs and checks for unlocked windows and slips secretly into unguarded hearts. Once inside, if finds an obscure corner and nests there, unnoticed, while it schemes.
Your word says You hate wickedness. Can I do less? Infuriate me, Lord. Destroy my complacency, rouse me from my numbness. Fill me with intolerance. Make me see transgression with Your eyes. Give me Your heart, and make Your wrath burn in me.
Even the world fumes and rants at injustice. But they don’t rage against sin. They don’t recognize the seeds within themselves. They stop just short of honesty, just shy of self-scrutiny. But I am Yours, separated to belong to You. And what You feel, I must feel. Build in me a fierce hatred for sin—but one that goes beyond disgust at crime, at injustice. Take me further, Lord. Take me deeper. Make me hate the sin within my own heart.
Enrage me, Lord.
On my left arm and hand, I have two identical scars. I received both in the exact same way, doing the exact same activity … two years apart. I know what you’re thinking, but no, I wasn’t bull-fighting. Nor was I bungy-jumping, sky-diving or knife-throwing, although when I want to impress someone, I claim to have done all of those things. No, I earned my scars during a different teeth-clenching, death-defying activity: teaching. Both times, I was teaching a history lesson about the Revolutionary period to a group of homeschooled children, and both times I dribbled hot wax on myself while demonstrating the safe and proper way to wax and seal an envelope.
My husband has since forbidden me to play with sealing wax.
Over the years, people have asked me about those scars. I’m always happy — almost eager — to share the stories of my near-death experiences. “See how much I love children?” I say, pointing to the proof. “See what I’m willing to suffer for the furtherance of their education?”
Scars are the landmarks of a life. They reveal something about their owners: you’re a dare-devil, or you’re accident-prone, or you’re reckless. Scars tell your story.
I have other scars, but these aren’t physical and they can’t be seen by the naked eye. To see these wounds, you have to use your spiritual eyes.
One scar — one of my earliest — was earned when I lost a close childhood friend because she didn’t share my new-found love for Jesus. I had to make a choice; I chose my Savior. I’ve never regretted that decision, but I still miss my friend.
Another tells of a different, sister-close friend who rejected me over conflicting ideas about ministry. I cried long and hard while that wound healed over. It still throbs sometimes when I hear or see something that makes me wish I could sit in her kitchen and watch her bake; could still talk gardening and parenting and life with her.
Yet another was earned when, instead of responding to the false accusations of a woman leaving our church, I bit back my instinctive “you’re wrong” response and wrote her a note that said, simply, “We’ll miss you … we love you … we pray God leads you to a church where you can grow.”
We try our whole lives to avoid scars, because we want to keep our hearts and bodies pristine and unmarked. We hunker in a tight ball with our face in a corner and our hands over our ears, trying to keep all the scary things at bay. But that’s not how we’re meant to live. That’s certainly not the life of a believer.
Amy Carmichael knew the truth about wounds and those who earn them:
Hast thou no scar? No hidden scar on foot, or side, or hand? I hear thee sung as mighty in the land, I hear them hail thy bright, ascendant star, Hast thou no scar?
Hast thou no wound? Yet I was wounded by the archers, spent, Leaned Me against a tree to die; and rent By ravening beasts that compassed Me, I swooned: Hast thou no wound?
No wound? No scar? Yet, as the Master shall the servant be, And pierced are the feet that follow Me; But thine are whole: can he have followed far Who has no wound nor scar?
This will sound odd, but I’m going to tell you anyway: I hope you earn many unseen scars. I hope as you follow the path to eternity, you gather a collection of wounds that prove you spent your life walking behind the only One worth following. And when you reach the end of that path and He turns to greet you, and He surveys your arms and your hands and your heart, I hope He smiles and says, “You look just like Me.”
“Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great …” Matt 5:10-12 NASU
It’s just an ordinary rock. You could rinse it, scrub it, and polish with all your might, and it wouldn’t look any prettier than it looks right now, right there, sitting on my desktop.
I picked it up on my first trip to Israel, when we paused on the Mount of Olives to hear a teaching about the events that transpired in that place 2000 years ago. Luke 37 tells us that as Jesus was descending the Mount of Olives on His way back toward Jerusalem, the multitude felt so stirred by the mighty works they’d seen Him do, that they couldn’t help but praise Him.
