Merry Christmas 2015

Advent 2015

Dear friends and family,

Every year, a different part of the Christmas story resonates.  This year, the wise men make their journey through my mind.  Along with their three gifts for Jesus, they bring a question, gentle but insistent: how are you seeking Jesus, Michelle?  I think about their travels; the foreign landscape, the hardships, the faith that had them seek after a single distant star and a newborn king.  Tradition suggests there were three but there may have been more.  We know that they likely arrived six months to two years after the actual birth of Jesus.  If they came from Persia, or modern day Iran, as some suggest, they traveled 800-900 miles to find this king.

I envy them the singularity of their focus.  While I have dozens of lists to maintain and items to purchase, they only sought one thing.  In the drudgery of their long distance journey, there were hours of silence, plodding through the Middle Eastern landscape, sleeping under the stars.  Returning from the mall, or wrapping gifts with Christmas music playing in the background, it is difficult to imagine anticipating the arrival of Jesus this way, far from familiar people and places, away from the distractions of daily life.

The wise men brought three gifts.  But they spent most of advent anticipating an encounter, and doing the work necessary to find what they sought.  They searched without any certainty of what they would find.  They traveled into unknown territory trusting what they knew of the stars and little more.  They traveled under the umbrella of creation, believing there was purpose behind its design.  They followed a star.

While we have made Christmas into a celebration of the familiar, the wise men embraced what was different.  While we surround ourselves with loved ones and time-honored traditions, they left what they knew to find the one that they sought.  My soul is convicted by their sense of purpose.  As I imagine them along the way, I imagine dust and sweat, and wonder what it has cost me, this Christmas, to find the babe.  What gifts have I traveled to bring him?  In what ways have I labored to find him?  When have I paused to think not of my loved ones, but of the source of love himself?  When my focus has gone awry, as it often has this season, the wise men cross my mind.  I imagine an empty and arid landscape, the rhythmic lope of camels and feet, and a star, and my spirit quiets as it seeks.  Like the wise men, may you seek and find this season.

Here are a few highlights from our year:

We spent the first week of 2015 with dear friends in General Santos City where Steve and the boys got certified in scuba.

We spent the first week of 2015 with dear friends in General Santos City where Steve and the boys got certified in scuba.

Jude won the Brent lionhearted award for good character and citizenship at school.

Jude won the Brent lionhearted award for good character and citizenship at school.

The kids and I spent Easter doing kids camp in Dumaguete with at risk kids sponsored by International Care Ministries.  Aidan and Jude were wonderful assistant counselors and Zephyr was a great member of my team.

The kids and I spent Easter doing kids camp in Dumaguete with at risk kids sponsored by International Care Ministries. Aidan and Jude were wonderful assistant counselors and Zephyr was a great member of my team.

We all agree that the highlight of 2015 was our long awaited African safari adventure, complete with rangers, campfires, landing tiny little planes in the middle of the savannah, and every type of animal sighting.  We are so grateful!

We all agree that the highlight of 2015 was our long awaited African safari adventure, complete with rangers, campfires, landing tiny little planes in the middle of the savannah, and every type of animal sighting. We are so grateful!

We were so grateful that Steve was able to participate in every part of this trip, thanks to the comfortable four-wheel drive safari jeeps that could take us through rivers and over tree stumps.

We were so grateful that Steve was able to participate in every part of this trip, thanks to the comfortable four-wheel drive safari jeeps that could take us through rivers and over tree stumps.

Every year we deeply anticipate our annual pilgrimage to the US to visit dear friends and family, and this year was no exception.

Every year we deeply anticipate our annual pilgrimage to the US to visit dear friends and family, and this year was no exception.

No year is without some sorrow.  This year we were greatly saddened by the sudden passing of our beloved Opa and stepdad, Wim.  My brother David and I cherished every minute we got to spend with our lovely mom as we said goodbye.

No year is without some sorrow. This year we were greatly saddened by the sudden passing of our beloved opa (grandpa) and stepdad, Wim. My brother David and I cherished every minute we got to spend with our lovely mom as we said goodbye to him together.

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From all of us to you and yours, we wish you a very Merry Christmas and happy holiday!

With love from the Ruetschles,

Steve, Michelle, Aidan (14), Jude (12) and Zephyr (7)

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Merry Christmas 2014

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The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light… for to us a child is born, to us a son is given…

Isaiah 9:1,6

Christmas 2014

Dear friends and family,

This is the first year in a very long time that the overwhelming apparatus of Christmas has not swallowed me whole. Somehow the greater story has managed to weave itself in among the many revolving pieces and make of itself something more precious than the sum of its parts. The privilege of church is that we share in real life with real people. This Advent we have been to funerals and hospital rooms, listened to people struggling in relationships, handed out gifts to street kids, wept over losses and said difficult goodbyes. This Advent we have also rejoiced over births and baptisms, seen families born through adoption, enjoyed special gatherings, and shared good news. In and among these real life events, this Advent we have also celebrated Christmas, with parties and music and gifts and – especially in the Philippines – a host of silly games. In spite of these many moveable parts, the child born unto us provides a steady, unwavering light. No matter whether the day’s news has been good or bad, we gather around the table each night and light our candles to proclaim it.

It has been helpful, in integrating the whole, that our church has been looking at the prophecies in Isaiah that herald the savior, a child. Isaiah’s prophecy is told amidst the threat of war, to a king with a propensity toward sorcery and human sacrifice. It declares hope into not just a dark situation but to a human heart so darkened by idolatry that it does not even desire the rescue proffered. Just there, in the midst of a very real darkness, Isaiah paints vivid pictures of light and hope. This is a prophecy told in the midst of a desperate situation, hope for the hopeless.

