Spiritual Angioplasty

I came into this week thinking it would be a normal one (as normal as a week during Covid in California can be). But as I sit here on my couch this morning, I feel like the Lord has begun to perform the equivalent of an angioplasty in my soul.

When arteries are clogged due to the slow build up of cholesterol (whether inherited, induced by habit, or the common combination of both), doctors often perform an angioplasty.  A small catheter is placed into the artery and then a ballooning technique is used to stretch and reopen the artery so that more blood can flow through it.

If you asked me even on Monday if I was aware of racism in the world and its roots in my own heart, I would have said yes and been honest in saying so; however, after a week of hard conversations and convicting moments with the Lord, I feel like I went to the doctor and was diagnosed with multiple clogged arteries of the soul.

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I didn’t realize how little I have listened to my friends who are people of color or even asked about their experiences with racism. I have been open to conversations, but I have not initiated them; rather, I have expected them to come to me and open up about hard things. Even that exposes a position of power in my heart that I did not realize I have had.  This spiritual artery needs some unclogging.

I have failed to address the significant shaping power of culture in spiritual development and discipleship. As one who loves to address family of origin with those I disciple, I have largely missed the culture of origin level in discipleship. As such, I have unintentionally shown my disciples that I am interested in most of their lives, but not all of it. This spiritual artery needs some ballooning.

I have been tempted to be defensive, to point out all the ways that I have loved and engaged in the lives of my friends of color.  I felt misread and wrongly judged and overly generalized into a lump stereotype. Until I realized that those exact feelings are only a tiny sliver of what my friends of color have been experiencing daily for most of their lives. Another clogged artery.

If am honest, I sat down to meet with the Lord this morning defeated and exhausted, exposed and sore. Until I remembered that it His great love for and commitment to me and His bride that He would appoint for me a spiritual angioplasty (or a series of them).

He won’t leave well enough alone (Philippians 1:6). He will not settle for anything less than Christ-likeness in His children (Galatians 4:19). He will not leave our soul’s arteries clogged with even unintentional narrow-mindedness and partially working flow of the Spirit. He will look right through us with His gently exposing gaze and will flag every place where the flow of His Spirit through us is clogged or limited.

He will painfully insert His Word into us and will stretch us in ways that feel uncomfortable (Hebrews 4:12-13). He will make space in us to contain love for His entire body. And all of this is for our good, the good of the body, and the good of the world and His glory.

I want a heart that fully functions. I want a heart that is unclogged and wide open, not constricted and strained. I want to look like my Father whose heart is expansive; I want to be shaped to be like the Son whose blood was literally poured out for the world. This will only happen by the surgical expertise of the Holy Spirit within me. While He is always ready to do His healing work, He does not force or coerce. He allows circumstances that reveal just how clogged our hearts have become. He waits for consent and readiness in His patients.

Please be tender with the hearts of those around you. Surgeries, both minor and major, are happening all around you.

“The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.
Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But remind of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.
The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire”

T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

 

The Maker of Melanin

kelly-sikkema-E8H76nY1v6Q-unsplashTo my friends who are people of color,

I hate that it takes cell phone footage for me to begin to see and weep. I wish I would have seen it through the fear in your eyes or felt it through the heaviness in your hearts before evidence was presented.

Thank you for your patience with me. It reflects the long-suffering and gracious nature of the God in whose image you were made (see Psalm 103:8-14).

The stamp of the image of God
Permeates from soul to skin.
Marks of being fearfully made-
features, frames, and further in. 

We ought kneel before this image-
To acknowledge, to affirm in awe-
Instead, we stand and watch
As His image is rubbed raw. 

The Maker of Melanin was
Horribly marred on the tree.
In His love, He suffered
To set all humanity free. 

If our mouths speak of his graces,
But we divert eyes from their faces,
We are complicit in hate that effaces
His image by dividing the races. 

Let us no longer be timid, 
But overturn tables in our hearts.
Let us look for blindness within us
For that is where redemption starts. 

You have seen the depths of hatred,
You drank the cup of wrath on the cross.
Now, may we apply your salvation,
As you refine and remove the dross.

