May 13, 2018

Where is Your Family?

“Where is your family?”

My blond-headed nephew’s three-year-old voice cut sharp and innocent. It was the same question a harried wedding photographer had shouted out to me three days before on the lawn of the pristine church where she was herding my parents, siblings, and the eleven grandchildren into family bunches around my youngest sister, the glowing bride. I think I just shook my head, but maybe I mumbled, “I don’t have one.” And then I took a few deep water bottle swigs—an excuse to close my eyes just long enough for the stinging tears to dissipate before they fell and brought any dark tinge onto my dear sister’s day. My sister who is sixteen years younger than me.

But my nephew, in his car seat, waiting with me for his mom to come back out of the store, is too little to be hurt by seeing my tears. And so he saw them. 

In truth, I don’t really have power over tears. I was given grace on the lawn, that’s why they dissipated. The photographer backpedaled when she realized she’d probably called out the most painful question she could have (not just to me, but in front of the thirty onlookers watching the picture process). She rushed to say something about the entire group being my family and herded me to stand next to the bride, right in the middle of the shot.

It was one of those terribly beautiful days where you get to lay down your heart at the feet of Jesus, whisper that you trust Him, and venture out to rejoice that another person is receiving the thing you’ve always asked for. Not too long afterward, I turned forty.

That same sister is now pregnant with their second child, and I am skipping church on Mother’s Day. Not because I’m ashamed or there’s anything wrong with tears; I’m just unwilling this year to be exposed again by them in front of the congregation. The church is too large to know everyone, and why should the semi-strangers in my row see my most intimate wound? In front of God, however, I’m always ready to split my heart open—because He is safe, and kind, and can do something about it—so I watch the service online and He speaks.

The preacher’s sweet honoring of women, speaking of Ruth and Mary and Rachel, turns profoundly insightful when he gets to Hannah. Hannah somehow knew she was not simply longing for the fulfillment of her personal womanly desire for children—she was interceding for a birth that would pivot the entire nation of God and usher in of the age of kings. Her son, the last judge of Israel, was to anoint the great King David, initiating the messianic line that will culminate in the perfect Man ruling a perfect world throughout the perfect years of eternity. Perhaps she didn’t know these details, but her heart felt them—this desire, this need of a son, was not just for her own sake. It was for the whole world’s. It was that important.

Am I overstepping my place (after all, I am simply one among tens of thousands) to say that my longing feels like this? Are you? To us it seems less like a whine to get the dessert we want tonight, and more like an epic battle that determines destinies. These woman-arms are wrestling, using power beyond their natural ability, to bring the glory of God onto visible earth. I feel like Jacob, wrestling God over what God had already promised.

My father liked to hide a penny in his fist and let my sister and I try to pry his fingers open to get it. In the end we never had the strength, but he always gave the penny. Those struggles were delightful but didn’t ruffle my heart—even at the age of four I knew a penny would buy me nothing. I simply loved wrestling his fingers. But some wrestles aren’t for nothing, nor for the simple joy of touch. They are for something very important. Something beyond ourselves.

It strikes me that the intensity of Hannah’s pain was commensurate with the expansive destiny of the son she prayed for. Are the most difficult, hard-fought, pain-endured areas of our lives that way because they will be the most fruitful, eternal, and life-expanding gifts to not only ourselves but the whole kingdom of God? We aren’t wrestling for a penny with no buying power. Our hearts are troubled, wincing, and calling on every reserve of strength to win this—because we are wrestling for the glory of the glorious God to outshine all the nay-saying, doubting, fear-mongering, destiny-surrendering words the world has surrounded our lives with.

My husband may not be the next president nor my sons usher in the return of the King, but that marriage and those births will be epic releases of the glory of God and explosive proclamations of His faithful nature. You and I may not be Hannah, yet we are. Not only because every baby is worth the whole world, but because the real God’s real glory is worth spending a life on.

Don’t let go of His promises, whatever they may be, and don’t lay down your birthright out of hopelessness. When you must weep, weep with the power of a queen appealing to her king, of a Hannah interceding for her messiah’s birthline. In the end, His promises and your birthright are more about Him than you. The birth of your ‘Samuel’ will lift Jesus’ name high, for every promise kept by God is a display of His true nature. It is that important.

