from contentment and celebration to complaining and despair

photo from zionsvillelutheran.org

photo from zionsvillelutheran.org

Isn’t it always like this? Our grandest moments of life, faith, work, are closely followed by our biggest days of struggle. I think about Jonah after he experienced an epic personal rescue from the belly of a big fish, and watched God convert an entire city (Nineveh) through his preaching. The book ends with a story of the prophet’s suicidal despair because a worm ate a vine that was sheltering him from heat. It’s ridiculous. Crazy, really. And then there’s Elijah. After he watches God send fire from heaven to consume a flood-drenched sacrifice on Mount Carmel in front of a crowd of frenzied Baal-worshipers, he sits under a broom tree in the desert to die. His exact words?

“It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” (1 Kings 19:4)

What happened to his bold faith glimpsed just two paragraphs earlier in this prayer?

“O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” (1 Kings 18:36-37)

What happened is that Elijah and Jonah, like you and me, are human. “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it/Prone to leave the God I love,” the old familiar hymn goes (“Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”). I should not be surprised that on the heels of such celebration at the end of last week with the news of Crossway’s acceptance of my book proposal, this week has felt like a battle against petty disappointment and despair. The things I have complained (bitterly) about include:

  • Our coffeemaker that broke on Monday morning [MONDAY morning, of all days?!!]
  • Twins who whine and squabble with each other over silly things, like who gets the red marker [typical for 4-year-olds, although not desirable]
  • Antibiotics that didn’t work as quickly as I wanted them to in healing a bad case of strep from last Thursday
  • A husband’s very long work day, leaving me with more-than-desired solo-parenting duties for my quickly-waning-parental-patience
  • Credit card fraud – at a random WalMart in Tennessee, of all places, for 5 consecutive purchases of $28.77. This alerted our awesome card company, who called right away. But then you have the *hassle* of switching automatic payments, waiting for the new card in the mail/etc etc

All of these could fall under the hashtag #firstworldproblems , or better, #whinymomproblems. Really they’re symptomatic of a heart fixated on self, who feels entitled to comfort and ease all the time. Diagnosing my problems yesterday didn’t really help much. In fact, it probably made it worse. Then I was better able to articulate (and unload in frustration) to my husband why he, somehow, was at fault for all of my frustration.

Ugh. (There’s a poetic word for you.) I have been blind to grace. Blinded to mercy all around me, and worse still, unable to help myself. Feeling paralyzed from taking hold in my own heart of the gospel-hope I can articulate for others through writing and counseling. Enter grace in the form of the impulse to text a friend for prayer this morning when I awoke still seething with frustration and venting it unfairly to my daughters. She then called after we dropped our kids off at preschool (thank God for this common grace!), and we talked each other through our similar frustrating moments, reminding each other of the grace we know is there. I hung up the phone feeling the slightest turn in my heart towards hope again. Hope not that things will get better, or that circumstances will change, but hope that God’s love hasn’t turned away from me in the midst of my sin and struggle and that his grace is yet deeper than my need for it. Amen?

devotionals worth reading in 2015

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/1bc/1176043/files/2014/12/img_7639.jpgAs this year draws to a close, I am preparing a list of my top 10 books of 2014 (drumroll, please?), as I did at the end of 2013. In the meantime, I wanted to offer you a few recommendations if you are looking for a devotional reading for 2015. What I’m referring to is a resource written to help you understand the Bible and the Christian life, giving you daily encouragement for your journey of faith. I have found a good devotional and a daily Bible reading plan to be essential to nurture my faith. It provides a space for me to bring my questions, doubts, joys, and sorrows; and I know that I am heard by God and through the Bible, God speaks to my heart. Some favorite words on the value of daily time spent in prayer and study of God’s Word from spiritual director and author, Henri Nouwen:

“When we are securely rooted in personal intimacy with the source of life, it will be possible to remain flexible without being relativistic, convinced without being rigid, willing to confront without being offensive, gentle and forgiving without being soft, and true witnesses without being manipulative. … solitude begins with a time and a place for God, and God alone. If we really believe not only that God exists but also that God is actively present in our lives– healing, teaching and guiding– we need to set aside a time and space to give God our undivided attention. (Matt 6:6) … We enter into solitude first of all to meet our Lord and to be with Him and Him alone. Only in the context of grace can we face our sin; only in the place of healing do we dare to show our wounds; only with a single-minded attention to Christ can we give up our clinging fears and face our own true nature. Solitude is a place where Christ remodels us in his own image and frees us from the victimizing compulsions of the world.”

