My Little Helper

We are currently doing a series entitled “Right Here, Right Now” at church, about what it means to walk day by day as a disciple of Jesus. Last week, Joe (the Joe who taught us these important things about where teens belong) talked about what it meant to be God’s helper. It reminded me of this story, which was first published over at the gorgeous (in)courage website.

"He's my little helper. And I am His."

“I don’t need your help!” I snapped, as I swatted his grubby little fist away from the dough.

The boy wilted at my rebuke. “But Mommy, I love to help you.”

“I know, but your hands are dirty and I can do it myself,” I muttered.

I had five kids under 6 in my care and was trying to whip up scones for lunch before the high-pitched hunger wails set in. My three-year old, seeing the bowl, had scraped a giant chair all the way across the floor and posted himself at my side, ready to be my sous chef. Now he stood there: swatted at, snapped at, and snubbed. He was crestfallen.

I don’t need you either,” I heard the still, small voice say. “Your hands are often dirty. You mess up and make mistakes. And I could do it myself. But I don’t.”

Words from Corinthians welled up from within: For we are co-workers in God’s service. Co-workers. Co-workers of the Great One who could create the stars just by speaking. Of the One whom angels worship. Of the One who holds every molecule in the universe together. Of the inventor of harmonies, peaches, mathematics, asteroids, and neural pathways. And yet He chooses to accomplish His purposes on earth through us.

He could have willed people to follow him. And yet He chose to have salvation come by hearing a message spoken by foolish and fallible lips. We corrupt the message, betray the message, miscommunicate the message. And yet, He has chosen to use us as messengers.

He could heal with a concoction of spit-filled mud, and yet He chooses to have us apply band-aids and give hugs, learn physical therapy, walk the long-road of chemotherapy.

Me? His helper? How could He possibly use bumbling, fumbling, grumbling me to accomplish anything? But again Corinthians whispered: Not that we are competent in ourselves, but our competence comes from God.

I am my Daddy’s little helper. I am His kid, pulling up her chair as He cooks up His divine, fantastic plan, and He invites me to stick my grubby paws in His dough. To learn alongside Him. To share in the creation of what He’s baking in history.

Gentled by my Father’s guiding hand, I turned to the little one at my side. I let my son knead the dough – he over worked it. I let him roll it out – it was uneven. I showed him how to paint the egg on the top – he painted more baking sheet than scone. But they were delicious, and we did it together.

He’s my little helper, and I am His.

{Photo by Corrie Haffly. This post first appeared at (in)courage}

 

Courage to find Significance in the Every Day

It was my great joy and honor to speak at MOPS (Mother of Preschoolers) this week. I was asked to please post my talk online. Here it is. Try to imagine yourself in the company of a room full of moms of little ones while you read, won’t you? 

Motherhood requires courage to find significance in the every day. Read this, and take courage.

 

I am often really uncomfortable with being introduced at a speaking engagement. Usually, the person introducing me will have asked about my background and then they go ahead and give the crowd the “highlights reel”, and it makes it all sound so impressive that even I am intimidated by me. I feel like I need to stand up and confess something just so that people will know I’m a real person: “Hi, I lose my temper and fart. I am the worst potty trainer in the world and am pretty much a walking Pinterest fail waiting to happen.” #settingexpectations

But I think moms of little ones are pretty good at keeping it real. After all, we are a crowd who have all known the mixed glory and indignity of having people see your most intimate parts naked while giving birth (and, mortifyingly, there may have even been poop.) We have had to learn how to breastfeed. We have handled more human bodily fluids than we dreamed it was possible to touch without withering. We carry embarrassing things in our purses. So we are a crowd who are…. Humbled.

And so perhaps, for that reason, I feel like it’s important too to tell you that I do have a highlights reel. That I was valedictorian of my high school, and that I graduated from law school with honors at the age of 21. I should tell you that before graduating, I landed a job with the highest paying outfit out of all the recruitment opportunities they were farming for at my college. And then, through a strange and God-tangled web of events, I landed up forfeiting that job and going to seminary, where I graduated with honors before the bishop of our denomination created a job in women’s ministry for me to develop some new models of ministry for how we reached women in the workplace.

And I tell you this not to brag… really, because there’s that whole body-fluids-humbling and muffin-top shame thing going on all at the same time… I tell you this because I want you to know that it was only when I became a mom that it came CRASHING DOWN on me how much significance I had put into that highlights reel. I thought I was a humble person, aware of my failings, and reliant on God’s grace beforehand. But it was only when all those achievements in career and ministry were taken away that I realized how much doing well in life, and being seen to do well in life, had factored into my sense of identity and calling.

The truth of this became most obvious to me just after my daughter was born. All of a sudden, my only job in the world was to get this tiny human to eat and to sleep. And I could do neither. I had significant problems with breastfeeding – my milk didn’t come in for nearly a week, and when it did, it came in drips: not nearly enough to feed my big girl. And worst of all: I didn’t even know my baby was hungry. On the 3rd day after her birth my husband and I drove anxiously to Urgent Care because she would.not.stop.screaming and would.not.sleep. The kindly pediatrician asked us a few questions and asked if she could observe me feed her. Nodding wisely, she said “ah yes, your milk hasn’t come in” (I had no idea). She told us our daughter was hungry and gave me a breast pump to get things going and gave my daughter a 2 oz of bottle of formula, which she drank and promptly fell asleep for the first time since she had been born.

I felt like such a failure. Because I couldn’t feed my baby. Because I didn’t even know there was no food. Because I didn’t know she was hungry. Despite having read ever Mommy-and-Baby book I could get my hands on so I would be AWESOME at this mom thing: it turned out I couldn’t even do the basics – feeding my child and getting her to sleep. She was a fussy baby and a terrible sleeper. They were the most humbling few months of my life.

All of this served to highlight to me how much of my worth I had put into being a DOER. We live in a world where we are told we can, and we ought to, do something EXTRAORDINARY in our life, and make a SIGNIFICANT use of our time. The extraordinary and the significant are the measures of our worth – and we despise, and even fear, the ordinary and the seemingly insignificant.

