Bystander

I have them.  Lots of them.

Expectations.

My greatest joys and miseries have often hinged on met verses unmet.

Unmet expectations can feel like rejection.  Rejection makes us needy for some person or achievement to disprove our core beliefs.

I’m not worth the effort.  Not worth fighting for. Easy to leave.  Easy to set aside.  Lacking.

We crave and expect certain behaviors and reactions from others in our hopes to dispel the lies we believe.

We live sad, frustrated and angry.  We grow bitter and hard.  The poisons of unmet expectation circulate through our families, friendships and even our intimacy with Creator.  Our hopeful expectations for the best morph into expecting the worst from others while assuming the worst about others.

It’s Spring break for my kiddos so today’s gift was sleeping in and two cups of coffee. I sat outside watching Leighton play while sipping and checking in with Luke. Today I moved on to chapter 7 where John the Baptist is in prison.  This same John who had baptized Jesus and declared Him the One in chapter 3 is now sending two of his followers to ask:

Are you the One we’ve been expecting, or are we still waiting?

Jesus doesn’t answer right away.  My Bible says for the next few hours he went about his business of ministering to people.  Then finally He says this:

The blind see,
The lame walk,
Lepers are cleansed,
The deaf hear,
The dead are raised,
The wretched of the earth have God’s salvation hospitality extended to them.

Is this what you were expecting? Then count yourselves fortunate!

Sitting outside on my little bench, Leighton whirling around, my heart caught.

You are fortunate if you have the right expectations. 

Even John the Baptist had unmet expectations.  Clearly John was confused from prison.  I don’t know exactly what He thought Jesus was going to do or how Messiah on earth was going to play out, but his expectations were not being met.

Healing nobodies, feeding ungrateful crowds, turning water into wedding wine, conversing with women, touching lepers and children, walking dusty roads with fishermen, eating with tax collectors.

Being Crucified.

Not what Jesus’ disciples, followers and friends were expecting.

They expected King Jesus.  Overthrow the Roman government Jesus.  Let us rule and reign beside you Jesus.

Instead they got breathless Jesus.  Bleeding out Jesus.  Dead Jesus.

What a fierce blow.  Crushing.  Everything they hoped for thrown back in their faces.

Except they were expecting the wrong things.

Oh this is my life lesson on repeat.

Sometimes I expect the wrong things from the wrong people and I feel disappointed. I choke it down and let it settle like concrete into the once soft and vulnerable places inside my heart.  I cannot let myself ask for, hope for, expect anything more.  I make a series of small choices that feel like smart defense mechanisms but in reality further isolate me from Great Love and Best Medicine.

Can you relate?

Remember in the book of John when Mary Magdalene is so upset on Easter morning? She expects to attend to Jesus’ body but the tomb is empty.  How much more can her heart take?  She begins to panic and plead for his whereabouts with a man she takes for the gardener.

Then He speaks her name.

Mary.

Her disappointment explodes.

In an instant Mary sees past her unmet expectations, panic, and pain to the One who holds her heart in His nail-scarred hands.

We often visit the tomb of our dead dreams…linger in the places hope bled out…plead for the thing we believe will relieve our suffering…make our case against the ones who hurt and disappoint us.

Sometimes we make our case against God Himself.

Yet there remains a bystander.  One patiently waiting.  Calling our name and holding in His nail-scarred hands our recovery, our destiny.

Different from what we expect, probably.

More than we expect, always.

 

 

Like The Nile

I was sitting outside in an old, falling apart wooden rocking chair.  I had arranged myself in the sun to avoid a chill as I sipped coffee and watched my youngest draw sidewalk chalk hearts.  Her art was elaborate.  In between sips I spelled out Valentines Day and Love. Periodically I closed my eyes so I could feel the sun on my face and breathe in fully this life of mine.

It’s something else.  Something other than what it was.  A million times more than it was going to be.

I don’t think about the way things were all that often anymore but I’m thankful for the days I do.

