Thursday, July 21, 2016

Why We Gotta Play Nice: How True Joy Helps Us Be Truly Unified

This battle, is back-breaking.

The fight to have joy, on a Thursday, in 2016, is demanding.

When three year olds flush socks and toothbrushes and puppies yelp all the long night and your kindergarden is smarter than you, how in the world do you press on towards joy?

Jeesh, some days, wouldn't it not be more realistic to just fall down and take the beating of life?

When weeks are filled with deferred hopes or harsh criticisms, how dare I ask us to engage in this battle?

Is there not the temptation to just accept a life of quick highs and plummeting lows, resigning that this is life?

Yet, in these last months, the invitation to battle for joy was one I could not refuse. Could it be that there is a joy that levels mountains and raises valleys? Could it be that this is a fight worth fighting, that gives me something far better than happiness?

This last spring,  we studied Philippians, a letter from a pastor named Paul, to his church in Philippi. Each week, I saw his words point me to Jesus, who is my example and my very reward in this battle for joy.  In true Gospel fashion, the themes of this book turned concepts on their heads, putting front runners in the back and pulling the least of these to the seat of honor, titling life as loss and death as gain.

And therefore, I have had to do some back tracking, as I see in Paul's letter that the pursuit of joy comes not from a filling, but an emptying.

As chapter 1 closed, I saw Paul displaying joy, as he was emptied of so much of what made him him. Rather than waiting in fear for life's next blow, could I bravely beat life to the punch, willingly pouring out my love for being in my element?

Instead of waiting in pessimism for life to take away my freedoms, could I wage war on common happiness by emptying my heart of lesser lovers? Could I pour out my love of success and being liked by others, and love Christ instead?

And rather than chasing down a life that meets my expectations, could I let the question mark remain on my future? Ya know, the unknown future, the dream that just doesn't seem likely anymore. Could I allow it to loom on my horizon and yell at it's unavoidable face that Jesus is better than a plan for my future?

These truths from chapter 1, left me feeling inspired and encouraged to find joy!

But, then.

Chapter 2.

Chapter 2 introduces a joy-stealer. A thief that is just too close to my heart. A bandit of both joy and peace. 



Girl fights.

The church that Paul loves is having some drama, there are some women who can't seem to get along, who can't seem to play nice.

A regular assault to our happiness is conflict with each other. So Paul walks his church through the battle plan. He begins by telling his audience to do nothing from rivalry or conceit.

Rivalry, this desire to get ahead.

And conceit, being puffed up when I am ahead.

This image came eerily quickly to my mind. My minds eye shows me the times I have hurriedly pushed my way to the front, elbowing my way and then sticking my chest out and my chin up once I am there.

Oh how I wish I was writing this blog to junior high girls. But, ladies, we don't outgrow this behavior, do we?

Do we not rival each other, for the front of a million sneaky lines?

Are we not conceited at times, wanting all the best for ourselves? The best homes, reputations, kids, bodies?

Do we not nudge each other out and push each other down, subtly, so that we can enjoy the top all by ourselves?

Don't we desire to be viewed as put together, poised, and confident?

Does something in us squirm when we see someone else have what we want--their flat tummy, their bulky bank account, their attentive husband?

Do we not find subtle ways to let everyone know how we are ahead? How full we are with a busy schedule, friends, and purpose? So we post on Facebook only the pictures that reveal our best days, but hide our double chins, unflattering angles, and tempers.

(Perhaps we should take a lesson from my youngest here. Front, and center, if you weren't sure)

Why, why do I do this? Why do I forfeit my battle for joy by getting caught up in this? Why, do we, like the women of Philippi, wage war against each other rather than linking arms and advancing across the battlefield for joy?

A few years ago, God graciously let me experience a bloody battle that exposed my caustic heart in this area, and I will never be the same. Time moved slowly, but eventually I limped off the battle field. Grace cleared the fog, and I found understanding of why I, and maybe other women, find it hard to play nice.

I often grasp for position or praise when I am insecure. Yet insecurity is only a symptom that covers up my underlying disease of pride. I feel insecure when I think I am being shorted of something that I deserve. In that moment of rivalry, conceit, and insecurity, I believe that God has given to someone else, what he should have given to me.

In this moment, there is much at stake. There is much to be lost in friendships, in our families, and in our churches.

What do we do?

Do we fill up our life with super good friends, friends that would never hurt us or misunderstand us or withhold grace and understanding?

Do we fill up a list of how we can be a good friend and will ourselves to execute it perfectly? Do we stuff these insecurities deep within our inner dialogue praying earnestly that they never sneak out?

I wonder if the best motivation to play nice, the best strategy to battle for joy, involves turning these concepts on their head? Or maybe, just like in Philippians 1, in this fight for joy, this fight for unity, is also about emptying?

In chapter 2, Paul unpacks the greatest emptying ever displayed, when Christ emptied himself of all his rights to come to earth. Jesus set aside his heavenly throne and glory and emptied his body of his glory, and became a man, putting on our weak skin. And once here on earth, he didn't fill up with the pleasure of immediate success or popularity, but assumed the position of a servant. And with his eyes on an eternal joy, he poured out his life, in the style reserved for criminals. He went after his forever joy by bravely pouring out his very blood.

 This emptying allows us to have peace with God, as Jesus took our punishment from God, paving the road to joy for our otherwise condemned hearts.  But it also is the solution to find peace with each other, giving the richest of examples of humility.

