Honor Thy Birth Mother and Father: Reflections of an Adoptive Mother on Her Daughter’s Birthday

Adoption is a part of our family’s story as it is for millions of other families. As an adoption counselor once wisely told me:

Without God adoption makes no sense.

In this and future posts on adoption we will wrestle honestly and vulnerably with this truth. Thank you to my She Speaks 2015 prayer partner and now friend, Maura Byrnes, for leading the way with her thoughtful and beautiful post below.

Tomorrow is my daughter’s 10th birthday, and I cannot stop crying. No, it is not because my “baby” Natalie is growing up so quickly, although that fact does stab my heart.

I weep because every year around Natalie’s birthday I think, more than ever, of her Chinese birth parents. Although I never met Natalie’s birth mom, and no one knows who she is, I imagine her with stunning clarity. I see her long, silky, dark hair, like Natalie’s, pulled back tightly. Her eyes dart quickly from side to side when she is thinking hard about a problem, and they light up as she laughs or sings. Her delicate hands have long, slender fingers. Her father, too, I can see. He is also quiet and intelligent, quickly adding sums or multiplying double digits in his head like Natalie does.

Most of all, I imagine their grief. I picture them crying, regretting that they had abandoned their newborn daughter, and wondering how and where in the world she is. I have no problem picturing Natalie’s birth mom standing alone at a sink and watching the water run over her hands and wondering, “Do my girl’s hands resemble mine? What are her hands holding? Who are they holding, and who is holding my baby?”

I long to make things right and—nonsensically—want to divide this girl in half, so we can each have a part of her. I weep as I lament this broken, messed-up world where loving parents have to make the heart-wrenching decision to relinquish their baby, whatever the reasons. This is not the way God intended our lives to be.

Friends and acquaintances tell me I am blessed to have this child. I always agree and tell them I am more blessed than she. Inside, however, I pine that my greatest blessing is only because another mother’s heart is torn apart.

I long for heaven at these moments, where perfection and peace prevail and there are no broken relationships. In heaven there will be no marriages (Matthew 22:30, Mark 12:25), so I think it is fair to conclude there will also be no “my child,” “your child,” “birth mom” or “adoptive mom” scenarios. There only will be worship of our one true parent, our forever Father. I imagine children will run happily free from loving adult to loving adult, never knowing ambivalence, rejection or despair. Pastor and author Dan Vander Lugt writes:

All the joys of family love will be far surpassed in heaven by the joys of perfect intimacy and trust.

I am counting on this! While I wait for that day, I take steps to help assuage my own grief and to make a difference in this shattered world. Among the things I do:

  • Participate in an adoptive parents support group. It is in this sacred space that I spill out my feelings and am met with empathy and wisdom from other adoptive parents.
  • Ask God to reveal Himself to my daughter’s Chinese family. I ask Him to send Christians into their lives. I pray these believers will share the Gospel and the hope of eternity with them. I pray for her first family’s hearts to be softened and for them to accept Jesus as their Savior.
  • Send monthly donations to World Vision, Wycliffe, Young Life, and Voice of the Martyrs. While there are countless charities to support, I chose these four Christian organizations because they work, respectively, to provide education and relief in desperate communities, translate the Bible into languages for which there are no Bibles in existence, introduce kids to Jesus and help them grow in their faith, and support Chinese families whose loved ones have been tortured, imprisoned, and murdered for their faith in Jesus.
  • Meditate on the verse that every child is a gift from the Lord—not “mine,” “yours,” or “ours.” My child is the Lord’s. I am to train and raise her up in the fear and admonition of the Lord. I must remember each day she is  His beloved child, and He loves her perfectly and infinitely more than I or  any other parent ever could love her.
  • Stay informed about what is happening in my daughter’s birth country. I tell Natalie that even though Chinese Christians are being persecuted, these brave women and men are not giving up their faith in Jesus. In fact, according to Purdue University Professor of Sociology Fenggang Yang, “China is poised to become the largest Christian nation in the world.” This is because persecution has caused Chinese Christians to unite like never before in their history.

Persecution is not some obscure or far-away issue. Some adoptive parents maltreat their children’s birth parents, wielding their words and attitudes as swords. Christ commands us to honor our parents, and although he didn’t specify it, I am quite certain He means all parents—birth, foster, and adoptive. As my daughter’s birthday recedes and a new holiday is before us, I pray her birth parents would supernaturally know they are esteemed in our home.

As I was writing this, I realized my silent and dreary imaginations of my daughter’s birth parents’ regret might be lies, possibly dishonoring them and most definitely stealing my joy.