Their rejoicing brought the ire of the Pharisees (that seems to always be the case with Pharisees). Hearing, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the LORD!’ Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” the sour-faced ones demanded that Jesus rebuke His disciples. But Jesus spoke words that caused me to reach down and select a plain, rough rock from the selection at my feet:
“I tell you that if these should keep silent, the stones would immediately cry out.”
It’s just an ordinary rock. You could set it on a red velvet pedestal and shine a big light on it, and it would still be ugly. But it works something beautiful in me. For whenever my eyes catch sight of that insignificant stone, I remember that it’s my privilege, my joy, my right to praise the One who hung on Calvary for me.
I won’t be replaced by a rock.
I am back among the land of the breathing.
This morning, I opened my eyes and realized two things: one, I had slept through the night without a single coughing fit, and two, I could smell the rain-washed air drifting through our bedroom window. No more congestion, no more sore throat, no more rattling cough.
It’s funny how just three or four days of discomfort can make you appreciate normalcy. I ran through the house sniffing that lovely smell and even went outside for a long moment, just because the scent of morning no longer eluded me. Every intake is pure delight. Last week I wouldn’t have even noticed.
I’ve often thought about the people in first century Israel and what it was like for them when ailment struck. Blindness, flesh-eating disease, incessant bleeding, insanity — if those conditions stump our modern-day experts, imagine the helplessness you’d feel two thousand years ago when a diagnosis of that sort landed in your lap. Your only hope would be prayer.
But for a few, a different sort of Hope walked their way. A man blind from birth encountered that hope one ordinary day. He heard the voice first, then felt hands rubbing mud on his useless eyes. The voice told him to go and wash in the pool of Siloam, and he did. He felt his way down the hillside, searched with his foot until his toe touched wetness, bent down and scooped a handful of water toward his eyes. And for the first time in his life, the man saw a flicker of light … and then a ripple of watery motion … and then his own reflection. He looked down in that water and saw the face of a once helpless, hopeless man who had been both helped and filled with hope by the God who loved him.
Ten lepers found healing one day when Hope walked past them on the road to Jerusalem. They knew, somehow, who He was. “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” They needed that mercy. Since the first tell-tale spot had appeared on each of their bodies, they’d made their home together wandering the hills, banished from all other human contact. Though occasionally a loved one ventured to within a hundred feet or so and lifted a hand or a voice in greeting, those glimpses only served to remind these lepers how long it had been since they’d kissed their spouse or held their children. And emotional turmoil aside, their physical condition was gruesome. Fingers rotted off. Noses disintegrated. Feet melted away to bone. Sores grew and covered their bodies. The only hope for these ten was the hope of death — until the day He walked among them.
He could have transferred healing through touch. He’d done it that way before. But maybe to remind those ten, and all the rest of us, that in the beginning He created the world with nothing but a word, this time He healed with His voice. “Go, show yourselves to the priest,” was all He said. But when they did as He said, when they turned and began walking in obedience, it happened. I wonder what they noticed first. Was it the fingers that grew from their stubs? Was it the fact that they no longer walked on bone, but on fully formed feet? Or was it the ears, the noses, the beautiful restored faces of each other that first tipped them to the truth — that they’d been healed with a word from God?
A woman who had bled for twelve years found the courage to go against convention, show herself in a crowd, and touch, briefly, the hem of Jesus’ garment. Power flowed from Him to her and stopped her bleeding on the spot. With no more interaction than that, the woman was restored. Hope healed her — then turned, smiled, and called her “Daughter.”
And my favorite of all: the crazed, demon-possessed cave-dweller. Three times now, I’ve stood on a hill across from that cave above the shores of Galilee and heard the story again. I’ve heard about the man of the tombs, the untamable madman who had broken every shackle men could put upon him, but who couldn’t break the chains of his hopelessness. Isolated in the cave, with nothing for company but a legion of demons, this man too woke every day waiting for death. But on a very ordinary day, God brought the key that would release him forever from his chains. With a word, Jesus emptied the man of his demons, filled him with hope, and restored both his sanity and his dignity. And the man was so spilling-over-grateful, he begged Jesus to go with Him. But Jesus sent the man home to his friends.
