Preparations

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“Uh-oh!” I thought as I listened to my preschooler say, “I have to be really good now because Christmas is coming and I want to get all of my presents, but it’s so hard to be good!” Last year she asked us if Santa was “really real” and because she was in the midst of learning that Heaven is “really real,” and that her sister is alive there, we told her the truth. I was surprised, therefore, that she thought that Mommy and Daddy would give her coal if she was naughty.

“You know,” I said, “I want you to be good because you want to be good, but you don’t need to be good to get Christmas presents. We can never be good enough to receive the gift of Jesus, but He came anyway, right? Mommy and Daddy give you presents because we love you (not because you deserve them), just like God sent us Jesus because He loves us and not because we deserve Him.”

As we prepare ourselves for Christmas during Advent, it is easy to focus on the many ways that we are not ready to stand in Jesus’s presence. Since it is a season of penance, we rightly examine the state of our souls, but we can become preoccupied with our sins and feelings of unworthiness. We forget that our failure to measure up is the very reason that Christmas is such an unbelievable gift: Jesus came into our world in the midst of all of its unworthiness because He loves us. He doesn’t love us “if we do something.” He doesn’t love us “if we don’t do something.” He just loves us.

It is in response to this love that we should begin to prepare ourselves for His coming and to set out on our journey towards becoming the people who He intends for us to be. It is because He loves us that we should persevere through hardship and do the work that He has set before us to do. It is due to His love that we should be willing to go where He leads us. It is only ever in response to His love that we prepare for His coming and never to obtain His love, for it cannot be obtained.

“…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

“…his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.” (James 2:22)

Waiting in Darkness

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Over the next few weeks, mysustaininggrace.com will be posting reflections for the coming week of Advent. Each reflection will focus on the theme of the advent candle for the corresponding week. The first candle, which we will light on December 3rd, is the Prophet’s Candle or the Candle of Hope. 

“Once upon a time…”

Every child knows that a good story begins with, “Once upon a time” and ends with a  “happily ever after.” In between those two points, however, lies unknown dangers, struggles, sorrows and heartaches. Perhaps this story format is so appealing to us because it mirrors that of the Great Storyteller who began His tale “Once upon a time” in a perfect garden and will end it “happily ever after” in a flawless Heaven. Although the festive Christmas season may prevent us from seeing it, the season of Advent reminds of us of our existence between these two glorious endpoints in God’s story.

During Advent, we are asked to remember the long wait for a Messiah, the hope fostered by the prophets, and the thousands of years worth of prayers for deliverance that flooded the gates of Heaven. We are called to recall a time when hope was just a tiny flicker in the midst of darkness, when the people waiting in darkness had yet to see a great light. At the same time, we are challenged to reflect on our own sin-stained souls and to renew our deep longing for salvation. We are forced to acknowledge that the whole of creation “waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God…in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”(Romans 8:19-21) We are required to listen to our spirits as we “groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.” (Romans 8:23).

This spiritual longing for Christ’s coming and salvation is a deep, natural one that rises up from the core of our being and permeates every part of us. It is profound and powerful and all of creation echoes our soul’s groaning. It is like a bereaved mother whose longing for her child is so strong that her arms become painful, heavy and restless as they reach out into empty darkness, waiting to be filled and receiving only the reply of “not yet.”

Advent also reminds us, though, that in the midst of that darkness, there is a flicker of light. Through the spoken words of the prophets, the written words of the Bible, the gaze of Christ looking tenderly out from a portrait, the loving actions of a neighbor, we are reminded that Christ is coming. We feel a shimmer of excitement shiver through us as it whispers, “The arrival is coming!” We hear the swipe of a match and see the tiny blaze of a single candle burning in the black of night. We smell the smoke and feel its slight warmth. Though we can scarcely believe it, it is there. A candle of hope that reminds us that He is coming.

 

“The Good Life”

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Lately, I have been thinking about how to respond when my hopes and dreams are different from God’s will for me. For a long time, my desire has been to have a small, happy, healthy little family with a few children. I want to raise my children to know God, to have the opportunity to enjoy the little everyday blessings of helping children to grow and learn, and to build a strong family unit that will provide my children with refuge and support after my husband and I are gone. The selfish part of me also wants another opportunity to relish the moments that delighted me as a mother and to not take the other, less savory times for granted. I want a chance to be a better mom and to someday be a grandmother without the pressure of my living daughter being the only child who could fulfill that dream. I would like to be comfortable and to live responsibly and without anxieties, anger, or sorrow. I want my children to have a chance to grow and develop through the kind of protected childhood I had. Then, I reason, others can see the joy we have and the blessings that we have been given and see the handiwork of God.

