Author Archives: hisdesertrose

Got the Message

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I have found many words written in and around my schools where I serve as the itinerant school counselor.  Horrible sentiments, at times, and vile comments; lies full of heartache and hopelessness; cruel, death-speaking words.  Some of these words have been there so long, scribbled or scratched onto surfaces.  Did no one else notice?  Are we blind to the pain of these words?

Have these ugly words become wallpaper to our eyes?

Jesus, forgive me for the times I am blind; teach me to see with the eyes of your Holy Spirit.

I see these words.  I see them when I am meeting with students, when I am in the halls, when I am entering rooms, when I am administering tests, when I am teaching lessons.  I see, and then I cannot un-see.  I see the pain in the story these words tell – layers of despair that are cutting someone (or many “someones”) deeply.  When I see them I passionately hate these death-giving words because they are a poison that too many have ingested.  How can I protect my students and the people around me?  What stops the reckless destruction inherent to the ugly words that are spewed onto the walls and surfaces of places that should be safe and full of growth?

This is my opportunity to tell you, dear hearts: I got your message – I see.

At first I tried to simply erase the words by giving them a firm scrubbing with wipes or putting some “elbow grease” into using a (large) eraser.  It wasn’t enough.  The words would reappear – sometimes the same, sometimes different, but just as ugly.  Why did the erasure not work?  It did not work – perhaps could not work fully – because I was attempting to erase something much deeper than words.

You cannot simply erase pain by pretending there was never hurt.
You cannot erase lies by pretending they never existed.

Jesus tells a short story of a person tormented by a demon.  The demon was “cast out” — evicted.  The “house” of this person’s heart was cleared out and swept clean, left sparkling and empty.  Not long after, to this vacant house returned the demon, bringing along seven stronger and more horrid than itself, leaving the state of the heart-home far worse than before the “cleaning” (Luke 11:24-26).

Evicting the evil was not enough; the space needed to be filled with good.  Our hearts are the same: if we strip out the ugliness, we need to replace it with fresh beauty.  Too often we do lots of erasing and cleaning in our spaces but make no effort to adjust our living habits.  Because of this lack of real change, what was filled with junk will be filled with even more junk again until we decide that we need a new lifestyle, a new perspective – just like the walls and desks of my schools.

Our hearts and minds are not meant to be junk shops, but they are also not meant to be sterile space.  They are meant to be gloriously filled with life and love and hope.

I may not be able to simply erase the lies and the pain, but I can tell a different story.  I can write the truth.  I am telling a new story in Newtok and Mertarvik, in Tununak, in Quinhagak and Oscarville and Napaskiak.  I am telling a new story – the real story – to myself, to my loved ones, and to my communities.  It is in my power to do so.  It is my right to tell the real story.  Dear hearts, do you know you have the power to declare life to yourself and to those around you?  That is our gift of authority through Jesus Christ, our Savior and our Healer.  We know the real Story, the one in which we are called “Beloved.  Remembered.  Inscribed.”  Whole, healed, free.  Never forgotten and always loved.  Worthy, forgiven, and full of destiny.  Beloved.

Dear hearts, I got the message, and I am going to tell you the truth, now and always.

I refuse to let ugliness become the wallpaper of my life and heart.  I refuse to let lies become the story for myself, my students, and my loved ones.  Never again.  It is time for a spring cleaning in our spaces.  Strip out the dirty carpets and tear down the tatty wallpaper of your hearts, friends; toss out the broken furnishings and sweep out the rubbish.  Then fill your empty places with life – new words of truth, fresh hope.  And after you have taken authority in your heart, take authority in the space around you.  Take authority to declare life over those who are not yet ready to declare it over themselves.  When you feel too weak to remember, I will remind you.  You are not alone.

What lies need evicted from your life today?
What are the new stories you will write today?
What truths do you need to remember today?
It is time for you to tell the real Story, beloved.

Tell me truly…

Burn Us Up

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Stripped of everything and everyone.  Led a wandering people into the Promised Land.  Left with a mission to save her people – at the cost of her life.  Tossed into the flames.

