Thursday, October 16, 2014

My favorite birthday gift

This week the university where I teach is hosting a conference, so classes have been canceled for the latter half of the week. That means I get to work from home today, instead of teaching. It's been a relaxed morning of reading, tea parties, and completing miscellaneous tasks from my ever-growing to-do list.

First things first, I got out my hammer and nails and hung my most favorite birthday gift — an original painting by my friend, Tammy, who is a gifted artist.

Tammy and I at my 30th birthday dinner

I first met Tammy five years ago at the public library in Glendora, where we were both living at the time (we lived in Glendora, not the library! Although I wouldn't mind living in the library, for a day or two, anyway...). We got to talking and I invited her to church, and the next thing we knew, we were enjoying weekend walks and dancing excursions together.

All these years later, Tammy is still my loyal friend. In fact, she's the only close friend I have in Orange County who knew me before I was sick. For this reason, my illness was quite grievous to her. She saw its full effects as she watched it change me and strip me of my capacity to live a "normal," full life. I'm thankful to have a friend who will mourn with me when I'm mourning and rejoice with me when I'm rejoicing.

This year, in celebration of my 30th birthday, Tammy wanted to give me a gift that could comfort me when life's storms howl and rage."What Bible verse has brought you courage these last four years?" she asked me awhile back.

I pointed her to a blog (re-posted below) I wrote about the story of Lazarus' death in John 11, back when I was absolutely the sickest I'd ever been (see original post here):


September 19, 2011
I've missed you this last week, Friends. It's been a hard health week for me which always makes it difficult for me to write. But today when God pulled the sun up over the horizon there was healing in its rosy rays, and I have a bit more energy to share something I discovered this last week and have tucked into the folds of my heart to carry with me through each challenging day.

I found it in the book of John, soon after Jesus rubbed spit and mud in the eyes of a blind man and in two strokes of his hand painted the man's world with light, color, and texture. A couple of chapters later this God-Man, whose fingertips bore unmatchable power, received word from his friends Mary and Martha that their brother Lazarus had fallen desperately sick.

The Gospel writer sets the scene for us: Lazarus's sisters know Jesus of Nazareth loves their failing brother (and won't he do something for him?), and Jesus knows that this story will end well—just you wait and see, he tells his disciples: God will be glorified in all this.

Then, just before the story really picks up, the Gospel writer pauses to tell us something very important:

"Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus."

Yes, yes he did. I nod as I read. This is the first thing I learned about Jesus when I was little tyke in Mrs. Doerschuck's Sunday School class, with her sweet smile, softly curling white hair and singsong voice: "Jesus loves us this we know..."

I go back and read it again.

"Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus."

"So when he heard Lazarus was sick," the Gospel writer continued.

My heart quickens. The English teacher in me knows that the word "so" means "to the great extent that," or, "for this reason." So I know the next words on the tissue-thin page will reveal the sort of thing God does when he loves people a lot—people like us, who need to be reminded of the ways Jesus shows us his love.

I lift my eyes and gaze for a moment at the pink geraniums smiling through my window. The muscles around my spine ache as I sit turning the first few verses of Lazarus's story over and over in my mind, thinking about all of the things that could follow that "So".

 My thoughts move slowly through my foggy mind (has it grown into a forest of cotton?), and I am aware that my limbs have fallen limp and exhausted at my side from the sensation of lead sitting thick and still in them.

My emotions are slumped with my body—a body that almost daily reminds me that it is dying, slowly and quietly.

 I remember realizing as an adolescent that we're all dying — that our bodies consistently deteriorate after childhood because of sin's curse. It's just that now it's hard for me to forget about this steady return to dust when my body so often aches and trembles with fatigue.

 And so I daily cry out to God, asking him to sustain and heal me, to keep my body from falling into even more severe illness; and I think, in a very small way, I may understand how Mary and Martha felt and hoped when they asked Jesus to come to Lazarus.

"So when he heard Lazarus was sick he stayed where he was two more days."

Two long days with seconds that passed so slowly the minutes felt like hours, and hours that crawled by slower than lifetimes. Just long enough for Lazarus' body to break and die.

