Tag Archives: nurture

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.

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Identity, Purpose, and a Reason to Get Up

IMG_0795“Name one thing worth getting out of bed for.” It was one of those rare mornings (for me, anyway) in which I just couldn’t summon the motivation to wake up.

Actually, this has been one of those unusual seasons in which the immediate is less pressing and the eternal has more space to come rushing in. I’m not generally happy with anything less than an overfull diary and the adrenaline-inducing challenge to clear hurdle after impossible hurdle, awakening each day with a sense of urgency to get up and accomplish some goal. But removing some of those roles on which I hang my sense of importance has allowed me to gaze deeper into the question of identity.

When I teach on identity formation, I begin by asking learners how they introduce themselves. Inevitably, the answers cluster around kinship and roles. A second glance at the surnames our ancestors adopted confirms this is not a new phenomenon: John-son and Jack-son, the Mac’s and the O’s (meaning descendant of), and our many occupational names like Smith, Hunter, Barber, and even Clark (derivative of clerk, variant of clergy).

I remember once being led through the helpful exercise of listing all the ways that I identify myself, the point, of course, being to guide me back to my relationship with God as the bedrock of my identity. While cognitively I found this concept very satisfying, it has really been in the times of losing or struggling in those roles and relationships that I have been compelled to clear away the rubble that obscures the ever-present bedrock of my identity.

What does it actually mean for my identity to be based on God? Is this simply a cliché way of stating that I am nothing apart from Him or that I find my worth in belonging to Him? While all that is beautifully true, it doesn’t actually give me a goal to pursue other than investing in our relationship (which is of central importance to who I am). But surely there is more to life than simply sitting alone with God, loving and being loved. Surely there is a role that this identity entails.

This is the story that I have been searching for. It begins with a man and a woman in a garden, commissioned to fill the earth with babies and plants. Of course that would take time and work, but their goal was clear and satisfying. And their role bore far greater significance than simply clocking in and out each day as gardeners and caretakers. They were functioning as priests in the garden-temple of God. Eden was His home on earth, the physical space where He came to meet with His people. Their work of filling, beautifying, and tending it was a sacred service to Him. They were His holy homemakers!

As the story too often goes, these original priests misallocated the temple resources, taking for themselves a portion that didn’t belong to them and disqualifying themselves from ministry in God’s presence. The garden temple was desecrated and decommissioned, but God didn’t abandon His plan to create a physical space where He could dwell with His people. If anything, their failure made way for a bigger, better floor plan.

The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. 
“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” 
The LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the LORD, who had appeared to him. 
From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the LORD and called on the name of the LORD. 
Then Abram set out and continued toward the Negev.

Genesis 12:1-9

Abraham’s call to the priesthood came without a temple already provided. But he still understood his role as a mediator of God’s blessing to the rest of creation. He set about filling the land that God led him through with altars and worship, calling on God’s Spirit to come and inhabit that place. And he was meant to extend the presence and blessing of God into that sacred space, representing God in the way he cared for his family, his flocks, and the many “neighbors” with whom he came in contact. Though at times he failed to protect his wife or speak truthfully to neighboring kings, for the most part Abraham used his privileged position with God to intervene on behalf of his oppressed and even wayward neighbors.

And this is where I begin to catch a vision for the role we are playing, too. Though I am far from finished with tracing the themes of priesthood and temple through the Bible (shoot—I haven’t even made it out of Genesis yet), I already glimpse the significance of the seemingly mundane tasks that fill my day. That stack of essays I need to read and respond to, that neighbor I need to call, that mess in the closet I need to sort out—all of this is part of the high calling God has placed on me. As one of His priests living in the earth He has chosen to fill with His Spirit, the daily work that I do of tending, beautifying, and blessing my immediate surroundings is a sacred service to Him.

What finally got my identity-questioning, vision-lacking self out of bed the other morning was His gentle response to my search for purpose.

“Do it for Me.”

Beyond Giving Tuesday: A Service that Can’t Be Bought

IMG_0834Am I my brother’s keeper?

In a Christian culture marked by boundaries and balance, we can start to sound like Cain in the way we ask the question. While we are quick to decry abuse, we feel minimal responsibility for those outside the scope of our immediate friends and family. Sometimes even that circle may be too broad. When the chips are down or our resources run dry, we look out for number one.

