Seeing the forest for the trees – or the mountain for the falls

13882115_10154239178970937_1836968099355193820_nI love to hike. It’s simply one of my very favorite things to do. And hiking with my family is just pure joy to me. We hike in Colorado, we hike locally around our lake, we hike countrysides, hills, mountains, near streams, in canyons, through sandhills…you get the picture. This week our family is vacationing together in the Ozark Mountains and today, my husband and I had the pleasure of hiking Taum Sauk Mountain to Mina Sauk Falls together. I had seen picture after picture of this glorious water fall near the peak of the highest point in Missouri. It fascinated and beckoned me. A huge, glistening, rushing, majestic waterfall cascading over glades and boulders, nature’s majesty at it’s finest. And the rocky trek it took to get there only added to the delight.

We geared up, packed our water and a few snacks and hit the trail. A little ways in to the 3 hour hike, we approached a couple on their return, looking ragged, hot, tired and a little downtrodden. “How long have you been hiking?” one of them asked. “We’re not sure but we figure we’re a little less than half way in.” “Oh no, he said in return. “You’ve only just begun. It’s a long way. And I’ll tell you, it’s not much to see. You can see where there should be some water, but it’s nothing. Looks like someone took a glass of water and poured it over a rock. So disappointing. You may want to just turn around.”

Ugh. I felt deflated. But turning around wasn’t an option. We’re not really turn around sort of people and on we went. For the next 10 minutes or so we debated the validity of their claim. Surely it wasn’t as bad as they said. But, the water levels everywhere we had been were low, so yes, it did make sense. Nonetheless, we were making the best of it, waterfall or no.

And make the best of it, we did. Great conversation, doing what we love, together in nature, it was good. We stopped for water breaks, refreshed with snacks and journeyed on. Before long, our ears perked to the sound of water. No, not rushing, majestic water, but bubbling, trickling water. It was a sweet sound. As the boulders grew bigger, the trail grew more treacherous and the babbling of the water grew louder, we knew we were close. Threading through the center of two huge, glorious boulders serving as a gateway to the falls, we emerged to take in the sight, whatever it may be. Majestic indeed. But not because of the powerful rush of water, but rather because of the understory revealed in its’ hiatus.  The glorious behind the scenes look that surely rarely gets revealed. I felt pure joy.  The unashamed nakedness of the rock exposed for us to see. Pool after sparkling pool of dropspots and gathering places, one level after another, unveiled for our enjoyment. And enjoy it we did. These were the beautiful underpinnings of the waterfall. It was like taking a tour on the set of a favorite show, seeing what the actors see, touching what they touch, experiencing just a little taste of what they experience. The absence of the waterfall let us get to know her story just a little bit better. Like the reading of a great biography, taking in the words of those that know her best.

We talked about the people who said turn back, and even another couple who said it was disappointing. Why didn’t they see what we saw? We talked about self-serving and self-focus and the emerging need for instant gratification in our world today. I want it this way and I want it now. I want to be awed. I want to blown away. I put in this effort and I want to be rewarded according to my expectations. I felt sad because I knew that sentiment was often mine as well. I felt sad that the others along the trail were caught up in expectations – as I often am – and couldn’t see the forest for the trees; make that the mountain for the falls, or lack thereof.  I felt sad that they didn’t marvel at God’s creation and His allowance to glimpse at and glory in the exposed pathway. We waded in the pools of water. We sat on the boulders that just the week prior would have been buried under raging water. We saw our first copperhead of the trip, minding his own business as he sunned his partially exposed body in the middle of one of the calm pools of water. We watched the fish swim and marveled at how they could be here in these small pools that are usually pounded with falling water. We got up close and personal. We were given all-access passes to the nooks and crannies of our Lord’s creation.  We explored them, we played on them, we reached the top and we prayed together, thanking God for His provision. It was splendid.

No sooner had I mentioned to my husband how it seems beauty really can appear to be in the eye of the beholder, than a picture of God’s Grace began to emerge and spiritual analogy took shape (as it so often does as He helps me to connect the dots between experience and Truth). Lord, thank you that in your Grace to us, we are able to behold you and your creation well, honoring your craftsmanship and delighting in it with the Joy of Christ in us. Thank you that you have given us eyes to see where blindness once ailed us. You overcome my wanderings daily in Mercy. You, in your infinite wisdom, power and sovereign control, know just what I need, when I need it, to turn my self-focus and need for instant gratification to patience and humility at the foot of the cross. As I am pinched between the promise of your Word and the experiences of this world, ever at a cross roads of moving toward you in faith and turning back in fear and defeat, I am in awe that you make swift my feet,  make pure my thoughts and make right my direction, despite even my strongest opposition.

Because through the fall, our lives of trekking through the sand that is this life on earth, are done physically apart from God, our every experience as we await Him face to face, is to do but one thing –  to Glorify Him as we get to know Him more fully, follow Him more closely and love Him more dearly – whether through joys or griefs, losses or gains, the spectacular or the mundane. Today, a simple day hike to the peak of Taum Sauk Mountain with my husband accomplished that in spades. By Grace alone. 13892349_10154237797100937_4427808258567574547_n

Lord, let me not grow weary: peace in pursuit

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I’m going to cut to the chase and replace my usual wordiness for straightforwardness – I can be somewhat of a tornado. That’s not a boast, it’s a confession. All too often, I focus on a goal, search the depths of my understanding, experiences, intellect and desire, and formulate a plan, oh a really great plan, of how to improve a situation or change someone or something in my life or my surroundings. Then I start my engines and whirl, race and power on, full force ahead into action. Sound biblical? No, you’re right, it’s not. And the aftermath can be real destruction.

First, let me remedy this ill-approach with biblical truth. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make your paths straight” – Proverbs 3:5

Where I search my own understanding, God tells me to turn from it. Where I gear up in my own ability, God tells me to press into Him alone.  Where I forge destruction and create chaos, God instructs me to follow the straight path He already has laid out before me through His infinite wisdom and plans for good.

As I was praying over this great conviction of pride this morning, I began to think about the distinction between striving and pursuing. And the more I prayed over and searched the truth behind these two trickily similar yet oh-so-different actions, the more I repented, and the more in awe I became of our great and sovereign God, who with gentleness and mercy, indeed pursues me every day and ask but one thing of me: that I do the same of Him (so that He will be glorified and I will learn to love Him and others with all my heart, with all my soul and with all my mind…but that’s another post).

Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines “strive” in the follow way: “to try very hard to do or achieve something; to devote serious effort or energy; to struggle in opposition”  Wow. I know it, I feel it when I’m doing it, I recognize it in others, but to read it this way really makes it clear. I strive. Alot. And again, it’s not pretty. Nor is it biblical.

Pursue: “To follow someone or something, usually for a long distance or time; to continue or proceed along a path or route; to be involved or engaged in”.   Ahhhh, yes, there we go. The biblical antithesis to my worldly actions.  To pursue Him and Him alone. To journey towards Him with my heart, soul and mind fully engaged. To hope in Him alone as I “soar on wings like eagles” and as I “run and not grow weary, walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31).

Enter quickly here, pursuits closest cousin – to seek: “to search for; to ask for”.  Now we are starting to get a clear picture of God’s response to the prideful searching of my own intellect and acting of my own energies and abillities: But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. “So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. -Matthew 6:33-34

“Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother…So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil.  For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” -Romans 14:13-19

These truths paint a picture of peace, of surrender, of building up rather than trying to change, of looking towards the face of Christ, of aligning our thoughts, desires and will with His and letting Him be the author of our pursuits as He accomplishes what is good and right through the hands and feet of His humble servants. These truths bring me to my knees in repentance.  His work alone. Not mine.

Striving brings nothing more than the burden, frustration, bondage and failure from which we have already been set free in Christ. It tightens our chains and heavies our feet. Striving is a tool set forth by the sneaky one who wishes to thwart God’s plan for our lives. Striving is not of Him who asks for our surrender.

