Thursday, September 30, 2021

Kingdom Suffering {Reprise}




Many of the narratives Amore and I are taking in right now include the motif of time travel. In particular, the characters in these stories are tempted by the desire to travel back in time to change the action they most regret or avert the greatest sorrow of their lives: to prevent a tragic death or the incarceration of a parent, to take future medicine back to a grave illness it could cure, or to stay in or end a relationship.

Sometimes they succeed in changing the one thing they thought would change everything, but it doesn't. More often, they do alleviate the regret or prevent the sorrow, only to realize they succeeded to their loss or to the harm of the people around them. They discover the pain they loathed was responsible for some of the best things in their character or relationships. The pain, though no less painful, becomes purposeful and ennobling.

This strikes me as a shadow of Truth lingering in our culture's secular mythology. It interests me that even people who don't know the Lord recognize that trials have a purpose and can do good work in us, even through very evil and broken circumstances.

Looking at the intensely painful trials in our families right now or at the ones we've passed through in the11 years of this blog, there have been so many times about so many of the things when I have wished I could lessen or remove the pain. I'm glad in the Lord that I can't act on that temptation. As hard as it is to suffer in my body or relationships or in the suffering of my dearest loved ones (or all of the preceding), by faith and God's Word I know that to remove those trials would be to our eternal loss.

Suffering is a blessing for those in Christ. It is an uncomfortable, sometimes excruciating blessing, to be sure, but still, in the eternal scheme of things, a blessing. For the Christian, it has a purpose and is part of the "all things" God causes to work together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28). From Scripture and my experience, here are some of the blessings buried in suffering, blessings which do not come to us any other way, blessings to us, to God's church, to the lost, and to His glory.

Suffering is a chisel to conform me to the image of Christ and bring me to maturity:
  • Suffering increases dependence on God through desperate circumstances. As Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth often says, "Anything that makes us desperate for God is a blessing." Nothing makes us desperate like affliction. The apostle Paul experienced this benefit of suffering during a sojourn in Asia. He wrote to the Corinthian church, "For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again" (2 Cor. 1:8-10).
  • Suffering can increase the believer's knowledge of Christ in the fellowship of His sufferings (Phil. 3:10). Many times in telling the story of my first season of brokenness, I have said that I wouldn't take a million dollars to go through it again, but I wouldn't give a million dollars for the growth in knowing Christ and His Word received through that time. Sadly, in the hardness of our hearts, sometimes we must arrive at the place where Christ is all we have before we realize that He is all we need and the One Thing above all others we want.
  • Suffering, for me, has increased my assurance that the ministry I do is through His grace and strength (1 Peter 4:10-11). This is always true for all of us, of course, but my weaknesses make it obvious. Because of my health issues, if He doesn't enable me, it won't happen. Any "yes" I say to ministry is sincerely, "Lord willing and the creek don't rise." Yet "God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work" (2 Cor 9:8). He always gives me enough grace at the right time to serve in the ways He wants. My frequent prayers in this regard are, "I can't do this; will You please help me?" and "Show up and show off, Lord."
  • Suffering increases perseverance and, ultimately, hope. "Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us" (Romans 5:3-5). Suffering strengthens our faith muscles to grow our endurance and our hope in the unseen good we groan to see (Romans 8:18-25).
  • Suffering deflates pride (2 Cor. 12:7-10). For more on this, see "The Gift of Thorns" from the archives of this blog.


In addition, suffering is a means of growing the body of Christ toward maturity:
  • Those whose help I need have an opportunity to serve, and to do so without fanfare or reciprocation. As much as this weighs on me as the one in need of help, friends and family have pointed out that "all things for good" applies to the other people affected by my limitations as well as to myself. By serving me cheerfully in the Lord's strength, they serve the Lord, and He will not forget that.

