The word widow comes from the Middle English word which meant to be empty. Even before that, it was derived from the Old English word meaning “to separate or to split.” While it is easy for me to look up the etymology of the word, it is far more difficult to watch those that I love become widowed.
My precious mother-in-law is adjusting to life as a widow. Another dear friend lost her husband this week. Additionally, I have been reading Suffering is Never for Nothing by Elisabeth Elliot who was twice widowed. The compounding of these realities means that my heart and mind have been thinking deeply about those who have experienced widowhood.
To separate or to split: that works well for wood (which shares a root word with widow), but it is not cut so clean when it comes to covenants and vows. Ask Naomi who was so overcome by grief that she changed her name to mara meaning bitter. Ask my sweet mother-in-law whose hands still set out two tea cups from over fifty years of muscle memory.
Expensive, covenantal love leaves expansive gaps when it is severed by death; however, for believers in Christ, there is another covenantal love which will never be severed. Those who lose an earthly spouse need never lose their heavenly one. Even though they are widowed, they are still wed. The following are only a sampling of verses wherein God speaks to his people as their truest mate.
And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness (Hosea 2:19-20).
You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight Is In Her and your land Married, for the Lord delights in you and your land shall be married to him (Isaiah 62:4).
For your Maker is your husband, and the Lord of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called (Isaiah 54:5).
I am learning so much from my widowed friends. I am seeing the inordinate weight I tend to wrongly place on my own marriage. I am reminded how many widows long to be seen and known and engaged. I am reminded that there will be no marriage in heaven since our souls will be wed fully and finally to the One with whom they were always intended to be eternally wed. I am reminded that gospel hope is resilient and buoyant even in the deep, deep waters of loss.
Widowed yet Wed
I find it hard to breathe without you. In oneness you became my other lung. And although you’re no longer here, Your name is always on my tongue.
As certainly as love’s first drops Leave both its drinkers drunk, It’s sobering last sweet sips Leave each survivor sunk.
I didn’t see how high we’d climbed, Or the height our love had grown. But now I marvel at the elevation As I slowly climb down all alone.
In all those years of side by side, Hardships worked on us like glue. I long for even one more such day, As I make one and one from two.
Though I’m widowed still I’m wed To a Savior who dwells on high. As our love led me more to Him, Your absence now draws me nigh!
Yes, He will make a new song From my barely humming heart. My Maker is not through with me; From a stop, He’ll make a start.
In our culture and in our flesh, we love flashy beginnings. As of this year, the wedding industry brought in a staggering $57.9 billion dollars. We love a good grand opening or ribbon cutting. But biblically-speaking, how people end their lives is far more significant than how they begin.
Often, when we think of King David, we imagine him standing with his sling before a toppled Goliath. Or we think of him being set apart as the future king and selected from among his older brothers by Samuel. Perhaps we think of his massive failures which included adultery, murder, and cover-up. Maybe we remember him fleeing from his life from his best friend’s maniacal father, hiding in caves.
While David’s entire life is both fascinating and instructing, I find the David at the end of his life most compelling and comforting. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows at the end of David’s life. In fact, the aged, well-seasoned David continued to struggle with sin.
David’s Latter Days
In 1 Chronicles 21, Satan incited David, through his pride, to instigate a census of Israel. While that does not sound like the stuff of scandal or sin to us, the scheme was a prideful attempt to show his power and prowess as a leader. Joab, the leader of Israel’s army, sought to warn him against this selfish scheme, saying, “May the Lord add to his people a hundred times as many as they are! Are they not, my lord the king, all of them my lord’s servants? Why then should my lord require this? Why should it be a cause of guilt for Israel?” (1 Chron. 21: 3).
Even Joab’s cunning appeal which sought to steer David’s decision through his idolatry of pride and power failed; for “the king’s word prevailed against Joab” (1 Chron. 21:4). David would have his way, would force his will, and his people would experience the consequences. At this point in his life, we wonder if David will ever learn his lessons.
Thankfully, the Scriptures don’t leave us with this David. The same David whose heart was pricked by the skillful prodding of Nathan and whose repentance penned Psalm 51 received the Lord’s correction. He recognized the staggering effects his selfishness had on the people whom he was supposed to be serving.
“And David said to God, ‘Was it not I who gave command to number the people? It is I who have sinned and done great evil. But these sheep, what have they done? Please, let your hand, O Lord, my God, be against me and against my father’s house. But do not let the plague be on your people.’ (1 Chron. 21:17).
In fact, in the very place where the angel of the Lord graciously relented of the plague (the threshing field of Ornan), David devised an elaborate plan to build a temple to the Lord’s name and for the Lord’s glory.
Do you see what I see? Do you see a very different David?
A Very Different David
Yes, he still messed up royally (pun intended) even when he was well-advanced in the process of maturing in the Lord. But I find his repentance and recognition of sin to be a powerful encouragement.
