It Is Well With My Soul

I’ve been reading through the book of Job this past week. Job’s story challenges us– especially if we trust in our circumstances to confirm God’s love for us. Job was a seeming pawn in a situation beyond his control or understanding. He lost nearly everything– his cattle, flocks, all his children, and even his health. The only thing he did not lose was his nagging wife, and his faithful, but very unhelpful friends.

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At first, Job’s friends seem very supportive. They stay with him, saying nothing, just offering their presence for a week! But then, they start spouting the kind of useless aphorisms and accusations that make Job’s bad situation infinitely worse. They “remind” him that good people don’t suffer–only the wicked experience pain and loss. This knowledge, they assure him, comes from their own experience, and the wisdom of the past. When Job protests that he is innocent, that his suffering is NOT because of his own wickedness, they become increasingly angry and irrational– making up accusations and heaping blame on Job for daring to “question” God.

But Job’s friends, even though they speak with confidence and sound very much like many people we hear today, are wrong. Job’s experience is real–suffering comes to the innocent, while the wicked often “get away with” their sin, living lives of ease and comfort at the expense of others. We see it in the world around us– innocent people are the targets of mass shootings, or war, or famine, or disease. Meanwhile, criminals get “off” on a technicality; decorated war “heroes” destroy entire cities; powerful tyrants bend laws and oppress the helpless.

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Where is God in all this? WHO is God in all this? There are many different responses, but I want to look at three that are all present in the book of Job:

  • Mrs. Job: “Curse God and Die.” Some people look at evil and suffering, and they decide that God must be a fraud. Either He cannot or He will not destroy evil, or He would have done so before now. They declare with great defiance that either God does not even exist, or He must be malicious, capricious, petty, and weak.

  • Job’s friends: “Everyone knows that God rewards good and punishes evil.” Doesn’t the Bible say this? Isn’t this what we learned in Sunday School? Surprisingly, most of us would say, “Yes, that is exactly what I learned as a child, and it is exactly what the Bible says!” But look closer. The Bible says that “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) It goes on to say that “The Just shall live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4 and Romans 1:17)–not their good works. God DOES reward goodness, and he DOES punish evil– but He also redeems the wicked and causes the good to go through times of trial and suffering. God is more than a two-dimensional dispenser of rewards and punishments. God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8), and there are times that He chooses not to explain His ways “in the moment” of our suffering, or in the moments when wickedness seems to be “winning.”
    Unfortunately, when bad times come; when we experience pain, or watch someone else going through inexplicable suffering, if our view of God is incomplete or two-dimensional, we are left repeating the little we KNOW (or think we know) about God, and defending, not God’s character, but OUR knowledge. This is especially true if we have not been tested ourselves.
  • Job: “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.” (Job 13:15) “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” Job 19:25-27 Even when Job struggled with his pain and suffering–even as he defended his character to his accusing friends, Job KNEW that God was GOD. He knew all that his friends were saying ABOUT God, but he also knew God–even when he didn’t understand His actions. And after all the arguments had been made and all the “easy” answers had been spilled out, GOD did not slay Job; he did not leave him in his agony. Neither did He provide Job with detailed answers or explanations. But He redeemed the situation– Job ended up with more blessings than before. More importantly, Job ended up with a greater understanding of who God is.

When all is not well with our health, or our finances, or our safety, or our relationships, it can still be “well with (our) Soul.” God does not change, but He does ask us to trust Him, even when His ways are not our ways. God will reward good and punish evil– but it may not be in our lifetime or as we imagine. God may stay silent during times of great stress and pain, but He will not leave us! In every situation, we can trust Him.

Will we?

Where is the Sting?

This has been a season of death and loss for us, but where is the sting? Mom passed just over a month ago, but where is the gnawing ache of loss?


Because of Easter, we remember that Death is swallowed up in victory, and His Divine Power gives us Everything we need for Life! (2 Peter 1:3)
Have we had moments of grieving this past week (and month)– Yes. But we choose to focus on the larger picture. Easter isn’t just a day to celebrate something miraculous in the past or the distant future. It is a very present reality that changes EVERYTHING. Death is not the end. Failure is not the end. Our weakness is not the end. Good Friday was not an end. Easter (and every day since!) is a new beginning. It is the promise of life– not just eternal life in heaven, but abundant Life here and now. There is a purpose to life– to the joy and the pain, the grief and the struggle, the search for answers and the even the questions that remain. There is hope and there is renewal. There is a reason to get up, a reason to fight, a reason to cry, a reason to sing, and a reason to rest. Most of all, there is a reason to LOVE and rejoice in being loved!


