Tag Archives: hope

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. 😉

Of Smoke and Shadows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You were created for a life of color and substance.

You were created for a life of color and substance.

Posture of Worship: The Place of Hope

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Does this holding this position look easy to you? Because it's not. (Image from Ballroom Dance Chicago blog)

Does this holding this position look easy to you? Because it’s not. (Image from Ballroom Dance Chicago blog)

On the dance floor, professional dancers are easy to spot: it’s all about their posture – how they move and carry themselves.  In the same way, those who are amateurs (or non-dancers!) are just as easily marked by their lack of appropriate posture.  Graceless bumbling, sloppy lines, and cringe-worthy missteps can result from poor posture.  Posture is a habit that must be either learned – or unlearned.

What does that have to do with anything at all?  Well, I had an inkling and did a quick Google search to confirm my suspicions: the word “posture” and the word “imposter” come from the same Latin root.  (Nifty, right?!  I certainly thought so!)  An imposter is someone who is simply a fake posing as the real thing – but imposters are easily spotted because they just can’t pull off the part.  Their posture marks them as inauthentic.  Either you’ve got the posture, or you’re nothing but an imposter.

“A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.” – Proverbs 16:9 NKJV

I have been thinking a lot about hope recently.  I have been eager to write about this subject again, but each time I write about hope, it is always more of a challenge than I anticipate.  Sometimes it seems as though nothing goes the way I expect – and everyone feels this way on occasion.  You are likely familiar with some of the feelings that commonly accompany this thought: helplessness, uncertainty, frustration, disappointment – a sense of being adrift.  We must be diligent to acknowledge then eradicate these feelings before they devolve into what it possibly one of the most dangerous mindsets we could hold: hopelessness.  Though we truly feel these things, we must realize that they are not the Truth (which is that we have been renewed into the living hope that is Jesus Christ and the good inheritance we have through Him – check out 1 Pet. 1:3-5).  Hope is a raw, wild, beautiful subject that encompasses all the highs and lows of life, and it should be handled accordingly.  Connecting it to the idea of posture, I am going to make this statement:

True hope can only be experienced from a posture of worship.

I recently finished a two-month reading through the book of Exodus.  I am continually fascinated by the story of God’s people.  Throughout Exodus, we see how God released and continues to release His people from bondage.  As the Exodus story begins to unfold, Moses brought word to God’s people of God’s coming deliverance and showed them signs to prove the authenticity of the message.  At this point, the Israelites eagerly believed and bowed to worship God (Ex. 4:31).  We all love to hear a special word from God, to feel His presence strongly and clearly.  There’s just something about those precious moments that make worship the obvious and irresistible response.

But then things didn’t go as they had hoped.  When Moses went before Pharaoh to call for the release of the Israelites from their Egyptian bondage, Pharaoh scoffed and forced the Israelites to continue making bricks for his building projects – only now they had to do it without the benefit of being given the necessary straw.  Wait a minute – it didn’t have instant results?!  Pharaoh was supposed to set the Israelites free, right?!  God had promised to deliver them, so they suddenly felt they had the right to be angry that their situation was seemingly getting worse instead of better.  In their angst, the Israelites promptly gave up on the promises of Yahweh, and they immediately chose to blame Moses, crying out for God to judge Moses harshly (Ex. 5:18-21).  They quickly forgot the goodness of God – seriously, less than one chapter of Scripture separates these events!  Theirs was a small hope indeed, for they allowed it to be snuffed out the moment an unexpected circumstance arose.

Once again, God’s people were caught up in the hype of the moment: up, down, trusting, despairing – all as their circumstances dictated.  Giving up and blaming others (including God) are two common results of disappointment.  God’s people didn’t look for the bigger picture, and even Moses freaked out when they blamed him for the turn of circumstances (Ex. 5:22-23).  What was God’s response to this?  “Now you shall see what I will do…” (Ex. 6:1).  You see, God isn’t focused only on immediacy; He looks at the full story – the Story He has already written and knows from beginning to end (see Ps. 139:16-18).  God’s view isn’t limited to the scant sliver of time and space that we can see.

Life without true hope is like being trapped on a perpetual roller-coaster ride of emotions and circumstances.

