When Glory is Inglorious

You probably know the story of Simon and his fishless fishing trip. After repeatedly, fruitlessly casting his nets into the waters of Lake Gennesaret, the weary fisherman is about to call it quits. Then, as Simon cleans his nets near the water’s edge, he meets the Christ. When Jesus asks him to sail into deeper waters to fish, Simon replies:

 “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets” (Luke 5:5, NIV).

Simon’s discouragement is an apt illustration of what I felt like in the winter months of 2013, when The Glow 5K, a fundraiser for the pregnancy center I work with, was nothing more than a castle in the sky – grand, but with no viable foundation.  Often, I offered up Simon’s words as my own in prayer: “Jesus, we have worked hard all night and caught nothing.” Those were the easiest to get out – the admission of failure, weariness, and frustration. The next words, not so much. The call to obey, to let down the nets yet again – but let me explain:

My husband (Co-Race Director) and I spent the better part of January sponsorship hunting for the newly minted The Glow 5k, the 1st run/walk fundraiser of its kind in our small community. It was an exciting time. The event would raise awareness of our ministry, which assists local mothers in need of pre-natal counseling, nurture a community mindset, promote fitness, and help in the center’s ever-present need for cash. The work the center does is incredibly worthy – no mother or father is turned away, and counselors are often able to build long-term relationships with clients. Our volunteers focus first on providing material and educational help (cooking classes, diapers, formula, etc.), knowing that alleviating practical needs allows clients to begin contemplating moral and spiritual realms.

So, our dream race began to take shape. We had recently acquired a fresh website and, miraculously, a prime race location at The National D-Day Memorial.

What we didn’t have was money.

Hopeful, armed with sponsor letters and thick coats, my husband and I drove the cold streets of our small town only to hear:

“It’s a bad year for us.”

“We have a pregnancy center?”

“Why can’t these women help themselves?”

Essentially, the word on the streets was a resounding, “No.”

Honestly, it was a bit like a scene from “A Christmas Carol,” but in 2013 Central Virginia rather than 1801 Victorian London.

We drove back home thousands short of our goal, dreading the next trip out.

If I could label the experience with one word?  Humbling.

Allow me a second. Inglorious.

I knew Christ was present in this particular creative act, but there were times when I felt taken in. Duped. My adolescent teachings were filled with the glory of the Christian – David slaying Goliath, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s heroic resistance during the Third Reich’s terrorization, Elisabeth Elliot’s mission to reach the Auca tribe after they murdered her husband. These gloriously valiant acts imprinted themselves across my mind, and for good reason. These people are stars in the heavens of our faith, for they looked into the oppressive eyes of evil and persevered through Christ. But fundraising? Begging for money? Surely, this wasn’t glory. This task was monotonous, ordinary. Furthermore, the search for funds was beginning to feel quite removed from the center’s main goal: saving babies and empowering women. And, if you’ll forgive me a moment of blushing transparency, I really didn’t want to sink other people’s money into an event that nobody would show up for. Public humiliation is nothing if not a wonderful motivator.  

And so, after this particular day, I sought the Lord’s face for reassurance (or, more honestly, permission to quit). What I received was conviction – the story of Simon and his tired compliance to someone greater than he was. His words rose from the pages of scripture and into my uneasy heart: “But because you say so, I will let down the nets.” Obedience. This is what Jesus Christ wanted. And wants.

So, we aimed our boat toward deeper waters.

Race Day – April 27th, 2013:

A few numbers for you:

·         136 – the number of runners  that showed up to run for life. We had (quite daringly, we thought) prayed for 100. We would have been elated with 75.

·         5,000 – the number of dollars that went into the center’s bank account to help the women and babies of our county. We had hoped merely to break even with the money we had raised through sponsors, enough to establish the race for future years, but not enough to “pay the center” much.

·         12+ – the number of volunteers who gave up their Saturday morning to serve others.

·         53 – the number of fresh pizzas and donuts that were donated that morning by local businesses to feed racers and  volunteers.

Are there pro-life races with much larger dollar amounts and staggering participation? Yes. But for our tiny community, it was an unbelievable day. For me, it was an exercise in faith.