So, to stop these ruminations I now meditate on Philippians 4:8:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

I commit myself to focusing on what is true: God intended this child to be raised by my husband and me; He is sovereign in all our lives; Natalie’s birth parents must have many admirable qualities because they are apparent in this precious child, and I thank God for imparting these traits. In addition, I ask the Holy Spirit to empower me to have faith to believe that Natalie’s birth parents are peace-filled, and they would supernaturally know their daughter is not only alive but also joyfully alive in Christ. I also pray we will meet face-to-face in Heaven someday, where we will worship our Father together as one joyful nation.

Who is Good?

“Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” Mark 10: 18

I’ve always found Jesus’ response to the rich young ruler to be a bit troubling. Jesus wasn’t good? Then what chance have I got?

If I’m being truthful I like to think of myself as pretty good, a B+ on the heavenly grading scale. Oh sure, I know I’m not perfect, but I like to think I’m not like “them,” the invisible, unwashed masses of sinners, you know the ones, the big sinners, the philanderers and cheaters and liars and thieves.

When I indulge this desire to be my own god I set aside the truth that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 8:28), and that all includes me. Jesus does not distinguish the “big sinners” from the “little sinners” because that is like trying to distinguish the kind of dead from the really dead; dead is dead. And as Ravi Zacharias likes to say:

“Jesus did not come to make bad people good; He came to make dead people alive.”

As I’ve gotten older my walk with the Lord has become less about about trying to earn God’s favor and more about responding to His amazing grace. I started to think about my effort to do the right thing as a humble, if inadequate, expression of gratitude. While still unavoidable I learned that my sin is covered by Christ’s sacrifice.

Lately though, I’m beginning to see good in yet a new way: It’s not about me at all. Instead it is a divine conspiracy intended to snatch up as many people into the arms of the Lord as possible. (See Revelation 12:5.) Because I’ve been blessed to be saved God calls on me to join the rescue effort by doing just one thing:

Love one another as you love yourself (Mark 12:31)

It doesn’t take long to realize that it is a tall order because others can be so much harder to love than sweet little me. When I examine my own thoughts, words and deeds they are so often filled with my own selfish desires: What’s in it for me? What’s best for me? What impact do things have on me? Me, me, me, me.

Recently God is teaching me that doing good is about allowing His spirit to turn that same lavish attention and affection outward. To “die to one’s self” is as simple (and as difficult) as substituting him, her or their best interest in the space usually reserved for me. In this case even “doing good” is no longer about me. It’s not about me earning God’s favor or my place in heaven; that work has already been done by Jesus.

It’s about getting out of the way and being His hands and feet and heart so that others can experience God’s love through me. I’ll admit I’m not very good at this. Turning away from a life of me is not easily done.

  • The person I consider not worth my time Jesus challenges me to love and extend the same grace He gave to me.
  • That time I’d rather spend Saturday morning relaxing and doing something for me He asks me to use serving others…joyfully.
  • The guy whose favorite adjective, noun and verb all begin with “f” He encourages me to share my “f” word with: faith.
  • When I approach my child assuming the worst-case scenario He rebukes me to begin from a place of trust and love.

God uses such moments to bless others, but He also allows His love to be reflected back to bless the bearer. In these moments it’s easy to give God the glory for what has been accomplished because such work is so clearly outside of my capabilities.

Right now God is teaching me these things. Right now I am striving to listen and obey, and get out of the way of what He is up to.

In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 5:16

 

Lured by Bright and Shiny Things

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Isaiah 9:6

IMG_9497I sit before our Christmas tree, sparkling with lights and adorned with bright and shiny packages, waiting for my kids to wake up this Christmas morning. And I’m stressed out.

I worry that instead of joy and love my children will unwrap perceptions of inequity or lack of consideration or lack of effort. Gift giving is not my love language; in fact, I’m barely fluent. So with an occasional exception the experience of shopping for people, even those I love most, creates more feelings of insecurity and frustration than excitement.

Even as I wait I know that the reality behind the wrapping is less that perfect. The one gift I actually ordered early, and was most excited to give, didn’t arrive; so an empty box with a photo serves as a disappointing placeholder. And while we spent the same per-child, one has a dozen gifts to unwrap while another has just two. I know they are now teens and young adults, yet my desire to keep Christmas magical fuels guilt about these shortcomings and others.

I would like to believe I am a Christian who has not sold out to the commercialism of Christmas; in fact, I do a great job living in denial for about 350 days a year. And then in the two weeks before Christmas I succumb, driven by love-drenched guilt, and rush around like every other American, trying to express my love for my children by miraculously fulfilling some unfulfilled wish or desire.

