Just last week, one of my high school classmates died unexpectedly. I’m getting to “that age” when more and more of my contemporaries are experiencing health issues– diabetes, heart problems, cancer, arthritis, even early-onset dementia– but this friend seemed to be in good health. She had just been celebrating the birth of a grandson, and other milestones. Death sometimes comes when (and to whom) we least expect it. It is shocking, saddening, and frightening all at once.
Death has an urgency that pushes other concerns away. Death is final; permanent. Death is powerful– we can’t cheat it, defeat it, or comprehend it. Death frightens us, angers us, and mystifies us. We begin to look at our own life and ask questions–Who am I?WHY am I? What makes me “me”– individual and uniquely different from everyone else? Is there a purpose to my being– to my being “me”, “here” and “now”? How can I find and fulfill that purpose if it exists? Do I have an eternal destiny after this life? If so, how can I know what it might be? Can I change that eternal destiny?
Some people argue that our origins are accidental; our uniqueness is merely a random generation of genetic code; our purpose non-existent or self-determined; and our destiny no more than dust. They avoid talking about death–and the meaning of life. They want to “live in the moment,” but they don’t want to ask any questions of the past or future. And they mock anyone who does. Many of them hear me or read what I write and dismiss me as intellectually lazy, gullible, or crazy. I’m all right with that, as long as they will be intellectually honest enough to admit to the questions; and open enough to acknowledge that there may be more than a quick denial as an answer. Crazy– well crazy is as crazy does, I guess…I’ll let my actions answer that one.
Death is powerful and mysterious, but I believe that God is more powerful, and omniscient– he has already crushed the power of death, and invites us to view death from a different perspective. When we take everything– including death– to the Lord in Prayer, he takes the weight of it, the fear of it, the pain of it off our shoulders and carries it to the cross. HIS death overshadows even our own, in its power to overcome. The urgency of death is not that it is the end of all things. The urgency of death is that it signals the end of our opportunity to recognize and live out the purpose of this short life.
If that isn’t an urgent reason to pray for those you love, I don’t know of a better one…
It’s also an urgent reason to pray for those around you who are grieving the recent loss of a loved one. And don’t just be someone who prays..be an answer to prayer– reach out with a card, a note or e-mail, or spend some time with them. Let them know that a) their loved one is not forgotten, and b) neither are they!
I’m very grateful for all the many blessings that God has given me– for Salvation, most of all. But God has blessed me with family, health, freedom, and so many other wonderful things. But there are several things God didn’t give me. Some of them are things I wanted (or thought I needed!) Others are things I never even imagined.
God didn’t give me a pony when I was younger. God didn’t give me blonde hair. God didn’t give me the genetics to be 5’9″ tall, athletic, and thin– I never became a ballerina or a model. God didn’t make it possible for me to study in France my junior year of college like I had wanted. God didn’t see fit to make “Mr. Right” fall in love with me in high school or college. God didn’t give me children to raise. God didn’t let my father live long enough to walk me down the aisle when I finally got married. And I never won the lottery (probably because I don’t play!– but still…)
It’s very human to look around and see what others have that we might desire– things that God did not choose to give us; even things that God has taken from us–and feel resentment, envy, and even anger. But we rarely look at those things others have that we would NOT desire. And we rarely look back and see how things we thought we wanted would not have been good for us, or how God removed things from our lives–even good things–for a better purpose. Sometimes, we cannot know or understand such things this side of heaven. But it might be a good practice once in awhile to look back and see what God DIDN’T give us– and thank Him for His wisdom and provision!
God allowed me to get chicken pox as a child– but He didn’t let me get Polio, or Diphtheria, Scarlet Fever or Whooping Cough. God didn’t give me blue eyes like my dad– but He didn’t give me Dad’s color-blindness, either. God prevented me from going on a date with one cute and popular boy who asked me out in high school. And the one in college. And the one I worked with. But God delivered me to my husband a virgin, and free of the guilt and shame of a string of failed relationships. God took my father at age 68. But He healed my father after a heart attack at age 50 (the reason I never got to study in France). We had and “extra” 18 years with Dad, and while Dad was sick most of the last years of his life, we didn’t have to see him suffer years of pain, misery, and helplessness. And about that semester in France? Some of my friends went that year– and they were plagued by injuries, nationwide strikes, and other issues. God knew what I wanted in each case; He also knew what was best for me.
