Sunday, January 20, 2013

Part of a Greater Story

I wanted to share with you some more highlights that impacted me this morning from the chapter "From Sorrow to Joy" in Henri Nouwen’s Spiritual Formation:

If the first step on the journey from sorrow to joy is to face and mourn your losses, the second step is this: Connect your suffering with that of the larger world. See your losses in light of the suffering of others.

...healing begins with taking your pain out of its diabolic isolation and seeing that whatever we suffer, we suffer in communion with all of humanity, and, yes, all of creation. In so doing, we become participants in the great battle against the powers of darkness. Our little lives participate in something much larger and universal...

Community and solidarity are at the heart of the movement from sorrow to joy. When you begin to feel the pain of your life in relation to other people’s pain, you can face it together. This is where the word compassion comes from (com-passion = passion, to suffer, to suffer with, to suffer with other persons); that’s where the word patience comes from (patience = patior, “to suffer”). To be patient is to experience the pain of your life. And when you experience it with somebody else, you can be compassionate. This is how the healing begins. Not by wonderful answers, not by “do this or do that.” It starts by experiencing the powerlessness of not-knowing-what-to-do together.

That is why it’s so important that we grow in compassion. As we feel and live the pain of our own losses, our grieving hearts open to a wider world of suffering and loss—to a world of prisoners, refugees, AIDS patients, starving children, and the countless human beings living in constant fear. Then the pain of our life connects us with the moaning and groaning of a suffering humanity. The spiritual question is whether you can live your pain in solidarity with other people who also suffer.

Can you say, “Yes, this is part of being human, and I share it with thousands and millions of people and with people who are born before me, with people who lived long before me, and with people who will live long after me”? Can you say, “Somehow I am a part of the great story of God’s salvation. And I want to connect with the long struggle of humanity. I want to live my suffering— not isolated, but connected with the great human drama of love where sorrow and joy are experienced together”?

I invite you to live consciously connected to this great struggle of existence and faith in God’s love and deliverance. If you have a friend who is in pain or who has lost someone, can you just listen and say, “I love you and will be with you, I want to hear how hard it is. I don’t know what to say to you, I don’t know what to do about it, but I do want to be with you, and walk with you. I am not afraid. I am not going to say something cheery about the bad and that there is something better beyond. I just want to be here with you now and say: Yes! You have lost something, someone, and it hurts like hell, and you are not alone”?

If your family or community is suffering, I want you to feel the pain together and find the joy hidden in the midst of the pain. I invite you to be together in the struggle. The way we let go of our losses and sorrows is by connecting our personal pain to the great suffering of humanity, by understanding our own grief and loss as part of the larger picture of the world. For we are not the only ones who suffer in the world. Nor are we alone.

This chapter also includes a sermon Nouwen gave called "On the Road to Emmaus," which takes an in-depth look at the deep struggles of the two disciples in Luke 24 and how the Stranger addressed them:

The loss, the grief, the guilt, the fear, the glimpses of hope, and the many unanswered questions that battled for attention in their restless minds— all of these were lifted up by this stranger and placed in the context of a story much larger than their own. What had seemed so confusing began to offer new horizons; what had seemed so oppressive began to feel like a coming liberation; what had seemed so extremely sad began to take on the quality of joy! As he talked to them, they gradually came to know that their little lives weren’t as little as they had thought, but part of a great mystery that not only embraced many generations, but stretched itself out from eternity to eternity.

The stranger didn’t say that there was no reason for sadness, but that their sadness was part of a larger sadness in which joy was hidden. The stranger didn’t say that the death they were mourning wasn’t real, but that it was a death that inaugurated new life— real life. The stranger didn’t say that they hadn’t lost a friend who had given them courage and hope, but that this loss would create the way to a new relationship far beyond any friendship they had ever experienced. Never did the stranger deny what they told him. Rather, he affirmed it as part of a much larger event in which they were allowed to play a unique role.

