Blessing the Night

Day 2: BLESSING THE NIGHT

DARE: Go outside and count 100 stars. Then make an audacious wish on the brightest star.

I wrapped a wool poncho around my worn pajamas and stepped out onto my porch. The blustery night air cut through the seams of my clothes. “Let’s get this over with quickly,” I thought with a shiver. I looked up to count 100 stars. Nothing. The night sky was hidden by a thick blanket of clouds. My eyes strained for any faint glimmer of light. Still nothing.

I stood in the dark, aware of the cold, the vulnerability in the night, and slowly counted to 100, stars or no stars. I realized that I was counting memories of stars. I’ve looked up thousands of time and have seen stars. I knew they were there, even if I couldn’t see them on this particular night. It struck me that this is the essence of hope: standing in the darkness and cold and being able to count on the light that you can no longer see from your vantage point.

Just before Jesus was betrayed, he gave his disciples one last encouraging message. He knew life would be difficult for them (to say the least!) as they watched him betrayed and crucified and in the years to come. He left them with one important promise, “No, I will not abandon you as orphans—I will come to you. Soon the world will no longer see me, but you will see me. Since I live, you also will live” (John 14:18-19). He told them, “It will look like I’m gone, but I’m there. It will feel like I’ve abandoned you, but I won’t.”

Standing in the darkness reminded me that I even when I lose sight of the light, it still shines brightly. My audacious wish is to be a person of hope who relies not on what I see before me, but on the unchanging, eternal God who promised to be with me in every season. Jesus is there when I’m full of warm fuzzies and in the dark night of the soul. May I continue to store up truth in my heart as I read the Bible and practice remembering answered prayers, divine appointments, and countless blessings so that I will grow in my ability to see Jesus’ faithful presence in spite of clouds, storms, and darkness.

Swell Seasons

[Note: A few months back, after the MOPS year had ended, I found the 28 day challenge MOPS gave last year with their welcome packet. The next couple of posts are responses I wrote to some of those challenges.]

TRUTH: In what ways do you feel out of control in your life?

DARE: Jump into some water. Dip in a pool, swim in a lake, wade in a river. Let your skin touch water that has been coursing over the earth since the beginning of time.

What feels out of control? My kids. I knew they’d have challenges and needs (everyone does), but I hoped it wouldn’t be all at once. This season has been especially hard between my son’s barrage of assessments to determine whether he has a speech delay (or something more pervasive) and my daughter’s rare & unexplained severe tooth decay. I’m worried about my kiddos and there’s nothing I can do at this point but pray for wisdom and wait for the experts to do what they’re trained to do. In fact, even as I fretfully pray, I can hear the Holy Spirit urging me to wait.

With the urge to wait in mind, I turned to the dare: wade in a river. I thought of Naaman (from 2 Kings 5), who had leprosy and wanted to be healed. The prophet Elisha told him that if he washed in the Jordan River seven times that he would be made clean. Naaman was angry because this advice it was simple, too simple. He expected theatrics, something more than “Wash and be clean.” It was only when his servants reminded Naaman that he would have done some something more difficult, anything really, had Elisha commanded it, that Naaman washed in the river. He was healed.

As I walked down to the rain-swollen creek behind my house, I realized that this journey was more difficult than it first appeared. Once I got down to bank, it was muddier and harder to navigate than I’d imagined. Dipping my toes in the water took climbing on a fallen tree and straining my pointed toes to reach the water. I felt foolish. To make matters worse, there was no dramatic epiphany, just icy mountain water between my toes.

I think I want a more dramatic answer than “wait”. It seems too simple, but has proven more difficult than I imagined. I believe the water wasn’t magic for Naaman, just as it wasn’t for me. The miracle came from the Lord. Naaman was healed because the Lord healed him. All Naaman did was step into the water because that’s what the Lord asked.

So I step into the wait because that’s what he’s asking me to do.

Full Circle

A week or so ago, I was starting a load of laundry when the baskets full of clean, waiting-to-be-put-away laundry that I’d been walking around for a few days caught my eye. My son was building something out of Mega Blocks nearby and my daughter was concentrating at the floor near my feet, trying to pick up a single pine needle from the floor to put into her mouth. Surveying this scene, it hit me that my life had come full circle.

