Sunday, April 26, 2015

This is not a joke.



What's not a joke is 6" of snow in mid-April. Darn Montana is full of surprises. This is me last week, the day before I left for a women's retreat in San Diego. It was in the 70's the whole time I was in CA, and I wondered if three partial days in the sun could replenish 6 months of probable Vitamin D deficiency.

But I didn't have much time to soak up the rays because I was actually the retreat speaker. The only speaker. For the whole weekend. It feels strange for me to type that out and read those words.

I never asked for the job. I wasn't at all pursuing anything of the sort. In fact, when someone hinted a year ago that I may be invited, I wished they'd forget or find someone "who does this." Months later, I found out they didn't forget or find someone else.

I don't see myself as a women's retreat speaker. Just like how a few years ago, I didn't see myself as a MOPS speaker, or any kind of speaker. And how a few years before that I didn't see myself as a blogger. And before that, I didn't see that I had a voice or a story at all. You get the idea.

I remember that the first time I was ever invited to hold a position of leadership in a ministry was during my first year in college. I was asked to manage the slide show for our on-campus Christian club. The SLIDE SHOW. Yes. It involved actual slides that I had to get developed at a specialty photo lab from actual film. (I mean, it was the 1900's, as my kids say. Do you young ones even know what I'm speaking of, here? We put like 150 slides of our beach trip into a slide projector and timed the sequence to some peppy Steven Curtis Chapman song. I pressed the "next" button on rhythm, obviously.) My initial reply was, "OH no no no, I couldn't be in charge of THAT. It's far too important." The leader who asked me - a guy named Jamey - basically said "You're doing it."

Apparently, my dubious ideas about whether or not I was a women's retreat speaker meant nothing to God. He basically said, "You're doing it."

The preparation was one of the hardest things I've ever done. Not so much in difficulty. But in personal expense. I felt so far out of my comfort zone that I was regularly throwing myself at God's mercy to give me what I needed. I'm sure that was the point, to make me wholly dependent on Him and His resources to write and listen and practice and pray over all of it. I would be exhausted after each night of writing because it was taking my whole heart. And through most of the process, I was horribly attacked by the enemy. I can think of only one other short season of my life when it was as bad. And I can't say which was worse. Both times were equally horrible; I want to say I was barely holding my head above water, but that is a gross simplification. It felt like torment which left me emotionally fragile, fuzzy-headed, and regularly telling God, "You've got the wrong girl!"

But last Sunday, as I walked out of the hotel pulling my suitcase, I was literally speechless. I still can't wrap my head around the ways in which God worked. Now, I've been to countless women's retreats, myself. I've been to probably hundreds of women's events in churches my whole life. And I can confidently say I've NEVER seen God work like He did last weekend.

I'm not certain why, but it wasn't the usual flavor of "Jesus comes to comfort and encourage his girls". Of course, there was some of that. But a better description was this: Jesus came like a warrior. Jesus came to slash the throats of the evil forces choking the life out of his daughters. Jesus came with a FIERCENESS I've never seen. And I was speechless. We were all speechless. It was so powerful that none of us in charge could reasonably take ANY credit for what was taking place. It was so far beyond human ability or planning or anticipating.      

The thing we kept saying until it became funny was "This is not a joke." Because it so wasn't. Lives permanently changed, prisons opened, and women rescued wasn't funny at all. It was humbling and worth crying over, with our faces to the ground in worship.

Friends. We are in the last days; these are hard times. And I have no doubt that God is looking for His lost lambs. He is searching for those who have faithful, believing hearts for Him, and He is reaching down with fury and justice to snatch them out of the hands of the enemy. He is purifying for Himself a flock that will stand firm. A flock that isn't afraid to speak the truth.

If you read Ephesians 6, the part about putting on the full armor of God, notice that it doesn't say the armor is so we can fight. Look at this. Verse 13: "Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then..."

