THE THING ABOUT FAITH

This is morning, I listened to our guest pastor discuss Hebrews 11. This is that nice chapter that starts out with: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” That’s a beautifully worded verse, isn’t it? It’s so encouraging! Then there’s the second verse: “This is what the ancients were commended for.” And a list of who “the ancients” follows in a really poetic fashion, with the mention of each ancient beginning with “By faith….” And a sense of righteous reverence rises up in me. I this, Wow! These ancients were amazing. Their faith was so strong.

It really is an impressive list of faith. Even sprinkled by moments of mistakes and doubts, these folks finished as God intended for them to. It’s a good reminder that we will very likely make mistakes, but by our maturing faith we will be found righteous as long as we trust that God is truly a good God.

I also listened to what each of the ancients endured and came out on the other side of, even closer to God. They and all the other men and women we read about in the Bible went through some heavy, burdensome things. It makes you look back at beginning of the chapter and reconsider what is really meant by “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” We’re not talking about the hope a child has that they’re going to get a pony for Christmas, or that God’s going to bless you with winning lottery numbers so you can pay off all your debt. These people did the hard things! They did things that exemplify what God means when he says his thoughts are higher than our thought, his ways are higher than our ways and that he’s about to do a new thing. 

08ef2004deac5eb4c1a19b7ceacc0107The Red Sea, sacrificing a son who was inconceivably conceived, a single man telling a pharaoh (himself considered a god) that his God said to let his people go, packing up a huge household, including livestock, and going “over there” because God said to, taking 120 years to build and ark while being mocked by an entire community. No one could fault any of them for saying to God, “You’re kidding, right?” Because we don’t think that way, but God does.

God has never asked me to do the unimaginable or anything as reality-defying as the men and women of the Bible, but in my small world I have had occasions to trust him more than has been comfortable. And it was while I was pondering this fact that our guest preacher moved on to Hebrews 12 which begins, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses….” As I said, I’ve never had to ask God to part the Red Sea for me and thousands of others while an army is at our heels. But I have been overwhelmed by a season of “stuff” that required more money, more energy, or more strength than I had, and stood at the edge of my next step wondering how it was going to be okay, when it was going to be okay, knowing I really had no reasonable option but to go “by faith.”

I was listened to this from a pew at the back of the church. I looked out at the smattering of heads covered by gray hair or no hair among the younger looking heads. And I realized that I was surrounded by my own, personal cloud of witnesses. I attend a Methodist church and you can’t accuse them of being Pentecostal in any modern sense, but I know our older members have a deeply rooted, secured faith that came from doing hard things “by faith.” They’ve been married to the same person longer than I’ve been alive. They’ve buried husbands, wives and children long before they wanted to. They’ve done without and gotten through it anyway. They’ve gotten through things I hope to never have to go through, and things I’ll likely still go through because I’m married, have children, work and, quite simply, because I’m alive.

These beautiful people aren’t wiser simply because their older. They are wiser because they’ve learned hard lessons by faith. They’ve got battle scars that others can’t see. Their armor is certainly worse for wear. They’ve fought battles on their knees. They may walk slower than they did when they were younger, but I know they walk together; and in them is still he heart of a child who knows they are loved by their Father. I love them in a way I never thought I could love anyone, and I thank God for them.

OK…FALSE ALARM!

OK. You know what? I think I just needed a nap, a hug, and some good friends!

norman rockwellOnce again, God gave me a crash course in assurance. Most of my lessons are like this because I think God has this tiny window of opportunity before I change my mind. Seriously, I’m like that kid – you know the one – who gets to the edge of the diving board and is too scared to jump but they can’t really go back to the stairs either so they just stand there hoping the world will open up and swallow them whole but it doesn’t so they go ahead and jump with the conviction that they’re about to drown to death but when they don’t die they figure death would have been better than being embarrassed. Yeah, I’m like that kid.

Shortly after I called the wahh-mbulance the other day, I opened an email from Morgan Harper Nichols. Unlike most of the subscriptions I get emails from, she’s gone to the trouble of personalizing her emails with the recipient’s first name. And that means I saw this as the subject line before I even opened the email: You’re not alone LaRonda.

I know. Right?

Of course, as nice as it was, all I could think was, ‘Maybe you’re not alone, but I’m pretty sure I am.’

I was wrong. So very wrong. Because I’m lazy, I’ve cut  and pasted the rest of Morgan’s message:

When you find yourself in a new place, and you are trying find your footing, may you never feel that you have to navigate it alone. Consider it a blessing that there are other people in this world that you can learn from, even if you are not able to speak to them directly.