Of course, we aren’t completely heartless. We remember to include Giving Tuesday in our annual shopping binge. We donate to projects for feeding the hungry, raise awareness for victims of sex-trafficking, and pray for refugees. But somehow our care for our global neighbors manages to stay buffered enough to be safe.

Taking on projects protects us from loving people.

Taking on projects protects us from having to love people. Caring for media-mediated strangers buffers us from being impinged upon by those whose physical and emotional proximity might place unwanted demands on us. We want to manifest God’s love to a hurting world, but we want to do so without getting hurt ourselves.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.”
John 10:11-13

Though our intent may be to act like Jesus, we end up acting like the hirelings He defined Himself in contrast to. These are the ones who do a good job of caring for the sheep as long as it doesn’t cost them too much. But when the stakes are raised and the job encroaches on their personal time, safety, or sense of well-being, they make excuses and run. At the end of the day, they would rather sacrifice the sheep than be sacrificed for the sheep.

Perhaps the reason we behave like hirelings is that we still think like them.

It was in that sort of crisis situation that Jesus proved the veracity of His love. He didn’t retreat from danger and leave His sheep to fend for themselves. He didn’t save His own hide at the expense of theirs. He lay down His life for those under His care because He saw them as irrevocably connected to Him. His long-term well-being was bound up in theirs. After all, they were His inheritance, not someone else’s.

Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
John 21:16

Perhaps the reason we behave like hirelings is that we still think like them. We see ourselves as servants of God, looking out for others on His behalf. And there is an element of truth to that. The people around us are His sheep, precious in His sight. Though we may struggle to value them the way He does, we still feel responsible to care for them out of a sense of obligation to our Master. We prove our loyalty to Him by the way we tend each other.

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.You are my friends if you do what I command.

I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. …This is my command: Love each other.
John 15:12-17

But the level of commitment God demands of us exceeds the limits of a mere servant. He calls us to love Him with all that we have and all that we are. And He calls us to love each other until it hurts, to take up each other’s financial, emotional, spiritual and physical burdens as if they were our own.

The point is that we are no longer hirelings. No amount of payment could make such personal sacrifice worth it. We are God’s friends, and what’s more, we are His kids. Our status as co-heirs with Jesus means that His sheep are our sheep, His inheritance our inheritance.

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Philippians 2:1-4

According to our new identity, we have a vested interest in looking out for each other’s interests. We are no longer many individuals each scrambling for survival. We are a conglomerate, individually rooted in and communally bound by God’s Trinitarian love. Whatever hit one of us takes for another, we all benefit from. Whatever need remains unmet in one of us, we all suffer the lack of.

Paradoxically, Cain’s question reverberates through the relational ages and finds expression in our own excuses. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and “Who is my neighbor?” may get rephrased as “That’s not my responsibility” and “We need to look to our own national security,” but God’s answer remains the same.

As true children of our Father, we are called to look out for those around us as proactively and sacrificially as He does. We are responsible to notice the silently suffering member of our church, to provide for the financially struggling member of our community, and to protect the politically vulnerable member of our race—no matter what it costs us.

This kind of service isn’t for hire. It can only be generated and bound by love.

God: The Noble Mother

imagesIn a society embroiled with conflicting ideas about gender roles and sexual identity, writing about the feminine nature of a masculine God feels like gardening in a minefield. But to neglect or abandon this aspect of Scripture would be to deny a significant part of who God reveals Himself to be, effectively putting Him in the box of our own culturally conditioned “image.” As much as I shy away from the political and social agenda that drive similar conversations, Scripture itself compels me to take a deeper look at the maternal character of God.

A woman who patterns her motherhood after God’s example is worthy of honor and praise, because she has shown us God.

For years now I have read and reflected on Psalm 103 as an exposition on the fatherhood of God. It doesn’t take long to notice the judicial oversight and compassionate leadership of a father relating with his children in its underlying narrative. But only lately has it struck me that Psalm 104 is just as much an exposition of God’s motherhood, especially when laid side by side with Proverbs 31. The parallel imagery and language are so tight that I can’t help but think they were intended to be read comparatively.

