The Sacredness and Wrongness of Christian Death

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A Christian’s death is such a wrong, but sacred thing. Life begins loudly, with groans, pain, a gasp, and a wail. But it doesn’t always end with such clamor. A life well-lived ends with sighs and closes with tears. The breathing slows. The heart stops. The believer opens their eyes to see their Savior for the first time. He no longer just tastes the sweetness of God’s presence; he feasts on it. She is never thirsty because Jesus has satisfied her forever. They no longer mourn, for their joy is complete. As J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, everything sad is coming untrue. The former things have passed away.

But even in the sweetness, the regrets come. For the life-liver, they arrive before the eyes are shuttered, for its lovers, after. We are haunted by time that has passed irretrievably, attempting redemption of yesterday through tomorrow’s plans. We pray for forgiveness and try to begin again. But the time has ended for what we could have done. The time has come for what must be done. We must gather the remaining shards and resume living.

Every little thing becomes significant–loose change, junk mail, denture cream, slippers worn once, hangers covered in yarn, matchbox cars, cassette tapes, pacifiers, the smell of cigarettes and heavy cologne, outdated cans of food–as they carry our remembrances for us into boxes and donation bins and storage lockers. We remember how she rinsed her Ziploc bags out, how he carried a ridiculous jug of tea everywhere, how they always ate boxed mashed potatoes, and how she sealed her packages with horrendous blue tape. The small moments loom large–ominous, but healing. We hear their whispers in the quiet; we feel their absence in good company.

As the hospital door closes or the coroner leaves and we say goodbye to the one we loved, we also say hello to the ones who love us. They claim empathy and silently sit. They make soup, overwhelm us with flowers, want to comfort, and need comfort themselves. In the crowd are the helpers, the moochers, the pastors, the questioners, the angels, the demons. Some words help; some words steal. Well-intentions wound while quiet embraces bind up. The tears in a friend’s eyes reflect and settle our own. Relationships lost are enfolded in relationships found.

In both the immediacy of the moment and the quiet moments after, the heart screams, “This is not how it is meant to be!” and whispers fearfully, “Why?” The sweetest moments in life now have a bitter aftertaste. Fun seems like a sacrilege. Conversations seem haunted by their memory. How can someone so alive not be?

Resurrection Hope in Death

Then He answers kindly, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

A gasping prayer replies: “I believe; help my unbelief!”

Today, we feel death’s wrongness. Sin has had its foul sway. Our joy weeps in his presence, and our happiness feels bittersweet. But the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it. Today, our whole world cries out for redemption in the rawness of loss. But in the beautiful tomorrow, we will know in full, even as God knows us. The small but sacred moment of death draws us nearer to tasting it–the infinite freshness of life everlasting–as the gospel promises: because we weep now, the joy will be sweeter still.

The Body of Christ cries out together: come quickly, Lord Jesus! Let the sacred death lose its dark tinge!

And it will. As our eyes close in death, they open to life everlasting. The promise is realized, because the blood and resurrection of Christ have opened the gate. He sits at the right hand of His Father–resting, ruling, and rejoicing. We see with flawless vision what we have seen with eyes of faith. This is the sacred of sacred; this is the holy of holies. What is wrong in death has been made right again. Jesus and we, His people, live.

Looking Back on 2015

2015 was a year of both aftermath and beginnings. 2014 was a year of loss for me; 2015 was the year of grieving those losses. But at the same time, the sorrow I felt was mixed with great joy as I followed the Lord into new territory. Today, I’m looking back (and looking forward).