Pursuing on the other hand brings life. It is the humble response to our Gracious father who adopted us into His kingdom. It is following Him and waiting patiently as He directs our footsteps. Pursuing brings joy, freedom, peace and authentic transformation. Pursuing clears the debris from my tornadic episodes and repairs and redeems the aftermath.

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” – Matthew 11:28-30

I’m a controller, a fixer, a doer and a “put it on my shoulders, I can handle it” kind of gal. I seem so very ill-equipped to genuinely surrender and to pursue anything other than my agenda. Striving is frantic, pursuing is calm. Striving is urgent, pursuing is steadfast. Striving is frustrating, pursuing is joyous. Striving is heavy, pursuing is light. Striving is bondage, pursuing is freedom. Striving is pride, pursuing is humility.  Lord, in mercy help me to choose the latter, as it seems to go against my very nature to truly rest and follow after you!

When we are striving, the focus is on ourselves, our mission, our goal, and how to get from point A to point B the fastest. When we pursue, our focus is on God, humbly participating (as He allows and equips) in His plan for us and how we may serve and encourage those He sets along our path. Here’s to ripping up our playbooks authored by our own understanding and desires, taking the gusts of self-made wind out of our sails, trading our burden for His Yoke of Righteousness, aligning our will with His and His alone, and pursuing Him with joy, trust and perseverance along this magnificent Christ-centered, God-ordained journey. By Grace alone.

The path of least resistance: Truth and fallacy in a biblical world view

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I learned a big word today. Heuristic. It’s what defines “the path of least resistance”.  In one sense anyway.  Then again, this well-known saying is also an idiom, a metaphor, jargon, expression, and well…just a phrase. But it’s a phrase heavily on my mind today.  In its’ heuristic form, we find that water takes it, electrical currents generally speaking do not actually take it, wind…well, I don’t really know about that one.  But what I do know is that there seems to be all kinds of holes in the logic behind following the path of least resistance (hence it being termed a heuristic rather than a law of physics), both in the physical and metaphorical sense.  But what about in the spiritual sense?  Is there any place in my walk with Christ that calls for the path of least resistance? No…and, um…yes.

Any path work taking is riddled with resistance. We are told, no promised, this biblically.  “Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus.”2Timothy 2:3; “strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” –Acts 14:22; “”I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.– John 16:33.  We are told to expect persecution, that world will hate us, that we must give up ourselves to follow Christ, that the battle is so strong we have to arm ourselves in the full armor of Christ, that we are more than conquerors and on and on and on. Yep, resistance at every turn is real, expected and even necessary (I’ll get to that in a minute).

I was listening to one of my favorite secular singers while at the gym today, Brandie Carlile. Oh how I love her music! The depth of her lyrics, the honest raspy gut-level cries that are her voice, but most of all, what I have come to appreciate is the mystery that although she seemingly doesn’t know (or at least doesn’t sing about) the redemptive power of Christ, somehow her lyrics draw me to Jesus and the Truth of His word every time I hear her sing.  Sometimes simply in pure antithesis form, but often as she sings to her earthly “gods”, I find myself singing the same sentiments to my one and only, heavenly sovereign God. As she longs for earthly comfort and recalls earthly struggle, I long for heavenly comfort against the same. This morning these lyrics caught my attention:

Broken sticks and broken stones
Will turn to dust just like our bones
It’s words that hurt the most now isn’t it
Are you sad inside, are you home alone
If I could just pick up the phone
Maybe you could see a better day
And you won’t waste away
under my watchful eye
Because I’m your hero and you’re my weakness

Who’s gonna break my fall
When the spinning starts
The colors bleed together and fade
Was it ever there at all
Or have I lost my way
The path of least resistance
Is catching up with me again today

The longing for relief from earthly struggle is riddled throughout. But what caught my attention most was the last line: “the path of least resistance is catching up with me again today”.   Hmmm…sounds like that path is not working out so well for her. It made me stop and think how often I try to take the path of least resistance and in what ways it is failing me and catching up with me today.  I can think of a plethora of examples.

I take the path of least resistance when I stick my kids in front of a TV or even a book in the evening in lieu of engaging them in heartfelt communication. I take this faulty path when I avoid interaction with someone that I struggle to love. I sometimes take it when I choose me-time over going to bible study.  I take it when I revert to old familiar habits in my marriage or other family relations. I venture down this path when I fail to pray without ceasing and let lesser things engage my thoughts. On a deeper level, I step foot on this path when I resist conviction, forego repentance and turn from obedience. That path of least resistance is everywhere, beckoning me come with promises of earthly ease and comfort, temporary as they may be. And yes, it catches up with me, often.  It’s a path ripe for the wandering eye to engage.

Praise God that His Truth reigns and His work in the lives of those who trust in Him and call on His name is a constant force as He pursues us with Grace and Mercy to show us this: that the world’s path of least resistance is a path without conviction, and thus without sanctification and transformation. The struggles, obstacles, losses, dangers and other resistance is there with purpose and divine implication: to surface our sin, humble us, cause us to repent and to turn back to Him in faith, trust and obedience. And all of this so that we may, one gnarly resistance after another, be transformed into the likeness of Christ that we may better serve as His hands and feet and to ultimately, bring Him Glory. No amount of earthly ease on that path of least resistance will ever measure up to THAT!

So that’s the fallacy in the supposed ease of following the path of least resistance. It’s not long before the short-term satisfaction and whisteling dixie as we skip along turns into the brutal reality that we have turned from our calling and lost sight of our Guide. But is there a narrow road, a metaphorical path of least resistance, a path of rest and joy that in fact CAN be found? Yes! In Christ alone. Come with me to Proverbs 3:5-6Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make straight your paths.”  Now, I quickly want to clarify, this is not a road without struggle, pain, loss or hardship. But here is what this path is: this is a path that, when we surrender our intellect, bow before the Father in humble reliance, align our will with His and act in obedience through His Merciful provision, we can, indeed, close our eyes, surrender all, give our burden to Him and be carried with the current of His Grace rather than swimming upstream and battling against it. In a very real, spiritual, Truth-soaked sense, THIS is the path of least resistance. A path that leads us away from death and into life. A path that protects us from the temptation of wandering eyes, thoughts and actions. It is a path glistening with His light. A path, anchored with His very life as an offering. It is a path garnished with every good and perfect gift from His very hands straight into the heartbeat of our lives. It is a path of joy – true joy amidst pain; a path of love – Christ centered love, because He first loved us; a path of regeneration – transformation that comes from His work on the cross to make Holy a people for His use;  a path of riches – not fleeting, earthly riches, but enduring heavenly riches; a path of reconciliation – us with Him and through that, us with each other; a path given us through the most painful, gruesome, scandalous, merciful, purposeful, earth-shattering, death-defying, humiliating, redeeming, foundational, necessary, ordained-before-the-formation-of-the-earth, act ever committed and endured.  A path that we will find when we enter His Truth and obey His call on our lives to “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will given to you as well” – Matthew 6:33.   

And when we answer this call and follow this path, we may even find that with those that have gone before as our witnesses, we are able to not just walk but rather”throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles…and run with perseverance the race marked out for us-Hebrews 12:1. And as we lean into His most gracious of days, we will find ourselves high above the rocky terrain as those who hope in the Lord “will renew their strength, they will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” – Isaiah 40:31

Yep, that sounds like the truth behind the God-given path of least resistance. A path, in fact, defined by resistance but overcome with Grace. A path where struggle and peace don’t battle, they marry in the union of surrender under the headship of Christ. A path on which I want to be found often. By Grace alone.

 

 

How cleaning the pool interrupted my day and lifted my face to Jesus: a Hebrews 12:12 moment

I woke up this morning, looked at my planner and breathed a deep sigh of relief..nothing scheduled! I immediately processed through what my peaceful “me-time” would look like: a good workout at the gym, a little house cleaning, editing some pictures from my latest photo shoot, getting a jump on my bible study for the week, maybe, dare I say…a nap??? But the first order of business? Going out to check on my semi-neglected pool. Ahhhh, my swimming pool. My place of rest and enjoyment. I am a Pisces. A water lover. No, not a water liker, a water LOVER! My pool is my baby and I work hard to keep it crystal clear all season long.  If it gets warm enough today, I thought, I might even get in! Well, those were my plans anyway. Then came a reality check.

