Happy New Year from my family to yours!
I’m not sure what your new year look like so far. Perhaps you’ve greeted this new year with joy and excitement at the possibility of new beginnings after a long 2017. Or perhaps you’ve welcomed this new year with weariness, still tired in mid-January from the craziness of December. Or perhaps you’ve opened the door to 2018 with a low-lying level of anxiety of all that lies before you in the months ahead.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve greeted the new year with all three emotions going on at the same time – joy at the gift of new beginnings, weariness that still lingers after a long December, and a bit of anxiety about all that lies ahead…for me, homeschooling, moving two times, writing, teaching…and those are just the things I know for certain and don’t include the looming uncertain and unknown.
But at the center of all three emotions lies an anchor of rest, hope, and peace. And it’s not tied to money in a bank account, or the health of my children, or the stability of relationships with family and friends – for all of those things are unsure and to some measure, beyond my control. But my anchor is tied to the hope and certain peace that comes from relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, an anchor that holds fast and I know will weather every storm (although preferably not another hurricane).
On the back of our New Year’s card I wrote this message, and it’s a message I sincerely hope and pray for each of us: “We are thankful for a God who cannot change, yet whose love changes everything. May 2018 be a year of great change from a great God whose love never fails.”
Those words come from a song I’ve been listening to lately from a group called “All Sons and Daughters.” The song, called Rest in You, has a line that says, “You [God] cannot change, yet you change everything.” That one line has played on repeat in my heart and mind for weeks now, and it has helped me tremendously as I have thought about navigating the pages of a new year.
I do not know what changes lie ahead (and I don’t deal well with change; I pretty much like things status quo), but I do know the God of my heart, the God of my childhood, the God who got me through junior high (and that took some doing), the God of my adulthood, the God of my marriage, the God of my children, the God of my past, present, and future, the God of the Bible, the God of the church down the street and the church worldwide does not change.
He does not change in His perfect holiness, His justice, His mercy, His forgiveness, His power, His sufficiency, His grace…but He changes everything.
Think about your year for a moment. There isn’t a hopeless situation or a trial that can occur or a death or a sickness or a week or a season or a day or a year where His love cannot sustain you and His power cannot change you. His presence changes everything. Hope sweeps in moment-by-moment, day-by-day, with the sound of His voice and the tread of His feet. There is no life beyond His reach or circumstance beyond His ability to change radically, completely, and irreversibly for good for all eternity.
So walk confidently into this new year knowing that if you know and love Jesus Christ and are known by Him, He will not change on you or fail you, but His love and mercy and grace and strength in your life can change everything.
And it begins, as my friend Robert Hurley once said years ago, with a “bent heart, bent will, and bent knee.” Change occurs in the hearts of those who are yielded to Him, trusting, Him, loving Him, surrendered to Him, trusting His unchanging nature in the day-to-day changes of everything.
To help me remember His unchanging nature and His ability to change things on a moment-by-moment, life-by-life basis, I know myself well enough to know that I have to be connected to and reading His Word, reminding myself of His character and promises on a daily basis.
Reading God’s Word and applying it through prayer, meditation, and the help of the Holy Spirit takes a plan, persistence, a lot of coffee, early mornings, and hard work. But there is no greater need in this new year than to make a plan to keep myself engaged with the God who does not change through His unchanging Word.
To do that, I have several resources that have been a huge help to me that I wanted to share with you.
I am huge believer in reading scripture slowly, passage by passage, verse by verse, and letting it sink in with much study and thought. Part of the reason is that I am a slow processor, but the other reason is that since scripture has so many layers, if I read it quickly or in large chunks, I miss the nuances and deep truths it always has to offer.
But my favorite theologian, my brother Taylor, challenged me to not only dig deeply slowly through specific passages of scripture but to always be reading through the Bible in a year’s amount of time so that I do not miss the great, sweeping narrative the Bible has to tell.
To do both well, I felt like I needed two hours a day of uninterrupted, sit-down-in-my-chair study time, and at this stage of life, and in most people’s stage of life, let’s be real here: “Ain’t nobody got time for that.”
But Taylor shared an idea and an app with me that I have loved – the app is called ReadScripture, and it gives you a reading plan each day for reading through the Bible in a year.
Here’s why I like it:
#1 – it breaks up the Bible into chronological sections and has you reading on the timeline in which Biblical events actually occurred. It makes much more sense to my brain than reading different parts of the Bible every day and skipping around.
#2 – Many of the readings have a video that goes with them, and the videos are excellent. They help to explain what I am about to read and enable me to put pieces of the Bible together as a whole in a way I have never done before.
#3 – Instead of reading the passage of the day, I listen to it. And that was Taylor’s idea. He suggested that I use my time in the mornings for prayer and study of specific passages and then to listen to the video and the passage of Scripture being read on an audio app of the Bible. I do this while on a run, in the car, or as I am getting dressed in the morning. I have found that instead of filling my space with white noise, I am learning to fill it with intention and purpose by listening to the story of Scripture. And so far, it’s been my part of the day I look forward to the most.
In order to listen to the passage of Scripture for the day, I downloaded the ESV (English Standard Version) app and listen to the chapters being read aloud that way.
For resources for more specific or intentional study, check out Kelly Minter’s new Bible study on 2 Corinthians called All Things New. I am several weeks into the study and am loving it. She is both humorous and challenging in her commentary, both of which I appreciate in the quiet early morning hours.
And, of course, there’s Tim Keller. He just came out with a new devotional book on the book of Proverbs called God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life, and, no surprise, it’s excellent. His other yearly devotional book on the Psalms called The Songs of Jesus is excellent as well and is a great platform for jumping off into both reading and praying through the psalms.
So…take your pick. Listen to the wide, sweeping narrative of Scripture, hone in on specific Scripture through intentional study, or do both. But by all means, do something.
This year, make a plan for engaging in God’s Word, to remind yourself day in and day out, no matter how seasons change, that you love and serve a God who is unchanging yet who changes everything.
This is the one constant we need for all that lies ahead.
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth
O hear the angels’ voices
O night divine
O night when Christ was born
O night divine o night
O night divine.”
