Put Your Walking Shoes On

I was struck by something in John 15 yesterday that I hadn’t really thought about before. It’s the passage of Scripture where Jesus tells his disciples that he is the vine and they are the branches. To bear fruit they must stay connected to him, because apart from the vine the branches can do nothing. They die and wither and produce no fruit.

In the midst of that He tells them that God is glorified when they bear much fruit. A few verses later he says,

“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the father in my name, he may give it to you.”

Hey guys, don’t forget: this was our big idea, not yours.

I think this was an important reminder for them, given the fact that Jesus would be leaving them soon. He chose them – they didn’t choose him. The responsibility to produce is shifted off their shoulders and onto his.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the people Jesus chose to be his disciples. We don’t know much about some of them, but we do know there were a few fishermen, a tax collector, a zealot and a doubter (poor Thomas). It’s a mix and match bunch of people – none of which one would expect to start a religious movement that would change the world.

The fishermen were not seen as educated people, the tax collector was hated by the Jewish people because he was a sellout to Rome, who was stealing money from them. Far from the peaceful way of Christ, the zealot was looking to overthrow Rome in a violent uprising.

Until they were chosen by Jesus.

Sometimes I struggle with who I am. Really, my issue is with how I express and present myself. I feel like such a mix and match mess of a person – unpredictable, at best, and embarrassing, at worst.

One minute I’m making jokes and the next I’m trying to dive deep into who God is and what He is saying to us. So, which is it? Am I going to be a comedian or will I be a person to be taken seriously?

I can’t tell you how often I ask myself, “What is wrong with you?”

The thing I was struck by in John 15 yesterday, though, is that God chooses us, as we are, to go and bear fruit. He knows my pendulum swings, and yet, he can and will use me to bear fruit so long as I stay connected to him.

Whatever those things are that you don’t like about yourself, whatever mistakes you’ve made, whatever ideology you hold to, he takes you as is. He refines, he prunes, he changes us, but he isn’t put off by us.

He only needs you to trust Him. The vine feeds and energizes the branches, not the reverse.

Those things that make no sense in your own mind don’t baffle him. The answer to “What is wrong with me?” might be,

“Nothing.”

He chose you to go and bear fruit. The work is his for you to simply cooperate with. He planned good works for you to do, in advance, that you might walk in them (Ephesians 2:10).

The road before you is paved.

Put on your walking shoes and get going.

What Do You Need to Know When the Boogieman Comes?

The Boogieman.

Boogie-man?

I don’t know where the name comes from, because I don’t feel like asking the Google, but it looks innocent enough. Why is he so scary? Maybe he would seem less scary if we pictured him in a white polyester suit, a la John Travolta. “Hey, fear not. I just came to boogie.”

But no. The Boogieman, while totally fictional, represents any number of hidden, unforeseen dangers that might sneak up on us at any given moment. And we don’t outgrow our fear of him just because we grow up. Our fear just takes on a more “mature” form: concern, worry, dutifulness, being careful or vigilant.

Our kids used to love to watch the Veggie Tales movie, God is Bigger Than the BoogieMan. They mostly loved the song of the same name, because of the funny dance Bob, Larry and Junior Asparagus do while they’re singing.

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It was entertaining but, at the same time, it bothered me. I felt like the overall idea communicated was that because God is bigger, bad things won’t happen. One thing I don’t want to do is give my kids false ideas that will eventually cause them to question God’s goodness if things don’t play out the way I promised them they would.

As for me, I had seen the boogieman come to someone I loved dearly, and to her family. For them he came in the form of cancer. After watching her endure ten or so months of treatment, and her eventual death, I could most definitely not tell my kids that bad things don’t happen when we trust God.

I never believed that, anyway. All we have to do is look around to see the truth in that.

So, what do I tell them? What do we tell ourselves, when the proverbial boogieman comes?

I think what we say is that God is with us when we suffer. He draws near to the brokenhearted. He is Immanuel, God with us – really. He is a real person, with real thoughts and emotions. He wants us to talk to Him, honestly, about our pain and anger and fear.

I think we tell ourselves that He is slow to anger and rich in mercy. He is faithful when we are faithless. He stands in the gaps for us when we are weak and questioning.

I think we tell ourselves that God suffers when we suffer. This world isn’t what it was made to be, or what it will be one day. We are caught in the in-between, where life is crazy beautiful and sometimes crazy painful. But, He isn’t standing aloof, uninterested in how things are playing out. Never forget that Jesus is a suffering savior, and if we’ve seen Him, we’ve seen God.

