The Unseen Hope Nestled Within Failure

“Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” Prov 28:13

I have been facing the reality of failure. It is a hard lump to swallow, especially when there is no going back to fix things. Throughout my life, I have been a runner, an emotional runner. I’ve liked to pretend that I could run away from my problems and they could disappear from reality if I didn’t dwell on them. But life does not work like that, does it? Mistakes don’t go away. And running away is just an illusion. Wrong-doing, intentional or not, demands payment and comes back to bite, often times with a vengeance.

So then, what hope is there for a sinner like me? How am I to persevere in life without sinking into despair? If I cannot undo what I have done, and if concealment of consequences is impossible, then what do I have left? Regret. Guilt. Self-deprecation.

“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Co 12:9-10

My weakness is tangible, my failure so real. Yet, I have this amazing and beautiful promise of a miraculous and beneficial blessing! I can receive mercy! Even more, I can be assured that at my lowest, Christ is exalted and his grace becomes all I need. His power is available to me and I am not abandoned to darkness.

“More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces  hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Romans 5:3-5

Even if my suffering is self-inflicted, I am confident that the love of God is sufficiently ample to cover both my sin and my guilt. Therefore, I am able to rejoice in this suffering, because it leads me to great hope!

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28

All things work together for good! All things work together for good! What that good is, I cannot say. But I can trust and confidently await the revealing of life’s puzzle, as God puts it together, piece by piece. This hope is worthy of rejoicing! He will do this, not me. He will complete his work in my life, not me. He will shine and glorify himself in my weakness, not me. In his sovereignty, He will cause all things to come together for good, not me. Praise his holy name!

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Jeremiah 29:11

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Billy!

Juan and I were having a conversation yesterday. Billy McKillop’s name came up and my immediate response was “He is one of my favorite people in the world!”, to which Juan answered, “Mine too!”

This is my 6th entry in the Tribute series, and I’m so glad to dedicate it to this awesome person, my friend Billy.

I know Billy from my days at Pinelands Presbyterian Church, in Miami. When Juan and I first started attending that church, we came in as a couple in great need of support and spiritual strength. Billy, more than likely, does not know how big of an impact his life and leadership was for us. In all our years in ministry we had never met a person quite like him. He showed us what true humility looked like. He demonstrated real love for people and a genuine concern for their souls and well being. Billy was not boisterous nor seeking accolades, but he served quietly and wholeheartedly. I remember many days when God’s grace surprised me through Billy’s life. All I had to do was watch him at work or have a conversation with him, and I would often learn something new about compassion and evangelism. I had not fully understood how God’s grace could be so evidently displayed in leadership, until I met Billy McKillop. I am so grateful for the work God did in my heart through him.

Billy has a sweet, thoughtful, and supportive wife by his side, and together they have raised three passionate and loving children. The McKillop family has served in ministry both in local churches and abroad. Wherever they go, they display God’s goodness for all to see. Their commitment to the expansion of God’s kingdom is evident in their life choices. Many have come to the knowledge of the gospel through their labor of love. Thank you Billy, Sherry, Caleb, Zachary, and Gabrielle, for your service to the Lord. I am one of those people whose life has been deeply enriched by yours.

After Billy's installation service at New City Fellowship (Billy and Sherry are second and third from the left)

After Billy’s installation service at New City Fellowship (Billy and Sherry are third and fourth from the left)

God is Not Fair

God is not fair!

Is it not eternally penned? Stories of God commanding the killing of people, the annihilation of nations, the harsh and violent punishment for sin and evildoing? God is not fair to require the slaughtering of animals, the constant shedding of blood – bulls, goats, doves – Whatever did they do to deserve it? This God of the Old Testament, this God of the Jews: Not fair.

And how about here and now? All we need to do is look around or read the news. Some are rich and others poor. Some die old and some get killed. Some are free yet some are prey. Where is the fairness? “The poor will always be with us,” said Jesus. We live in this world that is saturated with tears and pain, conflicts and wars. And here we are: Stuck! We are all powerless to change the evil of this world. God, however, is mighty; yet he doesn’t change it either! For reasons that He only, fully understands, he chooses to permit suffering to continue. Unfair.

