The Desert Will Bloom

Isaiah 35

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus;  it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God. 

Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.  Say to those who have an anxious heart, “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.” 

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;  then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;  the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; in the haunt of jackals, where they lie down, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.  And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Way of Holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it. It shall belong to those who walk on the way; even if they are fools, they shall not go astray.  No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.  And the ransomed of the LORD shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.  – Isaiah 35

As I read this passage of Scripture in the midst of sheltering in place because of Covid-19 I am encouraged. I am encouraged not because anything has changed this morning, unless what has changed is my perspective. The world remains the same, and so does God.

This was written to ancient Israel. It was written as a closure of the first 34 chapters of the book of Isaiah, in which the people of God were chastised for their idolatry and their injustice. They had failed to worship God with their whole hearts, to worship Him alone. They had failed to care for the least of these among their own people: the poor, the widow, the fatherless. Therefore God was going to exile them to a distant land. He was going to bring upon them their just punishment, in the form of ancient Assyria.

This passage looks past the exile to a time in which the people would again rejoice greatly and shout for joy. It looks ahead to the return from exile, the time in which God would do amazingly greater things than He had done. The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel also see ahead to that day, the time of when the Messiah would come.

So I read this passage and see backward, to the day when Israel came back out of the land of Babylon, back to Jerusalem. It was a day of great joy. And yet, it was a day of great disappointment, as the walls were broken down, the temple was destroyed, and people’s hearts had not yet been made new. That New Day was still to come.

I read this passage and see backward, to the day when Jesus came. He lived an amazing life of blessing and healing. It was verses 5-6 and He quoted to John the Baptist’s followers when asked if he was the Messiah. Jesus ushered in this New Day, the Return. He is the Messiah who brings this New Day, yet mostly only in our own hearts, in our soul, and not yet in the culture and in the world as a whole. The New Day is here, but not yet fully.

So as I sit here, sheltering in place, listening to the birds, I have hope, for this passage reveals who God is. He is one who turns the desert into the oasis. He is the one who calls to us and says, “Be strong, do not fear, your God will come.” God will clear up this pandemic, this disaster that has come upon the world. It is a disaster unlike any other, though certainly not the worst the world has ever seen.

My fear is that people (myself included) are not actually looking to God for His saving hand. I hear much from leaders of plans, or no plans. I hear of reopening things, or not opening things yet. I hear little of prayer. I know there are people in different administrations that are praying, but this thought led me to pray for mayors and governors and presidents and kings today. I pray they would be given wisdom from on high, from God, who actually knows all things, unlike we broken and fallen humans.

I sit here and look forward to the day when we will return to hugging our friends, to going out to eat, to kids seeing their teachers and enjoying playing on playgrounds. Because God is who He is, these things will return. I do hope it’s a return to less idolatry and less injustice as well. I will do what I am able.

But mostly, reading this, I look forward, far forward, though I do not know how far. I look forward to that Day, that Final Day, in which God wraps up this age as one wraps up a cloak. I look forward to that Day in which He fully and finally creates that highway called the Way of Holiness. Right now that Way seems like a trail through the wilderness, in which faithfulness to God feels difficult and dangerous. One day, it will truly be a highway, and people of all nations will walk upon it, going to His temple to worship Him. “The redeemed will walk there, and the ransomed of the LORD will return and come to Zion with singing.” It will be a day in which “sorrow and sighing will flee away” finally and fully away. This is the hope of the Bible, that the earth will be redeemed. Jesus came to pay the way for us, to pay for our sin and rebellion by taking the just punishment of that rebellion upon Himself, so that we could go free.

So until that day when God turns the whole desert into an oasis (the New Earth), I wait. But I wait with eyes that see our true end, and I begin to sing.

“Some bright morning, when this life is gone, I’ll fly away.

To a land where joy will never end, I’ll fly away.

I’ll fly away o‘ glory. I’ll fly away.

When I die, hallelujah by and by, I’ll fly away…”

Frustration is real…

I sometimes feel like I am silly to be frustrated by the little details of my current experience with the Covid-19 crisis. After all, it is factually clear that what we are doing is critical.  We get to participate in protecting our communities and to be part of the global community that is facing this unprecedented health crisis (at least unprecedented in our time…).  My family is hardly bearing the weight that so many servants in our communities are living under, such as our amazing health professionals, grocery store workers, and emergency responders (Thank you!).

Nevertheless, the ups and downs are real. We are all experiencing ambiguous loss, in addition to many different real losses that vary from person to person.  The ambiguous loss creates an internal weariness—it is not knowing what is coming or what the long-term implications of our current experiences will be. It arises out of both fear for ourselves and empathy for others—concern for friends, family, neighbors, local businesses and charities… It is magnified by not knowing what to believe or how many articles to keep reading…

Is anyone else finding that they go in and out of frustration, sometimes within one day? Here are some of the silly things that I allow to scratch my frustration threshold. Maybe you can identify…

  • Getting angry at a child for not eating the apple sauce I gave them for morning snack.
  • Feeling like crying when my child won’t try to do any math problem by herself, but instead insists that I “help” her with every single one…
  • Spending half an hour confused about why my son’s computer won’t connect to the internet, only to realize that a manual tab on the side of the computer was switched to not allow any connections…
  • Getting tired of repeating “I really just need you to get into the habit of making your bed in the morning. For my sanity, OK?”
  • Wanting to roll my eyes at the child who throws a fit when I say we are going for a walk together, when he hasn’t even been out of the house all day…
  • Feeling exasperated that only 3 out of the 5 kids want to do my planned craft for the day (lets be real – that’s a majority and should be cause for celebration).
  • Feeling unproductive: I am so used to being meticulously scheduled (juggling 7 people’s activities and to do lists), that I am having much more trouble focusing without that…

So what is the solution to these frustrations? For me it is the simple practice of thankfulness. I know this is not headline news…not brain surgery…pretty obvious, really.  For example, for years I have had friends praise the practice of thankfulness they were inspired to live out after reading Ann Voskamp’s book One Thousand Gifts. I myself have had seasons of practicing the discipline. Yet I still need to be reminded.  Psalm 69:30+ talks about praising God in the midst of hard things, saying “I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving…For the Lord hears the needy…” When I turn my heart to thanksgiving, peace does come, despite uncertain circumstances. Philippians 4:6-7 is not making it up or presenting a pipe dream when it speaks of presenting our requests to God “with thanksgiving…,” indicating that the peace of God follows, not because our circumstances are miraculously changed or fixed, but because we are changed from the inside (by relationship with Him and by hope in Him).

When I stop and think about it, I have so much to be thankful for! I have a wonderful husband and precious children who all love one another and play well together (despite the daily bantering and bickering).  In the last few weeks, I have been enjoying time with the kids, and have been taking advantage of the extensive opportunities for family time. We have made time for activities that used to fall by the wayside among the bustle of the average Spring week in years past: more devotionals, novels read out-loud, board games, crafts, daily walks, etc.  I am thankful that we have enough food on the table and money to pay rent.  I am thankful that I in fact have enough to share with those who don’t have quite enough.  I am thankful for flexible jobs for my husband and I, and that my husband is even able to take time to go and help care for a family member recovering from medical challenges. I am thankful for ways to connect with family and friends who are also sheltering in place far away from us. I am thankful that I get to continue to mentor some awesome young college women (now just online) who I know encourage me as much as I do them.

Granted, it is easy to start comparing and wondering if I am doing enough school-wise for each child (yep, speaking to the choir here parents, right?). Surprisingly (ok, not really), I am not used to navigating individualized work for 5 different ages and state standards (even though I do have some experience with home school), in addition to still making time for my work for Cru. I like to measure up, and I can start looking at what other moms are doing, and feel inadequate…

Yet thankfulness takes the power right out of comparison, and it weans me from it. It allows me to be me—the mom, wife, friend, and employee that my unique personality and gifts make me—and to give myself grace. God has given me grace in abundance, and he wants me to flourish as I walk in it.

Today, I will choose thankfulness!

A Family Update

We like to give periodic updates of our family, especially so that those of you who pray for and support our ministry can know us more as a whole family. We are amazed at how quickly the kids grow and change! We are thankful for how God is at work in their hearts, growing them into young men and women who love Him and love others well. Here is a brief picture of what they are up to.

  • Isaiah is our teenager, and is doing well in school, taking some classes at the local junior high, and some independent study through Davis School of Independent Study (DSIS). He is very responsible to get his work done and to keep track of his complicated schedule. He is enjoying a welding class, participated in Cross Country in the Fall, and is now involved in a community-based ultimate frisbee group. He also continues to develop as a pianist, and has grown more expressive in his music.
  • Bethany is doing her last elementary school year with me at home, through DSIS, before she starts Junior High next year. We are enjoying the time together, and are making more time for art and focusing on topics that interest her. She is highly responsible, but still can be playful and goofy, which is a great combination! She continues to love ballet, volunteers in her little sister’s class at school, and has started a couple little babysitting jobs. She also loves connecting with friends both from school and church.
  • Judah loves sports and reading! He is a deep thinker, and loves to talk about the Bible and share his thoughts about God.  He had a great soccer season this fall, and is looking forward to playing Little League baseball this Spring. He also enjoys playing games, including the Breath of the Wild video game and family card games. He is starting to enjoy piano too, even though he doesn’t love the whole “you have to practice” thing…
  • Laticia has grown up so much in the last year. She loves school and is very curious about why the world works the way it does. She makes friends easily. She enjoyed soccer this Fall with a great team of girls, and is excited to try dance in the Spring (since she hears so much about it from big sister). She also absolutely loves to entertain Shylee, and the two of them run around the house laughing almost every night. This makes us smile, but also wears us out…
  • Shylee is the energizer bunny. She miraculously does not run out of energy until she is strapped into the car or tucked into bed and she succumbs to sleep. She is so much fun, and loves to tell stories, both real and made up, often finishing with the wide-eyed, closed-lipped “you should believe me because I am so cute” look. She relishes making her siblings laugh (and is also quite good at pushing their buttons). She is friendly to EVERYONE; we will have to work on the stranger danger concept some more, but it means she brightens the world and makes many a stranger smile. She is also our little acrobat, unafraid of any physical challenge, and has taught herself to do practically-perfect cartwheels. We can’t believe she is about to turn 4!

Thanks to all who love and pray for our family. God is good to us!

Living in a Complex World

Anyone else tired from trying to say and do ‘the right thing’ in relation to every friend or acquaintance? I am sometimes tired because it feels like it is such a moving target. I am a people pleaser by nature (largely because of my own pride—I don’t like to be disliked…).  Yet I also have strong convictions about things like respect and truth and love, so I seek to have integrity in how I live. I want to live authentically and humbly, listening carefully to others’ perspectives while living out my own convictions with grace and truth wherever I go. The problem is that I can’t control whether someone feels my actions as respectful and loving; I can only determine my intentions and actions.

For example, it is tiring because if I forget to text someone back, it can be read as an intentional “ghosting” and can be a crack in a friendship that results in a feeling of coolness that you can’t figure out where it is from. It is tiring because when I try to be friendly to a stranger’s child, she literally yells at me for overstepping boundaries and critiques me for being too protective of my own 3 year old child (who, incidentally, she doesn’t know anything about, and doesn’t know was just swinging on the monkey bars by herself a few minutes ago…). It is tiring because I want to ask people deep questions about how they are doing because I really care about them and their families, but I don’t know if they will take offense and see me as overstepping. It is tiring because I don’t feel like I have enough energy or emotional capacity to care for people the way I want to, and then am often worried that they don’t know how much I care.  It is tiring because I can’t even give each of my kids the level of individual attention and investment that I wish I could, let alone give the kind of focus I would like to give to each of the amazing and beautiful young women that I am mentoring.  It is tiring because I am deeply afraid of being misinterpreted…

So what do I do with all of this? I feel like there are really only a few choices. 1) I can let it slowly crush me as I continue to try to stand up under it, telling myself that I can do better and to just try harder… 2) I can pretend it is just a season and I ‘just have to get through it,’ 3) I can give up and just try to make myself happy; or 4) I can fix my eyes on Jesus, knowing that he sees me, not my adequacy.

I want to choose to fix my eyes on my Savior. Yes my savior; he is the savior of the world, but it is also personal. I needed and need saving. And he knows it. He knows my inadequacy.  Jesus is the one who loves me even as he expects me to fail; he is the one who invites me and enables me to participate in meaningful work in my life; he is the one who experienced rejection and pain and suffering well beyond what I could ever bear. Psalm 103:13-14 reminds me, “As a father shows compassion to his children, So the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust.”

I also want to fix my eyes on him because he offers freedom from fear. I want to be free from my fear of people, especially my fear of being misinterpreted. Some of the deepest emotional wounds for me happen when someone assumes I had negative desires or intentions, when what I actually intended to communicate was nothing like that. I have tried to reason my way out of the scars that such interactions leave on me. I remind myself that I am responsible for me, not them; I try to remember that they may have extra credit behind the reaction that goes beyond what I did; I try to tell myself what is true of me as a child of God, and to just not care what the other person thinks… But it doesn’t always seem to work.

As I look to God’s Word to understand true “freedom,” I am reminded that “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” John 8:36. I am free from measuring up because He has paid my debt and has adopted me as his own beloved child. I am free from guilt because he has forgiven me “according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us…” Ephesians 1:7-8. I am free to confidently walk in relationship with God because “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Philippians 1:6.

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BeCause

Going in, we were told that Cru19 (our every-other year US Staff conference) had the theme BeCause. It was intended “to celebrate together both the cause that God has called us to and the fact that God also wants us to be…be in His presence and be in love with Him.” I was excited about this theme.  I have to admit, although I love to “just be” fully with God—and I often counsel others to make sure they take time to rest in God’s love and reflect on his amazing grace and mercy in our daily lives—I often find it challenging to do so for myself…

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Cru staff worshiping together!

Yet that “Being” is so critical. I have been reflecting on this reality lately, as I have observed so many friends struggling in a wide range of circumstances in their lives: mid-life crises, challenging relationships, tensions due to finances or broken relationships, ambiguity in what is next, mental illness, cancer journeys, parenting challenges… How do we still remember who God is and how he is both the creator and sustainer of all things and the personal loving father who knows the number of hairs on my head and is acquainted with grief? How do we not just think about that intellectually, but also believe it, letting it impact our hearts and minds? How do we authentically worship Him with thanksgiving (Col 3:16-17)?

It is remembering who God is and just how life-transforming it is to have his grace and love at work in our lives that helps. I need to “fix my eyes on Jesus” as it says in Hebrews 12:2, remembering his love that took him all the way to the cross, despite all the pain and loss, so that I can worship him and “not grow weary and lose heart.”

I was just teaching my Sunday School kids the beginning of Revelation, and it was honestly a great reminder to me of just how unspeakably amazing and worthy of our devotion and worship God truly is. Both because he is the conquering king AND the suffering lamb. I want to worship him and cast my crowns and my self-focus aside!

The “Cause” element is also so important, and proved to be very encouraging and challenging at the Cru19 Conference.

One key focus was how we need to be united as we pursue the cause God has called us to as a ministry. Our call is to continue in evangelism and discipleship, but we must acknowledge that, in order to do so, we must be willing to identify and address the brokenness and divisions that unnecessarily divide us. We must humbly seek to understand one another in order to learn from and better serve one another, first within the body of Christ, and also with those outside of the body.

Truth is essential to this journey. We must be willing to acknowledge the truth of our own weakness, our selfishness, our blindness, our prejudices, our inadequacy (both individually and as communities). Yet not stop there… We must take that and cling to hope by trusting God for strength, giving grace to one another as God has given it to us, relying on one another with all our different gifts, and being willing to patiently walk through lament, sorrow, and pain with our fellow humans. We do not need to compare, but to come alongside; We do not need to defend ourselves, but rather die to ourselves; We do not need to equivocate the truth, but embrace the truth.

God is good, and I am thankful to be his child and to participate in what He is doing in the world, including among “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).

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Our girls and their friends doing the Aruna Run at Cru19, a fundraiser for an amazing organization that helps enslaved women be freed and learn a trade.

Safety or Fear?

It has been a long time since I posted. It is funny how I am always thinking of things I could blog about, but then often don’t get past the initial outline. Partly because I don’t take the time to sit down and work on it (since my sit-down-and-work time is pretty jam packed with tasks already), but partly because I am afraid…

That is weird, right? Why should I be afraid to share my thoughts? Why do I worry that people won’t assume the best of me if I try to share? I mean, I see myself as a learner who always has more to learn; I consider myself a moderate politically—yet I am afraid that if someone finds out one piece of my perspective or views, they will construct a whole image of me that is more based on their concept of “what people who hold that view” are like, than on who I actually am.

Well, our culture today…(Stay with me a minute, now, don’t roll your eyes – I am going to consider culture, not blame it). As I was saying, our culture today is fascinating. As has become very clear, we are in a time of extreme polarization in our country right now. We all know that social media is not helping with that either. We often live in little echo chambers, drawing in articles that will affirm how we already think, “yelling” at people we don’t know and assuming/assigning them bad motives so that we can keep our concept that we are “right” and they are “wrong”; we are “smart” and they are “stupid”; we care about people and they only care about themselves and their own interests. It doesn’t seem to matter which perspective you are coming from; this is how both sides are training themselves to feel.

It can feel like we are stuck with a choice: either (1) stop engaging and isolate or (2) keep engaging and risk constant judgment and critique. I personally am not a fan of either option, and I believe there has to be a third way. Part of the reason I think the choice is a false one is that, while on the surface it looks like a choice between “safety” and “fear,” both choices (with this framing) tend to lead to unhealthy fear.

img_3499.jpgChoosing isolation might feel safe at first, but by rejecting deep relationships, we reject both relational joys and relational skills. That inevitably leads to fear. I want my children to know how to engage in healthy disagreements, not seek to avoid them.

Yet, if in my relationships I avoid topics that feel touchy, I model a lack of depth that leads to isolation. Isolation means we neither feel known nor let people deeply know us. As a result, a narrative of fear plays in our heads: “what if my surfacy friend finds out something about me he doesn’t like and then rejects me? Then I will be even more isolated…” In addition, if we are a parent or mentor who has chosen the path of isolation from culture, we have a second current of fear: Will my children follow my example and fight culture’s influence too, or will they get sucked in by culture and therefore pull away from me?

On the other side, choosing engagement can also be dominated by fear. We might be afraid of misunderstandings – of people not assuming the best or really trying to understand us. We might be afraid to express our thoughts or to ask questions—even in a wondering kind of way—because people might label us backwards or stupid or uneducated or even bigoted.  Sometimes we try to make up for this by choosing a false form of “safety” based on displays of “power.” It may manifest in defensiveness, biting back with words, or just pulling into a deeper echo chamber, which is another form of going into isolation after all…

I think the better choice—a “third way” so to speak—is to choose engagement, most deeply in more personal contexts. It is to expect that we can have a real human connection across difference. It is to believe that, even if someone else is pre-disposed to make assumptions about me, I can choose to still assume the best about them and seek to build connection.  Quite frankly, this usually involves not focusing on social media so much, but intentionally engaging in my neighborhood, at my kids’ schools and activities, with students on campus—places where I can actually be vulnerable, be a listener, humbly serve, and share my heart and passions. Focusing on what I have in common with people is what draws me into this choice. We are all unique and creative human beings, made in the image of God; we all long for connection and affection; we all want to be part of something meaningful and impactful. Even if we think the solutions to our longings are different, we can connect over the longings themselves, and then go from there.

I was just recently in Washington DC on a trip for work. DC is certainly a very polarized place right now, to put it mildly. But it was fun to get into real conversations with people from different sides of the political divide. IMG_20190507_193842283_HDR

In one particular conversation, my new acquaintance and I had a rare opportunity to delve beyond the normal assumptions about the views of the other. In this case, it was a conversation about “religious freedom.” In fact, we simply named the labels, addressed them head on, and then went beyond them. We talked about how real people are so much more complex and don’t fit those labels. It turned our conversation into a dialogue about what it could look like to assume the best and not just push people into our boxes for them, but rather invite them to paint a picture of their passions and their complexities. Even though it didn’t change the fact that the labels have and will continue to dominate the landscape, I left encouraged. My heart was hopeful because I had made a real connection.

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A quote at the MLK monument in DC

 

I am confident that God calls us to pursue this path of gracious, respectful, yet vulnerable engagement; not hiding what we believe or think, but speaking it with grace and respect.  The Apostle Paul says that for those who follow Jesus, it was “the goodness and loving kindness of God” that saved and changed us (Titus 3:4), so we likewise should “be gentle and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.” (Titus 3:2) and our speech should “always be gracious.”  In addition, the Apostle Peter says that, even when we engage directly about religion, sharing why we have such a deep hope in Jesus, we should do so “with gentleness and respect,” and combine it with “doing good” (1 Peter 3:15-17).

I like to listen. Yet I still have much to learn.  Do you want to engage too?

Light in Darkness

I have been thinking a lot about light and darkness lately. It is certainly relevant this time of year as we think about Jesus, as the light of the world, who came into a dark world to bring light and life and hope.

Our pastor recently described hope as a “pinhole of light.” It is not being imaginative and grasping at wishful thinking, but rather is seeing that there is reason for hope because certain things are true. For example, if we know God as compassionate and just and good, we can place our hope in Him and his promises.

When things are hard, what is good and life-giving shines all the more brightly. We appreciate what we have more when we know what it is not to have it—when we can recognize that certain things are not what we are entitled to, but blessings. This principle applies both to things and to relationships. The deepest relationships I have are not formed through perpetually positive interactions, such as watching movies, saying nice things, or even going on “epic vacations” together. If connections are kept at the safe “surface-level,” I find that there is still a fear in the back of my mind – “what if they find out about the real me, warts and all? What if they see that my life isn’t as perfect as it looks from the outside? Will they still want to be around me?”

In contrast, the moments of connection, understanding and love after sharing hard, deep thoughts or experiences together are what help me to feel known and loved. When my close friend sees that I am struggling with wisdom in parenting a certain child, and that I am broken over how my pride and failings can get in the way of parenting the way I want to, she can affirm that she understands and cares for me in the midst of that struggle. She can also rejoice with me as I take positive steps in improving my patience-level, she can pray with me as I take the long term view and keep pressing on, and she can help me feel safe and accepted even with my imperfections. A relationship like that brings rest and peace.

This kind of peace is exactly what the Gospel of Jesus Christ demonstrates.  It is the message that God sees us in all our messy imperfections and with our selfish desires, and loves us. He knows us fully and deeply, and yet does not run away or say we are not good enough or reject us as inadequate. Instead, he does so much more than even a great friend can. He sacrifices himself for us, takes on the record of our inadequacy, and pays for it. Out of love for us, he gives us his perfect record, saying we are forgiven and accepted, not because of what we have done or will do, but because of what he has done. He takes our shame and grants to us honor, calling us his very own children.  He communicates to us: “now live well, loving and serving people whether they deserve it or not, not so that you are accepted, but because you have and do experience that kind of love and acceptance from me.” We do not deserve it, but this love and acceptance of us “while we were still sinners,” brings a kind of peace that permeates us, inside and out.  It is a peace that cannot be found anywhere else.

Jesus is the light of the world. Amazing, profound, life-altering light.