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 Mortress 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.

The Canyon

Call us crazy, but Jason and I decided to do something a little unconventional to celebrate thirteen years of marriage. We decided we wanted to hike the Grand Canyon – Rim to Rim. Forget comfortable hotels, pool lounging, or romantic dinners overlooking a sun-specked ocean. Instead, think tent. Sleeping bag. Plastic, inflatable air mattress that squeaks every time you move. Compost toilets (at least it wasn’t a hole in the ground), no shower for four days, red dirt stuck to my legs, feet, and every pore of my skin, and rocks in my shoes. I have to admit, when our guide handed me my thirty-five pound pack to lug up onto my shoulders and our driver, the last sign of comfort and civilization sped away, I thought, “I take it back! Put me back in the car! What in the world have I done?!”

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But over the next four days, my city-numbed heart became alive once again to the glory of God as we trekked across the canyon. In the dead of night, staring up at a pitch-black sky streaked with the silver of stars, constellations, and the Milky Way galaxy, my heart was reminded of how small we really are. And in the light of the day, looking up and out at the red-painted cliffs of the canyon with the Bright Angel River rushing past, I was reminded of how big God really is. And my heart was filled with awe.

The “Rim to Rim” route we hiked along with thousands of other visitors each year is actually a small side canyon that weaves its way into the main canyon, eventually depositing its hikers, runners, and mule-riders onto the main South Rim, covering a distance of approximately 24 miles. In my limited understanding, I thought we were going to conquer the main “Rim to Rim” route of the canyon, beginning at its starting point on the eastern end and traversing its entire length, ending up at the western tip. Wrong. The entire length of the canyon, the true “Rim to Rim” route, covers a distance of 277 river miles, meaning the miles measured by the distance of the mighty Colorado River, a distance that is further than the mileage between Houston and Dallas. Those miles do not include the many small, side canyons that split off and eventually spill out into main corridor of the Grand Canyon.

Because of my limited knowledge, the sheer size of the canyon caught me off guard and completely overwhelmed me at times. It lives up to its name in every sense of the word – it is Grand. And it leaves one in awe – awe at the awesomeness of the canyon and the One who made it and holds it all together with His Word (Colossians 1:16, 17).

On our last full day in the Canyon, after we had reached our campsite and unshouldered our packs (you can’t imagine how glad I was at the end of every day to take that thing off), we walked another mile and a half down the Tonto West Trail to a place called Panorama Point. I can honestly say that the entire four days and thirty something miles we covered was worth this one view. It not only put the Canyon into perspective but all of life into perspective. It took one’s breath away in its sheer scope, size, and vastness and left one full of awe. I can honestly say I don’t think I have ever used the word “awesome” correctly until standing at the top of Panorama Point. Our guide shared that many people get to this point and simply burst into tears. There simply are no words to describe the palette of majesty at the tip of this point.

Standing at the edge of Panorama Point, I was reminded of things I do not always remember in the smallness of my day to day routine at 1313 Mickey Way. I remembered that God is not someone I dictate demands to – He gives them, and I take them. I remembered that my smallness is not something I can fight against or pretend does not exist. It simply is. I am a speck on a timeline, a momentary fleck of life on a line that stretched on long before I arrived and that will continue long after I die. I remembered that God’s Voice is continually speaking, creating, and forming order from chaos, carving canyons, splitting rocks, and directing the flow of forceful rivers. And my job is not to try to control my life, my seasons, my relationships, or my days, it is simply to surrender and submit to the One is speaking.

I took only my small pocket Bible, my journal, and two thin books with me into the canyon (anyone who has ever travelled with me knows that this is a minor miracle in and of itself). One of the books was A.W. Tozer’s classic The Pursuit of God.

The day we went hiked out to the end of Panorama Point, I read these words (it’s a longish quote, but hang in there; it’s worth the read):

“The voice of God is the most powerful force in nature, indeed the only force in nature, for all energy is here only because the power-filled Word is being spoken.

The Bible is the written Word of God, and because it is written it is confined and limited by the necessities of ink and paper and leather. The voice of God, however, is alive and free as the sovereign God is free. ‘The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life’ (John 6:63). The life is in the speaking words. God’s word in the Bible can have power only because it corresponds to God’s words in the universe. It is the present Voice which makes the written Word all-powerful. Otherwise it would lie locked in slumber within the cores of a book….

