Archives For gratitude

This week last year we had a house busting at the seams with our dearest friends. We had our first Denver snowstorm of the season. We ate Eggs Benedict for breakfast Thanksgiving morning. We went hunting for Christmas trees in the Colorado wilderness. And on Black Friday the menfolk left at 5am to stand in the freezing cold for several hours with a hundred others waiting for Goose Island Brewery’s yearly and limited stash. We were rich and full in every way, almost overwhelmed by any one of the blessings around and within us. We were also two months into what would be nearly six months of unemployment for Nate, and had no way of knowing then, but that cozy home would soon lead to a pretty devastating financial loss for us.

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Yesterday I read these words, “If you woke up today with only what you thanked God for yesterday, what would you have?” I sat in a bastion of self-congratulatory pleasure for a minute because about a month ago, in a dearth of gratefulness and desert of thanksgiving, I began jotting down ten things throughout my day I was thankful for. So not only had I thanked God for plenty the day before, I also had lists from the weeks earlier. I breathed a sigh of relief that if I woke with only what I’d thanked God for yesterday, I would have fresh produce from the grocery store, a husband who loved me, a puppy who never leaves my side, candles, and a spectacular array of fall colors.

Then I thought back to a year ago this week, how full to overflowing I felt and yet how taken from at the same time. There was a mounting list of Hard Things in life—we hadn’t even seen the half of it yet—yet it didn’t take from the moment of thankfulness I felt. The week of Thanksgiving wasn’t without difficulty (putting seven friends in a tiny house for seven days you’re bound to have hiccups along the way), but it isn’t the difficulty I remember most, it’s the warmth around the Thanksgiving dinner, the way the candlelight fell on the lace tablecloth, how good the tenderloin was, going around the table thanking God for very real and very good things, taking walks in the evening on fresh dry snow. Looking back it’s the delight I remember most.

I suppose this is what practicing gratefulness is, in a way. It’s digging through the wreckage to find treasure even if the treasure itself would seem to be wreckage to others. I’m coming to a place where I can look behind me and say, with all honesty, thank you, God, for the loss of Nate’s job and the months of unemployment—we learned valuable lessons about who our Provider is. Thank you, God, for the violence we experienced in Denver—I can never again say I am untouched by it. Thank you, God, for the church crisis we walked through—we are more sober about membership, leadership, community, and sin. Thank you, God, for two-cross country moves in a year, and hopefully one more soon—we have learned to live with less. Thank you, God, for miscarriages—we have learned our bodies are not in our control. Thank you, God, for the financial loss we took on our house—we have learned to hold money and things loosely. Thank you, God, for how difficult D.C. has been for us to find and have deep church community—we have learned it isn’t as easy for everyone else as it was for us in Texas. Thank you, God, for the forced break from ministry that the past nine months have been—we have learned our primary ministry is to one another. I could go on.

In the midst of each of those painful things, though, I could not muster thanksgiving if I tried. It is still hard to thank God for really hard things like watching a police officer get shot or losing tiny barely formed babies, but if I can pick my head up and look to God, my sovereign and good King, I can thank Him. It is easy to thank Him when my head is lifted above the circumstances of today. I want to find delight in the good gifts of my everyday, but the cyclical work of gratefulness comes by being thankful for the Big Hard Things so we can find delight in the smaller ones, and then, when the Big Hard Things seem impossible to be grateful for, to thank Him for the small ones. Gratefulness begets thankfulness, and thankfulness begets gratefulness.

I don’t know what Big Hard Things are happening in your life and heart this Thanksgiving, but I do know He cares for you. I know it because the Bible says so and we are people of the Word, not the world. The Bible says in this life we will have trouble, but He has overcome. Mustering up gratefulness tomorrow might feel impossible for some of you. I have friends whose son is very, very sick. Another friend who lost his job recently. Another who lost her child this year. Another who is far away from his family. Another who is walking through a hard marriage. Another who is estranged from her parents. Everywhere I look there is pain and true gratefulness doesn’t overlook the pain, it doesn’t minimize it ever, but it looks straight through the pain and finds God’s goodness in the midst of it. I am praying that for you today and tomorrow.

Yesterday afternoon our neighbor held a bottle of wine up over the fence and shouted for us to come over and bring the pup. We love our neighbors. When Nate and I first looked at our rental house one of the things we remarked about the neighborhood was how in the mere hour we were here, the amount of young families, children, and elderly folks walking around made living here appealing. Over the past eight months we have gotten to know most of the neighbors living on our block and more around the neighborhood. Our pup is something of a local celebrity amongst them all. But our next door neighbors are, we have agreed, the best neighbors we’ve ever had ever. We love them and when we move, we will be most sad to leave them.

We sat around a fire, drinking wine, and talking politics for a few hours. That might sound like a nightmare to some, but in a season where deep friendships are few for us, a rousing conversation around a fire in the aftermath of the election was good. They are smart people, and have lived full lives.

A trifecta of a work contract keeping me busier than I planned, a season where, as I said, deep friendships are few, and a decision to stay off Twitter and Facebook for a while had me not very aware of election news last week. I was saddened by the outcome in some ways, and in some ways, I’ll be honest, I’m expectant. I told Nate on Wednesday morning this is much like when we have friends about whose relationship we are not excited, but for whom, after marriage, we choose to cheer, encourage, pray for, and point to Christ as the center. I do not think there is anything sinful in healthy skepticism, but I do think cynicism is a slow-killing poison that too many of our countrymen drink willingly, and we do not want to take part.

