Grace Isn’t Always As It Seems

Grace /ɡrās/ noun 1.) free and unmerited favor

It’s a word known and familiar.  Regardless of one’s personal convictions, its highly likely that nearly every American and countless many abroad hear the words “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound” whenever its familiar melody begins to play.

We are deeply touched, even unsettled, whenever we recognize its been given to us. At times, the role of “grace giver” can feel deeply satisfying. This lovely notion that has spurred on artworks and anthems, namesakes worldwide and notoriety to iconic figures through history: A tiny nun who spent her years giving orphans a home. A friendly cardigan-zipping neighbor elevating the dignity of a fellow human being above society’s dividing lines. A Babylonian king extending his scepter at the unbeckoned approach of an unlikely queen. A carpenter’s son who found greatest worth among the least of these. Hymns and homilies and hashtags have waxed poetic of grace in action while traditions and fairytales have shown glimpses of its worth.

Grace.

We all need it.  

We’d like to think we freely give it.  

And I’ll bet my bottom dollar, in one form or another, we all crave it.  Desperately.

At least, I know I do. 

Sometimes I recognize it when given.  Obvious signs of favor I neither deserve nor deny.  Evidence of mercy’s bestowing opposite twin; where mercy withholds deserved consequences without leverage, grace bestows favor without merit.  I see its evidence and feel its weight, warm as a cloak wrapped round the shivering shoulders of a helpless child.  It floods my heart with gratitude and fills my sight with awe.

But sometimes, there are other times when its evidence hides in plain sight, when the cloak is not warm but absolute as a deathly hallow, hiding the enclosed contents completely from searching eyes. In times like these, my mind runs rampant. I’ll recall those hymns and homilies, declarations of grace amazing and sweet, their comfort felt sharp as a knife and bitter on my tongue.

If I’m honest (and can’t we all just be honest), I quickly arrive at conclusions on my worth and the grace-giver’s intentions and all the reasons why this gift, by nature undeservable, has deliberately been withheld. Shaming conclusions and deliberate rejections. I look for grace and find shadows instead. And I determine my perspective accurate, informed, right.

You too?

It’s unnervingly easy to come to such conclusions. At least, I find it so. I look for grace like a river while sorrows like sea billows roll.

But maybe, just maybe, circumstances aren’t always as they first seem.

What if the shadows are not vacancies but evidence of a stronger light?

What if the pain is not a punishment but a provision to expose and spark rescue from a subversive deadly woe?

What if felt silence is not absence but rather the quiet nearness of a gentle embrace?

What if when we wrestle through the night, as Jacob did in times of old, what if the resulting limp IS the blessing?

What if hope is not in fact hollow but firmly rooted in a foundation eyes cannot currently see?

It’s a lesson lifelong for this girl named for what she must relearn again and again. A gift often wrapped in peculiar packaging.

Sometimes grace is a shelter and sometimes grace is the rain.

Sometimes grace is a placeholder, holding off the good as it keeps place for something greater on its way.

Sometimes grace is a cradle and sometimes grace is a crucifixion.

May my eyes behold this gift when wrapped within various forms and remember at all times, it bestows favor, unmerited and free.

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The Spark of Solidarity

I’ve found my heart heavy in recent days, heavy with a grief I cannot quite explain.

Loss comes in many forms, you see. Some sudden, some slowly, others in increments over time. I’ve long held to the notion that loss is loss is loss. While the details of our individual suffering may vary, human decency requires we honor its magnitude based on the weight felt by the one required to bear its load.

As the calendar marks another year since my firstborn son died, I’m struck afresh by this mortal proclivity towards comparison. Some who have not walked my road may be tempted to diminish their own woes as less than. In contrast, a grief unresolved could easily seem to outweigh all others.

Death. Disease. Divorce. Disappointments.

We all have our version of “worst case scenario” that life has required us to carry. These differences ought push us towards compassion rather than comparison. While you may never have walked a bereaved mother’s road, I have not had to walk as an orphan or a cancer patient. Where one person’s suffering may exist in external circumstances, some equally weighty exist where eyes cannot see but are just as real as tangible things.

Loss is loss is loss.