We have been trying to apply machine-age methods to our relations with God. We read our chapter, have our short devotions and rush away, hoping to make up for our deep inward bankruptcy by attending another gospel meeting or listening to another thrilling story told by a religious adventurer lately returned from afar.

The tragic results of this spirit are all about us: shallow lives, hollow religious philosophies, the preponderance of the element of fun in gospel meetings, the glorification of men, trust in religious externalities, quasi-religious fellowships, salesmanship methods, the mistaking of dynamic personality for the power of the Spirit. These and such as these are the symptoms of an evil disease, a deep and serious malady of the soul.

For this great sickness that is upon us no one person is responsible, and no Christian is wholly free from blame. We have all contributed directly or indirectly, to this sad state of affairs. We have been too blind to see, or too timid to speak out, or too self-satisfied to desire anything better than the poor, average diet with which others appear satisfied…

It will require a determined heart and more than little courage to wrench ourselves loose from the grip of our times and return to biblical ways. But it can be done. Every now and then in the past Christians have had to do it….I venture to suggest that the one vital quality which they had in common was spiritual receptivity. Something in them was open to heaven, something which urged them Godward. Without attempting anything like a profound analysis, I shall say simply that they had spiritual awareness and that they went on to cultivate it until it became the biggest thing in their lives. They differed from the average person in that when they felt the inward longing they did something about it. They acquired the lifelong habit of spiritual response. They were not disobedient to the heavenly vision. As David put it neatly, ‘When thou sadist, Seek ye my fact; my heart said unto thee, Thy face, LORD, will I seek’ (Psalm 27:8).”
(A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God, “The Universal Presence” and “The Speaking Voice,” pp.70, 65-66, 63)

God is speaking. Not past tense. But present tense. Continually. Always. I couldn’t help but remember that in the canyon. The question is, am I listening? Am I posturing my life in such a way that I can hear His voice amidst the hustle and bustle of life in the day to day? Can I rely on His Voice more than the bulwarks and walls I erect in my life to give me the illusion of control and permanency? In a moment, my walls could come tumbling down because of the force of nature, because of tragedy, because of change, because of sickness, because of the Hand of God behind it all, driving it all, allowing it all. And the question of the blip of my life against the backdrop of all eternity is not did I manage my life well, did I keep it all under control. The question of my life is did I surrender it well? Did I live in a continual posture of listening and obedience to the eternal Voice that is ever speaking? The Voice that has spoken in the past, is speaking in the present, and will go on speaking and carving and shaping and controlling and managing life long after I am gone.

Are you listening? Are you posturing your life in such a way that you can listen? Have you carved out canyons and spaces in your life to hear? Chunks of time on a daily and weekly basis when you cease from the fray and continual activity that leaves us weary, shallow, harried, and distracted, and stop instead on the vast brink of the canyon of the Mighty Hand and Kingdom of God and listen.

If we do not, we will end up as Tozer has said: shallow people living shallow lives. Capable of toppling at the first sign of sorrow because we have not carved out grand space for roots to form beneath. You don’t have to go to the Grand Canyon to stand on the edge of greatness, to posture yourself on the brink of vastness, to allow your soul to breathe and have a few uninterrupted moments of majesty. You can do it within the confines of your own home while sitting on the edges of your couch and the Word of God, allowing His Living Word to speak and apply His Written Word to your heart.

Don’t miss the grandness of the canyon on a day in and day out basis for the shallowness and rush of meetings, agendas, entertainment, and the fear of missing out. Respond to the Living Voice of God. Posture yourself in obedience. And let Him carve your life as He will. He has done a grand job for centuries in the canyons of Arizona. And if you can trust Him there, you can trust Him here. Today. In the canyon of your heart. Because more than He waits to paint the pastels of Panorama Point, He waits to paint is yours. Are you listening?

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Contented Heart

I work so hard to create perfect circumstances. In fact, if home school has taught me one thing about myself, it may be just that. I really like perfection and work hard to achieve perfection, whatever the circumstances. But funny thing: the harder I have worked the past six weeks to achieve perfection – the “perfect” home school schedule, the “perfect” tone of voice, the “perfect” home school day, free of distractions – the more chaos seems to ensue.