YOU are loved! Extravagantly, eternally, without limit or condition. And yes, it seems too good to be true, too simple to accept, maybe even too frightening in its intensity. But it IS true. It IS that simple. It IS that complete and perfect. And it is a free gift for all who will accept it and live in it.
Please let this Easter fill your heart with the Good News that You are loved– to death and back– by your gracious creator. 

Lord, I’m Tired

This past month has been tiring for me. I’ve been clearing out two “estates.” My mother died at the end of last month. She was a hoarder– she saved everything, and it was kept in piles and drawers and closets. My brother, sister, and I (and our families) must sort through all the “junk” to find things of importance or value, and decide how to share it, dispose of it, or give it away. Old books, old clothes, old papers– some have sentimental or material value. Others have been exposed to mildew or they’ve been torn or damaged or stained. Mom had a big house, and she had lived there for over 60 years, so the piles are tall, deep, and everywhere!

At the same time, we had a loss in my husband’s family that required that we clean out the family homestead. This home had been in the family for over 5 generations, and included a farm and workshop, complete with machinery, vehicles, and furniture that had to be removed in less than 30 days! While not as cluttered with old papers and clothes, this estate included bigger, bulkier items, often covered with grit, grime, oil, and dirt.

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We had to finish up with the old homestead earlier this week. And we are exhausted. I have found it difficult to concentrate on this blog, on Bible study, on personal prayer time, and just getting “normal” things done around the house. I’m sore, I’m trying to fight off an early Spring cold, and I’m mentally and emotionally drained.

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BUT

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God has sent wonderful reminders of His comfort, His strength, His peace, and His care in the past few weeks. My prayers may have been hurried or shortened lately, but I can FEEL the prayers of others on our behalf. As tired as we have been lately, we have also been blessed. Wonderful family (even under difficult and trying circumstances!), kind and helpful friends, unexpected (and much needed) resources–God has not left us to face this season alone.

It is not God’s will or His plan that we should exhaust ourselves. That doesn’t mean that He won’t allow us to travel through periods of stress, work, grief, pain, or even temporary exhaustion. Jesus himself stayed in the wilderness for 40 days without food. He was exhausted and hungry when Satan tried to tempt Him to turn His back on the Father. Satan’s temptations are no different today. He tempts us with empty promises of ease and rest– IF we depend on someone or something other than God! He tempts us with the idea of fame and fortune– IF we abandon God’s provision and His purposes. He tempts us with immediate solutions–IF we stop waiting on the Lord to come to our rescue.

The Test

1-3 Next Jesus was taken into the wild by the Spirit for the Test. The Devil was ready to give it. Jesus prepared for the Test by fasting forty days and forty nights. That left him, of course, in a state of extreme hunger, which the Devil took advantage of in the first test: “Since you are God’s Son, speak the word that will turn these stones into loaves of bread.”

Jesus answered by quoting Deuteronomy: “It takes more than bread to stay alive. It takes a steady stream of words from God’s mouth.”

5-6 For the second test the Devil took him to the Holy City. He sat him on top of the Temple and said, “Since you are God’s Son, jump.” The Devil goaded him by quoting Psalm 91: “He has placed you in the care of angels. They will catch you so that you won’t so much as stub your toe on a stone.”

Jesus countered with another citation from Deuteronomy: “Don’t you dare test the Lord your God.”

8-9 For the third test, the Devil took him to the peak of a huge mountain. He gestured expansively, pointing out all the earth’s kingdoms, how glorious they all were. Then he said, “They’re yours—lock, stock, and barrel. Just go down on your knees and worship me, and they’re yours.”

10 Jesus’ refusal was curt: “Beat it, Satan!” He backed his rebuke with a third quotation from Deuteronomy: “Worship the Lord your God, and only him. Serve him with absolute single-heartedness.”

