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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Of Stepping Stones and Open Spaces

A friend remarked at the beginning of the week that she had taken down all the Christmas decorations already, because by the time the holiday is over she just wants to clean her house and be rid of the clutter. I feel the same way, only not about the tree and the ornaments. For months I have had the thought that my life was pressing in, getting smaller and more chaotic, and I seem to be constantly busy, even though I am accomplishing less. It’s the kind of sense that can run along underneath everything else, just a faint hum in the background that you can ignore most of the time, until you lay down at the end of the day, or sit still for a minute, and there it is– like the warning light on your dashboard that you really have to pay attention to eventually.

We sit around the dinner table on the first day of the year, as we always do, and share our hearts over dessert and coffee. Usually it’s one of the pastor-dads that sets the theme– something provocative like “How have you seen God working in your life over the past year?” and “What are some of your goals for the coming year?” It is a way to celebrate and connect as an extended family, a well-loved tradition that stirs up both laughter and tears in the sharing.  As we listen around the room to young adults reaching naturally into the next big thing, maybe I envy (just a little) that stage of life when goals and plans are more like stepping stones. But I see their hearts to hear God’s voice and to seek the plans He has for them, and see how that is what will last, long after they pass these milestones of rings and dates and diplomas.

So I share too about the hopes for the coming year, but inside there is still the insistent knocking that I can’t put into words yet, and I know it will take time to resolve and find a direction to go. No big changes in store, no visible major goals to reach, and yet sometimes the best goals are more internal than external, and sometimes the ways the spirit grows are more life-changing in the long run. It could be that the biggest question at the start of a New Year is What does God have in store for me, and am I prepared to walk through that door when it opens? Is my heart in the right place to even recognize His leading, out of the myriad of voices in this world? These kinds of answers only come in the quiet spaces, and I can hear Him knocking at the door.

So here at the beginning of a New Year, I will set to cleaning out the piled up places in closets and lists and thoughts. I will create uncluttered margin in life… to read the unexpected… to focus… to think, now that the busy-ness of the holiday season is stilled. Make time to listen to God’s priorities for me in the next twelve months. And I will not be quick to fill in the lines of my new calendar with projects and plans and other people’s ideas for my time. Because the Church-planter said “…I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God–this is your true and proper worship.” (Romans 12:1) I know I will live my best this year if I live in worship; we are always at our best when we are responding to the One who offered Himself as a sacrifice for us.

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“Oh what amazing love–
We need Your cleansing flood;
Jesus I come, Jesus I come.
In every broken place,
You are my righteousness;
Jesus I come, Jesus I come.
Thank You, Jesus;
Just as I am I come.
Hallelujah,
Oh what amazing love.”
(Jesus I Come, Elevation Worship)

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“I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.” (Philippians 1:20)

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A Building Permit

It’s hard to explain when they ask how I can let my daughter go away– that I’ve been doing that since I sent her off to school and it’s not getting any easier through the years. That some things become inevitable after awhile– that the consequences of choices play out gradually, and it gets hard to pinpoint where the actual milestones of decision stood in the long line of days. And when I think hard, I’m not sure I would choose differently, even if I could roll all the days up and start again. At the time it was the right thing to do, so would I really go back and change a lifetime of days, just because I am struggling with their logical outcome?

Maybe that’s why Jesus asked His followers to count the cost of what they were building: “For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it?” (Luke 14:28) Be sure this is the path you want to take, because it will lead you places you cannot yet see, and if you are serious about following Him you need to be serious about seeing it through to the end. Investing in eternity, by definition, requires the spending of this world– this life– for Something beyond (although I think most of us cling to the hope that we can have both if we spend carefully).

But then I read again what Jesus was saying about cost, and I know He was already looking ahead to His own wholehearted outpouring, knowing where every step on this path would take Him, ready to give up everything for the sake of His Father’s plan. Maybe our short-sightedness works for our good sometimes, because if we could see all our days ahead, I wonder if we would have the courage to live them. Yet He asks us to look, to consider where we are going and how we will invest our lives, to build our days on those decisions, those values. “…everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock.” (Matthew 7:24) This is how Jesus defines Success: a life built on the bedrock of God’s truth, one decision after another, until it stands a tower-monument to God’s glory.

This has been on my mind for some months now, how if we are to live with integrity in the Now we must remain faithful to the right decisions we made Then. When we teach our children to submit to God and trust His plans for them…tell them He is good, and His loving-kindness reaches to the heavens…model giving our lives away for the sake of the Kingdom…it’s too late to dig in our heels and protest when they begin building on that foundation a tower that looks different than we thought it would. And if we cannot accept the results of our teaching, the practical outworking in our own lives and theirs, because it is uncomfortable or unpleasant, then what does it say about how truly we believe it? Did we imagine any of us could build for eternity without cost or effort?