    Service is a spiritual gift and a general command. People in need are the opportunity to exercise that gift and love through serving. "As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen" (1 Peter 4:9-11).
  • Those who pray can grow closer to Christ through prayer and in character as they faithfully execute that hidden ministry in the secret place of communion with the Lord.  Moreover, thanksgiving is multiplied as we all see God's answers. The verse following the previously cited 2 Cor. 1 passage says this: "You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many" (2 Cor. 1:11). Prayer is real spiritual work and an opportunity to amplify the chorus of thanksgiving to the God who hears and answers in His best way.
  • Those who watch may have their faith encouraged as they watch suffering in faith, as I have in watching Joni or Gitz or Vaneetha or Kara Tippetts or Amy Carmichael or those in my own local church who walk courageously through cancer or disability. Their stories continue to build the testimonies of the great cloud of witnesses proclaiming with their lives that Jesus is better, that Jesus is worth present suffering, that His kingdom is better than the best this world has to offer (Hebrews 11:1-12:2). These testimonies grow my love for God and strengthen me to trust the Lord with my own afflictions. May it be so with yours and mine, too.
  • Others who suffer feel safe confiding their sufferings to one who suffers. Seeking the Lord in our suffering is the unique and necessary training ground for offering comfort to other sufferers: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God" (2 Cor. 1:3-4). Experiencing God's comfort in our own suffering gives us something to offer hurting people, makes us more approachable to them, and enhances our credibility when we must speak uncomfortable truths from God's Word that will help them get through their hard time. Do also note in that verse that we need not have suffered in the same way as the person we seek to comfort. So rich and multifaceted is the comfort given by the Father of mercies that His comfort makes us "able to comfort those in any affliction."


Third, suffering can open doors to share the gospel with the lost:
  • Suffering is a means of bringing us into close contact with people we may not have met otherwise. Paul the apostle wrote more than once of his prison chains as no hindrance to the gospel and even called himself "an ambassador in chains" (Eph. 6:19-20Phil. 1:12-14). Paul was in chains, but God's Word could not be (2 Tim. 2:9-10). Furthermore, it was because of a physical illness that Paul preached the gospel to the Galatians (Gal 4:13-14). Healthcare workers are my mission field instead of pastors' wives now.
  • Suffering strikes believers and unbelievers alike; when the lost world sees a difference in the way Christians suffer, sometimes they want to know why. With all prayerful effort, I seek to be kind to my doctors and pharmacists, to care about them as people, and to watch for doors the Lord opens to share the gospel with them. Amore's coworkers are aware of the trials his family has endured in recent years, and they know the demands my illness place on him. They may not know the Lord, but they are watching to see how Amore responds to these afflictions. They see how he takes care of me, and perhaps, someday, the Lord will cause them to ask him the reason for his hope. Unsaved family members see how we weather griefs and sorrows as well. May the Lord make them curious enough to ask, and may He open their hearts to believe. Our part is to pray for open doors and bold words and to be ready to give the reason for our hope (1 Peter 3:15Col. 4:3Eph. 6:18-20).


Finally, suffering is a means of glorifying God in the heavenly realms:
  • Consider His servant Job. Satan's core strategy with him was to strip all earthly blessings from him until he cursed God to his face. One of his continuing strategies with us is to attack us at the place of our faith and to undermine our confidence in the wisdom, goodness, and trustworthiness of God.

    Every time we look at the hard and look back up to God in faith to bless His name, He receives glory and Satan is put to shame. Lifting up that shield of faith extinguishes the flaming arrows of the evil one (Eph. 6:16). Suffering is fundamentally a spiritual battle even more than a medical, financial, or relational one, and the spiritual victory is more important than any circumstantial victory of relief of adversity.

    When we, like Job, say or sing, "The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord" (Job 1:21), the Lord is honored and Satan defeated in the skirmish. When we, by His own grace, say, "Though he slay me, I will hope in him" (Job 13:15), we add our own voice to the cloud of witnesses to Jesus' worthiness.
  • Consider also Satan's limits. As with Job and with Peter. he cannot touch us with suffering unless the Lord grants permission (Job 1Luke 22:31-32). The same Lord who tells the ocean waves, "Thus far, and no farther," sets the boundaries on Satan's access to us. Satan is a roaring lion, yes, but he's a lion on a leash.

    As Peter wrote, "Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen" (1 Peter 5:8-11).

    Our Shepherd is stronger, and our Shepherd is good. If He permits the enemy to touch us with pain and loss, that is for our good. We can trust Him with this, whatever our particular "this" is.

This is not an essay on how to suffer well. I stumble too often to write such a post. It is instead a post seeking to shine a light on the meaning of our suffering. Dear crumble, your pain is not random; it is the yoke, the cross-beam, specially fitted for you by a Father who loves you and is making you like His Son. As Joni says, "God permits what He hates to accomplish what He loves." Your pain is not meaningless; you have the opportunity to suffer for the name and kingdom of God, and that opportunity is only yours for a little while, in this life. When that kingdom comes in all its fullness, there will be no more crying or pain, and He will wipe every tear from our eyes. Your pain is not forever and will end in resurrection wholeness. If you are in Christ, your story has a happy ending, and it will be worth all we went through on the journey. He promises (John 16:20-221 Peter 1:6-7).