A few weeks ago, I sat with a dear friend who is walking through a deep and dark night of the soul. I listened and we cried and prayed together for a long time.
We prayed God would meet her in her need; we prayed God would meet the needs of her family and friends around her; and we prayed God would be the lifter of her head and show her the way for every step she is to take in the days and weeks ahead. And when we were done, and she was gone, I felt a definite and certain sense of peace, but I also felt a twinge of conviction and regret.
I was convicted because I realized that while I had prayed for many, many things for my friend, all good things, I had never once asked God in faith to heal the sickness in her body and soul irrevocably, once and for all. I had asked God to help her through her sickness; I asked God to help her in her sickness, but I never asked for full and complete healing right there, in that moment, as we prayed together.
And I was convicted because I believe in a God who heals. Dramatically. Instantaneously. Miraculously. But I think, deep down, I don’t believe He heals like that when it’s just me who is praying.
I saw my mom later that day and shared my heart with her about my time with my friend. I shared my conviction and regret about not asking the Lord for full and complete healing for my friend and about my hesitancy to ask God for such a big thing like that because deep down I believed He didn’t answer requests like that from people like me. He answers them for other people, more radical people, stronger people, more godly people, but not little old normal people like me.
And she just looked at me out of a heart full of wisdom, out of a heart who has prayed and fasted and believed and stood strong more than any other person I know, out of a heart whose prayers for people through the years has availeth much, said, “But Susannah, God has answered your prayers for healing for people.”
And one by one, she listed the situations over the years she knows I have struggled and wrestled and prayed through, the situations and people’s lives she knows I have begged and pleaded and asked God for healing for again…and again…and again…and she said, “I know that maybe God hasn’t healed the way you wanted Him to, and maybe you haven’t seen the miraculous, instantaneous results like you asked Him for, but God has chosen to heal, step-by-step, season-by-season, one day at a time.”
And as she talked, she reminded me that most of the time, that is how we see God choose to heal the hearts around us. Most of the time, He usually doesn’t heal in a flash or in an instant, although He certainly can. And when God does choose to heal that way, it is awesome and incredible and exciting and faith-building.
Bu most of the time, it’s step-by-step, moment-by-moment, situation-by-situation, season-by-season, one day at a time. And He does it that way to keep our hearts completely dependent on Him. She reminded me of how, in her own life, the circumstances that have been the hardest have been the most successful at keeping her completely dependent upon and close to God.
She reminded me that “God knows when to heal in an instant, and He knows when to heal slowly, over time, in the journey, so that our hearts become changed as we fall more deeply in love with Him. But God always heals in response to our prayers; it just looks different sometimes than we think it will or want it to.”
And her words changed everything. They reminded me that it’s not always a result of a lack of faith that God hasn’t healed in an instant every time I have prayed, but it’s a result of His sovereign, steady, unchanging will that knows what healing needs to look like in each and every person’s heart.
And thankfully, it’s not up to me to decide that. It’s up to Him.
A few days ago, I was listening to a song called “Rest in You” by the band Sons and Daughters. The whole song is beautiful, but there is one line that absolutely stopped me in my tracks and has been running through my head every since: “You cannot change, but You change everything.”
God cannot change, but He changes everything. This has become the anthem of my head and heart. We worship and serve a God who cannot change, who has not changed since before the beginning when He created heaven and earth. He is a healer, has always been a healer, and always will be a healer for those who come to Him to ask for healing. He is good, has always been good, and always will be good, and work all things for our good, no matter what seasons in our life ebb and flow.
And while He does not change in His character or goodness or ability to heal, He changes everything. He just does. Because that’s who He is. He changes sorrow to joy; He changes sickness to health; He changes death to life; He changes dirty to clean; He changes hopelessness to hope; He changes anxiety to peace; He changes pointlessness to purpose; and one day, He will change all those who love and long for the Lord Jesus in an instant, to redemptive glory through His unchanging love and grace.
Sometimes He changes things in a moment, but most times, He changes things step-by-step, choice-by-choice, day-by-day, season-by-season. He changes us from the inside out, with hearts made new by His Word, and with wills infused with His courage and the companionship of His Holy Spirit.
If you, like me, have held back on asking God for full and complete healing for a certain friend or a certain circumstance, and if you, like me, have had a hard time believing that God will answer your prayers because of a lack of faith or a lack of greatness or a lack of knowing how to ask, be en-couraged. Meaning, just like me with my mom, have courage poured into you. To keep on praying. To keep on asking. To see that our God is a God who heals because it is who He is, and He is unchanging.
Like me, you just might need to shift your perspective on how He heals. And remember anew that when you pray to a God who is unchanging in His desire and ability to heal, He changes everything. One step at a time.
‘Tis the season…’tis the season for Christmas shopping, getting your kids ready for Christmas recitals and Christmas programs, addressing Christmas cards, attending Christmas parties and events…and for going out of town. For Jason and me anyway. November is the month that holds both my birthday and our anniversary, so almost every year for the past sixteen years, we slip away either to a retreat in Houston or nearby San Antonio, and every few years, we actually hop on a plane.
This year we decided to hop on a plane and spend a long weekend in New York, only made possible by the amazingness of Mia, Nana, and Cara, my mom, Jason’s mom, and Jason’s sister. We booked our trip back in the early part of September (I think it was a knee jerk reaction to recovering from Hurricane Harvey and wanting to get the heck of out town), only to realize our trip was the weekend of our daughter’s ballet performance in the Nutcracker and of her full hair and make up dress rehearsal for her musical theater performance. Yikes. Translate all-hands-on-deck-thank-you-Lord-for-family.
Once everyone’s bags were packed and Lizzie’s two performance bags were ready (what in the world was I thinking saying “Yes!” to both performances when I signed her up for those in September?!?) and we were on the plane, I began to exhale.
I know this sounds crazy, but I love to go to New York with Jason because when I am there, I can exhale. Because when we are there together, we walk and talk. And eat. We walk and talk. And sip coffee. We walk and talk. And wander through museums. We walk and talk. And see shows and wander through shops and think and talk about things greater and bigger than ourselves, things we don’t have time or space to do when we are at home.
