Saturday, September 24, 2011

Faithful Fallowness

Harvest has been such a huge metaphor in my life of ministry.  I have spent years sowing God's word and my very life into the lives of those God has entrusted to my care.  I have planted, tended, nurtured, watered, weeded, and waited for years.  And in God's faithfulness I have seen some beautiful harvests during my years of ministry.  This June began my fourteenth year since I began full time ministry after graduating from seminary.  But this year is significantly different from the last thirteen.  For the first time in my grown up life, full-time ministry is not the primary focus of who I am.  My feelings about this have been mixed.  While I did not choose to be in this place, the relief washing through me is palpable.  People have commented how vast the difference in my appearance is:  apparently carrying invisible burdens shows up in ways we cannot guess; conversely, laying said burdens down translates into a very cheap face lift!

The thing I have become most aware of in the last few months is a deep exhaustion.  It has nothing to do with how much sleep I get, whether I'm rested, or have free time in my day.  It is as if thirteen years of fully carrying the needs of those in my care, had left a build-up of soul residue that was never properly released.   I couldn't release it; I didn't know how.   And for the first time I am no longer responsible for anyone's spiritual well-being but my own. Those extra burdens had become toxic.  God, in His mercy, moved me out of those circumstances and activated the release valve for me.  The toxicity has been working its way out of my heart, mind, soul, and body.  I have struggled with the feeling that I am being unfaithful, yet nothing in me wants to pick up any other kind of burden right now.  I just don't have the strength to carry it. 

Many people wrestle with answering God's call on their lives.  Usually this involves some kind of stepping out and beyond themselves, leveraging their resources on the behalf of others.  In fact the Bible Study I've been in is specifically centered on this call, using the book of Jonah as a picture of ways that we rebel against God when He wants us to serve our neighbor.  Usually we find creative ways to hide or run away.  But the call on my life in this strange season is so fundamentally different.  God is not asking me to go and give myself into another ministry.  Instead I have sensed the Still Voice within asking me to rest.  To be.  To be still and know His Stillness.  Running away would look like gathering up my life to pour it into something else.  A new ministry, another full-time position, a title, a job description, a mission to rescue the perishing, a whole new field to start planting and harvesting.  Faithfulness right now looks alot like laziness to me.  To let the field of my life lay fallow.

Really?!  Is this really it?!  Am I to relinquish the desire of my heart to deliver the life changing message of Salvation?  Am I to let go of the sowing of my time and effort into sheep who need a patient and steady hand to guide them into fold of the tender and good Shepherd?  Am I to stop arranging my life so someone else can experience the grace of God?  Well, yes.  Because over time in the delivering, guiding, and arranging somehow I became unable to experience the saving, tending, and gracing God provides me.  I think it has something to do with sabbath rest.  Even good work is still work.  We still must rest from our labors, even when they center on the good of God's people.

The Holy Spirit began to show me a different image of what this year is to be for me: 

But in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the LORD:  you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.  You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your unpruned vine:  it shall be a year of complete rest for the land.  Leviticus 25:4-5

A year of complete rest.  And this is for the Lord.  I can honor Him, love Him, and serve Him this year by allowing the field of my life a complete rest.  Holy cow!  This is so hard!  And yet I feel so completely unable to bear anything else.  I can only guess what lies ahead after this respite.  But God won't give me any indication that something else does lie ahead.  He just continues to be Still, inviting my weary soul into His Stillness too.  I love it there.  I'm so hungry for it.  How can I not go?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

This Little Light of Mine, I'm Gonna Let It Shine

Someone very dear to me has been struggling with unrelenting disappointment that never seems to fade.  They raised the question recently, "What is wrong?  Why is this happening?"  Their question perplexes me as much as it does them.  I wish I had answers, but I don't.  But I do have a picture.

Last weekend was Bowling Green's annual hot air balloon festival.  My family and I hurried to the airport so that we could see the balloon glow on Friday night.  For a few moments all the balloons ignite the fires that send them high into the air during daylight hours.  Safely tethered to earth at night time, their inner glow paints the darkness with vivid color.  It is so beautiful to me. 

