Stay Until You Are Radiant
How do you know when to stop? To leave?
When is it time to move on to the next thing?
Do you proactively dictate a time limit for activities in advance?
What are you missing out on by stopping when you stop?
On the other hand, are you missing out on something by not stopping sooner than you planned?
How do you know when it is time to stop? To go?
This morning I watched a video of Louie Giglio teaching session 6 of his study series, "Don't Give the Enemy a Seat at Your Table." During the session, he read Psalm 34:5, "Those who look to Him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame." I asked myself, "What would it look like if I didn't start the public part of my day until my face was radiant from a private encounter with God?" What if I spent time each morning communing with God (thru the Bible, thru prayer and meditation, thru music, and/or thru time in nature, etc.) and I didn't stop until I was radiant and shame-free? What would that look like? Maybe some mornings it would happen in a matter of minutes before I ever got out of bed. Maybe other days it would take an hour or more for my brain, body and spirit to receive what was needed.
In Exodus 34:29, Moses had just spent 40 days and 40 nights on Mt. Sinai in the presence of God. It says, "When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord." Moses was on a mission, a God-given mission, and he didn't even realize that in the process of receiving the Law he himself had been changed in such a way that it was obvious (and even unnerving) to the people, so much so that he had to cover the radiance of his face. Meanwhile, in Paul's second letter to the Corinthians 3:17-18, we read, "Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit."
Being organized and proactive and using my time wisely is not without merit, but when I start to do so as a means of being in control (being the god of my own life), I've ceased to be wise.
James 4:13-15, "Now listen, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.' Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, 'If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.'"
We know it is God's will to transform us into His image, so maybe, just maybe, we don't presume to set the time frame for him to do what is needed for His glory to increase in us each day? Maybe we awake and gaze upon Him, and submit to Him and stay in His presence until we are radiant and shame-free, and maybe we accept that that process will take however short or long it takes, admitting that we aren't in control... rather, we are in relationship.
I've been engaged to be married twice in my life.
The first time I was a sophomore in college and the groom-to-be decided NOT to-be at the beginning of our senior year. He had proposed with a classic diamond solitaire ring purchased on a payment plan from a jewelry store at the mall. My 19-20 year old self was completely captivated by that ring. I looked at it on my hand constantly. The jewelry store offered to clean your ring for free if you purchased from them and, I can promise you, there was no cleaner ring in Tucson, Arizona from 1994 to 1995. I stopped by that shop every time I was at the mall and had that diamond polished. I loved how it caught the light and sparkled. I still remember the night that he told me I wasn't "the one" for him after all and I remember vividly the moment I took the ring off and handed it back, along with the title of fiance', and walked out the door. My bare finger was a constant reminder of a promise that was no longer a promise.
Fast forward a few years and a few suitors, and you'll see another young man getting down on one knee in an Italian restaurant asking me to be his forever. It wasn't a surprise. Jason and I had been talking about getting married for several weeks and had even gone ring shopping together. When he asked me what type of ring I wanted, I told him, "I don't want a diamond solitaire and I don't want it to come from a jewelry store at the mall." The token of love my first engagement ring represented to a 19 year old girl no longer meant anything to the 23 year old woman I had become. The first ring cost more money than he had, now I wanted only what could be afforded without debt. The first ring was on a yellow gold band, so I wanted something with a silver hue instead. The first ring was all about the diamond, so I wanted anything but that as a focal point. I wanted a promise that was different from the first one offered, so I wanted a distinctly different symbol of that promise as well.
Jason proposed with a perfect ring that we found at an antique store for $300. I never had it appraised and I never will. I'm assuming the gemstones are "real." It doesn't matter to me if they aren't. Because, while I loved that ring, and I gazed at it with great affection, and I kept it polished to a shine in those early years - the ring wasn't what I valued. I valued the kept promise.
Fast forward again over 24 years into the future. We've raised a son together and sent him off into the world. We've made each other laugh hundreds of thousands of times. We've walked through a variety of losses that felt like punches to the gut and left us wondering what the future held. We've seen God work miracles. We've held hands and prayed prayers that made us weep and some that made us giggle. We've cheered each other on. We've gently corrected each other when needed. We've hurt one another by accident and on purpose. We've apologized and asked for forgiveness. We've disagreed about chores, child rearing, money, and far less important things. We've traveled together and stayed home together. We've lived out the promise and we are going to keep right on living it out.
So, while I don't spend a lot of time gazing at my ring (even though I still love it and think it is perfect), I do spend a lot of time marveling over that kept promise and how far it and God have brought us.
Let it Rise
When we moved into the parsonage in the small Midwest farming community we now call home, a family from our church dropped off a delicious loaf of freshly baked bread. It felt like an extravagant gift to us. We enjoy bread so much, but I've never been much of a baker. The gifted bread was baked with flour that had been ground from locally grown wheat, and it was much easier on Jason's system than mass-produced sandwich bread we usually buy from the grocery store. The experience was so positive, I decided it was time to try my hand at baking once again.
I'm always filled with low-grade nervousness when I try something again that I've failed at in the past. My personality and wiring is such that I value correctness and thus, I'm always looking for the surest way possible toward success. I want to get things right! So, I bought locally grown and milled flour and scoured websites for recipes and advice, and eventually I found a recipe that claimed to be foolproof and had the reviews to back it up. The trick I learned (that has now led to 7 successful attempts!) was to bloom the yeast for 10 minutes before adding the flour. Blooming the yeast means dissolving sugar in warm water then adding the yeast and leaving it alone to see if it bubbles up and creates a layer of foam. In doing this, you discover whether or not the yeast is alive and active and you don't waste your time or the ingredients on bread that will never rise.
Now every time I put a ball of bread dough in my lightly oiled ceramic bowl and cover it with a towel, and set my timer for an hour, instead of being skeptical and concerned, as I have in the past, I now get a twinge of excitement. "Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen," Hebrews 11:1. My hope now has substance! I have now repeatedly seen what happens when you combine the right ingredients in the right way and I have faith in my ability to bake bread.
Did you know that leaving dough to rise is called "proving" or "proofing" the dough. My faith in how my bread will turn out isn't blind. The rise provides proof, evidence that it will turn out, well before I ever put it in the oven. This has been such a good reminder to me that having faith does not mean taking blind leaps into the unknown. Faith is built on evidence and faith itself becomes evidence over time. Let it rise!
That You May Believe
What would it take for you to believe that something you were sure was dead, done, and finished - is, in fact, resurrected in a new form, full of possibility, and ushering in a new life beyond what you could ask or imagine. Is it difficult for you to even imagine such a drastic change in perspective? I can relate! My Dad insists my first words were, "Prove it!" I dismiss secondhand accounts and have probing questions for those claiming firsthand knowledge about things. I want to know that what I believe is true.
This Easter Sunday, during the sermon, as I listened to Jason read the scripture about Jesus' appearances after His resurrection, I was struck by what the people closest to him needed to believe, and even more struck by how WILLING Jesus was to give them what they needed to believe.
John saw the evidence Jesus left behind - the empty tomb with the linens lying there and the napkin that had covered Jesus’ face, folded - and believed. (John 20:8) - Peter was there too, but his belief or unbelief wasn’t recorded by John at that time. Mary Magdalene heard Jesus call her by name and believed (John 20:16). She had a short conversation with him, in her deepest grief, and didn't recognize who He was until He said her name; then she clung to Him. Peter, James, Andrew, Phillip, Bartholomew, Simon, Judas (not Iscariot), James (son of Alphaeus), and Matthew experienced Jesus miraculous appearance in their locked hiding place and saw his wounds from the crucifixion, and believed before receiving the Holy Spirit. (John 20:19-20)
Thomas was told about Jesus' resurrection by the Spirit-filled disciples, but couldn't imagine sincerely believing unless he saw and touched Jesus’ wounds for himself. Then he experienced His miraculous appearance in a locked room and Jesus offered him what he thought he would need to believe (told him to touch his wounds) and he believed. The scripture doesn't say that Thomas actually touched Jesus - it appears that it was enough that Jesus already knew what He would need. As if when Thomas heard Jesus speak aloud the cry of his heart, he recognized Jesus' understanding of him (His KNOWING him) as the greatest evidence of all - and believed.
