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Death Without a Funeral

26 Oct

rockpile

It’s a death without a funeral.*

There’s been a recent death in my life.  It’s not a person or a pet, but a church.  I have said goodbye to my old church.  This move, orchestrated by God, has caused a loss of community, a loss of purpose, a sense of being displaced, and a sense of identity loss.

Who am I now and where do I belong? It’s like looking to the sky to see God as a cloud leading me somewhere new and on the darkest of nights trusting His pillar of fire to watch over me.

It’s moving on.

A final goodbye.

Don’t look back.

Just keep moving forward.

Leaving this church is one of the most painful experiences of my life.  I came in those doors so wounded and torn up by the world after not going to church for seven years.  I experienced healing, was challenged in my faith, and I grew.  I became strong. 

And because of it, I’m now strong enough to leave.

God is telling me that it is time to move on.  And like Abraham, like Moses, like so many who have gone before, I must follow where my God has called me.  Whatever the reasons for leaving a church—any church—the main reason should and must always be a calling from God.

I wasn’t sure I should blog about this, but as I googled “leaving a church” I didn’t find any helpful information.  I didn’t find people grieving the loss.  I simply found articles with bullet points on knowing when to leave and when to stay.

It goes so far beyond a bullet point.

We want to fancy it up with church talk.  We want to wrap it up in a pretty bow, like because God called us to do it means it isn’t hard.  Because God called us to do it, we didn’t scream our hearts out on the living room floor every day for a week.  We pretend leaving our ministries doesn’t rip us all apart.  We wear these “holy masks” and say everything is just fine.

But everything is not fine.  Goodbyes are hard, particularly this one because, for me, it’s a tearing away.  I feel like I’m losing a piece of myself.  I know the reasons God is moving me, yet I feel like some sort of refugee.  I’m bewildered, don’t know how to fit into the new mold of a new church, and I’m so lost and lonely.

I know I’ll be OK.  I know I’m grieving right now, but just as the dying leaves fall from the trees only to bud in the spring, so will I.  There’s just a long winter of the soul ahead—a time to rest, reflect, and snuggle up with God.  Sometimes a winter has to come to force us to look at the One who truly gives life.  I trust Him to provide what I need in this transition.

I tell myself the truth. Day after day.  And it hurts less and I haven’t cried in a few days now.  I’m finding sustenance and joy in God, almost like I had to become wounded like this to feel Him again.  Almost like my heart had to split wide open with this wound to start beating again.

To quote C.S. Lewis, “There are far better things ahead than what I leave behind.”  I am choosing to run towards the better things ahead. 

And when I need to, I bow my head in grief and scream out to God to ease my pain.  I struggle as I grieve this death, this death without a funeral. 

This is my funeral, my final goodbye, my laying to rest. It’s in these words I find peace and on my blog I place a gravestone.  I build an altar here, dedicate it to God, and remember this holy moment.

*I borrowed the title “Death Without A Funeral” from singer/songwriter Jason Gray.  The song can be found on his latest release, Where the Light Gets In. You can watch a video where Jason talks about “Death Without a Funeral” here or listen to the song itself here.

What Frozen Has Taught Me About Holding On

19 Jan

{WARNING: This post contains FROZEN spoilers!}

Frozen.

I know I should be so over it.  Let it go as some may say.

But like an ice clinging to my windshield that I can’t get off no matter how hard I scrape, I just can’t let it go.

Because Frozen is a story which cuts to my heart reminding me of a God who relentlessly, recklessly pursues me as I run away from His redeeming love.

In case you have lived under a rock, like Kristoff’s adopted troll family, Frozen is an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” with a delightful Disney twist.  As in, the original fairytale is unrecognizable, except there is, in fact, a snow queen.

During the story, Elsa hides her “snow magic” after almost killing her younger sister, Anna, during a midnight snow fight when they were children.  Everything changes on the day of Elsa’s coronation, when she is to become queen of Arendelle.  Guests and dignitaries are invited in to the open palace which was formerly shut off to hide Elsa and consequently, Anna, from the world.

The two sisters interact for the first time in years at the coronation—Elsa, elegant and reserved while Anna, is friendly and slightly awkward.  Anna has no memory of Elsa’s powers, but every day Elsa lives with the horror of what her powers can do and how they can injure others, especially her beloved little sister.

Naturally, things go awry when love-starved Anna announces to Elsa that she plans to marry Prince Hans after an evening chatting and singing.  Elsa, who has not learned to control her emotions or powers, reveals her snowy secret for all her kingdom to see, accidentally freezing Arendelle in the process.  In order to protect others, she heads for the mountains, sings “Let It Go,” builds herself an ice castle, and gets a snazzy makeover.  She convinces herself “the cold never bothered me anyway.”

But it’s the fear of the cold that has run Elsa’s life.

Anna’s warmth is an interesting contrast to Elsa’s reclusiveness.  Despite Elsa giving Anna the cold shoulder for years, Anna pursues her sister into the mountains to beg her to unfreeze Arendelle.  Along the way, Anna enlists the help of an iceman named Kristoff and his puppy-like reindeer, Sven, as well as everyone’s favorite summer-loving snowman, Olaf.

The sisters finally come face-to-face and sing a reprise of “The First Time in Forever,” which is actually one of my favorite songs from the movie.  Elsa sings of her need to keep Anna safe while Anna begs Elsa to come back home so they can find a way to help her together.  At the end of the song, Elsa sets off an icy blast, which accidentally hits Anna in the heart.  Not knowing she injured her sister, Elsa sends Anna and company away so she can live out her days alone.

After learning Anna’s shot through the heart is fatal without an act of true love, Kristoff rushes Anna back to Arendelle on his trusty stead, Sven, so she can be kissed by her true love, Hans.  Hans, as it turns out is a sociopath, whose only intentions were to falsely woo Anna, arrange a fatal accident for Elsa, and take over Arendelle’s throne for himself.  Locking Anna in a chilly drawing room to die and chaining Elsa in a dungeon after capturing her, it seems evil has won.

