ADVENTures Day 22–Dark Games

The people walking in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
    a light has dawned. Isaiah 9:2 (NIV)

I come from that generation who played outside until dark. “Be home when the street lights come on!!” my folks would say, and mostly we obeyed. This is a bit of a problem since, well, it’s fun to play in the dark. Every once in a while, in the wintertime when it is dark by 5:15, we would stay outside and play and play until someone stepped out and called us in.

We made this a habit during Christmas break, and I think my mom would let us get away with it just to keep us out of her hair. I understand this, now that I have my own two bairns–my two sweet little angels who woke me up on the first of my 10 vacation days with loud shrieking and the unmistakable sounds of trading punches. Sigh. Peace on earth.

One year during Christmas break, we took to playing hide-and-seek in the dark. I. LOVED. IT. No one could beat me. I had the very best hiding place–right on the front porch. This would be the proverbial hiding in plain sight strategy, except I could just step back into the shadows and no one knew I was there. The biggest danger is giving yourself away by laughing. Someone would come so close, even look directly at that dark corner and never see me.

We were out there until someone called–someone with authority called me by name out of the darkness .

My life before Christ was a little like this. I was a good kid–mostly, but some things about the darkness I found hard to resist. Generally I wanted to be obedient, stay out of trouble, and stay safe. But I held back a little darkness here and there, because it was fun–exciting even. It was obvious from watching the people around me that the darkness–as attractive as it seemed–was truly dangerous. After seeing one or two lives in shreds, I worked at maintaining a balance between light and dark.

But it doesn’t really work that way. You can’t love the light and flirt with darkness.

‘It can be bright with joy if you will do what you should! But if you refuse to obey, watch out. Sin is waiting to attack you, longing to destroy you. But you can conquer it!” Genesis 4:7 (TLB)

And this . . .

Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. I Peter 5:8 (NLT)

God had allowed Israel to be devoured by the nations around them. He spared a remnant, brought them home, and promised them a Savior. The Lord had to teach His own people not to love the darkness–that they couldn’t be His chosen people and sprinkle in practices from pagan religions. What a treacherous, painful lesson for all those people. Yet, we repeat that pattern, don’t we? Isn’t it all too frequent that those who claim Christ as Savior are holding a little bit of darkness back for themselves?

That was my life for a number of years. I had made the decision to follow Christ, but I tried to bring the darkness with me. The Lord in His mercy knew that I had to be taught just how dark the darkness is. I love Psalm 110:75, “I know, O LORD, that your judgments are right, and in faithfulness you have afflicted me.”

My husband’s testimony is a dramatic example of being rescued from darkness. He would tell the story better, but in a nutshell, he made a decision to follow Christ as a kid. When he grew older, like so many of us, he rebelled because he loved to play in the darkness. One night as he was out with some friends, God simply spoke to him. Clearly, Todd heard Him speak. “You don’t need this anymore.” I love this story. I’ve heard him tell it so many times that I knew there was a specific spot on a particular street in Marion, IL, where my husband heard and obeyed the voice of the Lord. When we went home for Thanksgiving, I asked him to take me there and I snapped this picture.

Boulevard

That night put my husband on a collision course with so many things that followed–a call to the ministry, college, seminary, me. I’m so grateful. He shook us both loose from the darkness so that we would be ready for each other.

God, in all His authority, has stepped out of Heaven and called you home. He gave us Jesus, the Light of the world, so that we would have no fear of being devoured by the darkness. If you have received the gift of the Lord Jesus, then you have so many things to praise Him for this Christmas.

If you are still flirting with darkness, are you tired yet? Maybe your life is in shambles because sin has devoured you. It’s not too late. Light has dawned on those living in deep darkness. He has done all these great things for each of us–and yes, also for you! Don’t refuse His gift!

Leave your darkness and run home to the light.

Merry Christmas.

 

ADVENTures Day 12–Barren

In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.

Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.

Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John.     Luke 1:5-13

Don’t get me wrong–I like all the prophecy/Old Testament connections in Advent readings. But I LOVE THIS. I love the story–THE STORY–of how the arrival of the Son of God came about. Here, all the pieces start to come together. People who had never dreamed of playing a role in Messiah’s story get visits from an angel. Today’s part of the story I revel in–because I remember my days of being childless.

I addressed this passage in a very recent post, Pray Boldly, which I’d love for you to read, but I have more thoughts to add here. Women who can’t have children suffer from peculiar feelings of failure. No matter what the doctor said to convince me I was not to blame for the miscarriages, and I knew there was nothing I could do any differently, I simply could not carry a baby to term and so, was a failure. So I thought. It felt like I wasn’t able to do something that was automatic for every other woman around me. For several years, I kept these feelings to myself; I never even told Todd. Finally I said something to a counselor, who, thankfully, validated those feelings and all of my anger.