Last year, I was diagnosed with Diabetes. God did not “give” me Diabetes. (That’s another mistake we often make.) God gives good gifts. (James 1:17) But we live in a fallen and imperfect world. Disease, injustice, pain, and heartache are part of this world. Someday, God will redeem the world and put an end to all of these, but for now, there is no guarantee that God will keep us in perfect health or happiness. So I’m Diabetic. I’m not grateful because I have the disease, but I am grateful for so many things related to it. I am grateful that I live in a time when treatments are both available and accessible. I am grateful that I was diagnosed, rather than suffering a coma or dying without help. I am grateful that I have access to healthful foods and the ability to exercise– two things necessary to keep the Diabetes under control. I am grateful that I lived for so many years without the disease. I am grateful for a supportive husband and family members who help keep me motivated. And I am grateful that nothing about having Diabetes changes IN ANY WAY God’s love for me, and His plans to give me eternal life in Him!
Are there things, people, or situations in your life that God DIDN’T give you? Healing that was denied, or blessings withheld? Hurtful things that He allowed to happen in your life? That He took away from your life? God doesn’t want us to pretend that all is perfect in our world. He knows the pain of NOT getting what we wanted, and the agony of losing what we did want. But He also knows the joy that we haven’t yet experienced– the joy of renewal; the joy of restoration; and the joy of completion.
God didn’t give me a pony– nor the hard work of caring for it, or the heartbreak of losing it. God didn’t let me date the popular boy– but He gave me a man of gentleness and integrity. God didn’t give me children to raise, but He gave me grown children, and grandchildren to love. God didn’t “give” me the semester in France, but He did give me opportunities to meet people from France. He gave me opportunities to use the French language I studied– in Florida, Texas, and even the Dominican Republic! God didn’t let my father walk me down the aisle at my wedding. But He allowed Dad and David to meet and even know each other– years before we were married. God didn’t give me perfect health here on Earth– but there will be no disease or death in Heaven.
Thank you, God, for all that you have given me– even Diabetes–and for all that you have allowed to shape my life. Help me see You in every detail of my life– the pleasant, the painful, the difficult, and the mysterious– and to praise You in every circumstance. Thank you for today, and for all the plans you have for it, and for me. Thank You for being You!
(This post was originally published in March of 2021. I am re-posting it.)
I was struck the other day by the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16: 19-31). I’ve heard sermons and talks and done Bible studies on this passage, and the focus is always on the rich man. In life, he did nothing to help the poor beggar who was literally on his doorstep. In death, he ends up in torment, and seeing Father Abraham with Lazarus in Heaven, he tries to strike a bargain with Abraham to ease his own tormented soul.
But I was struck by several things I had never considered:
Jesus named Lazarus, but not the Rich Man. This is a parable– a metaphorical story– so Jesus did not need to have specific names for any of the characters. He often told such stories with no names. This one contains a specific person, Lazarus, and very specific details about his earthly life. He was not just a beggar, but a beggar covered with sores and starving. Jesus even related that the “dogs came and licked his sores” (v.21). And Jesus makes it clear that the rich man recognized and knew Lazarus by name. Yet he had done nothing to help Lazarus when he had the chance. We never hear in the story whether or not Lazarus was ever cured or helped; we don’t know if he had been a wealthy or prominent man at one time, of if he had always been a diseased beggar. The point is that Jesus, and Abraham, and the rich man all KNEW Lazarus. He mattered enough to call by name. The Rich Man in this story also had a name. He probably was well-known in the town or city where the story took place. And we know that he had five brothers who were likely well-known and highly respected. But NONE of them are named in the story. Only Lazarus.
The Rich Man looks up into Heaven. He can see and recognize Lazarus and Father Abraham. But he never looks for, sees, talks to, or wonders about the Heavenly Father. He never asks for comfort from God– he doesn’t even ask a favor of the Patriarch– he only considers that someone like Lazarus should be made to help him and/or his brothers.
Abraham explains that Lazarus cannot and will not be allowed to do as the Rich Man requests– but the parable does not tell us that Lazarus can either see the Rich Man or hear his requests, nor does it say that Lazarus is unwilling to help.
Jesus tells this story in a straightforward manner, even though it is a Parable and has hidden meanings. The Rich Man wants help in his hour of torment, even though he was unwilling to help others in their need. But he isn’t without feeling or pity– he loves his brothers enough to try to warn them. Jesus could have used this parable to say much more about Social Justice, and the plight of the poor and the wealthy. He could have said much more about greed or apathy. He could have pressed the point about loving one’s neighbor. He did NOT make some of the connections we add to this story. We often assume that the Rich Man is in hell only because he did not help Lazarus during his lifetime, and that Lazarus is in Heaven solely because he was oppressed and afflicted in life. But is that really what Jesus says?
