Monday, April 29, 2013

My Personal Exile: faith, cancer and survival

Susie Stewart didn't want to waste her trial. Suffering was an opportunity for growth, a chance to become more empathetic, love others and be loved by them. She was diagnosed with cancer in August 2012 and declared cancer-free in March 2013, and amazingly, she would do it again. The support of friends and family gave her encouragement through chemo. Notes, flowers and hats came from friends, showing her how much they cared. Susie's strength came from her family and her faith throughout her battle. She says her faith in God never wavered throughout her illness, her suffering wasn't wasted as she learned to perceive the world with a “lens more in focus.” She was able to have more empathy for those in suffering, and show more care to others. Cancer changed Susie's life, so profoundly she would, incredibly enough, go through it again.

LINK: My Personal Exile

Worn Shoe

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Light As A Feather

To be perfectly honest, some parts of the Bible make absolutely no sense to me. There are some verses I can't comprehend, can't make heads or tails of them. 

I trust the Bible, I know it is the inspired word of God, but His inspired words confuse me immensely at times.

One such verse is Matthew 11:28-30, which reads, "Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

I start reading and I find peace. I find rest. What is more comforting than the knowledge that my soul, which so often does feel weary and burdened, can find rest? That I can let go, release the worries and pains that surround, the overwhelming thoughts that chase around my mind like horses running on a racetrack. It's like laying down on the floor in an air-conditioned house, arms and legs spread wide, after a long run on a hot day. 

Rest. Release. 

There's nothing more comforting to me than knowing that my burdens no longer have to weigh on my shoulders, that I can be taken care of by One who will never fail. I love that knowledge of God, I love that peace that passes all understanding. 

I continue reading and continue to be filled with comfort and the soft embrace of peace. The rest and peace I find comes from a God who is gentle and humble. I know someone gentle and humble is someone who will love without judgement, who will care for me with soft love, who will calm my fears, this is a God in whom I can definitely find rest for my broken soul. 

I come to the last verse, "for my yoke is easy and my burden is light," and I always stop. I always stop, confused.

When I have a pressing question or thought while reading my Bible, I often write it on a sticky note and leave it in my Bible for further contemplation, or to ask someone wiser and more learned than I. Beside Matthew 11:28-30 are about 5 sticky notes. 

For years I have tried to understand  this verse. 

One of the sticky notes reads, "I don't understand this because the burden isn't easy! We're called to give everything up. Sometimes our lives or those we love. How is that easy? I believe Jesus is worth what we have to sacrifice, and He sacrificed SO much more. But how is that easy and light?

So I studied. I tried to understand. In Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis, I found this explanation (this is my paraphrase, as written on yet another sticky note)

"The 'yoke is easy' in the big picture. Because running from God, trying to live without may seem easier in the small picture. Not serving, having to love and think about others, follow the commandments, try to live and be like Christ. All that seems hard, but really, in the big picture, it's easier to have big awesome Jesus in your life, and a wonderful, loving, best-friend-father on your side."

But, this answer didn't fully satisfy me. It still left me with the thought that living for Christ is absolutely worth it, but not easy. This "big picture-little picture" thing was too complex for such a simple statement, "my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

As my attempt to comprehend this verse continued, more sticky notes ensued. I kept trying to explain it to myself, how my perception of easy and light must be wrong, in the grand scheme of things, or the Jesus-scheme of things, the burden must be easy. 

But it wasn't. As followers of Jesus we are called to lay down our lives, to leave father and mother, brother and sister, and follow Jesus. How is that easy? 

It's worth it. But it isn't easy. 

His burden is worth it. This life has trials and and pain and persecution because it is a world plagued by darkness and brokenness. It's hard, but it's worth it. But it isn't easy, it isn't light. 

But I understand now. 

Yes, this is a world of trials and pain, darkness and suffering. That is undeniable. A life lived for Christ has these things as well, because we live in a broken and imperfect world.  

Jesus is easy. He is light. He is rest. He is peace. He is love. See, it's the world that isn't easy and isn't light, not Jesus. This world is full of sin, sadness, darkness. It is heavy. 