And yet I know it’s a mirage not a Christmas miracle that they are most likely to experience; first, because I already work really hard all year round to help meet their real needs; and second, because in my heart I know that the things of this world never can satisfy the longings of our hearts.

Other than the brown Huffy bicycle I received for Christmas when I was 10 (which was stolen less than a year later), I would struggle to recall any other gifts I received as a child. The things I remember of Christmases past are my grandmother who spent the night in my room just once a year, my brother proclaiming every gift he received to be a “turtle” before he could undo the wrapping, and my mom delaying Christmas until she could swig down at least one cup of coffee. All of my memories are of how I felt being surrounded by the people I love and the simplicity of just being together.

It saddens me as an observer (and a now-confessed reluctant participant) that we celebrate Christmas — God’s daring attempt to rescue us from enslavement to the deceit of this world  — by literally buying into these false promises. Media cover God’s great love for us not with headlines of love exchanged, peace spread or hearts filled, but instead with stories of retail spending thresholds met, people fighting over the year’s hottest toy and the brokenhearted among us whose isolation is magnified during this sacred holiday. And yet:

When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. Luke 2: 15-20

I don’t have a bow to tie on this end of this post, but I will be looking for a way to turn this Christmas inside out.

 

 

 

There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays

It is less exuberance than a sense of completeness I feel with [my son] home. ‪#‎grateful‬

Just a few more hours … he’ll be back from college and our home will feel complete again. It’s just not the same when [my child] is away.

The first is a quote I wrote on my Facebook wall at Thanksgiving; the second is a quote from my friend’s Facebook wall as she awaited her son’s return for the holidays.

This experience of completeness has come as a surprise to me. I thought it would be different — joy, excitement, giddiness perhaps. But that’s not it at all. It’s  a sense of restoration, that feeling of re-orientation when things are back in place, as they should be.

We Can Go Home Again

My teaching leader in my Bible Study Fellowship astutely observed that our role as earthly parents is to send our children out of our homes and into the world to make them independent; God’s goal as Father is to draw his children back home, back into full dependence on Him.

Perhaps the peaceful tranquility we experience when our children are all under our roof is intended as a foretaste of our eternal home. Just imagine what God has in mind in drawing His children home:

But, as it is written,

“No eye has seen,

nor ear heard,

nor the heart of man imagined,

what God has prepared for

those who love him”

these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit.

1 Corinthians 2: 9-10

The Long Road Home

BSF’s study of Revelation this year has focused on God’s loving patience in withholding His righteous wrath from his beloved, if rebellious, children. This is made profoundly clear in Revelation 6: 9-11:

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained.

They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?”

Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters were killed, just as they had been.

At first this sounded horrific. What kind of Father would stand by and allow his children to suffer and die? But, God knows that the temporary suffering of these faithful ones and their witness to the Word have the power to draw a few more rebels into eternal life .

Now that is quite a different picture, isn’t it?

Yet I wonder who these souls are. Aren’t we all rebellious sinners at heart…indeed, all but One. Perhaps this is why John’s  verse is as ubiquitous as it is inescapable; consider anew that:

God expressed His love for the world in this way: He gave His only Son so that whoever believes in Him will not face everlasting destruction, but will have everlasting life.

Yet Paul makes it clear that those of us who have been given some ability to see and accept God’s amazing love and grace are called to All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation 2 Corinthians 5-18become witnessing souls to our brothers and sisters:

It wouldn’t be the same this holiday without all of my children home. Fortunately for us God feels exactly the same way.

 

Time for a Little Soul Cleaning?

Did you ever notice how clutter has a way of sneaking into your house, crouching in corners, hoping you won’t notice (or muster the energy to do anything about it if you do)?

Last week I declared war on clutter. I was doing my best to straighten up when I suddenly felt overwhelmed:  There wasn’t a room in our house where I could enjoy a peaceable sense of order anymore. All I could see was clutter. How had I let this go for so long?!

Saturday morning I lay in bed delaying the inevitable grind ahead of me. As I procrastinated, planning and dreading my day, God gave me this blog post; grace sprinkled over my mess.

Your Heart is My Home

Junk has a way of piling up in your heart just like it does in your home…especially if you’re not vigilant. For awhile you can keep your eyes on the clean spaces. But eventually there is nowhere else to look; that’s when it’s time for a little soul cleaning.

And there’s no better catalyst to such an awakening than having a friend or neighbor over — one you know keeps a beautiful home — to make you see your house through their eyes.