I read this from Dan Rather a few days ago on a blog I read regularly, Beauty that Moves. It summed up my feelings well. I am an American and Donald Trump will be my president. And if you are a citizen here, he will be your president too. There is no question of this. Every eight years, for the most part, the presidential party swaps places. Mourn that if you choose, but also it is good to recognize that, character flaws and all, men set up the American self-government experiment to swing back and forth with gentle predictability. The best way to participate in politics is to participate in self-government ourselves. Another word for that is self-control and we all need a bit more of that fruit of the Spirit.

It seems bringing up the name Ann Voskamp brings opinions to the surface wherever and however the mention comes. Ann was one of the first bloggers over a decade ago to exchange emails with me in the newborn years of serious blogging. She will always be, for me, a gentle cheerleader and friend for it. Regardless of whether you enjoy her prose and poetic way, no one who has met her can deny that she exudes the fragrance of Christ. I loved this interview she did with my friend Katelyn on Christianity Today. Ann has taught (and still teaches) me so much about gratitude and the spiritual discipline of it. If gratitude isn’t yet a part of your daily rhythm, I hope this article encourages you to start today.

Speaking of gratitude, we’re living back on the east-east coast now and “Daylight Saving Time” (in quotes because you can’t see me rolling my eyes) has ended, so it has started getting dark by 4 and is dark by 5:30pm. I am firmly of the belief that if it is dark, one belongs in hibernation mode, so it is taking a lot of gratitude to keep me from going to bed until seven at least. I am always reminded of the Norwegian secret to enjoying a long winter when we step over the threshold of short days. The word is Hygge and I’m sure you’ve heard of it. It’s become something of a hype in the past year. Whether it’s a myth or a way to sell books, all I know is the concept of enjoying these short days and long nights is one I need and maybe you do too. Here are some suggestions on how to (and how not to).

I hope and pray your week is full of good, constructive conversations about our President elect and the state of our country. After spending Friday in the city we call home for now, touring the Capitol, the Botanic Gardens, and a few museums, Nate and I decided to put ourselves through a refresher education on World History. We have been working on a spreadsheet overview of it, free documentaries and films we can watch, books we can each read or read selections from, and, if possible, sites we can visit. This is our way of remembering what a brief experiment America is, and how we are mere drops in the bucket of history. I think it will take us two years, at least, to get through, hopefully longer. Anything to avoid cynicism. Our spreadsheet is incomplete, but if you want to take a gander (or if you have suggestions for additions!), here’s a glimpse at it. Below, you can see the Capitol building through the leaves at the Botanic Garden (which I have decided, is surprisingly best visited in the fall).

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IMG_9867Jesus,

You never promised the easy road, I know this. Your word says you didn’t even have a place to lay your head at night.

I walked, once, in the house of Peter in Israel and imagined you there, itinerate and nomadic, resting your head on the dust covered stones when sleep came. I do not envy this life.

Sometimes I am so persuaded by the wide paths, the pleasant boundaries, and the promised clarity of your voice, but you don’t always work like that. Sometimes the way is narrow, the boundaries are thorny, and your will seems very far off.

We’ve been praying for your will to be done, but yesterday I realized we’ve been praying all wrong because your will is being done. Right now, in the waiting, in the difficulty, in the groping blindness, you are working your will throughout all the earth. I play a game in my mind, The Providence Game: If you have only done _____ in my life so ____ would be worked in someone else’s life, then it is enough. The Hebrews called this, Dayenu: “It would have been enough.”

The Son of man had no place to lay his head and I have places aplenty, and it is enough.

The Son of man was beaten and bruised. I’m just trimming our grocery bill down a bit and there’s enough.

The Son of man carried his cross through the streets. I’m learning to carry a husband’s burden and it’s good enough.

The Son of man bled and died on a cross. I’m merely making an inventory of our life and stuff, and we have enough.

Someone asks me every day what the plan is and I answer honestly every single day, “We do not know, but Christ is enough.” I believe it and say it so I would believe it more than I do.

Jesus, I don’t know what you’re doing and I don’t know what your future will is, but I do know this: the easy path and the high road is not what you’ve called us to. You’ve called us to look at today and say, “It is enough because You are enough.”

I have said these things to you,
that in me you may have peace.
In the world you will have tribulation.
But take heart;
I have overcome the world.
John 16:33

There have been seven or eight lessons I have learned over the course of my life that have altered my thinking in profound ways. They have become markers of what Paul calls, “Glory to glory.” They marked a step forward, not in closer or better union with Christ, but in closer and better understanding of him. Today I thought of sharing them briefly with you.

A love for the local church: This was pressed deep into me before I even understood the theology of the church. My pastor in New York wooed me to a love for the local, to what God was doing right here in front of me. To the people with whom I walked and lived and fought and fought for. We cannot say we love Christ and not love what he loves best. He loves the Church best. He gave His life for her. I learned to live and die for the Church.

