In the past several days God the Father has been taking me to a place past the point of words — or at least my ability to freely express them. I have regularly and literally been pinned to my chair (or bed, or floor) by the tangible presence of God in utter silence and tears. It has made penning a new blog post difficult. Continue reading “Faith is not a Statistic”
I awoke this morning in Long Island. Our cousins were sweet enough to open their home to us as we, this week, celebrate a family reunion with Catherine’s side of the family. I have never been to their house and so my first order of business was to wake up before anyone else, of course, and explore every room in the house.
That may not exactly be true, but it is what I did — at least downstairs. And I had the assistance of the two or three cats who live here, and who were more than happy to oblige.
As I did so, I was struck by how peaceful it was. We West-Coasters tend to think New York is all about the city, and it is if you are in Manhattan. But escape just across the water and you find a different world, a small piece of Heaven nestled among trees: A place which despite the busy trappings of modern life has a memory long before you and I were born, let alone before the smartphone was invented, a place inviting you to rest.
I come from a long line of religious followers who believe devotion to God is anything but restful. On the contrary, it can be quite stressful: Making sure that the Creator of the Universe is happy with you. It may not be too stressful if you avoid Him in the hallways of life. But run into Him in a private room and things can be quite tense. You can wish you were someplace else.
And this can be true even in the “best” of church traditions. Some traditions of course seem to enshrine this distance, keeping God in a place of unrelenting holiness and us in a place of fearful and reverent devotion. But I am thinking of those traditions who have embraced the message of the Bible that God, in His holiness, actually chose to come close in mercy: Becoming a man and taking upon Himself the reason for the discomfort we feel in His presence.
For the church traditions I have in mind, “faith” is a big topic. All the blessings of Heaven are available to us through faith, and so a lot of emphasis is upon “having faith.” But more times than not, be it the way they have approached it or I have received it, “having faith” has been more stressful than the standard “fearful and reverent” devotion. If I am already having difficulty at the religious duty thing, I will certainly fail (trust me) at the faith thing.
But here is the amazing thing: God requires neither. Whatever act we feel we must do or moral quality we feel we must possess in order to feel perfectly comfortable in God’s presence, Jesus has provided. “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthains 5). He has made the private room comfortable.
The natural outworking of faith, then, is rest. It is not the solemnity of a cold cathedral instilling a sense of uneasiness, nor the tireless striving of faith-based Bible-believer attempting to “live by faith.” It is the quiet of a Long Island morning. It invites us.
Such rest causes me to see things differently, though nothing in the fabric of my circumstances has changed. I see beauty where I could not see it before: In the early sunlight, in the dew that covers the grass, in the birdsong — even in the cat that nuzzles up against my leg. I realize this beauty was made for my pleasure — for I am deeply loved.
And then something begins to happen — I cannot explain how. The polarity in me shifts from my fearful and futile efforts to reach God, to God’s inexhaustible ability to reach me. My heart, my mind, my body — my very circumstances are all candidates of His unfathomable love. And no matter where I am in life I realize: My life has just begun.
I awoke with the thought this morning, “Be still.” It comes from the oft-quoted verse, “Be still and know that I am God.” The full verse is:
Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” (Psalm 46:10)
So we can be still, because God is not remaining still. God is on the move, both on the earth and in our lives. Indeed, what causes us to lose our place of stillness is the fear that no one but ourselves is moving: That we are the only ones in charge of this operation, and if we do not do something about it, catastrophe inevitable.
And this feeling can come in all shapes and sizes. We need not be eyes-bulging and paranoid to be one who has lost our peace. Sometimes we can be quite accomplished. Or, we are not fearing big things, like death, but quite small things like managing a trip to the airport. Virtually anything can be a cause for lost peace.
The other day, I found myself in our sun room (which also serves as a place of prayer). The days leading up to that day, I had felt such a sweet, continuous presence of God upon me. But this particular morning, I seemed to be feeling nothing but the hard cold facts of my situation. I felt anxious and finally said to God, “I can’t do this” with tears. Immediately I felt God say, “I am at work; I am doing a deep work.” With that I lay down and fell asleep.
The Lord once said to my wife, “Do not underestimate the power of My comfort.” And the same I feel is true about God’s peace. When we lose His peace, we are not just irritable: We are vulnerable. We were never designed to take matters into our own hands and meet our own needs. It is counter to our true nature. We were made to partner with God in all we do. And when we break that bond (always because of lack of trust) we end up partnering with something else. And it is never good for us.
