Looking Back to Go Forward

 

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With all that spring and summer has been in 2020, for my family it has also been a season of weddings. Two of my sons made a covenant with their ladies as we laughed, cried, celebrated, and briefly pushed aside most of our pandemic thoughts while masked and physically distanced.  

Those wedding ceremonies were the culmination of much planning and re-planning. They embodied a great deal of compromise as we released more than a few wedding-day dreams. We also found ourselves in deep conversation, refining our understanding of tradition, ceremony, and the real and representative aspects of community. Even so, there was silver in those clouds of disappointment. I can agree with James that there’s value in trial. (James 1:2-4) I can also affirm that each day has enough worry of its own! (Matthew 6:34)

Not bound to weddings, discouragement was a frequent house guest this past year. It touched our desires for education, occupation, and financial stability. It would be easy, and some might say justified, to indulge in some self-pity. Commiserate a bit because things have been tough for all of us. But I certainly don’t need encouragement to feel sorry for myself. That comes much too easily. 

So what are we to do in these present and seemingly unending moments of ambiguity and anxiety? When there’s much we cannot control and each day threatens with setback, cancellation, and redirection? 

I received some help with those questions in the week leading-up to wedding number two. During the quiet of mid-morning God interrupted my fretting, prompting me to replay our family story of the past year. Doing so required reliving cycles of deep discouragement rife with tears, questions, and desperate pleas. But in my review of the past I saw points of light amidst the valley’s shadows. Divine illuminations that revealed a next step. And then another. In our faithful plodding from point to point we encountered many unexpected graces. To be honest, at the time some of those felt less like graces and more like unmet expectation. But taken in panorama, my look-back revealed an intricate and unexplainable pattern of a loving Providence!

So in the unsettledness of today, I’m reminded to remember. To look back as I go forward. To embrace a long-sighted perspective, acknowledging that life’s journey is not a beeline path from one good thing to the next. There will be seasons of struggle. And in this moment, which is one moment among thousands in a grand narrative, I must seek the Spirit’s help to calm my soul. To reflect on God’s presence and care in my every breath. To know that my God sits with me in the pain, whispering gentle words of acceptance and love. After all, He’s never left me. And He’s already been where I’m headed. That is a great comfort!

Whether re-planned weddings, kids in school (or not), presidential elections, furloughed jobs, protests or masks this season is over-ripe with opportunities for the people of God to bring comfort to societal anxieties, frustrations, and uncertainty. As followers of Jesus we should be listening, empathizing, loving, giving, and caring for all people. It’s our call and privilege to be inconvenienced for the sake of another. (1 John 3:16) Let us be known for delivering hope, offering the peace of Jesus who said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:27, ESV

Join me in sharing the peace and comfort of Jesus.

———————-
Perhaps this song from my favorite band will help quiet your spirit
and bring you peace:

Young Oceans – This Wild Earth
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTSh1Amkwx0

A Necessary Ending

It’s winter in West Michigan, and despite the mildness of this particular cycle the grey days and shortened daylight hours can be difficult. To provide respite in the midst of our deep mid-winter, my wife and I are heading to Louisville, Kentucky in a couple of weeks. While there’s no guarantee of favorable weather, a change of venue should be refreshing. Our hope is that a few days away will enliven our slogging toward the end of winter and the beginning of spring.

Beginnings and endings. Our lives are threaded with starts, stops, and redirections.

Nearly two years ago I started something. Through prayer, conversation, forms, and fees I stepped onto the path leading toward a doctorate degree. I yearn to learn and for many years contemplated the pursuit of education at the highest level. Recently, a job change coupled with the growing independence of my children suggested the addition of formal education to our routine was feasible. With the eagerness of a kindergartner equipped with fresh crayons and a PB&J sandwich, I plowed into my studies.

For me, the endeavor of learning is a paradox of euphoria and drudgery. Anxiety and excitement. Pressure and pleasure. The people, professors, and discussions are stimulating and edifying. The work is intense, yet gratifying. It didn’t take long to realize doctorate level studies are rigorous and demanding—but I loved it!

