My Love-Hate Relationship with the Word of God

Lesa Engelthaler is a fellow member of the Redbud Writers Guild, and her warmth and wisdom were apparent from the very first time we interacted on Facebook. When I got to meet her and her wonderful sister Beth in person earlier this year, I realized afresh – it really is possible to get a true impression of people online sometimes – for her warmth and wisdom overwhelmed me once again. I’m thrilled she’s sharing this today. Thanks, Lesa. And enjoy, friends!

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In junior high school I learned how to have a “quiet time” with God. I brought pen and paper with me to meet with Him. An English geek, in high school I diagramed the bible in my quiet time. I’d copy down a word I found intriguing then madly draw lines to other beautiful words discovered. I felt a kinship with the author of Psalm 119 who declared his love for the word of God, over and over again.

 “I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.”

“I rejoice at your word like one who finds great spoil.”

“My tongue will sing of your word, for all your commandments are right.”

Into adulthood, my relationship with God continued through the written word. His words recorded in the Bible – it seemed just for me. Stories of misfits and screw-ups gave me hope. God’s sarcastic wit cracked me up. His blunt questions stripped my soul naked. A lovely turn of phrase or line of poetry took my breath away. In response, I wrote words, a lot of them, to God.

For years, my grown-up version of a quiet time was to plop down in the old chair in front of the window that looks out on to our backyard. After a few sips of coffee I’d open the bible and drink in its words of life to me.

Things Changed

“’Is not my word like fire,’ declares the Lord, ‘and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?’” – the Prophet Jeremiah

Not too long ago, things changed. I could hardly read the bible much less enjoy it. No words circled, mostly sighing.

For three years I went through an experience some describe as a “Dark Night of the Soul.” For me it meant that God said no to most of my requests and then went silent (not the quiet time one hopes for from the Almighty). During that horrific time I became uncomfortable reading God’s words.

At the beginning I continued to read the Bible. It was as much a part of my morning routine as looking at my face in the mirror. Unfortunately, rather than being life giving, the words were deadly. It added new meaning to the bible’s own description of itself, “the word of God is…sharper that any two-edged sword.” It pierced my already wounded soul. The New Testament’s Apostle Paul felt unbearably accusing and I could not stomach God’s harshness in the Old Testament. Eventually I read it less. I remember wondering if I would be okay with never reading it again. I knew people who were.

Things Got Better

 After a few years of darkness, my relationship with God got better. And yet, one of the side effects was a lingering fear of the Bible. My friend Sharon gave me the little book, Jesus Calling by Sarah Young. I started there. It seemed safer to read God, filtered.

No bright lights, and yet with time instead of avoiding it I noticed that I was restless when I stayed away from the Bible. For me, that was a miracle.

This summer, I started reading the book of Acts. Around the third morning I looked down at my scribbled word “chosen” then at the many lines drawn to words like “gift” and “restore.” It was as if I had never before seen such gorgeous words. And I began to cry.

Smack dab in the middle of Acts the desire to want to read the Bible, even more so, to delight in it’s words, was a grace. I told my sister Beth about the experience and she said, “Do you remember that old hymn Wonderful Words of Life?” I said I did.

PS

If you are in a dark place spiritually right now I am so sorry. You are not alone. I wrote about my experience for Leadership Journal, “Growing in the Dark.” I hope it helps.

 I’ve been asked if there were any Scriptures that comforted in the Dark Night. Here are two:

1.) King David’s psalms were safe. One whole summer I camped out in the Psalms of Ascent with the companionship of Eugene Peterson and his grace-filled classic A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.

2.) I stayed awhile when I discovered expressions of honest disappointment with God. I found a home in Lamentations: “You have made me to walk in darkness. Even when I call out for help, he shuts out my prayers. You have covered yourself with a cloud so that no prayer can get through” (Lam. 3:8)

 

Lesa Engelthaler is a Senior Associate for Victory Search Group, assisting nonprofits to recruit executive leaders. Lesa is also a writer for such publications as The Dallas Morning News, Christianity Today, Gifted for Leadership, Relevant, Today’s Christian Woman and Prism. Recently, Lesa started blogging at Faith Village.  Her friends would say that Lesa is passionate about empowering women. For the past several years, she has lead a trip to partner with the House of Hope a nonprofit in Nicaragua helping women escape prostitution. Today, Lesa finds herself completely taken by one small girl — her first grandchild Lucy. You can connect with Lesa (and I heartily recommend that you do!) on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (@lesaengelthaler).

