Need to Breathe

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This past season felt like an eternity.  Not the season of summer, which passes all too quickly in northern climes, but rather this past season of life.  Too often my cry, both to God and to the people around me, was, “I feel like I can’t breathe, like I’m drowning and there isn’t enough air.”  Can’t breathe.  Stuck, trapped, suffocating.  It was one of those times in which everything – literally, everything – seemed to fall apart in every area of my life.  Nothing felt secure.  Truly, I think everyone has those moments or feelings or circumstances, yet the deepest lie is always that we are alone in our suffering.  This is not the place for details, because those are no longer my focus, but you likely understand the niggling feelings of isolation and “drowning” from your own experiences.  In my desperation all I could whisper to God was, “Hold me; I can’t breathe.”

In our thirst for adventure, our longing to fill the empty places inside ourselves, sometimes we turn to thrill for coping with what we cannot understand.  We become thrill-seekers on the hunt for the next breath-stealing wonder.  We actually seek out things that “take our breath away” because it gives a rush of pleasure, or adrenaline, or even a fleeting sense of hope.  The truth of this thrill, though, is that after it steals our breath, it tends to leave us hollow, waiting for the next rush of a breathless moment.

Circumstances, situations, people, our own feelings – these can all steal our breath, be it for a moment that seems to hold awe or for a too-long stretch that leaves us suffocating.  As I walked through my own season of breath-crushing moments – pain squeezing too tightly, panic weighing too heavily, and hopelessness too ready to take up residence – I began to recognize something utterly precious:

We are created for life, and life requires breath.

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When did you last stop to simply breathe in the sweetness around you?

I was not made for breathless moments or having my “breath” stolen by fear or pain; I was made to breathe, freely and fully.  Genesis 1 describes how God put His breath into mankind at the beginning of creation.  Before God breathed His life into Adam, Adam was nothing more than dust, hollow and ready to be filled with what only God could give.  Adam’s frame needed the breath of God in order to truly be alive.  To be flesh and bones is not enough; we need the breath of life – physically, spiritually, and emotionally.  You and I are designed for breath, dear hearts.  It is part of who we are, yet too often we don’t notice this life-breath until we suddenly realize it is absent.

I couldn’t breathe emotionally or spiritually, and it’s terrifyingly amazing how that panicked desperation can trigger similar feelings in a physical body.  I was looking for breath in all the wrong places, and in doing so tied my heart and mind to relationships, situations, and even roles that stole my breath.  These ties seemed to steal my zeal to rise each new day to live and love well – to steal my very life.  Suffocating.

Allow me to explain my three breath-stealers.  Relationships can be the most agonizing and most subtle of these thieves.  Please understand that a relationship (be it familial, romantic, friendly, or any other) need not be abusive in order to “steal” your breath.  I say that relationships can be subtle in this way because you, like me, may have perfectly nice, well-meaning people in your life who are leeching slowly at the life-breath and passion you carry within you as the gift of the God who created you.  These gifts are stolen through little compromises, through fear that says there may never be another relationship of this sort again, that you are not valuable or special enough to love or live any better.  Relationships are glorious in that they allow for the intimacy of knowing and connecting, yet especially in romance it is critical to recognize where we might be stealing our own breath by remaining in unhealthy be-my-everything roles or by not allowing ourselves to be cared for.  “Well, I can’t choose my family,” you may protest.  Certainly, you do not choose the bloodline from which you come, but when you accept the overwhelming grace of Jesus Christ, you are given a new bloodline – a spiritual one – that is flawless and breath-giving.  Marriage is sacred covenant between husband and wife, which is too easily put aside in the world today because people feel that their spouses are not fulfilling their needs – not giving them “breath,” so to speak.  When we rely on any relationship to be a source of breath – or allow it to steal from the way God is calling us to live – we find ourselves in danger of either playing God or replacing God.

Situations that steal our breath – ah, why do we embrace the same options repeatedly and expect different results?  That is the definition of insanity, yet we persist.  Perhaps your breath-stealing situations were not your choice, being forced on you by the cruel, selfish choices of others (that is, by sin).  Our breath is stolen when disappointment or pain creeps in: money once again not lasting until month’s end, the friend’s house in which you wish you never set foot, the same old story of being taken advantage of by those who know you’re too “kind” to deny them.  Just one more problem, one more struggle to manage until it feels like dark water sucking us into the void.  One of my greatest breath-stealers was my final example (examples become authentic when we’ve lived them!), in feeling intruded upon or taken advantage of by everyone from my closest loved ones to all the other random people who crossed my path.  And this fits closely with the roles that I was permitting to steal my breath.  Suffocating.

I like to care for everything and everyone – I am zealous about making certain all is well.  When I fail to recognize my own desire to be needed, I easily find myself in roles where I am being exhausted in “do-gooding,” stealing my own breath in my quest to be the rescuer and meet every need.  More, more, more; do, do, do.  Yet for all my striving, my roles as rescuer or provider or daughter or anything else – these roles will steal my breath if I allow them to drag me away from the healthy parameters of grace that God sets.  In the moments when my adopted notions of responsibility are crushing me, I remind myself of who God is: ‘“I, even I am the Lord, and beside me there is no savior”’ (Isaiah 43:11).  This not only tells me who God IS but also who I am NOT.  I am not the savior, the provider, the life-giver; those roles (and their responsibilities) belong to God alone.  I am not the breath-giver.

There have been relationships that I needed to release because I was holding on, letting those relationships steal from my breath, crushing my zealous passion and the way God created me.  These are not people I have stopped loving, but rather people whom I have allowed God to teach me to love differently, to love in such a way that I no longer seek them to fill all my needing for breath.  Why would I deliberately choose any relationship that steals from my life breath, whether physically, spiritually, or emotionally?  Or, perhaps better stated, why would I deliberately choose any relationship that does not give me breath?  Why would I not choose to fill my life with people who are breath-giving to me, speaking truth and hope?

Relationships, circumstances, roles – in each of these areas we must guard against the temptation to either play God or replace God.  Dear hearts, do not let others steal the breath God has given you.  Guard your heart from small hope that would lead you to submit to circumstances.  No matter how fortuitous – or disastrous – your current circumstances maybe be, they have no authority to steal your breath.  Don’t give in to the lie that urges you to live one breathless moment to the next, that says panic or mania are the only options.  Embrace the heights and depths and simply breathe.  It is not your responsibility to be the breath for others.  You may live well and love well, but know that ultimately only God is the Breath-Giver.  Let Him do what only He can do.  Breathe freely and fully, dear ones, and take courage.

Dust

“I’m just dust without Your breath; I’m just clay without Your kiss. I’m just skin and bone without Your wind in my lungs.” ~ “Love Song” by Jonathan David and Melissa Helser

Perhaps your heart is wailing, as mine was, “But I cannot breathe!  My breath is gone.”  Perhaps you don’t even have the breath left for such a wail.  SuffocatedDry.  LifelessThe question is, how do we recapture the breath?  Perhaps you are like me.  I didn’t know, after this long season, if I could breathe again.  I felt hollow, void of life, void of breath.  I couldn’t hide my numbness, my hollow nothingness.  Could I breathe again?

“Prophesy to the breath, son of man.”

These are the words that flooded my mind.  “Prophesy to the breath.”  Those words – I knew those words.  Ezekiel, chapter 37:1-14, in which God takes the prophet Ezekiel in a vision-dream to look upon a valley full of dry bones:

“Then He caused me to pass by them all around,
and behold, there were very many in the open valley; and indeed they were very dry.”

So very dry – oh, Lord, we are so very, very dry.  I am just dust; I am undone.

‘And He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
So I answered, “O God, You know.”’

Can they?  Can these bones live?  Because I don’t know.  But You do.

‘Again He said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord!  Thus says the Lord God to these bones:
“Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live.
I will put sinews on you and bring flesh upon you, cover you with skin and put breath in you; and you shall live.
Then you shall know that I am the Lord.”’” 

Is it so?  Can there be life from this death, breath into the void?