That is, until Olaf and Anna escape from the castle to find Krisoff, Anna’s actual true love, to get that magical healing kiss.

Meanwhile, Hans lies to Elsa, informing her that Anna is dead because of Elsa.  Elsa, overcome with the severest of emotions, breaks out of the dungeon—not knowing how to deal with what she believes to be Anna’s death or how to save her kingdom from its deep freeze.  Hans goes after Elsa, intending to kill her.

Amidst the blizzard, Anna and Kristoff try to find one another while Hans looks for Elsa.  Finally, Anna spots Kristoff as her fingers start to turn blue, but to her right she sees Hans ready to strike Elsa with a  sword.  Anna is faced with a choice—save herself or save her sister.

Anna chooses to save her sister.  With an outstretched arm, Hans sword doesn’t fall on Elsa, but instead on Anna’s hand, which is now frozen solid.  Shocked, Elsa weeps over her once living, breathing sister who is now an ice sculpture…and suddenly, Anna unfreezes.  Anna’s selfless act of love has saved her because love is what heals a frozen heart.

And like that, Elsa realizes that love, not fear, heals and is able to save Arendelle.  She becomes the beloved queen of the people, Hans gets exiled, and the sisters make up for lost time.

Many view Elsa, queen of ice and snow, as the takeaway character from Frozen.  Admittedly, snow powers are pretty impressive, along with a fantastic singing voice provided by Idina Menzel, and an impressive look.  Elsa is beautiful and powerful, but fearful and cold.  She hasn’t been taught how to  manage her emotions, live in community, or have real relationships.  Her fear imprisons her and she needs a savior.

Anna is loveable, likeable, and hungry for adventure.  The persistent, sometimes annoying little sister doesn’t have any special powers.  But her heart is huge and her love for Elsa drives her to take risks most of us would never take.

Think about those family members or friends who have hurt you.  I mean, really hurt you.  Would you chase them up your version of a snowy mountain?  Would you give your life for someone who seemingly ruined your world?

Would you relentlessly pursue someone who wants to be alone, who wants nothing to do with you?

I might’ve let Elsa alone to die on that mountain.  Who is she to ignore me all those years?  Who is she to hide who she really is?  Really, who IS she?

Yet God, like Anna, sees us scared and alone building castles of isolation.  We tell Him that we don’t need Him.  We sing songs of independence.  We look beautiful on the outside.

On the inside, our hearts are slowly freezing us to spiritual death.

No matter how many times we try to cast Him aside, He is relentless.  He pursues humanity with His love sacrificing Himself on a cruel tree to win our freedom showing once and for all that His love heals and His blood sanctifies.

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” John 15:13

Like Anna, Jesus can’t be held down by death.  He bursts back to life three days later, bringing new life and hope to weary mankind.

I can’t let go of the story of Frozen, for it is a fabulous love story, which reminds me of my own love story with Jesus.  It reminds me how His love healed my frozen heart, how He quiets my fears, and how He rejoices over me in song.

It is something I just can’t and never want to let go.

Life and Death in the Garden

4 Aug

It’s out in the garden I find life—tomatoes so beautiful and heavy they push over in their flimsy cages, cucumbers plush and delicious additions to every meal, a variety of peppers, and an aroma of herbs.  There are random holes here and there from a curious chipmunk looking for tender shoots on which to dine.  Insects crawl in the rich dirt and on the plants, startling and repulsing me.

I also find death—wilted branches with their leaves turning yellow as they are drained of life, blossom rot on the vine plants for fruit that will never be, fallen tomatoes trampled into the soil by my careless feet,   and leftover flowers being choked to death by weeds.

No wonder the garden has become so symbolic for it is a metaphor of the lifecycle should we have eyes to see.

As I sit on my gardening stool, rearranging the tomato branches within their cages, it strikes me how the the burden of their fruit overwhelms  the plants breaking branches, dropping fruit, and causing them to topple into one another like dominos.

I have been like the tomato plant—full of fruit I wanted to use for God, but too overwhelmed to use it, too burdened to give it away for His glory.  I wanted the glory for myself; I wanted to show the fruits of my labor.  Instead, I fell and how great the fall!  With open hands, I give the glory to the One who is above all.

I pull up weeds which had overtaken sections of the garden, even growing up over the stone walkway.  I claw at them trying to pull up each root.  I grab a hand rake and chopped at their stems.  If only my cilantro or oregano had grown like these hardy weeds…

I have been like the weeds.  My heart believes the lies that so easily grow over the clear path God has given me.  Instead of what is true, I follow the false path for I cannot find the way until I unseat the vines I have made truth.  I am tangled and suffocating.  I rip them up with a new fervor, refusing to be ensnared by lies again

The lettuce has turned bitter due to the summer heart.  I think about inviting the rabbits in to taste it.  Perhaps refrigeration will help.  If not, we will pick this cool weather crop in the fall.

I have been like the lettuce—looking beautiful on the outside, holding onto bitterness on the inside.  Taste me and I will leave a terrible taste in your mouth.  I surrender the bitterness to God, giving each leaf to Him.  I offer names, covering those who have wronged me in forgiveness, being filled with gratitude for grace.

Carefully, I investigate the vines looking for cucumbers, zucchini, watermelon, and cantaloupe.  The cucumbers—my favorite vegetable—are growing well.  The zucchini has come back after a terrible case of blossom rot.  A small watermelon is finally forming and a cantaloupe will be ready soon.

I am like the vine plants, growing and multiplying in God.  He is the vine and I am the branches.  I will abide in Him and grow much fruit.  Apart from Him, I can do nothing.  I look at the cucumber smashed by my stool.  Apart from the vine, it is lifeless.  I toss it in with the rest of the plant debris.  I will no longer pull myself away from the source of Life.

