Praise

We have a praise service at our church before Thanksgiving–a blessed time of reflection. It is always a joy to hear grateful voices raised to God.

But it is the suffering ones whose praise rings loudest.

The grieving, the lonely, the ill. The disappointed and sorrowing. Those who have come through a severe storm or deep, dark waters.

That praise is a lovely song, a sweet aroma. That praise is a gift and a light.

A buoy for weary pilgrims to hold.

How can we doubt God’s work when we see His grace displayed so lavishly in failing humans? What a wonder is the Spirit’s real and individual dealing in the minds and hearts of those who suffer!

That kind of praise quenches our doubt with refreshing water. Renews our hope and strengthens our hands.

Ignites the flickering flame when our hearts are growing cold.

I remember the Thanksgiving of 2016. Marissa and I were living in Durham during her radiation treatment. We planned on leaving right after her appointment on Wednesday morning so we could make it home in time for the praise service at church that night. But her doctors planned another appointment, and we didn’t end up getting home until after 9.

We were exhausted–physically and mentally and spiritually. We had been invited to eat Thanksgiving dinner at my nephew’s house, but all we wanted was rest and home. I went to bed without one preparation for the next day. No turkey in the house. No pies. No side dishes chilling in the fridge. No plan but sleep.

But I slept well and woke early. I drove to the nearest grocery store to see if they had fresh turkeys. They did and that somehow spurred me on. I began to walk around the empty store and fill my cart with good things for my family to eat.

I remember that morning with such clarity. I don’t know that I have ever felt God’s presence so strongly as I did in the aisles of that store. As I filled the cart, He was filling my heart. He was renewing my song, reminding me of His faithfulness. He was strengthening me for the days ahead.

We had a quiet Thanksgiving that year. It was Marissa’s last one on this earth, but of course we didn’t know that then. The next few weeks would bring us into the last, terrifying battle.

But early on that Thanksgiving day and in all the days ahead, He provided everything I needed. He saw me in my weakness, and He answered my cry. He was with me in trouble.

He taught me to trust in Him.

He was teaching me to praise.

Bless the LORD, all you works of His, in all places of His dominion; Bless the LORD, O my soul! Psalm 103:22

For the LORD is good; His lovingkindness is everlasting and His faithfulness to all generations. Psalm 100:5

We give thanks to you, O God; we give thanks, for your name is near. We recount your wondrous deeds. Psalm 75:1

Change

Ann is with Jesus.

Like a flickering, fading light she slipped away.

A grace-filled dying.

Her funeral was a treasure of faces and words and songs. A beautiful house of mourning.

A hope-filled sorrowing.

She is buried not far from Marissa. Not far from Nikki and Jean and others we know. A gathering place. And a reminder that we all live out only our appointed days.

On our last day, all that matters is what we have done with Jesus.

It’s funny how a cemetery puts it all in perspective. All the drama of this life softened by just a glimpse of eternity.

The powerful glory of the cross shining steadily into the corners of grief and uncertainty for those who believe.

I am understanding more and more its merciful light.

It has been the gentlest fall, breezy and warm with color filling the trees so slowly. I’m always startled by the beauty of dying leaves.

A favorite tree in my neighborhood has delighted my heart with its vibrancy. But yesterday we had a hard rain and today its leaves are gone, its branches dark and drear.

My eyes will have to adjust, find pleasure in other sights. Adapt to the change, the season, the loss.

But my heart remembers the beauty.

My heart stays quiet, hopeful, resting.

Knowing.

Yes, the knowing settles deep.

God will make it beautiful again.

As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the bones are formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things. Ecclesiastes 11:5

He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. Ecclesiastes 3:11

Thirty

For Rissa on her birthday

You know how summer exits slowly here? Autumn is always a bit of a surprise.

A slight change in the air. A breeze.

Dark and cooler mornings, shorter days.

A scent of earth and dampness.

Thirty years ago you were born three weeks before your due date, as if you did not want to miss any of it.

And you have always loved fall.

Some nights when I am walking while the sky is darkening, I feel you very close to me. Memories flicker all around–joy and sorrow warring in my heart.

The raw ache of missing you is a companion of sorts, unwelcome but familiar. I form a necessary truce so that I can remember all the treasure of you.