I must move my gaze-- from whatever she has, from what I want, from who she is, and who I want people to believe I am. And I must, I must put my eyes on Jesus. The Jesus who didn't grasp for any power or glory, but laid it down. And came for you, and for me.

To my friends still with more questions than answers about this Jesus. This Jesus who emptied himself of heaven, of glory, and position, he did it for love. This love is for you, friend.

To my friend plagued with insecurity, or sick with pride, there is freedom for us. We can fix our eyes on this example of emptying and quit the race to the top, to the front.

Joy is ours when grace teaches us to emulate Christ's humility. And that humility, keeps us from the fights that rage between us.

May you experience the joy of the God who loves you, today.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

When You Need to be Intersected: How to Find Your Soul's Oasis. (and a video link)

I suppose we all need this, a time or two. Someone to step right in our way, slowing us down on our escape plan.

I suppose we all run away, in one form or another. Some routes are sprints right outta town, to put distance between us and our hurt, our shame. Other departures are slow,  so gradual that we don't perceive it. A road slowly paved by chronic disappointment or quiet bitterness.

Maybe it's not an actual leaving, but it's a disengaging, for the hope of your soul's protection. 

Most of us have been in a situation or a relationship that devour our faith, a situation that leaves us broken and bruised, unseen and unnamed, seemingly creating no other option but to run away.

What we believe we need is freedom from the pain, a new road paved by our own efforts and self-preservation. 

But then we find ourselves a mile in and surrounded by desert. A dry spirit, a parched heart. Lost, exhausted, dehydrated. 

Perhaps then, on this escape plan, we start to sense the inadequacies of our scheme. And then, there could be nothing better for us, then to be intersected.

It is there, at this point of intersection, that we are like Hagar. Hagar, a Biblical wallflower.  Hagar, the seemingly insignificant slave girl of Abraham and Sarah. Hagar, an Egyptian woman who never dreamt there was a God of Promises for her too.

Impregnated by Abraham, and then abused by Sarah. Hopeless and emotional and scared, Hagar makes a runaway path in the desert.

And it's at a spring of water, in a desert, along her escape route, that she gets intersected by God.

It's at this oasis, where the God of her masters, converges upon her. And he slows her, on this flight, to let her see the God who sees her.

And everything, everythingis changed when we see the God who sees-and loves- us. 

This story is for you, whether you believe in this God of seeing, or deny his existence. Whether his love defines you or confuses you, this story is for you. 
Whether your desert road was paved by your own shame, or the harshness of others, this story will lead you to a soul oasis. 
Friends, this story is about God, this story is about you, this story is about me.

I had the joy of unpacking this Scripture to the women of my church last week. If this sounds like you in any way, if your heart is dry, if you feel unseen, I invite you to listen to this story about the God of seeing. The God who still chases down and rescues dry souls.  Check out the video link here . 

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Making Room for Joy

christian joy

Tell me you have seen Inside Out. It's nothing short of brilliant.

Matt and I laugh through the entire thing, ever time. All 53 times that we have seen it.

But as some introspection started, a concern grew in me, as I began relating way to much with this lady:

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Sadness. The nemesis of Joy.

Oh Joy, Amy Poehler-in-cartoon-form, how I fear that I would frustrate you.

The realization that I have to regularly fight for joy surprises me. How IN THE WORLD can it still be difficult to smile big and brave and be an optimist?

How is it that I hold up the cup of my life and often see it as half empty?

Like so many of you, I live the good life. I am blessed with a godly, gooooood-lookin' husband, healthy children, a great home, and a purposeful job. Yet I still find that if I don't fight for joy, it doesn't come.

Is the same true for you? Do you find the battle for joy an arduous one?

I wonder, if maybe, I have approached this all wrong. I have often thought joy is about being filled up. Filled up with optimism and happiness.  And even if I don't feel joyful, if I simply fill up a list of things I'm thankful for, that joy will be mine.

Like stuffing happiness into that half empty cup, willing it full.

But, I'm starting to believe there is more to it. As if surrendering, I turn that cup on it's head, spilling out it's contents. Because joy begins not with a filling up, but an emptying.

Whether you know the Bible inside and out (get it...?) or have never read a Bible in your life, we all long to feel joy. As I study a missionary named Paul, a Jesus-hater turned Jesus-lover, I see that his battle for joy began with this emptying.

Paul writes a letter to a church in Philippi while he was imprisoned for preaching Jesus. From house arrest Paul smiles big and brave and commands his readers to "Rejoice!" After years of fruitful  adventures of planting churches across Europe and Asia, he is now in chains. He is tethered, and seemingly limited. His pace had been slowed, and humbled. It is during this season of limitation that we hear him say "Rejoice!"  Paul claimed that to live is Christ, therefore life's goodness couldn't primarily be found in "being in his element", doing what he did best. Paul found joy because he learned to treasure Christ, not his career, his ministry, or his ability to feel success. I wonder, perhaps, if we can be filled with joy, after we are emptied of lesser purposes?

And to my young mom-friend, I know this is you. I see you, with a herd of sticky children at your ankles, and another on the way, and I see your humble position.  I know that you are reading this from your own version of house arrest. Maybe you are remembering your years of productivity, making money, climbing the corporate ladder, or just brushing your teeth before 1:00 nap time. Is the battle for joy strenuous because you feel tethered down, or slowed? Do you feel that your work is unseen, and thankless?

