Wednesday, December 20, 2017

This is Christmas

When we think of Christmas, we think of an angel telling a young girl she would bear the Son of God and the beautiful words she penned in response. We think about the virgin bride and the man betrothed to her traveling far to pay taxes. We think about the young virgin, heavy with child, being turned away from the inn to give birth in the dark of night. We think about the newborn babe lying in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes. We think about the shepherds being surprised by an angel announcing the birth of the Lamb, We think about their trek to Bethlehem to the beat of the angel Choir singing praises to their God. We think about the Magi following the Star all the way to Bethlehem to offer gifts to the young King. But the truth is, these are just part of the beautiful story we call Christmas. These stories are a part of an epic redemption saga much like chapters in a book--each chapter needed to grasp the fullness of God's story.

Christmas is about God fulfilling the promise He made in the Eden to destroy the Enemy--the enemy with which we all are so familiar. We know him for he is the one tempting and taunting us with blatant, ugly lies. He is the one seeking to destroy us with addictions, pornography, and strongholds of sin that run deep. He is the one trying to destroy our relationship with our Creator by drawing our attention away from the One who loves us completely, purely, and sacrificially. 

Christmas is about God being a covenant-keeping God. It is about Him keeping His covenant with Noah, promising He would never again destroy all life with flood waters. It is about God keeping his covenant with Abraham, promising to give him a son, land to call his own, and enough descendants to make a great nation through which all families of the earth would be blessed. It is about God revealing and fulfilling the dream of Jacob's ladder, providing mankind the gate to heaven.

Christmas is about preserving the life of Joseph while living Egypt to preserve Israel through a famine. It also about freeing Israel from slavery in Egypt and walking them all the way back to the promised land, drowning the army of Pharaoh that was in hot pursuit.

Christmas is about Rahab being saved as she clung to the hope promised in the scarlet cord hanging from her window as the walls of Jericho came crumbling down.

Christmas is about Ruth finding grace in her mother-in-law's family to give birth to the grandfather of David.

Christmas is about the covenant that God made with David, promising that through David a King would come whose throne would be eternal. It is about the King who would reign in righteousness, love, power, truth  and grace.

Christmas is about the fulfillment of prophesies given by the God who wants us to know His Son. He told us He would be born to a virgin in Bethlehem, be from the tribe of Judah, and from the family of Abraham, Issac, Jacob, and David. He foretold that Jesus would spend time in Egypt and Nazareth, while many children would die as the enemy sought to kill Him. He told us Jesus would be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty Prince, and Emmanuel.

The Father told us Jesus would be tempted by Satan and not given in, be rejected by his own country. He told us Jesus would speak in parables and heal the brokenhearted. He told us Jesus would be betrayed for 30 pieces of silver, falsely accused, illegally tried, spat upon, struck, mocked, hated without cause, and crucified between criminals with His hands and feet pierced and His side stabbed. God told us Jesus would be the forsaken One who prays for His enemies, a sin offering, and bear the wrath of God for us so we could be made righteous.
Christmas is also about future prophesies. He will return for His bride, the church--not as a the Lamb--but as the Lion of Judah. He will come on a white horse and be called Faithful and True. He will make war as He judges in righteousness and truth. His eyes will be like flames of fire. On his head will be many crowns. He will be clothed in a robed dipped in blood and He will be called The Word of God, the King of kings, and the Lord of Lords. From His mouth will come a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations and He will rule them with a rod of iron. He will make all things new and there will be no more sickness, no more death. He will wipe every tear from our eyes. The righteous will rule and reign with Him for ever and ever.

And, this, all of this. is Christmas.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Daughters of the King

When I used to read the Bible as a teenager, I was often confused by the actions of men towards women in the Bible. There was Sarah whose husband said she was his sister, putting her at risk of being raped or taken as another man's wife. There was Tamar, who was raped by her half-brother Amnon, who desperately needed her father, King David, to comfort, protect, and defend her honor as she struggled with the deep shame that follows rape and incest. But he, with his loud silence, betrayed her as well. Then there were many women in Israel who had entered covenant marriages, hoping to be companions to the young men they married. But, instead they were betrayed by their faithless husbands. 

In my confusion, I began to pray that God would show me how He views women because I wasn't sure I wanted to follow after Him, if he didn't view women any better than the men whose stories filled the pages of His Word. Then I came across Malachi 2:14-15,"But you say, ‘Why does he not?’ Because the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So, guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth." I began to see that God cares about women and the treatment they receive and over time, I saw other things from His Word that revealed how He loved, rescued, healed, and redeemed women broken by both life's circumstances and the hurtful and abusive actions of others. 

One of the things I saw from God’s Word was His inclusions of women in Christ’s genealogy. Right, smack, in the middle of it there are three women closely related. One was Rahab, who was a prostitute from Jericho. She saved the lives of Israel's spies by hiding them and then helping them escape. She had heard of their God and asked to be spared. So, they told her to hang a scarlet cord in her window when the battle began and she would be spared. She, by faith in the one true living God, hung that scarlet cord in her window and was saved. An Israelite named Salmon took her as his bride and they gave birth to a baby boy named Boaz. 

There was Naomi, who had moved to a foreign land, whose sons married Gentile women. Naomi's husband died and then her sons, leaving them all to grieve. Naomi became bitter and longed to return home and Ruth, her daughter-in-law, loved her and refused to stay behind. They traveled to Naomi's home town--the town where Boaz lived and he became a kinsmen redeemer, taking Ruth as his bride and they bore Obed, who became the father of Jesse, who became the father of King David, who was in the lineage of Jesus. I'm sure there was great joy in the grandma shaped hearts of Rahab and Naomi the day Obed was born. 

Those women are in the family line of Jesus by God's design. It is a long line of broken, sinful, weak and needy people. I love how God put Rahab who, as a prostitute, asked to be saved and trusted God enough to hang a simple cord in her window--an act that made no sense apart from God. I love how the Gentile, Ruth, even in her pain chose to love a bitter mother-in-law all the way home, trusting the God who holds life and death in His hands for something bigger. 

I found it comforting that God called a young woman to bear His son, Jesus, when Jesus could have entered the world in an infinite number of ways. I found it comforting that He tenderly cared for the mom pregnant with Hope by giving her many validations that the Child she carried and birthed was the Promised One--through Elizabeth's baby leaping in the womb, through the Shepherds seeking to worship the Babe, through Simeon and Anna proclaiming Him in the temple, and the Magi who came from afar to worship the King He gave her big grace for her Mama's heart to hold onto as she watched her Son, her Savior die on the cross.

I also found it comforting that Christ crushed social barriers that had made women second class worshipers. He even went out of His way to meet a Samaritan woman publicly rejected by men five times, offering her Living Water. She accepted Him and got to bring the community that judged her so harshly to sit at His feet.

He taught men that the woman who could only give two mites had performed a mighty and acceptable act of worship that meant more than the all giving that wasn't sacrificial.

He healed a woman who had been bleeding for twelve long years, fully reconciling her to Himself and restoring her to her community.

He stood up for a woman thrust at His feet by an angry mob of men who claimed they caught her in the act of adultery. In the face of His righteousness the men one by one dropped their stones and He, the only one who had a right to judge, graciously dealt with her sin.

He stayed in the home of Mary and Martha, allowing Mary to sit at his feet, learning with all His disciples. He also revealed Himself to these sisters as the God who has power over life and death by calling their brother from the grave helping them understand He was laying down His life.

He silenced the men who criticized the woman whose pure worship was displayed by her anointment of his feet with expensive oil and her own tears, allowing her to dry His feet with her hair. And, after the resurrection, He chose a woman to be the first to see His face.   

The Scriptures show us that women have been victimized for long time, but they also show us that God has a tender heart towards us and does not view us as second-class citizens. I believe the public outcry going on right now is exposing the depth of the sin of gender contempt, harassment, and abuse in this world and it is proof that the Lion of Judah is moving on our behalf. We need to remember abusers' actions do not reflect the heart of our God, they reflect only the hearts of the abusers. 

