Susannah Baker

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A Sweet Scent on Valentine’s Day

On February 13, 2018, Posted by , in Encouragement, Uncategorized, With 3 Comments

Valentine’s Day is just one day away, and while it isn’t categorized as a “major” holiday like Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter, it is still a holiday.  And holidays have this strange ability to highlight in our hearts all that we’re not as opposed to all that we are, or all that we don’t have as opposed to all that we do.

For instance, on Christmas, we can tend to focus on all the gifts that we don’t have as opposed to all the gifts we do.  Or on Thanksgiving we can dwell on who isn’t around our table as opposed to who is.  And on Valentine’s Day, we can focus on the ways we aren’t loved instead of the ways we most certainly are.  And you don’t have to be intentionally or unintentionally celebrating Valentine’s Day to feel this way.  Certain feelings just pop up uninvited, in untimely places – like passing the card aisle at the grocery store.  Or overhearing a conversation about what so-and-so is doing on Valentine’s Day and comparing your ho-hum schedule.  Or listening to how so-and-so’s husband brought her a card, flowers, and a gift while cooking the whole family a special dinner, while your husband forgot the whole darn day even existed.

But let me offer a word of hope and encouragement for the day of the celebration of love that is just one day around the corner.  While romantic love is a part of the celebration of Valentine’s Day, it certainly does not make up the whole.  It is simply a side course to the main course of the all-consuming, life-creating, soul-sustaining love of God.

It is a love that enables us to walk confidently through any and every life circumstance, no matter if our hearts are rejoicing or breaking.  And that is the love I want to focus on this Valentine’s Day.

When I was in college, my grandmother sent me a bookmark with these words on it: “You are a fragrance of God to those who are in need and a sweet aroma of the one of God in this place.”  The words are a paraphrase of 2 Corinthians 2:14-15 which read, “But thanks be to God, who always leads us in His triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place.  For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.”

It is a bookmark I still have and use, and the words on it hold a special place in my heart.

But while I have had the bookmark for over twenty years now, the words took on new and special meaning a few weeks ago.

My daughter Caroline, the same daughter from last week’s blog (click here to read more), came home a few weeks ago and said, “Mom, I’ve made a new friend, and I told her about Jesus, but I don’t know if she has a Bible.  Can I get her a Bible and give it to her?”

After saying “Yes!” as fast as I could, I drove Caroline to the store and helped her select a Bible for her new friend.  As she brought it home and time wrapping her gift, I thought, “Why don’t I do this myself more often?  With my friends, with the people God brings across my path on a day in, day out basis, why am I not more bold and purposeful about sharing and spreading the beautiful fragrance of Christ?”  Because, really, let’s face it – is there any other fragrance sweeter, any other expression of love truer, than telling our friends about the ultimate love that will hold them and ground them and never let them go, no matter what in life they will walk through?

Several days after Caroline bought the Bible and journal for her new friend, I went to a store to return some perfume I received as a gift for Christmas.  The saleswoman in the store could not have been more helpful or kind.  She spent time with me helping me select a new fragrance and then showed me how to apply it so that it would last.  First, she had me wash my hands, then she applied the scent to my wrists and tops of my hands, and then finally, she massaged lotion onto my hands that was the same scent as the perfume.  The lotion, she explained, was the key that would lock in the scent.  (Who knew there were so many steps to applying perfume?!)

And she was right.  The rest of the day, every time I used my hands to gesture, emphasize, “speak,” or serve in one way or another, a sweet fragrance greeted my nose.  I have never enjoyed the scent of my hands more.  And it was a scent that lasted all day.

And I thought, “Isn’t this how my life in Christ should be?”  Every time we use our hands in His Name, there is a fragrance, a scent of His unfailing love.  Every time we “speak,” a scent wafts up to the nose of the one who is listening, and we have an opportunity to “speak” of Christ, simply by the fragrance of our hands.

So here is my challenge to us this Valentine’s Day: instead of focusing on all that we’re not, let’s focus on all that we are.  And if you know Christ as your Lord and Savior, two things are clear: number one, you are loved with a love that will not let you go.  And more than that, you are Christ’s beloved.  Because as we all know deep down in our hearts, it’s one thing to be loved, but it’s another thing to be someone’s beloved, cherished as the apple of their eye.  And in Christ, we have that confidence: we are the beloved of the Lord Jesus Christ.

