Of Mothers and Mangers and Mirrors

Decades ago I held my first child, a son, in the Winter months– born right at the beginning of the holiday season– and the Christmas Story came to life for me. That year I could enter into Mary’s experience as a young mother: her wonder, her fears, the myriad changes in her own flesh, and all these experiences new and strange, as if the whole world had suddenly been born new with her labor pains. And in the utterly down-to-earth flesh and blood of pregnancy and delivery and the physical needs of a newborn, the Incarnation of the Son of God was no longer a theological concept, but an Everyday reality. That the Almighty One of Heaven who spoke the worlds into being would enfold Himself into the waxy translucent skin of a newborn…just a small warm fragile body held snugly in a mother’s arms…was wonder beyond wonder.

And in the years that followed, my whole world shifted, tilted, redefined itself in unexpected ways, as I struggled to live out my faith as a stay-at-home wife and mother, discovering that the small messy places of life where we bend to serve others can become something sacred– an offering of worship to God– because the Eternal One stooped into Time and Space to submit to an ordinary woman’s care. One of Jesus’ friends would explain it this way, later: “This is how God showed his love for us: God sent his only Son into the world so we might live through him.” (1 John 4:9) 

Mary must have known well how much she would lose, in listening to that angel. Any woman can imagine what it meant to give up dreams of a wedding day, the approval of her friends and neighbors, the comfort of her family circle. But in bending to God’s will, Mary mirrored His own humility and love, and found unexpected treasures of the heart that beckon to all the women that have come since. Her song still rises: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for He has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name.” (Luke 1:46-49) God bent down to us at Christmas, to show us what True Love looks like, and when we bend down to serve others, we become His image-bearers, reflections of His heart.

This Winter I gained another daughter, and I look at her fresh young face and wonder what roads lie ahead of her, see how hard it will be to listen to the right voices in this world– too many clamoring opinions about beauty and worth and meaning as a woman, and what makes a good life. I wish I could tell her and all the young wives and mothers that the best thing they can do with their lives is to live like Mary, to learn to say “yes” to God…to allow Him to shape them around His Son in the small things of Everyday Life. There are so many goals and dreams to chase out there, but it is in Christ that we learn who we are, discover our true worth. It is in following Him one step at a time that we find our purpose. It will be ordinary and humbling, often invisible to others…and quite probably difficult. And we will become beautiful and extraordinary women, if we can listen and learn from Him. A sister-writer said it well: “A woman’s most sacred responsibility is to be so comfortable not just only in her own skin, but in being in Christ, in being shaped and formed like Christ, like the Cross…that she becomes more interested in the ways of Christ than in what others think of her — or what she thinks she wants.” (Ann VosKamp) It is a high calling, a privilege indeed, to be a woman made and defined by God.

This is Christmas that can last all year round: to wrap our arms and our hearts around each other and bear one another’s burdens, to become Love in flesh, for all the world to see, as our Savior did, once upon a time in Bethlehem.

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“This is the kind of love we are talking about—not that we once upon a time loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with God.”  (I John 4:10, The Message)

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“The most revolutionary thing a woman can do is not let anything but the Cross explain her life. (Ann VosKamp)

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If God Is for Us

Some days when the future looms large and uncertain, this is enough:

“What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.  Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (Romans 8:31-35)

In every loss, every hard place, every weary struggle of uncertainty, every paralyzing fear… we know this one thing for sure: that God is praying for us and with us; He loves us; He is on our side.

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“He holds the stars and He holds my heart,
With healing hands that bear the scars,
The rugged cross where He died for me–
My only hope, my everything.
Jesus, He loves me;
He loves me; He is for me.”

