Monday, September 15, 2014

Waiting for the Promised Land

I've struggled with fear and anxiety all of my Christian life. In many ways it seems that when I conquer one fear, another one is lurking in the shadows. Fear is my constant enemy. I've often thought that the constant refrain of my soul is "Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!" This is my heart's cry as I seek daily to do battle with my ever present fears.

I just finished reading the book of Joshua. As the book came to a close for me, my fears were confronted with this comforting truth:
And the Lord gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their fathers. Not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the Lord had given all their enemies into their hands. Not one word of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass (Joshua 21:44-45).
After years of wandering, failing, and being carried by God to the land he had promised, these words came true. I imagine as the people of Israel embarked on the conquest of Canaan, and now faced the prospect of entering this unknown land, many fears could arise. But here we see that in the midst of it God is keeping his promises. Every word he spoke to their fathers proved true. Every promise he made to them from the calling of Abraham, to the fleeing of Egypt, to the wandering in the desert, not one word fell to the ground.

So what does this have to do with my fears? I have no word from the Lord about deliverance from what ails me. I have no promise that I will be freed from circumstances that terrify me. I don't know that tomorrow will go better than today, or that my children will come to faith in Christ, or that my husband and I will live to see our grandchildren. I am not an Israelite and I do not have those promises passed on to me from my parents.

But do I?

In Christ I have been given a great inheritance. I may not have promises of earthly deliverance, like the Israelites did. But I have a better one. Through Christ, God is making a people for himself today in the same way that he was in Joshua's day. Through Christ, He is keeping his word to his children in the same way he kept his word to the Israelites, but even more so. Through Christ, I have the reward of eternal life, the promise that while my earthly life may not materialize into everything I hope it to be, my heavenly one will surpass my wildest imaginations. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, I have yet to reach the Promised Land. God's promise to sustain me on my sojourn is just as real as it was for them. God's promise to give me a land of rest and glory is just as real as it was for them. Like them, I must wait for that Promised Land and trust that it is coming. But I also have something better than what they had. They had the tradition passed down from their fathers through the Law, I have the promised Son who intercedes for me and makes me like himself every day. This is my assurance that this promise is coming for me, too. Christ is my guarantee that this is not all there is.

So where do I go when my fears assail me? To Jesus, the one who purchased me with his very blood and daily lives and pleads for me before the throne of grace. He knows my fears and knows that they are not the final word on my life. I am a pilgrim on this journey, like the Israelites of old. Every word that God has spoken will be true in my life because God can only be true to himself. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

What I Missed About Work

The subject of work and how our faith relates to our vocation has been a topic of much conversation in our home lately. In a lot of ways, these two articles (for TGC and Boundless) are the fruit of those conversations. Daniel has sensed God's leading to stay within his current vocation (as a lay pastor and salesman) and I have wrestled with the implications of it all.

But more importantly, our thinking, praying, and crying (mostly me) through all of these issues has caused me to reflect on my current vocation (as a mom, wife, and writer) and also on my previous ones. If I am truly honest about the past, I was an unfaithful worker in my twenties. I may have shown up on time, completed my work, and even gone above and beyond sometimes, but my heart wasn't in it. I had an unbiblical disconnect between my role as an image bearer and the nature of work. I thought if I wasn't doing something really valuable (like saving orphans in Africa or teaching a bible study) I wasn't really doing anything at all. I saw my work in the secular market as a means to an end, and I had little respect for people who did such work for the rest of their lives. As Daniel has moved towards his current profession, I have been forced to move along with him. And it's been really good for me. I have grown to see his work (and ultimately my own) as valuable not necessarily because he is evangelizing everyone he meets, but because he is working faithfully in his job, thus reflecting his role as an image bearer.

