Sunday, March 10, 2019

The Blue Ball


For the last few weeks I have gotten to be part of a Bible study with my mom and "sisters-in-love". We spend a few hours enjoying my mom's awesome cookies, drinking coffee, and learning about the Armor of God. At our most recent gathering, my mom's dog, Winston, kept scratching at a closet door, whining and crying. We asked Mom what was up, and she sighed and explained that he was looking for "the blue ball". Apparently, up until recently, he had a blue tennis ball that he absolutely loved, but he had torn it all up so Mom had to throw it out. She had given him some others, but the result was always the same: he destroyed them. Because of that, my mom decided to stop buying that kind of ball, and was hoping he would just be content with the myriad of other toys he had.

Apparently, she was wrong. 

Poor Winston was absolutely convinced he had to have that blue ball, and nothing else would do. He kept looking at us piteously, scratching at the door and whining. "Maybe if you let him see it isn't there, he will move on?" I suggested. So she patiently went over and opened the door, even lifting him up so he could see that the blue ball was nowhere to be found. She set him back down, leaving the door open, and tried to show him the other toys strewn throughout the room. Winston, however, wouldn't have it. He spent almost the entire morning sniffing around that closet, whining, sitting back on his back legs to look up on the shelves, doing all he could to try to find that treasured blue ball. He could not let it go, and let all of the other toys and treats he had available to him go unused and not enjoyed, because all of them seemed to pale in comparison to his favorite toy.



Seeing him do that made me think. How often have I been like that poor, sad little dog? How often have I received a gift from God that I truly treasured and enjoyed, and then gone into a panic when it's time to let go of it? I try to hold on, long past what God ever intended, and continue to search for it after it is gone, to the exclusion of noticing and enjoying the other gifts God has for me. How much am I like Winston, scratching at closed doors, searching in empty places for what I so desperately want, choosing to lay and cry in misery rather than looking around at the other sweet things God has left for me to enjoy?
My mom absolutely adores Winston, and has faithfully cared for him for his entire life, providing all that he needs and even a lot of what simply brings him joy. As much as she loves him, though, it is barely a shadow of how God feels about me--about all of us. He always cares, provides for needs, and pours out sweet blessings to bring us delight. If He removes something from our lives, it is out of love and care, and is something we can safely trust was for the best. So, let's learn a lesson from little Winston and make the conscious choice to simply trust God, let go of what He says He needs to take away, and notice the other things He's given us. I have a feeling He has plenty of good in store.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

For Every Season

Something God has been spending a lot of time teaching me lately is about dealing with different "seasons" in life. Sometimes we are in a time of hopefulness and new beginnings, planting dreams and watching them start to sprout to life, like in springtime. Other times life is as carefree and happy as summer, filled with happy memories and sweet moments, drifting along in a relaxed and peaceful way. Sometimes we are in a time of hard work and transition, vacillating between enjoying the harvest of our efforts and grieving the endings of things, as we do in autumn. And sometimes, we hit an emotional "winter" in life and deal with intense storms, darker days, or a "coldness" in our spirits. No matter what season we are in though, God has gifts, lessons, and purpose in each one. Here are some of the things He is teaching me.
1. Change Your Perspective
It is all too easy in difficult phases of life to shut down, "hole up", or just grit our teeth and muscle through. All of these responses have the potential to keep us from seeing all that God has for us in each season, though. As hard as it is, we can choose instead to live purposefully in each season, to avoid the very real temptation to escape or just survive, and put forth the effort to see what God has for us.
A few weeks ago one of my littlest buddies set a powerful example of this for me. Every once in a while I get to take one of my close friends' adorable daughters on a "date" with me to my dance class, and on this evening I had her 7-year-old with me. We were riding in the car together, discussing everything from Baby Alive dolls to the weather, and were just enjoying the company and conversation. Eventually we started talking about summertime, and about how much we were looking forward to sunshine and getting to go swimming and enjoy warm weather again. "I do love sunshine," she said happily. Then, after a brief pause, she added, "But I also love the rain. Cuz then we can splash in the puddles and have hot chocolate!" I felt a gentle prodding in my spirit from my Heavenly Father. "Did you hear that? Did you notice that perspective?" This precious girl had found a gift in something that most people here in the Pacific Northwest barely tolerate at best, and usually have become quite fed up with by this time in the year.
I smiled at my little friend and commented, "I love your positive attitude! It's so good that you are able to look and see something good, when a lot of other people just complain. But there are good things in every season, right?" She enthusiastically jumped on board, "Oh yes!! Like in the winter we get to play in the snow and go sledding, and then have hot cocoa!" (I think she really likes hot chocolate.) She got quiet for a second and then said, "We could whine about having to wear puffy coats in the winter. Or getting wet in the rain."
"Yeah, we have to choose to either see the good stuff or the yucky stuff, huh?"
"Yeah. I like the good stuff, though."
And we spent the rest of the drive talking about the best parts of every season, and what gifts God has in each one.
Like my wise little friend did that night on our car ride, we need to change our perspective so we aren't focused only on the difficulties in each season of life.