I think we remind ourselves that across the finish line is the fullness of His presence and joy. This isn’t the end…it’s barely even the beginning. God actually is bigger than the boogieman, and He wins.

I think we remember that He gave us each other. We are the human embrace of Christ to those in pain. We cannot survive alone. It’s hard, really hard, to sit with people who are suffering, sometimes, because we feel helpless to fix it. The good news is, they don’t want us to fix it – that’s the opposite of what they need and want. All we really have to do is be there. In some cases, we meet practical needs, or feed them, and that can be a ministry to the soul. But, the deeper things are left to the Lord. The bottom line is that we are God’s plan to care for a broken world. Love and sacrificial service are the highest callings.

I think we declare that God is good. At His very core, He is love and goodness. Everything He does flows from that place. We can trust Him.

And, we do pray. We do ask God to intervene. We ask Him to comfort, to heal, to mend broken hearts, to speak life to dead situations, to bring justice, to help us in our doubts or anger. He is our source.

I wrestled for a long time after Summer died. It wasn’t because I was disappointed with God or because I expected healing and didn’t see it. I never doubted His goodness or faithfulness or nearness.

My wrestle was with how He interacts with us here, and what we can and should really expect from Him. What are the promises we can cling to wholeheartedly? What can I teach my kids about His character? What does His goodness look like? What can I pray for with bold faith?

I don’t think my wrestle is fully done – I don’t have all the answers – but the things I listed above are solid for me. Those are the things I believe with my whole heart and they’re all I need for now.

I think what I want my kids to know about God and the Boogieman, is that God always wins. Love wins. And, if we turn toward Him, we win.

Unseen: The Gift of Being Hidden in a World That Loves to be Noticed

**Note: the Giveaway has ended**

Hey friends, today I have something a little different for you: a guest post from Sara Hagerty and a GIVEAWAY! I recently finished reading an advance copy of Sara’s new book, Unseen: The Gift of Being Hidden in a World That Loves to be Noticed.

Y’all, it’s good.

If you know what it is to feel uncelebrated or misunderstood, to grieve or to be stuck in a hard situation with no end in sight, this is your book. It’s an invitation to pour ourselves out before God, in the midst of pain, and find our definition in Him.

Let’s go ahead and hear from Sara and when you finish reading, scroll aaalllllll the way to the bottom, enter your email address in the box and click “subscribe” (you are not actually subscribing to anything, just entering to win. I promise). A winner will be chosen at random on Monday night, and the book will be shipped by Zondervan.

Now, here’s Sara…

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Still in the fog of morning sluggishness and with a thinly veiled air of motherly annoyance, I dropped my four older children at soccer practice with water bottles and balls and snacks in baggies. I thought perhaps I could use a few laps around a field to clear my head. So I put two-year-old Bo in the stroller with no plan for where to walk, just knowing I needed to pound it out on the pavement.

The chaotic early morning rush to get everyone ready and out the door had shredded my nerves. I struggled to like my kids in that single moment, and I surely didn’t like myself. I was remembering why we didn’t do these early morning activities very often.

On days like this, I have to whittle life down to one passage, which is part of training my eyes to see wonder: “On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on yourvwondrous works, I will meditate. They shall speak of the might of your awesome deeds, and I will declare your greatness” (Ps. 145:5–6 ESV).

I pushed and pounded harder than necessary to move the stroller, but with as much exertion as I needed to work out the morning’s frustrations. I recited these verses in my head a dozen times while replaying the last forty-five minutes of trying to hustle everyone out the front door. The flustered child whose water bottle didn’t have as much ice as she wanted. The missing shin guard. The squealing baby and the car seat stained from last week’s takeout that I’d forgotten to clean.

Then this one phrase interrupted my venting: “I will declare your greatness.”

The morning wasn’t great. They were grumpy. I was terse. They were late. I was unforgiving. They joined a field of players who had lily-white skin and families that from the outside certainly looked more intact than ours. This morning held so much more than soccer, and very little of it was great by my standards. But I would find Him, here.

Is this a time to reach back and remember? I wondered. To declare the greatness of the God who hurdled mountains of paperwork impossibilities to bring our children home? The God who brought them today onto a soccer field with breakfast in their bellies and a mommy who would ask their forgiveness when practice was over? The God who made this toddler in the stroller in front of me, after my womb was empty for twelve years?

A small flash of color on the path caught my eye, and I swerved the wheels of the stroller to miss a brilliant blue eggshell.

