Monday, March 30, 2015

Reading to Our Children

Our library has a reading program that encourages parents to read 1,000 books to their children before they enter pre-school. It seems like an overwhelming number, doesn’t it? When you break it down, it actually doesn’t require a lot of the parent. Especially when reading the same book over and over counts as reading multiple books. (A must when you have toddlers who thrive on repetition).

As I’ve thought about this program and the value of reading to my children, I’ve been struck by how many biblical connections there are to the goodness of reading to our kids. Of course, studies show that the more you read to your children the better the fare. Reading encourages bonding as they snuggle up to you for a story. Reading encourages language development as they hear you talk and associate words with pictures. Reading encourages cognitive development as they remember things they see and hear. We can all agree that reading is good for kids (and adults).

But as Christians, it’s more than that. We know that God values words and reading, too. In a post-fall world, he gave us his very word to communicate with us. Faith in Christ and his finished work comes by hearing this word (Rom. 10:7). Without reading and hearing we are unable to know the God who made us and loves us. Without reading and hearing we are unable to understand the depths of Christ’s love for us displayed so clearly at the cross. Without reading and hearing we miss the triumphant victory of Christ’s defeat of death and our coming joy in heaven.

Of course, there are a variety of circumstances (many devastating) that prevent people from being able to read, hear, or comprehend this word. And I think, in God’s kindness, there is special grace for that. But, reading matters because words matter. God speaks to us through words. In an increasingly technology saturated society it is harder and harder to embrace and enjoy reading. We are so easily entertained that it is difficult to do the hard work of slowing down and reading something of value—or that’s more than 140 characters. But we must. And we must teach our children to do the same. Without a clear understanding of the value of reading and words, and the discipline to persevere when reading gets tough, we will all miss the treasure that is before us in God’s revealed word.

So I’ve signed the twins up for the 1,000 books reading plan, and we’ll see how it goes. While I want them to thrive in this world academically and socially through reading, I care more about the outcome of their souls. I want them come to a saving understanding of the faith that can only come by hearing—hearing the very words of God.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Our Third Son

One year ago today, we walked into an ultrasound room with hopeful hearts. We walked out of that very room heartbroken and confused. February 24, 2015 looks very different than February 24, 2014. I spent the better part of that day last year packing for a planned trip to Florida and processing next steps for our unexpected loss, all while weeping uncontrollably over the baby I would never meet.

It was a harder miscarriage than our first. Emotionally it registered about the same, but physically it took its toll on me and dragged on much longer than anyone ever expected. It made us wonder if we could endure another pregnancy, another rise and fall of dreams for a child. So we waited the months that were medically necessary because of the physical effect of the miscarriage and asked God to unite our hearts around the possibility of another baby--a baby we knew in our hearts we ached for.

And God heard our prayer.

We spent the better part of the first half of this pregnancy convinced we were having a girl. All the old wives tales about gender seemed to be leaning pink, so we were pretty sold on a name for the baby should we have a girl. But a boy? We were stumped. We had already used up two names on the sons we currently have, so thinking about another name proved difficult for us. So we didn't.

When the ultrasound technician informed us that our suspicions were false, we were floored. Daniel kept saying "wow" over and over again. We are delighted to add another boy to our brood, we just weren't expecting it this time around.

For weeks we talked about names, wrote down names, looked up names, and then talked about names some more. We could not come to a consensus. As we were driving to the airport for Christmas we settled in to listen to a seminar on parenting. The speaker read from Genesis 4 and when he got to verse 25, we stopped:

And Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and called his name Seth, for she said, “God has appointed for me another offspring instead of Abel, for Cain killed him.”

"What about Seth?" Daniel said.

We have always liked the name, we just forgot about it until that moment. Seth means "appointed one" and in particular to the story in Genesis, he is the God-appointed son in place of the one who was lost. So much of this pregnancy has linked us to the baby we lost. We heard Seth's heartbeat the day after our other baby was due. We found out we were pregnant the month we were due with the one we lost. In many ways, we feel like Seth is the joy that has come in the morning (Psalm 30:5). After we talked about this name, and the meaning behind it, we knew that the story of how he came to be would be perfectly woven into his very name, much like the names of his older brothers.

For his middle name we went off from our normal way of naming our kids. So far we have chosen family names for our children. Luke's name is Lucas Daniel (after Daniel). Zach's is Zachary Garrett (after my grandpa), but we could not find a family name that went with Seth! When I first became a Christian I was exposed to the writing of Elisabeth Elliot. Reading her gave me a context for a female Christian writer. Prior to my conversion, I wanted to be a writer. As a new believer, she opened up God's word to me, and gave me a female example to emulate. And he also happens to be due the month my first book releases! Jim Elliot's story influenced Daniel as a college student as well. So we felt it fitting to name him Seth Elliot, to honor the lives of two people who have impacted us greatly.

