A Strange Juxtaposition

heaven"Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain."--1 Cor. 15:58 In my last post, I explored the idea that as humans, we tend to be satisfied with the small stuff. The Lord is constantly challenging me in this as I get sucked into what I think is reality at the expense of what is truly real. I need to train my mind to think of heaven just as much as the next person. So what does that look like?

As I was reflecting on this, I was reminded of this passage in 1 Corinthians 15. In it, Paul writes a stirring explanation of the importance of Christ's resurrection and His second coming. You can hear the victorious spirit in his voice as he proclaims, "O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?" (v. 55). This thought propelled me to look at other passages that speak of our future to come when Christ returns.

Throughout the New Testament, we are told to watch and wait for this day for we do not know when it is coming (Matt. 25:12, 1 Thess. 5:6).  This again reminds us that we are not to set our sights on life here. We are passing through here, not staying long term. We are not to get comfy, surrounding ourselves with what the world here has to offer. We are not to lounge around thinking, "There is peace and security." (1 Thess. 5:2)

Rather, we are to focus on the fact that our Savior is coming again. That is our reality. That is our hope. He promises us that He will take us back to us Father's house, that even now He is preparing a place for us where we will stay for eternity (John 14:2, 3). This home is going to beat every other description of home we can ever imagine. This home is going to satisfy us in all the deepest longings we have.

But even more interesting is what follows each of these reminders. Instead of walking in la-la land, each of these passages is followed with some very practical advice: get off your butt and get busy! When the New Testament writers write about the second coming, it is not so that we live on another plane, ignorant of what is going on around us. Take a look. We are not to be so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly use.

1 Thessalonians 5:8 tells us to not sleep but to stay awake and sober, "putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation." Them's fightin' words! We are to be getting ready for battle, not merely dreaming of faraway lands of bliss. A few verses later in verse 11, Paul tells us to encourage one another and build one another up. We often take that verse out of context, but it is a practical thing that we are to do as we are waiting for his coming again.

Jesus tells us the same thing in his discourse on the end times in Matthew 24-25. He was the one who originally taught that He will come again at a time unknown to us. In 24:43, He reminds us that if we know this, our response should be to be caught ready and waiting. Following that admonition, He launches into the parable of the ten virgins (25:1-13), five of whom were not ready…and missed out.

But what is more interesting is what follows after that: the parable of the talents (25:14-30) and the description of the final judgment (25:31-46). Because He is coming again, we are to be actively watching and waiting, and while we are doing so, we are to be making the best use of the talents we have been given, whether it is a little or a lot. We are to be meeting the needs of the people around us, even if it is simply offering a cup of water, a meal, or clothing to those who are in want. The juxtaposition of these passages is not a mistake. Even as our eyes are focused on His return, our hands and lives are to be busy with the work of the Gospel.

It is no different in 1 Corinthians 15, a chapter completely devoted to resurrection theology, starting with the reality of the resurrection of Christ (v. 1-11). the resurrection of the dead (v. 12-34), and the nature of our resurrected bodies (v. 35-49). As I mentioned earlier, Paul ends with a stirring cry of victory, one that not even death can vanquish (v. 55-57). But right away, in verse 58, he admonishes us to abound in the work of the Lord, knowing our labor is not in vain.

Do you see the connection? Even as the Chans write about being focused on hope and heaven in chapter 5, we are not to sit in glassy-eyed wonder, letting life pass by. Au contraire! We should be found with our hearts full of hope and our hands hard at work, making disciples. Friends, we are to get into our armor, gearing up for battle, even as we find our hope in the promises of heaven.

There is much to do. This is our time in the story to play our part, to do the good works God has prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10). Are we going to be caught doing them or are we going to be caught napping?

What I took away from this chapter is two-fold. First, I need to examine my heart. Does it long for heaven? Or am I too content on earth? Again, C.S. Lewis writes, "Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.” What am I aiming at?

And then second, even as I aim at heaven, what am I doing while I am waiting? Am I working, rolling up my sleeves and pouring myself into the disciple-making mission of Jesus or am I just….waiting? We cannot be content with just disciplining our minds to focus on the reality of heaven.

I believe that when we do, we are not only sending ahead rewards for the world to come, we are bringing heaven into the places in which we live today. For eternal life does not only begin someday, but it begins now. May the reality of our eternal future impact us today so that how we live, act, think, feel, do reflects the certainty of our hope.

Making Mud Pies

Mud pieThis week, as I was reading chapter 5 in You and Me Forever, I thought it was a fitting bookend to the start of the book on eternity. Just as looking at life with an eternal perspective will shape our lives, so will remembering the reality of our future in heaven. Both of these ideas will color how we live today. On the flip side, how we live today can also betray what we really believe. For some, our problem is not that we long for heaven too much. It is that we do not long for heaven at all or we have a faulty Hollywood-inspired view of it. We have relegated it to the level of fantasy, not reality. One of my favorite C. S. Lewis quotes comes from his essay, "The Weight of Glory," in which he puts it this way:

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Not only are we not looking for heaven, we are looking for our satisfaction in the things of this world. One of Satan's most effective attacks in America is not outright persecution (yet) but a dulling of our senses to the reality of eternity. Our problem is in building up our cushy lifestyles, we have failed to realize that there is more to come--a life that makes all these earthly dreams look like dust. We wrap ourselves in this illusory existence and completely forget that our real world is unseen.

After years of sending texts on a phone in which you scroll through the letters (remember those?), I recently got my first smartphone. It was exciting at first to set it up and marvel at all I can do with it. But a couple of weeks later, I am finding that it hasn't really changed my life all that much for the better as it claims. Temporary things will never satisfy. It is all an illusion. In our desire for convenience or ease, in our desire to save time and labor, we pursue the best, top of the line stuff, leaving little to the imagination. Why would heaven look appealing when we have it all here? As Lewis says, we are too easily pleased.

In reflecting on this chapter then, I was challenged by the Chans to re-consider how I choose to buy things. In this world, it makes sense to buy the best you can afford. I never think about buying "good enough" or used until I married my husband. I have a faulty belief that purchasing someone's unwanted things suggests I am lower class.

What I choose to spend my money on speaks loudly of my unspoken beliefs, even if the item in question is "just" a little thing. Will I invest in things that I will need to work hard to protect or maintain or will I invest it in people, the only "things" I will ever take to heaven with me? Will I try to reward myself now or will I trust that by living with less here so I can give away more, I am actually storing up eternal rewards that moth will not destroy?

I'm not saying that money itself is the root of the problem. As Paul so clearly states in 1 Timothy 6:10, it is the love of money that is the trouble…and you don't need to have a lot of it to be bitten by this bug. Even those who are poor in our economy can be afflicted. But as Paul also writes, the antidote is not to get rid of it, but to learn contentment in the right things. We really only need two things: food and clothing (v. 8). The rest is purely gravy.

Whether the Lord has blessed us with a little or a lot, we can learn to be content. If we have a little, then we can be satisfied with the limited means we may have. I can still host a big dinner party because it is not the dining room that makes the difference. What brings joy is not the square footage I possess but the love, joy and contentment that comes out of me.

If we are blessed with a lot, we can still learn to be content. As the Chans share in their video, it is possible to live with ugly brown carpet or a used car without automatic windows or door locks and be happy. There's nothing wrong with making a lot of money or trying to increase our bottom line. The question is: why?

As parents, we can fool ourselves into thinking that we are earning more so we can give our kids a better life, the education they need to succeed, and so forth. I certainly have told myself that I need to work harder so my kids do not need to go without. But without what? By providing them with all their hearts desire, do I end up perpetuating Satan's lie through my well-meaning intentions? Do I do this because--and this is hard to admit--this is what I really believe will bring them happiness? Is my goal to help them fit in here or am I truly equipping them for heaven?

I think that is why the Chans' choices have fascinated me. They really live this out…and their kids along with them! I'm sure that as a high-demand speaker and best-selling author, they could definitely afford to live in a nice neighborhood and drive luxury cars. But they don't. This boggles my mind. My natural response is "Why not?"

When I fix my eyes on heaven, He helps me to find satisfaction in Him, not the things of this earth. I see an inverse correlation here. The less I remember heaven, the more I seek to satisfy myself in the temporal world around me. The less I pursue Him, the more I will pursue the stuff here on earth. We are made to worship something. If we do not worship God, we will worship something else. There is no neutral ground.

Teaching myself to find my greatest pleasure in Him--and not the "mud pies" of this life--will shape me tremendously. I confess I am still learning this. I haven't mastered it yet. As the Chans remind me in this chapter, it is a discipline. It takes work to live  in--and sometimes fight against--the reality of an unseen world when the ones in our face are clamoring for attention and stealing our affections.

If there's one thing that I have been reminded of over and over, it is the fact that we are on a battlefield, not a luxury resort on vacation. But what does that look like? Hold that thought, and come join me in my next post!

Defining Discipleship

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA[box] This post is a based on a reflection on chapter 4 of You and Me Forever.[/box] “And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”—Matthew 28:18-20

Most of us are familiar with the “Great Commission.” Some of us may even have memorized it. The real question though is this: How is it impacting our day-to-day living and choices?

 

When it is used, this verse often is linked with world missions and the call to evangelism. The Chans write, “Jesus was telling His followers to go to those who didnot know about Him. They were to reach people who didn’t have a relationship with Him. They were to baptize them and teach them to obey His commands.” (p. 99)

And while this is certainly true, I personally think it actually means more than just that. I remember as a younger Christian, I excused myself from this verse because I did not feel called to the mission field or have the gift of evangelism, so I really didn’t give it much thought. All I really took away from this passage was that Jesus was with me always. I liked that part.

Over the years, however, God has been expanding my understanding of discipleship and what it means. I was surprised to learn that in the original Greek, the command in verse 19 is not the word, “go” but “make disciples.” So often, we focus on that word and assume that if we are not able to go on a missions trip, this verse is not for us. Actually, this verse is best understood as “as you go, make disciples.” If that's the case, then I am not exempt!

This is best exemplified in the life of Jesus. One of the most formative books in my own discipleship is Robert Coleman’s TheMaster Plan of Evangelism. Despite its title, it really is about discipleship, of which evangelism, or the conversion of disciples, is a part. If we watch Jesus, His days on earth are a study in how to make disciples that can shake the world and turn it upside down. We often focus on His death and resurrection (which, of course, is extremely vital), but we forget that His days on earth were not a random mishmash of miracles and inspiring sermons. While He walked on this planet, Jesus was all about making disciples, so when He asks us to make disciples, we should not be surprised. This was what He was all about while He was here on earth. And He is still at it today.

To make disciples, then is to make learners, followers, pupils of Christ. It is not merely making converts, but helping others move through all the stages of the spiritual life. We may play a part in a certain section of that journey, but wherever our lives intersect others', God desires to use us to encourage, deepen, and challenge the beliefs and faith of another. This can be done formally, but as I watch Jesus, I am beginning to believe that it is much more informal. He was always using fig trees, bread and loaves, and dead men to make His point. He discipled as He went with His stories, warnings, and words of hope. Likewise, God wants us to always be on the lookout, as we go, for opportunities to bring others one step closer to Him. Wherever people are in their faith journey, whether believers or not, I want to be available to be used by God to deepen their understanding of Him and how to live out what they learn.

If this is so, then discipleship ministry is really people ministry. It is not about a prescribed workbook to follow, Scripture memory cards to master, or an experience to undergo. While it can take these forms, the real focus of making disciples is about meeting people where they are with who you are and letting God speak His truth through you. Whether a Roman centurion or a pious Pharisee, Jesus focused on their faith and journey with Christ and responded in a way to take them to the next level.