And number two: as His beloved, you are His fragrance.  And wherever you go, you spread the sweet aroma of Him, His fragrance in every place.

So here’s the practical part of my challenge: after knowing who you are, purposefully go and be that fragrance in someone’s life.  Because someone in your path today, this week, needs the Word of God, calling them, reminding them, telling them that through relationship with Christ, they are Christ’s beloved too.  So like Caroline, as an expression of great love towards a friend, give someone a Bible, the greatest love letter of all time.  It might feel awkward, it might feel weird, you might wonder if your relationship with that person will ever be the same, but why would you and I ever withhold a fragrance from someone’s life that can change them forever from the inside out?

Isaiah 55:10-11 reminds us, “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: it will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

God’s Word does notin fact cannot, return void or empty.  It will accomplish the purpose for which it was sent.  Caroline gave her friend a Bible like this – it’s a great option for adults or children.  And if you aren’t sure who in your life to give God’s Word to, just ask.  Ask the Lord to show you exactly who the person is, and wait on His perfect timing this Valentine’s Day.  I think you will be amazed at just how specifically and clearly He answers.

And as you wait this week and give your hands in loving service to be the fragrance of Christ to someone else, that same sweet fragrance will come in and refresh and restore your own soul every time the are not’s and the have not’s hit you unawares.

The law of the Lord is perfect,
    refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
    making wise the simple.
 The precepts of the Lord are right,
    giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant,
    giving light to the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is pure,
    enduring forever.
The decrees of the Lord are firm,
    and all of them are righteous.

They are more precious than gold,
    than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
    than honey from the honeycomb.
By them your servant is warned;
    in keeping them there is great reward.

Psalm 19:7-11

Happy Valentine’s Day to you, our Great, Good God’s beloved.

Valentine’s Day and Valuing Friendship

On February 5, 2018, Posted by , in Encouragement, Uncategorized, With 10 Comments

With Valentine’s Day coming up, I’ve been thinking about all different kinds of love – love in marriage, love in friendship, love in relationship with God.  While we often spend lots of time thinking about love within marriage or in our relationship with God, past the age of about twenty-two, we don’t usually spend much time thinking about love within friendship.  It’s a topic often relegated to our younger years.

But friendship is an important topic because it is such an important part of our lives.  And recently, no one has taught me more about friendship than my daughter, Caroline, and her constant compadre, Tess (also known as “Dr. Phil” when it comes to relationships in Caroline’s world – click here to read about that from last week’s blog).

Tess Tredennick, affectionately known as “Tessy” around our house, is one of my favorite people on the planet. She’s about four feet tall, has a tangle of blonde curls that always look like they may or may not have been brushed, wears cute purple glasses, and never does anything without a leap, skip, laugh, skid, or cartwheel.

Like my daughter Caroline, Tess is seven years old, and for as long as I can remember, Caroline has called Tess her “twin.” Whenever her sisters try to correct her (and trust me, lots of correcting goes on over here with two big sisters because what in the world would we do without their wise and insightful direction in our lives?), Caroline says with passion (she doesn’t really say things without passion), “Tessy IS TOO my twin! I’ve known her since before we were BORN, and I LOVE her!” Obviously, Caroline has a lot to learn about the birds and the bees, but for now, to her, being a twin means knowing and loving someone since before they were born and loving them still just as much seven years down the road.

Caroline and Tess celebrated their first birthday together along with their friend Gray, and they have had almost every birthday party together since.

I think what amazes me the most about these two is that they don’t seem to see or at least dwell on each other’s faults or imperfections.  They see each other through rose-colored glasses, loving and accepting each other exactly as they are.  And they have always been that way.  I can’t remember a time when Caroline didn’t love Tess and Tess didn’t love Caroline.  And when they are together, I never have to intervene or referee and blow the whistle or pull one aside and have “the talk” about how one needs to include the other one.  They always seem to be completely content in each other’s presence.  And when Tessy leaves town, well, life just isn’t quite the same…

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That amazes me.  I think partly because I remember having a best friend like that when I was little –  a friend who could do no wrong, and every available second I wanted to spend in her presence.  And partly because somewhere along the way as women, we begin to see each other through jaded, green, envy-colored glasses instead of rosy, I-love-you-just-the-way-you-are kind of glasses.