Motherhood – above all things – is one long lesson in learning to find the significance in the very ordinary, and dare I say, even boring. If we add to this the cultural narrative that considers children to have a very low rank in terms of life accomplishments, this adds to the stress. Think of all the things people say about deciding to have kids: Will I be able to finish college, or grad school? But we wanted to travel first. But kids are expensive and we’d like to save for our own home. I’d like to get established in my career first. Not that any of those things are bad – but the way our culture talks about them tells us that children rank lower than our own personal goals of accomplishing education, career, travel, financial or physical goals.

Motherhood gets in the way of that: it’s lots and lots of “not achieving”, day by day – all the while faced with our very real and in-your-face limitations. Michael Horton, wrote a fabulous little article entitled “What if having an extraordinary life isn’t the point?”, in which he says this: “Even more than I’m afraid of failure, I’m terrified of boredom. Facing another day, with ordinary callings to ordinary people all around me is much more difficult than chasing the dreams I have envisioned for the grand story of my life.”

Yes. Exactly.

I get that. And it explains to me why, in my earlier days as a mom, I found myself irrationally jealous when my former interns came to visit me and complained that they had had a week full of admin and making copies… and I was SO JEALOUS that they were making COPIES.

BECAUSE AT LEAST THEY HAD SOMETHING TO SHOW FOR THEIR DAY.

I think this explains what drives many of our love for Facebook and Pinterest. Because our day to day jobs don’t feel significant, but if we share pictures of the gorgeous meal we made, or the cutest Halloween costumes EVER… we are putting out public post-it notes which says “I have something to show for myself.” See, I made that. I did that. Isn’t it cute, everyone? Getting lots of “likes” or “pins” ticks our “feeling significant” and “feeling worthwhile” boxes. Or at least, it does mine.

And it also explains why one of the things I love about writing is that it is something I get to work on and then when I click “publish” or “send” – then my words go up onto the shiny surface of the internet and NO-ONE CAN PUT STICKY, JELLY FINGERS ON THEM. My words remain there just like I left them, and I marvel at that.

Because everything else in my life is not about accomplishing or doing or even making progress. It’s about a full-scale, full-time effort to HOLD BACK THE CHAOS. My goal at the end of the day at home is not to take it to the next level: it’s to work all day to prevent us from sliding into an abyss. When I signed up for Google + a few years ago, It asked me what my job was. I wrote “opposer of entropy”. For that is what I do. All day long: I hold back the chaos.

What this calls for is a great amount of courage – and more courage, in fact, than it takes to complete a huge project or organize a big event. It’s the sheer everydayness of life, the tedium of the ordinary and the relentless forces of entropy at work in our house that call for a DAILY mustering of courage. Courage calls for commitment and strength in the face of insecurity and intimidation. It means keeping going, even though the end is not necessarily in sight, and we have often feel we have no idea whether we are doing well or whether this is all going to turn out okay.

Because honestly, if my children’s behavior is my only performance review on this job, I sometimes feel I really suck.

And so it takes courage to keep working on a job where there are so few measurables.

I think, in particular, mustering this kind of courage to face the great cliff of the ORDINARY, takes two things:

 It means learning to take the long-range view of what we are doing.

My mom used to say that she often reminded herself that she was not raising children: she was raising ADULTS. Putting it that way reminded her that she wasn’t just trying to control the behavior of a tantrumming 3-year old in the supermarket, the long-range goal was to raise an adult who was well-adjusted and had healthy relationships with her and with society. And so she tried to think about the long-term: which gave her hope (because they wouldn’t always be 3 and tantrumming), but it also gave her a direction. She was parenting towards a goal, not just parenting in the moment.

Along similar lines, a friend of mine pointed out the story of Philip the Evangelist in the book of Acts in the Bible. In Acts 6, shortly after Jesus had been raised from the dead and ascended to heaven, the church was still really new and figuring things out, and 7 leaders were appointed to organize the new community and help care for some of the pressing social needs. Philip was one of the 7 appointed and commissioned by the 12 apostles: a leader from the get-go.

In Acts 8 we read this:

“Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was great joy in that city.”

We find Philip preaching, dealing with demons, and healing people in Jesus’ name. Wow. A few verses later we read that he was out on the road when an Ethiopian eunuch in a chariot came driving by who just happened to be reading puzzling verses from Isaiah, and then God tells the Ethiopian to ask this guy Philip to explain it to him, and Philip tells him about Jesus and the man puts the puzzle pieces together and realizes that Jesus IS the promised King and the one who would take the sins of others that the Old Testament had been talking about – and so he decides to change his life and follow Jesus and Philip baptizes him right there and then in the river. The eunuch continues on his way to form and found the first church in Africa, and Philip – well, let me quote the verse directly: “When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing.”

Wow, Philip. Very impressive. One of the few people who ever got to ride by Holy Spirit Taxi Services.

But you know what? After that extraordinary introduction – Philip disappears from the story, and we don’t hear a single word about him again… Until 20 years later, when he turns up right at the end of the book of Acts, and we are told that Philip was there, along with his 4 unmarried daughters, all of whom were prophetesses.

And it makes me think. Philip went from a ministry that seemed so impressive and awesome, and then seemed to fade into obscurity. But we see him 20 years later and realize THEN that he had been doing something significant for those 20 years: he had been raising daughters who knew and loved God, and who were fully equipped for service.

I wonder if, when he had 4 girls under the age of 7 all fighting about who got to sit where, whether Philip ever thought “Sheesh: remember that time when I was doing something USEFUL for you, Lord?” Or, when they were teens, “I used to feel like I was really being used by you God… but now it’s just hormones and boys and tears all day long with these girls. Is this really what you want me to be doing?”

All those years time it may have seemed like Philip wasn’t doing anything significant, but he was. He had taken a long-range view: raising adults who would know and love Jesus as he did.

This gives me hope. Because in 20 years, all these “insignificant days” will total up to having 3 grown children. And it won’t be the one gorgeous thanksgiving meal, or the one awesome mommy moment or vacation we took that stand out as “the thing that made their childhood” – it will be the sum total of the ordinary days.

Not just the one fantastic meal, but a lifetime of ordinary, nutritious meals to raise a healthy adult.

 Not just one I-killed-it-with-that-explanation conversation, but a lifetime of saying “I love you,” “I believe in you”, “this is what is right, and this is what is wrong,” which will be embedded into their souls.

