The Gift of Disappointment

“Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” Romans 5:5

I sped into the gravel parking lot. Tires skidding on the grey rocks. Flinging the door open, I bounded out of my minivan. As I looked across the lot, I stopped. A dull ache began in my chest as my eyes landed on an obviously despondent man standing by his truck. This just-shy-of-six-foot, strapping, strong, handsome husband of mine stood with his head hanging, shaking in disbelief. As I got closer I glimpsed the tears dropping, as he looked up I saw the anguish and pain. He was broken. Crushed. Confused. Angry.

After many moments of holding each other. He finally found the words.

“Things didn’t go like I hoped. I thought this would be the answer. I don’t know what to do next.” Every word tinged with despair and discouragement. Disappointment pic

That day still twinges in my soul. But looking at a distance, I realize that moment, that agonizing, heart wrenching moment, marks a pivotal point in our marriage. It was our “miry pit.” The place where you’re sunk so deep in the dredges of disappointment your mind is clouded and you see no way out. You’re stuck. All your failures and shortcomings and foolish choices playing on repeat. And there’s no one who can hit the rewind button; no possibility of a do over. Stuck.

In the days and months and years after I stood in front of my anguished husband, I slowly began to realize the Lord was giving us a gift. The gift of stripping away everything we thought we knew. The gift of realizing our lack. The gift of desperation. He gave us the gift of disappointment. We certainly didn’t understand or appreciate the gift. In fact, we’re still trying to grasp what a precious gift we were given. It took us years to unpack all the lessons we’ve learned. And maybe, well, likely, we’ll be unpacking those lessons for a lifetime. But here are the most vital gifts we opened because of that awful, wonderful day.

sun-heart-autumn-leaf-39379Set Your Heart on Things Above. Disappointment is the result of unmet expectations. We set our hopes on things that are seen instead of things that are unseen. We crave and we desire and want. We are selfish, stubborn creatures. We think if things would just work out the way we think they should. We live in a world of our own making. Always looking to what we wish we had, what is just around the corner that will make us happy or fulfilled. For my husband, it was a failed business venture. His heart was set on what he thought would be the answer to his questions about provision and purpose. When that venture failed, those dreams were lost. His heart was crushed.

We put our hopes in the temporal stuff all the time. If I could just get this position or this degree or this house or this car, or if I could get the relationship I dreamed of, or even if I could just find deep friendships, or if my kids would just obey, then everything will be better. Then I will be happy and fulfilled.

But anytime, every time, we put our hope in anything but in the love of God in Christ, we will be disappointed. Even the best job comes with the tedious and mundane. Stuff breaks and wears. And anytime two sinners are in relationship, whether it’s husband and wife, mother and daughter, or close friendship, you’ve got a sure recipe for disappointment and discouragement. Jesus Christ is the only One whose love will NEVER disappoint you. His love brings truth and confrontation and conviction, so it might not look like the weak, fickle, emotion-focused love our culture has falsely fashioned. But His love is patient, not jealous, not rude, not selfish, not irritable, not resentful, rejoices with truth, bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things. HIS LOVE NEVER FAILS. His love gave you the greatest gift of all. LIFE. Not the fragile, fallen life of this temporary place, but the forgiven, forever love of God in Christ. The love that came at the greatest cost.

people-2604165_1280.jpgSet Your Mind on Things Above. When my husband and I fell into that foreboding pit, the only thing we could do was look up. As our heads turned to the light, we saw one beautiful, nail scarred hand reaching down to us. Jesus was the only One who was strong enough to not only drag us out of our pit, but set our feet upon a rock and make our steps secure. (Psalm 40:2)

While Jesus snatched us out of the black hole of disappointment, we found marking our steps on that firm foundation required daily workouts. We realized our most vital weapon was the Word of God. So we’ve made sure, sometimes not so perfectly, that we daily dig deep in the truth. Filling up our pit with truth was the only way we could avoid falling into the dregs again. We learned, and are still learning, how to take every thought captive and bring it into obedience in Christ. From that truth we learned the secret to contentment was depending on Christ for everything. (Philippians 4: 12-13). We learned that admitting our weakness meant depending on Christ and His strength and power. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10) We learned that hardships and trials are meant to grow us up in Christ so we lack nothing, and we can find joy in the struggle if we keep an eternal perspective. (James 1:2-4)

That powerful, painful moment in that gravel parking lot. That moment we were thrown into the pit of despair. That moment was truly one of the greatest gifts God has ever given us. The gift of disappointment transformed our relationship with Christ, which transformed our relationship with each other. It is transforming how we view the world (temporary and transient) and how we view God (eternal and essential). It is a discipline to turn our hearts and minds heavenward. But oh how beautiful, how magnificent is the love of God. A God who loves us enough to let us walk through earthly disappointment so we can rest in eternal hope.

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Unwrap your gift of disappointment.

 

 

 

 

Finding Beauty in the Broken

Kintsugi

How Our Broken Pieces Reveal the Beauty of the Savior

My family will attest to my love of trivia. If it is mundane and generally useless, but intriguing, I probably have it tucked down in the recesses of my brain. If you’re playing Trivial Pursuit, I’m your best friend. If you need anything done that is practical and helpful, unfortunately, I’m probably not your girl.

But sometimes, I’ll come across a bit of knowledge that attaches itself not only to my brain, but to my soul. A fact nugget God uses to remind me of His goodness and grace. You know the King loves a word picture. And most of the time those gems come in the most unexpected places. Like sitting in a required tutor-training session trying to soak up tips about teaching high schoolers Latin and Algebra and Literature. Before one session, my trainer was chatting with us, asking us questions, and somehow she got on the topic of pottery. And she began to tell the story of a ceramic art form called “kintsugi.” It was so fascinating, I didn’t hear anything else that was taught that day. As soon as I got home, I started researching. What I discovered was nothing short of remarkable and, unexpectedly, drove home a truth I’d been struggling with for years. Can God take my broken, mess of a life and make it something useful, even beautiful?

