There is one great sign that you are loved more than you thought. It is the cross. And there is a still further sign that you will live in tis love forever. It is the empty tomb.*
The cross is so precious to Christians – to those who know what it means for them. But it seemed at the time to be a catastrophic end to a promising life. Shattered dreams, hope lost. And yet, the cross is where our King triumphs. He pays our debt in full. He breaks the power of death: our great enemy, our big problem. Our God’s greatest victory was won through agony and apparent weakness. And so it’s not surprising that as Christians, we suffer.
There are those who will tell you that suffering only comes from lack of faith, or disobedience, or even God’s mistakes. But it’s a lie. In this broken world, we should expect to suffer. That’s why I want to recommend this book to you, HopeWhenitHurts. It’s a series of short chapters meditating on 2 Corinthians Chapters 4 and 5. You could read one a day, or read big chunks at a time. Either way, I think it’s a really precious resource.
This book explores the value of weakness: not only is weakness inevitable but it is also used by God to show his power and to bless us.
This book explores the blessing there is in suffering, as it draws us nearer to the all-sufficient God.
This book is honest about life – written by two women who are learning these lessons as they go along – and points us to the good, sovereign, gracious God who has a plan and will not abandon us.
If you’re not suffering right now, it’s likely that you will do in the future and/or that someone close to you is. It’s also really important that we don’t trust in our earthly comforts but that we trust in God, through the “easy” times as well as the “hard” times. Yes, we’re heading for a perfect world, but since we’re not there yet I think you will find this book to be worth its weight in gold.
If we think that suffering and blessing can’t co-exist, we will always be seeing shallow pleasures and comforts, and we will miss out on the deep blessings of walking closely with Christ in suffering. The world to come means that we can be pained and privileged at the same time. (Hope when it Hurts, p.82.)
*From Jared Wilson, The Wonder-Working God, quoted in Hope When it Hurts.
A weird thing happened to me yesterday – two different people got in touch with me to ask me to recommend Christian books for babies. That’s never happened before, and it got me thinking. It’s worth asking people for recommendations on children’s Christian books and music, because let’s face facts – there is quite a range available. And by range, I mean some stuff is spot on, and some stuff is ambiguous, and some stuff isn’t good.
Does it matter? Let’s take music to start with. I grew up in a family where we learnt the words to (secular) songs, and I find it impossible to consider a song without thinking about the words (I’ve since learnt that this is not universal). I’ve spent hours trying to figure out lyrics, listening with headphones (my mum was best at this) – and by the way hasn’t Google just taken the fun out of all of that? But I digress. So, I was raised to think that lyrics do matter. Now I am married to a worship leader who chooses songs for our church to sing, and who also writes songs (in his spare time, ha ha ha ha HA!). So he also thinks that song words matter. If we’re singing to God to praise him and to encourage each other, shouldn’t we be singing stuff that’s true? And by true I mean true.
So let’s honour our children by remembering it matters what they listen to and sing along to. Children are sponges (some more than others, as I’ve discovered), and will quickly learn the words to songs even if they have no concept of what they mean. So we should really be explaining things to them for a start, and also making sure we’re teaching them good stuff – dare I say it, sound doctrine.
Here are two examples. I don’t want to point fingers but I think it’s helpful to use examples. Both of these songs are written by people who have written some great stuff, so I’m not saying anything about them as people, but I have comments about these specific songs. Firstly, one from Hillsong kids:
It’s not a secret,
It’s not fairytale,
It’s not made up, Jonah was in the whale, For three whole days, 123!
The greatest treasure, The word God’s people wrote, It’s in the bible, Where Noah built a boat, And it rained and rained,
The rainbow’s in the sky, To show God’s promises are true, The rainbow’s in the sky to show the world, He’s the only way, For your everyday.
OK. Firstly, Jonah has very little to do with Noah or rainbows. Why put him in the song? It’s confusing.
Secondly, the rainbow is in the sky to remind us that God will remember his promise not to flood the whole earth again, which is quite specific: 13 I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Genesis 9.
