Sunday, August 21, 2011

Tell the Truth

I remember a popular song from my childhood called "Killing Me Softly With His Song."  It is the story of a girl who hears about a guy who is a good musician and decides to go hear him play his stuff.  She discovers that his lyrics speak what is happening within her heart.

I am thinking about that song.  I want that experience.  I am so hungry for it.  Especially on Sunday's.  I want to hear my story reflected back to me, to hear that somehow the gospel touches this lonely place, not just with pat answers and platitudes, but with truth and grace.  I don't want to hear someone share Jesus out of a place of success or comfort.  I want to hear someone speak about Jesus out of their experience of desperation, when their dreams are dying before their eyes, when prayer seems futile, when consolation runs dry.

I am searching for an authentic witness to the truth.  But it takes so much courage to pull the veil away and expose the rawness of hurt, anger, disappointment.  I have rarely gone to church and heard someone speak of finding God in those places, exposing the difficult places of their heart experience as a fountainhead of hope.  The gospel just sounds so much better when we pretend that life is great.  If life is great it is easier to believe that God is great.  But I am struggling right now.  How do I find God in the midst of that struggle?  Especially when all the ways I have know God's presence in the past just come up empty?

Some parts of my life are deeply satisfying. Those places are balms to my spirit.  I am so thankful for them.  Then there are other parts that hurt so much.  I want to know, and need to know, that the loss I feel is still blessed.  That hope lives in there.  That I can expect God to show up, maybe not in a way that I currently recognize, but in a way that lets me know I'm not God-forsaken.

The thing is, without a real expression of someone's struggle, it's hard to believe their assurances.  The grace offered seems cheap and flimsy, unsubstantial.  I need to know there is more.  I need to know grace is deeper, stronger, fuller.  And I need someone to show me where that kind of grace is.  Because right now I can't see it.

What I can say about Sunday mornings is that I love the music.  It washes over me.  It challenges me, because I can't just sing words I don't believe.  Sometimes I sing with tears streaming down my face.  But I still sing.  My favorite song this morning at church was "How He Loves Us" by John Mark McMillan.  The lyrics speak of the radical and deep love of God, so powerful we would be swept away in it if we could only see it for what it is.  I so need to know God loves me that much right now.  It's hard to feel it, but I tend to believe the words of the song more than the sermon.  McMillan wrote it after his friend Steven was killed.  He found a way to believe in God's love in the midst of his anguish.  Maybe there is hope for me too.

I don't understand this season I'm in.  It is a delirious mix of gratitude and angst.  I catapult between the two extremes so often it leaves my head, and especially my heart, spinning.  But I have to believe this is not the end of my story.  I have to believe that I will look back on this time and be able to find His hand at work, resolving what is broken in my heart, healing what I cannot mend.  I have to believe that grace is real, even when I can't see it.  I have to believe that grace is truth, even when it feels false.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


I got to visit with one of my dear friends today.  We spoke of where we are in our lives.  The last time we saw each other I was cleaning out my office at the Wesley Foundation.  I remember her words to me then, "It doesn't look right, but it doesn't look wrong." Today she said to me, "You look years younger than you did this time last year."  I see myself in the mirror every day.  I wasn't aware of how outwardly noticeable the changes in my spirit have been.

I remain wonder struck.  This weekend will be my oldest son's seventh birthday.  It is the first time in his life that I can enjoy his special day without being weighed down with concerns and worries about the beginning of fall semester.  For the first time I don't have to rush off to another back to campus event.  For the first time, planning my little boy's birthday party can be the most important thing in my life during the weekend that freshmen move in to campus.  It is wonderful to me.

This morning I sat beside my sweet boy on the floor as he ate dry Trix cereal before going to school.  I looked at his feet, noticing how they look more like my husband's feet than mine.  I had never noticed before.  It was a quiet, beautiful moment.  I noticed because there is room inside of me for such observations.  There didn't quite seem to be that kind of room several months ago.

It is almost as if whole parts of my being went to sleep in the pressure cooker I was living in.  I didn't even recognize my own diminished capacity for joy; who knows when it quietly slipped away.  Well, actually I am very aware of Who knows.  I believe it is why He did for me what I could not do for myself:  give me freedom.  At the time, I was devastated.  Today I can see God's goodness in it.  He is so good.

My friend spoke wistfully of cup filling.  She had attended a women's group at church one time where each participant was asked to fill a clear plastic cup with water and set it where it would be visible.  Each week she was to mark the water line.  Of course as time passed less and less water remained in the cup.  What was there became stagnant.  The point was that no one else fills our cups for us.  When we always pour into every one else, ignoring the condition of our own hearts, eventually we have nothing left to give, and what is there to give isn't worth having.  As she explained the dynamic to me, I began to sense that God used the events of the last few months show me how empty my own cup had become.

