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.

God in the Ordinary

In South Sudan I experienced one of the hardest transitions of my life. I had heard that there would be a honeymoon period, and from my experience with interns and apprentices, that is usually the case. However, the moment our little tiny plane hit the dirt strip in Mundri, and my eyes caught sight of all the curious faces watching us get off the plane to start our new life, I started crying and didn’t stop. In that moment I felt overwhelmed, unprepared, and humiliated. This was supposed to be the life I had dreamed about for three years of fund raising and we were finally there – I should have been victorious. Instead I found myself wilting in the humidity, exhausted from the extreme difference of this new culture, and not able to focus on a single thing our poor teammates on the ground were trying to say to us.

Mundri airstrip. (PC Reed family)

These guys were heroes. Two single guys who had been there on their own for a few months and were so happy to have on there with them, yet they also had to be a bit overwhelmed on how to help this new family adjust and adapt. To top that all off we were supposed to be the team leaders! What were we thinking?

We had traveled from Uganda that morning after spending the week fighting jet lag, shopping for groceries for three months (I had NO idea what I needed for three months!!), meeting new missionaries that would be our life line in the months to come, buying phones and sim cards, eating out at restaurants that we would not be seeing for a quite a while, and getting paperwork ready. In the end the 18 bins we brought from the States and the majority of groceries we bought in country couldn’t even come with us on our move to South Sudan because of weight issues on the tiny plane. Though it was coming in twice a week at that point there was no guarantee of how soon we would get our things, and though I tried to pick and choose the “important” things, I was just plain defeated by the time we landed and felt stripped of anything familiar.

The “toilet”

The first few weeks were spent understanding solar power, getting use to using outdoor pit toilets with cockroaches, figuring out how to say basic Arabic phrases so I could shop in the market even though I wasn’t even sure how to use some of the foods. I went to bed crying and woke up crying. In between I made bread, yogurt, homeschooled, cleaned, tried to find a language partner, and spent time getting to know our teammates before more came the following month. Later a friend told us, “Yeah, all the women cry when they move here. I don’t really understand why, but it’s true.” At least I was normal!

But we are amazing beings, us humans. We learn to adapt and change and (dare I say) even enjoy new things. One morning as I was praying that God would help me (a prayer that became as common as breathing to me at the time) I heard him tell me to start looking for him in the things and people around me. Find him in the ordinary. Invite him into the everyday and embrace it. Stop looking for the huge miracle of everything being “normal” and start believing that he was in even the most foreign thing and that made it extraordinary and beautiful. I had to look at my “new normal” as being something beautiful and life giving.

New teammates came and we learned to do communal meals – eating together becoming a normal thing where we could laugh and process. We had extra people to help with school so I could do something besides cook and teach, and life started to take on it’s own rhythms again. I found a language partner and spent many hours sitting at her stall in the marketplace learning words and phrases and laughing as she made me “sell” her wares to people coming by. I began what would be a beautiful friendship with the Bishop’s wife as we shelled nuts together, baked cookies, and sat with each other at the numerous church things I was supposed to attend as team leader’s wife. These friendships developed from doing the ordinary, everyday things together. I started to see Him in these ordinary things, and as I did, my heart started to accept and even like my life there.

Sometimes I want to see the big things – the miraculous. I think this is ok. God tells us that he is able to do more than we can ask or even imagine, so I believe he loves us to ask for these things. However that cannot become our only communication with him. When God told me to look for him in the everyday I started to know him better, deeper. I started to see his life in other people and even in the creation around me. I stopped feeling disappointed and scared and started seeing things with wonder and awe.

Not always – sometimes I couldn’t handle one more child pointing at me and yelling, “Hello white person” over and over (and over) again. Sometimes seeing him in my surroundings felt impossible when it was 115 and the solar power wasn’t working well enough to even run a fan. Sometimes I still cried as I went to bed wondering if we had ruined our children and committed ourselves to five years of insanity. But usually the next day, in the brief coolness of morning with a fresh cup of coffee I was able to see him again and be thankful.

Where do you need to start seeing him in your ordinary? I know for me, right now in Covid times, I have spent many days that seem to run one into another. I am in an opposite times of what I was in Mundri, as there seems to be nothing new and boredom seeps in. But I have been asking him to show me himself in these times as well. In playing a board game with my kids; in spending more time lingering over a meal together; in taking walks in the evening and greeting neighbors that I normally wouldn’t have a chance to know; in figuring out how to love others when I cannot be with them in person; in playing the keyboard and spending time writing.

Whatever the season, we need to be intentional in looking for him in the ordinary moments. When we do, we will know him in deeper, steadier ways than we have before.

PC Reed family

Hold My Arms Up

“Come unto me all who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.”  Matthew 11:28

The beginning of this week was a really tough time for me.  I felt the weariness of the last few months burdening my heart and soul.  I just wanted to sleep.  Try as I might, I couldn’t conjure up any feeling of joy or hope.  I felt defeated, purposeless, and exhausted.

