tough stuff

Yet I Will Praise Him: Grief, Church, and God

Yet I Will Praise Him. Thoughts on grief, the church, and God. via

The past week has been a hard one in the life of our church.

Over the past several days, we watched and prayed as one of our youth faced insurmountable complications from a heart valve replacement surgery. We prayed for a miracle. We wept. We begged for healing. And we waited. 

As we gathered together to worship yesterday morning, we got the news that we didn't want to hear. We stood and sang songs of God's faithfulness with tears streaming down our faces, all the while grieving for the life that had been taken from us.

The ties that bind a church together are sometimes hard to see. Like any family, we have more than our fair share of squabbles, but the thing that I love about the church is the way we take care of our own when it counts. When one part of the body of Christ hurts, we all hurt. We all feel the pain. We all feel the loss.

Yesterday was hard. But it was so, so good to be together while we grieved. To kneel together at the altar and pray for peace and comfort. To stand together and proclaim God's goodness in the midst of heart-shattering grief. To bow together as the tears overflowed.

There's a long road ahead for Cole's family. The days will be long, and the nights longer, but I pray that God would use us, the people of their church, to walk beside them on the road to healing. This is what it means, I think, to bear one another's burdens.

The promise of the gospel is not that we would never know sorrow or pain but that we would never face it alone. The gospel promises that God is not only with us in our suffering, but also that he shelters us in the darkest parts of the storm. I'm convinced that he sometimes uses the church to do just that. It's one of the ordinary means through which God gives us extraordinary grace. 

To say that I'm close to the family would be a lie. I know some of them better than others, but I knew Cole only in passing. What I knew of him made me smile. He was a funny kid with a quick wit who wasn't afraid to use it. Although I don't know them well, I do know what it is to be a mom, and imagining the total devastation of losing a child took my breath away, drove me to my knees, and forced me to cry out on their behalf.

I wept yesterday, not just for the loss of such a bright light, but also because we live in a world where things like this happen. Jesus lived, died, and rose again so that death could no longer have victory over us. But sometimes, as we live and breathe in the space between his resurrection and the time when he will finally make all things new, that promise seems so very far away.

And yet, it's the promise to which we must hold on tight. Without it, we are lost.

The book of Job tells the story of a man who lost everything. In one crushing disaster after another, he goes from being the man who has it all to the man who has nothing left. Somehow, though, he manages to maintain hope. I want to have hope like that. Shane & Shane sing a beautiful song about it. I've included it here so you can listen.

The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. Though he slays meyet I will hope in him. (Job 1:21 and 13:15, paraphrased).

Our hearts are broken today, but thanks be to God that brokenness doesn't get the final word. He does. And he has promised to bind up all our broken hearts, to mend the places that are torn, to wipe away every tear from every eye, and to make everything right in the end.

Today, and every day, until that day, I will praise him. What else can I do?

Until next time, grace and peace.

When Darkness Looms: An Open Call to the Church

When Darkness Looms: An Open Call to the Church to step up and BE the light in the darkness.

There have been many times over the past year or so that I've been completely bewildered by the world I wake up in each morning. It seems as if it's all going to hell in a handbasket. And quite quickly, at that.

The news is bad and just gets worse. Christians are facing genocide in the Middle East. Terrorists are striking major cities left and right. People are fleeing from homes and countries, only to be rejected by the rest of the world.

And even here, in the United States, where things are supposed to be better, it's not. As if the worst presidential race in history isn't bad enough, it's quite apparent that we are a nation divided. Not just on one or two hot button issues, but on everything. We can't agree on anything. We squabble. We fight it out on social media. We point fingers. We lay blame. We call names. We spew vitriol. And worst of all, we kill.

It's horrifying and tragic and senseless. As I sit here in horror at the name-calling and mud-slinging and judgment-casting and hate-mongering and people-slaying, I think to myself, "This is what the Bible means when it says that the world is broken."

It's in times like this, as sin runs rampant in our hearts and homes, ripping apart communities, nations, and yes, even the world itself, that I see just how much we really need Jesus. The world is broken before us. It's aching and bleeding and groaning for redemption. Do you see it? Can you hear it?

The darkness is thick, for sure, but don't let it fool you. It is not so thick that the light of Christ can't pierce it. It's so important now, more than ever, for the Church to actually BE the Church, because it's precisely in the midst of this terrible brokenness that we are most needed. We must be brokers of peace, bringers of justice, and bearers of light. 

We must love others without flinching, without regard to skin color or background. We must lift our voices in outcry against injustice, whether we have experienced it personally or not. We must open our doors to those who are different, be they refugees from around the world or our neighbors of another color from down the street.

We must present to the world an alternative to the brokenness. We must be a vision of heaven on earth. We must demonstrate that God's love is big enough and powerful enough to overcome even the most impenetrable of barriers dividing us. We must show the world that the blood of Christ is strong enough to instill peace in place of enmity, light in place of darkness, and love in place of hate.