I've thought so much about balloons in the days since.  Hot air balloons were made for flight.  It seems unnatural for them to be grounded.  Why have a balloon glow anyway? Random beauty seems pointless, especially at night.  The practical side of me thinks of all that fuel wasted on "looking pretty."  Yet the metaphor lover in me sees a deeper meaning.

For as long as I have been a pastor I have shared a simple message with everyone God puts in my care:  God loves you; God has a purpose for your life; as you walk with God that purpose will unfold.  As His children we were created to live that purpose in joy, to exercise those gifts with intentional abandon to the unique design and plan He has for us.  In essence, we are meant to fly spiritually, to taste the joy of living into the person He made us to be.  Most of the time this is our vocation, our calling.  Life is good, even amidst challenges.  Our outward vocations validate our inner being with meaning.  Everything feels worthwhile.

But then there are seasons when it feels like God's purposes for us have been thwarted.  No matter what we do, it seems that all around and within is frustration and turmoil.  Each day we struggle to do the right thing knowing that our heart is not in it, but we do the right thing anyway.  There is no joy, there is no peace.  There is just the orderly march of dailiness that grinds away at our sense of self.  We long for meaning.  We cannot see how our lives are making any kind of difference.  Our inner experience is just one long stretch of yearning for something more without any hope of deliverance.  And oddly enough God seems to be the One orchestrating our misery. For some reason we seem to be tied to the ground at just the time when everything within us wants to fly.   What purpose could there possibly be in that?

Here is where the metaphor speaks the most to me.  Just like those hot air balloons were designed to sail through the skies, we were made to serve God in just the unique way that He designed for us.  And it is a wonderful euphoria to be doing that. But it is impossible when a hot air balloon is sailing through sunlit skies to see the fire that lights it from within.  Especially when it is so far away.  I think this is how some people on the outside of faith see those of us who live faith from the inside.  We seem to be disconnected from "real life" by a God who makes everything better.  The phrase "too heavenly minded to be any earthly good" comes to mind.  For the unbeliever, who might be interested in knowing more about God, how could he or she ever relate to someone who lives in a place so high and lifted up when their daily existence is flat, deflated, painful?  How can we ever be approachable to those who need hope and grace the most when "real life" fails to penetrate our joyful soaring? 

It seems to me that God speaks most powerfully about His ability to lift us out of darkness and into hope through the personal example of a believer who is also immersed in darkness yet has His Light shining through.  It is truly beautiful.  Can the glow be sustained for long periods of time?  No.  But enough to keep the balloon inflated so that others can come close.  So that they can see that we are made out of the same material.  So that they get a glimpse of God's Glory shining forth out of another life as ordinary as their own, perhaps planting within them the desire, and the hope, for the same inner Light that allows them to fly as well.

I believe our seasons of being tethered to the earth are temporary.  I still believe God loves each one of us, that He has a beautiful and perfect plan for our lives, that as we walk with Him that beauty and perfection will unfold.  I STILL BELIEVE.  I know it is true for you dear one.  I know it is true.  Yet sometimes we find ourselves tied to the unrelenting gravity of earth sitting in darkness when all we want to do is fly off into the sunshine.  I believe He gives us those times for reasons we cannot  comprehend.  But a couple of those reasons are becoming clear to me.  First of all, sometimes this is the only way we know that our flying power comes from Him alone and ultimately has nothing to do with us.  Without His Light within we are simply deflated and flat.  Without His release in our lives, we cannot go anywhere.  Second, our grounded-ness may not have anything to do with us at all and everything to do with that individual who needs to see a real live example of someone who is filled with God, yet not so high and lifted up that they are scared away from the life of faith.  It could be all about bringing good news to a hungry heart that cannot receive it any other way.

