The Grace of A Garden

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Some days the weight of the world presses into spaces that leave me breathless and numb, untethered from what holds us all together. The division, the distress, the wars displacing the most vulnerable, the marginalization of those who have already suffered so much among us, the unbelief of those hearing stories of the abused, the seeming triumph of the oppressor, it all tightens the vise around my very existence. I struggle to stay rooted in what I know in my head but don’t yet know in my heart, that the good and beautiful in this world outshines the darkness creeping along the edges. I struggle to believe in the depths of my being that grace and love really do make a difference, that they bring light and life.

Those are the days I simply need to step away and spend some time in my backyard, freeing my flowers from the jungle of weeds and poison ivy threatening to squeeze the life out of them. Some days the best way to be grounded is to dig in the dirt, allowing the basic common denominator among us all to sift through my fingers and to repair the holes in my soul. It brings me back to my humanity and the humanity of my neighbor, be they near or far. I’m reminded that we all are dust, and the whiff of a breath on a hand can send us floating on the breeze. I’m reminded that I’m as fickle as they come, blown about and trying to figure it out as I go. I am reminded that I often don’t know where I’ll land, much like my neighbor may not know where they will land. I’m reminded that grace and love do go a long way in this world short on both.

At ground level the muted greens and browns sooth my eyes and my heart with their earthiness and the reality of what is. When I glance up, the world explodes in yellow, blue, white, pink. Lilies poised against the sky become stars set in space and I’m reminded of the smallness of me in a universe ever expanding. The pink of sweet peas vining into an evergreen, sending delicate sprays heavenward remind me that beauty leaves its mark on the world no matter where it’s found. Airy Queen Anne’s Lace, appearing uninvited yet waving cheerfully in the breeze reminds me that welcoming the stranger brings joy I didn’t know I was missing.

These days, I find myself in my garden more than usual, maybe in an attempt at bringing some order to my little corner of the world. Honestly, that’s about all I can handle right now, although it doesn’t seem like enough. I know it starts here, in my own tiny space. I just don’t know yet where it will lead. Or where I’ll land. But for now, it is enough. I will free my garden to be what it is meant to be – a space of beauty in a harsh world that is determined to conquer it. Today the grace of a garden will heal my soul a bit more and give me courage to look up once again.

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For the Love! And a Little Fun…

Way back in March, five whole months ago I applied to be on the launch team for Jen Hatmaker’s new book, and somehow I made it into the 10% who actually made it onto the team. I’m sure it was through no charisma or anything that I did or am, just pure happenstance – or could it have been providence? Well, I don’t know, but let me tell you that this experience – being on a team with about 500 other people who are passionate about Jesus and love people to death – has been amazing! This group has lived out in real time the entire message of Jen’s new book, For the Love.

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The subtitle really puts it well: “Fighting for Grace in a World of Impossible Standards.” I think we’ve all experienced feeling like we’re not enough and that no matter how hard we try, there is something somewhere that we’ve failed at or not met someone’s expectations, be it other people’s or even our own expectations. Yes really, sometimes we’re the ones putting unreasonable expectations on ourselves. And Jen wants you to know that you can take yourself and others “off the hook.” She goes on to explain that

“maybe we can lay down our fear and criticism, self-directed and otherwise. Maybe if we let ourselves off the hook, we can let others off too… We don’t have to be saviors and critics for each other; we’re probably better as loved people beside each other. We aren’t good gods, but we can be good humans.”

Jen is superb at telling the truth with grace, and that’s exactly what she does in this book. She is so gracious with her words, so encouraging and uplifting, that when she hits you upside the head with something that’s a real thing in your own life, you can take it. Because you know she loves everyone with her whole heart – even the difficult ones, for the Love! – and she’ll give you the truth, but she’ll be gentle in the process. And this is something I want to learn from her. She does this so well, and all I can figure is that Jesus is so big in her life that she has learned from Him how to do this really well, so probably I need more of Jesus. Anyway, this is the insight she has about truth-telling: “When you tell me the truth about yourself, I no longer hide from you. Your vulnerability makes a path for my own.” And this, “We are watching the light win truth by truth, and when enough bright places are created, the dark has nowhere else to hide.”