Not just the one vacation we spent together, but the habit we had of snuggling to read a book, or of always listening attentively and talking with them while we did our daily commute.

It takes a lifetime of ordinary courage to make a significant impact in raising adults.

So: finding courage to face the everyday calls for taking a long-range view, and it calls for another thing:

 It calls for faith.

I use the word FAITH, meaning that it refers to a belief, or trust, in something we can’t fully see yet. We see a little bit of the truth, but we don’t see the whole thing and so we keep pressing on in that direction, trusting that it’s the right one.

Rachel Jankovic wrote an article some years ago which made such a big impression on me, in which she talked about how motherhood may be regarded as of little importance by others and a very lowly job, but in fact it was a calling of the highest honor because as parents, what we are doing is modeling the gospel to our children every day.

In laying down our lives for them, and learning to deny our own ambitions for others’ benefits, in taking care of their daily needs and investing in the work of shaping their characters – we are showing them something significant about the gospel of Jesus, who laid down his life for us, denied his glory and privileges for us, who takes care of our needs and, even thought we don’t deserve it and are exasperating raw material, is deeply attentive to the daily work of character formation in our own lives.

This business of shaping people into becoming God’s children was Jesus’ great goal, according to Hebrews 2. It cost him his life, but the joy of relationship was unsurpassable.

Jesus was in it for the long-haul with us. And even though he had days when he rolled his eyes at his disciples and said to them “how long shall I put up with you?”, he kept at it. Hebrews 12 says :

“.. Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him… so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

I believe it takes faith to keep being a mom. Races are run one step at a time. Lifetimes are lived one minute at a time. It is sometimes hard to keep going when no one step feels particularly significant, and no one minute feels worthwhile – but, Jesus showed us that in the long run, it takes faith to remember the joy set before us and to keep going – so that we will not grow weary and lose heart.

We are so quickly impressed by the big once-off acts and accomplishments, but we forget the power of the daily, persevering ones. We love to think of God as the Creator of all, but often forget that not only did God create, but he also continues to sustain and provide. He is awesome not only became he created life, but because he continues to give every breath, open every flower, animate every heartbeat. Those Divine acts of sustaining providence are deeply significant.

And so are ours.

The creative act of bringing a child into the world is incredible and deeply significant. But so is every sustaining acts of fixing a snack, leaning in for a snuggle, every encouraging word which sustains a weary soul. To preserve and sustain reflects God too. As it turns out, opposing entropy is a profoundly godly thing to do.

All this brings me to say one more thing, and that is to highlight the role we play in one another’s lives in helping one another to find significance in the every day.

The word ENCOURAGE literally means to give one another courage. We encourage each other by setting an example or perhaps by acts of service and huge, but I think chiefly we encourage one another with our words. The Bible tells us the “Faith comes from hearing”, and while in that context it is talking about the saving faith in Jesus, the message is still true for our purposes – because the faith to believe that the daily grind of everyday motherhood is worth it, comes from HEARING from others often, and being reminded of the big picture and the long-range view.

When we remind one another that we are loving our kids as God has loved us, we are ENCOURAGING: literally giving one another COURAGE to face the day. That’s what MOPS is all about. When we remind one another that God is not only the Creator of all things beautiful, but the Sustainer and Giver of Daily Bread and Daily Breath – and that those daily offerings of mac and cheese and carrot sticks are also, in some way, modeling the work of God who sustains us daily – we give one another courage. When we notice our friends showing patience and gentleness with their kids and we tell them it’s beautiful to see – we affirm that they ARE doing good and they should keep it up.

And so we speak life to one another. We give encourage, and give courage by helping one another to take the long range view and to keep the faith… because this daily job of mothering is not extraordinary – but by God, it is significant.

 

Photo credit: Kim MyoungSung “drying laundry” (Flickr Creative Commons) – edits by Bronwyn Lea

To Be Found Faithful – {guest post by Sarah Torna Roberts}

I have been longing for this day to come, so I can introduce you to Sarah Torna Roberts and share her beautiful post. It was just exactly what I needed to read. I bet it is for you too.

Toms on the river

It was a weekend none of us would likely forget. We were almost all of us together, as total as we’d been in years.  Tents were pitched in my grandparents’ mountain backyard, babies cried, and kiddos ran every which way. Newlyweds roasted marshmallows with arms wrapped around each other’s waists because that’s what you do when you’ve still got the honeymoon in your eyes. There was the familiar family talent show, piles of chocolate, bags of potato chips and the ever present onion dip, may it reign forever.

On night two of this spectacular family gathering, someone gathered us all, quieted our laughter and reminiscing, murmured words of thanks and blessing. Then, a new practice, a time of sharing with each family taking its’ turn breaking open a bit, placing the precious things of our lives and hearts into the hands and hearts of those gathered.

What does the next year look like for you?

What do you need prayer for?

How can we support you through the season you’re in?

One by one, we heard stories of looming college graduations, heavy work loads, raising young children, endless ministry tasks. We listened, we cried. We nodded in affirmation and love.

When it came to my Grandma, my so private Grandma, my never complaining Grandma, my solid as a rock Grandma, my bootstraps Grandma, we leaned in.  She spoke words, halted and started by the choked throat, by the emotion of her whole family spread before her, the emotion of putting it to words, the slow and steady path of her life.

She described her calling, her place in this time.  Sacred tasks, their holiness hidden by their everyday ordinariness. Tiny efforts in practice, monumental in their importance, in their cost. Her quietly muttered sentences washing over all of us, her simple obedience to the mundane and invisible ringing with truth and grace and love.

“I just want to be found faithful.”

And with that, the heart’s cry of my life was born. These words brought Freedom for my try-harder, do-it-right-the-first-time nature.

I just want to be found faithful.

Her words follow me around every bend in my road, blaze above me as I struggle through middle of the night worries, whisper at me when the path seems too narrow for my lead feet.

I just want to be found faithful.

… when my little son’s struggles are more than just a phase, when the road to developmental delay is winding and full of road blocks and rolled eyes. When we land on a diagnosis, to lean into a world as heartbreaking as it is beautiful and miraculous.

…when that file titled “Writing”  on my computer contains documents that date back to 2001. When the nudge to admit that writing is part of who I was made to be,  when it becomes clear that hiding is no longer an option, to write out loud.

