How God’s Love Can Change Any Life

 

 

Bekah was born on a Tuesday, and nothing about the day really went as expected. I didn’t expect my water to break at 4 a.m., five days before my due date. I didn’t expect my body not to go into labor on its own, warranting an induction. I didn’t expect them to wheel me to the operating room after fourteen hours of labor. And when they pulled her from me, wrapped her in her striped hospital blanket, and brought her to me, I didn’t expect the violent flow of love to pour from me like it did. I didn’t know I was capable of that kind of love or that such love even existed.

I cried often throughout our first few weeks together, and while I hear it’s common to cry at every commercial and break down at every sentimental thought, I mostly cried because I couldn’t believe the love we shared. My desires to protect, nurture, and care for her were stronger than anything I’d experienced.

It was during those early weeks of Bekah’s life that the power of the cross captivated me in a new way. There was absolutely no way I’d send my daughter to die in anyone’s place. Ever.

The willingness of God to send his child to die for me completely transformed my perception of his love.

Throughout my life, I’ve battled with the feeling of not being good enough, lies that tell me rejection from other people means I’m less-than, and the ongoing feeling that I simply don’t measure up. Most of us face these thoughts at some time in our lives. Whether it’s the child who made fun of me on the playground in second grade, or the coworker who criticized my fashion sense in my fourth decade of life, the words of other people hold the power to inflict deep wounds.

For nearly a decade, I listened to messages from well meaning Christian leaders who spoke of finding our identities in Christ. They said things like, “You are a beloved child of the Most High God. You are precious and dearly loved.” All these words were nice, but while women around me cried and rejoiced at their newfound identities, it just wasn’t getting to my heart. And I knew it.

Things changed when I held my own child. I experienced love like I’d never known, and I came to the striking realization that God loves Jesus far more perfectly and deeply than I can love my precious child. He feels for Jesus the way I feel for my children — and more – and yet he sent him to suffer and die so I wouldn’t have to receive his punishment for my long list of mistakes.

The heart of my identity is this: God loves me so much that he sent Jesus to die for me (Romans 5:8). We all long for a deep encounter with the love of God, but let’s not get so caught up in seeking an experience that we fail to contemplate the truest thing about God. When I long for an encounter with his love, I simply need to step back and consider the cross. He loves me so deeply that he sent his Son to a place of agony for me. Encountering this truth is the quintessential encounter.

I don’t love anyone enough to send my child to suffer and die on a cross for them. How deep this love truly is. Understanding the depth of his love transformed my identity. When I begin to feel less than, left out, or not enough, I think of how much I love my children. Then I ponder God’s love for me, to send his child to die in my place. I know this is real love.

I know I don’t need to please others, measure up, or be someone others admire, because I am loved crazily by my Father.

When There Are Cliffs on Both Sides

 

The cold mountain wind rips at me like the dead of winter, while the sun scorches my chapped hands with desert-like heat. I spit gritty sand – miniscule molecules of the beige granite surrounding me – and continue my ascent. Glancing upward, I’m only sixty yards from the summit. Sixty grueling yards of rough rock outcroppings and sheer drop-offs of over 1,000 feet.

I’ve barely begun the decade of my twenties, and I’m certain I’m invincible. Certain I’ve figured out most of what I’ll need to know for life. I have no idea.

I claw my way to the summit of the 12,000-foot mountain and lie flat in the flogging wind, the bandana in my hair whipping like sheets on a clothesline. It’s my day off work at AWLS, the wilderness leadership school where I’m spending my summer. Climbing mountains is my greatest passion in life, and I can think of nothing that would ever be more important. I have so much to learn.

