Sunday, March 19, 2017

Tight Spaces

Here we are in the season of Lent, a time when we walk with Jesus toward the cross.  It is a season of seeing the vulnerability of Divine Love who clothes Himself with flesh so that He might enter fully into the messiness of humanity.  It is a season of facing truthfully our own messy selves and our own messy lives and our own messy world.  In all this messiness that is me, my heart has this constant sensation of being squeezed, like it’s in a vise-grip that shows no signs of relinquishment.  There are no easy answers where I am.  Just an ache, that might have a gift to give, if I let it. 

When I was a child, faith came easily, it operated easily.  I knew the good and could associate God with good and could believe that God would move according to the good I knew He was.  But life has a way of showing us that there are Greater Good’s.  There is the Goodness of God that leads us through times of suffering, not rescuing us quickly from pain, staying close by as our capacity for compassion is stretched.  This is the Goodness of God that comes to us in difficulty, patiently Breathing with us, upon us, as God’s Goodness is birthed within us.  This kind of birth, like all birthing, is costly.  I believe the reward is worth it.  Certainly my own children are worth every bit of birthing pain that brought them forth.  Sometimes I wonder though at this other kind of birthing, this spiritual kind, where the only evidence that something amazing happened is a pierced-through understanding of shared suffering. 

It is an uneasy, in-between transition.  I think about my relatives in the Bible stories I learned early on.  These forerunners of faith felt the ambiguity and lived within it, because really there was no other option.  Like Jacob, who discovers that he has left the consequences of his deception of Esau only to find himself bound up in a costly deception he receives from Laban.  Or John the Baptist, who sends word to Jesus from prison, asking if He is the one.  I hear in the question the plaintive cry of abandonment, “if You are who You say You are, why am I here?” Then there is the bold-faced, and raw-hearted declaration by Mary of Bethany draped in mourning clothes, “If You had been here, my brother would not have died.”  All of these are the faithful, the bearers of God’s Promise.  And yet all of them stand in the place where their faith must stretch farther than the capacity of their hearts to reckon pain. 

Asking the question, “how did I get here?” seems a waste of time.  I’m here.  I’m helpless to change it.  I assume something I am or something I bring or something I do can dissolve the difficulty.  But then I come face to face with the truth that there are some things in life that remain untouched by my ability to manipulate myself into something else so that the pain of the moment can be assuaged.  I remember one time sitting in my car at a traffic light, realizing that God would not be moved by my pleading and begging.  For the life of me I couldn’t understand why His No would not budge.  But in that moment I decided to praise Him for the No He gave, because He saw fit to give it.  Right now I am too afraid to lift my eyes heavenward, because I am afraid once again a No is all I’ll get.  I don’t know if the No I fear is a product of my own self-doubt or truly Heaven’s response to my deep yearning.  I can’t sit in this question any longer.  I will leave it and ponder it another time.

Where I choose to plant my weary heart instead is the ground of Love and Compassion that encompasses me.  If Divine Compassion is using this moment to grow Goodness and Compassion within me, then there also has to be a resounding Song of Compassion singing itself over me.  I learn to sing the song for others by recognizing the notes spun on my own behalf.  Oh the tenderness of God who stays up all night to wrestle with Jacob, never leaving the fight, and, just to reveal Himself, touches Jacob’s hip socket so he will know the truth:  God never left him during all the deceitful nights he could not sleep through.  And what sweet words of the Savior who speaks up for His cousin by saying, “Never has a greater man ever been born of woman.” Even when He cannot rescue him from the costliness of discipleship.  And what I love even more is how Jesus doesn’t even use words when faced with the wide chasm of Mary’s trust and bewildered grief.  He weeps with her.

I think to myself, “how can I even have any more tears left?”  In seminary someone nicknamed me “Little Water Buckets.”  I think if I cry enough of them the ache will go away.  But it doesn’t.  In fact the ache seems to be giving birth to a river.  Again I remember another blessed moment with God, when Jesus seemed to whisper to my heart, “There are never too many tears for Me to wipe away.”

What does faith look like when there is no escape from an impossible situation?  When all answers are silenced by the dense nature of impasse?  Where every solution offered seems inadequate and too small?  When I was a campus minister I would always tell my students to do the next right thing.  My messiness gets in the way of the next right thing, making it hard to see exactly what is next and what is right.  And even worse, my own messiness, my own heartache raging so big in my chest, has kept me distracted from the heartache of one of my beloveds.  Instead of offering comfort and compassion, I sought it instead.  How could I not see what would be obvious to anybody else?  What should have been so apparent?  How could I not offer the help within my power to give?  How could I act as if my own suffering was somehow more, when really, it is not? 

Faith keeps walking, even in steps broken by sin.  I confess and move forward, praying God’s Grace and the Forgiveness that finds lost sheep is big enough to help the heartaches I can no longer encompass.  Faith keeps me moving forward like Jacob, limping and a little less deceptive.  Like John, accepting the answers I’ve been given instead of the ones I would give.  Like Mary, who stays at the grave of death beside the Giver of Life, waiting.

This mess has gotten the best of me.  But in Faith I believe I can still receive the best of Him.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Grace, Grief, and Gratitude

Leave taking is hard.

Since I was a child I have known this intimately. Visiting family often followed this pattern:  Every night before their arrival was sleepless with anticipation, excitement.  But the return to home, often in the shape of a long car trip, was marked by a deepening dread and despair that descended upon my heart with every mile.  Saying goodbye to a loved one felt like a ripping of something essential from my being.

