mo(u)rning will come

Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and woshiped. And he said… ‘The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the last he will stand upon the earth.’
Job 1:20-21 & 19:25 .

When a couple struggles with infertility, each month is a roller coaster of emotion. Hope, dread, excitement, despair; the monthly cycle of fertility is something that they become intimately—almost fanatically—aware of. A woman’s perception of the changes in her body is fine-tuned to an astonishing degree.

It was that way for my wife Kathi after many years of us trying to have a baby.

We had adopted a daughter, and then Kathi became pregnant with our first-born son, but we wanted more children, and felt that God had promised us more children. But still we struggled to see her become pregnant, so when the joyous event happened again, we were aware of it within just a couple of weeks of conception.

And we were ecstatic.

But we all know that life doesn’t always allow us to remain that way; in fact, many would say that life rarely allows it. One morning, almost five months into the pregnancy, Kathi awoke and realized she was hemorrhaging, and began to have cramps. She felt panicked, I felt panicked, and we put in a frantic call to our doctor, who told us to wait a little while before coming in, in case the bleeding stopped.

While I waited, impotent and sick with worry, our two small children sat with me at our kitchen table in the early morning stillness, and we prayed that God would “please, protect the baby in Mommy’s tummy.”

The bleeding got worse, so with hearts in our throats we dropped our children off with friends and drove to our doctor’s office, and she couldn’t find our baby’s heartbeat, so clinging to a frayed thread of hope-against-hope we went to the hospital to get an ultrasound. Something was obviously wrong, but we thought maybe there was still a sliver of a chance that it would be okay. Maybe things were not as they seemed.

And as Kathi lay on a cold, sterile table, the technician performed the test, and then a kind doctor informed us our baby had died. She was a little girl, and she was dead, and she needed to be removed.

We all go through a sense of emptiness with the death of those we care about. We instinctively recoil from death. Even though some people will declaim that death is “just part of life,” deep within we all know that is simply not true. Everything inside us screams against it. Our reaction is not simply from fear or self-preservation or an inbuilt protection of our species: it is an angry, agonized howl against an unnatural enemy; it is the violent rejection of a vicious and cruel thief and liar. Death is not natural, death is not a gift of rest; death is a horror. Death is unspeakable, and when a child dies it is nearly unendurable.

Miscarriage is death, but it is a strange kind of death, and a nightmare for the parents. When death happens inside the womb, there is a feeling of something dreadfully incomplete, a cruel mocking of even the opportunity for parents to grieve deeply in a socially acceptable way. We found it was difficult to explain to people who had not experienced it. We felt searing anguish, and of course, people wanted to help. Well-meaning friends and sympathetic strangers told us “It’s probably better that you never saw her” or “That’s so sad, but you can have another one.” But it wasn’t better that we didn’t see and know and hold our child, even if it could have been just for a few minutes. We were devastated by the cruelty of it; we were robbed of the chance to at least give her one last kiss, and lovingly place her in a little casket, and say goodbye surrounded by family. She was just gone—scooped out of Kathi’s uterus and disposed of; so much useless tissue.

So yes; we hoped another baby would come. But this baby was special; this baby was unique and desired; this baby had, in just a few months, captured our hearts with dreams and hopes. We had never seen her, but we had fallen head-over-heels in love with her, and couldn’t wait to welcome her.

But she was gone.

We walked out of the hospital in grey, cold winter, to an empty car, with empty arms, an empty womb, and empty hearts. We sat for a while in silence. There was nothing to say.

I wanted words of comfort for my grieving wife. I wanted wisdom that would make it, if not better, at least bearable. My heart was shredded, and I realized Kathi had to be working through a shrieking agony of soul that no words could touch. So, without words, we wept.  

But we came to realize that, just as Job said, our redeemer lives, and because of that there can be hope and restoration in any tragedy. We began to be comforted by the realization that our little Alexandra was not really gone; she was in the presence of Life and Love himself. She gazed with open eyes and innocent awareness at her perfect Father. She would never be subject to the pain and bittersweet anguish we all go through journeying this life. She was aware, far better than us, of how short a time it truly would be until we met her in fullness, met her in a place and with understanding that transcends any earthly connection.

The LORD gives, and takes away–and gives. Two years after our baby’s death, Kathi became pregnant again, and gave birth to our little daughter Amy, who has grown into a beautiful married woman. Her husband Luke is a fine and godly young man, and to us is more a son than a son-in-law.