As fall approaches, I tend to get a little lax on my pool cleaning. Back to school is hectic, my photography business is in full swing, and I just don’t have the same level of time and inclination to clean the pool as I do over the summer. So, over the past few weeks, I found myself stepping out onto our deck to check out and assess what I could see of the pool from a safe, easy-denial distance, and smile at the clean top layer of water that I could see. After all, I gave it a thorough cleaning not too long ago, added all of the right chemicals and treatments, cleaned the filter, washed the sides, scrubbed the ladder and even gave it an extra dose of chlorine to last for a while. All so I could sit back and rest for a few weeks without having to interrupt my life with pool maintenance. This morning, I knew I had to face the unknown…what condition is the pool REALLY in when I get up close and look deep to the bottom?

My face was squinted, nose crinkled and mouth twisted to one side, not really wanting to look as I approached, hesitant and embarrased at what I would probably find upon close inspection. Aaaand yes. Ugh. Under that delightful, welcoming top layer of clear water, visible from the safety of my deck, was the hidden layer of green sludge, debris and,well, let’s just call it what it is…neglect, just hanging out there at the bottom. Yep, my day was about to change.

As I retrieved my supplies and poked in my extra-long handled net to scrape the bottom of the pool, 3 or 4 weeks of murk and mire began to swirl and surface in total agitation and disruption. This level of filth was not going to be undone with my regular routine cleaning. This was going to be an all-day event.

As I was silently praying through my selfish regret at this relax-day antithesis that is my dirty pool, God graciously opened my eyes to the truth about how I tend to approach life. I know the importance of biblical study, prayer, fellowship, imparting truth to our children, keeping Christ central in our marriage and parenting, filtering what we watch, say, think and do through the gracious calling on our lives to honor and glorify God. But what I am realizing this morning, is that I can have a tendency to jump into these things, exercise these truths, teach our children, invest in our marriage and so on…all so that I can take a relax-day…or week or two or three! Often when I heap these “chemicals, treatments and practices” of truth into my swimming pool of family and life, I want to sit back and watch as the fruits of my labor grant me peace, relaxation and ease of life for a bit…sometimes, the expectation is for a very long bit. I want a protected period of time when I don’t have to worry, labor, invest, seek and battle for marriage, kids, family and self.  I want that pool to be clean for more than a day!

Hmmmm…Matthew 6 is quickly coming to mind.  Righteousness is not something to practice and be seen, it’s a humble work of the spirit through the blood of Christ and giving rather receiving is the mark of transformation.  Ongoing, humble, private prayer before a sovereign God who knows my every need before I even utter a word, asking for His truth daily and for Him to be glorified is how He calls me into His presence. Moths and vermin will only eat up and destroy anything earthly I attempt to store up for my own satisfaction…even my self-wrought treasure of solace of mind and body.  Treasuring Him alone brings life. Treasuring all else is futile for where my treasure is, so can be found my heart. I don’t want my heart found in the earthly realm, tied to the things of this world. I am to give over all worry and fear born of my infantile faith so that trust in Him alone will flourish.  And finally, to wrap this all in a nice bow and bind these truths together with the practical how in the world do I do these things…comes the mandate to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well” – Matthew 6:33. What things? All things He alone deems necessary, good, worthy and right in my life.  That will never be defined as a forced day of peace and relaxation on my terms alone. That won’t even necessarily be defined as kids who walk a straight and narrow path at all times. That will definitely not be defined as a life without struggle.  That will however, forever mean God-ordained, God-given days of peace, joy, labor, relaxation, struggle, battle, rest, work, loss, gain, obstacles, straight paths, laughter, tears, pain, relief…all according to His good and perfect plan for me.

When God speaks, sometimes He whispers, sometimes He shouts. This was a shouting loud and clear moment as I was churning up nasty sludge in what I had hoped was my still clean pool. Last week was a tough week in our household. One of our kiddos is seeing the effects of struggling with and going against some things that we have taught on, prayed over, and lived out by example, over and over. Our feeble minds began to treat truth as a lesson rather than a way of life. We teach it, you get it, you pass the test and can move on to the next subject. What a misuse of our calling as Christian parents. And yes, we found ourselves from time to time, standing on the safety of our “deck” looking out at the top layers of our kiddos and hoping the crystal clear water we saw on the surface was the same as what was lurking below.  We didn’t want to have to reach clear to the bottom every single day and see what we stirred up. We wanted those days…just a short time really, of rest from the battle of shielding them not only from the world but from the very sin in their own lives, a break from waking them up and helping to clothe them in armor, a time of mindless escape in the evenings instead of helping them detox from their day and refocus their minds to the love of their Lord and savior through prayer and devotion time.  After all, shouldn’t all of that heaping on of truth we just did a few weeks ago last us a little while?  All I needed to do to answer that questions was to look at scripture…and my own failures in light of it.

1Thess. 5:16  Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

Eph. 6:10-20 (excerpt) Finally, be strong in the Lord..Put on the whole armor of God…For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day…Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith…and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit…To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.

1 Peter 4:1 Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin,

Romans 8:36-37 As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

2 Chronicles 20:15 He said: “Listen, King Jehoshaphat and all who live in Judah and Jerusalem! This is what the LORD says to you: ‘Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God’s.

It is so very clear. Life on earth is a battle. Just as those sneaky little bands of algae are just waiting for my back to turn so they can infiltrate and make a home of my swimming pool, so has a war has been waged for my mind, my heart and my soul. Deceit wants to take up residence there, it wants to catch me off guard and find me neglecting my spiritual health and that of my kids. No amount of “I thought we covered that” will defend against the foothold of deceit. If my focus, my treasure, that which I seek after, is my own comfort and freedom from the battle, both for myself and for our kids, I have already lost. Not eternally speaking, I know, that battle is won and my life is secure, but I have lost the foothold. Given it over to a waiting world. If even a part of my focus and purpose for investing in and infusing truth into my home, my marriage and my kids is so that I can make it a few miles without having to refill the tank, or a few weeks without having to “clean the pool”, I have misunderstood my calling as wife and mother and have distorted the definition of freedom and rest in Christ. What I am called to is so much greater than filling up with premium unleaded and hoping for great gas mileage. Earthly comfort, a light heart and an uncrowded mind cannot be my goal. What I am called to is the life of a warrior, a conquerer, backed with the strength, ammunition and armor of God himself. I am called to seek Him and equip my children day in and day out to do the same. I am called to fight daily for my marriage lest we be like prey to a hungry world. I am called to battle for a mind that is filled with truth, eyes that are focused on Christ, thoughts that are not my own but born of His word.  And just when that starts to sound way to exhausting, overwhelming and burdensome, comes this beautiful, mysterious reality of life in Christ: that as we are being transformed into His likeness through these difficult, refining circumstances of life and as our focus is Glorifying Him and furthering His kingdom, that He will see us through every battle and make swift our feet, clear our minds and easy our burden. This battle is indeed the Lord’s and though we are called to be more than conquerers, to not just know truth but to LIVE truth, to jump into the deep end of the lives of our kids and infuse their minds daily with truth through prayer, petition, teaching and leading, to fight for purity and protection in our marriage, to arm ourselves daily, to live not by mere food but the very word of God, we can and will find that long elusive comfort, joy, peace, rest and freedom…NOT in circumstances for that will not be where our heart is found, but in the very arms of Christ himself whose burden is light.