(Jesus Loves Me, Chris Tomlin)

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“He is mine and I am His, given to me as well as for me; I am never so much mine as when I am His, or so much lost to myself until lost in Him…”  (The Valley of Vision)

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Body Building Basics

A friend told me this morning about getting nominated for the 7-Day Gratitude Challenge on Facebook, and how uplifting she found it to name three things every day that she was thankful for– how it turned her eyes to God’s goodness and filled her heart with unexpected joy. Her story was like a light shining into my week turned burdened and gray with the dust of this world… the way windows can get grimy with the everyday accumulation, until the sun’s rays illuminate all the dirt getting in the way of seeing. It reminded me that I used to give thanks every day and that I had stopped for some reason. It reminded me of Paul’s injunction to the Christ-followers of centuries past: “…be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 5:19-20) He understood how we need to do that for one another, to call each other back to truth and thankfulness and right thinking, almost constantly.

And the thing is, I know the slow soul-drain of fixing my eyes on what is immediately before me– the microscopic view of my little world with only this life in mind, and how very weary it is. I’ve been here before and by now I know the only remedy is to “turn [my] eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.” (Helen Lemmel) So how is it that I find myself here again and in need of a heart-check? When I am counting His blessings, tuning my heart to sing His praise, that is when I am most happy; that is when my soul feels most alive; that is when I can look ahead with hope for whatever comes. Looking back, it’s hard to pinpoint when I stopped remembering to give thanks, and why exactly– although I do remember a delusional moment of self-congratulation, in which I thought the habit of thankfulness so well-worn it needed no more daily discipline. If there was a turning point, that was certainly one.

I see that whenever we are satisfied with where we are, we are most in danger of losing focus. We need to hear each other’s stories, see each other’s growth, allow the grace that flows from the gifts of others into our own lives. “…Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (Ephesians 4:15-16) There really is no substitute for this kind of community. Whenever we are isolated from the rest of the Body, whether by circumstances or choices, we become handicapped in our growth. We need the prayers and encouragement of others, to remind us of who we are and where we are going– to remind us to give thanks in all things. Living in community helps us to regularly wipe away the dust and grime of everyday living, so that God’s light can shine through more clearly. Living in community helps to keep us on track in this faith-race, speaking the Truth to one another in every way possible, so that no one gets lost along the way, or gets left behind.

So this week I am getting back to the basics, and counting what I am thankful for, once again. First on the list is this community of Christ-followers.

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“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:24)

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 “There are people who take the heart out of you, and there are people who put it back.” (Elizabeth David)

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…what ducks?

“Truth is only understandable if spoken with understanding love.” (Ann VosKamp) So Christ spoke the Truth that He had come to save His people from their sins in the only language we could understand: pure Love, poured out red from hands and feet… so we could see it, touch it, share the agony of death with the immortal Creator. “This cup is the new covenant between God and his people–an agreement confirmed with my blood, which is poured out as a sacrifice for you.” (Luke 22:20) The stuff of life that He made to flow through our veins from the beginning, spilled out from His own to wash away our brokenness. Love shouted with His dying breath, “Father, forgive them!” and we saw it with our own eyes, written in flesh and blood and dirt…a language we could understand.

And as we follow in His footsteps, I see this, that if we want to speak Truth into a deaf world, we will have to use the language of love that understands pain, knows betrayal and confusion, plumbs the depths of repentance and grace. What good is it if we are plastic-perfect saints, all clean cut and smiling, the kind of people whose ducks know how to line up straight and tall? That is not a language that makes any intelligible sense to the dying, though it does make us feel a whole lot better about how far we have come.

Someone said in our Small Group how shocked they were to see the people in the Bible as they really were, pulled out of the prim pastel Sunday School pictures and into the real world of sweat and grime and sin. And I thought how it really is shocking to confront our humanity in all its grittiness, and maybe we have lost the sense of who we are in our modern world. Covered as we are in this veneer of wealth and education and civility. Underneath it all, we are still humans created out of dirt, run-aways fighting for survival in a world that no longer bows to our rule, people just trying to meet the deepest emotions and needs of our hearts any way we can. We may as well admit it, because that is the Truth and where we will find Someone who can help.

