March 30, 2009

Waiting for Rain

Using garden activities as a spiritual metaphor are so commonplace, they’re almost cliché. But I think there’s a reason birds, gardening and nature resurface again and again—we see our Creator there. Even Jesus used lots of examples from nature in His parables.

As spring makes its reappearance, I can’t help but marvel at the tenacity, faithfulness and beauty of creation. Brown, dead earth births verdant life. Barren branches bud and bloom. Birds fill the air with song. The burgeoning landscape delights our senses. New growth brings new hope and new possibilities.

Yesterday was a beautiful spring day in these parts. I took advantage of the weather and worked in our little raised bed garden, planting seeds for lettuce and peas. It’s a small space and it didn’t take long to clear the debris, dig up invasive roots, work the soil and add some nutrients. In no time at all the fluffy rich soil was ready to receive the seeds that I sowed in neat little rows. “All we need now is rain,” I told my daughter who kept me company while I worked.

Just as I put away the last of the gardening tools, the darkening sky announced my request would be granted sooner than anticipated. Off in the distance blackness had replaced the bright blue horizon, and puffy clouds had morphed into menacing gray sentries. The setting sun cast an eerie glow over the foreboding heavens.

Dan and I sat outside to watch the oncoming storm. If we lived in a tornado area I’m certain we would’ve seen one. Yet when I turned around, the sky behind me was still sunny and peaceful. Doing a 360 I observed just about every kind of cloud and weather situation. From tranquil to tumultuous.

Soon the wind arrived, announcing the storm’s imminent arrival. Then lightning, thunder, sheets of rain and even hail descended upon us. (We’d gone inside by this point!) It seems my garden got the rain it needed…and then some.

Life can be like this. We never know when the rain will come and what form it will take. The gentle provision we expect may arrive as a violent thunderstorm or damaging hailstorm. And the situation in front of us, may not be the same behind us or to the side.

As I patiently pray for rain to end the drought I’m in, I realize I may not receive what I’m expecting, when I’m expecting it. This is something I can’t control. But, what I can control is whether the “soil” of my soul will be ready when the rain does come.

In the meantime, I can remove the debris of negative thoughts and bad habits. I can extract the invasive species of unforgiveness, disobedience and stubbornness that prevent new growth. I can nourish my soul with God’s word, worship and prayer. And I can add some seeds by spending time in life-giving Christian fellowship.

God is the gardener, not me. While I may have grand designs for a vegetable garden bursting with produce, He may have planned a tangle of wildflowers. Or an arid rock garden. Or a shade garden. I must submit and trust His holy hands.

I turned to my wise mentor, Oswald Chambers, to see what he has to say about this matter. It turns out, lots. Here are a few morsels to chew on:

“The only way we can be of use to God is to let Him take us through the crooks and crannies of our own characters…We have to get rid of the idea that we understand ourselves; it is the last conceit to go. The only One Who understands us is God. The greatest curse in spiritual life is conceit.” (My Utmost for His Highest, 1/12)

“Many of us refuse to grow where we are put, consequently we take root nowhere…If we are not experiencing the ‘much more,’ it is because we are not obeying the life God has given us…” (1/26)

“Many of us prefer to stay at the threshold of the Christian life instead of going on to construct a soul in accordance with the new life God has put within. We fail because… we put things down to the devil instead of our own undisciplined natures.” (5/20)

“Moods never go by praying, moods go by kicking. We have to take ourselves by the scruff of the neck and shake ourselves, and we will find that we can do what we said we could not. The curse with most of us is that we won’t. The Christian life is one of incarnate spiritual pluck.” (5/20)

I see with startling clarity a truth I’d rather not admit: as much as I think my life is about God, I see it is still so much about me. God hasn’t been unfaithful. I have. Perhaps my drought is at least partly (or even mostly) my own doing.

You know, I feel relief in this confession. A weight’s been lifted. Who would have thought a good shaking by the scruff of the neck (or to stay on theme: a tilling of my soil) actually helps? But it does.

While my little garden should produce a bounty of greens within 45 days, I don't know what God has planned for my life's garden in the next 45 days. . . or 45 years. But I do know that it's a work in progress. Thankfully Scripture promises “that he who began a good work in [me] will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6) It's a good thing because I think it’s going to take a while!

March 26, 2009

Even Now

Every word I write is an exploration into God’s grace!”

Yesterday, a dear writing friend shared this quote by Bonnie Grove with me. As I’ve read and reread the quote, its syllables echo against the cavernous walls heart.

Right now, writing doesn’t feel like an exploration into God’s grace, it feels like a march across the desert. It’s not that I can’t write or don’t want to, it’s that the inspiration and connection just aren't there. The well of my soul that routinely fills my bucket to overflowing now returns but a few drops. My lifespring seems tamped down to just a trickle.

