Called by a New Name

“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold the new has come.” 2 Corinthians 5:17-18

Like a good Southern girl, I named my daughter after her great grandmothers. And, like a good Southern momma, I stubbornly decided she would be called by both names. I know. I know. But where would the world be without those wonderful double name traditions. I mean, who doesn’t love a Sarah Beth or an Anna Grace or a Betty Lou? Those names just roll off the tongue like sorghum, don’t they? (Insert eye roll emoji here.)

What I didn’t realize is the frustration those double names would cause my girl as she moved on to college and the professional world. When she first started taking college courses online in high school, she realized those double names made it really difficult for her to engage in her virtual class discussion. Her name took far too long to type in when she wanted to answer a question. So Mary Catherine became Catie. That name soon followed her as she started classes on campus. It was on her first college student ID.

pexels-quang-nguyen-vinh-2159129A similar thing happened when she started working as a barista at a local coffee shop. She couldn’t realistically fit her entire name on her nametag, so she shortened it to MC. Then you had the whole standardized test and college application complications where she was only recognized by her first name. So, on campus she was Catie, at work she was MC, and in any official capacity, she was Mary.

Now she’s headed off to graduate school at a new university and is considering going by Cate. You can imagine the type of identity crisis she’s had over the past four years or so. Thankfully, as her momma, I still stubbornly call her by her double name. Not because I’m trying to be difficult, but because that name has meaning to me. It is the name I thoughtfully and prayerfully gave her before she even came into the world. So no matter what everyone else calls her, she is Mary Catherine because that’s the name chosen just for her.

Recently, I was reading through Revelation. It’s not a book I tend to get settled in because, to be honest, the content absolutely boggles my mind and overwhelms my soul. As John promised through Revelation 1:3 I have been blessed by reading Revelation, but I’ve also been perplexed by it. I come back to it reluctantly throughout the year. I read through and pray and ponder and ask the Lord to give me some insight. This time around I got stuck on this idea of names.

In Revelation 2:17 the Spirit reveals to John these words for the Church at Pergamum, “To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.” Similarly, Isaiah 62:2 says, “The nations shall see your righteousness, and all the kings your glory, and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give.” And back in Revelation 20 we read about the book of life and in it are the names of those who belong to Christ. I couldn’t get over this idea of a new name. I not only was a new creation, but I had a new name. I had a new identity. An identity conferred to me by my Abba. And I think that name is the one written in the Lamb’s book. So naturally, this piqued my curiosity and I kept asking the Lord in private moments of intimate conversation, so what’s my new name?

name-s-2319472_1280A few weeks after I asked that question, I was reading through 1 Corinthians 6:9-11.

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ by the Spirit of God.”

I sat before the King with those verses and the Spirit whispered, “You are no longer called by these names because you are now called by MY NAME.” I sat and wept at that truth. My old name was Unrighteous. My old name was Unholy. My old name was Condemned. My old name was Separated. My old name was my identity as a sinner. But that is no longer my name. Because of Jesus. Because of the Name above all Names, my sin no longer defines me. Because my old name is now washed away in the blood of Christ. In Christ, my new name is Righteous. My new name is Holy. My new name is Redeemed. My new name is Restored.

Too many times even those who are in Christ tend to define themselves by their old names. By their sin, but if you are in Christ you are no longer called by that name. You have been given a new name. And as I have pondered and prayed over the powerful and beautiful truth that it only matters that I am called by the Name of Christ. That new name could be Rescued. Restored. Redeemed. It doesn’t matter the specifics as long as I know the One who gave me the New Name, and I know that I am no longer defined by who I was, but Whose I am. I am His. He is mine. I am called by a New Name. A name the Lord Himself has given me. Jesus. Jesus. Precious Jesus. That is the only Name I need to know.  

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Awakening

black-and-brown-desk-globe-3994840When the world is shaken, your soul awakens.

For the last few months, the world has had a “closed” sign hanging on the front door. We’ve gone from traversing the globe to traversing only to the local grocery store. Forced togetherness means the relationships with the people under our roof are equal parts sanctifying and supportive. Relationships outside the home require even more intentional intentionality. The virtual reality of Zoom Bible studies and Facetime coffee dates with dear friends become necessities as we learn how to love and serve during an isolated season. A season of unknown and unexpected.

It’s a strange new world for sure. One that, at the time I’m writing, is beginning to cautiously find its way to something resembling (sort of) normal. These different days are not what we wanted, not what we anticipated. It feels as if someone hit the pause button. And here we are sitting somewhere between pause and play. In the waiting place. In a holding pattern. So many things put on hold or cancelled altogether. In our family alone, we’re waiting to formally celebrate a college graduation, the marriage of a dear cousin, and the arrival of a long-awaited niece.

close-up-photography-of-santa-claus-snow-globe-1684131In many ways, it feels like God picked up the earth like a snow globe and gave it a good shake. Here we are rumbling around in the fallout trying to adjust to a world that feels not quite right. It is the reality of life in a broken, fallen world. But what if it’s also a gift? A gift of grace from a loving Father who will not let us continue in conformity and comfort when He is a God of SO MUCH MORE.