To not rob others of their suffering: This came from a friend during a season of deep pain and sadness in my life. He could have relieved it, I suppose, but said instead to another friend that he would not rob me of my sufferings. It took me a very, very long time to understand what that meant, and it took more suffering and more observation of suffering to understand. But here is what it taught me: God doesn’t waste anything, not suffering, not difficulty, not pain. He is working and willing and waiting and faithfully attending to his children in the midst of it. There are no “meantimes” in the Kingdom of God.

To be a “There you are!” person, instead of a “Here I am,” person: My pastor in New York also taught me there was real value in showing true interest in another person and their life. To not stand on the sidelines waiting to be approached by others with a “Here I am, come find me,” attitude. OR to enter a room and be the life and center of the party with the exclamation, “Here I am!” But instead to enter a room and find others first. To be the first to ask questions about their lives and the last to talk about yourself. This lesson, for a shy, wallflower like me, was life-changing. God pursues us like that!

God is not surprised by my doubts, my questions, my fears, or life: My pastor in Texas taught me this and it was one of the lessons that has been the foundation of my faith for five years. I spent years and years doubting my life, my choices, my faith, my repentance. All of this because I somehow believed I was in charge of it all and God was shaking his head in disappointment at me. If, though, God is in charge of everything, that means he isn’t surprised by anything—and he isn’t waiting me to mess up some cosmic plan. He’s shepherding, giving, guiding, loving, hearing, and faithful every step of the way.

This gift is for this day: Elizabeth Elliot taught me this. She hammered into my little head that not only was today a gift, but whatever I had today was a gift, and whatever I didn’t have today was also a gift. “God still holds tomorrow,” she said. This lesson reminded me time and time again over the years that today held enough disappointment and treasure as it was. There was no use longing for tomorrow and ignoring what God wanted to teach me today.

Love Jesus and People more than things: I will never forget sitting in the living room of some friends back in New York and hearing the father talk of how if his kids squabbled over a toy or some plaything, they would immediately rid their home of the item. They would not sell it because they wouldn’t attach worth to some thing which had caused conflict. He wanted to teach his kids to love Jesus and People more than things. Shortly after that I began to get rid of almost everything I owned and began to discipline myself to not worship the idol of sentimentality or wistfulness. I wanted everything I had been stewarded to reek of the fragrance of God’s own. If it didn’t, I got rid of it.

Expectations are resentments waiting to happen: This from another pastor in my church in Texas. I heard it at a time when all my faith and trust in God was shattered because I had put all my expectations in certain things instead of in Him alone. I wanted expressions of His goodness, not simply his goodness. I wanted gifts of lavish attention, without his simple affection. When I began to see the discrepancy, it became immediately clear where my doubt in him was coming from. I resented him, plain and simple. When I began to simply hope in His character and not at all in his gifts, everything changed for me. Nothing about life itself changed, but everything about the way I saw him changed.

This are just a few of the small things that have changed me throughout life. If you’ve known me for any length of time, you’ve probably heard me talk about one or all of them. I hope even more, though, that you’ve seen me live them. It would be a waste if all we did with theology was talk about it. These men and women, though their faithfulness, taught me in small ways huge lessons. This is the last lesson I have learned: To be faithful to God, not an outcome.

I doubt very much most of these people would know their small acts of faithfulness would have life-changing effects on me. But they did. My prayer today is two-fold: that you would find those benchmark moments in your life today, and that you would go back and thank the people who taught you those lessons. And second, that you would know you are being watched and studied by others in their walk. What we say and model and teach matters—and what a good gift that is from God!

We are settling into a quiet rhythm, he and I. Early to bed, early to rise, it matters not whether we are healthy, wealthy, or wise, I suppose. We have one another and we have a Savior who is good and does good.

Yesterday in our exegesis meeting at work, in preparation for the sermon on Psalm 51, we talked about a God who in His goodness does good—and I cannot leave that alone this morning. I wake next to a husband, we make coffee, he reads and journals on the back porch while I make frittata in a cast iron pan, the dishes are unwashed and we have eaten, he starts his workday six feet from me while I write in my sunny morning nook. No one needs to remind me of the abundant blessings of a good God these days. It is everywhere and I am its best detective.

It has not always been so but I wouldn’t trade a single one of those days if I was asked.

This morning my husband takes my hand over breakfast and prays we would be “More gentle,” and my heart catches, sure I have somehow wounded him in the past fifteen hours to warrant the adverb. “Have I hurt you?” I ask, when he releases my hand and picks up his fork. “No, not at all,” he says, “I just want to pray for an increase of the Holy Spirit.”

It is easy to forget the goodness of God in the land of the dead and it is just as easy to forget the goodness of God in the land of the living. I am a goodness detective, but for too many years I have been a darkness detective, certain every comment, every deed, and every action was the swift hand of an angry God.

Oh, He is fierce, don’t get me wrong. His anger lasts for a moment, but it is anger just the same. He is not safe, as Lewis said, but He is good. And this is the truth that has hinged every weak and wounded year of my life. This does not feel good but He is good.

I remember this morning that it is not the void of goodness (or of gentleness) that makes us beg for more, but the present indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the good God, who beckons us more and more into His bountiful abundant life.

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This is a story for everyone, but it’s mostly a story about hope and faithfulness and a kitchen table.

