Monday, December 30, 2013

Pa-Rum-Pa-Pum-Pum: My Hope for the New Year

Early in December my youngest son and I found ourselves quietly alone in the house.  The big boys were off somewhere with their Daddy, and this little one and I had an evening to ourselves.  We powered up the DVD player and watched "The Little Drummer Boy."  

It seems silly, but the story rekindled in me a yearning I had forgotten.  During my last Christmas as a campus minister I showed the video to my college students.  Before the evening was over I gave each one of them a glitter-covered glass drum ornament, a reminder to give the stuff of who they are to Jesus.  Fast forward three years later to my living room.  I sat holding my little one, watching in wonder as another little boy who had neither gold, frankincense, or myrrh to offer the King of kings simply began playing his drum.  His drumming was the gift.

Tears rolling, heart lurching, mind running, I sat there trying to remember where my ornament was.  After tucking my son into his bed I made my way upstairs to the attic.  The search was on.

I took me a couple of days to find it, but soon it was hanging on my tree with all the other memories each ornament represented.

I find myself singing the song, rum-pum-pumming everywhere.  All this pa-rum-pa-pum-pumming has me thinking about what exactly I have that is of any value to the King of kings.  Even as this year closes the song echoes in me, until even my cells seem to be humming and strumming and singing along.  What can I give that has worth?  What can I offer Jesus?

And my heart keeps beating.  Drumming.  Humming.  Pa-rum-pa-pum-pum, rum-pa-pum-pum, rum-pa-pum-puming.

What I like about the new year is that it gives each one of us a new start, a new opportunity to get something right.  A chance to try again.  I feel like I need that more than anything right now.  I need more than anything to know that my life has meaning beyond myself, that I am a part of God making a difference.

This desire was awakened within me early in December with startling clarity.  I was visiting the elementary school where my husband is principal.  Together we were handing out small gifts for those who worked there.  As we passed through the cafeteria I saw a woman helping a little boy about six years old with his shoes.  She held his sneaker in her hands.  Then I saw his foot resting on the floor while he waited, sock-less.  The image stayed with me, always in the back of my mind, niggling, keeping me awake at night.

What began keeping me awake even more were the memories that image evoked.  Times when I was about six years old, struggling in school, having some needs that others met, other needs that were invisible to the outside world.  My heart woke up to a long buried ache and a deep need to heal it by somehow making a difference for these little ones.

Christmas day has come and is now past.  I am writing this post on New Year's Eve eve.  Tomorrow we will begin the countdown to a new year.  With the ticking my heart keeps pumping, drumming, humming.  I am offering its beating as gift.  I am hoping that God can do something with it, that God can move it and in doing so move me into His purpose, His plan for my life.  I realize I need it to keep beat with a Song beyond me, to make music that heals the brokenness, comforts the loneliness, restores hope to hopelessness, and brings joy to the weary.

My new year's resolution:  to make my heart available to Christ, to offer it as a vessel for Christ to fill however He sees fit.  This isn't so much about giving Jesus my heart so He can take me to Heaven as much as it is about giving Jesus my heart so He can pour out some Heaven on earth.  I feel so limited in what I can do for the King.  I look at the things others are doing, knowing I don't have that kind of thing in my pocket right now.  And so I listen to the song playing in my heart and offer it with the hope that it is enough to make Him smile too.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Emmanuel Coming

I am in an Advent kind of mood.  Sorry.  Christmas is lost on me this year.  I don’t feel merry and bright.  I can’t really even explain it, except to say that my heart hurts.  It has been living too long in the tension of what should be and what is.  I ache with the disparity and my own inability to reconcile the difference.

 This Christmas season, unlike any other, I am aware that there are children who will go to bed tonight cold, hungry, feeling very much alone.  The needs are real.  They are intense.  For some children it is not even the physical needs that are so bad, but the sting of being left alone by those who are supposed to love them the most, the emotional abandonment that comes because other things in life are more important.  What can ever be more important than caring for one’s own children?  But here it is, the evidence revealing itself in surprising ways, in surprising places.

It stings because I sit in my warm home, surrounded by my family.  My boys are so deeply loved.  They are surrounded by a network of family that holds them, a safety net that is always there, resting gently beneath the love my husband and I hold for them.  I see the way Tim cares for them, the time he takes, the surprises he plans for them, especially when work keeps him away.  It warms my heart.  I know my life is blessed.  Even in this imperfect life, I know we are so, so blessed.

It breaks my heart when I think of children in other homes, not having what is so easily taken for granted in ours.  And I want to do something.  I have responded to the needs lodged in my chest to the capacity that I can.  And I know it still isn’t enough.

I hate it.  I hate that I have so much passion inside of me to make a difference and I can’t.  And I will say, I’m a little mad at God.  Because I’m stuck in circumstances beyond my control.  I can only do so much.  I can only leverage my gifts and abilities so far.  And the gap between what I want to do and what I can do at this moment is tearing me up inside.  So my Christmas spirit is shot.

But Advent is fitting.  Advent is that season that anticipates the coming of the anointed One.  It is living in the dark place, while leaning into Promise.  The darkness can feel so pervasive.  In Advent one lives quietly with darkness, but holding fast the hope for light in one's heart.  It is the staunch refusal to allow the darkness to pervade everything, even if the corner of hope left is small.  The One we wait for is the anointed One. the Christ, the Messiah, the One filled with Spirit for the purpose of eradicating the darkness.  His awaited Presence touches need, perfectly answering, filling, punctuating, satiating.  He is all we desire.  This waiting intensifies our need, clarifies it, distills it.  Even if we cannot name it, it names us, affecting all that we do, the choices we make, the way we make our way in the world.

The ancient Hebrew people waited for the Holy One in the silence of 400 years, without one word from the prophets.  Even words of reprimand would have been welcome when you wait in silence that long.  They waited as they passed from one hand of domination to another, eventually subdued by Roman rule.  Their waiting was a groaning, a yearning, a longing, stretching into centuries that looked desperately for relief. 

I love the way the hymns of Advent answer this need, this pervasive darkness—

O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.  Rejoice!  Rejoice!  Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

God answers the world’s deep need by piercing the night with the squalling peals of a newborn.  His answer for a need so huge is a baby.  Israel was looking for something more. 

If I am honest, I am too.  I want the hurting to stop.  I want the ache in my heart to go away.  I want the passionate need in my chest to be quieted by the living out of purpose, to know that I’m spending myself in a way that alleviates the needs I can’t not notice.  To know that I am participating in God’s redemption of the brokenness I see.

I think the thing that the Hebrew people missed, the ones who couldn’t accept Jesus, was that they missed the meaning of His name.  He is called Emmanuel—God with us.

God is with us. 

In the darkness.  In the silence.  In the disparity.  In the paradox.  In the long night that feels 400 years old.

God is with us.  He hasn’t left us.  He hasn’t gone blind.  He knows and He sees and He loves and He is answering the deep, deep needs we cannot even articulate with His Own Self.

I don’t know why God doesn’t just make the earth shake.  I don’t know why God doesn’t just snap Divine Fingers and solve these needs.  But here is what faith is telling me—

God has touched my heart in a special way in this Holy season, not so that I will be forever lost in a chasm that I cannot bridge.  God has given my heart eyes to see a need, the grace to feel it deeply, so that when He changes my circumstances from lack to abundance I will be ready to serve.  And I will be absolutely clear about how I should do it.