I write a weekly email to our wonderful women at the church.  Usually this email tells a little story from my life and I try to encourage them in some way, then I ask them how I can be praying.  This week, however, I couldn’t do that.  As I tried time and time again to write something I finally heard the Spirit tell me to just be honest.  So I did something different and asked the women to pray for me this week.  I let them know where I was at and just asked them to lift us up.  

While I know that there were some people who were not quite sure how to respond to that, for the most part I had people tell me they were praying.  And over the course of the next few days it was like a fog lifted from my heart and mind.  I could see clearly again and my energy levels were back to normal.  In the middle of all of this I spent a day with a stomach bug that left me in bed where I slept for hours over the course of a couple days – something that apparently my body needed.  Who knew a bug could be the answer to prayer?  Between restorative sleep and the prayers of my friends I knew that I had passed through this most recent battle and was on the other side, and I was thankful.

Have you ever felt this way?

As I talked with friends this week I admitted that I have been prone to times of depression in my life.  There have been times when I have been on medicine and many times of seeing a counselor regularly.  I have no shame about this – I think they are amazing resources that are available for us when we need them.  However, as Shawn and I talked about this time (because he was also experiencing it) we knew in our hearts that this was not a physical thing or chemical imbalance – this was a spiritual battle.   And we knew that we were not in a place where we could fight it alone.

Let me back up a minute.  We know that we are not truly alone, right?  When we are down and we have lost the ability to fight back because our sword is thrown off to the side and the enemy is on top of us peering down into our eyes with a look of pure hatred, we are not alone.  We are still wear the breastplate of righteousness that guards our heart from the attacks of the evil one.  We know as his children that we are covered in the blood of Jesus and that we are made righteous because of the work he did on the cross.  This is true no matter where our thoughts or emotions take us.  Once we become his children there is no one or nothing that can separate us from the love of God. So we know that while we may feel alone, we are not truly alone.

But that doesn’t stop us from living as though we are sometimes, right? 

This week I felt alone and I knew that I needed my people to fight on my behalf.  A friend sent me a text saying she was picturing the prayers of people lifting up our arms like Aaron and Hur did for Moses in Exodus 17.  (“When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset. So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.”) When I asked the women to pray for us and for the other pastor’s family at church I knew it was because we needed someone to hold our arms up for a little while because our own strength was gone and we were shaking and feeble.  I wasn’t asking for them to fix the situation, to give me platitudes, or even to assure me that it would be ok, but just to stand alongside me and hold my arms while I rested.  I had to come to Jesus because I was weary and burdened, and he gave me the rest I needed in the form of friends who came alongside me in battle.

I am thankful for this reminder this week, even though I did not love feeling sick and depressed.  God knew what I needed, and he knew that the friends who lifted me this week needed to be a part of it.  He continues to shape us in love and compassion and make us more like him even as he pursues us right where we are at.  If you are in the place I was this week, may you be humble enough to let others bless you.  If you are doing the arm holding – thank you for battling and loving well and keeping the arms steady, even if you don’t fully understand it.

The Wisdom of Anne with an E.

“It’s red, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it’s red,” she said resignedly. “Now you see why I can’t be perfectly happy. Nobody could who has red hair. I don’t mind the other things so much–the freckles and the green eyes and my skinniness. I can imagine them away. I can imagine that I have a beautiful rose-leaf complexion and lovely starry violet eyes. But I cannot imagine that red hair away. I do my best. I think to myself, `Now my hair is a glorious black, black as the raven’s wing.’ But all the time I know it is just plain red and it breaks my heart. It will be my lifelong sorrow.” 

Oh, Anne.  I have loved Anne of Green Gables since I read it the first time.  She’s a firecracker who uses big words, is passionate and loyal about her relationships, verbally processes, and (of course) has red hair.  As a child I use to hate my red hair.  I remember clearly people calling me carrot top among other not-so-nice things, being told I was a redheaded rooster, and hearing a few adults I looked up to saying (when they didn’t think I was listening) that they hoped their children didn’t have red hair. It’s hard not to take that personally.  As Anne says, you can’t wish it away no matter how hard you try.

When I became a teenager and into adulthood I decided having red hair wasn’t so bad.  People remembered me, I stood out.  I’ve never been one to want to blend into the shadows completely, so having something that made me different became a benefit rather than a hinderance.  But then adulthood ran into getting into middle age, and suddenly my bright, copper-red hair started looking a bit less vibrant and a lot more washed out.  I felt like I was losing my identity as my hair changed color so  I started dying it regularly to a coppery color.  But since most of the time it was a cheap box from Walmart I now cringe when I see pictures of me with that harsh hair color!

