Weep with me

I’m about 100 years behind on pop culture, but I finally watched Me Before You last night. Based on the book of the same name by Jojo Moyes, Me Before You is about a young man, Will, who ends up paralyzed after an accident, and his caretaker, Lou(isa). You know the drill: boy is standoffish at first, but girl manages to worm her way into his heart, they fall in love, yada, yada. Until she learns he’s planning to end his life, and concocts a plan to get him to change his mind. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t, everyone cries, the end.

The Big Theme of the movie, of course, is right-to-die. Will believes that dying is better than living with a disability, and aside from a few heartfelt pleas, no one in his immediate circle takes any meaningful action to convince him otherwise. How tragic. How deeply, horrifyingly tragic. Joni Eareckson Tada and Samuel James have more on that here and here.

As a person with a disability myself, I’ve been thinking lately about the people who love those of us with disabilities, and how disability affects relationships. So I was most intrigued Lou’s response to Will’s plans. And by intrigued, I mean disappointed. First, she didn’t hear it from his own mouth—she just happened to overhear a conversation between his parents. Rightly horrified, her next step is not to talk to Will, but to take matters into her own hands. She decides that if she plans a few fun trips and outings, surely that will restore Will’s zest for life, right? Right? Right?

The assumption she makes is the same mistake of many: she assesses the situation for herself and determines a solution, despite not living with a disability herself or asking Will his thoughts. She never asks him why he wants to end his life, pushes back against him to consider another way of viewing life with a disability, or enters into his pain. She does not hurt along with him. She might hurt for him, or for her own loss, but she is not in the thick of it, grieving his former life with him, sharing his tears or his heartache.

I don’t know what it’s like to live an active lifestyle and suddenly find myself unable to move from the chest down, as Will did, but I do know what it’s like to live in a world that I cannot maneuver as effortlessly as my hearing peers. I know what it feels like when people look at you funny, when you have to ask for help (again), when you just straight up have to miss something special because you couldn’t participate. Sometimes embarrassing and awkward, often frustrating and unjust. This is not the kind of heartache that can be resolved with a few vacations and a little flirting. This is not a minor annoyance that can be fixed, glossed over, or ignored. No, this is a pain that clobbers you, demanding to be felt, and never fully goes away. When loved ones brush past this agony or rush to fix it without paying respects to its depths and complexity, that only rubs salt in the wounds and threatens to tear the relationship asunder.

Now, it’s not always like this, and not for everyone. Some have made peace with their disability, or don’t consider it a disability at all. Others, like me, go back and forth. Sometimes OK, sometimes not OK. Something I’ve learned about those times when I’m not OK is that I just want someone to weep with me. Alongside me. Next to me. It’s not that I want you to hurt with me because if I’m miserable, then everyone else has to be. It’s just that getting burned up by pain is lonely business, kids, and I wish so badly to not have to bear every part of it alone. I want you to listen, to step into the hurting with me, not away from me. Please, won’t you remind me what God says about me, about my inherent worth as someone made in his image, to tell me all is not lost, that God is good, and maybe even that I’m loved, still?

All of that has to start with a hard conversation, maybe an uncomfortable question or two, and that’s what Me Before You completely misses.

When Lou finally confronts Will about his plans, she mentions nothing of his inner turmoil; she simply begs him to change his mind. When Will refuses, she screams that she wishes she’d never met him and storms off. Like trying to clean up a knocked-over cup of milk by wiping the drips off the floor before mopping the spilled drink on the counter above, Lou’s attempts to convince Will to live fall short of any real help. She says she loves him, but here’s the thing: love doesn’t avoid, doesn’t pretend, doesn’t ignore what’s right in front of it. We seem to think that love only feels good, but I say it’s not love until the giving of it hurts.

Weeping with those who weep means just that—weeping as if their pain is our own, because it is. By his own gruesome suffering, to spare us a worse fate, Jesus made us a family, and charged us to bear each other’s burdens. We may not know how to do this, but we need only look to him, because he shows us how. Jesus does not merely tolerate us or heave a sigh and force a smile. He doesn’t “there, there” our pain at arm’s length. He suffered in our place on the cross and comforts us now. He will not ask us to do less than this for each other, for him. When someone is suffering, “they” are not suffering, over there, in the corner, away from us. No, when a brother or sister is suffering, we should be split open, too, because “they” are not suffering; we are. We’re a family, and to borrow from a completely different movie, family means nobody gets left behind. So get to weeping, fam.