Every leave taking hits me this way.  It doesn't matter what the circumstances are.  When I have loved, my heart bears the imprint of the beloved.  The moment of separation is never easy.

These last two weeks have been hard.  Last Saturday we laid one sweet Grandmother to rest.  This Saturday we will lay my other precious Grandmother to rest.  In the span of one week my family and I have experienced the wresting away of our beloveds.  The expression of grief trickles down my face at odd and unexpected moments.  One friend witnessing my tears explained it simply:  This is love leaking out.

I know that death is certain, but I am sure that our separation is temporary.  And so I am choosing, as someone close to me has suggested, to say "see you later" rather than "goodbye."  In the waiting I will not be wasting the time I have left.  These two precious souls have given me a precious heritage and legacy to live in to. 

This week of grief has been spent in the midst of my church's yearly gathering.  United Methodists from all over the state of Kentucky have gathered in my hometown to worship and work together as we figure out what it means to be faithfully connected to one another in the coming year.  Monday morning as I looked out over the crowd of gathered clergy and laity, my heart uttered the truth of what I was seeing--this is my Family.  And I believe the presence of these two precious ladies have been absolutely connected to the utterance of those words.

They are the ones who have sown the seeds of my faith, in ways far more intimate and profound than simply telling.  In one I found the quiet pastor's wife whose constant prayers birthed churches while blessing and protecting countless souls.  When my Grandfather would extend the invitation of hospitality and the grace of God to those who needed to be shown God's love, my Grandmother did the work of hospitality and grace by feeding every one that found themselves seated at her table.  Their life together exemplified the ministry of Christ to the Church.  And their prayers and faith in me were pivotal in helping me understand and accept my own calling to ministry.

In my other Grandmother I found the faithful lay-woman that every pastor prays for.  She lived her life as a worker not a watcher, one of the founding members of the United Methodist congregation where she will be remembered this weekend.  All my growing up years I remember her working in the church kitchen preparing the Wednesday night meal.  And when it was time to hang her apron up because of age and lack of energy, she sat down at the welcome desk during the week to answer phones.  Even in her later years when my Grandfather's health was quickly declining she would volunteer her time, giving of herself to the church she loved.  Her life is beautiful example of the work of the Church, always in action so that the work of Christ may be lived out in the world


What I understand is that our family is more than the people we are connected to by shared history and family trees.  We are connected through faith.  And the best families connect us beyond ourselves to the Family of God.  During these difficult days this is the Family that has sheltered me and loved on me and cried with me and upheld me as I have tried to release my Grandmothers to Jesus.  This is the Family that has prayed for my immediate and extended family as we have gathered in our grief and pain.  In the Church's embrace I have found hope and the balm for my spirit that helps me minister to my own loved ones.

So I stand on the cusp of another funeral with this desire in my soul-- to continue the legacy of faith I have inherited.  I want to be the blessing that my Grandmothers have been:  The blessing that keeps on blessing.  I want to live in the surety that my prayers and serving matter, no matter how humble, no matter how hidden.  And I want to honor them by leaving a legacy of my own, bringing others into the Family of God, praying and serving, healing and hoping, sowing and reaping for the Glory of His Kingdom.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Invitation. . . .or The Parable of the Roast That Wasn't

Once upon a time Preacher Girl got up early, on the one morning she could have slept in.  It was spring break and one of her beloveds had requested a special meal.  In fact, in honor of spring break and all the extra time afforded by unscheduled days, the whole mess of them had been feasting upon special meals all week.  But finally it was time for the crowning jewel of the weekly menu.  That morning she peeled and sliced the potatoes; peeled and sliced the carrots.  Added a few onions, not too many.  Then prepared the cut of beef, a beautiful roast that would rest upon that meticulous bed of veggies.  As she seasoned she considered how it was a bigger cut of meat than usual.  She had splurged.  But she knew it wouldn't be wasted and would probably provide at least a couple of meals.  Somehow leftovers from something hearty and homemade always seem to be more blessing than burden.  The extra cost and attention going into this one would be worth it.  She finished up the roast and then packed a picnic lunch for a whole slew of boys ready to take on an outdoor adventure.  Then they all walked out the door.

We had spent the day hiking the ridge in Mammoth Cave National Park, overlooking  views of the Green River winding its way through the fertile valley awakening with spring.  We had enjoyed climbing rocks with heights that made us feel a bit adventurous without being overly dangerous.  We had exerted ourselves just to the extent that our packed lunch was a welcome refreshment, yet not so much as to spoil dinner.  I drove home from our outing so happy, so looking forward to the meal that awaited us that evening when my sweet husband would return from work and hear the wonders of our adventures from boys eager to tell tales.  And I knew even from the time the garage door opened I would be able to smell something marvelous cooking, something well on its way to being everything our family was hungry for.

Except it wasn't.

When I opened the car door and stepped into the garage I smelled nothing.  And when I walked inside the house I saw the truth.  I had not turned on the slow cooker.  There was the roast in all of its raw, now ruined, glory. 

I wept of course.  Not silent, polite tears that less expressive souls might cry.  I cried heavy and hot and through my snot and anguish called my husband with the news.  He thought one of our children had fallen off the mountain we had just climbed.  When he heard it was just a roast, he offered words of absolution.  "Sami, it's okay.  It's just a roast."  I still felt sick over it.  That night when he came home to a meal of hot dogs, he looked at his plate silently speaking the words,"This is a roast.  This is a roast."

