Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Beauty of the Semicolon

Recently I wrote about the importance of the ampersand to me. Well, there is grammar symbol that is quite popular right now. This symbol is tiny, but the meaning behind the semicolon is huge. A semicolon is used in writing when an author could end a sentence, but chooses to keep going instead. It is a way of keeping one's thoughts informally separate, but connected. Project Semicolon began in 2013 when Amy Bleuel wanted to honor the father she lost to suicide. Even though she, herself, struggled with depression, she saw the semicolon as a symbol of hope. Soon others began using the semicolon symbol in recovery because they were fighting a battle with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicidal thoughts and their will to continue on. The semicolon symbolized their belief that this is not the end, but a new beginning. Even faith-based organizations are beginning to refer to the semicolon as a way of telling others, "My story (Your story) isn't over!"

As a survivor I battled hard with depression, negative thoughts, and an unrelenting eating disorder that manifested in every possible way. I remember so many times feeling hopeless and wishing life would end to end the struggle, yet, choosing to hang on by a thread. And in choosing to hang on by a thread, I always found God was faithful to show me there was meaning in life after the hopelessness I experienced. And my story, His story in me, continued. 

As I've contemplated the whole movement of the semicolon I've realized the Scriptures are full of semicolons--you know those moments where those living the stories felt hopeless but God intervened with a God semicolon, providing hope, showing that the story continued. 

I don't know about you, but when I read about Eve with Adam by her side, talking with the Serpent, my chest tightens and everything in me wants to scream, "Stop! Don't listen to the Deceiver! Adam, stop her!" But she bit, and for a few moments I feel so hopeless. It could have been the end of the story, but God sought them out and sacrificed animals to clothe them, promising to send His Son to save them. And the Story continued.

In Genesis we read the story of Noah. The earth was full of sin and every thought of man was evil to the core. It was the end of the end, but God called on Noah to build and ark because He was going to judge the earth. Noah obeyed and through his actions He preached. Then the sky darkened, God shut the door, and the boat rocked as the floods came, destroying all life outside the ark. Eventually the lands dried and God gave Noah and his family a rainbow, a visual semicolon in the sky, to remind them of His mercy and grace and to remind us He saves His own through judgment. And the Story continued.

Oh, and there was Joseph, who was favored by his father, but despised by his brothers who sold him into slavery. He wound up in Egypt and chose to live a life full of integrity, only to be falsely accused and imprisoned. I am sure he felt like he reached the period in his life story several times; but each time God preserved his life and gave him dreams Joseph alone could interpret, and as a result he was able to preserve the life of the Egyptians through a long drought. Then one day it became obvious that the period he thought had ended his old life, when his brothers sold him, was really another semicolon in God's story. God used what his brothers meant for evil to preserve the life of Joseph and the nation of Israel. And the Story continued.    

There was Naomi who lost her husband and both of her sons while living in a foreign land during a drought. She grieved long and hard and the grief turned into depression and bitterness. She returned to her homeland for the end of her story; but God gives her a semicolon in the form of faithful daughter-in-law who was accepted by a kinsman redeemer and provided Naomi with heirs to love and a grandchild to be in the lineage of the Savior. And the Story continued. 

There was Elijah who God called to confront Ahab and the prophets of Baal who were stealing the hearts of His people. Elijah challenged them to a spiritual duel. The 450 prophets of Baal set their altar and called on their god to ignite the altar. They cried out from morning until noon and their god didn't answer. So, they continued to cry aloud and frantically cut themselves with swords and lances to prove their devotion, and he didn't answer. To the people who were following Baal and to the people who were torn between Jehovah and Baal it had to have been a moment they thought their story was ending; but God revealed Himself as Elijah called the people to himself. He built an altar in the name of the Lord with twelve stones and surrounded it with a deep trench. He put wood on the altar and cut the bull in pieces and laid it on the altar. Next he had them pour 12 jars of water over the offering, saturating the offering and wood and filling the trench with water. Elijah called upon the Lord so the people would recognize Him and turn their hearts back to Him and the fire of the Lord consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, the dust, and the water. God showed Himself to be the true God of Israel. And the story continued.

There are other semicolon stories we could consider. There is the story of King David who had several moments he thought his life would end at the hand of Saul. He thought his kingship could end in moral failure when he abused his power, both taking another man's wife and murdering him in the aftermath. Emotional hurts like the death of his son and the problems between his children could have eaten the hope out of any parents’ heart, but God intervened, calling him the man after God's own heart. We could look at the story of Esther, Daniel and friends, and other prophets sent to Israel to warn them of sin and judgement. But instead, I want to move to the most significant semicolon in history, Jesus. 

