On Things Above

This morning I was cleaning and organizing around my house, burning off nervous energy. I was waiting to hear about a situation that was causing me stress, and so I was praying and taking control of the only thing I really have any control over – the closets. This has always been my go-to when I feel out of control. You would think I have the cleanest, most organized closets in the world. However, I also have 6 people living here, so that is just not true.

As I was cleaning and praying, I was fretting to God and suddenly I very clearly heard him tell me, “The only thing that changes when you take on this anxiety and allow it to rule you is the atmosphere of your home.”

Ouch.

While I know practically that it is true my worried attitude does nothing to help things, it always seemed like it was my “right” to have in the midst of struggles.

Many years ago as I was just getting to know my husband I spent some precious time with his aunt. We went through Colossians 3 and she had me memorize it. At the time I was doing it more to impress her and get in good with the family, if I’m being honest. But now, 28 years later, I find myself often repeating this chapter as I sort through how I’m feeling about things.

“Since then you were raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature…you used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived.”

Later it goes on to say, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.”

No where in that (or any other place in the Bible) do I see where God says, “It’s ok. Go ahead – it is your right to be angry, hurt, worried, etc.” Even if it is the natural response, my “rights” are gone as a child of God. They were put to death on the cross. My life is in Christ. And while he did freely express his desires and feelings to God – to the point where “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground,” he circled back around to the peace that came from being in tune and in harmony with his Father. And “for the joy set before him,” he endured the cross.”

Friends, you know I’m not talking about “fake it ’til you make it.” We can earnestly and genuinely come to the Father with our fears, concerns, tears, anxieties, and everything else we experience. However, what I was doing – falling into the pattern of allowing that initial response to govern everything I did and felt for the rest of the day- that falls in to the category of idolatry. I was putting my trust in myself, in my response, in my emotions, and allowing them to rule me rather than in the one who created all of those things. Even more so, I was believing the worst about God in the middle of it. My default was to disparage the very God I professed to worship and serve. That overflowed into my actions and my attitude, and changed the whole atmosphere of my home.

So as I confess this to my Father I am so thankful that he, in return, reminds me of his great and abundant love for me. I started to speak my thanks aloud, and recounted the numerous ways over the years he has provided – sometimes above and beyond and sometimes just enough in just the nick of time, but always completely. And I continue to set my heart and mind and things above.

But God

Often in my life I find myself caught up in the cycle of anxiety and worry. I am constantly asking, “What if…?” What if this doesn’t work, or what if so-and-so thought this, or what if it’s not enough, etc. Recently as I have been navigating a particularly hard emotional issue I have found myself saying these words to my husband. He surprised my by saying two different words – “But God…”

I know those words are part of a popular worship song that constantly plays on Christian radio. Honestly, I tune it out most of the time when I get sick of the same songs over and over again. But when Shawn said those words to me a few different times recently, I realized how much the words we choose to tell ourselves shapes how we think, how we act, and how we respond to the world around us.

Yes, maybe something seems impossible if we are looking at it through the eyes of this world. But we are not citizens of this world if we have a relationship with Jesus. Our destiny is different, but so is our daily living here on Earth – we do not have to wait until Heaven. We are not bound by the laws of physics or the intentions of man – instead we are given access to a storehouse of heavenly resources and we are given the inheritance of those who are children of God. We are not limited by a broken creation because we have been chosen by the Holy Creator, who is making all things new again.

I need to stop wondering if or how or even why and start saying, “But God…” But God is in this. But God promised me. But God is for me so who can be against me? But God sent his son to die for me. But God inclines his ear to me. But God is the author of all of this. But God is good. But God IS enough.

Where are the areas of your life where you need to remember this truth today? Because we may see a limited, murky, confusing scene in front of us, but God is who he says he is and will do what he says he will do. We can’t…but God.

What’s Your Search Engine?