“”Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. “For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” – Matthew 11:28-30  

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” -John 14:27

“…but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” -Isaiah 40:31

So there you have it. This day that I intended to be one of peace and rest, turned out to be one of peace and rest. But not on my terms nor in my way. The peace did not come from taking my mind off of the battle, it came from turning my eyes directly to the commander in chief…the very face of Christ. My rest didn’t come in the form of mindless tv or computer games, or even constructive and healthy time at the gym and house cleaning. It came in the form of the relentless pursuit of my heavenly father to churn up the murk at the bottom of the pool that He would show himself to be the one and only to offer me “clean hands and a pure heart”, and to take this burden from my shoulders that I might soar on wings like eagles. So as I process through all that He has graciously reminded me of today, I will joyfully labor through the literal cleaning of my pool, whose clarity and function I had neglected over the past several weeks, basking in the strength given to me by my Heavenly Father, singing praises for His faithfulness, delighting in His perfect timing as I hand over to Him in humble reliance, the current situation of my struggling kiddo, knowing that He will in this, as in all things, “work it for good” (Romans 8:28) and that His plan to prosper and not to fail us (Jeremiah 29:11) will come to fruition in His time and according to His purpose. And with bible laid open on the dining room table, we will enter into this battle sun-up to sun-down as we indeed seek first His Kingdom.

It was in JOY that He gave His life to me and it is with JOY that I give it back to Him.

“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” -Hebrews 12:2

And with daily prayer and petition, I will ask that just as I hope to not keep at arms length with my pool, even for a time, hoping its end of year over-treatment will buy me a period of rest, I too will never ever keep at arms length with my family, looking for false peace and comfort in denying the potential buildup of mirky water beneath the surface that is sin, real and present sin.  Aaaahhhh sweet freedom, peace and joy. All by Grace alone.

The power of Love through Christ alone: making the unsuitable ready for harvest

Love. I don’t do it well. No really, I don’t. For every patient and kind act it calls me to, I have a hidden arsenal of anger and frustration. As it calls me to humility, I exercise pride.  If love shows respect, I look for fault. Where it is slow to anger I am quick to judge and exact revenge. While love casts away sin, I jot it down, fold up the paper and tuck it away in a tight spot for safe keeping.  As love seeks truth and protects, trusts, hopes and preserves, I choose to lean into my own understanding, grow weary and fearful, give in to doubt and let good and important things fall through the cracks. Yet Love remains. Oh how it remains. Love is here now, it was here before the foundation of the earth, it is fully sustained in Christ. Love is the greatest of many things. The greatest of the remnants that shall carry on into completion as all else perishes (1 Corinth. 13); The greatest of commandments – Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind. (Matt.22:36-38); The second greatest commandment – Love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:39) and the greatest gift ever given – God so loved the world that He gave us his only son Jesus that we shall have eternal life. (John 3:16).

How then, do I, this broken vessel full of love’s antithesis, lean away from myself and into the fold of the greatest commandment ever given? How on earth am I ever to really love? Through the power of the cross. Because He first loved me. If the chief end of man is to glorify God, surely this is done through love. If we are to be transformed into the likeness of Christ, surely this is done through love. Love never fails, and if I have the love of Jesus coursing through my veins, I too cannot fail. Not eternally speaking. As I present my offering of love, broken and ineffective, the Lord takes it in His hands of sovereign filtration, cleanses it, re-purposes it and uses it for His glory.  What sweet relief to know I am not left in my own unusable condition and neither is my ability to love. Our Gracious Father in Heaven interrupts us in our weakness, unknowing, inability and sin. He sends His son to pick up and re-package neatly all that we have made mess of, presenting us worthy, righteous, pure and blamesless before Him.  He makes ready now, ripe for his use, that which is unsuitable. If these things are true of us as He sees us through the redemption of Christ, we too, can love like Him, through the refining power of Christ…this, as we seek Him (Matt. 6:33) and ask Him to first, love us. (1John 4:10)

It’s a beautiful, unbreakable, covenental cycle. He loves us, it penatrates our souls and thus appeals to our appetites. We seek Him. He gives us all that we need and more than we could ever hope for – all things found in Him lest we never seek in lesser places again. He works all things for our good (Romans 8:28). And what is it that’s good for us? That we would love Him and seek after Him. And so starts the motion all over again. And the outpouring of this beautiful cycle is that all along, we are being transformed into the likesness of Christ. A likeness characterized by…aaaahhh, yes. transforming love…that we may, with Christ as our claim and our power, reach a lost and hurting world.  That we may love our neighbor as ourselves. That we may give, serve, and show genuine kindness and humility to those in need. That we may love our family well as we shepherd our children, draw near to our spouses, encourage our friends and care for extended family members. That we would forgive quickly as our Father has forgiven much in us. That we would magnify His Holy name as we fade into the background lest we ever boast in anything but knowing Him. That the thing people would notice and remember about us, would not be wit or wisdom or charm or beauty… but love. Pure and simple love. For without love, I am nothing (1 Corinth. 13:1). All wisdom and knowledge and insight, as good and right and true as it may be, will present as useless, a virtual entangler of our hearts, if Love does not go before it and encamp around it and be the current that carries it through to completion. If I speak without the voice of Love, my words are nothing more than clanging brass and chattering cymbals, surely harsh to the ears.

So Lord, as I seek Thee, be gracious and equip me to turn from that which perishes and run towards that which renews.  To link arms with those past and present, that love you as you equip us, that we would radiate with the light of Christ. And may our fragrance be pleasing as the aroma of ones captive, bound tightly by chains of Mercy and shackles of Grace as we seek and delight not in the things of this world, but in service as your hands and feet in a dry and weary land. This is Love, let it be found in me.

I am what I seek…Idols, pretense and earthly gain: a trinity of unholy proportions.

You probably remember the old saying that was pushed into our psyches as kids, “you are what you eat”? I won’t go into what I found about the early origin of the phrase – it’s kind of weird – but in the 80’s and 90’s It was a tagline meant to foster healthy eating habits, meaning what you put into your body is what your body (your health) will ultimately reflect. Put in junk food, your weight, energy level and overall health and well-being will reflect that. Put in healthy nutritious foods and, well…you get the picture.

It’s a Sunday afternoon and I’m pondering about a dozen concepts brought to mind after this morning’s fabulous sermon about the call to obedience on the nation of Israel and how that call applies to us today, and trying to whittle them down into a workable, one-meal sized lesson for my soul rather than the smorgasbord that they are proving to be.  As I’m doing so and getting down to the real meat and potatoes of it all, I am continually being reminded of this: just as the old saying “you are what you eat” speaks of what goes in is what comes out, I believe that we can say with great conviction “you are what you seek”.

I hope I can do justice to what God is laying on my heart and mind and turn it into a formidable thought. Here goes…

God’s chosen people were brought into a battle ground amidst a vile and immoral people and into the firing range of physical, mental and emotional abuse for 400 years. Thousands upon thousands died and never saw freedom. It is a time and a situation that we cannot fully fathom.  Our sovereign God did this surely for many reasons, again way beyond our comprehension, but perhaps the most important and overriding reason was to forge a people for Himself: For His service, for His fellowship, for His enjoyment and ultimately to shepherd a people that would reflect Him, Glorify and Honor Him. Wow, sin is so deep and rebellion so real that it would take this length of time and these extreme circumstances to do such forging. Were our sin as weak as tin it would take but a mere 450 degrees to forge it into something new. But with sin as deep and strong and resistant as steel, it takes 2200 degrees to make it pliable. Surely these years in captivity were the necessary equivalent to this 2200 degree forging oven. A heat and a situation we today cannot understand.  And by the Grace of God alone, we probably will never have to.

