Susannah Baker

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True Treasure

On September 18, 2017, Posted by , in Encouragement, Hurricane Harvey, With 10 Comments

By outside measures, Brooke and Randy Keeney look like deceptively ordinary people.

They have four kids and live in a quiet neighborhood on the West side of Houston. Randy works for an oil and natural gas company and Brooke is a stay-at-home mom who homeschools her kids on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

But when the flood waters rose and their home went under, Brooke and Randy Keeney showed just how extraordinary they really are.  I can’t even write that sentence without crying.  Because if you look at the picture at the top of the blog, while standing in their water-logged living room, every square inch of their house soaking wet, Randy holds in his hands a picture of a verse that says, “And He shall be the stability of your times” (Isaiah 33:6) and Brooke holds a plaque that says, “Choose Joy.”

And for all the world and their submerged neighborhood to see, they have walked out that verse with quiet humility and patient trust in the Lord.

They walked it out as they waded onto their street with three kayaks and a paddle boat and for three straight days, salvaged all that they could from their home.

They walked it out as they consistently spoke kindly and respectfully to one another in the tenseness of ripping out flooring and sheet rock and deciding what possessions to keep and what to throw away.

They walked it out as neither one of them uttered a word of complaint or self-pity or despair in the two days I was with them in the moldy dampness of their home.

In fact, the words I heard them speak most often were, “Thank you.  Thank you for being here.  Thank you for helping us.”

That, my friends, is extraordinary.  Because let me tell you something: speaking kindly to your spouse when every single square inch of your floor, your carpet, and your sheet rock is being pulled out from the aftermath of a storm, speaking kindly to your spouse when every article of clothing, every damp book, every single piece of furniture, scrap of paper, photo book, and memory that represents your lives is in black trash bags all around you to either be taken to the curb, taken to the car, or floated over to a neighbor’s dry house for storage is not normal.  It requires supernatural intervention.

And the radical dependence that Randy and Brooke showed on that supernatural grace that was not born in the moments of a flood or water filling their house.  It was born in the months and days and moments preceding the flood, when quietly, persistently, consistently, they chose to make the fear of the Lord the stability of their days and the bedrock of their home.  So when the hurricane hit and the flood waters rose, although their floors crumbled, their faith did not simply because their foundation was securely attached to the only floor that cannot fail – the saving, faithful character of Jesus Christ.

The Saturday before the hurricane, Brooke and I met for lunch and ate chips, salsa, and fajita grilled chicken (the best kind of lunch) while catching up and sharing stories about our summer.  Brooke shared how disappointed she was at the beginning of the summer that their family was not going anywhere on a vacation.  They chose to stay home and brave the summer heat in Houston to focus on establishing rhythm and routine with their four children and in their own lives before the school year started.

Spending a whole summer in Houston is not an easy feat, out-of-state and out-of-country friends.  It requires lots of Sonic ice, air conditioning, and two showers a day to simply clean off all the sweat. And Houston heat means you are either inside or in a pool.  Outside on the concrete is simply not an option.  There is no telling your kids, “Go outside and play.  You are driving me crazy.”  They are either inside with you or outside in a pool in a bathing suit with you.  And inside with you can feel really cramped really quickly.

But Brooke used her summer to…are you ready for this…pray.  

She used her summer months to attach herself securely to God in the daily rhythm of prayer for herself, her husband, her children, her community, and her world.  Prayer was the essence of her summer. and she spent that Saturday lunch testifying to me how much prayer had not only changed her life but the entire climate of her home.  She was so thankful those months had been spent not in packing and unpacking and vacationing…but in praying…to prepare for the school year ahead.

Or a hurricane.

Little did Brooke (or anyone) know that the hours she had spent in prayer were laying up a treasure for her that could not be taken.  A treasure she would need to draw on and from in the coming months as her family was displaced and her world turned upside down.  She had day in and day out faithfully chosen “the one thing that was necessary…and could not be taken from her” (Luke 10:42).  And she chose well.

David Platt says this about prayer: “Prayer won’t just change your prayer life; prayer will change your life.”  And Brooke’s choice is living proof of that statement.  

We all have so many choices to make on a day in and day out basis.  And we all have so many things we could do with our resources and our time.  Good things.  But when it comes down to it, like Jesus told Martha in Luke 10:42, only one thing is really necessary.  And like Brooke, the time that you and I choose to spend at Jesus’ feet, connecting to Him through prayer, praise, repentance, supplication, and surrender, is the only time that will bear lasting, eternal fruit in our lives and in the lives of those around us, and prepare us for the seasons and storms ahead in ways that scratching things off of our to-do lists and responding to emails and taking vacations never can do.

Today, this week, this season, choose the one thing.  Put all your other things down; they can wait.  I promise.  And like Brooke, choose the one that cannot be taken from you, even when the flood waters rise.

Brooke and Randy Keeney are not perfect people.  But they are praying people.  Extraordinary people.   Because they have made their treasure God rather than their comfort, or the things in their house, or the things of this world.

The rest of the verse Randy is holding in the picture says this: “And He shall be the stability of your times, a wealth of salvation, wisdom, and knowledge; the fear of the Lord is his treasure” (Isaiah 33:6).

That pretty much sums up the lives of Randy and Brooke.  Underneath the water-logged pieces of wood in their home was not despair or grief or a torn foundation; underneath was a secure foundation of salvation, wisdom, knowledge, and the fear of the Lord.  And that, my friends, is the ultimate treasure.  It just took a hurricane and a summer of prayer to pull up the floorboards and see what really was beneath.

The Search for Joy

On August 21, 2017, Posted by , in Encouragement, With 4 Comments

Summer is a time to take journeys.  Some journeys involve heading to the beach, lake, mountains, neighborhood pool, or even your own backyard.  My journey involved searching for joy.

It’s a journey I’ve been on ever since I was a little girl, as young as five years old.  To help me overcome shyness and a walk down the aisle as a flower girl in a family friend’s wedding with a smile on my face instead of my usual, somber look, my grandmother gave me a framed verse that says, “The joy of the Lord is my strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).  And while I wanted to do what the words said and walk through life with a big smile on my face (which is what I thought the verse meant), sometimes smiling is easier said than done.  Especially when you are a non-smiler like me.  I tend to live in my head, tend to think and ponder and pull back rather than press in.  And the journey for joy has been rather elusive at times, no matter how hard I’ve tried to find it and wear its evidence on my face.

But a friend challenged me to joy this summer – challenged me to let it be the mark of my life and ministry rather than the worn-out facade I so often wear.  So I went on a journey looking for joy, this time looking harder than ever before.

And I didn’t find it in a smile or in the determination to be the talkative one at a dinner party or gathering of friends.  I found it, surprisingly, in suffering.

And what I mean is this – joy isn’t found by ignoring suffering or turning a blind eye to suffering.  Joy is found by acknowledging suffering – acknowledging the daily burdens we bear or the person who is hard to love, embracing the realities of the difficult circumstances or seasons we are in, and choosing to walk through the suffering with the nearness of God on one hand and the practice of gratitude on the other.  (See the excellent book Joyful Journey: Listening to Immanuel for helpful ways to do this.)

And that discovery was a hard one.  It took looking honestly at myself and my weaknesses and the well-meaning criticism from my friend while also being true to myself and the person God made me to be.

Because try as I might, I can’t make myself flip a switch and turn into the life of the party.  I can’t wave a wand and make myself not feel the seemingly small and insignificant nuances of relationships and circumstances around me.  I feel everything.  It’s how God made me.  But I can choose to feel and allow the nearness and therefore the goodness of God to overpower the feelings of shame, despair, fear, or anger that so often threaten to rise up and overwhelm my soul.  I can choose to press in to the faithful, covenantal, unchanging love of the Lord (Exodus 34:6-7) and allow it to help me press in to others rather than withdraw.