Anna and I faithfully watch our favorite show, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, each week.  I love sitting down with her on the day after it comes out with a cup of coffee and bringing it up on Hulu.  Yesterday I woke up with the song “Mad World” in my head because I had been listening to the playlist from the show the night before.  I was humming it all day and kind of laughed at the irony of the name of the song in this time.  Then  I realized that, like many songs from my growing up years, I didn’t know most of the lyrics.  I can’t tell you the number of times I have found out that I was singing made up lyrics because despite the best efforts by my teenage self doing the whole “play-pause-rewind-play-again -and-write-things-as-I-went” process, I still couldn’t quite catch what they said. I will always remember laughing at my sister because she thought that the words “You make me feel like a natural woman” were “You make me feel like a mature woman.”  Often when I google the real lyrics now and it comes up instantly I think, “Well, that makes much more sense.”   Kids today – they don’t know how good they have it!

I guess in some ways that’s true about so many things.  The internet is a powerful tool.  Recently I heard someone didn’t own a Bible.  No worries – open up Bible Gateway or any number of other apps.  Not only do you have instant access to almost any version of the Bible you want, you have commentaries and concordances galore to make your reading more in depth if you desire. This is true of any books – unlimited libraries instantly.

I love smart phones.  I never have to wonder too long about anything, really.  My personality loves that.  Want to know what that flower is?  Google lens, snap! Do you want to know what actress played on a certain sitcom?  Ask Siri.  What’s the weather supposed to be like Sunday?  “Alexa, tell me the weather for Sunday.”  And my favorite invention  – Google Maps!  My husband hates it because he thinks it makes people not think.  But for those who get lost going two blocks away (ME!) it is the invention of the century.  FREEDOM!

But here we sit in pandemic still.  Believe me, I am still very thankful for the internet.  We were on lockdown in places before where the internet shut down when things like this happened, or power was so sketchy you could never be assured of even keeping your phone charged.  Forget streaming Netflix when you can barely pull up your emails.  But having been in this 1 year now (1 year,  people!!) we are feeling so weary.  It feels like I have watched all of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime.  I have walked so many miles around my neighborhood that I could do it with my eyes closed.  The novelty of being able to bake my own bread and food from scratch in case of a real apocalypse has definitely worn off.  I miss my family and friends – many of whom I have not seen in real life in over a year!  I miss parties and gatherings without social distancing.  I miss hugs and high fives.  I miss walking around without a mask.  And I miss worshipping together on Sundays and feeling the power of so many people lifting praise at the same time.  All I want is an answer to, “Alexa, when will this be over?????”

Sometimes I try to use God like a search engine.  “Hey, God, tell me the plan.” I want an instant answer that is clear and filled with concrete data – no grey areas of faith. My mind has been trained to type or talk instantly and receive the answer just as fast.  Sometimes I am even guilty of accepting the first thing that comes up without researching a little more.  I just want something that sounds like it could be the real answer quickly so I can move on to the next thing. I don’t like waiting.

I know the end of this particular crisis seems to be coming soon, and I am so thankful for that. But there will be another thing that happens – another crisis, another trauma, another time of waiting in the unknown.  I am asking God to help me be ok with not knowing the answer, but rather knowing the One who does knows the answers.  Because I know that is the real meaning of life anyway – to glorify him and enjoy him forever.

God is not a search engine, but he does have all the answers.  I just need to trust that he will reveal in his time for my good and his glory.

God is not an Avocado

We had an avocado tree in our yard in Nairobi. It produced small little fruits because it had not been well cared for before we came, but the harvest was still plentiful and happened twice a year due to the perfect weather there. (Sigh…I do miss the weather!) You could also buy them year round from roadside markets called Dukas for about twenty cents each. Yes, you read that correctly. I know – you practically have to sell your organs to buy them here.

The thing I have noticed about avocados is that you spend so much time waiting on them to become the perfect ripeness. There’s really no choice – it’s not one of those fruits that is yummy when it is not ready. I would gather the ones that fell in the yard and bring them in. Most of the time they still had to ripen a bit, and they would sit on the kitchen windowsill. Each morning I would check them, hoping for that perfect give that in them meant I could put it on my toast with some tomato and an egg – the perfect breakfast if you ask me.