I have often wondered what that homecoming — what all those homecomings were like. “I’m home,” I hear in my imaginings. “I’ve been healed!” And I see the faces of loved ones as they behold and then embrace the truth: their lost one is restored.
There’s nothing new under the sun. The hopeless still walk among us. And God hasn’t changed. He’s as willing today to restore as He was two thousand years ago. But something else that hasn’t changed is that people want a selective part of God, but not all of Him. They want the miracles, but not the relationship. They want the blessings, but not the obedience. They want the hope of heaven, but they don’t want God to intrude on their lives here on earth.
If you’re in dire straights, God will hear your prayers. If you feel despairing or broken, the healing you need is as near as a whispered prayer. And His name is Jesus. But know this: whatever situation you want out of, whatever healing you need, the fix you find will be only temporary. The blind man? He died eventually. So did the lepers. So did the bleeding woman. So did the man of the tombs. They enjoyed their healing for a time and had stories to share with all who would listen, but in the end, their life here was a brief, flitting appearance. So is mine. So is yours.
Don’t ask God to solve your temporary problems and ignore the eternal healing He’s holding out to you. He wants to give you a hope that lasts forever.
And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. 1 John 5:11-12 NKJV
I’m just home from a trip to France, Italy, and Monaco … and thinking about all the new friends I left there. I think we leave a little of our heart in the places we love most. Here’s a post about another favorite place — a place I’m returning to (for the 4th time) in May, 2013. Want to come along? :)
Cora didn’t want to go to Israel at first. She didn’t quite see what all the fuss was about. I told her, “Cora, Chris is going … and if he goes without you, you’re going to miss out on sharing something wonderful. He’ll try, but he’ll never be able to fully describe what it means to him.” In the end, she relented, but I could tell her heart wasn’t in it.
And then it was. Somewhere between, “All right. I’ll go.” and the morning we piled our bags in the church van and headed to Sea Tac airport, Cora’s heart began to burn for a land she’d never seen. Her excitement grew during the trip from Seattle to Atlanta, and during the short layover there, and all through the long flight to Tel Aviv. In the darkest hour of our flight, when our legs ached from inactivity and we found ourselves rising and stretching and congregating back in the steward’s section (where we met a believing, Messianic attendant named Marwin), Cora’s desire fought its way past her exhaustion and shone in her eyes.
She told me later that the tears first came when she saw on the screen that we’d crossed the Mediterranean, and she looked out her window and caught her first glimpse of the Holy Land.
She didn’t stop there. Cora cried at nearly every stop along our trip. She became my blessing. My friend, who had been so reluctant, so unconvinced, so complacent about this journey, now drew it in as though it were breath.
Sometimes, now, Cora and I will look at each other across the room, and smile. And I can see in her eyes that she’s thinking of Israel. She can see I’m right there with her.
I long for that land. As our friend, Dave Perkins, says, “Once you get that sand in your sandals, you can never get it out.” I can feel the sand even now, and I’m counting the days until our next trip.
I’ve a longing for another place, too. In unlooked-for moments, my heart responds to a sound my ears miss. I turn and look up past the clouds, and I know where I belong. And someday, I’ll leave this place, where all is weight and worry and regret. Someday, I’ll cross that wide sea and catch my first glimpse of the One I long for most. And though I’ve read there’s no crying there, I’ve a feeling that when I hold those hands for the first time and I see for myself the love written in His wounds, I’ll wash them in my tears.
A Dream, A Glance and 176 Chairs
After what can only be described as the whirwind-iest 60 days of my life, our church moved into our new building last Sunday. It would take another post to list all the things that had to happen — and did — in order for this to all come together. Suffice it to say, 61 days earlier (or thereabouts), we didn’t even know this building was on the market, and now it’s ours. It’s double the size of our previous building, with a smaller mortgage. And we bought it for half of what it cost to build it seven years ago. The blessings go on and on.
Sunday was one of the most joyful days I’ve ever known. But I want to tell you a story about Saturday. And for that, I have to first tell you about a dream I had sixteen years ago, when our church was brand new, and had just moved from our backyard into our first building.
