Friday, September 23, 2016

Choosing Life on the "Wrong Side" of the Tracks

I'm guest posting today over at the QPlace blog.

"...we were getting a little desperate to experience the mess of the gospel, the parts that come with rowdy and wide-eyed trust, and even parts that promise pain and land good folks in the same trenches where Jesus chose to spend his time. We wanted to feel something beyond ourselves. We wanted to be free." (Falling Free, Shannan Martin, HarperCollins ©2016, p.8)

This quote from Shannan Martin's newly released book, Falling Free, describes the initial moments when she and her husband Cory realized...read more


Monday, September 19, 2016

The Tie That Binds

I grew up singing an old hymn with the following lyrics: Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that Above.

I have been part of the community of faith since my birth. While I've not always been aware of how that reality shaped my life, last night I glimpsed its influence and felt its impact again.

We were sitting around our dining room table, enjoying a simple meal together. David and I had become acquainted in college through a mutual friend from his hometown. He was the layout editor for the school newspaper my senior year when I was the editor-in-chief. I only knew of Donalee because she and David began dating that year. I settled in the Chicagoland suburbs after college and married. They married and also settled there. We shared a few evenings and spent a weekend camping together, but we were never really close friends. They moved out of state and we lost touch.

Donalee and I.
Fast forward to 2013. TWENTY-THREE YEARS LATER. We meet again at our alma mater during the dedication ceremony for the new science center where my son would spend the next four years studying to become a chemist. Donalee and I talked about the unique joys and challenges of raising only sons. We decided to stay in touch.

Two years ago we began meeting online weekly to share our lives and concerns. We prayed over her son's choice of colleges. We prayed for my son's need for friends and community. We prayed for our husbands and we prayed for ourselves.

We live over 900 miles apart, but our hearts share a supernatural bond that had been initiated in personal faith and established during our time together at a place that holds as one of its core values intentional community and "doing life together."

Last night, those friends sat at our table and slept under our roof. We talked about our lives as empty nesters and marveled at what was birthed in the community we experienced then and didn't fully comprehend.

Experiencing community and "doing life together" is both a blessing and a curse of sorts. I feel the ache of their departure this morning. While I do not wish for the past (because that is not where real life is lived), true community seems harder to find the longer I live. Although I'm always on the lookout for it, last night was a rare gift, 27 years in the making. Grateful.

Who are you in community with today? Tell them what their presence in your life means to you.


Friday, September 9, 2016

Cheerleader

My athlete, holding up one finger to commemorate his first ride on his new bike.
I've never been a cheerleader. To those of you who know me, this is no shock. Several weeks ago, though, I became one, serving as a personal cheerleader to my dear husband. He decided to start exercising after over a decade of believing he couldn't.

I've been surprised at what I've learned about cheerleading.

A cheerleader can make a huge difference in the life of an athlete, not because she wears a cute outfit (I don't) and not because she whoops and hollers some encouraging chant as loud as she can. (He can't hear me above the '80s rock blasting through his headphones.)

If it's not the cute outfit or the vociferous callouts, how does a cheerleader make a difference? In my case, it's by getting up with him at 6:30a, prepping his water bottle, remembering to grab a towel to soak up his perspiration, and riding shotgun to the practice parking lot.

This cheerleader, and others like her, impacts her athlete through the power of her presence.

I discovered (after he instituted headphones) that the power of my presence during the half hour Bob rides has its limitations:

  • I can't ensure he has a good night of sleep the night before.
  • I can't make him get out of bed.
  • I can't ride for him. 
  • I can't make him pedal faster. 
  • I can't encourage him with words.
  • I can't motivate him to push himself up that hill. 

But what my presence can do is demonstrate my belief in my athlete's ability to "just do it."

You may not realize it, but you've been a cheerleader. 'Fess up--you were standing there in front of the television screen, yelling as your favorite athlete competed during the Olympics last month, weren't you! Everyone likes to be part of the athlete's "squad" when it's go time, the time when the results of all those hours, days, weeks, months, and years of practice shine.

Only a select few know what has gone before that moment: she was there, sitting quietly on some bench for 16 years, yawning into her coffee after chauffeuring her daughter at o'dark-thirty for swim practice, or because she's sat in the ice rink for over a decade, bundled against the cold, shivering while her boys skated after a puck and sweated. Those who accompany athletes to their practices are ministering to them with their presence. Not their words.

Because I cherish words and like influencing others with them, this is a hard reality. But I have to take my athlete at his and believe that my cheering is impacting him. The results of his performance are his alone.

Results aren't what I'm there for anyway. Yes, I'll slap his butt or knock knuckles with him and make positive listening noises when he shares his heart rate and calories burned. I now know that my job isn't to motivate, but to encourage.

Just by being there.