I think it is often difficult for you and me to understand being still because we do not realize God is at work and is always doing a deep work. We are told often what we must do to better our lives: There is a message broadcast constantly that implicitly assumes we are all alone and on our own. So when we try to practice stillness, it does not work.
But stillness is about realizing God is always at work. That Jesus chose us, that He began a good work, and He is bringing it to completion.
Often I find: The moments I am tempted to think God is not at work are those important moments in life when God is pushing up to the surface a thing in my life He wishes to heal. That is, the times I fear God is not at work are the times God is most at work.
At times I will feel God’s sweet presence and favor; at other times I may recognize God is bringing correction and healing to an area of my life. But there are other times — or shall I say other areas — where God’s work in me is so delicate that my response is not stillness but fear. And fear always leads to control. It may not feel like control to me. The area of my heart demanding control may have been with me for so long that control is unconscious. In those areas, it may seem to me God is nowhere to be found. But this is where He is doing His most profound work.
And this is where stillness is most powerful. For as we come to rest, we let God in. God will be exalted among the nations, He will be exalted on the earth.
And he will be exalted in those places of our hearts where we have long given up hope we can ever be rescued.
Dear Readers: The following is a transcript of my reflection shared during the memorial service for my wife Catherine. For those unaware, she passed away suddenly June 5, 2018. I plan to resume my “normal” writings in the weeks to come, though in away, this is all part of the journey.
God I love this woman.
Well, as we begin to approach the end of this service, I want you to know two things. The first is that I am having a wonderfully imperfect day.
Catherine always liked to say that. “Thank you Lord I am having a wonderfully imperfect day.” I would be in my office working at home and suddenly I would hear from the other room, “Thank you Lord I am having a wonderfully imperfect day.” It was a simple phrase, but it actually had profound meaning. It meant there was absolutely no situation you were facing that was too big for God. It also meant that your imperfections were not too big for God either.
It meant, in a way, what Jesus said to His own disciples before his own death: “In this world you will have troubles. But take heart: I have overcome the world.”
I have told you these things so that in me you may have perfect peace and confidence. In the world you have tribulation and trials and distress and frustration; but be of good cheer [take courage; be confident, certain, undaunted]! For I have overcome the world [I have deprived it of power to harm you and have conquered it for you]. (John 16)
So thank you Lord I am having a wonderfully imperfect day. And thank you Father that we, here today, all of us, are having a wonderfully imperfect day.
I imagine many of you today are feeling acutely the imperfection of this life in the present moment. I know I am. The loss of my beautiful wife is anything but neutral. There is something deep within us that knows this is not the way things should be. On the contrary we know it is tragic, even perhaps unjust.
Well, I do not wish to get too philosophical. But I would like to propose to you, as a way of encouragement, that the reason we feel this way deep in our gut is because we know we were created for a different world.
We were made for a world where things like this simply do not happen, a world not built on the brokenness of human frailty but an eternal world whose maker is God.
That this life is not so much our home as it is the place where we are called home: A place where we are invited and given opportunity to return to the place to which we know we have always belonged.
It is also a place where we are given opportunity in this life to exchange our imperfection for God’s perfection: A crown of beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, a garment of praise instead of despair. Of this I am convinced.
So thank you Father that I am having a wonderfully imperfect day.
The second thing I want you to know is what Catherine meant to me.
So I have hand-picked a few stories, beginning with the way we first met.
Now some of you may be aware that our relationship began with me volunteering to babysit her two children. Karyn and Paul were about 8 and 10 at the time, Catherine was a trade show coordinator. She traveled often and needed someone to look after the kids while she was away. On one particular occasion, I was available so I said yes.
As a a side note, if I may address the young single men in this room: If you are looking for a way into a woman’s heart, I highly recommend this strategy.
I am only kidding. The truth of the situation is, a master plan for winning over her heart was the farthest thing from my mind. We were no more than friends at the time. But when Karyn and Paul insisted I be their only babysitter after that first time, and I came to love her children as my own, and came realize in a profound sense they were my own.
And as Catherine and I evolved from no more than friends to good friends, and from good friends to me realizing she was much more than a friend, it was clear she had found her way into my heart. I love that woman.
But I still believe babysitting her kids was a good idea.
So that is how our relationship started. But many of you may not know that Catherine and I actually had met several years before, almost without knowing it. And how we actually first met is important, even symbolic, of who Catherine was and what she has always been to me.