It’s not just with my words. God feels distant, period. As American Idol judge, Randy Jackson might say, “I’m not feeling it dog.”

How can this be? We enjoyed such a Sprit-filled weekend at the Alpha retreat and I saw God at work in powerful ways. How can a time like this follow a time like that? Yet, even before the retreat I sensed it coming.

Have you ever had this experience?

Lots of times our faith is first sparked and then buoyed by big emotions. When we first meet Jesus, it’s a lot like falling in love. We’re excited to be around anything that has to do with Him.

But eventually we come to the end of our feelings. Old doubts start to creep in, maybe some cynicism too. Busyness encroaches and distracts. Our spiritual habits don’t bear the fruit they used to. Our souls feel parched. We wonder how we missed the signs and ended up on this valley, dry as dust.

The first time I found myself in a spiritual trough I panicked, thinking my faith hadn’t “stuck” or wondering if I’d done something wrong. It was then I learned faith is a choice, not a feeling.

C.S. Lewis describes this very experience as the Law of Undulation. He says humans aren’t able to achieve constancy and instead we operate between a series of peaks and troughs that affect all areas of our life, including our relationship with God.

As he brilliantly elaborates in The Screwtape Letters:

“[God] leaves the creature (you and me) to stand up on its own legs—to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish. It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best… [God] wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles.

[Satan’s] cause is never more in danger, than when a human, no longer desiring, but intending, to do [God’s] will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys."

Did you catch that? First of all, God uses these troughs to grow our faith. He wants teach us to walk by faith, not by sight…or by feelings. Second, the enemy is never more powerless than when we obey God as an act of our will and not as a response to the evidence and emotions of the moment.

So right now, I choose to follow. I choose to keep on keeping on even though it’s not all that rewarding. But, just as the sweet emotions don’t last forever neither will the lack of them. I know that in time the Spirit will send a fresh anointing and the feelings will return. As for my writing, perhaps God’s leading me to a new place? Maybe He wants me to pause or change direction. At the moment I’m not sure.

Do tumbleweeds blow across your faith landscape? Have heart that this too shall pass. God may be teaching you to stand on your own two feet and leading you to a new vista and a higher calling. Choose to persevere and keep on keeping on.

I’ll share the counsel my wise friend gave me today, “Claim God’s truth. Pray the Psalms. Beseech Him.” That's where I'm going to start—in Psalm 139. Maybe I’ll find that even now, time spent in this arid place is still an exploration into God’s grace — minus the exclamation point.
“Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.”
(Psalm 139:23-24)

March 23, 2009

She's So POPular

Popular [pop-yuh-ler]
1. regarded with favor, approval, or affection by people in general

The dictionary may sum up “popular” with a simple phrase, but life paints a far more complicated reality. And no where is “popularity” more complicated, or destructive, than among middle school girls.

Who’s in? Who’s out? Who’s the Queen Bee and who are the wannabes? Who’re so far out, they’ll never be in. It’s an ever-present reality of adolescence. The Queen Bees sort, shuffle and determine who worthy and who’s not. The rules are unwritten, but understood by all…eventually.

Yet with one misstep, one careless comment, one fashion faux pas you might be reassigned. The muffled giggles, cold shoulders and exaggerated eye rolls issue the verdict -- “You’re not one of us.”

“It’s better that you don’t sit at our lunch table anymore. You never really fit in with us.”

My daughter is in eighth grade. And this year she's experienced high highs and low lows. I’ve watched from the sidelines, listened, consoled, advised and cried with her. I’ve witnessed meanness that breaks my heart. It’s all an unfortunate, but painful reality of growing up. I pray the wounds don’t leave devastating scars.

I bet right now you’re recalling times in middle school or high school when you were cast out. Left behind. Dropped. Humiliated. Voted “off the island.” I know I am. I’m 43 years old and it still hurts.

Some can leave the past in their behind and laugh about it. But, far more women still bear the scars inflicted by the emotional bullying and rejection of others, and to feel like they belong. Millions of young women have eating disorders. One in four women suffers from depression or anxiety. And based on my non-scientific observation, more than 75% of women suffer from esteem and self-worth issues.

We can be so mean to one another. Advancing ourselves at the expense of others. Always competing for our place. Why? Because deep down I think we all want to fit in and be accepted, first by our parents and then by our peers. And even long past adolescence, we strive for our place in the “lifeboat.”

In his book, Searching for God Knows What, Donald Miller proposes his lifeboat theory, based on an elementary school question his class had to answer: "If there were a lifeboat adrift at sea, and in that lifeboat were a male lawyer, a female doctor, a crippled child, a stay-at-home mom, and a garbageman, and one person had to be thrown over to save the others, which person would you choose?”

