Category Archives: Gospel

Sign’s in the Yard

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Earlier this week, the sign went up in the yard.  Up until now, there have been a lot of scary things about our move to Clarkston, but this one has topped it all. It’s not so much scary due to the physical part of the move, or even the adjustment part of the move. It’s scary in a way that I’ll call the “backpack” way.

I’ve gotten to the bottom of my backpack of coping mechanisms (the contents are few: control, persistence, performance, humor, and People Magazine).  Having thrown out control a few weeks back and having let my subscription to People expire, I’m left with only a few ways to cope.  None of them is very promising.  Humor helps, but I’m finding that humor is too close to cynicism, which can border on bitterness, and that’s no good.  Persistence is important, but I’m not sure that going to Clarkston running on pure resolution is going to be very helpful in my relationships – old or new.  So, that leaves my very favorite old standby: performance.

I hate it.  It’s the auto pilot setting of my life.  It’s nasty in its ability to generate pride and fear simultaneously.  When it fails, it generates shame and depression.

The reason I’m so bummed that performance is still in my backpack has to do with my heart’s desire for our move to Clarkston.

You see, I don’t want it to be about me.  (I don’t even mean that in a humble sense right here.)  I mean I don’t want the me part to get in the way of the God part.  I don’t want my performance-self to kick in stronger and harder in a place that will only, only, only be redemptive and sweet if the grace of Jesus is the illuminating, energy generating force behind what we are doing.  In my wildest spiritual dreams, freedom would be losing the backpack altogether and finding that the gospel grace of Christ makes carrying a backpack totally unnecessary.  “For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake shall find it.” Matthew 16:25

When performance reigns, I go to bed at night measuring myself against the standard of the day, and then congratulating (cross averted) or crucifying myself.  This process yields pride or shame.  This belief that I’ll write the rules, measure myself against them, and then judge myself and pronounce a verdict is all a sinner’s attempt to circumvent God’s love, to get around the two most important words of faith: surrender and trust.  I think, too, that performance is my way of validating myself so that I won’t have to believe that God really loves me THAT much.  It’s a little like the old Rich Mullins song that says,

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy

I cannot find in my own

And it keeps His fire burning

To melt this heart of stone

Keeps me aching with a yearning

Keeps me glad to have been caught

In the reckless raging fury that they call the love of God.”

This morning, I took performance-girl to the real cross.  The one that matters.  She has been around my whole life, but I don’t think that I ever recognized that she needed to die in order for Jesus to live.  Call me dense, but I’m really not sure I’ve ever seen how prideful she is until just today.  I think I thought she was just a good mix of Sunday School and stewardship. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for being the author of furious love that melts stone hearts. When echoes of performance ring in my ears, please remind me that she’s been swept away by the reckless, raging love of Jesus.

 

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A Man of Sorrows

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Today, I am afraid.

Yesterday, I found out that one of our friends in Clarkston, I’ll call him “G,” texted my husband to see if we could help him find a job.  My heart tore a bit when Doug told me that news.  You see, this man is a man of dignity, quiet strength, and deep service.  He came to the United States in a state of humility – a college educated science teacher who was scraping to survive in his homeland, coming to my native soil to find a better way to provide for his wife and daughters. He arrived, alone, and got a job at a chicken plant, doing manual labor for minimum wage…living with a family member…intent on supporting wife and children from thousands of miles away.  Within a few days of starting the job, he slipped on a wet floor, fell, and shattered his hip. He is now incapable of working manual labor.  He needs a job and even has skills that are transferrable…but jobs are so very hard to come by.  So, he humbled himself (again) and reached out to my husband, his one American friend, to see about finding a job.  I hurt inside for this brave man.  His dignity is being compromised, and there is so little I can do.

Last night, I felt so disturbed by the juxtaposition of my evening at the private school junior high band concert, with extra refreshments, unbounded optimism, and amazing community. In my heart, my friend G was home in an apartment, hurting in his body, and wondering how on earth he would keep forging ahead – after so many hard knocks and dead ends.  Why?  Why me?  Who knows?  Why is the skinny white lady so charmed, while the gaunt African friend is so pressed by life on this beautiful spring/summer night?