If you’ve been asking yourself that same question, come with me to learn what a centuries-old Japanese art form teaches about redemption. And how it points to a Redeemer.

In Japan, a unique art developed around the 15th century. A shogun broke his favorite tea bowl and sent it to China for repairs. The tea bowl was sent back patched up with unsightly staples. This shogun talked to his artistic friends who set out to develop a more elegant way of repairing broken pottery. What developed was the remarkable ceramic work called “kintsugi.”

a8cabb8b57f87b14206a74ea905dc114-japan-art-kintsugi-diyKintsugi takes broken pieces of pottery and repairs them using a special silver- and gold-dusted lacquer. The practice creates unique pieces of pottery that use the fractures and fissures to tell a story. Instead of attempting to hide or cover the cracks and breaks, kintsugi seeks to focus on the brokenness of the pottery. Kintsugi allows the artist to create an original, useful, extraordinary piece from the shattered shards of what was once deemed unusable. What might’ve been swept out with the garbage is now sitting in a place of prominence, as a representation of the artist’s skill and the beauty of the creation, in museums around the world.

Hey sister, did that picture blow you away? Are you like me, have you asked God if your broken life could ever be used by Him? Have you felt like the shards of your life are meant only for the junk pile, or, even worse, the trash pile? Do you wonder how, or if, anyone can make something beautiful out of your pile of broken pieces? Do you wonder if this mess of your life can be used for anything good? Is there a purpose in the pain and the mistakes and the struggle?

Oh precious friend, let me whisper some truth in your ear. Let me tell you the Greatest Story again, or maybe for the first time. Let me remind you of the Gift. He walked the streets of Israel about 2,000 years ago, but He’s existed since before time began. In fact, He is existence itself. When He came and walked the earth, many people wondered who He was. This man was unique. He had a special purpose; a one-of-a-kind mission. A mission only He could fulfill. When His Father instructed him, He stood up on the Sabbath day in his hometown of Nazareth and announced His purpose. What was his mission? Let’s look at the expanded passage from Isaiah 61 he quoted on that Sabbath day, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring good news to the poor, he has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant those who mourn in Zion—to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning , the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit.”

This God. This Savior. This Gift. He specializes in taking broken people and not just putting them back together, but making them BRAND NEW. He doesn’t just fix our broken pieces, HE MAKES US BRAND NEW CREATIONS. But we’re still human, right? We’re still flesh and bone. But when Jesus makes you new, He fills in all those weaknesses, all those fissures and fractures of our humanness, with HIS SPIRIT. In that filling, He develops in us a genuine faith—more precious than GOLD (1 Peter 1:7). And when you allow Jesus to take all those broken pieces and make you new, you will indeed be more beautiful than your original self because you have been revitalized with new life. He makes ALL things NEW, and uses the broken pieces of your life to speak your unique story of redemption and renewal.

So if you’re wondering if He can use the tragedies and unwise choices and disasters of your life for His good. Trust me, He can. If you’ll let Him make you new, He will take the mess of your life and turn it into a message. He will turn a test into a testimony and a tragedy into a triumph. And with each piece that He restores and renews, you will even more beautifully reflect the love of Christ. So as you ponder the rare beauty of kintsugi, remember in Christ, God is working in you to make an incredible masterpiece, a new creation who reflects His glory with your own unique story of transformation.

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For we are His workmanship [His own master work, a work of art], created in Christ Jesus [reborn from above—spiritually transformed, renewed, ready to be used] for good works, which God prepared [for us] beforehand [taking paths which He set], so that we would walk in them [living the good life which He prearranged and made ready for us]. Ephesians 2:10 AMP

 

A Letter to My Child

 

The Outpouring of a Mom’s Heart to Her Daughter Heading Off to College

“May the God of HOPE fill you with all JOY and PEACE in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in HOPE.” Romans 15:13

Oh my precious girl,

I can’t believe this day is actually here. The day you begin a new adventure. One that is all your own. One that will be incredibly difficult and more rewarding and beautiful than you could ever imagine.

All I can see in my mind’s eye is a replay of your life. The first time I saw you and fell instantly in love. Holding your little three-month-old hands while we prayed for God’s pexels-photo-236164provision so I could stay home with you. Watching you with shock as you took your first steps at NINE months old. You never were much for sitting still. Learning what it means to parent a stubborn, strong-willed toddler – the stand-offs over nap time and sippy cups. Sheesh!  Being amazed by your three-year-old self – watching those raven curls bounce as you climbed and played and bossed your siblings around. I’ll never forget how you would look at me with that mischievous grin and those gorgeous chocolate eyes of yours and I would feel equal parts of frustration and adoration (truth be told, I still feel that way about you some days). The day you fell in love with Jesus. The days when I knew He was transforming your stubborn little heart. Watching you grow through the elementary years and discovering just how unique and remarkable God made you and what a one-of-a-kind gift He gave you in your ability to think deeply and drink in knowledge. The teenage years were a bit rough and rocky. You made lots of mistakes. But you learned to lean in to Jesus and find His grace was sufficient for you. You were cautious and careful about the choices you made and the people with whom you chose to spend your time. You grew in wisdom and in stature. You were willing to stand with truth, even if it meant standing alone. You showed yourself a faithful, loyal friend (even when it caused you heartache). You have the most genuine love for God and others I’ve ever encountered. You do not seek attention or applause. You simply love Him. You are steadfast. You love for Christ is deep and true.

beach-1868772_1280For that reason, I am continually praying that your love for Him deepens and the roots of truth dig down deep in your heart. The branches may be shaken by experiences, but if the roots are solid, the tree will stand firm no matter the storms that blow. Know that you can take your cares to Christ—all of them, ALL OF THEM. Remember your life verse, “Trust in Him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before Him; God is a refuge for us.” Psalm 62:8 He hears. He knows. He cares. He answers.

