I Had Been My Whole Life a Bell

I try not to inundate you with book recommendations and only recommend what I truly love. Anything by Russ Ramsey I truly love. Russ is a guy from Nashville who never fails to produce works both visceral and theologically robust. His books Behold the Lamb of God and Behold the Lamb of Glory (for Advent and Easter respectively) are some of my favorites to have on hand during their season. He shows more than he tells so that when he does tell, you're listening. 

Russ's new book, Struck, taken from Annie Dillard's words, "I had been my whole life a bell and never knew until I was Struck," chronicles the story of Russ being near death from a heart infection. In it, he wrestles with theology, suffering, faith, and his own life in a way that never fails to strike his reader in their own heart. I'm always grateful when Russ releases a new book into the world, and this time even more so. 

Below is an excerpt from the book. I hope it encourages you in itself, and sends you over to Amazon or your local bookstore to find a copy of it. 

God Does Not Owe Me, by Russ Ramsey, from Struck

I must remember that God does not owe me a life free from suffering. To expect that he does is to grossly misread the Scriptures. Pick a saint, any saint, and you will find a trail of sorrow, hurt, sin, and catastrophe in their wake.

Behind Abraham sits Hagar a bowshot away from her son Ishmael who has been cast out of the camp. She is waiting for the boy to die.

Behind David is Uriah the Hittite lying dead on the battle field while the king’s son grows in Uriah’s wife’s womb.

Behind Peter, the sound of the cat o’ nine tails raking across the back of his best friend is interrupted by the crow of a rooster.

The Lord does not owe me a pain-free life. But he does promise to be with me in it.

Because the Lord often withholds explanation for our pain, we must not look at suffering as though it is some divine gimmick designed to teach us some important life lesson. That would make too little of the reality. God’s people do not walk through suffering toward the moral of the story. Rather, we walk toward the eternal presence of the Maker and Lover of our souls. This I must remember.

I must also proclaim that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Suffering is not an event. It is a path. Scripture calls it a road pocked with miry clay and slippery rocks.

There are plenty of advisors out there who would counsel me to dress this up in positive thinking. But I do not think it would be honest to try to pad my experience with cleverly contrived optimism that denies what is true. My faith in Christ provides a deeper, truer way. I want to feel my sorrow. I want to walk in it. If the Lord walks there with me, what possible advantage could there be in conjuring another way?

No, I choose the road of suffering, and I pray for the courage to walk it honestly. The truth is my heart is broken. I need time to say as the psalmist said, “When I remember God, I moan; when I meditate, my spirit faints.” As part of my confession of faith, I need to say that I am not okay—not completely.

Lamentation is a part of worship. It is that part of us that cries out over the sorrow of the suffering, pain, and relational brokenness by which we have all been hurt. I lament to the Lord that over these past two years I have been the bruised reed he has promised not to break. I am the smoldering wick he has promised not to extinguish. I am the brokenhearted whose wounds need binding. God gave me this body with all of its physical limits, and then he broke me. He is at the same time my Healer and the one who has permitted my affliction.

The deeper I venture into this affliction, the more questions I have. But I remember C. S. Lewis who said, “When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘no answer.’ It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though he shook his head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.’”

I have reconciled myself to the fact that there is much I do not understand. But where else can I go? He alone has the words of life. Though he slay me, yet will I trust him. But though I trust him, yet shall I lament that he has slain me.

Sinking Feelings and a Solid Rock

It was my particular wish that we would get one good snowstorm this winter, but we rounded the corner into March with blooms aplenty and only a dusting in mid-January. While the rest of the east coast laments about a March "snowpocolypse" though, Nate and I were taking bets on over/under inch predictions (winner gets cart blanche on Netflix picking for the next two weeks).

OPM gave some federal workers a telecommute day because of the snow and Nate is one of those workers, which is a double treat for me. Snow and the sight of my husband's flannel-shirted back working at our dining room table all day? Win, win. Something about having him home helps me to focus on tasks instead of floating through the day, week, month with nothing but my own schedule to tend to. I read Tim Keller yesterday, "There’s nothing that makes you more miserable, or less interesting, than self-absorption," and I thought, well, that's true. At least in my life. 

We're two weeks out from closing on a house in Texas (which has proven to be as fraught with unknowns as when we sold our house in Denver) and I keep checking myself, my heart, my mind, every time I tape a box closed or set something on the Give Away shelf: will I be sad to leave here? Will I miss Virginia and DC? Will I look back with longing to this season of life? It has been overwhelmingly hard in many ways, and lonely, but there were sweet stretches and I never want to forget them, not ever. 

