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Archive for the ‘Living out faith’ Category

I’ve preached it well.

There is beauty in the broken. And I kneel and motion with my hands as I recite the passage where the woman breaks her jar of nard and pours it over Jesus’ feet. And I mime the story of the cracked water jar that watered a pathway of flowers. And I take the hammer and the people flinch as it loudly crashes into the large terra cotta pot. And I hold up the tea bowl and I speak of Okakura Kakuzō and tea and beauty and the profound art of kintsukuroi. And all this time I weave in my own story of brokenness and the pathways and connections and beauty that God had hitherto brought forth from it…

And I believe it.
I do.

I believe there is beauty in the broken. I believe that God can use cracked pots. I believe that God can reform and repair and use our brokenness—no matter the cause of that brokenness—and bring beauty and encourage others and use it to ultimately draw all of us back to Him.

I believe it.
I find it beautiful.
I see the grace.
It encourages me.

But…

(You knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you?)

So here’s the thing… I have this bad habit of taking what is beautiful and grace and meant for freedom and using it to bind and shackle myself again. Or I try to control it.

(And I’m pretty sure those two are connected.)

I came to the realization last April that I wanted to control my brokenness. I wanted to choose how my brokenness worked and looked to others. To be able to control what cracks and chips remain open as outlets of God’s grace and strength within, points where they can seep out and water and encourage others. To be able to choose which breaks get repaired in such a way that the scar is not noticeable. Even to have the say in what broken places are creatively and artistically repaired with golden lacquer kintsukuroi style so that others can see my beauty… er, uh, the hand of the One who did the beautiful work…

I hit that wall again last evening.

It was a dark weekend after a moody week in the midst of another round of difficult treatment after a rough (to put it mildly) year.

I’m tired and I’m worn.

“I suddenly had this realization: I actually don’t have any hope for healing,” I confided to a few friends. Not complete healing. Not on this side of heaven.

Oh, sure, I’m hoping for and doing what I can towards healing for the Lyme and for the Fibromyalgia and for the ear/dizzy issues (if they’re not related to one of those)… but I haven’t really thought towards or thought to hope for healing from allergies (respiratory or food) and sensitivities (scents, chemicals, other foods)…

And in my very-worn-down-ness and black-cloud-of-despairing, I realized that not only did I have no hope for those to change, but I don’t really want to have to live the rest of my life having to deal with them. I’m tired of it. I’m tired of there always being something.

One offered gentle counsel, trying to shift my eyes from myself to others who live real, full lives even with restrictions and limitations like allergies, diabetes, asthma and more, “it is possible to have a ‘normal life’ even with some difficulties.”

But inwardly I was like a toddler throwing a tantrum. Arms crossed. Pouting lips. Drowning out truthful voices with my loud complaints. Pushing away helpful hands that try to guide or comfort. Screaming my self-centered will: If I can’t have it the way I want it, what’s the point? 

Maybe it’s not so much that I want a “normal” life (even though that was the phrase I used initially), but I want an “ideal” life. My ideal. Life the way I picture it. With freedom and breathing room and not this minute-by-minute dealing with pain and fatigue and fog and dizziness and constantly needing to monitor my body, my energy, my time, my medicines, my environment.

And where there are challenges—seamless, effortless victory.
And where there is brokenness—beautiful, radiant healing.
And where there is tiredness—breathable, restorative rest.

And all of it immediate.
Or at least more immediate than taking weeks, months and years…

And preferably with an inspirational score in the background, with uplifting notes from percussion and brass and strings and reeds to keep me keeping on like a movie montage where all the tediousness of the trials is shortened into a few minutes of beautifully shot lighting and angles.

… So in this morning’s new light, with new mercies unfolding, I reflected back on my dark moods this weekend and remembered again that it is not up to me to control either my brokenness nor the when, how or way of my healing.

It is up to the Potter.

And Jesus asked of me this morning, “Do you trust Me? Will you trust Me? Will you relinquish control to Me? Will you allow Me to craft where the light and life seeps through and where the cracks are completely healed and where it is best to highlight what was broken? Do you trust Me?

And my response is both immediate and hesitant.
Full of faith and full of doubt.
Similar to the father in Mark 9, “I trust! Help my distrust!”
And the hymn-found words of Louisa M. R. Stead, “O for grace to trust him more!”

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My mind went again – only somewhat unwillingly – to all that I’ve lost (in full or in part) over recent years and things that I miss since my health has been on this continual, gradual decline of a roller coaster. How long has it been since I’ve mimed? Or danced? Or even signed? How long since my last tea attended? Even longer since my last tea hosted… I can’t remember the last time I worked on my book. My weeks to teach have been more miss than hit. I rarely go out, rarely socialize and have missed too many Sundays at church to count…

But a new train of thought stopped me in my tracks:

“What a minute. What about all those times you read scripture, sang songs or prayed prayers of sacrifice and surrendering? How many times have you told God He could have it all? Did you mean those?”

