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.

Election Day

A couple weeks back, with the presidential campaign season in full swing, I happened to be reading the book of Daniel. I’ve read it several times before, but I noticed Daniel’s praise of the Lord in chapter 2.

19 That night the secret was revealed to Daniel in a vision. Then Daniel praised the God of heaven. 20 He said,

“Praise the name of God forever and ever,
    for he has all wisdom and power.
21 He controls the course of world events;
    he removes kings and sets up other kings.
He gives wisdom to the wise
    and knowledge to the scholars.
22 He reveals deep and mysterious things
    and knows what lies hidden in darkness,
    though he is surrounded by light.
23 I thank and praise you, God of my ancestors,
    for you have given me wisdom and strength.
You have told me what we asked of you
    and revealed to us what the king demanded.”

Daniel 2:19-23

To put it in context, Daniel 2 recounts the story of King Nebuchadnezzar having a disturbing dream that was keeping him up nights. The king wanted to know what his dream meant; however, he also wanted someone to tell him what his dream was before he’d listen. That would prove the interpretation to be trustworthy. Even after threatening his magicians, sorcerers, enchanters, and astrologers, no one knew, let alone understood, the king’s dream. Enter Daniel, a Jewish exile living in Babylon. Daniel was known for being a man devoted to the Lord and he was given a vision of the dream and its interpretation.

Before we hear the interpretation, we hear Daniel’s praise. Ultimately, the dream’s interpretation didn’t matter as much as the character of the Lord. He’s wise and powerful and in control. That truth sets the stage for the dream’s interpretation just as it sets the stage for the election results which will be revealed in the coming days.

What stood out to me when I read Daniel 2 was verse 21, “He controls the course of world events; he removes kings and sets up other kings.” No matter how crazy this election seems, no matter how unpalatable the candidates might be to you, it is not out of the Lord’s hands. God is worthy to be praised because the events unfolding before us don’t change the fact that he is wise and powerful and in control. Nebuchadnezzar’s dream illustrates that, as we go on to see.

The dream chronicled future events: kingdoms rising and falling, both strong and weak. Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom would fall and another, inferior one would rise up to take its place. The second kingdom would also be replaced by a third and the third by a fourth. Daniel’s interpretation ends with:

44 “During the reigns of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed or conquered. It will crush all these kingdoms into nothingness, and it will stand forever. 45 That is the meaning of the rock cut from the mountain, though not by human hands, that crushed to pieces the statue of iron, bronze, clay, silver, and gold. The great God was showing the king what will happen in the future. The dream is true, and its meaning is certain.” Daniel 2:44-45

God’s kingdom is bigger than any of the earthly kingdoms in the dream. His kingdom is bigger than any kingdom in history. Even as we speculate how the world would end if thus-and-such candidate wins (which it probably won’t), we must realize that there’s only one eternal kingdom–Jesus’s. The presidential candidates are fighting for power in a world as if this world is all there is. Let’s not get swept away in that; this country is not all we have to hope for and in. Instead, may we fix our eyes on Jesus’s eternal rule and point others to that hope. And in the times when election results and court rulings make us feel like we are exiles living far from home, may we have the faith to continue to praise the Lord and the courage to conduct our lives as he calls us. Lastly, whether we like/agree with/voted for them or not,may we pray heartily for all of our leaders, because their authority comes from the Lord and they need his wisdom and grace, even when they don’t know they do.

Flourishing Fridays: Lament

I love to organize stuff. I regularly take time to go through closets, bookshelves, drawers, and any other nook where stuff collects just to make sure everything is usable and accessible. I know it seems crazy to enjoy organization, but having kids has multiplied the amount of stuff we have, but not our space. It’s a necessity. What I’ve noticed in purging unused stuff is that organizing always starts out as a bigger mess than you had before. You have to pull out all the toys from the toy box or books from the shelf or junk from the drawer in order to sort them. Before you can be organized, everything gets messy.

If you’ve ever read through the Psalms, you’ve no doubt noticed how many of them seem to be a litany of complaints and worries. These songs are called laments. When I was in seminary studying the Psalms, my professor gave us an assignment to write our own lament following its general pattern. That exercise turned out to be especially meaningful. So, I’ve used that idea in training up leaders since then.

When I planned the Flourishing Friday study for MOPS, I didn’t initially include this section. However, as we discussed and studied, I realized that this exercise was important to really flourish. Too many of us have miscellaneous emotional, relational, and/or spiritual junk that we hold on to for way too long. In order to move forward, we have to let go. This exercise doesn’t take the place of a good counselor or other more in-depth help we might need for bigger stuff; I highly recommend processing with someone professionally trained for that when you’re struggling with deeper issues. This is more for starting or continuing a dialogue with God about tender areas in your life.

Even if you don’t fancy yourself a poet, laments follow a regular pattern and they don’t rhyme, so anyone can write one. Using Psalm 142 as a model, here are the steps to writing your own lament:

First, choose what to write about. What is troubling you most right now? What do you tend to worry about? Where do you feel like your prayers are unheard and unanswered? I get that you might think, “Yeah, but I’m not actually like David. People aren’t trying to kill me. This isn’t really life and death.” Nevertheless, your troubles are your troubles. Jesus wants to hear about them. The point isn’t to only pray when it is life and death, but to seek God in big and little things. Take a few minutes to think about the answers to the above questions before you start.