…you are clothed with splendor and majesty. He wraps himself in light as with a garment; he stretches out the heavens like a tent and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters. He makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind. He makes winds his messengers, flames of fire his servants. He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved. You covered it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains. But at your rebuke the waters fled, … they went down into the valleys, to the place you assigned for them.
Psalm 104:1-8

Like the wife of noble character in Proverbs 31, God is described as a fastidious homemaker. He takes care to dress Himself gloriously and to decorate His home beautifully. Light is His favorite garment and sky-blue the color He chooses to paint His downstairs ceilings. He employs the elements (wind, fire, and water) as His domestic help. And although He initially carpeted the whole downstairs with water, He decided to rearrange the floor plan to include large patches of dry land, too.

He waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work. He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate– bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart…
You bring darkness, it becomes night, and all the beasts of the forest prowl. The lions roar for their prey and seek their food from God. The sun rises, and they steal away… Then man goes out to his work, to his labor until evening.
Psalm 104:10-23

Like that industrious Proverbs 31 woman, God’s lamp never goes out at night. He works all day watering His garden, feeding His household, and making sure that each member of His brood is well looked after in body and spirit. And while the rest of the family sleeps, He keeps vigil over the prowling “night owls” to make sure they get their tummy full, too. Around the clock He keeps up His work of tender nurture, creative provision, and loving care.

How many are your works, O LORD! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number–living things both large and small. There the ships go to and fro, and the leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.
Psalm 104:24-26

His motherly ingenuity and domain are anything but small in scope. Just as the woman of noble character engaged in global commerce, buying from and supplying ships that crisscrossed the seas, He fills the earth with His handiworks, too. In fact, He repurposes the oceans as playgrounds for His “little ones” and as sidewalks for His children to ride their boats around on.

These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things. When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.
Psalm 104:27-30

But beyond being a cosmic homemaker, universal food supplier, and global nanny, God meets His offspring’s greatest need through the gift of His presence. He doesn’t simply bring them into the world and then abandon them. As long as He is nearby, His dependents learn and play and grow in peace, assured that all is well with their world. But the second they can’t see His face, they have every cause to panic. Their lives are utterly contingent on His.

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge…

But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.
Psalm 91:1, 4; 131:2

And so like the children of the Proverbs 31 woman, God’s children rise up with blessing and praise for all He is and all He does. We approach Him confidently when we need something, snuggle under His sheltering wings when we are scared or overwhelmed, and rest peacefully against His chest when we simply desire the reassuring comfort of His presence.

Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.”
Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. Give her the reward she has earned, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.
Proverbs 31:28-31

The point is that God is not only the perfect father: He is also unapologetically the ideal mother. This is no cause for confusing gender or reinterpreting the divine, but it does liberate us to relate to Him with the same intimacy and security we experience with a mother. It also sheds a new light on the significance of human mothers as image bearers of God’s maternal attributes. A woman who patterns her motherhood after God’s example is worthy of honor and praise, because she has shown us God.

The Legacy of a Leader

tombRunning the streets of Paris this week has gotten me thinking about great leaders and the legacy they leave behind. My different routes take me by towering structures and massive monuments, opulent palaces and magnificent cathedrals. And while sparkling golden domes and triumphant archways inspire me with their grandeur, I can’t help but see them in the context of les miserables at whose expense they were built. While I doubt that these great leaders had the suffering of the marginalized in mind as they drew up their strategic plans and executed their visionary agenda, I see that as precisely the problem.

To be frank, I notice a startling similarity between political visionaries who build their empires on the backs of their downtrodden subjects and spiritual leaders who build the church or its institutions at the expense of their downtrodden sheep. I sympathize with the heavy mantle of leadership, the constant pressure to do what is best for the whole group and to keep the flock moving forwards towards important goals. But too often leaders accomplish their goals at the sacrifice of the most vulnerable members of the flock. They reach their destination leaving behind a long trail of limping lambs and wounded stragglers, unintended but uncared for casualties of their leadership agenda.

Too often leaders accomplish their goals at the sacrifice of the most vulnerable members of their flock.

