For the past two years, two angels have hovered above the dirt in our front pillar pot, announcing tidings of Joy and Peace to all passer-bys. But the two have always bothered me. Probably because I have three girls, and hey, let’s face it, girls care about this sort of thing. Three girls equals three angels in the pot, not two.
So this year I did my due diligence and ordered a third angel to stick in our pot, and Wednesday afternoon, Hope arrived. As I trooped back inside with Caroline in tow from adding Hope’s glad tidings to the other two, the significance of what I had done hit me. This Christmas, I added Hope. Stuck her in the pot. Dug her post down in the dirt. And allowed her to proclaim her glad tidings along with the other two. In the past several months, with news of job loss, news of cancer, news of death, and news of despair, Hope seemed a necessary addition to the entrance to our Home this year. She added a concrete reminder that the Hope of Immanuel’s coming trumps the arrival of anything else. Hope that because Jesus came, His Presence ushered in all that is real, all that is sacred, all that is worth fighting for, standing for, waiting for, believing for, and yes, even dying for.
I opened up an email this morning from a dear friend who is an advocate for women in persecuted places all over the world and watched a video from a link in the email. I wept through most of the it as I watched a young woman give her testimony of Hope. Hope that comes only when the Person of Jesus steps into your room, your cell, your home, your life. If you have a moment, click on the link and watch the video for yourself: http://www.bethel.tv/watch/1933/christinas-story/2013/12/07?session=897
But more importantly, invite Hope in this morning, this weekend, this week, this year. Stick her in your front pot. Hang her from your Christmas tree. Herald her news wherever you go in your words, your action, and your focus. Not only has Hope come, not only is Hope here in the present in the hearts of those who believe in the babe in the manger, but Hope is coming for all those who bend their hearts and their knees to King Jesus. Don’t waste any more time on despair. Plant the seeds of Hope that will today and one day bring an eternal harvest of Joy and Peace in the living Presence of our King.
My husband and I visited the Frick Collection in New York two weekends ago. Cloistered on the Upper East Side of the city between 5th and 6th Avenue, right off of Central Park, The Frick is home, among other things, to a small collection of masterpieces of European paintings and sculptures. Housed in the New York City mansion built by Henry Clay Frick in the early 1900’s, the collection is displayed throughout the library and study, drawing room and gallery, and visitors have the privilege of viewing the paintings much as Mr. Frick did himself. Standing inches from a Rembrandt or Whistler or Turner in someone else’s living room is an amazing thing indeed, so I savored each minute in the collection, taking my time wandering from room to room, simply trying to absorb all the beauty and majesty around me.
The last time I was at at The Frick was in 1995, the summer after my graduation from high school. My mom took me to New York, just the two of us, and she indulged me by not only going to art museums to my heart’s content, but by listening to me talk about the paintings I loved and why I loved them with all the conviction, passion, and “wisdom” of an 18 year old’s heart. Thanks, mom.
It was interesting to me to wander around the museum this time, looking at the paintings with the eyes of a 37-year-old as opposed to the eyes of an 18-year-old. As an 18-year-old, I was captured by the Romantics, loved Renoir (I still do), and did not have much time to waste standing still enough to look at other people’s portraits. I wanted to see paintings of action, drama, and romance. But as a 37 year old, I couldn’t get enough of the portraits. I stared in the face of an aging Rembrandt whose face looked creased and marked by the crevices of time and sorrow. I stood and pondered at ceiling-to-floor portraits of women painted all of their finery, some sitting inside to show their sedateness while other posed outside with the wild wind whipping through their hair.
But the portrait that intrigued me the most was by the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer and is called Girl with a Pearl Earring (c. 1665). The painting is on loan to The Frick and shows a young girl, head wrapped in the soft colors of a blue and yellow turban. Her body is angled away from the viewer but her head is turned back and her lips are parted, almost as if she is trying to say something to those on the other side of the frame. On her right ear, she wears a large pearl earring that hangs just above her collar. The translucence of her skin, the position of her head and her glance backwards, the parting of her lips, and the luminousness of her eyes all arrest your attention, compelling you to take a second look. But the most compelling part of the painting is the background. Nothing surrounds the young woman except a sea of black. I do not think I would have been able to articulate exactly what was so compelling about this nameless young woman and her beauty, but the commentator I was listening to on my viewer’s guide said it well. I had to rewind it at least 4 times to get down the whole sentence: “Vermeer’s decision to position his figure against a darkened, uninhibited background leaves us nowhere else to look but at the luminous young woman.”
His words were profound. They struck a cord deep within my soul, perhaps because of all the hard news we have received lately about suffering in the lives of friends and family. It is not the beauty of her dress or skin that make this young woman stand out. Nor is the mysterious expression of longing on her face. Nor is it her single pearl earring. It is the darkness surrounding her. The darkness is what forces us to notice the beauty of her face. It is the darkness that compels us to take notice of the brightness of her skin and countenance. And it is the darkness that causes the luminousness of the pearl to shine forth.
As much as we chafe against it, isn’t that what a background of darkness does to all of us? It forces us to stare at the person, consider what she is made of, and take into account her beauty, or lack thereof.
As an 18 year old, I wasn’t much concerned with my portrait. I wanted romance. And action. But now, now all I can think about is my portrait. My legacy. That which will be passed down to the generations who come after me. I am not concerned with perfection or outer beauty or my skin’s translucence, but what I do desire is for Christ within me, the hope of glory, to shine ever brighter within me when darkness is the background the artist has chosen.