So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I did, there was a noise, and suddenly a rattling; and the bones came together, bone-to-bone.  Indeed, as I looked, the sinews and the flesh came upon them, and the skin covered them over; but there was no breath in them.”

Without breath, there is no life.  All the proper components are there, but there remains only one Breath-Giver.

‘Also He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, ‘Thus says the Lord God: “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.”’ So I prophesied as He commanded me.  And breath came into them, and they lived, and they stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great army.”’

Lord, breathe on us, for indeed, we are dry bones without the Breath of your Spirit.  Sons of man – children of dust, yet chosen by You.  Are we forgotten?  Are we too dry, drier than these?  Is there hope for us?

Such sentiments as these were what God’s people were wailing: dry bones, lost hope, cut off, abandoned (v. 12) – utterly breathless.  But God was not finished; their story was not over – this was the message given through Ezekiel:

‘“I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land.  Then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken it and performed it,” says the Lord.’

So I, too, will prophesy to the breath.  I can be no one’s breath, not even my own, but I shall prophesy to it.  I will speak to the breath in those around me, for I know the One who alone gives Breath.  I will speak life to the dry places, because I know Jesus is Life (John 10:10, 11:25, 14:6).  How will you prophesy to the breath today, sons and daughters?  What places in and around you are dry and lifeless?  Where do you need breath?  Whatever may have stolen your breath – be it relationship, circumstance, or role – you have the power to speak life.  Prophesy to the breath, brave ones, prophesy, for you know the Giver of Breath.

You are created for life.  Don’t go another day breathless.

 

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I Knew You’d Be Here!

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Earlier this year, while still in Michigan, I had an afternoon off and visited my former students at the previous school where I’d worked.  For one of the classrooms I served, I made each child a special birthday treat of his or her choice – the only condition being that it had to be a treat I could bake (no Skittles!).  Knowing that his birthday was not until after I moved schools, one intrepid lad made his request early, and I promised to bring this delectable treat on one of my visits.  Though I had visited my students several times, I knew this occasion was the perfect opportunity to bake for Daniel.  I had him called to the office to meet me, and I presented the treat – much to his delight.

While Daniel skip-hopped down the hallway clutching what I thought had been a surprise, I asked whether he thought

I had forgotten.  “No,” he replied with a cheeky grin, as full of confidence as ever.  “I knew you’d come eventually; I just didn’t know when.”  Daniel knew that when I made a promise, I would keep it.  He knew my heart for him and knew that I wouldn’t forget him.  He wasn’t sure when the promise was going to be filled – but, oh, he had been anticipating its fulfillment!

Smiling down into Daniel’s face, a face shining with such pure confidence and excitement, I wondered where my own cheeky grin had been lost.  Deep in my heart I heard the love-whisper of my heavenly Father: “Where is your cheeky grin that tells the world you are confident in my promises?  Do you trust Me?

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Where are your eyes looking, dear heart?

Do I trust Him?  I know Him.  I know He is truly as good as He says.  God, I know you – but do I trust you?  I’m looking ahead and I’m feeling afraid because I can’t see where we’re going yet.  Twenty-one years we have been dreaming together, He and I, since I was just a tiny girl.  Oh, the places we’ve gone and the adventures we’ve had!  I wouldn’t change a single aspect of this story, not even the heart-wrenching, teeth-clenching moments.  All this time we’ve been walking together, and twelve years ago I let Him fully capture my heart.  (Isn’t it beautiful that He woos us before we even know what love is because He alone is Love (1 John 4:8)?  Romans 5:8 encapsulates the greatest Love Story of all time: “And God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”)  After twenty-one years of dreaming with Him, do I trust His faithfulness?  I humbly must confess that I don’t – not always.  Help my unbelief.

When I am afraid, I want to have control because it makes me less fearful – if I have control, I can manage my expectations and even the outcomes.  And I like to manage both those things.  I then content myself with small hope instead of Jesus Christ, my Living Hope, because it seems less terrifying.  Help my unbelief.

Somehow I trust that the sun will rise each morning, that I will have air to breathe, that the warmth will come again even though the winter may be bitter-cold – yet I struggle to trust that the Creator of all those steady processes will keep His promises to me.  I honestly thought it would be easier after so many years together, but it’s true what they say (whoever “they” are): the older you get, the more you realize how much you don’t know.

While my parents were traveling, I stayed home with my then-five-year-old sister, who is the joy of my heart.  In the stillness of one early morning, I heard the sound of a pair of small feet finding the floor as my sister jumped out of bed.  I sleep in the room directly below her, so I hear and know every noise – even the little snuffling sounds she makes while she sleeps.  Often when she wakes up, she calls down the vent (which doubles as our handy home intercom system), but this morning it was very quiet.  I considered going upstairs or calling to her.  Suddenly, the bedroom door burst open, and a tangle of blond curls appeared.  Beaming her sweet smile at me, my sister declared, “I knew you’d be here, Honey.  I knew you’d never leave me alone.”  The reason it had been so quiet in the house was that she had tiptoed about, looking for everyone else.  As she explained, she didn’t feel afraid when she couldn’t find anyone because she knew we would never leave her alone.

As she pressed her face to mine and I snuggled her close, my eyes filled with tears of wonder.  This precious blessing is so confident, so secure in her trust of our family’s love for her.  In that moment, my mind imagined me climbing up onto Father God’s lap and declaring, “I knew you’d be here!”  That is what He wants for us, His children: to burst in shouting, “I knew it!  I knew you wouldn’t leave me alone!”

I want to trust like that, like cheeky Daniel, like my joy-filled sister; I want to trust my Father’s faithfulness toward me, to trust His relentless kindness as both Promise-Maker and Promise-Keeper.  I want to live my life not merely knowing my God is good; instead I want to embrace the freedom and delight of trusting that pure Goodness.  I have promises that I have carried for all the years of my life, entwined so thoroughly into my being that I cannot separate them from my dreaming.  Many of them have seen no fulfillment yet.  But as I wait, I want my cheeky grin to be ever-handy, because I don’t know when but I know He always comes – because He’s just that faithful.

IMG_1106“Sing, O heavens; be joyful, O earth!  And break out in singing, O mountains!
For the Lord has comforted His people and will have mercy on His afflicted.
But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, and my Lord has forgotten me.’
“Can a woman forget her nursing child, and not have compassion on the son of her womb?  Surely they may forget, but I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands; your walls are continually before Me.
Your sons  shall make haste; your destroyers and those who have laid you waste shall go away from you.  Lift up your eyes, look around and see….”
~ Isaiah 49:13-18

Beloved, our Father doesn’t hide from us; He never tricks or teases because He is never cruel.  Do you know that He has never left, has never let go of you?  Can you believe He is really that good?  Though even those we love best may fail us, He never will.  Trust that He always loves and never forsakes.  He will be found by you when you seek Him, and you lack nothing in His goodness.  He always comes.  You are not forgotten.  So prepare your cheeky grin, run with your bare feet – because He’s here.  Oh, dear hearts, do you know?

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Look up, child, because He never forgets.

Elli’s First Post/My New Autumn Look

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I was thinking it over and when better to start posting then to do it towards the end of Autumn! I love fall not only because that’s the season of my birthday but also because of the way you get to go on walks through the park and see all of the beautiful trees that have changed color and can hear the crunching of leaves beneath your feet.

I am sometimes reluctant to wear a very uncomfortable outfit that takes a lot of work to pull off; But even though I prefer layers and big comfy things around this time, I still like to look cute and presentable in case I were to have a get-together with family (we usually have one or two of those this time of year) or some sort of party to go to. I like fall colors like jewel and earth tones but I personally like to incorporate brighter colors or stick with one of my favorite tricks that pretty much works with all seasons: Black and white! If you pair the two colors together and add just a little bit of color it makes the look really unique and fun! For example: A black top can be paired with a black and white polka-dot skirt and then add some bright colored heels and it makes for a super cute look for any season depending on how you layer it! Here is one of my recent Autumn favorites…

Because it is no longer spring and summer, it’s best to put on tights or leggings on under this look (which I did). I had so much fun taking pictures of this look and putting it together. I love this season and enjoy the fashion that comes with it including all the big sweaters and tall boots. I hope you all had fun reading and have a very blessed day!