He went from being the kind of man who, though owning flocks of sheep, would steal the one beloved sheep of another man (Nathan’s story which convicted David of his sin with Bathsheba) to the kind of shepherd who says, “Punish me, not the sheep.”
He went from slyly stealing that which was not his (an abuse of his power and position as king) to paying full price to Ornan for the land which would be reserved for God’s temple (1 Chron. 21:22–24).
He went from wanting to count heads to ensure his own enduring legacy to spending the rest of his life making elaborate plans to ensure the legacy of God’s great name. He went from forcing his own will and plans and desires to accepting the Lord’s will, plans, and desires, even when those shattered his own. Multiple times at the end of his life, and once in front of the gathered people of Israel, David showed that God’s will carried far more weight than his own (1 Chron. 22:6–10; 1 Chron. 28:2–8).
He admitted the depth of his own desire to build the Temple for God himself, but he also submitted to God who said his son would be the one to build the Temple. Rather than push though, chasing his own desire, or sit and pout, David poured himself into preparations for the Temple. He had blueprints drawn up, he gathered all the building materials, he coached up his son, Solomon.
David learned his lessons. It took an entire lifetime, but he learned. This gives me great comfort. For the same master who trained David trains us. This reality left me in tears as I studied the end of 1 Chronicles this week.
Glory to the Master, Not the Pupil
God’s disciples will learn their lessons (Luke 6:40). God will finish the work he began in us (Phil. 1:6).
As a woman who sees the scary strength of her own will and longs to place more weight on God’s better will than my own, the mastery of the Master gives me hope.
As a mother of teenagers who is constantly wondering when my children will learn, the mastery of the Master settles my worried heart.
As the wife of a pastor who seeks to shepherd a young flock in an arid spiritual terrain in the midst of massive cultural and spiritual warfare, the mastery of the Master emboldens me to stay the course.
Stay the course, my sin-weary and world-weary friends. Trust your Master and teacher. Receive his discipline as true sons and daughters (Hebrews 12: 5–11). Don’t begin to believe the lie that he is a hard master. Trust his heart for you is for your good and his glory.
Faith, trust, and confidence. In both the Old and New Testament, these words share common root words (in Hebrew, batach and in Greek, pistis). While I am admittedly a word-nerd, these root words are truly at the root of the Christian life. Hebrews 11:6 reminds us that “Without faith, it is impossible to please God, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”
Life with God hinges on our faith. Thus, trust is paramount. The direction of our trust determines our confidence. The vulnerability of the object of our trust will determine the vulnerability of our confidence.
A Conversation Then
Though this reality is laced through the entirety of Scripture, God has a concise conversation about confidence with his struggling prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah is often nick-named the weeping prophet, as he penned both Jeremiah and Lamentations, which are books woven with great woe. But he had every reason to weep as a prophet raised up in a particularly dark season in the history of God’s people. As such and understandably so, Jeremiah often found himself lamenting and complaining before God. After one such session, God responds to Jeremiah with a powerful word picture about confidence and trust.
“Thus says the Lord: ‘Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord. He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come. He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land. Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the steam and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.’ (Jeremiah 17:5-8).
The communicator par excellence, God knew that a picture is worth a thousand words. As such, he draws a verbal juxtaposition for Jeremiah between trusting in God or trusting in man and made things.
As someone who lives in an arid climate during a time of drought near an actual salt sea, I can tell you I don’t want to be the first shrub. But so often I find myself trending in that direction. I so easily let me trust leak all over to lesser things. I trust in my schedule. I trust in my performance. I trust in my effort and grit. I trust in my husband. I trust in my children. I trust in our government system. The list goes on and on.
But we are invited to trust in an unshakeable God. We are made for trust in the Trustworthy One. When our soul seeks satisfaction and security in Him (rather than self or circumstances), we have access to the river whose steams make glad the city of God (Psalm 46:4). As those made right with God, we are invited to abide in Christ which means that we have a settled security in Him (John 15).
The word picture is compelling. But you and I both know that living such confidence in God is complicated, isn’t it?
A Conversation Now
God gave me a little picture of confidence this week in a few strange crevices of my home. You see, I do not like spiders. But Annie Dillard did a number on me in her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:
“I allow spiders the run of the house. I figure that any predator that hopes to make a living on whatever smaller creatures might blunder into a four-inch square bit of space in the corner of the bathroom where the tub meets the floor, needs every bit of my support.”
Ever since reading her, I have mixed emotions when I see a spider. My instincts say, “Squash the sucker!” but my heart says, “Live like Annie.” Thus, I have grown to be a close watcher of two particular spiders in my home: one on a planter in the front yard and the other in the back. When I water my plants, I watch in wonder as they go about their web-making work.
If I wanted to, I could blow hard enough and break their lives’ work. I could put the hose on the jet setting and destroy their entire world. As strong as their webs may be, they are but threads compared to human strength. And the distance and difference between me and the spider is nothing compared to the distance and difference between my Maker and me.