I stare at MacLeod Lake, over a thousand feet below, and I plan my descent. There’s no easy way. There’s only a narrow ridge with sheer drop-offs on each side. I’ll have to risk it.

~~~

Much to my parents’ relief, I survived my summer in Wyoming’s mountains. I’m a little embarrassed as I look back at my unwise risks and poorly discerned decisions, but I thank God I’m not the person I was. This all came to mind this morning, as I opened my Bible to my daily reading plan.

Chapter 14 of first Samuel finds King Saul’s son, Jonathan, preparing to advance on the Philistines. Verse 4 reads: “Between the passes by which Jonathan sought to cross over to the Philistines’ garrison, there was a sharp crag on the one side and a sharp crag on the other side, and the name of the one was Bozez, and the name of the other Seneh.”

Jonathan needed to make forward progress to achieve his goal, but he found himself in a precarious situation. He needed to cross a mountain pass with a sharp crag on each side of the pass. I can relate.

The Hebrew word “Bozez” refers to something that is gleaming or slippery. The word “Seneh” means thorny. On one side he faced a steep slope of thorns. On the other, a dangerously slippery descent.

Despite the risks, Jonathan pressed forward, advanced against the Philistines, and overtook them. He braved the thorns and the drop-off, and he pressed forward toward his goal. Because I’ve climbed many mountains, the analogy strikes me poignantly: When the journey grows perilous, keep your eyes on the goal and keep walking.

Jonathan’s goal was to overtake the Philistines. My goal at age twenty was reaching a literal summit. Our goal as followers of Christ is to love him and make his love known to others.

The lesson from Jonathan’s journey is relevant, regardless of the goal. Whether I’m aiming to start a business, hoping to overcome the pain of a past heartbreak, wading through the deep waters of troubled relationships, trying to parent with love and compassion, or seeking healing in a difficult matter, I do well to keep my eyes on the goal and keep walking.

The slippery slope of fear will threaten to take me down. The thorny path of painful self-sacrifice, slow progress, and failure will threaten to stop my progress. But I do well to keep my eyes on the goal and press forward.

I’m thankful for the author of Hebrews, who reminds me exactly where to fix my eyes when things get tough: “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2). If Jesus could endure the cross on my behalf, I can endure this trial on his behalf.

Wherever life has you walking a delicate chasm between a thorny downfall and a long slippery slope, be encouraged by Jonathan. Keep stepping forward. It will be worth the journey.

 

 

Lessons from the Flowers in My Pocket

 

I reach into my pocket for a tissue and pull out a handful of wilted yellow flowers. They’re coltsfoot blossoms – a gift from my son on a warm spring afternoon. Withering and wilted, they look pathetic in my pocket, and I make sure he doesn’t see me slip them into the garbage can. But before I can release the crumpled symbols of his love for me, something stops me.

I examine them closely in my hand, then walk to the china cabinet in search of a suitable vase. Throwing them into the garbage can simply isn’t an option today. Someday I’ll confess to my children that I’ve quietly discarded art projects, spelling tests, and pet rocks, but for today, I’m keeping the flowers.

Staring at the pathetic vase on the dining room table, the flowers from my pocket remind me of several important lessons about life:

Small miracles always surround us

For close to thirty years, I quit noticing coltsfoot flowers along the roadside. I quit appreciating the first color to burst forth from the bleak winter landscape. For a long decade, I became so focused on my career, my goals, and my schedule that I overlooked the thousands of tiny miracles in my midst. I stopped catching snowflakes on my tongue, smelling roses, and making wildflower bouquets.

I’m thankful for the students and children who have reminded me what it means to appreciate the small miracles in my midst. Geese overhead bring awe, freshly fallen snow on a winter morning is a reason to cheer, and sunsets warrant a cessation of all activity. I’m slowly becoming less focused on the tasks of the day and growing in gratitude for the small miracles all around.

What some people call weeds, others call treasure

There’s a beautiful housing development about a half-mile from our house. We live on the outskirts of the development, literally the last house between town and the endless fields of rural farm country. The houses in the development manage to completely eradicate small yellow flowers from their lawns with chemicals and special treatments.

Meanwhile, my son refuses to walk past a colorful flower without picking it for me. Refuses. It’s a battle to keep daffodils in our landscaping, because he insists on bringing them inside for his mom. Not a dandelion endures the onslaught of his voracious desire for more treasures. He reminds me that embracing the imperfection of a flower-spotted yard might just be a gateway to greater joy. Similarly, embracing the imperfection of a less-than-perfect life, might just free me to live more abundantly.

The season of darkness always ends

The coltsfoot plants emerge on the cusp of spring. The days are just starting to linger longer. Raging blizzards have mostly passed, and warm sunny days alternate with blustery days of flurries and winter hats. The coltsfoot reminds me that the darkness of winter really will end, and warm days of basking in the sun await.

The dark seasons of our lives generally don’t last forever either. Even for those of us who endure darkness and trouble throughout much of our lives on earth, there is a greater promise awaiting. There is a promise of life without tears, pain, or suffering. I’m quite certain it will also be a life of rolling hills of coltsfoot and glistening yards of dandelions. This darkness won’t last forever.

 

The Secret Path to Fulfillment

My hands clenched the rough granite with the ferocity of a woman who knows one wrong move will result in one of two things: death or serious injury.

I was nearing the summit of a 12,000-foot peak in Wyoming’s Wind River Range—at least ten miles from the nearest sign of human civilization. The shift of my left foot sent a cascade of debris tumbling down the mountain. “I shouldn’t have come here alone,” I whispered. The situation was precarious. I needed to scale a ten-foot long, six-inch wide ledge to get to the next “safe” spot of the climb. . . .To keep reading, join me at Christian Devotions Ministries.

Three Things to Remember in the Valley

 

I slip to the woods on a Saturday evening after groceries and prescriptions and new socks for littlest one. The ground is soft and muddied with footprints of dog walkers and bird watchers. I immediately see why they came. The sinking sun blinds me to the west, but to the east, the ponds reflect perfect paintings of cobalt skies and grey hills – hills on the brink of bursting into glory, hills that are waiting for redemption.