Like Jesus said, “…Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me.” (Matthew 16:24) Would we really want our children to do anything less?

 

 

 

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18)

 

 

“And I will follow,
My heart surrendered;
My Jesus, I am Yours.
And I will follow,
My life in your hands;
My Jesus, I am Yours.”
(I Surrender All, Elevation Worship)

 

 

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Still Running

Sometimes you know going in that it will be a stretching experience. This ten-day challenge of camping in the hottest part of the Summer always is, and here I am again, scribbling lists and making piles, mentally prepping as if for a marathon. Because once we head out there is no more time to prepare and train, no stopping till the Finish Line.  Whatever comes, we’ll deal with it as we go with the resources that are at hand…and from experience I can say that anything can (and will) happen when you are living and working outdoors with people you don’t know well. The one underlying goal is to be Christ-like in the midst of every unfamiliar, uncomfortable, stressing circumstance; the one thing you can count on is finding Christ’s strength and help in the midst of it all… and sometimes even serendipitous blessing.

Thus the mixed emotions, because as difficult as the next two weeks will be, I can look forward to God making Himself known in ways that I could not see here in the familiar and routine. Marathons are like that: a catalyst for change, an exercise that pushes Who You Are into something stronger, maybe even a tool for transformation in the hands of Someone who knows what He is doing. And when you finish you get that unique mixture of satisfaction and relief for a difficult task completed.

So I take a deep breath and get ready to plunge ahead, to see what it is I have been training for, see what the race will call forth from me this year. Somewhat dreading. Definitely anxious. Maybe a little excited. Thankful that this annual challenge is neatly counted into days.

It’s possible my whole life might be a marathon race like this…one uniquely stretching and transforming event that is both difficult and amazing…except my viewpoint isn’t big enough to see the entirety and I was not aware enough to know it from the start. But I take it by faith that out ahead somewhere there is a Finish Line, and I do see God at work in the good and the bad, showing Himself in new ways as we go. I trust that Someday I will see with an eternal perspective that makes everything clear…that some Morning I’ll wake up with the overwhelming relief and satisfaction of a marathon well-completed. In the meantime, I am still running.

 

 

“…I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.” (Philippians 3:13-14)

 

 

“I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, of the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood that they’ve shed; and it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify what has happened.” (The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky)

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Of Plows and Crosses

An antique plow is still sitting in the hallway of our church. When I saw it for the first time in the dim silence of an empty building, it seemed like something unexpectedly sacred. Something profound and pointed. There is beauty in the utilitarian curves, the worn grey wood, the aged metal touched with rust, the simple command framed in black above it: “Burn them.”

That plow is a tangible illustration of one man’s whole-hearted response when God came calling. A challenge to leave our lives behind and follow wherever He leads. A reminder that obedience often looks counter-intuitive, maybe down-right crazy, to the world at large. There’s no escaping that. But maybe someone* who is busy burning a plow, his heart focused on what God is saying, has no time for looking around and wondering what people think.

I used to wonder at the prophets, how when they heard the Word of the Lord it changed them, sent them wandering and somewhat wild, prone to unpopular declarations and inconvenient tasks…used to wonder how the thousands of years worked to tame the Word of the Lord till it fit into soft-colored pews and Sunday morning schedules before lunch. It took me awhile to realize that ears-listening to the Word of the Lord isn’t always the same as heart-listening to the Word of the Lord, and that when a person really hears what God is saying his life will go against the grain in all kinds of wildly wonderful ways.

I am reading about Katie and her thirteen children in Uganda, a beautiful mom barely more than a teen herself, and reading about newlyweds crossing the world to bring God’s love to people who don’t even want it, and reading sister-heart Ann saying “Compassion…is a feeling so strong that it causes you to bend: it shapes your body, your life, into a response. Compassion is the radical cross-shaping of a life.” (VosKamp) I see the plow every time I walk into the building and wonder what God is calling us to as a Body, as individuals. Vance Havner said something along the lines of “You live what you believe; the rest is only talk.” That’s what makes the plow so powerful– because what you are willing to do for God shows what you really believe, and the evidence is both in what you are running toward, and in what you are leaving behind.
(*You can read the story of Elisha and his plow in 1 Kings 19:15-21.)

 

 

 

“…let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)

 

 

“We may never be martyrs but we can die to self, to sin, to the world, to our plans and ambitions. That is the significance of baptism; we died with Christ and rose to new life.” (Vance Havner)

 

 

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At the Crossroads of a New Year

The kids poke fun at me, but every Christmas Night since they were small, I have requested that we sit down as a family and watch Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s just Mom’s silly old Christmas tradition to them, but every year as “the most wonderful time of the year” draws to an end and the New Year looms up close, this message is one I need to hear and remember: that an ordinary life of self-sacrifice and love can make a difference in our home, our town, our world.