The 400 years of silence was really a gift; it created a hunger perfectly matched to the Salvation God wanted to send.  I believe God does the same thing for us; He stirs in us desires that He is already prepared to fill.  Our waiting just shows us how big the  Gift really is.

Can one timidly rejoice?  The words of the song hit me fresh.  This is my exile, my longing and hoping and yearning.  I feel so deeply the need that only God can satisfy.  I know that He is going to have to move some mountains around for this to be alright.  And the faith part of me says that even though I can't be sure exactly how He will do it, I can rejoice because Emmanuel shall come to me too.  Emmanuel comes for all of us who are weary of living in the darkness and longing for the light:

O come, thou Wisdom from on high, and order all things far and nigh; to us the path of knowledge show and cause us in her ways to go.  Rejoice!  Rejoice!  Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Does the Baby Need a Blanket?

My youngest son will be in his first concert tomorrow!  The three year olds at his preschool are doing a Christmas program for the parents.  Jeremiah told me, with all seriousness, "If you're bad you can't come see me sing."  Apparently there is a good behavior requirement for attendance!  My friend who subs in his class told me she was there the other day for their practice.  She said he looked so much like me, with his expressiveness and enthusiasm pouring out.  Our third son must be something of a ham.  We will soon see for ourselves!

One of the songs his class will sing is a simple chorus that repeats a question over and over, finally giving the answer--

Does the baby need a blanket to keep him warm?
Does the baby need a blanket to keep him warm?
Does the baby need a blanket to keep him warm?
I’ve got a blanket I’ll share!
It helps the story of Jesus' birth come alive for little imaginations--a stable is not a warm place to be in the winter time.  How will a new born baby stay warm?

I'm sure God figured out all those details on the night Jesus was born.

But I've been singing that song over and over in my mind, and the question will not leave me alone.   Baby Jesus is still cold.  He still needs someone to share what they have.  The details of Christ's need still need to be figured out.

As I reflect on this I realize that my boys have not been exposed to much of the deep need so many live with every day.  They attend a new school, filled with kids from experiences much like our own.  The basic needs are met, and often there is more than enough to go around.  It is not a community categorized by lack.  I am struggling with how to help them see the needs of the world, when the world they live in doesn't seem to have any.

Especially as I realize that as a child, I lived in the need they haven't been exposed to. 

My mom tells me of the Christmas we were so poor that all they could afford was a tree and one present each for my brother and me.  The tree was a bit of a miracle.  The young guy at the tree lot mistakenly sold it to them for the lowest price, not realizing it was the best one they had.  My mom's old photographs show a regal pine--tall and stately, perfectly shaped.  Tucked beneath its branches on Christmas morning was a bride doll and robot.

I remember the bride doll, not the lack.  I remember the gift, not the need.  Because every time the need was felt, God worked out the details of meeting it.  When my mom was figuring out how to buy groceries, God had a choir member give her a $20 before leaving church.  When I needed a winter coat and shoes, God moved the hearts of an older couple to buy them.  When my brother and I needed someone to help raise us, God sent Joe into my mom's heart and our lives.  I've always felt a special kinship with Jesus over that.  We both got great step-dads.

So I find myself living in the question that the song asks--does the Baby in the manger need something I can share?  What is it I have that can help?  How am I supposed to share it?  And even when there doesn't seem to be a lot of extra, is there something within my means that God can use to bless another child? 

Is Jesus cold this Christmas? 

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

How Hope is Born in Dark Places

Just days ago we celebrated my youngest son's fourth birthday.  He is a delight and a treasure and a sweet surprise of Grace that blesses us each day.  I thank God for him often, especially when he presses himself to me in a big embrace for that last hug before we walk out the door.  He is a tangible and sweet expression of God's Goodness in my life.  This truth is not lost on me.  It is the one I make my home in each day.

Yet on his birthday a sadness pressed in on me that kind of took my breath away.  It could be that time is falling away from us, and with it his little-ness.  Soon he will be like his brothers, a big boy out and about in his own world where I cannot follow.  While he will always be my baby, already he gives me a look when I call him my baby.  It is clear to him that he is growing up.  He welcomes it.  I am fitting myself into all this growing up with eyes and heart wide open, so that I don't miss these moments.  I don't want to miss a one.

A deeper truth has been seeking attention though.  The day this sweet angel boy was born was so hard.  And the days following were hard.  His birth demanded something from me that I didn't know I had it within me to give.  The giving of it leveled me in a way that had not happened previously, nor since.  I am hesitant to speak of this. 

My body could kind of tell the story.  It is a reflection of what my soul felt like.  The incision they made to remove him stretched up toward my navel.  What lay beneath the flesh was a mess of scar tissue.  The healing process for such cutting was long, and for a long time looked real ugly.  I guess when God delivers something New into our lives, sometimes the process of  delivery feels anything but life-giving. 

When my baby was so new, I entered an aloneness no one around me could comprehend, an isolation no one could penetrate.  Its dimensions were physical, spiritual, and emotional.  Its walls so high I could not climb out.   I want to say this was not depression.  I've been there before too, and it has its own struggles.  This was not something that originated from within me and impacted things outside of me.  This was something that beset me from circumstances beyond my control, rendering me down to nothing.  I could not fight what I found myself in.  I could not invite anyone to share the burden.  I could not escape the sadness that came with the isolation I felt.

The irony is that this struggle came in the heart of Christmas, my boy being born on December 1st.  During one of the most joyful times of the year, I was trapped in a darkness I could not see my way out of.  Eventually I figured out how badly anger was working to alleviate my heartache.  Eventually I could see that this aloneness was not going to end because I willed it to.  I began to understand that the mess I found myself in was asking me for something that I had not thought to give--relinquishment.

I am not speaking of giving up.  I am speaking of giving over.  To allow this isolation to be changed into something holy.  An offering for God to use however God could use something as broken and empty as that.

I discovered in my surrender that God has a special love for our empty places.  While I was baffled with my abyss, God knew just what to do with it.

I would love to say that everything was instantly better when I began seeking God within my emptiness instead of trying to fight the emptiness.  I would love to say that the darkness I felt within  immediately radiated with light.  But I'm not going to lie to you.  I will speak truth.

At first the measures of peace I felt were incremental.  For a moment here and a moment there, the aloneness didn't matter so much.  Slowly I came to recognize this Quiet, that would settle within me, a gentle Contentment resting gingerly within my soul.  If I tried too hard it would leave.  If I demanded its presence it would vanish.  I had to relinquish my expectations of what healed looked like, accepting instead the healing God would bring.  I found I even had to let go of the isolation itself, choosing to let my heart dwell not so much on the realities only I could know, but to join others where they were, in places where I also could relate.

I had to stop looking at others with the silent demand, "Make this better for me--"  Instead I recognized it was something God alone could do.  When I began resting my need in God's Goodness, this Goodness showed me resiliency within that I had not known was there.  I began to believe in my ability to endure.  And I eventually began to believe that there was once more life outside of my brokenness.