What struck me the most about this story is that I always look at it as an outsider. I don’t relate with either of these characters. Of course I don’t want to think that I am cold and selfish like the Rich Man in this story, but neither do I think I am Lazarus. So who do I think I am when I read this parable? Do I pat myself on the back for sending a check to a charity a couple of times a year, or speaking up for the poor or marginalized in my community? Do I indignantly point out all the “others” who are not doing their part to help? Do I see myself, not as a poor diseased beggar, but as someone who has been “oppressed” by nameless, faceless rich people– someone who deserves to be rescued and comforted while “they” suffer through eternity?
I don’t have any answers as to how I “should” see myself (or others) in this parable. But I think Jesus wants us to grapple with some of the realities it presents:
Our world is filled with situations like that of Lazarus and the Rich Man–situations of injustice, struggle, disease, poverty, inequality, suffering, and luxury. And while it is clear that we should do what we can to help others, and to bring justice and mercy, and to reach out and connect with our neighbors in love, it is also clear that such situations are not for us to make blanket judgments. I know many who see poverty as a judgment– those who are poor are lazy or unworthy. And I know others who see luxury and wealth as a judgment–those who are wealthy are greedy and selfish and unworthy. God will not judge us by our circumstances or the injustices done against us. He WILL judge us by our response to Him– when we look toward Heaven, do we see Him, or do we see the place we think we deserve to be?
Our ultimate situation has very little to do with our earthly circumstances. Are we sick, poor, suffering, grieving, or in pain? God is aware, and He offers eternal comfort. We can endure and hope because we know that this is not all there is to life. Are we blessed with comfort and ease right now? We should not take our circumstances for granted, but be willing to share in our abundance, knowing that our future is sure, and that God will care for our needs as we care for others. But wealth or poverty, status or shameful circumstances, do not predict our eternal destiny.
God sees us! He sees our circumstances, and He cares! He sees our heart and our motives. He knows our every thought.
We need to look with God’s eyes. The Rich Man in this story thought he was important– in life and even in the afterlife. He thought Lazarus was worthy only to serve him or stay out of his way as he enjoyed life’s luxuries. But he also thought he was more important than Heaven! Sitting in eternal torment, he was not humbled or repentant– he was still trying to see the world through his own self-importance. Lazarus may have spent his life thinking that he was NOT important– a beggar, alone, forgotten, and unwanted. But God knew his name and saw his suffering. Lazarus could have been bitter, cursing God for his circumstances, or spending his days trying to steal or take revenge on the Rich Man.
I need to look with God’s eyes, not only at who I am in relation to God and others, but at OTHERS in relation to God and to me. I may see someone like the Rich Man– selfish, pompous, self-important– and dismiss them as unlovable and unworthy of mercy or grace. But God sees someone He created; someone who is needy and lost– someone He loves enough to die for. I may see someone like Lazarus–hurting and forgotten– and think they are a lost cause or fear that they will prove to be “undeserving” of my help. But God sees someone He created; someone He aches with; someone He loves enough to die for!
I’ve written a number of times about my prayer journal. In it, I pray for individuals and individual requests, as well as praying for communities and regions each day of the year. I also use what I call “Prayer Points” for each day of the week. These are broad topics– The Church, Family and Friends, Government and Politics, Community and Services, Global Health (Healthcare, Diseases, Ecology, etc.), Business and Economy, and Cultural Issues. Often, these broad topics will lend themselves to specific needs or requests (which may overlap items in my prayer journal), but there are also times when the topics seem generic and almost overly broad. I use them anyway.
It isn’t because I have any influence over such broad categories– but because God does! And I need to be reminded of that every day. God loves to hear our specific requests– heart cries and urgent needs–even bad hair days and misplaced keys. But He also loves to hear us acknowledge that “all the world” belongs to Him; that He is sovereign over our nations, our culture, His Church, our families, etc. He has authority over world economies, including all the factors we worry about– drought and famine, production, distribution, wealth (or lack thereof). He has the power to overthrow corrupt governments and bring justice. He has the power to defeat disease, and restore forests and rivers; to meet our financial needs, and to save marriages.