And—in the incredible paradox of coincidence that can only come from God, the day after we lost our baby, across the country in Ohio, a little baby girl named Brittany was born. This girl grew up and went to college in Tennessee, and met our son Corey who had traveled there from California, and they married have given us three precious grandsons who fill our hearts with laughter and love and joy.

The ways of God are mysterious and incredible, inscrutable, frustrating—and even sometimes tormenting. But Kathi and I have learned to not regret the parts of our story that contain excruciating pain. The darkness of grief contrasts with the light of joy. Colors of rejoicing are made richer and fuller with the depth that comes from shadow; our laughter is more vivid and complete by the dark contrast of weeping; a chiaroscuro that gives life dimension and hope solidity. Every life is a painting, but if it is made up of only bright and shiny hues, then it is just pop art, a garish display of mawkish illusion. If we rightly respond to pain, and let Jesus speak to us and comfort us and teach us in our darkness, we always receive reward. Today’s emptiness leads us into greater appreciation of tomorrow’s fullness.  

This is not wishful thinking or misty-eyed fantasy. When we look to our God and trust him with our lives and the lives of our loved ones, we gain greater perspective of his great goodness, and we find ourselves continually enriched, strengthened, and restored in the rainbow of eternal possibilities shining through the dark clouds of our present sorrows.

it don’t come easy

I don’t ask for much, I only want your trust
And you know it don’t come easy
And this love of mine keeps growing all the time
And you know it don’t come easy
—Ringo Starr, “It Don’t Come Easy”

Valentine’s Day we think about love: we dream about it, we throw money at it with flowers and cards and candy and romantic dinners. Love has become a consumer holiday. And yes, it is a lot of fun.

Love, as our culture defines it, is giddy feelings, starry-eyed gazing and soft music, walking arm-in-arm, experiencing exciting physical intimacy, laughing and enjoying life, building memories and building a life together. These are all aspects of love, and they are all beautiful.

But true love is even more. Love that lasts “don’t come easy.” Love that lasts is not just dreamy walks and candlelight dinners with beautiful people. It is also arguments and dirty diapers and financial stress and sinning against your beloved (sometimes dreadfully) and being forgiven and getting wrinkles and a pot-belly and, sometimes, losing touch with the “feelings” that started the whole relationship in the first place.

I quote an old chestnut that is still singular and unconquerable truth: real love is commitment. Despite the dreadful pressures of life in a broken world, choosing faithfulness and humility causes love to flourish and widen into something deeper, purer, more confident, and more exquisite than quick and easy “butterflies,” pleasant though they may be.

Real love is action (John 3:16). Real love is messy; it steps into the filth and the bitterness of life (John 1:9-12, Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Romans 5:20). It embraces darkness, and by doing so dispels it (Isaiah 59, Ezekiel 16, 2 Corinthians 4:6). Love is shamelessly romantic (Isaiah 62:5, Song of Songs 1:2-4, Hosea 2:19, John 3:29). Love is not concerned with its own reputation (Jeremiah 31, Micah 6:3, Philippians 2:7-9). Love gives reward when all that is owed is the harshest punishment (Hosea 11:7-11, Jeremiah 31:32). Love pursues even when the pursuit is unwanted (Isaiah 65:1-2, Ezekiel 18:31-32). Love shines its light into every dark corner, reaches without hesitation into the most wretched sewer, freely offers mercy to the hardest heart, responds with tender love to the cruelest hatred. Love does not tire or fail in its relentless quest to restore the beauty originally intended for all humanity and all creation.

We do not understand love like this, because we are finite and because we are fickle. We fear that if we “love too much” we will not have enough for who and what is truly important. But love is not an object of limited quantity that must be divided up and parceled out piecemeal; it doesn’t grow thinner the more it is spread around. The more we love, the larger becomes our capacity to love.

So, Jesus has shown us what love truly is by the way he came, the way he lived, the way he died, and the way he rose again. Love is incredible and eternal, but it “don’t come easy.” Just ask the Son of God.

When all we know of this world has ceased; when history has wrapped up and “all things new” has begun (Revelation 21:5), love will exist unhindered and unchallenged. Anything that fights against love or raises its twisted head against goodness will be stripped of influence and power. For endless reaches of time (and, I think, space), love will reign unchallenged.