 

My fun Autumn outfit! 

A Better Word

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Alaskan blooms — life can only happen where it is nourished.

 

As I made my first site visit to a new school this year, I found – as I would term it – a “bad word” scribbled broadly onto the back of a stall door in the bathroom.  Not having an eraser handy that particular moment, I left it and determined to inform the janitor later.  I forgot this seemingly small detail in the hubbub of another busy day working with my students.  When I returned to the site several weeks later, I was aghast to find this scribbling still present for all to read.  Not only that, but a packing box, tucked into a lonely corner, was adorned with equally inappropriate phrases.  I resolutely snatched a brand-new eraser from my supplies.  With half a dozen students watching curiously, I thoroughly erased the ugliness from the door.  Next I fished a permanent marker out of a closet and squatted to cover those carelessly written phrases on the box.  In that moment I decided: it was not enough to simply remove those graceless words; they needed to be replaced with words of life.  “Be nice” – be kind, I wrote onto the box.  These new words declared the former ugliness exposed but put in place a new set of words for my students to see.

As I made my renovations, I realized that so often we simply let words be – they come out, they are shared – but they take on an existence of their own.  Words are powerful in their ability to destroy or to create, to cultivate death or offer life.  By His word God spoke all creation into being, hanging the stars and fashioning a physical realm to display His handiwork (Genesis 1).  It is with good reason that Proverbs declares, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (18:21).  My act of blotting and rewriting was about much more than maintaining school property or protecting the youngest students from words I hope they never learn.  It was about removing what had no right to a place in either their lives or their environment.

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Who needs your life-giving words today?

It was not enough to simply remove those “bad words” that act as poison.  To not cause death is not the same as offering life.  And so in each moment I begin to ask, “Lord, how can I speak life?”  That is the whisper-cry of my heart: “Speak life!”  So I speak, I write – I simply offer whatever words of life well up within me.  I speak to the dreams and the strengths, to the destinies and passions – all the glory of how people are created, as I behold them through the eyes of Jesus.  Never have I looked upon anyone whom my Jesus has not already loved first and best, so I, too, seek to look with love.  On a weekly basis I get messages or responses from friends, coworkers, students, and random people I’ve met – so many of these interactions have a similar phrase: “That is the kindest thing anyone has ever said to me.” “No one has ever told me anything so nice in my whole life.”  “I’ve never shared that with anyone” or “We just met – how did you know?”  Then I have the delight of watching LIFE happen, like the peaceful warmth of the sun shining down after a dark night, like birds joining sweet songs to the newness of spring.  This is the kindness that we all crave – the kindness that sparks hope, that saves lives.  A young writer shared a poem with me this week, and these lines captured my thoughts:

“So many people want to stay and survive
But the voices you give them want to make them die.
But they don’t want to leave their loved ones, so they stay alive;
Once the voices get louder all they can do is cry.”
~ Miisaaq

Dear hearts, what have these voices been for you, these poisonous voices with their death-words?  I know which ones they are for me – and I can think of moments where my voice was the pain of someone else’s heart.  God forgive me for moments when my words carried the whispers or shouts of death; forgive the moments when my words were not meant to bring life-light to others.  May my heart always be tender to offer life through word and deed.

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.  And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.  Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” – Ephesians 4:29-32

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Life-giving encouragement in action among one of my volleyball teams and their coaches — and a cheesy grin just for me!

To not speak death is not my goal.  Rather, I want every word to hold the echo of life, of hope and grace.  Where I look, I begin to see; and where I listen, I begin to hear – what voices of life need yet to speak?  There is a life that was saved this week because of this kindness; there is a life that was saved two months ago by this kindness.  There is a life that was saved in October last year and another many years ago in 2010.  When Scripture declares that our words, our voices, can be either life or death, it is not purely figurative.  There are physical, in-the-moment cries that this kindness answers in a way nothing else can.  It is the right words, in the right moment, given in pure kindness.  Your words can literally save lives – not because you are the savior of any but because you carry the love of the Savior of all: Jesus Christ, the Living Hope.  And He is the best Word of all.  There are other moments that this kindness touches and has touched that I may never see fully in this life, so I continue to speak life.

We are created for life, dear ones.  What life are you speaking over yourself and others today?  What words need to be erased?  What new words need to take their place?  Where is your voice meant to save lives, pulling others back from despair?  I bless your voice to be one that carries words of life in every way, declaring Truth for every need.

“Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.” – Colossians 4:6

Grip of Grace

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I wrestled with this title.  I wanted it to be a reference to the gentleness of God the Father.  Perhaps, though, that lies in a lingering misconception of gentleness as a part of God’s nature.  “Grip” has some ugly (or at least undesirable) connotations.  “The Art of Gentleness” seemed a much less…overpowering title.  (Titling my blogs is a thought-consuming process!)  Yet the Lord has been speaking to me about His relentless gentleness and His grip of grace that holds me fast.  In Psalms David wrote to the Lord, “Your gentleness has made me great” (18:35).  That verse forever altered my perspective on gentleness.  The gentleness of God is not demure or soft.  His gentleness is not puny and powerless, bending to meet the whims of others.  It is not God’s conciliatory pat on the back in our times of sorrow and suffering.  So often I have viewed God’s gentleness as a sort of secondary trait, the “weaker” or “lesser” part of His nature.  But I have come to realize that is utterly wrong.  There is nothing more fierce than God’s gentleness.  His gentleness is relentless, fierce, and tender, meeting us where we are and pursuing us.  In God’s hands, gentleness is mighty.

Daddy and his two “lovies,” my sister and me.

As I consider the gentleness of God, I think of my own daddy.  As he used to do for my brother and I, so he does for my little sister.  Just this morning my sister had a meltdown, and our family always has a solution for that: Daddy takes her flailing, sobbing, screeching, angry, sad self and says, “Right now you just need a big, squeezy hug from Daddy.”  He then holds her body tight to his chest and won’t let go.  Even though she might fling herself, push at him, or simply hang there in his arms and beg to get down, his arms hold her tight.  “You don’t need to get down right now; you still need a big, squeezy hug. Stay here with Daddy,” he’ll tell her.  He holds her until she quiets, her tears dry, and she cuddles into him instead of pushing away.  He does this because he knows what she needs.  Through the moments of pain and anger and deep sorrow, my daddy holds onto us.  Relentless.

Last summer I remember pouring out the swirling emotions of my heart, full of confusion and angst, to my daddy.  I didn’t really want him to give me answers – I didn’t need answers; I needed to be held.  Even grown, I needed the comfort that only my daddy’s arms could offer.  Thinking about these moments, I am utterly captivated by the gentleness that doesn’t relent.  When I pushed away from my dad’s arms, thinking I could pull myself together after a few minutes, he didn’t let go.  I didn’t need to “pull myself together”; I needed to be held, and my daddy knew that.  The same arms have sheltered and held me through sorrows and joys alike.  Relentless. 

That is only my earthly daddy; our Heavenly Father is the source of gentleness, and His arms never fail.  David was a warrior-king, a mighty man of valor.  In Psalm 18 he describes how the Lord has prepared his hands for battle and how the Lord has protected him.  He is worshipping the Lord for the deliverance and salvation that He has provided.  The Lord scattered the enemies, vanquishing opposition with the mighty thundering of His voice and the miracles wrought by His hands.  David has pursued and conquered his enemies.  In the midst of this victory-song, he doesn’t exclaim, “Wow, God, your strength makes me great!”  Instead he makes a baffling statement that is perhaps one of the most powerful one-liners in Scripture: “Your gentleness has made me great” (v. 35).  Not the Lord’s thunderings, not the Lord’s blaze of glory nor His raw strength, but His gentleness.  In this statement, David captured an essential part of God’s nature.  Relentless.

“We wonder sometimes when God is so great, so terrible in majesty, that He uses so little violence with us, who are so small. But it is not His way. His way is to be gentle. He seldom drives; but draws. He seldom compels; but leads. He remembers we are dust. We think it might be quicker work if God threatened and compelled us to do right. But God does not want quick work, but good work. God does not want slave work, but free work. So God is gentle with us all — moulding us and winning us many a time with no more than a silent look.” – Henry Drummond, The Ideal Life.