Jan 27, 2016

Ruth's Secret Past

I was recently told that I am not a Ruth. Words don’t normally bother me, especially when they haven’t come out of animosity, but these remained in my mind because they labeled my core. The implication was that someone whose heart is bound to the Jewish people will have shown it by a physical change of location and language. The idea obviously mixes up a state of heart with a state of geography. Yet it has made me contemplate again, as I sit by my south-facing, sunny windows in Kansas City and not Jerusalem, Ruth’s long story . . . Who was she, and are we (who God has not yet sent over to the Middle East) anything like her?

The life of the woman we know as Ruth did not start on the day that she insisted on following Naomi to the promised land. Her marriage to Boaz the Jew was not her first marriage to a Jew. Her move to Bethlehem was not her first embrace of Israel’s God or Israel’s culture. Ruth’s famous, heart-wrenching cry, “Entreat me not to leave you!” was the result of a heart-knitting that had happened long before. For a decade past she had been joined to Israel in the most intimate of ways, although she was living in Moab.

For a decade she had belonged to the family—married.

The Bible’s description of her husband Mahlon is that he married Ruth and lived in Moab for ten years. In every translation the statements come in that order (the time-frame directly follows the marriage; it doesn’t precede it). The implication is very different than our old Sunday-school impression that Ruth hadn’t been married to him long, an impression we hold because she was beautiful, called ‘young’, and she had no children. (In reality, Ruth bore a layer of shame beyond being a Moabitess, a stranger, impoverished, and cursed by God with widowhood—she was also barren. She had been married for perhaps as long as a decade, and had not produced a child.)

We modern Christians think most of Ruth’s beautiful moment of declaration. We see the dust of the road and how she clung to Naomi instead of running back to her own mother. . .  But that moment wasn’t a turning point in her heart. 

It wasn’t her moment of decision; it is our moment of recognition. 

It’s the moment at which it becomes clear who was a sheep and who was a goat. The moment at which the outer layer of looks is stripped away, and the real love in the core of someone is displayed—are you Orpah, turning back to your old gods, or are you Ruth, truly and eternally married to the God of Israel?

Ruth was Ruth (and all that name encompasses) for the decade before she ever stepped foot into the Land itself – the decade in which she was a Jew’s wife and daughter-in-law, in which she was worshipping Yahweh, in which she truly loved her new family, and in which she had bound herself in heart and body to the Jewish people. That day on the road she simply showed the rest of us who she was inside.

The only reason Ruth ever entered Israel is because she had long before bound herself in marriage and love to the God of Israel and her new family. The entrance itself was not the binding. Out of the many believers who have loved the Jewish people with all their hearts, in all the ages and places of the world, Ruth was simply one of the few who was given the privilege of physically displaying it.

Can we perceive only the display -- the flashy, apparent moment she used the words we repeat in marriage ceremonies and then stepped across the Jordan? Or can we perceive the truth of a long love, a secret decade of devotion, a heart history that led her to easily take the dusty steps toward a place in history? In that road-side conversation you can tell Ruth had already loved Naomi for a very long time. I can tell you that those steps toward Bethlehem felt to her like simply the logical next ones -- they weren't spectacular and they weren't out of character. There was little difference between them and the steps she had been taking every day of the previous 10 years. (We think martyrs are strengthened in a moment, but they're actually the product of faithfulness. We think cultures are adopted in a cross-world move, but it's actually a movement of heart that began long before anyone else could see it.)

The real miracle of Ruth’s story is Boaz. This Jewish man saw – saw past the prejudices of his culture, saw past her Gentile genes. Saw – saw past the barrenness of her womb, saw past her stigma of being both childless and widowed. Saw – saw past the difficulties he and his children (if she bore any) would face in the life-long scandal of having an accent-laden outsider as a wife and mother.

And when he looked past those things, what did he see?

He saw into her heart, and discovered a woman who in spite of having lived her entire life in a different country was already knit to Israel, who had long ago married herself into the family and into the people, who already bore the image of the God of love and was demonstrating it by a faithfulness he may not have even seen in the natural daughters of Israel.

He saw that her state of heart had preexisted—and had made possible—her steadfastness during those moments on the road with Naomi.

