“How do we say that God is good when life is not?”

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How do we say that God is good when life is not?

I read the words and my eyes brim with tears. I’m sitting by the window and bright sun radiating off fresh snow bathes the room in cold light.

I continue reading: “And what, if anything, can be made of the prayers we’ve whispered in the middle of nights, restless with fear and the threat of loss, prayers that have had no apparent answer, no just-in-the-nick-of-time rescue?” *

I read the question again “How do we say that God is good when life is not?” When you bury a child or a parent too early, and Job’s comforters tell you they are in a “better place.” When you watch your body succumb to cancer, and you know that you will not live to see your daughter’s fifth birthday; when your husband of less than a year dies in a tragic accident – how, then, do you say that God is good? When your brother dies from a tragic accident in Thailand while on business and visiting his daughter?

At the end of a life, every single human being has a reason to believe God is not good. But the opposite is also true. At the end of every life, there is evidence of God’s goodness in every breath we’ve been given.

It is tempting to want clean answers, to be able to point to healings and miracles. But clean answers have never helped the one who is suffering.

How do we say that God is good when life is not?

There are no easy answers. We limp our way through this question, sometimes full of faith and confidence that the character of God is ultimately good; sometimes shaking our heads saying “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.” Theologians call this ‘theodicy’ – a noun that literally means “the vindication of divine goodness and providence in view of the existence of evil.” Vindication of divine goodness – God on trial, his very character being questioned.

As I think about this question, I realize that this is some of the thread through Worlds Apart. Yes, Worlds Apart is about Pakistan, and being a third culture kid/missionary kid, and living between worlds. But ultimately, the book is my testament of faith. In Worlds Apart, I work through what it is to believe God loves, God cares, and God is good when life is not. The tapestry of God’s redemptive plan is not without pain or suffering, but ultimately I have deep confidence that God is good, even when life is not.

This I knew, and I knew it well: when you’re six and you wake up at five in the morning, away from home and unconditional love in a dormitory of seven other little girls, just as young and equally homesick and insecure, there is no one to comfort you. When you are twelve, and your backside aches for a week because of the beating of a house parent, there is no person to comfort you. When you question why dads and babies die in the middle of the night, there is no person to answer you. When you are sixteen, and you feel misunderstood by all those around you, unable to articulate your heart, there is no person to comfort you. When you are eighteen, and your heart is breaking at the thought of leaving all you know and all you love, there is no person to comfort you.

My faith was more than theology – it was a living, breathing entity. It wrapped me with a profound sense of comfort and love, and I knew beyond any previous doubts that God was real. I knew in the marrow of my bones, and the depths of my soul, that there was something greater than boarding school loss, stronger than the grief of goodbyes, deeper than the pain of misunderstanding. I knew that redemption was not just a theological idea, but that somehow it was more real than anything on this earth. Faith was the story written on my life, and my life was witness to a greater reality.**


*Teach us to Want: Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith by Jen Pollock Michel

**Worlds Apart pages 165-166

Lonely Tears and Sunflower Hope

I wake up lonely. This does not happen often, but when it does I know tears are just below the surface and I feel the heavy weight of distance between me and the world.

It is not surprising, but it is unwelcome. Just last week I was surrounded by family and life, by water and activity in Istanbul. My husband and I had a 3-country trip planned to celebrate both of us turning 60 this year. Besides the state-side celebrations, our plan was to go to Egypt, Kurdistan, and Turkey.

All of those plans were laid in the large, globe sized pandemic grave of missed opportunities and revised plans and expectations. We felt glad to be alive and have food in our cupboards. Forget any grand plans.

But as the summer wore on and curves flattened, borders opening their doors just a tiny bit, we decided to push them open wider. My brother and sister-in-law and niece and her family were all in Istanbul, a place open to Americans with no quarantine needed. We may not get to Egypt and Kurdistan, but we could certainly take the nine plus hour flight to Istanbul.

