Monday, January 17, 2011

For This Time And This Place

Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to live during a different time.  Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to have been born somewhere else.  When I was in Africa and upon my return, I thought a lot about why it is that I was born here in the United States, brought up in a privileged environment and a little girl I met in Ndola, Zambia was born there with so little.  Or, even 25 years later, I think about a girl I knew in grade school named Sonja.  Sonja's father abused her in ways that are unspeakable and she wore this abuse all over her body.  I saw whip marks on her neck and ears and face.  But she had a broad, sweet smile that I can still see if I close my eyes.  Why was Sonja born in her place at her time?  And why was I born in my place in that same time?

Psalm 139 says:  "All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be."  This phrase is easy to pass by, to ignore, to not let sink in.  It is one line in a long Psalm that includes all kinds of amazing statements.  But this one is stunning and moves me to assessment and action.  Days were ordained for me (and you).  Days were "conferred by holy order" to me.  In advance.  Before.  Even before my days began, they were conferred, ordained, decreed.  And, not only the number of days I have, but also the particular days at this particular time in history.  These are the days for which I was made.  I was not made for any other time, any other place, or any other actual days.  I am most able to serve and glorify God right where He has placed me.

Martin Luther King, Jr. explained it this way:  

"[I]f I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of general and panoramic view of the whole human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, "Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?" -- I would take my mental flight by Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land.  And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn't stop there.  I would move on by Greece, and take my mind to Mount Olympus.  And I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality.

"But I wouldn't stop there.  I would go on, even to the great heyday of the Roman Empire.  And I would see developments around there, through various emperors and leaders.  But I wouldn't stop there.  I would even come up to the day of the Renaissance did for the cultural and esthetic life of man.  But I wouldn't stop there.  I would even go by the way that the man for whom I"m named had his habitat.  And I would watch Martin Luther as he tacked his ninety-five theses on the door at the church in Wittenberg.

"But I wouldn't stop there.  I would come on up even to 1863, and watch a vacillating president by the name of Abraham Lincoln finally come to the conclusion that he had to sign the Emancipation Proclamation.  But I wouldn't stop there.  I would even come up to the early thirties, and see a man grappling with the problems of the bankruptcy of his nation.  And come with an eloquent cry that we have nothing to fear but fear itself.

"But I wouldn't stop there.  Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, 'If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.'  Now that's a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up.  The nation is sick.  Trouble is in the land.  Confusion is all around.  That's a strange statement.  But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars . . .'"

--from I See The Promised Land, MLK Jr.

I don't know why God made me for these particular days in this particular time and place.  I know only that He did.  And make no mistake: He made you for exactly where and when you are.  So when it is dark in my time and my place, I will be the light as a star is in the dark night.  And when it is light, I will not be afraid of the darkness.  I will, as Jesus commanded, go into the darkness and shine the light.  (Matt. 5:16)  I was made to illuminate the exact darkness that I find around me.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


I am nearing the end of my eighth day with a migraine headache.  Last week marked its arrival.  Since then, I have taken all the medication that there is to take.  I have tried every home remedy -- hot baths, ice packs, dark rooms, quiet spaces.  The pain is not in one place.  One moment a piercing comes on the right side above my ear.  The next moment, above my eyes.  The next moment, on the left on top of my head.  Each morning I wake up and before I open my eyes, I know the pain is still there.  There is no sign as to when it will let up.  I have kept myself busy serving, speaking, working, reading, writing.  The pain remains.  I am exhausted and it won't go away.  I made dinner.  The pain is still there.  I answered emails.  The pain is still there.  I write this sentence.  The pain persists.  I lay down.  Still there.  I sit up.  Still there.  I stand up, walk around.  Still there.  Still there.

All of this has gotten me thinking about pain and suffering.  I know this headache, and the ones I've had before, and the ones I am yet to have, do not compare to pain others suffer.  And yet, it is impossible to ignore.  So, I've been trying to sort out how to respond to this pain.  In Philip Yancey's book "Where Is God When It Hurts?" he says that suffering involves two primary issues: cause and response.  On the first issue, we ask: why am I suffering, and who did it?  On the second issue, we ask: how can I respond?  I don't feel particularly concerned with the first issue.  I don't know the answers.  

