Thursday, February 7, 2013

Sure Laughter

I recently came across two verses in my Bible reading that I can't get out of my head, mostly because of one word. One of the verses is well-known and well-loved; the other is embedded between other well-known verses but is in itself unknown. Here they are:

Proverbs 31:25
Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come.

Psalm 37:13
But the Lord laughs at the wicked, for He sees that his day is coming.

The word is laughs.

There are many types of laughter. There is the polite laughter when your boss says something he thinks is very funny and you are compelled to join in. There is hilarious laughter after your friend places an order at a restaurant by saying, and only saying, 'Burger me.' There is giggling laughter when your daughter figures out you're ticklish on your feet and gets her little fingers working. There is derisive laughter when something utterly absurd takes place and there's really nothing else you can do.

But the laughter here is something altogether different. It is unique among types of laughter, and I would say it is specific to those who are in Christ.This is sure laughter. As in, I can laugh because I am sure of where my real hope lives. It has nothing to do with knowing what is to come and everything to do with knowing Who's in control of it all. It is the laughter of absolute confidence, of faith, of God.

The Proverbial woman laughs because, by God's grace, she has ordered her home well. She has prepared and planned. She has worked and saved. She has loved and honored God and her husband and her kids - in  that order. And so she gazes into the future, stares down the uncertainty, looks it right in the face, and laughs at it.

The encouragement from the psalm is simply that no one gets over on God. People may be around that mock and slander. Perhaps they persecute and attack. They gossip. They backstab. They undercut. They curse. They abuse. But without repentance, they simply cannot sidestep His justice. It is at this, the notion that one can pull a fast one on Him, that God laughs. *I also believe He weeps over these same people. God is infinitely more complex than we are.*

I love the thought of laughing at situations that are potentially worrisome or fearful. Being able to laugh at those moments accomplishes two things:
1) It disarms Satan of any power he might try to exert in using the situation to evoke fear, anxiety, or the perpetuation of lies.
2) It displays full trust and delight in knowing God has it handled, and He will handle it perfectly.

Jesus is King of all Kings and Lord of all Lords. He is the true Master, the Great Shepherd, Almighty God, Alpha and Omega, Firstborn from the Dead, the Bright and Morning Star, Rescuer, Savior, Healer, Deliverer, and, amazingly, Friend.

When we really believe in who God is, we are able to look into any circumstance and walk away laughing.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Psalm 27

What do you think of when you think of courage? Maybe I'm a bit old-school, but I always think of a lion - as in the Cowardly Lion from the Wizard of Oz who needs a heart. Or Aslan from the Chronicles of Narnia. I'd be willing to wager that Hudson thinks of soldiers and knights in armor marching off to fight the bad guys.

I found a picture of courage that I didn't expect in Psalm 27. Verse 14 states, 'Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!' Huh? Be strong, take courage, and....wait? How does that work?

Let's back up and look at what the author, David, is talking about. In the first six verses of the psalm, David praises God for His power to deliver him from his enemies. He boldly asserts the confidence he has in God to be his salvation (v.1), stronghold (v.2), shelter (v.5), and concealment (v.5). David is so confident in God that he speaks of having a worship service right there in the middle of the enemies surrounding him (see also Ps. 23:5,6)!

Then something interesting happens. For the next six verses David prays that God would deliver him from his enemies - who are, incidentally, all around him. It is here that we get to see why God referred to David as being 'after My own heart'. You see, David declared his confidence in God before he even saw God do anything in his situation. He stated what he believed to be true of God, and rested in the fact that God is faithful and true to His own character. God cannot lie nor does He change. Therefore, if He says He's a deliverer, then He has been, is, and will always be a deliverer. David is simply pointing this out to anyone who will listen so that they can rightly ascribe credit when David prays and sees God's deliverance. This is faith!

Next, David closes his prayer and makes another assertion - 'I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living (v.13, emphasis added)!' In other words, 'God, I don't think now is my time to die. I think you have more for me here, and I will celebrate You when You deliver me from my enemies here on the earth.'