Seven things to know about hearing loss

Sometimes people treat me differently when they find out I’m hard of hearing. Their smiles freeze in discomfort, they find an excuse to leave the conversation, and they limit further interactions with me to “hello,” “how are you?” and “fine, thanks.” (I know we, as a people, just kind of do this to each other sometimes, regardless of our degree of hearing loss. But this happens too frequently to me and my deaf and hard of hearing friends to be a coincidence.) Please do not do this thing. I’m hard of hearing, yes, but I’m also a human person who wants to know and be known. Just like you.

Here are seven things I wish you knew about being hard of hearing.

(I wrote this with my local church family in mind, because that’s my most immediate context. But big-C Church family, this one’s for you, too. And you, gentle reader, with the grandma who’s losing her hearing or the co-worker who’s deaf, this is for you, too. Just keep in mind these are coming from my own experiences and preferences, which may or may not align with those of your congregant, grandma, or co-worker. When in doubt, just ask.)

Hearing loss isn’t only the absence of sound. I have severe-to-profound hearing loss, but with two hearing aids, I can hear some sounds but not understand them. For example, in a crowded restaurant, I’m not able to pick out the distinct sounds of clattering silverware, patrons talking, or the TV blaring. They all blend into one buzzing white noise. Sounds don’t make sense to me unless I have some kind of visual to go with it — closed captions, lipreading, and sign language help me make sense of the noise and feel included. Even technology meant for the masses, such as texting and email, have been a godsend (and hearing loss is a handy excuse to not make phone calls. And all God’s introverts said “Amen.”). What a time to be alive.

Please don’t feel sorry for me. I’m not less of a person for being hard of hearing. I’m actually OK with hearing loss itself. I hear nothing at all with my hearing aids out and silence IS golden, my friends. Turning my hearing aids off is like having my own personal mute button, which is exactly as amazing as it sounds. Y’all are LOUD sometimes.

You don’t have to know sign language to communicate with me. Yes, I sign, but I use my vocal cords more than my hands to communicate. If you know sign language and want to practice with or show it off to me, please do. If you don’t, just talk to me. I’m a lipreading ninja, but I need your help! Speak clearly. Don’t cover your mouth. Don’t over-enunciate. Don’t yell. Don’t mouth something unintelligible and then ask me what you said (I will side-eye you so hard.). Just make sure I can see your face when we’re talking and we should be good. If I can’t understand you, I’ll let you know, and if I’m just not grasping something, try rephrasing rather than repeating. That might do the trick.

Please include me in the group conversation. I communicate well one-on-one, but it’s a lot of work to keep up with a group larger than three or four people (so, most groups). I’m slow to speak up because I’m constantly trying to figure out if it’s OK to talk or if I’ll be accidentally interrupting someone.  And I’m rarely 100% confident that I’m following the conversation topic correctly, so it means a lot if you ask me specific questions to include me (“We’re talking about the Royals game last night. What did you think of that play by Hosmer?” is super helpful.).

Along the same lines, please don’t assume I can’t participate in an activity. If you’re not sure how to include me, ask! I will make it easy for you; here’s a simple script to follow: “I’m planning to do XYZ at Bible study; is there anything I need to do or be aware of in order for you to participate fully?”

Sit with me. At church, or any other kind of lecture-style gathering, I almost always sit at the front, closest to the speaker(s). Will you join me there now and then? It gets lonely up there.

Head’s up. Most of us instinctively bow our heads to pray, but if I’m around, please keep your head up when you pray so I can read your lips.

I know there’s a lot more I haven’t covered, but I hope this prompts some meaningful conversations in your own circles. If you are D/deaf or hard of hearing, what would you add? If you are not, what else would you like to know? To the comments!

The love planted by God

From Joel Beeke, on the Puritans and marital love:

It is an entire love, a fulsome love, a love that pours itself out between spouses constantly and without reservation in a variety of expressions, gestures, looks, and actions. This love, Daniel Rogers (1573-1652) wrote, is not “raised suddenly in a pang of affection, ebbing and flowing…but a habitual and settled love planted in them by God, whereby in a constant, equal, and cheerful consent of spirit they carry themselves [towards] each other (Rogers, Matrimonial Honour, 137-138).

The whole thing is worth reading, but what jumped out at me was the “love planted in them by God.” As a single lady approaching her mid-30s, it’s easy to let the fears in. I must not be attractive. I’m too old. I don’t have the right body type. I’m too much. I’m not enough.