 

 

 

The Deep Desire for Company

Zoom calls simultaneously meet and mock our needs for community. We have a love/hate relationship with Zoom and other technological platforms in our house. As much as we look forward to connecting with friends, we are worn out and teased after having done so virtually.

Lat night, we had a blast last night doing a video scavenger hunt with our community group. We laughed at each other trying to recreate movie scenes and attempting to catch food tossed from six feet away.  If you would have told me how much an hour zoom call doing stupid tasks would mean to our family a few months ago, I might have laughed in your face. After all, I hate the phone, and we are not really scavenger hunt people. Or we weren’t. Before COVID.

We ended the call equal parts satisfied and wanting. I won’t attempt to further explain the strange feelings, because you have likely been feeling them frequently yourselves.

Isolation and the prolonged and unnatural absence of the physical presence of others has been revealing something many of us have taken for granted so much that we became indifferent or even annoyed by it. When life is over-full and our schedules are strained to fit all the events and errands we attempt to shove into them, the constant presence of people can begin to feel like an intrusion or an interruption.

Yet, after months of sheltering in place, even my introverted, quiet loving self has been longing for the presence of people, for friendships not mediated through a screen and passworded call. I cannot even imagine my higher capacity extroverted friends.

This extended exclusion of physical presence is priming and preparing our hearts to better appreciate the intended design of humans. We were created in the image of Triune God, three in one, one in three. As such, we were made to thrive in an ecosystem of relationships. We are wired for proximity, touch, and face-to-face interaction.

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Christ himself, God-made-man, longed for human proximity, as strange as that may seem. While studying Luke 22 today, the awkward, seemingly redundant phrasing of the original Greek stood out to me as it never had before.

At the beginning of the Passover meal with his disciples on the eve of what would be his horrific death, Luke, ever the detailed doctor and writer, remembered Jesus saying the following, intensely human words.

And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you that I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Luke 22:14-16.

While earnestly desired is a strong phrase, that translation does not even come close to capturing the emphasis placed on the strength of Jesus’s desire to be with his friends that night. More literally translated, the sentence reads “with desire I have desired.”

Before COVID, I might have scoffed at such intensity of wording and desire. But I believe we are beginning to understand what it means to desire with great desire the presence of our loved ones.

The elderly husband separated from his lifetime companion who is suffering alone in the hospital desires with great desire to be able to sit by her side and hold her hand. The grandparents who have not been able to hold their newborn grandchild desire with great desire to hold that blessed bundle. The lonely and isolated mother desires with great desire to be able to go to a park and share her mothering burdens with her playgroup friends again. The single girl in the apartment next door desires with great desires to host her supper club again so that she can laugh and remember she is not alone.

Jesus spoke those words at the feast he shared with his friends on the eve of his death. He mentioned that he would not feast like that again until another coming feast.

While physical meals in the presence of unmasked family and friends are coming (sooner for some than others… but coming nonetheless), a better feast is coming. This feast will be the fulfillment of what Jesus mentioned on that night when he desired with great desire to be with closest friends. This feast will be the feast that even the most elaborate weddings weakly foreshadowed. This feast won’t end, and it will feature the physical, tangible, unmediated presence of Jesus.

Oh, that we would desire with great desire that feast and that particular presence. We were wired for it and He has promised it. Lord, haste the day!

Compassion Fatigue & Our Tireless God

Compassion fatigue is a newer term that describes a human’s limited capacity to exhibit compassion in comparison to the countless news stories and real life tragedies with which we are bombarded.

Before globalization which directly result of modern advances in technology, a human’s experience and relationships were bound by time and space. Whereas one’s borough, parish, township or neighborhood used to contain all the people and events that might require compassion and action, today, the limits have been stretched to potentially include the entire globe. No wonder compassion fatigue as a term was coined; after all, one human heart can only be pulled in so many directions and carry so many weights before sinking under an inhuman load.

In this season of COVID, compassion fatigue has become an increasing reality. Due to isolation and increased relational and financial strain, our hearts are already eerily  close to capacity. Thus, there is only limited remaining space to process the rest of reality. Horrible acts of racism, children ravaged by starvation, sky-rocketing unemployment rates, the details of a new virus, and countless other realities compete for the limited amounts of compassion we have remaining.

