January 29, 2009

How Great is Our God

“God is great.” We say it. We sing in. But once in a while we experience it. And we see a God who’s way bigger than the walls of our church. Who spans generations, demographics, ethnicity and denominations. Who simply Is. In those moments our souls see Truth and know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, we’re undeniably connected by something—someone—amazing.

That’s how it was on Sunday night when my two girlfriends and I went to the Chris Tomlin concert. People of all ages and walks of life, including some of my other church friends, joined together in a Philadelphia nightclub (where who-knows-what went on the other six nights of the week) to hear this phenomenal talent and modern-day hymnist do what he does best. We were strangers united by praise.

Chris Tomlin has a heart for worship that’s intoxicating. The crowd enthusiastically clapped and sang along to every song. For over two hours, the band held us captive to His presence.

If you didn’t know, Chris Tomlin wrote the beloved worship anthem, “How Great is Our God” and has sung it all over the world, in many different languages. There’s something about his simple lyrics that binds our souls to the Almighty in a way few songs do.

As I joined the crowd singing with full voice and hands raised, I realized this song woven into the fabric of my Christian walk. I recalled all the different places, and with all the different brothers and sisters in Christ with which I’ve sung it:

  • First, as a new believer in an Alpha course where I received the words, so fresh and vibrant.

Then, in the years that followed:

  • with my church family on many occassions,
  • with future Alpha classes as I helped shepherd new believers,
  • with tens of thousands of women at Women of Faith conferences,
  • with 30,000 youth at Creation Northeast,
  • around the campfire as my husband strummed it on his guitar,
  • in my car as I sang along with the radio,
  • and most recently with the inmates we minister in prison.

One song. One voice. One God. One amazing Love.

How great is our God that no matter how different we may look, worship, live, or speak, we are bound together, you and I, by the only One who can bridge our sometimes massive difference. When I stop to ponder its magnitude, the power of the cross leaves me breathless.

“The whole congregation of believers was united as one—one heart, one mind! They didn't even claim ownership of their own possessions. No one said, 'That's mine; you can't have it.' They shared everything. The apostles gave powerful witness to the resurrection of the Master Jesus, and grace was on all of them.” (Acts 4:32-33, Message)

On Sunday night, as I have on all those other occasions, I marveled in the awesome fact, that though my life is just a speck in this world, the God of the universe will receive me in His presence.

Watch this video and take a moment to worship the God who was, and is, and always will be. And marvel in the reality, that as a follower of Christ, you are part of the story.

Chris Tomlin, “How Great is Our God”

Random Concert Quote:
“You don’t have it all together. And I don’t have it all together.
But we have a God who HOLDS it all together.”

-- As said by Chris Tomlin on 1/25/08 at the Electric Factory in Phila.

January 23, 2009

Entering In

The more I mature on this journey with Jesus, the more I see the immaturity of my ways—and the awesomeness of Calvary. Just when I think I’ve reached an area of comfortable understanding, Whew! I can rest in this realization for a bit. I am challenged yet again to remove the boundaries I’ve erected. The discrete edges I venture toward become doorways leading to a deeper level of understanding. And another. And another. There is simply no fencing in the Almighty.

Trying to pin down God is like trying to put your finger on a drop of mercury. The harder you try, the more beads split from the first and scoot away.

For me, when understanding comes, my actions usually lag far behind. The pull of old habits, thoughts and behaviors protect the status quo. And while the strings of my heart are irrevocably tied to our Savior, the thoughts of my mind still focus on me. My transformation. My needs. My deliverance. Yes, Lord you can use me, but will you fix me first? I can wait.

It can be frustrating —not knowing where the “end” is. We want to set up house and get comfortable. Yet, as much as we might want to, it’s not the point. As Peter commands, “…grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:18) This knowledge comes not from our learning OF God, but from our experience WITH God. We may squirm and yearn for the safety of the status quo, but as we venture into the embrace of our Heavenly Father, our submision leads to vibrancy, depth and fullness of faith.

I’ve been reading Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest. If you want to shake up your faith and start finding doors all over the place, start reading this classic. Every day Chambers points out facets of our Redeemer I hadn’t considered. Every day he shows me what “more of you, less of me” actually looks like. Let me tell you, I've been doing my fair share of squirming!
On the first page, he writes, “Paul says, ‘My determination is to be my utmost for His Highest.’ To get there is a question of will, not of debate nor of reasoning, but a surrender of will, an absolute and irrevocable surrender on that point…Shut out every other consideration and keep yourself before God for this one thing only—My Utmost for His Highest. I am determined to be absolutely and entirely for Him and for Him alone.”