Moreover, He knows best in all these situations– even when I know next to nothing! My efforts to change society or fix the planet will be puny, and based on my limited knowledge and experience. Even my outlook on my own small community is limited– I don’t know all the individual people, organizations, or companies that make up my small town. I trust that God, however, knows each teacher, garbage collector, city worker, police officer, fire fighter, mail carrier, nurse’s aid, day care provider, physical therapist, food service worker, accountant, paralegal, banker, and shopkeeper (and all the other valuable members of my community)– AND He knows the number of hairs on each of their heads! It revolutionizes the way I think and the way I pray each day.
Imagine what can happen when we pray this way collectively! Imagine the way it can change our outlook, and our actions. I can be saddened by the state of our culture or the breakdown of families. But I have a Mighty Father who has both the wisdom and the power to redeem them! I know I can trust God with everything– large and small. But it is easy to take that for granted, or to “know” it only in the abstract. Keeping prayer points where I can see them and use them daily helps me to live out the truth that I already know.
So this morning, instead of worrying about our business or the larger economy, I will lift them up into the arms of One who can really make a difference! And I will pray for smaller and more personal requests– those in the hospital or grieving a recent loss; those who are discouraged; those who are celebrating birthdays or anniversaries, promotions or new opportunities; those who are lost, and those who have misplaced their keys (again).
Just before writing this, I found a spider crawling on my shoulder. I’m not a big fan of spiders. This one wasn’t huge or furry or anything, but it startled me. I didn’t scream, but I did jump, and frantically brushed at my shoulder, and then stomped on the spider a couple of times for good measure as it tried to crawl away.
Spiders are not uncommon. They eat other annoying insects, and many are not harmful to humans. But they are “creepy.” They have all those legs and eyes and they hide in corners and drop down from ceilings. Some of them jump and some bite. There are a lot of “creepy” creatures in this world– spiders and snakes, rats and lizards, worms, and bats, and scorpions, roaches and fleas, and more. “Creepy” critters startle us; they scare us in the ways that they move, in the noises they make, and in the threat of danger– diseases, poisons, filth…
This time of year it is not unusual to see “creepy” creatures in movies and decorations and costumes for Halloween. Another type of “creepy” sighting involves things associated with death or near-death– ghosts, zombies, skeletons, ghouls, vampires…Their creepiness comes from the idea that Death has power over the living. The idea that Death stalks among us causes fear. Death is an enemy we cannot conquer. Everyone has to taste death and the unknown that follows. Everyone has a skeleton in life, but a skeleton walking without muscle or skin is terrifying to us. Everyone has a soul, but a soul without a body (or a body without a soul) makes us fearful–will that be our fate? What kind of existence would that be?
I am not a big fan of “creepy” stories and horror flicks. I don’t like being frightened for entertainment, and I have never understood why such things appeal to others. Recently, though, I heard from someone an explanation that made me think. They said, “I enjoy watching horror films and reading scary books because I know, no matter how scary it gets, that Good will always win out in the end.” Well, all right. I still don’t want to watch spooky stuff, but I can agree with the sentiment of the speaker.
Not all frightening things in this world are “creepy.” Cancer, blindness, aging, loss of a loved one, job loss, homelessness, loss of reputation, betrayal, false arrest, slavery to addiction, abuse, starvation–all are scary realities that can leave us overwhelmed, afraid, and even feeling hopeless. Nothing we can do will eradicate the threat of hardship, suffering, and death that await us all. We can make plans to “cheat” death, or build walls against getting hurt or suffering loss. But we cannot banish the threat or the fear of “what if..”, nor can we slay Death.
The Good News is that Death doesn’t win in the end. Death seems like the final word, but we can endure even this, knowing that “Good will always win out in the end.” God has not destined us to be skeletons, but to be saints–awakened to new life, cleansed of all sin and disease, and eternally Alive in Him! I can be startled by the spider, “creeped-out” by a skeleton, and knocked down by a debilitating disease. But I can turn the page, open my eyes, look up, and keep going, knowing that God is on His Throne.
And there’s more good news–Life, Hope, and Love are always with us. No spider, skeleton, sickness, or other threat will ever find us alone; none will ever take God by surprise; nothing can separate us from God’s Loving Care.
18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Matthew 28:18-20 (ESV)
7 Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.8 Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 9 Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.10 And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. 11 To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.
1 Peter 5:7-11 (NIV)
6 Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”
6 So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?”
38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.For by it the elders obtained a good testimony.
Hebrews 11:1-2 NKJV via Biblia.com
And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.
