More & More

By Jenny

It’s one of my favorite scenes: steaming coffee in my pink-rose mug, whispering breeze and splashing sun dancing across the old wood of the porch, my favorite pens, books, and journal waiting in a quiet little stack. You might well imagine I enter the scene with a happy countenance. But imagine the opposite. I’m tired and grouchy and huff-puff-puffing. I fall into the chair with a heavy sigh, regretting the quick, impatient words that just slipped off my lips and complaining about my sprawling To Do list.

I open the Scriptures hastily, perhaps roughly. Like a soft answer turning away wrath, the page falls to I Thessalonians 4. Paul is urging God’s people to walk according to their calling, to walk in purity, to follow the Holy Spirit, to love deeply. “Do so more and more,” Paul writes. He says it a couple times: more and more. You’re already doing it – and you’re doing it well, he says. Keep going. Don’t stop. Aim and work for more.

At first, I am troubled by these words. “I’m already exhausted,” I mutter to myself. “Is that what this Christian life is all about – just striving, never being enough, always having to do more?”

“Really, I’m doing fine in my Christian life”—that’s what I think, there in the middle of my grouchy morning, in the middle of my unkind words and complaining spirit and anxious thoughts.

God is good by His Spirit to help us on these sorts of days.

For suddenly, like a torch ignited to light the way, I see that “more and more” is not burdensome—but beautiful. My grouchy, tired soul realizes that “more and more” is exactly what I need and crave. Holiness—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, being like God Himself—is deeply desirable.

A simple metaphor springs to my mind. Can there be a garden too big, with too many flowers blooming? Can there be too many sweet friends who support you, and cheer you? Can there be too much whipped cream on the ice-cream sundae? Tailor the story to your own loves. When you love something or someone, you don’t complain about having “more and more” of that thing or that person. You don’t tire of the good and the beautiful.

And that’s what Paul is saying. Walking with God is your good and beautiful calling.

“More and more” is troubling—and good and beautiful—on two levels, the first of internal concern and the second of external angst.

Internally, there’s my immediate reaction: I’m already trying so hard, I’m already tired. Can’t you just give me a break? Must I really work more? To this, I say to my soul: “Yes, yes—take a break, and work more!” Take a break from your sin—that sin that is wearing you down and making you frown this sunny morning. Let go of your pride and release your anxieties. Stop trying so hard to win the argument and approval of your competitors. Instead, drink of the fountain that is Christ. The holiness we are called to is not an isolating list of rules or thankless To Do list. It’s about a way of living—the way where self-sacrifice and perseverance and pouring out is the breathing in and out of Christ Himself. You’re not on your own. You work by the Holy Spirit in you and you work by the body of Christ upholding you. The hard work of holiness is the labor of a relationship, a work that is covered in joy, like the exploration of a beautiful and wondrous secret garden, where more lilies lie just around the bend, where we would not think to stop short or turn away from the blooming rose arbor. And this work, this task of holiness, is not unending! There is an end: when we will be together with the Lover of our Souls, and all His people, forever. Seeing Him, we will be like Him. We will never be separated from Him. This is our comfort.

But the second reaction to “more and more” is this: I just don’t want to be weird. This is my external concern: I don’t want to be so different or radical from the rest of the world. Sheldon Vanauken, in his book A Severe Mercy, describes his struggle with this as a new believer, desirous to follow Christ but fearful of being “too much.” He confesses, “I wanted Him approving from a considerable distance. I didn’t want to be thinking of Him. I wanted to be free—like Gypsy [the carefree pup].” But he describes his wife this way: “She simply wanted God—almost totally. Her service was her freedom, her joy” (p. 136). Ultimately, it is her death, the severe mercy, which unveils the immeasurable beauty of a life “swallowed up in God.”

“More and more,” then, attacks this part of all of us that wants to avoid utter transformation—avoid the disguised but ultimate glory. Jesus asks us not to settle with a sort of friendship remaining at an arm’s length, at a “considerable distance.” He asks us to marry Him, to forsake all others, to look nowhere beyond Him. He asks us to trust Him with our whole lives, to trust Him to show us a love beyond imagination. We’re called to take another step closer and press in, and let the world say, “Why is everything about Jesus for her?”