Many years ago my husband was a youth leader.  One weekend I got to attend the retreat his group went on.  The night we stayed over was beautiful and clear; we decided to take a moonlit stroll to the lake.  Once we got there the place was lit up with fire-flies.  Tim decided to make an impromptu lesson out of it and challenged his students to live life like those fire-flies, with their butts lit  up for God, sharing His light and love wherever they would go.  The challenge still rings true today.  We can get mad at the darkness and give up, or we can let His Light shine, casting beauty far into the night.  A life of beauty has benefits.  We never know whose deflated hope it will ignite.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011


Last night was our first night where we didn't go outside to play.  One of the things I have learned about boys is that they need time to run around, breathe fresh air, have freedom of movement and the space to let their imaginations become bigger than life.  But yesterday it rained.  And so we stayed inside.  But it was hardly wasted time.  I decided to go through my oldest son's clothes to see what he needed as cold weather approaches.

I never would have guessed that clothing boys could be such a delicate process.  Yet boys can be very particular about what they wear.  When there is disagreement my oldest has learned to protest, "Mom!  That makes me look like a dork!"  Since when do seven year olds care about being dorks?

It was such a relief to me as we began the process of going through Noah's clothes.  Instead of complaining, Noah was actually excited.  As we started trying on each pair of pants, it became apparent that last year's favorites were too small.  I held my breath as we got to the ones that used to be over-sized; he had complained so much about them last fall, refusing to wear pants that had to be rolled up.  Each pair slipped on easily, and fit perfectly.  "Mom, these are so cool!  I'm going to show Daddy!"  I could hardly believe my ears as Noah said the words.  Pair after pair he would go back and forth through the house, showing off his "new" wardrobe to his father.  When we got to long sleeve shirts, it was the same story.  What wasn't worth his time last year, last night he was excited to discover.  Thus the fashion show continued until every piece had been tried on.

At the end of it all it turns out that we will probably only have to buy a couple of pairs of pants.  I am immensely grateful.  It may not seem like a big deal, but to me, it is a huge deal.  I've been so lonely for a word of hope from the Lord.  Here it shows up through the excitement of a seven year old boy who is glad to rediscover clothes in his closet.  They fit: miracle! And he likes them:  bigger miracle!!! I started to explain to him how wonderful it was when my voice caught.  He looks at me and says, "Mommy are you going to cry again?!"

Well, yes.  Probably.  I feel like the weary wilderness sojourner who discovers Manna in the desert.  In fact, the whole experience last night brought to mind a passage from Dueteronomy:

Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what is in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.  The clothes on your back did not wear out and your feet did not swell these forty years (8:2-4).

I love that line that speaks of God providing clothes for His children that don't wear out, and non-swelling feet for them to walk on.  What a tender picture of care, with patient attention to the details that could easily escape notice.  But He notices.  I am struck by the realization that He arranged it so that we bought more than we needed last year, when it was no big deal.  I was aggravated at the time that the clothes were made far larger than the sizes indicated.  It irked me that my son refused to wear the clothes I picked out for him; even though the shirts were a little baggy I thought they looked fine.  I could not have imagined then what God had planned for those simple pants and shirts, that He was saving them for just the right time when my sweet boy would thank me for finding such "cool" clothes for him to wear.  God is full of wonder.

I am heartened.  While I know with my head that God never leaves us nor forsakes us, sometimes it's hard to feel that way.  Sometimes I feel all alone, forgotten and forsaken.  So I am very thankful for this practical reminder, a beautiful picture of God's grace.  And I am eternally grateful that God cares enough to bring miracles from the closet that keep my sweet boy from looking like a dork!  Wonders never cease.

Thursday, September 01, 2011


It may seem like an inconsequential thing, this statement in the first chapter of Luke:  "Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord" (1:6).  But truly it is a powerful piece of insight, one that touches me deeply.  Luke has just introduced the reader to Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, the one chosen to prepare God's people to receive Jesus.  And then he tells us they were righteous.

Of course they were righteous, right?  I mean, they are major players in the birth narrative of our Savior.  And what Biblical heroes aren't righteous?   (Okay, so there are a few.)  But there is something huge hidden in the matter of fact introduction of John's parents.  Between the time that the last prophet to Israel had prophesied and the birth of John, 400 years had lapsed since God had spoken to His people.  God was silent for all that time.  Zechariah and Elizabeth were living in a time where no one was saying, "Thus says the Lord."  Their obedience and love for God humbles me,  and it inspires me.