In the classroom-based leadership training and the pew-based leadership observing that I do around the world, I have encountered all sorts of worthy church-building agendas. For some the focus is on evangelism or numerical growth, for others it is on preaching of pure doctrine or promoting the holiness of the church body. Often I encounter more specific goals like making a church more relevant to a particular generation or social group, or the less-likely-to-be-stated agenda of preserving its status quo in doctrine, worship style, or values.

“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off ? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off.
Matthew 18:11-13

But whatever the agenda, when I see a pattern of marginalized members whose needs have been neglected or run over “for the good of the church as a whole,” alarm bells go off in my head. Jesus’ example of pastoral care means leaving behind the ninety-nine cooperative, contributing sheep to go after the one wounded straggler.

…who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. The LORD works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed.
Psalm 103:3-6

In fact, as I look a bit deeper at God’s leadership style, I see a strong pattern of focusing in on the downcast and specializing in the “pit-dwellers.” He makes their problems His problem, using His power to strengthen those who are feeling weak, His position to promote those who can’t put themselves forward.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given 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.
1 Corinthians 12:22-26

Under God’s pastoral care, the people who get preferential treatment are those who don’t fit the perfect Christian mold, whose life circumstances, emotional state, or inability to contribute to the “agenda” of the church have put them at risk of being marginalized. Rather than allowing them to straggle at the edges and fall prey to the wolves, the Master Shepherd moves the rest of the flock to surround its weaker members. He invests them with additional attention and honor, calling the rest of His sheep to do the same.

I have seen (and experienced) Christian leaders who are willing to risk following in the shoes of their Shepherd. The Ugandan pastor who risked his standing in the community to protect an unwed mother from the customary punishment of being thrown over a cliff. The Indian Christian leader who hires disgraced ministers with a checkered past so he can offer them careful mentoring and a second chance. The Californian university professor who gathers demon-oppressed students under his sheltering wing for prayer and counsel. And the well-respected old Presbyterian pastor who wept with a traumatized, washed-up woman, willing to believe a story that pushed the limits of his theological paradigm and willing to put his reputation on the line to stand by her.

Jesus’ example of pastoral care means leaving behind the ninety-nine to go after the one wounded straggler.

Of course I’m not decrying the need for proactive nurture of the healthy members of the flock, but I am pointing out the importance of being willing to be inconvenienced by the ones who don’t fit the agenda, whose lives are messy and complicated, whose problems probably won’t go away with a few counseling sessions or a bring-them-a-meal rota. Whether they are the generation not-in-focus, the sub-culture we weren’t looking to attract, the unemployed or recently divorced man who doesn’t fit in our tidy picture of the “perfect Christian family,” or the emotionally messy woman who can never seem to pull herself together—the agenda has to adjust to make space for them, too.

As you come to him, the living Stone–rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him–you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”
1 Peter 2:4-6

God’s ultimate agenda for His church is to build her up one living stone at a time, including in His magnificent structure people who fit our preconceived mold and people who don’t. A leader’s legacy is not based on numbers, buildings, programs, or even doctrine. It is found in the people he has loved and nurtured, the living stones that she has helped to find their place in the walls of God’s cosmic temple.

That’s the sort of monument I want a part in.

Longing for Eden

Once upon a time a garden grew
Where darkness had covered and Spirit flew
Planting the seed of something new:
The conception of Eden.

Beauty and order, life and light
Sprang from the earth and ended the night
God in His garden declared it all “right”:
The birth of Eden.

Not yet finished, good but not best
God stepped back and man failed the test.
Fruit prematurely plucked, cursing the rest:
The loss of Eden.

Again God came near and His Spirit hovered,
Planting the Seed in the womb of another
Angels sang with hope recovered:
The promise of Eden.

Withered vines healed, fruit restored
Mustard seed grew, moving toward
A garden more sweet and full than before:
The glory of Eden.

Still unfinished, the garden felt its lack
As thorns pierced His brow and He took its flack.
Sun hid its face as earth received Him back:
The Seed of Eden.

Garden grows on, new fruit arrives.
Pink cheeks fill our hearts, rosy dreams fill our eyes.
We celebrate the gift of life:
The joy of Eden.