I challenge you to look for doors in the boundaries you’ve set for God. Open them and take a step into the unknown. Offer your utmost for His highest. It may not be easy, but the risk is always worth the reward.
"I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have
sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body,
whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain."
(Phil. 1:20-21)

January 20, 2009

Anchored in 2009

It's Tuesday and time for another installment of What's on Your Mind '09 at Heart Reflections. Today Shane asked we share our anchor verse for 2009. I've seen others do this on their blogs, but have never selected a theme verse before. Thanks for the nudge, Shane.

Based on my recent posts on emptying and New Year's resolutions, my prayer for 2009 is boldness—to walk confidently on the path God's placed me and to grow where I'm planted. I feel God's blessed me with unique opportunities to influence others and spread His message. It's exciting, but my tendency, however, is to sit on the edge and enjoy the view. Sure it's a great view, but each of us needs to get up and get involved in whatever "it" is that God's put you in.
Therefore, my verse for 2009 is Isaiah 61:1:

Choose Words Wisely

Today's entry is for "Yes to God!" Tuesdays

Words matter.

Not just the words we write or the words we say to others, but the words we say to ourselves. Why is it we can receive 50 compliments and one criticism, and it’s the negative we believe? See, I knew all along that’s how I really am. Everyone else was just being nice.

This is S.O.P for me. How many compliments or affirmations have I received only to toss them aside because a few negative comments seemed to hit the real truth? I fill my thought closet with untruths, pulling out just the right outfit of self-condemnation for the occasion. They’re like familiar friends (or as the saying goes, with friends like this, who needs enemies?). Who cares if most of these “garments” are out-of-fashion, threadbare or too small? They’re mine. All mine.

My friend’s single moms’ Bible study just started studying Jennifer Rothschild’s Self Talk, Soul Talk. Knowing my inner dialogue she recommended I read the book. Then when Lelia at Write from the Heart announced the same book for her online Bible study, I felt God give me a nudge. Go ahead, give it a try.

Because of all the chaos in my life with our home renovation and my deconstructed office, I missed the first two weeks, but I’ve been reading along. This week we’re on chapter 3.

Each of us runs a soundtrack, both good and bad, inside our souls. Sometimes it’s a whisper. Other times it’s a high-decibel assault. According to Rothschild, “The thoughts that run through our minds become the inventory we store away in our closets. And out of that inventory we daily draw truth or error—powerful, life-shaping beliefs that go on to influence both our feelings and our actions.”

While we can’t remove the negative thoughts, hurtful memories and untruths from our minds, with God’s power in us, we can defuse their ability to control us. (The way I see it, it’s our only chance.)

And it all starts with wisdom.

Our behavior (the fruits we display) is rooted in something deeper. As Jennifer says, “Our assumptions are the root, and our thoughts are the fruit. The root of wrong thinking is always faulty assumption. The root of right thinking is always an assumption based on truth…The fruit of hypersensitivity grows from the root of pride and an unhealthy level of self-conscious thinking…The fruit of perfectionism springs from the root of low self-esteem or insecurity.”

Defensiveness, anger, loneliness, intolerance. These fruits all grow from an unhealthy root? Hmmm, I hadn’t thought of it that way.

Change can start when we’re able to identify our “roots.” According to Rothschild, the way to this wisdom is threefold:

  • Ask God for wisdom. “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.” (James 1:5)

  • Choose to revere God. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (Proverbs 9:10)

  • Receive wise counsel..be it from a wise friend, pastor or godly counselor. “Wisdom is with those who receive counsel.” (Proverbs 13:10)

So far, Self Talk, Soul Talk sounds good on paper, but I’m traveling its pages a bit skeptically. After all, I’ve played this negative inner dialogue for a loooooong time. Can Ms. Rothschild’s book provide an “aha!” moment and open the door to real change? I don’t know, but I’m willing to try.

Of course, in the end, this isn’t a journey I travel with the author, but one I travel with God. And I do believe, with Him all things are possible.

What about you? What's filling your thought closet? Do you want to join me for some early spring cleaning?

Parting thoughts from Jennifer’s interview with Patsy Clairmont:
- REFUSE things that are inaccurate, unkind, or unedifying.
- REPLACE them with what is good, pure and just.
- REPEAT the process
for as long as it takes to bring my thoughts under control.