We have come a long way in scientific explanations and technological conveniences and polite ways to express our conflicts, but maybe we are not better off for the masks. Truth makes more sense to people if it is whispered from someone who labors alongside and weeps with them. Truth rings loud and strong coming from the wounded and the weak, from marriages in process and parents looking for wisdom…from people who need God just as much as everyone else in the world. And maybe it’s okay that sometimes we can’t even find our ducks, if it helps us use the plain and simple language of love to tell people the Truth that Jesus is the Savior of us all.

 

“Everyone needs compassion,
A love that’s never-ending–
Let mercy fall on me .
Everyone needs forgiveness,
The kindness of a savior,
The hope of nations…
My God is mighty to save.” (Mighty to Save, Hillsong)

 

“One reason we do not understand holiness is that we do not understand grace. The ultimate degree to which holiness flows through your life will depend…on your willingness to yield to the nature of God in humble surrender. You possess no holiness apart from God.” (Russell Kelfer)

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Making Love Real

We have been given everything in abundance, and it was all free gift, but it will cost us our hearts. “Owe nothing to anyone–except for your obligation to love one another. If you love your neighbor, you will fulfill the requirements of God’s law.” (Romans 13:8) This gratitude that is our only right response to the Giver will bend us to carry the burdens of others, will push us into uncomfortable places, and pull us out of ourselves till we begin to look like Someone else more and more. It’s what happens when our hearts become completely God’s. It’s the way love really works.

It’s the way His real Love works in us.

 

 

“That thundering question of Where is God? Is best answered when the people of God offer a hand and whisper: Here I am.

That thundering question of Where is God? Is best answered when the people of God tear everything else away and take the time to show it: Here’s His love for you – beating right here, right here in me, right here for you.” (Ann VosKamp)

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Who Am I?

All week I think about it, sitting there sewing with the afternoon sun streaming in through the window and the flow of women’s voices around me. We are escapees from the walls of our everyday lives, hiding here for a few days to create beauty, to connect with other artists and let someone else cook and clean and keep everything running smoothly. But I am commuting back to the real world every night and the contrast is outlined sharply, and the words keep tumbling around inside, bubbling up, as I ponder yet again: how easily we define ourselves by our relationships and our job titles, and how hard it is sometimes to see our purpose when we are apart from that. Would I even know who I am if there were no one needing Mommy every few minutes, no day-planner filled with entries, no laundry piled up in the basket, no one waiting for me when I come home at night? Who am I, really, when everyone else goes away?

What if I were just a creature sitting in the sun making beauty before my Maker, for the rest of my life? The birds do that…and the flowers…and maybe most of the living things called forth by the Word of God, though some are admittedly more beautiful in their offerings than others. And that sinks in deep because somewhere long ago, before I was defined by my first roles and relationships (Daughter, first Grand-daughter, First-born, Sister, Friend), I was just me. Although my parents gave me their DNA, and a name and a place to live, I was designed by the eternal Sustainer of Life, woven together in every detail with my father’s sensitive spirit and my mother’s determination, his eyes and her ears, and all my days already planned out in His book.

It comes so naturally to define my identity and purpose with the concrete outlines of this world, and to let the necessities of life shape my days. But maybe the press and bustle often drown out the quieter truth, that I was created to respond to the Creator and mirror Him. When life changes and the roles and relationships that speak so loudly in my life shift, even disappear, I am still who I was created to be, and my first purpose remains: live here in this dark world as a child of light… respond to my Creator in praise and thanksgiving… serve others and give Him glory. “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

So I come back to the everyday world at the end of the week, and take up the jobs and places that others see when they look at me, but with a growing quiet sense of purpose on the inside. In every change of circumstance and season, I am still who He made me to be, and it springs from my relationship with an unchanging God. When I pursue Him I find myself.