So many women have modeled that for me this fall: Shannon, Kathe, Robin, Kristen, and Kathy.
Have you ever considered your portrait? Have you ever wondered how others perceive your face when darkness hits? If not, I suggest you do. Take a moment to consider…and to ask. Ask the Artist Himself to paint less of you and more of Him. More of the glory of the One who has come, who is Light in the presence of the greatest of darkness, who is God with us, Immanuel, even in the blackest night.
Are in a season of you life where you have…Nothing? Nothing left in opinions. Nothing left in answers. Nothing left in the emotional tank. Nothing left in energy. All that’s left is emotional weariness. The blankness beyond questioning. The weariness beyond walking where you can only stand still in your tracks and say, “I’ve got Nothing.”
That’s a bit where I’ve been. Walking in the land of Nothing. On Monday, I received the news that my third friend in four months has been diagnosed with cancer. All three friends are healthy. Strong. Young. Two of them each have three children, all of whom are under the age of 10. In a matter of days, I turn 37, and I thought one received news of this sort when turning 77. Or 67. But 37? Come on. This is the season of life when we are supposed to be attending birthday parties for each other’s children, not prayer sessions fighting for friend’s very lives.
So yesterday, I was feeling like I had a whole lot of Nothing. Nothing in my proverbial pockets. Nothing up my theological sleeves. Nothing left to say or to give or with which to encourage.
That’s when, out of the corner of my eye in a bookstore, I saw a stack of t-shirts neatly folded in their plastic sleeves. They were normal looking as far as t-shirts go, but it was the word on the front that grabbed my attention and caused me to look twice. It said: Nothing.
That’s it. Just the word “Nothing.” But right below it, it had more than a word; it had a promise that infused that word with meaning. It said: Romans 8:38.
Now I know that verse. I know it because seven years ago, I had a beloved cousin take his life, and that was the verse my God-fearing aunt clung to.
Romans 8:38 says, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message, says it this way: “I’m absolutely convinced that nothing – nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable – absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.”
That infuses a new meaning into the word Nothing, doesn’t it? My Nothing has a bunch of brokenness behind it and empty pockets attached to it. But God’s Nothing has His love infused into its very core. His fullness behind it. His Promises bolstering it. And as only God can do, He takes our Nothing and turns it on His head. Instead of becoming a recipe for disaster, it becomes just one more way for Him to astound us with the richness of His love.
So that’s what I am clinging to today. Trust me, I still feel like I’ve got Nothing. And my friends have Nothing. But it’s a kind of Nothing that leaves no room for anything else but Jesus. It’s a kind of Nothing bolstered by the Arms of the Father wrapped around each person that loves and trusts Him. It’s a kind of Nothing that fills our pockets with radical, reckless promises of hope when all we see is weary death. It’s a kind of Nothing that pursues us with the radical grace of God and fills our pockets with the richness of His love when everything else around us is falling apart.
I’m banking on Nothing today. For my friends. For their families. And for me. What about you? Are you ready for Nothing? Then emblazon Romans 8:38 on your heart and mind, and hold onto your pockets so that they don’t burst. His Love is enough for all of us who say we’ve got Nothing…Nothing but Him.
My children have taught me many things about many different subjects, but one thing they have taught me a great deal about is the table. I never thought much about the table, or cooking, or food before I had children. I didn’t really care what was served at the table or how it got there as long as it was there. And don’t blame my mom – she tried to teach me, she really did. But she finally gave up after I almost burned the whole house down when I left a pot of broccoli on the stove because I didn’t want to put my book down. It not only blackened the broccoli, turning it to a crisp, but it scorched the entire stove top as well. Almost set the whole thing on fire. Who cares about broccoli, or anything for that matter, when you are a few chapters away from finishing Lloyd C. Douglas’ classic book The Robe ???
But then I had children. And while poor Jason subsisted on cowboy stew and frozen biscuits for the first five years of our marriage (sorry, babe), I knew browned beef mixed with cans of minestrone soup wouldn’t cut it for my toddler. So I set out to learn how to cook, much to my mother’s (and husband’s) relief. And if I may say so myself, I’ve done an ok job of it. I not a gourmet chef by any stretch of the imagination, nor am I that creative with the dishes that rotate off and on our table, but I have come a long way from canned soup and cowboy stew.
As a mother of three young children, many days, life seems to revolve around the table. Organizing meals, shopping for meals, preparing meals, forcing people to eat their meals, and then, finally, cleaning up the meals….only to start the whole process over the very next morning.
With as much thought and effort that I, and every mother out there, puts into what goes in front of our children, that is why it just galls me to no end to have to force people to eat. Threaten. Cajole. Give the evil eye. Wake up from a dead sleep (see the picture). Because in all honesty, it’s usually pretty darn good stuff.
While I can’t count on many things during my ever-shifting day-to-day routine, what I can count on is that at some point, I am going to have to threaten somebody to eat my food. To set the timer. Give a consequence. Battle it out over broccoli.
But at the core of my mother’s heart, what I really wish is that each of my children would learn to simply and gratefully receive the provision that’s been set before them. Because as Lizzie learned yesterday, eating eggs and toast at 7:15am when it is hot and fresh tastes much better than having to eat it at 4:15pm when everything is cold and soggy from sitting in the fridge all day. (By the way, that consequence was a stroke of pure genius. I think she literally licked her plate clean this morning without me having to say a thing.)