As I turn to close the garden gate, I feel a sense of satisfaction, knowing that weeding, pruning, and picking are divine activities.  My dirt caked arms and feet are the mark of the Master, showing how I’ve spent time with Him.  And I smile, thankful for this lesson from God.

The Desolate Woman: A Biblical Perspective on Rape

8 Jan

“Desolaton of Tamar” by James Tissot

A huge kingdom in a faraway land, a beloved king with a beautiful daughter, and a handsome prince who is heir to the throne—the story has all the makings of a lovely fairy tale, yet it is a horror story. The kingdom was Israel under the rule of King David and the handsome prince was David’s oldest son, Amnon, who just so happened to be in love with his half-sister, Tamar. Found in 2 Samuel 13, smack dab between David’s affair with Bathsheba and the revolt of David’s sons against their father is the passage about the rape of Princess Tamar.Nathan the prophet told David that “the sword will never leave your household” only a few chapters earlier and spoke of the turmoil that would erupt in the king’s family as a consequence of his sin. The unraveling of the kingdom began with this rape.

It all started when Amnon became lovesick over his sister, Tamar. He lamented to his cousin, Jonadab, that he couldn’t do anything to her because she was a virgin. Jonadab concocted a terrible plan, which Amnon carried out. Jonadab advised Amnon to feign illness and request Tamar’s presence from the king. King David did not deny his firstborn anything, so naturally Amnon’s request was granted.

Tamar, being the dutiful daughter, came to her brother’s house to prepare him a meal, which he refused to eat. Instead he told all his servants to leave and then said, “Tamar, why don’t you bring the food here to me in my bedroom? I’m too weak to eat on my own so I need your help.” Tamar brought the food into his bedroom. All of a sudden, Amnon grabbed Tamar and demanded that she join him in bed.

Aghast, Tamar refused his offer begging, “Don’t force me, my brother! Such a thing is not done in Israel. Don’t do this wicked thing. What about me? Where could I get rid of my disgrace? And what about you, you would be like one of the wicked fools in Israel. Please speak to the king: he will not keep me from being married to you” (13:12-13, NIV.) Tamar’s plea fell on deaf ears. And because Amnon was “stronger than she”, he raped her (18:14.)

There are a few interesting things that can be pulled from Tamar’s emotional statement. When Tamar said that things like this are not done in Israel, she was speaking of the law which forbade a man to have sexual relations with his sister. (Lev. 18: 9, 11) Disgraced, she could have been either put to death for having such a relationship or considered “unmarriageable” because she was no longer a virgin. However, Tamar then said that the king would allow Amnon to marry her, which was also forbidden by law (Lev. 20:17; Deut. 27:22.) Perhaps Tamar hoped this would dissuade Amnon for the moment so she could escape or she thought David would bend the law for his children. Whatever the reason, Tamar’s statement was ignored.

Tamar’s plea cuts to the heart of any girl or woman who has been sexually assaulted. Please don’t do this to me; do not take this from me. Yet often because a man is stronger than a woman, he takes violently what is not his to take. The woman is often left alone and confused, picking up the pieces of what she thought would be a good life.

After Amnon raped his sister, he sent her out of his house and said, “Get this out of here!” Again, Tamar pled for justice on her behalf and begged, “No! Sending me away would be a greater wrong that what you have already done to me” (13:16.) Modern women recoil at this passage wondering why Tamar would want to keep the company of her rapist. However, in the Jewish culture at that time, a woman who had been raped was deemed unmarriageable. Young girls and teenagers who were victims of rape were not only robbed of their innocence but their hope of marriage as well. The Jewish law made a provision for these women—if a man raped a virgin, he was required to take the girl as his wife (Deut. 22:28-29.)

The love that Amnon felt for Tamar before the rape turned to rage after the rape so Tamar was sent away disgraced and ashamed. The Bible says that she then put ashes on her head, tore the ornamental robe that the king’s virgin daughters wore, and wailed loudly—all signs of extreme mourning. As soon as Tamar’s full brother, Absalom, came upon her, he surmised what had happened. He told her to keep quiet about the incident, which she did. She was then taken into Absalom’s house and lived “a desolate woman” (13:20.) This is the last mention of Tamar in the Bible—that she lived the rest of her days as a desolate woman.

I imagine that Tamar, being beautiful and young and the daughter of King David, had a lot of promising prospects when it came to marriage. Like many teenage girls, she may have dreamed about her Prince Charming, her marriage, her children, and her future. Yet in an instant, her dreams came crashing down around her. It is not mentioned how old Tamar was in this passage, but she was probably in her early-to-mid teens–only a teenager. Full of hope, full of promise, full of life, and then desolate.

Unfortunately, in the time Tamar lived, rape against women was not a serious offense. Sure, God had laws against it, but since women were demeaned and treated as property, rape wasn’t seen as brutal and damaging in that culture. Yet the women who endured it felt the hot shame on their cheeks. They never felt safe again, some were even scorned publicly. Since Tamar’s rape was kept a secret, many may have assumed that Tamar willingly slept with Amnon or someone else. Her ornamental robe of virginity was gone—I’m sure the rumors ran rampant.

King David somehow received word of Tamar’s rape and was enraged just like any father should be when his daughter is violated. Instead of demanding justice for Tamar, David did nothing. It was Absalom who waited patiently for two years before he killed Amnon for raping his sister. It was Absalom who eventually turned against his father and slept with David’s concubines on palace porch for all Israel to see. Not only was Tamar affected by David’s inaction, Absalom, the next in line for the throne, was as well.