This has had a profound effect on how I view my current vocation as a stay-at-home mom. While there are two little people who depend on me for their constant care, it is easy to see my work as meaningless. Because there are no tangible markers for how I am doing, I can easily neglect certain responsibilities or fail to work hard because no one really is evaluating me at the end of the day. But I also can see my work as having little value, because I don't bring in the bulk of our family's income or get feedback on my work. Besides the occasional hug or kiss, the most return I get on my work in my home is a peanut butter hand print on my clean windows or syrup in my hair. But it is still work, and it still demands my faithfulness.

Understanding the value of work that is directly related to my role as an image bearer shapes the way I work. I work not just as "unto the Lord", but also as a representative of my Lord on this earth. When my kids see me work on their behalf, for the benefit of my church, or for the good of a friend in need, I hope they see a small glimpse (albeit very flawed) of the creative goodness of our God.

This is what I missed in my twenties. I thought work was all about me and my personal fulfillment. I didn't see the people in the cubicles around me as recipients of my faithful work. I just wanted out of the cubicle. I wanted to be in a place where real good was happening, not some corporate environment. And I regret that.

My prayer for my thirties, and beyond, is that I would joyfully embrace whatever work God sees fit to give me, not necessarily because it fulfills every need I have, but because work is a good gift to God's people, his image bearers. We work to reflect his glory. We work to create and cultivate like he does. We work to make much of him as the author and giver of every good thing--even the fruits of our labors.

Now if you will excuse me, I need to get to work.

If you want to read more about how God has been shaping our understanding of work, you can read this interview Daniel did with The Gospel Coalition. It's really helpful, but I am a little biased!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Time is Never Enough

When we were at seminary, we regularly sang the hymn "Soldiers of Christ, in Truth Arrayed." The hymn, written for the first graduation ceremony of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is moving and these lines have always stuck with me:

"We meet to part, but part to meet."

It's a fitting song for a seminary setting. Students are transient. You make friends with fellow students only to say "goodbye" a few years later, likely never to see each other again.

My parents were here visiting this past week, and like every time we are all together, we always think the time really is too short. "If only we had a few more days," we say. Except this time we did have a few more days. My mom and dad stayed longer than they both had ever stayed together (with the exception of my mom practically moving in after the twins were born!). When we go to their house for Christmas, we tack on an extra day with the hopes that maybe this time the time spent together will feel sufficient, like we aren't saying our goodbyes before we even get started.

But it never does. And this time I was struck by the fact that no amount of time will ever feel like enough. We could spend the next month together and still cry with the same amount of sadness when the time to go our separate ways arrives. Because it's not about the time. It's about the relationships. The more you love someone the more you want to be around them. I love my family, so naturally I enjoy their company. I will always feel like our time is cut short because of the nature of our relationship. But it's also more than that. The deep ache I felt as I watched their car drive away on Tuesday morning is pointing to something deep within my soul. I wasn't made for such departures. As a human being, created in God's image, I was made for relationship--relationships that aren't hindered by the distance of time or place. Every goodbye with my family and friends is reminding me that there is a day coming where there will be no more tears or departures.

The time will never feel like enough because it really isn't enough. The fellowship I experience with my parents is a sweet foretaste of the eternal fellowship I will experience with my heavenly Father. So I will cry. I will be sad. I will ache and miss them with each passing day. And I will look forward to the next time I get to see their faces in the flesh.

Monday, August 25, 2014

A Momma's Heart Breaks, No Matter Her Culture

It's been a sad cycle of news these last few weeks. We've heard reports of children being slaughtered in Iraq, thousands have died and suffer from Ebola, Robin Williams committed suicide, Michael Brown was killed, an American city is in emotional upheaval reminding us all of our nation's rocky history, and James Foley was murdered for all the world to see. These are just the things I can think of off the top of my head. I know there are more and it's hard to take it all in. I don't respond to major news stories usually. Most of that decision is owing to the fact that I don't know enough about it to offer any credible insight into the situation, and almost all of it is owing to the fact that others (much wiser than I) have better things to say. So I listen and think and talk and pray. But I rarely write about it.

Until now.

I'm not going to offer any commentary on any particular situation. Again, even though I'm writing about the generalities of our sad news cycle, I still don't feel adequate to speak into any one situation. But I am going to speak to one thing that unites a large percentage of our global population.

