A Lenten prayer: prone to wander

This prayer is from a favorite book that I “happened” to be gifted with by dear friends just as Lent was beginning: Prone to Wander, by mother-son co-authors Barbara Duguid and Wayne Houk. I have found its call to worship, specific gospel-saturated prayers of confession, and then assurance of pardon to be spot on for my heart this Lenten season (and really any time!). I also love that there are suggested songs listed at the end of each entry. It’s been a personal worship guide – although written to be for a church, there are multiple uses to be sure.

And having some bit of personal interaction with both Barbara and Wayne through CCEF courses we’ve been a part of together makes the writing sing even more so. They are both tremendously gracious, and incredibly gifted at putting gospel truth to words.

 

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)

Words that haunt my middle class mentality

Jen Hatmaker in her book Seven challenges readers through her own journey of seeking more true Life through less stuff – less consumption and less excess, waste, and spending in order to free up more resources for more true gospel work. She says in chapter 2 –

Jesus’ kingdom continues in the same manner it was launched: through humility, subversion, love, sacrifice; through calling empty religion to reform and behaving like we believe the meek will indeed inherit the earth. We cannot carry the gospel to the poor and lowly while emulating the practices of the rich and powerful. We’ve been invited into a story that begins with humility and ends with glory; never the other way around.

And so this week of being involved in our church’s major endeavor to bring mercy and justice to those yet without it, I want verses such as these below to challenge my thinking not just this week but in the weeks to come. My sister-in-law made an astute (and convicting) observation that the Bible’s words to care for the poor and needy, “are not a suggestion but a command.” Lord, teach us! 

Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.” (Deuteronomy 27:19)

“Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us,
for we have had more than enough of contempt.
Our soul has had more than enough
of the scorn of those who are at ease,
of the contempt of the proud.” (Psalm 123:3-4)

“For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly;
but the haughty he knows from afar.” (Psalm 138:6)

“I know that the Lord will maintain the cause of the afflicted,
and will execute justice for the needy.” (Psalm 140:12)

Spring hope and restoration

Restoration. I often feel like spring is a picture of restoration as the world’s life seems to be restored after the (apparent) barrenness of winter. With someone who is definitely affected by the dark, cold days of winter, I often feel like my heart awakens with spring every year. I love warmth and sunshine. This year’s long-in-coming-spring felt trying for me. But it came. And in that there is a hint of the Future Restoration all of creation is waiting for (whether they realize it or not). 

A few weeks ago, I taught from 2 Kings 8:1-6 about a widow whose land is restored, and the way this seemingly obscure story is included in the Bible to speak to us of a much greater hope of restoration.

8 Now Elisha had said to the woman whose son he had restored to life, “Arise, and depart with your household, and sojourn wherever you can, for the Lord has called for a famine, and it will come upon the land for seven years.” So the woman arose and did according to the word of the man of God. She went with her household and sojourned in the land of the Philistines seven years. And at the end of the seven years, when the woman returned from the land of the Philistines, she went to appeal to the king for her house and her land. Now the king was talking with Gehazi the servant of the man of God, saying, “Tell me all the great things that Elisha has done.” And while he was telling the king how Elisha had restored the dead to life, behold, the woman whose son he had restored to life appealed to the king for her house and her land. And Gehazi said, “My lord, O king, here is the woman, and here is her son whom Elisha restored to life.” And when the king asked the woman, she told him. So the king appointed an official for her, saying, “Restore all that was hers, together with all the produce of the fields from the day that she left the land until now.”

Parts of my talk are included below – praying you will be encouraged by the hope of restoration wherever you feel the longing for it most today.

Have you ever lost something very precious to you? Maybe not valuable in terms of price but irreplaceable because of what it was. While visiting my parents in South Carolina over Christmas, I lost the pearl ring my parents gave me for my 30th birthday. I didn’t realize I had lost it until we arrived back in Norfolk. I just assumed I had already packed it some place really “special” but couldn’t find it when unpacking. I searched through all of the usual places, multiple times. I called and asked my mom to look for it, which I assumed would be like looking for a needle in a haystack since it could have been anywhere. And it didn’t show up for weeks. I considered it gone forever. Imagine my relief and joy when I pulled on a pair of pants to find it comfortably lodged deep in the pocket. I felt like I had received it back again! Isn’t that what makes restoration almost better than the original gift? You had counted it as lost, and then it’s restored. Webster’s defines the verb “restore” as

Verb

  1. Bring back; reinstate.
  2. Return (someone or something) to a former condition, place, or position.
Synonyms

return – give back – renovate – renew – rehabilitate

This is a small, trivial example of something lost that’s been restored. What do you find yourself longing to be restored today? Maybe it’s the weight of relationships that are broken and feel lost forever – maybe with a parent, or a child, or a spouse, or a friend. Or maybe you are in the process of losing a home or a job due to financial stress, unemployment, or your new orders. Perhaps you are losing an entire way of life as you anticipate a major change on the horizon – whether it be a joyful change like marriage or having children, or bittersweet such as retirement or kids leaving for school or college. Maybe you find yourself in a much darker place than anything I’ve mentioned yet as you deal with the loss of someone close to you through death, or the loss of hope through miscarriage or infertility, or the lingering loss of childhood or innocence because of past abuse. And in all of these losses, what often accompanies them is a loss of faith or trust in God and his goodness. Is God going to come through for you when you feel like you’ve lost everything that matters to you – or if not everything, the one thing or person that mattered the most? Is restoration even possible?