Then suddenly one day I would rejoice because after all the waiting and checking it was finally over – my avocado was ready! I would enjoy it that day! However, by the next morning the rest that had fallen and been brought inside were rotten. I hate when you cut through only to see the black rot around the pit – so disappointing. If I happened to be in a hurry and missed the good morning, I might miss out on the whole batch. All that waiting for nothing. Avocados wait for no man.

Humans do not tend to be very good at waiting. I know that I am so impatient. It is even harder when we are not waiting FOR something but rather we are waiting IN something. I have had times in my life where I have clearly sensed God telling to me to wait in the moment – don’t wish it by or fast-track things. When we are in the middle of grief or pain or uncertainty we do not want to hear him tell us to wait. We worry as we wait that the solution or the perfect thing will come and we will not be watching so we will miss out. What if I am sitting in my grief and allowing the my heart to really feel what is happening around me – will I miss the chance to heal?

I know that the Bible talks about the idea that in all things we are to give thanks. In my past this has meant “getting through” things as quickly as possible so I can get on with the business of gratefulness. More recently I have re-thought this concept. In her book, No More Faking Fine, Esther Fleece says, “We are so quick to get to the beauty that we skip over the brokenness or have a hard time seeing beauty arise amidst the brokenness. This has led to some dangerous and unbiblical theology. And if we are going to recover a healthy, biblical understanding of how God meets us in our pain we need to recover the lost prayer of lament in our churches. Authentic praise flows from honest prayer, unrestrained lament, and trusting dependence. And this is when brokenness becomes beautiful.” (Emphasis is mine.)

This has been a year. There has been a lot of hard, a lot of bad. I have had to give myself permission to sit in some lament and grief over many things. I’ve been aware that there are things that I can learn only in this time of waiting. I can be in that time as long as I need and I am not going to miss what God has for me. In fact, waiting with no clear answers may be exactly what he has for me.

Recently I preached on what it looks like to live in a broken heart versus a whole and healed heart. The hardest part about “guest speaking” is you have half an hour to tell everything your heart has been ruminating on. While I know that God desires to see us healed and whole, I think part of that healing comes in the sitting and the waiting. I believe that sitting in the not-quite-yet healed completely heart while waiting on God to finish the healing is a good place to be. It’s not being stuck in the brokenness. It’t not missing out or being left behind. God’s healing sometimes feels like waiting for an avocado to ripen – like it’s never going to happen or somehow it will pass you by and you will miss it. But God is not an avocado! Sometimes his healing means sitting and waiting; listening and anticipating; waiting in the murky in-between where it doesn’t always feel so good, but where the broken becomes the beautiful.

I believe God is the redeemer of trauma and brokenness and the beauty-maker from ashes. As we offer our sacrifice of praise in the waiting, we will see these truths.

Hope Silences the Dark

“The gospel gives me hope, and hope is not a language the dark voices understand.”
― Andrew Peterson

Have you felt it? Have you been in that place where the dark voices win temporarily and hopelessness prevails? I have. It is not a fun place, nor is it a place of truth. It is, however, a place that has as much power as we offer up to it.

Not long ago I was not feeling well, there were several hard things on my heart and mind, and I made the mistake of getting on the scale to see how my (lack of) calorie counting was going. All of these things combined turned into a despondent time of crying, yelling, and pouting at God and my husband until I stuck in my headphones and tuned everything out to watch the newest episode of one of my favorite TV shows. That was a bad idea, since everyone is writing Covid stories right now, and it only fed into my anxiety, sadness, and fear.

What a mess I am.

Or rather, what I mess I was in that moment. That is NOT me. A moment of despair does not define who I am or how I live. His mercies are new every morning and today I remember I am a new person. Today I fill my mind with truth and my ears with worship rather than soapy stories and fretful news. I can still see the reality of things around me, but I also see hope. I see pathways. I eat healthier and exercise to take care of my body and I guard my heart more passionately. But most of all I just acknowledge that so much of this comes from self and I repent of trying so hard in my own strength. When I turn to the gospel and I read truth, the Spirit opens my eyes and I see through the fog of heaviness and am able to rebuke the lies and fear. My heart become courageous – not because of anything of myself but because of He who lives within me. Slowly hope seeps back in and drowns out the dark voices of despair that cannot understand it and run from something so powerful.