We can trust a God who places broken, hurting women in the lineage of Christ. We can trust a God who uses a woman to give birth to His Son. We can trust a God who let women sit at His feet, and listen to his teaching. We can trust a God who revealed Himself as the God over life and death to a woman. We can trust a God who defended a woman caught in adultery and a woman worshiping with her tears and her oil. And, we can trust a God who reveals Himself in resurrected form to women first. We can trust a Savior that left the glories of heaven and bore God's wrath for our sin when He died in our place on the cross. We can trust a God who sealed us with His Spirit and gifted us with spiritual gifts, declaring that we are as valuable to the body as our Christian brothers. We are not second-class citizens. We are the beloved daughters of the King of kings.   

Friday, December 1, 2017

Home for Christmas

The last eleven years I have had the privilege of serving in a support group ministry and have met some amazing and courageous ladies. One year I was leading a large group and there were several young gals who had grown up in extremely dysfunctional and abusive homes. They quickly formed a great friendship, partly because of their ages and partly because they all had difficult stories. They could identify with the pain each had endured, the struggle to find freedom from their pasts, and the hard work they would have to do to find healing and become the women God had created them to be. Diana and Tanna were two of the women that both left their childhood homes early in life. Amazingly they were wise enough to set some strict, healthy boundaries with their families of origin. The boundaries were very needed, but sometimes they felt hard. As Christmas was approaching, Diana remarked to Tanna that she was really missing her family. Tanna sighed and responded wistfully, "Yeah, I miss the family I made up, too!" They looked at each other and they both laughed because of the profound words Tanna had spoken were true. They gave me permission to share this part of their story, because it isn't just true for them, it is true for most of us. 

Holidays can be difficult to navigate. They can be difficult because we have had to separate ourselves from families that were abusive and they tend to surface grief of what was longed for but never fulfilled. It can be because the anxiety that arises with holiday preparations gets coupled with dread of the conflicts that often ignite as our extended families rub shoulders with its history and the dysfunction that arises as we push each other's buttons. It can be because tongues are loosed when alcohol flows and cutting words get said that pierce hearts to the core. It can be because of grief we feel over the loss of loved ones who made holidays special--the child, the soldier, the mom, the dad, the grandparents, or the friend gone too soon. It can be because of grief due to unfulfilled dreams being exposed by being around those whose dreams were fulfilled--dreams of a baby longed for but never had, dreams of a specific job that went to someone else, dreams of a spouse that hasn't materialized or the one who walked out, or the dream house we can't afford due to economy or mounting medical bills. It can be because of illness that can't be healed and pain that makes it hard to be around people we don't want to burden. It can be because of mental illness and the unpredictability of another's actions or even our own depression that is a fog crowding out joy. It can be because of eating disorders that trigger anxiety as holidays are planned around food. It can be because of the fear of giving presents that don't please or because we fear we can't react to a gift the way others need us to. And for some it can be the pressure family puts on us do away with boundaries we put in place to protect our families and ourselves.    

So, how do we navigate the holidays? First, we begin by going into the season with our eyes wide open. There are no perfect families and their will never be a perfect Christmas. We will enjoy Christmas more when we let go of expectations and the made-up families that live in our minds, accepting our families as they are. We can commit to treating others with respect and practicing good self-care by getting plenty of rest, drinking water, eating somewhat healthy, and using our voice to request what we desire and what we need. We can refuse to take every word, action, or attitude personally because those things are about others' hearts not ours. We can take quiet moments alone to breathe, grieve, or regroup as we needed. We can give thanks for the good moments and learn from the bad, knowing that one doesn't cancel the other out. We can make sure we extend grace to others as well as ourselves. We can own our mistakes, apologizing and making amends when needed. We can keep short accounts and forgive quickly. Us overwhelmed introverts can refuse to compare ourselves to extroverts and focus on one person at a time and have meaningful conversations, maybe looking for the one who looks as lost as we feel.   

Second, we can remember we have a Savior who cares and wants us to take our grief, our fear, our hurt, and our dreams to Him. If anyone understands dysfunctional families He does. Just look at the people who were in His family line. Abraham who was commended for his faith lied about Sarah being his wife. Jacob weaved a mighty mess with his wives and concubines and the favoritism he showed one son over eleven others. Naomi--she became so bitter after the loss of her husband that she changed her name to Mara. David, the man after God's own heart messed up his family by abusing Bathsheba and murdering her husband. He ended up with a son who raped his daughter and chose to do nothing about it. Every family in his family line had its sin, its secrets, and its dysfunction. So, I believe He gets ours. This was proved by the way He treated those around Him. He was full of compassion for the woman caught in adultery, who was thrust at his feet without her partner. He was full of compassion for the woman at the well who had been dragged to the center of town five times and declared an unfit wife. He was full of compassion for the ill, the blind, the deaf, and the crippled. He fed both those who were physically hungry and those who were spiritually hungry. He allowed Mary and Martha to vent their grief and stood at the grave of Lazarus and wept with them before He called him out. Jesus cares. Jesus understands.

Third, we can go into the holidays fully confident we have been given a new Heritage through Christ. The pain of our past, the dysfunction of our families, the failure of our Christmases to be perfect don't define us. Jesus, His love and His sacrifice, do. We are called beloved, chosen, blessed, forgiven, children, and friends. As I reflect on Christmases past, I think one of my most pleasant Christmases was when my children were teenagers. They got up early as they always had and then after they opened gifts they all fell asleep as they waited for Christmas dinner to be cooked. After I got the turkey on, I looked around at my sleeping teens and picked up my Bible and read the Christmas story again, feeling overwhelmed by His love and felt a heart connection with Him that gave me such peace. I felt a sense of belonging and realized that because of Jesus I was truly home for Christmas. That sweet moment prepared me for the losses of my parents and my kids leaving the nest who can't always make it home. It also fulfilled one of my deepest longings--to feel at home somewhere--the somewhere just happened to be a Someone and that Someone is Jesus. 

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Are You Giving Life to Faith or Fear?

When I was a child, my family lived in the beautiful town of Williams, Arizona. I have reconnected with several people from there through Facebook. One of those friends is a man named Bill Sutton who was born and raised in Williams. He attended college At Northern Arizona University and became a schoolteacher and local newspaper writer. He then became a judge for 20 years and was awarded the McKeachem Award for being the nation's outstanding non-attorney judge. He is the founder and president of Yes, I Can, Inc. as well as the founder and president of his own company, Wise Choice Alternatives. I have enjoyed reading his Facebook posts, especially his posts called Thought for the Weekend. This weekend's post was called "Peace on Earth." He graciously gave me permission to share it here. I hope you enjoy it and benefit from it as much as I did!

Thought for the Weekend: Peace on Earth
Bill Sutton
       With Jeff being home this week, I'm reminded of a Christmas story of when he was a toddler, and unable to sleep because of a terrible fear. He screamed in the night, and I arose from my bed to see what was the matter. He said that he was seeing a giant bug on the wall of his room. He was pointing to an area directly above the little lighted Christmas tree. I told him that there were no giant bugs, and to go back to sleep. He soon screamed again, and again I had to tell him and show him that there were no giant bugs. The third time he screamed, I was getting mad, and went into his room to tell him to knock it off. Then what to my sleepy eyes should appear? A foot long shadow of a bug; Jeff had much to fear! What was going on was that a tiny box elder bug was climbing on the Christmas tree, and every time it climbed on a light, the shadow of the bug projected on the wall! He was right, in his own little eyes. I felt like the Grinch for getting mad at him.
       Jeff's story is a lesson for all of us. Fear gives big shadows to small things. What you focus on, you give power and life to. Once Jeff saw it was a common box elder bug, we had a prayer time, and soon he was nestled all snug in his bed. He went from fear to faith in minutes.
       What you focus on, you give power and life to. Do you give life to your faith, or life to your fear? Fear won't take away tomorrow's troubles, but it will take away today's peace.
       On the night of Jesus' birth, there were shepherds in the fields, probably looking in wonder at the beautiful star shining through the night. Then an angel appeared and they were terrified. Then the angel said, "Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be for all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord." The angel replaced their fear with great joy and faith, because of the truth. Just like Jeff.
       Everyone has fears, so how do we go from fear to peace? First, when those fears start taking over, ask God for help. Let him show you what is truth and what are lies about your circumstances and about your tomorrows. And maybe most importantly, quit giving life to your fears by talking about them so much. That gives your fears a much bigger shadow that will follow you wherever you go. You may have some big fears and big problems, but always remember you have a bigger God. Ask God to help you trade your fears for faith, and bring peace to your life, starting this Christmas.
"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." ----- Luke 2:14

I love the picture of the bug casting a big shadow in Bill's article and the fear it caused for his young son. In the support groups we run at our church, we often deal with fears. Some of our fears are very real and based on truth. leaving us to have make some hard decisions to stay safe and some of our fears are based on lies that cast big shadows like the one Bill's son saw. Those lies can cause fears that leave us paralyzed and unable to move forward. When we share our fears with the wrong people who can't discern the lies that create the enormous fear we experience, the fear only continues to grow. But if we choose to talk about our fears with wise people who help us discern the difference between the lies we believe and the truth, the shadows grow smaller and we can walk more securely in our faith. The truth is ruminating on lies casts big shadows resulting in paralyzing fears, while ruminating on God's truth puts things into perspective which keeps our fear from overwhelming our faith. 

