Tag Archives: family

Messy Genealogy

family-treeSo much of life is colored by how we tell the story. Which bits get highlighted and which details get left out determine how we interpret the events being narrated. Each historian has the opportunity (and the power) to weave the themes they want their audience to be influenced by into their telling of the story.

So when Matthew’s gospel opens with a genealogy that highlights the roles of five women in the bringing of the Messiah, we can’t help but sit up and take notice. What to a modern reader might seem like yet another male-dominated list of names tracing the royal lineage of Jesus would have stood out to a first-century reader as a radical departure from Jewish tradition.

1 This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham: 2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3 Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, 4 Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5 Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, 6 and Jesse the father of King David. David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife…
Matthew 1:1-6

In this ancient patriarchal society, genealogical records only mentioned fathers’ names. To be fair, they didn’t necessarily even mention all of the men in the family line, often skipping over a few generations in an attempt to clean up and condense rather complicated family records. At first glance Matthew’s opening genealogy fits this pattern, presenting a tidied-up version of Jesus’ lineage such that it fits into three neat historical categories, each fourteen generations long.

But while Matthew opens his account with a traditional accounting for who Jesus was based on his lineage, he radically diverts from the normal way of doing it by including several of the significant women through whose wombs the seed was passed. Their names interrupt the tidy cadence of the genealogy like signposts popping up in a perfect line of garden vegetables. They simply can’t be missed.

This can be no accident. Far from tossing a bone to the ladies so they can feel somewhat included, Matthew is throwing the spotlight on these unusual women.
And unusual is too gentle a word to describe them. The first three were Gentiles and four out of five are recorded in the Old Testament as engaging in sexually scandalous behavior–not exactly the sort of women to be proud of in describing the purity of one’s pedigree.

So why would the opening lines of a gospel emphasize these particular woman as integral to the identity of Jesus? Is it merely, as some have hypothesized, to show that God can use anyone, even the lowliest and dirtiest of people, to bring about His good purposes?

While that may be true of all of us, settling so quickly on such a conclusion severely shortchanges the significance of these great women of the faith. They aren’t included simply as passive participants in the line of Christ. They are there because of their heroic feats of faith, their unique contributions something that God (and Matthew) considered worthy of honorable mention.

Just as Abraham expressed his faith in God by sticking with Sarah to produce the promised seed, Tamar expressed her faith by sticking with her unfaithful father-in-law Judah, seducing him into fulfilling the promise that he should have kept through his youngest son. And because of her (albeit unorthodox) initiative, Judah commended her as more righteous than he.

By faith both the prostitute Rahab and the penniless immigrant Ruth (stigmatized not only as childless but also as a widow) recognized the superiority of Yahweh over their own gods, forsaking their national identity, their cultural heritage, and their own lives to join themselves to Him, even when that meant throwing themselves under the bus for His less-than-perfect people.

And what do we say of Bathsheba? Actually, it almost seems that credit is being given to her jilted husband (who, by the way, was a Gentile). Uriah’s loyal service-to-the-death for Yahweh and His anointed, especially in the face of his king’s double betrayal, earned him an indirect role (and an honorable mention) in the lineage of Christ.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.
Romans 12:1-2

Despite the way our tellings of Christ’s story tend to ignore and overlook these messy members of His family, Matthew’s gospel places them front and center. Each of these women represents not only God’s grace to the sexually impure and the social outcaste, they also represent the value God places on faith-filled, whole-bodied devotion. These are the examples He holds up to us of the kind of faith that pleases Him: women (and men) who offered their bodies to God as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing in His sight.

…and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah.
Matthew 1:16

So when we get to Mary’s offer of her body to God to use as He pleased, we see how it stood in a long line of similar women. Her readiness to offer up her reputation, her womanhood, and her very heart to His purposes earned her the title “most blessed of women” and the painful privilege of nurturing the Son of God. Hers was the example her Son would follow as He, too, submitted His body to God’s good but painful plan.

As Matthew’s opening genealogy so beautifully portrays, the heritage into which Jesus took birth was one of faith-filled, godly mothers. This telling of Jesus’ story confronts our andro-centric assumptions concerning who we identify as the key figures in redemptive history. It also challenges us as men and women to step up to the heritage of sacrificial faith that is ours as adopted members of Christ’s family.