WHAT DO YOU NEED TO BELIEVE?
"Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." (John 20:30–31)
May the New Year Be Bitter-Sweet
"I tried coffee for the first time... hated it, but loved the idea of bitter. Tried bitter gourd... hated it, but loved the idea of loving it... Don't be afraid to be an unforgettable taste." ~ Rukmini Kalamangalam, poet.
In September of 2015, my friend, Charlotte, and I attended the annual Library of Congress National Book Festival in Washington, DC for the first time. The festival moved indoors into the Walter E. Washington Convention Center that year instead of being held outdoors on the National Mall as was the tradition in years prior. I was disappointed that the festival wouldn't be outside in such an iconic setting until I woke up that morning and looked at the weather forecast which promised a hot, muggy day.
We spent most of our day wandering around the convention center in awe of the sheer number of books, authors and bibliophiles assembled in one place. Book signings were going on non-stop by authors such as, Buzz Aldrin, Kate DiCamillo, David Baldacci, David McCullough, John Riordan, Bryan Stevenson, Al Roker, Marilynne Robinson, Tom Brokaw, and literally hundreds more. Our favorite part of the festival, however, came later in the day in a smaller room with a simpler stage.
The Youth Poetry Slam brought accomplished teenage poets from big cities across the United States to a single stage at the Festival to share their original memorized spoken word pieces with a standing room only crowd, to be judged by the U.S. National Poet Laureate. There was much cheering, snapping (that's the thing to do at a poetry slam, don't ya know) and encouragement throughout. The line quoted at the top of this post came from my favorite entry of the night. "I tried coffee for the first time... hated it, but loved the idea of bitter."
Five years have passed since I heard that teenage girl from Houston, with roots in India, utter two sentences about how part of growing up, for her, was loving the idea of loving something bitter. I can't forget it. It resonates with me, both literally and figuratively. Several years ago, I read a book titled, "Every Bitter Thing Is Sweet: Tasting the Goodness of God in All Things," by Sara Hagerty. The title comes from Proverbs 27:7, "A satisfied soul loathes the honeycomb, but to a hungry soul, every bitter thing is sweet."
Have you ever had a hungry soul? Do you have one now? A hungry soul can be prompted by the realization that earthly life is unsatisfying, or worse yet, cruel and painful. It can come about because of loss. Hunger can arise after a lengthy loneliness or unfulfilled longing. Whatever it is that awakens a previously "satisfied" soul to its hunger pangs, we can be grateful for it. Our souls were never meant to be satisfied by earthy things, for our souls themselves are made for another world. It is when we bump up against the limits of this world that the ache/hunger in our souls returns - and that is not a bad thing.
If we are wise, we will let this ache drive us straight to God through the scriptures and prayer and sacrificial living that pours forth from our urgency, empowered by the Holy Spirit. The things that undo us, God can use to rebuild us, if we allow Him to. And thus, the cursory quiet time, duty-bound offerings of service to others, the lackluster prayers can be transformed by our hunger and thirst for what the world cannot offer, and we will be transformed as a result.
Growing up spiritually, for me, has included less and less of an aversion to the bitter things of life. I still recoil at injustice and death, I still balk at broken relationships and conflict, but I've seen too much and I know too much of our God to believe that the story ends there. I know from personal experience the miracles that can arise from ashes and the sweetness that can come when the hardships of life stir my hunger for eternity and its author in new ways, and the changes in my soul which only seem to be fertilized and catalyzed by what my mind calls bitter.
I don't know what 2021 holds, but I pray that I will allow every bitter thing to be sweet, for He can make it so.
Election Day - Pull Up a Chair
Today is the day Americans will finish voting and the ballots will begin to be counted. No matter what the outcome, there will be millions of disappointed, angry, fearful people when the dust settles. Millions. If that doesn't make us uncomfortable, it should.
In families, we do our best to find ways to make sure everyone's needs and wants are accommodated, or at the very least considered.
In our country, it feels as though no such habits or release valves exist. One "side" gets what it wants and the other just has to suck it up for four years, or fight back and resist through those four years so as not to lose too much ground. And then we begin all over again. It is exhausting for everyone. We don't view ourselves as a family with unique thoughts, wants and needs. Instead, we view the country as "us" and "them," so there are few concessions made. Personally, I crave leadership that unites, that sees every citizen as part of the American family and understands how to create national habits that demonstrate collective care, especially surrounding the issues that most divide us.
A colleague reminded me yesterday that, "Where someone stands is because of where they sit." Meaning: the causes we stand up for, the things that make us raise our voices are due to the unique perspective we have based on where and how we live our lives and what we are surrounded by (where we sit). In the days ahead, as we see people STAND for things that make us uncomfortable, may we consider what it must be like to sit where they SIT. Even better, may we ask to sit with them, listen and learn. We needn't wait for the right charismatic national leader to emerge for us to drop the rope and take steps away from the exhausting tug-of-war that we find ourselves engaged in.
Philippians 2:4 (ESV), "Let each of you look, not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others."
Red Dirt Resiliency
The New Normal
We Ritzes are stepping into the new normal this week.
College for Tim.
An empty nest for Jason and me.
On Sunday, Tim loaded up his car with all of his belongings and after church we all made the 7-1/2 hour drive down to Southern California - him in his car and Jason and I in ours. We had a family dinner together at an Italian restaurant and went back to our hotel to sleep. On Monday morning we drove to the campus of The Master's University. It was Tim's third time there and our first. As we turned onto the road leading to campus there were students lining the entry holding welcome signs and shouting their greetings to us. That's when a few tears threatened to leak out; for me, anyway. It is pretty simple to get me to cry these days, really - just love my kid. That's it. A pretty straightforward equation. The tears nearly started in earnest the morning before when I arrived at church and was greeted by our "Grammy Hill." She hugged me tight and asked when Tim would arrive because she had baked him cookies to take with him to school. (cue misty eyes) Later another young lady, whose family we love and have vacationed with in the past, came up and gave him even more home-baked cookies. (sniffle)
As we drove onto the campus, we saw many more groups of current Master's students smiling and cheering every new student and every parent on as we arrived. When we pulled into the parking area, another young man from our small town who is starting his sophomore year was there holding a welcome sign and he yelled out, "Hey, Tim!" in excitement. It nearly did me in. How many freshmen get welcomed onto their college campus by name before they ever get out of their car? God's grace knows the way to a mother's heart. The morning went by in a blur of activity - standing in a few lines, getting his dorm key, moving his things into his new room, finding his mailbox and figuring out how to open it, eating lunch - they keep you busy so you won't spend too much time thinking about the goodbye to come.
Even so, the goodbye came. I only shed a few tears as we prayed for our son, hugged him and walked away. That was it. The day that we had been counting down toward for months (let's be honest, years) with equal parts excitement and nerves... It came and it went. Jason and I got into our car and sat still for a few minutes, in a bit of a state of shock. Not sad, not frightened, not overjoyed, just stunned. My best friend texted and said, "I've got a coffee suggestion!" Perfect timing. She sent us to a local coffee shop not too far from campus to be able to catch our breath and process the emotions that were just beneath the surface.