Isaiah had just such an experience when confronted with the clean, pure presence of a holy God in Isaiah 6: “…I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim…calling to one another:

“Holy, holy, holy is the

Lord Almighty;
the whole earth is full of His glory.”

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”

In another example Peter encounters Jesus for the first time after a frustratingly unproductive night of fishing. Jesus instructs Peter to cast his nets one more time, and they immediately fill to the point of breaking.

 When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said,

“Go away from me, Lord;

I am a sinful man!”

Luke 5:8

It’s no coincidence that God exposed the junk in Isaiah’s and Peter’s lives just before sending them out into the world to draw others to Himself.

Rewarding Work

Clean garageThe good news is this:

  1. While soul cleaning can be laborious — especially if you haven’t done it in awhile — God doesn’t ask us to work alone. My daughter helped me clean up our outdoor space. As we worked side by side we remarked on how the work can be almost fun when you’re doing it with someone else. God is happy to come alongside us, we need only to ask.

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
    and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

Psalm 51:10

2. He focuses our energy. Cleaning frenzies can be exhausting. If we try to do too much at once we become discouraged, and when the effort is too great we are reluctant to tackle it the next time. God makes sure that the tasks He gives us do not overwhelm us.

For my yoke is easy

and my burden light.

Matthew 11:30

3. God never shames us for making a mess in the first place; He is happy to remove the junk for us. My last task of the day was to drive my truckload of junk to the dump. When we confront the messes we’ve made in our spiritual lives, Jesus takes the wheel and removes it for us.

As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.

Psalm 103:12

Becoming More Tidy

Cleaning house has a spiritual term, it’s called repentance. Yet repentance comes with its own junk. As modern Christians we prefer to focus on spirituality and growing our relationship with God. But just as weeds choke healthy plants, our junk clutters our ability to experience God fully, and certainly makes us hesitant to invite him into the messy inner sanctums of our hearts.

In his book, “The Secret Life of a Fool,” Andrew Palau (@AndrewPalau) shares his Isaiah 6 moment, when he prayed for the Lord to reveal whatever junk was standing in the way of a closer relationship. God laid open to him his sinfulness in the same devastating, life-changing way that He did for Isaiah.

I modeled that prayer after reading Andrew’s story, not believing I had any blindspots; God likewise opened my eyes. I invite you to consider praying a similar prayer, but first, put on your apron and get out your dustpan, because cleanup will ensue.

Another tool for shining God’s light on the cobwebs of your heart is One Word. This great little book encourages you to prayerfully ask God for one word to guide your year, ideal timing as New Year’s approaches. This process allows God to expose your blindspots while also redirecting your focus. (Read about my first experience with one word here.)

While the labor of this past weekend lingers in my bones, this morning it is accompanied by a lightness and peace that make it all worthwhile. I am pleased that I did the hard work to restore order and simplicity in my life. I look forward to having friends over this holiday without needing to push them past the trouble spots or apologize for my neglect. And I enjoyed rest, a good, deep satisfying rest, when I finished my work.

Come to me all you who are weary and burdened

and I will give you rest.

Matthew 11:28

The 15-Second Challenge

15-second challenge

“Leave an extravagant tip.” 

“Offer to pray with him right now.”

“Buy her coffee.”

“Share the story of what I did for you.”

You’ve heard these whispers, felt these prompting to do good. Usually it’s something that costs you little more than a couple minutes of time and a bit of vulnerability. How consistently do you obey?

My teaching leader at Bible Study Fellowship said recently that we have about 15 seconds to respond to such promptings or our likelihood to act drops precipitously. Since hearing that factoid I’ve challenged myself to listen more closely and say yes more often.

So far the Lord has not asked me to “sell everything I have and give it to the poor” (Matthew 19:21). Rather, it’s a daily stream of little nudges. Of course, it’s obedience in such small matters that He uses to prepare and equip us for greater responsibility:

‘Well done,

good and faithful servant!

You have been faithful

with a few things;

I will put you in charge

of many things.

Matthew 25:21

Wouldn’t you just love to hear the Lord speak such words to you? I know I would. And thus the dilemma. Why don’t I act with consistency? What holds me back?

When it comes to speaking boldly and sharing my faith it’s simple: Fear. I fear what someone might think of me, fear being labeled a “Jesus freak” or a kook.

This selfish, self-absorbed objection is a great reminder that I am overlooking what is really at stake. If someone’s physical life was at risk I wouldn’t hesitate to alert her by any means necessary, without worrying at all about how my frantic yelling and arm waving might look at that moment. My only focus would be on her well-being. There would be time later to reflect on, and even laugh about, how far I was willing to go in that pursuit.

