03 November 2016

Of Dry Bones

Yesterday I was in the car and a familiar tune came on, one our youth choir had just sung beautifully in Sunday's service over the weekend. I'd sung along to the chorus so often, I knew it well.

But somehow that moment in the car was the first time I made the conscious decision to think through the verses. And what I heard broke me.

"Through the eyes of men it seems
There's so much we have lost
As we look down the road 
Where all the prodigals have walked . . ."

Y'all, I'm serious when I say I made the conscious decision to think through this, I was picturing the words Lauren Daigle's voice was working through. We, as the church, see through our broken lenses that we have lost so much - we're looking down this path those who have turned away have chosen to follow. We, as the church, are losing them, these prodigals, by droves, and we're just watching them go. That's hard. And her next words are where I just broke into tears right there behind the steering wheel - not slow, sweet tears, but real, hard tears.

"One by one
The enemy has whispered lies
And led them off as slaves."

Because this unfortunate, heart-wrenching truth is one that has been tearing me apart for a long time. Our enemy is devouring our culture and he's doing it through crafty little lies. The ones that sound so beautiful and so noble, but are LIES. And through these lies he is carrying the prodigals of the church away as slaves. Can you picture it?! Because that mental picture is what brought my tears. Brothers and sisters in Christ chained to the lies they've been told, carried off to be slaves - to fear, to sin, to brokenness. They have been captured.

And we're not fighting back.

We are a church of dry bones.

Bones that have dried up through yet even more lies. Lies that say this life is all about me, and my comfort and my safety. Lies that say my time is mine, my body is mine, my money is mine. Sometimes they're veiled with words like, "I just need to think about my family" or "I need to protect my time." And I'm not saying those are never valid points - but maybe they've sometimes been used as excuses to keep us from doing the hard stuff - the stuff that makes life a little more difficult than we'd prefer or require a little more of our time, energy, resources than we're really comfortable with. Things that demand we look someone else in the eye and say, you are worth everything I am and everything I have on the sole basis that you are a human being created in the image of God and He has called me to serve and not to fear. But as we take the wide path, around the broken and hurting, we take the path that leaves us dry and useless.

If you're not sure where this reference to dry bones comes from, it's a fascinating portion of the Old Testament - the kind of text that makes people say, "Wait, that's in the Bible?!" The passage can be found in Ezekiel, chapter 37, verses 1-14. Read it all, if you have the time. Basically the Spirit of God brings the prophet Ezekiel into a valley filled with bones. On God's command, Ezekiel prophesies to the bones and, the Bible tells us, the bones rattled together, bone to bone, developed sinews, and flesh and were covered with skin. Verse 10 says, "So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army."

In case you missed it - he was in a valley of dead and broken bones that grew flesh and stood, alive, as an army. I mean, this happened, y'all. That's crazy and awesome.

And what's more, the Lord does this as a visual for Ezekiel to share with the people of Israel. They are these dry bones that will be breathed into with the breath of life and they will live.

This is what the song is stating when it says, "So with the faith you've given us we'll step into the valley unafraid . . . up out of the ashes let us see an army rise. We call out to dry bones, Come alive." As the prophet Ezekiel did, let us call out the dry brokenness of our Church and breathe the breath of God over them.

And this is what our Church today - the body of Christ - needs so desperately. We need this breath of life. We need to allow God to flesh us out so we can stand as an army. There is a battle to be waged. There are prisoners of war enslaved to the lies whispered to them and we, as the Church, as an army, need to stand up and not be afraid to do the hard living that battles what culture is telling us is right. Let us call out these lies and rescue the captives in Christ's name.

"O dry bones, hear the Word of the Lord." - Ezekiel 37:1-14

12 August 2016

Of Tidying

This post has been a long time coming, but I've been neck-deep in sorting through my house, so the time to write or do anything else has been rather elusive. But, then, that's why I'm here, to tell you more about this house sorting I've been doing, because anyone who follows me on social media knows this has been a THING around this house for a few weeks now, and though they insist it's not true, are probably tired of seeing more before/after pictures (mostly "after," because I typically get too excited to remember a "before"). For those who have been curious why these photos have flooded their feeds or what exactly this method is I've been doing, this is the post you've been waiting for! (I'm sure someone has been waiting for this, maybe.)

A few weeks ago, I saw a friend post a photo on Facebook of her newly organized games. Being a game nerd, I was caught up in perusing her collection and missed her little note about moving on to "KonMari the kitchen." Others did not, however, as they began to profess their love for KonMari - confusing the gamer in me, "Is this a game that I've missed?! I didn't see THAT in the picture!" Long story short, I picked up on what was going on, did some googling and realized she was referring to a method of "tidying" developed by a Japanese woman whose life mission it has been to discover the secrets to creating and, most importantly, maintaining, a tidy space. I realized I'd heard parts of this method before but didn't understand that it all fell under one umbrella that actually had a name - KonMari - deriving from the name of its creator: Marie Kondo. I was a little off-put though, because there was a little bit of what I considered crazy in everything I read about the method. Is this really worth it?

So, I texted my friend, who insisted on a phone conversation, because this couldn't be covered in a text. She started off telling me what the friend who introduced her to KonMari told her: "I'll answer any questions you have, but you have to read the book." "The book" is The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, with a sequel - an illustrated encyclopedia of sorts, that goes into further detail - called Spark Joy. But they must be read in order and one must, as my friend insisted, read the first one before starting. In the end, she assured me, reading past the crazy was worth it. After our phone conversation, I was so excited to just get going and reclaim my home from my stuff, but I'm a rule-follower if nothing else, so I requested the book in every format from my library, not sure which would be available first.

Within three days, an eBook was available, and four hours after that exciting notification, I had read the whole thing. Yes, a whole book in four hours with four kids running around ("Anyone want to watch Netflix?!") - also known as the fastest I've read a book since the Baby-Sitters Club Super Special #1: Baby-Sitters on Board. And the next day, I was off and running, taking our closet by storm.

Now that you have the (extensive) back-story, here's a little more of what KonMari actually is, and how it's been looking around here.

The first thing to understand is that KonMari is not just "de-cluttering" - it is a method that its creator insists is a one-time event. She insists that once you have KonMari'd your entire house, you will be done tidying - with the exception of daily maintenance, which will be very minimal and simple, because everything in your house will have a place to go. Also, as she insists, once you have seen your entire house tidy, you will not want to go back - meaning you will also keep things out of your house that don't belong. This was exciting to me. Because I have a long history of organizing in spurts but with a very poor track record of maintaining any sort of system. and a cluttered home has been very instrumental in many of the mental setbacks I've suffered in recent months/years. I was so ready to do this and be done.

As such, she insists tidying is not a "little-bit-at-a-time" method or a "room-by-room" method - either of these, which are the most common approaches - will leave you tidying for the rest of your life. The former just means that you're doing a little bit every day forever, because effectively, you're just moving clutter from one place to another a little bit at a time. The latter is similar - you will move clutter from the one room being tidied to another, and then probably back again - not to mention you aren't actually seeing all the unnecessary excess - you're just re-organizing the excess you already own in the place it already is, without consideration as to if it's really the best place for those specific things in your home.

Thus, it's important to note that KonMari attacks all of your possessions, by category. By the time one is finished, they will have touched and considered every item in their home. In doing, they will ask one question of every object:

"Does it spark joy?"