Life without true hope is like being trapped on a perpetual roller-coaster ride of emotions and circumstances.

Like the Israelites, I forget to worship continually.  Instead, I remember to worship only when life is going “well” (according to my standards), and I begin to grumble or fret when they don’t.  Like God’s people, I can become distraught when my circumstances don’t match my expectations about His promises.  I forget to remain in a posture of worshipful trust and instead choose to let my faulty perceptions tell me what to believe about life, about myself, and sometimes even about the nature of God.  When I revert from a posture of worship to a posture of hopelessness or fear, I become an imposter, trying to fake a life of trust and obedience.  If I say, “God, I trust you” but am consumed by despair when I don’t like my circumstances or outcomes, I am merely an imposter who isn’t truly living with the hope I profess. Genuine trust flows only from a posture of worship, and genuine hope can find a home only in the life of a person who is living from a posture of worship.

In the altar-call, vision-from-the-Lord moments of life, it feels easy to choose a posture of worship, and these moments are both totally valid understandably meaningful.  What I’ve realized, however, is that we, as Christians, often don’t know what to do after those moments, when we finally stop weeping (or laughing), the meeting ends, or another obligation arises that requires our attention.  Two imperfect responses are common: either we simply “collect ourselves” and go on precisely as we did before, or we decide that our lives would be best served by living one “Jesus-high” to the next.  But neither of these responses indicates a true posture of worship.  The act of “doing worship” (singing songs, etc.) and the intentional maintenance of a posture of worship in daily life are not necessarily equivalent.  Specifically in regard to the second response, while I won’t argue that houses of prayer, worship movements, or revival-style meetings are valid ways to continue seeking God, it has become popular in Christendom (especially for people of my generation) to become fixated on the act of worshipping without necessarily learning how to live from a true posture of worship.

Okay, so perhaps we don’t always really know what to do with God’s promises and the things that He speaks to us.  Often, like the Israelites, we eagerly receive, claim, and cling to God’s promises – then we create a mental script of how we think these promises will play out.  We concoct genius plans of how to get to where God has told us we are going, becoming easily enamored by the “how” of the promises.  Then, in mere moments, our plans can come tumbling down around us when circumstances don’t proceed as we thought they should (or hoped they would).  In these instances, we unfortunately often choose to blame God.  But if we do that, we must realize that means we are blaming God for our inaccurate assumptions about life.  We know that God’s promises to us are faithful and true because “He is faithful in all He does” (Ps. 33:4), and all His promises are made “yes” and “amen” to us through Christ Jesus (2 Cor. 1:20).  And if we truly believe that God is faithful and true in all His ways, then it is not Him who needs to change but us.

I can say this confidently not because I always get it right but because I frequently get it wrong.  When life doesn’t go the way I hope, it becomes all too easy to embrace a martyr-like sense of hopelessness.  (That is, I allow myself to have the mindset of “Here I am, obeying God, wallowing through life until a better someday.”  As I said, it’s a false sense of suffering, and ultimately it will hamper my ability to actually see the good that God is doing.)  I am a person who finds a great deal of both pleasure and security in planning for and thinking about the future.  (If life is a journey, I’d like a map, please!)  I have plenty of God-dreams and goals, and I thought I knew the route I’d take to get to those things – but it turns out that I have been wrong numerous times.  A recent pattern in my life has been that God is continually stripping away my so-called plans – plans that I was excited about and had invested a lot of my hope in.  And as my plans have been stripped away, I have had to honestly confront the source of my hope: is it in my plans, or is it truly in God, whom I claim to trust whole-heartedly?  Am I living in true Hope, or am I an imposter, skimming by in my own strength and trying to live one “Jesus-high” moment to the next?  I’ve been asking God a lot of questions and doing a lot of soul-searching lately, and through it I have been learning both humility and trust.  (It’s amazing how God always manages to teach me those things, and how there is always more for me to learn!)

True hope grounds us, holding us steady.

True hope grounds us, holding us steady.

Disappointment, when handled appropriately, provides an excellent opportunity for reevaluating priorities and beliefs.  Why?  According to Romans 5:5, “hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”  This is true Hope: that, enabled and guided by the power of the Holy Spirit, we live and rest in the consistent goodness and utter faithfulness of God’s nature, which is the foundation of His promises.