As they listened to the stranger, something changed within the two sad travelers. Not only did they sense a new hope and a new joy touching their innermost being, but their walk became more determined and purposeful. The stranger had given them a new sense of direction. And their hearts started to burn.

If you want to discover this truth in your heart, you have to see your life as a little part of a greater story. You have to see that your life now is part of what others throughout history have lived before you, and will live after you. That what you are experiencing now, in the loss of your friends, your family, your expectations of Jesus, is something that is part of an enormously large story of losses past, present, and future. And that new life and greater joy will come.

Nouwen, Henri J. M. (2010-07-09). Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit (Kindle Locations 940-942, 948-950, 955-976, 1020-1036). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Mourning into Dancing

This morning I was blessed by reading the Henri Nouwen book that Joshua gave me for Christmas, Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit. The chapter “From Sorrow to Joy” especially resonated with my heart. I love the way Nouwen describes the process of turning our mourning into dancing, in a similar way that Alan Nelson illustrates our being broken in the right places and transformed when we embrace our pain and loss. I hope these highlights from Nouwen bless you too, as you consider how your sorrow has been or could be turned into joy:

If there is any word that summarizes the sorrows of life, it is the word loss...Think about your own losses right now— the many places in your life where you have lost something dear and life giving...I am not suggesting that all of these losses will touch each of our lives in the same way. But as we walk together and listen to each other, we will soon discover that many, if not most, of these losses are part of the human journey— our own journey or the journey of our companions.

What to do with our losses? That’s the big question that faces us. Is there a way for that which is lost to be found? Can sadness turn to gladness? Can mourning lead to dancing? When “weeping lasts for a night time,” does joy truly come in the morning (Ps. 30: 5)?

The question is not whether you have experienced loss, but rather how you live your losses. Are you hiding them? Are you pretending they aren’t real? Are you refusing to share them with your fellow travelers? Are you trying to convince yourself that your losses are little compared with your gains? Are you blaming someone for what you have suffered and lost?

There is another option— the possibility of mourning. Yes, you can mourn your losses. You cannot talk or act them away, but you can shed tears over them and allow yourself to grieve deeply. You can never get to the joy if you dare not cry, if you do not have the courage to weep, if you don’t take the opportunity to experience the pain. The world says, “Just ignore it, be strong, don’t cry, get over it, move on.”

But if you don’t mourn you can become bitter. All your grief can go right into your deepest self and sit there for the rest of your life. Better to mourn your losses than to deny them. Dare to feel your losses. Dare to grieve them. Name the pain and say, “Yes, I feel real pain, real fear, real loss; and I am going to embrace it. I will take up the cross of my life, and accept it.” To grieve is to experience the pain of your life and face the dark abyss where nothing is clear or settled, where everything is shifting and changing. To fully grieve is to allow your losses to tear apart feelings of false security and safety and lead you to the painful truth of your brokenness and dependence upon God alone. Finally, you come to the point where you honestly can say: “Yes, yes, yes! This is my life, and I accept it.”

True healing begins at the moment that we can face the reality of our losses and let go of the illusions of control...

If our own human capacities are our sole resources, it would seem that the only reasonable response to our losses would be some form of stoicism. But I do believe that the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of Love, is given to us to reach out beyond our fears and embrace the reality of our losses. This is what mourning is all about: allowing the pain of our losses to enter our hearts; having the courage to let our wounds be known to ourselves and felt by ourselves; embracing the freedom to cry in anguish, or to scream in protest— and so to risk being led into an inner space where the joy can be found.

There’s a “time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Eccles. 3: 4). But what I want to tell you is that these times are connected. Mourning and dancing are part of the same movement of grace. Somehow, in the midst of your tears, a gift of life is given. Somehow, in the midst of your mourning, the first steps of the dance take place. The cries that well up from your losses belong to your song of praise. Those who cannot grieve cannot be joyful. Those have not been sad cannot be glad. Quite often, right in the midst of your crying, your smile comes through your tears.