We celebrate Christmas in the darkest season. While we string lights on our trees and light candles in our homes, the surrounding palate is dark. The beauty of the message is not that all is merry and bright, as the Christmas songs say, but that there is hope in the darkness worth waiting for. Along with Isaiah, we proclaim, “I will wait for the Lord, who is hiding His face from the house of Jacob.” Our hope is in the child, despite the darkness that surrounds.

Our year, like every year before it, has been that mixture of darkness and light. As most of you know, our middle son, Jude, was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes this year. We are now a family familiar with frequent injections, constant calculations and regular doctor’s visits, glucose monitors and middle-of-the-night check-ins. This has been our greatest challenge of 2014. We remain, however, grateful for the many blessings. Our church celebrated its hundred-year anniversary with great heart and fanfare. There were visits from former senior pastors, incredible seminars, beautiful music productions, fun fundraisers and most importantly, a centennial flagship project for the victims of last year’s typhoon Yolanda that surpassed our wildest dreams. Steve worked heroically to balance the ongoing demands of the church with the many additional activities of the centennial, spearheading a much anticipated, yearlong celebration of God’s faithfulness to our community. I couldn’t be prouder of him. I began working with the church as the director of our small group ministry and have greatly enjoyed working more closely alongside Steve serving our wonderful community. The boys continue to thrive in school and at home. We were bracing ourselves for the teenage years, but have so far found ourselves off to a gentle start. (Thank you, Aidan!) Aidan continues to be a calm and thoughtful presence, rarely parted from his beloved kindle, unless it is to try his hand at theater for the first time, with a solo to boot. Jude managed his first year of middle school while also achieving nearly full independence with his diabetes at the ripe old age of eleven. We are immeasurably proud of the maturity and equanimity with which he manages this latest challenge in his young life. Zephyr continues to be a source of laughter and joy to the entire family. At age 6, he delights us all with a playful sense of humor, an unflagging enthusiasm for life, and a loving heart. We are grateful every day for the love that binds us up and quite literally holds us together.

When you enter our village there is a long, broad avenue with old and mighty trees on either side, bending to form a gentle canopy above. At night their long, unbroken procession forms a dark tunnel above the road, blocking out the sky. This season, however, the trees are hung with white stars (Philippine Christmas lanterns, or parols), creating a magical interplay of darkness and light. Driving through, one is literally surrounded, block after block, by radiantly lit stars against the darkness of obscured branches and leaves. This gorgeous interplay between shadow and light never ceases to fill me with wonder.

We pray that in the midst of whatever combination of darkness and light you find yourself this year, hope lights your way.

With love,

Michelle, with Steve, Aidan (13), Jude (11), and Zephyr (6)

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Waiting.

21 November 2014

Dear friends and family,

I am quite certain that I have already written about waiting.  It has been a steady theme over the last decade for me.  For someone so eager for constant change and exploration, I am still surprised at the sheer length and enduring focus of this latest chapter.  The waiting began with the children.  I waited for them to come out.  Later,   I waited for their naps to end.  Then I waited for them as they explored their world, dawdling on uncertain feet.  I waited for Steve to come home.  After Steve’s accident, I waited to see how far he would heal, what our life would be.  Somehow, I’m still waiting.  Waiting while my children grow.  Waiting for more time, more space.  Waiting for clarity.  Waiting for the promises long ago laid on my heart to come to fruition.  Waiting to put deeds to my desires.  There is a strong sense that any hasty action would be foolish.  Around my heart two words steadily reverberate: be patient.  So, I wait.

In my bible, I harvest every example of waiting.  Hidden among the big stories are the small, pregnant phrases that indicate the years between the promise and its fulfillment.  I have been collecting them in the seemingly endless days of my own great pause.  I linger over words so short, so ordinary I had not seen them before.  Now, I gather them up, adding them to my basket, increasingly heaped with the ordinary years and days and hours between the miracles.  Sifting through them, I am not alone.

This is the subtext, the unwritten story behind the biblical narrative.  I peer between the lines and wonder what Paul did in the three years between his blinding encounter with Jesus and the beginning of his action-packed missionary adventures.  I wonder what Sarah felt during the twenty-five years between the initial promise to her husband of a nation and the day she finally held Isaac in her arms.  I wonder how Noah felt, building an ark, decade after decade, peering at a cloudless sky.  I wonder what David thought during the many years of service and persecution at the hands of another king, the words of his own anointing ringing in his ears.

God speaks and we are in awe.  But in the long and often dreary pause between the promise and its fulfillment, we wander in a wilderness of longing and doubt, the rugged terrain of faith.  We trudge on, peering through glasses filmed with dust.  Hope ebbs and flows, briefly cleansing our view.  We subsist on smaller assurances, little certainties, occasional signs of progress.  At times we are so fixed on the horizon that we fail to see the beauty of the path itself.

In a cultural environment that praises action and takes pride in productivity, waiting takes courage.  We talk about what we do, what we have done, what we plan to do.  Friends I do not see very often want to know what is happening.  There are things to say but also much that remains the same.  The only truly significant movement remains in my heart, but it is excruciatingly slow and often difficult to articulate.  The hard work of the soul, the sifting of desire and the building of character are no longer values we discuss with any fluency.

Meanwhile, God also waits.   Like the father of the prodigal son, he allows us our freedom and our mistakes, waiting for the slightest sound of our return, ready to embrace.  He is ever watchful, yet he does not rush.  He waits until we are ready.  In my own mothering, I must often resist the desire to interfere.  A child must learn to walk on his own.  The art is to know how close to stand, and when to let go.  It takes diligent observation and deep engagement, while at the same time remaining unobtrusive, so as to permit freedom.  I imagine God watching me like that, vigilant when I stumble, patient when I wander, near when I am troubled, yet never forcing me to seek his help.

