Go–and live a new life

 *This audio is a reading/telling of John 8:1-11. 

“Go and sin no more.”

Jesus says this to the woman who has been condemned of adultery, whom he has just rescued from stoning.

It’s always felt like a bit of a strange statement to me.

I can imagine that statement rolling very naturally off the lips of one of the fundamental preachers of my youth.

I can hear it being said with scorn and a stern look.

It feels very… simplistic … glib … easy …

Maybe even judgmental, like if I were to tell a woman at the homeless shelter to “just stop getting high, ok. Just decide not to, and don’t do it anymore. Simple as that.” To say something like that would be to ignore the past and present hurt and trauma, the complicated web of addiction, the very real realities of her life that cause her to seek some times of forgetfulness.

But this is Jesus talking.

Oh, how we need to remember Jesus. How we need to get back to Jesus.

This world stinks. It’s awful. If you are one of the privileged few (I am) who sleeps in a warm bed each night in a peaceful home with your belly well filled, it can be easy to forget that life is truly difficult for so, so many people.

I think this woman was one of those people. I think her life was probably very difficult.

Adultery in her context was not a simple choice to have sex simply because she felt like it. We can only guess at her circumstances or troubles or past traumas.

But this is Jesus talking.

He doesn’t guess. He knows. He knows her life. He knows all the reasons. He knows her.

He’s not being simplistic or glib—or even judgmental, though he’s the only one with the real right to do so!

He has just revealed his heart to her. He’s stood up for her by bending down to the dirt. He’s faced her accusers—every person in that angry, superior crowd—and challenged them to touch her. They were using her to make a point, to set a trap. She was an object to them, not a person—but he put her on their level. He challenged them to throw a stone, a stone that could only be thrown in the belief that the thrower was of greater value than the object, in the belief that the one being stoned was worthy of stoning and that the thrower of the stone was worthy to throw it. Jesus revealed the lie behind that belief. He made them see her. He made them see themselves. He rescued her.

And he tells her there is no condemnation with him.

She’s been seen, known, cared for, stood up for! Rescued!

I would like to think she realized he was God—that this meant that the God of the universe—who seems too far off, too removed from all our muck and mess and trouble—is NOT far removed. He’s a near God, one who longs to walk with us through the mess—who DOES walk with us through the mess. He is a God who sees and is deeply saddened by our sin and ugliness toward each other, our lack of caring, our use of others as objects.

This God would go with her. This God would help her walk back into a life that was hard. He would care for her, so she could grasp at dignity and hold her head high.

Jesus SAID very little verbally in his exchange with this woman, but I imagine his eyes, his face, and his posture conveyed a great deal. I imagine the woman heard something like this: “Go. There is a way ahead of you that doesn’t involve the shame you’ve been living with. There IS. It is only possible because now you know you are seen and cared for, now you know that God is not the God only of the Pharisees and the well-respected. He is the God of all people, of the downtrodden, the unseen, the ‘sinful,’ and the broken. He is YOUR God. He sees you and knows you. What is ahead of you will be hard. It will require grit and determination and struggle, but it will be far, far better than what you have been through. The way ahead may seem dim, but it is possible—it is possible because of who I am—your God. You can go and live a new, different life because you have seen what a different God I am. I am for you in this. I will see you. I will be with you. I am the God who sees you, knows you, loves you, and is always with you.”

I want to meet this woman in the Kingdom. I want to hear her tell her story, not just the awful difficulties and the dramatic, climactic moment of rescue but the AFTER: the walking in newness of life, the finding of community, the discovery of herself as a beloved child of God.

What a story that will be!