The gentleness of God is not a lesser part of who He is.  When all falls apart, when sorrow threatens to destroy us and the darkness to overcome us, there are His arms, relentless and offering a big, squeezy hug that holds us securely in our need.  He knows how fragile we are, and He knows all the depths of our needs.  He knew all our days and moments that would ever be before time began, while we were just a design and treasure in the depths of His heart.  We may kick and scream, we may fear and doubt, we may be drowning in an ocean of tears – and still He won’t let go.  It isn’t in His nature to give up on you.  Stronger than steel, from everlasting to everlasting is His grip.  It would be terrifying in its fierceness if not for the fact that He remains wholly tender.  His gentleness is keeping you, dear heart, and it won’t let you go.  The excellence of His strength lies in His relentless gentleness – not that we may be afraid but that we may be made great.  More relentless than hungry flames, more fierce than a lioness protecting her cubs, more tender than the sweetest kiss – His gentleness makes us great.  Dear heart, do not fear the inescapable wonder of His gentleness.

Out of Neverland

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“Never!” – an oath we make far too easily and carelessly.  There are certain things that I said I would “never” be willing to do.  Never, no, not a chance.  I looked at my life, peered blindly toward the future, and declared, “Never will I ever!”  Therein lies my conundrum.  Years ago I told Jesus “yes” while silently attempting to add stipulations.  My mouth claimed I wanted Him, but places in my heart were not yet surrendered.  I ensconced myself in the safety of my Neverland, a place I could be comfortable and in control of, a place that was enjoyable and sweet – or so I thought.  Ah, dear heart, have you ever done the same?

Is the comfort of Neverland really our best hope?

Is the comfort of Neverland really our best hope?

If you’ve watched (or read) the story of Peter Pan, you know that Peter and his lost boys want to stay in Neverland, the place where they will never have to grow up or stop having the comfortable, carefree fun they so enjoy.  I confess that I had not understood the draw of Neverland.  To me, it seemed like a place to hide.  If things got too hard or growing up became too tedious, Neverland was the alternative; yet I always wondered if that was merely a shadow of a life fully lived.  (By the way, I am a fascinating annoying great movie-watching companion, if you appreciate an analytical dissection accompanied by running commentary.)

There are times when my conversations with God are laced with please-don’t-make-me cries.  I’ll do anything You want, but please don’t make me ________….. – just fill in the blank.  It’s my own indirect way of begging “never.”  Then there are the times when I tell Him that I simply don’t want to do what He is asking.  Being comfortable is easy.  It’s familiar, and I can understand it.  I’d rather play games in Neverland than grow into a mighty woman of valor, because on the horizon I fear an Adventure with Jesus that I can’t control, a future wild and unpredictable to my finite imagination.  I don’t want to sing in front of people, don’t want to be a classroom teacher, don’t want to live in cold places, was never interested in traveling to India, don’t, no, never…. – or, at least, I thought I didn’t.  So flesh conflicts with spirit as my head struggles to comprehend the stirrings of my heart.

Piece by piece, word by word, the Lord has been tearing down my every “never,” stripping me of excuses.  My never-oaths hold no weight in the eyes of my King of kings.  Recently having found myself frustrated by His lack of acknowledgement regarding these never-oaths, I declared to God, “There you go again, changing my heart to be passionate about something I didn’t even want!”  Yet my indignance was born of my need to surrender – not of true frustration.  Finally coming to the end of myself, I am giving up my whole heart to Him.  In these moments, what else can we do but laugh?  Life with Jesus is one surprise after another, and still we are totally safe in the constancy of His nature.  To quote Graham Cooke, “God is unpredictable but consistent.  You never know what He is going to do next, but you ALWAYS know what He is going to be like.”

Happy in my saree -- a secret wish I never thought to experience!

Happy in my saree — My little-girl dream come true!

The true adventure is found not in my self-satisfied Neverland but in the Wilderness with the Love of my life.  True adventure is utterly terrifying.  I am now in a place that I had not expected, a point in life I never wanted to be.  And I find it beautiful.  This is the difference in doing life with God.  What we so often miss is the power of our own choice.  When we choose Him, He sets us free – but He’ll never force us to walk in that freedom.  He wants His best for us – but He’ll never force it on us.  It isn’t about Him forcing you into a life you don’t want.  It isn’t about your becoming His henchman, obligated to cater to the His mysterious and changing whims.  In fact, He alone is the One from whom all good things come (Jas. 1:17), and He doesn’t change – ever (Mal. 3:6).  His ways and wisdom are no mystery, for He “has revealed them to us through His Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:10).  So if God isn’t some vague, unknowable force, waiting to strike us down or toss in a shocking plot twist just for thrills, if He truly doesn’t strong-arm us into choosing His best, what IS this all about?  It is about allowing Him to change your heart to desire the things He desires.  As your heart changes, you will sincerely long to see His will done on earth and in your life as it is in heaven (Mat. 6:10): the full-blown picture of His glory and goodness.

Good morning, India! I would never have thought that the bar-covered windows, the bright plaster homes, and the spice-scented air, filled with the sounds of family stirring in the early morning -- could become beloved so quickly.

Good morning, India! I would never have thought your bright plaster homes and spice-scented air would become beloved so quickly.

God didn’t demand that I go to India, a country about which I had always shrugged my shoulders and declared I had no particular intention of visiting.  Instead, He brought people into my life, offered opportunities, and began to speak to my heart about this new place and culture for me to love.  He began to reconcile my heart to His, causing the desires of my heart to match the desires of His.  Like a checkbook being balanced, all the columns began to add up correctly and the totals make sense.  It was an Adventure born of my decision to say “yes” to the One who alone is good in all His ways.

Whether it's teaching the kids in my church family or teaching students ranging from Kindergarten to high school, teaching is my passion.

I love kids. Teaching is my passion.

God did not demand that I teach classrooms full of students.  It began years ago when He whispered to my heart, “This is what I’m doing.  If you want to do what I’m doing, you’ll do this” and I found myself attending college for Elementary Education.  Reconciling.  In the four years since, I continued to say that I would never be a regular classroom teacher.  Yet now I find myself eager to take on classrooms of bright-eyed and belligerent students alike, falling completely in love with every student as I see the Father’s heart reflected through each one.  I cannot resist the intense compassion and desire to nurture that swells within me as I teach.  It has been an unexpected but freeing journey for me to admit that my never-oaths were holding me back from the fullness of what God has for my life and His glory.  Reconciling my heart to His.

Sometimes we don’t understand the depths of His freedom until we comprehend the depths of our own bondage.  I chose to surrender.  Every day, every moment in which I forget that choice – I choose again to surrender, letting Him reconcile my heart to His.  Hand in hand, He’s leading me out of my Neverland into a wild place with Him.  The cry is no longer “Never!” but rather, “Here am I!” (Is. 6:8) – and all the wild, glorious adventures that follow.

helen-keller-quoteAs we begin to step out of our Neverlands, we walk into greater freedom.  We become free in our laughter and our loving, free in our dreaming, free even in our hurting and our longing.  The loveliness of life lies in allowing yourself to dream with Him.  The Adventure is in the limitless of His kind nature and the richness of His heart toward you.  In what areas of your life have you been holding back?  Where is the Neverland that you’ve been hiding in?  Is it fear keeping you there – or is it just the comfort?  What dreams would you dream if your heart was truly free?  Where have you chosen “safer” or “easier” or “less risky”?  Where have you told God “no” or “never” – and what might you be missing because of that?  Do you truly long for the things He longs for – do you really desire His best in your life?  Talk with God about it; ask Him what He has to say.  These are not easy answers, but honesty is the birthplace of freedom in our lives.

Join me in the journey out of Neverland, braveheart.  No more hiding.  It all begins with one decision: say yes to Him.  This is a life without regrets, a life lived in freedom.  The one “never” I can proclaim with confidence is that it is never too late.  May our hearts be reconciled to His, one in desire and aim, because there is no other Adventure worth living.

