Category Archives: My Stories

The Old, Old Story (revisited)

Yesterday I posted something that I had been asked to write in one of my classes (the Old, Old Story). We were given two pieces of paper and ten minutes to write our retelling of the narrative of Scripture. While colored beads and the Roman Road crossed my mind, I ended up telling the story that I posted on Wednesday night – the story of the Bible as the story of love, as I’ve experienced it. I posted that first because it’s what I wrote first, what moved my heart first. But the significance of the assignment didn’t end there; the next week, to our surprise, the professor handed out two more pieces of paper and slowly, methodically, and gut-wrenchingly took us through the narrative of Scripture again. This time, it was through the lens of suffering. Story after story left a bitter and painful taste in my mouth. “Why does no one ever tell the story this way?” I wondered. And now that I had begun wrestling with it, in conviction and distress, I found myself crying out like the Israelites: “where the heck were you in all of this, God?” As he finished his presentation and left us in a room with our blank papers, I wrote the story again. I told it a little differently this time:

In the beginning God created

. . . everything.

He created beauty, nature, time, and space. It was so very good.

Then God created man and woman. He loved them; He loved them so very much. He loved them so much that He walked with them and talked with them, in perfect, unbroken communion. That was good too.

Then sin was introduced to the story and the Enemy of God, this fallen angel, convinced the man and woman to doubt their God. As this relationship with God is ripped apart, as God in His perfection can’t live among their sin. The world fell under a blanket of darkness. The story continues, however, it is full of much pain.

Man and woman worked the land with toil, while siblings began murdering one another. Languages are confused and the earth is flooded. There is death around every corner. The people of God wander in the desert, now dying because of famine, and the ones that live are sold into slavery. It is generation after generation of hardship and of suffering. It is the cries and tears of a people who wonder where their God is and why it seems as if He’s abandoned them.

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Yet, God allows it. He cries along, as the story continues to challenge, oppress, and hurt the ones He loves. The thing is, there is no easy answer for why He allows it. It’s not the kind of story you put in a children’s book because, for all the moments that God is faithful and pours out His love on people who continually reject Him, there are an equal number of moments where it’s just hard.

However, for all the suffering, God’s sovereignty is present in it all. He mourns, laments, and cares for His people, until, in His perfect timing, He physically enters into the scene. God – the triune, relational, omnipotent, omniscient God – takes on the form of a servant, takes on flesh, and walks as one of us.

He walks as one acquainted with all suffering. He feels for us, with us, and as one of us. He grieves the loss of loved ones, lives in poverty, flees his home, faces abandonment, rejection, and false accusations. Until ultimately, His love for us brings Him to the uttermost suffering. Physical torture, emotional strife, as the weight of every sin is placed upon Him. Bearing every punishment that we, the sinful, broken, unfaithful people deserved. He suffers not only with us, but for us. For the sake of repairing what we broke, what we deny, and what we could not atone for.

He doesn’t stay defeated, however, but rises from the dead. His power breaks death and hell. He ascends to the place of perfection – where there are no tears, pains, or suffering. He repairs the relationship so that we can enter into holistic communion with our all-loving, all-holy God. . .

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. . .and that’s where we are going to end the story for now.

It feels trivial and almost sacrilegious or inappropriate to move onto some glorious explanation of heaven, Jesus’s second coming, and the eternal hope of the world in God’s ultimate victory. Because, while that is a very important part of the story – a beautiful, integral, necessary part – it doesn’t feel fair to move on just yet. Because the whole beginning isn’t fair and there’s no way to overlook that now (although, I didn’t seem to have a problem often doing it up until this point). It’s not fair that David lived as a King while the Israelites were enslaved for 400 years. It’s not fair that everything, except Noah and the animals, were destroyed in a flood or that Abraham and Sarah couldn’t conceive a baby for 100 years. It’s not fair that Job lost everything or that Naomi’s husband and sons all died. It’s not fair that today there are 6.3 million people who have fled everything and often everyone they know. It’s not fair that Allie’s dad died of cancer or that Ezra had a brain tumor that took his little seven year old life. None of it is fair.