This is the posture of worship.  Hope becomes our anthem as we recognize that our lives are secure in the Living Hope that is our “living God and everlasting King” (Jer. 10:10).  Everything else will disappoint, but hope grounded in our God will never fail us.  Coming to God in the steady hope of faith, we “must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Heb. 11:6).  When worshipping our God becomes the focus of our lives, hope is a natural result, leaving us free to live in joyful expectation of seeing “the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (Ps. 27:13).  When we have true hope, we are no longer subject to the ups and downs of circumstances or the changeable cries of our emotions.  I don’t know about you, but I crave the freedom that comes from living in and with true hope.

If we don’t position our lives in a posture of worship, we will never experience God’s goodness not because He has ceased to be good but because we will be chronically blind to it.  So how can we choose and maintain a posture of worship in our lives?

The answer is simple: choose worship.  Always.

There is no better way to combat hopelessness, depression, and despair than to choose to worship God.  Your attitude will affect everything else, including how you respond to situations and how you perceive your life.  If you can’t get your eyes off yourself and onto God, you are never going to be able to live in the fullness of hope.  When we choose to rejoice in God’s goodness and sovereignty, we find ourselves more able to stop clinging and to make room in our lives for Him to work His best in and through us.  Practically, this may look like committing to listening only to worship music for a certain period of time.  (I do not merely mean “Christian” music but legitimate, solid music that exalts the Lord rather than self and tunes your heart to what God is saying and doing).  Perhaps it means getting into the habit of telling God “thank you” more often, considering all the good He has done and is yet to do.  Or maybe for you it means engaging fully in corporate worship with your church (even when you don’t feel like worshipping.)  I encourage you (and myself): you have control over your emotions.  Choose to worship and allow your spirit to rise to the occasion rather than wallowing in self-pity.  Position yourself to receive and live in hope.

It is important to understand that a posture of worship is not necessarily physical.  Maintaining a posture of worship is oftentimes about your spiritual, mental, and emotional state.  However, sometimes, when despair and fear begin to creep in and hope seems to be nothing more than a distant yearning, we need to intentionally put our physical bodies in a posture of worship.  There comes a time when you need to get on your face before God – literally.  (From experience, I recommend choosing a spot with a rug or carpet.)

 “Therefore do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward.  For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise…”
– Heb. 10:35-36

What are you doing to maintain or improve your posture, my friends?  Hope is not just for “someday” – it is right now, beautiful, wild, and alive in Jesus, the final culmination of God’s every promise and good plan for you.  Today and every day that follows, may we choose to live from a perpetual posture of true worship and embrace the freedom of hope that comes with it.  This is how my conversation with God began this week, and I hope it will be a new beginning for you as well:

Lord, I invite You to replace the bad, the good, and even the “better” with Your best in my life.  When I remain in a posture of worship, despair and grumbling find no purchase.  Fear slips away in the sweetness of your Presence.  This is where I belong, what I was created for: a life of worship.  Position my heart to worship and listen.  Posture my flesh to be in continual subjection to Your Spirit.  I choose worship; I choose freedom to worship You in the fullness of hope and abundant life.  Tune my life, my mind, my heart, and my flesh to the music of Your Spirit.  Amen.

Black and white Hope

There Isn’t a Picture for That

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A notification popped up on my Facebook newsfeed: “Your year in review – see your best memories from this year.”  I clicked on the link, and I must admit I was disappointed.  My entire year – a year of seeing God’s faithfulness, a year that was humbling, challenging, and good – was summed up in a paltry collection of seven pictures, all but one either being from our family photos in July or being from a week ago.  (Granted, had I posted more photos, there would have been more to see!)  My year was so much more than what Facebook remembered – or what people saw.

Under_Review-stampWhat is my “Year in Review” then?  It is dozens of moments deepening friendships through shared laughter, sorrows, and stories.  It was the unexpected renewing of a precious friendship I had resigned myself to setting aside.  It was God’s surprising me with new opportunities, perspectives, and solutions even when I felt I was floundering.  It was the relentless grace of my God shown through my family and friends as I tried – and failed – to be self-sufficient.  It was knowing what the right thing was – and being so terrified of doing it that I couldn’t stop shaking as I did it.