I walk long through the mud and embrace the patches of soft grass that clean my shoes and offer traction. Geese linger in a pond to the south, and I follow the winding valley to its deepest place –where the sun hides behind the hills, and the darkness of night has already descended.

I’ve always been captivated by the shadows cast by mountains. Summers spent in Wyoming’s granite canyons bore witness to sun scorched peaks that stared down at the dark valley for hours. I lived in the valley, and I longed for the warmth of the morning sun each day. I missed the sunsets over Plain Grove’s hayfields and grew accustomed to watching the sun fade behind mountains early in the evenings to the west.

The geese are speaking words of warning about my presence as I tread farther along the path – less worn this far from the parking area. I pull my hood over my ears and hide my hands in my sleeves. It’s cool in the shade of the valley. Sitting on a rock at my turn-around point, I stare at the still water, look up at the illuminated hilltops, and consider the valleys of my life. I consider the hardest stretches, the darkest times, and the most painful trials. A few truths come to mind – truths for the valleys:

You are not alone

Some valleys exist solely on the precept of feeling alone. We believe we are alone, and the isolation of the season creates the valley. Feeling misunderstood, betrayed, abandoned, or without support leads us to feel alone, and there seems to be little hope for escaping the valley. Not that anyone cares.

The truth for this valley is this: “God will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6). I generally wish God’s presence felt more tangible. I need to remind myself that just because I don’t see him or tangibly feel him, this doesn’t mean he’s not present. He walks with me through every valley, and he will never leave me.

This will be used for good

God holds the power to use all situations for good in the lives of those who love him. Some of my hardest valleys have taught me to be grateful for seasons of health and “normal” living. Some of the darkest valleys have helped me make better decisions in the future. Some of my most painful valleys have made the sunshine on mountaintops far more glorious than they would have been without a climb from the deepest place.

Our valleys are used to comfort others

Most of our valleys hold the power to comfort others who go through the same struggles. The hard breakups of my teen years later enabled me to mentor teens walking through the same trials. The difficult days of my pregnancies enabled me to comfort friends going through the same struggles. The challenges at my job gave me empathy to encourage others who are in difficult situations in the workplace. God uses our valleys to comfort others in their valleys.

If life has led you to a valley today, be encouraged. You are not alone. Keep clinging to the One who won’t let you go.

*On an entirely unrelated note, I’m writing at one of my favorite parenting sites this week: Your Budding Biologist Should Hatch Frog Eggs This Spring.  And right on time, our deck is now home to one large tank of hopeful bullfrog eggs.

Four Lessons from the Woman at the Well

The dust from the road sticks to the roof of her mouth as she forces her feet to carry her heavy jar just a few more steps. The reprieve of a cool drink of water awaits her at the well, and her motivation for continuing forward is the satiation of her thirst.

She glances up and sees him sitting there, right beside the well – a Jew.

She thinks little of his presence. Jews don’t associate with Samaritans. She’ll simply draw her water and be on her way.

“Will you give me a drink?” he startles her with the question, and she studies him for some sign of ill-intent or misaligned motive. She doesn’t trust Jews, and she really doesn’t trust men. Men have only let her down.

To read the rest of this post, join me at Live Nourished.

The Astonishing Goodness of God

“We should be astonished at the goodness of God, stunned that He should bother to call us by name, our mouths wide open at His love, bewildered that at this very moment we are standing on holy ground.” ― Brennan Manning

The daffodils are wilted under the weight of the late winter snow. We all thought we’d made it through, when it came back and pounded relentlessly, the tempest fighting for one last victory. The yellow blossoms that seemed to promise sunshine and hope a week ago have lost their first battle. Life’s not as gentle as we often wish.

Somehow, despite the disappointment of more cold weather, something about the whiteness of the world feels holy this morning. I let the daffodils rest under the weight of the snow and seek refuge inside, where the whitewashed tree line out the window speaks of a silent kind of waiting. It’s as if we’re all waiting for spring together. Waiting for warmth. Waiting for redemption. All together, we sense there must be more, and so we stand and we keep waiting.

The snow and the hidden flowers and the buds that sprouted too early remind me of the emptiness that sometimes comes late in the day. When the world sleeps, televisions are stilled, and the darkness of a world turned from the Light sits in blackness, we find ourselves empty and longing for more. We long for greater fulfillment from our jobs, greater joy in our days, more satisfaction in our accomplishments, and deeper union in our relationships. Even when life is relatively purposeful, joyful, and complete, there’s still a deep ache for something greater.

Looking at the fields, I consider these things, and I consider the reality that this very spot might just be holy ground. What if we don’t need to wait for the burning bush to encounter God? What if he’s here, in this moment with the fields and the daffodils – in this place with the longing and searching? What if the simple fact that he bothers to call me by name is enough to bewilder me to such a degree that I live captivated by him in my ordinary life?

Jesus prayed these words in the garden before he went to the cross: “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3).

We’re all walking around with a longing for heaven that won’t be fulfilled until we get there, but we don’t have to wait for heaven to embrace the eternal life we receive when we come to the cross. Eternal life is knowing God – more and more and more – right now, in this life. We step into eternal life the moment we become followers of Jesus, and eternal life is more than a ticket to heaven. Eternal life is the privilege of knowing God in this life.

The privilege makes every moment an invitation to stand on holy ground, mouths gaping in awe that he loves us so tenderly. He longs to speak of his love to us in a thousand ways: in the purity of the late-winter snowfall, in the daffodils that rose too soon, in the child who gazes across the room with a smile, in the gesture of a friend.