As a metaphorical part of the mixed multitude that joined the nation of Israel in their exile from slave to free, so do we as followers of Christ join those who have gone before, as thread through the most valuable garment, strengthening, running crosswise through the fabric of His people, we the woof and they the warp (no time to explain that here but research and word study it…google it if you have to…it’s fascinating!) And guess what, as sinners joined with Adam at the fall, slaves set free with the Israelites at the exodus, and the redeemed bought by the blood of Christ, our sins nailed to the tree at Calvary, we too, will share in the often excruciating process of forging at the hands of our loving Father who wants us not just to KNOW of Him, but to act on that knowing and to LIVE for Him. Yes, for some of us even today, that sanctifying, that forging, may mean the heat in our lives gets turned up to 2200 degrees. But for most of us, living in our comfortable modern-day lives with modern-day problems, we have been born into a day of tin, though our sin is just as strong, far-reaching and resistant to change, our lives have no doubt been bettered by those who have gone before. His chosen people endured the law. We get to live in freedom from it. So instead of enduring the tortuous refining of old, we get to sit in the veritable lap of luxury and enjoy our cool 450 degree bath of refining fire. Yet still, we balk, fear, complain and resist. And what we seem to keep forgetting, is that this fire is necessary because of our own doing. We fell with the first Adam, were raised with second Adam and are given full benefit of His Holiness, but the real-world consequences to our actions remain. God wants all of us – our hearts, minds and souls and will not settle for less. Praise Him for that! Why are we lead into our modern-day battleground amidst trouble, turmoil, hurt, loss and suffering? To turn us into something beautiful…the likeness of Christ.

Just as we look at the scales and our lack of energy and try to place our physical upset on something other than our food choices as we attempt to disprove the “you are what you eat” mentality, so we also look upon our lives and what fruit or lack thereof we seem to be bearing, what good gifts are not being given or what rung on the ladder we keep missing, and we try to displace our sin and  disprove the “you are what you seek” truth lest we be held accountable.  Enter idols, and pretense, misplaced identity sources, earthly gain and temporary satisfaction. Oh how we, like Israel, so quickly forget what God has called us to over and over again. And oh the consequences that our behavior continues to warrant and the cheap substitutes that we so flippantly accept as good and continue to count as gain and satisfaction. Make no mistake, we live in freedom through His Grace. We cannot earn His favor nor add a thing to our salvation. But we like them, seem at times to have not learned a thing and are settling for something so distant from and such a distorted version of  His call on our lives that I fear we barely even taste it on our best day. Lord, by Your Grace alone, please change that in me.

The call then was the same as the call to all believers today, and it’s a simple one. No, not easy, but simple.

2 Chronicles 7:13-15When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people,  if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.  Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place.” 

We are called to humble ourselves before our Lord, to be laid low, to submit to His will and His plan for our lives. We are called to pray. In fact we are called to pray without ceasing. We are called to seek His face. The very face of Holiness. The very face of the One and only who is able to sustain us and keep us from falling. We are called to turn from our wicked ways. Yes, our sins of past present and future have been fully forgiven, cast as far away as the East is from the West. Our actions however, our ways, are forever tainted this side of heaven. Only through His Grace and sanctification, exercising our need to respond to this call, can we turn from these ways and follow Him instead. We are not simply called to know of Him and about Him, we are called into action.

We are free to seek after anything and everything our hearts desire. And boy oh boy do we ever. This world offers an always-increasing abundance of fascinating and appealing things to seek after. We can privately, or not so privately, seek after the immoral. We can seek after the obvious: money, wealth, status, self-glory, the latest technology, the best homes, and the list goes on and on. We can even seek after things that would be considered good: a healthy family, a strong marriage, believing kids, great friendships, relief from struggle and sickness and hardship. And again, the list goes on and on. But what is it that God commands us to seek? Him and him alone. He will dole out all the rest in His timing, as He sees fit and as He has deemed good and best for us and for all of His children as a whole.

Matthew 6:33-34“For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. “So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Romans 8:28“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.”

What is the ONE and ONLY thing we are promised to immediately be given as we seek it? God Himself!  And guess what, THAT is the very same thing that will give us life from death, freedom from oppression, direction, sustenance, strength, and will ultimately transform us into His likeness that we may become a more accurate reflection of Him and be equipped for His service. Why oh why Lord do I seek ANYTHING else! Remember even those seemingly honorable and worthwhile wants and needs that we so often seek after?  Once we step out from under His covering, break from His calling and seek these things before seeking Him alone, even they become nothing more than fodder, failing us and rendering them virtually meaningless.

Philippians 3:7-9“But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, 9and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith,…”

We want to skip a step. It’s original sin. We want to be the keeper over our own knowledge, our own lives, our own wills. We want to be like God. We want our identity to be found in the things we do, the things we know, the things we accomplish. We want to show off our families, our jobs, our homes, our minds, our abilities, our charities and we want to count them as worth. Sometimes, we just want an end to our suffering. Shouldn’t we have that? We want to forgo His calling and ignore His truths. We want our understanding to rule our lives when in fact His words tells us of a better way:

Proverbs 3:5-6 – Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”

A straight path ordained by the Lord God himself??? I will take that anyday! Yet I don’t. It is right there in front of me and I do not take it. God in His great Grace and Mercy – and sovereign control over all things – stripped the people of Egypt and the Israelites who had become dangerously acclimated, of their idols, their false gods, with a series of plagues, systematically attacking the very objects of their affections thus showing his own supremacy over them all.  So it is with us, as we seek after earthly gain, putting God and His word aside to pursue our own passions – even as good and necessary as they seem – He will step in. He will intervene. They will not flourish in our lives beyond what He allows, in order that we might turn fully back to Him. Thank you God, that this is true, that you  will strip all from our lives that threaten to take Your place. Make no mistake aobut it, this is a hard and painful process. Idols lead to destruction just as much now as they did then. The problem is, they are sneaky little buggers and can hide in the most normal, everyday places, often without our even realizing that we have created them. We may not worship a river as a life source. We may not build statues of gold and bow to false gods in the literal sense. We may not do these things that so obviously are a replacement of God Himself. No, instead, we secretly and privately worship our autonomy. We worship our kids. We worship our own goodness.  We worship our own abilities as we look to all of these things to bring us happiness. And when they fail us, we weep. We step outside of the covering of God’s call on our lives, we forget to pray, we fail to seek His face, we practice false instead of true humility and we over and over again, suffer the same consequences…the dissatisfaction of a life spent in pursuit of cheap substitutes for the the One True Living God, and the mere temporary satisfaction that ensues…a satisfaction that, because it is built upon our own merit and effort, fails us every time.  Think you haven’t built idols in your life that get in the way of true, unabashed, seeking-Him-first worship of God? Explore a little deeper. We all do it. If what you are seeking after is causing you distress, frustration and dissatisfaction, look right there for idols. If your patience is running thin and you’re wondering when those illusive “blessings” are going to enter your life, look right there for idols. If you keep hitting roadblocks as you pursue even the most honorable of goals, look right there for idols. I have, many times. And I have come face to face with the reality of idolatry. I have Graciously had my business stripped from me as I sought after it to be my worth and identity. Twice. I have seen struggles in my kids because instead of investing in and teaching them God’s word, I operated under the pretense that we were all ok. I have wept over a strained marriage as I leaned on my pride and knowledge to diagnose and fix it. The list goes on and on. Idol after Idol after miserable little idol.

We as those who put our faith in God are a called, purposed, forged, forgiven and blessed people. We have a mission to carry out, by His Grace alone, to live for Him, submit to Him, to give our entire selves away to Him for His service, to share His truth with a hurting and wounded world, to fellowship with others, to be willing participants in the process of transformation and sanctification and to always, in all things, seek first the Kingdom of God.  This is where real change begins. This is where real life starts. This is where true satisfaction lies…as we forsake all else to pursue Him and Him alone. It is under this umbrella of faith and obedience, that “all else will be given to us”. And what He gives, will be the good stuff. Not substitutes. “You are what you seek”. Lord help me not to seek peace, identity, satisfaction and happiness. You heard me right, help me NOT to seek these things…because if I do, I will look for them in lesser places than the foot of the Cross. Turn instead, my eyes to seek the very source of all good things…the only One that can give life and produce such pleasures in their right and truest form. Cast away my expectations and all that I think I have earned, am due or have long awaited. Wipe clean my self-made timeline and give me patience as I wait on yours.  Crush my idols that beg my attention. Lay me low.  Provoke me I pray, to seek You and You alone that I might allow You to be the very definition of peace, identity, satisfaction and happiness in my life as I turn from my desires, as pure at times as they may seem to me, to instead follow hard after You. Only by Grace alone.