And while you are mourning, you already are working on the choreography of your dance. Your tears of grief have softened your spirit and opened up the possibility to say “thanks.” You can claim your unique journey as God’s way to mold your heart and bring you joy...

 There is a secret place in us where the Spirit brings new life. There is a crèche where the Child is born in you. There is the broken soil of your soul where the seeds of grace can grow in you. The Spirit of God within us says: “There is a time to mourn and a time to dance.” The Spirit of healing that makes us mourn is the same Spirit that makes us dance. The mystery of the dance is that its movements are discovered in the mourning.

To heal is to let the Spirit call us to dance. Can you feel the freedom that rises up in you when you have been stripped naked and have nothing to inhibit your movements anymore? You can dance as David danced in front of the Ark. Can you notice in your innermost being the joy of living that comes from having nothing left to lose? Can you see the soft, beautiful smile that appears in the tearful eyes of your mourning friend? Jesus enters into our sadness, takes us by the hand, pulls us gently up to where we can stand, and invites us to dance. And as we dance, we realize that we don’t have to stay on the little spot of our grief but can step beyond it into unknown, spacious territory, until we finally know that the entire world is our dance floor.

Nouwen, Henri J. M. (2010-07-09). Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit (Kindle Locations 870, 874-878, 899-903, 905-917, 924, 927-938, 1088-1091, 1100-1105). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A Better Understanding

“Give us the courage to follow You even if it means taking the risk as You did, of being misunderstood.” (Keith Miller)

On Saturday morning I sat in the front row of a class full of about 50 Muslim women (aged 20 something to 70 something) at the mosque across the street. I wore a head covering like everyone else, and one of the teachers referred to me during class as being a Muslim.


I definitely feel stretched when there is ambiguity of my identity, because I don’t want to be deceptive. I felt better the week before when I had the chance  to share with a few classmates, who asked me during our break time if I was Muslim. “My faith shares a lot of similarities with Islam, but it’s not the same. My husband is researching Muslim minority culture and I joined the class in order to learn more about Islam.”


Not everyone there understands my identity, but by looking almost like everyone else with my covered head (apart from my white skin and big nose), and by taking the risk of being misunderstood, I can be a learner of Islam, just like “one of them.”

We have two classes together every Saturday morning over the course of this year: the Basics of Islam and Beginning Arabic. In this opening class of our second week, the teacher shared what she thought was most important for Muslim women to know about Islam. It was fascinating.

She started by asking us who we have the closest relationship with. There were a few mumbled answers around the room “Parents.” “Mother.” “Parents.” I was thinking “Husband” and was really surprised not to hear that relationship mentioned. The teacher wrote “Mother” (the one who has given us the most) at the top of the list. Then “Father” (the one who provides for us). Then “Children” (because of all we do for them). Then “Husband” (almost as an after thought.)

Then she said that when we were in our mothers’ wombs, all our mothers really did for us was to eat, drink, and sleep. Who was it who actually gave us life and took care of us in the womb, causing us to grow and develop? Zhen Zhu. (The True God. Another way to say "Allah" ). After we were born and we drank our mother’s milk, where did that milk come from? From Zhen Zhu. Who gives us the ability to walk, talk, and see? Zhen Zhu. So, while we say that our closest relationship is with our mothers, in fact our real closest relationship is with Zhen Zhu.

Our teacher stressed that as we learn about yi ma ni (Islamic faith), it is not enough just to zuo li bai (worship), without a change in our si xiang (thinking). An inner change is necessary. We can’t just focus on the outward.

Then she asked us what in life makes us the most happy, gives us the greatest feeling of success? All the women in the class were silent. So she wrote on the board “Ernu cheng cai” (our children making money). She walked closer to my seat and said, “Let’s see what the foreigner thinks.” “Can you understand me?” she asked to clarify my language ability. I nodded, so she said, “What gives you the greatest feeling of success?”

