Friday, March 30, 2012

Flowers that Never Bloomed

Take a good look at God's work.  Who could simplify and reduce Creation's curves and angles to a plain straight line? (Ecclesiastes 7:13, The Message)

Becky and Dave will be planting a flower garden in the backyard of their home in one of the suburbs of Grand Rapids.  Nothing much of a surprise here, is there?  How many of you will plant a flower garden, pausing only briefly to debate the merits of perennial vs. annual or peonies vs. pansies.  No doubt you will focus on color and easy care (I know I would) and you’ll head off to the local big-box or garden store to make your selections from their steamy greenhouse.  Flower gardens are as American as anything else, right?  Well, yes they are, but perhaps the one at this house is different.

Becky posted a social network status this week indicating she and Dave had lost their unborn child … a little girl named Loryn.  And while this type of loss hits anyone hard, there is an extra aspect there to consider in their case.  Becky writes a blog (the link is on our main page) discussing how they deal with their blended family - life in “Stepville” as she calls it.  Both of them come from broken first marriages and are working through the battles of kids, step-kids, ex-spouses, and a myriad of other baggage that comes along with the arrangement.  That’s kind of the point of the blog and, I think, it is a topic that should receive far more attention than what I’ve seen it given.  So to lose a child that would have been uniquely a part of the two of them … the weight seems almost unbearable even from here.

When I learned that Loryn was to be a “Flower that Never Bloomed” (borrowing from the lyrics of a song I heard over 25 years ago), my heart went out to Becky and Dave.  I reached out and asked if I could write a blog post about it - not because I have any special knowledge, but because they hurt, they are my friends, and I hurt along with them.  And because I’ve seen it a few times before as well.  I’ve written multiple times about my brother Pete and his wife Louise and all that is connected with their losses of Michael and Sophie.  I thought immediately of my friends Camille and Grant Lewis and how Camille refers to her un-bloomed flowers as her “Heaven babies”.  No, I’ve never been as close as any of them, but I do have at least some perspective to serve as a point of reference.  And even from my view it is deeply painful, so I can barely imagine what Becky and Dave are feeling right now as they begin working through their grief.

It struck me, as I exchanged some messages with Becky, that this is the very essence of that Crooked Path I write about.  As Peterson puts in in The Message, “a plain straight line” isn’t how God works.  Straight lines, while useful, are boring.  But if we accept the curves and shapes and changes that bring so many joys our way, we have to be willing to accept the grief and sorrow and pain that accompany them at times.  We have to accept that God sees things in a much different way than we do - a completely different perspective.  And we have to be willing to trust that He loves us far more than we can imagine.  He will be the single thing we can count on when life isn’t “straight”.

The Crooked Path reminds me that I have a Heavenly Father waiting for me at the end, One who is encouraging me to keep my eyes on Him.  It reminds me that I have a Divine Brother who has traveled this path and now doubled back to travel it along side me.  It tells me that my part in God’s Story continues to unfold and that while I know the ending, there are many tales yet to tell and many scenes to play out.  And when flowers such as Loryn fail to bloom, I cling to Hope and keep walking even in the pain.

Saturday, March 24, 2012


The threshing floors shall be full of grain;
the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.
I will restore to you the years
that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
my great army, which I sent among you.
You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
and praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.
You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,
and that I am the Lord your God and there is none else.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.
(Joel 2:24-27, ESV)

I’ve been thinking often lately about that “third R” I wrote about several weeks ago - Restoration.  As we approach the season of Easter and the end of Lent, I think the word takes on a whole new meaning for me and that is probably why God has pressed it into my mind so often and so heavily of late.  The passage from Joel 2 comes readily to mind.  I think, perhaps, it is misunderstood (as is so much the old prophets wrote), because it seems less about the things that will be restored and more about the Restorer who is showing His Children His heart.  Rather than a promise of something temporal, it is a reflection of the Promise.  And the fact that the editors of the English Standard Version chose to represent Joel’s words as poetry brings this all back together for me.

We know, from historical fact, that Israel never regained their former glory.  If you look at the size of the empire under Solomon that much is blatantly obvious.  We know only a remnant went back to Jerusalem and the surrounding areas and then only for a brief time.  we know the State of Israel today is far different than any iteration it has been through since they came back out of Egypt thousands of years ago.  Yet there is this promise, right here, that speaks of restoration.  And I believe that God’s words are never hollow, so there has to be something else going on here - something far bigger than grain fields eaten by insects.

I write this post a mere two weeks ahead of the most solemn memorials Christendom knows … Good Friday.  It is, as my friend Cathy put it when I was doing my Lenten study over a year ago, especially somber because we are preparing for the death of a close friend and family member.  But though we must travel to the Cross once again this year, though many will observe the Lenten season with great reflection, we know we can look ahead to that swift sunrise on Easter.  We have assurance that our memorial, while somber, is not a celebration of the end.  God has promised a restoration and He does so with the exclamation point that is the Resurrection of Christ.  And that, friends, is what I believe God had in mind when He gave Joel this message.  He has always been and continues to be the God of Great Restoration.

The Crooked Path takes so many turns that, at times, it becomes dizzying to me.  The very happenings of life itself can be overwhelming and I will feel great loss again and again.  But the promise - the assurance - of Restoration should be a center of Great Hope for me.  My Father keeps telling me, “I have it all in hand … there will be Restoration of all you consider to be lost.  I signed that Promise with the Blood of My Son.”

