Broken, But Beautiful

As long as evangelicals have been handing out Gospel tracts, the Good News For the World they’ve communicated has clearly been: “Jesus died for you, because you’re a sinner.”

Concise. Attention-grabbing. And theologically, not incorrect.

Theologically, though, it’s not complete either.

In an era when morality is almost entirely subjective; when, based on this nebulous morality, most members of modern society consider themselves to be basically good; and, most importantly, when we’re willing to share and consider only those ideas that can be summed up in 140 characters or in a catchy meme; it seems only reasonable to boil Christianity down to what appears to be the essentials.

The question is: are those the essentials?

Almost. But not quite.

Recently, a missionary-in-training visited our Sunday school class to share his future plans and describe how his missions organization functions. One distinctive of this organization, he explained, is that its missionaries (who visit remote tribes that often lack a written language, let alone a Bible) share Christ by beginning with the book of Genesis. After all, he pointed out, it’s hard to understand the concept of sin — or one’s subsequent need for a Savior — without an understanding of who God is, who we are in relation to Him, and why, therefore, sin matters to Him.

It makes so much sense. And what I wonder is: why should we present the Gospel any differently, right where we are? After all — to state the ludicrously obvious — the Bible begins with Genesis. Surely God wouldn’t have inspired its authors to record the details of Creation (as well as the entire Old Testament) if He considered everything before the book of Matthew to be frankly inconsequential. And if He wants us to know about the details of Creation, He must have a purpose in sharing them with us.

Take a look at Genesis 1:27:

So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. 

And His assessment a few verses later:

And God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good. (Gen. 1:31)

What do these verses tell us? That God made us in His image, and that what He created was good.

What does this mean for us? That we are worth something to Him. In her book Total TruthNancy Pearcey perfectly encapsulates the typical approach to evangelism and points out why it’s incomplete:

Consider the typical evangelistic message: “You’re a sinner; you need to be saved.” What could be wrong with that? Of course, it’s true that we are sinners, but notice that the message starts with the Fall instead of Creation. By beginning with the theme of sin, it implies that our essential identity consists in being guilty sinners, deserving of divine punishment. Some Christian literature goes so far as to say we are nothing, completely worthless, before a holy God.

…In fact, it is only because humans have such high value that sin is so tragic. If we were worthless, then the Fall would be a trivial event. When a cheap trinket is broken, we toss it aside with a shrug. But when a priceless masterpiece is defaced, we are horrified. It is because humans are masterpieces of God’s creation that the destructiveness of sin produces such horror and sorrow.

…Beginning with sin instead of creation is like trying to read a book by opening it in the middle: You don’t know the characters and can’t make out the plot.

So why does this matter?

I suspect that the frequent overemphasis on our sin nature emerged as a reaction to modern society’s firm belief in its inherent moral goodness — the belief that, in fact, when Nietzche declared God to be dead, sin died along with Him. It is well and good that we counter this with the truth: that all of us are tainted by sin, and that only by believing in the necessity of Christ’s death and resurrection can we be restored to a relationship with a holy God (Rom. 3:23-24). But if we start and end there, we show a lack of understanding of ourselves…and, by extension — because we are made in His image — of God.

Imago Dei. It means that we are more than animals. That we have souls. A will. Creativity. A sense of the beautiful. A sense of right and wrong. When mankind fell, every facet of personhood was poisoned by sinbut not lost. 

When somebody gives food to the homeless, he reflects God’s image, whether he realizes it or not.

When somebody cares for an ailing parent, she reflects God’s image, even if she denies His existence.

When people gather to clean up a town devastated by a hurricane…they reflect God’s image, even if they believe they don’t need Him because they are already good enough.

Without the imprint of God, none of us would be able to do good, and when we share Christ by telling others that every good thing they do is utterly worthless, what we are really intimating is that they are less than human.

How much better it would be if we shared the whole story:

That God created something beautiful — His children, the pinnacle of His handiwork…

…that tragedy befell, and His children rebelled so that the beauty was marred…

…that, instead of punishing His children by making them strive ceaselessly for a holiness they could never fully attain on earth, He sent a Rescuer…

…so that those who realized where they came from and saw that the original beauty, though still there, was forever tainted, needed only to acknowledge Him…

…and that when they confessed their need for the Rescuer, they could throw themselves into the open arms of the One who loved them from the beginning of time.