All the places I place my confidence are but fragile filaments compared to trust in God. My spider friend and I have similar trust problems.
To a Spider
Though you long have startled me, We share more than I once thought. We both trust in silky threads- A practice with danger fraught.
Don’t get me wrong, my friend – Your woven web is a wonder! But all your exquisite work – It’s so easily torn asunder.
You teach me not to trust Webs of my own weaving; They appear so intricate, But looks can be deceiving.
Belayed to the Blessed One, Tho’ every strand be swept, Though all shake around me, Yet by my Maker I am kept.
I’m sorry, many-legged friend; You’ve not such a strong hope. You have left me with a lesson; I’ll gladly leave you to your rope!
Spiders and trees are training me to trust in the Strong and Unshakeable One!
Deuteronomy reads like a father sharing his last bits of wisdom with his child before dropping them off at college. Moses, the faithful leader of God’s people, has led his wandering, often whining nation to the brink of the Promised Land. Knowing he won’t be entering with them, he prepares speeches laced with blessings and curses, reminding his beloved people to obey the Lord who had rescued them from Egypt and made them His chosen possession.
It is all too easy to read Deuteronomy through a moralistic lens. In fact, I found myself doing just that this week my studies led me to Deuteronomy 28 in which Moses begins another speech about the blessings of obedience.
“And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God. Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb, and the fruit of your ground and the fruit of your cattle, and the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Blessed shall you be when you come in, blessed shall you be when you go out” (Deuteronomy 28:1-6).
That is quite a laundry list of all-encompassing blessings. Moses uses powerful the powerful imagery of a wave of blessings overtaking, overcoming, and surrounding God’s people if they would only obey. The Hebrew word nasag literally means to reach, to overtake, or to catch. And this word is more than a mere word for Moses’ original audience. Remember, these are the children of the refugees who were almost utterly overtaken by the ensuing chariots of the strongest military in the then-known world. In fact, the exact same word is used to describe Pharaoh’s army catching up to God’s people as they were encamped by the Red Sea.
If only imaging a wave of blessings overtaking us were motivation enough to enable our obedience. However, both history and the human heart show ample evidence that Moses’ impassioned pleas were not enough to secure the obedience of God’s people.
The Christian worldview offers so much more than a list of blessings for those who obey and curses for those who don’t. Every other religion offers those. Karma promises that good will catch up to those doing good, while evil will catch up to those doing evil. Christianity alone offers a Savior who was overtaken with curses that we might be overtaken and surrounded by such abundant, undeserved blessing. Curses encompassed him so that blessing could encompass us.
A wave of curses, Gathering strength By human weakness, Overtook the One Who always obeyed In total meekness.
The consequences and Curses we earned By hearts bent on self Caught up to Him Who ought inherit All eternal wealth.
Evil overtook Him Who hung cursed Upon the tree; Blessing overtakes All who to Him For hope flee.
Today I’m overtaken By blessings from The overtaken one. Goodness catches My sin-caught heart, In love I am undone.
The fate of most small, plastic toys in this house is the same: first the junk drawer then the trash can. The life cycle tends to run about a week, although McDonald’s toys last about 10 minutes and Nerf bullets last about two weeks. Legos are the exception, of course. Long live the Lego!
Melissa and Doug (whomever they may be) realized that we all long for more durable delights and made a fortune creating old school wooden toys and puzzles that don’t end up in the junk drawer.
As I have been reading Thomas Brooks’ Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, the contrast between junky plastic toys and solid wooden classics has been on the forefront of my brain. Strange connection between my two favorite worlds, the world of Puritan writings and momma-land, I know.
“Where one thousand are destroyed by the worlds frowns, ten thousand are destroyed by the worlds smiles.”
One of the devices most employed by the Enemy which Brooks dwells upon in depth is the allurement of this world. Even though Brooks’ had no idea how consumerism and a culture of comfort would grow and develop, his words speak so aptly to our culture and to my own heart.
“You may as soon fill a bag with wisdom, a chest with virtue, or a circle with a triangle, as the heart of man with anything here below. A man may have enough of the world to sink him, but he can never have enough to satisfy him.”
When I see my children fixating on collecting precious toys that quickly lose their luster, these truths are so clear to me; however, I struggle to see the idiocy of my own attempts to collect comfort and treasures on this earth. A new home, a new rug, a better school, a getaway to an exciting place: these are the equivalent to plastic, junk drawer joys when compared to the solid, durable delights that I have in union with Christ.
“The treasures of the saint are the presence of God, the favor of God, union and communion with God, the pardon of sin, the joy of the spirit, the peace of conscience, which are jewels that none can give but Christ nor none can take away but Christ.”