For days afterward I couldn't shake the feeling I had over it.  It moved me deeply in ways hard to articulate.  At one point I felt the Holy Spirit speaking to my heart, not so much in words as much as in an unfolding understanding:  "You know, Sami, it's kind of like the life I have poured Myself into.  All that preparation, the patient tending, all leading to a purpose that is meant to fill the hungry.  And then that person, who has so patiently endured My preparation, doesn't trust Me enough to actually do the thing I created and prepared them for."  This revelation did nothing to relieve my ache.  Mostly it just put a name on it.  I was grieving more than a roast, but a lost possibility.  And it felt like a deeply personal message, aimed directly at me.  But for the life of me I couldn't say what possibility God was asking me to pursue that I had ignored.

A couple of weeks ago I was visiting with a dear friend.  In the midst of our conversation she looks at me and says, "So Sami, when are you going to start calling yourself a [creative person who has a creative gift and should share it with others]?"  We spoke of the creative process that seems to always happen within and around me and how God might have plans for it beyond the safe boundaries I have limited it to.  I had never thought of myself in the ways she was articulating.  And then she says, "I can't help thinking of the parable of the talents."  At which point the parable of the roast that wasn't made complete sense.  It was like God so graciously giving me a heads up.  He has offered me the invitation to trust Him, to trust that all that has transpired before in my life has had purpose beyond the moment I lived it.  And that there is something greater on the other side of my trust and stepping out in faith.  Something wonderful that will feed the hungry with something extraordinary He wants to do in and through me.  Something that will probably not be easy, but will transform the ordinary offering of my life through the Fire of His Power and Love, into something He can use to build His Kingdom.  Isn't that what I pray everyday? Thy Kingdom come? Thy Will be done?  And in His mercy He has already shown me the results of saying no to the invitation:  the thing I was made for never coming to fruition.  Me sitting in all my prepared glory, ruined for anyone else to enjoy the fruits of His labor and the offering of my life.  That roast simply ended up in the trash.  And something else had to be served in its place.  What I realize about all this inviting stuff takes my breath away; He has already done every preparation necessary for me to say yes.  All I have to do is plug in. 

I remember having a similar conversation about fifteen years ago with someone else, except I was on the other side.  I had spent the day painting with a young man, a college student who was intricately connected to the campus ministry entrusted to my care.  In praying for him the day before God had shown me piece by piece how He had different plans for this young man's life than the current one he was pursuing. As we  painted a room together in that campus ministry house, I began laying out for him all the pieces of his life God had shown me the day before.  God used me to help him see his life was made for more than he currently understood.  Fifteen years later this young man is living out that call as a youth minister, making a difference in other young people's lives, probably having similar conversations that will change life trajectories for each of them as well.  It never occurred to me that I would  hear God say, "Sami, I'm going to do this for you too."

I share this story because I believe there is more than one roast at stake.  It's not just my life that has an invitation coming to it, but countless others.  WE, are being asked to trust in ways we never have been asked to before.  WE are coming alive with possibilities we have never considered.  WE are being invited to see ourselves in ways we never imagined.  WE are being raised up for purposes we never envisioned.  And so much rests upon our willingness to give ourselves over to God's ideas and purposes and possibilities.  There are other lives that will be touched and transformed by the brilliance of God's power coming through the stuff of who we are.  Now God is incredibly resourceful and always has a plan for our potential no.  But it won't be the original intention. And somewhere down the road of our neglect is a person looking at the their lives and thinking to themselves, "This should have been so much more."  Or looking at the hot dog before them and saying "This is supposed to be roast."

I guess I offer this as an encouragement too.  Our world has a way of dashing hope and pronouncing judgment upon life potential.  In a world that celebrates narrowly defined success and achievement, basing personal value upon standardized test performance, it takes tremendous amounts of faith to believe we have something essential to contribute, especially when we don't look the part of outward success.  According to conventional wisdom we are deemed too old, too young, too inexperienced, too broken, too far gone, too silly, too serious, too whatever.  But the Holy Spirit is moving in ways that confound convention.  And you and I are the very ordinary clay vessels that He has chosen to pour His Glory through.  If God so chooses, why not you? And if God so chooses, why not me?  Is there anything too difficult for Him to do?  And when He does do something amazing through the ordinary stuff of us, doesn't He get all the Glory?  Isn't that what this world needs more than anything?

Friday, April 01, 2016

Catch and Release

Baptism Day
I love this picture.  It is from the day our oldest son was baptized. It was a Holy day as we brought him before the Lord, asking for and trusting the Holy Spirit to work in his life, promising to raise him in such a way that one day Noah could make that commitment to follow Jesus for himself.  Not only were we entrusting him to God's care and Grace, God was entrusting him to our care and grace.

And now the day has come when this son is making his first steps into independence.  I knew it was coming.  When he started attending our church's youth ministry it was as hard as, if not harder than, my youngest boy starting Kindergarten at the same time.  Oh but how he has loved it!  He is surrounded by a group of boys who are sweet-spirited, full of energy, full of life.  Our son has these friends from church that are his core.  I am so thankful.  It makes it easier as I consider the changes our relationship will undergo. 

He is not a little boy anymore.  It's time for him to start charting his own way.  The days when I can lay out a path for him to follow are dwindling.  It's hard letting him go.  And this whole new chapter in our relationship with our son kind of took me by surprise.

