Wednesday, October 26, 2011


Life is running hard and fast ahead of me lately. Try as I may, I can't catch up. I needed a little inspiration to pick up my pen this afternoon... A glance at these pictures of my sweet niece, Jewel, romping up and down an Oregon beach, gave me a hearty helping of joy - and re-awakened my senses to the heavenly graces that surround me - graces that come to me, not in spite of the messiness of everyday life, but through it.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A Wave is Rolling

"The time of mistakes -
will it ever change to another time,
like a season when the snow
will slide off the house
and leave the house clean?
And a wave is rolling over
a wave is moving over
a wave is rolling over me, over me."

~”A Wave is Rolling,” The Innocence Mission

It was June 6th, Evangeline's second birthday. Her cake – two of them, actually – were cooling on the counter. Her presents – so lovingly wrapped and ribboned – were waiting for the moment when, having sung the birthday song, I would slide them before her smiling face, waving candle smoke from my eyes. I would look back and forth excitedly, between the laughing girl and the cake, as I sliced it into pieces, stopping now and then to lick my fingers clean of frosting.

But the moment never came…

Instead, the girls and I were outside on the patio. We set the outdoor table, swept the stairs and watered the potted herbs that line the landing outside my bedroom window. One of the plants – a shrub of Mexican Heather – had died over the weekend so I slid the pot away from the others, intending to repot it the next day. The chicken was nearly done. I stepped inside to grab a platter. When I returned, I caught a glimpse of Audrey through the wave of smoke that wafted up from the grill’s open mouth – a silver chain clasped in one hand, still standing on the steps, holding the broom.

Of a sudden – I heard a snap – and then a scream – and when I looked – Audrey lay on her back beside the sandbox, cradling her forearm in her chest as if it were a broken-winged bird. But she was the bird – and as I rushed to her side I pieced the story together: in those few moments when my eyes were turned, she’d wedged herself into the space left vacant by the dead plant, fallen off the three-foot landing, and broken her arm.

In the emergency room, the nurses told me not to worry. "We see this more often than you'd think," they said, and when Olivia’s mother arrived – a friend to lean on – she reminded me that “God was sovereign,” that "accidents happened." I nodded, trying to be agreeable, and raised a trembling hand to take a drink of orange juice, certain I would faint at any moment. My friend looked at me – with her eyes I felt her grab me by the shoulders: “Heather,” she said, “I won't let you blame yourself for this.”

But how could I, in good conscience, do otherwise? It was I who had failed to put the pot back after watering. I had left the step exposed and turned my eyes away –only for a moment – but that moment, that was all it took.

I could accept that God was sovereign – yes, of course – but.... wasn’t I also responsible? Equivocations and qualifications aside, wasn't this … my fault?

Having swallowed this conclusion, I was filled with bitterness, and passed a fitful night organizing my closet, weeping as I folded clothes. No one could console me – nor even speak to me! – as wave after wave of self-loathing crashed over me like waves crashing against a rocky shore...

The next morning I was confronted by an equally devastating realization: the circumstances of the previous twenty-four hours had unearthed my true beliefs about God. Before the accident, I claimed to believe that God was sovereign – that He was supremely powerful, governing the events of this world and submitting all things, even the most treacherous acts of willful violence, to His great and glorious plan.

But my response to this event revealed that what I professed to believe flatly contradicted the way I lived. Indeed, my actions proved that – when it came right down to it – I believed God was limited by my own failures. He was bound by my sin and shortcomings. He was in control –but only up to the point I’d slid that wretched pot out of place! At that moment, all responsibility, all power in the universe, was transferred to my shoulders – and Audrey was left to suffer the consequences of my failure.

But if taken to its logical conclusion, this meant that all people who suffered as a result of someone else’s actions – whether willful or accidental – were victims. Multiply this by the world’s population and what you get is a lot of very large, very powerful people – and one very tiny, very inert God.

My thoughts traveled back to the previous evening… We’d arrived home from the hospital and when I entered my bedroom it took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the semi-darkness. In the corner, the little bedside lamp glowed, and there beside it, propped up on two enormous pillows, was Audrey. With her right arm bandaged from wrist to shoulder, her face bore a kind of pinched expression, a look usually found on the faces of the very old. She looked smaller and more fragile than she’d ever looked before and when I sat down beside her she clasped my hand and leaned forward, lifting her head with great effort. “O, let’s talk about our day, Mom,” she said, in a quavering voice.

“My hardest part,” she began, before I had time to reply “ – my hardest part was when I got that poke.”

"You mean the IV?"

"Yes,” she said, and sighed, letting her head fall back on the pillow, “the ivy."

“I know, Audrey,” I said, tears filling my eyes. “That was so hard. But you were so brave!”

“And do you wanna know my other hardest part?” she went on.

“Yes,” I lied.

“My other hardest part was when I was trying to sweep up that chain and - " Here she stopped and her eyes her trailed off to a place I couldn’t follow. “— I was trying to sweep up that chain and – I wasn’t being careful – and then I fell and I broke my arm!