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An Awkward Feast

turkeyYesterday’s BBC headlines opined that this could be the most awkward Thanksgiving ever. Following months of heated debates, antagonistic facebook posts, and threats of leaving the country from both sides, American families may find it difficult to sit around the same table and talk with each other again.

I have to admit that I have been shocked by the nastiness this election dredged up in all of us. I heard in our conversations a heartlessness and cruelty towards the opinions and interests of others that should have shamed us, but didn’t. In fact, we modeled for our kids (and for the watching world) that it is perfectly acceptable to mock, slander, verbally attack, and basically dehumanize whomever we disagree with. It is almost as if, for a suspended period of time, we chucked out all our Christian morals about the fruit of the Spirit and supported the humanist assumption that all is fair in love, war, and politics.

In the wake of all that, how do we regather as families, churches, and communities who have been torn right down the middle by our political battles? Do we simply pretend like we didn’t say the things we said? Do we confront each other with “I told you so”s or “I can’t believe you would”s? Or do we simply avoid each other, silently retreating from those we have come to see as the enemy?

Having watched Christians on both sides of the emotionally-charged fence navigate the aftermath of the Scottish Referendum and of Brexit, I would suggest that we approach this Thanksgiving feast the way Christians throughout the ages have been called to approach our Eucharistic feast.

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God… Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
Ephesians 4:29-32

More important than preparing our turkeys, we need to start by preparing our own hearts, asking ourselves, “In what ways have I contributed to the problem? What attitudes or assumptions have I held on to that may be unnecessarily distancing others? Have my rants and jokes and snide comments communicated the love Christ bears for them?” If we start by working the planks out of our own eyes, we may have a better chance of seeing each other with renewed compassion.

…remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
Ephesians 2:12-13

Zooming in on ourselves is a critical first step for creating humble pie, but zooming out allows us to remember why we bother with a feast in the first place. We come to the Lord’s Table because we are broken and needy refugees, desperate for His healing touch, His cleansing blood, and His life-restoring presence. We come because our relationship with Him gets strained or distant and is in constant need of renewal. When we come confessing our sins and sincerely seeking His face, He never turns us away or hides behind distancing excuses. He places Himself in our hands, once again offering us the opportunity to both delight and hurt Him (which we inevitably do). And because of Christ’s conciliatory posture, we (who just as often behave like His enemies as we do His friends) can again be at peace with God.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.
Ephesians 2:14-16

And as sweet as this peace with God is, it is not complete until we share it with each other. After all, communion was never meant to be a private dining experience. I am not the only one He invites to His table! If I claim to love God, then I must love those whom He loves. If I care about what is important to Him, then I will invest myself in reconciling the relationships that He poured out His blood to make peace between.

For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household…
Ephesians 2: 17-19

I hear Christians from opposing political camps talking as if they can no longer share fellowship with each other. For many it is the pain and betrayal they feel from those who seem to have blatantly compromised their Christian values by the way they have behaved or voted. For some it is simply the inability to understand why certain issues would be such a big deal to the exclusion of others. Regardless, as those who have been invited to sit together at God’s table, it is simply not an option to hold on to our relationship with Him without also working to reconcile our relationships with each other.

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
Ephesians 4:1-3

We might be tempted to wonder why God would include at His table such an odd assortment of guests. What with our disparity of cultural values and political positions, not to mention emotional temperaments, personal perspectives, and communication styles, how can He expect us to all sit together and enjoy a peaceful conversation? It may be that we have to do a lot of teeth-gritting as we put up with each other, praying frantically that the Spirit will override the divisive reactions which naturally come springing out of our lips and replace them with His own fruit.

God never promised that diversity would be easy, or that unity would come naturally. Overcoming barriers of caste, gender, race, nationalism, and political persuasion to gather His people from every tribe, tongue, and nation into one happily dining family is nothing short of a miracle. It takes constant forgiveness (even of those who don’t know they need it) and vigilant sensitivity to the fears and pain of others.

But this is exactly the awkward social situation into which He invites us to come and dine. And as our stubborn love keeps us together at the table, the miracle of His grace gets put on display for a watching world to see.

The Infertility Gospel

Again, Lord?

My heart breaks each time I hear news of a couple losing another unborn child. One loss is enough, but as the death toll rises, grief stacks on grief until hope reaches its breaking point.

To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Genesis 3:16

What happened to the promise you made to our first parents? I know that sin didn’t make childbearing easy, but you set our hopes on the fact that we would eventually succeed. After all, isn’t fruitfulness what you created us for?

