Clouds Above a Hammock in January by Sarah Burkhardt

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It is not uncommon to witness a cloudy day such as this Sunday in January. Today, though, it happens to be 42 degrees. And with talk of a winter storm on the way, I decide that even though it's a little cold, it is probably the last opportunity I may have to lie in a hammock for probably a few months. I scan the campus to see if anyone else thought of the same thing. Apparently not. Maybe it’s a bad idea, but I am learning to stop caring so much if anyone else is doing the same thing as I.

And so I put the atlas suspension ropes on the trees, line up the hammock, and as I set a warm blanket in the hammock and stuff on top of my blanket, I start to think about clouds. I think of my post-grad friends and college friends, all dealing with their own challenges, and how easy it is to feel weighed down by emotional and psychological clouds that are all too real. I think of the cloud of depression that surrounds many and one that has surrounded me at times. It is so easy to lose hope in this world, so I soak in the sunlight that is peeking through the clouds.

I remember the words a friend’s mom shared yesterday, of how she had spent two weeks meditating on different verses in Psalm 139 throughout the year, and this one, verse 11, was a particular challenge: “If I say, 'Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night.” I think the psalmist is describing a huge dark-as-night cloud him. Meditating on this verse for two weeks would only bring to mind all the ways my own dark clouds cover me. 

But the words of the next verse completely change everything: “even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.” What we see as a cloud, God only sees as light. To him, there is no cloud. God’s perspective is so different from ours. I cannot explain why we go through some of the trials we do. As Ann Voskamp put it, “Who knows why the Storyteller allows heartbreak, but the answer must be important enough, because the Storyteller allows His heart to break too.” 

God doesn’t always take away our clouds, but he is with us and allows the light to shine through. In fact, he is so much bigger than our clouds that our darkness is light to him. What are the clouds in our lives, the darkness that covers us? Are we giving our clouds to God? We serve a great God, who wants to hear about our clouds, and then help us see the light around us. Also, remember other clouds that surrounded you and the light he let light shine through. Let those times give you hope and renew your faith in what he can do.

Are You the One? By Rachel Rim

“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3)

John the Baptist sent his disciples to ask this question of Jesus while he himself was unfairly locked behind bars. Perhaps though, even if he could have walked out on his own two feet, he still would’ve sent his disciples. I can’t quite imagine that John would have felt completely unabashed to ask this question of the man he himself had proclaimed to the whole Judean countryside—with waving arms and brutal honesty and cracking voice raised against the winds, no less—as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. And, of course, to ask of it of his own kin, when his own existence was inseparable from the prophecy that heralded his cousin’s birth. No, I think that had he been free, John would very likely have sent his disciples anyway. I would have. In a way, I do. Every time I ache to hear someone else’s testimony, someone else’s story or answered prayer, or hear someone else’s tale of grief, I am in a sense asking the same question: So, have you found him to be the one, or do you think I should start looking for another?

Looking seems to be a major theme of both this passage and our modern journeys. Jesus didn’t much look like the portrait of the Messiah painted by the prophets even to the first century Jewish communities he walked among and he doesn’t much look like it now to us. One glance at the news makes me wonder if maybe the Jews are right—how can the Messiah have come if our world is still so broken? The past year alone saw a fissure dividing political parties, families and evangelical leaders alike; saw scores of women come into the open about stories of sexual abuse; saw forest fires, hurricanes, bomb cyclones and tornadoes; saw racially-charged protests in Charlottesville, and Vegas shooters at music festivals. Every time I read the news or watch a commercial aimed at an entertainment-saturated culture or listen to a friend’s story of pain, I ask John’s same question. Every time I look at myself, for that matter, and the selfishness that constantly corrodes me, I ask it. If he really is the one, why am I so little changed? 