When you look back on the year past and see only the small everyday necessities of keeping everyone clothed and fed and getting along…when you wish you had more time to pursue your hobbies or read that pile of books… or when you long to see far-away places and accomplish something that matters in the world, like George Bailey did…maybe feel like life is passing you by… or maybe it isn’t even worth anything any more…this is when you need to see through God’s eyes, how one life well-lived has a ripple effect that only Heaven can measure. Like George’s guardian angel said:“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

We gather around the table with my sister’s family after Christmas, and share a goal for the coming year, tell the others how to pray for us. I wish I could say I was working on a graduate degree, writing a book, traveling halfway around the world, opening a Bed & Breakfast, or really any significant goal at all, but I’m coming up empty right now. It’s a strange place to be, for a person who sets goals and makes plans as naturally as setting the table. But life continues to present a maze of unpredictable circumstances and chaotic detours into the necessities of the everyday, and I feel like I am still waiting to discover who I am going to be when my kids grow up. So I tell the truth, that in the coming year I am just living and listening for God’s voice, and I need wisdom and direction. And I think of George Bailey and the reminder that not everything worthwhile is exciting or even visible. And the Spirit whispers,  “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of Mine, you did for Me.” (Matthew 25:40) The apostle Paul takes up the refrain with “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward.” (Colossians 3:23-24)

Fact is, in this New Year, whether you are a planning goal-setter, or a big dreamer, only God knows what will fill up the hours and days to come. And only He knows what is worthwhile and meaningful in the long run. I will carry this annual reminder from the old classic film, as I go into the coming year, to keep on doing what is right and good in my little corner of the world, for Jesus’ sake, and let Him make of it what He wills… wait to see what unexpected doors of opportunity He will open in 2013.

 

“Remember, George: no man is a failure who has friends.” (Clarence in book inscription, It’s A Wonderful Life)

 

“But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Matthew 20:26-28

 

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This Our Prayer

And so our journey into Becoming Women of Purpose comes to an end…or maybe it is just a beginning of exploration. Because this process of growth and discovering God’s will for us continues day by day…and “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6)

May this be our daily prayer of commitment:
“Lord, thank you for the unique package you have so carefully put together in my life. I give it back to you today and every day to use as You intended from the moment You created me. I will not be afraid. I will not make excuses. I will say yes to the purposes You’ve designed specifically for me.”  (Ruth Haley Barton)

“You never give up on us, You never let go or turn away. We’re holding onto You– Our God is strong, our God is good.”  (Beth Croft)

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Thankful to Be a Sheep

So much of what we have learned about becoming women of purpose is just a matter of living as Christ-followers– responding to God as creatures should, and being transformed as believers should, walking in newness of life as agents on a mission, partners in His plan to restore creation. If we find a calling specific to us within that purpose, all the better, but we could live a whole life of shining love and doing good, and fulfill His purpose beautifully.

Something stood out to me in one of King David’s songs this week; as many times as I have read the short 100th psalm, I never noticed the connection between belonging to God and thankfulness. Right in the middle there the king tells us to “Know that the Lord, He is God! It is He who made us, and we are His….”  It is short and direct, something every creature needs to know: the Creator is God and you are not.

Get that much clear and a whole lot of other things in life straighten themselves out too. Remember this, as we prepare for the holiday where we give thanks…while we organize people and plan meals and arrange transportation and vacation time…that there is Someone who made all this, owns all this, rules all this, and the holiday is precisely about giving thanks for what He has provided, even when we make a lot of fuss about our own makings. “We are His people, and the sheep of His pasture….” who truly need a Shepherd to take care of them, because there are some things we can control in this world and so many we cannot. Good thing He is always taking care of us, whether we stop to recognize it and give thanks, or not.

But when you do stop and recognize that He is God and you are not, that it is He who rules over creation and provides for every small living creature, including yourself, thanksgiving is the only proper response.

The king sings it out in the next lines, flowing from one thought to the next so naturally that praise becomes the obvious overflowing of a person who knows his identity: “Enter His gates with thanksgiving, and His courts with praise! Give thanks to Him; bless His name!”

It’s easy to forget sometimes that all this is gift and grace. Easy to take life for granted because it’s all we’ve ever known, and easy to wish we had something different, when we compare ourselves to others. Except that we could just as easily compare ourselves to the starving, and the naked and diseased, to see how very blessed we are. David paints it rightly, that our worship comes in full knowledge of our dependence on His goodwill and kindness. And we bless His name for who He is, because “the Lord is good; His steadfast love endures forever….”  We are the Found Sheep who belong to a loving God, and it is our purpose to give thanks.