Now I sit in the quiet of my kitchen and Moses comes to my mind.  I think about his staff. I think about God instructing Moses and Aaron to strike the Nile with it and how all the water in Egypt turned into blood.

I remember God’s power.  I remember how doing what He says for me to do clears the way for one thing to become another.

See, Creator took my ugly, broken marriage…took hold of two very broken people…and turned us into something else.  It certainly took more than one strike of the staff to the Nile.  It took many strikes.  Many years.  Much chipping away.

Yet my name calling, clothes on the porch, door slamming, screaming, family counseling, altogether dysfunctional marriage, like the Nile, was transformed into something else.

We were adversaries and now he’s my best friend.
We brought each other so much pain and angst and now he’s my comfort.
We doubted and feared one another and now I rest in his leadership.

Don’t misunderstand me.  We don’t live in a pretend la-la fairy land of marital bliss.  We get annoyed, disagree and argue.  But we are on the same team now and that brings us to peace.  We learned, after uncatalogued hours, when to walk away.  We learned to come back soon.

Statistically, my family should not be intact.  Everyone has a story and their experiences of pain.  But while the sun warmed my face I remembered my story, our story, is actually one of perseverance.

And one of glass-chewing obedience.

I believe God tells us in His word many things about what kind of living pleases Him.  I believe a lot of issues are black and white.  But here is the thing…people are all shades of gray.  Thankfully we have a Father who knows our frailty, understands our pathos, extends mercy and grace when we don’t even know yet we need it.

So in the middle of our greatest struggle…our face to face with Pharaoh…Creator reminds us of His word and instructs our next step.

Raise your staff and strike the Nile, he says

It might translate something like this…

Ask for forgiveness…Offer forgiveness…forgive yourself…give away your time…give away your money…submit yourself…humble yourself…trust Me for your worth…let go of the past…stop grasping for things…stop grasping at people…put others first…slow down…come here to Me…believe Me…don’t give up…stop judging others…do not fear judgment…be brave…rest…move on…

As we experience the faithfulness and power of God in our lives it makes us braver to strike the Nile again and again, however many times it takes and however it may look.

The sun filters through my blinds now as I remember.  Following Jesus, imperfectly attempting to obey Him, felt like walking on fire.  Goodness how it broke down my pride. Every notion I had about my rights.  Every idea I had about what was fair. Every demand I wanted to make.  Everything ounce of self-pity and every last temptation to be a victim.

Jesus whispered against my heart as I cried out to Him.  He gave me the grace to do what I could never in a million years have done on my own.  I laid my deepest longings for love, my deepest need for nurture, my broken hopes for wholeness on His altar.  Not because I was strong or extra pious or good.

Because Creator was my only hope.

I was desperate for a miracle.  I was desperate for this life I had to be transformed.

What could have ever convinced me that Jesus would come through?  That surrender would work?

His nearness in my life.  His presence.  Love and grace so profoundly real to me.  Jesus ruined me in the best of ways. I now live certain, regardless of my ups and downs, that nothing and no one can out-do Him.

Perhaps today you are standing by the Nile.  Perhaps you are facing Pharaoh.  Perhaps you need the seemingly impossible to take place in your life.  May I encourage you?

Strike the Nile.

Listen and wait for His nudge against your heart…seek His direction…and trust Him enough to do it His way.

Nothing is impossible with God.

So Moses and Aaron did just as the Lord commanded them.  As Pharaoh and all of his officials watched, Aaron raised his staff and struck the water of the Nile.  Suddenly, the whole river turned to blood.  Exodus 7:20 (New Living Trans.)

Swallowed Up

Bedtime Bible story goes like this: Sitting in bed with lights out and Leighton pointing a little flashlight onto the page I’m reading. We are not consistent with bedtime Bible story but it’s funny how many times I have been struck by something new in a story I already know so well.

The men on the boat were safe. But poor Jonah was sinking deeper and deeper and deeper into the sea. God sent a big fish to rescue him. The fish swallowed Jonah with one big gulp.