This is the heart of KonMari - identifying those things in our lives that spark joy and eradicating the things that don't. As Kondo states: You're not choosing what to get rid of, you're choosing what to keep. Which is what makes this work, because by the time you're finished, you will be surrounded only by those things that spark joy - joy which can come from any reason, whether it be sentimental or practical - if it makes you smile to look at it, keep it. If it makes you "meh," ditch it. And when you only own things that spark joy, you will take care of them - you will want to see them looking pretty in their individual homes and your tidying will not be in vain.

Further, as you are going through your home, there is an order to the categories, designed to hone your ability to recognize joy, so that by the time you're at the final category, "Mementos," you have trained yourself to know the joy that objects bring and recognize when something just doesn't. You will have also learned to let go of the things that don't.

I feel the need to sidetrack for just a moment to say I am a Christ follower - and, as such, I will point out the only lasting source of true joy is found in Christ Himself. Things will always just be things - their presence or absence in my life will not actually affect my true joy. The "joy" described in this method is more of what I would consider to be "happiness" - the temporary feeling of being uplifted. If something makes me "happy" I keep it, if not, I don't. But I don't place my true joy in anything I hold in my hands.

Similarly, the author seems to have an animistic view of her things - everything has feelings and even, as she would have it, an afterlife which includes the reincarnation of the objects you discard, wherein the "energy" of the item will come back to you in the form of something else that brings you joy at a later time. I do not believe this to be true. Things are things. I don't have a problem talking to them or pretending they can hear me, because I can be a little eccentric at times, but I do not believe in the energy of things or in that they actually feel fulfilled (which is how things feel when they've been used for their purpose, as KonMari insists).

Marie Kondo is Japanese and, as such, there is an essence of Japanese mysticism infused in some of what she says. Those portions I disagree with, I simply overlook and move on to the details of how to organize my things. This method was developed by one woman, it is not an ancient art grounded in ancient "gods" - it was one woman's method developed on her own after much trial and error organizing her home repeatedly as she grew up. Thus, her own beliefs will be injected into how she carries out that method, but they do not have to permeate how KonMari works in my own home.

I just needed to put that out there.

So, I started with my clothes. Which is different than starting with my closet, because I have clothes in my closet, in a lingerie chest (I use the word lingerie loosely - it mostly holds varying forms of undergarments - almost half of which were socks and most of which are not as exciting as the word makes it sound), hanging in a coat closet downstairs (because outerwear counts!), in the laundry room, etc. I was instructed to gather every item of clothing in one place for sorting. Kondo is so hard-core, she insists that if something doesn't make it into the initial sorting pile, whenever that item is discovered, it gets discarded, because it clearly did not spark enough joy to be remembered in the first place. But she's not the boss of me and she doesn't know my life.

My bedroom looked like this (well, this was just shoes and outwear, the rest was piled on the bed):

Another important side note: the process of dragging all your belongings in a certain category into one place in your home takes time. When I did children's books, it required at least a half hour of hauling books down to the living room (which is where I chose to do this). Accepting that the gathering of items into one location for sorting is a part of the process, not just the stuff to do before the process begins, is important. I was eager to just jump into sorting my things, but gathering all of them first is essential. Follow the rules (otherwise, if it doesn't work, you only have your lazy self to blame - at least, that's what I told myself)!

I moved through even my clothing in categories: tops, bottoms, maternity (because I still have a stash, "just in case"), accessories, outerwear, etc.

Then, because I share a closet with my husband and I couldn't organize my things properly without also organizing his, I made him bring his clothes out. ("Even the underwear? Because I know I'm keeping those" - Yes, even the underwear - and he didn't end up keeping it all, so there.) We went through them together, because it's against the rules to KonMari someone else's possessions. It's also essential that each item be held firmly in one's hands as the question is asked, "Does it spark joy?" - because sometimes you really don't recognize the feeling unless you're touching the item. So, I handed him each of his things one-by-one, as he rolled his eyes and made decisions. While I may have uttered a "Really?!" or two, I mostly kept my opinions to myself. This was about his joy and his clothes.

After every item was in either a keep pile or a garbage bag (I had invested in a box of 30-gallon trash bags and used them for everything - both trash and items destined for the garage sale we already have scheduled), I shooed him out of the room. I now had an empty closet to work with and I could begin the task of deciding what the best home was for everything.

It's important to note: we moved into this house over two years ago and, at the time, I was determined to not be one of those people who had boxes that remained unpacked years later, so I was going to unpack every box and I would do so in a timely manner. But I really wasn't sure what the best place was, yet, for everything. This 70's home has an abundance of built-in storage, but I wasn't sure the ideal way to utilize it all, so I just stuck things places that made sense at the time and told myself that after everything was out of a box, I'd come back and actually organize it the way I wanted it.

That never happened.

This KonMari method is my redemption for that fact. Thus, with an empty closet and piles of only the clothes I know I enjoy (because, honestly, if you don't like an article of clothing, you won't actually wear it - or, if you do wear it anyway, you won't feel good about it, which has a very negative impact emotionally and mentally), I took inventory of my space and inventory of my, well, inventory, and was better able to see what the most effective way to organize them might be. One further thing KonMari insists on: items of like kind must always be stored together. In one place (a key reminder for me when I was sorting craft things and tempted to spread the storage).

Thus, I wiggled my lingerie chest into my walk-in closet and found a happy home for it there. My shoes got their own drawer, since I had never successfully found a way to store them that a) didn't take up my whole closet floor or b) made them easy to access when I wanted a certain pair. That shoe drawer is currently one of the most happy places in my closet for me.

Now, when I get dressed, I love that I do every part of the process in my closet. I'm not wandering out for underwear, then back in for clothing, then back out for socks, then downstairs to grab shoes from my shoe bucket - it's all living together in happy harmony. Even my purses! They live in my closet and, per the KonMari recommendation, I actually empty my purse every time I come home. Each of the items in my purse sit happily on top of said lingerie chest, so when I'm ready to go somewhere, I grab the things I need, throw them in a bag, grab my shoes from my drawer and head downstairs. I have actually not had a frantic search for my keys since this change was made, my purse is lighter, because it's not filled with the clutter I collect throughout the day (I actually assess each receipt and piece of paper and decide if it's worth keeping or not the minute I get home!), and I can find things in there easier. And, even though it means running upstairs to my closet when it's time to leave, instead of keeping things by the door, I'm actually still ready to go faster than I was when my things were scattered throughout the house.

Thus, my clothes were entirely, happily, organized, from top to bottom. Not just stuffed somewhere that worked, but organized and well-placed (she has many great tips for organizing with the space and items you have, as well as for how to fold and store clothing and almost every other item in your home!) and all of this was completed in one Saturday. One very LONG Saturday - 13 hours of organizing - but tidying, as she says, is a marathon. A one-time event, that's a marathon. And by the end of that one, long, exhausting day, I felt accomplished. I could look in my closet and just be happy.

My closet sparks joy.
(I've never seen that much floor in my closet. Ever.) Also, that bottom white drawer? It's the happy shoe drawer. Something else you can't quite see, but I've seen in magazines and blogs - my boots are hanging from the clips of skirt hangers so that they stay upright.)

Three weeks later, it still sparks joy to step in there and get ready in the morning, or prepare for bed at night.

And that was just the first category. Since that first Saturday, I spend that entire following week (not Sunday, because that's for resting), over 8 hours a day, KonMari-ing. My kids have never had so much Netflix and video game time in their lives. They loved it. I have tackled our books (the next category) - which was a two day process of doing grown-up and homeschool books one day and children's books the next. Children's books were hard. I only got one box, which I was assured by my KonMari-ing friend was perfectly acceptable and normal. Children's books, by themselves, spark joy. And I have children. And those children read. So, yes, we kept a lot. But that's ok, because I found a place to store them that works great for our house and our family.