It’s also not fair that Jesus died on the cross for the sins that we deserved to pay an eternal price for. It’s not fair that Jesus repaired the relationship that we broke – that we continually break. It’s not fair that God Himself would be acquainted with suffering, suffering that He didn’t deserve. He didn’t owe us anything and yet He felt for us, with us, and because of us. It may not be fair, but it’s just, and His sovereignty overarches it all – whether it makes sense to us or not. It’s not fair, but it’s love. And love seldom makes sense.

This is a story of incomprehensible love and suffering. Both love and suffering contain some level of meaning and philosophical reasoning (the class I’m taking this semester on Suffering proves that). But it doesn’t mean that we need to move on from the affective just yet. Because when I look into the eyes of a refugee who has just lost their home, family, and freedom, I can’t just jump to the glory. The narrative of Scripture itself doesn’t just jump to the glory. The point is that glory has come at an incredible price – sometimes the price of our sin, the sins of others, or the price of a world that groans because this is not the way it was created to be. We need to be okay with sitting in that, lamenting in that, for a minute. That was the whole point of what I learned at the Home of Hope and wrote about in “because I’m with you.

It’s okay that we can’t move on to, “but glory!” just yet.  It’s actually necessary. Not only would that diminish painful experiences, but it also neglects a view of the Gospel that highlights the empathy and embodiment of Jesus. The incarnation was not simply about Christ becoming Love and redeeming our sins unto Himself; it was also about walking as one of us, suffering and being tempted as we are (Hebrews 2:18, Philippians 2:8).

It is a sad reality, one that I have clearly, albeit non-consciously, fallen into. The reality that we only see the Gospel via the lens of beauty. While it is a true and necessary lens, it is incomplete if it ignores the pain of millions of people (if I allow it to ignore my own pain), including our Lord, past, present, and future. There is a necessity in lament that we, as American evangelicals, or perhaps as humans, are often uncomfortable with. It is why we prefer movies that have resolution, move on quickly from news articles that end in depression, or get squirmy when people cry in front of us. This narrative, this old old story, has the most glorious, pervasive, incredible ending and victory that we would imagine. However, that does not mean we need to jump there just yet. To overlook or brush past suffering is to discredit and delegitimize so much of our human experience, including the experience of our Lord. Lament is heavy, but it’s beautiful and it’s an important lens that we need to look through. It allows us to see ourselves and the world with a heartbreaking reality, to cry out for God with the same kind of gut-wrenching cries He used, and it ultimately frames hope in its magnificent, brilliant, eternal light.

The Old, Old Story

In the beginning, God created . . .

. . . and He created everything.

Every star, every blade of grass, every rock that has eroded into the sea. Night and day, every animal, every insect, every wave, He created. It was all beautiful and very good. Then, He created man and woman. He loved them and He was in relationship with them. God walked with them, talked with them. He loved them so very, very much.

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But, then sin is introduced to the story, as the Enemy of God, this former fallen angel, distracts man and woman away from their First Love. God, in his perfection, can’t tolerate this sin. Yet He loves His people, so thousands of years pass as He constantly draws His people back to Himself. It makes Him sad and angry, but He loves these people so much. Sin keeps getting in the way, but story after story God faithfully and relentlessly draws near to the ones that He created, sustains, and loves.

Then we reach the climax of that love – God the Father, in His mysterious, triune, relational nature, sends His Son, and extension of Himself, to walk among us. To be like us. To serve us. To be tempted in every way. To model the heart of God for us. Ultimately this Son gives up His own life and perfection to die a humiliating, horrific death, as the blameless sacrifice, as we could never atone, to repair the relationship. He brings us into the fullness of God’s infinite love for us. Jesus took the punishment we deserved, because of His great love for us.

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Yet it wasn’t merely His death that is significant, for three days later He rose from the dead, defeating both death and sin, repairing the breech, and drawing us into communion with God. He left His very Spirit, His Holy Spirit, to indwell us, that we might know and remain in fellowship with God, even on earth. The perfection of this fellowship that we will ultimately come into, as we step across eternity and live in eternal relationship with God in Heaven (or when Jesus returns to completely heal the earth).

It is the grandest story of love – of a God who created everything in love, who drew an unfaithful people to Himself in love, who chose to walk as one of us in love, who paid the price for the sin that we deserved, in love.

Love who rose again, defeating death and sin, who sent His Spirit to testify to our souls of that love.

This is our God, who daily, minute by minute, is displaying, speaking, and proclaiming His great love for us.