Three times. All we have to do is stand. And we won't be able to, if we're not equipped as He instructs. (Go review it. Refresh your memory on this passage. Even teach it to your kids to help you memorize it, maybe.)  

I'm going to be posting the content of my talks from last weekend, in case His words might encourage you to stand firm too. As much I love to laugh with my friends over coffee and a little Bible study, I'd rather cry and pray and watch freedom flood our lives. Because the power of God is not a joke, and witnessing it is actually quite addicting.


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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

When it all burns down

 
 
When I step back, I am nearly overwhelmed by all the burning down going on.

My husband lost his job early summer and it's easy to pin things on that; but in retrospect, the kindling was lit long before. Now, I stand among embers, still smoldering. So much has burned down. God has stood back and allowed it to burn, the dead branches, the excess, the unfruitful. And there are heaps of ash in every corner to remind us. Our livelihood, marriage, and faith have been reduced to a mere framework. Utilitarian. Raw.

It was shocking when we moved here to Montana, from California where the smallest strike of a match in public sends the authorities flocking to your side with rules and regulations. Southern California is fire country, and any spark, firework, or tossed cigarette feels like a threat. But in Montana, I watched our neighbor burn a massive pile of trash in the yard behind us. It produced twenty-foot high flames no more than 100 feet from our house. And in an agriculturally centered community, widespread burning of land is common; a good fire purges, starts things over. Rebirth starts in the ashes.

But there is a space of time before things regrow, a hush of activity after the fury of the fire has died down and licked up the last bits of brush. In this quieter space, God is calling me to kneel and listen.

In Bible times, people mourned by scooping ashes over their heads. Think of the smell of a latent fireplace or your clothes after a campfire. Imagine handfuls of that ash in your hair, on your face, in your mouth. We tend to avoid mourning in our culture. Back then, people got intimate with the concept that things burn; they knew there was a time for grieving in the ash.

Tonight, with a heavy heart, I shared with my kids how twenty-one Christians were killed this week for their faith. My son said, "My heart just almost broke." My daughter made a comparison to something in Mockingjay. And both were silent for a while. I then shared with them that tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, a time to think about sacrifice and repentance.

I told them I was going to church to do some of my own repenting. Frankly, at first I wanted to go in order to cry out for our country, for our world, and for believers. But the darkness isn't "out there." It's here, in my own heart. I need to bow my face to the ground and scoop the ashes over my own head, for my selfishness, for foolishly neglecting my relationship with God, for my grumbling over serving my family, for my impure thoughts and motives.

I need the ashes in my hair and on my face, and to taste the burning with my ever-harsh tongue that casually lashes out at my loved ones. How can I be a passionate disciple in our lost world when I can't even go a single day without misrepresenting Jesus to my own family? Well, grace. But first, mourning.

I read something yesterday that stuck with me. That the gardener stops pruning those vines from which he expects nothing. But he diligently works on cutting back those from which he expects more fruit.

There's a promise in the ash: God believes in me. He's shaping me, washing me with hope, anticipating the rich fruit to come later on.

But today, He's whispering that it's time to kneel and wait. It's not a time for sweeping up the mess, but resting in the middle of the devastation, clinging to the truth that He is in control, He is good.

On Wednesday, take some time. Bow you head; picture the ashes. Mourn for yourself and your own heart.

But don't ever, not even for one day, forget: God has a habit of trading ashes for beauty.

Love you.

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Monday, February 09, 2015

The word I didn't want


 

The year was so bad, I didn't even ask.

I couldn't ask. I couldn't speak to Him about it, the tradition we bloggers have to choose a "word" for the year.

In the past, we'd settle on one together, happy anticipation flowing from what was to what was to come. All those other years seemed to arrive with the shining glow of promise.

But promises seemed dim and distant this new year's. Still existing, but hazy and threatening to disappear all together.

