Faith


My first child, a daughter, was born five weeks early on March 28, 2011.  During my pregnancy, I wrote her a few letters as I processed my own preparation to become a mother.  They are part of the spiritual journey I have walked over these past months, and so I share them here in that light.

Letter 1

Written February 4, 2011

Baby Girl,

This week I got the oil changed in my car.  I know you don’t know what that means yet, but the important thing is that it will be at least three months before it happens again.  And your father and I are not ready to give you the keys to a car, so we’ll fill you in on the rest of the details when the time comes.  When I got in the car afterward, I looked up at the sticker that tells me the next time I’m due for an oil change, and it said “May 1, 2011.”  May 1.  The day you’re due to make your grand entrance into the world.  And I realized that something as simple as an oil change might not be so simple anymore.

In the last couple of weeks you’ve been moving around and growing inside me, forcing my stomach to bulge in ways it has never done before.  I am more aware of you at odd times of the day and night, like about thirty minutes before I’d like to get up in the morning when you start stretching and squirming.  I’ve told your Daddy that you seem to want to make sure I’m aware that you think it’s time to start the day.  Sometimes you’re really calm, and I wonder if you’re asleep.  Sometimes you can’t seem to get comfortable, and I wonder if you’ll ever be still.

Each time I feel you move, I usually reach down and hold my stomach, hoping you’ll move again, and I’ll feel it even more intensely with my hand on top of you.  It’s all I know of you right now – the ways you move and how unpredictable you seem.  And I wonder how that will translate into your life outside of my body.  I wonder what you’ll be like, even more than I wonder what you’ll look like.  I think it’s the part of this mysterious process that has me most often speechless.  Who will you be?  A little bit of your father and a little bit of your mother, I know that much.  But I’ve lived long enough now to know that what will make you your own girl is that you will be a product of your days too.  Stuff will happen to you and around you from the very beginning, and I know your responses to it will shape you in so many ways.

Sometimes I worry about that, and sometimes I get excited about it.  Most of all, I think it’s just something I know is beyond my control.  The last several years have made me less idealistic about life in general.  You’ll come to know that your mother is a consummate realist, but the cynicism that often accompanies such a stance has dissipated in recent years, only to be replaced by a deeper trust that the hard stuff of life is where God shapes us into who He created us to be.  Don’t misunderstand me – I don’t long for the hard stuff.  But I find that I throw up my hands in frustration at my circumstances a little less often these days, knowing that when the rubber meets the road, I meet my Maker.

And I guess that’s changed the way I look at becoming a mother.  I would love nothing more than to be able to shield you from the messiness of life, but I know that means I would be keeping you from the richness of redemption.  As I imagine the events of your life, I know that there will be unexpected joys and sorrows, and so I don’t pray that things will go smoothly for you.  I pray that God would give you the ability to trust Him and hide yourself in Him when they don’t.

Not too many weeks after we discovered you were coming, your Daddy mentioned that he wanted to pick out a passage of Scripture to pray specifically for you.   He told me some of the passages he had considered and begun to pray.  As I began to think about doing the same thing, I came across Psalm 71, and I knew it was the right one for me to choose.  I suspect it is not a typical passage to pray for your unborn daughter, but it is the prayer that I pray over your whole life, the days you’ve already lived and all of the ones that will follow until you breathe your last.

It is a prayer that you would know the faithfulness of God, though your own faith will undoubtedly be tested.  It is a plea that you would know the redemption of God because you need to be rescued, and there will be seasons in your life from which only He can bring good.  It is my hope for you that, though you will inevitably face hardship, you would know the intimacy of walking that road with Jesus.  That your mouth would praise Him and that your heart would love Him for all of your days, though life will tempt you to do otherwise.  This is my hope and prayer for you.

I love you,

Mama

Psalm 71

In you, O Lord, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame.  Rescue me and deliver me in your righteousness; turn your ear to me and save me.

Be my rock of refuge, to which I can always go; give the command to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress.  Deliver me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked, from the grasp of evil and cruel men.

For you have been my hope, O Sovereign Lord, my confidence since my youth.  From birth I have relied on you; you brought me forth from my mother’s womb.  I will ever praise you.  I have become like a portent to many, but you are my strong refuge.  My mouth is filled with your praise, declaring your splendor all day long.

Do not cast me away when I am old; do not forsake me when my strength is gone.  For my enemies speak against me; those who wait to kill me conspire together.  They say, “God has forsaken him; pursue him and seize him, for no one will rescue him.”  Be not far from me, O God; come quickly, O my God, to help me.  May my accusers perish in shame; may those who want to harm me be covered with scorn and disgrace.