Friend, let me believe for you, that God is inviting you to greater joy as he empties you of other purposes. Could you believe that your position, however humble it may be, is a strategic placement, by a God who loves you? These years in the trenches, when surrendered to God, are indeed on task, on pace. Maybe not on pace for the kind of productivity of years earlier, but on pace for a joy that digs much deeper and much wider than any happiness this life offers us.

I see ways that God has lovingly limited me, that he might teach me about himself, and about the joy that he gives. I see the fetters he has placed on my ankles to ensure that I don't run off, galavanting about doing great works, when my greatest purpose is to first treasure him. In a peculiar way, these chains around my ankles and wrists provide for me, as they give me the opportunity to ask "Do I want Christ more than I want the freedom to do life my own way?"

Secondly, as Paul is telling us that joy is possible, he is being bullied by some other preachers. There were some men who were competitive with Paul, and jealous of his gifting. And while Paul is imprisoned, it seems that they rub salt in his wound and want to use this time to get ahead. While his competitors move about freely, with the freedom that he used to have, preaching and gaining converts, Paul was in the more humble of positions. Perhaps Paul was emptied of the fullness that we feel when we are on top, when we are enjoying success.  And as he prized Christ, he was filled with joy. 

Beautiful friend, I know that this is you.  I know you look out and see the people who have everything you wished you had. Their lot in life is what you desire- they have the job you wanted, the kind of husband you desired. They have the freedom and the success that you used to have, that you thought you would have by now. You wonder when it will be your turn to shine, your turn for life to ease up.

I have been there too. Looking around will never bring us real joy. But looking up, and treasuring the God who loves us, and sees us, will create a greater capacity for joy. Your God has not forgotten you, friend, the empty ache you fill is nothing short of an invitation to drink deep of his love for you.

And lastly, as Paul is commanding us to rejoice, his future is unknown. There sat on the horizon a consuming question mark. What did God have for him? Deliverance from his current circumstance or execution? Could it be that Paul was so full of joy because he was emptied of a planned out future? Was his strategy that he treasured Christ more than answers from Christ?

Oh long suffering friend, I know this is you. I know that prayers for a baby in your womb have been lifted up for years. Will you be delivered from this waiting, or will it continue? Oh how I want your circumstances to change.  How I want God's answer to be yes.

But even if not, how I believe that your empty space could be filled to overflow with joy.  I believe in you, and I believe in your God, that you will advance bravely in the battle for joy as you create this empty space. Oh friend, as you wait to see how God's promises will play out for you, may joy surprise you.

When the battle for joy is backbreaking, perhaps we are working too hard to fill up our cup? Could it be that we are filled up with a love for productivity, being loved by the masses, or the security of a future plan?

Are those lesser pursuits curbing our appetites for a heavenly joy?

In a moment of valiant belief, could you take the cup of your life, no longer half empty, but poured out empty and barren, and lift it up to Jesus? And as grace teaches us this art of emptying, may we learn that to live is Christ. As John Piper says, "We glorify Christ when he is better than all that life can give, and all that death can take."

When we embrace that his love and grace are truly greater than all else we could pour into, our cup overflows.

When all else begins to pale next to Christ, we can find the strength to humbly serve, to wait with hope, and to honor Christ no matter our circumstances.

Friend, look at your grace chains and rejoice in them. Whatever steps backwards, whatever quiet position, whatever circumstance that has an unknown future. Study those chains of grace, they are like a diamond solitaire on your hand, a proof of how loved you are.

You are largely loved, by a God who is working in your life. He desires to bind you to himself, that you may be filled to overflowing, with joy.

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Day I Traded in for Grace

There was day a few years ago where a well of condemnation poured forth with grace. This was the day I traded in my spilling cisterns for an oasis of mercy.

It was much like her day, the Woman of Samaria....

The sun was high. The hot dust blew up off of the cracked ground, into my face as I neared the well.  You sat on the edge of it, and watched me come near. 

Your few students brushed past me, headed into town. They gave me no eye contact, their gaze cutting right past me, an interaction I had grown accustomed to.

As I lowered my water jar to the warmed stone, your eyes locked in on mine. They were quick to pierce right into me, and I sensed a breech on my thick walls.

I recognized that you were Jewish and so when you asked me for a drink it caught me off guard.

I recall keeping my strategy simple, drawing attention to the simplest of reasons why I didn't need you, why you shouldn't ask anything of me.

"How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?"

This chore was rarely interrupted by anyone. I had learned to handle the heat, and the reticence. It was better those than the condemning looks and whispers of the other women. This daily walk strengthened my muscles of independence, my muscles of self-preservation. 

Tired as those muscles were, they carried me to this well at this time of day. To meet a lunch date I didn't know I had. 

But there you were, almost like you were waiting for me, almost like you wanted more than a drink of water from me.

I remember what you said, and that you didn't answer my question. "If you knew the gift of God and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water."

Living water? A quick picture came to mind. An image of a strong current of water pouring from the city of God. Something welled up in me, as I recalled the old teachings of the prophets. Teachings about a Savior who would refresh, cleanse, heal. A Savior who was like water-water so alive that it turned salty bodies into fresh, a God who would bring life to parched places.

But I quickly came back at you, stiff-arming my hope, knowing I, being a Samaritan, was unfit for a city of God.

I reminded you that you had no water jar, no way to go deep into that well. And as I begin to conclude that you were, indeed, a teacher, I reminded you of Jacob.This was his well, an ancestor to both the Jews and the Samaritans, a father of my weak mule of a religion. It was my claim to the same faith-fathers as the most pious Jews. It often soothed the fear that my faith would be found lacking.