2. Savor the Unique Blessings
I am a total "snow grinch"; I really, really don't like it when it snows. It makes me anxious to be stuck at home, dressing my kids in their snow gear, and dealing with cold and wet and inevitable sickness that comes for weeks after the snow is gone. However, the weather where I am has called for a lot of snow lately, more than we usually get, so I have to make a choice: will I hole up inside, muttering and grumbling about how much I hate the snow until spring finally shows up? Or, will I be purposeful and try to find whatever good things I can in this season? On our last snow day, I decided to try to make a bucket list of things I wanted to do when it snows, things that we could only do in snowy weather, so that it was special and unique to this season. Just like that, we can make our own "bucket lists" of things we want to do in each of life's unique seasons.
Right now part of my season in life is preparing to say goodbye to one of my close friends as she moves forward in God's calling on her life. My "bucket list" is full of things related to that--savoring each moment I get with her, doing all that I can to support her and help her prepare for her big adventure, and finding ways to help myself and others in our group deal with the grief of this transition. The circumstances are not my favorite; in fact, they are sometimes agonizing. However, knowing I am doing all I can to find gifts and blessings in this time has made it so much richer and more meaningful, and I know it will not be "wasted".
We can do this no matter what our circumstances in life are. Are you in a season of isolation, unable to leave the house to be with others? Maybe a bucket list item could be to maximize the extra alone time to work on a project or hobby that doesn't lend itself well to lots of people being around, or to focus your efforts on projects around the house. Or maybe you have the opposite situation, and you find yourself stuck in your car a lot, in a season of driving all-the-people all-the-places all-the-time? Find yourself an awesome worship playlist, podcast, or audiobook and turn those hours of driving into something sweet and "filling-up". It isn't always easy to find the unique goodness that different seasons hold, but if you really pause to look for it, I promise you will always find it. Our God is so, so good, and that doesn't change just because our circumstances do.
3. Remember There is A Reason for Every Season
God uses every stage of our lives to develop us into who He wants us to be. He uses the good times to show us His love, cause us to praise Him, and sometimes to test us and see if we will still rely on Him when things are going well. And He uses hard times to grow character in us, strengthen our faith, and forge stronger bonds with Him and others. Those are just a few examples; there are so many other lessons, growth, and outcomes that God gives us whether things are going well or are so hard we struggle to even get out of bed.
Sometimes I believe God even uses seasons as a source of protection and preparation. I had breakfast with a friend a few weeks back and she mentioned something that really struck me. It was just after I had written the post on "blooming where you are planted", so the idea of plants and gardening was still fresh in my mind. My friend's husband works for a nursery, and she mentioned off-hand that they were worried about the weather turning warm too early. To combat this, they were placing the plants into a chilled, dark storage unit so that they wouldn't bloom early and end up being killed by the next frost. This hits home for me because the "winter" season I am in has felt so long and so hard, and I am longing for spring (both literally and figuratively). My friend's comment reminded me, though, that my Gardener knows what He is doing. He is keeping me in a dark, cold season for a purpose. If things get better too quickly, it won't prepare me for the next "frost" that could come around. Maybe the season you are in is doing the same for you, preparing you for what is coming up next, and protecting you from premature "blooming"? God never wastes a season. He has a purpose, plan, and perfect outcome for every single one. 
God tells us in Ecclesiastes 3:1 that, "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven." God brings us into different seasons of life for a reason, and He has unique lessons, blessings, and growth for each one. There are some seasons we will enjoy and savor and wish would never end...and there are some that we aren't sure we will even survive. We need to remember, though, that God uses every single one in specific ways, and each one provides us with things we cannot receive any other way. I hope you will each join me in trusting our loving Heavenly Father and looking to Him as we walk through each season, whether that means trekking through the trials and pain of winter, or dancing through the glorious hope and joy of spring.