As someone who has said yes to a relationship with Jesus, I am called to be a fisher of men, inviting others to experience “life to the fullest” (John 10:10) as I do in my relationship with Jesus Christ. Why would a lukewarm or even skeptical reaction to such an abundant and life-saving offer deter me from continuing to extend the invitation? Good questions...and yet far too often I do.

Other times my reluctance is pure selfishness. I receive a $10 tab in a restaurant and I get a nudge to leave a big tip in Jesus’ name (@tipsforjesus). I can talk myself down from $50 to $5 faster than an auctioneer, rationalizing that $5 is a really good tip on that tab, ignoring the voice that reminds me $50 barely registers on my monthly grocery bill for my family of six.

Imagine giving your child $20 to treat him and his friends to snacks at the movies, and then finding out that he bought himself a giant drink, popcorn and candy, and gave his friends only a small popcorn to share. As the giver, wouldn’t you be astounded by such selfishness? Wouldn’t you have expected your child to honor your will for how that gift was to be used? He may have complied with what you asked, but he clearly missed the spirit behind the gift. That’s how I think God looks at my petty selfishness when it comes to financial gifts.

The good news is, while I as a parent am likely to respond with a lecture about selfishness and a threat to not be so generous in the future, God is a perfectly loving father.

God’s kindness leads

us to repentance.

Romans 2:4

When I whiff at such moments I am tempted to self-condemnation over my failure; it’s then that I encounter the God of second chances. I know I messed up, but God just smiles (and doubles down), putting endless opportunities before me to do better the next time, and the time after that.

Here are some of the questions I ask myself to help embolden me to step forward with increasing eagerness and less fear in His name:

  1. What if I am the only one who will bring Christ’s light into this person’s life today?
  2. What if my words are the last nudge this person needs to finally commit her life to Christ?
  3. What if this person is approaching a breaking point and needs assurance of God’s love for him?

Jesus couldn’t have been more clear in his parting words to those of us who profess to love Him:

Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them

in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.

Matthew 26:20

 

This week I encourage you to join me in taking the 15-second challenge:

  1. Stop: Pray each morning (before you get out of bed) for God to put someone in your path whom you can serve that day.
  2. Look: Be more aware of those around you and open your heart to their needs.
  3. Listen: Know that if you ask God He will be faithful to put opportunities before you. Listen for those Spirit promptings…listen and obey.

Then share (ideally right in the comments section here) how your simple of act of obedience provided an opportunity for you to be a blessing to others and to be blessed by being His hands and feet to a brother or sister.

The Great Weaver: A Story with a Punchline

 

To bestow on them

a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called

oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.

Isaiah 61:3

Last week I shared this verse as one of several to which God had pointed me recently. He has not stopped leading me back this powerful verse. I share my journey as an example of how God uses His Word to weave our lives together, one to another. My hope is that this story will resonate with others striving to hear God more clearly in their own lives.

Strong Roots

My sons and a couple of their friends have unified in prayer recently, and I shared the passage above with them as a daily verse. I was unfamiliar with it before attending She Speaks last summer. There I met a woman who was so strongly rooted in faith you could feel God’s Spirit on her. In our speakers’ small group she spoke of how God had used this verse to restore her “oil of joy” following the death of her son.

She shared in a recent phone conversation that she had not planned to speak on that verse. She had prepared another message and was frustrated that the Spirit was pushing her so strongly in this direction. She found it encouraging to learn that her message had become a source of comfort and inspiration to others.

While I was still on the phone with her I received a text from another She
SIsaiah 61:3peaks friend who had just purchased a ring a few days prior inscribed with, you got it, Isaiah 61:3. When she saw last week’s post referencing this verse she knew it was more than coincidence.

Tiny Acorns

Following She Speaks I published a post called, “May I Have a Word Please?” about how God had given me a word at the conference to focus my ministry for the coming year; it was brokenhearted. It’s a word that appears only twice in the Bible: In Isaiah 61:1 and in Luke 4:18 when Jesus proclaims an “Amen” over it, claiming Isaiah’s prophesy for himself:

He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted

I have remained open to the relevance of this word in my life, and realized that brokenhearted connects me with parents whose children are hurting. The pain over a child’s suffering is far deeper than anything we as parents experience directly.

How like God it is to introduce me to this notion through a woman who survived the ultimate heart break of losing her child. God’s promise in verse 3 is rooted in His desire to heal the brokenhearted.

Mighty Oaks on the Rise

When my sons and their friends embarked on this recent prayer journey I encouraged them with James 5:16:

The prayers of a righteous man are powerful and effective.