As I read these words to Leah and Leighton my heart caught on the words swallowed up.

When I was a kid I always thought of Jonah as a sort of Bible bad guy. And I viewed his stay in the belly of the big fish as God’s punishment because he refused to travel to Ninevah and preach God’s message of forgiveness to the people.

This morning as I’m driving, dropping off, running violins back up to school and being all mommish I’m thinking about Jonah. About being swallowed up.

Thinking about how in life sometimes the thing you view as a punishment, the thing you think is going to be the end of you, is actually God’s rescue.

A divine act of grace. A mercy.

When I read about Jonah now I don’t see a bad guy. I see a man who told the men on the boat that the storm threatening their safey was God making his presence known to Jonah. And so they threw Jonah overboard…a seemingly just consequence to running from God.

Except the God who sent the storm….the God who let Jonah sink deeper and deeper and deeper…is the same One who sent the big fish to rescue him.  I believe God knew nothing was going to change in Jonah’s life as long as he stayed on the boat.

Jonah’s time inside the belly of the big fish was just what he needed not only to keep from drowning but to keep him from squandering his destiny.  Being swallowed up wasn’t a punishment.  It was an appointment.

Time spent breaking is an opportunity for holy reconstruction.

At forty-years-old  I feel like I know a couple of things. First, I don’t know nearly anything! Secondly, more than once a thing in my life that looked as though it would swallow me up and ruin me was the thing God used to rescue me from my fears and false beliefs. To change me. I know what breaks us can actually rebuild us into people we could never be otherwise.  The big fish might just be a rescue and a preparation for things I can’t know or understand about tomorrow.

I know that being swallowed up feels scary but the dark quiet inside the belly of our circumstance is often the best place to experience the nearness and presence of Jesus.

We come out messy but more alive than ever.

December Coming

Mom, what’s your favorite Christmas song? 

Easy.  O Holy Night.  I also like the Barenaked Ladies version of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen but O Holy Night has always been my fav.  

And your least favorite?

Little Drummer Boy.  I mean, meh.  

Since the local radio station started cranking out Christmas music before Thanksgiving I’ve already heard my favorite song, mostly Mariah’s version, many times.

A thrill of hope…the weary world rejoices.

This year those words are sticking to my insides.

A thrill of hope.

The collective we, the world, we are weary.  The families.  The communities and counties and countries.  We are a scraping, angry, hungry, misunderstood and emptied out people. We have settled into discontent.  Our emaciated souls are starving for genuine hope.

And so when it comes it brings a thrill.  A shock of electricity to our apathy and numbness, a holy blast to our guarded living.

Do you remember your emptiness, your shame, your unbearable burden?  Do you remember the suffocating strife that stole your joy?  Do you remember the awful pressure to prove you were sorry, could do better, could be worthy?  Do you remember the gnawing ache in your gut as you hid from the light?  Do you remember your raw and bloody heart struggling against the shackles of sin and inadequacy?  Do you remember the dark loneliness as you resigned yourself to sleep in the proverbial bed you made?

Oh I do.  Every single bit of it.  Today I combed through yesterday’s despair just enough to remember how much I need Jesus.

To remember and relive this thrill of hope.

The pit–the cold dark– has serious drawbacks.  But inside something breathtaking can happen.  In soul darkness, in agonizing weariness, we can find our December.  Discover our Christmas.

Ageless hope, bottomless grace, oceans of mercy all wrapped inside the swaddling innocence of a manger baby.

Oh how we might believe, for a time, the slippery lie that we are too far gone, too much to handle, too dirty to be touched, too plain, too unremarkable, too insignificant to matter…

But then nail scarred hands are lifting our chin.  Oh the strange, steely resolve in His eyes! Determined Savior refusing to let His grace go unopened.  Jesus fully acquainted with our sin. Carrying our confusion. Absorbing our weary efforts, deflated hopes and lost dreams.

Jesus rescuing  us.

