Saturday, July 19, 2014

embracing the ordinary

In the two months that have passed since my most recent post, a lot of life has happened:

  • 2 weeks in Israel on a study tour with my Dad, my doktorvater, and my pastor
  • 10 days to pack for a cross-country move and say our goodbyes
  • a garage sale in Wheaton
  • a drive across 7 states to our new home with a 3-day stop in Colorado to be with family
  • Easton's 6th birthday
  • the death of my grandmother, age 93, in Washington state and her memorial service the day after we arrived in Oregon
  • getting settled in our new home and integrating all of my grandma's things into it
  • reconnecting with friends and family
  • a garage sale in Oregon
  • finding a new church in our neighborhood
  • figuring out grocery stores, libraries, parks, museums, etc.
  • a 5-day camping trip with Danny's mom and all of his brothers and their families
  • helping with a week of Vacation Bible School at our home church in Oregon
  • getting the kids registered for school
  • organizing and re-organizing the garage to make room for Danny's office
  • buying a washer and dryer
  • beginning dissertation research again after a 4-month hiatus
With the exception of my trip to Israel, this list is not glamorous. It represents a lot of sweat and a lot of stress, and even a good deal of fun, but it does not appear to be a recipe for changing the world (or making a splash in academia, for that matter). This was brought home to me when I encountered a (very blunt) young adult from our home church this week who has watched the adventure of our life unfold over the past dozen years. He remembers when we set out for the Philippines in 2002, ready to reach the lost for Christ. Our early letters, he says, were exciting and inspiring. But then life got ordinary. We moved to North Carolina to work at headquarters, and our "biggest" news then was playing soccer [sic: kickball] with the neighbor kids. He didn't need to even mention our next move -- a journey into academic obscurity in Wheaton -- for me to get his point: we've become rather ordinary, nothing to write home about.

Fair enough, I told him, and moved on with the task of eating my dinner and getting ready to be mobbed by more than a dozen precious kids, well over half of them hispanic, for a loud and crazy night of VBS. All through the crafts, games, snacks, and Bible stories, I pondered our brief conversation. Was he right?

In my younger years, when we started our adventure in missions, I would have agreed with him. Life was too short to waste it on ordinary suburban life -- a house with a cute front yard, a minivan, 2.5 kids, plenty of time with family, and occasional trips to Disneyland. I still agree that if that's all there is to it, something is amiss. But a dozen years in ministry has taught me that the recipe for a transformed life calls for large quantities of patient, ordinary, faithful investment and only an occasional headline-making event. Going to Israel was great, for example, but the true fruit will come from years of Bible teaching injected with personal passion and on-the-ground experience. 

View of Ancient Shechem from Mt. Gerazim - Photo C. Imes
A Samaritan Village on Mt. Gerazim - Photo C. Imes
 On Tuesday night of VBS, we heard the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, which I've blogged about before. I was excited for two reasons. First, the story was being told in first-person by my teenage daughter, who did a fabulous job!  But I was also excited because I have been there. While we couldn't get to the well itself because we lacked a bullet-proof bus, we drove to the top of Mt. Gerazim and looked down into the valley where the ancient city of Shechem (and Jacob's well) has now been swallowed up by modern-day Nablus. 

We drove right through a Samaritan village and climbed off the bus at the site of their annual sacrifice (commemorating the sacrifice of Isaac on -- they say -- Mt. Gerazim). We saw their distinctive dress and saw first-hand how the 600 Samaritans alive today maintain a distinct identity from their Jewish neighbors. 
A Samaritan Priest - photo C. Imes

It was my first opportunity to spice up a Bible lesson with a story from our trip, and I hope there are many more opportunities in the days ahead. Our lives may look ordinary on the outside, but it's never been about us anyway. We carry inside this ordinary vessel the extraordinary power of the gospel:

"For what we preach is not ourselves [good thing!], but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. For God, who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God's glory displayed in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay [that is, ordinary jars for everyday use] to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. . . . So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal." 2 Corinthians 4:5-7, 18
We have new neighbors who need to meet Jesus, and we'll be far more likely to earn an opportunity to share Christ if we take the time to play kickball with them than if we decide that the effort is not worth our time. So here's hoping for lots of ordinary days . . .

Sunday, May 18, 2014

journey to the holy land

As you read this I am boarding a plane bound for Tel Aviv, Israel. Along with 40 others, I have the privilege of assisting Daniel and Ellen Block on a 2-week Israel study tour. This is my first trip to the holy land. My main objective is to come home loaded with photos and stories to liven up my classes for decades to come.

My dear Dad, who deserves a better shirt 
Our "dream team" includes not only my doctoral mentor, but my Dad and my pastor and his wife. I'm so grateful for the opportunity to experience the land of the Bible with people I love. I probably won't blog until I return, but you are welcome to check my friend Maggie's blog for updates along the way!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

seeing Christ in the Darkness

                                                                     Photo: Carmen Imes

One of the perks of living in Wheaton is the free museum in the Billy Graham Center on campus, with its gallery of featured artists. I hadn't paid attention to the latest exhibit until recently. The paintings of Georges Rouault (1871–1958) have been on display since November, just waiting for me to wake up and discover them. His artistic message resonates profoundly with all I have been living and learning this year. Rouault dwells on suffering and pain, but illustrates the light of Christ that draws us even in bleak darkness.