And in that journey through the suffering, rather than stuffing or ignoring the suffering, joy unfolds.

It’s like this – I have another friend who, when he was young, saw his dad become angry over something and punch a hole in his bedroom wall.  When his mom saw the hole, instead of dealing with her husband’s anger and addressing the issue or fixing the hole, she simply moved a picture on the wall on top of the hole to cover it up and wa-la – the problem was fixed.  But not the anger.  Or the hole it had left.  Either in the wall or in my friend’s heart.

And for a long time, I thought the journey for joy was like that – ignore the hole, ignore the anger and the shame, rage, despair, and fear that caused the hole, move a picture on top of it, put a smile on over it, and poof!  You have joy.  I thought for years that my inability to have joy came from my inability to ignore the hole.  But what God has been showing me is that joy actually comes through acknowledging the hole and paying the price to fix it.  The joy comes in the journey.

The last few days of our family journey to the mountains of Idaho this summer (and yes, Idaho has mountains and not just potatoes, much to most Texans’ surprise), Jason and I went on a four day, three night camp out.  It was my idea of a dream vacation – no showers, no makeup to put on, no hair to fix, hard uphill ascension on a trail with a pack on my back, and gorgeous views along the way.  I was talking to our wonderful guide, Sara, about what it is about me that makes a trip like this enjoyable – because, let’s face it, I’ve come to accept the fact that four days in the Idaho wilderness isn’t most women’s idea of a dream vacation. 

Sara said, “These trips aren’t for everyone.  They are for people who don’t mind some suffering and hardship along the way in the wilderness to see the views on the top.”

Her statement seemed to sum up my search for joy.  Joy isn’t in spite of suffering, nor is it in the absence of suffering.  Joy is for those who are willing to suffer and endure hardship along the way, embracing the challenges and treasuring the outcome and views along the way.  And you don’t have to like camping trips to experience what Sara said.  Your trip in the wilderness and your views of the top could very well be in your own living room with members of your very own family.  Or in your very own school.  Or workplace.

So don’t get stuck in the hole (which tends to be my problem) or move a picture on top of the hole to simply cover it up.  Press into the hole by pressing into the Only One who can fix it and whose nearness is always our good (Psalm 73:28).  And while sorrow may endure for the night, joy comes in the morning, and along the way, every single time.

Thank you for your patience with me the last few months while I took a break from blogging and focused instead on writing a new Bible study on prayer.  I had hoped to have it out to you at the beginning of the summer, but the editing process took longer than expected.  It will be ready (Lord willing) at the start of the new year and is a tool I am really excited to share.  But this fall, after a much needed rest this summer, I am back to blogging and very thankful for the joy in the journey through comes each of you.  Gratefully, Susannah

Learning to Listen

On April 3, 2017, Posted by , in Encouragement, Motherhood, With 7 Comments

Softball season is upon us.  Two of our girls are playing in a league this year, and, by happenstance, both girls’ teams are called Fury.  Same team name, same uniforms.  It makes for some pretty cute pictures.

Dinner seems to be pushed back later and later as the light lingers longer and Jason stays out in the yard giving bp to the girls or drilling them on grounders.  I have to say, with four girls, so many of the practical life lessons or duties fall upon me to do.  For the most part, girls just aren’t going to go their dads for lessons in fixing their hair, picking out clothes, recovering from hurt girl feelings, or taking them to the ladies’ room in a public setting (a new accomplishment for Mia Grace in our house this week).  So softball is one area where daddy is fully in charge in our house, and I am loving it.  It gives the girls good time to learn how to listen to their daddy’s voice.  “Stay low…eye on the ball…move towards the ball…swing hard…hands in front…use both hands…listen to your coaches.”

One of the many things that makes softball so much fun this year is that Lillian gets to play on the same team with her cousin, Katie.  This year is the first year that the kids begin to pitch instead of the coaches, and Katie is our team’s pitcher.  Bless her.  Most of the weight of the game rests on her ten-year-old ability to pitch, and for a laid-back soul like Katie, that pressure is something to which she is adjusting.

Katie is known in our extended family as “The Teletubby.”  If you don’t know what a Teletubby is, or need a memory jog, here is a reminder:

Katie typically lives in what we all affectionately call “Katie’s World,” and her answers to questions are usually monosyllabic sounds, not words.  Her favorite animal is the unicorn, and one of my favorite memories of Katie is when, for the first grade book fair, she came in full unicorn costume from head to toe.

So seeing her in this new role as a serious, focused, softball pitcher is something to which we are all adjusting.  My husband finally had to tell his sister, Katie’s mom, to zip her yapper and stop yelling instructions to Katie from the bleachers: “Keep your shoulders squared!”  “Get the ball out of the dirt!” “Keep your hand flat!”  “Focus!”  I had tears in my eyes from laughing so hard after watching Cara watch Katie pitch.

Last weekend’s game started off well for Katie, but she wasn’t feeling great and was struggling with one of those deep-Houston-allergy-induced-chest-coughs that we all have around this time of year. By about the fourth inning, our lead was slowly being eaten away by Katie’s balls ending up in the dirt or way above the catcher’s head.

That’s when my brother-in-law, Katie’s dad, called a time out and walked out to the pitcher’s mound.  He stood there for a few minutes, toe-to-toe with Katie and spoke quietly in her ear.  Then he walked off, and the inning resumed.  And Katie struck out three batters right in a row, throwing all perfect pitches.

What was the change?  Was it a new vitamin or supplement he slipped her?  No.  Was it a change of uniform or new piece of equipment he had her put on?  No.  Was it any sort of disciplinary action he administered?  No again.  The change came from hearing her father’s voice and the wisdom that went along with it and obeying his instructions.

Her father’s voice steadied her nerves and reminded her of what she needed to do.  Her father’s voice was calm and comforting and provided much needed peace.  And her father’s voice was infused with wisdom.

My brother-in-law played in the Major Leagues for over fifteen years and knows the game of baseball as well as anyone.  He has watched pitchers struggle in the little leagues, the minor leagues, the major leagues, and even during the World Series.  He has encouraged teammates who are now in the hall of fame, and he now coaches high school and little league teams to encourage younger players.

As I sat there and watched, I realized I could learn a powerful lesson from Katie.  Life is full of stressful moments.  Every day I throw all sorts of pitches from the pitcher’s mound to my kids, my spouse, my friends, even acquaintances. A few are in the strike zone, but most are either hitting the dirt in a sharp word I’ve said or going way over the catcher’s head in moments of weariness and exhaustion.  Going through the exercises of daily life at the speed with which life happens around here with four young children in the last eight weeks before school is out leaves me little time to really stop and think about how to improve my game.  Most days, my feet hit the floor and I am throwing pitches as fast as I can just to keep everybody moving in the same direction, preferably sane, clothed, fed, and with as few tears as possible (a huge feat in a household with five women, six including the cat).

But like Katie, I not only have a good father, I have a wise father, who often calls time outs on my behalf from the dug out and ascends the pitcher’s mound.  And it is there, in those quiet places, that He counsels me, encourages me, advises and instructs me, if only I have the heart to listen.  My Father’s Voice steadies my frayed nerves when life is happening ninety to nothing.  My Father’s Voice corrects my stance and steadies my heart when my emotions are out of control.  My Father’s Voice cleanses me of my guilt and gives me second chances after my decisions hit the dirt or are so far out of the strike zone I think I should be pulled out of the game.

And like Katie, I have a decision to make.  I can let my Father’s Voice redirect the decisions I make in finishing out the game of the day, or I can try to keep playing in my own strength and skill set, with the balls hitting the dirt.

Today, like Katie, listen to your Father.  He is more skilled than the best baseball player that has ever played the game.  He is wiser than the most seasoned coach.  He is more magnificent than the greatest hall of famer…and it is your heart that He loves to coach, counsel, advise, and come alongside.  Day by day, moment by moment, hour by hour, you have access to the greatest Father a daughter could ever have.  So tune your ears to His Voice, follow the instructions He so wisely gives, and finish your game.