So yesterday, we walked and talked a full mile up the east side of Central Park bundled in our coats, breathing in cold air, savoring views of the reds and golds of the trees, and stepped into The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Once inside, we stood under Byzantine arches, beheld a faded but tender statue of Mary holding Jesus, and stood in front of the famous French Christmas creche. But our favorite thing we saw was the exhibit, “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer.” Containing 133 of his drawings, all done in red chalk on white paper, and three of his marble statues, the exhibit gave a unique glimpse into the creative process behind the creator.
We lingered long over drawings detailing arms, legs, the contortion and twisting of muscles in shoulders, backs, and even feet. Many of the sketches were practice rounds for figures he painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or statues he carved for Pope Julius II’s’ tomb. His sketches seemed to be living, fluid, full of movement, and I was almost prepared for them to leap to life off of the paper, even five hundred years after they were drawn.
I was struck by many things that spoke through his sketches, but two things seemed to speak the loudest. One was how much he practiced. Michelangelo is known for his masterpieces, but the majority of his time was spent preparing for his masterpieces – drawing after drawing, stroke after stroke, round after round of try and try again.
As someone who works to create as well, this was encouraging. While my creative ability is nowhere near the celebrated genius (obviously), I understand a little bit of the strain and stress of the creative process. My tendency is to think that artistic giants did not have to try; they just drew or carved or composed or wrote and in one fell swoop – boom! – masterpieces came out.
But more and more, I am seeing that is hardly if ever the case. Even the best of the best have to spend many, many hours devoted to practice and cross outs and try agains before the finished product is ready or even ready to be attempted.
I needed that reminder as I attempt to start the first chapter of a book…for the fiftieth time. I have draft after draft of failed beginnings, and page after page of books that will never be finished or studies that will never reach an end.
But the second thing that spoke loudly to me was a comment made by one of the commentators on the audio guide Jason and I were listening to. She said, “If you look closely at Michelangelo’s drawings and sketches, his point is made as much by what he leaves out as by what he accents and fills in.”
Meaning this – as you stare at the cross hatching and swift, sure strokes that came from his chalk to create the anatomy of a leg, or a man’s biceps and broad shoulders, his anatomy comes to life not only by the strokes he choose to make on the paper but also by the areas he choose to leave blank.
And I was arrested by that comment.
Because in a season of life as a creator of the lives and schedules and rhythms and school routines of four young children, as a sometimes writer and blogger and teacher, as a friend, and daughter, and wife, as an advocate of ministries I love and people I want to help, the pictures I am drawing on a daily basis are made effective by what I choose to leave off of the paper as much as by what I choose to put on.
That was a relief to hear. Because I can only put so much on the paper. I only have time and room for so many marks.
And sometimes, my drawings speak the loudest by what I am leaving off of our schedules, off of our plates, off of our routines, by what I am putting on.
This time of year has the potential to be so special – there are opportunities to create family memories and family traditions and spend extra time together during the school break that the normal school year does not afford.
But there is only so much space or room allotted on the paper. And while I want to draw some things this Christmas season, I cannot draw all things. And the things I leave off have the potential to make the overall drawing more beautiful, not less. The key is figuring out which spaces to leave blank. Because when it comes right down to it, that is the difference between a master artist and a mediocre one…a master artist not only knows what strokes to put on the paper but knows what strokes to leave off.
So this week, the first week of Advent, the first week of the Christmas season, think long and hard about the strokes you will make to fill the paper of the next four weeks before Christmas.
Maybe it means some parties go unattended, certain gifts aren’t bought or wrapped, meals aren’t prepared perfectly, or homes aren’t picked up regularly. But it does mean your space and my space is filled well, and to those who are watching closely and to whom it matters most, what they will see is…a masterpiece.
What’s the true litmus test of our faith, the indicator of what we are really like on the inside instead of what we pretend to be?
I found out in a hurry recently.
I walked up to an event recently, and someone I was not expecting to be there was there. And I made something on my face that looked like a grimace. A grimace that I was not expecting to make but that just came out. A grimace that a good friend caught and just got quiet about. A grimace that exposed what I really thought instead of what I tell others I think on a daily basis.
The friend who caught my grimace is more than just a friend – she is a mentor and someone who walks ahead of me in the faith. So in one way it was good that she caught my look, and in another way, it was not so good.
It was not so good because it was embarrassing. It was embarrassing to be caught doing something I never should have done.
But more than being bad, it was good. It was good to caught in behavior that I should have never done. Because then I could be held accountable to change.
My friend and I had a long talk the next morning. We talked long about how hard it is to love this person, a person that has legitimately done wrong and created hurt – hurt feelings and a hurt heart. We talked about how when I see this person, what automatically comes up in my heart is akin to bitter acid, acid that I can choose to act on, like I did with my grimace and refusal to engage with this person for the rest of the evening, or acid that I can choose to douse with the forgiveness and grace of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Forgiveness I am commanded to give and grace I am commanded to extend. Not because Jesus is a sadistic master, commanding us to engage in activities that will hurt us, but because He is the kindest of masters, commanding us to engage in activities that will heal us, dissipate the bitterness, and unlock us from the prisons of pain and anger and justifying bad behavior we lock ourselves in sometimes for years, decades, or even whole seasons of our life.
My friend ended our conversation by praying over me, asking for God to do in me what I could never do in myself, and texted me this verse from Hosea the following morning (you know it’s a friend who loves Jesus and is ahead of you in the faith when she sends you a verse from Hosea):
“Sow for yourselves righteousness;
reap steadfast love;
break up your fallow ground,
for it is the time to seek the Lord,
that He may come and rain righteousness upon you.” Hosea 10:12
As I thought on that verse and how it applied to my specific situation, I began to see that I wake up each and every morning with two huge bags of seed slung around my waist: one bag contains seeds of righteousness – seeds of righteousness given to me from the Spirit of God with fruit inside like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. And the other bag contains seeds of unrighteousness available to me through my flesh and demonic forces of evil with fruit inside like bitter jealousy, selfish ambition, outbursts of anger, disputes, factions, idolatry, coveting, immorality, greed, and arrogance. And every day, all day, with every word I speak, with every action I perform, I reach into one of those two bags and sow a handful of seeds.
