Seek First the Kingdom

binocular-country-lane-filter-1421 (2)

Three years ago as our time in Texas was coming to an end there was a scripture passage that I found incredibly comforting:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink or about your body what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor store away in barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them…Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Matthew 6:25-27

These verses were such an anchor for me in that season. We were doing all the things they tell you not to do at one time. Leaving two jobs, moving to a new state, having a baby and starting a new career. Truthfully, it was a recipe for disaster. Thankfully, God worked with us to take care of all the details in the most amazing way. With the help of this verse, we kept our eyes up on the overarching goals we new he was leading us to and let the details work themselves out day by day.

I’ve thought a lot about that one verse in particular since that transition: “Seek first the kingdom of God.” It continues to ground me as we navigate this early season of starting a family and career. It stops me often because while I know I’m not supposed to sit and stew about our bank account or elaborate plans for feeding and clothing our family its also not incredibly clear what the alternative, seeking the kingdom, actually entails.

The more I’ve looked into it, the more I find myself in good company as there isn’t much out there to read on the topic. What I do read comes bathed in precursors like: “theologians disagree mightily on this topic.” At first I took this to mean “tread lightly…this is going to go over your head.” Now though, I’m realizing its just a caution to understand that the kingdom of God, this side of heaven, is frankly somewhat mysterious. We have to take out our magnifying lens to find what it is we are looking for. I believe that’s intentional.

The kingdom of God reminds me of Paul’s attempt in 1 Corinthians to talk about love. He never really defines love but spends verse after verse trying to describe it. He says its kind and patient. Its not envious or proud. In the beginning of that passage he says that it could mean giving what we own to the poor or even offering our lives up on behalf of someone. Then he follows that thought up with the caution that even those things could be done out of our own self interest! Whats motivated by love in one person could be motivated by hate in another.

It appears that love, and the kingdom of God, resist definition.

Often, if I get curious enough, I do find myself uncovering consistent insights about the kingdom. For instance, kingdom manifestations are almost never flashing in neon lights. Usually, by the time I get there, my face is covered in sweat or dirt and my heart is a little banged up. But when I walk through that little door I eventually stumble upon the feeling is usually a familiar one…its usually some form of resting from or even forgetting about the hard work it took to get there.

Jesus almost exclusively spoke in stories when he talked about the kingdom. He wasn’t prescriptive and I think that was completely intentional. He didn’t want anyone getting away without a personal meeting with the great physician himself. Can you imagine that?

Lets say you have a strange ailment. Your body that was built for work and pleasure just won’t function the way its supposed to making work and joy near impossible. Your symptoms cycle on and off for months or years completely screwing with your plans, making typical life operations impossible. The general practitioners who try to treat you just don’t know enough about your particular disease or your particular body to do anything about it and so they keep passing the buck to this pill or that therapy wondering right along with you if they are doing anything to help.

You would understandably start to lose hope at some point, right? After years of difficulty? I know I would. But what if you found out that there was a doctor in your town who started his career studying your specific problem. What if he spent quality time with you in the exam room and you finally felt understood as he asked questions about your particular symptoms. What if he was so familiar with the disease and how it manifests that he knew exactly how to treat you. Wouldn’t your heart just completely come to rest? I know mine would.

There’s only one problem now though…you would only rest for a moment. Just as soon as you got that health problem figured out you would run into some other problem and that problem would take over until you finally realized that you needed a whole life physician. Body, mind, spirit, emotions…the whole thing needs an overhaul.

Here’s what I believe: God is willing to upend our lives through disease, debt, divorce, doubt, death and whatever else he needs to make us finally get curious about the Kingdom of God. Why? He says it right in that verse. Its where the LIFE is:

“Is not life more than food? The body more than clothes?” 

All of us have strange diseases in our lives…For some it will be a physical malady. For others it will be a difficult relationship or an unreachable goal. Most of us have more than one malady that will crop up in response to different stressors. All of these have been tailor picked for us by a God who is kind enough to have bigger goals for us than the temporary ones we prop up as permanent solutions. Relationships are useless after all if we don’t understand their deeper context. Just as a six figure salary is useless if we don’t understand how to steward money in the first place.

So in your difficulty and concern over food, clothing, health and money, the proper question isn’t “how do i position my life to get hold of these things” but “where is the kingdom invitation in my current situation? Is there something redemptive in my pain or fear that I am not seeing and need to seek out?” There are no easy answers to these questions. They can take years to figure out. But if we keep them before us I’m confident the answers will come in a way we can understand. Even if it feels more mysterious than concrete. The kingdom of God is like love after all. It defies definition but you sure as hell know it when you’ve found it.

 

Tell all the truth but tell it Slant-

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightening to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind –

-Emily Dickinson

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A Reflection on 10 Years of Marriage

wedding

Last year I felt inspired to write some poetry around the time of our anniversary. This is what I wrote and its still one of my favorite pieces. I think I could post this every year on June 7th and feel satisfied. But this year we’ve hit 10 years and I want to reflect a little more. Its in the writing of things that I figure out what I know.

The past 10 years have been a wild ride. Wild in that I wouldn’t have expected the course we’ve walked in ten million years. Truthfully, I don’t know what I would have plotted instead. I don’t think I’d thought that far ahead when we got married 10 years ago. I know if I had been asked I would not have guessed our course. Two out of state moves. A career path on my end that involved the lowest lows (bored out of my mind for three years straight) and the highest highs (leading an organization that built houses and opened a business). A doctorate and fellowship for Andy. The birth of our daughter. The unexpected loss of a pregnancy. Recently, a trip to the Bahamas. Turns out you can do a lot in ten years.

TEN.

When I was ten years old I was in the fourth and fifth grade. I remember those years well. I loved my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Sabathier. She was from Baton Rouge, Louisiana and had the syrupy sweet southern accent to prove it. She loved her students to pieces and didn’t so much as teach us as she swooned over how wonderful and brilliant we all were. We emerged none the worse for wear the following year as Mrs. Biondo took over our education as fifth graders. She decorated her desk with cows and took off her shoes  during class and donned black and white cow slippers while she diagrammed sentences on the board. The cows did not disturb from her merciless expectations in reading and writing. She would pause in read alouds to ask us to define large words and made us memorize all of the prepositions in the english language. To this day I remember them all, in alphabetical order, and can say them in approximately 15 seconds or less thanks to her insistence that we compete on the matter. The world thanks you for this, Mrs Biondo…I think?

