Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Be unafraid of nothingness

Chinese grocery stores are nostalgic places for me. A whiff of fishy odor greets me at the door. I am suddenly transported to a different time and country. I am a little girl again, walking behind my mother at the marketplace. Only I am the mother now, and three little boys walk behind me.

Months ago, my youngest sister was visiting and I decided that she would be my perfect excuse to splurge — on beef shanks and tendons. As I walked up to the checkout counter, I bowed slightly to the cashier. That day, I was given a brand new appreciation for Chinese aunties, and their curiosity.

"Why are you on food stamps?" She asked me.

No cashier had ever asked me this. Perhaps she wondered why someone "in poverty" or "on welfare" would choose to have three kids. Perhaps not many Chinese people use food stamps. For whatever reason, this stranger was curious and comfortable enough to ask why I was poor.

"My husband is a student," I answered.

"Oh, where is he studying?"


"I know Trinity! The seminary. What was he doing before?"

"He was a lawyer," I responded. Hans was a patent attorney. I was twenty-one when I met him, I did not even know what a patent was.

"What?! A lawyer? For how long?" She shook her head in disbelief.

"Thirteen years," I answered.

She turned to her friend who was stacking groceries, and repeated our conversation to her. Now there were two aunties staring and shaking they heads at me.

"But he will not make money," said the first auntie. "He will make some money," said the second auntie, trying to comfort me. "Nothing compared to when he was a lawyer," assured the first auntie.

"The Lord will provide," I said, amused by this conversation at the checkout counter.

Abel brought his firstborn lamb before Yahweh. He laid it on the altar, slitted its throat, and burned it. The offering, then, was accepted.

What is left of his beloved lamb?
But these strange ashes, Lord, this nothingness,
This baffling sense of loss?
I did not think about Hans' sacrifices very often, the life he had before we were married, until a stranger asked me why we were poor. It has been nearly ten years since he resigned from his law firm. Nine years of learning and failures. Nine years of labor. Yet, we have gained nothing—that can be measured. It struck me, for the very first time, how strange our lives must seem to strangers.

By his mercies, God met us at the altar of our strange ashes. Our Savior spoke into our nothingness.
Son, was the anguish of my stripping less upon the torturing cross?
Was I not brought into the dust of death,
A worm, and no man I;
Yea, turned to ashes by the vehement breath of fire, on Calvary?
O son beloved, this is thy heart's desire:
This, and no other thing
Follows the fall of the Consuming Fire
On the burnt offering.
Go on and taste the joy set high, afar, —
No joy like that to thee.
See how it lights the way like some great star.
Come now, and follow me.
The Lord accepted this sacrifice. Christ, the Lamb of God, laid down his life for our sins. This absurd and glorious exchange, that the Lamb would take our shame and guilt and evil and sickness and death upon himself—in order that we might meet God at the altar.

Therefore, by the mercies of God, we ask that the Lord would make us his living sacrifices. Jim Elliot once prayed, "Make me Thy Fuel, Flame of God" (Elisabeth Elliot, Through Gates of Splendor, 18).

Fall on us, Consuming Fire.
Make us your fuel, Flame of God.
Help us to be unafraid of nothingness.
Turn us into strange ashes — for your glory.

Monday, May 4, 2015

A divine and supernatural chemistry

My dear friend,

Hearing from you brings me great joy. In your letter, you asked, is it wrong to desire "chemistry" in a potential marriage partner? Shouldn't "important matters" be "enough"? (quotation marks are mine) I have loved thinking through these questions with you.

Let us enter by a side door.

Peter (through Mark), Matthew, and John all recorded Mary's anointing of Jesus in their gospels. This meal at Bethany was one of the last meals they would share with Jesus before he died; their memories of it were vivid. They were among friends, those who had witnessed Jesus' power and heard his teachings. Lazarus was there; he was dead but was now alive. Simon hosted the party; he used to be a leper.

But Mary was the focus of their story.

Peter and Matthew recalled the moment Mary broke the jar and poured pure nard on Jesus' head. John remembered how she poured the rest of the perfume onto Jesus' feet, how she used her hair to wipe the dirt away. He could still smell the fragrance of pure nard filling the house.

All three apostles recalled how Mary offended them. "What a waste!" they cried, "the money should be given to the poor." If only they had known the blood that Jesus was about to pour out for their sins. If only they had known the body that he was about to break for theirs.

Jesus defended Mary. He called her offering "a beautiful thing."

"She has done a beautiful thing to me," he said. He did not call it "a good thing" or "the right thing," though Mary's act possessed both goodness and truth. It was good because she sacrificed for her Lord; it was right because Jesus was worthy of her worship. But why call her offering beautiful?

Back to your questions, is it wrong to desire "chemistry" in a potential marriage partner? Shouldn't "important matters" be "enough"?