Eight years ago, we went to Israel.  Beginning in the verdant hills of Galilee, we wound our way gradually south, until we reached the desert.  Getting off the bus for the first time, I tasted the thick air, my mouth almost immediately dry.  The heat enveloped our tiny tour.  It was almost difficult to breathe.  I imagined the Israelites, gathering up manna each morning, packing up their tents, walking, pitching them again, and falling asleep in that thick heat, in that barren landscape for forty years, between a promise and its fulfillment.  It was not hard to imagine bitterness, complaining.  And yet God waited in their midst.  Watching closely over them, he waited for their hearts to turn toward him.  He waited for them to be ready.

A generation later, when they were ready, he took them into the Promised Land.  The ensuing tale is brutal and gripping, full of gory battles and bold leaps of faith.  The fulfillment of the promise was hard work.  It took more years.  It cost more lives.  After years of my own impatience, it occurs to me suddenly that perhaps I should not be so hasty for the fulfillment of the promise.  Perhaps I am not ready.  It will be costly, after all.

On good days, I am glad that my father in heaven will know when I am ready.  On good days, I remember he is close, omnipotent even, but also unobtrusively permitting me to walk on my own.  On good days, I wait with hope, even expectancy and joy.  On good days I see the beauty of the path, and I note the small progression.  On good days, I am patient for I know that I am blessed to wait on him.

Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you… blessed are those who wait for Him.  Isaiah 30:18

Love,

Michelle

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Some thoughts on healing.

August 16, 2014

Dear friends and family,

We are back from a long home leave.  Eight weeks to luxuriate in family and friends, and help our children connect with a culture and people that are not a part of their daily existence.  Eight weeks to wear sweaters and jeans, shiver under blankets and enjoy the bracing air of Northwest summers.  Eight weeks of living out of suitcases, making spaces in other people’s places.  We are so grateful, to have been and to be home.

For some time now, I have had healing on my mind.  I am convinced that even a lifetime of study will not shed full light on the mystery of it.  It manifests in as many different ways as there are people and circumstances on this planet.

Our own journey into healing began four years ago, when we were thrust into the active work of healing, immersed in the sheer sweat and discipline that is one of its many faces.  Later, healing became a mental and emotional process, the balance of hope and acceptance, my head and my heart in constant dialogue with the faith upon which I rely.  Where it began so personally, however, it has evolved into an ever increasing longing to know God’s healing power for others.  This is the natural trajectory of the Christian journey through suffering, where personal loss becomes an avenue of comfort for others.  (Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.  2 Cor. 1:3-4.)  This is where I still find myself.

This redemptive arc that takes personal devastation and imbues it with compassion and care for others is an expression of healing that I find most precious.  It is humble and human and commonplace and yet entirely miraculous, a chrysalis birthing beauty and purpose out of rudimentary, primal, self-centered devastation.  Four years in, I can almost taste the sweet fruition of this process, pain incubated in faith drawing forth goodness.  I long to see the multiplying miracle of faith, feeding 5000 with our puny fistful of loaves and fishes.  Only God can do that, and we wait on Him.

Steve is preaching a sermon series this month on the healing of the paralytic.  He is breaking his little loaf and offering it to many.  The series is an opportunity to look deeper into the fundamentals of healing.  Just one of the many noteworthy lessons hidden in the simple story is Jesus’ emphasis on the healing of sin rather than the healing of the body.  I tread carefully here, knowing that our good God hates to see his children suffer.  Where his reign is complete, there will be no more tears and no more pain.  In this story, however, we see His preeminent longing to draw us close, removing every barrier to His presence at the greatest possible price.

In my own exploration of healing I spent some time this summer in a place where miraculous healing is frequent, awaited and proclaimed with expectant joy.  God’s goodness was evident as deafness and pain and other ailments were instantaneously healed.  It was a taste of heaven.  Of course, it was also a messy human event.  Not everyone was instantly healed, including my husband and my son.  I had an insight as I left that wonderful space.  I suddenly understood how someone might be miraculously healed and not return to thank Jesus.  (See the story of the ten healed lepers, nine of whom did not return to glorify God in Luke 17:17-19.)  Strangely, even in the midst of the miracles happening around us, there was an element of normalcy.  I imagined returning from such an event to a home with dirty dishes and laundry and a television set.  I imagined returning to snide marital dysfunctions and ungrateful teenagers.  In short, I imagined how a perfect miracle lives on in the context of human frailty and imperfection.  I could see how physical healing delivers no lasting effect if the heart does not receive healing alongside it.  The implications are not only eternal.  They are immediate.

It is not wrong to long for physical healing and relief.  I long for it, for Steve and for Jude, and for countless others.  That longing is an important ingredient in the love and comfort and compassion we are meant to share on this earth.  I am glad to know that one day we will all know healing in all its fullness for an eternity.  In the meantime, however, we groan for our mortality to be “swallowed up by life” (2 Cor. 5:4).  The groaning is hard.  This week, the groaning involves cancer and suicide, the ruthless murder of innocent men, women and children in Iraq, the deep and ravaging ethnic strife in Israel and Palestine, and the tragic, unjust killings of black men in America.  I do not know the courage it takes to live through these things.  Looking out, I sense profoundly that “this world is not our home,” (Heb 13:14).

When faith meets these devastations, what can it say?  No words suffice, nor are there sufficient human answers to comfort the grieving mother or the maimed and broken child.  The fact is, healing does not always come and this earth is not our home.  Looking at the bleak scenes of suffering, I am grateful that the God I love approaches us through the cross.  He communicates with his own body where words are not enough, a profound and deeply tested love.

The Christian answer cannot be merely a theology.  It must be a living Christ.  He loves and touches and heals in ways we cannot.  We need each other, but all the more, we need Him.  Increasingly, drawing near to God is my greatest treasure.  There is nothing sweeter than dwelling in His presence.  Knowing His goodness and joy is an ongoing surprise and delight.  While physical healing is a beautiful manifestation of His character and of His power, this world is not our home.  Ultimately, such miraculous healing has no lasting effect on our mortal condition, and rarely does it in and of itself truly transform a heart.  It is a mere exclamation point to that deeper reconciliation and fellowship with God that He already offers us through Jesus and the Holy Spirit.  This is what heals us in the deepest and most lasting sense.  I have barely scraped the surface of that gift.