I’m supposed to speak about singleness in a few weeks but I can’t help feeling like I’ve given up my card, as though I’ll be the one all the singles sit and roll their eyes at, “Easy for you to say, you’re married.” And it’s true, in some ways some thoughts I have about singleness will sound trite and less than tried and true, but here is a truth: I was single for 34 years and now I am married. That means I am a statistic in two ways: people are staying single longer now than ever, and most people do in fact some day get married. I am not the exception, I am the rule. And I pray for those of you who are part of the first statistic, you will someday be part of the second.

But now here’s my story.

A few years ago a girl came to live with me. I’d known her since she was 14 and knew the cards she’d been dealt set her up for some disappointment in life, and I knew I’d be helping to carry that baggage for a season. What I didn’t know is that I’d often feel like a single parent with her. In the midst of walking through that season, a friend of mine pitched an idea to me. He said, “I think it would be good for her to work on a project and I have a project I’d like to do with her.” It seemed he had a friend, a man recently divorced who helped lead the marriage reconciliation group at our church, who had opened his home up for men to live in throughout the past two years, and who invited more men into his home every week for dinner, conversation, and friendship. One problem: this friend did not have a kitchen table.

So my friend, and my little girl, they embarked on a project: Project Farm Table. It was to be a surprise for the friend and so it was. When they gave the table to the friend, he nearly wept and said it was the best gift he’d ever been given.

Six months later I sat at that table for the first time and listened to the recipient of the gift share some of his testimony. I didn’t know it then, but at the intersection of my friend, my little girl, this table, and that man, I would meet my husband.

This is a story about a table, but it’s actually the story of so much more.

For years I wondered what was wrong with me, why no one wanted to marry me, why God was holding out on me. What I didn’t realize was that my future husband was walking through the discipline of God and the failure of his marriage. For 13 years while I whined about my singleness to God, God was shaping my future husband in the crucible of marriage to someone else. God wasn’t holding out on me, he was working in both of us an eternal weight of glory.

For years I felt convinced that online dating or other mechanisms to meet a husband was not the best, not for me or for anyone. I felt firmly convicted that service to the local church and to God was the mechanism through which God would bring marriage if that was His plan for me. I wrestled, complained, struggled to do this well, but I trusted Him in it. I put my hand to the plow and served, trusting that if God had a husband for me in the local church, then I would know because he would be a man who was faithfully serving, leading, showing hospitality, walking in grace, humbly accepting the discipline of God and other men I knew and trusted. Nate was a man well known by my friends, my elders and pastors, and others. Trusting Nate, following his lead, loving him came swiftly and easily because he had faithfully given himself to the local church in every way. No stone was left unturned in his life—he was fully submitted. And at the proper time we came face to face with one another.

For years I was certain I would have to compromise in a thousand ways if I ever found myself faced with marriage (and did compromise over the years multiple times in multiple ways), but with Nate I found we were both running so hard and so fast toward the kingdom that we were only helped by the presence of one another. He helped loosen chains of fear binding me back and I spurred him on toward confident leadership. My fears that I’d marry someone who didn’t challenge me spiritually and intellectually were baseless. My fears that I’d marry someone who was lazy or indulgent were silenced. My fears that I’d have to marry someone who I wasn’t attracted to or didn’t enjoy were proven wrong. Nate is my better in every way. I don’t say that with an ounce of false humility, I truly mean it. I do not know a finer person, a more humble and gentle man, a harder worker, a more faithful friend, a kinder neighbor, a more generous accountant, or a better servant of God.

Nate was all of those things before meeting me—after submitting himself to the discipline of God in his failed marriage, in his desire to understand and grasp the full counsel of God instead of cherry picking pet theologies, and in his faithfulness to the call of God to minister with the grace he’d been given. He was inviting men into his home, ministering to broken marriages, addicts, serving them around his table, showing hospitality, parking cars at our church’s lot, leading arrogant and broken men in reconciliation to God and to their wives as much as it depended on them. He was doing all this when my friend and my little girl made him a farm table.

I’m sitting at that farm table now, in our kitchen, in our new house in Denver. And I’m marveling at God. God who never sleeps, nor slumbers, but keeps. He kept both of us while we were making foolish decisions and good ones. He kept both of us while we were holding tenaciously to beliefs we had and our confidence in them and in Christ. He kept both of us in the midst of difficulty, trial, faithfulness, and sadness. He kept.

I wanted to tell you this story for a few reasons:

One, if you are single, remember: God is not sleeping.
Two, if you are in a difficult marriage, remember: God is not sleeping.
Three, if you are serving your local church tirelessly, remember: God is not sleeping.
Four, whoever you are, in whatever circumstance you’re in, remember: God is not sleeping.

He’s keeping.

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I have never left well. I’m a runner, an escaper, and I come from a long line of leavers. I color it pretty, as best as I can, but the deep current of my heart rushes to beat feet, run away, slink around the corners and perimeters as I exit, slipping out quietly, hoping no one will notice.

The goodbyes have begun and the tears run freely these days. I tell my home-group I always imagined the weeks before my wedding to be full and rich and unencumbered happiness and bliss, but the truth is I am so conflicted with emotion: happiness and sadness, joy and longing, expectation and heartache. When we leave Nate’s backyard after the ceremony and reception, we leave Texas.