I sit with Caleb by the window, and I open to Psalms, reading aloud as we watch for birds at the feeder. He presses his little eyelids shut with a grimace, like he’s fighting to keep them closed, folds his hands in a mishmash of tangled fingers, and lets me read the whole psalm. We bask in God’s love for us and count all the ways we’ve encountered his love today. There’s no doubting it: We’re standing on holy ground.

The Art of Embracing Interruptions

 

The wind’s screaming through the poplar tree out the window, and the curtains flutter from the draft. I roll over and pray the light pouring through the blinds is just my imagination, but I’m pretty sure it’s the dawn of a new day. I went to bed late, thinking of writing projects and the poster Bekah and I need to make for her school project next week and what I’m going to send for snack day. My mind raced for hours, and now that dawn is here, I have no desire to race into anything.

My to-do list is long today, and I think of Ann Voskamp’s words about changing our to-do lists into to-love lists. Could scrubbing the toilets really be an act of love? Could getting down on all fours to work on the sticky dining room floor really be an act of worshipful service?

I brush my teeth thoughtlessly, and the impending nature of my list weighs me down. I need to write two articles this weekend to top it all off. The good news is that I’m the first one awake, and the stillness of the morning feels like an invitation to productivity.

I race through my daily routine of Bible reading, coffee, and dry cereal without so much as a single prayer. Little footsteps stir before I’m done checking the weather forecast, and it seems I’m racing time. I’m racing to accomplish, produce, and achieve.

Bekah’s up first, and for this I’m thankful. Once Caleb hits the ground, quiet moments cease at all levels. She smiles at me sleepily, then settles into Minecraft on the Kindle and sucks down chocolate milk. My heart smiles watching her, for just an instant, and then it’s back to the to-do list. I’m thinking of Ann again and trying to reframe my perspective as I wipe sticky handprints from the sliding glass door for the thirty-fourth time this week.

The morning progresses at the same pace, and by quarter til ten, I’m half way through writing my first article. The kids are lost in piles of dump trucks, plastic action heroes, Legos, and stuffed animals on the living room floor when Caleb comes to me eagerly. “Creek today?” he asks, and I smile. A trip to the creek wasn’t on my to-do list.

I’m not good at embracing interruptions. A surprise knock on the door when I’m in the mist of cooking dinner isn’t a welcomed opportunity – even when it’s someone from a different religious denomination coming to the door to talk about God. Too many times, I’ve overlooked opportunities to embrace people who literally come to me and want to discuss God. I wish my kids were never interruptions, but sadly, I tend to focus on tasks more easily than less tangible necessities. And spending time with my kids is a necessity.

It takes three interruptions from Caleb and one from Bekah to convince me to save my to-do list for tomorrow and go to the creek. We go, and they love every minute. We bring nets, search for frogs, and build sandcastles. We laugh, take turns sharing what we like about each other, and throw huge stones into the water. I am fully refreshed, and memories are made.

Returning home, Caleb naps, and Bekah and I embrace an hour of quiet time. In one short hour, I write more words with a refreshed soul than I would have written in four hours earlier in the day. I’m surprised the interruption fueled me.

I think of Jesus walking from town to town. I think of his destination and the reality that nearly every interaction along the road was an interruption. Again and again, he was interrupted for the purpose of bringing glory to God through his interactions with others. He wasn’t put off or disgruntled by interruptions. He lived in the midst of interruptions and embraced them.

As I finish typing, a six-year-old stands at my side with a coloring book. Time to embrace another beautiful interruption.

 

 

 

 

When You Don’t Know Which Choice to Make

 

“. . . the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Galatians 5:6)

Otto Lake shines like glass, and I find myself looking to the hills for help. Somewhere in the recesses of my memory I remember something about help coming from the hills, and I’m desperate for help. I’m just into the decade of my twenties, and I think I’m grown up now.

Mosquitoes hum around my headnet, a constant reminder that I am far from home. I wonder if they might speak the truth of my future and catch myself listening for just a moment.

I came to Alaska to find answers about my career, myself, and mostly about God. I don’t know it yet, but he’ll graciously provide answers to all three.

A fish jumps, casting tiny circles that ripple the whole way to the shore.

I’m praying about whether to leave my home in Pennsylvania to pursue a teaching career in Alaska, or whether this summer job at the gas station will be my final stay in Interior Alaska. I’m waiting for an answer from God, and I’m weighing it all out. I love the endless mountains, the sense of adventure, and the constant daylight of the Alaskan summer. But I miss my family, my friends, and the freshly cut hayfields of Plain Grove.

I open my Bible for the first time since arriving in the land of the midnight sun. I don’t read it much these days. I believe God let me down, and I’m offended. But I still believe he’s there, so I open it and start reading in the book of Galatians. I make it to chapter five without noticing much anything at all.

A mosquito penetrates my headnet, and I smash it between the green netting with a bloody pinch.

Then it hits me: “. . . the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6).

I’ve been sensing God’s voice often throughout my summer excursions, but most of the time, I’m looking in all the wrong places. But this day, on the lake, God’s voice is clear and sweet. It has to do with my calling, and I have no doubt this is a Word just for me.

I can move to Alaska to teach, or I can search for a job in Pennsylvania. What matters most is that I live a life of faith expressing itself through love. If my decision is based on love, if it seems wise, I will simply weigh my options and make the best decision I know how to make.

I gaze up at the mountains surrounding the quiet lake, and I know the answer. I don’t really want to abandon all that I know and everyone I love. I don’t really want to relocate to a place where the sun won’t shine in the winter months. I don’t want to miss birthday parties, weddings, and funerals. I want to love God well and serve him a little closer to home. I’m afraid of where life might lead if I stay here with all the temptations of dark winter living. I close the Bible and stare at mountains reflected on Otto Lake. I will let my faith express itself through love and make the best decision I know to make.