They shall know we are His…

Can I see God in pain?
In the eye-closing brilliance of a warm sun, the smell of fresh-cut grass, the sound of a child’s laughter: symbols of what is “well” in this world, I see God. His goodness, beauty, sweetness.
But in pain?
Do I see God when I contemplate—or actually see—those trapped in poverty or sex slavery or sweatshops or starvation?
Do I see God in someone struggling with mental illness, addiction, or great physical pain?
What about in grief? When a family loses a beloved child, a woman her spouse?
In natural disasters, birth defects, and broken relationships?
Do I see God then?
I know—He says it plain—that suffering was not part of His design for us. The garden was replete with purpose, goodness, wholeness.
But that is not the world we live in. So, does His beauty shine in pain? In the brokenness of this world and its people?
Or could it shine through?
When we look into heartache, what bears the most beauty is when those outside the deepest circle of pain enter in it. They open their hearts and arms; they give of their time and money, and they step into the trouble, into the mess, into the nitty-gritty.
We smile through our tears when we see this happen, or, in the deepest of grief, we nod in gratitude—that the brokenness is not reigning supreme, that an unselfish choice (or, more likely, a whole series of them) is beating back the insistent darkness. Selfishness is innate to all of us, so we know that to choose discomfort over comfort—when comfort is an option—is not natural.
It must come from above.
It must, just as it did when Christ did this for us, “stepping in” for us, bearing the full force of God’s justice.
His beauty shone through pain on the cross.
And when we follow Him in this act, bearing others’ “crosses,” stepping into the trouble of others, His beauty shines forth again.
How shall they know we are His?
By love.
His love.

Cousin Seth giving Maddie a ride on their tree swing--always a huge hit!

Cousin Seth giving Maddie a ride on their tree swing–always a huge hit!

The piece above was started a year ago, just after I returned from a trip to Africa. I begin a new journal every school year (a new Word document), and that piece has greeted me every time I opened my journal for the past twelve months. I’ve tinkered with it throughout the year, and it bears the influence of the events of those months.

My kids with cousin Michael and Uncle Dan (back left) and one of their friends just after the five kids went zip-lining.

My kids with cousin Michael and Uncle Dan (back left) and one of their friends just after the five kids went zip-lining.

I’ve just returned from another trip, this time a journey by car to family in the Southeast, East Coast, and the Midwest. It’s been a wonderful trip, completely worth the 40 hours we spent in the car. Yesterday, when I opened my journal and looked at the piece above yet again, I realized that I saw evidence of that very kind of love in each of the homes I’ve visited on this trip. Each one does have interests in other countries, with the poorest of the poor, with those unreached by the Gospel. They give; they go; they send; they serve.

My four kids with cousins Michael and Lucy and my sister Lynda

My four kids with cousins Michael and Lucy and my sister Lynda

But the testimony that stood out most to me is the way they have allowed their very homes to be used. Each has set aside the American dream of the home being a castle: undisturbed, controlled, and, most importantly, “MINE and for my comfort.” The pattern of their lives and their homes are often in states of disruption because they’ve set aside this dream. The invasion of our family of six was only a minor blip of disturbance to them because they’ve had singles/couples/families settle in for weeks, sometimes months, at a time. And they do it over and over, whenever God brings a need to their attention and puts it on their hearts.

PJ and cousin Grace giving a stirring performance during a karaoke afternoon.

PJ and cousin Grace giving a stirring performance during a karaoke afternoon.

I was talking with one of them about this, and she said, “I’m learning that disruption is good for me. Discomfort is good. It shakes me up. It makes me come face to face with my own issues and shortcomings and brings me to the end of myself. Stagnation and holding tight to what is ‘mine’ does no good for my soul.”
This kind of hospitality can be downright sticky. The outcomes often aren’t smooth-edged and wrapped with a bow. They’ve sometimes turned their lives—

my kids with cousins Sarah, Grace, and Anna

my kids with cousins Sarah, Grace, and Anna

and the lives of their families—upside down.
But they’ve stepped in and loved.
And it’s so very clear they are His.

From death to life: the blessing of communion

Jumping in leaves at Nana and Papa's house (my in-laws).

Jumping in leaves at Nana and Papa’s house (my in-laws).