In seven days we leave Texas, our unexpected home.

The realization of what we’re leaving hits hard these weeks. God has disciplined us here and loved us, taught us and grown us, trained us and now sends us, and I don’t think either of us expected any of this. Five months ago he was a tall bearded near stranger and I was entertaining thoughts of life-long singleness and service to the local church. We were okay, you know? We were content and serving the Lord and our church and how much can change so quickly?

It is less about falling in love and more about falling in life. There have been so many times the past few months I think to myself, “Shouldn’t this be harder? More difficult? More wrought with question and doubt and wrestling?” Nothing in my life has come easily and this love came so easily, this move so seamlessly, this job so joyfully—how does one stand beneath the waterfall of common grace and not drown? How do any of us cup our hands and receive all the goodness from God and not stand in still and silent wonder?

I wish I could slow time the next week. I never thought I would be married, never thought I would miss Texas, never dreamed I’d move to Colorado, never expected the gifts of God to taste so good—and feel so full and final.

I want to say goodbye well. Goodbye well to all that Texas has given me, shown me, the ways it has loved me and grown me, but the tension of so much hello on goodbye’s heels feels impossible. I think the goodbyes will happen in increments over the next few months and I think that might be the grace of God too. Gulps of glory one cup at a time.

Texas, I love you. I don’t love your hot summers or your big box stores or sprawling suburbs. But I love your people and I love how you took me away from all the things I thought I loved best so I could see Christ was alone my good. The Village Church, Steps and Recovery, Jeff and Marianne Haley and their parenting of me, Jen Wilkin and her Women’s Bible Study, Matt and Lauren Chandler and the way they have cheered me on, my amazing home-group, Geoff Ashley and his shepherding, Shea Sumlin’s faithful teaching of the word, Radio Lab Discussion Group and the 1099ers, Roots Coffeehouse, the Meadow-Lane girls, Sower of Seeds International Ministries and Red Light Rescue—each of you a glimpse of heaven and eternity and I can’t wait.

Goodbye. I love you. And thank you. I am a life that was changed.

But as for me, the nearness of God is my good.
Psalm 73:28

mydesign

I have always owned a Bible, scribbled and tattered, ignored or forgotten, but always one somewhere. For most of my life my Bibles were reminders of ways I’d fallen short, paged taskmasters holding the ruler of law over my head. I knew they were supposed to contain the words of life, but mostly they felt like death.

It was a surprising conundrum, then, when the words of the Bible that first preached the gospel to me came from the first verse of the first chapter of the first book. Genesis 1:1. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

And the girl who loved words suddenly loved the Word.

Whenever people ask me when I was saved, the easy answer is before the foundations of the earth I was known. The more difficult answer is that I don’t know. I don’t have a calendar date, a circled number to celebrate. I do know I did not understand the character of God until a hot night in September of 2010, on the front row seat at my church’s old campus. And, which is perhaps more, it was the first night I understood that I would never understand the character of God. That His character was as limitless as His creation, as limitless as the “beginning.”

In the time it took to read those ten words, words I had known almost the entirety of my life, I knew my life would never be the same. Through the most rudimentary verse, the one every Christian and most non-Christians can quote, the one we have all read on January first a thousand times over, the Lord opened the eyes of my heart and gave me the slightest glimpse of Him.

I cannot explain it. I cannot explain what I was before—someone who had much knowledge and practice of faith—and what I became after that night. But I was changed.

Since then my thirst for the word, not as a map or guide, nor a dictionary or textbook, but as life has never stopped growing. It is the method, the joy, the comfort, the truth, and so much more. In its pages contain the truest things ever existing: the character of God communicated to his people through every generation. Every verse tells of the gospel if we look hard enough, every book shouts of the plan of a master storyteller.

From the beginning until the amen, it gifts God to us and us to God.

And it will change us.

Tonight my church is beginning a series in the book of James and I cannot wait. The book of James is what my parents would make me write, in its entirety, every time my mouth ran away with itself (which was nearly every day for two years of my childhood). Those composition books were filled with angry scribbled transcriptions and I resented my parents for taming my tongue in this way. But now, twenty years later, those words have become life, the discipline of faith and works, patience and action, words and quiet, they point to a more true thing than a curbed tongue. They point to the sanctifying work of a God who takes a very, very long time to grow us up, make things clear, and bring us into paths of life, to Himself.

His word is a lamp to our feet, no matter how far they have to travel. His word is a light to our path, no matter how long it seems to ramble on.

I have a friend who has always gotten what she wanted, and I have judged her for it. Employment, homes, money, husbands, children, perfect hair, perfect skin, perfect teeth. The world is brimming with opportunity for her, if only she will stare it full in the face demanding it acquiesce to her whims. And it does, every time. I have watched it bow to her for nearly half our lives, no matter how messy the wrestle or how bloody the battle, she always gets what she wants. And she has a beautiful life.

Another friend sent me a text a week ago, “Can we talk?” I have not always gotten what I wanted, and I always assume that is because I don’t deserve it or am not meant for it, that the stretch of my life will be the backhand of God across my every whispered desire. I assume I am always in trouble and text him back accordingly, “Depends. Am I in trouble?”