In the years after I graduated college, before I started working in ministry, I spent a season cleaning houses for some of the ladies in my church. Many mornings in each home began just like the moment in my hallway that morning: mounds of clothes to put away, piles of toys to sort, and 10,000 other tasks begging for attention alongside very active and darling children

It was a surreal season of feeling like I was going nowhere [I got a college degree and the accompanying student loans to clean houses?!?], but it was also kind of fun. I’d come to clean and end up deep in conversation about life, marriage and kids, and whatever else, over lunch or a cup of tea (after cleaning and before more cleaning). Those women became dear friends and trusted mentors.  Looking back, I can see how it left an indelible mark on my spiritual walk.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my experience mirrored Paul’s command to Titus,

As for you, Titus, promote the kind of living that reflects wholesome teaching…Similarly, teach the older women to live in a way that honors God. They must not slander others or be heavy drinkers. Instead, they should teach others what is good. These older women must train the younger women to love their husbands and their children, to live wisely and be pure, to work in their homes, to do good, and to be submissive to their husbands. Then they will not bring shame on the word of God. (Titus 2:1,3-5)

When Paul commands older women to teach younger women, it’s in the context of teaching doctrine. To Paul, doctrine (beliefs) and actions were inseparable. You could demonstrate how solid your beliefs were by building your life around those principles. He knew that when people with more life experience shared their lives with those younger than them, that it would help the young women and men to navigate different seasons of their lives and persevere in the faith.

That kind of faith walk was exactly what I was privy to as I cleaned houses. Women older than me, further along in their spiritual journeys, were showing me what faith looked like in everyday life, in times of joy and sorrow, in new babies, layoffs, and navigating countless family decisions, conflicts, and challenges. It was discipleship and it was a gift. Even years later, I can see how it impacts my marriage and parenting.

Now that I realize that I’ve come around to be in the same stage of life that my former mentors were, I have to ask myself, who am I pouring into? Yes, Matt and I lead a life group, but this is deeper. Who is coming into my home before it’s polished and presentable? Who is encountering me at the moment I am struggling with difficult news to see my honest reaction and pray alongside of me? Who is watching me as I raise my kids? It’s time to be intentional.

The irony is that I don’t feel prepared to help other younger women grow in their faith. I’m sure the moms I worked for didn’t feel fully prepared either. We just fell into (completely God-ordained) mentoring relationships years ago. The beauty of that is that Jesus used them in my life right where they were, not even having to leave their houses. God really can work through our lives right were we are, even if we think we need a program or formal training. All he needs are people willing to follow him.

As I pray about what my next steps are, I challenge you to do the same. If you are strong in your faith, find people to whom you can model mature faith. If you realize you still have room to grow (hint: this is everyone), seek out others who can walk in front of or alongside of you, spurring you on in your faith.

May each of us live lives that are built upon the solid foundation of Jesus, so that other will know his goodness. Ultimately, may our eyes be opened to the opportunities right in front of us for his glory.

Running My Race

I finally had the opportunity to run in a 5k race at Disneyland last week, one thing that has been on my Disneyland bucket list for ages. I’m not new to running, but this being my first race ever made Paul’s repeated use of this metaphor in the Bible click into place like never before. Honestly, even as I ran, I was writing this post in my head. I learned a lot about myself during this race.

People have asked me my thoughts about this race and I’ve distilled them down to 3.

1. Running through Disneyland still feels like running. I don’t know what I was expecting. Perhaps the fun diversions would take my mind off my tired feet.[Lesson learned: don’t walk around Disneyland for 3 days before getting up to run 3 miles at 5:30am]. I honestly thought that 3 miles wouldn’t feel like 3 miles in Disneyland. It totally did. But as I looked around at all the runners who arrived at the finish line before me, I realized that even the seasoned runners who finished the race in 20 minutes or so still worked hard. Running a race is work that requires energy to persevere, even when you’ve done it many times before.