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Life Isn't Fair!

God has gifted me with wise friends. When my kids were young, I struggled with wanting to make sure I treated my children fairly in every possible situation. One of our wise friends who had kids about the same age as ours, saw my struggle and pointed out that it was a fruitless struggle. He told me that when his kids complained that something wasn't fair, he would simply respond, "You are right, life isn't fair." He went on to explain that he viewed parenting as preparing our kids for real life. I was reminded of that conversation as I have worked through the Bible study, Discovering Hope in the Psalms. This week I am studying Psalm 73, which is Asaph's psalm in which he is trying to reconcile what he knew about God with what he believed he was seeing in the world. 

The first time I remember struggling with thoughts about life not being fair was in the eighth grade. I came into art class and as I was sitting down a fellow student pulled my chair out from under me. I wasn't hurt, but because I was wearing a dress I was pretty embarrassed. The teacher became angry and marched the student to the principal's office. The guy and I were friends and I took it as a joke, not something he had done maliciously. But when he got to the principal's office everything changed. He told the principal he had done it because I had called him a racially derogatory name. The next thing I knew, I was called to the office and lectured about what I had done. I was crushed, because if anyone used racially derogatory name in my presence, I confronted them. Additionally, the principal never once seemed to consider that the student might be lying to get out of trouble. I remember crying out to God as I sat through that lecture feeling confused and unheard, telling him how unfair it was that I was being accused of something I wouldn't do, especially when I had tried to take a stand with people who did what I was being accused of. 

The next time I struggled with the "not fair" thoughts at a deep level was when someone close to me was struggling with infertility. It was at the time that abortion was becoming legal. I remember her telling me all that she had gone through trying to conceive. Within a day or two, I heard about an acquaintance who chose to have an abortion and watched a news story about a baby found in a dumpster. Those thoughts crossed my mind again on a short-term mission trip when a man came up to us and frantically begged us to come pray with his wife. When we got over to her she was slumped over in a drug-induced haze. As we knelt down beside her it became obvious that she was very pregnant. Life was unfair that she was going to be giving birth to a baby who would in all probability be born addicted, and my loved one who would have cared for a baby couldn't conceive. Those thoughts occurred again when I stood at the grave of my friend's six-month old baby, knowing her breasts were still full and her empty arms were aching. 

The next time I struggled with those thoughts was when I was sitting in church one evening and met a couple new to our church. She made it clear that she didn't want to live in Mississippi. My heart ached so much because my husband tried so hard to get a position in that town after He finished his doctorate, but nothing became available and we were having to leave a place we loved and in which we felt at home. I remember going home that night and crying long and hard after the kids went to sleep, resenting the lady and anyone else God brought into that college town.  

I still occasionally struggle with thoughts of "it isn't unfair" when I see sweet friends who live godly lives, longing to be married and know others who are on their second or third marriage complaining about their current spouses. I struggle with those thoughts when I know a man who has been full of integrity in the work place is laid off while a lying backstabber keeps their job. I struggle with those thoughts when I think of friends who would never drive under the influence who were either killed by drunk drives or suffered traumatic brain injuries that forever altered their life. I struggle with those thoughts when seeing the pictures of natural disasters when one house or street of houses is demolished and another one stands. I struggle with those thoughts when a young person is killed by violence, who had plans to be a NICU nurse, a doctor, a teacher, a pastor, an artist, a chemist, or an engineer, knowing sex traffickers, drug dealers, and people full of hate live and impact this world in such negative ways. I struggled with those thoughts when good kids were taken by cancer and brain cysts and others weren't.   

Sometimes good people respond in hurtful ways as we share our pain with them. Jean E. Jones, one of the authors of the Psalms study I am doing shared that after one of her miscarriages, a young man approached her and encouraged her to remember that God probably knew she would be a terrible mom. She confronted the young man and pointed out the errors in his thinking, but many people don't confront. They just suffer, feeling shamed to the core. I have known people struggling with autoimmune diseases who were told if they would deal with unconfessed sin, God would heal them. I was even told that if I dealt with resentment over an accident I was in, I would lose my limp and be able to walk normally again. Resentment, by-the-way, that I didn't experience. Looking at Job and the discussions he had with his friends, I am pretty sure generations of people have had these kinds of experiences, feelings, and thoughts. There is a part of us that wants life to be fair and there is a part of us that really wants God's grace to be a "right" that comes with trying to be good. 

I think it is important for us to deal with the "not fair" thoughts by taking them to the Lord. I learned several years ago it is okay to ask God questions. I also learned sometimes my questions are just statements of protest in disguise when something doesn't seem fair. It is at that point that I can choose to go down the path of pride believing I know what is best for me and everyone I know, which leads to envy, discontentment, anger, and sin. Or, I can choose the path of humility, acknowledging that I am not God, and the view from my human perspective is limited and sometimes tainted by lies I believe or my desire to have more control over painful events my loved ones or I experience. It is important to realize the very events we consider unfair may be the events God uses to expose parts of our hearts that aren't surrendered fully to Him. They may expose ungodly desires for control that is not ours to have. They may expose trauma or losses we never acknowledged or grieved that He desires to heal. They may expose desires that over time we have made into idols we think must be fulfilled to be happy or to prove that God really is good. They may expose lies we believe about God and how His goodness and grace are to be manifested. If we aren't careful, we can become bitter, and bitterness can skew our view of God causing us to withdraw from Him, slander Him, or even rage against Him as many people in our culture are now doing. 

I know, I want to process the "not fair's" I face as Asaph did in Psalm 73 so that in the face of the hard, I know without a doubt that God is good. I want to rest assured that He holds me with His right hand and will guide me with His counsel every step of the way until, in His perfect timing, He receives me to glory. While longing for glory, I want to be content and live in such a way Asaph's words are my words, "My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever...But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge that I may tell of all your works."  

Monday, November 6, 2017

Praying for the Persecuted Church

Sunday was a day Christian churches set aside to pray for the persecuted church. It used to seem like persecution was what happened on the other side of the world. We are all aware of the killings of our Christian brothers and sisters in Asian and Muslim countries. We are aware of the dangers that missionaries face going into tribal areas and eastern bloc countries. Most of us know believers in our own country who were rejected by family members when they became Christians or who were punished or made fun of when they refused to take part in ungodly behaviors. As I was sitting in my 9:00 o'clock service in California, a small Baptist Church in Texas was under attack by an active shooter who killed 26 people and injured over twenty more. This was the third church shooting and to be honest, my heart just hurts. It hurts for the lives lost. It hurts for the families grieving the loss of loved ones so abruptly. It hurts for those who have been forever changed by the trauma they experienced in what should have been a sacred meeting. While we don't yet know the shooter's motives, we can view the hate speech posted beneath the posts of the news clips. Our country has definitely entered a new era and I believe every believer will experience persecution just like those in other countries. 

How we respond to persecution is important. We would do well to remember Jesus’ words in John 18:15-20, "If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you; 'A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.'"  We are often surprised when people express hatred toward us, especially when they can hide behind online posts. The question we must ask ourselves is how do we respond? There are several things we must consider. 

First, we must remember that there is a very real enemy who is doing everything he can to destroy God's people because they have the potential to reflect Jesus to the world. The more believers become like Jesus the more he will attack them. Jesus warned us, and if we believe him we won't be surprised. We can be prepared and ready to stand firm in our faith in the face of persecution. We can also choose to make sure we respond the way Jesus would want us to and that is not with hatred.   