Light came into the darkness, and I found God there.  Not blinding me with Radience, but Holding me until I was brave enough to open my eyes.  I found Grace that allowed my vision to adjust to something beside the blackness I felt. 

Here is my inner dialogue with God at the moment:

"Why would You want me to write about this?!"

"Why, when I have made peace with it, and the blessings of that time are now so evident?!"

"Why should I risk this kind of exposure and the opening of old wounds that have healed?!"

Quite honestly, I rarely think about that time.  There is still pain etched in the memory.  But it pushed itself into my awareness.  Not asking my permission.  And I have looked at it blankly and asked, "Why are you here?"

But the Spirit has been whispering in my heart--

There are some who are sitting right now in that same dark place.  The circumstances are different, but it is that same, dark, isolated place.  They not only feel completely alone, they are completely cut off from human comfort and companionship.   When they say, "no one understands," they are telling the truth.  They are having to walk a road that no one can accompany them on.  They need to know they are not walking alone.

Where human companionship is lacking, the Spirit is able to order their steps.  Where the ache is piercing, the Balm of God's Comfort is close at hand.  There is a genuine need to know that darkness cannot obscure the Light.  And the Power of the Almighty can use this experience to train our eyes to see His Presence no matter where we are.

And when we walk with the Light of God's Presence, everything in the world changes.

I believe this is the true miracle of Christmas.  It's not about tinsel or parades or discounts.  It's about something as sturdy as Hope showing up in unlikely and unwieldy circumstances.  It is the story of how God sees our depravity, our endless uselessness in trying to change things, and how He enters in to lift us up, giving of His Strength to transform the darkness we live in.  The true miracle of Christmas is the story of a Baby born in darkness to reveal to us the Light of the world.  His name is Emmanuel, God With Us:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness--on them light has shined. . . .  For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom.  He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.  The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.  Isaiah 9:2, 6-7

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Filigreed Heart

A friend once
had a name for me--
"Little Water Buckets,"
my life watered
with tears falling
at the most
inconvenient times.
Another friend said
I was blessed
to be a pretty crier--
good fortune for one
who wept often.
I could not understand
what good could come
from beautiful weeping.
My tears did not hold
beauty for me--
I saw them as my shame.
I could not keep them from falling
nor keep my heart from feeling

This tender heart
pierced through with pain
embarrassed me.
I could not contain
its hurt,
so it spilled out
in barely controlled
I remember my prayer
to Jesus,
wiping my tears with
nail-pierced Hands.
"There are too many!"
I exclaimed.
"There are never too many
for Me to wipe away."
He explained.
I did not like His answer
because He didn't stop
the piercing and
my brokenness remained.

I have since learned
to honor the heart
He gave me.
To feel deeply is not shame,
but something else entirely:
It is gift--
enabling me
to step into a room
and to know
what is felt within.
This exquisite pain
has pierced me through
so that feeling flows
First it is a sharing,
and then it becomes bearing,
as I bring what others feel
to the Throne of Grace.
Jesus meets me there,
anointing each hurt
with Tender Love.

My Sweet Jesus
illuminated the
Truth I could not see--
Every pain, every tear,
every piercing trouble,
prepared my heart to be
something beautiful,
a sacred chamber
that He steeps in Love
and pours out with
the healing balm of

To be a filigreed beauty
in His courts
is not a bad thing.
For out of the gore
of piercing pain,
He has arranged
to shine forth
in ways I never


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Harvest and Thanksgiving Joy

I have been reflecting on this season, as we draw closer to Thanksgiving.  Tim and I have talked about going ahead and decorating for Christmas since Thanksgiving falls so late this year, but with the craziness of our schedules, it just hasn't happened.  I am grateful in a way.  There is something Holy about this Autumn time that I am reluctant to let go of.  As wonderful as Christmas is, I hate to miss the quiet gift of trees wrapped in color releasing their leaves to the wind:  a radient transformation morphing into deepening solitude as fall yields itself to winter.  There is something Holy about being a witness to this relinquishment.  There is blessing in waiting . . . and watching the last of the harvest unfold.

In these days, busy with the ordinary, my heart is happy just watching nature's life quietly enfolding my hustle and bustle.  Most of the leaves are down now.  But still I am surprised and delighted by the late-comers, their gloriously colored leaves splendidly pronounced against the grays and browns of decaying foliage.  I wonder if I put up the Christmas decorations if my eyes would be so full of the tinsel that I would forget to see this simple beauty.  It is the beauty of endings, the kind that gather up all that has been, the clearing that ultimately makes one ready for the birth of something new.

Thanksgiving is really a celebration of Harvest.   It is gratitude poured out of  the sowing-weary soul who sees that hope has been answered--the endless labor of cultivation worked.  God granted the growth and brought forth bounty.  The fruits of our labors are never guaranteed, so when they come, we must offer our thanks.  I think of those first Pilgrims gathered around the celebration table, hand in hand with their new Native American friends, together offering thanks for the harvest that would sustain them.  How could they not be overcome with joy?  This Thanksgiving was more than a remembrance of  blessings.  They, who had come so close to perishing, were looking upon the bounty of life stretching out before them.

In honor of Harvest I have spent some time sitting with the story of Pentecost.  In the Old Testament this was one of three highly sacred feasts to be observed by faithful Jews.  Also known as the Festival of Harvest or the Festival of Weeks, its name comes from the 50 days following  Passover, where the first fruits of the harvest were presented to the Lord.  Like most of the Church, I traditionally read the story found in the second chapter of Acts during spring time, following Easter, when we celebrate the birth of the Church, the giving of the Holy Spirit.  This is the first time I have realized its close connections to the season of harvest, which, at least for us today, is not a spring time event at all. 

We know the story--Jesus was crucified, laid in the tomb, and on the third day, He came to life.  The Bible tells us of the ways he encountered His disciples, encouraging them, showing them the truth of His resurrection, rearranging what they thought they knew into something new and incomprehensible.  And shortly before He ascends into heaven, He tells them to stay put:  wait in the place where they are for God's promise.  Acts picks up the story of their waiting:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.  (Acts 2:1-4)
 What happens next is that the Holy Spirit enables them to share the Good News of Jesus with others in a supernatural way.  God displays His power to draw others to Himself in a way that only He can through whomever He chooses.  And those whom He chooses are those who have given themselves over to a reality that has turned their world upside down.  They met Jesus.  They followed Him  for three years while He healed people, fed them, forgave them.  Then they hid while He was beaten and crucified.  They rejoiced and believed when He rose again.  They could have gone back to their once familiar lives.  Instead they chose to wait for God's Promise.  Ultimately when they met Jesus they allowed Him the freedom to up-end everything known and trustworthy in their lives.  And finally they see outcome of such foolishness:  Harvest beyond anything they can imagine.

We have the same choice today

When we meet Jesus, we can allow Him total access.  We can give Him the freedom to up-end everything we know, everything we trust.  It seems a foolish proposition.  It feels foolish.  When He asks us to live our lives so differently from those around us, we can get so tired of looking like religious fanatics--freaks of faith.  There is a cost that comes, a cultivation of soul that requires toil, patience.  An investment of blood, sweat, and tears.  And there are no guarantees that any thing worthwhile (at least in the world's eyes) will ever come of our labors.  This soul-tending seems to be so foolish.  A wasted effort that feels fruitless.