… when the friend of my heart walks the road of infertility, when she needs me to just show up, to swear and rage with her as dreams collapse, to smile and nod as they change and morph.

… when I’m exhausted by the minivan, and the suburban life that repeats itself every day. When the tasks are ordinary and necessary, isolating and honorable, to do them tired and do them with love.

… when my husband needs my touch, needs my smiling joy over him, over our union even though I’m so tired and frustrated I could spit, to kiss him well.

… when the conversations are hard, and there is repair work to be done. When I’ve done harm with my words or lack of words, with my actions or inactions, to step toward repentance, forgiveness, the hard words of mercy.

I just want to be found faithful.

Faithfulness doesn’t look like perfection or super spiritual, hero-status endeavors. It is the road of mistakes, of imperfect persistence.

If my Grandmother is any indication, it is simply opening your eyes every single day to the life God has given you, to the people He’s set you with, to the circumstances and opportunities and situations of your life, and taking a step toward them.  And then maybe another one.

Faithfulness is meant for such as me, with my ragamuffin heart. It’s my imperfect road of trying again, of God smiling on me as I honor the life He’s given me by continuing to live it, even with my messes and sassy mouth and snappy temper. To open my hands to it, to pour my soul into it.  To raise my eyes to heaven and ask for help along the away, again.

To trust that this is enough.

profile pic-smallSarah Torna Roberts is a writer who lives in California with her husband and four sons. She blogs at www.sarahtornaroberts.com where she digs around her in her memories, records her present, and is constantly holding her faith up to the light. She snacks at 2 AM with great regularity, is highly suspicious of anyone who doesn’t love baseball (Go Giants!), and would happily live in a tent by the sea. Connect with her on twitter, instagram or follow her blog here

 

My dear Wormwood, about World Vision…

My Dear Wormwood, About World Vision

My dear Wormwood,

It has been a while since our last correspondence, but Headquarters has sent out a fresh batch of directives which require our most immediate and urgent attention. Our Father is particularly delighted at the ways in which the Christians are slinging arrows at each other following the gleeful little rumpus regarding World Vision. Usually it is our task to aim the fiery darts, but it seems at present our bows have been all but snatched from our hands. All we need do is work at twisting the arrows in where they have found purchase.

It is rare that I congratulate you on a job well done, but I must applaud you for your fine work on your patient this week. Where there was disappointment at first, you managed to nudge it towards disdain and even anger in the hours that followed. We count it a victory that you kept your patient reading and engaging online for hours before the Enemy pulled him away for an infuriating moment of prayer and reflection.

It is, of course, the Enemy’s habit to unravel and undo our best efforts at disunity and confusion, but our immediate attention must be to delay the inevitable as long as possible. Collateral damage is key, even if the final battle cannot be won. The longer you can stir feelings of grief and outrage, the better. Put it into his head to feel a pitiful sorrow for himself, for the starving children, for the opportunities lost; and pit his sorrow against the “others” who call themselves Christians. Make frequent use of the words ‘they’ and ‘them’: those sneaky pronouns make such delightful inroads into so-called Christian “community”.

Self-righteous reflection will be our greatest ally here. Do your very best to keep a level of deep disappointment and blame simmering in his chest, but under no circumstances should you let his regret develop into remorse or repentance. Let him be sad, but do not let him wallow near godly sorrow. Have him question the state of the souls of others: it will keep him from soul-searching himself, at least for a time.

Time is of the essence, dear nephew. Do all you can to keep him at his computer, and off his knees. If we cannot dissuade our patients from calling themselves biblical Christians, our best bet is to make critics rather than students of them all. I look forward to your next missive reporting increased levels of frustration and folly all round.

Your affectionate uncle,

SCREWTAPE

C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters have long been a favorite of mine. 1 Peter 5:8 reminds us to beware of our enemy, who prowls around like a lion looking for someone to devour. This week, I have wondered what that prowling lion has made of the World Vision controversy, and I confess I spent too much time online and not on my knees. Writing this was a helpful spiritual exercise for me. I publish it in the hope that it might be for you.

For the love of shoes

My friend Kate introduced me to the concept of “break-up shoes”. Break-up shoes, as in, the pair of fabulously festive footwear purchased to add sass and spunk to your step after having your heart shredded by another. Perhaps a pair like these:

For The Love of Shoes, and Jesus

I know. Thou shalt not covet. Thou shalt not covet. Thou shalt not covet.

Kate knows what she’s talking about. She comes from a long line of women who know the power of shoes. Her sister, for instance, sports a collection of peep-toe pumps that are so mind-bogglingly pretty that the shelf they live on are a decorative centerpiece. No joke. I LOVE her shoe rack.

But my husband doesn’t get it. I am not particularly into clothes and being cute, but what is it about shoes? Why is it that the only time I have ever concealed a purchase from him was because I had bought two pairs of shoes and thought he would disapprove? (Full disclosure: I “freed” them from their boxes and had put them nonchalantly in the cupboard before he got home… but he had spotted two shoe boxes in the recycling and asked casually, forgivingly, knowingly where the contents were. I fessed up. Won’t do that again.) I am more honest about it now – but I still love shoes.

Along with many women, I harbor a secret-not-so-secret foot fetish. The passion runs deep. Unlike my weight and age where the numbers keep changing, my feet have been pretty much the same size for more than 20 years. They are constant. Unlike a dress or a pair of jeans, my self esteem is not wounded if a pair of shoes doesn’t fit well. And if they DO fit well, they are an instant pick-me-up for any outfit. I can make a regular jeans day into a sassy day by adding a pair of heels. The proverbial little black dress can be transformed from Mournful into Festive by a change in footwear (and maybe a pair of sparkly earrings). Putting on a pair of fabulous shoes can make us feel decorated. And if those fabulous shoes are heels, well then there are the added perks of a longer legs and a curvier shape – all of which can add a lovely feeling of confidence to an otherwise blah day. Or is it just me?

Most places I go I do not see what I look like. Unless I happen to come across a mirror in, I can’t see how my top is fitting, whether there are lumps or bumps or curves or angles. But I CAN see my feet, and getting a glimpse of a cute pair of shoes as I go about my day makes me think: “yay! that looks pretty!” And of course, if there is a peek of a well-painted toenails, all the better for self-esteem.