What I Did In 2015:

  • Worked four jobs at once and left them to follow God’s call to full-time ministry.
  • Planned to move to another city and then saw God redirect me.
  • Accepted a job offer with Revive Our Hearts as an editorial services assistant and began building a team of financial and prayer supporters. 
  • Traveled (a lot):
    • Two trips to Niles, Michigan for a job interview and training at Life Action Ministries
    • Flew and then drove cross-country to help my grandmother move from New Jersey
    • A two-week fundraising trip to Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin
    • Returned to Michigan for Seek Week, Life Action’s staff revival week
    • Traveled to Little Rock for prison chaplaincy volunteer training
    • Served with the Revive Our Hearts team at their women’s ministry leader conference, Revive ’15: Women Teaching Women, in Indianapolis
    • Took another trip in October to Michigan, where I shared my testimony and presented the ministry to two women’s Bible studies at my childhood church.
    • Took two trips to McPherson Women’s Prison in Arkansas, once in August to help with a Bible retreat and once in December to play music, visit in the barracks, and help with Christmas distribution of t-shirts, socks, and treats to 1100 inmates.
  • Created a personal purpose statement.
  • Read 41 books (I am planning to post on my favorite 2015 reads soon).
  • Renewed several old friendships; lost a few others.
  • Joined my church in covenant membership.
  • Spent nearly two months in bed and in doctors’ offices, during which God taught me to better rely on and trust Him. Although I am still dealing with health issues, I am grateful for His mercy towards me.
  • Completed my first Whole30.

Things I Learned With God in 2015:

  • God has wired and called me to be a writer. Although I have always wanted to write and it is like breathing to me, I was afraid to believe I could be a writer. (This book challenged me to embrace the desire God had put in my heart.) When He overcame my objections, I was able to say “yes” to using my writing skills in full-time ministry.
  • Being a writer means He calls me to write about the hard things. This year it is going to happen . . . with lots of prayer.
  • God provides in ways I do not expect or can see. In the journey of raising my financial support for the ministry, God has used many people to provide for my needs. I am thankful for His sovereign hand working behind the scenes.
  • Hospitality is beautiful (no matter what form it takes), and it’s also a two-way street. In most of my traveling this year, I was staying in others’ homes. I even stayed with a couple I had never met before! Each family approached hosting differently, but each shared what they had and treated me like family. As a guest, I learned how to appreciate and accept God’s love working through them. They showed me the Savior by providing practically and sharing their everyday rhythms.
  • Lessons about God’s grace working through my weaknesses:
    • Something can be a permanent part of your story without being a permanent part of your identity.
    • Every open wound is also a door for God’s grace to walk through.
    • To be truly broken before God means not hiding my weaknesses, sin, and struggles from other people.
    • Being vulnerable about my struggles with sin may be the path to healing for someone else.
  • God’s love doesn’t call me to a cupcake life of sprinkles and frosting, but a cross-carrying life of blood and tears. But God is my help and is with me every step of the way. More about that lesson can be found here.
  • To live simply. I am learning to clean out the clutter in every area of my life and focus on what and who are most important.
  • Faith does not always look extraordinary. Instead, it is found in the mundane, ordinary obedience of every day.
  • Singleness can be an idol just as much as marriage. (Nancy Leigh DeMoss’ testimony broke me.)
  • A truly beautiful covenant community is one that loves Christ and loves people. I joined a new church this year, and I couldn’t ask for a better fellowship to travel with in this season of unknowns. My church is not perfect, but in our imperfection, God’s grace always shows up. I love that.
  • Even though some Christian leaders will fail me, there is always a remnant that seeks to follow the Lord faithfully. The past two years, I have seen many pastors and teachers fail, including a few close to me. The godly, caring leadership of the ministry I am joining and my local church has helped to heal the broken places left behind in the storm. I see Jesus in their successes and their weaknesses, and that vision encourages me to stay the course of faith.
  • I should seek God’s Kingdom and build relationships where I’m placed, instead of always pursuing the next thing. I have a tendency to live in the future and forget that God has put me in this moment and this place to serve Him. He is sovereign over tomorrow, and He is also sovereign over today. I should live like I believe it.
  • Lessons about relationships:
    • When a friendship ends, it is not always my fault. Some people will forget or leave me, and that is ok.
    • I do not have to be everything to everyone – God has given me certain responsibilities and relationships to fulfill faithfully in different ways.
    • Not everyone will understand everything that I’m struggling with, but God can still speak truth into my life through them.