It was a bingo hall owned by our town’s fire department. When it wasn’t being used for bingo, it was often rented out for weddings. And that meant that on Sunday mornings, we often had to clean up spilled beer that had stickied-up the floor. Sometimes we cleaned up worse things.
There were only about twenty of us back then. And pretty much everyone who called our church home was someone we had previously known, or someone we had met and invited. So it kind of startled me the first time a couple walked through our doors after seeing our sandwich board sign out front. We’d hoped for that … I just didn’t really expect it.
church chairTwenty people in a giant, echoey bingo hall. I still remember watching the men arranging those twenty chairs all up front near the podium, and then glancing behind our small cluster at all the big empty space still left behind us.
And then one night I had a dream. In it, I walked into our church and saw a vast sea of chairs where there had only been twenty. Surprised, I stood at the front of those tidy rows and counted. Twenty-two chairs in each row, and eight rows deep. 22 x 8. In my dream, I did the math, arrived at 176, and said, “Lord, when would we ever need 176 chairs?”
The dream stayed with me long past that night. I would remember it occasionally, and wonder anew at that very specific number. To me, it just meant, “plenty.” I spoke of that dream a few months ago to our women, telling them that I sometimes walked the row of our church at that time, touching the chairs in a gesture that was understood by only God and me. We had about 120 chairs in our sanctuary in that building, and most of them were occupied during both services. I was in awe of God for filling them.
And then, we found this building, and jumped through an impressive number of hoops all at the right time in order to gain the right to call it our own. We know who helped us jump, and last Sunday we worshiped Him for that.
But the day before, on Saturday, I had my own moment of worshipful awe. The men were downstairs setting things up, and I was upstairs in my office, which has a window that looks down into the sanctuary. I was filing away some resources for women’s ministry when I had a sudden desire to watch the goings-on below my window. Sticking my head out, I saw a beautiful sight: chairs, and lots of them. I smiled. This sanctuary would be filled with people.
For no special reason, except that I was wondering exactly how many people we would be able to hold, I counted the first row of chairs. Twenty-two.
My breath caught, and I turned and ran out of my office and down the stairs. Bursting into the sanctuary past a group of people who were just walking out, I stood in the back and counted.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven …
Eight rows of twenty-two chairs. 176.
It only lasted for a moment, because after that, there were 177, and then 187 as the men kept adding chairs and rows. In another five minutes, we had a little over 200. And on Sunday morning, those 200 chairs were filled, people were standing against the back walls, and the ushers began setting up another 40 or so chairs in the foyer.
But in the moment it mattered the most, God had drawn me to the window, and shown me a glimpse of His sovereignty.
And that was the most beautiful sight of all.
You know with all your heart and soul that not one of all the good promises the Lord your God gave you has failed. Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed (Joshua 23:14).
Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever (Ephesians 3:20-21).
“How could I ever prepare for an absence the size of you?” ~ poet unknown
Some losses are, to borrow a phrase from my grandfather, “no bigger than a minute.” These small absences are insignificant in the scheme of things, and easy to measure. You work your tongue up into the gap in your mouth and probe the space your tooth once occupied. You plunge your hand into the pocket where your wallet should be. In those “no bigger than a minute” cases, the loss is really no larger than the space it inhabited.
But when the loss is the size and shape of love, it defies measurement.
My mother committed suicide when I was twenty-six. If a detail is needed, it’s this: she suffered from manic depression. The whys and hows of her death don’t alter the pain we suffered; they don’t buffer our hearts or close the book. We’ve been walking this loss for seventeen years and we’ve yet to spy the end of it. It’s so dense we can’t punch our way through, so high we can’t see the sun.
I’ve marked my grief by the milestones I pass. She wasn’t there when my doctor told me I was infertile. She wasn’t there when I went shopping alone for our soon-to-be-adopted son, and followed a mother and pregnant daughter from rack to rack, eavesdropping on a conversation that should have be mine. Nor was she there the day Zachary was born, or the day he took his first steps, or the day he became a brother to Tera. At each of those milestones, her absence thickened the room and dulled the light.