Miller says he doesn’t remember who they threw overboard, but he does remember the class had no trouble deciding who had value and who didn’t.

In the lifeboat of life, each of us is constantly evaluating our and others’ worth as compared to those around us. Are we cool enough, pretty enough, stylish enough, funny enough to keep from being pitched overboard? We punish those deemed unworthy for a seat on the boat and promote others to the front row. As Miller says, “After our fall into sin, however, humankind began to suffer from a kind of compulsion to keep the number of seats in the lifeboat scarce.”

But this is so messed up! And it’s so contrary to the way God created us. As Moses says in Genesis 3, God tells us who we are in relationship to Him. Within that relationship, we are valuable and beautiful and loved. Outside of that relationship we have no worth.

Jesus came and literally turned over the lifeboat. He didn’t follow the unspoken rules of the “in” crowd. He basically said they’re rubbish. Instead, he gathered up a band of outcasts as His closest friends, broke down societal barriers and didn’t look to others for one drop of self-esteem.

When Jesus walked on water and approached his disciples, they looked on, afraid. But, He encouraged them to have faith and get out of the boat. “Come,” he invited. (Mt 14:30)

What if we choose to step out of the lifeboat and walk toward Jesus? To listen to His voice as our sole source of validation and worth. What if we teach this truth to our daughters and sons? And they do the same?

What if we aren’t supposed to have any glory of our own? What if all our glory is supposed to come from Jesus shining through us? “What if in the same way the sun feeds the plants, God’s glory gives us life? What if our value exists because God takes pleasure in us?” (p. 108)

What if. . .

March 19, 2009

The Voice of Truth

“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.” (Romans 8:1-2)

Life is hard. Sometimes I think the Christian life is harder. As if the command to stay on the narrow path isn’t challenging enough, an enemy prowls like a roaring lion looking to alter our course. To devour. To destroy. (1 Peter 5:8) From the first pages of the Bible all the way through to last, Satan is ever-present. Seeking to annihilate God’s plan and set up his own kingdom on earth, with us his loyal subjects.

Sure it’s a thought we’d probably rather not explore. After all, it’s hard enough to grasp the Holy Spirit, but now to grasp Satan. It’s too much.

But we must. Because there’s a spiritual battle and we’re the target. After a weekend like we just had with the Alpha retreat, the Devil is none too happy.

Let me pause a moment to make clear: God and Satan aren’t fighting a cosmic duel to see who prevails. Ultimately the battle has been fought and won. Jesus is the victor. (1 Corin. 15:57) But until Jesus comes again, the prince of this world seeks to expand his territory. (John 12:31)

Ever since he first appears in the Garden of Eden, Satan is a master of deception. He’s sneaky, covert. He sets out to instill doubt, fear, skepticism, confusion, worry, guilt. . . anything that takes our eyes off God. He knows our weakness and aims his flaming arrows straight into them. You know the soft spots I’m talking about.

“I lost my patience again. I’m a failure as a mom (or dad).”
“Do you really think God has a plan for
“A loving God would never allow the suffering that exists today.”
“I can’t go on that mission trip, it might be dangerous.”
“Others have so much more to offer than I do.”
“I can’t attend the retreat/go to church/volunteer, my kids have things scheduled.”

(Yes, Satan can even tangle us up with a great thing, like our families.)

In a way, understanding spiritual warfare brings me comfort. It explains why I’ve been unsuccessful in ridding some of my personal “demons.” It's not that I lack willpower, don't try hard enough or possess an irreparable character defect. It's because this battle is past my personal resources. Beyond the limits of my sufficiency. (Which, I think, is exactly where God wants us to be.)

Thankfully, I’m not (and neither are you) in this alone. God never intended us to be. After Jesus ascended into Heaven, God sent a paraclete -- one who comes alongside us, who intercedes on our behalf -- the Holy Spirit.

In Ephesians Paul shares with us the battle plan and trains us for victory:
“Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. . . Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” (6:11-17)
God gives us everything we need for victory.

I need Paul’s words today. To soak in their truth. Heed their guidance. Follow their lead. Claim their victory.

Maybe you do too.

Satan is an accuser. . . The Holy Spirit is an intercessor.
Satan is a destroyer. . . The Holy Spirit is the Giver of Life.
Satan is an adversary. . . The Holy Spirit is a consoler.
Satan is a slanderer. . . The Holy Spirit is Holy Breath.
Satan is a defamer. . . The Holy Spirit is the voice of truth.
Satan is a thief. . . The Holy Spirit is a comforter.
Satan is an enemy. . . The Holy Spirit is a helper.
Satan is a tempter. . . The Holy Spirit is a supporter.
Satan is the father of all lies . . . The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth.
Satan is the prince of the world. . . The Holy Spirit is the Lord of Grace.

