Tuesday, September 29, 2009


You might have gathered from my previous post that writing has felt a little frustrating recently. And it wasn't just about my writing--the careers of some novelists we know are threatening to come to a screeching halt (since I have yet to publish anything, my writing career has remained safely in the ditch :). They write compelling stories and devote a dizzying amount of time to publicity. Still, their sales numbers are lagging and some of them have been told that their publishers will not enter into another book contract.

Thankfully, Rick has a contract with Abingdon Press on his current work in progress, When the Devil Whistles, but we're very conscious of the need to use publicity as wisely as possible from the very beginning. We're studying what seems to work and what seems to be just busywork. Not that we're anywhere near discovering the magic bullet.

But this morning God spoke to me through novelist Susan Meissner. I don't know her, but she has a rare ability to hook me with her concepts and keep me turning pages. I'm not naturally a fiction reader, so that takes some doing. I noticed that she has a new novel coming out and that her Amazon sales rankings are very good.

A few months ago, Susan wrote a blog post that really stuck with me. She talked about being frustrated with writing, even though she had books out in the marketplace that were doing well. So she did what she had done years ago while struggling to get published: she surrendered her writing career to God, leaving it completely on his altar to do with as he pleased. She would focus on honing her craft, while leaving that which is out of her control in God's hands. God blessed her writing career afterwards, but she didn't necessarily draw a connection--mostly she focused on the effect it had on her.

I'm sure Susan does publicity, but she doesn't dominate social networking sites. She's not the kind of person I look at and say, "Whoa, I could never keep that pace! Why bother trying?" Mostly she seems anchored in God, epitomizing Psalm 46:10: "Cease striving and know that I am God."

And it occurred to me that surrender is the way of the cross: laying down my life (meaning everything) to pick it up. As long as we hold tightly to something, we're not trusting God with it. Control is fueled by subtle fear: "If I don't hold everything together, it will fall apart!"

I see through personal experience how closely surrender is tied to faith. If something is too important to me, I find it hard to pray with faith. But if I regard myself as a stewart of God's business, then a deep certainty of his faithfulness grows within me. I have an easier time yielding some areas of my life than others. But I'm very slowly learning to surrender everything--my family, my money, my writing, and my life--to God.

In writing surrender becomes particularly important because of the revolution of rising expectation. How did Paul Young feel when The Shack was no longer in the top five on Amazon? How about the bestselling novelist whose latest book was panned by critics? If I feel jealous, frustrated, fearful, or proud now, more success will not solve the problem because I will expect more. But if I give my writing to Christ, he will safeguard my heart.

And a final point on surrender: If I keep tight control over my life, God can't use me. But if I surrender it to him, he will fit me into his eternal plan. That doesn't necessarily mean success by worldly standards, but from an eternal vantage point it's the only life worth living.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Reflections on Forrest Gump

Rick and I watched Forrest Gump last night. Each time I watch it I'm struck by Forrest Gump's brilliance. And this time the movie spoke to me in a new way.

Friday was one of those "Why am I writing?" days. Why am I adding more words to all the words that are already out there? All right, so the words have to come out, but other than that? Why blog? Why did I write a lengthy comment on John Piper's blog on the subject of Arminianism and Calvinism, and then another long clarification of the first one that nobody responded to? (That is an excellent question, come to think of it . . .)

Although God takes pains to try to keep my pride in check (not usually successfully, I might add), he's always there to life me up when I feel discouraged. And this time he used John 3:8, my blogging friend Becky, and Forrest Gump.

John 3:8 says: "The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit." Recently God has orchestrated a number of divine appointments in my life. He gives me just enough insight into a person to know what to say, and no more. Sometimes I have no idea what happens afterwards, although I always keep these people in my prayers. It's like God says to me: "All right, Anette, I have a small part for you to play here, and then I want you to exit at stage right."

But every now and then (like Friday) that frustrates me, because I want to know if anything I do or write makes a difference. Sometimes God humors me, but sometimes he just wants me to trust.

