Category Archives: odds and ends

On Pin Cushions and Preoccuption

Preoccupied: to be so engrossed with thoughts of something or someone that you are unable to engage in other things. Our word comes from from the Latin praeoccupare which literally means to “seize beforehand.”

When my heart and mind are already occupied with other things, there is no space to being present to others, primarily God Himself.

Sure, I may be bodily present; however, in a state of preoccupation my soul is not spacious enough for the people that God places in front of me, be they my children, neighbors, or strangers.  In a worried, frenetic, preoccupied state, souls have all the welcome of a pin cushion, according to Henri Nouwen.

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When God occupies my thoughts, however, He tunes me to the times set directly in front of me. Among the great privileges of the children of God is the ability to leave the things that used to preoccupy our time and energy to the God of abundance.  Our Father will look after our needs, so we need not obsess about them and the details; rather, we are invited to make space in our hearts for the needs, concerns, and delights of others.

After all, is not that what Jesus so poetically tried to show in his lilies and sparrows speech in the Sermon on the Mount? You need not be preoccupied with all those things, even the important and necessary things. Those who do not know Yahweh must chase after those things, but those who are adopted into God’s family are invited to a whole different way of living in light of the Fatherhood of God (Matthew 6).

I cannot be a place of safety and hospitality to others if my own heart has not been stilled and filled with God’s presence and peace.

I know this. I write about this. Yet, I forget about this all the time. Before I know it, my heart has returned to its pin-cushion place, all crowded and cramped with concerns  which were meant to be recycled into prayer.

I don’t realize that my heart and soul are preoccupied most of the time. But my children and husband do. They see the blank stare and hear the “uh-huhs” that are dead giveaways that my heart and mind are elsewhere. They are the compassionate cues from my Heavenly Father that I have been living like an orphan again: worrying and fretting when I could be praying and trusting.

In stillness before God, I am able to invite Him to walk with me into my pin-cushion heart. Embarrassed by the accumulated clutter, yet safe enough in His secure strength, I am able and ask Him to help me remove all the pins gathering there. One by one, the Lord pulls out burdens that were not mine to carry, pins of past failure that needed forgiveness, and an unnecessary pricks for all kinds of possible future scenarios.

Suddenly, my soul becomes spacious again. Yes, there are still needs and errands and responsibilities; however, there is also the fresh reminder that I have One indwelling me who provides and guides and gives wisdom and energy.

I’ve no need to be preoccupied with my next hour or my next week or my next month. My Father, who both created time and stands outside of it, is already there. But more importantly, He is here.

And He has people who need a spacious place to process their own pins, some of whom do not even know yet that there is a loving Father who dwells in abundance who wants to know them.

By God’s grace, may we become those whose hearts have space for others. May daily time with our Heavenly Father provide the removal of pins that prohibit us and others from experiencing His doting care until the day when we shall bodily dwell with Him without the presence of pins. Amen. 

 

 

Adversity Anniversaries

It does not surprise me that calendars don’t include “Adversity Anniversary” among their Hair Appointment and Birthday reminder stickers, as there is not much cute or marketable about remembering devastating days.

But then again, usually these days don’t need marking out. The amygdala and the soul have their own built-in reminder systems. Smells, sounds, temperatures, songs. Even the smallest things have a way of alerting us of the approach of a weighty anniversary, whether it mark the passing of a beloved family member, an exile from home, a day of sudden disaster or a dreaded diagnosis.

On these weighty days, time seems to stand still and lives are turned upside down yet again. Haunting memories are relieved, even if one has come to the other side of the trauma. Like regular aftershocks after an earthquake, anniversaries of adversity have a way of once again shaking the ground that has been slowly settling with time.

My dear friend is approaching the anniversary of a sudden sickness that left her fighting for her life. Although God graciously spared her life and miraculously brought her back from the precipice of death, she lives with daily reminders of the trauma.

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She and her family have no need to mark out this day, this day and the subsequent days have marked them. Time is now measured and remembered as before the sickness and after.

Of course, they have deep gratitude for her life being spared. Yet, this first anniversary will be far from a day of celebration. Despite so many answers to the desperate prayers of so many loved ones, questions still swarm.

As I was processing their approach to this anniversary, the Lord was gracious to lead me to a book by the talented Michael Card. A Sacred Sorrow attempts to bring back the language of lament to an often overly-victorious Western Christianity. Card winsomely and beautifully makes the case that lament is a gift that will lead us to our lasting home.

“Jesus understood that lament was the only true response of faith to the brokenness and fallenness of the world. It provides the only trustworthy bridge to God across the deep seismic quaking of our lives. His life reveals that those who are truly intimate with the Father know they can pour out any hurt, disappointment, temptation, or even anger with which they struggle. Jesus’ own life is an invitation to enter through the door of lament.” 

The pathway of lament is not a popular highway; in fact it is not even a highway at all. For each person, it is a unique path through our own particular pains and problems, losses and longings. Yet, this path was trodden by our Older Brother Jesus who followed it to Golgotha, the place of the skull.

We know that the Cross and the tomb were not the end of His journey. We know that He wrestled with questions and wept in lament in the Garden of Gethsemane that one day His purchased people might weep and question no more.

Yet, the journey between the Cross and the Crown feels long.

May we help our friends grieve the days that have marked them; however, may we also be those quick to remind them and ourselves that all our days have been marked in His book, but that they have been written by a hand marked with the scars of a sacrificial love.

In a culture that thrives on optimism and victory,  may we become a people comfortable with lament. May we also have eyes fixed on the Coming Christ, who has prepared for us a city without walls and tearless days without end.

Focus

Everything in me and around me seems to be dead against focused attention. As soon as I sit down to finally focus on the task at hand, the instant pot beeps, begging for my attention. The laundry buzzes, beckoning me to fold. As soon as I finally sit down to read me to my littlest fella or get outside to kick the soccer ball with my older fellas, I see trash cans that need to be taken out, plants that need to be watered, and a flat tire that needs to be filled.

This is not to mention the push through news notifications, the ticker on the bottom of the screen, or the constantly-changing calendars I manage. On the outside, my life is scattered, but on the inside my heart is equally scattered, pulled in different directions by competing desires. I find myself longing to pray with David in Psalm 86, “Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name.”

Like many of you, I often ask the Lord to give me a word or phrase at the turn of the new year. Like many of you, I also tend to forget that word or phrase after a month of living in the tyranny of the urgent.  As such, I hesitate to even pick a word, but this year I feel like the Lord picked one for me: Focus.

Many people will be talking about focus in the coming weeks: Focus on your goal, focus on caring for yourself, focus on the right priorities, focus on setting those habits. But I just want to focus period. To be focused where God has me in each moment, unified in heart rather than divided and distracted. Not feeling guilty about the twenty things I am not currently doing or the the forty other needs I should be meeting, but rather being more fully free and focused on where I actually am.

Beams of Attention

A few month back, I read an old tattered book by Keith Greene, and one little nugget contained therein planted itself in my soul. Greene likened his focused attention as a beam or spotlight, as seen below.

“It is as our attention were a powerful spotlight, the beam of which God lets us direct. We can shine the beam off into the past or future or into the eyes of the people around us in the present…I began to see that agape love rides down the beam of our attention into people’s hearts.” 

It is a challenging thought to think about agape love sliding down the beams of our attention. We live in a culture largely known for its short attention spans, and we house hearts whose attention beams tends to continually reorient around self. As such, it seems that much agape love that could be sliding from the Father of lights down the beams of our attention to a desperately needy world never arrives.

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Focusing Scattered Beams

If focused attention is beam, my attention is more like a spewing geyser. When my older children are wanting to show me their latest invention, I find myself present physically but mentally-scattered. When my husband is seeking to share about his day, I find myself thinking of the remainder of the to-do list I might be able to knock out later that evening. I have found myself begging the Lord who is unified in His purposes and His affections to make me more like Him.

Rather than be utterly overwhelmed by the sheer number of women at our Church, I am asking the Lord to give me a few women upon whom I might focus my attention beam this season.

At home, I find myself scanning a yard that needs some TLC, a pile of laundry and a pathetic pantry. When I catch the beams of my attention dissipating into a spectrum of to-do lists,  I have been asking the Lord to let my beam of attention linger a little longer on the hearts in our home rather than the domestic duties.

But more than anything, I have been found myself wondering at the multi-faceted, multi-colored, constantly radiating beams of agape attention that God directs at me. That the God who created the sun and lightwaves and the spectrum of visible and invisible light would set His affection on anyone is shocking. That He would set it upon me, one who constantly fritters my attention on self and shimmery fool’s gold, is even more shocking.

The Beams of the Father
When I read through the Gospels, I see a Christ who consistently focused the beams of agape love that He received constantly on whomever was set before Him. A poor widow. A wealthy, woeful centurion. A pack of crazy kids. A crowd of hungry paupers. A suspect tax collector. Christ was able to radiate what He received by consistently relying upon the approval of His heavenly Father. More than the strange star that had indicated his birth beamed, the beams of God’s love perpetually warmed the Son.

Yet, in those painful hours on that horrible hill, the beam of favor turned away from Him. All was darkness, within and without, to the end that the beams of God’s favor might be set once again on those who would call upon Him.

The spotlight that the Son deserves has been turned upon those who look up to Him for deliverance. The children of light, those who receive the steady spotlight of the Father, are invited to focus the light they have received into the lives of those still in darkness.

May we know the fullness of the beams of His favor towards us. May the beams of our attention bring Him glory this season. Amen.

Can Crossfit Coach the Church?

Full disclosure: I do not do Crossfit. I do what I have dubbed “Mom Fit” which means that I daily carry heavy children and groceries and book bags in addition to my brisk walk. That being said, I have been observing the Crossfit movement from afar for quite some time. Many of my dear friends are involved in various Crossfit movements and gyms, and I have even nearly died a few times trying to join them.

As such, I have been pondering this morning what the Church might glean from the Crossfit movement. After all, I see these gyms mobilizing people to do insane and often terribly uncomfortable things daily. I see people involved becoming raving fans who cannot help but invite others to join them. I see Crossfit bringing people together across political, economical and racial lines.

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Clarity & Incremental Goals

It took me quite some time to realize what in the world WOD meant. For those who are couch potatoes or brisk walkers like me, WOD is an acronym meaning Workout of the Day. Each day, the people walking into the Crossfit gym are challenged to a very specific workout. The goal for each day is clear. If the WOD is too challenging, there are adaptable exercises that help participants incrementally gain the strength and form required to eventually do them with greater comfort and ease.

While I am not suggesting that our churches post a daily workout on a chalkboard sign, I do think that we could learn to offer people more clarity. What does it mean to be a member? What is required of volunteers? What does a community group (gospel community, life group, cell group, etc…) actually do for its members?

Rather than expecting that everyone who walks into our doors already possesses the necessary skills to open, read, study, apply and cherish the Word of God, we might learn to offer incremental trainings to get people to place where they can do their daily spiritual workout with confidence and skill.

Community & Consistency 

It seems that people who Crossfit love Crossfit. The community that begins over squats and burpies tends to bleed into other parts of life, morphing into friendships and dinner parties and the likes. From the outside, it seems that they have done an excellent job creating community around challenging tasks, around a shared mission. I most certainly find it hard to imagine waking up and getting excited about pushing my body to its uttermost limits, yet these gyms seem to have done just that!

Perhaps such a sense of community comes from the near-daily expectation of working out; perhaps the community is birthed from the consistency of having a shared public space which is neither the workplace nor the home. Either way, Crossfit gyms seem to have done what the Church continues to try to do: create an intimate community around a shared vision and task.

I recognize that the Church delves into messier areas of life than a gym; however, as a women’s ministry director, I sense I have a lot to learn from the contagious community around a terribly uncomfortable mission.

After all, the Church exists to make much of the name of Christ, to be the family of God here on earth and to equip its people to do the hard work of mortifying sin and living to righteousness (which is a far from comfortable task).

Long-Range Goals & Celebration

I don’t imagine that the Crossfit community promises results overnight. If I were to walk my not-so-toned self into a gym, I presume that they would tell me that while results take time, the end result will be well-worth the sore muscles and torn hands.

Similarly, sanctification and depth of relationship in the context of the local Church will not yield instantaneous results. We would do well to continually set the end-goal of Christ-likeness before our people while also reminding them that day in and day out practices might not always feel good or worthwhile. For no discipline at the time seems pleasant, but painful, but in the end, it produces the peaceable fruit of righteousness in those who have been trained by it (Hebrews 12:11).

Perhaps by celebrating the small wins more regularly and highlighting the reality of the struggle on the backdrop of the greater goal, the Church might move closer toward equipping its people for a long obedience in the same direction.

Adversity Anniversaries

It does not surprise me that calendars don’t include “Adversity Anniversary” among their Hair Appointment and Birthday reminder stickers, as there is not much cute or marketable about remembering devastating days.

But then again, usually these days don’t need marking out. The amygdala and the soul have their own built-in reminder systems. Smells, sounds, temperatures, songs. Even the smallest things have a way of alerting us of the approach of a weighty anniversary, whether it mark the passing of a beloved family member, an exile from home, a day of sudden disaster or a dreaded diagnosis.

On these weighty days, time seems to stand still and lives are turned upside down yet again. Haunting memories are relieved, even if one has come to the other side of the trauma. Like regular aftershocks after an earthquake, anniversaries of adversity have a way of once again shaking the ground that has been slowly settling with time.

My dear friend is approaching the anniversary of a sudden sickness that left her fighting for her life. Although God graciously spared her life and miraculously brought her back from the precipice of death, she lives with daily reminders of the trauma.

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She and her family have no need to mark out this day, this day and the subsequent days have marked them. Time is now measured and remembered as before the sickness and after.

Of course, they have deep gratitude for her life being spared. Yet, this first anniversary will be far from a day of celebration. Despite so many answers to the desperate prayers of so many loved ones, questions still swarm.

As I was processing their approach to this anniversary, the Lord was gracious to lead me to a book by the talented Michael Card. A Sacred Sorrow attempts to bring back the language of lament to an often overly-victorious Western Christianity. Card winsomely and beautifully makes the case that lament is a gift that will lead us to our lasting home.

“Jesus understood that lament was the only true response of faith to the brokenness and fallenness of the world. It provides the only trustworthy bridge to God across the deep seismic quaking of our lives. His life reveals that those who are truly intimate with the Father know they can pour out any hurt, disappointment, temptation, or even anger with which they struggle. Jesus’ own life is an invitation to enter through the door of lament.” 

The pathway of lament is not a popular highway; in fact it is not even a highway at all. For each person, it is a unique path through our own particular pains and problems, losses and longings. Yet, this path was trodden by our Older Brother Jesus who followed it to Golgotha, the place of the skull.

We know that the Cross and the tomb were not the end of His journey. We know that He wrestled with questions and wept in lament in the Garden of Gethsemane that one day His purchased people might weep and question no more.

Yet, the journey between the Cross and the Crown feels long.

May we help our friends grieve the days that have marked them; however, may we also be those quick to remind them and ourselves that all our days have been marked in His book, but that they have been written by a hand marked with the scars of a sacrificial love.

In a culture that thrives on optimism and victory,  may we become a people comfortable with lament. May we also have eyes fixed on the Coming Christ, who has prepared for us a city without walls and tearless days without end.

Fiction in a Fractured World

When life feels out of control and the news too heavy, I find myself drawn to one of two places: the library or the woods (or the San Diego version of the woods which is chaparral). All that to say, you better believe that your girl has been devouring books of late. In a world that is fractured, in a church that is increasingly fragmented, and in a culture that is fragile, fiction has proven a sweet place of solace for my soul.

When I say solace, I do not mean escape. Good fiction might pull us away from our lives for a few hours into a literary world, but it is intended to plant us back in our places changed with new perspective. Don’t get me wrong, there have been plenty of times when I have sought to escape from heaviness or problematic realities into a good book, but the best books don’t let me run away from reality. They patch me back up, pack my proverbial bag with perspectives, and send me back into my real world either slightly or significantly different.

Story can be salve. Story can provide a common table at which people who would otherwise have no shared experience can sit down and chat. Story allows us to travel to other times and cultures even when a travel ban keeps our feet grounded and quarantine orders keep us homebound. Story reminds us that we are not the only ones to experience chaos, confusion, and confounding times. Story provides an objective, yet subjective fodder for discussion in a polemical, divisive times where shouting matches and online punching matches have stolen the stage.

Story cannot and should not ever replace the Scriptures for centrality in the life of a believer. For the Scriptures offer the Story from which all our other stories derive their power. We crave story because we were made in the image of the Grand Storyteller. At their best, stories on earth are distant echoes of the story written into our souls and into which our souls are written. Good fiction is not to be feared.

Fiction as Fodder

I hesitate to join into the conversation around Critical Race Theory in the church, as I am sure many of you do. I am not an expert at sociology. While I dabble in theology, I am no C.S. Lewis or G.K Chesterton or Malcolm Muggeridge. The debate is overwhelming and loud from where I sit. However, I can pick up a good book and enter into a story about race and racial divisions. Through story, I can experience empathy and outrage, even if I have not experienced the same thing as another. Through story, I can feel the weight of complex problems even if I do not know what the exact solution may be.

Two particular stories have been shaping and helping me in regards to race in the past few weeks: Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black and Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country.

Both allowed me to experience through story tiny slivers of slavery in the Caribbean and pre-apartheid life in South Africa. Neither book coached me in how to approach CRT or how to move forward in healing amidst the fresh racial fractures in the American church, as neither directed addressed it. However, each author invited me on a journey into experiences I have never had and taught me to see the world a little differently. They indirectly helped me learn to ask better questions about race and experience.

I don’t know if their authors are believers in Christ. But Christ used them to remind me of the brokenness and beauty of His church. He used them to remind of me the nuanced complexity and the depth of the results of the Fall of mankind. They may not lead me all the way to Christ, but they grow my love for Him as the incarnate solution to the problem of sin in all its grotesque and embodied forms.

What are you reading these days? How does the Word of God help you sift through the stories you read?

End nerdy “Fiction has a place in the life of faith” plug.

Action-value in an Information Age

If the amount of input and information received over the centuries was compared to waves, the progression would look like the following: ripple, ripple, ripple, wave, tidal wave, tsunami. Even those who fight hard to limit technological and informational input are bombarded with a sea of often inert information and images.

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Although I am not on Instagram and only watch the PBS News Hour once or twice a week, I receive enough information from emails, texts and Facebook feeds alone to overwhelm me. I know what your child is wearing, who graduated from kindergarten, and that Fidgit spinners can be lodged in throats. I also have seen images of starving children in Africa and scrolled through two years worth of political rhetoric.

Information is a powerful thing; however, when we are inundated with so much information that we begin to feel powerless and overwhelmed by the global village in which we live, it may be time to stop and think.

Neil Postman wrote an insightful book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, in the mid 1980’s to discuss the way the television was shaping culture. If what he wrote was true of the television age, it is infinitely more true of the computer age. Postman writes about the ratio of input and output regarding information, which he calls the information-action ratio.

“In both oral and typographic cultures, information derives its importance from the possibilities of action. Of course, in any communication environment, input (what one is informed about) always exceeds output (the possibilities of action based on information)….Prior to the age of telegraphy, the information-action ratio was sufficiently close so that most people had a sense of being able to control some of the contingencies in their lives. What people knew had action-value.”

He traces the beginning of the imbalance of the information/ action ratio to the invention of the telegraph.

“But the situation created by telegraphy, and then exacerbated by later technologies, made the relationship between information and action both abstract and remote. For the first time in human history, people were faced with the problem of information glut…In the information world created by telegraphy, this sense of potency was lost, precisely because the whole world became the context of our news. Everything became everyone’s business.”

If the information-action scale was set off balance by the telegraph, the internet has taken the imbalance to whole new levels.  We no longer have to walk to the local telegraph to send and receive information; we now have the equivalent of a lightning-speed telegraph in our pockets connecting us to the pockets of most of the known world.

I have been thinking deeply this week on the concept of action-value. I have tried to be cognizant of every piece of information I have willingly received to see what action-value might be assigned to it. What am I meant or able to do with this information? Does it have any direct bearing on my life? What tangible actions can I take regarding this information input?

Most of the information I have received has left me feeling, at best, amused or shocked, and at worst, overwhelmed, helpless, worried, heavy or guilty. The realization that most of the information I process is both emotional and inert makes me want to reconsider the information-action ratio in my little world.

While I do want to be and to raise global citizens concerned with the world, I find myself drawn more deeply to the local as a way to seek to restore balance to the information-action ratio.

Prayer has a real and tangible action-value. But even so, my heart can only hold so many burdens and pray diligently for so many people and causes. I have had to force myself to evaluate if there was room in my heart in that hour or moment for more information.

I have decided that I can only follow the goings-on of one situation or cause in such a way as to actually act on the information, whether by prayer or donation or investigation.

Before checking Facebook, I have stopped to ask myself the following questions: Are you in a place to do anything about you might see? If not, why are you looking?

I have also stopped to ask myself “What is the action-value of this information?” before posting something or dishing out information.

These small measures feel like cardboard shields against a tidal wave of information, yet they have helped me to add a few ounces to the action side of the information-action ratio.

 

God, Give Us Tears

I wrote this a few years ago, but in light of COVID-19, I was reminded that one of the gifts the Christian Church can offer our hurting world is the gift of our tears.

What God would probably most love for Christmas is the tears of His people.

In LA, wild fires are raging, burning treasured memories and holiday hopes.  Across the globe, the fires of tension in Bethlehem, the city of our Savior’s birth have been reignited.

The same eyes that wept over the city of Jerusalem thousands of years ago ache to have us weep over the condition of our world, beginning in our own homes and hearts.

Oh, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings and you were not willing! Matthew 23:37.

The wisdom of the wisest man, Solomon, tells us that for everything there is a season and a time. This is the time for tears. There will come a day when every tear will be wiped away from every year, but that time is not yet.

Simon Blocker powerfully captures this sentiment in his book Personality through Prayer. 

“A good case can be made out for it that perhaps the most immediate and imperative need of the Christian church right now is a flood of tears, a veritable deluge of tears for the sins and sorrows of the world…The tearlessness of average Christians in face of prevailing degeneracy partakes of the very blindness and insensitiveness to moral reality which marks the conscienceless conduct of contemporary society. ‘God give us tears,’ is a prayer that may well have justified claim to priority.”

God, give us tears. A scary prayer, but one that would honor our Father as much as it would disrupt our comfort.

When God promised to remove our calloused hearts of stone and gives us hearts of flesh, He gave us the gift of the capacity to feel both the heights of joy and the depths of despair. This gift of feeling is not meant to be wasted only upon ourselves.

Our tears show us where our treasures lie.  I cry when I am tired, I cry when I overwhelmed by my to-do list, I cry when I fail. I cry when things don’t happen as I planned or expected. I cry even at the slightest perception of pain for my children. These are my treasures.

My trail of tears betrays me, as does my lack of tears. I hate to admit it, but until this morning, I have not watched the news in quite some time. Part of not watching the news is wisdom in leading an easily overwhelmed heart; however, part of not watching the news is not wanting to experience discomfort, not wanting to cry the tears that God would borrow my eyes to cry over His world.

I am often so busy with my own schedule, so myopic about my own life, that my tear ducts are not available to the King of Kings. I long to be so connected and in tune with Christ, so consistently walking by the Spirit, that I cry tears that He would cry were He still walking this spinning globe.

This week, I have been asking God to give me tears. It is working. As I write this, my heart is heavy beyond words for the devastation of peace workers in Jerusalem who have worked tirelessly for decades to nurture peacemaking relationships among Palestinians and Israelis who are fearful of one another after centuries of mutual hatred. One announcement is enough to reignite the conflicts to a levels rivaling the California wildfires.

If you are looking for a small way to invest your tears into the peacemaking process, consider purchasing a peace doll made collectively by Palestinian and Israeli women in Jerusalem through the Preemptive Love Coalition. The dolls are sold out, but there are plenty of other items in their shop! https://preemptivelove.shop/collections/refugee-made

 

The beauty of the diversity of the body of Christ is that each of us have different causes and cares that tap into the aquifer of tears in our souls. You may not cry over the wildfires or the peace of a people that hangs in the threads of a complex conflict; but if you are in Christ, He longs to cry tears through your eyes. And now is the time for tears, because soon and very soon, Our King will come again and the time for tears will forever be closed. Let us learn to spend them wisely.

Oh, God, give us tears. Amen.

How Our Holidays Reveal Our Hearts

What began as a silly way to make a long drive feel shorter quickly became a source of exposure and sadness.

My youngest son happens to have been born on St. Patrick’s Day which is a source of great pride for him. As a joke, my other sons began looking up what holidays might fall on the rest of the birthdays of our family members. Somewhere, in the laughter and silliness of hearing about Taco Day, Cat Lover Day, and Donut Day, my heart became heavy. Continue reading

When Ensemble is Enough

Every Thursday evening from 6 to 9 pm for years, I would go to theater classes at Spring Lake Community Playhouse. To most, this would seem a beautiful opportunity, a normal feat.

But for this shy little girl who was utterly tone-deaf and only slightly coordinated, those years in theater were a near-Herculean feat.  We spent one hour at voice lessons, standing around a piano or warming up our voices. But since there is no warming up a voice that is clearly broken, while others sang and found their pitch, I watched the minute hand on the clock slowly edge towards relief, an hour of dance. I enjoyed the freedom to move, or, should I say, I enjoyed as much freedom one can feel in a room surrounded on every side by mirrors. In dance class, time moved as quickly as we leaped, and in no time, we would find ourselves in acting class. Outgoing students thrived as they did soliloquies and made impromptu commercials and such. Shy students with a tendency of blushing tended to turn into little bundles of nerves.

I survived my very short season as a very unknown novice actress in a very unknown theater. And that is precisely what qualifies me to talk about ensembles and such.

I may not be able to sing and I may not be able to dance and I may turn four shades of red when people even glance at me, but I do know about ensembles.

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In my theater years, after auditions there would be an excited, nervous gaggle of children crowding around the casting list. I would wait my turn, run my finger down the sheet of paper, and sigh an earnest sigh of relief to find my name safely in the ensemble. That’s where I belonged. Those were my people, be they nameless orphans in Oliver Twist, street children in A Christmas Carol or flowers in Alice in Wonderland.

Despite my lack of talent and my fears, I actually enjoyed my short foray in the theater.  Even though I only uttered one phrase in all my shows combined, being part of something bigger than myself thrilled me. In the midst of the long practices and the ridiculously tedious dress rehearsals, I had a sense of something greater, grander than my little heart or mind could even articulate.

Ensemble was enough then. I long for ensemble to be enough now.

We live in a culture enamored with celebrities and giftedness and fame. This obsession cuts through  every field of interest and industry. In its most obvious form, this myopia is evident in the music and film industries, in collegiate and professional athletics, and in academic settings from elementary school and beyond. However, in a more subtle form, it has bled its way into our neighborhoods, and, yes, even into the Church.

If we peel back the cultural layer, we find this idolatry with notoriety and fame rearing its ugly head in churches and homes. Peeling back one more layer, we find the culprit: the human heart.

According to the Bible,  the desire to upstage reared its ugly head in the human drama shortly after the curtain opened.  In Genesis, the book of beginnings, Moses recorded what Yahweh had revealed to him concerning the origin and purpose of mankind on Mount Sinai. Moses writes that in the beginning of beginnings, Adam and Eve were discontent with the role they were given by God, desiring to have more power, more control and full knowledge. Meanwhile, as Moses was likely receiving these revelations of the fall of mankind, it was happening again, as his own brother and sister Aaron and Miriam, became discontent with their secondary roles. On and on and on, the cycle repeats itself throughout the entire Bible and continues on into the present day.

Most of us most naturally live as if the world is a stage and everyone else is merely a player in our story. Is there any way to assuage this human hunger for the fame and notoriety of the lead role?

Thomas Chalmers, a Puritan writer, wrote about the “expulsive power of a greater affection,” the notion that the only way to fight desire is with desire. According to this line of thinking, one gets rid of a lesser desire only when a greater desire settles into one’s heart, thus expelling the old desire.

If this is the case, and tradition and experience seem to say that it is, then the only way to fight our desire to be the lead role in our own two-bit story is to be invited into a greater epic story. It’s one thing to be caught up in something bigger than yourself, like I was in my children’s theater ensemble days; it’s quite another to be called up into THE story of human history, the story of God’s redemption of the world through Christ.

The screen-writer and director Himself has written each of His children into roles in this grand drama, be they two-bit parts, minor speaking roles or major roles. This realization has the power to completely transform and rearrange our little lives; it can and should endue our lives with meaning and purpose. In light of the bigger picture, the grand production, we are able to move from competing with other two-bit actors and actresses to cooperating with them to see the story come to fruition and success.

I know this to be true, as do many of you. The problem is that we sometimes lose sight of the big picture. We get lost in our little corner of the ensemble and begin competing and setting up our own ramshackle little stages and sets right there on His stage.  We fret and fume and fester at how no one notices us or appreciates us; we fight for attention, recognition and purpose. When we don’t get it, we sit down with our arms crossed and our hearts crestfallen.

We would continue in such a state, were it not for the graciousness of our God. Somehow, in His winsome manner, He reminds us of the bigger picture. It may be that we hear the faint sound of the chorus in the background, streams of individuals that have joined to become a rushing sea of praise and purpose. It may be that peaking from behind the curtain, we catch a glimpse of the show that leaves us longing to be back in the ensemble, back where, though we were small, we were significant and secure. How He brings us back into contentment in His company if of little matter; what matters is that we find ourselves back in His story.

For when we are in His presence, in His company, ensemble is enough.

“Not to us, Lord, not to us, but Your name be the Glory because of your lovingkindness and because of Your truth.” Psalm 115: 1