For two mornings I have been disgruntled with my younger children.

Picked at faults, pointed out shortcomings. Ranted about the fact that—though I have made a bulletin board with pictures that “tell” them all they need to accomplish in the mornings before we get in the car (so even my beginning reader can understand)—we have experienced the “we’re going to be late” scrambling rush two days in a row.

After driving to school the second morning, I came home and sat in my sin for a bit. I tried to shut down the excuses and even the premature/slightly false confession and asked the Holy Spirit to help me simply listen.

DSC_0485The Spirit peeled back a few layers and I saw some of the roots of my sin.

Then, more painful, I saw what these sins are doing to my kids: in bearing down on my children with a harsh spirit, I am crushing them; I am cutting off communication with them; I am modeling for them the very things I tell them they shouldn’t do to each other (pointing out faults, not allowing for differences, assuming that everyone should regard their time/likes/dislikes as most important, being inflexible, losing their sense of humor and grace.)

DSC_0486In doing all these, I practice hypocrisy right in front of them.

I was all set to wallow in this (oh, how often I forget the second part of repentance: to turn TO God) when I remembered a conversation I had earlier this fall with my mother-in-law. She shared that one Sunday morning a few weeks before, she’d been disgruntled. She’d snapped at her husband and said harsh words to her granddaughter (who was staying with them at the time). Though she then apologized, she’d gone to church still bruised with guilt. Once there she remembered she was supposed to serve communion. She leaned over to her husband and whispered, “I don’t think I should serve communion this morning.”

DSC_0490When she told me this story, she paused at this point. Then she said, “A few minutes later, Dad passed me a note. He’d written Romans 8:1 out for me to read. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

“I served communion,” she told me.

She served it—and took it—in the exact mindset in which we should always participate in communion: authentic gratitude.

The Holy Spirit brought this conversation to mind because I, too, was being invited into communion. In my state of guilt and hopelessness, my eyes were drawn to Christ, to His broken body and spilt blood that accomplished for me what I have no possibility of accomplishing for myself. I was invited, once again, to move from death to life, to receive grace.

Suddenly, I longed to have my children home from school. I looked forward to the moment when I could pull them close and say, “I’m sorry, truly sorry.”

From death to life, once again.

The blessing of communion.


Living in GRACE

We leave for a trip to Africa on July 7. Dave and I will go with 12 girls from his soccer team, our oldest child (Emily), one of his assistant coaches, and two soccer moms to Kenya and Uganda.

Dave gave each girl going on the trip a copy of Kisses from Katie, and he asked me to write devotions for each day of the trip using Scripture and sections from the book.

“I would love to,” I told him.

Well, I still “will love to,” and I probably will post many of them here on the blog, but I have to admit that the book sent me into a spiritual funk for about a week—sorry for the silence.

Kisses from Katie is the story of a young suburban-raised girl who decided to visit Uganda during Christmas break of her senior year in high school. Then she just had to go back after graduation for a gap year before college. (I know, this sounds eerily like the story of Jody—who rescued our PJ). Katie’s “job” for the year was to teach kindergarten, but she soon felt led by God to rent a house, and abandoned children began showing up on her doorstep. She is now in the process of adopting 13 Ugandan girls and lives full-time in Uganda, coming back to the States only for visits and fundraising purposes. Her life is filled with sharing Christ—through words and actions—with the poorest of the poor.

I’m not doing enough. I’m not doing enough. This nasty chorus ran rampant through my mind as I read the book—though I knew that was not Katie’s reason for writing it and I also knew it wasn’t good theology.

What dug my spiritual funk deeper was the fact that I had bought a rug for the living room the day before beginning the book. Like we needed a rug, I thought as I read about Katie raising money to pay school fees for the children in her village. I should have sent the money to World Vision!