And so we did. We left on a Friday night, arriving on the other side of the world on a Saturday afternoon. We took in the beautiful breezes on the Bosphorous as we went on ferry rides to the Black Sea and over to the European side of Istanbul. We took a cable car up to Pierre Lotti’s house overlooking the entire city, and we ticked a stay at the famed Pera Palace off of our bucket list. We ate delicious food, drank hot glasses of steaming tea, and laughed until our bellies ached.

Better still, our son who lives in Greece decided to surprise us, showing up at dinner time on our second day in Istanbul. The tears and joy filled my heart.

The entire trip was a gift. A gift of beauty and family, of hope and longing fulfilled.

And then – we returned. We returned to more strife than we left. We returned to a nation that is fighting, fearful, and jaundiced. We returned to mask shaming and covid deniers. We returned to a nation full of people who assume the worst of their fellow human beings, who spit on the Imago Dei to win an online argument. And me? I’m the worst offender of all.

For the first few days I braced myself. “I’m okay” I kept on saying. “I can do this.”

But today? Today I woke up and the loneliness that had hovered just around my heart closed in, squeezing it to a full physical ache. I began to cry. I cried and cried and cried. You know the kind of tears that are so healing and good for the soul? Those kind. They weren’t tears of self pity. They were tears of loneliness, brokenness, and pain for our world.

I felt lost in pandemic exile, trapped in lonely isolation. I sensed the cold weather that will inevitably come, and like the runaway bunny, my thoughts run unchecked and too far into a cold, lonesome future.

I know where to take this ache, but it feels heavy and I’m not sure I can carry it and drop it at those feet, those dust-covered, blistered, scarred feet of Jesus

Between Worlds: Essays on Culture & Belonging

It is now several hours later. My eyes hurt from the crying, my soul is exhausted, but somehow I know it will all be okay. This God who has heard me since I was a little girl when the tears flowed in boarding school still hears me, still comforts me with his invisible presence. Hope blooms out of lonely tears, like the sunflowers that unexpectedly bloomed in our garden, welcoming us on return.

May the loneliness I feel be the catalyst for reaching out harder, praying longer, and knowing even more fully that sometimes only God alone can be the comfort we all so desperately need.

The Work of Waiting

To my dear ones who are waiting…

“Let waiting be our work, as it is His. And, if His waiting is nothing but goodness and graciousness, let ours be nothing but a rejoicing in that goodness, and a confident expectancy of that grace. And, let every thought of waiting become to us the simple expression of unmingled and unutterable blessedness, because it brings us to a God who waits that He may make Himself known to us perfectly as the gracious One. My soul, wait thou only upon God!”- Andrew Murray

My first child was late. Due around Labor Day, she made her appearance into the world on September 11, about ten days late.

During the time between her due date and her actual arrival my husband got into the practice of answering the phone by shouting into it “No! We haven’t had the baby yet! Quit asking.” It all worked fine until his mother-in-law (yes – that would be my mother) called.

Any couple or individual who has gone through waiting for a baby’s arrival know that waiting is work.

I know well the waiting of babies.

I also know well the waiting that is an inevitable part of a life movement. Below is an essay I wrote for my book Between Worlds. During this season of worldwide waiting it felt right to post it. May it in someway comfort you in the waiting.


It’s 2am in the Mumbai Airport. I am in the domestic terminal and the airport is quiet. Outside the sky is dark and the open doors reveal small restaurants, some closed, others open with minimal food and one lone employee to serve customers who happen by at that hour.

We arrived here at midnight. It’s still three hours before our flight to Goa. We don’t yet know that we will miss that flight.

At the door the guard’s sleepy eyes belie his quick response. Some people in our group have already tested his reflexes. His high turban is immaculate, and a thick silver Sikh bracelet falls heavy on his arm.

Other passengers are scattered in the two seating areas, either in semi-sleep or randomly observing their surroundings with the resigned expressions of travelers in transit, travelers who are between worlds, in the limbo of the ‘not yet arrived.’