I suppose it does remind us that God’s faithful to that promise (and other promises), but I find the chorus a bit ambiguous. I’m not pinning all of my hopes on God because of a rainbow, but rather because of the resurrection.
And thirdly, “he’s the only way, for your everyday” (not sure if you mean every day or everyday, but that’s a different issue*) – Jesus is the only way to the Father. That’s a wonderful promise. I feel like “for your every day” is quite a vague (and disappointing) ending to this sentence. But OK, the song is about the rainbow (not John 14:6**), however the rainbow doesn’t really show me that God is the only way… does it? If it does I can’t see how, and not sure my children will figure it out either.
So all in all, I wouldn’t ban my kids from listening to this but I would want to talk to them about it, and to be honest I would just put something else on which is clearer and doesn’t mix up Bible stories. And again, Hillsong have written many good songs and I’m grateful to them and to God for that. Please don’t take this as an attack on them.
My other example is shorter. There’s a great CD called “Mr Cow” by Julia Plaut which has many good songs on it. However, the ten commandments one has the refrain “these ten rules are all you need” (in fact, that’s the name of the song). Well… if you mean they’re all you need except for the fact you can’t keep them and therefore you’re desperately lost and need a saviour, then yes I agree. But since my children are naturally legalistic (being human and all), I don’t want to affirm that by letting them think that ten rules are all they need. In contrast, Randall Goodgame’s Ten Commandments song is spot on:
“The ten commandments, no-one can keep them all,
The ten commandments, not even on our best behaviour…
The ten commandments, that’s why we need a saviour.” (from Sing the Bible 2).
I’d rather my children learnt this truth than that they actually learnt the ten commandments (which they will also do, from the song.)
So I hope I’m helping you to see that it really does matter what we teach our kids through music. Maybe this was obvious already? But when I’ve said stuff like this to friends they sometimes haven’t even thought about the words, so I hope it was worth mentioning.
Well I haven’t even got onto books yet. Perhaps we should make this a two parter….
(To be continued)
*Don’t get me started on everyday and every day! But I genuinely don’t know which they mean and that’s not their fault – I don’t have the official lyrics.
**Incidentally, if you want a good song about John 14:6 then Colin Buchanan’s is great (hoo cha hoo cha hoo cha cha). Does anyone know a good one about rainbows?
Several blog posts are in my mind at the moment, but haven’t made it onto the blog. That’s not much use to you, sorry. Hopefully after my daughter’s birthday party this Saturday there’ll be a post about that and other things coming your way.
In the meantime, I’d like to recommend this book to you: The One True Light by Tim Chester. It’s available here. I don’t have much time to tell you why it’s a good idea to get excited about Jesus this Christmas, but I will re-blog my post, Joy, from last year above this instead (or you can click on the link). We are so blessed to have resources like this book to help us focus on Christ, the one true gift who truly satisfies.
I’m starting these advent readings now, because I’m pretty hopeless at reading the Bible on my own once a day 7 days a week (gasp!), so I wanted to give myself a head start. I hope you find this or something similar a blessing to you this Christmas.
It was mostly fear that had prevented me from reading this book sooner. Especially sensitive since becoming a mum, I didn’t think I’d have the nerve to get through a memoir of the holocaust. But I’m really glad I took the plunge, because never was an account of the Lord’s faithfulness more profound and strangely beautiful than The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom. This isn’t a book review, friends, but I am sharing one of the lessons Corrie taught me.
I started reading this book with hunger – a hunger to know that God is still good, even when the unthinkable happens.
Injustice is a legal term, and the legal system is not known for its shows of emotion. But I think injustice is, actually, extremely emotive. Often when I’m most upset, traumatised, furious, it’s because of injustice. Child abuse; exploitation; oppression. Someone, through no fault of their own, is suffering at the hands of others. Our hearts cry out against it, don’t they?
It can make us angry. Not just angry with the perpetrators, but with God, too. Doesn’t he see? Doesn’t he realise? How can he let this happen? Is he sleeping? I want to wake him up.