Hebrews 11:6 ESV via biblegateway.com
Prayer is an act of faith. Whether a prayer of confession, adoration, thanksgiving, supplication, or a combination of all these types, we pray to an invisible God. We do not see Him, but we acknowledge that He exists, and that He hears us when we pray. We also acknowledge that He forgives sins, is worthy of our adoration and thanksgiving, and that He cares about our needs and desires.
Faith is defined by the writer of Hebrews as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” There are many who scoff at this type of faith, claiming it is “blind faith.” Because we cannot see God, because we do not hear Him audibly, because we cannot touch Him–they claim that our faith is nothing more than wishful thinking or delusion. But our faith is actually “evidence” of God’s existence– not because we make a claim to believe, but because we act on and live out our belief. One brief prayer whispered in panic is not compelling, but a lifetime of praying and faithfully acting on the belief that God listens and responds–that is evidence that commands attention.
Sometimes, we become so familiar with the ancient stories of the Bible, that we discount the very real faith shown by the “elders.” Noah didn’t build a rowboat or even a trading ship– he built an Ark to withstand a flood he could not have imagined. Abraham left his home to go to a land God would show him– he had no map, or any way of knowing what awaited him. He lived as a nomad in tents the rest of his life. But what about his life before? He didn’t begin as a nomad and a wanderer. And there was nothing to suggest that he would ever become the patriarch of an entire nation/many nations. The shepherd boy, David, was told that he would someday be king. Yet he put himself in mortal danger several times, and refused to challenge King Saul in order to claim the crown. Daniel was certainly aware of the danger he was in over the course of his service to foreign kings, yet he stood firm in his convictions, when common sense would have had him compromise to keep his position (and his life!).
Faith (and praying in faith) doesn’t always some easily. We are bombarded with images and sounds that suggest that God does NOT exist, or that He does not listen or respond. I have prayed many times for people to be healed of cancer, only to see them die. I have days filled with stress or frustration, when my prayers seem to go unheard. Does this mean that my faith is void, or based on nothing more than a vapor?
No, because faith is the evidence, not of the things I am seeing or experiencing now, but of things unseen. My perspective is narrow and distorted. I may see my friends’ deaths as the “end.” I may see my temporary trials as impossible obstacles and heavy burdens. I may see my past as a prison, trapping me in the bad choices I have made, or the hurts I have suffered. Faith is the evidence that such things, while they are real, and devastating, are not the entire picture, or the final word. Faith is the evidence that life is worth celebrating, even on the “bad” days. Faith is the evidence that God is bigger than injustice, or disease, or heartbreak, or death.
Faith isn’t “proof” of God’s existence for those who will not believe. But it is strong and solid evidence for those who are searching. When I pray for someone else’s health, I am not ordering God to do what I want. If He doesn’t answer with immediate or total healing, it is not because I don’t have enough faith or because He just doesn’t listen to me. Buy when I lift others up in prayer, I am acting on the promise that God will listen and act according to His perfect and sovereign character. I have seen miracles of healing; I have also seen miracles in suffering and even death. “Things not seen” often includes things outside of my knowledge or perspective– things that I can only see after I take steps of faith that take me out of my limited vision.
As I write this post, I’m having one of those “bad” days– frustrating, filled with stress and pain. And not just my own– I’ve had several friends and family members who are dealing with death, disease, job loss, broken family issues, and more. Two of my childhood classmates died within a week of each other earlier this month, while three families in our church are dealing with hospitalizations and a death. And that isn’t even covering the crises in Afghanistan, Haiti, Tennessee, and elsewhere– floods, persecution, earthquakes and hurricanes, upheaval, and more. Those are the things we see. Faith is not blinding ourselves to those realities. It is choosing to believe that there is much more that we do not see–that God is in control, and that He is capable of redeeming and restoring even the mess that surrounds us.
I sat down to write this post, and had to stop–my faith was taking a beating. But I prayed. I listened for that still, small voice that led me to revisit Hebrews 11. I phoned a friend. Small steps of faith, but God is faithful. He gave my faith a booster shot. He can do the same for anyone who comes to Him in faith.
Across from our shop, there is a mural that tells the story of the first “Orphan Train.” In October of 1854, 45 children– some orphaned, others abandoned–arrived in southwest Michigan from New York City. Conditions for such children in the large cities were dangerous. Floods of immigrants included children who had lost their parents on the voyage to America, or who had been separated from their families upon arrival. There were very few orphanages, and almost no resources dedicated to child welfare. Hunger, disease, crime, and exposure to the elements meant that many children never lived to maturity. Most of them lived on the streets; ignored, preyed upon, or simply forgotten. A group called the Children’s Aid Society, founded in 1853, had tried helping children– especially boys–but their limited resources were overwhelmed within the first year.