The story of Tamar is horrible and hard to read; especially when one considers the real and raw emotion Tamar must have felt. Yet this story is in the Bible, not only to show the downfall of David’s household, but to teach readers something about rape, to show women who have been sexually assaulted that they are not alone in feeling shamed, unloved, and desolate. Sadly, women you know have been or will be victims of rape or sexual assault. While you may not want to take a friend or who has been a victim of sexual assault to this passage right away, it is a helpful reminder that rape did exist and was mentioned in the Bible. Here are a few things you can pull out of the story of Tamar that is universal in a women’s experience of rape.

*Tamar’s virginity and purity are compromised. Anyone who is a virgin when she is raped is still a true virgin, though she may not be one physically. True virginity is a spiritual matter. No one can take that away.

*Tamar’s pain was emotional. She showed her deep distress by putting ashes on her head and wailing loudly—both signs of deep grief. She is called “a desolate and bitter woman” in the Message Bible. Desolate may mean she never had sex again or it may mean that she simply never recovered after being raped.

While there is no time limit on grief, and a rape survivor should be allowed to express her rage, sadness, fear, and other emotions freely, God wants to heal His Child. He does not desire His daughters to be desolate physically, emotionally, or spiritually. He wants to fill the empty void, cover His daughter’s shame, and fully restore her as only He can. What man has taken away, God can restore and He so desperately longs to comfort His children. Point your friend or teen to the God who weeps with His daughters.

*Tamar’s pain was also physical. Tamar’s tearing of ornamental robes is significant, because this speaks to how her life was torn apart, but also because her vagina may have been torn and bleeding from a potentially violent rape. When a female virgin has sex for the first time often her hymen (a thin layer of tissue around the opening of a woman’s vagina) is ripped. While the hymen can be ripped for other reasons, including molestation, throughout history a woman’s virginity was determined by whether or not her hymen remained intact.

Women, especially virgins, may bleed or become sore from sex, especially violent sex. A woman who is raped may also need to make regular trips to the gynecologist, which can be terrifying. Her health may be forever affected if she received a STD, severe vaginal trauma, or other brutal treatment.

*Tamar was unmarriageable and may even have been suspected of being promiscuous. How often do we hear men say that a woman was “asking to be raped”? No means no—every time, all the time, no exceptions. After one girl in my former youth ministry was raped, she was called a “slut” by other students at school. While she may have been a bit of a flirt, she said no and was violated anyway.

Today girls who are raped do get married and lead fulfilling lives; they do not necessarily live as “desolate women.” Girls and women who are raped often feel “damaged and violated”. They feel unfit for relationships and even marriage. This is simply untrue, but girls need to work through these feelings, which can take years. Counseling is essential to achieving a semblance of emotional wholeness in a rape survivor’s life.

*Tamar wasn’t allowed to talk about the rape. Tamar was told by her brother, Absalom, “Be quiet…Don’t take this thing to heart” (18:20.) Perhaps he just didn’t want her to worry about the situation because he avenged her honor by killing Amnon, or maybe he just didn’t know how to react. While it is unknown if Tamar was ever allowed to talk about her rape to close confidants, it seems in this passage she was denied the opportunity to tell her story. She needed to tell her story and even receive support from others who may have been raped.

*Tamar was denied earthly justice. David, the king of Israel, could have punished Amnon for violating his daughter, but in refusing to do so he failed as a king and as a father. Even though Absalom killed Amnon, he may have seen Tamar’s rape as a slight against him and defended his honor, too. Survivors of rape should never be denied justice. Again and again, God refers to Himself as a God of justice, who hates injustice (Ps. 9:16, 11:17, 33:5; Is. 30:18, 61:8.)

Even though Tamar is never again mentioned in the Bible, a potential bright spark in her life can be found later in 2 Samuel. Verse 14:27 says that Absalom was the father of three sons and one daughter, who he named Tamar. Ironically, the names of Absalom’s sons are not mentioned, only his daughter, Tamar. While the passage does not say that Tamar was her niece’s namesake, I’d like to believe that. Despite all her hurt and heartache, I still want a happy ending for Tamar and perhaps it comes in the form of her beautiful little niece. While Tamar may not have lived happily ever after, she still lived, was taken care of by her brother (until his death anyway), and spent time with her nephews and niece.

Sometimes I wish every story was a fairy tale, yet far too often girlish dreams are shattered by harsh realities. Rape is like that–reaching across time, space, and culture to affect millions of women throughout history. It can happen to anyone—even to the daughter of a Powerful King who lives in a Kingdom that is not of this world. Yet that Father always wants justice for His Child and will never leave her to be a desolate woman.

***

If you’ve been a victim of sexual assault, please check out RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network.)  They have great resources. Call them at National Sexual Assault Hotline | 1.800.656.HOPE | Free. Confidential. 24/7.

Feel free to leave a comment, if you like.  However, I have found when I post about sensitive topics, sometimes readers want to share their reaction with me privately, so feel free to email me. (You can always email me.)


A Stranger in the World

5 Dec

There’s something about over-the-top gaudiness that humors me.  Whether it’s an inappropriately huge Christmas tree decked out so many ornaments it leans to one side or a neighbor’s lawn covered in inflatables, I just have to laugh.  Christmas seems to bring out the glitter, the glam, the glitz, and the gluttony we’ve been hiding all year long.

I’m not sure Jesus’ birth was ever intended to cause so much “celebration.” It was a quiet affair—father, mother, and child, a heavenly host, and some of the lowliest shepherds.  A year later, the wise men appeared bearing three gifts.  All in all, it was not a very grand affair for the Lord of Heaven and Earth—at least to the naked eye.  The birth of William and Kate’s little prince garnished more notice.

It’s just a story we tell, isn’t it?  Right along with The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and The Polar Express.  We live in a world where Jesus birth is as much a fable as the story of St. Nick—more legend than actual Bible truth.  So, then, why does it surprise us when we see the world expressing itself as only the world can?

