Faces Turned Toward God Like Sunflowers

Faces turned toward God: Sunflowersphoto by marco-secchi-585553-unsplash-copy.jp

Faces turned toward God.

Watching a field of sunflowers with their faces turned toward the sun reminds me of how we–as children of God–were created to live with our faces turned toward God.

As a small child, our middle daughter made us think of a sunflower. She was so full of sunshine and so eager to express God’s love to others. When her grandma said to me, “There’s no beating her face for sunshine,” I knew I had found her symbol.

Her older sister’s symbol was a young apple tree. Hers was a sunflower. She loved the symbol and lived into it, as I had hoped after learning the idea from Trent and Smalley’s The Blessing.

We told her that we thought of her as a living sunflower. She reflected God’s love to others just as sunflowers reflect the sunshine in their bright color.

As a child, she collected sunflower memorabilia. As a teenager, she painted her bedroom wall with beautiful, very individual sunflowers. As a bride, she carried sunflowers.

When she was a little girl, she did not know much of the Old Testament yet.

She did not know that Isaiah 60:19 says,

“The sun will no more be your light by day,
    nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you,
for the Lord will be your everlasting light,
    and your God will be your glory. ” NIV

But she knew that God loved her and wanted her to love others. She also knew her shining face made us think of reflecting God’s love to others, like sunflowers reflect the sun. I’m sure that encouraged her bright spirit.

But she had times of difficulty growing up, as all our children did. We thanked God then, as we do now, that she knew God’s love was not just for sunny times.

Yet she knew God loved her even when she felt miserable. She used to ask me why God didn’t just make her feel better when she was sick and prayed to him. Since she knew he could, why didn’t he?

The only thing I could tell her is that I didn’t know. But I also told her that suffering came into the world as a result of sin. I also knew that sickness and pain make us long for heaven and God’s presence in a way unblemished happiness would probably not.

God kept his promise from Numbers 6:25 to make his face shine upon her and be gracious to her. And later he graced her with the ability to share that loving favor from God with others who had struggled as she had.

Living with faces turned toward God.

As a high schooler, she once asked me to write down all the Bible verses I had shared with her over the years. I was surprised and knew I had no way of knowing what they all were. Then she told me she wanted to make little cards of them to encourage a friend as they had encouraged her.

My mother’s heart was full. God’s word had nestled in her heart and found a place from which to go forth in love.

[photo by marco-secchi-585553-unsplash]

 

Children Questioning Why: Fruitful Inquiry

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Children Questioning Why

Thinking back to my years of children questioning why, I remember wondering if their questions would ever end. But they always did. Because their “But why?” always led me to the only final answer: “Because that’s the way God made it.”

With my first child, I remember thinking she would not be satisfied by that answer. And she did always initially ask why God had made that choice.

But when I told her that I didn’t know and we could ask him when we got to heaven, that seemed to satisfy her. Until she thought of her next question.

The pattern repeated itself with my other two children. Always curious. Always wanting to know why. And always wanting to know why about the answer.

Each child repeated the pattern of questioning a surprising number of times .

“Why can’t we see the end of the lake? If there’s land on the other side, why can’t we see it?”

“Why does it get dark at night?”

“But why do I have to sleep at night?”

“How do you know candy is bad for me?”

“But why do dogs bark? And why are they so loud?”

“Why do the leaves turn different colors?”

I started thinking my children questioning why were a sign of the God-shaped vacuums within them.

When Pascal said that each person is created with a God-shaped vacuum within, I don’t think he meant only adults. Our children’s questions also demonstrate their need to know who God is and what he is like.

Their native curiosity demonstrates their growing intelligence, but their willingness to accept God as the ultimate answer is powerful.

They know he is the prime mover. They couldn’t tell us that. But they know its truth instinctively. They know the truth is bigger than us as human beings.

Our need to tell them this truth is just as important.

We need to explain that we don’t know why some fish are created to live in salt water, some in fresh water, and some in both. Because our children need to know we don’t know everything. We may want them to think we know everything. But they need to know we don’t.