“Of course I meant those! Every time I spoke or sang those words. I’ve been paying attention for years now to what I sing and pray. I didn’t do it blindly. I meant it.”

“But?”

“But I thought the mime thing… and then the tea thing… and some of these other things were things God gave to me. Things God wanted me to do! Directions God wanted me to go! Why would He put a passion or a dream or a goal or a direction into my heart and mind and then take it away? Or ask me to sacrifice or surrender it?

“You mean like God fulfilled a promise [and really the seed of a future promise] to Abraham by giving him Isaac and then asked him to give Isaac up?” 

“Um…. yeah.”

That hit me. Hard.

And the thing is, I don’t think I should count on a ram in the bush. I don’t think I should surrender or sacrifice these things expecting to get them back. For that would only be a nominal surrender, not a true sacrifice.

I don’t think the scripture story is meant to satiate us that if we sacrifice to God what He gave to us, then we’ll always get it back or get it back just as it was. Though I’ve heard folks talk that way.

It’s also really popular to bring up how Abraham tells his servants that he and Isaac will go up the mountain and sacrifice and then “we” will come back to you.

We point to that to show his faith in God.

And Abraham really did have faith in God. His words and actions show his trust and obedience to the One who was his God and Lord.

The problem is that we know the story. It’s easy for us to read into it that Abraham trusted God to somehow save or bring back Isaac – his exact 12-year-old Isaac.

But Abraham didn’t know the story.

And he didn’t know about the plagues on Egypt that displayed God’s mighty power. He didn’t know about the parting of the waters, food in the wilderness, water from rocks, cloud by day, fire by night, sun standing still, crashing Jericho walls, axeheads floating, oil and fishes and loaves multiplying, blind seeing, deaf hearing, lame walking, lepers being cleansed and the dead being raised…

That would all happen generations and centuries after this faith-father was long gone.

As far as I can tell, the only thing Abraham knew and had experienced was God’s faithfulness thus far.

In keeping him safe.
In bringing him to a land that wasn’t even his yet.
In fulfilling the promise of a son.

He had tasted God’s faithfulness.
Even when he was faulty.

And now he was asked to obey.

He had a choice.

He could choose to sacrifice or to refuse and hold tightly.

His display of faith shows us that he chose obedience.
And that he fully trusted God.

Abraham trusted that God was faithful and would somehow keep and fulfill His promise even if Abraham’s obedience to God ended the life of his promised son.

Abraham didn’t know the end of his story.

I don’t know the end of my story.

It would be presumptuous of me to assume that my stated willingness to surrender what God has given to me is somehow a magical key to unlock the door, removing all obstacles and bringing that idea, dream or passion to completion.

And it would be half-hearted, half-faced of me to say I will sacrifice what has been asked of me while actually believing I don’t actually need to relinquish it because I’m fully expecting to get it back.

I have seen the faithfulness of God.

In the history of Israel.
In the life and death of Jesus.
In the lives of countless believers who’ve come before me.
In the lives of those around me.
In my own life.

I can trust the Faithful One.

And I want to obey.

Whole-heartedly.

Even when asked to “Let it go.”

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IMG_8940I stopped by the church the other day. It was a Thursday morning and I figured if you weren’t out golfing, I would be able to catch a minute or two with you. I wanted to give you a piece of my mind concerning how you failed to visit my mother when she was in the hospital last week.

But you were not at your desk. Though the light was on, as I peered in your office window I was miffed to find you not there. I continued down the hallway, ready to demand your whereabouts from anyone I came across. But the hallway was empty so I turned back around intending to head home. That’s when I saw it.

The door to your office was ajar slightly. And from this new angle I caught just a glimpse of you there, in the corner of your office, on your knees. Praying. Praying fervently. I could see the beads of sweat. Or was that a tear?

Pastor, I caught a glimpse of your heart that day. You were praying for us, weren’t you? Praying for the church you lead, praying for the people whom God has entrusted you with, praying for vision and wisdom and direction. Do you do that often? I now have an inkling that you do.

That’s why I had to write this letter. Because I don’t say ‘thank you’ enough.

Thank you.

Thank you for the sweat, tears and prayers. Thank you for being a godly pastor, with a deep love for God and His people. Thank you for taking your responsibility to our church seriously. Thank you for seeking vision from God and then working tirelessly to try and get us to also catch the vision, equipping us as the Bible says to make that vision a reality. Thank you for taking the brunt of any attacks that come upon our church and of any problems that arise within our church. Thank you for dealing with paperwork and red tape and interruptions all week long in the midst of studying, sermon preparation, counseling, calling, mentoring and working to equip your people.

You wear many hats, don’t you? Many that most of us never see…

So I want to tell you this: I respect you and I honor you as our leader and I will follow your lead as you teach us and equip us, spurring us on to know, love and serve God better, helping us to live lives of faith and make a difference in our community. I will support your leadership as pastor of our church. You have been faithful to God and to our church for years now.

