Advent Series (Part 2): Love

Two weeks in a row!  Wooooooo!

There were a couple of different directions I pondered taking with this entry.  I thought about the four Biblical words for love (which I did for our youth lesson this morning).  I thought about talking about God’s gift of love to the world (reason for the season and all!).

In the end, however, I decided to pass those up in favor of this… because it’s something we are failing at pretty dramatically in the American church.

Let’s talk about how we love each other.

“So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”
John 13:34-35

That’s Jesus talking, by the by.  Good information to have.  This was during the Last Supper and part of the last lesson Jesus gave to His disciples before His death. I think that makes it pretty important, wouldn’t you say?

Love is a word not easily defined in our society.  This morning when I asked the youth kiddos what “love” means, they answered with a lot of this number: “Love means… that you love someone!”

I tried briefly to explain that you can’t define a word with that same word, but it was middle school, and my window of opportunity had evaporated into discussions on the difficulties of solving Rubix cubes (shout out to all the fellow youth workers out there… you know exactly what I’m talking about.)

But seriously… in our society we say we love God, we love pizza, we love our pets, we love a sportsball team, we love our spouses, we love our kids, and we love the weather (J/K no one actually ever loves the weather). So naturally the definition tends to feel a bit fluid.

So for our purposes, let’s define love as this: acting for someone’s best good, regardless of the cost to ourselves. This moves love out of the loosey-goosey feelings territory and into a solid choice.  We can choose to love people, regardless of who they are and what they’ve done.

It’s also a choice that hard to make.  Acting for someone’s best good is not a cut and dry thing.  It varies from one situation to the next. Sometimes it means telling someone the hard truth about a path they’re on, and sometimes it means extending grace. Sometimes it means helping someone through a situation, and (hear me) sometimes it means letting them struggle a little through their own consequences. It requires wisdom and discernment, and neither of those things come easily.

And this kind of love so often comes with a high price to the person giving it. We make people angry when we tell them we love them, but we don’t agree with them. A loved one may stop talking to us or others think we’re harsh if we don’t enable someone and instead let them bear their consequences. When we swallow our pride and decide to forego judging someone in favor of reaching out to them in compassion and understanding… it’s hard. Real love carries a price.

Look at Jesus: best example of love we will ever see… and He sacrificed a lot for us. First, He came here. Second, He lived the life we all should have lived. Third, He died the death we all should have died. Makes people talking about us or angry friends or swallowing pride seem a bit small.

So… Jesus said that our love for one another would prove to the world that we belonged to Him.

So after everything was said and done, how did the disciples go about fulfilling this commandment from Jesus?

All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer.

A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity – all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved.
Acts 2:42-47

This is one of those passages that tends to become a “Oh, isn’t that nice?” parts of the Bible.  You know the ones…. Where we read it and smile and say, “Oh, isn’t that nice?” And then if anyone dare suggest we maybe, you know, try to do it… we have a laundry list of reasons why we just simply can’t.

That was just how things were in that day.
It’s just not practical.
We’re too busy in today’s modern society.
People might take advantage.

Maybe… but I think it’s also fair to say that the Lord isn’t adding to our fellowship each day those who are being saved.

Am I saying we should just go sell everything and run off to live in a commune together?  Negative.  That isn’t practical, nor does it seem to be what the disciples were doing. They were still a part of the larger communities (they went and worshiped at the Temple each day). But they were living in a way that was so radically different and attractive that people were drawn to it. It was plain to the world that they belonged to Jesus by how they loved each other.

So let’s cut right to it. The two main hangups I believe most of American society has with this kind of community are greed and accountability.

Let’s start with the ol’ dirty word: greed.

No one thinks they’re greedy. We like words like “responsible” or “thrifty” or “wise”. We help friends in need when we see it, if we can. We may even donate to charities or give the homeless guy on the corner some cash or a sandwich. But our society celebrates greed, and it’s really sneaky.

Some barometers to consider:
Can you help someone in need and not tell anyone?
Can you donate money to an organization or help a person and then take your hands off of what happens after that? Even if you think they waste it?
Do you consider your money yours?
Do you consider your success to be purely because of your hard work and not at all because of things outside your control?
Do you say to yourself or others that poor people wouldn’t be poor if they just worked harder (interpretation: if they worked as hard as I do)?

Greed is sneaky.

We balk at the idea of “sharing everything we have” and “selling property and possessions and sharing the money with those in need” because so often we value comfort over all else. We say we can’t do something, when what we mean is it will make us uncomfortable.

We have to start viewing our things as not ours. We have to start holding onto our stuff with a loose grip, ready to let go any time God even hints that maybe we should.

Also, if God says help someone, it’s not up to you to decide if they deserve it or not. I’m sorry.  It’s just not. Besides, do you really want to start drawing a line with God about people getting what they deserve? (I’m just sayin’…)

“But people might take advantage of us!”

Maybe so. But my Dad has a great saying: You can’t be used by God unless you’re willing to be used by people.

I’m not saying to just throw money at everyone who comes your way, but you have to let go of the idea of controlling the results and leave that in God’s hands. That means that when you give something, you go ahead and cut the strings so many of us leave attached.

Now for the other hangup: accountability.

Ah, accountability. The thing we all want other people to have but don’t want ourselves.

I mean seriously, we’re all about holding other people accountable, but as soon as that gets turned around we suddenly feel attacked. “Don’t judge me!” gets thrown around. Feelings get hurt. Mass hysteria.

This is a thing we’re becoming known for, guys. We are very, very quick to shout down someone over the speck in their eye, and then go to war if anyone dares mention our plank. (Matthew 7:3 for the reference).  If anyone makes a mistake, we jump all over it, claiming we’re holding them accountable.  But that’s not how any of this works.