May the God of Hope meet you today.

Did God Really Say?

Security: an idol we bow to and work for and dream of.
Security: an illusion we imagine and discuss and plan for.
Security: a gift we find here and now and in memories and in hopes.
O God of ever-present love, help us to embrace true security, fleeing from idols and exposing illusions. All things are passing, God never changes.
Amen.
Let it be so.
(Lina Toth, in Celtic Daily Prayer Book II)

Immediately these words above gripped my heart. I read this passage recently and was struck by how many times I have chased after false security because the true Security didn’t seem logical, or was too hard, or felt obscure. This false security is something that has become an idol to me in recent years. I know that there have been times before when it has overtaken my thoughts – particularly when it comes to finances. But we have made choices in our marriage about how we desired our family culture to look and that has meant we had to trust God rather than our own plans. Sometimes (oftentimes) people didn’t understand, and even those who meant well and loved us fully couldn’t comprehend or agree with the decisions made. Through it all God has been more than faithful and we have had an abundant life.

But when we were making the decision to move back from East Africa a couple of years ago my heart was going one direction only – stability. We needed it. We craved it. We longed for a place to go that would be home forever, where we could dive in and make friendships and know our place and who we are. No more foreign cultures that we loved in so many ways yet made us question every action and motive every day. No more friends that we were just starting to feel comfortable with leaving because their term was up. No more relying on people to give financially so we could do ministry and live. No more terrorist attacks in our city or stressful, dangerous elections where we need to be on lockdown. No more insecurity.

My desire was security and the idol I was relying on to make that happen was America. Ouch. As a former missionary I hate even admitting that!

All of us have seen that idol fail this year. So many of those things that I listed above are still true of our life here. We live in one of the most transient places in the US, and people leave regularly. Because of that those who are the stayers are more hesitant to open up. I get that – we were the stayers for a while. The very thing I love about DC – the international flavor and the ability to see the world in a glance – is the same thing that makes it exhausting as we try to know people and understand their reactions and our relationship with them. Diving in and making friendships has been close to impossible in some ways this year thanks to the Pandemic. And I don’t need to tell you about stressful elections! Yet we know we are suppose to be here – this is home.

Over a year ago I sat on my porch praying to God about my calling here in DC. I have always loved being in ministry with Shawn. I loved being a pastor’s wife – I still do. I feel like it is in my DNA to care for people this way. However, over the last couple of years I have found myself being drawn to be more official in that role. I wanted to see how God used me – Heather. Not Shawn’s wife (or the “preacher’s wife” as someone affectionately called me before.) What did it mean to be called as a woman, as Heather, as a daughter of the Most High? How could my life, my story, my gifts, my passions, and my weaknesses be used for Him?

This was not the first time I had prayed about that (and would definitely NOT be the last time!) But in that moment I knew – in that deep in your soul, no shadow of a doubt, truth in the core of your being way of knowing – that God told me to step into that and he would take care of the rest.

“But God, my family.” “But God, I won’t get paid. I really should find a paying job here.” “But God, I’m not educated enough.” “But God -security!!” But God, but God, but God. Still, I knew.

So I jumped into it. Well, let’s be honest – I trudged into it kicking and screaming at times. I am not a great student, and I knew it meant school, classes, papers, and interviews. But I started – I am doing the classes, doing the training, getting the licenses, and doing what He asks. And you know what? He has been faithful the whole way. He provides financially in ways we couldn’t imagine. He brings friendship and support from people in the unlikeliest of places and ways. He enfolds my children into his arms and helps me trust him with their care rather than thinking it is all me. There have been times of discouragement and what-was-I-thinking-this-makes-no-sense. Those times I hear a whisper of doing something that seems more logical or practical that speaks, “Did God really say…?” These happen when I have grabbed back the control of my life and plans from His grasp instead of letting Him lead. They happen when I demand security on my own terms rather than his.