If we who claim to be followers of God will not step up and do this, then we shouldn't be surprised when the rest of the world wants nothing to do with him. We have stood idly by for long enough. It's time for us to be the kind of people that God has created us to be. He has raised us up for such a time as this. This is the reason for our existence—to point to the light when darkness looms near.

Oh, Lord, help us. Our hearts are shattered. Everywhere we look, Father, we see pain, injustice, and brokenness. Bind up our bleeding hearts, Lord and mend what is broken in us and among us. Help us stitch together the ragged edges of a country and world that have been ripped apart at the seams. Oh Lord, the violence, the killings, the hatred, and the vitriol are all too much to bear. We are devastated, and we are lost.

But we are not without hope. You have loved this broken and bleeding world so much that you gave your life up for her. Lord, I pray that you will help the Church rise up in this present darkness. Overcome our differences, Lord, and unify us in Christ. Help us be your hands and feet. Help us to bind up the brokenhearted. Help us to broker peace. Help us to show the world that your love is more powerful than the sin that divides and destroys. Let us be a vision of heaven on earth. Help us, Father, to be your people, to be bearers of light and harbingers of hope in the thickest places of darkness.

Fill us with your Spirit, God. Do through us what we cannot do ourselves. To your name be praise and glory and honor now and forevermore. Amen.

Until next time, grace and peace.

The Ordinary Shape of An Abundant Life

The Ordinary Shape of an Abundant Life by Leslie Ann Jones

Early Friday morning I got a text message from my mom telling me that their next door neighbor had died during the night. Though he was older, he certainly wasn't old, and his death came as a surprise. He had been sick, and, feeling cold and tired, he turned in early for the night. When his wife checked on him a few hours later, he had slipped away.

A few nights later, I found myself unable to sleep, so I got up and read Jojo Moyes' Me Before You, a novel that can only be described as poignant and heartbreaking. The book opens with a horrible accident. Will Traynor is hailing a taxi near his London home when he unwittingly steps in front of a motorcycle hurtling toward him. In an instant, the life that Will had known, a life of moxie and determination, adventure and success, drifts away like a vapor in the wind.

I can't stop thinking about it.

My mind keeps mulling over these two unrelated stories. One the very real story of a good and kind man that I have known for 20 years. The other a made-up tale of a man whose life looked nothing like my neighbor's. But despite their obvious differences, the stories have a commonality that I just can't get past. They are a stark reminder that life can tilt in the space between one breath and the next. That we honestly don't know what the future holds. That everything really can, and oftentimes does, change in an instant.

The prophet Isaiah said that all people are like grass and that our beauty is like that of flowers, which, as anyone who has ever potted a plant knows, is quite temporary. Flowers bloom once a season, and their brilliance is stunning, but it's also fleeting. It lasts for just a moment. And then it's gone.

The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. Isaiah 40:7-8

It's in light of this frailty that the second half of Isaiah's statement gains its meaning. Our lives are over and done with in the blink of an eye, but God? He's forever. His word? It's reliable. 

And the word that I'm clinging to today is the word of Jesus, who said that he came not just that we may have life, but that we may have it abundantly. John 10:10

I think sometimes we read this verse and focus on the end game. The abundant life he's speaking of must be eternity, right? Well, the short answer is yes. Eternal life is by its very definition abundant. But abundant life doesn't start after death. It starts now

All of this has been tumbling around in my mind and leading me to scrutinize my life in the light of the truth. I mean, let's be honest. My life is a lot of things, but abundant?

It's an altogether ordinary life, but it's a good life. It's not always exciting. It's rarely adventurous. But it is full of the goodness of God. And it's my prayer that as I grow in the grace and truth of the Lord, that he will continue to fill my life from the wellspring that never runs dry. You see, in abundant life, God takes our oh-so-human frailty and brokenness and replaces it with his very own indomitable vitality. It draws its abundance from Him.

An abundant life is one that is so filled with the grace of God that it spills over its boundaries and nips at the toes of bystanders. An abundant life is one that is so bright with the light of Christ that it pierces the surrounding darkness and beckons others to safety. An abundant life is one that is so overwhelmed by the goodness of God that it simply cannot hold it in. It serves others. It loves well. It brings joy. It seeks the greater good. And it always, always, always points to Jesus.

Abundant life looks different for all of us because we're all beautifully unique. There is no one-size-fits-all picture of an abundant life. The fullness of life that God has prepared for me to lean into is not the same as the fullness that he has prepared for you. It's as different as our personalities and as individualized as our fingerprints. 

But it's also the same. Because if we're living abundantly, then it means that we're each allowing God to fill us with his love, light, grace, mercy, kindness, compassion, and truth so that we may in turn share the bounty with others. And the only way that can happen is if we surrender our lives to him and allow him to fill it as he sees fit.

If you're doing that, then I'd say that your life, no matter how ordinary, is abundant indeed. Now go live it.

Until next time, grace and peace.