“Oh,” she went on, lamentably. “Oh, I whoosh; I just really whoosh I was being careful. Now I’ll never build a sandcastle again!” The self-condemnation and despair in her voice rent my heart, and I couldn’t help but wonder – did God ever feel this way when looking down at me?

In the days that followed – all that week, in fact – I began to wonder whether part of God’s purpose in allowing this event to occur… was to expose my error. Ever the iconoclast, He had used this incident of a little girl falling off a step to shatter my false perceptions of His character - to bring my professed and applied beliefs into greater union, and show me who He really is, in a way that transcends mere intellectual ascent. For it isn’t enough simply to know something; over and over the Bible proves that knowledge in itself is meaningless. Faith, hope, and love are what matter. Faith that enters my being, and becomes part of me, changing my perception of the world, not only in an abstract and theoretical sense, but down on the ground, where there is confusion, the popping of gunfire, and so many wounded.

I began reviewing those passages in Scripture from which this idea originates: “The Lord kills and makes alive,” says the prophet Samuel, “He brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord makes poor and rich; He brings low, He also exalts. (1 Samuel 2.6-7). “See now that I, I am He, and there is no god besides Me; it is I who puts to death and gives life. I have wounded, and it is I who heals; and there is no one who can deliver from My hand” (Deut. 32.39). Speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God also says, “The Lord of hosts has sworn saying, Surely, just as I have intended so it has happened, and just as I have planned so it will stand’” (Isaiah 14.24).

Because He is always good, always protective, and never punitive, the truth that God is sovereign is meant as a safeguard against the crushingly self-centered notion that I am in control – that I stand at the axis of the wheel from which the spokes of human events emanate and move. In a word, this truth is meant to protect me from the kind of suicidal despair that so often haunts us in the wake of calamity, freeing me from the delusion that I exist as an agent of change in the universe rather than a mere instrument in His hands.

This is not to say that our actions don't have consequences nor that God will not hold us accountable for our actions – not at all. God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are not mutually exclusive, but coexist mysteriously, like the moment when a seed falls into the ground, simultaneously dying and bringing forth the mystery of life anew. Jesus is frightfully clear about the extent of man’s accountability: “But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12.36-37). Paul reaffirms this idea in his letter to the Corinthians: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5.10).

Is it, then, any wonder that Solomon should close his book of wisdom with an admonition to fear God? “The conclusion,” he says, “when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil” (Eccl. 12.13-14).

This tension between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility is, I think, the great tension in which mankind is left to struggle: He is sovereign; but we are responsible. He is in control; yet we will be held accountable. At the end of every day, pain exists because sin exists; and I can be assured that any time I experience pain I am either directly or indirectly responsible for it. Yet I must be careful, lest I judge too soon those things which are only Christ’s to judge. As Paul says, “My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men's hearts” (1 Cor. 4.4-5).

“…It is the Lord who judges me.”
Four long months have passed since that June day when Audrey broke her arm. In the wake of my little shipwreck of faith, those waves of condemnation are being increasingly engulfed by even larger waves – waves of mercy, and of grace. I have grown both to hate my sin more than ever, and to fear God more than ever, recognizing that He is fully justified in allowing me to experience the consequences of my sin. But having grasped, just a shade more deeply, that God is not limited by any man - least of all me - I can rest in a way I daresay I have never rested before, believing – really believing – that, no matter what the circumstances, "God is for me;" whatever I may face in the future, all His plans and purposes on my behalf are always good continuously. He is now, even now, using my sin to sanctify me by producing a spirit of contrition, of brokenness, humility and dependence on Him, never condemnation (Rom. 8).

It suddenly occurs to me, somewhat abashedly, that perhaps I’ve been delving too deeply into matters which are beyond my scope and skill. I am just a laymen, mind you – a laywoman, actually – and far out of my depth. Like a child with her telescope, looking up at a night sky full of stars, I want to number them all but find I cannot count past a hundred. So I must say with the Psalmist, “I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me” (Psalm 131.1-2).

Although, this side of heaven, the line that distinguishes between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility will remain hopelessly blurred, there is one thing that stands out clear, like a shining light that will never be dimmed – and that is Jesus. The Savior Who lives. Having become a man and walked the dusty earth, with all its obfuscations and deprivations, its weaknesses and frailties, its pains and miseries, joys and exaltations, its darkness and evil and din, “He knows how we are made… He is mindful that we are but dust” (Ps. 103). And if Jesus is anything, He is merciful. I cannot but think of the criminal who hung beside Him on the Cross – that man who understood His sin, who feared a holy God, and cried out for mercy – to this man, Christ offered a place in Paradise – a share in the mercy which His death was, that moment, making possible. This He offered – this He promised – even before the deed was done: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Today. It is a promise that still stands, an invitation to accept His mercy still being extended to all mankind. In all matters, what matters most is whether I am striving to live a life of obedience to this Jesus – to direct my faith to Him alone. Failure will always be all mine because sin will always be mine. “But thanks be to God! He gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15.57).