The underlying assumption: If I could just figure out and fix what is “wrong” with me, then dating wouldn’t be so hard. Now to be sure, we may carry certain attitudes or perspectives or habits regarding dating that ought to be addressed or reconsidered. There may be times when we need to take a long, hard look at our lives and what our constant video games or Netflix bingeing or general laziness might say about us. But if, after working through all of that, we’re still single, what then? What’s left to do?

Nothing, really, as infuriating as that may be. I can be friendly and open. Be active at church. Be brave and try online dating. Realize that’s not really what I want and delete my profiles that are way too easy to restart. Ask friends and family to keep their eyes peeled. Stay busy. Press into the life I have, not the one I thought I’d have. When no one materializes despite my most reasonable efforts, I’m left with one conclusion: God has not planted that love in my heart for someone, nor has He planted love for me in a man’s heart. He may yet, or He may never.

I don’t have nearly as much say in dating as I want to believe I do, because my life isn’t my own. Like I said, infuriating. But also comforting—it’s not me. It’s Him.

On being afraid of God

Someone told me once that thinking about God’s wrath helped them not sin, that every time they were tempted, they just thought about how mad God would be at them if they followed through. That fear was enough to nip temptation in the bud. Our conversation ended shortly after, and while I’ve wanted to quell the observation with a pat theological answer about God’s wrath toward us finding its end in Jesus, it keeps coming back, like water you can’t push away.

I started reading through the Bible with my women’s group from church last fall, and as we traverse the Old Testament, I keep thinking, “God is not to be trifled with.” A lot of people—including his own people!—die by God’s hand. There is blood—so much blood—involved in the Levitical sacrificial system. Regularly, God’s anger is kindled against the Israelites, over matters of the heart that you and I are regularly guilty of ourselves, namely, of not believing God’s ways are best, and for thinking we can come up with  better ways to obey him. And that’s just in the first five books! Spoiler alert: it doesn’t get better. Not even for Jesus. There’s no getting around it—God is terrifying. Even the New Testament warns us that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31).

Whenever I consult the Google for an explanation, I often find answers that attempt to redefine this kind of fear as respect or reverence of God. Some really smart guys went to some really smart seminaries to be able to say that, so I guess they must be right. But I can’t shake the feeling as I contemplate the blood and gore that maybe I actually am afraid of God. Not so much that I’m afraid of his wrath toward my sin—maybe I should be more afraid of that, but I’m assured of the blood of Christ atoning for my sin. No, this fear is more a sober dread that God will do what God will do, in my life, in the lives of the people I love, in my neighborhood, in my nation, in all the universe. I cannot reason with him, because his reason is beyond my understanding. I can’t plead my own case, because apart from Christ, I’ve got nothing to stand on—no good works, no gifts, no nothing. But that’s the key, isn’t it—”apart from Christ.” But I do have Christ, and doesn’t fear have to do with punishment and perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18)?

Maybe I’m afraid the way we are when we fall in love (so I have heard)—vulnerable and helpless, exhilarated and terrified all at once. Am I afraid of God both because he is far better than me and because he will destroy my old self, with all its prides and insecurities and lusts and greeds? The very things I hold too closely, for no reason at all, really, except that they are mine, my preciouses.

I understand better why the disciples were afraid after Jesus calmed the storm. You’d think they’d be relieved—bye, storm!—but they are terrified (Luke 8:22-25). Who is this, that even the wind and the seas obey him? Who indeed? If we ponder that without our souls quaking, then maybe we either haven’t encountered the true God yet, or we’ve forgotten him.

I’m still not sure my friend had it right—shouldn’t it be God’s kindness and not his wrath that leads us to repentance? But maybe there is a kind of fear that is appropriate in the Christian life.

Accepting the limitations of singleness

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I’m seeing more compassion, an increased willingness to engage, and more mindfulness of singles among gospel-centered bloggers. A common theme of some of the posts is that the Church is a family, and we should all be family — mother, father, son, daughter, sister, brother — to each other.

“What if the Church,” Scott Sauls posits, “was filled with unmarried people but had no ‘single’ people, because unmarried people were as family to each other, and surrogate brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and sons and daughters to the rest of the Church?”

I love this train of thought, and have taken it to heart and seen its fruit in my own life. But as I’m delighting in this truth, I have to watch myself that I don’t take it too far and expect my friends and church family to be the same thing as having a family of my own. I have to remind myself (sometimes in a Captain Obvious way!) that there are relational limits, especially with married friends, that come with being single.