If you’re needy and you know it, clap your hands

Perhaps it’s just the mini-van-driving and wheels-of-the-bus-singing stage of life I’m in, but when I read the opening words of Psalm 86: “Hear me, LORD, and answer me, for I am poor and needy” – the first thing that came to my mind was this:

If you’re needy and you know it, clap your hands.

Friends, I clapped. I have been reading through Caryn Rivedeneira’s lovely little book for weary moms:  Known and Loved: 52 Devotionals from the Psalms, and I settled into the pages one morning and thought about this neediness that I feel almost constantly as a mom. And I’m wondering: maybe one of the hidden blessings of motherhood is becoming aware of this neediness, and learning how to ask for help.

We come into this world utterly dependent on others. Babies rely on their parents for everything. Childhood is the long process of slowly learning independence: beginning with the toddler’s first insistence “me do it!”

Little Mr Independent doesn't want anyone to hold his hands while we walk.

Little Mr Independent doesn’t want anyone to hold his hands while we walk.

Later, they learn to dress themselves, feed themselves, wipe their own butts (oh thank you God!), read to themselves, bathe themselves… and later yet, transport themselves, organize themselves, and to decide for themselves. Our goal as parents is to transition them from dependence to healthy independence. This is maturity.

But maybe there is a second ‘turning’ which marks a new phase of maturity: the transition from independence to learning healthy interdependence. Motherhood, more than anything else, has taught me that. Before I had kids, I felt competent at what I did. I didn’t know everything, but I knew enough to do my job. I had particular skills suited to my particular vocation, and it felt good to be a person skilled enough an independent enough to be the one offering help where help was needed.

But then came a bundle of crying baby: and I couldn’t get her to sleep or to stop crying. I couldn’t make enough milk to feed her, and didn’t even know enough to discern that that was the problem. Taking care of her was my full-time job, and it was a job I felt utterly incompetent to do. I had gone from feeling useful to feeling completely useless, and through sobs confessed to my husband one night, “All I’m supposed to do is the very basics: feed her and get her to sleep… and I can’t even do that!”

It was there, in my sobbing heap of uselessness, that I got a fresh glimpse of God’s grace: his tender love for me even when I had nothing to offer. The neediness of motherhood pulled a new prayer out of me: “Help! I’m drowning!” I learned the old hymn’s words afresh: “nothing in my hands I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.”

I was needy, and I knew it.

God brought me comfort in the way that 2 Corinthians 1 promised he would: directly with his presence, and indirectly with his love and comfort expressed through others. Having kids taught me that grace didn’t just mean being someone able to offer help, it meant being someone able to ask for, and receive help.

Yes, please hold my baby?

Yes, please would you bring us a meal?

Yes, would you substitute this class for me?

Yes, I’d love it if you could watch them for an hour so I can take a shower.

From dependence to independence. From independence to interdependence. This is maturity.

Yesterday I took my overtired, hangry kids to the grocery store, since we had an Old Mother Hubbard situation in our kitchen. It was a disaster. In the hour it took to locate the contents of a skeleton grocery list, my middle kid needed to use the potty twice and the youngest had a Vesuvian diaper explosion. I wrangled my kids through the store and arrived rather breathlessly at the check-out counter. I paid for our goods and, in the customary way of store clerks, our checker asked politely, “and would you like any help out today?”

I didn’t even hesitate. “Yes, I would. Please. Thank you. Yes, I would.”

All together now: If you’re needy and you know it, clap your hands.

(Clap, Clap)

 

 

 

A 30-Year Echo

Not quite a year ago, with trembling fingers I sent my first article to an online magazine. The magazine was Ungrind, and the kind editor who fielded my nervous query was Ashleigh Slater. Since then, I’ve come to know Ashleigh as an online friend and so appreciate her wisdom, gentleness and sense of fun. I’m thrilled to introduce her as part of the Words That Changed My World series.

 

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Photo Credit: Pedro Riberio Simoes – Flickr Creative Commons

I wasn’t there. And so I’m not really sure how old the boy was that pivotal day so many years ago.

He was old enough to have passed that seventh grade year when his parents separated, and then divorced. The year first spent at a difficult new school in a new town. Old enough to have marked the time when his mom and dad both remarried. Marriages that, little did he know then, would go on to grow over thirty anniversaries. And old enough to know well the torment of middle school bullies. The ones whose taunts elicited silent tears later shed at his school desk, his face hidden in the shelter of folded arms.