I long to invest my time, energy and resources on earth storing up durable delights that will last even beyond the frames of this fragile life. Cultivating my own walk with God, encouraging and enabling my children’s relationships with the Lord and one another, praying for and befriending the sheep that are not yet of Jesus’ fold, but are meant to be (John 10), these are durable delights. Yet so often, these get pushed aside by the plastic distractions of this world, lost in the shuffle of temporary toys.
I spend so much time organizing, protecting and caring for the temporary toys, that I often neglect the durable delights that are less shiny and less loudly advertised. While the durable delights of union of with Christ are expensive, they have been fully purchased for us by the very same Christ. The wooden, lasting lovelies of Christ sit gathering dust in a bin while I frantically pander to the plastic.
“Oh, let your souls dwell upon the vanity of all things here below, til your hearts be so thoroughly convinced and persuaded of the vanity of them, as to trample upon them and make them a footstool for Christ to get up and ride in a holy triumph in your hearts.”
I love the image that Brooks paints. I can see, in my mind’s eye, a pile of the plastic, temporary toys of this life, being climbed by Christ as He becomes rightful King on the throne of my heart and desires.
Christ is THE durable delight from which all pleasures flow. He is the center of our desires and all good gifts radiate out from Him (James 1:17). May He sit on the rightful throne, as we allow the lesser, temporary joys to be His footstool!
I do not consider myself a germophobe until I step into the airport. After passing through security, the transformation from my typical non-chalant form into the hypochondriac, hyper-germ-aware version of myself is complete. I swear I can see the cold and flu germs traveling in the recycled air from the vents into my body.
On a normal basis, I take very little to no thought of the air I breathe; I simply let my diaphragm do its thing. However, in airports and on planes, I suddenly become deeply inquisitive at all the unseen particles that are passing into my body.
I wish that all heresies had a clear odor alerting us to their dangers. While some clearly signal their entry into the theological air we breathe, others sneak in undetected and unnoticed. While there are no new heresies, the old ones tend to shed their names and sneak incognito back into our Churches and cultures dressed in more fashionable and timely clothing.
I fear that there is an airborne antinomianism spreading through our churches and the greater Christian culture in America. Even more so, I fear that few even know or care what antinomianism even means. Because it has been sneaking in under the guise of grace and the gospel, we have become so accustomed to it, we don’t even sense the strangeness of the air around us and within us.
The word antinomianism, beside being a great spelling bee candidate, gives us clues as to the content of the heresy. It literally means “against the law,” and it describes a wrong view of the gospel in which the law does not matter since Jesus has come and fulfilled it. While the term itself came into use in the sixteenth century, the antinomian heresy long predated the term. This view takes the right principle of justification by grace alone through faith alone and uses it as a wedge between belief and the Law. The two are thus set against one another and torn apart in a way they were never intended to be.
The law is an extension of God’s character. It emanates out of His values and His views, His preferences and the things which are distasteful and discordant with His perfection. As such, it is not be thrown out as something of the Old Covenant.
In fact, Christ Himself addresses the topic directly with His disciples in the Sermon on the Mount.
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish them, but to fulfill them. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:17-19. ESV.
Notice that the conversation regards those within the household of God, within the kingdom.
Christ is the only human who has ever or will ever fully and faithfully follow the entirety of the Law; therein lies the Christian’s hope. He has fully done what we can never do. He has secured a way to right relationship with the Father for those who could not and would not follow His law.
However, Christ’s fulfillment of the law, while being our hope, has not kicked the Law out of our scope. Rather, He champions the Law and gives us His Holy Spirit to help us even move beyond the Decalogue and into an internalized more intimate relationship with the stuff of the Law, as seen in the Beatitudes and the rest of the Sermon on the Mount.
Christ loves the law and died that we might become the kind of people who long to keep the law, albeit failingly and in fits and starts.
While I have yet to hear someone introduce themselves as an avowed antinomian, I hear notes and hints of it all over in conversations with Christians.
In his classic, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls antinomianism by a different name: cheap grace. Throughout the book, Bonhoeffer contends for costly grace over and against cheap grace, a version of grace without transformation, a form of easy-believism that had become widespread in Germany. In cheap grace, the Christian begins to presume upon the grace of God, using it as a cart blanche to do whatever pleases him or her, knowing it will be forgiven because of an intellectual assent to the gospel.
A few decades later and a continent over, A.W. Tozer spoke up against the dangers of this insidious heresy (among others) in his book The Pursuit of Man. Using his own language, Tozer talks about divorcing gift from shift. In antinomianism, whatever its clothing or era, the entire focus becomes the gift of free of grace in the gospel. Of this truncated gospel, Tozer writes the following.
“Faith is thus conceived as a kind of religious magic, bringing to the Lord a great delight and possessing mysterious power to open the kingdom of heaven.”