I challenged them to consider how powerful and effective their prayers could be together since they are all righteous men. As I looked more closely at Isaiah I realized that they, and the friend for whom they are praying, are being grafted together through this experience:

They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.

And Now for the Punchline

So from the mighty oak of a woman of faith to me, an acorn by comparison; and from me, like all parents, called to be an oak of faith to my children and their friends, rising oaks in the faith.

God’s word is alive and active in those who believe in him. As we share His word and pray together, God works beneath the surface to bless and refine us all, individually, and relationally with others and Himself. You can feel all the layers of stories happening in this one verse, can’t you?

The end for now is to remind us that we are part of God’s grand design. We see only our small piece at the moment, but God is a grand weaver, crafting a divinely intricate tapestry through our lives and the lives of others. We are threads held together by His Word.

In contemplating this metaphor I researched weaving terminology, wanting to know the word that refers to the starting point of the tapestry, metaphorically, the origin of God’s grand design. And it is this:

Cross

The figure eight made at one end of the group of warp threads used to keep those threads in order during the threading and sleying process of dressing the loom.

God’s grand design stretches to infinity (represented by the figure eight), and it always begins at the cross.

tapestry of the cross

About the Crown

crown of life

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.

James 1:12

I shared this verse with a friend who is facing a difficult season of trial recently…and God’s promise stuck in my craw. I thought to myself, “How would I receive this verse in such a time? Would I find comfort is some ethereal promise of a ‘crown of life’? What the heck is that anyway, and is it tangible and powerful enough to fortify me in times of trouble?”

To be frank, I actually somewhat regretted sharing the verse; I figured if such a promise was lost on me it would come across to my friend as one of those Christian euphemisms that doesn’t apply to present reality.

I haven’t seen anyone in a crown lately, and I would probably laugh if I did. After all, a crown is not something an American gives weight or value to; we are rebels of the crown.

It’s in these times that God is like the Verizon guy for me, putting  the notion of crown in front of me relentlessly every day since, and whispering, “Can you hear me now?” Both in my own reading of the Word and as part of my Bible study I’ve encountered crowns everywhere I turn:

  • Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. Revelation 2:10
  • I am coming soon. Hold fast to what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. Revelation 3:11
  • He has sent me …to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor. Isaiah 61:2-3

There are several Greek words used to refer to crown. The one used in all of these texts except Isaiah is stephanos, which refers to a literal crown, a mark of royal or exalted rank, the wreath or garland given as a prize to victors in public games and “the eternal blessedness which will be given as a prize to the genuine servants of God and Christ: the crown (wreath) which is the reward of the righteousness.”

The other words for crown are nezer which refers to consecration and priestly separation, also a woman’s hair; and diadema, which was a blue band marked with white and worn as a turban by Persian kings. It is similar to the word used in Isaiah, pe’er, or turban.

If this is all Greek to you, let me share with you what God has shown me this week. In 1 Corinthians 9:25 Paul teaches:

Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.

Our lives are defined by striving and competing, whether as students, athletes, professionals, parents or in other roles. Whatever vocation you’ve been called to it is human nature to execute and excel to the fullest of your potential, and when you’ve hit your max to buckle down with discipline in order to increase your potential.

The question becomes “Why?” Why do you do what you do? Why do you strive so hard? Where do you find your reward? (I can already hear the whispers of conviction gaining strength as the dots begin to connect.)

When I strive for a worldly crown I typically come up short of the mark, not capturing the grade, title, salary or recognition I hope will validate my worth.

On the other hand when my striving is to serve the Lord I am showered in His abundance. For example, God recently called me to lead a small group in prayer. Like manna in the desert God is faithful to provide a scripture passage daily that aligns with the need at that time and focuses us in unity. The process of studying His word and meditating on it with “other-centeredness” stokes my endorphins more than any race I’ve run.

Do you remember when you were a child and you did something that delighted your parents? I remember those moments as some of the happiest of my childhood. It was the joy of pleasing them, of feeling their joy wash over me, and experiencing a sense of accomplishment by earning the approval of the only authorities who mattered in my life at that time.

That is what God invites us into with his offer of the crown of life, the stephanos. Whatever it is He is calling you to do today, whether to serve, to witness to another, to persevere and endure, or to soar, look to Him as you do so.

What you will see is a Father who delights in you, who approves of you and whose joy will wash over you in trial or tribulation because of His great love for you, his very precious child. That is the true, unmatched and unsurpassable pleasure available to us in this life, and miraculously offered.

crown of life

  • What is the motivation for your choices, activity and words today?
  • What is God calling you to do today?
  • What would it look like if you made God’s delight the goal of your work, suffering or service?
  • Will you allow yourself to feel His pleasure and lower your head to accept the gift of His crown of life?