So here are three (more) truths for the (my) single heart:

Even singles are called to honor the marriage bed — to respect the boundaries of marriage. Christ is the Bridegroom of the Church, the elect. He is not the Bridegroom of every single person who has ever lived. He is narrow in his pursuit of his Bride.

This is reflected in the exclusive nature of marriage. Husband and wife vow to forsake all others, to commit to each other above all others. They do not automatically lose friends as a result of this union, nor are they forbidden from having close friendships outside of their marriage. But marriage and family do reorder priorities.

My friendships with families, while lively and loving and familial to some degree, are marked by boundaries that respect their commitment. I’m not over at their house every night for dinner. The mom/wife isn’t out every night with me. Even during my most social weeks, I rarely see the same person or family twice. We spend a couple hours together, and then we go our separate ways for the night, for the week, for the month. This is appropriate, and normal, and right. I am not their primary ministry; their family is. That’s their assignment (1 Cor. 7:17), and they need to be faithful to that call. The way I love them is to get out of their way sometimes, so that they can serve where they’ve been called. That’s my assignment.

Being single means being single. It does not mean fabricating an intimate family life. Being single is a calling, and sometimes that calling means being the only person who pays the bills, takes out the trash, and makes the Major Life Decisions. That’s freeing some days, crippling others, but it is the lot of the single person to bear it all. As much as I love my church friends, and they me, there are limits to how present we can be in each other’s lives. We might get front-row seats or backstage passes to each other’s daily living, but we’re not actually in the intimate, mundane, on-the-road moments together. Married people are called to Do Life with a partner; single people are not. Those are our assignments, and we ought not deviate from them by trying to pretend singleness is something other than what it is.

Being single means a lot of waiting, longing, some tearful moments, and loneliness. But heart, don’t rush past any of that so quickly. They matter. They’re working for you an eternal glory that far outweighs the light and momentary pain. So don’t throw yourself into the nearest family in a vain effort to pretend singleness doesn’t hurt. Let it hurt. It is precisely in the waiting, in the longing, in the tearful nights, the loneliness, the wondering if it will always be like this (spoiler alert: it won’t), the uncertainty, the fear, the very alone-ness nature of singleness that increases my dependence on God who raises the dead, that hems me in so that I have no other recourse but to go to Him, that exhausts all my other idols so that I can say with Peter, “Lord, to whom shall [I] go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). This is a blessing, even on the days it feels like a burden. Singleness, in this season, is how I get more of Jesus. When I ignore this and try to make other people my family in a way that they are not, I miss out on God’s good gift of singleness to me.

Being single doesn’t mean being friendless, and I’m not advocating that singles give up and become hermits. Be part of the church family. Roll up your sleeves and labor alongside them for the sake of the gospel. Love widely. As long as it is your assignment, be single, and be single well.

Of manna and singleness and the unplanned life

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I will turn 33 in a few months. I was not planning on being single at this ripe old age. I had zero expectation that I’d be making decisions on my own about car repairs, work, or where to live. And yet these are my days. Listening to the mechanic explain valves and check engine lights and a bill that makes me wish I had someone to run it by before agreeing to the repairs. Coming to terms with the truth that my career needs the attention that I had planned on giving to children. Scouring listings for rentals to share with roommates, not houses to buy with a husband.

None of these scenarios are bad, or unusual, or even frightening. I just was not prepared for them. It’s like being hired to bake cookies, only to show up on the first day and find out you’re here to make cakes instead. Tasty still, and you’re not about to quit now, but you’ve never made a cake from scratch before. You have all the ingredients and proper tools, and a vague notion that you’ll need some more eggs … but now what?

That’s where I’m at, friends. Most of my prayers these days are along the lines of, what is this life? How does it work? What do I do with it?

In Exodus 16, the Israelites have been in the wilderness for a couple of months. They’ve seen their God send locusts and hail and boils and darkness and death upon Egypt. With their own feet they trod the earth that only moments ago had been seabed. The message has been received: God is great and not to be trifled with.

But. But they are hungry. But they were promised milk and honey. But freedom wasn’t supposed to look like this, feel like this.

And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and the people of Israel said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16: 2-3)

God, because he is a good, good, Father, knows their hunger and instead of sending them to their rooms for whining, gives them food to fill their bellies. Manna in the morning and quail in the evening. Bread for breakfast and meat for dinner. They have no quarrel with the quail, but are utterly befuddled by the other.