While proponents of the true gospel would entirely agree to the free gift of God, they would also say that the gospel of God received in power will inevitably lead to a shift of life through the ongoing process of sanctification. Christ saves us, but He also cares deeply that we become conformed to His likeness, and the Law does indeed show off parts of His character. The Law is not our means of salvation, but it is a roadmap for our sanctification.
Widespread throughout the current Christian milieu is a heavy-focus on the grace of God; however, largely missing from conversation is the ongoing process of being comforted to His will, of deeply internalizing the Law because it shows us more of the One whom we are to love supremely.
I am growing to love Origami, Legos and football. While I have never been naturally inclined to any of these, I am deeply inclined to my husband and children who love them. To love my husband means that I seek to spend time doing things that he likes to do. As such, I am slowly warming up to football (or, at least the second half). To raise my children means that I am enter their worlds and meet them where their hearts like to hang out. In their current phases of life, that means that I know where to buy the best Origami paper for ninja stars and strange animals and that I can identify all the best Lego mini figures by feeling around the sealed mystery pack bags.
We diffuse this airborne antinomianism by spending time with Christ and in His Word. The more time we spend with Him, studying His manner life by reading the Scriptures inspired by God, the more we will begin to sniff out the odorless antinomian spirit that seems to be pervading the times.
We had “said goodbye” at least five other times, but we knew this time was different. Parkinson’s Disease is a marathon, not a sprint; however, the finish line was finally in sight. My husband hopped on a plane while I busied myself at home, doing chores, running errands, holding down the home front in the frenetic busyness that is usually my first line of response to grief.
It only took one picture to shatter my busyness and bring me back to gospel reality. My husband snapped a picture of Appa’s closest friend whom we call Jose Uncle, sitting by the bedside reading Scripture to his friend in his last days. I lost it.
Neither of those men who met at engineering school in India could have engineered the stories they would walk each other through. Yet here they were loving one another to the end. Impending death was putting on display a few things that we all too easily overlook as we go about life.
The Extraordinary Blessing of Ordinary Friendship
In a story only the Lord could orchestrate Jose Uncle and Appa ended up in the same place in the massive United States. Having been through their college years marked by dreaming and a seemingly endless horizon of possibilities, they lived the reality of their adult years together in Houston, Texas. There were parties, but there was also pain. Jose Uncle’s wife experienced two strokes that left him as caregiver, while Appa was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease that left Amma as primary caregiver. A world away from India and worlds away from the futures they imagined, their friendship has continued.
When we buried Appa, sweet Jose Uncle came up to give one last tap to the coffin before his body was laid beneath the ground. Another gesture of enduring friendship that both choked me up and sobered me up to the reality of our fleeting days on this earth.
In a world obsessed with following the extravagant and dramatic lives of the rich and famous, ordinary friendship seems underwhelming. In a day and age that has flattened friendship to a screen and trivialized it to a few emojis, the depth of the real friendship they put on display refreshed and challenged me. It reminded me of King David’s grief at learning about the death of his friend Jonathan and his father Saul (despite all the tumultuous waters that had passed under that bridge).
Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and death, they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles; they were stronger than lions. You daughters of Jerusalem, weep over Saul…How the mighty have fallen in the midst of battle!” (2 Samuel 1:23-25; 25).
In a world of flash, friendship is an often-overlooked gift given from God Almighty for our days as elect exiles on this earth. Death became the dark backdrop that put such ordinary beauty back on display for me. It made me want to savor times walking with those who have walked through so much life with me. It made me want to call loved ones and catch up with them. It made me want to not forsake meeting together as some are in the habit of doing, but rather to continue to stir one another up as we see the day approaching (Hebrews 10:24–25).
The Power of Covenant Love
I have written extensively about the lessons I have learned watching Amma care for Appa. If what C.S. Lewis says about romantic love lighting the slow coals of covenant love is true, their marriage is even more astounding. Their covenant coals were lit only with the fire of promise and trust. They give my husband and I a moving, real-life picture of the love between Christ and His bride.
They married only have met one another a few times, but Amma fulfilled her covenant vows to the end. She put skin on the skeletal promise, “In sickness and in health.” They don’t make many movies about caregivers because care-giving is a messy sludge in a culture that loves sterilized ease. But I am thankful for the front row seat I inherited to watch the power of covenant love on display even and especially on the dark backdrop of death.
The Universality of Gospel Hope
We had the privilege of sitting through Appa’s funeral service in the Mar Thoma church. While Paul was pioneering the gospel to Asia minor, as is recorded in Acts, Thomas was bringing the gospel the southern tip of India; thus, the Mar Thoma or St. Thomas church. Outside of showing me how accustomed I have become to hour-long services (man, do they have some worship endurance!), the service was a beautiful reminder of the universality of the gospel.
