When Everything Falls

There was quite a lot of devastating news traveling around last week (not even counting Downton Abbey…) and my heart has been weighing a bit heavy ever since.

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I was driving the other day and heard the song “Held” by Natalie Grant. The song always makes me tear up because it’s about a very young baby who passes away. There’s one line in the song that just seemed to hit exactly what I had been feeling:

This is what it is to be loved and to know
That the promise was that when everything fell
We’d be held

The promise Jesus gave to us was not that we would not suffer. Rather, the promise was that in the midst of suffering, we would be carried. We would be held in the hand of a God who not only knows all but who has actually felt the ultimate pain when He died on the cross.

When tragedy strikes someone who isn’t a Christian, I get anxious about what might happen in that person’s heart. You see, if that person takes a leap of faith and cries out to God in prayer, it can be devastating when He doesn’t answer the way he or she expected. That person might then turn away from faith forever, feeling scarred by his or her seemingly useless prayer.

It can be so scary to step out into His grace. We are so used to taking care of things ourselves. We want a guarantee that if we reach out to God that He will answer exactly the way we hope.

Just yesterday I was searching my email archives for something and ran across an email exchange with Tyler on March 29th of last year. It was the day before we found out he had a tumor and we were emailing like we normally do throughout the day. Tyler wrote that he had done some research on the likelihood that the mass was a cyst or a benign tumor and that he was just believing it would be nothing. We both wrote that we needed to remember to put the champagne in the fridge to celebrate his health. There’s even an email from me with just a bunch of star emoticons.

It’s bizarre to read those notes knowing what happened the very next day. That we would walk into that doctor’s office after days and days of prayer from our closest friends and family and squeeze each other so hard when the doctor said the words “malignant tumor” because we didn’t want to cry in front of this stranger.

It’s strange to look at that email thread and then remember that the champagne stayed chilled in the fridge for 3 months while we kept waiting for the good news. While we kept praying. While others kept praying.

God didn’t answer our prayer that the mass wasn’t a tumor. Or that the tumor wasn’t cancer. Or the prayers that the cancer wouldn’t need chemo or that there would only be one round of chemo.

Tyler did get healed (thank you, Jesus!) and I know that is a happier ending than a lot of people get. But we didn’t get all the things we asked for, did we?

If you haven’t experienced God’s grace or been carried by Him through a storm or felt His sweet gift of redemption, not getting the answer you want might feel like a total letdown. Why follow a God who doesn’t give you what you want?

The thing is, when Tyler was sick, God answered prayers for grace, strength, peace, comfort. He also met us in our darkest hours and the time we spent with Him there was so precious. Reading Psalms together, listening to worship music, just being still. He was present.

It was still hard, don’t get me wrong. We dealt with a lot of fear and had a lot of difficult moments. There’s just no doubt that God showed up for us in a big way.

I don’t write this so that you’ll never ask God for healing or to be taken out of suffering. Jesus is Healer! I believe that and have seen His touch heal people in my own life. We should bring all our worries to Him and ask for miracles.

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5:6-7

But let’s remember that our relationship with God is not “transactional”. We desire to be in communion with Him and sometimes that means enduring a trial together. When I’m going through a hard time or I know someone is struggling, I pray that we would understand that Jesus will be there and He will be enough.

The Bible does not say that if we become followers of Christ that we will not endure any suffering or experience any pain. Quite the opposite, in fact, Jesus says:

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

Take a leap of faith in your prayers, my friends, and take heart! He is waiting there with open arms.

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Sunday Thoughts

I kind of like this idea of posting some Sunday thoughts to start the week and cap off the weekend. Thanks for reading along.

1. Our small group attended an event together on how important our health is to our faith. The event featured a local physician who incorporates Christian spirituality into his medical practice. While he did discuss faith healing, he also shared several studies and research trends supporting both the power of prayer and the critical changes we need to make to our food system and mental health.