Every milestone hurt but for some reason the most recent had a disproportional sting. In September of last year, four boxes of books arrived on my front porch. I yanked open the first and pulled out a book — a book with my name on the cover. There’s no explaining the thoughts and feelings that rush over you when you hold that first book in your hands, when you realize the task is truly finished. I’m not sure even a writer can put words to that moment. But even while I sat there holding that book, a shadow fell across the moment and stole a piece of my joy. She wasn’t there to share this milestone.
I grieved anew the rest of that week. What would she think? What would she say? I knew of course, and yet I wanted to hear it straight from her. I thought again of the selfishness of her death, and how the ripple of that one moment has yet to strike a shore. My frustration was palpable. I couldn’t remedy this lack. I couldn’t take a single action that could pry the words I needed from my mother’s lips.
Early the following Sunday morning, still stinging, I went out to my office (a separate building behind our house) to search my files. I was teaching the 3-4 year olds at church that morning and needed a particular item for our craft. I had a notion that deep in the back of my files, I’d stored — for some unknown reason — an old report from college. For my required special needs course, I’d written a fictional account of my nonexistent, vision-impaired son, Alex. I’d had to create a diary of his daily activities for an imaginary week in our lives. The cover to this report was what I was after on this morning — it was transparent blue plastic, just what I needed for our Sunday school craft.
I smiled when I saw it. How had I remembered that? I flipped the report over and released the tabs, pulled the pages out and tossed them in the garbage. I didn’t need the report. I didn’t even know why I’d kept it all that time. But I was glad I’d kept the plastic cover.
Later that afternoon I went back out to my office to find a book and noticed the garbage needed emptying, especially with the added pages I’d thrown in that morning. Walking over to pick it up, I glanced down and saw that the report had separated itself into two halves, one flopping forward and one flopping back. And right in the center, tucked down deep, I saw just the edge of a half-sheet of paper. An inexplicable nudge made me reach down into that shadowy spot and pull out the page. Holding it up, I saw familiar, lovely handwriting, and read this:
Dad and I really thought you did a terrific job on your story. You sure write well. Love you much,
Her words held me like a hug. I cried, and traced the letters with my finger, and read them over and over again. When I could make myself set it down for a moment, I found a frame for her note, slipped it inside, and placed it near my desk where I can see it easily. I can’t count the times my eyes have drifted to her words. God brought me a gift — a whisper across the years, a nod of approval, a touch from a hand I long to hold. He brought me what my mother couldn’t, on her own.
I will never stop missing her. But I’ve realized something odd: I know my mother better today than the day we buried her. I suppose that’s because I’m a mother myself now, so I understand the pride she felt for us, and her gladly made sacrifices. I recognize, now, those times when she gave her portion to us and lied about not being hungry. I understand the odd combination of love and anger and fear that filled her heart those nights she waited up to hear my key turn in the door. I know the questions she had about the future, and her place in it. I know her better, and if she were alive now, she’d be my friend.
I know my Father better, too.
Over the years, I used to dream about them.
When they first left our church, I dreamt frequently that she and I were together in their home, finishing a Bible study or finishing lunch, laughing — and always, that sound mingled with the noise of her two girls, who played at our feet.
Sometimes, I dreamt that I saw him on the street, and he wasn’t angry anymore. I found just the right words, in those dreams, to tell him how much we loved them both … and how much we missed them. I woke crying after more than one such dream.
Once I actually saw her driving behind me in their family van. I caught her eye in the mirror and waved. She waved back. Her husband — in writing — had forbidden me to talk with her, even threatening to sue me if I ever made contact, but I couldn’t help but turn and mouth through the back window, “I miss you.” She mouthed it back, and the tears came before I could stop them.
When my husband learned, through the freely given admission of our friend, that he was contemplating and taking steps toward a disastrous decision — one that would jeopardize if not outright destroy his marriage and the security of his children — Dave acted. He responded to the pleas of this man’s wife and stood in the gap between our friend and his desired choice. My husband’s firm action infuriated our friend. The last time he stood in our church, it was in the doorway of my husband’s office, where he raised his voice and yelled, “I could line up a hundred pastors, and not one of them would have done what you did.” But my husband had simply obeyed God … and helped save a family.