And our need to acknowledge that God knows so much that we can’t possibly know fits with our own God-shaped vacuums. We may not always feel the need to tell our children that we are limited.

But it’s an important part of our modeling dependence on him.

And, when we think about it, don’t we as adults constantly have questions we can’t find answers to?

I used to think I had so many questions I planned to ask God as soon as I got to heaven. Then I started thinking I wouldn’t need to ask him when I got there. I would already know. But now the more I learn about the new heavens and the new earth, the more I think learning will be one of the continual gifts of eternal life.

Learning is one of the prime gifts God gives us on earth, so it makes sense that our process of learning in heaven might be even more magnificent.

[photo by joshua-alfaro-353879-unsplash]

Growing Roots Deep into Christ

Starting young with growing roots deep into Christ.

I love this photo of the boy sitting in the huge tree. The enormous tree seems to be wrapping its arms around him and bringing him contentment. A child this age can’t understand the root system of a huge tree like this. Nor does he know the concept of a child growing roots deep into Christ. But he can know where he feels safe.

Rooting ourselves deeply in Christ makes us feel safe in the arms of God, as this boy feels in the tree. And it can start so early. Praying with a baby who is fussing for a reason we can’t understand. Praying with a toddler over something he feels terrible about. Little ones can learn that Jesus answers their prayers in amazing ways and that he is their ultimate safety.

Writing a talk the other day, I thought about how our children began putting down their roots into Christ at an early age. Inspired by Trent & Smalley’s book The Blessing, we gave one of our daughters the symbol of a young tree. It symbolized how we saw her in Christ, as a child who loved Jesus and sought to live for him. At her young age it was impossible to know all the fruit God would allow her to bear. But we saw the beginnings. We gave her the symbol of a very young apple tree and found a real one to take her picture standing near.

The passage we chose for her was Psalm 1, with an emphasis on verse 3:That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers.”

As an adult growing roots deep into Christ.

That verse has realized its promise. We’ve seen our child become an adult woman who has an active prayer life and active ministry to the many people God has placed in her life.

Another favorite passage that now fits her and is a challenge for each of us is Colossians 2: 6-7So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness” (NIV).

Remembering the traumas she experienced in her young adult life, I am so grateful that her rootedness in Christ allowed her stay safe and know she was in the arms of Jesus. Even when she wondered what in the world God was doing in allowing her to get so sick. Multiple times even when she nearly died.

Growing roots deep into Christ moved her from being a child who played church–preaching to and baptizing dolls and stuffed animals–to a grown up who preaches to and baptizes real people. When she was four years old, we had no clue that it was more than play. But God knew. And he grew those roots and built her up in him.
[photo by martha-dominguez-de-gouveia-567149-unsplash]

Generation Gap Threatened Us

Meanest Mom Ever

That night my mom was the meanest, most unreasonable mom a girl ever had to put up with. She had usually been fun to talk to about boys I had crushes on or who had crushes on me. But that night she morphed into an ice monster. A generation gap threatened us.

A very cool and very cute guy had just asked me to our high-school winter dance. Not quite fourteen, I knew my parents had said I wasn’t allowed to date till sixteen. But this called for an exception. An all-school dance!

I begged and pleaded.

She only explained the rules again.

I cried. She shook her head and tried to hug me. The nerve!

I explained how special this guy was. She reminded me how young I was and said I would have more opportunities later.

I called her out as a hypocrite.

Reminding her that she herself had started dating at thirteen, I showed her how unfair she was being by denying me the fun she had experienced.

Her story was that she and her young boyfriends has been too young to even enjoy themselves properly and had even needed to be driven places by parents. Lame.

But my guy friend was 17 and had a car, so I knew we wouldn’t have those issues.

Besides, I knew I was very mature for my age and would be just fine.

After far too long, I finally admitted defeat.

Crying longer in my bedroom, I decided to write in my journal. Two long pages. How mean my mom was. That I was going to be much more understanding when I had a daughter someday. I just could not understand how a perfectly normal mom could become so unreasonable all of a sudden.

The generation gap threatened to win.

After hours of crying, I had a tough time sleeping. Waking up to hugely swollen red eyes did NOT improve my mood.