It was the idea of a man named Charles Loring Brace that large numbers of these children could escape the dangerous environs of the city and find safety and hope in the expanding “West.” With the help of the new railroads, groups of children could travel west, where kind-hearted families could adopt them. Food, shelter, education, fresh air, opportunity, and a loving family- this was the promise of the orphan train. For some children, it was the start of a wonderful new life. For some, it was trading a hard life in the city for a hard life on the frontier.
I can only imagine how frightening it must have been for the first train-load of orphans to travel here. Few people had ever traveled by train in those days. Some of the children had never traveled more than a few blocks from where they had been born– had never seen a farm or a forest. Part of their journey was on a steamboat. The journey would not have been comfortable, but it would have been exciting and even terrifying at times. They had no guarantee of finding homes or families who would be willing to take care of them– only the hope that someone might.
What does this have to do with prayer? Well, the obvious connection would be that everyone involved with this venture must have prayed diligently. All 45 children were placed with local families in that first journey. And the success of this first placement encouraged future endeavors. The “orphan trains” ran for 75 years, and carried nearly a quarter of a million children to new homes throughout the growing United States. And while not every child found a “happy ending” with their new family, most of them survived to create a new life as adults–an opportunity many other orphans had been denied.
But it struck me today, as I was looking at the mural and thinking about the fate of these children, that we are or were all in a similar situation. I am so thankful to be able to pray to my Loving Father– but there was a time when I was lost and without hope. There was a time when Sin had made me an orphan. I was alone and frightened and helpless to save myself. Like the orphans in first part of the mural, I was sick and sad, my best intentions were no more than tattered rags. Even as they line up to board the train, their faces show fear and pain.
It can be frightening to call out to God– frightening to leave the life we know, even when it is dangerous and unhealthy. God’s way takes us to uncomfortable and unfamiliar places–we can’t see the road ahead, and we don’t know what our “new” life will be like.
As I gaze once again at the mural, the last section shows an idealized version of the “new life” experienced by the riders of the “Orphan Train.” It shows a groups of children in a circle, holding hands and playing in the sunshine among grass and trees, while a bird flutters nearby. It is a heavenly place– the children’s clothes are clean, and they look healthy and happy. And while this is an ideal, rather than the reality for some of the children, it is a reminder of the contrast with the life they left behind.
Thanks be to God for His Grace that rescues us from the ravages of Sin. He offers us an escape to a new life– complete with a new family and a glorious hope of Heaven. He offers full adoption– guaranteed by the blood of His own Son– for those who will choose to leave their old life of Sin behind and travel as an orphan on His own “Orphan Train.”
4 I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, 2 but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. 3 In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. 4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. 6 And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”
Last week about this time, I was miserable. Feverish, achy, somewhat nauseous, and doubting my own sanity. I had chosen, along with my husband, to get the COVID vaccine– even though we already had the disease earlier this year! We should have a built-up immunity, and medically, there is no compelling reason to get the vaccine and take the risk of suffering all the symptoms I suffered last week.
Fever and pain have a way of making people cranky, impatient, and rebellious. Especially when they come as a result of trying to do “the right thing.” I was reminded of the Biblical character of Job, who suffered intense pain and suffering through no fault of his own. While my suffering was nothing compared to his– or to many of those who have suffered worse from COVID than I did– it brought some of the same thoughts and complaints. “What did I do to deserve this?” “Why me?” “Don’t you care about my suffering?” “How much longer must I be in pain?” “Wouldn’t it be better if I could just escape this fever and achiness?”
Most of us are not “good patients.” No one likes to suffer, even for a short while. And it can be easy to let our pain determine our prayer life. Our focus narrows to our own circumstances, and how we wish them to change. We tend to go to God with indignation–how could He let us suffer like this?! And yet, even in his indignation and self-centered moaning, Job never lost sight of God’s essential goodness and justice.
Job’s friends started out with a sincere desire to offer help and comfort. They heard of his sufferings, left their homes and traveled to visit and comfort their friend. When they arrived, they wept, tore their clothes, and sat, silent and supportive, for seven whole days! (Job 2:11-13) This is in contrast to Job’s embittered wife, who told him to “curse God, and die!” There is no other mention of her throughout all of Job’s suffering–which may have been one of the unheralded mercies of God!