Along with this group of young men that have been his best buds since preschool, Noah participated in Confirmation, that sacred and Holy time in the life of our congregation where young people confirm for themselves the commitment to follow Jesus.  On the Friday before Confirmation Sunday, these confirmands attended a retreat.  At the send off parents joined their sons and daughters for a time of worship and consecration.  We watched as our children had their feet washed by their leaders.  At the conclusion of the service, mothers and fathers were invited to anoint each confirmand with oil, consecrating them to the Lord.  We brought them to the Holy Grace of God as infants, and now we stood shoulder to shoulder, releasing them into God's promises for their lives, the journey we cannot walk for them.  The one they have to figure out how to walk on their own.

Confirmation Sunday

I wept of course.  Even as I think of it now my heart aches.  I didn't realize that he would pass out of my spiritual care so soon.  I didn't know that's what Confirmation would mean for him and for us, until the moment it happened.  Sure his father and I will be there to offer guidance and love.  But now Noah is responsible for making his own choices for the life he will live.  He gets to choose what following Jesus looks like for him.  

This morning I attended one of the last school assemblies Noah will have before he goes into Junior High.  He was being recognized along with others at the monthly celebration for school leaders.  The teacher from a Kindergarten class he helps in came up to me to say how pleased she was to see him recognized.  She spoke of how sweet he is, how much she loves having him in her classroom.  I could feel the tears pool in the corners of my eyes.  I know each day my walk of faith now includes trusting God to guide this young man as much as God guides me.  And though I often miss it, I am touched to see the evidence that God is doing that.

The first few weeks when Noah was born were so hard.  This child who was the answer to our prayers, the one we thought we would never be able to have, spent his second week of life in Vanderbilt Children's Hospital.  He was severely dehydrated with high sodium levels that were wreaking havoc on his tiny body.  It took a week with specialized care to bring him to the place where we could take him home.  His doctor for the week just happened to be doing his rotation on Noah's floor.  He just happened to be an expert on high sodium babies.  He was able to bring everything going on with our tiny son from the brink of disaster to the place where Noah could go home and live a completely normal life.  On the day he was discharged Dr. Cooper stopped in to see how Noah was doing.  We were worried there could be long term affects that Noah would have to cope with as he grew.  I'll never forget Dr. Cooper's words to me, so full of humor, "If he has trouble in third grade with math, you can't blame it on this!"  And then he laid Noah back into the bassinet, made the sign of the cross over him, and said to our tiny son, "Go with God."

It is my prayer now as I release him into a world so full of uncertainties.  It is the best thing any of us can do as we meet each day full of challenges, unforeseen heartaches, injustice, and loss.  I have tried to  show this son of mine what that looks like each day.  And so many days I let my own fatigue and frustrations get the best of me.  Yet I hope what he has received has been enough.  I have found that the work of faith is to trust God, to have confidence in the One who loves us perfectly and Who is telling His story of redemption through our lives.  And so my work of faith is to trust that I can release this child of my heart to the One who first asked me to receive him into my care.  I will go with God.  And I will trust that the One who loves us both will show my son what it means to go this way too.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Staying In Love With God

At church we have been hearing messages that outline good principles to live by for 2016.  Last Sunday (and tomorrow too) the principle is "Stay in Love with God."  Ten years ago living this "rule" looked a whole lot different from living it now.  That was before I stepped into full-time motherhood.  There is a very real sense in which I know this is the most important work I will ever do.  At the same time, it is very unglamorous, very mundane, and often with a good measure of every kind of exhaustion imaginable.  Staying in love with God looks so much different when so much of my life belongs to the needs of others.

I am a contemplative at heart.  I think and feel deeply about things.  But I need time and space to ruminate.  Both can often be in short supply around my house.  I came away from worship last Sunday with the embers of my heart stirred, yet also wondering how a mother with her hands full would deliver that same message.  Then God seemed to tap me on the shoulder, reminding me that not only am I a mom with hands full, I also have an M. Div.  It was like Jesus was asking me to preach the sermon I most needed to hear. 

Staying in love with God begins with the Beginner.  God begins the love.  Always.  I forget it so many times.  The way I forget my husband or my boys love me.  I get so accustomed to their presence.  They are the staples in my day that get me through, that help me stay balanced and focused on the tasks before me.  Yet in pushing through the tasks I sometimes forget the treasures.  Just like I forget God has loved me before I even knew the first thing about love.  But that doesn't even touch on the truth of who God is for us:  God is crazy in love with us!  God's heart beats with love for us we cannot even articulate.  Not sure how it is for men, but I believe women most respond to lavish love.  We want to be cherished and treasured.  We want someone to notice and appreciate who we are.  We want someone to get everything about us.  This is who God is in our lives.  Can you hear the cadence of God's heart in these words:  "I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you" (Jeremiah 31:3).  They are spoken in the heart of exile, when the people of God have fallen so far away that they have to be physically removed from their inheritance so that they can remember once again whose they are and who they are.  But even when they have fallen away, God remains steadfastly committed to loving them through to a new beginning.  It helps to know that God is loving me, even on my wits end kind of days, when the best of me is gone and all I have to offer the ones I love are sad leftovers.  To know that I am cherished even then helps somehow.  It makes the mundane Holy, not because I am ever enough, but because God is always enough.