The second issue, though, is very important to me.  How can I respond?  Or, how have I responded so far?  To get at the answers to these questions, I have to really dig down to identify what exactly I’m feeling about the pain.  Alone, I think.  Very alone in the pain.  I surrounded myself with people today and yesterday, but felt like I had an ongoing, unseen battle waging in my head.  But nobody knew.  I talked to a few friends about the pain, but I simultaneously saw myself as weak and inauthentic because I was hurting more than I was letting on.  Also, helpless, out of control, no ability to impact the outcome.  These feelings, in combination, are very tough for me.  I don’t like either of them when I experience them separately.  Together, with the pain on top, makes them almost unbearable.

Where is God in this?  I have been struggling with this question for days.  I have been trying to figure out what God might want me to know about myself or about him from this experience.  Compassion?  Understanding?  Patience?  Strength?  Brother Lawrence, in Practice of the Presence of God, says that “[w]e ought . . . to submit ourselves to [troubles, temptations, oppositions, and contradictions] and bear them as long as God pleases, as things highly advantageous to us.”  What is the advantage of this headache?  Paul said: “just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.  If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer.”   (2 Corin. 1:5-6)  A headache so that I might feel Christ’s comfort?  That’s a possibility. 
I wish I could report that an understanding of Christ’s comfort in suffering is what I have come to have during this headache.  I wish I could report that I have learned peace in suffering.  Neither is so.  Nor have I become more patient.  Or strong.  No, instead, what I have been surprised and saddened to realize is that I have doubted God.  Not his existence.  His authority.  For days I did not pray that he would heal my headache.  When the pain let up, even a little, I did not thank him.  This morning, when I woke up and the pain was absent for nearly an hour, I did not believe that it was he who healed me.  I did not believe that he responded to prayers from others.  These were not conscious thoughts.  I did not think: God, you are not the reason I’m feeling better.  I did not think: I am not better because of answered prayer.  But I know this unbelief was in me. 

It is not that I have disbelieved that God exists.  It is that I have, in my heart and mind, made him smaller than he is, less capable, less powerful, less.  I have acted as if he is not who he says he is:  “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me.  I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come.  I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.  From the east I summon a bird of prey; from a far-off land, a man to fulfill my purpose.  What I have said, that I will bring about; what I have planned, that will I do.”  (Isaiah 46:9-11)  I have doubted Jesus’ words: “Ask and it will be given to you.” (Matt. 7:7-8)  I have doubted that “[e]verything is possible for him who believes.”  (Mark 9:23)

Let me be clear about something.  I do not mean to say that if only I had believed more, my headache would have gone away.  That is not at all the point.  The point is that I didn’t believe God had even the ability to make the pain go away if it was his will that it would.  This is a much more serious condition than a headache, even one that lasts eight days, or nine, or weeks, or months or years.   

This doubt or unbelief has left me raw because I generally score myself pretty strong in the belief category.  I have been deceiving myself.  When things get hard, or painful, or scary, I go back to my old ways of relying on myself.  I turn inward and wait out the pain in a quiet solitude away from God.  I don’t invite him into the pain and pray that he would deliver me from or through it.  I don’t get angry with him for allowing me to suffer.  Instead, I turn away until I am pain free, and the passage of time has changed my circumstances.  In the meantime, though, I am so alone in the pain, something that God does not want for me.  Or you.

So many of us do this; it is part of our make-up.  Couldn’t you come up with a list of things that you have not prayed for because they seem too big?  Peace in the Middle East.  Doesn’t that seem just too big of a request?  The end of homelessness.  The end of domestic abuse.  The end of loneliness.  The end of the years-long anger built up in a relationship.  We have all thought, perhaps not consciously, but certainly implicitly by not asking, that there are things beyond the reach of God, requests that are just too big.  To believe this, though, is to disbelieve who God says he is and it is to disbelieve what he says he can do.