Finally, we arrive at the strange exhortation in v.14. Given the circumstances that David is facing - surrounded by enemies who are 'breathing out violence' - he does not call on his soldiers to take up arms. He does not devise a clever strategy to politically outflank his opponents. He just....waits.

To me, this does not seem like courage. Faith, sure. But courage? Strength? I'm all about 'doing stuff' for the glory of God. I like getting my hands dirty and seeing a finished product. I don't want to be feel like I am on the sidelines. All of that sounds good, but God wants His people to awaken to the fact that it's really all Him all the time. More often than I recognize, God just wants me to wait, get my hands out of the way, and let Him work.

One afternoon, Audrey brought me a necklace from her jewelry case. Did I say necklace? I meant heaped-up ball of metal. As it turns out, there were two necklaces. Knotted. Bad. She asked me to fix them for her, and then proceeded to stick her little fingers into the mess to 'help' every five seconds as I attempted to straighten out the knot. After a few minutes of this, I said, 'Audrey, Daddy will take care of this for you. Go play, and I'll bring them to you when I'm done.' It took me nearly an hour, but I was able to clear the knot. It could not have happened if she didn't get her hands off and wait.

It's my tendency to stick my hands into the mess. I believe I can 'help' God, if He'd only just let me get in there too. David is teaching us all, and me especially, that it will take great strength and courage to trust God and say, 'I know you're taking care of this. I'm backing off,' and be at peace.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Greatness of Our God

Yesterday I wrote about Christen and the impact her life had on so many. And many of you responded to that post validating what was written there. Truly, her life was one that was well-lived. Today, I want to take the opportunity to sum up the many lessons I have learned by the grace of God in this past year.

I have written much about the goodness of God. And I will continue to write on that theme because I truly believe that if people, Christians or non-Christians, could grasp the depth of that truth, then whole families, towns, cities, states, and nations would be transformed.

But today, I write about His greatness.

I made a statement at Christen's funeral that has become a refrain for many, and one I, myself, continue to speak: God is going to receive greater glory from Christen's passing than by raising her up from her sick bed. When I made that statement, I knew it to be true. But I must confess to you all now that I made it purely on faith. At the time, I didn't really see it. Yes, there was an outpouring of love and many immediate testimonies. Still, I was waiting and watching and anticipating what God was going to do. Honestly, I was straining for it, wanting to see it with great desperation. 'Oh God, show Yourself in this!!!' was my constant prayer.

His loving and gentle hand came in, quieted my unrest, stilled my soul, and instructed me to focus on being with Him in my grief. To stop thinking so much about what He was going to do. By His grace, I was calmed and learned what it meant to remain in His love. To be quiet. Still. Silent. And let Him work on me. In me. Through me.

Dear reader, God rewards faith! As I focused on Him, He, being a good Dad, pulled back the curtain of His sovereignty just an inch and let me get a glimpse of how He was working. I saw a sliver of the big picture of His plan. I have had the amazing and humbling privilege of seeing and hearing all that God has worked in people's lives. I said "God will receive greater glory", and He has responded to that desperate, faith-filled statement by saying, 'See? Do you see what I'm doing? This isn't even a fraction of all I have in this. Do not fear or be discouraged. I am working it all out for good - yours and theirs. Remain in Me, and you will renew your strength.'

A few examples:

  • My family members who have awoken from a spiritual slumber only to find God has given them a voice to influence generations of young people through their instruction both in the classroom and the ministry.
  • The husband and wife who have twins but would have had triplets if not for losing one. They read the words of grief from this blog and wept together in their own grief. Months later, I had a beautiful conversation with the husband over the phone while on my way home from work, and we were mutually encouraged in how God was so good, so faithful, and so present in our lives.
  • The books gathered and sent, along with Christen's photo and a short note about her, to Africa to help educate children there who had no access to something as simple as a book.
  • The blog post about Christen's mothering, written by a friend for the purpose of advancing awareness of child sex trafficking in India.
  • The dozens of Facebook direct messages I received that began with, "I've never met you or Christen, but..." which then went on to describe personal revivals, inspired faith, hope for tomorrow, and restoration from brokenness.
  • The pastor that caught wind of this story, read up on this blog and Christen's, having never met either of us, spoke to his people about faith and joy and praise in the midst of suffering and grief, and saw his people unite in worship to an awesome God.
  • The worldwide Church that united in prayer for Christen, me, and the kids. Every populated continent was represented in prayer. The unity of Christ's global Bride was evident in a way I've never seen.
  • The married couple that looked at each other with fresh eyes, refusing to take any moment they have together for granted.
  • The parents who hugged their kids just a little more and a little longer, who learned to grow in grace for their little ones.
  • The woman who started reading Christen's blog and realized she was missing something: peace. And she learned that she could only find it in Christ, so she's been following Him ever since.