It's hard talking about the oppression I used to live in.  It seems like talking about it brings the feelings of suffocation back.  But at the same time I know that I must articulate the differences, simply so I can
recognize them and fully own the the changes that have come forth.  I know that if I fall asleep again I can walk right back into the same kind of prison I was in, simply with different wall paper.  Really I want to be free.  This is a season for learning to walk tall in this God gifted freedom.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Hidden Treasure

The silence seems so loud.  I feel like God hasn't left His calling card in a while.  As a pastor I respond to comments like this with encouragement.  I understand the spiritual dimensions of dessert experiences, some from theological training, mostly from my own past history.  Often God will withdraw His felt presence as a way of drawing us closer, deeper to an experience with His otherness.  It becomes an invitation to play hide and seek with the Divine.  As God hides, bidding us come and find Him, we follow to places we never would have ventured otherwise; we discover treasures in the most obscure places.  I have never been sorry for those times of dryness, for the seeking and finding.  But it can be so hard to be in the middle of that place.  It doesn't feel like child's play; it feels like being lost.

Understanding rarely incubates us from the fullness of life experiences.  Being a professionally trained theologian doesn't make the God questions any easier to answer, or searching for Him any less frustrating when He chooses to hide.  Here I am, wrestling with questions that don't have easy answers and playing hide and seek with the only One who isn't bound by human limitations.  Finding always happens on God's terms.  Never on mine.  I hate that.

But I am a very firm believer that all things work together for good.  I know God is around here somewhere.  Though I cannot see Him or feel His presence or hear His voice in the once familiar ways, His goodness does cast a long shadow.  I notice it when I look into the faces of my children.  I sense His blessing when my baby boy puckers up for mommy kisses.  It embraces me when my "too cool for school" seven year old throws his arms around me for a quick hug.  And I hear it in the sweet declaration of love from my 4 year old:  "Mommy, I love you." 

My husband and I have never been closer.  Getting to this place has been painful, but I've never understood so clearly how much my presence is cherished by the person who means the most to me.  Sharing my vulnerability so deeply is somewhat new to me.  Yet I feel completely safe and cared for as I let him see into the deep places of my hopes and fears, faith and doubts.  In the past I often felt responsible for holding the whole world upon my shoulders of faith.  In discovering how weak my own shoulders actually are, I have also found a strength in him that I didn't know was there.  It comforts me.  I feel less lost when we are together, especially when we talk about what is really going on beneath the surface. 

All of these gifts are truly good gifts.  Sometimes I think we get so comfortable that it's easy to not see the blessings we already have, to not live deeply in the moment that holds us.   Losing a full-time job brings a lot of uncertainty.  As things have changed so much for our family over the past few months, I am keenly aware that this moment is all we have.  I want to make the most of all the moments I am given, to cherish each one and live them all fully.  These awareness, brought close by the discomfort of uncertain circumstances, is beautiful.  I wouldn't have chosen it, but I am glad it chose me.

God's treasures are often buried under the debris of our Americanized expectations.  We think happiness resides only on easy street.  I am finding that happiness really lives in those places where the heart learns the value of what has already been given.  As I mother three mischievous and lively boys, as I hold hands with the man who still makes my heart sing after 15 years of marriage, I realize my deepest prayers have been answered.  I can rest here.  I can make my home here.  Even though so many things are uncomfortable right now, this is treasure enough.  And I am profoundly grateful.

Monday, August 08, 2011


It's the middle of transition time again.  Tomorrow Noah starts second grade, and I have a teacher work day for my new job.  It's one of those times when I feel unsteady, like walking into a dark room and needing time for my eyes to adjust.  It will take a while to get my bearings, to feel comfortable with the new rhythm of my life.

Actually, I trust the process.  When routine returns and the long, lazy days of summer are over, somehow life finds a natural ebb and flow.  I tend to be more productive because the things I need to do have nice confined spaces to fit in within my day.  Everything organizes itself into blocks of time where I can focus on specific things during specific hours.  The closet OCD part of me likes this.  It reminds me of the unspoken mantra that lives in my head when I am trying to restore order to my house, to my life:  "A place for everything; everything in its place."  This particular moment is just that fuzzy time when I try to figure out where everything fits, often by trial and error.

In my University Experience class I have my students construct a grid that represents a week in their lives, spread across an 8" x 10" piece of paper with hours labeled down one side and days ordered on top.  I ask them to color code each block of time according to their activities, making sure they clearly show class time, study time, work time, and free time.  Each year I also participate in this activity.  It helps me understand how my life fits together.  The gift of the exercise is that occasionally I discover a block of time I didn't realize was there, something I can consciously dedicate to an activity I enjoy.  I realize how anxious I am to see my life in neat blocks --I would know what parts of myself fit where and when.

For now I wait in the craziness of new schedules, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the newness.  It's all good.  Eventually life finds a comfortable pace, and the whole family finds a way to settle in.  I'm looking forward to my new ordinary to reveal itself.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Until Then

One of the craziest things has happened to me this summer.  Scripture looks completely different to me.  Like, I know how to read it as the campus minister who carries great burdens, and struggles alone, and tries to juggle being a mother with taking care of a whole ministry that nurtures students.  Reading scripture while bending beneath the weight of that life is familiar.  I can feel the oppression of the expectations I was living under even as I write those words.  But things are different now.  Today I am a woman who has been set free from a prison I didn't even know I was in until God led me out.  What is clear is that I am a vastly different person that I once was.