Last Tuesday, after staying up until midnight on Monday, tabbing all of my lessons, preparing all our books and supplies, re-thinking and re-writing all of schedules, I had the Worst. Day. Ever. Interruption after interruption occurred. I think four different workmen showed up at my house at varying points throughout the day. Everything took twice as long as it should have. And my patience was worn thin as a sheet because of all the chaos around me.

By the time I climbed into bed on Tuesday night, I not only ached in my body, but in soul as well.

“After all my attempts at perfection, Lord, home school is still hard; circumstances are still tough. I. Give. Up.”

And in His small, quiet, whisper of a way, the Lord responded: “Good. I’ve been waiting for you to say that. Because perfect circumstances are not the goal, but a quiet, contented heart is.”

The next morning I got up, went straight to the school room, and wrote on our chalkboard, “God is not looking for perfect circumstances; He is looking for a contented heart whatever the circumstances.”

Ever been there? Ever been knee deep in uncontrollable circumstances, and your immediate response is to try to control? To attempt to wrangle, enforce, and subdue perfection, while missing out on the joy of the holy journey all around you?

My husband is fond of reminding me of a sermon point from Tim Keller, one of our favorite pastors: To seek perfection is to seek an illusion. Because who, among those of us who actually do achieve perfection, even if it’s only for a moment, has the power to actually keep it there?

Accidents happen. Chaos happens. Life happens.

This side of heaven, perfection cannot be our goal. But a contented heart, no matter what uncontrollable circumstances arise, can be.

As the Lord would have it, last Friday I was scheduled to teach at a local Biblestudy for moms, and the passage I was asked to teach on was Luke 10:38-42, learning to have a Mary-type heart in a Martha-type world.

Martha was the ultimate perfection seeker. She sought the perfect meal, the perfect help, the perfect rhythm when Jesus came to dine at her house. But Mary. Mary chose the Perfect One over the perfect meal. Mary chose to sit at the Perfect Feet instead of setting the perfect table. Mary chose to calm the chaos inside of her rather than trying to take on the chaos surrounding her by focusing on the Only Non-Chaotic One.

And Jesus’ commentary on her will forever be burned on my heart: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only a few things are necessary, really only one, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42).

While Martha chose to allow things to hold her attention that were here one day and gone the next: the pot that boils over, the table that will need to cleared, the food that will have to be prepared tomorrow as well, Mary chose that which could never be taken away from her.

Anything I choose to spend my time on other than Christ Himself and a Christ-centered, contented heart among chaotic circumstances will be taken away from me. Meals have to be prepared again. The house will resort to chaos and messiness as soon as my children step foot in the door. The errands I run and things I check off my to do list will still be there tomorrow. My inbox will always be full.

But the time I spend at Jesus’ feet will reap eternal reward. It is a deposit for whatever is to come. Things I do not know in my finite, limited understanding, but He does.

So this week, while the quote isn’t on my chalkboard anymore, the principle is written on my heart. Perfect circumstances are not my goal (ok, let’s be honest – they sort of are, but I am working on it, really I am); but Christ is. A contented heart sitting quietly and attentively at His Feet is. No matter the circumstances. No matter the chaos. And at the end of the day, I will have chosen what cannot be taken away from me. Even if my perfect schedule was.

Confession

I’ve been doing a lot of sitting lately. I sit two days to three days a week in a chair at our home school table to teach my children. I sit in my car to drive them to and fro from after-school activities. I sit to eat meals with my family (we are together a lot these days), and I sit at sporadic moments throughout the week to visit with friends or family members.

But there’s another kind of sitting I’ve been doing, another kind of chair I’ve been sitting in. I’ve been sitting in the chair of confession.

Every morning as I make my way to sit in my chair in my study with my cup of coffee in one hand and my Bible in the other hand and I begin to settle in before the presence of the Lord, I begin to confess.

And there is quite a lot to confess to confess these days. Home school has a way of bringing out the very best sinner in me. The tone I use with my children. The impatience that edges in when certain subjects are taking too long. The self-pity that worms its way into my heart when days are tough and the road at home seems never-ending. The covetousness that creeps in of other people’s schedules, other people’s kids, other people’s seasons. The slander that slips through my lips under the guise of getting advice. The lies I tell to myself about myself to make myself feel better.