In the evening quail came up and covered the camp, and in the morning dew lay around the camp. And when the dew had gone up, there was on the face of the wilderness a fine, flake-like thing, fine as frost on the ground. When the people of Israel saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. (Exodus 16:13-15a)

Isn’t that how it always goes? Just like the Israelites, we are hungry, and our Dad gives us food we don’t recognize. We were expecting marriage, and got singleness. We planned for a house in the suburbs and got an apartment in the city. We thought we’d have children — plural — and have one — singular. We prepared for snow and got spring. We hope for honor and are humbled instead. What God gives us instead isn’t bad, or less than, what we expected. But it is unexpected, and we sometimes buy the lie that it is not enough, that it is not good, that He is holding out on us.

But the thing is, whatever we have, whatever’s in front of us — that’s His provision, and it is enough.

And Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Gather of it, each one of you, as much as he can eat. You shall each take an omer, according to the number of the persons that each of you has in his tent.’” And the people of Israel did so. They gathered, some more, some less. But when they measured it with an omer, whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack. Each of them gathered as much as he could eat. (Exodus 16:15b-18)

I love this. I love it and I fear it. I love that no matter what God gives, it is enough. He never gives us too little or leaves us wanting. When it feels like we have a lack, it is only there to drive us to His presence, where there is fullness of joy.

I fear it — the same way I fear a thunderstorm, safe in my home but dumbstruck by its power raging outside — because God never gives us more than what we need, which means that He will sometimes not give us what we want, so long as what we want is not ultimately Him. It is bloody, dying-to-self business to trust that the freedom and uncertainty of the manna is better than the slavery and certainty of meat pots.

And Moses said to them, “Let no one leave any of it over till the morning.” But they did not listen to Moses. Some left part of it till the morning, and it bred worms and stank. And Moses was angry with them. Morning by morning they gathered it, each as much as he could eat; but when the sun grew hot, it melted. (Exodus 16:19-21)

The people of Israel ate the manna forty years, till they came to a habitable land. They ate the manna till they came to the border of the land of Canaan. (Exodus 16:35)

And yet this is not really a story about manna, is it, but the God who gives it. Not the gift, but the Giver. Because every time God’s people tried to take matters into their own hands and save some manna for the next day, it would rot and stink and be unfit for consumption. The manna only satiated their hunger for the day, so they would learn to depend on the God whose mercies are new every morning. They ate because He provided faithfully for 40 years, not because they were clever enough to find their own food.

Isn’t that the gospel? We can’t get the best life on our own. All our attempts at hoarding it only leave us with wormy, stinky bread. We get what God gives us because He knows best, because He loves best. Like that time the Jews were looking for a Messiah to overthrow the Roman empire, and instead, the whole world got a Savior. So whatever we have today is enough, because it came from our Father who loves us. These little lives of ours that we didn’t plan for are no lack after all, because in Jesus, we have everything. Everything.

What is it? It is enough, because He is enough. 

The highest calling

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From time to time, I’ll hear (er, read) someone, usually another lady blogger/writer/conference speaker, say something to the effect of:

A woman’s highest calling is to be a wife and mom.

Let me set the record straight: No, it is not. 

A woman’s most noble calling does not lie in being married or being Mommy. Those are sanctifying states to be sure — how can they not be? It’s you, a sinner, sharing a bed, or a table, or your food, or your DNA, with another sinner and/or tiny sinners. You do not suffer a lack of opportunities to die to self. Marriage and motherhood are sanctifying, and they may be part of your calling, but they are not the calling.

I’m not trying to make a case that being single is the highest calling. Yes, Jesus and Paul were single, but nowhere is singleness held up as being holier than marriage (all Paul said in 1 Corinthians 7 is that the single Christian has more freedom to serve. It is not a higher calling, just a more flexible one.).

The highest calling for anyone is to love God and love others. 

But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:34-40)

The two greatest commandments are not: Fall in love and get married. They are not: Be fruitful and multiply.
They are: Love the Lord your God. Love your neighbor as yourself.
Is there a higher calling than this, to plumb the depths of riches and wisdom and knowledge of God? To be known by him? To give this joy feet by loving whoever it is God gives you to love: your people at church, your friends from college, your spouse, the person you’re dating, the person you’re not dating, your next-door neighbors, your co-workers, your nieces, your children.
Our God is more than our marriages, more than our singleness. Both are good, both are gifts from God, both are designed by him for our good and his glory. But they themselves are not our highest calling … He is.