So God created mankind in his own image… God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.
Genesis 1:28

Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.
Psalm 8:2

For Christian men and women, the desire to have children is so much more than just starry-eyed dreams of tiny toes and baby announcements. It is the fulfillment of our God-given commission to reproduce little images of ourselves, to love and nurture them as He does us, and to fill the earth with their serving hands and worshiping voices. Our bodies and our hearts long for this like a sculptor’s fingers long for a bit of clay or a writer longs for pen and paper.

So when we give childbearing our best shot, when we once more risk the pain of failure or loss, what are we to think when God doesn’t bless us with a living child? What hope can we cling to for the woman whose womb won’t carry or for the couple who simply can’t conceive?

This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.
Acts 8:33-35

Strangely, I think this is exactly the issue the Ethiopian eunuch was wrestling with as he pored over Isaiah’s words on the road out of Jerusalem. In them he found a kindred spirit—another Servant whose “life” had been humiliatingly cut off and who found Himself without the honor or joy of offspring. And yet this Man’s story didn’t dead end there. If there was hope for Him, perhaps there was also a way forward for this infertile man.

And somehow the good news about Jesus that Philip was able to explain to the eunuch satisfied that quest. Was the good news simply that Jesus had died to take away his sins, or is there something in the gospel that also addressed the pain and disgrace of his infertility?

…and though the LORD makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. Therefore I will give him a portion among the great…
Isaiah 53:10-12

Looking further in the passage he had been reading, the answer begins to dawn. After the anguish of His suffering and the dark night of the grave, the Servant would somehow find Himself with more children than any one body could produce. Because of His self-sacrificing investment in the lives of many, He would be honored among the great patriarchs who normally only achieved that status through their impressive numbers of children.

As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.” He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”
Luke 11:27-28

The good news about infertility is that, in Christ, family and childbearing have been redefined. Mothers and brothers are now those who have been brought near through His blood and who share in the work of nurturing and teaching the rest of God’s children. Fathers are those who mentor and shape those who are younger in the faith (or not yet in the faith.) And children are those whom we have the pleasure of watching as they grow in faith and fruitbearing.

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus… To Timothy my true son in the faith…
1 Timothy 1:2
Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too.
Romans 16:13

Yes, our hearts and our bodies still long to produce biological children to hold and to love. And of course we ache and grieve when we are unable to do so. But that is not the only way to go about fulfilling our created purpose. The joy of all believers, both those with and without babies of their own, is that the Great Commission redefines the Creation Mandate. We get to spread our tents wider than we could have ever imagined, loving children that were not born to us and investing ourselves in the nurture of people with whom we would not otherwise have shared a bond.

“Sing, barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,” says the LORD. “Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back…
Isaiah 54:1-2

I have witnessed this joy in the face of the Nigerian man who told me that though none of his biological children are still living, he is the father of more children than he can count (including three of the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram whom he took in after their rescue). I feel this joy as God brings to me exponentially more spiritual children to counsel and mentor than the four unborn children I lost. And I cling to this joy for the sake of those whose wombs are bare and whose cradles remain empty.

The gospel for the eunuch is the good news for you. In God’s family, you can have more kids than the rest of us.

Warts and All: On Why I Love the Church

853664e3b6e531ef7a9fc711013888ddI hear a growing chorus of frustration with Christianity and the “the church.” It pops up in blog posts, surfaces in individual conversations, and seeps through the cracks of our decaying religious moral. And for the most part, I would add my voice to the critiques.

Sadly, the church rarely lives up to its noble calling. In far too many cases truth has been wielded with all the tenderness of a baseball bat, authority structures have abused and suppressed the very sheep they were entrusted to nurture and empower, and programs, systems, and corporate culture have squeezed the very soul out of those who come seeking God.

Denying the church’s flaws isn’t helpful. But neither is dismissing it because of them.

I have seen (and smelled) the underbelly of too many Christian organizations and churches to be naïve to the painful realities involved in any human community. There isn’t a group that I have been part of that doesn’t have its casualties. At this point I’m not sure any story of Christian abuse, neglect, insensitivity, or betrayal can shock me. My own experiences have trained me in just how damaging the church can be.

Denying the church’s flaws isn’t helpful. But neither is dismissing it because of them.