For Elizabeth, I imagine these feelings were magnified exponentially because of their culture. If you can’t have children, you must be a sinner. Surely there is a reason God has denied you His blessings–His favor. My generation is kinder, thank God. Yet, in general terms, I struggled with the why. A genetics counselor said to me, when I broke down after sitting in a waiting room for over an hour with a bunch of very pregnant women, “You feel persecuted, don’t you?”

Yes, that’s it. Persecuted. Maybe I’m a little old-fashioned, but I’d imagined my future a certain way. I would work until I got pregnant and then stay home and raise my children. That was my purpose; I was sure of it. Everywhere I turned women were great with child, talking about nothing but motherhood, positively giddy about being stay at home moms.

That’s as close a connection as I can make with Elizabeth. Still, it seems pretty close to the heart of things. If this isn’t to be my role, then what is? And what’s so wrong with me having this role in the first place?

Look what God did for Zechariah and Elizabeth. He gave them the son that Elizabeth said took away her disgrace. More than that, he birthed a new purpose in them. They raised the child that will herald the King of Kings.

I was recast as an adoptive mom. Believe me, I don’t regret it. Looking back, this is just one of many times that God placed my feet on a different path than I would have chosen for myself.Road Sometimes it takes years to see how God was working out some purpose, but it has all been worth it.

You may be in one of those seasons of life. Something you had felt sure of didn’t materialize. What you had believed was your purpose is off the table. It’s heartbreaking, isn’t it? This Christmas, look at those circumstances through the lens of God’s purpose. He works it all for good if you love Him and are called according to His purpose.

I’m praying that this post finds its way to readers who need these words. Grace and peace to you, friends. Merry Christmas.

I lost my mind. I don’t much miss it.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.   Matthew 16:24

Like any Christian, I struggle with how much is enough. “I gave this up, God. Isn’t that enough? What??? You want more??? C’mon!!!!”

As a young adult, I thought the ultimate sacrifice was allowing God to make my decisions—where to attend school, what career, who to date, how to date, to marry or not to marry, and on and on. It’s convenient that I often found God leaving room for my preferences back then. Disciplining myself in the world of dating was possibly the most difficult, but aren’t I lucky that He chose Todd Beasley for my husband and that I was like-wild-attracted to him?

If I were to be completely honest, most of the decisions of my young adulthood were simply my preferences submitted to God for His approval. When He didn’t give His approval, I waited for something else I strongly preferred and gave Him a chance to say yes. It took a little trial and error until I happened upon the things I most desired, but I could soothe myself with the promise that good things come to those who wait.

I left very little room for God to say, “Nope. Absolutely not. You’re not getting married. You won’t so much have a career as a ministry, and I’m thinking maybe in Africa. Pick up that cross and let’s roll.” It’s as if I convinced myself that not hearing God ask me to make a sacrifice meant that He didn’t require one. And yet, in those days, I would have told you that abstaining from sex as a discipline in dating was the pinnacle of taking up the cross. That, ladies and gents, is denying yourself. Amirite?

As I get older, God makes it ever clearer that taking up my cross is an abandonment of me. It’s not just giving up a worldly behavior or waiting for God to say yes to something better. What I think I need, what I think is best, whatever rationale I use for my prioritizing is rubbish in light of the cross. I need the mind of Christ. So I’d better get busy losing mine!

One day as I was reading Matthew 16:24, I envisioned the effort it would take to shoulder the cross. Jesus had nothing else with Him. Just a cross, a crown, and blood. Philippians says that He “emptied Himself. . . and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” To follow Jesus’ example, I also have to set everything aside. If I am to pick up that cross and walk with it, anything else in my hands has to be left behind. It is physically impossible for me to continue on with all my stuff, my junk, my baggage, while carrying that cross behind the Lord.

Carry the cross

Now that I see the meaning of the verse more clearly, the question becomes so obvious. What are you carrying that must be dropped so that you can manage the cross of Christ? In moving to Arkansas to plant a church, Todd and I have had to set aside the traditional notion of the American Dream. If I choose Christ, there is no promise that I will achieve prosperity equivalent to or in excess of the Joneses. It’s a lesson I continue to learn. I felt entitled—that my age and effort should naturally graduate me to a higher tax bracket. Entitlement competes with my devotion to Christ. And Christ is better.