(In a hall closet! Somewhere they can be shut out of sight, if needed, but with easy, neutral access by all - as opposed to the bedroom bookshelves that spawned many an argument of siblings invading others' rooms.)

After books were papers (another two-day VERY tedious process - it required a lot of chocolate), and then on to "komono" - which means every other category of things in your home, broken down further into categories of your own choosing. For us, so far, this has been homeschool supplies, office supplies, CD's, bathroom/hygiene items, and craft supplies.

(Remember how I said pulling it all to one place takes time? I'd say it was about an hour getting all the homeschool/kids' craft/office supplies out of their drawers and cabinets. Also, scope creep - choosing a category but then deciding another category is similar and should be done at the same time - is totally real)

(My craft closet - I was tempted to store some of the fabric in a separate, empty dresser I have in my room, but I followed the rules and kept it all in one place - which also means if I'm looking for something specific, I know there's only one place to search)

I still have much more to tackle (I'm hoping to get to toys this weekend - I've been putting it off because I don't always make the right choices about what sparks joy in my children, but I don't trust them to make their own choices, because that would mean keeping everything for at least one of my children), but I'm seeing the results and even my husband has been converted. After seeing our closet, he was sold and has been very supportive throughout the process (though he still rolls his eyes when I ask him to sort something and insist he touch each item).

My home is still chaotic, because some things have to be sorted still to make room for the things that have already been sorted, but I know I'm in the middle of a process and I'm allowing grace for the moment. A corner of my living room has some garage sale boxes waiting and a plethora of empty boxes, baskets and other storage miscellany that have been emptied and then not needed when things were re-stored, because I don't have enough stuff to need them anymore - they are there in the event of my needing a certain size or shape of container in my organization process for a different space. When I'm done, all excess containers (okay, most of them) will be discarded/sold as well.

One final note on discarding the things that you once enjoyed but that no longer actually spark joy. The things you don't really need/want to keep, but have trouble letting go. Kondo recommends thanking each item for its service before discarding it properly. Again, while I don't believe in the animate nature of objects, I do get attached to some things and, thus, saying a small "Thank you" to something I once loved but no longer feel joy toward has actually been helpful. It's a way of telling myself it's okay to let it go. Though this thing was once useful to my life, it has served its purpose and it's okay to move on. Again, someone else in my house rolls his eyes at this concept, so I thank his things for him, because he refuses. I don't do this with every object, just the ones that give me a twinge of sadness to release. (Note, though, if something actually sparks joy, even if it's beyond its usefulness or has no logical reason to keep, the joy alone is reason enough to keep it and she gives full permission to not discard it - if it still sparks joy - though she does recommend finding a way to use or display such items so they can actually spark joy as you see/use them).

So, that's my GIANT nutshell of KonMari. If you have any questions about what this has looked like for me, I'd be happy to answer them, but I must also insist that you, indeed, read the book.

17 July 2016

Of Being the Love

The other night, in the wake of a sleepless night brought upon by thunderous storms crashing outside our windows, shaking the walls, lightning flashing in endless succession, a similar storm, the kind that seem to come when I'm too exhausted to continue absorbing life, raged within me.

I found myself in endless tears and sick of it all - convinced I was rejected and worthless, but mostly feeling useless in a world where a truck barrels through crowds in a country you feel connected to through those you know, who have walked and lived in its streets, and twelve hours later a military is striking a coup in a country you feel connected to through those you know, who have walked and lived in its streets. And these are real places and real people dying in real ways. And this world is falling apart and all I could think is, "What's the point?!"

Why are we all still here? Why does any of this matter anymore when it feels like it's all just a matter of time, and by time, I mean months, or weeks, or just days, before it all just hits the fan. And we're in the middle of this mess that we can't seem to find our way out of. In a time when we can't even make statements as audacious as "All Lives Matter" because we're silencing a voice that deserves to be heard, even though it is beyond absolutely true that we sit here with hearts breaking and grieving for all lives. Because Black Lives Matter. Because French Lives Matter. Because Cop Lives Matter. Because Turkish Lives Matter. Because Christian Lives Matter. Because Syrian Lives Matter. Because Homosexual Lives Matter. Because Muslim Lives Matter. Because Black is not the only color hurting right now and their house is not the only one burning. The whole world is burning - and it will go straight down as long as the divisions continue.

And as I sob myself to sleep in the face of this hopeless darkness we call our world, all I can think are the words to a song that have been running through my head for a week:

"People killing, people dying,
children hurt and you hear them crying,
Can you practice what you preach? 
And would you turn the other cheek?
Father, Father, Father help us, 
need some guidance from above.
'Cause people got me, got me questionin'
'Where is the love?'"

And I wake, better rested and able to think, though still with this song in my head, on my heart and I feel God asking, in response, "Where are you?" Because God, Himself, is love and we, the church, are His hands and feet. And this love is only going so far as we carry it. And while I've been breaking into pieces in a seemingly hopeless situation, what has been brewing in my heart hasn't been love - it's been judgment, anger, frustration, sadness, hurt. 

And when I feel attacked, all my mind can process is a mental defense, even if it's never launched. When I feel rejected, I curl up and cry. When I feel worthless, I want to be done. But where is the love? Truly, can I practice what I preach? Can I be love when it feels like all is lost? Can I truly turn the other cheek to a world that seems ill-content to simply slap one and the other, but is ready to destroy for the sake of semantics? How far has my love gone?

Because the kind of love God personifies is an unconditional love. The kind that says, even when it's all falling apart. Even when the world despises. Even when we're trampled upon, mocked, beaten, wrongfully accused, sentenced to die, we love. We say, "Father, forgive them." We humble ourselves to the point of death. 

Is this the kind of love the church is known for? Is this the kind of love that could make a difference?
Maybe not to the point of eradicating terrorism or racism or bigotry or hate, but it could make a difference to one. Or maybe two. Maybe the only answer is softening our own hearts and choosing to respond with love, in every situation - both the big ones, terror attacks or racial discrimination, and the little ones, such as the tiny terrorists in our homes or the friend who cancels plans. 

When love, in the mundane and in the monumental, becomes a habit for us, the church, perhaps a new kind of fire can spread.

29 June 2016

Of My Perfect Day

For many years, I have lamented my summer birthday. My summer birthday that is less than a week before the Fourth of July - meaning I had no fun surprises at school, no balloons at my locker, no one singing to me in the halls, no elementary school parties (except for the lame one that covers "all the summer birthdays"), and to top it off, by the time my birthday came, everyone was out of town, so no party, in general. Lame.

Then, I got married and you'd think that would be a built-in celebration - after all, my family isn't going on vacation without me, so they have to be with me on my birthday. True. But I happened to marry a man whose special day is only three days after mine. So, out of a perfect storm of failed birthday pasts, fear of no one actually planning anything for birthday celebrations at all, and needing to budget for two birthdays in one week, I took over all planning on my own. I would plan a special day for the two of us to celebrate together just to be sure I got to celebrate at all.

And then, out of the gratefulness of my heart, I lamented those birthdays, as well. Because I just wanted a day that someone else planned, that I didn't have to do anything but be the birthday girl. Because it's my party, and I'll cry if I want to.

And bless my husband's heart. He has tried. And the few times I have loosened the reigns of planning a little, told him, "That's it - this year I'm not planning anything!" I have always taken it back, mostly. So he has tried. And he has succeeded a few times and I have truly enjoyed the efforts everyone has put in to every one of my birthdays. Really, I do. But in the end, I didn't know how to really appreciate it all.

But this year was different.

