The Perfect Combo

Fall is my favorite season. I walked outside the last couple of mornings and the first thing I noticed was the smell of fireplaces burning. This smell, mingling with the brisk cool morning air is one my favorite combinations.

It’s hard to put into words the contentment that flows over me whenever my senses step into this scene. Yesterday, as I walked up the street, I tried to put it into words. It reminds me of a particular season in my life filled with getting up again and starting over. As scary as starting over can be, there’s this beautiful simplicity about it that I find strangely inviting. The surprising beauty I stumbled upon in that season of scary uncertainty is something I will cherish forever. It was a gift that I didn’t deserve. It was a loving embrace that I could never repay even if I tried.

As I was writing these words the song The Heart of Worship came to mind.

“When the music fades, all is stripped away and I simply come…”

That’s the feeling that sweeps over me when I step out my front door and into the fireplace/brisk morning air combo. Grace. I breathe it in again.

Lord, Your mercies are new every morning. Great is Your faithfulness.

The Pictures in Our Wallet

“Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable.”—Matthew 13:34

My favorite T-shirt is one I bought several years ago at the Storyline Conference I attended. On the front it simply says Story Matters.

In the verse above, I love the reminder that Jesus used parables all the time in order to convey and illustrate the message he came to teach us. He knew we would retain information better if it wasn’t just a list of facts.

Story, and the pictures they give us, help to bring important lists to life.

Jesus, the teacher, didn’t just command crowds to do this or to not do that as he taught them how to love. Instead, He gave them school pictures to store in the wallets of their minds and hearts and to carry along with them on their journeys.

Want to know what I mean when I say love your neighbor? Here’s a picture.
Want to know what I mean when I say love your enemy? Here’s a picture.
Want to know what I mean when I say take care of the poor, the widow, the oppressed, the outcast, the marginalized? Here’s a picture.
Want to know what I mean when I say welcome the stranger? Here’s a picture.

This morning, as I thought more about all the stories Jesus shared with us to help us on our journey to love others, I had this thought:

Those pictures are still in our possessions. It’s time to take those pictures out of our wallets again, to study them again, to retrace each image with our index finger, and remember.

Love Without Lines

Toe the line.

I thought about that phrase the other day and realized something. The more this incredible level of divisiveness continues in our country, the more I’m compelled to gravitate towards run full speed towards the marginalized.

Speak up for the people who have no voice,
for the rights of all the down-and-outers.
Speak out for justice!
Stand up for the poor and destitute!” Proverbs 31: 8-9

I had an image come to mind the other day as I pondered that phrase, toe the line.  I was standing at an actual line and I decided to step across the line. Before doing so, I folded up the lawn chair that I had with me and carried it across the line too. Yet, crossing the line wasn’t enough. I ventured away from the line and into the center. I then plopped my chair down next to a campfire and people were sitting all around the fire chatting cordially with one another. The only thing I knew for sure as I saw this scene play out in my head was that I felt at home there…sitting around that campfire…away from line…that’s where I belonged.

When I think about the ministry of Jesus, I think this is what makes Him so attractive. He didn’t toe lines. Instead, he came to erase the lines everyone seemed to be drawing.

I keep going back to this cartoon drawing I saw several months ago. Jesus came to erase the lines and all the safe and comfortable boxes that we tend to draw.

And yet, even as Jesus took the lines away, there was never any question where He stood and who He stood with:

the marginalized, the poor, the outcast, the broken, the prodigals, the weak, the forgotten.

I want to get rid of lines too. Yet, I want there to be no question where I stand and who I stand with:

the marginalized, the poor, the outcast, the broken, the prodigals, the weak, the forgotten.

I want to sit around a campfire with Jesus, much like the one he made for Peter and John on the morning he made them breakfast after his resurrection.

Jesus had every right that morning to give Peter an earful about how wrong he had been and how royally he had screwed up. But, he didn’t. Instead, his response was…

come, pull up your lawn chair and sit with me, eat some breakfast with me.

A Safe Place to Scream

A safe place to scream. This idea has been rolling around my heart and head for a couple of days. It’s similar to a safe place to share but on a deeper level, a more vulnerable and even more transparent level. I thought about this because  1. I recently read a great article about taking our anger to God.  2. Any time I read a Psalm where David expresses anger and hate, I’m struck by how many different emotions I have as I read his words.