Job’s conversation with his friends may not sound much like prayer, but we see into Job’s heart and mind through these conversations. As his friends remind Job that God is Just, and that He punishes those who are wicked and rebellious, Job defends himself. But he also defends God–God IS Just; but He is also merciful and loving. What is happening to Job is not consistent with all that Job has experienced of God. In fact, it seems capricious and unfair. Job’s confusion and his questioning are not only coming from his pain and suffering, but from his surprise at God’s silence and seeming absence. Job’s friends see Job’s circumstances as confirmation of his sin. But though Job is confused by sudden change of circumstances, he is convinced that God will continue to be Just– that He will hear Job’s complaint, even if He has decided against Job for reasons Job may never understand. In fact, Job is still convinced of God’s goodness, declaring that “I know my redeemer lives…I myself will see him with my own eyes…how my heart yearns within me..” (Job 19:25-27), and that “the fear of the Lord–that is wisdom”(Job 28:28)
When we face the “ash heap” of despair, pain, grief, and doubt, whether we are isolated or surrounded by well-meaning friends, we have a choice in our response. We can praise God from the ashes, we can bring Him our doubts and questions. Or we can “curse God and die”– choosing to see only our circumstances and losing sight of who God is (and always has been).
The same God who brought David and I through our bout with COVID brought us through last week’s reaction to the vaccine. He is the same God who has comforted families who lost loved ones to this disease, and who has kept still others healthy throughout this crisis. I don’t know why or how we got sick back in February; I don’t know why I had such a bad reaction last week. I don’t know what the future holds, or what other pains and struggles we may face in the weeks and months ahead. The same God who finally appeared to Job–even though He never answered Job’s questions!–is the same God who holds the universe in His hand. He is the same God who never lost sight of Job. He is the same God who parted the Red Sea, healed lepers and kings, raised the dead, and promises everlasting life with Him.
So I may not know what troubles I will face tomorrow, and I may not have the answers to all my questions. But, like Job, I know that my redeemer lives! I know that whatever happens, God will remain Faithful, Good, Just, and Holy. And one day, “I myself will see him with my own eyes…how my heart yearns within me”!
Earlier this week, my mother celebrated her 88th birthday. Mom has survived more than most people can imagine. She was born in 1933, during the worst years of the Great Depression. She survived hunger and poverty, near-homelessness, and insecurity in her earliest years, despite my grandparents’ best efforts to provide for their family. She survived the upheaval of World War 2, when her father left to serve in the Navy and her mother worked long hours in a factory. She and her sister had to take on most of the housework.
As a teenager, mom fell madly in love with a young man who convinced her to drop out of high school and become his wife. Her romantic dream quickly turned into a nightmare of abuse, heartbreak, fear, and starvation. Though he loved her, her husband could not control his own inner torments. He drank heavily and was very controlling. He insulted her, isolated her from family and friends, forbad her from going to church, and he sometimes punched her. By the age of 19, she was anemic, weighed less than 100 pounds, and had just miscarried twins– partly because she had been denied access to pre-natal care; partly because she had been beaten and malnourished. But she survived, and went on to have a healthy pregnancy, mostly because her husband was drafted and sent to Korea.
Mom survived divorce, something to which she had always been opposed, for the sake of her son. She survived the threats against herself and her young boy. She survived all the court dates and new responsibilities. She survived working 10-hours days, six days a week, at a butcher shop, cutting, grinding, and packing up meat, so she could provide for her young son.
Mom remarried at age 30. Shortly before her marriage, she had found a better job; one with better pay and shorter hours. Shortly after her marriage, on her way home from work, she was involved in a horrible accident. She had a head injury, broken ribs, and a broken collarbone. She began suffering from headaches. She suffered another miscarriage. But she survived, and went on to have me and my sister, both healthy deliveries. She had stopped working to be home with us, but she was involved in multiply volunteer opportunities through church and in the community. But her headaches were debilitating, and with them came depression.
Mom survived many dark days of pain and doubt. Though she was socially active, it took a great deal of energy and will to force herself to get out and keep going. Her doctor gave her medication for depression, and, thankfully, he carefully monitored what she took and whether it was effective. The headaches did not diminish, and mom treated them with massive doses of Anacin and other pain relievers.