Did you know that engaging in prayer actually creates change in your brain?!

I’m really excited to further explore this area. I’ve asked one of the doctors in the small group to help me track down the research so I can read it for myself and share it with you all on the blog. Stay tuned!

2. I recently discovered Rachel Held Evans and had to share this post: How to Follow Jesus… Without Being Shane Claiborne. Confession: I haven’t read anything by Shane Claiborne. But I definitely relate to the challenge of how to follow Jesus without feeling like you need to throw all responsibility and caution to the wind. Rachel shares five mantras that remind her how she personally plans to follow Jesus, including “Love the person in front of me” and “Care for my community.”  Have you read anything by Claiborne? What might your mantras be?

3. This post made me laugh out loud: God Wants to Give you Disney World but All You Want is the Bounce House – I just discovered this blogger/coach/pastor/father and love his fresh and honest voice. This is a sweet account of how God’s dreams for us are so much better than what we aspire toward. And it reminds me of this hysterical youtube video.

4. “Do everything without complaining and arguing, so that no one can criticize you. Live clean, innocent lives as children of God, shining like bright lights in a world full of crooked and perverse people.” Philippians 2:14-15

This verse spoke right into my soul last night. Sometimes the news (and occasionally interactions and observations in my daily life) overwhelms me with the negativity, evil, selfishness, greed, lust and envy that seem to saturate our culture today. This verse reminded me that a. it has always been this way, crooked and perverse people are not new and b. there is a better way! I know I have a lot of work to do to shine like a bright light and I’ll be praying over this verse in the week to come. I’d love to hear how you overcome the desire to argue and complain. It’s not easy!

5. I’m still loving this song. For anyone who has ever asked the question, “I wonder if I’ll ever find my way, I wonder if my life could really change at all?”, you have to listen to this.

All around
Hope is springing up from this old ground
Out of chaos life is being found in You

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

Cheers to a blessed week!

More on Rituals and Faith

My mom emailed me today to remind me that rituals can still be a very important part of our relationship with God, especially in times when our faith feels unstable. I didn’t mean to come across as critical of the traditions of faith in my quick synopsis of yesterday’s sermon at church. I think the point Paul made was more about how we define our relationship with God. Are we taking pride in how many Bible studies/small groups/other church activities we attend? Or do we use our good behavior, especially in comparison to others, as a benchmark for “how Christian” we are?

While my current church is less structured than the Lutheran church I grew up in, I still very much cherish the rituals we practiced each week. The call and response readings, the old hymns, the prayers of the church. These are beautiful rituals that certainly help to ground me in times of shaky faith. A great example is praying the Psalms. There have been many times in my life where I just couldn’t find the words to pray. I would read through the Psalms, praying the words of David as if they were my own. There are Psalms for when you are angry, joyful, fearful… it is comforting to know my every emotion is documented in these books. And let’s not forget the Lord’s Prayer. I know I have clung to those words in some very dark hours.

I really believe that people experience and worship God in diverse ways. I love seeing someone in church leaping with joy during worship. You will likely find me quietly singing, clutching my heart or furiously writing something in my journal. We are all unique – beautifully designed by our Creator – and we find connection with God in different ways.

But sometimes our connection with God becomes obscured by a list of behaviors we feel we must adhere to in order to win favor with God. It doesn’t mean these things are bad but they become obstacles when we take pride in them or allow them to fill the space of pure connection with God.

For example, there have been times in my life where I felt like I could only be classified as a “good Christian” if I read my Bible every morning, attended small group every week and journaled extensive prayers to God. I would feel anxiety if I didn’t fulfill these duties. They are all wonderfully important ways for me to connect with God but they became the idol. I could take pride in how much I read my Bible but what did it matter to God if I was just rushing through the verses to get them done instead of bringing my attention to Him?