And yet I find hope in the rest of Matthew’s account, because what does Jesus say? Does he rebuke John for his lack of faith? Does he point out every prophecy he fulfills, including the one about John himself? He does neither. Rather, his answer is one rooted in looking:

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” (Matthew 11:5-6)

Jesus’ reply is the opposite of theoretical and dogmatic. It is empirical in the truest sense of the word—appealing to the reality and truth of experience. Go and tell John what you have seen and heard, go and tell him… People are receiving their sight, people are receiving their hearing, those who cannot walk are walking, the dead are living. Good news has come in the form of hands and feet and eyes and a radical subversion of the traditionally hierarchical society. Do you want to see the truth, John? Look around. See by others’ new sight. Don’t you know that belief now has limbs? By all means, keep looking for another if you want to be safe, but meanwhile, keep your eyes open for all the ways I am opening people’s eyes. And blessed are you, John, if you can hear this and not be offended, because God knows I know myself to be an offensive kind of truth. Like getting a shovel in answer to a request for water; like getting new eyes when all you asked was where to look.

This passage in Matthew’s gospel gives me so much hope, almost more than I want or can stand. It causes me to come alive in response to its beauty. It anoints me with this kind of quiet, burning desire to be the answer to John’s question to somebody else. And it awakens in me a sense of almost painful gratitude to all the people—friends and pastors, poets and novelists, theologians and musicians—who are the answer to John’s question for me. What is the church? The body of Christ. Perhaps another way to say it is that the church is the restored hands and feet and eyesight and hearing that Jesus resurrected during his ministry on earth, and we are to be those limbs and senses to a world aching from amputation and sensory deprivation.

Come all ye who hunger and thirst, who yearn for meaning, who sting from suffering. Come all ye who are looking. There is good news here for you, and it is news that walks, laughs, weeps, sings.

Oil of Grace by Cheryce Berg

My cast iron skillet is begging to be parented by a Southern mama. Even though I adopted it three years ago, I just decided today to take seriously the Care and Cleaning of Cast Iron Skillets. I’ve too often scrubbed it with soap and steel wool, and I may have oiled it once. This Midwest mama failed. It’s currently having a spa treatment, sitting upside down in my hot oven. Once it’s cool enough for me to touch, I’m going to massage it in oil, towel it off gently, and put it to back to bed, whispering words of recommitment.

I sigh as I think about the other things I don’t do well. I think it comes with January and all the hoopla about Making Resolutions, combined with the Lack of Sun and the Bitter Cold. Cast iron skillets are the least of my worries, really. Parenting Through Finals, Buying a Midlife Crisis Car, and Not Missing Another Meeting rise above. And don’t even remind me about Exercising Old Dogs in Winter, Calling Family or Writing Frequent Meaningful Blog Posts.

I just can’t keep up with it all. We had pancakes and bacon for dinner, with a failed heap of soggy hash browns (which triggered the cast iron skillet crisis). Not grilled bratwursts, like my 15–year–old wanted (the one studying for finals), or spaghetti soup like my husband requested  (yes, spaghetti soup is a thing. Think chili, not spicy, sporting a few spaghetti noodles. It’s okay, but it doesn’t make the menu that often. And neither will hash browns, after tonight.)

I hear myself sigh again. There are helpful books piled on my desk and fun books piled by the cold fireplace. Pictures to be organized on my laptop (Learning Lightroom—another To Do. Check back with me in 2021 to see how it’s going.) I have a list of people to grab chai with, even though I gave up chai yesterday. Miles to run on the treadmill, once I reassure myself that I won’t fly off the back in front of the cool moms. And stories to be written.

And also, breathing without sighing. I remember my One Resolution for 2018: to not be critical. It was meant for me to not be critical of others. But I realize it applies to myself, too. I need to learn to not be critical of myself. And to not sigh.

I remember what I’m reading in Genesis—how shocking it is, with heaps of failure and fornication. Really, everyone is such a mess. It makes me second guess my challenge to my 15–year–old (the one studying for finals and waiting for me to grill bratwurst in January) to read along with me, because the sins are so—dirty. And rampant.