For example, earlier this week on Facebook I posted a picture of a nativity (see about) composed of Star Wars and Star Trek characters, other alien entities, and a gallantly posed Batman figurine flexing atop the crèche.  It drew some chuckles, likes, and cries of sacrilege.

But, to me, it perfectly illustrated Jesus’ birth, whether or not the creator of this particular nativity intended it to be.  John 1: 10 came to mind, “He [Jesus] came into the very world He created, but the world didn’t recognize Him.” We didn’t recognize Him.  The world had no idea who He was, and it’s still missing Him!

To many, Jesus’ birth seems that alien, that inexplicable, and that ridiculous.  The story of Immanuel (God -With-Us) is so insane that it might as well be added in the madness of the holiday season.  A nativity scene nestled between Elf on a Shelf and a pink glitter reindeer—it just seems to make sense.

And yet it makes no sense at all.

On the holiest of nights, Heaven kissed Earth producing a small, helpless baby who would save us all.  Heroes usually have an epic birth story and the gospels tell the story of Jesus.  An otherworldly humanoid sent by His Father.

It’s almost like Superman’s backstory.  His home planet was being destroyed, so Superman’s mother and father packed their baby boy into a capsule, which crash landed in middle of nowhere America.  Taken in by a farmer and his wife, Superman’s humble origins didn’t hold him back from becoming a shy, big city reporter named Clark Kent who moonlighted as Superman.  With one exception, Superman came to earth to save his life, but Jesus came to give His life away.

That’s a nice story, isn’t it?  But how could it possibly be true?  It seems unbelievable.  So replacing Jesus with a screaming alien baby and the wise men with three Darth Vader’s, well, that’s just as ludicrous because it’s not true.

Unless it is.

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are full of true stories of people who missed who Jesus is and what He came to do.  Even Jesus’ most faithful followers didn’t understand His purpose, until they came face to face with their Risen Savior on a Sunday long ago.  If we who have been with Jesus face to face miss Him in our daily lives between soccer practice and Bible study and grocery shopping, then how can we ever expect a world that didn’t recognize Him to understand Him?  It’s nearly impossible to recognize someone you have never met.

Play “Jingle Bells,” drink egg nog, and wrap your gifts in lovely paper.  There’s nothing wrong with celebrating peace on earth and goodwill to mankind (Luke2:14).  Just remember, the world won’t always recognize Him; they won’t know Him.  But you can and you do.  Help others to look beyond snow globes, ugly sweater contests, and Secret Santa’s.

Celebrate His Birth. And laugh at the joy in the world, for it is about Him, even if the world forgets about the little alien stranger who came to dwell among us.

The Choice Mary Made

12 Dec

Did Mary have a choice?  It’s a question we were batting around at Bible study last night as we discussed chapters 3-4 of Liz Curtis Higgs latest book, The Women of Christmas.  One of the ladies in my study—an older lady from England—passionately stated, “We are discussing this as though Mary had a choice.  The angel told her that she would bear a son and she accepted it.  What matters is how she accepted it.”  As the Bible study leader (and usually the youngest woman in the room), it delights me when one of the ladies in my group surprises me with stunning insight.  This was one of those moments.  We continued our discussion, but the words of this woman stayed with me far into the evening.  I am still pondering it.

What matters is how Mary accepted it.

Let’s take a quick look at Mary’s angelic encounter.  Luke 1: 26-28 (NIV) records the event:

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.  But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be calledthe Son of God.  Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month.  For no word from God will ever fail.”

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

Mary only asks one question: How will this be since I am a virgin?  She doesn’t say, “Why me?!” or “Are you kidding me?  Where’s the hidden camera?”  Only one question is recorded—how?  In The Women of Christmas,   Liz Curtis Higgs draws out this point considering that perhaps Mary’s youth made her less cynical, more hopeful, and more wide-eyed with wonder.  In this case, Mary let her words be few, while her cousin Zechariah the priest needed a sign when Gabriel appeared to him in the temple and told him that his barren wife, Elizabeth, would also bear a son. Zechariah was struck mute (and perhaps deaf) by the angel until the birth of the baby who would one day be called John the Baptist.  I suppose that was definitely a sign, but probably not the one Zechariah was hoping for.  (I try not to judge Zechariah too harshly because I’m not sure how I would react to an angelic visitor, especially since God hadn’t delivered a word to His people in 400 year silence between the Old and New Testament writings.)

I don’t know if Mary could have said no or what would have happened if she did say no.  This is one of those situations where I’m not sure how free will and God’s will intertwine.  God created Mary, so He undoubtedly already knew how she would react to Gabriel’s proclamation that she would be the virgin to bear the long-awaited Messiah.

But what if she had said no?  Could Mary have said, “No, you’ve got the wrong girl”?  Would there have been a Moses-like moment where God said that He created her womb, like He created Moses’ mouth?  If she had tried to flee, would God have brought her back with a Jonah and the big fish sort of event?  Could Mary have wrestled with an angel like Jacob? 

If Mary had said no, what would that mean for us?  Who would’ve carried the long-awaited Messiah?  Would we still be waiting for the God Man to break humanity’s curse? 

Of course, that’s if she could say no.  What choice did she have?  And here’s where the Word hits me in the heart because while it seemed that Mary was the girl chosen for the task, she did have a choice in how she would handle her situation.  She could’ve despaired about what Joseph might do, what her parents might think, and what the other women in Nazareth might say about her as they gossiped around the town well.  Undoubtedly, being human, Mary  may have had all these questions and concerns.  Her response though—a question and the acceptance that she was the Lord’s servant—is probably not the same reaction I would have.

I would think about what everyone would think of me my perfect plans for my good life had been ruined.  This isn’t what I want God and I don’t know why You would ask me to do this, to go through this, to live with this.    I can’t do this, God.  You’ve got the wrong girl.