Another example is when I was struggling to fit in with the Christian culture in a community. There were very specific behaviors that determined whether someone was really saved or just a wayward child. I witnessed a lot of judgment and exclusivity in a place where I expected to find acceptance and encouragement. But that’s a story for another time.

Tyler just reminded me of a conversation we had with one of our friends at the mosque. We were discussing the differences in our types of worship. He had attended a church service and remarked how there was a band and singing, markedly different from the 5 daily prayer times that Muslims practice.

He said, “Don’t you ever find that you’re not praying to God, but just, singing a song?”

My prayer is that we don’t replace our relationship with God with an empty collection of behaviors, however structured or unstructured they may be. When God is the purpose and the initiator, the small group flourishes, the service work amplifies, and the hymns leap off the page. Through Jesus, we have been given the freedom to connect with God through faith, not held by the old laws that required very strict and specific behaviors about circumcision, food, etc.

This is not about throwing out all sense of morality or tradition. Paul says “For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love.” (Galatians 5:13)

Go forth and serve!

Sunday Thoughts

Just a few thoughts and an anecdote from this weekend…

1. “I believe there is a writer outside ourselves, plotting a better story for us, interacting with us, even, and whispering a better story into our consciousness” – A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, Donald Miller

I’m reading this book as a “pre-class” assignment for a 9-month program I’m starting in September called Threshold. The program is about discovering God’s calling for your life and a portion of it focuses on the story we tell with our lives. I can’t wait to start exploring the story God wants to write with my life.

What story are you telling?

2. Once a month we deliver food to Iraqi refugees on the North Shore of Boston. It started as a one-time interfaith project between our church and the Islamic Society of Boston but we’ve stuck around to continue our route. We’ve gotten to know some of the families over the months and learned that many of the parents held high-ranking positions in Iraq as doctors, lawyers, professors, etc. They assisted the US during the Iraq war and because of their assistance have had to flee Iraq. These hardworking families are struggling to make ends meet in rundown communities with few resources and connections.

Yesterday marked the end of Ramadan with the celebration of Eid al Fitr. We were fortunate to sample some traditional cookies baked by one of the families. One of the delivery days, we ended up driving the two older children from the mosque back home. They were helping to put the food boxes together and it wasn’t until we arrived at their home that we realized their family is one of the recipient families. These two teens study hard, volunteer at every opportunity and help out at home. Last month they were in New Orleans rebuilding a home with Habitat for Humanity. They greet us warmly each month, often asking us to sit and visit with them and now sharing in their celebration with us.

And as it is usually true with service, we feel like we are the ones who received something at the end of our route.

3. “So now that you know God (or should I say, now that God knows you), why do you want to go back again and become slaves once more to the weak and useless spiritual principles of this world?” Galatians 4:9  

The sermon in church this morning talked about the religious rules that we cling to when what God really wants for us to have is “risky faith”, as Pastor Dave calls it. In Galatians, Paul is speaking to a group of people who have received the Gospel but are insisting on going back to their “religious ways” as a means to determine their rightness with God.

Do you feel like this is still true today? Sometimes it feels like the Christian culture begs us to engage in a certain set of behaviors and opinions that will prove that we are godly. But we are not godly. We sin and fail and the only way to be right with God is to cling tightly to HIM. When we start taking pride in our behaviors and habits, we give the enemy the perfect opportunity to steal our confidence in God. We begin trusting in our actions and not having courage to believe that God will come through in the things that really matter.

4. We sang this song today and my heart just felt like bursting.

And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul. 

The story of the songwriter is so inspiring. I pray that we would all experience complete peace in the face of hardship and tragedy.

5. Thank you to our generous donors! The Cancer Community Center sent me an email saying they were grateful for the fundraising efforts so far. If you’d like to contribute, feel free to check out our fundraising page: http://www.stayclassy.org/fundraise?fcid=207888

Cheers to a blessed week!

Radical Trust

During our small group meeting last week, our group praised God for the radical trust we can have in Him. Trust that He is in control. Trust that He will work things out for good.

