May 27, 2010

Decoding Grace

Since my church's new website launched this week and the class describe below is what started my redesign of it, It's appropriate that I have this devotional running at Exemplify Online. I hope you'll join me over there.

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God…” Ephesians 2:8, NIV

HTML codeRecently I took a class to learn the basics of HTML—the programming language that makes websites work.

To my untrained eye, HTML code looked like a mish-mash of brackets, symbols, odd words and strange spacing. I couldn’t imagine anyone would ever make sense of it, let alone me!

However, during the course the instructor broke this gibberish into understandable chunks. He “decoded” the code and amazingly I started to understand it. At first we learned to write simple commands to add things like a line or italicized text. By the end of the class, we could create a simple website.

After making one frustrating mistake after another, I learned one important fact: HTML code must be written precisely. One misspelled word, forgotten bracket or incorrect term and your idea won’t execute—at all. When it comes to coding, close isn’t good enough.

Sometimes Christianity can seem as difficult to understand and demanding as HTML. It’s easy to believe we must follow a specific list of should’s and should-not’s to make our faith “execute.” That if we correctly line up a prescribed combination of good things like prayer, Bible reading, church attendance and good deeds, and avoid a set list of bad things like gossip, slander, excess and idolatry then all will be well between us and God.

When our faith feels stuck or God seems distant, it just means we need to perfect our “faith formula” and make adjustments.

But Christianity offers one very important thing that computer programming doesn’t—grace.
Grace means our faith cannot be attained by executing a precise list of thoughts, deeds, actions and eloquent prayers. It’s a gift. Sound too simple? Ask the Pharisees. They tried to write the perfectly formatted “code” that led to God. And, the more precisely they wrote,  interpreted and executed it, the farther away from Him they got. In fact, they ended up so distant that when Jesus appeared right in front of their noses, they didn’t recognize Him at all.

Actions like prayer, worship, works and Bible reading certainly enhance our faith, but these things, done on their own, aren’t the “code” that gets us to God. When we are followers of Christ, they become an extension of our relationship with Him and not a requirement of rituals.

On the cross Jesus did the work for us. In this one eternity-changing act, God told us we don’t need a list of do’s and don’ts to make faith work. Perfection is not required. There is nothing we can do to earn God’s grace. Nothing. All He asks is that we receive this gift.  

Receive it and follow Him.

May 24, 2010

Rim-to-Rim and Home Again

“So, how was it?”

That’s the question I’ve heard repeated since we returned from the Grand Canyon on Saturday. I immediately reply, “Amazing!” but inside I wonder, how much time do you have?

Dan and I went to the Grand Canyon to celebrate our 20th anniversary. We planned to hike from the North Rim to the South Rim on a four-day backpacking trip. While this seems far from a vacation to some of you, it’s our idea of a grand adventure.

Of all the millions of people who visit the Grand Canyon each year, only 2% descend below the canyon rim onto one of the many trails. Only 1% hike to the bottom to Phantom Ranch. And fewer still hike from one rim to the other. I wanted to be one of the few.

Before the trip I prayed for four things specifically—
  1. That Dan and I'd survive
  2. That we’d have fun
  3. That we’d reconnect and reinvigorate our relationship
  4. That I’d have good hair days

God answered three of my prayers abundantly.

(Turns out, short of a miracle, going four days without a shower makes good hair a near impossibility. Maybe that’s why God created baseball caps and 'do-rags.)

With newly-filled backpacks we departed from the North Rim in the early afternoon last Sunday.
Ready to head out from the North Rim.
Besides Dan and I, our group included a father and his two twenty-something sons and our guide, Jeremy. (Who I may devote an entire blog to because we loved him so much!) As we hiked through the Ponderosa forest and caught our first glimpse of the Canyon, the views confirmed we’d made the right decision to take this trip!
First views of the Canyon. There was even still snow on the ground.
Each day of our trip brought new challenges, breathtaking views, fresh adventures and countless opportunities. The first two days were much harder than expected. About three-quarters of the way through both days I had to seriously “buck up little camper.” By the end of the second day my muscles were so sore and my blisters plentiful that I worried I’d be able to complete the uphill climbs on days three and four. Especially since our all-male (except me) group kept a far brisker pace than I'd choose. But, I didn’t want to look like a wimp, so I tried my best to keep up and keep my complaints to a minimum.