I'm a mom.

My heart has been slowly breaking as I processed each piece of sad news these last few weeks. With each snippet of story I saw, one thought kept coming to my mind, I wonder how the mothers are doing?

Motherhood is the great equalizer for us as women. It's why we share birth stories with complete strangers. It's why we offer advice with a new mom. "It will get better," we assure her. It's why we cry when we see other mothers sending their children off to college (or the first day of school). We've been there. We know the feeling. We've felt the morning sickness. We've felt the first kicks. We remember the feel of their heads when the nurse first placed them in our arms. We've been up late at night with a sick toddler. We've kissed a skinned knee, packed a lunch, wiped a tear, and never once have we thought we would be the one to say the final goodbye to them. If the thought has crossed our minds, it's been in our deepest nightmares.

But as I've watched the news lately that's all I can think about. The mothers. The mothers who have rocked their babies to sleep and read them books, now burying those same children in the cold, dark, ground. And I can hardly choke back the tears.

Whatever we believe about any situation that is happening in our world (whether or not missionaries should go to places that threaten their lives, who was at fault in the death of an African American teenager, how to handle the suicide of a celebrity, or how to respond to the crisis in Iraq) one thing is certain, the people we are talking about as the latest fodder for the evening news are children of grieving mothers. Whatever is true about them, their mothers lost something that can never be replaced--or at least are facing the possibility of the loss.

And while I have no answers to the many problems facing our world I do have this. Tears. A mother's heart breaks the same no matter where she's from. And this momma is grieving with her.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Women Are No Threat to Me

In my single days, my roommates and I kept an article from John Piper on our refrigerator as a daily reminder to fight the sin of comparison. I was reminded of it last week as we wrapped up our summer bible study on John with the women of our church. As Peter has just been restored to fellowship with Christ, he is immediately pulled into the comparison game as he looks at his fellow disciple, John. Piper says this about Peter's question to Jesus.
That’s the way we sinners are wired. Compare. Compare. Compare. We crave to know how we stack up in comparison to others. There is some kind of high if we can just find someone less effective than we are. Ouch. To this day, I recall the little note posted by my Resident Assistant in Elliot Hall my senior year at Wheaton: “To love is to stop comparing.” What is that to you, Piper? Follow me.
Comparison is such a besetting issue for us as women. We see a woman dressed differently than us and we mentally stand next to her and boast in our attractiveness or wallow in how much better she looks. We see another mother with her children and compare our parenting skills, or lack of skills. We see a wife love her husband well and measure our relationship next to hers. We see a co-worker excel at a particular task and wonder why we can't work with the same speed and precision. Or to hit it home for me, I read another writer and feel stings of comparison as her perfectly crafted sentences make mine look like the work of an amateur.

The business of comparison is a dirty one.

But I was struck by something else as I studied this last part of John, something that put my own struggles with comparison in perspective. Peter and John both served very necessary, yet unique purposes in the establishment of the church. John lived a long life and wrote a number of New Testament books. Peter was at the forefront of the spread of the church (through much persecution) and according to tradition, was crucified upside down. Both lives looked very different. But both were needed in God's kingdom.

The same is true for us as writers, women, mothers, wives, employees, and church members. As a writer, I may say something in such a way that a specific woman has ears to hear. Land a different woman's eyes on my written words and she may need the voice of another friend of mine, who writes in a different voice. Both voices are necessary, both styles get the point across, but everyone has different ears to hear in different situations. We are all necessary.

In the writing world it can be easy to compare our own abilities and accomplishments with the woman next to us (or to put it more clearly, on the Internet page next to us). But we mustn't do that, friends. Like Peter and John, we have been given unique abilities, voices, and styles to minister to women who need to see that God's word is true and valuable in their lives. The woman who writes with more wit or careful turning of a phrase than me is not a threat to my gifting, but a blessing. She helps others see God when my words fall short. That is a gift! She is a service to the church in the same way I am called to be. I can lean on her and learn from her, but I should never resent her.