On a spiritual level, I realized that running the race Jesus sets before us is hard work. Good seasons still have bad days. Good runners still have bad races. I shouldn’t be surprised that continuing to put one foot in front of the other will take all I have (and more) at points. Faith is a long road and there is nothing that can distract us from that fact during difficult times. Races are tiring and require training. Which leads me to my next point…

2. The better I train, the more I will enjoy the course. There were fun diversions on the course, to be fair. They had sound effects and characters you could stop to take pictures with along the way. Even running alongside people with creative costumes was interesting (I ran alongside someone dressed as Darth Vader riding Dumbo the last two miles). Just the simple fact of running through places that I’ve walked through dozens of times was cool. But I, like so many others, was so tired that I didn’t stop to enjoy what was around me. Stopping was for those who had time and energy to spare (and who knew they could/would start back up again after a break).

Spiritually speaking, I’ve realized that people who are healthy and growing as Jesus’ disciples thrive even when the pressure is intense. They can praise God in the face of cancer, job loss & financial uncertainty, or difficult seasons with their kids. They can drink in the small blessings around them even with a long road ahead because they know that Jesus is still at work in their lives. God’s promises are embedded in their hearts, so they can recognize him when he shows up. As I train to learn who God is and live as he calls me to live, I will enjoy this faith walk all the more.

3. I hated my final time, but I finished the race. Someone asked whether I was the last person to cross the finish line. That question gave me immediate clarity that it didn’t matter, since the last person over the finish line got the same medal as the first. [For the record, I wasn’t last]. Disney didn’t even post our final times and standings afterwards for this race. It was just for the sake of running.

Such is true for our spiritual walk. We train so that we can go the distance, but in the end, finishing the race is far more important than being first. Glory awaits all of those who cross the finish line saying, “I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.”

Would I run again? Absolutely! I now have a better sense of how to train and what to expect on race day, so I know the it will be more enjoyable next time. Plus, I want to beat my time!

I hope you, too, will continue to press on in your faith walk. May you train hard, so that you might enjoy the course set before you every day. May you go the distance, so that you will enter into the presence of Jesus and hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Flourishing Fridays: Remember

Whether this year feels like it’s lying gently down to rest or screeching off a cliff, 2016 is mere hours from being over. The end of the year lends itself to reflection, but I find that it doesn’t come naturally to me. I’ve observed in my life the tendency to forget, even when I really, really want to remember.

Without fail, I’ll stare at the computer screen trying to remember what my family did that’s worth including in a Christmas letter. I don’t dare walk into Target without a list because I will always find something to buy there–a lot of somethings–but I need to make sure I don’t forget to purchase the right somethings. I feel like the proverbial goldfish, with a seconds long memory. Sometimes, I forget because I get distracted. Other times, I forget because I get too busy. There’s always stuff that seems really important that can consume all of my time.

When I reflect on the past year, my thoughts inevitably turn to things I’d hoped would happen. More often than not, I can see unanswered prayers and disappointments. I can even become bitter and resentful over the coulda/shoulda/wouldas. It’s one thing to forget something on my grocery list or to answer an email, but it’s another thing entirely to forget God’s goodness in my life. That is why this practice is so critical, especially if you are looking forward to forgetting the year that was 2016.

The final Flourishing Friday practice helps us to remember. Examen is focused on becoming more aware of God’s presence in our everyday lives. It was designed to be a daily practice, just before bed or first thing in the morning, but works at the end of a season or even the year (it just takes longer). I really like the way Pete Scazzero described the steps in his book, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, so here they are with my comments in brackets:

  1. Get in a comfortable position and still yourself. [Still yourself = get your wiggles out first and make sure your phone is on airplane mode. Plan for at least 20 minutes of uninterrupted time.]
  2. Recall you are in the presence of God, inviting the Holy Spirit to guide you as you review the events of your day [year]. [Say a short prayer, asking for guidance in this time.]
  3. Walk through the events of your day (or yesterday’s events if it is morning). Imagine watching your day on a fast-forwarded DVD with Jesus.
  4. Let Jesus stop the DVD at any part of the day so you might reflect on it. [This is the challenging part because you are allowing God to bring to mind the things he wants you to remember. Sometimes they aren’t your favorite memories that you’d want to dwell on. Keep reading for what to do in that case.]
  5. Notice the times you were aware of God’s presence, when you felt you were moving toward God. How did you feel when you were open and responsive to God’s guidance? Give God thanks for those times. [I usually do this practice with a sheet of paper close by so that I can write down the things that come to mind. You know, so I don’t forget again.]
  6. Notice the times when you were not aware of God’s presence, when you were moving away from God. What was blocking that awareness? Pray for forgiveness or healing, as appropriate, for those times. [When we see things we don’t like, our natural tendency is to hide and distract ourselves. Don’t. Force yourself to sit in that moment with Jesus and ask for healing or forgiveness and receive it. Dwell on the fact that he removes our sin from us as far as the east is from the west, that there isn’t anything hidden from him and yet he still loves us. Rest in the fact that even when hurts and disappointments overwhelm us, they don’t overwhelm him. We can be honest with him. In fact, we need to be honest with him and face those feelings to truly see the depth of his goodness and presence in our lives. Of all the good things God has done, reconciling us to himself through Jesus is the greatest. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to experience that again as you let him into the dark corners of your heart.]
  7. End with a prayer for grace to be more aware of God’s presence.
  8. Close this time with a prayer of thanks for this time with God.

I like to close this practice with a letter to Jesus based on the things I remembered in this time. When I’ve lead groups through this practice, I encourage them to stow that sealed letter somewhere safe that they’ll forget about it and lose it for a time until it turns up again (e.g. a giant purse, a junk drawer, or between pages of a book). If you do better making a digital file, save it and set a reminder for some random day and time over the next several months to read it again or paste your letter in an email to send to yourself, scheduled for a later time. My yearly tradition is to write this prayer, seal it in an envelope, and pack it away with my Christmas decorations until next year. I look forward to reading the previous year’s letter every New Year’s Eve.

Writing down my reflections gives me eyes to see the ways Jesus has shown up, especially when I don’t think anything has happened. I encourage you to try this practice in your own life, so that you might be amazed and overwhelmed by God’s goodness once again.

Happy New Year!

Flourishing Fridays: Less

What is it about this time of the year? Halloween rolled around and now it feels like every spare moment I had has been absorbed into a million tasks, appointments, and activities. I know I’m not alone in the hustle and bustle of this time of the year. In fact, you might feel it even more than I do since I don’t have the added pressure of work and kids’ school events. I don’t even remember signing on to so much stuff, it just happens as the holidays appear.

If I reflect of my calendar for a moment, I get anxious trying to figure out how I’m going to get everything done. Much as I love people and celebrating, I love/need time to stay in my pajamas and tell people “Y’all need Jesus” on Reddit Relationships.

One thing I’ve noticed is that the busier I am, the less I’m flourishing, even if I’m doing a lot of great things. That’s what makes this time of year so hard: there are so many good things to do. I want to get presents for loved ones and send cards to everyone I’ve ever met and help with food or clothing drives for the less fortunate and make sure my kids get to do magical things like visit Santa and see special light displays and live manger scenes and make special, once-a-year foods from scratch and have parties and go to special Christmas services and concerts and, and, and…And the list goes on.

With that in mind, here’s a simple Flourishing Friday: Do less.

Easier said than done, right?

The Bible gives many reasons for the Sabbath. Primarily, it was for rest and worship. I’ll focus on the second reason in my next Flourishing Friday post, but the first is critical to the practice of less. Deuteronomy 5:15 says, “Remember that you were once slaves in Egypt, but the Lord your God brought you out with his strong hand and powerful arm. That is why the Lord your God has commanded you to rest on the Sabbath day.” Israel was to pause and rest as a sign that they were no longer slaves.  The Lord changed their status; they were no longer forced to work all the time. Israel needed to be reminded of this fact frequently. Why is it that so many of us feel the need to prove our worth with packed schedules? Why do I feel like I am missing something important if I have to decline an opportunity or invitation? Why am I striving so hard? Apparently, I, too, need to be reminded that I am no longer a cowering, fearful slave. Instead, I am God’s child, free to find my identity and worth in him, not what I do.