The choice had been halted. The family stayed together, and stayed in our town. They changed churches, obviously, but maintained a few mutual friendships. Sometimes I’d hear news about them, such as when their third child was born. The news was always bittersweet. I’d be happy for them, and grieved for us — grieved that our church family was missing out on joys that should have been ours.
I must have stopped and prayed a hundred times over the years, “Please, Father, help him to know that Dave acted because he loved him.”
Sometimes, God says yes.
Not long ago, on a Tuesday night, Dave came home from the church office and gave me a look that promised he’d brought news. “I want you to read something,” he said.
He opened his laptop, navigated to his mailbox, and brought up an email. I began reading — first the name of the sender, and then the words, “Dear Pastor Dave.” The tears came so fast and so hard that I couldn’t continue reading. I had to stop first and let six years of sadness run their course before I could take in those healing words.
He’d written four pages. What it all settled down to, was this: I’ve known for many years that I needed to say this to you. I was wrong to pull my family away from people who loved them, and who they loved. We’ve missed so much because I did that. I created a gap that shouldn’t have been there. Pastor Dave, will you forgive me?
I don’t remember ever feeling so light. We closed the laptop, put our shoes on, and drove off. Within five minutes, we turned down a road I’d missed, pulled up to a house I’d missed, and knocked on a door I thought I’d never approach again. He answered, and swung that door open. There wasn’t time enough for surprise to register in his eyes, because my husband didn’t hesitate. He reached first to take our friend’s hand, and then pulled him into an embrace. I stood behind, and watched six years of regret melt away. The intensity on our friend’s face, as he accepted and returned my husband’s embrace, is a look I will see forever.
“We never stopped loving or missing you,” I said, as I accepted my own hug. And then his wife was there, and I got the tearful reunion I’d prayed for and dreamt about.
Our God heals silent wounds and secret longings and dreams that seem long past mending. He whispers words to those who no longer hear us. He nudges hearts, and opens doors we’re powerless to open.
And sometimes, He surprises.
Last week I shared part of this story with the women who had gathered for our church’s annual Christmas Tea. And this morning, when I spied the jar on our table–a constant, silent reminder of the truth I learned many years back–I thought I might share it with you too.
Here’s an article I wrote for HomeLife magazine about ten years ago.
* * *
I remember–distinctly–how overwhelmed I felt the first time someone suggested an Advent celebration to me.
Four nights. I’d have to set aside four nights during the busiest four weeks of the year. Lighting the candles sounded nice. I liked candles. Prayer was fine. I liked prayer. Sitting around a table asking questions and singing songs–that part I could do without.
“You’d be blessed,” my friend promised.
I didn’t believe her. It sounded like one more activity, one more “have to” in a month already crammed with have to’s. I accepted the paper she handed me, glanced at the suggestions, and thanked her. When she left, I filed the paper in the very back of my filing cabinet.
It probably would have stayed there forever except for a half-hearted prayer I tossed toward God one day soon afterwards.
I’d been out shopping with the masses. Armed with four pounds of toy catalogs and flyers, I elbowed my way through crowds, hissed over parking spaces, stood in lines twenty people deep, and heard enough musical bells and animated Santas to drive a person insane. I spent too much money on things I was certain no one would like or appreciate. Worst of all, on a whim I picked up the newest book by Martha What’s-Her-Name on “How to craft the world’s most memorable Christmas ever using only a glue gun and fresh bay leaves from your own bay tree.” Despite the fact that I didn’t have a bay tree and couldn’t remember when I’d last seen the glue gun, I plopped the book in my cart.
Driving home, I realized that something was way out of whack. My month was as full as it could possibly be. I’d loaded our schedule with every festive event I could find: concerts, parties, cookie exchanges, pageants, tree lighting ceremonies. There wasn’t room for a single thing more. And still I wasn’t happy, or satisfied, or contented. I didn’t feel close to God. I didn’t even like Christmas anymore. In fact, if I could have my way, I would have ripped December right out of my calendar.
I couldn’t pinpoint how it had happened, but somehow Christmas had taken on a life of its own. It drove me, in an endless cycle of haves and wants and musts. I was on the Christmas roller coaster and feeling sick.