Job.  Joshua.  Esther.  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

What were the responses of these individuals to seemingly impossible situations – situations so dire, so dangerous and difficult, that there was no earthly hope remaining?

Job.  Job was a man “blameless and upright” who “feared God and shunned evil” – and “he was the wealthiest man in the east” (Iyov/Job 1:2, 3 CJB).  God blessed him greatly: expansive flocks, numerous servants, many sons and daughters, ease.  Protection.  Favor.  Then begins a saga of what seems nothing short of total devastation as the Adversary (Satan) is allowed to test Job’s faithfulness to God.  Within a span of moments, Job’s servants are slaughtered, his flocks are destroyed or stolen, and all his beloved children are killed in a freakishly strange accident.  From head to toe, his body becomes a mass of sores.  His wife bitterly prods him to curse God.  And Job’s so-called friends gather to pity his misery, “offering faulty and simplistic explanations of God’s dealings” (Stern, p. 952), urging Job to repent of supposed sins in order to restore God’s former favor.  Job has questions for God, wondering at God’s justice and dealings with humanity – with him – and, in the end, comes to this:

“‘I know that you can do everything, that no purpose of yours can be thwarted…. Yes, I spoke, without understanding, of wonders far beyond me, which I didn’t know…. I had heard about you with my ears, but now my eye sees you; therefore I detest [myself] and repent in dust and ashes.”’ (Iyov 42:2, 3, 5-6 CJB)

I am utterly undone; there is nothing for me apart from you.

Joshua.  Joshua is a leader trained under the hand of Moses and tasked with leading God’s people Israel to their rest in the Promised Land when Moses no longer was permitted to do so.  Joshua steps into hard situations, facing the opposition of fellow spies who could see only the giants inhabiting the area rather than the wealth of the land and the abundance of God’s favor.  In the face of fear, whining, and disobedience from his people he declares God’s promises confidently, conquering cities with song and bringing the people with him into the victory God was providing.

“‘Therefore fear ADONAI, and serve him truly and sincerely.  Put away the gods your ancestors served beyond the [Euphrates] River and in Egypt, and serve ADONAIIf it seems bad to you to serve ADONAI, then choose today whom you are going to serve…. As for me and my household, we will serve ADONAI!’”
(Y’hoshua/Joshua 24:14-15 CJB)

Whatever may come, whatever they may choose, my choice is made.

Esther.  The setting: the Jews had been taken into captivity and were now living in the land of the Medes and Persians – strangers in a strange land where ADONAI, the Lord God Most High, is not known.  The story begins: the king of the Medes and Persians, in search of a new queen, gathers the most beautiful of the young virgins for, essentially, an extended beauty pageant.  The winner?  Esther.  Having won the king’s favor above all the other women of the land, she becomes the chosen queen.  Plot twist: the king’s wicked and self-absorbed advisor, Haman, has also curried the king’s favor.  In a fit of temper over the perceived lack of deference toward himself from Esther’s Jewish cousin, Haman tricks the king into signing a proclamation that will have all the Jews slaughtered.  (It does seem excessive, doesn’t it?  Selfishness always has a way of creating evil excesses.)  But Esther herself is also a Jew, and cousin Mordecai pleads with her to rescue her people by going unsummoned before the king – a veritable death warrant.  The tension builds to a climax:

‘Ester had them return this answer to Mordekhai: “Go, assemble all the Jews to be found in Shushan, and have them fast for me, neither eating nor drinking for three days, night and day; also I and the girls attending me will fast the same way.  Then I will go in to the king, which is against the law; and if I perish, I perish”…. On the third day, Ester put on her robes and stood in the inner courtyard of the king’s palace….’ (Ester 4:15-16, 5:1 CJB)

Though I cannot see the end, I am here for such a time as this.