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The Air Smelled of Spices

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“How was India?”  This has been the question of loving and curious friends, family members, classmates, and acquaintances in even the few days since I returned from India.  That question is so broad to encompass all the precious things God has worked (and is working!) in and through me from this journey.  So, I will graciously answer this ubiquitous question with some stories and snippets of a time happily spent.

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One of the many small Hindu temples that can be seen all over this area of India.

On my arrival in India, the people I was with were surprised, saying that they’d never had any visitors adjust so flawlessly to the time change and strain of travel.  Apparently my “flawless adjustment” didn’t extend to the return trip, as I am currently in possession of my first true (and rather severe) case of jet lag.  As I sit very still with a bowl of (dry) Cornflakes, I’m trying to pretend that my ever-loving dad didn’t just attempt to offer me such a stomach-churning item as milk to put over top of them.  But I digress.

How was India, you wish to know?  It felt like going home.  Until I am in other places and other cultures, I rarely feel just how pseudo-American my own culture (and that of my family) is.  I have had to repeatedly admit to myself just how much not only my faith and my family but also the places I’ve lived have influenced the woman I’ve become and the values I hold dear.  Just because I look (and sometimes sound) like a Midwest-American, Dutchy girl from Michigan, that is not the setting that makes me feel most myself.  The sunshine, the smells, the languages, the people, the spicy food, the ministry, even the traffic – I was so wholly well.  In changing my environment and reaching out to others, I regained my perspective and found again my quiet place with Jesus.  It’s amazing how looking past yourself and breaking from rigid monotony (even of “good” tasks and endeavors) can refocus your eyes on the most important aspects of life.  So allow me to give you a tiny glimpse of India through the eyes of a girl who fell instantly in love with the beautiful country in which the air truly does smell like spices….

From a Mother’s Wisdom

A young coconut was whacked open for me, and voila! The best coconut water I ever drank.

A young coconut was whacked open for me, and voila! The best coconut water I ever drank.

Apparently, no matter what culture or country they are part of, mothers provide some of the most reasonable advice.  While staying in Hyderabad with a friend’s family who welcomed me with astonishing kindness and love, I was given my favorite piece of advice.  This moment was made all the more splendid by the fact that I speak practically no Telugu and Mama speaks practically no English.  As we rode in the car one afternoon, Mama admonished me to not spill my coconut water on my saree, as the stain wouldn’t come out of the fabric.  This admonishment to be cautious was accompanied by miming of what I should, under no circumstances, do if I wanted to keep my saree in good repair.  For this white girl wearing her first saree, it was a much-needed piece of motherly advice!

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Outside the Medak Cathedral in Telangana

In the Tradition of India

Yes, you read correctly above – I really did wear a saree, and not just one I’d picked up and attempted to put on in tourist-like fashion.  My friend’s mother chose sunshiny-yellow (how could she have possibly known it is one of my favorite colors?) fabric and had all the proper pieces of a true saree made for me.  Mama and sisters laughed and flocked around as they all fussed and pinned, dressing me in the true tradition of India – not as an outsider but as a guest and one of the family.  I’m not sure who enjoyed it more – me or Mama!  Secretly I have always wanted to wear a saree, but I would never have had one made for myself.  Utterly comfortable in my own skin and appropriately garbed as a daughter of India (complete with a full set of bangles!), I enjoyed the day exploring Hyderabad with the family.  I never realize how much I stand out at times, but among only Indian people wherever I went, I (especially with my blond hair) was quite a novelty.

As Only the Holy Spirit Can Do

Me and the ministry team from Hyderabad

Me and the ministry team from Hyderabad

I was invited to share at the family’s church in Hyderabad, having met the pastor and zealous children’s and youth leaders the previous week during the awesome leadership-ministry training which I helped facilitate.  (It was neat to build new connections there simply by knowing friends in the U.S.!)  There was some discussion: perhaps I would guest-lead the children’s ministry that Sunday, or perhaps I could introduce the ministry model for the congregation and share a bit about myself.  So what actually happened Sunday morning?  When I arrived, I was handed a microphone and invited to preach the Gospel, minister to my brothers and sisters in Christ, and explain and implement a whole new ministry model of listening prayer and learning to hear God’s voice.  As my dad would say, it was my first “full preach” – my first time acting as teacher-pastor for the whole church body.  Oh, and it was beautiful!  God had been preparing my heart with a message, and I was prepared to be flexible in whatever was asked of me and whatever God wanted to do.

This precious blessing spent all his time with me in Vijayawada, snuggling in my arms and chattering about any subject that struck his fancy.

This precious blessing spent all his time with me in Vijayawada, snuggling in my arms and chattering constantly.

I was blessed to have an effective translator to support my weak area (i.e. my current non-command of Telugu).  Though he had as much prior notice about his task as I did mine, I was truly humbled by his willingness to take on such a daunting job for the first time.  In that sun-warmed church, my heart was awed afresh as I watched the Holy Spirit do what only He can do, ministering directly to the hearts and needs of each of God’s children, be they grown or small.  As we moved into a quiet listening time as a church, waiting to each hear what God was speaking to us, the Holy Spirit spoke in ways that these brothers and sisters could understand.  Visions, descriptions of colors, and precious new prayers poured forth as we began to share and pray into the things God spoke through His Spirit.  Though I began the morning tired and deeply saddened by the long-distance loss of my beloved great-grandmother the previous night, there was nothing more refreshing than to place myself in the community of brothers and sisters in that place.  God is so faithful to meet us in each moment!  (Feel free to ask for more specific stories, as I’d love to share!)

Good Morning, India!

Though the weather during my first week was certainly more cloudy, I enjoyed waking up to twittering birds, sunshiny warmth (rising beyond 80 degrees Fahrenheit on many afternoons), and the sounds of trade and traffic stirring for a new day.  While in Hyderabad, I had the further pleasure of enjoying the sounds of family waking, as well as the 5:45 A.M. call to prayer from a nearby mosque – the quirky alarm suited my love of early mornings!

A beautiful day spent with the family!

A beautiful day spent with the family!

At the Heart of Family

I knew some of what to expect from extensive conversations in which my dear friend graciously answered dozens of odd questions ranging from how best to exchange currency to how I should address his various family members.  Still, even armed with so much knowledge, one must be ready to go with the flow and learn through experience.  Even knowing how much my friend loves his family, I was struck by how close-knit the family was.  I met dozens of aunts, uncles, and cousins, being bolstered by the aid of brothers who acted as impromptu interpreters and the recipients of my many, many more questions.  Much more so than American culture, family is at the heart of Indian culture – and the heart of family is in togetherness and care for one another.  With the little cousins crawling on me and calling me “big sister” in Telugu (akka), I was reminded of just how precious a blessing family is – and how much there is to learn from other cultures.

At Meal Time

As I learned when I arrived, the Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana (together as the single state of Andhra Pradesh until a couple years ago) are known for the spiciest food in all India.  I almost started dancing with glee – bring on the flavors of India!  Other than the fact that I couldn’t consume a satisfactory quantity of food to please the family I stayed with (love = lots of food), I enjoyed the new textures and spices.  There are enough types of curry to boggle your mind, and I was blessed to enjoy delicious homemade meals in both areas where I stayed.  Very little beef or pork is eaten in the area, if at all, based primarily on the general religious beliefs and customs.  Chicken, vegetables, or lentils provide the base for many types of curries.  Biryani and tamarind rice are two special types of rice dishes made for special occasions, and they have very specific spices that each cook prefers to use.  And if the heat gets to be too much in your mouth, don’t worry – most meals are served with curd, a type of cool, thin yogurt-sour cream, that you can mix with your curry or eat at the end of the meal with rice to soothe your palate.  If you get really delightful curds, like I tasted, there might even be freshly sliced bits of red onion and cilantro mixed in – yum!  (And no, I do not really have any photographs of food.  That is too millennial-hipster for me, and it is hard to photograph something when you already literally have a hand in it!)

Did You Know…

There are interesting mountainous areas around Hyderabad, where the "mountains" are giant piles of rocks naturally stacked atop one another.