As I drove out of my manicured neighborhood, I remembered Isaiah’s words, “He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Is. 53:3).  A man of sorrows.  If I follow Jesus, if I walk that path behind Him, will I not, too, be drawn into a path of sorrows?  If my one refugee friend (of…say…5 refugee families in Clarkston who I really “know”) is hurting so badly, and his hurt is hurting me so badly, what will happen to my heart when I know 20 families, or 50?  Will my heart break?  Will I become a woman of sorrows?

I’m not that lady.

I’m a careful friend.  I measure things out so that there is enough for me left at the end of the day.  I give in controlled ways so that I know how to breathe even in the giving.  I don’t want to drown in sorrows that I can help, fix, or mitigate.

Now, I know the spiritual answer.  The Jesus one.  He will go before me.  He won’t give me what I can’t handle.  His grace is sufficient.

I really do believe all that stuff.  BUT.

…What if I fail?  What if I can’t appropriate the grace, the power of the Holy Spirit, the surrender that is necessary? What if I end up bringing something to Clarkston that looks like pity or hard charity or lukewarm relationship because I want a way to define, touch, and then back away from the sorrows that are there?

Honestly, I’m not sure what the Gospel looks like in these places.  My hunch is that it looks much less like “helping” and much more like “friend-ing.”  My hunch is that it is much more process-messy than it is solution-neat.  My hunch is that the “me” part won’t add much, but that the Jesus part will bridge the gaps.  I suppose I  will find out.

But, the fear is not small.

Lord, may my fear of You be bigger.

May my thirst for Your glory and my wonder at it’s fullness eclipse my shame at not being able to fix, solve, or help where the sorrows touch my heart.  If I am to be a woman of sorrows, I pray that I would be a gracious one – holding close to the hem of her Master’s garment.

And, Lord, please provide for my new friend, G, whose dignity can only really be carried and restored by You.

 

Exploding Potatoes

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Yesterday, I exploded a baked potato in the oven for the first time ever in my life.  They were big ones – on special at Kroger – and I was getting ready to make twice baked potatoes.  I opened the oven to check on them, touched one with the hot pad, and BOOM, it went everywhere.  If I had not been so stunned and simultaneously disappointed in myself, I would have marveled at the violence of an exploding potato, in real time. It was cool. Growing up, my mom would reference exploding baked potatoes as the mark of an inexperienced cook.  Those who did not properly poke the potato full of holes had not been “raised right” in the kitchen.  The husbands of those poor women deserved extra sympathy for having to put up with the kitchen foibles of an inexperienced wife, including the possibly even dangerous exploding potatoes.  We must mentor the inexperienced potato ladies so that they are not caught unawares by their lack of preparedness or knowledge.

Just like what mine looked like in the oven!

So, yesterday, when the 875th potato in my baked potato history exploded in the oven, I was thrown back to childhood tight-rope fears.  What if I do it all “right” (I promise I poked that sucker practically to death) and I fall off anyway?  What if the potato explodes and those around me assume I’m inept or feel sorry for the people I love…or try to love?  What if I fall off the tightrope in this move to Clarkston?

Our house goes on the market this weekend.  It feels like I am stepping onto a tightrope this week.  It feels like I could encounter carefully tended potatoes that just up and explode anyways.

We had the boys’ two rooms painted a “neutral color” yesterday, per the advice of a realtor-friend.  The youngest one came home and exploded like a potato when he saw it.  His face got red, his eyes got teary, and he looked for things to destroy in his room.  Several shredded Pokemon cards, an old box, and some tissues later, he pronounced, “much better.”  I knew he would be sad…I was sad to lose the blue on the walls that he proudly picked out by himself at the age of 6…but the explosion part was a little surprising to me, given his usual demeanor and reactions.

Exploding potatoes scare me.

Even at work today, I exploded a bit when I could NOT get a standard formatting issue to work in a PowerPoint I was feverishly working on for my boss.  Those pesky little bullets just don’t text wrap like you want them to when you’re under a time crunch and have to leave at 2:30 for a doctor’s appointment.  For the umpteenth time, the text did not wrap.  I experienced an internal explosion.  “Youmessedup Itsnotright Fixitfast Pullittogether.” It felt like I was wearing a sign, “Warning: Contents Under Pressure.”

A friend said just this morning in an email, “I really have felt that God is reminding me that yes, I’m a mess. He knows that, and once I admit it, it’s a lot easier for Him to do something with me.”