I said the first thing that came to my mind. “Seeing my children truly love other people. Not putting themselves in the highest place.” She wrote my answer up (haizi ai bie ren) on the board and said to the rest of the class, “Isn’t that interesting? We Chinese would say, “Having our children love us. She said having them love other people.” Then she turned to me again, “So what would you say makes you feel the most disappointed?” I answered, “Well, that would be the opposite. When I see my children putting themselves above other people. Being selfish.”

Our teacher went on to talk about how easy it is to forget about Zhen Zhu when everything is going well for us, and the way we want it to. Actually, she said, we should thank Zhen Zhu for illness and hardships because they help us to remember Him. He is the one who gives life, death, health, peace... We shouldn’t see hardships as a punishment from Zhen Zhu but as a test to help us grow. Zhen Zhu is always with us and we can always depend on Him.

Then she talked about the position of Muslim women. Our identity comes from being mothers. We are the lights in our homes to our husbands and our children. And we have dual responsibilities: societal and spiritual. We can’t neglect either one. If we don’t set an example of honoring our parents and our in-laws, of loving others, and worshipping Zhen Zhu, how will our children learn?

She held up as an heroic example a woman who came to speak with her after our last class, in tears, because she had just enrolled her 4 year old son in a 3 year boarding school to memorize the Quran. She wanted him to store up yi ma ni (faith) in his heart before starting school at age 7. Our teacher challenged us, "How many of you would be willing to do that with your child?"

Finally, she talked about how the wisdom of Zhen Zhu is not the wisdom of man, and how we are His representatives on earth. His ultimate purpose for us is to worship Him. Our worship includes a fear of Him, which is good because it helps to keep us from doing wrong (just like if there was a policeman standing in the doorway). We need to persevere in truth, in our worship, and in our lessons.

Then she gave a slight bow, blessed us with "Peace be upon you," and walked out the door. I silently thanked Zhen Zhu for this devout and passionate teacher giving me a better understanding than I've ever had of a Chinese Muslim woman's heart.

As I read this quote today, I thought about my class:“May we try to understand them as we in turn would like to be understood...May we see with their eyes, think with their minds, feel with their hearts. Then let us ask ourselves whether we should judge them...” (William Barclay)

Friday, January 11, 2013

It Will Heal

These reassuring words were spoken over the phone by our American doctor friend five hours away.
Hearing him say “It will heal” brought great comfort to me as Charly lay on the couch moaning in pain. They spoke to my anxious heart, “Don’t worry. It’s going to be ok.”

Playing Monkey in the Middle (otherwise known as “keep away”) with a football was our family’s favorite pastime in the village last fall. A week or so after Joshua's heroic rescue of the football from the river, Charly had an ugly encounter with a thorny tree in our courtyard, just after catching the ball while trying to make a fast get away to keep from getting tagged. Unfortunately, the tree (in the picture below, to the right of Jordan) stopped him with a deep gash in his forehead.

After washing off the blood at the outdoor spigot and finding a towel to hold to his head, we got Charly inside and as comfortable as could be. I consulted our village medical manual “Where There is No Doctor” and quickly decided I would not try the homemade stitches approach. The more difficult decision though was if he truly needed stitches. I have never been able to determine if a wound is “gaping.” Should we try out the medical clinic at the nearest town (a 20 minute walking distance away) or would it be better to travel back to Lanzhou for stitches? Thankfully I was able to reach our doctor friend in Lanzhou by phone who said he didn’t think we needed to travel back to Lanzhou. We could try the nearby clinic for stitches if we wanted to, but sometimes stitches leave their own criss-crossing scars if they’re not done well. Another option (and the one we chose) was to cut the sticky ends off band aids and use them to hold the two sides of the skin together. The wound would heal; it would just be a matter of what kind of scar would be left behind.

Isn’t that true in life as well?

