Archive | Suffering

Crisis Hospitality

Seven years ago, my young husband had open heart surgery. We were new to Seattle at the time, and an elder from our new church visited us in the hospital. He told us he lived right around the corner from the hospital, and if I needed a place to stay to let them know. I’m not one much for imposing on other people, so I thanked him but didn’t take his offer seriously. But two nights into our cardiothoracic intensive care unit experience, I called him sobbing around 10 pm. I was exhausted and unable to handle the intensity of the ICU. When I got to their house, he and his wife were in their pajamas with the sofa bed open and a firelog lit in the fireplace. They put their arms around me, prayed with me, and put me to bed. It was the night before Thanksgiving, and I left early the next morning to get back to the hospital before the doctors made their rounds.

This is crisis hospitality. Little warning. Little fanfare. Just a need and a person in the Body of Christ prepared in advance to meet that need. I’ve asked myself if I could do for others what that couple did for me that night. I know how my mind works–my house isn’t clean enough, I don’t want someone to see me in my pajamas, etc. The problem with crisis hospitality is that there is usually little warning. Biblical hospitality is not inviting a couple over from church for dinner with a week’s warning. In fact, the Greek word for hospitality has an emphasis on graciousness toward strangers, not known people.

Hebrews 13:2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.

For me, the greatest mental barrier to being ready in a moment for crisis hospitality is the idea that my hospitality needs to be perfect. That my house needs to be completely clean, that my meal needs to be Southern Living perfect, that my kids need to be quietly entertaining themselves. The truth is that such perfectionism is impossible to achieve, let alone maintain, unless someone walks in my house the exact moment I put the vacuum away. And secondly, such perfectionism isn’t particularly hospitable. Nothing makes me quite as uncomfortable as walking in a house that I know, simply by walking across the floor, I have just contaminated its pristine condition.

I also note that the English term hospitality is closely related to the term hospital. Our modern day view of hospitality is far removed from the origins of the concept. Our call is not to be a medical hospital but a social one of sorts. An emotional, spiritual ER. Ready when the spiritual crisis occurs–ready with food, ready with love, ready to care for children, ready to house a stranger overnight.

My experience in my few, brief opportunities to personally provide crisis hospitality is that God gives grace. He requires that my identity be in Him and His gospel so that my joy isn’t tied to how flavorful my meal or how clean my home. But He gives abundant grace, so that we can give a portion unto seven, and then even unto eight when we didn’t know we had anything else to give. We cast our bread upon the water, and it returns after many days. We don’t make the opportunities. We just stand ready when He dumps it into our lap. And instead of making excuses, we accept our place in this good work He prepared for us before time began. And in His providence, we find joy.

Getting My Masters in Faith

After a week of profitable discussion on women’s ministry issues here and here, I’m going to take a moment to reflect on a different issue. This involves my personal journey of faith. In the preface of Practical Theology for Women, I gave testimony of a very intense few years in which God showed up in my life in a big way, teaching me things about Himself through tangible circumstances. I learned a lot. I learned that God is trustworthy. I learned that God does things very differently than I would if I were God. I learned that His way of doing things was brilliant when compared to mine. I learned that His timetable was very different than mine. I learned that He is the source of all good things in my life. I learned that He is a sure foundation when things don’t go as I expect. There were moments when God was silent. There were moments when I was fearful. But God always came through–usually within days, weeks, or months of whatever crisis I faced.

I thought I had graduated from the school of faith. I had persevered for TWO LONG YEARS (don’t laugh). God had showed up in my life in big ways. He had increased my faith. I had learned the lessons I needed to equip me for a lifetime.

Cough.