Our story today says yes as it highlights God as the one who provides and the one who restores. As we think about it together, we’re going to look at God’s provision and restoration from three perspectives: 

(1) God’s restoration for the Shunammite woman

In 2 Kings 8:1-6, we see a woman who experiences God’s provision and abundant restoration in her life. First, we need to do a little background on her life to remember her remarkable history. In 2 Kings 4:1-37, we are introduced to this woman who is wealthy and hospitable, building a room for Elisha to stay in when he passes through their town. She’s the woman who was given a son by God in repayment for her kindness after years of apparent infertility. And she’s the woman who loses her son unexpectedly at a young age to death, and then seeks Elisha’s help when he dies. What happens next is one of the greatest miracles in the Bible. She receives her son back when Elisha restores his life to him in a resurrection miracle. All of this happens before this chapter of her story begins.

It opens with bleak circumstances and yet we see the first evidence of God’s care for her: God’s provision of a warning. Israel is going to be hit with a seven-year famine (no small thing for an agrarian society), presumably as part of God’s desire to wake them up from their idolatry. This woman will be spared because she is given a warning by Elisha of what’s coming. We see her faith in her response described in verse 2, “So the woman arose and did according to the word of the man of God.” What she left behind was no small thing. We know that she was wealthy and that she was comfortably settled, and she leaves all of this behind to go live in the land of the Philistines (enemies of Israel). This would not have been a comfortable place to live by any stretch of the imagination.

Perhaps it helped that she knew it would only be seven years, for we see her journeying back after seven years. Her land and her home are now gone, and she must appeal to the king for it. What we see now is a second aspect of God’s care for her in his provision of perfect timing. As she enters the king’s court, the king “just happened” to be asking Gehazi (Elisha’s servant) to tell him about Elisha’s miracles. And Gehazi “just happened” to be telling him about the resurrection miracle when the woman herself walks into the king’s presence and Gehazi announces her, “…here is the woman, and here is her son whom Elisha restored to life.” The king is intrigued and asked the woman herself to recount the story. He is duly impressed, and as a result, appoints an official with the instructions, “Restore all that was hers…” and not only that, but also “all the produce of the fields from the day that she left the land until now.” This is abundant provision, over and above what she requested or expected.

What we see through this short narrative is a God who provides and who restores, caring for the needs of one individual woman and her family. Do you wonder why this particular story of this particular woman is included in the Bible for us? I find great comfort in the reminder that our God is a God who is in the business of restoration. And that our God goes about restoration one individual at a time. He is not only the God of global restoration of all things, but He is also the God who is in the business of restoring individual lives.

(2) God’s message of restoration for Israel

The original audience, Israel, were also sojourners like this woman, sojourners not by choice but by captivity. They must have wondered whether they would have homes and land to return to one day. Imagine what great comfort they would find through this story! For them, the sermon would have been something like the following:

  1. You will be restored to your land after exile – there is an end in sight
  2. God notices, cares, and orchestrates details to make his will come to pass for his people
  3. Do according to God’s word like the Shunammite woman and God will provide and restore

(3) God’s promise of restoration to His people today

Those points are certainly not irrelevant for us today, who also live as spiritual exiles who are not home. If we think of the big picture of the story of what God is doing in history, we also are ones who have had a home that we left (the Garden of Eden). We are now in captivity to sin, to futility in our work and to pain in child bearing/raising. We are awaiting restoration of all creation and a perfect home with God who will make all things new. But we have even more hope as we wait than the Israelites did because we can now look back to Jesus Christ. Just as the woman’s restoration of her land hinged on the son restored to life, so does our restoration depend on the Son restored to life.

During Easter we particularly contemplate Jesus’ death more than any other time in the calendar year, and we also celebrate Jesus’ resurrection life as the high point of the church calendar. It is the highlight of Redemption – of God’s global Restoration story. For in Jesus restored to life, we all have hope that we ourselves will also be restored to life after death and that even now our hearts are restored from sin’s captivity. Jesus came to begin the process of returning all things to their former/rightful condition, place, and position. With his death and resurrection life, He promises to bring back and reinstate all those who believe in him to a place of unbroken relationship with their Creator. The ripple effects of such a restoration are to be seen and experienced most vividly in our restored relationships with one another and in our joint restoration efforts to restore cities, communities, all of creation to its intended glorious state.