God did not have to reveal these examples (and the many more not listed). He didn't have to prompt them to message, email, text, call, or talk to me. He could have simply executed His will, great as it is. But He did. Because He's good and loving and gracious and merciful. It was His way of saying, 'Don't lose heart. I am working. I AM.' His grace for me at those times was beyond anything I could have expected. This was one of my lessons: God's grace is more abounding to His people than we often recognize. Be still in Him, and He will show us great things He's working in the world.

I learned that, when I was at the end of myself, He would show up to give me fresh strength. It was just enough for that day, but it was what I needed. Early on, I felt very much like 1/2 a person having to carry 2 people's loads. It was overwhelming. God showed up in the form of His people, surrounding me with love - love in helping with tangible needs as well as spiritual. He showed up in His Word or a song or the energy of my kids. He loved me with the truth as well. He did not allow me to pity myself or what I was facing. His constant, loving encouragement to me was, 'You have no option; you have to do this. So get up. Don't worry, you're not alone. I'm here.'

I learned what Christen meant when she asked, 'What about a supernatural grieving process?' As in, what can God really do with my grief if I am fully surrendered to His purposes? What He does is bring a peace that is unfathomable, a love that is incurable, a faith that is insurmountable, and a joy that is indescribable.

And that is the real miracle: He truly gives joy in the midst of sadness. It seems like such a contradiction. But take a moment and really think about it. God responds to the cry, the wail, of His people, and His response inherently involves His presence. What else but joy can be felt when His people are in His presence? At my lowest moments He was closest. He didn't have to say anything; I knew He was there with me, and that was enough.

I experienced this lesson in an overwhelming way just two days ago. It was January 8, the day before the one-year mark of Christen's passing. For most of you reading this, the day she passed, January 9, is 'the day', the truly difficult day when much is remembered and grieved afresh. For me, 'the day' was really the day before, January 8. You see, that was the day I had the early morning conversation with the doctor - the 'there's nothing more we can do' conversation. The day of tremendous battling. Prayer. Believing. Fighting with myself. Remaining composed so I could process what was happening and make appropriate decisions when asked. Weeping with those close. Exhorting and encouraging others. Reminding myself that this was all actually happening.

One year later, God chose to simply bear down on me all day, pouring more and more joy into my heart. I was ready to burst. "It's too much, Lord!" I cried. I didn't ask for it. In fact, I didn't realize the real significance of the day until it was over. He showed up with force from the moment my eyes opened. I read the Word, and it was satisfying. I had lunch with a friend, and it was edifying. I listened to some new music, and I praised Him for just being Him. He knew what that day meant, and He showed up, showed off, and confirmed that there is no stopping His unending, unyielding love for His child!

Beloved, this is as true for you as it has been for me. Take Him at His Word:

"Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died - more than that, who was raised - who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, 'For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.'

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."  ~Romans 8:26-39

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Mission Accomplished

One year ago today, Christen, my wife of 6 1/2 years, passed away after a brief but intense battle with brain cancer. Writing that sentence took about 30 seconds, but the weight of it has reverberated through each of the last 365 days. I'll write a post tomorrow about the things I've learned in the past year. For this post, I want to focus on the impact of her life.

Christen's mission statement read: "To live a Bible-saturated, Christ-exalting life to the glory of God and for the joy of all people."