365-day devotionals (note: it usually takes me way more than one year to get through one of these!) –

  • Grace Through the Ages by William P. Smith – I’ve written about this one in the past. It’s incredibly rich, and it’s written by a friend and former counseling colleague and supervisor. I love the way Bill discusses grace, and the way he shows how grace is on every page of Scripture.
  • Heart of the Matter by CCEF – I am planning to read through this one in 2015. I’ve read excerpts here and there. It’s a compilation of writings by biblical counselors who seek to connect God’s Word to the heart.

Topical devotionals –

  • For moms – best one is Jen Hatmaker’s Out of the Spin Cycle. Witty, encouraging, practical, and short. Blessedly short.
  • For counselors/pastors/other helping professionals – In Our Lives First by Diane Langberg. Soul-refreshment that helps carry you in the burdens and dangers of  being on the “front lines” of caring for others.

Yearly Bible reading plans –

  1. A reading from Old Testament, New Testament, and Poetry for each day (you print out the three bookmarks for each section of your Bible – PDF here.)
  2. Chronological Bible Reading Plan – read the Bible in the order in which it was written. I did this last year with my friend Kiran. We both said the downside of this plan is that you don’t reach the New Testament until October though!!
  3. Read Me Bible Plan – similar to #1 above, but without the Poetry section.
  4. Customizable plan here – choose whether to do chronological, historical, or another assortment, and select whether to start on the 1st or the 15th of the month.
  5. 5x5x5 plan – 5 minutes a day, 5 days a week, with 5 suggested questions. It takes you through the entire New Testament in a year. I think I’m going to go through this plan for 2015 since I tend to fall behind a traditional (long) reading plan fairly quickly, and then the perfectionist/performance-oriented part of me feels guilty. When the main point is to spend time reading the Bible regularly so that I can soak in God’s love for me and be equipped to pour out his love to others. If a plan helps you do this, great! If not, find something else. I offer these merely as suggestions and guides.

*note: some affiliate links included (for the books – if you click on them and order them through Amazon, I’ll get a very, very small percentage of your order from Amazon)

freedom in Christ looks like love

After an incredible sermon yesterday on the topic of freedom in Christ and love and limits and knowing the limits of your story and the compulsion of Christ’s love for me, I was reminded of this piece I wrote a couple months ago that I have not yet shared here. So – here you go! And I will return to provide a link to yesterday’s sermon by my pastor once it’s uploaded.

***

When thinking about freedom in Christ, there is no better topic. Who doesn’t want to live free, with wild abandon and throwing caution and reserve to the wind? I think of my 4-year-old daughters running gleefully up and down the beach or dancing in our living room. There is a conspicuous absence of shame that is envious to us “grown-ups” who obsess too much about our appearance and what’s appropriate. Freedom in Christ is our inheritance and our identity as ones redeemed through faith, and yet so often I do not live free but fettered.

I am fettered to your opinions of me, and so I hesitate before speaking truth in love.

I am fettered to freedom of self ,and so I become enslaved to “me time” and my pursuits.

I am fettered to my idols, and so I give time, energy, and attention to the latest fashion or the next material possession on my list.

I am fettered to my rights, and so I refuse to forgive you for how you’ve wronged me.

I am fettered to fear and cannot move beyond what feels comfortable or manageable to me.

I am fettered to pleasure, and so I use you to get what I want (companionship, adulation, social position).

the-broken-chain1What will set me free? And how can I know when I am free? The words of our freedom proclamation in Galatians 5:1 come to mind:

“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

How many yokes of slavery are you lugging behind you today? Do you realize you have been set free (past tense)? All Christ asks of you is to stay in your freedom.

How can you stand firm in your freedom? Does it mean that you stop attending church, or serving, or spending time with people who drain you? It seems for me that to stay free requires that I remember what I am free to do. Which is to love. The church of Galatia must have been thinking the same thing, for Paul writes just a few verses later in 5:13

“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”

Paul knows that too often we who try to pursue freedom can quickly become indulgent. I’ve said it myself – “I’m free not to commit to that ministry/those difficult people/that task, so I am going to say no.” There is certainly a place for setting limits – and I’ve had to learn not to be fettered to pleasing people (and leaders in my church) by saying “yes” to more than I could handle. Yet too often, I think of freedom as freedom to do what I want to do.

Quite the opposite of what freedom in Christ offers. His is a freedom to love. A freedom to “walk by the Spirit” and “not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16). This is a freedom that looks like the fruit of the Spirit being produced in your life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 2:23). To stand firm in my freedom in Christ is to stand firm in the truth that sin is dead to me in the cross, and the life that I live is lived by faith in my risen Savior – his righteousness that frees me to say “no” to the flesh and “yes” to Christ. Freedom in Christ is “faith working through love” as Paul describes in verse 6 of Galatians 5. If you want to know how free you are, ask yourself how loving you are. When I am set free from slavery to myself and the idols I make out of relationships and possessions, I am set free to love with abandon and delight – with no strings attached. Freedom in Christ looks like freedom to love as we have been loved.

day 27: free

Monday morning comes rough and early and with the background of a scream-crying 4-year-old who can’t find the flashlight I gave her as a reward for good behavior yesterday. {And now I wish I’d never done that.} I feel a hair-trigger anger in response. How dare you interrupt my guarded, quiet half hour? This is all I will have of that commodity [quiet] today. And you are robbing me of it. 