 

“Who I am in the context of a relationship with God is who I was meant to be. So who I am in relation to God is my truest sense of self.” (The Worshiping Artist, Rory Noland)

“Your hands made me and formed me; give me understanding to learn your commands.May those who fear you rejoice when they see me, for I have put my hope in your word.” Psalm 119:73-74

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More Love, Please

Sometimes I have to pray for more love, even for the people I love.  Maybe especially more for them…because they are usually the ones that are right here all the time…. easy to take for granted, easy to overlook, and easy to get in under your skin in the most uncomfortable ways.

That’s when I feel the full effects of a sin-shriveled, dried up husk of a heart– something like the Grinch was carrying around, making him miserable without even knowing why.  And that’s what the people you love are good for: getting right in your face and showing you how much love you really need to get through a day, how much your heart must grow to hold the life-giving flow He is calling you to.  It’s one of the reasons He put us in families, to stretch our hearts open and wide, and give us every chance to grow up into Him.

The best thing to do on days like that is hold up your heart to God like an empty cup, and ask with the neediness of a child, “More please…I need more.”  I learned this as a child, in my grandmother’s kitchen, the secret of her wide-open loving heart to everyone she met: just ask for more, because He never runs out and delights in our asking.  She used to sing it at the piano, “The love of God is greater far, than tongue or pen can ever tell…”

The supply is abundant, a river of living water from the cross of Christ.  And when I ask for more, I find my heart expanding, and enough love to fill it, still  plenty to give away.

 

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What Is It You Want?

Every now and then you come across a verse in the Bible that is worded strangely, makes you read it through a few times and wonder why the author used those particular words.  Because even though people like us sat down with pens and ink to write, there was a Breath blowing through their thoughts and heart-worship that shaped their words in particular ways, to convey just the right message.  So I always wonder “Why those words and what is it about that construction that He wanted us to understand?”

It happened the other night in the Genesis study, right there in chapter 15 when God gave Abram a vision, and while the group was reading the whole chapter out loud, I sat there and read the first verse over and over again.  It was decidedly odd.

Not so much strange that God came to Abram, or even that He spoke to him, because He had done that before.  It was what He said and how He said it: “Do not be afraid….I am your shield, your very great reward.”   Very often a message from God begins with “Do not be afraid,” and very often it is because the message or the messenger is bound to be alarming to the unsuspecting person receiving it.  This time it is clearly referring instead to the circumstances in Abram’s life, and God’s solution is Himself as a shield and protector.  That is a more powerful and personal message than Abram could have anticipated, I am sure.

But then God identifies Himself as Abram’s reward, and equates His own presence with both the shield and the blessing, and now we are not in the realm of standard church jargon any more.  We are used to asking God for blessings, and looking forward to the rewards we receive from our relationship with Him, but I have the feeling we are thinking more of tangential things like peace, or strength, or maybe even crowns.  But here in the first book, God said He was Himself Abram’s reward.  God’s presence…Him standing beside us through life, and how can there be any better shield from life’s hurts than that?  Or any bigger thing to desire?

It’s one of those times when a verse of Scripture leaves you hushed and breathless, and your heart just wants to stay there awhile and think on it, drink it in and really take hold of it.

“You are my supply, My breath of life, And still more awesome than I know.  You are my reward– worth living for– And still more awesome than I know.  All of You is more than enough for all of me, For every thirst and every need; You satisfy me with Your love, And all I have in You is more than enough.”  (Enough, Chris Tomlin)

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True Colors

My heart blazed with gladness when she shared that milestone, her eyes alight with the grace of discovery: “I’ve decided this is just me– this is the way I look.  No matter how hard I try, I’ll never look like those girls and that’s okay.”  And she was beautiful, all joy and love and wholeness shining out like colors of a rainbow.  She made it to the place that it took me years longer to get to, where all of us women need to reach in our faith journey…the place where we submit to the Maker and find a Home in Him where we are beautiful and loved….the place where we lay down the world’s standard and look for His instead.