This is how I personally view ministry and discipleship. For me, this has then eliminated the “saved” and “unsaved” differentiation people make when they read the command in Matthew 28. This keeps me from looking at non-Christians as special projects to convert. It keeps me from thinking my job is done once they have “prayed the prayer.” It also keeps me from forgetting to nurture and deepen the faith of those who are strong leaders. My job as a discipler for Christ is to listen to others as I listen to the Lord and speak the words they need to hear to draw them closer to Christ. It is not about tallying how many people I have saved. It is about pointing others to Him.

So this could mean processing with an unbeliever who doubts God’s goodness in a world full of suffering. It could mean grounding a new Christian in the basics of faith. It could mean challenging a growing believer in dealing with sin. And it could mean equipping leaders with the heart and skills they need for ministry.

Of course, this presumes that I too am growing as a disciple. I cannot give away what I do not have. For that reason, I need to commit to being a disciple of Christ and make it my highest priority. I do this by letting Him fill my mind with His truth, learning to practice His presence, dealing with sin that hinders, and responding to invitations to act. As I do so, He shapes my mind and thoughts, fills my heart, and teaches me through my life’s experiences.

Little by little then, I build up what I can give away, or overflow, to others. As I learn to lean on Him, He opens my eyes to those teachable moments that are around me as I go through life. In my self-centeredness, I may not always take them, but I am much more aware of them nowadays.

This has resulted in many exciting moments. I have seen it in my sons when they shed tears of repentance and desire to live differently.  I have seen God work overseas in the lives of teen girls who grasp the good news of Christ and are now young mothers discipling their own children. I have seen eyes brighten, relationships restored, wounds healed. Nothing on earth can match the thrill of seeing God at work right before your eyes.

I know that I cannot reach everyone, and not every encounter ends in glowing results. I am learning to be content with knowing that I can be used by God to merely sow seeds without seeing the fruit. Sometimes I walk with people for just a season in their lives. This understanding of discipleship has opened up a new way of looking and thinking about life that has been an exciting journey with Jesus.

“You exist to make disciples. Your marriage exists to make disciples. You don’t want to stand before God at the end of your life with no disciples. Restructure your life. Re-prioritize. You exist to influence others.”—Francis and Lisa Chan

Are you ready to join Him in the adventure?

Beautiful People, Beautiful Marriages

http://www.dreamstime.com/-image20446832[box] This is a personal reflection based on chapter 3 of You and Me Forever. [/box] "Beautiful people make beautiful marriages….Your best shot at having a beautiful marriage is if both of you make it your goal to become like Jesus.”—Francis and Lisa Chan

When I think of a beautiful marriage, I usually look at how a couple communicates with one another, whether they “glow” when they look at each other, or whether they get along or are soul mates. I know it’s a rather shallow basis of judgment, but I’ll be honest here.

But what the Chans are saying here is something entirely different. Rather than basing it on an external picture, they are talking about our personal, individual walk with Christ. The husband or wife that is cultivating a growing intimacy with Jesus will become more like Him. When that happens, we then begin to live and love like He does.

Of course, this is easier said than done. I have often found that the hardest people to love are the ones that are in my own home. Anyone else feel the same way? It’s hard to love the people that take you for granted, grate on your nerves, whose limitations or weaknesses are before you at every turn. If it’s not your spouse that bugs you, then it can be your children.

When it comes to showing the sacrificial love of Jesus, we often think of the heroic things: running into a burning house to save a child, saving our loved ones from a sinking ship, or throwing ourselves in front of a speeding train to protect them. But really, how often do we actually encounter situations like this? I hazard to guess that most of us live rather boring, ordinary lives.

If we are waiting for these moments to come, we most likely will be waiting a long time. In fact, if we do nothing during those mundane moments with our families in the privacy of our own home while we wait for these heroic moments to come, we will most likely not be prepared when they do.

Cultivating a heart of sacrificial love and service is not going to happen overnight. It takes practice. Like I mentioned in my post about practicing the presence of God, these habits are learned in the ordinary routines of life. It is practicing the habit of helping your spouse after a long day of work, even when you’d rather hide in the den and flip on the TV. It is practicing the habit of biting your tongue when a sarcastic comment threatens to erupt from your lips. It is practicing the habit of seeing the best in someone even when they are at their worst (again) and praying that God will help you love them even as they irritate the living daylights out of you.

But in order to be that person, we need to realize that it is not something we can simply muster up strength to do. We cannot conjure up the will to serve—at least not consistently for a prolonged period of time. The only way to do that is through abiding in Christ, learning to practice His presence, praying continually, living life at every moment--whatever we are doing--as an act of love and service toward Him.

Strangely (or maybe not really so), the greatest thing we can do in our marriage (or in our parenting) is to devote myself to loving Jesus. In my personal experience, I have found that when I am focused on just my marriage or my parenting, I am much more easily frustrated because inevitably my spouse and children will fail me. When I dig down deeper, I see this discouragement and despair because I am looking at them to satisfy something in me. I may not say this or even want to admit it, but I am looking for them to meet something in me that only God can. I get angry with them when they fail (unsurprisingly) to do so.

But when I am finding my deepest satisfaction in God, my focus is not on what they can give me but how I can bless them, for that is the nature of God’s heart. As I find my greatest joy in Him, I am satisfied. When I am satisfied, I am not grasping and needy. I am content in the deepest core of my being, which then brings freedom to give, not take.

As I continue to find my delight in Jesus, I am then able to not just be joyful but desire to seek the good of others, even if it is at my own expense. As I often share, we then live a life of overflow. We are not generating good works from the flesh; we are overflowing the heart of God naturally into the lives of those around us. This giving heart of God slowly begins to become our own.

And so returning to the opening quote, I have realized that the greatest thing I can do for my marriage is to invest in my personal life with God. The Chans say the same thing in their video. It seems counterintuitive at first, but if we really think about it, it makes a lot of sense. It’s not about manufacturing my own godliness, but allowing the Spirit that dwells in me to rule my heart and create in me the likeness of Jesus. I cannot do this on my own, try as I might.

The Gospel reminds us that our salvation is not by our own works or merit. We do not work it out by our own strength either. It is often said that we become like the people we hang out with. When we learn to keep company with Jesus, we begin to look like him too. We will talk like Him, act like Him, think like Him.

When that happens, we become beautiful people from the inside out. The first people that we should bless is our spouse, shown in the small acts of kindness, service, and sacrifice. Though it isn’t easy, it is what helps a husband love his wife like the church, laying down his life for her. It is what helps a wife submit to the leadership of her husband joyfully and respectfully (Ephesians 5:22-33).

And when we start living like this, our marriages will really start to stand out from the rest of the world. We become the living example of Christ, not only to the people around us but most importantly, to our children who have a front-row seat.

I want a beautiful marriage. I know it is going to take time to cultivate it. There are days when I have to deal with the weeds in my own heart. Some days I need to fertilize the soil with truth from His Word. There is effort involved.

By faith, I am trusting that the end result will be a marriage that is not just different but deeply blesses those around me, starting with my spouse and children, and ends in bringing God the greatest glory. It starts with Him, is shown in small acts of faithfulness that no one sees, and blossoms into Christ-like character that spreads the aroma of Christ to all that we touch.

Lofty words, yes. That is what a vision is. We may never achieve it fully in this lifetime. But it is a vision that keeps me going and pressing forward, even when I regress or fail. I hope they encourage you too to pursue Jesus with all your heart.

It’ll be worth it.

Staying in His Story

story[box] This is a reflection based on chapter 2 of You and Me Forever.[/box] This week has been a very hard week. I was coming out of a week of illness and was waaaaaay behind with everything. My husband had two preaching assignments in a row (which he never does)…and caught my cold. I didn't feel like I was helping anyone and the feeling of being overwhelmed flooded me. Individually, they would not be heavy burdens. But all together, it was hard not to feel overwhelmed.

However, what made it particularly disheartening this time around was facing yet another day with Anah. Many times, I felt resentful that on top of the load we were already carrying, we needed to add Anah's unending, constant care. We have been told by others to take advantage of the school system and just send her off to school, but deep in our hearts, we knew that the way to deal with her institutionally-induced issues was not to send her to another institution but to care for her in the context of our family. This also means that she would be at home with us.

But we also then felt like she was a "black hole"--sucking up every bit of us, but making little progress, or worse yet, going backwards. We have seen God graciously provide for us through our church family to hire outside care, which has been a huge help. But there are still some parts of the day and routines that we have still had to do ourselves that are physically, emotionally, and spiritually wearing us down. Dan and I have been investing countless hours, pouring our energies into helping her work through the limitations she has, constantly developing (and re-developing) daily routines that would allow her to function semi-independently, and making arrangements for her care if we could not do it ourselves. Again, if the other circumstances of life this past week were different, we would not find her care so burdensome, but all together, the realization that this was going to be a cross we will bear for the rest of our days (or hers) just triggered hopelessness and despair inside.

For the past few weeks, we have begun going through counseling to work through some of the stresses and strains this adoption has placed on our marriage. We didn't ever anticipate that something good, like adoption, would be so destructive to our relationship. Anyways, through this whole week and during our counseling session, I kept hearing myself say, "I can't do this anymore." It is a hard place to be in because it is very humbling.

I like to have things together--or at least appear that way. To be at the end of my rope, the bottom of the pit, teetering on the abyss—those are places I work hard to avoid. And yet, I am learning--once again--that perhaps God in His wisdom is allowing me to experience these things so that I can start becoming the person He wants me to be. The smaller I am, the greater He can become in and through me. I must decrease so that He can increase (John 3:30). This has been the cry of my heart for years. And while it is easy to pray, I often balk at the means it takes for Him to get me there. Yet, if this is what it requires so that He can refine me as gold, then so be it. If this is what it takes for Him to use our marriage and family as a witness and testimony to His grace and goodness, then I pray that I will faithfully and willingly walk in the path He has chosen for us.

storyWe love to read in our family. All good stories, as we have quickly discovered, have a conflict--a problem, a struggle, an obstacle to overcome. Without it, there really is nothing worth reading. In fact, we agree that kind of book is actually boring! What makes us keep turning the pages is the desire to find out how the conflict will be resolved at the end.

But a story is not simply a plot line with its twists and turns. A story is about the characters that people it. What draws us in is how the characters interact with the plot. For our family, the greatest value in reading literature together is learning as we walk (or sometimes crawl) with Frodo on the road to Mordor in The Lord of the Rings. It is considering the plight and consequent choices of orphaned Sara Crewe in A Little Princess. It is climbing the steps to the guillotine with Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities.

We have often told our children that the character and the love for God that we long for is not developed in the easy times but in the hard ones. There really is no other way (unfortunately) to become the men and women God wants us to be. Like a story without conflict, our lives would be rather boring and dull. There is no opportunity for character to develop, faith to deepen, or trust to grow.

How about you? Are you in that uncomfortable place in God’s story? If so, don’t run away from it. Instead, sink down into the loving arms of a God who has kept record of our tossings, collects our tears in a bottle and writes them in His book (Psalm 56:8). We have been working with God's people long enough to know that even under the happy smiles and well-dressed exteriors lie hearts that struggle and hurt. It is part of being human.

But for those of us who also call ourselves Christians, this may be the best place to be, if we are willing to walk through it instead of fight it.