Dark shadows steal over fresh rosy cheeks.
Mother heart pierced, father heart weeps.
Fruit prematurely plucked, hope and curse meet:
The death of Eden.

Sun still comes up but limp limbs hang down.
What comfort, what purpose in going on?
Empty arms, barren trees, sweet fruit now gone:
The loss of Eden.

But sure as the dawn we for look for the morn
When seed will again sprout, life be reborn
Empty tomb greet those who show up to mourn:
The resurrection of Eden.

Until then we tarry, inspired to nurture
The garden around us, our friends, family, culture.
Preparing the earth for its bright promised future:
The coming of Eden.

In Memory of
Eden Wang-Hua Clark
July 2, 2014–October 20, 2014

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Renovating Fatherhood

“I can’t call Him Father.”

God entrusts His image to frail human fathers.

I looked across the table at the emaciated young woman whose life had been destroyed by the double whammy of a manipulative, molesting father and a violent, abusive husband. For as far back as she could remember, the men in her life had treated her with anger and contempt, violence and disapproval. As I listened to her story, I marveled at the fact that she could still relate to God at all. After years of having Him so misrepresented to her by her father and her bridegroom, how did she now conceptualize Him?

“Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!
Matthew 7:9-11

The Scriptures tell all kinds of stories about messy human fathers. Adam blew it. Noah got drunk and made a fool of himself. Abraham sent his son away empty-handed; Isaac got his kids mixed up; Jacob played favorites. Judah broke his promises. Eli spoiled his boys. Samuel did more with other people’s kids than his own. Saul was violent and verbally abusive. David was negligent and aloof. But the Scriptures also tell the story of the perfect Father whom human fathers were designed to represent.

Then the LORD came down in the cloud … And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”
Exodus 34:5-7

It amazes me that God would entrust His image to frail human fathers. No wonder He constantly has to come in behind them and set the record straight. When He explained to Moses what He was really like, He emphasized how much He loves all of His children, explaining that He prefers to treat them with grace and compassion, not anger and retribution. That being said, He also sets clear expectations for them, standards which He lovingly but firmly enforces.

…who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, … who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed…
He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.
As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.
Psalm 103:3-5, 9-14

Despite his shortcomings in demonstrating the Father’s love to his own children, David did an excellent job of describing it. Fixing our problems and satisfying our desires, this Father takes great delight in caring for His children. He doesn’t look down on us for our limitations or resent us for our neediness. He understands our genetic disposition and our emotional hardwiring, because He designed us that way. Rather than hold our weaknesses against us in anger, He compensates for them with His love.

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. … Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.
John 14:8-10

Jesus took up the role of showing us what the Father is really like. His actions and His words perfectly reflected the heart of the Father. Welcoming the prodigal. Forgiving the delinquent. Challenging the self-satisfied. Empowering the weak through the gift of His Spirit. His Fatherly love does not lower His standards for His children; it compels Him to stoop down, take us by the hand, and help us up to meet them.

…go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. …your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?
Matthew 6:6, 8, 26

But it wasn’t enough to Jesus to merely mediate an accurate picture of the Father. He repeatedly prompted people to go directly to His Father and relate to Him as their own. Turn to Him. Talk to Him. Ask Him for anything. He’s already tuned in to you. He values you. He anticipates your needs. He delights in giving you good things. That’s the kind of Father He is. That’s the kind of Father He wants to be to you.

Our heavenly Father throws open His arms to His kids in a gesture of delighting, nurturing, all-consuming love.

For better or for worse, our experience of our human fathers informs our perception of our heavenly Father. Some of us have been blessed with fathers who beautifully portray the heart of God, enabling us to tangibly experience His unconditional love. Others of us have had our picture of God horribly distorted, wrinkled, twisted, or shredded by frail mortals who conveyed a very different message about who we are to the Father.

But despite the strength or weakness of the messenger, the message stays the same. God throws open His arms to us with a delighting, nurturing, all-consuming love.

And we get to call Him Father.

I Need a Hero!

Terrified. Trembling. Powerless. Crushed. I’m not big enough to handle this. I can’t keep fighting it. Where can I find a champion strong enough to protect me? I need a hero.