The gospel is both a narrow door and a spacious place.  I believe God is showing me that it is a narrow door in the sense that the ONLY way to the spacious place of grace is through the cross.  Jesus went through, crossed over, opened the door.  The cross was God’s best plan, and when I try to usurp His best with my own effort at good, thinking that my “narrow way” of getting it all right will lead to spacious places, I end up squeezing myself into smaller and smaller soul-spaces, so that things like exploding potatoes feel like judge, jury, and verdict on my inability to get it right.  When I enter through the narrow door of the cross; when I surrender and believe rather than redouble my efforts; when I deliberately step off of the tight rope and through the door, I discover the spacious place on the other side. When I surrender and believe, I can explode and still laugh.

Lately, I have been enjoying Proverbs 31.  Women love to moan about that chapter, because it feels like a tight-rope that could lead to explosions, I think.  But this week, as I’ve pondered the mother who was giving advice to her son, I hear her saying, “Son, find a cutie pie who messes up but still believes.  Find a lady who stands tall because she believes rather than because she tries.  Find a partner who laughs…a lot…when things explode.”  Proverbs 31:25, “She is clothed in strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come.'” (NIV)

I’m quite positive there will be explosions in the weeks to come.  I pray that I fall off the tight rope laughing, secure in the grace below.

Belief at the Circus

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Last night I went to bed ticked off (and if I wanted to risk spoiling my Baptist, patent-leather image, I’d say pissed, but I won’t).  I threw things (a pillow, but still.)  I stomped on our house plans (mature).  I cussed. And, I even asked my husband to “pray with me” knowing that I could say things to God about life and about said husband that might provoke an argument if they’d just been said straight up.  Sort of like letting your husband listen to you rant to your best friend, but knowing he has too much propriety to stop you mid-rant and set you straight.  That, too, was super-mature.

There was the normal stuff – you know.  The washing machine broke.  “Hey, honey!  What’s that sound?  Sounds like a the shower is on in the laundry room.”  The kids need money.  Like $339 for Cross Country Camp.  $25 for the team Lacrosse gift.  Water shoes for the Scouts outing this weekend.  Even the dog – $48 for a grooming. (My hair should be so lucky.)

There was the deep stuff.  Living in the reality that many friends and people close to me are either pregnant or having children. I am (truly) happy for them.  But, that baby thing is the biggest button on the tenderest hot spot in my marriage.  Us – no babies.  Lots of reasons, but it’s a hot one.  I’m picturing Christmas-future.  My stepchildren off with their mother (because two kids make a family, right?)  My son off with his half siblings (sharing DNA creates a sure bet for family Yuletide commitments.)  Me and Doug with our stockings and coffee.  Silent night – great.  Silent Christmas morning – enough to make me want to adopt three babies right now.  (I do realize that this is selfish projecting I’m doing here, but I am setting the stage, so allow the indulgence, please.)

There was the Clarkston related stuff, too.  I’m up to here (picture top of red head) with open scenarios that have a lot of moving parts and no clear resolution.  The UNKNOWN.  Makes me feel deep empathy for those poor, brave covered wagon women who had the one pot clanging from the rope at the ceiling as they anticipated…well…just anticipated.  Sometimes it is hard to fill in the blanks, and the vast unknown creates a hole that feels filled with fear.  Worse when the fear is punctuated by the incessant clanging of the ordinary.

We got our house plans yesterday, for the umpteenth time.  I’ve been mentally working since late September on variations of living scenarios.  For about three months, this process was fun.  I became an avid Pinterest pinner of beautiful rooms.  I became a novice architect.  I forwarded house plans to friends and family with abandon.  “Do you like this kitchen?”  “Do the boys need separate vanity areas?” Now, though, the process of landing on a “just enough, but not too much” plan feels symbolic of the BIG lesson that I’m apparently not done learning.  It’s the lesson of the circus.