And then, there is me. Hard as I try to be happy, careless, and free, I am inevitably disappointed. I don’t want to cry from pain, but people I love, die; those I want, don’t want me back; and things I crave, I fail to attain. Unfair! It is all unfair!

God is unfair. But he is just. Justice is part of his name, his nature, his core. His justice never fails to punish the guilty. And so here we see the most unfair work of God. Out of all the unfairness in the entire history of our world, one act stands out as the most outrageous and outlandish. God planned this day with the utmost of care – every detail pre-arranged – From the beginning of time, whenever that was, however that worked, he willingly and purposefully lined up the events in human history to culminate in this heinous act of utter unfairness. He warned us. Isn’t it eternally penned for all to see? Abraham spoke of it, as did Moses, David, Isaiah, Daniel, and many other prophets with countless amounts of words, both spoken and written for the world to know.

God’s anger burned, for sin and evil were great. So his wrath against malice and his unceasing need for justice were finally poured out. God the Father assigned God the Son, in the form of man, to be the recipient of his wrath. He knew mankind could not handle such punishment, such anger, such justice. So he poured it out on one man; his only son; his most loved and cherished being. But Jesus was innocent! He had done no wrong to deserve this! But willingly he came, as a lamb to the slaughter. And willingly he died the death of a criminal. And willingly he became a curse, taking the form of sin, the meaning and guilt of sin, all upon himself. In one selfless act, God himself satisfied his wrath once and for all. It was so great and so vast that alas, his anger was forever spent! The guilt of mankind on one man. Unfair! Unfair!!

And one more thing is unfair: I cannot purchase, bargain, or even work for my salvation or right standing with him. My envy from last week, my lust from yesterday, and my pride from this morning, have all been paid for, fully justified, but not by me. Are there enough “good” things I can do to compensate for the “bad” ones? If that were true, I would end up losing every time! If it’s not arrogance, it’s laziness. If it’s not selfishness, it’s self-pity, but either way, any day of the week, and every hour of the day, my mind thinks an impure thought and my will moves me to a wicked act. And yet, here I stand, forgiven and clean! Unfair! To be washed and pure because the innocent one took the punishment on my behalf, and the anger of God, meant for me, fell on another. Unfair, unfair, unfair!!

God is love, and his love isn’t fair. It is unmerited, from start to finish. It all makes sense now! His commands, his requirements, his need for justice, they all point to Jesus and our immense need of him! Suffering, pain, tears, and death are part of this world, but this is no longer all there is. Happiness is not our greatest need. Fellowship with God is. Through Jesus, he opened a door and made a way for us to experience this. To all who call upon his name, he gives the right to be called children of the Most High! He died and rose again and is now preparing a place for us, for the rest of time. Is it not eternally penned for the world to know? In the most unfair way, he has demonstrated his love forever. Praise him, praise him, praise him!

And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain—
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

(Charles Wesley, 1738)

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: A Perfect Description of the Past Week

This week has been some week. Seriously, a week of extremes, in circumstances, emotional reactions, and spiritual responses; a week of utter failures and amazing victories. Care to know what happened? Here it goes!

THE BAD

How about we call it, a series of unfortunate events, too many to list. Among others:

  • While the family was out enjoying Christmas activities last Sunday evening, the adorable, cuddly Bosco (the pony-sized puppy which has been living in our house the past two weeks) managed to wreak havoc by plentifully peeing on our rug, eating massive amounts of chocolate cake which in turn produced profuse diarrhea, and drinking out of the toilet bowl (I’ll spare you the details). Two days ago, I came home to chewed up carpet, because, what is more fun to a puppy than tearing up the carpet, of course.
  • On Monday, while getting ready to go out and do some last minute grocery shopping before Christmas, and while trying to maintain enough self-control to not kill the adorable, cuddly Bosco, I heard the loud crying of my oldest daughter who had twisted her ankle outside and was now not able to walk from pain, resulting in a trip to the emergency room. (This run-on sentence describes the run-on emotional toil on my already overflowing cup). Oh, and, get this, while preparing to rush Lizette to the hospital, the puppy bolted out of the house, happily galloping at the speed of sound, while all the kids (except the injured one) ran after him like mad people all over the neighborhood, to the amusement of our neighbors. At the hospital we discovered Lizette had injured ligaments and would then begin a period (which has not ended) of immobilization of the leg, as well as the use of crutches. I do not recommend crutches in a split level home….
  • My original plan was to have a peaceful Tuesday: I would take time to prepare and organize my music, as I was leading the choir for our church and we would have our dress rehearsal that evening. I would also begin my preparations for our Christmas Eve dinner, cooking some, wrapping gifts, and cleaning the house. But then life happened and my Tuesday looked nothing like I had pictured it. It was rainy and cold, and I was out purchasing pain killers, doing the shopping I had not gotten done the previous day, and dealing with relational and emotional, family issues. So I panicked. Yes, I totally panicked. And what do I do when I panic? I pass it on to the husband and the kids, of course. But more on that on the “UGLY” chapter… (how’s that for a transition?)

THE UGLY

Here’s where it gets really good. You see, ugly is so ugly. As I was saying, panic, and worry, combined with perfectionism and pride, make the ideal recipe to, well, let’s say, kill the Christmas spirit. It began on Tuesday as I started anticipating I would not be ready for Christmas Eve. I transferred this pressure to my family (oh, and did I mention that my lovely, future daughter-in-law has been visiting us and watching me in “action” this whole week?). I wish I could blame my hormonal changes. But even though hormones can (and probably do) accentuate my emotional responses, they are not to blame for the sin that so reigned in my heart, putting my family in great distress. After my initial mini-fit on Tuesday, I told myself I would have a good, peaceful day on Wednesday. I got up that morning with a new resolve to be positive and stable. Ha! My “good” attitude lasted for most of the day, until BOOM, I completely lost it! I’m talking hyperventilation, anger, frustration, and worst of all, blaming and shaming. My family had been nothing but helpful and cooperative all day. But the enemy of my soul knew where to get me. A comment. A look. A tone. An unfinished task. A feeling of being out of control. Fear of failure. Pride. You name it!

And so just as our family was leaving the house to go to church, where I would lead the choir in the entire service of Lessons and Carols, in “joyful” celebration of the birth of our savior, I was acting more like a dog with rabies than a daughter of God. I arrived at church in distress and in tears. I then proceeded to lay guilt on my sweet daughter, who had been so loving towards me all day. The choir assembled in the appropriate room at the previously assigned time, ready for their warm-up. I did not show up on time, but walked in 10 minutes late, still red-eyed, as I barely composed myself to lead them in a short warm-up. My incredible sinful attitude was being displayed for all to see, and I needed to get a grip within the next 12 minutes.

THE GOOD

Praise the Lord, the good outweighs the bad and the ugly! The only reason it outweighs it, is because the good comes, not from me, but from God himself. He is perfectly good, and kind enough to shower his children with goodness, not once or twice, but always.

  • Grace: I am a recipient of it. Everyone who saw me at church on Christmas Eve knew I was not well. But every single one of them smiled, said a helpful word, and encouraged me. There wasn’t a single complaint, even if well deserved, but even as I walked in late, I was greeted by happy, forgiving faces and patient hearts.
  • Forgiveness: Boy, did I have to ask for it! Sitting at the table on Christmas Day I asked my family to forgive me, and was blessed by their immediate willingness to do so, without reservation.
  • Rescue: I don’t know how I led the choir on Christmas Eve. Honestly, my mind was only present half of the time. But the service was not about me. It was about Jesus and the goodness and love He displayed so openly by leaving his rightful place in heaven to become a human being. So God took care of it. He enabled the choir to sing their hearts out, he helped me to not be lost or make mistakes, and in the end, He received the attention and the glory, the way it was meant to be.
  • Love and friendship: Despite the disaster earlier in the day, our Christmas Eve dinner was lovely. Our family was happy to share this time with wonderful friends. The food was amazingly delicious. The caroling around the piano was uplifting and sweet, and the joy of God was evident. He had compassion for me and gave me what my heart so deeply desired, even though I did not deserve it.
  • Prayer: Our need has been greater, so prayer has increased. The ability to pray is a gift from God. Because Jesus was born in a manger and grew up to become the sacrifice for our sins, our Passover Lamb, we now have full access to him! We pray and he listens! It’s quite amazing. Not only has our family prayed more, but I have been specifically touched and encouraged by Lizette’s prayers. You see, she has gone years without praying… or believing in God. But God has begun a great work of inward transformation in her. At every turn this week, Lizette was the first to say, “Let’s pray”. No amount of bad or ugly can outweigh the joy of hearing her words and seeing her heart being poured out to God in faith and trust. Isn’t God good and merciful?