An ecclesiology which sees the church primarily as a filling station for our individual spirituality will lead us to easily and quickly quit on it when it does not scratch where we itch. We have bought in to a consumerist paradigm which uses marketing strategies to grow churches and business models to run them. No wonder we are inclined to take our business elsewhere when their services no longer suit us!

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
Ephesians 4:2-6

But despite all its toxic boils and cancerous perversions, the church is still the Church. It is the body of Christ, the family of our Heavenly Father. That’s not just a nice metaphor designed to give us all a warm fuzzy at the end of a special service. It’s the reality that the Trinity set in motion when the Father sacrificed His Firstborn to bring many more sons and daughters into the family. It’s the reality that we breathe in and out as we enjoy the benefits of the Spirit’s presence with each of us.

For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
I Corinthians 12:13-14, 24-27

God doesn’t offer us individual package deals. As much as we like to think about how much He loves each of us as His special child, the implications of that relationship are that we are now stuck with each other as a family. More than that, we are actually one huge, living organism, bound together by the same life-giving Spirit and topped off with the same life-directing Head. No one of us can belong to God without belonging to the others. No one of us can quit on the rest without also quitting on God (and ourselves, while we are at it).

Perhaps our problem is not that we haven’t found the right church. It’s that we haven’t taken the right approach to church.

Perhaps our problem is not that we haven’t found the right church. It’s that we haven’t taken the right approach to the church.

Years ago a wise Indian pastor knocked the bluster out of me. In response to my self-important criticism of the theological limpness and evangelistic anemia of the mainline church, he quietly replied that he found it easier to stand outside of something and throw rocks at it rather than to remain doggedly within it and work for change. His comment made its mark, influencing me from then on to choose my church based not on its vitality but rather on its need.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away….
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.
1 Corinthians 13:8, 11-12

The longer I have practiced being part of the solution rather than a harbinger of the problem, the more I have come to love the church. What started as a theological commitment to unity has become a part of my spiritual DNA. The more I love God, the more I can’t help but love His body. The more I invest in His family, the more I mature in sharing His own heart.

As frustrating as I still find certain people to be, as infuriating as lousy theology, damaging relationships, and distancing structures still are, I honestly cannot conceptualize of being a Christian apart from the church. It’s my family! Wherever I go in the world, I find my kin. Whether the songs are unfamiliar or the language incomprehensible, these are my people. I have no choice but to bear with them in love.

Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Ephesians 4:15-16

So when we raise our voices in critique of the church, we had better recognize that we do it as insiders. Whatever each of us points out as a problem we then have the responsibility to proactively engage. This warty body’s only hope of eventually matching up to its glorious Head lies with each of us, its members, doing our bit.

This is the only Body we’ve got. We may not always like it, but how can we not love it?

Advent: Kissing the Peace Child

kiss the sonDespite how consumerist Christmas has become, there is one thing about it that the world gets surprisingly right. Hallmark specials and feel-good commercials repeat the story of reconciliation, of estranged friends and far-off family members being brought near through unexpected twists of fate. Cliché references to the true meaning of Christmas inevitably point to restored relationships and random acts of kindness.

What used to strike me as distracting perversions of the gospel message I have now come see as beautiful retellings. Meditating on the final Old Testament prophets through this advent season, I have felt the angst of post-exilic Israel. Finally restored to their land but still estranged from their God, they had to be wondering if they really wanted to Him to show up or not.

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”
Exodus 20:18-19

From their first real encounter with Him as a nation, God had been a terrifying enigma. He had thundered at them from the top of Sinai, causing them to quite literally quake in their boots. His commands had seemed rigid, His demands overwhelming. Out of fear they drew back, wanting relationship with the God who took care of them but feeling the distance between His holiness and their all-too-human selves.

Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
Psalm 2:11-12Exodus 20:18-19

Throughout their history as a nation, they had consistently failed to live up to His standards. And though He proved His long-suffering temperament and His merciful nature, He had also followed through with His promises to punish their persistent disobedience. Who knew the extent of His wrath better than these survivors of famine, war, deportation, and lengthy exile?

“…Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness…
Malachi 3:1-3

Perhaps a cold, distant relationship with their God was safer than an up-close, fiery-hot one. But the souls of the faithful longed for more. In response to their cries for His intervention, God promised the day of His return. But would it be a good day or a bad one? Would they survive His purifying fire or be consumed by it? The Old Testament closes with a mixed-bag of prophecy, anticipating the coming King with equal portions of hope and fear.

Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Zechariah 9:9

Who could have known that the King they both desired and dreaded would come so gently? The clenched jaw they expected would come instead with soft, kissable cheeks. The unapproachable Judge would arrive wrapped in a blanket, irresistibly lovable and anything but intimidating. The lamb-like bleat of His newborn cry would beckon those both nearby and far away to come adore Him.

This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”

When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord…
Luke 2:12-14, 22

When God finally returned to His temple, He came as a peace offering. His flesh-and-blood presence brought laughter and rejoicing, not fear and trembling. Yes, His broken body and spilled-out blood would purify the sons of Levi, enabling a priestly nation of believers to offer up acceptable sacrifices to the Lord. But His tiny, cuddly presence was in itself an invitation to restored intimacy. Prophetess and priest held Him in their arms. Lowly locals and pagan kings made the trip to gaze on their God.

Though the world may not know why, the core message of its advertising campaign is dead accurate. Christmas is about receiving an unexpected gift, about estranged people being drawn into the warmth of long-lost relationship. Some of us may more keenly feel our estrangement than others.

Sing to the LORD, you saints of his; praise his holy name. For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.
Psalm 30:4-5

Whether like the wise men you have never known this King or like the shepherds you have fearfully co-existed with Him, Jesus is God’s gift to you. His tiny form alleviates your fears, beckoning you closer to the God you have wanted but dreaded.

Come home to your Father, whose love outlasts His anger.

Kiss the Son. Embrace peace.

Great is Thy Faithfulness?—New Eyes on an Old Story

BlackHave you ever started to sing “Great is Thy Faithfulness” but found the words caught in your throat? A song that at other times has lifted your heart in grateful worship now comes back to mock you, its statements and claims the polar opposite of your personal experience. Morning by morning you haven’t seen new mercies: you’ve heard news of a new crisis. All you have needed His hand has not provided. What are you to make of it?

In the world’s eyes, you might be a laughingstock, someone who has foolishly invested in an unpredictable God and come up empty handed.

In other Christians’ eyes, you might look like a failure, someone who must be out of God’s perfect will. What else would explain His lack of blessing on you, your family, and your work?

Far from being evidence of our Father’s rejection, our hardships are proof of His love.

While others prosper around you, you struggle to make ends meet. While others’ ministries take root and flourish, your sacrificial efforts seem like water poured out on sand. You waver between discouragement and exhaustion, wondering how to interpret your life story. Have you done something wrong, or has God simply been unfaithful?

During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered…
Hebrews 5:7-8

But perhaps you have been interpreting your story through the wrong set of eyes. If we evaluated Jesus’ life by the standard of motivational magazines or successful living books, He would come out the greatest loser of all time. Like us, He struggled and suffered. And like us, He begged God to go easier on Him. He still ended up deserted and destitute, mocked and accused of being cursed by God. But that was not evidence of God’s rejection. It was proof of the Father’s love.

And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.”
Hebrews 12:5-6

God’s way of prospering His children has always looked radically different than the world’s. If our lives are filled with hardship and struggle, it is merely because He is taking us through the same intensive training to which He subjected His Firstborn Son. Yes, He loves us just as we are. But He also loves us too much to leave us that way. His commitment to our development compels Him to afflict us. Far from being evidence of His anger or rejection, our hardships are proof of our Father’s love.

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live!
Hebrews 12:7-9

Because of His great love for us, this Father not only punishes His errant children, He also trains His devoted ones. In some families only the squeaky wheel gets attention. In God’s family, the obedient children get an extra dose of His coaching. At times His training grows so intense that we are tempted to fight Him or simply to quit. But as the legitimate children that we are, we believe He is treating us this way for our good, even when we don’t feel it.

Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
Hebrews 12:10-11

Somehow in the way God writes stories, going with less prepares us to receive more, being knocked down paves the way for us to be raised up. Suffering and reward, pain and glory—these are the themes He wrote into the lives of that great cloud of witnesses who went before us. And this is the plot line He is mapping out for our lives, too.

But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.
Hebrews 2:9-10

And so like the Older Brother who blazed this trail ahead of us, we hang in there. When we are tempted to think that our Father has forsaken us, we look ahead to see how Jesus’ story is turning out. The path to His success led through unspeakable suffering and deep humiliation. But because He submitted Himself to the Father’s discipline, He is now seated with Him in the heavens. The multitude of voices shouting around His throne carry the opposite message of what He was subjected to on earth. And in the midst of all that, He cheers us on.

Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers.
Hebrews 2:11

You may be a few steps behind, still slogging through obstructed labor and obscured vision, but you are walking the same trail. And you are not alone. Our whole family has been called to live this story. The details will look different as our Father customizes His training with each one of His kids, but as He was with Jesus, He will be faithful to finish the good work He has started in you.

The song rings true after all: Great is thy faithfulness.

When God Proves Himself Good

The news of the kidnapping of 200 Nigerian girls last May rocked my confidence in God’s goodness.

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. … Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.
Matthew 10:28-30

If God really cared so much about their lives, why would He allow such a horrible thing to happen to these vulnerable, courageous young women? Why wouldn’t He show up and deliver them from such a tortuous fate? His inactivity seemed to reinforce the message of their terrorist captors: these girls were neither worth educating nor saving.

How can kidnapping and torture
turn out for anyone’s good?

One part of me clung to the belief that God did love them and would somehow work all this for their good, but another part of me cynically wondered how. Even if they were rescued or managed to escape, their lives would never be the same. What welcome would they receive back in their home communities? Who would be willing and able to walk with them through the fallout of their trauma? What future could there possibly be for girls who had been defiled by their captors and ruined for traditional married life at home in a village?

Little did I know that God would allow me to meet the answer to my skeptical prayers.

Today as I was wrapping up the third day of the Spiritual Formation course I am teaching in Nigeria this week, the most senior member of the class raised his hand to comment. This gentleman, a 71-year-old Muslim-background believer, has been displaced by Boko Haram from his homeland in the northeast. He has dedicated his retirement years to public service and to pursuing this master’s degree. I had already heard bits and pieces of his story, enough to know that he lost his two teenaged girls in a car accident. He had assured me, though, that he has been consoled by the many spiritual children God brings into his life.

What I didn’t know was that four of those children are girls who escaped from Boko Haram.

So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven.
Matthew 10:31-32

Today he told me one their stories with all the pride of a true father. This girl had boldly professed her identity as Christ’s to her Boko Haram captors, refusing to renounce Him even as they threw her to the ground, pressing their feet on her neck and their guns to her head. When told they would shoot her if she didn’t change her answer, she responded, “Even if you kill me, so what. I am still Christian.”

Through God’s unexpected intervention, the terrorist standing nearby decided it would be better to let her go than to allow her to influence the other girls. So he told her to start running and not to stop, or he would shoot her. After a nightlong flight through the mountainous jungle, she collapsed unconscious. Fearing the worst, the villagers who discovered her the next day prodded her awake and eventually helped her get to safety.

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ” ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law–a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
Matthew 10:34-39

But God did not simply rescue her and then leave her to sort out the rest. He sent her and two other escapees into the care of a compassionate, fatherly man, wisened by his own experience of trauma and loss. Under the shelter of his wings, they received physical and emotional refuge. When their own families protested that they shouldn’t receive any special treatment, he advocated for them. When international workers pushed for them to be quickly extracted, he protected them from further trauma.

“He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me. … And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.”
Matthew 10:40-42

In the months that followed, he stuck with these terrorized girls like only a father could, stabilizing with them his unflinching love. And when they were finally ready, he accompanied them to the U.S., navigating the visa process, settling them into a safe place, and leaving them only when they felt secure enough to let go of him.

I judged God’s goodness by my standards.
He proved Himself good by to His own.

I put my hand over my mouth in humble amazement. All the complex problems that I had assumed God would not take care of, He has. I cannot speak for the rest of the girls, but I now see how He has come through for these four. He has not let these precious sparrows fall to the ground unnoticed. Nor has He allowed this godly man’s arms to remain empty.

I judged God’s goodness by my own set of expectations. Parents that get to keep their children. Children that get to stay with their parents.

God shows His goodness in the most unexpected ways. A Father who loses His child to save other children. Girls who lose their families to gain a new kind of father.

But in God’s mixed-up, unexpected-twists-in-the-plot story, He always comes out good in the end. Not a one of the details falls to the ground. Not a one of our tears goes unnoticed.

Be at rest once more, my soul. The Lord has been good to her.

Editing Childhood

“What’s the point of going back? I don’t want to get stuck in the unpleasant memories of my childhood. I just want to get over it and move on.”