In her 50s, mom developed more health problems. She developed arthritis. She had a hysterectomy, and had to have her gall bladder removed. In her 60s, mom had cataract surgery. Then she had to watch as her husband’s health deteriorated, and she lost him just after their 35th anniversary. She survived, and had to adjust to widowhood. In her 70s, she had more surgeries– she lost part of her thyroid, and nearly died. She had surgery to “undo” some of the damage from her earlier hysterectomy. She was diagnosed with bone density issues, which caused a curvature in her spine. In her 80s, she developed a heart condition. She had to undergo heart surgery and have a pacemaker. She could have died, but she didn’t. She developed a series of infections from one of her earlier surgeries, and had to use a cane to walk because of the bone density and spine curvature. She was diagnosed with macular degeneration, meaning that she is slowly going blind.
Last fall, during the height of the COVID crisis, Mom fell and broke her hip. She was in a hospital where there were COVID cases, and she was transported to a rehab facility that had 4 COVID cases. By the time she left to come home, she was one of only 4 who had NOT developed COVID at that facility! She continues to go to outpatient rehab twice a week, and now has to use a walker, instead of just a cane, to provide balance and stability when she walks. She no longer drives, and has trouble reading, due to the macular degeneration. But she survives.
I say all of this, not because my mom is tougher, or luckier than other folks; not because she is more worthy of life than those who have not survived such struggles, and not because her life is more tragic than anyone else’s. I say this because my mother is a woman of prayer.
Last week, for Mother’s Day, we took my mom to her local church. She no longer drives, and she rarely gets out because of her health issues. But she wanted to be in church that Sunday. The very first hymn they sang that day was “Love Lifted Me.” And I cried. That was the song she had used, fifty years ago, to rock me to sleep as a child. Sometimes, she would sing it out. Sometimes she would just hum the tune as she rocked me. She was often crying as she sang– exhausted, depressed, worried, or haunted–but those words imprinted themselves in my young mind: Love lifted me. Love lifted me. When nothing else could help– Love lifted me.
My mother wasn’t just singing those words, she was praying.
Mom has lived out those words. Crying out to “the Master of the Sea,” Mom has been lifted up time and again. She has been a prayer warrior, knowing that her prayers rise to the One who loves her best of all; the One who holds her destiny and her redemption in His hands. No matter her circumstances, she can sing, knowing that love will continue to lift her, and carry her through.
Yesterday was Mother’s Day. And it was a good day. It started out cold and wet, but I got to spend time with my mother, my mother-in-law, several other family members, and some dear friends from childhood. It was a happy day, and it ended with sunshine breaking through the late afternoon clouds, birds singing, and a full heart of memories and gratitude.
But Mother’s Day wasn’t always like that for me. For many years, it was one of the worst days of my year. No matter the weather or the company, there was always a shadow of barrenness and emptiness. Yes, I was grateful for my mother; for my grandmothers and aunts and other relatives; for my friends and their adorable children. But I felt shut out– I was not a mother. I would never be a mother. I was always on the outside looking in.
My circumstances are slightly different now, but I am still not a “natural” mother. No one calls me “mama” or even “grandma.” But Mother’s Day isn’t meant to be a day of sorrow and emptiness, and after years of prayer and letting go of expectations, God is showing me how to enjoy and embrace the circumstances in which He has placed me.
I am not alone in this struggle– far from it. For the past few weeks, I have heard from heartbroken people who dread Mother’s Day. Those who have lost their mothers face the reminder of their grief and loss. It is particularly hard on those who were unable to spend precious days with a dying mother due to COVID restrictions, or lost their mother to COVID. Some mothers are reminded of the wrenching loss of a child– still birth, drug overdoses, suicide, auto accidents, childhood cancer– gut-churning emptiness where once there was a promise of joyful life, grandchildren, shared memories, and so much more. Other mothers (and their children) face the pain of separation and severed relationships. Many, like me, face the reminder that they are NOT a mother– not a “real” mother–even if their circumstances or careers are filled with children “not their own.” And some people face multiple circumstances that cause grief, bitterness, alienation, anger, and despair.
These feelings of sadness and loss are natural, but they do not have to weigh us down or control how we face each day. God wants to share these burdens; He wants to carry the weight of our brokenness and free us to experience joy and peace– even in the midst of our pain! And on those days when our circumstances threaten to overwhelm us, God is never more than a prayer away. He doesn’t make our grief disappear; He doesn’t erase our memories. But He can redeem them with a changed perspective and new hope.
Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day, birthdays, anniversaries, etc.– each can bring bitterness and heartbreak, as well as joy. We do well to pay attention to those around us who dread such holidays, and offer the comfort, hope, and encouragement of a listening ear, a loving heart, and, most of all, a loving God who longs for us to pray in and through our heartbreak.