In agriculture and soul-tending, the process is the same:  Someone has to break up the soil; someone has to sow the seeds; someone has to pull the weeds; someone has to fertilize the crops; someone has to irrigate the plants.  Ordinary folks labor over the fields of corn and fields of faith.  But ultimately God alone produces the growth.  And with patience we have to wait for it.  We can always do our part.   But we can never do His.

This is why Harvest is so amazing.  It is the miracle of seeing God do the thing that Only He can do.  Knowing that His Power revealed in our lives can sustain us and take us to places we have never even imagined. 

There is a joy that comes with this God rendering in our lives.  The onlookers of Pentecost, did not understand what they were seeing and hearing.  They could not comprehend what was taking place through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit through ordinary people.  It's hard to explain to onlookers what is happening within us and through us when God's power is revealed.  Lacking adequate categories of explanation, some just ridiculed:  "They are filled with new wine." 

Truer words could not have been spoken.  Truly these believers were filled with new wine--the new wine of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus had told them that new wine required new wineskins.  As wine ferments it expands.  An old wineskin has lost the elasticity needed to accommodate fermentation.  It cannot contain the new thing that expands within it.  It bursts, and all is lost.  But these disciples, these followers turned believers who have forsaken everything to participate God's Harvest, have relinquished old lives so that they might be created new.  They are the new wineskins, holding the New Wine of God's power and blessing, pouring it out on everyone they see.

This is what I am thinking about as I watch leaves silently falling to the ground.  The last of the crops in fields close to my home are being gathered in.  Harvest is almost complete.  In a week I will gather around a table with family and celebrate the blessing of bounty.  I will offer my gratitude to God for sustaining me and my family another year.  Together we will list each blessing we can think of, seeing if we can take our gratitude farther, deeper than the year before.  There is so much here, in our hands and in our hearts, that we cannot take credit for.  So much of God's faithfulness spilling out all around us.  How can we not say thanks?  How can we not be filled with joy?  How can we not recognize that we did not come so far on our efforts alone, but that God has been here, present always, working quietly along beside us?

I offer prayers of gratitude.  Because God's faithfulness has brought us bounty and goodness beyond what we can comprehend.  When we should have perished, He made a way and sustained us.  And I also look forward with hope.  Because I know there is more Harvest coming.  Just as He poured out His Holy Spirit at Pentecost so long ago, I believe He will again.  I believe that the blood, sweat, and tears of our soul-toiling and soul-sowing are coming to an end.  New Wine is coming to fill us again:

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.  Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, "The Lord has done great things for them."  The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.  Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb.  May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.  Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.  (Psalm 126) 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Why Pushing Through Is Worth It

My spirit has been heavy lately.  I have tried to pinpoint the cause, but it seems a bit nebulous.  A bit beyond me, as if it is not really my own.  Rather I sense there is a deep intercession going on.  It is as if a good chunk of the Body of Christ is travailing a laborious path, and I feel in my own body the ache.  I pray for people.  This is how the Holy Spirit works in me.  Lately my prayers have taken on the characteristic of burden bearing.  But as I listen to friends and loved ones share their hearts, I am beginning to sense that this is a widespread experience of wilderness.  I understand now why the Spirit would ask me to pray for this:  it is a spiritual terrain I have experienced before.

Years ago in a moment of uncharacteristic boldness, I initiated a conversation with one of my favorite preachers who was the keynote speaker at a conference I was attending.  During our brief encounter, I asked him to pray for me.  His words went something like this—

Been a long time in the wilderness, but You God are with us.  Give a faith that is deeper.  A strength that is stronger.  A hope that is . . . .”  I can’t quite place that last word.  Except that I came away knowing that hope on the other side of wilderness, is more than what it was going in.

His words have rung true in my life.  I have found that God is often the One who engineers my wilderness experiences, allowing circumstances beyond my control to bring me to a place of utter dependence upon Him.  At first I fight.  I try and scratch and claw my way out of the situation I find myself in.  Eventually weariness sets in; I begin to sense that God is asking me for a deeper response.  God is asking me for trust.  God is asking me to relinquish myself into His Hands for a purpose I cannot fathom.

Those times when I have given my assent to God, to His wilderness, and to the process He asked me to come through, I have seen emerge every time a faith that is deeper, a strength that is stronger.  A hope that is—hopier.

We often experience wilderness as a vast expanse of emptiness that seems to have elusive boundaries.  It is a season that never seems to change.  We feel stuck in a place where our human gifts and abilities are rendered useless while we become all too well acquainted with our inability to change our own circumstances.  Our efforts to transform our situation meet with limited success.  Progress comes grudgingly, if at all.  Eventually we must make peace with our surroundings, finding direction from there.

During one of my wilderness experiences I was meeting with my spiritual director, pouring out my heart, my frustration at the process.   Her words to me—“Listen for the water.”  I since recognize that in every desert, in every wilderness place, God causes springs of water to appear, the saving Grace in a dry and weary land.  The springs of that time came from songs that soothed my chafed soul—“Come thou Fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing your grace.  Streams of mercy, never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise. . .  .”  The familiar hymn became the night-time lullaby that helped my child find rest, its words soothing my restless spirit too.  While God could not be cajoled into changing my circumstances, I found in Him boundless Mercy to sustain me within them.

Wilderness has a way of showing us to ourselves.  In that empty cavernous space our great big need grows huge in our eyes.  We cannot pretend anymore that our own resources are proficient to meet the challenges we face.  It’s as if each strength and natural talent begins to crumble before our eyes.  And God asks us to trade in our proficiency for His Sufficiency.  He asks us to relinquish our own strong arm so that our weakness can showcase His strength.  He wants to show us what perfect strength can look like.  So He takes us to the only place this is possible—to the heart of deeply felt poverty.   It is here that we must learn to be sustained by Grace, the power that might not pluck us from the fire, but which makes us hardy and resilient in the face of fire.  We have to gather it each day like manna, to stand each day in a place of trust, believing God will give us what we need, when we need it.  And we have to believe that this is not the destination but a waiting place, that the road leads to something wonderful and not just another bondage.  It is wilderness, after all is said and done, that finally frees us from bondages we never knew we had.

I offer my heart, these prayers, these words with the acute awareness that we cannot possibly know when wilderness will arrive or when it will end.  I recognize that many of those for whom I am praying are seasoned believers, they know the Lord deeply and love Him with everything.  They have been knowing and loving Him for a long time.  There is this sense in which I question this testing—“Why this?  Why them?  Why now?  After all they have come through, haven’t they been thoroughly tried by the fires of life already?”  The only answer I can discern is that God is doing a work, a polishing of sorts.  There is something for which He is preparing them, preparing us all, that needs sturdy believers.  We are never placed in the wilderness for our destruction, but only to be prepared for Glory.  Whatever awaits us on the other side is Glorious, filled with Greatness which is beyond our comprehension.  And when we get there, we will be so primed in the fires of adversity that our lives will hold God’s Glory with ease.

So then what is left for us to do? 

We are called to stand strong.  One of the biggest indicators of maturity (and sturdiness) is the ability to persevere, to stay with a commitment, to complete a task even when it is no longer as easily attainable as it once appeared.  To fulfill God's purpose for our lives even when it looks like life would be so much simpler if we didn't.