When all else fails, love prevails. Both now, and for eternity.

maria, did you know….

I asked the Father this morning what I should pray about, and I instantly sensed “Pray for Maria.” That’s all; no other information.

Really? I thought. There must be millions of Marias in the world. I guess I will pray for them all!

Dutifully, somewhat sheepishly, I lifted up my voice for all women named Maria, and suddenly my thoughts jumped to the systemic oppression and degradation and exploitation of women and girls worldwide. I also began to picture the staggering number of single mothers working so hard for their children and extended families. Then, it occured to me that I should find out the meaning of the name, and the first results I came across online informed me that “Maria” can mean “sea of sorrow” or “sea of bitterness.”

Now I understood. There are so many ladies around the world who are in anguish, praying and weeping bitterly like Hannah (1 Samuel 1:10) from the pain you carry; the grieving is intense, often because of the injustice you have had to face, but also because you so deeply carry the kind heart of the Father, and like Jesus are touched by the infirmities of those you love, and the comfort and tenderness of the Holy Spirit burns within you as you long to comfort others who are afflicted.

So I pray for you today; you who are “Maria”; you who are heavy-laden and feel yourself flailing in a wretched sea of darkness. The evil one and his wickedness assault you, but look up and see that the Warrior-Bridegroom King of the Universe is enthralled by your beauty! (Psalm 45:11.) I declare the goodness and kindness of ADONAI to be poured out on you, and in the safety of the Rock of His Name, you will find Him to be your defense and your strong tower of assurance.

I speak the mercy of God over your life and over the innocent lives for whom you stand guard. ADONAI proclaims His blessing to you: abundance of mercy and generosity; release of His authority in your boldness; and the glory of loveliness enfolded within the ferocity of your compassion.

My sisters, I am awed by your strength to withstand the sorrow and bitterness wrought upon you. Continue in your bravery. You may not feel brave, but believe this: You are beautiful warriors; you are Deborah and you fearlessly strike blows for justice (Judges 4-5). You are the graciousness of the Almighty, and your love and worship have become sharp arrows in the hand of the King that will pierce the heart of darkness and bring light into waste places.

Never, never, never forget your value.

 

valentines and ashes

I am not Catholic, but I do realize that today is the celebration of both Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day. It seems there would not be two days more diametrically opposed. Do we focus on flowers and romance, or ashes and sorrow? Do we repent, prostrate in the dirt, or leap joyfully in shameless celebration of love?

Or perhaps we really do not fully understand the mystery of this question: Is there a convergence of the two, a romance inculcated by the act of prostrating in ash?

Are we able to focus on the romance of surrender, of humility, of recognizing we are butheart tree dust? It is a beautiful thing to be prostrate before the King, who desires our beauty, who gives “beauty for ashes.” So ashes can be romantic; our humanity, while humble and broken, is lovely.

To recognize that we are but dust, deserving of nothing, is a romantic and beautiful posture.
For, “…on this one will I look, one humble and of a contrite spirit, who trembles at My word” (Isaiah 66:2). We tremble with the understanding of His greatness and our unworthiness, yes; He is infinite and immense, and we are finite and puny, yes; so we tremble and fear before the Eternal and Holy, the Fire whom we cannot begin to comprehend; yet we also tremble with lover’s passion, engulfed by the searing flame of our Lover who draws us irresistibly into intimacy and incandescent communion.

Capture our hearts, Lover of our souls. “Set me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm. For love is as strong as death….” (Song of Songs 8:6). There is a passionate jealousy and beauty resplendent in our ashes. From them, Yeshua will receive glory; our bodies—which came from dust and will return to dust—He has formed to be a container for His presence, a sacred temple on this earth, the pinnacle of creation.

So we, your people throughout history, are created into beautiful majesty from the ashes of our failure, as we reach upward in hope and are enlivened and recreated by your kiss, the breath of life. As we approach you, marked with humility, you make us glorious in your palace.

love casts out fear

Silent night, holy night!
Son of God, love’s pure light.

Radiant beams from Thy holy face
with the dawn of redeeming grace.
Jesus, Lord at Thy birth,
Jesus, Lord at Thy birth!
(“Silent Night”)

Into a world crushed under excessive burdens of hatred, fear, deceit, and shame, Jesus was born to testify to the truth of God, and to offer Himself as a sacrifice for sin. Scripture tells us that in Jesus the Messiah, God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting people’s sins against them. This is magnificent news to all who are weary and troubled and fearful.