And this weekend he put everything in context. On Friday, Becky posted "A letter to yesterday's feather ," which I'm quoting in part:
dear feather...

Yesterday i thought it sad that you were captured by the wind, torn from the body of the bird from which you came. Today i think maybe it was a blessing in disguise. You seem alive only in that wind; without it you'd lie lifeless on the ground. It is the stream on which you sail. Yesterday i found you curled round that little yellow flower. And today, who knows? Maybe you're resting on the bark of an old twisted tree. And tomorrow, maybe you'll adorn the headdress of a child pretending to be an indian warrior. Maybe one day someone will find you and turn you into a pillow to bring comfort to their weary head? Unite you with a whole case of feathers again. Until then you are free to dance upon the breeze, be carried by a force outside yourself, given momentum by an invisible torrent of air . . . I wish you well little feather. Submit and ride with Him. 
That got me thinking about Forrest Gump and the feather at the beginning and end of the story. I love the juxtaposition of his simple, humble storytelling and the magnitude of the actual historical events. His listeners on the bench understand the historical context and so do we, but Forrest Gump understands only one thing: that every situation calls for him to do the right thing. That's what makes him so brilliant.

If we're led by the Holy Spirit, we are like Forrest Gump, going through life doing God's will without any idea of the significance of the events in which we play a role. And where God leads, the stakes are eternal and therefore infinitely more important than the events in the movie. God handpicks us for a particular encounter and gives us the right words, knowing that they are timely. What could be more important than that?

Like Forrest Gump, we have an audience which understands the significance of the smallest deed, if done with God's love and by his direction. Hebrews 12:1 tells us that we have a great, invisible "cloud of witnesses surrounding us," including departed heroes of the faith and angels. (Luke 15:10) They see past worldly distractions to the eternal soul at the center of the drama. They know, as C.S. Lewis said, that "nations, cultures, arts, civilizations--these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat."

If we can eternally influence just one, our lives are not in vain.

And that's worth writing for.

Monday, September 21, 2009

"Venite Ad Me Omnes"

In the center of the University of Notre Dame campus, not far from the law school, stands a statue of Jesus with his arms stretched out and the inscription, "Venite ad me omnes" ("Come to me all") on a plaque. The simplicity of those words always filled me with a deep peace back in the days when my only worry was finals. It wasn't until May 12, 1993, the day after I completed the requirements for law school graduation, that their meaning began to take on a whole new significance.

May 12, 1993 was the day that redefined "normal." When Ingrid, not yet five months old, had her first seizure.

Fast-forward three months: Rick and I drove back to Illinois from Minnesota with a sedated eight-month-old Ingrid sleeping in her car seat. In three months, she had gone from a beautiful, communicative baby to one who could no longer cry or smile, and whose right hand was fisted and unusable from constant seizures. I knew that the seizures would start up again as soon as the Valium wore off. But the children's hospital had sent us home. She was not a candidate for surgery and none of the experimental medications had worked.

But more devastating than any of that, God had not come through and healed her, in spite of our frantic, all-consuming prayers. The laws of nature had prevailed as I feared they would, and I found myself standing over the precipice of a terrifying new reality.

The strange thing about evil is that we all know it's there, but most of the time it doesn't seem real because it stays at a safe enough distance. Theologians write countless books on The Problem of Evil, trying to make sense of it. But when it encroaches on your personal space for the first time, when the knowledge of evil becomes part of the fiber of your soul, explanations mean nothing. The safety rails are off and you realize the magnitude of the stakes. A place called Hell could really exist, because you've been there.

My first reaction when Ingrid wasn't healed was, "So God isn't real after all. We're in this nightmare all alone." I had no explanation--no defense of God. Watching Ingrid having a seizure was like standing by as wild dogs tore my baby apart. How could God allow that? My worldview was shattered.