Second, we want to remember some people get angry with us because of the moral values we have and the moral voice we have in this country. This is because the world doesn't want to call certain acts sin. When they are around us, and have conversations with us or discuss politics with us, they may have to face painful truths about decisions they have made and it sometimes is easier to be angry at moral truths and those holding to them than to face up to one's choices that took another's life as in abortion, or come to terms with how they have deeply wounded others through choices they have made through pornography, sexual harassment, sexual abuse, sexual conquests, easy divorce, verbal abuse, etc. Their hatred and anger is often covering deep shame. We want to remember shame is a very painful emotion we all go to great lengths to avoid. That is the root of gossip, critical spirits, judgments, and even self-condemnation. Maybe the more transparently we share our stories and our own struggles with deep shame, and how choosing to deal honestly with it by bringing those shameful things to the Lord, His light sets us free from it. Our church has begun to tell stories and I believe through those honest and transparent stories, people are going to find that they, too, can face the shameful things of their pasts and find forgiveness and freedom from shame that for many drives their hatred of all that stands for God. 

Third, we want to remember that some people are also angry at believers because they are deeply angry at God. Some of them experienced deep pain at the hands of people who claimed to be believers. Some of them were also deeply wounded when others in the church didn't protect or help them. Some were judged harshly by church members when they chose to remove themselves from violent marriages, marriages that were tainted by pornography, or to protect children from sexual predators. They not only feel deserted and misunderstood by the church, they feel abandoned by God. We want to build relationships that allow us to find out the backstory of those who don't trust God and His people and be the ones who will take a hit and hear an accusation in order to gain the opportunity to show them God as He really is.   

Finally, we can pray for the persecuted church as we come to grips that that includes us. The following is my prayer: 

Heavenly Father, I pray the Holy Spirit would strengthen ever believer who is being persecuted, whether it be with words, with rejection, with imprisonment, with physical violence, or with death. Lord, please let every believer facing persecution or the loss of loved ones due to persecution know how much you love them. Help them to be settled to the core that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, not things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate them from Your love. (Ro. 8-38-39) I pray that all believers, persecuted or not, would love fiercely and share fearlessly about Jesus. 

Lord, I pray for those who are persecuting believers through their actions, words, and attitudes. I pray that they would be impacted by the love we have for one another. I pray that they would come to the place that they would become believers like Paul who had been responsible for ravaging the early church. 

Please help every persecuted believer to be resilient and enduring, even if it is unto death. Please, fill the emotional needs of those being rejected and for those being harassed for their faith. Please provide for physical needs of those being fired, disowned, or displaced because of their faith. I pray that each one would glorify God through their witness. Lord, I pray that believers would have access to your Word and that they would find your words a comfort.

Lord, I pray for those being martyred because of their faith. I pray that you would fill each one of them with Your Spirit as you did your servant Stephen, that they, too, would gaze into heaven and see the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And each would say, 'Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.'" 

Lord, we know you have already defeated the enemy at the cross. We know that the time of the Gentiles is going to come to an end. As persecution becomes more rampant, help us stand firm in the faith with our eyes forever fixed on Jesus. I believe even now You are in the process of setting the table for the Wedding Feast of the Lamb and you are coming for your Bride, the church. May we live in hope and in victory, knowing that the Lion of Judah is on the move. 

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Thoughts on the "Me, Too" Campaign

I participated in the "Me, Too" campaign through Facebook. I chose not to share my story there because some in the past did not respect it. Some even blamed me for my perpetrators' actions, for not telling, and for not stopping the abusers in their tracks. The first Christians I told were visibly uncomfortable and sharply admonished me to forgive. Several years ago, God blessed me with godly counselors and empathetic friends, who gave me safe places to tell my story, validating it with their tears, allowing me to explore the impact it had on me, my life, and my relationships. They also helped me see I was protecting my heart in ways that hindered my relationships and ability to love.  

I wasn't going to blog on this, but I have been reviewing a workshop I took on systemic spiritual abuse and came across this quote and changed my mind, "If no one remembers a misdeed or names it publicly, it remains invisible. To the outside observer, its victim is not a victim and its perpetrator is not a perpetrator; both are misperceived because the suffering of the one and the violence of the other goes unseen. A double injustice occurs--the first when the original deed is done and the second when it disappears." (Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory, p.29) Essentially, both continue to live lies. That is why so many are speaking up now. The burden of the secrets and living a lie are exhausting. This has been going on way too long and we can't change what we don't acknowledge. 

From my experience, sexual harassment looks like the teenage boys lining the hallways in school who, looked girls up and down, making lewd sounds and comments as they passed. It was comments about the size of my breasts and being told it was a way of saying how smart and beautiful I was. It looks like a group of guys coming into the PE office when I was alone, talking crudely about their sexual conquests. It looks like a group of teenage boys in the youth room, congregating so they could ogle girls walking in. It looks like a group of college athletes cat-calling and yelling horrible names, leaving me shaking to the core. It looks like the man my grandfather's age where I worked, whose friendly chatter turned to bedroom talk. It looks like the "friendly greetings," with guys eyes resting on my chest. It's a glance behind me to find a man I considered godly staring at my rear. It looks like the medical professional crudely commenting about my breast and refusing to numb me as he sewed me up after childbirth. Just to head off those questions: Yes, I dress modestly. No, I wasn't in the wrong place at the wrong time. No, I wasn't flirting, I tried hard to be invisible. 

I also experienced sporadic sexual abuse starting when I was four. I didn't have words for it, but knew something inside my spirit shifted and I would never the same. As any preschooler would, I tried to figure out what in me caused the abuse. As an adult, I woke up to find a strange man touching me. My husband chased him away and just like before, I blamed myself. But, as preschooler I had no cleavage and as a woman asleep in my own bed, I wasn't asking for anything. 

I both loved and hated being a female. I loved carrying, giving birth and nursing, but I hated that simply by being a woman I could cause "good men" to stumble. I hated feeling forever unsafe in my body. And when harassment happened within the churches I attended and I addressed it, I was told I must have misunderstood, maybe they just had a bad day, or we women should dress more appropriately. It wasn't me, it was patterns of behavior unchecked and men not being accountable to be the men God has called them to be.  

I can't solve an entire culture's moral problem in this little space. However, I can go out on a limb and be a prophetic voice to the church. We forget local bodies aren't Christ's true church. They are organizations that in the language of parables contain tares mixed with the wheat, goats with sheep, wolves dressed in sheep's clothing, and people who are white washed, spiritually dead beings. So, when someone comes forward with stories of past abuse or current allegations, doesn't this mean we should not dismiss them or silence them with platitudes. Doesn't it mean, we should not ask questions or make statements like, "Are you sure you saw what you said you saw?" "He (or she) is such a good person, they couldn't have." "What did you do to cause him to stumble?" "You want to keep this quiet. We can't hurt his good name, destroy his career, or mess up his family." 

I hope every church gets training in how to prevent and respond to both sexual harassment and sexual abuse. There is a temptation to protect the church over the victim and that is wrong. There is a temptation to twist the Scriptures in an false effort to protect God's name. When I volunteered with youth, I heard accounts of harassment, abuse, and pressure put on girls by "good Christian boys" to "put out." Confronting it only resulted in more lectures on women being modest. In our support groups, I hear stories of women who as kids were abused by dad's who attended church or by Sunday School teachers, deacons, and elders. I also hear stories of gals who were abused by youth pastors or other youth workers. Some told and were silenced either within their own family or within their churches. That is spiritual abuse of the worst kind. 

Isn't it time for churches to do some self-reflection? Do men understand God's call on their lives to define what it is to be a man by the Scripture, not by locker room talk, sexual conquests, or how uncomfortable they can make a woman feel when they stand in a pack? It is time for churches to become extremely proactive about protecting the vulnerable and confronting evil when it is presented. Jesus didn't hide the flaws of the religious system of His day. He overturned tables, cracked whips, and cleaned house. Every woman wounded by abuse or harassment longs for a safe church and a safe church isn't a perfect church. It is a church that believes the wounded, protects them, and deals with sin. In today's vernacular, maybe it is time to do some throat punching to protect vulnerable sheep. 

When we refuse to do what Jesus did to protect His flock, we become complicit and have the propensity to become white washed toxic systems filled with spiritual abuse that deeply wounds. Christ didn't protect the system over the sheep, He turned it upside down. The first day the "Me, too" campaign hit Facebook, my friend Katie messaged me and said, "The Lion of Judah is on the move!" I believe she is right. Let's guard our hearts, our minds, and our mouths so God's character is seen in the church. Let's be quick to confess our faults and our tendency towards complicity. I attend a church that provides support and help for those who have been wounded and that is a sacred work of the church. We want to be proactive, letting the Lion of Judah's roar be heard reverberating through the church so God can be seen as He truly is--holy, just, loving, gracious, and good. 