I sat across the picnic table from my friend and witnessed the conflict raging within her. Her mind wanted to be in charge, to determine what she thought about God and how she felt about herself. But her heart just wouldn’t cooperate. It kept sending her mixed messages: “God loves you. How could He? You are valuable to Him. Impossible! I’m unlovable, nothing but a worthless failure.”

As we picked together through the earliest memories of her life story, it became readily apparent to me where those messages were coming from. A terrified little girl, frantically attempting to sweep away the broken leftovers of her step-father’s drunken rage. A deeply impressionable child, consistently failing to prevent his destructive anger, forever falling short of being able to protect her mother from its violent effects. But try as she might, she couldn’t fix the problem. She couldn’t be good enough to pacify her step-father, couldn’t perform well enough to earn her mother’s love.

The scars of our past can become part of the beauty of our present.

Those messages of inadequacy and un-lovability were so deeply lodged in her soul that no amount of mental discipline or right theology had managed to root them out. But God was not content to leave them there. Just as He had done with countless others who came before her, He was taking her through the agonizing process of digging down through the layers of her life, unearthing the painful memories that she had kept carefully locked away and bringing her face-to-face with the damaging experiences that continued to define her.

Joseph named his firstborn Manasseh and said, “It is because God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.” The second son he named Ephraim and said, “It is because God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.”
Genesis 41:51-52

Joseph had been just as resistant to this process as my friend was. He didn’t want to remember his childhood, the constant insults of jealous brothers, the sick family dynamics of competing mothers and treacherous sibling relationships. How could he enjoy the memory of his father’s overt favoritism when it had only made things worse for him with his brothers? How had that love protected him in the end when their jealous rage cost him all but his life?

The one stable relationship that had carried him through his tumultuous childhood and trying adulthood was the one he still shared with the invisible God. God had heard the abusive messages that his brothers assailed him with and had countered them with His own dream-time messages of affirmation. God had seen the indignity of his slavery and had shown up to make him successful in all his work. God had felt the isolation of his imprisonment and had kept him company through his darkest days. And in an unprecedented turn of events, God had raised him up into a completely new life, complete with a new name, a new family, a new community, and a new job.

When Joseph’s brothers arrived, they bowed down to him with their faces to the ground. As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger… Then he remembered his dreams about them and said to them, “You are spies! You have come to see where our land is unprotected.” …
They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come upon us.” … They did not realize that Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter. He turned away from them and began to weep…
Genesis 42:6-9, 21-24

Joseph had no desire to go back. But the one element of his past that he most wanted to avoid, God brought to meet him. Face-to-face with the brothers he had spent years trying to forget, the pent up emotions of his childhood came bursting forth. Under the layers of his power suit and prestigious position, his picture-perfect family and charmed social life, Joseph was still that traumatized little boy, desperate for his brothers’ acceptance, helpless in the face of their betrayal. The most successful man in Egypt broke down and wept.

Deeply moved at the sight of his brother, Joseph hurried out and looked for a place to weep. He went into his private room and wept there.
Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him…
Joseph had his chariot made ready and went to Goshen to meet his father Israel. As soon as Joseph appeared before him, he threw his arms around his father and wept for a long time.
Genesis 43:30; 45:1-2; 46:29

But Joseph’s tears were not an unproductive reversion. They were a healing stream, finally allowing the wounds of his past to be exposed, finally allowing the façade of his present to be made whole. He needed to hear his brothers’ confession, to see their distress over the pain they had caused him. He needed reassurance of his father’s love, evidence that the members of his family had learned to relate to each other in tenderness and compassion. Convinced at last that it was safe, Joseph was able to re-engage those relationships whose proximity had caused deep wounds, but whose absence left a deep hole.

Our tears are not an unproductive reversion. They are a healing stream, finally allowing the wounds of our past to be exposed, finally allowing the façade of our present to be made whole.

Sadly, not all of our painful memories find such happy resolution. My friend’s relationship with her mother continues to be characterized by criticism and rejection. But pulling back the curtains on her past has allowed her to see herself for who she really is: a child deeply loved by God, even in the midst of being horribly treated by her family. Even more, it has allowed her to experience her truest Father’s unconditional acceptance and adoring love in ways she never could before.

Damaging childhood memories cannot be erased. But revisited under the expert guidance of the Holy Counselor, the scars of our past can become part of the beauty of our present.