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

The Letting Go

“…you must learn to hold everything loosely…everything. Even your dear family. Why? Because the Father may wish to take one of them back to Himself, and when he does, it will hurt you if He must pry your fingers loose.” – Corrie Ten Boom

“If you prepare your heart, you will stretch out your hands toward him . . . And you will feel secure, because there is hope; you will look around and take your rest in security.” Job 11:13; 18

animals-baby-birds-bird-nest-1275680.jpgA few years ago, a little family of blue birds built their nest in a nook in one of the columns on our front porch. The kids and I would take turns peeking in the nest, watching the eggs, never touching, always on the lookout for momma blue bird. It wasn’t long into the spring that the eggs hatched and we’d peek in on those baby birds, mouths agape, waiting for their momma to bring them dinner. We could hear their chirping and observed as their momma flew out—never very far away—to find a meal for her babies.

One day we noticed the momma was encouraging those babies out of the nest. She was letting them go for a test flight. The birds had a short route from one column to the next and then back to the nest. They never ventured very far. They would fly out and return in the same pattern for days and weeks. Then we noticed they flew a bit further; to the end of our driveway this time. Then back home to the comfort of the nest. One day we saw those blue birds fly out of the yard and we waited and waited, but there was no return home. Those baby birds had grown up and grown strong and were now setting out to do what God created them to do—to soar.

animals-avian-beaks-1156507I remember watching those birds with tears. I recognized the metaphor. My children, at the time, were too young to realize the significance of those beautiful creatures, and how they were piercing my momma heart. I knew my time was coming. The time was quickly advancing when I would need to send my kids out of the nest to do what God created them to do. But it was years away. Then, I blinked.

Now I’m mom to a college junior, a high school senior and sophomore, and a seventh grader. I’ve sent one bird flying out of the nest. She is soaring above the clouds. She is becoming who God created her to be. She is spreading her wings. And I’ve got three plotting and planning their journey to the next adventure. They are anxious to spread their wings and set out on their own, but those wings still need strengthening. I am learning there are more lessons than I expected as I walk through this season of parenting. Here are a few notes I’ve taken so far:

It’s harder than I expected. I knew sending my girl four and a half hours away to school would be tough. I knew my heart would grieve. I didn’t know how much I would miss the little things. Talking with her after a long day at work. Counseling her about friends and life and holding her hand as I prayed with her. Grabbing her up for a spontaneous road trip or movie or hike. Learning with her; editing her papers. Missing her in her chair at dinner or in her usual spot on the sofa. Squeezing her every morning as she wandered down the stairs in a sleepy haze. Seeing her artwork strewn all over the house. I don’t know if I’ll ever not miss those moments, but the joy begins to overtake the sorrows and I am beginning to recognize those memories as sweet gifts.

It’s filled with gifts of grace. You often wonder how your kids will do when they leave the nest. Have you taught them enough? Did you speak truth to them enough? Did you give them the tools they need to stand firm when they face opposition? Did you pray with them and over them enough? I have found God to be true to His Word in every way. Even when I blew it (which was a lot) and even when I missed it (which was a lot), He filled in gaps and taught my girl. I’ve watched her walk in the truth and press into Jesus. She has become desperate for Him. His guidance. His presence. That, my friends, is grace. In spite of my lack, in spite of my mistakes, and maybe even because of them, God has captured the heart of my child.

It’s essential that they struggle. Those baby birds did not succeed in flying every time they left the nest. But the momma bird didn’t keep them from falling. She let them struggle and encouraged them to try again. Through the struggle, the strength those baby birds needed to soar was worked out. It was through their falling they learned how to get up and try again. My girl has struggled. Her first year away at school was tough. I mean HARD. She faced stress and friendship drama and heartache. She wondered if she could. She wondered if she would. And then she did. She learned how to press into Jesus. She learned how to manage her time. She learned how to forgive. She learned how to find comfort in the arms of her Savior. She learned how to be discerning and humble and kind. She learned how to love well and sacrificially. All those spiritual muscles were built because of those hard things she faced.

It’s better than I imagined. I know that’s a paradox, but there has been a certain beauty in watching my little bird soar. I remember looking at that momma bird as her little birdlings soared through the skies and I could have sworn I saw a glint of pride in her eyes. When I watch my girl now, walking in the truth, learning from her mistakes, working so hard, yet learning to rest in His guidance, all I can see is the faithfulness of my God. All those years of tears and abiding and teaching and wondering and feeling like I was failing my kids, all along, He was holding me. He was holding my children. And He still holds them.

animal-1850188_1280I told my children many years ago, there would be a time when they would need to transfer their obedience to me into obedience to Jesus. Their hearts would need to be fully surrendered to their King. My time with them only serves to model what it looks like to honor and obey their Heavenly Father. They practice with me and their daddy. They learn from us what it is to trust and to respect and to honor and to obey and to seek counsel and to learn and to grow. We are imperfect, fallible parents who struggle with our own humanity and sin. But our job, in all our weakness, is to point them constantly to the perfect parent, their Abba Father, and watch them soar in the shadow of His wings.