And yet…

There is a kind of loss that, in my eyes, trumps all others by comparison. One that I cannot wrap my mind around and feel honestly blessed to have not been required to bear thus far. It comes in vast shapes and forms, but haunts me just the same.

That of the sudden, the unthinkable, the kind that leave you utterly speechless, the unexplained.

Shootings. Devastating disasters. A sudden lethal heart attack in a healthy wife and mother. A child who never wakes from sleep. Things that should never, ever be.

In the face of such sudden atrocities, my own losses will always pale. Indeed, they fade into seeming luxury by comparison. Perhaps yours feel that same way. What do you say? What can you do? Platitudes cannot and should not suffice in such circumstances. How could they?

Today finds me grappling with such things, with memories of a heaven-bound son and signs of a broken world surrounding. In truth, it finds me with more questions than answers, more prayers of grief for the woes of those known by name and news headlines, more aware of what not to say than words to fill a heavy void.

But even in this space of wondering why, a smallest spark lights up the dark with hope. Not in an outcome perhaps, but in an understanding.

While our details may vary, life has dealt us all a heavy load to bear. We are mortal after all. While such weights can tempt us to comparison, they can also stir us towards compassion – compassion which we all need, that we all have the opportunity to bestow to our fellow man. The losses in my life do not diminish the magnitude of your own, nor vice versa. Instead they bestow a peculiar blessing.

The opportunity for solidarity.

I will never understand life’s sudden losses. I cannot fathom the grief of a parent stripped of their healthy child in a moment nor the terror of receiving that call from an officer. There are wounds you cannot quite grasp either, ones that make your own feel seemingly small.

But what I can do – what we all can do – is allow individual sorrows to fuel a compassion for others, one that stands in solidarity beside the sufferer so they need not grieve alone. We can see them. We can acknowledge the price life has required they pay. We can remember long after the signs and services and sympathy cards have ceased. We can extend our arms once weak with grief to hold up those now in need of lifting. Even Jesus took time to weep. He could have compared the coming crucifixion and found their grievance small. Instead, He wept. So too may we.

While life’s losses can defy explanation, may they fuel compassion. May grieving hearts be kept soft by the solidarity of others who refuse to leave their side.

Though today finds me with more questions than answers, may it also find a willingness to extend a battered heart in compassion rather than comparison, tender with empathy rather than indifference.

Loss is loss is loss. It ALL matters.

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A Surprising Switch

Time is a funny thing. At one moment, it flies past at breakneck speed. The next, it creeps along slower than a slug. And often, in a moment briefer than a blink, life flips the switch between the two.

Today held one such switch. A usual Monday around these parts, I woke earlier than I preferred to ready my household for a full day ahead. First get the kids to school then commute to my office for a long day’s workload before an evening of sports, meetings, and possibly – hopefully – sleep. A large mug of dark roast into the day, messages began appearing in my inbox, messages that stopped me in my tracks and brought tears to my eyes.

Congrats on your work anniversary.

You see, its been four years now since I began working for the American Board of Pediatrics. Four years comprised of long days and overflowing weeks and months quickly bleeding into nearly half a decade of employment for the stay-at-home pastor’s wife turned working single mama; far more than hours clocked and commuted, far richer than all the gallons of coffee consumed.

Four years ago my life was in wreckage. Camelot had crumbled and I could barely recognize myself amidst the rubble’s haze. Everything I’d sworn would never happen in my life now dictated the day-to-day. It was there, smack in the middle of the shadows of dead dreams, God began weaving pain allowed into provision and scars into a redeeming story still in the making. There, God began turning bereavement into a bestowed blessing, one that not only provided daily needs but in fact began planting seeds of new dreams.

It did not happen overnight. Indeed, it took weeks and months and years of healing and grieving, of working and learning, of rising early and staying up long past the sun’s setting, to arrive at this working mama’s fourth employment anniversary.

So, as I respond to congratulatory messages with gratitude, I’m found humbled to my core. Today’s familiar blessings would have seemed beyond far fetched four years ago. Now, they mark my day-to-day as new seasons have begun unfolding with sparks of fresh dreams lighting up the corners of this mending heart.

As my favorite quote by C.S. Lewis well states: “There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.” 