When I am not situating my life around the needs of my boys, I work part-time at our church's preschool.  I teach, but I also lead chapel services for our whole school.  Each week I get to lead little ones in worship and bring a message from the Bible in a way that ignites their imaginations and helps them understand who God is.  This past week we looked at the story where Jesus feeds the five thousand.  It is lunch time and the disciples don't know what to do.  There are so many hungry people around and the resources needed to fill their hungry bodies do not exist.  But while all the grown-ups are looking at what they don't have, a little boy is offering to Jesus the little bit that he does have.  Sharing the story of the five loaves and two fish has been so powerful for me in the wake of being jolted into an awareness of my own spiritual poverty.  I've been reminded that God doesn't expect my spiritual life to look like what it did back when I was a pastor with an ability to arrange my life around regular spiritual disciplines.  God isn't asking us to give what we don't have.  God is inviting us to bring the little we do have so that it can be transformed into something substantial and filling.  The little in Jesus' hands is changed into more than enough.  Jesus just needs our willingness to bring Him the smallness that we live with, not the abundance we long for.  So I've been figuring out how to do that.  I don't usually have large segments of time to read scripture.  What I do instead is to write some key verses that speak to the season I am in onto loose leaf paper.  Then I tape it to my bathroom mirror.  While I brush my teeth I read the words that give me hope and remind me where God is.  It is a small thing that imprints His truth in my heart.  I am often surprised at the times it returns to me with a nudge of the Holy Spirit.  I am finding when I make  pockets for the Holy in my regular routine, even something so small can provide an opening where God can speak. 

About five years ago my world as I knew it came apart.  While other events in my life had leveled me in powerful ways, I had never felt so upended with unknowns.  I didn't know how things would shake out and if things would ever be okay.  Somewhere in the middle of all the turmoil I began to ask myself how far I could trust God.  Could I trust God with the next four minutes?  While trust seemed impossible in the face of so many unknowns, I found I could trust God in smaller increments.  And as time went on, I began widening my trust.  Four minutes became four hours.  Four hours turned into four days.  Slowly I began to regain a  sense of God's presence holding  and helping  where most needed.  Those hard days taught me that there is often more at play than what the eyes can see.  As I explained it to my husband, we may feel like Jonah stuck in the belly of the whale, but that whale is going places.  God is often doing an unseen work within, around, and through us.  This is why faith is so critical.  Especially when it comes to staying in love with God.  God knows where we are and is vitally interested in keeping us connected.  As I look at the year stretching ahead, I know my own weakness; I know I am "prone to wander, Lord I feel it."  But the Holy Spirit has been reminding me that God is bigger than my weakness.  He is a jealous Lover and will not let me go long without reminding me of Himself.  I can trust Him to do that.  He has a great track record in our history together of bringing me back to Him.  Why would He stop being Who He has always been?  Why would His everlasting love cease to be everlasting?   Life doesn't have to feel super holy to be Holy.  God doesn't have to feel near to be Present.  And I don't have to be great at this spiritual connection thing to be connected.  The truth is that what this year needs most is a God who is bigger than my limitations, and a me that is willing to respond to the overtures of a Love that will not leave me to my own devices.

It's kind of like a sandwich isn't it?  God's Love inspires our response of faithfulness, and then God's Faithfulness sustains our love.  We are smack dab in the middle of a Love that will not let us go.  I think the biggest thing God needs and wants from us is to lean on Him, to bring Him our failures and misgivings, to show Him our desperation when we feel we are beyond our abilities to manage the mundane.  For all the moms out there who would love to stay in love with God, but aren't quite feeling the love because they are surrounded by commotion that renders them senseless, know that you are not alone.  We are all in this together, and God is in it all.

Monday, December 07, 2015

When Love Comes Close


"Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.  Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel around himself" (John 13:3-5).
It seems so crazy to hold this passage close to my heart right now.  We are in the middle of the Advent season, when we look with anticipation to the arrival of Baby Jesus, born in a manger, and here I am, my heart full of a story of Jesus washing His disciples' feet.  But the wonder of it all is that Jesus has stepped into life with us.  He steps into our joy and celebration.  He also steps unflinchingly into our deepest anguish.  And He washes our lives with His mercy.
I hold this passage close because joy and anguish are both at home in my heart.  I continue to think about the family across town hurting beyond words.  And then I look into the faces of my boys, rambunctious as they are, and see within them Light that makes me smile.  Jesus is in all of it. 
When He removed His robe that night, taking dirty, calloused feet in hand, He was telling us His story.  Not so much in words, but through the humble act of cleansing away the grime and the grit ordinary living, all those things we can't help stepping in because we are human.  During Advent and Christmas, we relish the beginnings of this Holy story. 
We love the wonder of the Nativity.  We sing glorious songs about it.  We easily invite strangers into it's joy.  Yet it is in this celebrated birth that Jesus has left so much of His Glory behind, coming to us in vulnerable flesh, a human form that will be vulnerable for every bit of His earthly existence.  And He does not get to slip back into His unsearchable majesty until He goes back home to His Father in Heaven.  We hardly ever grasp what He left behind to come and be with us.  But He willingly, joyfully, emptied Himself of everything which could not fit into human flesh, simply so that He could be with us and do for us what only God as man can do.  He humbled Himself to dwell with us.  He is with us in it all.  
"Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness" (Philippians 2:5-7).
I want to say I am so in love with Him.  What I most need to say is that He is so in love with us.  He is crazy in love with us, not withholding anything of Himself, joining us in this life with all of its twists and turns, hopes and heartaches.  He comes near to us, nearer than our next breath.  He holds us close to His own heart.  He breathes His Life into us.  And through His death He opens up the way for us to draw close to the Father.  He gives us the gift of Himself, laying down His glory to join us in our home.  And then He gives us the gift of Eternity, laying down his life on the cross, opening up the way for us to join Him in His home.
"And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death--even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:8).
I love the incarnation, this flesh-dwelling miracle of Love.  Jesus coming to us in all of our good, bad, and ugly.  What is so amazing is that even though He is glorious beyond what we can comprehend or imagine, He makes Himself completely accessible to us.  Because He chooses the most humble surroundings as the signature of His authenticity, I know I can invite Him into my humiliation and failures.  Because He chooses to make misfits His most cherished companions and disciples, I know He desires my company too.  The way He chooses to be present with us, no matter who we are or what we have done, fills me up; His choosing to come close fills my aching heart with hope.   He joins us where we are, filling our humble lives with Himself.  And by laying down His life on our behalf He raises us up to where He is.  This is why God honors Him. 
"Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Philippians 2:9-11).
I am walking through this Advent season a little bit amazed.  The hard things come.  I feel the burden of difficulty in my heart as I pray for others.  Yet I am finding that the difficulty of life makes the audacity of His choice to be with us that much more astonishing.  The difficulty cannot dismiss Him; the difficulty draws Him. 

