Ponderings · Reorienting Myself

On Suffering, Part 2

During one particularly difficult period in my life, I woke three successive mornings with the phrase “Fine china is more beautiful when broken and put back together again” on my lips. “What?!” I thought, “my treasured tea cups would be prettier broken and patched up with some glue?” In that season of life, God demonstrated how Icould become prettier when broken and put together again, not with glue but with grace.

Years later I participated in a Bible study that offered the following reflection. You can imagine what I felt as I read the first line.

The Japanese art of kintsukuroi (pronounced kint-sook-er-oy) is the repair of broken pottery through the use of a gold lacquer to fill and bind the cracks. The practice originated, according to one Japanese legend, when a servant inadvertently broke his master’s prized vase during a party. Fortunately for the servant, one of the guests assuaged the master’s anger by devising a humorous poem about the vase. Seen in this new light – that the vase now had new character and a richer story – it took on greater significance. Its brokenness became the occasion for a deeper beauty. And so for centuries, Japanese craftsmen have restored cracked vessels with gold, in order to accentuate the beauty that emerges from the scars.

One way to look at the book of Romans is as the story of a Craftsman who relentlessly brings his beauty to every kind of brokenness. In his cosmic plan, wherever there is deformity, God sculpts a new loveliness; wherever there is sorrow, God creates a new bliss; wherever there is loss, God produces gain. And it is not just that God responds with beauty wherever there is hideousness. No, the truly breathtaking nature of his work is that it is through the cracks that God brings the beauty. He does not need to scrap what is broken; he does not lose what he has already made. On the contrary, he gathers the broken shards and conceives a new glory, a better future for every part of his creation.1

Before my own season of breaking, I mostly depended on my own merit, my own effort, my own plans. I loved God and trusted in Him for salvation, but I trusted in myself to define my life. When circumstances showed me that I was not in control, when I understood that my goodness fell far short of God’s perfection, when I saw that I was a creature subject to the Creator who had plans beyond my own, my perspective changed. I learned that I had limitations. I began to recognize how much I needed grace, and this all helped me in turn share grace with the people I encountered.

So when I catch myself worrying about suffering, pain, or sorrow, I remember that the Lord God can sculpt something from the shards of brokenness, and that He is big enough to use the brokenness in my life to create something beautiful for His eternal glory.

 

1 Palmer, Steve. Romans Devotional. St. Stephen’s Church, 2018. E-mail.

Ponderings · Reorienting Myself

Revisiting Identity

Today I revisit the topic of identity partly because there are so many things to say and so many ways to say it. Another reason stems from my own continuing struggles with contentment and identity. I write to remind myself and others who may question similarly.

Many people have a deep desire to make a name for themselves, to be “the best” in something, or be recognized. This desire drives us to action. Growing up I was not brilliant, but I could work hard. So I did. Graduating high school early, I married in college a man who exceeded all my dreams, and then moved to a far-away land. I had a degree, I had passion, and I also had no job prospects. Making use of the time, I began my masters and then welcomed my first child. Meanwhile siblings, peers, and my husband all graduated, began working, and earned accolades. I remained at home. No title, no awards, nothing to show the world outside my door.

The desire for external recognition and success runs deep in me and deep in our culture, even spilling over onto the precious and vulnerable people in our lives, people we should be protecting and nurturing and loving for who they are, rather than what they do. In a sermon on parenting, a pastor once mentioned that many parents would rather discover that their child had a learning challenge than accept that their child was, simply, average.

What drives these comparisons? One reason is the craving for fulfillment, and the direct relationship between fulfillment and identity. Fulfillment is a real desire and a real need! As a recent sermon titled Thirsty perfectly articulates, we satisfy this fulfillment desire with something or someone that we worship or value most. The strength of our sense of self depends on the power of what we worship. Whether I situate my worth and find contentment in what is temporary and finite, or eternal and endless, affects who I believe myself to be and how I relate myself to my surroundings.

With an identity and worth grounded in the Almighty God, how people perceive me does not matter. I can be okay bagging groceries. I can be okay with thinking my hardest and earning only “B” grades. I can be okay mothering at home, and doing “nothing else” (though we could have a rich debate over whether that description even remotely fits reality!). I might not be the best according to the world’s standards, but that does not matter.

This confidence happens when I know whose I am. Everything external – good and bad – falls away like water off a duck’s back because I know who defines me. Timothy Keller writes,

What, then, would the effect be if we were to dive even more deeply into Jesus’s teaching and life and work? What if we were to be so immersed in his promises and summonses, his counsels and encouragements, that they dominated our inner life, capturing our imagination, and simply bubbled out spontaneously when we faced some challenge?….When you received criticism, you would never be crushed, because Jesus’s love and acceptance of you is so deeply “in there.”1            

I can be okay with who I am, where I am, and what I am doing (or not doing) when I live for an audience of One, when I worship God and allow Him to define me and my worth.2

The question to ask and answer today: will I choose to be fulfilled by Him?

 

***

1 Keller, Timothy and Kathy Keller. The Meaning of Marriage. Riverhead Books, 2011. Print.

2 Guinness, Os. The Call. Word Publishing, 1998. Print.

Ponderings · Reorienting Myself

On Suffering, Part 1

Romans 8:28 “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose.”