This morning, my longsuffering husband gave me a hug rather than a smack, and I answered him with a torrent of words.  (Best C.S. Lewis marriage quote is from Screwtape, “Make full use of the fact that up to a certain point, fatigue makes women talk more and men talk less. Much secret resentment, even between lovers, can be raised from this.”)  The man was fatigued.  I was, too, and so the words flowed.  He answered my torrent with a fantastic analogy.  He said he feels like we’re moving out toward a calling from God, but that we’re pulling a full compliment of Ringling Bros. behind us.  So many heavy train cars.  Big elephants.  Tall giraffes.  Hyper monkeys (picture my dancing $48 priss-pot Havanese designer-dog).  A heavy, fat tent. We’re in the circus and travelling heavy.  Doug said he wished, “that we could be nimble – able to let that line of train cars go and pump off into the sunset on a diverging track on one of those hand operated track thingies.” (see photo, I don’t know the name.)

This was my husband's idea of freedom this morning!

True.  The house question is simply symbolic of the deeper questions…needs vs. wants…faith vs. action…simplicity vs. abundance…kids needs vs. kids wants…margin vs. passionate activity.  How many train cars do we have?  Oh, so many.

But, this morning, the message for me in my quiet time with God (who was, miraculously, still graciously listening after I pulled that marriage-related passive aggressive prayer stunt last night) had to do with a verse in Psalm 65.  “Blessed is the man You choose, and cause to approach You, that he may dwell in your courts. We shall be satisfied with the goodness of Your house, of Your holy temple.” (v. 4)  It was a bit of, “Hey, Karen – my house, MY house.  That’s where you live – all the time – no matter what’s going on with YOUR house.  That’s the place to be.  Dwell, dear daughter.  Be satisfied.  It is good to dwell with Me.”

This morning, Doug and I both needed to be reminded that God’s not really relying on us for anything.  The vision He gave us of being ambassadors for the cause of loving the stranger is His vision.  It’s His purpose (from, like, Pentatuch time) and He will accomplish it.  The journey of shedding the cars and following more nimbly is the journey He wants to work in us.  Perhaps we’ll open our embassy-home (house plan number 234) to fellow sojourners and tell them how HARD it was and how FAITHFUL He was.  It’s really hard for a “rich” man to enter the Kingdom.  All those train cars distract and pull and even stink.  Jesus’ eye of the needle comment to His disciples after that sorrowful young man walked away was compassionate and full of truth.

As I’ve prayed gospel prayers over the last several weeks, He keeps showing me that the essence of followership is trust.  Everyone in the gospels who was touched with miracles, provision, insight, truth, and passion for Christ TRUSTED Him.  They believed Him.  My mini-fit over the panic of not knowing and losing control of my tidy little (big) life (string of train cars) needs to be answered with the soothing sounds of His grace.  Trust me.  Dwell here.  My house is your house.  I will cause you to approach, dwell, trust, and be satisfied. I’m in charge – even of the disposition of the circus.

Believe, daughter.  Simply believe.

Grace Spaces, cont.

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I’ve been thinking about the small grace space a lot in the last 36 hours.  I’ve been picturing it in my mind, and it’s not too encouraging.  Trying to figure out how to pry open the door for good – maybe throw open a few windows and then take one of those old fashioned basketball pumps to the innards to try to blow it up bigger…bigger…bigger until it at least is obvious.  Not a lot of hope, there.

Doug and I took a walk last night.  I was talking to him about my view of work.  I’ve worked my whole adult life, with the exception of a few pregnant months and their aftermath back in 2000 and 2001.  However, I’ve been a “stay at home mom” in my heart that whole time.  Oops.  Finding out that I am really not a “stay at home mom” (16 years into a working adulthood) has created some soul tremor in me lately.  It was the dream I held on to – but it’s really only a dream.  Accepting what is and embracing what could be is the order of the day – this day, anyhow.

So, we’re walking last night and talking about small grace spaces and about how to find meaning and purpose in work.  I think my dear husband summed it up for me pretty well.  He helped define the two buckets that I’m struggling with in work right now.  Bucket #1 is just the tedium of a job that sometimes devolves into meticulous, lonely places which fall harshly on a creative, interactive soul.  This struggle asks me to actively wait on God to show me how to use who He’s made me to be in the arena that is most suited to His glory and my growth.  He will do that.  That’s a hopeful path, because it invites me on a journey, even a challenging or obscure one.