And most of the time, I find I am sowing seeds unaware. Unaware of what bag I am reaching into, unaware of what kind of seed is leaving my lips or my hands, until someone like my friend…or my husband…or my child…catches me in the act. And the weeds that have grown because of my seed-sowing all of a sudden become evident, and people that I love the most in life walk away hurt. Rebuffed. Saddened. Bruised.
The true litmus test out of which bag of seed we are sowing most consistently is not how we talk to and treat our friends and the people in our lives who like us the most. The true litmus test is how we talk to, meet, greet, and welcome the people in our lives who like us the least. The people who slight us. The friends who hurt us. The enemies who hate us. It is when you see them, cross paths with her, sit down unexpectedly across a table with him, whoever he may be, that will tell you which bag of seed your hand and your heart automatically goes. And it will tell you what kind of field you are going to one day reap.
So stop right now, and think. Think about the last time you saw someone you like the least. Into what bag of seed did your hand automatically go? And is there anything you need to repent of? Any field of weeds you need to pull up through letting the Word of God do its good and deadly work in you? Any acidic bitterness of unforgiveness you need to repent of and release?
By doing so, you will begin, perhaps for the very first time in a long time, to reach into the bag of righteous seed hung around your waist and sow seeds that will yield a field of fruit, a garden of beauty, or an orchard of trees, instead of a field of useless weeds and cursed thorns.
You won’t always feel like reaching into the bag of seed of righteousness. Trust me. I seldom do. But feelings have a tendency to follow faith, faith that when we fling seeds of hope, and grace, and love, despite hurt, or wounded pride, or despair, we will eventually reap…love.
Happy Thanksgiving this week! And happy sowing! Know how thankful I am for each of you who take the time to journey with me each week through all of my imperfections into the fields of God’s covering love and grace.
Several weeks ago, I wrote about needing God to clean up the many messes I make (click here to read), and it seemed to strike a chord in many people from the responses I received through texts, emails, and even in passing.
It was refreshing, really, to know that I wasn’t alone and that other people struggle with making messes and needing God to clean them up as much as I do.
And it was telling. It was telling to the degree that although so many of us live such pretty, spotless lives from the outside looking in, we all feel so messy from the inside looking out.
We live in pretty neighborhoods and drive down pretty streets on our way to work or school. We shop from pretty grocery stores stocked full of pretty foods and sit down at pretty tables laden with pretty linens, pretty dishes, served to pretty people. We buy and wear pretty clothes and have ample margin and leisure time to do pretty things or take pretty vacations with our friends or family.
And I’m not saying that any of this is right or wrong – I’m just making an observation about the circumstances and surroundings of many of our lives on a daily basis.
So here’s my question: why, then, if things around me are always so pretty on the outside, do I not feel more pretty on the inside? Why, then, are there seasons that I wake up every morning keenly aware of the feelings of dread and disgrace from the full-blown messiness within that I know no amount of performance, perfection, or repentance can remedy? A messiness that comes from my responses, reactions, and attempts at managing and hustling through the events of my day, trying to keep them looking “pretty,” while feeling frayed, frazzled, and failing from the inside out?
I think it’s because no matter how hard we try to look “pretty” on the outside, we are keenly aware of the broken, tired, spent, messes we are on the inside, no matter how controlled our outside circumstances might be. Especially this time of year. The time of year that represents the holiday time of year. The time of year when “pretty” is supposed to edge out “messiness” on a perpetual basis and define every gift that you give, every event that you attend, every piece of clothing that you wear, and every card that you send.
About a week ago, on a day that I woke up with a heavy sense of dread and an awareness of my inability to maintain prettiness throughout the day ahead with all that was on my plate, I opened up my Bible to Psalm 119 and read this: “Take away the disgrace I dread, for Your laws are good. How I long for Your precepts! In Your righteousness, preserve my life” (Psalm 119:39-40).
And then I read this in the devotional book by Tim Keller entitled The Songs of Jesus: “Christians know that the old self struggles constantly with a sense of the disgrace it dreads (v. 39), a feeling we aren’t good enough. That is a true intuition! But your moral efforts won’t address it. Only in Christ is the disgrace removed and a whole new identity given (Romans 8:1; Hebrews 10:22). Every day is a battle – will you operate out of your old self or your new self?” (Timothy Keller, The Songs of Jesus, November 5th).
I cannot describe to you the relief I felt when I read both the psalmist’s admission and Keller’s words. It was a feeling of, “What?! You too?! You too struggle constantly with a sense of dread over the disgrace and failure you know you are on the inside? You mean, this is a human problem, and not a Susannah Baker problem?”
It was a feeling of knowing and deeply realizing I was not alone. My condition was not abnormal. And rather than pushing me into isolation, my sense of dread could push me into community, a community who is longing, just as I am, for dread to be erased and messiness to be cleaned up, no matter how frayed and fragile we feel.
I spent time peering further into the verses, looking for the remedy and the antidote to my disgrace, the medicine to heal my dread. And this is what I found: the Hebrew word for “laws” in verse 39 is mishpat, a word that actually means “justice” or “verdict.” So the literal reading of verse 39 is this: “Take away the disgrace I dread, for Your verdict is good.”
The medicinal power God’s Word applied to my heart that morning, and many mornings since then, is that no matter what I feel, no matter the disgrace I dread, God’s verdict over me is good.
Because according to my track record, I deserve disgrace. According to my long list of failures as a wife who is irritable, sharp-toned, and demanding, as a mom who never has enough patience, or empathy, and has to apologize daily for letting exacting perfection get in the way of presence and peace, as a daughter and sister who still slips into patterns of self-pity and wounded withdrawal, patterns of self-protection left over from junior high days, and as a friend who struggles with remaining present to everyday needs and concerns instead of numbing and proving myself through work, I deserve to feel dread. Dread of the verdict over me that has every right to be – FAILURE. Broken. Sinful. Not enough.
But, according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I get grace.
The verdict over me is grace. And because of that grace, I get healing for my wounds of fear and self-protection. Balm for my irritability and ungratefulness. Patience for my impatience. Second chances for my repeated stumblings. And restorative thankfulness and significance as the adopted daughter of God instead of the disgrace I dread.