There are interesting mountainous areas around Hyderabad, where the “mountains” are giant piles of rocks naturally stacked atop one another.

In the areas where I was, families eat together while simply sitting around comfortably, often without a table.  (Where I was, the lack of table simply made more space for family to crowd close and enjoy the meal.)  And, coming from a part of Hindu culture that has permeated India in general (whether Hindu or not), you eat particularly with your right hand – no utensils.  I actually became fairly good at this in a short period of time, helped by the fact that rice is a main staple and provides an excellent tool for “sticking” the curries together.  I used a spoon the day after I got back to the U.S., and it seemed a bit foreign at first!

img_0283Beep, beep!  The horns on vehicles in India are not merely accessories.  They are, in fact, vital and constantly-used tools to let other street traffic (whether wheeled or otherwise!) know where you are and where you want to go.  After living in Nairobi, Kenya, for a couple years, I found the traffic of India comfortingly familiar in its hectic bustle – and not nearly so shocking as I was preparing myself for!

And Just Because Traveling Can Be Amusing…

Upon being escorted to the airport at the end of my trip, I was happy to have my friends wait with me until my flight was boarding.  As we sat sipping on a variety of hot and cold drinks (definitely a cold one for the MI girl who felt like it was summer in the winter of India!), an elderly British man walked past, and I stared in bewilderment.  Much to the amusement of my companions (who were looking at me oddly), I began to laugh, because, just as he looked like an anomaly to me, that was how I probably appeared to everyone else.  I just hadn’t seen any white people in some time, and it was difficult not to stare!  It’s amazing how unobtrusive I felt after only a handful of days, even walking the streets with my friends.

Posing for some quick selfies with people for whom I was as much a novelty as the famed Medak Cathedral.

Posing for some quick selfies with people for whom I was as much a novelty as the famed Medak Cathedral.

There are a variety of ways to wear sets of bangles, often a matching set on each arm. Women often coordinate their bangles with their sarees (or other outfits). If anyone knows how to accessorize, it is definitely Indian women!

There are a variety of ways to wear sets of bangles, often a matching set on each arm. Women often coordinate their bangles with their sarees (or other outfits). If anyone knows how to accessorize, it is definitely Indian women!

After two weeks in India – and hearing almost exclusively Telugu for the second week – I was traveling back to the U.S.  (albeit somewhat reluctantly!).  As I waited in the Paris airport, a flight attendant asked me a question about my checked luggage.  I stood staring blankly at her, trying to translate in my mind what she could possibly mean – until I realized that she had spoken in accented but flawless English.  It took several minutes for me to understand that I hadn’t recognized my own language being spoken!

Speaking of the Paris airport, I was made to remove all my bangles form my arms while going through security (not a quick task, I assure you!).  As I somewhat grumpily removed them, I started to laugh at how different the Indian airports had been in regard to security measures – after all, what good reason would there be to remove all one’s jewelry?!  Even though it seemed silly to me after the places I had just come from (and to others coming from other parts of India or Africa), with stern Parisian TSA officers staring me down, I decided it was best to follow directions.

At Home in Adventure

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Some people wander by nature.  Others wander by choice.  We all seek what we were created to crave: adventure.

Now that I’m back in in Michigan for the time being, everybody asks me, “How does it feel to be home?”  While a conversation in passing typically includes my (truthful) reply that it is so good to be with my family, I am going to give a more complete answer here for a question that is asked in both love and curiosity by the people who are most precious to me.

How does it feel to be home?  I don’t actually know what that means.  Do you refer to the house in which I’ve never lived with my family in a state that I left when I was twelve?  Until my family picked me up from my college campus in North Dakota at the end of the semester and brought me back to Michigan, I have not lived in any one place for seven years.  Though I moved plenty of times prior to that, during this particular seven-year period I lived in three countries and moved a dozen or so times.  I came back to the U.S. and, after six weeks of sleeping on a couch at my grandparents’ house, I moved to North Dakota (a state I’d never lived in) to attend college (having been a lifelong homeschooler).  This is the first time since 2009 that I have had all my possessions in one place and am not living out of a suitcase.

You were made for so much more than a mere pedestrian life,

You were made for so much more than a mere pedestrian life,

“There is no domestic heart,
So what have we become: just pedestrians?
There is no domestic heart.”

I am no longer quite “American” – sometimes I don’t know how to define my place. “Home,” as most people define it, is a rather fluid concept for me.  I told my mom last summer that it has been three-and-a-half years since I left the U.S. – three years since I have been in Africa.  I left a piece of my heart in Africa – or Africa has become a part of me.  I have friends and family in different countries and on different continents.  As I began teaching our Missionary Month with the kids at my church, I was struck with an intense wave of homesickness not for a location but for a type of life I’d left behind.  To be perfectly honest, I am still finding my place now that I am back in Michigan, no longer in the steady certainty of my missionary life in Africa or the consistent structure of my time at college.

“The Wilderlove is hidden within us.
And we reckon with it; we wrestle with it.”

But let me explain the girl behind the story.  Once upon a time I dreamed of a quiet, “secure” life – a life that played out in one location, in one house, with a few people I loved.  My goal was to never move again – ever.  Even when I came back from Africa, I practically vowed I’d never cross an ocean again.  My whole life I despised what I could not control or predict – because I was afraid of what might happen.  I couldn’t control places or people or even my own life.  And this is the girl who today lives with a heart full of adventure and a desire to live boldly.

We were not made to hide in a safe, neat life. We were born into freedom, designed for adventure.

We were not made to hide in a safe, neat life. We were born into freedom, designed for adventure. (Photo from This Old House)

You see, there was always a restlessness deep within my soul, a wildness I dreamed about in the deep of night.  I grew up in Africa – I found myself there in a way that I never had before.  I had always thought of myself as rather studious, perhaps a bit boring and reserved – because surely my dreams were too big, too wild.  Instead, I found that there was within me a mighty woman of valor waiting to be released into the fullness of her God-created beauty.  What I mistook for my “dream life” was, in reality, only the unwillingness of my mind to embrace the dreams and desires as big as God’s heart for me.

You are the Wilderness, and I fall fast drawn
To the rise of Your vast expanse

I feel so underdressed so civilized and small
By the powers that You possess.”

The craving for adventure was always there, buried deep within me.  Now it has been unearthed – now it has found its home.  This adventure is soul-deep, indelibly etched into the core of my being by the One who has called me to the greatest Adventure of all time.

Adventure has awoken in my heart and found its place.

And oh, how I crave it!  I laughingly admitted to my family that I might have a serious case of wanderlust.  The girl who hated sleepovers because she never liked being away from home for a single night has become a woman with a heart for the nations and a longing to travel the world.  Living out of a suitcase is not a hardship but a privilege.  There is joy in staying, and there is joy going.  For me, adventure isn’t about breaking beyond the mundane or the daily hum of life; it is about finding freedom in who God created me to be.  It is not about the location or the particular duty – it is about the adventure of simply being with God.  A life wholly surrendered to my Creator is inevitably a life of adventure.

What areas of your life is God asking you to surrender to Him?  In what places is He calling you deeper into the vast expanse of Him?  I shared above some of the lyrics from John Mark McMillan’s Wilderlove, and the song is beautiful in that it recognizes how we often struggle with the piece of us that longs for something wholly Wild.  We seek safety in becoming mere pedestrians in life’s adventure, but we were made for more.  Our God is the Wilderness: untamed, unpredictable, yet consistently good and glorious.  You, braveheart, were created with a wild, untamed heart to long for a life with Him.  You may, as I do, feel afraid of something so beyond your understanding.  But the there is a piece of you that will never be fulfilled until you allow yourself to acknowledge that He has made you for adventure – and He has made you well.

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This week I pack my bags to begin another part of my great Adventure.  I will be spending almost two weeks in southeastern India, doing ministry training to teach leaders how to teach others to hear the voice of God.  Through listening prayer, journaling, rich storytelling, and intentional conversation, my heart is to teach young participants to have a personal relationship with God.  Afterward I will even have the pleasure of spending a weekend with new friends.  There are dreams I was too afraid to dream fully, but God is calling me out of fear.  I’ve been born into freedom.  Even as you join my journey into India through my words and pictures, join me in letting go of control and letting your heart dream boldly with the One who designed you in His image with that wilder-love in the depths of your soul.  Adventure calls, beloved.  Freedom is calling your name, drawing you toward a life lived to the fullest.  What will your answer be?