We ordered our iced coffee/lattes and just sat and let our thoughts settle and our body temperatures return to normal (College move-in day is hot!). We didn't say much. We just stared at each other with wide eyes, shaking our heads. It is a lot to take in, this transition from actively parenting a child in your home to dropping off that child, turned young adult, at college... and driving away. A lot to take in.
Tim texted us later that night at 11:45pm: "First day of college a success. Plenty of friends and good times!"
Jason and I spent the next two days in a small, one-bedroom cabin in Twin Peaks, near Lake Arrowhead, before heading back home to our waiting empty nest in Northern CA. That mini-vacation was a very good decision. While we are home now and settling in to our quieter, emptier house, having that buffer was a true blessing.
On the first morning that we woke up in the cabin, I made coffee and we sat in the rocking chairs on the back deck and talked while we stared up at the beautiful tall trees. After our conversation grew quiet, I looked down on the deck and noticed an acorn lying there. I smiled, picked it up, and asked Jason to indulge me and take a photo of that acorn resting in our hands. "Large oaks from tiny acorns grow." Our precious (tiny) baby boy grew up, in the blink of an eye, into a wonderful (tall) young man. Only God can grow an oak tree from an acorn and only God can grow an infant into a man after His own heart. What a blessing to get to be a part of the growth process, while continuing to grow ourselves.
Now we move forward with the next phase of life. Time to see what God grows in each of our lives in the new normal.
Holding On While Letting Go
Today over lunch, I sat with a friend who is grieving the loss of a family member and I was reminded of an account in the Old Testament that I had shared with an old friend several years ago after reading it and being struck by it. That old friend had also been grieving a loss at the time and when I shared the story with her it brought her tremendous encouragement, so I shared it today with my new friend and it encouraged her as well. So I'm going to share it here now so that I never forget it and so that it is here if when you or I ever need it.
In the Bible, we find an account of a man by the name of Elijah, who was a prophet of God from 871-854 BC. He was bold and the stories about his life detailed in the text are dramatic, to say the least. (I would encourage you to check it out.) Elijah had a protege with a similar name: Elisha. When the time was near for Elijah to depart this life and move on to the next, he knew it was coming and so did Elisha... and so did many others. The text said that as Elijah traveled (and Elisha refused to leave his side) other prophets in both Bethel and Jericho commented to Elisha, "Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master from you today?" To which Elisha responded, "Shut up!" Okay, perhaps the wording in the Bible is closer to, "Yes, I know. Be quiet!" Elisha, it seems, was grieved and panicked. He didn't want Elijah to leave him and he wasn't sure if he could fill his (very big) shoes.
Here is the account that I want to remember from the second chapter of 2 Kings:
6 Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.”
And he replied, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them walked on.
7 Fifty men from the company of the prophets went and stood at a distance, facing the place where Elijah and Elisha had stopped at the Jordan. 8 Elijah took his cloak, rolled it up and struck the water with it. The water divided to the right and to the left, and the two of them crossed over on dry ground.
9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?”
“Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit,” Elisha replied.
10 “You have asked a difficult thing,” Elijah said, “yet if you see me when I am taken from you, it will be yours—otherwise, it will not.”
11 As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. 12 Elisha saw this and cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” And Elisha saw him no more. Then he took hold of his garment and tore it in two.
13 Elisha then picked up Elijah’s cloak that had fallen from him and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. 14 He took the cloak that had fallen from Elijah and struck the water with it. “Where now is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” he asked. When he struck the water, it divided to the right and to the left, and he crossed over.
15 The company of the prophets from Jericho, who were watching, said, “The spirit of Elijah is resting on Elisha.” And they went to meet him and bowed to the ground before him.
That might seem like a strange story to share in a time of grief, but here is why it should bring encouragement. This story reminds me that I do not own any other person on this earth - their physical presence is not mine to control, demand, or cling to. What I do own, is what they leave behind in my heart, mind and soul. Their "cloak."
When someone we love or admire departs this life for the next before we do, it becomes painfully clear that we have no claim on their physical presence with us. But no one can take away what they left behind for us...
Elisha was left with Elijah's cloak.
And God used it to encourage and empower him to do what came next. He used it to assure him that he wasn't alone. He used it to confirm to others that Elisha had, indeed, received a great and powerful gift by being close to his mentor.
When we are left with the "cloak" of another, may God help us to recognize it and accept it for the powerful gift it is. May God, by his grace, use it to encourage and empower us to do what comes next. May God use it to reassure us that we are not alone. May God use it as a testimony to others. And May God use it to continue the impact and legacy of the one we dearly love.
The flipside of this lesson for me is to be aware of the "cloak" that I am daily fashioning to leave behind for others. How can I live to intentionally weave a cloak that will last and bring encouragement and comfort even when I have moved on? May we regularly ask ourselves that question and may it spur us on to deeper relationships, higher character, and contagious joy and faith.
Dedicated to the "cloak" of Bryce Alexander Hill. He wasn't ours to keep. But he left us so much that no one can take away.
noun, a particular right of possession or privilege one has from birth
In my last blog post I used the word birthright in reference to our God-given privilege and equipping to love others, even strangers, in a neighborly way. The next day I used the same word in a Facebook comment stating that "beauty from ashes" is our birthright. Having not used that word in many years and then using it twice in two days...it has my attention.
Right off the bat it reminds me of the first time I heard the word... as a child in Sunday School. The account of the lives of Isaac and Rebekah's sons, Jacob and Esau, in Genesis is one that I heard many times in my childhood growing up in church. Jacob took advantage of Esau's exhaustion and hunger after a day working outdoors and asked for his birthright in exchange for a bowl of stew. Like a poster-child for the word "hangry," Esau foolishly agreed. The privileges that were Esau's simply for being the twin who came out of his mother's womb first were transferred to Jacob. Turns out, that was a really big deal.
A birthright has to do with both position and inheritance. As children of God, when we are reborn into His family by grace through faith, we are automatically recipients of both position and inheritance. Positionally in Christ, we are:
The way the story of Esau reads, it hammers home the point that Esau "despised" his birthright.
“Esau said, ‘I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?’ Jacob said, ‘Swear to me now.’ So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright” (Gen. 25:32-34).
Commentaries on this describe that expression as meaning that Esau allowed his immediate discomfort (legitimate short-term hunger and exhaustion) to become more important to him than his long-term position and inheritance...to the extent that he might as well have despised it... it was just getting in his way of having what he really wanted in that moment. The life lesson for us comes when we look over the list above and reflect on how rich our inheritance is and how privileged our position and then examine the ways we've "despised" one or both by satisfying immediate, temporary cravings instead of walking by faith.
Thankfully, our birthright as children of God isn't up for grabs based on our whims or failings, but even though it is secure, the love of God compels us to want to live worthy of the position and the inheritance that are ours.
For more information about a Believer's position in Christ including all of the scripture references for the lists above: www.cru.org/us/en/train-and-grow/spiritual-growth/core-christian-beliefs/the-believers-position-in-christ.html
Like a Good Neighbor
I read the story of "The Good Samaritan" a couple of days ago and I can't stop thinking about it. The story of the good Samaritan in the Bible isn't something that actually happened, it is an example, an allegory, a parable that Jesus made up on the spot to try to uncover the motivations of "an expert in the law" who was testing him. First the lawyer asked Jesus, what he must to do inherit eternal life. Jesus responded by asking him to answer his own question by reflecting on what he was an expert at - the law. The man responded, "To love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself," (Luke 10:27). And Jesus confirms that the man clearly already knew the truth and that now he just needed to live it out. Then came the beginnings of heart revelation...