Your exuberance, your joy. Your sarcasm and humor. Your beautiful smile. Your love of people, including the little ones. Your zest for adventure. Your gift of helping others. Your kindness and strength.

How grateful I am for you. How I cherish every part of you.

This has been the craziest year–one day when all the pages are turned and the book is closed, we will sit and talk about it. How many times I have longed for your cheerful perspective, your courage and faith.

How I have missed you.

Thirty years–a milestone birthday. Most of your friends will approach it with some soberness, a realization of how quickly time is passing. Perhaps they will renew goals and make some changes, move forward with purpose.

I would love to be celebrating with you–cake and presents and outings. To watch your life unfolding, to sit quietly and listen to your heart.

I would love to know you at thirty.

Instead I am comforted that you took every breath you were meant to take. You are right now fully known and fully loved. You are safe.

So on your birthday I am remembering the beautiful gift of you. The 26 years when I could touch you and talk with you and celebrate you.

And I am moving forward in faith, one step at a time, one day at a time. Opening my heart to the future, whatever it holds.

Falling back on the grace that held you and kept you and keeps you still.

Knowing that because of God and His promises, I will know you again. I will love you forever.

Happy birthday, my little Beanie girl.

Ann

She is the kind of person whose face lights up when she sees you. Joyful and vibrant. An encourager. Kind and cheerful. Experienced in life but young at heart.

I am always lifted up when I see her.

Her testimony is full of power and grace–how God called her from a dark place into His marvelous light. It’s a reminder of how God works, pulling and moving in a heart, calling and rescuing, healing and restoring.

Her story is filled with Jesus.

And now He is calling her home.

Terminal cancer. At such a stage where treatment will only bring suffering. So she has chosen to live out her days without fighting. With a surrendering heart and a cherishing of moments. With a gratefulness for even numbered breaths–each one a gift.

And a learning about the fullness of God in the tightest of places.

I’ve cried and if I’m honest, squirmed a little under God’s providence. My heart feels sore and weary of hard news.

I have no ability to explain the whys of suffering.

But I do know that eventually we all fall down. There is an end to this transient, vaporous life for every one of us.

Even Lazarus faced death a second time without rescue.

And I think of Marissa. Some would say gone too soon. Some would question the fairness of God.

But what would she speak to our sorrowing, our suffering? What truth would she speak into our fear?

I imagine that she wonders (marvels even!) at our dread of death and our hesitancy to leave this earth. I imagine that I can hear her, along with a crowd of witnesses gone before:

“Rest. You will not find rest in your talent or your story or your work. Rest is found in the finished work of your Savior. Rest in His promises and His person. He is able to keep you and perfect you and carry you. He cannot fail you and He will not let you go.

Rejoice. God has directed each step to this very place. There are no second causes, and God’s grace covers every regret. You are exactly where you are supposed to be. This is your appointed wilderness and your path to the promised land. Your name is written on His hand, and He will make your path straight.

Surrender. Let go of sadness and disappointment. Confusion and uncertainty. Cast every care on Him who long ago gave His life to relieve you of every burden. Let go of earthly riches and comforts. Relinquish longing and desire and goals. Open your hands and release it all. He is the way and the why.  He wants to be your treasure, your portion, your friend.

Trust. Take up your shield of faith but always remember–it is His shield of faithfulness that surrounds you. When there is no light at all, trust in the Father of light. He shines brighter as the surrounding landscape fades.

Take courage–this part of your journey will soon be over. Your sovereign Lord holds your life and your hand and your breaths. There are deep places yet to cross, but He is with you. He will not forsake you! He loves you with an everlasting, loyal love. You are God’s workmanship, His poem, and you are living out the lines written long ago. Every hard place in your story is a means to glorify Him!

Come! Come to the place prepared for you, the place where you are fully known and loved. Come with gladness and joy and a heart filled with expectation. Come washed and clean in the blood of Christ. Come sit at the feet of your Savior and brother and King.

This paradise is filled with the glory of the Lamb! With safety and warmth and a depth of joy, all sorrow ended.

Don’t be afraid to turn the page. The story just gets more beautiful as you go on.”