While sitting in my chair of confession, words like hypocrite, liar, slanderer, murderer, and idolater tumble from my lips to the listening ear of the Lord instead of my usual church words like holy, wise, patient, kind, humble, and sincere.

That’s what Home School has done for me so far this Fall. It has stripped away the outer veneer of “great mom, good wife, wise daughter, faithful friend” and showed me, instead, the true color of my heart. I have learned, to a greater degree, who I really am and not who I most often pretend or want to be.

But can I tell you something? I needed some stripping. I needed to take a good, honest look at myself and not the usual half-hearted, fingers crossed, wish-upon-a-star glance I usually take in the mirror.

And what I have found is that in the chair of confession, true freedom and liberation comes each and every morning. Because what I have found is the more honest I am about my sinful self, the more fully I can hold onto and believe my true self. The person God tells me I am in the pages of Scripture.

Just look at the character of Jacob in Genesis 32. The ultimate post-modern man stuck in ancient Hebrew sandals, Jacob wrestles with God, for a different kind of identity than the one he has been stuck with his entire life. Jacob was a deceiver, a liar, a cheat, a hypocrite, a spiritual failure in every sense of the word, and he spent his life on the run, looking for an identity and a blessing that went beyond what he actually deserved.

So when a stranger attacks him in the middle of the night and wrestles with him by the River Jabbok until the break of day, Jacob instinctively knows this wrestling match isn’t about getting new strength. This wrestling match is about getting a new name. And his opponent isn’t a mere man; it is God Himself.

“Then the stranger said, ‘Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ So the stranger said to Jacob, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ And the stranger said, ‘Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:26-27).

Before the wrestling match ends and the blessing begins, the stranger, God Himself, asks Jacob a question: “What is your name?” God knew the answer to that question; He just wanted to make sure Jacob did as well.

The Hebrew word for “Jacob” means “heel-catcher, supplanter, deceiver.” So in giving his name, Jacob is not only naming himself, he is confessing, before the face of God, who he really is: heel-catcher, brother-betrayer, father-deceiver, liar, hypocrite, cowardly runner.

And this is the moment God says, “Now you are ready to hear who you really are: you have always been one man on the run, searching for a purpose, searching for significance, hungry for greatness. So say good-bye to Jacob. Your new name is Israel: a nation of many men, destined for greatness, primed for significance; a nation who will give the earth her Savior, One who will change the identity of all those who wrestle, confess, and believe that He is Lord.”

I looked up the definition of confess the other day, and it means this: “to agree together with God or one’s own conscience, and to externalize that which is inside of one’s self; to profess, express in agreement with, to confess as the truth.”

I don’t know how much sitting you’ve been doing lately. Maybe you spend most of your days on the run, on your feet, wishing you had a chair near by to collapse into more often.

I can’t necessarily recommend doing more sitting in the physical realm; personally, I think it’s good to be on one’s feet. But I can recommend doing some sitting in the spiritual realm.

Because it is only when I confess, it is only when I externalize that which is inside of myself, it is only when I come into agreement with God about who I really am and what I have really done that I am free to receive and accept who He tells me I am in His Word:

• Yes, I am a hypocrite, but when I confess, I am free to step into the truth and live in the light instead of cowering in the darkness.
• Yes, I am an idolater, but when I confess, I am free to hear the word and feel the embrace of “daughter,” one He died to save and who He will never let go.
• Yes, I am a slanderer, but when I confess, I am free to wash my lips clean and embrace the identity as “healer,” healing first my heart and then the one whom I hurt with my words.

So today, or tomorrow, get up a little earlier or stay up a little later and sit in the chair of confession before a good God who is waiting to trade the old identity for the new. All He is waiting to hear is…your confession.