Sunday, February 24, 2019

Who God Is

Even after decades of walking with the Lord, I still find myself often surprised and humbled by learning a new facet of His character, or being reminded of what I already knew about Him in a deeper way. This actually happened to me again recently, when God used two of my closest friends to fix a false idea I had about Him, and to remind me of Who He really is.
It had been a pretty tough week, in the midst of an already hard season. Our whole family had been sick, and I was going on day 3 of being isolated and trapped at home with very little to do. I was lonely, bored, and completely "poured out" from ministering to 3 sick little ones (and a sick husband) while also feeling lousy myself. Thankfully, once Sunday came around, 2 of my kids and I felt well enough to make it out to church. I was so relieved to be out of the house, eager to get my heart filled up a little bit with worship and fellowship. The sermon was wonderful, as always, and I so enjoyed getting to worship God with my brothers and sisters at church, but after the service I still felt like something was missing. I was still feeling "wobbly" and wiped out, and realized I just really, really needed a hug from one of "my people", my close friends.
 Have you ever experienced that? An almost painful longing for someone to just wrap their arms around you and hold on for a moment? I've found that the harder my season of life is, the more hugs I need. I explained it to a friend once by saying, "Sometimes my heart feels like it's so broken that all these tiny pieces are flying around inside me, and I just feel so insecure and rocky; but when someone hugs me, all of those pieces get smooshed back into place, and I can hold it together a while longer." Now, I could have gotten a hug from any of the amazing people at my church (one of the reasons I love it so much is because all of us treat each other as a family), but in this case I really needed it to be from someone close to me; someone I had history with, and that really knew me well and understood me without needing any explanation for why I so desperately needed a hug. On any "normal" Sunday, I could get that in the blink of an eye, just by turning to one of my friends and saying, "Hey. I need a hug."
But this, of course, was not a typical Sunday.
I think maybe the intensity of the week finally just caught up to me. My kids were being crazy, it was too loud and busy in the space I was in, and I felt an intense urge to "escape". My friends were all in conversations with other people, and in the moment I just couldn't make myself interrupt them to ask for that hug I needed. I stood frozen by indecision for a few moments, torn between asking for what I genuinely needed, and also wanting to get out as quickly as possible before I broke down. Finally, I hurriedly gathered my kids and herded them out of the building and into the privacy and relative calm of our car. I sent a quick text to my friends to say goodbye, and then I drove away. And as soon as I left the parking lot, I burst into tears and proceeded to cry all the way home. I was honestly completely bewildered by this. I'm an emotional person as a rule, yes; but I didn't understand why missing out on something as "small" as a hug could have such a massive impact on me. For whatever reason, though, my heart could not let it go. I regretted my choice. I knew I had hurt my friends, too, by not taking time to say goodbye, and I felt bad about that. Needless to say, the rest of the day was not very pleasant.
Still, I told myself I needed to move ahead and just deal with the choice I had made. "You'll see them again later and can get a hug then," I reasoned. "You made the choice to leave. Now you just need to deal with the results." I didn't even feel like I had the "right" to ask for anything different. See, even after all God has taught me about Who He is, His loving character and grace, I still had in my mind that He wanted me to just accept the "consequences" of my choice and that it was wrong to ask for relief from that...for mercy and grace. Of course I see how "off" my thinking was in retrospect; it's almost embarrassing to admit I would let such thoughts linger at all. Still, that's the state my mind was in at the time, and it shows that even firmly "established" believers can fall into a false view God, and we should all be on-guard. 
I moved through the day as best as I could, and finally pulled myself together enough to go out and do the grocery shopping. As I wandered through the store aisles gathering what we needed, I was kind of in a daze, still feeling very drained and down. Just as I was almost finished up, my husband sent me a text asking which store I was at, and if I could go and see how much new pants would cost him there. I thought it was a little strange that he was suddenly needing to know this information, but I shrugged it off and dutifully went to check the prices for him. Every time I sent him a price, though, he asked me to check something else. Finally, after the 5th time, he decided he didn't want them right now after all. I was confused, but kind of laughed it off, and proceeded to gather the last few things on my list.
Out of the blue, two people rushed in on either side of me and I suddenly found myself squished into the best "sandwich hug" I've ever had. I knew it was my friends right away, and the reality of the situation hit me all at once: they had come to find me, just to give me the hugs I had missed at church, because they knew how much I needed it. In that moment it was like God whispered to my heart, "See? This is who I am. I don't make you live with your regrets because it's 'what you deserve'. I have grace and mercy. I don't leave you to deal, or let you run away; I pursue you with love." It's a miracle I didn't break down and cry right there, because I can't think back on this moment or share it now without tearing up. It was such a personal, powerful reminder of love from God, and gave me clearer insight into Who He is; specifically, three things about Him that I had either never fully understood or had forgotten entirely.
1. God Pursues Us
My friends took the time and effort to find me, and it wasn't a totally easy thing to do. They don't live very close, and while they were in the area at the time, they had errands to run and needed to get back home. They had also originally stopped at my house to bring me my hug, only to find out I was out shopping! Rather than calling it quits, though, they worked with my husband to figure out where I was and to keep me there long enough for them to circle back around to the store and come find me (hence why my husband suddenly had a dire need to know the prices of jeans at Fred Meyer).
God is like that, too. He is purposeful about pursuing us, doing what it takes to reach our hearts and show us His love. Sometimes I think when we hear that God loves us, we don't realize the intensity of that sentence. He loves us personally and actively, not at all passively. While He never forces His love on anyone, He pours it out willingly and seeks us out so we can experience it, and He gives it regardless of whether we deserve it or not.
 2. God is Full of Mercy and Grace
I did not "deserve" for my friends to come and find me and give me those hugs. It was my choice to leave church without saying goodbye, and while it wasn't necessarily "wrong", it was pretty inconsiderate. It would have been completely understandable for them to just wait until I saw them again, to move on with their day and leave me to go on with mine, but they had grace on me. They knew that for whatever reason, I really needed to be hugged. They didn't hold my mistakes against me, or leave me to deal with the consequences; they chose to overlook them and to give me what I needed, and that's what God is like, too. This isn't to say He isn't just. He still allows consequences in our lives when we mess up; and no, He doesn't allow us to get away with full-on sin. That would not be loving at all, and would go against His holy nature. However, He also knows our hearts. He differentiates between simple moments of weakness and full-out rebellion, balancing out whether we need to be taught more of His justice or His grace for each situation. He doesn't always give us what we deserve; didn't he prove that in the in the most profound way possible when He sent His perfect, sinless Son to die in our place? God is gracious, giving us what we don't deserve, and He is merciful, not forcing us to deal with what we do deserve. 
3. God Delights in Our Joy
My sweet friends were just as happy to surprise me as I was to be surprised. They were almost giddy, giggling over how it all worked out and how they got to "surprise hug attack" me. I kept turning back and forth between them, hugging each one in turn, and they just stood there and hugged me back, laughing and sharing in my happiness. God is like that, too. He isn't stingy about blessing us, half-heartedly "allowing us to be happy once in a while". I envision Him laughing when we laugh, getting a big smile on His face when we receive His gifts, and entering into our joy with as much exuberance as my friends did with mine. What an amazing, delightful God we serve.
I don't think my friends knew just how much that choice to come and hug me would impact me. They were just being good friends and having fun, but they represented such a powerful picture of God's character to me that day, and I really don't think I will ever forget it. What an amazing blessing it is, having friends that point me to God; and what a gift it is to have a loving, gracious, delighting God who takes time to teach me Who He is. 