He spends nearly three hours at my house that afternoon, straight to the point, tender, kind, but unrelenting in his challenges and questions. Where is my joy? Why do I always take the hard road? Why do I think God always means to give me the leftovers? I cry some and listen a lot and talk more in those three hours than I talk in months. I feel heard and seen by him, and a little bit by God too, which is saying more than I can say for this whole year. “Stop punishing yourself,” he says, and another friend said the night before, “You made a mistake a while back and you’re still berating yourself for it.”

. . .

I woke up this morning thinking of the prodigal son, the one who demanded an inheritance and got it, and the elder son who stayed home minding his father’s business but not partaking of the father’s blessings. There have been many seasons where I know I have taken all the good He has given me and squandered it, finding myself face-down in a pig-pen, but today I am the elder son, staring at the fatted calf and not daring to ask for it.

Lest you think, reader, I have never asked, let me correct you because I have. I have asked for the fatted calves a thousand times and a thousand times seen them paraded by me and given to other friends. It is difficult to resent when God gives to those you love, but it is not difficult to resent the God who gives it.

And it is even easier to resent the self who asked for it.

. . .

Perhaps you think yourself a martyr too, like me, certain you will never deserve nor get what you want and so you will die an ascetic’s death, in the scant riches of the poverty gospel. Or perhaps you are like my friend, prone to ask wild things and get them too, scarred and battle worn, but always, always, always winning.

I don’t know if either one of us is more right or more wrong, but I do know both of us need friends who sit across from us for three hours and ask where the true source of our joy is, or if it exists at all.

We know our ultimate joy is in Him, but we are also told to be like the persistent widow, banging on the door at midnight asking for what she needed.

We know he is the treasure in the field, worth everything we own to get, but we also know to ask for bread and fish—which are simply sustaining things and not treasures to any common person.

We know he is the object of our worship, but see how he has clothed the lilies of the field in splendor, inducing our worship of him and satiating our demands to be cared for?

I cannot think it is wrong to ask boldly, but neither can I ask boldly, so I am caught in the tension of simply not asking.

. . .

When I was young I asked for something specific from my parents. They were always generous parents, as generous as they could be in a family of ten. But in this they said no, that one of my younger brothers would be the recipient first for various reasons. But then that same brother died in a sudden accident and our world shattered in every direction. No one was thinking of promises made to children, we were all just trying to survive the catastrophic blow that kept on beating us from every side. Not until a friend asked me this year did I realize I still carry with me a post-traumatic-stress from those few years. I encased myself in getting through it, being strong, protecting my youngest siblings, protecting myself, most days just surviving. My dead brother would never receive the gift, but I would also never receive the gift, because who thinks of gifts when the ground is coming apart around you?

. . .

Reader, I would like to wrap this up for you, but like the gifts I wrapped on Christmas Eve and were torn open twelve hours later, I don’t know that wrapping things up is always as effective as we like to think in evangelical circles. The difficult truth is I have been challenged this week, but not changed, rebuked, but not repented, asked of and not asked in return. I cannot wrap this up for you, neatly and in order, pithy and prideful. I am unfinished, like the nativity scene my roommate was carving for me until she cut her hand and we spent our Christmas Eve in the Emergency Room. Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus are complete, standing on our mantle, but the manger is still in the garage on the work-bench, half finished. A reminder to me that the people who had waited for a great light saw it that night in Bethlehem, but the story still wasn’t finished and wouldn’t be for thousands of years. Two-thousand years later I would still be afraid to ask the Savior to show Himself present.

On a hill a few weeks ago, overlooking the shepherd’s fields and the city of Bethlehem, we sung the words, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” I thought to myself, in Christianity it is okay to say our hopes are met in Him, but our fears? Do we ever talk about our fears being met in Him? Our trembling, angst-filled, angry, sad fears? Will these be met in Him too?

Bethlehem and the Shepherd's Fields

Bethlehem and the Shepherd’s Fields

Like the amputee who still feels pain in his phantom limb, I feel the trepidation of misdirection and mis-decision. I made so many poor decisions in the past year and a half that the choice-making part of my brain feels incapable of going straight in any direction.

On January 1st I will sit with my journal and Bible and ask myself the list of questions I ask every January 1st. I will take stock and inventory of 2014 and look toward 2015 with a hope-filled eye. (God, make it so.)

A friend sat across from me the other day and asked why I can’t just get excited about this new season. Life is about to grow crammed with a new job and classes, plus the things already cramming it full and brimming it over. Yet I feel the phantom pains of the missing limbs: the marriage that didn’t happen, the move that didn’t happen, the date that didn’t happen, the conversation that didn’t happen. I have no regrets and I know the gangrene growing on those limbs would have eaten the whole of my body alive. But I feel the loss of them still.

To say those words, right out loud, feels shameful and sinful.

The things for which I am grateful are overwhelming, but they all came at great cost this year. This is perhaps the first time I can look systematically at good and see how it was brought about by death first.

. . .

This morning I read in Isaiah 11, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse.” Tears fill my eyes and I can’t keep reading because I see the stump legs and stump arms protruding from my person. All I see is cut off limbs, life interrupted, and it wasn’t supposed to be like this.

From that stump, though, comes a shoot. And from that shoot comes fruit.