  • It may mean accepting the painful realization that I am needy and weak.
  • It may mean accepting the fact that without this pain, there is no story that will bring Him glory.
  • It may mean being willing to enter the battlefield, trusting Him to not only help you survive but be victorious in the end.

I’m not saying that we are to seek out pain, but if you find yourself in the midst of it, be willing to enter into it in faith and trust that God has something good He will do with it, even if Satan desires to wound you with it. This is possible because the Holy Spirit dwells within us. He is the one who will use the hard times to form in us the character of Christ we so deeply desire. Use this opportunity to draw near to Him instead of pushing Him away (which is what I tend to do).

In marriage, Dan and I are realizing that we need to draw together as a couple as well and face our difficulties together. We need to fight together against what Satan desires to use to drive us apart so that our marriage becomes the testimony that He wants us to be. Hardship often causes husband and wife to turn against each other as enemies (don't ask me how we know this). In our pain, we end up wounding our allies. But a house divided cannot stand.

So if you find yourself in the midst of great loss and grief, trial and opposition, or stress and strain, these are the moments when we have the opportunity to do what is completely counterintuitive. We get to learn how to grow intimacy, strengthen commitment, and love unconditionally. Step back, remember the big picture, and then re-enter with a resolve to engage for the glory of God.

Every good story has a setting, and ours, as we read in chapter 1, is eternity. This backdrop will help us remember that our sufferings are a part of the glory He has in store for us. The realities of life may not change, but our perspective does.

This post is as much a reminder for me as it is an encouragement for you. God is still writing our story. We do not write from the vantage point of hindsight. We are still in the trenches. I say this, lest some of you think it is a flippant, pat answer that grates against the soul in our pain.

Life without struggle is like a story without conflict. It would be dull. And I believe it will also be impotent in making the Gospel known. Even Jesus' story, perfect God He was, had pain and suffering in it. How can we expect our lives to be any different?

But as we watch Him, we too can take hope that there is victory and glory awaiting for those who are faithful. Take heart and draw close to Him as He walks you through it. Allow God to use our pain to work in us what a watching world longs to see--that God is real, He is relevant, He is good.

Stick around for the ending and stay in His story.

We will. How about you?

Eternity in the Ordinary

15764039_s[box] This post is a reflection from You and Me Forever, chapter 1. [/box] If what I see determines what I do, and if, as we have been reading in chapter 1, we are to have an eternal perspective, then how does one cultivate that viewpoint? In the conversations I’ve had with others, I think we don’t realize how we have absorbed the worldview of the world around us. Try as I might, I would probably have to say that I have “conformed” more than I have been “transformed.” (Romans 12:2). How then do we begin to retrain our focus so that eternity becomes our new reality and our new modus operandi?

There are some hints. In the Bible we read Paul’s command in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 to pray without ceasing. What’s that look like? Does that mean I am constantly on my knees? Obviously, as a mom, that is not going to be either practical or safe! If that was what God expected, then I’m not doing so well. I tend to pray only when I’m in trouble or need to.

Then there’s Jesus’ exhortation to abide in the vine (John 15:4-5). Those who do not are unable to do anything eternally fruitful. We are cut off from the life-giving source and will eventually shrivel. Then David talks about dwelling in the house of the Lord all the days of his life as being the one thing he wants to do (Psalm 27:4). What’s up with all these people? Did this mean that believers just pray and stare at God all day? How does one do this and still live in this world?

My husband has often compared spiritual disciplines to basketball (or other sports) drills. Sometimes they don’t seem like they are very practical. The repetition gets boring or dull. They seem to last forever. But, as he reminds me, their value is most apparent when you are playing the game. During a game, we don’t have time to try to remember what position our elbows should be in and how to aim at the basket. Sometimes we need to make a quick decision in a split second. If we have practiced our drills faithfully, those things become second nature. We then don’t have to waste precious moments during the game to stop and think about it. And we respond in a way that helps us to (hopefully) win!

Learning to practice the presence of God is one of those spiritual disciplines that trains us to live with an eternal perspective. When we train ourselves to practice His presence, we begin to live that sense of eternity as if it were second nature. Little by little through practice, we can then start to look at life through His lens and viewpoint. When the “big” moments and decisions come, we are then better able to respond in a way that is consistent with eternal values.

I like Thomas Kelly’s description best. He writes:

 “There is a way of ordering our mental life on more than one level at once. On one level we may be thinking, discussing, seeing, calculating, meeting all the demands of external affairs. But deep within, behind the scenes, at a profounder level, we may also be in prayer and adoration, song and worship, and a gentle receptiveness to divine breathings.”— A Testament of Devotion

So you wanna start developing this ability? Here are a few ideas adapted from Spiritual Disciplines Handbook to help you get started:

  • Before your feet hit the ground to start the day, make it a habit to dedicate it to God. Offer yourself as a living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1) and your body as instruments of righteousness (Rom. 6:13).
  • Before you begin a task or while you are performing it, even if it is a routine one, dedicate yourself to God. Ask God to guide you while you compose an email, give you insight when you need to discipline a child, find joy when you wash the dishes. Or you can place a visual reminder or set an alarm at various points of the day to “check in” with God. Pray that you will give him glory in whatever you do, whether we eat or drink. (Col. 3:17, 23)
  • If interruptions plague you (as they do for most parents), learn to view them as God’s way of trying to break through to us. Samuel learned to say, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3:9) If we are irritated with interruptions, it may be because we look at them as obstacles to our own personal goals or comfort. But if we allow them to be a reminder to view them from God’s perspective, we may be less irritated and instead respond to them in a way that is more consistent with His heart and values.

This discipline is a practice or a drill in our spiritual lives that attunes as more closely to the reality of God in the ordinary. I hope you’ll give it a try. I'll admit that I'm still in process. May it allow you to abide in the vine in an attitude of prayer even as you live, move, work, serve, and act so that you may begin to experience the joy of being in His presence even now here on earth.

What Do You See?

IMG_0089[box] This post is a reflection from You and Me Forever, chapter 1.[/box] “One day, my wife will stand before the Creator and Judge of all things. What a staggering moment that will be! I can’t imagine any of us being ready for the shock of that day, yet Scripture begs us to spend our lives preparing for it.”—You and Me Forever, p. 10

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”—1 Cor. 13:12 (ESV)

“Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.”—Colossians 1:28, 29

What we see determines how we respond. We do this with our physical eyes while we are driving. If I see my exit coming up, I prepare by moving over so I can get off the freeway. If I see an obstacle in the road, I move out of the way (or pray that I can clear the roadkill as I drive over it!). If I see a detour, I will need to recalculate my route. The input I receive from my eyes determines how I maneuver the car, which sometimes means I move off my original path.

This doesn’t just apply to driving. I am sure that you can think of numerous situations in everyday life when what we see determines how we respond. If I see spilled milk, I clean it up. If I see a family struggling with a newborn, I bring them a meal. This is a small parallel, but this is the thought that struck me as I was reading these opening paragraphs of You and Me Forever. I am often so stuck in the temporal everyday world I live in that I do not live with an eternal perspective. There are days when all I can see are the mounds of laundry, the stacks of bills to be paid, the unending list of things to do. Compound this with the needs of a husband and children and there are times when I feel like it is all I can do to keep our family from imploding. You too?

But as I was reading this week, I realized that what I see with my spiritual eyes also impacts how I respond. If all I “see” is restricted to this world I live in, I will live in this plane. However, if what guides me is shaped by the spiritual realities that my God who loves me and watches over me is also with me at every moment, I truly can do all things through Him who strengthens me (Phil. 4:13). His grace is sufficient for me when I am weak (2 Cor. 12:9). I can persevere through the hard times in raising our kids and homeschooling and working through adoption issues, all good things, because I can believe there is a reward waiting for us if I do not give up (Gal 6:9).

Paul’s picture of striving in his ministry (Col. 1:28, 29) has always captured me and inspired me in my own relationships with others. If, as he reminds us, we will one day see God face to face (1 Cor 13:12), what will I say to Him? Will He care about my stock portfolio and how well it did? Will He care about my record on the golf course or basketball court? Will He want to hear about all the vacations I took, the great deals I scored, the parties I attended?

My guess is that even if He did (for He is a gracious and patient Father), it really isn’t going to matter. When all is said and done, I am standing before Him, those things are nothing compared to the majesty and greatness of eternity. The things that I prized and praised, the temporal goals that I focused my eyes on will not even register when I stand before Him.

If that is true, then it really is foolish of me to focus on them here during my days on earth. If what I see determines how I respond, then focusing on eternity should have a huge impact on how I live today. If I remember, as Francis Chan reminds us, that my spouse, my children, my parents, my siblings, my friends, my neighbors, will one day stand before God, this reality will greatly impact what I do with them and how I spend my time.

Paul spent his days teaching and laboring, striving and toiling to present others complete in Christ. I almost imagine him viewing the people he ministered to as gifts to God. Every chance he got, he was encouraging them and pointing them to Jesus so that their faith may grow and bear fruit for the Kingdom. It was not just his passionate personality, but a conviction of an eternal reality that motivated him to speak of and share Christ at every opportunity. His eternal vision determined how he lived, his values, his purpose, his goals. It motivated him and strengthened him and tinted everything he saw with the glory of heaven.

Is that the way we live today? What would happen if we did? How would our lives look if we truly made it our number one goal in life to love God and love our neighbor (Matt. 22:38-40)? How would it affect how we look at people if we remembered that we are all disciples in the making (Matt. 28:18-20)?

The only things that really will last are the things of God and people. People are eternal beings, and they will live on, either with Him or without Him. If I truly take this to heart, then my days and my time and my resources will best be used if I invest them in the things of God and in people. It is what helps me to face conflict with my husband and seek counsel, even when it is embarrassing, so that we can build a stronger home and family. It is what drives me to homeschool my children. It is what encourages me to keep loving a child who does not respond to my efforts and stares at me blankly. It is what inspires me to teach and speak and write. It is what allows me to sacrifice the temporal things for what will truly last.

What we see determines how we respond.

What are you looking at?

Let's Read!: You and Me Forever

maui28 As I had shared in my last post, my husband and I celebrated our twentieth wedding anniversary this year. It was a momentous occasion, which we celebrated with a belated trip to Maui this fall. During our time there, we enjoyed a little sightseeing and eating out (without kids!). But one of our greatest highlights was being able to have the uninterrupted time we needed to pray about and consider where God has been taking us over the past twenty years.

From the beginning of our married lives, we knew that we were to be on mission together. Around 2006, Dan and I began thinking and dreaming about a discipleship and retreat ministry. Over the past twenty years, we have found our greatest joy in utilizing our teaching gifts, our love for small groups, and/or using our home to minister to others. We have been watching and waiting for the Lord to guide us and as He has presented opportunities we would take them. Some things would have to wait until later, but we knew that there were plenty of places He could start honing our skills, growing our hearts, and developing our vision today. 

With the addition of Anah, we have realized that life is never going to be exactly as we envisioned it.We don’t know what God is up to, but we know that He wants to do something with us together that will be more than what we could do if we were still single. Of course, this doesn’t mean that He can’t use unmarried people, nor should we interpret Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7 to suggest that only single people could serve Him effectively.  The God who thought it was “not good” for Adam to be alone is also the creator of marriage, and their union brought satisfaction to His heart. We know that our relationship was something that God has blessed us with; how can we then bless Him with our marriage?