I will not assume the grass is greener on the other side. In fact, I’m working to cut back my assumptions all together. I will refrain from church gossip or hearsay. If I have a question for you or a problem with you, I will come directly to you rather than discussing it with everyone else. Moreover, I will encourage others to do the same. I will not church hop with every new fad or when difficulties in our church family arise. I won’t drum up excuses to stay home when another pastor or guest speaker comes for a Sunday or two. I will make it a priority to join in corporate worship weekly and to get involved in the life of the church. And I will pray. I will pray, too, pastor. I will pray for you and your family and the other leaders in our church.

Thank you, pastor. Thank you.


 

This was originally conceived nearly a half dozen years ago now. My initial idea was to voice it over a video to share one October for Pastor Appreciation month. That never happened. In the summer of 2012, I finally sat and wrote this out and I gave it to my pastor. I am thankful now that I did…

The opening part is fictional. It is simply a story framework (albeit based on conversations heard during my many years of church attendance and service) that is utilized to convey the important content. And though it did not happen as described in the opening story, I have indeed caught glimpses of the hearts of my pastors. Glimpses that inspired this writing, this stated gratitude, this affirmed support. We most of us too often miss what is behind the words spoken and interactions had on Sunday mornings. 

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“Are you awake?” I asked Dad on the way to the chiropractor’s this morning as the car gently resumed its centering between the lines on the road.

“I was looking over there,” he said, indicating with a slight nod of the head. “When you’re driving sometimes you begin to drift where you’re looking.”

I smiled and nodded. I remembered him telling me the very same thing as a warning against distractions when I was just learning to drive. “You know,” I responded, “Steven Curtis Chapman sings a song with a line about how you better look where you’re going because you’re going where you look!”*

I’ve always loved that line. Perhaps because it reminded me of those teenage days when my daddy was patiently teaching me to drive. Or perhaps because the truth of it is deeper than I know…

For the first time, this morning during that conversation, that favored, oft-quoted line was seen in a new light.

Not just a driving truth.

Not just a life-direction metaphor.

A more pervasive, more encompassing truth.

Because suddenly I saw that line along with “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus” and “Be Thou My Vision” and Peter and Jesus on the water in the storm and the waves and struggles in my own life…

Because I’m going where I look.

Am I looking to Jesus and headed towards Him or am I being inappropriately distracted by my struggles and so heading towards the dark depths of being consumed by the waves?

“You better look where you’re going because you’re going where you look!”


*The Steven Curtis Chapman song is “Rubber Meets the Road” from his 1996 release Signs of Life. And the lyric is one I slightly misheard. Web lyrics put it as, “Look where you wanna go, Are you going where you’ve looked?” but I think I prefer the version in my head. It has proven most wise in my life…

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For my good?

Sitting here listening to Jesus Culture’s “Your Love Never Fails” (not to be confused with “One Thing Remains”) and the bridge repeats over and over,

“You make all things work together for my good.”

Over and over and over.
My good.
My good.

And suddenly I’m struck by the thought, “but that’s not what the scripture says.”

Romans 8:28 says,

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

It’s a popular verse.

Quoted often.

I’ve read it. I’ve used it. I’ve studied it.

I had an entire paper in one of my seminary classes based off of an interpretation of this verse.

 

But for all my reading and studying and discussing this verse, I never thought of the aspect that now perplexed me.

Because I am all at once aware that for most of my life, I (and those around me) have typically understood this to mean that if I love God then God works all things together for my good.

Like the song says.

 

I find such assumptions prevalent in our current American culture. Perhaps even Western culture in general.

We tend to read the Bible’s verses as individual promises.

We do this almost always.

Especially with verses like this one. And Jeremiah 29:11. (But that’s a whole other conversation!)

 

So what if that assumption is wrong?

God does indeed work good.

Out of our bad. Our pain. Our hurts. Our losses. Our messes.

 

But what if the good worked isn’t for my benefit,

or isn’t solely for my benefit,

but instead for the benefit of others?

For the benefit of the Body of Christ. The Church.

“for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose”

Plural.

So what if I never see the good?

 

I think it’s possible.

I think I need to stop thinking that this verse is for my personal benefit.

I think I need new eyes to see the bigger picture.

Because God does work good.

But it’s not all about me.

 

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We hear it every year. Often more than once. It’s the Christmas story. The story of God in a manger. It’s angelic announcements and hard decisions and awed obedience and virgin mother and brave father and lowly shepherds and traveling wise men and smelly stables and brilliant stars.

We hear it in song and in story and in scriptures read. We see it on television specials and in movies and by live dramatic productions.

And there are so many ways to come at it. So many perspectives from which to see the story… so many considerations we could take… To see it from Mary’s perspective or to try and understand how Joseph made sense of it all… To focus on the shepherds and why they received an angelic birth announcement or to zoom in on the wise men and their deeply symbolic gifts. Max Lucado wrote a fascinating story book from the angel Gabriel’s point of view. We compare the bustle of Bethlehem with the bustle of our lives and how easy it is to miss the miracle, to miss Jesus. We can contrast the power of Rome with the humble circumstances surrounding the birth of the Lord of all.