What could this really look like for you and for me as we face the death of friends, financial difficulties, life stress, overbooked schedules, health problems, broken relationships?

God agrees that your life and this world is broken, it is far from his original intent and the glory it was created to display. Don’t let the brokenness keep you from seeing the perfection of the God who created it all to be good, and who is on a global renovation/restoration plan to make it so again.

Don’t let the weight of your sin keep you from experiencing the restoration of grace and forgiveness guaranteed by Jesus Christ.

Remember who we were created to be and what the world was created to display, and mourn how far we have all fallen. But dare to hope and pray and work with the God who is in the business of restoration. 

2 Kings 6:1-23 – Finding God in the small and big troubles of life, part 2

Part 2 of the talk I gave for our weekly women’s Bible study this week. (Read part 1 here.)

***

Yet to be honest it often does take a glimpse of God’s greater power to sustain you when life’s major storms hit. Enter part 2 – the enemies of God’s people are thwarted by one man.

Throughout this entire passage, I found it interesting that no other names are mentioned besides Elisha and the Lord. The kings are nameless as are the armies. That very fact highlights where the focus is for this passage. There are also many ironic reversals in this story:

  • The Syrian king has to send his men to find out where Elisha is, but Elisha always knows where the Syrian army will be next. (Dillard’s commentary)
  • When the Syrian king sends his army to surround and capture Elisha, Elisha ends up leading this very army to a place where they are surrounded and captured.
  • And yet when the Syrian army realizes that they are in Israel’s capital and they expect certain death, they are given a banquet feast instead and sent back home.
  • Elisha prays for his servant to see the Lord’s army that surrounds them, yet he prays for the Syrian army to be blinded (and they are).

The central part of this story surrounds the moment when Elisha seems to be on the brink of being captured by the enemy whose raids he has thwarted by God’s power. He is in Dothan, which builds up great suspense as the original audience of the Israelites would have associated this city as the very place where Joseph was captured and sold into Egyptian slavery by his brothers. The Syrian king sends “horses and chariots and a great army,” and there were so many that they surrounded the city. On top of this, they came at night. All for one man who was a threat to the king! Surely this would be the end of God’s prophet, and the enemies of Israel would no longer be held in check. It could mean disaster for the entire kingdom.

But the one person who should be most afraid seems impossibly calm. It’s his servant who tells him about the army surrounding them the next morning. And his reply is, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” His servant must have been baffled, which is why Elisha then prays that his eyes would be opened for him to see the otherwise-invisible heavenly army surrounding them and protecting them. At this point, some of the tension must be relieved. This heavenly army will surely put to flight in a powerful way the Syrian army. But, no. God had a different plan. He doesn’t use the heavenly army that seems to be at Elisha’s disposal. Instead, he answers Elisha’s prayer that they be struck with blindness and then uses Elisha to lead this army into the heart of the capital of their enemy (Israel). The very one they came to capture leads them away to be captured. Elisha prays that their eyes would be opened, and what they see is as frightening to them as the heavenly armies were courage-inspiring to Elisha’s servant.

And the plot twists again. Because now we expect for them to be massacred by Israel, since they are one of their arch-enemies at the time. But there is mercy shown. Even grace in abundance. Before they are released and allowed to go home, they are given “a great feast.” A feast instead of certain death! And everyone wins – for the story ends with “the Syrians did not come again on raids into the land of Israel.” God restores peace to his people through his power and his mercy (at least temporarily).

Now in our place in history, we read this story and can see the way it points to one greater than Elisha, who did face certain death and expected defeat. He did not immediately lead out his enemies to be captured, but seemed to be captured by them. He died at their hands. But yet God’s surprising twist was that after all hope was lost, after three days of death, this man came back to life – resurrection power! And in his resurrection life, Jesus showed that our most powerful enemies of sin, death, and Satan will not disturb our peace again. They are forever vanquished. No power is left. But do I have eyes to see?

We have seen the way that these two stories in 2 Kings 6:1-23 offer to you and me a powerful reminder of what and who is for us, even when everything else feels like it is against us. But let’s be honest. What is it that you see in the midst of the hard things facing you – whether it be seemingly trivial everyday struggles like sick children, a busy schedule, financial hardship, sleepless nights or the bigger trials like whether you’ll lose your job, a break-up, a hopeless marriage, kids with disabilities, a husband who’s deployed, aging parents, a cancer diagnosis?

