Saturday, March 22, 2008

It's Friday...but Sunday's coming!

When I was a kid, I always looked forward to Easter morning.

The Easter Bunny had the habit of leaving me a trail of jellybeans to my basket every year, so as soon as my eyes opened, I'd see that colorful candy trail leading tantalizingly out of my bedroom. I remember the great anticipation of that day because as soon as I awoke, there would be evidence of my path to treasure, to reward.

But as life has progressed, I have grown needy of a greater treasure than just some candy leading to other candy. I need hope that has substance and doesn't dead-end in the bathroom cabinet with fake plastic grass. When I awake on Easter morning as a grown-up, what do I have to hope for? What trail do I follow now? Where is my direction, my purpose, my help when the world grows very dark, when evil steps in and has me pinned down, helpless, out of control?

That's why I have grown to anticipate Good Friday. It's a very dark holiday, but one that I love because it is the only holiday that doesn't attempt to cover over pain. There is no smile you have to put on to please your relatives, no gifts to buy that you can't afford, no traveling, no meal you are too tired to make much less eat, no cards to exchange or greetings of "Happy Good Friday!" required. No decorations. No expectations. It is a quiet holiday that passes by most people as just a fleeting thought in their busy days before Easter. Ah, my calendar says its Good Friday! Better pick up the ham at the grocery store tomorrow!

This holiday is not for false merriment or cheer. But it is the acknowledgement of true suffering, true despair, the darkest of the dark hours in all of history. It was when God himself, the Creator, was murdered by his own creation. We humans, woven together by God's hand in the womb, shouted, "Crucify!" When the guards struck Jesus, shouting "Prophecy! Who hit you?" Jesus knew not only the man who hit him but had counted every hair on his head, knew his mind, knew his family, knew his heart.

As he hung there on the cross in between two common criminals, Jesus prayed to the Father to forgive us, for we did not know what we were doing. He cried out. And with full power and authority over all that was going on, he voluntarily relinquished his blameless life as payment for a debt we, as sinners, could not pay, saying, "It is finished."

When I heard this story in past years, I took for granted that this was the Easter story. I knew the ending, and that allowed me to unemotionally gloss over the great drama preceding the final victory. I'd never thought about how I would feel as a woman bystander on that Friday, with no knowledge of what was soon to come-- as a woman who had loved Jesus, walked with him and trusted him. How did Mary Magdalene feel? Without knowing what will happen next, the crucifixion of Christ is hopeless. Death is the final word. There is nothing left. This man I had put my hope in as God and Savior, as my Messiah, has turned out to be taken captive, beaten, mocked, murdered. Where is the power he promised? Where is his kingom? Where is HE when I NEED Him most!? In her utter grief, how confused and lonely she must have felt-- this man, this God she so dearly loved.

How I empathize with those feelings. There are times in life when such terrible suffering takes place, when such profoundly evil circumstances flash across the evening news that we go numb watching and can't understand. "We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time." Rom. 8:22 If we are in the agonizingly painful situation or touched by it, it can appear to us as if God is dead. Where is he when we need Him most?! Good Friday shows us where he is. He is suffering with us. He is voluntarily taking part in our worst pain.

But Good Friday points to something even better. Though he is in that darkness with us, he is also planning the greatest and most unexpected triumph of all time. We cannot perceive it when we are living through each painful moment of Friday, but the redemptive plan is fully in motion.

As Mary approached that grave Easter morning, she still thought he was dead. She was preparing to have to work with many women to try to roll away the heavy stone in order to anoint his body with spices. She was as tired and lonely as ever with days to have mulled over the horror, the abandonment, and the disappointment of that Black Friday. But when she neared the tomb, in one instant her whole world changed, and so did ours. The tomb was empty! Angels declared what her heart wanted to believe but her mind could not comprehend: He has risen! Jesus is no longer dead. He is alive!

Later that morning, she became the first person ever (a young woman!) to see and speak with the resurrected Christ. As he tenderly spoke her name, what must she have felt? This sudden rush of adrenaline? The quickening of her heart? What an electric current must have run through her veins when she forgot her agonizing days of despair in that one moment. Death had been conquered. Her Savior was standing before her, and OH how he LOVED her. To come to her personally and to ask her to be the first to run and tell the news! To come to her before he had returned to heaven to be with the Father! How he loved her to speak her name so tenderly. It was the end of mourning and crying. It was Easter morning. Joy was here. There wasn't just a trail to follow. There was a divine man who loved her personally and could not be destroyed, even by the worst evil.