Today has been quiet, happy, and peaceful. Bosco is still alive and, somehow, still here (It’s a Christmas miracle). We are learning to keep him away from food and toilet bowls. This morning Lizette, Geneva, and I prayed and laid hands on him so that God would help him as well ;). We are eating delicious left-overs and Lizette’s pain is not as intense any more.

Elise and Bosco. Cute, right?

Elise and Bosco. Cute, right?

With my 3 daughters on Lizette's birthday, last Friday

With my 3 daughters on Lizette’s birthday, last Friday

Eight Traits That Will Kill Any Marriage

At the young age of 18, I met my then future husband. I fell madly in love, and he felt the same way about me. Within weeks we were engaged and in less than a year, we were married. We were full time students and quite broke. Even though we stepped into adult roles very suddenly, our youth and immaturity was evident as we tried to manage both college and marriage. We were not very good at it and hurt each other deeply. In fact, we were quite unhappy, and to be honest, the only reason why we didn’t get a divorce was because we both believed in the Bible. We didn’t know many things, but there was one assurance we did have: God hates divorce. So, despite our immaturity, unhappiness, endless fights, and financial instability, the word divorce, never crossed our lips. We would stick together no matter what, because our love for God was stronger than our love for each other.

And so we set off to build a family despite our difficulties. We had babies, we worked in ministry, we explored careers, we grew up, and slowly but surely we learned a thing or two about being married and making each other happy. Our marriage is far from perfect, but Juan and I can honestly say we are the best of friends. We have not only survived an unhappy marriage, but we have learned and experienced true intimacy, deep joy, unconditional acceptance, and fulfilling companionship.

I am not a relationship expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I have learned a few things during my (almost) 29 years of marriage. I certainly understand specific characteristics that have the potential to unequivocally destroy this sacred union. Similarly, I understand the antithetical ones that can build and repair it. So here they are:

Eight Traits That Kill Marriage

  1. Pride. Pride says, your faults are bigger than mine; your sin is nastier than mine. Pride wants to be right. It exalts the action over the person. Pride fails to ask forgiveness and refuses to forgive. Choose humility instead. Acknowledge that we all have strengths and weaknesses, and we are all in equal need of forgiveness. Decide to listen and understand over self-justification. Apologize often, and forgive every single time.
  2. Cynicism. Merriam-Webster describes the word as “believing that people are generally selfish and dishonest”. Cynicism doesn’t give the benefit of the doubt. It is the perfect companion to pride. It encourages defensiveness and discourages honesty. Choose to trust instead. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Co 13:17). Take the other at his word, thus encouraging open communication. Ask God for optimism and hope, trusting your marriage can improve, even thrive.
  3. Silence. Lack of verbal communication sabotages growth. Silence speaks volumes, as it is easily interpreted as indifference and lack of desire to connect intimately. In silence there is no conflict resolution, but only fertile ground for misconceptions and discouragement. Choose to talk, and to do so as much as it’s needed. It is the most effective way to know each other, as well as encourage, confront, correct, and enlighten each other.
  4. Manipulation. Its main goal is to control and get its own way. Whether it is through the use of tears, screaming, lying, scheming, nagging, or overpowering, manipulation will kill intimacy, trust, and friendship, without a doubt. A manipulative spouse is not a friend, but a rival. However, patience allows room for waiting. Wait for your spouse to have a change of heart or action. As you train yourself in humility, trust, and open communication, manipulation should completely disappear from your tactics.
  5. Harshness. It is the opposite of kindness and gentleness. Harshness, plain and simply, destroys. Like beach erosion, each wave breaks down one’s dignity. While kindness protects and builds up, harshness lays one bare and humiliates. “A gentle answer turns away wrath, But a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Prov 15:1) Nothing repairs and assures the other of one’s love better than kind words, soft touch, and gentle smiles. Give them generously and expect miraculous results.
  6. Laziness. It is apathy and negligence. Laziness does not make an effort to improve, change, or love. Laziness is satisfied with status quo and is unwilling to do the hard work of marriage. But marriage requires persevering and hard work. It is not for the faint of heart. Don’t give up! If you fail today, you can succeed tomorrow!
  7. Unfaithfulness. It does not adhere to vows and it breaks promises. It comes in various forms and degrees, but it is always wrong and lethal to the relationship. Unfaithfulness is rejection and it builds walls of mistrust. Your eyes, heart, body, and soul are only for your spouse. Do not allow even a hint of unfaithfulness to go unchecked. Even when nobody knows, God sees. So be quick to repent, for God is faithful to forgive. Confess and make any necessary changes if you want for your marriage to stand a chance. Faithfulness is the blood of the relationship. Don’t take it lightly.
  8. Isolation. The refusal of intimacy hardens hearts. Physical, emotional, and spiritual separation prevents healing and becomes most unsatisfying. So choose to never live apart, if at all possible, or even sleep apart. Physical closeness and intimacy should be constant; emotional connection and friendship should be sought after with creativity and passion; spiritual oneness should be pursued at all cost. In order for marriage to work, two people must be one, in every sense of the word.

I understand these negative traits because at one point or another, I have displayed every single one of them and have experienced their destructive power. Dear reader, my hope is that you understand the love and fulfillment that can be possible in a good marriage.

The Secret to a Good Marriage:

GRACE

It’s easy to write about what we, as spouses, should or shouldn’t be doing. It’s much harder to live it. They key ingredient is grace, defined as “unmerited favor”. Grace is the character trait that is willing to hit the reset button, to start again, to give second, third, and one hundredth chances. Grace is willing to forgive and not hold on to resentment. Grace understands that we all wrong others and that we are all in equal need of pardon. At its very core, grace is self-sacrifice. Without it, it is impossible to mend a broken relationship. But with it, all things are possible.

In my own marriage, I have learned to give grace and to receive it. No matter how much I have hurt my husband or how much he has wronged me, we have chosen grace, time and time again. But this grace is impossible to manufacture. You don’t order it in the mail or press the ON button to activate it. You cannot even will it into existence. Rather, grace is formed and matured in adversity and need, when we give it a chance. The truth is that grace is a part of God’s character, and only He imparts it. And He gives it generously and in a timely manner. So if you need it (and you do), ask Him for it. He is not only able to give you the grace needed to love a spouse, but willing and joyfully desirous to do so. It is in the power of grace that your marriage will flourish and be a fountain of life rather than mutual discouragement.

Please let me know if I can pray for you as well. It would be my privilege.

Gratitude: The Book

My life is far from perfect. I often go through periods of depression or anxiety; I focus on what is not working for me, or what I am lacking; I self-indulge; I live life as if others (including God) exist to fulfill my purposes and dreams. Thankfully, I do not live like this all the time (I praise God that HE constantly and continually rescues me from my self-centered choices), and by God’s grace I can also see the good and lovely in my life, regardless of my circumstances. For this I give glory to Christ, for without him, I would live only for myself and in the end, drown in misery.

I Thessalonians 5:18 says, “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” With this in mind, I purpose to be more thankful, and I ask God to open my eyes to see His grace, goodness, mercy, and love in ALL circumstances.

So today I am grateful the Bible, which speaks to me, to the core of me. Many have been persecuted, killed, and ostracized in order to preserve this book. I reap the benefits of reading it, hearing it, confessing it, and being transformed by it. In it, I find God’s words to me. Without it, I would lack purpose and direction.