Yesterday, the girls had another softball game, and Katie held our team’s one run lead in the last inning.  She pitched like I had never seen her pitch before.  And when she struck out the last batter, and the game was won, guess where she ran?  Straight into her father’s arms.  Like Katie, do the same with your Father today; His arms and His Voice are waiting.

 

I wanted to let you all know that I will not be blogging as often during this season of spring, softball, and end of school. I am in the process of writing a new study for women that I am really excited to share with you all this summer. My goal is to have it ready to go by the beginning of June, so please be on the lookout for that & in the meantime, I would appreciate your prayers for the time and creative energy I will need in order to listen to the Lord and put on paper what He is speaking to my heart.  

Gratefully,

Susannah 

What I Learned From Unpacking Boxes

On March 13, 2017, Posted by , in Encouragement, With 4 Comments

So…we moved.

I kept thinking I would blog through the two week process of packing, unpacking, and eating meals on paper plates standing up in a part of the kitchen without boxes or packing paper in it…but I was wrong.

Moving kicked my tail.  I don’t think I’ve been that tired since we brought Mia Grace home from China.

But I learned a few lessons from unpacking boxes, and I thought it would be fun to share a few of them.

#1 – Friends are indispensable.  And I mean indispensable.

A few months ago when we finally nailed down our moving date and settled on the week of February 20th, AFTER, mind you, calls had been made to the moving company and all the details were in place and the contract signed, at that point, my mom called and said, “Sweetie, you know that’s the week I am going to visit my friend, Dottie, in Savannah.”  Well, now, isn’t that nice for you.  And just to pour vinegar in the wound, she then extended her stay with Dottie from staying one week to staying two.  Mom literally came back to Houston the day, I mean the day, I unpacked my last box.

I have to admit, I was a little panicky on the inside when she told me about Savannah: who would watch Mia Grace when the moving truck showed up at my house?  How would I pick up my girls from school?  Who would bring us homemade banana bread for breakfast, bright flowers for the new spot in the kitchen, and a pot of soup to eat for lunch and dinner?  Because, as much as I am throwing my mom under the bus here, you have to understand one thing: my mom is AMAZING.  If there is a need, she’s on it.  If I’m dying inside and about to lose it on the outside, mom steps in and gives me a break.  As my husband likes to say, “Susan is a gamer.”  Her answer is “Yes” before the question has time to hang in the air.  So, to be honest and fair, I was glad mom was in Savannah for the move.  She needed a break and has unpacked enough of her own moving boxes the past five years, so Savannah was the perfect place for her to be while my whole house was in the back of a truck.

But the answer to my inner panic ended up being: my friends.  My friends showed up with lattes in hand and box cutters in the other.  Corey and Jenny unpacked my kitchen while I was at our Mickey Way house getting the last of our things out.  Melissa showed up with caffeine right at the point I needed it and then brought us dinner the next day.  My sister-in-laws (who are some of my best friends – they are all amazing) brought us a full-on lunch spread, complete with a box of La Croix (thank you, Cara), let my girls come over and play on a perpetual basis and made us brownies in our oven to disguise the musty odor smell in our new house and put bright flowers in the new spot in my kitchen (thank you, Haley), took Mia Grace for the entire day we moved (God bless you, Robin), and took the girls to lunch and the park to play over the weekend so Jason and I could unpack the TEN BOXES OF STUFF FROM HIS CLOSET (thank you, Ana).

Jenny took Mia Grace for the day after we moved and fed her Chick-fil-a and let her swim naked in her pool so I could unpack the girls’ rooms and find their softball socks.

Kimberly brought us one of her delicious homemade dinners, and the morning the movers showed up, at the exact moment I realized I had forgotten to set aside breakfast food and we had NO-THING to eat that morning, Kristen texted me and said, “I was about to order some breakfast tacos and muffins.  Can I bring you some as well?”  Seriously?  And she also let me borrow her hat since my hair was going on day five of not being washed and was becoming an air pollution problem.  Lindsay brought me chocolate and carbohydrates at intervals throughout the move (because when you move, chocolate, carbohydrates, and caffeine become your three major food groups), and Tiffany, Kristen, and Corey all took my three big girls on our home school days and did every last drop of school work with them.

I.  Was.  Amazed.  Amazed.  God met each and every one of our needs before I knew I had them through my friends.  “This is My commandment,” Jesus said, “that you love one another, just as I have loved you.  Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:12-14).  My friends lived out these words of Jesus for me up close and personal, and through them, I learned more of what being a friend really looks like on a practical, real, day in and day out basis.  I am someone prone to romanticizing life in general.  In my head, laying one’s life down for my friends looks like dying a martyr’s death and taking a bullet for them the next time we are all in a war zone together.  But practically and realistically, laying one’s life down looked like loving on my toddler or home-schooling my kids.  It looked like chicken tortilla soup on my stove and homemade brownies in my oven.  Bullets may or may not come one day, but opportunities to really and truly be a friend abound.  My friends taught me that.

#2 – Moving is a great time to clean out all your husband’s man piles.

What, you may ask, is a man pile?  Here is a picture of one, one that did not come from my husband’s side of the bathroom but from a friend’s husband’s side of the bathroom, simply to prove that man piles are universal and not only problematic in the Baker household:

A man pile is a pile of man stuff stashed in the cracks and crevices of a closet, under a bed, in a bedside drawer, lining the walls of a man’s study, or caking the sides of every cabinet underneath the bathroom sink.  Man piles are found in places and contain things you had no idea existed until a team of movers shows up at your house to clear everything out of the way and packs up ten boxes of man pile stuff from a bedroom closet meant to hold two boxes.  Stuff like bags of Christmas stocking gifts from five years ago, including fly swatters, false teeth, and ten pair of wool dress socks with the tags still attached.  Stuff like random toothpicks and knives and shoe polish kits and dental flossers and razors and hotel samples they get for free and feel the need to save for decades at a time.  Stuff like pens and pads of paper and crafts your kids have given them since their first day of preschool that they didn’t know what to do with and so stashed in man piles in their closets and bedside drawers.  Stuff like shoe horns and collar stays and cuff links mixed in with boxes of matches, cuticle creams, and empty shot gun shells.

I am overjoyed to tell you that for the moment, the Baker house is a man-pile-free-zone.  I got clear plastic bins and labeled everything Jason could possibly want to put in them – I even have one that says, “Belt Buckle Polish Rags.”  I am happy to report that we now have only three in our possession instead of thirty, and I am hopeful that with the clear plastic bin system, we can begin to cut down on our man piles, at least for a month or two.

#3 – IKEA makes a great place for a date night.

Once you clear out all your man piles and have a sense of what is needed to maintain order in your new space, when your husband calls you and says, “Let’s get a babysitter so we can go to dinner and talk face to face without boxes,” you say, “Sounds incredible, but after dinner, can we go to IKEA?”, it makes for an ideal post-moving date night.  Where else can you have great conversation with the man-pile-maker you love and then go purchase the ideal metal shelf for just $29.99, a shower curtain liner, and a gigantic pretzel all in one place?

#4 – Do not leave your toddler unattended in an empty house with a stool and running water they can reach while having a conversation with movers. While moving the stool to “wash their hands,” they will end up taking a full-on bath in the sink and have to remain in wet clothes for the duration of your two hour stay at the house.

#4 – God is not packed in a box. 

Let’s be honest here – moving is stressful.  There are so many details to remember and things to worry about.  And while I felt like I was trusting God on the outside, on the inside, whenever I had a quiet moment, my heart would race and my thoughts would turn at a rate of a mile a minute.  I had to purposefully tell my body as well as my inward thoughts to slow down and trust the Lord.