What I didn’t love so much was the voracity with which my studies consumed my time. Research, reading, and writing gobbled-up every spare moment, both literally and mentally. My thoughts were captive to papers, discussion questions, presentations, and time management. Adrenaline, caffeine, and self-discipline propelled me forward—an intellectual explorer ready to stake my claim within academia.

But like most adventures, the unexpected happens. Detours, distractions, loss, and delay can redirect or even thwart plans and efforts. My educational journey was not immune to such things. The ever-present responsibility for family, work, and church duties did not abate while I dwelt in the ivory tower. The good and necessary work of marriage, parenting, and career pressed into the margin reserved for study. In response, I adjusted my schedule by stiff-arming involvements and shortening times of rest and recreation. I can do this, I thought. I’m not a quitter. Just suck it up.

Yet my internal pep-talks could not reconcile necessary things with my availability for desired things. My primary calling was impinging upon my margin for study. Even more, I couldn’t span the rift between my occupation, vocation, and research interests. My angst swelled with each course and assignment. Nevertheless, I chose to mix optimism with naivete and trudged forward, all the while wondering if I should end my educational venture.

The answer was yes.

Two weeks into my second year it became undoubtedly clear that I should pause my studies. The wise choice was to drop the class, gather myself, and evaluate. I relented to that reality but it was excruciating to accept. Never had I dropped a class. Never had I quit anything. It felt shameful, irresponsible, and short-sighted. Did I lack determination, perseverance, or resilience? Was I not capable, smart, or skilled? What would others think?

All of those questions, fears, and suppositions haunted me as I dawdled to officially withdraw from the program months later. I didn’t want to be hasty but knew from the moment I dropped that course I was saying goodbye. A necessary ending.

But endings are also beginnings as the page flips to a new chapter that’s unwritten, untried, and open to possibilities. And that’s just what God presented to me. Something new. Something intriguing. Something that rings true in my soul popped into my purview the day after withdrawing from my doctoral program. Coincidence? I say providence!

While I can’t see what’s ahead, I have hope that endings can be good. Beginnings, too. God is not surprised by any of my starts, stops, or redirections. He planned them, actually. So in my confusion, frustration, and uncertainty I can settle into His claim on me, which provides assurance that all my moments have been crafted for my good and His glory.

Now, let’s get started!

As for me, I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me.
You are my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God!

(Psalm 40:17, ESV)

Sappy and Green

I enjoy making new from old. dripping_tree_sap

Last summer in an unplanned flash of creativity, I crafted an outdoor iPod music station. I had a riot pairing my imagination with a stack of wood from weathered apple crates. Today, that music box stands erect, like a soldier at Buckingham Palace, ready to deliver play-listed tunes into the springtime green of our backyard.

Last week, as I unpacked my musical re-creation from it’s winter storage, my mind recalled a recent conversation with a friend. He and his wife are battling cancer — again. The situation is fragile. Emotions are volatile. The future uncertain. Questions ooze from every conversation. Predominant among them is: “Why is this happening, again?”

Life is seasonal. In my friend’s case, cyclical. The chapters of our living stack side-by-side and layer a story. Some of the chapters read with discouragement and despair in our pursuit of happiness. Others have plot lines wrapped around self-affirmation and high-minded morality. And some are penned while walking the slender path that’s illumined step-by-step with a sanctified glow.

We all wander and weave a journey that brings us to lung-burning climbs and leg-aching descents. None are immune from life’s frustrations and setbacks. Each of us cycle through joy and sorrow, breaking and building, closed doors and open.

Hindsight is the gift of reflection. A glimpse backward helps us piece together personal themes, the development of relationships, and circumstances that are more purpose driven than random. In our looking back, we see the progression of being torn down and built up. We see Someone at work.

For those who follow Jesus, our life is a steady plodding toward restoration. In every circumstance, our hope is immovably anchored in the surety of God’s plan of renewal. Deep within, we’re “ever full of sap and green.” * We’re alive and growing by the Spirit of grace.