I’m not sure why or when that transition happens, but it’s a transition that I’ve been trying to undo or fight against now for years.  Because as women, our natural, sin-cursed inclination (thank you, Eve) is to see what people are not doing, or not saying, or not being as opposed to embracing exactly who they are, where they are, and with what they are able to offer.

So the past few years I have been taking lessons from Tessy and Caroline and working on trying to come alongside my friends, instead of standing from far off envying, coveting, and viewing life through the lens of a closed circle instead of an open one (click here to read more on that).

Caroline and Tess have also reminded me in a season of life where the needs and wants of family seem to take up every waking moment that friends are not “icing on the top” reserved for dessert and special occasions, but my friends are the necessary stuff of everyday life.  The course that goes in the plain, smack-dab middle instead of reserved for special occasions or time at the end.  They have given me permission to stay present and enjoy and delight in my friends when there is always the possibility of choosing to complete one more task instead of practicing the presence of people.  And that’s been a necessary lesson for a task-driven, tight-margin momma like me to learn during this season of life with four young children.

None of us have time or space for playdates and sleepovers like we did when we were little, but all of us need to be reminded of the necessity and delight of weaving our friends into the everyday fabric of our lives.  Because in modern times, friendship, as CS Lewis writes in his book, The Four Loves, has become “something quite marginal; not a main course in life’s banquet; a diversion; something that fills up the chinks of one’s time.  How has this come about?…Friendship is – in a sense not at all derogatory to it – the least natural of loves; the least instinctive, organic, biological, gregarious, and necessary.  It has least commerce with our nerves; there is nothing throaty about it; nothing that quickens the pulse or turns you red and pale…Without Eros none of us would have been begotten and without Affection none of us would have been reared; but we can live and breed without Friendship.  The species, biologically considered, has no need of it…but few value [friendship] because few experience it.”

In other words, friendship doesn’t cause anything warm or fuzzy to rise up in us like romance, or give us anything back like the love of a child.  Friendship requires you to give the most with the least likely promise of reward or return.  In other words, friendship requires risk.  But friendship also offers great reward.

“Friendship, unlike Eros [Romantic love], is uninquisitive.  You become a man’s Friend without knowing or caring whether he is married or single or how he earns his living. ..In a circle of Friends each man is simply what he is: stands for nothing but himself.  No one cares two-pence about anyone else’s family, profession, class, income, race or previous history.  Of course you will get to know about most of these in the end.  But casually.  They will come out bit by bit, to furnish an illustration or an analogy, to serve as pegs for a anecdote; never for their own sake.  That is the kingliness of Friendship…Eros will have naked bodies; Friendship naked personalities”  (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves).

In friendship, we have the opportunity to love and be loved simply for who we are, no strings attached.  Not because of what we can give someone or what they can give us.  But simply because we stand side by side and and see and love the same truth.  “You will not find the warrior, the poet, the philosopher or the Christian by staring in his eyes as if he were your mistress: better fight beside him, read with him, argue with him, pray with him” (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves).

And as we live and fight and read and pray side by side, friendship also teaches us to love not for the sake of getting anything back but simply because in doing so, we are loving others in the way Jesus Himself loved us: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lays down his life for his friends” (John 15:13, emphasis mine). And in laying our lives down, we finally are able to take our eyes off of ourselves and become the people God has called us to be while encouraging and beholding the image of God in one another.  And as we do so, “each member of the circle feels, in his secret heart, humbled before all the rest.  Sometimes he wonders what he is doing there among his betters.  He is lucky beyond desert to be in such company.  Especially when the whole group is together, each bringing out all that is best, wisest, or funniest in all the others….Life – natural life – has no better gift to give.  Who could have deserved it?”  (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves)

In light of the knowledge of the gift that friendship is and because of the strong, steady, life-giving friendships God has given us, Jason and I are constantly encouraging and reminding one another: pursue your friends.  Not because we are such great friends, but because we can tend to be such poor friends.  It’s easier to check something tangible off of a list than sit in connection over a cup of coffee.  Yet over the cups of coffee is where our souls are known and valued and loved for who we are rather than for the things we do.  And in those places of total transparency, vulnerability, and friendship, we are free to let our guards down and let others in to walk alongside of us, imperfections and all, on the road before us.