11 The Test was over. The Devil left. And in his place, angels! Angels came and took care of Jesus’ needs.

Matthew 4:1-11 (The Message)

I’m tired today. But God knows better than I do how to give me rest, how to “recharge my batteries,” and how to guide me through the days ahead. I don’t think God is “testing” me in the same way He allowed Jesus to be tested. But I think He has allowed me to experience a season that is testing me. Will I keep looking for Jesus in my weariness and grief? Will I be tempted to find my rest in someone or something other than Him? Will I recognize the resources and help He sends during this time? One of the things He has provided is this blog– a chance for me to stop, reflect on, and write about what’s going on. I’m tired, but I’m also being held in God’s Almighty and capable hands. God has provided helpers, counselors, friends, and family to lean on, and who can lean on me in turn. God has laid out His promises for a bright future and eternal Joy, Peace, and Rest. God has given me a moment to reflect on His Goodness! Now, back to work for today!

AMEN!

Justice? Or Vengeance?

When violence strikes, I want justice. I want action. I want to make the evil stop.

Just the other day, there was another school shooting in the news. At least six innocent people lost their lives, and another community was ripped apart by grief, shock, and anger.

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But is it really justice that I am seeking? Or is it vengeance?

Justice is permanent. Justice is final. Justice takes time. Vengeance is visceral and immediate. Vengeance is a reaction; a retaliation. Justice, on the other hand, is blind to the emotions of the initial event. Vengeance is driven by emotion. Justice comes through the objective application of the law.

Justice is God’s business. I do NOT understand why or how God allows evil to happen in the first place. It hurts. It doesn’t make sense. It is destructive. But it is the nature of Sin. And Sin infects the entire world. We cannot escape from it. We cannot deny its existence. We cannot put an end to it. We can only follow the arduous and imperfect justice systems that are in place for our community or our country. We cannot achieve perfect justice. But God can. And He has promised to do so– in His time, and in His way. This can be comforting, but it can also be frustrating.

Vengeance is also God’s business. God has emotions, just like we do. But His are always under perfect control. God’s wrath is frightening in its power, and paralyzing in its purpose.

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

Romans 12:19 (ESV)
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As imperfect as our systems of justice may be, they are still systems, with order and time to look at the total situation. Vengeance doesn’t stop to count the cost. It doesn’t stop to listen to the full story. It seethes and coils like a rattlesnake, waiting to inject venom into the first victim to cross its path. Human vengeance never leads to peace.

Also, vengeance is limited to the strength and resources of the avenger. If a shooter takes the life of my loved one, my vengeance is limited to the actions I can take. I may kill the shooter; I may take the life of their family members; but I cannot bring my loved one back, nor can I guarantee that the killer will suffer the same amount or the same way I do. Vengeance never looks forward, and it never offers a solution to move forward. It lives in bitterness and anger and discontent.

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As followers of Christ, we are asked to take a stance that seems impossible from a human standpoint. We are asked to keep our hands clean, to keep our minds at peace, and to give our grief, our anger, and our craving for vengeance over to God with no reservation and no option to set the limits or timelines.

To the world around us, this seems weak and even unjust. What if the evildoer “gets away” with her/his crime? What if the victim never gets “justice” in their (or our) lifetime? What if we never “see” justice done? What if God “fails” to avenge us or our loved one? What does the Christian “do” in the face of evil? Nothing?! Fall on our knees and pray?! Offer lukewarm assurances and empty promises?

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The problem with evil– especially shocking violent events– is that we can’t see beyond the immediate shock and pain. That doesn’t mean that there IS no pain or shock or anger or frustration if we choose not to react with vengeance. The pain is still very real, and overwhelming. But we choose to make room for faith that sees the larger picture. Faith makes room to see not just justice, but mercy. It allows us to see the overall tragedy of Sin, beyond our immediate tragedy of an individual act. Faith sees beyond our helplessness to God’s Sovereignty. It sees beyond the present pain to future healing.

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I pray for the families of the victims in this latest shooting– and for all those who have experienced such violence. And I pray that God will show me what I can do to make a positive difference going forward. I pray for the strength and the faith to let go of hatred, bitterness, malice, and outrage. Finally, I praise God, even in the middle of pain and shock, knowing that He can be trusted to bring perfect Justice– and perfect vengeance–the kind that leads to a peace beyond our understanding. These are not “easy” prayers. They are not blind prayers, or prayers prayed without tears and groaning and questions. But they are real prayers, not empty wishes that I could avoid all unpleasantness or that I could exempt myself (or others) from tasting sorrow, grief or pain. Rather they are prayers that acknowledge that Life is more than struggle; that Love and Mercy are stronger than despair, and God has already won the ultimate victory.