Letting go is painful. Letting go is necessary. Letting go is beautiful. Giving them wings is what we seek to do every day as we point them to the One who created them and will hold them as they set out on their own adventure with the King. And we, as parents, don’t want to hold so tightly that God has to pry our hands away. We learn to hold them loosely. And trust that the One who created them is faithful and will be with them every step of the journey. And He is. So we stretch out our hearts and rest in the hope and security of the Savior and sustainer. We let them go and we watch them soar.

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“What If” to “What Is”

Renew your mind by focusing on the “what is” of the Word, not the “what ifs” of worry.

 I was watching one of my favorite television dramas a few weeks ago and the main characters, to get their minds off some potentially bad news, played a game called “It Could Be Worse.” Each person would then name a worse case scenario, and the other person tried to top that worse case. For example, “You could be trapped in a flooding cave.” The other person would retort “You could be trapped in a flooding cave with piranhas eating your toes.”

Isn’t that so like how women view life. Our children struggle with a class and we immediately blame ourselves and panic that they’ll never get into college and they’ll never get a job and they’ll end up living in a van down by the river and it’ll be all our fault. We can go from content to catastrophic in less than 60 seconds. We play the “what ifs” like a roulette game. What if she fails the class? What if he loses his job? What if my child can’t overcome his learning disability? What if I say the wrong thing? What if I blow it as a parent? What if I take a risk to seek a new friendship and get rejected? What if? What if? What if?

CNT8FS9WEAAP2paI have played that game far too many times. The fear of failure and rejection threatened to paralyze me. Then a wise counselor taught me a skill that changed my life. He gave me little pink slips of paper that had two words on them, “reject” and “replace.” I was to write down whatever lie the enemy was using to taunt me and replace that lie with a scripture that spoke truth into that lie. I was replacing the “what if’s” of life with the “what is” of the scripture. I was walking through Paul’s exhortation, “forgetting what lies behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:13-14

This scripture reminded me of three things:

1)      My past is under the blood of Christ. I am forgiven and made new. I don’t need to dwell on guilt or shame or feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. In Christ, those things no longer define who I am nor dictate who I will become.

2)      I need to be intentional in pursuing Christ. Straining is defined as forcing to make a strenuous or unusually great effort. If I am straining toward what is ahead, and the goal is Christ, then I will need to discipline myself to seek after Him, with all I’ve got, every day.

3)      I need to always, always, keep the call of Christ at the forefront of my mind. Keeping my eyes fixed on things of the kingdom and not on things of earth is vital in learning to reject the lies of the enemy.

I spent years walking, trudging, crawling, little by little through the discipline of rejecting and replacing.  I was learning to demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:5) Like Daniel Larusso learned karate by painting fences and waxing cars, I was learning day by day, step by step, how to defeat the enemy of my soul. And I had one far better than Mr. Miyagi as my guide, I had the Holy Spirit deepening my understanding of the truth.

After years of little pink slips of paper floating around my Bible, my purse, my car, my desk at work, one day I realized I was beginning to reject and replace without even consciously thinking about it. After years of constantly being transformed by the renewing of my mind, I was noticing a difference. I stood firm on the truth. I was applying what I was learning to every aspect of my life. I was seeing myself more like God saw me. I was confident, not in myself, but in the Creator God who loves me, redeems me, is making me new, and delights in me. One day I woke up and realized the despair I typically felt every day was being replaced with delight in the Father and basking in that delight helped me love deeper, and discover peace and joy and hope like I’d never had before.

So if you’re spending all your time focusing on the “what if’s” I want to encourage you to get out of that dark, vicious cycle of worry and anxiety and frustration and anger. I want you to find your way to standing firm on “what is.”

Consider starting with these verses:

Reject:

God doesn’t love me. He doesn’t care about me.

Replace:

“But now, this is what the Lord says,–he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel; Fear not for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush and Seba in your stead. Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give men in exchange for you, and people in exchange for your life.” Isaiah 43:1-4

 

Reject:

God can’t be trusted—especially with my “what ifs.”