And I am pretty sure that is a lesson my Heavenly Father wants me to learn at His Table as well. Most mornings, I have to be cajoled out of my bed. Set my timer. Given the threat of no hot coffee. When all the while, a plate of the most delicious food has been set before me in the pages of Scripture in my study below. Nourishment awaits me in the discipline of prayer. Sweetness beckons me in the intimacy of relationship. And while many nights I go to bed with a heart heavy with burdens I cannot carry, the meal served to me when I awake is just what is needed on the table of my heart and in the course of the day ahead.
But the question is, why is it so hard for me to eat the meal? To regularly and gratefully pull up my place at the table? To eat while the food is fresh, hot, and ready? Why do I insist on skipping meals or taking my plate out of the fridge later when the food still provides sustenance but isn’t nearly as good as it would have been in the dawn of my day.
One of my greatest desires is to be a regular participant at the table of the Lord. To never miss a meal or a morsel. To appreciate and show gratitude for each and every course, each and every cup, each and every bite.
My God is a much more patient parent than I am. He doesn’t threaten, cajole, raise His Voice, or set the timer. He simply removes the plate. And then waits. Waits for me to run half-starved to the table where I frantically look for my place. And the amazing thing is, my place is always there. Still set. But wouldn’t the meal have been better freshly served? Eaten when I was still half-alive instead of half-dead? Take a lesson from Caroline, Lillian, and Lizzie: don’t waste time missing meals at the table. Pull up a chair. Grab a cup of coffee. Sit down, and eat. Savor every bite. Because the meal that’s been set before has been planned for the menu of your day and the state of your heart long before your eyes ever opened or your feet hit the floor. As a child of God, relish in your plate and in your place at His Table. It’s a meal worth eating every bite.
This blog is a tough one for me to write. Not because I don’t love the subject (she’s my sister-in-law, after all). But because putting down onto paper how I really feel about Robin Ince has left me at a loss for words.
Watching someone you love walk through the valley of the shadow of death from the opposite side of the world is difficult. Because all you really want to do is give the person a hug. Just wrap your arms around them and let your tears mingle in real life rather than on the phone. And sometimes the ache of missing the person you love mingled with the pain of grief seems almost too much to bear.
But. And that’s a very necessary and important word here. But when you see the people you love struggle well, struggle for splendor and not just for sorrow, it makes the grief easier to bear.
And Robin and my brother Taylor have struggled well. The splendor radiating off of every stage of their sorrow has touched almost every continent of the world, and for that, I am grateful.
When they went in for an ultrasound at 10 weeks and were told that the baby’s leg was not developing past the thigh, something like cysts were forming around the stomach, and there were possible chromosomal issues, they wept. But they wept in hope, believing that the purposes God had for this child went beyond the suffering.
And when they went in three weeks later and found out that the leg still was not developing properly and that the cysts were actually life threatening, they wept again. But this time they wept in strength. It was a strength I could feel from this side of the Atlantic, washing in with the waves, pounding out the beat of the sovereignty and strength of a God who does not waste our suffering.
Robin wrote a blog that testified to this strength while they were waiting for the news from their next scan. If you want to read her post, you will be as blessed as I was. You can find it at www.taylorandrobin.blogspot.com/2013/09/fearfully-and-wonderfully-made.
Then came the final blow at 18 weeks of pregnancy. The little life they had loved and prayed for so fervently went to be with the Lord, and in His presence, was ultimately healed. For the second time, Robin had to go through the labor process with no reward of life at the end. (They lost their first child, Tristan, at 20 weeks in the womb, and she had to deliver her as well.)
But not once did I hear self-pity in Robin’s voice. Not once did I hear fear…or blame…or even anger. I did not hear the sorrow that leads to death, but only the sorrow that leads to life, rest, repentance, and joy (II Corinthians 7:10).
And that is why, only one of the many reasons why, I love Robin. Her life is not her own. It is lived for Another. And through her season of struggle, I saw that truth played out on an even deeper level in her life. I first saw it when she married my brother, Taylor, six years ago and willingly embraced the life of a pastor, a missionary, a student, and all of the hardships that lifestyle entails. I saw it when she moved to North Carolina and then back to Houston and then to Scotland where they now live. I saw it when she delivered their first child, Tristan, at 20 weeks and delivered her to the grave instead of into her arms. And I see it here. Now. Again. Standing as strong by the grave as she does in life.
That is why when I think of my sister-in-law, I think of a True Heart. A Heart that sings the song of life to the tune of Psalm 73:25-26: “Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is nothing that I desire on earth besides You. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
While she was still pregnant and in the waiting process, I asked Robin a few questions about her definition of a True Heart:
My Question: What is your definition of a True Heart?
Robin’s Response: My definition comes from the words of Jeremiah 17:7-8: “Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.”
My Question: Looking back over your journey and walk with the Lord, what are things you did, perhaps unknowingly, that prepared you to walk through the trial you are now facing in the present?
Robin’s Response: Through the years, time spent studying and meditating on God’s Word, memorizing Scripture, and participating in Bible Studies like Waiting on the Lord and Beth Moore’s study, Breaking Free, have all helped tremendously. But most recently and profoundly, your teaching on Psalm 139 prepared my heart to walk through the trial with this baby.
(Side Note from Susannah: This past summer, the girls and I spent three weeks in Edinburgh with Taylor and Robin, and Robin and I led a Bible study together for women in her apartment complex on Psalm 139. We spent two weeks talking about all of the intimate, detailed ways God knows us and our children, beginning with our conception in the womb.)