But I was even more shattered. I started having panic attacks, and darkness hung like a curtain around me. The only way I could get through the day was by leaning more heavily than ever on the God whose existence no longer seemed intellectually credible.

And he was there, more real than ever before. He told me to lay down the burden, to stop praying for Ingrid so obsessively and come. Come without asking for anything except his presence. Surrender everything at his altar. "Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28)

I clung to him like never before, releasing everything into his hands--Ingrid, my precarious mental state, and my faltering faith. His light spilled into my life, more powerful than ever, filling me with a joy and peace that could only be supernatural. The darkness that had lurked in every corner fled at his presence, and the panic attacks disappeared and never came back.

A few days later, an untried combination of medications stopped Ingrid's seizures enough to bring us out of crisis mode. And God began to rebuild our family's life.

The problem of evil has many moving parts, and all the books in the world combined can't do justice to it. But it has only one solution: Christ. Having experienced that first-hand silences many questions.

Friday, September 18, 2009

"I hurl you into the universe and pray"

We just dropped Chelsea off at college. I've only called her twice in the two hours since we got home, so I'd say I'm holding it together remarkably well.

She's ready, though, even if I'm not. In the past year, Chelsea has metamorphosed from a teenager into a woman. She took care of all the planning for her move, occasionally taking me along for shopping trips. She ordered her pink bike on-line and even assembled it herself. (All right, so she put the fenders on backwards, but who's perfect? We had the bike shop do a "tune up." Not that we thought it would fall apart or anything.)

It goes without saying that I miss her, but the strangest part is permanently giving up the illusion of control. I say "illusion" because nobody ever controlled Chelsea. She grew up to be a wonderful young woman with far better judgment than either of her parents at eighteen (and arguably either of us now), but only because she chose to be.

Until Chelsea was eight, The Strong-Willed Child by James Dobson was my child rearing bible. He said that strong-willed children take comfort in knowing that their parents are in charge and that there are consequences when they step out of line. The problem was that Dobson had never met Chelsea Acker. "I shall never surrender!" was her battle cry. And she never did, no matter what the consequences.

One night, Chelsea and I had just finished locking horns about something when in desperation I asked God for guidance. (Yes, it's typical for me to wait until I'm desperate to ask God for help. But I'm getting better.) The answer he impressed on my mind was clear. "If you're under grace, why are you putting Chelsea under the law?" I suddenly realized that "Because she's a child" didn't cut it.

Through Chelsea, God taught me a powerful lesson: The law cannot change a person, including a child. That is the whole point of the Gospel. Only God's grace, working from within to mold the heart, can transform a life.

So from that moment on, we focused on our relationships with our children, making sure above all else that they know how much we love them. And we prayed for them, trusting that God alone has access to their hearts. The other three children have always accepted guidance a lot more easily, but Chelsea needed to make her own mistakes and learn from them. And by the time she hit her teenage years, she seemed to have gotten the rebellion out of her system. William Sears analogizes strong-willed children to high-risk, high-yield investments. If so, we've really hit the jackpot on this one!

The only real power we have over children is on our knees, because they may choose to go their own way when the rules are gone. But the power of prayer is infinite, and not limited by proximity. I won't know where she goes, when she comes home at night, or whether she wears a bike helmet, but I can ask God for his shield of protection. Not just during the next four years, but always.

"I hurl you into the universe and pray."
--Netta Gillespie

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Transforming Doubt to Faith

Most Christians struggle with doubt at times. Sometimes we think of it as a dirty secret that offends God and would shock other Christians. So we pretend, by saying and doing all the right things. But God desires "truth in the innermost being." (Psalm 51:6) He wants us to come to him with our struggles, so he can help us work through them. "A bruised weed He will not break and a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish." (Isaiah 42:3)

I've found over the years that a number of things have helped me overcome doubt. First, when my faith is tested I lean more heavily on God. James 4:8 says: "Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you." The best way to grow in our faith is to abide in Christ as a branch on a vine, so his Spirit flows through us like sap. The more time we spend with God, the more real he becomes to us, and the more power he has in our lives.