When God Fills the Silence: Zechariah’s Story

Luke 1 has been my go-to for Advent reading for a second year in a row. Last year, “the tender mercy of our God” was what fueled my joy. This year, I’ve been over the Magnificat several times as my sweet Catholic neighbor and I discuss our differing views of Mary. My neighbor sees “all generations shall call me blessed” as proof of Mary’s veneration. Meanwhile, I’m struck by “He who is mighty” as I tell her that Mary’s song of praise is less about herself and more about her God. Around and around we go, explaining and defending and sharing and asking.

After all of our talking, talking, talking, when it’s just me, Luke, and the lights on my Christmas tree, it’s Zechariah’s silence that quiets my heart. You remember Zechariah. Priest. Husband of Elizabeth. Father of John the Baptist. He was serving in the temple when Gabriel appeared and made an amazing proclamation — that Elizabeth will bear a son, even though she is barren, and Zechariah and his wife are advanced in age.

With such weighty words to ponder, Zechariah’s response is exactly what I think mine would be: stunned disbelief. For demanding a sign, he is struck silent on the spot, and remains so for the duration of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.

And I wonder, as I always wonder, why would God do that? Why is Zechariah being punished for not believing? Can You really fault the guy, God, for being taken off guard by a heavenly messenger and what seemed like an impossible promise? Can You not give him a minute to let it all sink in?

Then I realize with a jolt — He did. God did for Zechariah what He has done for me: gave him time to think.

I know this because without my hearing aids, I can’t hear either.

Does that surprise you? It surprised me! Zechariah’s deafness is not explicitly stated, but why else would his neighbors “make signs” to him (v. 62)? If he could hear, they would have just used their mouths to ask. And why would the angel say he would be silent and unable to speak? Because as long as you can understand what people are saying, you can participate, even without the use of your vocal cords. As long as you can hear, you won’t be silent.

So it stands to reason that for nine whole months, Zechariah can’t hear, can’t speak, can’t celebrate the news with his friends, can’t acquaint his son growing in his wife’s belly with the sound of his voice, can’t whisper words of joy to Elizabeth as they marvel at their pending parenthood.

Why does God make Zechariah deaf? I don’t know Zechariah’s heart, but I know mine — I know ours. We are a forgetful people, and I think God does the things He does so we won’t forget. If Gabriel had appeared to Zechariah, left out the bit about being silent, and then sent him on his way back to Elizabeth, it would have been easy for Zechariah to forget. To chalk this otherworldly visit up to a dream, or a figment of his imagination. To pretend it had never happened.

But because Zechariah’s ears and mouth were closed, every time he tried to talk, or every time he witnessed the laughter of a crowd around him and his heart broke at being left out, he would have to remember why. He’d have to bring to mind Gabriel and his strange announcement. Zechariah would have to remember it was the Lord who opened Elizabeth’s womb, not merely luck or timing that brought him and his wife a long-awaited child.

Perhaps most importantly, he was shrouded in silence to know who God is. “Because you did not believe my words” is a stern rebuke, because our God is not one to be trifled with, but it is also a loving discipline — because this is a hard saying, and much to take in and marvel at, because I love you, I will give you time to understand. It will not feel like a gift, but it will give birth to joy. 

Nine months. Nine months God gave Zechariah to help him believe. Nine months of loneliness, of feeling cut off from his own people, with nothing but his thoughts and his God to keep him company. Nine months of unfettered communion with the Lord, of reflecting on the covenant, on all God had done and promised to do for His people, for generations upon generations. Nine whole months for joy to grow and unbelief to be purged. God filled Zechariah’s silence with something better than sound or speech — He filled it with His own presence.

When the time finally comes to speak, the joy of Zechariah’s heart is not that his tongue is loosed, or that his hearing has come flooding back, but that His God, His Rescuer, His Redeemer is on His way. Nine months’ worth of questions and opinions and doubts and statements could have come tumbling out in that moment, but like Mary, all Zechariah can do is break into song.

At the end of his silence, at the end of his waiting and his longing — at the end of ours — is the good news of great joy that Jesus is coming soon.

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we should be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us;
to show the mercy promised to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

And that, Charlie Brown, is what Advent is all about.

Merry Christmas, friends. You are so loved!