“Show up. Be seen. Tell the truth. Be free.

She tells her truth in this book and invites us to tell ours. Together, we can be free.

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In the mix are messages to our children, to our marriages, to the church, to women, and to Christians. And her Thank-You Notes, oh goodness, you do not want to miss those. In true Jen Hatmaker fashion, this book will have you rolling with laughter one minute and crying the next. To me, that is one of the marks of a terrific book and she does it every.single.time.

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Jen invites us into something sacred, something holy. She is practically prophetic in her closing words when she calls forth the image-bearer in all of us as she sees what is and can be: “I see you, cheering each other on and calling forth the best in one another, and it slays me. This is the stuff. This is what we were made for. This is how to live well. If we prefer each other as Jesus told us to, there is nothing our community… cannot handle. …we strengthen each other to love our families and neighbors and cities and world. We point each other to God and call out our blessedness. It is so incredibly powerful.” And this, this is exactly what Jen has done with this book. She does this and shows us what is possible.

And this awesome community that is the launch team, has lived out this book in the most beautiful ways ever, giving me hope and a longing that this can be lived out in our real-life communities all around the world, wherever we are, with our people. We all long for this – maybe we need to quit waiting around for it to happen and be the catalyst in creating it right where we are with the people God has put in front of us.

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And now for some fun – who wants a free book? You COULD go to Amazon or Barnes and Noble or anywhere this awesome book is sold and order one, BUT if you’d like a chance at winning one, leave a comment down below, here on the blog, and you’ll be entered to win one of two copies I’d like to give to two of you amazing people who so faithfully read my sporadic and disjointed words.

So leave a comment, and tell us about someone who has encouraged you, cheered you on, and lifted you up on your journey. Honor those people in your life here, and then do it for someone else. Pass it on!!! Together, we can keep this ball rolling until it gets so big it overtakes our communities and our world. I will draw two names tonight, August 18, 2015 at 11 pm EST, because I want to get these out to you tomorrow. I can’t wait for you guys to start reading this book and sharing your highlights with us, so get your name in quick.

All the best!

In Honor of National Book Lover’s Day

National Book Lover’s Day was observed this past Sunday, August 9, 2015. As usual, I was not aware of this auspicious day until it had arrived, so I’m writing this a few days after the fact. Nevertheless, I thought this presented a good opportunity to mention a few books that I have especially loved this year. I’ve not been reading as much as I would like (do book lovers ever read as much as they would like to?), but one of my goals this year was to stay clear of mediocre books. Why read mediocre when there is so much better out there? Because better is out there – sometimes it’s hard to find. And it is quite difficult for me to not finish a book I start, because maybe it will get better, maybe I haven’t gotten to the good part yet, but I must stay strong and say no to mediocrity, even if it means I can’t list a half-read book on my running tab of all I’ve read. But I digress.

Out of my very short list of books I’ve actually read this year, here are my top five, not necessarily ranked in any particular order, except for the first one of course.

1. For the Love by Jen Hatmaker (2015)

If you know very much about me at all, you’ll know I am a hopeless fan of Jen’s. She is grace and strength and humor, and maybe the two things I love most are her authenticity and her love for Jesus. She just wrote this bit of grace and it’s set to be released next week, next week ya’ll (maybe I’ve been hanging out with her crowd a bit the last while) and you should really get this book. Pre-order it and you’ll get it the second it’s released, like it should be on your doorstep on the 18th. Unless you order from Barnes and Noble, where it’s already on the shelves and in people’s mailboxes and on people’s actual doorsteps. That’s about all I can say about that right now, because I’m supposed to wait to talk about this till next week. But seriously, I’ve had some of the best experiences with about 500 women in the last four months I’ve ever had because well, I was somehow, someway privileged to be in on the launch team, and what a team it is. We will be friends for life, For the Love!

2. Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (2011)

This was a surprise book for me. My daughter was reading it and as it was laying around the house I picked it up one day on a whim. I was hooked from page one. Written as a free-verse narrative, the language is beautiful, rich and dense. A poignant read that tugs at the heart-strings, it is young girl’s perspective on fleeing the only home she has ever known and living as a refugee. While it is a book aimed at children in grades 4-8, it is literary in nature and will stand the test of time. An easy one-sitting read, it is one I will go back to again and again. It’s a great book to read with your children and has many opportunities for starting conversations around diverse and meaningful topics.

3. Malestrom by Carolyn Custis James (2015)

This newest book by James is timely and so important and needed in the world we live in. She addresses the challenges, and indeed the crisis, of manhood in our society and in our churches, calling all of us, both men and women, back to what God had in mind from the foundations of the world. I hear so often the sigh of resignation that that’s just the way things are because of the Fall and it will be this way until Jesus returns. James says no, and I concur. Jesus has already come and He has come to set things right to some measure, to upend the systems of the world, which includes the system of patriarchy. If you think patriarchy is okay, this book will make you very uncomfortable. Patriarchy was never God’s plan and James sets out to take us back to the heart and purpose of God for men and women together.

4. Same Kind of Different as Me by Ron Hall and Denver Moore (2006)

The subtitle reads: The story of a modern-day slave, an international art dealer and the unlikely woman who bound them together. That pretty much sums it up, really. I had a bit of a time getting into this book but about half-way through, just when I was considering abandoning it, the story takes a turn. I cried through the second half like I haven’t for a long time reading a book. Such a great story, showing what the love of Christ has the power to do in the hearts of slaves and art dealers alike, hearts just like our own. This is a terrific book and would make an excellent selection for book clubs. It’s not a new book, I’m just late to the party.

5. Paul, Women and Wives by Craig Keener (1992) 

To be honest, I debated for a while (maybe five minutes?) about putting this book on this list, but I found it so insightful that if I’m honestly listing my top books, this will have to be included. It is scholarly, although not necessarily academic, so it is fairly heavy reading, with the bibliography almost as long if not longer, than the book. To some that might be tedious, but to me it shows the amount of research that went into this work, and that it’s not just one man’s opinions. Keener does an excellent job of showing both sides of some very controversial passages and then drawing his own conclusions from thorough research and study. He brings clarity to some issues that can easily divide, although he does not come down hard on either side for the most part. This makes it even more compelling, I think, because he doesn’t try to prove any given point. He addresses some of the more difficult passages in Paul’s writings with grace and humility. Again, this book may make some uncomfortable, but I would challenge all of us to read things we disagree with periodically, because if we only read things we agree with we will not grow. This one may stretch you, but isn’t that how anyone grows, by stretching?

And what am I reading at the moment?

I have started all of these or will in the near future for classes I’m enrolled in:

Astonished by Mike Erre

The Fringe Hours by Jessica N. Turner

The Social God and the Relational Self by Stanley J. Grenz

Invitations from God by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun

The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence

Brimstone by Hugh Halter

The Orthodox Heretic by Peter Rollins

Christy by Catherine Marshall

Scripture and the Authority of God by N.T. Wright

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khalid Hosseini

A Compilation of Lectures Related to Spiritual Formation

Hmm, as you can well see, I’m not into fluffy reads, or even much fiction at all. I’m open to recommendations, but please not too much fluff – it’s got to have some substance. What is your night stand or coffee table right now? I would love to know what you’re reading and how it is impacting your life. Leave a comment about a book you have read or are reading right now, you never know what might come of it – you might even be entered in a drawing for a copy of Jen’s new book, For the Love! You just never know… But you have to leave a comment. On the blog. Not on social media. But you can leave one there too if you want. All the best!