Sometimes we do hard things by simply taking the first steps away from comfort — even if we do it screaming.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  The Jews are taken into captivity by the king of Babylon; among these captives are four faithful followers of God: Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  With their God-given wisdom and steady commitment to righteousness these men win the favor of the pagan king of Babylon.  However, this favor is put into jeopardy when the proud king has a massive statue created of himself – a statue which he demands all his subjects worship to honor him as a god among men.  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to worship any other than ADONAI, the Most-High and only God.  Their punishment?  The furnace is stoked to seven times its usual heat – so hot that the guards are incinerated by mere proximity – and these three men are cast into the flames:

‘“Is it true that you neither serve my gods nor worship the gold statue I have set up?….
But if you won’t worship, you will immediately be thrown into a blazing hot furnace – and what god will save you from my power then?”
Shadrakh, Meishakh, and ‘Aved-N’go answered the king, “Your question does not require an answer from us.  Your majesty, if our God, whom we serve, is able to save us, he will save us from the blazing hot furnace and from your power.  But even if he doesn’t, we want you to know, your majesty, that we will neither serve your gods nor worship the gold statue…”’ (Dani’el 3:14, 15, 16-18 CJB)

There is nothing and no one else we will choose, so burn us up.

Have you ever been in an impossible situation?  Have you ever been stripped, suddenly or gradually, of people, of relationships, of title and position, of health, of livelihood, of security, of hope?  Have you ever been crushed so thoroughly that you thought you may never rise again, either literally or figuratively?  Have you ever met with opposition so fierce that you were overwhelmed?  These questions are mostly rhetorical.  To be human in a world still yearning for the soon-coming promise of all things being made new (Revelation 21:1-5) is to know these pains.

As Christians we tend to approach suffering and massive challenges with favorite promises such as Romans 8:28: “Furthermore, we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called in accordance with his purpose.”  We remind ourselves and each other that it will get better, that God in His kindness does not forget us.  David’s words in the Psalms become encouragement: “For you, ADONAI, bless the righteous.  You surround them with favor like a shield” (5:13 CJB).  These promises are true – completely, unerringly trustworthy because they are made by our faithful Promise-Keeper, our good and only God.

But if waiting for the blessing at the end is our only aim, our suffering easily becomes small and self-serving.

“When the night has come and the land is dark, and the moon is the only light you’ll see — no, I won’t be afraid. Oh I won’t shed a tear, just as long as you stand, stand by me.” – “Stand By Me,” NEEDTOBREATHE version

If I endure in impossible situations only because I am awaiting God’s favor, I have missed the glory of living outside myself.  If I persevere only because I am waiting for God’s promises to be fulfilled, I am still living as a slave to self and to comfort rather than as one wholly surrendered to the awesome presence of God Most-High.  If I live with my focus on pleasant outcomes, my hope still rests in having good things directed toward myself rather than in seeing the One who alone is pure Goodness.  I would be serving my own self-interests without needing to surrender myself completely to Jesus Christ, Son of God, who is the Beginning and the End (Rev. 21:6), the Master and Creator of both time and eternity (Col. 1:14-17).

I confess that I often want to settle my hope on the promises God has given me – I know He is faithful, so it becomes easier to look forward to those joys, to that future vision.  So much easier, in fact, that I forget to keep my eyes on my God, who is the giver of every good thing.  I forget all too often that He is my Hope – not the promises, not the vision.  He alone is the Goodness.

‘I said to ADONAI, “You are my Lord; I have nothing good outside of you.”’ (Tehillim/Psalms 16:2)

No good thing apart from Him – I am undone.

“Whom do I have in heaven but you?  And with you, I lack nothing on earth.  My mind and body may fail, but God is the rock for my mind and my portion forever.” (Tehillim 73:25-6)

There are many choices that brought my 2019 graduates to this point. My students did hard things not because they were assured they would arrive successfully — or ever — at this day but because they were doing what was right. #mybravehearts #proudcounselor

What have I apart from Him?  He is my everything.  Even where all else falls away and my flesh is destroyed, He remains.  I am undone.