"But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus 'And who is my neighbor?'"
The story of the good Samaritan was told by Jesus, not to answer the man's actual question, but to address the motivations of his heart. The law expert wanted to justify himself; he didn't really want to know who his neighbor was. So Jesus told a story about a robbed and injured man on the side of a road in desperate need who couldn't save himself, and of three other men who "happened to be going down the same road." Two of the men, religious by profession, did not stop - in fact, they actively avoided the man in need. The Samaritan, someone who the lawyer would have considered beneath him, went above and beyond to care for the man at great personal cost to himself. At the end of the story, Jesus did NOT say, "Do you think that the man in the ditch should have been considered a neighbor?" Instead, he said to the lawyer:
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:36)
The man wanting to justify himself, wanted clarification on who precisely he was required to love and serve. Jesus, instead, showed him what it looked like to be a neighbor. The implication is that we are called to be neighborly and merciful to anyone and everyone we happen to be going down the same road with in life. That we GET to do that. It isn't a task to be checked off a list to make ourselves feel better (justified). Showing mercy and loving others in such a way that strangers feel like neighbors is our birthright.
Being loved without limits by God as our father, opens the door wide for us to be loving to whoever happens to be going down the same road we are. The destination is certain, our safe arrival there is guaranteed. We don't have to be in a rush to "get there," We get to embrace the journey; to open our eyes to others on the road and introduce them to the one who paved it and help them get back up on their feet and walk in freedom too.
A neighbor is not the people who live next door to us, or a list of people we really should love if we want to be considered good people.
A neighbor is who we get to be.
This morning, as the coffee machine beeps and I shuffle toward it, I see a flash of orange on the counter. It's the bracelet that I asked Tim to buy for me at his school yesterday. The one that says, "Team Amelia KHS Loves You!" I open the package and slip it on my wrist and look around the kitchen and smile. "Team." I get to be part of the team.
As I reach for a coffee cup in the cupboard, my hand goes toward the shiny white mug with the picture of an old fashioned camera and the word, "Smile," in black, and I do. I smile and I think about the friend who gave it (and so much more) to me. I am on her team and she is on mine.
I pour the rich, dark coffee and I pray, once again, for the family that particular brand of coffee reminds me of, the ones who live over the hill and down the street who are like parents and dear friends all rolled into one for me and mine (and for so many others). I am on their team and they are on mine.
As I move toward the living room, coffee in hand, I see a jar of rice left there by the young man who is sharing our home with us for a few months, as several dear ones have done before him. I remember each one who has slept down the hall from us and our son and filled our home with laughter and younger, fresher ways of thinking and I grin. I am on their team and they are on mine.
I sit on the sofa and out of the corner of my eye I see a card, mailed to my husband by a member of our church, with cursive handwriting (and stickers) thanking him for his recent message and his service. This church of ours - We are on their team and they are on ours.
I sip my coffee and open up a workbook for a study on the topic of "Living Beyond Yourself," the author of which I have never met, but whose words have sunk deep into my soul for decades. I breathe out gratitude for her many gifts. She is on my team and I am on hers.
I take my pen in hand and remember that the reason I am going through this particular workbook at this season of life is because I am doing so in tandem with a new friend. Someone who entered my life in an unexpected way as our circles of friends rotated around one another for months before we finally collided. It was meant to be. I am on her team and she is on mine.
I open Facebook on my laptop and see so many faces and words from those who have crossed my path over the last 43 years. Several brave women with beautiful bald heads tackling cancer one day at a time. Babies galore, captured by their moms and dads, laughing, eating, babbling and reaching milestones one by one. Friends, young and old, commenting from overseas, from Arizona, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Washington DC, Oregon, California, New Mexico, Idaho, Texas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Florida, Oklahoma, Montana, Indiana, Washington State, Nevada, Utah, Minnesota, Michigan... I'm starting to think it would be easier to note where they are NOT from. You are on my team and I am on yours.
I close my computer and head downstairs to rotate the laundry from the washer to the dryer and I glance at photos of our around-the-corner neighbors taped to our wall. Each face reminding me how glad I am that they are there, so very close by and that they hold the spare key - to our home and to our hearts. They are on our team and we are on theirs.
As my hands reach for the laundry I see that flash of orange again and I join with Team Amelia and pray that the cancer in her body dies - quickly and fully. I thank God that I get to be on her team and that she and her family are very much on mine.
It's all team work.
I took this picture this morning on our back deck. Isn't it lovely? Our family is so blessed to live in this home and to have this gorgeous view to wake up to each and every morning. But here's the thing... We've lived here for a full year and I just started sitting on the deck and enjoying the view four days ago. WHY? Why did I wait an entire year? Believe me, I've been asking myself that question all week. The answer is a lifelong lesson in the making for me. Bear with me as I bring you up to speed...
When Jason and I met, I was living in my first ever apartment in Southern California. I'd gone from sharing a dorm room in college in Tucson - to sharing a tent in Yosemite, the summer after graduation - to sharing a 100 year old house with seven other women during an internship in Connecticut - to having that two bedroom, two bath apartment with cathedral ceilings and a little balcony all to myself. With all of that space to live in and enjoy, with no one to compromise with and no one else's decorating opinions to consider, you'd think I would have gone wild with personal expression and creativity, but I didn't. In fact, I didn't do much of anything with that space beyond fill it with a few pieces of hand-me-down furniture. After Jason and I got married, less than a year later, he moved into the apartment with me and everything changed. The day he moved in, I had a single solitary item hanging on those soaring white walls - a plain white plastic clock the size of a dinner plate. Jason called it sparse. I called it minimalist.
Within a few weeks I agreed to hang a few pieces of his art and some photos on the wall. The next thing I knew he had a hodgepodge of hang-able things spread out on the floor and sofa putting them together into an arrangement to hang on the wall. There were at least 12 things. TWELVE THINGS ON ONE WALL. I almost had to leave the apartment. Not because I don't like tasteful collections of beautiful things on display... I really, really do. They make a house a home. But I don't know how to put them together and make them look good and I panicked that it would look an awful mess when all was said and done. Jason kept asking my opinion..."Should this go here or here? Do you like this better or this?" To which I would stare, furrow my brow, squirm and frantically say, "I DON'T KNOW!" I finally had to leave the apartment because the process was stressing me out so much. (That is embarrassing for me to admit.) When I came back, he had a tasteful collage of pictures and other decor hanging on the wall and I sighed in relief.
Why did that selective process bother me so much? Because I couldn't guarantee that it would look good in the end... I couldn't guarantee the outcome would be appealing because I don't have confidence in my artistic eye. I would rather live in a white walled wasteland than second guess my decisions or risk a less than perfect result. It should be perfect. I thought. Or not at all.
Fast forward 19 years to last summer. We bought a lovely home on a hill overlooking a beautiful valley and lake in the shadow of an inactive volcano in Northern California. TO DIE FOR. I love it and enjoy it so much. The best part of the house is the view through the windows and from the deck. You would think priority number one after moving in would be finding deck furniture, right? I've never bought outdoor furniture before. I immediately went into over-analysis mode at the thought and couldn't choose. I've tried to purchase a couple of simple wicker or metal chairs with cushions on more than one occasion, but I couldn't bear to spend the money not knowing if they would look 100% perfect on our deck or if they would be comfortable enough or durable enough or the right size, etc. So we've spent a year of sunrises and sunsets inside.