True accountability requires a deep relationship with the other people involved. I’ve told kids before, “I can only speak truth into someone’s life to the degree that I’m a part of it.”  That means that all those unknown people on Facebook you’re ranting at? Yeah. Not doing any good. (Totally talking to myself at times on that one. I’ve gotten better…)

True accountability means that you continue loving and being a part of someone’s life, even if you don’t agree with them. If your immediate means of accountability is “get right or get out” or “get right or I’ll get out”… yikes. I wouldn’t trust you either. It’s hard to trust someone if you think they’re going to bail the second you do something they don’t like.

True accountability means coming to someone you love and kindly expressing concern over their actions or attitudes, knowing that it might not be heard or received right in that moment. You don’t let your own pride get so tied up into it that if they get angry or don’t listen, you see it as an affront to you somehow. Hold that pride as loosely in your hand as you do all your stuff. Besides, there may be aspects that you misunderstood or didn’t know.

True accountability means listening when someone else tells you they’re concerned about your behaviors or actions or attitudes and not immediately jumping to your own defense, but instead considering it. That takes a lot of humility and self-control. It’s okay to say, “I need to think about that for a while.” But then actually do it. Actually consider it and go to God and ask “am I doing this?” and be willing to accept it if the answer is “yes”. Then be willing to do something about it, even if it means (gasp) asking someone else to help you.

True accountability means taking your concerns to the person involved and keeping away from gossip. Let’s be honest… that’s a thing none of us get right all the time. It’s so easy to slip from “prayer request” to “gossip”.  Like… effortless. You have to be aware and sensitive at every moment to keep a handle on it. Nothing stirs up division like gossip, especially if someone is trying to be transparent about their failings.

True accountability requires patience, love, a refusal to bail, humility, restraint, and a releasing of pride in all directions.  It’s hard. We Christians are a bunch of flawed human beings trying to let God make us more like Jesus. We’re going to screw it up from time to time. That’s where the grace and forgiveness aspects of loving each other come into play.

A lot of the nuances of accountability can be summed up in this:

You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.
James 1:19

Imagine a group of people sacrificially giving to help support each other and those in need… giving up comfort and maybe even taking a few risks to do it.

Imagine a group of people sharing their lives with each other… confessing their sins to each other… lovingly confronting each other’s sins… humbling accepting correction… and not receiving condemnation or gossip, but grace and forgiveness and acceptance.

Imagine a group of people supporting each other emotionally and financially, praising God the whole time.

Imagine if that image of radical love was what we were showing the world instead of looking just like everyone else with a few more rules and a few inspirational sayings posted to our Facebook walls.

I don’t know… but I bet the Lord might just start adding to our numbers each day those being saved.

 

 

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Advent Series (Part 1): Hope

I’m baaaaaaack….

While I cannot guarantee that I’m back forever, I’m back for now.  Coming at you with some thoughts on key themes of Advent: Hope, Love, Joy, and Peace.  I’m going to try to write these every Sunday afternoon up until Christmas.  Key word there is “try”. 😉

So… Let’s talk about hope.

This time of year is supposed to be all about that, right? From the simplistic hope of kids wanting a certain gift under the tree to the deep longing to make amends with a loved one to the intangible “feeling” the season is supposed to bring in general.

But let’s be honest, the reality of the season so very rarely matches the hopeful expectation.  Kids can’t always get what they want… Sometimes estranged loved ones stay estranged… And sometimes that “feeling” you’re supposed to have just makes you feel even worse when you don’t have it.

I know, I know… “What’s with the downer, woman? Uplifting! Think uplifting!”

Yes, yes, I’m getting there.  But we have to be real before we can be uplifting.  Stick with me.

I believe that the reason so many of us get so depressed around the holidays has to do with misplaced hope. I might even go so far as to say that misplaced hope is the main cause of a lot of depression year-round. And it’s completely self-inflicted.

(Disclaimer: I am not talking about clinical depression. That’s a whole other thing! Sometimes your body needs help, and while this stuff I’m talking about can definitely go hand-in-hand with that, don’t ignore your body’s needs. Okay? Okay. Disclaimer over.)

We hope in presents, family gatherings, friends, consumerism, nostalgia, dreams, expectations, etc. etc. etc.  Then when those hopes aren’t met or are disappointing in some way, away we go into a spiral of negativity.  And come on… when are our hopes ever not in some way disappointing? Life isn’t a Hallmark Movie, and it most certainly doesn’t tend to turn out the way we envision it.

What’s even worse is when we project those disappointed hopes onto God. We quietly think to ourselves that if God loved us… if He cared… He would have done something about those disappointments. We don’t usually say it out loud, but boy do our subconscious thoughts scream it.

How do I know? Because I live that too.  I get angry at God when something goes horribly wrong.  Shoot, I get upset when something goes a little wrong. I start getting depressed and thinking things like “Of course I had too high of expectations… why did I even hope for that?” with the quiet background noise of “why did I think GOD would do this for me?”

And so often, it’s over piddly little crap (can I say crap? Oh well, it’s done now) that God never promised.

So with that in mind… here are some things I believe are worthy of hoping in.  Some things that God has promised us.

I have a favorite worship song that centers around this idea of hope (even though it may not seem like it at first). I’m going to use it to help me make my points. Here are the lyrics (minus repeated choruses and such):


You say come, ye weary, come and find your rest
In the arms of Mercy and the One who knows you best.
You are good.  You are good. Let my heart remember this.

You say come ye broken, bring your burdens here.
There’s a healing fountain that is flowing deep and clear.
You are good. You are good. My deliverance is near.

In the pain I will sing, every tear an offering
To my God, to my King, Who’s redeeming everything.

Even now, You keep Your promise.
Even now, Your heart is kindness.
In the dark, I shall not fear
For You are on my side in battle.
God, my strength, my shield forever.
Where my hope is found, I will praise You even now.


The first promise to hope in: rest for the weary.

In Matthew 11:28-30 it says:

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heaven burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”

If you’re like me, you’ve read that before and thought, “Nothing about this yoke is easy to bear and nothing about this burden is light.”

But if we’re being honest, so often the things that are wearing us down didn’t come from God at all.  They came from us: rules we’ve made for ourselves and those unmet expectations that weren’t given to us by God.