All week I have been meditating on what it means to be cut from and pruned. I have done the work of pruning before, cutting branches that do not bear fruit so they will bear more and better fruit. I know the difficult work of taking what is live and making it live better. But I cannot bring life from a stump, I cannot make a dead and severed thing live again. This is the work of the Spirit alone.

On that fruit the Spirit of the Lord will rest,

The fruit that is borne in me through Him will be wholly His, not mine.

the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,

He has ultimate wisdom for every path in my life, and full understanding of the details.

the Spirit of counsel and might,

He is the one with words of comfort and strength. His advice directs me, and his power carries me.

the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

He knows all and is King over all.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see

He will not fret on January 1st at the year to come.

or decide disputes by what his ears hear.

He does not hold the past year against me. He keeps no record of my wrongs.

. . .

I once had a dream in which I arrived at Heaven with no arms and legs. When Christ asked me, “Child, what made you like this?” I answered, “You said, ‘If our hand offends you, cut it off.’ Every time I looked at my arms and legs, all I could think of was the harm they’ve done to myself and others, so I either cut them off or served with them until they fell off.” I do not know what Christ looks like, but I will never forget the care I saw in his eyes in that dream. It was perhaps the first time I felt the love of a Father. He touched the stumps of my arms and legs and gave to me new ones, but they were not mine and this was clear to me. They were wholly un-of me and wholly of Him.

This is the shoot that comes forth from death. Christ.

God, make it so.

design (7)

Cut

I said no to a lot of things this year and in every direction branches have fallen. Good, seemingly healthy branches and dead ones too. Their absence has left me feeling naked and exposed, broken and wondering: what did I do to deserve the axe to my soul?

I learned long ago to not make plans, partially because nothing in my life goes according to one, but also because they become a breeding ground for resentment when I am disappointed in their failure. There were seeds of doubt in me this year that grew into fear and developed into anger. Not anger at others, but anger at myself, mostly, and anger at God. Maybe others knew I was being pruned, but I felt unjustly ruined.

It has been a strange dichotomy for me. Before 2010 I lived most of my life perpetually mistrustful of God, with a brooding anger at him. Since 2010, though, his goodness and prevailing trustworthiness has been steadfast and immovable. I have never known anything like it and still am in awe of what a constant God he is when not encumbered by the caricatures and Sunday School stories we make him out to be like. 2014, though, has been a year where I have seen my glaring disappointments and failures front and center. If there were places of pride in my life and heart, places I thought on the brink of full sanctification, this year has wrecked every one of them.

Jill Andrews has a song called Cut and Run where she says, “And it’s just like me // to walk away so early.” All my life that is my propensity. I walk away early instead of digging in deep. But this year He wouldn’t let me. He made me wait, long past the time when everyone else said to walk away. He stayed me, and then still cut me. It felt unfair, the antithesis of his goodness.

Nothing has gone unscathed.

Making the decision to stay in Texas was an act of faith for me three months ago. I felt physically nauseous when I signed our lease; it felt like a death warrant for me in some ways, and I am not prone to exaggeration. It was in part an act of submission to leaders in my life who are wiser than I, and in part submission to the Lord who presses deep on my propensity to run when the going gets tough. I began to submit a thousand small things to others too, in a way I balk against naturally. There have been times in my life when I felt suffocated by submission, no part unscrutinized by others. And there have been times when I have soared in submission, being set free under good leadership who wanted good for me. But this season of submission has felt both restraining and freeing.

The other night my closest Texas friends and I sat around a fire for half a night. The moon rose behind us and the coyotes howled. I didn’t say much, which is not unusual, but I listened a lot. I listened to laughter and sorrow, stories and life. All the things God uses to bring us to today.

He has been healing some things in me in the past few months. Not growing new branches yet, but healing the cuts from the old ones. Signing that lease, living with the four souls in our home, going to my hometown in Pennsylvania, good conversations, intentionally digging in at my church, working on projects that bring me joy, putting aside projects that steal my joy, choosing home more than choosing traveling, saying no to so many things, so I can say yes to what is most important: sitting at the feet of my good and faithful and kind Savior—the true vine, the true root, the true tree.

increase

Every few weeks I’ll tweet the following: “People, pray for your pastors!” I mostly do it because I need to be reminded to do so, but also because I know how much it means to my pastor friends to know they are prayed for by their people. You can look in any direction today and see churches, leaders, pastors, and flocks crumbling under weights of sin, failure, financial ruin, and more. Not only do I not want to see that happen at my church, I don’t want to be ignorant of the pressures on pastors and their families.

But prayer isn’t the only way we can encourage our pastors. Below are some biblical ways we can increase their joy.

Be of the same mind:

Every parent knows when his kids are squabbling, there’s no peace to be had. How much more joy is there when we, out of selfless ambition, decide to be of the same mind? There is a very intentional choice we must make at times to bite our tongues or not prove ourselves right. We shouldn’t ignore injustice, of course, but sometimes family means submitting ourselves to one another. Paul said it would “complete [his] joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

Count them worthy:

Paul spoke to Timothy about the worth of double honor. Double honor isn’t exactly what our generation likes to give to anyone. We indulge in celebrity, where we drink every drop from their gold-tipped lips, or we fall on the other side, cautious and suspect of every leader. But Paul says these guys labor in word and doctrine. They’re laboring on our behalf, working to see in us a greater hope in Christ and the gospel. So not only will you never hear me say anything bad about one of my pastors (a single honor), I labor to speak well of them and to them every chance I get (a double honor). I want them to know I appreciate their investment in me, our church, the Word, and gospel initiatives.