I try to be responsible about shoe purchases. Groceries and college funds are more important than shoes. Also, heels are not advisable for 99% of my life activities, and not practical for 100% of them. So I confess I spend most of my time wearing sandals and loafers… but I still prefer them to be pretty. And pretty comfortable. But pretty is important. I LIKE beautiful shoes. Even if the rest of me feels sub par, I love beautiful feet.

But even just saying the words “beautiful feet” remind me of another truth – that the Bible says that the most beautiful feet are the ones of those who come carrying messages of joy and good news (Isaiah 52:7). As much as I like my feet to look beautiful, I am reminded that truly beautiful feet are ones which GO. Beautiful feet are ones which carry me out to the world: to speak kindness, to bring encouragement, to proclaim peace, to tell of Jesus. Those are the truly beautiful feet.

I want those beautiful feet. And if possible, I wouldn’t mind if they were sparkly.

Photo credit: bleubirdvintage

When there’s something icky in the bath water

I don’t even know what it was that made me suspicious, but I’ll give the credit to mommy-instinct. One minute my two boys were splashing in the tub, and the next I was giving my four-year old the death stare:

Me: “Did you just pee in the bath?”

Boy: “No, I was holding my hand in front of it so that it wouldn’t come out.”

Me: “Do you need to get out and pee?”

Boy: “No. I went.”

Me: “Did the pee come out while you were sitting there in the water?”

Boy: “Yes, but it’s okay because I had my hand in front of it so that it wouldn’t be in the bath water.”

*lesigh*

The boy seemed confused and more than a little upset at the speed with which I yanked him out of the water. What was the big deal? From his perspective, he had contained the problem. Why, then, was I muttering something about contamination and yuckness? He acquiesced to his premature lauch from bath-time-bliss, still confused, but glad to be in one of his favorite spots: snuggled in a towel burrito.

20140211-202652.jpg

For the record, this is not my shiny clean tub in the picture.

As I leaned in to pull the plug from the tub, I got a glimpse once again of the tireless love with which God loves me. How many times have I not broken a little rule, done something I know I ought not to have done, and thought “it’s okay”? How often have I thought that I was doing “damage control” putting my metaphorical hand out to contain the mess, certain that no-one would know and nothing would be affected by my sin? Surely, from God’s perspective, that looks a lot using your hand to try and prevent pee from mixing with the bath water.

Sin, like germs, are invisible. And contamination, like pee in a bath, happens. Other people, like the unsuspecting baby brother sitting in the same water, are affected. Others, like that same brother, experience consequences from our choices, even though he was dimly aware of the facts. And yet often I am perplexed at the alarmed reaction to sin from Jesus: “if your eye causes you to sin, CUT IT OUT!” What’s the big deal, we sometimes think?

As I snuggled my boy, another thought crossed my mind. The Psalmist writes of God:

“He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire;

He set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.” (Psalm 40:2 NIV)

Maybe I could suggest another version:

“He rescued me out of the pee-bath, out of the mud and the germs;

He set my feet on a non-slip bath mat, and snuggled me in a fluffy towel.” (Psalm 40:2 crazed mama paraphrase)

And rescue me, he has. Even though I was hardly aware of it. As I watched the last of the water swirl out of the tub, I found myself thankful for Jesus once again: “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he put our transgressions from us.”  They’re gone:  down the drain,  washed away,  while I am safe in the Father’s arms.

Rolling up the stairs

A funny comment from my four year old prompted my super-talented friend Kate Motaung to write this post. Oh, it’s SO good (as is most everything that Kate writes). Kate blogs at Heading Home, and is a regular contributor to a host of awesome sites (including (in)courage, ibelieve.com, ungrind, MOPS, devotional diva and ilovedevotionals.com.)

snowshovel

Living in West Michigan this winter has been Down. Right. Crazy.

The snow just Will. Not. Stop.

Frequent hours have been spent at the end of our driveway, heaving shovel after shovel of brown, wet slush over my shoulder onto the white banks that stand as sentries on either side, now taller than my head and growing every day.  Bundled in multiple layers, squinting my eyes from the blustering wind and flurries blowing sideways, I’ve often been reminded of this quote by Phyllis Diller: “Trying to clean your house while your kids are still growing is like trying to shovel the sidewalk before it stops snowing.”

The same could be said of our desire to ‘clean our hearts,’ through the ongoing process of sanctification.  No matter how many times we go out to shovel the sin away through repentance, it just keeps on snowing.  We just keep on sinning.  Day, after day, after day.

Our pastor recently gave a very timely illustration for his shivering Michigan flock.  He compared the cleanliness of our hearts to the cleanliness of our snow-covered driveways.  “Even if you shovel on Thursday night, it’s covered again on Friday morning.  And if you shovel on Friday, there is a fresh pile waiting for you on Saturday.”  The same is true of our hearts, he said.  We need to daily — no, hourly — be kneeling before the throne of grace in repentance, gratefully accepting God’s cleansing power of forgiveness through His Son.

It’s an uphill climb, this process of sanctification.  A lifelong, uphill climb.

As a wise four-year-old once observed, “It’s not easy to roll up the stairs. But it is easy to roll down.”

baluster-x

The same goes for sanctification.  It’s not easy to work our way up, but it is oh, so easy to slip down.  Like a child grunting his way up the steps of the slide at the playground, heaving those chubby little legs up one, then two, then three rungs of the ladder, it takes careful, deliberate effort to make one’s way toward the top.  By contrast, it takes barely any energy at all to slide down the metal slope — and often, with much glee and delight.  The slippery ride into sin is often laced with enjoyment — yet just as often, it ends with a thud in the dirt at the bottom … and usually not without tears.

Sometimes I think God gives us these life lessons as warnings — red flags, to keep us from making the same, painful mistakes again.

This past summer, I was slowly shuffling down a flight of stairs in our home, clutching a pillow to my cramping stomach and leaning my right shoulder against the wall.  Three steps from the bottom, the banister which had served as my crutch ended abruptly, without my knowledge.  As a result, I missed the last three steps and landed — hard — on my big toe, bent under.  Instantly broken.