The house isn’t perfectly decorated. The family gathering wasn’t all smiles and joy. The kids are looking at the naughty list as a “challenge accepted” situation. Nothing is going the way you hoped!

When Jesus was talking about his yoke and burden, He was talking about the love, mercy, and grace He came to offer versus the heavy list of rules, do’s and don’t’s, and suffocating expectations the Pharisees enforced at the time.

What Jesus came to offer was unearned grace and love. No checklist required… just simply reaching out to Him and saying you need it… you need Him.

We don’t do that very well in our society.  Checklists must be made. Rules must be followed. Do’s and Don’t’s must be enforced. Expectations must be met.

That’s not His yoke or His burden, folks.

Let it go. (Stop it, I know what you started singing. Focus.) Let go of your expectations and just live in grace and mercy.  It doesn’t mean you don’t decorate for the holidays or try to make happy memories with your loved ones. It does mean your hope no longer hinges on them going exactly as you envisioned.

The second promise to hope in: healing for the broken.

He heals the brokenhearted and bandages their wounds. (Psalm 147:3)

God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted. (Matthew 5:4)

We live in a broken world full of broken people.  You’re one of them.  So am I. God has promised healing for that brokenness, however.

Sometimes we are broken by our own bad decisions. I giggle any time I see the saying “Everything in life happens for a reason… sometimes the reason is you’re stupid and make bad decisions.”

I mean… harsh, but is it wrong though?  Still, even in the midst of your self-inflicted brokenness… God is there offering healing.  It doesn’t mean the consequences will disappear, but you will heal.

Sometimes, we are broken by other people’s decisions or even just the world being a broken place. People die. Disasters happen. Love is rejected. And even though you may have done nothing wrong, there you are… broken.

God is there in that moment as well. Let me tell you, as someone who has been broken both by my own bad decisions and the bad decisions of others… there is healing. God doesn’t leave you. It takes time, you have to walk through the grief, but if you are genuinely following and trying to seek Him first, the healing will come over time.

Just don’t go expecting a broken bone to get healed in a day. That’s a little thing we like to call unrealistic.

The third promise to hope in: redemption for the pain.

Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes with the morning. (Psalm 30:5)

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose for them. (Romans 8:28)

Let me say this clearly: we are not promised that nothing bad will ever happen to us.

And while you’re probably saying “I know that!” I would answer (in the voice of Thor) “Do you though?” Because if you’re like me, you say that… and then you get mad or despair when bad things happen anyways.

There’s this unspoken belief for so many of us that if we just do what we’re supposed to, God has to give us the life we want. Then when it doesn’t happen, we fall to pieces.

I explained it to the youth group this way: just about everyone likes some kind of cookie. Cookies are great. However… what about the individual elements?

Let’s see.  Looking up a “made from scratch” cookie recipe…

Sugar.  Yeah, that’s pretty good.  Not sure I’d eat a handful of it by itself (then again… Pixie Stix).
Butter.  Ummmm… probably not going to chomp down on a stick of butter.
Egg. Raw… hard pass.
Flour.  Yeah, this is just getting worse, isn’t it?
Semisweet chocolate chips.  Okay, now we’re talking!
Baking soda….

You get the idea.  Individually, some of those things are great, and some of them are horrible. But when you mix it all together and put it under heat for just the right amount of time: cookies.

That’s God’s promise to us.  Some things that come our way will be awesome.  Some will be just okay. Some will be flat out terrible. But He promises to mix it all together in our lives to make something amazing.

Spiritual cookie principle, I call it.  🙂  No matter what’s going on in our lives, we can hope that God will make it all cookies in the end.


So that’s three promises you can absolutely hope in, but it would be a mistake to make any of them your primary hope. Rest, healing, and redemption are part of our life with God, but they aren’t the basis of our hope.

The basis of our hope is simply this: God is good.

I’m not going to write them all out, but I have a ton of scriptures for this one. (Psalm 119:68; Psalm 107:1; James 1:17; Psalm 34:8; etc.)  The whole Bible centers on the idea that God is good.

He is good. He is kind. He is true. He is on our side.

HE is our hope.

And He proved it all with the “reason for this season”. He sent Jesus down to live the life we should have lived and die the death we should have died… all so we could be reconciled to Him.

His love is proven already, and in much greater fashion than nostalgic Christmas memories or fulfilled hopes that are gone in a flash. We just forget because we are as bad as children who cry “you don’t love me” the second they don’t get their way.

Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean He no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us.

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow – not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below – indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:35-39

Rest, healing, and redemption are all based in our hope in Jesus, the living proof that God is good.

So this holiday season and every day… we must choose.  Who do we believe?

Do we believe our own fleeting hopes, our circumstances, our feelings?

Or do we believe God?

You are good.  You are good. Let my heart remember this.

Merry Christmas, everyone.  I’ll see you again next week. ❤

Justified

Do not be alarmed.

This is not a drill.

I’m actually writing again.

I have admittedly continued putting off writing in here because I simply haven’t been able to trust myself to talk about the topics that have come to mind without being snarky, offensive, and basically unhelpful in any way (except in starting bicker-fights… and I’m really good at that.  Like… deserve a bicker-fight gold medal…. I’ve had some pretty stellar moments on Facebook lately.  Not actually very proud of them at this point….)

And I came to a realization the other day… the reason I haven’t been able to trust myself on the topics that have come to mind is because those topics simply haven’t been worth writing about.

“Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable.  Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” – Philippians 4:8

If I’m being completely honest, the things I’ve let my mind focus on as of late have been more about being right rather than what is right (and there is such a difference.)  I’ve been very good at the “true”, snarky, witty, and sometimes cutting comment.  I’ve even been factually or morally “right” when making them.

But I pause when I ask myself if they were also honorable… pure… lovely… and admirable.

Well, I’ve effectively made myself uncomfortable now.  Good.  Glad to be a part of it.