For a follower of Christ, the trials we face are always purposeful, always for our good and His glory. When God shakes our world, if we let Him, He will mature us, grow us in ways we could not apart from a crisis. Difficulties allow God to open the eyes of our heart, to deepen our faith, to awaken our souls to how much we need Him and how much He loves us. During this still season, I’ve noticed four ways He is awakening my soul.

  • woman-holding-mirror-2460534I see myself more clearly. Just as Jesus turned the tables on the manipulative money changers in the temple (Matthew 21:12-14) He will often turn the tables of our lives over to remind us of who we are and who He is. Life behind cloistered walls causes an introspection. The lack of an expressway of pressing activities is causing sin I kept under the covering of busy-ness to come floating to the surface. I’m no longer able to escape from myself into the shallow waters of the “stuff” of life. My idols are quickly rearing their ugly heads and I have to look in the mirror and face the truth. And when I face the reality of my sinfulness, well, let’s just say the hardest person to live with during quarantine isn’t my husband, or my kids. It’s me.
  • woman-holding-her-head-2128817I see the brokenness of the world more vividly. Fairly soon after the quarantine started, I began taking regular breaks from social media and news media. I didn’t want to ignore the state and struggles of the world, but I found the fear that seemed the grip the world was overwhelming. It was heartbreaking to see that fear turn to anger and violence. But as I took time to pay attention, I recognized the enemy’s tactics to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10). But I also know what the enemy meant to harm us, God can mean for God for the saving of many lives (Genesis 50:20). I knew before, but now I know to my bones, how deeply and desperately the world needs to know Christ, and how great the love of Christ is for us. He died for this broken, selfish world. He came to rescue us from ourselves. What kind of God would leave heaven to come to this fractured place? A God who loves us beyond description and beyond my feeble understanding. I need to let others know. The love of God COMPELS believers to go and make disciples (2 Corinthians 5:14-15). Without the world being shaken, the fierce reality of a broken world and our desperate need for Jesus, wouldn’t have invaded my mind and heart, and my heart may have continued to grow more complacent and even cold.
  • I see the small moments more gratefully. I don’t know that I understood God’s gifts of grace to the extent that I do after walking through this time of stillness. I’ve been overwhelmed by God’s goodness. Overcome by His love. I’m taking time to sit and enjoy the simple moments. A long overdue video call with a dear friend. An gardenia-2633393_1280unhurried morning sitting on my front porch on a beautiful, breezy, balmy day. The smell of gardenias wafting through the air, the sunlight streaming across the yard, the sound of my neighbors working in their garden or playing in their pool. The sounds of my boys singing, long walks with my daughter, restaurant pick up car dates with my hubby. No rushing to events. No schedules filled to the brim with obligations. Time to be bored. Time to just sit and pray and read and worship and just “be” with my Abba. Recognizing the miraculous and mundane moments are both a gift of His loving hand.
  • I keep my hands open more willingly. As the talk of quarantine began, my youngest daughter was in the middle of her freshmen year of college at a school four hours away. She was enjoying every moment of college life when she came home for Spring Break and never went back. After a few weeks and the initial shock wore off, she said one of the biggest lessons she is learning is Proverbs 16:9 “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” She is learning hands-1044882_1280at a young age to hold all things loosely before the Lord. When I hold things loosely, whether it’s plans, relationships, achievements, when my world gets shaken, those “things” will fall from my hands into the hands of the One who is holding me. And I can be fully confident that the One who is holding me is able to keep me from stumbling and present me blameless before the presence of His glory with great joy (Jude 24). That is a peace-filled place of surrender, and in that surrender my soul finds rest.

So when your world is shaken, let your soul be awakened to His goodness and His glory. Your heart will be stirred to His good purposes in a way they could not be if life went on as normal. That is grace. That is love. That is a rare and precious gift. That is an awakening.

What has the King been awakening in your soul during this shaking season?

My heart, O God, is steadfast, my heart is steadfast; I will sing and make music. Awake, my soul! Psalm 57:7-8

 

The Wisdom of Listening Well

“Know this, my beloved brothers; let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” James 1:19-20

“But the wisdom that comes from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” James 3:17

I am a journalist by trade. I made my living as a professional writer for many years. As a writer I understand the beauty and impact of words. As a follower of Christ, I recognize the weight and life-giving, and life-depleting, power of words. Words are essential to communicate, to encourage, to speak truth, to understand. Lately, I’ve become weary of words. In this strange season there are so.many.words. So many people sharing their opinions or observations on what’s happening in the broken world around us. Some words are beneficial. Some are just noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.

I was scrolling through social media recently and my heart was so overcome by all the words. The long posts with mostly well-intentioned stories or encouragement or honest expressions of shock or fear, or sometimes verbal tirades of anger and vengeance and ignorance. It’s a lot. I should’ve just immediately hopped off the Facebook and read a good book, and I did, for a time. I prayed. Talking to the King much about the state of the world. I don’t want to be like the overly optimistic Count Rostov in War and Peace who pretends all is well as his house slowly falls apart. I kept asking God what to do. How can I be a peacemaker? How can I be an accurate ambassador of the love of God? How can I point people to Jesus, the one who rescues and redeems this broken world?