But as for me, I will always have hope; I will praise you more and more.  My mouth will tell of your righteousness, of your salvation all day long, though I know not its measure.  I will come and proclaim our mighty acts, O Sovereign Lord; I will proclaim your righteousness, yours alone.

Since my youth, O God, you have taught me, and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds.  Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, O God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your might to all who are to come.

Your righteousness reaches to the skies, O God, you who have done great things.  Who, O God, is like you?  Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter, you will restore my life again; from the depths of the earth you will again bring me up.  You will increase my honor and comfort me once again.

I will praise you with the harp for your faithfulness, O my God; I will sing praise to you with the lyre, O Holy One of Israel.  My lips will shout for joy when I sing praise to you – I, whom you have redeemed.  My tongue will tell of your righteous acts all day long, for those who wanted to harm me have been put to shame and confusion.

Today is the due date for my first child, a daughter, who was born five weeks early.  During my pregnancy, I wrote her a few letters as I processed my own preparation to become a mother.  They are part of the spiritual journey I have walked over these past months, and so I share them here in that light.


Written November 10, 2010

Baby,

There are so many things I want to tell you.  Sometimes I wonder if I will forget some of them before I have a chance to tell you, before you understand.  There are simple things, like how to tie your shoes and how to write thank-you notes.  And there are more complex things, things about life and death, pain and joy.  The things of which life is really made in between sandwiches and birthday parties and homework.  And these are the things that inhabit my stories.  I have a lot of them, though I have only lived 29 years, and I hope I can share most of them with you over the course of your life.  Some of them come from my own experiences, and some of them come from the lives of others – family, friends, or people I’ve somehow crossed paths with on this earth.

I was reading yesterday about how God’s people had forgotten what he had done for them, how they didn’t believe him and didn’t trust in his deliverance (Psalm 78:11, 22).  The person who tells us this in the Bible promises to tell the next generation about God and his power and everything he has done in order to break this cycle of forgetfulness among his own people.  He says that God wants us to do this, so that “even the children yet to be born … would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands.”   (Psalm 78:6-7)

And it occurred to me that these are the most important stories that I tell you.  And I promise to tell them to you, as my family told them to me.  More than anything, Child, I want you to know him who is knitting you together in my womb as I write these words.  For he alone can pass along all that you need to know for this life.  From him alone comes wisdom and knowledge.  Your mother doesn’t have all the answers (although you will think I do when you’re young and be utterly convinced that I do not when you’re a teenager).  There is no way that I can prepare you for every moment of your life.  There is no way I can be with you in every situation.  I am already painfully aware of how little control I have over your life, though I have been given a place of humbling influence in it and over it.

You have been entrusted to me for reasons beyond my comprehension, and so I promise to tell you about the One I must trust with your life and to whom I pray you would surrender yours.  I promise to tell you about who he is and what he has done.  And I promise to tell you who he is to me and what he has done for me and in me and through me.  Not a moment of my life has escaped his attention and, when I have trusted him, not a moment, not a story has been wasted either.  Even the painful ones.  I have a heritage of grace and redemption to tell you, and it is the most important thing that I could pass on.  I have some hard stories to tell you.  I have some funny stories to tell you.  I have some stories to share that I don’t even know about yet.

That’s the first thing I want to tell you about God, that he is always working, though you might not think so.  And what he’s working on may not be what we expect him to be working on, but we can always trust that it’s the right thing.  There are times when I’ve thought he must have turned his attention elsewhere, that surely he would not have let things happen as they did if he had known.  But on the other side, I realized that he did know what was going on, that he hadn’t abandoned me, and that the unexpected turned out to be far better than my own plans.

And I’m not the only one who has failed to see this at times.  When you and I start to read the Bible together, you’ll see that God did a lot of amazing things in the Old Testament, wonders in the world and wonders in people’s hearts.  But there came a time when people thought he’d stopped working.  They thought he must have abandoned them.  They couldn’t see or hear him, so they assumed he had just given up on them.

But they forgot who he was.  They forgot that he wasn’t like them, people who were quick to turn on their promises and easily angered by others who didn’t seem to measure up.  They didn’t realize the full extent of his love.  They didn’t understand his ways.  He was hard at work.  He always had been, and he wanted to be with them forever because he loved them so much.  He wanted to make them into the people they couldn’t be on their own.