Many times in scripture we see people falling out of the blessings of God and into a dangerous world of sin and self-reliance when the enemy whispers in their ear, “Did God really say…?” Adam and Eve are the first and most well known examples, but definitely not the last. And while I continue to push on, I am sure that I will hear those words again. Sometimes they come from frustration with people, sometimes from my complete lack of understanding of how to do a task in front of me. This week they came, over and over again, like rolling storm clouds shouting at me that I had no control over anything. In the middle of that storm I saw my orphan-ness come out and I felt myself wanting to fall back into destructive habits – ones that always reared their ugly heads when I was feeling out of control.

Thankfully this time my heart had expected this attack. I was prepared with the armor and battled back. By the end of the week I was weary and limping a bit, but victorious. Because when Satan slithered up and asked, “Did God really say…” I yelled back, “YES!” Not in my strength – we all know that. But by the power of the One living in me.

I want to encourage you, brother and sister. This is a hard time. There are so many voices out there, so many questions, so many things causing fear, instability, and chaos in our hearts. Are you taking time to listen? Are you standing in the presence of the God of ever-present love, asking him to help us embrace the true security that is Him?

Being Robbed

Have you ever had anyone steal anything from you? When we lived in Malawi, we were constantly having things just disappear. We had been warned to keep our bags close to our bodies at all times, to be cautious in handling cash, etc. But honestly I never had any time when a stranger stole something from me. We did, however, have several instances when people that we invited into our lives and home took things from us in deceitful ways. We had a housekeeper that I had to fire twice for stealing from us. We started seeing clothing, electronics, and toys that were obviously ours in the marketplace where she sold her wares and had to confront her. She gave me a huge sob story and I gave in a rehired her, only to have the same exact thing happen a week later! That time I wasn’t so compassionate.

Another time we had one of our pastors that we were working with who came in and regularly spent time with out family. He asked to see my phone one day and I assumed he was looking up a number, but when I got it back there was a notification on my phone saying I had transferred several dollars worth of airtime to him. (The phones all work like track phones there.) When I confronted him, he vehemently denied the whole thing. Transferring airtime is a three step process that requires a password and confirmation. He had not only given himself all my airtime, but had changed my password, and now was denying everything despite the concrete proof.

When you are robbed, especially by a person you have taken into your confidence and trust, you feel violated. Ultimately losing a few shirts and some airtime wasn’t a big deal, but losing the feeling of safety security I had desired to have in my own home was.

If you have ever been robbed of something bigger – a betrayal of innocence, broken vows, or a violent act done to you – you know that these wounds can change the way you look at the world permanently in a matter of seconds. The wounds turn to scars and often those scars are ripped open again and again from memories or continued situations and never heal properly. They fester and puss as infection grows and you become unhealthy in mind, body, and soul.

I feel like the Spirit has healed my heart of many wounds that have happened in my life physically, mentally, and emotionally. I am so thankful for that. But recently I have become aware of another the way enemy regularly robs me. I have walked through the last couple of weeks with a heavy burden of grief and wariness on my heart. I have felt exhausted and frustrated, and have taken that out on people that don’t deserve my sharp words. The enemy, I realized, had stolen my joy.

When we first moved here I went through a period of several months where every morning I would wake up in awe and wonder that we were here and that God had provided in so many ways. Even more so I found myself in this zen-like state of peace of contentment. I attributed it to the fact that for the first time in many years we were not looking at what was next and how it would happen with a question mark. We are here for the long haul, and we were ready to settle in to this community.

That may have been a part of it, but more than that I realized that this contentment that my heart so was unfamiliar with was a gift of God to me through the Holy Spirit. I can’t explain how my heart was able to look at the unknowns that come from starting over in a new place in our lives with a firm and steadfast peace and trust that God was for me. There were no questions marks that seemed full of anxiety and fear, only trust in the one who brought us to this place – full stop.

There is joy in not being anxious. When you have peace and confidence that God is who he says he is and I am who he says I am, you can live in freedom. But I forgot that this week. And as the enemy attacked from every direction I lost the battle. My joy was gone and the burden was heavy and exhausting. I sat in that for several days, doing everything in my own strength to feel better. Food is my biggest idol, and I would be lying if I said that I didn’t turn to some Dove chocolate to make myself feel better. The problem with giving ourselves over to idols and relying on anything other than the Spirit to make us feel better and be whole again is that it leads to shame, self-loathing, anger, and darkness. I don’t know why it always takes so long for me to remember this.