And there are many stories to tell. Stories of anonymous checks and surprise discounts, of the elderly struggling for 3.1 miles because they believe in life, of the young running to win and discovering a worthier reason to race, of a German officer who heard about The Glow, sent in his race fee, and ran alone through the streets of his neighborhood in Heinsberg – beautiful stories, all.

“When they had [let down the nets], they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. . . When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘Go away from me Lord; I am a sinful man!’” (Luke 5: 6,8, NIV).

Like the end of Simon’s fishing story, Jesus burst our nets. His glory was on display in our small community and we were in awe of His radiance. We caught nothing ourselves; He did everything for Himself. However, let me be clear: the nets would have been burst even if none of the above numbers had happened. For you see, the glory was in the obedience, not in the success. The glory was in embracing the fact that He is worthy simply because He is I AM, whether He chooses to bless us or not.

For me, that April day was the piped icing on a beautiful cake, the elaborate flourish of an expert calligrapher. But those weeks in January, those days in the mines, were where I beheld my Father’s face and learned the glory of ingloriousness, the beauty of the mundane at my Savior’s knee. 

A Kingdom of Comfort, Part 2

I often encounter a single passage of scripture that, simply put, wrecks my entire day with its implications. It’s a good kind of wrecking, though, like when you wreck the deceiver’s plans or when your plans fall through only to allow you to hang out with a friend who really needed someone. This time, the passage is Genesis 24:67. It’s the very end of the discussion of Isaac and Rebekah. There’s a sentence in there that simply blows my mind: “So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.”

WHAT?

You think that’s epic? Check out 2 Corinthians 1:3-5: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” (ESV)

Clearly, from these passages, there is more to our healing and comfort than simply God healing us through the Holy Spirit. We know that our salvation comes with a call to action, and we know that the Gospel was never intended to save one soul; it was intended to be spread. But how amazing is this? Seriously! So that we might be able to comfort those who are in any affliction…

In the realm of relationships, God must be our primary healer and comforter. When we find that our love for someone has been rejected, or gone to waste, He is there to comfort us…and yet, I wonder if one of the beautiful things about the marriage relationship is its amazing ability to show us the closest thing to a divine relationship as we are likely to see this side of the Parousia. There is a certain type of redemption that a new relationship brings – the chance to not make the same mistakes, the chance to honor someone the way we were meant to. This is a rather exciting thing! I think we get way too wrapped up in being “in a place with the Lord” where we are somehow mystically able to date, as if we could somehow correct the problem of our disordered loves by a simple matter of will, once and for all, and never have to deal with such a problem ever again. I think this equates God with a level-up system in a video game, as if at some point we are suddenly able to date, so long as we’ve trained to Level 80 and mastered casting fire spells. Rather, I think God places people in our path for very specific reasons, at a very specific time, regardless of our perceived “readiness” or not. He then prepares us as we walk forward in faith. This is not to say that we date every single person we encounter and are interested in. Rather, it means that, if we find ourselves attracted to someone, but are afraid of our past hurts or failures getting in the way, we trust the Lord to deal with such things, and pray to know His will on how to act. For all we know, He could be preparing to use a new relationship to bring healing for the things that hurt us in the past. I have experienced this, as have many of my friends, especially my friends who are married.

Ultimately, when we come into such a place, we must remember two things: first, that it is about learning to love, about making love a verb that we act on, not about being loved and seeking our own good. And second, it is about approaching every relationship from a standpoint of seeking to glorify the Lord and not ourselves. For all we know, the Lord could be leading us to pursue someone in order to accomplish His will for their lives, or to give them a better understanding of Him. I had an experience like that a number of years ago, where I felt called to pursue a girl, only to realize that my purpose in her life at that time was not to be in a relationship with her, but to encourage her that she was still WORTH being pursued, even after a painful breakup. Since then, my affection for her has been strictly platonic, and that was my call, because that is where I felt the Lord leading. However, had I held myself back from acting on my attraction to her, who knows if she would have remembered how precious she was to the Lord?