What competes with your devotion to Christ? Is it your children? Is your number one desire for them to be successful? Or for them to be spiritually transformed into the likeness of the Lord Jesus? Leave it–the ridiculously overcrowded schedule, attending every sporting event even at the rather pricey cost of neglecting church, giving in to their every whim, breaking the bank to give them the best of material things. Lay it down, and lose your mind for the mind of Christ. Jesus loves our children infinitely more than we do. We give them the very best by teaching them how to follow the Lord by carrying the cross.

What prevents you from committing to Him completely? Your job? Are you shouldering your career with ease but dragging the cross along behind? Have you convinced yourself that you need the money to live, when really you just don’t want to live on less? If you feel secure in your job, then your faith is dangerously misplaced. The Lord Jesus, who is the very Word of God, promised that He provides when we seek Him first. Set it down and take up the cross. You might find it is easier to bear than your worries over money.

What chip sits on your shoulder in place of the cross? Is it pride? Bitterness? Has someone or some circumstance so injured you that your love for the Lord has long since been choked out? His love for you is boundless, matchless, nothing in your past or future alters it, and no power can break it. He is priceless and died for you. He died for you because you needed him to. Of what, then, do you have to be prideful? What wrong have you suffered that His cross can’t right? Don’t take another bungling step —struggling to manage the cross and your baggage.

Is it a decision? Has God brought you to a crossroads and now you must choose which way to go? Every atom in your being screams, “Do what’s best for you!” But obedience is costly. It always requires yielding to God the “right” we feel we have to make our own decisions. Whatever the choice is, you must ask Jesus which way He is going. He will give you an answer and invite you along. But don’t be surprised if He says, “But we aren’t going any further until you lay all that stuff down. Not another step. Grab that cross and let’s go!”

Lay it down, leave it, and lose your mind. You may find that you don’t miss it much.

 

 

 

Obedience–Sans Medal, Joy Beyond Words

Matthew 1:18-25

My husband Todd and I are adoptive parents. We have two beautiful little girls, Eden and Emma Kate. Being their mommy is simultaneously the most fun, scary, costly, draining, exhilarating, most eternally consequential challenge I’ve ever taken on. Raising children, as you most likely already know, is a tremendous responsibility.  With that in mind, I can tell you with absolute certainty that there is no other honor on this planet like being chosen to raise someone else’s child.

We may make a big deal over our celebrities and their awards ceremonies and their acceptance speeches. We fawn over our athletes and their almost super-human feats. Trophies and big paychecks are seemingly the highest honor in the land. But success and accomplishments are not the same thing as someone studying your character and then selecting you over all the other candidates. Not once, but twice, someone looked closely at the Beasleys and drew the conclusion, “You are good enough for my baby.”  It’s a pretty awesome feeling. So….where’s my medal?

Now give some consideration to Mary and Joseph. The Creator chose them to raise His son.

Joseph is the one who really has a choice to make. Mary will become pregnant, for sure, and debating the angel is not likely to change her fate. But her fiancé could bail out on her if he chose to. Legally and culturally, he would have been completely within his rights to put her aside for someone else. Who would blame him?

But Matthew tells us that Joseph was righteous. His habit was to follow God’s law. He considered handling the situation in the most delicate way possible—to bow out but still protect Mary if possible. Already, he has my admiration. Most of us like to see others’ sins exposed when they’ve caused us grief. What God needs from Joseph is an act of obedience that would fill each of us with dread. It requires more than humility. He must put aside any plans that he has made for his own future—he must abandon his pride, his personal goals, his “right” to seek security and prosperity—all for the cause of Christ.

Righteousness is costly. Obedience has its price. The longer I walk with the Lord, the more aware I become of the continual call to yield to God’s authority. Each time I reach a fork in the road and choose to obey, I experience some loss. Maybe I’m abandoning the pursuit of something pleasurable. Or I am faced with giving up some ease or luxury that seems to come automatically to everyone else. Other times, it seems that I must give up my dreams in order to fulfill my responsibilities.

Likewise, the longer I walk with the Lord, the more I realize that He works and works and works (really hard…because I’m stubborn) to change my definition of the things that become obstacles to Him. Success takes on an altogether different meaning so that we don’t measure it by awards or a paycheck. Obedience has a way of converting that desire for pleasure into a deep longing for joy. Even our decisions become God’s to make.

Some years ago, my husband started making a lot of noise about wanting to plant a church. I gave him a hard time about it. Well, I tried to sound supportive, but really I was hoping he would come to his senses. He had a position on a church staff in Texas—a nice, safe job with a paycheck and benefits. Then he suggested moving to Arkansas and I thought, “Now you’ve just gone too far. Arkansas???”