Thanks be to God for the uncomfortable gift of suffering and for His faithfulness to preserve my faith in the midst of it so far. Thank you, crumbles, for helping me through your prayers and encouragement. May the Lord strengthen and encourage all of us, dear crumbles, to bless His name when He gives and when He takes away. Even in the taking away, He gives. Nothing can touch us unless He appoints it for our good and His glory. We can trust the Lord with this, because of Jesus the Crucified and Risen One. Amen.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Cloud Cuckoo Land {Book Review}

 


“Stranger, whoever you are, open this to learn what will amaze you.”
~Anthony Doerr, Cloud Cuckoo Land

 

In the novel Cloud Cuckoo Land, Anthony Doerr masterfully crafts an epic, complex narrative which unites five diverse characters across centuries, cultures, and continents. He accomplishes this by means of an invented ancient Greek fable also calledCloud Cuckoo Land” and a number of richly developed themes. {For the sake of clarity, I will italicize the novel and put the Greek story title in quotation marks.} Doerr is best known for his widely read literary fiction All the Light We Cannot See, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize; because of that book’s popularity and success, it won’t surprise me if the new novel debuts at the top of the fiction charts. His newest release carries the same intricate detail, multiple narrative voices, and fascination with humanity’s tendency toward the extremes of sublime creation and devastating destruction. In this review, I hope to introduce you to the characters and stylistic features of Cloud Cuckoo Land, briefly consider the primary themes, and reflect on this book from my evangelical Christian worldview.

Cloud Cuckoo Land is written from multiple points of view: Zeno, an orphaned Greek immigrant building a life for himself in small-town Idaho; Seymour, a fatherless boy with an unnamed psychiatric condition, which alienates him from his peers in the same Idaho town; Omeir, a Bulgarian farm boy isolated by a disfiguring medical condition; Anna, a young orphan girl working as a novice embroiderer for a monastery in medieval Constantinople (but really longing to learn and read and go on adventures both real and imagined); and Konstance, another young girl on the spaceship Argos on a mission to find a habitable planet. In a sense, the fictional Aethon, protagonist of “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” constitutes a sixth narrator. The voices take their turns and sometimes overlap like the parts in a Bach invention, giving and taking, merging and diverging, in a literary counterpoint. It seems impossible that they could weave together in a unified whole, but they do. That said, this book may frustrate readers who dislike multiple narrators or non-linear storytelling.

The titular Greek text (invented by Doerr but attributed to the real philosopher Diogenes), the “translation” of which he feeds to the reader piecemeal throughout the novel, proves significant to each character’s life and so integrates the strands of the tale. That imagined text also establishes the fundamental theme of longing for home (Greek nostos) which preoccupies each character in his or her own way and names the final section of the book. One character defines the word like this:

'Nostos, yes. The act of homecoming, a safe arrival. Of course, mapping a single English word onto a Greek one is almost always slippery. Nostos is also a song about a homecoming…. In a time,’ he says, ‘when disease, war, and famine haunted practically every hour… Imagine how it felt to hear the old songs about heroes coming home. To believe that it was possible…. It’s not so much about the contents of the song. It’s that the song was still being sung’ (Kindle location 2600).

Their journeys take them on a quest not for the home of house, family, and work, but, like Holly Golightly, for a sort of idealized paradise, “a place where me and things go together.” Ultimately, “Cloud Cuckoo Land” becomes the vehicle that transports each character on his or her quest for home. The shadowy complement to that theme is the pervasive sense of loneliness and alienation throughout at least the first half of the book; in that regard it felt like work that could only come into being in the last two years. (Even the character name Zeno sounds like an Americanization of the Greek word xeno, “stranger, alien, foreigner.”) That mood of alienation was so strong for so many pages that I feared it was the primary theme of the whole work. To be honest, I might have given up without seeing the characters’ journeys through to redemption if I hadn’t agreed to this review.