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A Farewell Tribute

For those who don’t know: my father recently retired from Cairn University School of Music after forty years of service. Below are the words I offered at his retiriement celebration.

Seventeen years ago, I completed my last Chorale Tour with my dad. Since then, I’ve gotten married, sung in a few church choirs, done some conducting of my own, and had a couple of kids. Given that I’m so far removed from the college choral experience, it would seem only natural that I’d consider his retirement an unmixed blessing; after all, he’s of age, he’s worked hard, and now I’ll get to see more of him…and my children will get to see more of their Granddad.

The truth is, though, that when he quietly informed me and my family last spring that this would probably be his last year, an enormous lump rose in my throat and has remained there ever since. Because the truth is, something beautiful is coming to an end.

The Chorale under Dr. Shockey is something uniquely wonderful. Every year, my dad inspires a new group of students to sing music more challenging than many of them have dreamed of attempting, and through him, they learn to love that music more than they have dreamed of loving something. His love for music, his commitment to excellence and to raising the bar far above what is generally expected to come out of a private evangelical university, his dedication to his students, and most of all, his love for the Lord, have encouraged generations of students to strive to be a better version of themselves: harder workers, stronger musicians, better friends, and more devoted Christians.

You can almost see this when you listen to the Chorale singing — the way they watch him is more than just a disparate group of people following a conductor’s hand motions. We saw it on April 21st, when scores of alumni joined the Chorale to sing “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” one last time. My dad means a lot to so many people, and if you know him, you know why.

To me, it seems as if there would be a temptation to coast through one’s last year, or years, of professorship. If my dad has encountered any such temptation, he hasn’t shown it. For musicians, of course, it’s already understood that weekends are not one’s own. In addition to the performances he has led, though, my dad has done so much more than what his position requires.

He is constantly – and I do mean constantly – bringing students to operas, recitals, concerts, and conventions; supporting his colleagues by attending their concerts; inviting students into his home; and going to recitals, not just of his own voice students, but of almost every student he knows personally. It is this love for people – an outpouring of his evident love for the Lord – that, in the end, is why people love him so much.

My dad has poured more of himself into his work in forty years than many people would in sixty, and his retirement is well-deserved. Still, I can’t quite grasp the idea that I will never again hear the Chorale under his masterful direction. Truly, his home concerts have been among the highlights of my years as a stay-at-home mom; things of beauty whose joy lingers in my ears long after the last notes of the Benediction.

However, we are not to lay up our treasures on earth, and I am trying to let go — just as my dad has, so graciously and humbly. Instead of clinging to what would have inevitably ended someday, I am choosing to be thankful that I had the privilege of singing under his direction; that I am lucky enough to have a father who, in every aspect of his life, is such an example to me of walking with the Lord; and that, having left an eternal impact on so many colleagues and students, my dad will be able to breathe more deeply than he has for years.

 

Following in the Footsteps of Jesus

Not long ago, my pastor finished a sermon series on the Gospel of Luke. Throughout our two-year study, many of us in the congregation read Luke multiple times. It wasn’t until my last time through the book, though, that I found myself re-examining one story. Actually, a series of stories.

In Chapter Eight, Jesus and the disciples board a boat headed for the country of the Gerasenes. In the midst of a much-needed rest, Jesus is shaken awake by His followers, and calms a storm that has made them fear for their lives. The water once again tranquil, they eventually land, and immediately encounter a demon-possessed man. Jesus commands the demons to leave, but agrees to let them possess some nearby pigs…which, naturally, causes consternation amongst the locals. After instructing the newly-restored and grateful man to tell others what has happened, Jesus (at the request of the locals) departs.

Upon his return, Jesus meets an eager crowd and is petitioned to heal the ailing young daughter of a man named Jairus. On His way to do so, Jesus stops in the middle of a crowd to heal a woman suffering from chronic bleeding. After speaking with her, He proceeds to Jairus’ home, where the girl has already died and the household is weeping. Jesus soothes the mourners, then restores Jairus’ daughter to life.