There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ. None.

March 16, 2009

Streams of Living Water

Thanks for your prayers for our Holy Spirit Weekend. I wanted to share, inadequately for sure, a bit about our amazing experience.

The Alpha retreat this weekend was beyond.

Beyond my expectations. Beyond the limits of my vocabulary to adequately describe. Beyond my prior understanding of who God is.

This weekend we learned about the Holy Spirit. Who he is, what he does and how we can experience the Spirit in our own lives. It’s the part of the Trinity many Christians really don’t know much about—or resist. But oh what a difference the Spirit makes.

To use an imperfect analogy, I think the filling of the Spirit into our lives is like adding vibrant color to a pencil drawing. Or like putting gas in our car instead of trying to push it along under our own strength. Or wiping Vaseline off our eyeglasses.

One of my friends summed it up like this, “I never realized there was so much more to being a Christian than just accepting Jesus.”

In the Old Testament God gave the Holy Spirit to particular people at particular times for particular purposes. But after Jesus ascended to heaven, God poured out his Spirit the early believers at Pentecost. (Acts 2) Finally the apostles “got it.” Ever since Pentecost the Holy Spirit is available to ALL believers.

As Jesus declared, “’If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.’ By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.” (John 7:37-38)

So that is what we did this weekend. We came and drank. God freely poured out His Spirit for the thirsty. He refreshed and renewed and revived. Some traveled to the mountaintop. Others received a much needed refueling. And for a few the Spirit uncovered long-hidden struggles, brought them into the light and laid them at Jesus’ feet. The experiences were as unique as the individuals present.

It’s not often in our day-to-day that we encounter the Almighty so intimately. But on the Alpha retreat we do. Every time. That’s why I’ve been involved with the program for so long. I continually see it produce glorious fruit. I know many who encountered Jesus up close and personal this weekend will be forever changed — their faith set on fire, their lives filled with purpose, the eyes to their heart opened.

Through the many courses I’ve done, I've witnessed the way God knits us together as a community. Strangers become friends, bound together by a shared passion for Jesus. The more mature help those just taking baby steps. Infant faith blossoms. Participants become helpers. Helpers become leaders. Each group reaches out to help grow the ones that follow. It seems just as Jesus intended.

This weekend we sang Mercy Me’s song Word of God Speak. I continue to soak in those words today.
I'm finding myself in the midst of You
Beyond the music, beyond the noise
All that I need is to be with You
And in the quiet hear Your voice

Word of God speak
Would You pour down like rain
Washing my eyes to see
Your majesty
To be still and know
That You're in this place
Please let me stay and rest
In Your holiness
Word of God speak

Lord, I pray for every person who attended the Alpha retreat this weekend. Continue to invade their hearts with your life-giving Spirit. Give them rest in your embrace. Fill their lives with your purpose. And protect them from the attacks of the enemy. In Jesus’ name, amen.

For more information on the Alpha course, click the button on the right.

March 13, 2009

Pray for Us

I wanted to put up a longer post today, but I've preparing for a retreat that my church is holding this weekend and I'm organizing.

This retreat, a Holy Spirit Weekend, is part of the Alpha program (a 10-week course introducing the Christian faith) and it's called the Holy Spirit Weekend. I first did Alpha about six years ago. It was there I met Jesus, and on the retreat (six weeks into the course) I fell head over heels in love.

I'm now involved with running the program at my church (which is a story in itself) and this retreat is my eighth. I guess you could say I'm an "Alphaholic." On Saturday afteroon we have a time of intimate one-on-one prayer. It is without a doubt the most powerful experience with God I, and most involved on the course, have every had. During each retreat I have seen the Spirit move in people in a way that allows them to see Jesus as if for the first time and sets their faith on fire.

I am at a loss to adequately describe this experience, except to say I'm awed that God allows me to be part of such tangible Kingdom bulding, and that I get to share this privilege with brothers and sisters who are so dear to me—especially my husband who is back to Alpha after our first course six years ago.

I ask that you pray for the group leaders—that God fills us and uses us as a vehicle for His glory. Pray for the participants that they come with hearts to receive. And pray for the Spirit to come.

March 10, 2009

A Visit with Daisy Chain Author Mary DeMuth

Once in a while you discover an author whose words connect with a deep part of your soul. You don’t know why exactly, but they do. To me, Mary DeMuth is such an author. I’ve been a fan of hers since I stumbled upon her blog when I was a brand new blogger. Since then I’ve been a faithful follower of her blogs and her fiction novels: Watching the Tree Limbs and Wishing on Dandelions. I also had the privilege to meet Mary at the Philadelphia Christian Writers Conference and of course on my infamous trip to Dallas in January!