Today’s switch finds me reflecting on the truth of these words, wondering what unseen gifts might lie in store in the days and years to come.  To say I’m grateful seems hardly adequate enough. 

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Filed under Chapel Hill, Generosity, God, Thoughts, UNC

A Year’s Reflection: Word Edition

As 2018 draws near its close, I’m often found in a reflective state of late, taking stock of twelve months come and gone.  It’s a humbling practice, this looking back on experienced highs and lows to find the redemptive thread woven through it all.

The year began with a friend’s question, “What is your word for 2018?”  I had observed this practice in loved ones’ lives before: asking God for a word for the next year and prayerfully waiting until a word resonated deep in their spirit.  For some, it was a virtue to aspire in growth towards.  For others, a promise to cling to through a season of waiting or trial.

My previous several years had been admittedly hard, enduring circumstances I’d sworn never to walk through and finding my faith stripped down to sure studs of grace.  Something about the nearing new year struck a fresh chord, a distant tune that perhaps this year might be different.  So, when I observed surveys circling during 2017’s final days, asking what my word would for 2018 might be, the question stirred curiosity of whether God perhaps held one for me.

Sure enough, whispers of a word rose to the surface of my mind, resonating as true to my wondering heart below.

On January 2, 2018, a group of girlfriends gathered around my table to celebrate and set the tone for this new year.  After indulging in scrumptious offerings of cookie butter, waffle biscuits, flavorful pies and toasts to our collective health, we spent hours exploring enneagram wisdom and related spiritual formation tools.  We dove deep into our stories, asking provoking questions and offering honest answers to trusted friends.  What Scriptures did each of us need to cling to in the new year?  What practices would fuel our faith and direct us closer towards the heart of our loving God?  And, of course, what word spoke to our souls for 2018?  Chalk in hand, 2018 took shape in colors and phrases before our eyes and together, we felt seen, sought, significant before our Maker.

Being an Enneagram Six, the verses 1 John 4:18 and 1 Peter 5:6-7 stood out as timely, passages on the perfect love of God dispelling fear and calling me to cast my worries upon the One who cares most.  Disciplines of Scripture memorization and fasting would promote further growth while grounding practices of singing, journaling, and meditating on God’s Word would stir faith where fear often tried to reign.

As for my word, it started stirring my spirit days earlier.  First heard as a whisper, it echoed in reverse, growing stronger with each refrain.  A notion of new life springing forth from ashes.  Phoenix.

Time passed, turning that evening’s events to memory as life for this solo working mama bustled by with ferocity. Those first few months of this new year seemed circumstantially contrary to the practices and promises scribed in chalk.  Had I misheard?  While “new life” remained elusive, ashes continued to abound.

In time, phoenix fell forgotten.

Now with another year nearly gone, December ushered in a new season of listening for a word.  Once work deadlines and scheduled festive mania subsided, I began reflecting once again.  What had transpired over the course of 2018?  Did the year’s end find me any closer to those elements shared with friends back at it’s beginning?

Thankfully, the chalkboard’s goals and guiding practices had been captured that January night.  I pulled out the photograph to refresh my memory.  In taking stock of the twelve months past through this renewed lens, a remarkable truth emerged:

Every item listed that night had occurred in 2018.

Scriptures memorized.  Seasons of fasting with prayer transpired.  Fears and anxieties brought to the mind’s forefront for purposes of growth and healing.  Songs sung in secret and on stage.  Journaling proven essential in processing the year’s highs and lows and elements between.  Lessons in casting cares onto the loving heart of God, learning to believe His love instead of loud fears (though admittedly this is still very much in process).

As for phoenix, evidence of new life springing from ashes covered the year.  Signs of fresh beginnings and revived dreams: personally, professionally, and in the lives of my children and loved ones.  Encouragement received and distributed in the telling of broken stories redeemed and past pain woven into provision.  Though it had not taken the form I anticipated on that January evening, elements of renewed rising had indeed come to fruition by the mighty hand of God. And it proclaimed grace – all of it.

Today finds me in a familiar space, reflecting on a year gone by while holding hopes for the coming year with open hands.  The new year’s word came in a moment, tucked within a conversation with my dearest friend and sister.