One painting in particular grabbed me. The caption reads:
"Out of the depths ...," Miserere Series, Plate 47
Etching by Georges Rouault / Photo by Carmen Imes
"Lying alone on a bed, this figure sheds dark and powerful tears. Cut off from the communion of the other figures on the background, this place is the "depths." As the person calls out to Christ, his presence is there. With a brilliant light, Christ illuminates the figure and even seems to be pulling the individual up from the bed toward the light. Rouault makes it plain that not only can we call to Christ from the depths, but that he is already there."

Even in the darkest night, Christ is with us. We never suffer alone. The life and hope of Christ overcomes death itself.

"Benediction Christ,"
Fleurs du Mal 1 Series
Etching: G. Rouault
Photo: C. Imes
"Arise, You Dead!"
Miserere Series, Plate 54
Etching: G. Rouault
Photo: C. Imes
By Georges Rouault
Photo: Carmen Imes

Thursday, May 1, 2014

the streaking dawn

This classic devotional is one of my favorites. It reads a little bit like a blog—a patchwork of quotes, reflections by various writers, poems, and Scriptures that ministered to the author, Lettie Cowman, as she journeyed through a difficult season as a missionary caring for her ailing husband. (In fact, the whole book has been "blogged" here.)

A poem from April 16 by Annie Porter Johnson so eloquently describes our experience this year. By the grace of God, I'm finding myself in the third stanza, reveling in the sunrise of God's presence and blessing, grateful He has carried us safely through a very dark night.

The day had gone; alone and weak
I groped my way within a bleak
   And sunless land.
The path that led into the light
I could not find! In that dark night
   God took my hand.

He led me that I might not stray,
And brought me by a new, safe way
   I had not known.
By waters still, through pastures green
I followed Him—the path was clean
   Of briar and stone.

The heavy darkness lost its strength,
My waiting eyes beheld at length
   The streaking dawn.
On, safely on, through sunrise glow
I walked, my hand in His, and lo,
   The night had gone.

A few days earlier (April 13), the author shared from the memorials of hymn-writer Frances Ridley Havergal, who I've written about before. Havergal said,
"God's love being unchangeable, He is just as loving when we do not see or feel His love. Also His love and His sovereignty are co-equal and universal; so He withholds the enjoyment and conscious progress because He knows best what will really ripen and further His work in us."
Somewhere on this dark and desert path, with God close at my side, He has been working out His best in me.

Monday, April 28, 2014

measuring life by loss

Loss of friendship.
Loss of community.
Loss of reputation.
Loss of momentum.
Loss of peace.
Loss of focus.
Loss of position.
Loss of weight.
Loss of dreams.

This year has been marked by profound loss. In the wake of all this, any little loss, like a broken dish, perhaps, swells in significance. Yet I'm challenged by others who have suffered deeply and found grace in that very place of loss. Lilias Trotter turned her back on a promising career in art in order to pour out her life in the deserts of North Africa. She writes boldly:

From the art and writings of Lilias Trotter in A Blossom in the Desert, page 27.
Also available freely online here.
By her definition, this has been a rich year, storing up treasures of faith and discovering the true source of worth in Christ. On the back side of every loss is a gain. We only need eyes to see it that way.

Pottery by Rebecca Ito. Photo by Carmen Imes.
Gain of empathy.
Gain of understanding.
Gain of dependence.
Gain of humility.
Gain of gratitude.
Gain of re-focus.
Gain of correction.
Gain of solitude.
Gain of identification with Christ.

I dare say the sting of loss is blunted when we discover we have not lost and cannot lose what is most precious—our Savior's deep love for us.

Friday, April 25, 2014

a note to my happy friends

I've had a lot to say over the past year about suffering. But perhaps you are in a season of celebration. If so, I rejoice with you. Lilias Trotter has a timely word for souls in springtime:

From Lilias Trotter's Travel Journal, 1900
"You are right to be glad in His April days while He gives them. Every stage of the heavenly growth in us is lovely to Him; He is the God of the daisies and the lambs and the merry child hearts! It may be that no such path of loss lies before you; there are people like the lands where spring and summer weave the year between them, and the autumn processes are hardly noticed as they come and go. The one thing is to keep obedient in spirit, then you will be ready to let the flower-time pass if He bids you, when the sun of His love has worked some more ripening. You will feel by then that to try to keep the withering blossoms would be to cramp and ruin your soul. It is loss to keep when God says 'give.'" (A Blossom in the Desert, 111, emphasis mine)

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

the sweet side of suffering?

In February I was offered this little book: the sweet side of suffering: Recognizing God's Best When Facing Life's Worst. The title grabbed me—it was exactly the book I thought needed to be written. Each chapter drew me deeper into the pain of this year, helping me to stare into the darkness and see the gift.

The book is not a pep talk. It's not sugar-coated or superficial. Esther Lovejoy speaks out of the deep pain and loss she has experienced, inviting readers to trust God fully in the midst of suffering. Reading Esther's book was like sharing a cup of tea with a kindred spirit, someone striving to worship God when life is really tough. Much of what she writes expresses what I've experienced and have blogged about. God has met her in her dark valley the way He has met me in mine.

Esther's love for Jesus is contagious. She gently explores the sweetness of His voice, the sweetness of knowing God, the sweetness of His care, the sweetness of surrender, the sweetness of shared suffering, the sweetness of His comfort, the sweetness of His names, the sweetness of His grace, the sweetness of His correction, and the sweetness of hope. Here's an excerpt from her chapter on correction:

"No, suffering is not sweet; it's not even pleasant. The refining fire is still fire. But when we know that it's our loving Father's hand that holds us there, we can know that it will not be wasted. He is creating out of us a gold that will allow His face to be seen. We become what He planned for us to be before the beginning of time. It is one of suffering's sweetest rewards" (136).
May it be so!