We brought Harper home here. She's not a child and I don't want to memorialize her as such, but she has been such a gift to me in particular. She gave me something to mind, to train, to care about. She gave me, on many dark days, a reason to get out of bed—even if that reason felt more animalistic and less joy-filled. She was born on the day we moved into this house, though we didn't bring her home until eight weeks later, and we will sign our names on the dotted line for a new home on her birthday this year. Something we thought impossible a year ago.

A year ago we were staring down the barrel of foreclosure and had no idea we were going to lose every penny of our downpayment and our entire savings account, effectively starting over financially in June. Then, in July, a publisher friend of mine reached out with a project she wanted me to work on. Her reasons were simple (and profound, to me). She knew I felt strongly about the flood of books being published, by the pressure to platform and perform, and even though there are probably books inside me somewhere, she knew publishing a book right now wasn't something I was passionate about doing. But this project, editing Christian classics and writing study guide material for them, seemed like it would be perfect. And it was. And it provided a salary for me we never expected and couldn't have foreseen. We were able to build back up our savings enough to buy a house less than a year from when we thought it would never happen again.

Editing those books, and, in particular, writing the study guide material for them, was such a singular blessing to me this year. I learned so much (and will write more on this soon). I said to my publisher friend the other morning: God disciplined me and discipled me through this work. I wept over brokenness, sin, doubt, and fear in my own heart as I wrote response questions to Christian's travels with Hopeful in Pilgrim's Progress. I was convicted and convinced as I worked on George Mueller's Answers to Prayer. I wrestled with theology, truth, and scripture as I worked through Hannah Whiteall Smith's words. I am still working on these projects and they never fail to convict and challenge me, not only because God's word doesn't change, but the nature of man, sin, faith, hope, joy, and life doesn't change much either. The blessing of this buoyed me this year. 

I lamented to a friend this week about how sometimes I miss my singleness. I love my marriage and I love my husband. Nate is God's best gift to me in this season of life and I don't want to make that a small thing. But I have struggled with the lack of purpose I often feel in marriage. I felt so purposeful and driven with my singleness, knowing I could waste it or use it, and determined to do the latter. It gave me such drive and passion to do it well, to find others who were doing it well, and to encourage my brothers and sisters in the dry land it can sometimes be. But within marriage, I've struggled to find that same purpose, drive, and passion. It occurred to me recently, though, that when we pack up the truck and head down south, I will be leaving behind a solid year of singularity: my primary, sometimes only, calling this year was to my home and husband. I don't know if I'll ever have such a season of undistraction again. I learned to be my husband's cheerleader and friend. To be a wife and homemaker. To care about what my husband cares about, to learn to hear him, know him, listen to him, trust him, and submit to him. In other seasons of life I have thrived on my ability to juggle many things, carry many loads, do many things well. In this season of life, I couldn't run away from the One Thing in front of me and it has been so good for me. 

More than any of that, though, I have learned in a deeper way and in a way I don't know if I could have learned any other way, both how important a church family is, and also how challenging it is for many people to find a home in one. I have never been flippant about my love for the local church, but I have been flippant about the hurt others experienced in them or the struggles others faced in finding a home in one. I was matter of fact, direct, pointed, without empathy for the hurt they might have experienced or their reticent to go, become members of, submit to, and invest in. It seemed to be born out of selfishness, and maybe some of it is, but after this year and our hurt and struggle, God's good gift to me was the ability to see that it is not as easy as three steps or just making up your mind. Maybe we make it more difficult than it is, but maybe we don't. We are grateful for the many pastors and church members who reached out to us, invited us, and made us feel welcome here, but the inward struggle, the hurt, the fear, and the hopes were never fully settled and that takes time.

I learned this year that time doesn't heal all wounds, but also God is never in a rush to finish healing if there's something still to learn in the hurting. I'm grateful to go back to my church family, but I go back with much, much more awareness of the struggles many Christians face in the simple act of going to church, not to mention being a part of  one. I'm grateful for that wounding, although there were many Sundays this year I could barely breathe through it.

These are only a few of the blessings of this year—which in many ways, didn't feel like blessings in the midst of them. I knew one day I would look back at this year and see God's purpose in the midst of the hard things, but more than anything I'm grateful that I was able to see God's goodness in the midst of them. It's one thing to derive meaning from something. It's another to find no meaning but that on Christ the Solid Rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand. 

All other ground is sinking sand. His character, his attributes, his nature—these never, ever, ever, ever change, and this carried me this year. I never faltered in my believe in his character because he never changed who he was and is. So while meaning might still feel a long way off in some ways, assurance of God's goodness, faithfulness, lovingkindness, generosity, justice, mercy, grace, patience, and more are never far off. He draws near and on him I stand. 