These were great years to be in school. I had my first little crush on a boy named Omar. We made sure to count the boys and girls to the back of the line so that we could sit next to each other in Friday morning church services. We would play jackpot at recess and he’d give me the ball 50% of the time when he caught it, making me feel special.

I remember some jarring times too though. One morning Mrs. Sabathier came in crying and asked us to quiet down. She explained that Mrs. Clarke, a first grade teacher at our school and the mom of one of my classmates, had lost her fight with breast cancer. The next year, both fifth grade classes attended a funeral service for the father of another girl in our class. He had died suddenly in an accident at work. Those were weird, hard days to absorb for fourth and fifth graders whose worst days in a given year revolved around petty recess shenanigans. Funerals seemed incongruent with the world we assumed we were being handed.

I’ve tried to write this piece on marriage several times and have abandoned it several times because it always has such a rough edge to it. I’m trying to write about my most beloved relationship here people, and I keep getting all dreary! Lest there be concern, Andy is still the funniest and funnest person I know. I admire him to the skies and I’m most certain he still admires me too as he tells me so on the regular! So, I keep thinking I’m not supposed to write this way and it should be coming out all dream-like and nauseating. Isn’t that the promise of the white dress and the tuxedo? Nauseating perfection, until death do us part?

If perfection’s the promise (I’m not sure that it is) than it certainly isn’t fulfilled in a hippy skippy manner (I am sure of that!). But I’ve decided I’m ultimately OK with that. Wearing a wedding dress and a tuxedo every day for ten years this side of heaven would be irritating, if nothing else. We’d also be incredibly overdressed when so much of life is taking out the trash and doing the laundry.

Maybe that’s where I’ve gotten hung up as I’ve tried to write this reflection. I look back on those 10 years of highs and lows that we’ve weathered together and realize that so much of it was just taking the next right step. Even when we found ourselves sitting in the mud. We’d get up each day and do chores. Discuss finances or weekend plans. Cook dinner.  Which is not to say that it has all been drudgery. That’s not the case. Its just been different than I think I thought it would be on June 7, 2008.

That’s kind of life for you though, isn’t it? You memorize all the prepositions in the english language for class in the same week that you smile over your fourth grade crush giving you the ball at recess in the same month that you attend the funeral of a classmates mother in the same year you grow an inch taller. Life is so strange and weird and awkward isn’t it? Sometimes its also just really wonderful.

Some mornings, 10 years after you wore a white wedding dress and he wore a black tux, you wake up and realize that the good times and the tough times have really been God’s way of ushering you both, hand in hand, into the one great struggle of your lives. The struggle for a true and lasting joy. Not joy as in happy. Joy as defined so well by Kay Warren: “the settled assurance that God is in control of all the details of our life. The quiet confidence that ultimately everything is going to be all right. And the determined choice to [give glory to] God in all things.”

Today, I can look back on ten years and then look over at Andy to say this:

It has truly been a joy. Not because it has been easy. Not because we were always skipping through fields of wildflowers without a care in the world. It has been a joy because by some peculiar and amazing grace we keep coming back to that guiding line that we both sense and can never see to say that we’ll honor and acknowledge and obey what its calling us to. For richer or poorer. In sickness and in health. Moment by moment. As long as we both shall live.

 

“In the cathedrals of New York and Rome,

There is a feeling that you should just go home,

and spend a lifetime finding out just where that is.”

 

from “Cathedrals,” by Jump Little Children

(our first dance)

andy

 

 

Rebirth. Not Reinvention.

rebirth

Well, it appears its time. I have to talk about giving birth.

Not that I really want to. The birth process is scary and something beyond our control…but it has to be addressed because I am afraid that too many of us are trying to reinvent our lives when we are actually called to the process of rebirth.

I am not talking here about physical birth, though the birth of a child can be a wonderful fruit of this process. It was for me. Here though, I am talking about spiritual rebirth.

In a recent post I wrote about God calling me into the spirit of adventure with him and I am afraid that for all of the whimsy that a call like that suggests, it appears that most days I am just not up to this task. Deep down, the person I most identify with, is the little girl who wants to feel completely secure. Sometimes I wonder though: Am I really that girl? All the way through to the bottom? I’m not so sure that’s true. And if its not true then maybe I cling too easily to a part of my identity that’s really, in the end, unhelpful.

In the couple of years before Ellie was born I spent a good amount of time trying to figure out who I was and what exactly I was supposed to be doing. At times I affectionately call the decade of my 20s my “awkward teenage years” and for all the laughter that gets in a conversation, the actual living of those years were incredibly difficult. It felt like learning how to walk.

There’s a moment in the gospel of John when a pharisee named Nicodemus visits Jesus at night and tells him, essentially: “I know who you are because of the signs you have been performing in our community.”

Jesus responds to the man’s certainty with a slanted truth: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” This mysterious line sends Nicodemus into an intellectual tailspin as he realizes that while he had approached Jesus to identify with him and likely seek his allegiance he hadn’t expected Jesus to respond by holding up a mirror to him to ask him if he really knew the man in front of him in the first place.

Jesus tells him to be born again. Using terms like “born again” in our day and age is not a way to win any friends but I will say this…coming to grips with who you are, deep down, requires not just a rearrangement of what you know intellectually about yourself or your life but submitting yourself to the emotional-physical-spiritual gestation process that Jesus invites us into. Rebirth is not reinvention. He says it to Nicodemus plain as day in the text:

“You’re not listening. Let me say it again. Unless a person submits to…the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. When you look at a baby, it’s just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can’t see and touch—the Spirit—and becomes a living spirit.” John 3:5 Message Translation

Things started to change in my own life when I finally let go of what I felt I was certain of and took a chance on the mystery of the Spirit of God. First, I let go at work. Then, I let go at home. Before long I was leading an organization that birthed a business and not long after that I found out I was pregnant. If you had told me a year before this all happened that these two things would occur at the same time I would have dissolved into a puddle in front of your very eyes. Yet somehow, by saying I’d allow him to lead and then taking the next right steps with him, I got through a pregnancy, a multi-state move and a job transition with energy left to spare. Which was perfect – I now had a newborn to care for and a new life to build in a new city.

