*Adapted from a message I gave at a retreat Fall 2016
Scripture tells me Jesus is preparing a place for me in heaven. Well, since God knows the desires of my heart and the way He’s wired me, I’m sure the place He’s preparing reflects that. So then, let me tell you how to find me in heaven:
My place will be the one with the split rail fence. It has a long driveway lined with willow trees and probably resembles a Craftsman. The lawn is cut Lynden style–edged properly, golf course green, with immaculate mower lines. There are sunflowers and hydrangeas, a wrap around porch, hammock out back. The coffee pot is always on. Around me are fields, acres, quiet privacy. No one’s mansion is too close. Heaven is plenty big for me to have ample space, right? I’m a bit of an introvert. I’m independent. I’m self sufficient. I’m an American, dang it!
Our community, our school, and our little family have been hit hard by the loss of a bright little three and a half year old. Brooklyn was Haley’s age. Her momma and I were looking forward to upcoming years of our girls being together. Brooklyn has sisters who are twins in Darla’s class and another sister in Everett’s class. Brooklyn and Haley were buddies as they tagged along on field trips, class parties, and as our families played together. When Brooklyn was admitted to the hospital for e.coli, no one imagined she would slip into heaven only a couple days later.
The day Brooklyn died, Darla and I walked through raspberry fields with tears and words. Nine year old Darla articulated what many of us struggle to, “It feels like nothing will ever be the same. Will it always be this awful? I can’t imagine something being funny again. I want to be with the twins right now because they must be the saddest ever- but then what should I do? What could I say? Nothing makes it better, does it? This doesn't feel real at all."
Oh, the ache of a mom wishing she could shoulder the harshness of the world and shield her children from inevitable pain and heartache.
“God can comfort and He gives us hope, Darla- but the truth is life on earth leaves us with a lot of holes. Losing Brooklyn leaves a Brooklyn hole. We learn to live in a new normal, but there will always be a Brooklyn hole. Until we get to heaven and Jesus fills all the holes forever- we walk around reminded of losses. Brooklyn’s family will never be the same. They might get used to having three girls, eventually- but the fact is they have four and we only get to see three on earth.”
The story of Jacob, Rachel and Leah compels me, comforts me, and... somewhat traumatizes me.
I love the sweet beginning in Genesis 29. It’s your classic “boy goes on journey, comes to a well, his eyes meet hers over bleating sheep, the shepherds fade into the background, they fall in love” type of story. Jacob was so enamored with Rachel he was willing to wait and work seven years to earn her hand; “they seemed only a few days to him because of the love he had for her.”
I was raised in a Christian home. Not a “we go to church on Easter” kind of home but a “we read Scripture at every dinner and ask follow up questions- God is the center of our decisions” kind of home. I thought by sixth grade I knew all there was to know about the Bible. I had heard every story about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. I recited the “sinner’s prayer” at every altar call. I could say John 3:16 in my sleep.
This year, at age thirty-three, the book of Matthew rocked my world. I spent the year immersed in the first gospel at Bible Study Fellowship. How is it possible after knowing it backwards and forwards to have so many new things leap out and transform me? Ah yes, the Holy Spirit has a way with this.
Parked in the life of Jesus for eight months deepened my awe- how He held fast; uncompromising to God’s plan and God’s law while having a deep level of tenderness we can never know apart from Him.
Everywhere Jesus walks people are compelled to change and repent of their sins, not because of His demands but because of His profound love and set-apart holiness. He doesn’t seek those who think they have their act together. He seeks and meets the needs of downtrodden, exhausted, broken up people. He touches the untouchable- with slow care and attention. He heals bodies while speaking to the soul.
It baffles me when people believe God is either Love OR Truth, as though Love rides tandem with tolerance and Truth rides tandem with harshness.
I was mulling it over as we studied Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial.
Judas and Peter had much in common. They were disciples, of the twelve closest to Jesus. They both saw miracles in their years following. They both were called to choose- to follow Jesus, to trust Him, to believe Him, and to believe it wasn’t just an important thing but it was THE thing.
Both Judas and Peter had weaknesses. Judas was the treasurer of the group and was skimming off the top. But when Jesus announced someone would betray Him, no one pointed to Judas. They didn’t have him slated as “most likely to betray”. He was growing increasingly hard-hearted, out for his own interests, but his struggles were secret.
Peter had a loud mouth. He spoke before he thought. His zeal was often of his own resolve and not actually the power of God in him. He wasn’t the best listener. He got sleepy and distracted when he was asked to pray, on multiple occasions.