I really appreciate what Alan Nelson writes about being wounded and the healing process in Embracing Brokenness: How God Refines Us Through Life’s Disappointments. He describes what happens “when we fail to respond to the breaking process with an attitude of surrender.”

“There is so much brokenness in the world. Broken people and broken lives fill counseling centers, bars, and urban gutters daily. They clog the freeways. Many show up at church. We rarely find someone who is either not in a state of brokenness or has no vivid memories of such a time, unless the memories are repressed. There are positive and negative responses to the breaking process...Just because a person goes through a time of breaking does not mean the result will be good. Most people end up broken in the wrong places.”

“People who go bankrupt, lose their health, are fired or laid off from a job, experience divorce, suffer from an addiction, burn out, have their teens run away, are depressed, and so on, are all experiencing breaking events. Spurned relationships, dreams that never become reality, and disappointments can all break us. However, when we respond ineffectively to these processes, we will end up broken in our will to live, in our emotions, in our self-image, in our finances, and in our relationships. This approach to the breaking results in anger, bitterness, hate, and even suicide or murder, and requires inner healing. When healing does not take place, people age as empty shells or what they used to be, stagnant and dwarfed. We all have met people like this, people who grow old and cynical. God doesn’t want us broken in these ways. The negative emotional effects of such a breaking are disastrous.”

“John Donne discovered that the most growth takes place in times of affliction. Some lessons can only be learned by loss, whether a loss of love, or health, or pride, or materialism, or hope, or whatever. The seasoning process requires us to get a little salt into our wounds. Donne realized that ‘trials had purged sin and developed character. Poverty had taught him dependence on God and cleansed him of greed; failure and public disgrace had helped cure him of worldly ambition. A clear pattern emerged: Pain could be transformed, even redeemed. He got his mind off himself and onto others.’ This may help explain the difference between being broken in the right place and being broken in the wrong places, perhaps better called woundedness. There is a difference between being broken and being wounded. The broken person, although feeling wounded and hurt, is truly on the road to healing. The person whose hurts do not result in spiritual breaking becomes a wounded person. Usually wounded people have emotional sores that resist healing, either because they are infected or because the “victim” keeps reopening them.”

“The walking wounded are individuals who have experienced some form of physical, financial, emotional, relational, or other breaking, but who have not allowed that breaking to bring them to a realization of their deep need to depend on God.”

“Spiritual brokenness cleanses our wounds so that healing can take place naturally and by whatever other  means may be necessary. When we are not broken in the right places, infection is likely to enter and the results are often as bad or worse than the original injury. When we are broken in the wrong places, we become self-centered. Our broken emotions keep us from loving effectively. We shun future settings where further hurt could take place.”

“Look around you. The older you get, the more you see people who have lost the twinkle in their eyes. They have endured tough circumstances, but not successfully. There is a wide difference between being weather-beaten and being seasoned and matured. The masses internalize the pain instead of letting it actually be a part of their healing process...Being broken in the heart, in the soul, where God can do something with your will and character, is a matter of converting, sanctifying the actual pain, and making it a part of the healing salve. You cannot do it on your own, God must. But you must be willing.”

“Remember Jesus’ question to the poor invalid who was lying beside the pool of Bethesda? ‘Do you want to be healed?’ Jesus was not being cruel. He was not being naïve as to the man’s daily existence for decades. Jesus was all knowing, and because He is all-knowing, Jesus recognizes that each of us has the God-given right to make our own choices. No one can take that prerogative from us, and until we choose to let go and let God have His will and way in our lives, we cannot receive healing.”

What do your wounds look like? Have they allowed you to be “broken in the right place” and on the road to healing or are you one of the “walking wounded”?

Have you internalized your pain or have you allowed it to become part of your healing process? How does God want to transform and redeem the disappointment and loss in your life? Will you let Him?

“Until we choose to let go and let God have His will and way in our lives, we cannot receive healing.”

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

What Is It Worth?