And we do this because we want to connect to the story.

Because we need to connect to the story.

After all, if the seed falls by the wayside, falls on soil which does not receive it, it does not grow.

The birds come and eat it.

That was the lesson I taught last time I taught my Sunday School class.

The seed needs to grow roots, to connect to the soil, to dig in so it can grow. And produce.

So we also must connect.

And isn’t that the point of the Incarnation?

To reconnect what was disconnected?

“The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”

That’s how The Message phrases John 1:14.

God became human. Put on flesh. Flesh is of the earth. Dirt.

Oh and how we have dirtied up the world!

What a mess we have made of our own lives and of the world!

But God came into our mess.

God got messy with us.

She unmarried and with child. Them ostracized by the community. Living in an oppressed nation. Forced on a long, harsh and inconvenient journey. Taking shelter in a stable. Sharing it with animals. Making do with a feeding trough for a crib. Dirty. Smelly. Messy.

And yet that is how God chose to enter the world. To connect with us. To ultimately save us and restore relationship with us. A relationship we had broken.

I had intended to send Christmas cards this year. I was going to do my own design and on the front it was going to say “Have Yourself A Messy Little Christmas.”

Because life is messy. And Christmas is no exception. Oh, we try. We try to make it shiny and bright and neat and clean and pretty and joyful and special and… for the most part it often is. And yet… yet there is the chaos of traffic and overcommitting and busyness and frustrations. And trees topple and ornaments break and cookies burn and families fight. And sometimes the “Christmas miracles” we hope for don’t come through. Even at Christmas time diagnoses come and people leave and crime happens and loved ones die and jobs are lost and people give up on their lives.

Life is messy.

Even at Christmas.

But the beauty of the Christmas story and the grace of God is that Immanuel has come. God is with us. God is present even in our mess.

And more than anything else, what I really want for all my friends and family this Christmas is to experience the presence of God in new and deeper ways. I can say “Have yourself a messy little Christmas” because life is already messy and the grace is that God is present and can do incredible things with our mess.

God did incredible things with my mess yesterday.

Because the reason my friends and family won’t receive any “Have yourself a messy little Christmas” cards is that I have yet again tried to do too many things and have overcommitted myself and overwhelmed myself with ideas and desires of things to make and do and give. And because I constantly overestimate the time I have and underestimate how long things will take to accomplish. And because I have a chronic illness that flares up at random and makes me more vulnerable to colds and bugs and doesn’t respond well to stress.

And let’s just say that a tendency to overcommit and overdo and a body that has significant limitations and physically reacts to stress is not a good combination.

And for the past two years God has been telling me to slow down. To let go.

And I’ll let go of something for a bit, but I keep acting like I can do it all.

Which is how I got to my current mess.

I got sick last Sunday and I was good to my body and I rested and even took Monday off to rest. And it helped and Tuesday was good and Wednesday and Thursday were better. And I thought I was being smart by only having a goal of getting two things done on Friday and two things on Saturday… But Friday I was time crunched to finish things at work because of the upcoming short week and so I was there very late and had a nasty headache and was nauseated and though I tried to get at least one of my tasks done that evening (and stayed up an hour later than I should trying), nothing got done and I went to bed in lots of pain.

My nights have been rough with wakings and tossing and turning and pain and bizarre frantic nightmares and Friday night was no exception. I awoke Saturday morning with the headache still present and a greater soreness and stiffness than usual.

And that was just the physical.

My heart was hurting, too. Within the past few days my cousin lost a good friend, one dear friend lost her beloved companion kitty and another dear young friend is facing a terrifying and likely debilitating diagnosis.

In fact, finding out that the kitty who had so suddenly become sick had to be put down was one of the first things I saw when I woke up yesterday morning.

So as I sat doing my “Stretching for Seniors” Saturday daily stretch video and hurting in body and heart I thought to myself, “I don’t feel like dancing.”

Because each morning I do the daily stretch video (which lasts anywhere from 3-6 minutes depending on the day) and then I put on some music, usually praise and worship, and do some combination of aerobic dance and stretching and mime and ballet tech so that I end up with ten minutes of stretching and movement each morning.

But today the three minute stretching video hurt and I was listless, having not the energy nor desire to spend another seven in movement.

“Dance a prayer.”

I pondered the thought that entered my mind. Dance a prayer. I could do it slow. I wouldn’t have to think of specific movements like I typically do. I could just move. Pour my soul out with gesture and movement rather than words.

Okay.

Since the beginning of Advent I’ve been doing my movement times to Christmas music. But I didn’t want just any Christmas music. So I went to my Advent playlist. These are longing songs. The one closest to seven minutes was a Celtic version of O Come, O Come Emmanuel by Eden’s Bridge. Perfect.

The music began and I began to move. I couldn’t tell you now what I did but it involved a lot of longing and a lot of reaching and even a lot of statues and movements of despair. And even as the words spoke of mourning and lonely exile and tyranny and the grave and misery, my movements became prayers for my scared and hurting friends. Prayers for God to be tangibly present in their lives. Prayers for Emmanuel to come and comfort and work in their lives.