The Knitting of Souls

The good kind of lonely

When I asked the Lord to prepare my heart for this season of Advent, I expected to feel joy and a sweet longing for His return. There’s been that in small doses, but the overwhelming sense (gift?) has been one of loneliness, the kind that goes beyond wishing for a fuller social calendar. I am craving intimacy, the knitting together of souls, knowing and being known. Perhaps this is not a cheerful thought for Advent. But then, this is a season of waiting, of longing, of quiet, of anticipation. Maybe lonely is exactly the right word. And maybe that’s a good thing.

In their book, “Boundaries in Dating: How Healthy Choices Grow Healthy Relationships,” Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend unpack the novel idea that maybe loneliness is not an altogether bad thing.

Loneliness is not the enemy here, however. When we are lonely, it is a signal that we are alive. God created us with the drive to connect and be attached to himself and others. It is a good thing, because loneliness ultimately leads us to relationship, and that is where God wants all of us. We are all members of one body (Ephesians 4:25). Relationship cures loneliness. (p. 165)

Romantic relationships aren’t the only place to make this kind of connection. In a recent blog post, Scott Sauls identifies not just marriage but also friendship as the iron that sharpens us to maturity:

For Christians, the point and trajectory of marriage and friendship is the everlasting union between Christ and the Church. Our goal whether single or married is to prepare ourselves, and also each other, for that union.

… why would we not welcome a significant other—be it a spouse or a friend or a small group or a mentor—to be a faithful partner for the healing of every part of us?

Yes, we need Jesus, but He’s also designed us to need each other and when we don’t have each other — when our souls are not knit together — we are not fully ourselves. The times in my life when I feel most “spiritual” and close to God have been when loneliness is at hand, and that can be a sweet and blessed thing. But that kind of loneliness also spurs me to examine what Scripture says about relationships. I’m convinced that when God adopted us, He brought us to Himself, but also into a Family. We belong to Him, and we belong to each other.

The Knitting of Souls

Whenever I’ve had conversations about loneliness with people, I often find that I’m not the only lonely one out there. We’re all sad and wishing for deeper connections, and we all agree we should do XYZ more often in order to stay connected … and then we don’t. We love complaining about the problem but not actually doing anything about it.

And here’s the rub. If we are going to wade into deeper waters with each other, if we are going to follow the beam of loneliness back to our need for God and each other, then we are going to have to do the hard and inconvenient things. We are not excused from each other or from the body of Christ because we are married, or single, or have a disability, or a full schedule, or a free Saturday.

So how do we practice this, the art of soul-knitting? I have some ideas. I am terrible at all of them! But they are worth working on.

1. Pray. And pray and pray. For opportunities to connect, for the right mindset, for a right understanding of marriage and friendship and small groups and mentoring. To be placed in the path of the right people, and vice-versa. For a heart that genuinely cares for others at least as much as it cares for itself. For open eyes to see it when God builds friendships. So often, I’m looking for a friendship to be a certain way that I can totally miss out on something new that God’s doing. And almost always, I have to pray for BRAVERY, because insecurity and the fear of rejection can be as real in friendship as it is in dating.

2. Go first. God has always been in the business of making the first move with us. He extended a hand in friendship long before we even knew who He was. So be a good imitator of your Dad, and go first. Don’t wait to be invited; make the first move yourself. Initiate the conversation. Invite someone (or a whole family) over for dinner or out for lunch. Ask someone how their day was but also ask how their heart is. That connection we’re craving can’t be filled with chatter about the weather. Whatever you do, do it first and make a safe space for the other person to respond.

3. Embrace the awkward. Maybe this is just me. I’m 50 Shades of Awkward. I blurt things out without thinking them through. I answer the question I understood, not the question that was actually asked. As a single lady, I’m still not sure what to do with myself when I’m socializing with a family. I’m great with babies, but I have no idea what to talk to a 5th-grader about. Sometimes I miss social cues and overstay my welcome. And I handle small talk about as gracefully as a cat in roller skates.

We all have our things.

We could choose to avoid socializing because we don’t want to make fools of ourselves, but this is what I am saying: Do the hard stuff. On the other side of awkward is that sense of belonging that we’re all craving. Don’t give up on a budding friendship or relationship because you’re afraid of your own weirdness or turned off by someone else’s. Be patient with yourself, show grace, and do the work. Power through the awkward. It’s worth it.

4. There is always something you can do. Most of my conversations about loneliness and connection often end on the same note: “It’s just that I’m so busy.” But something I preach to myself often is that there is too much one-anothering happening in Scripture for me to believe that it’s optional. If we’re not busy one-anothering, then maybe we’re too busy with the wrong things. Generally speaking, and barring grave illnesses or other extenuating circumstances, there is always something we can do.