As I have meditated on healing this week, these words of Jesus keep coming to mind: In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart!  I have overcomethe world. (John 16:33.)We walk both in devastating brokenness and in awe-inspiring victory.  Healing is both our ultimate destination and our current process.  It is a mystery that troubles us in our present state.  We see dimly.  But wherever we can share healing with others, in whatever humble or miraculous form, it gives us courage to go on.  Ultimately, however, the most important product of healing is a relationship with the Father.  For that, we need faith, hope and love.  These are the things that abide.  And the greatest of these, is love.  (1 Cor. 13:13.)

Love,

Michelle

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Good Friday Note & An Update On Jude

April 18, 2014

Dear friends and family,

It has been a very, very long stretch since my last blog post.  I have come to the empty page again and again and found myself unable or unready to put words to the last few months.  It has felt too heavy, and surprisingly, an emotion of embarrassment accompanies the weight.  I am not sure how to unload this latest chapter without being burdensome, and though two months have passed, it still feels awkward to peel back the layers to reveal something so fresh and incoherent.  So, forgive me as I fumble through.

First, the facts.  On February 14, 2014, Valentine’s Day, as we all sat around the table eating our dinner, I received a call from our pediatrician.  I had taken Jude in for a consultation two days before.  He was peeing several times in the night, and his already slim frame had grown more skeletal, the bumps of his spine sharply popping up from the plains of his back.  He had been slightly more emotional lately, a little bit less focussed in school.  Something seemed amiss, but as we sat in her office, Jude was bright and positive.  She ordered tests with efficiency but without urgency.  On Valentine’s Day, two days later, however, she spoke with conviction.  Could we please take Jude to the ER for further testing?  There was glucose in his urine.  He might have diabetes.  And with a further move into the surreal: if the glucose in his blood read over 200, they might have to admit him to the hospital immediately.

We quickly wrapped up dinner and Jude and I rode off into the night, chatting amicably about this and that.  He said he felt fine.  I prayed that his number would be under 200 so we could go home.  When they checked his blood levels, however, the machine could not give a number.  Apparently, his glucose level was off the charts.  Where there should have been numbers, the monitor flashed the words, “critically high”.  With further tests they would pin down the math: 700.  The pediatric endocrinologist who had already arrived home for the evening came back to the hospital.  After looking at his charts she recommended that Jude be admitted to the ICU instead of a normal hospital room.  It was that simple.  One minute we were having dinner and the next minute my son was admitted to the hospital with a lifelong diagnosis of type 1 juvenile onset diabetes.

Jude in ICU on Valentine's Day

Type 1 diabetes is not what you might think.  It does not run in our family, nor is it hastened on by a poor diet, high in sugar and carbohydrates.  Rather, it is an autoimmune disease.  They do not know why, exactly, the body attacks the pancreas, destroying the beta cells which produce the insulin your cells need to absorb glucose.  The result, however, is certain: full insulin dependency for life.  In other words, in order to translate food into energy effectively, Jude needs to carefully calculate his insulin needs throughout the day and receive the necessary insulin through injections or an insulin pump.  Because type 1 diabetes destroys all of the insulin producing beta cells, Jude’s diabetes cannot be “controlled” by diet, as is common with type 2 diabetes.  Only 5% of all cases of diabetes are type 1 diabetes.

Jude remained in the hospital for five days as we learned together the complex knowledge and treatment required to keep him alive.  During that first month at home, I was reminded of Jude’s infancy, when my whole being was bent over his fragile frame and all my energy was poured into nurturing and sustaining it. We moved a mattress into our room, and my ten year old boy slept there.  Once again, I listened for his breathing in the night, feeling watchful.  Once again, I wakened in the darkness, this time not to feed him but rather to check his blood sugar levels.  It was hard to get back to sleep after the needles and blood and poking.  I would toss and turn, new facts and numbers swimming in my head.

Of course, we learned.  We adjusted.  We acquired the necessary tools, the books, the recipes.  Jude is now permanently attached to his little black bag.  He checks it daily to make sure he has the right supply of alcohol swabs, needles, cotton balls, etc.  He checks his own blood six to eight times a day without complaint, and can give himself injections when we are not there.  After a week of quietly shadowing him at school, he is now self-sufficient, texting me with hearts and smiley faces or comic alarmed looks when he is high, low or just right.  I have become adept at needles, and Jude cheerfully reports after each shot on whether or not it stung and how well I did in making it as painless as possible.  Steve has become an equally capable nurse.

Jude and his little black bag. First day home from the hospital.

Inevitably, when I share Jude’s diagnosis, people tell me of an aunt or a cousin or a friend who has type 1 diabetes and lives a full and perfectly healthy life.  They are right.  Though there are real risks, of lows that produce diabetic comas and death or of highs that produce nerve damage, blindness, heart disease and kidney failure, the truth is that if he manages it well, Jude will live a largely normal life.  But underneath the surface, there is much about his life that is not normal.  The constant calculations over every bit of food taken in, the childhood treats largely forgone (ice cream when the weather is hot and candy at the movies), and of course, the ubiquitous needles.  It is the constant discipline of the thing that distinguishes itself from a normal, carefree life.  Type 1 diabetics are good at handling this privately.  They adeptly manage the supplies, the equipment, the constant calculations and the poking with a smile.  My ten year old is already an expert, not only in his care but in his attitude.  But as his mother, I count the cost and gather up the shards of freedom left in the aftermath of the disease.  To do anything less would be to miss the courage and responsibility Jude exhibits daily.