School as Sandpaper

Something has happened to our family. We haven’t boarded an airplane or stepped foot on foreign soil. But it darn sure feels like it. It feels like it when my girls come downstairs dressed for school, and they head to the Mud Room to put on their navy rubber soled shoes and knee high socks. It feels like it when I stuff every single text book known to man into their backpacks, and Lillian walks around with a bent over back in order to carry it all. It feels like it on Tuesday and Thursday mornings when instead of heading out the door for school, the girls are sitting in shorts and t-shirts at our kitchen island, waiting for me to orchestrate our school day. And it feels like it on “Fun Fridays” when the whole day looms before me, and instead of doing something “fun” like all the other home school parents promised, we catch up on Grammar and Bible, and I lay comatose on the couch in my study for several hours.

No, we haven’t stepped foot in a foreign country, but it certainly feels like it.

We have entered the country of Home School.

And I have to keep reminding myself what it feels like to step foot in an actual foreign country. When you make your airline reservations and plan your itinerary, everything sounds so romantic, so foreign, so different, so wonderfully other than.

And then you get there. The romantic aspect of foreign travel wears off quickly, and instead of enjoying your destination, you realize you’ve over packed after promising your husband you would never would do that again; you’re lugging all of your heavy bags from one place to another and spending all of your time sweating, unpacking, and re-packing, and you catch yourself thinking, “What in the world was I thinking bringing all five of us to this country? Next year, we aren’t going anywhere. All I want to do is go home.”

The language is different, and although you may both be speaking something called “English,” you realize after you told someone you really like their pants, what they heard you say is that you really like their underwear. The hotel rooms are inevitably way too small to comfortably fit a family of five. The food is untouchable, uneatable, and when you go to the grocery store to buy a pound of ground beef for something like tacos, they tell you, “No, we don’t have ground beef; but we do have minced mutton.” Gross.

And everything operates under a different set of rules. It so happens that there are rules for everything; except you don’t know what the rules are…until you break one of them. Don’t walk on the grass, don’t get too near the cliffs, don’t drive on the right side of the road, don’t talk in too loud of a voice, and don’t be overly friendly in public places. And to make matters worse, you have to learn all the rules and adjust to all the newness while under the influence of jet lag, which makes one feel the equivalent of a slug stuck in jello.

That pretty much sums up Home School.

The leggings are too tight, the confines of our home too small, math is done on an abacus (seriously?), I am so tired from staying up late to flag my lessons for the next day that I constantly feel like a slug in jello, we seem to learn the rules of the classroom only by breaking them (as in, trying to do math with Lillian and Science with Lizzie at the same time does not work), and I am having to learn a completely different language: a language that begins with the letter P and ends with the letter E: the language of PATIENCE. My kids are now so accustomed to me apologizing for something I said or the way in which I said it that they see me coming into our school room and simply say, “It’s ok, mom, I forgive you.”

Home School. What in the world was I thinking?

But I have to remind myself – travel to a foreign country doesn’t mean total ease; it means slow adjustment. It doesn’t mean jet lag lasts forever; it means every day is a little better than the day before it. It doesn’t mean you have to see every castle and historical landmark in the first few days you are there; it means slow down, enjoy the view, and trust there are enough days in the trip to see what you need to see. It doesn’t necessarily mean the tight boundaries or lines are going to disappear; it means you have to adjust and learn to live within the boundaries you have been given.

And it does mean, remember why you travelled here in the first place. It wasn’t for the food; it wasn’t for the plush accommodations; it certainly wasn’t for the extra sleep. It was for the extra time with your family; it was for the opportunity to learn things you never would have learned by staying in your native country; and it was to learn how to speak a new language, one that is good and necessary for your soul.

There always comes a moment during overseas travel when the hedges part, the skies clear, the cliffs and the sea come into view, your children laugh, and all the effort of the trip is tasted in the sweet bite of the fruit of that moment.

I am still waiting for that moment on our present journey, but I am believing it will come as I wait with patience, trusting a good God who does all things well, and has called us to this country called Home School. And on the days I don’t remember exactly why I booked the tickets, He definitely does.

Content

Contentment is a peaceful thing, isn’t it? It seeps down into the bones and allows you to actually enjoy all that you have instead of hungrily gnawing on the bone of the one thing you wish you did.