But I suppose when I asked you rhetorically if you were better than Jacob, that I was actually asking (and hoping) that you were indeed much more than my dry religion.

But you saw through it, through me, again.

You nodded in the direction of the well and said "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life."

Never thirst again?

What had just stirred within my soul was now forgotten as I imagined a life of daily peace. Never thirst again? That meant no more long hot walks to a vacant well. No more reminders of everyone that I was avoiding and why I was avoiding them. No more long draws of water that would only satisfy for a few hours.

Ya know that daily place you find yourself, that place that rubs on your wounded soul? The job, that person, that repetitive talk that daily lies at you that it's better to be alone, better to hide?

"Give me this water!" I urged.

But in that next moment, both my excitement for physical refreshment, my hope for ease were squelched as you pierced my heart, and my disease spilled out.

"Go, call your husband, and come here."

My heart fell deep in my core as my eyes fell to the hot sand with shame. Every inch of me squirmed with discomfort.

He knows what everyone else knows. He knows my story. He knows I've had 5 husbands, he knows my current disgrace.

He knows that I'm unfit for love.

My posture straightened and stiffened, resolving that this well, of condemnation, and my insufficient religion, would once again rub harsh like sandpaper on my wounded heart.

But, I remember, that day, at the deep well, as you told me about myself, you were also telling me about yourself.

And looking back, I can see, that's when things changed.

As you pulled both my hurts and my shame to the very front and center, that was the moment I qualified for your attention. My inadequacies, that actually led me to you at that well that day, left in me a thirst for living water. And unlike everyone else, you drew them out not to condemn me, but to engulf me in grace.

Because from the moment my disgrace spilled out, you told me about yourself. The topic changed from who did what to me and what I did to them, and it became about you, the Living Water.

And as I fumbled for words and last-shot excuses you told me that you were who I was waiting for.

You were my soul's oasis in a desert of dehydrated love.

You were my fountain, my grace spring that would go so much deeper than any well I daily visited.

And you told me that you do not desire the religious, but the needy.

And you told me that Your love was fit for me.

I looked at my water jar, cracked and already leaking the water I had just drawn.

And I understood.

I put it down.

My attempts to contain a water that would never really satisfy.
My attempts to preserve what was left of my dignity.
My patterns of either playing the victim or condemning myself.

I put it all down.

I looked away from the well, my hopes and claims on a religion that exhausted me, and I looked instead at you.  And there you were, eyes still on me, albeit my greatest shames and mistakes on my lap. and with your eyes dividing everything in me, I felt so exposed, so known, and yet so loved.

And so I ran to town, to tell whoever I could, who I found at the well.


This woman, she was like me. I am like her.

I had a day like her, several years back. A day that first appeared of condemnation, and shame, but then dug deep deep into a well of grace, and sprung up into new life.

I remember that cold night, my heart hard, dry and cracked like a desert ground.

I approached a table of condemnation, and was told of my sin of gossip. I was told it would be better for me to be alone, because of my issues.

But you were also there, almost like you were waiting for me. Almost like you wanted more from me.

You didn't want me to merely stop gossiping.  You didn't even want me to try and quickly mend the broken friendship. You looked at me, knowing me, and you showed me my condition. I gossiped because I was insecure, and I was insecure because of pride. And that this disease of pride had run undetected for too long and was drying out my soul, and hurting people close to me.

My tears came fast and hot, as I held my shame in my lap, there in front of you.

And as disapproval beat down hot on me, the judgements that were uncomfortably deserving, my first reaction was to soothe the pain with my religion. I stiff armed your invitation of grace with my religion, resolving that my efforts would fix my mess. I thought I would just try harder, draw deeper from my wells of religion and self-effort.

But you spoke of living water. You spoke of a well of grace. You invited me to trade in my spilling cisterns, and find healing, refreshment, and life.

Grace was a strong current, and it was first up to my ankles, and then my legs and then I felt it engulf me. And it was like you were healing me from the ankles up, and I found freedom.

As you pulled both my hurts and my shame to the very front and center, that was the moment I qualified for your attention. My inadequacies, that actually drew me to you that day, left in me a thirst for living water. But you pulled them out not to condemn me, but to engulf me in grace.

This was the day, decades into Christianity, that I came to the well of grace. The spring that bursted forth with life giving grace. This was the day I traded in my spilling cisterns of trying to impress God and others, for an oasis of mercy.

 And you and I are both invited. To this oasis where we can greatly need a great God, an oasis where we can be well-watered woman, by grace alone. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Hope This Christmas: When You Need Life to Spring Out Of What Has Been Severed

 This is our first Christmas in our current home. There's always something near magical about decorating a home for it's first Christmas. Finding a place for the nativity and the candy bowl, and of course-the tree. 

Last year, while we were still up to our necks in transition we had a 2 foot little table top tree in our little rental home. 

Anyone out there have a strong-willed, high-expectation kid? 
Anyone ever tried to wow that kid with a two foot Christmas tree? 

Yea, I wouldn't suggest it. 

We tried to pack in lessons of contentment and inspirations to simplify Christmas, all to keep that bless-ed child from tearing down that mini tree each and every morning. 

We succeeded but...just barely.

So when we bought our home in February, that same darling son of mine, marches into the living room, like he was a conquistador claiming the land. And I watch his big doe eyes survey the room and then lift to the ceilings.