And as I got to the verse about the Dayspring and dispersing gloom and putting to flight death’s dark shadows I found myself slowly collapsing to the ground and suddenly weeping. And the chorus sang, “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel” and I lifted my hands, reaching for Emmanuel.

And I suddenly thought of the Hebrew “yadah” which is translated “praise” but connotes a raising of the hands. Like in Psalm 42’s “Why are you downcast O my soul, why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God for I will yet praise (yadah) Him, my Savior and my God.”

And oh how reaching is like praising.

Or is that praising is like reaching?

That dance-prayer. That time of pouring out through movement and of crying out to God on behalf of friends. That time of weeping.

I’ve never experienced anything quite like it.

It was grace.

Grace in the mess.

And I continued to get ready for my day and I sat down to do my Lectio Divina and my prayer and I talked with God about all I had to do and how I was already running late because I’d gotten up an hour late and I had those two things to do that I hadn’t gotten to the night before but I still had to bide my time to leave for my errands because I was meeting someone else and the lists weren’t even made yet and I had to eat yet and…

And God tried to get me to let go.

And I stubbornly refused.

After all, all those things needed to get done. Now!

But it was quite after 8 when I actually sat down to eat breakfast and I had wanted to leave at 8 and my mind raced and raced and I pushed and struggled to figure out how to get it all done and when I got up to take my dishes out to the sink a wave of wooziness and nausea hit and I thought, “No! Not today! I have too much to do!”

And I sat down at my computer and sipped on my ginger tisane and looked around me at the things I’d wanted to get down and… I let them go. The two things I had found it so important to get done yesterday – in the morning before I left – I relinquished to another day. I messaged some of the friends my decision would impact and it didn’t bother them nearly as much as I had made out in my mind that it should.

Then I turned to Saturday’s tasks. Groceries and errands and gift shopping. And I made my list and organized it and I looked at the clock and it was 10 and I had told the lady I was going to meet that I’d be in the shopping area between 9 and 10:30 and I was really pushing that so I hurried out to my car and got in and sent her a message that I was on my way and then I started the car and proceeded to back out.

My neighbor started across the street, waving to flag me down.

“Where are you headed? Are you going by your chiropractor’s?”

Well, not exactly, but I could take that route to where I was headed…

Turns out, she had lost her car keys and had an appointment with the chiropractor in 10 minutes and could I drop her off? Of course. But how would she get home? Her husband (who was at work) had an appointment with the chiropractor an hour later. So she could wait for him. I had a lot of errands to run but if I got done early, then…

And isn’t it funny how she was there needing to leave and discovering that she needed a ride just when I was pulling out of my driveway?

Two hours later than I was “supposed to”?

And I told her how messy my morning had been but if I had been running on time I wouldn’t have been there to give her a ride.

And we agreed that God makes good of our messes.

Then partway down the road a thought occurred to me. I forgot the check!

You see, Dad and I had ordered a gift for Mom from someone and I was to meet her in at the shopping center to exchange payment for product. But the check was still on my desk at home. If I turned back then, my neighbor would miss her appointment.

So I called Dad. He retrieved the check and headed in to meet me at the shopping center to give me the check so I could get the gift. Then as I continued on with my errands, Dad headed home. But first he stopped by the chiropractor to pick up the neighbor lady who was done and grateful to get home sooner so she could look again for her keys and finish packing and preparations for the trip they leave for today.

And you know, if I hadn’t have forgotten the check, she would have been stuck at the chiropractor’s longer.

God makes good out of our messes.

Because God is present in our mess.

And you know what? That’s what Christmas is all about.

It’s grace.

And it’s real.

And it’s tangible.

And it can be seen all around us.

We can hear the Christmas story every year until the day we die. We can look at it from every angle, we can study it like some academic scholar, we can dissect every song, movie or drama about it.

But unless it connects…

Unless it takes on flesh…

Unless we realize the presence of God with us… It’s just a story.

I didn’t go through the standard lesson because I don’t want it to be just a story.

I wanted to help you see how the story can connect.

How God is still Emmanuel… present with us.

Even in our mess.

So have yourself a messy little Christmas.

Have a Christmas where you see and experience – tangibly and deeply – the presence of God in your life.

The angel said, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”

That includes you.

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Sunday’s closing hymn was an old favorite of mine – Trust and Obey. (And, yes, 30-something young ladies who are into the arts and greatly enjoy or even prefer contemporary worship music and services can still have favorite hymns. Even several of them!)

I suppose it is a favorite because of the chorus and the oft repeated “trust and obey” phrase which comes to my mind often (complete with melody) as I read scriptures or hear sermons or have deep conversations about walking with God.

And perhaps I’ve never really paid much attention to the verses. But Sunday verse two caught my attention.

Not a shadow can rise,
Not a cloud in the skies,
But His smile quickly drives it away;
Not a doubt or a fear,
Not a sigh or a tear,
Can abide while we trust and obey.