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Agape

Every New Year for the last four years I've tried to choose a single word to focus on as a theme to help pinpoint my goals. One year it was "grace". Then "enough". Last year, of course, was "raphah" (let go). And this year? This year I chose agape-love, the Greek word for love used in the New Testament to describe the kind of love God has for us, and wants us to have for others.
As last year came to an end, I felt God calling me to grow both in my understanding of love, as well as how I express love to others. This was another word that frankly scared me and overwhelmed me because agape love is not the kind of love we may be used to. It isn't easy to do; it doesn't always feel good; it is an active choice, a resolve to do what is best for another person regardless of the cost to yourself. To be honest, I really don't fully understand the total meaning of this kind of love. All I know is that it is something I feel God wants me to learn more about and wants to see lived out in my life this year. I'm sure that by the time the end of 2019 comes, I will understand this kind of love in a much richer, deeper way, but for now, here are things I am hoping to focus on, motivated by this focus of agape love and what I understand it to be as of now.

Agape Love is Sacrificial

"Agape love centers on the needs and welfare of the one loved and will pay whatever personal price is necessary to meet those needs and foster that welfare." (MacArthur, J: Romans 1-8. Chicago: Moody Press; MacArthur, J: Romans 9-16. Chicago: Moody Press)

"Agape is the love that gives. There’s no taking involved. It is completely unselfish. It seeks the highest good for another no matter what the cost, demonstrated supremely by Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf." (MacArthur, J. Saved Without A Doubt. Wheaton, Ill.: May, 2006. Victor Books)

To truly love others means we sacrifice for them. We think first and foremost of their needs, wants, and desires and seek to do what we can to meet them, even if that requires us to give up what we want. That means I stay home with my sick daughter and miss out on my weekly break time with friends, even if I have a babysitter willing to stay, because I know that my daughter really wants her mommy. It means I don't demand my husband spend his free time with me when I know what he would really enjoy is time to play a video game with his buddies. It means I don't get bitter when a family member cancels plans with me because another person needed that time instead. There are dozens of opportunities every day for us to express sacrificial love in big and small ways to others. This can be a big struggle for me, because like most people, my automatic reactions to things are selfish. I have to fight my inner desire to get what I want, to not be offended when my needs aren't met, and to not worry about if I will ever have what I need if I don't "look out for myself". There is a balance here, of course, and I am still trying to find it. Of course there are times when we need to be "filled up" in order to pour out again, and we need wisdom to know when it is healthy to seek what we need/want and when we should instead give that up for someone else. I think the overarching goal here, though, is to have an attitude of service, to desire to bless and help others more than we seek to just do what we want, and to trust that God will lead us in the right ways and times to do that. When we love in this way, we reflect the sacrificial love God has for us and help to point others to Him.
F B Meyer said this very well: "Wherever there is true love, there must be giving, and giving to the point of sacrifice. Love is not satisfied with giving trinkets; it must give at the cost of sacrifice: it must give blood, life, all. And it was so with the love of God. "He so loved the world, that He gave his only-begotten Son." [John 3:16] "Christ also loved and gave Himself up, an offering and a sacrifice to God." (Ep 5:2-note) "..every time we thus sacrifice ourselves to another for the sake of the love of God, we enter into some of the meaning of the sacrifice of Calvary, and there is wafted up to God the odour of a sweet smell."
Agape Love is a Based on a Choice of the Will, Not Emotion

"Barclay has labeled agape as unconquerable benevolence for nothing the other person can do will make us seek anything but their highest good and to never feel bitterness or desire for revenge. Though the one loved even injure us and insult us, agape will never feel anything but kindness towards him. Agape gives & gives & gives. Agape takes slaps in the face and still gives even as Jesus did saying Father forgive them. Agape is not withheld. That clearly means that this Christian love is not an emotional or sentimental thing. It is the ability to retain unconquerable goodwill to the unlovely and the unlovable, towards those who do not love us, and even towards those whom we do not like. Agape is the badge of discipleship and the landmark of heaven for "By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love (agape) one for another." (Jn 13:35)." ~Precept Austin Website

“Love is willing self-sacrifice for the good of another that does not require reciprocation or that the person being loved is deserving.” ~Paul Tripp


The biggest difference between agape love and the other forms of love is that agape love is a choice, a resolute determination to seek the best for the other person regardless of how we may feel about them in the moment. Agape love calls us to love not only family, friends, and those we enjoy; it tells us to love those who irritate us, misuse us, are unkind to us...hate us. Of course love looks different in each of those situations; I don't think loving an enemy means we pursue relationship with them, or put a lot of thought and effort into somehow winning them over. I think it does mean we wish for the best for them, pray for them, and treat them with kindness and grace regardless of how they treat us. This also means that we continue to love others even if they won't reciprocate our love, or never even recognize it in any way. This is the kind of love God shows all of us every day. There are millions of people that will never return the love God has poured out on them, and don't even have eyes to see the love He shares with them. Does that mean God stops loving them? Nope. He continues to show them love, pursue them, and want the best for them all the way to their dying day. There are ultimate consequences, of course, for rejecting His love. However, God never, ever stops loving, and He calls us to that love, too.