While looking at Psalm 139, I had just started feeling pregnant and had no idea of what was to come with this baby, but the study was such a powerful reminder of how much care the Lord puts into knitting us together and writing our story. It was so comforting having this branded in my mind so close to the time we got our initial diagnosis for the baby.
Also, what has helped me develop a True Heart is by walking with the Lord and consciously working out my salvation with fear and trembling since middle school. Knowing what I believe and the One in whom I believe has helped to build my faith in a sovereign God. So in the midst of this trial, I am not plagued with asking the question of why – knowing that it is all for God’s glory and our sanctification is enough. I look forward to seeing the character and fruit this produces in our family.
Lastly, going through the loss of our first baby, Tristan Joy, helped to prepare my heart for the circumstances of this baby. The Lord used her life to prepare us that babies aren’t always healthy – we are not guaranteed to get to parent them here. This lessened the shock when we heard this baby’s initial diagnosis. Losing Tristan forced me to walk through such a deep valley of grief, but it also taught me how to press in to the Lord in ways that would not have happened without that loss. Ecclesiastes 11:5 has become an important verse to us because of Tristan and now this baby:
“As you do not know the pat of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things.”
My Question: What is the greatest challenge to keeping a True Heart in the midst of the circumstances you are walking through?
Robin’s Response: The greatest challenge is not knowing the outcome. Will our baby make it to term? If he does, will he be healed completely or will he be born with a disability? How will this affect our family? How do we prepare Seth and Avery? Ourselves? I feel like if I knew what to expect I could start coping. But the Lord gently reminded me the other night after a precious friend prayed over us that He doesn’t want me to cope. He doesn’t want me just to survive this but to be refined by this. He wants to redeem this and for us to come out more joyful on the other side. And so I wait and trust – it’s all I can do.
My Question: Who, or what, inspires you to keep a True Heart to the Lord during this season?
Robin’s Response: Mostly, it is my family and friends who do not know the Lord. I want Him to receive glory from how we walk through this suffering and for our friends to see we can only survive this because of our relationship with the Lord. We want to see their salvation because of our story, our suffering, our Hope.
Also, our children inspire us to keep True Hearts as well. This will be the first major suffering they have seen us go through, and I want them to see how we lean on the Lord and walk through it (hopefully!) graciously. I pray that as they see us walking in the suffering of uncertainty, that they themselves will turn to the Lord in their own suffering down the road, whatever form that suffering may take.
Like I said in the beginning, I really love my sister-in-law. The soil of her heart has borne rich, ripe fruit from which many have tasted of the Lord’s sufficiency, goodness, and grace, not despite her suffering, but because of her suffering. Her heart gives me hope for my own heart – that if I will chose to walk closely with the Lord through suffering, believing in His Sovereignty, I too will be like that tree planted by water, that does not fear when heat comes, and whose leaves remain green nor cease to bear fruit, even in a year of drought (Jeremiah 17:7-8).
Every time I hear Christy Nockel’s song, For Your Splendor, I think of Robin. So it seemed appropriate to end with those words instead of mine:
I’m so concerned with what I look like from the outside
And will I blossom into what You hope I’ll be
Yet You’re so patient just to help me see
The blooms come from a deeper seed
That You planted in me
Sometimes it’s hard to grow
When everybody’s watching
To have your heart pruned by the One who knows best
And though I’m bare and cold I know my season’s coming
And I’ll spring up in Your endless faithfulness
With my roots deep in You
I’ll grow the branch that bears the fruit
And though I’m small, I’ll still be standing in the storm
Cause I am planted by the river
By your streams of living water
And I’ll grow up strong and beautiful
All for Your splendor, Lord.
For Your Splendor, Christy Nockels
(Since writing this post a week ago, Taylor and Robin found out that their baby was a boy. They gave their Scottish boy a thoroughly Scottish name – William Lachlan Ince – William meaning “Will or Determination,” and Lachlan meaning “Light.” Yesterday, they buried William in a cemetery close to their house in Edinburgh, Scotland. The words on his tombstone read:
In Memory of
William Lachlan Ince
Son of Robin and Taylor
Brother of Tristan Joy, Seth, and Avery
October 13, 2013
We look forward to a glorious reunion one day and smile knowing that William and his big sister, Tristan Joy are playing together at the feet of Jesus.)
Persistence is not usually a word I think about when I think about prayer. Usually, concepts like “holiness,” or “intimacy,” or “down-on-your-knees-with-your-face-stuck-in-the-carpet-while-the-snot-and-tears-flow,” (really theologically appropriate kind of things) are what come to mind.
But lately I have been challenged in the words I use to think about prayer. And it all started with a letter Lillian received the week after her baptism. “Ms. Scotty,” or Scotty Sanders, is a woman in our church who has left a profound legacy of faith and prayer in the lives of many. Scotty directs the Faith Center of First Baptist Church and runs everything from the clothes closet to the food pantry to the job training center to after-school-tutorials and daycare for under-privileged children. While Ms. Scotty has never had any biological children, she has more children than any one person could count. Through her day in and day out actions of surrender, love, and sacrifice, she has parented many children and young adults in crisis situations and who now affectionately call her “mom.” She is affectionately known in our household as “The Mother Theresa of Spring Branch” (a neighborhood here in Houston), and our family had the privilege of getting to know her several years ago when we attended Longpoint Baptist Church where Scotty worked in the nursery every Sunday morning. My girls adore Ms. Scotty, so it was no surprise when Lillian received a letter from her in the mail after her baptism.