I have to give just a bit of backstory. At that time, I was a wreck. Not five years before, I had experienced a spiritual crisis. As a result, I was broken on the inside in so many pieces, I knew I was beyond repair. And so now here I was a few years later, searching for God. I thought I needed God to simply show me He was real. But looking back, what I really needed was for God to show me He was love.
And so one evening, at a worship service at a church right here in Orange County called the Huntington Beach Vineyard, I found myself at the front of the church altar. The pastor had invited anyone who wished to receive more of God’s love to come to the front and others would pray for them. And so there I was.
What happened in the next moment was a bit unexpected. I suddenly felt the power and love of God in a way I had never felt before in my life. I mean, this ovewhelming sense of peace and love filled my entiere body and soul and spirit. And this was a bit weird, but almost involuntarily, my arms raised upward to heaven as though on their own.
At that very moment, a hand touched my elbow. And then another hand touched my other elbow. They gently held onto my arms, supporting the weight of them as I connected with the love of God.
Moments later, I opened my eyes to find a young woman holding up my arms. She was very kind and passionate and of course just as crazy as I was to find ourselves in a church service like this. I would later find out that her name was Catherine Stevens, or as many of you knew her, Cathy Nugent, the woman I would one day marry.
In a way, our first meeting was a perfect symbol of who Catherine was to me as well as many other people. Her deepest desire in the lives of those around her was to connect them to the love of Jesus. She could not of course do this without God; she could only facilitate, much like a midwife.
Hold them up, support their arms so to speak. But she did this regularly and quite successfully, facilitating God’s work of reconnecting our brokenness to His perfect goodness, and in the process rebuilding our lives.
Okay, two stories down, one hundred ninety eight to go.
Just kidding. You know there is this desire — I do not know if you feel it — but to capture completely all that Catherine meant to us in a one-hour memorial service. To not leave anything out. I realize it cannot be done. She simply meant too much.
But I also realize that this is what the rest of our lives are for: To recollect, to cherish, to appreciate, to be thankful. To cry. To laugh. To honor. To heal.
And throughout all of this, the one person I am not grieving for is Catherine. Let me read something:
We know that when these bodies of ours are taken down like tents and folded away, they will be replaced by resurrection bodies in heaven—God-made, not handmade—and we’ll never have to relocate our “tents” again. Sometimes we can hardly wait to move—and so we cry out in frustration. Compared to what’s coming, living conditions around here seem like a stopover in an unfurnished shack, and we’re tired of it! We’ve been given a glimpse of the real thing, our true home, our resurrection bodies! The Spirit of God whets our appetite by giving us a taste of what’s ahead. (2 Corinthians 5)
I have to tell you one last story. Last Sunday I had the opportunity to visit that same church where so many years ago Catherine and I first met, and once again I found myself up front in desperate need. And once again, God met me as He has so, so many times since that first encountered. This time, I was standing, and the power of God was so strong I could not remain standing. I found myself lying on the ground with the love of God overwhelming me and going very deep. And this may sound strange, but in the midst of this tragic situation, the presenting emotion as I lay there with God was joy.
And then a woman who was praying leaned over and whispered in my ear, “I see in my mind’s eye your wife in Heaven, and she is dancing. And she is wearing a light pink garment, dancing in a meadow among the beautiful trees with Jesus. And she is so, so happy. And she is so happy with you and for you.”
I knew it was true. It reminded me of one of the last things I said to Catherine as I sat beside the hospital bed after she had passed away: I am so happy for you.
You know, people say that after the loss of a loved one, your life will simply never be the same. I want you to know I do believe because of what has happened, my life will never be the same. But not because of Catherine’s death. On the contrary, because of her life.
It is with great sadness I inform you that my sweet beautiful wife Catherine passed away last Tuesday night at 7:30 PM.
Many of you are probably unaware Catherine had her own prophetic prayer ministry, emotionalrenovation.com. The tagline was “letting Jesus rebuild our lives.” But I liked what Catherine often said about what it was she did: Helping people connect to the love of God.
Many of you are also probably unaware of how deeply my own writings were shaped and inspired by her own life: How her deep connection with Jesus has, throughout the years, connected me more profoundly to the love of God than I ever thought possible.
She will be greatly missed. She was the most profoundly authentic and passionate woman of God I ever knew and had such a tremendous impact on so many people.
Catherine, we will miss you and are so grateful for your blessing in our lives. I know for you and all of us who know you, this is not the end, but only the beginning.
The husband of the most beautiful woman in the world. OOXXXOOOX