This year, I had just been traveling off and on for three weeks solid. So I was done planning. And I was out of money. So, I was simply letting go of birthdays and letting the chips fall where they may. It looks like we got each other tires for our birthdays, anyway - woohoo.

And then I got a card (complete with fake grapes) from a precious friend promising an adventure. And because I don't know how to not whine, I still whined about giving up my birthday weekend - a rare free Saturday this summer - to someone else. I'm a peach to live with, I tell you.

But she did not disappoint. We enjoyed a mini road trip to neighboring towns, exploring antique shops, sharing histories and buying fried pies. She took me to a local "wildlife" park - something that wouldn't be considered worth the price of admission considering the overabundance of donkeys and llamas - disproportionate to the amount of actual wild animals present in the park. But then you have to consider your company. And the laughter that comes from mocking the poor, fat, over-fed-by-park-visitors-like-us creatures that come to the car windows, knowing you've bought cups full of junk-food-feed just for them and knowing you're a sucker for those big teeth and furry heads.

The memories that come from chucking a cup full of feed at an approaching camel because you're freaked out if he gets his head in that window while you were trying to take a picture, you'll never be able to get it back out - those memories are priceless. 

Worth every. darn. penny. 

Afterward, we stopped by what we thought would be an average antique store, though it boasted the word "museum" - and learned that hidden inside was a trove of antique cars in mint condition and Harley Davidsons in styles we never even knew existed, and a shop-owner so happy to just have visitors and eager to talk. Unexpected beauty in unexpected places.

It was definitely the #happybirthday2016 #adventure I was promised. 

And that would have made for a satisfying birthday by itself.

And then the actual day on the calendar rolled around. On the heels of a VERY difficult Monday - the kind of day that left me in tears at midnight, hating the fact that this was already my birthday and I didn't even want it.

I woke up with fresh eyes, but a groggy brain, dressed for a doctor's appointment, armed with garden-fresh tomatoes to take to the sister-in-law afterward and left home. Yet, I knew the day had potential. So, while dropping off the tomatoes, I posed a possibility. Would she go with me to a little town an hour away to buy myself a dress I'd seen on my birthday #adventure and hadn't been able to stop thinking about? She peered around, considered the possibility and went with it. What a blessing that decision was. Precious car time with this girl I don't spend enough time with, discussing what's really going on in our lives. Two new outfits (one for me, one for an itty-bitty-pretty back home), two baskets of peaches and a bag of onions later, we made it back home.

And that would have made for a satisfying birthday by itself.

I spent the afternoon watching TV with the kids while coloring in the new book my sweet husband purchased for me (not because he had to - because I told him, we got tires, remember? - but because he truly wanted to buy something just for me) and then, finally, FINALLY scrolling through my Facebook feed.

Now, I'm typically not a fan of Facebook birthday wishes - repetetive greetings - many by people who I treasure, but some by people I'm thinking "Who are you, again?" - it has become almost an annoyance. But this birthday, inspired by a friend more creative than I, I had requested something more - memes for my birthday, laughter to brighten the droll obligatory birthday greetings. And those friends of mine did not disappoint. I chuckled, smiled and rolled my eyes through over a hundred special greetings and memes selected just for me - each one reflecting a bit of that friend and making me remember why I'm glad they're in my life. I later heard from many that my Facebook birthday feed was the highlight of their day and it was hilarious fodder for conversation over coffee and cake with friends later that evening. Truly - it was amazing.

And that would have made for a satisfying birthday by itself.

But it wasn't over yet.

After memes, naps, the library, dinner made by my wonderful husband, cake, candles, an imagined visit from the Birthday Bird of Katroo (the kids insisted Daddy read me the same Dr. Seuss story we read them every year on their birthdays) and kisses good-bye, it was off to Bible Study where I was challenged by the incredible Priscilla Shirer and enjoyed spiritual discussions with sweet ladies, after which, I was told I was going out for coffee (not invited, mind you, told!). 

But on my way, I was captured by the most brilliant sunset. With clouds overhead, the sun was limited to bursting through a thin break just at the horizon. It was streaks of orange and yellow and purple that one couldn't just look away from. It hurt me to turn my back on it to go anywhere else. So I didn't. I chased it down, tried to capture it on camera (impossible) and just reveled in the beauty. Like a birthday gift from the Creator Himself.

Finally, tearing myself away, I headed to my last stop for the night - that demanded coffee date. As I emerged from the car, notes of "Happy Birthday to you!" wafted over the Starbucks parking lot, from the patio with waiting friends at a table decorated just for me. We enjoyed cake, much laughter and delightful conversation. I even got to use my free birthday drink from Starbucks - a venti (because, why not?!) Double Fudge Bar Frappuccino, with waffle cone sprinkles, java chips suggested by the barista and a drizzle of caramel sauce (because why not just add everything you can imagine when it's all free anyway?). This close to Heaven, I tell you. We sat in the dark, listening to the ambiance of the weed-trimming next door, and were just girls - moms with breaks from the kids - for just an evening.

And that made it a satisfying birthday, all together.

I truly could not have asked for a better day.

And the best part was, I didn't have to plan any of it in advance. It just happened. It fell together through spontaneity and the careful planning of others. I was free to sit back and let the chips fall where they may - and they did - into beautiful places.

So, thank you, officially, to all of you who participated, either in person, or on-line, or over the phone. I treasure each one of you and feel more loved than you can imagine.

And PS - Those summer birthdays, I've realized, are a treasure in and of themselves. Because of my summer birthday, I've spent some of my past special days at Disneyland with my family, being sung to in Spanish down in Peru, at a carnival with friends, gifted with bottles of root beer by sweet campers in Maine, enjoying my favorite restaurant that's not local, while on a road trip with my husband and kids and being sung to under the dark cloudy, but warm sky over Starbucks, staying up too late because we can. Summer birthdays, I've decided, are kind of awesome.

28 April 2016

Of His Job

In the grand tradition of parents enslaving their children - because when I was younger, there was a time I was certain the only reason my parents had kids was so we could be their servants, because that's what it felt like when I was in the middle of my fourth episode of Saved by the Bell for the afternoon and I had to turn it off to go set the table (so what if my mom hadn't sat down since she got home from work and was now slaving over the hot stove - I had to watch Zack take Kelly to the picnic-table prom in their jeans, for the fourth time, since, of course, I'd already seen every episode in triplicate) - we have also given our servants children chores.

We've eased into it, so now that they've been used to emptying the kids' plastic dishes from the dishwasher, we've given our eldest the task of fillling it at the end of the day (and when she complains, I almost never pull out, "When I was your age, we didn't even have a dishwasher!" - almost never). The thing is, though, even though we've given her the task, I still haven't grown accustomed to not doing that portion of my job - it's still second nature to contiue clearing the counter of dishes throughout the day, so that by the end of her first day on the job, as she approached, down-trodden at the thought of this menial manual labor, she discovered a counter void of dishes and a dishwasher half-full of dirty ones. 

"Mom, did you put the dishes in the dishwasher?"

Thinking nothing of it, because I hadn't necessarily gone out of my way, but merely had done what was habit at this point, I responded, "Yeah, I guess I did."

A smile slid out and she said with genuine gratitude, "Thank you!"

It occurred to me that I had done nothing more than I've been doing regularly for the past seven and a half years of her existence, yet this was the first time she had even thought to thank me for putting dirty dishes in the dishwasher.

And it felt good.

Because it wasn't until the task became her own that she stopped to appreciate that someone else would do that instead. It never occurred to her that it had always been me doing the dishes instead of her, because it had never been "her" job before.