It’s too familiar. The anger because my agenda is interrupted, my will has been crossed, what I thought I needed for my day, for my week, is being taken away. By my child.

I hate my anger. And I hate the selfish heart from which it arises. I want to be free. Really free. And I know I am promised that in Christ, I am free. The old has gone; the new has come. … Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, for the law of the Spirit of life has set you free from the law of sin and death. … Stand firm, therefore, and do not be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. 

photo credit: pixgood.com

photo credit: pixgood.com

So why do I feel the weight of the shackles still? I am in Christ by faith, and his life is in me. I am free from sin’s power, but I still live terrorized by it in moments like this. Perhaps “free” is to be the battle cry of my heart to press in to what is truer about me than my anger and my selfishness. I am free, and I will be free completely one day. Let me live in this hope in the in between place (the already and not yet).

****

Part of the 31-day writing challenge in October. {Five minutes of free writes from a daily word prompt.}

day 25: enjoy

photo credit: christianbook.com

photo credit: christianbook.com

“Taste and see that the Lord is good.” But what if I don’t sense the Lord’s goodness? Too often, my conclusion tilts toward – “well – God must not be good and the Bible isn’t true then.” Instead of the more obvious assessment that my tastebuds must be off. One of the best conversations I had with a new friend in seminary was when we discussed this verse and the fact that a prayer out of this verse must be, “Then, Lord, change my appetite! Teach me to enjoy you again.”

It’s not unlike the way my physical tastebuds can get spoiled by too much sugar and junk food, taking away my taste for what’s healthy and good. The few times that I have given myself a sugar fast, I was amazed by how much more I enjoyed all of my food – the healthy vegetables, for example, and the fresh fruit. And when I did eat something sweet at the end of the fast, I savored that even more so, too, because of the way my tastes had been “reset” as it were.

I think the proper prayer for my heart, and perhaps yours, is to ask God to help me to enjoy what is truly joyful. To reorient my joy and my attitudes to what brings eternal delight rather than merely temporary pleasure. As I lay down my life, I will discover true life.

***

Read the rest of my 31-day free writes here. Six days to go!

day 20: manna

photo credit: galleryhip.com

photo credit: galleryhip.com

They asked, “What is it?” The white, flaky food falling from the sky, available to gather anew every morning. And that became its name – “manna/what is it.” They could not tell you what it was, but they used it and knew that it was provision from God’s hand. It built their covenantal trust in their God who every morning provided just enough for each day for each family.

My former professor, Ed Welch, compares trust in God for future provision to the Israelites’ trust of the daily, future provision of manna. I love that analogy. For I, too, need reassurance every day anew that God will provide all I need. And I, too, cannot always (or often) name what it is that I need, even looking back on something in hindsight. I just know that it’s what I needed, provided from God’s hand, and enough for every day.

It’s a daily practice of trusting God will give all I need. For today, and for the moments of this day. And that there will be a renewed supply tomorrow.

What’s my response? To open up my hands and to gather it. To look for it, and to thank God when it comes. So yesterday I thanked God for the provision of a chat with neighbors at twilight while our children played together; and today I thank God for grace of his forgiveness after losing it in anger at my daughters. It is strength to get up and to show up in my life even when I feel unmotivated or “blah.” Sufficient for each day is its own trouble, and inherent in that promise is that sufficient for its day is its own manna as well.

***

Part of the October writing challenge – 31 days of 5 minute free writes. Read more here.

day 12: rest

photo credit: en.wikipedia.org

photo credit: en.wikipedia.org

Rest restores the soul and refreshes the body. How good of our Creator to build a rhythm for rest into our days! Six days of work; one Sabbath rest. Without it, we suffer. Burnout is epidemic in our culture – some of it obviously so, much more silently suffered. We are all tired. Crazy busy. Unfulfilled. Stressed out.

Rest requires that we step off the throne of our universe and admit that we are not in control, indispensable, or unlimited in our resources and strength. 

When was the last time you rested?

What’s keeping you from it now – today – the next five minutes?

Rest as a holy pause makes work more fruitful and reminds me that when I am still, God is still God. Fruitful work leads to rest, and rest leads to fruitful work.

Rest is communion with the holy. What’s holy in your life? It’s your people and God’s Word and His world. Sabbath is a time to reconnect with each. To get outside and soak up creation’s beauty; to stop the busy-ness and talk to the people with whom you share a dwelling; to say no to all the other constant demands and say yes to drinking deep of the fountain of life.