I would leave it at that but I think so much is left unsaid if I don’t share what I learned in the middle of all these crazy transitions. A few things are coming to mind:

  1. Rebirth, spiritual rebirth that is, requires a moment of consent. God is not going to drag us into spiritual maturity. He will wait patiently until we let go and allow him to lead us but he will not take one step in the direction of holistic and abundant new life if we do not take the step with him.
  2. He WILL allow our lives to become narrow and difficult. He will take us to a place where we don’t have much choice but to reach out our hand towards him in faith. He really is a loving parent. He really does want to help us out of our junk and he will make that fact obvious.
  3. Bringing something, someone or some part of ourselves to life takes ALOT of time. Way longer than you ever anticipate. So take your plans and then add some time. No, really. ADD MORE TIME THAN THAT. This will take more time than you ever imagined and this will be incredibly frustrating. There are more verses than I would like to count in scripture that say essentially: “And Joseph was forgotten and spent two years in prison…” (Genesis 40-41) Keep the faith. A broken and limited people may have forgotten, but God has not. This is not for nothing. This is how you change a life.

Finally, I would just say this. The joy on the other side of the mess will be better than you could have ever imagined. I lived in absolute terror of life for a good half decade. And that’s conservative. But I will say this: Just yesterday I sat back at the end of a beautiful spring day with a joy that spilled over into our evening. We ate dinner outside and “played lacrosse” with our daughter and I could have burst over the beauty of something that years before I would have been scared to allow myself to enjoy. Truthfully, I’m still scared some days. Thankfully, those fears are no longer driving the bus.

“Fear not little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Luke 12:32.

 

It is Time.

wine

Well, we’ve recently introduced Ellie to the Lion King. Such a great Disney movie that I remember seeing with my Grandmother and my sister when we went to visit her one summer in California. I remember how good it felt to sit in a freezing cold theater at midday in the desert where she lives only to leave and be warmed by both the hot air and the lingering images of Simba winning back his seat as King of the animal kingdom.  Its a warm memory as I prepare to go see them both again next weekend! I have really missed them both.

Andy and I have found ourselves quoting lines from the Lion King here and there. Lets be honest…I don’t think there was a child of the 80s who didn’t have that movie memorized. We both love the moment when Rafiki, the monkey priest, realizes that Simba is alive and he heads off to find him. In a thick Afrikaner accent he yells: “It is time!”

This line came to mind this weekend when reading about Jesus first miracle, turning water into wine. It struck me how Mary might have been more pivotal in this moment than I’ve ever given her credit for. I wonder if she was encouraging Jesus, telling him before he’d possibly grasped it himself, that he was ready to embody the kingdom. 

“Embodiment” is my new favorite word these days. I think because I’ve spent far too much time in my own head. I’ve finally entered a season where my head and heart feel at least loosely connected…and let me tell you, its lovely! I feel more like a whole person, and in that way its making me feel like a more fruitful person too.

Several years ago I found myself over-taxed with evening commitments. I had two church activities each week outside of Sunday services and was about to take on a third and realized I’d have to neglect some aspects of rest and/or physical fitness if I was going to hold all these balls in the air. It took about one week for me to realize I’d have to give up an evening bible study in order to stay connected to the other activities I felt committed to. The choice was logical if not a bit of a bummer. I really enjoyed our time with friends at the Duke house. But Andy agreed that he would continue going to those studies on his own while I took that evening to go to the university gym with a friend who I’d not spent much time with over the last couple of years (due to a literal lack of available time!).

Folks, those evenings were so much FUN! We would hit the elliptical and talk about any number of things. I’d been so steeped in a search for God’s presence through a really difficult season that I was literally oozing Jesus out of every pore of me. I couldn’t get enough of the fact that He not only promised to meet me but was also actually meeting me in the details of my life and helping me get through them in one way or another. I couldn’t help but share that with my friend who has a similar temperament as I do. Tiffany is as lacking in tolerance for frustration as I am and so she and I would talk throughout about how we were approaching different snags in life. Sometimes after our workouts we’d crack open a bible and see what there was to be said in there. I don’t think it was anything earth shattering. Mostly we just laughed and yelled “Bullsh**!” to the air as we considered what Jesus would say today about the viruses in her petri dishes at her lab and the poverty in the neighborhoods I was trying to work in. It was all just a lot of fun. (Tiff, if you’re reading…I really miss you!)

Looking back on that time is so funny to me. I had to quit a bible study to work out with my friend and I think I got more spirituality out of the workout than I would have at the study. To be fair, I needed a history of bible studies to talk intelligently about how God works. I don’t want to throw the Bible study baby out with the bath water. I do think we can become spiritually or intellectually bloated if we are not careful. There comes a time when we have to integrate what we’ve learned with our lives or we’ll get too fat to move. Which would be sad, as we were created to move…and move freely.

Which brings me back to Mary and Jesus at the wedding. I wonder if Jesus took a minute to get oriented to his ministry. He’d just been baptized and he clearly knew his mission to reconcile people to God (see verse 4 in John 2.) But maybe he needed a little help with his next step in the process. Maybe he needed Mary to say: “You’re ready. Show them what the kingdom of God is like. Give them some wine.”

I love that Mary didn’t have to say anything back to Jesus when he responded to her. He’d realize in due time what he needed to do and she knew that he’d make the next right step. By my reading, she appears to shrug off his response and instead tells the caterers: “Do whatever he tells you.”

Which could be the greatest line to a follower of God I’ve ever heard. “Do whatever He tells you.” 