So “when the time had fully come,” he became like them and became a baby like you (Galatians 4:4).  They called him Jesus.  And he lived a life that made a lot of people stop and think and change theirs.  He made some people angry though because they still thought God was supposed to act the way they wanted him to act and expected him to act.  But he didn’t.  He acted the way he had created them to act.  And a lot of people couldn’t understand that, so they wanted to get rid of him.  And so he died on a cross.

But that’s the great irony of history, Jesus knew that would happen.  After all, he is God.  And he let them put him to death on a cross.  He didn’t have to do it, but he chose to do it.  He had been working everything out all along because he knew he was the only one who could save us from the mess into which we had fallen.  We couldn’t be who he had intended us to be.  We couldn’t be like him on our own.  And that failure kept us from knowing him the way he wanted us to know him.  And so he took upon himself our failures and made them his own.  He died so that we could live and so that we could be with him forever.

When it had seemed like he was silent and when it seemed like he had given up on everyone he had made, the truth was that he was working on a plan that was far greater than what anyone expected.  The truth is that he wasn’t far off, and he wanted us to be with him.  And so he did something that seemed not to make any sense, but it was the only thing that could be done to settle the matter once and for all.  And that is why we trust him, Child.  That is why we love him.  That is why we worship him and believe that life does not work apart from him.  He is every story.  He is everything.  For me and for you.

I love you,

Mama

During the season of Epiphany, our church uses the liturgy from the Anglican Church in Kenya.  It serves as a reminder to us that Jesus is the light to the nations.  I love so many parts of this particular liturgy, and I have looked forward to its richness each Sunday.  During the celebration of communion, we proclaim the following:

Celebrant:  Let us proclaim the mystery of faith.
People:      Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.
Celebrant:  We are brothers and sisters through his blood.
People:      We have died together, we will rise together, we will live together.
Celebrant:  Therefore, heavenly Father, hear us as we celebrate this covenant with joy, and await the coming of our Brother, Jesus Christ.  He died in our place, making full atonement for the sins of the whole world, the perfect sacrifice, once and for all.  You accepted his offering by raising him from death, and granting him great honor at your right hand on high.
People:      Amen.  Jesus is Lord.
Celebrant:  This is the feast of victory.
People:      The Lamb who was slain has begun his reign.  Hallelujah.
Celebrant:  Christ is alive forever.
People:      We are because he is.

This is the feast of victory, I thought last Sunday, as I watched a man with a cane struggle to walk down the aisle to receive it.

This is the feast of victory, I thought a few minutes later, as I walked forward, knelt before the cross, and received sustenance for my crippled soul.

Christ is the host and we are his guests.

“Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.”  (Luke 14:21)

A feast of victory for those who could not win it themselves.

“Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” … “Do not weep!  See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed.  He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”  Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if had been slain, standing in the center of the throne … (Revelation 5:2,5-6)

This is the feast of victory because it is the slain Lamb of God who stands on the throne. It is the slain Lamb of God who is the conquering Lion of Judah.  It was finished on the cross.  Victory won.  The kingdom ushered in.

As Lent begins today, we journey to the cross once again, reminded of the costly sacrifice that paid our ransom.

The feast of victory.  Our God reigns.

This Advent season has been unique for me, as I continue to grieve the loss of my grandfather three months ago.  Once again, the mystery of the Incarnation falls fresh on my heart.

For He is our childhood’s pattern;
Day by day, like us He grew;
He was little, weak and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us He knew;
And He feeleth for our sadness,
And He shareth in our gladness.
(from “Once in Royal David’s City”)

The King of Kings lay thus in lowly manger;
In all our trials born to be our friend.
He knows our need; our weakness is no stranger.
Behold your King!  Before Him lowly bend!
Behold your King!  Before Him lowly bend!
(from “O Holy Night”)

Tonight we worship the One whose coming made sacred all of the moments of our lives.  His light has pierced the darkness of this world and brought our salvation.  The Word has inhabited our flesh and redeemed it.  And yet we still wait for the time when darkness will cease to exist.  This world’s complete redemption has not yet come, but Christmas reminds us that it most certainly will.  And thus today’s Daily Office readings proclaim the great hope of our lifelong Advent.

They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.  (Isaiah 35:10)

He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.”  Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus.  (Revelation 22:20)

But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you.  Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay.  Your people will be my people and your God my God.”  (Ruth 1:16)

She left her country, her home, her people.  And incidentally, according to Naomi, her gods (Ruth 1:15).

Ruth chose not to return to them with her sister-in-law.  Instead, she chose to worship the one true God and journey to a new land and a new people.