 

And they clothed him with purple, and platted a crown (stephanos) of thorns, and put it about his head.

Mark 15:17

Part 3: The Prodigal Returns

But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him.

Luke 15: 20

Faithful Expectation

The father of the prodigal son has just spotted his boy. Can’t you just see the silhouette on the horizon, indistinguishable to any but the one who gave him life? It’s not dumb luck that he happened to look out at just the right moment. You know this man had gazed at that horizon longingly, and without reward, for days on-end.

When your child is distant from you — physically, emotionally, mentally or all three — the pain of the separation is palpable. This is true under the best of circumstances (See On Roots and Wings), and even more true in the worst of times. As you abide the stranger in your midst, you seek any sign of the babe you once held in your arms, the toddler who clung to your legs, the child who leaned on you — and struggle to remain faithful that he will resurface eventually.

Joy of Redemption

Imagine if, as the boy looked toward home, the shadow he saw in the distance was of his father standing with arms crossed and foot tapping? Would he have persevered?

Fortunately his father didn’t need a close-up look to know his son had been through the ringer. Jesus tells us the sight of the boy filled his father with compassion. In Greek the word is splagchnizomai; it literally means “to be moved as to one’s bowels, hence to be moved with compassion, have compassion (for the bowels were thought to be the seat of love and pity).” I think of it as shaken to his core.

This father recognizes what a journey his son has endured to reach home. Without needing  to know the sordid details he instinctively knows that his son is hurting. There will be time later for wisdom, lessons learned and even for consequences. In this moment this Daddy didn’t need to think about the right thing to do; his heart led the charge with complete abandon! He threw off his shoes, hiked his robes and:

prodigal son
credit: rationalfaiths.com

…ran, and fell on his neck,

and kissed him.

What a beautiful image. This is “throw-yourself-in-front-of-a-bus” love. Don’t you know that father knocked his son to the ground and smothered him with kisses? Wouldn’t you?!

Now imagine the son’s reaction. He had dragged his feet for miles, remembering the things his father had taught him, lessons he had cast aside with the same reckless abandon that he was now being loved.

Betrayed and wounded so many times since rejecting this man, he must have been afraid to trust the resplendent, lavish love pouring over him in this moment, for he stuck to his script, acknowledging his wrongdoing and asking only for the bare minimum needed to sustain himself.

Redemptive Restoration

But his father’s love is so much more than sustaining; it’s abundant. He can’t wait to fulfill the dream he has held close since the moment he lost his son. “Quickly” he instructs his servants, and requests a robe, ring and shoes for his son. The robe in which he cloaks his son denotes primacy; the father immediately restores his place as first son. He adorns his hand, the source of authority, with a ring, and binds his feet, the same feet that took him so far from home, in shoes to protect him from harm.

When challenged about his response by his other son the father is unequivocal about both his emotion and the wisdom of his decision:

We had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours

was dead and is alive again;

he was lost and is found.

Luke 15:32

Living with the End in Mind

Jesus’s parable has a quick and happy ending; he conveys the entire story in just 21 sentences and leaves us to fill in the gaps.

If you have walked — or are walking — the path with a prodigal child it’s the gaps that get you:

  • The nights of not knowing where she is or if she is safe
  • The days spent in hostile silence with the stranger in your home
  • The months spent allowing the consequences to roll in even as your child takes his first, tentative steps in the right direction, and the fear that too many may knock him back down
  • The frustration of continued stumbles, just as you thought she was moving in the right direction
  • The grief in your heart for your lost child, grappling against the hope that he’ll re-emerge

Perhaps you are standing staring at the horizon, waiting on your child’s return. What can you do in the meantime? I think there are three roles as a parent that are meaningful and valuable in such a season:

Pray

First and most importantly, intercede for your child in prayer. There are two instances in the New Testament where parents implore Jesus on their children’s behalf. In both cases their children are possessed (and if you’re parenting a prodigal this thought has probably crossed your mind, more than once if you’re honest!) In Matthew 15:22 a mother comes to Jesus about her daughter. “Then Jesus said to her:

Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

In Mark 9 a father says to Jesus of his son, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” ‘If you can’?” Jesus replies. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”

Immediately the boy’s father exclaims, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” Jesus said to his apostles of this possession:

This kind can come out only by prayer.