Jesus pursued Judas and Peter. He loved them. He ate with them, taught them, and shared His life with them; even knowing they would fail. He didn’t hold back because He knew the end. He instead used every chance to bring them to Himself.
Jesus had a moment of connection with both Judas and Peter in the middle of their sin.
"Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing." John 15:4,5
In middle school I decided I should be a Christian bearing "fruit". I remember consciously thinking as I walked down the hall of my school, "Smile. Keep smiling. Be friendly. Remember, you're a Christian. It should show. Be nice." There you have it- embarrassing self talk of a seventh grader.
I read the fruits of the Spirit while thinking, "I need to work on peace. Hmm... I need to work on patience. Er... with God helping me, of course." Resolve was followed by discouragement as I worked harder.
I was remembering my feeble attempts at proving myself while reading John 15. "He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing." Jesus is giving action to take but instead of "go make your list of how to be a good Christian" it is "abide in me". Abiding is not passive. It is obedience, it is following, it is holding fast to the Lord, but it is not, "go prove to everyone you're a follower of me."
Snow and high winds have us socked in at our cozy house just north of town. After a very full two months, it's probably good to have to stop and rest. We need to play until the wind whips our cheeks bright red and sit around the table for just one more cup of hot chocolate.
Nearly two months ago we made the decision to move to a new house in order to shift financial priorities. I had in mind that we would have the entire month of January to prepare to move, which was plenty of time. I had wisdom tooth surgery and then started getting organized.
Mid-January I invited my cousin to visit with her three kids while her husband was out of town, assuring her we had plenty of time to get packed. Quality cousin time for a week trumps packing and with her fourth baby due soon, we knew it was our last chance for awhile.
John the Baptist is the definition of hardcore. Wandering in the wilderness wearing camel hair and eating locusts and wild honey? Clearly subtlety was not his thing. Jesus often uses the unusual to proclaim Him and John was definitely that. He was loudly quoting the prophet Isaiah and calling people to repentance. He was a black and white kind of guy- no nonsense, straight to the point. It had been prophesied that John would not drink wine but would be filled with the Holy Spirit. He was compared in spirit and power to another slightly “out there” prophet, Elijah. Everything about John the Baptist is resolute, bold, and intrigues me (although in reality I’m sure I’d respond with a, “Seriously man, please take a shower”).
Darla has been drawing detailed pictures of the Christmas story. This week she’s been working on one where Mary, pregnant with Jesus, visits Elizabeth who is pregnant with John. Looking at her illustration made me pause and consider the familiar story. Even before birth, John knew and acknowledged Jesus’ presence with a kick. He was the son of a priest and cousin to Jesus. He was a miracle himself, born of a barren woman. His story from the beginning pointed to Christ.
The noise level is high and the laughter is constant as is the teasing, playful punching, squeezes, and bear hugs while everyone jostles for a spot. The stack of paper plates is at least 100 deep but that is the last part of the table worth noticing. (By “table” I mean multiple folding tables holding an assorted variety of foods.) In place of fancy place settings is a stack of plastic spoons and knives. You might identify some dishes as familiar American Thanksgiving food. The turkey is carved, the cranberry sauce nearby. Clearly one lucky aunt was in charge only of potatoes for the day, judging by the numerous bowls of mashed potatoes and gravy.
Most of the relatives circling up aren’t anticipating the turkey nearly as much as they anticipate the Korean bulgogi, which has been expertly marinated and cooked by my Uncle Dan. Before the afternoon is through a family member will dare a guest to take a heaping scoop of kimchi without mentioning how spicy it may or may not be. A tall blonde teen with wavy hair will bravely heap it high, willing to upset his tummy to impress his shorter Asian cousin. The banter over the food has begun before a spoon has been lifted.
The Korean crabmeat salad is next to the pea salad you can find at every Dutch potluck and I’ll take both, saving room for when the Dutch cheeses and crackers make their appearance later in the evening.
Before anyone gets to pile a plate, my Pake (“Grandfather” in Friesian, a Dutch dialect) gives a whistle to catch the attention of the rowdy group in front of him. The patriarch knows to give a stern look at the group of young and teenage men who are sweaty and loud from the highly competitive annual football game in the yard. Pake loves the laughter and teasing as much as the rest, but he is sober and severe in the matter of prayer and has rightly trained us to slow for moments of reverence.