As I reflect on all God has taught me in the year since our second miscarriage, like our first, I am undone by his goodness once again. In the dark days that followed our loss it felt as if I would never see the sun in my circumstances again, let alone in my own soul. But God is faithful. He restores the years that the locusts of sin, suffering, and loss have eaten. He brings joy out of mourning. He causes the sun to rise in the dark corners of our hearts when his frowning providence seems to tell a different story.

In two and a half months we will meet this precious boy, Seth Elliot. We love him already.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Leaning on the Right Understanding

"Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths" --Proverbs 3:5-6

Many of us are familiar with this often quoted passage. When we don't know what to do, or when things get hard, we can run back to this verse for comfort. But what does it mean? It's easy to go straight to the promise of this verse--he will direct your paths--while missing the exhortation leading up to it.

It's easy, isn't it? Trusting in the Lord takes work. It takes faith. It takes denying our natural tendency towards self-sufficiency and pride. Sometimes our estimation of our circumstances is quite good. We look around at what's expected of us, or what is going on in our life, and we sense our own competency. We lean on our own understanding. But other times the outlook is bleak. We have no idea how we are going to make it through the day before us. We are weak. We are faithless. In fear, we lean on our own understanding.

Lately, I've found myself leaning on my own understanding in a variety of ways. When I have a burst of energy, or am able to knock things off my to-do list, my chest swells with pride over what I can accomplish. Facing writing deadlines and toddler conversations with relative ease, some days feel more accomplished than others. On the days I come out ahead, I feel pretty good. But I rarely look to the Lord. Instead of trusting in the Lord for help, strength, and wisdom, I've found rest in what I can accomplish (or at least what I think I can accomplish). Other days feel not so accomplished. I still have writing deadlines and toddler conversations, but they lack passion, joy, or hardly happen at all. I write no words and am short with my kids. Looking at my own understanding, I feel defeated and hopeless wondering how I will make it through the hours that seem to inch slowly by.

This verse speaks to both the competent and the feeble, the weak and the strong. God is no less God if we get our to-do list accomplished or barely get out of bed. He is no less the one who acts on our behalf in moments of greatness and great humbling. Any semblance of accomplishment is only an illusion of our own glory. It all is pointing to him, the author of our good and bad times. We simply need eyes to see it, acknowledge his hand in it, and seek him in the next moment.

I'll be the first to admit. It's easier for me to seek him when the walls are closing in around me. But it's harder to trust that he's working in the midst of the difficulty. It's harder to trust him on the front end of the good times, but easier to see his hand when all is well.

I want faith to do both, to trust him at all times and always lean on his interpretation of my circumstances, not my own.

I have no idea what tomorrow holds for me. But I do know that before my feet hit the floor in the morning I pray I have the humility and the faith to seek him first.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

For the Ordinary Valentine's Day

Yesterday I asked Daniel if he was expecting us to get something for each other this Valentine's Day (a little late, I know). He said "no." 

"Good, me neither," I said.

It's not that I don't like Valentine's Day. It's actually quite the opposite. Both of us love holidays and celebrations, so we try to make something out of any occasion, even Valentine's Day. This year, real life has taken over and we are simply thankful to spend a quiet evening at home. 

This is our sixth Valentine's Day together. We've never gone out on Valentine's Day, but instead have continued a tradition of Daniel making dinner for us. Every year it becomes more of a treat for me that someone besides myself makes dinner. But this year there won't be any flowers, there are no cards, and their certainly aren't any presents. Three months from today our third son will, Lord willing, be born and we just replaced our heater. Real life has eclipsed candy, cards, and flowers. 

I used to not be okay with such ordinary efforts. In the days leading up to Valentine's Day, anniversaries, or my birthday, expectations were high and emotions were tense. Especially on Valentine's Day, I had a real time means of comparison in the form of Facebook and Twitter. With every poem written, bouquet displayed, and gift shared, envy and disappointment simmered inside me.

It's not that my husband isn't romantic or thoughtful. He's actually quite the opposite. But no husband or wife can live up to the perfection displayed on our computer (or phone) screens. And I felt the sting of not living up acutely. Sometimes I would forget about Valentine's Day and fail to write him a card, only to be met with a heartfelt letter from him over dinner that night. Sometimes he would rush to buy the ingredients for dinner and hurry through preparation because work doesn't stop for Valentine's Day.

The truth is we haven't had a "normal" Valentine's Day in a couple of years. Two years ago, the twins were in the NICU and we hurriedly ate a meal brought to us by a church member before heading to the hospital for our nightly visit with them. Last year, I was six weeks pregnant and could barely stomach food. This year, I'm pregnant again and we are smack in the middle of a busy work season for him. 