While I may not know what birthday this hurting boy celebrated last, what I do know is that on this particular day a proclamation of sorts was spoken over him. Words of life were carefully uttered in a small kitchen in a small town in Michigan that changed the course of his life.

“Ted, if anyone ever asks you to describe yourself,” his stepmom Alice remarked, “tell them you’re a happy person.”

Those words were taken to heart that day. Rather than let the pain of divorce and change and school bullies bitter him, this boy found himself thinking, “I am a happy person. That’s me.”

Decades later, I can attest that he is.

Happy.

Still.

This once-towhead little boy now grown big is my husband. And I realize that after eleven years of marriage, I owe Alice an overdue thank you. For her self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts has affected me too.

You see, Ted’s upbeat, positive personality makes our marriage better. He brings a lightheartedness to our relationship that’s helped ease the hard times. That’s kept me laughing when a smile’s difficult to come by. He’s been the optimist to my often pessimist.

And while I think that some of Ted’s contented self was hard-wired into his God-given DNA, I believe that Alice’s words came at a pivotal moment in his life. At a time when cynicism and defeatism could have easily taken root. She didn’t limit what she professed to the obvious: to a muddled boy that perhaps felt beaten down by circumstance. Instead, she gazed ahead to what Ted could be and took the time to verbally spur him toward that.

Now, with our own small ones, Ted continues what Alice started. He speaks those same blessed words over one of our daughters.

This girl of ours struggles with a melancholy personality. Some days she’s a glass is completely empty sort of child. Other days, it’s half-empty. And while at times I’ve shaken my head and asked her, “Are you ever happy?” Ted follows in Alice’s footsteps, speaking over her, “You are a happy girl.”

He inspires me to do the same. This once-towhead little boy now grown big gently reminds me, as Lisa-Jo Baker writes in her book Surprised by Motherhood, that “children are born of the Spirit as much as of their parents’ DNA, and perhaps that’s where we should focus.”

With our words, we can squelch life, tear down, deflate, demean, and bring a kind of death that doesn’t kill the body, but disfigures the soul.

Or we can choose to speak life.

Words spoke creation into existence. Everything from nothing. And then that living Word – through whom all things were made – became tangible and showed us that words don’t return empty. He demonstrated through His love for fishermen and a tax collector and an adulterous woman and little children who longed to come to Him, that a word aptly spoken is life-giving.

And perhaps, just like it did for Ted, this profession will take root in our little girl. One day, these gentle words her papa has lovingly spoken over her again and again may be ones she speaks to herself, as she determines, “I am a happy girl,” rather than letting the disappointments and challenges of life bitter her.

On that day – the day I pray this papa’s proclamation shows itself to be a self-fulfilling prophecy of its own – those words spoken over Ted thirty years ago will prove their fitness by touching yet another life.

And who knows? Maybe these words, professed so many years ago by Alice Mae Slater to her stepson, will splash beyond our little family, and perhaps even touch you.

 

ashleigh slaterAshleigh Slater is the author of the book, Team Us: Marriage Together. As the founder and editor of the webzine Ungrind and a writer with almost 20 years of experience, she unites the power of a good story with biblical truth and practical application to encourage readers. Ashleigh and her husband, Ted, have been married for more than a decade. They have four daughters and reside in Atlanta, Georgia. To learn more, visit AshleighSlater.com.

The Good Words that Held Me Up through My Hard Marriage

I’m honored to welcome author/speaker Elisabeth Klein Corcoran for the “words that changed my world” series. Elisabeth’s new book, Surviving in a Difficult Christian Marriage, was released last week.

Living in a difficult Christian marriage is an isolating experience, for a couple reasons.  First, you feel like you’re the only person going through what you’re going through.  Secondly, you feel that if you shared, no one would truly understand. And thirdly, there’s this little thing about being a Christian, in my experience, that led me to stuff the really bad things down, because I thought if I were “found out”, my building-the-Kingdom card would be taken away.

So in the midst of almost twenty years of pain, I learned to share just bits and pieces of my hard road. I didn’t think any one friend could handle it, or would believe, or would know what to do about it. And I didn’t want to be that woman who was only full of her own pain.

Elisabeth and her beloved friendBut Jesus brought a friend into my life who walked closely with me through years and years of heartache. She knew the most.  She leaned in the closest.  My pain didn’t scare her.