And discontentment is subtle, isn’t it? It doesn’t wave a red flag in our faces and announce its intention of taking over our souls, does it? It creeps in by the backdoor and grabs our attention in one seemingly small, insignificant thing we wish we had…but don’t…and we start thinking about it. Planning for it. Budgeting for it in the future. Turning it over and over in our minds. Savoring it from different angles. Comparing our miserable little lives with all the grand, glorious, good lives of the people who have it (whatever it is). And then, all of a sudden, it’s not just one thing. It’s two things. Ten things. A whole life of things we wish we had…but don’t. And wham. We’re sunk a mile deep, wrapped in the reeds of the swamp of discontentment, when the last thing we remember was dipping a single toe in its waters.

If it sounds like I’m speaking from experience, you guessed correctly. I am.

In fact, I found myself there this week. And the little toe I stuck in the swampy waters was over the pool I wish had…but don’t…in my backyard.

For all of you who live in cooler climates, don’t judge me too hastily. Living in Houston in the summer is more like living in a humid, sticky swamp than a city. The only time you head outdoors is so you can run to the nearest air-conditioned shelter…or jump into a pool. If your pool happens to be a bike ride or a car ride away, then relief from the heat can require a few extra steps than just opening your back door. Especially when you have kids in tow.

And it never fails. Around this time of year, I start mulling over all the different reasons and all the different ways I could get a pool in my backyard: we could forgo eating for the next year and a half. I could start digging in the dirt myself with a shovel. I could give up Christmas…for the next ten years. Everyone’s gift could be that they get to come swim in my pool at least once a year.

And here’s the kicker: I start comparing my house to all the houses of people I know who do have pools. Their kids stay in better shape. They have more fun as a family. More people want to come over to their houses to stay or play or visit.

But here’s the thing: it wasn’t my thinking about a pool that took me by surprise this week. It was all of the other thoughts it led to. As soon as I began sucking on that hard piece of candy of wanting a pool, it wasn’t too long before I began to choke. Within a couple of hours, it wasn’t just our backyard with which I was discontent: I was discontent with my wardrobe, my schedule and my eating habits. In another hour or so, I was discontent with my girls’ bickering and attitudes, their activities and abilities, and their schedule for the fall. And by dinner time, I was just plain ol’ discontent with life. Jason walked in the door, and I had a long list of things I wanted to change about our house and our schedule. Somehow I started telling him how I wanted a pool and ended with how it was time for me to take seminary classes.

Seriously?

It’s clear as day now. But it wasn’t then. It felt about as dark as mud. As cloudy as a swamp. As confining as reeds wrapped around my ankles. All I knew is I felt I was drowning in all my unmet desires, and my life was really a series of disappointments and worthy of some self-pity and change.

I went to bed that night knowing that what I was feeling wasn’t quite right, and that I was stuck in some sort of fog, but I couldn’t figure how I got there or why the vague feeling of discontent had settled over my life.

And then, the next morning, I came to the part of my prayer time before the Lord where I was supposed to repent – and it hit me like a 2×4 – I was discontent about everything because I had consented to being discontent about one thing. And all of a sudden, as repentance began to flood my lips and my heart, the cloud completely dissipated, my legs broke free of the reeds, and I was pulled out of the swamp, set down upon the shore, and completely content. Right where God had me.

Philippians 4:11 came to mind, and I turned there to read the familiar words. Paul writes, “Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. “ What was unfamiliar are the words that immediately follow: “I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12-13, emphasis mine).

I have heard that verse quoted at football games and before soccer matches. I have heard it quoted at youth rallies, summer camps, and in sermons.

But I have never heard it quoted before in the context of contentment.

And when it comes right down to it, that is, perhaps, where I need the strength of Christ the most. To be content. Right where He has me. With exactly what He has given me. Because contentment takes a strength that must come from the inside out. A strength that is beyond me and beyond my abilities. It must come from Christ, who strengthens me.

I don’t know what swamp of discontent you are stuck in (if any); but I do know exactly what will pull you out: turn to Christ who gives you strength, go back to the one thing, the first thing, that opened the door to discontentment, repent, close the door, and settle into the good sand on the shore where Christ has placed you. And be thankful there. Let His goodness and His provision of all of your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus meet your each and every need (Philippians 4:19).

And instead of wallowing in the swamp of discontentment, you will be free to enjoy life and strength and joy right where He has placed you. Pool or no pool. And that, my friend, is the very best place to be.

Part III: Surviving the End of School: The Gospel of Grace

Is anyone in need of grace this week? I know I am.