Man and wife as Christ and the church: reflections on a very good day. “And I will betroth you to me forever”

I’m rarely at a loss for words. Rather, I often have so many crowded together in my head that I don’t know quite where to start. Today is one of those days as I reflect on the marriage of our daughter just three days ago. What I would really like to do is walk you through my day. The way I got to help her into her gown. The tears that ran down my cheeks as she came down the aisle. The way I laid my face in the strong and loving fold of my husband’s arm and sobbed as she shared her first dance with her husband. The way my best friend came to my side as I once again, laid my face in her arm and sobbed at the sight of my husband sharing his first dance with our married daughter, the one whose cord he cut in the hospital, the one who danced on his feet as a little girl, the one he taught to drive, and the one he just gave away to be united as one with another man.  I want to share the awe we are in over the unmerited and unfathomable Grace of our God who chose to bless our daughter and bless us in this way. I want to share every thought that ran through my head from the moment I woke up that morning until the moment we watched them drive off to their wedding night destination.  As much as I want to paint you this picture of one of the best days of my life, I am stirred at the depths of my soul to step away from the self focus of sharing our day with you and explore instead, what this marriage…in fact what any marriage of two believers transformed by the Grace of God…means to our Father in Heaven. After all, He was there. He witnessed it. He ordained it. He ushered us in that we may come before Him and proclaim in unity, our alliance with Him as he Blessed and called our daughter and son-in-law to be one under His headship.  What is THAT experience like for God?!?! I can only take a humble attempt at understanding it.

Let me start with just a few things that we know to be true about God. First, He desires our obedience..something only His transforming power can accomplish, as the work of Jesus mercifully courses through our very being.  As God has set forth His design for marriage, I can only begin to imagine how Blessed He must be at the sight of two of His children, coming before Him in obedience, trust and faith, proclaiming Him to be Lord over their Lives, and asking Him to unite them as one and keep them steadfast in His grip. As the mom, I was overjoyed to witness this. As for their creator and true Father, I shutter at the thought of the depth of  delight He must experience as He comes forth to witness and Bless this unity that He ordained before the formation of the world, the knowing of what our lives would have been like anything short of His hand of Grace surely a distinct vision yet somehow cast away as far as the East is from the West.

Psalm 103:11-13 “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him. As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us. Just as a father has compassion on his children, So the LORD has compassion on those who fear Him.”

Zephaniah 3:17  “The Lord your God …will take great delight in you, He will quiet you with His love, He will rejoice over you with singing.”

Psalm 37:23 “The Lord directs the steps of the godly He delights in every detail of their lives.”

Secondly, He has designed marriage to be a model of the church under the headship of Christ. We as the glorious bride and the Son of Man as the covering Groom. One submitting to the other, One giving Himself up for her.

“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”  “For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” Ephesians 5 

As our daughter walked down the aisle, my eyes couldn’t help but be fixed upon the groom as he awaited his bride. Surely these truths were profoundly running through his mind. He stood still, his eyes fixed upon her in strength and dignity, holding back with all that was within him, the overwhelming emotions set to burst forth, in the name of standing strong before the Lord that he might fulfill his calling and receive the one at the altar that God has given to him. Surely the Lord’s delight and rejoicing over them with singing went into overdrive here. I know mine did. This was a picture of the fulfillment of God’s will. We raised her. She was given to us and gifted to us for a time. We were charged with her care. We were commanded to love her and pray for her and raise her up in the love and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. And then we were called to give her away. To present her as our offering, a sacrifice…a most beautiful sacrifice…that represented our worship to God. We let go of one of the four most precious things in our lives, in faith and trust, and gave her over to her rightful place at the side of her husband…under whose covering she will be cared for, grow, thrive and come to know the Lord in ways far greater than she ever could have under our care. We were the gardeners that watered the beautiful seed and tended to the tilling and nourishing of the dirt. Her husband will cultivate, lead her always to the most purest of sun and forever pursue her growth and holiness. Oh how the heart of the Father must simply overflow as He watches His Truth play out before Him.

Finally, He desires our Worship and to be glorified. This day was not about two people or their families. It was ultimately about Him. This was His day. As so many of us labored over the past several months to make the ceremony beautiful and memorable for our daughter,  the Lord’s hand in the making of this marriage was far greater than anything we did to give it earthly charm. We were there to worship Him. We were there to proclaim His name and count all else as loss. We were there to bow before Him in humble reliance that He might let no man put asunder that which He joined. We were there as spectators, to witness the working out of His will in the lives of an undeserving people. We were there to call on His Grace and Mercy and offer up to Him the two things we were able: 1. our daughter…His child…back to Him that He might present her to her husband, and 2. pure unabashed praise.

My husband and I let go that day. We released power and control that we somehow thought was ours, even in part. Our faith was increased. Our knowing of Him was deepened. Our Joy reached new heights. What favor He has shown that He called our daughter His own and grew a young man in His Grace and in His Word that would care for her as Christ cares for the church. This is a truth I will never fully fathom and a Grace I will never grow into this side of heaven.

Just like their parents, they will fall, they will hurt, they will make mistakes, they will anger and be angered, they will fail and they will disappoint. But just as God delighted in them and rejoiced over them with singing at the day of their coming together as one flesh, so will He show them all Grace and Mercy and delight in them even in their failures as He is made strong when they are laid low only to be raised in His strength to soar on wings like eagles. Oh what a beautiful journey of flight it will be. Oh how it took a village to get them and us to this point (you all know who you are!) and a village, I hope, will remain by their sides. By Grace alone.

Hosea 2:19 And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and and mercy

Isaiah 5:8 – preparing our hearts for the true joy to come: family, marriage, life…and eternity.

wedding slides10

In 13 days I become mom-in-law to a genuine, responsible, patient man who loves God and loves our daughter well. Rick and I will give her over to him in faith, trust and delight. As I reflect on this I can’t help but Praise God for His Grace and the amazing gifts in our lives that are our children. From the oldest to the youngest, I delight in every single one of them…not only for their strength but their weaknesses, their character and their flaws, their love of the Lord, their imperfection that makes them human, their failures and their successes. They bring joy beyond measure, daily challenges that foster purpose and growth in me and in them, and a daily reminder that life is precious and complex. But perhaps most importantly, they stir in me a need, passion and desire to look to the Lord…in awe, in wonder, in curiosity and in humble reliance upon Him. As I try to fathom His ways and His plans, I think on the mysterious truth that He not only offers and shows His provision through joyous circumstances but that He purposes all things for good (Romans 8); that He uses even the most trying and difficult times in our lives (that have come and will come again) for His Glory; that He blesses, forgives, redeems and sanctifies how and when He chooses in a way that no one can truly fathom; that He loves without boundaries; has given and continues to give without limits, even in the face of an undeserving people; is meticulous in His timing; purposeful in His movement; long-suffering in His patience; and Good in all things. I know all of what we are currently counting as joy can be gone in an instant. The fall was real and its effects are palpable both within this home, within these hearts, and out in the world. We are human and frail and susceptible to great acts of defiance. There will be times of plenty and times of want. Times of security and times of fear. Times of faith and times of wandering. Come what may, I know that our unchangeable God will still be Good, that He will provide, that He will show Grace. Thus I pray in humble reliance upon Him to help me lean not merely on the favor and happiness of our current family circumstances – the successes and growth of our kids, the obstacles and roadblocks He has lead us through over the years, the strength of our marriage or the solidity of our family – as the true undercurrent and fabric of satisfaction and joy, but instead, to lean into Him, the only One truly able to provide eternal rather temporal joy, regardless of the circumstances at hand. Let not our foundation be merely this earthly joy but rather Him alone who is able to keep us from stumbling and to present us before His glorious presence without fault (Jude 1:24). So that as our cup truly runeth over, as we delight together in the events to come in less than two weeks and the great blessings and favor He has shown to us, my prayer is that we will together, Praise Him not only for His Goodness right here and now, but His Goodness from before time began to as far as our limited minds can go, into the heights of eternity. I pray that my joy be seen not as subject to prosperity but subject to submission and humility before the One who holds all things in His hands. Life is fleeting, God is eternal. As I try to wrap my mind around this, I am left with this Truth:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper, and instead of briers the myrtle will grow. This will be for the Lord’s renown, for an everlasting sign, that will endure forever.” -Isaiah 5: 8-13
by His Grace alone,