A few brave friends looked our situation in the face, and with voices thick with tears, said, “Too much.”  I was grateful for the absence of placation and appeasement, that allowed it to be a very bad thing that had happened to our son.  We rise and smile so that it is not too much, especially for others, especially for him.  But behind the capability and the making the most of things, this, like so many other things, is not the way it should be.  Just as no child should hunger or thirst or suffer neglect, no child should be poked and prodded throughout their day.  No child should worry about every bit of food that passes their lips.  No child should be woken in the night to make sure they are not dangerously low.  I should not know the ICU nurses so well.  While we are going to be okay, and while Jude will be able to do many things in life, it is also all right to acknowledge that this is not, actually, okay.

Today is Good Friday.  In Manila, the stores are closed, the city hushed, the traffic scarce.  Last night, as we ended our Maundy Thursday service, the lights dimmed and Steve ripped the covering off of the altar and left it messy on the floor.  He limped from the sanctuary.  We processed out in darkness and silence.  I am glad for a God that does not turn away from suffering.    I am grateful that he wept in the garden on the night he was betrayed.  I am grateful that he wanted friends to stay awake with him and pray.  They did not.  I am grateful that he still considered them friends.

It is sometimes considered a sick thing that as Christians we remember our Savior through blood and a broken body, that we gather to worship around a Roman torture instrument, the cross.  But if I am honest about my own brokenness, and as I look out upon a world that suffers far more than I could ever know, I am grateful for the language of suffering that is so central to our faith.  His sacrifice was costly.  Today we turn and look that cost in the face: the beatings, the mockery, the crown of thorns, and yes, the Roman instrument of torture, the cross.  We cannot weigh the spiritual suffering, the heaviness of our sin and shame, the separation from the Father, that drove the pain still deeper.  But we can honor it by acknowledging it, by looking it in the face with whatever courage we can muster.

It is deeply troubling, as it should be.  His suffering is troubling.  Our sin is troubling.  The suffering that abounds in the world is troubling.  But as we shift our gaze from the suffering itself to the love that caused him to willingly hang there, it is also heartrendingly beautiful.  We see him extending grace to an undeserving thief.  We see him forgiving us even as we did the harmful deed.  We suffer because we must.  He suffered because he loved.  The love has a transformative effect.  The sweetness mingles with the bitter, just as love mingles with our sin, and shifts what is true.  The cross becomes not only an instrument of torture but the instrument of our redemption.  The curtain is forever torn asunder.  We enter in.

On Easter Sunday we will adorn our cross with flowers.  We will celebrate the resurrection with joy.  But in the center of the sanctuary, the cross will remain.  The victory is precious because of the cost.  Our Savior knows it well.  And when we suffer, we know it too.

Lest we forget, on the day of his resurrection, he appeared to his friends with holes in his hands.  When one man doubted, he came to him, eight days later, and invited him to touch the wounds.  The God who heals chooses to identify himself by his suffering.  The scars are allowed to remain.  He is not ashamed.

The suffering is part of the redemption.  We cannot ignore it, not in our own lives, and not in the life of the God we follow.  Love is most beautiful and most meaningful when it costs us something.  I love Jude more, with every midnight waking and with every needle prick.  My love is made real with the price I pay.  Today is Good Friday.  Today, I will follow him to the foot of the cross.  There he will pay the ultimate price.  And his love will change everything.

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Merry Christmas from the Ruetschle’s!

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as the only Son from theFather, full of grace and truth… And from his fullness we have all received,grace upon grace.

John 1: 14, 16

Dear friends,

As Steve read these words last night at our hymn and caroling Christmas celebration at our church, I was struck again by those words: grace upon grace.  I confess that Christmas carols and nativity scenes, while sweet and comforting, do not always drive me to worship.  This year, I approach the manger feeling a little bit scruffy, a little bit weary, a little bit poor in spirit and humbled.  While our Christmas card bears a crisp, clean image of our happiest selves, the truth is that we are all far more complex than any snapshot would project.  This year, I kneel before the manger and cup my hands, in need of grace.

The beauty of the birth is that it has already been given, the gift foretold and fulfilled.  I already have the grace that I need,and more: grace upon grace, an overflowing abundance of that sweet and unmerited gift.  As I imagine the scene, placing myself in its midst, I am struck again by who I find gathered in the stable with me to receive the gift: kings and shepherds, young and old, men and women, rich and poor, foreigner and friend.  Once again the gospel message casts its net wide and gathers up us all, no reality too far from his far-reaching grace.

Still, advent is not at its core a celebration of the birth but a waiting for the final restoration of the earth.  Those kneeling at the manger see the embodiment and culmination of centuries of prophecy and hope,but it is also a beginning.  Though we moderns can look back to the culmination of that small life on the cross,the story is not yet finished.  The great work of redemption is complete, but we labor still, and we hope still,and we wait still.  While our eternal condition has been made right, a drama still unfolds upon the earth,and we seek to play our part.

We sang a hymn last night whose words perfectly articulate both the longing and the hope:

O come, O come, Emmanuel, And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here, Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel, Shall come to thee, O Israel.

We rejoice by faith as we wait in exile, longing for home. What we know and trust as we look at the devastation that surrounds us,is the character of a God who comes. He comes lowly, he comes to all, he dies for all.  He washes feet.  He comes with healing in his wings.  He forgives.  And he pours out grace upon grace.  In the same chapter of John quoted above, the text also says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  There is darkness, but a light shines forth. One day, that light will reign complete.  Until then, we wait in hope, and kneel in stables, and wonder at the cross and draw strength and warmth from the light of men.