“Look, Bo!” I said pointing, still halfway lost in my thoughts. “A birdie was in that egg!”

“Egg. Egg. Eggie!” Bo’s voice grew louder with each repetition. I set my feet back on the path and my mind back on the Psalms: “On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate . . . I will declare your greatness.”

With each phrase of the passage, the erratic pounding of my heart was recalibrating, finding its steady rhythm again. I was telling my soul what was true as if it were undergoing CPR. The morning still felt messy. I was relieved our long-term houseguest hadn’t witnessed my behavior, and I didn’t really want to tell Nate about it later. But I did want to repent to my children. I had spent long years without ever asking for forgiveness from Nate in our early married days, so my desire to repent was significant. God was doing a work in me.

As we continued on the path, Bo intermittently interrupted my thoughts with “Oh!” pointing in childlike wonder to a tree and then a car and back at the eggshell as we passed it on our return trek. And now I couldn’t seem to get my mind off it. This shell struck me as so much more than a discarded home for a baby bird. This small piece of God’s created order evoked a question I’d been asking with my life but hadn’t put into words until this morning: What is greatness to You, God? What are Your wondrous works?

I’d seen God’s greatness in the miracle ruling in the Ugandan court system that granted two children a home in our family. My marriage is a wonder—we made it through the rise and fall of a business and the rise and fall of our stubborn hearts. My children, though I might have thought them ruffians that morning, were having parts of their broken hearts restored. All of these were glorious wonders.

But the eggshell. And the soccer practice down the street. Wonders?

God was inviting me to reconsider the ever-unfolding opportunities for wonder around me. There were opportunities for awe at God in even the most unlikely moments, and my eyes needed to be trained to see them as much as my heart needed to be trained to engage them. God was available, infused into my every minute, but my flesh was bent toward independence. I hadn’t been trained to see Him in the eggshell. Or at soccer practice.

I could see the wonder of God in the knowing look Nate gave me across the kitchen island the night before when he heard me encouraging a child he knew would be easier for me to critique. I was in awe of God as my daughter, who has a painful history, slid her hand into mine at church while we sang, “I see heaven invading this place.” I was invited to wonder later that day when I shut the door to my bedroom to ask Him for help with a different (presently difficult) child. He was wondrous when I didn’t have time to text friends for prayer but paused to talk to Him in the midst of chaos and felt that permeating peace that could be attributed only to God. And wonder was in my children who were merely players on a field to most spectators of the game, but who were beginning to understand that they are a son and daughters when no one but God, Nate, and I are looking.

Yes, the eggshell and the soccer practice are wonders. These things are beautiful because they point to a Creator God who both sees and orchestrates the glorious details of life. Who reaches into my minutes. These things have the power to cause me to look at Him, if I step back and let them. They have the power to move my heart, if I let it engage. Dozens of minutes every day are shot through with this wonder, pregnant with potential to draw our eyes up to God. Our flitting eyes, with just as many opportunities to behold things that won’t nourish our souls, need to be trained to see them. They need to be trained to see the face of Jesus.

The house fills with the fragrance of oil. The whole earth fills with His glory. My soul fills with awareness of His wonder. Today.

And before long, I’m unwinding, sitting before Him in the small moments of the day, sliding my watch off my wrist and looking up to Him alone.

How to Keep Your Bathroom Clean (or, Deal With Your Anger Before it Deals With You)

I’ve been wrestling with anger lately. It’s a latent, low grade anger that’s been resting under the surface, just outside of my awareness, but which is now surfacing.

This is due to my habit of stuffing hurts, trying to push through, keep the peace, avoid conflict and do what’s right. Or, what seemed right.

As I’ve spent time praying, asking Him to show me anything that hinders me, He’s has been faithful to do it – little by little.

Who of us could handle everything all at once?

Anger about what, you ask?

There’s no sense in detailing it, because, honestly, we’d be here a long time and it’s all simply a product of people being imperfectly human. It’s nothing that isn’t common to us all. Nothing I’ve experienced is special or unique.

The bottom line of it is that I’m angry that I’ve spent most of my life trying to be someone other than who I’m supposed to be. Various things along the way knocked me further and further off track, until I don’t even know who I am.

Am I supposed to follow what I feel God speaking to me or what’s expected of me? Am I supposed to avoid rocking the boat or not? Should I try to be invisible to avoid the pain of rejection or get thicker skin?

I am reminded of the movie, About Schmidt. It’s about a man, Warren Schmidt, who has a bad case of latent anger.

After retiring from years at a job he doesn’t really love, his wife suddenly passes away.