But, Bucket #2 is the kicker.  Doug says that Bucket #2 is my belief that I am not in God’s Plan A.  My belief that I am living in His Plan B for my life and that I’ve disappointed Him or let Him down.  My belief that I’ll never be living His best for me – that He’s so disgusted with me to date that He’s relegated me to the bench.  I can digress into reasons that I believe this way (divorce, failing to choose a “career path,” parental influence that happened before I could spell “bucket”, and all the rest…I can probably even find a way to blame my red hair for some of it.)  The roots of my belief are not important (here, anyway).  The fruit is infinitely important.  If I believe that God is disappointed in me, or if I think that I’ve blown my shot at impressing Him enough with my awesome choices and wisdom to earn a place in Plan A, then I will never, ever, ever have a bigger grace space.  Believing that I’m in His Plan B consigns me to a life living in an earned-love-cavern that echoes with More, Better, Harder, MORE.  The grace space will always be small; the cavern will be relentlessly demanding and so loud.

Back to that original question of the Gospel.  How does the Gospel fit here?  How does it enlarge the grace space so that it is THE place.  How does it blow grace  into every corner of that earned-love-cavern?

My, but the answer is so painfully obvious.  So hard to access for those of us who live in the caverns and can’t hear ourselves think for the echoes (or the Holy Spirit whisper, for that matter!)

What if…what if I just opened the door to the cavern to Jesus?  What if I stopped thinking I had to work hard to grow grace and simply asked Jesus to do all the earning, all the more, all the better, all the harder, all the MORE?  What if I let Him earn it all.  What if I believed that He really did accomplish on the cross the final earning?  What if it is TRUE that His love is enough?  What if it is TRUE that His love will whoosh out of that tiny grace space and fill up the cavern so that the echoes are silenced and His whisper of love is magnified?  What if I don’t have to work harder to expand the grace space, but rather let HIM move into the cavern and fill it up with His love.  No earning required.

I do believe that would take care of the Plan A / Plan B problem.  I think I’d know He was delighted.  I think I’d be able to rest where I am and trust His best.  I think the Gospel of grace would be taking root.  What if the grace space is really a mustard seed in disguise?  The Gospel says that he planted that tiny grace space in me and will release His love into the far reaches of my older-brother, tired, worn out working woman soul when I accept the fact that He’s the earner, not me.

That sounds like a miracle.  I think it is.

The Gospel

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As much as this blog is about our move and loving the stranger and how that will all take shape, it’s about something else, on a deeper level.

About two years ago or so, I began to pray a prayer that God would teach me the Gospel and make me passionate about it.

I was raised in a Christian home, went to private Christian school, was baptized at age 12 at the MacDaddy Baptist Church in the biggest bible belt city by the very senior pastor, and grew up with a father who was in ministry.  So – there was a lot of Jesus in my home and in my life.  For this, I am eternally grateful.  Also, for this, I am terribly blinded.  You see, I am an older brother. The worst kind, really…over educated, over memorized, over sheltered, and over wrought.

My heart is so hungry for the true Gospel.  The real Jesus.  It occurred to me only this morning that I have a vast place in my heart that knows how to receive love from people IF I EARN IT (and when that happens, I can gratefully and selfishly revel in the feelings of “payment for services rendered.”)  But, the place in my heart that knows how to receive lavish love that’s just given (even…God forbid…before I earn it) is minuscule and locked up.  It’s not that I don’t desperately want to understand grace or receive it as such, it’s just that the door to that part of my heart is perpetually rusty and squeaky and intractably difficult to open.  Older brothers have small grace spaces.

Doug, my husband, says that my divorce is God’s greatest gift to me.  Without that huge loss and failure, the grace space might be closed off altogether in this little put together life I lead.  He’s right, of course.

I’d love to share along the way about how God opens up the grace space in me and allows me to see the Gospel as Jesus brought it.

Not the memorize five verses and earn a badge kind.

Not the wear a promise ring and sign a pledge kind.

Not the hang out with the Christians because the world is scary kind.

I heard Dr. Ken Boa speak last week.  He talked about how Satan has never created anything new – all the evil in the world is the distortion of something good and true.  Everything.  Sometimes it feels like my whole understanding of Jesus and His Gospel has been an inverted or twisted kind of experience.  Truth, but distorted so that it makes grace seem like an earning, too.  Reality, but rotated so that it causes self-focus rather than God-worship.

God has begun to do some foundational work in my heart about His Gospel.  I have so far to go.  Perhaps you’ll want to journey with me in the prayer for true Gospel. Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.