At times, it felt as if I had packed God in a box and would pull Him out again whenever I had a moment to slow down and pull Him out from all the paper.  It was tempting, even, to relegate Him to a box and to put communion with Him on hold until my earthly treasure was situated, organized, and ready to go.

And then I read this four days into our move: “If our greatest treasure – communion with the living God – is safe, of what can we be afraid?  Yet we are afraid of so many things.  So our fears can serve an important purpose – they show us where we have really located our heart’s treasure.  Follow the pathway of the fear back into your heart to discover the things you love more than God” (Timothy Keller, The Songs of Jesus, February 19th).

And I’ve been unpacking that paragraph ever since.

When my heart starts to race, and my thoughts start to churn at 3am, I try to trace my anxiety back to what I am treasuring more than God.  During the day, when I begin to be overcome by weariness or even a slight depression about all that still remains on my task list, and the perfection that is always an illusion but never quite in reach, I try to trace my fear back to its source…and realize how it pales in comparison to trusting my true treasure, the living God.

Moving has been an exercise in trust.  And God has proved faithful.  He has proved over and over again He is trustworthy.  And I have great news: communion with Him was not in a box stashed away somewhere where it took me days, weeks, or even months to find.  He was not accidentally thrown away in mounds of paper, and He was not jostled or broken or dropped in the back of a truck or damaged by human hands.  He was ever and always fully, immediately, and completely accessible – in all of His beauty and glory – at all times.  In every stressful second.  In every weary moment.  And I became aware, perhaps for the very first time, how much thanks I owed the Lord that He allowed me to have access to the greatest treasure I have ever known – communion with Him – through the person of Jesus Christ at every moment of every day.

Moving is not for the faint of heart; but it is a good exercise in strengthening our heart.  It helps us hold onto our greatest treasure in realizing how every other treasure pales in comparison to ceaseless communion with Christ.

#5 – And last, but not least, a house is not a house unless it has a few animal heads in it.

When Jason and I discussed what furniture to take to our temporary house and what to put into storage, all our conversation centered around the words minimal and survival.  We were taking only what was necessary to survive for a year and putting the rest into storage.  So you can imagine my surprise when I walked into the living room of our temporary house, and saw, on the floor, taking up almost the entire square footage of the breakfast room/living room/family room area, one mounted deer head, one antelope, and three mounted deer skulls complete with antlers.  I’m sorry, but how do five mounted animal heads fall into the category of minimalist, essential, or necessary for life and survival?  I am so thankful my friend Jenny was standing there with me when we opened the door and saw all of the antlers grazing on the floor.  My frustration quickly evaporated into hysterics, and we soon were laughing so hard we were wiping tears off of our cheeks thinking about where all of these animal heads were going to fit in our small, garage-less house.

So meet Andrew the Antelope.  He keeps watch over our living room/dining room/school room area:

And here is Ralph, who gazes serenely over the beds of Lillian, Lizzie, and Caroline, much to Lizzie’s consternation:

And here are Deer Skull #1 and Deer Skull #3, both over a chair in the room dubbed “the study”:

And Deer Skull #3 has made his home on our outdoor porch.  He is the only one who didn’t make the indoor cut (thank You, Lord):

As one friend, Rachel Hollister, so wisely said it: “I secretly love and despise moving all at the same time.  It seems overwhelming, but it is so worth the purging.”  While our move was hectic and tiring and overwhelming, it was also a template on which I saw the grace of God drawn out through the hands of my friends and the stability of God’s Presence and His Word readily available and never lost, discarded, or hiding in a box.  And while I don’t want to move again for a while, I am thankful for the lessons unpacking a few boxes taught me.  Prayerfully, they are helpful to you, too.

Don’t forget to connect with me on Facebook this week for more encouragement on unpacking boxes and the grace of God.

And as you get ready to make the final push from spring into summer, consider making Waiting on the Lord part of your journey and take the time to grow, journey, and walk with the Lord no matter what season of life you are in.

 

Cleaning Out and Moving On

On February 20, 2017, Posted by , in Encouragement, With 3 Comments

The moment I’ve dreaded for so long is finally here, and it actually feels…really good.  Packers show up at my house this morning at 8am, and it feels really good to have sorted through every square inch of my house and put it into one of four categories – temporary housing, storage, give away, or throw away.

For weeks now, I’ve worn a brown apron tied around my waits that has “Susannah’s Kitchen” monogrammed on the front.  This apron is great for the simple reason that it has…pockets.  In my pockets I keep three different colors of electrical tape and a black sharpie marker ready to label and categorize all things at all times.  The OCD in me loves every moment of this.

I had no idea my husband had ten different kinds of hair gel stashed in his bathroom drawers, nor did I know I had a collection of round brushes underneath my bathroom sink that went as far back as the 1980’s.  Gross.

I had no idea my six-year-old, Caroline, was a hoarder, and kept every deer antler, shot gun shell, and sea shell under God’s green earth behind the door in her closet, or that my eight-year-old, Lizzie, is a fiercer cleaner-outer than I am.  She took one look at the note her best friend wrote her and the at the sticker book she just stuck the last sticker on and said, “I don’t need those, mom.  Throw them away.”  Music to my ears.

But in all seriousness, cleaning out with those four categories in mind has helped me tremendously.  It’s a method I want to tuck away in my brain for future cleaning out sessions, even when we are not moving.

#1 – Temporary Housing – will we really need to use/have/own/play with this item in the temporary house we are moving into for the next 8-12 months?  (Because, as my wise and dear friend Kathy McDaniel told me many years ago, “Every house we ever live in, even the brand-new-beautiful-ones, are all temporary housing.  They are all tear-downs in the big scheme of things.”)  And if it isn’t, if I don’t have room or need for it NOW, in the present tense, give serious consideration to giving it or throwing it away.

#2 – Storage – simply put: do I actually want to pay someone to store this item for me for the next 12 months?  Is it really that valuable of an item to me?  If not, it’s time to give it away or throw it away.

#3 – Give Away.  So much in our homes is excess or extraneous.  Find a friend or family member who could use it, or have a good place on hand, like the Faith Center here in Houston, or the C.H.A.R.M. prison ministry half-way house, to take your still-in-good-condition, gently used items.

#4 – Throw Away.  No one wants my daughter’s stretched out leggings or third round hand-me-down Disney princess underwear.  It’s Time.  To Throw Them.  Away.

And living with less, not more, always frees me to focus and live more fully present to the people and in the places where God has me.

So since spring is just around the corner, or, if you live in Houston like me, and winter and spring have completely bypassed you this year and it’s already 86 degree-humid-summer-like-weather, go ahead and put a spring/summer cleaning on your calendar.  Don your deep-pocketed apron with colored tape and sharpies, and start to live more by having less.  There won’t be one ounce of you that regrets the less, even if it means you only have two deer antlers on your shelf instead of ten.  Just ask Caroline.

Remembering What We All Need to Know About Adoption

On January 30, 2017, Posted by , in Adoption, Encouragement, Motherhood, With 4 Comments

I don’t know where my daughter was the day she was born.  I don’t know if she was in a hut, laid in a pile of dirty rags or straw.  I don’t know if she was in a clinic, laid on a cold, metal scale to weigh her tiny body and cracked crevice of a lip.  I don’t know if she was in a field, laid in a nest of woven grass or beside the rush of a river.  I don’t know if the sound of her first cry, drawn from the healthy lungs God had given her, was met with tears of joy or a pang of sadness.  I don’t know if the sight of her face, her gender, and her parted palette was met with sorrow mixed with compassion or anger mixed with disgust.  I don’t know if her momma gave her a whispered name, one she still treasures in her heart, or if she left her name to the orphanage where she left her.