Every relationship consists of two people who are broken, regardless of how recently the breaking took place. Besides that, automatically holding ourselves back from a relationship simply because we fear we are not in a place for it is, to a certain degree, a potentially selfish act. If our outlook is about receiving, then this makes sense; however, if our standpoint is to love someone else, then our focus is removed from our own hearts. We must always ask, “Lord, how am I to best represent You in my relationship with this person?” Ultimately, that is the point: incarnating Jesus in each of our relationships. I think it’s very clear from the story of Isaac that, in some circumstances, God provides us with relationships in order for us to be His arms for one another. In this way, we spread the Kingdom of God: not the Kingdom that will come at Parousia, but the one that has already arrived, and is continually arriving – a Kingdom marked by mercy, comfort, and fresh starts. Few things are as powerful for the Kingdom of God as the love of a righteous, God-honoring marriage.

Obviously, all this comes with a very special qualifying statement: this is an observation, and we must be exceedingly, exceedingly careful with our hearts and with the hearts of others. We must always consult the Holy Spirit and trust His leading when it comes to our relationships. This is not at all meant to justify every dating scenario, nor am I trying to claim that this is primarily meant for dating. This all plays itself out in friendships and other platonic relationships in exactly the same terms, and can be interpreted exactly the same for such situations. We also cannot assume that we are always in a place to date, for we often are not; and if you aren’t, don’t try to be in one! This is something that you have to take to the Lord and trust His leading for you individually. This is merely the thoughts of a 22 year-old male, and I am by no means the wisest 22 year-old that has ever lived. Far from it. I simply find that this principle could radically change our attitude about dating relationships into something more resembling bold trust in the Lord and a desire to love others as He wishes for us to.

So we see that God uses others to comfort us, both in romantic relationships and in platonic ones. We were made for one another. God is eternally in community as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our humanity emboldens us toward community with one another: between male and female, as both friends and also as marriage partners; and as the same gender, as brothers (or sisters)-in-arms for the sake of the Kingdom.

But does God heal us fully?

Let us examine that and find out for ourselves in part 3!

A Kingdom of Comfort, Part 1

I’ve recently been hearing so much about humility that it’s forced me to take a moment and reflect. At church the other day, a good friend of mine gave a small talk based upon the premise that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” We all know, upon examining scripture, that this is a reference to Proverbs 3:34. This verse is expounded upon in the writing of James in chapter 4, where it is quoted in verse 6, and built upon in verses 7-10: “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” (ESV)

I love the correlation here between humbling oneself and mourning. I think that, all too often, believers are encouraged to “let go and let God,” to “surrender it to Him,” or to “trust the Lord,” as if those things magically remove the pain from our hearts when we encounter difficult circumstances. This is certainly an act of humbling oneself, but I believe it also becomes one of deception when we refuse to acknowledge grief or sadness. Much like sin (we see this elsewhere in James), grief and hurting can only really be healed when we finally admit that we need healing. Sometimes, we’re like small children who have cut our hands playing somewhere off-limits. We return to our parents, simply because we have nowhere else to go, and instead of raging about our disobedience, our Father simply beckons to us and says, “Show me where you’ve been hurt.”

Part of humility is an unrelenting honesty about the state of our hearts. When we humble ourselves, He is faithful to lift us up; that means that He will be faithful to heal our heavy hearts.

But how precisely does this God, this loving Father, this Great Comforter, heal us?

Does God heal us Himself, by His spirit, independent of other people; does He use new relationships and friends to comfort our hearts; or does He allow some of our hurts to remain, in order that we might find our comfort in the promise of His eventual return at the end of the age? This question could occupy our minds for the better part of our lives without ever truly being answered fully; however, for our purposes here, it is worth discussing. I believe the Lord uses all of these things and more to heal our hearts, and to prepare us for the Kingdom of God, both here-and-now and in the age to come.

Himself

This one should come as fairly obvious, and thus will not be discussed in as much length, for it’s a truth every believer knows, confesses, and takes heart in: He is our Great Comforter (John 14:26, where the Holy Spirit is referred to as our Comfort); He is our refuge (Psalm 46:1-3). The Holy Spirit himself comforts our hearts, speaking through the Word of God. According to Isaiah 58:6-11, when we care for the oppressed and act as justice-seekers for those who need justice, He is faithful to heal us, and our gloom “will be like the noonday”; that is, it will become light. While this message is contextually for the Israelite people, we as 21st century Christians can glean much wisdom from it. Rather than focusing on our own healing, we should seek to share the Lord with others, not only in the preaching of the Gospel but also in taking care of those who need to be taken care of. It echoes something Jesus says in Matthew about seeking first the Kingdom of God, and its righteousness; then, all things will be added to us as well. In this sense, we simply obey, since “to obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Sam.15:22), and trust the Lord to be faithful.