Too often, what I see is all skewed in the following four areas:

(1)  my troubles feel encompassing and eclipse anything else – any hope of relief or rescue or an end in sight. What I do with this is either succumb to despair, hopelessness, anger & resentment or I try to minimize them in my own power. Thinking “someone else has it worse.” Neither offers real relief.

(2)  I see my idols as too powerful, thinking that they are really going to come through for me this time. This time, getting angry at my kids will magically make them stop getting in the way of what I want. This time, Target will offer me some happiness. This relationship won’t disappoint. This friendship will be truly fulfilling and she’ll understand me perfectly. Working out, eating healthy, buying organic will save me from my distress.

(3)  What underlies this belief about my idols of choice and their power to save me is that ultimately, I have a skewed view of myself. I think that me being in control will make it better and I’d rather trust my own efforts, resources, and self-sufficiency than have to ask for help. Or worse yet, admit that I need outside rescue because I’m too blind to ask for what I really need.

(4)  And so this all stems from a view of God and his victory as small, pie in the sky, nonexistent, confined to the pages of a book full of stories that are irrelevant to my life.

What will make the difference? How can you begin to see clearly? The answer is simple but not easy, like so many things in our life of faith in the unseen Kingdom.

Ask to see.

Admit your fear.

Anticipate unexpected courage and grace.

For we in this story are like Elisha’s servant quaking with fear as he sees the army surrounding him. And we have one greater than Elisha leading the way and interceding (praying) for us to see. Jesus opens our eyes to the battle waging around us (Ephesians 6) but instead of inspiring fear we are given courage for the victory has already been won. He has gone before us. And in those moments when we feel enslaved by our own sin – captured by the enemy, as it were – we are promised a feast and a forever Home. Unexpected grace because of Jesus who claims all who believe in his life, death, and resurrection as his very own children. We are hidden with Christ in God, and so in seeing through the eyes of Christ – as he opens our eyes to the true state of things, our perspective changes:

(1)  my troubles are now “light and momentary, achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18)

(2)  my idols are weak and powerless – “eyes but cannot see, ears but cannot hear” (Isaiah)

(3)  I am strong when I am weak (2 Cor. 12:9-10) – needy and yet given grace that’s all sufficient for every need, big or little; sinful yet forgiven – not beaten down by sin. Romans 8 – “In all these things, we are more than conquerors.”

(4)  God and his victory looms larger than the trials, is more sure than my idols, and is where I can find true refuge. Romans 8 – “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

In summary, 1 John 4:4 is true for you and I: “Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.”

Pray to have eyes to see God as bigger than your troubles, your idols, and yourself; and spend time looking. Help others to see – enter their troubles with them and point them to Jesus.

On my very bad, horrible, no good evening when all seemed against me, God showed up. He showed up through a friend who offered to come home with me and help put the twins to bed. I could barely utter a prayer, but I did speak to her of my distress and she answered – reminding me of the God who is for me, in the little and the big things. And this began to change the way I was seeing life. Let us be ones who help one another to see God’s involvement in big and little troubles as we together open our eyes to God’s sure victory and real presence with us. 

2 Kings 6:1-23 – Finding God in the big and small troubles of life, part 1

This is the manuscript for a talk I gave at my church’s weekly women’s Bible study this morning in our study of Elijah and Elisha in 1 and 2 Kings. It’s been such a rich semester. It’s a privilege to teach alongside so many other gifted teachers as well. I always learn so much, both in listening and in preparing my own talks.

***

It was the perfect storm, and everything felt like it was against me. I was outnumbered by my two-year-old twin daughters by 2:1. It was another evening meeting that my husband the associate pastor was helping with, meaning that we had not seen him all day AND that I would have to get the girls ready and bring them to this church event solo. Which started about 30 minutes before their bedtime, and so I was already dreading having to do the bedtime task solo with two cranky, overtired toddlers after the event was over. It was during a busy week with a lot on our calendars and on my mind.  Then, like the proverbial “icing on the cake,” while I was getting Alethia ready upstairs, Lucia was unusually quiet. I came down to discover that she had gotten a magic marker out of a plastic bag on top of a bookshelf (that I didn’t know she could reach), and was applying the bright green marker to her mouth as if it were lipstick. Yes, BRIGHT GREEN. And sweet girl doesn’t have much experience with lipstick application (of course), which meant that it was also inside her mouth all over her teeth and tongue. I wish I had laughed. But instead I yelled at her and her sister while I attempted to scrub out the green marker from her mouth. Then we rushed out the door. And I felt utterly defeated, both by the circumstances and then my sinful response to them.  A feeling that meant I was less than warm to the visitor sitting next to me who kindly asked me where my husband was. I gruffly replied I didn’t know. (You see, it was naturally Seth’s fault that my day/evening had been hard and so I felt resentful towards him and implicated him as one of the many forces working against me, too.)