There is no fear in love. but perfect love drives out fear….
(1 John 4:18).

This truth is a beacon of hope; radiant energy piercing the darkness of the prevailing spirit of the age. Our world is energized by agitation. Human leaders achieve power using threats and dire warnings of punishment or chaos. When people are afraid, they make poor choices and are easily manipulated. But the child of God, redeemed by the blood of Jesus, does not need to fear the world or the systems and powers of the world. God is greater by far than every earthly authority and every dark demonic host.

This is not a time for us to be swayed by the narrative of our culture and live in fear. For us who know His love, He makes all things work together for our good. For those who have not yet come to the realization of His kindness, He is reaching always with mercy, proclaiming that now is the chosen time, now is the day of salvation.

We can fully trust our Lord and His love for us. We belong to this One who shone with purity of love, given as a gift of grace. And because we are His, we are given the gift of His great love in our hearts. As we respond to that love, as we love Him and love one another, we shine like the radiant beams from His face. We can be bright outposts of hope for the people living in darkness.

For it is you who light my lamp;
the LORD my God lightens my darkness. 
(Psalm 18:28).

Jesus is the Light of the world, and those with eyes to see will bow and worship Him in joyful adoration.  He was Lord at His birth; He has been Lord from ageless eternity; He will forever be Lord of all. Christmas is a season of holy light; a season of holy giving; a season of holy reflection; a season of joyous, holy love.

What better time than the season of light to proclaim the truth of the Son of God, love’s pure light? The Light of the world has dawned upon us, and in the illumination of His love, we can journey unafraid, our hearts filled with joy.

consummation

“I would have all of thee.”

Yes. You would have all of me

in fiery love, You would possess me,
Your candescent beauty would enflame me,

and yielding, I am not consumed.

My guttered passion fanned by holy wind
and upward dancing,

I am burning breath to breath with Desire eternal.

            And I know that You will ravish me;
            that I—

astray from beauty’s pasture green,
            lain thirsty by defiled streams;
            dulled to glories yet unseen—

            will find my purity in Thee

            

thirty-four years of beauty

(This is adapted from a post I wrote a few years ago for my precious wife on our anniversary)

I write with grateful joy today, because it is my wedding anniversary. Thirty-four years ago this day, a wonderful, loving, gentle, luminous, alluring young woman and I exchanged vows before God and family and friends, and our pastor announced we were married.Marriage is exciting and infuriating and joyous and frightening and challenging and wondrous and weird and astonishing. It is a great adventure; it is a comforting and joyous sharing of life; it is two unique individuals daily learning to become—in profoundly mysterious union—“one flesh.”  Marriage is an earthly picture of the love Christ shares with his Church.

I have learned how to be more like Jesus, and how to truly be a man, by sharing this journey with the finest woman I have ever known.

The last chapter of the biblical book of Proverbs contains this question: “A capable, intelligent and virtuous woman, who is he who can find her?”

I can answer. I found Kathi.

My feelings for her today are elegantly expressed in the lyrics to a beautiful song performed by Steven Curtis Chapman titled “We Will Dance”:

I’ve watched the sunrise in your eyes
And I’ve seen the tears fall like the rain
You’ve seen me fight so brave and strong
You’ve held my hand when I’m afraid

We’ve watched the seasons come and go
We’ll see them come and go again
But in winter’s chill, or summer’s breeze
One thing will not be changin’

We will dance
When the sun is shining; in the pouring rain
We’ll spin and we’ll sway
And we will dance
When the gentle breeze becomes a hurricane
The music will play
And I’ll take your hand and hold you close to me
And we will dance

Sometimes it’s hard to hold you tight
Sometimes we feel so far apart
Sometimes we dance as one
And feel the beating of each other’s heart

Some days the dance is slow and sweet
Some days we’re bouncing off the walls
But no matter how this world may turn
Our love will keep us from falling

And we will dance
When the sun is shining; in the pouring rain
We’ll spin and we’ll sway
And we will dance
When the gentle breeze becomes a hurricane
The music will play
And I’ll take your hand and hold you close to me
And we will dance

The music will play
And I’ll hold you close and I won’t let go
Even when our steps grow weak and slow
Still I’ll take your hand and hold you close to me
And we will dance

Thank you, my beloved, for all the years of dancing.

Dancing