Looking back on it, I completely understand why I’ve been focused on these things. Naturally, it’s a much deeper issue than I initially wanted to believe.  However, I don’t think I’m alone struggling with this issue, so I think this might actually be something honorable, pure, lovely, admirable, and yes… even true and right to talk about.

Have you ever tried to justify something you’ve done?  Maybe you acted a certain way, said something you regretted, or just plain blew up.  I think we’ve all done that.  I don’t know about any of you, but my natural instinct is to immediately try and explain why I acted, said, blew up, etc.  I try to justify it.

My dad has a lovely saying.  “Excuses are not reasons (and reasons are not excuses).”  If I had a quarter for every time I heard it growing up, I wouldn’t have student loan debt now (ba dum CHING!)

If we’re being completely transparent and truthful, most justifications we offer for bad behavior are just excuses, not reasons.  We were angry.  We were hurt.  We were right.  Too many Christians use being “right” as an excuse to further wound the wounded… to the point that it’s sadly what American Christians have become known for.  Our justification?  “But we’re right.”

Maybe so.  But are our methods honorable, pure, lovely, and admirable?

There’s a deeper level to justification though, one that we rarely take a good look at.  But it’s the root of every other justification we offer.

“God saved you by His grace when you believed.  And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God.  Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.” – Ephesians 2:8-9

I was considering finding a cute way to get around to this, but I’m just going to be straightforward about it.

Too many of us are filling our minds with thoughts of trying to justify our own lives.

“What?” you may be asking your computer/phone/electronic device screen right now.  “Justify my life?  What does that even mean?”

Fair enough.  Here’s what I mean.  I think in the core of all of us there is the deeply rooted question of “What makes me worthwhile? Why do I exist?”  We spend our entire lives trying to justify our own existence.  We pour ourselves into different things that we feel make us worthwhile.

“I’m a good spouse.”

“I’m a good parent.”

“I’m a good *insert job title here*.”

“I’m a good *insert political party here*.”

“I’m a good American.”

“I’m a good Christian.”

Are any of those things inherently bad?  Of course not!  We should try to be good spouses, parents, etc.  It’s not the things themselves, but the elevation of them out of their rightful place that turns them from virtue to vice.

When we dedicate our entire existences to being those things because we think we’re somehow earning our lives, we have put those things above God.  That’s a little thing we like to call idolatry.

Look back at Ephesians 2.  We can’t earn it.

If you are a Christian, then your entire justification rests in Jesus Christ and what He did on the cross, not anything you can do or be.  Anything else we try to use to justify ourselves has been put in His place.  And we know that, of course.  We’ll preach it all day every day.

But do you know how to find out if you’re justifying yourself some other way?  Let that thing get blown up or threatened… and watch what happens.  Make no mistake, anything you can possibly use to justify yourself will get threatened and eventually blown up in some way.

Man… I have had so many self-justifications just absolutely self-destruct in my face.  I never realized I was placing so much stock in being those things until I witnessed my own reactions to them being stripped away or damaged.

Let’s see.

I’ve justified myself as a good wife.
Divorced.

I’ve justified myself as a good mom.
Ask any mom how long that lasts before you feel like the worst mom ever.

I’ve justified myself as the “good girl”.
Then tried desperately to hide the bad things I’ve done because it might hurt that image.

I’ve justified myself as the “cool, laid back chick.”
I can flip out just as awesomely as the grandest diva.

I’ve justified myself as the tough, independent woman.
And come home every night to self-inflicted and maintained exhaustion and despair.

More recently, I let my job start to sneak up on me.  I’m in my eleventh year of teaching now, and I’ve worked hard over the years to build an atmosphere where kids can feel safe, accepted, and free to be themselves.  Not a thing in the world wrong with that, right?  Except that it’s become a point of pride.  I began to justify myself as the wise, accepting teacher the kids could always come to if they needed anything.

Then over the past ten months, I’ve had multiple incidents absolutely demolish this perfect little justification I had started to build in my head.  And all of a sudden, I began to despair.  I began to flail.  I began to get angry.  I began desperately searching for something else to justify myself with.

I found my snark, wit, and cutting remarks… all in the name of others being stupid and me being right.  Because hey… if my justification has fallen apart, I might as well share the joy with others, right?

It’s a path to bitterness, and I’ve taken too many steps down it.

I’m not confessing this now to have anyone try to talk me out of it or comfort me.  I’m not trying to elevate myself as enlightened or whatever.  I’m not even trying to clear my conscience.  I’m actually starting to feel a lot more at peace with it now.

Because even my pitiful attempts at self-justification can’t remove God’s justification of me.

I am justified through grace.  I am made whole by a gift.  It has nothing to do with anything I can or will ever do.  And doesn’t the pride in me just hate that?

want to earn it.  Because when I earn it, I have control over it.  For good or for ill, if I’m justified by my own actions then at least it’s in my hands.

That’s both the struggle and the beauty of Christianity.  We both can’t and don’t have to earn it.  It’s both a frustration and a relief at the same time.

I encourage you to take a hard look at your life.  What things are untouchable?  And if they do get touched, what happens?  What things have you made idolatrous justifications for your own existence on this lovely little Earth?  Righteousness?  Patriotism?  Career?  Political ideals (yep, going there even during election time)?  Parenthood?  Prestige?  Being right?

Back to that first verse.  When it comes down to it… what can we possibly think about all the time that is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, and admirable?  I can think of pretty much one thing:

You can think about God and what He chose to do to bring you back to Him.
You can think about the justification we have been given through Christ.

Let that sink in… and watch the pressure of every other justification fade away.  Focus daily on who you are in Christ, and watch how the other good things become just a part of your life instead of who you are.

And then watch how much healthier and happier they settle into your heart.

“Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us.  Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory.

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance.  And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation.” – Romans 5:1-4

It’s time to stop justifying our justifications (Are you tired of that word yet?  Too bad!  … okay… maybe the snark isn’t all gone yet…. Work in progress.)  It’s time to accept that it’s out of our hands.  Instead, let’s rest our identity in what Christ did for us.