Is this scene familiar to you? The details are different, but have you had a day or week, or year, or decade, when everything felt like it was against you? Maybe you feel like that today. Where do you turn? What did you do to survive? Where did you feel like God was in your picture? Truth be told, God felt pretty absent that evening. In fact, although the irony is that I was going to a meeting at church, I didn’t really think about him at all other than to mutter some angry complaints in God’s direction.

These two stories in 2 Kings 6:1-23 offer to you and me a powerful reminder of what and who is for us, even when everything else feels like it is against us. But do you have eyes to see God as bigger than what faces you? What kind of picture of God do these stories give us and how can that give you trust in either small or big matters that feel overwhelming? God addresses both the trivial, seemingly insignificant problems of one individual in distress and the larger matters of entire kingdoms warring against one another. What do you find it harder to trust God with – your everyday trials or the big life crises? No matter where you find yourself struggling today, God has a message for you in these stories as he shows his strong, powerful presence in both little and big things.

Part 1: An axe head floats, rescuing a prophet from impossible debt

To fully understand the significance of this seemingly insignificant story, we have to do a little background work into the culture of the day. Most importantly, we need to know the value of the lost iron axe head. One commentator (“Faith in the Face of Apostasy” by Ray Dillard) said that because of the high value of iron during this time, it would be the modern equivalent of wrecking a borrowed car. We get a hint of this prophet’s distress as he cries out to Elisha, “Alas, my master! It was borrowed.” The Israelite hearer would have known immediately that this was no small loss, and that the only way a prophet could hope to repay such a debt would be to become an indentured servant. (Dillard) With the loss of the axe head, the prophet also saw his life drowning away with unlimited debt as well. Enter Elisha’s miracle, and the immense restoration it was for this prophet when he was able to make the iron float. As the prophet takes up the lost axe head now found, we can breathe a sigh of relief along with him as we see disaster and debt averted. God is immensely personal, intimately involved in what seems the smallest details of our lives. Do you pray about “the small stuff”? Or where do you turn when frustrated with life’s daily struggles?

This story shows God as the one more powerful than the popular gods of that day who could not stand up to “Judge River and Prince Sea,” but threatened to destroy Baal (the most popular god of that day). In this story, God is not threatened by the waters but proves once again his power over the waters, which do his bidding. And in this story we see the hope of future restoration pictured, when the forces of creation will join in our labor rather than resist it in futility. Even more, just as God rescued the prophet from certain debt, you and I can know that God has rescued us from our eternal debt of sin through Jesus Christ – he is the guarantee that all of our debts will be paid.

Can your idols or false refuges do this for you? Do they rescue you when you’re overwhelmed? Or do they add to the stress you feel? When I feel overwhelmed and turn to my favorite “popular idols of the day” for rescue (like retail therapy, Instagram, Facebook, gossip, complaint, chocolate, anger), these only give me more reason to feel overwhelmed. When was the last time that looking at Facebook, scrolling through Pinterest or Instagram actually made you feel more connected to others? I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I am suggesting it’s unlikely to do anything besides leave you feeling more hopeless and lonely and overwhelmed. Because those aren’t meant to save you. Only God can. And often I forget that God’s with me in the everyday stresses and frustrations of life which make me turn to these “little gods” to deal with my “little problems,” as I think and assume that my big God is too busy with bigger things to worry with what I’m facing in my little world. But this story confronts my unbelief and invites me to trust my big God with not only the big life crises but also my everyday trials. As a mostly stay-at-home mom of preschoolers, this is where I live my life right now. So if God can’t meet me here, or I don’t turn to him even in the small distresses, this will erode my trust of God for the bigger life events, too. Which means that the opposite is also true – I can bolster my trust of God for the big crises by turning to him in these small moments of life. If God is sovereign at all, he is sovereign over all … big and little.

Taco Tuesdays and Romans 1:1

One of my new year’s resolutions has been to memorize Romans along with Ann Voskamp’s “Romans project.” I would like all of you to know that I am two weeks behind. And, in fact, that I have “failed” at all of my New Year’s resolutions that I felt so excited about a month ago. (was it only a month?)

  • Potty training – after two weeks of trials, I made an executive decision that WE were not ready for potty training. When the one twin who seemed to “get it” began screaming “NO!” during every attempt to take her to the potty, I figured that this was a clear message to give it up for now.
  • Focusing on my kids more/technology less – I still find myself in the hard moments inevitably drawn to check Facebook or Instagram or our budget on Mint.com or the weather or …
  • Doing the “Joy Dare” to focus on gratitude v. complaint. Why don’t you ask my husband how well I’m doing at that? Sigh.
  • “State of the union” with Seth – some progress. Some failure. Like the evening when my version of state of the union turned into a very unfair rant and rave where somehow in my twisted logic he was the one to blame for all of the stress I was experiencing in other areas of life.
  • Scripture memory – see above … or below.
  • Reading 40 meaningful books – progress! I desperately devoured several on potty-training, so that helped give me a head start on this one. But now I’m reading Pillars of the Earth which is a good read but realllly long. 900+ pages, so that’s slowing me down a bit. 