What was a surprise were the words inside:
What a joy to have been able to witness your baptism. I don’t usually go to that service and I am so blessed that God arranged for me to be there. I have prayed for you and Lizzie on the 6th day of every month ever since you first came to the Faith Center and now Caroline too. My prayer this month is that God would develop in you a heart for missions and a desire for everyone to know about Jesus. So whenever you write the date and it’s the 6th, know you have been prayed over.
On the Victory Side,
I read the letter through fast-flowing tears to Lillian, one because of the profound gift of persistent prayer poured over my daughters from one who walks so closely with the Lord, and two because it was cemented: Lillian would now be a missionary on the other side of the world because that was Ms. Scotty’s prayer, and I would never see Lillian again after her 21st birthday (just kidding – I would love for Lillian to be a missionary – it is one of my prayers for my children as well).
But as I pondered over Ms. Scotty’s letter and then turned to Luke 11:1-10 in the pages of my Bible, I was struck by one word: Persistence. When Jesus’ disciples came to Him and asked Him to teach them how to pray, He gave them the example of the Lord’s Prayer but then proceeded to tell them a story, a story I have not thought much about until recently.
“And He said to them, ‘Suppose one of you shall have a friend, and shall go to him at midnight, and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has come to me from a journey, and I have nothing to set before him;’ and from inside he shall answer and say, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been shut and my children and I are already in bed; I cannot get up and get you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs.’ And I say to you, ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it will be opened.”
Jesus did not say that the door would be opened to the man in need of bread because of friendship or intimacy with the one on the other side of the door, or righteous living or rule following or powerful praying. He said the door would be opened because of one thing: Persistence.
Let me ask you something: how many doors in your life would be opened because of the persistence found in your prayers? One? Two? Ten? None?
If I am honest, maybe one or two doors. But that’s about it. Because, again, if I am honest, my lack of persistence boils down to two things: one, I do not believe the person on the other side of the door has the power or the interest in really opening it, and two, I am so overwhelmed by all the requests that seem to float up before me each and every day, I usually do not pray specifically about any of them. Or if I do, it is just one or two.
I don’t know about you, but I want persistence in my prayers. And persistence takes sheer discipline and determination, along with the belief that the person on the other side has EXACTLY what is needed for the situation as long as I will keep standing there continuing to knock.
Last weekend, the women in our Sunday School class met for a prayer gathering at my sister-in-law’s house, and I put together a prayer guide to help us in our persistence. So I have included it here for you too:
The format is simple. It follows the an-acronym P-R-A-Y.
P – Praise. Open each day with a prayer of praise. I started with Psalm 1 several months ago and have worked my way through the book of Psalms slowly ever since. I read a Psalm a day until I find the verses that “stick” in my heart for that day.
R – Repent. This prayer of repentance was given to me in college by one of my professors, and I have used it ever since. I do not pray through the whole thing every day, but I find the section that gives expression to the sin I need to confess and pray that particular section. I also included a section to daily forgive those who have sinned against us as well as asking for forgiveness ourselves.
A – Ask. Here is the fun part. And the persistent part. Following Ms. Scotty’s model, I have given us the space to persistently pray for specific people and/or situations on each day of the month. Use this section to organize your prayers and petitions before the Lord so that you can knock on the door of heaven in persistent, faithful ways. I have also included a space to pray daily for your marriage and your children. Two great resources I have found to be very helpful in my prayers for my husband and my children are Stormie Omartian’s The Power of a Praying Wife, and Jodie Berdnt’s Praying the Scriptures for Your Children. John Piper’s website, www.desiringgod.org has wonderful resources on prayer you can download for free as well.
Y – Yield. This is actually my favorite part of prayer each day. Yielding. I take all the burdens of my heart, every sin I’ve confessed, every grudge I am releasing, every petition about which I am persistently knocking, and I lay it all at the trustworthy feet of Jesus. And I leave it there. In Someone’s Hands who are far more capable than my own.
And finally, I have included a Personal Statement of Affirmation or Blessing, one that I do not use daily but when necessary. I speak words of life over myself, my situation, choosing to hear the Voice of the Lord about who He has created me to be, as opposed to the lies of the enemy. The one I have included is just a template or an example of what yours could look like. Feel the freedom to create your own.
In all of the attached prayer guide, feel free to use as much or as little of it as you want to, but do me one favor: Pray. Persistently. We only have one chance, one life, here on earth to storm the gates of heaven, to affect people’s lives for all eternity. Will anyone’s life look differently because of your persistence? Because of your knock? In Ms. Scotty’s case, yes. I pray it looks differently because of our persistence too.
Last weekend, I had the privilege of traveling to Annapolis, Maryland to visit the United States Naval Academy with my mom, dad, brother, Jason, and our two oldest girls.
We were all there for a reunion – a reunion that probably seems small to most but was of epic size to our family. Fifty years ago in the Fall of 1963, my dad played for Navy in the Cottonbowl against the University of Texas. Their quarterback, Roger Staubach, won the Heisman trophy that year, and Navy went undefeated against some of the best teams in the nation, including Notre Dame, Michigan, Duke, and Army, their biggest rival. President Kennedy was assassinated just eight days before the Army/Navy Game was to be played, and the game was almost called off. But word got out that Jacqueline Kennedy, the First Lady, wanted the game to go on since the President would have wanted it that way. JFK was a U.S. Navy enlistee and made no secret of his love for the school and the team. Prior to the 1962 season, the President stopped to meet the team and shook every player and coach’s hand (Gary Lambrecht, “1963 Navy Midshipmen”). The Cottonbowl was played in Dallas, Texas, the same city where the President was shot just weeks before. And while Navy lost that day against the University of Texas (the reason why burnt orange was never tolerated in our house growing up, even though we are all native Texans – sorry, Longhorn fans), they still ended up the number two team in the nation. Not bad for a bunch of midshipmen.