Other Things I Learned:

  • I do not like the taste of alcohol.
  • To choose clothes that suit me.
  • To use the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Enneagram as tools in understanding how God has wired me, seeing areas to grow in, and relating to others. I learned I’m an INTJ and Enneagram Type 4 (it is an unusual combination, but it explains me well).
  • To build and code my own website (and resurrect it after I crashed it!).
  • To use a bullet journal to keep my days organized and document my year.
  • To use Instagram and MailChimp to connect with people.
  • To make my own beauty products and home remedies.
  • To play the guitar (enough to get by).
  • I love songwriting.
  • Routine and structure is good for my heart.
  • I don’t need access to everything all the time. My iPhone got significantly “dumbed-down” this year. Although I still use a lot of apps daily, social media and the browser have all been removed. I’ve chosen not to check my email on my phone either. The quiet has been healthy and needed.
  • I need fiction and memoirs in my reading diet. They’ve done more to show me excellence in writing than anything else.

5 Things I’m Looking Forward To in 2016:

  • Finishing building my ministry partner team, moving to Michigan and beginning work at Revive Our Hearts (if you would like to help, you can donate or become a monthly ministry partner here!).
  • Blogging weekly and starting to write about hard things.
  • Doing the Visual Theology Reading Challenge.
  • Focusing on deepening my prayer life.
  • Following God into the adventure of turning 25.

I will be sharing my favorite reads from this year next week, but in the meantime, have you taken time to reflect on and thank God for 2015? Remember this as you move forward: the grace that kept His people last year is the same grace that calls us into new territory this year. With His help, we survived; with His help, we will run into a new year with hope.

By Thy Help I’m Come

We went to the beach, the four of us, and spread out. The joke was that it was an “introvert party.” We all had our own things to process. I saw the rock barrier and instantly knew that’s where I needed to go.

I wanted to walk out to the end, but my lack of courage (and balance) kept me from going more than 15 feet out. So I parked myself on a rock with my journal and a towel. It was warm from the sun, but the breeze was nice. Refreshing.

From there, I had a clear view of the water and the sun and waves coming in. I didn’t realize there were so many colors of blue in the world. Deep blue of the sky far beyond the horizon. Murky, grayish blue of the waves in front of me. Muted, calm blue of the in-between. Even each of those had shades of depth and profundity. Levels of sadness; levels of joy.

The water was fresh, like the tears of joy they say fall first from your right eye. So many of my tears have been saltwater recently. Sorrow. Sorrowful tears aren’t really much different than joyful tears, chemically speaking. But they feel so much different. Tears are the place where sorrow is mixed with joy; bitterness of pain with the sweetness of relief you feel after a good cry. You still feel miserable, but somehow better.

Maybe this is what Paul meant when he wrote about being “sorrowful, yet rejoicing”. I’m sorrowful because my world is broken and has gradually gotten even more so. But there’s joy, because all things are being made new. Life consists in tears – sorrowful and joyful.

I could see down into the waves. The water was clear here, but only enough to see what was making it murky. There was sand and seaweed and rocks. Dead sea animals, shells, driftwood, sludge.

I realized it then: “All your breakers and your waves have gone over me.” God’s waves are love, but they knock me down. God’s love drudges up all the sludge I would rather not deal with. His love has to be violent sometimes to churn up what makes my heart murky. That grit and sludge – it makes its mark. The rock I was sitting on was smooth – not because anyone had made it that way, but because the waves had eroded it with the silt and sand they contain.

God has smoothed me out with the struggle of this past year. He had to bring suffering into my life to reveal all the pride, anger, and idols in my heart. He had to show me again how broken I really am. He slowly but surely eroded some of those rough edges of immaturity that seemed to follow me everywhere.

Sitting by Lake Michigan, I realized how angry I had been with Him. I had seen the waves in my life as hatred, not love. But God knew that I needed my pride broken down, my idols removed, and my dependence on others to hear His voice destroyed. He knew. So He did.