So have we.

As with Ruth, that choice will be paved with loss and hardship.  It will also result in divine provision and redemption.  To be sure, it is the right choice.

But when we choose to make God our God, we also choose to make His people our people.  There is no way around it.  If He is our Father, His children are our siblings.  All of them.  The ones we like and the ones we don’t like.  The ones who are kindred spirits and the ones we can’t understand.  The ones we admire and the ones of whom we disapprove.

Perhaps I’m alone in this confession, but there are some in the family of God with whom I do not generally prefer to keep company.  There are some I find myself avoiding for various reasons.  There are some on whom I pass judgment without even thinking about it.  As ungodly as it may sound, there are some with whom I do not prefer to be identified.

But maybe I stand alone in these feelings.

You might be surprised at those who would fit in the categories above for me.  That’s really not the point, though.

When I chose to make God my God, I left behind the pattern of this world.  I chose to live as a citizen of a different country in fellowship with different people.  And I didn’t just choose to be their neighbors.

I chose to be their family.   I chose to be called by the same name.  I chose them to be my people.

And whether or not I like their company doesn’t matter.  Whether I admire their lives or disapprove of them doesn’t matter.  I do not get to choose with whom I will be identified in the family of God.

Because long ago, One wholly other than me chose to identify with my pitiful existence.

He was divinely unique, and yet He made Himself flesh-bound.

He did it to bind me to Him forever.  To call me His own.

And so I now call those He has ransomed mine too.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility … His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.  (Ephesians 2:14-16)

A month of Sundays.

That’s how long it’s been since the day we left that beloved little church on the North Shore of Massachusetts. Memories of our last days in New England may elude me at some point, but I won’t soon forget that Sunday morning.  It is etched on my heart, right along with all of the people that line the pews of that centuries-old sanctuary.

As my tearful husband and I stood before them to say goodbye, the emotions that had been growing over the previous Sundays flooded to the surface.  I didn’t know what else to say, except to tell them they would always be home to us and to thank them for showing us Jesus.  And, as they circled around us and prayed for us, my heart ached with a multitude of feelings that only increased with the beautiful cakes we ate after church and the old benediction hymn they sang for us in the fellowship hall.  Every time I look at the framed photographs they gave us, I’m reminded of how much we love them and how much they loved us.  It is a humbling thing to receive such affection.  It was undeserved and yet more precious than a thousand Sundays elsewhere.

And with each moment that morning, my heart kept crying out, “Who are we, Lord?”  Who are we that you would give them to us, not just for a few years but for eternity?  Who are we that you would take our heart’s desires for a season and give them back  to us in the most unexpected ways, in the most unexpected people?  Who are we that you would create a people to be yours and then welcome us to join it?  Who are we that you would love us so?

Every Thanksgiving, that tiny church breaks its tradition of a weekly sermon and calls several of its members to bear witness to the ways God has worked in their lives through the church.  It is a corporate thanksgiving of sorts.  Last Thanksgiving, I was honored to be one of the four to share from the pulpit.  Not knowing what the next six months would hold for my husband and me, these are the words I offered them that morning.

Last year, we sat around Parker’s parents’ dining room table at Thanksgiving, and each person shared what we were most thankful for in the previous year.   When my turn came, I shared that it was this church for which I was most thankful.

You see, when you pack up all your belongings and move 1,100 miles north to attend seminary, you have a lot of hopes.  But honestly, you try to set your expectations pretty low.  Maybe that makes me sound like a pessimist, but I feel the need to be honest. 

What I mean is that we had a lot of desires and dreams for our time at seminary, but we didn’t know if they were just too far-fetched.  We thought they might have to wait.  Some of them never came to pass, but — without a doubt — one of them did.

Just before Christmas in 2007, after what I’m sure was the most exhaustive search for churches on the North Shore, we decided to visit this church.  And we had no idea to expect. 

But not long after our arrival that morning, somewhere between the Christmas pageant announcements and the congregational prayer, I think we realized this church – this body of believers – was different than the other churches we had visited in the area or elsewhere.  [Tim was in India, of course, so he really can’t take the credit.]

The first time I had heard about this church was in a series of classes I took at the seminary for wives of students.  Rama was invited to speak one night, and her genuineness and candor stood out from other speakers.  It was fitting to me that she was the first impression I received of the church because she was merely a reflection of the authenticity we would find here.