Not a doubt or a fear? Not a sigh or a tear?

The words suddenly seemed bitter in my mouth.

And I’m really not surprised they did. For though Sunday morning found my health and energy in a much better place than earlier in the week (when I had missed some work due to illness), I was still reeling from the news that a couple of friends had lost their unborn child (the third loss of that kind within my friend-family this summer) and the death of the husband and father of a mother and daughter with whom I’m friends and the powerfully resurfaced doubts and fears and frustrations of a very dear friend who is battling some hideous darkness and has been for some time.

Not a doubt or a fear? Not a sigh or a tear?

You’ve got to be kidding me!

Conversations with the latter mentioned friend and God also played into this. For I had been thinking about how I do not want to be completely stoic, where nothing touches me at all. After all, emotions are not evil and it is okay (and even healthy) to fully experience emotions. Often, as my friend was counseled by mentors, we need to embrace the [hurt, pain, fear, loss] before we can release it to God.

So verse 2 struck a chord. A very much discordant one.

The Christian life doesn’t mean we won’t ever have doubts or fears or sighs or tears! And pretending we don’t have them does not do a bit of good! Why would that even be in a hymn?!?!

But then I saw the word.

Abide.

Abide: To remain. To dwell.

The verse isn’t saying that we will never experience hurts or fears or pain, but that as we trust and obey Jesus those things will not remain forever. They do not have to abide or dwell or control! Ah, yes!

Now I can sing:

Not a doubt or a fear,
Not a sigh or a tear,
Can abide while we trust and obey!

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There are several lessons, perspectives and ways of doing that became ingrained in me when I interned with a non-profit discipleship-focused mime and arts ministry during college (and continued working with them on and off in subsequent years).

One of the ideas which has stuck with me and which I continue to do (or work towards) is the idea that you leave a place better than you found it.

When churches would let us rehearse there or use their facilities for workshops or even simply taking meals and doing schoolwork (we took homeschooled young men and women on the road to minister and they brought their work with them), we would not only clean up the areas we were in, but would often clean the rest of the church as well.

When we stayed in host homes we were trained to not let our stuff “spew” up all over these generous people’s homes but keep it neat and orderly, cleaning up after ourselves and always seeking ways to help – cleaning up after meals or such.

Even those rare occasions we stayed in hotel rooms we always left them neat and orderly – not a wreck.

It is a simple mindset to seek small ways in which you can leave a place better than when you found it.

I’ve since applied this to parking lots (taking in carts that others have left) and apartments (leaving it cleaner or in better shape/better value than when I moved in) and public bathrooms (wiping down especially messy sink areas, pushing the paper towels in the trashcan down further to allow more in without spilling onto the floor) and, of course, still when I stay in hotel rooms or host homes (including friends’ homes) or rent or use rooms.

There’s always this little voice at the back of my head saying, “Leave it better than you found it.”

So Saturday night I was in bed attempting to calm my mind before I fell asleep. Which was harder than usual because I had gone to tea with Mom earlier that day and had consumed caffeine and sugar, not to mention how riled up with excitement and hope and ideas I get when talking tea and attending well-done tea events. But I was also exhausted and in pain. The pain was because caffeine and sugar are not blood-sugar friendly and incite pain in my fibromyalgia-ridden body. The exhaustion was mostly because as an introvert, people wear me out. I love people and very much enjoyed the sharing and conversations, but I was simply worn out afterwards.

Which is probably why as I lay there trying to calm my mind down, my thoughts turned to wanting to be awake and chipper on Sunday morning when interacting with my church family. As an introvert (and being a bit socially awkward), this takes focus and energy. But church isn’t about me. I go to worship God and fellowship with and serve others and mutually learn and grow together.

For more than a year now I’ve been trying to get into the habit of being others-centered on Sunday mornings. For me at least, this is a very hard task. Especially when I often find myself weary and sickly and mentally foggy. Such things make it even harder to turn my eyes from my own pressing issues to love on and serve others. Oh yeah, and have I mentioned my social awkwardness? I am terrible at initiating conversations and making small talk!

And I’m honestly not quite sure how it happened. Perhaps it stemmed from the fact that twice earlier that day in the tiny little hot and humid two-seater bathroom, which nearly 200 ladies had to share while drinking lots of tea, I hiked up my skirt and used my Capezio character dance heels to push down the overflowing paper towels in the tiny little wastebasket so more could fit in.

But suddenly it occurred to me, “why not leave people better than you found them?”

Why not apply the principle that I have ingrained in me regarding spaces and things to people?

This could be as simple as a smile or a cheery ‘hello!’ It could be complimenting someone’s outfit or hair or smile or work. It could be listening to a person who simply needs to be heard. It could be praying for or with a person. It could be offering advice or support or encouragement. It could be making someone laugh or giving someone a safe place to cry. It could be investing time and thought and emotions into someone to really come alongside and help them along.

Because sometimes when you borrow the fellowship hall you clean the whole church before you are done. And sometimes you simply take the stray cart nearest you back into the store when you head in.