But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” C. S. Lewis

But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them. Hebrews 11:16

Like a child

Hot summer days remind me of my childhood.

Freshly cut grass and popsicles and bare feet. The sweet smell of my daddy’s roses. Corn on the cob, raspberries, and drippy peaches. The treasure of freedom under miles of sky.

Every day a gift and hours of empty to fill with wonder.

I don’t remember being bothered by heat or bugs or worry.

Just a breathing, slow and easy.

My grandson is 16 months old, and his world is opening. Filling up with words and experiences and learning. We gather objects on our walks together–leaves and sticks and wild flowers, and he holds them in his little hands with joy.

His moments filled with delightful discovery.

He doesn’t know to be afraid of cars or bees or deep water.

Sometimes I want to be a child again.

I’ve been thinking about simplicity of faith. How sometimes we “know” too much to really believe. Experience and emotion become so noisy they drown out trust.

The only knowing that really helps is the knowing of God.

And trusting Him like a child.

Unafraid with open hands. Saying “Show me!” and believing that it will be good and right.  Believing that He is bigger and stronger than all the real we have known.

Bigger than our brokenness and the heart-trembling fear of what might be.

He gives more than mere sustaining grace. More than just the ability to hold on to the end.

He gives good gifts. The softening of our hearts and the renewing of our minds. The strengthening of our souls. The hope-filled expectation of our future.

Wonder at the beauty we see all around us.

A deep and easy breathing with drops of mercy falling all around.

And the capacity to appreciate the simple things we hold in our hands.

With faith. Like a child.

And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 18:2-4

Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it. Mark 10:15

And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. Hebrews 11:6

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Truth

I don’t know what to say, and I certainly don’t know what to do about all the turmoil in our country.

So much anger. Travesty and injustice.

An uncovering of the evil in human hearts.

A sadness at the wickedness in mine.

So many voices clamoring. Enough opinions to fill the sky.

Pandemic or politics or current events–you can find someone to say what you want to say, what you want to believe.

And you can find someone to make you doubt what you thought was true.

We all have bias because of our circle of influence. No one is exactly right.

So I can’t believe everything someone else thinks. I can’t believe everything I think.

The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; Who can understand it? Jeremiah 17:9

Is anyone else just tired of all the words?

How are we to navigate the distortion of facts? How are we to find truth?

This is what God’s wisdom looks like: Pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. (James 3:17)

He is our truth, our light. His words are alive and powerful, eternal and right. It is only as we align ourselves with Him that we can walk a straight path, a path of truth.

So I keep turning my face to the hope of the gospel, the good news that changes us and changes our future. I love the core of it, the truth of it. God looked down on our evil, straying hearts. Hearts that continually pushed Him away, running and turning and seeking anything but Him. He looked down on disobedience and faulty thinking and rebellion. He looked down on murder and deceitfulness and sin of every kind.

And He loved us. Every one of us. Enough to send His only Son to pay for it all.

Let that be the beginning of turning your heart and face toward Him.

Let that pierce your deepest gloom.

He says, Come.

Come with your weariness. Come with your thirst. Come with your sin and brokenness. Come with your struggle.

Bring your bias and your evil heart and just come.

Come and find rest.

Some day He will rule with strength and kindness. Some day every knee will bow to Him. Someday peace will flow like a river.

How I long for it more and more.

Until then, He will continue to do a work in me. He will teach me and stretch me and grow me. He will use all this earthly chaos to make me more like His Son.

This trouble is His intended, refining fire.

And what does He want of me? The world’s problems are not mine to solve. He doesn’t expect me to have all the answers. In my sphere, He wants me to be just. In my story, He expects me to love kindness. In my life, I can walk humbly with Him.

He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6:8

I can seek Him and His truth. I can fear and obey and follow after righteousness. I can strive to love Him with my soul and strength and might.

And as I learn to love Him, I understand a little more about the truest, best kind of love.

As I learn to love Him, He teaches me what it means to love my neighbor as myself.

“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 foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 22:36-40

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The long road

I find a healing strength in being outside.

Out of doors, away from floors and ceilings and furniture. Close to fresh air and sunshine and creation. It brings me to deep thought and a clarity of thinking. It refreshes. Seeing God’s workmanship helps me put in perspective all of the circumstances that are under His rule.