I wore my big, floppy, purple hat to school, so at least from a distance people would not be able to see what a wreck I was. But that didn’t help with talking to my guy friend. He could still see how ugly I looked.

I didn’t have to work to convince him how bad I felt at having to say no to him. He could see evidence of my tears.

What surprised me was that he told me he respected me for respecting my parents’ decision. He said he knew many girls would have just arranged a sleepover at a friend’s house.

He also told me he would come back when I was sixteen. I knew that was crazy, since he wouldn’t even be in high school then. But he did. We remained friends, and years later we went out a few times.

But the most amazing thing is how God worked through that event. Much later, when I was in college, he stopped at my parents’ house and told them how much he appreciated my leading him to Jesus. He wanted to thank them and me for what that meant to him.

My parents were surprised and called me to ask me why they had never heard. Because I had never known!

In church planting, my dad had always taught us not to share our faith across genders because of the danger of people experiencing the love of God as romantic love.

So I had certainly never set out to make a gospel presentation to him as such. But obviously God worked in that moment through my actively owning my faith and obeying my parents, even in my anger. My friend later attributed his new faith to me. Crazy.

The funny thing is that I had never even thought of trying to lie my way past my mom. Obviously, she and my dad had established a clear rationale for why we obey parents: as a means of reflecting the integrity of the God we serve.

My mom’s walking her faith with me crushed the generation gap.

And God used an event my young self temporarily thought of as one of the worst in my life to bring someone to faith in him. Amazing!

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Human Neediness and a Magnificent Dream

A few years ago in a gorgeous mountain setting, the contrast between God’s grandeur and our human neediness struck me.

We were vacationing with a young family with charming children. All of us were excited to be together and were loving the surroundings. Then the oldest daughter confided her fear of death for herself and for her parents. Her sudden feelings of neediness surprised me.

A few minutes before, she had been happily swinging and loving being outdoors. But the coming nightfall brought to her mind her recurring nightmares.

Her nightmares repeatedly told her that she was going to die and be punished. This little girl had committed her life to Jesus and was regularly reading her children’s Bible. But Satan was still planting fears and doubts in her mind.

Having recently lost my beloved mother-in-law to death, I was able to share with this little one the power of knowing that my loved one is currently in heaven with Jesus.

I told her how much I still missed Mom and that many people do, but that Mom is now forever happy with Jesus. My little friend loved the image of happiness after death.

I reminded her of Revelation 3: 20. Jesus tells us, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.”

I reminded her that she had asked him into her heart. She could trust Jesus that he would keep his promise.

I also told her the story of my experience of neediness and fears when I had been about her age.

My best friend’s mom, a good friend of our family, had died after being confined to a wheelchair for many years with rheumatoid arthritis.

I had been distraught. Inconsolable. My parents had repeatedly shared encouragement and verses from scripture, but I just had not been able to take comfort from them. My emotional neediness took center stage.

Then God gave me a dream.

In my dream I saw Aunty Libby walking toward me with a glowing face and a look of indescribable joy. Not only was she walking, but she looked healthy in a way I had never seen her in life.

I was so excited that I ran to her, calling her name. She did not hear me but continued walking forward with an ecstatic look on her face.

When I turned to look at what she was walking toward, I saw indescribable beauty. The only way I can attempt to describe it is that I saw a very bright light that was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen.

I threw myself down on the ground in awe. Obviously I was way too young to have read anything about people at the end of life seeing bright lights, or people lying face down in worship. But somehow that’s what I experienced.

When I woke up and saw my family at breakfast, I was so excited: “Aunty Libby’s in heaven! Aunty Libby’s in heaven!”

My parents expressed surprise, since they had both been working unsuccessfully to convince me of that. God had seen my stubborn disbelief in my grief and had reached out to give me a dream to illustrate his truth and answer my neediness.

That dream forever canceled any fears I could have of death. The pain of suffering before death can still cause dread, but death itself has always seemed a wonderful transition ever since that dream.

I shared this dream with my little friend and read her some of the description of the New Jerusalem from Revelation 21.