This year was the writing and posting of thirty-odd blogs, some painstakingly written over a number of years and finally completed.  It was the reality of late nights and early mornings as an RA.  (I am always perfectly serious when I say that I get weird when I am up too late).  It was the warmth of family and home – a love that I have learned to carry with me wherever I go.  It was CLEP tests, extra hours at work, and the seemingly endless renditions of “Step by Step” I sang to the little kiddos I watched as they drifted off to sleep.  It was the struggle of learning how to “let go and let God,” trusting Him completely – and the awe of watching Him begin to fit the pieces together in ways I could never have imagined.

My year was every quiet moment, every worship-filled dance, every frustrated huff, every cry of grief, and every joyous triumph.  And there isn’t a picture for that.

This year has been challenging mentally, physically, and emotionally; God has been stretching me, expanding my vision, and humbling me as only He can.  It was a year of growth and maturing.  I entered 2015 with my joy exhausted and my hope hanging on by a thread; I leave this year with passionate joy and an unshakeable confidence in the faithfulness of my God, who is my Hope.  And there aren’t pictures enough to show the beauty of it all as I have learned to embrace the days of grace.  There are no longer good days and bad days – as Graham Cooke says, there are only days of grace as we come to recognize the relentless kindness of our Heavenly Father.

Sometimes what we see is only part of the story.  My dear friends, what is the reality of your year in review?  Are you allowing your story to be defined by the goodness of God, or does it feel as superficial as a disappointing social media summary?  Are you are always scrutinizing your life, worrying about how others might see it?  Are there hurts or habits tainting your memories of this year?

For me, this has been a year of rediscovering joy and hope, and now the coming year is going to be different: a year of courage – courage to step into the fullness of what God has for me.  We all experience different seasons; some are lovely and some challenging, but all are overflowing with grace if we are willing to accept it.  I am going to celebrate the turn of the New Year with a night of worship in the company of dear friends.  I can think of no better way for me to thank the God of miracles for all He has done, is doing, and will still do.  Sometimes, there aren’t pictures; it is up to us to be intentional about the memories we keep.  As 2015 draws to a close, I encourage you to boldness: ask God to review your year.  What did He do this year, and what is He doing now?  Let your final authority in defining your story be the One who knows the end from the beginning and whose nature is relentlessly, perfectly Good in every way.    

As you enjoy the final hours of this year, take a few moments to listen to this song: “God of Miracles” by Chris McClarney.  May you embrace the coming year with the fullness of hope as you expect to see the goodness of our God.

Happy New Year, my friends!

new year countdown

In Remembrance

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Did I mention that I need a new journal?

Believe me, I am well aware of the blessing that is digital storage, which holds the hundreds of other pages full of my writing.

I love words, and I love to write.  I journal nearly every day, keep at least two notebooks at all times (one for ideas and one for regular things like lists), and am never without a diligently-tended planner.  I enjoy taking hand-written notes in class and jotting brilliant thoughts on my ever-present pad of Post-it notes.  The inside cover of my Bible is thick with sticky notes, and the margins of its pages are full of cross-references and revelations that have come to me as I read.  (Not to mention the unwieldly jumble of papers I stash near my bed, full of ideas for more writing, children’s church lessons, sermon notes…)

Yet, in all this, I write for just one reason: to remember.

I write so I can remember all the things God speaks to me, all the things I’ve learned and experienced – and how the sweet kindness of my God is evident through it all.  I have to write, because if I don’t, I know I’ll forget.  And I don’t want to forget.

As humans, we are so prone to forgetfulness: we forget to take out the trash, forget the birthday of a friend, forget an appointment, forget what day it is, forget what road to turn on, forget what we are forgetting….We just can’t seem to remember everything, no matter how hard we try.  Sometimes we even do things to try to forget: don’t think about it, throw mementos away, drown ourselves in unhealthy addictions to movies or drugs or anything else that will take away the pain of remembrance.  We get lost, be it purposefully or unintentionally, in the deep shadows of forgetfulness, allowing memories and thoughts to grow musty.  The weight of the past, the confusion of the present, the uncertainty of the future – when all these things seem to press in on us, sometimes forgetting feels easier by far.