Notice Gabriel’s words in Luke 1:27.  In the NLT version, Gabriel says, “For nothing is impossible with God.” He didn’t say nothing is impossible for God; he says with God.  God could do it all by Himself, but He chooses to do it with us, even in spite of ourselves.

With God, the impossible is possible for me.  For you.  For Mary.  For Elizabeth.

Perhaps I could take a cue from Mary, only a young teenager at this point in the story.  Instead of bemoaning my life’s circumstances, perhaps I could say, “How, God, will we do this together?” and “OK, God, I am Your servant.” I imagine that would make all the difference in how I react to various circumstances that come my way.

Often times we don’t get to choose what diseases befall us, what those closest to us will do to cause us pain, or how the world will beat us up.  But we can choose how we react, knowing and trusting nothing escapes God’s loving attention.  When baby Jesus was finally born and presented in the temple, Mary was told her blessing was a double-edged sword.  Her heart would be pierced, just as her Son would be pierced for our transgressions.  My sins and yours.  The world’s greatest gift also came with huge responsibility, pain, and suffering.

The choice, dear friends, is how we react, what we do with what God has given us—the good and the bad.  May we have the courage, like Mary, to say, “I am the Lord’s servant.”

Santa, Elf on a Shelf, and Missing the Point

3 Dec

Because this overindulgent Elf on a Shelf picture says it all…and it’s funny.

When I was a kid, there was no Elf on a Shelf and the threat of “you’d better behave or Santa won’t bring you anything” was rarely used in my house.  But there was a little game my father and I used to play called “put the crazy 70’s elves in silly places and laugh our heads off.”  Yes, we owned several of those freaky little elves with the vacant smiles (like these).  The elves would appear in various places during the holiday season–on the toilet, hanging on door frames, ripped apart by our Yorkshire terrier (I don’t think that one was planned), and so on.  Certainly we didn’t have the creativity that parents are now using these days with Elf on a Shelf and yet it was enough.  A few years ago, I even though of purchasing a couple of those wacky old elves on eBay for nostalgic purposes, but alas, nostalgia isn’t cheap. (And neither is Elf on a Shelf, almost $30 for a plastic elf and a book?!  Seriously?!)

Maybe it’s because I’m not a parent, but Elf on a Shelf bothers me and not just because you can buy a skirt to accessorize the elf and turn “him” into a “her.”  (I’ve been informed there are now female elves.  Whew!) I’m not even sure how to feel about Santa Claus anymore.   It may sound unholy, but as a kid I was much more excited about getting presents from Santa Claus than the birth of baby Jesus.  I mean, I was glad to hear about His birth and liked wearing a pretty dress at Christmas.  I was taught about the importance of Jesus year after year; it’s just that the presents (like Barbies and My Little Ponies and video games) given in honor of His birthday were more exciting.  Christmas meant a lot of things, but mostly, I’d get stuff.  A lot of stuff.  And have a week off from school.

As an adult, I still get excited about Christmas.  I mean, I’ve got holiday shopping sprees, big church productions, light displays, cookie exchanges, and heartfelt movies about the true meaning of Christmas (which is usually involve meeting Mr. Right or being with family).  I pause to ask myself, is this what the holiday season is *really* about?  I mean, we all remember the Christ child.  Some of us even make a semi-annual pilgrimage to church on Christmas Eve or put up a little nativity scene among all the other inflateables and what not in the front yard’s December light extravaganza.

But what does any of this have to do with the Savior of the world being born?

Scholars don’t even think He was born in December!  It is far more likely Jesus entered the world in the spring time.  The stable was most likely glorified hole in the wall (no, seriously, like a cave) and the wise men didn’t show up until at least a year or two after Jesus’ birth by which time the holy family was living in a house.  Recently, I heard on the radio that Jewish custom always made room for visitors, so it’s more than likely the inn keeper could have made room for Mary and Joseph at the inn.  I mean, who puts a teenager in labor in the barn?  The commentator said perhaps news of the out of wedlock pregnancy went ahead of the young couple and while there may have been room for others at the inn, Mary and Joseph were simply not welcome. (Incidentally,  the song “Just a Girl” by Brandon Heath puts an interesting spin on what may have been the innkeeper’s inner monologue and seems to support this theory.)  Like I’ve said before (read The Awestruck Apathy of Christmas), the real event was sweaty, painful, and dirty…yet miraculous, even scandalous.  Perhaps it was easier for Mary and Joseph to stay in Bethlehem with baby Jesus because their families simply didn’t understand God’s plan (I mean, they traveled to Bethlehem to the census, but we don’t know why they stayed there.)  The Bible doesn’t tell us how either family reacted, only that Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist believed Mary’s story.

It’s not that I’m against “Happy Birthday, Jesus” merchandise or photos with Santa or even Elf on a Shelf.  I like my church’s Christmas musical and appreciate a good cookie exchange.  I just wonder, like I do every year, if we’re shoving Jesus out of the our inns as well.  Sure, we  give Him a place out back in the stable.  We’ll say we’re keep the “Christ” in “Christ-mas” and refuse to say “Happy Holidays,” just “Merry Christmas,” but are we really seeking Him?  Are we setting out on journeys like the wise men who followed that star for a year or more, even when the sandstorms whirl around us in the desert, even when we feel like we can’t go on, even when it seems like we’ll never get there (wherever “there” is)?

(This version of “Star of Wonder” by JJ Heller is one of my favorites.  One day I’ll work up the courage to sing it in church!)

I don’t want to miss the point anymore.  I can do all the things I’m “supposed” to do–go to church, buy a present for a needy kid, drop money in the Salvation Army kettle, and say it’s all about Jesus.  I can also live my life on autopilot–say all the right church things, do all the right Christian things, and go through all the motions.  None of that gets me back to a dirty, stinky manger in the small town of Bethlehem.  On the night God came down, all of Heaven watched the sight, but people barely noticed.  Only the lowliest of shepherds paid honor to the King of the Universe.