As an American and as a sinner, I have this strong tendency to put myself and my culture in the center of all things. Listening to (and attempting to sing) hymns in Malayalamwas a refreshing reminder that the gospel belongs to every tribe, nation, tongue, and dialect (Rev. 7:9). While death is a universal reality for every human, the gospel is a universal invitation to a pathway through death and into everlasting life. Listening to priests from both the Indian Church and the Syriac Church as they declared the same gospel truths we declare in our little church plant every Sunday fortified my soul. They wore different robes and chanted in different ways, but they held to the same gospel hope through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Such realities put me rightly in my place and postured my heart for the worship that will exist in the New Heavens and the New Earth.
For the believer, death doesn’t win. Resurrection life through Jesus does. What is mortal will be swallowed up by an even fuller and more lasting life (2 Corinthians 5:4). Death becomes the sobering backdrop that puts on display not only God’s dazzling offer of life but also his gracious provision of all we need to pursue him in this life (2 Peter 1:3).
Before we lowered Appa into the ground, we left roses on his grave. It felt right to bury him under the weight of so much love. It will feel even more right to see him resurrected with no trace of Parkinson’s Disease. We have a lot of living left to do, so let us seek to number our days that we might gain hearts of wisdom in a death-weary world (Psalm 90:12).
When Death Comes for Me
When Death comes for me, Let there be little to take. Let all be given, entrusted Into hands nothing can shake.
When Death comes for me, Let me see him only as friend, The mean doorway leading To His presence without end.
When Death comes for me, Let him find me already spent, Poured out as living sacrifice Laid down in delighted consent.
When Death comes for me, Let me remember whom I serve, The One who conquered death To give me love I don’t deserve.
My children inherited a deep hatred for busy work from their momma. We are a hard-working family, and we love productivity (sometimes too much); as such, we are not opposed to productive effort. But give us busy work like packets of useless worksheets or things to fill out time and our minds break out into the equivalent of hives. Sadly, many people, even and especially within Christian circles, tend to view caring for the earth as a form of busy work. Sure, we would never say such a faux pas , but our lives indicate that we think it just the same.
The erroneous thinking often sounds like this: “We live on an irretrievably broken globe; it does not matter who we elect or what we do, we won’t be able to fix it.” Sometimes, it sounds like this: “I know my soul is secure and I am about the work of saving souls that will love on forever, so I don’t have time to care about the earth.” If you are like me, it sounds more like this: “I am so small and feel so helpless against such great odds. I don’t think carpooling, cloth diapers, reusable sandwich bags, or oat milk will make a dent in the work that needs to be done.”
Lately, the Lord has had me reading a handful of books written by nonbelievers who are far more thoughtful and Christian in their approach to the earth than I am (The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape by James Rebanks , Native: Life in a Vanishing Landscape by Patrick Laurie, and The View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World by Carl Safina. God is using these people who express a deep concern and compassionate care for the earth and the creatures that live here with us to convict me of my selfish, myopic view of this sphere God so beautifully shaped for us.
Multiple times I have found myself in a room by myself yet in conversation with these men. I want to share with them that their secular world views don’t give them a ledge to stand upon when they ask for compassionate care of the earth. I want to tell them that placing the created things at the center of our lives does not fix the problem we created when putting man at the center of the universe. I want to tell them that with God at the center, mankind finds his rightful place and care for creation will rightly flow from there.
But, then, I hesitate to share the Creation Mandate with them because it has been so sorely misrepresented by so many, myself included. Yes, the Christian worldview places human kind as the apex of creation, but that role was intended to be a role of servant leadership, not an excuse to clear cut forests and rob the earth according to our greedy desires. We created to cultivate and keep, not consume and collect to our heart’s content. Native populations have done such a better job at respecting nature and using it with respect and moderation than we have, to our shame. Two quotes in particular from The View From Lazy Point shook me to the core and exposed the greed we have largely normalized in America:
“One-quarter of the world’s people consume more than three-quarters of the world’s goods. That’s not fair. But as I’ve already mentioned, to give everyone an American level of material living, we’d need two and a half earths. That’s not possible.”
“If people are using the world’s forests, fishes, oil, freshwater, and other resources something like 25% faster than the world can replace them, it means, basically, that the world would be broke if weren’t borrowing so heavily from the future. People call it ‘leveraging,’ but a new word for delusion doesn’t cure the illness.”
We Care for the Earth Because God Cares for the Earth
When God speaks of creation in the Scriptures, he does so with the nuanced care of a Creator. When he has his rhetorical question session with the questioning Job, he walks through his encyclopedic knowledge of his creation with care (Job 38-39). When God was teaching Jonah about his concern for the city of Nineveh through a real-life lesson with a shriveling vine, he said the following:
“You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4: 10–11).
God places obvious priority on his souled human creations, but he also cares about the cattle. He has a census of every hair on every head, the people in every city, and the flocks of the air and the fish in the sea. He is a compassionate and concerned Creator.