Lying, murder, drunkenness, betrayal, adultery, doubt, shame, anger and death. And this is just part of the list, in part of the book, in part of the Bible.

Yet amazingly, Genesis flows with grace. Grace greases all the cogs on the misshapen wheels called us, and the story of redemption soars forward. God is faithful, even when—especially when—his people are not.

I think about my own self, and how I mess up every day. The image I struggle to maintain has cracks, and the older I get, the more noticeable they become (like wrinkles). Yet so does grace in my life. More noticed the more it is needed.

I think back to Jacob, a key figure in Genesis, and one in need of gallons of grace. Twice God speaks to him in the same place, near the same stones. And twice God reminds Jacob of promises too great to believe—of offspring and land and protection and God’s presence. And twice Jacob picks up the stones where God has spoken, standing them on end to form a pillar and anointing them with oil. The oil consecrates the stones—remakes something so common and rough into something of significance.

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The oil signifies grace to me, poured out as a reminder that God is holy and perfect and I am not. And yet he doesn’t let me slip through his fingers. He holds on tight.

And I remember the same, tonight, as I go to oil my skillet, clean now of blackened bits. I remember as I pour oil over it and rub it in deep, that God gives grace, that he doesn’t give up.

And I am so grateful. Grateful for the oil of grace.

Forecast: Dark Clouds with Some Sun by Pat Cirrincione

I debated whether to write about the year that just ended, but then felt that if I shared my pain, my faith and joy, it might resonate with some of you. In the process, I thought it might help me to heal and ease the moments of depression that have settled on me like ominous dark clouds throughout the past year.

A few days before 2016 came to a close, our daughter-in-law’s dad lost his fight with lung cancer. He was a kind man who loved his family and us. The loss was hard to deal with, particularly since he had just retired and had talked about the in-laws traveling together when his wife retired in 2018. We had much to look forward to which never came to pass.

In January, we lost two dear friends. We knew one of them had been fighting a battle with congestive heart failure for some time, and his heart finally just gave out. The other friend had beat breast cancer, and then it came back with a vengeance. Within days she was taken from us. That was just the beginning of a year that had us visiting hospitals, going to funeral homes and using up boxes and boxes of Kleenex.

All in all, we lost thirty-two friends and acquaintances. One of them was my best friend from first grade, right around my birthday in March. I was devastated at her wake and funeral. I had visited her just before she came home from the hospital. She had been home for a month, and was doing fine. Then she and her family went to a dinner party. At some point during the evening, she excused herself to use the women’s restroom and never came back. Eventually, someone went  to check on her and found her on the floor, barely holding on to her life. She died of a blood clot in the ambulance ride to the hospital. Gone was the joy of singing “Happy Birthday” to each other year to year--something we had done since we were five years old. Gone were the Super Bowl Sunday festivities, and the fun we had planning the crazy menus each year. Gone were the chat-filled phone calls. She was just gone.

If that wasn’t bad enough, a friend for more than fourteen years suddenly stopped speaking to me. She won’t even look at me. I don’t have a clue to what I did to have her act this way to me. You might wonder why I don’t just ask her, but how can I when she turns her face whenever she sees me? I don’t know which is worse, losing someone to death or losing someone who is still alive but dead to you none the less. It just breaks my heart.

The year ended with a letter from a friend from Iowa. She is dying from an awful form of breast cancer. She calls us her angels for keeping her spirits uplifted throughout the ordeal she has gone through. Her letter ended with these words: “Do something special as you may not be able to do it again.”

So, what have I learned through this year of heartache and pain? I have learned to lean on the Lord in all things. He gave us a respite in October when we watched our oldest son marry the woman of his dreams in a fairy tale wedding. The Lord gave us days of joy and laughter and love. He gave us moments to cherish. Why share all this? Because I want you to know that you are never alone. Grief is a shared experience. Losing those we love allows us to see just how short our lives really are. It should also show us how to forgive and love one another now, not later.