Whatever it is God has initiated in your life, stick with it.  Whatever progress you have made in your spiritual walk, do not be tempted to regress or stagnate.  Whatever new understanding or knowledge God has brought you to, sit with it, ruminate on it, make it so much a part of you that its truth cannot be dislodged.   Wherever and whenever you feel the nudge, the Holy suggestion, to do something, do it immediately and heartily.  It is God who is responsible for sustaining us in the gains He has accomplished within us and on our behalf.  Our part is to trust His work within us and cooperate with the work He wants to do.  So really the battle is already won.  We just have to stay close to the One who does the winning.

I feel the weariness in my bones, the longing for relief.  But I also know that God is with us, Strength we cannot grasp holding us steady in this place.   He is asking us to look for Him in the ordinary details of our lives, to expect to see Him looking for us.  He is asking us to hold His hand in this moment, to not run away from it but to face it, drawing strength from His presence and Grace with us.  There will come a time when we will realize what this season was all about—the hard-pressed days, the obstacles overcome, the strength developed because difficulty demanded it.  All of it a laboring that toward a new place, a birth process bringing forth something we could hardly even imagine.  We want so badly for it to just be done.  But the gift of hard-pressed days is learning to press on and push through.  The pressure tells us the new thing will be coming soon.

I realize at the end of this that I’ve been writing about what it is to give birth.  This travailing is not a bad thing.  It is truly good.  Problem is, nobody told us we were pregnant and now it is time to push.  There is no way out of the season we are in.  But we can recognize it, breathe deeply, hold tightly to God’s hand, bear down, and push through!  Be not frightened dear one.  God’s Promise is coming to you.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

May the Circle Be Unbroken

Yesterday was my grandfather's funeral.  We gathered in the church where he and my grandmother were charter members.  As plans and preparations for the day were made, the pastor had asked if I would lead the prayer for the service.  "Share whatever words you would like beforehand," he said.  And so I did.  This is what I shared--

I joined the Winters family a few months before I turned eight.  My mother married Joe on Easter.  That began a series of traditions for us where we spent holidays gathered in my grandparents' home, each experience filled with cousins and food and merciless teasing my by grandfather.  I remember that I always had to sit at the kids' table.  I hated it.  Really I just wanted to sit with the grown-ups.  Joe would say it's probably because I was eight going on thirty.  Perhaps it was because I felt left out of what was most important.  (At the funeral yesterday my cousin told me I really didn't miss anything there; it wasn't any fun.  She spent her time wishing she could just go be one of the kids.)

On Monday night there was a special time set aside for the family to be with Grandpa's body before the visitation.  What touched me most about that time is that there was no kids' table.  It was just one big circle of us, gathered together to tell stories, share memories, wrapping our grief and goodbyes in the familiar remembrances that had the power to make us laugh even on such an occasion.  Sons, wives, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren stood shoulder to shoulder, all participants in the laughter, all getting to put our two-cents worth in. 

I loved hearing Joe and his brothers tell their stories, three boys growing up together, mischief makers filled with a wildfire impossible to quench.  I said a silent prayer of thanks for Grandma, thinking once again of my own wild crew of three.  The inward encouragement sounded once more:  "If she can survive raising three boys, I can too." 

Those three mischief makers are now grown; they have children and grandchildren of their own.  But for a moment they reached back into the past and pulled up memories of what it was like to have Grandpa as a Dad.  They told us stories of how he valued honesty above all else, instilling it in them by whatever means was required.  They shared how he taught them what it meant to work hard, to apply themselves to a task, to finish a job.  They invited us into their world of boyhood and what it was like to grow up with brothers.  And they closed with a story of Grandpa's time in the Air Corps, when a plane he was supposed to be on was destroyed before reaching its destination.  Right before boarding an officer took his place in line, forcing him to take the next schedule flight.  Only later did he learn that all were lost.  If he had not been last in line, he would have been too.

We looked around the circle then.  My aunt said what we all were thinking.  If Grandpa had gotten on that plane, none of us would have been sharing stories in that room.  The only brother who was alive at the time was Ron, who was just two.  My aunt said, "Ron, your mother would have taken you to Everett, Washington."  He would have grown up in a different place altogether, and the two younger brothers would not have been born.

If there had not been a Grandpa Winters, there never would have been a Joseph Gilbert Winters.  And Joe is the one who has made the word "father" holy and sacred in my life.  I couldn't imagine my life without him.  He is as good a man as I have ever met.  So good that I married someone so much like him, with all the qualities Joe has that I admire most. 

Sometimes the circle we stand in is made by love we receive.  And I realize also that sometimes the circle is made by the love we give.   Love is what always completes the circle.  I think back to that eight year old girl and I realize that even if we don't start out where we want, through God's love and mercy (if we let it do its work in us) we can end up where we belong.

My cousin Ben said it best as he shared how his life was transformed by God's grace in an amazing way just weeks before.  In the middle of a difficult time, words his daddy shared with him often came to mind:  "It'll all come out in the wash."  Those are words Uncle Jimmy first heard numerous times from Grandma.  They are words I can hear now, etched in my childhood, rolling out in Joe's deep baritone.  Ben says in that moment of clarity he realized "the wash" has nothing to do with laundry and everything to do with baptism.  It's God's grace and mercy and love that completes what we never can.

Since that night standing shoulder to shoulder my prayer has been the simple refrain of a Johnny Cash song--"May the circle be unbroken, by and by Lord by and by.  There's a better home awaiting in the sky Lord in the sky."  May the circle of God's love continue to hold each one of us.  And I am struck by the realization that for the circle to continue, each one of us has to take up our place in the loving, living our lives in such a way that those who come behind will have a legacy to hold onto.  I am thankful for the circle I stand in now, the one begun so long ago by a sometimes cantankerous, deeply loyal, work your fingers to the bone, mercilessly teasing Willie Winters.  It is a good circle to stand in.  And I thank God I do not stand alone.

Goodbye Grandpa.  I love you.  I will see you when I get there too.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Splendidly Mended

When I was a campus minister I always told my students, "Do the God thing first.  Then everything else will find its proper place."  This is a hard thing to hear when there never seems to be enough time to study, when the papers are due and the exams are pressing, when each professor acts as though his or her assignment should take precedence over every other thing going on in your life.  I knew I was asking them to do something counter-intuitive:  to spend time being present and available to God first, before anything else had a chance to influence their day.  Yet I also knew that this priority had the power to guide all other priorities, helping them succeed in ways they could not when relying on their wits alone.

My world has changed since then.  I find myself struggling with the demands of life, as I guess they did.  What comes first when so many necessities are pressing in?  Yet I know time is too pressing not to give priority to God's priorities in my life, even when it makes no sense.

Let me warn you.  This will make no sense.

It happened last spring.  I picked up a book from the library called Generation TEach page outlines a whole new way to cut up a t-shirt and make something of it.  Flipping through those pages ignited a creative fire in me--initiating conversation with the discards in my bottom drawer, refining my vision so that I began to see the contents of my closet with fresh eyes.