Then this morning as I talked with a friend, prayed in the car, and spent some time listening to music that reminded me of who I should be worshipping, the light broke through. I could feel the joy seeping back in. I could sense the peace was right there within my reach. It came unexpectedly and swiftly – no result of anything I had done other than my constant prayer of surrender to him because I knew I couldn’t carry it anymore. I realized that peace, like a balm to the soul, was starting to flow over me. I also understood that, despite the fact I hated going through this time, nothing is wasted with God. He redeems even these dark times and shows us his beauty in them in his perfect timing.

Don’t let yourself be a victim of robbery by the enemy. Whether it be your joy, peace, contentment, confidence, or strength – it is yours from God himself and Satan has no right to it. Rebuke that in the name of Jesus and stand firm in the gospel of Christ. If you cannot do this in the moment and need some help, call your people – your friends and family who understand spiritual battle. I’ve told you before that we were not made to do this alone. Let them pray for and with you. If things don’t change immediately, don’t give up. Hold yourself in that place of constant surrender, repentance, and expectation for him to meet you at exactly the right time. Then hold on to the belief, no matter how small it feels in the moment, that God is for you. Even if your feelings don’t change immediately he is doing a continual, good work in your life. Joy and peace that comes from the Spirit are not about feelings and circumstances, but about a core part of who you are with the Spirit inside you that cannot be truly taken from you – we just live as though it was sometimes.

Guard your heart and stand firm. Take back what is rightfully yours. “For we know whom we have believed, and are persuaded that He is able to keep that which we’ve have committed unto Him against that Day.”

Splotches to Beauty

Recently I was watching one of those painting videos on Facebook. You know the ones I mean – they start with a tool that isn’t even a paintbrush and put a bunch of colorful splotches down. In a matter of minutes it goes from pretty splotches of bright color to a breathtaking painting of some gorgeous landscape full of detail and life. It looks easy, but we know it’s not.

As I was watching this particular one where the splotches turned into a maple grove in the fall I realized that one of the reasons I could never paint like that is because I can’t see it. From the beginning the artist has an idea in mind of what the final canvas will look like. I am not visionary that way. I’ve shared before that when Shawn has put the gardens in at our various houses I always start off a bit dubious but end up soaking in the beauty as it comes to fruition. So when the painter has these beautiful, bright, colors going on and then suddenly pulls out a brown and makes weird lines all over the color all I see is the beauty being destroyed. If I was in a class and someone told me to do that as the next step I would probably stop and watch others to see if I could trust the teacher enough to really lead us through what looks like a gross mistake into the finished product of unique and vibrant beauty.

An artist puts on layers, they know what they are looking for as the end result and they learn through the process how to get there. A little purple here, a streak of white here, use this sponge rather than a brush, make a stroke in this direction, etc. Many times I watch and think, “Oh no! They’ve messed up!” but then as it gets to the end everything is gorgeous, detailed, and exactly how it should be.

Often I feel that way in my life. I am making a painting and I have something in mind, but then I bump the table wrong, I accidentally use the incorrect color, or it’s too wet and it blends together and seems messy. I get frustrated and want to give up. I can’t see what it will look like, only what I thought it should look like and no longer will.

I believe that many times when these artists are painting they have this same experience. While it may seem to me like every stroke is intentional, the truth is they often roll with the punches. If something is a little too dark, they figure out how to lighten it or they change the end result in their mind and go with what they have in front of them. I’ve done that with writing. I start off talking about one thing, get on a tangent, and then decide the tangent is the actual important thing. The end result is almost always as good or better than my original intention.

This has been a rough week. There have been a lot of bumps in the road, hard conversations, and stresses – both personally and at work. I have repeatedly come to a place time and time again where I get frustrated with God – “now what?” I don’t like how that color went on. I wasn’t intending to use that particular brush. Other people have come by and commented on the way the painting looks and make me feel indignant, embarrassed, or defensive. I feel like there are layers and layers of colors and paint, yet I still can’t see the whole picture, and it’s frustrating because I don’t love what I see right now.