When the opportunity arose to participate in the blog tour for her latest novel, Daisy Chain, I jumped at the chance.

I received a copy of the book about a week ago. The story grabbed me from page one. Once again, Mary proves herself a gifted storyteller. And once again she shows she's not afraid to navigate the depths of human pain and tragedy with an honesty that refreshes, a writing style that captivates and a message that inspires.

Daisy Chain deals with tough topics and there were times when my heart ached for Jed and his sister Sissy, and anger swelled at Hap and even Jed’s mom. While the story’s themes could leave the reader feeling helpless, Mary infuses irrepressible hope and goodness.

Life in the East Texas town of Defiance is hard. It's especially difficult for Jed Pepper and his best friend Daisy Chance. Perhaps bound by a mutual understanding of their highly dysfunctional home lives, they find a safe haven in one another. They share adventures, secrets and a deep friendship—until Daisy goes missing.

As Jed comes of age during the summer of Daisy's disappearance, we meet a cast of characters so well drawn we feel like we're not just reading about them, we're walking right next to them. The characters, some deeply good and others deeply flawed, evoked genuine emotion when I read.

As Jed wrestles with issues like guilt, faith, friendship, love, suffering, death, hope and hypocrisy, we see our own struggles with these very issues. Daisy Chain eloquently explores the questions, "God, where are you in all of this? Are you listening? Do you see?" Ultimately Daisy Chain gives hope that God is good, despite external circumstances that sometimes say otherwise.

I can’t wait for the second installment of the Defiance Texas trilogy!

Now, refresh your coffee, pull up achair and sit a spell while we visit with Mary DeMuth.

Mary, when you’re writing a book like Daisy Chain, does the realness and pain you’re creating overflow into your personal life? How do you keep the two separate?
No, not usually, though I do carry the characters with me. And I’m sad when I leave them behind. It’s more in retrospect that I worry. Recently someone asked me why I would write about such darkness, wondering what my intent could possibly be. Do I want folks to dredge up all that icky stuff? Yes and no. I write about the hard stuff because it’s real, and in sharing it on the page, I am giving permission for others to acknowledge their own stories. I firmly believe that hiding our pasts will never heal us. The first step to healing comes with that first admission of truth. I don’t, however, write the icky stuff for icky’s sake. There is always the possibility of redemption. And that’s what makes my books a mixture of the darkest dark and the lightest light.

I found the setting, characters, tones and themes of Daisy Chain reminiscent of the Maranatha Series, which by the way I loved. Is this intentional?

I’ve loved southern novels, although I am not a native. There’s something haunting and beautiful about these settings that intrigues me, giving the setting an almost human characteristic.

Your novels deal honestly and gracefully with difficult topics. Do you think you’ll ever write a “lighter” book?

Ha ha ha. It’s ironic to me that I’ve enjoyed writing humorous pieces many years now, and I do infuse humor into my nonfiction and fiction though they aren’t necessarily riddled with laughter. As I consider my next projects, they are a mixture of both hard and easy, dark and light. Every author writes from what’s inside him/her. I’ve seen a lot of heartache in my life, so I tend to write with that in mind. On the other hand, because I’ve experienced these things, I’m even more passionate about showing God’s redemption in difficult things.

You’ve experienced tremendous hurt in your own life. Does writing your novels help you heal or does it dredge up the past?
It always helps me. God uses the vehicle of my writing raw to heal me. I can’t explain it, but it happens each time I write a book.

What do you hope to accomplish with this book?

I liken this book to an Oprah book, but with hope. Yes, there is darkness and meanness abounding in this world, but God’s light has a way of fully penetrating that darkness. I hope Daisy Chain cradles the reader through its deep, scary journey clear through to the end because redemption will shine brighter in the midst of darkness. That’s my own personal testimony, so it can’t help but leak out on the page.

My hope is that folks will see the need to share their family secrets in order to be set free. (A cool place to share your family secrets anonymously is I also want people to see that the Body of Christ is probably much different-looking than they first thought. Some appear holy. Others, in distressing disguises, actually are.

What mistakes do you continually see novice writers make? What do you suggest as a solution?

In novel writing, starting the story in the wrong place. New writers drop a lot of backstory into their first chapters. The real action usually starts around page 25. For nonfiction, I see an addiction to big words and flowery language instead of saying it straight. All new writers struggle (as I did) with an
addiction to was and is. Beefing up verbs is a first step to becoming an excellent writer.

Thanks, Mary!

You can buy Daisy Chain at
Hop over to Mary's new blog, Family Secrets, to see what's going on and anonymously share your family secrets.
The Daisy Chain social networking tour runs March 9-13. For more information go to Daisy Chain blog tour.

Mary DeMuth's Blog Tour Stops Here Tomorrow

Tomorrow is a big day in these parts. Mary DeMuth will stop by on her blog tour for her new book Daisy Chain.