We rang in the year 2013 in Shanghai, China, looking out over the Huangpu River as fireworks dazzled overhead.  In the almost 360 days since, we have adventured across the globe (Bali, Holland, USA, Hong Kong) and we have spent many quiet days at home. We have enjoyed great health and also dwelled in hospital rooms.  We have rejoiced at amazing blessing but also wept at unbelievable loss. We have watched typhoons ravage the country we love and also heard stories of preservation and hope amidst the chaos and loss.  We are blessed that one thing has remained constant: the love and joy of family and the health and wellbeing of our boys.  Aidan at twelve is embracing middle school, enjoying his independence and the greater responsibility provided by this new stage of life.  I have literally exhausted every book list for preteen boys as I try to keep up with his voracious appetite for reading.  All recommendations welcome!  Jude remains sweet natured and sensitive to the needs of others. This year we noted a marketing gift as he devised and sold a product for school to the sound of many accolades. We may have a natural businessman on our hands!  Zephyr remains a constant source of laughter and delight to his older brothers and parents, loving full-time kindergarten and soccer, and pretty much anything and anyone that comes his way.

As I contemplate both the blessings and the hardships, my own and those of others, I am grateful for the manger, where a tiny babe cast his light on all.  I am grateful that the stable was not too humble for this king, nor the people and animals gathered there too common.  In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. Whether or not you care for the stable and its contents, whether you approach the holidays weak or strong, may you know light in the darkness this season, and grace upon grace.

With love and gratitude for you!

The Ruetschle’s

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Already, not yet.

From Michelle.  November 13, 2013.

Dear friends and family,

I confess that I am somewhat at a loss for words as I come to the blank page.  I am writing from the ease of an arm chair, in a dry and spacious room, in our home in Manila.  Not so very far away are the horrifying scenes being broadcast daily and hourly across newspapers and televisions around the world.  We give, we pray, we organize relief efforts, but mostly, we feel guilty and helpless, drifting in and out of an awareness of suffering.

Last year around this time, we flew down to Tacloban, visiting a school and ministry there which now no longer has a roof.  From there we drove several hours to Samar, to a small resort along the ocean.  I fear that almost nothing of that resort, with its traditionally styled huts, remains.


As I hold the beauty of the memory alongside current events, I think on a reality that always exists, but that in recent days has landed more viscerally near to me.  It is that bittersweet flavor of “already, not yet” that seasons all of our days, but is especially pungent during tragedy.  These words are often used to describe the kingdom of God, a kingdom that is here and yet is not fully arrived.  The words are a paradox, holding a mystery.  “Already,” is the statement of faith, whose eyes can see the coming glory.  We look at the present with those eyes, full of hope and trust, eagerly gathering up the abounding evidence, the shining scraps of beauty and magnificence strewn across the planet and scrawled across our human experience, traces so delicious they herald a living, loving God.  We taste with our mouths the sweetness and believe that there is more.  But then, there is the “not yet.”  Replete with longing, the words acknowledge what we unwillingly swallow alongside the sweet, the bitter taste of senseless suffering, of selfish action, of outright evil in our world.  Tasting it, we are forced to acknowledge that in our material realm all is not well.

Romans 8:22 says that all creation groans as if in the pangs of childbirth.  It is not a static image but rather one of process.  There is a fully developed and glorious child, but until the birthing is complete, we cannot hold it in our arms and smell the sweetness of its head or touch the softness of its skin or feel the warmth of its breath.  There is movement on the inside that reassures us of its presence.  We touch our bellies, and watch them expand with the certainty of the child’s arrival.  And yet that beautiful outcome is brought forth with pain, a pain that is borne more easily because of the hope that what is at its end, its very purpose, is beautiful.

Just as the broader picture of the world is one of beauty and suffering mixed together -  “already, not yet” – so our own lives reflect that reality as well.  For Steve and I, we glory in the healing that he has, a taste of something beautiful, something more, while we also live with the daily reminders of what remains broken, of weakness and pain.  You live it, too.  We all do.

Faith is a hope in what we cannot see, that there is an “already” that lives alongside the “not yet”.  We look at the evidence and believe that all will be made right, that one day something complete and miraculous and wonderful will come forth from our labors and the labors of the earth.  When suffering challenges us, we are forced to dwell in the longing and trust that the process is not without meaning and purpose.  Faith becomes especially strong here, where we cannot see, but still choose hope.

Today, we acknowledge the “not yet” for the southern Philippines, in the dead bodies and in the loss of homes and in the utter destruction.  The “not yet” resounds in the images we see, but it will have deeper and darker echoes in the lives of those who truly suffered the loss.  Groans are inarticulate.  They acknowledge that we cannot in and of ourselves neatly explain what transpires.  With gratitude, we can find and gather up the scraps of the “already” amidst the rubble, where beauty can be found, in love, in help, and in prayers answered.  Where we can, we add our own sweetness to the mix.  Mostly, however, as believers we can only submit ourselves to the process, trusting that as we groan alongside our brothers and sisters, we are borne together toward an ultimate outcome that is good.

For those who want to add sweetness with their help, UCM supports World Vision (https://www.worldvision.org.ph/content/super-typhoon-yolanda-relief-efforts?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=appealfordonation&utm_campaign=YolandaPH).  There are many other worthy charities, including ICM, http://www.caremin.com/our-work/disaster-fund.  If you are far away, money is the most effective thing to donate.

Dear friends and family, we send our love from the Philippines,

Michelle and Steve

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Presence

From Michelle.  September 18, 2013.

Dear friends and family,

It is September again, and my Facebook stream has been full of first day of school pictures, and wistful reflections on the fleetingness of those long and languid hours of summer.  Here in Manila, we do not experience significant temperature fluctuations, nor does the length of daylight stray far from its daily habit, shutting down around dinner time and reviving itself shortly before we rise at six.  The seasons here are marked only by how much or how little it rains, making it easy for time to pass unnoticed.  Yet I too feel a shift in the weather,  a fresh beginning.  The air is not crisp, the leaves will not turn and fall, but a new season is upon us nevertheless.  Returning from the lengthy and delightful disruption that is  our summer vacation helps us mark the change.  We return to a flurry of readjustment and activity.  In the first week of August the children start school.  Steve begins a new sermon series.  I begin new books and bible studies.  We get to know the latest influx of wandering expats.  The church becomes a flurry of activity.  I mentally rearrange the furniture and purge our filing cabinets.