How do I know this? It’s all wrapped up in the verdict of God found in the Word of God, a Word I have access to on a moment-by-moment basis. It is His Word that heals me and cleans up my messes on a morning-by-morning basis. It is His Word that lifts my face out of the failures I have made, out of the frayedness I feel, and reminds me it is God who gets to have the last say in making me whole, not my messes.
I can choose to listen to the dread. A dread I deserve and a disgrace that every human being shares right along with me. Or I can choose to listen to the Word of God that proclaims, every day, my healing, covers all of my wounds, and fixes all of my failures, making me and those around me better than new.
So the real question is not, “Why do I feel disgrace? So ugly on the inside when everything is pretty on the outside?” The real question is, “To what verdict am I going to listen? To which voice am I going to respond? The voice of dread? The feelings of inherent shame? Or the redefining, grace-giving, mercy delivering, failure-covering voice of God?”
So if you see me this week, at the pretty grocery store, or on a pretty street, or in conversation at a pretty table, let us remind one another: “No matter the mess you and I feel within, God’s verdict over us is grace, our mess ups are covered, and His Word testifies to His faithful, covenantal love no matter what we have done. Be at rest, O my soul.”
Last week, my friend, Christine Scott, leaned over to me before Biblestudy began and said, “Hey – every time I pray for you, I keep hearing God say, ‘I got your messy.’ I don’t know if that means anything to you, but that’s what I keep hearing and praying. God’s got your mess and messiness in life, whatever that may be.”
“Who, moi?!” was my first internal response. Thanks, but no messes to clean up here at the moment. Doing pretty well for the first time in weeks, to be honest. I GOT THIS.
Beware of EVER thinking that. Because it wasn’t just a few hours later that the mess hit the fan.
Mess created from running too fast, going too hard, thinking, “I got this,” while inconsiderately leaving other people in the dust.
The first day after my “messy” was exposed, I was too embarrassed to even talk about it to God. I was hiding underneath the labels of “Terrible Parent,” “Terrible Friend,” “Terrible Everything” that I had stuck on myself and assumed God agreed with.
But after a few days of hiding underneath the mess and avoiding intimacy with God, I decided to invite Him into the mess. And instead of a lecture or a talking-to about my overall failures as a human being, what I found was…grace. God not only had my mess, He was down on all-fours cleaning up the mess on my behalf.
I love FB Meyer’s quote from Love to the Uttermost that 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 stopping 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 world.”
I don’t know what your mess looks like today. It might be a stack of dishes in the sink that have overflowed onto the counter. Or it might be a house full of kids who need you to deal with their messes of every second of the day. It might be a marriage that looks more like a train wreck than the picture of peaceful bliss. Or it might be a ruined friendship or a ruined day or a ruined life that feels frayed around the edges or unraveling at the seams.
But whatever your mess is, not only does God got your mess, God’s got you. That’s what real grace is for. It’s for real sinner, not respectable sinners. It’s for real messes, not just overflowing piles. So hear God say over you today, “I got this. I got you. I got your messy. That’s what Calvary was for. And that’s what grace is for. For each and every mess. For each and every day. For each and every life.”
David says it best when in Psalm 32 he writes, “When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long…I acknowledged by sin to You, and my iniquity I did not hide; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord; and You forgave the guilt of my sin. Therefore, let everyone who is godly pray to You in a time when You may be found. Surely in a flood of great waters they shall not reach him. You are my hiding place; You preserve me from trouble; You surround me with songs of deliverance” (Psalm 32:3, 5-6).
Confess your mess, receive God’s grace, and hear His songs of deliverance. Because of Jesus, He’s already got your mess covered, every single time.
None of us were sure what October 11th would look like.
We didn’t know if it would be a day of mourning or a day of rejoicing.
It turns out that it was a little of both.
It turns out that when the year anniversary arrives of the death of someone you love and know is with Jesus, there are tears and laughter intertwined. And I think all of us who knew and loved Kathy McDaniel were relieved to discover that.
We were relieved that in the midst of our tears, there was joy in the remembering.
I went to bed last Tuesday evening a little tentative. I learned last year in the weeks and months leading up to and following Kathy’s death that grief does strange things to the heart that translate to the body, like it or not. Like it or not, there were days, or even weeks, it felt like I was walking with lead bricks on my feet or had a weary sorrow pressing on my heart. And I did not know if I would wake up the morning of the 11th with those same concrete bricks on my heart or feet.
But as I climbed into bed, the the word “Rejoice!” popped into my head, a word I had not thought of in a long time. It was almost as if I heard Kathy herself say it.
“Rejoice!” was Kathy’s word; she wore it on a chain around her neck and signed it at the end of many of her letters. And “Rejoice” was her word because joy was the attitude of her heart – joy and steadfast courage in the face of the enemy of cancer, an enemy that ended up taking her body, but not her heart.
And hearing her voice say “Rejoice!” as I climbed into bed was a precious reminder that Kathy Bonds McDaniel was alive and well. Yes, we were about to climb the hurdle of the day of her death the next day, but the day of her death was also the day of her becoming. The day of her wedding. The day of her face to face encounter with her Heavenly Groom, Jesus, the Lover of her soul. The battle Kathy fought so well with cancer had worked out for her an eternal weight of glory that she was in the throes of enjoying, in fact, rejoicing in, while we were missing her on this earth.
When I got up the next morning, I read from the devotional book The Songs of Jesus by Tim Keller. The reading for the day came from Psalm 108:1-4: “My heart, O God, is steadfast; I will sing and make music with all my soul. Awake, harp and lyre! I will awaken the dawn. I will praise you, O Lord, among the nations; I will sing of you among the peoples. For great is your love, higher than the heavens; your faithfulness reaches to the skies.”
The devotional from Keller said this about the psalm: “This psalm is an expression of a ‘steadfast’ heart, one with courage. There is an aggressive joy here. Even if it is dark, the psalmist’s song to God will bring on the dawn.”
My friends, can I tell you something? Kathy McDaniels’s aggressive joy and steadfast heart literally brought on the dawn. She brought on the dawn by showing all of us who watched her suffer and die, leaving behind a husband and three young children, the character of Christ in the midst of every single trial she walked through.