Big ways. Small ways.

It’s simply a mindset.

And so I’m working towards a new mindset to leave people better than I found them.

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So I mixed metaphors in my title. Let’s just call it a cross between Matt Redman’s 10,000 Reasons and Great Is Thy Faithfulness and call it a day.

Or 10,000.

Speaking of days… it took me just 495 days to reach 10,000 gifts (ie. graces) on my list. Which is more of a journal than a list. Okay, well, a set of journals. I’m starting number 5 today.

Twice before I have composed posts containing my reflective narrations at the beginning points (or special mid-points) of these journals. (There was 10,000 Reasons and then 10,000 Reasons continued.)

So it only seems right to continue this tradition.

Well, that and it makes a quick and easy blog post to put up after not doing any for awhile… but that’s beside the point.

Saturday 30 March 2013

Gift Journal #4

The one that will see me reach 10,000.

The one during which I will perhaps begin to see the deeper and more subtle changes that God is working in me.

I see grace everywhere.

So here are the stats:

  • I began February 20, 2012
  • I reached 1,000 on May 5, 2012
  • Journal #1 was 48 pages of 2,115 gifts from February 20, 2012 to July 4, 2012
  • Journal #2 was 160 pages of 2,379 gifts from July 5, 2012 to November 22, 2012
  • Journal #3 was 160 pages of 2,769 gifts from November 22, 2012 to March 30, 2013
  • Journal #4 is 160 pages of 2,886 gifts from March 30, 2013 to July 5, 2013*
  • I reached 10,000 on June 28, 2013*

It sort of fascinates me that the ending and beginning of new journals has fallen on or around holidays:

  • July 4th – a birthday of sorts and a day to celebrate freedom
  • Thanksgiving – a day of giving thanks! How appropriate!
  • Easter weekend – a time of seeing so very much grace!

And though I still somewhat lament how my “regular journal” has fallen by the wayside, it is nice that my days are actually well-recounted here. Perhaps even better so – for this is the perspective of grace and of what God is doing in my life!

*Note that the last two in italics were added in reserved spaces when I had finished the journal.

Saturday 6 July 2013

(I wrote this on the 1,000 Gifts Facebook group page this morning and then thought it appropriate as my beginning journal entry.)

Dear Ann,

I’m not sure now who it was to originally challenge you to find 1,000 gifts – or did you ever even mention a name? – but I want to thank that person – and you for writing the book of your experience and the change wrought in your life.

In February 2012 I began my own list, just after hitting chapter 3 as I journeyed through the book with the ladies’ Bible study at church. Just two and a half months later I reached 1,000. But I couldn’t stop there. Last Friday, June 28th, I hit 10,000. 10,000 gifts. 10,000 graces. Or, as Matt Redman sings, “10,000 reasons for my heart to find!”

Today I begin my 5th “gift” journal. I have no intention of stopping. And perhaps it is some obsessive-compulsive tendencies which lead me to average 23 gifts a day, but I think even more so it is that once you begin to see, you keep seeing. And I never want to be blind in that way again.

I do not believe it to be a coincidence that this journey to 10,000 gifts over the past year and a half has coincided with perhaps the most difficult period of my life. And in some ways it even feels funny saying that. But the past year and a half has brought very rough health issues and struggles and shattered dreams and lots of things unsettled and up in the air… and much waiting. Yet as I look over that same period of time from another perspective it has been possibly one of the best 17 months of my life. My relationship with God has blossomed in ways it never has before and in ways of which I probably never would even conceived. God has been proven faithful again and again and I am seeing it now. Better. More clearly. More readily. I am seeing graces all around. I am more thankful. I am more joyful. Bad days and bad attitudes are easier to fight with truth.

You wrote a book on your experience and even so it still spills over into continuing blog posts. To try and describe and define my own journey would likely fill and spill the same. Not to mention how friends have also joined this journey and I am seeing the same fruit in their lives.

So thank you for being vulnerable and open and for sharing your experience and your words and your challenges. Thank you for being a continually committed follower of Jesus Christ and for inviting and encouraging those around you to do the same. And thanks also to whomever it was who sparked that 1,000 gifts challenge in your life!

Mahalo y shalom!

And so I continue on continuing on… 

So at this rate, it’ll only take me 135 more years to reach 1,000,000 gifts!

But hey, as Matt Redman sings,

on that day when my strength is failing
The end draws near and my time has come
Still my soul will sing Your praise unending
Ten thousand years and then forevermore!

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GRACE n. 5. A favor rendered by one who need not do so

At its most basic, grace is unmerited favor.

Unmerited.

Favor.

I know this. Of course, I know this! I have a master’s degree! I was raised in a solid, Bible-believing church! At my undergraduate and graduate schools I studied the Bible and theology and ministry! I’ve read books about grace! I can sing along with the (old school) Newsboys:

When we don’t get what we deserve
That’s a real good thing
When we get what we don’t deserve
That’s a real good thing

And dozens, or hundreds, or even thousands of times I have taught or encouraged with these words: “Mercy is not getting what we deserve, grace is getting what we don’t deserve.”