My desire for me and for my family is a lot like the life that Chris Rice describes when he sings “Becky has a house on Abundant Live Boulevard. A good name, good family, and butterflies in her yard. Becky loves Jesus and really wants to make Him proud – she tears up in church and she sings her harmonies loud. She’s got a Bible by the bed, a prayer journal, and a fish on her car. She makes sure to bow her head and give thanks in every restaurant…” Since these things I want are all good things and none of them directly contradict God’s commands, it seems like they should logically be part of His will for me. Yet, over and over again, I feel like God brings me closer to having a small family with happy, Godly children, only to dash my hopes again. Or maybe He says, “Keep waiting,” but there’s no guarantee that what we are waiting for is what we hope for.  I find that I need to accept that God might not want “the good life” to be my life.

We are immersed in a culture that sees blessings when we are comfortable, peaceful, satisfied and happy. We feel blessed when we get a new job, a new house, or a healthy baby. But what happens when we lose our job, or our home is destroyed, or we look at the ultrasound monitor and realize that our baby no longer has a heartbeat and that we have yet another child waiting for us in Heaven instead of in our arms? What happens when we get sick and have to be subjected to painful medical procedures that we never wanted or when our good friends die too soon, leaving broken families behind them?What happens when we never get our rainbow at the end of a storm, when our problems are never resolved and when we have to learn to live with them? What happens if we never get a miracle?

What happens is that we are still blessed.

We are blessed because God continues to be intimately at work in our lives in the midst of our shattered dreams and sorrows. We are blessed because He knows what He is doing and His work is good. We are blessed because He is giving us exactly what we need to be the people He wants us to be. We are blessed because He is giving us the tools to fulfill our specific purpose in His world. We are blessed because He knows what lies ahead and He is preparing us and those around us for what will be.

We are also blessed because Jesus looked at our understanding of blessings and turned it on its head. He said:

You are not only blessed in prosperity and comfort, because “blessed are the poor in spirit.” You are not only blessed in happiness, because “blessed are those who mourn.” You are not only blessed in times of peace, because “blessed are the peacemakers.” In fact, he said that even those who are persecuted are blessed! (See Matthew 5:3-12 to see more of what Jesus said about blessings.)

Ultimately, we are blessed because we play a tiny role in His salvation story which will end in glorious redemption! All those tears we cry will be redeemed. All those losses we suffer will be redeemed. All those burdens we bear will be redeemed. All those disappointments that beat us down will be redeemed. And, most importantly, all of the world’s sufferings that, because of our human limitations we can not yet perceive, will be redeemed.

We have much to be thankful for, whether God chooses for us to live “the good life” or “the hard life.”

Heart Scars

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As many women do, I have scars from both of my daughters. In both cases, the wounds that turned to scars were the result of urgent to emergent situations and I had little warning that they would occur. As a result, when my skin was first cut, I couldn’t bear to look at it. It was gross. It was painful. It looked horrible. In fact, one of them was so ugly that my obstetrician said, “Wow, you can tell that (the surgeons) were in a hurry.” Over time, however, I grew to view my scars as cherished reminders of my children and the physical manifestations of my mother-love for them. This is especially true of the scar I bear from the daughter who died because it is one of the few physical reminders that I have of her.

In addition to my external scars, my second daughter’s death also left scars on my heart. In the month after Noemi died, I took the above picture because I believed that, just as God had turned a scarred and broken city landscape into a place of peace and beauty,  He would take my wounds and turn them into something beautiful.  A year later, I am beginning to see that transformation. I will always have sadness – we were made for eternity, not death – but because of eternity, I am increasingly aware of the gift that my daughter’s short life here on earth is.

In light of this, I should not have been surprised that, while I dreaded the first anniversary of Noemi’s death, it was truly a blessing. In fact, I had so much joy on that day that I woke up the next morning and wished I could live it all over again. Rather than making myself visit her grave, look at her pictures, rummage through her hospital box, and remember every detail of the hour of her death, I spent the day with my family and friends. We taught kids, had an adventure, and went out to dinner. Certainly, I remembered and celebrated both Noemi’s earthly and heavenly birthday, but I also felt a strong conviction that I was not supposed to spend the day picking at my heart scars and trying to feel their sting. Instead, I felt that I was meant to behold the peaceful beauty of those scars in the light of Heaven. I believed that I was meant to hear Jesus speaking the words he spoke to Mary, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you’re looking for?” (John 20:15) and to know the power of His resurrection that makes my heart scars precious beyond anything I could have imagined.