Alaska's Gates of the Arctic Wilderness by Sean Tevebaugh

What does the Wilderness look like as you adventure with God? (Photo: Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic Wilderness by Sean Tevebaugh)

Of Smoke and Shadows

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I have labeled failure as my greatest fear, but I am going to add specificity: a passionless, apathetic life.  Life without passion is, for me, the ultimate failure; it is breathing without truly living, a fleeting existence of smoke and shadows.

Caught unaware in my "natural habitat" as my family jokes! (My sister, of course, is always picture-ready.)

Caught unaware in my “natural habitat” as my family jokes! (My sister, of course, is always picture-ready.)

Due to a cold, I spent over two weeks with no sense of smell and, consequently, no ability to taste anything.  This circumstance makes food a thing utterly devoid of appeal.  You see, I am what people like to call a “foodie.”  I take great delight in preparing food for my family and friends on a daily basis.  From simple meals to delectable treats (all from scratch, of course), it is my mission to make food that is good in every way.  I enjoy flavors and textures and everything about the process of menu planning and food preparation.  I get a thrill when I tweak a dish until it is just right – the perfect balance of seasonings and ingredients.  And it is horribly difficult to cook when I can’t taste anything – how can perfection be achieved?  How can I enjoy the aromas and flavors?

At this point I have written out many of my recipes, tailoring them to my own preferences and the taste buds of family and friends.  However, to merely go through the motions and follow the recipes – to never smell or taste – became tedious by the end of the first day.  I knew what it would taste like if I could taste, what it would smell like, but knowledge and memories are no substitute for the real experience.  With nothing to back them, the pleasure and challenge swiftly evaporated.  It was there – I knew it was.  I could literally almost taste it: the essence of it, a lingering tingle of spice in my mouth, a hint of earthy vanilla bean or nutmeg, or a sting of fresh citrus.  For all my efforts though, I simply could not capture all the nuances, the heights and depths of flavor that transform food from something necessary to our bodies into something that truly satisfies, brings people together, and provides both nutrition and pleasure.

seasoningsBy now you are probably either thinking that I am a legitimate nerd (to which I fully admit being, in many ways) or that you really ought to procure a dinner invitation – or perhaps both.  But I use my hindered senses and my zeal for good food to describe a passionless life.  Life without passion is like food without flavor or smell – dull and monotonous, meant only to be just enough to scrape by.

We can so easily be satiated with a black-and-white existence: wrong or right, good or bad, adventure or security.  But where is the color to fill in the lines?  Where is the multi-hued explosion of beauty that makes life the masterpiece that God intended for it to be?  Where is the flavor, the aroma, the texture?  Where are the notes that create the song, the words that make the book come alive?  This is what passion provides.

My dear friends, we were not created for a passionless existence of smoke and shadows.

I am naturally a very passionate person.  I take on every aspect of life with zeal, from teaching my students to playing board games to “discussing” the best way to accomplish a task.  But sometimes I become color-blind, so trapped in the momentary ups and downs of life that everything fades to a drab composition of black and white.  And suddenly I’ll find myself in the place where there is no pleasure, no joy.  When the passion is stripped away, even getting out of bed in the morning and going about daily tasks feels like nothing more than motions.  Without passion, there is only existence.  Without passion, life cannot be fully lived.

You were not created for a life of smoke and shadows.

You were not created for a life of smoke and shadows.

Passion is not merely about cheap thrills and momentary excitement, and it does not mean you need to live like you are the Energizer Bunny.  True passion is a way of life that encompasses every realm of living.  A life of deep, abundant passion, given and sustained by God’s Holy Spirit in us, is God’s best plan for us.  It is bolstered by true hope, which does not disappoint (Romans 5:5), and it is an acknowledgement of the influence of God in our lives.  When Jesus said that He came that we might have life and have it to the full (John 10:10), He wasn’t simply talking about the fact that we would continue to “exist” and not be obliterated by God’s wrath.  He was talking about full-blown, extravagant, glorious life lived with, through, by, and for Him.  And so again I say, we were not created for a passionless existence of smoke and shadows.  We were created for the substance and fullness of life with our Creator, born again into Living Hope through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:3).

My question for you is this: in what areas do you need God to share again His breath of Life?  What places in your life need passion restored to them?  What aspects need to be filled in with color and substance?  Beloved, you were created for so much more than existing; you were made to thrive.  When we make Jesus our Savior, we are set free by His love and life to take our first true “breaths.”  Now let Him breathe life again into the places where you have been living by mere smoke and shadows.

Take a moment to listen to this song as you continue to ask the Lord what are the places where He can give you fresh passion: “I Came Alive” by Shane & Shane.

You were created for a life of color and substance.

You were created for a life of color and substance.

Sabra’s Guide to Hanging Baskets

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Relationships are hard work, and they can be confusing.  Actually, I should be more specific: people are hard work, and people can be confusing.  But there is the potential for beauty, life, and growth.  Specifically, I have been thinking a lot about romantic relationships and marriage.  What makes a healthy romance?  What builds a lasting, thriving marriage?  But most of all, how can we be sure that we’ve found “the one”?

For those of you who (like me!) are sometimes baffled by the “other person” aspect of relationship, I hope you’ll enjoy some anecdotal analogies with me.  Let’s imagine men are gardeners and women are hanging baskets (and don’t be too smug, ladies, because these analogies can just as easily be reversed!).  Relationships can be much simpler than we’re willing to believe, so I’d like to share about a few types of gardeners I’ve come across….

The Brown Thumb by Einav Aviram

“The Brown Thumb” by Einav Aviram

The Zealous Brown-Thumb: This gardener wants a hanging basket of his very own.  He doesn’t know anything about taking care of them, but other people have them, so he’d like one too.  It can’t be that difficult, right?  This gardener really likes to keep his basket with him so he can constantly tend it.  If fervor alone could keep a hanging basket alive, his would thrive.  However, just as zealous watering means that my family discreetly replaces my 93-year-old great-grandmother’s house plants each week, so mere good intentions don’t allow a hanging basket to thrive.  No hanging basket can be hidden indoors (even if the gardener was trying to keep it safe and untouched by passersby), and no hanging basket should be driven around in a hot truck all day in the name of being carefully tended.  Soon this gardener finds his once-beautiful basket wilting and often can’t determine the cause.  His best opportunities to learn are through experience and time spent with well-seasoned gardeners of healthy baskets.

The Basket Browser: This gardener adores hanging baskets, and he knows he’d like one of his own – eventually.  Overall, he just thinks they are really great – and it’s so difficult to decide on one!  He finds one that he really likes, and he hangs it on his shopping cart.  The problem is not that he doesn’t like the one he’s selected; the problem is that he enjoys perusing the selection.  After all, there could always be one just a bit nicer than the one he’s already found.  But he doesn’t want to give up the one(s) that he already found!  This gardener will often leave baskets literally hanging on his cart, expecting them to be waiting (on his cart) when he finishes browsing and is finally ready to decide on which one he wants to hang on his porch.  He’ll be ready eventually, but every basket has a limit of how much uncertainty it will handle before being either taken home or rehung to be chosen by another gardener.

The Game-Plan Gardener: This one plans to garden someday.  He’s going to prepare the perfect porch and the perfect pot with just the right amount of sunlight, and he’ll have plenty of plant food and properly fertilized dirt on hand when the time comes.  The keyword for this gardener is “someday.”  This is the kind of gardener every hanging basket would like to have but also the kind that will not be forced into choosing a basket.  His basket-choosing will be on his own terms and only when he feels everything is just right.  When he chooses, his basket and porch will be the envy of all the neighbors – but no one can tell quite when that will be.  Patience is necessary if you’re holding out to be the hanging basket on his perfect porch.