The fresh air eases my mind, soothes my soul.

I’ve had many years of walking and running outside in the early mornings. It’s been much more than physical for me–the musing on scriptural truth during this alone time has grounded me, inspired me, and encouraged me. I have prayed and wept and grappled with doubt. I have gloried in the goodness of God.

All of my best thoughts come in the early hush of day.

A few years ago when several studies showed that interval training was actually better for the heart than longer, slower runs, I started doing intervals some days–sprints interspersed with walking. I began to love the short, fast runs.

But eventually I realized that almost all my runs had become shorter runs.

It had been quite awhile since I had just kept going. And when I did, I was surprised at how hard it was.

Physically–my breathing was heavy. Mentally–I was impatient and bored with just plugging along. I had lost my endurance.

I’m reminded that most trials are over quickly. They bring pressures that push us hard but then are gone. We can bear up under those sorts of things. We are sobered and stretched but not wearied. A burst of faith and answered prayer and then we are back to our comfortable living.

But sometimes a longer road stretches ahead. Trouble that will last awhile or trouble that is not going away. A disappointment, a grief, a diagnosis. A difficult relationship, a sorrow. A circumstance we cannot escape sitting heavy and close.

It takes discipline and perseverance and more than a little faith to keep moving forward. It takes commitment and grit to face the steep hills when you are already tired.

What is your long road? What wearies you, making it hard to breathe?

What impossible thing stretches out in front of you?

Some places feel too hard, and you would give almost anything to be done. To turn right around and sprint back to the before. I understand that longing.

But this appointed path is yours.

I’ve learned that long runs require a different pace. Steady and slower, one stretch at a time. It helps not to think about the distance yet to go. It helps to focus on the steps right in front of you.

Let go of the heaviness of regret or bitterness. Keep your eyes open to the beauty along the way–all the lovely, good gifts God gives. Let your heart be drawn to Him. Keep your face turned toward the Path Maker–the only One who knows the intricacies of the course. Let Him anchor you, nourish you. Let Him carry you when your strength is gone.

He gives sips of cool water from a living stream.

Allow joy to settle deep as you embrace your path. All of its valleys and tight places are uniquely yours. There is purpose in the running–perfecting your patience, proving your faith, preparing your heart. There is a prize to win. When you crest that final hill and the road opens up to reveal the finish line, you will be so glad you kept going.

There is not one step you will regret when you are finally home.

Let us run with patience the race that is set before us. Hebrews 12:1

Yet those who wait for the LORD will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary. Isaiah 40:31

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the shadow

We’ve been memorizing Psalm 91, and I’ve been repeating the first verse over and over. This psalm was dear to me when Marissa was fighting her battle, and it comforts me now.

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. 

A beautiful picture of safety and rest.

But that shadowed place is not always pleasant. It can seem restrictive–claustrophobic, even.

That protected shelter can be filled with darkness.

Every person in the world is being touched by this virus in some way, and each one has his own level of suffering.

Lonely, or wishing for time alone.

Jobless, or facing risk by working each day.

Fearful, disappointed in changed plans, bored or frustrated.

Sick and even dying.

We understand that God is moving, but we just don’t know what He is doing.

We are longing for a sense of control. For freedom from a cramped place. For an end to pain and suffering.

We are crying out for light.

And here is the blessed truth–all of this darkness is light to Him.

Can you cease your struggling long enough to let God be God to you?

Will you trust the Author with His story?

Each character, every detail, all the individual narratives are working to further His kingdom. He is not surprised by this plot twist.

Only God can take this mess of tragedy, fear, and upheaval and make it good. This shadowed place is meant to stretch our trust in the God who sees it all. Our struggle is intended to make us like His Son, to ready our souls for an unimagined glory.

We need to remember that the story ends well.

This week is called the Passion Week–the days leading up to Christ’s death on the cross. Though He compassionately taught and prepared His followers, I can imagine the darkness of that day for them. The gaping chasm between what they knew and what they felt.

I can hear their wondering. Where is God? Why this darkness? How can this possibly be the plan?

I can understand their fear of failing faith.

But Sunday is coming.