David had always been that hero, the one who showed up to protect everyone else. He had thrown himself at the lions and bears that threatened his sheep, charged at the giant who bullied his people, and chased off the armies that terrorized their land. From childhood, he had been fearless and undaunted in facing down his enemies. So why was he now a trembling wreck?

Give ear to my words, O LORD, consider my sighing. Listen to my cry for help, my King and my God, for to you I pray.
Psalm 5:1-2

Vulnerable. Bewildered. This time the enemy was not so obvious. This time the danger was hidden, intimate, within the bounds of a relationship that he had thought was safe. He had not been on his guard towards Saul. He had looked up to him as a leader, a protector, not someone from whom he needed to protect himself. He had trusted Saul like his own father, and Saul had used that trust against him. Now which hero could he trust? To which refuge could he run?

When David had fled and made his escape, he went to Samuel at Ramah and told him all that Saul had done to him. Then he and Samuel went to Naioth and stayed there.
1 Samuel 19:18

Samuel seemed the right man for the job. He was a spiritual giant, the one who had appointed Saul to his position of power and the one who had gotten David into this mess by anointing him, too. And yet Samuel was riddled with fear for his own life when it came to Saul. He welcomed David and listened to his painful story of betrayal and abuse, but there was little he could physically do to protect him, or himself, from Saul’s jealous rage.

But I, by your great mercy, will come into your house; in reverence will I bow down toward your holy temple. Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness because of my enemies– make straight your way before me.
Psalm 5:7-8

So Samuel took David to his place of refuge. Naioth was no fortified city; it was merely a ragtag community of prophets. What made this place safe was not a wall of stone around it, but rather the Spirit of God within it. Together they took refuge in God, receiving the comfort and assurance of His powerful presence surrounding them.

You are not a God who takes pleasure in evil; with you the wicked cannot dwell. The arrogant cannot stand in your presence; you hate all who do wrong. You destroy those who tell lies; bloodthirsty and deceitful men the LORD abhors.
Psalm 5:4-6

Despite David’s escape into prayer and worship, his troubles soon caught up with him. He watched with horror as a group of Saul’s men approached their sanctuary, armed and ready to forcibly return him to his abuser. He witnessed his worst nightmare unfolding in front of him, and he was powerless to stop it. But his Hero wasn’t.

Word came to Saul: “David is in Naioth at Ramah”; so he sent men to capture him. But when they saw a group of prophets prophesying, with Samuel standing there as their leader, the Spirit of God came upon Saul’s men and they also prophesied. Saul was told about it, and he sent more men, and they prophesied too. Saul sent men a third time, and they also prophesied.
1 Samuel 19:19-21

One by one David’s feared aggressors stopped in their tracks, dropped their weapons, and joined in the worship. Their ferocity was turned into futility, their hostility into halleluiahs. Two more groups of soldiers arrived, and twice more David saw God turn their strength into weakness, their crafty plans into blathering incompetence. And as he watched, David’s fear was turned into faith. He had never seen anything like it. What kind of champion could overpower people from the inside out?

At the height of our vulnerability,
our Hero proves His super-ability.

But could this Hero protect David from his abuser? When Saul showed up at David’s safe place, David was brought face to face with the man whose very name struck terror into his heart. The mighty warrior was once again reduced to a quivering mess.

So Saul went to Naioth at Ramah. But the Spirit of God came even upon him, and he walked along prophesying until he came to Naioth. He stripped off his robes and also prophesied in Samuel’s presence. He lay that way all that day and night.
1 Samuel 19:23-24

At the height of David’s vulnerability, his Hero proved His super-ability. Saul the arrogant oppressor fell flat on his face. He was not allowed to touch David, not able to speak a word to bring him harm. Overwhelmed and undone by God’s Spirit, Saul was reduced to public stripping and incoherent babbling. David’s heart slowly stilled, his fears put to rest by the sight of his terrifying abuser rendered as helpless as a child before God.