My faith had been hindered, like my prayers, because I was angry. I had been trying to hold onto things with a death grip that the Lord had chosen to take away. He gently pried open my fingers and said, “Give them to me. You can’t hold onto them any longer. It’s hurting you.” All the bitter tears of the past year were caught in His bottle.

Thinking about these things, I walked down the beach. Looking at the sand so I wouldn’t lose my footing, I began to see little stones – baby cousins to the one I had been sitting on. They were flat and smooth. They looked like they had been chiseled out to build a pyramid for the Pharaohs . . . or an altar to my God.

Spreading out my towel, I began to stack them into a pile. One after the other. 12 months, 12 stones. One memorial to God’s faithfulness over a very hard year. Like Samuel, I raised an Ebenezer – a stone named “God is my help”. He had been my rock and was faithful, even when I rejected His painful love and severe mercy.

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“Here I raise my Ebenezer:

Hither by Thy help I’m come.”

This little rock pile, built with patience and hot glue, sits on my shelf as a reminder. Every time I look at it, I reflect on God’s faithfulness. His helpfulness. His grace.

Through every ebb and flow of the past year, He was the same. He never changed or left. I cried out in anguish many times. I raised my fist at Him more times than I care to admit. I lay prostrate on the floor – flattened by the misery I felt.

But He was unfazed by any of this. His care for me did not change. He was still a loving Father Who brought these things into my life to show me His painful love.

Even when I screamed into pillows and pounded the floor and sat in stunned silence, He still said, “I love you.” He said it to me in the moments of my deepest depression. He said it to me in the moments of my highest joy.

“I love you. I love you so much that Christ died to rescue you.” He whispered it into my ear when anything more would be painful. He shouted it when I shut Him out to wallow in my misery.

I’ve learned that His love is not a cupcake kind of love – all sugar and frosting and sprinkles. No. His love looks like a naked, pain-wracked man with gory wounds who is in the anguish of being forsaken by God.

If God’s love meant that for Christ, what does His love mean for me?

“Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you face trials of various kinds.”

“Blessed are you when others revile you . . . on my account.”

He loves me – and that doesn’t mean everything will be sunshine. Instead, the storms show His love just as much as the rays of light. They show that He’s in control. He cares about me individually when the mess is much larger than anything I can see.

Life with God can be painful. But that pain reveals His love. If I didn’t feel pain in this life, I wouldn’t need God in this life. I have to be present in the pain, because God is in it. Like Elijah, I have to listen for His voice in the storm, in the wind, and in the calm. He’s there – in all of it.

The Blessedness of Being Nobody

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I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us — don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

(Emily Dickinson, 1891)

It is such a freeing thought — to be a nobody.

Being a nobody means that I don’t have to pretend that I am somebody. It means pride gets checked at the door, and grace welcomes me into a Father’s embrace.

Being a nobody means removing the roadblocks to honesty. If what makes me valuable is not based on things I do, but is a gift from God, revealing my secrets will not destroy me.

Being a nobody means standing up to the pressure to put on a mask, close your mouth, and lie low. It means choosing to stay authentic, speak the truth, and stand up tall on what matters, even when it means losing it all.

Being a nobody means that I can step aside and Jesus can be made known. My brokenness becomes a canvas for His glory.

Today, I want to be a nobody. I want my somebody-ness to be thrown off.

For me, part of being a nobody means leaning hard into the truth and writing about it. It’s sharing who I have been, with all its ugliness, but also sharing who my Savior has made me to be. I’ve been so afraid to do that — to write about my life, with all its joy and pain. But even Jesus didn’t look like a Walmart smiley face sticker all the time. No. He wept. He was sorrowful, yet rejoicing.

From experience, facing the truth and digging down into it hurts. But I remember all that is true and beautiful does hurt. It hurts in the place where our hearts long for another, perfect world. It hurts in the place where healing happens. It hurts in the place where Jesus joins with our lives.

I’d rather be a nobody, singing the praises of One who is infinitely valuable, than a somebody, silently pretending to be someone I’m not.