These stories reveal a great deal about Jesus — about His power over nature, over evil, over sickness and even death. However, as I read Luke Eight this time around, a new thought struck me:

He must have been exhausted.

Amidst the messy, humdrum tasks of my own day-to-day life — homeschooling, cleaning up spills, breaking up fights, scrounging up ice packs for bumped heads — I sometimes wonder what it means for me, a stay-at-home mom, to follow in the footsteps of One who knew no sin, and who possessed infinite power. I wonder how I can present my life as a living sacrifice when I’m so worn out from the demands of motherhood that I hardly have time to pray. I wonder when I can take a break from this earthy stuff that consumes my time so I can truly serve the Lord.

It occurs to me now that, in some ways, Jesus’ daily life was not so different from mine.

When He accepted the limitations of human flesh, Jesus accepted the need for rest…and the Bible tells us that He often went off by Himself to pray. Sometimes, though, that “alone time” just didn’t happen. In the above account, people’s needs just kept piling up — overlapping, even — and, in addressing those needs, Jesus simply pushed through the exhaustion.

When the disciples roused Him from His well-deserved sleep, Jesus quelled their childlike fears. When a hurting woman detained Him on His way to somewhere else, He showed her compassion instead of treating her as an interruption. Although He craved time alone with His Father, Jesus instead ministered to His children.

It can be tempting to focus so much on Christ’s deity that we forget about His humanity. This imbalance, for me, can lead to a misguided conception of God as being “out there” — my Creator, and the reason for my ultimate hope, yes — but somehow distant from the realities right in front of me. Luke shows us, though — if we can open our eyes to see it — that Jesus knew those realities better than any of us.

I cannot calm storms, but I can soothe my children when their bad dreams disrupt my sleep. I cannot raise the dead, but I can clean scraped knees and bloody lips. I cannot save the world, but I can patiently and lovingly serve my family — even when I’m tired…or in the middle of something else…or yearning for spiritual refreshment.

When I do so, I am following in the footsteps of Jesus. And when I choose to be joyful instead of grudging, compassionate instead of irritable, I come closer and closer to being a reflection of Him.

What an amazing privilege: to walk as Jesus did, knowing that He understands what it means to serve others as we tread this tired earth together. As I cling more closely to this truth, my own burdens feel lighter…and my foolish feelings about Jesus being “out there” are replaced by the realization that, through every moment of the day, He is vibrantly, intimately present.

“For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Heb. 4:15-16)

Grace on a Monday

Some memories forever embed themselves in our minds, not because they are themselves noteworthy, but because of something that comes after.

One sunny morning in October 2006, I woke up an hour earlier than necessary. I enjoyed an invigorating five-mile run, showered, made myself a spinach-and-cheese omelette, and still got to church on time. And why not? I had a whole extra hour, because it was Fall Back Day — my favorite non-holiday event of the year.

Not particularly memorable in and of itself, pleasant though it was.

The reason I remember it is that, one year later, I was the mother of a two-month-old baby. He was cuddly, alert, precious…and absolutely exhausting. Barely eight weeks into motherhood, I adored my son, but felt sure that my life was over. I would never sleep again, never go running again, maybe never shower again. Then came the night before the October time change, when I had a new and horrifying realization: changing the clock would mean precisely zilch to this tiny person in my arms. The only thing it would mean was that, when he woke up, my clock would probably say 5:00 instead of 6:00.

My favorite day of the year suddenly became my least favorite day of the year, and postpartum blues overtook me like an ocean breaker knocking down an unsusupecting toddler at the beach. Memories of last year’s leisurely autumn morning of running and breakfasting taunted me: “You will never get that back! If only you’d known to appreciate it!”

News flash: Having children does not make life easier.

Nine years later, I’m still alive — and happily, doing more than just surviving. Still, though, I can’t go running as often as I used to. I can’t spend an entire Saturday reading a book from cover to cover. And activities to which I never gave a second thought have become impossibly cumbersome tasks. Getting out of the house to run errands takes EVER so much longer than it used to, and putting myself to bed is allowed only after two energetic youngsters have finally had their last story. To top it all off, we have made the choice, often considered the height of masochism, to homeschool our children. A lifetime sentence, to be sure — am I right?