As the story unfolds, Warren discovers a painful secret his wife had been keeping from him, and years of resentments begin to surface – including the fact that his wife always made him sit down on the toilet to use the bathroom. She didn’t want the mess, so she trained him not to make a mess.

In a moment of defiance, he walks into the bathroom and goes crazy, spraying every surface as he relieves himself, laughing like a mad man.

He had been going along to get along, all the while resenting the attack on his independence and his personhood. And he was so done with that.

Sorry for the gross image and analogy, but…

I don’t want to end up like Warren Schmidt because I’ve been trying to please anyone other than God, or because I have spent my life trying to be what I can never be.

I want to go ahead and deal with whatever is brooding under the surface. I want God to have full access to my heart, every room and dark corner.

Whatever we don’t deal with will eventually turn and eat us for lunch. Or make us do things we’ll later regret (like destroying the bathroom).

Anger is usually justified, initially, but often it becomes a safe alternative to feeling sadness. I say safe because it allows us to focus on the offender rather than take a look at what we are feeling. It’s a way to mitigate pain.

Rejection, belittlement, abuse, neglect, loss, or whatever has come your way, or mine, hurts. We have a choice to deal with it head on or choose to avoid it.

I’m a classic avoider.

The thing I want to share is that I’m discovering the way to wholeness in Christ is directly through the wilderness.

And when I say directly, I mean zig-zaggy, circling the same mountain, north to south back to the north to the east and back again. It’s not a straight line.

The wilderness has been a lonely place where I’m learning to depend on God for every single thing. It’s where I learn to acknowledge my own pain, anger, confusion, hypocrisy, pride, desires, sin, temptation, and every other thing under the sun. It requires complete honesty. I’ve had few tantrums along the way.

We’re safe with Him. Jesus has also been tempted in every way. He’s done the wilderness thing already – fought his demons and won.

Wilderness is where we go to fight our demons, too, and we don’t fight alone. You need an answer? He has it for you.

I think what I’m ultimately mad about is that I was thrown so far off course by things which were completely outside of my control. It wasn’t my choice. I didn’t ask for this crap.

But isn’t that the condition of all humanity, to some extent? Thrown from the womb into an unpredictable world, we all get redirected from what God intends for us, to greater or lesser degrees.

We don’t have a choice about that. But we do get to choose how we will respond. We aren’t helpless, as adults.

The wilderness is an invitation to return to original design and to the ultimate promise of wholeness. But, it’s only an invitation. We are the ones who must accept and begin the journey.

If you want a free heart and a clean bathroom, accept the invitation – you won’t be left alone. He is here. And there are a whole bunch other people out here, too.

Don’t stay stuck in your pain or anger or confusion. Find out who he really is and who you really are. And then be that.

We’re all out here cheering you on.

Concentric learning

I just recently heard the phrase, “concentric learning.” It was attributed to J.I. Packer but I haven’t been able to find out where exactly it comes from, as far as which of his books, or else I’d give proper credit.

The idea, as I heard it, is that we are continually cycling through phases of learning, coming back to the same things again and again, but going deeper each time around. We grow in competency with every cycle. This made total sense to me.

Have you ever wondered why you keep circling back around to the same issues, situations, or questions, which you previously thought you had resolved? Have you noticed that each time you have to wrestle something out with God, you come away with deeper understanding than you had before?

I certainly have.

I’ve discovered that there are deep places in me where I thought I had come to resolution, only to find that, no, I still had more work to do.

We are also prone to hide from pain or temptation or seemingly unanswerable questions, thinking we have successfully dealt with it if we don’t think about it any more.

That’s not how this thing works.

Our ultimate goal is to know God, and to know Christ. That’s the definition of eternal life in John 17. We can’t really know Him if we don’t seek Him out, let Him dredge up the stuff down at the bottom of our hearts, and dialogue with him (pray) about it.

I’m beginning to see that my deepest fear has not so much been what others could do to hurt me, but rather, my own darkness.

Maybe I’m not the only one.

We wonder, “What am I capable of? What could have become of me? What if people knew the depths of my own past sin? Why can’t I get rid of that temptation? Am I forgiven?”

“What if I never change? Is something wrong with me? What does it say about me that I was treated that way? Did I somehow deserve it or cause it?”

I think that’s what many of us are hiding from, whether we’re conscious of it or not. It’s shame.

Some are better than others at compensating for it, by performing and being perfect. I have no such capability. I’m coming to see that as a gift.

Others get trapped in addiction. There are many ways to mitigate pain, but none solve the problems. Usually we end up creating new ones.