Just abandoning all that security to take a risk was the big scare back then. But it’s actually even scarier in practice than I ever imagined. As it turns out, each step in this process is marked by that same fork in the road, “Now what, Beasley? Are you going to obey?”

We’ve done a lot of downsizing—our home, our lifestyle, not to mention our pride! When we decided to move, we didn’t have jobs. We’ll just trust God that He has jobs for us. Well, of course He did, but we never imagined how long we would be here before we had jobs that would actually pay the bills. I had quit teaching a few years ago because I wanted to write. In fact, I told Todd once that I would not teach school so he could plant a church. I applied for every job imaginable, but God gave me a job—you guessed it–teaching at a Christian school.

If I could name just one thing, the hardest thing, about yielding to God’s will by making this move, it would be giving up the pursuit of prosperity. We are so accustomed to the American dream that we think it’s our right to expect that bigger and better things will come our way as we get older. Social media ruins me on this. Everyone posts pictures of their new homes and their vacations. Compared to everyone else, it felt like we were going in reverse.  I would look at where we are and not just feel jealous, but a little ashamed.  Once I was looking at a church bulletin, perusing the bible studies being offered and upcoming events. I didn’t have the money to attend any conferences or workshops. I could come up with the fifteen dollars for bible study book, but decided I needed that money for other things. Even church was too expensive for me.

Here’s the crazy thing. Obeying God’s call to make this move has given us so much joy. The Lord has answered our prayers in the most amazing ways. I tell my students all the time, “Yes, there is a God. I’m teaching school and I love it.” They know my story. I didn’t want to go back to teaching at all. I viewed it as God making me give up my dream of being a writer. But I have never had more fun at a job, and every day I look forward to being with my kids.

Now, I could have stayed in Texas. In fact, I was sneaky enough with my pseudo-supportive wife act, that I’m sure I could have manipulated Mr. Beasley into staying right where we were.

And I would never have known the rewards of obedience.  It was costly, but I’m overwhelmed by blessings.

Joseph is faced with a choice. When God intervened, He said, “Do not be afraid.” I wonder if that was enough for Joseph. Do you suppose that he made the decision to obey, and the fear just–poof!–disappeared? Keep reading and you’ll find that obedience does not automatically equal safety. I find it interesting that Joseph could have avoided all those risks, but he would have missed seeing God at work!

We aren’t told much about Joseph as a dad, but since I’m raising two kiddos, I’ll read into it. I routinely look at my girls and gush to the Lord, “Thank you! Thank you for trusting me with these babies!”  If I have so much joy as a parent, what must it be like to watch the Savior grow and learn? How does it feel to watch baby Jesus, toddling along grabbing at pieces of furniture, steadying himself and then reaching to sit in your lap? Do you suppose Joseph, at the end of his life, regretted his decision to obey?

Here are some questions to consider:

  • Can you give an example of a time that God gave you joy when it was completely unexpected?
  • How do you respond when God presents you with something new? Do you feel like it’s an opportunity or that God is just asking too much?
  • What act of obedience have you been avoiding? What will it take for you to make the leap?

 

Matthew 1:1-17 or the Rotting Branch on the Family Tree…

This post discusses verses 1-17 of chapter Matthew chapter 1. I know that’s a lot of names, people. If you’re new to studying the bible, take courage!  I started to skip over the genealogy for fear of running you off. But my wise mother told me once to study it all—it has relevance.

Plus, I love genealogy. That probably sounds crazy to most of you, but I am fascinated by even the smallest detail. There is just something about these faceless people who make up my past. They belong to me. I’m a product of who they were—their great deeds, their failures–but mostly their great deeds. (Okay, I’m kidding.) The way they raised their children, their decisions—big and small–I own all of it in some way.

And because I’m just as vain as the next person,  I’m hoping to find connections to people who were special, famous or particularly influential. In my history classes, I frequently draw attention to where my family tree intersects with historical events– colonization, the 1849 Gold Rush, World War II. But in a few cases, I can boast of my connection to significant characters of history—Daniel Webster is one, for example. Rarely—actually never– do I make mention of the darker aspects of my lineage, though it is there. It’s more fun to stick to the stuff I can brag about. I can just let the rotting branches fall off the tree.

If you haven’t read the Old Testament, Jesus’ genealogy may not mean much to you. Pick a few characters, though, and take a look at their stories when you get a chance. It may leave you wondering why the lineage is included at all. To be fair, I haven’t researched what the listing of such a lineage would have meant to Matthew’s first century audience. But I can tell you what stands out to me. Jesus had the benefit of watching his lineage unfold before his birth. He knew exactly who made up His earthly ancestry. When God inspired Matthew to write the book, He made sure Matthew didn’t clean up the family tree.  All kinds of people are included in this listing of Jesus’ heritage—not just the ones that look pretty hanging from the branch. He isn’t weeding folks out based on gender or religion or, surprisingly, behavior. Men and women. Jews and Gentiles. The righteous. The wicked. The faithful and the faithless. It’s all there.