She brought on the dawn by modeling for us that joy and rejoicing was possible in the face of extreme affliction.
And she was bringing on the dawn the morning of October 11th, singing her song of joy and confidence with Jesus over those of us here, reminding us that joy and rejoicing is coming for us too when Jesus comes to take us home.
Were there tears throughout the day of October 11th? Yes. Of course. But they were tears, in the words of Rich Mullins’ song If I Stand, “If I weep, let it be as man who is longing for his home.” They were tears of longing for home – the home Kathy stands so fully and completely in now and the home that we get only glimpses of when the veil is pulled back for a moment and we hear her songs on the other side.
My friend, Jenny Venghaus, said it best. As a few of us sat together last Tuesday, talking about and remembering Kathy, she said, “It’s like she left the wedding reception and got to go on the honeymoon, and we are all still here cleaning up afterwards, waiting for our turn to go too.”
But friends, one day, for those who know King Jesus, our reception is coming too. So until that day, we are to sing, like Kathy, with aggressive joy and steadfast hearts to awaken the dawn. The dawn is a reminder to a dark and weary world that rejoicing is coming, the sun is rising, and glory is breaking to fill our eyes.
We ended the day at the McDaniels’ house eating ice cream sundaes with sprinkles, gummy worms, and chocolate sauce – because, after all, what is a day of rejoicing without a little ice cream at the end?
That’s just the way Kathy would have wanted it.
So “Rejoice”! The way is hard, but the joy is deep. All you have to do is open your eyes, look for the dawn, and sing with aggressive joy. The Son is coming.
Several weeks ago was the first week of fifth grade, or middle school, for my oldest daughter, Lillian.
She got into the car quiet as a mouse when I picked her up at the end of her first day, and little by little, as the evening wore on, she began to share about the events of the day and what had made her so quiet in the car.
Turns out she felt at the end of the day like so many of us remember feeling at the end of a day of middle school – a little unnoticed, a little faded into the background, a little like an old piece on a patchwork quilt. Part of that feeling was a result of her quiet personality, and part of that feeling was just what goes along with the territory of middle school. She faded into the background at lunch, she faded into the background in class, and overall, she ended the day feeling…alone. Even though she was surrounded by 64 classmates.
All summer (and let’s be honest, pretty much for all their lives) I’ve been praying for that “one friend” for my daughters…all four of them. Because let’s face it, with four girls to raise, what else does one pray about at this phase of life besides friendships, sassy backtalk, and emotional drama?
If you’re a woman, when you hear the phrase “one friend,” you know who I’m talking about. That “one friend” who saves you a seat at her lunch table come hell or high water. That “one friend” who chooses you in class, no matter who the new girl or the cool girl is. That “one friend” who invites you over on a Friday night, even if the most exciting thing you are going to do is sleep on her family’s pullout couch and watch a Fred Astaire musical…again.
I had a friend like that. And she was a best friend in every sense of the word. She was the cool kid and let’s just say I was…not. But she always choose me. And next to her I always felt like my place was secure. And if I wasn’t picked on a Friday night by anyone else, it was ok, because I knew I would always be picked by her.
And that’s who I’ve been praying for for my girls. And if we are honest, I think a lot of mommas pray that for their girls. Because for some reason, we think our daughters can endure and weather anything as long as they have that “one friend.”
So last week when I began to pray my “one friend” prayer for my daughters once again, the Lord quietly responded with a simple statement in my heart: “You might be praying the wrong prayer.”
And immediately the words of Ephesians 3:17-19 came to mind: “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”
Apparently, being filled up with all the fullness of God, being rooted and grounded in His unchanging love, experiencing the height and depth, the length and width of a crucified Christ has nothing to do with having that “one friend.”
This was news to my heart. Not to my head – I’ve known these verses, memorized these verses, prayed these verses for years. But this time, the scripture translated to my heart.
My prayer for my daughters does not need to be, “O God, give them just one friend.” My prayer needs to be, “O God, no matter what happens in my daughters’ day, fill them up with all the fullness of Christ. Let them be so rooted and grounded in Your love, that no matter what happens, the knowledge of Your love, the knowledge that You are with them and always choose them and love to be with them, trumps any knowledge of despair, fear, shame, rejection, embarrassment, or sadness they might feel. Lord, would You please be their One Friend?”
And I am telling you, my heart flooded with peace when I prayed that prayer. Because that way, the pressure is off people. It’s off that “one friend” or any friend for that matter to perform in a way that communicates unconditional love and acceptance. And that pressure is transferred to God. And I can count on Him as a mom of four daughters to love each and every one of them through every situation. I can count on Him to choose them every single time. I can lean on Him to provide in their hearts what no human heart can ever provide – the rooting and grounding nature of the unchanging nature of the love of Christ.
And that gives this momma’s heart peace.
I had to repent for the lenses I had been wearing and the expectations I had been placing on other people – fifth, third, and first grade people for that matter! – to be something to my girls no one could ever be except the Lord. And I have been praying that prayer consistently ever since the Lord deposited it in my heart.
I don’t know what your prayers for your child or children have been over the summer or fall, and I don’t know what your expectations are when it comes to friends. But I can tell you this, you and I both will be disappointed if we are waiting on that “one friend,” for our children, or even for ourselves. Because what I am finding is that my daughter’s middle school feelings have the ability to pull up my own middle school feelings from years ago and make my feel like a fifth grader at a lunch table all over again. And even as a forty-year-old, I have found myself praying that “one friend” prayer, hoping a human can deliver for me what only God can provide.
Because at some point, as an eleven-year-old or as a forty-year-old, the expectation of a “one friend” is going to fail you. And what I am learning is that God designed it that way for a purpose.
Because how else in the world would we ever come to know and experience the love that never fails us if we could find it in a fifth grade classroom or at a forty-year-old lunch table? And maybe that’s what the Lord wants to teach you and me and our children this school year. Stop asking for the things that can’t help but let you down, and start asking for the one love, the one friend, that hung on a cross so that He could lift you to Himself and never let you down. He truly is your Perfect Friend.