I firmly believe God uses such times as these to refine our faith. Cry out to God in the same honest, plaintive voice as this parent, ““I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”  Let God use your faithfulness on your child’s behalf to enrich your own walk with the Lord.

Remind Your Child How God Sees Her

Even as they grow up children care deeply about how they look in their parents’ eyes. Shame over their mistakes and fear of being labeled a “problem child” deceive many a prodigal to not look toward home.  Remind your child who she is in God’s eyes and your own. One practical way to do this is to give your child scripture passages that speak of God’s love for his children, personalized with your child’s name:

For God so loved [name] that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
John 3:16

Love Unconditionally

And finally love unconditionally. The most important gift you can give your child is the unconditional love that you have been given first by God. Knock him over with your love and kiss him all over. Make sure he knows that nothing he has done or ever will do could change how much you love him.

There will be time for truth and most of it will arrive on its own accord. Your role now is to make sure it is covered in grace, the same grace you received:

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Romans 5:8

Hope

Sadly not every prodigal returns home. Not every parent is blessed to be able to lavish his child in hugs and kisses again. As you walk in faith, hope and love and wait on a child that remains far from home, hold this promise close to your heart:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called

according to his purpose.

Romans 8:28

Read this series from the beginning.

Part 2: The Prodigal Departs (Here come the consequences.)

rock bottom

After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. Luke 15:14-16

We all are rebels at heart. No doubt you can recall, probably with a rush of adrenalin, the night you snuck out of your parents’ house and sped down the highway in the family car, stars blazing in the clear night sky, and the cool wind invigorating the ride. Or, the time you kissed  that boy your mother forbade you to see, only to discover the unexpected sweetness of forbidden fruit. Maybe it was the intoxication of drinking or smoking for the first time, the heady, out-of-body sensations carrying you and your friends to a temporarily altered reality.

Such moments — and the fact that we outgrew them — blur the boundary between when our children are acting out in typical teenage rebellion, and when they have crossed over into more ominous territory that threatens to delay, disrupt or derail their development into functioning young adults.

While the prodigal son believes he is ready for his freedom and independence, his choices indicate otherwise. It is not long before he squanders everything and begins to experience need. He is slowly awakening to his deeper-seeded poverty. He begins to look backward and forward for sources of support.

He knows that talk of his recent stunts has reached his family’s neighbors by now; even without hearing the whisper campaign he knows what’s being said, and he resents being labeled a problem child.

He considers his friends back home, but realizes he has fallen behind his former peers. Maybe it’s because his grades dropped as a result of his distraction, or because his friends understandably closed ranks after being repeatedly let down. Defying the rejection he turns elsewhere to try to close the gap.

What he finds is someone identified only as “a citizen.” Jesus tells us that he “joins himself to” this individual. The Greek word for this, kollaō,  means to cleave to, to glue together. But this is a citizen of a depraved land; the son soon learns the difficult lesson that people cannot give what they have not received. When he leans on this friend for support, he is thrown to the pigs. To make matters worse it appears that no one notices or cares to come to his rescue.

and no one gave him anything.

This is rock bottom; the pig pen providing a blunt metaphor for the Jewish audience to whom Jesus is telling this story. Having rejected his family, abandoned the friends of his youth and squandered his resources, the son is betrayed by someone he thought was his friend. He has no where to turn and no one to turn to. Jesus doesn’t specify how much time has passed, probably because the journey to the bottom is not a temporal one.

One of my husband’s mantras to our children is, “When you find yourself in a hole the first thing to do is stop digging.”

rock bottom

Yet it seems that when our kids find themselves in a bad situation they inevitably do the opposite: they dig faster and faster until they are too exhausted to dig anymore.

And that is a good thing. Exhaustion often is the catalyst to revival. Rebellion is exhausting. Rejection is exhausting. Being in need is exhausting. Can’t you just picture this boy, the perfect symbol for every one of us in a state of sin, sitting in his own squalor: dirty with shame and guilt, starving for nourishment of his body and soul, isolated from everyone and everything that he once valued?

No parent wants to see his child in that situation. But the wise father knows that to rescue his son prematurely, to grab that shovel and yank the boy out of that hole, will only result in him digging a new and deeper one. Regardless of how tempting it may be, this child needs to experience the full burden and consequences of his choices before he will turn around for good.

I believe the Lord makes us parents so we can get a glimpse of His relationship with us as our eternal Father. How many times have we refused to stop digging until the consequences, the pain and the separation from our Father compound beyond what we can bear? It’s only then that we come back to our senses and begin to yearn for home.

Start at the beginning: Part 1: The Prodigal Arrives

Read the final part of the series: Part 3: The Prodigal Returns