There is much to celebrate in this particular season with the multitude of women writers. I am encouraged by so many of them. As Christian women, who long to see God glorified in our lives, let us take the words of our Christ to heart when we feel the sting of jealousy rise up in our hearts over the giftings of another:

"What is that to you [sister]? You follow me."

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Salvation Comes Through Jesus, Not Courtney

The other night as my head hit the pillow I felt weighed down by a lingering cloud of guilt. I couldn't shake the sense that I was doing something terribly wrong, or at least not doing enough. Either by commission or omission, I was failing. But what I couldn't understand was why I felt this way on that particular evening. There were no catastrophic accidents with the twins that day. No one had a meltdown that was out of the ordinary. I hadn't lost my temper with Daniel, the boys, or anyone else who got in my way that day. By the outward looks of things I had no real reason to feel like I was missing the mark.

While it didn't look like I had a reason to repent over my actions, I did. Here is what I mean. For starters, I have noticed in the past week that I have allowed myself to grow lazy in training the boys. Instead of stopping whatever I am doing at the moment to help them in their burst of emotional outrage or fight over a stolen toy, I often stick to quick fixes without really understanding what is going on or showing them a better way. When I recounted the events of the day that particular night I was struck by my own selfish actions towards my boys. I didn't deal with them because it wasn't convenient for me. I didn't lovingly break up the fighting because I didn't want to be bothered. Immediately I was reminded of all of the biblical warnings for failing to discipline and train our children and I confessed to my husband that I was certain I had failed them for life (I'm a little dramatic at times).

But there is something less obvious that needed my swift repentance. It's the thing that I have noticed most in my own heart as I've learned this whole parenting thing.

I can't save my children and I need to stop acting like I can.

My children will be who they will be in spite of me. While I would like to think that if I just did all the right things for the necessary period of time, my kids will come out praising Jesus, but the unfortunate fact is they won't. They might, but it's not a guarantee. The promises of God are not a magic potion.

Of course, for the many biblical truths about God's sovereignty over salvation there are countless ones that talk about our need to be faithful with what he has given us. I will give an account for how I raise these boys. I have a responsibility to teach them and train them in God's ways. God's sovereignty is intertwined with my responsibility. But that doesn't mean I can save them. It doesn't mean that my every sin towards them will lead them on a swift path to destruction. It doesn't mean that my catechizing of them will lead them to repentance and faith. I obey and God gives the results.

This is incredibly freeing for an often sinful momma. But it's freeing for everyone, really. Maybe the unsaved person in your life is your brother or sister, mother or father, husband or wife, co-worker, friend, or neighbor. The truth remains. There is no other name under heaven by which men can be saved (Acts 4:12). And that name isn't Courtney (or your name). It's Jesus Christ.

We will not always present the message of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection perfectly. In fact, we often won't even come close. At times, our lives will betray the very Jesus we love. We will miss the mark with those we care about. We will sin against them. We will serve them in our own interests, not their own. But Jesus is the one who saves. The same blood that covers us can cover our loved ones, too.

There is freedom in that, my friends. When we are overwhelmed by how much we sin against our kids, our spouses, our friends, and church members we are given an opportunity to show them that Jesus saves us, too. We repent before God and them, seek forgiveness, and trust in his grace to make us more like him. Our kids will see that testimony of the power of Jesus just as evidently, if not more so, than if we had always done everything well.

I'm so thankful that Jesus saves. It gives me hope, not just for me, but for my kids, family, and friends, too. He makes dead hearts beat again. He opens blind eyes. And he alone can save even the vilest sinner.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Be a Faithful Mom, Not a Busy One

I take the twins to a story time once a week at our local library. They love it because they get to meet new toddlers and play with new toys. I like it because I get to meet other moms who are doing the same thing as me—learning this whole mom thing one toddler step at a time.