Francis Chan’s latest book, You and Me Forever, was co-written with his wife, Lisa. I enjoyed his first book, Crazy Love, when we were overseas in China awaiting the arrival of Anah and was definitely challenged by some of his radical suggestions. (Well, I don't think they were his original ideas, but Jesus', which are still as counter-cultural today as they were when He first shared them.) This book is similar, looking at marriage through the lens of the Gospel. It is not a book on marriage per se, but it does examine the ramifications of the Gospel in our marriages.

maui8A few years ago, I taught a marriage class to women and one of the topics that seemed to capture many of us was the idea of being on mission together as husband and wife--something beyond being good parents or loyal church members. I had many comment that they wanted to serve the Lord with their husbands—and some of them have followed through with that desire in different ways. It has been exciting to see God helping couples explore the idea of living missionally as a couple and not just being content to build a nice little home, raise good kids, and saving up for a comfy retirement.

For the next couple of months, I will be taking this one topic and exploring it more in depth in an adult Sunday school class at our church, using You and Me Forever as a guide. One of the things that I really appreciated about this book was its emphasis on the Gospel and how it will impact how we view our everyday lives, our parenting (if we have or desire to have children), our values and priorities, our stewardship, and much more. It is definitely not for the faint of heart who want nice, easy, comfortable topics. At some points, you may even wonder, “Who even does this?”

Well, evidently, the Chans do seek to live out what they write about. Instead of going to Maui for their twentieth anniversary, they went on a mission to serve the poor in Africa. (You can see their 5-minute video about it on the homepage of the book’s website at http://www.youandmeforever.org .) For a moment, I felt a bit worldly for the five days we spent in Hawaii, but I don’t think that is the point. Their goal is not to shame us but to challenge us to dream even bigger. (And yes, there is something even bigger than Maui awaiting us!)

You and Me Forever

My two favorite chapters were chapters 4 and 6, and their thoughts totally resonated with my heart. I needed the reminder that we are in a battlefield, not a resort, and that our enemy is not our spouse, but the deceiver of our souls. I have been challenged to take the hard road of Christ, challenged to take risks for Him, challenged to surrender control of my life so that He could be more greatly magnified in and through me. This book will force each of us to personally consider our own walk with God, how it impacts our relationship with one another, and how it can be used to reflect the Good News of Jesus to the world around us, starting with our children. As we read the book together as a group, I know that God will continue to challenge me in these areas and deepen my vision for marriage and family so that it more closely resembles His.

As the Chans share, our marriages can give people a reason to praise God—or it can cause them to doubt His existence. I hope that our marriage will point others to Christ, and that it will depict the ultimate Marriage that is yet to come, with Christ as our Bridegroom and the church as His bride. To think that He allows those of us who are married to experience that is a privilege indeed and a foretaste of the glory that awaits us.

He Has Done Great Things For Us

"…for he who is mighty has done great things for me…"--Luke 1:49 As much as I love traditional Christmas music, I am finding myself enjoying some of the original contemporary worship songs that have come out from my favorite artists. One of my favorite Christmas albums is Chris Tomlin's 2009 release, Glory in the Highest. Track number 5, "My Soul Magnifies the Lord," has been resonating in my heart and mind the past week and has inspired me to blog again. A lot has happened in the past year and like Mary in Luke 1:46-55, I believe it is my time to speak up and praise Him for what He has been doing.

What He's Doing for Anah

great1Ever since we brought Anah home a little over two years ago (!!), things have been in an uproar. As I glance back at my posts since her arrival, I have realized how hard it is to write positively. I want to be honest about our journey of adoption, and the honest truth of it is it has been really hard. In some ways, it has been easy--Anah has been blessed with very good health and her physical issues have been minimal. No surgeries, treatments, or special therapies required.

But on the other hand, it has also been very hard. At first, we could not figure out the root of many of her problems. We still aren't 100% sure, but two years later, we have a much better idea. Our conclusion is that she is a very bright little girl, but her time in an institutionalized setting has created in her some bad habits and an inability to think for herself that has made everyday life with her very difficult. To make a long story short, this took a lot of time and sapped our energy levels considerably. 

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In the beginning of this year, we finally were able to agree on what course of action to pursue in regards to school. Functionally, she is at about a two-year-old level in her cognitive abilities, so we weren't 100% convinced that another institutional setting would be the best situation for her. Sure, she was eligible and it would have been convenient for us, but in our hearts we were not comfortable with the idea. But we also knew that we were getting very burned out trying to take care of her and our three other children--who were all hitting some milestones of their own--as well. After some research, we believed that a neurodevelopmental approach to her education would be the best option for her as it sought to integrate different therapies into one program. This program consists of short exercises that help her to develop speech, gross motor, memory, as well as sensory input. It takes about 2-3 hours a day to run through her school day, with time in between to play, which is just about right for her.

But even with this big decision made, we realized that it was still taking a lot out of us. So through the generosity of our church, we have been able to hire regular outside help to assist us in not only Anah's daily care but also her school program. Through the loving care of these wonderful young ladies, Anah is making big strides and showing great interest in letters, animals, and counting.  She is able to ride a tricycle and climb up and down stairs without fear (still slow though). She loves to color, play "basketball" and sing songs with hand motions. Though her speech is still garbled and she cannot brush her teeth or give herself a bath, and even though she still is not 100% toilet trained, she has come a long way.

He has done great things for Anah.

What He's Doing in Our Other Kids

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As I mentioned earlier, each of our other children have also hit some major milestones as well. Our oldest daughter, Janna, graduated from our homeschool this past year and is now at Biola University. That last year was a crazy year for us, trying to figure things out for Anah while at the same time helping Janna figure out her next steps. Having never home schooled high school before, I had to add the job of college admissions counselor to my list of roles. Fortunately, she had finished most of her actual high school requirements by the end of her junior year, with only English left for her senior year. So, we spent the year in studying for all her standardized exams, which really paid off for her. With a strong SAT score and her GPA, she was able to net not just one scholarship but two. They weren't full-ride scholarships, but they were four-year scholarships, provided she maintain her GPA. There would be no way we could provide the tuition on a single-income pastor's salary, but she stepped out in faith, trusting that the Lord would cover her expenses. The day she did, she found out about her second scholarship. It was as if the Lord was affirming her decision and reminding her that He would take care of her.

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In addition to applying to colleges, Janna was able to prepare for six CLEP and AP exams, which allowed her to complete a total of seven GE courses during her senior year. When she started school, this allowed her a little advantage over other incoming freshmen during registration. When we moved her in at the end of August, we were blown away by the experience God has in store for her this coming year. Biola has been the perfect transition for her from being under our roof to living on her own. She has found a wonderful community of friends and has had very little relational angst to deal with (which we were a little worried about). She has been doing well in her courses and is in a major she loves. Even though she still doesn't have her license, she has been getting around on her bike for exercise and shopping. She's figured out a study schedule, how to talk to her professors, and when to do her laundry. And just recently, she was offered a job that she could keep over the next four years, one that takes advantage of her experiences and skills.

He has done great things for Janna.

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As for Matthew, he is now officially a teenager and has passed me up in size. He grew 5 inches in a year and his feet are about as big as his dad's! In school, he has been in 8th grade and has been busy with a full load of classes. In addition to perfecting his yo-yo skills, he has been "scouted" for volleyball in our local city league. He has been playing for fun over the past 4-5 years and while we thought he was a good player (so we are biased, like all parents), it was neat to see other coaches recognize his skill. We are not able to afford club volleyball--either financially or time-wise--at this point, but in God's goodness, he has allowed him to play on a team with a dad that actually is an experienced volleyball coach/player. He has been taking Matthew under his wing and privately coaching him, along with his son. This has been an amazing opportunity, especially since as homeschoolers, it is hard for him to play sports with a school team. But as always, God is watching out for us and our needs, and this has been a perfect solution at this time--something that allows him to continue to learn and develop his skills without taking over our lives.

great5But the one thing that really has been the most amazing for Matthew this year has been seeing his hard work with Team Malaria come to fruition. His team was able to earn over $10,000 in total through their efforts. It was amazing to see children from various churches join together to make his vision of providing mosquito nets for children in Africa a reality. This fall, we received word from our friends at Bright Vision Orphanage in Malawi with the news that 400 nets were purchased with the funds, and 150 were already distributed. Our friends will be able to purchase 950 nets in total, but will have to do it in batches. Other dates for distributions have been planned for the future, but they are getting out there to the kids in Chamadenga. But the most important thing was that when the nets were given out, children and families were able to hear the Gospel. For his work, he was nominated for the Kohl's Cares scholarship and made it up to the Regional Level, which earned him a $1000 scholarship (gotta start saving for college now!). 

He has done great things for Matthew.

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Last but not least, is our little Jonathan. Now in 1st grade, our little Jon has been growing in leaps and bounds in so many ways. He is an excellent all-around student, doing well in all his subjects. He has an amazing memory, which we are utilizing to memorize Scripture, geography terms, mathematical properties, and history facts (just ask him about William the Conqueror or the Magna Carta). He is a natural up on stage and felt quite at home sharing "Now We Are Six" by A. A. Milne in front of a crowd when our homeschool group went to serve at a local seniors' center. Jonathan loves people and is excited to have friends over, whether they are his own friends, babies, or Janna's college pals. We have had so much fun watching him grow and develop into his own person. We are sadly realizing that we are finally moving out of the early childhood years and no longer have a little one in the house. 

great12I think the most amazing thing that I am seeing God do in Jonathan's life is shaping his heart for Jesus. After one particularly trying afternoon where Jonathan and I had not just one but two head-on collisions, I was spent. I went into my room for some quiet time to recover. I wondered if we would ever get past this rebellious stage and if he ever heard anything I was saying to him. It made me a little fearful of what was ahead for us when we hit the teen years! But as I was praying and pouring out my frustrations to God, a little note slipped under my door. You can read it for yourself. It was as if God was telling me not to give up on him, and to keep talking with him for He has plans for him. I wish I could say things were completely different from that point on, but of course, that wouldn't be true. But since then, I have been so blessed to see him growing a sensitive heart towards his sin and seeking ways to control his responses through the help of the Holy Spirit. He reminds me that with Christ, there is hope for change.

He has done great things for Jonathan.

What He's Doing in Our Marriage

maui28I wish I could say that things with my husband have remained strong and steady over the past couple of years, but that would be a lie. In fact, I think the past two years have been the hardest yet. The strain and weariness of caring for Anah left Dan and me with little time for each other. Compounded with that was the feeling that we were not really even on the same team. We often felt like we were working against each other instead of together. Let's just say we were not in a good place.

This June, we celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary, and we knew that things needed to change. So through a combination of honorariums, savings, and Visa points, we were able to get away to Maui in September for a belated anniversary celebration. A team of wonderful friends worked together to generously give of their time, love and energy to care for our kids for the five days that we were away. Another group pooled their resources to treat us to dinner at Roy's.

maui35While we were there, we were able to not only get the rest we needed, but an opportunity to renew our vision for our future. Before Anah came, we were in the beginning stages of exploring a retreat ministry for couples. We had been dreaming of doing this for a long time and were able to plan and execute two retreats before she came. We just assumed back then that after she arrived, we would pick up where we left off. Instead, we found that she was far more delayed than we had expected, which made us wonder if we would ever be able to see this dream become a reality. I know this added to my depression and grief, which added yet another wedge in our marriage.