These words from James kept coming back up in my Spirit. James lived in an incredibly volatile world. We think our world is violent and depraved and irrational and deplorable. The Roman world, and in particular the world of the early Jewish believers most Biblical historians believe James is writing to, is exponentially more violent and depraved and overwhelmed with persecution and misunderstanding. Historically, most experts agree James was written to encourage Jewish believers who had just experienced the first church diaspora after the stoning of Stephen. They endured the violent, murderous persecution of the Jewish religious officials under the leadership of the Sanhedrin. After Stephen’s stoning in Acts 8 we read about the church scattering from Jerusalem throughout Judea and Samaria.

James knew the violence and hatred these Jewish believers were going to face. He was giving them clear direction on how to behave as followers of Christ in a difficult circumstance where they were likely to be criticized and condemned. Thus, his first mandate to “count it all joy whenever you face trials of many kinds.” The joy is not in the circumstance itself, but in the growing and maturing that will come because of the difficulty. James doesn’t just leave us with exhortation to watch what God is doing in our souls and spirits during hard times, he also gives us, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, practical counsel in handling opposition. This counsel, wrapped up in the love of Christ, is invaluable in diffusing hatred and bringing life and peace.

listening-3079065_1280Be quick to listen. When I was so frustrated with all the words on social media and stepped away for a bit, I kept asking the Lord if those words were beneficial. Was I missing something? Most of the time it seems as if all those words hurt rather than heal. He kept whispering to me, “Michele, people need to be heard.”

And they do. I do. I want to be heard. One of my biggest pet peeves is for someone to continually lose eye contact while I’m speaking to them. They aren’t listening to a word I’m saying because they are constantly distracted by something in the room, their phone, a noise from outside. My husband is the world’s worst at distractions. I often have to gently remind him how much it genuinely hurts when he doesn’t pay attention when I’m talking.

Listening is one of the most beautiful and profound ways you can show someone you love them. Not only listening to their words, but to their nonverbal communication. Because not being heard has always been such a frustration for me, the Lord, through His Holy Spirit, has turned that inside out in my life. I work extra hard to make sure I really listen to people around me. Admittedly, I’m not always very good at it. Listening intentionally should be hard work if you do it well. But I’ve found that listening well is loving well, and love covers a multitude of sins. Misunderstandings, presumptions, and assumptions are often at the root of conflict, and, the vast majority of the time it’s because we didn’t take time to listen without bias, without judgment.

photo-of-women-talking-while-sitting-3182808Slow to speak. As much as I love words, I have found as I get older, that I weigh my words very, very carefully. I’m not as flippant as I once was. I’m more cautious. Which makes me guilty of sometimes not addressing a situation in a timely manner. But I’m learning I’d rather be guilty of too much quietness, than speak rashly. And that’s where James’s words from chapter 3 are so essential and so often overlooked.

Even though we should be slow to speak, there will come a time when you need to speak. When that time comes, be sure you seek to speak with the wisdom that comes from above. James tells us in James 1:5 to ask God for wisdom. Then he tells us in chapter 3 what godly wisdom looks like. I’m slowly learning that before I speak on any subject, as a wife, mom, friend, teacher, I need to go back to James 3 and check myself.

Are my motives pure?

Will my words bring peace or spark conflict?

Am I presenting my words with gentleness and compassion?

Have I heard all sides of the issues? Am I listening with my mind, heart, and soul and sifting those through the Holy Spirit and the Word? Am I being reasonable?

Am I remembering to be merciful? Am I listening with grace-filled ears?

Am I asking the Lord to clear out any bias that might distract me from being impartial?

Am I sincerely looking for an opportunity to love like Jesus through this conflict? Am I being honest with God, honest with myself, and honest with those around me?

James does a beautiful job connecting wisdom and listening. Not just listening to others, but listening to the Holy Spirit. If we want to speak truth that will be heard and make an eternal impact in a troubling, divisive, potentially destructive circumstance, we need to start by listening. Truly listening. When it comes to controversial issues, the ultimate goal is not to continue sharing our words, but to point others to the Word. The Word that became flesh and dwelt among us. The Word that changes everything. The love that changes everything. Only He is the One who can bring peace and restore hope. If we want others to listen as we speak about our eternal hope, we must first seek to listen. Listening well is loving well.

Embracing Change

When change abounds, focus on the One who never changes.

“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” James 1:17

This Christmas was different. Later Thanksgiving holiday led to an even later end of the school year. I had to wait for one, and then the other, college kid to make their way home. The two teenage boys left at home were knee deep in theater rehearsals and their own holiday celebrations. We waited until the last kid arrived just a few days before Christmas before we officially decorated. I’m usually the decorating Grinch, but this year even the Grinch was thrilled to see those tree lights twinkling. And this year the young man who is pursuing our daughter’s heart joined us for our holiday celebrations–that was certainly new. In the midst of this different year I began to realize Christmas would never be quite the same.

board-1273117_1280In many ways, this Christmas was an exclamation point to a long period of transition. Two years ago God began this season of new. First a dear friend and partner in the gospel moved a few states away. Within the year, another dear friend and her family moved across the country. Then a series of changes in three separate ministries I was involved in left me with a shaken soul. My personal world turned topsy turvy as one and then another of my children graduated high school and moved away to college. It often felt as if the Lord was sifting all those things in my life that I counted on when the world pressed into me. My places of security were being stripped away, and I felt unstable and weary, and, if I’m honest, a bit forsaken and a lot broken. It was an unusual grief. A grief it’s taken me quite a while to confess without being weighed down by the guilt of my own selfishness.