“When the stream of the old Greek picks up, and she climbs into the story, as though climbing the wall of the priory on the rock—handhold here, foothold there—the damp chill of the cell dissipates, and the bright, ridiculous world of Aethon takes its place…. Open the [manuscript] box, walk the lines of sentences: the singer steps out, and breathes a world of color and noise into the space inside your head” (Anna, Kindle location 3294, Cloud Cuckoo Land).

Additionally, Cloud Cuckoo Land displays as clearly as any novel I know the power, preciousness, and perishability of books:  they reach across cultures, continents, oceans, and centuries to bind their readers together, but the time they can so transcend is also their chief enemy. For that reason they require caretakers, whether the readers who love them or librarians. That theme of stewardship also applies to the environmental themes and climate devastation in the book, which for me are the one aspect that verges on heavy-handed. The motifs of Greek language and literature and birds, in particular owls, also serve to unify the melodies of the different plot lines.

This book provides food for theological thinking in a few ways. First, the fragile, repeatedly lost-and-found Greek story of the title contrasts with the persistent continuity of Bible manuscripts over millennia and throughout the rise and fall of empires. The Christian Bible has better quality (based on factors like completion and proximity to time of writing) and more abundant historical manuscript evidence than any other ancient book. There is more historical attestation of the Christian Scriptures than there is of the life of Julius Caesar or Homer’s Odyssey. (See Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict. This recent Renewing Your Mind episode also discusses historical and textual evidence the Bible is what it claims to be.) Furthermore, as awestruck as I am by Doerr’s ability to integrate half a dozen narratives into a unified whole, how much more awestruck should I be at the unified metanarrative told by the 66 Bible books, written by dozens of authors in three different languages over a period of 1500 or 1600 years? The true story woven therein is not fragile or obscure but imperishable and eternally enduring, able even to speak life into dead hearts. (I know it can because God spoke life into mine through the Scriptures.) Third, the magical paradise land of birds which is sought by the hero of the Greek tale “Cloud Cuckoo Land” is ultimately a utopia, a “no place”; the new heavens and new earth promised in the Bible are real and drawing nearer every day. They are found not by a complicated magical quest but by trusting in the work of Christ to bear our sins and their penalty and to give to us His righteousness, thus reconciling us to God and securing our adoption as His sons and daughters. Though we often feel lonely, even alienated, in this earthly life, the believer in Christ is never truly alone, because (s)he has the Triune God living in him/her. That relationship also bonds any Christian believer now with the community of believers across the world and throughout history into one body. For now that homesick nostos longing can be overwhelming, especially in trying times like we are all living through in September 2021. Yet as C. S. Lewis wrote, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity). For those who belong to Christ, a day is coming, revealed in the best of all books, when there will be no more death or loss or mourning or pain, when we will truly experience, some of us for the first time, “a place where me and things go together.” Reading Cloud Cuckoo Land reminded me how substantial  are the things I hope for; in that and in its craftsmanship, it is time well-spent.

Other themes worthy of worldview reflection include appearance versus reality (and the question of how we decide whom to trust), and the idea of stewardship as presented in the novel versus stewardship in the Bible.

(Many of dear readers may want to know that the book contains some vulgar language and some sensuality, including one homosexual character. There are also beautiful depictions of sacrificial love, friendship, and a happy, improbable marriage.)

To sum up, in Cloud Cuckoo Land, Anthony Doerr has perhaps surpassed the literary craftsmanship of All the Light We Cannot See. I loved several of these characters with an affection I don't recall feeling for Marie-Laure and Werner of the previous book. It is very long and exceedingly complex, and the first half offers little in the way of hope, but the narrative payoff of redemption is all the sweeter for the darkness of its backdrop. Like a Bach invention in a minor key, it resolves on a Picardy third. This novel is a love offering to books, librarians, language, and the beauties of this world. I expect it will win more prizes and enjoy many, many weeks atop best-seller lists. I hope the thoughts above help you decide whether it’s for you, for now, and provide a bit of kindling for your own reflections if you choose to read it. For it is a book deserving of reflection, not one to skim once and check off.

 

{This review is based on an advance galley copy I received in exchange for an honest and timely review. Purchases made through the Amazon links drop a few cents in my account toward more books.}

Friday, September 17, 2021

Sacrament of Hope

 “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.  And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.  For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

Romans 8:18-25, ESV



Early in 2012, one of the first new friends blogging brought me lost her fourth child in miscarriage. It was not unexpected; the doctor had told her it was imminent. That was not a great comfort in the physical and emotional pain.