A group from the Emirates walks across the terminal, a gaggle of children lagging behind, weary with the weight traveling and the weight of bags, hanging heavy off their backs, luggage tags bearing the characteristic red and white emblem of the airline. Their moms are ahead of them, slender and tall in abayas, only their eyes showing through black niqabs.

I sit back and look around, fully at home. This waiting in terminals is a world I know well. I’ve never counted up the hours I have spent like this, just waiting, but they are many. It’s amazing how much waiting there is in a life of movement.

Surrounded by luggage, tired from crossing time zones, we just sit. We wait. We wait in transit, in the in-between, not always sure of the next piece of the journey. We wait for buses. We wait at train stations. We wait at airports.

And there’s another kind of waiting. We wait for visas, that legal stamp of permission to enter a country as a guest or live there as a resident. We wait for donors to fund projects. We wait for decisions over which we have no control. We wait for a doctor’s approval to continue this life overseas.

Above all, we wait for God. We move forward in faith, only to be stopped in transit. So we wait. It’s not time. We sit tight. There are dozens of ways that God moves in and orchestrates our plans, our movements.We may never know the reason for the waiting. It may elude us until the day we die and we’re on the other side of eternity. For waiting is nothing new to the work of God.

In waiting we join hundreds of others who waited before us. Joseph, sold into slavery, waited years to be able to say the words “You meant it to harm me, but God used it for good.” Abraham and Sarah, waited for so many years to have a child that Sarah laughed cynically at the idea. Noah waited aboard a boat full of antsy animals, with no land in sight. Those are only a few in a long list of ‘waiters.’

He doesn’t assure us that we will learn why we wait. He gives no false promises. What he does is perhaps better – he assures us of his goodness.

And so I wait at two am in the Mumbai airport, thinking of this God who reaches through time and place and asks us to be okay in the in-between, to trust his character and his love; a God who asks us to wait. I give thanks to a God who is utterly trustworthy and completely unpredictable within the waiting; a God who knows all about the work if waiting as he daily waits for his children to finally get it.

Pandemic Pages & Healing Words

Though the blog has been quiet, my journal pages are full. Full of what I call my “Pandemic Pages” – page after page of blue ink, my heart poured out onto the lines filling up the page. There is very little in there that I would ever share with the public….we keep private journals for a reason. It’s a bit like talking to God – I can rage, rejoice, weep, shake my head in disgust, and ultimately come back to that simple, powerful phrase “But God.” Perhaps you too have your pandemic pages – pages that walk you through this time, sometimes hope-filled and other times so desolate you can scarcely believe it is you. Yet, these words are important for us, and equally important not to share. To share them might be something of a betrayal.

A few years ago I read the words “Only speak words that make souls stronger.” I copied them down several times. For me that translates into writing – “only write words that make people stronger.” It’s easy for the sake of more readers, more likes, more shares to want to hop onto the latest scandal or crisis. It’s easy to react. It’s far more difficult to restrain myself and write words that do indeed make souls stronger.

Nine years ago, after a national crisis, then President Barack Obama said these words at a funeral:

At a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do, it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.

President Barack Obama

During this time where everything is debated, where job loss and pandemic stress have hurt millions, where worldwide loss and grief are ever present, I am reminded how important it is to work toward offering healing words.

Just this morning I had to ask forgiveness of someone I love dearly because I quipped something that had no connection with what we were texting about.

“Only speak words that make souls stronger….” Only write words that make souls stronger, lighter, braver, and more joy-filled. That doesn’t mean that I won’t challenge and be challenged. It means that I learn to be careful with what I write and with what I say. It means I ask myself these questions: “Does this reflect the truth of my faith tradition? Does this encourage? Does this appropriately challenge? Does this make people laugh or rejoice? Does this spread false rumors?”

 As I walk the streets of my city I see the “walking wounded.” I go on social media, and I see more wounds. Yet our default mode is not to speak healing words, but rather words that accuse, criticize, mock, and assume the worst. I’d love to blame just the media for words that wound and criticize, but I know differently.  I am far more guilty than I want to admit. The power of language and the way we put our words together is up to us; the way I put words together and how I use them is up to me.