This August and September are no different.  Steve will preach his sixth sermon in a study on Galatians this Sunday.  Since his accident, he has never preached more than three Sundays in a row.  The wear and tear on his body, along with his other responsibilities, has simply been too much.  I find him literally limping with the effort these days, running on pure spiritual energy.  I too am physically and mentally running on empty, over scheduled and exhausted.  I notice many of my friends feel the same, stumbling through the many transitions of the season, as we shepherd not just ourselves but our families through every change.  I wonder if those on other shores are not equally tired by the fresh burst of activity that is usually the Fall season.

As I was contemplating how to draw strength from the Lord in this season, I realized that, while reading scripture, praying, worshiping, singing, remembering and other methods of finding strength in God are good, the one that truly nourishes me is to listen.  To listen, I must quiet my soul.  To listen, I must lay down what presses in and look up.  To listen, I must step into trust.  And most fundamentally, to listen I must turn all of my self toward the living God, acknowledging his Presence with me.  Listening is so much more intimate than speaking.  Its very purpose is intent focus on the Other.  Even when there is no overwhelming response, the simple act is a release from myself, an affirmation of faith in God.  But when there is a response, most often so quiet, so loving, so deeply true that it never fails to reduce me to tears, I can feed on it for months, even for a lifetime.

As I read and study Scripture these days, I am noticing how often God promises his presence.  In particular, as I study the rich life of David, through 1 and 2 Samuel and the Psalms, it is impressed upon me again and again, that even when David is not given respite from war and suffering, he is offered God’s presence in the midst of it, and in the end it is His presence that makes all of the difference.

One of the great purposes of the cross was to bring His presence near.  The pillar of fire, the seat of the tabernacle now lives on the inside of us.  Shining through the cracks of our jars of clay is the light of the knowledge of the glory of God, the holy one housed in all that imperfection.  We do not comprehend it.  Most often, we ignore it, perhaps overwhelmed by the implications.  I am tempted to feel shame at the unworthiness of my dwelling place for the Most High.  It is a humble space, its corners dusty, its furnishings clumsy.  But I know He does not feel that way about me.  The shadow of the cross casts love over all of that ugly imperfection, wave upon never ending wave of it.  That love shook the earth and tore the veil that hid God from our sight.  He is here, lovingly, awesomely present.

What is it about His presence?  When I taste even a small portion of it, I am overwhelmed.  Once, just once, after a long and emotional time of prayer with a friend, I tasted so much joy I began to laugh.  I will never forget the sheer delight, the overwhelming pleasure that surprised me in the midst of my vale of tears.  I only tasted it once, but I feed on it often.  When I begin to lose my sense of His character within a maze of worldly equivalences, I am reminded again of the utterly certain, bottomless, unending and unchanging wave of love that is poured out on us all daily, whether we know it or not.  I only tasted its joy for a moment, but its glory shone so brightly it still lightens my darkness today.

One of my favorite psalms says it best:

Yet I am always with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. – Psalm 73:23-26

Dear friends, if you are tired like we are, be still and look up, open the eyes of your heart and dwell in His presence for awhile.  It will strengthen you.  It is enough, even in the midst of battle.  Do not be fooled into thinking it irrelevant or impractical or unimpressive.  There is an endless spring of love and joy available to us.  Thanks to Steve’s sermon this last week, I am keenly aware of the price paid for that presence.  I do not want to ignore the gift.  Draw near, draw near, draw near.

Love,

Michelle

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Goodness.

From Michelle.  August 2nd, 2013.

Dear friends and family,

After two months on the road, we are settling back into our lives in Manila.  Although we had an amazing time with dearly missed friends and family, I confess that it feels good to settle back into a familiar setting and routine, and especially to pick up once more the reigns of ministry, which will never cease to feel like an enormous privilege.

While we were away, we crossed the three year anniversary of Steve’s accident.  It passed with little fanfare.  In fact, I had to remind Steve of the date on the day itself.  This uneventful passing gave me quiet joy, knowing that the accident no longer defines us, though it continues to deeply mark us.  I had expected to stop writing by this time, especially as our lives relate specifically to quadriplegia, but too many people urged me to continue to record the journey, and so, here I am, three years in, still writing.

Looking back over three years, I am surprised to note that while our physical experience of life has been in decline, our spiritual trajectory has been one of growth.  I have written before that vacations underscore the limitations of Steve’s paralysis.  Before he joined us on our trip, the boys and I sailed, hiked, camped, fished and generally fed ourselves on the great outdoors.  Once Steve joined us, the circumference of our activities narrowed significantly, a shift more easily navigated by the sheer pleasure of having him with us.  However, living life in these narrower confines requires a different level of intentionality.  Energy and movement are not casually spent.  We have to be more creative in engaging our children and each other.  Relational interactions supersede the kind of gallivanting and adventuring we used to so casually hurl into our days.  While this is challenging when we are abroad, at home this pushes us into steady and predictable rhythms.  We pray more than we ever did before.  We pay attention because we are humbled.  We slow down because we must.

For me, both the slowing down and the humbling has meant more time in scripture.  Strangely, the Old Testament has been a source of endless challenge, delight and comfort.  Perhaps the vastness of the arc of time it covers, the mystery of its content, and the endless suffering in its pages puts the shadow of my own life in perspective.  More potently, the desert journey of the Israelites and the forefathers of the faith is more relatable, the great gaps of time between each miracle or manifestation of God more interesting, and the great battles more apt to reflect current spiritual realities.