On one level, I’m uncomfortable. His words are full of hatred; he admits that he wants no grace or mercy shown to his accusers. He just wants them to “get what they deserve.”  Yet, at the same exact time I feel discomfort, I also feel a sense of comfort and encouragement. Psalms like Psalm 109, 137, and 58 reveal to us that anger (and all the human reactions that go along with being angry about injustices or evil we’ve observed or have personally experienced) is normal and even permissible.

Yet, anytime I read Psalms like these, I can’t help but think about how David may have been received today if he were to express this level of transparency in his weekly small group. Can you imagine?  Basically, his heart was crying out…”I want my enemies to die. I want them to suffer.” Would he have been received with love and acceptance after sharing this level of vulnerability in his small group in this day and age?  Oh, I want to believe so…but I’m not so sure.

I’ve been a part of plenty of supportive, vulnerable, and beautiful groups over the years but it’s been rare for me to see a group consistently hit this level of vulnerability and “safe”. I think back on my days being part of recovery meetings like AA and CR.  I found it most often and most frequently in those spaces. I guess that’s to be expected when every single week you are there to address and heal from hurts, habits, and hangups.

I share all this to simply say: I’m so thankful for the foot of the cross. I’m thankful that there TRULY IS a consistently safe place to take our anger, a safe place to scream. I’m thankful that David modeled this so well for us too. At the foot of the cross, we can kick, scream, and confess the cries in our hearts/souls and, when we are done, Jesus’ love for us and His desire to be with us has not diminished in the least!  And it’s because of His grace-filled reaction towards us and His relentless desire to walk with us even through seasons of anger…that we can’t help but fall deeper in love with Him.

When the Weight Lifts and Peace Arrives

While walking my dogs this morning I began thinking about one lesson I seem to be learning over and over again with regards to worry, anxiety, and over-thinking. Really wish I could learn this lesson once in life and be done with it, but I’ve reached mid-life and I’ve yet to master the art of never worrying.

When my mind spins endlessly on anything in particular, I eventually arrive at that place where I know I have to release it in order to find peace. Lately, when I finally do get to this productive crossroads, I even go so far as to say it out loud.

Okay, Lord, if there is something that needs changing, would show me what it is or, better yet, would You just go ahead and change it? Lord, if You need to take something away in order to make room for what’s best, would You do that too?

For some reason, whenever I pray this way, the weight lifts and peace arrives.

Unclenched fists. If I had to wager a guess on what this journey through life is primarily about, I think learning to live with unclenched fists will be the big picture takeaway.

Everything important seems to revolve around this posture of open hands.

You can’t give without this posture.
You can’t receive without this posture.
You can’t grow or heal without this posture.

“I reach out for you. I thirst for you as parched land thirsts for rain.” Psalm 143: 6

Miracles and Enemy Ears

“But love your enemies, do what is good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High. For he is gracious to the ungrateful and evil.” Luke 6:35

Of all the things Jesus says in scripture, this has got to rank up there as one of the hardest messages to embrace. Our pastor included this passage in his message today.

Not sure why he had to go and do that. 😉

At best, most days, I’m doing good if I simply tolerate my enemies.

It’s verses like this one that have a way of humbly reminding us that we fall short every single day of loving others like Jesus does.

This morning, it was the last sentence that caught my eye and the one I jotted down in my notes.

“For he is gracious (kind) to the ungrateful and evil.”

Take a moment to think about that for a moment.

Time and again, Jesus modeled to us how to be gracious to the ungrateful and evil. I think about how he washed Judas’ feet even though he knew Judas was about to betray him.

I think about how, on the the night he was arrested, he reprimanded one of his disciples for turning towards violence and wounding one of the guards who came to arrest him. Jesus didn’t have to take the time to restore the guard’s ear, but he did. He displayed kindness in the face of evil. Jesus extended second mile grace in that moment. He could have just voiced his displeasure with his disciple for lashing out, but instead, Jesus took it one step further, he healed and restored his enemy.

Do you ever wonder how that one moment may have impacted the rest of  that guard’s life?

Do you ever wonder if that guard, because of that one act of love, may have ever one day changed his mind about Jesus?  (Yes, I think about these kinds of things.) 