“Something has to change,” I said out loud. Not much of a prayer. But God, I’ve learned, can read between the lines and find a prayer hidden in our little outbursts.
I lugged my purchases up to the house and hid them in the bedroom closet. With a cup of tea in hand, I curled up in my favorite chair and opened Martha’s new book. I turned the pages, slowly at first, then more rapidly. One by one I vetoed the projects and recipes. Too big. Too expensive. Too weird. Gold leaf on cookies? Who puts gold leaf on cookies? Who eats gold leaf on cookies?? Most of the projects called for things I’d never owned and probably couldn’t track down if my life depended on it.
Dejected, I tossed the book on the coffee table and wandered outside. Voices drew me to the sheep barn, where I found Dave and Zac, then four, spreading fresh straw.
Dave used the pitchfork, but hands-on Zac was down on his knee scattering straw with his hands.
“How was shopping?” Dave asked.
“Oh, you know. Plastic Santas. Angry people. No parking. Same as always.”
I wasn’t good company. My two men wisely kept working and said nothing. Until Zac, finally, made an announcement.
“That doesn’t feel good,” he said, pulling straw out of his sleeve. “It’s not comfortable on your skin.”
From my perch on a bale of straw, I watched but said nothing.
“Mom?” he pressed.
“It doesn’t feel good.”
“Well, then, don’t put it up your sleeve.” Cranky mother.
“Well, it’s just . . . I was thinking. Was Jesus really born in a barn?”
A cave, I thought. It was probably a cave. But I just nodded.
“Why did that happen?”
“They tried to find another place for him to be born, but there just wasn’t room.”
“That’s not good.” Zac shook his head.
He’d heard the Christmas story every Christmas of his young life. I couldn’t understand why this was bothering him now. “It’s just the way it happened,” I said.
“But, Mom,” he said, walking toward me, “feel this.” He laid a handful of straw on my arm and stepped back. “It feels bad.”
I looked at Zac. I looked at the small pile of straw on my arm and felt it prickling my skin. He was right.
His eyes were troubled. “They laid Him in a manger. I know what that is. That’s a thing full of straw. That’s not a place to put a baby.”
No, I thought. That’s no place for a baby.
“They should have made room for Him some place better,” he continued.
They should have made room, my thoughts echoed.
“It was God. He should have been born in the nicest hotel.”
The straw was still sitting on my arm. I collected it in my hand and let myself feel its scratchiness. And I tried to imagine my Savior lying in a bed full of plain, rough, scratchy straw.
Something clicked for me in that moment. Zac’s words pierced my mind and burrowed into my heart. No room. No room for Jesus. The Innkeeper was me, and I had left no room for the Savior.
I saw what was wrong, suddenly. I had pushed the Baby out and let unimportant things take the place that was His. I had banished Him to the far corners of our holiday. Church on Christmas Eve, maybe a prayer or two. A quick read of the Christmas story. Nothing more. All the rest had been reserved for talking Santas and toy catalogs and parties and such. A whole lot of fancy nothing.
In my quest for the perfect Christmas I had lost the meaning of the manger. I had forgotten the simplicity of the straw.
Our Christmas changed after that. I started by bringing that handful of straw up to the house and stuffing it in an old canning jar of my grandmother’s. Then I set it in a place of prominence, where it would remind me, with each glance, of the miracle that happened in a long-ago cave.
Next, I pulled out the Advent paper from the recesses of my filing cabinet. Studying the suggestions, I decided they were a bit too formal for our free-spirited family, so we started from scratch and formed our own Advent celebration. That first year Zac and I fashioned a simple wreath from evergreen branches we found lying in the yard and molded five little balls of clay into candle holders, which we tucked around the wreath. Nothing fancy. And on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, not knowing what to expect, we gathered around our table, dimmed the lights, and lit the first of the five candles. Dave opened with prayer.
“Lord, we ask Your forgiveness for our neglect. We want to honor You. We want You to be the center of all we do this month. More than anything else, Lord, we want Your presence.”
“Dad,” Zac whispered, “it’s not polite to ask for presents.”
* * *
This year, I pray you find your own way to make room for the Baby–the Baby the whole world is desperate to dismiss. May the miracle of the manger become a reality to you again … or for the very first time.