Last weekend, my guys left on an epic road trip adventure and I was in Target alone shopping for myself...splurging a bit. A new water bottle, a new pair of pajamas, a book. While I was in that mindset of thinking about simple things that I would enjoy while I was on my own I came across the aisle filled with things hopeful high school grads buy for their dorm rooms. There was a black, overstuffed folding chair that caught my attention right away. I pulled it into the center of the aisle and unfolded it and sat down. HUH. It was actually comfortable. It was small, but cozy and I could pull my feet up in it and be quite relaxed. My mind immediately went to our deck and without allowing my brain to begin listing all the reasons that this was NOT the perfect choice for our deck (It really, really isn't) I picked it up and put it in the cart and sped down the aisle toward the registers before I could talk sense into myself.
When I got home, I vowed that now that I had a chair to sit in outside, I would set my alarm 12 minutes earlier each day and get up and spend time reading and drinking my morning coffee on the deck while the sun rose over the lake. The first morning I was nervous. This was not the perfect deck furniture and there are loud barky dogs next door and sometimes there is bird poop on the deck or the railing and how dressed for the day does one have to be to sit on their back deck when their neighbors could potentially see them (are pajama pants and tank tops acceptable?). There were so many unknowns and imperfections about this. But I took my new chair, my coffee and my book, and a pen and my phone (in case the sunrise was too stunning not to document... see above) and I went out on the deck at 6:10 a.m.
I've been out there every morning since and heaven help anyone who tries to get between me and that deck in the mornings from here on out! Best. Part. Of. The. Day. Hands down.
All those wasted mornings not feeling the cool morning air on my skin, not being dazzled by the first bright rays of light coming up over the mountains, not thoroughly enjoying the gift God had given me. Why? Because I couldn't make it "perfect." As if the most expensive, "appropriate" outdoor patio set could improve that stunning view and the way that it makes me feel in the slightest bit!
Well let me show you what perfect looks like to me now: A $30 folding chair from Target and my son's old bathmat to rest my feet on.
There it is folks. Absolute perfection. Every single morning. That impractical, inexpensive chair is my happy place and my latest lesson learned.
I will no longer settle for putting off the enjoyment of a gift until everything is just so and the situation feels worthy and appropriate. A gift is a gift and it is meant to be enjoyed.
Now... to hang something on these walls.
In 2016 I didn't type a single word into this blog space. Not one. I didn't share wisdom or laughter or random thoughts. I was running on empty quite a bit and nothing seemed certain or steady, so sharing felt risky. I usually sit down in front of this screen and I don't actually know what I'm going to write about until the blog post is finished and then I sit back and go, "Huh. I didn't realize that was in my head/heart." So when I suspect that what is in my head/heart is muddled and off kilter... I am prone to avoid writing altogether because I'm afraid of what I might learn.
I'm sitting here now, nearly halfway through 2017, and I am ready to start again. This space has never been a traditional "blog" to me. I don't promote it or use search engine optimization or pay a bit of attention to the stats. I think I tried to once or twice because it felt like I was "supposed to," but once I turned 40 those sorts of life rules didn't have the same claim on me as they once did. (There are benefits to aging!) Are other people reading this? I have no idea. But I know that when I take the time to write, I'm better off for it. My head is clearer. My life makes more sense. I'm grounded. How strange to be grounded in cyberspace.
So what needs to come out of my head/heart now and onto this "page?" Let's find out... I'm just as curious as you are.
I've been sick with a nasty cold for the past few days and my plans have been turned upside down. Instead of parties and trips (planned), it has been bathrobe and bed and tissues and medicine (unplanned). As I now stare down the beginning of another week and the need to return to work and a normal schedule, I'm somehow grateful for the last five days of interrupted plans.
There is nothing like an interruption to get my attention. As I plan and prepare (constantly) and expect things to go a certain way, I inadvertently stop paying close attention to the here and now. And I miss opportunities to be grateful. To be blessed. I allow striving and a heart discontent with the myriad of minor interruptions that accumulate along the way threaten my peace and my sense of purpose. I find myself restless and unsettled, but unsure as to why. <Insert a major multi-day plan-interrupter here.> I always hate major disruptions at the outset, but somewhere deep inside, I also feel relief. Does that make sense? I never want to be sick or to have an accident or crisis. Never. I actively try to avoid all of these things. And yet, these are the things (sickness, accidents, crises) that give me societal permission to stop striving. So somewhere in my soul I welcome them and heave a strange sigh of relief when they do their priority-clarifying work.
I realize that this is an unhealthy way to go through life. It sometimes takes physical illness to reveal soul sickness. In the early days of 2017, I claimed the word "SERVE" as my motto for the year. I imagined a year full of pouring myself out, unselfishly, to my family and friends. I am now reminded, almost mid-way through the year, that when a pitcher is full, it doesn't have to be turned upside down in order to pour out, only slightly tilted. The emptier I allow my spirit to become (through striving and pushing and making constant preparations), the more upside down and out of balance I feel when I try to serve... to pour out. Living - alive and awake - in the moment, holding my plans loosely, seeking the face of God daily and trusting Him with all things is filling. These practices are mine to embrace or ignore, but they are what will fill me up. And life wasn't meant to run on empty.
"...Be still (cease striving), and know that I am God..." - Psalm 46:10
Earlier this week I clicked on an article on the Washington Post website about the newly designed office space at the Facebook headquarters. We recently went through a remodel at my own office and the whole concept of an open-office was a hotly debated topic during the planning process. The Facebook headquarters workspace is basically a (VERY) large open warehouse with desks, chairs, filing cabinets, and meeting rooms. Everyone can see what everyone else is up to. There is very little privacy. Even the CEO and founder, Mark Zuckerberg, does not have an office! I was mentally shaking my head at this concept... there is a reason for offices, a reason for privacy in the workplace; do we really need to add a new, cool, hipster vibe to something that is working well already? As I flipped through the pictures and imagined myself trying to work in that type of environment, I came across a quote from Lori Goler, Facebook's vice president of people. She said this of the open, rough-edged environment, "It's intended to be a symbol of what we believe at Facebook, which is that our work is unfinished."
The look of the facility was meant to demonstrate one of their core values, that their work is undone, that it will always be undone. That there are always ways to improve and add more value to the service they provide to the world. That made me pause.
I spend much of my life trying to "be done" or at least APPEAR done. To have it all together. Do I really believe that is an achievable goal? No, not really. I wish it were. Yet, I fashion my life and my outward representation of it in order for it to have a look of "doneness" about it. Just like a big company that has made lots of money and uses a portion of it to install marble floors and a mahogany receptionist desk, valuable artwork and high-end furniture to show people that they can be trusted, because, clearly they've done something right in the past to arrive at this current state of glory.
"It's intended to be a symbol of what we believe at Facebook, which is that our work is unfinished." I think I need to find ways to incorporate symbols of this belief in my own life... to remind myself and others that I have not arrived and I don't believe I ever will, that I am a work in progress, that I am striving toward something greater than myself and it is worth the effort. My life should not resemble a highly polished memorial to all I've accomplished, it should look like a beehive of activity where each new day brings the opportunity to step out and attempt one more time to live what I believe in new ways and see how God uses that to impact the world.
PS - I still don't want to work in an open office environment.
Don't Worry; I'll Keep You Safe
When the weather is nice, not too hot and not too cold, and not particularly windy, rainy or snowy, I get off the bus several stops early on my way to work and walk the rest of the way to the office. I pass by the headquarters of the American Red Cross and then I walk across 17th Street and hang a left. That intersection serves as an entrance to the White House and there are always Secret Service agents manning the gate. Typically, I simply nod and smile or say good morning and they return the greeting. One day last week, however, our interaction was a bit different and I can't stop thinking about it.