And one day she wrote me these words: You would bless ANYONE with the way you choose to handle your marriage.  I know you don’t do it perfectly every minute, but you are amazing!  Most Christian women couldn’t do half as well in your relationship as you have.  You are a godly example whether you feel like it or not.”

She saw my life was out of control. She knew my marriage was unraveling and frail and just barely hanging on. She knew I was messing up at every turn. And yet she spoke those words of life into my soul in a moment when I wanted to throw in every single towel.

And those words buoyed me up.  They changed my perspective.  She called out something in me that I was too blinded by my hurt to see, and that was this: that I was handling things better than I thought and that I still had something to offer.

We all have moments or even seasons in our lives when we cannot see what is true about ourselves.  And we all have the ability to stop what we’re doing and look deeply into the eyes of a friend and speak words that can shift something in her soul, even if for just right then and there.

We all have experienced firsthand the devastation of a careless or intentionally cruel word. But we sometimes forget how a carefully chosen, kind word can bring absolute healing, or can pour courage into someone who is flailing, or can realign a self-misperception that has taken root.

Today, think of one hurting person in your life.  And think of one kind sentence you can say or write or text. You will never, ever regret dispensing sweet words.

Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones. –Proverbs 16:24

Elisabeth Klein Corcoran is the author of Surviving in a Difficult Christian Marriage and Unraveling: Hanging Onto Faith Through the End of a Christian Marriage, along with several other books. She speaks several times a month to women’s groups, and is a member of Redbud Writers’ Guild. She lives with her children in Illinois. Visit her online at http://www.elisabethcorcoran.com/difficult-marriage-divorce/ or https://www.facebook.com/ElisabethKleinCorcoran.  She is the moderator of two private Facebook groups: one for women in difficult Christian marriages, and one for Christian women who are separated or divorced. Email her at elisabeth@elisabethcorcoran.com if interested in joining. Elisabeth is a proud Member of Redbud Writer’s Guild and has been featured on Moody’s In the Market with Janet Parshall, This is the Day with Nancy Turner, and Midday Connection with Anita Lustrea.

Do you have a story to share of words that changed your world? I’d love you to be my guest! Read more here.

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.

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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.

Words that changed my world – Kelly’s Gift

I’m thrilled to introduce a new series on my blog: Words that changed my world.

I’ve been stewing on this idea for quite some time: the notion of telling the stories of little words which changed our trajectory.

As I think back on my own life – there have been a few conversations where someone said something which changed everything. Often their words were just a casual part of the conversation: they have no recollection of having said something significant or profound, but I remember it as being one of those illuminated-signboard-moments as they gave an answer, an insight, a grace, a perspective which I had desperately needed at the time. Like Alan’s casual question: “Have you ever considered going to bible college?” which was the final signpost in a series of little nudges towards seminary. Or Kelly’s off-the-cuff words which began the slow work of rebuilding my teen-damaged self-esteem…. read on to find out what they were.

Of course Alan and Kelly have no recollection of those conversations. But I remember. Their words were so important: I treasured their investment in me. We have great power to do good with the words we say to one another: words of encouragement and care sometimes mean more than you could possibly know. I was stunned, after my 20 year high school reunion and the flurry of facebook (re)connections that brought, to have two classmates tell me that something I had said at high school had made a significant impact on them. I was amazed. Humbled. And more convinced than ever that these are stories we should tell: stories of acknowledgement and thanks to those who spoke kindly to us, stories of encouragement that we should continue to speak good things to each other. Because you just never know which of your thousands of words could be used to change someone’s world.

These are stories I want to tell. And they are stories I want to read– so this is an invitation to submit a story of something someone said which changed your world. It can be a story about how you chose a career, how you came to faith, the little something that made you decide to get married. It can be about how you started a hobby, or forgave a friend, or had an a-ha moment which has brought you great joy. Please, share your story. I’d love to hear it. (Check out the Be My Guest page for more details on how to contribute!)

Old typewriter keys. ©Robin Nelson

So, without further ado – I’ll kick off with the first of this new series: Words that changed my world.

Kelly’s Gift

It was my second year of college and I sat, boyfriendless, with my friend Kelly as she prepared to go on a date. I watched her put on mascara, aware of the pillow I had self-consciously pulled towards my stomach in an effort to hide it. She looked glamorous. I felt gormless. We chatted about this and that: she combed, I coveted. The intercom crackled to life: “Kelly, you have a gentleman visitor.”