(BTW, I felt quite a bit better about the new rug when we spread the old rug out on our grass for the yard sale we had last weekend. Sunlight exposed a LOT more than my living room lamps did. The all-ivory rug may have worked for the empty-nesters we bought the house from, but with our six kids, their friends, our dog—yeesh!)

As I read further, I defaulted to guilt wallowing, and God felt very, very far away.

I know now—and knew then—this kind of guilt is not from God, but I was stuck and digging in deeper. Saturday morning, I woke tired, glum, discouraged already. But this was yard-sale-for-Africa day, filled with opportunities to meet neighbors, make new friends, share life.

Oh God, I prayed, I don’t have the strength for this, and I am so spiritually bankrupt right now. I can’t do this. But rather than drawing me closer to God, my prayer made me more convinced of my failure.

But a beautiful thing happened as the day went on. One of the soccer moms came and helped, and we had genuine fellowship. I met a lovely little woman from Syria who asked me to pray for persecuted believers in her native country. Before she left, she pronounced Christ’s blessings on us and our trip. I met another neighbor, large with her third child, who had moved in just that day down the street. I liked her; Dave hit it off with her husband; Em was ready to babysit. Dave had fun conversation with our next-door neighbor when he asked, “So why are you going to Africa?”

As soon as the yard sale was over, though, the cloud descended again.

All week Dave gave me funny looks when I answered, “Fine,” in response to his, “How are you?” Finally, on our early Sunday morning run (yes, we’re running again, and, oh, I am so sore!), he didn’t let my “Fine” slide by. “No, you’re not,” he pressed. “What’s up?”

“I’m missing God,” I cried. “I just feel like I’m not pleasing Him, that I’m so filled up with self I’m missing Him. I’m trying and trying, but all I can think of is what I’m NOT doing, and then I feel guilty and farther away than ever.”

Dave didn’t let that answer slide by, either. He pushed quite a bit on my faulty theology—and I said, “I know, I know! My head sees it, but what do I do with my heart?”

What ultimately led to a breakthrough was this question he asked: “If you’re so far away from God, then what was going on yesterday at the yard sale?”

That stopped me. I’d gone into the yard sale with dread, with a lack of strength and purpose—with guilt at my attitude.

But somewhere during the day, I’d forgotten ME. I’d forgotten to try so, so hard. I’d let go of guilt and let others minister to me (oh, how Christ works through His body!), and in the process I was able to share myself with them and others. I’d felt joy and peace—and I know where those come from. (Galatians 5:22)

Later on Sunday morning, when I had a few quiet minutes to be still, I wrote in my journal: “If MY doing never truly accomplishes anything—for myself or anyone else, then why do I try so hard? If I really believe that my ‘righteousness is as filthy rags,’ then doing more in my own strength, out of my own guilt, accomplishes no good.”

Not long ago, I listened to a sermon by Rick McKinley, pastor of Imago Dei Church in Portland, about the importance of the Gospel in our lives AFTER salvation. He said something like this: We Christians have little problem seeing our need for complete grace for salvation, but then we act as if we have to accomplish the Christian life on our own. We need the Gospel just as much after salvation as we did before.

In Acts 13, Paul and Barnabus are speaking to people who have just trusted Christ. The two missionaries “urged them to continue to rely on the grace of God.” (emphasis mine)

It’s so, so easy to abandon grace in our daily lives. My tendency is to forget that I have no ability to please God on my own; I feel I must do more, do more, do more to make Him like me. What heresy! And it has such terrible results: guilt, broken sleep, fatigue, a broken spirit.

I wasn’t relying on God to work in me and through me last week. I put far more responsibility on myself than He ever wants me to have. HE guides; HE convicts; HE leads and directs.

I must live in the Gospel:

I need rescuing, every day, often from myself.

And my God is a God who saves.


I took this last year right about the same time as now--Spring will come, an idea that parallels this post.

I took this last year right about the same time as now–Spring will come, an idea that parallels this post.