Christen's focus in life was always that God would receive glory from all people, that all would come to know Him and His love and His peace and His rest. That people would find their meaning in Him, and that they would be satisfied only and perfectly in Him. She wanted men to honor God with their worship and sacrifice and service and provision and leadership. She wanted women to glorify Him with their hearts and their minds, to find their identity in Him and not in worldly (read: empty) opinions, to be confident in Christ. She desired that the Church would take her place as the spotless Bride of Christ - but in so doing she would get her hands dirty with those less fortunate and in need. She wanted people to truly engage each other in relationship, knowing that it would be messy and fulfilling all at once.

She fostered an environment of hospitality in our home. To a person, and to this day, whenever someone steps foot in our 3-bedroom, typical Chicago style apartment, they say, 'This just feels like home.' Christen was a great designer, to be sure, but the feeling goes beyond the decor. The atmosphere of this place says, 'Welcome. Here, you will be loved.' She invited people into our home frequently, knowing that it would be messy with the activity of two imaginative children, noisy and at play and demanding attention. And people accepted the invitation for the opportunity to see a woman sold out for her Lord, opening her life to them and honestly answering their questions. She gave guidance and counsel in this home. She spoke the Word in this home. She exercised grace and love for the benefit of those who crossed our threshold.

Christen was one of the few people I have ever met that honestly put to death her fear of man. This was a work of grace from God that took a few years, but before she passed she spent nearly 2 years in absolute freedom from the cares and concerns of trying to please people for the sake of increasing her own reputation and pride. She had such a confidence in who God had created her to be that it didn't matter what this or that person thought. She knew she was dead-center in the will of God, and she was therefore unshakable. As her  husband, I was consistently amazed and inspired by her. And there is a lesson to be learned from this: these years of freedom were also marked by her most effective years of ministry and her greatest growth in influence. This is not a formula for gaining stature. It's a validation of the biblical principle that when you follow hard after Christ, He brings an increase. The best part? She had no idea. She just went after Him, and He gave weight to her words and actions.

I've written elsewhere about her as a mother and a wife, as did she in her own blogging, so I won't spend a lot of time on that here. It will suffice to say that she was a loving and gracious mother who adored her children while not spoiling them. She loved, laughed, played, taught, corrected, restored, repented for and to, prayed, sang, and generally encouraged Audrey and Hudson with the intentionality of one who knew she was training world-changing disciples. As a wife, she loved me well no matter what mood I was in or what the present circumstances of our life were. She respected me and built me up, strengthening me to a point where even the hard things of life became not only manageable but enjoyable.

Since her passing, not a week has gone by where I haven't received a fresh word regarding how Christen's life has impacted a person, a marriage, a mother, or a church. Some realized they were asleep at the wheel, woke up, and have turned their lives around. Others saw the peace she maintained in all circumstances, didn't understand why, read her blog, and had their hearts opened to Christ and His saving grace. Married couples renewed their commitments to one another, vowing not to take for granted any moment they had to share with one another. Mothers looked on the raising of their children with greater grace and fervor. Church leaders saw how one life, however brief, could impact so many and took their leadership to new levels in God. Bibles were opened that had been shut for years. Church seats were filled that had been vacant. Prayers were prayed that had previously been silent.

And we who remain, we issue forth praise from our mouths to a great God who honored us with the privilege of knowing and learning from this great woman!

Friday, January 4, 2013

Wash Me Clean

My grandpa is a man of great stature in the little community where I grew up. He was an elected official, the circuit clerk, for 32 consecutive years. I ran across one of his original newspaper ads when he was first running wherein he offered to give anyone a ride to the polls. There were challengers at times, rough politics and mudslinging, but he maintained a simple principle: be honest, and people will trust you to make the right decisions. So respected was he that he was even the Illinois President of Circuit Clerks for a time. This man, all 5'5" and 135lbs of him, is a giant in the community.

Paul Dean Kernan. PK to his friends. I remember going to the country club with him, playing golf, watching him play cards (he's a shark), hearing all the talk of the older men. The mayor was my favorite, and he took a shine to me. My grandpa, high school educated, hanging out with the mayor in a country club, playing cards. Memories from my youth.

Grandpa was the old-school man. He was self-made, dressed sharp, walked to work, did his job well, provided for his family (wife and five kids), remained faithful to his wife, was strong and silent. Oh, but if he did speak up, the law was laid down. Classic.