Nobody would have asked such a question of me that morning on the porch. But now I’m convicted, and relieved, and inspired, all at once. (That’s God’s Word for you.) And I whisper to my soul, and whisper now to you: do everything you can to get more and more of God—because He’s done everything—in fact, He died—for you, to know you and love you and give you all the fullness of life. He’s worthy of “more and more.”

We Are Not Finished Yet

By Becky

We are building a bench.

The world may be in chaos around us, but we are building something.

My husband and I treat the wood like a precious stone. This piece of discarded lumber, salvaged from an old barn that breathed its last. “Reclaimed” they call it. And we are breathing new life into its fibers as we sand it smooth, rub oil into its grain until it shines.

It feels good to nurture life. Maybe this is why we have been filling our house with living things lately. It seems that every couple days a new green growing thing finds it’s way on our windowsill, our bookshelf, our tables. We stop by garden stores to run our fingers over waxy or delicate leaves and we nearly always leave with a new friend tucked under an arm.

Every day I see these reminders that life needs tending. Each life is unique with special care instructions, but everyone needs light, breath, and nourishment. While they seem so fragile, I am sometimes amazed at their resiliency.

It becomes a kind of ritual, me with my plants. As I water the prolific prayer plant, the sturdy aloe, the wispy spider plant, I whisper close into their secret-keeping greenery, “We are going to make it, aren’t we guys?”

Creating. We can’t help ourselves. We do it because it is in our nature.

Something out of nothing, life out of non-life. These are themes driven deep into our humanity. The work of creating is ingrained in us because it is what is being done in us.

I felt an inkling of this three years ago when I chose the anthem that would carry me on the  most important walk of my life.

All this pain
I wonder if I’ll ever find my way
I wonder if my life could really change, at all

The strings of an acoustic guitar sent the prayer — the plea — into the May breeze.

Could all that is lost ever be found? Could a garden come out from this ground, at all?

I was walking, leaning on the strong arm of my daddy. I was looking, steadily and eagerly, into the eyes of the man-becoming-mine, standing there so surely under a arch of wood he built with his own two confident hands.

I take a deep breath. The air swells with new beginnings.

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us.

Did I even understand the meaning of these words that beautiful May afternoon? At the time, they sang to me of the brokenness we each were leaving behind as we joined together to make a start of something new, together.

But I don’t think I fully grasped the brokenness.  I didn’t realize the pain that was yet to come. Three years later, we still have so much dust to shake off as we push our faces out of the earth and reach for the sun.

Hope is springing up from this old ground
Out of chaos life is being found in You.

God is always about the work of building, creating. Behind the scenes, he is always on the move. I am not the same girl who stepped into billows of bridal white and for that, I praise Jesus. It is remembrance of past growth that gives meaning to my present and makes me cling tighter to faith in the Creator. Oh, afflicted one, storm-tossed and not comforted, behold, I will set your stones in antimony, and lay your foundations with sapphires.

So we, because we (however dimly) reflect the image of the One who made us, can’t sit idle.

It’s a fight some days to find the good. Sometimes we arrive through hot tears and conversations that leave us breathless — because we’ve used every word we have but there just aren’t words enough.

And hear me, this isn’t a depressing place to be. If anything, we’ve seen that in the fight we find deeper and truer joy, even in the darkness we fear. We are reaching deeper depths of love that those big dreaming kids on their wedding day even knew were possible. But that doesn’t make it easy.

We are learning to find peace with our broken beginnings and pick up our imperfect tools and begin to build. We are learning to open our bruised hearts, to let the pan spill out. To reach out and touch the pain in each other. To listen, really listen, beyond the words. Even if we are not sure what we are building — or if we will ever get to see the finished project — still we build. And we are in this together and it will take every ounce of who we are to do this well.  We are learning that the passive don’t survive. Or rather, they don’t experience life and love in all it’s fullness.

We want the fullness.

Because when things start crumbling down, space is made for new, better things to grow.