“Remember being brave doesn’t mean feeling brave and you are stepping into bravery with every part of this.  Trusting Jesus when it feels so close yet so far.  And maybe part of this is just abiding.  Not doing but abiding in the present season.”

It jumped from the screen straight into my heart, echoing affirmation all the way down.

Abide (verb): to bear patiently, tolerate; to endure without yielding, withstand; to wait for; to accept without objection

I know not what this new year may hold nor how this word will take shape as days turn to weeks, to months, to another year lived.  Indeed, for an impatient ginger named Patience, this call to deeper resting in my Author’s pen rather than scrambling to take control from my limited perspective feels daunting, unsettling, yet divine.  Looking back to find fingerprints of God’s faithfulness has fueled my faith today to trust Him as the unknown soon unfolds.

Phoenix rising
Now abiding
Beneath the shadow of Thy wings

Sovereign timing
Author scribing
Mine now Yours, an offering

What word might He hold in store for you this next year?

In my experience, its proven worth the asking.

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Filed under Faith, God, Patience, Poetry, Words

A Lesson In Laughter

Every December, a beautiful book comes off the shelf and into my family’s hands. Covered in patchwork colors, it weaves the ancient tail of Christmas from a Garden to a Promise fulfilled, wrapped warm within a manager. Ann Voskamp’s Unwrapping The Greatest Gift: A Family Christmas Celebration has become a treasured tradition for this mama. I earnestly hope it’s precious truths sink deeper year after year in my children’s minds and hearts. Only time will tell.

img_8481Tonight found us home for the first time this week with a few unrushed hours before bed. Tis’ the season when stressful….I mean “festive”…merriment abounds around every nook of the calendar. First world problems, I know. Regardless, my little brood and I found ourselves with time to spare, time enough for a timeless story. I grabbed this beautiful book from the shelf and turned to December 6th’s reading.

The Gift of Laughter – the story of Isaac

This story, both fresh and familiar, speaks of a promised child to a couple, barren and nearing triple-digit years. A covenant that could only be measured by an immeasurably starry sky. A long-offered prayer answered with a laughable word of hope. Could it be, after all this time, this dream deep and tender might come true? It was utterly absurd, rationally speaking.

“…She laughed too – but Sarah laughed sad…the way you do when you think someone is teasing you, and you laugh brave so you don’t cry hard.”

Even the clinical, doubtful dismissal by a waiting-worn woman would turn to joyful laughter as Isaac eventually entered the world by her womb.

God always answers prayers; He keeps His promises.

As I sat beside my admittedly distracted children, the heart captured afresh was my own. How many times had I heard this story? How often had it impacted my life already? Indeed – enough to name my firstborn after Sarah’s promised son. But tonight’s reading of familiar words and Ann’s poetic prose exposed a needed truth.

At times, I am Sarah who, upon hearing a good promise from a good God, responds with lacking belief or worst yet – interprets it as cruel. The words jumped off the colored page, straight into my exposed heart.

“Sometimes you use laughter like a shield to protect your heart. Could Sarah let down her guard and believe that God would be gentle with her dream to hold a child of her own?”

Could she?

Could I?

We all hold something deep and tender as Sarah did. Perhaps it’s for a struggle relieved, a relationship revealed or restored, a recognition long denied or a dream brought to reality. While our details may vary, we all can relate to Sarah’s angst in some way, understand her disbelief that her most precious hope might actually, finally, be brought to fruition. To a weathered soul, it feels an awful risk.

As this Sunday school story revived with tonight’s reading, I was struck afresh not only by the reluctant recipient of a promise but by the resilient generosity of the Promise Keeper. Sarah’s struggle to believe did not sway God’s bequeathing Hand. Rather He, in His perfect way, replaced her bared-teeth grimace with the purest laughter of a blessing made manifest, clenched fists now spread wide as they embraced the embodiment of laughter – in fact, it was his very name – Isaac.

As the story ended and my children dashed off to their next endeavor, I sensed that familiar whisper near while I closed the quilted cover.

“You’ve been like Sarah. And I am the God of Isaac. Trust me to turn waiting into wonder. After all – I always fulfill my Promise.”