She was comforted. But what seemed to strike her most was my actual happiness that Mom is now in heaven. That though I still miss her, I rejoice for her.

My little friend’s face lit up as she heard my stories. She said, “I don’t think I’m going to have nightmares anymore. But will you still pray with me before bed?”

From then on, I prayed with her every night–that Satan would not disturb her sleep. Every morning she excitedly told me that she had slept so well with “NO NIGHTMARES!”

She practically danced into the breakfast room. And I was grateful that God had shown his power in canceling her fears and giving her joy. His unconditional love for us is amazing.

[Photo by ales-krivec-335251-unsplash.jpg]

God is good, says my little grandson.

Sitting on the beach playing with my twenty-two-month-old grandson, I was overwhelmed by God’s goodness.

This is a baby who was prayed for long before he was even conceived and who came into the world with much trauma. Just before his birth I had also experienced trauma with my back injury and surgery. Now the two of us can sit together on the beach and play for hours. I felt so strongly that God is good.

With my heart overflowing, I said aloud, “God is so good, little one. He has blessed me so much by you.”

His immediate response was, “God is good.”

I was startled and then even teary eyed as he repeated it over and over. At this point he had spoken very few sentences in his life.

Obviously, a little one knows when he has hit on something that pleases an adult. So he said it probably a dozen times, and I repeated it with him, as we continued to play. My joy increased.

But what surprised me just as much was his saying it hours later, while he was eating and listening to the adults talk. His mother was talking about something great that had just happened, unrelated to him.

Our toddler’s nonchalant “God is good” surprised us all.

It is so true in general and fit perfectly as a commentary on the conversation. Even though his mother had not mentioned God in that particular conversation, she tells him regularly about God’s love for all of us. She has taught him to add into their prayers together people and things he is thankful for.

He is learning—before he can fully talk—both the goodness of God and the reality of Jesus Christ in his life. It amazes me how God works in our children before we can even know they understand.

We know that adults sometimes come to know Jesus through sudden commitments and radical changes in their lives. But children—and even most adults—usually come to know Jesus gradually, a bit at a time. We have no idea how early they come to know the reality of Jesus Christ in their lives.

My dad—a church planter—always said most people come to faith in Jesus sort of like the opening of a rose. As we come to most relationships. Some people fall into a “It feels like we’ve known each other for years” relationship, but most develop friendships gradually over time.

So it is with our walk with Jesus.

Though we know that “God is good” from the mouth of a toddler is not a dramatic conversion experience like that of Saul of Tarsus, we know it shows God is working. It also shows the importance of little comments we make around them without much thought.

 

As our late Pastor Norm Meyer said repeatedly, even on the day he told the congregation he was dying of bone cancer, “God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good.”

 

Weirdest Engagement Ever?

Weirdest engagement ever?

I know my parents did not have the weirdest engagement ever. But it seemed like that to me when I was growing up.

For one thing, my dad was exactly ten years older than my mom. We used to laugh at our parents that our dad could have babysat our mom.

But the weirdest part was how they met and decided to get married.

The story they told us is that one day my dad’s friend, the only other unmarried seminarian in his class, suggested  my dad get a date for the upcoming wives and girlfriends tea at the seminary. My dad’s friend had a girlfriend he wanted to bring, and he wanted my dad to keep him company.

My dad gave the obvious objection: he wasn’t dating anyone at the moment.

His friend had an easy answer, “Ask Mary LaGrand. She’s great. She’ll be up for it.” My mom was a student in a college class he was teaching, and he thought she would be the perfect person for my dad to ask.

Dad was game. As it turned out, Mom was too.

She told us later, “They never let women inside the seminary. I had always wondered what it was like. So I jumped at the opportunity. It sounded fun. And I knew Frank and thought he was fun.”

For some reason we kids never found out, Frank and his girlfriend never showed up that afternoon.

And the event really wasn’t called The Wives and Girlfriends Tea–it was The Seminary Wives Tea.

As could have been predicted, the other seminarians and their wives saw my dad’s entrance with my mom as an announcement. They teased him about “holding out on us.” I met one retired pastor decades later who still refused to believe that was my parents’ first date.