And it's that moment, when you are reading that sweet-first-borns mind with amazing clarity, that you realize the apple didn't fall far from the Christmas tree.

From that day on he began planning that because of his patience with that stump of a tree from last year, that this year we would get a giant of a tree and place it smack in the middle of the living room, so it could reach to the top of the vaulted ceiling. We were thankful that we had TEN months to  smash gently lower his hopes.

But don't we all love the Christmas tree? As we bring the timber into our homes, decorating it with sweet memories, and place precious gifts beneath it,  it often becomes the front and center of our December decor.

This year, I have been studying Advent for the first time. I have learned that Advent is about tracing Jesus’ family tree. I imagine that I am climbing down from the top of Jesus'  family tree and seeing him and his plan to rescue us in stories throughout the entire Bible.

Well, 700 years before Jesus’ first birthday, in the dark years of the Old Testament is yet another Christmas tree.  And it's this forgotten Christmas tree; I have read right over it and missed the rich Christmas lesson that it holds.  We could more accurately call it our Advent tree. In fact if you are a pinterest addict like some of us, you have probably seen it dotting your home page. It's called the Jesse tree.

Isaiah 11, verse 1 and 2 says:
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
    and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.

Isn't that the most obscure verse? At first, that does nothing for my Christmas appetite. But as I have studied it this past month, it has now become the front and center of my December. 

So here's the context, with some strong help from John Piper

Isaiah is a prophet, he was God's mouthpiece during years of rebellion. He is warning them, that because of their hardened hearts, they were going to be taken over by their enemies, Assyria.

Right before this, at the end of Isaiah 10, God paints this image. And honestly, at first, it's devastating.  He says he is going to lop off the branches with a terrible crash, those who are tall in stature will be cut down and those who are lofty will be based. He will cut down the thickets of the forest with an iron axe.

God's people, the Israelites, were this abundant forest, standing tall and lofty, full and green. But because they didn’t want anything to do with him and invitations to return to him, God sent the Assyrians as an axe to cut them down.  

Can you imagine this scene? A forest of evergreens (to keep the Christmas theme) once full and flourishing, now decimated. Picture a forest of pine trees, acres upon acres, cleared down to the stumps. 

But with the new chapter comes the promise:
"There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse."

And if you were God's people in that year, hearing this prophecy from Isaiah, you would understand that God is reminding you that his promises remain true.

No matter where their cold hearts led them, no matter what their enemies were cutting off, God's promises remain true. 

God had promised to put a Messiah, a forever king, on the throne from David's line.  This is a Messianic prophecy, a Christmas promise, a promise to rescue.

And then Isaiah goes on to say that from this branch will come fruit.  From this unassuming branch, this sprout of an Advent tree, will be fruit.

Can you picture yourself walking through this flattened forest with me? There's just stump after stump after stump. And our feet are mazing their way through the residual, tripping over depressing reminders of what once was. 

Maybe these stumps would speak of something painfully familiar to you. Maybe our tears would fall together, as we relate that some years leave us pretty lifeless. Some seasons flatten us. Some years God just seems to cut us back, pruning us down till we aren't sure if there is any viable life within us. Whether it's from the discipline of the Lord or the harshness of our enemies I think we have all felt like life can be hopeless.

As our cold feet slow, and we shiver, our eyes surveying the bleak view, maybe then something would catch our eye. Something small, but vibrant, a couple yards away. Maybe we would link arms for balance and get there in a hurry.  As we come close together we see that it's a shoot, coming up out of a stump. It's meager, but as we lean in we can't deny that it is very much alive. It's a branch, coming right out of this stub. 

At that moment, our tears would change. The coldness of our anguish would begin to warm, from our insides out. 

Because this moment begins our Advent. 

This little sprig is our Christmas promise. 

Our Christmas starts with hope.  We have a forever king, from Jesse, the father of David.  That is this shoot, and we are invited to put our hope in Him. As we accept the invitation to wait for this promise with expectancy, we realize that it's not just wishful thinking. It's about confidence in this baby Jesus, this shoot. 

As we approach another Christmas, we remember the hope of the first 3/4 of the Bible, the hundreds of promises that a Rescuer would come for God's people. And then we hope for the 2nd advent, when Jesus will come again. What was it like to wait for that baby? And what will it be like when we can say "the root of David has triumphed!" (Revelation 5:5)

But!  We also find hope for today. This day in the middle of December, in the middle of the heartland, in the middle of whatever routine or crisis or heartache you are in.

Christmas has to start with hope. Friends, hope with me.

Hopes believes that God’s promises will show true. 
Hope knows that life can comes out of stumps. 
Hope anticipates rescue. 
Hope looks for Jesus to spring out of what has been severed.

Could we eagerly await for God to enter into our mess and make it new?
Could we hope for new growth in this next year? 

Our Christmas has to begin with vulnerable life shooting up like a thrill of hope. Hope gives us expectant hearts that the Jesus who shot out of the darkness as a great light, has come for us again today. 

As we see our own hearts in these stumps, we could so easily fall into bitterness that life lacerates, or anger that God would cut us back or remove what once was, or we could find ourselves stuck, unable to move, unable to believe again, like an old stump in frozen December ground. Hopelessness is always a temptation when we are waiting for something, or someone, for some change.

But what if we saw our stumps as an invitation to await Jesus’ coming near? Could this season of Advent pause, these weeks of growing anticipation, could it help us see the Gospel in this cut down Christmas? 