It was during this time when we had to take a hard look at our reality of caring for a special needs child and consider where God was taking us. We believed that He still had something in store for us as a couple--and it wasn't about taking care of Anah. Since then, we believe God has been resuscitating our dreams and helping us to define where we are going. In the year to come, we are looking forward to putting together another couples retreat and are looking forward to exploring advanced degrees and a sabbatical sometime for Dan.

He has done great things for us.

What He's Doing in Me

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As I was reviewing the posts I've been writing over the past few years, I think they were honestly where I was at. I wish I could have written something a little more upbeat and optimistic. But I just could not put a positive spin on it, no matter how hard I tried. I really wasn't there yet. And if I'm truthful still, I don't know if I am a whole lot closer. I think that was part of the main reason why I stopped writing, stopped interacting on Facebook and Instagram for a season. In all these areas, it is so easy to put on a fake persona and I just couldn't do it. Adoption is stinkin' hard and painful for some people. I don't want to give the false impression that our family has it all together and I didn't want to write anything that was not true. I also didn't want to use it to rant and complain. I don't want pity. I don't want to poison others with my own junk. Instead, God took care of me by giving me friends that I could be completely honest with, friends who I could trust on this journey. And through them, He is helping me begin to rewrite a new chapter in the story that I thought He was writing. He has been good to me in providing people to walk alongside. Things still haven't changed, but I think if anything, I am resigned to the fact that Anah is now in our lives. I guess that's the first step. Instead of fighting it, I have now just accepted this is our reality. Maybe one day, I will get to the point where I can say that I'm glad we adopted her.

But even in the midst of my brokenness and struggle, God has been giving me hope. I didn't realize how much I needed a hope to cling on to. I was looking for that hope in my children, my marriage, or my dreams. But they were not meant to be the strong, sturdy hope I can bank my life on. Only God Himself can be my hope. And so this year, He has been reminding me that He has been enough.

great14One of the ways He teaches me His truth is actually through teaching others. As I wrestle with His Word and turn my attention to others, He helps me to look beyond myself to the bigger picture. Earlier this year, I was able to facilitate a class for Janna's friends. I had never done a group for teen girls, but it was a wonderful experience. With them, I was reminded that God is writing a story in my life, just as He was writing one in theirs. If He allows hardship, struggle, and suffering, it was not because He is out to punish me, but because He desires to do something amazing. That pain is what He uses to prepare me to be able to do that work.

Just last week, I finished facilitating another study, this time with young parents. That experience was another life-giving one for me, as the Lord allowed me to interact with some of my favorite people of all but also to solidify my own beliefs about the discipleship ministry I have as a mother to my children. I still need that reminder regularly! Through that study, not only did the Lord remind me anew of how important this parenting gig is, but He also began to deepen my personal vision of what He may be doing in and through me and what my contribution to His Kingdom might be. My passion to live out the Great Commandment and the Great Commission to make disciples is beginning to take a definite shape. I am beginning to see how my personal bent might combine with my husband's to complement each other. As He is drawing these out, I am beginning to get a sense of what my voice might be. The difficulties I have experienced over the past couple of years have actually given me a new courage to face hard things and to not be afraid to go out of my comfort zone. (I guess after adopting a special needs child and struggling with her, other things seem easier in comparison!) I am looking forward to more speaking and writing in the future, though I am not sure in what capacities.

Yes, the Lord has been good to me. He is walking with me out of the valley and is leading me into a place of light. He is showing me that with him, there is hope. He is reminding me that pain and suffering in His hands will yield good fruit if I am willing to persevere. His presence doesn't make my problems go away, but it does give me a new perspective and the ability to keep moving forward. Along the way, He has brought people into my life--some new friends, some old friends--who have served as Jesus in my life as I have cried, mourned, and wrestled.

These are but some of the things I am just starting to see. I know there is more yet to come.

He has done great things for me.

Storybook Shoes: The Summer Collection!

2014.06.10 baby shoes 60 Back in November, I shared my daughter's first foray into business with her crocheted baby shoes. Thank you to those of you who have supported her in her venture! She is learning a lot in the process!

Though retail stores have been selling summer stuff for months now, she has finally gotten her collection together. (We're still learning, right?) Again, I think they are absolutely adorable. Check these out!

Brand New

Summer 2014 Collection

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Flip Flops (6-12 mos.)
$15
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 Seaside sandals (6-12 mos.)
$15 each
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Girl bow sandals, white/tan (6-12 mos.)
$15 each
Girl bow sandals, pink/ivory (6-12 mos.)
$15
And yes, there is something for the boys too--though they can work for girls as well!
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Boy sandals (6-12 mos.)
$15 each

Fall 2014 Preview

And if you're thinking ahead for the fall season...
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Sailor boots, tan/white (6-12 mos.)
$20
 Sailor boots, chocolate/tan (6-12 mos.)
$20
Sailor boots, navy/white (7-13 mos.)
$20
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Too Cute Mary Janes (6-12 mos.)--pink
$15

CLEARANCE!

Grab a pair before they disappear!
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 Chocolate boots, plain (12-18 mos.)
$15 $10
Rosebud boots with ruffles (12-18 mos.)
$15 $10
 Cream boots with ruffles (12-18 mos.)
$15 $10
 Snow boots with ruffles (12-18 mos.)
$15 $10
Shoes worn with socks will fit smaller feet (for example, 12-18 month sized boots worn with socks will fit a 6-12 month old).

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 Mary Janes (9-15 mos.)
$15 $10

Each pair is hand-crocheted, so there is limited availability. If you see a pair you like, please contact me at vera@verachristian.com, and I will connect you with my daughter. These make wonderful unique baby shower gifts and come wrapped in a handmade shoebox.

jannagrad2

I am open to any suggestions on sizing, color, or design!
Thank you for your support!
Janna Christian,
Storybook Shoes

Choices, Choices

make a choiceHave you ever been in a spiritual slump? God's Word seems dry, like shredded wheat. Prayer feels like you're talking to yourself. Relationships are on edge. Life feels monotonous and empty, even though it's crazy busy. That's pretty much where I've been. But as a pastor's wife, ministry leader, and a parent, I often feel that I cannot admit that openly, because, of course, what will people think? Often times, I am in a slump because there is something in my soul that I know God wants to deal with, but I don't want to go there. Like a Pandora's box of evil, I fear that stopping long enough to let Him deal with the sin that lurks, poisons, and ultimately deadens my soul, will undo and unhinge me. And so, I paste my smile on and keep going, sometimes filling my life full of things--good things, of course--to keep myself from having to face what is within. I figure that if I'm busy enough, it can distract me from the pain that is in my heart.

But that becomes a vicious cycle. As I hide from God in my work, I also find that I am less able to receive from Him all the life-giving strength, purpose, and vitality that He desires for me. To make up for it, I work harder, trying to imitate in my own efforts what only He can give. I expend more energy to compensate but find my soul becoming emptier and emptier. And because I have cut off my communications with Him, I really feel alone with no where to go.

And so, I am finding myself realizing that at the bottom of my pit of despair and discouragement, I have a choice. I can either continue on this path or take a deep breath and face the truth of my sin with Him. It seems that if I run away from Him long enough, that is usually the choice I end up having to make. Both of them are painful. Neither one is appealing. But only one will bring the relief and the restoration I long for.

I had realized that over the past 18 months, a great part of my struggle has been trying to reconcile the reality of Anah with the vision for building up Mom University. The question of my soul was: Why did He seem to lead me in one direction, then allow another, completely different (at least in my eyes) one intercept it? It made no sense to me.

But if Anah is God's step towards that vision---and even if she wasn't---she is here in our home and family to stay. What He is putting His finger on in my heart is that I have not accepted that reality. I am still trying to carry out the plans I thought He had for me before her arrival. In clinging to my old plans, even if they were good ones from Him, I effectively remove myself from the present moment. As a result, I have become bitter, angry, and resentful at her intrusion in my life and in my future.

Here, I am caught short by who has taken center stage in my life: me. Even if God did have good plans for me through writing and speaking, I have limited my effectiveness because I have not been willing to fully enter into the life He has given me now with Anah. Instead, I have rebelled against it, and Him, and with it, the blessings He desires to pour out on me through Anah.

I mentioned yesterday that I was reading Alan Fadling's An Unhurried Life, and as I was reading, I realized that while I long for my old life or even a different life, I am missing out on what God is doing here today. By focusing on what I do not have, the future that I have lost, and how hard life is now, I am revealing to myself my lack of faith in the heart of God. As I look to the future, I have cut Him out of that picture. No wonder it is bleak.

After today's reading, I realized that if I desire to restore any spiritual vitality--and with it, spiritual effectiveness, I needed to let Anah into my heart and commit myself wholeheartedly to her well-being and care, as if she were my own flesh and blood. I admit I have just gone through the motions out of obedience to God but often with a grumbling spirit. There have been moments when I have truly enjoyed her, but that was only when she made me happy or did what I wanted. But God is showing me that if I am willing to not just grudgingly obey and actively embrace this new life, He will be able to do more than I can ask or imagine.

And when I think of it that way, the choice is clear.

Journeys of Faithfulness, ch. 12: Always a Happy Ending

journeys[box] Read chapter 12 of Journeys of Faithfulness. [/box] Don't you love happy endings?

The guy gets the girl. The hero overcomes his enemy. Relationships are restored. We breathe a sigh of relief that our inner sense of justice and rightness is satisfied.

Throughout this book, Sarah has introduced the idea that God is the author of the One Great Story, started in eternity past, with an ending in eternity yet to come. We are now in the middle of that story, in between Act III and Act IV. Amazingly, He weaves our ordinary little lives into this huge epic that He is writing, whether we are working through our mundane moments where no one sees what we are doing or whether we are on the stage with the spotlight shining on us.

This concept of our lives as part of God's epic story has really captured my heart and is slowly begin to reshape my vision of how I see not only my life but the life of others. For if this is true---and I think it is---then not only do we have a job to do, but I do not need to envy the roles the others around me play. As a mother, this has helped me to then look at my children not as an extension of myself, but as a part of God's great story…and to do all I can to help them to prepare for their role---even now.

In God's story, there are no bit parts or insignificant characters. All are important. I doubt Ruth knew what was in store for her future when she made her monumental decision to leave all she knew to follow her mother-in-law to a strange new land. I am sure she did not see herself as a heroine as she went out to glean in Boaz's fields each day.

But God was behind the scenes, orchestrating and prompting and acting and moving. He was the one that brought Naomi and her family to Moab. He was the one that connected their families, arranged her marriage, and set her in a happy home. He taught her about Himself and strengthened her faith. He also was the one that decided when to take Mahlon out of her life. He led her to Boaz's field. He cleared the way for Boaz to marry her. And through her faithfulness in responding to His direction, even when it was difficult, uncertain and tiring, God was able to use her little story to bless our lives now.

As we wrap up this book, I ponder at what this means for me. Right now, we are in the midst of a very challenging season with Anah. We are waiting for the day when it will get better. There doesn't seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel. I sometimes wonder if there is any point to what we do every day with her as it doesn't seem to make a lot of difference. I don't know what Ruth was thinking, but maybe it was similar: Get up in the morning. Get dressed. Make breakfast for Naomi. Walk out to the fields. Pick up one grain of barley. Then another. And another. Fill my bag with grain. Bring it home. Help with dinner. Wash up. Go to sleep. Wake up in the morning to do it all again.

So it is with us today. I won't bore you with the details, but because of where Anah is at developmentally, things are pretty structured at our home. Even weekends aren't breaks for us, because any lapse throws her off. (Well, even if we don't have one, it still throws her off.) I often wonder what God is doing behind the scenes in our story. Sometimes I wonder if He is even there.