This was also the last recorded miracle mentioned in scripture prior to the resurrection. Miracles were extraordinary acts of love and the last recipient of this act of love (that we are privy to) was an enemy.

We don’t know the rest of that guard’s story. But I do know this: When people encounter the personal touch of Jesus and his love…people are always left changed in some capacity. Always.

A Place I Never Want to Live Again

With years of keeping secrets safe
Wondering if I could change
‘Cause when you’re hiding all alone
Your heart can turn into a stone
And that’s not the way I want to go

So I walk out of the darkness and into the light
From fear of shame into the hope of life
Mercy called my name and made a way to fly
Out of the darkness and into the light” —Marvelous Light

This Ellie Holcomb song played again on my run the other day and it took me back.

Oh how I hate the fear that keeps us stuck in the dark. I hate how the dark convinces us that the only option we have is to remain in the dark. I hate how it convinces us the darkness is safe.

So we settle for the dark.

We hide, run, lie, justify, rationalize, numb, escape.

The dark:  I spent nearly a decade of my life in that place; it was anything but safe. It wasn’t just a place I visited from time to time. I set up permanent residence there. I am all too familiar with the consequences… with the damage it causes and the pain it inflicts.

“If you think you have no choice but do what you’ve always done, then you’ve already made a serious error” — Seth Godin

The dark will tell us there is no turning back, or that somehow it’s all our fault and we deserve this.
The dark will tell us it’s all their fault and not ours.
The dark will tell us it’s not that bad.
The dark will tell us they need to change not me.
The dark will tell us well…at least I’m not as bad as that person over there.
The dark will tell us if they can do it, then I can do it too.

The dark will convince us that settling is freedom when really it’s a prison.

Jesus told us that He came in order to give life to the fullest, an abundant life!

Whenever our hearts are convinced to listen to the dark, we settle for something short of abundance, something short of freedom.

“I am the light of the world. Anyone who follows me will never walk in the darkness but will have the light of life.”  —John 8:12

Settling…instead of being set free

Been thinking about Luke 4: 14-30 this morning. We looked at these chapters last Sunday in church and then again in our small groups.

Here’s something that keeps standing out to me about Jesus and the words that he shared with his home “base”.

He didn’t seem to give a hoot whether his hometown accepted him or not. Sharing truth was more important to him.

And the truth was, he didn’t have favorites. Never once in his speech to his hometown did he say “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.” Never once did he say that because you all are my people and where I am from then you will receive preferential treatment from me.

In fact, he shared a story with them that reflected the complete opposite.

And his hometown was so offended and enraged by his words that they tried to kill him. They don’t say it out loud but the fact that Jesus was sharing how he was just as concerned (and I would even argue more concerned) with the “other” and wasn’t willing to give preferential healing or compassion to his own people was not a perspective that sat well in this audience.

Jesus…that’s not how to win friends and influence people!  Tell us, instead, what our itching ears want to hear! 

It’s so fascinating to me how “human” this crowd is. In the first 9 verses the crowd loved him and were “amazed by his gracious words.” Yet, 8 verses later, they were ready to kill him. His words cut at their selfish and proud hearts and instead of a desire to understand they just wanted to shut him up.

Settling…instead of being set free.

Birthday Reflections

I don’t think I’ll ever tire of looking for and recognizing the Lord’s redeeming work. I’m reminded of Nathanael sitting under the fig tree when Philip found him and told him about Jesus. I love his initial response. The guy from Nazareth…can anything good come from Nazareth!?  (John 1: 44-51)

Can you picture the expression on Nathanael’s face as he says this to Phillip? I can. I’m certain my face has contorted itself into that same expression before on many occasions.

And, Jesus’ ministry was and still is the work of redemption. He came to heal the sick and eat dinner with the outcasts. He came to breathe new life into the hopeless and the lost. He came to humble the proud and strengthen the weak. He came to offer himself in our place, to become the slaughtered Lamb.

A few years ago, our pastor pointed out something I had never taken notice of before. In the book of Revelation, standing in the throne room,  Jesus is depicted as a slaughtered bloody lamb. Perfection includes something that seems so opposite of perfect.  And yet…

What a beautiful reminder that God can redeem all that is lost. In the throne room, you don’t expect to see a depiction of pain…but it’s exactly what we see and what we need to see.  We need to see the hope in the ugly.  We need to cling to the promises that God can take anything we have gone through or will go through and redeem it.