Reflections on Reading Scripture

This morning as I was doing a bit of reading, I thought back to all the years when I would come to Scripture feeling like I was under pressure to make sure I got out of it exactly what God wanted me to know. I would read every word carefully, slowly, hoping some giant revelation would leap off the page and into my heart. That rarely happened, if ever. Because I didn’t know the heart of Jesus so much as knew the words in the Bible, reading appeased the Pharisee in me and verified what I already thought I knew.

When we have an intimate relationship with Jesus – and by that I mean living in His love and grace – we don’t have to worry so much about understanding what each and every word means; we can simply let them flow over our parched souls and let God bring the meaning He wants us to understand. We can trust that He will show us what He wants us to know and experience.

Here’s to less trying and straining, and more of trusting Him to do the work in me.

Personal note: One thing that has really helped me to be able to come to Scripture in a fresh way is to read it in an unfamiliar translation or paraphrase. When I already know the next word or phrase, it’s easy to zone out. Read it in words you’re not familiar with and just let it wash over you. And don’t over-think it.

Be blessed today!

What has helped you read the Bible with fresh eyes and in new ways? Leave your ideas and experiences in the comments – it may encourage someone today.

Words Have Weight, Even When Spoken In Body Language

We all know words have weight. We’ve experienced their weight ourselves – especially when they have cut and seared and carved deep grooves into our tender hearts. Hopefully we have also experienced the weight of positive words in our lives, words that have helped us imagine a new and beautiful future that may even have come to pass. But the harsh reality is that the weight of negative words seem to tip the scales farther than the weight of positive words. I’ve heard it said that for every negative word carving up our lives, it takes nine positive words to begin to heal the wound. Negative words weigh more. They just do.

Thing is, sometimes those negative words don’t even need to be heard by our ears. Sometimes those negative words can be read, not in black letters on a white page, but in the language of a body speaking weighty, oh so weighty words. We’ve probably all witnessed or experienced it sometime or other – two or three people whispering, exclaiming and rolling their eyes behind their hands, and it isn’t hard to figure out they likely are not discussing the weather or speaking encouraging words to each other.

I’ve talked with enough people and had enough experience of my own to know this is a real thing. Countless people, real people with hurts already deep enough, have been even more deeply wounded by words both spoken and portrayed. And while it may not affect me personally like it used to, there are many, many among us who continue to be deeply affected by this language. Just because someone didn’t actually hear what was said doesn’t mean they can’t be hurt by those words. No, people know and it matters. Our words and actions, even though they may not be directed at someone, have the power to do severe damage in an individual’s life.

On the other hand, positive, life-giving words also have weight and can be used for building each other up, for speaking truth in love permeated with grace, for pointing each other to the One and only Jesus. Even our body language can a positive influence, especially when our posture is open and free, inviting others into relationship and connection without so much as a word. We can learn how to do this and make a difference in the life of every person we meet. I’ve been in the company of people who exude openness and connection and most times it’s not in the words they say, but in the way they handle themselves, that draws me to them. It’s their body language that speaks loudest. No wonder, as the old saying goes, more is caught than taught.

So I guess this is a challenge to all of us – to me most of all – to be careful with the way we speak – both with our words and with our body language. The future of our world depends on it – that’s how much it matters. Maybe sometime soon I’ll talk about that part of it. Yes, I believe our words carry that much weight – our words literally shape our world and the world of those around us. Will it be for good? Or will it be for ill? We have the power to shape our world. How will we do it? Speak life-giving words of encouragement to someone today. Start with yourself if you need to. If we don’t speak those words to ourselves, we will find it difficult, if not impossible, to speak them to others.

 

Why I Stopped Reading the Bible {for a While}

Did you just say you (gasp!) quit reading the Bible for a while? Yes, I did just say that. Growing up, reading the Bible was one of the basic indicators in your walk with Jesus – the more you read your Bible, the more you loved Jesus. Of course, the inverse was also true – the less you read, the less you loved Jesus. And “getting into the Word” every day was how all of that was mostly measured. (Never mind living out what we read. Well, actually that may or may not have been mostly down to a science.)