Oh niave me. I’d like to think that was my bachelors degree in faith and now I am on to my masters degree. But it may be more like kindergarten to grade school. Whatever the best analogy, I realize I am still learning of faith. I am still being taught through the Word and my circumstances. But I’ve graduated from some level of faith learning and testing, and this new season in the school of faith is much tougher than the last season. In my undergraduate season, God showed up in tangible ways in my circumstances every few days. There were weeks and months between the big things, but He still showed up in ways that were obvious. Now, not so much. Now, I wait for years. Still waiting. Still praying. Now when He shows up, it’s in the parables in which He instructs us to persevere in prayer (Luke 11). It’s in Ephesians 4 when He teaches that walking worthy of the gospel of Christ means I bear long with others. It’s in James when He teaches that the man who perseveres is blessed. It’s in the Scripture that teaches life is a marathon, not a sprint.

I realize now that round 1, the bachelors degree of faith, was a sprint. I thought it was God’s big teaching event in my life. Now I realize it was only the warm up, preparing me for the marathon of persevering endurance to which He has called us all. I wouldn’t trade what I’m learning in what I sarcastically refer to as my masters degree in faith for anything in the world. But at the same time, it wasn’t what I bargained for.

James 1:2-4 Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

First of all, I don’t think of enduring as pure joy. The first place I wrestle with God in this passage is how to see this long, hard graduate education as PURE JOY. Secondly, I am rebuked by the Word that says PERSEVERANCE will make me mature and complete. I have no desire for long term peseverance. I want short term deliverance! So I see two objectives in phase 1 of masters degree training in faith.

1) Find the gospel joy in long term endurance in hard seasons. I CAN be joyful in this hard season.

2) Value perseverance as the very thing through which God will bring me to maturity in Him.

I haven’t yet met these objectives. I’ve just identified them. But I think therein lies more than half the battle. Dear sister who has graduated past niave faith in which life issues reconciled in weeks or months and who now endures for years in a place you long for deliverance, I am with you. I trust God will give us each gospel joy, that beautiful fruit of the Spirit, in the midst of our long marathon. And I believe in faith that persevering itself will produce in you and I a beautiful maturity in Christ that will reflect well on the beauty of God’s good plan for us all.

Man of Sorrows, Acquainted with Grief

A book arrived in the mail last week, unsolicited by me. I opened it distractedly and thumbed through the materials that came with it. After about a minute of reading, I started sobbing uncontrollably as I stood at my kitchen counter. I am not an emotional woman easily given to tears, but I could hear God already speaking to me, meeting me in a place of deep personal struggle, dealing with questions that were so hard to understand that I kept them at bay as best I could. Over the last 2 years, I have walked with several friends through very dark circumstances. Not your daughter is pregnant out of wedlock dark. Not you lost your job kind of dark–though I’ve seen these too, and those are definitely dark places, and I DO NOT minimize that pain. But I have 3 friends who have walked through things worse than that–among them, the murder of my aunt. I remember sitting across the living room from one of my friends in the midst of an unspeakable crisis and praying to myself as I sat with her, “God I know You are good and I know You are sovereign. But I have no idea how to reconcile that with what I am witnessing now.” As I read the foreword and introduction to the book I received in the mail, I realized I was talking with someone who had been there before me and knew exactly what I couldn’t reconcile on my own.

The book is Hearing Jesus Speak into Your Sorrow by Nancy Guthrie. Nancy lost both her infant daughter and son to the same metabolic disease a few years apart. In the introduction, she remembered her pastor asking at the graveside service for her infant daughter, “This is the place where we ask, ‘Is the gospel really true?'” And that is the question I asked too as I sat across from my friend in her living room–is the gospel really true? I believe it is, Lord, but I realize I have holes in my understanding that are exposed by this tragedy. I asked it again at my aunt’s funeral. And I’ve asked it repeatedly as I walked with yet another friend through betrayal and abandonment. There are times where the only thing that sustains me is that, like the disciples in John 6, I have no where else to go.

66 From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. 67″You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.

I understand that response. Sometimes, the only thing that seems to hold me is that I don’t have anywhere else to go if I did leave the faith. Nancy Guthrie meets us in that place and points us to Jesus over and over as the answer to those unanswerable questions. She asks the really hard questions and doesn’t skirt around any of them. She reminded me that Jesus does indeed meet us in the worst of circumstances with real answers–not trite, polite sayings that would fit on a motivational calendar but real, HARD, deep truths that have the power to cut through the most awful scenario you could imagine and meet you right there with authentic, genuine hope.