The good news is that if we are allowing God access to our hearts, there’s no way we won’t change and begin to see more clearly. There’s no darkness too dark for Him (even the darkness is not dark to Him – Psalm 139). “There’s no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still,” says Corrie ten Boom. Even a pit of your own making.

Maybe the reason we keep circling back around to the same old hurts, temptations, situations and questions is that He is diving deeper and deeper into our dark hidden places to bring greater healing and cleansing.

Maybe?

If we are wise we will pay attention to these stirrings and turn to God in them. We’re free to come boldly to Him, like brazen toddlers who won’t be deterred. He’s a good father and wants to heal us and make us whole. He wants us to see like He sees.

We can trust the Holy Spirit to do his work. (We need to remember that for the other people in our lives, too.)

If we choose to ignore these opportunities, they will come back around. Might as well just face them.

Looking for the gifts

I wrote the following six years ago. I had no idea what was coming and how I would experience this, personally. Or how to really live it.

Long seasons of difficulty, with no end in sight were ahead. We all have those things in life, to varying degrees.

I’m still learning to see the gifts in hardship, but I’m more convinced than ever that they are there. Not every situation is good, or is caused by God – I don’t believe that – but would He be God if He couldn’t give us good things despite our pain?

He is and He can. Give us eyes to see…

The Riches of His No (Jan. 21, 2011)

The kids and I were in the car the other day and we were listening to “Forever Reign,” from Hillsong Live. There’s a line that says, “the riches of your love will always be enough…” Riley asked me what “the riches of His no,” was. She had heard it wrong.

I was thinking about that this morning because the song was on again on my way to the grocery store, and something hit me…the riches of His “no.”

Have you ever thought about that? That there are riches, things to be gained and won, when He says, “No,” or when He seems slow to move to answer prayer or rescue us from situations that are uncomfortable, stressful or painful?

Listen to these:

“Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” Romans 5

“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” Genesis 50

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us?” Romans 8

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” James 1

My natural tendency when I am in distress is to ask to be rescued. “God, make it go away!”

But often, He says, “Not yet.”

When those not yets come, what then? “Consider it pure joy.”

Say what?

According to these verses, there are some good things that come from suffering and trials…perseverence, wisdom, patience, maturity, character, and even hope, of all things.

Hope in the midst of hardship? Absolutely.

Our hope is not in circumstances changing, but in the One who has the power to change them…or not change them. When you shift your focus off of feeling better, and shift it toward God, toward bringing Him glory in all things, you gain an eternal perspective.

And that’s where hope is…in the joy set before us – ahead of us – and that can give us joy now.

We are not completed works. We are in process…we haven’t become, but are becoming. In order to become something beautiful, something pure and spotless, without mixture…24K…we have to go through the fire – the Refiner’s fire.

Don’t serve your circumstances; make them serve you. What the enemy means for harm, God intends for good. Stay in the process and plunder the situation for its riches – take everything out with you that you can.

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. James 1:12

Becoming real

I’ve been thinking about how sometimes it takes us a long time to grow into things we know to be true.

Maybe I should say, it usually takes a long time.

It’s one thing to understand Christian life, in our minds, but it’s another thing altogether to get to the place where we can live it consistently and demonstrate that understanding.

It’s not because the power of God is insufficient, it’s just that we are humans. With issues. And habits. And pains. And histories. And we live with other humans.

And by the way, it’s not bad to be human. Humanity is what God made to reflect His image. We just aren’t fully, perfectly, human yet.

God is patient. We know it’s a process to grow and change and learn to love. What we don’t always know, or want to know, is that pain is often the way we become more human.

It’s how we soften, and become kind, and gracious, and strong. It’s how we learn to really love.

Jesus suffered. We will suffer.

What we need to know is how to suffer well. How to live with pain. How to find the gifts in it. How to find gratitude despite ongoing difficulty. And it may not happen quickly.

It’s after our eyes are opened to seeing these things that we begin to display the life of Jesus. If we can’t suffer well – and suffering doesn’t have to be the excruciating variety; it can even be small annoyances – we won’t know in our experience the things we know in our heads.

As my counselor said, you can tell who has suffered. Who’s allowed themselves to grieve, to feel loss and pain, and hasn’t tried to cover or avoid it or overcompensate for it. Who’s allowed others into it. Who’s allowed God into it and gotten to know Him.

They’re usually kind and understanding people, slow to anger. Pretense and legalism are no more. They’re just real.

I want to be one of those people.