Bringing fresh hope.  Loving us without strings. Without prerequisites. Without disclaimers.  Forgiving without the sting of disappointment in His eyes.

He simply is not offended with us.  

This is December coming.

This promise.

This offer.

For weary hearts, weary homes and a weary world.

Thrill of holy hope .

Jesus.

And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
(Isaiah 9.6 New Living Translation)

Not Mine To Break

Romans 4:13-15 (the message)  That famous promise God gave Abraham–that he and his children would possess the earth–was not given because of something Abraham did or would do. It was based on God’s decision to put everything together for him, which Abraham then entered when he believed. If those who get what God gives them only get it by doing everything they are told to do and filling out all the right forms properly signed, that eliminates personal trust completely and turns the promise into an ironclad contract! That’s not a holy promise; that’s a business deal. A contract drawn up by a hard-nosed lawyer and with plenty of fine print only makes sure you will never be able to collect. But if there is no contract in the first place, simply a promise–and God’s promise at that–you can’t break it.

I read this words a couple of days ago as I sat outside listening to waves crashing the shore…

Constant.  Relentless.  Irreversible.  I know what to expect when I come to the ocean.  Yet the continuity and sameness are not a boring given; they are a mystery, like the one in the scripture above.

Bible in my lap.  Looking out across the cloudy, water-filled distance I wanted to shake the enduring burden…slip loose of the timeless knot.  Humanity’s entanglement with perfection, earning and proving.

I read the words above and they settled on my heart in a different light.  God’s promise to love and sustain me, to save me, is His alone.  It’s not mine to break.  It’s mine to embrace.

I am bent hard toward earning or at the least proving to Him I’ll be worth His caring.  I cannot obtain perfection but hold to this sticky lie that my efforts toward perfection are a worthy offering.

That it could ever mean anything at all.

Instead of offering Creator adoration and gratitude for all I rightly don’t deserve but experience in His grace, I come limping with whimpering cries of anxiety and exhaustion.

The fruit of my proving is bitter.

Roman letter so long ago revealing and reminding.  God’s promise never to leave, never to forsake, never to abandon is not mine to break.

This great mystery.  Stepping into what has already been done.  Putting down our disbelief.  No matter how well we follow on some days or terribly we fail on others, the promise of God in our lives is absolute because He made it. We can’t break it.  When we begin to believe this, even just a little, our hearts are filled with hope and wonder and expectation.

What else can draw us into deep places of soul rest except love and grace which, like the waves, crash against our hearts so relentlessly?

 

 

 

Believe & Be Held

Ephesians 2:1-6 (the message)
It wasn’t so long ago that you were mired in that old stagnant life of sin. You let the world, which doesn’t know the first thing about living, tell you how to live. You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience. We all did it, all of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it, all of us in the same boat. It’s a wonder God didn’t lose his temper and do away with the whole lot of us. Instead, immense in mercy and with an incredible love, he embraced us. He took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ. He did all this on his own, with no help from us! Then he picked us up and set us down in highest heaven in company with Jesus, our Messiah.

I was thinking about this recently.

I wondered, like the verses above, why God bothered with us at all once it was clear humanity was a rebel race.

I can’t mentally understand His mercy.  I can’t understand because my default thinking is set to earning, reaping and deserving.

And I don’t deserve mercy.

So as I was driving last week I thought about how God must see us so differently than we see ourselves.  Perhaps the reason God hasn’t scrapped the lot of us.

Our sin-sick living is the expression of our grasping for center, our relentless pursuit of control.  Our disjointed effort to be okay apart from the nearness of Jesus.

We do not live in organic unity with Creator because we do not really trust Him with our lives.  We don’t trust God or other humans because truth be told we don’t trust ourselves.

Regardless of our pretense, posts and posturing we know the evil within our own hearts. We can’t seem to get a hold of ourselves, our issues, our neediness.  We misunderstand that we could have ever gotten a hold of it at all, ever cured ourselves, and so we politely resist genuine fellowship with God.  We keep our distance from the bleeding vulnerability that would truly remake us.  We rebel and grasp and refuse to yield.