Soon I found myself cutting stuff up and re-stitching, combining the scraps of old garments to create new pieces that reflect an emerging style I frankly had no idea I cared about.  Apparently style does matter to me.  And wearing unique pieces that reflect my personality matters greatly.  It has puzzled me, this burgeoning passion for fashion.  But after the last couple of weeks, ruminating on the power of mosaics, I began to understand that what has been coming forth from my imagination and through my hands has powerful significance.  This creative endeavor has been a God-Thing.  It has been prayer.  It has been a reweaving, a reworking of me into something new.  Someone new.

That sermon on brokenness begetting beauty catalyzed my thinking.  I don't have the skills to mend broken pottery the way it's done in Japan.  But I do know how to sew.  And as I thought about what God can do with broken pieces I began to understand this emerging need within me to make old stuff into something new.

Especially the most recent project.  A patchwork skirt.  To literally take the pieces of things that no longer work and combine them into something lovely, every fragment making its contribution.  The need to get this thing done pressed in on me, God asking me to do this one tangible thing so that the unseen quality it points to would be realized.  People could ask me what I did in my prayer time.  I could tell them I spent it at my sewing machine.  Told you it wouldn't make sense.

But this stitch by stitch praying has been making some sense out of me.  Showing me the unfolding of God's purposes for my life.  What has been, what is coming. 

The original articles of clothing were constructed from velour.  There was a blouse, made of  red on black print, etched with roses and sparkles, stunning on the hanger.  Too big, too frumpy looking when I actually put it on.  There were some sleek black trousers.  Sassy and smart with a slit in the back at each ankle.  Something I never have the occasion to wear.  They were snug anyway.  And then there was the teal fabric, in storage for years.  A leftover from my days before children when free time was abundant and life revolved around my own whims. 

I poured over images on Pinterest, hoping to find a picture to guide me.  Some of the things I saw came close, but none really matched the vision of what I wanted.  I finally decided to make a sketch so that I could see on paper what so far only existed in my head.

Once I got that down I made a quick pattern for the skirt panels.  Then I put the pattern to fabric and started cutting.  I knew I only had one chance to get it right.  There was not enough shirt to cut twice. In the past I would have talked myself out of the whole thing, never believing in myself enough to cut right, believing my fear of failure more.  This time I risked failure and instead found satisfaction:  It worked.  And I was generous with my measurements.  Even though I had to re-sew my side seams (a couple of times), I was able to come out with something that was exactly what I wanted.

Lessons from the sewing table:

Lesson number one:  If I really want to live a custom-made purpose, then it's time to start trusting my own instincts, to listen to my own intuition.  To trust that what God has instilled in me for this time and purpose is trustworthy.  For years I have second-guessed myself, done most of life someone else's way.  And it has sometimes worked.  But it has never fit.  Just like those original pieces of clothing, I was dressing in someone else's wardrobe--never comfortable, just making do with what was. 

Lesson number two:  If I really want to live the life I was made for, then I must be willing to surrender the life I have.  That shirt and pants and yardage had to die.  There could be no more shirt, no more pants, no more yardage.  Thinking such as "maybe it will fit someday" had to go.  So did the "I might have an opportunity to wear something a teenager would wear" thought.  And the hardest of all--"there might be something better I could use that yardage for; I should save it."  Letting go can be painful.  In my deepest self I realize this has nothing to do with clothes and everything to do with life.  Who I used to be.  What I used to do.  Expectations I had of myself that never seemed to pan out.  I had to let some important things go that I truly loved.  What I didn't realize then was that this letting go created room for something better to come forth.  Which leads to . . . .

Lesson number three:  all that has come before is still useful.  It's not that we surrender what has been to an empty void.  It's that we surrender our broken dreams to God's hands, and He reworks them into something that is truly for us.  I realize I never lost anything; those scraps just came back in a surprising, yet more wonderful way.  Those original pieces of stretchy velvet, not quite right on their own, worked beautifully together.  I couldn't have accomplished the vision in my head without them.  And the same is true for all those life experiences that were painful, difficult, full of challenge.  Those times that I got burned are what God used as the fire that refines.  Those times that I got hammered, became tools used to fashion  strength and wisdom that could not come any other way.  Nothing has been wasted.  There are no wasted years.  There are no wasted efforts.  There are no wasted mistakes.  God has bundled it all together into the raw materials used to construct something remarkable and extraordinary.  How the old thing is used makes all the difference.  Piece by piece God is able to take seemingly unrelated things and bring forth something honorable and worthy of the highest regard. 

It's hard to explain how I feel when I wear these clothes refashioned into something I truly love.  To say I am happy doesn't tell the real story.  I feel beautiful in the way that I find my own life story beautiful now:  joyful soulfulness taking hard times in hand and dancing until the rhythm transforms the hardness into a deep cadence, pulsating wonder and grace into every waking moment.  The memories no longer bring pain but deliverance.  These old rags have been transformed into something rare and exquisite.  I believe I am wearing art in the same way that I am a work of art.  It doesn't matter if others don't like it.  It doesn't matter if the stitches are straight or not.  They are my stitches.  Put together with love.  And when I wear them I feel lovely, regardless of how I look.

I am reminded of my favorite scripture . . . Isaiah 61.  There is this part that I have puzzled over for years, the thing that has finally made sense: 

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation.  Isaiah 61:10

Before now I simply thought God simply stripped us clean of everything we believed to give us value, so we may come to know our value comes from Him alone.  I thought this was our salvation.  But my sewing machine has taught me so much more.  I've learned that once the false things are removed, God takes our every heartache, brokenness, anguished moment.  In Tender Hands He reworks them, trimming and cutting, stitching and mending, until the finished product is revealed, beautiful and custom made for the wearer.  A new life filled with joy and purpose and meaning.

So now as I feel the weight of stretchy fabric in my hands, I realize:  These fibers are heavy with meaning.  God has been reworking, remaking, re-stitching all  that has been for a new purpose I couldn't have even guessed at a few years ago.  I'll need every experience I've had.  I will draw upon the years of wisdom that have been garnered through lesser things.  All has been preparation.  All has been resource and raw material.  These are the garments of salvation.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Broken never has to have the last word--