Maybe that’s when we really see ourselves begin to become like Him.

❤ ,
J

 

 

A Confession

Hello, faithful readers who probably think I’ve abandoned this little venture.

Please accept my sincerest apologies for the *goes to look, winces, returns* six month long silence on my end here.  I fully intended for this blog to be a weekly thing (at least), and then some completely unexpected things happened.  And now I must confess something to everyone….

I started “just making it” again.

Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of legitimate reasons for me to slip.  I could list them all for you now, but I’m not going to.  Those who know me, know exactly what this school year has been like.  (I’m a teacher, my year runs from August to May with a blissful two month interlude.)

But at the end of all those reasons, it all came to one sad failing.


So let’s not get tired of doing what is good.”  Galatians 6:9

To put it mildly, I had gotten tired of doing what was good.

There were tons of very legit reasons.  There were things that would have brought me to my knees if not for God’s provision.  But instead of letting God pull me up in those moments, I hunkered down.  I reached a point of just bracing for the next impact instead of pushing forward until I found myself getting pushed further and further back.

I stopped writing for a good while because everything I wrote sounded so angry.  It sounded that way because I felt that way.  But I didn’t want to project that, so I just stopped writing.

It took several good friends and mentors to encourage me out of my little hidey-hole (sometimes by poking me with a few sharp sticks, but sometimes you need that as much as gentle encouragement), and the conclusion I found myself in was that I had begun to rely on myself and my own strengths to pull me through again.

At the root of all of it was pride.

“Wait, what?” you may be asking.  “How does pride cause being weary and tired?”

Let me show you.  It’s a sneaky little thing, I’ll tell you that much.  Here’s how it looks for me a lot of times (let me know if you hear something familiar).

“I deserve a break.  I’ve been doing ____, ____ and _____ and no one appreciates it!”
Translation:  I’m not getting what I consider to be appropriate praise/attention for my efforts.
Solution:  “Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people.”  Colossians 3:23

“I have a right to be upset/sad right now.”
Translation:  I want to wallow, dadgumit it.
Solution:  “Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.”  1 Thessalonians 5:18

“No one understands or cares how difficult this is right now.”
Translation:  I need other people to affirm that I have a right to wallow right now.
Solution:  “Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you.”  1 Peter 5:7

“I don’t see how I’m accomplishing anything good in all of this.  I don’t know why I bother.”
Translation:  I need to see immediate results to feel better about doing the right thing.
Solution:  “So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up.”  Galatians 6:9

*Insert any variety of frustrated statements about people being dumb about any number of subjects*
Translation:  My view/intellect/understanding is superior to everyone else’s.  (Maybe this is just me who struggles with this, but I’m betting not!)
Solution:  “If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see?” 1 John 4:20

Pride, simply put, is when we begin to value and rely on our own ideas, strengths, and will above God.  It warps our sight, making us focus on what our flesh wants us to focus on: the I-must-have-it-immediately-right-now world view.

To step away from pride, we have to make a deliberate decision to put God’s eternal view above our own limited sight.  We have to be able to say in all truth, “Not my will, but Yours”, even if it means we suffer in the short term.

Are your struggles real?  Absolutely!  Mine were.  Like I said, those reasons I had were legitimate.

The issue is not whether or not your struggles exist (they do).  The issue is not whether or not life is hard (it will be), if you’re unappreciated (you will be), or even if people are stupid (they will be).

“I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.”  John 16:33

The issue is who we put our trust in, and who we hide our heart in.

Humility gives it to God.  Prides takes it back on our own shoulders.

So, my dear friends, I’m confessing to you that I gave in and caved to my pride.  I confess that I’m still struggling with it.  Even this morning I was throwing myself a lovely little pride-pity-fest over my current circumstances.  Maybe that’s why I felt a pull to write this: a gentle correction of my own mindset today.

Regardless, I’m fighting my way back, but not in my own strength.  Everything I have, even my greatest strengths, are absolute weakness next to my God.  I’m giving all of it to God and saying “Your will, not mine” and praying that His strength and glory will be shown through my weakness.

“My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” 2 Corinthians 12:8

Stay weak, my friends.  But most of all, keep your eyes above those waves and focused on the One who is Lord over them.  That’s where our trust and hope belong.

❤ J

“You Keep Using That Word” Series – Part 1: Worship

One of my favorite movies of all time is “The Princess Bride”.  It’s just an all around fun movie.

Throughout one portion of the film, we’re introduced to a criminal character named Vizzini.  Without getting into much of the plot here, he is on the run from a man trying to stop the kidnapping of a princess.

At every turn, the man chasing them seems to defy all odds to keep up with them.  And at every turn, Vizzini realizes he’s still there and shouts, “Inconceivable!”

Finally, one of the men working under Vizzini looks at him thoughtfully and says, “You keep using that word… I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Ladies and Gentlemen… welcome to my “You Keep Using That Word” series.  A “study” (why not, people throw that word around nowadays anyways) on words we use that don’t mean what we seem to think they mean.

Today, let’s look at the word “Worship.”

I’m going to be completely honest, I’ve had this topic in mind since long before I actually started this blog, which naturally made it a beast to get out.  This particular topic is one that I am extremely passionate about, and as you know, those topics can be tricky to discuss without getting too fired up or coming off snarky.

But it’s time to get into it.  In the American Christian church, I’ve been watching this “fight” happen for most of my life.  The great worship debate.  What is the right way to worship?  Bring up the word “worship” in mixed company and you very well may accidentally start a small, polite fight right there.

In one corner, you have “traditional worship.”  Hymnals and organs and liturgy and tradition (hence the name).  Those in this corner believe strongly that worship is about rich theological depth to the songs they sing and liturgical significance to all they do.  Many decry contemporary worship as mere “entertainment” for the congregation, the music unsingable and wholly lacking sound doctrine of any kind.