Nancy shared this piece of her story that I found especially poignant.

Our church family had walked with us through some difficult days, joining with us in making the most of Hope’s brief life as they took her into their arms and into their hearts, and sharing the deep sorrow we felt in the emptiness following her death. So when we stood up to tell them that I was pregnant again despite the surgical steps we had taken to prevent another pregnancy, they could not hold back their joy. They burst out in applause before we could get it all out. But there was more to get out. After the applause began to die down, David added, “And this child will have the same fatal syndrome his sister, Hope, had.”

There was an audible expression of dismay. This was not the happy ending everyone felt would have been the appropriate fit for our story, certainly not the one they felt would make following God look good.

(A) friend in class told us that she wept that morning and into the next day. It didn’t seem right to her. And it didn’t fit her idea of the way we can expect our good God to work in the lives of believers. It seemed to her that the fitting end to the story would be that God would bless us with a healthy child, showing the watching world that he makes up for the losses he allows into our lives.

And she wasn’t the only one.

How many of us are right there with her church friends? Surely a good God would not do THAT. Right?! And then the reality sets in–that’s exactly what He did. Well, maybe their faith wasn’t enough. Or maybe I need to reevaluate my belief in the sovereignty of God. Instead, Nancy examines Jesus–His own life’s example and His teachings to His disciples. And we realize that He set them all up for earthly lives and deaths that were about as bad as we could imagine. And He was good to them.

Many of us are not ready to hear this truth. You can not handle the truth that there is a better good than you have ever imagined but that the path to it is excruciating. But others of you are there. You know the pain well and you ask yourself, “Surely the gospel matters in this pain. Surely something about Who God is can meet me in this and transform it from the bitter place I currently live.” I’m not recommending that you let Nancy Guthrie be your guide. I am recommending that you look to the Man of Sorrows Himself–this one who is well acquainted with grief and familiar with suffering. If you are ready to let Him be your guide, then Nancy’s book is a great starting place.

Isaiah 53:3 He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;

**Here’s an older post on walking with friends who are suffering.**

Fruitful in the Land of My Affliction

I have been reading through the story of Joseph and was struck by the name he gave his 2nd son.

Genesis 41:52 The name of the second he called Ephraim, “For God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.”

Fruitful in the land of my affliction. Wow. Many thoughts hit me as I meditate on why Joseph named his son Ephraim (which sounds like the Hebrew for fruitful). First, I resist the name. I don’t want to be fruitful in the land of my affliction–I want my affliction to end!! And then I want to be fruitful in the beautiful land I imagined would be God’s best for His children. But, like Joseph, I am usually powerless to end my affliction (whatever form it may take). And then I must wrestle with God–“How can I do what You have called me to do in THESE circumstances?!”

The second thing that I realize (with a more objective look at Scripture) is that no one in Scripture seems to be very fruitful EXCEPT in the land of their affliction. In fact, you can argue from Scripture that suffering, affliction, and death to self are ESSENTIAL for fruitfulness.

John 12:24 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

I have situations in my life that plague me, that I would desperately like to see changed. But today, I am moved by God’s story in the life of Joseph to meditate on what it looks like to be fruitful in the very places from which I would most like to be delivered. And I receive hope that affliction doesn’t end the possibility of fruitfulness, but may instead be the very thing that prepares the ground for “fruit that remains.”

John 15:16 NAS “You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain … “

Lessons from the life of Joseph

I have always loved the story of Joseph in Genesis 37-50. So often, the circumstances of my life have made little sense to me. Sometimes, circumstances just don’t go my way. But other times, people sin against me. Mean, cruel, hurtful sin. And sometimes, the people who sin against me should be the ones who are most for me–my brothers and sisters in Christ. When I can’t reconcile it on my own or see how the pieces could possibly fit together for good, I turn to God’s revelation of Himself through the story of Joseph and I get perspective.