God is not silent. He’s patient, and he’ll wait for us to decide if we want to partner with him, but he is not silent. Better still, he is not unaware of the fact that between this moment and our final breaths we might just run out of wine and find ourselves in a bit of a pickle, wondering what to do next.

So we do whatever he tells us. We read the scriptures if we can’t sense his voice. We remember anew that we’re witnesses to a paradoxical kingdom where the good wine is saved for last. And we realize like Jesus that there’s no time and place like our present situation to reflect what he, and Mary for that matter, are trying to say:

It is time.

 

When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.” John 2:10-11

 

Dr. King and Me

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Today, Atlanta is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the funeral procession of Martin Luther King, Jr. I love this city, I really do. I spent Friday afternoon with my kid at the Carter center and then considered last night how I might join a march with the King family on the anniversary of his death (sadly, sickness and rain kept us home). I’m remembering that this city is a place where so many good things have started (with King). And continued (with Carter, among others).

I found myself wondering along with the nation the other day what Dr. King’s death accomplished, if anything. I don’t know that I am qualified to answer that question. I should probably ask my black friends for their opinions. I do think Dr. King and I have some things in common. We both have dreams for better lives. We both believe that this can happen in response to the invitation of God in his work where “every valley shall be exalted [and], every hill and mountain shall be made low (to quote King, who quotes scripture).”

I remember the exact day in my college career when I realized I wanted something different. I had decided on a business degree because it was the logical choice for someone who would graduate with student loans. I sat in a downstairs classroom of the Sellinger Business School as my professor passed out slips of paper that had a company name on it. We had split into groups and would prepare a marketing plan for the company that we were assigned at random. My company?

Gillette Razors.

Now…I love me a good razor. I am personally glad that there are people in the world who work at the factories that make them. I suppose I’m even grateful that someone markets those razors to my local grocer so I can buy them with ease when I need them.  But I’d be lying to say that on that day my heart didn’t sink. After 17 years of school I found it somewhat demoralizing to realize that I might just finish it all to go sell razor blades. Not when I knew that there were people not one mile down the road from the classroom I sat in that would walk past our campus and consider attendance at a school like mine an impossibility. A literal dream scenario.

My momentary exasperation would eventually lead to hope as I learned just how badly the not-for-profit world needs people with business degrees. I’ve ended up putting it to good use in my career. Yet that day may have just been the moment when my life would take a turn that I didn’t expect. It didn’t totally connect with me that the desire to do kingdom work often comes with a cost.  For King it was the ultimate cost of his life. For us, its been a much slower march to certain goals than I had ever anticipated.

A surprising thing about life, for me, has been how hard it is to go after what you want. As children, people will ask us what we want to be when we grow up and we’ll say “a doctor!” or “a firefighter!” or “a ballerina!” not realizing that the process required to do those things and still keep food on the table can be incredibly difficult. People will tell you, as they told me, that it all requires sacrifice and I will agree wholeheartedly with them until the moment comes for me to actually give up on something. Even if just for a a bit more time. Its then that I start to get suspicious that I’ve been led into a bait and switch, though that couldn’t be further from the truth. I have been told all my life that I can go after what I want AND i have been told that it would require sacrifice. I just never really understood what that really meant until those two realities came together.

Which brings me to my weekend and a dream that I had. This weekend I pretty much busted at the seams as I realized that some things that I’ve wanted for our family are just taking longer to realize than I ever imagined that they would. Sometimes it feels like your dreams are just getting lost in the shuffle and you lose your cool. Sometimes, to my absolute surprise, I make certain desires ultimate things without even realizing it. I’ve put them there because the culture I’m surrounded by has put them there and told me that I’ll be able to say “I’ve made it” once I check off these boxes.

Which brings me to a dream I had on Saturday night. I dreamed that my sister was getting married. Kristin was beside herself that she was heading down the aisle. She couldn’t wait to get married and I, as her matron of honor, was just as excited for her. The only problem with this wedding day was that little things kept going wrong before the ceremony could start. I was supposed to hold onto the engagement ring and I had somehow misplaced it. Kristin’s dress had torn and she was forced to wear a black t-shirt on top with her bridal gown’s skirt on the bottom.

Over and over things would happen that were culturally problematic though I suppose not functionally so. You don’t technically need an engagement ring to get married. You can in fact get married in a torn black t-shirt and a white skirt, though perhaps you’ll be thought odd. Over and over in the dream I would finally get up the courage to break the news to my sister about the problem at hand and each time she would laugh and figure out a work around. Each time she would remind me that she just wanted to walk down the aisle and nothing could really get in the way of her excitement over that.

No sooner would I start to laugh ever so hesitantly with Kristin who could have cared less would someone pull me aside and say: “you’re not really going to let her walk down the aisle without her engagement ring, are you?” or, “We can’t start the wedding until she has a new gown. You can’t go down the aisle in a t-shirt!”

Then the dream ended. Ellie woke us up in a coughing fit. Kind of happy about that though…this is one that I want to remember. I believe what the scriptures tell us – this life is preparation for a wedding feast. Genesis starts with a wedding and ends with a wedding celebration and I’ve put all my eggs in that basket. Everything that’s beautiful in the world points to this if you have eyes to see it. The relationship between a husband and a wife. The relationship between a child and her parent. The relationship between us and our environment. The relationship between our work and our world. They are all, at their best, mini outworkings of a world and a people that are preparing for a time when the barriers between God and man are broken down for good. The best wedding you’ve ever attended.

So when my sister was excited to walk down the aisle, regardless of the particulars of how that ceremony itself would play out, she was responding to the call of her life. She was saying: “I don’t care how this all plays out. I just want to walk towards the love of my life!”