What I’m realizing is that I can’t. I can’t do any of this on my own. I need a living Savior to do what I cannot do and never have been able to do: achieve a state of being right with God. And I need a Savior to offer forgiveness, mercy, hope, grace – and above all this, unshakeable LOVE – for all of the MANY moments I fail not just to meet my own standards, but in sinful rebellion turn away from God towards my idea of what I think will help me in the moment. (Yelling? Complaint? Chocolate?)

Yet this is not a reason not to keep striving towards less sinful patterns, towards more of the Spirit reigning in my heart. This simply changes my motivation and the how-to for doing so. It’s not to bolster my pride and sense of self-sufficiency and make me feel better, but I do so because I am loved by one whose love changes me and I do so only in the strength found in admitting and confessing I have no strength of my own.

So with that said, back to Romans 1:1. I can’t seem to get past this verse phrase – “Paul, [1] a servant of Christ Jesus, [2] called to be an apostle …” I keep switching those two phrases around as I’m working on trying to memorize it. Meaning that I keep saying in my head, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus, called to be a servant.” (And sidebar: memorization is not my strong point. I can be familiar with the general ideas and themes of various Bible verses but I am really bad at memorizing them word for word.) I think this shows me how I tend to get this mixed up in my own life. I want to put “called to be a [mom/wife/counselor/Bible teacher]” before the basic identity of “servant of Christ Jesus.” I think this changes everything. If I am FIRST a servant of Christ, and THEN called to whatever I’m called to in a particular season, I don’t complain to those people I’m called to serve or about the tasks I have to do nor do I take it personally if I receive criticism or feel like I’m failing. All of it is service to Christ Jesus. All of my service flows from the One who served me all the way to death because he was motivated by his love for me. This is not a guilt-laden, “Let me try to pay him back.” [I tried that for many years – didn’t work because it’s impossible!] But in the way that I feel about doing a favor for a friend who I know cares about me and who has done many things to show me that. It’s not a burden but a delight. And similar to the friend who strengthens me because she watched my kids for a morning, Christ’s service strengthens me to serve him by serving others out of and with the love he’s poured into my heart by the Spirit. Also, this identity is unshakeable. I am a servant of Christ Jesus most fundamentally. I will never fail at that because God guaranteed that with Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Callings will come and go, but I’ll always be a servant of Christ Jesus. And I’m promised love, acceptance and eternal approval; in fact, I already have it. So no pressure or stress in that! I’m called to live out of who I already am.

Part of this is trying to find joy in what can feel like a pretty mundane stage of life. I decided that naming our days will help me to know what’s coming and will help our daughters to have something to associate with each day of the week. In trying to incorporate many major household tasks, a friend also suggested “Wash Wednesdays.” Unfortunately, our Wednesdays are too busy to do laundry but I liked the alliteration … so here’s what I’ve got:

Market Mondays – we head to the grocery store[s] to stock up for the week. I wish it were as awesome as a local farm market … maybe one day!

Taco Tuesdays – since our small group meets this night, we always need something really easy to cook for dinner. Hence, tacos. And, yes, this means when we host our small group, our house will likely smell like El Paso.

Women’s Bible Study Wednesdays – self-explanatory; highlight of my week. I love studying God’s word with these women. Right now we’re going through 1 & 2 Kings as we look at Elijah and Elisha’s life

Trash-truck Thursdays – because, well, Thursdays are when the trash trucks come through our neighborhood which is the highlight of my 2-year-olds’ week

French toast Fridays – Seth’s day off (since Sunday is a work day for him as a minister) and he loves making French toast for all of us at breakfast

Sleep-in Saturdays – well, one can have wishful thinking … one day, Seth and I will get to both sleep in on a Saturday. For now, we take turns.

Sabbath Sundays – I really do want to make Sundays a day that’s somewhat different from the rest of my week. So I’m experimenting with different ways to do that. At its simplest, it often means that Seth and I both crash for a long nap when the girls nap in the afternoon. Other times, I’ll try to blog or read an enjoyable book I’ve had on my shelf. After having kids, I had to get creative because I can’t really “take off” from the work I do the other 6 days of the week – diapers still must be changed, meals have to be prepared, tantrums must be dealt with – but I did decide that I wouldn’t do laundry on Sundays. I mean, you’ve got to draw the line somewhere. And so that’s my line … and I’m sticking to it.