It was a sweet moment. 

And I realized as I contemplated this encounter that it's exactly what God did for His creation. When the first two humans were in the garden, it was His job to watch over them and take care of them, to protect their righteousness. They didn't even have to worry about deciding what was good or evil - their sole task was to simply be and to simply be with God as he strolled with them through the garden daily.

Unfortunately, they were deceived and they made wrong choices and from there it was and is a continual story of man trying to watch out for himself, trying to make himself "good," not even recognizing much of the time that God has always been there rescuing and upholding them with His righteous right hand.

So, they built a tower to try to get to Heaven on their own, because they really thought they could do it. And He thwarted their efforts, recognizing they would never be happy so long as they were trying to do this on their own. Because they didn't realize He was already there. He already wanted to be with them. He'd wanted that all along.

And eventually, as though He were saying, "Fine - you want this to be your job? This job of being righouteous enough to be mine? I'll show you what you need to do," He gave them laws to follow. Tablets filled with laws. This is right, this is wrong. Do your hair this way. You cover your head, but you don't cover your head. Do this. Don't do that. Eat this. Don't eat that. Laws. Everything that would be required to be righteous enough to belong to Him.

Because they never trusted He could do it for them. And all along, He had a plan to show them. It was always Him.

After centuries, the plan came to fruition. God Himself came down as a man and completed the task we'd been trying to do on our own all along - He made us righteous. 

"For as by one man's [Adam's] disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's [Jesus'] obedience the many will be made righteous" (Acts 5:19)

"Out of the anguish of his soul . . . shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities" (Isaiah 53:11)

And it wasn't until the job had been ours - this job of making ourselves righteous through our own actions - and we felt the weight of a task we were inadequate to fulfill, that we were finally able to see that someone else was holding us up all along. At this moment of redemption, we recognize that the task of being made righteous was completed by the Son of God who hung on a cross, and we turn with a smile on our face and say, "Thank you." Thank you for being there all along. Thank you for completing the task we were unable to complete - the one that we were never designed to complete in the first place. 

Gratitude is the only response to the undeserved righteousness poured over us at the cross.

Thank you.

It's His job. It always has been.

13 April 2016

Of Being Fed

We're still in Mark. Last week we covered Jesus feeding five thousand men and their families with five loaves of bread and two fish. Today I read about His feeding four thousand with seven loaves and a few fish. A pair of well-known stories, but what amazes me are the reactions afterward - particularly of his disciples, who still don't quite seem to understand Who this man is that they're following.

As if almost any interesting teacher can turn five loaves of bread and two fish into enough to feed five thousand men with 12 baskets of food leftover.

You know, they see that every day, which is why it's such a shock to see a man walking on water. Because there's something that can't be explained (I mean, I know it's shocking - but what make it the final straw, really?).

Seriously, guys?

So, after he feeds the four thousand, the Pharisees approach him demanding "a sign" - an undeniable indication that He has actually come from Heaven - because all these other party tricks - healing lepers, casting out demons, feeding multitudes, raising the dead - anyone could do that. Well, Jesus isn't about proving Himself to the eyes - He's interested in a heart-deep understanding. And if hearing what He has to say has no effect on their understanding of Him, seeing what He can do won't do much for them either. So He denies their request.

Later, in the boat with His disciples, He warns them of "the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod." To which they respond in their eloquent wisdom by arguing with each other over the last loaf of bread - because Heaven knows there's not enough to feed those 13 men on that one boat. 

In fact, Heaven does know exactly how much bread they have. And Heaven knows they just watched this man they're following feed a total of nine thousand men with a grand total of twelve loaves of bread and they still don't get it. They still don't get, as my ESV study notes put it, that this man in the boat with them is "none other than the eternal creator and giver of life." 

They still think He's talking about food.

And they still don't get that if it's the food they're worried about, He'll always be able to provide for it. He is always willing and able to provide for the physical needs.

But His priority, as He proves time and again - not the least of which in feeding these throngs of people through a miracle rather than sending them away so they can all be sustained with nutrients and rest, seeing that the sustenance they need can only be found in His presence, in His words - His priority is to meet the spiritual needs of the people.

And what Jesus is warning them against in speaking of the leaven of Pharisees and Herod, is about taking to heart the worldly wisdom of even "religious" leaders and kings. The puffed up teachings about the outward life that do little to sustain true life. 

Do we hear that warning?

Do we truly understand that God is so much more concerned with what goes into our hearts than what goes into our bodies?

Do our prayers reflect His priorities? Or how much of what we fall on our knees about pertains to our physical needs, comfort, safety? And, conversely, how much of what we take to His feet regards the spiritual needs of our friends, our family, our nation, our planet, ourselves? Does our ratio reflect His?

And in this culture of organic, un-processed, clean, trans-fat-free, non-GMO, no-artificial-sweetener obsession, how concerned are we, by comparison, by what is entering our hearts?

Because we gladly fill ourselves up with the puff of this world - what the news articles tell us, what the entertainment industry feeds us, what the blogs list for us - knowledge, knowledge, knowledge. Leaven, leaven, leaven. And while we're watching every morsel that enters our mouths we're missing the boatloads of trash that are entering our hearts.

And Jesus is saying, "Do you not yet understand?!"

Let our hardened hearts be softened to the true message He came to give. No amount of physical provision and outward change can ever satisfy what our hearts truly crave - the nearness of the eternal creator and giver of life.

Beware the leaven.

07 April 2016

Of the Day the Mommy Quit

Yesterday I quit.

I was just done.

And when you consider that my full-time job is Mommy, that's kind of a big deal.

But as I tried scrubbing off stubborn dried-on egg remainder from the morning before so I could make breakfast (because, you know, washing the egg pan when I'm actually done with it would be too much) with an inadequate washcloth (because my normal discloth was sitting in the washing machine, where it had been, also, since the day before) with a whining second-grader who didn't want to do spelling, crying as she does every day, hoping she'll get a different result (other than "Suck it up, buttercup" - we're all about compassion in this house) and trying to talk an apathetic first-grader through his math problem, with nothing more than shrugs and "I don't know"s in response to every leading question I can think of without out-right giving him the answer, I realized I was just done.

Here I was, having spent hours already that morning changing diapers, doing Bible Study, emptying the dishwasher, filling the dishwasher, cleaning counters and answering questions - working so hard at just being Mom. And there they were, with very simple tasks in front of them, too upset that they couldn't just do whatever they wanted, that it was somehow easier for them to do nothing or cry than to just get it done and move on with their lives. So many of us had work to do and I was the only one doing it.

So I quit.

I threw the washcloth in the still-crusty frying pan, declared, "I quit. Make your own breakfast. Teach yourselves. I'm done."

And I walked away.

There was stunned silence for a moment before the crying started. Mommy had quit on them and they were hungry and how were they going to get food? And when was Mommy coming back?

I sat down in the den, pulled my laptop into my crossed legs and decided I could do whatever I wanted, now that I had no job. I sifted through email and overall ignored the commotion happening only a few yards away and three steps up.

Somewhere the toddler had gotten ahold of something (a not-dangerous something - I'm not completely heartless) that made the four-year-old upset and he wanted me to do something about it.

"I'm not Mommy right now. I quit. I'm sorry."

The second-grader took matters into her own hands and removed the object from the tiny fingers. The toddler, incensed at this injustice, was crying.

I was listening to music.

The oldest, the one who didn't want to do her work but was shocked that Mommy wasn't doing her own, continued to impress on the others the severity of what just happened.

"Mommy's not going to make us breakfast!" Because this, this lack of eggs on their plates when they were perfectly capable of pouring a box of cereal, was going to be the death of them, and didn't they understand this was important?!