Would you care to walk about amazed some too?  Can you stand to think of Jesus walking through your ordinary day, especially drawing close in the hard moments?  Holding you up in uncertainty?  Smiling with you in your joy?  Guiding you with unseen Hands, but with a very engaged Heart?  He is here.  He is with us.  And He promises we will never walk through anything alone.


Thursday, November 19, 2015

Prayers from a Broken Heart

I have a silver filigreed heart locket that I like to wear when I work in the Toddler room at preschool.  Inside is a picture of my oldest son when he was a baby.  I have found it is good distraction for little ones who miss their mommies, when conflict is imminent over a favorite toy, or when the day is moving too slow for toddlers who are ready and anxious for the next activity.  We talk to the baby in my silver heart, kiss him, tell him "night, night."  It is amazing to me how much peace this baby in the silver heart can bring. 

It was a gift from my mother during my son's early days.  It is also a reminder of the heartache we experienced not long after he was born.  He spent a week at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital for completely preventable reasons.  I had never known pain like that before he was born.  And my heart has never been the same since.  Prayer for me during that time was a wordless scream.  And my prayers for others now who are hurting has been transformed in ways that are hard to describe.  I hold them, I hold their pain, in my perforated heart.  And in my prayers, I find my heart pierced again by aches which have no words, only silent cries of anguish.

This past week I have worn my silver heart a lot, even on days without toddlers.  It is a comfort to me as I pray for those whose lives have been touched by unspeakable tragedy. Like so many in our community, our world changed Saturday night.  One moment we were enjoying a quiet evening at home, having just returned from celebrating the birthdays of our middle son and my husband's sweet mother.  The next moment my husband was rushing out the door, with "I love you" on his lips and pain in his eyes.  When he returned in the wee hours of Sunday morning, I learned what a whole community was trying to comprehend:  a seven year old girl from the school where he is principal had been taken while her family was attending a little league football game.  Her body was found a short time later abandoned in a creek behind the high school where the games were taking place. 

As our country joins in support of Paris, mourning the more than 100 innocent lives who were murdered by terrorists last Friday night, I join my heart with those in our community mourning little Gabbi Doolin.  I pray in hope that Love can go where I cannot, where words cannot, where only the most raw and tender heartbreak lives.  I pray for the Healing Balm that, instead of trying to fix what is irreparably broken, joins itself to the hurt and despair.  Only the Tender Mercy of a Broken Savior can travel to that place.  Jesus became flesh to dwell with us even in our most horrific pain.  And so I ask Him to.

I also seek to guard my heart.  I do not want to allow the foreign terrorists and this one very close perpetrator of terror to have the final say in my willingness to be a vessel of Love poured out.  I can see how quickly the fear and anger I feel toward this unspeakable crime can calcify my heart into an unbeating, unyielding fortress of distrust and suspicion.  I want to be careful to let God hold the springs of my heart so that His Healing Love can flow.  I certainly want to be wise as a serpent--I absolutely want to be wise to the evil intentions of those who seek only to steal, kill, and destroy.  But oh, oh I want to be innocent as a dove.  I want to focus my energy on being gentle and kind to those who need to see His Light and Life within me.  So that they can know He can heal their hurts too.  I don't want to waste the energy I have on hate.  Life is too short; life is too precious.

I have a friend who says that silver represents redemption.  I am so grateful that the memory of my darkest hour is wrapped in the silver heart I wear about my neck.  I am grateful it is also wrapped in the Redemption of a God who holds us all in His Heart.  And this is the God I pray to on behalf of the Doolin family and the Allen County Primary Center family.  This is the same God who loved us enough to send us His Little Boy, who suffered a violent and heartless death at the hands of the cruelest evil.  And this is the same God Who wrapped His dead Boy's body in the Redemption of Resurrection to give us Peace in troubled times and the promise of unspeakable Joy in Eternal Life.

It is almost time for Advent, that time of year when we prepare our hearts for Christmas, for the time when we remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus.  It is hard to imagine how anyone could want to harm a life so pure and innocent, so filled with Light.  But evil was present then.  Unfortunately it is also present now:  the Herod's are still about.  But we know that the Baby in the manger carried with Him a Light that cannot be diminished by any darkness.  His Light and Love shine through even the darkest hour.  The love and support expressed by so many in our community, so many who do not even know the Doolins but who choose to share their heartache, are proof of that.  So let us
talk to the Baby born from God's Heart.  Let us embrace Him, let our tears fall and kiss His tender face, let us ask Him to hold us in this dark, long night.  It is amazing how much Peace this Boy from God's Heart can bring.