So I missed you last week!  But we were in the mountains for fall break, and it is impossible to write with little boys bounding around all over.  It was a lovely time.  Restorative if not restful!  We came home a day early, which was wise because when would I have time to buy groceries for an empty pantry if we didn't return until Sunday night?  Monday morning comes so swiftly--
Turns out it was a blessing.  We got to worship in our own familiar sacred space, and God had much to say to my restored heart.  The message that morning closed a series called "Pieces:  When Broken Becomes Beautiful."  At the beginning of the series, several weeks ago, the congregation was asked to write their brokenness on a shard of pottery, to bring it forward and surrender it to the altar.  This Sunday all of those broken pieces had been gathered into a mosaic, a new picture of wholeness emerging from the remnants of shattered vessels.  Just to walk into the room, to lay eyes on this work of art, was moving.
During the message our pastor spoke of the process--going from scattered remains to beautiful mosaic:  one has to touch the raw materials, hold them; give the process time; quiet meditation is needed, guidance seeking; finally the design comes, but only after asking how the pieces reflect purpose.  Our pastor's punch-line:  "Broken becomes beautiful when it is used to help others."
I sat in my seat stunned.  My pastor had just recounted to me the process of God's work in my life for  the last two and a half years.  Two and a half years ago God moved me unexpectedly out of a ministry I believed I would be in forever.  It was a hard, painful time.  Yet in the time since then God has done a work in my heart, healing it, binding me up, bringing me step by step to a new place.  Lately I have felt a joy and contentment coming from deep within, a satisfying sense that everything is coming together.  My memories are no longer painful or wistful or bittersweet.  There is no anguish of loss, simply gratitude.  And a surging hope that all my endings have given me everything I need for what is opening up before me.  I go forth blessed by the very thing that I thought had the power to destroy me. 
It didn't.  I am not destroyed.  And the roaring pain of that moment had no power in it to speak a word that final over my life.
God's words are always stronger.
Our pastor closed the service by speaking of Kintsugi, the Japanese art of mending broken pottery with gold.  It is process that makes the piece more durable and exquisitely beautiful than it was originally.  Screens usually filled with song lyrics showed pictures of delicate china, spider veins of gold coursing through them.  Each evidence of vulnerability transformed into proof of something better emerging from brokenness.  It was like God showing me to myself, this new self, the unveiling of beauty I had not guessed at.  Really, God?  That's how You see me, and all that has happened?
The invitation of the morning was to come back to the altar.  Not to lay something down as much as to be commissioned for the new purpose that emerges from our brokenness:  to use what we have been through as the raw material for making the world a better place, to participate in bringing forth the Kingdom of God into the heartache of a world that needs a Golden touch, to embody the hope that is possible when we simply surrender our shattered pieces into Hands that can really heal.  How could I stay in my seat?  I am ready for this new life, this new calling, to be commissioned--
As I made my way to the altar, the worship band began to play a song so familiar, but something I had never heard in our services before.  And then they got to the chorus I recognized it:  "Sweetly Broken" by Jeremy Riddle.  It is the song I heard just a couple of days before my good china sugar bowl broke.  It is the one that summed up what ministry meant to me-- that my heart would be vulnerable to the pain of losing those I loved, but always holding the sweetness of that love close.  And it also showed me what it means to give and be given life through brokenness, as a mother and as a child of God.  This song is so personally meaningful that I knew God was moving powerfully in me, and that He was giving me a new picture of what it means to be "Sweetly Broken," one where brokenness is not the last word.  So I came to the altar in tears, not because of a broken heart that would not mend but because of a new hope that cannot be deterred.  God speaks a better word over us that the world ever can. 
It's Wednesday.  Since Sunday morning I have been a little sad because I didn't save that china bowl.  How could I have known in 2010 that I would hear about Kintsugi in 2013? Those broken pieces are long gone.  This morning in the middle of fantasizing about how I would send those pieces to Japan to be fused together with gold, I took a moment to look down at the cup of tea I was enjoying with my quiet time.  It is from my last tea party spent with the Wesley Foundation, two and a half years ago.  I gave all of my young lady college students a tea cup as a parting gift from me.  And there was one left over which I kept for myself.   The pattern is that of a mosaic, a colorful picture that seems to be fused together from other vibrantly colored pieces of tile.  A bunch of smaller pieces coming together to make a beautiful new whole.  New life--born at the closing of the old.
I think I heard God whisper, "See, you didn't need that china bowl after all."

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Knowledge Is Power

Last week I spent time helping Noah, my oldest, study for his spelling test.  As a part of it, he had to write sentences with his words, using them correctly.  Since he had received the challenge list that particular week, figuring out sentences to write was difficult:  It's one thing to know how to spell the thing; it's totally different to be able to use it correctly in a sentence.  Pretty soon he was asking me what words meant.  What did I do?  The same thing my mom did to me.

I brought out the dictionary and told him to start looking them up.

What I realized as I watched him do this is that he could not alphabetize.  I had to walk him through step-by-step to think about what letters came next, combing through the words on the dictionary page searching for the match he needed.  My son is a very intelligent boy.  But when you are never required to use a skill, it is never developed.  So when all he has to do is type a word into the computer for an instant answer, he never has to know how to look it up in a dictionary.  Living in a Google culture has stripped us of the ability to understand the placement of words in the English language in the same way that GPS has made us directionally illiterate.  I wonder sometimes what would happen if we had to learn how to navigate once again simply by the light of the north star.  Would anyone on earth ever be able to find their way home again?  These skills are not obsolete.  They are important.  They have meaning beyond the simple task they help us accomplish.

There was much protest, much lamentation:
--"Can't you just tell me what it means?" 
--"Let me just look it up on your phone."
--"Mom!  You are so old fashioned!  Why are you making me do this?!"

I told him I was getting back at my own mother.

I remember my frustration.  Well, I didn't fuss so much about writing out the definitions of my spelling words as a kid.  That was expected, part of homework.  But it drove me insane every time I would casually ask my mother what a word meant, just because I wanted to know, and she would say (each time), "Look it up!"

I didn't realize it then, but my mom was giving me a priceless gift.  She was teaching me how to make my way in life when things don't always make sense, when I encounter problems that do not have ready answers.  Those are times that call for wisdom and informed action. 

Relying on someone else to supply our answers can be a dangerous proposition.  What if they are wrong?  Misinformed?  What if they are fraudulent and self-serving?  What if they are not equipped to understand the subtleties of our need, assuming a one size fits all solution that does not work in our situation?  Isn't it much wiser to do the hard thing, learning truth instead of slipping in someone else's response into our blank places?  Isn't it better to know the right answer because we applied ourselves to the work of learning?

It's not enough to supply  right answers.  We need to know why it is right.  This is the only way that answers stick.  So that we have it readily available when life tries to stump us again.  Easy answers really require more work in the long run.  We will find our selective ignorance has us running all over creation trying to find the same solutions over and over .  Learning something well the first time gives us a storehouse of knowledge that stays with us forever.  And as an added bonus, we know our own worth as one who is able.  Able to meet challenges head-on, able to seek out solutions, able to apply what we find to the real needs we encounter.  These are gifts I want to give my son.

So I taught him how to look up his spelling words on his own.

I am thinking now about knowledge as power--knowing as a way of being in the world that gives us the power to choose and to do in a way that corresponds to the Good Intentions of our creation.  In the same way that knowing how to find the meaning of a word empowers Noah to respond to his academic challenges, this kind of knowing empowers us to overcome adversity and experience the meaningful life we desire.  As we come to know God, we come to know how to live the life we were made for.

The last two weeks I have been meditating on a verse that speaks to this:
I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.  Ephesians 1:17-19
In Greek the word for "know" has the connotation of being a first hand knowledge, one that touches the One being known.  To know this way necessitates personal involvement.  We have to get ourselves into the stuff of trying to live our lives with Him in it, working out what it means to live with the Redeemer while our own personal redemption is being accomplished.  This knowledge can be messy.  It demands much.  It asks something of us that is hard to give.

The crux of this knowledge has everything to do with relationship.  And are we really willing to enter into relationship with God?  To know the Creative Agitator not as we want Him to be, but as supreme Other?  True relating to God cannot be defined not by our wishes.  God refuses to bend His Being and Doing to our will.  In the same way that my son disparaged the effort it cost him to truly know the meaning of a word, we can sometimes get exasperated with the effort this spiritual connection costs us.  I wonder if the source of so much aggravation in our spiritual lives stems from this stubbornness on our part--that we refuse to accept God on His own terms.  We complain that we seem to make no headway with our lives, and yet we refuse the vehicle which makes breakthrough possible.  There are no shortcuts to this kind of God knowledge.  God will not bend to my will no matter how much I pray and plead!