Not to mention that for the past year I’ve been counting gifts. I’m up over 7,800 now. These are things for which I’m grateful, so I see them as gifts and then I see them as they truly are – graces. And my gratitude and awareness has expanded and I see gifts and grace all around me.

So you see, I know grace…

I also know that teaching shouldn’t be without thought or preparation. Even, or perhaps especially, Bible teaching or teaching for Sunday School… I’ve been trained, remember?! I know that good teachers prepare ahead of time. Several hours of study and prayer should stand behind each hour of actual teaching.Teaching should never be on the fly.

And it’s not like it was a last minute commission. Ever since we lost several teachers last autumn I’ve been regularly taking the last Sunday of the month, feeling honored and humbled to teach the most elderly of classes at our church.

And it’s not like I waited to the last minute to look at the lesson. When I finished teaching on that last Sunday of February I looked ahead. I read the scripture from which the lesson was based and I know the story well: two disciples on the road to Emmaus and their burning-heart encounter with a cloaked and resurrected Jesus.

And it’s not like I make it my goal to wait until the last minute. My intention was to read the student guide for each lesson the weeks I wasn’t teaching and then to work on the lesson a little bit each night the week before, wrapping up and finalizing on Saturday.

Though by now I’m sure we all know the place to where good intentions pave the way…

I could make excuses. Some reasons are quite valid: health issues, family situations which took preeminence… And I could plea and argue that I didn’t completely fail. After all, I did manage to catch up on what the class had been learning my weeks off- earlier that week… And I did pray about the lesson and for the class- some… And I did think about the lesson before Saturday- albeit hastily…

Yet the fact of the matter remains, as I confessed to my other-side-of-the-world friend during our regular Skype call, I was unprepared. Here it was Saturday night, the night before Easter, the night before I was to teach on perhaps the most important topic in all of scripture on perhaps the most important day in the Christian calendar with perhaps the highest attendance of the year, and I had not yet begun the actual lesson plan.

Eight o’clock in the evening and there was still work to do. After all, the next day was Easter and I had to prepare foods I could eat (for our family gathering) and I wanted to help Mom and Dad with final food and cleaning preparations so that they wouldn’t stress and could get to bed at a decent time…

So I was actively thinking through the lesson and all the ideas I’d had hitherto required more than a few hours planning. In talking through my dilemma and the scripture with Mom as we worked, I was suddenly struck with an idea. Max. If I wanted a framework, a different angle, something to help me quickly prepare a lesson, how about seeing if my good friend Max Lucado had anything to say about the disciples on the road to Emmaus? So I went to one of his early books which is in my nightstand and I opened it to where I thought that part of the Jesus story might fall. Sure enough, there it was – a whole chapter retelling the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. I read it aloud to Mom as we worked, tearing up when I reached certain lines, certain phrases where Max made some good points. About hope. It was difficult to finish the story after that, my eyes wide in wonder and my thoughts racing. As soon as I finished the story I raced to my room, pulling out the lesson quarterly (booklet) to show Mom.

The theme of the entire quarter? Hope. The name of the chapter in Max’s book where my lesson-story was found? Hope.

It seemed a divine gift. I was so excited. So I planned to use Max’s story and I spent an hour or so on lesson background and scripture study before bed and I formulated a plan. I would tell three stories to the class. Three stories that were all the same story. I began by reading the scripture itself. Then I told “a story” beginning with a “man named Abram” and ending with two bewildered disciples rushing back to Jerusalem from Emmaus. Then I read Max’s story.

Saturday night, but more so Sunday morning as I woke and got ready and then had some “down time” between sunrise breakfast and worship service, as I mentally ran through the long story (finalizing what parts of the story to highlight and what to keep brief) I recognized recurring themes. In the whole of the scripture story, in the lesson plan itself and even in Max’s story. The pieces fell into place and it was beautiful and I was excited and I knew that it was of God and that it was a gift.

And the lesson went well. I mean, really well. Of course, I sputtered and stammered a couple times which I probably wouldn’t have done had I taken more time to plan and run through what I was going to say… but the lesson went really well. Exceptionally so. And, as I was told by one of the other teachers of the class (who was my Sunday School teacher back in the fourth grade), it is always good to hear – and some of the others needed to hear – how the stories all fit together like that.

On the way home I was still marveling and talking to God about it all. How well the lesson went. How unprepared I’d been. How foolish that was of me. How wonderful it was that He had provided that story… that idea… those connections…

“But,” I said guiltily, “it’s not right. It’s not fair. I should have failed today because I knew better and yet wasn’t prepared. I didn’t deserve for it to go well. And certainly not that well!”

“My dear daughter,” came the reply, “that is the definition of grace.”

And then there was silence.

It was sinking in.

What I’ve known for years suddenly became real and tangible.

Grace.

Unmerited favor.

And I realized that all this time, though my own words and theology told me otherwise, I thought that somehow I could earn it.

But earning is not the definition of grace.

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