For years, I would try to read DAILY (because God only gives us bread for today, not for tomorrow) so I could check it off my mental (and sometimes for real) to-do list. One of the key words here is “try”. Because more often than not, it was a total fail. I’d start out so good, especially at the beginning of the year when those New Year resolutions were all bright and shiny and gave me warm fuzzy feelings, but by the time February 3rd rolled around and the days were dark and the snow was deep and the covers were so nice and toasty while the air on the other side of those covers was icy cold and dark in the morning, it was sheer drudgery. And I wasn’t feeling very much in love with Jesus.

But one way you fall in love with Jesus is by reading His Word, right? Well, I don’t doubt that could possibly be true. But I also know that when you perceive God to be watching every move you make and ready to judge you for not reading today, it doesn’t necessarily give us a picture of gentle, loving Father with whom we desire deep relationship, does it?

I think one of the bigger issues for me was that as I came to Scripture, I did not come with an open mind, an inquisitive heart or with ears to hear. I came with my preconceived ideas, my biases, my colored glasses, a sense of my-church-has-this-all-figured-out-and-I’m-just-here-to-verify-that. Not only that, questions were not okay, because if there were questions, there was obviously doubt, and doubt has no place in the life of a good religious person. So it wasn’t even safe for me to approach the Bible with questions and doubts. Furthermore, all of the problematic parts had full and mind-bending explanations, and we had to believe those in faith, because there are some things that just are not going to make sense this side of heaven. So even the parts that I might have questioned were already fully explained. It is very difficult (impossible?) to come to Scripture with an open heart and open mind when I have to believe certain things about certain parts (or the entirety) of the Bible.

I just remember how crazy-making it all felt when we would hear that we were to weigh everything against Scripture, while at the same time we were told exactly WHAT we were supposed to believe about every part of Scripture. I still don’t get it, I guess.

Far beyond all that – I truly believe all of this kept me from learning to know the voice of the Shepherd. There was just no way to even hear Him, for starters, because there was no room for His voice personally in my life. And if I would have somehow heard His voice, God forbid that I would have heard something different from what I was told I should believe. If it was different, then surely that was not God’s voice I was hearing. It couldn’t be. I’m not entirely sure why God’s voice was so important, because obviously, if it’s all figured out, there is not much need for the voice.

So you see the dilemma. Being the rule-following religious good girl that I was, I was on a fast track to spiritual death, a dead man walking in religious mumbo-jumbo, glib and pat answers abounding. I was supposed to know and follow the voice of God, while at the same time it was exceedingly dangerous for me to do so. How do you even begin to KNOW the voice, when it’s dangerous to HEAR the voice? Because you certainly can’t trust what you hear.

Long, LONG story short – I quit reading for a while (don’t even ask how long).  And I read a ton of other stuff. Different views on different things, things that resonated with my heart on deep levels. New-to-me ideas that rebutted some of things I was “supposed to” believe (that would be like a dagger twisting in my heart every time I heard them). Views that encapsulated the over-arching themes of God and Scripture. And somehow in the middle of all that, I began to hear what I thought might be the Voice of the Shepherd. And somehow I learned to Trust that Voice. Somehow over time God helped me trust and believe that it was His Voice. It’s been a long journey and all I can say is God is Faithful. He taught me that while Scripture is His Word, Jesus Christ is also His Word revealed in the flesh, and there is now, today, in this moment, the Living Word, the Holy Spirit who speaks to us through our spirit. I think that last part was the most scary for me and where I needed to learn the most trust, and I’m still learning. Anyone with me?

And now, I’m reading again. With fresh eyes, with an open heart, with a mind hungry to soak up the richness of the written word. I’ve fallen in love with the Shepherd and I love His Voice. The voice I used to think was His, well it wasn’t. He doesn’t speak condemnation and you-are-not-enough and you-should-be-doing-more. He speaks Life and Truth and Grace. And that’s just for starters.

Do you have a similar experience or story? I’d love to hear from you! Feel free to share here in the comments (or shoot me an email if leaving your story here feels scary).