But I do know this.  Wherever she was on the day she was born, whatever emotions her mommy and daddy expressed when they saw her, whatever name they whispered in their heart, there was One above it all who held her in His heart, kept her safe those first few days of life outside the womb, directed her momma’s steps to a hut outside the Guangzhou City State Orphanage, and watched over her as her momma left and the police and orphanage authorities came in.

And those first seventeen months of life when she was without parents, He was getting us ready to be her parents.  He gave me her name long before I ever saw her face.  He gave her my eyes and a certain look that causes people to stop and tell me, “You know, you two look alike.”  He gave her blonde-haired, blue-eyed kindergarten sister, Lillian, strong prayers to pray for an adopted sister from China that kept her fearful momma going in the rounds of paperwork when I wanted to stop.  He gave her daddy a fire in his heart to tirelessly fuel our adoption journey from start to finish until the orphanage director brought her from back behind that curtain and placed her into our arms.

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I had heard that God’s heart was for the orphan, and I had read about it in the pages of Scripture, but I never really knew it until I looked full in the face of Mia Grace.

“Do not fear,” God spoke to my heart in the first few months of our adoption process, “for I have redeemed her; I have called her by name; she is Mine!” (Isaiah 43:1).  And “Mine” became her name, straight from the word of her Father who was weaving her together in her mother’s womb, long before we ever saw her face.

So while I don’t know many details about Mia Grace’s birth day, or her first birthday, I know exactly where she will be tomorrow on her third birthday.  Instead of shrouded in rags or hidden in any sort of darkness, she will be surrounded by the light of those who love her and shout her name in joy whenever they see her beautiful face.

And isn’t that the beauty of adoption?  It peals back layers of darkness to let light shine through.  It turns whispered sorrows into shouts of joy and gladness.  It pulls victims from pits of abandonment to place them into families of belonging, hope, and trust.  It rewrites stories of shame into stories of redemption, beauty, grace, strength, and love.  And it gives each and every orphan a chance at a new name.

Pause for a moment today, and reflect on the beauty and significance of adoption.  Not just Mia Grace’s adoption, or the adoption of another little one you know, but, if you know Christ and are known by Him as His child, the beauty of your adoption.  Your story of grace, your family of people around you who know you and love, brokenness, crooked nose, imperfections, and all, and call you “Mine!”

And if you don’t know Christ, today, today, make your story one of adoption.  Bow your knee and bend your life to the Father who parted heaven to seek you and save you in the broken body of His Son.

And consider spurring others on in their journey of adoption or continuing on in your own journey if you know that is where God is leading you.  Pray for families who have adopted a little one from another country or another ethnicity or another biological set of parents.  And pray that more orphans will be adopted; pray that God will stir families’ hearts to have the courage to start and finish the adoption process, even when it’s hard; and pray that our country and countries around the world will make the adoption process easier on those who want to adopt in order to provide strong, healthy, godly families for children who have great needs.

And consider giving to help others adopt, even if you cannot.  Adoption is an expensive, messy business, and the costs can be huge.  So your gift can go a long way in helping other families who want to open their home to a child but cannot do so without financial assistance.

Adoption isn’t something we do because it makes us feel good; adoption is something we do because it is good, and it highlights the goodness of the One who has adopted us.

So celebrate Mia Grace with us this week, and celebrate your adoption too into the family of God.  And then reach out and further the Kingdom of God and the Father heart of God and pray and risk and give and battle for the children God loves and has named and called His own.

The Road Back to You

On January 23, 2017, Posted by , in Encouragement, Good Reads, With 2 Comments

My friend Margaret, never one to mince words, sent me a text a few weeks ago that said, “Buy this book right now.”  She provided a link in her text to the book, and since I’m not one of those mere mortal fools that dares to disobey Margaret, I bought the book without even really looking at the title or knowing what it was about.  No questions asked.

When it came in the mail several weeks ago, I began to slowly explore its contents and can’t tell you how thankful I am Margaret sent me that text.

The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery, a book by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile outlines a map of the human personality that has been around for hundreds of years.  “Some trace its origins back to a Christian monk named Evagrius, whose teachings formed the basis for what later became the Seven Deadly Sins, and to the desert mothers and fathers of the fourth century, who used it for spiritual counseling” (Cron and Stabile, The Road Back to You).  Cron and Stabile take an ancient pattern for counseling people according to their personalities and frame it in fresh, new light that is easy to understand and apply.

I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty details of how the book uses the Enneagram to categorize and define the nine different personality types represented on the Enneagram, but suffice it to say if I had any doubts about if this personality tool was effective, I was floored two pages into finding the personality type that best described my own.  Dumbfounded would actually be a better word.

“So there is actually a reason I act this way!” and “Other people actually act this way too; it’s not just me!” were just a few of the exclamation points running around in my head.

What I failed to heed in the introductory chapters to the book was the warning that “[a]t times, you will feel that we’re focusing far too much on the negative rather than the positive qualities of each [personality].  We are, not only to help you more easily discover your type.  In our experience, people identify more readily with what’s not working in their personalities than with what is.  As Suzanne likes to say, ‘We don’t know ourselves by what we get right; we know ourselves by what we get wrong.’  Try not to get all pouty.”

I jumped into the Enneagram thinking it would be the key to telling me how great I was, but oh how wrong I was.  I got a little pouty.  Each personality type is specifically connected to one of the seven deadly sins, and the book shows clearly and accurately how this sin can wreak havoc in a life who has not let grace in or done the hard work of sanctification and transformation.  The Enneagram felt more like an enema and bears an uncanny and unfortunate similarity to the word.

But when I was neck deep in despair about all the negatives that go along with my make-up (and that were oh-so-painfully-accurate), I flipped back to the introduction and re-read the warning and felt a little better.  Every personality type was feeling like I was; it wasn’t just me (hopefully).

So why in the world would I recommend to you to buy and read a book that will make you feel so down in the dumps about yourself?  Because remember last week’s blog?  God doesn’t come to us to slay us, but nor does He come to flatter us.  He comes to show us to show us the truth about who we are so that we can cut the cancer out, get rid of the tumor that is killing us, and set us free to be healthy, whole, and healed.

As you sit and pause at the beginning of a new year, the beginning is always a good time to take true stock of who you are.  Not of who you wish you were.  Or who you think you are.  But of who you really are.  Because if you and I ever want to become the people we want to be or others around us need us to be, we have to be humble enough to recognize and admit our real selves, rather than our pretend selves.  And that takes humility, repentance, confession, surrounded by the holding, comforting knowledge of unconditional love.  We can face who we are because Someone faces us who has promised to never turn away.  In fact, when you begin to do the hard and humble work of beginning to get rid of all the dirt, you will look up beside you and see the Son of Man scrubbing right along beside you.  There is no work too humble that He will not stoop to do, especially when it involves someone He loves.

Flannery O’Connor wrote, “To know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks.   It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other way around.  The first product of self-knowledge is humility.”  

“Coming face-to-face with your deadly sin can be hard, even painful, because it raises to conscious awareness the nastier bits about how we are that we’d rather not think about.”  Very hard.  “But no one should fail to do so if what they seek is deep knowing of self” (The Road Back to You).  But very true.

If we do one thing this year, it should be to come to a deeper knowledge about ourselves so that we can interface at a deeper, more truthful level with God.  “Let it be the real me that speaks to the real You,” writes C.S. Lewis.  If it’s not the real me speaking, then I am in self-deception about myself, my faults, and even my strengths.  And if it’s not the real God I am praying to, then we must make certain we know who He really is, for the very state of our eternal souls depends upon it.

If the Enneagram and The Road Back to You isn’t for you, that’s fine.  But find something that is.  Find something that speaks the truth about your soul to your soul.  The truth that tells you who you really are so that you can deal with your real self before the only true, real God.  Everything else in your life depends upon it.

So heed Margaret’s advice to “Buy this book right now.”  And while you might feel a little pouty in the process, like me, you will be thankful in the end.