Jesus came on the scene after a long period of silence in which God provided no prophets. I can't help but wonder if some feared God was done with them and viewed the long silence as a period to God's dealing with Israel. Then, God gave them what at first seemed like an unassuming semicolon in the form of a babe born in a manger. He grew. He taught. He called disciples. He confronted hypocritical, spiritually dead religious leaders. He cast out demons. He calmed angry seas. He healed the sick. He gave hope until He was taken captive, illegally tried, stripped, beaten, mocked, crowned with thorns, spit upon, and hung upon a cross for all the world to see. The world grew dark as our sin was laid on Him. And He died, but God! God, finding His sacrificial death a satisfactory payment for our sin raised Him from the grave, giving us all the living hope of the semicolon. 

The living hope of the semicolon means there is no sin too big or too dirty His blood can't cover it. Redemption means there is still a sense of purpose and meaning after moral failure. There is still life to be lived with joy after harsh painful losses. There is hope after each and every relapse. There is meaning for life lived with the anguish of mental illness. There is hope after broken relationships through reconciliation or with the invitation to repentance and restoration. And even in a life racked with a terminal illness there is hope, because for the believer death is the semicolon and the rest of the story is lived in glory--glory where there will be no more pain, no more sin, and no more tears. The beauty of the semicolon is that it places us face to face with Jesus who is the author of the redemption stories we live. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

There is Grace in the Thorns

Thorns are rigid, hard extensions of leaves, roots, or buds with sharp stiff ends that offer a plant protection from herbivores. They are not pretty and they do not seem to have much use, except that they burn hot. Yet, God chose to write thorns into His redemption story. Thorns first appear in the Scriptures in Genesis 3 when God cursed the ground with them after Adam and Eve sinned. The thorns marred God's perfect creation, making it more difficult for man to grow and gather his food. From that time on, every field overgrown with thorns and thistles, every thorn covered bush we encounter on a hike, and every painful prick we receive when we trim our roses reminds us of both the pain we endure and the pain we cause through sin. 

After Genesis, thorns were mentioned several times. They became an intricate part of the revelation of God's grace, starting with Moses. Jesus described the burning bush from which God spoke to Moses as a burning thorn bush in Luke 20:37. In his article, The Splendor of Thorns, Jud Davis says, "The One who appeared in the Garden and pronounced the curse of thorns now reappears in the midst of the thorns, promising deliverance." 

God later instructed Israel to build the tabernacle out of Acacia wood, which is a small bushy tree covered with long thorns. He instructed Israel to cover it in gold. Maybe God chose to use an element that was a result from the Curse to build a dwelling place for His glorious fiery presence as a place He could meet with sinful men. Could it be that God was reminding mankind that He came to deliver us from the curse--the curse which included spiritual death? 

In the New Testament thorns appeared when Jesus, who was the promised Prophet, Messiah, and Savior all rolled into one, was about to be crucified. First, He was stripped and beaten and then with back bleeding and raw He was clothed in a robe and crowned with a crown made of thorns. The soldiers may have meant the crown to be an insult because they were placing the curse of the fall upon His brow. However, He who had the power to speak the world into place, the power to calm angry seas with a word, the power to drive out demons that held men captive, and had the power to silence His enemies with a single word chose, instead, to bear the thorns for you and for me. Those thorns on His brow--they remind us that the curse came because of our sin and our rebellion and remind us that He, the sinless One, was willing and qualified to bear the curse on our behalf. They remind us of the abundance of God's grace--a grace big enough to cover all of our sin. As Davis so eloquently put it in his article, "Adam comes naked to a live tree and spiritually murders the entire race by a single act of disobedience. Jesus comes to a dead tree and allows Himself to be stripped naked. Then, in the ultimate act of obedience--His very death after a lifetime of full and total obedience to God--He makes alive all those who would ever by God's grace repent of their sins and trust in Him alone for salvation."

I find it interesting that God also used thorns as analogies. He used them to warn Israel as they entered the Promised Land that if they did not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those remaining would become like barbs in their eyes and thorns in their sides. Even after Jesus died, rose again, and descended into heaven, Paul used thorns as an analogy in 2 Corinthians 12:7, "So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited." I've heard a few sermons on this passage and most say that Paul did not specifically say what the thorn was so we could all relate to what it is. Some claim it was a physical ailment, some claim it was reminders of His past, and some say that it was perhaps a fleshly weakness he had to continuously battle in the process of sanctification. I don't think it matters, except to understand that the thorn served to birth humility in the Apostle Paul who was shown glorious visions no man had seen before. 