When we speak of "important matters" in a marriage partner, we often think about goodness and truth. Is this person kind, patient, hardworking, faithful, truthful, and teachable? The list can get quite long. Beauty can seem less useful than goodness and truth. "Chemistry" or the attraction to beauty (which is in the eye of the beholder) can seem rather shallow. So, is it wrong to desire beauty? Shouldn't goodness and truth be enough?

My short answers: No, it is not wrong to desire beauty; and no, goodness and truth is not enough.

Without beauty, goodness loses its attractiveness and the self-evidence of why we must carry it out. Why be good when we can be evil? Without beauty, truth loses its persuasiveness; logical conclusions are no longer conclusive. Without beauty, excellency and truth would not captivate or compel the soul. So, no, it is not wrong to desire beauty. In fact, we need beauty. Beauty is essentially for understanding goodness and truth.

Chemistry, as we call it, is the attraction we feel towards beauty, the ability to see beauty in someone or something. When there is chemistry, we feel pleasure and delight (fireworks and weakness in the knees are nice too). Chemistry is real; it is not imagined. Not only is chemistry precious in a marriage, but it is also precious in our worship of God.

Jonathan Edwards called the "chemistry" of delighting in God — "the spiritual light." The spiritual light, according to Edwards, was a gift of the Holy Spirit. Thus, he called it "a divine and supernatural light."  This light was “a true sense of the divine excellency of the things revealed in the Word of God, and a conviction of the truth and reality of them.” A person who truly worshiped God did not merely have a rational belief of the divine excellency, but had a sense of the gloriousness and loveliness of God in her heart. She not only had the opinion or the knowledge that the honey was sweet, but she tasted the sweetness of the honey.

Therefore, in order to glorify God and enjoy him forever, we need a divine and supernatural chemistry. We must have a sense of his beauty, his glory, the loveliness of his holiness and grace. We must taste and see that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8).

True beauty reflects God's beauty. Mary's love for Jesus was beautiful because hers was a love that reflected the love of God. His was a twelve-baskets-of-leftovers kind of love. Everyday at every moment, God pours out his beauty and pleasure and delight on his creation. Trillions of intricate snowflakes fall from the sky only to melt. Fields of wild flowers bloom only to wither. Forests of leafs turned into the colors of the sunset—while they are dying. God's love is the excessive, extravagant, wasteful kind of love. And Mary's love for Jesus was a little bit like that. And Jesus called her love "a beautiful thing."

Desiring chemistry in a future spouse is not a bad thing. But we must earnestly pray for a divine and spiritual light — chemistry that is governed and given by the Holy Spirit, chemistry that helps us see beauty that reflects the excellency and truth of God. We must cast ourselves at his feet and seek first, adore first, the beauty of our Savior's face.

Godly chemistry is a gift. After nine years of marriage, I still ask the Lord that I might love my husband more and more truly (fireworks and weakness in the knees are nice too). After twenty years of seeing Christ, I still ask the Spirit that he would give me a greater delight and affection for Himself.

Make no mistake, however, chemistry can be deadly and demonic. There is such a thing as an improper, sinful desire for beauty (or counterfeits of beauty). The forbidden fruit was a delight to Eve's eyes. Eve's chemistry for that fruit—killed her. When she desired, took, and tasted something other than God, she died.

So, dear friend, make no mistake.

Lastly, allow me to leave you with Edwards' tribute to the most beautiful lady in his eyes. Sarah Pierpont was a pastor's daughter in New Haven. She was seven years younger than him. When they first met, Sarah was likely too young for Jonathan to view romantically. But here was what he wrote of her:

They say there is a young lady in [New Haven] who is beloved of that almighty Being, who made and rules the world, and that there are certain seasons in which this great Being, in some way or other invisible, comes to her and fills her mind with exceeding sweet delight, and that she hardly cares for anything, except to meditate on him—that she expects after a while to be received up where he is, to be raised up out of the world and caught up into heaven; being assured that he loves her too well to let her remain at a distance from him always. There she is to dwell with him, and to be ravished with his love and delight forever. Therefore, if you present all the world before her, with the richest of its treasures, she disregards it and cares not for it, and is unmindful of any pain or affliction. She has a strange sweetness in her mind, and singular purity in her affections; is most just and conscientious in all her actions; and you could not persuade her to do anything wrong or sinful, if you would give her all the world, lest she should offend this great Being. She is of a wonderful sweetness, calmness and universal benevolence of mind; especially after those seasons in which this great God has manifested himself to her mind. She will sometimes go about from place to place, singing sweetly; and seems to be always of joy and pleasure; and no one knows for what. She loves to be alone, and to wander in the fields and on the mountains, and seems to have someone invisible always conversing with her.
Douglas Sweeney, Hans' professor, summarized their chemistry so well: Jonathan and Sarah "were kindred spirits. Jonathan loved Sarah's beauty, but attributed her attractiveness to the fullness of God in her soul. To call theirs love at first sight would be to mislead most modern readers. These two fell in love with the image and glory of God they saw in each other" (Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word, 61).

Forever yours,
Your sister