Stealing My Neighbor's Forsythia and Men as Trees Walking

The neighbor's forsythia has burst into bloom and I have an ongoing argument with myself on the ethics of stealing a branch (they're renting; they just moved in; it's not even their bush (it's not even mine either); it hangs over our property; wait, maybe, I'm pretty sure it's ON our property (I go outside to measure the property line with my eye, try not to look conspicuous). The thing about forsythia is it is at its best on the bush. Its blooms are so fragile, they last a day or two in a vase before dropping quickly like a child's yellow slicker and hat and galoshes when he comes in from the rain. 

We arrived here a year ago, travel-worn, hopeful, cautious. It was spring and the cherry-blossoms were about to flood the district with tourists and traps. One night after work, Nate and I walked under them and ate our dinner sitting on his jacket breathing in spring. I love spring. I always have. I love fall too. And winter. And summer, though less so. It has been a treat to have not just one spring, but the inklings of another early one before we leave. 

I know someday I will look back at this year plus a month and see the lessons more fully, feel the changes more deeply, know the purposes more intensely, but I find I'm content with their dim instructions for today. I don't have to know the end of the story because I know the schoolmaster. 

I've thought a lot about the man who saw men as trees walking when Jesus touched his eyes to heal them. We have the second touch—and full healing—just two sentences later in our scriptures, but I have often thought about those moments that must have felt an eternity to the man. Does Jesus do only half a miracle? Is this all I'll ever see? Is this as good as it gets? Is God good even though I cannot see clearly? Those questions flit through my mind and heart often enough in these Already/Not Yet times. 

Martyn Lloyd Jones, in one of my favorites passages in Spiritual Depression, says this, "[Jesus] turned to this man and asked: 'Do you see ought?' And the man said, absolutely honestly: 'I do see, but I am seeing men as if they were trees walking.' What saved this man was his absolutely honesty." The full passage is here and I cannot recommend it more highly. 

I want to have that sort of honesty before God and man because I cannot think God is ashamed of it in me. Maybe some are gifted with a constant and joyful faith that moves mountains but I cannot believe that those who aren't are kept from seeing God clearly when He shows Himself to them in His time. I have to trust it, and it increases my faith to know I don't know on which side—beginning, middle, or end—of the miracle I'm on. 

. . .

I keep meaning to share a few things with you but writing blogs more than once a week, or every two weeks, feels too much to do sometimes. Here are some things I've appreciated in the past few weeks. (And can I just add something? I've often been discouraged by the deluge of writing frequenting my social media feed; it seems I have to curate a feed if I want to get through the chatter and clatter to the good stuff. I've begun doing that in recent months and I'm just so glad, really glad good writing is there, waiting to be found if we'll take the time to hunt for it. It's part of why I share these links, because I want you and me and all of us to dig around past the dime a dozen articles all saying a different version of the same thing to find the good stuff.)

Evangelicals and the Loss of Prophetic Imagination by Sharon Hodde Miller

Scandalized Reading by Jessica Hooten Wilson

Embracing Valentine's Day Disappointment by Anne Carlson Kennedy

It Will Be Summer Again by Andrew Peterson

Hammering Art by Tony Woodlief

The End, as best as we can see it with earth encrusted eyes

Nate gathered boxes while I was gone last weekend. I taped them together and stacked them in the side room yesterday. Weren't we just doing this a year ago? I finished my day job last weekend and have one month ahead of me here, packing, saying goodbye to DC. I confess, it feels like we're looking at the light at the end of a very long tunnel. We know going back to Texas won't be our saving grace and perfection doesn't await us there. We've lived there, lived some hard years through hard things there. And it wasn't until my last year living there that I came to love it enough to call it home. And not until the past few months Nate could envision living there again. I know. We take a while. 

Less than a year ago we were staring down the barrel of foreclosure, after six months of unemployment and and having to move quickly. We tried to talk about God's faithfulness and the difficulty of the season at the same time, and it often times felt a strangulating sense of surety: I would believe God's goodness if it killed me. If I'm honest, friends, this whole year has felt like that. I stand on the character of God more than ever before because I know my humanity more than ever before. I think sometimes our suffering is severe, not because God is, but because his love and mercy is more severe and somehow we have to clear out the clutter to see our way to the bottom. Doing hard things might make us stronger, but I just feel weaker. Doing hard things, though, makes Him seem stronger to me.

I fly out in the morning to try and find us a home in Texas, near our church family and friends there. We're a lot poorer than we were when we got married, but we're a lot richer in other ways. I think of John's words: "He must increase. I must decrease." How does one decrease? In incremental, sometimes severe ways, always whittling down, until we bear on our bodies the marks of Christ and our only boast is Him. 