Except…

Something has happened in those nine years. Not all at once, but gently, sweetly, like tiny buds slowly pushing through the earth, a day at a time, until one day you look around and realize that it’s spring.

I have come to see that children make many things better.

I first noticed this on a Monday morning. I was busying myself with chores: starting laundry, putting away dishes, attacking various piles of clutter…all the varied tasks that accumulate after two days of pretending weekends can still be restful. In the midst of it, something struck me: the kids are playing together and letting me get my work done! Further consideration revealed that, while I wasn’t looking, this had become a regular occurrence. Something about coming off of a busy Sunday inspires my children, the next morning, to wake up wanting to play creatively and happily with one another.

During that time, I can accomplish the things that, during the baby and toddler years, seemed Herculean. The ability to complete tasks unhindered is a treat now, not a drudgery to take for granted as I did before I had little people underfoot to interrupt them.

Stranger still than enjoying chores: I no longer hate Mondays. I actually…like them.

And the more I reflect, the more I notice the myriad details of life that have become more beautiful — and have even gone from unpleasant to enjoyable — as a result of what I first thought had permanently handicapped every aspect of my existence.

Although this revelation came to me in the context of motherhood, I believe that God surprises all of us, in different ways, with this Monday grace — this gentle, gradual transformation of things mundane or dreary into things pleasant and even delightful. And I, for one, notice it much less often than it happens. I take the quiet joys in life for granted instead of recognizing them for what they are: reminders that God’s mercies are new every morning, and that He is the One who gives us beauty for ashes…even though, more often than not, we blithely go about living our lives without stopping to acknowledge the change.

I said that children make many things better. Really, though, it’s so much bigger than that. God, in his grace, continually takes the seeming drudgeries of life and reshapes them – reshapes us – so that they bring us joy instead.

May I continually be transformed in this way…and may I always return praise and thanks to the Giver of all good and perfect gifts, great and small.

Children Are Awesome

Today’s blog post is guest-written by the lovely Shandall Green, who also writes awesome book reviews over at coffeeandnonversation.wordpress.com

 

“Children are awesome!” That’s what I was told over and over again when I was pregnant with my first child. That’s how it always started and was invariably followed by a list of the miseries my children would bring upon me; I would never sleep again, I would constantly be poor, I could kiss all the romance in my marriage goodbye, etc. It made an already terrified, expectant mother all the more scared. What was more unsettling is that almost no one could say definitively why children were purported to be “awesome”. Now, 9 years after having my eldest, and just a few short months after delivering my youngest, I will attempt to put into words the awesomeness that is parenting.

First off, they add richness. Example: You are like a bowl of plain ice cream. Getting married is like adding hot fudge (emphasis on the “hot”). Having babies is like sprinkling all your favorite candies and nuts on top with whipped cream and a cherry. Without all of that, it’s just hot fudge and ice cream. The rest makes it something really special, crazy, but special.

Well, when that baby and her brother did arrive, I remember being enamored with each new thing my they did. “Look how alert he is when he stares at the fan!” “She discovered her hands today! She’s so smart!” and so on… I remember this feeling. But the arrival of my newest baby, a tagalong that we’ve loving dubbed Evangeline, I am experiencing again just how powerful that fascination is. Every time her eyes flutter open, I eagerly, admiringly look into them trying to discern their color, smitten with their beauty. Every time a smile graces her face, I could just burst with how darling she is! From her tiny, fat feet with long, delicate toes that she now likes to nibble, to her tiny hands and their fine, feminine fingers, I am in love! How could someone so miniscule, utterly helpless be so singularly captivating?

And each child adds his or her own flavor. My oldest, a blonde beauty at nine, has an imagination that is simultaneously bewildering and engaging, but with a deep-seated commitment to honesty that I cannot praise enough. My middle child, a rambunctious boy of seven, has huge blue eyes, a servant’s heart, and a mind that continually amazes me in its quickness.

Secondly, they are the best legacy you could leave. I love seeing glimpses of my husband, a man whom I admire more than I could ever express, in my children. I give thanks that, when he is gone, a part of him will linger on the earth to grace the world with his cleverness, his compassion, and his steadfastness. Or you could take the stance that you will continue to heckle the world from the grave by leaving behind your children…that might be a more accurate picture of what I’m leaving behind.