For further encouragement this week, don’t forget to connect with me on Facebook.

Developing Holy Habits, Even When it Hurts

On January 16, 2017, Posted by , in Encouragement, With No Comments

In case you missed it last week, I wrote about cultivating holy habits of grace into the fields of our hearts for this new year.  My wonderful, talented, creative friend Emily Hodges put together this guide to help us in taking some time to cultivate our habits, and I liked it so much, I wanted to share it with you here.  It’s easy to download, print out, and take with you to a quiet space to do some listening, walking, and talking with God:

If you were able to take some time to walk through Isaiah 5:1-4, asking God to show you the areas of your heart that remain uncultivated and untouched by His grace, like me, you may have been surprised by some of the answers you received.

As I listened to His Voice and the voices of those around me who know me and love me, I knew that some of the areas in my life that were in need of some major weed-wacking were areas of stress, anger, and control.  To put it plainly, I have a tendency to major in the minors and nitpick and control the details of my life and those around me when I am stressed, responding in anger when circumstances don’t unfold smoothly or people don’t perform perfectly.  This sign I saw in a store in Brenham, Texas, pretty much sums me up:

And since adding a fourth child to our home and homeschooling my three oldest girls while still working on bonding and attaching to a toddler means I have the capacity to be in a constant state of stress, anxiety, and anger unless I am actively choosing grace on a day in and day out basis.  “Smooth” just isn’t a daily word choice in our vocabulary and “perfection” has never been a possibility.  Yet for some reason, in my natural, sinful habitat, I continue to look for it and demand it first in myself and then in others.

Sometimes I am good at choosing grace (notice I said good, not great), and sometimes I am not so good.  I am downright bad, actually.  And throw in the fact that in February, we are getting ready to move everything out of our house into temporary housing or storage while we undertake a major remodel, while taking a week right before our move to attend a board retreat in Israel that has been on the calendar for months (more to come on that later), I have been doing a pretty poor job on managing my stress.  In fact, last week, I think my internal stress-o-meter was measuring about a 10 on the Richter scale while scheduling and managing Israel dates, moving dates, and make up homeschool dates.

So God did something to get my attention.  On Friday morning, I woke up with swollen lips, eyes, and puffy cheeks, feeling like I had received a numbing shot FOR MY FACE at the dentist’s office.  Not one to be deterred by minor details like a face that looked like Miss Piggy’s from The Muppets, I determined it was hives brought on by my stressful response to the week, so I took some benadryl and carried on in business as usual with my day, exercising, taking the girls to the Museum of Fine Arts to meet my aunt, eat lunch and see an exhibit, all the while feeling worse and worse.

By 3:00, my face was still partially swollen, my lips drooping, and benadryl was not helping anymore.  My husband, Jason called me on the phone and said, “You need to go to Urgent Care.  Now.”  So I did.

And what I discovered is I had developed an abscess in my nasal cavity that had turned into a staph infection, causing all of the swelling around my face.

It took two days of two different doctors, an IV of antibiotics, two rounds of oral antibiotics, and four long needles stuck through my lip and nose to drain the infection to get the swelling down and the infection reduced.

Needless to say, my calendar was quickly cleared, and all of my focus and attention the past few days was placed onto obtaining the steps necessary to get the infection out and the antibiotics in.  My focus went from hosting kid sleep-overs and watching basketball games to battling full-blown infection.

In the meantime, all week, I had preparing to teach in our Sunday School class on II Samuel 12, the classic passage where the prophet Nathan confronts David about his sins of murder and adultery.  I had been carefully examining the elements of confrontation, confession, and repentance, looking at how David appropriated grace, all the while missing the grace that was sorely needed in my own life.  I listened to a sermon on II Samuel 12 by Tim Keller called “The Sinner,” and his words about Nathan struck me, even before my infection reared its ugly head.

Keller says, “God has sent Nathan not to do condemning but to do converting.  God does not send a sword to smite David but a scalpel to take out the tumor.  In other words, God is calling David to repentance…repentance is his only hope now, the only way that is possible for him to put his life back together again.  So what is repentance?  Repentance is killing the habits of your heart that are killing you without killing yourself.

I will tell you something: as Regina, the very kind and talented ENT surgeon who took time out of her Saturday to meet me at her office and stick needles up my lip and nose, said, “I’m a very nice person, but you’re not going to like me very much when I do this to you.  Even if I numb the area, it will still hurt when the needle touches the infection because infections don’t numb well; they hurt.”

As I sat in that chair with my heart racing and my palms sweating, all I could think of was Nathan and David.  And the prayer that rose up from heart and my sweat-soaked shirt was, “Lord, whatever You are trying to tell me, I AM LISTENING.  I don’t ever want to have to repeat this lesson again.”  I was tempted to bolt out of the chair and run out of the office as fast as my legs could carry me, never to return, but what was my alternative?  To let the infection sit in my face, close to my brain, just hoping on a wing and a prayer that it would disappear if left alone?  Not a chance.  My only option was to go under the surgeon’s scalpel and let her get the sickness out.  I had to let her kill the infection in my face so that it lost its potential to kill me.

My friend, the reality is, the staff infection inside my face is less lethal than the sin infection inside my heart.  And the time and rest and energy required to get the physical infection out should be but a small indicator of the time, energy and rest required to allow God to remove the infectious disease of stress, anxiety, worry, fear, anger, and control.  Will it hurt?  Yes.  Will it be a major inconvenience?  Yes.  But what’s my other option?  A slow, infectious death from the wild weeds of sin in my heart?  No thank you.

As I have thought and prayed this weekend, I have come to realize that I have let my view of myself grow bigger than my view of God.  My self dominates and towers in my world as it wrestles to manage, control, and nitpick to perfection circumstances and people around me.  I have relegated God to the corner, minimizing His capabilities, His strength, His all-knowing control, His mercy for my mistakes, His grace for my moments, and His wisdom for my day.  My self has pushed Him out of the way, and full blown infection has ensued.

I spent Sunday morning praying that the eyes of my heart would be enlightened to know and believe the all-sufficient character and power of Jesus.  That He is not sometimes enough.  He is always enough.  For all situations on any sort of day.

My prayer and challenge to you today is to walk with your eyes wide open.  If you ask God to remove the unholy habits of your heart and replace them with His grace, don’t expect Him to show up at your door with a picnic basket in hand.  He comes with a scalpel.  To dig out with urgent attention and care the infections that are killing us, and to send us home with the orders to rest in His care, rest in His word, and take the daily medicine He prescribes of habitual repentance and the receiving of healing grace.

Have you taken the time to ask the Lord to clean out the weeds in your heart this year?  And if so, how has He responded?  Are you listening to His messages and messengers of grace, even if they are causing pain and discomfort?  If you haven’t taken time to get serious about your relationship with God, the state of your soul, and the fields He wants to clear this year, don’t delay any longer. In His Hand is the only place where true healing comes.

For further encouragement this week, connect with me on Facebook.  And to continue working on holy habits of the heart, creating space for God to speak, heal, and move, consider working through the study, Waiting on the Lord, asking God to transform the broken places in your life into the beautiful.

Growing in Grace in a New Year

On January 9, 2017, Posted by , in Encouragement, With 5 Comments

The holidays are over, and the Christmas decorations are down.  The gifts are put away, closets are cleaned out, and all the debris from Christmas glitter, wrapping paper, and pine needles has been swept up and either stored for next year or placed into the dust bin, and a sense of quiet normalcy pervades the air at our house for the first time in weeks.

It’s the weary hush after the holidays, the pause of January as a new leaf is turned in the book of a new year, and we have a few quiet moments to think about what will be written on the pages of 2017.

Much of what will be written, you and I have little to no control over.  As much as I like to plan, strategize, dream, and pray, when it comes right down to it, my hand does not hold the pen writing the story for the new year.  But I know whose hand does.  And while I cannot control what He writes, I can control my response to His story.