What would it be like to be sold into slavery by your own brothers? To be accused of rape and then thrown into prison unjustly? Then, receiving a glimmer of hope that you would get out, just to be left to rot in prison for years longer. What was it like to face betrayal after betrayal after betrayal? Even after he got out of prison, his promotions surely felt hollow in light of all he had lost by betrayal up to that point. If he was like me, he was likely so wounded by what he had experienced up to that point that he couldn’t enjoy any of his successes for fear of new betrayal.

Genesis doesn’t record much in the way of Joseph’s emotions, and one might think he just got over it and it never bothered him. But I always cry when I read Genesis 45 and see Joseph’s deep, gutteral cry when his brothers show up and the fractured pieces of his life suddenly come together. He finally sees this complex tapestry God has woven to put him in the place where he alone could save the tiny nation of Israel from being wiped out by famine. Suddenly, Joseph’s decades of suffering have the most profound meaning as God uses him to preserve the line of the Messiah. Joseph tells his brothers, “You meant if for evil, but God meant it for good.” And not just small time, sentimental good, but deep eternal long term Kingdom building good. Without Joseph, the little nation of Israel starves to death and we wouldn’t have Jesus.

Joseph’s story is so beautiful to me. My circumstances are radically different than his, but my God is the same. The same God who miraculously wove the worst of sin and betrayal against Joseph into beautiful good is the same God weaving together the tapestry of my life. It gives me perspective on my current struggles.

However, in the Hall of Fame of Faith in Hebrews 11, NONE of these things about Joseph are mentioned.

22By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones.

There are 2 parts to the lesson of Joseph’s life. First, God used him for kingdom purposes in this earthly life. But, second, and maybe even more importantly, God used Joseph for eternal kingdom purposes of which Joseph at his death still looked on from afar. And though Joseph hadn’t seen it accomplished in his lifetime, his faith was evidenced when he continued to believe it anyway.

Here is a GREAT sermon entitled The Long Road Home (what a great name!) from an intern at our church. He deals with the contrast between Joseph’s earthly reality and his convictions of God’s eternal plan. It is an encouraging, convicting discussion from Exodus 13 of the tension between our hope of God’s promises being realized in our lifetime verses the eternal kingdom purposes extending well past our lifetime that He’s working in and through us.

I hope it is encouraging to you.

The Path of Loneliness

I remember well my reaction twelve years ago when a friend first gave me The Path of Loneliness: Finding Your Way Through the Wildernes to God by Elisabeth Elliot. I was desperately lonely, having broken up with the man I thought I was going to marry, and struggling with the edges of depression that threatened to close in on me. I did NOT want to read a book on loneliness. I did not want to face my loneliness head on. I wanted my loneliness to end–with a man whom I would marry. I somewhat resented my friend for giving me the book and my God for letting me be in that situation. I read the book begrudgingly, too stubborn to really open my heart to all that was in it.

God was much more gracious to me than I deserved, giving me a wonderful husband not long after that. For some reason, while many of my friends had to deal with loneliness for years, I got to put it off for a long time. Then when we started trying to have kids, I was faced with the same threatening edges of depression after miscarrying and having a time of infertility. I read The Path of Loneliness again, and though I was happily married, the book resonated with me in a way I didn’t expect. I reread it a third time when preparing for a Bible study with older single women in our church. We had a deep, fruitful discussion when we got together as a group. I was moved yet again through my study of the book even though I was a wife with 2 young children and way too little time to myself to consider myself lonely.

I love Elisabeth Elliot. Often, when I think about the great cloud of witnesses from Hebrews, that group of faithful, battle-weary believers who have gone on before us and cheer us from the sidelines, I think of Elisabeth Elliot. She is my one real female hero of the faith. She understands the pain and struggle of the Christian walk, especially the particular battles a Christian woman faces. And her writing always moves me.