 

As I continue to walk through these seasons of change, I keep coming back to my bulwark verse. The verse I seem to constantly return to when life is hard. In an unusual grief, this verse is a strange comfort.

“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” James 1:17

This powerful verse reminds me of two vital things about my Abba.

  1. God gives good and perfect gifts. Psalm 18:30 says, “This God—his way is perfect.” Psalm 145 repeats this phrase, “The Lord is faithful in all his words and kind in all his works.” If this change is a gift from His hands, then I can trust it is a gift from a God who is good, perfect, faithful, and kind. The Word makes it clear life won’t be easy (John 16:33; James 1:2), and I’m convinced the transient nature of our earthly existence is part of those trials and tribulations. Yet, we can rest confidently in the character of the One who orchestrates those changes. All of the changes that are happening have been walked through with fervent prayer. It is beautiful to see God put every detail in place. Even when my heart doesn’t want to cooperate, my mind can focus on truth. Over time, I am finding, my heart is molded to the shape of the truth. When I’m walking through the unknown, it is crucial that I set my mind on what I know (Colossians 3:1-3). There I can anticipate the future with joy and peace and confident hope.
  2. My God does not change. Malachi 3:6 says it bluntly, “For I the Lord do not change.” God is constant, even more constant than the sun rising and setting. He is faithful to His Word and always, always true to His character. The Lord, in His goodness and grace, is teaching me much about misplaced security. I depended far too much on my friends. I leaned against them, instead of leaning against my Abba. Don’t get me wrong, Jesus-loving friends and godly counselors are a gift, but too often I would run to them instead of seeking my Father first. It was easier and more comforting to receive validation from a trusted friend. It’s much harder to spend extended time in prayer, dig deep in the Word, and listen closely to the voice of the Holy Spirit. In this season of sifting, I am learning more of my own stubborn heart, learning to repent quickly, and learning to run to Jesus first and fervently.

My season of change is still in full swing. My oldest daughter graduates from college in the Spring and is heading out on a new adventure. My oldest son graduates high school next year and will set off on a journey of his own. My husband and I are asking the King how we can serve Him best during this season of new. And while I wish I could say I’m embracing change with a contented heart, truth is, it’s still hard. But I’m finding joy and peace come more easily as I focus on the unchanging One. When I focus on His constancy, He reminds me of His goodness and faithfulness and kindness. That causes me to place my security in the One I can always rely on to be the same yesterday, today, and forever. When I focus on what is true, I am reminded of this truth: As I am learning to embrace change, my Abba is embracing me.

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Love Came Down

This Christmas let the reality of the baby in the manger transform your perspective.

Little things. Lowly things. Unnoticed things. These are some of the rarest and sweetest gifts. It’s so easy to get caught up in the trappings of the season. A picture perfect tree. box-celebrate-celebration-christmas-264988Beautifully wrapped gifts. An impeccably decorated home. A table set intricately with Christmas China. There’s certainly nothing wrong in making your home beautiful, or taking joy in the fun of decorating for the season. It’s only when the “stuff” becomes your focus and your motivation shifts from the Giver of all good things to the good things themselves.

When the focus is on the things, we veer into the lane of comparison. That turns our focus to ourselves and others and takes our eyes off the truth–the Creator took the form of the creation. He allowed Himself, not just to appear in human form, but to live a fully human existence from birth to death. He chose to come as a baby—helpless and completely dependent. He entrusted himself to the fallen ones. He left his throne and stepped out of eternity into the constriction of time. He exposed himself to the sin-infested humanity he knew would, in the end, reject him, beat him, crucify him.

Jesus knew what it was to be weak and defenseless. He knew what it was to be dependent and discouraged. He knew what it was to be rejected and mocked. He suffered sadness and solitude and grief and pain. Yet he did not sin. He was obedient to His Father at every moment. Even to his last breath in his broken, battered mortal body hanging on the cross.

All that Jesus did, He did out of a great, unbelievable, unimaginable love for us. He could have come as a conquering King. He could have come as a Mighty Warrior. He could have come in power and majesty, but He didn’t. He chose to make Himself vulnerable. He chose to live in a fragile human body. He fully experienced what it was to live a mortal life. Hunger, thirst, exhaustion, loneliness, pain, joy, laughter, weeping, grief. He lived his life so we could run to this High Priest, this Messiah, this Savior, who is well acquainted with our mortality. He knows your heart. He knows your struggle. He knows your hurt. And He loves you. More than mere words could ever express.

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This Christmas, more than most, I’m spending more time soaking in the majesty of who He is. This reorientation is the gift of a struggling season. A season where the Lord has asked me to visit some terrifying places, and His goodness is there, His love is even more visceral, tangible. My heart is overwhelmed. Unable to take in how beautiful and how gracious He really is. It seems the more threatening the darkness, the more I understand how great His love is. How even the hard things of the past prepared me for these very moments of discovering His abounding love and overflowing compassion anew.