I’ve always thought of God as the artist and me the canvas. I know that this is true from the analogy of Him being the potter and me being the clay. But recently I have realized that many of these strokes and designs on this canvas are my own creation. Some are beautiful and good, but many are broken, angry, and dark. I have been the artist in the telling of my story on this canvas. However, he is the Master. He comes alongside me and doesn’t necessarily take the brush to fix it like I think he should. Instead, I have found that he often comes beside me and simply speaks to me about the beauty in the mess I’ve just created. He changes my view of it and redeems it into something beautiful. All of my messy, crazy life splashed on the canvas in front of me looks less dark and broken when I look at it through the Master’s eyes, and I can get a glimpse – be it ever so small – of the masterpiece that it will be at the end. It’s not what I was originally going for, but somehow that is ok because it is something that is deeper in meaning, more rich in content, and more valuable for his use. As I make the next stroke I learn from the last one and watch as splotches become beautiful pictures of real life redeemed.

This Body of Death

All month as I walked into my office I kept smelling this terrible odor. At first I thought it was the trash, but even after it was emptied the smell got worse. Then I was convinced, after checking all over the room, that there must be a dead animal in the wall. Not much I could do about that – I would have to let it run its course and rot. Yuck! I ran my diffuser each time I was in the office trying to cover up the smell.

Last week as I went in early for a training I decided to make some coffee. I hadn’t used my coffee press since switching offices, so I opened it up and immediately gagged from the smell. It looked like the entire pot was filled with mold. Oops – I must have forgotten to empty it last time and it was gross now. At least now I found the source of the smell!

I went to the bathroom, opened up the lid, and dumped it into the sink expecting to wash the mold down and clean out the pot. Instead I discovered that my “mold” had a tail and teeth! SO GROSS! A mouse had gotten into the press somehow and couldn’t get out. After he died he started decomposing – in my press! I knew I had to empty the sink, but his body was a liquidy mess and I couldn’t get a good grasp on it through the huge wad of paper towels I was using. It kept smooshing guts all over and I could barely think straight because I was gagging every time the squishy mouse remains squirted in the sink.

It must have been quite a funny sight to see me gagging and yelling and running around like a crazy person.

Finally I got most of the mouse outside. I took one look at the press and knew it had met it’s end as well. No way could I ever drink from that again! I tossed it in the garbage, sprayed lysol all over everything, and walked away from the whole dead, rotting, decomposing mess.

Even now I want to gag when I think about it.

In Romans 7 Paul writes, “Who can deliver me from this body of death?” I will never forget the illustration Shawn used in youth group when we were teaching this passage. One of the things the Roman government, who was particularly cruel, would do is strap the body of the the victim to the person who had committed the murder. Can you imagine? Being shackled to a decomposing human corpse, the stench overwhelming you and seeping into your very being for the remains of your days? Eventually the corpse would be filled with disease which would go into your own body, killing you slowly and horribly.

Our daughter had a huge rag doll – one that was the size of an adult. Shawn made one of the kids in youth group walk around all evening with that doll strapped to his body. Everywhere he went and everything he did he had to figure out how to do with this big extra body attached to him. This didn’t totally work as far as the illustration of a dead body, because the doll was pink and smiley and didn’t wreak of rotting flesh and disease, but it was cumbersome and gave a good picture in their minds.

I thought about this “body of death” as I calmed down after gagging from the mouse. I couldn’t handle that little smell – I cannot imagine the rotting, consuming stench from a person’s dead body, sitting in the heat, being exposed to all the elements for days in and days out. No escape, no reprieve. My little mouse smell didn’t even compare.

Of course, it would seem the obvious way to avoid this is to not kill someone, right? Don’t murder, and you never have to carry a dead body around. So why, then, does Paul say this? He used this metaphor because he knew that the weight of human sinfulness and the destruction of following our flesh was the same as carrying a rotting dead body around. He also knew that there was nothing in himself that could rescue him from this. Apart from Christ we are nothing. He gives us everything we need for life. The death that came in this form of punishment lasted for days or weeks, slowly tormenting the person it was strapped to and causing them to literally rot away while still alive. Our sin does the same. Sometimes it seems small and harmless, we don’t understand the effect it has on us – we might even get use to it, though others around us can tell something is wrong. As we continue in our sin it becomes worse, it seeps in and slowly takes over everything in us and kills us mind, body, and soul. Spiritually, without being rescued by God, we are dead people walking – we are dying inside and there is no way to stop it. The work of Jesus on the cross is the only thing that can rescue us from this body of death. He took all of that upon himself when he was crucified in our place.