I am inspired because their story shows me what is possible.  It's possible to live in right relationship with God and others, even when God is quiet.  I am tickled by the ways I am learning this.  Since the middle of August I have been working Tuesday's and Thursday's as pre-school teacher for four year olds.  Our whole day revolves around helping our sweet boys and girls learn how to take responsibility for themselves and make good choices without us telling them what to do each time.  The goal is to help them become mature and independent, to learn to function with greater responsibility so that they are ready for kindergarden next fall.  Ultimately they will be able to come into the classroom, hang up their own backpack, get out their folder and put it in their cubby, write their names in their composition books, and find a quiet game to play all on their own, without having to be reminded of the process each time.  There comes a time when constant coaching is no longer helpful.  It teaches them to remain dependent upon us when they have the ability within to do some things for themselves.  We want them to be successful in this exercise because it will help them down the road.

I am beginning to think the same thing is true about God.  I think we reach a place in our relationship with Him that He begins to draw back so that we can see what we have learned, how much we have grown, the strength that He has diligently nurtured within us.  The greatest loss comes when we remain immature in our faith and are never able to grow into God's purpose for us!  Or we simply refuse to exercise the faith that His grace has instilled within us, demanding to remain spiritual infants who refuse to be weened into the next step of growth.  It is like Paul lamenting about the Corinthians, "I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it.  Indeed you are still not ready" (I Corinthians 3:2).  If God is constantly having to hold our hand so that we can have faith in Him, we will never be able to serve or teach or encourage anyone else in the body of Christ since our own faith is so flimsy.  The silence shows us the content of our hearts, and just how deeply the love and knowledge of God is rooted there.

There is something else that humbles and inspires me.  It comes from the very next verse in Luke:  "But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old" (Luke 1:7).  I remember what it was like to be childless, to look with longing at mothers with babies, to hope and pray every night that God would give us a child of our own.  Tim and I prayed prayers like that for three years.  Just when I had given up hope that I would ever be a mother, God stepped in and changed everything for us in a dramatic way.  Just a couple of weeks ago we celebrated our oldest son's seventh birthday.  Praise God for so many blessings!  Tim and I joke that our offspring certainly showcase God's sense of humor; we have one son for each year of trying.  So I know that kind of longing, but not to the degree that Elizabeth and Zechariah knew it.  They spent their whole lives, all the way to old age, longing for something that was never granted, until the idea of fulfillment was long dead.  And yet they are still described as righteous, known as people who lived rightly. 

That one verse shows it is possible to live in right relationship with God when disappointment  seems to great to bear.  I wonder at what point Zechariah and Elizabeth made peace with their personal anguish?  When were they able to say, "So life has marked me irrevocably in this way, there is nothing I can do to change it, and yet I will serve the Lord"?  Perhaps they never did make peace with their anguish.  It's interesting to me that we have no way of knowing.  What we do know is that they lived long lives in righteousness, even when life didn't turn out the way they thought it would.

This place I'm in is a place I never thought I would be.  I savor the parts of it that have surprised me with joy:  the warmth of love that greets me when I am with my boys, the relief I feel now that I no longer have to put something else ahead of them.  But then there are other parts that give me pause.  There are some prayers I've been praying for years, the subject matter so dear to my heart I don't dare stop praying, or hoping.  However, my weary heart believes it is about time God answered, especially when we are dependent upon Him like never before.  In the wake of disruption, I want to see the unexpected goodness of God burst upon our lives with fresh goodness.  I don't understand why He would wait so long in answering.  My ears ache with the strain of listening for stirrings of His Word for us.

And so, oddly enough, I am encouraged in the place I never thought I would be.  Zechariah and Elizabeth found a way to remain connected to the God, even when their deepest hopes and dreams never materialized after years of faithful waiting.  I love that the text does not elaborate on those years of dryness.  It simply makes a declaration of the culmination of those years.  That at the end of the day, for days and years on end, they decided that belonging to God was the most important thing.  Even in the face of unquenched longing.  If such an ordinary couple like them could do it, maybe we can to.