In the other corner, you have “contemporary worship.”  Modern songs with a praise band that do not shy away from engaging the emotions.  Those in this corner believe strongly that worship should be free to move forward with the times and that it is about reaching out to God through means the hymns no longer accomplish.  Many sigh heavily at traditional worship as snobbery, boring, and lacking realness of any kind.

This is, of course, a very broad definition for both.  There are a ton of nuances and deviations on either side of the issue.  And for the sake of total disclosure, I am currently the worship leader of a contemporary worship style church, and I am also a high school choral director who has been in traditional worship services for a good portion of my life.

So, with that in mind….

Both of these corners have it wrong.

What? That’s not what I’m supposed to say!  Right now I’m supposed to either defend tradition or talk about singing a new song to the Lord!  I’m supposed to grumble about the dadgum guitar solos or shake my head at phrases like “let Thy goodness like a fetter” not meaning anything to anyone anymore.  I’m supposed to take a side!

I have.  And I take God’s side.  Because, and hear me on this folks, worship is not about your musical preferences.

I’m just going to brush aside the fact that this entire inane argument reeks of an imperialistic mindset.  Would you go on a mission trip and tell a group of people worshiping in their cultural style that they need to start singing hymns or contemporary worship songs that make no sense to them musically or in the cultural things they reference?  If you would… please do not go on a mission trip.

Okay, so maybe not completely brushing that aside… now I am. Moving on.

Ahem.  Brushing that aside, the whole argument of which style is better is utterly ridiculous because neither of them address the actual topic of what worship is.  We keep using that word….

That being said, it now begs the question:

What is worship?

So glad you asked!  🙂  The actual definition of worship is “to render religious reverence and homage to; to feel an adoring reverence or regard for someone or something.”

Reverence.  Homage.  Adoring.

Please tell me how you can quantify those by watching someone sing.

Sure, you can look at the person singing the hymn with eyes closed and a reverent expression.  Of course, they could be pondering what they want to eat for lunch while mindlessly singing the words of a hymn they know by heart.

Sure, you can look at the person with hands outstretched singing their heart out as the band hits the big chorus.  Of course, they could just really like that particular song and be getting an emotional rush out of it.

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him.  The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them.  People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7

Worship is about where your heart is.  Worship is about an individual turning their heart as well as their life toward God.  Period.  End of statement.

Worship is not about instruments.  It doesn’t matter if someone is playing a pipe organ or an electric guitar, they can be doing it for their own personal satisfaction and the attention it gets them or they can be doing it as an offering of love, devotion, and honor to God.

Worship is not about the group singing.  It doesn’t matter if someone is standing alone with a microphone or sitting in a robe amidst a large choir.  They can be singing for their own personal pride or they can be singing to God.

Worship is not about the songs you sing.  Hear me, now.  Yes, it’s important that a song doesn’t go crazy and start saying things about God that aren’t true.  It’s not honoring to someone to lie about them. However, we are super quick to snap that something isn’t honoring to God. (If you ever use the phrase “Jesus is my boyfriend song” around me, expect me to ask you how you feel about being the bride of Christ… just sayin’.)

God is love.  God is truth.  To focus on only one aspect of God and ignore others is to dishonor the whole of who He is.

In high school, my father was moved to pastor a small traditional church.  At this point, I had grown up on contemporary worship… and I loved it.  I thought traditional worship and hymns were the most boring thing I’d ever heard.  You couldn’t worship with that!  Talk about a chip on my shoulder….

Every Sunday, after the offering, we would always sing the Doxology.

Praise God from Whom all blessings flow.
Praise Him all creatures here below.
Praise Him above ye heavenly hosts.
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
A—–men.

I’m somewhat ashamed to say that I went on autopilot every time we sang that song.  Mindlessly sang the words… maybe tried to find a new harmony… ultimately just plodding through.

There was a woman in that church who is, to this day, one of the godliest women I’ve ever met in my life.  Her heart and soul belong 100% to God.  She sat next to me in the choir loft, and one day during the Doxology I just happened to glance over at her.

Her eyes were closed, her head was lifted, but what captured me in that moment was the absolute love that poured off of her.  She was not just singing those words, she was worshiping with them.  With the Doxology, she understood more about the worship of the Almighty Living God than I (with my big ol’ worship chip) could possibly imagine.

I learned more about true worship in that moment than from any conference or event I’ve been to since.

True worship can happen with a praise band and crazy lights.  True worship can happen in a cathedral with a full choir and pipe organ.  True worship can happen in your living room by yourself with a piano.  True worship can happen in a dadgum drum circle if the people have their hearts centered on God.

Are you allowed your preference?  Of course!  We are created unique by God, and therefore different styles of music will help different people enter into worship easier.  Be careful when you say you can’t worship with a certain style though.  I fell into that trap for years.  You’re essentially telling God that He is less important than your preferences. Careful….

Whatever style you prefer, I implore you now to really study your heart.  Even more, ask God to search your heart.

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life. – Psalm 139:23-24

We do not worship liturgy.  We do not worship a feeling.  I think I can say with good confidence that worshiping anything except God, even while trying to give the appearance of worshiping Him, is idolatry.  Allow God to point out the things in your worship that are not pleasing to Him.

If you are saying to yourself right now that there’s nothing displeasing… then I say you’re not listening.  None of us are perfect.  None of us are there.  Set aside your pride and let God change your heart.

In the end, a true worship encounter with God can be a little scary and a lot overwhelming.  Maybe all these rules and debates are just our way of covering up the fact that we don’t want to have an encounter like that.  You can’t encounter God in true worship and not change.  It may be a big, sudden change… or it may be slowly molding you over time.  But worship produces change every time.  Pride is so much easier a path to take.

I know this may not change a thing in the grand scale.  I do.  This crazy “battle” will continue until God changes the hearts of those involved or Jesus comes back.  But if just one person reads this and says “whoa…” then it’s worth it.

I have so much more to say on the subject of worship, but that’s all for this particular aspect.  Instead, I’ll leave you with words Jesus once said to a woman at a well… who had actually just asked him a question about what was the “right” way to worship.