That was over six months ago, and my toe still hurts.  I couldn’t drive for six weeks.  The lesson was well engraved into my mind.  Now, whenever I approach the top of the staircase, I block everything else out of my mind and focus on descending the steps.  I refuse to make the same mistake again.  The fall that day was quick, and the results oh, so painful.

We learn from experience that it’s much easier to roll down the stairs than it is to roll up.  We learn from experience that if we don’t shovel the driveway, we won’t make it into the road.

In his book, An Infinite Journey, Andrew Davis goes into great depth about the Christian’s journey of sanctification.  One component, he says, is experiential knowledge.  Combined with factual knowledge about God from the Scriptures, the Lord has also provided us with real-life lessons that teach us about His goodness, His holiness, His grace, His jealousy, His love.

One Scriptural example offered by Davis is of Moses lifting up his arms in prayer.  Moses quickly learned through experience that if he let his arms sink to his sides, the tide of the battle would turn against the Israelites in favor of their enemy, the Amalekites (Exodus 17:8-13).  It was hard work.  So tiresome, in fact, that Moses had to request a rock to sit on, and two assistants to help him hold up his arms.  The lesson learned, as Davis points out, was that “prayer is indispensable to the journey of victory that God has prepared for His people” (An Infinite Journey, p. 114).

A lesson I gained from this account was that sometimes we need assistants to hold up our arms.  When the climb up the stairs toward heaven becomes tiresome, when the shovel full of snow becomes too much to bear, instead of just rolling down the stairs back to square one, or letting the snow pile up until it’s impassable, we can call for help.  We don’t have to walk the Christian life alone.

Firstly, we have God.  It’s only by His grace and strength that we’re able to raise our foot to the step or our shovel to the bank in the first place.  Secondly, we have a spiritual family.  Brothers and sisters in Christ who are called to share the burden and bear each other’s load on the long trudge through the blizzard toward glory.

The arduous, persistent task of shoveling the snow from the end of the driveway is not without reward.  It almost certainly guarantees safe passage toward the desired destination.  Without clearing the accumulation away, even an SUV would fail to break through the solid blockade.  Similarly, by continually going to the Father with a broken and contrite spirit — not for multiple assurances of salvation or acts of justification, but for the ongoing acknowledgement that He is God and we are not, that He is good and we are not, that He can save and we can not — that heart posture, only possible through God’s grace and His Spirit, will allow for safe passage between the banks to our eternal destination with Him.

Maybe you’re at a point in your climb where you’ve fallen down a few steps and broken your toe.  Maybe you’re hobbling in pain, limping your way back to the staircase.  You know from experience that it’s much easier to roll down than it is to roll up.  But you don’t want to be at the bottom.  You want to be making your way back to the top.  If that’s the case, perhaps you’ll be challenged by this portion of Revelation:

“Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love.  Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” (Revelation 2:4-5)

If this resonates with you, Andrew Davis offers this three-step suggestion: Remember, Repent, and Do.  Remember the height from which you have fallen.  Remember the affection you used to have for Christ.  Repent.  Then do the things you did at first.  Go back to the stair case, take a deep breath of God’s grace, and start climbing.  Zip up your jacket and start shoveling, even while it’s still snowing.

Photo credits: Rick G at theroadgetslongerifitistop.com and thisoldhouse.com

Ancient Conclusions for New Year’s Resolutions

It’s the week after Christmas, which means this is the week in which we are all supposed to be reflecting meaningfully on the past year and preparing our new year’s resolutions for the year ahead, right? Cue wisdom, profundity and insight.

New Years ResolutionsSo far, this is what my list looks like:

  • reduce sugar intake
  • exercise more
  • sleep more
  • pray more
  • spend less time on my ipad

This is hardly the stuff of Yoda-like wisdom. The list seems so paltry that it hardly seems worth making any “resolutions” about it. If I rack my brain, I can make the list a little more quantifiable:

  • complete the children’s annual photo books from the last two, three, four years
  • read more classic works of literature
  • switch off screens by 10pm

What is unnerving to me is that my list of resolutions, half-hearted as they may be, looks strikingly similar to last year’s one. And the year before that too. There is nothing new under the sun, the wise King said in Ecclesiastes. Nothing new indeed.

A little time in Ecclesiastes is refreshing, though, for a week such as this. At a time of year when we roll out all sorts of ambitions and plans of things we wish to do, to be and to accomplish; the teacher of Ecclesiastes reminds us (as a veteran in life-changing plans and projects himself), that these things are destined to be fleeting unless we find our motivation and comfort in knowing God and being known by him.

“Meaningless” is the word most commonly associated with Ecclesiastes, but perhaps a better translation of the Hebrew word “hebel” is “fleeting” or “short-lived”. Whatever it is that the Teacher had planned: gardening, a dating strategy, managing his money, or accomplishing (other, great, fill-in-the-blank awesome) projects – his conclusion in the end was that they were all hebel: fleeting, transitory, here today but gone tomorrow.

What made the difference between those endeavors being baloney or blessed, says the teacher, was whether you did them mindful of God: knowing Him, revering Him, thanking Him, and enjoying good things as gifts from his hand. And so, as I look at the year ahead and consider my options, these (slightly abridged) words from Ecclesiastes are echoing in my thoughts:

“Remember your Creator in the days of your Resolution-making, before the busy days come and the to-do lists are forgotten… The end of the matter is this, after all has been heard: Fear God and keep his commandments – for this is everything God requires of us.” (Ecclesiastes 12:1, 13)

Whatever 2014 brings, let it not be meaningless.

Help, I’m asking the question I’m not supposed to ask.

20131129-104201.jpg“Dear Bronwyn,
I’ve been in the church long enough to know I’m not supposed to be asking this question. I feel a HUGE amount of guilt about it, but I have to ask: “Why?” Life is ridiculously hard sometimes. Why doesn’t God save us and bring us home to him? Why doesn’t he just get us out of here? He can do it. He is able. He already knows the end of the story (who will come to him or not) – so why doesn’t he just make it happen? I know I shouldn’t be asking this question, but my soul is crying out for an answer, and every pastor I hear speak on this seems to be giving a cop out answer. I’m not asking why bad things happen – I know we live in a fallen world. I am asking why we have to live here in the first place when it’s so awful. My non-believing friends ask me this question and I think “hmm, good point” and give them the cookie cutter answer I know I’m supposed to say. But I’m sad, and confused. Maybe I’m just weak.
– Signed, Judge Me or Judge Me Not.”