But this year, unlike previous years, I'm okay with the ordinariness of our celebration. For too long I have lived for the mountaintop experience in every facet of my life. My marriage is no different. I have expected the unattainable romance of my imagination, when what I really needed (and had all along) was the steadfastness of covenant keeping love. What I'm learning is that life is not made up of the grand moments we all expect as much as it is forged by the ordinary moments that comprise our days. Our marriage isn't headed down the tubes because we long for the quietness of the ordinary, it simply means we are growing more comfortable in the safety of this life God has called us to. 

It's easy to succumb to the pressure of the mountaintop experience. And I'll admit, there are some days that are such experiences. But they can't always be that way. Most of the time our days are fairly ordinary, but there is beauty in that. There is purpose in that.

I know that, for us, this is a season. So much of our disappointment over the ordinary is owing to the fact that we can't see our season for what it is--a season. There will come a day when we have more time for each other than we do now. There will come a day where we may have more money to buy things for each other than we do now. I imagine, from what I've heard from those older than me, that we will look back on these ordinary, routine days with sentimental joy knowing that it was in these moments that a family was made. 

For the first time in my life I can honestly say that I'm thankful for this ordinary Valentine's Day. And I wouldn't want to share our ordinary with any other. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

"The Company We Keep: In Search of Biblical Friendship": A Review

One of my overarching prayers for this year is that God would burn in me a desire (and the grace) to be a better friend. Like many, I love people and love having friends. But I have been convicted lately that if I want to have friends I need to be a friend. For the last two years I have used the excuse that life has been crazy trying to adjust to parenthood (and with twins, no less). However, I am not the first (nor last) woman to mother twins--so I can only use that excuse for so long. Of course, friendship looks much different for me now than it did when I was single and living with roommates. Friendships happened much more naturally back then. I lived with my closest friends. I ate meals with them, ran errands with them, and went to church with them. The depth of those relationships has carried them long after I moved away and got married.

Fast forward many years and I am in a different season of life. One that requires more intentionality and affords me less time. Sometimes I have to cancel a coffee date because I have a sick kid. A lot of my relationships happen within the context of my children, so Sunday morning fellowship, small group, and even play dates are a different animal now. 

All of these new revelations that I am coming to terms with are why I was excited to receive a copy of The Company We Keep: In Search of Biblical Friendship by Jonathan Holmes. Holmes, a pastor of counseling at Parkside Church in Cleveland, OH, has helpfully provided a biblical framework for friendship. This short book is an excellent read for anyone desiring to grow in their understanding of friendship, but also who desires to be a better friend. Here are a few takeaways:

Biblical friendship is designed to point you to Christ. I left this book asking the question of all my friendships: "How can I point this friend to Christ?" But it would even serve the reader to ask how the friendship as a whole points you to Christ. The ultimate goal of biblical friendship is to serve the common goal of mutual sanctification and lifting high the Savior you both love. What a helpful reminder!

Friendship, like everything else, is marred by the fall. We will never have perfect friendships in this life. We were created for relationships, as seen most evidently in the fact that we are created in God's image and he is in perfect fellowship with himself (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). The fact that we crave companionship is a good desire. But because of sin, we selfishly pursue friendships. We are hurt by dear friends. We hurt the ones we love most. The answer is not to abandon biblical friendship, but to understand that it will never be perfect in this life. I needed this reminder. 

Friendship is more about us than about the other person, and most importantly it is about the perfect friend, our God. I found this quote particularly helpful: "I've come to learn that friendship flourishes best when we seek to be and embody the type of friend we see in God himself" (46). How often do I selfishly look at my friendships based on what they can offer me, but that is not the pattern we see from God. We offer nothing to him, yet he gives us everything. Our earthly friendships, like our other relationships, mirror the heavenly one set for for us in God.  

Understand your limitations. Holmes helpfully points out that we can't be all things to all people. True biblical friendship, he says, happens best with a small number of people. Even Jesus limited his inner circle to three. This is hard for an extrovert like me, but also a helpful reminder that I am human and have limitations. Identifying the friendships that God is already forging in my life and then purposefully working to grow them in a mutual love for Christ is a better model than trying to be BFF's with everyone.

As I finished this book I asked the Lord to make me the type of friend who not only is willing to do the hard work of fostering friendships that last, but also the type of friend who is humble enough to receive the honest correction and accountability that friendship affords. I don't like being confronted. I don't like correction. But I know it is necessary for growth in godliness. I want to be a friend who hears correction and receives it with humility. 

If you desire to grow in your friendships, or simply want to understand what God has to say about friendship, I highly recommend this book to you. As Holmes says in the book, we need community (particularly biblical friendship) in order to grow in godliness. We are not made for "substitute relationships", but for lasting relationships that point us to our Savior. May we all be such friends.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Sin We Don't Speak Of

We all have that sin. The one we thought was long conquered, long forgotten, and long paid for by Christ's precious blood. Then one day it emerges, reminding us that we are not yet perfected, and riddling us with guilt. It's the sin we don't speak of. It's the sin that we are certain would cause friends to shun us, strangers to mock us, and God to turn his back on us. Everyone's is different, but the effects on us are the same. And when it rears its ugly head we are undone.