The Alpacie story. God’s hands of mercy and provision for a tender, broken heart

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I’m a good mom. I am. Most of us are. But I’m not always a great one. Not one like the mom’s I admire from afar and want to model my parenting after. I may have some people fooled but the truth is, my moments of mommy greatness are few and far between. I can easily get selfish with my time, lazy in my parenting and find myself willfully not exercising the God-given parenting gifts afforded to me. The things I want to do with and for my kiddos often get put on the back burner in the frenzy of busy days. Purposeful and intentional devotion time, daily prayer (other than before a meal or bedtime!), quality time listening to their experiences, their hearts and their dreams, working with them on school projects and homework, inviting them into the kitchen to cook with me, riding bikes…the list goes on and on.  We do these things, just not as often as we should. I can easily pick getting wrapped up in my own needs over these gifts of time with my kids. Fortunately, we serve a God who graciously overcomes our weaknesses and often prompts us out of our self-made mirey circumstances of self-focus and frenzy to invest instead, deeply in the lives of our children. Two nights ago was one of those gracious times in the Ballinger household. And oh how powerful and purposeful it was. Follow along with this simple yet powerful story of God’s knowing and purposing all things for our good.  (Romans 8:28)

The events of the past two days require a little bit of back-story. Our youngest daughter Johanna is one of the most tender-hearted, emotional, deep-feeling and sensitive little girls you will ever meet. She undoubtedly also shows signs of some level of OCD. She was beautifully and wonderfully created and learning to navigate the waters of life with this amazing bundle of emotions has been both difficult and rewarding.  When I say she is emotional and deep-feeling, I think there is probably no way to make anyone understand just how deep I mean unless they have lived in this household with her. She has possessions (dolls, build-a-bears, stuffed animals) that she treats and require other’s to treat as living, breathing beings. To the point where it often seems she believes they are in fact alive. An ear fell off of one of her animals last year and in a sobbing, desperate, agonizing plea she begged for us to take “Cuddles” to the ER. Very few people are allowed to even go near her favorite baby “Daisy” because they simply do not know how to treat her with the proper human-like care she needs. One slight harsh word felt on her tender, always exposed heart can lead to a meltdown. One act of imperfection and the failure weighs heavily on her heart for days. She wants nothing more than to please, to love and to be loved. God has purpose in how He has knit together this beautiful soul and we lean into that in times when we just don’t think we are equipped to parent her effectively. She loves with a heart bigger than anything I have probably ever seen or experienced. And she can be crushed more deeply and easily in just the same manor.

Last September, we were at the Kansas State Fair and Johanna found and instantly fell in love with a hand-made Alpaca fur teddy bear for sale in one of the livestock buildings. It was an instant connection and I knew this would become another one of the loves-of-her-life. And it did. “Alpacie” became the newest addition to the Ballinger family.  She loved, cuddled, cared for, journaled about, fed and played with Alpacie for the next 3 months. In December, something terrible happened. Our dog found Alpacie on the floor and tore her up. Our oldest daughter Madison found Alpacie lying unresponsive on the ground in about 4 pieces. We were so upset and didn’t know how to tell Johanna. So, we didn’t. I made the mistake of quickly stuffing Alpacie’s mutilated body into one of the decorative stockings hanging over the mantel in a desperate attempt not to have to deal with the fall out. Cowardly, yes. I just couldn’t bare to see Johanna’s world collapse around her. In that moment, I didn’t trust God enough to deal with her heart. I took away from her, the experience of dealing with this “death” in the fold of her Loving Father, and in fear, chose to hide the situation. But God is a God of redemption, and this failure of mine, like all others, He had already planned to redeem.

Back to present day. Last Monday began like any other day, school, work, swimming practice, dinner and so on. By evening I was tired and ready to just send the kids to bed while I lost myself in whatever nonsense was on TV that night. As I sat down on the sofa and began to flip through channels, I felt a tugging on my heart. Johanna had a little bit of a sad day at school and I knew she was still kind of down. I told my husband I need to go spend some time with her and off I went to join her in her room.  We spent the next 20 or 30 minutes snuggled in her bed together talking, laughing, finishing up her homework and loving our time together. She was so overwhelmed with happiness at our impromptu connection that she was already beginning to dread the following day when she would have to part from me to go to school.  As I was about to tear myself away from her grip, I remembered a devotional I had purchased and intended to work through with her that hadn’t been opened in at least a month. I got it out, flipped to the right date and we began to read and study it together. It was about trusting God through struggles and how He uses hardships, sadness, loss and disappointment to mold and refine us, to strengthen us, build character in us and turn us more into the likeness of Christ. We talked about how He never lets even the toughest circumstances go by in our lives without purposing them for our good and doesn’t let them pass until they have worked that good in our lives. We talked about how we can find joy even the hardest times, knowing that if God allowed it, He will purpose it and see us through. We talked about how this takes faith and trust, of which He is the author and perfecter.  We prayed.  We talked about what types of hardships she could imagine in her life that God could ultimately use to build faith and character. The first thing she said was “like if an arm got ripped off of Daisy or I lost Cuddles in a fire”. She immediately thought of her precious stuffed loved ones and the pain and grief she would feel if anything happened to them. We talked about how God would be with her in these circumstances and carry her through as He performs His transforming work in her life and her heart and her character. She ended by saying “Mom, I get it! If something really bad happens and we don’t turn to God and just stay mad and sad, nothing will change. But if we trust God to help us and pray to Him, we will get our new character and things will be better!” It made me cry to hear such sweet words of truth. Little did we know how immediately profound this truth would be…the very next day.

God knows all, sees all, hears all, created all and purposed all. He knew what was to come Tuesday afternoon and He graciously prepared us for it Monday night. Tuesday afternoon, seemingly out of nowhere, Johanna asks “mom, where is Alpacie? I have been searching for her for so long and I can’t find her.” (it’s been a little over 4 months since the incident). I looked at Madison with wide, fearful eyes as to say, what in the world should I do? She looked back with the very same expression. I brought Johanna to me and sat down in a big comfy chair, stroked her hair and gently told her of the events in late December. She absolutely fell apart. She was crying and sobbing so hard that her chest was heaving and I though she would pass out. She was devastated and inconsolable. She hit the floor in defeat then picked herself up and ran to her room with tortuous cries. I am not exaggerating. Her world crashed around her. I went to her side and tried to comfort her. I calmly reminded her of the bible study we had just done the night before. How unbelievably amazing it is that our Father in Heaven loved us so much, that He chose to prepare us for this very moment, knowing exactly how and when it would happen, by leading us to His word the previous night. I was in awe of His unfathomable Mercy and Kindness to us and I shared that with Johanna. I reminded her of her very words when she “got it”. Her response was precious: “I know that’s still true but I didn’t know it would hurt this much or be this hard!”.

If God had not prepared us Monday night for what happened Tuesday, what became a precious time of working through real grief and loss together with the patience and love of Christ, would have instead been a frenzy of unbridled emotion, frustration, and I’m certain, anger. His act of Grace, beginning with prompting me into the very bible study that spoke to our souls, and carrying on through the prompting on my heart to tell Johanna  the truth about what happened to her beloved Alpacie, ended with the most intense, sweet day of faith, trust and character building I could have ever imagined. It was a day she and I will remember forever. It was one of those mark-it-down as growing closer to Jesus days.