Dear JMoJMN,

I cannot judge you, and I cannot answer your question either. Why God allows suffering at all, and why He allows it to continue, are questions which fall into the “I don’t know” category. With tears and sadness, I’m sorry to say I don’t know either, and say that cop out answers make me angry too. We cannot explain the purposes and mysteries of God, and while He has given us some clues as to why suffering sometimes happens (due to sin, discipline, disobedience, or even because he has some glorious purpose to work out, like when he let Lazarus die so he could raise him again) – the fact is He almost never tells us which of those reasons (if any) applies to our particular situation.

I don’t know why He allows it, and I don’t know why He hasn’t come yet – but as with so many things in my faith, I find myself faced with a choice when I feel like despairing. I have to choose to cling to the little I do know, or to walk into the great and painful void of things I don’t know.

When I’m hurting and praying for things to resolve, these are some of the verses I cling to:

“The Lord is near to the broken hearted” (Psalm 34:18)

“But as for me, I will trust in you.” (Psalm 55:23b)

“Your promises have been thoroughly tested, therefore your servant loves them.” (Psalm 119:142)

“Jesus wept.” (John 11:35)

“and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)

But I hear you: in the midst of clinging to those promises, sometimes my heart breaks that the pain still continues for now. However, I don’t believe you are a “bad Christian” for asking these questions. Indeed, the first century believers repeatedly prayed “Maranatha! COME Lord Jesus, (1 Corinthians 16:22)” a prayer for speedy deliverance if ever there was one. To beg God to make it end quickly, and to despair over the brokenness of the world is not a sign of being a bad or faithless Christian – it seems to me to be a deeply biblical response.

But it’s hard. It’s oh-so-hard. I find myself coming back to two stories in the gospels again and again when I find myself bewildered by the lack of answers. The first is in John 6, when Jesus had been doing some hard teaching. His disciples challenged him: “This is a difficult statement; who can understand it?” (verse 61). In response to his answer, “many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore.” (v66). John tells us that Jesus then asked the twelve: “You do not want to go away also do you?” Simon Peter answered him: “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:67-69)

The second account is in Mark, where Jesus comes down from the Mountain to find the disciples floundering after failing to heal a boy possessed by an evil spirit. The father of the boy asked Jesus for help, saying “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us!” Jesus replies, “IF you can? All things are possible to him who believes.” And immediately, the boy’s father cried out “I do believe! Help me in my unbelief!” (Mark 9:22-24)

I come back to these passages often. I find myself bewildered and hurting and wondering if I can accept the answers I’m hearing, or if God can do anything about it and have pity and help us. My words are the disciples’ words, the boy’s father’s words. And I hear Jesus’ gentle answer to me: “IF I can do anything? Are you also going to walk away because this is hard?”

In those moments, I have to reply with those first believers: “I do believe, but HELP me in my unbelief. And besides which, where else shall I go? You have the words of eternal life.” I cannot even begin to tell you how often I’ve come back to these two stories. I don’t know the answers, but I know enough to know I have no better option than to lean into him when I’m hurting.

It’s okay to not know. We are called to be witnesses to what we know, not what we don’t. Over the years, one of my favorite hymns has become the Celtic classic “I cannot tell” (to the wondrous Londonberry tune – lyrics and music video below), which makes this point most beautifully: there are so many things we don’t know and understand. So many things that hurt and confuse and overwhelm us, mysteries beyond us. There are things we “cannot tell”. But then there are the things we do know, and it is those we cling to and sing of and in which we place our hope.

I’m praying for you, friend. Armed with an “I don’t know” for the mysteries, we cling to that which we know. We DO believe, may He help us in our unbelief, and comfort us as we wait.

I cannot tell why He whom angels worship,
Should set His love upon the sons of men,
Or why, as Shepherd, He should seek the wanderers,
To bring them back, they know not how or when.
But this I know, that He was born of Mary
When Bethlehem’s manger was His only home,
And that He lived at Nazareth and labored,
And so the Savior, Savior of the world is come.

I cannot tell how silently He suffered,
As with His peace He graced this place of tears,
Or how His heart upon the cross was broken,
The crown of pain to three and thirty years.
But this I know, He heals the brokenhearted,
And stays our sin, and calms our lurking fear,
And lifts the burden from the heavy laden,
For yet the Savior, Savior of the world is here.

I cannot tell how He will win the nations,
How He will claim His earthly heritage,
How satisfy the needs and aspirations
Of East and West, of sinner and of sage.
But this I know, all flesh shall see His glory,
And He shall reap the harvest He has sown,
And some glad day His sun shall shine in splendor
When He the Savior, Savior of the world is known.

I cannot tell how all the lands shall worship,
When, at His bidding, every storm is stilled,
Or who can say how great the jubilation
When all the hearts of men with love are filled.
But this I know, the skies will thrill with rapture,
And myriad, myriad human voices sing,
And earth to Heaven, and Heaven to earth, will answer:
At last the Savior, Savior of the world is King!

Photo credit: scripturelady.com

The Sophomore Doldrums

ImageMy favorite subject at school was Geography. I was fascinated by the earths’ processes: how continents morph and wrinkle and give birth to mountains, how a trickle of water can cut rock if you give it enough time, how hurricanes twist into being, how winds blow.

In our study on winds, we learned about the doldrums (or Intertropical Convergence Zones), those areas on the ocean along the equator where air rises and is carried away to the north and south, leaving the surface of the ocean strangely calm and windless. In the halycon days of maritime exploration, sailors dreaded the doldrums, as Coleridge memorable describes in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:

All in a hot and copper sky,

The bloody Sun, at noon,

‘Right up above the mast did stand,

No bigger than the Moon.

Day after day, day after day,

We stuck, no breath no motion;

As idle as a painted ship

Upon a painted ocean.