I’ve told you many times before I never really thought about having kids. I never dreamed of being a mom. I dreamed of being an adventurer. But I knew, when God began to reveal His plan for me and daddy to marry, that kids might be part of His plans. I also knew if I had children I wanted to be all in, invested completely and deeply in their lives. I didn’t want to miss a thing. And I got the privilege of being not only your momma, but your teacher for 18 years. And it has been one of God’s greatest gifts to me. To love you, to pour into you, to cry with you over fractions and research papers and friendships and hard decisions. It is such a JOY and continues to be a JOY to call you my daughter. You can frustrate me more than any one human being ever could, but, honestly, I am astounded by you and who you are becoming. You’ve got lots of growing to do; lots of learning to do; lots of incredible experiences waiting to be enjoyed; and lots of difficulties coming your way. But I know, to my very core, you will be stronger for having walked this road. You will learn even more to lean in to the faithful One and He will prove Himself faithful. Keep your eyes on Him.

Just a few things before I go:

pexels-photo-129859LOVE BIG. When you get bogged down in your own little world, you’ll get depressed. Seek others out and love them big. Remember to consider others better than yourself. That’s one of the secrets to unlocking the true joy of Christ.

TAKE RISKS. New friendships and new adventures are scary. That’s true for everyone. I’ve never known you to be afraid of taking risks when you travel, but take the same risks with friendships. You might find some unexpected treasures.

BE OPEN. Be cautious about who your share your life with, and when you find those treasures, don’t be afraid to be genuine and vulnerable. Guard your heart, but don’t wall it up.

LAUGH LOTS. You are about to jump feet first into one of the most incredible seasons of your life. It will be FULL of potential and adventure and experiences that you may never have an opportunity to experience again. ENJOY the moments. They are a gift of a gracious God.

DRAW NEAR. To Jesus every.single.day. Don’t neglect your time with Him. Not out of guilt or shame, but because HE loves you more than you could ever imagine.

My precious girl you are loved more than you could ever know. It is my honor to call you my daughter. Now go and bring glory to your heavenly Daddy. He has chosen you before the foundation of the earth to be His child. He has chosen this university for you. He has plans for you at this place for such a time as this. Plans I can’t even imagine, but I know they are good. It will be hard and it will be scary, but it will be better than you could ever dare to imagine.

I LOVE YOU.

Mom

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As It is in Heaven

I sit and wait. I occupy myself with the needful and the mundane. I read to my son. I email instructions to my class. I text a grocery list to my daughter. All the while my heart is in another place, another plane really. My dear friend, one who has taught me so much about the Kingdom of Heaven, is about to step into the Far Greater Country. The last message I received from her family said simply “she has her feet in the Jordan.” She is ready to depart this earthly existence. She has struggled with her mortality and concluded Paul’s statement in Philippians 1:23 is true, being with Christ is better by far.

But leaving is hard. My friend is only in her 50s. She has a husband and children and grandchildren who love her dearly. People she longed to grow old with and watch grow and marry and become who God created them to be. But cancer is a sinister foe and death is a reality for us all. A couple of years ago, she spoke prophetically and profoundly at our local Bible Study. She talked about her journey with cancer and the crippling fear she faced. She shared an analogy the Lord gave her to calm her fears. She recalled restaurants-playgrounds-free-fun-in-austin-salt-licktraveling when her kids were young. The family would stop at rest stops along the way. The kids would play on the playground and run in the grass. They thought the tall metal slides and squeaking chain swings were the most fun they could ever experience. When it came time to leave, the kids cried and protested. And my friend just stood there perplexed. She would tell them in frustration, “Don’t you know where we’re going? We’re heading to Disney World and you’re settling for an old rest stop playground.”

She said she knew she was only playing on the old playground right now. She knew her final destination is infinitely more beautiful and breathtaking and overwhelming than anything her mind can grasp. Paul says this earth is only a shadow of things to come. But knowing the truth and walking out the reality is too much for our earthly heart to comprehend. She told me just a few months before her health declined so quickly that she didn’t want to go, but she was at peace. She knew that God knew the number of her days and when she had finished what He needed her to do on earth, He would take her to her true home, and she knew it would be uncomprehendingly beautiful.

After that conversation, my prayers began to change. I asked the Lord to heal her, but more than that, I asked God to have His way. I went back to the simplicity of the prayer Jesus modeled for his disciples, “Thy Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10) Ultimately, isn’t that the most powerful prayer we can pray over those in Christ who are sick and suffering? We can ask God for healing, yes. We are free to ask for it boldly. And we should. But we ask humbly, knowing that this world is NOT our home. On this earthly shore, our vision and understanding is limited. Why pexels-photo-568027would we want those we love so much to stick around this broken, rusting place when Jesus has prepared a heavenly home for them? A home that eye has not seen nor ear heard.

It’s because we selfishly want them here a little longer. We’ll miss them. Our hearts will ache in their absence. The hole they leave behind will be profound and deep. But for those who belong to Christ, those who have confessed with their mouth Jesus is Lord and believed in their heart God raised Christ from the dead, they are citizens of heaven. Their life is just beginning when they take their first breath in heaven. The sorrows and tears of this present place are left behind and complete healing and wholeness are ahead. If, as a follower of Christ, I say this is what I believe. Then I have to walk it out in the hardest places.

Today that place of waiting is painful, but hopeful. I have prayed fervently that the Lord would take her quickly home, but I am resting fully that His will is best. Asking Him to have His way and resting in His sovereignty and love is the only way to grieve with hope. Because of the reality of Jesus Christ who defeated death, even death itself cannot overcome us. In Christ, we are more alive than we have ever been before. May His will be done. I trust Him in life, and in death.