Here’s an excerpt from The Hiding Place. I’ve chosen one which doesn’t spoil the story for you. Here Corrie writes about the little Bible she had with her in Ravensbruck camp, and the routine medical examinations she, her sister Betsie and the other prisoners had to endure:
I had believed the Bible always, but reading it now had nothing to do with belief. It was simply a description of the way things were – of hell and heaven, of how men act and how God acts. I had read a thousand times the story of Jesus’ arrest – how soldiers had slapped Him, laughed at him, flogged him. Now such happenings had faces and voices. Fridays – the recurrent humiliation of medical inspection. The hospital corridor in which we waited was unheated, and a fall chill had settled into the walls. Still we were forbidden even to wrap ourselves in our own arms, but had to maintain our erect, hands-at-sides position as we filed slowly past a phalanx of grinning guards. How there could have been any pleasure in the sight of these stick-thin legs and hunger-bloated stomachs I could not imagine. Surely there is no more wretched sight than the human body unloved and uncared for… But it was one of these mornings while we were waiting, shivering, in the corridor, that yet another page in the Bible leapt into life for me. He hung naked on the cross. … I leaned toward Betsie, ahead of me in line. Her shoulder blades stood out sharp and thin beneath her blue-mottled skin. “Betsie, they took His clothes too.” Ahead of me I hear a little gasp. “Oh, Corrie. And I never thanked Him…” p.182-3.
Throughout the book, Corrie and Betsie find impossible contentment and even see beauty in the overwhelming ugliness of their situation. But if you widen your lens and absorb the bigger picture of her situation, your heart bursts with indignation at the injustice of it all. They’re called prisoners, but their “crime” had been protecting people from genocide. They’re people, made in God’s image, treated like vermin. None of this should ever have been allowed to happen.
But there is a greater injustice even than this. There was an ultimate injustice, and it happened in Jerusalem 2000 years ago, give or take. Not only had Jesus, God’s Son, committed no crime, he alone had committed no sin. He suffered injustice through man’s justice system, and died forgiving the ones who tortured and killed him. More than that, he died so that they could be forgiven:
“What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked them. “Crucify him!” they shouted. “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!” Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate… had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified. Mark 15: 12-15
You might be wondering – OK, but how does that help? I think it helps in many, many ways, but here are two (which I think, on reflection, are overlapping!):
There is the way it helped Corrie and Betsie in their situation. Jesus does see their suffering, and not just in a way that we see things on the news and know about them. He sees and knows, because he’s lived through it himself (“a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.”). Not just that, but he’s lived through worse. He suffered the ultimate isolation – being abandoned by God the Father – so that we don’t have to. So he can give great comfort in our time of need, because he’s been there. He’s actually been where we’ll never have to go: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 16:34). We’ll never have to, because he did.
And it also helps because of what he achieved for us. When we look at the cross, we see how much God cares about justice. He wanted to bring us into a world where there is only goodness and truth, where everything is fair, where there is no isolation and no grief. And there was only one way to make that possible, but it required sacrifice. Not ours, but His. So through suffering we can look ahead to that certain hope of a new creation where none of these questions will ever need to be asked again.
He was treated badly and made to suffer. But he didn’t open his mouth… He was given a grave with those who were evil. But his body was buried in the tomb of a rich man. He was killed even though he hadn’t harmed anyone. And he had never lied to anyone.
The Lord says, “It was my plan to crush him and cause him to suffer. I made his life an offering to pay for sin. But he will see all his children after him. In fact, he will continue to live. My plan will be brought about through him…
He was counted among those who had committed crimes. He took the sins of many people on himself. And he gave his life for those who had done what is wrong.”
From Isaiah 53 (NIRV)
I find that parenting can often be a lot about keeping up appearances. What I mean by that is it’s often easy to slip into the habit of dealing with skin-deep issues rather than prioritising the heart. In church this week we looked at Mark Chapter 7, where Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for putting ceremony and tradition above God’s word:
He replied, ‘Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teaching are merely human rules. You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.’ vv 6-8.
It’s pretty strong stuff. Do you see Jesus is saying that by observing their own made-up rules, they’ve actually ‘let go’ of God’s word. He later says they’ve nullified God’s word. In their efforts to look and feel holy, they were actually rejecting the true and living God.