But I have to believe that even though He seems to be letting the camera run without any directions, He is watching me behind the lens. He may be silent, but He is present. I know I do that with my kids. I am in the background, watching them deliberate on whether to keep trying with that frustrating Lego or throw it down in despair. I don't always rush in to fix things. I do this to see what they would do when they need to make their own choices. Would they choose the high road or wallow in self pity, get angry, throw a fit?

In my own journey, I believe this is where God actually refines me. What am I going to do when I have to say the same thing for the 100th time in an hour? What am I going to do when I get the blank stare even though we've done it the same way for months on end? And every time I choose His way, He further cements His grace and character in me.

I'll have to admit that more often than not, I don't always make the right choice. But when I do, I am reminded that He is still writing my story. When I submit to the life that He has for me today, even if it is not one I would choose for myself, I am choosing in faith to believe that it will contribute to the happy ending He is writing for me. I don't know what it is. And even if I imagined it, I don't think I would do as good a job as He would.

One line in Sarah's devotional really resonated with me this week. She said, “God is the bringer of hope. He is the maker of happy endings.” Like Ruth, I do not know what the ending is going to look like. But it's going to be good. He can do no less.

And so, until that day comes, I will keep going, picking my grain (off our kitchen floors), doing my work, and waiting for my Bridegroom to come.

And one day, He will.

Discussion Questions:

  • How does knowing there is a happy ending change how you look at life?
  • Where do you place your hope---in your own changing dreams or in an unchangeable God? What will it look like in your life to place your hope in God alone?

Spring Break and Spring Cleaning (for Homeschooling Moms)

spring breakAround this time of year, as the days get longer and the weather becomes warmer, a homeschooling mom's heart turns to…the end of the school year! This year in particular, the end of the school year also signals the end of formal homeschool for my oldest daughter. But before we get there, we still have a few more AP and CLEP exams to complete. Close, but we're still not there yet. Sigh. Do you feel that way too? If you don't, then you could probably skip this post. Or maybe you feel like you're heading that direction and need a shot in the arm. If that's you, then read on.

Let's face it, homeschooling is hard work. Even if you have your kids enrolled in classes one day a week or have other people helping you, the burden of managing, grading, and supervising each of your kids' studies can be grueling, especially if you are just starting out. And even if you are a veteran that has got it down (ha!), we are human and do get weary. It's easy to burn out this time of year, especially if you have other big issues besides homeschooling you are trying to manage, like a new baby, major home repairs to deal with, or even a pet that needs your attention.

But thankfully, the God who calls us to educate our children does not leave us in these situations. Rather, it is these kinds of circumstances and seasons that are His specialty, for the more I admit that I cannot do this, the more He is then able to work in and through me. Here's a "math" equation we can all commit to memory (say it after me now!): Less of me = more of Him.

Besides remembering that in Him, I have all I need, there are three other things that I am going to do during this spring break to refresh and rejuvenate so that I can finish this year well. Maybe they can help you as well. And if spring break is done and gone, I hope these can still help you to make the most of the end of your school year.

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1. Carve out some extended time with God. 

For me, a morning out with my Bible, journal and no agenda does wonders. In my day to day existence, a 30 minute quiet time is essential, but for deeper refreshment, I really need the extra time to slow my spirit down so that I can hear from God as He speaks into my situation.

What do I do during this time? Usually, I spend the time focusing on a pressing issue in my own heart---not my kids, not my husband, not in the people I minister to or with. Sometimes it's my unforgiving heart, discontentment, or an acid tongue. When these sins are left undealt with, I can do great damage in the long run to my loved ones. If there is some recurring issue I need to deal with, spending time in prayer, repentance, and study helps me to let God start dealing with me so that I can be the best wife, mom, and friend I can be. Because our God is so gracious, even in His firmness and discipline, I know that even if it is hard, it is worth it in the long run. And for me, those deep changes begin with some extended time with God.

If possible, consider doing a little "spring cleaning" in your heart by setting aside some time for you and God to commune. Maybe you don't have a sin issue to deal with, but instead have a problem that burdens your heart. Or some of you may find it helpful to use the time to take inventory with God as you enter into the last couple months of the year. What still remains undone? Does it have to be completed or can you let it go? What problem areas frustrate your best efforts? What children need a fresh insight from God? Review your mission and vision for your homeschool so that you can get back on track if needed. Or maybe you simply want to spend the time in praise and worship. Whatever you do, take some time to refresh and renew with God.

Matthew2. Enjoy your children (and your husband!).

As moms, it's easy to forget that we are first mom and then teacher. I confess that since I started homeschooling (well, maybe it's always been a struggle!), it's easy to see my kids as my "work." There are times when I am not sure what to say to them that is not school-related. (Am I the only one?) And so, during this spring break, enjoy some time with your kids. It doesn't mean you have to go on a fancy vacation, though you can. For us, it may simply mean enjoying our relationships, laughing at our youngest's silly jokes (you know, the ones that aren't really that funny), or playing games that have nothing to do with multiplication tables or parts of speech. If you love being outdoors, it could just be visiting a different neighborhood park every day or going on a hike or looking for bugs. It doesn't have to be expensive to be meaningful to your kids. They're good that way.

Or take the time during the week to take each of your kids out one at a time for a special treat or meal during the week and catch up on their lives. With your younger ones, it may just be about the story that's running through their minds while the older ones may want the time to discuss other issues. Again, having extended time with no agenda may refresh and renew your relationships with your kids so that when you get back to the books, you may understand them in a new way.

And don't forget your husband too! It's easy to be in homeschool mom mode and forget that before you are mom, you are wife. Schedule a fun date night and reconnect with your husband if it has been a long time.

piles3. Use the time to evaluate the trouble spots in your routine and home. 

Sometimes it is not the big things that frustrate our homeschooling, but instead the problem of finding the papers that you needed yesterday or scrambling for an idea while the kids are asking "What's for dinner?" Or maybe it's just the piles of stuff that accumulate that just bug you. (I took a picture of mine so you know I feel your pain.) Spring break is a great time to dissect those nagging issues and start making some headway towards a solution so that your days back at school will run a little more smoothly.

For example, you can take the time to create a filing system for your papers as you declutter. (And start pulling your year-end portfolio together at the same time!) Or you can sit down and put together a meal rotation to help make that dinner decision easier for you on those busy days (that's a post in itself!). Or it could be a good time to just tidy up a little or clean out some things you no longer need. Find your irritations and take some time to figure out a solution or work out a system to ease that frustration.

We personally don't have the luxury of going on a fancy vacation over our spring break but that doesn't mean that it can't be restful or meaningful. I hope these three suggestions can also give you some ways to restore your own soul, your relationships with your family, and your own home so you can finish the school year well.

Journeys of Faithfulness, ch. 11: Growing in Faithfulness

journeys[box] Read chapter 11 in Journeys of Faithfulness.[/box] For every thrilling moment in life there are a thousand ordinary days. At least, that is what I have discovered. Sarah, in this chapter, says it this way: “For every brilliant moment in the life of a hero, there are a thousand faithful minutes in which nothing exciting or noble happens at all. There are countless days during which all the hero does is clean, work, and love in dull, daily rounds.” She says it more poetically than I do, but I have found this to bear out in my own life.

I remember the excitement of graduating and giving our class valedictory speech. That was quite an honor. But before that, there were endless days of homework, exams, and papers. And lots more afterwards too!

I remember the moment on my first missions trip when I saw at least four of my summer ESL students give their lives to Christ. Though I was not the one to share the gospel with them, I knew that the sweat, mosquito bites, bus rides, and hours of lesson prep paid off, and now we will share eternity in heaven.

Then there was the day I got married. I remember standing before friends and family with my best friend, reciting vows I had memorized (okay, so I am a bit of an overachiever!). But after the honeymoon, there were boxes to unpack, thank you notes to write, meals to cook, and now, laundry for two to do.

janna1And then, of course, there are the amazing moments when the nurse finally hands you your brand new baby (or the caregivers bring your new little girl to your door). You finally get to meet these little people that you have been waiting for months to see. I particularly remember the birth of my first child over 30 hours after I was admitted into the hospital and then finally delivered via c-section. I marveled at everything about her.

And then we went home. And the sleep deprivation, countless diapers, baths, meals began. Now, it's preparation for graduation from high school.

In our society that glories in these highlights of life, little is said about those ordinary days in between. The days when nobody sees what you do. The days that are so boring and monotonous you think you'll scream. The days when it is hard, but you know you need to hunker down and press through it.

And yet, what I am learning is that if we expect life to be at high pitch all the time, we fail to benefit from one of the greatest things that these ordinary days can teach us: how to be faithful when nothing exciting is going on. For more often than not, that is what life really consists of.

And that is what Ruth, our heroine, had to face too. In between the bookends of her decision to follow Naomi to a new home and embrace her God and her fairy-tale wedding to Boaz, Ruth most likely had to do many rounds of mundane tasks. Picking up grains of barley behind the workers probably ranks up there with (literally) backbreaking work. But from Ruth, we see that this was not a waste of time at all, for it built her character and though unknown to her, was building her future as well.

Life for me today is a dull, monotonous round of therapy exercises, schoolwork, meals, laundry, and volleyball games. There are days when I feel like going out to the grocery store by myself is a treat, and I linger over the task as long as possible to keep from having to go back home to face what lies there. It is in these moments that the lesson from this week's chapter really spurs me on to keep going.

Dear friends, wherever you are, whether you are a teen or collegiate doing homework every night, a young graduate in your first ground-level job, a newly married young woman setting up your first home, or a brand new mom wondering what on earth to do with a screaming baby, these are all the precious moments God gives us to grow in our faithfulness. And to Him, what is more important than the type of work we do is our character.

Luke 16:10, a verse I am memorizing right now, says "One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much." It seems like what is more important is the amount of faithfulness, not the "littleness" or "muchness" of what we are doing. This shouldn't be a surprise, for He really is after my heart, not my productivity.

Sarah writes:

“Faithfulness is an undervalued trait in our society. We live in a culture so steeped in the attitude of ‘get it now while it’s hot’ that we have a hard time waiting for anything. Even many believers think loving God means having their problems solved and desires provided the moment they pray about them. But true faith remains steady through feast and famine alike. A faithful heart is one that does not change allegiances, because it is founded on trust much bigger than any ups or downs we may be experiencing.”

So whether you sit down again to tackle that homework assignment, that next project, that next meal, or that next dirty diaper, remember that God is present in this mundane moment. It is a gift to us to build something eternally more valuable---the godly character of faithfulness.

And that realization can make every moment an exciting moment as we remember that even the little things done for Him bless His heart. (Matt. 25:40)

Discussion questions:

What are some of the dull things you do each day? Ask the Lord to help you reframe your perspective and show you how you can do these things for His service and to His glory (Col. 3:17, 23). Then go and do it!

Journeys of Faithfulness, ch. 10: Making My Choice

journeys[box] Read chapter 10 in Journeys of Faithfulness.[/box] This week's chapter as we start our section on Ruth brought back a flood of memories for me. It was 1989, and I was a young pre-med college student, entering my senior year. I had just returned from my very first overseas missions trip and my life had been turned upside down. I was able to witness God work in an amazing way before my very eyes, as I watched Him reach the hearts of my dear students and change the course of not only their eternal destiny, but mine as well.