Life rarely works out as we think it will. Yet we clutch tightly our little plans, don’t we? Perfect little plans that we believe will equal happiness and contentment. If we just do x and y, we will get to z. We think we can figure everything out on our own, if we can only just come up with the best plan.

Tyler and I have both held onto plans for most of our lives. Organized steps and planned achievements. 5 year plans, 10 year plans. We put our trust and faith into our abilities, believing that reaching our goals will make us complete.

But in clutching these plans, we have to let go of God in some way. It’s like saying, “Thanks for offering us the best life possible God, but I’m going to keep doing it my way because I can see my plan, step-by-step. I can’t see Your plan so how can I possibly follow it?”

Cancer was not part of our plan. Three rounds of chemo and many missed days of work were not part of our plan. Seeing fertility doctors to make decisions about our future family was definitely not part of our plan. A sudden, unexpected change can thwart all of our careful planning in just one moment.

What do you do when your plans fall through? Without an anchor, a storm sends us swirling into the unknown. We drift, grasping at whatever is in front of us.

God offers to be that anchor for us:

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

In a culture that denies God at every opportunity, we are choosing to lay everything down at His feet. He has already won this battle for us, we don’t need to take it on! Instead, we must choose to lay down our plans and our fears:

of not being able to have our own children,

of not being able to withstand pain,

of losing our provisions,

of losing each other.

Radical trust is staring straight into these fears and declaring that they have no power over us. It’s a choice Tyler and I struggle to make every day. It’s so easy to fall back on our abilities and accomplishments or to start focusing on our own plans. When something works out or when things start getting better, we have to remind each other that it wasn’t because of something we did.

Radical trust is not naivete that everything will turn out as we want it to in the end. It also doesn’t mean living irresponsibly or irrationally. It’s confidence that His plan is victorious and it is so much better than anything we could come up with on our own.

When I am afraid I put my trust in You. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can flesh do to me? Psalm 56:3-4

Unfailing Love

We live in a broken world where poverty, sickness and suffering infect every neighborhood, every street, every home. I can’t think of anyone in my life who has escaped some version of brokenness. It is just the reality we live in.

When Tyler was diagnosed with cancer six months into our marriage, many people lamented the tragedy of it occurring during what should be our happiest, most carefree time. We, too, were devastated. I’ll never forget the shaking fear between the two of us, sitting in the exam room as the doctor read the results. It was absolutely surreal. Cancer was never part of our vocabulary. How could my young, vibrant husband be so sick?

Fortunately, we know that hope and restoration do exist in the brokenness. Through the mourning of our “honeymoon phase”, we have drawn nearer to the God we have both come to know since we were children. In our anxious trembling, we find comfort and peace. When fear overcomes us, we hold onto each other and declare that God is with us.

“Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the LORD, who has compassion on you. Isaiah 54:10

The Bible mentions God’s unfailing love at least 40 times in the Old Testament. It never fails.  Never. Isn’t that amazing? God has never left us through this time. God has revealed so much to us in this trial that while I never wish our experience on anyone, I pray that when you do experience brokenness, that you come to know the Creator who has never failed those who live by His Word. That unfailing love is available to anyone.

I named this blog “Heights of Love”, borrowed from the Stuart Townsend song “In Christ Alone”:

In Christ alone my hope is found,
He is my light, my strength, my song;
this Cornerstone, this solid Ground,
firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love, what depths of peace,
when fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My Comforter, my All in All,
here in the love of Christ I stand.

Tyler and I both feel called to share experiences from our marriage that reveal more of God’s character. We hope that our marriage, and this blog, will be a reflection of the heights God carries us to with His unfailing love, in spite of the brokenness that will always be with us on this earth.

Those who know and follow Christ are not exempt from suffering. Rather, in the deep valleys of life, we know that His heights are endless and He will always carry us through.

Thanks for reading :)