*Epilogue: My precious friend crossed the Jordan and walked into the Promised Land just a few days after this was written. Her memorial focused clearly on the hope we have in Christ. Her life and her death have spurred many on toward a deeper relationship with the One who saved her and made her broken soul whole once again.

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The “Will” of God

In my bathroom there is a very special window. It’s not particularly beautiful. It’s actually quite ordinary. It’s not the window itself that makes it a treasure. It’s the precious gift God left me on that window.

I don’t know about you, but as a momma of four children, the bathroom is my place of refuge. It’s my getaway, my sanctuary, and my prayer closet. When my kids were younger it was the place I could steal away for a few sacred minutes to breathe and eat chocolate (no judging, every momma of littles should have a chocolate stash in the bathroom). As my kids got older, it became the one quiet room in the house. I spent many hours crying out to God in that bathroom. Wrestling with my sin and my weakness, begging God for wisdom, and asking God to remind my scattered, distracted heart that His love for me is real and constant and intimate and personal.

A few years ago after a particularly difficult day of parenting, I was spent. I wondered aloud, asking God if He could hear me and if He knew how much I needed Him. I was angry and frustrated with myself and wondered how God could love such a messed up sinner woman. I took a long shower and poured out my heart to my King. It was late and I was so weary. I ended up wrapped in my towel on my knees weeping before God. I made my way to grab some tissue and looked out the window to admire the stillness and quiet of the trees in our backyard and I noticed something odd. As the foggy steam from the shower began to clear I saw something on that window that left me in a big ol’ puddle of tears. The message on my window said simply, “I WILL LOVE YOU.” I recognized the writing as the handiwork of my youngest son—a pudgy finger squeakily writing a love note on my window pane. A love note that God knew would reach down and wreck my heart and be the perfect reminder of my Abba’s love.

I Will Window

While the note was just what I needed, it was the construction that started me pondering. I’m a lover of words and grammar is especially meaningful—a true word nerd. “I will love you” is an odd choice for an eight-year-old, but as I thought about it, I realized my personal, intimate God knew this particular phrasing wouldn’t go unnoticed.

I WILL is the future perfect progressive verb tense. This means it is an action that is ongoing. It is a promise. If you make an “I WILL” statement, you are stating not what might happen, but what is certain to happen. It is a statement with the promise of fulfillment. In this case, a promise not just for a specific time, but a promise that will continue. Now every time I look at that window I’m reminded that God’s love is not just something I experienced in the past, not just something I am experiencing in the present, but will continue to be given. Because God’s love is not based on my performance. It is based on the love of God in Christ. God WILL love me because of Jesus.

After my window encounter, I started thinking more about the many I WILL promises God left for us to discover in His Word. They are powerful reminders of who God was, who He is, and who HE WILL be for those who love Him. I began looking through and underlining all the I WILL’s I could find. Here are a few of my favorites:

“Just as I was with Moses, I WILL BE with you. I WILL NOT leave your nor forsake you.” Joshua 1:5

I WILL go before you and will make the crooked places straight.” Isaiah 45:2 (KJV)

“So you will be my people and I WILL be your God.” Jeremiah 30:22

“Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden and I WILL give you rest.” Matthew 11:28

“Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I WILL listen to you.” Jeremiah 29:12

He will tend his flock like a shepherd; He will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom and gently lead those that are with young.” Isaiah 40:11 (a sweet promise for mommas of littles)

“Fear not for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I WILL strengthen you, I WILL help you, I WILL uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41:10

“And the Lord WILL guide you continually.” Isaiah 58:11

“I am the Lord, and I WILL bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I WILL deliver you from slavery to them, and I WILL redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. I WILL take you to be my people, and I WILL be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God.” Exodus 6: 6-7

Take some time today and walk through the Word focused on God’s “wills.” Whatever you may be facing, He has provided a promise of His presence, His provision, His protection, His grace, His mercy.

As I thought more about the I will’s of God, I recognized something even more incredible. The most beautiful, most powerful thing about the I WILL’s of God is the reality that the promises have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The I WILL has become the I AM of Jesus.

“For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘YES’ in Christ!” 2 Corinthians 1:20

Today choose to rejoice in the promises and praise the Promise Keeper. He loved you yesterday. He loves you today. And He WILL love you forever.

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Jesus will love you forever!

 

The Fellowship of the Broken

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in ALL our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 2 Corinthians 1:3-4

We sat in a circle. Four of us in our flimsy plastic chairs hands clasped together, heads bowed, tears flowing freely. Two of us had never met before that holy moment of desperate prayer. All we knew is we had a shared sorrow. We had experienced the deep grief of miscarriage.

It’s strange to meet someone and find yourself deeply and instantaneously connected. Especially when it’s a connection you never wanted and hoped you’d never have. For my new young momma friend, it was a grief beyond words. She was raw and vulnerable. As we talked for a few minutes, I realized she lost her baby at the same time I’d lost mine—13 weeks. A time when you feel pregnant and feel safe sharing the news with family and friends. Then a visit to the doctor reveals a silent heart. The rest, for both of us, was a whirlwind of tears and denial and anger and anguish and fear, letting the reality of loss seep into my soul. I remember driving away from the doctor’s office that day thinking even the color of the sky had changed. The world seemed greyer, darker, drearier.

As I held this precious momma’s hand, I knew how to pray for her. I knew the anguish that filled her soul. Oh how I wish she never had to walk this broken path. We talked about all the platitudes people offer to comfort your broken heart. Well-meaning friends and family, who truly only want to make things better, often serve to pour salt into an already pexels-photo-54547agonizing wound. I remember, for me, it was the “Be thankful you’ve got three healthy kids at home” reminder. I was thankful. But I missed this precious soul I would never get to meet this side of heaven. I needed to remember this child and grieve this child—even if I never held him or her physically, I held the dream of them in my heart. Reorienting my life without THIS child would take time and tears.