As you page through your story today, be it joyous, painful, or commonplace, remember that every moment is an opportunity to worship. Believe that your life is not a fate-driven tragedy. A hopeless endeavor. A cycle of needless pain. We are all being broken down and built up. We are green, sappy, deeply loved people being transformed from the old and broken into fruit-bearing newness. In all things, may we be vibrant ambassadors who step with trust into the wonderful mystery of the story God is writing.

* “The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God. They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green, to declare that the Lord is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.”
Psalm 92:12–15, ESV

The Field

Yesterday’s yesterdays jumble and pile.
I wake,
and walk —
again.

I shuffle with leaden legs in numbing rhythm,
rousting a sacred cloud that accompanies
my tracing of Hope’s path.

Spent flora, trapped in brittle nests
offer silent tribute to
by-gone seasons of life.

With dulled eyes skimming
the frustrated landscape,
I plant with wobbly resolve.

And wait.

I return
to this Field of Promise
a beggar —
again.

Dank grayness surrounds me;
I’m chilled —
from the inside out.

Hushed tormenting sameness
tensions my faith
toward thinness.

A violent tumult of
what is, what isn’t, and what should be
usurps all cognition.

Dear God, Sower of this Field —

Wrestle life from
the starved soil
of this bewildered soul.

Rake, pull, tear, and burn
my prideful thatch.

Plow the deadness
into furrows of grace.

Water and Light,
come nourish my anguish.

Release in me a joyful submission
and patient fruit.

Call forth a sprig of green.

For tomorrow I’ll wake,
and walk to this Field again.

Copyright © 2015 Chris De Man. All rights reserved.

Sweet Mary

In the dark of my desk drawer is a birthday card.

On the cover, in black and white, is the photo of a crinkle-faced, toothless old man. 
Inside is this salutation: “You had better pray that you are as young as you feel and not as old as you look! – Love, Mary 🙂

Funny Mary.

Mary’s gone.
At least from here.
That void aches.

I think of her. And cry.
Separation hurts.
Death’s old cuts are bleeding fresh.

I’m pondering pain and justice.
Coaxing hope from the chaos of grief.
Cultivating joy in the seedbed of faith.

Still, I long for more of that beautiful life.
For more of Mary.

More of her laughter and jokes.
Her pranks and her pizza.
Her finely-feathered costume halo and mischievous smile.

I’ll miss her sipping coffee from a Victorian teacup.
Perching tiptoed on a step stool to fetch reams of paper.
Sprinting through the hall to answer a ringing phone.

Hard-working Mary.

I have books on my shelf.
Books from Mary.
Old books. Wonderful books.
Her husband’s books.
Thumbing through their pages, I glean Mary’s love.
I am humbled. Honored. Unworthy. Grateful.
Wonderful gifts.

Thank you, Mary.

Death is a robber.
A felonious creep that steals our best treasures.
He took our Mary – and not very nicely.

Jerk.

But Mary’s just fine.
Better than ever, really.
Rested. Satisfied. Complete.

Alive!

Her earthly song reverberates.
It is lovely.
And we sing for her, as she renews her precious marital grip.
Basks in faith’s realization.
And meets the gaze of her greatest love.

Well done, Sweet Mary.

Mary’s life verse: “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:10–11, NIV)

Heaven Moves

Perfect love.

Pure community.

A vision for expression.

Empty. Dark. Barren. 

Generative speech.

Creativity tramples the void.



Water and warmth.

Light and life.

Plants and beasts.



Man. Then woman.

Perfect partners. 

Wonderful wholeness.



A question posed.



Word against word. 

Doubt and decision.

A fateful fulcrum.

Hiding. Shame. Sorrow.

Death is born. 

Pain rides death’s wake.



Yet, a promise.

Hope’s seed.

Divinely sealed.

But not now.



First a flood.

Then a tower.

And bondage.



Wild wandering. 

Conquest and settling.