Lately, the book of Joshua is where you will find me. It is the story of God’s fulfillment of a long ago given promise.  Until the people were ready to step into it, they wandered in the desert.  For decades.  Stepping into the promise required an enormous and active faith, entering into battle believing in victory though all of the physical evidence declared inevitable loss.  Three years into our journey, I am gathering myself up for that kind of belief.  Ironically, what fuels my courage is a greater trust in God’s goodness than I ever had before.

How can we walk through fire and yet grow in our knowledge that God is good?  Somehow, I have always known that God, though omnipotent, was not the author of this fire.  To the contrary, he bends gently toward us, the God of the universe drawing near.  It is difficult to describe how I know his presence.  Every glimpse surprises me, a combination of holy glory and tender kindness that is the exact juxtaposition we see in an infinite cosmos and a finite cross, something so large and mysterious and yet so humble and deeply connected to our humanity that it cannot ever be adequately rendered in human terms.  This I know: where God’s reign is complete there are neither pain nor tears. That is not here.  Like a scratched and roughened diamond in a glowing crown, this earth is ours to polish or destroy, and we make our bed with evil as often as with glory.  There is a greater setting within which we find ourselves, however.  It seems almost foolish until we look at the stars.

The book of Joshua is a story of faith fulfilled, of deliverance into a promised land, after a messy and needlessly circuitous journey.  It ends in victory, but it is replete with blood and gore, risk, sweat, pain.  Our lives are no different.  Scrawled on the mirror in my bathroom right now is the famous line from Joshua 1:9: “Be strong and courageous.  Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord you God will be with you wherever you go.”  This is what we have.  This is what we know, while everything else remains uncertain.  Glory resides with you and with me.  It never leaves but waits patiently for us to be ready to receive it.  Somehow, by grace alone, I am more ready than before to do battle for the promise.  I can taste the victory, though I do not see it. For I know more than ever before that Goodness is at my side.

Love,

Michelle

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Nuggets.

From Michelle.  May 11, 2013.

Dear friends and family,

Three months have passed since my last update.  It is commonly said of the early years with children that the days are long but the years are short, and I find this to be true of life for Steve and I generally.  Each day seems insurmountable and yet in the blink of an eye the path behind us is strewn with such “insurmountable” peaks.  As the years behind grow longer, the benefit of this perspective seems to be to take the sometimes daunting view less seriously and simply keep walking.

I fail to write because the ups and downs related to Steve’s injury have a monotony all their own.  I struggle to describe what does not change.  Even the darker days when he feels he cannot physically cope come and go with unvarying consistency.  My spirit has learned to bend in order not to break.  I tread lightly, knowing that tomorrow will be different.  Just as predictably another day will come where his body seems to rise above itself, to conquer its familiar limitations.  Inevitably, that day too will pass, returning us to what we know, and then to worse.

Steve’s greatest achievement each day is the simple commitment to rise.  At night, with gratitude, he lays his broken instrument down.   Our days are book-ended with this rising and falling.  I was reminded recently of the simplicity of our lives when someone asked what we were doing for fun on a Friday night.  The thought had become strange to me.  Except for weddings and funerals, committee and council meetings, our evenings wind down with uneventful regularity.  If you peered into the windows of our home most evenings after 8:30, you would find one solitary room alight.  Each day is a mountain, and at its end, we are, quite simply spent. In our own private journey little changes now, but the depth of the disciplines and lessons, etched deeper and deeper with each day we simply put our feet to the path, one in front of the other.

Precious detours occur when we align our steps with others.  Thanks to Steve’s line of work, these diversions happen often, lending both purpose and perspective.  What stuns me repeatedly is how much suffering is there.  Every time I think about an elderly gentleman in our church who lost his wife to cancer last week I want to weep.  Every time I see dear elderly members come to church, wrestling bodies addled by age and disease, my heart aches.  Every week I meet with women struggling in their marriages, lonely in their transplanted lives in Manila, wrestling with children who are not thriving, struggling with wretched histories and life-threatening health challenges.  Due to Steve’s accident, we get emails regularly from individuals enduring the overwhelming losses from spinal cord injuries.  This week, we mourn the passing of a former associate pastor, gruesomely murdered in his home in Kuala Lumpur.  As we study the book of Amos as a church, we are looking hard at themes of poverty, human trafficking, greed and injustice.  Examples are easy to find in the city at our doorstep.  Sometimes, as we sing during worship after an Amos sermon, I cover my face with my hair to hide the weeping.

As we navigate these sorrows, I have been looking at Romans 12:9-21 as a guide.  Certain phrases jump out.  ‘Let love be genuine.’  ‘Outdo one another in showing honor.’  ‘Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.’  ‘Bless those who persecute you.’  ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.’  ‘Never be wise in your own sight.’  ‘If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.’  ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’  I have been mining these verses like a prospector during a gold rush.  Each day another nugget is tucked away.  When traded into daily life, I am rich.

The journey is hard.  Many days, I walk alongside suffering much worse than mine.  Knowing my own bankruptcy, and that of so many others besides, drives me to look for the nuggets that make these seasons rich.  I am not instantly transformed, nor fixed by what I find.  But these disciplines and lessons are precious, golden.  My unruly heart has come to know their immeasurable worth, the vast treasure that is godly wisdom.  Patience, trust, perseverance, hope, faith.  This compass does not waiver.  One step at a time.  It is all I have to sustain and all I have to offer.  I stake my life on what I cannot see and direct my path on truths that are not my own.  One day, all will be made right.  Until then, we forge on through the mess, trusting that our hope is not in vain, finding nuggets in the dirt.

Some days are easier than others.  The important thing is to keep on walking and not take our view too seriously.  Greater things are at work, eternal things.  Like sand, these countless days and stories pass.  The days are long but the years are fleeting.  As Amos said, “Seek the Lord, and live.”

Love,

Michelle

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