What we’ve discovered here is a sincerity so refreshing it’s hard to even do it justice.  When I’ve tried to tell friends or family – or even other seminary students – about our church family, the most apt description I can find is that you are real and that you really love each other.  This is not a place where people wear masks and hide the realities of their lives.  This is a place where a whole lot of different people facing a whole lot of different things are reconciled together – in Christ.  As Paul said, God “has made the two one … creating in Himself one new man out of the two.”

I found that Robin’s mother put it so well at the women’s retreat this year – it’s a group that only God could put together.  I would add that it is God who keeps it together.

And that would be incredible for me, just to have had the chance to witness the body of Christ coming together as He intends, meeting each other in their uniqueness but unified in the hope of our Savior.  But that isn’t the whole story.

Because over these last couple of years, you have welcomed these two transplanted Southerners into your homes and into your lives.  You’ve brought us rhubarb jelly, taken us for boat rides, and shared your secrets of the best restaurants in town.  You’ve broken bread with us and you’ve welcomed us to your kitchen tables.  You’ve shown us the hospitality of Jesus.  You’ve shared your stories with us and provided space for us to share ours. 

You knew we might not be here for more than a few years, and yet you have welcomed us with open arms into the fellowship of believers in this place.  Wholeheartedly.  Without reservation.  You have no idea what that means to two weary travelers far from home.  The generosity of your love has graced our lives.  You’ve taught us what it means to be a body of believers whose unity comes from Christ.  You’ve demonstrated the power and beauty of living life openly together in community. 

You are our home here.  This church has become our family. 

For however long God keeps us here, I will sit back in awe of the fact that He led us to you, that He welcomed us here through your open arms.  And whenever this season in Massachusetts comes to a close for us, we will miss you the most. 

And we do.

Boy, have I got a lot rolling around in my head and heart right now.  They’ve been on the edge of explosion in the past two weeks for a whole lot of reasons, which I’m sure will come out over the next six weeks as we prepare to leave our seminary community and head to our next season of life.  I will ask your patience in advance as I will probably process that transition through writing as I have time, and I’m not completely sure it won’t devolve into emotional drivel at the rate I’m going right now.

On Wednesday night, we said goodbye to some wonderful friends who began their trek home to the Pacific Northwest Saturday morning.  I was doing fine the entire time until I watched the girls’ grandparents bid them farewell.  They had been in town for graduation and were heading home the next day to await the rest of the family’s arrival after their long road trip.

But as I stood there listening and watching their grandmother talk to these two precious girls, I got choked up.  My emotional swell was caused by my soul-deep regret that they weren’t listening to both of their grandmothers.  This fall my friend’s mother passed away after an excruciating battle with pancreatic cancer.  And in this brief moment, I was overcome with emotion recalling the diagnosis, the treatment, and the suffering.  Everything that happened within the few years she’s been in my life.  I thought about the tears that our whole bible study cried together both in her presence and in prayer for her when she was at her mother’s side for two months this fall.  It was sacred ground that we were privileged to tread, and it all came flooding back to me in that moment.

Births.  Successes.  Answered prayers.  Healing.  Victories. 

Infertility.  Miscarriages.  Heath problems.  Financial difficulties.  Marital crises.  Deaths. 

In the past three years, I’ve felt the weight of it all from living in community here at seminary.  I’ve had the sacred opportunity to weep and rejoice with those around me, and they walked with me through my own health concerns, personal trials, and joys. 

As I said goodbye to my friend, I began to feel a familiar tear in my chest that will become more pronounced in coming days.  It comes from knowing the end of a season is near and that separation from all that it has meant will not be easy.  Closure will not come neatly tied with a bow, and I need to let myself feel the pain of loss. 

The pain means it was real.  Things are only pried apart if they have been bound, and so it is with my heart. 

I guess I could have kept it all at bay for three years.  I might have escaped unscathed, but my attempts at self-protection would have resulted in an isolated heart.  And no matter how brief our season here, I am certain that is not what God had in mind.

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters.  Increase in number there; do not decrease.  Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.  Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”  ( Jeremiah 29:4-8 )

Investment of my time, my energy, my heart.  That’s what God asked of me in this season and what He asks of me in the next.  He doesn’t promise any of it is forever.  He doesn’t promise ease or comfort.  He promises growth.

It’s a risky thing to “settle down” in the new thing God has for you.  It means you have to be sure of Him when you’re not yet sure of it.  And when He calls you on again, your soul must remember that stops on this pilgrimage are never without cause.

I sit here tonight with the heart-tearing only just begun again, but I am grateful. 

For I have loved and been loved.

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