We live fractured, wounded lives and grow accustomed to the feel of scar tissue beneath our fingers.

Oh how we need this immense mercy, this incredible love.  And mostly we agree, yes we do!, but then we refuse to settle into it.  Honestly don’t know how.

We need to be held and safely kept in the hand of Almighty.

Our squirmy resistance is our unbelief.  We won’t be still inside this miraculous offering of peace because we don’t deserve it and haven’t earned it.

No, we don’t and we haven’t.

The crux in the matter of living.

I drive HWY 42 and think how we are all just a fractured humanity needing Jesus to set our bones to right.  Set our hearts to heal.  Set our soul to safe-keeping.

We must finally allow ourselves to slide into His grace.  To recognize our defense mechanisms, our controlling and unyielded living as the symptoms of our disease, not the cure.

He took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ with no help from us.

We are certainly no surprise to God.  Our most secret sins and ruinous choices–past, present and future– are accounted for, already smeared red with the blood of Christ.

Our fractured lives, our broken minds and hearts, our unyielding will can be reset, restored and revived in His embrace.  There is nothing we can do, need to do, except believe, be still and be held.

 

 

 

 

My Undeniable Center

I really don’t even know what kind of tree this is. I need to ask my husband because he would know.

I’m sitting on this old bench under this particular tree listening to the birds. And I think if I really focus, maybe I’ll see the tobacco plants growing before my very eyes. My front porch view has changed, but the blue of the sky is the same. Sounds of creation still familiar.

It’s different. And yet it isn’t.

Under this unidentifiable-to-me tree with my Bible open.

Untangle me, God.

Then he got in the boat, his disciples with him. The next thing they knew, they were in a severe storm. Waves were crashing into the boat–and he was sound asleep! They roused him, pleading, “Master, save us! We’re going down!” Matthew 8:23-25

Jesus slept soundly through the storm because he was not intimidated, threatened or afraid of the storm, the crashing waves. Jesus knew His power.

I’m often like the disciples. Mentally spinning and emotionally upset because the waves of life are coming into my boat and I fear they will take me down. I want to control the circumstances of life–insulate myself from storms and crashing waves–so I can feel safe and secure in every way.

I desperately want to be the best mom I can be. My impractical dream is to raise children unscathed by childhood–by life. Already I can tell you I have failed! There simply is no life lived without controversy, disappointment, regret or the need to overcome adversity.  Avoiding crashing waves is mostly a waste of time and attempting it will leave my daughters ill-equipped for life.

The waves are going to come crashing.

But Jesus, if He’s in my boat, will remain unfazed and very present.

Everything is not always going to be alright. But we can be alright.

Because no matter the waves crashing into our hearts, our minds or our bodies, Jesus will never change. His love, His grace, His mercy.  His very presence will not change.  Cannot be removed, weakened or taken from us.

No matter what. Not ever.

As I think this morning along these lines I remember my miscarriages. I asked God to save the life of my unborn child on two separate occasions.

Neither time did it turn out “alright.”

But I’m still alright.

Jesus was still in my boat. He spoke to my storm and eventually the waters calmed. Jesus is my constant, my undeniable center.  He’s my anchor over and over and over in this life.

He’s my rock-solid.

No matter what you might be going through, no matter what kind of waves might be pounding at your heart, your mind or your body, if Jesus is in your boat you will be alright in the end.

He’s not going to join into our frantic efforts to control, manage or manipulate life. But He will absolutely stand guard over our soul. He will speak peace over our lives in such a way the knots of fear unravel.

Jesus lifts our chin, turns our face to His so that our eyes are no longer filled with the circumstances around us but the love Creator has for us.

It’s not always gonna be alright, but it is.

No One Touches Me

I was biting my lip and all I could think was, they are gonna think I’m crazy if I start crying.