Friday, October 23, 2015


I love this scripture in the Bible--

". . . . for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable" (Romans 11:29).

I like to let it wash all over me, to flow through my insides and wash clean the places of doubt.  I hear the immense Mercy in those words.  And Mercy is a word I have sat with a bit this week.  It is where I want to live, and it is what I want to extend because God has drenched my life in it.

I had been chatting with some of the ladies I work with, a couple of whom have children at the very beginnings of their college journeys.  One was explaining how excited her daughter was to discover a college with a major in the field she is interested in.  It is a bit of a rare find, and it is great that the school is close by.  As we talked I couldn't help pondering my own educational and vocational journey. 

The past year I have made peace with the place I am.  It is not where I thought I would land twenty some odd years ago.  But it is a good place, filled with much joy and deep meaning.  Everyday I come away with a sense that I am living my life purpose, just in a completely different form than I anticipated.

When I was still in college I began to sense God calling me into ministry.  So I finished up my undergraduate degree and packed myself off to seminary.  Tim and I married; I accepted my first ministry position as an associate pastor in a large church in Florida.  It was a bit like Abraham going off to a far and distant country not knowing his destination.  I had no idea how this ministry direction could change so quickly. 

What I thought would be a carefully designed path became a rollercoaster ride.  I began to discover that even though I certainly have the gifts and graces for ministry, I don't have the temperament that easily orders the life of a congregation.  So when I should have received my ordination as an Elder, and perhaps an appointment to my own church, I was instead working through a deferral process trying to figure out what shape ministry was supposed to take in my life.  I found relief and release as a Deacon, someone called to specialized ministry within the church who specifically connects the world to the church and the church to the world. 

And from Florida Tim and I packed up and followed God to a new destination--home to Kentucky and campus ministry. 

Campus ministry was great and awesome for nine years.  Everyday I would wake up loving my work.  During this time Tim and I added three more Wilson men to our family.  I soon discovered raising three boys is a full-time job on its own, and God once again uprooted me to a place where I could give my whole heart to being the wife and mother my family needed me to be and God was calling me to be. 

So He plopped me down in the middle of pre-school ministry.

The humor of it all is that my parents secretly thought I didn't like kids because it took Tim and I so long to have them.  I didn't spend hardly any time around small children growing up.  Honestly the best preparation for being a preschool teacher was the nine years I spent on campus. 

I am in my fifth year of serving Jesus by serving the smallest of the small.  It is a joy-filled place full of adventure.  I can never predict what my day will be like each morning:  I am never bored, and I'm often surprised by joy and the kind of  laughter that makes my face hurt. 

The shape of this ministry is so different than what I anticipated ministry would look like as a twenty year old.  However those same gifts and graces that were growing in me as a young associate pastor are alive and strong now.  Tim and I were having an honest heart to heart a couple of weeks ago.  He told me that I keep introducing myself as a preschool teacher, and I'm not.  I'm still very much the woman God has called into ministry and has intentionally placed in a preschool to serve as His minister.  I am still a pastor at heart.  It's just that my congregants are about three feet shorter than the ones I used to serve.  I am still preaching, I am still leading worship, I am still teaching the timeless truths of God's Word.  And I am still a shepherd to the most vulnerable in God's flock. 

Who knows how long this part of the journey will last.  God is always upending things and moving us to new places and spaces, teaching us new ways of living in to the call on our lives.  But no matter where I go, I take the song God sings over me and through me with me.  It is the same kind of song I have been singing from the beginning, only now I have guitar that He is teaching me to play so I can give it music too. 

Lately I have been wanting a guitar strap.  Mostly because I'm getting better at playing, and I really want to play for the kids when I do chapel at the preschool.  Since I'm a crafty girl, I kind of set my heart on making my own.  As I lay awake one night thinking of how I could make that happen, God reminded me of the Elder's stole that had been a gift when I served my first church.  It is a tapestry filled with the faces of children from all over the world, "red and yellow black and white," each one precious in His sight.  Just like an old stole can become a new guitar strap, the heart of this ministry remains the same, even when its shape changes.  And one more thing.  God also showed me that the shape of ministry now was always a part of His original design.  I didn't miss it or mess it up.  It was always in His heart for me.

So this is Mercy--that God would never forget or repent of the call He places on our lives.  He never turns His back on us or His hopes for us.  We may get side-tracked or side-lined, but God never changes His mind about us.  And no matter at what point we remember who He called us to be, it's never too late to accept His invitation to live the life we were created for.  It is never too late to say yes to God's call; just like it's never too late to start learning how to use those gifts He has entrusted us with.  For all those who have given up and given in (for all kinds of reasons, some of which may not have been our own), it's time to get back what we let go of.

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Divine Serenade

Music is my true language.  Not that I'm great at it.  But it moves me.  When nothing in my life makes sense, the right song can make sense out of me. 

Over the last six months music has taken on a new dimension in my life.  I've picked up a guitar I laid down years ago. Now words and chords have woven themselves around the vibrations of my heart, leaving songs scratched on paper that speak order into the lovely mess I live in.  I love the feel of the guitar resting against my chest cavity, filling me with sound as I work the strings.  When I am numb to everything, the music reaches into my deepest heart and brings forth the springs of life.