I wish making time for friends was as easy as an adult as it was as a kid.  I wish someone would come in with a pencil on my calendar and schedule playdates and birthday parties and sleep overs for me and my friends just like I do for my girls and their friends.  But those days are over, and now it is my responsibility to have intentional time with friends who see the same truth and challenge me to lay my life down and grow more into the person God has called me to be.  And it is when I weave these times of friendship into the main course at the table of life instead of the dessert at the end, that I am most whole, balanced, full, and richly blessed.

Lewis closes his essay on friendship with this: “[I]n Friendship…we think we have chosen our peers. In reality, a few years’ difference in the dates of our birthdays, a few more miles between certain houses, the choice of one university instead of another, posting to different regiments, the accident of a topic being raised or not raised at a first meeting – any of these chances might have kept us apart. But, for a Christian, there are, strictly speaking, no chances. A secret Master of the Ceremonies has been at work. Christ, who said to the disciples ‘Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,’ can truly say to every group of Christian friends ‘You have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another.’ The Friendship is not a reward for our discrimination and good taste in finding one another out. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each the beauties of all the others….At this feast it is He who has spread the board and it is He who has chosen the guests. It is He, we may dare to hope, who sometimes does, and always should, preside. Let us not reckon without our Host.”

When we understand that God is the one who has set the table of our friendships and brought specific people into our lives for “such a time as this,” we begin to fight for our friendships instead of against them.  We take off our prickles and put on grace.  We set aside our tasks and pull up a chair at the feast of transparency, accountability, and love.  And we begin to delve into the feast of friendship, if we are seven or seventy-seven years old.

This Valentine’s Day, as I look at the table God has set before me of Godly, strong, humble, kind, wise, beautiful women, I am astounded and humbled that I have a place at their table.  And each time I sit down in their presence, I encounter a Christ-like love that shapes me into a better wife, a better mom, a better teacher, a better person, a better friend.  And, let’s face it, they give me the necessary tools of laugher and permission to eat as much chocolate as I want or need to make it through one day, one week, one season, one year at a time.

This Valentine’s Day, take an honest evaluation of yourself as a friend and the table God has set before you.  Are you a good friend who loves others for who they are, right where they are?  Or are you always standing off at a distance waiting to be asked in instead of being brave enough to day in and day out simply walk alongside?  Do you make enough time for your friends to really speak into and shape your life?  Not just an occasional lunch or cup of coffee, but true iron-sharpening-iron, a true love that stands the test of time and can speak truth and hear truth because it is spoken in love?

If not, don’t despair.  But take off your jaded, green, micro-managing, task and time driven glasses, and put on lenses that see through the rose color of love and grace that true friendship offers one meal, one conversation, one encounter at a time.

True Love and Valentine’s Day

On January 29, 2018, Posted by , in Marriage, Uncategorized, With 7 Comments

Valentine’s Day is rapidly approaching, and apart from purchasing the necessary supplies for my daughters’ Valentine’s Day school parties or get togethers, it’s not a holiday I think a whole lot about.  Usually Jason and I exchange cards and a quick kiss over a crock pot meal while hustling everyone out the door to swim practice, ballet, or basketball games.

But all week I’ve been thinking about Valentine’s Day because of a conversation I overhead between my seven-year-old daughter Caroline and her friend Tess.

Tess was at our house before basketball practice, and I was feeding the girls a healthy, protein-packed dinner of cinnamon crunch cereal and apple slices with peanut butter (don’t judge me; it had been that kind of a day), and I was half-way listening to their conversation as they talked and ate, and I puttered around the kitchen.  Well, ok, let’s be honest – I was REALLY listening to their conversation because Tess talks at a volume LIKE THIS, and sometimes it’s hard NOT to listen to their conversations.

And out of the blue, between cereal bites, Tess says to Caroline, “Yeah, I’ve heard that boys don’t like to get married as much as girls.  Girls like to get married, and boys like to stay single. But girls are more organized than boys, so boys get married so they can have someone to help them get organized.”