She, of course, did not think so much of herself. She knew she was a foreigner, not even like one of his lowest servant-girls. She knew she had loved Yahweh from the moment she met Him and that she would give up her old surroundings to remain a part of His people, but she had no idea that she had become so virtuously beautiful because of it. In the true manner of virtuous women, Ruth wasn’t seeing herself; she was seeing Boaz—his character, his kindness, his sight—perhaps as clearly as he saw her.

So each regarded the other with incredulous surprise. While she was incredulous that he actually saw and valued her, an outsider, Boaz’s heart was so truly clear-sighted, he was incredulous that she would even consider him. Rightly incredulous. It’s a thing of beauty, this mutual incredulity. 

Without the other, neither Ruth nor Boaz would have their place in history or King David’s family line. Only their outrageous marriage brought either of them into the pages of the Bible. And that union only happened because each was able to see past the outside, into the heart of the other. Neither of their hearts were created by that moment of deciding to follow Naomi or that moment of deciding to ensure the young woman had enough barley to glean. No, their hearts were set a decade or more before, when they had individually bound themselves to God.

I’ve noticed multiple times in the last few years that certain ones of my friends and acquaintances have used the same particular word with me—when they have visited Israel, they say they have felt like it was their real “home.” They are right. The entire Christian population of the earth can’t all go live there at the moment, there isn’t room nor instructions from God to do so. 

But the fact that our bodies still live in Moab does not mean our hearts are not Ruth’s and our home is not Israel and we have not fully, irretrievably bound ourselves to the God of Israel and the people He loves.

No matter where you happen to be living at the moment or what languages you speak, do not be discouraged; the things He has done in your heart are real, as real as Ruth's unmentioned decade of love, and they will bear the same fruit as hers did. 

“Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam 16:7).

Nov 18, 2015

Can Paris Be Comforted?

A friend recently commented that they could only go to Yad Vashem, the intense Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, every five years. My answer was, “Every ten!”  It wasn’t because I want time to dim the pain or because I want to avoid pain altogether, but because in my heart pain actually doesn’t dissipate — just as the reality of what happened will never disappear. It will be as fresh to me five years later as on the day I was trapped in crowds of teenagers on that zigzagging path through memories not mine, which are etched in my soul as if they are.

 Paris is reeling today; Israel feels tragedy often; Russia and Lebanon and Nigeria are suffering. In our world and in our history lessons and in our own private experiences, searing pain is rampant. 

Is it possible to ever truly recover? Is it even right? 

Some fear forgetting, but constant (or even periodic) reminders of a sorrow aren’t often necessary — because that pain inside us is from a reality that exists outside of us. The truth is, nothing can undo something that has already been done (not even time). Once the sword pierces a heart, the fact that a wound occurred can never be denied, even if it heals — that’s what a scar is. Only Superman, in the ultimate scene of furious love, was able to force the entire globe to spin backward until time reversed and his dead love, Lois Lane, was alive again. That’s not reality. And even Jesus has not promised to spin the Earth backward—back to Eden. Instead He looks forward, and talks of comfort. 

In one of the most lyrical and heartrending passages of Hebrew scripture, Rachel, weeping for her dead children, refuses to be comforted. 

A voice was heard in Ramah,
Lamentation and bitter weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children,
Refusing to be comforted for her children,
Because they are no more.  (Jer. 31) 

I understand her. Friends have at times prayed that I would be comforted, and I have found myself resisting — fighting their words and their wish. People seem to long for comfort to end pain; but time cannot go backward, things once done cannot be undone, and accepting dullness in place of the stinging ache is to become party to a lie — that it didn’t really matter. It did. The children are dead. 

Do you feel that “comfort” would be disingenuous — pretending that all is well, that a death never occurred? 

What is dead is not alive, and to feel otherwise about it would devalue that life and delegitimize the pain of its absence. Some who’ve lost a loved one feel startled and guilty when they find themselves enjoying the little pleasures of life again. We resonate with the exiled Israelites who stirred up their remembrance for centuries, terrified of slipping into complacence: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill!”   

A few years ago a man described to me how through his own drug addiction he had lost the girl he loved. He talked of a night, before he found Jesus, that God supernaturally came to him. “I can’t explain it. The only thing I can say is that God somehow comforted me.” What had happened? What did God do? This man didn’t have words for it. I’ve often remembered his story and wondered. My heart aches when I think of him (who I barely know), middle-aged and still alone. If I am still saddened, how was he comforted? One thing is sure, it wasn’t something that time did. God did it in one night. 