Doing hard things; choosing what is right over what is easy; choosing what is just over what is safe – we do not endure in righteousness because we are waiting for pots of gold at the end of the rainbow or even for peace after the fury of the storm.  Job did not cling to God and pray for the forgiveness of his misguided friends because he knew God would restore double what he had lost.  Joshua did not choose God above all else, speak fearlessly, or lead a wandering people because his hope was in fame or reward.  Esther did not go before the king because she was guaranteed to walk out alive from the throne room, heralded as rescuer of an entire people.  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did not bear the king’s wrath because they were assured of their flame-proof skin and the fearful honor of a pagan king.   All these so-labeled “heroes” of Scripture did what they did because it was right.  They did not do it because they always understood or knew there could be a favorable outcome; they did not do it because they were the most brave, selfless, or saintly individuals to walk the earth.  They took up the tasks and faced the circumstances before them because they knew no other way:

The Lord gives and takes away – all these are wonders far beyond me.
As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.
If I perish, I perish.
Burn us up.

My favorite do-hard-things person: my brother. Climb fearless, brave heart.

It is not that God fails to protect and shield us with favor – quite the contrary!  We can see God working out for good the crazy-impossible situations and sheltering His people with His protective favor.  These accounts in Scripture all have quite “happy endings,” as it were.  But we could look at these stories then protest that John the Baptist was beheaded (Mattityahu/Matthew 14:1-12) and Stephen was stoned (Acts 6-7) – where were God’s favor and protection then?!  Why did Paul so frequently escape dangerous circumstances – stoning, shipwreck, imprisonment, torture – yet others died for doing what was right?

There is a truth deeper than physical security or comfort that every one of these persons understood, whether we can perceive the “happy ending” or not: there is no good thing apart from God.  They made the choices they made, doing hard things, because in the end God is All-in-All.  In Him we lack no good thing.

These individuals found themselves in a place of surrendering fully to the Lord.  They could conceive of no other response, no other way to live.  Burn us up.  We are invited to make these same choices – choices of how to respond verbally, mentally, emotionally, and even physically.  When we choose God’s way, our “yes” to Him is our automatic “no” to fear of man, to fear of death or pain, and to the deceitful glimmer of hope placed in anything other than our God.

When we learn to live wholly surrendered to God, it is not that our lives and circumstances suddenly hold no value.  Rather, it is that we see value beyond the moment because we are already living in the reality of eternity, being filled and sustained purely by the presence of God’s Holy Spirit within us.  Burn us up.

I declare that God Most-High is my Goodness.  I do not fear death, and I would willingly give up my life or bear pain on behalf of righteousness, on behalf of truth and the wellbeing of others.  I would do this not because I am marvelously brave or selfless but because I have already made my choice.  Burn me up.  I make my choice not because I am hopeless or resigned to struggle but because I am thoroughly confident in Living Hope, which is Jesus Christ, my All and my Only.  Burn me up. 

There are many times when I wail or rail or plead to understand.  There are many times when the pain within and the pain without is so great that it surely must be impossible to bear.  There are times when I resent the path my feet walk and the tasks set before me, especially when I hold deep promises for which the time never seems to come.  There are times when the world seems to crumble around my loved ones, and I wish only that I could remove their pain.  Lord, ‘“I do trust – help my lack of trust!”’ (Mark 9:24).  There are times when doing what is right faces so much opposition that I feel I might as well be assailing a brick wall with a toothpick, and I am excruciatingly weary.  So very, very tired.  Yet in all these situations my responses must be shaped by a choice already made, a “yes” already given: I know no other way to live, no way apart from Him.  Burn me up.
 

So I stand, arms spread in humility and need toward the heavens, for I am undone.  Whom have I but you, my Lord, Most-High God?  Burn me up, for I know of no other way to live.  I have no Goodness apart from you.  Burn me up, for there is no greater joy, no place I am more well, and no wholeness more complete than total surrender to the One who gives and takes away with such exquisite kindness and relentless holiness.  Blessed be His name.

Dear hearts, let us learn to do hard things not because we are waiting for better days but because we already know Goodness.  We live in the eternal reality of better days and better promises because our Better has already come: Jesus Christ, our Messiah (see Hebrews).  Let us choose justice over security and righteousness over ease because we know the Giver of life, who holds us faithfully in His love for all eternity.  May our response become “burn us up,” because we know no confidence apart from El-‘Elyon, our Creator and Sustainer.  I bless you this day to walk in the fearlessness of knowing Living Hope as our Lord shows Himself to you.  As with Job, may your eyes now see and your heart be overcome by the awe of Most-High God, the All-in-All.