From a practical standpoint, they will eventually learn to wash dishes, do laundry, and take out the trash. All those things that are supposed to make me miserable–the endless stream of dirty laundry, dishes, and toys about the house–have a shelf life. Like every stage, diapers do end–one of my moments of great triumph came when my six-year-old said he needed to go to the bathroom in a restaurant and I had only to point him toward the facilities with a reminder to wash his hands. Carrying a heavy, awkward car seat is replaced with a toddling, stumbling picture of pride. Sleeping in shifts gives way to sneaking off for a Sunday afternoon nap while the kids play Legos or–get this–read a book! Making meals three times a day transforms as you teach them to clumsily spread their own peanut butter, then make macaroni and cheese, then fry an egg, etc. And then, one day, your seven-year-old is handing you a bowl of steaming mac and cheese!

As far as romance, my children are not responsible for my marriage. So I will not blame them for its flaws. If they interfere with the growth of our marriage, that’s our fault. I will concede that our experience has not seen this to be the case. On the contrary, I have watched my husband become ever more desireable blowing raspberries at a baby and teaching my son to properly wield his new toolset. There’s something irresistible about a man acting all gooey over his children… Mmmm… Anyway, where was I?

I cannot speak to the teen years. We’re eyeballing them over the curve of a few short years. But I remain optimistic. If folks were so wrong about everything else, well, maybe they’re wrong about this, too.

I’ll skip a little further down the road. As an adult, I thoroughly enjoy visiting with my dad over a cup of coffee when he stops by in the morning. I imagine that he enjoys it, too, although it could just be the coffee. And there is also the reality that, as my parents get older, they lean more on their children to manage and care for them. If you have fostered a loving relationship with your kids, then failing health and loss of the ability to care for yourself are much less frightening. After all, you’re set in hands you trained yourself.

Then, there is always the possibility of grandchildren, with whom you are just as likely to be infatuated as you were with their parents. They’ll be tugging your heart-strings, taking your breath away, making you love them with some unseen bewitchment. And the richness continues, more sprinkles, more whipped cream, cookies and the like!

And the diapers? I almost forgot it because she was grinning at me the whole time. Or maybe it was so stinky and sloppy that my spouse and I were giggling and gagging by turns. Who knew poop could be so funny? But her face just turned bright red so I’d better go get the diaper bag.

What to Do Now

Friends, I am deeply troubled.

Today, amid more turmoil than I’ve ever seen surrounding an election, the Oval Office gained a new inhabitant. Facebook — and doubtless every social media platform I don’t use — is abuzz with commentary. While some from both sides of the aisle are simply resigned, many liberals are angry; conversely, many conservatives are triumphant…gloating, even.

If you know me or my blog, you know that I avoid politics to the point of appearing (perhaps accurately?) wishy-washy. I will probably continue to do so in the future…but today, for a few moments, I will step into the messiness of this season with a simple plea.

Fellow Christians, please show the world around you, more fervently than ever, what it means to be a lover of Jesus.

Some believers abstained from voting because of Trump’s *ahem* questionable moral character. Others reluctantly voted for him because of the Supreme Court and the sanctity of life. Still others cast their vote as enthusiastically as if Trump were King David himself, a man after God’s own heart.

The world likes to accuse Christians of hypocrisy. It saddens me, as most of us who are honest will reply that the very sin nature that condemns us is the reason we need a Savior. However, I can’t help but wonder if they have a valid point these days.

We vilified Bill Clinton for his philandering, and many Christians considered him unworthy to be a leader because of his unfaithfulness to his wife. We now applaud a man whose behavior is no better, saying nobody is perfect and it’s irrelevant to his leadership abilities.

We read Galatians 5, which tells us that fruit of the Spirit includes faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, but swear that a man who displays none of these things — who admits to never having asked God for forgiveness — is probably a Christian simply because he says so.

Please understand: I am not claiming that voting for Trump is an indicator of one’s salvation (or its absence). Much could be said on the comparative virtues of voting against him, voting for him, or not voting at all. (I know and love believers who fall into all categories. Yes, I said that). Such a discussion is beyond the scope of this blog post, though.