If I Want to Prove I’m Worthy of the Gift, Is it Still a Gift?

It was a lovely party with all the trappings – balloons, candles, cake, streamers, ice cream, toppings and little pointy hats with elastic down around the chin. The birthday girl living it up, basking in the glory and excitement of being celebrated and known. Opening presents. Oh, the presents. Such fun, beautiful presents, things she had always dreamed of having. But amidst all the laughter and excitement she could already sense this niggling feeling of worry. Worry of was how was she possibly going to get out of this debt she now felt she owed.

We’ve all been that girl – grateful for the presents. And we’ve given thanks. And we’ve reciprocated. They gave me a gift, now I should give them a gift. We’ve felt indebted.

So, how does it make you feel when you give a gift to someone you love dearly and all they can think about is how they now owe you a gift? All they can think about is how are they going to repay what you’ve given them? Does it not cheapen the gift? When they try to make sure they give something of equal or greater value, doesn’t it put a pang of sadness in your heart? Don’t you wish they could receive the gift and enjoy it and remember that they are loved?

What do we really do when we live in this economy?

Quite simply, we reduce the gift to a transaction, to an exchange of goods or property.

But can we still call it a gift when we try to repay or even try to prove that we are worthy of the gift?

Now let’s be honest… don’t we do this with God all the time?

“I give thanks to God because of what He’s done for me.”

“I live my life in worship because He has saved me.”

“I sing because I’m free.”

“I am committed to the Lord’s work because I’m grateful that I’ve escaped hell.”

Paul says in Ephesians that we have been saved by the free gift of grace, not by our works, otherwise we could boast; it is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8-9).

So what is a gift? Isn’t it something that is given freely, no strings attached, nothing required in return? And don’t we want desperately to prove that we are worthy of the gift? Don’t we want to give God something in return for the gift of grace? And doesn’t that then make it “not free”?

I wonder if all our trying to prove something and all our doing in payment for God’s grace isn’t a bit offensive to Him? I wonder if His heart doesn’t break for all our stubbornness in refusing a free gift. Oh yes, we’ll take it, but we’ll pay Him back. I mean, that’s the least we could do.

Folks, I hate to break it to you – we can never do enough or be enough or thank enough to pay God back for His free gift of grace. I know, it’s really difficult to accept that I can’t do anything or be anything good enough to be worthy of His grace. We totally want to prove that we’re something, don’t we?

You know, that was one of the very lies that the enemy brought to Eve in the garden of Eden. “If you would only eat the fruit from this tree, THEN you would be like God.” Now Eve had already forgotten that God Himself said that He made mankind in His image, in His LIKENESS. Likeness = be like God, right? The truth was that Eve was already made to be like God; the lie was that she had to DO something to attain it. And we’re still doing it, trying to DO things to be worthy of being like God. We are all made in God’s image, so we are already worthy. We don’t have to do anything to prove it; in fact, we can’t prove it. It just is.

We must simply accept the gift. And fall in love with the Giver.

He doesn’t want our stuff, our doing, our falling-all-over-ourselves-trying-to-prove-we’re-worthy. He wants us. He wants you. He wants me. He longs to be with us. He longs for us to be madly in love with Him.

Because… we are His workmanship, His poem that He is writing, His creation that He is still crafting – and He has things for us to do that He planned for us a long time ago. (Ephesians 2:10) Not because we have to pay Him back, but because He has loved us and we love Him back. We love Him because He first loved us. (I John 4:19)

He doesn’t want our stuff. He longs for our love, for a relationship, for communion with us. Anything less, anything more – is it not an affront to Him?

So we don’t give thanks because of His gifts, we give thanks because we love Him. Oh, and if there were no gifts, would we still love Him?

Will we bask in His presence, in the knowing that we are known and loved? Will we let it be enough? Will we let it be everything? Will we say “Yes!” to the free gift?

“God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.” Ephesians 2:8-10 NLT

We have not been saved because of our good works,

we have been saved to do good works!

Not because we owe God, but because we Love Him!