While I should have been celebrating and laughing with her I found myself pulled by a culture that said I wasn’t doing it right. Which is kind of ridiculous if you think about it. I’ve never been to the same wedding twice. Which is to say, everyone has a different path down the aisle. So what do we do when we recognize we’re being pulled from the celebration? For good or for ill, here’s what I did:

I intentionally reflected on it all and found myself thankful for the grace to see that I was torn. The night prior I had been certain that I was right as I hammered home a new plan of action for us all and you couldn’t have told me otherwise. But this dream set me straight. I apologized to God (and to Andy!) for believing that he was intentionally withholding from me. Then I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that God would allow difficulty in my life to expose what keeps me from the expectation of the best things for us. Lastly, I asked for the faith to believe that he is already working to provide the next piece of the puzzle that is a part of our journey.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was ultimately killed for daring to dream of and speak for a better world. I wish like hell it didn’t take his death to shake us awake. Yet 40 plus years after his death I sat in a classroom one Tuesday before college graduation and realized I wanted to be a part of the feast that he, and the scriptures he tried to live by, were inviting us into. This didn’t happen in a vacuum. It came after learning about him over and over again and going on trip after trip to engage with folks who’ve had different American experiences than I. I ultimately realized I could go get a corporate job that probably paid really well but left me spiritually empty or I could hold out for a position that stirred up my heart for more partnership with God. The jobs that have pulled that out of me the most have been my roles at Habitat for Humanity and my role as a mom.

I don’t think this leap was insignificant. Taking a position that makes $30,000 a year so that economically distressed individuals can become first time homeowners is not necessarily the best investment of a 17 year private school education. At least if we’re just looking at the numbers. Staying at home with a child is even less so! But at Habitat and in this season with Ellie I see echoes of what the feast will be like in ways that I’m certain I would not have seen as a corporate marketing executive. People who were unjustly kept from opportunities for home ownership finally had the barriers removed. Seemingly insignificant things are inviting great wonder again. While my hopes for the future are taking longer to come to fruition I find that the difficulty makes their eventual appearance that much sweeter. So today I remember the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr. and am encouraged by the city I live in to keep figuring out ways to live out his vision. He was not a perfect man but I know this one thing about him: he tried to show up peacefully and make space for everyone to sit at the table. I hope to follow his lead.

The full text of Dr. King’s speech is here. I can’t recommend reading it enough!

 

What is it that you want?

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Hi friends and faithful readers.

I promised myself and you all when I started this blog that I would not write a post that I didn’t feel inspired to write. When I’ve found time to write lately I have found myself trending towards the book I feel compelled to write. Unless things start to move differently I’ll likely post less often on this site in this season as I try to figure out what this thing is about. I do want to keep this blog going though so I hope thoughts will come to mind here and there that I can share with you all. I just probably won’t be terribly consistent.

That said, I’ll leave you with a few brief thoughts.

A friend of mine posted a verse from a poem by a Persian poet yesterday. It says this:

“Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open?” -Rumi

The longer I live this side of heaven I think this is the question of our lives. It is Christ’s question to us in the New Testament: What is it that you want?

It is the king’s question to Nehemiah when he looks downcast on account of his people and homeland.

And its the question I have for you if only because I find it does not disappoint. This is probably because the Jesus who asks it of me never lets me get away with the easy answer. He’ll sit there quietly until I’m finally honest with him about what’s weighing me down. When I finally get to that crystal clear aspect of what I’m wanting its as if I can feel him smiling and saying “OK, sounds good.” By this time in a very one sided conversation, we are usually of one accord.

Jesus is remarkably quiet. That’s probably because, like children, we’re all making plenty of noise in his presence. But silence doesn’t have to mean disengagement. Silence can just be a waiting period that allows time to catch up to the wonder of a thing. My prayer for us all is that we would use whatever waiting or silence we might find ourselves in for our betterment. Sitting before God and telling him, honestly, what we want. Meditating on the whole of the scriptures and asking God to align our hearts with His. Confessing where we know we fall short and asking for help when we don’t understand.

I’m trying to write more here today but sense its just not coming. So I’ll leave this short and sweet and share a line from Oswald’s Chambers:

“Yielding to Jesus will break every kind of slavery in any person’s life.”

If Paul can write as he did in Philippians (the book of Joy) that he knows the secret to being content in any number of situations – poverty, wealth, well fed or hungry – then I believe its possible for us too. May we be like Paul and learn what it means to do all things through Christ who gives us strength.

Lord, we need the power only you can give. Give us new eyes to see you and show us that you are the abundant life we crave. Amen. 

Eyes to See

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Good morning faithful readers!

Thanks for your patience as I am taking a final writing class at Emory this semester and was required to submit a significant chunk of writing for my final project. Good news – I am attempting to write a book! I’ve never done anything like this before and I am learning a lot. Mostly I am learning that writing a book is a lot more like a journey than a day trip. I’m three chapters in and the book is already taking turns I never expected.

Which brings me to what God and I are communicating about these days: Adventure.

Adventure is a funny word for me. As you grow up and get older you start to buy into the things that your natural temperament wants desperately to set in stone for you. I was a nervous kid growing up and as my mom reminded me just this weekend during her visit to Atlanta, I struggled with change. I didn’t like to try new things. This was not news to me. I’ve always been this way. But lately, I’m wondering if this life narrative of mine is getting in the way and is driving key parts of my life when it should really be riding shotgun. It appears to be the difference between letting my ego run the show as opposed to my spirit-led soul.

If you pick up Elizabeth Gilbert’s amazing book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear you will see her address this dilemma head on as she encourages her readers to lean into a creative and adventurous life. Gilbert knows in this wise way that all of us are living every day trying to keep our devilish fears from running our show. She knows that our egos, the psychological parts of ourselves that tell us who we are, are necessary but also dangerous if we don’t understand their proper role.  In the book she says this:

“Your ego is a wonderful servant, but its a terrible master – because the only thing your ego ever wants is reward, reward, reward…An unchecked ego is what Buddhists call “a hungry ghost”- forever famished, eternally howling with need and greed…My saving grace is this, though: I know that I am not only an ego, I am also a soul…My soul, when I tend to it, is a far more expansive and fascinating source of guidance than my ego will ever be, because my soul desires only one thing: wonder.”