It’s the cellist carrying his instrument — his tool of hope — to the rubble remains of Iraqi bomb sites. In places of destruction, he picked up his bow and sent promises of new beginnings.

When we create, we are taking part in the beautification work of Christ. We participate in His redemption that touches everything from the tiny seeds in dark soil to the deepest wounds of a human soul.

When we create, we are actively hoping in the future.

I place a newly transplanted cactus on our finished homemade bench. “Be brave,I whisper, “Life is worth the growing pains.”

This image of planting a dead seed and raising a live plant is a mere sketch at best, but perhaps it will help in approaching the mystery of the resurrection body—but only if you keep in mind that when we’re raised, we’re raised for good, alive forever! The corpse that’s planted is no beauty, but when it’s raised, it’s glorious. Put in the ground weak, it comes up powerful. The seed sown is natural; the seed grown is supernatural—same seed, same body, but what a difference from when it goes down in physical mortality to when it is raised up in spiritual immortality!

 

Quotes in order of appearance:  “Beautiful Things” by Gungor, Isaiah 54:11 (ESV), 1 Corinthians 15:42-43 (The Message). Bringing beauty to chaos is happening all around us and one of my favorite examples is the Iraqi National Symphony Director, Karim Wasfi, who played his hauntingly lovely “Baghdad Mourning Melancholy” at sites of car bombings. For inspiration, watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kc7lfPFTqh4&t=117s 

story

By Becky

I remember the day I met my husband’s chronic disease.

It was our first date. I was smitten with those sky blue eyes and hoping he didn’t notice the coffee drip on my white sweater.

He told me about the diagnosis at five years old, the lost high school years, the never-ending pursuit of a cure, and the struggle to understand the purposes of it all. He, eyes ocean deep of suffering and pain. Voice matter-of-fact, words without complaint or anger. Me, brown eyes attentive, heart softening every minute, and yet so naive.

We slow walked back to his truck and the question came: “If I asked you out again, would you say yes?” Deep breath, heart full, surprised at the peace flooding my being, I heard myself say, “Yes, yes I think I would like that.”

Weeks and blissful dates later, admiration and affection growing quickly for this hardworking farmer with the farmer with the rough hands and gentle heart, I remember the day I saw the disease’s ugly head unmasked. Mingled tears, crouching on the bathroom floor, clutching on to each other with no words adequate to heal the wounds….these are memories forever etched on the soul. And I remember, nearly breathless, realizing this chronic disease was an intricate piece of the identity and spiritual formation of this brave and kind man. If I was going to open my life to him, I would have to take in all of him. The struggle of his story would become my story if our lives joined forever together. Which, of course, they did one beautiful May afternoon a year and a half ago.

Of course the transfer of story wasn’t one sided…all of my dark threads, the history of paralyzing insecurities and patterns of self-destruction, were woven into his story too. Somehow the fairy tales and “happily ever afters” don’t tell you that in the intertwining of two lives is sorrow along with sweetness. No one goes untouched.

It may be chronic illness, loved ones lost, relationships severed or daily depression. And when the tragedy comes close, what can we do but wonder. Look up, like all those Old Testament prophets before us, and ask

What is this?
Where are my happy endings?
We wait. Sometimes the waiting is almost unbearable.

But…if we hold on…
The Great Author says,
Just Wait. It’s Coming.

I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent among you. You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you.

On that first date, as my future husband unraveled his story over a cup of peppermint tea, he came to a point where he paused and began to recite the entire chapter of Psalm 73. He went on to describe how in the darkest point of his life, when his flesh and heart were failing and he was despairing of life itself,  this hope-filled song, rhythmic cadences of another beaten-down and broken man boldly declaring God’s sufficiency were rays of light so needed. Whom have I heaven but you? The strength of my heart and my portion forever.  The truths of the gospel became a constant anchor when turbulent circumstances threatened to capsize his soul.

Beautiful, unexpected Providence, the Master Storyteller. At the same time my man-then-boy was wrestling for Hope, somewhere was an eighteen year old girl, at the end of herself. Her mind twisted by lie after lie that she no longer knew which way was Up; or who she was. Her heart so gripped by fear of and hatred of self that all of the dark inside began eating its way out — robbing life of joy, denying nourishment, punishing indulgences, exhausting all energy — fixated on the thought that by diminishing her size, she might just disappear.