That day as they were leaving the tea, my mom said to my dad, “You owe me. Big time.”

He laughingly agreed: “What do I owe you?”

“Dinner.”

That dinner with its four hours of conversation changed my parents’ lives.

My mom’s version of it: “He knew where he was going and what God was doing with his life. I wanted to go too.”

They evidently had several more dates in the next two weeks before deciding to get married. But they chose to marry, despite the fact that my mom had just finished her junior year of college and my dad was heading overseas to study at the Free University in Amsterdam.

Over the years I asked to hear that story many times, amazed that my rich-girl mom chose to marry my farmer-turned-student dad because of how impressed she was with the calling he was answering from God. She saw the reality of Jesus Christ in his life.

Her other suitors had sought to impress her with their own merits. My dad had pursued God. That had captivated Mom. This “weirdest engagement ever” led to a long-distance relationship and  Mom’s following Dad across the ocean to marry him–far from friends and family.

Though they experienced some predictable difficulties of such a marriage choice, we children always saw our parents united in their desire to answer God’s call on their lives: during almost sixty years of marriage and ministry. Praise God!

 

Broken Reflections of God’s Character?

Are we broken reflections of God’s character?

When our children were little, my husband and I tried to teach them well. We tried to teach them to love Jesus, to behave well, to be nice to each other. Many times that worked well.

But what we did not realize until years into this parenting gig is that children do not automatically accept our values. We know that’s true of teenagers. We brace ourselves for that during those years.

But I did not expect it so early. I did not think of the possibility that my five-year-old would not accept the values of honesty and respect of others’ property.

The fact that lying and stealing are wrong does not necessarily matter to a five-year-old. And every carefully thought-out punishment cannot change that. Believe me–we tried everything.

Then I read Josh McDowell’s Right From Wrong–a book based on extensive surveys of churched and unchurched teenagers. Wow! He was right. I too had been trying to teach my daughters right from wrong through turning biblical principles into behavior.

I had been missing the why. The perfectly righteous character of our God is the reason we need to act justly in love and truth. As his children we need to reflect his character to those around us.

But too often we are broken reflections of God’s character.

As are our children. But when we focus on their behavior, as McDowell’s book demonstrates, we reinforce for our children their desire not to get caught rather than their desire to be truly good.

I’m grateful my parents never worried to me about what others would think if my sisters or I misbehaved. But even so, I internalized too much of a focus on good behavior, rather than on the reason for the good behavior.

What I needed to realize is that my experience of living as God’s child should make me want to reflect his perfectly righteous and loving character. We seek to do good not to earn God’s love but to reflect the goodness of the God who loves us.

Reflecting God’s character also needed to be the motivation for my children.

I will never forget the night I sat down with a seemingly incorrigible young daughter–and talked about reflecting God’s character.

I will never forget the night I sat down with a seemingly incorrigible young daughter–and talked about reflecting God’s character.

This evening after a series of misbehaviors, I asked her, among other things, if she was a child of God. “Yes,” she answered begrudgingly. I asked her if God ever lied. “No,” with eye rolling. Did God ever steal? “No,” in an even more exasperated voice.

Then I asked her if children usually look like their parents. Then if she, as a child of God, wanted to look like God. All her answers were easy until the last one. The question that changed her was “What would it look like if you as a child of God were to look like God?”

She probably took two solid minutes to think that over before answering in a bewildered voice: “Not lie. Not steal.”

After she told me she wanted to look like God, we prayed together that God would give her his power to change. God answered that prayer powerfully. The family could hardly believe the change in her behavior. And that it lasted.

But God changed me through that exchange as well. I realized how important it is to strive to minimize broken reflections of God’s character by focusing on him more than on behavior.

 

 

Basking in God’s Love: Reveling in New Ministry

My high school years became a time of basking in God’s love. Primarily because of my Dad’s equipping me for ministry.

During my time of being bullied, Dad had encouraged me that God was growing me through my difficulties. He was right. But it was NOT fun. I had obeyed him but had not been basking in God’s love.