Here is what I want you to get from this. There is nothing that is so bad that it can’t be named as belonging to Christ. Yes, you heard me right. NOTHING is so terrible—no sin, no circumstance–there’s no X mark next your name anywhere that precludes you from the invitation to come to the table. Sin separates us all from God, so really we are all rotting without Christ. The purpose of the gospel and of the book of Matthew is to extend that invitation to believe in Him and be restored. From rotten to redemption. That is good news!

Take David’s role in Jesus’ lineage to heart. King David’s life covered a range of faithfulness, sin, repentance, and restoration that pretty much anybody can identify with. He ran after God’s heart, and yet fell into a terrible sin. Ever been there? Have you ever felt like you were doing pretty well and then did something awful? I have. I’ve sat in the muck of my own making and said, “How did I ever get here?”

I’m so grateful for David’s story. He repented and sought restoration with a “broken and contrite heart.” He trusted in God’s unfailing love. Many generations before Christ, David trusted in the Lord for salvation even though he could not have known what God’s ultimate plan for salvation would be.

Right here in His family, we have adultery, idolatry, murder, and prostitution. We have grief, homelessness, wealth, poverty, dysfunction, violence, terror, and loneliness. And then, right here in this lineage and for the same flawed people, we see God’s provision, and that they were privileged to be a part of His plan for salvation. We see His blessings and promises, and the unfailing love that David often spoke of in the Psalms.

Now, what could you possibly be carrying that God did not anticipate—that hasn’t already made an appearance in the earthly family that brought us our Lord? What flaw have you made an idol, believing that it prevents you from being useful to Him? Even worse, does it prevent you from experiencing His unfailing love altogether?

Here we are at the beginning of a study of His life and ministry. We all come with sin and baggage, with questions and pain, just like the men and women named on His family tree. And even those of us who have already placed our faith in God, sooner or later, we fall flat on our faces like David. Perhaps not to that extreme, but we still make messes. We even sometimes blame Him when things aren’t going our way. These kinds of people,those kinds of people, my kind of people, all kinds of people—Jesus Christ came to save. Even if you’re so angry about the hand you’ve been dealt that you can’t see past your rage, Christ came for you. Don’t look at your life or your past or your heritage and assume there is nothing here for you. Don’t let anything stop you. Press on.

Here are some questions to consider:

  • Why is it important for all kinds of lives and backgrounds to be listed here at the beginning of Christ’s story?
  • Are you comforted or offended that both men and women, sinners and saints, Jews and Gentiles have made the list? Why?
  • Does your situation resemble any of those listed above? Does this affect the way you approach God? Does it prevent you from coming to Him at all?
  • Do you think (consciously or unconsciously) that there is something in your history that is an obstacle to your becoming a follower of Christ?
  • Do you think (consciously or unconsciously) that there are some things that you just can’t talk about with God?
  • What needs to change for you to draw closer to Him?

It’s Not Another Paula Deen Post…or A Classroom Tale of Hate and Healing

I’m not trying to weigh in on the Paula Deen thing. Really, I’m not. Especially because every time I read something about it, my feelings toward her do adjust slightly to the right or left of the issue. We are easily swayed, aren’t we? Shouldn’t we be as easily swayed by truth? Because, in reality, there’s this side of the story and that side…and then there’s the unadulterated truth.

The story I’m about to relate is true—as best I can recall, and I have to change the names. I honestly don’t remember all the names, exactly, and the whereabouts of any yearbook that could jog my memory is a bit of a mystery.

It is one of the best days of my teaching career for a variety of reasons. First of all, I think the kids learned something far more useful than how to score a 4 on the state mandated writing test. More than that, they were vulnerable with each other. And a couple of them were downright gutsy.

It actually started some months before I facilitated this particular lesson. See, there was this African-American student in my class. She was outgoing, smart, and cute, had plenty of friends, took care of her work mostly, and–with the exception of having a bit of a chip on her shoulder and being perhaps a bit mouthy from time to time– was what we teachers call “a good kid.” Let’s call her Vanessa. It’s a pretty name, and yes, I borrowed it from Cosby.