I sat and pondered where to go from here as I let the frustration simmer down from a boil.

Obviously I recognized that my resignation would not be accepted in the long-run. At some point I would have to pull myself back to my job. But when would that point come? At what point would they actually pour their own cereal and make up for my lacking? And should I maybe just feed the toddler, at the very least?

Ten minutes passed.

The commotion upstairs quieted as they resigned themselves to the fact that Mommy really wasn't going to do anything else.

And then two sad faces appeared at the top of the steps.

"We're sorry we didn't do our work."

"Oh? Do you see how maybe it's good for people to do the things they don't want to do?"

The girl seemed oblivious to the point I was making, but the boy seemed to understand the desired response: "Yes."

"Because you want me to make breakfast, even though I don't want to. Doesn't that mean that sometimes we have to do the things we don't want to do?"

"Yes," from the boy.

Then the girl spoke quietly and sorrowfully, "I'm just sorry because I love you and I don't want you to be sad."

Well, I'll take it.

I motioned for them to come down. They slowly walked toward me, not sure of what else might be necessary to make this right. I wrapped the girl in a hug, kissed her forehead and declared, "I love you." The boy came a little quicker and received the same response - a hug, a kiss, "I love you." The toddler came in, too, lips puckered, ready for her snot-covered kiss (the snot was from her nose, not mine). The four-year-old decided this was a good moment for some affection, as well (he's a hugger).

Refreshed, I set the computer aside and pulled myself back up the stairs to the waiting frying pan that still needed scrubbing.

I was surprised to notice the wet washcloth that had been resting in the crusted mess as I simmered had used the time to soften the hardened places - and it all wiped away with very little effort. Breakfast was on its way.

Sometimes we all just need a little time to rest in order to soften the hardened places and get back to where we were meant to be.

04 April 2016

Of the Purpose of This Redeemed Life

The women's Bible Study group I am so privileged to be a part of is currently working its way through the gospel of Mark - reading the story of Jesus through the hurried words of a man who got His telling of Jesus straight from the mouth of our brash and beloved disciple, Peter.

This morning, I was in chapter five, where we see Jesus addressing a demon-possessed man living among the tombs of Gerasene - naked, screaming, with the strength to break all chains and shackles. He can't be restrained, but he can't be free.

Jesus comes to him, speaking not to the man himself, merely the host for the legion of demons within, but to those who possess him, casting them out to nearby pigs, so they may have their destructive desire fulfilled on at least some portion of God's creation - just not the portion so precious and prized as a human soul. Because a human soul is worth so much greater than two thousand pigs.

And as people come running to see what the commotion is about, they see this unrestrained man really, finally, free, sitting, clothed and in his right mind. Clothed, because after Jesus restored his spirit, He restored his dignity. And "in his right mind" because, as the ESV footnote states, he was "properly functioning again as an image-bearer of God."

And isn't that what we are all called to? To be cleansed, dignity restored, properly functioning as image-bearers of God? Because though we may not all have the physical demons within, we all have inner demons with which we wrestle - particularly before coming to Christ - that destroy our ability to properly bear His image, as we seek the temporary fix - greed, vanity, lust. And as we are restored to our original function - to serve as image-bearers, we are to take on the characteristics that define Him - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. We are to be in our right mind.

And once we're there, we can suddenly recognize there is only one place we want to be, just as the redeemed former-demoniac of Gerasene recognized, and that's with our Redeemer, our Rescuer. We long to be with Him.

As I was emerging from the fog of depression only about a year or so ago, this was the one thing I wanted. Because if this world was so ugly, why couldn't I just depart and be with Him? Wrapped in His beauty, singing His praises for all of eternity?

Yet, that's not where He wants us. Not yet.

For those of us who remain, He has one command, "Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you" (Mark 5:19).

It is interesting to note, this is the first time in Mark's account that we see Jesus actively encouraging someone to tell others about Him. Previously He had been very adamant about not spreading the news. He had silenced demons against speaking His name and had told a healed leper, "See that you say nothing to anyone."

Yet this man receives the command to go forth and spread the word. Why?

Of course I can't tell you with 100% certainty what Jesus was thinking, but I wonder if it was because this man redeemed of his demons had a true heart for Jesus - recognizing that with his new healed state, he could live a free life and all he wanted to do with that new life was follow after Jesus.

And this is the kind of testimony Jesus wants told.

He wants hearts that are completely for Him to draw others to Him, not for a spectacle of displayed power, but for the true healing and mercy found only in Him.

This redeemed life isn't about me - it's about making His name known.

15 February 2016

Of Fitting the Pieces Together

One theme God has been revealing to me lately in my time in His Word is that if something doesn't seem to make sense in context, it probably means I'm missing something. Of course, that would seem obvious, but I've so often chalked it up to something cultural or something in the original language I just don't get, but it doesn't hinder how I understand what I do know.

Yet, multiple times in the past few weeks I have come across a portion of Scripture I thought I knew and suddenly found a new note or cross-reference that sheds a whole new light and I can see, mentally, a puzzle piece clicking into place as I think to myself, "That makes SO much more sense now!" As though I had previously been tossing aside those pieces, thinking they just didn't go anywhere, and now, as they fall into place, there is one complete picture and I realize there is nothing unnecessary in Scripture.

He did it again this morning.

I have been working through, with my Bible Study ladies, Angie Smith's first Bible Study: Seamless. In this study, we are, once again, covering the entire story of the Bible from cover to cover. As opposed to our time in the 66 Love Letters, this study is a quick survey of the entire Bible, so we're mainly hitting the highlights, but in chronological order, which is a bonus.

Last week, we covered the ten plagues God sent to the Egyptians while Pharaoh hemmed and hawed over releasing the Israelites. Something that has bothered me for a long time on this subject is the phrase "and God hardened Pharaoh's heart" - which we see happening repeatedly after each of the plagues.

Why would God do this?!

If Pharaoh is ready to release God's people and that's the whole goal of this operation, why would God harden his heart so everyone involved has to endure so much more hardship?

One answer with which I had satisfied this query was that perhaps God was working to show Himself to the Egyptian people. I had heard that because of this period in Egyptian history, the word of God's power had spread through much of the ancient world, so that many feared Him and His people,
 the Israelites. After all, we read this to be true when Joshua's spies encounter Rahab who declares their Lord the God as "God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath" (Joshua 2:11). Because of what happened in Egypt, the residents of Jericho were living in fear, their hearts melted - which paves the way for the successful conquest of Jericho and the beginning of the Israelites' claim to their Promised Land.

Certainly that was a factor.

But, as I was reading through this Bible Study, Angie pointed out something I hadn't recalled hearing before (or maybe I had, but it had certainly been buried under mounds of other things I'd heard and forgotten): Each of the ten plagues specifically addressed the Egyptian gods and the aspects of life they supposedly had control over. It was the God of Israel's way of showing His power over these false Egyptian deities. Note the following chart (or click the link here to see it as a PDF).

Well, again, that's certainly fascinating. So, God hardened the heart of Pharaoh so He could specifically display His power in all arenas supposedly controlled by other gods. That seems to make a little more sense. But, still, why?

Was it because the Egyptians would come to fear and respect the God of Israel, as well? Was this a foreshadowing of His welcoming all peoples into His people? I felt as though I remembered reading somewhere that this theory may have been accurate.

But, overall, it was a piece that just didn't fit. And because my brain couldn't figure out what to do with it, I chose to overlook it and move on.