Dad told me so many stories of Bible characters and other Christians growing through persecution that I started to wonder if that was the main way God worked. I remember asking Dad if trials were the only times God grew his children quickly.

His answer stuck with me–Christians grow most dramatically in their relationship with Jesus Christ both 1) during great difficulties and 2) during times of intense ministry.

In junior high I experienced the first kind of growth. During high school I experienced the second. The principle is the same.

Both kinds of spiritual growth require unprecedented reliance on Jesus.

I needed to talk to Jesus regularly–telling him how needy I was–in order to grow closer to him.

Feeling persecuted or panicky inspires most of us to pray. The same panic can come from jumping into a new ministry we do not feel prepared for. It can spur us to pray moment by moment.

The ministry my dad showed me God was calling me to in my high school was simple:

Tell people about Jesus. Consistently.

Attending a public high school was a huge bonus for me in learning the practice of talking about Jesus to those who didn’t know him. Modular scheduling–which allowed students huge amounts of unscheduled “study time”–was another huge bonus in the opportunities it allowed me.

But developing that practice took time and was scary–always.

Eventually, after consistently talking to people about my faith and seeing so many new friends come to know Jesus, I began to see time alone at a table with a new acquaintance as a divine appointment. It was a time to talk to her about Jesus.

But it was still scary. Always. So I developed the habit of prayer.

Melanie Redd puts it so well: “Praying boldly boots me out of that stale place of religious habit into authentic connection with You.” She is so right. When we are in a scary situation and hoping that we choose the right words, prayer can be the only life preserver we see.

And praying for help in daily situations allows us to see that God’s love for us transcends boundaries of place and time. God answers those prayers and affirms our relationship with him. He allows us to bask in his love. I’m convinced this is the principle that allows Paul to tell us “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (Philippians 4:11).

Feeling  completely loved and affirmed by God can make us feel as though we are floating on a lake in the sunshine on an unsinkable inner-tube.

The crazy thing is that we are always completely loved and affirmed by God. We just often don’t feel it.

 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,  neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8: 38-39 NIV]

Limited Vision: Growing Trust Muscles

God grew my trust muscles during a time of terrifying limited vision for my immediate future.

To me as an adult now, that sounds like an extremely overdramatic depiction of my situation then. But to me as a thirteen-year-old, entering a huge new high school–with no friends–was scary.

I was leaving a tiny Christian school with an eighth-grade graduating class of thirteen. I had known each student for years. Becoming a part of a public school of sixteen hundred unknown students was daunting.

It didn’t help that the only person I knew who was also going to my new school was a girl who had been the primary instigator of my seventh-grade bullying. Knowing she had spread lies about me for years did not give me confidence that she would not do the same in the new school. I longed for a good experience meeting people and making friends in a new environment.

My limited vision made me feel lonely and afraid.

Knowing God was with me was not the same as feeling confident. Hearing from parents that I would be fine did not take away the knot in my stomach.

Joshua 1: 8–“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” was a verse I claimed–though I certainly had no physical enemies to slay.

My parents prayed with me and for me in my fear.

I’m sure it helped that they believed I would be fine. But it also helped that they validated my fear by praying for me in it.

I have a vague memory that my mom also told me that I didn’t need to make friends with everyone on that day. And she encouraged me that many other people would be feeling much the same way I was.

She told me to try to find one person I could connect with. Then after school that day she asked me if I could tell her about one person I thought I might be able to be friends with. I could–I excitedly told her about many possibilities.

When God told Joshua to be strong and courageous, he wasn’t telling him he had to do all the work alone. God rarely tells us we need to do our work completely in solitude. He calls us to community.

Sometimes the work he calls us to is finding our community. At other times it’s finding other people who need the community that comes from walking with Jesus Christ together.

In that way God blessed me with two very different parents who each helped me see different parts of what God was calling me to.

My mom helped me in figuring out how to be open to people who were possibly feeling as alone and in need of a friend as I was. She helped me see them as potential friends rather than as threats.

My dad helped me see each new friend or even acquaintance as someone who might be yearning to know who Jesus Christ was. The great thing is that God doesn’t have limited vision. We can trust his vision.