Ever since reading the bad news of the coming loss, I had been praying for her and for her family. On the day it arrived, I wept for her from far away and prayed again. As I prayed, I felt two ideas with certainty: there would be another child for her, and I needed to act out that hope for her until she was able to hope again. “A sacrament of hope,” I thought. “What a silly idea. Or is it?”

The church of my childhood defined sacrament as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible reality.” What outward and visible sign of hope befit this situation? How could I enact hope, as David did when he prepared for the temple he wasn’t permitted to build, as he did when he composed a psalm for the dedication of said temple before ever the foundations were laid (Psalm 30), as Joseph did when he issued instructions for future generations to carry his bones back to Israel when the Lord restored them to the land of promise?

Nothing so grand lay in my purview, but I could make a baby blanket. I chose a pattern, made notes of the yardage and weight of yarn needed, and invested valuable and scarce energy in driving myself to the yarn store. (It wasn’t far, but I was mostly homebound and rarely able to drive then.) The woman who assisted me with yarn selection looked at me like I’d lost my mind in shopping for yarn for a baby not yet conceived. No, I didn’t know the gender. No, I didn’t know the colors chosen for the nursery. This was a blanket of hope for my friend who’d lost her child. Maybe a few shades of green? That’s gender-neutral, right?

That very day, the day I learned of her loss, I started a baby blanket for the child that would come. That child, a son, is 8 years old.

When we started rescuing butterflies-in-training this summer, that same phrase came unbidden to my mind. We have endured so much loss the last two years, from surgeries to bereavement to pandemic isolation to social unrest to violence near and far. None of that can be fixed or undone, but it can and will be redeemed for those who are in Christ. In our own small way, Amore and I are acting out the hope of redemption, resurrection, and restoration by rescuing 17 caterpillars from wasps, protecting and feeding them through the stages of their transformation, and releasing them as gently as we can into this rebellious and broken world. My heart finds this also a sacrament of hope. We are waiting on the last chrysalis, a queen, now, and the embers of my hope in the unseen, long-awaited consummation of history have been stoked into a glowing promise of rekindled flame.


Lord, revive our flagging hope that Your promises are sure. Resurrect dead hopes if they originated in You. Fill is with Your Spirit of hope that we might walk daily in eager expectation of Your good promises becoming reality. Show us what actions best adorn and enact the hope in our hearts. Come soon, Lord Jesus. Amen. 

Monday, September 6, 2021

Operation Winged Victory {Butterfly Photos}

As of September 6, 2021, our caterpillar rescue operation has released an even dozen butterflies into the world. We have watched eight monarchs and four queens transform, and we still have four monarch chrysalides and one queen waiting for their wings. Here's a peek into the process.

Queen Butterflies
















Make me Your butterfly, O Lord.
Peel back layers and layers and layers
Of wormy flesh and wriggling self
(Always crawling off the altar).
Transform through myriad tiny deaths
Surrender and surrender and surrender
Till final entombment of that old me
And rebirth into winged victory
Soaring and soaring and soaring
Homeward to You.


Monarch Butterflies










Chrysalis on the left and a caterpillar "J-ed up" and preparing for pupation on the right





The caterpillar "unzips" the skin from head to tail. The pupa which hardens into a chrysalis is inside the caterpillar skin.

Monarch pupa (what's inside the caterpillar)

A pair of monarch chrysalides after the pupae contracted and hardened



As the butterfly prepares to emerge, the green chrysalis fades to grey and then becomes translucent, showing the wings of the butterfly within.

Note how swollen the abdomen is and how limp the wings. She pumps the fluid out of the body into the wings. Then they harden over the course of several hours. Until then she cannot fly.








The habitat we used for those caterpillars seems to be no longer available from Amazon, but there are plenty of options, and a large jar covered securely with cheesecloth also works (affiliate link):
https://amzn.to/3yUKlqo

Here is a helpful guide if you'd like to try raising your own caterpillars:
https://www.joyfulbutterfly.com/caterpillar-home-indoors/#:~:text=Ideas%20for%20an%20enclosed%20caterpillar,containers%20from%20pet%20stores%2C%20etc.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Cathedral Floor



Tracery of shadows--

Branches of live oak and crape myrtle--

Weave together like bottle-green leaded glass, 

Cathedral window strewn at my feet.

Cardinal song summons me to noonday prayer

In this upside-down, sideways world.


8/30/21