Friday morning, as we drove the long curve of the school driveway, we passed a father running on the sidewalk with his young daughter. They held hands, and her pink backpack—nearly as big as she—bounced lightly on her back. They had plenty of time before the late bell, so their running wasn’t forced.

It was joyful.

And it made me smile.

Emily, in the front seat next to me, made it better when she said, softly, “That’s Mr. G——–, Mom—who is now cancer free!”

Tears almost came then. Em and I had prayed several times for this family. In the late fall, requests for prayer were updated almost weekly: his treatments were difficult; his children were shell-shocked; his prognosis wasn’t good. Then there was a period of silence, and I, at least, assumed the worst.

Two hours after I dropped the kids off at school, the image of the father and daughter running together was still hovering in my mind—a spot of bright pink joy.

But underneath it was something else, something less joyful. And I couldn’t figure out what that was, until I heard an interview with Kay Warren on the radio about her book, Choose Joy, released last year. She described our present lives as train tracks of sorrow and joy. Here on earth we travel both—like a railroad car, a wheel on each track. Even in great sorrows, there are flickers of joy and good, but the opposite is also true: even in times of peace and joy, there is sorrow (in some part of our lives and certainly in the world at large).

Then I understood what was haunting my joy.

It was the knowledge that sorrow still exists and can strike at any moment—has already struck so, so many.

“Man is born to trouble,” said Eliphaz to Job, “as surely as the sparks fly upward.” There’ s much that Eliphaz says that is not necessarily correct, but this statement—it’s true!

But we still feel joy when we see/hear things like I did that morning. All moments and stories of restoration bring joy—because when we see them, we hope that maybe, someday, things will be good and right forever. We hope that these snapshot moments of joy will somehow become eternal.

We long for a day when our longing is completely fulfilled.

This is such a strange idea. It’s a mystery, really. We long for what we have never known. In all of human history, there has never been a time of complete, worldwide peace. There has never been a marriage or a family without some kind of dysfunction. Jesus said, “The poor and vulnerable people are always with you”—and it’s true: we still have them. Injustice and abuse: they’ve always been around, along with fatigue, depression, tragedy…

So why do we have a longing for what we have never, ever seen anyone experience? Why do we have a longing that we know will not be fulfilled?

This kind of deferred/unfulfilled longing can make a person sick (Proverbs 13:12).

Who did this to us?

God steps up and says that He did. He put an eternity-sized hole in our hearts that can only be fulfilled with Himself (Eccl. 3:11, Amplified version), and He watches us stuff it with things that simply cannot fill it.

This would be cruel, except that God has made a way to fill this hole.

Christ! He is called “the Hope of Glory!” (Colossians 1:27) the HOPE that all will be glorified, that one day suffering will be NO MORE!

Kay Warren reminded her listeners that if they look down parallel train tracks, they join together in the distance.

Sorrow will be swallowed up in joy.

I don’t have that reality or even that perspective yet, but Christ continually renews my hope that it WILL BE. He has promised that my longing for a never-ending good that I can see and touch WILL be fulfilled.

And in the parallel-track meantime, He opens my eyes to the joy He provides every day, even in the midst of sorrow.

In Isaiah 49, God tells the Israelites that One Day, their longing will be fulfilled. “Then you will know that I am the Lord,” He tells them—because THAT is the answer.

And then He gives them a promise to carry them to the final answer:

“Those who hope in me will not be disappointed.” (emphasis mine)

*I mentioned Kay Warren in this post. A day after I listened to her interview—and wrote the rough draft of this post—her 27-year-old son died. I cannot imagine her pain. Please be praying for hope and joy in the midst of her family’s incredible sorrow in losing their son.

*Following is a C.S. Lewis quote that I’ve been thinking of as I’ve written this.

From “The Weight of Glory” Chapter 1, Paragraph 1:
If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

Will work for food

Red light. I stop, wait to turn, notice the man standing on the sidewalk beside the right lane.

His sign is crude: Will work. Need money for food, gas, home.