Some of you may have read this post last week, only to find it disappear from my blog site – I apologize for that error! Last week’s post was meant to be Top Ten Things I Learned from a Hurricane, and this week’s post was supposed to be today’s, Finding a Friend. I am trusting the timing on when it was read – last week or this week – was sovereignly ordained for each and every heart. As always, thank you for being patient with me and all my technological errors!
Trusting the One Friend who never fails,
It’s been five weeks since Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, and we are all starting to breathe just a little bit again. Wherever we all are – back in our own houses or still in temporary housing – some of our breaths might still be short gasps for air, but there have been a few moments of genuine exhale and learning how to live again.
But I don’t think many of us will ever live the same. At least I hope we don’t ever live the same. Harvey changed our city and changed us as individuals, and I wanted to take time to reflect on some of the lessons we have learned, are learning, and hopefully will continue to learn in the days and years ahead.
1. “Before Houston can be Houston Strong, we must be Houston Humble.”
The pastor of our church, Gregg Matte, has said this phrase since his first Sunday back in the pulpit after the hurricane hit. And he is so right. Houston must be humble enough to hear what God is saying to us, as a city, as individuals, in the rubble before the rebuilding. Because, as Jesus Himself said (and this is my paraphrase here), “What good is it if a person, or a city, gains the whole world, rebuilds their whole city, becomes strong by their own arms and the sweat of their own brow, yet loses their souls?” (Matthew 16:26) God alone knows how He wants to rebuild our city to save our city, so before we put one brick on top of another, we must humble our hearts before Him and genuinely ask Him what He wants to say, how He wants us to change, and what He wants us to do.
2. When given the opportunity, the church in Houston really can become the church.
When given the opportunity, the church in Houston didn’t just read their Bibles, they did our Bibles, in the rain, in boats, in the tear outs and in the tear downs. The stories and examples are endless, absolutely endless, but the one that gets to me the most happened at my friend Sally Henry’s house. I’ve known Sally since I was in junior high (she was my junior high youth director at church), and her house flooded along with so many others in her neighborhood. She had standing water in her house for nine days, so when the waters finally receded, a crew was needed to get in there quickly to get sheet rock, floors, and everything single thing she owned out to keep mold from spreading anymore than it already had.
I figured anyone who put up with me in junior high deserved a helping hand in the biggest sort of way, so Jason gathered a network of about fifteen men who descended on Sally’s house on a Friday morning. And by Friday afternoon, all the work in Sally’s house was done. But with the exception of my husband, Jason, not a single one of those men knew Sally personally. They just knew she needed help. The group included business men, construction workers, real estate brokers, Sunday school directors, ex-cons, and ex-atheletes, whose only thing in common was the love of Jesus and a desire to help someone who had lost everything in the flood.
I was standing in the driveway a couple of hours into the job and up walks a friend of ours named Ryan Bishop who heard help was needed at Sally’s house…and that Friday also happened to be Sally’s birthday. Ryan is married to his beautiful wife, Annette, and has three precious children. He is a fellow Sunday School teacher at our church, and we usually pass each other with paper in our hands headed to the copier on the fourth floor on a Sunday morning to make copies of our outlines for our respective classes. But instead of holding papers, this day he was holding flowers. “I heard it was someone’s birthday today,” he said. “Which one of you is Sally?” As Sally raised her hand, Ryan walked up and gave her a big hug along with a beautiful bouquet of flowers. In the midst of all the ugliness of a house torn apart by a flood, and in a space that looked more like a war zone than a party zone, Ryan brought in a bit of beauty. And in the sweetness of that moment, watching the church really be the church to one another, I had to keep wiping away tears running under the mask over my face. Ryan didn’t know Sally. Sally didn’t know Ryan. But Ryan was willing to minister deeply and specifically to the needs of Sally’s heart, even the invisible ones, and let the church be the church in a way that was a privilege to witness.
3. Stuff is just stuff and really isn’t all that important.
Hurricane Harvey put all of our “stuff” into major perspective. No one’s stuff was immune to total destruction. Rich people, poor people, middle class people – people from all walks of life lost their stuff. No one’s stuff was protected because of how much many they had made in the stock market or had in their bank account. No one’s stuff was protected because of how famous or influential they where or how many degrees they had. No one’s stuff was protected because of how good a life they had led. Everyone’s stuff – rich, poor, white, black, Asian, Hispanic – ended up on the curb waiting to be hauled off and taken to the trash heap. Every time I passed another row of houses with loads of mildewed, ruined “stuff” on their lawns, it was a powerful reminder to me and to many others of Jesus’ words: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).
4. Stuff is more than just stuff and really is important.
I know, I know. This completely contradicts what I just wrote in point #3. But this statement is as true as well. Stuff is more than just stuff because it is attached to meaningful moments and significant memories in people’s lives. And so much of the stuff that was lost cannot be replaced. And that is oh. So. Hard. Before the reality of point #3 can happen in many of our hearts, point #4 has to be acknowledged. Stuff that is lost has to be grieved over, and we must give ourselves the emotional space and time it requires for memories to be mourned before we can move on to the next stage of rebuilding.
5. As much as Jesus is with us in the storm, Jesus is with us in the aftermath of the storm.
I’ve always drawn comfort from hearing the story in the gospels about Jesus being with His disciples in the boat in the middle of the storm (see Mark 4:35-41). But what I discovered I needed more than the assurance that Jesus was with us in the storm, was that Jesus was with us in all of the wreckage after the storm and would also help us rebuild.
And He was. Jesus was with us in the wreckage in every house we entered, in every labor of love given for the sake of another, and in every empathetic tear shed and hug given.
My daughter Mia Grace helped me understand this point more than anyone else.
The girls and I took lunch over to a friend’s house that had flooded and we stayed for a while watching a crew rip out her floors. For the last fifteen years that I have known her, I have always loved going to my friend’s house because every nook and cranny speaks of the warmth and beauty of her creativity and attention to detail. And one of my favorite creative details of her house is the statue of Jesus that normally stands guard by her front door greeting every guest, reminding everyone of the presence of Immanuel within.