Right after my doctor visit, I met a dear friend who also walked through this pain. I knew she would let me cry, but she would also speak truth. She reminded me of the goodness of God in the heartbreaks of life. She reminded me of His great love for me and this child. She reminded me of God’s comfort and His promise to never leave me nor forsake me. She reminded me that He is near to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. And this precious friend, after some time of letting me grieve, reminded me that I was to give away the comfort He had given me during the darkest days.

So there we sat in our little circle. The friend God allowed to comfort me all those years ago and me; offering the compassion and comfort we found through our heartache to this precious one who was now walking through this desert place. Hearts aching, tears flowing, grieving the reality of this sinful world and the death and sorrow that are certainties in this fallen place. Yet as we prayed and openly, honestly laid our sorrows before the Lord, pexels-photo-129859He brought the peace only He could give. He reminded us of His good gifts, even in the midst of our hurt and pain. He reminded us that He uses these moments of grief to draw us closer to His heart. When we find fellowship with Him in the darkest, most broken places of life, we find His love more extravagant, more remarkable, more dependable, more real, more tangible, than we ever have before.

Walking through Job again recently I was reminded of a verse that perfectly expressed the beauty from ashes God gives after deep grief.

“I had heard you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes see you.” Job 42:5

When you walk through deep pain and loss as a lover of God and follower of Christ, a beautiful reality begins to break through the grief. It’s as if the veil between heaven and earth is lifted and the longing for home, our true home, becomes an ache beyond words. We don’t just know about God, we have fellowshipped with Him. We have walked through a small taste of the grief and pain he experienced in the death of His son. We don’t just have the words, now we have experienced the pain.

It is in the fellowship of the broken, the road we never desire to walk, the grief we never desire to face, that we find how faithful He is. How comforting He is. How real His grace and peace are, and how He truly does carry us and hold us, and catch our tears in a bottle and draw near to us as we draw near to Him. The fellowship of the broken is not a group we want to belong to, but it is a place we find He is. And when we find Him there and experience His comfort, if we let Him, He will use our pain to allow us to comfort others. In the hands of our Abba, our pain always has purpose.

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“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”

A Place for Grace

Subtitle: Why is the one place grace should be easiest to give, the hardest place to give it?

By Michele Mann

I remember the moment like it was yesterday. It was a Wednesday night service. I hadn’t planned to be there. I was a newlywed and this was our first church. We’d only been part of the church for a few months and my husband encouraged me to go and get to know some folks. So I went. The service began uneventfully. A worship song, prayer, and then the announcement of a business meeting.

I had never been to a church business meeting, for good reason. All I wanted to do was run for the nearest exit, or maybe go hide under a pew. I’d heard horror stories about how “business” was conducted in church, and I really didn’t want to stick around long enough to see if the stories were true. But I was stuck. And sure enough, it got ugly. Something about the colors of the pews clashing with the carpet. It was so stereotypical and so shallow. It got so heated my young, immature, impressionable heart started to ache. I quietly excused myself and left the sanctuary in tears. I spent the rest of the meeting in a bathroom stall—discouraged, dejected, and just plain sad.

Growing up, church and I had a distant relationship. Oh, I rode the “church bus” from time to time when I was in elementary school (mostly for the bubble gum). But, strange as it may sound, by the time I reached middle school, Jesus and the Bible were integral parts of my life, but church was not. I started noticing the same kids I saw at church were the same kids who were cruel and vindictive and cliquish at school. I decided, as a very pretentious 13-year-old, if those kids were the product of the church, then I’d like none of that. I knew I was a sinner and needed Jesus, and I loved Him, but His church, no thank you.

This began years of struggle. As I read the Bible and grew as a believer, I knew I needed to allow God to change my stinky attitude. In college, I began to serve at a local church where I got a closer glimpse of the body, and it wasn’t pretty. There was gossip and judgmental attitudes and cliques and jealousies and conflicts. It seemed those who were most in need of the love of Christ were the ones who were the most soundly rejected by the church. The people who grew up in the church didn’t welcome the newbies, and heaven help you if you had serious mistakes or wounds in your past. After one dear friend was wounded deeply by a church member, it was all I could take. I was done. I’d be just fine with small group Bible study and campus ministries. Church was way too messy for me.

Then I met my husband. This godly man who grew up in church and saw the mess, but also saw the beauty. He knew how necessary and vital the church was to spiritual growth, to reaching the community, to serving others. I still wasn’t convinced. But I knew the Word. I knew my role as a wife was to be submissive and to follow his leadership. So when we searched for a body of believers, we prayed, we looked for a church that did not compromise the truth of the Bible. We looked for a church close to our community so we could really love and serve our neighbor. We finally felt God’s drawing to a local body. But it was hard. I’m so thankful for a husband who made me go on the weeks I really wanted to stay home. Pretty soon we found a precious group of friends, found places to use the gifts God had given us, and we settled in a bit.

pexels-photo-185432Then came the business meeting. All the emotions I had been keeping at bay piled up and could no longer be contained. I wept bitterly in that church bathroom. I cried out to the Lord from a long wounded place, “This is not how church is supposed to be! This can’t be what you intended! God I want to love your church, but it is so broken. So fractured. All I see is the ugly stuff, God help me see the beauty of your body.”

After a while, I finally gathered up my fractured heart and went back in the sanctuary just as the “meeting” was coming to a close. As I quietly slipped in a back pew, I heard a sweet voice at the microphone. It was Mrs. Thelma. She was an older lady, a tiny thing with eyes filled with love and fire. “Friends,” she said sweetly and gently. “One of my favorite verses is Psalm 19:14, ‘Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. Now I don’t think our words have been very pleasing to the Lord. Maybe we should spend some time talking to the Lord and making sure our hearts and minds are acceptable to the Lord before we continue.”