A quick note regarding the “CJB” and the funny-looking words or names you may have seen:  All Scripture quotations and references, and commentary, are taken from David H. Stern’s Complete Jewish Bible, which is the chosen version for many Messianic Jews (i.e. Jews who have recognized and accepted Jesus as the promised Messiah, the Savior).  I have utilized the transliterated Hebrew versions of words and books of Scripture (e.g. “Tehillim” for the English word “Psalms”) where it was therein used.  I am currently studying the Jewish roots of Scripture, which is an adventure you will likely read more about in the future. 😉

An Apology

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LOTR MenI have seen the “more LOTR men, please” post shared several times, and most often it comes in form of a lament from women – young ones especially – that there are no men like this.  (I am sorry to confess that there have been moments of despair where I have mourned the same.)  Or the sharing includes derogatory comments about the character of men and their inability to meet this standard in the real world.

But as a woman, and a young one at that, I am saying that I know these men.  I know young men of such gracious honor and steady valor.  I know men whose gentle hearts are their keenest strength, whose gentleness makes others great (Ps. 18:35).  Men of strong arms, strong minds, strong convictions, and strong dreams.  Men who are faithful beyond the point of pain because they know no other way to be.  Men who are as quick to weep over deep sorrows as to step boldly to the defense of others.  Men who are humble leaders.  Men who pursue what is right over what is easy, what is just over what is safe.  Men who live out the reality of “greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for his friends” (Jn. 15:13).  Men with wild hearts full of all the adventure for which they are created, that siren-call of the Wilderlove deep within them.  Students, soldiers, doctors, musicians, pilots, athletes, politicians, businessmen, waiters, leaders, engineers, educators – many titles they hold, and in many places they are found.  I have had some of these men in my life and heart for always, some I have met in the past few years, and some I met even this summer.

As a young woman, this is my apology to you, my brave hearts, for the times when women have not called out your gifts, honored your strengths, treasured your gentleness.  This is my apology for the women who were faithless and shattered your freely-given hearts.  I know you would never have let go, never left, never turned wandering eyes elsewhere.  This is my apology for the mean girls who were willing to degrade your masculinity even while feeling entitled to your best attentions.  This is my apology for the times when my self-beliefs of “too much” and “not enough” overcame my kindness and caused me to push you away.  This is my apology for the ways we knock you down or watch you in your weakest moments and turn away rather than place our hands in yours and forge ahead faithfully.  This is my apology for the toxic femininity that we at times embrace because we don’t know our own gifts – a false femininity that steals from your masculine strength to bolster our own sense of identity.  My brave hearts, of these lies and wrongs I repent on behalf of women and on behalf of my generation.

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You need never adventure alone, brave heart. Credit: imgrumweb.com

My mighty men of valor, you are seen.  I watch the paths of honor you walk, far from the public eye.  I weep with your cries of confusion when the faithfulness of humankind has failed you utterly, and I rejoice as you draw on the deepest wells of strength within you to rise again.  I see the wounds of loss that have ravaged your gentle hearts – and the healing you find beyond the pain.  I watch as you rebuild precious things that have been broken, as you wrestle with your anger over the evils you have witnessed.  I notice as you fight for peace when all around you crumbles violently, when you are shuddering with the shock.  I look on with pride as you pioneer into the unknown, compelled by the belief that the best is always yet to come.  Wild ones, you are seen.

To women, it would be an easy route to simply say that, if you do not known these men, you need to fill your life with better men.  That would be ridiculously easy to say, but I refuse to make that proclamation.  Rather, I will say this, both to women and to men needing other men of valor surrounding them:

If you do not know these men, you need to start looking at the men around you differently.