I love Mary's testimony-- I envy her sometimes-- how she saw his face, heard his voice, spent time in his physical presence. But when he died, she also must have been so tempted to feel think that God's work was over that day. Like Mary, we don't understand sometimes when all we see is the cross part of our lives. We carry it, and we get so tired. The burdens are so great. The despair and the agony are overwhelming. We have been abandoned, evil is winning, and we are broken. That is Good Friday. But after we have waited and grieved and mourned, there is the promise of Sunday. And we will see Him face to face if we don't turn away-- if we continue to walk (sometimes crawl) in our grief, trusting him, having faith that he has triumphed over Death, over Sin, and will come back for us-- he will come to you if you repent and believe in Him-- personally, softly speaking your name as you turn and see your Easter morning hope brighter than it's ever been before.

Psalm 30:5
...weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Narnia Winter

If you've never read the Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, then consider this my official recommendation. Lewis is a masterful storyteller for any age and uses allegory in a powerful way that sort of sneaks up on you in the enjoyment of the tales.

In the most famous of the Narnia stories, "The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe," an evil witch curses Narnia to a season of winter that lasts forever. But when Aslan comes as the Christ figure, evil is defeated and the thaw becomes imminent.

I feel like I am in a spiritual winter right now as I wait for Christ to melt the curse of evil that coats my family and our lives like ice, so these pictures have great meaning for me. I wanted to share them with you!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Prayer Request

I had an entirely different post planned for today (with pictures!), so check back for that soon. However, just now, while reading a touching blog called "Bring the Rain" written by Angie Smith, I read in one succinct sentence the exact prayer request I would like to make for myself. Angie is the wife of amazing singer Todd Smith from the group Selah. She is pregnant with a terminally ill baby and is using her divine gift with words to express both her pain and her hope. Reading about her honest deep grief along with her faith in Christ has been very helpful to me.

Here is what she wrote that I would like to ask for my own situation:

Pray for guidance in finding the middle ground between "planning for loss,"
and "hoping for miracles." It has proved to be the most difficult part of my
spiritual walk thus far.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Yo-Yo Hope

I'm tired. I ache. I'm weary. Nothing will ever change.

I'm hopeful! I'm confident in my Lord! I see victory with the eyes of faith!

How often do I bounce between one extreme and the other? Some days I feel completely at the mercy of my volatile feelings. One day praising, the next day despairing. How am I supposed to handle my feelings and my faith?

Recently, I was urged to watch the movie "Facing the Giants." My mom's friend sent it to her, and my mom (very eagerly) suggested that I watch it. (Do you love it, Mom? Do you really love it? :) )

The movie was a typical come-from-behind, against-all-odds football movie. The message was: With faith, you can achieve the impossible. It was well done and heartwarming. I was rooting for the characters and had tears in my eyes more than once. What made the movie even more spectacular was that it was made by a church full of volunteers, not professionals. The quality of the movie showed that that church had achieved their own miracle with God by creating such a great faith-based feature film that was shown in theaters.

There was something about the movie that bothered me though. I couldn't figure it out the whole time I was watching it, and then suddenly, when I was watching the special feature, it hit me. Each person in the church was talking a little about their involvement in the film, how excited they were about God moving, and how they personally were impacted during the shooting. Though almost every experience was a good one, there was an actor in the film who had tragedy in his own life following the completion of the project. He lost his wife to lupus.

As the tears streamed down this man's face, claiming his wife had amazing faith as her body deteriorated, it was obvious how much pain he was in, yet how strong his own faith in Christ was. He loved the Lord, and though his wife was taken before her 30th birthday, leaving behind 4 young children, he still praised God.

That testimony made a deep impression on me, and was the hammer that hit the nail on the head of my inner conflict. What had bothered me about the movie was that, unlike real life sometimes, everything worked out perfectly in the end. It portrayed faith in God as a magic bullet for the impossible problems of this world-- namely winning unwinnable football games, overcoming infertility, getting a new car, getting a raise, having people's bad opinion of you improve... etc.

Now, having been on the receiving end of God's magnificent and overflowing generosity for most of my life, I was tempted to believe this was true. After all, in the past I've had struggles that literally were impossible to overcome, but after praying, doors opened for me in amazing ways. I literally got through college that way when I was disabled with chemical sensitivity, and I can recall many school assignments that received much needed divine intervention. :) The touch of God's hand of blessing always seemed to intervene immediately whenever I asked in prayer.