Pain is tricky. Time does seem to dull it, even take it away. Then one small trigger brings it back as sharp and cutting as it was the day of. That’s when we realize what we thought was comfort didn’t change the past. That’s when we feel betrayed by our own heart, which disconnected and deadened but told us it “healed.” That’s why I have resisted the word comfort, feeling guilty all the while because I know God well enough to know that He likes the word — He even calls Himself by it. 

Why is God’s Spirit called Comforter, and what does He mean when He talks of comforting us? Isn’t comfort a disingenuous dulling, an invalidation of very valid pain, a dishonoring of the truth of the event (the Holocaust, the broken heart, the missing child)? Why would He, a good God, comfort us over something as terrible as millions of innocents unjustly and viciously killed, or 129 murdered in the City of Love? Why would a good God comfort a heart that was raped or pierced or betrayed? I want Him to fix it, not assuage me. 

God’s answer to Rachel is profoundly unexpected. When she refuses to be comforted, because the children are actually dead (“they are no more,” Jer. 31:15), He tells her two things. Two very illogical things. And because of these two things He instructs her to stop weeping and dry her tears (don’t try saying that to a grieving mother anytime soon). 
  •  your children are not dead (“they shall come back”)
  •  your work will be rewarded.
 Rachel had seen her descendents killed on the streets of Jerusalem, her people exiled in chains to Babylon to be a nation no more, and the baby Messiah’s playmates murdered in every Bethlehem home. They were definitely dead. Yet God turns her accurate physical perception on its head. He regards the situation according to His own true identity, the “God who raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:9), and speaks of them as if they were not dead. 

Did He not notice the bodies? He did, but in His mind this is already a given: He has, and will, raise them from the dead.  Therefore, they are as good as alive. So much so that Rachel ought to stop weeping. 

I know this about God. I’ve seen Him raise the dead before. It is His second unreasonable reason for her to dry her tears that strikes me to my core: 

Your work will be rewarded. 

Validated.  My work.  Validated are all the tears (for perhaps they are tears of intercession, and are doing good and real work, even while I think I am simply mourning). Validated is all the effort I’ve put into believing in the face of disappointment, into hoping against hope, into working for the freedom and redemption of those who seem lost. Validated is the pain (for suddenly, pain and suffering are gathered under the umbrella of Jesus’ own suffering, a work of great importance which I’m participating in). Validated is the prayer (how much time we have poured into lifting both family and strangers before God for help). Validated is faith (which is sometimes all I have to offer, when I am helpless and strengthless and voiceless).

The hard work of tears, of believing, of pain, of faith . . . these are not all lost in the abyss of grief. These have been safely deposited into the hands of the God who raises the dead, and He will reward them. 

So it seems this is comfort            
God will reverse it (the dead will return)            
God will give me gifts (for laboring through it) 

Is this truly the nature of comfort?  A short look at the word, as used in the Hebrew and Greek of the Bible, surprises. Job sums up his role during his prime of prosperity as a “king in the army, one who comforts mourners.” The entire passage (Job 29) describes the actions that receive that summation. He was: 
  . . . eyes to the blind
  . . . feet to the lame
  . . . a father to the poor 

  He . . . caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy      
        . . . broke the fangs of the wicked 

This is not an American description of comfort, which is more akin to the feeling we get when a fluffy goose-down blanket is lulling us to sleep. (Not that there is anything wrong with drifting to happy oblivion within a warm cuddle, but it doesn’t bring back the dead child or cause victory over Islamic terrorists.)

Lest you think I stretch the definition of to comfort as I connect it to kingly, restorative, enriching action, let’s look at the word: 
  • the dispelling of grief by the impartation of strength (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia)
  • to make strong; to invigorate; to fortify; to corroborate; to assist or help; to aid; to impart strength and hope to; to encourage; to relieve; to console; to cheer (Webster’s)
  • to call alongside of
 It is that last one which, in Greek, is the premier title of our most beloved and relied upon companion—the Holy Spirit of God.

Comforter.  Parakletos.  “One called alongside. Advocate. Paraclete.”  (John 14:16)  Comforter is actually the secondary, not primary, meaning. Helper encompasses it better. 