This time, the year turned over slowly, like a child heavy with sleep, sluggish to wake. I was sluggish to embrace it. And when I did finally turn to face 2015, I felt myself shrink from a hope that might disappoint.

Of course, my Father knew my wounds, my fears, my weariness. He saw my heart balled up, on it's side. He spoke anyway, on His initiative, not mine. His grip on me is always stronger than my grip on Him.

I thought, "Stupid word thing."
He said, "It's Full."
I said, "I'm not asking. And what does that even mean?"
"Just, Full."
"I'm not playing the game this year. I don't want it. That's not even a good word."
(my eyes blur just typing it out)
"Because you've known a lot of Empty lately."
And then obviously, I cried at that, saying nothing, so painfully aware of the steady emptying I'd been living for a length of time I could no longer measure.

"And this year, what I have for you is Full."

2014 meant an emptying of our lives on so many levels. From income to time to health to faith, it seemed all our resources, all familiar securities, healthy or not, dwindled consistently and seemed to have no bottom. We expected God to wait till the usual last minute to dramatically rescue with a metaphorical shout of "BUT I LOVE YOU AND WILL NEVER FORSAKE YOU!" However, we thought our last minute was last month, and the month before that, and the month before that. The fact that the emptying was so continual and so unrelenting made our heads spin.      

And in many ways, we are still spinning. Still confused and feeling emptied. Still waiting for His plans to be made clear.

I still don't really want the word, because disappointment, dispersed over a long period of time, becomes a deafening command to stop wishing so hard. But I want God, more than ever. I don't pray for His presence because I know I do have that; He's closer than my breath. That's one comfort I never lost. And I want to believe. Not that He will someday trade ashes for beauty, but that He is right this moment doing exactly that. I want to believe that all along, I misjudged when the "last minute" really was.

I want to believe that January meant a flipping of the hour glass. And so the empty side just waits to become full.


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Monday, February 02, 2015

Try-harder Christianity and why it has nothing to do with God



In high school youth group, we sang a song actually titled "Ephesians 2:8 & 9". It's youth-group, 90's style, guys. Some of you know it. Fess up.

Let me refresh your memory - it is comprised of the exact verses, but let's say, flashier than the original text?

"For by grace - doo, do, do, doooo - you have been saaaaaved,
Through faith - (yelled) do, do, do! - and that not of your selves, not of your selves, OH OHHH...
It is the gift of God, not as a result of works (yelled) do, do, do!,
So that no one can boast, NO ONE CAN BOAST, AHH AHH
Ephesians 2:8 and 9, I'm saved till the end of time,
I'm saved by His grace, I'm saved, (big finish) DO, DO, DO, DO!"

You saw that finale coming. But I totally learned those verses. So when we covered them last week in Bible study, I was obviously singing them in my head.

First, we poured over the verses before the song, though, noticing the harsh words used to describe our lives before Christ. "We were dead in our sins...sons of disobedience...children of wrath..."

Then verse 4: "But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love....made us alive in Christ..."

Those two little words. But God. It's the turning point, and the defining moment that distinguishes our faith from every other faith in the world. Did you know that? Every other faith on the planet hinges on man's work. Man's attempts to reach God. The Bible says the real deal hinges on God's work to reach us.

All the others basically say, "We were children of wrath...But man worked his tail off for his whole life desperately hoping to make it back into God's favor by holding up a long resume of good deeds." They say, "If you just keep trying harder, God might eek out some love for you."

And I COMPLETELY get it. If I'm honest, I wish salvation worked this way. I mean, I don't, because I'd never earn it. But I see how easily I could be tricked into thinking I could. I know achievement. I get the satisfaction of embracing a reward because I've earned it. That feels good and right and fair. It's practically a universal truth: You get what you deserve.

Yet, this is what I read in verse 4: "But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love..." saved me through Christ.

I did nothing to earn it. Trust me, the first-born in me tries super hard to prove myself to God, but I FAIL him over and over. Not once in a while. Every day. I fail God every day. Thank you, motherhood. Furthermore, I don't truly appreciate or thank Him for his love. But God acted, anyway, despite me.