Come, ye thankful people, come…

 

“I am thankful for right now. God, I AM is in this moment, and in His presence is fullness of joy .” (Ann VosKamp)

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Following even There?

It’s interesting how whenever we read the apostle Paul’s impassioned statement of purpose in a group, no one ever mentions this one phrase. The paragraph starts out so well, and we can talk all around it and applaud the willingness to give his life for the gospel: “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.” (Philippians 3:8) We discuss his passion for Christ and how we might gain his perspective on the things of this world…“I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him…” but we never quite seem to manage talking openly about the sentence that follows. Maybe if we can read it in context it goes down easier; just treat the passage as a whole, never really have to deal with the shocking details of what it actually says. One modern version puts it this way:

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death…” (Philippians 3:10 NLT)

So this is Paul’s life goal, to grow so close to Christ that he can experience the cross with Him, both the suffering and the victory. It’s hard to look that in the eyes squarely and honestly…it measures up just how far short my commitment comes…something in me starts hedging about Paul’s life being exceptional as an apostle and of course I want to know Christ but couldn’t I do that from the relative safety of a peaceful small town life and the comforts of home and family? Why does suffering have to be part of the picture? And death…seriously?

Or maybe it’s one of those things that doesn’t make sense until you’ve been there, because in the wilderness you are stripped down to the bare essentials of living and you hunger and thirst for God because survival depends upon it. And when there is pain all around, that is when you most need to know the power of the resurrection, cling to the hope that the dark of the tomb is temporary and already overcome.

In the end, though you would never choose it for yourself, you know deep down that you are better for it: faith stronger, distractions cleared away, heart more fully His, joy and peace flowing over in spite of pain. And Paul understands that this is part of the walk of faith, that if we are committed Christ-followers we will walk where He did, in the footsteps of suffering. Even death, because Self must die if Christ is to live and rule in us.

Someday I hope to be able to echo Paul whole-heartedly, that more than anything else in life, I want to know Christ in His sufferings and in His glory, and I am willing to give up everything here for the sake of achieving that goal. For now, I will keep taking baby steps and trusting God to lead me on.

 

“No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:11)

“But God is the God of the waves and the billows, and they are still His when they come over us; and again and again we have proved that the overwhelming thing does not overwhelm. Once more by His interposition deliverance came. We were cast down, but not destroyed.” (Amy Carmichael)

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You Can Put It Off Forever

I used to procrastinate, just like any other kid, when there was weeding to do in the garden, or laundry to fold, or asparagus looking at me from the dinner plate…or especially in the winter-time, when it meant sliding out of the warm nest of blankets in our chilly bedroom upstairs and hurrying into my clothes for the day. It wasn’t that I thought anything would change while I put it off– I was just stuck in the moment of dreading it and couldn’t get past that feeling, and it was like a mountain I couldn’t climb over.

But there are causes and effects in life, and if you are stuck in the moment there is no way to get past it to something better. I found out soon enough that the chores just pile up one on top of another, along with Mother’s consequences…and asparagus just keeps getting worse the longer it sits there…and those moments of freezing cold transition are still waiting for you while the getting-ready-for-school minutes are inexorably ticking away. If you want to get over that mountain of resistance, you have to just do it, take the first step… and then the next steps follow much more easily than you thought they would.

Now that we are all grown up the causes and effects are often not as visible as they were back then, and we get fooled into thinking we are in charge of our own lives, and the temptation to put things off lingers…not just the stuff we dread but even good things can get shoved aside for the sake of a more enjoyable Right Now. You can put things off forever if you really want to. Only the issues are more vital and the consequences can last forever if you’re not careful.

And Paul says to those of us Christ-followers who are living on purpose: “Be very careful, then, how you live–not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5:16)   We are ambassadors in an unfriendly foreign land, tasked to carry on Christ’s work here (2 Corinthians 5:20); we are soldiers in a war between good and evil (Ephesians 6:12), and there is an Enemy who wants to distract and destroy us (1 Peter 5:8). Why would anyone live for the moment, without thought for the consequences, in a dangerous land or on a battlefield? We are clay being shaped into Christ’s likeness by the Potter (Romans 9:21), and farmers sowing seeds that only God can grow (2 Corinthians 9:6). Who are we to say what is important and what is ours to squander, if our choices are being used by a sovereign God to shape us and others for eternity?

It really depends on what your purpose is, and whether you have found something worth living and dying for, something eternal that calls you to get up and get moving, beyond the pull of what-is-most-comfortable-for-me, and beyond that moment of dread, into the good He is accomplishing. You can put it off forever, but why would you want to?

 

“From [Christ] the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking.” (Ephesians 4:16-17)

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