After I crossed 17th street, I needed to walk in front of the guard shack that leads to the White House entrance, but a series of black SUV's with tinted windows were pulling through the gate one after another. I stood still, waiting, not sure whether to cross in between the vehicles or wait. I eventually took a tentative step forward and the young Secret Service agent who was standing outside the guard shack looked me square in the eye, smiled and said, "Go right ahead. Don't worry; I'll keep you safe." He wasn't being patronizing and he certainly wasn't flirting. He was 100% sincere. He saw my apprehension and he reassured me. And I believed him. I stepped into the fray and crossed as he kept a watchful eye and the SUVs at bay. I walked the rest of the way to work that day with a lightness that I hadn't felt previously. It is reassuring to know that there are people who will stand in the gap for you, stare down the danger and take it on for you so that you can get where you need to go safely. It made me grateful for public servants of all kinds: police officers, military personnel, firefighters, and the like. More than that, it made me thankful for my God.
If someone wanted to run me down in their car that day, they could have. I don't know if the Secret Service agent could have stopped them or not, but he was willing to take responsibility for getting me safely from where I was to where I was headed and that is a very God-like thing to do. "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friend," John 15:13 KJV. He was willing to take the burden of my safety upon himself, assuring that I would get to the other side in one piece, and I let him.
Meanwhile, my God offers to take the responsibility for the eternal safety of my soul upon Himself and when I let Him, no one and nothing can ever harm me... not the real me, not the eternal me. I will most assuredly reach my final destination. "And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand. I and my Father are one." John 10:28-30 KJV. That sounds an awful lot to me like the ultimate, "Don't worry; I'll keep you safe." And I believe Him.
How To Unite A Divided Heart
When our wants are polar opposite, our hearts are divided. The resulting heart-strain is inevitable and it cannot go on forever. One desire has to win out over the other, or both must be released for the sake of something greater. This morning I read Psalm 86:11, "Teach me Thy way O Lord; I will walk in Thy truth. Unite my heart to fear Thy name."
Unite my heart to fear Thy name. In those situations when our heart is divided - we want THIS, but find ourselves doing THAT, or we want THING A when we are in SETTING A, but when we find ourselves in SETTING B we couldn't care less about THING A - those are the times we need a spiritual reality check. A house divided against itself cannot stand - That isn't just an Abraham Lincoln quote, it is a Jesus Christ quote.
Not only can a divided heart not persist, but a divided church cannot either. Charles Spurgeon described it this way in his sermon on September 25, 1859, "It is one grand and grievous fault with the church of Christ at the present day, that it is not merely divided somewhat in its creed, and somewhat also in its practice of the ordinances, but alas, it is also somewhat divided in heart. When the differences are of such a character, that as people of God we can still love each other, and still unite in the common battle against the cause of evil and in the common end of building up the church, then there is but little that is faulty. But when our doctrinal divisions grow to so great a head that we cease to co-operate; when our opinions upon mere ordinances become so acid towards each other, that we can no longer extend the right hand of fellowship to those who differ from us, then indeed is the church of God found faulty."
So what is the cure for division? Whether it is within our own hearts or within the collective heart of a people? God is our only hope. We are naturally bent toward division and it is the Holy Spirit of God alone who can reconcile. This prayer of David, "Unite my heart to fear Thy name," can be our guide as we pray. The goal of a unified heart isn't to alleviate pain, it is to see proper function and prosperity restored. When the pieces of a machine work against each other rather than with each other in harmony, the machine breaks down and no profitable work is accomplished. The same is true in our hearts and amongst us. We are capable of bringing about amazing good in the world when unity is restored. God is the only force in the world that can completely control us without destroying us. To give way to any other thing that promises unity or a higher purpose for our actions is to open the door to eventual pain and a further dividing of our hearts. The cure for a divided heart begins with a prayer that puts the warring desires on the table before a God worthy of praise, adoration, and devotion, seeing each desire as subservient to Him and His purposes. Then, to stand back and see what He does with them and with us. Rest assured. It's gonna be good.
If you have attended Christian worship services or read the Bible with any frequency, you've heard the phrase, "Wait on the Lord." It is an ongoing refrain in Christian hymns, in the Psalms, and throughout the Bible and you just can't miss it. So what does it mean? How do you wait? How long do you wait? Why do you wait? Why is this such a consistently repeated message? I don't claim to know the answers to all of those questions, even though my family has gone through a long season of what feels like waiting, I don't claim to be an expert. Even so, today I read something that leapt off the page at me and helped me to get a handle on at least a portion of this concept.
Psalm 25:3A, 21: "Indeed none of those who wait for Thee will be ashamed. Let integrity and uprightness preserve me, for I wait for Thee." NASB
I was reading from a study Bible that has cross-references and a Hebrew/Greek concordance in the back to serve as a reference and help the reader get more information about each verse and to parse out specific words. When I came across the words "wait for," they were underlined and in bold indicating that the Hebrew word that had been translated as "wait for" in this verse could be looked up in the back reference section of this Bible. I got excited! Maybe there would be something there that would help me better understand this concept and my current season of life. Here is what I found:
"Wait for" comes from the root Hebrew word, qavah (kaw-vaw). It means to bind together by twisting around and is translated as "wait for", "hope for", or "look for" in the Bible 44 times. If qavah, the root word, is any indicator itself of how we should think about waiting for the Lord, then waiting on God isn't standing alone in a barren place, patiently allowing the elements to batter us until He decides to move on our behalf (which is how I've often viewed it, even if I'd never say that out loud). No, if waiting is qavah, it is an active thing - making Christ the center of our thoughts, our actions, our decisions and circling back around Him continually, again and again, like binding together a rope. It means "depending on" and "ordering our activities around a future event or hope." (Strong's concordance)
I don't know if that strikes a chord with you, but it is an eye opener for me. In a season of waiting, we are not helpless, hopeless people awaiting miraculous intervention. We can and should be active, hope-filled people continually circling around Christ in expectation. Coming back to His Word, His ways, His Truth again and again, like an airplane circling the runway until it is clear to come in for a safe landing. All this circling isn't wasting time - it is space given to shift focus from the desired outcome to the One who holds the future. It is also strength-building. The more times cords are wrapped around each other to make a rope, the stronger the rope becomes. I am starting to think that is what waiting on the Lord is all about - it is an active time of strengthening, drawing closer to God, re-orienting our thoughts, attitudes and actions around the source of our hope until the day comes when it is time to move and we find ourselves so wrapped up in Him that we can't help but follow.
With that in mind, these verses come alive in a different way:
Psalm 27:14 Wait on the Lord; be of good courage and he shall strengthen your heart. Wait, I say, on the Lord.
Psalm 69:6 Let not them that wait on thee, O Lord GOD of hosts, be ashamed for my sake: let not those that seek thee be confounded for my sake, O God of Israel.
Isaiah 40:31 But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary and they shall walk and not faint.
Lamentations 3:25 The Lord is good to them that wait for Him, to the soul that seeks Him.
Hosea 12:16 Therefore turn to your God; keep mercy and judgment, and wait on you God continually.
Strength will rise as we wait upon the Lord
Today is the big 4-0. Here are the top 20 lessons I've learned between ages 20 and 40. Hopefully I don't have to relearn them between 40 and 60! Here's to learning many more new lessons as the years go by.
Twenty - You can think that what you have is perfect and you can plan the rest of your life around it. You can imagine a future that is picture perfect and it can all be gone in an instant. Better to plan your life around truth, character, and faith in God than around any one person, goal or achievement.
Twenty-One - It is good to have friends who you can trust, enjoy and laugh with. They are worth searching for and they are worth celebrating and valuing when you find them.
Twenty-Two - Go for it! Take a chance! Risk, within the boundaries of God's goodness, is a boon to growth and is bound to make memories that last a lifetime.