What Might Have Been…

One of my favorite movies is “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  No matter how many times I watch it, it never gets old for me.

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Oh, I know it’s in black and white, and it’s out-of-date.  It’s politically incorrect on numerous levels, and it’s theologically incorrect, as well.  But for all that, I think it has a deep wisdom we are sorely lacking, and I think what it says about the power of prayer cannot be dismissed.

Much of the movie is spent tracing the less-than-wonderful things that happen to George Bailey.  George Bailey is the quintessential “nice-guy” who always seems to miss out–as a boy, he leaps into an icy river to save his brother’s life.  His brother is saved, but George ends up losing the hearing in one ear.  While his friends go off to college, George has to stay behind; when he finally saves enough money to enroll, he ends up having to give up his college plans to save the family business after the sudden death of his father.  He loses out on business opportunities, and keeps losing skirmishes with his nemesis, the  “scurvy spider” local magnate, Mr. Potter.  Finally, on Christmas Eve, George has had enough.  The weight of always doing “the right thing,” and watching others get ahead while he falls further behind, has taken its toll.  When his absent-minded uncle loses $8000, George faces scandal and prison after all his years of frustrating hard work in a job he hates.  After uncharacteristic angry outbursts and a short drinking binge, George is in utter meltdown.  In desperation, he prays.  It’s not an eloquent prayer, or an angry outburst.  It’s a wimpy, doubtful, squeak of a prayer, “Dear Father in Heaven, I’m not a praying man, but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way…show me the way.”

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What the viewer knows, but George doesn’t, is that dozens of people he knows have all been praying for him.  We get to hear the voices of his wife, his children, his friends and neighbors, all praying simple and heartfelt prayers.  And we also know that God is at work– preparing to send an angel to help George.  But in the bar, at the end of George’s tearful and tremulous prayer, God is silent.

Not only is God silent, but George’s downward spiral continues after his prayer.  He gets punched in the jaw by a man he was arguing with earlier in the evening, and he doesn’t even have enough money to pay his bar tab.  Driving away, drunk, he runs into a tree and gets yelled at.  Reeling down the road and onto the bridge, where he intends to jump to his death, he almost gets hit by a truck.

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While I like the sappy, happy ending of the movie, the incredible darkness and despair leading up to George’s encounter with Clarence, and the even darker “alternate universe” that George experiences are what keep me coming back to this movie– not because I’m a glutton for emotional wringers, but because George’s story is only wonderful when he gets to see it from God’s point of view.  Mr. Potter tells George that he is worth more dead than alive.  But Clarence shows George the true worth of his life, not as it might have been, but as it might NOT have been.

And so it is with our lives–all the “might-have-beens” and broken dreams and failures that weigh us down– God is NOT (as we so often picture Him) shaking His head and grumbling about our wasted potential and weakness.  And often, the people we most fear to disappoint, our family and friends, are rooting for us to stay the course– to finish the race. God wants to wipe away all the seeming failures; all the “what-if”s and the “what might have been”s and replace them with the bigger picture of “what is happening around you”, “what really IS”, and “what can be.”*

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There was never anything wrong with George’s dreams of traveling the world and becoming a successful builder of skyscrapers “a hundred stories tall.”  George’s desire to have nice things for himself and his family was not evil, and, in fact, his ambition to do great things was not that different than Mr. Potter’s.  But George’s choices, while “right” were not  in his own immediate best interest.  What Clarence showed George was not “what might have been” had George made other choices in his life.  What he showed George was indeed far more wonderful– the ultimate IMPACT of George’s choices!  God didn’t “take away” George’s dreams or ruin his life.  But neither did He prevent him from making selfish choices or getting what he wanted in the moment.  George’s life wasn’t wonderful because of what happened to him– though the ending is miraculous, and George gets toasted by his hero brother as “the richest man in town.”  But what really made George’s life wonderful was that he was THERE– there to save his brother; there to fall in love with Mary; there to help and influence so many people; there to tuck his daughter into bed and “paste” the petals of her flower; even there to stand up to Mr. Potter when no one else did.