But Jesus, He's not. He is light, and "in Him there is no darkness at all." 

What I never understood and now finally realize is this: 

The world's burden isn't easy, but Christ's is. In fact, He is no burden at all. In Him we do find rest. His promise isn't for physical rest, and in a "fallen" world, there is little rest. His promise is for rest for the soul. In Isaiah 28:12 it says, "This is the resting place, let the weary rest...this is the place of repose."

When we experience pain, suffering, worry, distress, Jesus is the only true refuge. In Him we find a peace that passes all understanding. In Him we find rest for our souls.

He goes through this life with us. No matter what storms are raging, He is still God and we can find rest in Him, no matter what.

In the midst of everything, Jesus is light. When we are in Him, the darkness flees.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A Suffering God

It's been a crazy year.

Last summer was the Aurora theater shooting, the fires in Colorado, in December the Newtown shooting, and in just the past few weeks a student, Wilson King, killed in a car crash at the University of Denver, the Boston Marathon bombing, an explosion in Texas, a shooting in Washington, I think I've heard about a number of bomb threats. Just yesterday a friend told me three kids have committed suicide in Colorado Springs in just the past week. And that's not all, there are so many tragic events I couldn't list them all.

With so much tragedy and pain, it's hard to know how to respond.

Our first question is, "why?" Followed by, "Why, God? Why would God allow this?"

After the Newtown shooting one political figure's response was that we've taken God out of school, politics, Christmas, and so why should we expect God to be there in the midst of tragedy? We abandoned God, so God abandoned us.

It makes me so sad that a statement like this was made so publicly and re-stated so frequently because it is wrong, so very, very wrong. Yes, we have greater separation of church and state. Yes, it is more socially acceptable and inclusive to say "Happy Holidays" over "Merry Christmas." The implications of these changes is a discussion for another time, but I can say, with 100% certainty, that the result of these changes has not caused God to abandon us.

God does not abandon us. We abandon Him quite frequently, but He never abandons us.

So where is God in the midst of all this tragedy? If He doesn't abandon and He doesn't forsake, where is He? Why do these things happen?

And to be honest, I don't know why bad things happen. After the Newtown shooting I thought, read, listened, and learned as much as I could about suffering because I was so confused, so lost, so unable to comprehend why such absolute tragedy ever occurs.

Why are eight-year-old boys killed in explosions, why would someone dress up as the Joker and shoot up a theater, why would people kill innocents, why do bad things happen?

I don't have an answer, I don't think anyone does. But what I do know is that God does not cause bad things. God does not orchestrate tragic events, God is not the creator of evil or wrong.

When I don't understand, I look to the cross, because the cross says it all.

There's a verse in Romans that reads," but God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us."

Christ died for us. There is no greater love than the love He showed us, by dying for us. John 3:16, probably the most famous verse in the Bible, says, "for God so loved the world..." 

This verse, the cross, they tell us all we need to know. 

First, the cross tells us about love. Jesus loves us, that is clear. We know, historically, that the person of Jesus Christ actually existed. Whether you believe He was God or not, whether you believe He rose from the dead or not, you can't deny that He must have loved us very deeply if He was willing to die for humanity. 

Would you die for your friends? Would you die for your enemies? While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. That is incredible love. 

But John 3:16 doesn't stop with love, it continues with "that He gave His only son." 

The cross tells us not only of a God who loves deeply, but of a God who has suffered deeply. God gave His only son to die for us. He watched His only son die. I can't imagine the pain of that. As God suffered by watching His son die, so Jesus suffered as He died. He suffered the physical pain of torture and an incredibly brutal death, and He suffered the spiritual pain of being separated from God. The Bible says that Jesus "descended into Hell."

We have a God who has experienced suffering, He knows what we are going through in times of mourning, tragedy, and pain. He doesn't watch us from way up high in Heaven, pointing at us as we suffer and saying, "oh man, that sucks." Far, far from it. 