This Christmas my prayer is that your heart is reoriented. That your eyes are refocused. That your mind is caught up anew in the incredible gift of the baby in the manger. The baby who changed everything. The One who came to give us hope. The One who came to bring us from death to life. This Christmas take intentional time to step away from the twinkling lights and gift wrapping and decorating and shopping and remember the powerful gift of the love of a Father who gave His only Son, and of the obedience and love of a Son who went to His death so that you would live.

Love came down and changed everything.

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Living in Exile

On these temporary shores, followers of Christ often feel out of sorts, out of place, out of step with the culture around us. There’s a simple reason. We are not home yet.

“Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” 1 Peter 2:11-12

This fall my daughter is living and studying in the Middle East. She’s traveled quite a bit, but never to a culture quite as foreign to her American Deep South sensibilities. It’s such a dynamic shift, her professor asked her to devote an hour of college credit to a class that would solely prepare her for this new world. She learned everything from how to walk down a street to how to dress to how to buy groceries at the market. Everything about this place would be strange and unfamiliar. It invites lots of potential for embarrassment and awkwardness, and the possibility of conflict and danger if she doesn’t abide by cultural norms. Norms that don’t come naturally to her experience and instinct. Norms that make her feel uncomfortable and ill-at-ease. There’s also a spiritual weight to this place; a heaviness; a darkness; that already feels weighty. She is a stranger in a strange land.

What she is experiencing is a small reflection of what followers of Christ often feel in this world. It just doesn’t feel quite right. Our souls tell us there must be more, and the Word assures us there IS more for those who recognize their sin and accept the gift of grace and forgiveness offered in Jesus. (Romans 10:9;13) But what about the here and now? We’ve been exiled in the desolate place, but, if we’re in Christ, we’re not left alone. Never alone.

Let’s take apart this verse from 1 Peter 2:11-12:
Peter is talking to those in Christ, when he says “beloved” he is speaking to those who have accepted the gift of salvation in Christ, and can now call God their Father. When we are in Christ we can call God our Father. Because we have become beloved children of God and co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:15-17).

blur-branches-foliage-38537Sojourners here means foreigners, strangers, resident aliens. Exiles means temporary residents or refugees. Christians are not in our permanent location; not in the place we were meant to inhabit.

And because we are not home, our soul is still divided between the reality of our exiled location, and the reality of our permanent dwelling place. Evil is present in this culture. It is a part of our existence here. And because we still live in this place inhabited by evil, we aren’t immune to its effects. But Peter says we’re to not give in to our flesh, to the temptations that make us more at home in the place we don’t belong. And most importantly, we need to stand firm in what is true so that others (the Gentiles) can see who God is through our very lives and they will glorify God by finding their way to Him through how we live. Ultimately, we want to take everyone we possibly can into exile with us.

Lately, I’ve been reading through Jeremiah with brand new eyes. Putting followers of Christ in the place of these exiled Israelites. So many of those beautiful promises God gave to the Israelites as they were struggling to assimilate to foreign cultures while longing for their true home, are even more powerful when I apply them to Christians exiles.

“Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” Jeremiah 6:16

“You will seek me and you will find me when you seek me with all your heart.” Jeremiah 29:13

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Jeremiah 29:11

When we read these as aliens and strangers and exiles ourselves, the reality that the future and the hope we have isn’t in this world. It is in Christ. It is in heaven. It is in eternity. We find that future and hope by looking for the ancient paths, by seeking God with all our heart, when we seek we find that all we ever longed for is fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

That seeking though begins with a longing, a gnawing that we were not meant for this place. An uncomfortableness, an unsettledness. As C.S. Lewis said, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probably explanation is that we were made for another world.”

Amen

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Surviving the Doldrums

Finding genuine contentment in the waiting place.

“Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.” Psalm 51:12

When my kids were young my favorite family read-aloud book was a story about a discontented fisherman’s son. All he wanted was to get in his boat, catch a breeze, and sail as far away as he could. But every time he set out he got caught in the doldrums. He was neither moving forward or backward, he was just stagnant. Stuck.

I loved the book so much because I can completely relate to that feeling of stuck-ness. I often picture myself sitting in the middle of the ocean on my pieced-together, Huck Finn raft with my little tree limb mast and mainsail made of old bed sheet staring at the sky, waiting for the wind to move me along to my next destination. But the wind doesn’t come. And my discouragement grows as hot as the sun beating down on my face. There’s not a thing I can do to make the wind pick up and blow me ashore. I just have to wait. And waiting is hard.

At our house, we often call the doldrums the “in-betweens.” Those times in life you find yourself between where you’re leaving and where you’re going. That may be a major transition, say, moving off to college, or it may be something smaller, like a season of stillness between ending a season of active ministry and beginning another. Typically, before the doldrums, there’s a season of mountaintops and valleys when the Lord is showing Himself powerfully. You are awash with His goodness, feel His presence almost tangibly, and hear His voice loudly. But during those in-between times, those waiting times, those doldrums, especially if the waiting lasts for a long season, you find the voice of God grows muffled, and His presence is faint.