There are tears in my eyes at this point, because this story is not turning out the way it did with the blind man, and I think Jesus shows us his love in ways I wouldn't have chosen.

I keep reading: Jesus makes his way to Martha and Mary's house where he knows Lazarus lies dead, and reminds his disciples along the way of what he'd said when he first heard about Lazarus's illness: "This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God's glory....that you may believe."

I know the rest of the story well. Martha runs to meet Jesus as he nears their house, lamenting his late arrival. He promises her Lazarus will rise, and this Jewish woman remembers aloud another promise: the promise of resurrection at the last day.

 I think Jesus must have tipped her downcast, tear-stained face up toward his when he replied, "I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die."

I think Martha's heart must have quaked and soared.

Together, Jesus walks with Martha into the village where they find Mary grieving among friends and family. Jesus looks at their heaving shoulders and contorted faces, hears their gutteral wails, and is deeply moved.

Even in the face of his transcendent plan to use Lazarus' sickness and death for God's glory, he enters their pain and weeps with them over their dead friend, Lazarus.

 Then he walks to the tomb and calls for Lazarus, telling him to come out into the arms of his sisters and friends. And Lazarus emerges from the tomb's darkened doorway, tearing off his grave cloths as his blinking eyes adjust to the piercing light.

And the resplendence of God's glory fills that brilliant light, and many of the people around Lazarus believed.  

My soul swells and sighs as I look up from my Bible and I know that I want God's glory to radiate from my weakness so that I and others might believe in his power, goodness, and unmatchable love in order that we might have life.

I also know that this is what God will give me. He is writing more of his glory and goodness into my story than I could ever write myself, and although the story he pens may look very different from the story I'd pen, he writes it this way because he loves me.

And so I try to see my story through his eyes, remembering that he is the God of Resurrection who turns our pain into his life-giving glory.

I thoughtfully close my Bible, set it on my cluttered kitchen table, and walk over to the sink where I begin to slowly wash my dishes, murmuring as I lather,

"Now Jesus loved Sarah Christine. So he allowed her a long season of illness...."

And I ask him to make sure that the story ends in his glory, even if it ends in sickness, because his glory is our greatest good.

How might your story change if you told it this way?


So Tammy, dear Tammy, made a gorgeous painting of John 11:25-26 for me:
She said she wasn't sure what the backdrop would look like when she began but figured she'd do something abstract.

Tammy gave her life to Jesus a few years ago, and when she did, she began praying when she painted, asking the Spirit of God to guide her hands. As she prayed and worked on my painting she was surprised to see that her abstract shapes turned into clouds with light pouring through them. It was the perfect background for John 11:25-26.

I love this painting. It matches the colors in my studio perfectly and its words both comfort me and give me courage. There is nothing — nothing — that can happen to me that will ever snatch away my new, eternal life in Christ. There is nothing God cannot use to teach me his resurrection power. There is nothing God cannot use to give me fuller, grander life.

I love having this message of life above the doorways in my house. Its presence reminds me of the Passover in Exodus when the Israelites had to mark their doorways with blood so the angel of death would pass over them.

In seminary I learned that the blood, smeared above and to either side of the doors during Passover, made the shape of a cross.
Image credit:
It foreshadowed the day when Jesus' death and resurrection would save us from Death's grip — when God would look at us and, instead of seeing our sin, would see Jesus' blood covering us.

He who believes in Jesus will live, enough though he dies. This truth will never, ever get old. Not in a million, billion, trillion years. I get it now, why the angels can't stop singing "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty!" It's a mind-blowing, heart-healing, body-resurrecting, relationship-transforming, life-changing reality. Ha.le.llujah.

I hope you can carry this joyous, glorious truth with you into your Thursday afternoon, friends!



© by scj

1 comment:

  1. I love that verse! When my oldest daughter was about 5 (now 13) she said to me once..."Mommy, I'm never really going to die. I'm alive now, and when I die I'll be alive with Jesus." I just love how easy it is for little children to "get it," to know God's truths. Thanks for sharing your story! ~Sharon