I know another girl, ten years younger in her journey and on the verge of faltering.  She looks at the photographs of the ones named Beautiful and listens to the whispers that if she were better life would be all right again… just stretch further, try harder, grasp control of that elusive something that others seem to have so easily…but no matter how hard she tries it will never be enough because all this was meant to fade anyway.  I pray she makes it through in one piece and finds peace in who she is, one of these days.

Wanting to be beautiful and wanting to be loved– aren’t they the two roaring needs in any women’s heart?  Eve was made to be cherished, to be admired, protected, and valued “far more precious than jewels”….but she kept thinking that she could find something better on her own, till she reached out her hand and tried.  We are still trying hard, only we’ve forgotten what it is we really need and how to get there.  It’s not about the outsides at all.  It’s not about us measuring up at all.  And that’s the milestone of discovery that each of us needs to reach.  “Jesus said  ‘Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.'” (Matthew 11:28)  Just lay down all that wanting-Me-to-be-more and rest in Who He is.

Because when you know the Maker and surrender to being loved and part of His plans, you begin to discover who He made you to be and there is an eternal beauty that He is forming, shining out more and more every day.  We need to speak Truth for each other, as women– to remind each other that there is a Maker who formed us with care,  loves us beyond words.  That we were made to live beyond this world with its standards of beauty and that real beauty is found in reflecting the love and grace of the King.  That there is a difference between striving for perfection and being good stewards of what we’ve been given.

When the Maker looks at us He sees His own beautiful workmanship and immense potential…“created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which [He] prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10)  And He delights in the blazing colors of our differences.  “The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.”  (Zephaniah 3:17)

“The more we let God take us over, the more truly ourselves we become— because He made us. He invented us. He invented all the different people that you and I were intended to be. It is when I turn to Christ, when I give up myself to His personality, that I first begin to have a real personality of my own.” —C.S. Lewis

“You with the sad eyes
Don’t be discouraged
Oh I realize
Its hard to take courage
In a world full of people
You can lose sight of it all
And the darkness inside you
Can make you feel so small

But I see your true colors
Shining through
I see your true colors
And that’s why I love you”  (Cyndi Lauper, True Colors)

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Letting Go (Part 2: Full and Running Over)

There was a children’s story in a lesson once, about a monkey trap used in the jungles; just a basket with a narrow neck, but when filled with monkey goodies it became a snare for the creature, all because of how much he wanted.  He shoved his skinny little paw down in there to get the treasures and then held on tight, refusing to let go, even though his fist was too large to fit back through the opening….and there he would sit, trapped by greed, longing to get loose but needing to hang on for fear of losing it. We understand his dilemma completely.  “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  (Matthew 6:21)

I’ve been thinking though, about the paradox that when we hold on tight to keep from losing the things we love, we lose the ability to receive other things…because hands have to be wide open to get any good thing.  And the only way to get all of what God has for you is to come to Him with heart and hands unclenched, letting go all that you treasure.   He said it would be contradictory and unmistakable: “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.”  (Matthew 16:25 NLT)  

It is human nature to hold onto what we love, but what we don’t always see is how it holds us fast, right where we are, and if we are too afraid to let go we can be stuck in that same place for a lifetime, paralyzed by desire and fear, and maybe even (underneath it all) longing to get loose .

Sometimes we are as short-sighted as the monkey.  There is an abundance of goodness, and an endless supply for hungry hearts in the One who is calling us to a wide open place of freedom, if we unwrap those fingers, one by one, and let go.  And wouldn’t I rather have treasures that last forever, compared to any earthly thing that will pass away in the end anyway?  I think I am slowly coming to realize that.  I might need help though, letting go of some things, Lord.  And when it feels like losing everything, please be gentle with me, and patient.

“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.   When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”  Colossians 3:2-4

“Measure thy life by loss and not by gain, Not by the wine drunk, but by the wine poured forth, For love’s strength standeth in love’s sacrifice, And he who suffers most has most to give.”  Lillias Trotter, A Blossom in the Desert

 

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