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.
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.)
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.