Are you expecting these men to reveal themselves upon white steeds, clad in shining armor?  Are you expecting them to find you?  Are you expecting them to offer the vulnerable wilds of their adventuresome hearts for your initial inspection?  There may be signs – there usually are – of these mighty men of valor.  But you need to learn how to see them, beyond your assumptions and expectations.  My mind conjures in an instant the gentle-hearted men of honor I know – and the people who have dismissed them, left them behind, refused to come alongside in their pursuit of the dreams burning within them, selfishly used and crushed their amazingly wild hearts.  There is scarcely a fury more fierce that I have known than that of seeing mighty men of valor ready to rise then crushed by those around them, reduced through word or deed or faithless selfishness to lost boys, stripped of the honor and strength they rightly carried.

It must be added, in the spirit of true repentance, that if women are seeking these mighty men of valor in their lives, they must become the mighty women of valor who raise these men up and stand alongside them.  My brave-hearted sisters, if you would seek Samwise, Eomer, Aragorn, Faramir, and Gandalf to stand with in this life, you must be bold enough to be Rosie; to be Arwen, Eowyn, Galadriel.  You must be the type of woman who knows and operates in your own strengths and gifts – and raises those around you to standards of excellence in all they are created to be.  If you cannot be Arwen, do not expect to see Aragorn waiting for you.  If you cannot be a mighty woman of valor, do not expect you will suddenly find yourself surrounded by mighty men of valor (or such women, for that matter).  If you cannot hold your joy in the waiting, cannot remain in faithfulness, cannot be fiercely gentle and love in kindness, cannot make any and every sacrifice on behalf of another, cannot stand in the gap where the need is greatest – if you possess not these traits, you will not be prepared to see men of such valor.  For Christian women, the ideal of being a “Proverbs 31 woman” is pressed often.  Do you know the literal translation of the idea of a virtuous woman or wife, of this amazing feminine standard of grace and glory?  In Proverbs 31 (and in 12:4), this is most correctly translated “a woman or wife of valor; a woman of excellence.”  This exemplary woman is wise and fierce, ensuring that the needs are met — and then reaches farther to meet more.  A relentless, passionate woman of strength and dignity, honor and faithfulness.  A woman who knows the worth of others because she knows her own.  Being daughters of the Most-High King, we are designed as mighty women of valor and excellence – this should be an exciting revelation and an encouraging mandate!  We are designed in this fashion to complement and sustain the mighty men – and to do the same for one another.

It is not about perfection but about truly seeing one another in the glory and excellence for which we are created.

This is my apology to you, my mighty men of valor, and here is my promise.  For my brothers by blood and by heart, for my friends, for my father and uncles and cousins and grandfathers, for my students and colleagues, for the husband I will one day marry, for the sons I will raise and all the generations of sons to come: my promise to you is that I will see you, I will speak to your strengths, and I will release your wild hearts to adventure. 

To all my brave hearts: run wild, love fiercely, hold steady in faithfulness. As sons of the Most-High King, you were created for honor and valor – this is your inheritance, your right, and your mandate.  No one can strip this identity from you, mighty men of valor.  You are free to be relentless, to be full of adventure, to be faithful, to be men of honor because you know how you are created: “Brother” by Kodaline.  Hold on, brothers, my brave hearts.

Hold the Storm

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“Lord, I want to feel again!” – this has been my ongoing conversation with the Lord for the past two years.  Anyone who knows me knows that I am passionate – about (I should be explicitly honest) everything in the way I approach life and people.  Yet 2017 found me utterly…missing.

Missing: Have You Seen ME?

Numbness is often correlated with shock.  Our bodies are most amazingly designed with a physiological fail-safe to become “numb” when confronted with situations or sensations too intense to process in the moment.  When something is overwhelming, the neurons that signal our bodies with different sensations and instructions to act simply stop sending signals because we don’t have the capacity to handle so many messages at once.  In the face of intensity, our bodies shut down the “feeling” parts.  This is numbness, and it can act as a physical, mental, and emotional shield that protects us in moments of intensity.  Numbness happens when people experience hypothermia and frost-bite: too much cold, and the human body ceases to feel the chill.  Numbness protects people, especially small kids, from environments that are over-stimulating (physically or emotionally) by causing them to “zone out” or ignore various situations.  In trauma and grief, numbness can allow persons to distance themselves from the situation(s) and even continue carrying out normal activity.  And, my dear friends, in caving to a challenging season, I went completely numb.