A second key player in the drama that would unfold was a Caucasian student. She was smart, took care of her work mostly, and we all called her a good kid. She was polite, got along with her teachers, and generally stayed upbeat even though she had few friends.  As much as I hate to use an increasingly overused word, I am sure she was bullied. She was overweight, lingering uncomfortably through an awkward stage. As if appearances aren’t enough to condemn a child to thirteen years of hellish and hurtful taunting, she was also what we educators politely refer to as “economically disadvantaged.” If memory serves, she lived in the trailer park that was located right next to the middle school where all of this took place. I’m naming her Mary Ann. In case you’re wondering, I borrowed that one from Gilligan’s Island.

I don’t know (or remember) the details. But it involved name calling. In the interest of fairness let’s note that Mary Ann endured a lot of abuses which never reached the teacher’s ear. You can call a girl a lot of names and still stay out of trouble. One specific insult almost never results in a punishment of any kind. Call a fat girl fat and if the teacher even hears about it, she’s forgotten it by the end of the class period. In the interest of fairness, let’s note that Vanessa felt, in ways that no white educator can ever comprehend, the weight of persecution at many times and in many ways which likewise are not reported and go unnoticed.

Vanessa and Mary Ann did not get along. For some time, they had been locked in a verbal tit for tat. Who knows where it started? Third grade, maybe? Back me up, teachers. It’s impossible to sort things out when two kids just don’t like each other, am I right? One day it escalated. And escalated. And escalated some more. Insults are traded. The insults take on that deeply personal tone until it’s all just ugly and hateful. Black girl calls the white girl the b-word. White girl’s had enough. She goes for the jugular. She’s only got one bullet left, the n-word, and she uses it.

Though Vanessa and Mary Ann were both enrolled in my fourth period language arts class, I was largely unaware of this ongoing conflict. By the time I learned of this incident, Mary Ann had been suspended for using a racial slur. I don’t recall Vanessa’s punishment, but likely she spent a few class periods in ISS, or in-school suspension, for using profanity. In school speak, that means that Mary Ann’s punishment was more severe.

Months later, I gave little thought to what had happened between these two girls. If it came to mind, it was only to remember that they didn’t get along, would probably never get along, and I could run my classroom more smoothly if I just kept them away from each other. But every once in a while, and I mean once in a big fat great while, something drastic occurs and it almost feels like the earth tipped on its axis one more degree and you might just fall over.

Eighth grade literature often includes The Diary of Anne Frank, a play based on the journal. Here is the perfect opportunity for a teacher to tackle the atrocity of racism. And the perfect way to teach it? A Socratic seminar. For you non-teacher types out there, Socratic seminars are discussions (yes, the name comes from Socrates), but the idea is for the teacher to get out of the way as much as possible so that the students determine the conversation’s direction. Normally, I generate a list of questions related to the text and a theme, such as racism. For each question, the students discuss their opinions until they wear it out or are completely off the subject. Then, I step in with a new question.

I wish I’d kept the questions I’d used that day. It would be nice to have it recorded so that I would know how we got to that place—where kids were willing to tell the truth and risk the consequences. But really, I don’t think it was the question or the careful planning of the teacher. Mary Ann just went for it.

“You all know what happened with me and Vanessa,” she began. And I held my breath. “I said something horrible. The truth is, that’s how my family talks. That’s what they think. But I know it’s wrong. I even tell them it’s wrong. And I try. I really try to think differently.”

Y’all. I thought she was done. The earth had already rocked under my feet, but I’ll be dad gummed if that kid didn’t just plow on through.  She might have sliced a jugular vein before, but here’s the blood transfusion. True repentance. A sincere heart-felt apology.

“I just want to tell Vanessa in front of everyone. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.”

Right here my heart soared…and then sank a little bit because I knew there was no hope of Vanessa accepting that apology. She was a good kid, but she did have that chip on her shoulder. The social outcast stepped out on a limb, and I was pretty sure Vanessa would sit back and watch it snap. I started running through every trick in my teacher hat—how do I applaud Mary Ann’s actions without making Vanessa feel like I’ve taken sides. Because, let’s be honest, we’ve all listened to an apology before we were ready to respond appropriately. Mary Ann had put her on the spot.

And, predictably, Vanessa narrowed her eyes, set her jaw, and said nothing. There was too much hurt and too much pride to make so convenient an end to the whole awful business.

It got real quiet. It was a little like all the oxygen spontaneously departed the atmosphere. Wide eyes darted from Vanessa, to Mary Ann, to me, and back to Vanessa. Ummm…next question? I didn’t know how to proceed.

Never in my wildest teacher dreams could I have expected this. The student who broke the silence was an African-American boy, a good kid—we’ll call him Michael. I choose that name because he’s an angel, and if you’re wondering, I borrowed that one from Good Times. He made the connection that every teacher hopes for when they run a discussion like this one. He identified with the theme in the play. He identified with the student across the room who is completely different from himself. He then acted on his convictions and said to his peers something that he was in no way obligated to say.