51bcvjaaq1l._sx373_bo1204203200_.jpgIn one of the lesser-known Chronicles of Narnia, The Silver Chair, Jill and Eustace arrive in Narnia and meet Aslan on a mountaintop. There Aslan gives them four specific instructions about finding the lost Prince Rilian. He then blows the two down into Narnia below, but gives them this warning, “Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly; I will not often do so in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care it does not confuse your mind. And the signs you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look when you meet them there. That is why is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.”

Aslan knew Jill and Eustace would face the doldrums, a stuck place, and they would need help to find their way back to the truth. In the waiting place, your mind can trick you into believing lies, about yourself and about your Father.

This season I’ve found myself in the deep throes of a nasty, despairing doldrum. I’ve found myself shouting my questions and frustrations to the stillness, “Who am I, Lord?” “Are you there Lord?” “Will you meet with me?” “I can’t do this.” “You can’t use me.” “I am inept and inadequate.” And I wait for His familiar whisper, and it doesn’t come. My heart aches and then I begin to recount what He’s told me so often on the mountain and in the valley. And I begin to take those steps that take me back to what I know:

Step 1: Examine My Heart. (2 Corinthians 13:5; Psalm 139:23-24) I ask the Lord to help me take a good, deep, honest look at my heart and mind. There may be a sinful habit or stinky attitude or some pervasive disobedience I need to bring under the authority of Christ. Repentance always brings restoration.

Step 2: Take the Next Step. (Psalm 37:34) When I am waiting on the Lord, I need to be sure I am seeking to keep His ways. Even, and most especially, if I don’t “feel” like reading my Bible. I read it. When I don’t “feel” like praying, I have to be honest and tell God how I’m feeling. When I don’t “feel” like meeting with that person or doing that Bible study. I do it. One step of obedience at a time. And that obedience is more times than not a serious struggle.

Step 3: Stand Firm on the Truth. (Ephesians 6:13-18) Here’s where faith becomes sight. In the doldrums I may not hear God’s voice clearly; I may not sense His presence, but I don’t have to have those things when I have the Word. I read it. I memorize it. I say it to myself over and over and over again. I can trust his instructions—even when the way is stagnant and foggy. Just as Aslan said, the way those instructions are walked out may not look like I expect (rarely do things turn out like we expect), but I can trust the Author is true to His Word.

Doing these steps while in the doldrums is tough. In the doldrums, apathy tends to want to invade your heart like Southern kudzu. You’ll have to fight to cut back those desires and inclinations of the flesh and find your way back to the truth. As Psalm 27:14 tells us waiting is not inactivity—even in the doldrums, your Abba is working on your behalf. To wait well in the doldrums takes supernatural strength and courage. And God is faithful. You keep seeking Him and one day you’ll find this powerful fresh wind of the Spirit comes and instead of your makeshift raft getting capsized, you’ll find the King has helped you build a sturdy vessel that can withstand the waiting.

“Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” Psalm 27:14

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Seek the Truth

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Philippians 4:8

 “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ear they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” 2 Timothy 4:4

 Most Saturday mornings I try to steal away for a few hours and go on a long walk by myself. Sometimes I’ll just talk to the King, and sometimes I’ll enjoy a virtual companion or two, usually some of my favorite Bible teachers. On one particular long-walk morning last fall, I found myself wrestling with some tough questions. I’d immersed myself in the Word, studied it prayerfully, and the Spirit began to resolve some of my issues. But I found myself needing some extra help sorting through the weeds to get to the good fruit. I knew it was time to seek out some solid counsel.  

pexels-photo-1708936.jpegI have learned over the years to be exponentially cautious when it comes to reliable sources on the Bible. I’ve dubbed my “go to” pastors/teachers the Fab Five. They are people I have put to the “truth test” and have found, though, and probably most importantly, because they aren’t perfect and don’t claim to be, they truly do ask hard questions and see the Word as the infallible, inerrant TRUTH. I started pondering what made these particular men and women stand above the rest, and I discovered they all have these characteristics in common: 

1) They are humble. They recognize they don’t have all the answers and they still have much to learn. They even go so far as to course correct teaching they believe they were mistaken on in the past. This is typically on a nonessential (not pertinent to the truth that Christ is the only WAY to salvation), possibly something that has shifted in them as they have grown in their understanding of the Word, or they’ve simply matured as a follower of Christ. But it’s their desire to live in integrity, in the way they teach, and in the way they rightly handle the Word of truth, that I believe is a vital quality for a Bible teacher.

2) They consider the Bible as the most valuable commentary on the Bible. Every point, every idea, is supported with scripture, and seeking the whole counsel of God’s Word is preeminent in their ministry.

3) They focus on the preeminence of Jesus Christ. Not on a church or on a ministry or a denomination, but on the absolute beauty and power and grace and profoundness of Jesus Christ crucified, died, and risen again for our salvation and sanctification. 

4) They encourage their listeners to examine the truth for themselves. They never teach that their way is the only way to interpret the scriptures, they encourage their listeners to keep them accountable and reassure them that if they have the Holy Spirit as their guide, they have all they need to examine the scriptures. 

5) They don’t try to make the scriptures fit what seems “right in their own eyes” but let the scriptures speak—in context and in power and sometimes in mystery (Deuteronomy 29:29). 