In the depths of the Canyon one learns a lot about herself (or himself)—about perseverance and fortitude. One also learns a lot about God. Every bend in the trail, every flower blooming, every newly spied vista and every sweeping landscape literally shouts the testimony of our awesome Creator. People may enter the Canyon as an atheist, but I don’t see how they leave as one.
View of the Colorado River taken from the "silver bridge"

Even in such harsh conditions, beautiful flowers bloomed.
The Grand Canyon is many things. None of which are possible to capture in a single visit or perhaps even a single lifetime. It is a place where stark contrasts co-exist in a delicate balance:
  • Life and death
  • Immense and tiny
  • Rugged and tender
  • Arid and aquatic
  • Ancient and contemporary
  • Desolate and abundant
  • Friendly and foreboding
  • Dusty and damp
  • Hospitable and hostile

When we were in the Canyon, one fact remained ever-present—it must be respected.

There were so many memorable moments on our trip that it’s hard to pick just one favorite. The third day—the one I was so fearful of—turned out to be the best day, filled with highlights from sun up to sun down.
On Plateau Point at sunset. Jeremy (to the right) is making our dinner!

However, for sheer exhilaration, nothing tops the feeling I had as we completed the last half-mile of the Bright Angel Trail and emerged on the South Rim. Tired and grungy, but oh so ecstatic! What a tremendous feeling of accomplishment to gaze across the Canyon to the North Rim and say, “I did it!”
Steps away from the South Rim!

I was so excited that I told any of the South Rim tourists who glanced my way what we'd done! Even those who didn’t speak English seemed impressed (or befuddled by the crazy, American backpacker). And during the rest of our time in AZ, I managed to work the words "backpack, Grand Canyon and Rim-to-Rim" into every conversation I had. (Have I mentioned I'm ecstatic over our trip?)

In the next few installments I’m going to write about some of the things I learned. The thoughts are still simmering so I’m not sure exactly where this will go. Stay tuned …

P.S. We used a guide company for our trip: Just Roughin' It. I highly recommend them if you're thinking about an adventure like this. 

May 13, 2010

Love on the Rocks

After months of planning and preparation, the day is almost upon us. To celebrate our 20th anniversary, Dan and I are headed on a very special trip. Alone. Just the two of us.

If you’ve followed this blog for any time you have an inkling I like adventurous experiences and don’t usually do things the easy way. Therefore, there’s no cruise or tropical vacation to celebrate this milestone.

Nope, in just a few days we’ll find ourselves at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon ready to embark on a rim-to-rim backpacking trip. For four days we’ll eat, sleep and breathe the Canyon. No modern comforts or conveniences. And on Wednesday, our official anniversary, we’ll emerge from the rocky paradise, tired, dirty and hopefully filled with amazing memories (and pictures). Then we’ll scurry to a secret location (which I’m surprising Dan with) for some R&R, sightseeing and best of all—a shower! I am so excited I can hardly stand it!

What’s cool about this trip is that while we were dating, Dan introduced me to backpacking. While it wasn’t exactly what I’d call fun, it became a turning point in our relationship and a turning point in my attitude toward physical challenges. This is also the trip that led to Dan uttering those now infamous words, “Buck up little camper.” When I didn’t ditch Dan on the trail right then and there it was a sure sign our relationship was destined for long-term success.

Now we’re revisiting our “love on the rocks” with our first backpacking trip in over two decades. This time I’m older, wiser and far more prepared. And I've developed quite a respectable “buck up little camper” resume.

I marvel at how wonderfully hiking and backpacking symbolize a marriage and how this trip is a perfect metaphor for a life traveled together. It's poetic really. (I actually wrote a story about this very topic that will be published in a book coming out later this year.)

I'm so happy Carrie still wants to be my
friend after I almost killed her!
One thing I’ve learned over the years is, in order to be enjoyable and not tortuous, a trip like this requires physical preparation. For the last couple months I’ve added longer walks, yoga and some bike rides to my exercise routine. But the coup de grace of our training has been practice backpacking outings to a nearby deserted ski slope, aka Belle Bump. While the vertical rise classify this as a big hill, its 250 feet come at quite a steep ascent—and just keep coming until the top. Just ask Carrie who accompanied me one day.

The dark little speck on the hill is me.
The light speck next to me isTess.

Each weekend Dan and I hit the hill to train with backpacks and hiking poles (and of course our dog, Tess). What we couldn’t achieve in elevation, we achieved in weight and reps. Definitely not exciting hiking, but so necessary. And I’m proud to declare our training a success. I’m up to 40 pounds in my pack and at last Sunday’s hike, we ran out of training time before I ran out of energy.

Dan's so much faster than I am he probably took my
picture from the bottom and beat me to the top!
Tess thought every hike day was the
"best day ever!"
I don’t know exactly what this trip will bring. I wonder if it will live up to my tremendous expectations. I wonder if I’m really physically ready or if some detail will fall out of place and mess things up. And I wonder what unexpected surprises await. All I can do at this point is go with confidence that I've done what I can and trust that all will turn out.

At the least, I can't wait to view the overwhelming glory of creation, especially when we stand at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and look up. Just thinking about it gives me goosebumps!

I ask you pray for our trip. Pray that Dan leaves his copy of Death in the Grand Canyon at home. Pray for a sense of humor, strength and perseverance. And pray that God fills us with wonderful memories and renews the union He joined together twenty years ago.

If it's not even possible to take in the immensity of the Grand Canyon,
imagine how immense and awesome God is.
 Our mountains don't usually have spectacular scenery like the Grand Canyon, but we're all hiking through something. What mountain are you climbing right now?

May 10, 2010

Harvesting Truth in the Garden

The stories of the Old Testament can easily seem like fairy tales. Tales told by Sunday School teachers to eight-year-olds using cut out characters and a felt board. Nice, but hardly intellectual meat for thinking adults.

It’s an opinion I held for a long time. But one that gradually, but dramatically changed once I became a Christian and actually started to read the Bible. I’ve written about this before, but the insights into God revealed through familiar narratives continue to speak volumes to my spirit.

Take the Garden of Eden for instance.

We could debate day and night the scientific details and concrete evidence for and against the exact happenings of Creation. But to do so is to overlook the perfection contained in the opening chapters of Genesis.

Through one man and one woman we learn the perfect plan for a perfect creation put in place by a perfect God. A God who wants more than anything to maintain an intimate relationship with those He created in His image.

In Eden we see a vivid picture of life as God intended—harmonious, self-sustaining, balanced, communal. For the first and only time in all of human history man and woman lived in perfect unity with one another. Battle of the sexes? Never. There was no strife, conflict, jealousy, bitterness, anger or selfishness.

Plus, like the Peaceable Kingdom, humans lived side by side with all living creatures and the Earth provided everything they needed to eat. No killing or toiling. Best of all, Adam and Eve communed in the Garden with God. They all hung out together and God would stop by to visit over a cup of coffee (and scones of course).

Seriously. Let the image soak in. Imagine living in paradise and God regularly stopped by to invite you for a walk…or you being able to return the favor.

Take a moment to survey the garden of your own life: your relationships, your work, your finances, your emotional and physical health and the state of your spirit. No matter how good (or bad) you think your life is, it’s not even close to what God has planned for you. God does not intend most of what we consider “normal” in this life: materialism, busyness, greed, envy, depression, addiction, anger, divorce, promiscuity, war. We are so far out of the Garden of Eden, we don’t even know it.

So, what happened between then and now?

In every conversation about Adam and Eve the questions inevitably arise—if God knew how everything would turn out why did He set them up to fail? Why didn’t He stop them from eating the apple? Why didn’t he destroy the snake (or evil)?

I don’t know, so don’t expect an answer here, but when I look at Eden, I see that God provided everything Adam and Eve could want. They lived in perfect communion with their Creator, innocent of any evil whatsoever. God gave them all this, with one rule, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil…”

We know how the story goes.

Love is a choice. If God makes us love Him then it’s not love. It makes us puppets… or golden retrievers. Our Creator, by allowing in temptation and setting up boundaries, allows us to choose Him. Or not. God doesn’t force us to love Him. The choice is ours.

In the Genesis narrative, I hear God saying, “I created you in my image. I love you with an everlasting love. Listen to me, follow me and love me with all your heart, strength, mind and soul. When you do this you will find me. And all will be well with your soul.”

  • Instead we doubt that God is really who He says He is.
  • We believe there’s more to life than what He’s provided.
  • We say we trust Him, but formulate contingency plans just to be sure.
  • We choose other gods and build kingdoms of our own making.
  • We listen to the lies of the enemy and follow them instead.

One thing that Adam and Eve show us with crystal clarity is that turning from God to take matters into our own hands NEVER improves our situation. Ever.

So are we doomed? Do we quit because we can never re-enter Eden?

The Garden of Eden wasn't a mistake. God knew how things would turn out. Even in the beginning, He alluded to the solution. Thankfully you and I live this side of the answer and can know it for ourselves—Jesus.

In the Garden of Eden it appeared the serpent won the battle. But in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus won the war. On the cross Jesus overcame death. Because of this death-defying act, Satan was vanquished and the gates to paradise were open once again. Not in this life, but the next.

Through one man came death. Through another came life—eternally. Here’s what the Message has to say:
"Here it is in a nutshell: Just as one person did it wrong and got us in all this trouble with sin and death, another person did it right and got us out of it. But more than just getting us out of trouble, he got us into life! One man said no to God and put many people in the wrong; one man said yes to God and put many in the right…All sin can do is threaten us with death, and that's the end of it. Grace, because God is putting everything together again through the Messiah, invites us into life—a life that goes on and on and on, world without end.” (Romans 5:18-19, 21)

Every time I read the newspaper I see the black and white truth proclaim, “we live in a VERY fallen world.” Yet every time I read God’s word, I see the black and white truth proclaim, “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Matthew 1:15)

From the opening chapters of Genesis to the closing ones of Revelation, the Bible is a love story played out through all of human history. A loving God seeking a right relationship with His beloved creation. And a  beloved creation continually choosing its own way. Again and again and again.

The Creation story isn't a fairy tale, it's the foundation of truth upon which the entire Bible rests. You and I are made in the image of God. He’s made His thoughts about us known. But He lets us choose our own path.

The question remains, what will you choose…Whom will you choose?

May 3, 2010

A Parade, A Celebration and Peace for the Journey

I've been in the writing world long enough that I know many women who are trying to write a book. The road to publication is a long, arduous and uphill journey—to put it mildly. So, when one of my friends reaches the summit with a published book, I want to throw her a parade, write her name in the sky or whoop for joy.

This is my e-version of all of those things because today my blog friend, Elaine, released her first book..

I have followed Elaine's blog at Peace for the Journey for some time. In her I've found a compassionate, beautiful, eloquent, spirit-filled and passionate sister in Christ. One thing is certain—Elaine is head over heals in love with Jesus. Through her transparent, honest and vulnerable spirit she ministers to such a wide array of women who read her blog, listen to her speak and sit in her Bible studies.

I am thrilled to share the trailer for Elaine's book. I encourage you to watch the trailer, visit her blog and soak in the breath of life that she offers.