As I set up lunch on my friend’s kitchen counter, I looked outside and saw her statue of Jesus leaning up against her chain link fence, resting among the wreckage of the storm. Mia Grace was standing beside the statue with a look of awe on her face, and she slowly leaned over and gave Him a kiss. It was a much needed reminder that Jesus was there, with us, with us in the wreckage, with us in the details after the storm as much as He was with us in the terror of the storm. Perhaps we would have to look for Him and find Him in different or unusual places, like leaning up against a chain link fence when we would normally expect Him by the front door, but He was there, with us, helping us, loving us, every step of the way.
6. Survivor’s guilt is a very real thing.
Those of us who escaped from our homes flooding had to deal with the guilt that came from being spared. It took days and even weeks to get over the feelings of awkward embarrassment and even guilt when talking to someone whose house did flood. And through the process of learning how to deal with survivor’s guilt, I found that the only real remedy was recognizing that the gift of margin and time given to me by my house not flooding was there to give to those whose houses did. And instead of focusing on the guilt, I learned to focus on the grace – the grace that God allowed those of us who had hands to help to truly be a source of help and comfort to those who were in need.
7. Road rage is real.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that the traffic jams that followed Harvey were as stressful as the hurricane itself. Sitting in the car for three hours to go six miles is enough to make you lose your mind. The only silver lining I found was that I got to know the other people in the car with me REALLY WELL. They know things about me that I am pretty sure Jason doesn’t even know. Things like when I get stressed, I start to pick my toe nails…and then throw them out the car window. Gross, I know. But what else are you going to do with three hours in a car going at the pace of a snail?!?
8. Don’t pick up a cat in the pouring rain and try to put it in a boat. Just. Don’t. Do it.
This point has to be my personal favorite. Some of our friends, Jason and Tiffany Melton and their four beautiful children, had to evacuate from their neighborhood because of the rising waters. Once Jason got his family to safety, he went back into his neighborhood to help others and ended up in the fight of his life with a cat. What he didn’t realize until later was that his whole experience was caught on his phone camera…
As a reward for his feat of bravery by trying to hold onto and save the darn cat, Jason was bitten five times on the hand by the cat and was given the gift of…staph.
So again, I make the point…don’t pick up a cat in the pouring rain and try to put it in a boat. Just. Don’t. Do it. Let it go.
9. Dudes were made for hurricanes.
I am not trying to be a sexist here; I’m just trying to make the point that my husband came alive in a different way than I did in the midst of a full on storm.
Over the course of just two short weeks, Jason got to do more “dude-like” things than in the previous forty-five years of his life. He (along with many other men in our community) waded in chest deep water and put person after person into boats.
He wound up taking 9-1-1 calls with the Drug Enforcement Agency who was here from Florida while singing, “Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do, whatcha gonna do when they come for you…” in his head the entire time.
He got to drive a monster truck through flooded streets to shuttle people back and forth to their homes.
And instead of sitting behind a desk or looking for real estate sites in the car, he got to swing a crow bar, rip out flooring, tear out sheet rock, fill and re-fill wheelbarrows, and sweat to his
heart’s content. It made going back to work three weeks after the hurricane feel more than a little mundane. I fully expected to get a call from him his first week back saying, “Babe, I’m headed to Florida to join the DEA.”
Like I said, dudes were made for hurricanes.
10. For there to be a Red Sea Road, there must be also be a Red Sea.
A week before Hurricane Harvey hit, I was reading the passage in Isaiah 11 that says,
“And the Lord will utterly destroy
the tongue of the Sea of Egypt,
and will wave his hand over the River
with his scorching breath,
and strike it into seven channels,
and he will lead people across in sandals.
And there will be a highway from Assyria
for the remnant that remains of his people,
as there was for Israel
when they came up from the land of Egypt.” (Isaiah 11:15-16)
In the book of Exodus, when the Israelites fled from the Egyptians, Pharaoh and his army pursued them on chariots and horses to try to bring them back to Egypt as slaves (Exodus 14). The Israelites walked as far as they could on their own two feet, and then hit the barrier of the Red Sea. Addressing his people’s panic as they watched Pharaoh’s chariots come closer and closer, Moses said, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent” (Exodus 14:13-14).
Under God’s command, as Moses’ lifted his staff and stretched out his hand over the Red Sea, the waters parted, and the Israelites crossed to the other side on dry land. Once the Israelites had passed through to safety on the Red Sea Road, the waters came crashing down on Pharaoh and his army, and the horses and chariots went tumbling into the sea.
This passage in Isaiah 11 is remembering the Red Sea Road of deliverance God made for His people and is looking ahead to a “greater, worldwide Exodus” when Isaiah foresees the sea itself being dried up and God gathering once and for all all of His people to Himself (Alec Motyer, Isaiah By the Day).
In my journal, I wrote this about Isaiah 11:15-16: “To have a Red Sea Road, you must have a Red Sea barrier. You must be backed into a corner with an enemy breathing down your neck and no way forward. You have to experience the pain of the press to know the healing and wonder of redemption. I forget that so much of the time. I want the miracles of the Red Sea road without the pain and press of the Red Sea barriers.”
God used that passage to prepare my heart for the hurricane ahead, for so much of the time, I cry out to God to show me His power, to show me His deliverance, and to make a way through the Red Sea, forgetting all the while that means I must be backed into a corner with absolutely no way forward but Him.
In the last few weeks, Exodus 14 and Isaiah 11 have given me confidence and courage to believe that when we find ourselves in the pain and press of needing deliverance with absolutely no human way forward, no money in our bank account, no funds to cover the costs, no more energy to manage the needs, no resources to fight the fight, then, and only then, is when we see God’s hand of deliverance lifted high over our lives, over our needs, over our city, and He parts the waters, and makes a way with a Red Sea road.
The Red Sea barrier of Hurricane Harvey was terrible and took us all to a place of needing deliverance in ways most of us have never experienced before. But it also gave us the privilege of seeing God’s hand part the waters around us and make Red Sea roads for His people in ways we would have never seen without the hurricane.
Hurricane Harvey taught all of us in Houston so many things that matter; I just hope that they are things that remain. Things that help us to refocus and reorganize our priorities, our pocketbooks, our to-do lists and agendas for each and every day. And I hope that it helps us remember that for every Red Sea barrier that blocks our way forward in the future, we have a Deliverer who promises to make a Red Sea road for His people every single time, no matter the size of the sea.