So we were there to celebrate. Celebrate a team. Celebrate the past. Celebrate the USNA.
While we were there, we saw lots of things that made lasting impressions on my heart and mind…the brigade of midshipmen marching in a formal dress parade reviewed by the Secretary of the Navy…
…the girls standing in front of the statue of Tecumseh, painted in his game day war paint from head to toe…
…but one thing stood out to me more than all the rest. It was where the Navy vs. Airforce football game on Saturday was played. Navy’s stadium is called The Navy Marine-Corps Memorial Stadium, and like most football stadiums around the country, it has several decks of seating, rows and rows of bleachers, concession stands, and lots of enthusiastic fans. But one thing was different: what was written on the walls around the stadium. Instead of records of national championships or victories won or the names of great players, what is recorded are the names of battles fought by the Navy and the Marines. Battles where men and women lost their lives on the playing field so that those of us in the stands could live.
I couldn’t keep my eyes off of the words – Normandy, Wake, Pearl Harbor, Midway, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and the list went on and on. It was as if the players on the field were pointing to a greater battle they will fight one day off of the field. Battles that could cost them their lives – all for the sake of yours and mine.
And it reminded me to take stock of the way I live my life each day. For we are all on a battle field. Souls are lost for all eternity moment by moment and second by second while I am consumed playing life’s foolish games. It reminded to put my heart and soul in the game of each day before me, to remember why I am here, to count the cost, to take risks, and to make proclaiming the Name of Christ the banner under which I live and the reason why I play.
I am so very thankful for the men and women who have given their lives for my physical protection and freedom, and I am even more thankful for the Man who gave His life for my spiritual protection and freedom. My prayer is that the life I live, day in and day out, be worthy of the One who has given His Life for mine. May I live in such a way as to honor His sacrifice and the sacrifice of those who have gone before me.
I’ve known Melissa for a long time. Long enough to remember her leading cheers at a pep rally in the high school gym. Long enough to remember thinking as a lowly sixth grader when she was a high and mighty ninth grader, “I want to be just like her when I grow up.”
And not much has changed. I still want to be like her when I grow up. Because while some have True Hearts (see last week’s post to find out how a True Heart is defined) because of circumstances they did not choose, Melissa chose her circumstances. And the choice to have a True Heart is one she makes on a day-to-day basis and will continue to make for the rest of her life.
Melissa married Ted almost eleven years ago, and I can honestly say it was one of the most sacred, beautiful wedding ceremonies I have ever had the privilege of witnessing. Because while most brides stand throughout their nuptial ceremony, Melissa chose to sit down. She sat because the man she was marrying was sitting beside her in a wheelchair.
Ted was an active, athletic young man of twenty-seven when he had his accident nearly twenty years ago. One moment he was running through life, full speed ahead, and the next moment he was paralyzed from the chest down, never to walk again. A tough pill for any person to swallow. But after having known Ted now for nearly fifteen years, I have never seen someone embrace suffering with so little regard for self. Most of the time when I am with him, I forget about the wheelchair. I forget that daily pain and loss is involved in the life of Ted Tredennick because he makes you forget. He pushes past the wheelchair in his attitude and conversation, so you have the freedom to do so too.
The same is true with Melissa. She doesn’t talk much about the day in and day out routine of living life with a man in a wheelchair beside her, so I find myself forgetting about it as well.
But recently, when Ted was forced on bed rest for six weeks because of a dangerous and life-threatening sore he had developed, the wheelchair I tend to forget forced its way to the forefront and I had to remember…remember that their lives look different than mine. Remember that both of them are forced to walk through life with suffering and loss on a daily basis. Remember that when I take the time to peel back the layers and ask the tough questions and look through a different sort of lens, that both of them have tough, True Hearts that come with the price of great surrender and many tears.
Last week we looked at what the definition of a True Heart is, so this week and in the weeks following, I want to look at several real life examples of people I know and love who walk through life with True Hearts on a daily basis. And while I love Ted dearly, it is Melissa’s heart that I want to look at today (sorry, Ted).
I had the opportunity to ask Melissa some questions about how she walks through life with a True Heart, and here were some of her responses. I pray they bless and challenge you as much as they challenged me:
Question: Think back to your first year of marriage to the present. Do you think you have more of a True Heart now than in year one of marriage? If so, why?
Melissa’s Response: Yes, I certainly would hope so! Through the years, I’ve definitely come more face to face with my own weaknesses, persistent sins, and sin roots. They are just In my face more and I realized I couldn’t move forward in life or in my relationship with the Lord without working on them. I think letting those weaknesses and sins surface on a regular basis is the Lord’s way of making you work on them. I just keep realizing I have so far to go and there is more than I realized beneath the surface. I think before you get married, you can get by when you are living for yourself. But then you try to live a life with someone else and you can’t do that anymore. You have to deal with yourself. The first year of marriage was a great deal about the realization, “I am NOT who I thought I was.”
Question: How has walking through life with Ted’s wheel chair helped to develop in you a True Heart?