One of our Lord’s most important commandment to us is “to love one another as I have loved you.” Yes, love brings pain and hurt, and sometimes misery, but that pain will be much worse if you let someone leave you and never tell them what you were thinking or how you felt.

I received comfort from many of you this year as my family and I dealt with the many friends and acquaintances we lost. Thank you for allowing me to enter your hearts to share my pain. Your prayers have sustained us. God’s love continues to lift our spirits as we pour out our grief to him when it hits us at the oddest moments, at the oddest times and in the strangest places. Grief doesn’t have a time table. It overwhelms you when you least expect it. A song, a movie, a hymn, a person in a store who looks just like the person you just lost, will start the tears a flowing. Weep. Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died. He wept because he loved.

My father-in-law used to say: “Don’t treat me badly while I am living, and then come to my funeral and cry like you’ve just lost your best friend. Treat me kindly and with love, despite all my foibles, while I am alive. Then when I die you will have peace that the time our Lord gave us on this earth with each other was spent in joy, love and kindness, and you will have no regrets once I am gone.” My father-in-law was an immigrant from another country, but his words were filled with the common sense of a man that loved and enjoyed the people around him.

Don’t have regrets. Don’t live with that kind of pain. Learn to love as our Lord commanded us, and enjoy the time he has given us on this earth with each other. There will be dark clouds—rainy storm clouds, and then there will be rays of sunshine that stream down to brighten our sadness. It’s God’s rays of hope, coming to you from the highest heavens and filled with his mighty love.

Best Books for Winter Days

Our Best Books from 2017 keep coming in, and we hope you take advantage of these recommendations throughout 2018.

Karen Meadows, board of deaconesses secretary
You Are What You Love by James K.A. Smith

Curt Miller, missions pastor
Spiritual Depression by Martyn Lloyd Jones

Pat Fallon, director of congregational support and care
The Bible (in particular, Psalms, Isaiah and Romans.) I found myself landing in these three books many, many times during this past year. They offered me, as well as people with whom I ministered, profound words of comfort during challenging times.

Mere Sexuality: Rediscovering the Christian Vision for Sexuality by Dr. Todd Wilson, former pastor at College Church and senior pastor of Calvary Memorial Church, Oak Park. As Dr. Wilson puts it so concisely, “It is time for evangelicals to rediscover the historic Christian vision of human sexuality.” He does a wonderful job of explaining how our approach to so many sex-related issues of the day must have a more robust foundation.

Perfecting Ourselves to Death: The Pursuit of Excellence and the Perils of Perfectionism by Dr. Richard Winter, a psychiatrist and professor emeritus of counseling at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. This book provides a lot of easy-to-read and yet research-based information on the important and complex subject of perfectionism. Dr. Winter sheds the light and truth found in Scripture on how our value and purpose must be based in Christ.

Grace for the Afflicted: A Clinical and Biblical Perspective on Mental Illness by Dr. Matt Stanford. I appreciate the way Dr. Standford is able to provide clear, chapter-length overviews of the more common mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, personality disorders, etc. I also appreciate his holistic approach to recovery. His chapter on mental health and the church provides a clear rationale for why the church can play a key role in supporting people with these needs.

Jeremy Taylor, missions board chair
The Mission of God by Christopher Wright. This thick tome is an excellent exploration of missiology from a theological and historical perspective. What is the mission of God? To bless the nations! This book explains why, and why it’s important for the church today.

Unexpected News by Robert McAfee Brown. People in developing nations often have a very different interpretation of familiar Bible stories than Westerners. This great little book gives some examples, focusing on Liberation Theology.

The Reason for God by Tim Keller. Keller is mainly writing to skeptics, but Christians can benefit from this accessible apologetics book as well.

Missions by Andy Johnson. This 120-page book can be read in one sitting and provides a helpful overview of the reasons international missions is still needed in the 21st century.