The Lord’s heart to heal is all over Scripture. He is faithful, too.  Even before Israel had a king, in the time of the Judges, He always appointed someone to save His people, even though it was their unfaithfulness that caused their pain. How crazy awesome is that? Even when it is our own sin that causes us to be harmed, He is STILL faithful to heal us! He doesn’t even abandon Israel when she is unfaithful in the years of the United and Divided Monarchies; rather, He is constantly sending prophets who preach a word of forgiveness and repentance to a faithless and loveless bride. One needs simply to read Psalm 40 to realize the depth of God’s commitment to healing and delivering His people: “I waited patiently for the LORD; He inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure” (Verses 1-2, ESV). This is what He does. He heals.

Another key point to remember is the truth that “every good and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17), and therefore, at the basest level, every good thing that brings joy to our hearts, be it a song, a relationship, or even the sunrise, is ultimately from the Lord. Make no mistake: He is the source. He always has been and always will be. This could go on for ages. I’d like to move on to a slightly more controversial topic in part 2!

Living a Life of Thanksgiving

As I sit and write this blog post I am in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The day I arrived I contracted a bacterial strain of pink eye that I am quite confident is one part sickness and three parts pure evil.

The strain is an intense one that is accompanied by flu-like symptoms and that spreads rapidly.  The pink eye moved from one eye into the other in less than 24 hours and left a popped blood vessel and a black eye in its wake. Since that time the bacteria has also moved into my right ear, causing an ear infection and temporary loss of hearing.

I’ve been bed-ridden for most of my trip thus far due to the illness and, as a result, have had ample time to sit and reflect. In my reflection I realized…I live quite the pampered life here.

For starters, I have the ability to travel and see first-hand things that many only read about . . . or never even learn of. I’ve been to five countries in the last four weeks and have the blessing of being reunited with friends that live on the other side of the world.

Additionally, I am staying in a safe home, protected by a locked gate. The walls are thick and sturdy, unlike the sticks that many of the homes in the Cambodian provinces are constructed from. The floors are also finished, offering a cleaner living environment than the traditional dirt floor allows.

As I lay here (on a hard, but clean mattress), a fan is blowing on me to provide relief from the sweltering heat. That’s right . . . I also have the blessing of electricity . . . a luxury that many in third world countries have never experienced in their homes.

I am able to wash dishes and brush my teeth from the sink in the kitchen because it has a built-in double water filtration system that makes the water safe. Yes, this may be the only sink in the house where that is the case, but still, in the kitchen there is no need to boil my water and manually filter it before cooking or washing.

And speaking of cooking . . . I have the blessing of a stove here! The gas burners may only offer two settings (high and higher . . . no low or medium setting exists) but the convenience of having multiple burners that turn on with the flip of a switch far outweighs the challenges of cooking over a small fire outside.

Not only can I cook indoors, but I also have the ability to shower indoors. Sure, there is no hot water or actual bathtub so the water is like ice and gets the entire bathroom floor wet, but at least there is a drain in my fully finished floor!

And, when I need to go to the local market the tuk-tuk driver comes directly to my door so that I don’t have to walk the muddy street out to the main road. He even helps me carry my purchases. Such service!

As I prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving halfway around the world from my family this year, some of these blessings that would otherwise be easily overlooked are at the forefront of my mind. I am learning what it means to live with a heart of thankfulness and praise. (I’m even learning to be thankful for sickness that forces me to slow down and that helps to remind me of the many blessings that God has given me.)

I pray that this holiday season (and every day) you will learn to do the same . . . minus the pink eye, because, let’s be honest, I would never wish that on anyone! 🙂

“Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness: come before him with joyful songs. Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.” –Psalm 100