Jesus isn't looking down at us, He is beside us. He doesn't watch us suffer, He suffers with us. As our hearts break, Jesus' heart breaks even more. His heart breaks as for the eight-year-old boy killed in the bombing. His heart breaks for the people who lost their lives and limbs in that explosion. His heart breaks for the friends and families. His heart breaks for the nineteen-year-old who committed this atrocity. His heart breaks for the lives that have been lost. His heart breaks for the hearts that are breaking. 

In a sermon at the 9/11 Memorial Service, Tim Keller talks about this theme of a God who both understands suffering, and suffers with us:

One of the great themes of the Hebrew Scriptures is that God identifies with the suffering... it is on the Cross that we see the ultimate wonder. On the cross we sufferers finally see, to our shock that God now knows too what it is to lose a loved one in an unjust attack. And so you see what this means? John Stott puts it this way: 'I could never myself believe in God if it were not for the Cross. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?' Do you see what this means? Yes, we don’t know the reason God allows evil and suffering to continue, but we know what the reason isn’t, what it can’t be. It can’t be that he doesn’t love us! It can’t be that he doesn’t care. God so loved us and hates suffering that he was willing to come down and get involved in it."

I don't know why bad things happen, but I know the cross tells of a God who loves more deeply than I can fathom and who wraps His comforting arms around us, lets us cry into His shoulder, and cries along with us. He is a God who loves, a God who has suffered, and a God who suffers with us.

We live in an imperfect world, but we have a perfect God. Bad things happen, but God is still good, and in our darkest moments, He is there beside us.

Monday, April 15, 2013

A Casket Heart

Love is patient, love is kind...

Love is one of the scariest things in the world.

We can be afraid of heights, spiders, monsters in our closet and under our beds, snakes, all things creepy and crawly, super-fast-stomach-turning rides at amusement parks (yes...I'm just listing my own fears here), but those are rarely the things we are truly afraid of, in the deepest corners of our hearts where we store past pain, hurt, guilt, and shame, buried amongst those memories and hidden pieces of broken life, there are our greatest fears, our deepest longings, and the things we are truly most terrified of.

For me, that often boils down, at its core, to a fear of not being loved, not being wanted.

There's fear of failure, but that boils back down to fear of not being good enough, fear of disappointing people and not living up to their expectations. There's a thought that my behaviors and words will dictate the level at which people will care about me, that their love for me will change based on whether I was "good enough" that day, that hour, in those moments.

I'm afraid. I'm terrified.

I don't want my heart to be broken.

I don't want to love people and not be loved in return, to put effort and thought and care into friendships and be told in return, "sorry, you gave your all, you shared your heart, and it wasn't good enough."

Like so many, I fear rejection. I don't care about being a little beaten up. It's okay if more shallow friendships end, if acquaintances decide they don't like me. The outer walls of my heart can stand up to poundings from a battering ram, large boulders flung from midieval catapults.

It's the deepest parts of my heart I'm afraid to show, I'm afraid to expose myself even to the possibility.

Love is the scariest thing in the world.

But what's the solution?

I've wondered this so many times. My cynical response is simply that I shouldn't let my heart out. I'll build up walls around it and not let anyone all the way in, that way when the cannons fire and the bombs go off, I'm safe.

But if you close yourself off and protect yourself, you also stop any chance of actually loving and being loved.

Love is scary, because love isn't safe.

C.S. Lewis says it better than anyone in his book, The Four Loves,

"To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable."

To love, to love at all, is to be vulnerable.

Just as we can't live without the anatomical purpose of a heart - ya know, pumping blood and something with oxygen and veins and arteries and all of that - we can't live without love.

Animals will choose to be with a caring, comforting, maternal figure over food or water. We need love to live.

You could choose to close your heart away, lock it up, hide it behind so many walls of stone and concrete that it ceases to be a heart.

We can't live without love. It's scary, but we can't live without it, we were created to love.

And what I've realized, too, is that if my heart of hearts belongs to the right person, I can never truly be hurt.