Replace:

“He will have no fear of bad news; his heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord.” Psalm 112: 7

 

Reject:

God doesn’t hear me. He doesn’t care if I’m hurting.

Replace:

“He will call upon me and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him. With long life will I satisfy him and show him my salvation.” Psalm 91:15-16

 

Now start your own list and replace those “what ifs” with the “what is” of the Word of God. You can even use little pink cards if you like. 😊

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Until the Cloud Moves

“The flesh can bear only a certain number of wounds and no more, but the soul can bleed in ten thousand ways, and die over and over again each hour.” ~ Charles Spurgeon

 Our power had been out for hours. As my husband walked in the house that night, the silent darkness became a fitting metaphor. I knew weeks before the black cloud of despair and anxiety and depression had descended. My precious husband, former Marine and high school football and wrestling coach, and now successful business owner, the strongest person I know, was broken. He was soul weary and in such deep agony of heart it overwhelmed him, and me.

adult-couple-dating-951290.jpgWe sat at our kitchen table in the dark for a long, long time. I held his hands. He spoke broken sentences about fear and failure and sadness and worry. But much of what he communicated, even in the heavy blackness was too agonizing for words. Psalm 77:4 says “I am so troubled that I cannot speak,” and that is exactly where he was. There was nothing I could do but cry out to God on His behalf. The more he expressed his despair, the more the Spirit of God reminded me of truth—the reality of living on these earthly shores is suffering, but God is not a God who is far away, He is a God who is near.

After we wept together and he surrendered his wounded heart, I asked him quietly, “Can I pray for you?”. He nodded through tears. As I prayed over him and our tears splashed on the tile floor, the weight of the moment and the difficulty of the journey that lie ahead shrouded us, yet there was a certain peace, a knowing that the God who created us and knows us and loves us and calls us by name was there, in our midst, reminding us He would be with us. No matter the darkness of the moments, no matter the heaviness of our souls, He would be there. Every moment, every tear, every prayer, He hears and He will never leave us nor forsake us. Ever.

As I’ve walked through this dark cloud of depression with my husband, I’ve realized many, if not all, the men God used to illustrate His goodness and glory in the Bible walked through depression, as have many more contemporary saints.

David cried out in Psalm 22:1 “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me from my groaning?”

In Psalm 42:11 David says, “Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me?”

Elijah cried out in despair in 1 Kings 19:4 “I’ve had enough Lord. Take my life, I am not better than my ancestors.”

In Jonah 4:3 the prophet said in anger, “Now O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

Job’s life was a study in suffering. He says in Job 3:26 “I have no peace, no quietness, I have no rest, but only turmoil.”

Moses was overwhelmed with the weight of the sin of Israel, “But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.” Exodus 32:32

Many, many great men of God also suffered from a melancholy soul. George Mueller, Hudson Taylor, D.L. Moody, and Charles Spurgeon all dealt with the dark cloud of depression. Yet, the Lord used them mightily for His good purposes. These men all carried the weight of souls heavily and felt a supernatural compulsion to care for others, serve others, and share with others the hope of the gospel of Christ.

But perhaps the most beautiful comfort and solace when the black cloud is hovering is found in Hebrews 4:15-16 “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

black-and-white-cemetery-christ-208315.jpgJesus understands our weaknesses because He walked through them. He knows anguish. He knows sadness and heartache. Because He knows, we can come before him knowing He will receive us with mercy and grace and will carry us in the valley and walk with us as we find our way to standing firm in the truth.

If you find yourself under a stormy cloud, or if you know someone who is fighting their way through the darkness, there are a few practical things you can do.

          Memorize and mediate on the Word. Romans 12:2 says we are transformed by the renewing of our mind. Our mind is renewed only when we paint over the lies with truth. That is done by plastering our mind with the Word of God. The first thing I did after praying over my husband was enlist my kids to help in posting scriptures on my husband’s bathroom mirror. Every morning he is bombarded with truth.

          Be prayerful. We can go before that throne of grace with confidence knowing God knows and hears and cares. We can go before Him honestly and express our despair and our agony. He is a safe place and He is the One who will reveal truth and show you the way out of the darkness. “Pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us.” Psalm 62:8b

          Be patient. Healing takes time. The darkness can linger for days, weeks, months, sometimes years. Give yourself or your loved one time and space to find their way out of the dark.

          Seek help. After praying and posting scripture, I encouraged my husband to reach out to some close friends. Friends I knew would exhort him in the truth and keep him accountable. Counseling by a Biblically grounded professional counselor is also a valuable tool. In many cases, there is a physiological component to depression. Don’t be afraid to seek out a medical professional.