I had been a Christian since I was in junior high and was very good at knowing all the right answers. I served in our youth group's leadership team. I was a small group leader in our campus fellowship. But it wasn't until after that summer when I made my first real declaration of faith. Even though I knew it would cost me to change my direction from medicine to ministry, I knew that God was calling me to follow Him into the great unknown. Would I follow Him?

I knew I could play it safe and continue on with Plan A. But would I really be safe? There was no telling what might happen if I stuck with my original plans. But if I didn't follow Him, I would forever wonder what would have happened. And as Aslan says to Lucy in Prince Caspian, we are never told what would have happened if we pass up an invitation like that.

Since that time, God has done more in my life than I could have imagined. That first decision to follow Him has led me to places that I would never have imagined: campus ministry, homeschooling, and now, adoption. There were times when I wondered if God really knew where He was taking me. Sometimes I even fight against Him. (Well, I try.) I rant and rave, cry and complain, pout, whine and rebel.

But He always waits patiently for me until I wear myself out and realize anew that I am at another crossroads. I can keep fighting Him or I can again choose to follow. And I am sure that choosing His way over my own will continue to the end of my days.

This is especially true when life is painful and difficult, as it was for Ruth. She had lost her husband and had to decide whether she was going to follow Naomi's suggestion to go back home to all that was familiar and safe, to remarry one of the local boys, to start a family of her own.

But instead of going the safe way, she made a choice to leave all that she had known to follow a grieving widow into a foreign land and into a culture that would most likely scorn and abuse her. And yet, it was because she made this hard choice that her destiny and future changed.

It was this choice that led her to boldly declare to Naomi, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” (Ruth 1:16-17, ESV) Them's serious words. In Ruth's case, it was not a wedding promise but a declaration, not only Naomi, but to God Himself.

Sarah says,

“No woman who says she will love and follow God can do so secondhand, by casual acceptance of the faith of family or friends. You cannot love God with half yourself and expect Him to inhabit every moment of your life with holiness and miracle. If you want to be a true follower of God, to blaze with His light in the darkness of your time, then at some point, you will have to answer His call. The moment of choice will come when the hosts of heaven lean down to hear your response.” (p. 190)

While not all of us are going to be asked to leave our homeland, we will all have those crossroad moments in our story. Will I follow Him on the narrow way even if no one else comes with me? These moments often define our faith and take it from a ho-hum existence to an exciting adventure.

Ruth did not know what awaited her in Bethlehem. Likewise, we often don't know what will happen if we follow Him. I know I certainly didn't know. He usually doesn't give us the whole picture, but He does give us enough to make a solid decision.

This is especially so if you are in a painful juncture in your own journey. Even in these moments we have a choice. It is a choice to trust and believe that He will carry you through and that as you continue to love Him and trust Him, He will do above and beyond what we can ask or imagine. (Rom. 8:28; Eph. 3:20)

Discussion Questions:

Make a timeline of your faith journey. Consider the points in your life where you had to make a choice to trust and follow God. What did you choose? How did it impact your spiritual life?

Where do you stand with God today? Is He inviting you to make a choice? What are you going to do? If possible, find a way to declare your allegiance verbally to another.

Journeys of Faithfulness, ch. 9: The Power of Beauty

journeys[box] Read ch. 9 in Journeys of Faithfulness.[/box] It is no secret that the female species is drawn to beauty. I remember my daughter when she was a little girl. I never had to teach her to like pink and purple, glitter and shimmer, or twirly dresses. Even though she isn't really a girly-girl today, I know she still cannot pass up a pretty flower or a cute sparkly notebook.

In a world where physical beauty is so highly prized, it is easy to overlook the inner beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit (1 Peter 3:3-4). For many young (and older) women, beauty is enhanced or even idolized. It doesn't take much to realize that with beauty comes power: power to attract the attention we crave or the love we long for. So, sadly, instead of utilizing their beauty, many hone it and pursue it to get what they want.

Now to make it clear, I do not believe that putting on makeup or doing your hair or wearing the latest fashions is a sin. The bigger question is why? Is it for my benefit or sense of well-being and worth, to boost my self esteem? Or do I care for myself so that the beauty of God can shine out from me and draw others to Him?

Clearly, God is a lover of beauty too. One only has to look at the vibrant colors of a springtime bloom or the wispy pastel clouds of a summer sunset or the delicate wings of a butterfly perched on a flower to know that He does not skimp on His creation. Even the creation of woman in Genesis 2 reminds us that unlike man who was "formed," the female form was "fashioned" as if it were artwork.

As women, we have a great challenge before us: stewarding our beauty and then using it to bless and create and nurture those around us. And we all know we can use some of that around us in this world where bad news reigns. Whether we realize it or not, we have an incredible power within us to change the tide of our culture, simply by extending that beauty to others.

Lest we think that this is something beyond our reach or only for the super spiritual, think again. While not all of us are going to be Esthers living in palaces, we do have our own domains in which we rule. If you are a young girl, your domain may be the four walls of the bedroom you share with your younger sister. It could be the classroom you enter each day at 7:30 a.m. It could be the cubicle you sit in or the office in which you work or the smiling young faces that look to you for guidance.

For mothers, it means our homes. Ever notice how our home atmosphere often corresponds to our perspective? If I am content with the work of mothering and homemaking, even if it doesn't change the amount of it, the spirit in our home often reflects that. On the other hand, if I am constantly grumbling, it doesn't take long before the atmosphere in my home follows suit.

Whether we are queens of our home castle or any other realm, we need to start with where we are, adding beauty in any way we can--a cheerful word, a helping hand, an act of service. For others, it may be a vase of cut flowers from the garden, a plate of cookies to share, or candles to add light and scent. From there, God can multiply these simple gestures and acts of beauty to infiltrate our culture with His loveliness. This thought from Sarah really put this topic into perspective for me:

“The longer I walk with God, the more I am aware of the joy that fills his soul. I feel his laughter, I remember that the new heavens and earth will begin with a feast (Rev. 19:6-9). And I realize that each meal I serve is a small reflection of His goodness, an offering of beauty to win the hungry hearts of my time.” (emphasis mine)

Did you notice that last phrase? "To win the hungry hearts of my time." This isn't just about beauty for its own sake. It is beauty with a purpose.

As the mother of a young woman, I pray that I will paint that grand vision for my daughter. I have to tell her---and myself---over and over that God has given us the opportunity to make our surroundings beautiful, not merely for beauty's sake, but to bless the hearts of others. For God Himself is beautiful.

Esther knew that. Whenever I think of Esther, I think of a beautiful woman. But what she did with that beauty did more than provide mere eye candy for her husband. She used it on behalf of her people, to reach the heart of her husband, the king, so that it turned the tide of the future.

Now that's real power.

Discussion questions:

How does a woman become beautiful in spirit? What does it take? What is its potential impact?

What is one way God can use you to bring beauty to the world around you? Is there someone in your life today that could use some of God's beauty through you?

Journeys of Faithfulness, ch. 8: For Such a Time as This

journeys [box] Read chapter 8 in Journeys of Faithfulness.[/box]

If I had to pinpoint the times in my personal history where I made the greatest leaps and bounds in my faith, I would see that they were often connected to my biggest spiritual "a-ha" moments. The realization of the truth of Romans 8:35-39, for example, brought me to a new level as I was dealing with a painful relationship. Understanding the commission of Jesus in Matthew 28:18-20 redefined my purpose in life, not only as a campus minister to college students, but as a parent. Little by little, God has used His Word to shape and build into me a strong foundation of truth that has directed my choices, decisions, and actions.

In Esther's story this week, we find her installed as the queen of Persia, a position that may have its perks but also its perils. Evidently, being the queen did not guarantee the king's favor, for when she was asked by her uncle Mordecai to speak up on behalf of the Jewish people to save them from their imminent annihilation, Esther instantly thought of her possible demise. Not a marriage made in heaven, to be sure. 

And yet, when challenged by her uncle, Esther also knew what she needed to do. Through the years of being brought up under Mordecai's faithful teaching and care, she also had built up a strong foundation of faith that helped her to make the hard decisions of life. Even though she knew that approaching her husband uninvited could result in her death, she was willing to do it.

For the past few months, I had been struggling a lot with our decision to adopt Anah. It was definitely not what I had signed up for. I berated myself for letting one cute little photograph change the course of our family's destiny. Grief, anger, and bitterness poisoned my heart. By God's grace, He provided friends who were willing to wade into these waters with me to lift me up, love me, and minister to the honest questions of my soul.

As I had shared last week, God had to help me to grieve my losses, but I also knew that I needed to move forward. I could not stay where I was and be any good to anybody. Like Esther, I felt like God was waking me from my self-centered stupor and asking me, "What are you going to for such a time as this?" I cannot turn back. I can only move forward, even if that future is uncertain and at times, depressing.

All that I had learned about God in the past: His faithfulness, His goodness, His unconditional love, His wisdom---all these truths needed to inform the next steps I needed to make. It was tempting to think that God was punishing me for making what appears to be a foolish choice. But that flew in the face of all that I knew about Him. He is not that kind of God, sitting up in heaven laughing at me for falling for His bait of a cute little girl in a photograph.

Other things that I had learned: His heart was for the orphans, His priority in making disciples, His desire to mold me into Christlikeness---all these truths also came flooding back into my consciousness. The reminder that this world is not my home, my life is not my own, and that there will be hardship and suffering as long as I live here also floated to the surface. His desire to use me to further His kingdom, to do good works, and His call to love my neighbor came into the spotlight of my awareness.

As all these truths long stored away in the recesses of my heart came back out, I knew that even if I didn't like it, where I am today is not by mistake. Like Esther, I am realizing that perhaps all along, He has been preparing me "for such a time as this. Like her, I have a choice: to step up into that place or to reject the opportunity.

Honestly, I would much rather not have to take care of a mentally delayed child for the rest of my life. But the fact is, God has put me here for a reason. I don't know why. I don't see the big picture yet. And there is no guarantee or promise that I will ever know in this lifetime.

The future is uncertain. But if I continue to bank on the things that are firm and sure, I will be able to consistently (not perfectly) make the best choices when they come up. And in order to do that, I will need to keep rehearsing His truth in my mind over and over.

“So let me challenge you to speak out your faith. Affirm what you believe in the deepest part of your soul. Write a statement you can read aloud if it helps, or find a creed to give you words to articulate the truth on which your life is founded. Take the time to consider exactly what it is you believe and give voice to it every day. Then when someone comes to you with a question about your faith, when you are forced to say what you believe, you will be prepared because you have hidden the truth in your heart.”--Sarah Clarkson

And so here is mine for today:

He is still God.

He is still good.

He has good works planned for me.

He is the God of hope.

He is creating me in the image of Christ.

He is preparing me for something better.

This world is not my home.

He has a purpose for what I am going through.

He loves me unconditionally and will never leave or forsake me.

He is sovereign.

As I hang on to these truths, I pray that like Esther, I will be able to play my role in His magnificent story. And as I rehearse my lines now, I trust He will help me live them out when the spotlight shines on me.

Reflection questions:

Whether you are in a difficult situation or not, what truths about God, about yourself, about this world, about life, do you need to rehearse in your mind today?

What difference can these truths make in how you live this moment?

Journeys of Faithfulness, ch. 7: Dragging Life In

journeys[box] Read chapter 7 in Journeys of Faithfulness. [/box] This week, we began our first chapter on Esther. Esther, the beautiful. Esther, the chosen. Esther, the brave. If any woman exemplified both humility and power, she was it. 