“God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams!” Ephesians 3:20 Message

Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure and the joy of watching God work in situations that look and feel completely hopeless. I’ve watched the Lord extend His hand of grace and mercy over and over in my own life.

He’s faithfully sat with me in pits (of my own doing), walked with me through valleys, and rescued me from raging seas. And through each experience, I have seen glimpses of His incredible beauty and the depths of His love. Glimpses and depths that I know I would never have seen from the mountaintops. Never.

I guess I think about all this because my birthday is quickly approaching. This Saturday I will turn 47.

47!?! Can anything good from that?!? 😉

I’ve also been thinking of my 44th birthday all week. I went to bed the night before I turned 44 knowing that my dad would most likely pass away on my birthday. As many of you know, my dad had a life altering stroke in 2012. It paralyzed his left side.  He was unable to walk and was bedridden for four long years.

A few days before my 44th birthday my dad’s health took another turn. I was able to call his caretaker the night before he died and the caretaker put the phone up to my dad’s ear so I could tell him I loved him, so I could tell him that I was so grateful God had chosen him to be my dad, and to thank him for loving me.

As I drifted off to sleep that night, a story I had written about on my blog several years ago suddenly came to mind.  It was the story my mom shared with me about going into labor with me and asking my dad to wash her feet before taking her to the hospital to give birth to me.  At the time, we lived in Florida and my mom didn’t want the delivery doctors looking at her flip flop filthy summer feet while I popped into the world!

The next morning, my oldest brother called to tell me our dad had passed away at 4:30am that morning…my 44th birthday.

I think it’s only through the lens of grace that one can see loss and grief on a day that is supposed celebrate being born as a gift…but that’s exactly how I received it.  It was like the Lord was whispering affirmations into my soul: I can turn a story about dirty feet into a beautiful picture of love.

It’s a gift I have been opening up on my birthday every year since my dad’s passing.  How beautiful and fitting it is to remember (on my birthday) the two people who helped bring me into this world.

A world mixed with pain and healing, sorrow and joy, death and life.

When Truth Comes Looking For Us

This morning I read through John 9 again. It’s the account of Jesus healing the man who was born blind. I’ve always loved this story and have written about different aspects of it on many occasions.

I love how the man born blind faithfully obeys Jesus and goes to Siloam to wash. What a walk of faith that must have been!

What must have been running through this man’s mind on that walk? How many other times in his life had someone come along claiming they could heal him? How many times had he been disappointed?

I also  love his straightforward responses when the Pharisees harassed, belittled and interrogated him.

They cared more about holding onto power than considering evidence that would point them in a different direction.

They cared more about their long standing interpretation of law than carefully or humbly considering another explanation.

They refused to believe the evidence staring them in the face, evidence that was at that very moment looking them straight in the eyes and saying “I was blind…now I see.” What more proof do you need?

*******

However, this morning, it was the first few words of verse 35 that caught my attention.

“When Jesus heard that they had thrown the man out, He found him…”

I read those words this morning and thought...Jesus will come find us when others reject us.

In other words The Truth will intentionally come looking for us when others stubbornly or painfully dismiss us.

Fear and puffed up pride dismisses truth but humility looks for and embraces truth.

If you think about it, the man who had been healed was simply sharing his story.  Plain truth. Nothing more. Nothing less.

He didn’t feel the need to elaborate or embellish or defend his new found sight. Truth doesn’t require all that extra fluff. It’s like the man was saying. This is my journey. You can take it or leave it. I’m not going to expend any energy trying to prove it to you.

I love what happens next. Though the religious leaders callously rejected him, Jesus did not.

Truth tracked him down. Truth affirmed and validated his journey. Truth invited him, welcomed him, embraced him.

“When Jesus heard that they had thrown the man out, He found him and asked, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”

“Who is He, Sir, that I may believe in Him?” he asked.

Jesus answered, “You have seen Him; in fact, He is the One speaking with you.”

“I believe, Lord!” he said, and he worshiped Him.

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment, in order that those who do not see will see and those who do see will become blind.”

Some of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these things and asked Him, “We aren’t blind too, are we?”

“If you were blind,” Jesus told them, “you wouldn’t have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see’—your sin remains.” (v 35-41)