But let all who take refuge in you be glad; let them ever sing for joy. Spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may rejoice in you. For surely, O LORD, you bless the righteous; you surround them with your favor as with a shield.
Psalm 5:11-12

Abuse turns the mightiest of us into frightened children. It strips us of the confidence to defend ourselves and leaves us in search of someone else who will. In the desperate search for a hero, we are tempted to indiscriminately latch on to anyone who will take us in and provide us a sense of safety. Sometimes we unwittingly turn to people who are abusers in disguise, who prey on our vulnerability and take advantage of our desperate trust. Sometimes we find people who are worthy of our trust, who will do all within their limited power to love and care for us. But standing head and shoulders above all the others, God awaits, ready to gather His trembling lambs into His arms, able to come to our defense. We have a hero.

A Lamb Exploited

For as long as she could remember, the young woman had been surrounded by people who adored her pastor. She had grown up hearing her father tell stories about the amazing things that he had said and done. Both her father and her husband had devoted themselves to full-time service under his leadership. Their work took them away for long months at a time, but they always came home full of praise for their leader and full of delight over the significant ways that he was using his great influence to change the world for God.

The woman herself was deeply moved by the things of God. Like her husband and her father, she wanted her life to be pleasing and devoted to Him. She paid great attention to keeping herself pure and clean, following the practices for godly living that she had been taught from His Word.

So one evening when she received a rather unusual message from her spiritual leader, she had little reason to question it. Her husband was away on one of his long trips, and her pastor was requesting that she come and meet him right away. It did seem a bit odd to be asked to his home after hours, but frankly, she felt honored. The men in her life were always getting summoned into his regal presence, interacting with him face-to-face and being sent on important assignments. But she was just a woman; he had never really had a reason to take note of her. She hurried to his home, wondering what he wanted with her.

She was so fully convinced of his righteousness that it never occurred to her to question his intentions.

The interaction that followed was incredibly confusing. She was so fully convinced of his righteousness that it had never occurred to her to question his intentions, but the way he was treating her made her increasingly uncomfortable. It didn’t feel right, and yet she kept telling herself that somehow it must be right. He was a godly man. Everyone respected him. Her husband trusted him with his life. The least she could do was cooperate with whatever he wanted her to do.

This man had always been so closely associated with God that being close to him felt like finally getting closer to God.

As things heated up between them, she felt increasingly torn. By now it was painfully obvious that what she was involved in was wrong, but she didn’t know how to stop it. Maybe she wasn’t completely sure she wanted to stop it.  It felt really good to be noticed by someone so important, to be the sole focus of his passionate attention. She had always craved intimacy with God. In her eyes, this man had always been so closely associated with God that being close to him felt like finally getting closer to God. At the same time, she had never felt farther from Him.

Tainted. Dirty. Guilty. The woman tried to wash away the impurity of her adulterous affair. She went back home and tried to return to her normal life. But nothing she could do now would erase what had done. She had defiled herself. She had betrayed her husband. She had sinned against God. And now, everyone was about to find out. She was pregnant.

What would everyone think of her? What would they think of their leader? His reputation would be destroyed, all because of her. This must somehow be her fault. She had led him astray. She should have known better. God must hold her responsible.

The LORD sent Nathan to David. …
David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”
Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. … I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. … Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.’
2 Samuel 12:1, 5-10

But He didn’t. Not primarily, at least. God confronted the shepherd who had abused his position of spiritual authority and relational power to take advantage of one of the sheep under his charge. His message was severe: You devoured what was yours to protect. You took what did not belong to you. You were heartless, pitiless towards those weaker than you. And in abusing them, you despised Me.

One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, and David sent someone to find out about her. The man said, “Isn’t this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” Then David sent messengers to get her. She came to him, and he slept with her. When she had purified herself from her uncleanness,* then she went back home. The woman conceived and sent word to David, saying, “I am pregnant.”
Samuel 11:2-5

The Scriptures tell this story about Bathsheba, whose father and husband were among the inner circle of mighty men who served David, the shepherd of Israel. But it could just as easily be told about any number of vulnerable women (or men) seduced into inappropriate relationships by someone they respect. In a strange twist on the way things are supposed to be, their spiritual strength is exploited by a spiritual leader, who manipulates their love for God and uses it for his own twisted purposes.  But God is not blind, either to their actions or to their deeper desires. He extends forgiveness for the wrong choices they willingly made. He extends grace to cover their confusion and hurt at how they were used. He brings healing to restore the dignity and the trust that were destroyed. And He calls to account those who indulge in such spiritual abuse.