Second, we need to stop treating our faith like a fragile object that must be stored away someplace safe. Although Christians talk about knowing the truth, we often act as if we fear the truth more than anything. It's okay to ask the hard questions lurking in our minds and let unbelievers challenge our faith, because God's truth can withstand our most intense scrutiny. As Christians, we have nothing to fear. So let's trust God that he is the rock of ages, including the scientific age. When we embrace all truth without fear, our faith will grow. God doesn't need our truth-twisting any more than we need a crooked attorney to defend us.

Third, God expects us to walk in faith. What are we willing to risk for God? Our money? Our reputations? Our lives? It's important to draw a distinction between walking in faith and putting God to the test. The same deed may be an act of faith by one person and recklessness by another, because the first person was led by the Holy Spirit. But often the Bible tells us very clearly what to do. For example, it tells us that if we give, God will give back to us. I've found that the best thing to do during times of financial uncertainty is to be generous. That is an act of faith. Will God keep his promise to provide? Yes, he will, and our faith will grow. When we choose integrity over popularity, we take a step in faith. God often rewards those acts of faith, but more importantly, we are building on an everlasting foundation that matters far more than his provision in this life.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Time for a Nap

And whoever put this thing on my bed probably won't be needing it for a while. 

-- Coco (guest blogger)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Unity in the Spirit vs. Conformity to the Subculture

On Monday, John Piper wrote in his Desiring God blog that he hoped his daughter would hear President Obama's speech to the students. So far he has received 287 comments. There are two things I really like about Piper's blog. First, he speaks his mind, and second, his readers speak their minds.

I commented that it didn't even matter to me if I agreed with him--I'm just so thrilled when Christians refuse to toe the party line and think in lockstep. I realized afterwards that it might have seemed like I am against Christian unity. Like I enjoy a good fight. But that's not entirely true. I'm all for unity in the Spirit, but against conformity to the Christian subculture. There's a huge difference.

A number of home schoolers replied to Piper's post. Now there are few people I admire as much as home schoolers. I'm just remembering back to Chelsea's elementary school years, and the joys we had trying to get her to do her homework. Chelsea used to be very strong willed, and even though she has always had the gift of gab, she lived by the old adage that volume trumps logic and reason. But she has turned out to be the most wonderful eighteen-year-old, so that's one of the reasons I know there's a God. Anyway, I developed a deep and lasting reverence for home schoolers during those years.

But I question the notion that protecting children from "the world" keeps them from sin. We are the world! (Isn't that a song?) What I mean is that we are not necessarily any better than unbelievers. As anyone who has spent time in the subculture will attest to, we can sin with the best of them, we just Christianize it. When it comes to gossip, anything goes as long as we start out with, "So-and-so really needs our prayers," and end it with, "Bless her heart!"

I don't mean to sound cynical--I know many amazing Christians. But they are amazing only because they walk with the Holy Spirit, not because they shelter themselves from people who think differently. They have learned not to conform to the world (or the Christian subculture), but to be transformed by the renewing of their minds. (Romans 12:2) How do we renew our minds? By having the mind of Christ. (1 Cor. 2:16)

The only thing that keeps us from conforming to the world is having the mind of Christ, through the Holy Spirit. Without it, we will conform to something worldly, either popular culture or the Christian subculture or both. But when the Holy Spirit transforms us, there will be unity between believers. Why? Because the Spirit is not divided against himself. Where he governs, Christians are of one mind.

But we are to look to Christ, not to other Christians. They may be wrong, and even if they're not, why should we settle for secondhand grace? If we focus on other Christians, we will at best conform. But if we look to Christ, he will unite us through his Spirit with other like-minded believers.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Through a Glass Darkly

I meant to blog last Friday but ended up frolicking with atheists at Dwindling in Unbelief instead. We discussed the story of the prophet Elisha being mocked by a group of boys who said, "Go up, you bald head! Go up, you bald head!" Elisha, as you may recall, replied by sending down a curse so that two bears appeared and tore the boys apart.