Respect them:

I’m a question asker, rarely do I accept anything at face value, and I’ll chew on ideas until they’re unrecognizable in their original form. Because of that propensity, I can judge my leaders instead of simply respecting their time, study, devotion to the gospel. The truth is I have covenanted myself to these elders, to this body, for this time. I have counted them worthy simply by saying, “Yes, I am a covenant member of The Village Church.” We respect them by making every effort to do as Paul instructed the church at Thessalonica, “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work.” These guys may not always make the decisions that I’d make, but I want to esteem them highly because of their work.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I reached out to a few pastors and wives to ask about other ways we can practically encourage and support our pastors as they “keep watch over our souls.”

“Words are inexpensive but rich. Genuine appreciation, heartfelt gratitude can bring healing, strength, encouragement, and vision.”

“Value the elder’s wife in her unique gifting. Do not confer, by extension, the office and responsibilities of eldership on the elder’s wife. Meaning: she is not automatically the “women’s pastor” or the head of any other department by virtue of her position as the wife of an elder.”

“Offering to take us out to coffee just so you can share what the Lord is doing in your life and how you are growing in grace (i.e. not a meeting where we are expected to give advice or answers, but can just listen and glory in God’s goodness).”

“Let us know you are praying for us and what exactly you are praying.”

“Encouraging family time/ rest time. I’ve heard the joke “Sunday is the only day you work,” plenty of times in my life. It’s funny and I’ve said it a lot but when it’s time to rest I love when people really guard that time and certainly don’t act resentful of it.”

“Everyone assumes the pastor and his family have tons of friends; they seem to know everyone, after all! That said, in my experience, we’re generally the ones extending ourselves and reaching out. Sometimes we just want to have someone spread a tablecloth, light some candles, and offer their friendship through a simple meal and a welcome into their home. Leadership can be a lonely place, in all actuality.”

“Bring a meal over if you catch wind of a season of nights when the pastor isn’t home. If I (a pastor’s wife) feel the strain of ministry ever, it’s in the 12-20 day stretches of him being out night after night after night.”

Every few weeks I tweet this: “People, pray for your pastors.

I do it because I need reminders that the men who lead my local church are faithful and godly, but still human and fallible. They hurt just like we do. They struggle to build systems just like we do. They need to repent just like we do. They aren’t superhuman. They’re fully human. So I pray for my pastors often. Not just my lead pastors (although I recognize they are more in the public eye more often), but for my groups pastors, our recovery pastors, our resource pastors, etc. I love the men who shoulder the pastoral responsibilty for my church. I respect them. I entrust myself to them. And because of that, I want to be invested in their fruitfulness. One way I can do that is through prayer.

Here are some things I pray for my pastors:

Pray they would love God above wife, wife above children, children above church, and church above their own life.
Pray they would mourn over their sin, instead of getting lost in busyness.
Pray their mourning over sin would lead to repentance and not death.
Pray they would set a watchman over their time, words, and family.
Pray they would not buckle under culture’s sway.
Pray they would lead with humility and gentleness, boldness and wisdom.
Pray they would ask for help when they need it and that we would give it quickly.
Pray they would rest.
Pray they would work hard.
Pray they would play.
Pray they would have minds that sharply divide the word of truth, and hearts that vulnerably discern the hearts of men.

Pray they would seek only God’s glory and not their own.

Here’s one more important thing I pray for them.

A few nights ago I sat on the corner of our couch, faced my friend, and wept. Hot, sad, gross tears. The sort that feel shameful even as they fall from your face because you know they’re selfish—but you can’t change the hurt, the wounding you feel. The injustice of pain.

Whenever I hear even whispers of any sort of prosperity gospel—that if we do righteous acts, God will respond with righteous acts—my skin crawls with the falsity of it. But I cannot help the sneaking presence of it in my heart, even on my best day, especially on my best day.

I did this and this is how you repay me, Lord? I was faithful. I was righteous. I was long-suffering. I was. I am. And you are what? Where? Where are you?

Tonight I’m thinking of Paul’s letter to the Philippians and of entering into Christ’s sufferings. I’m thinking of the agony of the garden, those last moments when Jesus asked His brothers: can’t you even for one minute stay with me? Stay with me. Be with me here. In my last moments? In my sufferings? There’s a part of me that just longs to be there, in that place, with Christ. I am like the child in the back of the classroom waiting to be picked, the woman with the issue of blood pressing through the crowds, Peter stepping out of the boat onto the water—begging to be let into what He’s doing—even in His sufferings.

But when I taste those sufferings, oh, how I blanche. How I balk. How I complain. How I fear. How I demand.

Many people can’t handle a God who would slay, but tonight I know that even in the midst of the slaying, He is a staying God. Even when I leave, He follows through. When I fear, He stands on. When I barter and cajole and beg and plead, He offers without cost, without money. He slays so He can heal.