Since the twins have turned one I have struggled a lot with what I do with my time now. One year was a big milestone for us. They finally started sleeping more consistently, which meant I had a little more freedom to do other things again—like reading and writing (and sleeping). With the new time has come a whole new set of challenges, like all changes bring.

As I talked with one of the moms at story time I was struck by the frequency with which she mentioned the other things she does in addition to being a stay-at-home mom. She is thinking of opening a small business again, does small jobs on the side, and tries to keep her foot in the career world she left behind. I get the pull to do other things. In fact, I do other things, too. So I’m not knocking the other things at all. I understand that seasons of a mom’s life lend themselves to more time for such endeavors. And those can be very good opportunities for us. But as I reflected on her insistence that she has a profession outside of her child the finger turned back on my own ambitions.

How do I define myself when I speak to others?

Or to put it even more specifically, how do I want others to perceive me? Do I want them to see me as just a stay-at-home mom, or do I need something more than that?

With this new season of time the twins have afforded me I have noticed a new struggle emerging. I want to feel like I’ve accomplished something. If I get to the end of a day with little tangible results for the labors of my day, I feel defeated. Did I do anything of value? Did I accomplish something important? Did I write enough? Did I clean enough? Did I work hard enough to justify my existence and worth in this family?

More often than not the answer is a resounding no, because even with the emergence of time, twins don’t always give me the time I am expecting. And I’m only human. I just can't do it all. Or even come close to doing all I want to do.

But I think the problem is deeper than simply wanting to be useful and productive. When Betty Friedan encouraged housewives to find their identity outside of the home the cultural acceptance of the stay-at-home mom was lessened. I agree with her notion that women should never find their identity in their home, husband, or children. But in a lot of ways, our culture has traded one identity for another. Maybe we don’t think a woman should be defined by her work inside the home, but we do define her by what she does outside of it. Feminism has made us all feel like we need to be doing something useful to justify our equality and personhood. Women have made great gains for us and we should be taking advantage of those opportunities.

This is true for the stay-at-home mom, too. The reality is we don’t often have tangible markers for how we spend our days, unless you count the fact that our kids are clothed, fed, and smiling when our husbands get home. But sometimes we can’t even boast in that. It’s easy to be discouraged when we can’t point to what we did with our day as the basis for our value. The truth is, sometimes we can’t even remember what we did with our day. We’ve given up a lot to be here, we think to ourselves, so we better earn our keep. I even often find myself telling Daniel all I did in a given day, with the secret hope that he will see that I worked hard. I did something useful. Like the mom at story time, I want him (and everyone else) to see that my busyness during naptime and playtime amounts to a lot of good old fashioned work.

But that is not how God views our work. As I’ve written elsewhere, a mommy’s worth is not marked by check marks on a task list, but by sacrifice and service. Those are not always results we can point to as evidently, but they are there nonetheless. But it’s also more than that, I think. In the same way that our culture values work outside of the home, it also values busyness. We think that if we are super busy than we must be doing something right. We are so important. We have so much to do. We are busy, busy, busy. But is busyness the standard for faithfulness? Is it the standard for getting things done? Is it true that the more we do the better we feel about ourselves?

I doubt it.

I’m coming to terms with some things with the extra chunks of time I get now that my children take a regular nap. It’s okay if I nap, too. It’s okay if I write and clean and do other things, but it’s not wrong to rest either. My children and husband are served more by a happy and rested mom than a mom who got her to-do list done. And I feel better for it, too.

One of the phrases I repeat to myself often is that “busyness does not equal faithfulness.” Work important. We were made for it, actually. But as a stay-at-home mom my work doesn’t always look like my work did when I sat at a desk all day, had lunch meetings, and wrote marketing plans. Sometimes it means I’m up all night with a sick little boy (and thus need a nap) and sometimes it means I’m cleaning, writing, and cooking during my free moments. As an image bearer, I was made to work. This is true. But I was also made to rest. And as a mom who struggles with wanting to find my worth more in my work (and not in my rest), I would do well to learn the balance of them both.