My plea is simple: If you love Jesus, and want to have any hope of convincing those who don’t believe in Him that He is worthy of their faith and devotion, please model His love for the world to see.

Be compassionate.

Be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to become angry. (James 1:19).

Let your speech be always with grace. (Colossians 4:6).

Show those who associate Christianity with an insistence on wholeheartedly endorsing a brash, crude, pompous bulldozer of a man that loving Jesus looks so much different from what we’re seeing in the news.

Or, to put it in the words of Jesus Himself:

“Let your light so shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in Heaven.” (Matthew 5:16).

 

Getting to Know a Father’s Heart

During my first pregnancy, I learned something surprising: Many daughters have difficult relationships with with their mothers. Having enjoyed a close relationship with my own mom, I needed time to process this. What I’ve since concluded: mothers either drive us crazy or keep us sane, but, regardless, most of us do have some sort of powerful bond with them. 

I suspect this is part of the reason Mother’s Day became an official holiday in 1914, whereas Father’s Day — though unofficially observed much earlier — didn’t make it on to the calendar until 1972. There’s something about that emotional bond — whether it’s “Thank you, Mom, for being my best friend” or “Mom, even though it’s been rough between us, I’ve always known you’re there for me” — that makes us empty the flower shops and fill The Cheesecake Factory to overflowing every year in the beginning of May.

Father’s Day, on the other hand, often stops us in our tracks. We know Dad doesn’t really need another tie, and eating out isn’t that big of a deal for somebody who doesn’t cook,* and golf is expensive, so…how do we show our appreciation? For that matter, who is this guy, anyway?

*I realize this is just one of many sweeping generalizations I’m making here. Truthfully, I don’t know many men who cook regularly if their wives are home. Bear with me.

 

I confess that, for quite a while, I felt closest to my mom. The same is true for many of my friends. Even those who had difficult mother-daughter relationships end up calling mom when adulthood has become overwhelming and they just crave a heart-to-heart talk. We instinctively sense that Mom knows how to listen.

Fatherhood, I begin to suspect, can be very isolating.

Over the past decade or so, I’ve learned a lot about my own dad. Almost everything I’ve learned has always been true; I just didn’t realize that the lines of communication — the emotional connection that made it possible for me to know his heart — had always been there. He just had a different way of showing it.

My mom is a gusher. It’s awesome. She makes me (and everybody who knows her) feel so good about themselves…and she really is being genuine, too.

My dad . . . is not a gusher. He doesn’t waste words, and is very honest, though never cruelly so. In my younger years, what I didn’t see was that, when my dad did offer words of encouragement and admiration, it came from deep down, where he really, truly saw something exceptional and felt moved to express it out loud.

When my dad compliments my writing, it buoys me up for weeks afterward, because he has read extensively and written excellently, and if he thinks I’m good, I must have some business trying to be a writer.

When he describes me as a good musician, I have to believe him, at least partly, because he is one of the most gifted and dedicated musicians I know…so maybe I wasn’t wasting my time as a music teacher.

When he says he’s proud of the person I’ve become…I feel like going on. Because he must see some good in me that I can’t see when I feel like I’ve failed at almost everything. Because of who my father is, words of encouragement from him are among my most precious treasures.

It’s easy to think of Mom as the nurturer, the sympathetic listener, the one whose heart breaks when her kids are hurting. With my mother, all these things hold beautifully true. Something I’ve discovered, though — the thing that blows me away — is this:

My father feels my joy and my sorrow even more deeply than I do.

When I’m in pain, it hurts my dad, and I know he fervently lifts me up in prayer with more passion and persistence than I do. When I rejoice, he rejoices along with me, thanking God that his girl is happy. I know that whatever I confide to him, he will tuck away in his heart and guard carefully.

Not everybody is fortunate enough to have a father who so wonderfully reflects God’s love for us. Some are deprived of even having a father who is present. As long as the world is fallen, broken relationships will exist, and it will be harder for many to believe that God really loves them.

He does, though, and a father who truly loves God with all his heart will embody that love, giving his children a glimpse of what God’s love looks like.

I am so thankful that I have a dad like that.

 

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