If you are seeking to walk in the truth, be discerning and prayerful about who you go to when you are wrestling with the Word. Go to teachers you know you can trust to equip you and point you directly back to the inspired, inerrant Word of God. Seek out men and women who will pass the litmus test of 2 Timothy 2:15 “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” And remember the truth that follows directly after it in 2 Timothy 2:16 “But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene.” (Gross!). Don’t be afraid to stand firm on truth and put Biblical teachers to the test. Because you too, want to be counted among those who are not ashamed, but are seeking to rightly handle the Word and think on what is true.

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Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. John 8:32

 

 

 

Only God

“I am the Lord and there is no other.” Isaiah 45:5

I often tell my kids that walking with Jesus is a great adventure. It’s not an easy journey—in fact, Jesus himself guaranteed it would be difficult. Yet in the midst of the hard, God reframes your focus and He rewrites the script of your life. And if you pay attention and seek to walk in submission to God, you just might find yourself part of a beautiful story that ONLY GOD could write. The following story is one of those miraculous God stories—not miraculous in the staff-turning-into-a-snake or sick-person-made-well kinda way—but miraculous in the way God orchestrates our lives and brings His people together. It’s a story that can be explained one way — ONLY GOD.  

Before we begin our story, a little background: I am part of an international Bible study ministry. This ministry has local Bible studies in communities across the nation and around the world. The Lord birthed our local ladies Bible study seven years ago and we, through the prayer and support and equipping of our national leadership team, serve our community by discipling ladies, teens, and children through in-depth Bible study. Our local study has a five person servants team who helps lead and shepherd a larger leadership team. We all work as partners in the gospel to bring this Bible study ministry to our area. Though the week to week purpose of our study is to disciple our community through Bible study, the foundation of our ministry is prayer. And we have seen God do some miraculous things, but this year, we got to be a part of a story that spans continents and cultures—something bigger than our minds could ever conceive.

This ONLY GOD story starts in April 2018 with a ministry-wide leadership training meeting in Colorado Springs. At this training were men and women from all over the world. Our local leadership ministry team was at training and through a casual salad bar conversation (because, of course, God works at buffets), one of our team met the National Ministry Director of an East Asian country—a country where untitled-design-4.pngto be a dynamic follower of Christ can mean a death sentence. During their brief conversation, his heart was so overwhelmed with love for his people and their spiritual condition, he honestly and tearfully asked my friend, “Is anyone praying for us?” My friend came back to the table with tears streaming down her face and said, “We have to pray for him.” So we did. When we began our local Bible study in Fall of 2019, we adopted his country as our international prayer focus. We prayed for him and his people each week.

Flash forward to January 2019: As the teaching director for my class, I am required to go to a Teaching Director’s conference every few years to recharge and refocus, and 2019 just happened to be a conference year. Also attending this meeting are our international leadership—regional and national country directors from around the world. Since our encounter with our East Asian friend the year before, our team wanted to let him know we were praying for him. So as a leadership we were praying I would see our friend so I could give him an answer to the question he asked almost a year before, “Is anyone praying for me?”  I wanted to tell him wholeheartedly, “Yes! We are praying for you!”

All weekend I looked forward to our International Meetings. At these meetings we would break up into regions of the world and hear from brothers and sisters around the world about how God was moving in their country and how we could pray for them. When we got to the East Asia Pacific Regional Meeting, I was so excited that our friend was there! Not only was he there, but he seemed to be the spokesperson. Turns out he had been “promoted” to Regional Director of all East Asia-Pacific Countries. Only God.

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After the meeting I noticed there were many people stopping to talk to him. I waited, determined to let our friend know what an impression he made, and that our study was praying for him. I finally got to speak with him, and nervously told him where I was from and relayed the whole story from our training time back in spring of 2018. He smiled and thanked me and said in his thick accent, “Al-ah-bah-ma? You’re from Al-ah-bah-ma? I will be there in two weeks.”

“You will!” I squeaked out excitedly. “What for?”

“My daughter is having (minor corrective) surgery at the children’s hospital in Birmingham. Is that far from your study?” he asked.

At this point, I think I might’ve screamed, “NO! It’s just 15 minutes south of our community. Could I contact you? Would you be able to come visit our class?” He gave me his card and I ran out and texted our team. My first words in the text were “ONLY GOD!”

It was then I realized, I hadn’t asked about his precious daughter having surgery or asked how we could pray for her. How could I be so inconsiderate? So I went back in the room, composed myself, and walked back up to our friend, who now had less of a crowd around him. I apologized for being so thoughtless and asked, “How can I be praying for you? How can I pray for your daughter?” Maybe because the crowd had dwindled, or maybe because of my fumbled apology, the door was opened to a deeper conversation that made him determine in his heart to visit our class. God even uses our mistakes for His good purposes. I’m so thankful He can use a mess like me. Only God.

imagesTwo weeks later, our friend was in Birmingham with his daughter. Her surgery went extremely well and our friends spent their recovery time with a lifelong ministry partner who lives in a small Alabama town. Our study was so excited about the possibility of our East Asian friend and his daughter visiting, but try as we might, logistics were not in our favor. The small town was about an hour and a half from our study and he wasn’t sure he could get transportation; his daughter’s follow up appointments were on the same days our study was to meet. So we prayed. Within a couple of days, his daughter’s follow up appointments were changed and his host “happened” to have a free day on our study day and was able to drive him there. Only God.