Our world is desperate for healing words. Desperate. Anxiety, depression, and suicide are all on the rise. A few years ago I thought that public bullying could not possibly get worse. I was wrong. With the rise of “cancel culture” and social media shaming it has become infinitely worse. Added to this is the plethora of poor public examples and a dearth of good ones in every area of life – whether that be politics or faith.

I can’t change what other people choose to say. But I can change my own words. I can choose to speak words of hope and grace. I can choose to disagree with civility and respect. I can choose to give people a chance instead of assuming the worst.

I can choose to share words that “make souls stronger.”*

*Ann Voskamp

And So We Gather

It is late afternoon as I sit on the beach, watching the waves creep closer and closer to where we are resting. I hear sounds from others enjoying the ocean – a father calling his daughter, a grandmother telling her granddaughter not to swim too far, and other quieter voices but none interrupt my deep sense of peace and rest.

It will soon be high tide and the beach area will almost disappear. The tides in our area are pronounced, going out as far as a quarter mile on some beaches. It is amazing to all of us, but particularly to the first time visitor.

We have gathered with family, making sure all are well and virus free. While gathering with family at any time is special, given the loss, stress and sadness of the last months this feels like the best of gifts.

Perhaps this is the biggest lesson or gift of the pandemic. That which we thought was certain is no longer so. That which we thought was negotiable, available, or practical has all changed. We have developed a heightened awareness of what is a right and what is a gift. Most things, I have learned, are not rights.

Perhaps too, we have exchanged expectation for hope – a good and necessary exchange.

On the one hand, gathering as a group may seem foolish in these times. We are, after all, in a world wide season of uncertainty. But perhaps that is exactly why it feels even more important to gather.

A few years ago during my first visit to Iraq, I remember talking to an Iraqi woman who had to flee her home during the time of ISIS. I remember saying “How did you survive?” – one of those foolish things that Westerners sometimes say to those who have endured more than they can imagine. I remember her looking at me and saying “You keep on living, because the alternative is not an option, and it surprised even us how strong we were!”

The living can’t quit living because the world has turned terrible and people they love and need are killed. They can’t because they don’t. The light that shines into darkness and never goes out calls them on into life. It calls them back again into the great room. It calls them into their bodies and into the world, into whatever the world will require. It calls them into work and pleasure, goodness and beauty, and the company of other loved ones.

Wendell Berry

And so we gather with good food, the occasional and expected small frustrations, laughter, good conversation and games, ever understanding that we must all keep on living, perhaps the act of resistance and love that is most needed during times of uncertainty.

Babies and the Sovereignty of God

Sometimes we come to points in our lives where we seriously question the sovereignty and wisdom of God. While I know this is ill-mannered and audacious, I still do it.

I had one such moment 25 years ago when I found out that I was pregnant with our fifth child. Did God not know that I was seriously under qualified to raise 5 children? Did he not know that we were struggling with other things in our lives that made the idea of another child impossible? Did God not realize that I had two friends begging Him for children and they were being ignored, while my womb was like that of a teenager who merely had to stand downwind from a teenage boy to get pregnant? There I was, fertility personified, and to use Biblical language poised to become heavy with child.

We were living in Cairo and had just moved from one part of the city to another 1/2 hour away. The day I went to the doctor, we were expecting a group of 20 students to arrive from the United States for a study abroad program that my husband directed. It was a chaotic time and there was little chance to be alone and process the pregnancy, never mind the bigger issue of the sovereignty of God. I hid my growing stomach under Bill Cosby sweaters, all the rage at the time, and managed to go four months before having to let people around me know. At that point I was slowly becoming used to the idea and so could come up with clever quips to snap back at the insensitive words of not so well-meaning friends and acquaintances.