I needed it this week when my three-year-old clogged up the toilet for the 10th time, and my five year old decided to try to flush it down. I needed grace when I first heard the sound of the water gushing, rushing, flowing over the sides of the toilet bowl all over the tile on the bathroom floor. I needed grace when I frantically waded in my socks into the half-inch deep water on the floor and lifted the back lid of the toilet to see what in the heck was going on. I needed grace when I realized I needed to turn the water OFF and had to get down on my hands and knees in the toilet water to reach the knob to turn the water off. I needed grace when I went through every single beach towel we had to mop up the mess that had flowed all the way into the other room around our baby grand piano. I needed grace when I looked at the clock and realized we had been home only ten minutes from ballet and had only ten minutes to leave until swim team practice. I needed grace when I realized my husband was out of town and got to miss out on clean up duty altogether. And I needed grace with my kids when I started yelling at them in the midst of the toilet flow for all sorts of random things, things that had nothing to do with the toilet. I was yelling just to yell and doling out consequences left and right, making mountains out of molehills. I was also in need of grace the next morning when I tearfully apologized to my children for yelling instead of laughing, for losing it instead of loving them through it, for yelling angrily instead of waiting patiently for the flood of emotion (and toilet water) to cease.

I was a momma that needed grace this week, and lots of it. And if I was a betting woman, I would bet a lot of other mommas out there this week are in need of grace too.

Sometimes I think that one day, I am going to wake up and have outgrown my need for grace. Have perfected patience. Have gotten self-control down. Have learned how to completely hold my pride in check. Sometimes I think that one day I will never have to stoop down again in tears and repent to my children for being such a lousy mom because I’ve finally grown into the perfect mom, or at least a mom who can go at least a week without seriously blowing it in one way or another.

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of meeting Ann Voskamp, one of my modern-day mom heroes, at a conference Jason and I attended. We were able to visit together for over an hour, and I asked her all sorts of questions about raising kids.

She said lots of wise, grace-filled things throughout our conversation, but one thing in particular stood out. She was talking about how the cross of Christ intersects daily life as a mom, and she said made the comment, “As mothers, we have got to teach our children that we will never outgrow grace. It’s not like at some point if you have walked with Christ long enough that you one day outgrow your need for the cross. That your children are at one level at the foot of the cross, in need of grace, and you are at another, higher, loftier level. We are all at the same level at the foot of the cross – great sinners in need of great grace.”

As soon as she said those words, a burden of great guilt lifted off of my shoulders and was replaced with great grace.

She is right – who am I to think that I will EVER outgrow my need for great grace? Who am I to think that one day I will graduate from my need for the cross? That I will be in less need of grace than my children?

Moms, listen to me: one of the greatest gifts we can give our children is to let them know that we are on their same level when it comes to grace. Our need is just as great as theirs. Our sins just as weighty. Our falls just as steep. We will never rise to the level of perfection but stay at the foot of the cross with them as long as we are their moms.

Doesn’t that take a load off? It certainly doesn’t mean that I can sin now with a clean conscience or without any conscience at all. But it does mean that I do not have to be surprised by my sin. And it does mean that I know the road to reconciliation with my children when I have blown it for the tenth time in a row that day. It means that I meet them at the foot of the cross on eye level, knee to knee, hand in hand.

As much as I wish it was so, my children do not need a perfect mom. They need a repentant mom who is willing to lead them to a perfect Savior, not only when the toilet is overflowing, but especially when the toilet is overflowing.

One of my favorite quotes comes from FB Meyer. He says, “Again He stoops from the throne, and girds Himself with a towel, and in all lowliness, endeavors to remove from thee and me the stain which His love dare not pass over. He never loses the print of the nail; He never forgets Calvary and the blood; He never spends one hour without stooping to do the most menial work of cleansing filthy souls. And it is because of this humility He sits on the Throne and wields the scepter over hearts and worlds.”

How do we survive the end of school? In our filth, we humbly let Christ do the filthy work of cleansing our soul again…and again…and again. Knowing even if we are surprised to be in toilet water again, up to our ankles in filth, He never is. It’s why He came – not only for our children but for us, their moms.

“Since therefore, brethren, we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.” Hebrews 9:19-23