And this, dear hurting hearts, is where the power of God meets the tender needs of the human soul. When Jesus introduces us to the Holy Spirit, He calls him Parakletos, which means advocate, helper, strengthener, called to one’s side. I am deeply comforted by having a faithful companion who will never leave — but also immensely comforted by the truth that He has all power and He promises to use it to advocate on my behalf (like a lawyer), to defend me, to strengthen me, to restore to me everything that was lost, and to reward me for my work.

And so I discover that comfort, the very thing I have resisted and am uncertain how to give to others, means something entirely different than I thought. It means God will fix what shouldn’t have happened, reward me for my struggle, defend me against accusations, strengthen me, AND make me free from pain and anxiety. 

How? I can sort of see how a feeling from freedom from pain might come from the promise of reward, of a dead-raising-resolution, and of having the powerful God of all as my strengthener and constant advocate. But God doesn’t leave it up to those kingly actions to, simply as a matter of course, bind up my wounded feelings — no more than He leaves it up to time. 

He is much more intimate than that.  

Most beautifully, the “how” of a comforter is sweetly articulated in the subtext of the Hebrew word for comfort, nacham.
Nacham: weeping with one who weeps, sighing deeply with one who sighs.

Now I see it. Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the amazing Father — not only seeing our pain and promising to fix the source (as men like to do), but coming beside me to weep as deeply over it as I am weeping.

He feels with us. 

My tender roommate was the first person this morning on the scene of a dramatic rollover. The one occupant, a teenage girl, was pulled out miraculously unscathed (a few scratches) but traumatized, and my roommate simply held this stranger — held and held and held her while the girl cried and cried. Later, my own roommate cried and cried over the girl’s pain. I told her that she had been Jesus’ emissary, doing what He does. 

Sometimes I accidentally teach myself things as I write. As I’ve been pondering comfort, a memory has pricked me of a scene I wrote some time ago for an unfinished novel. The protagonist is appealing to Jesus to comfort the heart of a man (T---) whose brother has died without salvation . . . 

     “What is it you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked. He always knew. 

     “Lord, when M---- was lost, the only thing that comforted me was that your grief was deeper than mine.”

     He nodded, searching my eyes. “It is T---- you are concerned for.”

     “To be alone in grief, to be the one with the deepest grief—it is unbearable. Your own grief is the only real comfort.      Man of sorrows,” I whispered.

It is only when Jesus himself weeps our weepings (nacham), that those griefs are fully, validatingly, comprehensively experienced. I am not capable of feeling the depth, extent, and ramifications of even one of the deaths the families in Paris are suffering this week or the families in Israel have suffered these months. But each life is intrinsically worthy, each sorrow or loss or broken heart intrinsically valid. As our hearts and bodies scream that the loss of any person, or any innocence, is devastating and must be honored by being entirely felt, I discover that only God Himself has a heart capable of fully feeling a loss like that. Only God can mourn a life as it should be mourned. (My human frame cannot withstand the depth of that pain; my human mind cannot comprehend the extensive ramifications of a life now missing, or a heart broken, or a child abused.) Only God can feel the full pain of 6 million Holocaust victims, or 129 murdered Parisians, or one rape.

Only God has the capacity to know and grieve fully. 

Just as He is currently our comforter and intercessor, kneeling beside us and breathing intensely with deep sighing over the things we sigh over, experiencing the depth of grief that would physically ruin us to experience . . . there was one particular day that Jesus did the unimaginable, the epic, the never-to-be forgotten. 

He felt it while a human man. He did it when it would hurt Him most — when it would kill Him: 

Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. 

(Isaiah 53:4)

Paris, grieve. Israel, grieve. Russia, grieve. Nigeria and Lebanon, grieve. Gentle hearts everywhere, grieve. Do not be ashamed that you cannot feel it fully or grieve it adequately. And do not be afraid to eventually come to a state of freedom from pain. Because, if you are willing to come to the Man and the Comforter, HE will grieve it fully for you. His comfort can be accepted, because it is part and parcel with His restoration, His rewards, His justice, and His promise to raise the dead. 

Our tragedies are fully grieved by a God strong enough to do it. Our hearts will be fully accompanied through them by a God who is crying as hard as we are. This is why we will be able to fully let them go, and receive our dead back alive again and receive our reward. All of this together is comfort.

[Jesus] breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:22)

Receive the Comforter