          Serve others. In Philippians 2 Paul says “Let each of you look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” When we look outside ourselves and look for ways we can serve those around us, it helps us put our circumstances in perspective. The day after the darkest night at our kitchen table, God sent a precious family to our tire store. My husband was able to help meet a need for them. The father of this family was an older gentlemen who happened to be a follower of Christ. He took time to encourage my husband in the truth. By helping this family my husband received a needed blessing.

 One of the most beautiful aspects of the Psalms is the way David, in his depression and in his despair, always comes back to the truth, the reality of the God who is.

In Psalm 22 which begins with a passionate cry to the Lord for help out of his groaning and despair David says this, “YET you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame.”

It requires a supernatural strength to look up to heaven, to will yourself to speak the truth when your heart isn’t cooperating. But until the cloud moves, keep standing firm on what the Word says is true about who you are and who your God is. He will meet you right where you are and He will carry you– every step of the way.

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Choose to Serve the King

“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in His ways, and by keeping His commandments and His statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it . . . I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore, choose life . . .” Deuteronomy 30:15-16,19

When my oldest daughter was knee-deep in her preteen years, my husband and I began praying about instituting a marker of some sort. A type of “welcome to young art-backlit-beach-256807.jpgwomanhood” memorial stone, a keepsake for her future self to hold onto as the winds of life began to blow stronger and more forcefully. We wanted to have some hard conversations with her, speak truth to her, explain God’s standards for young womanhood, and pray over her. We wanted to prepare her heart and mind for the road ahead; to set a strong foundation so when temptations began knocking on her heart’s door she would have already made the decision about how she would respond. And we wanted to let her know, ultimately, whether or not she chose to serve the King with her life, that would have to be her choice. No matter how hard I might try, I can’t force my girl to love her Savior with all her heart, soul, mind, and strength. That would have to be her decision wrapped up in the small decisions she made, and makes, every single day.

images1.jpegAs we were praying and researching I happened upon a “retreat in a box” called “Passport to Purity.” It was perfect. It was created to be a weekend getaway with mother and daughter, or father and son. It opened the door to those conversations about sex, sexuality, dating, and making wise choices. It gave the Biblical standard, God’s best, for keeping your heart, mind, and body pure concerning relationships with the opposite sex. It forced my husband and me to determine how we would help our girl live out God’s standards of purity in her life. It made us clearly define terms and boundaries and expectations. It also gave us opportunity to affirm and encourage the beautiful young woman she was becoming. We asked significant people in her life to write letters to her offering encouragement and exhortation specific to who she was. The retreat even laid out a plan for refreshment, instructing us to plan some fun in the midst of a weighty weekend.

nashville-603780_1280So we planned our trip. My girl was totally on board and excited about the prospect of this memory-making moment. I let her plan the location and the activity (Nashville and facials). I collected letters and prayed and prepared and we set off on our trip. But the Lord had a life altering surprise waiting for us. A spiritual marker that continues to impact my girl and me.

My daughter had been asking for years if she could get her ears pierced. I kept refusing her request. Looking back, I’m not even sure why I kept telling her no, except that the Lord had something beautiful in store. When she asked again on the way to our special trip, the Lord began whispering in my ear. “Make this a memorial stone. Make this a significant, tangible marker for her.” And He took me back to Exodus 21:1-6. In this passage, the law is stated for slaves. According to Hebraic law, slaves should serve for six years and the seventh they are to go free. But “if a slave plainly says, ‘I love my Master .  .  . I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever.” According to this law, a pierced ear was an indication that you CHOSE to serve your master forever, because you loved your master.

As my daughter and I sat down to discuss some serious spiritual truth, I presented this truth to her. I prayed for her heart to be open and ready to hear. I prayed that she wouldn’t simply seek to get her way by telling me what she thought I wanted to hear. I this-way-718660_1280.pngasked for discernment as I listened to her responses to my questions. As we came to the end of our conversation, I asked her, “Will you choose to walk in the way of your Master? Will you choose to love Him with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength? Will you choose to serve Him with your life? Will you choose to submit to His ways? Will you choose to become a slave to righteousness (Romans 6:18-19)?”

My girl had recognized her sin and her need for a Savior and asked Jesus to rescue her soul when she was six years old. This wasn’t a question of salvation, but of submission to the full Lordship of Jesus Christ. As I listened to her responses, as we cried together, as we prayed together, I believed she was indeed, with all the maturity a preteen can, offering me a sincere answer to my questions. So, after our facials we set off to the mall. Thankfully, boring the ear with an awl has given way to a little piercing gun. It was such a sweet, significant moment in my life, and I prayed it would truly be a memorial stone for her.