"[Agape Love is] unconquerable benevolence, invincible goodwill...If we regard a person with agape, it means that no matter what that person does to us, no matter how he treats us, no matter if he insults us or injures us or grieves us, we will never allow any bitterness against him to invade our hearts, but will regard him with that unconquerable benevolence and goodwill which will seek nothing but his highest good."...In the case of our nearest and our dearest we cannot help loving them; we speak of falling in love; it is something which comes to us quite unsought; it is something which is born of the emotions of the heart. But in the case of our enemies, (agape) love is not only something of the heart; it is also something of the will. It is not something which we cannot help; it is something which we have to will ourselves into doing. It is in fact a victory over that which comes instinctively to the natural man. Agape does not mean a feeling of the heart, which we cannot help, and which comes unbidden and unsought; it means a determination of the mind, whereby we achieve this unconquerable goodwill even to those who hurt and injure us. Agape, someone has said, is the power to love those whom we do not like and who may not like us. In point of fact we can only have agape when Jesus Christ enables us to conquer our natural tendency to anger and to bitterness, and to achieve this invincible goodwill to all men." ~William Barclay

Agape Love Is Impossible...For Us

So does all this sound tough? Yeah...try impossible. This kind of love isn't something we can will ourselves to do, practice until we get better at it, or accomplish at all in our own power. Agape love can only be manifested by God's Spirit dwelling within us. We need Him to empower us to do these things, because our sinful nature completely balks at it. This is the kind of love that Paul speaks of in Galatians when he mentions the Fruit of the Spirit: "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control." (Galatians 5:22-23) The only way we can carry out this kind of love is to pray for the Holy Spirit to fill us up and produce the fruit of love in our lives. 
Pastor John MacArthur states, "We can only have such love when Christ is free to work His own love through us. We cannot fulfill any of Christ’s commands without Christ Himself, least of all His command to love. We can only love as Christ loves when He has free reign in our hearts...When the Spirit empowers our lives and Christ is obeyed as the Lord of our hearts, our sins and weaknesses are dealt with and we find ourselves wanting to serve others, wanting to sacrifice for them and serve them—because Christ’s loving nature has truly become our own. Loving is the supernatural attitude of the Christian, because love is the nature of Christ."

The website Precept Austin has an entire word study on agape love that is full of amazing (though slightly overwhelming!) information on what it is and how we carry it out. One section that explains this point well is the following...

"(It) is impossible for unconverted to manifest this divine love & in fact it is impossible even for a believer to demonstrate it in his own strength. It can only be exhibited by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. A believer has this love (divine nature) within (Col 1:27) and it is progressively manifest more and more as fruit by the Holy Spirit (Ga 5:22) as we obey God's truth. Agape love willingly engages in self-sacrificing action to procure the loved one's highest good."

To be honest, I have wanted to give up on this whole agape-love mission a hundred times since I first felt God calling me to it...and it's only been two months. This kind of love is completely foreign to my sinful nature. It scares me, it confuses me, and I really have no idea how to carry it out; but God has reminded me over and over again through His Word, wise friends, and worship songs, that this mission isn't really about me at all. It's really a continuation of what I learned last year: letting go of control-- knowing "the plan", being able to do things "right", and having success--and just resting in God, allowing His Spirit to fill me up and take over. That is absolutely the only way to do this, is for God Himself to love through me. And when I remember that, it takes a lot of pressure off and enables me to just be still and wait to see what God does. So, I'm giving this a go: praying for God to fill me with His Spirit and seeking to love Him and all the people He brings into my life well. I can't wait to see how He loves through me. 

Thursday, February 7, 2019

"Me Too"

If you spend any amount of time on social media these days, you are bound to run into something having to do with being vulnerable, open, or real. In our culture today there is almost a "vulnerability movement" of sorts, with people all over urging us to be "real" and "honest", sharing our true feelings and beliefs in courage and strength, and not being afraid to let others see our "true colors". While I completely agree with the idea that we should be ourselves, I think that we can take this too far and turn "being vulnerable" into some kind of show all about us. 
The definition of vulnerability is "susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm". It is weakness, while the messages of our culture relating to "being real" stem more from a desire to be "strong enough to be vulnerable".
 If we use openness to try to earn acceptance from others, to attempt deeper connections solely with other people and not God, to point to ourselves in any way, or to simply follow the cultural pressure to "be real", we are completely missing the point. Kelsiklembara at Relevant Life Magazine's website said it well in the article "The Part of Vulnerability No One Talks About":

"...the ability to become vulnerable flows from our assurance in Christ, not our assurance in Instagram likes or comments. When we choose to look for our worth and value in baring our hearts (in both good and bad situations!), we lose sight of both Christ and the good that can come from vulnerability... Making vulnerability a cultural “have-to” ironically turns it from something that points us to Christ in our deficiencies and instead keeps us in the dangerous cycle of trying to prove our own strength. When we put our hope in our actions rather than in Christ, you better bet that sooner or later we’ll find our eyes glued to ourselves without any ability to look outward toward Christ or to others. Because Christ was perfectly vulnerable for you and for me, we are free to openly express our feelings, without feeling the pressure that we have to."(https://relevantmagazine.com/article/the-power-and-danger-of-vulnerability-no-one-talks-about/)
With that said, I think there is a way to be genuine and open with others in a way that honors God and blesses others. This kind of vulnerability isn't ultimately about us at all, but is another way to showcase God's work and grace in our lives. Here are some things God is teaching me about "God-centered vulnerability".
1. Why Be Vulnerable? 

Why should being open and vulnerable even be something we consider? I think there are multiple reasons, but one main one is that being vulnerable with the right people can protect us from Satan's attacks. When we try to hide away our struggles--believing we are alone in them, that no one would understand, or that we need to "keep it together" in order to help others--we isolate ourselves and give Satan the perfect opportunity to attack. Remember, Satan is like a roaring lion (1 Peter 5:8). Anyone who has seen Animal Planet knows that lions and other predators single out prey that is weak, sick, or alone; and the Enemy of our Souls is no different. Satan wants us to think that we are the only ones who struggle with (fill in the blank) so that we clam up and try to hide the truth from others. Shame is one of his biggest calling cards, and if we fall prey to it we open ourselves up to a whole lot of hurt. By confessing our struggles with the right people (more on that later), we also invite them to fight with us and to remind us of God's Truth, and Satan isn't able to take us down as easily. 
2. Know Your Real Value. 