Further, Exodus 31:13 says, “Tell the people of Israel: ‘Be careful to keep my Sabbath day, for the Sabbath is a sign of the covenant between me and you from generation to generation. It is given so you may know that I am the Lord, who makes you holy.’” Observing the Sabbath was a way of remembering the covenant with the Lord and respecting his proper position as the (their) Lord (i.e. the one who is actually in charge and keeping the world going). Doing less is a practical way to remind ourselves that Jesus is Lord and to trust him with the details of our lives.

In light of the fact that Jesus is Lord (and we’re not), practice doing less this week. As Bob Goff frequently says, “Quit something.” It doesn’t have to be something huge, just something that will free up your time so that you might experience more space [freedom] in your day.

Just choose one thing. Quit going to bed after a certain hour. Quit looking at your phone every time you have a chance. Quit saving all your chores for one day and do them a couple at a time throughout the week. [I totally stopped doing all my laundry on one day and started doing one load every day. That way, it only takes a little bit of my time each day and I rarely feel/am super behind]. Quit checking your emails as they come in; save them for 2-3 set times throughout the day. Quit saying “yes” to engagements before you’ve had the chance to reflect on your current commitments. Quit taking your kids to 50 different programed activities a week; make it only 49.

The irony is that as we intentionally change our schedule to do less, we actually can get more important things done because we’ve culled some distractions.

May you flourish this week as you do one less thing. May that practice increase your sense of peace and faith that Jesus is, indeed, Lord over all the details in our lives.

 

The Aftermath

“I’d like to think that the last thing that went through his head, other than that bullet, was to wonder how the hell Andy Dufresne ever got the best of him.”

-Red, The Shawshank Redemption

As I watched news reporters grapple for words last night upon the realization that Donald Trump was elected president, the above quote came to mind. What so many people refused to entertain for months has now become reality and they are left disillusioned. My social media feeds confirm that half of America is wondering, “How the hell did this happen?”

I was unsurprised at Trump’s victory, having read some very insightful political commentary the past few months. The political climate was perfect for a demagogue, but I won’t write about that. [You should totally read about it, though, if you are left wondering “why?”] Politics aren’t my specialty and they aren’t my hill to die on. This election has revealed a bigger, more insidious truth that is my specialty, our spiritual condition.

The reporters I saw last night couldn’t keep their opinions from bursting out of their mouth like biscuits from a freshly opened tube. “I thought we’d be making history tonight [by electing our first female president],” one lamented. We, as a nation, were so ready to pat ourselves on the back for being so progressive that we were blind to angst the other half of the nation felt, the same angst that reveals the condition of all of our hearts.

The Bible (and history) tell us that fear, hatred, and greed are at our core. Comfort, safety, and wealth insulate the ugly things inside from coming out, but get us uncomfortable and watch out! We curse at other drivers and swerve around trying to get ahead in traffic. We snap at our kids when they’re too disobedient or needy for our liking. We carefully craft facades to prove we are smarter, better looking, and more cultured than our peers. We want others to have a better quality of life, but only if it doesn’t affect our own. And therein our hearts are exposed.

“The human heart is the most deceitful of all things,
and desperately wicked.
Who really knows how bad it is?
 But I, the Lord, search all hearts
and examine secret motives.
I give all people their due rewards,
according to what their actions deserve.” Jeremiah 7:9-10

This election and its angry aftermath prove yet again that we can’t simply grow past our sinful nature. We can’t educate it away. We can’t will it away. We’ve been trusting in humanity and our government to save us and look where it got us.

The only one who can change our dark course is Jesus. God reaches into the corners of our hearts and changes us from the inside out. He is our only hope for real, lasting change.

My prayer for us individually and as a nation is Paul’s prayer:

I pray that your hearts will be flooded with light so that you can understand the confident hope he has given to those he called—his holy people who are his rich and glorious inheritance. I also pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him. This is the same mighty power that raised Christ from the dead and seated him in the place of honor at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms.

Now he is far above any ruler or authority or power or leader or anything else—not only in this world but also in the world to come.

Ephesians 1:18‭-‬21

May you see that power at work in your life as you avail yourself to Jesus’s glorious light in the depths of your soul. May we be transformed by the Holy Spirit into people who are marked by faith, hope, and love.