Tonight finds me yet again beneath a warmly lit tree, struck in awe at the message of Christmas cast in new light. Like Sarah, I’m prone to doubt His kindness, to laugh dismissively over long-awaited prayers. But He – He is the God of Isaac, from whose line came the Ultimate Long-awaited One – Jesus, the Messiah. It has ignited my faith with renewed hope, not in outcomes, but in the One who came, who will surely come again. He who was faithful to Sarah will surely be faithful to you and me.

May the laughter of this season remind us all that hope placed in Him is never in vain.

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Beneath a Tree

It’s been a day, a wearying one, filled to the brim with projects, problems, and parenting. Also known as Thursday.

Before dawn’s light crested the horizon, this household of mine was on the go. Funny how the “most wonderful time of year” never ceases to coincide with year’s end mania. Every arena of daily life seems bursting at the seams with all that must be done. Today was no exception. Tonight finds me weary and worn.

And yet.

Here, in the quiet of sleeping babes and labors laid aside, of thoughts alight with needed do-overs and never-agains, of small successes and ample failures, I sit beneath a tree.

one

Warmly lit, small splashes of color clad forest hues, a tree bedecked in memories. Something about its glow ushers in thoughts of holidays gone by, of a Savior child come to live among us. Emmanuel, come to die.

Slowly, surely, the sounds of today’s missed moments and mishaps fade, replaced by a gentler, stronger song: Come. Come let us adore Him for He alone is worthy. Christ the Lord.

And with its silent melody, Peace.

Tonight finds me now grateful: for the privilege of enduring life’s chaos, for the harrowing honor to steward children’s hearts and youth for a time, for the quiet that now fills my home, for the Reason behind a glowing tree. This has become a Silent Night, a Holy Night.

Indeed, all has been made calm and bright.

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Eyes On The Horizon

There’s a sign in my room, crafted of pallet wood and paint.  A few inches wide and an arm’s length long.  Though unassuming in design, its message carries great weight in my day-to-day.  You see, it sits atop a high ledge, this sign, positioned precisely along my line of sight whenever I’m resting in bed.  Often, its message fills my last gaze before drifting off to dreams and it’s my first sight when I rise.

“There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”  C.S. Lewis

The creator of Narnia and apologetic masterpieces, C.S. Lewis was a man familiar with sorrow, acquainted with grappling life circumstances against the Scriptures.  He did not shy away from hard things nor did he minimize struggles to match up to cultural norms.  A scholar at Oxford and Cambridge, Lewis was considered among the academic elite of his day.  He firmly held to atheistic views, such as those summarized by Lucretius: “Had God designed the world, it would not be a world so frail and faulty as we see.”  Yet in his pursuit of understanding the world around him, wrestling his experiences with pain and suffering against the theology of the Bible, Lewis became a “reluctant convert”, finding the God of the Scriptures ultimately irresistible.

“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen [College, Oxford], night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929, I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”  (Excerpt from Lewis’ Surprised By Joy)

Much has been written of this remarkable man’s life, as indeed much has been scribed by his own pen.  He holds my respect, this brilliant mind who only ever believed that which he fully wrestled with until he could find it irrefutable.  His stories of a magical Wardrobe filled my childhood as his weightier works continue to challenge and inspire my adult perspectives on life and faith.  A library surely is incomplete without the full works from this extraordinary scholar.

This man, well versed in sorrows spanning world wars and personal losses of illness and death, determined that even in the face of such surmounting pains, hope towards the future could still exist.   It echoes the Psalmist’s resolution, “Surely I would have despaired had I not been convinced I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”  (Psalm 27:13)

If the Psalmist could still hold fast to hope while running for his life from the one who swore to elevate it, if Lewis could hold firmly to believing in brighter days ahead even while walking seasons tangibly dark with pain, then so can you, so can I.

A dear friend gave me his quote on a gray painted pallet board during a time of dark clouds abounding in my life, and I will always be grateful for her kindness.  May we all wake with this reassurance and each night, lie down knowing it to still be true:  indeed, “there are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”  It’s often been a timely reminder for me.  Perhaps, you need to hear it too.

Eyes on the horizon, dear ones.  Brighter days are surely still yet ahead.

Better Things Ahead

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