God answered George’s prayer.  And He answered the prayers of his friends and family.  But He didn’t answer in the way we would expect.  In fact, George jokes with Clarence that the answer to his prayer was getting slugged in the jaw.  But God’s answer came in the form of a childlike “angel” who struggles and questions his ability to make a difference– much like George himself.  God didn’t answer the superficial aspect of George’s prayer– He didn’t show him the way to get $8,000.  He didn’t show him the way to defeat Mr. Potter, or suddenly become more successful.  But He did show George the way to look for “what is” and “what can be”, instead of the “what might have been.”

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  • For anyone who has lost a friend or family member to suicide–my prayer is that we too, would find comfort  and hope in the lives our loved ones lived, and not in the manner of their death.  God is gracious and loving above all that we can imagine.  Part of the hope and message of this movie for me is that, even if George had jumped at the end, his life was still wonderful in God’s eyes, just as it was to all who knew and loved him..

What God Didn’t Give Me

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.

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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…)

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

Blessed Are Those Who Mourn

I’ve been exploring the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12) and how I think they relate to prayer. Today, I want to look at the second one: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (v. 4).

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I know a lot of people who are mourning. I know people who have lost loved ones to COVID, to suicide, to cancer, etc. I know those who are mourning the loss of a job or a house. I know those who are mourning the loss of health– either their own or that of a loved one. And I have been a mourner. I know those moments when the grief hits unexpectedly– a song comes on the radio, or a certain photo pops up in my Facebook memories; even the smell of freshly cut grass or the taste of popcorn can remind me of loved ones lost, and bring a tear to my eye.

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I also know the mourning that comes from regret– the painful consequences of ill-chosen words or reckless actions– even missed opportunities. Mourning is painful. It is uncomfortable. The world around us is made uncomfortable by our mourning. People spend billions of dollars and spend countless hours trying to avoid mourning; trying to deny, placate, drown, or forget their grief and sadness. We take pills, we binge watch entertaining programs, we run away, we distract, we seek to mask our feelings, suppress them, or eradicate them.

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Jesus calls on us to mourn. He wants us to bring all the ugliness of our grief and shame and give it to Him. He will not ask us to cover it up, or hide from it, or “get rid of it.” He will not tell us to “get over it” or “put it behind us.” Instead, He will comfort us. That doesn’t mean we will never again feel grief or shame or sadness in this life. But our mourning will be transformed into Joy. Joy is not the absence of, nor a denial of grief. It is the triumph of life over death; of hope over despair; of purpose over futility. We are not commanded to be “shiny, happy” problem-free people. Nor are we to let mourning and grief overwhelm us or turn us sour and despondent. Instead, we are to share our grief– and to share in the grief of others–just as we can then share in the comfort we have found!

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In the same way that the “poor in spirit” can embrace all the riches and glory of the Kingdom of Heaven, those who mourn can receive from God the kind of Peace that “passes all understanding” (Philippians 4:7), and the joy the “comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5) God does not want us to be forever depressed or wallow in our despair–but He also does not want us to pretend that we are invincible, or untouched by sorrow. Jesus wept. Jesus felt sadness and frustration during His earthly ministry. He was tired, He was misunderstood, He was betrayed. He suffered losses. And He grieved over broken relationships and the horrible consequences of Sin in the lives of those around Him.

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Those who do NOT mourn– who do not feel sorrow or regret or loss– will never know the healing power of God’s consuming comfort. They will never know the full measure of Grace. They will never cry out for it, never be surprised by the light in the darkness, never feel the joy of being held and cradled by compassion. And they miss out on the true Joy that comes from being comforted and being able to comfort others.

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So the question I have to ask myself today is– what have I mourned lately? When was the last time I collapsed under the weight of my own grief or shame, only to find myself upheld and wrapped in the arms of the Lover of my Soul? When was the last time I extended comfort to someone else by mourning with them?

Sifting Through the Ashes

A Poem for Ash Wednesday

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Father, I look around, and all I see are the ashes:
Broken dreams, lost opportunities, burned-out passions..
Everything else is consumed.

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I sit here, on this heap of ashes: sifting through cold dust motes–
There is no heat, no burning embers, no trace of what was.

Such is the nature of sacrifice.
You don’t desire the stench of a half-burnt ram, or a singed goat.
You don’t relish a pile of smoking bones, or a half-hearted heart.