Since I am tired of nagging my child to practice piano and brush his teeth and wake up on time for school, I started a sticker chart for him. It works for toddlers; I figured why won't it work for big kids who are motivated by earning the carefully rationed golden nuggets called screen time? Well, as soon as he saw that chart, never before has he put so much enthusiasm into all of the above. Like, he was running to complete the boxes.

Know why? Because it's in our blood to perform for a reward. "I do this, you give me that." It's what every person on the planet, from the toddler to the CEO, understands as Fairness.

Our heads spin because God in His mercy is crazy unfair. It's starting to make sense to me why the majority of people in our world will say 'No' to the one true God. They'll shake their heads and furrow their brows and say, "No, free salvation doesn't make sense. I must need to work for this. If there is a God, I'm certainly going to have to prove myself."

I think this attitude breaks God's heart. It's pushing away His free gift of love and saying "No thanks, I'd really rather make up a super complicated, and difficult earning system to show you how good I am and how much I deserve a reward." Let's be very clear: that kind of religion is never about God at all. Not the real God, anyway.

Try-harder Christianity will always be about me and my work. It will always seek to glorify myself and the good things I feel I'm accumulating on my goodness resume.

The Bible says that compared to God's goodness, all our good works are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). Think about when all your dishtowels are heavy with damp and yuck and they sit in the laundry room sink for a week (No? Is it just me who does that?). People are living their lives trying to improve their smelly rag piles. Comparing their rag piles. Judging other people's rag piles. People are consumed with building a more impressive rag pile than the next guy. Remember the song/verse? Salvation is a gift of God, "not as a result of works, so no one can boast." I imagine God's like, "Dude, are you really trying to boast about your rag pile? This is about me and my attempt to rescue you; it's not about you and your attempt to deserve it. And if you could deserve it, by the way, how would that be Love?"

In a couple days, before my son wakes up, I'm going to put a sticker in every box for the day. When he comes down for breakfast, I'm going to say, "Guess what? Today, you just get the stickers. For free. Because I love you." Cue hugging and kissing.

I imagine he'll be confused. Aren't we all, by unmerited favor? It's a grace test. I'll keep you posted with the results. One thing I do know: if I am to model God's grace to my kids, then at times, they'll need to get rewards they don't deserve. They'll need to deal with the racy unfairness of real Love.

I'm saved, by His grace, I'm saved.

(Do, do, do, do!)


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Friday, January 23, 2015

Grace on a Thursday: Crochet class

 


Last night, I started a three-sesh crochet class at a local yarn shop.

I crochet now.

Really, it's an odd time for me to be learning a new skill. It doesn't feel like the "right" time. It seems all the resources...time, money and energy...are scarce in my life. It seems, if you're floating on a raft after a shipwreck, the last thing you need is to pick up a new hobby. 

But last night, as my fingers found their way into a pattern, looping over and over again until the pattern was repeated hundreds of times, the pattern became a rhythm. And that rhythm, hammered out along a strand of mustard-colored wool, gave me a steady, soul-satisfaction; one I needed.

The very first verb in the Bible is an action that God Himself does. "In the beginning, God created...(Genesis 1:1)."

It's the first thing He wants us to know about Him. He creates. "Let me just introduce myself, " He says, "by starting at something essential. You need to understand this about me. I am creative. I create. And I am THE Creator." Soon afterwards, we read that we are made in His image.

Some people don't connect those dots, I guess; lots of adults make claims like, "Oh, I'm not creative at all!" Well...aren't you? Or at least, weren't you, before someone else told you otherwise? Do you know any small children who make bold claims that they are not creative? I believe something in us, all of us, needs to create, because we were made in the image of The Creator.