I'm grateful—more than I can say—that we're headed back to Texas. I'm grateful God provided work for me this year that will help us buy a house (something we never imagined possible again seven months ago). I'm grateful I know the grocery stores there I like. I'm grateful friends like family await us there. I'm grateful to begin counseling to process these two years with a long-term counselor I trust. I'm grateful my church home is a place where it's okay to not be okay—and that they'll be patient with us on our journey back to okay. I'm grateful for the emails, phone calls, texts, and cards we've gotten from friends who are so excited we're coming back. I'm grateful we won't have to use GPS to learn yet another new city—learning two new ones in less than a year has taken seven years off my life. I'm grateful Nate was able to transfer his job to DFW with hardly a hitch. I'm grateful for all the things that have seemed impossible this year, because I don't know if I would be quite so grateful if they hadn't seemed once impossible.

I listened to an episode of Cultivated on the plane last weekend and then again yesterday. In it (or them, since there's a Part I and Part II), Andy Crouch and Mike Cosper talk about the difference between openness and vulnerability, and the relationship of vulnerability to authority. I was flying away from teaching women for a weekend in Spokane, WA, and what I had said to them—through tears at one point—was along the lines of, "If we cannot be honest about our sin, shame, and struggles to one another, what makes us think we'll be able to be honest about them to God?" We often think vulnerability starts with being so with God, but I argue true vulnerability involves risk, and there is no risk with God—even if it feels desperately like there is. But with other humans? 

It has felt risky to be vulnerable with you during this process of refinement, friends. I know there isn't any real risk in it. We like to give people more power than they actually have. But the truth is, we've been told to sit down and shut up, to stop talking about hard things in the midst of them. But God, in His grace, has assured us again and again and again, that talking about hard things in the midst of them means we can approach his throne of grace with confidence because Jesus didn't come for the well. He came for the sick and every one of us, without exception, belongs in the grave but for Him. So we'll keep walking around in our grave-clothes but ALIVE IN HIM. It's the stench of death that makes life so miraculous at all. 

Kiss the Rock Instead of the Wave

The rottenest thing about having jet lag to the west of wherever it is you live is that you try everything to keep your eyes open until a justifiable bedtime and you still end up waking in the early am thinking about all the things. Random things, such as so and so's birthday (Which you didn't forget, but were on a plane for most of the day and did forget to text her. Is 2am an appropriate time for texting just-belated birthday greetings?), or remembering to deposit that check (or did you already do it?), or your husband's interview in the morning, or, wait, did you remember to rent a car for next week's trip? Were you going to do that or was he? Oh and that reminds you (though you can't figure out how, but certainly try to figure out how): did you give the dog her heart-worm meds before you left? I know you meant to, but did you?

By this time it's 3am (but 6am by your wretched internal clock) and you've thought through so many different kinds of things, you've stretched your mind from the west to the east and back again and there's no use going back to sleep. But one still tries. For hours. 

I am in beautiful Washington state to speak at a women's conference in Spokane. We knew it would fall in February, knowing there was a great chance we would be in the middle of more transition. What seemed simple in September, though, seems overwhelming in Spokane today. Nate was out of town at the beginning of the week, I am gone now, we have a friend in town next week, and then I leave for Texas to find us a place to live (pray we do), then we begin the process of moving all over again. There are forty-seven thoughts and things to keep track of and they all seem so compartmentalized and if I forget to give 100% to one, it will crumble I'm sure (I'm not actually sure, but anxiety doesn't deal in sureties does it?). 

It has been occurring to me recently the thing about anxiety (and jet lag) is, like life, you can't control it. Sometimes it comes over you in waves, sometimes it pools at your feet, sometimes it throws you against the Rock of Ages.

Spurgeon has often been quoted to have said, "I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the rock of ages," but it's not an accurate quote. What he really said was, "The wave of temptation may even wash you higher up upon the Rock of ages, so that you cling to it with a firmer grip than you have ever done before, and so again where sin abounds, grace will much more abound," and I like this version better. I think it is good and right to "kiss the wave," but how much better to kiss the Rock? 

Distractions are aplenty and never fail to seem ever surmounting, and sometimes they come all at once, trying to keep us from the biggest small thing we'll ever do, which is to just be faithful with today. I don't know what you're facing today, what's keeping you awake at night, what's on your plate and taking up space in your head, but I do know you're not God and neither am I. In days (and nights) when there seems to be so much to do and never enough time, I want to let those waves wash me higher up onto the Rock of ages and trust Him to never move. 

Hear my cry, O God,
    listen to my prayer;
from the end of the earth I call to you
    when my heart is faint.
Lead me to the rock
    that is higher than I,
for you have been my refuge,
    a strong tower against the enemy. (Ps. 61:1-3)