This is one of the most comforting verses in the Bible. It is also, I think, one of the scariest. For, if God can work all things together for good, then He could allow me to experience all things, including my worst nightmares. I fear losing what I hold dearest. What if’s buzz through my brain, drowning out what is real. Yet I ought to think about what is true, what is real. So here goes an exercise in training my mind, putting my thoughts where I want them to be. Borrowing heavily from Timothy Keller’s response to the question of evil and suffering in The Reason for God, today I will outline three responses to the problem of pain. A second post with further thoughts on this subject will hopefully come soon after.

Christian life is one that involves suffering. Where is God in this inevitable and unhappy aspect of life? How does He work all things together for good? For a first point, just because I cannot understand the reason for my suffering now does not mean that there is not one. Looking back in my own life on times of intense pain, insecurity, or betrayal, I see how I grew through them. Remember Joseph in the Bible and how his trials actually saved his life and that of a whole people from starvation?

For another point, as Christians we believe that Jesus Christ, God Himself, experienced suffering and death. Timothy Keller elaborates, “God became uniquely and fully human in Jesus Christ and therefore knows firsthand despair, rejection, loneliness, poverty, bereavement, torture, and imprisonment.”1God understands our pain. When we more fully grasp the reality and extent of Christ’s sufferings, the following verses take on new meaning. Philippians 4:19 And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. Romans 8:32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things?

For a third point, Timothy Keller, reflecting on Revelation 21 wrote, Heaven is not just consolation for the hurts experienced in life but a “restoration of the life you always wanted. This means that every horrible thing that ever happened will not only be undone and repaired but will in some way make the eventual glory and joy even greater.”2

Or as one of my favorite authors, Fyodor Dostoevesky, wrote,

“Like a babe, I trust that the wounds will heal, the scars will vanish, that the sorry and ridiculous spectacle of man’s disagreements and clashes will disappear like a pitiful mirage, like the sordid invention of a puny, microscopic, Euclidean, human brain, and that, in the end, in the universal finale, at the moment universal harmony is achieved, something so magnificent will take place that it will satisfy every human heart, allay all indignation, pay for all human crimes, for all the blood shed by men, and enable everyone not only to forgive everything but also to justify everything that has happened to men.”3

The God that I read about in the Bible, encounter in prayer, and witness at work in people’s lives is big enough to transform all things, even the hardest and darkest things, for good. He knows, He sympathizes, He redeems.

 

1 Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God. Riverhead Books, 2008. Print.

2 IBID.

3 Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Bantam Books, 1970. Print.

Ponderings · Questions · Reorienting Myself

Who am I?

The question “Who are you when no one is watching?” helps a person gauge their honesty and integrity. Everyone could benefit from this self-reflection from time to time. A more pressing and important question for mothers could be, “Who are you when you are not loving your husband and children, tending the house, or preparing the next meal?”

“I do not know,” has many times been my puzzled response since I cannot think of a time in the last five years when I did not have an immediate responsibility or obligation. I make the time to read a little every day, and sincerely wish that I could play the piano, but who am I apart from a mother?

Motherhood involves a lot of emptying out of ourselves, consumes massive amounts of time and energy, and is a daily struggle against selfishness. So when I am at the end of myself or the end of long day, how do I fill my empty soul?

Podcasts, clothing, exercise, job or volunteer-related recognition, Netflix, blogging and more sit easily within reach to help me define or distract myself. What about God? I go to Him and must quietly concentrate to read His Word. I go to Him and am convicted by the anger I felt the previous day. I go to God, and this is not easy.

***

I become what I think I about. Reliving a frustrating situation does not help me “vent,” it instead strengthens neural pathways. Following my heart does not automatically bring happiness or fulfillment, for “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9). No, I must put my thoughts where I want them to be. Sometimes this feels as if I am stooping down, scooping up the turbulent waters of my thoughts and feelings, and turning around 180 degrees before I set them down with a determined “plop.”

When I am not in the present moment with my husband and children, where I “go” really matters. Where I put my thoughts is not akin to choosing which pair of shoes to wear or what meal to order. Where my thoughts dwell is a choice about how I will live and interact with my world. In Philippians 4:8 we read, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Last year I extensively studied God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Really grasping that it is by grace I have been saved, I was able to see and love people who hurt me with abundant grace. What is deep inside spills out when we are “squeezed” by life.

Similarly, choosing who or what defines me is a decision made daily, and sometimes more often than that. Am I the things that I do, the position that I hold, or am I a creation defined by my Creator? Does my worth come from myself or from the fact that I am made in the image of God? Like the dandelions that perennially poke their heads through my cultivated lawn, again and again I tend towards trying to define myself and my worth. But oh!, the peace, comfort, and security that comes in knowing that I am simply because He made me and loves me. I do not have to struggle or strive to earn His love or be a self-made woman. I can freely live and abundantly love, unthreatened by what others think of me, unashamed by what I could not accomplish this day, and undaunted by my shriveling resume.

Today I loved God by seeking Him first. I loved my neighbors – the little people living in the bedrooms lining my hallway, the people across the street and next door, and the people in my inbox. I simply “was” today. And I “am” right now. And that is enough.

Letters to Ivan · Reorienting Myself

Examining the Heart

Last week my eldest very seriously announced to me, “Mama, I have one problem in my life.” “Son,” I said, “Please tell me about your problem.” “Well, I love Jesus a lot. But I love people the same amount.” My son’s awareness of his own heart and the need he felt to love God more without knowing how encouraged my own self-examination. Is my “one problem in life” needing to love God more? Do I prioritize this goal above house projects, mothering goals, and career aspirations? With a sickening feeling, I confess that I do not. Lord, please forgive me and help me to put you first.