I’ve been moved, challenged, and convicted by the words of Isaiah 5:1-4 the past few days.  Isaiah writes,

“Please let me sing about my Beloved,
my Loved One’s song about His vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
And He dug it all around,
removed its stones,
and planted it with the choicest vine.
And He built a tower in the middle of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
then He confidently expected it to produce good grapes,
but it produced only worthless ones.
And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah,
Judge between Me and My vineyard:
What more was there to do for My vineyard that I have not done in it?
Why, when I expected it to produce good grapes, did it produce worthless ones?”

I’ve been haunted by that question the Lord asks of His people through the prophet Isaiah: “What more was there to do for My vineyard that I have not done in it?  Why, when I expected it to produce good grapes, did it produce worthless ones?”

In his commentary on Isaiah, Alec Motyer writes, “All [God’s] caring work issued in hope: he looked for a crop.  But instead of grapes all it yielded was bad fruit.  Every care had been lavished, but yet the vine retained its natural wildness – as if grace had never touched it.

Turning 40 ushered me into a timely season of reflection.  Through the lens of God’s grace, I’ve been looking at some of the patterns of my present that have their roots in the past, patterns that sometimes extend back 40 years.  Patterns like seeing circles as closed rather than open and responding to people and situations in hurt and anger instead of patient trust and grace.  Patterns like walking in the well-worn ruts of my life of self-pity, perfectionism, and deep-seeded fear because it’s easy and it’s natural and sometimes it’s all I know instead of choosing to walk in new paths that beckon through the Spirit of Christ and His Word, paths of abiding peace and unconditional love.  And I’m telling you, with all that is in me, I don’t want to walk in these unholy habits anymore.  Turning 40 has shown me that life is short and swift, and while pain can be real and circumstances hard, God is always good, and His grace is always real.  But it’s up to me to choose the path I want to walk.  I can keep walking in the ruts; I can keep listening to the same old voices of pain and fear that say I don’t measure up or can’t keep up.  Or I can walk in grace.

Last week, Jason and I went with my parents, brothers, and their wives to see Rogue One, the new Star Wars movie.  (Growing up with two brothers, my hero quickly became Harrison Ford after watching Star Wars and Indiana Jones.  What can I say?  Decades later, we are still a Star Wars kind of family.)  In the very beginning of the movie, the heroine is rescued from enemy forces but is resisting those who have shown up to save her.  Instead of responding with thanks and cooperation, she responds with all out resistance and fear.  Finally, after she has knocked out every soldier sent to save her, the one left standing says, “Congratulations.  You are being rescued.  Please do not resist.”

I started cracking up since resistance is my natural response to grace when it invades my life as well.  And apparently, it was the response of the people of Isaiah’s day too.

Grace comes down from heaven, chooses us as His own special possession, clears out all the stones and obstacles from sin through the death of His One and Only Son sent to die on our behalf, plants the person of Christ through the Spirit of Christ in the middle of our hearts and souls to give us all the resources we need to live the abundant, grace-filled life, sets a tower in the middle of our lives to watch over us, protect us, defend us from our enemies and meet our every need, and then hews out a vat from the rock of our hearts in which to store the harvest and good works our lives will produce, and then stands back to wait and watch expectantly for a good crop to come.

But.  All this vineyard owner gets for His labor is a worthless crop.  Bad grapes.  Useless fruit.  “Every care had been lavished, but yet the vine retained its natural wildness – as if grace had never touched it.”

I can honestly look at so many ruts and places in my life that even after over 30 years of being in God’s vineyard and receiving His loving, attentive care, still look wild, overgrown, unfruitful, and as if grace has never touched me.

I know perfection is not something I can ever attain while still standing on this sin-cursed earth.  But I also know that if I love the One who made me and trust His care, the untamed spots in my life should start looking like they have been touched and tamed by grace.

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As I pause to look ahead at the pages at 2017, I know cannot control the events that happen, but I know that I can control the habitat of my heart.  I want to work on wacking at the weeds of its natural, sin-cursed wilderness and receive the planting of grace.

For me, I know that grace begins with a purposeful, consistent habit of an open Bible, a journal, and a pen.  Grace begins with God-reliance instead of self-reliance.  Grace begins with meditation on God’s Word and specific commands and promises, taking time and effort to really think and process through what they mean and how they apply to my daily life.  Grace is reading a command, and keeping it.  Grace is knowing a promise, and resting in it.  Grace is seeing an example, and following it (Motyer, Isaiah by the Day).  Grace is trusting God to transform us into the people we have always wanted to be, into the people that are available for us to be, as we stop resisting rescue and give in to His grace.

So this is the year I want to work on becoming the woman I’ve always wanted to be.  Not through accomplishments, but through appropriating grace.

For me personally, I know some of the holy habits I need to cultivate in my life for the weeds to be cleared and the good fruit to come.  I know that when I humbly and consistently walk in these habits, change occurs.  Sometimes change comes an inch at a time, but it is still change.  And that is the road I want to walk.

Some of my habits include:

  • Consistent time in God’s Word in the mornings
  • Consistent time of prayer, appropriating what I have read in the Word and sowing it into my life and the lives of those I love
  • Consistent times of reconnecting with God in His Word and prayer before I go to sleep at night
  • Consistently turning from walking in the rut of rejection, self-pity, or fear through the habit of thankfulness.  I am learning when I am tempted to see the circle or situation as closed, to turn it into a times of thanksgiving – to be thankful for my friends, thankful for my children, thankful that in that specific situation I know God will bring good because that’s what He always does (Romans 8:28).  I have a specific journal I placed on my desk, designated for these “thankful” moments instead of self-pitying moments.
  • Accountability through meeting with a counselor to walk out of some of the ruts of my life
  • Accountability through taking time and room to have others pray over me and for me on a regular basis as I learn to walk out of these ruts onto new paths of grace

These are the habits the Lord has placed on my heart.  What about your’s?

Can I suggest something?  Take a day.  Take a day with your Bible, a pen, a journal, and some walking shoes to do some weed-wacking with the Lord.  Weeds don’t come out of our hearts on their own, and ruts don’t just naturally fill in.  In fact, left unattended, they only grow deeper with time.  So take some time.  And ask the Lord what unholy habits He wants to fill in with His grace.  Don’t slit your wrists with introspective self-pity or despair, but allow the Lord in His kindness to lead you to repentance, showing you exactly where He wants to work.

And trust me.  He will.  He will show you.  He always does.

In the time you have allotted to be with Him, if it is a few hours or a whole day, start by reading slowly over Isaiah 5:1-4, and then:

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  • Go through the action verbs one by one in verse 2, thanking God specifically for the amazing work of grace He has done in your life from the time of your conversion until now.
  • Then ask Him: what areas of my life have retained their natural wildness and resisted rescue instead of being changed and tamed by grace?
  • To answer the above question, ask Him to bring consistent habits to mind, ruts in the road of your life you most consistently walk in, especially when hard things happen.  Or even when the daily grind of the mundane happens.  How do you most naturally respond?  In what paths do you most consistently walk?  In resistant wildness or in grace?
  • And then ask Him what holy habits He wants you to cultivate in your heart this new year.  Ask Him for three habits.  Just three.  Not ten.  And then write them down on a piece of paper.  Writing things down solidifies them in our hearts, and we are far more likely to do those things then if we just think about them.
  • And then, go on a walk or a run.  Do some big body movements.  I’ve learned in my occupational therapy with Mia Grace this year that when we walk or run or swing or jump or MOVE, those movements help to calm and organize our bodies and our thoughts follow.  So move, and meditate and pray, and watch how God puts the pieces of your time with Him together in surprising and beautiful ways.
  • And then, when you get home, place your piece of paper with your habits in a place where you will see it often and be reminded of what you have written down.  My habits are on my desk so that I will see them every morning.  And the goal isn’t so much that I focus on the weeds in my life or the ruts.  The goal is that I focus on the Lord and cultivating intimacy and trust with Him in the every day places of my life.  And as I do that, as I learn to abide in the One who came to walk with me, my life will begin to bear the fruit of grace.  And yours will too.