Daisy Chain is an achingly beautiful southern coming-of-age story crafted by a bright new literary talent. It offers a haunting yet hopeful backdrop for human depravity and beauty, for terrible secrets and God’s surprising redemption.

Stop back tomorrow for a visit by Mary DeMuth and my review of the book.

March 9, 2009

What is Lent?

According to my counting we're 11 days into Lent. In the different churches I grew up in, Lent was always part of our tradition. In fact, until recently I assumed every churchgoer understood and embraced this season. Turns out I was wrong.

A while back a friend told me her church doesn't "do" seasons like Lent or Advent. Huh? Isn't it a given? I asked her why and she explained they see these seasons as traditional, not biblical. Fair enough, but I wondered how they prepared for the miracle of Jesus' birth or the suffering of Holy Week, culminating in the glory of Easter.

At my own church, even though we mark the season of Lent, I recently overheard some friends saying they really don't know what Lent is all about. On the flip side, I've seen other churches make this an extra special time using Lenten-specific worship, studies or prayer.

With all of the church to church discrepancy, I've been pondering Lent (it doesn't take much for me to ponder). I want to know your thoughts on the matter:

Why Lent?
Why do most churches celebrate Lent, but some don't? What does Lent mean? What are we supposed to do during the 40 days leading up to Easter? Is Lent strictly traditional or is it rooted biblically?

To give up or not to give up? That is the question.
Do you give something up for Lent? Why? If you don't, why not?

In my church we're not specifically encouraged to give anything up, in fact we're encouraged to take ON something that deepens our relationship with God, like extra time in devotions, Bible reading or prayer.

That said, for the past few years I've given up all forms of dessert for Lent. Not because I have to, but because I want to—and because I didn't think I could. See, I have no self-control when it comes to sweets. The first year I gave up desserts I was astounded to find that my taste for sweets disappeared immediately. I knew only God's power could effect such a change because I have NEVER been able to exercise such self-control on my own. Each Lent I've experienced the same ability to "just say no" that's way stronger than my own weak willpower!

But I wonder if this really is a good thing to do for Lent.

Everyday or extra-special?
Does your church or do you do anything extra special during Lent? Do you fast? Do a Lenten study or devotional? Or is your spiritual life business as usual?

Tell me your thoughts. I think we'd all like to know what's going on in different churches and traditions. What is does the season of Lent mean to you?

For more of thoughts on the topic, here's an article I put together for our church newsletter:

What Exactly is Lent?
If you’re like many at Woodside, you know we’re in the season of Lent, but you’re not quite sure that means. Here’s a look at Lent.

Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent. It falls 40 weekdays before Easter (Sundays aren’t counted in the 40 days of Lent). Ash Wednesday takes its name from ashes, a traditional Jewish sign of penitence. In some liturgical traditions, palm fronds or palm crosses from the previous year’s Palm Sunday are burned, and then the ashes are applied to the worshiper’s forehead on Ash Wednesday as a token of their commitment to observe a “holy Lent.”

Ancient Christian tradition was to observe Lent with fasting (a discipline of going without food at certain times), study, self-examination, confession and prayer. Many churches continue those traditions.1

Commonly, Lent is seen as a time of being “extra good” so that when Easter rolls around we feel more deserving to receive the incredible gift of Jesus’ resurrection. Often we give up something in an effort to “shape up” up our souls. By doing so, we hope that by denying ourselves and exercising willpower over our earthly, carnal appetites we’ll become more spiritual—and we’ll earn favor in God’s eyes.

But, this way of thinking does nothing to improve our relationship with God and is based on the assumption that we can overcome sin and failure by trying harder. Contrary to popular wisdom, “doing right” is not the opposite of “sin.”

Sin is distance or separation from God. It’s a condition of the heart or an expression of that condition where we are estranged from God and fail to trust Him.

There’s only one “cure” for our sinful nature—and it’s not being “good.” The cure is receiving the reconciliation that only Jesus Christ can give to us as a free gift of grace. But you need to acknowledge and accept it.

The point is this: Every single one of us is always and already loved absolutely, profoundly, and unconditionally by the God who created us and who knows us better than we know ourselves.2

Lent is a time to prepare our hearts for Easter. It’s a time to renew our commitment to Jesus, to explore anew our relationship with the Almighty, and to reflect deliberately on His great Truth. Instead of giving up something for Lent, add something like extra Bible reading, prayer or quiet time with God; fully engage in the current sermon series, The Way I Was Made; and set aside time for just you and God.

Use Lent as an opportunity to transform your faith. To open your heart, mind and soul to Jesus. And to prepare to receive the utterly incredible gift of Easter.