Twenty-Three - However far you go in one romantic relationship (physically, emotionally, spiritually) will determine where you are likely to want to start from in your next romantic relationship. It is a snowball effect that can lead you to jumping in with both feet when you don't really know someone well. Tread carefully. The right partner is worth the wait in all aspects.
Twenty-Four - Be open to job opportunities outside of your area of education or expertise. There is much to learn and many skills cross over between fields.
Twenty-Five - When you think that your past experience is going to dictate your future, you are trusting in your own limited understanding. Leave room for God, the author and perfecter of your faith, to write your story and allow yourself to wait breathlessly for the next page to turn.
Twenty-Six - A baby is always good news. Always.
Twenty-Seven - Exhaustion can teach us lessons that we cannot learn otherwise. Let it drive you to God and to those who are able and willing to help you. Self-reliance will only get you so far. Learn how to rest and how to share a load.
Twenty-Eight - Parenting is all about humility. Children do not care about your reputation.
Twenty-Nine - When something is a priority to you, you will make a way. If there seems to be no way, pray and ask God to purify your priorities and help you reorient your life.
Thirty - Regularly meeting together with a group of people who share your faith, but may be completely different from you in every other way is a taste of heaven. Look for it and dive in head first don't give a second thought to the temperature of the water or whether your bathing suit is appropriate.
Thirty-One - Leaving something that has been good in the past because it is becoming truly dangerous to you or others requires great strength and unswerving commitment to doing the right thing. It is worth it. Leave.
Thirty-Two - Starting over in a new place is hard, but doable.
Thirty-Three - If you seek Him, God will meet you in the most special and personal ways. Truly He knows you better than you know yourself.
Thirty-Four - Money isn't everything.
Thirty-Five - Changing course mid-stream is never efficient or comfortable, but sometimes it is absolutely necessary. Don't be afraid; fear wastes energy that you'll need to persevere.
Thirty-Six - Mentoring can change your life just as much as the lives of those you are pouring into. Keep your eyes open for someone younger than you who you can walk through life with. You'll both benefit.
Thirty-Seven - There are thousands of children in foster care in our country today. It requires less than you think to bless them and help them retain their sense of safety and self. Open your home when the opportunity allows, and support those who are doing so when you cannot. It is worth every sacrifice.
Thirty-Eight - You can sit through a completely devastating moment in time and come out the other side a fighter. You can be embarrassed, humiliated, brought lower than low and still keep your head held high. God is bigger and His plan for you cannot be thwarted. Learn what you need to learn in that low moment. Keep your character intact throughout.
Thirty-Nine - There is beauty in big cities and in rural communities. Do not be intimidated by what you do not know. Recognize that what you have to offer is valid no matter your surroundings.
Forty - God is good. He is faithful. He will provide just what you need at the moment of your greatest need. Believe Him when He gives it to you and watch what happens.
The Beautiful Mystery of the Soul
The longer I live, the more I am in awe of the mystery of the human soul. This eternal part of each of us that somehow instinctively knows that the ways of this world are completely out of whack and that we were made for more. This part of us that seeks the hard road rather than the easy road because it knows that something worth fighting for is its own reward and so much more valuable than any simple pleasure easily attained. This inner life that, when we will be still and quiet and humble, can commune with our Creator God and be restored no matter how wayward it has become. The Bible tells us that it is the Spirit of God himself that woos each and every soul to Himself. It also says that we can grieve that Spirit and quench its power in our lives if we ignore it long enough. I know of no greater tragedy.
I am currently reading a book called In God's Underground, written by Richard Wurmbrand, a Lutheran minister during the dark days of communist rule in Romania. He was put in prison for his faith more than once during that time. The first stint was for 9 years. He went into prison and his one and only son was a 9-year old boy. He came out of prison to be introduced to his son, the 18 year old man, without being allowed a single visit from him during those years. Such a loss of years and time, and yet God had preserved both of their souls exquisitely. On the night of his unexpected return from prison (they simply opened the gates and let him go one day) his son, Mihai, said to him, "Father, you've gone through so much. I want to know what you've learned from all your sufferings." Wurmbrand put his arm around his grown son and said, "Mihai, I've nearly forgotten my Bible in all this time. But four things were always in my mind. First, that there is a God. Secondly, Christ is our Savior. Thirdly, there is eternal life. And fourthly, love is the best of ways." My son said, "That was all I wanted." Later he told his father that he had decided to become a pastor. Two souls who had gone through so much heartache and pain, poverty and suffering - but perfectly sustained and more beautiful than they were at the beginning.
Once Wurmbrand had settled back in with his family at his very meager home in the attic of a building owned by another (their house had been taken by the government when he went to prison), he said, "Now that I was free, I longed in the depths of my heart for quietness and rest. But communism was working everywhere to complete the destruction of the Church. The peace I desired would have been an escape from reality and dangerous for my soul." It is only God who can put such depth into the human soul. Such selflessness is actually soulfulness! Denying the self for the benefit of the eternal soul. This is not harmful or sadistic, this is exchanging the temporal for the eternal and it is wise beyond earth's wisdom. When everything in us and everyone around us is telling us that retirement from the cause is in order - you've done enough - surely someone else can take up the torch now. To have a soul that knows that its very existence is owed to a Savior who did not stop until the fight was won. To have a soul that knows that it will be sustained by God through far worse than the mind or heart believe it to be able to bear. To have a soul that seeks to grow and expand and draw closer to the God who created it and wooed it from the beginning. To have a soul that trusts in the reality of the perfect plan and the power of God more than in the temporal realities it can see and feel.
This is the goal. What interesting, mysterious, paradoxical ways God can and does bring it about in each of us.
May I never curse my circumstances without first examining their soil for soul-growth properties. It could be that what the world calls prison, my soul recognizes as true freedom.
Isaiah 46:4 NIV, "Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you."
Back To School Parent Jitters
So it is back to school time and little Johnny/Susie is a year older and that means a new grade... a scary grade. At least for you, the parent. Perhaps you were up last night, a bundle of nerves. Hoping for the right teacher(s) and the right friends. Praying for a good first day. (Not you home school parents, naturally - you know exactly what your kiddo has in store this year and it is all up to you! No pressure. I was once one of you.) Well, I thought it would be a good opportunity to give you some advice. I do have all of one child, mind you. And this one child did better in French last semester than any other class he had on his schedule. French is, mind you, the only subject his father and I know nothing about. So clearly, he is thriving at school because of our actions, and we are qualified to dispense advice.
So here you go, free of charge. The top three ways to deal with back to school parent jitters.
1. Emotionally. Be an emotional wreck. Just give in to it. Wail and moan. Freak out. Go from one extreme to the other in the span of 3 minutes. Take a million and one pictures, sit on their beds and lament that they are growing up too soon. Then eat your feelings. Then shift blame. "Wait a minute, I've done everything I could possibly do for this child. If he/she doesn't thrive in this new grade, it is pretty much his/her fault! That's right. I packed the bento box with just the right balance of carbs and protein. I provided hydration options. I went back to school clothing shopping at the mall with every other human being on the planet at the same time. What's wrong with this kid?" All of these emotions should be experienced and resolved prior to 3:00 p.m. when junior gets off the bus in the afternoon. This is a viable option. Not a good option, but a viable one.
2. Physically. Just go to school with them. You know you want to. Sit next to her. Point out when she could be doing better. Make sure the teacher notices how bright she is. Suggest appropriate friendships and then take the initiative to introduce her to them. Sit by her at lunch and continually stroke her hair. If she is in high school, she will be particularly pleased by this. This is a viable option. Not a good one, but a viable one.