Of course, it’s not just the Pharisees’ problem. This tendency to want to look pure rather than actually having a pure heart is a habit of a lifetime for me, and it often affects the way I train my children.
Have you ever had that awkward (/mortifying) moment in the toddler group when your child resolutely refuses to say sorry? They’ve kicked/punched/bitten/snatched from little Bobby, but no matter how hard you try to get them to apologise, they just won’t – all under the watchful eye of Bobby’s mum. The problem is I think I’m more embarrassed than I am concerned about the fact my child isn’t genuinely sorry. If he does say ‘sorry’, then he’s done the socially acceptable thing and therefore I’m not really too bothered whether he is sorry or not. I can breathe a sigh of relief and move on.
Or sometimes I can have regularBible/praise/prayer routines in the home and I can sit back on my laurels and think that my children have the right attitude, but that isn’t always the case! If they’re singing a song of thanksgiving to God but fighting over who gets to sing ‘Amen’ at the end, then perhaps I need to go over with them (yet) again why they’re actually singing the song in the first place! Argh.
I can sometimes be more concerned about their behaviour than about their hearts. And I can be more encouraged by their achievements than about their characters.
I do this, for (at least) two reasons:
1. I’m a people-pleaser more than I’m a God-worshipper.
I care more about what other people think of me than what God thinks of me; I want to please people more than I want to please God.
2. I’m a box-ticker more than I’m a heart-surrenderer.
It’s much easier and more instantly satisfying to set an achievable goal and then achieve that goal, than it is to die to myself and give God my absolute everything every single day.
I recently read in Joel 2v13 God say to his people, ‘Rend your hearts and not your garments.’ Aside from being beautiful rhetoric (I’m always won over by a good metaphor), this is such a helpful admonition to me as a mum. Tearing garments was often a sign of repentance or mourning. God wanted them to repent and mourn with sincerity, not just for show. I’ve never actually torn my garments (on purpose), but I often think that by showing something on the outside I don’t need to bother with it in my heart. It’s a continuous battle:
Seeming on top of things Vs Showing complete dependence on God
Talking of dependence on God Vs Truly relying on God
Homemade Birthday cake + irritable mum Vs Tesco cake + kind mum
‘Quiet Time Slot’ Vs True repentance, praise and worship
Gourmet dinner + misery Vs Chicken nuggets + love and patience
I do have friends who are good at this heart-not-garment business. Which is encouraging! It is possible after all. Their children aren’t always the best behaved or the best turned-out and they don’t even know all of the answers in Bible time. But they know grace; they know God’s provision; they know Jesus is King. And in the Kingdom of God, those are the things that matter.
For more on this, I’d recommend ‘Shepherding a Child’s Heart’ by Tedd Tripp. If you’ve read it, you’ll be thinking ‘Yeah Catherine, tell me something I don’t already know!’ Sorry! But hopefully it’s still good to be reminded.
I’ve been excavating this week. When you have your second or subsequent baby, you have to unearth all of the baby paraphernalia that you’d hidden under the bed/on top of the wardrobe/at your mum’s house. It’s quite heartwarming in a way, because it takes you back to those early days with your older child(ren) which seem so long ago. But in other ways, it’s a tiny bit disheartening. What I mean is, I find it really satisfying to get rid of stuff I don’t need anymore because I’ve moved on to a new stage. So going back to the earlier stages and starting all over again can bruise my organisational ego. I’ve realised that I often look forward to the day when I won’t need an entire kitchen cupboard dedicated to plastic crockery, sippy cups, bottles and baby food. Or when I won’t need to buy kiddie snacks or dairylea slices, because the kids will eat what we eat (this may never happen but shhhh don’t tell me). But even as I long for this I do have a sneaking suspicion that it’s not a very godly way to think.