I want God to transform me so that in my darkest times and for the biggest issues, when what is at stake is more than a headache, I turn to him as “my rock, my fortress, my deliverer,” the one in whom I take refuge and have complete confidence of his authority over all things.  (Psalm 18:2)  For now, I scream out to God, as the father described in Mark did: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”  (Mark 9:24)  Over the last day or so, I have begun to think less of the pain in my head and more of the state of my heart toward God.  I have asked for forgiveness for not believing him and for reducing him.  And, I have begun to pray two simple prayers over and over, like child might, asking that God help me overcome my unbelief and trust what he says about who he is and what he can do, and that he would make the headache go away.  

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Surrender Is Stronger

Today while I was driving home, the song Undone, by FFH came on the radio.  The chorus includes this line: "Come undone, surrender is stronger."  This line has been ringing in my mind ever since.  Surrender is stronger.  Surrender is stronger.  Surrender means to yield to the possession or power of another.  It means to submit, to relinquish, to give up, to abandon.  What could surrender be stronger than?  Holding?  Fighting?  Conquering?  No, this can't be.  Holding is strong.  Fighting is stronger.  Conquering is stronger still.       

God's Word is full of direction to us to submit to Him and to submit to others: "in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight" (Proverbs 3:6); "Submit yourselves, then, to God" (James 4:7); "Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it.  How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live!" (Hebrews 12:9); "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Ephesians 5:21).  And, Jesus' words: "He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:34)  What do these words mean?  What does it mean to submit or surrender all of my ways to God?  How do I submit to God?  

In considering these questions, a chapter in a book that I read in 1999 came to mind.  1999.  I am amazed and perplexed as to how this happened.  Ok, not really, only God.  But come on, I read anywhere between twenty and thirty-five fiction books a year.  I read this book twelve years ago -- 240 books ago.  Maybe more. 

Anyway, the book is White Noise, by Don DeLillo.  Makes my top five of all time list for sure.  Chapter 16.  Just to give you an idea, this book has 40 chapters.  So, chapter 16 is not at a memorable spot.  It starts this way:  

"This was the day Wilder started crying at two in the afternoon.  At six he was still crying, sitting on the kitchen floor and looking through the oven window, and we ate dinner quickly, moving around him or stepping over him to reach the stove and refrigerator."  Wilder is a young boy in the book and the entire chapter is about just what the topic sentence says -- the day Wilder cried (for more than seven hours in a row).  The narrator describes how he and his wife exchanged "drained and supplicating" looks.  The mother spoke to Wilder "soothingly", "hefted and caressed him, checked his teeth, [gave] him a bath, examined him, tickled him, fed him, tried to get him to crawl into his vinyl play tunnel."  The narrator describes the crying as a "rhythmic", "measured statement of short urgent pulses."  He says: "At times it seemed he would break off into a whimper, an animal complaint, irregular and exhausted, but the rhythm held, the heightened beat, the washed pink sorrow in his face."  

Any parent knows how painful and frustrating this experience has to be.  You cannot figure out what is wrong.  You have tried everything and nothing works.  The narrator and his wife take their son to the doctor.  He has no solution.  Nothing physically is wrong.  And after the doctor's visit, the crying "changed in pitch and quality.  The rhythmic urgency had given way to a sustained, inarticulate and mournful sound.  He was keening now.  These were expressions of Mideastern lament, of anguish so accessible that it rushes to overwhelm whatever immediately caused it.  There was something permanent and soul-struck in this crying.  It was a sound of inbred desolation."  The parents are at the end of their patience, on the brink of meltdown.  They have no idea what is wrong and they don't know what to do to make it stop.  Yet, making it stop is all they can think about.  

Then something remarkable happens.  The father sits with Wilder on his lap in the car.  "I held him upright with a hand under each arm.  As the crying continued, a curious shift developed in my thinking.  I found that I did not necessarily wish him to stop.  It might not be so terrible, I thought, to have to sit and listen to this a while longer.  We looked at each other . . . the inconsolable crying went on.  I let it wash over me, like rain in sheets.  I entered it, in a sense.  I let it fall and tumble across my face and chest.  I began to think he had disappeared inside the wailing noise and if I could join him in his lost and suspended place we might together perform some reckless wonder of intelligibility.  I let it break across my body . . . I entered it, fell into it, letting it enfold and cover me."  Then, the crying stopped "suddenly, without a change in tone and intensity."  