The first step in even being capable of real vulnerability is being firmly set in your true, unchanging value. I think a fairly common struggle that I also have to fight against is wanting people to like us--all the people. Call it people-pleasing, codependency, or plain old "fear of man"; it has been a problem for me for as long as I can remember, and I know is something that many others deal with. The fact is, though, we can't be liked by everyone.  We can't expect everyone to enjoy the "flavor" of personality that God has given us. So, placing any sense of our personal value in the hands of sinful, fallible people is a guaranteed loss. We need to base our value on what God says, because His view of us never changes.


  • He created you, on purpose, exactly how you are, for a reason. "I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well." (Psalm 139:14)
  • He loved you enough to send His Son to save you (even when you were at your very worst). "but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5:8)
  • He has a purpose for you that only you can carry out, and that He created you specifically for. "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." (Ephesians 2:10) 
We need to let these truths sink deep into our hearts, dwell on them, pray about them, and believe them! Only then will we be able to have the courage to risk being vulnerable with others, because we will remember that even if people reject or dislike what they see, our God-given value isn't changed one little bit. 

3. Remember Perfection is Not a Thing.
"To err is human" or so the saying goes. So why do we all work so hard to try to appear perfect? Imperfection and struggle is just part of being a fallen human; as much as I strive to live out all the things I long to be, it just isn't possible to do that all the time. Even the Apostle Paul confessed to struggling with this: "For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate." (Romans 7:15) Nobody gets everything right all the time. "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." (Romans 3:23) And yet still, there are so many times I find that I am comparing myself to others. "Wow. I can't believe he doesn't struggle with that like I do. I wish I was more like him." "She has so much wisdom. Why can't I just think like she does?" Most of my comparisons end up elevating others above myself, but there are times I am ashamed to find that I think I am better than someone else. You know what, though? God sees every single believer exactly the same--redeemed sinners, forgiven and covered by His Son's blood. Not one of my precious brothers and sisters in Christ are better or worse than me. We all have the same value, the same redemption, and the same ultimate end-goal of being more like Jesus. We have different strengths and weaknesses, but none of us is closer to perfection than anyone else. Only God Himself is perfect, and none of us will attain that until we join Him in Heaven. Just remembering that is encouragement to be more open with the other imperfect people around me.
4. Being Open Often Helps Others.
There have been a handful of times in my life that someone has opened up and shared with me in a very vulnerable way, and I am always blown away by how that blesses and helps me. I have never once felt less regard, respect, or affection for someone I love who has "let their walls fall down" for the moment and allowed me a glimpse of the real person inside. It's pretty silly, then, for me to fear that my close relationships would do any differently to me. Sure, it could happen; being vulnerable carries a risk of heartbreak because we live in a fallen world with imperfect people (remember the point above?) I think the general, overriding truth, though, is that people are helped and honored when we open up to them. In my own life, I have been healed from deep hurt, set free from Satan's lies, inspired to keep going in a tough situation, drawn closer to God, and been blessed with closer fellowship with others all because someone was willing to be genuine and real. Why would I want to hinder others from experiencing that by refusing to be vulnerable with them?
5. We Need to Have Wisdom in How Open to Be, and With Whom.
Now. With all of this said, there is still a balance to be had. We don't want to be people who go around spilling our deepest heart secrets to every stranger we bump into, or to those we don't know very well (and who don't really know us). There are several reasons for this. First, it takes a relationship to be able to accept vulnerability. Beyond us needing to feel safe with people we are close to in order to share openly, even the receiver of vulnerability needs to have at least some level of relationship with us in order to feel comfortable to hear our hearts. Sharing intense openness with someone who doesn't know you well will often just make them feel uncomfortable. It's wise to take time to build a relationship with someone before you pour out your soul to them.
Next, people who don't know us well won't be able to speak into our lives and receive our vulnerability like those that know us well would.
They won't appreciate it in the same way, and likely won't be as impacted by it since they don't have the same knowledge of who we are as our closer relationships do.

Finally, we need to remember that vulnerability is being willingly weak with others, and it requires discernment and wisdom to decide if the people we are sharing with are trustworthy and capable of handling our openness with discretion, grace, and Christlike love. We aren't required to share everything with everybody, nor should we. There is a difference between being open in a God-honoring way and being careless with the deep things of our hearts. 


Ultimately, we want our vulnerability to draw us and others closer to God. This is something that Steven Lee at Desiring God calls "Redemptive Vulnerability":

"To be vulnerable is to be susceptible to being wounded or hurt. In the context of community, vulnerability is opening up about one’s humanity. It’s to admit that we are not perfect people. We have not arrived. We are broken, unfinished people who live in a world that itself is broken because of the fall. We experience depression, burn out, cancer, sadness, death, grief, disability, disease, relational strife, loneliness, lust, anxiety, and the list goes on. But our story doesn’t need to end with brokenness. Redemptive vulnerability — a vulnerability that leads to life — is where we share our brokenness in order to display the surpassing power and sufficiency of Christ and the gospel, which transforms us increasingly into the likeness of Christ. Vulnerability is not an end in itself. Rather, our vulnerability should point us, individually and together with other believers, to the sufficiency of Jesus. It looks at and hopes in the redemption we have in Christ Jesus and the work of the cross."(https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/give-your-weakness-to-god)

Like everything else in our lives, we can use vulnerability to showcase God's grace and work in our lives, and fulfill the call to always and continually point to Him. With that in mind, I hope you'll join me in God-Centered vulnerability, being genuine and open with trustworthy people in order to point them to God (and be pointed to Him yourself).