She opens the book with a poignant story of flying on an airplane a year after her 1st husband’s death and being overcome suddenly with a wave of emotion as she watches a man on another row retrieve something for his wife.

Only the most ordinary of gestures, meaning almost nothing, I suppose, to them. But for me, sitting by the window looking out at the cold stars, it speaks of a whole world that is lost to me now. A man and a woman. Together. His hand stretched toward her to help. (p. 12)

Whether widowed or never married, if you’ve been alone, you can likely identify with her . After several other moving examples, she ends the opening with the question, “What is to be done with loneliness?” This is a question we ALL must answer–single, married no kids, married with kids, empty nester, or widow. Some situations dictate we face our loneliness head on while others allow us to mask the underlying issues that loneliness exposes. But the heart issues that loneliness exposes can only be masked for so long. At some point in our lives, all of us have to deal with it.

This book is not for people who want pink fluff to mask their problems. Elisabeth Elliot exposes our hearts, asks hard questions, and peels away our superficial solutions. But her answers are so RIGHT. Reading this book, I felt the pain of the brutal exposure of my deepest fears, but in turn I felt the great hope that God is bigger than the worst circumstance life can hand me, spoken by someone who has lived it and earned the right to speak with such boldness. She paints a beautiful picture of the value of our suffering when offered up to God.

My theme is oblation–the offering up of all we are, have, do, and suffer. … I hesitate to prescribe a method for so solemn and vital a spiritual transaction … but a very simple thing has helped me. It is to kneel with open hands before the Lord. Be silent for a few minutes, putting yourself conciously in His presnece. Think of Him. Then think of what you have received in the four categories mentioned (are, have, do, suffer)–the gift of a child, for example, or years later, the empty nest; the gift of work on the inability to work; marriage or singleness; pleasures or burdens; joy or sorrow. Next viusalize as well as you can this gift, resting there in your open hands. Thank the Lord for whatever aspect of this gift you can honestly thank Him for …. Then, quite simpley, offer it up. … Lift up your hands. This is a physical act denoting your love, your acceptance, your thanksgiving, and your trust that the Lord will make something redemptive for the wholeness of the Body, even for the life of the world.

Do not look for dramatic effects. There may be no discernible result … It is a mistake to measure such things by introspection. He heard and answered. That is all there is to it. Let the anwswer be manifested in His own time and way.

I think then you will begin to know the strange peace that is not the world’s kind.

Read this book. It’s powerful.

The battle for hope

A friend and I were talking last night about the battle for hope. We’re both at what could possibly be called a mid-life crisis. For me, the crisis comes from the fact that I’m dying to the idea that, since God is good, therefore life following Him at some point becomes good too. Instead, God is good, and that’s supposed to sustain me when life is not. When thinking today about the hope I’m supposed to have, I found this verse.

Ps. 33:17 The war horse is a false hope for salvation, and by its great might it cannot rescue.

Even as a Christian who was raised in the church, I cannot believe how many different “warhorses” I have looked to over the years in hopes of rescue. My warhorses are always linked to some type of circumstantial change—but they NEVER rescue me the way I expect. They are always a false hope. They let me down every time.

The Bible talks about hope IN God …

Psalm 39:7 “And now, O Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in you.

… and hope FROM God.

Psalm 62:5 For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him.

And yet, I’m not sure even how to define this hope. I know that the Hebrew word for hope is also translated expectation. I get the idea of sitting in the middle of my struggle and looking longingly for rescue. But where do I expect this rescue to come? Part of my problem is that I often don’t know what rescue is supposed to look like. From past experience, I know that God’s choice of rescue is both unpredictable and consistently better than my visions of rescue, but I have no idea how to predict His mode of rescue for the future.

I am learning that only God can rescue and am aware of the futility of setting my expectations on anything or anyone else. I still don’t know exactly what rescue looks like. To summarize, I often don’t really know what I’m looking FOR, but I have to hang on to hope in Whom I am looking TO.