We Care for the Earth in Obedience to God
When the Apostle Paul talks about redemption in chapter 8 of Romans, the earth is part of the dramatic story. The earth groans and longs for our redemption (Romans 8: 20–23). Why? Because when we finally live into our legacy as the adoption sons and daughters of God, we will finally and fully do that job which God entrusted us way back in the Garden of Eden. While many think that God is going to scrap this whole sphere and start over, there are hints in Revelation that God will make new this very earth and use some of its parts and features as key pieces of the New Heavens and the New Earth. While this is theological speculation, it should not matter either way. Even if creation care is just for the now and the nascent generations to follow us, it is an act of obedience and worship to God. As his children, God longs for us to love what he loves and hate what he hates. He intends to make us into His likeness and to invite us into the family business.
We Care for the Earth as an Apologetic to the Watching World
Our care for the earth is an apologetic for God’s care for souls. We ought to be living such different and self-controlled, creatively caring lives that people wonder why we don’t join with them in their excesses ( Peter 4:3). When we practice self-control in consumption and creativity in care for God’s earth, we have an a opportunity to give a reason for the longer hope that informs our living today (1 Peter 3:15).
Why We Don’t Care for the Earth
We don’t care for the earth because we don’t know enough of our Creator. When we treasure him and begin to live in his abundance, we don’t have to chase after the things the world chases after (Matthew 6:31–33). We don’t have to follow the world’s cry of YOLO with its (often unintended) greed which robs from future generations to satisfy our need for better, faster, and more now. The proverbs give us a good and instructive word to help us curb our seemingly insatiable need for more and better stuff and costly speed: “A sated soul loathes honey, but to a famished soul any bitter thing is sweet” (Proverbs 27:7). When my soul is satisfied with the abundance of Christ and living in line with its purpose, I am less tempted to think that another trinket or a new pair of shoes or a jet-setting vacation will fill the gaps within me.
We, who can look forward to a better and lasting city whose builder and architect is God, have the grace to be generative and think of future generations (Hebrews 11:10). We can model our Heavenly Father’s sacrificial giving and living. He came not to take and claim (though as the Creator he had every right to cash in on his patent), but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:48).
Baby Steps toward Big Change
I don’t plan on strapping myself to any trees any time soon (though I applaud those who did such things out of concern for something bigger than themselves). I don’t think we will go full on vegan (though I appreciate those who have been seeking to live thoughtfully in their approach toward food). We did cloth diapers, we do cloth napkins, and we buy most everything thrifted; but I want to keep asking the Lord for new ways to express our love for him by compassionate care for the earth.
We are talking as a family about what it might look like to more actively and aggressively care for the earth as an act of obedience and worship to its Creator. Do you have any ideas?
Throughout this entire year, a short phrase from a worship song has been running long loops in my heart, mind, and soul.
“Your goodness is running after, it’s running after me.”
Typically, I don’t like being chased in any form or fashion; however, a happy exception can be made for the idea of being chased by the goodness of God.
“Your goodness is running after, it’s running after me.”
It’s a catchy phrase to a melodic tune. As such, it doesn’t surprise me that I find myself humming it as I vacuum the hallway or singing it as I sit waiting in the carpool line. Yet, I find myself wrestling with what it implies for our lives.
After all, when we think about being chased by the goodness of God, we tend to think of dreams fulfilled, longings met, and successes secured. When we think of goodness chasing us down, we tend to bring our own picture of goodness to bear.
However, the longer I have sat with this phrase and sung this song, the more I realize that God’s goodness running after me tends to look and feel wildly and widely different than I imagine it might.
His goodness does not take the tame, worldly molds I wish it might. Rather, His goodness more often takes the form of a scouring brush or a sharp goad pressing me in ways that I do not initially wish to trod. Sometimes, his goodness running after me seems to take the form of suffering and hardship nipping at my heels as I am seeking to arrive in a place of long-desired comfort and rest.
In C.S. Lewis’s book The Horse and His Boy, the main character Shasta experiences goodness running after him in sharp and even frightening forms.
Throughout his horse back journey, a young boy Shasta has multiple experiences of a lion pursuing him. The lion chases him, forcing them to swim for his life. Then later, the lion chased and even wounded his traveling companion just when they thought they were finally about to reach their destination.
Exhausted, confused, and feeling sorry for himself, Shasta begins to open up to a mysterious companion about all the interruptions and troubles that had seemed to follow him all of his life.
“I do not call you unfortunate,” said the Large Voice. “Don’t you think it was bad luck to meet so many lions?” said Shasta. “There was only one lion,” said the Voice. “What on earth do you mean? I’ve just told you there were at least two the first night, and –” “There was only one: but he was swift of foot.” “How do you know?” “I was the Lion….I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion who gave the horses the new strength of fear for the last mile so you could reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you.” … Shasta was no longer afraid that the Voice belonged to something that would eat him, nor that it was the voice of a ghost. But a new and different sort of trembling came over him. Yet he felt glad too” (pages 175-176).