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

He Gives...and Takes Away


I've been in a season of "taking away" lately, where God is taking a lot of things out of my life, or at the very least changing them in big ways (ways that I am not exactly a fan of). I wish I could say I've responded with complete faith, trust, and joyful submission...but that's not exactly accurate.

I think I did ok for the first few "take-aways"--

"Change churches? Oh. That's gonna hurt. Well, ok. I can do that."

 "My favorite gym teachers are leaving? And the classes I enjoy and that give me such a good outlet won't be the same? Well...alright."

"A close family member is suddenly going away? Ok...that's super hard...but I trust You."

As months have gone by, though, with more and more being taken away, I must confess that the pain and grief and transition has gotten to be a bit much. It has felt like the majority of the things in my life that make me the happiest are disappearing one by one, and rather than easing up as the weeks progress, they are vanishing faster and faster, and getting harder and harder to deal with. It's honestly taken my breath away and left me reeling. About a week ago I reached a bit of a crisis point: am I going to choose to continue forward in faith, knowing that things are likely going to get harder before they get better? Or am I going to lay down and quit? 
I won't lie; I've been severely tempted to do the latter. It's hard to keep getting up, keep battling, keep hoping for things to get better while bracing myself against the pain when it doesn't. A close friend reminded me, though, that giving up and turning away won't make the pain stop. It will just take away another thing, the most important thing I have to get me through this time. So, I'm getting up. I'm continuing through the season. And I know I'm learning things I could never learn any other way. If any of you are in a season of loss, of facing lots of "taking away", here are some things I am clinging to that I hope will be encouraging to you as well.

1. Remember Who God Is. In the midst of this season I have felt pretty desperate to cling to every single little thing I have left, and have struggled to just trust God and leave it all in His hands. It's hard to trust Someone that you fear is going to take away everything you love. That is not at all an accurate picture of God, though; even in the hardest moments I've known my image of Him is skewed. He is the same God now that He was back in the seasons of abundant blessings and "giving" that I got to enjoy just a few months back. God does not change; it is my own fallible perception of Him that does. He is a loving Father who gives good gifts to His children (Matthew 7:11); He is the Provider of everything we need (Philippians 4:19); He even says that if you "open your mouth wide, He will fill it" (Psalm 81:10). God is not a Taker; He is a Giver. And even in all of this taking away, I know He is giving to me through it--providing lessons, growth, and maturity I can't gain any other way. 
This quote has really spoken to me in this season, "The wisdom of God tells us that God will bring about the best possible results, by the best possible means, for the most possible people, for the longest possible time." (Dr. Charles Ryrie) Ultimately, God is all-wise, and knows so, so much more than I could ever grasp. He knows I can't learn what I'm learning any other way; if there was a less painful way, He WOULD use it. This season also isn't just about me, or today, or my little blip-of-a-life. God is working in multiple people, and sees the entirety of time and how what happens now will impact Eternity. He sees the big picture, and I need to trust that He's got it figured out. Somehow, the taking away right now is going to lead to ultimate good for more people, for eternity.
2. Trust That There Are Good Things Ahead. About a week ago I was at a very low point, and my sweet mom called to check in. I told her that I was grieving losing so much and was afraid that things would never get better, and she reminded me that there are still good gifts to come, too, and that I needed to try to look ahead to those. In the moment I couldn't take in that wisdom and truth, and I instead burst into tears and exclaimed, "I don't care. I don't want the new gifts. I want what I had." Now, that whole concept of just wanting what we had is part of the grieving/letting go process; it's healthy and normal to feel that way. On the other hand, we can't stay there. I've written about this before (which should mean I remember it and live it out really well, right?) but it bears repeating: we can't accept the new gifts until we let go of the old. I have a precious friend who put it well: it's easy to let go of things in the past that have turned out to not be very good anymore, to have God "exchange beauty for ashes." But what about when God wants to exchange one beautiful and amazing gift that we still deeply love, for another gift that we just can't imagine could ever be as good? Well, that's where faith comes in. That's where you preach to yourself, again and again and again, that if God said it, then it's true: "I know the plans I have for you...plans to prosper you and not to harm you; plans to give you a hope and a future." (Jeremiah 29:11)
That same day that I had my meltdown in the conversation with my poor mom, I was in a store and saw a sign with a quote by C.S. Lewis: "There are far better things ahead than any we leave behind." I honestly can't see that right now, and everything in my heart and mind recoils from that statement. But my spirit, the part of me that is clinging to truth and striving to believe, knows that it's true. So I have to keep moving forward, and seek to find those good gifts that are coming.
3. Don't Lose Sight of the Good That is Still Here. It's easy in these kinds of seasons to get bogged down with "everything" being bad. If we aren't careful, we can fall into the habit of only seeing the things that are painful or hard and completely overlooking anything good. There is always, always something good happening, even in the midst of grief and pain. I think it takes an insane amount of maturity and God's grace to be able to see good in some circumstances, but it is there. I know I need to be better at this skill during this season, to not train my eyes to only see the pain, but to take the extra effort to notice the grace, provision, and comfort God is providing. I am experiencing closer fellowship with dear friends in a similar season because of the losses we are sharing; I am seeing more and more people show up in my life to be a support and comfort in ways I wouldn't otherwise see; I am more purposeful in enjoying the sweet things that are still in my life, realizing how precious they are since I've lost others; I am relying on God more and more, turning to Him to get me through each day (or sometimes each hour); and I know that ultimately, I am going to grow in faith and love and hope and all of the character qualities I want to have. All of these things are very, very good; and they could never have come about unless my circumstances were what they are.
In the book of Job, we read about a man who lost literally everything. His possessions, his children, even his health were all taken away at once, to the point that the people who came to share the tragic news didn't even have time to finish talking before another "bearer of bad news" showed up. I don't know about you, but I think that would just about do me in. But Job's response is stunning: "The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD." (Job 1:21) God gives us things--good health, precious friendships, close family, abundant provision. And sometimes, He takes them away. Maybe we won't ever understand the entirety of why He takes them; and really, that isn't the point. The main point is that we remember Who He is, trust in his sovereign wisdom and love as we look to the future, and remember to keep our eyes open to His goodness even in this time of loss. Hopefully with each season of "taking away", we are able to grow more and more mature and will be able to enjoy the seasons of "giving" even more when they come back around. Because they will come back around. Meanwhile, let's strive to wait for them well and trust God in the taking away.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Bloom Where You Are Planted