Out of the mouths of seven year olds…but yep, that pretty much sums it up.

And the best part about it is that Caroline listened like she was listening to Dr. Phil, and Tess’ comment led to a deep discussion about who they were both planning on marrying once boys were ready to have a little organization in their closets and in their lives.  (My lips are sealed; I’m not telling who their choice of perspective mates are, but at least I know now to start praying fervently for the spouses of this dynamic duo!).

But ever since Tess made that comment, and especially with Valentine’s Day coming up, I haven’t stopped remembering and thinking about the fiery trials of dating, romance, and wondering whose manpiles you would end up organizing one day (if you need a definition of “manpiles,” click here).

Because let’s face it: figuring out who in the world you are going to marry is tough stuff.  Awkward stuff.  Confusing stuff.  And sixteen years down the road into marriage, I am still relieved I emerged in one piece from the search for a soul mate.

I remember one Valentine’s Day my senior year of college, a friend of mine asked if we could have a “talk.”  Notice I said, “friend.”  We were not dating, nor had we ever had any discussions of dating, nor did I ever want to have any conversations about dating.  Yet during this “talk,” at a cafe decked out for Valentine’s Day with red roses, chocolate cake, and a man walking around singing operatic love songs, my friend proceeded to tell me that after thinking long and hard about it, it turns out I wasn’t the girl he was supposed to marry, so we were free to just be “friends.”  Which is so weird because I thought that’s what we already were.  And at the end of our incredibly awkward conversation with a man singing a love song beside our table, he proceeded to tell me he forgot his wallet, and I had to pay the $60 bill (which might as well have been $560 to a college student).

Like I said, dating is a fiery trial and an awkward experience, one I would rather not have to repeat in this lifetime if I can help it.

But with Valentine’s Day coming up, I know lots of thoughts are going on in the minds of seven-year-olds, seventeen-year-olds, and forty-seven-year-olds about love in general, or at least about love according to our culture’s definition of the word.  Because our culture is crazy-consumed with talking about love, which has really become another word for self-serving sex and ways you think another person should make you happy.

But after spending sixteen years married to a man who has lots of piles for me to organize, my definition and understanding of love within the context of marriage has changed dramatically.

Jason and I started off our journey together on rocky footing.  After dating for almost a year, we were engaged and then broke off our engagement two months before we were supposed to get married.  Both of us were carrying around a hundred pound sack of unresolved issues from our past that felt like deadweight in our relationship.  In God’s mercy, as painful as it was, He allowed us to begin to unpack that deadweight outside of marriage instead of inside.  It took a lot of counseling and a lot of humbling ourselves before God and one another, but we were re-engaged and then married seven months after our original wedding date.

During that time of separation, counseling, and healing, we learned how to come back together as two broken pieces that would humbly and dependently make a whole instead of two whole, independent pieces dead set on our own way or the highway.

During that time, Jason read Sacred Marriagea book by author and pastor Gary Thomas that completely changed his view of marriage and set the trajectory of our relationship for the future.  In the book, Gary writes, “What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?,” a thought that bears as much weight in our marriage now sixteen years down the road as it did so many years ago.

Because it’s true.  “If you want to be free to serve Jesus, there’s no question—stay single,” writes Gary.  “Marriage takes a lot of time. But if you want to become more like Jesus, I can’t imagine any better thing to do than to get married. Being married forces you to face some character issues you’d never have to face otherwise.”  Because marriage, as my mom says, is holy sandpaper.  It is designed by God to rub off and wear down the edges of our self-centered habits, goals, and desires and transform us into others-centered, Christ-centered creatures.  And let me tell you, it can be one painful process.

Three weeks into our marriage, we were knee deep into wearing the selfish edges off of one another.  It was Thanksgiving week, and we were preparing to leave to go to celebrate the holiday with one of our families.  And we.  Got.  Into it.  I mean voices yelling, doors slamming, anger rising, “what-in-the-world-have-we-done” kind of arguing.

I ran into my closet, slammed the door, locked it, and curled up in a heap on the floor crying.

Not a great start to start a first holiday during the first few weeks of marriage.