Melissa’s Response: Developing a True Heart has been difficult. It’s very humbling because I am more often humbled by my pride and recognition of my pride than most people because I see it all the time. It’s hard to get through a day without seeing some part of my flesh respond or react to the wheelchair in a prideful way. Pride has also probably been the greatest obstacle to living life with a True Heart because we don’t look like the perfect family. Deep down, I want to look like everyone else and blend in, but I don’t. I don’t handle it like everyone thinks I do, and that’s very humbling because I know the real truth about myself. Being called to marry Ted doesn’t make it easy for me. It’s hard…and that’s humbling. I have to seek help from the Lord on a daily basis to get to the bottom of my pride and my desire to “fit in.” I am miserable inside if I go with my pride, but when I am able to press in to the Lord and get over myself, that is when I am able to move on.
Question: What is the greatest challenge to keeping a true heart in the midst of the day in and day out challenges of Ted being confined to a wheelchair?
Melissa’s Response: It’s confronting pride and self in the nuts and bolts and practical things of every day life. I am always moving at a fast pace through life; I am always rushing. I was that way even before I met Ted. The hardest thing for me is always waiting for someone who has to move at a much slower pace. The wheelchair forces me to slow down and get past myself, my rushing, my demands, and WAIT.
Question: When things grow difficult with Ted’s disability, i.e. sickness, hospitalization, and it is easy to fear, how do you choose to pursue and maintain a True Heart?
Melissa’s Response: On my knees in the morning. I cannot make it unless I begin my day by seeking and surrendering to the Lord. Actually, I can make it, but I will be miserable and feel terrible inside if I don’t. It is easy to fear but prayer soothes my heart because I have entrusted it to Someone who is greater than I am. Sometimes, the most powerful prayer I can muster is, “Come, Holy Spirit come; I am not going to be nice, or this is not going to be pretty, so You are going to have to step in here.” Or sometimes all I can manage is, “Holy Spirit, just help.” I have learned in prayer that for it to be effective and real, your prayers must be real. I am a real sinner with real needs, and I have to live with my real self. So my prayers have to real as well.
Question: What things help you on your best days? On your worst days?
Melissa’s Response: Chocolate. A phone call or the presence of a friend. Often times, the thing that helps the most is seeing into Ted’s heart and seeing what is really there – how he is feeling, how the wheelchair affects him on a day in and day out basis. On the days that I am lacking in compassion, it’s hard. Compassion isn’t always my strength (and that might be a good thing because of our circumstances – there are many days the best thing I can do is simply to toughen up), but compassion certainly helps when it is present.
Question: Looking back on your life before you married Ted, what things did you do, perhaps unknowingly, that prepared you for your marriage to Ted?
Melissa’s Response: I think that is a great question, and while I would like to say my heart was prepared for marriage because of all the wonderful things I did, I have to give much of the credit to my dad. My dad is a Godly man who spends every single morning on his knees in prayer. Every single day of my life, my dad prayed five specific things for the man I was going to marry. And when I met Ted, Ted had every single one of those qualities. But my dad also reminded me on days that were tough, “I never prayed he could walk.” I truly believe my dad’s prayers not only helped to shape Ted’s heart, but they helped to prepare mine to walk through life with Ted.
Question: What about the things you have done over the past 5 years? Over the past year?
Melissa’s Response: Several years ago, I came to the end of myself in life. I was lower than low – so I sought out a mentor. We’ve been meeting for two years now, and we meet every other week for three hours. It helps to have someone to vent to, someone who will listen and simply say, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry that is so hard.” But the one thing that helps the most and that we always do together is pray. Having someone pray with me and over me consistently now for three years has been life-changing. Through prayer, she has taught me how to be dependent on the Lord – how to take my heart and my issues and my struggles to Him and simply to invite Him to come. To come in and change me and make me new. I will be eternally indebted to her for that.
Question: Who, or what, inspires you to keep a True Heart to the Lord?
Melissa’s Response: My children. There is nothing more motivating than my love for them and there is nothing more that I want them to have than a phenomenal relationship with the Lord for themselves. Modeling what that looks like for them on a daily basis is my greatest desire.
After listening to Melissa’s responses to my questions, I was able to confidently look at my friend and say, “Like the Psalmist of old, your flesh and your heart may fail, but God is the strength of your heart and your portion forever. In you, my friend, is a True Heart.” (Psalm 73:26). May her heart encourage each of us to live courageously and in truth as well.
The past few weeks, tragic news has crashed upon the shores of my life with resounding frequency.
While still in Scotland visiting my brother, sister-in-law, nephew, and niece, we received news that a dear family friend, Matt Baker, had been diagnosed with fast-growing lymphoma. He was quickly admitted to M.D. Anderson and treatment began right away.
Two weeks after returning home from Scotland, Jason called me with the news that a Godly man in our church died quite suddenly and expectedly from heart failure while on vacation with his beautiful wife in Switzerland. He was only 49 years old. He was not only a pillar in our church, a mentor in our adult Sunday School class to many men, including my husband, a beloved husband and father, but also the only brother to my dear friend Shannon.
And then two days ago we got the call from my brother in Scotland that the third child they are expecting in March is not doing well. The baby is missing part of its leg from the knee down and has cysts in the stomach, facing possible chromosomal issues. The report from the doctor was that the baby may not live, or if he or she does live, could have serious complications at birth and through life. Tough news to take in for any family. But especially when your loved one is several thousand miles away with an ocean spanning the miles between you.