I'm diverging now but I'm not talking about crafts, in case you thought I was. Some people are naturally good at creating a good meal. Or an inviting atmosphere. Or a portfolio for a client. Think outside the box when I say we all need to 'create.' What do you naturally drift towards creating? It might be crafts, after all; you know I for one love a good bunting.

Back to crochet class. I sat there, knowing I didn't have time for this. And yet the quiet focus around the table ministered to me. In a hushed space, your senses have room to wake up, and I felt grateful for small things: for my own capable hands (I may not be able to use them so well someday), for the texture and color of a ball of yarn (like mottled grey alpaca, soft as down), and the way a hundred of them looks stacked along a wall.



What felt like long forgotten skills, crochet class reminded me - forced me - to practice: Be patient with myself. Give myself grace. I could rip out my work and start over because I was just learning. And lately my life doesn't feel the same; mistakes feel like they run long lines of damage. And all the past knots and rips are hard to overlook. Yet the kind, grey-haired woman who taught us gave me freedom to mess up. In fact, she expected it. She smiled on at our awkward movements, our holes and skipped steps. Graciously, she'd walk us through the repairs.

I wish my real life mistakes were the same. I'd love to rip out a long strand of harsh words snapped at my kid, and then wind a more careful sentence in it's place. Honestly, I wish my fabric looked perfect. It just doesn't. Far from it. So crazily far from it.

It's humbling to know that Jesus still smiles at me with kindness. Of course He doesn't smile at my sin, but He smiles at my feeble attempts to fix myself and others when I just don't have the ability. He does have the ability, though. He is the Creator, the master weaver of all things together for my good.

Like the woman who taught the class, Jesus isn't surprised by my mistakes. He expects them. He's ready to walk me through repairs in grace, He and His bloodstained hands.

A little creating, being quiet, and practicing grace for myself did my soul so much good. As did remembering that God is overseeing all the work. He's available, loving and kind, and capable of fixing all the things I can't. 

Crochet class wasn't the last thing I needed. It was the exact thing I needed.


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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

on bearing a broken heart


I took a break from blogging. Some of it intentional, some not. For a time, God clearly asked me to let it lie. Walk away and focus in. He knew what I needed, because Life got....I can't land on an adequate word. None of the words begin to single-handedly describe the storms that have crashed around us in the last half-year.

I periodically checked on my blog and discovered there was a glitch and I couldn't even get in. God kept the door shut. I accepted it (after trying to walk through the troubleshooting with Blogger eleventy times, let's be honest).

But sometime in November, I recognized a flicker of longing to write again. I slowly peppered God with "maybe, do you think, I could just a little bit, perhaps get into my blog..." prayers, which grew to sincere pleas for Him to stir me again and give me my voice back. I was afraid to attempt a login for a few weeks. And when I mustered the courage, somehow the glitch was gone. He said Yes. I was in.

And then a few more weeks passed because I don't know where to start. I feel overwhelmed by the past several months. They haunt me in a way, and I'm not sure I want to recap.

I suppressed an ugly cry on New Years Eve, as the clock struck midnight and everyone was cheering and hugging. At the moment the year clicked forward, I had a jolting feeling, like you have when you suddenly need to throw up: I wanted to ball up on my bed and cry out all the grief in which 2014 had nearly drowned me. But I cheered and hugged too.

At my first job out of college, working in the back office for a Medical Supplies company, I had a very kind, very elderly woman for a boss. She owned the business, and she treated me more like an adored granddaughter, than an employee. She would compliment me with a maternal intensity, and often said, with an equal measure of fervor each time, "Your skin is like a China doll!"

I keep hearing her, in my head, because I feel so fragile.

Many times, God has carried me through valleys high up in His arms, firmly seated and safe. I thought I was strong and rooted, in a permanent kind of way. But this season has been altogether different. I realize it was never me who owned the strength. It's not that I feel He isn't with me. It's more that I'm understanding He wants to acquaint me with my broken heart. He's unwrapped his strong arms from around me, and said, "Look. You couldn't see it before, because I was holding you together. See all these cracks? All the places your heart has been crushed? I can't heal you until we uncover them."