“Before we fill up on the feast in front of us,” he begins in his familiar Dutch brogue, which I equate with intelligence and authority, “We will each share what we are thankful for this year and then I will give thanks.”
The young ones sigh. Pake should have considered how long this would take when he decided to have eight talkative children who then gave him forty-five talkative grandchildren. The food is destined to be served cold.
I have learned a lot about thankfulness this year. I don't mean the kind of generic thankfulness for the life God gave me while I smile over a heaping plate of turkey and potatoes. I mean the kind of thankfulness that hurts to say because it would be much easier to let tough, bitter skin grow over my heart than to keep it soft by thanking God for His redemptive hand in the things I hate. I don't mean the kind of thankfulness that pastes on a fake smile and says, "it's okay, it's okay" while bleeding out, but the kind of thankfulness that can acknowledge "even as I bleed out, I believe God can use this as a tool to draw me to Himself and for that I can honestly say 'thank you'."
I came across this quote on Ann Voskamp's blog and while I have yet to read any William Law, it depicts what I've experienced this Thanksgiving and this year:
If anyone would tell you the shortest, surest way to all happiness--
he must tell you to make it a rule to yourself to thank and praise God for everything that happens to you.
For it is certain that whatever seeming calamity happens to you, if you thank and praise God for it, you turn it into a blessing.
Could you therefore work miracles, you could not do more for yourself than by this thankful spirit, for it heals with a word speaking, and turns all that it touches into happiness.
… it be the noblest sacrifice that the greatest Saint can offer unto God.”
~ William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout & Holy Life
That being said, I am also thankful for many tangible blessings that are evidence of God's extravagance. Yesterday on Thanksgiving Day at my parent's house I watched my kids running around with ten of their cousins and it was the blessing at the forefront of my mind. My own cousins have been instrumental in every stage of my life. They give me wisdom, conviction, the tightest of hugs (I'm not just saying that. I'm talking break-your-ribs kind of tight), and unconditional love-you-through-the-ugly kind of love. (They also sometimes sneak me away for overnights like this picture taken last month)
Watching my kids develop those types of relationships with their own cousins humbles and excites me.
I also found myself thanking God for my sibling relationships (as we spent way too much time telling hilarious roadkill stories over dessert last night). My siblings (and siblings-in-law) aren't people I do holidays with. They're my real friends who I laugh hard with, who call me out when I need it, and who put up with this bossy big sister.
My own two boys and two girls are as diverse as me and my siblings are. They watch each other's backs at school, they support each other's interests and passions, they rough house and don't let each other get by with much.
For these things I was smiling and thankful for over a heaping plate of turkey and potatoes....and stuffing... and ham... and shrimp salad...and cranberry sauce...
I drove six hours and demonstrated how confident I was in good weather by only packing shorts in August. It happened to be the one cold day of pouring rain in Spokane as I pulled up to my aunt's house. Billie is my dad's youngest sister. Just this year the youngest of her twenty three children turned eighteen. I had come to talk with her about adoption and to hear stories. (If you've heard Billie tell stories you know that anyone would cross the Cascade Mountains for the experience).
It was surprisingly quiet at my Uncle Bruce and Aunt Billie's house. They are nearly empty nesters but when your twenty three children are young adults, they still have a way of filling up a house. In Tadema fashion, my Aunt Billie (though she is an intense woman with a full life) sat with me while the rain poured as though we had all day to discuss the things of God, the heartaches of this life, and for her to encourage my rained-on soul. In some strange time warp experience, we did end up spending nearly a day together with hardly an interruption.
Revelations from God kept rising to the top and I found myself thinking, if all of this gets organized into a book of some sort- great. If it doesn't, this is completely worth it just for me.
As we strayed from the adoption topic my aunt began asking about my life. I took a deep breath and cranked on the faucet to pour it out there in her living room for her ears and the ears of two inquisitive Great Danes.
We began talking about when God chooses to not take away the hard things. I was sharing some of my own experiences and fumbled to articulate, "It's the strangest thing, Aunt Billie. When I am at my lowest, those are also the points where Jesus meets me in a way I can't describe. It's like my senses are heightened and I'm aware of His presence in a way that-" I tried again. "Like I'll be pouring out my heart in the morning as the sun rises and I feel Jesus right there and- have colors always been that vivid? Somehow as things are hard, it comes with a rich sweetness and deep thankfulness for blessings that I'm pretty sure I'd miss if I was sailing through life."
Just throwing myself out there a bit...