But Jesus knows our weaknesses, our forgetfulness and our desire to forget.  He calls us out of our place of forgetfulness into the brilliance of remembrance from the place of His peace.  Our “humanness,” though it may bother us, does not bother Him.  He gives sufficient grace to us, His forgetful yet beloved Bride.  That’s why we have the Holy Spirit: to help us remember everything Jesus said (John 14:26).  It’s also why He charged us to take Communion “in remembrance” of Him – He didn’t want us to forget all He has done, all the love and life He freely offers (Luke 22:19).  He prods us gently, “Remember, remember Me!”

And so I write to remember.

I want to remember all His goodness to me.  I want to remember His tender words, spoken exactly when I needed them.  I want to remember every “aha!” moment of revelation.  Often I forget and have to remind myself of the things my faithful God has already told me.  When this happens, I can read through old journals and old blog posts – and I can remember.  Maybe writing isn’t your way to remember – maybe its songs or pictures.  While we do not need to construct physical altars to worship our God anymore because every barrier has been broken down through Jesus (Ephesians 2:13-18), there is something to be said about the beauty of the altars of remembrance built by many of God’s Old Testament people – Jacob, Moses, and Joshua in particular.  We, who are without separation from God, can still create altars of remembrance within our hearts.  These intangible altars stand in defiance of any lie that might come against us, toppling the lies with the truth of God’s goodness not forgotten.  Like beacons lit in the darkness these altars stand to remind us of the Living Hope that is Jesus Christ our Savior.  So let us remember together, beholding the goodness of our God that has been, that now is, and that is yet to come.

Lord, may we not forget.  Clear away the fog of forgetfulness.  We want to live our lives with the remembrance of who You are and all You have done.  Amen. 

Fog lifting over a mountain in Wyoming (photo from the Mountain Project)

Fog lifting over a Wyoming mountain (photo from the Mountain Project)

The Nehemiah Life

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For many years now, I’ve wanted to live as a Nehemiah.  Not in the sense that I am having an identity crisis and want to change my name, but in the sense that I want to be a leader like the Nehemiah of the Bible.  The book of Nehemiah is really quite an epic tale of God raising up a leader and miraculously working through His people to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.  This little book really packs a punch, but the thing I want to focus on is visionary leadership – the legacy of Nehemiah.

I connect well to the portrayal of Nehemiah – talk about a man who carried a big God-vision!  I am a very visionary, “big-picture” person – I am bursting with passion and plans and dreams.  I tend to live with my head in the future and my feet in the present.  Often I struggle to enjoy the present because I am so excited for the future.  I have a hard time balancing what is with what will be and should be.

Back-to-the-FutureThis is both a blessing and a curse for me.  It’s like a Back to the Future version of wanderlust – I simply can’t restrict myself to looking at this moment.  Sometimes I feel crushed by the weight of the passion, the dreams – and wonder why others don’t seem to feel the burden.  Why can’t people just get it?  Why isn’t everyone excited about what the future holds and what God is doing?  Then I get frustrated.  But, as will most things in life, there must be balance.  Nehemiah found that balance – the balance of living as a vision-carrier for God.

Leadership is not something one does on a lark.  Leadership is not always fun or glamorous; in fact, it is rarely either of those things.  People do not always cooperate, expectations are not always met, and it is all too easy for leaders to get burnt out.  In these moments, it is the God-vision, fueled by God’s Holy Spirit, that prevents “burnout” — that gets you going and fills you with passion.

The literal definition of the word “vision” is “the ability to see.”  This is what I mean by “vision,” except I am applying it more broadly.  You see, visionary leadership isn’t just the ability to see what is now and the things that are present; it is the ability to look forward to the future and to dream and plan boldly about what will happen next.

This forward-looking perspective must be coupled with the ability to share the vision with others.  Vision paints a passionate picture of hope, giving specific goals and directions.  Visionary leaders help others catch hold of and pursue the vision.  Of course, vision is clearest and most powerful when it comes from God.  This is what Nehemiah’s role was as a leader: to carry the vision.  This is actually what it means to be an apostle in the Biblical sense: carrying, sharing, and initiating the vision amongst people.  To be an apostle is to look at the “big picture” and help others do the same.