And then we got to today's study. We're in Joshua now, where we addressed the above story of the spies visiting Rahab and consequently God destroying the city of Jericho and from there, all of the Promised Land. All of the Land is now given to the Israelites as He declares to them, "I gave you a land on which you had not labored and cities that you had not built, and you dwell in them. You eat the fruit of vineyards and olive orchards that you did not plant" (Joshua 24:13). All of these He gives to His people, not because they have earned it (if you question that, read all of Exodus and Numbers, trust me, Israel does not deserve any of it), but because these are His people and He has made a promise to Abraham that He intends to keep. 

The descendants of Israel making their home in Egypt, later oppressed by the Egyptian ruler into slavery, had been serving the Egyptian gods?! Now, maybe this isn't news to you. You're thinking, "Yeah, Angela, we all knew that." But I certainly had not heard that little tidbit before. 

I had always lived in my ignorance, fully imagining that God's people weren't annoying and unfaithful to Him until after they escaped Egypt and were sad that they had to leave their happy little homes of slavery. I imagined them slaving away in Egypt, worshipping their God, faithful to Him and wondering when He was going to keep His promise to rescue them, counting down the 400 years He told Abraham they would be waiting. And it's entirely possible and probable that many were. But there were at least some who had chosen the gods of the locals to be their gods, as well. Probably in addition to the God of their father Abraham. 

And here is where the puzzle piece clicked neatly into place. God didn't send ten plagues just so His name would be feared among the nations, or just so the Egyptians could see His power. He needed to harden Pharaoh's heart time and time again, provoking ten specific plagues, so the Israelites would see His power over the Egyptian gods. So the Israelites could see He had control over every aspect of life that they had begun to depend on the false gods of Egypt to protect.

He needed to show them Who He was, not just so Pharaoh would let them go worship their God, but so that they would want to do so. He had to make life hard where they were so they would get uncomfortable enough to leave for the something better that He had planned for them.

Well, oh. My. Word. Doesn't that just tell a whole different story? Doesn't that one little verse in Joshua just bring a whole new reality to this story we've heard since we were children? 

And don't our hearts beat raw to realize He still uses that tactic today. Because we are an unfaithful people who would rather live in the darkness, where it sometimes feels safe, than escape into the Light where He has such glorious lives awaiting us. We would rather seek comfortable living on this earth, where we are bound as slaves to the things of this world, than look ahead eagerly to the land that has been promised to us - our homes in Heaven. We often opt for comfort over going out to serve a God who has proved Himself faithful. 

And once again I see how these Israelite people of the Old Testament were always meant to be a picture to us of who we are - the ways we wander, the ways we vacillate between obedience and unfaithfulness, the ways we fail and the ways we turn back to Him. 

Thank you, Lord, for caring enough to bring us out of darkness, even when we do not, in the least deserve it.

29 January 2016

Of Peace in the Middle East

It is no secret that I have recently become enamored with the book of Colossians. What may be a bit of a "secret" is that, through this love and passion for the message of this book, God has prompted me to write a Bible Study on the four chapters of this powerful portion of Scripture. Now, what will become of this Study and who will actually get to read it is still unknown and, frankly, isn't the focus for me at the moment. What I know is that God has asked me to write, and so I do. It's up to Him what happens after that.

All that to say, I'm continually reviewing the lessons I've learned in recent months, holding dear and writing eagerly on the passages that spoke most to me, but then wondering what to do with the stuff "in between." While I prayed this morning over what there was to say, exactly, about Colossians 1:5b-8, He suddenly called to mind what struck me most when I was reading through this passage in the fall. Something which, in light of current events, is still striking me.

In Colossians 1:5b-6, Paul writes, "Of this [referring to the hope for believers that is laid up in heaven] you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing - as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth . . ."

All of this sounds pretty standard, right? He's encouraging believers in a growing little church in Colossae and reminding them this gospel that came to them has gone into the "whole world" where it is bearing fruit and growing.

I'm smiling now, because this is where my mind was blown a little.

Because, as one who sits in a comfortable chair in a warm sanctuary on Sunday mornings, organ playing, slides projected on the wall, just under the beautiful wooden cross to remind us all why we're there, I tend to separate my real world with the world of the Bible. Of course, I believe every word of it is true and this is an actual representation of History, but I'm really good at segmenting history history - like what we learn in schools or what relates to current events - from Bible history. As if they exist in two separate realms. And, as far as church history goes, it seems to feel like, yes, the New Testament church was our beginning, but then it jumps in my head from Paul to the English church, Martin Luther, etc. Sometimes it feels like that's where we began - this western church is our history.

But where was this New Testament church of Paul's day?

What was "the whole world." as far as Paul was concerned?

The footnotes on this passage from my ESV Bible Study say this: "It has now been roughly 30 years since Christ's death and resurrection and Pentecost. The gospel has indeed spread from Jerusalem into Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, Italy and likely into Egypt, North Africa, and Persia as well."

Notice, it went to Rome, yes, but it didn't just head to Europe, but to Africa and the Middle East. As anyone familiar with modern western missionary efforts will tell you, North Africa and the Middle East is considered the most dangerous region to take the gospel today.

And I consider, then, the spread of the early church and the faith of early believers and I ponder, is it any wonder, or any coincidence, that these are the locations now most known as the seat of Islam?

Is it any coincidence that this is where Satan first planted the seed of this religion which is now the biggest combatant against Christianity?

Is it any coincidence that this region has had such a multitude of hearts hardened against Christ's followers that one cannot even bring the gospel into the very place it originated without threat to one's own life?

But, then, we must also see the further truth of this realization. Communities of believers in the Middle East - Syria, Egypt, Turkey - were born and were bearing fruit and growing the gospel long before King James ever ordained a single translation of Scripture. Would it not stand to reason, if the word which was spread into all the world and continues to grow and change lives, was growing and changing lives in the Middle East in those days, that communities of believers that can trace their lineage back to the Colossian church, or the Ephesian church, or the Philippian church, might still exist?

That maybe, when the gospel was spread, only 30 years after the death of Christ, to Syria, that descendants of those early Syrian believers, who have passed the truth of their faith and the hope laid up for them in Heaven, from one generation to the next, might have managed to reject false teaching, holding fast to the teachings of Paul, who so adamantly warned against "plausible arguments" (Colossians 1:4) that may have deluded new Christ followers, and withheld the spread of the new religion sweeping their nations. Is it possible that, maybe, there are those in the Middle East who have never been swayed by the words of a false prophet, but continue to cling to the cross?

A good friend tells of a time he met a Middle Eastern believer and, awed by his belief, despite his nationality, he asked this believer when he and family came to faith in Christ. The answer he received was, "In Acts, chapter 2."

We tend to forget, as Western believers, that these nations which present such a threat to our lives and our peace, were the birth-place of who we are, as a church, and as the Body of Christ. Yes, it is well-known that Satan has very thoroughly seemed to have accomplished his mission in these regions. But that does not mean God is no longer at work there, as well. His Word continues to grow, spread and change lives, even with very little influence from western believers.

So, maybe, when so many live in terror of those fleeing for their lives from war-battered nations, it could be recognized that some of these that seek refuge are, in fact, believers, who flee for their lives because their blood is demanded from them because they cling to the blood of Christ. And these are not simply new believers, rejecting any sort of false religion they once held, because someone has managed to sufficiently risk their lives to get into the region so many are seeking to escape, but these may be well-established believers because there remains a rich history and heritage of Christ in the very places where the church was born.

Perhaps, armed with this knowledge, we can change our perspective on the Middle East and see what is truly happening - nations torn apart by the ancient battle between spiritual forces. Not because a false religion wins, but because Satan still feels threatened by what God started in these places two millenia ago.