One day, desperate and weary, she opened the Book that had once meant so much to her but in recent times had been neglected. There the pages fell open — Psalm 73. My flesh and my heart may fail. And the tears came freely. But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. And the prayers became louder than the fears. And the Light was fanned into Faith.

And then, four years later, these two battered-but-not-stricken-down souls find their stories woven together in a way only the sovereign Lord of the Universe can do. The pain they once could not explain, now a gift of compassion, of empathy, of encouragement to the other. I know you are weak, I am too. But look what God has done, see where he has rescued us from!

There is a resolution to the everyday tension between joy and tragedy, love and the fear of loss, pleasure and pain. And hope is not in vain.

Locust-eaten years restored. Manna in the wilderness. Beauty from the ashes. The only Perfect Man was put to a violent senseless death and from His tomb came a lifeforce so bright and so strong that mortal men, women, and children everywhere will experience eternity without sin.  This is the time-old melody of Redemption.

So child, come out to the garden. Look. See what He is doing to the earth?
Burrow your fingers deep into the warm dirt, pull weeds around fragile shoots of new life. Be still. Understand.

Your story has been spoken.

It often doesn’t go how you imagine it might. Some plants die. Some dreams die too. You may watch a loved one carry an immense burden of physical pain nearly every day, and all you can do is love hard and pray harder. But, but, with Jesus, after death always comes life — bigger, better, and brighter.

Because He is the Story Renewer. And we look to Him to find meaning.

After all, if we don’t know the Hope, if we can’t see the Sun even when it is still hidden by the clouds, then what is the point? We must believe our story has a beginning and an ending and it is a Who. The Alpha and the Omega encompasses the entirety of my story. No part of it escapes Him. Even when the tragedy comes so close, it leaves a sour taste on the tongue — let’s trust Him with our pain. Because If we knew the ending, we would understand the here and now.  But for now, we accept this is all bigger than us, grander than us, and predetermined before us. Believe the Author is able to craft happy endings from the messiest beginnings and He never leaves a story unfinished.

And what about you, friend? Can you see the thread of grace so intricately woven into your story? Perhaps, as I listen, I will be able to see the redemptive patterns where you are not yet able to see. I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.

My story, your story, is in progress. We are being made new, day after day.Even this day, maybe especially this day, you are being renewed. The mercies keep on coming, they never come to an end…the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.

And on the last page, it will say
Christ before all things, in all things. And in Him all things hold together.

*Scripture in order of appearance: Joel 2, Psalm 73,  Phil 1, Lamentations 3,  Colossians 1

Rescued

by Becky

Breathing is so hard.

My legs, tired and heavy, like running in quicksand, though my phone registers six miles. And still, no relief. I shake my ponytail and turn the bend in the road, determined to push harder, push faster against the pressure weighing me down.  Keep running. Run till all this wrong is made right. You haven’t earned rest yet.

It’s a fight against tired legs and a turbulent mind and I’m losing. Approaching the final hill, I give up and slow to a walk. I’m suffocating and finally the tears I’ve been choking back spill out, mixing with the salty sweat on my cheeks. Will the struggle never end?

Why is breathing so hard?                                                                                                                              

Who will rescue me from this body of death?

We have been carrying some heavy loads lately, my man and me. It is good, raw good, because our hearts are being bared to each other. We are digging deep into the stuff that makes us who we are, uncovering lifetimes worth of pain and hidden, dusty, secret things are brought to light for the first time. But the descaling, it hurts. It exposes.

And we find that our two souls, straining for connection, are too weak to hold each other up.

“I need help!”

“I know. But how can I help you when I myself am so in need? If I jump in to save you, we both may drown.”

It is the recurring theme of human story: the longing for a hero. We all crave rescue.

And I try, I try so hard to be a hero. Prove to myself that I can handle this life, that if I run hard enough and with enough determination, it will all be okay. “We all secretly love a gospel that relies on us…Self-reliance feeds our self-esteem and self-worth.”* But the air is too thin on top of this pedestal I’ve created. And breathless, I’m looking around for something more.