The crying was over and afterwards, "[i]t was as though he'd just returned from a period of wandering in some remote and holy place, in sand barrens or snowy ranges -- a place where things are said, sights are seen, distances reached which we in our ordinary toil can only regard with the mingled reverence and wonder we hold in reserve for feats of the most sublime and difficult dimensions."  

This is one of the most beautiful chapters in all of literature.  And in re-reading it, it strikes me just as it did the first time around, in a deep part of my soul.  The reason it does and the reason I believe God brought it to my mind today is that it is the most concrete description of surrender that I know.  When the father finally submitted to the crying, stopped trying to fix the situation or control it, and instead entered into it, let it crash over him, he was free.  And what he saw in the moments of surrender was holy, wondrous, and sublime, things he could not have experienced but for the letting go, but for the surrender.  While he tried to control, hold, conquer and fight, he felt nothing but fear, anxiety, impatience, aggravation and unease.          

If I am feeling fear, anxiety, impatience, aggravation, or unease about something, I have not submitted it.  I have not surrendered it.  I am still holding on tight and I cannot be free.  If I let go, there I will find the peace of God, which transcends all understanding.  (Phil. 4:7)

Surrender is stronger.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

In Tens (Number Four)

Every now and then, maybe more often than not, God gives you a little gift that just knocks you over.  This summer, I became enthralled with sunsets.  I believed God was giving them to me as a special gift of His presence and His goodness; His light and His magnificence.  It was as if He was saying: "Look what I can do!"  And I would say, "Wow," shake my head and ask, "Who am I that you would show me Your glory in this way?"  I began to wonder what my life would be like if I never missed another sunset for as long as I live.  And then I thought about clouds and Chicago and how I could go months without seeing a sunset unless I flew somewhere.  That would get expensive.  So, I committed that I will always take note of any sunset that God presents for me to see.  And I will always thank Him for the wonderful gift.

Here are ten from 2010 that made me say: "Wow, God.  Thank you for that."

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

In Tens (Number Three)

Ten Questions I Asked In 2010 And Will Undoubtedly Ask Again (Or Already Have) In 2011
1)             How can I serve more?
2)             What do I need to let go of and give to God?
3)             Why has God blessed me with this?
4)             Why this pain?
5)             Who can I pray for today?
6)             Does this honor God?
7)             Who do I need to forgive?
8)             Who do I need to ask for forgiveness?
9)             What is God redeeming in me through this?
10)            Your grace is sufficient, even for this, Lord?

Monday, January 3, 2011

In Tens (Number Two)

Here's the second of my lists of ten.  

I started this one yesterday and what a way to start each day!

Ten Words I Will Start Each Day of 2011 Saying Out Loud.
1)             Praise
2)             You
3)             Lord.
4)             Show
5)             Me
6)             How
7)             To
8)             Serve
9)             You
10)     Today.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

In Tens

With a new year comes all variations of the top-ten list.  How did the top-ten list come about, I wonder?  Google doesn't seem to know.  TIME Magazine issued a "The Top 10 Everything of 2010."  Top ten campaign ads, crime stories, oddball news stories, political gaffes, tweets, quotes, food trends, fleeting celebrities, toys, numbers (yeah, numbers, odd), etc.  Take a look -- this may make number one on your top-ten time wasters list: Time Top-Ten.

All the top-ten talk got me thinking of things in tens.  Not really top-ten because I don't like the idea of ranking things.  But, I came up with some lists of ten.  They are not my favorite celebrities or dresses worn to the Oscars.

Here's one.  Try reading through these and letting them speak to you today.  Or, read one each day.  I think I might just read through them everyday.

Ten Scriptures I Really Relied Upon In 2010, And May Need Again In 2011
1)             “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and will all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”  Matthew 22:37-40
2)             “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” Matthew 25:40
3)             "To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong." 2 Corin. 12:7-10
4)             “Be still and know that I am God.”  Psalm 46:10
5)             “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”  1 John 4:10-12
6)             “The law was added so that the trespass might increase.  But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  Romans 5:20-21
7)             “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and grace to help us in our time of need.”  Hebrews 4:16
8)             “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”  1 Corinthians 10:31
9)             “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.  And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  Isaiah 9:6
10)          “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king.  But even if he does not we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”  Daniel 3:17-18