In spite of shadows, in spite of dark fears, in spite of all the wondering, the resurrection is sure. The cave will be empty. The plan for our redemption will be secured.

Let that brightness of grace seep into all your shadowed places.

He is risen, as He said.

Hallelujah!

He does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?” Daniel 4:35

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in Me will live, even though he dies. And everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” John 11:26

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trouble

We’ve been plunged into trouble, haven’t we?

I once had my raft overturn while white water rafting in the early spring–the shock of sudden submersion in the freezing water, the fear of the jagged rocks all around, being briskly carried toward the unknown and dangerous–it all feels familiar right now.

I had a life jacket on, but I certainly didn’t feel safe.

Are you struggling to feel secure? Protected? Sheltered?

Does it feel like the weight of fear might pull you under?

Courage, Friend.

This story was written long ago. Every detail is exactly as it should be.

You are not alone and not forsaken.

Fear has a way of making you forget who God is and who you are in Him.

When everything seems out of control, we remind ourselves. We get up each day and put on our armor–the belt of truth and the shield of faith. The breastplate of righteousness. We carry the sword of the Spirit–God’s very words which are alive and powerful and sharp. We engage in a spiritual battle in order to bring all of our thoughts into captivity.

We continue to love and worship the One who controls it all.

And we do fear. But not as the world fears. We don’t fear sickness or dying. We don’t fear loss of income or the disappointment of our best and dearest plans. We don’t fear a changed world or a changed life.

We fear God. And we pray that many might come to fear Him.

Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Matthew 10:28

And we trust Him to do good. To work every moment and every detail for our eternal good and His glory.

Because we remember who He is and what He has done. We have already been snatched out of deepest darkness and utter despair by His beloved Son. We are already rescued, already safe.

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit. 1 Peter 3:18

Every part of this story is already written.

Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this. Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked? Ecclesiastes 7:10,13

So we humble ourselves under His mighty hand. We do the work we are given to do. We cry out for mercy to the only One who can straighten this crooked path.

And we rejoice that He alone is life. He died to conquer every kind of death.

Just breathe that in. Deeply and confidently. Rest fully in the truth of it.

You are held by the Creator, the Savior, the Eternal God.

You are held by the Death-defeater, and He will hold you fast.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Returning to rest

Marissa Alice Bundy – October 2, 1990 – March 6, 2017

How can it be three years?

Three years since I saw her face or touched her skin or smelled her hair. Three years since I heard her speak or saw her laugh.

Three years since she left this world for another one, so far away from here.

My husband and I still stand by her grave and feel a stunned disbelief.

Grief is a little like wandering. Some days the path is gentle and peaceful. You wouldn’t have chosen this way, but there is enough beauty and joy and strength to keep moving. You have at least emerged from the thorny beginning to a level place.

But there are still days that bring you to a low point of struggle and longing and unrest. There are still mountains that seem impossible to climb.

I have been reading in the Psalms again. I used to think of this book as easy reading, but now I see deep emotion worked out in faith. From the lowest depths to the highest peak, a truthful power of believing that God covers everything.

He is big enough to surround it all.

Return, O my soul, to your rest; for the LORD has dealt bountifully with you. For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling; I will walk before the LORD in the land of the living. Psalm 116: 7-9

I love when the Psalmist speaks to his own soul. He reminds himself of God’s bountiful grace to him. A deliverance from deserved death, a comfort in raw, tear-filled sorrow, a holding up, a carrying in the rugged places.

Return, O my soul, to your rest.

And I am so thankful for the returning.

For faith given to repeatedly turn my soul back toward God, toward rest.

It is a choice I make–turn to God. Hold onto hope. Rest.

Soul work to be done every day.

And as I choose, I am enabled.

Return, O my soul, to your rest.

Disappointment will come. Life will overwhelm. There may be sickness and never-sweet sorrow. An aching of body and heart.

And it’s all just part of this beautiful but weary road. Part of this path that leads to glory.

I remember that long day three years ago, death hovering around us as we waited. Marissa somewhere between this life and the next. As she neared her normal bedtime, I whispered to her that it was time to sleep. Time to go.

And at 9:55 she rested.

He shepherded my little one all the way.

She has been delivered from it all.

Her soul has returned to a beautiful forever rest.