January 15, 2009

From Chaos to Glory

These last eight days have been quite a whirlwind around here! Between our “minor” home renovation that turned into a major project and my adventure to Dallas I’ve been grasping to control the chaos, let alone my day-to-day responsibilities. The good news: I’m sitting at my brand-new desk in my almost-finished new room (and it’s looking great!). I promise to post pictures when we’re done, but first I want to go back a few days to when we were in the peak of disorder around here.

Perhaps Empty Me may become my theme for 2009. It’s certainly been apropos this January. In order to lay the hardwood floors, and do the other construction, in our living room and dining room we had to completely empty both rooms. (When half of one of those rooms is my office, it's no small task.) Add to that the necessary tools, supplies and equipment, our house has became an obstacle course. “Stuff” was everywhere…and I’d just gotten the house back in tip top shape as I reclaimed it from Christmas.

Did I mention we’re doing all of this work ourselves, under the expert direction of my sister who is the brains behind the operation. This isn’t a sit back and watch, and offer the workers refreshing beverages, project. No, we’ve paid for the results with our sweat equity. By the end of each day (like midnight), Dan, my sister and I are spent—emptied physically. (We’re fast tracking the project because my sister has a deadline to go back home to Florida.)

This business of transformation is hard work. It isn’t for the faint of heart, those without a desire to see it through to the end, or those who need continual order. If you don’t believe me, here’s the view to our front door last week. (This area usually has nothing in it except a coat rack by the front door.) It’s like an obstacle course navigating through the cluttered pathways in our house.

But today, I finished assembling my desk and began the process of putting the piles of "stuff" away. This is when the fun starts and we can see the rooms coming to life.

The Bible says, “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corin. 3:18) … AND …
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” ( Corin. 5:17)

The transformation promised by Jesus is beautiful and miraculous. For me, it’s the hope of my “old” becoming “new” that spurs me on. But, transforming into the likeness of Christ is hard work. It shakes up our ordered lives. It requires perseverance. It's uncomfortable and often messy. And it takes time—a long time. However, God won’t do it all while we sit back and offer beverages. We’ve got to roll up our sleeves and participate in the process. He directs, we follow. We take down, He builds up. We empty, He fills.

If our home renovation is any indication, the work is hard, but the results are more than worth the effort.

Holy Fire burn away,
my desire for anything
that is not of you and is of me.
I want more of you and less of me.
--From "Empty Me" by Jeremy Camp

January 14, 2009

A Surprise Christmas Adventure (continued).

Well…Did you guess what my adventure was? Give up?

(10:15a.m.) Right now, I’m sitting in the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport waiting for my flight home. I have some time, so, here’s the story…

In the spirit of the Advent Conspiracy, Dan and I agreed to greatly limit our gifts to one another. Certainly we had presents under the tree, mostly for the kids, but our piles were noticeably smaller than years past. And I was happy with that.

On Christmas morning, our carefully laid plan worked surprisingly well. Less seemed like plenty.
And then Dan surprised me with one last present. What does he have up his sleeve this time? It wasn't part of the plan.

First a bit of back story. A few months ago, I submitted a story for a book compilation. I poured my heart into it and felt uncharacteristically confident about my chances. I sent it off and waited. And waited.

A few weeks before Christmas, I received the email I’d patiently anticipated. This is it! The moment I’ve been waiting for. I skimmed the list announcing the accepted authors and stories. I went back to the top and looked again. And again. My name wasn’t there. I worked so hard and felt so sure. The weight of disappointment pinned me to my chair as the reality of my first major rejection sunk in. Devastated I went up to my room and wept. How can this be? I felt so good about it. I don’t even want to write anymore!

Seeing my heartache, Dan offered comfort as best he could. For the next few days, he wondered what he could do to life my spirits and offer encouragement. An idea sparked. (When the spirit of creativity moves Dan, watch out!) The spark germinated into an idea. An idea into a plan. A plan into a present.

So, that’s how I came to open this surprise gift on Christmas morning. My mind swirled with the possibilities; what could it be? Inside the box was a mini-book, beautifully designed and professionally written by Dan himself. (Honestly, on its own the book itself was quite a present!)

Bottom line, the book contained an adventure that was inspired by Dan’s desire to keep me encouraged in writing. To that end, he reached out to one of my favorite writers, Mary DeMuth, and presented her with an idea. Mary enthusiastically embraced the concept and the two of them devised a plan. Dan arranged every detail: the flight, rental car, hotel and dinner reservation. All I had to do was follow his instructions.