You’ll find invitations like this one with your name on it:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)

frenchpressmornings.com

frenchpressmornings.com

***

Day 12 of the 31-day writing challenge. Find more here.

Light in our darkness

photo credit: Mary Yonkman @ tulipsflightsuits.com

photo credit: Mary Yonkman @ tulipsflightsuits.com

The world was dark, formless, void. Nothing at all but nothing. Our minds cannot comprehend it. But there was the Spirit. Who hovered above the waters. And He spoke, and what was created first? Light. Imagine the symphony playing in heaven while the first rays of light entered creation. Light was preeminent; everything else would follow – unleashed to dance in the spotlight of the Creator.

Fast forward through a few centuries of redemptive history. There has been sin; Israel formed as God’s people; Israel in exile for their rebellion; Israel rescued and returned; and then Israel awaiting Light again. He came humbly this time. Small, in a manger – the Light of the world. He came to die in darkness and shame, taking on the weight of your sin and mine. After darkness of crucifixion, Light returns in resurrection. He is alive!

And now we come to your heart’s story of light. This same divine power exists to create light in your heart that was so full of sin’s darkness. My heart was dark, formless, void before His light came. He spoke Jesus, and began to separate the light from the darkness within me. He spoke light into my darkness so that I could recognize true Light. So that I could see God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6).

My story of redemption is a story of light shining out of darkness. Anytime I reach out in love instead of curl inward in despair or selfish hoarding of resources, light is shining out of darkness. Each time I am able to comprehend, even for a moment, the eternal weight of true beauty found in my Redeemer and I turn away from the false beauty promised by the world, light shines out of darkness. When I take a deep breath and ask for forgiveness from my 4-year-old twin daughters instead of wallowing in shame that I yelled at them (again), light shines out of darkness. Every moment that I remember I am saved not because I was a “good girl,” but despite the fact that I try to be good without God, light shines in my sin-deceived heart.

What about for the darkness of a world broken and grieved around me? Will there be enough light there, too? In my calling as a counselor and a pastor’s wife, I often have a front row seat to life’s brokenness. This past summer our church community underwent grief of tragic proportion in the deaths of a mother and daughter. In the waves of darkness, of questions without answers and grief without limit, even here there was light to be found. I witnessed it when a weeping father told his distraught daughter after sharing the unspeakable news of her mother and sister’s death – “We are Easter people. We are Easter people.” It was the refrain of his heart in the middle of the darkest tragedy, and his words spoke light into my darkness and that of his daughter and that of all who heard.

How can you survive the worst of the worst? Or walk through the darkest of valleys, the middle of the broken, of the mess we have created from our darkness without Light? It is impossible. But herein lies hope – God has made his light shine in our hearts. It is a light that conquers all darkness, even the darkness of death. This is the light that dwells within –

“In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:4-5, ESV)

The light shone into a world that was empty, void, formless. It shines into hearts that are the same. The Light cannot be overcome by darkness, but it will overcome darkness. What a promise to count on today for you and me as we engage in this same journey in our own hearts and in the lives of those around us.

Five Minute Friday: whisper

What a whirlwind of a week! A happy whirlwind: girls returned to preschool on Wednesday and my in-laws moved down to Virginia from New Jersey the same afternoon. I have to admit that I love routine AND I already love having family living locally. For the first time ever in our 8 years of marriage.

Now – for writing this Friday morning, five minutes on a given topic each week. No editing; just writing.

******

He has witnessed one of God’s most glorious mountaintop moments: fire coming down from heaven to consume an altar’s sacrifice, proving in the sight of hundreds of Baal worshipers that he is the True God. No wonder Elijah thought God would speak to him in thunder, or whirlwind. His was a big, glorious God who had stolen the headlines with his other “god”-defying powers. Now that Elijah was listening for God to speak to him, he was listening for BIG. 

But that’s now how God spoke. He was in a whisper. In the quiet. Elijah had to wait. To settle down his soul. To lean in close. For the God of the Big is also the God of the intimate. Who whispers to his people to let them know that he is close and to draw them closer to him. Whispering implies intimacy. It requires more intentional listening.

quietIn my bustling whirlwind, do I have time and space and quiet to listen? To lean in to God’s heart – to open up his word and listen to these words of life? Yes, he will meet me amidst the turmoil and the whirlwind, but what he truly delights in with his own? To draw them close and to whisper peace over their souls and into the crevices of our hearts that only he knows how to touch. 

What will he whisper? I don’t know. We don’t know what he said to Elijah. Just that it was in a whisper. And so quiet down and listen. He still speaks. But he won’t compete with the chaos. He waits for you to step away from it.

*****