We are weird people. No matter how old we get or how much we mature, we struggle with how we look and we allow that to define who we think we are and what our worth is.  I’ve noticed recently that I’ve had a lot of anxiety about what I’m eating (or not eating.)  At college I struggled a lot with an eating disorder.  It continued for many years into adulthood, as I would go out at night and binge on what ever I wanted, then throw it up before I went home.  It wasn’t really about losing weight.  I knew that I wasn’t going to get skinny in this pattern.  It certainly wasn’t about being healthy – that was really the last thing on my mind.  I understand now that it was my way of grabbing control of my shame that I felt.

I would feel shame about everything at that time.  Shame that I wasn’t a better parent, a better wife, a better sister and daughter.  Shame that I was continually gaining weight and couldn’t seem to stop.  Shame that I wasn’t where I thought I should be as a Christian or an adult.  Shame about past mistakes and anxiety about future ones.  And shame about the way I looked and how I wished with my whole heart that I was not the way I was.  People around me have been talking about dieting and weight my whole life.  I know very few women who don’t talk about almost every day, so I don’t think I am an oddball about this.

Fast forward to this stage of life.  Last year we started doing keto and I dropped 60 pounds over the course of the year.  But I found out something about myself – I exchanged the idol of food (I can eat whatever I want) for the idol of fear (I don’t dare eat that.  Or – I can’t believe I ate that, what a wretched person I am!)   If I had a bad day where I would eat too many carbs, my whole mood and attitude was affected.  I felt anxiety about every little thing going into my body.  While I was healthier in many ways, emotionally I was still going through a lot of the same cycles.

I found myself sitting on the floor in the bathroom one afternoon weighing in on whether the shame of having just eaten bread would be bigger than the shame I knew would come if I made myself throw up.  Then I broke down and cried, wondering how I had gotten back to this point.

This is not a story I want to share.  I love telling those stories where there is complete victory.  I would love to say that I threw up one day two decades ago, had a revelation about who I am and who I want to be, and stopped right then and there.  But the truth is this temptation has been there much more than I ever imagined it would be.  While it’s been years since I hung my head over the toilet regularly, the idea still creeps in every once in a while.

But there is hope.

Because here’s another truth – I have not spent every day of the last couple decades living in shame and fear.  There are periods of time that these things try to creep in.  And sometimes I forget the truth of who I really am and I let these lies settle in.  Sometimes it’s from conversations happening around me or circumstances that pop up, but other times it’s simply my own insecurities showing their faces when I am not expecting them, so I am not ready to fight.  I have learned some practical things (and I keep learning more and more) about how I cannot be extreme when it comes to food issues.  I know I need to be disciplined and eat in healthy ways, but I keep coming to a better understanding of what that means for me and my family.  I have learned to love walking and pushing myself in exercise and the feeling of pride I get when I make wise choices about these things – but I also know how slippery that slope can be for me with my obsessive tendencies and how fast I give into shame.

However, more than anything, I continue to learn despite the fact I fail often, and no matter how I feel in the moment, none of that really defines me or changes my worth.  As I have fallen deeper and deeper in love with Jesus, I realize better and better the depth of his love for me.  I understand that my salvation is not just about heaven someday, but the ability to live here on this earth in a supernatural freedom from anxiety.  Over the last month we have talked about advent and the different things that we looked at were hope, peace, joy, and love.  I have emphasized as I taught and wrote on it that these things are not things of this world.  We are not talking about a hope in temporal things or peace and joy that comes from everything around us being just as we think it should and we “feel” good.  Love is an overflowing of the Spirit from us that we can have because He first loved us.  These things come from a dying to myself and surrendering my life to Him.

The same is true about these other things.  Even if I have a day where I ate a box of Little Debbies, this doesn’t change my worth.  If I have a day where my parenting is less than stellar and I have have to humbly apologize to my kids, my worth is still the same.  On the flip side, if I eat exactly 20 carbs, walk 10,000 steps, kiss my husband every time I see him, cook a healthy meal at night, and tuck my children into bed without having once lost my temper with them, my worth has not changed.  It can’t.  I have already been purchased at the ultimate cost- so I am now priceless. He loves me me with a perfect love that was so incomprehensible he died for me while I was still a broken, bratty child kicking and screaming insults at him.  Even then my worth was known to him.

As I go into 2020 I have no illusions that this year will be easy.  I am starting a new job, learning how to balance that with still having kids at home who are doing online school, a college student, and a young adult.  I am still in my first year in a new place where I am getting to know people and figuring out who my people are.  We have parents whom we love that we need to be able to care for better.  And I continue to fight my way through this love/hate relationship with food to a better place for me both physically and emotionally.  But I am determined to go into this year with the reminder of who I am and I will dream up big, God-sized dreams that cannot happen without Him – one of those dreams being a healthier me who stands steadfastly in what I know to be true about me and about Jesus.  Because, as Anne says, “When you are imagining, you might as well imagine something worth while.”

Join me?