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

From Mess to Masterpiece

This week my church studied Romans 8:28-30, which contains the popular truth that God works all things for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purposes. I had the privilege of writing devotions for the week on this passage. I grew up hearing evangelists claim that problems were solved by coming to Jesus, but I personally didn't find that to be true in my own life. In fact, life got a whole lot more complicated when I did. As I wrote the devotions, I came to the conclusion that God is concerned about the trials people endure. Christ groaned, sighed, wept, and got angry when people were struggling with weaknesses, in bondage to sin, suffering, and being misled or taken advantage of. These verses assure us our suffering doesn't prove God is displeased with us, nor prove God has deserted us in our need. We can trust He has a two-fold plan in our suffering--our good and His glory. By our good, I mean the process of growing in His image. Suffering has a way of exposing hidden sin that needs cleansing, of exposing our deepest heart desires to know Him, and of showing us when our faith is weak or misplaced.

I realized God doesn't author stories of perfect people, He authors redemption stories of imperfect people just like you and me. He is glorified when sinful, dead hearts come alive. when ugly pride melts into humility, and when rebellious spirits give birth to obedient ones. He is glorified when shattered hearts are stitched together by His hands and when broken relationships are restored. He is glorified when doubts are dissipated by faith growing strong, when our weaknesses drive us to our knees so His strength can be manifested in us, and when the strong desire to sin is thwarted by a choice to hang onto Him in our ambivalence until victory is secured. He is glorified when unforgivable things are fully forgiven, when His image in us that is so deeply marred by sin begins to shine through our messiness, and when praise is found on our lips during times of suffering.

The Bible is full of stories of people whose suffering was used by God to both mature and reveal God's glory to them. There was Abraham and Sarah, the infertile couple living in a culture worshiping fertility gods. After years of intense longing and years of living with a dream unfulfilled, they were given a baby in their old age--a baby who allowed them to see God is the God of life, The God who would not share His glory with false idols of stone gave them the baby named "Laughter." Laughter--because their laughter of unbelief was turned into laughter of ecstatic joy!

Then, there was Daniel and his three friends. The first faced a den of lions for his faith and got to see the mouths of hungry lions held shut by God's own hand. The other three were cast into a raging inferno after bravely declaring their faith in the face of great persecution. In their suffering, they got to see God who joined them there, preserving their lives in such a way that when they were taken from the furnace they didn't even smell like smoke. What a beautiful picture of Salvation we were given in their story of hard. God not only worked it for their good, but ours as well. 

There was a man born blind who encountered Jesus, who made mud from dirt and saliva and anointed his eyes, instructing him to washed in the pool of Siloam. He came back seeing, finally free from a sad life of begging. But, instead of rejoicing with him, the religious leaders did all they could to discredit the story he was living. When he should have been rejoicing, he was being harassed. Yet, the more they questioned him, the more he pondered the One responsible for his miracle. He went from understanding Jesus was a good man, to grasping He was a prophet, to fully embracing the truth that He was the Son of God. 

Then there was the woman who met Jesus when she came to a well midday to avoid harsh words, judgmental stares, and clicking tongues that came with the scandalous life she lived. He knew she had been publicly declared an unfit wife five times and that it left her brokenhearted, craving to be loved with a love strong enough to stay. Jesus led her through a spiritual discussion, preparing her heart to receive Him by faith. He gave purpose to her suffering by helping her see that it was Him she truly craved and by using her--a scandalous woman--to bring salvation to the community that despised her. Her passion and her willingness to share Him with those who looked down up on her tells us how completely she trusted Him and that Jesus can use this sinner to bring others to Him.

Then, there is Jesus. His darkest days were filled with persecution, betrayal, desertion, illegal trials, and ambivalence that rocked Him to the core. His suffering included being mocked, beaten, stripped, and suffering the cruelest death one could ever suffer. But it was in His suffering when all looked the most hopeless that Hope was bought. For, as He hung on that cross the Enemy was defeated, the wrath of God was satisfied, and a divine exchange occurred--our sin for His righteousness.  

I could tell you many stories of how God worked things to my good. Like the time He had His faithful servant, Reuben, call me to remind me God was greater than the Enemy, not knowing how badly I needed the reminder. Like the time God used a prayer director to defeat a lifelong stronghold of believing I was invisible to Him, and showing me how intimately He was involved in my healing journey. Even the traumas I experienced in childhood have been redeemed by Him, to deal with pain. They have been used in miraculous ways to bring God's truth and love into the lives of hurting women in ways that leave me humbled by His work. 

Finally, verse 30 contains past tense verbs that drive home the truth that God works all things for good. "And those who He predestined He also called, and those whom He called He also justified, and those whom He justified, He also glorified."  I love the past tense verbs! All the messy we see from this side of heaven is seen so differently by God. He is proclaiming to us that He doesn't just see the messes we are now, He sees us as we will be when He glorifies us. The mess we see from here is Him weaving the clothes of glory that we will wear at the Marriage feast of the Lamb. 

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Power of a Decision

I recently attended a workshop on marriage taught by Ted Cunningham. He stated that there is power in making a decision. He was talking about unmarried couples who come into his office for counseling. He said they often tell him they never made a specific decision to live together. They just slid into it. They went on a few dates, then began to go back to one of their apartments after their dates. Before long, they began to have sex and for convenience sake, they began to spend the night occasionally. Then, they started bringing over a few things at a time. It happened more and more often until one had completely moved in. Next they bought a dog or had a baby and were in a relationship with joint ownership of a child or a pet with no commitment. These couples then come to see Ted when one feels convicted and wants to marry and one doesn't. He often asks them if they had purposefully made decisions along the way if they think they would still be together. Many of them say, "no."

As I was listening to him talk about the power of a decision, I realized how many areas of life we tend to slide through. When we do that we end up in situations that violate our consciences, which result in our sinning against God, which result in our doing things that are detrimental to our health,  or destroy our  relationships.

The first time I became aware of this concept was when one of our kids was hanging out with some friends whose parents' rules were stricter than ours. We had tried to convey to him to respect all parents' rules. One night I gave my son permission to go with his friends somewhere, not knowing the other parents told their kids, "no." They went, but when the kids dropped off our son, their parents were waiting in their car outside of our house. The next day I could tell our son was struggling and took him to lunch to ask about the night before. He said they went where they had permission to go and ended up through a series of little choices doing things the boys didn't have permission to do. He said they didn't overtly make the decision to disobey, that one thing led to another. He said he had felt convicted at one point and knew they shouldn't be there. He didn't encourage the boys to disobey, but did not say, "no" either. He apologized to the parents, but sadly, they believed our son betrayed their trust and didn't let him hang out with their kids anymore. All of them were great kids and usually responsible and respectful as a group. They just slid, not realizing they needed to be making decisions to do good and right on a daily, hourly, and moment by moment basis.

In my own life I identify "the sliding" in all sorts of areas. My husband and I can slide into laziness in our marriage. We can fail to be proactive about loving each other well and fail to nurture our marriage. We never decide to not express love, nor do we make a conscience decision to neglect our marriage; we just slide into patterns during busy seasons and don't regroup. When we do that we hurt each other and fail to love the way God wants us to love. We don't intentionally decide to neglect our marriage, we just skip doing those little things and big things that strengthen our marriage and make it one that reflects Christ's love for His church. We have to decide daily to be proactive, not just slide along. We must choose to love well, to pray for one another, to be fully committed to each other, to guard our hearts and our minds, and to seek counseling when we get stuck. Even more importantly, in the process of conflict resolution, we must continuously decide to not fight each other, but to passionately fight for our marriage.