“Thank you,” she sang. I took my cue to leave, releasing the pillow I’d been kneading. I said my goodbyes, and was already out the door when her voice came from behind me: “Bron, I don’t know why you don’t have a boyfriend,” she said. “You’re quite lovely, you know.”

I think the world must have stopped spinning for a second. Decades later, I can still remember noticing the checkered black and white floors beneath my feet as I heard those quick, parting words. They changed my world.

black and white floor

Despite years of constant love and encouragement from my parents, despite self-esteem building classes from guidance counselors and accolades-on-paper… the fact that I, in my second year of college, had yet to attract the attention of even one guy I liked, had left me feeling there was something intrinsically wrong with me. If I was prettier, more attractive, less snarky, thinner, more damsel-in-distressish, more smart, less smart… anything other than what I was – surely someone would have been interested in me?

No one was interested. I assumed it was me.

Until that day in the hallway with the black-and-white floors – where a kind friend, who (unlike my mother) did not have to say nice things to me – made an off-the-cuff remark which made me think for the first time that perhaps, just perhaps, there wasn’t something fundamentally unattractive or unlovable about me. Perhaps it wasn’t that I wasn’t the right person, perhaps it was just that it wasn’t the right time. Because if Kelly, who was wearing mascara and a swishy skirt and going on a date, couldn’t see anything wrong with me – and more than that, could use the word lovely to describe me – perhaps I was being a little too hard on myself.

I look back on my 18 year old self now and know that there is no way, looking from the outside, that people might have known how unlovely and unlovable I felt. I worked hard to come across as confident and smart: I wore assertiveness as armor, all the while hoping someone would be brave enough to like the person within. Kelly’s words were a gift: a kindness to a friend who may have made snarky remarks about the dating scene, but could not confess how very victimized I felt by it.

Almost twenty years have passed. When I look at college students now, I wonder how many of them wear the armor I wore: confidence masking crippling self-doubt, snarkiness veiling vulnerability. To those women, especially to those young women who seem to “have it all together” and “have an answer for everything”, I want to leave a sprinkling of kind words affirming that they are quite lovely as they are. I want to give them Kelly’s gift.

photo credit: fiadda.it

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

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.

 

Doing it Gangnam Style

Last weekend I found myself in the charming city of Hilversum in the Netherlands, speaking at a women’s conference on the wonderful-and-very-serious topics of redemption, justification and adoption. (I’m starting to write up some of the talks – click here for part of the justification talk, here for my post on one of the implications for us in church life, and if you have 43 minutes – click here to see the video of the first talk). If you’ve ever wondered what I look and sound like in person, here is talk 2 from the conference:

http://vimeo.com/76684659

Looks like I have it all together, doesn’t it?

Well, let me share with you that just minutes after this talk finished, the women at the conference had organized a stretch-your-legs ice-breaker. All of us were asked to stand up and dance to the 15 second clip of music being played. The leader would then call “freeze” and we could laugh at the ridiculous poses we found ourselves in.

They played a waltz. We all laughed and 1-2-3-ed around the room. They played the can-can. We laughed some more and kicked our legs high into the sky. We did the twist. We did the robot. And then they played Gangnam Style, and before we had a chance to freeze the leader of the activity looked down on the sea of awkwardly writhing bodies, and she called me out. “You”, she said, “come up here and do Gangnam style for all of us.”

Are you kidding me?

But a girl’s got to do what a girl’s got to do, and so up I got and did my very best attempt at this:

Let me tell you, I did NOT have it all together. Whatever you’re imagining right now, let me assure you it was more awkward than that. MUCH laughter was had at my expense, and I blushed a very furious shade of scarlet. But when I returned to my seat, one of the women leaned over, still laughing, and said “Yes! Now you really belong to us!”

Which leads me to think: maybe sometimes the best gift we can give to people in helping them belong is to be the fool. To be the silly dancer. To be the one with the messy house. To be honest about not having it all together. To let others see you cry.

We feel we belong not when our very best self is accepted by others, but when we know our worst self, our failed self, our real-me-self is accepted by others.

Go ahead, I dare you. Do it Gangnam Style.

The Empty Chair

If you have ever found your life situation abruptly changed, and grieving the loss of a time in life when you used to feel useful, but don’t anymore – perhaps you will appreciate this.

Please click over to Ungrind to read about hope and kitchen furniture: The Gift of The Empty Chair.