Prophetic Dialog by Stephen Bevans and Roger Schroeder. Written from a Catholic perspective, this book on witness is absolutely useful for Evangelicals. Bevans and Schroeder argue that witness must be a combination of proclamation and conversation to be effective.

The Locust Effect by Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros. Gary Haugen is the founder of International Justice Mission; his perspective on global poverty and its connection to violence against the poor is difficult to read but essential for anyone interested in biblical social justice.

When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. Already a classic after less than a decade, this book provides a biblical framework and best practices for local and international mercy work.

Josh Stringer, pastor of discipleship
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance—I discovered this book when it showed up on several “best of” lists from last year and decided on the audiobook version. Narrated by the author, this is a fascinating, yet sobering memoir about the culture of working-class America. The honest and fair critique of nominal, Bible-belt Christianity should be of particular interest to Christians as we seek to influence the culture around us with the gospel.

12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You by Tony Reinke—This book was of particular interest to me, personally, since “how do I have appropriate boundaries with technology?” is a question I’m asked a lot as a pastor, as well as a question we ask a lot at home. I found this book to be a resource full of diagnostic, biblical wisdom. Reinke doesn’t take a hard stance for or against smartphones or technology. His balanced approach and tough analysis covers both the benefits and dangers of smartphones, in particular, and technology, in general.

The Imperfect Disciple by Jared C. Wilson—The subtitle, “Grace for people who can’t get their act together,” perfectly describes the type of real-life, up-and-down path of discipleship that we all experience. The goal of this book is to point us to Jesus, even through the failures and imperfections of our walk to follow the Savior. More than any book on discipleship I read this year, I came away from this one encouraged and refreshed about my own journey as a disciple of Jesus.

Steve Ivester, elder
Freedom of Self Forgetfulness by Tim Keller—Keller shows in this book that gospel-humility means we can stop connecting every experience, every conversation with ourselves and can thus be free from self-condemnation. He says, “humility is not thinking less of ourselves, but instead thinking of ourselves less.”

You Are What You Love by James K.A. Smith—Smith asks the reader this uncomfortable question: “Do we love what we think we love?” This book presses us to answer this question honestly and shows us the renewed and abundant life that awaits Christians whose habits and practices—whose liturgies of living—work to open our hearts to our God and our neighbors.

Strong and Weak by Andy Crouch—True flourishing, says Crouch, travels down an unexpected path—being both strong and weak. In this book, Crouch shows us how to multiply our power to create a world where people from every tribe and nation can flourish and reach their full God-given potential. 

Wil Triggs, director of communications
The Hidden Smile of God by John Piper, John Bunyan, William Cowper and David Brainerd—Suffering and perseverance pointing me to conclude at first that in 2018 we could learn a great deal about how to care for one another and stand for Christ from these people who lived for Christ in a very different world than we know.

The Psalms: Rejoice, the Lord is King by James A. Johnston—Covering Psalms 1-41, this first in a planned three-volume series contained some great perspectives on these psalms, relating them to both history and contemporary life. Jim was the missions pastor here at College Church when Lorraine and I were appointed as missionaries many years ago. Reading and being blessed by these chapters was a great way to reconnect with him.

12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You by Tony Reinke—I loved that this book was not from the perspective of a Luddite, but someone who, at some level, embraces technology and uses it for good. Practical, real-life and thought provoking.

Gail Mudra, interim director of children’s ministries
Seasons of Waiting by Betsy Childs Howard—Waiting is hard. God is good. Howard points us to God, reminding us that although we often wonder how God will meet our needs, we can fully trust that he will. We must wait for him to reveal his provision day by day.

Keep a Quiet Heart by Elisabeth Elliot—A wonderful collection of lead articles featured in Elliot’s newsletters. In the author’s words, “Mostly they are about learning to know God, and nothing else comes close to being as important as that.” I love her focus on knowing God and the quiet refuge her words offer.

Devotional Psalter, Crossway—I love the psalms. I am thoroughly enjoying digging into them each morning with this devotional.