A Lament for the Church

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There is a serious problem in Christianity. It is not isolated to a single denomination. It may not be a global problem, but it is certainly ravaging Western society. It is being magnified by the unchristian behaviors of our world leaders, media news stories, and the heroes of pop culture; however, each of us is ultimately responsible for it and we cannot shirk our responsibility. It is resulting in the loss of souls and new generations who are growing up to reject Christ. It is undermining the legitimacy of the Gospel message and earning us every charge of hypocrisy we have ever received. It is so urgent that we should be sounding alarms and rallying troops, charging into battle against the evil that has infiltrated us.

The problem that we face is that, through our lack of love, we have become resounding gongs and clanging cymbals (1 Corinthians 13:1). Backed into a corner by our increasingly secular and permissive society, we have responded with anger instead of turning the other cheek and speaking the truth in love (Matthew 5:39 and Ephesians 4:15). Rather than seeking to meet our neighbors where they are, rather than cleaning and bandaging their gaping wounds, rather than saying,”Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” (Luke 23:34), we mock them, belittle them, hate and vilify them.

The absence of love colors our approach to homosexuality, end-of-life issues, contraception, denominational differences, racial discord, and countless other pressing topics that litter our social and political landscapes. Ironically, unlike many mothers who become more enraged by abortion after infant loss, since Noemi’s death, I have come to see our lack of love most poignantly in the way we address abortion.

Within a week of my daughter’s death, some dear friends gave me the book Sunshine after the Storm – A Survival Guide for The Grieving Mother, which contains a chapter about grief after medically recommended abortions. One of the stories in that chapter really struck me. While I absolutely believe that a new life is formed at the moment of conception and while I believe that abortion is, therefore, wrong, I also could not help but feel the agony of the mother in this story who was told,”Your child will be incapable of living without significant medical assistance. She will most likely seize to death upon delivery.” When that mother explained her choice to abort her baby by saying, “We did not want our daughter to exist solely because of machines…as much as we loved and wanted our daughter, we didn’t want her existence to be one of constant suffering,” I got it, I totally got it.

Having worked with profoundly disabled individuals who suffered years of intense pain and were constantly subjected to medical procedures that sustained their limitted existence, I was happy for Noemi when she died after 30 minutes of failed resuscitation. Had she lived, she would have sustained incredible brain damage and the choice to maintain her life would have been a way to avoid my own loss, rather than an opportunity for her to experience life. I am not saying that, had God granted her life, it would not have had value, nor that I would ever have deliberately ended it. Instead, I am saying that I would rather my daughter be in Heaven than be subjected to such a painful existence. Having experienced these thoughts about my own daughter, I understood the reason that this grieving mother chose to abort her child. Far from a “murderer,” she was a mother who, because she did not share my beliefs about abortion, did what she believed was the most loving thing that she could do for her baby.

How would Christ have responded to this mother if He met her leaving the abortion clinic? Would He shame her and condemn her or would He wrap her in His arms and allow her to sob on His shoulder? For that matter, how would He respond to a frightened teenager who gave her body away in an effort to feel the love and acceptance that she never recieved at home? Or to the young woman whose life was so incredibly painful that she preferred drug induced feelings of numbness and dissociation and then came out of her stupor and found herself “great with child?” Or to the mother who can’t feed the five children she already has or who fears that carrying a child to term will leave her children without their mother? Or to the young professional who has no relationship with God and has never understood how a bunch of cells can be considered a human but knows that those cells will ruin her career if she lets them grow?

He would never have compromised the truth or overlooked their sins, but, given the way He responded to the woman at the well (John 4), I suspect that He would have been more concerned about their salvation than about their sins. Afterall, He has already dealt with their sins, but He longs for a relationship with these women. I would venture to guess that He would have been careful to treat them with dignity and love.

What would our Christian witness be like if, instead of responding to these mothers with rage, disdain and condemnation, we responded like Jesus and we offered love? What would the world be like if, rather than resounding gongs and clanging cymbals, we were doves of peace and ambassadors of God’s love? The possibilities are endless because “love never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13:8)

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)