The reality was that my other four children were over the moon. They couldn’t have been happier and wise friends of mine reminded me that I would far rather have 5 children than just one or two, but I thought I had told God that four was perfect.

I gave birth two weeks ahead of schedule in a hospital on the banks of the Nile River to Jonathan Brown Gardner. The moment I looked at him my questions to God dissolved in his soft baby skin. He was perfect in every way. Never had I been more aware of the glory and wonder of 10 fingers and 10 toes, a suck reflex, and eyes with perfect vision that slowly took in the world around them after first fixating on the face of a mother, and that mother was me.

At 22 inches long and 6 lbs 12 ounces, he was put into my arms and in an instant I was overwhelmed with love for this child and the wisdom of God. I knew a love for this child that was infinitely bigger and stronger than my circumstances – he was perfect.

Today that baby turns 25. He is a wise 25-year old with an old soul. Fluent in Greek, he is getting his masters degree at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Greece.

I am just one of a number of women who through the years has had babies and pregnancy give them life lessons on the sovereignty and deep love of God. I join the ranks of Sarah, wife of Abraham who had the opposite problem and tried to take things into her own hands; Hannah, who begged for a child with agony too deep for words; Elizabeth, wife of Zechariah who in her old age conceived, much to the surprise and gossip of those around her. And Mary, the blessed Theotokos, who said the words “How can this be?” to an angel who told her she would have a child, only to come to know her beloved son as the author of salvation.

As the months go by what confuses and confounds ultimately allows us to bear witness to God’s sovereignty in the form of a baby. Happy Birthday to Jonathan Brown Gardner. You are an extraordinary gift from God and I can’t imagine life in our family without you!

Reclaiming Lost Things

We used to rent out our beloved cottage in Rockport for a 9-month season. From a financial standpoint, it was smart. From an emotional one, it was awful. At the end of each rental period I would walk into the cottage with a sense of dread. How had the renters treated our beloved space? How had the cottage survived a group of strangers? What would be broken? Dirty? Irreparably damaged?

The first thing we would do is clean. We would scrub and polish until it regained some of the sparkle. Then I would redecorate. I would change things around and make it ours again. I would reclaim it for our purposes.

When something happens that you have no control over – losing a job, having to leave a country, getting a cancer diagnosis, a death, a pandemic, or a myriad of other things in life – you feel like your life is not your own. Things are happening to you and around you. Things that you did not choose. Your place and purpose suddenly change, and you are left in a tornado of doubt, fear, anger, and loss. Part of recovering is reclaiming.

How do you reclaim what is lost?

How do we reclaim our spaces, our bodies, our marriages, our places of refuge, or our very identities that sometime feel lost in crisis, betrayal, or death? How do we reclaim our faith? How do we scrub, polish, redecorate, and reclaim?

It’s a slow process, but the spiritual truth to this is profound. Perhaps the biggest piece is realizing how little control we really have over things that happen to us. It’s a paradox to be sure, but reclaiming is about getting honest, admitting that there are very few elements of our lives where we have control. We cling tightly to so many parts of our lives, imagining that we have far more control than we actually do. Our hot fists hold on, like a child that doesn’t want to relinquish their favorite toy. “Mine!” we cry. “It’s not fair.” “Why us?” “Its’ my life.” So many responses, but all in the same hard-held fist.

After realizing how little control I do have, it’s about moving forward with what I know. Taking back what is lost.

In this season I’m thinking a lot about reclaiming and being reclaimed. I remember our Rockport cottage as it would once again become ours, its beautiful interior being scrubbed and made new. The same thing is happening during these quieter days, where time loses meaning and days blend together into the season of a pandemic. If I’m willing, I experience an inner housecleaning and reclaiming that can only take place when I lay down my right to control, when I allow the hard inner work of repentance and trust to replace the anger, frustration, and the “it’s not fair” that floats barely under the surface. Perhaps its really when I realize that reclaiming is really about being reclaimed.

My fist opens. My body relaxes. And, over time, my soul is renewed and reclaimed.