Erik Dewar, pastor of worship and music
The Worship Pastor by Zac Hicks

Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull

On Being Goliath by Wil Triggs

Last Sunday, Kids' Harbor returned after Christmas break.

Our story was Goliath and David. In that order.

How to make Goliath big? I sent Victor an image of Goliath and asked if he could use it to make the biggest one ever. It was Saturday when I emailed him. I wasn’t sure if he could make it happen on such short notice.

Maybe I should just put on a costume and do my best to be, well, big. Tom Nussbaum is big (and he already is there in Kindergarten Bible school). Or Anson Johnson. Or Kent Graham. Or Steve Knoner. Those guys are big. I’m not, though with Kindergartners, maybe I could pass for big. It’ll be okay. And I can make my voice big. I know how to shout.

None of us, though, are the nine feet plus that Goliath was. I would make do.

Sunday morning came and Victor walked right up to me. “Where do you want Goliath?” he asked.

I walked with him to the STARS room where he was serving, and he showed me what he had come up with. It was better than I had imagined when I emailed him the request. It was big. Thank you, Victor. Thank you!

I walked the few steps from his room to our Kindergarten room with Goliath. It was early enough that not too many people saw me. It’s hard to be inconspicuous when there’s an almost-life-size Goliath under your arm.

Teacher Lorraine started the story with Samuel annointing David as king, and then came the Philistines.

Victor had made an opening in the head where I could put my face and talk to the kids from as high up in the room as I could get. I stood on the piano bench, the two-dimensional Goliath as a sort of shield between me and the kids.

I issued Goliath’s challenge to the Kindergartner Israelites. It’s easy to talk big. Even as Kindergartners, I could see the effect on them. This kind of talk was not foreign to them.

They looked around. Who would fight such a big man? We explained that Goliath was even bigger in real life than the one we had.

Then Goliath began to make fun of these little people. I would squash whoever they brought forward. Stomp on him like he was an ant. It was surprisingly easy to get into character.

And not just for me. Some of the boys laughed. Girls too. Stomping ants can be fun. Yes, we all can be Goliaths who think we are, well, bigger, stronger, better and mightier, especially when we measure ourselves against one another.

Then Gavin stepped forward as David.

His brothers didn’t want him. They looked down on him. And Saul—the armor wouldn’t even fit.

I looked through the hole in Goliath’s head down at the children, each of them looking up with a certain amount of wonder. And David looking up in a sweet certainty.

"So you just want to send a little guy like this to fight me—am I some kind of doggy you want to hit with some sticks? I am going to make you into food for birds and wild animals to eat!" And yet, still, a surprisingly amount of empathy was building for Goliath.

Again, the kids laughed. Even in their humor, though, the scale was enough to help them see and imagine how scary it must have been. Even though we were having fun, Lorraine explained, how terrifying it was when it really happened.

We had fashioned a makeshift smooth stone out of tissue and white labels.

And David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone, slung it and (with Tom's help) the paper stone struck the Philistine on his forehead. Goliath fell on his face to the ground.

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Kindergartners are great. Their imaginations alive, their joys and sorrows not yet obscured by the restraint that we learn over the years.

And then to end with a song:

The rock hit Goliath right in the head
The stone hit Goliath and knocked him dead.
Not with a spear or a lance or a sword,
But only with a sling,
But only with a sling,
But only with a sling
And the Word of the Lord!

A pretty good morning all the way around.

Just as the children were enthralled with our cut-out Goliath, we, too, like the big. We celebrate all sorts of Goliaths. And the little David goes unnoticed or forgotten by the rest of us, who fit so comfortably into the roles of selfish brothers or Saul-like kings. And then God does what needs to be done in ways that no human strategy can muster.

It’s good to be back with the Kindergartners discovering for what seems like the first time Bible truths and missionary stories. God's Word is alive!

It wasn’t the stone. It wasn’t even David, really. It was God himself who brought down Goliath.

Let’s worship and serve and celebrate him together.