But what if for one second the everyone in the whole world gave themselves to knowing God this way?  What possibilities would become realities?  How would choosing and doing change?  How would the results of these different choosing's and doing's change the world?  The relinquishment of ourselves into this relationship translates into God's power manifest in our ordinary living and breathing.  As the scripture says--we don't just come to know God:  we know the hope of our calling; we know the riches of His glorious inheritance; we know the immeasurable greatness of His power. The same power that brought Jesus back to life from the dead is released into us and through us!

What does it look like, this knowing that changes everything?  It is born of personal encounter.  When I seek to relate to God through my ordinary circumstances, listening for His voice, reading the Bible as a way to allow scripture to search me, wrestling with what it means to show up everyday in my home and place of work as one who follows Jesus, then my knowing takes on life.  It is no longer a theoretical proposition but a verb with the power of motility.  And when I go furtherchanging my behavior in favor of what I sense God is asking of me, then it opens the door for His Resurrection power to work on my behalf--not just in me, but through me and for me.  Making that connection and acting upon it changes our efforts from useless motion, "a beating of the air" (I Corinthians 9:26), to power-full action.  It is an inner disposition that sets forth transformation.  Our lives literally change from the inside out.

It is as if we opened the door to heaven and the power of the risen Christ pours right in to our very souls.  We begin to understand that there is more at play within us and around us than merely our human, wimpy selves.  We begin to see Divine strength supporting, enriching, directing, and empowering our efforts.  We begin to understand that God is orchestrating a great production in which we play a small but critical part.  Our efforts, our choosing and doing directed and empowered by God, begin to impact the world around us in ways we never could have imagined.

And we begin to know our worth as those who are able.  Able to courageously meet challenges head-on, able to discern solutions to impossible situations, able to translate those solutions into tangible actions change the real needs we encounter.   We find we are able because the Power of God has been made visible within our own messy selves.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Into the Fire

I send a scripture verse to my husband each day.  It's one of the ways I love on him.  I want him to know that I am undergirding him with more than just my own desires for his well being.  I am lifting him up with Strength which comes from beyond me. 

Today's verse:  "The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the LORD tests hearts" (Proverbs17:3).

The Lord tests our hearts, not so that He can see what is within them, but so we can. 

It seems this was God's intention when He sent the Israelites into the desert, rather than sending them immediately into the Promise:  "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 was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. . . .  Know then in your heart that as a parent disciplines a child so the LORD your God disciplines you.  Therefore keep the commandments of the LORD your God, by walking in his ways and by fearing him" (Deuteronomy 8:2, 5-6).

Again and again we see God working through Israel's circumstances to bring them to the place where they recognize the stubbornness of their own hearts, each time asking them to surrender this heart hardness for an authentic relationship that leads to blessing instead of defeat. 

God does the same thing with us.

Silver and gold are refined by fire, in the crucible, the hot place.  Where heat is so intense it melts the elements so that their impurities can float to the surface.  But that which has depth and weight and value settles.  The imperfections are then skimmed from the top of the melted surface and removed.  Once the metal has been purified, the heat is turned off.  As the silver and gold cools, once more taking on sturdiness, what remains is finer, more true to itself than it was before.  It can be melted, reshaped, but it is never destroyed.

I have seen the fire purify and shape my husband.  I am so proud of him for having the courage to stay in the heat, allowing God to reveal and remove those things that needed to go so that he could move forward into God's purposes for his life.  Because he held fast to God, trusting God in experiences that melted his heart, those hugely painful difficulties never had the power to destroy him.  They only made him better, stronger,  more of the man God created him to be.

I think of my own heart tests.  Those places where God has allowed the heat of life to reveal truth to me.  Each time I have melted from the intensity of anguish, sometimes returning to the same ache all over again because the first experience was not enough to rid me of the flaw threatening the good God had in mind.  What I have found in ultimately surrendering to the heat instead of running from it is that I have never missed the thing it removed from my tightly clenched hands.

Early on in my ministry journey I discovered Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who wrote powerfully about the spiritual life.  In his book New Seeds of Contemplation Merton compares the human heart facing adversity to that of wax exposed to heat: 

Souls are like wax waiting for a seal.   By themselves they have no special identity.  Their destiny is to be softened and prepared in this life, by God's will, to receive, at their death, the seal of their own degree of likeness to God in Christ.  And this is what it means, among other things, to be judged by Christ.  The wax that has melted in God's will can easily receive the stamp of its identity, the truth of what it was meant to be.  But the wax that is hard and dry and brittle and without love will not take the seal:  for the hard seal, descending upon it, grinds it to powder.  Therefore if you spend your life trying to escape from the heat of the fire that is meant to soften and prepare you to become your true self, and if you try to keep your substance from melting in the fire--as if your true identity were to be hard wax--the seal will fall upon you at last and crush you.  You will not be able to take your own true name and countenance, and you will be destroyed by the event that was meant to be your fulfillment.
I have found the fire often brings us to a place where we feel intensely alone.  Like nobody understands where we are and nobody seems to care.  On the surface it may look as if we have been abandoned by all rational forms of help, and we storm Heaven angry that we have been mistreated by the life that was supposed to be our promise.  Yet a spiritual aloneness is often the desert God sculpts  so that we may come to a truer understanding of Him and His purposes for us.

If this is the case, then no one can rescue us from His hand.  And we leave it prematurely at our own peril.  Because God brings us to this lonely place, not for our destruction, but for our salvation--as a way of delivering us to a new place of well-being that cannot be disturbed by external influences, a new solidness grounded not in our human capacities but within His Holiness.  If we allow it, the lesser things of our character burn away, and we learn to hold more fiercely to His Being rather than our own.   The truth of this desert experience is that we can only stand on God's Holy ground shoeless.  We have got to relinquish some things if we are to receive from God everything we need to escape the oppression of our circumstances.

I have found myself there, like Gomer stripped of my idols, painfully aware that everything I had trusted in was nothing.  Idols never have power to save us.  The fire simply reveals their instability.  After a while I discovered that raging at the fire would not bring my idols back.  Only when I was ready to see and accept the truth of my own heart was I ready to be healed and restored.  Then I could turn more fully to God, ready to accept what He offered me instead:

Therefore, I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.  From there I will give here her vineyards, and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.  There she shall respond as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt.  On that day, says the LORD, you will call me, "My husband," and no longer will you call me, "My Baal."  For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth  and they shall be mentioned by name no more.  (Hosea 2:14-17)
Surrendered into God's hands, our valleys of trouble bring us to new doors of hope.

The fire reveals, and we get to choose what the fire does in us.  Exposed to heat, impurities always rise to the surface.  We can hold tightly to them, adding bitterness, resentment, and outrage to mix (further alienating us from the life we were meant to live).  Or we can recognize them and surrender them to God's hands, trusting His power to remove them so that we can be more His, more of who He intended us to be.  We can come forth from the experience more of ourselves than before.  Truer.  Stronger.  Sturdier.  Lovelier.  Whole.