I know after my experience of feeling nauseous from the smell of this tiny rodent for a couple weeks and reaching the point of gagging while trying to clean up that I am so thankful I do not have to carry the stench of my own sin and dead self around with me. I am free from that body of death! Instead I am whole, healthy, spiritually alive, and clean because of the work of Jesus on the Cross and the Holy Spirit living inside of me. And I do not carry around the stench of death, but rather the beautiful aroma of peace, love, and life.

As Paul said then, I say now, “Thanks be to God, who delivered me through Jesus Christ, our Lord!” (Romans 7:25)

The Cycle

Recently I started reading through the book of Judges. I have read it before, but it has been a long time. It’s not one of those books that you naturally pick up and start reading! I had been talking to a friend about Deborah and decided that I should refresh myself a little bit, so I started reading. The cycle and reaction of the Israelites in the story struck me as humorous for some reason. It’s a non-stop, “Again the Israelites turned away from God and worshipped their idols” to “But when they cried out to the Lord he raised up for them a deliverer.” It was almost comical to read those lines again and again. I literally thought, “Stupid, foolish Israelites. What was wrong with you?”

Then God stopped me dead in my tracks.

The Holy Spirit came upon me and my thoughts went to my own heart and mind. How many times have I praised him in one breath and cursed him in the next? How many idols have I worshipped when I was feeling abandoned, orphaned, and alone; when I couldn’t see the whole picture? I had to call myself a “stupid, foolish Israelite.”

As I repented and spent time calling upon him, I knew his love for me had always been there and was not conditional to my behavior. There is no condemnation for those who know Jesus! However, I did have to ask myself what was causing this cycle in my own life so often. What was happening?

Again I felt as though clarity hit as I heard, “Guard your heart and mind.” Ouch. I was so quick to judge the Israelites knowing full well my own journey from foolish, Baal-worshipping pagan to powerful, Spirit-filled daughter of the King happened a million times a day when I was not guarding my heart.

But what does that even mean? I’ve always thought about it being my actions – the way my life looks to others. And in some part that is true. The whole verse says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” (Proverbs 4:23). The things that happen in our hearts overflow into the way we react, the way we treat people around us, and the choices we make.

But these action are just secondary to the way my belief system is being formed in me because of what I allow in my heart. Can you see the cycle? I don’t guard my heart, I put in perverse, corrupt things or I fail to fill up on things on him, and this flows into my actions towards others. I feel shame (not from him) and conviction (from the Spirit) because I know my actions are not right, so I repent, fill my heart my things of him, allow my actions and thoughts to be shaped and formed into his. Then I get lazy and stop guarding it so aggressively. Slowly the world seeps back in and I go through the cycle again and again.

I know that it’s through the power of the Holy Spirit revealing things to me that I change. My own mind can’t seek out the things of God clearly. I need him clarify and ignite these in me. But when I refuse to listen – when my heart and mind are flooded with noisy, chaotic things that point the exact opposite direction of God and I can’t (or won’t) hear him – that is on me.

So I hear him calling…Grow up, restless child. You can’t stop training in your spiritual growth when it gets hard. You can’t allow excuses to become the rule of how deep you go. I have so much more for you than you can imagine. Wake up, sleeping church. Stop living in fear. Stop looking for any reason to not do the hard work of remaining fit enough to be victorious in battle. Look up, oh doubtful heart. You are not alone. Stop whining about where you have not seen his hand and start asking for a clear, passionate, intimate look into where he has worked and is working still. Ask him to show you the angels surrounding the camp.

I am thankful for God’s love and patience with this stupid, foolish child. And I am even more thankful that he does not see me in that lens but rather as his masterpiece – dearly loved and shaped by him.