At all times, I feel I am bearing a broken-heartedness just under the surface. The littlest offenses burn deep. The smallest hints of pain send me running. And I am not a runner. I've never been a runner. But holy crap, this hurts.

God has told me it's the only road. There is one way to healing and it's through - not around, not above, and not blinded to, but only through - the hurt, looking the broken places full in the face. And it's taking a bravery I do not know much of, yet.

You're welcome for this upbeat and encouraging re-entry into blogging.

What I mean to say is thanks for listening. I've missed you.  

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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

On wanting.

 

Oswald Chambers said this wise thing. I posted it on my Instagram feed a couple days ago and it is still churning in my head.

I have kids. I see this concept playing out in real time. My kids' birthdays are next month and they want stuff. Lots of stuff. But on an average day, what they don't really want is to share their hearts with me. They don't want to talk (or listen) about their friendships, their worries, their needs. They don't often think to invite me into their worlds. Oh, maybe when I prod and question, I'll get some information out of them. But it's not given because they are seeking a deeper relationship with me.

Yesterday, when I asked my daughter why she didn't want her dad to chaperone her youth group event like he did last year, she said, "Sometimes I just don't want my parents with me." In contrast, she is very quick to hand us a lengthy birthday gift list.

My kids want what I can give more than they want to be in an intimate, growing relationship with me. But no one is surprised by that, right? They are little children; they don't know what's best for them. They still think birthday stuff will make them happy. They take for grated the amazing people they have in their home loving and taking care of them with incredible generosity.

But this Chambers quote, well, I am not much better off. Let's be honest:

Do I want His blessings more than I desire to know God Himself?

Do I pray for peace or rescue or something He can provide for me more than I pray for understanding of His will and who He is?

Do I want comfort more than I want my character and endurance and faith to grow?

Do I act like I sometimes just don't want my Father with me, but then hand Him a lengthy list of requests?

Yes. Sometimes, absolutely yes.

It gets in the way, this wanting what He gives. But we are used to "getting" from Him because He is incredibly generous. He gives and gives and gives. In fact, He lavishes me with blessings and I don't even mean material ones, though being a suburban resident of America, we have it pretty good.

Beyond that, however, God never stops giving us His spirit, His guidance, His favor, His forgiveness. The list is endless, and so I get used to getting.

And I forget how a relationship works, even though I know better.

A healthy, growing, deepening one is focused on the people themselves, not the benefits. It is two-way. One person doesn't keep taking and taking, even if she is grateful, unless she is an immature child.

It's hard for me to walk out my relationship with God, when, frankly, I can't see Him. When I can't meet Him at Starbucks, or do many of the things I do normally when I work to build relationships in my life. Instead, it takes an amount of discipline to protect time together to talk and work through issues. It is much harder to stop my head from spinning long enough to listen to what He has to say to me. I sometimes forget Him, neglect our relationship and start getting in the habit of wanting what He gives more than I want Him.

But this quote recalibrated me. I truly do want more of Him, not just more FROM him.

I have so much to learn about the Lord. I mean, I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of knowing Him. And yet, I forget to press in, to walk with Him and listen to Him without simply wanting what He gives.

What are the basic ways we invest in our most important relationships? Do those things translate into our relationship with God, or do we treat Him differently? Sometimes going back to the basics is a good place to start.

Protecting time together. Being a good listener. Gratefully serving. Those are the things we would do for a best friend. What about with God? And what about learning from our kids? How would we like them to treat us? What would make us feel loved and enjoyed as people, rather than as Santa Clauses?

I'm scrunching up my long list of requests and choosing to invest in my real relationship with my best friend.

He'll meet me, no matter when and where, with a hug and a smile and all kinds of compliments I don't deserve.

And the only thing I have to bring is myself.


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