So that’s how last night I found myself at a wonderful restaurant situated on a beautiful lake in Rockwall, Texas enjoying dinner with a writer whose words reach me in a way no other writers’ do.

I was and am still amazed that despite her busy schedule Mary agreed to Dan’s proposition. That's what kind of person she is. Despite her writing credentials, Mary is incredibly down-to-earth and "real." In her heart she's a girl who loves Jesus who knows she's saved by grace like the rest of us. Her accomplishments don’t shield her from the struggles we all face. And what delights me about Mary as a writer--her authenticity and honesty--is what delights me with her as a person.

Our time at dinner flew as we chatted on a wide variety of topics and before I knew it, it was time for our next stop: Mary’s monthly writer’s critique group. Several of the women in the group are published authors so I got to see up close and personal what really excellent writing looks like--and how far I have to go! Listening to their critique of my writing showed me things I don't know if I'd ever figure out on my own. During the others' critiques I tried to keep up and soak it all in because who knows if I’ll get an opportunity like this again!

Almost as quickly the night started it was over. I returned to my hotel, my head brimming with the evening’s happenings. What a day!

As I await my flight to return home, I take with me the richness of this experience. I’m encouraged as a writer to take the next step, but I know no shortcuts exist. Writing is hard work. I also return home affirmed by the fact that in my husband God has blessed me abundantly. I am in awe.

Thank you, Mary for your generosity and friendship. Thank you, Dan for your love.

January 13, 2009

A Surprise Christmas Adventure

I'm near Dallas right now on an adventure. It was a surprise Christmas gift from my husband. I'm too tired now to adequately reveal the story.

Can you guess what it is? Hint: I'm only here for one night and it has to do with writing.

Stay tuned and I'll fill you in on the details in the next day or two. :-)

January 7, 2009

Empty Me

We're in the middle of a remodel of my living room and dining room. Right now my desk, stripped bare, rests on the last bit of carpet in the living room, like an island. I'll probably be offline for a day or two (GASP!). But, I'm excited for the change and am sure the end result will be well worth all of the chaos.

Since I don't have time, and soon won't have a computer, I wanted to share this song, "Empty Me." The lyrics have been running through my head these last few days. I first heard it in prison last week. We sang it a capello and honestly it sounded pretty bad! The words, however, really stuck with me so I Googled the lyrics. Who knew it was a Jeremy Camp song, that actually sounds really good!

With all our talk of fresh beginnings for the New Year, the words of this song are a great place to start. They're particularly apropos for me as I've been working to empty two rooms of all of their contents. I'm a living metaphor. Doesn't God communicate in wonderfully creative ways!

Empty Me, by Jeremy Camp

January 5, 2009

A Matter of Control

How much of your life does GOD control and how much of your life do YOU control?

That’s the question posted over at Heart Reflections for the first installment of her weekly blog carnival, What’s On Your Mind in ’09. Here are my thoughts on the topic:

In control. Controlling. Control freak.

For many of us, control is something we’re reluctant to relinquish. We want to be in control—of everything. Our emotions, our finances, our schedules, our bodies, our personal style, our children, even our spouses. We want things the way we want them and we do what it takes to make things happen as planned. We often acknowledge our control “issues” but dismiss them with a “Well, that’s just the way I am” attitude.

However, we’re not quite as forgiving when we’re on the receiving end of such behavior. “She’s such a control freak!” is NOT a compliment.

According to Wikipedia, a control freak is a derogatory term for a person who attempts to dictate how everything around them is done. Professor of clinical psychology Les Parrott wrote, “Control freaks are people who care more than you do about something and won’t stop at being pushy to get their way.”

A few weeks ago Dan and I invited over a few neighbors for a pre-Christmas gathering. Before they arrived I busily made last minute preparations to get everything “just so.” Dan, the good husband that he is, offered a helping hand. But everything he did clashed with the carefully concocted plans in my head. “No! Not that way,” I squawked repeatedly. The last straw came when he lined the bread basket with a flowery, pastel napkin. A spring napkin for a Christmas party! Are you kidding me?! Upon my freaking out, he countered with equal enthusiasm, “OK…which EXACT napkin would you like me to use and how PRECISELY would you like me to place it into the basket?”

Such a fuss over a napkin. I chuckle about it now, but my desire to control is systemic. If we're honest, I’m sure each of us probably has us plenty of examples where the stakes were higher than a napkin and we held on even tighter.