We confess that we are sinners in need of a Savior. We repent of the ways in which we reject Him and His love. We believe in who He says He is and all that He’s done for us. We go out and continue to tell people of this great love of our great God!

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overseas.

I let the papers slide from my hand into the recycling bin and climbed onto my bed. Across the room I could still see the corner of the support letter papers I’d printed out, mocking me from the trash can. Pictures from previous trips lined the bottom of blank pages where I’d planned on writing heartfelt pleas for summer funding. If you didn’t want me overseas this summer, Lord, why not start with that? Why lead me to meeting after meeting, sorting through a dozen different opportunities and organizations, to find one that I was sure I sensed You moving in, only to have it all fall through?

I’ll spare you the details of my angered, and often one-sided, spats with the Lord and suffice it to say that those pleas of winter break 2015 led into what would become the transformative summer of 2016 – all without leaving Wheaton, Illinois.

You make me laugh, Jesus.

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A year ago, I couldn’t force my way overseas; I know because I tried. It was like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole – nothing fit, felt right, or worked out in the end. In typical, omniscient God fashion, He knew better. Little did I know that I needed both the refinement and redemption that would come from a summer working at World Relief in Wheaton. So, with initial begrudging, I let the Lord do what He wanted to do. I should’ve expected this, but as it turned out, the last year has been so clearly the Lord; way better than any plan I had tried to concoct for myself.

I could take you through the successive, crazy, it-has-to-be-the-Lord-because-otherwise-it-doesn’t-make-sense chain of events that has followed since the summer (but let’s be real, He’s been moving in those kinds of themes for a lot longer than the winter of 2015). I struggle to find a starting place and would you even believe me if I tried? Maybe later I’ll start writing down some of those individual stories. They aren’t necessarily grand or exciting, just lots of little moments and random connections that the Lord likes to break through in.

I’m looking at my calendar and three trips overseas sit in front of me – trips that I didn’t plan or go looking for. Trips that scream the name of Jesus and the continual call to simply trust what He’s doing. A trip to Europe with friends, better friends than my lonely and scared freshman year self could’ve dreamt up, exploring the countries where a missions organization that I’m considering works. A trip to the British Isles with family, an unexpected blessing that has opened the door to potentially meet missionaries working with refugees in a context that I’ve been praying about for awhile. And a vision trip, to a country in the Middle East, where I’ll get to experience what the Lord is doing in refugee camps up close, and tangibly discern further what He’s leading me into long term.

I say all of this for two reasons:

  1. because I would love your prayer as I go on these trips and take the next eight months to really press in, pray, and discern not only what the Lord is doing in the moment, but what He may be leading me into long term. It’s all the normal prayers for direction that anyone with an impending graduation date (although mine is a little extended because of a master’s program) needs, with a little extra tacked on because if He’s asking me to raise support and move halfway around the world, that can feel just a little daunting. (If you want a prayer card to tuck in your bible or stick on your fridge, let me know!)
  2. because every story, be it stories of the details or the overarching narrative of the past year, points directly back to the trustworthiness and faithfulness of Christ! I don’t know where you are at in terms of believing the Lord or what you need Him to do; I don’t know what He’s doing in your life or what situations of dependance He’s put you in (or perhaps you are running from). But I know this – He is more gracious, powerful, and wise than we often give Him credit for.

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During my time in Asia, I visited this place called the Home of Hope. The name is kind of a misnomer, however, since the atmosphere seemed to suck every breath of hope out of my lungs. I remember my eyes stinging, whether from the equatorial sun radiating off the concrete slab beneath my dusty flip flops or from the literal stench of death, I’m not sure. Either way, I’m not sure anything could have prepared me for the holistic, embodied suffering I was about to come face to face with.

I shuffled my eighteen year old body across the cemented field, fighting back tears as I smiled at the very bodies of dehumanization. Women literally left to lay out in the sun, crapping in their pants, and scratching the lice in their hair until they die. If there was anything that was going to strip any “savior mentality” view of service and missions away, this was it. Lotion bottle in hand, I was here to just love these women; there was literally nothing effective or practical that I was equipped to do. That sounded more romantic than it felt as I sat down next to a woman whose sun-leathered body looked older than her eyes told me she was.