~

He is sitting in the row in front of us as communion plates pass from needy hand to needy hand. Last night we met him at the neighborhood laundromat. We, with our friends, dropped quarters in his machines. We handed him a warming bowl of homemade chili and shared life stories as dryers hummed. And now, here he is, breaking bread again with us this Sunday morning.

Part of me is scared. I didn’t expect him to be here. What do we do now? It is easy to pay a man’s laundry and give him a hot meal, but his needs are oh so much greater. And I feel my insufficiency keenly.

He turns, hands me the plate of broken bread and smiles. And I am reminded. What is communion if not a reminder of our – all of our – need? It’s the promise that God is working behind the scenes, accomplishing His will and redeeming our stories while we live out our finite human lives. Communion is the victory cry “Tetelestai!”

Tetelestai. It means “it is finished.” To complete, conclude, fill up, accomplish, fully pay. Not merely to end, but to perfect. The will of God accomplished. The prophecies and promises fulfilled, sin put to death, suffering redeemed to glory. Salvation complete. Jesus poured out every last breath in securing our rescue and said “Tetelestai.”

All our failed attempts to fix our broken world, our ragtag tries to perform our way to God, our inadequate efforts to fill our own cup of need – all finished in the completed death and resurrected victory of Jesus.

Jesus was our hero when He gave us Himself. The greatest sacrifice, to secure our safety. A horrible, forsaken, tormenting death that met, measure for measure, the murderous extent of our sin. He accomplished the greatest victory on His own and then He gives the rewards away…to me, who has down nothing to help myself. Now He supports my every breath, He redeems the good I try to do, He rescues me from collapsing in my own futility.

I need Him. And oh, how I need to need Him.

Who will rescue me from this body of death? The One who became my body of death.

After the elements are passed, all us needy people stand together to sing:

“All our sickness, all our sorrows Jesus carried up the hill
He has walked this path before us, He is walking with us still.
Turning tragedy to triumph, Turning victory to praise
There is blessing in the battle – So take heart and stand amazed.”*

~

Giving my own rescue to Jesus means I am freed to help others without their rescue being dependent on me.

I can buy a steaming coffee for the homeless man shivering outside the grocery store. I can listen to a grieving friend. I can donate to a missionary family, I can make a meal, fold laundry, send a handwritten letter, do any thousand acts of kindness and service — not because my self-sufficiency, but because kindness flows from the grateful heart dependent on the sufficiency of Christ. We are free to love freely. Empowered to meet the hurt we see in the world because we have known the greatest Rescue. “The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and delivered Himself up for me.

You are the light of the world – Jesus is saying “I am the Light of the World.” It is by the light of Jesus that we are the light of the world. We are a lamp, not the Sun. We are not the source, just a vessel holding that light.

We stay up late into the dark night with our two bare and cut up hearts. Our two flickering lights…when we lean them together and lean into the Flame, there is enough warmth and illumination to press on. We are only reflections, he and I, of the grace penetrating past our darkness. We can only support each other when we’re attached to the lifeline of the Gospel. We only have air to speak truth when our lungs are filled by Jesus.

Gently, Jesus is teaching me. Don’t try to be anybody’s hero. Especially your own. Press your own weary needy heart into His always sufficient heart.

Early morning, I scribble it down. Big bold letters in thick black ink across the journal page: Let Jesus be your hero!

Fix your eyes on Jesus. He sees your need, He knows your need, He has met your need on His own broken body. It is finished.

Stop your running and let your feet be planted in the Love that’s saved your soul. Fix your eyes on Him – the Author and the Finisher of your faith. And the weight you are carrying, that burden of being your own hero? You can lay it down. And you can breath – breath deeply – the grace, the freedom, the rest of your Rescue.

  Scripture in order of appearance: Romans 7:24, Galatians 2:20, Matthew 5:14, John 8:12, Hebrews 12

*Quotes: Marshall Sefal, http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/when-our-hearts-revert-to-self-reliance, “Rejoice” by Dustin Kensrue, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c8u0pGvb30U