Sunday, March 11, 2012

A Bitter Story Redeemed

So Boaz took Ruth into his home, and she became his wife. When he slept with her, the LORD enabled her to become pregnant, and she gave birth to a son.  Then the women of the town said to Naomi, “Praise the LORD, who has now provided a redeemer for your family! May this child be famous in Israel.  May he restore your youth and care for you in your old age. For he is the son of your daughter-in-law who loves you and has been better to you than seven sons!”  Naomi took the baby and cuddled him to her breast. And she cared for him as if he were her own.  The neighbor women said, “Now at last Naomi has a son again!” And they named him Obed. He became the father of Jesse and the grandfather of David.  (Ruth 4:13-17, NLT)

I’ll admit that I’m becoming increasingly fascinated with story.  And the aspect I seem to be focusing on is the redemption of what Donald Miller terms “negative turns” in stories.  All our life stories have them.  They play a crucial role in how we develop and how we view our own lives.  They play an even more crucial role in the development of how we see God in perspective to our story’s part in His Bigger Story.  So, this week’s offering comes from the negative turns that make up the story of Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth.

The story is so familiar.  Family experiences famine, moves out of town, boys meet girls, boys marry girls, and all the men die before any children/grandchildren are born which leaves the women in the story alone and more than a little frustrated.  Skipping ahead past the part where one daughter-in-law leaves and one stays, we find two widows returning to Bethlehem without much to live on.  Talk about your major negative turns.  It is so negative, in fact, that Naomi tells everybody not to call her by her given name but to call her “bitter” instead.  She reckons that since God has dealt in this fashion with her and she will wear that name.  

Oddly enough, she doesn’t act like the classic “bitter person” so many associate with the word.  Far from it as she digs in, teaches the “ropes” to her fellow widow and daughter-in-law Ruth, and doesn’t seem to sulk about what has gone on.  Certainly the negative turn in her life has had its impact, but it hasn’t derailed her.  She coaches Ruth on how to exist, relying on the generosity of others during harvest, and the two find out that Ruth has been working on the edges of a field of a not-too-distant cousin of the family.  Fast forward again past the symbolic ritual that shows honor and integrity by all parties involved, the shrewd dealings of Boaz with a certain legal transaction, and a marriage.  The couple is presented with a son and we are introduced to King David’s grandfather.

At the end of our pageant, we find the women of the neighborhood (who apparently didn’t bother calling Naomi “bitter”) rejoicing with the new grandmother.  Her negative turns, those that left her without a husband and sons, have been redeemed by God in spectacular form.  As the curtain falls and the credits roll, we see her sitting in her rocking chair, happily bouncing baby Obed on her lap.  Her joy has been restored and, I’d wager, her faith in God’s ability to do just that never wavered.

The Crooked Path will present me with many opportunities to trust Him with my story.  He has promised to redeem even the most negative turn I might experience, though He will do it in a way that glorifies Him and that I may not completely understand.  Acknowledging the negative turn happened is a given, but I hope I can approach it all like Naomi did - with complete honesty and perseverance to know that God still has me in His mind.  Redemption is in sight if I take the long view and I don’t need to live in a bitter state.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Plans for Me

“I know what I'm doing. I have it all planned out — plans to take care of you, not abandon you, plans to give you the future you hope for.”  (Jeremiah 29:11, The Message)

It’s another of those verses that is quoted so often with people laying so much at its feet.  Actual churches and ministries and belief sets have been founded on this very verse.  People have used it pretty much forever to describe their view of God’s Will and Plan … and I believe they have done so in error.  Many of them have taken this verse (considerably out of context, no less) and claimed that God has a specific “blueprint” for the life and work of each person.  And, whether that use of this “promise” has lead to those leaning toward a God who promises prosperity or one where it is incumbent on us to figure out the exact plan, it all makes for a very frustrated Christian living in a broken world.

Sure there are times when God specifically says, “Do this, then this, then this.”  He did that in many of the stories we’ve loved since childhood.  But, and here is the big difference, that isn’t the normative way we see Him working in people’s lives.  Instead, we see a Master Designer who joins with us, stands at the canvas that is our life, and encourages us to pick up a brush and create along side Him.  We become an extension and expression of His own creativity and, in doing so, play out our part in His Story as we live our own stories.

These ideas don’t set well with the “blueprint” crowd.  They begin to ask about God “causing” things that happen to and around us.  Or they attribute not being “blessed” as a result of something a person did or didn’t do.  They want so badly to have a God who is obligated to act in a specific way, that they have convinced themselves it happens this way.  They either use it to abstain from a God who “does bad things” or to “work harder to please God” or any number of actions and thoughts designed to push the “right button”.  In doing this, they miss the generosity of God’s heart and His invitation for us to be the unique person they were created to be.

I know enough to know that I don’t have all the answers.  I’ve been on this Crooked Path long enough to understand that things don’t happen in a “predictable” way as often as I might like them to.  But I have a firm hope that the God who loves me as an individual is inviting me to embrace Him and live out my best story as part of His.  And that idea is enough of a “plan” for me.

P.S. If you'd like to go a little deeper, download this message audio (MP3) from Matt Hammett at Flood Church in San Diego on this topic. It's well worth the listen.