Isn’t that lovely? And true? It reminds me of this amazing passage in the gospel of John when the disciples ask Jesus about a man who was born blind. They are walking along and pass this man who, due to his deformity, was begging on the side of the road. “Rabbi” The disciples ask him, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Then, after spitting in some mud and wiping it on his eyes Jesus heals the man of his blindness. 

I love this passage because its one where Jesus goes right after the lies we all tell ourselves. Think for a moment about anyone you’ve ever known who’s had something about themselves that they hated. You know…like…yourself. We all have parts of ourselves or our history that we wish were different and because they aren’t going away we’ve figured out some incredibly creative ways to hide them. Some of these hiding places are simply sentences we tell ourselves to keep from being exposed as a fraud.

Me, personally? I’ve always hated the part of me that’s so scared all the time. I feel like I have some natural talents and if I just wasn’t so damn afraid all the time I could really take those talents out for a spin. Forget simple blog posts. I’d write a daily blog post AND I’d write bestselling books! All while keeping a perfectly welcoming home and remaining happily married.

God knows me though. He knows that any human talent unchecked by reality will spin out of control into a god that can’t hold what its promising. So God lets me stay afraid. And I go to him on what is by now a moment to moment basis and he whispers “I’m on the case. This isn’t about you. This is about me.”

And then, for a moment, he heals.

Jesus’ healing of the blind man reminds me that God knows us better than we do. Jesus spoke so clearly to the blind man’s heart, as what blind beggar wouldn’t sit on a curb and wonder if he’d done something to deserve his disability? On a particularly bad day he’d surely blame his parents for passing along the genetic code that left him unable to see.

Jesus stomps his foot right in the middle of that hot mess and says:

“Stop talking. Stop thinking. Stop blaming. Stop planning.

Open. Up. Your. Eyes.”

Your weak spots are not about you. They are not about your parents.  They’re not about a list of do’s and don’ts. They’re about God, working mightily through your weaknesses. They’re about the paradox of the gospel made manifest. They’re about what God has been saying since the beginning of time. If you will own your smallness God will finally have room to move. And Oh, the things you will see.

Now, Open your eyes! 

A few weeks ago I was walking around our neighborhood when I saw a sign at someones curb with a note on it: “Free to a good home.” I was curious and removed the note to see a wall painting that is now hanging in our living room. It says this:

“Wouldn’t life be great if we all lived a little of it everyday.” 

Y’all, if you know me, this is HILARIOUS.

It has to be hilarious or I’d be hopping mad that God is rubbing his message in. It appears God is opening my eyes to the fact that I’ve been listening to my ego, my natural temperament, for a little too long. I’ve got a go-to line that I tell myself that says I’m just a scared little girl who has to do the things in her routine comfort zone or she’ll fall apart. I don’t think I even realize how slowly and slyly that line has weaved its way into my soul. So God, knowing this better than I do, has given me line after line after line in my life about adventure in recent weeks. He’s quite clearly trying to convince me that its time to let go of the side of the pool and join him in the deep end.

Here’s the funny thing…I don’t even necessarily know what any of this means. I have a general understanding of a few things on the calendar this year that will require some faith muscle. So far only one of those things is set in stone. And I think that’s actually the point. Its not so much that God is saying for me to hop on Expedia and book a flight I can’t afford to Europe as he’s saying I should just reach out my hands and hold onto his. He’s saying what my devotional read a couple of weeks ago:

“Give yourself fully to this adventure of increasing attentiveness to My Presence.”

He’s saying that we could be 30,000 feet in the air on a plane to the Bahamas or we could be sitting in pajamas on a rainy day in Atlanta and it doesn’t really matter. The adventure is in the communion of it all. The adventure is the fact that we’re doing it together. Because the only thing better than going on an adventure is going on an adventure with someone you love.

God will use anything from a man born blind to a woman born with a nervous temperament to get his eternal point across:

He is.

He is good.

He is glorious,

and he is reaching out to people like you and like me to re-frame the categories we put ourselves into. He wants to show the most important people in the room, namely ourselves, that he is a God of mercy and goodness and light. Truthfully, I think he’s waiting until we’re all so tired of the personal/communal blame game that we sit on the ground in our rags, lift up our faces and ask for eyes that can finally see. May the good Lord hasten that day.

***

“When we follow Jesus, it means that we don’t know exactly what it means, at least in detail. We follow him, letting him pick the roads, set the timetables, telling us what we need to know only when we need to know it…When Jesus says ‘follow me’ and we follow, we don’t know where we will go next or what we will do next…we follow the one who does know.” -Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way

 

 

 

Neon Winter

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Neon Winter

By: Courtney Beck

Look at that bluebird

Dancing in the bare tree limbs

Across the street from where you sit

In your car. Engine humming, thoughts whirling

Wondering, desperately, what’s

Next, what’s next, what’s next?

Blue’s red chest matches the light you wait

On, frustrated by the fact that even if it turns

Green, it might not matter all that much. You’ll still be

Stopped, and stuck, in the

Waiting of this peculiar season.

Which brings me to the bluebird’s girl,

Drab as the lower branch she rests on.

In clear view of Mr. Red Chest,

He flutters now on an abandoned roof

Revealing his remarkable glory.

She hops between branches and wonders why

She’d ever want to hurry the spring and its

Lush green leaves. Surely, they’ll comfort in their time,

While blocking the view to that neon blue coat that’s

Keeping us all warm on this cold January Day.

 

New Year. New Plan. Not What I Expected.

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Happy New Year folks. Well, I’ve been at this blogging thing since May and have posted 32 times! This is a minor miracle in my view as I can easily get swept into other initiatives. The best part is that I’ve heard back from at least one reader for each post who has encouraged me to keep going. Your comments and insights have been so encouraging so please keep them coming! I love learning from you all and am grateful that so many of you have stayed connected.

Now, lets talk about new beginnings. It’s the new year after all.

New Year, New You?

Hmmm. I’m skeptical.

Mostly because I know myself. And I know many of you. And while I know we’re all in different seasons and different stages of life I am sure of this: You and I are far more similar than we are different.