For example, my schedule does not really sync up well with those of other women my age. Most of my peers are moms with young children. They might be free during the day, but I’m at work. I get off at 5, when they’re just gearing up for the night shift. And some friends live far away, which makes getting together harder. Are we doomed to never knowing each other? No! It just means we get creative. We go out to lunch or I join their family for Thanksgiving or I use a day off to drive an hour to spend an afternoon or they give up dinner with their spouse or family so we can take our time catching up. We email. We text. We make sacrifices. We embrace the inconvenience. Soul-knitting is just that important.

Real lifeOne way I’m trying my hand at this is by making my Sunday afternoons free. That’s historically been my time for laundry-groceries-napping, but I’ve been slowly shifting to doing laundry during the week, and meal planning on Friday or Saturday instead. I do this because I pray the Lord will fill my Sunday afternoons with community, that He’ll help me be hospitable and brave about inviting people over (or out) for lunch. I have a one-bedroom apartment and no table, so I can practice embracing the awkward. 🙂 But this is what I mean, that there is always something you can do. Maybe you can’t clear every Sunday afternoon for lunch, but you can be intentional with your schedule in other ways. Set aside one day a month to invite a new family over. Or host a game night every other month. Or pick three people to email this week.

There is always something you can do. Embrace the awkward. Go first. Pray. Our souls depend on it!

(And if you ever find yourself in Lawrence on a Sunday afternoon, come over. We can have takeout or leftovers or I can throw something together that looks weird but tastes delicious because my culinary skills are all over the map. We can eat on the couch like savages. It will be GREAT.)

Further reading: The Soul-Shattering Sting of Loneliness (Tony Reinke, via Desiring God)
I Need You to Call My Bluff, and Here’s Why (Scott Sauls)

The God immortal has drawn near

Advent is the time we celebrate that God is with us. Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus, our Immanuel, we belt. O come, o come Emmanuel, we sing. God immortal has taken on human flesh for a rescue mission. It’s humbling. It’s astonishing.

But maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising. After all, God has always been in the business of drawing near.

Take the creation account, for instance. God Almighty could have just clapped His hands and boom, there it was. But He didn’t. What’s the first thing He makes? The Sunday School answer is light (Genesis 1:3). The light He calls Day, and the darkness, Night. So broadly speaking, the first thing He makes is time. God the Eternal descends to finish His creation within the framework of mornings and evenings, hours and minutes. Eternity steps into time.

Then He calls the seas, the plants, the whales and ladybugs, the dirt and mountains and currents into being. Only after He’s prepared a home does He plunge His hands into the dirt and fashion a man. He has come to us before there was an us.

He walked with Adam and Eve in the garden; He did not burden them with finding a way to Heaven. And even when they disobeyed and ran away in shame, their Father sought them out and clothed them and set a plan in motion to give His people a way back to Him.

Later on, when God gives Moses the Law, He does not make Moses ascend to Heaven to get it. God  gives Moses the home field advantage and meets him on Sinai. Exodus after the giving of the 10 Commandments is some pretty heady stuff. It’s all about the building of the tabernacle, what the priests should wear, how they should perform the rituals the Lord ordained. In chapter 29, there’s a long list of instructions for the consecration of the priests and for burnt offerings. We’re talking bulls and rams and unleavened bread and coats and sashes and garments. Words like wave offering and consecrate and ordination only underscore the solemnity and complexity of these instructions.

At the end of it, we find out what it’s all for:

It shall be a regular burnt offering throughout your generations at the entrance of the tent of meeting before the Lord, where I will meet with you, to speak to you there. There I will meet with the people of Israel, and it shall be sanctified by my glory. I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar. Aaron also and his sons I will consecrate to serve me as priests. I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them. I am the Lord their God. (Exodus 29:42-46)

There I will meet with you. There I will dwell with you. All of that, so He can be with us. All of that, so we won’t be alone. God drawing near to us in Bethlehem wasn’t a one-time thing. It wasn’t a new idea. When God the Son arrives, He’s doing what He’s always done — going first. Drawing near. Just to be with His family. 
Let this thrill your soul. God races to meet us while we’re still a long way off. He’s the Bridegroom who prepares a home for His bride long before she says yes. He’s the Friend who reaches out first. We’re wanted, we’re loved, we’re pursued — and have been since, quite literally, the dawn of time. What wondrous love is this, o my soul?