~~~

I left Alaska with tears that summer, and I haven’t returned since. I’m pleased with my choice to teach in Pennsylvania, and I’m pleased with all the doors that opened as a result.

I used to mostly wait for God to speak to me with clarity in the form of a small whisper in the depths of my soul. And while he can speak in this way, more often than not, he simply calls me to make the most prudent decision I can make, always assuring it’s rooted in love. I still get hung up on this at times: whether to launch a writing career now or in four years, whether to start a blog or not, whether to say yes to extracurriculars for Bekah or not, and the list goes on.

While God has a plan and purpose for each of his children, sometimes we get caught up on hearing him just right and executing the details of our lives perfectly. What if we simply committed to make the best, wisest, most love-rooted decisions possible, and stop stressing over when, where, how and why? I believe it would set us free in ways we never imagined. What if we really trusted him to hem us in, behind and before? I believe we’d learn to walk in the assurance of his love and provision.

Someday I hope to return to Alaska – to sit on the porch of the cabin where I lived with Anne Marie, to walk along the Tenana River, to watch the Mountain glow at 2 a.m., and climb to the summit of Mount Healy. Someday I hope to sit along Otto Lake with buzzing mosquitoes and thank God for the quiet guidance along the journey.

Five Reasons I Take My Daughter on Dates

I realize it’s not my normal day to post, but every now and then, I’ll be sharing articles I’ve written for different publications on random days.  Today is an article for Biblewaymagazine.com.  Click here to join me!