But these past few years, I've experienced a whole new side of Christian faith-- the faith of praying for, but not receiving-- the faith of pain that does not end, it just gets worse-- the faith that continues on hoping in desperate need, yet with no miracles day after day. Has God become stubborn, or stopped listening to my prayers? No. God never changes and delights in answering my prayers. So what is the problem right now?

This is not a pleasant kind of faith, and honestly, I don't really like this part of Christianity too much, but I'm in with Christ for better or worse, so I'm trying to learn how to integrate this into my once neatly boxed and gift-wrapped beliefs.

This pain with no fix has really put a crimp into my walk with God that has forced me to sit down and iron out: "What now?" What happens when God doesn't take away the storm? What happens when he leaves you in it, and not just for days or months, but for years? What happens when you don't think you can go on, and he says, "Go on." anyway?

That man in the film who lost his wife was the most comforting part about the entire DVD for me because what he did was confirm that the worst CAN and DOES sometimes happen to Christians. Christ came into THIS world, not a fantasy world where everything works out all the time. Christ himself was persecuted, abandoned and betrayed by those he loved, felt abandoned by God, suffered, didn't want to take the suffering he had to endure... His human struggles mirror our own if we look closely enough. And though he intervened and healed so many others on earth, he didn't do a thing to change his own circumstances. Instead, "He entrusted himself to him who judges justly." (1Peter 2:23)

Why is this testimony of loss comforting? Many years ago, in my safe bubble of suburban bliss, that man's story of loss would have made me cringe and want to fast forward. I wouldn't have wanted to consider that something like that would even be allowed to happen, because if it could happen to him, something like that could eventually happen to me. My faith wasn't built for that. But now that it is happening-- now that I am facing loss, and persecution, and abandonment-- to know that Christ came and endured, and conquered these things-- that gives me hope. It's not a hope that my circumstances will change, but a hope that I can endure my circumstances whatever they are. This hope makes my faith more complete. I'm now not worried about avoiding tragedy or skirting the issues of suffering. Those things aren't lurking out there anymore, like monsters in the closet who could pounce at any moment. They are already upon me, and Christ is becoming my sufficiency through it. He is tough enough to take my tears and the punching of my little helpless fists into the air and my angry protests, and he can still be God and still love me through this.

I think what I'm seeing is the immensity of God and how I thought I was looking at him before, but what I was actually seeing was just the reflection of the corner of his sandal. My eyes are drawing up to see a bigger faith in a bigger God-- the same loving God that allowed his dear friend and cousin John the Baptist to be jailed and beheaded, but chose to raise Lazarus from the grave. My question to him continues to be-- which one am I? The John or the Lazarus? Will I see my miracle on this earth? Or will I have to wait for heaven?

How do I prepare my heart for the possibility of ultimate earthly loss while simultaneously continuing to believe with my whole heart for my miraculous earthly deliverance? It's sky-high hope with no safety net for the long possible fall.

I strive for being honest here while still sharing the amazing hope of Christ that lives in me. To be any less would be a disservice to anyone reading. I don't have all the answers, and I don't always feel the "right" things. When I see feelings of doubt and uncertainty and normal human emotion in people, it makes it so much easier for me to relate and to appreciate someone's faith. It means they have wrestled with the inconsistencies and injustices of this earth, and, with their minds firmly aware of all the evil that is around us, can say confidently, "I choose Christ, and out of all this suffering on earth, I know he will make something better than I could have ever imagined."

Out of ashes, he can bring beauty. Out of my pain, God can bring his Son glory.

This is a small part of the song "Voice of Truth" by Casting Crowns, which God graciously reminded me of today-- echoing the message from the movie "Facing the Giants."

Oh, what I would do to have
the kind of strength it takes
To stand before a giant
with just a sling and a stone
Surrounded by the sound of a thousand warriors
shaking in their armor
Wishing they'd have had the strength to stand
But the giant's calling out my name and he laughs at me
Reminding me of all the times I've tried before and failed
The giant keeps on telling me time and time again
"Boy you'll never win,
you'll never win."

But the voice of truth tells me a different story
the voice of truth says "do not be afraid!"
and the voice of truth says "this is for my glory"
Out of all the voices calling out to me
I will choose to listen and believe the voice of truth