I believe thorns can be all sorts of things. I also believe each thorn will serve a purpose driven by God's grace. Thorns can be addictions we battle daily that cause us to depend totally on God to grow in holiness. They can be besetting sins that trip us up--those sins that became ingrained before we knew Jesus that are sometimes still driven by overwhelming urges, especially when we are tired or stressed and long most to be who Christ created us to be. The grace of these kinds of thorns drive us to a moment by moment walk with the One who can give us victory over them. Thorns may also be illnesses that cause pain, leaving us depleted, aching, and a bit homesick for heaven, graciously allowing us to maintain a heavenly perspective others don't have. They may also be lies spoken to us by others or whispered into our minds by the Enemy that somehow became core beliefs ingrained and seared into our brains. These can be lies about God's goodness and His love. They can also be lies about us--lies that tell us we are unlovable, irredeemable, inadequate, and unclean. The grace in these thorns drive us to the truth of who we are as sinful children redeemed by grace and made clean by our God who has an unfathomable passion to save. The grace in these is that as lies are uncovered, the daily choice to choose God's truth breaks the power of the lies and changes the belief system one decision at a time. 

Thorns can also be painful, dysfunctional relationships. We have all had a few of those. There were times in my youth I was thoughtless and difficult and a thorn in the sides of others. I hope to this day God healed people who were hurt by my choices, my words, my reactions, and my sin. I believe there are also times when we try our best to be loving and kind and are still a person who is a trigger or a thorn to someone. In those cases it may be our personality, our character, our faith, or our experiences that causes someone to experience emotional pain by simply knowing us. It is hard to be in those situations, but it helps to remember that ultimately the pain they experience is due to past trauma, broken relationships, or because it brings to the surface negative beliefs and insecurities. 

I know I personally was an unwilling thorn in some of my relationships to people I cared deeply about. It was as if just my presence could hurt them. In one relationship, it was my faith that drove the person away. In another, it was the fact that I had five children and the other couldn't conceive. It hurt my heart that the prick of the thorn was felt every time she saw me with my children and she was left to continue reconciling God's sovereignty and her desire to have children. Another friend who had lost three babies actually shared with me that seeing me with my last baby was like a thorn in her side. I hated that her just seeing me with my baby hurt her, but thankfully she recognized the thorn as a sign she needed to continue processing her grief, allowing us to remain friends until she passed away. For another, it was my spiritual gifts that drove a wedge in a relationship by triggering insecurities in a very gifted person. Ironically, when I chose to enter recovery for an eating disorder, it was my healing that at first became a thorn in my sweet husband's side. As I got healthier, our relationship was thrown off balance and my husband had to reconnect with a wife who now used her voice, a wife who could think for herself, and a wife who expressed opinions of her own, which challenged his distorted view of the oneness to which God called us.  

At times I hated the feeling of unintentionally being a thorn in others' sides. At one point, I wrestled long and hard with God over that concept, grieving the discomfort and brokenness experienced. I didn't want to be the source of pain and just wanted God to surround me with people who would love me for me and let us all enjoy warm fuzzy feelings of relationships as I imagined them to be. Over time I accepted that being an unintentional thorn in another's side is a part of the iron sharpening iron sanctification process that God uses to grow His character in us. Maybe He intentionally brings certain people together who sharpen each other--and yes sharpening and pricking are painful, but they are both directed and carried out by a God whose love knows no end. 

In the middle of processing these things called thorns with friends, I realized God used those relationships, over which I wrestled, to plop me in the middle of a ministry in which I, and those who serve with me, have to be willing to be thorns in the sides of women, many of whom are struggling and/or who have been victimized. As much as they want to get healthy when pain is triggered or fear rises, we find ourselves having to firmly resist their persistent attempts to draw us into the unhealthy, ungodly, and self-defeating systems of denial and dysfunction formed in response to past trauma and pain. But, it is necessary for us to be willing to be thorns that will prick them to help them move out of denial and self-protection so God can heal their pain and they can fulfill the calling of God on their lives to love both God and others well. 