And I don’t want to get excited about Jesus’ birth because it’s Christmas; I want to be excited about the reality of what He did every single day of my life!  God wrapped himself in human flesh to save you, me, and everyone else!  Can you think of a greater story?  I can’t even imagine it!  Then we, humankind, actually kill God-in-human-flesh and it’s all part of His plan to save humanity from the curse we brought upon ourselves.  Admittedly, I’d go for a happier tale with rainbows and glitter (lots of glitter).  Not being kept hostage to death, Jesus miraculously rises from the dead and then ascends to His Father promising to return.  So, we wait.  Again.  It seems that life is an eternal advent, doesn’t it?

In the meantime, we play hide-and-seek with elf dolls and watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”   We sing songs about an elderly gent who is always watching us and has a sleigh of flying reindeer.  I could say that we should get rid of everything that isn’t about Jesus and His birth, but I’m not even sure Jesus would say that.  It’s interesting we have so much fanfare around an event that went unnoticed by so many.

I wouldn’t trade those elf hiding days with my father for anything or dressing up as a shepherd for the children’s Christmas play (even though I wanted to be an angel) or even my belief in Santa Claus because it led me here.  It came with candlelight services, “O Holy Nights,” live nativities, and the reading of the Bible, yet it was so much more.  It gave way to Easter celebrations in which Christmas paled in comparison.   Even then, I was pretty excited to get candy and wear a pretty dress, but I understood there was something far greater going on.

In the backdrop of holiday madness, there is something far greater going on.  As so many bumper stickers used to say, “Wise men (and women) still seek Him.”  Every day, wholeheartedly, they chase after Him and seek to know Him more.  Isn’t that the true meaning of Emmanuel–God With Us–to be with Him?  While you’re looking for that silly little elf, don’t forget to dust off your grandmother’s nativity and seek what or rather Who truly matters.

Let’s talk about it…how have you missed the point?  What traditions do you like to keep alive in your family?  What are you doing to remember Jesus’s birth as a holy event?  How are you seeking after Him today?

Love in the Time of Vomit

17 Sep

Yesterday I had the chance to spend some time with my long-time friend, Beth.  We reconnected after a God-given encounter at my church.  It was reunion that has led to deeper ministry opportunities for both of us, which is why I cannot call this a “chance encounter.”  It was truly a God-appointed meeting.

I walked into Beth’s house and found toys scattered about, her two of her three kids enthusiastically bouncing about, and a baking project that was started, but not finished on the kitchen counter.  “We were going to make you caramel apple brownies,” said Beth with a playful giggle.  She shrugged her shoulders as if to say, “This is my life, every bit of it…and I love it. Welcome to Mommyhood!”

Mommyhood seems tough.  I am fully convinced stay-at-home mom’s are warriors.

As the kids warmed up to me, Beth and I began talking about what we’ve been doing since we last talk, really talked.  She had three kids (a couple born with challenging medical conditions), wrote a book, and a few Bible studies.  And I graduated from seminary, got sick, walked away from church, came back to church, and am involved in full-time volunteer ministry.  We talked about some of the heartaches spelling out “adult” words to protect innocent little ears.  We shared from our hearts, the way only two old friends can do.  There’s something in my soul said, “Where were you?  I needed to have this conversation.  Today.  With you.”

Beth explained how mommyhood has changed her and made her a much less selfish person as we watch her son jump from a chair into a pile of pillows.  “There’s no point in having new furniture with small children,” she told me as she instructed her son to use a sofa cushion to create a softer, safer landing spot.  “Boys are just going to jump off things, so I try to find ways to make it safer.” And jump he did.

She learned about mothering early in her marriage to my dear friend, Chris.  Inheriting a daughter from a previous marriage, Chris and Beth had visitation with “Emily” every other weekend.  During one meeting, Emily’s mom said that Emily wasn’t feeling well and sure enough, Emily soon vomited all over herself and started crying.  Beth tried to comfort Emily without getting puke on her expensive leather jacket.  Realizing how ridiculous she was being, Beth threw her leather jacket in the back of the car, gathered the crying, pukey girl in her arms, and comforted her getting vomit all over herself in the process. 

The story struck me, not only because I hate vomit, but because that’s what ministry is like.  Oh, we think of all the great things that will happen, the souls that will be saved, the Bible studies we’ll lead, the conference speakers we’ll get.  At the end of the day, ministry is standing in the church parking lot until 11 PM with a crying woman who doesn’t know if her husband loves her or praying with a distraught church member in the middle of Wal-mart.  Sometimes ministry is getting the vomit of someone else’s life all over you because they need a comforting hug of encouragement.

As I’m writing, I can’t help but think of Jesus, who came to earth to clean up the vomitous mess we made.  Hanging on a cross for my sin—my vomit—so that I could go free.  What love the Father has lavished on us that we should be called children of God!  What love, indeed! 

I wonder what God thinks when we jump off chairs onto pillows—does He make the landing safer for us?  When our big brother steals our stuffed unicorn, does He hold us when we cry?  Does He laugh when we toddle around the room trying to dance to a Newsboys song?  Does God, our Father, treasure us as much as Beth treasures her precious children?  I believe so. 

Adventures in Mommyhood are as much a lesson in cleaning up kid vomit as they are in ministering to our children (or our friends’ children), to those around us, and a startling revelation in how our Perfect Father deals with His very imperfect children.  Because He first loved us, we can extravagantly love others, mess and all.  In fact, it’s those who are crying, covered in sickness that most need our comfort, even if it means throwing our leather jacket of ministry expectations in the trunk of our “rescue vehicle”.  Let’s take a lesson from the One who put aside His glory to be born as a baby so He could take our sickening vomit away forever. 