Give Us a Break!

My sister-in law found out last week that the baby girl she is carrying has a significant heart problem. For the next several months, she will constantly face the excruciating question: will the life that she is nourishing within flourish and grow or will it wither and die?

My friend just lost her baby. This isn’t the first time she has gone through this, but it will be the last. Along with her baby, she just lost her uterus, too.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
Psalm 90:1-2

How do I pray about all this? My heart is crushed with grief for these precious women. They have endured so much loss, so much disappointment, and now my friend’s hopes of bearing a child are dashed forever. How can I call her to hope in God when I myself feel that He has been too severe with her? And yet where else can I turn but to the One who gave birth to the world and everything in it, who holds her children, her body, and her future in His hands?

You turn men back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, O sons of men.” For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning– though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered.
Psalm 90:3-6

At times like this He seems so harsh, so distant and uncaring. We feel like helpless peons, tossed about in a cruel world where blossoming infants are suddenly blighted and our ability to bear fruit is abruptly cut off. Did He not call us to be fruitful and multiply? Does He not raise our expectations with talk about blessing His people with children: making them fruitful vines, filling the barren woman’s arms, and all that? And yet another infant has perished under His watchful gaze; another godly woman lies bereft of her fruit-bearing capacity.

We are consumed by your anger and terrified by your indignation. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence. All our days pass away under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan. … their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away. …
Psalm 90:7-11

Is God angry with us? Is this suffering simply the product of a sinful, cursed world in which life is cut short and the days we do have are filled with sorrow and hardship? If that is all we have to look forward to, then our lives are reduced to a desperate act of survival. If God truly is that aloof and indifferent, then we have no hope at all.

Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
Psalm 90:12

But life can’t really be that bleak. God can’t really be that unloving. There has to be more to the story than I can see at this moment. So, as Moses did before me, I turn to God and ask Him to show me the big picture. What are our lives really about? What cause do we have to keep hoping, to keep persevering through the pain and pressing on towards the future?

Relent, O LORD! How long will it be? Have compassion on your servants. Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days. Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, for as many years as we have seen trouble. May your deeds be shown to your servants, your splendor to their children.
Psalm 90:13-16

Give us a break, Lord! We can’t go on like this much longer. Show us some mercy. Apart from you, we will wither and die. We can’t bear another day imprisoned under these steel skies. Break through the dark clouds that swirl around us and let us see your beauty, your goodness, your love. We are your weak, grieving people. Come and comfort us. Reassure us with your smile. Touch us with your tender hand. Give us a reason to be happy again. Show us those wonderful ways that you intervene on behalf of your servants. Give us a sign of your goodness. We want to believe, help us in our unbelief.

“Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.
I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more. Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days… my chosen ones will long enjoy the works of their hands. They will not toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune; for they will be a people blessed by the LORD, they and their descendants with them.
Isaiah 65:17, 19-20, 22-23

Once again, my soul settles on the reality which Moses died believing but never seeing. Two thousand years later, a baby survived some rough birthing circumstances only to later have the breath of life crushed from His lungs. His resurrection is God’s response to the prayers of anguished sufferers past and present. It broke the curse under which we writhe. It relocates our hope to the new creation, where the curse will be finally and fully undone. Our fruitfulness will be restored. Our babies will live. Our God will be with us. Our joy will be full.

Seven years ago today, I watched as a team of blood-spattered doctors raced the clock to rescue the tiny infant from my own failing body. Hours later, I awoke from the anesthesia, wondering if she had joined the four others who had gone before her. My womb was gone, and with it my fruitfulness as a woman. But in God’s incredible kindness, He spared me my Anastasia, my little “resurrection.” Today, I hold her sturdy, growing body and bury my face in her soft, warm skin. She is my living, breathing reminder of the power of His resurrection, a tangible sign of His goodness in the here and now.

Lord, fill the empty arms of those who mourn. Create anew the bodies of those who are at-risk. Restore the fruitfulness of our bodies, our work, our lives.

May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us; establish the work of our hands for us– yes, establish the work of our hands.
Psalm 90:17