All along he thought danger and harm were pursuing him. Yet, the One who was chasing him had been guiding him and pushing him towards his desired end. It did not make sense until much later that the Lion was protecting and providing for his perilous journey.
Just as Aslan pursued Shasta, our God pursues us. Only He does not always chase us with a lottery check or a basket of obvious blessings. His goodness is so much deeper and wider and longer than our small and earthly images of goodness. He chases us with His goodness in varied forms that often do not feel like blessing or prosperity. But his chasing and provision always press us towards the ultimate Good. He keeps us moving toward His glory which is our ultimate good, even when we would prefer an easier, less arduous way.
He stands as a rear guard behind us (Isaiah 52:12 and Isaiah 58:8). He hems us in behind and before (Psalm 139:5). He follows us as a watchful parent trails a child just learning to ride a bike, ready to catch or steer or redirect.
His goodness is indeed running after us, but it is a goodness that barely fits into the tiny boxes of what we typically define as good. His goodness always runs after us, chasing us deeper into the everlasting arms of the only One who is truly good (see Mark 10:18 and Luke 18:19).
This Good One runs after us today. May we not miss His goodness and all its sometimes surprising forms.
As luck (or more accurately the Lord) would have it, I have been alternating reading two books which seem to have little, if anything, in common. The first is a modern work written by Ian Leslie called Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It. The second is Norman’s MacLean’s short story “A River Runs Through It” in which he beautifully and honestly explores the relationships between the men in his family and the Montana past time of fly fishing which they all share.
I told you they didn’t seem very connected; however, the Lord used the strange pairing of these two books to push more deeply into my heart a truth which I already know but for which I am in need of constant reminders: people, though often puzzling, are not puzzles. They are mysterious image-bearers of God we are invited to love, not solve.
The Difference between Puzzles & Mysteries
In Curious, Leslie draws a distinction between puzzles and mysteries.
“Puzzles have definite answers… Puzzles are orderly; they have a beginning and an end. Once the missing information is found, it is not a puzzle anymore. The frustration you felt when you were searching for the answer is replaced by satisfaction.
Mysteries are murkier, less neat… Progress can be made toward solving them…but they don’t offer the satisfaction of definite solutions…Puzzles tend to be how many or where questions; mysteries are more likely to be why and how…We have a tendency to prioritize puzzles over mysteries, because we know they can’t be solved.”
This distinction helps explain why people (myself included) can get sucked into a vortex solving crossword, Wordle, or Sudoku puzzles. It we stick with them long enough (or glance to the answer key often enough), we will experience the satisfaction of completion.
According to Leslie, mysteries, which require more of us, “have a longer half-life than puzzles,” as they are “more challenging, but more sustaining.”
It is far easier to stereotype people than to actually know them. In fact, sometimes the people who are the hardest for us to wrap our minds and hearts around are those with whom we spend the most time and whom we love the most.
The tension of “A River Runs Through It” depends on the complexity of relationships between two sons and their loving father. While the three have nearly mastered the art of fly fishing over decades of sharing it as a hobby, they are far from mastering or even beginning to truly understand one another.
At the end of the story, reflecting on the death of his brother, the narrator makes two stunning statements of truth that must be paired together. The first: “You can love completely without complete understanding.” The second: “It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.”
When I am lazy or grasping after a false sense of control, I tend to turn the people I love the most into puzzles, looking for a solution that will lead to a sense of completion and satisfaction. I do this in marriage, motherhood, and even in the ways I think about myself. I have found myself often lately looking quizzically at my teenage sons, trying to find the missing bits of information that might “solve them.” I don’t say this aloud, but thoughts like, “Once they ____” or “If they only could ___.” betray that I am making them into puzzles.
However, God doesn’t invite me to solve them. He invites me to love them in all their mystery.
As image-bearers of an infinitely mysterious God, people are complex and deep, changing and growing constantly. Proverbs 20:5 tells us, “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.”
I long to be and to become a woman of understanding who is patient and humble enough to draw people out. However, weekly, I feel as if I am operating above my pay grade in seeking to love people who puzzle me. God has been slowly teaching me to leave space for mystery, both in my relationship with him and my relationship with others, especially those closest to me.
We will spend eternity unpacking and exploring the glorious depths of our mysterious Triune God. So it seems that our time on earth is well spent when we practice appreciating the mystery within his individual image-bearers. I am fighting to learn to leave space for the depths in those I love most deeply to cry out to the depths in our God (Psalm 42:7).
When I lack wisdom in how to approach them or love them or serve them, I am slowly, fitfully learning to ask him for the perfect wisdom that he gives freely without any reproach (James 1:5). While they remain mysteries to me, their hearts are uncovered and laid bare before his eyes (Hebrews 4:13). He knows who they are, how they operate, where they are headed, and what they need far more than I ever could. For now we see in part, as in a mirror dimly, but one day we will know fully when we are fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12).