Joshua gave me permission to share part of an email he wrote to some friends in October, while we were living in the village:

“I just recently bought a football in the states and we have been playing with it a lot over here! Actually just yesterday we were playing with it by a river near our house, well maybe a really big stream :) and CJ was throwing it to my dad... I think you might be able to guess what happened next... Yes the sun got in my dad's eyes, he dropped the football, and after a few rather large bounces it took a dive into the river/big stream. Now I, who had grown mighty attached to this football, saw my dream of becoming a professional football player being swept away. However desperate times call for desperate measures, and I was a desperate man. Being a man of action and not of complacency, I hastily folded up my pant legs and waded/lunged into the river to save my football.”

To Joshua, rescuing his football was worth jumping into a cold river and getting wet shoes.

Two and a half years ago, when we were on a summer visit in the States, Jordan, Charly, and I went for a refreshing afternoon hike in the Colorado mountains. The scenery was beautiful and we passed the camera back and forth, taking pictures of the mountains, the waterfall and each other. On our return trip, Charly hoped to get just one more picture of the two of us together. We came across a tree that had fallen across a dry creek bed, and he envisioned the perfect shot. It would involve our walking across the tree and posing for a picture at the other end. I assured him that I did not have good enough balance to walk across something so narrow and high off the ground. So he consented to walk across himself and pull me up at the far end, where the tree was close to five feet off the ground. Jordan was ready with the camera to capture the smiles of her nimble and graceful parents in the picturesque forest background.

Charly’s first attempt to get me off the ground was not successful, but he never wavered in his belief that we could do it. His strong arm once again reached down to lift me up. More force this time. Enough force to propel me up and into the air. But I must have been pulling back with enough force in the opposite direction to launch him off the tree. Jordan watched him go flying off the tree and hit the ground about 10 feet away. She was yelling as she ran over, “Daddy, are you ok?”

The great force of Charly’s lift took me into the air and then left me clearly out of control with no Charly on the tree to stabilize me. So I must have changed position mid-air, from vertical to horizontal, in order not to continue on a course that would have taken me off the other side of the tree. I ended up hugging the tree with my knocked-off sunglasses partially buried in the leaves beneath me. Thankfully we just ended up with some minor scrapes. I have a bear-claw like scar on my forearm from the tree scratches to remind me of my un-gracefulness.

It was the perfect picture that never was. (Although I’m sure it would have made a humorous video!) Was trying to get that picture worth it? I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s wise for Charly and me to attempt any more poses where I need to be pulled up higher than my shoulders.

I was thinking about the question “What is it worth?” this morning after breakfast, when we sang “The Wonderful Cross” while CJ played the guitar.

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Oh the wonderful cross, Oh the wonderful cross,
Bids me come and die and find that I
May truly live—

Were the whole realm of Nature mine,
That were an offering far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all!

(words by Jesse Reeves, Chris Tomlin, J. D Walt, and Isaac Watts)

I was challenged to think about the deep meaning of the words in this song.
What is following Jesus really worth to me? What am I willing to give up? To risk for Him?

Can I give Him everything? My soul, my life, my all?

Jim Elliot wrote about the eternal worth of living for Him: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” His martyrdom is a true testimony of how he embodied those words. They were not just words to him. May they not be merely words to us today either.

Jesus is worth everything I have to give. What keeps me from giving it all to Him?

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Merciful Sovereignty

I had the opportunity last week during our family’s visit in Xi’An to share with a small group what God has been teaching me about “Disappointment and the Mystery of God.” Lessons on how we can persevere in difficulties and disappointments by embracing God’s mystery. How we can experience His goodness even in undesired circumstances. As we wait and hope and trust in Him to act in His time and in His way.