When the deepest parts of your heart, the bits you are most afraid to let out, belong to someone who never fails, someone who will never abandon, never hurt you, then you are safe. You're safe to love uninhibited because no matter how many battering rams break through those walls, no matter how many cannons are fired, the part that is scariest to have hurt is completely safe in the hands one who will never leave.

And my heart belongs to Jesus. My truest heart is safe, because it belongs to someone who loves me more than I can ever fathom.

Love is still scary. Rejection is terrifying, I'm afraid to be hurt, afraid of not being good enough. But those fears pale in comparison to the security of True Love.

Love is scary, but its better than closing your heart off until it ceases to be a heart at all.

Loving is living, living is loving.

Monday, April 1, 2013

A yellow dress, a branded X, a hope restored

She grasped my hand and pulled me away. We couldn't understand a word the other said, but I knew she wanted me to follow her.

With gestures and Hindi words I didn't know, she showed me her world. Little huts of concrete, straw and sticks, sparsely furnished; worn clothes hung from clothes lines strung between trees. I saw the pond, if you could call it that, more piles of trash then pools of water. My sandaled feet crunching through dry earth caked with refuse.

Clinging tightly to my hand she led me to the rooms where women cooked, sewed, cleaned. She tried to teach me a few Hindi words, none of which I can remember anymore.

She put her thin arms around me, tightly wrapping them around my waist. I picked her up and carried her effortlessly on my back. She was so small, her arms and legs so thin, she seemed so frail. She couldn't have been older than 9 or ten, the same age as my baby brother.

Looking at her, the sweet innocence and childish joy, the way her big dark brown eyes sparkled when we danced to my American tunes and her Bollywood, I would never have guessed the things that had happened to her. I couldn't believe the things that had been done to all of them, to all the young girls and women there.

I was at a home in South Asia for girls and women rescued out of the sex-slave trade. I couldn't, can't, even begin to fathom the utterly unspeakable things they've had done to them, the things they've endured. Ripped from your family, forced into a life filled with fear and the knowledge men would take advantage of you over and over every day; it is a life I cannot even scratch the surface of understanding.

As we drove to the home, through the narrow dirt roads of Kolkata, I prayed.

I prayed because I anticipated it being the most difficult, heartbreaking day of my life. I prayed to see God, because I feared I would only see hurt and hopelessness.

I expected a veil of sadness deep in the eyes of the girls, whispering of the unspeakable things done to them. But the veil was gone, lifted.

I know breaks and bruises remain. Scars, brands and rough tattoos tell stories of deeper hurts than I can ever know, but it was so very clear they were all free; free from the physical bonds of slavery and from spiritual and emotional captivity.

Their pasts are darker than I can fathom. Forced to be prostitutes, raped again and again, day after day. In those darkest of dark days I'm sure they could not imagine freedom, thought they'd never see light.

But now, despite the hurt and heartbreak of slavery, what I saw most was hope. Hope because fear is gone. The veil has been lifted, they will never be taken advantage of again, the fear of being raped every single day is gone. The hopelessness of slavery has been vanquished.

I saw joy on the faces of the girls and women, because they had been rescued and redeemed.

Girls about twelve or thirteen spin around the little wooden dance platform. I joined in the dancing. We jumped and spun and twirled. My little friend tried, vainly, to teach me the Bollywood steps. We tried to ballroom dance across the wood floor, taking turns spinning each other, our skirts twirling around our ankles.

We didn't speak the same language, but it didn't matter. Gestures and smiles spoke more than I would ever have known they could.

There was so much joy in her big bright eyes. She was so, so beautiful; so full of life. All the girls were like that, beautiful and joyful, only their scars telling the stories of their abuse and abandonment.

A girl's yellow dress spun out, her bare feet pounding the wood floor. She reminded me of my younger sisters, twelve and fourteen, so young and innocent and utterly full of joy. Beside the X's branded onto her face, a whispering shadow of her past, I saw the sparkle of restored childish hope and innocence in her eyes, because she was finally free to dance and sing.

And I saw that hope on the face of my little friend, holding my hands as we danced the world into a blur.

(This was written for a journalism class, telling a story of a moment or memory that impacted or influenced my life)