Let us know what habits you find most helpful.  Let us know how God is helping you walk out of the ruts in your life.  And let us walk together in this new year, with holy habits of hearts, cultivating grace, reminding one another to resist only the enemy and open up to the One who came to give us grace.

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Connect with me on Facebook this week for more help on cultivating grace and holy habits of the heart.

Receiving the Gift of Christmas From Under the Rubble

On December 26, 2016, Posted by , in Advent, Encouragement, With No Comments

First things first, “Merry Christmas!”  What a precious, beautiful, wonderful time of year this is.  A time when the whole world takes a breath to pause and remember the Prince of Peace who came and who is coming again one day.  We fall on our knees and hear the angel voices from the night divine when deity became flesh and moved in among us.

And amidst all of the holiness and beauty…there is also real life.  Real life with four kids under the Christmas tree.  Real life wrapping presents until 2am on Christmas Eve, something you promise yourself you will not do again but find yourself doing again every year, running last minute errands to buy gifts for people who bring you a gift and you don’t have a gift for (worst feeling ever), taking sick kids to the doctor who have styes in their eye (who has time for styes or anything other sick thing on planet earth for that matter the week before Christmas), hauling your six year old to her first basketball practice at 8am three days before Christmas (what in the actual heck), trying to get things done but getting nothing done when you have a two-year-old underfoot who sneaks nail polish from her sister’s stash and paints it all over your desk chair in your kitchen, and, of course, icing sugar cookies in your kitchen and destroying your kitchen when you need it to stay clean for the rest of the year.

My six-year-old, Caroline, made this beauty of a cookie:

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I was puzzled when I first saw the cookie and asked, “Caroline, that looks like a cross, but what is that on the cross?”

“Jesus.  That’s Jesus, mom.”

Right.  Not totally sure if I should laugh or cry, I chose the former option and had to wipe away tears I was laughing so hard.  Jesus with a mustache on the cross on a sugar cookie.  We’re keepin’ it real around here.

And that’s what I love about Christmas.  It’s the mix of beautiful moments of mystery when I am caught off guard by the glory and holiness of Immanuel made flesh in all of the sweet fragrance and vulnerability of a newborn and the moments of reality of Jesus with a mustache on a sugar cookie cross made by a kid with a sty in her eye you have to wake up early to get to basketball practice.

This Christmas, more than ever, I have seen that somehow I live in the intertwining of those two moments, and the trick is to learn how to stop when the mystery overtakes me and let it in, let it into my ordinary tasks, routines, problems, short comings, failures, messes, and joys whenever it has the notion to come knocking on my door.

The Sunday before Christmas I was doing the very ordinary task of addressing Christmas cards while keeping one eye on the 60 Minutes show in front of me.  The show was highlighting a group of Syrians in Aleppo known as The White Helmets.  They are a group of very ordinary men who perform extraordinary feats of courage.

Aleppo is in the center of the Syrian rebellion against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad and has undergone intense siege and starvation for the past five years.  According to 60 Minutes, the past few weeks, the Assad dictatorship has increased their air strikes over Aleppo’s dense neighborhoods.  Many times, military targets are not targeted; in fact, the terrifying thing is that nothing is targeted.  Barrels of shrapnel and TNT are dropped indiscriminately over any neighborhood the Assad forces do not control.  Concrete homes collapse with full families inside, and people’s greatest fear is that they will be buried alive, trapped under the rubble without any hope of digging themselves out.  Their fate will be to die by suffocating or bleeding to death under the rubble of their own homes as so many have done before them.

Civilians’ only hope is the Syrian civil defense known as the White Helmets, a self-appointed, all-Syrian volunteer force of rescue workers whose sole purpose is to bring people out of the rubble…alive.

My task of addressing Christmas cards was abandoned as I glued my eyes to the screen in front of me to learn about these extraordinary men.  Every time a bomb goes off and a home or building collapses, these men rush to the rescue in their white helmets, taking their very lives into their hands.  They have a 50/50 chance of survival, for many times, a second bomb is dropped within minutes after the first, targeting and terrorizing the rescue workers who have come to dig people out of their concrete graves.

Two young rescue workers were interviewed, and I watched as they talked about digging for six to seven hours at a time and then having the indescribable joy of pulling someone thought to be dead out into a second chance at life.  They said, “We feel as if we brought that person back to life.  The joy is indescribable.”

Over the past five years, it is estimated that the White Helmets have saved close to 70,000 lives, and every time a survivor is pulled out from the rubble, the workers shout their gratitude to their God.  Don’t miss this opportunity to watch as a ten-day-old baby is pulled from the rubble after sixteen hours of labor from The White Helmets and given back to a mother who lost her husband and only other child in the destruction of the bomb.  Contrary to what the commentator in the clip says, the baby was a boy, not a girl, and the child did survive and is a healthy two-year-old today:

At one point in the 60 Minutes segment, the rescue of a sixteen-year-old boy was highlighted who was completed buried under the weight of his concrete roof except for his shoulder and one part of his arm.  Rescue workers dug for hours in order to pull him out, and once they had uncovered his face, you can hear one of the White Helmets asking him, “Brother, can you see our light?”

The purpose of Christmas was redefined for me as I learned about the White Helmets.  The coming of Christ to earth showed less like a Hallmark Channel Christmas special and more like a 60 Minutes segment on a White Helmet rescue operation.  The baby who was born was born to die under the weight of our sin so that we would have a second chance at life, life resurrected from a shallow grave.  And as followers of Christ, every day for us should bear the mark of the intensity and self-abandon with which the White Helmets work.  Bombs go off around us continually in the hearts and families of people we love.  We, too, are to respond and to dig with little thought for ourselves, all the while asking those who are buried in the dark around us, “Brother, can you see our Light?”  The Light of the One who came to die so that we might live.

When asked at the end of the interview if he was afraid of dying or losing his life in the work of rescuing others, one of the young White Helmets replied, “The goal is to save the most people in the least amount of time…But in the end, I’ve left my mark.  I’ve left children who are going to live and complete our future.”

What about you, and what about me?  Are we living giving great attention to leaving our mark by working as hard as we can and as fast as we can to pull people from death into everlasting life?  Are we living in the dark with our light on, asking those around us, “Can you see our light?”  Are we experiencing that same joy and victorious celebration every time someone else is pulled out from the rubble, dead in their own sin and circumstances, and given a rebirth because of the One who laid His life down?

The mystery of the rescue mission of the Gospel entered my reality, and I was given a new lens through which to see.  Can you?

So how are you and I to receive the gift of Christmas?  The White Helmets and my friend Ellery helped me answer this question this year.  Watch this video clip of Ellery receiving her Christmas present, and if you are anything like me, you can’t help but watch it…and cry:

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When Ellery received her gift, she received it with overwhelming gratitude.  She received it with shouts of victory and celebration and great joy.  She received it with humble thanks given to parents she knows love her, sacrifice for her, and have overwhelming love in mind for her in the gifts they give.

So like Ellery, let the mystery enter your mundane this Christmas season and draw you into the greatest gift, the greatest joy, and the greatest rescue mission this earth has even seen.  No matter your reality, put on the lens of wonder, the lens that lets you see that we are rubble survivors, pulled from a narrow grave when we had no ability to save ourselves.  Let receiving that gift be your greatest joy this Christmas season, and again and again throughout the year.

Brothers and sisters, can you see His Light?  He has come to dig you out and to give you…great joy.

To watch the full 60 Minutes episode on The White Helmets, click here. 

And for more encouragement this week, don’t forget to connect with me on Facebook.