Growing up I was always told, ‘Don’t wish your life away.’ I think that was because I always wanted to be about three to five years older than I was (those days are gone, I can assure you). Although this isn’t a phrase from the Bible, it is wise advice. Always pining for the next thing is really a recipe for discontentment. While I’m longing for the days when I can have a serious conversation with my son, I’m missing the blessings of the here and now. While I’m pining for the time when I won’t have to cadunk my buggy up the steps because my buggy will be long gone, I’m ignoring the beauty of cute babes in a pushchair.
I’m reading a really interesting book which has encouraged me massively – One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp. Today I read this, as Ann recollects holding her sleeping daughter, the youngest of six children:
‘My baby is five… She is leaving me, she’s growing up and moving away from me, and she stirs and I sweep back the crop of golden ringlets. Stay, Little One, stay. Love’s a deep wound and what is a mother without a child and why can’t I hold on to now forever and her here and me here and why does time snatch away a heart I don’t think mine can beat without?’ (p. 160)
I felt so rebuked by this. My eldest isn’t five yet, and I often wish she were just a bit older. But I’m sure one day (maybe soon) I’ll turn around and mourn the loss of their early years. That will also be discontentment of course! So what’s the solution? How do I enjoy the here and now; savour the moment? Well, Voskamp’s book is all about thankfulness. I know I should be thankful for today, but how?
One wonderful thing about being a parent of young children is that you have someone showing you how to live in the moment and enjoy the here and now, every single day. Here are a few things my tots were excited about today (and these are just the ones they shouted about):
– steam from a chimney
– an aeroplane (many, many times, we live under the Heathrow flight path)
– a blue van
– ‘Sparkles’ (Actually the sunlight reflected in raindrops on a grey, dirty pavement)
I want to be more like that. I want to be enchanted by the mundane and thankful for the ordinary. If I can learn to do that, then I’ll start to focus on the beautiful things in my life, great and small, and to sideline the hard things that I can’t change.
At the end of a wearying day, I want to tell my husband every detail of the battles I’ve endured. I don’t want to focus on the lovely things, because… hmmm, if I’m honest I don’t want him thinking I’ve had an easy day. Then he might not sympathise with me. If I tell him all the blessings, then who gets the glory? Not me, of course, but the Lord, the giver. I want this, and I don’t want it. My new, spirit-filled heart wants to praise the Lord; it’s my sinful, self-centred self who wants to wallow in self-pity, ingratitude and dissatisfaction.
I’ve heard many times before that being thankful is a way to find joy and to be content. But it seems so hard to do. It is hard, but I’m realising that it’s a lesson to learn, and a lesson that takes time. We can train ourselves to be thankful. Ann Voskamp trained herself by writing one thousand things she loves, or in other words one thousand gifts she is thankful for. I’ve started trying to do this myself. I’m making quite slow progress, partly because I’m out of practice (I’ve never been in practice), and partly because I don’t have my notebook lying around all day (for fear of it being splattered/snatched/accidentally recycled), so I have to remember things and write them down later. But even so, I can tell that God is gently changing me as I discipline myself to find the beauty in my life.
So may I encourage you now to try this – you don’t have to write it down or set yourself a target of course, but if you would like to find more joy, try learning to be thankful for the ‘now’ you’re in. Maybe you live in a beautiful location, in which case your list will probably be full of natural beauty. However, may I refer you to the title of this blog, and remind you that I live far away from wildlife (unless you count pigeons and the odd urban fox, which I absolutely do not!) or sweeping landscapes. But there is still beauty in my life, and I’m learning to find it. Here are ten items from my list so far, just to encourage you to give it a go:
7. Help up the stairs
10. Soft slippers on aching feet
16. My children stopping at the road
20. Double glazing
23. A cup of tea by the bed
26. The listening ear of a friend
44. The kitchen bin, empty
60. The radio
62. The generosity of friends
Nothing spectacular I know, but they’re God’s gifts to me and it’s right that I thank him for them. You can probably think of something more joy-filling than an empty kitchen bin, and I encourage you right now to thank God for whatever that is!
So I’m hoping, by God’s grace, that by cultivating a thankful heart, I will bring glory to God with my attitude, I’ll find joy, and I won’t get to the end of my life and realise I’ve spent it wishing I were somewhere else.
Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18.