And Jason says in that moment, he knew he had a choice.  He too could slam the door and leave me and my hurts to myself, continuing the same pattern and cycle of leaving he had always done in relationships, or he could stay and pursue me, choosing to let the unconditional, covenantal love of Christ wear the edges off of his leaving and teach him how to stay, even with a wife who was an emotional, crying mess on the floor.  And he chose to stay.

And his first act of staying was kneeling beside our bed and praying, “Lord, I don’t know how to do this thing called marriage.  But I know you do.  Help me to love her as You love her, and teach me how to stay.”

And the next thing I knew, I heard a knock on the closet door.  He chose to pursue me, even with all my faults, and work through the issues at hand.

I wish I could say that after that incident, marriage was rosy…but it wasn’t.  We had a hard first few years because both of us had such hard hearts.

But more than we stayed committed to one another, we stayed committed to Christ, and because of our love for Him, we stayed committed to our love for one another.

I want to offer this hope and healing this Valentine’s Day: a good marriage is not built on the foundation of two good and perfect people.  A good marriage is built on the foundation of two broken people who have committed together to love Christ, the Only One who can put our broken pieces back together.  Our marriage is living proof of that great reality.

Men, if you really want to love Christ and love your wife this Valentine’s Day, can I tell you what the most attractive thing about my husband is to me?  It is his position of humble prayer before the Lord every morning.  Every morning, Jason wakes up at 4:30am and spends the first hour of his day on his knees in God’s Word and in prayer for his family, his co-workers, and his friends.  I usually stumble out of bed about an hour after he does, and my favorite part of the day is catching him in this act of prayer.

I do not know what the day holds for me or our girls, but I do know that we have been covered in prayer by the person whose prayers are the most powerful and effective on our behalf.  And Jason’s habit of praying and humbling his heart before His God helps me trust him and trust his leadership and decision making for our family.  And it helps me stay attracted to him in the day in and day out routine of marriage, work, and kids.  Someone who serves me like that, loves me like that, is someone I can safely give my heart to, even when life is hard or circumstances are tough.

And ladies, can I tell you what Jason says is the most attractive thing about a woman?  It’s not her wardrobe, or her body, or her achievements, but her confidence.  A confident woman, confident in her God, confident in her identity in Christ, confident in the body God has given her, confident in joy, confident in grace, confident in contentment, no matter what her circumstances may be.  And it’s a confidence that can only be gathered from time spent before the face of God.

I wish I could say I have arrived in this area of confidence and have figured it all out, but I am still a learner.  But I can say with confidence, I am further along today than I was sixteen years ago as a newly wed in a heap on my closet floor.  As I have dug into my commitment to Christ and listened long and hard to who He says I am, and then learned to confidently embrace who Jason says I am through his love and faithfulness, I have become more confident than I used to be.  And it’s a confidence in which I am continuing to grow.

Maybe it seems like feeling love or tenderness towards your spouse is just asking for too much this Valentine’s Day.  That’s ok.  Maybe it is asking for too much.  But what’s not asking for too much is cultivating or feeling tenderness or love towards Christ, the One who never leaves or forsakes you, and who then helps you act in love towards one another.

Like I said at the beginning, marriage is tough stuff.  Dating and engagement is tough stuff.  It’s a journey that forces you to face yourself as you really are, and not the pretty, flawless person you’ve convinced yourself you are.

And having those pretty edges worn off through the holy sandpaper of marriage is a painful process.  But it’s also a beautiful one.  Because through a fierce commitment to loving Christ and loving one another, you can actually become the person God has called you to be.

So this Valentine’s Day, if you are in touch place when it comes to love and marriage, don’t be discouraged by the hearts and glitter and chocolate that abound.  Cultivating holiness and happiness in marriage is hard work.  But it’s good work.

And if you are knee deep in hurt or curled up on a heap on your closet floor, take heart.  Don’t leave.  Stay.  Stay committed to Christ, committed to prayer, committed to confident relationship with your God and with your spouse, and His faithful love can heal any heart.  One step, one season, one year at a time.  And that’s what the real love of Valentine’s Day is all about.

 

 

All Things New

On January 15, 2018, Posted by , in Encouragement, Uncategorized, With 1 Comment

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.

Top Ten Things I Learned from a Hurricane

On October 2, 2017, Posted by , in Uncategorized, With 3 Comments

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…

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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.