I also realized our ministry itself is a bit of a thorn in our church's side. Every year when we advertise groups, at least a third of our women are reminded of pain they are stuffing and the stories they are denying. Some are reminded of the shame they hide that was inflicted on them through abuse or shame that was self-induced by hiding sinful or self-deprecating behaviors they use to numb. We are a thorn in the sides of people who sit in church satisfied with surface relationships and mask wearing, because we get real and women walk out never willing to wear masks again, refusing to deny their stories, or be content with fake relationships. We are a thorn to those who have mistreated, abused, or contributed to the abuse of victims because we remind them they inflicted pain on others. We are probably even a thorn to our leadership who are reminded that at least one third of our women in our church have been victimized and that how they act, speak, and react to wounded women, whom they most likely will not even be able to identify, will either cause secondary wounding or promote healing. 

I’m so thankful my church is willing to let us enter messy lives of women in ways that facilitate healing for them and their families. There have been a few hard conversations along the way, but they were conversations that bore fruit. I’m thankful one of the pastors even called to discuss a sermon he was going to preach and wanted to be sensitive to the women we serve and build them up.  

As I am writing this it has occurred to me that just as the physical thorns were woven into the redemption story, the thorns of analogy have been intricately woven into the process of sanctification. While the grace of the physical reminded us of both the curse and the Saviors' willingness to bear it for us, the grace of the analogy is that it reminds us of the need of a moment by moment walk with Jesus that results in sanctification. When God calls us to be thorns, we must remember His grace and be willing to do what He asks whether it be speaking the truth in love, exhorting, comforting, encouraging, or simply forgiving. Though there may be times God calls us to walk away from painful relationships, there will be more times He wants us to stay so sin is exposed and confessed, lies are surfaced and replaced with truth, and pride is dissolved into humility that allows His glory to be reflected through us. That is the grace that is in the thorns.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

From His Vantage Point

About two months ago, our grandsons joined a water polo club and we were able to go to one of their tournaments this weekend. I had heard of the sport, but never watched a game. The boys told me how much they enjoy it, so I was excited to observe them play with their team and observe how the coach works with them. It would be fair to say their coach is very verbal and I was curious as to how my grandsons handle that, so I watched her interact with the teams before, during, and after the game. She was very tough on them, not only paying attention to how they played, but how they interacted with each other, how they interacted with their parents, what they ate and drank, and their application or lack of application of sunscreen. It was obvious the team and the parents have a great amount of respect for her and want to learn from her. It was also obvious that character-building was as important to her as the game and she wanted the team to win because they played hard and applied the skills she taught, not because they played mean and dirty.  

There were three games each day. The first day the younger team played and they had a rough start. During the first quarter of the first game they didn't play as a unit, hindering their ability to play offense, defense, and transition between the two. The coach observes and instructs from the deck where she can see both her team and the opposing team. She has a voice that carries and is not afraid to use it to direct, to correct, to encourage, and to applaud her team. During the first quarter, she reminded the team to play the positions she had assigned repeatedly and reminded them to transition between offensive and defensive stances. She also reminded them to play as a team to get past the opposing team to score. A few times she even had to coach the parents and the grandparents because in our ignorance we yelled instructions that were either contrary to hers or illegal in the game. When the team listened and did what she instructed, they did amazing and became this well-oiled machine that could guard the goal and work past their opponents and score. When they lost focus, they became confused as to where to position themselves and she would regroup them. I also noticed that when the team communicated with each other, she said less and would sit back and watch them play. 

The students had to exercise trust in the coach. They had to choose to believe she had their best interest at heart before, during and after the game. She cares about them as individuals as well as the team as a whole. They also had to choose to trust that from her vantage point the coach could observe both their weaknesses and strengths as well as their opponents’, and that she had the wisdom to know what position they would be best for on that particular team. At times, she adjusted the positions because of what she observed, what she believed the team needed, and sometimes to stretch a player and show him or her what they were capable of doing. 

It was obvious she didn't tolerate laziness, pride that causes someone to try to be a ball hog, or negative self-talk that allows someone's fear to hold them back from trying. She may have been on them hard, but she was also their loudest cheerleader and noticed every effort they put into the game, every improvement they made, and when they stepped out of their comfort zone and played harder than before. She had to remind both the team and the parents that water polo was a contact sport and that it was not a sport for the fainthearted. Believe me, the Gorilla Mama rose up fast within me when I saw the opponents drag our grandsons under water to stop a play. By the end of the weekend I realized they were actually learning some valuable life skills from her. 