Could it be that it was cleft-split right open- for me, for you. This cleft on this stump, this splitting open of a lifeless situation, means life and hope for you and me. Seven hundred years after this Jesse tree and this shoot, this Christmas baby, would stretch out on a cross made of trees, and be cleft for us. His love for me, and for you, would lead him to be split apart as our sacrifice. And this hope, oh this hope is the sure anchor of our soul.

It seems so risky, to hope in this vulnerable little tender, shoot or a little helpless baby. But hope does not disappoint

Maybe December is the pinnacle of a strong year of blessing for you, of relative ease. But could you look around you, could you find who sees only the stumps? As we pray for open eyes to see Jesus this Advent, could we also pray to see the hurting near us? Look around, who can you lead to this shoot of hope?

Is there a friend, or a family, or a stranger, who needs you to enter into their mess, like Jesus did for us by being born in the manure filled cave?

My sister was cut down to the stump six quick months ago, when her baby boy went breathless and joined glory. How do you stand tall when life flattens you like that? 

And now she is battling a new, chronic gastrointestinal diagnosis, leaving her flat out on a hospital bed for weeks. 

My current season is one of catching gifts and provisions from this Advent tree. Our year has been full of merriment and hopes coming to fruition. But if I don't see the hurting, the cut back, right now, than I have missed the gift of hope. 

If I don't go near the hurting, the empty-armed, the near-hopeless, than I have missed Christmas this year. 

We must help the weary world rejoice, even through their tears, as we take their hand and lead them to the thrill of hope. 

Let's slow our Christmas, our Advent, enough to see the friend who can't see anything but stumps. Let's pause long enough to hope for someone else, to come near to them as Jesus did to us. To whisper to them about the hope that is theirs. 

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Brave in November

My boys and I are standing and sitting around the dining room table. It's a wonderful, lazy Saturday morning.  Scraps of construction paper cover the table and the floor.  Red, orange, and yellow.  We are crumpling up the brown paper, then unrolling it and constructing a tree on the wall.  The boys begin tearing out paper leaves, and writing what they are thankful for.  Micah is taking it quite seriously, Mathias is copying everything Micah does, and Max doesn't have pants on.

When the word "Hawkeyes" is etched on the second leaf I begin to wonder if there's too much football fever in this house. I quickly dismiss the fear as I step in spilled leftover yogurt. I pull the marker out of Maxwell's mouth, and respond to Mathias' question of how to spell "Daddy"--"M-O-M...."

We have been making these 'thankful trees' for a couple years, and I enjoy watching them *eh-hem branch out each year in their understanding of what a grateful heart looks like. But this year, the thought of cataloguing all my many blessings up on this crafted tree doesn't feel quite sufficient. 

By no means is it wrong to be thankful. It's a must. It's been one tool in my box that has pulled me through these last few years. It helps me see the grace in each gift, and it rushes in joy.

But sitting at that sticky lovely table with my sticky lovely little minions, I hear the Giver of all good things leading me deeper. Taking me past simple gratitudes and towards November-esque words like pilgrims, harvest, and gleaning...

My mind goes to Ruth (Yes, again.) A Biblical pilgrim. A non-Jewish, barren, widow. She left her pagan land and journeyed out to where she knew God was, in Bethlehem. She travelled away from her home, and out into the unknown frontier of the promising God of the Jews.  Her story empowered me a year and a half ago, when I had recently experienced loss and pain.  Ruth is a beautiful story of an involved God inviting his daughter to limp away from her pain and towards goodness, into His plan for her.

It's a brave, brave road that leads you forth from hurt and near to hope.

And I have always loved the end of her story, too, her harvest. For six months she worked in the fields of a man named Boaz. Through his protection and provision, she gathered grains after the reapers, and at the climax of harvest, she approaches him, to marry her. (I know, might sound weird. Read the story.) What a beautiful, climactic ending to Ruth's adventure! This ushers in a fruitful, abundant season for Ruth.  She reaps what she sows, as her faithfulness and courage bud into marriage and children.  As is often the case, harvest produced far more than she could have imagined.  Who she was before-her status as a foreigner, her poverty, her barren womb-all redeemed as she became the wife of Boaz, and eventually the grandmother of King David.

It is a sweet sweet time of thanks when we have just brought in a bounty from God. (And mercy, this is me, right now.)

It's a brave, more-thank-thankful woman who looks at the spread on her table and humbly sees it all as a gift. 

This time, I am moved by Ruth's story, but not by either the opening or the closing scene. It's not the drama-filled aspects of her story that are making me come alive.

As I studied Ruth's adventure again this month, preparing for our women's Bible Study (I still can't believe this is my job now.)  I found myself sitting on the last verse of chapter 2, on a most unassuming verse.

"So she (Ruth) stayed close by the maids of Boaz in order to glean until the end of the barley harvest and the wheat harvest."

Ruth gleaned behind the reapers until the end of barley and wheat season.

It stopped me. I've read the story before, I could sit forever on the courage and faith she showed walking through a death, braving the unknown of a new land, all Christopher Columbus style.  And then I would read as fast as I could until I got to the glorious ending where Ruth's future is secured.

But what about between these scenes?

The intervals bereft of drama-in the seams of good and bad, need and abundance?

Most of our lives are spent in the days in between, right?  Not days of severe loss or change, nor weeks of climactic, bountiful harvests?

Most of our days, God asks us to simply glean.

To glean. To work slowly, laboriously, bit by bit.