3. Spiritually. Read this blog post I wrote last summer. Consider what the worst possible scenario really is and then let the God of the universe work in your heart to alleviate your fears and put a song of praise in your mouth. This is a viable option. A hard one, but a good one.
HAPPY FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL!!!
Black Belt Faith
Today we went to a local martial arts studio to see a friend take her black belt certification test in taekwando. The test lasted two hours. That's two solid hours of swinging nun-chucks, kicks, punches, jumps, push-ups, sparring, proper form, jumping jacks, leg lifts and sweat. Lots of sweat. I don't know what I was expecting, but that wasn't it. It was all about breaking down the candidates physically and pushing them to their absolute limits to see how they respond. Earning a black belt was more about perseverance than perfection.
I couldn't help but compare the experience to the walk of faith for a Christian. Here are a few comparisons:
1. The instructors and the spectators were there to cheer the candidates on, to encourage them to go farther and try harder than they would otherwise, and to bear witness to their expected success. The church is meant to do the same. 1 Thessalonians 5:11 ESV, "Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing."
2. One of the criteria that the candidates were being judged on was attitude. They could do the entire two hour workout perfectly, but if they refused to bow in respect, respond appropriately to their instructors, and show a level of enthusiasm for what they were doing, they would fail. The same is true for the Christian. I Corinthians 13:1-3 ESV "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing."
3. The candidates were expected to yell back their responses to each of the instructors questions. We were in a small enclosed space and yelling seemed odd, but it was required. One of the instructors explained to the spectators that the reason they required the candidates to yell was that when you yell, it forces you to inhale deeply afterward, and breathing is one of the most important things for the candidates to do to keep them going. Rather than telling them to breathe over and over again, they train them to yell and allow the breathing to come naturally. Sometimes directions from a learned master don't seem to make sense, but we trust in our teacher who knows more than we do. It is the same for the Christian. Isaiah 55:8-9 "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts."
4. Perseverance and stamina over the long haul are key to success. There will be moments of feeling like you can't go on for every black belt candidate - probably more than one over the course of two hours, but continuing on regardless of feelings, trusting that a second/third/fourth wind will catch up to you if you just press on. The same is true of the Christian. James 1:12 ESV, "Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him."
A black belt is just a white belt that never gave up.
A saint is just a saved sinner that persevered in the faith.
the power of your story
Today I read this story about a young man in Belize whose life was radically changed by people loving him and encouraging him when his own parents abandoned him at the age of 12. I was moved by the way I saw God's hand in his life as he described the twists and turns that led him to the place of gratitude and hope where he is now. I can imagine that it took courage for him to write his story down and that there were probably times where he doubted whether he should or not. Sometimes something means an awful lot to us, but we have doubts about whether or not it would mean much to others. It is disconcerting to share our stories when others may discount their value or weight. Earlier this week I read two different accounts written by fathers who lost a child. One to a stillbirth and the other to a tragic car accident at age five. Both commented that they were hesitant to share their stories. They were concerned about somehow cheapening the weight of their experiences with their own clumsy words and even worse, laying them out there for others to criticize or judge - not just their writing, but their very motives for writing in the first place.
I am thankful that each of these people chose to tell their story. SO thankful. I am drawn to stories. True stories. Biographies, autobiographies, historical sketches, blogs, I want to read them all. To me, this is the stuff of life.
In Shauna Niequist's book, "Bittersweet," she writes this, "There are myths that we tend to believe about our stories: the first is that they're about us; they don't matter. But they're not only about us, and they matter more than ever right now. When we, any of us who have been transformed by Christ, tell our own stories, we're telling the story of who God is... My life is not a story about me. And your life is not a story about you. My life is a story about who God is and what he does in a human heart."
Let's be brave and tell His story about our lives - about what He has brought us through and what He is walking with us in today and where He seems to be leading us. And let's not be quick to judge when others share their stories. There are things to learn about God and what He is doing in the world bound up inside each and every person we meet - my bus driver, the woman I pass in the city each day holding a cardboard sign, your son's swim team coach, the mail carrier, my neighbor, the telemarketer. Perhaps if we saw each other that way, if we saw ourselves that way, we'd approach each other with a bit more grace and dignity, and we'd dive deeper into the the greatest story ever told.
A Family-Friendly Summer
After church today, I found myself frustrated with our son and about to launch into a diatribe on all the reasons he better "shape up or this is going to be one long summer." I then detailed my frustration to him - namely, the constant need to remind. Reminders to take care of the dogs, reminders to eat breakfast, reminders to make sure he has clean laundry, reminders to mind his manners, reminders to keep his attitude in check, reminders to brush teeth or use deodorant, reminders to limit his screen time. I told him that I felt like we'd been reminding him about the exact same things for 13 years and that I was about to lose my mind that he still needed to be reminded. Then I took a deep breath and looked at his frustrated and defeated face and found the grace (thank you, God) to say, "What's driving you crazy? That's what is driving me crazy, but anytime three people live in a two-bedroom apartment together and call each other family they are going to drive each other crazy. So what makes you frustrated with Daddy and I lately?" Surprise, surprise - His father and I have some pretty annoying habits as well! Turns out as much as we hate reminding him about things every day - he hates BEING REMINDED constantly! He also doesn't like that we tell him to limit his screen time, but it seems to him that we are constantly staring at a screen ourselves. There were others, but there's no reason to over-share, right?
We ended up having an impromptu family meeting and coming up with a game plan to eliminate the annoying reminder cycle (we will not remind him about things unless he asks for assistance in being reminded and he will suffer natural consequences and/or loss of time with friends if he lets something important slide) and to limit our screen time as a family this summer (Technology-free Tuesdays for the whole family and a set time limit for internet usage the rest of the week.) We have also posted a family calendar for the summer on the refrigerator and we have committed to finding a family hobby to enjoy together during all those hours that will be freed up by the lack of nagging and internet surfing.
Living together as family is not always easy (sometimes it is down right exhausting and painful), but God is faithful to provide ways to help us live together in peace and even joy when we commit to sticking it out as a family and not giving up on each other. What are some ways that you have found to make family life better, especially during the summer months?
Ephesians 6:1-4 “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”
No man is an island, but man is it ever tempting to try it out sometimes! There is nothing quite like having to suffer through the consequences of someone else's decision to make you want to bar the doors and windows and give the hermit-life a try. As long as we live on this planet, we will be effected by the decisions of others. Sometimes for good, other times not so much. The same decision-making capability and freedom that God granted you, he also gave to your family members, friends, boyfriend/girlfriend, co-worker, boss, pastor, political leader, and even strangers on the street.
No matter how hard we try, we cannot control those around us or insulate ourselves from their choices. So what can be done when we find ourselves tossed in the wake of someone else's decisions?
1. Take a deep breath. Maybe more than one.
2. Remember that you are responsible for your own actions and reactions, regardless of how you feel or who made you feel that way. One bad decision by someone else doesn't necessitate another from you.
3. Plead with God for a higher perspective and a compassionate heart. It may come right away, but it might not. Expect it. Wait for it.
4. Acknowledge the reality of the situation and the greater reality of God's sovereignty and His promise to work everything together for your good (Romans 8:28). Acknowledge it in prayer, in journaling, in a conversation with someone you trust. Keep acknowledging it until you find yourself dwelling more on what He can do than on what was done "to you."
5. Take one step in the right direction. A step of forgiveness, a step of faith, a step away, a step forward, whatever is the next right thing - do that. Don't wait too long.
Repeat as needed.
Bonus - #6. Thank God for your own freedom to make decisions and even to make mistakes and learn from them. Ask Him to help you vividly remember this moment when you next make a decision that will impact those around you.
Carla Ritz. Proof positive that God uses cracked pots!