I was undone. My heart melted. God used this little lady with the boldness to speak truth in love to begin the alteration process in my heart. God whispered to me that day, “The body is broken because it is full of sinners, like you. But it is not beyond repair. My Saints are here. You’re looking for perfection. You won’t find it this side of heaven. But you can learn here, grow here, serve here. You need to learn to give grace and to offer mercy. You need to look for the true beauty in my Body. The beauty is Jesus Christ. I am the One who gave Myself for broken, messed up souls. I am the beauty, Michele. Seek ME and you will find ME—even in the broken places.”

I’d like to say the journey since then has been easy and pleasant, but it hasn’t. It’s been joyful at times, and it’s been excruciating at times. But what I keep remembering is Christ died for this. The body, as wounded and broken as it is, is His gift to us. We love each other through the ugly, through the pain, and through the victories. The body of Christ is not the perfect utopia I, in my immaturity, thought it should be, but it is a real place, with real people, who are really struggling and need the real love of a real Savior. So I can say, after many long years of seeking Him in the midst of the mess, I love His body and I am so thankful to be a receiver of grace–even in the hard places.

 

Prepare a Feast (Back to Basics)

When I was a newlywed, I was a disaster in the kitchen. Couldn’t boil an egg, couldn’t bake a cake, couldn’t whip up mashed potatoes kind of disaster. Growing up I lived with a wonderful grandmother who enjoyed cooking, but I was too foolish and preoccupied to learn. As a new wife, our growing stack of take out menus only served to feed my frustration about my lack of culinary skill. Ironically, my first job was in the editorial department of a cooking magazine. It was a perfect place to study cooking, to find resources, and to ask questions. I was determined to figure out this cooking thing. Slowly, I began to learn the basics. Once I gained some confidence, I moved on to learn more advanced techniques. I’m certainly no Rachel Ray, but I am continually learning the skills I need to make a pretty yummy meal—all on my own. And while making a home cooked meal takes more time and attention, the results are undeniably more satisfying.

When it comes to Bible Study, many of us have the same problem I had in the kitchen. We never learned the skills necessary to study the Bible on our own. We become content with grabbing something from the drive through or just ordering something off the take out menu. We get fed, yes, but we’re constantly dependent on someone else to do the preparing and cooking. We appreciate the end result, but since we didn’t help prepare the food, the satisfaction is superficial and fleeting, and it can be costly. As followers of Christ, we need to learn how to feast on the Word of God, not just eat from a table someone else has prepared. There are delicacies God created for you alone to enjoy; food that nourishes your soul in a way nothing else can.

So how do we learn how to feast of the Word of God?
If you’re brand new to Bible study, or you’ve spent far too long eating from someone else’s table, here are a few tips to help you inventory your spiritual “kitchen” as you learn to prepare your own feast.

Keep it simple.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYour first attempts in the kitchen shouldn’t involve a four course gourmet meal. It takes time and practice to gain confidence as a cook. It’s the same with Bible study, but getting started isn’t as intimidating as it seems. In fact, Bible study is often best if you start simply.

First, pray. Ask the Lord to lead your mind, your heart, your spirit.

Second, listen to the leading of the Holy Spirit as you study.

Your first attempts may seem overwhelming or unproductive (just like my first attempt at roasting a chicken), but be diligent. Over time you’ll become more comfortable starting out with just the Word and the Spirit.

Be Sure You Have the Necessities.

spices-flavorings-seasoning-foodJust like it’s important to have your pantry stocked with the necessities, it’s vital you have the essentials for studying the Word. Unlike the pantry, the essentials for Bible study are few—just two things really–a Bible and a journal (and your favorite pen, of course). If you’re overwhelmed with the choices available, here are some helps for choosing a Bible that is the most beneficial for you.

Pick a translation: There are many translations of the Bible available—which can be a bit intimidating and overwhelming. If you were to rank them on a scale of closest to the original Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic texts, the King James Version would be closest, with paraphrases of the Biblical text, like The Message, on the other end of the spectrum. Since the language of the King James version is antiquated, an easier-to-understand, but closer to original translation text like the English Standard Version (ESV) or the New International Version (NIV) is a great choice for Bible Study.

Study Bible or no Study Bible? Study Bibles typically have additional text that includes commentary on scripture. While these Bibles are good resources, it keeps you in the habit of depending on someone else’s interpretation of a passage of scripture. It’s a comfort and help to have instant access to delving deeper in a passage, but the goal is to learn how to discover truth on your own. Study Bibles are useful, but for your main study, use a commentary-free Bible.

Why keep a journal? There will be some days God reveals an amazing insight. There will be days you discover a new connection or revelation. There will be days you wonder why a verse or chapter is even included in the scripture text. No matter what you learn or what you’re pondering, write it down. Recording your thoughts and what you’re learning may lead you to a new discovery down the road, or it may provide some much-needed encouragement and exhortation as you continue to learn and grow.

Don’t Be Afraid to Use New Tools.

pexels-photo-211760Every cook knows having good tools makes preparing a meal much easier, but sometimes the tools can be a bit intimidating. It’s the same with Bible Study. Though using them well may take time and practice, having the right tools turns Bible Study into a great adventure in discovery.

Concordance. A concordance can help in understanding the nuances of language in the Bible. You can take any verse and look up the original translation in Hebrew or Greek. The translation gives more specific and precise definitions to the words used in the English text. This can help tremendously in gaining deeper understanding of a verse or passage. You can also use a concordance to discover where a specific word is used in other places in scripture, which helps in finding connections and giving a richer understanding.

Commentary. An excellent commentary is an essential Bible study tool. But it should only be used after you have spent ample time wading through a passage. Be cautious in choosing a Bible commentary. There are great overall commentaries by a variety of authors, like Moody Bible Commentary, or commentaries by specific authors, like Matthew Henry or Warren Wiersbe, available. Ask your pastor or a Bible study teacher who they use most often.