As a mother, on a very small scale, I wrestle with the tension of having three very different sons with three very different sets of gifts, challenges, and opportunities to love.  While I mean it when I tell them, “There is a room in my heart just for you,” I also know that those rooms are small, cramped and insufficient to meet their needs, let alone the needs of others around me.

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Compassion Fatigue in the Early Church

Long before the term was coined, compassion fatigue was a reality.  Even in the early church, long before i-phones pinged with updates of COVID numbers and news of natural disasters, followers of Christ wrestled with a limited capacity for compassion and patience.

Living in a world that was increasingly unjust and unfair to those who proclaimed faith in the resurrected Christ, the early church was growing weary and impatient toward one another. They were wanting to take matters into their own hands or to prematurely  judge rather than patiently wait for the Lord whose return they were certain was imminent.

Closing out his letter to the church, James exhorts its members to endure unjust suffering, exercising patience towards one another and leaving room for God, the ultimate and final Judge, to execute a lasting justice in his second coming.

Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord…As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful. James 5:7 & 10-11.

Pointing to Job who wrestled honestly but faithfully leaned into the Lord, James reminds his audience that God’s end game is clear even when his ways are dark and mysterious. They had heard of Job and by reading his story, they had seen that the ends of God’s ways are always marked by his merciful, compassionate character. James invites them beyond hearing and seeing into experiencing such a reality for themselves.

The Many-Chambered Heart of God

The incredibly good news is that our God does not experience compassion fatigue. If his heart were chambered (speaking anthropomorphically), it would be infinitely-chambered as compared to our measly four-chambered hearts.

James uses two unique words in verse 11. The first, polusplagchnos (translated compassionate above), is used only here in the entire New Testament. Literally translated, it means many-boweled. While that conjures strange images to our modern brains, we must understand that in the time of the early church, compassion was thought to come from the bowels (think of that feeling that we experience when we hear terrible news about someone we love). To say that God is many-boweled is like saying God has a many-chambered heart, capable of full and unending affection.

The second word, oiktirmón, translated merciful above, is only used in two places in the entire New Testament: here and twice in Luke 6. It literally means exhibiting visceral compassion, deep pity, and lament. It is a spirit of compassion so deep that the entire body is moved along with it.

While James could not predict the specific outcomes of the specific circumstances of his audience, he could whole-heartedly proclaim any and every outcome would issue forth from the many-chambered, infinitely-compassionate heart of God.

In a world stretched thin and wearied by compassion fatigue, believers can take solace and strength for continued compassion from the inexhaustible heart of God. When our hearts are crowded, we can empty them confidently at his feet and make space for a God-enabled compassion towards those around us.

 

 

An Ode to Spiritual Mothers

Some of the very best mothers I know don’t have children, at least not physically. Two of them are young, single women raising siblings with special needs or foster children. Two more married later in life, beyond child-bearing years; yet they have more children whom they feed and nurture and protect and guide than the Duggers. Still others, well past their own mothering years and well into their grandmothering years, continue to invest intentionally in the lives of younger women.

They probably don’t get invited to special Mother’s teas and Muffins for Moms.  They likely don’t receive tender trinkets presented by eager little hands; however, they are every bit as much mothers as those who have raised physical children.

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Spiritual mothers deserve to be showered with our thanks and affection. While it may not be appropriate for us to make play-dough bowls or paper flowers to present to them, we are called to honor them for the ways they have invested their lives.

In his letter to the Jewish believers, the writer of Hebrews encourages us to remember, to study and to imitate spiritual parents.

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith (Hebrews 13:7).

Remember Spiritual Mothers
The Greek word for remember is mnémoneuó, which aside from being a mouthful, means to call to mind, to hold in remembrance, to recollect or even to rehearse. Fittingly, it is from this root word that we derive our phrase mnemonic devices (like My very excellent mother just served noodles to remember the order of the planets in our Solar System).

The writer challenged the Church to continually call to mind and to remember those who had invested in them and others. We are asked to rehearse, to go over and over, the ways in which they have served the spiritual family.

Study Spiritual Mothers
First we are called to remember and to notice them.  Then we are called to look intently at the ways they have lived their lives.