If you feel yourself wondering where all the holiday spunk went you’re in good company. Because let me tell you…2018 rolled over without much fanfare in our household. We got home from a holiday trip and found ourselves in much the same place we were in at the beginning of December. It was back to work for us. Bills need to be paid, laundry needs to be done, groceries need to be bought.

To be honest, this was a bit disheartening for me that first week of January so I took some to mull it all over. I thought about last year – the highs and the lows – and it didn’t take long for me to start considering elaborate plans for the new year. More regimented workouts. Clear writing goals. A color coded budget with tighter categories.

A few days of this though was all I needed to feel quite sick of it all, thank you very much. The older I get the less I’m able to cling to systems. All the more I find myself reaching out for relationship.

The defining word for my life in 2017 was this: Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.

God, quite kindly and clearly, read me my mail in 2017 by showing me how easily I descend into elaborate mental plans and escape routes when all he asks me to do is lift up my face.

Hold up my hands. Wait for him. Wait on him.

And grow stronger in the waiting.

So as I sat in a coffee shop last week and felt “out of tune” with the plans I was writing out for myself I looked down at my watch and realized I had 45 minutes left until I had to pick my kid up for lunch. I could get that workout in that I’d been putting off all morning and be done with it. More than that, I’d actually be doing the thing that most new year’s plans revolve around.  An actual, legitimate workout.

Business guru Seth Godin says it well in his book Tribes. “If religion comprises rules you follow, faith is demonstrated by the actions you take. When you lead without compensation, when you sacrifice without guarantees, when you take risks because you believe, then you are demonstrating your faith…Of course it’s difficult… But it’s worth it.”

Can we be honest for a minute? The things we really want in life are things we have ZERO control over. Sure, you might want to lose 10 pounds in 2018. But I’m betting more than the 10 pounds you want to be the type of person who can feel comfortable enough to stay at a table that makes you nervous without forking food you aren’t hungry for into your mouth. I know I do. Or maybe you want to plan to stop spending frivolously and start contributing to a retirement plan or to a downpayment fund. I bet more than anything though what you really want is access to the inner peace that follows on the heels of good stewardship.

These heart level desires are the things that plans point to, yes, but they are also the things that I am convinced can only be achieved in partnership with the Holy Spirit of God.

Can I share an excerpt from an interview I heard the other day? Jen Hatmaker spoke with Chris Heuertz about his work with the Enneagram. While his thoughts on that test were interesting, I most quickly identified with his description of his time in his early 20s when he worked alongside Mother Teresa in Calcutta, India.

He says the following:

“She was fierce…on one hand you would see her holding a half-starved child or carrying a man who’s dying from tuberculosis across the street with such tenderness and care. Then on the other hand, she was a ball buster like, “Get out of my way,” and don’t stop her, and don’t try to slow her down. I’ll say this; the things that we learn from all of our mentors are less the words they tell us, and more how we watch them live. I watched her, and five times a day, along with the other sisters, they would stop for prayer, for adoration, for mass, for solitude, silence, and stillness…And what that taught me was that all the years that I was around her and all the works that I did in India, we used to think, “Man, they have to pray. They have to pray five times a day to support their efforts.”

Isn’t that beautiful?

People who didn’t know Mother Teresa ultimately remember her for the stunning works she did among the poorest of the poor. And they were stunning. But the people who walked it with her? They remembered how she depended on the Holy Spirit of God for the strength she needed to hold another dying soul. Because lets be clear. A life lived among the dying requires a strength that no human can muster on his or her own. You’d lose your mind.

Her action plan, if you wrote it out, probably looked a lot more like this

  1. Bathe the leper in front of me
  2. Ask Jesus for strength
  3. Write the letter.
  4. Cook the meal.
  5. Ask Jesus for a clear mind.
  6. Encourage a fellow sister
  7. Show the volunteer how to dress the wound compassionately.
  8. Ask Jesus for more help to make it to the end of the day.
  9. Sleep

Friends, do any of us know what we’re doing here? It’s a strange world where narcissists become President and people bully each other on a medium that 30 years ago no one had ever heard of – the internet. Truthfully, chaos feels so near, so often.

Yet if we commit to doing nothing else in 2018 but consistently returning back to the Source of our strength and saying we “Just can’t do it without him” I think we will find at the end of the year that we really could do it when we find that we actually did it with Him.

I have some plans for 2018. Some of them are loose. One of them has a remarkably clear action step that actually makes me sweat. All of them are part of a life full of goals for relational, spiritual and cultural fruit. And after 12 plus years in this game with God as my partner I can say that not a single one of them will come to fruition without the help of the Lord. I get in my own way. I’ve tried to do things on my own in the past and while I may have succeeded with an end result I’ve burned a bridge too many doing it that way. Some of those bridges were with other people and most of those bridges were the ones that connected my mind, heart and soul together. Which is not, in the end, a success.

So who’s in for a Spirit-led 2018? Who’s in for full days asking God for help with the next right thing. What else are we really going to do? I’m afraid we can strategize until the cows come home only to find ourselves lacking any power to make those plans come about.

Didn’t St. Paul say it best?

“the Kingdom of God is not a matter of talk, but of power.” 1 Corinthians 4:20

So here’s the real plan. I’m going to make some plans for 2018 and I’m going to hold them loosely. Everyday I’ll wake up and figure out a couple of things I can do to move those balls forward. And everyday I’ll pause at points throughout the day and ask for help. I’m not sure how it will all turn out. I am sure that some days will go as planned and some days we’ll fall off the wagon. But I also know there will be grace in it all and opportunities to grow in the highs and the lows. And that’s exciting to me. I like to envision myself on the eve of 2019 realizing that I’ve made it to high vistas and through low valleys with the help of the Holy Spirit and the community he’s given me.

So here’s to another year of stumbling forward. You in?

Becoming Human, Becoming Like Joseph.