As I observed I could not help but compare what I saw to the Christian life. Contrary to what some of us were taught, Christ warned His disciples that the Christian life is not an easy life. He warned that there would be tribulation in this life and that can come in the form of circumstances, health issues, difficult relationships, people who get in the way of what God is trying to do in and through us, and the consequences we reap for the sinful choices we make. He also warned us that there is a very real adversary who is prowling around like a roaring lion, seeking whomever he can devour. He also told his disciples not to be surprised when they are hated, because He was hated first.

Just like water polo has rules that keep the players safe, God has given His people the Word to instruct us and teach us to live this life. Just as the coach called out instructions to help them apply the rules of the Game, the Holy Spirit brings to mind what we have been taught through the Word. He also fills us with wisdom that is specific to particular situations that helps us walk in victory as we navigate life. 

Just like the coach knows her players with their strengths and weaknesses and assigns them positions to play, God knows His children and gifts them with abilities as He sees fit. Just as a team is made up of many individual members, so is the church. Just as each player has certain skills that help the team, the Spirit has empowered each of us for specific things that build up the church to carry out His will. Just as a little guy who faithfully guards his opponent, rendering him ineffective is just as important as a goalie blocking a shot or a teammate scoring a goal, each person fulfilling their God-given role is as important as the pastor teaching from the pulpit, the evangelist leading thousands to the Lord in a city-wide campaign, the worship leader leading us in song, or the elders who run the church. Some of us are gifted to serve, some to teach, some to exhort, some to give, some to display faith, some to lead, some to encourage, some to demonstrate acts of mercy, some to preach, and some to disciple. Just like it would not make sense to have a water polo team comprised of just goalies, or just offensive players, or just defensive players, it doesn't make sense to have a church that is a one man show where the pastor does everything. It doesn't make sense to have a church comprised only of teachers, only of evangelists, only of worship leaders, or only of those who do acts of service. Nor does it make sense to box people in to all serve exactly alike. So often we simply fill positions by what we think we need, not considering the gifting, calling, or experiences of the people attending. The day I realized I needed to say no to filling in as a teacher in a children's Sunday school class was when I realized one of my sons grasped and hung on every word taught to him by his gifted Sunday school teacher. I became comfortable that I was gifted for discipleship that occurs through relationship, through conversation, and through teaching. I also began to embrace the calling to write for those who God is leading to process and think at a deeper level. 

It was both humbling and freeing to understand God gifts people to fulfill particular roles. It prevents one-man shows and places people in positions where they can bear much fruit.  God has used people with the gift of giving, who saw needs we never spoke and met them, using the resources God gave them to fulfill our needs in sweet and humble ways. He used people who have the gift of mercy to come along side of me when I needed it in ways that alleviated shame and got me back on track. He has used people with teaching gifts to help me understand His Word in ways that changed my mind, heart, and life. I have had the thrill of observing teachers who could turn a room full of rambunctious eight-year-old boys into followers of Christ. I've seen youth workers who could love difficult wayward junior high students and guide them to Christ who could give them a sense of identity and worth that changed the course of their lives. I have seen workers hear ugly confessions of high school students who lived with one foot in the church and one foot in the world and help them overcome shame that plagued them and help them choose to make choices that helped them fully plant both feet in the middle of God's story. I serve with a group of ladies who can hear shameful stories of victimization and instill hope where there once was none. I have seen those who could serve love-starved hearts of needy people and help them connect to the One who can love them well. I have seen those God has healed walk with those who are struggling with the same hard questions that once kept them from fully trusting God, giving them a safe place to question until they can let go and fully trust the One who can heal. I have seen those with prophetic gifts challenge churches content with the status quo, seeped in pride, or failing to engage in the messy lives to which Jesus calls us. Every person who is a believer is a valuable part of a team called the Church and every person fulfills a specific role for which God has gifted Him. 

Oh, that we would learn to trust the truth that God, from His vantage point, is like that coach who cares so much for her team. He knows our weaknesses and our strengths and He knows the opponent who wants so badly to stop us. He has gifted us and can show us how to use those gifts to fulfill our God-given role in the church. His Word--it will correct us, it will exhort us, it will encourage us, and it will even heal us if we read it. His Spirit--He will empower us, He will fill us with wisdom for the battles we fight in this life, and He will comfort us in our sorrow. Oh, that we would be people who believe that we can trust a God whose character is love and who has a vantage point bigger than our minds can comprehend. 


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!