Take Ten for Thanksgiving

Fall PumpkinsAs I looked up the word “thankful” and its synonym “grateful” in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, I thought about how I often throw those words around – particularly at this time of year – with no thought to what they actually mean. Hence the dictionary search. As I came across this compilation of definitions, what I have reason to be thankful for became more clear, too. And why I am not more thankful is a sad commentary for my lack of eyes to see, really see, all that surrounds me. I’m going to ask you to do something with me today. In between preparations for the big feast, or after your belly is full from feasting, take ten minutes to sit down and think of ten things for which to be thankful. (Thankfulness is a great natural antidote to the anger I’ve been writing about, too, by the way. An angry heart and a grateful heart rarely coexist at the same time.)

First, the definition:

  • conscious of benefit received
  • appreciative of benefits received
  • affording pleasure or contentment
  • pleasing by reason of comfort supplied or discomfort alleviated
  • well pleased, glad

Isn’t that eye-opening? Hopefully, that begins to get you thinking about some items for your thankful list. I wanted to take this even further. Thanksgiving for me as a Christian isn’t merely having warm feelings of general goodwill and thanks for life in general. Thanksgiving has an object: the Creator and Giver of all good things. Thanksgiving is to be part of my life as someone in relationship with God. One verse I found summarized Christian Thanksgiving quite concisely:

Psalm 75:1 – “We give thanks to you, O God;

We give thanks, for your name is near.

We recount your wondrous deeds.”

In those three lines, the writer of this ancient worship hymn instructs me about God-oriented giving of thanks.

  • “Giving thanks” is an action – a choice and a decision.
  • “We” – not merely individual, but corporate. Something we do in community, with our community, and on behalf of our community.
  • the direction of my thanks – God! Seems simple but often I find myself not thanking God directly. Or really attributing something I’m enjoying to another source, like my great ingenuity in thinking of how to manage my day to find some peace and quiet, my self-sufficiency, my bank account, etc. The ultimate source behind all of this is God. And as a Christian, I am asked to go straight to The Source with my thanks. This will help my heart keep worshiping.
  • the why of giving thanks – “for your name is near.” God himself is evident all around me, and he is present with me and within me by the Spirit. Who he is – his character – is very near to me. If I have eyes to see!
  • how to give thanks – remembering his wondrous deeds. This is a specific recounting of what God has done, with an implication of a sense of wonder and awe at the God who has done these deeds.

Here are a few of my “ten” when I sat down to recount specific thanks to God. I’d love to hear a few of yours, too!

  1. The beauty of barren branches against a wintry blue sky
  2. God bringing together a Carolina girl and a Jersey boy in Philadelphia to marry, raise twin daughters, and expand one another’s cultural experiences
  3. Parents who love God, Seth, me, and our daughters – on both sides
  4. Daughters who are teaching me how to love more fully
  5. Faith awakened at a young age with which to receive God’s greatest gift of grace in Christ
  6. A heavenly Father who’s known me from the beginning of time and pursued me with love

And I could go on. I hope that I will never stop. I’m about 300+ into Ann Voskamp’s “One Thousand Gifts” challenge. And you could just be beginning with your first ten! Read more at her blog here. And happy Thanksgiving!

on becoming two

 

We celebrated two with a fanfare of a birthday party, no theme other than good-old-fashioned-birthday – meaning we had balloons, birthday-themed plates, and two “cakes” designed from cupcakes. Almost all of the girls’ friends and neighbors came for a Labor Day cookout/birthday party. And good times were had by all.

But this isn’t a mommy-specific blog, where I ooh & aah you with all of my Pinterest-worthy aspects of our party. I love reading other blogs that do that, although I must admit that I can struggle with creativity-envy afterwards. Or I may be inspired by such blogs and Pinterest pins, just depends on where my heart is in a given day.

The twins becoming two has been a slow, ever-increasing process that began around 6 months ago as both the tantrums and the precocious nature blossomed. Now both aspects are in full bloom, which leaves me both laughing in delight and exasperated in anger in the course of a day (or 10 minutes). Many moments, it is wonderful to watch the way they will play together, yelling “Come find me!” and running away for her sister to chase her. They love their new sandbox on our back deck, and they end each day laughing and “talking” to each other as they drift off to sleep in cribs across the room. Other moments, I again feel the twin-pull that’s been present since birth. Of TWO very needy children in the same stage, wanting the same thing from their ONE Mommy. And I feel completely at a loss of how to respond. How do you triage the toddler who just got bitten with the toddler who bit her? The girls who are both melting down with fear or with tiredness or hunger and want to be held now while also expecting me to meet their need (of cooking dinner, for instance, or putting each down for a nap). I am faced with a sense of inadequacy in these moments. One that I should be used to by now, but which still feels hard. Maybe it’s more of a cumulative effect, building with each month, rather than one that goes away.