“I actually have the same problem that Mary Ann has,” he said.

I’m pretty sure my knees buckled.

“My family is racist, too. They hate white people. And I know what she’s talking about. It’s hard to resist that. I go to school with white kids. I don’t want to make enemies. But my family expects me to act like they do.”

Something in that room had broken loose, and suddenly it was okay to admit that we all have prejudices we’re not proud of. The discussion continued, and more walls fell, and I was one very proud teacher.

I have high hopes that Vanessa came around eventually. But realistically, forgiveness is a tricky thing. I won’t be the hypocrite trying to remove the speck from her eye. Incidents like this occur—some of them very public—and every one rushes to judgment. If we listen to all the clamor, we might forget that there are two sides of the story. And then there’s the truth. Take a look at Matthew 5:21-22:

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

Interesting that Jesus speaks to both sides, isn’t it? We are accountable for our careless words and for our anger. Guess what? I’m guilty of both. I was thoughtless and heartless and said things I shouldn’t have. I’ve used words to distinguish between myself and someone else, ruthlessly implying that I’m somehow better. I’ve been the victim of those words as well, and carried the sting in my heart for a lot of years. You know what I found out? Forgiveness is a tricky thing, but not impossible. Jesus forgave me and paid my debt. What I’ve been given, I must give.

Here’s another lesson to be gleaned from this. Indeed, words are frequently a weapon of hate, and in our earnest desire to put an end to hate, we attempt to blot out the use of the word. And rightfully so. It’s hotly debated and everyone claims that their take on the issue is more right than the others. But here’s the thing—the unadulterated truth. All the debate—all that noise—is just a fallen, broken world trying to heal itself of the evil of which it refuses to repent. The only way to be completely free of our prejudices is to focus completely on the Lord Jesus. And if you are in Christ, racism is not your cause. Bullying is not your cause. Those things are secondary to your true calling. Your cause is Christ. Pure and simple.

Tidings of Comfort

I’ve watched news footage cover national tragedies and wiped away tears at the horror of it all. But Sandy Hook reduced me to a pile in the middle of our kitchen floor, sobbing uncontrollably. I cried off and on all weekend. Five days later, I still feel so raw. I ache for the people of Newtown. Is it because I’m a teacher? A mom?

Grief has characterized the last few years of my life. It was an unforeseen result of a seemingly endless test of my faith–being unexpectedly grieved, not just for my own difficulties, but for other people’s circumstances as well. The news of the Sandy Hook shooting sent me first into shock and then reeling with emotion.

It should be that way, though. I don’t want to be unaffected by something this horrible. While I feel that genuine parental relief that my sweet girls made it home from school safely on December 14th, something inside of me will not settle.  This is an atrocity—carried out against the most innocent and contagiously joyful members of our society. I don’t want to be the person who listens to the news story, feels momentarily solemn, says a prayer for those who are suffering, and changes the channel. I should grieve. We all should.

Friday night, after an emotional afternoon of picking up bits and pieces from the news, it was my turn to put my four-year-old, Emma Kate, to bed. We followed the normal routine—brushing, flushing, changing, and stalling with a little begging and bargaining mixed in for good measure. I tried to shut out what I’d seen on the news, but it hovered stubbornly above my thoughts the whole time I worked to get her to sleep. The news had just reported that the bodies of the fallen children had not yet been released to the parents. Amidst the tidal wave of reporting, that one little detail prompted flashbacks, memories of the Wedgwood Baptist Church shooting, which I prefer to leave buried.

“Katie, I need you to stay with Kathy Jo. They haven’t brought Shaun out of the building,” my friend Laurie had said. She pulled me toward Kathy Jo, who gripped the railing of the wheelchair ramp outside the elementary school across the street from Wedgwood. She only released her hold on the rail to bury her face in her hands.  Maybe I was in shock, but I couldn’t quite process what was happening to Kathy Jo, what had happened to her husband inside the church and why they would have to bring him out.

“Laurie, I can’t. I have to…” I gave some awful excuse and walked away, completely inept to offer any comfort or support. I had no words. I was afraid to reach out. So I didn’t.

Chaos ruled the scene. Helicopters circled. Everyone—everything—was in motion, all going in different directions. Simultaneously, people ran, walked, dropped to their knees, wandered, cried, hugged, laughed, cried more. Figures moved at varying paces to and from the church, along the sidewalks, lining the streets, in and out of groups of people. Reporters emerged to place microphones in grim faces, stunned faces, anxious and terrified faces.  And voices, at all different volumes and tones, shouting, whispering, calling, screaming, praying…Have you seen so and so? Where were you? Did you hear shots? Sydney’s been hit. Sirens and lights. Cops and firemen. Life flight landed on the church lawn.