“But the time is coming – indeed it’s here now – when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth.  The Father is looking for those who will worship Him that way.  For God is Spirit, so those who worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth.” – John 4:23-24

Worship.  Let’s start using it right.

And Many More

A short one for y’all today!  🙂

It’s my birthday.

Anyone else notice that some birthdays, for unnamed reasons, just feel huge?  Like you’re suddenly immensely older even though you’re really not?

That’s me at thirty-five today.

“J,” I hear you saying right now.  “Thirty-five is not old!”

I know, I know.  I hear your words.  I get your point.  But for whatever reason, this birthday just feels significant.

One of the things that I’ve struggled with in recent years is a recurring thought at every birthday.  A thought sometimes laced with anxiety, sometimes with concern, and lately with a healthy dose of reflection.

“This is not where I thought I’d be.”

It started at my 31st birthday.  I was separated, divorce papers filed, and living at my parents’ house with my one year old little Kiddo.  My life as I had known it for years was basically over, and I was starting over again with less than nothing.  That was most definitely not where I’d ever thought I’d be.

Every year since then the thought has come back on this day.  It’s gotten a little less dazed and a lot more hopeful over the past four years.  Now I’m sitting here reflecting on it once again.

I should explain.  In order to say I’m not where I thought I’d be, I should probably tell you where I thought I’d be.

I am and always have been the girl with the plan.  For every occasion and major life event, I had (okay… have) some sort of game plan for how to handle it.  This is just how I’m built, I think.  I can handle a crisis (by coming up with a quick plan… ha!) but I much prefer having my plan prepared.

So by the time I was approaching the end of high school, I had my whole life mapped out in my mind.  I even wrote a paper about it for a scholarship.  I was going to go to college, earn my bachelor of music education and meet “the one”.  We’d get married and start a family as I took on a small band program and built it up to be solid.  I’d volunteer at my church in some capacity, probably music.  Life would go on in a constant cycle of birthdays, band competitions, anniversaries, and milestones.  Nice, neat, and tidy… at least as much as life could be.

It was not in the plan for me to graduate college without being married yet.

It was not in the plan for me to go to grad school immediately because I couldn’t get a job when I graduated halfway through the school year.

It was not in the plan for me to work a year at a music retailer because I couldn’t find a band directing job after I graduated with a master degree in music.

It was not in the plan for me to accept an offer to be a percussion instructor AND choir director at a brand new school.

It was not in the plan for me to have fertility and pregnancy issues.

It was not in the plan for me to abandon band directing altogether in favor of being a high school choir director.

It was not in the plan for my marriage to struggle and eventually fail.

It was not in the plan for The Kiddo to be on the Autistic spectrum.

It was not even in the plan for me to be the worship leader at my church.

None of this was in my plan.

Funny how God is not all that concerned with those, huh?

One of my mom’s favorite quotes is “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”  But I think I could take that a step further.  When you’re trying to follow God, He is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.

Look at every person used in a major way by God in the Bible.  Do you think any of them planned on their lives turning out the way they did?

Was the Ark in Noah’s plan?

Was leaving home to follow a vague promise in Abraham’s plan?

Was leading his people out of Egypt and through the wilderness in Moses’s plan?

Was being king in David’s plan?

Was standing up to her husband king in Esther’s plan?

Was living as an early leader of a new religion and eventually dying as a martyr in ANY of the apostles’ plans?

You get my point, I think.

God is what happens when we’re busy making other plans.  As we follow Him, He guides our paths in directions we never would have imagined and maybe would not have necessarily chosen.

Then one day… we look around… and we say “This is not where I thought I’d be.”  There’s a bit of shock at the thought at first.  But then we begin to look around… to look back.  We see the winding path of our lives and how God has used us along the way.  We see where we are, even when that particular place may be uncomfortable at the time.

And suddenly the path ahead seems a lot more exciting and interesting.

I’m not where I thought I’d be.  I would never have chosen this as a young kid getting ready to head out into the “real world”.  But the thought of everything I would have missed makes my heart ache. And for every single thing that was “not in the plan”, I see how God either used or is still using it for His glory.

I could easily go back and second guess my decisions…  things I chose to do while earnestly trying to follow God that might have been mistakes.  But I just have to have faith that my God is still God over my mistakes.  And His plan over me will not be thwarted by my failings when I’m genuinely seeking Him day after day.

I told you one of my mom’s favorite sayings… now I’m going to tell you mine.  It perfectly sums up the answer to my annual musings on where I thought I’d be.

“I may not have gone where I intended to go…
but I think I’ve ended up where I needed to be.”

Here’s to His path.  May it ever be winding and full of surprises.

❤ J

Lady in Waiting

Public Service Announcement
Just in case you’re new to me or this blog, everything written here is done through the lens of Christianity.  Not because God is a part of my life, but because God permeates every part of my life, so the things I talk about here are inevitably going to come back to Him.

Also, I do not in any way pretend to have any of this stuff completely figured out or even handled.  The things I write about are things I’m still struggling with at times, but sometimes writing about them helps me to solidify those principles.  And hey… we can all figure this stuff out together.  

Lastly!  If there’s anything you’d like to hear my two cents on, please let me know in the comments.  I may not be able to follow up on everything, but I can try!   Okay… PSA over.

I am an exceptionally patient person.

Unless I’m running late.
Or I’m hungry.
Or someone is driving 10 miles under the speed limit in the passing lane (seriously, folks… this is a problem).
Or someone hasn’t texted me back within five minutes.
Or one minute if I know they got that message.
Or I know something I’m looking forward to is on the horizon.

Yeah, okay… maybe that should have read “I am not an exceptionally patient person.”

I truly stink at it.  I’ve joked before that some people can be told by God what’s coming, and they’re completely cool with saying “Awesome. Can’t wait to get there” and then just let it happen as God intends.  But if you tell me that stuff?  HA!  My reaction is the total opposite.