I hear the echoes of God's love in the music. 

Over the last few weeks I have pondered this.  The image I keep coming back to is the one Zephaniah lifts up:  "The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; He will rejoice over you with gladness, He will renew you in his love; He will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival" (Zephaniah 3:17-18). 

We have got to get over ourselves thinking we have God all figured out.  The day I first really had a heart experience with this verse I was in campus ministry, having a really difficult day.  I think I read that scripture with a "yeah, right" sarcasm smeared across my heart and mind.  I was discouraged and weighed down with burdens I could not shake, yet I had to put all of that aside because our evening worship service was coming fast.  I couldn't show up defeated.  When I walked into our small sanctuary that evening, one of our young men announced that before we started there was something he wanted to do first.  He sat me down and proceeded to do a rap he had written in my honor, a humorous tribute he wrote to show his appreciation for me.  When I couldn't feel the presence of God, God literally sang His song over me in a way I could never have predicted.

Feelings never tell us the whole story.

These last few weeks God has been showing me that His songs for His people never sing themselves out; they are continuous streams of music that emanate from His heart for His Beloved Bride.  He always has a song for us.  I believe that true transformation happens when we begin to listen for those melodies, and allow our hearts to reverberate with the music of Heaven.  I believe that when the Holy One invites us to sing a new song, He is asking us to stop trying to force our song into His ears and instead sing the song He is already singing over us.  When the discord is gone, our lives come into a resonance and power that is hard to describe but a force to be reckoned with. 

I want that.  I want my life to be a song that makes others want to sing and dance and shout and rejoice.  I want my life to amplify the songs of Salvation, resonating with power and new life and love.  I want the healing Love of our Savior to ripple out in waves of restoration, and this clay vessel I am to simply be a speaker of His Grace and Redemption.  I want His Resurrection Story to be resplendent within me, so that those who hear will become His Resurrection Story resplendent too.  I want to join with all creation in the unending hymn, "Holy, Holy, Holy Lord.  God of power and might.  Heaven and Earth are full of Your Glory.  Hosanna in the highest, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord." 

Thursday, October 08, 2015

God Is In The Fire

Last week I was in the middle of Chapel telling the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego when God spoke to my heart.  It kind of took my breath away.  I was standing before our smallest children at the pre-school where I work, and I was choked up in the worst kind of way.  I had gotten to the part where King Nebuchadnezzar had thrown the Hebrew children into the furnace because they refuse to bow down and worship his golden statue.  And he looked and, lo, there were not three people in the furnace.  There were four.

And the words get stuck in my throat--GOD IS IN THE FIRE.  The tears gathered, leaking out.  My words catch as I speak them.  But I am certain God wants me to know this, as much as He wants these little ones to know the story of His faithfulness.  He wants me to know the story of His faithfulness in my life.


I have been in the fire the last few weeks.  It has been hard.  I have felt every insecurity, every doubt from the very beginnings of my life, each one creeping up with the taunting audacity to suggest that doubt and insecurity can never really go away.  The lies have felt so true, the ones that suggest my life doesn't matter, my brokenness cannot be mended, my truest self will only scare the people I love away. 

One of my favorite songs from the 80's is Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire."  It's true, the fire is the tool of the enemy sent to destroy--to steal, kill, and destroy.  It was true when the enemy prompted Nebuchadnezzar to heat up the furnace and it is true now every time the enemy causes or piggybacks on misfortune, whispering lies to the vulnerable heart, keeping his prey defeated, discouraged, and despairing.

God doesn't cause the fire.  But God is faithful to meet us there.

I'm thinking of people I know who are surviving difficulties that are hard to imagine and explain.  Grief that rends hearts with the velocity of hurricane force winds.  Tenuous circumstances that isolate.  Unwieldy messes that seem impossible.  I peek into difficulties other than my own.  I tremble to speak the truth even there, but I know it is still true.  God is faithful to meet us in the fire.  If we are courageous enough to seek Him, to not allow the lie of the enemy to deter us, we will find Him.  He will walk with us through the fire.  He often does not keep us from the flames, but He finds a way to keep us within them.  And He is faithful in finding a way to lead us out of them too.

He has been keeping me. 

A dear friend of mine likes to remind me that the only things  burned in the fiery furnace were the ropes that bound the Hebrew children.  I also know that the Hebrew children were willing to face the fire regardless of whether God saved them or not.  It was worth it to them to worship God only.  Either way, they found freedom in the fire. 

Through the years I have found it too.  God has used the fires in my life to set me free, to show me that He alone is worthy of my heart's trust.  Anything else will destroy me.  But resting in Him, even when I feel everything consumed around me and within me, I come out on the other side sturdier, purified of things I couldn't get out of my system any other way. 

I don't mean to glorify the fires in our lives.  And don't go looking for them!  Just like I said to the smallest of the smalls in my care that day in chapel, fire burns; it is dangerous!  Do not touch it!  But any encounter I have had with God in the fire has changed me.  Not necessarily the fire itself, but the encounter with God.  It's like I don't have the energy left to protect myself from God anymore.  I'm more willing to be clay in His hands.  I'm desperate even for the help only He can give.  And that help changes everything.  His help changes me.  I would never choose to walk through fire.  But I treasure every gift of God's touch that the fire afforded.

So I guess this is my way of saying we don't have to face the hard things alone.  God is with us.  Especially where no one else can be.  And God's power in a surrendered life can do amazing and remarkable things.  Let us encourage one another with this truth.