“I don’t know” was my go-to response – and I actually didn’t know; I didn’t know what I wanted, how I felt, whether I was okay.  I really didn’t know; I couldn’t tell.  It wasn’t that I didn’t care.  The problem was that I didn’t even know whether I cared – and that terrified me.  Or maybe it didn’t – I wasn’t sure.  Robotic, mechanical, functioning on autopilot – no terms are too strong for what it was and none, I assure you, are flattering in the least.

Numbness is a coping mechanism, but it is not a solution.

Oh, I was in deep hiding.  I was so far gone that, by the time I realized, I wasn’t certain I could find my way back from the nothingness.  That was a fearful thing, as I consider it now.  If there is anything I am most terrified of after that, it is to be numb again.  It was a separation, a chasm of nothingness, a consuming void – and I could see no light.  Separation from hope, from light, from Jesus – that is hell.  And I had chosen it – in my pain, in my confusion, I surrendered to the void.  I glimpsed that hell.  Sweet Jesus, never again – never again.

Yet even when I would have hidden, when I chose the nothingness, my Savior did not abandon me.  We are never too far gone for Him to rescue and redeem (Psalm 139:7-12).  And He alone knows how much I needed to be rescued, how deep was the scoring of my wounds, how my thoughts writhed in a turmoil of hopelessness.  For me, the freedom from this void came only when I was finally willing to admit it: I was furious, and I was hurt.  Both feelings were legitimate, honest, and even right – but it was not right for me to either keep or hide them.  It is okay to be angry – it is not okay to stay angry.  It is okay to hurt – it is not okay to stay hurting.  These were truly my feelings, but with no acknowledgement or centering peace to give perspective, they became parasites, feeding on my life.  In my nothingness Jesus met me; even in my hiding, He knew where I was.  He knew my need.  “We finally have our Sabra back,” my family wept with relief as I wept to purge the nothingness that had hollowed me for so very long.

I have spent these two years recovering my feeling.  And, if I may be forthright, it is painful.  It can be agony to feel so deeply and thoroughly.  Like a numb limb regaining feeling, there are the pricking stings of lifeblood flowing freely again.  From deadening numbness to full feeling – in His kindness I am healing from my hiding and from my wounds.  There are times when it is so tempting return to my hiding in the nothingness – or equally tempting to cast myself on the raging sea of emotions and be swept away.  How does one control such wild emotion, such feelings and sensations, the pain and the passion?  I do not want to hide, but do I want to feel?  Am I brave enough to feel again?

One of the people most dear to me shared wisdom.  This friend of mine knows what it is to feel, more than most people ever imagine possible.  We were discussing my role as a counselor in this context, how I work with kids in helping them build the skills they need to be emotionally and relationally healthy.  What is the truth, then, that I can speak over my kids?  What should we be speaking to ourselves?  “Deal with it” – yes, but how?  How do we learn?  In the end, it always comes back to one answer, the Truth: Jesus.  My friend spoke of a story…

Jesus sails aboard a boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee with his disciples.  Under the strength and skill of the disciples – many of them professional fishermen – they have navigated to this point.  With sudden fury an unexpected storm arises, its wild might threatening to consume the small vessel and its passengers.  What can be done?  Even these avid fishermen are powerless – and utterly terrified.  If anyone should have been able to embrace this storm, it is these men – these men who can now do nothing except panic.  “Jesus,” they beg their sleeping Master, “Jesus, we are perishing.”  Why he isn’t panicking with them?  Can there be any salvation in this place of relentless fury?  Yet Jesus is not overwhelmed, for even this fury does not prevail against him.  Why are his disciples worried?  Where is their faith?  Has a storm stripped it from them?  And Jesus speaks stillness to the fury: the wind calms and the waves gentle immediately.  “Peace, be still,” he says, and there descends a perfect peace.  They are still in the sea.  There is still a journey to complete, but now they do it in awed awareness of the Storm Master.  Yes, even wind and waves obey the voice of Jesus.  (See Mark 4:35-41; Matthew 8:23-7; Luke 8:22-25.)