Perhaps when we encounter, then, or hear of those who follow a false prophet we can see them not as enemies, but as those who have been deceived by the one who has been waging war against God himself almost since time began. And our hearts can break.

And maybe we can cry out on our knees for hearts to be turned back to the Father, rather than bodies turned away from our shores.

Let us not forget, there was once Peace born in the Middle East. And if God has not abandoned them, neither, then, shall we.

27 January 2016

Of the True Presence of God

A friend recently told me that my finest quality was my willingness to stand by my convictions despite the consequences.

It was one of the most meaningful compliments of my life, though I doubt how strongly I stand by my convictions at times. I appreciated that somehow, despite what I consider failures, someone has seen this in me.

As I pondered this statement, it occurred to me that while I don't always stand proudly for things I believe are right, but I have a tiny twinge of doubt about, there are some things to which I hold firmly: that every life is valued, wherever or however it originated; that it is the Christian responsibility to protect life of any kind; and the reason I care about life is because I believe, without a shadow of a doubt in the One Who gave us life - God. And I believe He is intimately involved in the details of these lives He created.

While I have believed, as long as I can remember, this God existed, and while I have read His Word nearly daily for two decades now, I can point you to the exact moment I knew without one shade of questioning that He was there and that He has His hand constantly near to His creation.

It was the last day of August, 2004.

I had spent the entire summer working at a Christian camp for girls (an absolute dream) - which meant I had spent an entire summer in "worship" services that consisted of the camp theme song for that year and various other child-relatable songs. Perfectly wonderful for them, not quite enough to scratch my own soul-itch, though.

I longed for the type of worship service I had become accustomed to: contemporary songs, dim lights, hands raised high as I praised my Creator.

And on that last day of August, back in school again, our university hosted their first worship night of the new semester. I was so thrilled to be there.

Yet, in the dim-ness of our small campus chapel - the historic building that evokes the quaintness of 100 years of worship - surrounded by fellow students raising their hands to sing to God, I could not put my heart in that place. I felt stifled, surrounded by bodies, oppressed by heat and with a sudden urge to just escape.

So, I did - pushing gently past those lost in song, climbing over others bowed to their knees in prayer and heartfelt adoration, just shoving toward the door.

I stepped outside and breathed deeply. Fresh, cool air.

I had the sudden realization that the soul-drink I truly needed wouldn't be found in a room filled with bodies and sound, but in the quiet alone-ness of my own heart.

I walked across our dark, mostly deserted campus, to the steps of the much-larger chapel, the one in which the student-body gathered weekly as a mandatory qualification to attend this school.

I climbed up the steps, sitting near the top, looking out over the large marble cross towering over the walkway leading up to the building. In the distance was the small white chapel from which I had just escaped, and from which emanated softly the sounds of the continued worship set.

I held my Bible in my lap and I sat in silence. Listening. Waiting to hear God speak, as I had longed to learn how to do for many years after I once and for all invited Him into my life, to lead me as I followed.

And in the quietness of my soul, I heard "Habakkuk."

Now, I knew this to be an obscure book of the Bible - one of the "minor prophets" - a two-page book toward the end of the Old Testament. I knew that much.

But I didn't know anything else. I didn't know where, exactly, to find it - between which other small, obscure books it was sandwiched. I didn't know what it said. And I had certainly never thought to look there before.

For all these reasons, I felt maybe it was God asking me to turn there now. But, then there was that part of me that always speaks up when I think I hear His soul-whispering: Was that God? Or just one of my own random thoughts?

But, then, who randomly thinks of Habakkuk?

As I contemplated, I began to slowly sift through the pages of my Bible, vaguely trying to find my way there.

Of course, I was in Oklahoma - and we all know what comes sweeping across the plains of Oklahoma. And as I meandered through the tissue pages, the wind came along and began fluttering them swiftly by. I leaned back on my hands, simply watching the flitting pages of my Bible resting on my lap, wondering, bemused, if maybe the wind would carry me where I needed to go.

The pages stopped.

I looked at the top of the page on the left. Nahum.

Well, that's not Habakkuk. And that's where I was headed, right? So, I gently lifted the right side of my Bible, hoping the still-blowing breeze would pick up the pages once more to continue turning to wherever I felt called to be.

The pages would not move.

I wiggled the book a little more forcefully. Tried to slightly lift a page to give the breeze something to cling to, but there was nothing.

Still, the pages would not move.

They were held fast in place.

Well, fine, I guess my fingers would have to do the work.

The fingers of my hand began to lift the page on the right and I stopped.

Right there, opposite that final page of Nahum I had seen on the left, was the large, bold title of the next book.


I tremble as I type this now, as I do every time I tell this story, as I'm sure I did in that moment, when all I could do was sit in shocked silence, not even attempting to find a verse or passage, but giving the moment the full weight of what it was.

The God of the universe had come down, or at the very least, commanded the wind itself, to turn the pages of the Bible sitting in my lap to the exact place He wanted me.


I have never in my life felt as small as I felt in that one moment. I looked out over the darkness and saw tiny insect wings in flight, as is common on a late-summer evening, recognizing He designed every detail of that seemingly insignificant insect. His fingers formed the grass and placed the stars in the sky. And He knows them all by name.

And He knows me.

Who am I? Who am I that He would care to carry me to the place in Scripture He wanted me to be?

I was completely, entirely, humbled.

And in that moment everything I had ever believed was finally and ultimately confirmed. There is a God. And He is intimately involved in the workings of His creation. And He deeply cares for His children.

I am a child of God.

I know that I know that I know this - and I will cling to this truth for all of my life.

Now, a side-note, because while, for me, the importance of this event in my life is so much more about the way God showed Himself than the words I read on the page after, I know others will be curious.

Habakkuk, if you ever open your Bible to read it, is not an uplifting book.

There is a reason no one has heard of it.

It doesn't have the pretty poetry of the Psalms or the wisdom of the Proverbs. It doesn't tell a great story like Jonah or give us insights into the life, death or resurrection of Christ.

It's about destruction and despair and violence. It's a man crying out to God for vengeance for His people.

And it's in the Bible for a reason, but it's not a typical book to turn to when you're in need of some soul encouragement.

However, He did point me to Habakkuk 1:5 - which was the only verse I'd heard from the book up until that point:

“Look among the nations, and see;
    wonder and be astounded.
For I am doing a work in your days
    that you would not believe if told."

Again, this doesn't quite hold the same meaning in context as it does when it's read right there, all by itself. Because what God is referring to regarding what will happen among the nations is, yes, destruction of them. BUT - there is an amazing feeling knowing there are still things happening among the nations that we would not believe if we were told. Some wouldn't sound that great. But some would. And God is still working.

In fact, the very next day, on the heels of this passage, and of this humbling that fully convinced me to go wherever He would lead, He sent me on a journey I would have never predicted or seen, one that carried me all the way to Russia, where I fell in love with a people that most of the western world doesn't understand.

And, finally, at the end of the short three chapters of the entire book of Habakkuk, there are these verses, a prayer of the prophet who just delivered these words of destruction to God's people, verses to which I still cling, especially on the hard days:
17 Though the fig tree should not blossom,
    nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
    and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
    and there be no herd in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
    I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
19 God, the Lord, is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the deer's;
    he makes me tread on my high places.

So, there you have it - these are the words that most spoke to me that one dark evening in August - unexpected words of encouragement tucked deep in the Old Testament.

But mostly what spoke to me that night on the cold stone steps was the real, tangible presence of God, right there in our midst.