The Greek word  anatheóreó, translated consider above, means to gaze upon, to look intently at, or even to dote upon.  While we are commanded to study their lives, we also have every reason to be compelled to study them, their practices, their priorities and the outcomes they have shaped. And we are not limited to those we know in time and space.

While I have never met Amy Carmichael or Elisabeth Elliot or Corrie Ten Boom, these women have nurtured me. I hear phrases they have written and mottoes by which they have lived regularly in my daily life with both my physical children and my spiritual stock. I have gazed long at their lives through biographies and sermons, and I am seeking to glean every ounce of wisdom I can from these spiritual matriarchs.

Imitate Spiritual Mothers
Lastly, the writer of Hebrews bids us imitate these spiritual mothers. The Greek Word  mimeiomai means to follow, to emulate. Just the reading of the word calls to mind our modern words mimic and mimeograph (the forefather of the copy machine). Interestingly enough, this word is always in the middle voice in the Greek. While we don’t use the middle voice often in English, the middle voice implies a high level of self-involvement. It assumes that we are highly motivated to mimic and follow the lives of our beloved leaders.

Thankfully, this last step flows naturally out of the first two. Once one has noticed the women who have spiritually mothered others and looked long and hard at the harvest of their long investments, it is almost impossible to not want to emulate their lives.

I wish it was a simple cut and paste project, this attempt to imitate the lives of the spiritual mothers who have gone before us. I  have tried that to no avail, as apparently I am not wired like Amy or Corrie or Betsy (my spiritual mothers on paper) or the handful of women who have faithfully invested in my life with their actual flesh and blood lives. No one else is in my exact situation or place with my exact personality and my calling; yet, I can distill principles from their lives that can applied to my context in nuanced ways.

This Sunday, as you receive a flower at your Church or get ready to be fed a homemade breakfast like the Queen of Sheba, remember those who have spiritually mothered you. Notice them. Dote on them. And then spend the rest of your life seeking to imitate them as they imitate Christ.

 

The Artful Arranger

Every once in a while I splurge and buy a bouquet of flowers from Trader Joes. I snip the edges, throw them into a plain vase and consider that a victory in the flower department.

My arranging skills leave much to be desired. Not so with my mother-in-law. Amma, as I lovingly call her, has a way with flowers. It’s as if they speak to her and tell her where to arrange them so as to create a beautiful bouquet. You can hand her a pile of random, clashing flowers and sticks, yet she can somehow, in a matter of moments, turn them into the envy of any housewife.

I watch Amma during our visits to Texas. Her eyes naturally gravitate to flora. She notices every blade, bush and begonia. Withour her saying a word, I can see her mind rushing ahead of her into arrangements that perfectly suit each one.

Amma comes from India, a world of strong spices, rich colors and saris that are equal parts modest and revealing. She is as stunning as her culture.

We have a beautiful framed picture in our home of Amma and Appa on the day of their wedding. Amma tells me that she looks nervous and frightful in this photograph because she was, indeed, both of those things. This picture captures her wedding day which also happened to be her second time meeting the man with whom she would spend the rest of her life.

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When I asked Amma how she felt about being arranged, her calm acceptance amazed me. She explained that arrangement, when done well, happens within a very unique and loving environment and presupposes parents’ deep knowledge of their children.

A beautiful arrangement, be it musical, floral or marital, must be preceded by an artful arranger. These arrangers must be keen observers and intimate knowers of their subject matter.

As I look out upon a world and a future that can so often seem chaotic and random, I find myself deeply comforted by the presense and power of an artful arranger. Just as Amma knows her flowers, our God knows His children and His creation. Just as Amma’s hands are naturally adept at twisting and bending and ordering strands and pieces and petals, our God is completely capable as He arranges and directs the strands of history and humanity. His transendence and His cosmic knowledge pair perfectly with His immanence and His intimate knowledge.

At the end of a bumbling yet beautiful life, King David finds great comfort and confidence in the able hands of this perfect arranger God whom he knew intimately. “He has made an everlasting covenant with me, ordered in all things and secured” (2 Samuel 23:5).