She went on to ask to see the remains of Alpacie and again, by Grace, I had kept them and knew just where they were. I pieced her back together and Johanna lovingly wrapped her in a fuzzy hat that was just the right size to cradle her torn body. She asked me if Alpacie could feel any pain and I assured her that she could not. As we went through the day, sweet Johanna was exhibiting some of the clear stages of grief and being aware, confused and trouble by some of them. We looked up the stages of grief together and talked about where she was at and what she had been through. We talked about how to move on from here with the loving guidance of Jesus. We talked about how He is in every single circumstance in our lives and how all things are filtered through His sovereign hands for purpose. We talked about how we are His hands and feet and the character He builds in us through these trials is the very character He needs in us to accomplish to His work on earth. We stepped outside of ourselves and our own little world to taste and experience the greater good of His will. By the end of the day, Johanna had indeed tasted “her new character”. What a gift!

No, we are not talking about the death of a parent, a tragic accident, Cancer plaguing a body or a natural disaster taking a home and possessions. We are talking about the love of a little girls heart for her precious best friends and how the loss of one of them, felt like a tragedy. To her it was. The conviction God brought to me, trusting Him with my children and not sheltering them from pain, was a Merciful and invaluable gift. The Truth He brought to my daughter was life-giving and faith-building. He is a God of purpose, a God of sovereign control, a God of perfect timing, a God of redeeming failure, a God of restoration, a God of transformation, a God of Truth, and a God of covenant promises to His children. This precious time of walking with God is one that we will both remember forever.  Thank you Jesus for the gift of connecting the dots and looking for the Father’s hand in all things. I can’t imagine the plain old ordinary self-consumed day we would have had otherwise. By Grace Alone.

Pictured Above: Alpacie’s broken body lovingly bundled in a favorite cozy snow hat

Bless the Lord, oh my soul! My empty words in light of the call of David’s heart. Psalm 103

I wonder how many empty words I use on a daily basis. We’ve all used them from time to time, sometimes they have more substance than others, but we all recognize them: you mean the world to me; I love you with all my heart; I’m sorry; If you do that one more time I’m going to…(fill in the blank); I’ll be praying for you; I forgive you, bless you…and the list goes on and on. Of course, sometimes we mean these things, or least think we do, or hope we do…but words are easy. They can flow off of our lips as readily as water over a waterfall. It’s meaning them…It’s the follow through…giving them legs, truly understanding and acting on them that I find difficult at times. Perhaps none moreso than when responding to the Grace and Mercy of my heavenly Father.

Oh how easy it is to say thank you Jesus in times of plenty. How quickly I say Amen and end a note with “In Him” or “Blessings”.  I refer to Him as not only my daily bread but my very breath.  How easy and lovely that is to say. But do I truly mean it? Do I actually realize that without Him, I would simply perish? Do I give this Truth the weight it deserves? One thing I can say for certain is this. I truly do not want for my words to be idle and meaningless in the face of God. Lord, teach me how to search the depths of my soul and surface with a renewed mind that, by Your Grace alone, will equip me to understand what you have done for me and give feet to my words that they would not be idle and self-brought, but would be refined by the living Spirit within me and equipped to travel into the battlefield, to serve you, honor you and glorify you.

Surely this was David’s self-exhortation when he pleaded with his very soul in Psalm 103 “Bless the Lord, oh my soul, all that is within me, Bless His Holy name! Bless the Lord, oh my soul and forget not all His benefits.” He called upon the very depths of his soul to be found in and take shape in the truth of what God had done for him. Why does one need to call upon himself to remember the Grace and Mercy of God? Because, like the old hymn says, we are prone to wander and leave the God we love. Even as the righteous redeemed by faith, we know our own tendencies, left to our own abilities and desires, to seek fulfillment, satisfaction and identity in ourselves and the world we live in. We are indeed prone to wander.

The great Charles Spurgeon lifts high this particular Psalm, rendering it somewhat of a capstone to the rest. “As in the lofty Alps, some peaks rise above the others, so among even the inspired Psalms, there are heights of song that over-top the rest. This 103rd Psalm has ever seemed to us to be the Monte Rosa (one of the highest peaks in the Swiss Alps) of the divine chain of mountains of praise, glowing with a more radiant light than all the rest.”  He goes on to say,  “There is too much in this Psalm for a thousand pens to write. It is one of those all-comprehending scriptures which is a bible in itself. It might alone almost suffice for the hymnbook of the church”

Now THOSE are powerful, descriptive words…and ones that surely are not empty nor taken lightly. Psalm 103 finds David searching his inmost being for the strength to praise the God that bestowed upon him Grace upon Grace, Mercy upon Mercy. He is taking personal inventory of the provision and sovereignty of God and pleads with himself that he never forget. This life that David walks with his God is defined by all that the Father possesses and all that the Father gives and does: forgiveness of our iniquties, healing from disease (particularly the disease of sin but also bodily healing that will not cease until made perfect with new bodies for all eternity), He pulls us from the pit and mire, crowns us with steadfast love and mercy, satisfies our souls with good, renews our youth as the eagle is granted renewing of it’s feathers, works righteousness and justice for the oppressed, He makes known His ways and His acts, He is Merciful and Gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love, He removes our transgressions, shows compassion, knows our frame, remembers that we are weak and frail and our time here on earth is fleeting and has prepared a way for us to dwell with Him forever.  It’s almost too much to read and process all at once. This indeed, seems to be the definitive work of Christ that Spurgeon must have been eluding to when calling this Psalm an encapsulation of the bible itself and able to stand ready as perhaps the only needed song our souls long to sing.

Where, oh Lord, are the words within me and the ability in the depths of my soul to reflect any of this back in praise! When David exhorts himself to Bless the Lord, he surely doesn’t mean blessing God the way that God blesses us. God’s blessing of us is an act of pure Grace and Mercy, a favor, a gift. We have nothing to give to God that would be favorable. He is, in and of Himself, eternally blessed, fulfilled and complete in His triune nature. Our only “blessing” we can give to God is to humbly honor Him and reflect His Glory, in praise of His Holy work and sovereign nature. If only it was as easy to DO that as to say it. Even as I type this I fear that my words be empty. So, I search the depth of my soul, as did David, and plead it to come forth in praise. I do this by admitting my very weakness that renders me crippled and mute as I fumble at how to praise Him.  I admit that I struggle with sin and wrestle with righteousness. I link arms with the apostle Paul and hit my knees as to partner with him in his confession and cry for mercy: “I find then, the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I delight in the law of God in my inner being but I see a different law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God who delivers me through Jesus Chirst our Lord!”Romans 7:22-23

Surely, this “inner man” that longs to honor God is where the Spirit dwells – “that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being”Ephesians 3:16;

Surely God Himself searches these depths of me to weed out iniquity and replace a right way about me “Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts; And see if there be any hurtful way in me, And lead me in the everlasting way.”Psalm 139:23-24,

Surely though our bodies waste away, our inner self is being renewed by the very One that knows our every need and has made provision for us  “Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.  For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” –2Corinthians 4:13-18. 

Therefore, by Grace alone, just as we marvel at the mystery of being called His children, sinners redeemed by the righteousness of His son and all iniquity cast away as far as the east is from the west, so must we marvel at the mystery that though nothing in us can ever truly reflect His image nor honor His character and works, the very fact that God is who He says He is, gives peace that He, who began a good work in me, will carry it on to completionPhilippians 1:6, and as He searches the depths of my soul, the very essence of my inner most being, He will be faithful to cleanse, renew, intercede and equip, so that, as this feeble, broken, fallible creature calls upon her very soul to remember her Creator, He will look not upon me and see lack, nor hear my words that they be empty, but rather will He look upon the face of Jesus, hear His groanings that once were mine, and proclaim the most Gracious and undeserved of words…”well done my good and faithful servant”, and my soul, once again, shall be at rest.

“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” – Romans 8:26

By Grace alone!