2, What is Lent All About? by The Rev. Dr. Robert Hansel

March 5, 2009

Audience of One


That’s what the sound of yesterday’s post sounds like. I know it’s not for lack of visitors, but the response to Have You Reached a Verdict has been uncharacteristically quiet.

It makes me wonder, was the writing subpar? Uninteresting? Confusing?

Or was the topic too heavy? Do we struggle with the fact that our “good” life merits no more favor with God than a convicted felon’s? That grace isn’t earned, it’s given freely—to all who receive. ALL.

Instead, if I wrote about the results of my living room remodeling (which I will do soon), would the comments have flowed freely? Yes, there are times for the superficial and fun, but sometimes we need to pause and chew on the tough truths of God? Are we willing?

All I know is that the words would not let go of me until I got them out. And so I did. In my imperfect way I’m trying to go where God nudges and share what he sets in my mind. In return I trust He will use those words as He sees fit. Even if it means I put myself out there and feel a little foolish for doing so.

If you’re in a ministry-type position, you know what I’m talking about. There are times when the deafening silence makes you wonder, Is anyone listening? Are my efforts in vain? Lord, did I mishear you? Surely, the enemy wants us to cease and desist—to become discouraged, to water-down our message, to doubt. But we must listen to the One and not be dissuaded. Jesus tells us, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27)

God even uses the little things we do—actions we think are overlooked or of little consequence.

I design our church newsletter. I think it's a great tool, but honestly since I rarely get feedback, I wonder if anyone even reads it and if we’re just wasting our time doing it. This month as I put together the latest issue, (that was behind schedule and already full) I felt a strong prompting to spotlight the new single moms group, even though I don't normally control content. I reached out to the study's leaders, who are passionate about this group, to write something up. Because I needed it right away I gave them plenty of room to put it off until next month. Well, they jumped at the chance and wrote a heartfelt piece.

I squeezed their article in, sent the newsletter off and didn’t think about it again. Until yesterday morning. My friend who leads the single moms group sent an email saying, “I got a call last night from a woman who hasn’t been to church in a year but still receives the newsletter. She read about our group and will be joining us starting next week.”

Wow! I don't think this sort of thing ever happened. But, God did have a plan. and He used our faithful efforts to meet this woman right where she was.

My point is that most of us are not in a position to influence hundreds or thousands of people. It’s easy to look around and think others are more qualified—or effective. But, each of us is in a position to reach just one. And maybe that’s what God intends, because to Him that one matters.

I encourage you, if you feel like you’re hearing crickets, if you feel unqualified, ineffective or small, keep on keeping on. God has a unique plan just for YOU and when you follow his holy nudge, He will bless your offering.

Even if the results seem insignificant, or you never see them at all.

“In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10)

March 4, 2009

"Have You Reached a Verdict?"

Last week we were in prison again. And again the experience changed me.

We learned that one of the inmates—a man who’s so supportive of our ministry, who’s gentle disposition radiates Jesus, who if I met on the outside might invite over for dinner—had gone to trial and was found guilty. The verdict carries a life sentence.

Maybe he deserves the punishment delivered. I don’t know his history, the details of his crime or really anything about him. All I know is that when we gather to worship, he knows Jesus. And because of him, I know Jesus better.

It’d be so easy to go into the prison feeling superior, better than and more deserving. As hard as I am on myself, I still think I’m a pretty good person. In the scale we carry around in our heads—you know the one with people like Mother Theresa on top and Hitler on the bottom—I’d rate myself slightly above average. You’d probably rate yourself similarly. In fact, most people think they’re pretty good.

But, the question that pricks our insides isn’t if we’re good—it’s if we’re good enough. Years ago I spoke with a faithful church-attending friend on the topic of heaven and she rued, “That’s the one thing I worry about the most, whether I’m going to heaven or not. I just don’t know if I’ve been good enough.”

I’ve heard lots of people say their goal in life is to try to be a good person.

The thing is, that and four dollars will get you a latte at Starbucks. No one is good enough to build a path of holiness that leads to the God. No one. (Romans 3) That’s why Jesus came. To bridge the gap of our sinfulness and God’s holiness. The more we exchange our deficit and insufficiency for His glory, the further we travel into the heart of God.

Our goal isn’t “goodness” it’s godliness. And to reach that goal we must travel a one-way street named Jesus. There’s no other way. “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:7)

This truth comes into sharp focus when we worship with the inmates. God quickly strips away any sense of superiority I bring. He reveals my good works and intentions as worthless rags. He prompts me to embrace my brokenness. My insufficiency. My weakness. And present them as a worthy offering.

When we’re in prison, we don't know the inmates' offenses and we see them with fresh eyes. I think God sees us the same way. I think when we accept Jesus and ask for forgiveness, God sees our heart, not our zip code, accomplishments, history, bank account or rap sheet. He makes us a new creation, pure and blemish-free. “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:12)

To God sin is sin. While I might want to see it otherwise, my sin is just as egregious to God as a mass murderer's. Even with my well-tended earthly resume, I’m no better or more worthy of God’s amazing gift of grace than anyone. Jesus’ blood covers us all the same.

It’s not about being a "good" person. It's not about going to church, giving financially, volunteering or living rightly. It’s not about believing that Jesus is the Son of God. (Even the devil in hell knows that.) It’s about believing IN Jesus and accepting His gift of the cross. It’s about confessing. Submitting. Obeying. Following. Loving.

It doesn’t matter how tarnished our past, when we humble ourselves enough to receive, we stand before Jesus, the judge, and he boldly declares us, “Not guilty!”

March 2, 2009

Cord of Three Strands

I’ve been working on a post and can’t seem to get an unbroken string of time to process my thoughts and finish writing it. Does that ever happen to you? In the meantime, ideas keep fighting to be let out onto paper.

To clear my mind, I decided to let out the miscellaneous thoughts…and put up a long overdue post. It’ll be a like soup, with whatever I have on hand tossed in and served up. Today’s a snow day here, so it seems apropos.

Celebrating 100
It’s only been a week, but I feel like I’ve been away from blogging for such a long time. And I miss it. Today is my 99th post, which means my next one is number 100. What should I do? I think the blogging tradition says I should write 100 things about myself. While I’ve enjoyed reading others’ lists, I wonder if I could even come up with 50 things before I put you all, and myself, to sleep. Help, I’m in a quandary. What do you suggest I write about?

The Little Car that Could
This Friday was the big Pinewood Derby. Thankfully my husband caught an earlier flight home and arrived just in time to take our son to the race. My son’s “little car that hopefully could,” actually did pretty well. I think they run like a thousand races, but he placed first a couple of times and second many times. He came home from the event sporting hands covered in graphite (used to make the cars go faster), wearing a smile and relaying a parcel full of stories about the night. He even earned some awards and qualified to go to the next round of the PWD. Not bad at all!

It’s Show Time
This weekend was also our daughter’s middle school play, Fiddler on the Roof. Her school takes their plays seriously and as expected, the costumes, sets, music, acting, dancing and singing were all fabulous! Over 200 kids performed in the show and the entire production went off without a hitch. I was blown away by the talent and dedication of the directors as well as the kids. My daughter did a great job, especially on the intermission scene she helped to write. With the intense week leading up to the play and the four performances, she is thrilled to return to a more normal schedule.

This weekend Dan and I had the chance to spend Saturday and Sunday alone together. A rare treat indeed. We originally planned to go to a lovely upscale inn and eat dinner at their four-star restaurant, but because of our new commitment to remain debt-free we cancelled the reservations. Since my parents were already scheduled to take the kids, we stuck to our plans to do something, just the two of us. We just couldn’t decide what.

On Saturday, Dan and I must have tossed a dozen ideas back and forth. City? Country? Dinner? Movie? Outdoor adventure? Nothing captured our fancies. Trying to figure out what to do didn’t feel like a treat, it felt like a chore. Where we should have bubbled with excitement, we wallowed in ennui. Where was the enthusiasm and excitement to be with one another that marked our past?

Do you ever feel this way?

The early years of our marriage were easy for Dan and me. But, when children entered the picture we shifted our focus immediately from “us” to them. It took us a long time to reconnect as a couple once we became parents. Now we’re in the busy years where the calendar is king and I’ve become a multitasking queen. Add to this Dan’s work and travel schedule. Our relationship has more than its fair share of distractions. In reality we spend way more time planning how to divide and conquer than how to “love and cherish.”

One thing I’ve learned over almost twenty years of marriage is that the oneness God desires for us (and we want as well) takes communication and deliberate effort. Lately Dan and I have gotten lax. I know we have a good marriage, but neglect left us comfortably disconnected.

Maybe this is just the way it goes when you’re raising a family and planning for the future. But left unchecked, what does it lead to? Isolation? Looking for connection elsewhere? Estrangement? Divorce?

So, there we sat on Saturday with a choice to make. Thankfully, we dragged ourselves out of the comfort of the status quo and formed a plan. Our date gathered steam as our conversation allowed fresh air to blow out the accumulated staleness. In the end, we had a fabulous 24 hours—better than expected. We didn’t spend lots of money, travel far from home or do anything spectacular. We just focused on “us.”

More than anything I realized the spark that flamed in the early years of our relationship still burns. And I rediscovered my husband not just as a means to an end in the day-to-day, but as my true love.

And I learned yet again, that in life I have a very bad habit of putting a period where a comma should be.

“A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” (Ecclesiastes 4:12b)