Bible Dictionary. A Bible dictionary will help give more insight on some of the practical details of the Bible. Say you’re unsure about the preparation of the drink offering or looking for some historical insight on Herod the Great. A Bible dictionary will offer needed details to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

Bible Atlas. So much of what happens in the Bible has to do with place. When I discovered the Garden of Gethsemane was in the shadow of Herod’s temple, the anguish of Christ in the garden before his trial and execution was even more powerful. And when I discovered how close the Israelites were to the Promised Land as they wandered in the desert those 40 years, I took away a much deeper spiritual principle from the text.

Be Sure to Share

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of the best things about cooking is finding a new recipe and sharing it with friends. It’s the same with Bible Study. Whether it’s a formal Bible study or simply getting together with a group of friends, it is essential to have a place to pour out your heart. Growing with a group provides accountability and iron sharpening, and you learn much more as you listen to what God is teaching others. We were made for relationship and studying God’s Word together is a beautiful way to grow in knowledge and understanding of the Word, and a wonderful place to practice the truths you’re learning.

One of my favorite Bible study teachers Jen Wilkins says, “The heart can’t love what the mind doesn’t know.” In our relationship with God, it is so important that we get to know Him. That we develop our own deep, abiding communion with Him. The Bible is His gift to us. It is His love letter to us. It is His invitation to taste and see that the Lord is good. Too long I depended on what other’s learned about God. I sat at their table and ate of their delights. And it never satisfied my soul. When I learned to step in the kitchen and prepare my own table with the Lord, I found the morsels God gives are sweet and filling. Pulling up a seat and feasting on the Word of God truly does satisfy the soul like nothing else.

“How precious is your steadfast love, O God! The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings. They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights. For with you is the fountain of life, in your light do we see light.” Psalm 36:7-9

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Tell the Story

People can deny Christ, dispute Scripture and ignore prophecy, but they cannot deny, dispute or ignore God’s transformational power in someone’s life. –Tracie Miles, Proverbs 31 Ministries

It’s that time of year again. The time when we gather together with family and friends to give thanks and celebrate the arrival of the baby who would save the world. For many, it’s a joyful time, full of anticipation and excitement. For others, it’s a time of dread, full of anxiety and angst. I’ve found myself on both sides of the holiday conundrum. But I recently read a story about a wise father-in-law and a humble son-in-law and got some insight into how to make even the toughest holiday get-togethers a bit more hopeful.

I come from a mixed bag of nominal Christians, agnostics, and atheists. I never knew what it was to talk about Jesus or the Bible at family gatherings. I grew up with the understanding that you didn’t talk about faith to others. Faith was something private, like your political views. So when my family got together with extended family, there was this strange camaraderie of silence on the important stuff of life. Conversation was lively and fun, but without much substance. Don’t get me wrong, my family was loving and kind. But without acknowledging the greatest Love, there was always something missing, and as a follower of Christ I always felt compelled and constrained. Compelled to speak the truth; yet constrained by opening a Pandora’s box of controversy and anger and offense–good-bye happy holiday memories.

As the years have gone by, and extended family gatherings have become a rare event, I’ve searched for a place of grace. A place where I could use these moments to love my family without neglecting to speak of the greatest Love in my life. Then I read the story of Moses and Jethro and I found some key principles to making the holiday gathering purposeful.

The story of Moses and Jethro is at an odd place in the Bible. It’s directly after the Israelite’s victory over the Amalekites thanks to Moses’s outstretched arms to God (with some help from Aaron and Hur), and God’s declaration that He was the banner over His people. And directly before the declaration of the Mosaic Covenant in Exodus 19. It’s almost as if the Holy Spirit set the pause button to give us a glimpse into the daily life of these wandering peoples.

mosesandjethroatmidian-chosenpeople-creationofalessergod-foundationIn the story, Jethro reunites Moses with this wife, Jethro’s daughter, and their two sons. We know a few things about Jethro. Besides being Moses’s father-in-law, he is introduced in Exodus 2 and the first verses of Exodus 18 as a priest of Midian. He has seven daughters, and he welcomed a “stranger from a strange land” into his family. We can infer from our interaction with Jethro that he was generous and kind and that he loved Moses. And we can tell from Exodus 18:7 that Moses respected and loved his father-in-law.

As we begin the story, Jethro says he had “heard of all that God had done for Moses and for Israel his people, how the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt.” (18:1) As Jethro entered the camp, he was warmly welcomed by Moses and they spent the evening catching up on the events of the people of God. Can you imagine that conversation? Moses himself telling the story of the exodus and the parting of the Red Sea. What we do know is after Moses “told his father-in-law all that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardship that had come upon them in the way, and how the Lord had delivered them.” Jethro did a few things:

He REJOICED in all the good that the Lord had done to Israel. (v. 9)

He BLESSED the Lord. (v. 10)

He CLAIMED allegiance to the one true God. (v. 11)

He SACRIFICED burnt offerings to God. (v. 12)

When Jethro came to visit Moses, he’d heard of God’s goodness. But after talking to Moses and hearing his story of God’s deliverance, HE KNEW GOD.