I stared at words I could not read but knew by heart. A song from my own church childhood…

Lord, You are more precious than silver
Lord, You are more costly than gold
Lord, You are more beautiful than diamonds
And nothing I desire compares with You

After a couple of times through the Pastor directed the worship leader to sing the lyrics in English.  I could barely get them out.

I felt the pressing presence of Jesus. I felt the touch of His love in the unguarded purity of a warm welcome.

I hadn’t expected it.

For my Transcultural Healthcare class I needed a “field experience.” My oldest daughter and I walked into this Spanish service held where my youngest daughter attends preschool. As we walked into the lobby a man stopped immediately because, well, we looked out-of-place. He gave us a big smile as I explained why we were there and asked if it was okay for us to attend.

One hundred percent!  Do you speak Spanish?

I told him no and he walked away, seemingly on a mission.

We took a seat in the back and were greeted by smiling faces, hellos and holas. The next thing we knew Norma was introducing herself and inviting us to sit with her family. We moved with her and met more friendly faces. Before service could begin a beauty of a young woman came to sit by me. She handed me a bilingual Bible and explained she was there to interpret for us. Her name was Percy and she was Pastor’s mission for his visitors.

With my head tilted to the right and sitting more closely to a stranger than I normally would, I listened to Percy translate…various praises were shared, prayer requests and then a message about living with a pure heart before God.

When the service was over and I had thanked Pastor Javy, Percy, and Norma we made our way back to the van. I looked at my daughter and tried to explain how touched I had been. How unexpected their kindness and warmth had been.

And I finally cried.

See, I thought I would just sit in the back and observe. And even though it might be awkward, well I needed to do it so I could write this paper.

But Jesus touched my heart. He touched me. He made me see and feel within this small group of Hispanic Christians many of the things that I have grieved not experiencing in my middle class, mostly white church world.

Instead of being invisible, receiving a polite nod or smile, I was embraced.

I told my daughter through tears that if Christians treated visitors, regardless of their differences, the way we had just been treated people would come to church. They would stay in church. They might actually believe the things church people say about Jesus.

I keep thinking about a movie my family watched last Saturday night. “Risen” was about a Roman Tribune who was assigned the task of finding the body of Jesus after the resurrection. Instead of finding a corpse, the Tribune found Jesus alive and well. In one scene a group of angry people were running a leprous man off from their village. As the man stumbled and fell to the ground, Jesus got up and went over to him.

Jesus sat down on the ground beside the man and put His arms around him. Initially the man covered in skin lesions pulled away but Jesus held on to him.  And the man cried out softly, No one touches me!

No one touches me.

My goodness.

Jesus is no smiling head-nodder. He’s a hurt-embracer. A broken-life-toucher.

He gets down to the ground and puts His arms around us. It’s unexpected and awkward because we live with our guard up around people, especially church people. So when Jesus won’t let us go we squirm and try to pull away because being touched is the undoing.

The undoing of our pain, our soul’s disease and dis-ease. Being touched by Jesus is the uncovering of our pretense; our shaky control.

Jesus touched me last Sunday as I sat shoulder to shoulder with Percy. As Norma leaned into our personal space to ask about my daughter’s school and learn our story a bit. As I recognized the melody to a chorus from my childhood and struggled over the lump in my throat to sing along.

Jesus is absolutely going to touch our lives! He is going to find the ways, the hands, the words, the songs, the unexpected encounters.

He is going to get up from wherever He is when He sees you. Jesus is coming over to where you are.

Jesus will look directly into your pain, your sin, your shame, your loss. He’s not going to glance nervously or pretend it isn’t real. He is not intimidated by your life.  Jesus is not going to offer a smile and shake your hand. He’s not going to refer you to a verse or hand you a Bible. Jesus is not going to ask if you have made Him the Lord of your life before He even knows your name. He’s not going to carefully hand you a bag lunch or a twenty and invite you to His church.  He’s not going to walk away feeling good because He tried.

He’s not going to walk away at all.

Jesus is gonna get down into the dirt with you. And He’s gonna hold on to you until you believe you are loved.