In one such moment, I desperately opened the Bible (rather than the cookie jar or Facebook or email), and this verse jumped off the page for me: “Therefore, let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” (1 Peter 4:19) I’m going to take a big hermeneutical leap and jump straight to applying it to my life as a mom. I know that’s not the original context (persecution of the early Church was), but I think God who was present with those suffering Christians then also wants to be present to us when we suffer now in the self-sacrificial calling of motherhood. The frustrations of motherhood fit into this category of suffering according to God’s will. And so what am I called to do? Entrust my soul (what’s in danger of harm) to God, my Creator who is faithful. While continuing to do good. This is Christianity on the go. Spirituality that I can live with as a mom.

God says to us, “Keep doing what you’re doing. It’s good work. Yes, it involves suffering which will test and try your very soul. But I, who made you and created you, am faithful to care for you, strengthen you, empower you to continue to do good. Your suffering in the pouring out of your life for these little ones is according to my will for you. I who strengthened your Savior who endured this and more, will strengthen you also. By His very life – the life of Christ available to you, dwelling within you by the Spirit.”

I finally sat down to write this out because (surprise, surprise) I need to hear it again in this moment. The morning was lovely, I was able to get tasks accomplished after we played with a neighbor down the street, lunch was battle-free, and then naptime hit and they rebelled. My heart did so, too, in response. We are the same. We need the same Savior. My only hope for pointing them to Him is that I run to Him myself.

As a small comical ending, in reading “Your Two-Year-Old: Terrible or Tender?” (a developmental classic by Ilg & Ames), they concluded their book with some practical pointers that I recommend to myself and all of you fellow parents of two-year-olds. Doubly so, if they’re also twins:

THINGS TO AVOID:

1. Avoid any expectation that all daily routines will go smoothly. Even if you do your best, your child will not always cooperate fully.

2. Do not introduce any sudden changes in routine without warning or without some cushioning buildup.

3. Avoid any questions that can be answered by “No,” such as, “Do you want to have your bath now?”

4. Do not give choices when it matters.

5. Do not expect your child to wait for things or to take turns easily.

6. Avoid ultimatums, such as, “You have to eat all your lunch before you can go out and play.”

7. Avoid getting all upset by your child’s demands and rigidities. Try to see these behaviors not as badness or rebellion but rather as immaturity. Try to appreciate the wonder and complexity of growing behavior, even when it makes trouble for you.

8. Do not be surprised or upset at “No” or “No, I won’t.”

9. Do not take away or object to your child’s security blanket or favorite, bedraggled toy. Do not fuss at him when he sucks his thumb.

10. Do not expect your child to share easily with other children.

… and my personal favorite: 11. Do not be surprised if you are unduly fatigued at the end of the day.

Sound familiar, anyone? Yes, I see those hands! Though published in 1976, I’ve found it to be helpful in at least attempting to understand what’s going on with my 2-year-olds. Now, doing what they recommend as a result will take much more than my self-effort. See my thoughts on obtaining grace in other posts (and re-read 1 Peter 4:19).

 

Joy in my “lot in life” (Ecclesiastes reflections)

I don’t know about you, but most of the time when I hear or utter the phrase, “It’s just my lot in life,” there is the connotation of reluctantly putting up with what one wishes she could change about her life. In reading through a rather obscure and not often studied book of Ecclesiastes this summer, I am realizing that I’ve got it all wrong. To realize that God has given me my lot in life is meant to bring joy. Why? Not because life is easy – far from it. Ecclesiastes clearly portrays the toil and burden of life that often feels vain and meaningless. Toil, vanity, “striving after the wind,” are popular refrains here. But the writer of Ecclesiastes is pushing into life, seeking to see if God entering the picture makes any difference to life on earth.

I’m only a few chapters in, but he’s already seeming to paint the tiniest bit of hope that yes, life feels futile and meaningless, until you acknowledge God as Creator and Giver of your lot in life. In fact, the ability to enjoy life is in and of itself a gift from God, whether one recognizes this or not. My lot in life – the portion God gives to each of us, which feels heavier and harder in some seasons than others – is given to me precisely to bring me the greatest joy possible. I agree that this sounds different, difficult, and incongruent with my daily experience. Especially because my daily experience of life is filled with many mundane and monotonous tasks. And yet –

To know God as giver will bring joy. There is no joy in my toil until I begin to accept “my lot in life” as something that’s divinely orchestrated not only for my good, but for my enjoyment. Could it be that this is what I too often miss in my focus on God’s sovereign arrangement of the world and my life? I forget that God arranges and orchestrates not just for his glory and my good, but for my joy. There is a joy in this day, in this week, in this month, in this year and in this season that God has arranged the details of my life to provide for me. And God will give me the ability to enjoy my toil and to find that joy.

If you’re finding this hard to believe, don’t take my word for it. Enjoy this passage from Ecclesiastes 5:18-20:

Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil – this is the gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.