Really God

24 Aug

This morning I was checking out my women’s ministry’s private Facebook group and one prayer request stuck out.  After a long time of waiting, a friend’s family hit a snafu.  Just when it seemed like God had finally responded, that the trial was finally over, there came to a bump in the road.  Normally, it would be a minor-to-somewhat major inconvenience, but after what this family has endured, it seems like one more detour, one more thing to offer up to God’s throne with shaking hands.

And, yes, it will be OK.  God will work all this out in His timing.  Everyone knows this and finds great comfort in the all-embracing loving arms of God.

Yet there’s this part of me that just says, “But really, God?!  Are you kidding me with this?”  Because I’ve been there, done that, and know the frustration these “minor” things can bring.

Just when it seems like you’re leaving Egypt after generations of slavery, there’s a snag—oh, it’s the Red Sea!  I guess we Israelites, God’s chosen people, are going to be slaughtered right here by the Egyptian army, even though Pharoah pinky swore with Moses to let us go.

But really, God?!

Or you FINALLY get that son that God promised you, even though you’re 100 and your wife is 80!  It’s about time You made good on that promise God, because Sarah and I aren’t getting any younger.  Now You want me to sacrifice my only son?!  The one you blessed me with in my old age? 

Are you kidding me, God?

Maybe you’ve been bleeding for a dozen years, which is, well, embarrassing to say the least.  Thank goodness for those BOGO 50% off female product sales at CVS because you’ve spent all your money seeing one specialist after another.  Your family is tired of hearing about it, and frankly, you smell.  So you take a chance, just one chance, to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment because you’re desperate.  To be found “unclean” among this crowd of religious folks could mean death, but you need healing…and you get it.  You hear a voice rise above the others, “Who touched me?  I know someone touched me.  Who was it?”

Umm, it was me? (All the while giving yourself a mental beating; you’ve been found out and you will probably die.)

Jesus seemed like a safe choice, until now.  But then He looks at you with those eyes of compassion and He listens to your story, which you tell through sobs.  Jesus takes His own hand and wipes the tears from your eyes.  Then He does something you didn’t expect; He forgives your sins, too. 

Really God. 

You’re a little more quiet this time.  Your voice takes on a sense of awe.  Because the Red Sea has parted, so you cross on dry ground (you didn’t even have to muddy up your sandals).  There’s a ram in the bushes to offer as a sacrifice to the Lord, instead of your precious baby boy, for He always provides.  You feel silly, foolish, and relieved that this wasn’t the one thing that broke your faith.  He’s been good, very good, but sometimes you forget because it’s hard to remember what He’s done when you’re in the midst of chaos, or even at the tail end of a long trial.

This is a lesson for me today, for my heart, which is weary and trampled upon from a week of “Really, God’s?!”  I know in this, as in all things, I’ll have that jaw-dropping moment of realization when I see how He uses these bad circumstances for the greater good.   He’s really God and He is in control of all things, including the “little” moments that splinter my resolve.

He is fully, divinely, amazingly, always and forever really God.

What’s your “But really, God?!” moment?  How did you come to see God as really God?  How can I pray for you in the midst of these momentary troubles? (I am not making light of your plight, just trying to look at things with the view of eternity in mind.)

She Is Beloved

21 Jun

If I ever did get a tattoo, it would say, “Beloved.”

So I’ve been busy, and I actually mean it!  No, not languishing away on my couch the victim of depression or hiding in bed because of anxiety, not even my formerly broken/still healing foot is holding me back…all that much anyway.  I’m busy in the Lord, which is so much better than being busy for busyness’ sake.

When I started going to Bethany Church in November, I never knew how it would transform my life–not only locking me into community with God’s people, but giving my sad life more purpose than it has felt  in years, than it’s had since I left the church in fall 2004. 

Oh, I’ve tried to pursue other interests, passions, and loves away from the Church, but they’ve all fallen short.  Yet some sustained me for a while, yet nothing truly satisfied.  I was spiritually dehydrated, emotionally broken, and physically falling apart because I held onto bitterness, unforgiveness, and oh, how I raged against God!  I rejected the arms of the One who longed to provide me comfort.  It may not have changed my circumstances; it would have changed my response to those hardships.  Still, God is picking up all the broken pieces, gathering them into His heart, and using them for His glory.  I love a God who can make beauty rise from the ashes.

Those of you who have been reading my blog for years know how I longed for community, yet made excuses for why I couldn’t go to church.  Believe me, the horrible panic attacks upon entering a church building didn’t help.  I want you to know that I understand those of you who have given up on church.  I know what it’s like to sleep until noon on Sunday mornings and feel a small pang of guilt for not going to church because it seems like the “right” thing to do. (All the while Keith Green’s lyric, “Jesus rose from the dead and you can’t even get out of bed,” played in my head.) I know you’ve been hurt, scarred, and the last place you want to go on Sunday is to church.

Go anyway.

And if you’re just not ready, know that God will come find you, His little lost lamb.  He will come to you, cradle you in His loving arms, and led you back to the flock.  I am praying for you, beloved, even if I don’t know your name.  I am praying for you because God knows Your name, for it is engraved on His palms. (If you want me to personally pray for you or encourage you, please shoot me an email.)

He is calling your name, “beloved.” Not only are you precious to the heart of God, but so is His Beloved Bride, the Church.  I am beloved.  You are beloved.  And she is beloved as well. 

Hear His voice, respond to His call, and come home!  The door is always open and our light will never burn out, for We are the Church, the Beloved Bride of Christ.

We are the beloved ones!

Amy’s NoteI am writing this to myself as much as I am writing it to you because I want to remember why I need my church, fellowship, and other Christians with which to “do life.”  If you want to pray for me, please ask God to protect my little heart and strengthen my spirit, that I may be used as a conduit for His glory and honor and renown.  Thank you, faithful prayer warriors! 

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