My guess, however, is that she wasn't brought up that way. Until she was taken into the palace, she probably was just like any other young Jewish girl growing up in exile. She probably had a home she helped to care for, her uncle Mordecai's family that she loved, surroundings that were comfortable. Like other Jewish girls, she may have been hoping to find love, even in an arranged marriage. Most likely, she did not set her sights on being the queen of a pagan king.

I had never thought much about Esther's former life, so Sarah's view that Esther struggled with being in King Xerxes' palace was a new one for me. I think we are often so focused on the fact that she had daily spa and beauty treatments for a year (who wouldn't want that?) to think that maybe, just maybe, she really didn't want to be there.

Have you ever been in that kind of situation too?

Like Esther, many of us older folk can think of the "good 'ol days" when life was simpler, easier, whatever. For me, I have found myself bemoaning how much more time I had before Anah came to write, read, create. For others, it may be the life you had before cancer invaded your home, before your husband lost his job, before you had to start caring for your aging parents. For you younger readers, perhaps it is before you met your difficult roommate, before you ended that relationship you thought would end in marriage, or even before you started your first 9 to 5 job.

And when we get into those kinds of situations, it is easy to start getting disgruntled or even bitter and angry. I know I did. It is easy to let our grief for the days gone by cloud our perspective on what we face today. As I looked at my daily existence, I felt depressed, like I was trapped in a cage---one that I chose, no less---and could not get out.

But sometimes, we do not have that choice. Illnesses, accidents, or maybe being taken against your will into the king's palace thrusts us into a situation or circumstance that we would never have chosen on our own. In those choiceless moments, do we still have a choice?

Yes, I think we do.

Sarah makes this insightful comment:

“We know from Scripture that Esther found favor in the eyes of her keepers, so she must have kept a kind and tender heart. She had lost everything from her old life, but instead of shriveling up in a ball, she made the choice to live, to love, and to seek and obey the will of her Lord.” (p. 134, emphasis mine)

The choice we have is to

live

love

seek God

obey His will

It's so easy to feel like the victim, isn't it? Poor me. No one has it as bad as I do. If only life was different.

If I learned anything from Esther this week, it was this: in situations where I feel like I have no choice, I need to remember that I can either let my circumstances kill me or I can drag life---His life---into my circumstances. By His grace, mercy and power, I have all I need to bring His life into the situation I find myself in.

As I shared with the girls this past Sunday, Esther did a few preliminary things. First, she mourned the life she lost. I'm not talking about being stoic and pretending your loss didn't affect you. The real trick is not staying there. I know I let myself just focus on all that I had lost: my freedom, my future, my dreams. And not surprisingly, I felt very dejected and hopeless. That is where the next step comes in: thank God for the life you had. Thank Him for the days of health, the dreams, the hopes, the memories of a happier time. Gratitude does a healing work in our hearts that we cannot comprehend.

Anah and meAnd when we have worked through these things, then we are able to take a deep breath, look reality square in the face, and move forward. There still are days when I regress and go back to my pity party, but I am finding more often than not, I am less likely to stay there.

So now, I am on the long, slow journey of learning how to accept my life as it stands today. And you know what? I am realizing that when I was so focused on what I had lost, I was totally unable to see what good God has in store for me as a result of this change. Only when I was willing to move forward could I begin to see the gifts He has in store for me. He is helping me to realize that what I am going through now may open up doors for future ministry and influence that I could never have in my old life.

I'll close with Sarah's well-written conclusion:

“Sometimes, loving God looks very different from what you think it will. Sometimes God asks you to live a life, or even a phase of life, that feels like the opposite of everything you hoped or wanted. Sometimes there are people so difficult to relate to you think God is punishing you, or a job so ill-suited to your passion that you feel persecuted just to do it.

“Yet God knows the plans He has for us. God knows when a young girl is in training to be a queen, or a teenage shepherd is on his way to ruling a kingdom. When faced with a desert time you don’t understand, you have a momentous decision ahead of you. You can do as I did at first and hunch down in a despairing little heap and refuse to look life in the face. Or you can do what I think Esther (and so many others in the Bible did) and face your new circumstances with a fight.” (p. 133)

Reflection questions:

Are you in a season of life that you don't want to be in? Do you need to mourn your past? What can you thank God for as you reflect on what you have lost?

How do your difficult circumstances influence your perspective of God? Is it in line with the truth of His Word? If not, what truths do you need to focus on? What difference could they make in your life?

What is one way you can drag life into your circumstances today, through the power of His Spirit?

Journeys of Faithfulness, ch. 6: Crossing the Bridge

journeys [box] Read chapter 6 of Journeys of Faithfulness.[/box]

Wow. This chapter left me speechless. God knew my deepest struggle and dealt it a death blow.

And what is that struggle?

Control.

I like to be in control of my own life. To be more blunt, I want to rule my own life. Basically, I want to be God.

Hmmm. That sounds vaguely familiar, doesn't it? (Take a peek at Genesis 3:5,6). It really isn't new, so I shouldn't be surprised.

It's easy for me to fool myself into thinking I am exempt from these thoughts. After all, didn't we just take a big step of faith in adopting our Anah? Homeschooling through high school? Staying home instead of earning a second income? Choosing a life of ministry over a career in medicine?

Yes, it was easy to think that because I had taken such big steps of faith that God was really in control of my life. I mean, it looks like it from the outside. But deep inside, it was a different story. And God is not fooled.

Over the past six months, I have desperately been trying to gain some order over my chaotic and messy life. My goal was to make my life manageable again. Being a visionary, I know that I dream big. Together, my husband and I have prayed and waited and watched God move in our lives, slowly directing and shaping a unique ministry for us, which was starting to materialize. Things were starting to come together.

And now, I am happy if I can just get dinner on the table at night. What happened?

I do not like flying by the seat of my pants. Some people may like it, but not me. I want to live my life intentionally and purposefully. I'm Type A all the way. So when I feel like life is out of control, when I am living day to day and scraping by, it's very hard for me. I have begun to wonder if God really loved me or if He was punishing me instead.

As I sat stewing on this chapter, I realized that maybe I don't know God as I thought I did. As Mr. Beaver says in The Lion and the Witch and the Wardrobe, Aslan is not a tame lion. And neither is my God.

Somehow over the years, I have come to believe that if I did what God wanted, He owed me an easy life. After all, that's fair right? I serve You; You take care of me. Of course, I construed that as having a painless, comfortable life, life the way I want it to be.

But that is my problem. That is where I have turned the tables. That is where I have falsely believed that by obeying Him radically, I somehow deserve something in return, not more hardship.

Instead, if I truly loved, trusted and followed Him, I would make no such conditions. I do not make them intentionally, but I realize I expect them, something that becomes very evident when life gets hard. When I begin to complain and whine, my hidden agenda reveals its ugly face.

It is here where Sarah's words find me:

“If we trust God to lead us in His own beautiful path, if we remove our white-knuckled fingers from the wheel, He will take us just where we need to go and make us all that we need to be. To truly belong to Him, we must lay down every expectation except the sure knowledge that He will uphold us. And when you are cradled in the palms of love itself, you don’t have to be afraid.” (emphasis mine)

She writes about her mother's experience of "crossing the bridge" in her devotional, something that I have done more than once in my life. And today, I find that I need to do it again. Perhaps this time it is not a grand adventure, like a missions trip or homeschooling or adoption. Today, it's crossing the bridge from living a life under my control to living a life that's completely under His control. No ifs, ands, or buts. No expectations. No conditions.

This is not about foolishly throwing my life away. It is rooted in a faith in the very nature of God's trustworthiness and character. I may not be sure of anything else, but I can lay it all down because He is sure. He is reliable. He is good. He is all that my heart longs for.

In my journey with God, there are many bridges to cross. Some are little foot bridges. But some seem like delicately arched constructions over gaping chasms. I wonder if I dare trust it. I know that the view is spectacular if I am willing to take that step of faith. But it does begin by choosing to put one foot in front of the other and move towards Him.

Let the adventure begin!

Reflection Questions:

What are some expectations you have of God? How do you respond when He does not meet them?

Are you willing to lay these expectations down and surrender them completely to Him? If not, what is holding you back?

Journeys of Faithfulness, ch. 5: Where I Fix My Eyes

journeys[box] Read chapter 5 in Journeys of Faithfulness.[/box] It has been a very hard six months, adoption-wise. It still is. There are moments when I despair that the reality we know now will be all there is.

Blank looks.

Constant repetition.

Exhaustion.

Two steps back for every step forward.

Grief.

Fear.

Discouragement.

Doubt.

There have been days when I just keep silent because I am afraid I will regret what will come out of my mouth. And so it just sits in my soul, in my spirit, and I feel so alone. What has started out so well has turned into a struggle that I fear will never end. There are days when I wish that I will wake out of this nightmare only to find that it isn't just a bad dream but reality.

Sometimes I wonder if Jesus' mother, Mary, felt the same way. When the glory of the angel faded, when the visit with Elizabeth was over, when she was installed back into her home and community, she had to face some very hard things.

Snide comments.

Blatant accusations.

Threats.

Loss of friends.

Averted eyes.

Whispers behind her back.

Abandonment.

Shame.

Grief.

Fear.

Discouragement.

Doubt.

I have a feeling that Mary went through a very hard time too.

If you live long enough, you will inevitably find yourself in that position too. Maybe you're in that same position yourself. The key is not about how to get out of it as quick as possible but how to be victorious in that journey. I'm so tempted to run away, hide, and hope that things will get better on its own.

This is where I've really been challenged this week. Sarah puts it this way:

“When it comes right down to it, everything I believe in lies just beyond my touch. But my love of God drives me to live in a certain way and compels me to picture my hope in my words, my actions, and the set of my face as I encounter the world daily. Though the world is fallen, God’s goodness can still be seen there, and the promise of restoration is at the center of my hope. By learning to see His grace, I learn to survive, to be strong, to bear the hurt of living in a fallen world. To look for beauty, to fix your eyes on the starlight, is to live out hope in the perfection of God.” (p. 99-100, emphasis mine)

It really all depends on where I look. Am I looking at my circumstances? Or am I training myself to look for the unseen and often hidden evidences of God's goodness? Where I choose to fix my eyes will determine whether I walk out of this defeated or victorious.

This isn't really a new idea. Jesus Himself had to do this.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2, emphasis mine)

Because He focused on the joy set before Him, I too am exhorted to run with perseverance, fixing my eyes on Jesus, my example, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.

I know I tend to be a pessimist. More so now than when I was younger. Sometimes it seems like it will take all of my energy to lift my head to even look up. But look up I must, or the weight of my circumstances will push me under.

As we talked about last week, we are living in Act Three, but we must always remember Act Four is still to come. Life here isn't a Disneyland theme park. It hurts. It wounds. It stings. We are in the midst of a battle. Sometimes we are on the front lines. And the battle may be to face the enemy, refusing to listen to his words of doubt, discouragement and despair.

Where do you fix your eyes? What is your focus? For where we fix our eyes may determine the next scene in our story.

So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.--2 Cor. 4:18

Reflection questions:

  • How might understanding God's story make a difference in my perspective during difficult times?
  • What are some ways we can train our eyes to look at God?
  • Think about a past or present trial or difficult circumstance. Where can you find glimpses of God?
  • Sarah shares how she and her brother helped each other out during a season of discouragement and doubt. How can we help others who are struggling with doubt right now? How can we help them to focus on God without giving pat answers or shallow cliches?
  • If you're using this as a discipleship tool: consider sharing a difficult time in your life and how God helped you to walk through it.