Cycling generations. 



Judges. Kings.

Captivity. Release. 

Remnant. Rebuild.



Courageous voices stir atrophied hopes.

To remember.



Oh Lord, how long?

The silence is deafening.



In time…

Heaven moves.



Angelic pronouncements.

Startling words. Heavy words. 

Fantastic words. Terrible words.

Ancient, but fresh words.

Life-giving words.

About The Word.

To a priest. 

A girl. 

And a man.

Great expectation initiates unexpectedly. 

Perfectly timed.

Unassuming, yet shocking. 



Man. Woman. Spirit. 

A mystical incorporation.

Fragile, but unbreakable.

Their faith – steadfast.

Their contentment – inspiring.

Their obedience – courageous.
 


Hope’s seed.
Sprouted and growing.

Setting roots in a maligned cove of Palestine.

Human life.

Flesh and blood. 

Crying. Dirty. Bloody. Helpless.

Beautiful.

A birth for our re-birth. 

Our rescue.

Our redemption.



First a child. 

Then a man. 

Always God.

Jesus.

A promise fulfilled.

Hope made real.

A crush to the curse. 



He cried at birth.

He would cry in His death. 

Again dirty. Bloody. Helpless.

Alone.

His life for ours.

A fantastic swap.

We crowd His Cross to wash in grace.

Salvation, sprung from a manger.

Profoundly simple.

Mysteriously complex. 

Soulfully wonderful.

What selfless limiting. 

What sacrifice.

What love.

What joy!

His joy.

Our joy.

He is our ransom. 

He is our God.

Who is with us.

Emmanuel. 


Getting Schooled at VBS

I guess after three years you could call it tradition. My family is now in the routine of spending the last week of June serving at a Vacation Bible School. Just today we closed the books on a week packed with fun, sweat, wonder, singing, crafts and a multitude of juice boxes. Of course all those things played second fiddle to God’s Word. It was wonderfully exhausting!

My childhood VBS memories are quite sentimental. The unique sights, sounds and smells of small church culture. Singing to tape recorded sound tracks. Song words projected from smudged overhead slides. The spirited team competitions and Spirit-led calls to repentance. There was hot dry grass, red Kool-Aid, assorted homemade cookies and the wooden sanctuary that desperately needed to be air-conditioned. Cherished memories.

Now that I’m all grown-up, VBS has a different flavor. I still sneak an occasional cookie, but my childhood VBS delights have been exchanged for adulthood responsibilities. Responsibility for spills, scrapes, cleanup and discipline. The grown-up side of VBS is not as romantic as my youthful experience. Has the delight faded?

Not at all.

In many ways, my VBS love has deepened. My fond memories from decades ago are blending with recent joys of leadership. God is growing in me a new love for making Him famous. A fresh desire to work in the field of souls. But like most parts of my journey with Jesus, the path isn’t straight and flat.

If you ever need to be humbled, teach at a VBS. It’s a wonderful crucible all teachers should experience to hone their craft. This past week, in the midst of my unmet teaching desires, God was developing in me a new confidence. A fuller picture of faith. A fresh understanding that my efforts aren’t really mine. That I’m a piece of His teaching plan. That He’s got it covered – in spite of my “big idea” for the day.

Part of what stimulated my development was this quote from Puritan preacher Thomas Lye: “Patience is hope lengthened and confidence is faith strengthened.” I prefer instant. Quick. Timely. But when sowing gospel seed, a long patience is required. Patience covered with grace and prayer for continued watering followed by steady rest in the hope gained through the empty grave of Jesus Christ. Some fruit grows slowly. And growth isn’t a result of what I do. It comes from Someone else, and what He’s done. In that, I must be confident. Hopeful. Patient.

It was a wonderful week. Souls were rescued from the enemy. Now for some rest – but just for a bit. There’s much work to be done when it comes to sowing, reaping, discipling, and my own sanctification. I am grateful that God is continually at work, bringing to complete fullness what He has begun in me, and in all those who call Him Lord.