Who are you cheering for? 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Standing

Notice the difference between the leaves at the bottom
of the tree and those at the crown.
I was sitting on the back deck a few days ago, reveling in the lower-than-usual humidity and the thanks-be-to-God cooler temperature when I noticed it. A tree that had, for most of the summer, looked like it was on death's door had produced a new crop of leaves in its crown, a long way from the ground. I grabbed the binoculars from my blue table just to confirm that my eyes weren't playing tricks on me. Trees don't produce new leaves in August, do they?

To this point, there had been no evidence whatsoever, and really more to the contrary, that anything productive was going on. The tree had stood there silently all summer, giving me no indication that anything of this magnitude was happening. In fact, its spring leaves shriveled and browned as they hung there, lank.

This summer my life has, in many ways, looked like that tree. I haven't written anything since June, even though my mind has been awhirl (the first week of July just about sent me over the edge). The days just kept whizzing by and I couldn't keep a thought in my head long enough to ponder it, let alone ruminate on it for anyone else's benefit.

It has appeared as though nothing of consequence has been transpiring.

There was unseen industry going on inside that tree, although I'm not sure the tree really had much say in the resulting leaves. It did what trees do--it stood with its face to the sun and drew nutrients and water from its roots. Without those, no amount of will or desire could've made anything happen.

Like that tree, I've done all I knew to do: stand. No amount of understanding, processing, and analyzing made anything happen. All I could comprehend was that those efforts were a futile waste of resources, a squandering of "nutrients" and "water" that was being drawn by Someone other than me from somewhere deep inside me to perform a work I couldn't even envision. I struggled mightily with the lack of productivity, but I couldn't do anything else.

I'm still not sure if any leaves have appeared (could you check my backside?) or are going to appear. But I'm realizing it's not my job to forecast the results. It's my job to stand.

What has your summer been like? I'd love to hear about it!



Monday, June 6, 2016

Details

Details. I love them. I like to collect them and roll them around in my mind like a handful of marbles. Around and around and around. It's mesmerizing and engrossing.

Details create stories.
Details frame events.
Details evoke feelings.
Details solve mysteries.
Details foster order.

Six lovely questions--who, what, when, where, why, and how--help me manage and organize details. Those questions generate more questions, which translates to more details to keep track of!

In May, three solid weeks of rolling marbles created detail overload. You could say I momentarily lost my marbles. There were so many details I wanted to understand so that I could make sense of what was coming. What I really mean by that is that I wanted to know what was coming so that I could manage my response to each situation.

My rationale was this:
1. If I could manage the details, I would be know what to expect.
2. If I could know what to expect, I could anticipate how I would feel.
3. If I could anticipate how I'd feel, then I wouldn't be helpless.

After 21 days of crazy, God sat me down one Monday morning. He told me, in no uncertain terms, that I had to be still and know that He is God (Psalm 46:10) or I wouldn't get my marbles back. Our conversation went something like this:

Be still and know. You need to know Who I am more than you need to know details.
But I want to know. Why can't I know?
You wouldn't be still if you knew.
What do You want me to know?
That I am God.
Why do You want me to know that?
Because You can't control Me like you think you can those things you want to know.

I worked on the "be still" part by studying what it means. (Yes, I was looking for some kind of loophole.) In Hebrew, the word for that phrase is raphah. Raphah means to slacken, to cease, to let alone, to stay. When I pictured what it would look like for me "to slacken" my hold on details, I immediately imagined my hands slowly releasing the deeply wrinkled lapels of a man's suit, smoothing the fabric in an attempt to apologize for seizing it so tightly. Guess that was a clear indication of how tightly I was wound, huh. I needed what God had for me in this exercise.

Raphah also means healing. Somehow by being still I thought health and balance would return. It wasn't working. I wasn't experiencing relief or healing like I thought I would. I had a feeling it was because I was avoiding the second part of God's prescription: know that I am God.

I took some time to think about how I would embark on yet another earnest quest to know God. I've been trying to know God for as long as I've been in relationship with Him, which is about 45 years. I've tried gathering up all the details about Him I can find. I've rolled them around and around and around in my head, trying to make sense of Him. Sometimes, it works. Sometimes, it doesn't. The only way that seems to work is to let Him make Himself known to me, let Him take control the process. Like He was doing now. Oh.

I still felt like I was back to square one. How was I going to be faithful to the second half of that verse? When I talked this through with my husband, he pointed out that the verse didn't say "know God." It said, "know that I am God." The rolling marbles slowed and my frazzled mind was soothed a bit. I already know that and believe that. Perhaps what I need to acknowledge is that He knows and manages the details better than I ever could. Probably has something to do with Him being sovereign and omniscient.

I'm still wrestling with my desire to know all the details, but I'm learning to let go and trust God with the marbles.




Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Got Pain? Finding God in the Ruins

I've been on a reading kick this year, and this is the second of three non-fiction book reviews. You can find the first one here. Enjoy! --Jenn
In the Bible, Jesus tells His followers (and me) something disturbing: "In this world you will have trouble." He wasn't kidding. What He says next has always been something that has heartened me: "I have overcome the world." I've believed that all my life. As I've aged, though, I've wondered what to do when I can't reconcile that statement with the evil I see in the world.


Matt Bays has personal experience with evil. He too has grappled with what to do when the cliches of Christianity didn't mesh with his reality, leaving him to wonder where God was while he lived through things he wouldn't wish on his worst enemy.

So Matt put God on trial to see if he could find Him and retain his faith in the aftermath of his agony.

Originally, I bought this book for a friend of mine who is walking through an incredibly difficult season. Before I gave it to her, though, I thought I should be familiar with the content so that we could talk about it later. 

I had no idea how this book would resonate with me.

I have long had the need to, as Matt describes it, "know the why" of everything. Then when I couldn't, particularly in light of the challenges I had faced and the predicament of evil in the world, I told myself that His ways are not my ways, and that His thoughts are higher than my thoughts. I didn't know anything else to do when that didn't satisfy my need to know.

My own brokenness was also a challenge. I didn't want to embrace it; I wanted to remove it. When the Apostle Paul boasted about his weakness because it allowed Christ power to rest on him, I thought, "That's nice for you, but I don't want to boast about my weakness. Any other way I can get Christ's power to rest on me?" Then I read this by Matt about that very passage:

"The word glory is often defined as 'the silent existence' or 'the unspoken manifestation of God.' The Greek word for glory is doxa, which is also used to convey God's intrinsic worth or his core value. So not only is the glory of God revealed in our brokenness, in the ruins of our lives, in those things we can't figure out, get right, or seem to overcome, but his core value is at its absolute highest when we are at our absolute lowest. The silent existence of God is alive in my brokenness, where his power is not simply present but 'made perfect.'"

Wow.

Through this book I found an invitation to search for God's presence in the midst of my irreconcilable differences. Matt's heart for those who have felt they had no other option but to walk away from faith, still holding their unresolved pain and questions because they believed their only choice was to swallow their disbelief beats loudly. Matt almost did the same. He describes his church experience as a child this way: "The dominating message was that God wanted me to say yes no matter what and that the more difficult questions of life were unnecessary."

This book is so needed today. Many have never believed and many have walked away from belief because they didn't think they had permission to question, examine, or rail against this God they couldn't square with their circumstances. Matt understands our difficulty and has done what most wouldn't in order to give others hope: he has gone first.

In Finding God in the Ruins: How God Redeems Pain, Matt stares God down as he works through every single question he has about his twisted childhood, daring God to show Himself real and present. One of his most powerful discoveries answered one of my questions too: Where is God in suffering? Matt found that while God allows evil, He is not absent while it is taking place. Not only is He present, He is experiencing our pain, the violations, the injustice WITH US. 

I had never before thought about what Jesus' suffering on the cross for the sins of all humanity for all time entailed. Matt explains what God showed him: Somehow, while He bore the weight of all those sins once for all that day two millennia ago, He also chooses to bear them with us as they happen. 

Matt describes it this way: "God wasn't staring on in the brothels of Mumbai; he was stuck on a dirty floor with a pedophile on top of him. And he wasn't leaning against the laundry machine in my basement; he was being pierced, crushed, bruised, and wounded so eventually I could be healed. It happened to him every time it happened to me. It was him, the same as it was me." 

That's the God I want to--and do--believe in.

In the end, Matt shares this about his process: "We will never know what makes him God. We can make our guesses, but in the middle of our pain, the answers wouldn't matter anyway. We need more than answers. We need the love of God, no matter how awkward or fumbly."

Matt doesn't advocate blind faith or acceptance of the mysteries of God for God's sake. He invites anyone who has questions, doubts, pain, or unresolved irreconcilable differences with God to bring all of that before Him, out in the light. He's giving us permission to stand nose to nose with God and ask every single question we've ever had, show Him every single wound we've received, and ask for, demand, an explanation. He promises God can take it. 

I'll leave you with this final quote: "...I walked away from the faith I knew, and I'm glad I did. I closed the door until I was ready for something more--for something greater. Passing through darkness will always be a part of life because trouble will always be with us. But as I strain my eyes amidst the shifting shadows, I find Jesus in silhouette. Every detail of his face is not recognizable, but his form is unmistakable."

Matt has created a seven-day Bible reading plan to accompany this book. You can find it here: https://www.bible.com/reading-plans/1809-finding-god-in-the-ruins/day/1 

You can find his book on Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Finding-God-Ruins-Redeems-Pain/dp/0781413834/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1460558864&sr=1-1&keywords=finding+god+in+the+ruins

What pain haunts you or has you in its grip? Are you mad at God because He doesn't seem to be offering any purpose for it? I invite you to share in the comments.






Wednesday, April 20, 2016