A few summers back, a close friend made the announcement that she and her family were called to become foreign missionaries. She had been telling our little group for a while that she and her husband felt that God wanted them in full-time ministry, but I don't think anyone expected it to be that! Still, we all felt very proud of our dear friend, and excited for the adventure she was setting out on with God's leading.
In those early months, the biggest struggle for her was actually being "stuck"; it was too early to start the process of applications, downsizing, or really any preparations at all. She knew what God wanted her to do, but for the time being she needed to just stay put and be faithful. She was in a season of waiting, and it was not easy! I remember her bringing up a quote later on that really spoke to her and felt like God's instructions for the time being: "bloom where you are planted." 


My friend took that encouragement to heart and strove to really live it out in her season of waiting. God wanted her to become a full-time missionary, yes; but for the moment, He wanted her to stay faithful in what He already had for her as a wife, homeschool mama, friend, and youth group leader at her church; to not just survive the waiting period but to prosper, produce beauty, mature, and become all that He intended before she left. 
Maybe some of you are in a time of waiting like my friend was. Maybe you feel "stuck", wanting to move forward into the next season, but are called to stay right where you are for now. If so, here is some encouragement for how you can "bloom" where you are planted.

Stop fighting the Gardener. The first thing to do if you want to bloom is to let God plant you. Stop fighting Him, and trust that He has you exactly where He wants you. Any good gardener knows exactly where to put each flower or plant--what kind of soil to use, the right balance of sun and shade, and the correct access to just enough water (but not too much). If fallible human gardeners are wise enough to do that, how much more can the Heavenly Gardener find the right place for each of us? In His infinite wisdom, God has placed you where you are in order to do the most work; let Him plant you. "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the LORD, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'" (Jeremiah 29:11)
Trust the Gardener for Nourishment. I realize seeds don't have feelings or thoughts, but let's imagine for a minute what it's like to be one: stuck in the cold ground, covered with dirt, and left in darkness for weeks. Not a very fun experience, right? Likewise, being "planted" in life can feel dark and scary...even hopeless. Sometimes it seems like nobody sees you, faithfully plugging away under the surface, and you long to be able to show forth the beauty God has promised to reveal. Sometimes the weight of the dirt and rocks feels crushing, and you don't know if you will be able to even push through to the surface when the time comes. Yet the ever-faithful Gardener is there, providing all you need to grow, sprout, and eventually blossom. Trust Him to give you what you need, and hold onto the hope that everything He does will lead to your triumphant blooming. "And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 4:19)
Bloom for the Gardener! It's always fun and exciting as winter ends and spring begins to start seeing little green shoots popping up out of the ground. Those mini green markers signal the start of something so beautiful and hopeful! How disappointing would it be, though, if they just stayed tiny green sprouts and never grew and bloomed into the flowers we are so eager to see? Once you get through that initial stage of being planted--when things start to look up, the "soil" isn't so hard to push through, and you begin to see some light and hope again, don't stop there. It's time to show forth all of that potential and beauty and growth! Just like the definition above explains, to bloom means to mature, to reach your full potential where you're at, to flourish, to glow. "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in Heaven." (Matthew 5:16, NKJV) There is nothing as satisfying, amazing, and beautiful as a person living in devotion to God. Do it in such a way that others see your beauty and are drawn back to the ever-faithful Gardener who planted you and cared for you in the first place.

It's been almost two years now since my precious friend had to learn to "bloom where she was planted", and now the time has come for her to be "transplanted". Within the next 2 months, my friend and her family will sell their home and the majority of their possessions, move into an RV, and leave everything they have grown to love in order to fulfill the beautiful calling God has given them. For a while they will travel the country to raise the money they need to start their ministry, and then they will board a plane to travel to their new home in Ecuador, where I know they will not just bloom, but will absolutely blossom for our Wonderful Gardener.

Well done, Emily. What a beautiful "blossom" you have been in my life, and the lives of everyone you have touched while planted here. Thank you for being such an awesome example of blooming where you are planted. 

To stay up-to-date on my friend and her family's amazing journey, follow their blog at https://ecuador-bound.com/