I have also seen the sliding pattern in my struggle with a long term eating disorder. I never made the decision to have an eating disorder, it started in high school with a fad diet when I wanted to lose a few pounds. Then after a traumatic event, it slid slowly into unhealthy compulsions to over-exercise and not heed my body's signals of hunger. It grew worse as I found I could avoid emotional pain by focusing on the numbers on the scale or the numbers on a dress label. It continued for some time because I felt powerful and a false sense of being spiritual as I didn't "need" food and had such great self-control. Then periods of dieting followed by periods of binge eating, both of which became a way of coping were so automatic, that if I was making decisions, they were at a subconscious level. When I entered counseling, I had to work hard to relearn to make those daily, hourly, and even moment-by-moment choices to feel, to choose health over starving, compulsive eating, and exercise. I had to consciously acknowledge God by eating what He provided. I still choose to decide to guard my heart by not reading about diets and weight management and refuse to look at magazines with airbrushed photo's that trigger my unhealthy thinking. I decide to process feelings that trigger the desire to starve or binge. I decide to proactively take every thought captive to Christ's truth or this hot mess will be sliding back into self-contemptuous thoughts and self destructive behaviors.

It is also easy for us all to slide in our commitment to the church. Some slide into the habit of not attending church regularly. It begins with one Sunday and then it becomes a couple of weeks in a row and then before we know it, we haven't been in months. Then pride sometimes makes it difficult for us to go back. Some slide into the habit of not using their gifts to serve the body. It could be a busy season in life or just that they took a needed break and just never made the decision to plug back in. Some slide into holding grudges by not working quickly through conflicts that happen when believers rub shoulders. Maybe someone got angry and wanted to process it before they dealt with it and before they knew it, so much time passed, it seemed inappropriate to resolve it. Sometimes churches let overt sin slide, causing many to get wounded. Some slide into disconnected states in which they do not care for or receive care from others in the body. It can start with business. We may even think about calling someone and just let it slide. We may be disconnected because we are going through difficult times emotionally and just let it slide instead of resolving pain that keeps us from wanting to attend church.

I had five children in eight years and I look back and realize we often slid into business. In retrospect, had we not slid through much of life, we could have made conscious decisions that would have been better for my kids, us as a couple, and helped us to really use the gifts God gave us, rather than living a frantic pace to which God never called us. We slid into business to the point we didn't see and attend to some of the needs our growing family had. As a Christian woman, that business kept me from things I needed to be a healthy mom--things like building relationships with other moms who loved the Lord and desired to grow as believers, as wives, as moms, and as daughters trying to navigate complicated extended family relationships.

We can all slip into sinful patterns. Seldom do we choose to become addicted to porn, alcohol, and drugs. Seldom do we wake up first thing in the morning and plan to destroy another's heart with gossip. Seldom do we wake up and plan to destroy our family through adultery, through drug addictions, or through illegal activity. The list could go on and on.

I had a friend who was encouraging me to make a needed change and I was being very indecisive about it. The friend gently pointed out that no decision was in itself a decision and that there was more power in making an actual decision. I thought about it and realized they were right. Living with lots of indecision was a way that I could avoid taking responsibility for my choices. The avoidance came out of fear--fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of hurting others, the fear of disappointing someone, and the fear of God being unhappy with me. I have since learned a lot about living in grace and truth and am realizing that I can live life honoring God when I choose to make daily, hourly, and moment by moment decisions to honor Him. When I put on the armor of God daily and ask God to mold me and to live through me and trust Him to do so. When I make and own my choices, I know I sin less, manage the eating disorder better, have more joy, and give more attention to my relationships. My relationships are more godly when I consciously make decisions daily to honor Jesus, to live out of self respect, and love others well. Finally, powerlessness--that emotion that can so easily trip me up is minimized when I am proactively making decisions to honor God.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Cities of Refuge

Several years ago, my youngest son came home from school, asking if I would take him to see one of his friends. I didn't know the friend, so I asked him why he needed to go see him. I expected him to tell me they had a group project. But, he told me the boy's mom had come to pick her son up from school and had let him drive home. On the way home, an elderly woman who was walking her dog stepped off the curb when her dog dashed into the street. The student had the sun blaring in his eyes and didn't see her until it was too late. The lady passed away and the student had not returned to school and our son wanted to see if he was okay. I took him over to see his friend and as I dropped him off, I warned him that his friend was not going to be okay and that there would not be anything he could do or say to make him feel better. I encouraged him to just sit with his friend. 

I am sure my son thought I was being a "Debbie-Downer," but, I wasn't. When I was a sophomore in high school, I was sitting in the front seat of a car going down a country road late at night and saw lights to the side of the road. As I turned my attention back to the road I suddenly saw a woman laying in the road in the headlights. I couldn't respond in time to prevent the driver from running over her. There were different stories about how she had ended up in the road and I do realize that even if I could have screamed the driver would not have been able to stop in time. I worked through some of the trauma of that night in counseling and thought it was way behind me. 

Then, recently, one of my dearest friends asked me where God was in all the suffering of the hurricanes. Even though we were close in high school and I had anorexia, she had no idea of the amount of trauma, shame, and sorrow that I lived with when we were teenagers. So, I shared with her some of the hard things I had been through and how I believed God used those things to prepare me for the ministry I direct. I was trying to convey to her that, through the healing process, I had experienced great intimacy with God that I would never have experienced without having experienced trauma.

Within a week, a mutual friend posted an article written by Alice Gregory titled The Sorrow and the Shame of the Accidental Killer. In it, Gregory tells the story of Maryann Gray who was in an vehicular accident in which she hit a child, causing the death of the child. She described eloquently the feelings Gray experienced, the vows she made in the aftermath, and how she managed to live with the sorrow and the shame she experienced over the years. It remained pretty much a secret from most people until there was an accident in which an 86-year-old man plowed into several people, killing them. Many people she knew were angry at the man and she, believing it to be accidental, spoke up, sharing her own story and the compassion she felt for him. Out of her telling her story, others who had similar experiences began to tell theirs as well. 

I could relate to the shame she described and the vows she made. I remember sitting right behind the family of the deceased lady from the accident I had been in, during baccalaureate service as her son was graduating with my brother. I felt deep shame and wanted to hide. I hated witnessing the pain their family faced during graduation, having just lost their mom. I felt deep sorrow and suffered from flashbacks and nightmares for years. And, I still experience PTSD when I am riding in cars. Some of the people who were in accidents were treated with compassion and mercy in the aftermath, but our family didn't talk about things. So, it was no surprise that even my closest friends from that time didn't know I was in the car that night. 

Maryann, who is a secular Jew, shared with the author something she had come across in the Old Testament--Cities of Refuge. God had instructed Moses to set up six different cities that were to be cities of refuge for people who killed a person accidentally. When they entered the city, a tribunal would meet with them and determine whether he or she was eligible for sanctuary. Those who committed premeditated murder were turned away and those who truly had killed accidentally were allowed to stay and were protected from those who might want to avenge the death of a loved one.

When Maryann first learned of the concept she was overcome with gratitude and said, "The Torah was talking about me!" She became obsessed with the concept and researched it extensively. As she talked to Rabbis, she learned the purpose of the cities was also to allow individuals to share some of their pain with a community. Even the tribunal offered a place to tell their story. Maryann said she realized she could have moved, lived, and worked without so much shame in a welcoming refuge community who knew about her story and her pain. She said, "If I had been exiled to a city of refuge, I might not have needed exile from myself." She had longed "to live in the world with acceptance and with opportunity, but also with the acknowledgment that in running over this child something terrible happened and it deserves attention." 

When I read the article. and processed the concept of the cities of refuge I, too, was overwhelmed with gratitude for the sweetness of God who made provision for people who carried the great sorrow and shame of accidental killings. I realized how differently I might have navigated life had there been a safe haven, a place of support in the aftermath of our accident. Shame has a way of silencing us and isolating us from others. It also has a way of separating us from parts of ourselves that have to keep shameful secrets until God Himself brings them to light and provides safe people who are willing to hear the stories and sit in the sorrow with us. What I experienced so long ago did give me a compassion that runs deep and rises strong when I hear or read about others who were involved accidents of all kinds, resulting in killings--motor-vehicle accidents, falls, firearm mishaps, and accidental poisonings. I also feel strong feelings of compassion for those who like me, were not directly responsible, but were left wondering if there was something they could have done to prevent or stop an accidental death. I hope someday churches can offer safe havens for those struggling with this type of shame and pain so that shame and pain doesn't keep them separated physically or emotionally from others. Many churches do offer safe places for people to process trauma and grieve losses, and maybe some of those places are in the process of becoming “Cities of Refuge” to those who have accidently harmed another.    