Flash forward eight years, my preteen is now about to turn 19. She’s walked through her middle, high school, and now her freshman year of college, in grace and truth. She’s stuck to her convictions in difficult places and spent lonely days as friends have forsaken her. She’s certainly had some obstacles and speed bumps along the way. She’s struggled. She’s longed for what others had. But she’s followed her Master and continues to ear-207405_1280surrender her life to Him. She actually had her ears triple pierced recently. I asked her why, and she took me back to that memorial stone moment. “Mom, it’s just a needed reminder that I belong to my Master. He is mine and I am His.” And I thank God for His gentle whispers and His grace and mercy, His Word, and the choice my girl made to serve her King. It’s not an easy choice, or an easy road, but He alone is worth it. Because there is none like Him.

 

 

In Praise of the Ordinary Woman

Our ordinariness offers us kinship with our Savior and reveals the extraordinary love of God.

I am average. I promise I’m not being self-deprecating. As my teens would say, it is what it is. I am average height. I’m not a tiny person nor a tall person. I’m average weight. I even wear a size, wait for it, medium. I have medium brown hair, not dark brown, not light brown, just medium. I’m average looking. I’ve quite often been traveling, and a random person will tell me I look “just like” one of their friends. Yep, because I look like every other middle-aged soccer mom. My name is even average; given to every other girl born between 1970 and 1975.  I used to get frustrated at my ordinariness. Every person wants to have one thing that makes them special, makes them a superstar in some way. I am no different. Yet as I pondered my ordinariness, I kept coming back to Isaiah 53:2:

quaking-grass-1837773_1280“For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.”

When Jesus walked the earth, there was nothing about his appearance that would draw someone to him. He wasn’t tall and handsome like Saul, or even “ruddy and had beautiful eyes, and handsome” like David. His name was even average. The name of every other Jewish boy born in his day. At the end of the day when moms called their kids home for dinner I’m sure the shout of “Jesus! Dinner!” had twenty boys turning their heads. If you lived in the time of Jesus and passed him on the street, you probably wouldn’t have noticed him. Maybe that’s why in Matthew 13, the folks that watched Jesus grow up in Nazareth asked, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things? And they took offense at him.” (13:54-57). In other words, how could this ordinary young man with no apparent special gifts or abilities or appearance to speak of, be doing these extraordinary things?

They didn’t understand that what made Jesus extraordinary was not his appearance or his earthly name or his earthly heritage or even his occupation as a carpenter’s apprentice. All those outward things that we too often put a premium on in our culture—appearance, family, popularity, power, position, achievement–He wasn’t extraordinary because of any of those markers. What made Him extraordinary was who He was—Son of God and Son of Man. That makes His coming to earth even more incredible. He condescended to us—became human. He didn’t enter humanity as the supernatural King of Kings. He came as an average Joe, a regular guy. A man who could identify with His creation deeply and profoundly. He experienced life, not as the King He was, but as an ordinary man. So He could fulfill these words, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15)

 

Jesus came and lived an ordinary life, was an ordinary man, and it was in His ordinariness that He could become the perfect sacrifice, could fulfill the extraordinary purpose of becoming the Savior of the world. The only One who could defeat sin and death and establish an eternal kingdom. Because of Jesus, this ordinary girl has access to an extraordinary God. This God who makes all things new. This God who wants us to come in our weakness and our ordinariness so that we can point others to an extraordinary God. A God who loves us right where we are and just as we are, yet doesn’t leave us as we are. A God who delights in His creation, all of us, those the world perceives as ordinary and those the world perceives as especially gifted or talented or beautiful.

And it is in Christ, that I have a new identity as a daughter of the King, an extraordinary position for this ordinary girl. I didn’t have to earn that position. I didn’t have to look a certain way, or make a certain grade, or perform a certain task, or have a certain ability or achievement. Claiming this new identity simply required my humility to understand I am a broken and needy sinner and I need a Savior, and to receive the gift God offers through Jesus Christ.

I am ordinary. But I serve an extraordinary God. So I will embrace my ordinariness, and allow the extraordinariness of God to define my life. Because when I recognize who I am, the reality that the God of the universe loves me so much He became ordinary for a time so He could rescue me and make me new, is even more mind-blowing. I am nothing special, but my God sees me as someone worthy of His very life. He loved this average girl so much that He came and died for her. And that makes my God extraordinary. And when you are enveloped in His love, and He calls you His daughter, you become an extraordinary reflection of His love.

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When I Call on Jesus – Nicole C. Mullen