I don't know if I will ever get over being surprised at how differently scripture speaks to me now.  I once heard that you can never step into the same river twice.  Reading scripture is the same way.  As life moves us to different places, the old familiar story speaks a new message.  All of the allusions and references change.  My bearings have shifted.

It could just be that my whole person has shifted, and I never noticed because God did the transforming quietly, slowly over time.  It's like one day I woke up and I was a completely different person than I was fifteen years ago.  If I were to travel back in time to say hi to the girl that I was, I would barely recognize myself.  And I definitely know that different people never hear scripture in the same way; their hearing is shaped by everything that has made them who they are.

The last few days I have been pondering a familiar scripture that speaks to me in a new way:  Romans 8:18-30.  It begins with Paul's encouragement, "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us."  It ends with Paul's firm declaration concerning God's children:  "And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified."  The old me would read this passage and imagine how God was going to jump into the circumstances of my life and bring forth a glorious reversal of all things painful and unjust.  Today I read it and recognize a quieter truth, deeper than my earlier reckoning.

Before I thought that God was like Bette Midler's song "From a Distance"  watching over us from a perch in heaven and swooping in to save the day when things had gotten sufficiently out of hand.  (On some days that is what my life is like as a mother.  Swooping is a good skill to have as a mother of three small boys.)  All of my prayers and longings were directed toward that end, seeking God's intervention to accomplish the good I desired but was unable to bring forth.  After all God is big, and God is good.  Of course He wants to help.  The events of the last few months have shifted my assumptions somewhat.

It's not that God is no longer Big and Good.  He is.  But I am recognizing that His purposes are not always (rarely?) my own.  Let me explain.  The Romans passage quickly admits that all of creation is "subjected to futility."  But then the passage intimates that God is the one who did this!  What the hay?!  Why in the world would God do this?  What could He possibly accomplish by putting us and the whole world in a scenario where we are groaning and straining toward a better good that seems to always be out of our grasp?  I love how verse 26 puts it this way:  "For we do not know how to pray as we ought."  Of course we don't.  Of course I don't!  In the middle of suffering my prayers are like this:  "God, get me out of here!!!!"  I love what the scripture says next.  God puts His own Spirit within us to pray on our behalf:  "because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God."  Since I don't know how to pray according to God's will, God prays it for me, within me even.

I'm thinking that God's prayers within us are the very thing that transforms us, from the inside out.  I'm thinking that this is how God slowly transformed me.  I believe the key to unlocking this mystery of why God does what He does and not what we want comes from verse 29.  I believe it is the heart of God's will for us and the whole creation:  "For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family."  While I'm begging God to rescue me from my troubles, God is working through them to recreate me in His Son's likeness.  The Greek word for conform is "summorphos" which means "properly, conformed, by sharing the same inner essence-identity (form); showing similar behavior from having the same essential nature"  (See, HELPS Word Studies).  It is our suffering that God works through to implant the likeness of Jesus within us.

And so through it all, God is not some distant overseeing Divine figure who waits to come in and save the day.  Instead God is with us through every moment, experiencing the depths of our heartaches, disappointments, and pain.  He translates our hurt into "sighs too deep for words."  And as Romans 8:28 says, He translates those sighs into our good, and ultimately our glory.  Again returning to the original meaning of Paul's use of the word "glorified" or doxazo in verse 30:  "glorify; properly, to ascribe weight by recognizing real substance (value)"  (again, see, HELPS Word Studies).  It's as if the difficulties we go through whittle away the parts of our lives that are not really us, not our heart's desires, not our true nature or character so that what remains is the essential self God had in mind at our beginning.  It is a process of becoming the person God created us to be, full of the beauty and substance that only we can bring to the world.  That end is truly joyful and genuinely good.

The temptation then, is not to believe the worst about God (God is certainly Big enough to handle our poor opinion of Him; I imagine He's been doing it for years.  As Solomon says, "There is nothing new under the sun.").   Our biggest temptation is to bug out of the process, to end the relationship and give ourselves over to our own appetites, or even worse, the enemy's lies.  God's victory is when we stay connected despite our confusion, even anger, and continue to stretch ourselves towards Him.  God never tires of hearing our groans.  For Him they are the vessels of His transformation remaking our lives.  For us they are the birth pains of the essential self being born, that person we have always longed to be but never thought we would or could.

There are so many things I do not understand.  So many ways I would staunch the suffering and heartache of others if I could.  I hate that I am unable to make life different for those I love, especially when my own soul leaps within me for the freedom and release I have found.  All I can do is add my groans to theirs, to join in their longing for a better experience, for a more hopeful and satisfying end.  It is my act of love to gather them into my own heart and offer them to the heart of God, asking for His glory to be revealed in them.  But until then . . . .

"But until then my heart will go on singing,
Until then with joy I'll carry on;
Until the day my eyes behold the city,
Until the day God calls me home."

Lyrics to "Until Then"
Words and music by Stuart Hamblen