Go look up “Chester and Spike” on YouTube.  The Looney Tunes cartoon.  Yeah…  I’m Chester.  “You wanna go do that thing NOW, God? Huh?  We gonna go do the thing you told me about that looks awesome?  Yeah? Now?  How about now, God?”

So, in the past, God has generally not done the “let’s tell J what’s coming” thing.  He’s always taken more of the “hold my hand and walk with me” approach.  Wise. (which… ya know… is to be expected since He’s God and all…)

Except… He’s started changing that approach.  He’s started giving me glimpses.  He’s started making me wait.  I’m pretty sure it has something to do with helping me grow up… and I’m equally sure it sucks.

We all have to face this at some point.  Something we know God wants us to do or has promised… and that (for reasons unbeknownst to us) we are having to wait on.

Patience.  Uuuuuuuuuuuuuugh….  (That’s a very technical literary term.  Or it is in my book now.)

RSC (Random Subject Change): You know, it’s funny that we can easily recognize blessings in our lives when we’re experiencing them or when things are rolling along well.  We can even look back and see how God protected us or provided for us in the bad times.  But then we get some distance… and things get rough again… and suddenly all of that provision, that protection, and that unending faithfulness?  We forget about it completely.

We’re far from the first to experience faithfulness amnesia.  The book of Exodus is pretty much a study on the subject!  There’s just something about our human nature that throws away everything we know about who God is the second things get rough.

I am ridiculous about this.  I know I am.  I can recognize it easily right now because I’m not currently feeling like everything is falling apart!  But less than a week ago, I had a tearful conversation with a close friend that returned back to a lingering doubt that always tries to resurface when I’m feeling low.

Does God really care about me?

This friend is one of those good friends who will tell me straight up how things are and when I’m being ridiculous.  If you don’t have one of those people that can hold you accountable, by the way, I highly recommend it.  It’s awful and annoying at times but very necessary to grow.

So this friend began listing all the ways God has provided for me and blessed me, basically reminding me of all the reasons for me to have hope.  All the reasons for me to trust.

Because, you see, my little meltdown was because I’m having to wait on a few things… and my argument was “If God cares, why am I having to wait?”  My little meltdown (aka tantrum, if we’re honest) was because of patience.  And my lack of patience all ties back to a failing of my trust.  And that failing comes from my faithfulness amnesia.

If I’m in the middle of a stressful time of waiting (because let’s be honest… hardly anyone actually enjoys waiting), I can walk through it with confidence if I remember Who is walking with me.  I can move forward with hope because my hope isn’t in the end result, it’s in the God who gave me the glimpse in the first place.

I have always wanted to be a mother.

I kid you not… my mom kept one of those “School Days” books.  Those lovely little things that have a spot for your school pictures, places to record fun little facts and answer questions about what you want to do in the future, who your friends are… all that.  (Side note… fourth grade was a very unfortunate hair year for me.  Never perm just your bangs….  Ever.)

Anyways, from the very beginning, in the spot that says “What I Want to Be When I Grow Up” I always said “Mother”.  There was usually something else with it like actress, teacher, etc. but being a mom was always a constant.

Fast forward to my twenties.  I was married, and that desire was stronger than ever.  I had always gotten along well with babies and little kids.  I just couldn’t wait to have one of my own.  Then we got a lovely surprise… I was pregnant!

There were announcements made, doctor appointments scheduled, and preliminary discussions on baby names.  I was on cloud nine.  At last!  What I had waited for!

Then the second doctor’s appointment came… and the baby had stopped growing.  No heartbeat.  They tried to give some sliver of hope, but I knew.  It was over… we had lost the baby.

Devastated.  That’s a pretty accurate word.  I never expected something like that to happen to me.  We recovered.  We tried to heal.  Several months later, we were much more tentatively excited to find out that we were pregnant again.

Then several weeks later, the same devastation happened again.

The year that followed was one of confusion and pain for me.  It began to look like a child of my own was just not something that would be able to happen.  And I did not understand.

God had given me what a friend once described as “an overactive maternal instinct”.  He had given me the deep desire to love and raise a child of my own.  Why?  Why had He given it to me if He was never going to let that desire come to fruition?

I questioned everything.  Questioned whether I had done something wrong.  Questioned what was wrong with me.  I even questioned if God really cared at all.  The waiting stretched out from months to over a year.  And there was no hope in my waiting… just a growing sense of disappointment and despair.

I am incredibly blessed to have parents who are not just my mentors, but they are also now my friends.  My mom saw me walking through this time, and she saw my heart breaking more and more every day.  At last, she gave me a verse that her mom had once given to her… one I had never heard before.

“I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.  Wait for the Lord.  Be strong and let your heart take courage.  Yes, wait for the Lord.” – Psalm 27:13-14

Sometimes someone gives you a verse like that… and it’s exactly what you needed in that moment.  It’s a way that God speaks to us, and this was absolutely one of those times.  It bolstered me, and even though I was still confused and sad… despair could not keep its hold on me while I was standing in the light of waiting on the Lord. 

It was only a few months later that I was pregnant with The Kiddo.

He is perfect, and motherhood is hard as anything… but definitely worth it.  As I look back, I can see the hand of God during those years and those hard times.  I can see the support and love He placed around me.  I can see how He’s used my own experiences to help others.

And then I forgot all of it less than a week ago.

I think there’s a reason that Psalm says “Let your heart take courage”.  Just be honest.  There are some days when we want to be sad.  We don’t want to hope, because hope takes work.  We just want to feel bad and wallow in our feeling-badness, dadgumit.  We refuse to let our hearts take courage.

Because when I take the time to really remember what God has done in my past… my heart has no choice but to either reject the truth or take courage.

Courage breeds hope.
Hope gives us patient endurance.
Patience gives us joy in the midst of waiting.
A joyful heart in Him is a powerful testimony.

And isn’t that the whole point?

So, be strong, friends.  And let your heart take courage as we wait on the Lord.

❤ J