But you honor ashes and sacrifice given
With a whole and willing heart–
Even a broken one.


Your holiness consumes all that is temporal.
The ashes left are what you desire; the essence, the emptiness.
In exchange for them, you pour out
Life and blessing, gladness and healing.

As I sift through the ashes, I will not find the life I built,
The dreams I nurtured,
The honor I sought:
Instead, I will find evidence of the Holy Fire.
The ashes will be scattered to the wind.
They will fall on the waters.
They will become incense and prayers.
I will wear them on my forehead:
Your Holiness has burned away the dross.
My sacrifice is gain, not loss.

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Of Spiders, Skeletons, and Saints

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.

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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…

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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?

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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)

Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 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)
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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.”

Deuteronomy 31:6

6 So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?”

Hebrews 13:6

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.

Romans 8:38-39 (NIV)

How Will You Be Remembered?

Today would have been my paternal grandmother’s 118th birthday. I have many memories of my grandmother, and I wish more of them were pleasant.

I remember dreading time spent at Grandma’s house. She wasn’t a horrible woman, but she was not peaceful or kind or warm. Her house was small and dark, with cobwebs and dust bunnies in the corners and under furniture. There were very few toys, and most of them broken. Grandma always wanted my sister and I to be still and silent, and I always had the feeling that she dreaded our visits as much as we did. I had a cousin who loved it when we came over, because she was just a bit older and an only child. If the weather was nice, Grandma would send us all outside, and my cousin would dare us to climb trees, or jump over a pit or some other physical (usually dirty and dangerous, too) activity. When we came in, Grandma would frown and comment on how dirty and sweaty and noisy and un-ladylike we all were.

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Growing up, I didn’t think of Grandma as someone who had ever been young, and noisy, or happy and excitable, or awkward and easily hurt. She seemed to have been perpetually old and cranky and bitter. In hindsight, I can see how circumstances– being the middle child of seven living on a farm; starting her married life living in with a bossy sister-in-law and verbally abusive father-in-law; losing her husband when he was only 50–had been allowed to shape her character in negative ways.

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There are some pleasant memories, and I cherish them. Grandma was a good cook. She made wonderful chicken dinners, and a strange candy out of mashed potatoes and peanut butter. She always had cold tea on a hot day. I knew that she loved my dad, and that she could be proud of us, in her own way. I was sorry when she died. Sorry that I hadn’t made more of an effort to know her better. Sorry that she had chosen bitterness, and that I had chosen to stay distant from her.

I write all this, difficult as it is, to say that Grandma–both her good and bad qualities–lives on in my memory as someone I would not choose to be. I don’t want to grow old like her. I don’t want my family members to dread spending time with me while I live, and dig deep to remember something good about me when I’m gone, or justify my bitterness and negativity.

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My grandmother claimed to be a woman of faith. And it is not my place to be her judge. But I saw very little evidence of faith in her daily life. I cannot remember ever hearing her pray. She did not attend church. She had a Bible, but I never saw her reading it. Her better qualities, and her walk with Christ were overshadowed by rancor, bitterness, anger, hurt, and pettiness. I do not want that to be my legacy. I want people to know, not just from my words, but in my actions and choices, that God’s love lives in me, brighter and stronger than memories of Grandma.

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Shortly before her death, I ended up spending an afternoon with Grandma– just the two of us. She had moved into a small apartment in town, and somehow, it transpired that I had to be in town on Saturday morning for a school event, and no one could pick me up until that evening. We were forced to keep company. It began awkwardly, but as we talked, Grandma opened up about her childhood, her love of music, and more; she asked about my time at school and my love of history. It is the single most pleasant memory I have of her, and I wish there had been more afternoons like it; more afternoons to bond; more afternoons to cherish, rather than dread.

After her death, I learned a couple of things about my grandmother– things I wish I had known earlier. I found an old copy of her high school yearbook, which contained a story she had written. Grandma’s story was full of wonderful details and imaginative characters. She was a writer– and I never knew! I also found out that Grandma not only loved music, she was a singer– an alto, just like me. At some point in her life, she stopped writing, and she stopped singing. I hope that, even if I never saw it or heard it, that she never stopped praying. And I hope that when I’m gone, those who remember me will never have to wonder if I sang, or wrote, or prayed.

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