I picture Ruth, gleaning.  Her back hunched over, soil pressed under her fingernails.

Day after day, picking up what was directly in front of her.  What was left purposely for her, from her Redeemer. 

Bit by bit.

What does it mean to be brave then? "In the mundane days of faithfulness," as Luther says.

Most of our days, this is where we fit, so how do we do it well? In between the losses and the rewards, there is this time to glean. Adrenaline may be scarce in this season, but purpose and strength don't have to be. It's not always glorious, the rewards might appear meager on days, but it will always be enough. Your skin may become tough as you show some grit,  and your back may ache. Right now, you may not look like the pioneer blazing an adventurous trail, and you may not look like a victor gathering his reward.

But it's here, where God lays out a bounty of goodness for you. You are right where you need to be.

Brave Friend, you are in a good place, laboring, faithfully, each day, bit by bit. Protected by your God, seen by your Creator, as Ruth was by Boaz.

You are the gracious recipient of a seemingly mundane invitation to keep your head down, and doing what needs to be done. Perhaps these are days where you are quietly mending from your brokeness, or being filled from your emptiness.  These are the days where you may be on the brink of richness, where a copious provision from God is just around the next field's corner. 

Let's be brave in the days of gleaning. Let's be more than thankful that hope has pulled us out into the harvest fields. Let's trust our God that these are rich days.

Let's be content with what is directly in front of us, filled by the daily provisions of our God. Let's be grateful that an abundant harvest season could begin any day.

Let's be so very brave today.  Let's believe in what we are doing, knowing that it is growing us and growing God's kingdom, just like Ruth. Let's remain in grace, as Ruth remained in the fields of her Redeemer.

Because bit by bit, we are becoming more of what we were made to be. Bit by bit, as we learn from the Lord of the Harvest,  grace will unfold our brave stories of abundance.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

I Got Nothin' (Some Encouragement When You Are Starting Something.)

There should be a hallway somewhere for these guys. A hallway, of some museum, where they could be featured. The Bible calls them “King David’s Mighty Men” in 2 Samuel, chapter 23. And their pictures could line either side of the long room.  Each man would have his own picture, in a sturdy gold frame, with a name plate. And we could walk through that long, extraordinary room, and look at their pictures and be inspired. I’m sure their photos would display stoic faces, defined jaw lines and focused stares. Their eyes would be fierce, showing their unshakeable faith, and their muscles would be ripped. (Yes, yes, like a mix of my husband and Hugh Jackman. We are picturing the same thing…) King David’s mighty men, a list of his most faithful warriors.

And we could walk through this grand room, and when we got to the end maybe there would be an empty frame and it would have a mirror in it, and the point would be made, that we too, could be deemed mighty in faith.

And you and I wouldn’t be alone. I believe this room would draw many people, because don’t we all desire to earn our spot somewhere because of our mighty faith?

And maybe you would visit this room because you are about to start something new, like me. Maybe there is a challenge in front of you, a new season of life, a change, and you are looking for the adrenaline rush that comes with hearing success stories. Perhaps you are sitting on the edge of your seat with anticipation, or maybe, life’s water is nearing your neck and if you don’t find some new inspiration you will be taken down.

But maybe, as we walk out of this room of faith giants, maybe doubts starts to creep in.  Perhaps, like me, you start to become keenly aware of your weakness.  You look at your arms and your heart and realize you aren’t anything like those men. Your muscles-and your faith-are miniscule next to those men.

And maybe as our shoulders would start to slump from discouragement, our slowed walk takes us into the next room.  Another room lined with photos.  Maybe the room is unassuming, and the frames are shabby-not-so-chic. You lean in and begin looking at more photos of men.  Maybe these men are a bit gruffer, maybe they aren’t so poised, or put together.

We step back to see what room we wondered into, and the sign about these photographs says, King David’s First Men.

And underneath, in smaller print it says:

The men from 1 Samuel 22, who came to David while he was hiding in caves.

We would use our thumbs to clear the dust off the name plates, they read: The Distressed, The In Debt, The Discontented.

I bet, if this museum really existed, we would laugh under our breath in this moment, that these weak vagrants even got their spot on a wall, and we would head back to the room of real worldchangers.


Maybe we would hesitate, even just briefly. Maybe we would linger in that second room. Perhaps there would be a old comfy chair, and we would sit, and stare at these ragamuffin men. The distressed, the in debt, and the discontent.

And perhaps we would stay there, even though we could be planning our attack on the next season of life, making lists and filling calendars and setting copious amounts of goals to become mighty.

Because imaginably, we would feel like these screwball-hot-mess-rebels, are a bit more our style. And maybe within their faces, we would see some hope.

Maybe I’m more like them, and maybe you are too. I mean,  I’m only impressive like once in a blue moon. I’m weak, moody, prideful, I gripe at my kids, eat chips late at night, gossip unintentionally.

And let’s just say, hypothetically, that you and I set up camp in this room, feeling strangely known in that room, and we opened up our Bibles, I think this is what we would find:

We would see that this is whom God brings to David, to begin his reign, his ministry. Here we find David, not on a throne with a purple robe or in front of a stout army of thousands. No, he is sitting in between a promise from God and the fulfillment of it.  And he’s on the run, hiding in caves from King Saul.

The distressed, the in debt, and the discontent come to him, and he becomes the captain over them.

What a crew! Almost comical, at first. A ragamuffin team, consisting of people with minimal credentials, and a endless need.