So how do we take this phenomenal interaction of Jethro and Moses and translate it to the contemporary holiday table?

christmas-clipart-images-christmas2   Listen closely. James tells us to be slow to speak, quick to listen, and slow to become angry. Before Moses spoke of the deliverance of Israel, he asked Jethro about his welfare. He genuinely wanted to hear how his father-in-law was doing. Listening is one of the most tender, compassionate ways we can intentionally love our family.

christmas-clipart-images-christmas2  Speak honestly. Moses spoke freely of God’s deliverance and His goodness. And He didn’t leave out the difficult stuff. When we share our lives as followers of Christ, we often believe we need to sugarcoat our struggles. As if we’re trying to protect God, or make following Him more palatable or pleasing. Truth is, being a follower of Christ isn’t easy. We suffer hardship. We walk through stinky circumstances. Basically, we live a real life. But we also serve a real God who gives us hope in the hard places and replaces despair with peace and sadness with unexplainable joy. When we speak truthfully about our lives and about our God, when we tell our own story of deliverance, then HE gets the glory and HE becomes the focus, not us or our circumstances. And a suffering world needs to hear that there is hope.

christmas-clipart-images-christmas2  Speak gently. 1 Peter 3:15 tells believers to always be prepared to give a reason for the hope that we have, but to share that hope with gentleness and respect. We are not called to badger or argue anyone into the kingdom of God. We are called to honor others above ourselves and consider others better than ourselves. Remembering that a gentle answer turns away wrath is vital for weathering a potentially tempestuous holiday conversation.

christmas-clipart-images-christmas2  Speak boldly. Moses was not afraid to speak of all God had done. One of my biggest obstacles is timidity. I worry that I’m going to offend someone. I’m worried I won’t be able to answer a question or a retaliation. But Paul speaks to this fear and his words have become my constant prayer, “To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel.” Ephesians 6:19

My prayer for you and your family, whether you celebrate with a family of Christ followers, or whether you celebrate with a mixed bag of wonderful creations who simply don’t know their Creator yet, is a joy-filled, Christ-focused holiday season. Listen closely, speak honestly, gently, and boldly of all that Jesus has done and is doing for you. The reality of His goodness and His salvation is definitely worth a celebration!!

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It’s Okay To Not Be Okay

by Michele Mann

restaurant-person-woman-coffeeWe met for an early (but not too early) breakfast. We chatted and laughed in between sips of caffeine ( because mid-morning is still morning). We discussed husbands and kids and ailing parents and busy lives. We talked about the struggle of trying to juggle an endless to do list with maintaining healthy relationships with Jesus and our husbands and our kids. She briefly mentioned a couple of struggles she was walking through, and then quickly added, “But I’m okay.” I nodded and listened for a few more minutes as she slowly stirred her coffee. She had to scoot out for an appointment, so I prayed for her and she darted out the door.

As I watched her leave, my heart sank. She most definitely wasn’t okay. She was drowning in the abyss between desire and expectation and reality. I’ve been there. It’s a hard place to live—made even harder when we fall prey to the lie that we have to hide our heartache. I’ve gone about my days with a placid smile and a sorrowful heart. I’ve said all those things a follower of Christ is supposed to say when life gets hard like, “God is faithful,” or “God’s got this,” or “God is good.” When all the while my mind and heart are wrestling with doubt and fear and wondering if God is really there, if He really cares. I want someone to tell me it’s okay to not be okay. I want someone to remind me that God is okay with me not being okay.

When I am in that dark and desperate place my mind wanders back to a trio of siblings. Three whose hearts were knit with each other and knit with the heart of the Messiah. They loved well. So well, in fact, that Jesus spent as much time with them as He could when He walked the earth. He made their little house in Bethany, just a couple of miles outside of Jerusalem, His getaway. Even Jesus needed a quiet place to reflect and rest. And the siblings loved hosting Him. They knew He was the Savior of the world, but to them He was also a cherished friend.

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The Resurrection of Lazarus – Wilhelm Kotarbinski

So on that dark day when their brother became ill, the sisters knew whom to call. They expected Him to rush to their side. But the days passed and there was no sign of the Savior. Mary and Martha sat vigil by Lazarus’s bedside waiting, waiting for Jesus to come. But He did not. Lazarus took his last breath and the sister’s wept and mourned and still no Jesus.

Four days after the sisters laid their beloved brother in his tomb, Jesus arrived. Martha, the sister who was rebuked by Jesus for chiding her sister for sitting at His feet, was the first of the sisters to find Jesus. But Mary, the one who poured out her precious perfume at the feet of Jesus and sat at His feet and listened to Him for hours and hours, stayed home.

Martha met Jesus with words of a tested, but steadfast faith. “Lord if you had been here, our brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” But Mary sat at home in her grief. Her heart broken. Her eyes swollen with tears. Why had He waited so long? Why didn’t He save Lazarus? Mary was awakened from her anguish by her sister, who took her aside privately to tell her the Teacher was here and was calling for her. Mary quickly got up and made her way to him. Through her sorrow, she made the same statement to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But she could not utter words of faith, her broken heart wouldn’t allow it. At that moment, Mary was at the end of herself, and was raw before her Messiah. She had no words, only tears. Jesus did not chastise her lack of faith or judge her honest words of despair. He did something so tender, so kind, so beautiful. He wept.

I’ve often thought back to this encounter when my heart is broken. What was it that broke the heart of Jesus? Was it simply His compassion for Mary? Was it His heartache that she had to suffer such agony in this sin-sick world? Was it His sorrow over the reality of death? Was it a combination of all these things? Whatever the reason, the comfort comes in knowing Jesus understood Mary’s pain and cried with her. And like Mary, when I come to the end of myself, I allow Jesus to reveal His glory. Mary found she could be real and raw before Jesus and He didn’t condemn her, He wept with her. He understood her pain and the depth of His love was revealed in more beauty and power than she could’ve ever imagined.

As time has passed, I’ve prayed much for my friend. I let her talk and encourage her to be honest before God. I tell her it’s okay to not be okay. I tell her it’s in those deepest, darkest, end of ourselves moments God is able to be to us exactly what we need Him to be—our Rescuer, our Redeemer, our Friend. Because it is not in our strength or our ability or our talent that we are made strong—in God’s strange, absurd, upside down world—it’s in our weakness, in our lack, that we find God is all we need. And He is okay with us not being okay. In fact, He welcomes our broken hearts.

“Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” 2 Corinthians 12:9

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