The big day arrived and our friend and his young daughter and his pastor/host friend came to visit. He was able to update our class on what the Lord is doing in his part of the world through the study of the Word. He talked about how his people do not have a good translation of the Bible in their heart language (the dialect they speak in their particular area of his country), which makes it so difficult for them to study the Bible. His eyes pooled with tears as he recounted his desire to see his people come to know the Word of God and the God of the Word.

Another thing our friend shared is how much he needed to be refreshed in the Word, how much our prayers meant to him, how much this invitation to visit our study overwhelmed his heart, how much he longed to see those who were going to the throne of God on his behalf. He cried tears of joy when he told us in his broken English that his heart was growing hard and he was growing weary in ministry, but seeing us and being with us and knowing we were praying for him was causing his heart to melt and be renewed.

But what he didn’t realize is that his presence was refreshing and renewing our study, giving us new passion and zeal to carry on with our ministry. Our leaders were growing weary in doing good and needed a reminder that God is at work in our community and around the world. He was spurring us on in obeying God’s call, just as we were spurring him on to walk in his calling. Only God.

As I said good-bye to our East Asian friend, who is now a dear brother in Christ, I stood in absolute amazement. From the Far East, to a salad bar in Colorado Springs, to an awkward invitation in Colorado Springs a year later, to a personal visit to our little suburban Alabama community, how God orchestrated every detail. I know the full purposes of this encounter and this visit have not been fully realized, but I do know our East Asian friend lit a Holy Spirit fire in our Bible study and in our leadership. To see the Lord do something only He can do. To pray specifically and watch Him do what seems impossible. To be a part of the work the Lord is doing in our community and around the world. To give our study a “world” vision. To help them see what a great gift we have in being able to read the Bible and study it for ourselves. ONLY GOD!

God sure does write the best stories! Do you have an ONLY GOD story? We’d love to hear it—leave your story in the comment section.

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Rediscovering Christmas Joy

I’ll go ahead and say it. I don’t like Christmas.

Okay, to clarify, I love the reason for Christmas. I just don’t like the trappings of the season. For me, it’s not the most wonderful time of the year. I don’t feel merry or jolly or any of those emotions well-meaning songs tell me define this time of year. I mostly feel overwhelmed and frustrated. Christmas brings to the surface some deep insecurities, ball-blur-bokeh-712318and reveals some personality quirks I’d rather keep to myself. For example, I’m not a huge fan of organized fun. I don’t love a big gathering. I love people. I love rich conversation, but I don’t love forced conversation or coerced fun. I am horrible; I mean seriously bad, at decorating. I don’t enjoy it. I don’t know what looks good where. I appreciate a beautifully decorated home, but to think of decorating my home for Christmas absolutely paralyzes me. I’m also not so great at the gift giving. I don’t love to shop. I want gifts to have meaning, to carry weight, not to end up stuck in the back of someone’s closet. Thus, trying to find just the right present makes for some serious anxiety. I realize I am in the minority with most of my wonderful friends and family who light up at the sound of a Christmas carol or the sight of Christmas lights. All I can think of when I think of Christmas is “can’t we just skip this year.” Horrible, right? I know. I know.

So now you understand my conundrum, how does a Grinch-like girl find her way to joy during all these Christmas festivities? Thankfully the God who gives the best gifts, and who has an impeccable sense of humor, gave me a son whom we nicknamed ball-blur-bokeh-306864.jpg“Mr. Christmas Cheer.” He LOVES all things Christmas. Every year, around the end of October, we begin having weekly discussions about putting up the tree, playing Christmas music, putting the wreaths on the doors and windows. In years past, my answer was always “after Thanksgiving.” But this year, he was extra persistent. After the 256th time he asked about putting up some form of decoration I asked him why he wanted to decorate so badly, “Because it’s fun, mom. I love Christmas. It’s time to celebrate Jesus!”

At that moment, with those simple words, I began asking God to help me see through his eyes. It’s time to CELEBRATE JESUS! That’s where I’ve gone wrong. That’s where I’ve lost my joy. I mean who is more worthy of celebrating than the King of Kings?! So this year, I’m determined to make my way back to the joy of my salvation. To ask God to remind me of the tenderness and vulnerability and miraculousness of the God who came as a baby. The One who made the universe willingly came, knowing He would be dependent on those He created to take care of Him, to feed Him, clothe Him, keep Him safe. The reality that He lived this human life so He could be the acceptable sacrifice, that He came to give up His life so that we might live, now that is worth a celebration!

 

 

Though my preferences haven’t changed. I still prefer a small gathering. I’m still decorating-challenged and overwhelmed by gift-giving. But Jesus, the One who makes all things new, is slowly growing my heart. He’s reminding me that the beauty of Christmas is keeping my focus on Jesus and how I can show the love of Jesus to others. While that seems like a basic truth, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle of expectations of the “perfect” Christmas. This year, though, I’m putting that ol’ Grinch away, and letting the JOY of the gospel define my holiday season. Who knows, you might even catch me humming a carol or two. This year, may Christ be magnified and may your JOY be full! Merry CHRISTmas!

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful. Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father. Colossians 3:15-17