Category Archives: discipleship

Hefted like a Herdwick

I love reading about both vocation and location. In a world that is increasingly full of generalists and largely globalized into a strange digital sense of sameness, learning about people who are experts in one job and/or one place is refreshing. Reading about their place and their task strangely resharpens and refocuses me on my own place and my own task even if they are quite literally world away.

Providentially, I picked up a book that caught my eye at the used book sale: The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape by James Rebanks. Written by a shepherd from the Lake District of England, the book captured my imagination from the start. After being introduced to the area and the arduous work of shepherding Herdwick sheep on the fells (which means craggy hills, it seems) It is not hard to understand why the author chose to return to them after being the rare shepherd’s son who received an Oxford education.

In addition to exacerbating my desire to visit England, the book left me briefly wondering if I should try my hand at farming. But then I realized that I can barely keep my succulents alive in one of the sunniest climates in that States and struggle to herd my three children on the daily. Ultimately, the book led me to deeper intimacy with my own shepherd even though the author did not likely intend such an outcome.

Hefted Sheep

The book begins with an introduction to a shepherding term: hefted. In its noun form, a heft is a piece of upland pasture to which an animal has been hefted (which doesn’t help much if you don’t know what hefted means). In its adjectival form, hefted describes a sheep that has become accustomed and attached to a particular area of upland pasture.

In non-shepherd terms, the sheep don’t need to be fenced on these hills which are common land. Though there are no barriers or barricades, the sheep don’t want to leave their particular pasture and place. Rebanks explains hefting in the following manner:

“Beyond our common lies other undenied areas of mountain land, other fells, farmed by other commoners, so in theory our sheep could wander right across the Lake District. But they don’t because they know their place on the mountains. They are ‘hefted,’ taught their sense of belonging by their mothers as lambs- an unbroken chain of learning that goes back thousands of years.”

Essentially, hefted is another way to say these sheep have found their deepest and preferred home. This seems strange, especially when you realize that the fells to which they are hefted are not an easy-living environment. In fact, the Northern Lake District fells are extreme pastures with harsh winters, which leads me to the next point.

Herdwick Sheep

My knowledge of sheep reaches to the level of the average preschooler. They say bah. They start out white. They get dirty. We get wool from them. They are not the brightest of animals, thus they need the near-constant care of a shepherd.

But, as I learned from the book, not all sheep are created (or should I say bred?) equally. Herdwick sheep are a prized commodity among shepherds in England because of their hardiness which has been passed on for thousands upon years. Having wintered within their mothers in the biting weather on the harsh landscape of the fells, the lambs become tough cookies. If they can survive the fells, they can thrive on any other pasture in England, thus, explaining their place as a prized stock. Those who shepherd Herdwick sheep take great pride in their choice flocks largely because they have taken great pains to keep them alive, constantly caring for them and thinking for their welfare.

Below, Rebanks describes the importance of the winters in raising a true Herdwick sheep:

“These cold, hard, wet weeks are when Herdwicks come into their own. Few other breeds would survive the winter here carrying their lambs in their bellies…the bond between shepherd and flock is formed in these cruel months.”

As I read about this prestigious breed of plucky sheep, I found myself praying that God would shepherd me and our flock to be like them.

Hefted to the Good Shepherd

The more I read about the incredibly monotonous and grueling yet deeply thoughtful and considerate work of being a shepherd, the more I found myself worshipping the One who is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep (John 10:1-18). God could have chosen someone from nearly any vocation to replace the apostate King Saul, but he chose a shepherd boy. David, who knew the sobering and strenuous work of shepherding, brought that knowledge into the task of leading God’s people (1 Samuel 17: 31-37). The Scriptures, from the Old Testament all the way through the New, are laced with shepherd and sheep language describing God’s interactions with his people (Isaiah 40:11;Isaiah 53:6-7; 1 Peter 2:21-25).

Rebanks’s detailed descriptions of caring for his flock included his waking up early with the sheep chief on his mind and not stopping to pause until all their needs had been met and ailments addressed. I found his three rules of shepherding helpful as I seek to be a spiritual shepherdess to our own little flock:

“First rule of shepherding: it’s not about you, it’s about the sheep and the land. 
Second rule: you can’t win sometimes. 
Third rule: shut up, and go and do the work.”

However, I could not help but contrast his rules with our perfect Shepherd who always wins and has already done all the work. While my prayers for myself and my flock have not changed, they have deepened and grown more descriptive. I want us to be like a Herdwick flock, only I want us to be hefted not to a particular place, but to a particular person: the person of Christ who is our Perfect Shepherd.

The Transition to Teens: Showing Hospitality to the Strangers in Your Own Home

As a family, we are committed to practicing hospitality. This does not look like a Pinterest-inspired meal with neatly-folded napkins and elaborate, earthy centerpieces. It looks like a commitment to make space for the other and to seek to see the stranger and the alien in our midst. It takes effort and intentionality. It often causes stress and stretches us. But it is worth it because God is worthy.

As those who have been recipients of the hospitable God who makes space for us to such a degree that he actually stepped into space to save us, we reflect his image even in our shoddy attempts at showing hospitality to others. God’s word commands it, and his love compels it.

I thought I had been stretched appropriately in this arena; however, lately, I have been learning a new form of hospitality: making space and room for the resident aliens in my own home (our teenagers).

Resident Aliens

Teenagers are strangers, even to themselves. Outside of their initial growth as babies, at no other time are they changing, growing, and stretching so much (physically, spiritually, emotionally, relationally). It helps me to remember this God-ordained reality when the boys with whom I have shared my heart and my home for fourteen and fifteen years suddenly seem like an alien species. Their voices are different, the synapses in their brain are being re-circuited, and hormones are rising like sudden tsunamis that neither of us expect.

Their interests are changing (sometimes daily), and that often leaves me feeling like I’m lost without a map in uncharted territory. As soon as I get my mind around being a skater-mom and start to understand skateboard brands, they have moved on to surfing or videography. I knew that the teenaged-years would be a transition for them, but I don’t think I knew it would be such a transition for me as well.

I find myself continually grateful that Jesus lived through this phase himself, thereby acknowledging and sanctifying these years. I find myself in places of deeper dependence upon prayer than I have since those early newborn days. I am having to keep shorter accounts. I am daily confessing my idols of control and facing my own insufficiency. In fact, the pages of my Bible are growing thin in a few places.

“Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling” (1 Peter 4:8-9).

Peter challenged the early church to remain fervent or earnest in their love for one another, knowing that they would need God’s abundant love to cover a multitude of sins, mistakes, and missteps in their attempt to do so. The Greek word, ektenés, translated earnest or fervent, literally means “stretched out fully” and is the root word for the English terms “tense” and “tension.”

I am so thankful that Peter chose to use this word, as it aptly describes the tension and the strain involved in loving one another earnestly and showing hospitality to one another, even to the ones who live in our homes. These verses leave me clinging to another verse:

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given to you” (James 1:5).

A Delicate Dance

Teenagers need both space and presence. Loving my teenaged boys looks like a delicate dance with lots of stepping on toes, apologies, and tearful conversations on both sides. But it is an incredible dance that leads me to both dependence and delight.

Our Dance

I struggle to get the spacing right
As we learn a new kind of dance. 
I loved our past choreography-
Its simple steps, your typical glance. 

There’s a depth now to your eyes,
Matching the mystery in your soul. 
We still move in a partnership, 
But I’m a bit unsure of my role. 

You keep growing and changing,
Finding your own tempo and pace.
Balancing proximity and distance 
Requires great measures of grace.

I’m learning to let you lead, son.
You are learning you know how,
We’re both preparing for a future 
When another will kiss your brow. 

The dance isn’t always graceful;
We’ll step on an occasional toe. 
But know it’s my distinct delight
 To dance with you as you grow.  

These resident aliens are keeping me on my toes and on my knees. What a privilege it is that God would entrust them to me.

Lessons from the Border

Our first mission trip as a family was an assault on the senses. We took in so much in such a short amount of time while moving at such a dizzying rate that I am just beginning to prayerfully process nearly a week later. Two particular images keep coming to my heart and mind: the tidiness of a tent city and the cartwheeling son of a fire-breather.

The Tidiness of a Tent City

Our first full day in Tijuana, we went to serve at a shelter for those seeking asylum in the United States (currently waiting at the border). When we parked the car, I was overwhelmed by the dirt, feces, and subsequent flies in the street. I held my son’s hand tightly as if to protect him from all he was seeing for the first time. Thus, you can imagine my shock when we walked into the semi-open-air shelter of corrugated metal to see a tidy little city of well-kept tents. The place was immaculate by any standards, but especially considering the fact that over one-hundred-fifty women and children were living in such a small space.

The families living in the shelter seemed to take great pride in the fact that they were among the lucky few who had shelter, food, and bathroom access for three months. As we were playing with the children, I even found myself feeling something like jealousy at the kind of community they had become. The children acted like siblings to each other, and the adults stepped in to love, direct, and even correct the children, even those who were not their own.

Having so little, they had a vibrant, generous, ordered community life that few Americans experience though they have so much. We gave them medicine, but they gave us the better medicine of a joyful heart despite jarring circumstances (Proverbs 17:22). Those tidy tents taught me a thing or twenty about community, gratitude, and grace.

The Cartwheeling Son of a Fire-Breather

We all know the statement that truth is often stranger than fiction, but it can also be sadder. After three incredibly long days of helping put on multiple medical clinics, our crew loaded up in our over-filled car to head back home. We anticipated the long wait time at the border and I thought we were accustomed to the things we would see as we waited, but I did not anticipate the way one of the side-acts would since take center-stage in my mind.

As we were waiting in the long, slow lines of traffic, my eyes were drawn to a father and his two sons. Leaving the younger child in the stroller, he stopped and began a fire-breathing act along the barricade. While the fire-breathing tricks initially did their job in grabbing my attention, the son of the fire-breather stole my heart. Seeking to help his father earn some change, he began doing some unbalanced and unpolished cartwheels and handstands of his own.

At the time, I catalogued this act along with countless others who were performing songs, playing guitars, and selling their wares. But this one was different, as the Lord would continually bring it back to mind and memory.

As many times as I have read or taught on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, you would have thought I would not have missed the moment. But I did. I fell right into the role of the priest: “Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side” (Luke 10:31). We are usually quick to assume the worst about the priest, but it is likely he had been serving all day, fulfilling his priestly duties, and meeting needs in sacrificial ways. Having “clocked out,” and being wearied from service, few would fault him with following convention and tradition to avoid an unclean situation with someone who was not even among his flock. But he missed it. He missed his chance to see and experience and become more like the Savior whose coming he eagerly sought. And I did the same.

Cartwheeling Son of a Fire-breather

Cart-wheeling son of a fire-breather,
As you did your tricks, I turned away.
I tried not to notice your plight,
Yet you come to mind everyday.

Your earnest, eager desire to please,
To add to your dad’s dangerous show
As if your life depended upon it
Shakes all that I think I know.

Tired from serving, I sat and watched,
But now, I wish I had run –
Through traffic, past convention –
To point you to God’s Son.

You don’t have to grab his attention;
You live always under His sight.
And, unlike me, his broken servant,
He never turns away from your plight.

I don’t want to keep being the priest who missed his moment with the Lord he served. I want to have eyes wide-open to encounters with the Christ who in the words of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “plays in ten thousand places/ Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his/ To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

I don’t want to be led by convention or convenience. I want to be compelled and controlled by the love of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:14-15).

The Best Ten Minutes of My Week

Scott Van Pelt does a segment on his sportscasting show called “The Best Thing I Saw Today.” If I were to have a church planting show (which would be weird) I would have a segment called “The Best Ten Minutes of My Week.” Only it would not change, as the best thing that happens every week has been the same since the beginning of our baby church a year ago.

It may not seem like much to an outsider looking in. It definitely doesn’t start in a fancy manner. In fact, it starts with an early morning trip to a neighborhood grocery store. The receipt simply shows a loaf of fresh bread and a plastic jug of grape juice. But, even as I pour the juice into tiny plastic cups, I get excited for what will come.

We are a small, but growing church of around fifty adults weekly (and a slew of precious kids and teens). We worship in a borrowed space. Often our sound system does not work right. One time our baptismal leaked into the basement. There is usually something to giggle about after the service. But every week, after we hear the Word opened up and are carefully pointed to Jesus, we line up for a family meal. Thus begins the best ten minutes of my week.

There is no hiding in a small church plant. We know each other, which means we know each other’s beauty and the brokenness. We enjoy each other’s gifts and often experience each other’s besetting sins. But as our people line up to receive the bread and the “wine,” I am brought to tears each week.

I watch as my husband and our co-pastor offer a personal blessing to each of our flock. I watch downcast eyes and dispositions change as our people are reminded of the truths of the gospel. I watch them eagerly receive a piece of simple bread (sometimes too large a piece when my hubs is handing out the elements) because they know they are starving for the grace and strength that only Christ can provide. I watch my husband offer his children the bread of life as a peer and sibling in the Lord. I watch our two pastors humbly offer each other the bread and “wine” that they both so desperately need.

We line up to receive and remember and reenact (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).

And in those few moments in the family meal, I temporarily forget all the work of rearranging chairs and making coffee and cleaning bathrooms. People are hungry to hear the truth, not only those who know and forget and know and forget, but those who have not yet known. I need to eat this bread and drink this cup with these people. Every week. This is why we are working alongside Jesus as he establishes this local flock.

Greater than the miracle of manna in the wilderness is the reality of God’s love displayed on the Cross. Better than meat delivered by ravens is the Spirit’s delivery of the Scriptures to hungry hearts.

Madeline L’Engle introduced me to two powerful lines from a Conrad Aiken poem entitled “Bread and Music”:

“Music I heard with you was more than music, 
And bread I broke with you was more than bread;”

Those lines perfectly capture our experience Sunday by Sunday. Bread eaten with this flock is more than bread, not because of anything we do, but because of what Jesus has already done.

Our ten-minute meal fuels us for the week ahead where we will fumble through our days attempting faithfulness. Our ten-minute meal gives us a taste of the abundant love we will need to remember if we are to cover over each other’s faults and foibles in the coming few days (1 Peter 4:8). Our ten-minute meal levels the classes and divisions that the world will use to categorize us as soon as we walk out the doors. It makes us siblings and peers at the table of our impartial heavenly Father.

Every week in this church planting adventure there are unexpected hurdles or hard conversations or heavy burdens. But those only make me more eager for the joy I expect for the best ten minutes of my week.

Let Loneliness Lead You to the Faithful Friend

Underneath the noisy newsfeeds and behind the flowery photo opps with lovely lattes, many women are living what Thoreau called “lives of quiet desperation.” I know this because I feel it myself, and I regularly hang out with women who share the same sentiments. Beneath the busy schedules and surface relationships, many women are starving for authentic friendships.

When Mother Teresa visited the affluent Western world, she was wise enough to make the following observation:

“In the developed countries, there is a poverty of intimacy, a poverty of spirit, of loneliness, of lack of love. There is no greater sickness in the world today than that one.”

The Long Loneliness

Dorothy Day who helped found the Catholic Workers Movement and lived faithfully among the poor and working classes had her own sense of poverty: a relational one. As a single mother and as an ordinary believer living in the already/not yet of the kingdom of God, she experienced what she called “the long loneliness” all of her life.

I love that phrase because it honestly depicts an ongoing struggle with feeling alone or never fully known or at ease. We all experience it though to differing degrees and in differing seasonal lengths. As an introvert who does ministry, I feel loneliness both acutely and chronically. Usually when the creeping sense of sadness and aloneness starts to creep in, I try to busy myself to avoid it. Fill the schedule. Work on a project. Read a new book. Get things done.

But as I age, I am learning to lean into loneliness even though it feels scary and vulnerable. For loneliness is a costly invitation to walk more deeply towards our faithful friend, Christ.

Long More, Not Less

I used to deal with unfilled longings like Whack-a-Mole. When one came up, I immediately sought to shove it down and pretend it never showed itself. But this approach to longing and life is more Buddhist than Christian. Desires, as much as they may cause us to ache, remind us that our hearts are made for far more than even the best this earth has to offer us. Piercing desires are homing devices that keep us aligned with our true North and help get us back to our eternal nest.

As such, I am learning to sit in the loneliness I sometimes feel. In the moment, I am learning how to drag such seemingly unmentionable hungers to the throne room and tell God honesty what I feel. I love how Robert Hugh Benson, a spiritual writer from the early 20th century, captured Christ’s desire for our honesty:

“As our God he knows every fiber of the being which he has made; as our Savior he knows every instant in the past in which we have swerved from his obedience; but, as our friend, he waits for us to tell him.”

I tell him how alone and unseen I feel. I’ve done that for a while. But lately, I have also been honest enough to express my frustration and lack of faith to him as the One who could ultimately fix these feelings but, lovingly and patiently, lets them persist. I bring my wrestling with him to him, and he listens. In my complaining about lack of kindred friends, he shows himself to be the epitome of a faithful friend. What a gracious friend we have in him! What a wonder!

Long in the Light

While I have always been comfortable being honest with God, being vulnerable with people has been a slowly-acquired skill for me. To even let my precious, trustworthy husband of sixteen years into the battles of my brain and the howling of my heart takes effort and courage. I often can’t do it until I am so tired and needy that I have no choice. I usually wait until we are both about to fall asleep because its takes me all day to gather the strength to be so exposed. But over the years, the time it takes to drag my longings into the light has shortened. I am beginning to wonder if this should be a more real measure of maturity than a sanitized, sacrosanct soul.

When we walk in the light, others open up about their longings. This does not mean we seek to meet each other’s longings or fix them (though often our reflex will be to try to do so), it simply means that we validate those longings and point each other to the One who will meet them all, whether sooner or later. I love how Henri Nouwen (another brave struggler with long loneliness) captures it, “It is in the intimate fellowship of the weak that love is born.”

Long for the Faithful Friend

God is such a good and faithful friend to us that he has given us ready-made language to express the deepest, most seemingly unutterable desires of our hearts. In the Psalms, our dearest, most faithful friend has provided prompts to help us share vulnerably in the safety of his sheltering presence.

“The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant. My eyes are ever toward the the Lord, for he will pluck my feet out of the net. Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted” (Psalm 25:14).

There are literally innumerable reasons to praise God since he is inexhaustible in both the quality and quantity of his goodness. But lately, I have found myself camped out in the reality that the God of the universe would call us friends (John 12:15-16).

May this short poem from the book The Friendship of Christ by Robert Hugh Benson remind you of the faithful friend you have in Christ this morning and for eternal mornings.

“He is as good as he is great.
His love is as ardent as it is true.
He is as lavish of his promises as he is faithful in keeping them.
He is as jealous of my love as he is deserving of it.
I am in all things his debtor, but he bids me call him friend.”

The Inflation We Tend to Encourage

I’m not usually one to keep up with economic trends like inflation, largely because I don’t fully understand it. However, even as someone who is accustomed to exorbitantly high West Coast gas prices, the cost of filling my car with gas is something I can no longer ignore.

I may not understand inflation, but I sure am discouraged by it. All this inflation talk has had me thinking about the kind of inflation we tend to encourage: the inflation of earthly knowledge.

We live in an age of competing knowledge where armchair experts claim to know better than everyone else. We love to clean on phrases like “Clinically-proven” and “Studies have shown.” In our day and age, people tend to wield knowledge like a weapon, using statistics, studies, and even sometimes sermons to try to decimate intellectual sparring partners.

Don’t get me wrong. I love knowledge and always have. I take great joy in learning and teaching all kinds of things. And I hope that I have passed such a passion for learning on to my children. But knowledge (not even knowledge of spiritual things) is not the end all be all; being known by God is. There are plenty of people with parades of accolades after their names who have knowledge but are not known by God and growing to know him more.

When writing to the church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul addresses a sinful inflation that comes from thinking we have superior knowledge to others.

“This knowledge puffs up but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God” (1 Corinthians 8:1-3).

Through James, the Scriptures offer us a similar plumb line or a standard against which to measure our knowledge. Writing to believers in the early church, he draws a clear distinction between wisdom from above and earthly wisdom.

“Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealously and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (James 3:13-18).

I memorized this in college when I was first beginning to try to kill the monstrous idol of academic pride I had fed my entire life up until that point. I borrowed David’s prayer for truth in the inner parts and wisdom in the secret heart (Psalm 51: 6) . I sought to trade my prideful, noisy knowledge that wanted to make itself known to the watching world for the kind of knowledge that can rest quietly and peacefully in the heart of one has wisdom (Proverbs 14:33).

Earthly wisdom puffs up self, creating swollen, easily-inflated (and equally-easily-deflated) egos, whereas godly wisdom builds up others. Our culture and our flesh flaunt the former and shun the latter. In fact, the Greek word that Paul used while writing to the Corinthian church about earthly knowledge, phusioó, literally means to over-inflate by blowing or to cause to swell up. Scripture juxtaposes such breathing which swells up with the wisdom that comes from the pneuma or breath of the Holy Spirit. Such wisdom sustains and fills us, but not so that we think more highly of ourselves but, rather, so that we think more rightly about God, self, and others.

Earlier in the same letter to the puffed-up Corinthian Church, the Apostle Paul clearly equated the person of Christ with the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 8:24). Drawing out this reality, the Apostle Paul further explained to these contentious believers that it made no sense to boast in men or the wisdom of men when you have all things already resting in Christ (1 Corinthians 3:21). I wish I did not find so much of the Corinthian church in and around me, but I struggle similarly to them still.

Tomorrow night, we are headed to an academic awards night for our eighth grader. ‘Tis the season. But I find myself praying desperately that he and our entire family (beginning with me) would be marked by true wisdom that can only come down from above. Like most things in God’s kingdom, such wisdom is not gained by granted as gift to those with space. The only need for such wisdom is to be deeply aware of our need for authentic wisdom and deeply suspicious of its cultural counterfeits.

I am fighting to be weary of all inflation, not only the economic kind but also the academic kind. Our wallets may deflate a bit each day due to inflation, but, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can encouraged and appropriately filled with the kind of knowledge that does not inflate self but rather builds up others.

When Fiction Strengthens Faith: Willa Cather and Love for the Local

We live in Southern California. My driver’s license and return address stamp have told me so for more than a decade, but it is only recently that my heart has been telling me the same. It seems strange that, in a time when everyone seems to be fleeing our state, God has been growing our roots physically, spiritually, and relationally deeper into it.

Many who visit here fall quickly in love with San Diego’s perma-perfect weather. Tourists are captivated by her coastline and tummies are tantalized by her taco trucks. But this love is a surface sentiment that largely ignores the brokenness of our city.

Ours is not a blind love for our local region. The longer we have lived here, the more I see the ugliness underneath the shiny veneer: the systemic housing issues, the promiscuity, and the prevalence of sex-trafficking break our hearts. So do the girls who strut the streets wearing next-to-nothing who have bought the lie that they are their bodies alone. The fact that so many here do not know their right hand from their left (to borrow a biblical phrase from the book of Jonah) leaves me in tears at least once a month.

But this is not a post about Southern California, it’s a post about learning to love where you live in an eyes-and-hearts-wide-open kind of way. God often uses fiction to strengthen and buttress my faith. And lately, as I read Willa Cather’s classic novel O Pioneers!, I found myself resonating with the protagonist Alexandra’s realistic but resilient love for her land. While we are clearly not homesteaders, God has called us to pioneering ministries on the West Coast.

The Heart of a Pioneer

As the daughter of a Swedish pioneer, Alexandra Bergson knew first hand the hardness of the Nebraska land. Cather captures this harshness writing, “In eleven long years John Bergson had made but little impression on the wild land he had come to tame. It was still a wild thing that had its ugly moods; and no one knew when they were likely to come, or why. Mischance hung over it. Its Genius was unfriendly to man.”

Despite summers of drought and pestilence, Alexandra continued to love and invest in the hard land even after the death of her father left her in charge as a young, single woman. When family after family gave up attempts at pioneering and homesteading to head back to already-tamed East Coast cities, Alexandra exclaims, “Sometimes I feel like I am getting tired of standing up for this country.”

Yet she persisted in her pioneering spirit and anchored her heart in Nebraska. Returning from a trip to look at some farms nearby, Cather writes the following about Alexandra’s love for her locality:

“For the first time, perhaps since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning. It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious. Her eyes drank in the breadth of it, until her tears blinded her.”

While I don’t drown in the beauty of our desert landscape marked with light brown, dark brown, and sandy brown, my eyes fill with tears when I think about out city and its people. I find myself crying as I pray for God to open people’s eyes to the glories of the gospel here in Southern California. I, too, grow tired of defending our love for this lost place and its particular people who are stamped in the image of God. I know our California politics are progressive and that it is considered a land of hippies, fruits, and nuts, but God has good in store for people here. He has sheep that have not returned to his fold.

Loving the Place of Your Exile

It did my heart good to find a fictional character who embodied a pioneering calling to a particular place. So often I find myself dreaming of greener pastures or easier spiritual climates. I want to feel less lonely and less like an exile. For the sake of comfortability, I want to be surrounded by an abundance of people who think like me, look like me, and approach the world the same way I do; however, God has called us to a place where those people are hard to come by. Sometimes I am tempted to grow embittered by the dryness of our desert-like spiritual climate which mirrors our physical draught-stricken soil.

God used Willa Cather’s Alexandra Bergson to strengthen my faith this week. Through this fictional character, I saw a picture of what it might look like to live out God’s calling to his elect exiles, as seen through the words of the prophet Jeremiah:

Thus say the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I h ave sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters…Multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I send you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (Jeremiah 29:4-6&7).

Alexandra loved her land and its people in the way that God asked the exiles in Babylon to approach Babylon. This is the same way that I imagine God wanted Jonah to love Nineveh: with an honest, persistent, eyes-wide-open love. For when Jonah ran away to a more tame and comfortable land, the Lord rebuked him and reminded him of his love and pity for such a lost city (Jonah 4:8-11).

When we are tempted to run from our posts or begrudge the places of our callings, may we borrow God’s strength and love for our locations. May we ask God to give us his eyes to see the same places with a different sight.

And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season, we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunities, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith (Galatians 6:9-10).

Baseball & Broken Plans

Real talk: our youngest who breathes baseball did not make the All-Star team. In the grand scheme of things, this really is a blip on the radar. However, God has been showing me so much about my own heart and His heart through something as insignificant as baseball.

This is not a post about the dangers and idols of youth sports, as there are plenty of those. Nor is it is a rebuttal explaining the way youth sports are an inroads into the last frontier of neighboring in our increasingly isolated culture (though one day I want to write that one, too).

It’s about the heart of an earthly parent and the better plans of a perfect Heavenly One. It’s about how my heart breaks to see my son’s little heart crack a bit over baseball. It’s about how his forced smile and attempts to shake it off cause tears to puddle in my eyes. It’s about bearing double disappointment as a parent. It’s about the mysterious mixture of largeness of love and lack of control that marks parenting. It’s about God’s gracious response to the feebleness of my faith when things don’t go my way or their way as a parent.

We pray that God would give our children not only exposure to the truths of Christianity, but real, nuanced experiences with Him personally. In a world that screams, “Be impressive” our prayer for our children has always been that they would be impressed by God, His Word, and His ways. And I mean it.

Most of the time. But sin creeps into even Spirit-sealed hearts. The insidious lie that we can have uncommon intimacy with Jesus by following the common way and with all the creaturely comforts and accoutrement has crept into my heart. Jesus was so gracious to use broken baseball dreams to expose it.

In his gentle way, Jesus led me to a pair of rhetorical questions he once asked a disappointed prophet:

“If you have raced with men on foot, and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses? And if in a safe land you are so trusting, what will you do in the thicket of the Jordan?” (Jeremiah 12:5).

If I am this disappointed by God redirecting baseball plans, how will I respond when harder suffering lines the paths of my son’s lives? The resilient faith I pray for my children and myself requires meeting resistance early and often. But I am excellent at regularly resisting resistance.

I am so thankful that we rely on a perfectly Heavenly Father who disciplines according to perfect knowledge unlike earthly parents who do their best with their limited knowledge (Hebrews 12:7-11). I am thankful that our good God does not cave to our constant cries for comfort and ease. I am thankful that the scarred hand of Jesus holds the quill that writes the stories of my children. He gently chides me when I attempt to grab it to write a less-glorious, more controlled story.

I can trust the One who write their stories because He wrote himself into our tragedy. He bore unthinkable pain and lumbered under the punishment of our sin so that we could be brought into the story of His redemption. His stories are far better than mine. The largeness of His love swallows my love for my own children whole. He gives me ample practice entrusting to him these children who have been his all along and will be his for all eternity.

The Quill

You can pray, process, and point,
But you cannot steal the quill. 
You can help me hold the paper,
But you cannot change my will. 

Besides, you wouldn’t want to
If you saw what I have in store. 
Every loss and limp and lesson 
Is an attempt to give them more. 

More humility, more dependence,
More soul space for more of Me.
Momma, move out of my way,
For I have plans you cannot see. 

They won’t know uncommon love
By following the common way;
Let me lead them by the hand,
Let me order each and every day.  

I know it seems small and silly, but I am learning so much from baseball and broken plans. I am thankful that as I walk my children in one hand, I am held by God’s greater grip in the other. Parenting is not for the faint of heart, but thankfully, our Heavenly Father knows that in ways we never will.

“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31-32)..

Spiritual Angioplasty

I came into this week thinking it would be a normal one. But as I sit here on my couch this morning, I feel like the Lord has begun to perform the equivalent of an angioplasty in my soul.

When arteries are clogged due to the slow build up of cholesterol (whether inherited, induced by habit, or the common combination of both), doctors often perform an angioplasty.  A small catheter is placed into the artery and then a ballooning technique is used to stretch and reopen the artery so that more blood can flow through it.

If you asked me even on Monday if I was aware of racism in the world and its roots in my own heart, I would have said yes and been honest in saying so; however, after a week of hard conversations and convicting moments with the Lord, I feel like I went to the doctor and was diagnosed with multiple clogged arteries of the soul.

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I didn’t realize how little I have listened to my friends who are people of color or even asked about their experiences with racism. I have been open to conversations, but I have not initiated them; rather, I have expected them to come to me and open up about hard things. Even that exposes a position of power in my heart that I did not realize I have had.  This spiritual artery needs some unclogging.

I have failed to address the significant shaping power of culture in spiritual development and discipleship. As one who loves to address family of origin with those I disciple, I have largely missed the culture of origin level in discipleship. As such, I have unintentionally shown my disciples that I am interested in most of their lives, but not all of it. This spiritual artery needs some ballooning.

I have been tempted to be defensive, to point out all the ways that I have loved and engaged in the lives of my friends of color.  I felt misread and wrongly judged and overly generalized into a lump stereotype. Until I realized that those exact feelings are only a tiny sliver of what my friends of color have been experiencing daily for most of their lives. Another clogged artery.

If am honest, I sat down to meet with the Lord this morning defeated and exhausted, exposed and sore. Until I remembered that it His great love for and commitment to me and His bride that He would appoint for me a spiritual angioplasty (or a series of them).

He won’t leave well enough alone (Philippians 1:6). He will not settle for anything less than Christ-likeness in His children (Galatians 4:19). He will not leave our soul’s arteries clogged with even unintentional narrow-mindedness and partially working flow of the Spirit. He will look right through us with His gently exposing gaze and will flag every place where the flow of His Spirit through us is clogged or limited.

He will painfully insert His Word into us and will stretch us in ways that feel uncomfortable (Hebrews 4:12-13). He will make space in us to contain love for His entire body. And all of this is for our good, the good of the body, and the good of the world and His glory.

I want a heart that fully functions. I want a heart that is unclogged and wide open, not constricted and strained. I want to look like my Father whose heart is expansive; I want to be shaped to be like the Son whose blood was literally poured out for the world. This will only happen by the surgical expertise of the Holy Spirit within me. While He is always ready to do His healing work, He does not force or coerce. He allows circumstances that reveal just how clogged our hearts have become. He waits for consent and readiness in His patients.

Please be tender with the hearts of those around you. Surgeries, both minor and major, are happening all around you.

“The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.
Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But remind of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.
The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire”

T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

Meanwhile in Midian: The Purpose of the Messy Middle

It’s about to be graduation season where we celebrate beginnings with their vague hope and endings with their celebratory finality. I love watching the pictures of proud families and excited soon-to-be high school and college students. We rightly highlight beginnings and endings, but we would do well to also remember that life consists mostly of the messy middle.

The first image that usually comes to mind when most people hear the name Moses is a Prince-of-Egypt-like bearded man holding up a staff and parting the Red Sea. This is the memorable Moses, the heroic Moses, the deliverer Moses. While this image is beautiful, I find myself most drawn to the Midian Moses, the Moses of the middle years.

I imagine the young Moses as having a strong sense of “manifest destiny” (or shall we say “manifest providence?”). After all, he was miraculously saved from sure death when he was drawn out of the Nile by none other than the Pharaoh’s daughter. He was beautiful in appearance; he was educated by the finest tutors in Egypt; he was clearly set apart.

He knew God had plans for his life, and I can imagine him eager to leave his mark. But life took a series of turns that he did not anticipate, culminating in his fleeing for his life from his home.  Thus, Moses, God’s chosen instrument and one with whom God would one day speak face-to-face, found himself in Midian.

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I imagine Moses’ years in Midian were spent swinging between contentment and confusion.

Exodus 2:21 says that Moses was willing to dwell in Midian. The Hebrew word translated willing is “yaal” and literally means to yield, to be content, to be pleased.”  The Lord provided him a wife in Zipporah and a father figure in Jethro. Thus, Moses was content to dwell for decades, living as a common shepherd, husband and father. Contentment.

Yet, I wonder if Moses ever had days when he felt terribly confused at the way his life was panning out. Did he ever have a burning desire for more? Did he long to be used by God to help the Hebrew people with whom his heart was knit? I imagine him wandering through the vast wilderness with his flock asking, “Was this really what God rescued me for? Family and sheep are wonderful, but I feel as if I were wired for more.” Confusion.

In all those years of shepherding and living a quietly faithful life, God knew something that Moses didn’t: Moses needed Midian as much as the Hebrews needed deliverance.

Moses needed to mature, to have his desires and gifts refined. He needed the mundane, the simple and the small to whittle away at his pride and self-reliance. I imagine that everyday of those decades, God was hand-crafting him to be an instrument that was able to hear and to respond to His voice.

The pre-Midian Moses was strong, self-confident, ready to act as a deliverer for the Hebrew people in his time and his way. The post-Midian Moses had learned to take his sandals off before a holy God, had learned a healthy humility that truly questioned whether God could use him.

Midian made Moses.

We all need Midians. We need secret seasons of preparation and identity-forging in which we learn to trust in God’s power and not our own.

For some Midian looks like an extended season of singleness that was neither anticipated nor welcomed. In these years, the God-planted and good desires for marriage and parenting are rounded out and refined. For others Midian looks like unemployment or underemployment where God-given, God-pleasing talents are put on the back burner for a season. There are a myriad of Midians, but they share this in common: they are appointed by an all-wise, all-loving Father and will not last forever (though it often feels like they will).

Sometimes it seems that everyone else’s lives seem to be falling into place or moving forward in the fast lane while we sit in Midian, swinging between contentment and confusion.

Know this: the same God that planted desires deeply within you plans to fulfill them in His time and in His way. Meanwhile, in Midian, He is with you, refining you, refreshing you, reminding you of His truth.

I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. Philippians 1:6.