I don't know what your forgotten, unspeakable sin is. But I know mine. I know that even after years of victory it can come back without any warning, reminding me that I am still in need of a great Savior. It's good for me, really. This sin, in all its heinousness, is a reminder to my ever prideful heart that the respectable sins I live with are just as ugly as the one that I don't utter out loud. Everyone needs to be knocked down a few rungs on the ladder of our own perceived righteousness. I am no different.

In the moments of despair over the reappearance of this sin, I have been comforted by the fact that it has been paid for by Christ's atoning work at the cross. There is no more condemnation for me because Christ took all of it for me (Rom. 8:1). But practically speaking, I've learned that I need the same guttural response to my every day sins as I have to the one I hate the most. I should weep tears of brokenness with every act of rebellion against my God, and yet, I don't. I've created a hierarchy of sinfulness, stacking some at the very top of the "do not do this again" list.

In God's eyes, sin is sin. No amount of human ordering changes that for him. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). This sin is the great equalizer before him. There are no sins that are beyond his reach for cleansing and there are no sins that make us any better or worse in his eyes. Without Christ, the verdict is the same--guilty.

Oh, but the story doesn't end there. With Christ the verdict is the same--righteous. My sin (respectable and otherwise) says that there is no hope for me, and that is true. But in Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own (Phil. 3:9). I can stand free from condemnation over all of my sins, even the one that I feel is too unworthy to bring to the throne of grace.

If that is where you are today, dear sister, know that I am with you. Actually, we are all in this together. Look to Christ and trust in his perfect work on your behalf. Repent, yes. But then cling to the One who paid for all our sins--even the ones we can't speak of.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Certainty of Hope

We are a hopeful people, aren't we? We hope for warmer weather (at least I do!). We hope to get well from sickness. We hope our babies sleep through the night. We hope to get pregnant, find a spouse, or get the job we are applying for. We hope for good grades, a glowing performance review, or that our favorite characters in TV shows will finally get together. We hope for family members to come to Christ, relationships to be mended, and our circumstances to turn around. We hope for a lot of things. And not all hopes are equal. Some have no lasting value (like our hopes in favorite characters), while others carry eternal implications (like our hopes for lost family members). But in the English language, we still use the same word for both--hope.

When my husband preached at our church a couple of weeks ago, he mentioned something that stuck with me. Hope is a recurring theme in the Bible. But it's not like we think of hope. Preaching on Philippians 1:18-26, Daniel said that Paul's hope was not wishful thinking, but confident expectation that God would do what he said he would do.

J.I. Packer has this to say about the Christian's hope:

In a word, hope: hope understood not in the weak sense of optimistic whistling in the dark, but in the strong sense of certainty about what is coming because God himself has promised it (J.I. Packer, Weakness is the Way: Life With Christ Our Strength, 92).

I've been thinking a lot about hope lately. One of my biggest hopes (and besetting fears) is that our little son would make it into this world alive and healthy. Holding on to that hope is hard for me now that I've gone through two pregnancy losses. I don't have a confident hope that all will be well because I've seen it not be well in my own body before. I wrestle daily between bursting expectation about holding his wrinkly newborn body in my arms and crushing fear that I won't get to hear his newborn cries. What I'm learning is that my hopes and fears are not what will carry me as I carry him. Hoping in my son's well being is not the hope Paul, Packer, or the whole of Scripture is talking about. It's not a hope in circumstances. For me, it's not a hope in counting kicks, hearing a heartbeat, or even holding him in my arms.

It's a better one.

When Job lost everything: his possessions, his children, even the support of his wife, he hoped in God. He worshiped him (Job 1:20-22). When the Hebrews joyfully accepted the loss of their property they trusted in God because they knew he was the better possession (Heb. 10:34). These saints expressed confident expectation that God would do what he said in their lives.

The same is true for my hope. While I have no guarantee that I will get every earthly thing I hope for, even a healthy baby boy come May, I do have full assurance that God will keep me to the end. Scripture is full of this very promise for those who are in Christ. We are hoping in an unseen, eternal reality that will never pass away, not in the shifting sands of circumstances--good or bad (2 Cor. 4:18).

Of course, I'm still hopeful that my precious son will make it into this world healthy. God delights in giving good gifts to his children, including precious children of our own. But regardless of the outcome of this pregnancy, I want to hope in the God who is holding everything together and who promises to do me good, not harm, all the days of my life. I want the unshakable hope that will carry me when everything crumbles around me or when I am tempted to forget him in the joy-filled days.

"My hope rests firm on Jesus Christ, he is my only plea."