A well-written song by David, when he was in the cave; a prayer.

1 To the Lord I cry out;
to the Lord I plead for mercy.
2 I pour out my lament before him;
I tell him about my troubles.

A Cry for Help: Laments start with a cry for help. No flowery language necessary, just something to the effect of “God, I need help! I can’t handle this!” We start our lament by writing out a couple lines about how you need God’s help.

3 Even when my strength leaves me,
you watch my footsteps.
In the path where I walk
they have hidden a trap for me.
4 Look to the right and see!
No one cares about me.
I have nowhere to run;
no one is concerned about my life.

A Description of the Crisis: Laments go on to describe more in-depth the challenge or pain. As David describes in this lament, people are out to get him and he feels like no one cares. After you write out a general cry for help, now you get more specific. Write a few lines that describe the situation you were/are facing. Use vivid images that take others into your troubles (e.g. bulls surrounding you, being in a miry pit). What does it feel like to be in this situation? Again, if poetry isn’t your thing, you can be more concrete, but try and paint as clear a picture as you can about your troubles. This is the messy part of writing a lament.

5 I cry out to you, O Lord;
I say, “You are my shelter,
my security in the land of the living.”

An Affirmation of Trust: Now that we’ve started looking at the mess, we’re going to work on cleaning things up. Laments take a turn and begin to be more constructive here. In spite of the troubles you listed above, what do you know about God? Who is he? What have you seen him do in other situations? Write 1-2 lines that affirm who God is in the midst of this crisis.

6 Listen to my cry for help,
for I am in serious trouble!
Rescue me from those who chase me,
for they are stronger than I am.

Petitions for Rescue: After affirming who God is, laments ask for help in light of those qualities. Sometimes, we feel selfish asking for help. It feels wrong, but the Bible is full of examples of people asking for God’s intervention on their own behalf. God cares for you. Write a few lines asking God to intervene in the situation whether for help or healing or something else you need to flourish in this season.

7 Free me from prison,
that I may give thanks to your name.
Because of me the godly will assemble,
for you will vindicate me.

A Vow of Praise: The last part of a lament is focused on the future. It says, “Look, I know that you’re going to work in this area and when you do, I’m going to have yet another story to tell of your goodness.” Lastly, write the testimony you will have because of God’s intervention. What is the comfort you will bring to others because of God? You don’t necessarily know the specifics (unless this is a past event), but even focusing on the fact that you’ll have a story to praise God for is part of a vow of praise. If you are reflecting on a past event, think through what you’ve learned through it about God. Write those lessons out here.

An Introduction: You probably skipped over the first line of the Psalm, since it’s not even a verse in English translations, but it totally was in the Hebrew bible! The introduction tells you about the circumstances surrounding the song and can be enlightening. The last step of this lament is to write 1-2 lines describing what this psalm is about. It makes it easier to find it later, when you may be looking to share or remember what you’ve seen the Lord do (you do end with a vow of praise, after all).

May you find that the Lord is bigger than your troubles and stronger than your fears as you pour out your heart to him in lament.

The Path

I’ve started training for a 5k that I’m running in early next year, which means spending more time outside. Last week, I walked around a lovely, but not particularly pedestrian-friendly, town. I only noticed the lack of paths because I was pushing a stroller containing a drowsy baby looking up at me. The block would start off with a sidewalk, even a wheelchair ramp on the corner, but said sidewalk would quickly devolve into a snarl of exposed roots and rocky soil. Though watching JJ bounce along in her stroller is comedy gold, it was much easier on both of us to travel on the side of the street. P.S. Streets seem much safer when you’re also traveling in a car.

When we finally rounded the corner onto a main street, I was positive there’d be a sidewalk–and there was: a wide, continuous sidewalk. It was glorious! My arms were thankful. My feet were thankful. My baby was thankful. We were just a caravan of gratitude, until…

When I looked ahead, I noticed a section of sidewalk heavily shaded by massive, old trees. I saw that the sidewalk disappeared once again. I looked at the street, chagrined to realized that cars were parked next to this section of not-sidewalk. Hugging the curb to avoid cars wasn’t going to be an option. I sighed and forged ahead, thinking my Frogger training would come in handy for dodging the speeding vehicles.

When I arrived at the shady place, I laughed as I realized that the sidewalk did continue after all. It only appeared to be a dead end from a distance. Not only was it a continuous path, but it was also a beautiful path, a shady respite from the sun.

I realized how often such is the case in my life. I look ahead, sure I’m seeing closed doors and dead ends only to find that Jesus has made a way where there was none. I could feel the Holy Spirit urging me to keep putting one foot in front of the other in my life, trusting that he would lead me on the path I need to take.

Trust in the LORD with all your heart;
do not depend on your own understanding.
Seek his will in all you do,
and he will show you which path to take.
Proverbs 3:5-6

May you put one foot in front of the other today, leaning not on your understanding of what lies ahead, but on your understanding of Jesus’s faithful love in guiding your life.