I motioned that I could rub lotion on her hands, if she wanted. Without hesitating, she pulled down a piece of fabric that could barely be considered basic clothing and patted her arms. Looking into her desperate eyes, I began rubbing lotion on her arms and chest, smiling awkwardly and fighting the urge to find a corner that I could lose it in. Suddenly and without warning, she reached out and grabbed my hand, beginning to babble in a language I couldn’t understand. Hindi, Telugu, Tagalong, Kannada – it didn’t matter, because regardless, I couldn’t understand her. As I listened to syllables that held no meaning, looking with eyes that communicated care and slight confusion. Nodding occasionally, I made my silent inquiry of God:

“Lord, I don’t know what I’m doing. I just want to let this woman know how deeply You love her and, literally, all I can do is sit here, listening to her talk with words I don’t understand. I believe in Your power, so I know that you could open my ears to understand her. But is that what will bring You the most glory here? Where are you, Jesus?”

Inaudibly, He spoke tenderly: Maddie, just be with her. Listen to her, not for the sake of responding or fixing anything, but for the sake of letting her know she’s heard. My glory is here because you are choosing to see her, to listen to her, to sit with her in the midst of her suffering, simply because it’s where she is. And it’s where I am too.

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I was reminded of this story tonight at dinner with a friend. As he asked about recent hurts and weights upon my heart, our conversation became an illumination of something that my soul craves but my self-absorption often hinders me from living into well.

We need to learn how to be fully with people in their mess, in their suffering, in their hard things, in their pain, and in their experiences. Especially when we don’t understand, it takes an extra measure of intentionality remain steadfast and attentive to the daily sloughing of a tired wanderer. It’s the kind of solidarity that chooses to fight the temptation to view life only from our individualistic, comfortable lens and engage in the hard things of another’s journey for the sake of letting them know they are not alone.

We think that suffering necessitates action, and it does, but it’s the kind of action associated with lament, not trying to fix something. It’s the action that embodies the statement: “I am with you.

The specific action changes depending on the situation, however a general principle seems to be that simply being present, with an attention to the way other’s are feeling, hurting, or struggling in a way that validates it all, is a good place to start.

The thing is, this kind of embodied solidarity, this ministry of presence, is exactly the kind of thing that I see the Lord modeling in His incarnation. When Jesus goes to Mary and Martha after Lazarus is dies, He sits and weeps with them. He laments with them. If anyone could go with problem solving blazing, it was the Christ who knew he was about to raise the man from the dead. I think we miss something profound about the ministry of Jesus because we are so uncomfortable with engaging deeply with people in the places of their hurt. We have meaningful conversations that remind people we care and then we forget as soon as the candles are blown out. We forget what is hurtful, what feels isolating, and what remains hard for someone other than ourselves.

When the weight of waiting feels hard, I don’t want someone to offer me a quick fix or even tell me that the Lord is going to be faithful, that I just need to hold out for the blessing around the corner. When an LGBTQ student or someone of a racial minority opens up about feeling marginalized and alone, they aren’t looking for some problem solving, pat answer. The couple struggling with infertility doesn’t want you to tell them it’ll be okay or that you’re sorry for their pain, as the child on your lap snuggles against you. They want to know you acknowledge that it’s hard, that it sucks, and that it’s painful. It’s not about “getting it” or “fixing it” but about not letting their experiences go unnoticed. They want to know that not only are you viscerally aware of their hurt, even if you don’t get it, but that you are with them in it, whatever that means (making sure they aren’t alone, crying with them, leaving situations that are painful, letting them get angry, continually asking how they’re doing and being vulnerable yourself, etc).

I’m not saying that I know how to do this kind of embodied solidarity well; the fact that my best friend, whose dad passed away over the summer, cried the other night telling me that people are forgetting her grief indicates that I’ve got a long way to go in learning how to be fully, wholly, and truly with people in their pain. Even when I’m crying out for people to do the same for me. What’s amazing to me is that even in learning to do lament well, the process itself refines us to become more like Christ and pursue discernment. After all, we can’t do it well, in and of ourselves, because we don’t know what people need or how to engage well in their suffering. So, we keeping asking Him who loves individuals more than we ever could.

All of that to say (and apparently I had a lot to say), I think we are called to do more sitting, more weeping, and more simply being than we often do. Like Christ, we are asked to be with others, whether or not we understand their experiences or hardships, for the sake of letting them know that they are deeply known, deeply loved, and will never be alone.