The distressed…ever been distressed? The Hebrew of distressed also means under stress, under pressure.  I am the distressed whenever my illusion of control gets rocked. When anxiety won’t let me be, when I live with the dialogue of  “if only…” and “what if?”…When we can’t see the solution to the relationship problem, when our work or class load is more than we carry. When the next steps in life are so unclear that we worry we will be wandering forever.

 The in debt. No worries, I’m not about to go all Dave Ramsey on ya. But how about feeling in debt, or tied down to a fear? Are you a slave to the debt keeper of guilt or shame?  An old enemy? Someone who seems to have this ability to put a heavy burden on our shoulders, and our heart. Some person or some day of our past that yells loud and harsh at us that we must repay and fix whatever we broke or screwed up in the past? We are the in debt when we believe that we have to off-set our wrongs, or make up our wrongs.

And discontent. The ESV says “the bitter in soul.” I believe that’s part of our curse from Eve. We desire what we can’t have. What we have is not enough. If we were honest we would say that our house isn’t big enough, our waist isn’t flat enough, our singleness isn’t fulfilling enough, or our husbands aren’t attentive enough.

But maybe, you and I, sitting in this hypothetical room, maybe after we saw ourselves in these nobodies, maybe we would see the very Gospel next. And I bet it would catch our breath, just a bit, in that moment. 

And then comfort and hope would rush in as we recall that the Gospel begins, not with great people with great faith performing for a great God.  Just like David’s reign, the gospel begins with messy, broken, needy people. And a God who has the grace and the love to turn our weakness into a stage for his power.

Maybe you are poised and ready to begin something new, and you are excited and so thankful to get started on whatever God has for you. But if you and I launch today, bringing our might, we will only be impressive for….let’s say 2 months. If we stride in, even with pure desires, to display great faith and to change our world we will fail.

(I know, I know, I'm so encouraging...)

At some point, probably sooner than we would expect, our brokenness will become apparent. Distress will rule over our excitement, our debts will tie us down from acting in faith, and our discontent hearts will draw lines between us as women.

You and I, we are kind of a ragamuffin team, aren’t we? We are so distressed, so in debt, and so often, discontent.

And this is great news!

Because….when we can see our need, and build our relationships in an attitude of sincerity and transparency, we have set the stage of the cave, for God to show up! When we realize we are sick from sin and injured from the Enemy, we are more willing to come to our doctor, to our King, and to each other. 

Women, for just a moment, don’t focus on this desire to be great and impressive for God! Before we can dream big of what God might have around the corner, we need to examine closely the condition of our heart. We need to see if we have cave-dwelling-David hearts, hearts emptied of everything but need for a God who loves us.

Let’s see where we are in distress? Pause long enough to cease from trying to fix everything, or everyone, and be really honest with our Maker. What are our anxieties, our concerns? Where are we aggressively reaching for control?

There is grace enough for our distress.

Where are we in debt? Is there a sin that just won’t let you be? Is their a load of fear or regret that sits heavy on top of your heart, and you are spinning your wheels trying to pay it off? Just stop. Come to Jesus, even if you are 6 feet or 6 figures under.

There is freedom for us.

And where are we discontent? Let God show you why you crave what you crave. Let him show you the roots of it. Where is there bitterness in your soul? Perhaps is public and you are vocal about it, or perhaps you have tucked it in the dark secret corner of your heart. Perhaps you are carrying an ounce of poisonous bitterness towards God, your family, your church.
Let God show you your hearts’ condition.

There is joy for you.

So as you and I sit here, in this odd room, with David’s not-so-mighty men,  we realize we are in a great spot to start something. With the gospel now front and center, we have an invitation to form an army of women. A company of moms, empty nesters, singles, students. A battalion of women who can lead, teach, host, encourage, organize, pray. We are now a brigade of ladies unified-our absence of pride allowing us to be close together.

And we have the privilege of asking the same question that David asks: From within the cave David says…until I know what God will do for me.”

 “What will God do for us?”

With our self righteousness and our pretenses left at the door, we come together. With our hopes to impress quieted, and our insecurities placed before Christ, we find ourselves in the perfect place to start whatever it is that needs starting, to build what needs building, to continue what needs finishing, and to mend what is broken. We are in the sweet spot to ask:

What will God do for us?!

Now this isn’t a genie in a bottle way of asking God for our every wish, or a list for Santa. This is more of a question of anticipation. We have promises from God, just like David. And so with our power not coming from our own boot-strap-pulling, but from grace-covered-weaknesses , we can now build-our lives, our marriages, our dreams-on the faithfulness of God.

And this is a sure fire method to become great.

To became Christ’s mighty women.

And perhaps you and I are still sitting in those old chairs in the second, less impressive room.  And I bet we are making a scene. There’s probably Kleenex on the floor and our mascara on our cheeks, and our poise a forgotten concept.  I bet you and I are in a beautiful pile of brokenness, seeing how God accepts us as distressed, in debted, discontent women. And we are sniffing running noses and clinging to each other, and it. is. awesome.

Because the great ending I found within these Scriptures, is that the mighty men, quipped for their faithfulness, are some of the same men from within the cave! I found that commentators say that some of the mighty men were the men who helped David on his way to the throne. These ragamuffin men became David’s mightiest men! (I love exclamation points!)

That is the transforming power of God’s grace. We start broken, we stay broken, but we jump into the kingdom work God desires, and somewhere along the way, grace teaches us how to be faithful.