The discussion had been going on for some time (years) before I commented, with people arguing between themselves about the ages of the boys, and other things. I replied something to the effect of, "I don't care if they were five or twenty-five, I find that atrocious!" A self-described ex-Christian congratulated me on not engaging in the cognitive dissonant truth-twisting "that is so common among Christians." But, he warned, be careful where it takes you. (Apparently his path toward "deconversion" began when he read this story to his small children, and it had brought tears to his eyes because of what it said about God.)

I told him that I know exactly where it takes me--to Christ. He had to deal with cognitive dissonant truth-twisting from religious people all the time. The Pharisees were hateful and self-righteous, and their religion blinded them to Jesus's goodness. They went so far as to accuse Jesus of having an evil spirit, and he replied by saying that a sin against the Holy Spirit shall not be forgiven them. The sin against the Holy Spirit is to call good evil, and evil good, something that gradually shuts the light of truth out of our souls. So instead of defending the indefensible in the name of God, it's often best to leave it alone and admit that we don't understand.

Another man then apologized for his earlier outburst in response to my first post. He explained that it makes him so mad when people say that God is good in spite of everything he does. My reply (which is still in moderator limbo) is the subject of this post.

Good in spite of everything he does? I suppose that's a natural attitude if we think of God as a wrathful, indiscriminately murderous deity. And that's how he's often described in the Old Testament. I don't know what to make of that.

There are many things we don't understand about God. As Paul said, we see him "through a glass darkly." But the Gospels give us a clear portrait of Christ, who is the "exact representation of [God's] nature." (Hebrews 1:3) We don't have to dig through the Old Testament to figure out what God is like. Jesus was the incarnate God. So we know that when we see him face to face, we won't be confronting an irrational killer of children. We will see the face of pure love, the epitome of goodness, the one Mahatma Ghandi referred to as "a beautiful example of the perfect man."

If we spend our lives blaming God for all the evil in the world, it is Jesus we are blaming. Jesus who spent the three years of his ministry welcoming sinners, healing the sick, and who sacrificed his life to defeat evil. Never once was he philosophical about suffering--he simply alleviated it. He wept when Lazarus died. He healed on the Sabbath because he couldn't allow Satan to torment a woman one more day. By any honest standard, he was full of grace and truth.

And he is the Christian God. If we truly understand that, many questions become irrelevant.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

When Theology is Like a Drug

Last night, I lay awake thinking about Calvinism, Arminianism, and open theism until my brain hurt. I repented of that sin in the morning.

Sorry about the geeky joke, but I'm only half facetious. This past week I've often felt like Jesus has knocked on the door of my heart and I've replied: "Don't bother me! I'm thinking about theology." And I'm not thinking about it in a particularly constructive way--I'm trying to figure out how God does his job. How does he save us? Does he cause the suffering in this world? If he allows something evil to happen, is that really different from causing it to happen? And if not, is that where the open theists come in with their ideas that God doesn't know the future? Are there better explanations that are more scripturally accurate as well as viscerally satisfying?


(Deep breath)

It reminds me of C.S. Lewis's insightful words: "Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust instead of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head. From all my thoughts, even from thoughts of Thee, O Thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free." He is saying that theology--the study of God--is very different from God himself. I am to trust Christ, rather than my own theological views. Through faith, I can humbly receive him and let him fill my heart and mind. Amazingly, the Almighty wants fellowship with me, even if I don't understand everything.

I'm not saying that the study of theology is useless to our walk of faith. God calls us to love him with our minds as well as our hearts. And that means studying his word diligently. But when I get caught up in the abstract, I often lose sight of the essential. If the Arminians and Calvinists still don't see eye to eye after all these centuries, does God really require me to come up with an airtight explanation?

"The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love." (Galations 5:6) I hope I remember that while disagreeing with someone.