But his gaze is direct. And across two lanes he finds my eyes. He stands tall—not a challenge, just acknowledgment: “Yes, I stand on a street corner, I hold a sign that tells you I need help.”

I consider a U-turn, glance at my dashboard clock, estimate the time it will take me to get home to meet the scheduled repairman.

I turn left.

Drive three blocks.

Slower and slower.

I hear You, Lord.

Turn around.

Pull into the grocery store lot, stop behind his tidy old-model Taurus station wagon.

He meets me halfway.

Taller even than I’d thought.

My left hand holds out the money. He tucks it away, fast. Not grabbing, just… like he doesn’t want it. Like putting it away makes it less real.

My mind is blank. I’ve forgotten to ask for words. God bless you, I think. I offer my right hand.

He shakes it. His eyes slip above my head.

“I’m a mechanic. I can fix cars.” Urgent voice. “Do you have any that need work?”

I shake my head. “I don’t.”

“I can work. I can… You don’t have cars that need…?”

“No, but… God bless you.”

Our eyes meet again—closer now than across two lanes of traffic.

He juts his chin at me, eyes slip up again to the blue sky. “I like your necklace.”

Pressed clay, sitting right at the base of my throat, stamped firm and clear with the words “Set Free.”

Good to receive, not just give. “Thanks.”

Back on the road, the regrets. Why didn’t I say more? Why didn’t I get a name, number? He’s a mechanic. I could have sent word out through e-mail, Facebook: “Mechanic, corner of Main and Geneva: if you’re willing to take a chance, he’d appreciate it. Name, number.”  At under 142 characters, I could even tweet it. What is social media good for if not for this?!

Marketing background kicks in: he needs a better sign, one that advertises his specific skills while still expressing willingness to do odd jobs.


Stop, Jen.

Let it go.

But this day it’s hard.

Because I’ve been set free not only from

But for.

And in the callused handshake and averted eyes, the money tucked quick out of sight, the urgent plea for the dignity of work, I felt a moment of his pain.

Through love

I am

Set free

To care.

Remembering the Miracles

the Underwood fam, summer 2012

the Underwood fam, summer 2012

A few weeks back I wrote a piece for our church’s newsletter about how we adopted our son, PJ. Writing it in such a short form reminded me of what an amazing story it is, so I’m sharing it with all of you.

Miracle 1: In 2007 a high school student went on a church mission trip to Uganda. She was so touched, she convinced her parents to let her go back—alone—two days after her high school graduation. Miracle 2: A Ugandan mother, Eva, dying of AIDS, managed to keep her infant son alive even though she dared not nurse him for fear of passing on her disease. Miracle 3: After her death her friends took the 9 pound, 15-month-old baby to Mercy House orphanage. Miracle 4: The high school student, Jody Schwartz (now Hoekstra), arrived in Uganda the day after Eva’s dying baby was taken to Mercy. Jody asked if she could try to save the baby’s life, and she did.

The miracles kept coming. Seven months later, I went on our church’s 2008 mission trip to Uganda. I spent a lot of time with Jody and the little boy she’d named Patrick, and thoughts of adoption began creeping into my mind. One night on the trip, I prayed, “Lord, if You want this, please talk to Dave about it. I don’t want to adopt this child based on my desire alone.” The night after I returned home, Dave said, “While you were gone, God kept bringing Patrick to my mind. I think we should pray about adopting him.”

Still more miracles happened. When Patrick’s biological father, Abusolom, was discovered to still be alive, we were advised to abandon the adoption, but Abusolom, weak with AIDS and unable to care for his other children, was glad to hear Patrick would be in a family (this is truly a miracle!). The U.S. approval was completed in record time, and I flew to Uganda exactly one year after my first trip. Five weeks later, after Orphanage Director Wilfred and I witnessed countless miracles in the court process and with government officials, Patrick and I flew home.

And on February 13, 2009, all six of us Underwoods were together for the first time.