Yet, where does God fit in all our planning and preparing? Are His plans an afterthought we retrofit to our carefully controlled lives? Is there even room for them at all? What happens when God's plans directly clash with our own? Because, if we’re not “in control” where does that leave us…out of control?

I know what you’re thinking, “Yeah, but God’s not going to do everything for me. I’ve got to take the bull by the horns.”

Do you?

Contrary to popular wisdom, the phrase “God helps those who help themselves” isn’t biblical. It’s pretty clear Jesus’ message wasn’t self-sufficiency. Again and again He entreats, “Follow me.” And in doing so, the follower must give up something: money, occupation, habits, plans—and most of all, control. Jesus told His disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)

So how do we balance obedience and submission with our God-given abilities, future plans and natural inclination to “just do it?”

There’s a scene in the movie Facing the Giants that sums it up:

The main character, Coach Taylor, is at the end of his rope. Everything in his life is falling apart. No matter what he how he tries to control his situation, bad news awaits at every turn. He’s praying but doesn’t see God at work in his life.

In the movie’s pivotal scene, Coach Taylor’s wise spiritual mentor tells him, “You have an open door here and until the Lord moves you, you are to bloom right where you’re planted.”

To illustrate he shared a story of two farmers who desperately needed rain. Both prayed for rain, but only one of them prepared his field to receive it. The mentor asked, “Which one trusted God to send the rain? ...Which one are you? ...God will send the rain when he’s ready. You need to prepare your field.”

As a follower of Christ, you and I are just that—a follower. God’s planted each of us in a specific place, with specific gifts and specific circumstances. Our job is not to control the outcome, or even co-pilot, the venture. It’s to prepare our fields. God will send the rain.

Do you trust Him?

January 1, 2009

Incarceration, Redemption...and, a Resolution

Tuesday evening I joined our group, six of us this time, at the maximum-security correctional facility for our weekly worship service. As has been the case with each visit, we all took out much more than we brought in.

Our footsteps echo as we navigate the now-familiar cavernous corridors. The linoleum's high gloss luster that proudly shines in the lobby gradually gives way to a dull, worn finish that speaks volumes as we travel further into the prison. Passing through a series of secure holds we make our way to our destination—the “chapel.”

Once there, the sparse, but thoughtful posters and wall decorations, and rows of cheap, but neatly-aligned, plastic chairs clearly define the purpose of this otherwise generic cinderblock room.

Soon a few men enter, and then a few more. The trickle becomes a steady stream. All wear identical light blue shirts and seemingly one size fits all (or none) black pants. Sneakers seem to be an allowed accessory of choice. Some share easy smiles, friendly conversation and warm handshakes as they file in. Others enter cautiously, avoiding eye contact and quickly look for a place to sit. A few kneel in front of their chair and pray. I recognize a few of the faces from previous visits.

Within moments, singing and shouts of praise paint this sparse room with glory. Glory that defies our geography and demographics. Honestly, I hadn’t wanted to come tonight—I just didn’t feel like it. But now I see it’s exactly where I need to be.

I don’t know exactly why, but worshipping here makes so much that’s blurry in my day-to-day life come into sharp focus. I see Jesus more vividly. Grace becomes less of a concept and more of a reality. And I become acutely aware of all I’ve been given.

Somehow, despite the incredible limitations on the inmates’ personal freedom there is a sense of victory and boldness about some of them. Each day there is very little they can choose—but they can choose Jesus. And doing so sets them free in a way prison walls can’t contain.

The night ends with half-dozen men accepting Jesus as their savior, allowing each of them to go back to their cells with their own personal key to freedom.

With the service over, the six of us return to our cars and our lives on the “outside.” But before parting ways, we pause in the trash-strewn parking lot, under the noisy interstate to pray. As we gather in a circle and hold hands, the frigid winter air visibly carries the breaths of our hearts upward.

On my turn, I pray for boldness. Because even though I’m obviously not physically incarcerated, I often live like I’m in a cell—in a prison of my own making, restrained by insecurity, fear, comfort of the status quo, comparison, worry and more. I pray that we accept the key Jesus offers and live a life of confidence.

And that is my resolution for 2009. This year I resolve to be bold and confident in my faith. To step out of my cell and live in a way that gives evidence to a life that’s been set free by our Redeemer. In 2009, I want to be brave.

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
~ (Isaiah 61:1)