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

No Longer Living Condemned

Our church is doing something new and different. We are studying the 8th chapter of Romans for eight weeks and I love it! When I was a young wife and a mom and had a house full of preschoolers, we were living in the south. We attended a little Southern Baptist church with a pastor who taught verse by verse through different books of the Bible. He would stay in a book as long as it took to get through that book thoroughly. He loved to teach the Word and welcomed any and all questions. This study has been bringing up a lot of memories because Romans was one of Nap's favorite books.  

If anyone had asked me when we moved to Mississippi if I was a believer I would have said yes without hesitation. But, in reality I lived in a great amount of fear. It began to surface right before we moved there when the church we attended started teaching out of the book of Revelation. At night I tossed and turned and had trouble going to sleep. And when I did fall asleep, I would often wake up crying from horrible nightmares. Not long after we had settled into our new church in the south, the pastor decided to teach out of Revelation. I quickly told him about my fears and said to him I just hoped I would be ready when Jesus came back. He looked puzzled and said something to me that day that I meditated on for years. He said, "Jesus paid the price for your sin. What more is there for you to do to be ready?" I didn't have an answer for him that day and we stayed at that church so I could face my fears of Revelation after agreeing to read and discuss Mark Cambron's book, "Come, Lord Jesus!" 

Later on, the pastor taught through the book of Romans. When he got to Romans 8:1, my heart did about 10 flip-flops and I wanted to stand up and shout. I began to understand that morning that because of what Jesus did on the cross, there was now no condemnation for me. My view of God radically began to change as I let that truth sink in. I no longer saw God as a distant far off deity sitting up in heaven, just waiting to condemn me when I made a mistake. I began to see Him as a ever-present Father, intimately involved in every part of my life. I became settled and assured of my Salvation during that time. 

Though I sat under that great teaching for 7 years, it took me many more years to realize how much I still lived under condemning thoughts. I faced them on a daily basis. Every time I made a mistake, big or small, I believed I deserved the worst punishment possible. Every mistake resulted in my thinking negative self-condemning thoughts--thoughts like, "Lord, how can you love me with all the wrong I do? How can you love me when I hurt people with my words? How can you love me when I am such a bad person, (wife, daughter, sister, mother or friend)? How can you love me when I am so angry? How can you love me when I am so needy? How can you love me when I can't love others like you do? How can you love me when I can't fix broken relationships? How can you love me when I am so imperfect? How can you love me?" And sadly, some of the condemning thoughts were not even for things I had done, but for things others had done to me. “How can you love me when I feel so dirty?”  

I know the Enemy originally planted those negative thoughts in my mind. But I had rehearsed them over and over until they became a part of my everyday thinking. And those thoughts--they stirred up negative feelings and caused a self-hatred that ran deep to the core.

I knew I was supposed to do spiritual warfare, but the thoughts were so pervasive they had become a stronghold in my thinking. I was so ashamed of the thoughts I kept them a secret. Even when I tried to take them captive, I couldn’t think of positive thoughts with which to replace the negative ones. The true things God said about me in His Word felt like lies, which meant the negative thoughts were too much to battle alone.

Those thoughts were there a long time. I even remember telling the pastor in Mississippi I was the worst sinner ever. He chuckled as he opened his Bible and showed me the verse in which Paul claimed that title as his. He tried to normalize sin and grace for me, but I needed to wrestle with those concepts for a while to make them my own. Over the years, I grasped the truth that there is no temptation that is not common to man. That means that sin itself levels the playing field for all of us. And through the book of Romans I learned that we all fall short and all need a savior. That includes those who are good, those who are bad, and those who are legalistic perfectionists. I came to believe it is okay to hate sin, but not the sinner, even when that sinner is me. 

One night during one of our high school discipleship groups a girl shared that she was struggling with believing and feeling her sin was forgiven when she confessed it. I prayed for wisdom before I answered, because I knew this had always been a stronghold for me and I was speaking to myself as much as to her. 

We looked at verses together. The first was Romans 8:1. "There is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus." We agreed because of the blood of Christ that there is no condemnation for those who believe in Him. We agreed that all sin was covered--past, present, and future and that if God didn't condemn us, we should not be condemning ourselves either. We agreed that our condemning thoughts had their source in the Enemy and discussed how different the conviction of the Holy Spirit felt than the condemnation of the Enemy. 

We also turned to 1 John 1:9 and reiterated that truth, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." We realized that it was God's job to cleanse us and that our self-condemnation had not been very fruitful. We also agreed when we are condemning ourselves, we are listening to the evil one, not believing God, and we don't trust God to be true to His Word. Lastly, I shared that from my own life I had learned that condemnation always kept me stuck and miserable. It was never a successful motivation for spiritual growth and change. I shared with the girls that God's goodness combined with godly sorrow over sin leads me to change, not hating and berating myself. We decided that night if Christ came and died in our place for sin and His death satisfied the Father, there was nothing more that we could add to it. Christ paid it all. It is amazing how confession of sin tends to humble us, but condemning ourselves reveals a sick pride that drives us to live with focus on self rather than a focus on Christ. 

I can't help but wonder how different the lives of other perfectionists would be if they grasped God's truth and were no longer living condemned by their perfectionism, but instead, were resting peacefully in His grace. 

Monday, September 4, 2017

The Death of Marriage

The marriage relationship is an interesting, but complicated relationship. It can be a source of both great joy and deep pain. My husband and I met in college, quickly fell in love, got engaged, and got married within eight months. The extent of our premarital counseling was a pastor telling me he knew we loved each other, but he didn't think I had a realistic picture of marriage. Because I was a compliant person, I nodded, smiled in agreement, but thought "We will always love each other!" 

After we got married and graduated from college, my husband went on to get two more degrees. During my third pregnancy, I woke up with a man in our bedroom touching me. My husband woke up and chased him out of the house. But that intruder kept on intruding through flashbacks. I developed PTSD and couldn't sleep. When I did sleep, I woke up screaming. When I was touched unexpectedly, I screamed blood curdling screams that scared all of us. We didn't realize the abuse I had experienced earlier in life and a car accident in which there was a death had set me up for what I was experiencing with this new trauma. 

I didn't know the man I had married had been raised by a mother who suffered with mental illness and had at some point vowed that he wouldn’t marry "crazy." And screaming at a man who was no longer there, and screaming at little children who looked to me for safety looked “crazy” to him. What I needed most in that scary irrational time was to be taken in his arms and hugged and comforted, but I was met with his tendency to withdraw and anger—an anger that covered his big fear that I might end up just like her. He needed reassurance that I was okay and would not end up in a mental hospital like his mom, but neither of us could give the other what was needed. During that time, we both grieved the loss of the marriage we thought we would always have.

Recently, our pastors preached a sermon series on marriage. During one of the sermons I was triggered and I felt volcano type anger rising. Everything the pastor said, I agreed with. He and I have even talked about collaborating on a marriage book. Yet, I was seething inside. I realized later that the anger came from remembering a time I had gone through a conflict at church and had been encouraged by leaders not to use my voice. Being told to take personal responsibility instead of blaming in marriage felt like that time to me. It was also triggering because it resurfaced the frustration I felt early in marriage of wanting to have a marriage that reflected Christ and in our brokenness feeling stuck and unable to get there. We were stuck because we had many misconceptions about the role of submission and leadership, and I felt I lost my voice and ceased to be the person God created me to be to be a “good wife.” 

It also came from the baggage we both brought to our marriage—baggage that we were afraid and/or unwilling to unpack. The sermon was on personal responsibility and I had tried so hard to take responsibility in our marriage, but that in and of itself didn't take away the pain we both experienced and didn’t fix the dysfunctions with which we were struggling. That took a lot of time in Christian therapists’ offices after which we began to move forward slowly--so slowly. I began to find out who Christ created me to be and to heal from the wounds with which I had come to our marriage. Dysfunction is still something with which we struggle because those patterns were deeply entrenched. Yet, we just celebrated our 43rd anniversary--43 years of really, really good and 43 years of really, really hard. Forty-three years I wouldn't change for the world.

As I listened to the sermon, I prayed about the anger I was feeling and a picture popped into my head. It was a picture of an old wooden coffin. On the front of the coffin was a sign with the word Marriage calligraphed on it. The lid was on the coffin and there were some large railroad nails already pounded into it and there were other nails laying on top with a hammer, just waiting to be hammered in. I could see words etched into nails and I realized those were the things killing our marriages.