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I read a blog post the other day that I have not been able to get off of my mind. It was titled What do we do with Joseph? The author explained that as her youngest daughter played with a nativity set she asked her mother why Joseph was included. “Mommy, if God is Jesus’ dad and Mary is Jesus’ mom then why do we need this guy?” The blog has a social justice thrust and the author was ultimately identifying with Joseph. She made the connection that she as a white, heterosexual American woman is for all intents and purposes in the position of Joseph in society today too. A position of power. She ended her post by essentially stating that she doesn’t know ultimately why Joseph was a part of the narrative of Christ’s birth nor does she know why God chooses to use her in 2017, but he has chosen to use them both, and so she’s happy to do her part.

OK people, can you hear me right now? I am groaning with despair over this statement she’s made.

While I understand in premise what the writer was trying to say, my gut response as I’ve read it over again and considered it over and over again in this Christmas season is this:

“God left Joseph in the story because FATHERS ARE NOT JUST SPERM DONORS!”

Sorry, I realize this comes across as crass but its the only way I know how to put it. I remember one of the first thoughts I had when Ellie was born was that I cannot imagine how women and men do the newborn months alone. 2 years into this journey of parenthood I STILL don’t know how people raise children alone?! I know this happens more often than we realize and I also know unequivocally that there is amazing grace available for the single moms and dads out there who as a result of sin or death are raising children alone. Yet I think Joseph and his part in the nativity is proof positive that God’s plan of redemption is an invitation to each of us to be active participants in a plan that often doesn’t look the way we expect.

I personally love the fact that God intervened in the life of a first century man named Joseph and said “Hi there Joe. Want to get in on what I’m doing here?”

The writer is correct that most of us can probably relate to Joseph though I don’t relate to him in the way that she did. I’m betting Joseph was pretty excited to get married when they were first engaged. I can picture him thinking about how he’d construct his life with Mary. Maybe he wanted to set up shop in the town where they’d met and they’d have a couple of kids and a white picket fence. Maybe he wanted to wait a few years to have kids and travel a bit before he and Mary settled down. What I am certain of is this. Joseph never imagined he’d live the first few years of his life on the run with a child that was conceived before he ever even spent a single night with his wife. He never thought following God would present the probable feelings of intense alienation as he stood by a woman he hardly knew and experienced their communal shunning together.

I imagine Joseph silently walking Mary on his donkey to Bethlehem and trying to convince himself the entire way that he’d heard God right. I imagine him trying to convince himself that what Mary said happened was really true and she was having a baby without ever having known a man intimately.

As I’m relating to Joseph this Advent I’m starting to imagine a great relationship with him, my spiritual grandfather of sorts, when we meet some day. We’ll sit down for coffee on the front porch of his or my heavenly mansion and talk about the times we had to walk in faith. We’ll share all the times in life that we had to lean on the chair of our lives with our whole selves and have faith that the chair wouldn’t break under the weight of it all. We’ll talk about the final moment of faith when the chair actually did break. We dropped to the ground in flurry of scary hot pain only to look up and realize that Jesus, Joseph’s son, was right there when the dust settled with a hand to help us up and welcome us home.

Most of all I think we’ll talk about how the Lord called us into what I have started to call “a third way.” 

With human eyes its easy for us to believe in our Joseph moments that we only have two options in front of us. We can either cut ourselves off from the situation and “divorce Mary quietly” as Joseph originally intended to do or we can remain “dutiful” for the rest of our lives and eventually begrudge the losses we endure as we slowly whither under the weight of the anvil that we’ve now personally placed on our backs.

This, readers, is just an impossible scenario.

I will not do this.

I cannot do this.

And you shouldn’t settle for this either. 

For all the focus on Mary in the nativity story, I wonder if Joseph might actually be the true hero in the story of Christmas. I don’t want to minimize Mary’s sacrifice as it was and is extraordinary. Yet Mary also had an angel of the Lord visit her in person in dazzling glory. I think if a terrifying, fiery angel showed up at my door I’d fall to my knees, hide my face and tell him to take whatever he wanted.

Joseph though? All he had was a dream and a religious tradition that said if you put the weight of your life on the chair of faith the chair may or may not break. The only guarantee for him was that the God who made the fiery angels would be there to pull him out of the wreckage regardless of what happened to the chair. I can imagine with his very human eyes that this was a terrifying proposition given how little he likely knew about the glory of God. After all, what do any of us really know about the glory of God?

So Joseph walked a donkey to Bethlehem because as a man who had big dreams for his life it was the only thing that he could really do. He knocked on doors and tried to convince himself that he was doing the right thing when he found a stable for his betrothed to labor in. Mary breathed hard and cried out and Joseph, unknowingly, made room for her fears while he leaned on his God with the weight of his whole self.

And when it was over Joseph held his son in his arms and introduced this newborn stranger to the animals in the barn. Just when he thought that holding a living breathing baby in spite of the pain and the fear they had just endured was the miracle, people started showing up. Shepherds came in their rags and filth and testified that glory had showed up in the fields where they’d been sleeping. They all, this new family and poor shepherds, sat in their poverty and marveled at what God was doing among the poor through this boy. Then kings came from the east and brought gifts from their kingdoms. They all, this new family and the kings, sat in their wealth and marveled at what God was doing among the rich through Joseph’s son.

At some point in it all I hope Joseph realized that the third option that God offered him was the space that would bring all of his fears and all of his dreams together in one terrifyingly glorious place.  If he’d lean into the fear that an unknown future with God offers, he’d slowly and surely get to the place where God meets us. That space is where our personal poverty spills up and out in such a way that our personal riches in Christ eventually fill to overflowing.

Joseph became all that God intended him to become, he became truly human, by saying yes to God’s third way, the way that doesn’t always seem right or feel right but ultimately is right over and over and over again for a lifetime. In so doing he’s been graced with a place in the nativity story. The only enduring story there ever was.

Thank you God for including Joseph, a man like you and like me, in the Christmas story. We identify with him because we do not always know that you are FOR US in a world and a body that changes in ways we do not expect. Help us to look for the third way. Show us this way in a way we can understand and help us to walk it in faith. We know that somewhere along the way we’ll see your glory and when we do, things will never be the same. 

“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
    and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
    the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and might,
    the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
    or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
    and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
    and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist,
    and faithfulness the belt of his loins.” Isaiah 11: 1-5