One of the quotes I shared was from Paula Rinehart: “His purposes for you are so set in place that you can rest every minute of your journey in the cool shade of His merciful sovereignty over your life.” (Better Than My Dreams)

Ever since the devotional time in Xi’An, I’ve continued to ponder the phrase “merciful sovereignty.” What a beautiful joining of those two words. I love the image of resting in this cool shade every moment of our journeys. The times when praise for His wonderful way of working in our lives flows easily off our lips. And the hard-to-understand times when our struggle and pain is poured out on the altar in a sacrifice of praise to our mysterious God.

I’ve been thinking about the conversation Ann Voskamp had with her brother-in-law after his second son tragically died of the same childhood illness as his first son (recorded in One Thousand Gifts).

He said, “Well, even with our boys...I don’t know why all that happened. But do I have to?...Who knows? I don’t mention it often, but sometimes I think of that story in the Old Testament. Can’t remember what book, but you know—when God gave King Hezekiah fifteen more years of life? Because he prayed for it? But if Hezekiah had died when God first intended, Manasseh would never have been born. And what does the Bible say about Manasseh? Something to the effect that Manasseh had led the Israelites to do even more evil than all the heathen nations around Israel. Think of all the evil that would have been avoided if Hezekiah had died earlier, before Manasseh was born. I am not saying anything, either way, about anything...Just that maybe...maybe you don’t want to change the story, because you don’t know what a different ending holds...Maybe...I’s accepting there are things we simply don’t understand. But He does.”

This amazing perspective on accepting what we don’t understand and not wanting to change the story of our lives makes me think of Martin Luther’s words: “We should pray by fixing our mind upon some pressing need, desiring it with all earnestness, and then exercise faith and confidence toward God in the matter, never doubting that we have been heard. St. Bernard said, ‘Dear brothers, you should never doubt your prayer, thinking that it might have been in vain. I tell you truly that before you have uttered the words, the prayer is already recorded in heaven. Therefore you should confidently expect from God one of two things: either that your prayer will be granted, or, that if it is not granted, the granting of it would not be good for you.’”

Luther also said “the one who prays correctly never doubts that the prayer will be answered, even if the very thing for which one prays is not given. For we are to lay our need before God in prayer but not prescribe to God a measure, manner, time, or place. We must leave that to God, for he may wish to give it to us in another, perhaps better, way than we think is best. Frequently we do not know what to pray as St. Paul says in Romans 8, and we know that God’s ways are above all that we can ever understand as he says in Ephesians 3. Therefore, we should have no doubt that our prayer is acceptable and heard, and we must leave to God the measure, manner, time, and place, for God will surely do what is right.” (Excerpts of Luther’s writings from Devotional Classics, edited by Richard J. Foster and James Bryan Smith)

And I’ve been thinking about Job, whose close-to-perfect life changed overnight into a living nightmare. Holding on to faith in a God he couldn’t understand and who had brought great pain into his life, Job was able to say, “For I have stayed in God’s paths; I have followed his ways and not turned aside. I have not departed from his commands but have treasured his word in my heart. Nevertheless, his mind concerning me remains unchanged, and who can turn him from his purposes? Whatever he wants to do, he does. So he will do for me all me has planned. He controls my destiny.” (Job 23:11-14) God’s merciful sovereignty to Job included more suffering than we can imagine, and gave him the opportunity to experience God in a way that he couldn’t have if his life had continued down a problem-free road. At the end of the book, after God revealed Himself to Job in whirlwind, Job confessed to God, “I had heard about you before, but now I have seen you with my own eyes.” (Job 42:5)

I love the perspective on life’s challenges that I heard from Kimberly Knochel in a seminar on Helping People last summer: “There is something that God wants to be for you in this circumstance that He could not be otherwise. Job’s experience of God completely changed as a result of the incredibly hard circumstances God allowed in his life. What does God want to be for you in the difficult circumstances of your life that He could not be otherwise?

In this New Year of 2013, with all of its unknowns, and with all the joys and challenges that lie ahead, may we hold our lives with open, trusting hands before our compassionate Father who knows what is best for each of His children. May we rest this year under the cool shade of God’s merciful sovereignty.


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