Yesterday the weight of sorrow crashed in on me like a wave. I went to see Matt and Kathe at M.D. Anderson while they waited for Matt to begin his second round of treatment. And while Matt looked great (in fact, with his newly shaved head, I told him he looks just like Bruce Willis!), there was suffering all around me. People laying on couches, sitting in chairs, all with somber expressions and quiet voices. People seriously and desperately fighting the same deadly, unseen enemy in their own body or the body of a loved one.
And all the while, I could not stop thinking about my brother and sister-in-law. I remember well what it feels like to receive news that the little one you are carrying inside of you is not doing well, has life-threatening issues, and where the only road ahead of you, either in the child’s death or life, appears laden with sorrow.
But while sorrow sang its tune in my heart, another tune prevailed that was stronger, louder, deeper, and truer.
I woke up yesterday morning with words from a worship song running through my head: “You are the strength of my heart, You are the strength of my heart, I can rely on You, Jesus I trust in You…” And then I turned in my Bible to the Psalm that morning I was scheduled to read, and there the words were again: “Whom have I in heaven but You? And earth has nothing I desire besides You. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:25-26). All day long, that was the song I heard, louder than the sorrow, deeper than the grief, stronger than the pain: “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
I found the worship song on my computer, and played it all throughout the day:
When my heart is overwhelmed, I will look to You alone
God my rock, God my rock, God my rock
You will stand when others fall
You are faithful through it all
God my rock, God my rock, God my rock
In the blessing, in the pain, through it all, You’ve never failed me
You are the strength of my heart, You are the strength of my heart
I can rely on You, I can rely on You
You are the joy of my life, You are my song in the night
There is no one as true
Jesus I trust in You
Benton Brown, God My Rock
And as I listened and pondered and grieved and prayed, the phrase, True Heart, kept running through my prayers. Because, here’s the thing, one day, my flesh and my heart will fail. They will. Inevitably. Either literally through a heart attack, or cancer, or death. Or emotionally through bad news, or a suffering spouse, or a suffering child. Kathe Baker’s, Shannon Bloodworth’s, and Robin Ince’s hearts have all failed them over the past few weeks and days. But I know each of them well enough to know what has kept their true hearts beating through it all: God has been the strength of their hearts and their portion forever.
Their hearts have ceased to become a muscle pumping blood through their chests and have become True Hearts. Hearts that despite the crushing sound of sorrow sing a deeper, truer tune: God, You are the strength of my heart, You are the strength of my heart, I can rely on You, There is no one as true, Jesus I trust in You.
I want a True Heart, too. Don’t you? I don’t know when tragic news is going to strike next. And while I don’t want to live in fear, I want to live in readiness, preparedness for the day when I, too, will need a True Heart. Because a True Heart isn’t born in the moment when sorrow strikes; it is born in the day in and day out decisions of obedience and trust and surrender in the days, weeks, months and years before sorrow strikes.
The next few weeks, I want to look at living examples of people who have True Hearts, people who faced sorrow to the tune of Psalm 73:26: “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is strength of my heart and my portion forever.” Because I want to learn from their example. I want to learn to run with the strength of a True Heart, with trust in a True God, no matter what the day holds.
So tune in for more on a True Heart, and in the meantime, pray for Kathe, Matt, Shannon, Robin, and Taylor. Pray that their hearts would continue to stay…True.
The older I get the more I have to grapple with the painful reality that some stories don’t turn out the way I want them to. In my youth, all stories were viewed through the rose colored glasses of hopeful expectation for fairy tale endings in this lifetime. And since I am a Christian, the expectation went something like: “If I pray diligently enough and believe hard enough about the situation, everything will turn out alright in the end.” But I have learned that Monday morning still comes. Some marriages still end in divorce. Some sicknesses are not healed. Some friendships are irrevocably torn. Savings go up in smoke and financial security is gone forever.
That’s why Oswald Chambers’ words this morning were so helpful:
“Life is not as idle ore,
But iron dug from central gloom,
And batter’d by the shocks of doom
To shape and use.”
“God has to take us into the valley, and put us through fires and floods to batter us into shape, until we get to the place where He can trust us with the veritable reality….Let Him put you on His wheel and whirl you as He likes, and as sure as God is God and you are you, you will turn out exactly in accordance with the vision.” My Utmost for His Highest, “Vision and Reality,” July 6th
The ending to the story might not turn out exactly as I thought or as I prayed it would. The suffering of the people of God might be great in and around me. But if I were to remain as I was with my rose-colored glasses, what use would I be, really, for the Kingdom of God? I must take off my glasses and take hold of the Hand of the One who guides me through the valley, trusting that He sees the way, even when I do not. And He is the One who holds the ending to all stories. Even the darkest ones. Things may not turn out as I wish they would, but He uses each “shock of doom” and “central gloom” to shape for us an eternal weight of glory that will far outweigh our present sufferings.
That statement in and of itself might sound as far-fetched as any fairy-tale, but it’s true. One look at Calvary tells me so. “For those God foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, in order that He might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29). If God used the sufferings of Christ to bring ultimate good and glory to His Name, then my suffering will be used as well. To tell the story. To praise His Name. To let those around me know that the God I serve is greater than my circumstances. No matter the ending to my story. Or yours.
So let the batterings of God today shape you into a weapon, a tool to be used in the lives of others to point to the goodness and sufficiency of God in the depths of the valley, no matter the apparent ending to the story. For the fairy tale is coming: “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (II Corinthians 4:16-18).