When I think about being a sophomore, the image that comes to mind is of the doldrums. Sometimes one can feel a little stuck. Like sailors doing their day to day chores, there may be lots of action but you’re not getting anywhere fast.                                                                                    

I think there are many stages in life where we experience a sophomore a doldrum-y kind of effect. There are seasons when we are in a “freshman” phase: we are new, and all the attention is on us to welcome us, initiate and integrate us. The focus is all on the NEW. The freshman frenzy happens at college, it happens when you start a new job, when you move to a community, when you get married, when you join a new church. It happens after big changes: a new relationship, a death in the family, getting your drivers license. There’s a lot of energy thrown in the direction of people in a NEW phase, in many stages of life.

 But then after that new phase, there can often be a period of something like the doldrums – a “sophomore life experience”, where you’re not new anymore and the attention has died down. People know who you are, but sometimes we don’t feel fully KNOWN yet. You belong, but you sometimes don’t fully feel comfortable yet either.

 People who are grieving the loss of a loved one sometimes say that the worst part is not just after it happens. Just after the death, the love and the support and the “how are you’s” roll in. But it’s in the weeks after that, once the funerals are over, that sometimes you find yourself alone and still trying to figure out how life is supposed to move forward now. The sophomore season of grief is tough. If we experience our sense of belonging by identity-in-relationship, then re-thinking one’s identity after the loss of a significant relationship takes time and much stillness.

There can be sophomore seasons in the workplace. The worst part of the job is sometimes not starting up in a new place: it can be exciting to be in the flurry of training and meeting people. But there’s a different set of challenges once the training is done and you’re now considered “fully on the job”, but then one day you discover you still don’t know where they keep the paper clips and you feel a little awkward in asking.

There are sophomore seasons in college. With one full year of university under one’s belt, you’ve done welcome week, conquered that great social experiment called the dorms, figured out the classes and the maps and the bus schedules.But the sophomore year bring some understated new challenges. How do you find your place when very few of the events are geared “for you”, and yet not many are in leadership? Especially when, there are still a lot of firsts to figure out: the first time you’re living in a home by yourself and having to make meals. The first time figuring out a household budget. Top ramen, anyone?

I have found myself in the just-past-new doldrums a couple of times. I’ve been a sophomore in college, in grad school, in marriage, in friendships. I’ve moved continents and churches and houses. And I’m beginning to see a pattern about how I experience the process of belonging to a community.

I’m learning that, most often,  the FACT of belonging precedes the FEELINGS of belonging.

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul addresses a group of bickering believers who were all jostling for the most prominent places in their community. In response to their division, he gives them a robust teaching example: just like there is one body made up of many different (and yet all necessary) body parts, so too believers in Christ are one body, made up of many different (and yet all necessary) members.

So all those bickering believers? They were all part of ONE body (v12), and as such – they belong to each other (v14). No-one could say “I don’t belong”, or “I don’t need you”, or “you don’t need me” to each other (v15-20). The FACT of the matter was that each of those believers belonged and was needed, whether they felt it or not.

Sometimes, the feeling of belonging lags a long time behind the fact of belonging. Sometimes it’s weeks. In the case of me at high school, it was two decades.  Once I got married I was married (fact), even though some days I didn’t feel any different. And technically once I turned 21 I belonged to that tribe called “adult”, even though in my late 30s I still sometimes feel as though I’m playing make-believe house.

For believers, the fact of belonging arises from the fact that if we have confessed Christ as Lord, we have the Spirit – and the Spirit unites us to be one body.

FACT.

It’s important to know that the feelings of belonging don’t always correspond to the fact of our belonging,  because sometimes in the doldrums we second guess our place if “we’re not feeling it”.  Our tendency then is to withdraw and wait until we feel we belong more fully, to focus inward, to refrain from giving of ourselves until we “feel more comfortable”. We withdraw. We wait for invitations. We navel-gaze.

 But instead of withdrawing and focusing inward, I think that when faced with the sophomore doldrums, we need to do just the opposite: we need to focus outward. For the FACT of belonging in Christ also means  we are FITTED to belong.

Every piece is needed in a puzzle if there aren’t to be gaping holes.

Every body part is valuable in our well-being (a lesson I painfully learned when I dropped a trampoline on my big toe earlier this year.)

We all have a unique combination of Spirit-given gifts, abilities and services which we alone can bring.

Sometimes those gifts might be “conventional”: musical or teaching or administrative gifts. But then I think too of my friend G’s gift for listening, and how that heals my soul. And I think of my friend B’s gift of laughing graciously when I complain, and how that helps me find perspective. And I think of J’s gift of shopping (true fact!), and how she brought this post-partum mama-who-had-nothing-to-wear TEN pairs of jeans to try on in my own home and then returned the ones that didn’t fit for me. I think of S’s gift of rough-housing with my kids and teaching them to play. I think of A’s tremendous gift of finding helpful treasures at garage sales.

Gifts come in such an assortment of colors and packages, and God means for each of us to use those gifts where we are at: even in the sophomore doldrums. Gifts are not to be stored up for the future, they are NOW gifts. The Spirit equips us in our CURRENT situation, with our CURRENT skill level to do his CURRENT work.

The “sophomore seasons” of life are perhaps less recognized seasons: they’re quieter, less disturbed. But perhaps those quiet, understated seasons actually have greater honor (v24), perhaps because of new opportunities for relational richness. When you’re in the doldrums, you have time. Going nowhere fast means you can go deep with those around you.  

Those around us might be slightly different to who we expected to be there. The “body” includes people of different cultures and different generations, people with whom we didn’t expect to connect. But we can’t have the midset among any group of believers that “I don’t belong here”, or “they don’t need me”. We need the elderly. We need the teenagers. We need the mentally ill. We need the singles. We need the widows. We need the young parents with their squirming, screaming toddlers. We belong to each other. We need each other.

The sophomore doldrums needs to call forth resolve in us: even if we don’t feel we belong, the fact is we do belong if we are Christ’s- and we are uniquely fitted for service even in those quiet and unrecognized seasons of life.

Serve as one who belongs, and I believe the feelings of belonging will follow: as we love and serve those around us, our feelings of attachment grow stronger, and before we know it – we’ll find the doldrums have passed and in fact, there is a light breeze blowing as our new course is charted.

This post is an adaptation of a talk for a most awesome group of Sophomores at College Life. It is also (conveniently for me!), Day 26 of 31 Days of Belonging. Click here for a list of other posts in this series.