One nail had the words "marriage redefined" on it. When God designed marriage, it was to reflect His covenant with His people and that covenant was born of love and demonstrated through the sacrifice of Jesus. Marriage is to be a covenant relationship in which agape love drives each to give fully and sacrificially, sealing the covenant with a sexual union. Our culture has redefined marriage into a contract relationship. The difference is that a contract says, “You give me what I want, when I want it and I will love you” and vise versa. This creates a strong fear of the possibility of abandonment and a flurry of activity driven by fear, which gets expressed in anger, frustration, control, depression, and withdrawing. The contract kills trust, transparency, and grace and has contributed to serial monogamy that has become rampant in our culture and churches.  

What many don't understand is that God designed marriage not just to reflect His covenant, but to also provide a proving ground for sanctification. It is the place where sin can’t go undetected, for even dark, sinful secrets have symptoms. It is the place where selfishness, self-absorption, pride, uncontrolled anger, defense mechanisms, and self-protective actions get exposed. As we work through issues and confront one another those these things usually get resolved and changed over time. If we divorce, those things remain and can become the nails in the next marriage as well. Sometimes those things nail shut the coffin on not just one marriage, but two, three, four, five, or more. 

Another nail that goes along with this is a lack of commitment. Both our families had several divorces and we soon realized we had to take the "D" word out of our vocabulary because it was an extreme trigger for both of us. When people live under that threat, there is no safety in the relationship and people become fearful of being real, of asking each other for prayer, and of confessing their faults to one another. It makes them feel like they have to be perfect and they aren’t so they either were a mask to cover imperfections or they just give up and withdraw, refusing to change. 

There were several other nails clumped together. Those nails were premarital sex, extramarital sex, pornography, perverted sex, sex for hire, and masturbation. Sex was designed by God to seal the covenant of marriage. He designed it in such a way that chemicals are released in the body during orgasm that help a couple bond emotionally to one another. Every time a couple has sex, they are renewing their vows and creating a stronger bond. When those nails get hammered into a marriage, it destroys that process. Sex outside of marriage causes guilt and shame, which kills love. When people have multiple partners, use porn, or masturbation they move away each other and from loving and serving each other to self-serving gratification, killing the physiological process of bonding.  

There were other nails on that coffin--nails that included domestic violence, overt control, power-over relationships, toxic shame, contempt, addictions, untreated mental illness, physical illnesses, impatience, and ungodly speech. Many of which come out of unresolved pain and anger, sin-filled hearts, and a misunderstanding of God's design for marriage. For sake of space, I will only address words. Only 7 percent of communications is conveyed through words. The rest is through facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. We can wound each other through all of those avenues. We have all heard the expression, "If looks could kill, I would be dead!" Who wants to move toward someone who gives dirty looks and eye rolls? Those looks on a repeated basis are unnerving. They break trust, hammering away at the heart of the other. And when one balls a fist and hits the other hand while speaking, or stands over them as they verbally assault them or call them horrible names, or come up behind them and whispers threats in the ear only they can hear—it strikes fear in the heart, breaks trust, destroys bonds, and kills the soul. And the words themselves they can be hateful and biting, literally tearing a heart to shreds. When is isolated and only hears that they are ugly, stupid, ignorant, too much, not good enough, crazy, and they will begin to believe it.  

We may not realize the absence of words can also kill a marriage. That takes place when someone arrogantly refuses to say anything kind, loving, and gracious, exhibiting anger through passive aggression. We are told that we are to encourage each other and build each other up. We have been instructed to love one another. Husbands have been instructed to treat wives with honor and wives to treat their husbands with respect. Overtime the lack of honoring, respect, and love can starves a marriage to death. This is because it starves hearts of the love they were designed to give and receive. Some of the word nails might seem insignificant, but we can destroy marriage one word at a time. 

We are created with a great big God-shaped hole in our hearts and we often come to marriage, trying to get the other to fill the hole only God can fill. But as the body of Christ, could it not be that God may use a spouse to fill a part of that hole? And if that is so, why would we not want to bless the person God has called us to love. We are instructed to have covenant marriages and instructed on how to love inside that covenant, why would we refuse to love well and refuse to deal with the sin in our lives? When we refuse to do so, do we not perpetrate the worst kind of abuse--spiritual abuse? I know I don't want to abuse the covenant God designed and I don’t want to take advantage of God's grace by making my spouse feel unloved and stuck in a miserable marriage. I want to do my best to love well.

I do know there are marriages in which spouses are committed to stay true to the covenant of marriage and they are married to a person not willing or able to take their responsibility seriously. The committed spouse will live in a state of grief because they desire the marriage to reflect God's glory and they know it doesn’t. There are some that are grieving because they know or sense their marriage bed is defiled by others or by pornographic images burned in the mind of a spouse. They will have to battle lies the enemy speaks over their pain either through their own mind or through others who don’t understand the nature of porn and sex addiction and tell them they just need to try harder so their spouse will behave. Please don't just try to suck it up. Get help. You don’t have to suffer in silence or wear a mask that belies pain you feel. God wants each one of us to fight for marriage! I long for churches to get educated about these things and then get involved by confronting the porn epidemic along with a lack of people committed to working on themselves and their marriages.  

I have found a lot of marriage books through the years that helped me hold on to hope in our rough patches. Bill and Pam Farrell have several that are fun to read—Men are like Waffles, Women are like Spaghetti and Marriage Whirlwind for starters. Other authors that write on a more serious note Ed Wheat—Love Life for Every Married Couple, Timothy Keller—The Meaning of Marriage, and Christopher and Rachel McClusky—When Two become One. Gary Thomas' book, Sacred Marriage

We want to be humble and learn to love well and to relate to each other in ways that create safety so we can grow. God never intended us to just survive marriage, He wants us to flourish in both the good and the hard so we become all He created us to be and enjoy true intimacy. I am a better person for having married my husband. I came to our marriage, making it all about me and God has used our rough spots to build my faith in Him, to expose my sin and selfishness, and to expose the wounds I needed to have healed. He showed me my own tendency to wound another and that was not easy. I will continue working on that until the day I die. 

Marriage isn't a short-term commitment or a curse to be endured. It is a beautiful covenant designed by an infinitely wise God who desires to fulfill His glory in His people to show the world what His love is like--committed, sacrificial, constant, edifying, and, yes, at times even confrontational. Marriage done His way satisfies the human heart’s desire.

As I drove home the day I saw the picture of the coffin in my head, I realized the source of those nails was the Enemy who wants to destroy God's image in us and in our marriages. It occurred to me we have to decide daily to refuse to hammer those nails in. Instead of fighting each other, we can choose to fight the one seeking to destroy us. Instead of hammering those nails in the coffin, why don't we put on humility and begin to take out the nails we already hammered. God can resurrect our marriages to be all He wants them to be. We don’t have to change partners to change our marriage when we choose to act out of who God says we are and choose to love and honor as Jesus does.


Several years ago I realized that I often sped through my Scripture reading and gave it little thought. Yet, when I had meaningful conversations with friends or family members I replayed them over and over in my head. One day it occurred to me, that if I thought more about what God says in his word that I would not only know more about Him, but I would come to know Him in a personal way. I would know more about His thoughts, His character, His intentions, His passions, and His actions. So, I began to take one verse at a time and think on it and then journal about it. At the time I was served as a volunteer in youth ministry and shared my “Thoughts on God” with those girls. For a while I have been rewriting and posting them on this blog. I have realized when I am in the Word or move through my day focusing on God's presence that I have wonderful opportunities to Meet God in the Everyday. The Everyday can include storms, blessings, hard things, scary things, exciting things...just any where, anyplace, any time. I hope that you will be able to engage with what I write with both your head and your heart. I also hope you will be challenged to love, trust, and know the God of the Scriptures. It is my prayer that as you read you will experience Him at a deeper level and share pieces of your journey in the comments. It is my desire that we form a safe community of believers who pursue the God who loves us radically, eternally, and without reserve. As a precious pastor once told me, "Don't forget, Wendy, God is Good!" I find myself compelled by His Goodness and His Love to share so others can know Him through all the ups and downs of life. Please feel free to dialogue back and to share how each passage impacts you. If if there is a passage you would like me to write on or if you would like to be a guest blogger, please let me know. I am just learning to navigate this blog and appreciate the kind comments you have made in the past...I promise I will even try to respond if you leave a note. If you are blessed please share the blog with friends!