I grew up knowing Grandpa didn't go to church. Grandma always did. She is a spiritual pillar in the church in which I was raised. But Grandpa, well, he always had a 'healthy respect' for God. He had nothing against Him. God was honest and fair. So was Grandpa. They had no quarrel in his mind.

Nearly 20 years ago, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's. Most of you know that Parkinson's has no known cure, and it wears out and tears down one's ability to use one's muscles. It is a progressive disease, so it takes its time. In typical fashion, Grandpa took the disease head-on. He retired and played golf every day. He walked. He continued to play cards. And he read. He read like no one I've ever seen. Three to four books a week, minimum. I realized he wasn't simply enjoying his retirement - he was doing everything he knew to keep his mind and body sharp. Yes, there were doctor's visits and medications to take. But he was determined to beat this thing, cure or no cure. Stubborn Irishman.

All of a sudden, friends of his started passing away. Age and health took their toll, and he went to too many funerals. His eyes opened to his mortality, and he wasn't quite sure how to process it.

The first Easter Christen and I were in Chicago, we were part of a production, a passion play, that our church put on called 'The Story of Love'. As loving and determined as ever, my grandparents made the 4-hour trek to join other members of my family in the audience for one of the performances. It was a powerful time, and my pastor stood to preach the gospel. Christen and I were to one side of the stage, having sung for the musical portions. As Pastor made the invitation for people to receive Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, the strangest thing happened: Grandpa raised his hand, stood up, and prayed. He had never done any of those three things in church. Ever.

Suddenly, Grandpa started attending church with Grandma. His hands had a pretty good tremor at that point, but he still drove to church, got in and out of the pew, and stood for worship and prayer and the reading of the Word. He would even belt out some of his more favorite hymns. The change in him was amazing, though he talked about it very little. Ever the stoic, classic man.

The Parkinson's reared its head more and more in the following years. He lost the ability to digest food properly, and then the ability to chew and swallow. A liquid diet was instituted, and Grandma makes sure he gets his food every day. While his mind remains sharp, he lost most of the ability to use his tongue for speech.

When Christen passed, it hit Grandpa much like it hit the rest of us: hard. Now, not only were friends passing but also a granddaughter-in-law who doted on him (and maybe flirted with him a little...he still had that charm). I didn't have a lot of opportunities to talk with him during this time, but I know Grandma kept him updated on how I was doing.

I had the opportunity to go speak to the congregation where I grew up over Labor Day weekend at an outdoor service in the middle of town. It was a beautiful day, and Grandpa and Grandma, loving and determined as ever, came out and sat right in the front row. My message was simple: Jesus is enough. Whether we have it all or have lost it all, He's enough. Afterward, I stood by the stage praying for people as they came up. Suddenly, someone from my family (my mom? Grandma?) came over and said, 'Go to Grandpa.' I walked over to Grandpa, still seated. The man whom I had loved and admired, who embodied integrity and character, sat broken before me, weeping. He couldn't communicate anything; he just wept. I quickly asked the Lord for wisdom, knelt down, and took his hand. Then I prayed. I prayed one more prayer on top of the nearly 50 years of prayer that had come before for this man. I prayed whatever the Spirit put in me to pray. And as I prayed, I had the deep impression that walls were being ripped apart in Grandpa's heart, that the remaining pieces of resistance and pride and sin were being ejected from his body in that moment by the power of God. This was a new man.

And this old Irishman had enough in him to make a request a few weeks later. Grandpa told Grandma he wanted to be baptized. Grandma called the pastor over to their house, and he and Grandpa talked through what baptism meant, what he would be declaring by going through it, and ensured he understood all the points. Grandpa assured this young man that he understood, and he was ready to do it. He wanted people to know what had happened in his heart.

As loving and determined as ever, I made the 4-hour trek to my hometown, to my home church, and I witnessed Grandpa get baptized in the same pool where I once was baptized. And as he rose from the water, he turned and faced the congregation, clasped his hands over his head and shook them. He couldn't say the words, but the sentiment was obvious: