Vertical

I’ve been doing some thinking on Ezra and the post-exilic time period in Israel’s history lately. And no, it’s not because I’m super spiritual or my thoughts just naturally turn to the Jews’ return to Israel after living for 70 years in Babylonian captivity. It’s because I’m teaching on the book of Ezra this weekend. (Don’t worry – for those who read my surgery blog last week, I will be teaching sitting down, and I am officially off of valium. Otherwise, this weekend’s lesson would have the potential to be very scary. Just ask my girls who’ve been homeschooled for the past two weeks by a mom who’s been on both codeine and valium. Yikes.) And because I am teaching on Ezra means I needed a crash course on what the post-exilic time period in Israel’s history even is, the importance of it, and how it provides encouragement and strength for the people of God today.

I have surrounded myself with commentaries, charts, study notes, and time lines, trying to figure out exactly who was reigning when, what king issued what edict in what language, where each king was ruling and reigning in relation to Israel, and blah, blah, blah. The fact that I’ve been on valium hasn’t helped. I keep having to read the same things over and over because my brain is processing things at the speed of a slug trekking across a field of jello.

Finally, yesterday, as I was trying to piece together and think through all of the facts once again, the Lord spoke clearly and directly to my heart: “Stop trying to figure out all these facts. Do you really want to know who was ruling and reigning? Me. Do you really want to know who had absolute authority? Me. I’ve never been dethroned or defeated. I’ve never had to hand my rule or my kingdom over to another. I have always been on my throne, and that’s all that really counts. Now let’s get down to the lesson.”

I am not de-bunking historical fact or the importance of verifying its details; nor am I trying to minimalize any aspect of Scripture or to make it sound dry or boring. Every portion of Scripture is active, alive, and God-breathed and has more life and excitement in it than the wildest of rides. It’s just that we can get so caught up down here from our horizontal, earthly position on earthly rule and reign. Who reigns. How long they’ve reigned. And who came after them. And we can get so tangled up in the details of earthly kingdoms. Who had what kind of power. And how they used it. Or didn’t use it.

I know I can, at least. This week, I spent hours, I mean hours, filling out visa forms for our family to go to China and renewal forms for our daughter’s 1800A forms for her immigration approval and status. (Don’t even ask me what that means. I really don’t even understand it all myself.) For a four page visa, I printed off ten pages of instructions, and had to comb through them all multiple times to fill out five different visa applications. I was concerned I was going to leave something off, mark something the wrong way, or forget to fill in a blank entirely. And at this point in our adoption process, there is NO ROOM FOR ERROR. I mean no room. We are down to the wire on expiration dates, extension dates, and travel dates. When I sat down to actually print off of completed visa forms, my printer jammed on the first page, my internet connection went out, and my printer ran out of ink. At one point I just threw up my hands – literally.

It was so easy to look down. It was so easy to become bogged down by all the earthly rules, reigns, and red tape of communist and capitalistic governments alike. At every major juncture of this adoption process – crossing a major paper work deadline or home study finish line – we have met resistance. Forms have been sent back, papers have been forgotten on an official’s desks for weeks at a time and printers have jammed. Many times over the past two years, making progress in our adoption has felt like a slug fighting through jello.

That’s why the post-exilic time period in Israel’s history was so vital for me to read about this week and remember. Talk about red tape. There was absolutely no earthly reason why the Jews should have been given permission to go back home and rebuild their temple or their walls. It’s a historic abnormality. But that’s because high and above all earthly rule and reign was a God who loves His people, has never stepped down off of His throne, and was directing the hearts of kings – multiple kings, over multiple rules and reigns. And the challenge for the Jews, just like the challenge for us today, and for me with all of our adoption paperwork, is to look vertically instead of horizontally. To look up instead of down. To look over and above instead of across. Because across is messy and depressing and full of fears about the what-ifs and what-nots and who-rules-and-who-reigns. But up is unchanging and enabling and full of peace, grace, mercy and an everlasting covenantal love. And that is where our gaze continually has to be.

Are you worried about lots of details this week? Are you concerned about someone’s specific rule and reign? Are you bogged down in trying to concern yourself in details that (listen to me here) do not matter? Hear me loud and clear: this is what matters: our God is on His throne. He has not stepped down or been pushed aside or excused Himself or forgotten where we are in the story.

He knows your story. He sees your details. And He is moving things along at His pace, according to His will, even if the pace feels like that of a slug in jello. The call He issues to us today, just as He did thousands of years ago to the Jews of Ezra’s day, is, “Stop looking across at earthly kings and look up to Me, Your Heavenly King. I have your details covered.”

Can you look up and out today with me? Can you stop worrying and start trusting? Surrender the details to Him in deep, abiding, trusting prayer, and then leave them there at the foot of the cross and at the foot of the only throne in history that has never changed rulers or reigning king.

This week, if you could pray specifically for us about the details for Mia Grace:

• That our Immigration Approval for Mia Grace would be speedily approved (specifically before May 18th). Parts of our home study expire on May 18th and we had to renew our Home Study and Immigration Approval to get her legally from China to the USA.
• That all five of our visas to get us into China would be processed quickly and accurately, and our passports and visas would be returned to us in a secure and timely manner.
• That travel details for our trip to China would fall into place. That we would know exactly when we are to go and where we are to go, and our travel itinerary would be planned by the Lord, not us, nor our agency, nor the Chinese government, and that our family would be right where we are supposed to be, right when we are supposed to be there.

Please let us know how we can be praying for you. It is our joy and delight to see the Kingdom of God, His rule and His reign, spread all over the earth through His people, in Ezra’s day and in our day as well, through dear friends and family like you. Thank you for helping to keep our faces and hearts in the vertical position; I am praying yours stays in the vertical position too.

Scheduling Surgery

About a week and a half ago, I had surgery in order to fix some abdominal issues that have needed fixing since my first pregnancy nine years ago. I decided I had put off surgery long enough (nine years isn’t too long to put off surgery, is it?) because, let’s face it, who really wants to have surgery? My doctor, a man I respect both as a physician and a person, assured me about the pain involved by saying, “Don’t worry. You just won’t like me for a couple of days.” Well, I don’t know about you, but to me, a couple of days means, you know, a couple of days. Like two days, three days, four days max. Like a long weekend, not a few long weeks.

It’s been nine days now since my surgery, and I still can’t stand up straight, I have an incision that goes hip to hip, I have burning muscle spams at night, which means I have to take a muscle relaxer for another week, and I still haven’t attempted to drive my car (did I mention that I have three kids, and things like standing up, driving a car, and not being under the influence of a muscle relaxer during the morning routine of breakfast, making lunches, brushing hair, and TEACHING HOME SCHOOL are sort of essentials in everyday normal parental care?).

The truth is, it’s a pretty good thing I didn’t know recovery would take this long or be this intense because I don’t think I ever would have actually scheduled the surgery even though it was a surgery my body needed to have. Because, let’s face it: who, in their right mind, says, “Yes; sign me up for two good weeks of pain and being totally out of commission while I have a household to run. There’s a space on my calendar that fits in perfectly with that plan.”

All I can say is the Lord has been so gracious to me through the help He has provided. My family and friends have been game-changers, stepping-in, filling in gaps for us with meals, driving, and help with our kids. For that, I have been so grateful. Their help has given me the time and space I have needed to heal and to rest.

But this whole process has given me perspective about the process of healing: how many of us are like me underneath with some serious abdominal issues, in need of surgery, in need of fixing, but for years we run around and avoid the necessary fixing because we are afraid of the constraints that healing will put upon us?

Because fixing takes surgery. And surgery means pain. And pain means an incision. And an incision means a tearing open, a getting rid of the bad and a making of the new. And then it means stitching you back up, and sending you home with wounds that need time and space in our busy schedules and lives that need to heal.

Dr. Boutros was gracious to me: he knew I needed the surgery, and I don’t think he was flat out lying to me about how long recovery would take (right, Sean?), but I do think he was probably trying to shield me from some of the reality of the pain and intensity of the healing process.

The Lord is a little bit like that with us. When our pain from our injuries begin to outweigh the shame and messiness of delving into the stories of our past, we go to Him, sometimes willingly, but often times reluctantly, and say, “OK, Lord, what has to happen for You to fix this, and how long is this really going to take for me to heal?”

And here’s where the breakdown of the analogy between Dr. Boutros and the Lord begins (sorry, Sean). The Lord never responds with a formula or a direct timetable, like, “Come in once for surgery, twice for post-ops, and you should be good to go.” Nor does He say, “Don’t worry: you won’t like Me for a couple of days but then you’ll be as good as new.” Instead, what He asks us is a question, and the question is always this: “Do you want to get well?”

Because to take the time and pain necessary to heal is Oh. So. Hard. It is usually time intensive. Time in God’s Word. Time in consistent, persistent prayer on our knees. Time of consistently turning to Him instead of turning to the tangible, familiar things that we normally use to medicate the pain. Time of learning to rest and be satisfied instead of having to be entertained. Time in going to see the right counselor, searching and seeking out the right fellowship, getting in place the right accountability.

And the cost of healing is often so high. We must often pay dearly out of the wallets of our emotional, spiritual, and material resources. And we always must pay with humility as we learn to forgive and to ask for forgiveness from those we have hurt and wounded along the way.

That’s why there are so few people who really want to get well and take the time for the necessary surgery and recuperation. They prefer the paralytic mat better than the walking-around-straight-up position. They like blind eyes instead of eyes open wide that can actually see. They like the excuses of a victim instead of the demands made upon someone who is well.

I know I do. I like to hold onto my grudges like they were treasures, when all they do is rot my soul. I like to hold onto the inadequate, self-made coverings for shame, refusing to trade them in for the covering of Divine Love because it means I might actually have to learn how to let someone in and love me for who I really am and not who I desperately pretend to be. I like to hold on to the things that money, security, and status in this world can buy because they are things that are tangible, things that I can hold on to, they that help soothe the pain or the shame or the hurt when old wounds and past insecurities flare up and demand entrance in.

But there comes a point in our journeys with the Lord when a fully surrendered and yielded life means saying “Yes” to the surgery, “Yes” to the pain, and “Yes” to the healing because there comes a point when saying “No” is just plain old disobedience. And in our desperation, we can no longer refuse the invitation to get well. We can no longer continue to hold on to our rules and religion instead of real relationship with a living God. We can no longer stand the pain of walking around with bent backs, broken down body parts, and paralyzed wills.

We have to learn to trust the surgeon’s hand, the surgeon’s knife, and the surgeon’s time table. And we have to learn to trust that the demands made upon a person who is well are far better than the consequences of living life as a poor, paralyzed, blind, sick soul.

So where are you today in this process of healing? You may be on the couch like me recovering from surgery in the physical realm. Or you may be in a far more difficult position of being on the proverbial spiritual couch, learning to rest, learning to heal, learning to take the steps of a person who is well.

But all of us must stop asking ourselves the question: Where on my calendar is the time and space to heal? Instead, we must put our calendars down and listen instead to the Voice of the Great Physician within. He will not put us through more than we can handle. He will not ask more of us than we can bear. But He will not stop pursuing us in our wounded, broken down states until we are willing to look at Him and answer His question honestly: “Do you want to get well?”

And if you choose to trust Him in the healing, you too will be blown away by the meals He provides, by the body of Christ He sends to come and aid, surround, and protect you in the healing journey, and in the blessing of rest, joy, and peace your soul ultimately experiences, perhaps for the very first time.

So don’t wait a day longer to schedule your surgery. Let the healing begin.

The Incubator

A few weeks ago, I plopped down in a chair beside a circle of dear friends who were enjoying watching their kids swim on a beautiful spring day in Houston (and, yes, the words “beautiful day” and “Houston” actually do go together in a sentence, even if it is only ten days out of the year). For most of the morning, I had been up to my eye balls in adoption paperwork. We finally received our Immigration approval in the mail, only to realize it expired before the date we needed to bring Mia Grace back into the country. So, bottom line, that meant…more…paperwork. Home Study renewal, background checks, Supplement 3 forms, bank statements, 1040 forms, and the list goes on and on.

On top of that, I had just had lunch with a friend who shared with me some of the difficult realities of bringing home a child from a different culture, who eats different foods, speaks a different language, and has to undergo major surgery within weeks of her arrival to her newly adopted family.

To sum it up, I was, in a word, grouchy (and, let’s face it, self-centered). Grouchy from paperwork. Grouchy from the forbidding road ahead. Grouchy from how my life was about to disappear down the tubes for months and months while everyone else was enjoying their summer by a swimming pool.

As I sat down by my friends (in a splendiferous mood, I might add), I said, “Well, girls, this may be it for me for a long time. I’m about to enter a black hole, not sure when I will emerge again to see sunlight.”

Thankfully, my friends know me well enough to just roll their eyes a little when I get into one of my melancholy moods, and one piped up sweetly and said, “Can we please call this season ahead of you something else rather than a black hole?”

So that got me thinking. For, as usual, my friends were right. It got me thinking a whole lot about perspective for the weeks and months ahead of bringing Mia Grace into our lives. I can either choose to look at the coming unknown as a black hole, or, as…an incubator.

A black hole is something you disappear into, never to return again. It has connotations of darkness, bleakness, and an eternal void. But an incubator is different. An incubator you also disappear into for a while, but it’s more like a cocoon where you are wrapped, warmed, and given the protective, sheltering environment you need to grow.

Instead of calling the season ahead of me The Black Hole, I think I am going to call it The Incubator. Not just for Mia Grace, but for me too, and our entire family. God is going to have to shelter us away for a while to bond and attach to this new little chick He has given us. But in the incubator, rather than life being sucked out, life is going to be given a place to be fostered, nurtured and grown.

So if you see me on the street, at a softball game, or at the grocery store, and if my hair is atrocious and I haven’t bathed for days, and I look like I have been in a black hole, don’t be fooled. I am going into an incubator so that when we all emerge, we will be ready for life…and life to the full.

Will you please pray for our family in the days and weeks ahead:

• For perspective. That with each and every step, even if it is hard, is one step closer to breaking down walls and attaching to this little one God has given our family.
• For me, especially, to have the grace and perspective to slow down this summer and in the first few months we get Mia Grace. That I will not fear missing out on anything but trusting the Lord is building things into us as a family worth far more than any sacrifice we could give.
• That Mia Grace would see our family and those around her as an incubator rather than a black hole – she would see as a sheltering, nurturing, loving place of life and hope and love.
• And lastly, please pray that the Lord would grow and develop good things in each of us over the days and weeks ahead as we welcome Mia Grace into our lives and homes.

Thank you for your prayers.
The Baker Family

A Letter to My Daughter


My Dearest Mia Grace,

I know there may come a day when you grieve wide and deep over the missing details of your story. I know there may come a day that you have a deep longing within you to know the details of your birth. To know what your birth momma looked like, or if you have your daddy’s eyes, or your grandmother’s personality. I know there is a day coming when you may long to look back at the history of the first 18 months of your life and see answers written in the blanks, faces and photos and genealogy charts filling the pages. And it breaks my heart to think about that day.

Not because I blame you for wanting those details about your life and where you came from, but because there is nothing I can do to give those details to you. And if there’s anything a momma wants to do, it is to give her child a cohesive, fluid narrative of her story and her place within it.

So, today, I want to tell you a story – the story of your name. Because while I don’t know the day on which your momma conceived, or what her reaction was when she found out she was pregnant, or about the details of her pregnancy, or how long her labor was when you came into this world, what I can tell you is this: I know the One who formed your inward parts and knit you together in your mother’s womb. I know the One who made you in secret and skillfully wrought your frame in the depths of the earth. His eyes saw your unformed substance, and He wrote down in His book all of the days that were ordained for you to live, and move, and have your being before one of them came to be.

And I can tell you something else: I know the One who gave you your name, perhaps before you had even been conceived.

It was the month of April 2013, the month your birth mother would have conceived, and your father, sisters, and I were in the car driving to Florida. A few weeks before leaving on our trip, we had begun the long paperwork process of bringing you home, and as I shut my eyes in anticipation of the long journey ahead (both in the car and through the paperwork), my thoughts turned to you and who you would be, and I began to try to pray for you. I say “try” because I found praying to be difficult. It was hard to pray for a child whose face I had never seen, whose eyes I had never looked in, whose personality I did not know. And I said to the Lord, “Lord, this is hard! I do not even know her name!” And as clear as day I heard Him say back to me, “But I do. Her name is ‘Mine,’ and it comes from Isaiah 43:1-2: ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name; you are Mine! When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched,
nor will the flame burn you.’”

I opened my eyes in astonishment, shared with Jason what I had heard, and from that moment on, you were known in our family as Mia Grace, “Mia” meaning “Mine.”

So, dearest daughter, the details of your story were taking root long before you had ever taken your first breath. And I pray by the time you are old enough to read this letter, you will know as an integral part of your story that you are truly mine.

But you need to know something else: before you were mine, you were His. For the Lord is the One who wrote your story before one of your days came to be and still is writing your story, even as you read. You are His poema, His creative, beautiful work in the making, and not one detail or page is missing from your story in His book.

So any time you begin to feel the ache within and the deep dark flood of grief trying to overwhelm you, I want you to remember something: you have a story. And you have a name.

You had a name long before you were born, given to you by the One whose Name is above every other Name.

And my prayer for you, my daughter, is that you would never let another name you. Not your birth parents, not your past, not your birth culture or your present culture, not even your father or I who love you so very much. For the One who named you and knows you inside and out has your identity, your story, your past, your present, and your future completely and firmly rooted in the pages of His story, His family, His church, His people, and in the palm of His Hand. And may your name always reflect the hope and the trust you have in your Father who loves you, calls you by name, redeems you, and says over you, “You, My Mia, you have always been, and always will be, Mine.”

I love you,
Mom

Feeling Like An Elephant

Sometimes I feel like an elephant, and that’s not because I’ve gained two tons over the past two years (although sometimes it feels like it). But it’s because, like an elephant, I’ve been pregnant for the past two years. I haven’t lost my lunch over a trash can, or felt my pregnancy thighs rubbing together from sweat, or been able to rest a cup and saucer on the shelf that assembles around my backside between my love handles, or had the ability to serve food off of the table top that protrudes from my stomach. But for the past two years, I have been in the business of producing a baby who has been growing inside of my heart, if not my belly.

Xu Ling Yu referral pic 1

Her name is Mia Grace (I will give you the details of her name in another blog), and she turned one on January 31st of this year. I wasn’t there at her birth, nor was I there to blow out the candle on her first birthday cake. I have not been there to rock her to sleep, to hold her little hands, or to look deeply into her eyes. But she has been incubated, rocked, held, and prayed over these last long twenty-four long months in the confines of my heart.

And can I tell you something? I am ready to meet her. So ready. If someone tells me I have to fill out one more paper in order to go to China to pick up my baby, I may just start screaming. Forget about a politically correct paper trail. I may just hire an airplane to drop me with a parachute over Southeastern China and wish me luck. (I’m not kidding. Too much paperwork will do that to a person.)

And my husband and girls are ready – we are all ready to meet our Mia Grace. And while we were just introduced to her face and beautiful brown eyes just two months ago, we have held her in our hearts for over two years since we started this process in March of 2013.

As the time draws nearer to actually go and pick her up (we are thinking late May/early June once all of our paperwork is finalized and we get the green light), to tell you the truth, at times, I am terrified of the journey that lies ahead. I am terrified of the deep grief I know she will feel at being ripped out of one culture and planted in another. I am terrified of the pain and ordeal of surgery for her cleft lip and palate that awaits her within just a few weeks of her homecoming. And I am terrified that my nicely planted world is about to become uprooted, shaken, and turned upside down. I am afraid that “normal” will escape us, never to appear again.

But some terrors are worth confronting. And this is one of them. This is a terror I am willing to walk through to get to the other side. Or, in other words, this is a mountain I am willing to climb. I am willing to explore and help her heal from the sensory processing disorders that most kids raised in institutions have to overcome. I am willing to walk through learning how to help her securely attach when there has never been anyone in her short life to attach to. I am willing to endure long surgeries and the recoveries that accompany them in order to fix her cleft lip and palate, all because I believe, deep within, this is a hike worth taking, a mountain worth climbing, a peak worth summiting…for the view.

Because from the summit and vantage point of adoption, I believe will see things I have never seen before. I believe I will see life through the lens of an orphan who has been chosen, hand picked, prayed for, fought for, and loved wildly before she ever knew who her parents and siblings were. I believe I will see the gift of grace played out before me in magnificent ways. I believe I will understand the depths of my own spiritual abandonment and adoption in ways I have never understood before. And I believe I will taste and see the Father’s love for me and all of His adopted children in ways I have never tasted or seen before.

The magnificent drama of adoption, otherwise known as the Gospel, the story of how Jesus Christ who loved me, wanted me, prayed for me, fought for me, and went hard after me into rough, hostile, unknown territory to get me is about to become crystal clear. The cost of adoption is about to become stark reality. Forget the expense of two years of paperwork and government fees and six round trip plane tickets to China. The cost of my adoption was the very life of Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of the Father. He sealed the final documents with His blood, and my passport to His country was stamped “approved” only as He cried out, “It is finished.” Home is in His presence, and every time I look at my elder brother, I see the scars of the nail prints in His Hands, tangible reminders that I was wanted, I was hunted down, I was sought, I was loved.

All my life, I have known the story of adoption in my head. Now, through Mia Grace, I am about to know it in my heart.

So at the end of two years, I have a new appreciation for pregnant elephants. But I also have a new appreciation for the cost of adoption and the anticipation that comes when we wait.

As we wait these final few months for our adoption to be finalized and for us to be able to bring Mia Grace home, will you please pray with us? Every step of the adoption is fraught with battle with resistance from the ultimate orphan maker and orphan keeper. Would you please pray that:

• Satan’s plans of resistance would be thwarted and we would be able to bring Mia Grace home in God’s perfect timing and perfect way.
• All of the papers we need in order for our immigration approval to be extended to late May/early June would arrive on time and the process of getting what we need from both our Home Study Agency and our Adoption Agency would go smoothly.
• For communication between us and our agency to go smoothly, that deadlines or forms would not fall between the cracks.
• For my heart, and Jason’s heart, to be at peace while we wait these final few months. For the Lord to show Jason, myself, and our girls what needs to be done in preparation for Mia Grace’s homecoming, and what can be left undone.
• For the bonding that will occur between our hearts and Mia Grace’s the moment we get her. Please pray that she will attach completely and securely to me and to Jason in the days, months, and years ahead.
• For the Lord to put us in touch with the right doctors and medical team in the States to treat her cleft lip and palate and any other medical conditions that may arise.
• Please pray for Mia Grace’s protection until we get to her and for her physical, emotional, and spiritual preparation to leave her home in China and come to her home with us. Please pray she would instantly and intuitively know us as her “family,” and that her heart would be at rest in our presence and in the presence of the Lord.

Thank you for your love, support, and prayers. We cannot say “thank you” enough, and we cannot wait to introduce you to Mia Grace.

Dependent

Dependent living is a tough concept to grasp, especially in a culture that prides itself on independence. Good grief, one of our country’s most celebrated holidays is July 4th, Independence Day. We literally have a day where we hoist our flags and set off our fireworks in honor of the day we, as a nation, gave dependence a permanent boot and decided we would be our own lords and masters. In America, independence isn’t just a virtue, it’s a way of life.

And those who choose to live dependently are thought to be lacking in character. Sometimes I think the “virtue” of independence is so ingrained in us, we think it a sin or a mark on someone’s character when they choose to live any other way.

So what does an independent, powerful, wealthy nation do with a Savior and King who came to be humble, weak, poor, and dependent?

We must take some time to sit by the manger and ponder the One within. Ponder the One who ruled the Universe with a scepter in His Hand and decided a better place to be was within the confines of a manger, a feeding trough for animals, with His primary caretaker a teenage girl from Nazareth who was poor, persecuted, and and a peasant.

When Jesus described Himself in Matthew 11:29, the only description we have from His own lips about His own character, He says, “Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls” (emphasis mine).

The word there in the Greek for humble is taipenos and means “humble, lowly.” The Greek commentator Spiros Zodhiates says this about taipenos and its various forms in the New Testament: “[Taipenos] is the real estimate of ourselves. The sinner is taipenos when he recognizes the sinfulness which is his true condition; the unfallen creature, when merely recognizing that he is a creature; Jesus in His incarnate state, in recognizing His absolute dependence on the Father.”

The author of Hebrews tells us in chapter 2 that “it was fitting for [God], for whom are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the author of their salvation through sufferings….Therefore, [Jesus] had to be made like His brethren in all things, that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted” (Hebrews 2:10, 17-18).

Jesus was perfected, or in other words, matured, through suffering, just as we are. It wasn’t that Jesus was imperfect; it was that He was untested. And just like you and me, He had to undergo suffering, hurt, unjust treatment, and pain, in order to be tested, tried, pressed on, pushed down, and, unlike the rest of us who falter and fail under pain and pressure, emerge from every test perfectly.

Why? Because He lived dependently. That is what the word taipenos tells us, and what Jesus tells us about Himself. I think a better translation of Matthew 11:29 reads, “Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and dependent in heart upon God.”

Every step Jesus took through life, He took dependently. Every test Jesus went through, He went through dependently. Every day He lived, He lived dependently on the Father. Jesus never celebrated an Independence Day. Every day was a Dependent Day for Him.

I can’t tell you how much I have pondered that simple fact over the course of this week. I can’t tell you the freedom that one thought has brought me. So much of my life I attempt to live independently, especially during the Christmas, holiday season. I feel like I have to muster up enough strength each and every day to get it all done on my own – perfectly, rightly, and completely. And every day never lives up to the expectations I have for myself. Something is left undone. Something goes amiss. I fail. My kids fail. My marriage fails. My family members fail.

But this week, in those failing moments, I have crept to the edge of the manger and looked down at the One inside who never lived an independent moment in His life. I have lingered long by this dependent Babe, knowing that He identifies fully with the feelings of my frailty, my imperfections, and my weakness. And He has tutored and taught me this week how, in my moments of weakness, I am to press in in dependence to the One in the manger.

That is all He asks us to do. He does not ask us to figure it out, or carry the burden of a 1000 things on our to-do lists, or be the perfect parents, spouses, family members, friends, or people. But He has asked us to live dependently. To acknowledge our aching need for a Savior who came and lived through every moment, every test, every day, dependently, and empathizes with us, showing us how to do so as well.

So today, don’t feel like you have to pull up your bootstraps and do the next five days, or five weeks, or five years perfectly. Crawl to the manger (maybe that’s all you have the energy to do), look long over the edge, and understand that all you have to do is live this moment, today, the next five days, the next five weeks, the next five years, dependently, leaning on Him, the weak baby in the straw, for all the comfort, hope, mercy, empathy, love and strength He gives.

His yoke is easy and His burden is light. Take a deep breath, and know that He came so that we might learn to live as people who are…dependent.

The Feast

The week before Thanksgiving, I wanted to eat lean. My goal was to be on a strict diet of protein, vegetables, fruits, and water, forgoing all desserts and small bites of chocolate I steal like a thief from the pantry once the kids have gone to bed. I wanted to eat gluten-free, guilt-free, carb-free Sunday through Thursday morning of that last week of November. Why?

Because I wanted to enjoy The Thanksgiving Feast on Thursday afternoon.

I wanted to savor every morsel of my aunt’s cornbread dressing, marshmellow-melted sweet potatoes, and vinegar-marinated green beans. I wanted to go back for seconds on my mom’s stuffed turkey, Sister Schubert rolls, homemade pumpkin and apple pies, topped with her own whipped cream and sprinkled with cinnamon. I wanted to eat, and eat, and go back to the buffet line and eat again, without having one ounce of guilt or remorse for stuffing my face with all of the goodness before me.

I “fasted” the week before Thanksgiving because I wanted to thoroughly enjoy the feast of Thanksgiving…and because a sure way to ruin any appetite for any feast is to stuff your face along the way. To eat a whole pbj with potato chips at noon when the feast is set for 4pm. To eat bad, poorly made desserts every night of the week before the feast so you are too guilt-ridden to enjoy the real thing when it is set at the table before you.

Today begins the true countdown until Christmas. Only ten more days until all the cards are mailed, all the presents bought and wrapped, all the parties attended, all of the cookies baked. Only ten more days to prepare our hearts for the Feast of Christmas Day when we peer over the edge of the manger and marvel at the mystery of the one who resides there.

But let me warn you: you and I will not enjoy the Feast of Christmas if we eat whatever we want over these next ten days. If I stuff myself on my to-do lists, my parties, my home, my cards, my gifts, my wrapping, my menus, my own personally mandated lists of perfection and exhaustion…I will miss the Babe in the Manger and will not even have an appetite for Him when it comes to Christmas Day.

A very wise friend of mine says, “In the physical realm, we eat to get full. But in the spiritual realm, we eat to get hungry.”

If you want to be hungry for Jesus, for Emmanuel, for the Prince of Peace, this Christmas Season, you must eat of Him every day in order to be hungry for Him on the day that counts. And to eat of Him every day over the next ten days, you and I are going to have to refrain from eating everything else. Something – all you moms, aunts, teachers, businesswomen, friends, grandmothers – is going to have to be left untouched and uneaten and undone so we still have an appetite for Jesus.

And let me tell you, I am preaching to myself more than I am preaching to anyone else. I am already knee deep in weariness and exhaustion and can feel my appetite actively waning for the things of the Spirit, for the only thing that really counts, that is really worth eating on the Christmas Table.

So to combat my waning taste for the things that really count, I have been actively praying for the past two weeks, a list of things I found on John Piper’s website, www.desiringgod.org, to help my hunger for Jesus.

How to Pray for the Soul –
John Piper

1. The first thing my soul needs is an inclination to God and His Word. Without that, nothing else will happen of any value in my life. I must want to know God and read His Word and draw near to Him. Where does that “want to” come from? It comes from God. So Psalm 119:36 teaches us to pray, “Incline my heart to Your testimonies and not to gain.”

2. Next I need to have the eyes of my heart opened, so that when my inclination leads me to the Word, I see what is really there and not just my own ideas. Who opens the eyes of the heart? God does. So Psalm 119:18 teaches us to pray, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from Your law.”

3. Then I need for my heat to be enlightened with those “wonders.” I need to perceive glory in them and not just interesting facts. Who enlightens the heart? God does. So Ephesians 1:18 teaches us to pray “That the eyes of your heart may be enlightened.” (i.e. pray that we would be fascinated by God’s Word and His Glory)

4. Then I am concerned that my heart is fragmented and that parts of it might remain in the dark while others parts are enlightened. So I long for my heart to be united for God. Where does that wholeness and unity come from? From God. So Psalm 86:11 teaches us to pray, “O Lord, I will walk in Your truth; unite my heart to fear Your Name.” (See too Mark 4:19 – that the worries of the world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things would not enter in and choke the Word, making it unfruitful.)

5. What I really want from all this engagement with the Word of God and the work of His Spirit in answer to my prayers is that my heart will be satisfied with God and not with the world. Where does that satisfaction come from? It comes from God. So Psalm 90:14 teaches us to pray, “O satisfy us in the morning with Your lovingkindness, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.”

6. But I don’t just want to be happy in my own little private world with God. I want my happiness to be as full as possible for spreading and expanding for others. I want to be strong in joy. This will make me durable in the face of threats or adversity. Where does that strength and durability come from? It comes from God. So Ephesians 3:16-17 teaches us to pray, “That God would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man so that Christ may dwell in your hears through faith, and that you would be rooted and grounded in love…”

7. Finally, I want my strength in Christ to produce good deeds for others so that the glory of God will be seen in my life. Who produces these good deeds? God does. So Colossians 1:10 teaches us to pray, “That [we] will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord…bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.”

All this I pray “in Jesus’ Name,” because God gives these things to my soul only because Jesus died for me and removed the wrath of God so that the Father might “freely give me all things” (Romans 8:32).

Here’s the thing: there are a lot of things we can ask for from God and not be sure we are going to get a resounding “Yes!” But all seven of the things on the list above are things that if we pray, we can be CONFIDENT God not only wants to answer, but will answer, with a resounding YES. For they are all things that if we ask in Jesus’ Name, He loves to give.

I’m not sure what’s on your to-do list over the next ten days; I know the things on mine are enough to keep me busy for the next ten months, much less ten days. And many of them probably will not get done. But at the top of my list is to walk through the next ten days with a hunger and a heart for Jesus, as I forgo the junk food for the feast that awaits.

Only you know what exactly ruins your appetite for the feast of Jesus when push comes to shove, but I can tell you one thing: if you and I will eat of the bread of His Word and the Water of Presence consistently and thoroughly throughout the next ten days, we will be ready for the One we are readying to welcome into our hearts and homes on Christmas Day. We will be ready to eat at His Table, guilty no more.
So pull up a chair to the table; the Babe is waiting:

“Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money come, buy, and eat. Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, and delight yourself in abundance. Incline your ear and come to Me. Listen, that you may live; And I will make an everlasting covenant with you, according to the faithful mercies shown to David.“ Isaiah 55:1-3

Seeing Jesus

It’s just Caroline and me this weekend. Jason took the two older girls hunting and was over the moon about the thought of Lillian having the opportunity to shoot her first deer.

I talked to the hunters briefly earlier today, and when I asked Lillian what she had been up to, she said, “Feeding cows and shooting guns.” Hmmm…I guess that adds up to a great weekend in Texas.

Caroline and I, on the other hand, have been watching movies and eating dessert (thank you, Melissa). In between servings, I decided to go for a jog and push Caroline in the stroller. I bribed her with a trip to the neighborhood park at the end.

Halfway through our run, we passed by a house that had a nativity set up in the front yard. Caroline shouted, “Stop, Mommmy, stop! I want to see baby Jesus!”

What self-respecting mom says no to that request?! So out she popped and ran up in a stranger’s yard to peer at the babe in the manger.

And I thought perhaps Caroline’s command was appropriate for all of us today: “Stop! Whatever you are doing – shooting guns, feeding cows, running around and getting ready for Christmas, suffering, hurting, rejoicing, relaxing, playing – stop! And look at Baby Jesus.” Because He’s easy to miss this time of year. I am in daily danger of running right past the nativity on my route to Christmas, and I needed the reminder to stop.

So today, take time to look at Jesus. He is worth the stop. Just ask Caroline.

A Mighty Fortress

This young mother sits across from me, her little one nestled in her arms, warm under an orange blanket that envelops them both.

Her chest rises and falls with her breath, her boy’s small body rising and falling in rhythm with hers.

She is his fortress, hidden underneath her wings, and all tucked in, safe and secure, by her love.

I need a momma like that right now. Someone to tuck me in. Someone whose heartbeat I can feel, whose chest rises and falls with mine, whose arms are a secure fortress around me.

The words of Psalm 46 pour over my head like oil, running down to heal every crevice and crack in my heart and pull me in, pull me close to the Mighty Fortress that is my God:

God is my refuge and strength,
A very present help in trouble.
Therefore I will not fear,
Though the earth should give way,
And though the mountains fall into the heart
of the sea.
Though its waters roar and foam,
Though the mountains quake at its swelling pride.
Psalm 46:1-3

In a world where all around me is crumbling, including at times my very own heart, in a week when I have had to hold it all together, here is the one place where I can finally fall apart and let it all go. Into the rising and falling chest, the tender heart, and the safe and secure arms of the Mighty Fortress who is my God.

Whatever kind of week you have had, however glorious, however hard, however fulfilling, however disappointing, however uplifting, however crushing, however rejoicing, however perplexing…rest. Just like that little boy. And run to the Mighty Fortress who is your God.

Controlled Burn

Last week I shared about our trip down into the Grand Canyon; this week I want to share about one more thing I learned in the Canyon, something I can’t seem to stop thinking about.

During the seven hour drive from Phoenix to the Northern Rim of the Canyon, our starting place for our hike, I was not a happy camper. I was wedged between my husband, whose frame took up a seat and a half (that translates as his seat plus half of my seat), and a precious young woman from Atlanta who was also a part of our trip. She was great about my continual drifting over into her seat, but it didn’t lessen the feeling of continual discomfort from the seat belt buckle wedged in my lower back or the cramped position of my body or knees.

By hour five, I was done. Canyon or no canyon, take me back to the hotel; no view is worth this middle-seat-wedged-ride. But about that time, our driver, a woman we nicknamed “Google” because of the unbelievable stash of information stored in her head about anything and everything Arizona, piped up about the surrounding scenery.

We left modern civilization about hour four of the drive, and the last three hours were spent making our way through deserts, plateaus, sandy rocks, Native American Indian reservations, and…forests. The closer we got the Canyon, the more trees we saw. Apparently, the desert had bloomed.

As we wove our way along the road, Pat pointed out burned patches in the forest scattered throughout the line of trees. Acres of the forest were scorched and charred, the trees pointing like black arrows towards the blue sky. (How I had not noticed the blackened trees before she pointed them out remains a mystery; perhaps it was the seat belt sticking in my side and my husband’s leg that kept traveling over into MY part of the seat.)

We asked if there had been a forest fire, and her answer is still something I am pondering: “No, Forest Rangers purposely set those trees on fire; it’s a technique they use called a Controlled Burn.”

She went on to explain that a controlled burn is a way to control the growth of the forest. What the Forest Service discovered after years of promoting the Smoky Bear campaign, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires,” and snuffing out every smoldering ash pile or lightening strike that occurred, they found that the forest was suffering. The forest actually needs fire to grow.

When Rangers light controlled burns in certain sections of the forest, the fire does two things. Number one, it reduces fuel buildup and consumes the undergrowth of the trees, things like leaf litter, dropped branches, and small scrub brushes, thereby decreasing the likelihood of a more serious, hotter fire coming and wiping out the forest in its entirety.

Number two, controlled burning is what certain types of pine trees actually need to grow. And I quote (I looked this up just to make sure Google knew what she was talking about), “Controlled burning stimulates the germination of some desirable forest trees, thus renewing the forest. Some cones are serotinous, meaning they require heat from fire to open cones to disperse seeds.”

Let that sink in for just a moment. Certain trees actually require heat from fire to open their cones to disperse their seeds. No fire, no growth. No fire, no seed dispersion. No fire, no future life of the forest.

Jesus says this in John 12:24, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Left to our own devices, we don’t do much dying. We like living. Breathing. Status Quo. Ease. Comfort. Wealth. Health.

But that’s not how a forest grows, and it’s not how a life grows either. Both forests and human lives take fire to disperse their seeds. So what does God do in His graciousness in our lives to help us along in our growth? He sets fires. Or, more accurately, He lights Controlled Burns.

If you want to know and understand the areas where God is doing the most work in your life, where He is helping to stimulate the most growth, look no further than the controlled burns in your own heart, your family, and the lives of those you hold dear.

Personally speaking, He has used fiery trials in my life to burn out more undergrowth, leaf litter, and scrub brushes, than I would care to admit. The fires He sets have burned up large portions of dross in my life – desires that were not rightly centered on Him, sinful patterns of anger, control, covetousness, and self-pity – and the ashy piles that remain have been the fertilizer for much future growth, deep growth, true growth, and life-bearing fruit.

The fires He has set have moved me from pride, arrogance, and independence into more reliance upon His Word, His Promises, His Presence, and His Hand. And the fires He has set have released seeds of life into my own personal journey, the lives of my children and husband, and the lives of those around me as I have surrendered in trust and let the flames do their deadly work.

Friends, I say this with utmost confidence and absolute faith: every fire every believer has ever walked through is a Controlled Burn no matter how hot or out of control the flames may feel. He never allows the flames to get hotter than that which He knows we can stand. He never allows us to be consumed by the flame just for the sake of suffering. It is always with a greater purpose in mind – our growth.

If you are in the middle of a fiery furnace right now, know this one thing: He is walking in the flames right along with you. He is aiding and strengthening you in the midst of the flames, giving you a testimony for a watching world of the faithfulness of your God. And He will not waste one single flame. Everything that is burned up belonging to our sin and our flesh, He turns into heavenly treasure, into eternal reward as we surrender it into His Hands. And every ash pile we see scattered around the edges of our lives is used for rich fertilizer to stimulate growth in our own lives and in the lives of those around us.

Take courage in the fires and hope in the flames. Our God is a jealous God, and His love is like a flame of fire, burning up everything and anything that stands in the way of complete trust, complete surrender, and true growth. I will close with this verse, food for thought to meditate on and treasure in our hearts today: “Put me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm. For love is as strong as death, jealousy as severe as Sheol; its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the Lord” (Song of Songs 8:6).

Let the fires in your life stand as proof as His burning, consuming love. “For our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29). Let the fires burn.