 

In Nehemiah’s time, Israel had been dominated by Babylon.  Many of the people had been taken captive to Babylon, while the others had been left, destitute, to tend the land and keep it from turning to wilderness.  The city of Jerusalem had been utterly ravaged, and the walls had been torn down when the Babylonians captured the Israelites.  So the Lord settled a burden on Nehemiah’s heart, giving him a vision to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and bring back God’s people to the Promised Land.  Rebuilding these walls was not merely a practical means of protection; it was a symbol of spiritual renewal and a return to the Lord in the place of His promise.

What is your vision building?....And more importantly, who is building with you?

What is your vision building?….And more importantly, who is building with you?

Of course, just because Nehemiah had an idea from God, it does not mean that being the vision-carrier was a simple task.  As a leader, he needed to discern when to cast the vision and when to withhold it – and whom to share it with.  Rebuilding the walls was not a task Nehemiah could undertake alone; he needed the Israelites to partner with him to carry out the vision.

Herein lies the danger of being a visionary leader: you become so consumed with attaining the goal and carrying out the vision that, when you are victorious, you find there is no one left to celebrate with because you left them all behind.

Proverbs 29:18 tells us that people perish for lack of vision.  God-directed vision is a vital part of learning to walk with Him, and we must learn to nurture and not stifle the vision.  I am a very “visionary” person; and where I sense no vision, it feels as though the life is being sucked out of me.  However, being visionary (apostolic, far-sighted, and big-picture) scares others if they aren’t prepared.  This is why leaders must use discretion in casting vision.  Sometimes carrying this God-vision means that you keep it to yourself for a while, and sometimes it means that you only share a portion of what God is speaking.

The result of Nehemiah’s God-driven, apostolic leadership was that the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt (from piles of rubble!) in a mere fifty-two days (Neh. 6:15).  But realize that he didn’t start by telling the oppressed Israelites, “I’ve returned to our decimated homeland to help you rebuild the city walls and restore the land!  Oh, and we’ll do it in less than two months!  Who’s with me?!”  No.  Rather, he went and scouted out the walls; he spent time planning, praying, and preparing before he began to share the vision with the people, calling them to rebuild and restore their city.  And he did not simply tell them what they should do; he told them why they should do it and shared his testimony of God’s faithful hand at work in the situation:

‘And I told them of the hand of my God, which had been good upon me, and also of the king’s words that he had spoken to me.  So they said, “Let us rise up and build.”  Then they set their hands to this good work.’ – Nehemiah 2:18

This is Nehemiah’s great success: he knew when to cast the vision and when to withhold it.  Sharing a vision in poor timing is often akin to aborting it.  Just as vision itself is a necessity, so is proper timing; you cannot separate the two.  My mentor told me, “There are some things that need to be said, but don’t need to be heard.”  When you are given charge of the God-vision, there are times when you need to keep it between you and God, simply praying over the vision and nurturing it.  Like a pregnant mother, you carry something precious, but there is a right time for the birth that should not be forced or tampered with. 

I frequently pray, “Lord, make me a Nehemiah.  Nehemiah did it right, and I want to do the same.  Help me to carry Your vision with wisdom and compassion.”  I want to carry the vision well, and I want others to be around to revel in the fullness of the victory and blessing that God will bring through it.

Perhaps you don’t feel like you have any vision to share right now.  Or perhaps you have a vision already burning inside you, locked up tight and waiting to be shared.  All those things are fine.  The Lord always gives the passion and the vision in its time, and He will direct you about where, when, and how to share the vision.  Maybe right now you need to support the God-vision that someone else is casting.  Maybe right now you need to help someone else be a Nehemiah and cultivate his or her leadership abilities.  Or maybe the time has come for you to step up and be a Nehemiah, sharing the vision that the Lord has placed in your heart.  Don’t be afraid of the vision.  Simply allow the Holy Spirit to give you discernment to recognize the timing and the means.

I bless you to freely and boldly live the Nehemiah life!

For my dad, the most visionary leader I know. Even when we were unsure, you waited and continued to encourage us to step into bigger and better things. Thanks for not leaving us behind. I love you.

For my dad, the most visionary leader I know. Even when we were unsure, you waited and continued to encourage us to step into bigger and better things. Thanks for not leaving us behind. I love you.