Approaching the Storm…We all have times when we are caught off-guard by emotional storms.  Storms, storms – I could hide, or I could battle it from the boat – are those my only options?  Hiding from the storm was not the answer.  I tried to stay ashore and avoid the storm – but the cost of the nothingness, the hiding, was more than I was willing to pay.  I also was still shy of the raging storm – its wildness was shocking, and I do not like the lack of control (which was especially disconcerting when I had so long prided myself on my self-control – ha!).  I prefer to focus on things that seem to be within my control – and when I do, I miss the deeper answers that God is providing.  Like the disciples, I try to use my strength and skill to solve my problems – then wail in desperation when the fury of the sea is overtaking me.  I continue to wrestle with the sails and oars of my boat when I should be asking Jesus to simply calm the storm.  I look for my control within the boat, while Jesus is standing ready to provide an encompassing peace.  That is the alternative to the hiding and the striving.  The storm is not to be feared, nor is it to be conquered by sheer force of will.

So what did my dear one say?

Embrace the storm, and let Jesus calm it.”

There is power in the storm, but only Jesus can steady this fury into peaceful strength.  Hold the storm, storm-child; you were made to feel.  I want to know the fullness of God’s heart toward me – and that is no tame shore.  The winds and wild waters exist, but God’s Word is a greater reality: “Peace, be still” (Mark 4:39).  Do not fear the storm; do not fear the feeling.  Hold the storm, storm-child, for you are created for the fullness of it. 

These are the words that God spoke as the peace into my storm:

You feel, but I AM.

And then there was stillness…

This is the reality of embracing the storm, of letting Him be the peace that stills and steadies.  Through it all, He remains I AM.  What would it look like, dear hearts, to chase the storm instead of fearing it?  What would it look like to embrace the heights and depths of emotion in raw honesty, knowing that He is our peace?  What would He speak to us as we stand in the storm and let Him become our stillness, our centering Peace?

Emotions are a gift that allow us to glimpse our Creator-God’s heart toward us, to see as He sees, to take hold of our glory in being made in His image (Genesis 1:26-27).  This is not so that we give in to whims of wayward emotions but so that we relinquish our fear of seeing the full glory in how God made us.  Emotions are true – we truly feel them – but they don’t always tell us the Truth, which is why we need to allow Jesus to be our Storm-Master. Let us feel, my friends.

Hold the storm, storm-child, for the Master of the storm is holding you.

We are not abandoned to the fury.  No more hiding.  No more striving.  Give up your shore and give up your oars.  Embrace the storm and let Jesus calm it.  Let Him speak to and through the storm that you might find fullness in how you are made, for He has declared His creation “very good,” knowing all of you even when you were but a dream and a plan in His heart, not yet born into the world (Genesis 1:31; Psalm 139:13-18).

Perhaps you are emotionally numb now.  Perhaps you are traversing your own terrifying nothingness, seeking your way back to feeling.  Perhaps you know what it is to feel so intensely that the emotion threatens to drown you or that others cringe away from your “outbursts.”  Perhaps you are endeavoring to understand someone who is coping numbly with pain or who startles (even disturbs) you with the intensity of their feeling.  Wherever you are in your seeking and your feeling, remember this, brave hearts:

Revel in wind and waves, for you are in the care of the Storm-Master.

Emotions are a gift from God.  To feel and to grow means that we are alive.  When we cease to feel and grow, we are dead.  Only living things grow.  Only living things feel.  And our God never, ever leaves us alone in the hiding or the feeling.

You are not “too much” for God.  I am not “too much” for Him.  He can handle the fullness of our emotions.  He has given us this beautiful, wild capacity, and He is not afraid of it.  He is not overwhelmed or shocked by our feeling.  He is not disgusted by it, nor by our needing or hiding.  In our feeling, He stills the storm.  In our needing, He does the filling.  In our breaking, He is the Healing.  In our hiding, He does the finding – because He always knows precisely where we are.  He never abandons, beloved.

Hold the storm, storm-child.  Let Jesus, the Storm-Master, still your waters and calm your winds.

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.

 

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.

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.