Newtown, I remember what that very dark day was like. I’m unspeakably sad for your loss.

All these years later, I cuddled next to my curly-headed little one, so blessed to share her giggles, her whispers, and her prayers. As she drifted off to sleep, I stayed in her room, images of Sandy Hook, mingled with Wedgwood memories, playing over and over in my mind. Try as I might, I couldn’t help imagining inconsolable mommies and daddies wailing over empty beds in empty, silent bedrooms. That’s when the ache started.

My husband and I just recently moved to Arkansas to start a new chapter in ministry. We have encountered a concoction of joy and discouragement lately. It’s been an odd mix of excitement and fear–a sobering realization that God has entrusted some of His Kingdom work to the Beasleys (of all people), an agonizingly stressful past the point of no return leap of faith. After watching some of the news coverage over the shooting, I asked Todd through tears, “How could we ever minister to people who are suffering like that?” When I ask that kind of question, like I’m barely clinging to my faith, my husband always seems to know how to answer. “I don’t know exactly. By being as much like Jesus to them as possible.”

That’s the kind of thing I saw in the aftermath of Wedgwood—people living like Jesus. People with deep wounds and searing pain, who should have been angry with God, declaring the hope that they have in the Lord Jesus. Kathy Jo followed Shawn’s casket down the aisle at his memorial service, with her hands in the air in worship, while we sang, “Shout to the Lord all the earth, let us sing. Power and majesty, praise to the King.” Later she spoke of the hope that she has. I remember clearly that she said, “I’m going to see Jesus. I get to see Shawn again.”

Al Meredith, our pastor at Wedgwood, said too many timely and wise things during that period of mourning than I can possibly write about here. One thing that I’ve never forgotten, and I often quote, was his response to the question in a television interview (I think with Katie Couric), “Where was God when this happened?” Without a pause he declared, “On His throne where He always is.”

As I was reading through headlines on Sunday, I realized that Brother Al’s answer is just part of the explanation. Someone from Newtown had told a reporter that “Christmas is cancelled”. This saddened me so much because I love Christmas, and I know all those sweet children who lived through that nightmare last Friday love their holidays. I realize that this person was speaking about the scope of the tragedy and indicating that it would be impossible to enjoy a holiday at this point. I certainly understand that the timing of this horrible act will make Christmas difficult for a lot of people for a lot of years to come. But Brother Al’s words came back to me, as they often do, and I thought about how Christmas means so much more to me now than it did just a few years ago. Now that I’ve been through these few years of trials, I love Jesus more than ever. Not in spite of grief, but because of grief, I recognize the scope of what Jesus has done for me.

Christmas is the day that we celebrate the part of God that did leave the throne. The Father sent His Word, His only Son, to leave Heaven, to put on skin and bones and live among us. When we encounter loss, we talk about how, when we get to Heaven, we’ll know everything and understand everything. Then we won’t want to come back here to earth, a place cursed by sin. Heaven is the absence of all these things that cause us despair. Still, Jesus did this in the reverse order–He knew everything about the horrors of earthly life—disease, war, cruelty, hate, inexplicable massacres—and yet he chose to come, live side by side with humanity, and absorb all that awfulness on the cross.

Without Christmas, there would be no cross. And without our God who authored salvation through the cross, we would all become like these gunmen—heartless and hopeless. When I started down this road of grief, I craved joy and hope so much. God, I pray that you give Newtown hope.

A gunman took the lives of seven people at Wedgwood Baptist Church on September 15, 1999. On September 19th, God’s people met to worship and reclaim their sanctuary. Brother Al’s children’s sermon hit the mark. He used hard-boiled eggs and Humpty Dumpty to explain our hope to the children:

Our church has had a great fall. But unlike Humpty Dumpty, we know how to get up. What all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t do, God can do. God can put us back together again.

My mother has told me many times, “Grief is work, and the work has to be done.” She’s right, and if you don’t do your work, it just piles up and gets harder to weed through. I’m at a loss as to how to be like Jesus for Newtown. Arkansas is a long way from there. But I do know that Jesus would mourn with those who mourn, and He had compassion for those in pain. I just wish I could do more. I’m so sorry especially to families of the victims. I’m so sorry to every child, teacher, and staff member at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Grief is hard work, and it’s going to take time.

God, I love Newtown and I know You do, too. Please put their broken hearts together again.

I rise before dawn and cry for help;
I have put my hope in your word.            

Psalm 119:147