The Innovative Gardener: Like the last type, this gardener has a strategy – but of a rather different kind.  He looked, and what he saw was a fabulous potted plant.  He thought to himself, “That potted plant could be put into a hanging basket.”  So he prepared his porch, hung a lovely basket, and devotedly spends time coaxing his precious potted plant out of its small pot to transplant it into the larger, brighter hanging basket that he has made ready.  He knows this can be done, and he’s willing to take the risk because the potted plant he found was spectacular to him.  No one else would have done it or thought of doing it.  His hanging basket will thrive – no matter how much it takes, it’s worth the effort to him.

The Bewildered Rookie: This gardener knows a bit about gardening, and he’s determined to find a hanging basket.  He hardly knows where to begin; he doesn’t want to get it wrong.  When he finds something he likes, he’s still not confident in his own abilities, so he has a question: “Are you a hanging basket?”  The hanging basket is like, “Um, yeah.  What does it look like?!”  Breathing a sigh of relief, this gardener grabs his newly discovered basket and eagerly runs home with it.  A few leaves may be lost and a few stems squashed in his mad dash to ensure that no one else gets his basket, but it’s nothing that won’t be healed with a bit of time and loving care.  He is pleased with his basket, and nothing is going to take it away from his porch – because there’s no way he’s going basket-shopping again!

We all wish it could be so simple!

We all wish it could be so simple!

The Gardener-Poet:  This gardener is a true romantic.  If there was ever anyone who would sing to his plants (it’s good for them, you know), it would be him.  No matter what happens, no matter how finicky or delicate his hanging basket, this gardener will continue to overcome every obstacle because he’s completely sold on the idyll of a porch with a hanging basket of his own.  But more than that, this gardener is completely sold on his basket – no other basket will ever be better or lovelier (even if the basket thinks itself drab or undesirable).  There’s no use trying to burst his bubble, so either you’ll go along with it or you won’t.

The Hesitant Green-Thumb: Secretly, this gardener is a true green-thumb, and a hanging basket would thrive under his gentle attentions.  His porch is ready, and he’s got a special spot for his would-be basket.  He hasn’t brought one home yet, but it’s not because he can’t decide.  In fact, he’s always wanted a hanging basket; but he would never get in the way of another gardener.  If a hanging basket didn’t seem as though it would be happy on his porch, he would never so much as put it on his cart – he would never just “try it out” to see if he liked how it looked.  He thinks flowers are precious, and he treats them accordingly; stem-squashing and leaf-smooshing are not options for him.  He’s not always confident that a basket would want to hang on his porch (often assuming that another gardener could offer a better porch), so he’s going to need a clear path to a basket lest he concede porch-privileges to a more assertive gardener.

And the point of all this is…I have met a lot of people – men who are gardeners like the ones I mentioned above, and women who are hanging baskets (or revamped potted plants!) of all sorts.

Men, consider honestly: what type of gardener are you?  What type of gardener will you choose to become?  Will a hanging basket be safe in your care?  Will it have the chance to thrive?  Are you willing to learn as you go?

I’ve often heard guys lament that women are complicated.  Therein lies a great secret of gardening: every hanging basket has different care requirements that must be met in order for it to thrive.  Some need full sun, others full shade, others part sun and part shade.  Some need lots of pruning, others need none.  Some need lots of water, others need only a bit.  Be conscientious of your own basket; you don’t need to care for your basket in the same way that another gardener cares for his basket, because your basket is unique.  Learn some gardening generalities, but take care of your own precious basket in the way that it needs.

Here’s a really important thought for you when it comes to romance and marriage: are you choosing an annual or a perennial?  Annuals are plants that bloom only for a season, and then that’s it.  They are beautiful for a time but never lasting, which means that you should buy the most stunning one you see – and the most expensive one you can afford (because greater expense means a larger plant).  Perennials, on the other hand, ebb and grow with the seasons.  They experience seasons of blooming and seasons of quietness (even sometimes looking dead during the winter); but they keep growing, keep remaining and rooting deeper.  They become better with each passing year as they are well-tended.

Women, are you a perennial or an annual?  Which will you choose to become?  Are you willing to put down deep roots and weather the seasons?  Will you endure both pampering and pruning as needed?  Are you prepared to enjoy the porch on which you are hung, or do you not actually want to be a hanging basket?  We need both self-awareness and other-awareness in order for our growing experience to be fruitful.  (Pun intended.)

I grew up playing in this lush, vibrant garden that is my great-grandparents' yard.  Over forty years of love and care have made it unsurpassably beautiful.

I grew up playing in this lush, vibrant garden that is my great-grandparents’ yard. After more than six decades of love and care, its beauty is unsurpassed.

“Love planted deeply becomes what it ought to, and hearts given freely become what they ought to be” (“Ought to Be” by Audrey Assad).  Romance and marriage are meant to be like that.  Ideally, we get to choose something that begins well.  But no matter what the beginning, we should be always seeking for love to grow richer, fuller, and deeper.  That’s the kind of love and marriage I want to cultivate – the kind in which the best is always yet to come.

When we choose a spouse, we often choose as though we are selecting an annual, looking for something that has the brightest blooms NOW and the shiniest leaves NOW.  In Christendom, we have embraced the lie of “annual love” (the best NOW).  I am sorry to say, we have a name for this false notion of love: “finding the one.”  We look for something that will be big enough and splendid enough to be rationed out for as many years as necessary.  Unfortunately, many people then find that their love “fades” or their feelings are altered with time.  Why?  Because they mistakenly assume that the best already happenedThere is, with annual love, the underlying notion that the love and loveliness of romance and marriage are “used up” over time. 

But the reality is that true love becomes better over time and with careful tending.  In light of this precious truth, we are free to look for that little nub of a perennial, a teensy starter plant, or for a plant full of buds rather than blooms.  Why?  Because, after a few years and with gentle coaxing, little starters become strong, beautiful plants – the heirloom plants that everyone envies but few are willing to wait for.  Because there will come a day when the buds, so long awaited, burst into the fullness of the flowers that they were always meant to be.  True love becomes so, so much better with time and intentional care.  And, because it is so beautifully freeing, I’ll share this wonderful secret with you as well:  your “one” is the one you choose.  That’s it.  That’s all.  There is no “one” better than the one you chose, no “one” God intended for you instead.  I know not every romance or marriage “works out”; this happens because people aren’t perfect and don’t always make perfect choices.  But be willing to choose, and be willing to cultivate a healthy garden with the one you choose.  Heirloom plants don’t simply “happen,” and neither do wonderful marriages.

Again, I remind you that these analogies of gardeners and plants can be reversed, and the same anecdotes and questions can be applied.  Some gardeners simply enjoy trampling hanging baskets or changing them out faster than seasons turn for reasons I can scarcely begin to fathom.  Some hanging baskets are afraid to show their true colors for fear that they will be judged as too much or not enough in some way.  Gardening has many joys, but it isn’t easy.

I could have readily added more descriptions of various gardeners and their hanging baskets.  My real intention, however, was not to place all people into certain categories but rather to share what God has been teaching me about romance and people and imperfection – and sometimes a bit of humor is the best mode of delivery for deep truth.  The only perfect Gardener is our good God (see John 15:1-8), who teaches us what it means to be tender plants cared for by a loving hand, being steadied by Jesus and learning to bear healthy fruit.  From our Good Gardener, we can learn how to provide similar faithful care for the precious “plants” in our lives.  Ultimately, His care alone is steady and unfailing; He alone knows all our needs, our weak branches, and our potential fruits.  So let us learn to be as fearless and wise in our gardening endeavors – be they romance or other relationships – as He is in His.  He tirelessly tends us; and now, brave hearts, it is our turn to create space for roots to grow deep and gardens to thrive.

My great-grandparents -- This is love planted deeply.  More than sixty years of love has cultivated this "garden," in addition to the actual garden pictured above.  Grandpa and Grandma, thank you for creating a beautiful love for our family to flourish in!

My great-grandparents — This is love planted deeply. More than sixty years of love has cultivated this “garden,” in addition to the actual garden pictured above. Grandpa and Grandma, thank you for creating a beautiful love for our family to flourish in!