Our artful God arranged the painful display of His perfectly beautiful Son on the Cross. In this awful arrangement, He assures us that our brokenness need no longer obscure our beauty.

He knows His children the way Amma knows her flowers. His scarred hands arrange the lives of His children, poising them and positioning them for our great joy and His great glory.

He doesn’t simply throw us in some water the way I do my poor little purchased flowers. He tends and nourishes, draws out and tones down, prunes and pushes His flowers to their fullest potential.

I find great hope, great peace, great comfort knowing that my life, my children’s little lives, and the lives of his global family are being arranged by the Artistic and Able One.

Firm Truths for the Frail

Confession. I haven’t really been studying the Word lately. But it has been studying me  and finding me frail.

Since finding mold in our home and facing the facts that insurance won’t cover water damage done by floodwater, our family has been in triage mode. Almost all spare time has been going to remediation and repairs and our home and our hearts feel like construction zones.

When we first found mold, my motto was, “Let’s destroy as little as possible.” But, the extent of the problem must determine the intensity of the solution. Thus, within a few weeks, we had laid the infected rooms’ walls bare down the studs. Every fiber of my order-loving being wanted quick repair and restoration. Especially during the time of COVID when everything else feels utterly out of control, I longed to control the timeline of getting our home back in order. But you can’t rush remediation and restoration.

If we had, all our efforts would be wasted. Putting up brand new dry wall and covering it with a fresh, clean coat of paint would do precious little if we did not deal with underlying issues and get rid of all the mold.

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All the while, the Lord has been working the gospel deeper into my grumpy heart and showing me his character. My sin is far more insidious and infectious than mold. As much as I naturally want to slap a new coat of paint over it and buy some cute accents to spruce up my soul, God loves me far too much to let me do so.

He expertly, methodically, thoroughly exposes my sin and lays me as bare are our walls. He won’t rush me to restoration. He will apply the gospel to my soul and my life, letting it sink in for days, weeks, even years. For he knows his stuff. He wisely detects the deeply hidden, deeply diseased areas of my heart which need exposure to the light of his presence and the fresh wind of the Holy Spirit to be fully restored.  And he takes his time like a master works man who has no other time table than his own. He will not rush the process that is intended to prepare me for an eternity with him; that would be cheating himself and me in the long run.

In the middle of the restoration process for our home (and apparently the matching process that is going on in my heart), I feel frail, exhausted, and exasperated.

Today, through some Scriptures in the Isaiah 40’s, the Spirit reminded me of some firm truths that comfort frail frames. In these caboose chapters of the long prophetic train that is Isaiah, God’s people are in exile. They are frail, to say the least. And yet into their frailty, God speaks firm hope. Isaiah 40 begins with “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.”

Our Frailty, His Firmness

In our frailty, his words remain firm. Contrary to popular belief, when we find ourselves exposed to the core, we don’t need to be strengthened with lies about our own strength, invincibility, or permanence. Rather, we need to be reminded that we, by God’s own might and mercy, are intertwined with heart of the One who is.

A voice says, “Cry!” And I said, “What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers and the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flower fades,  but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:6-8).  

If I were given an assignment to comfort an exhausted, frail people, I don’t think I would naturally start with the aforementioned phrases. At first listen, they certainly don’t sound encouraging or strengthening. But the source of the Christian’s strength is not found in self, but in the strength of the character and nature of our God. Thus, the most strengthening God can do to comfort his people is to expose their frailty that they might more lean into his firmness. Thus, Isaiah is told to proclaim, “Behold your God!” (Isaiah 40:9) pointing them away from their obvious frailty to his firmness and faithfulness.

Our Frailty, His Fragile Care

In our frailty, he won’t fracture us. He treats the frail with the same fragile care one might employ if one found an injured baby bird. Though his power is gigantic, his demeanor is gentle.

Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him and his recompense before him. He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom and gently lead those that are with young  (Isaiah 40:10-11).

Later, in Isaiah 42, God promises, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench” (Isaiah 42:3). He loves us with a love fierce enough to expose our frailty but a faithfulness and gentleness ready to support and strengthen us.

Perhaps you find yourself as exposed and bare as our walls. In your frailty, may you find the firmness only to be found in the faithful God!