You may not be able to be as open to your boss or a colleague as you would like to, or you may not be able to seek wise counsel from family members like you wish you could, but that does not mean you have reached the limit on who you can look to or reach out to.

And it’s okay if “reaching out” takes you out of comfort zone. That’s exactly what’s supposed to happen. The moment you take the step to ask a question or express a need that you have is a bold rejection of the lie that you were meant to do this alone. It does not make you needy. It does not make you weak.

So don’t be so hard on yourself. If you feel that reaching out makes you vulnerable, it does…and it has also made you strong. You were never meant to be in this alone. And the more you begin taking steps to live out this truth, the more you will begin to see just how much it makes a difference in you.

May this be the week you begin to practice stepping out of your comfort zone just a little bit more. May you begin to open your heart to possibility that vulnerability takes courage and the willingness to accept that you have no idea what is going to happen. Be honest about what you are thinking and feeling this week. Be honest with yourself. Be mindful of the moments where you feel tempted to shut down or withdraw or give up. And it’s okay to have these moments and being able to acknowledge them is a huge step in working through them.

Sincerely,
Morgan Harper Nichols

Yesterday, I went to church and was surrounded by amazing people who had not only had their faith tested and strengthened, but are in the midst of a trial right now. It’s foolishness to think your problems are more insurmountable than someone else’s. I don’t think I’m struggling with how bad I think things are. I know there are painful things that I can’t imagine having to go through, and my heart breaks for anyone carrying such a load.

Lately I’ve thought a lot about painful things that can never change until we’re Home. Two people in our church family have lost their spouse this year. Another woman had her leg amputated. A young woman I once worked with lost her five-month old boy to SIDS. People don’t return to life. A limb isn’t going to grow back. I can eventually pay off debt or purchase another car. I can even arrange things to compensate for the changes in me since my open-heart surgery. And I’ll eventually learn how to work with one good arm and one permanently dislocated arm. It won’t always be easy, but it can be done.

However, some things do not change. There are some things that I can’t fix, and that makes me feel powerless and vulnerable. (That was harder to say than you might think.)

I’ve spent most of my life garnering as much control as I could because I was the only person I could count on to not hurt me. (And, honestly, I’ve probably been crueler to myself than anyone else has ever been.)

So right now, I need help to carry things, to cook, to do my job. I have to ask for help when I need it. Here’s what can happen:

  • Someone will gladly help me.
  • Someone will help me but not exactly the way I would have done it – which, of course, is the right way.
  • Someone will help me and then hold it over me when they need to leverage it for guilt.
  • Someone will say ‘No.’

That gives me a 50% chance be being hurt. And a 100% chance that I won’t ask for help until I’m desperate.

Fortunately, God has put people in my life who are as persistent as they are kind. Fortunately, God has infinite patience with me as he teaches me that it’s okay to ask for and accept help. And that I can be secure that if I reach out my hand, there will be someone there to hold it.

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Sometimes, I just have to be brave enough to jump and trust that there are lifeguards who won’t let me drown. Yeah…pretty sure.

WINTER OF MY DISCONTENT

watercolor snowmanAh, winter! Mugs of hot cocoa, long walks along snow-kissed streets. And snowflakes! Winter’s butterflies. Did you know that we are like snowflakes? Yes, each one of us unique. And, like snowflakes, alone we can do little but together we can do so much.

Like create avalanches.

When I wrote about the value, nay beauty, of seasons, I was apparently only really appreciating Fall. A close second would be spring, with Summer and Winter coming in last in a close tie.

Fall is the season I enjoy most. But right now there’s winter. Still.

Sure the first snowfall is beautiful, but eventually the pure, untouched blanket of snow get scarred with the soles of boots, tire tracks, and shovels. Snowmen melt, but not until they look like dirty vagrants stalking our neighborhoods. Sometimes the snow doesn’t have a chance to melt before another snow comes along and then you just have a lot of snow. Ice and freezing temperatures become hazards. There is no color and everything looks dead. The streets narrow, you have a hard time fitting you and your winter coat behind the steering wheel, the cold forces you indoors, and it never seems to end.

winter bucket listAt times like this, it’s hard to remember that nature has a way of using winter. Nature has a plan for winter. So do merchants.

I don’t.

And lists like this one? They eventually give way to more practical things like paying the bills and buying a car to replace the one I wrecked when I spun out on ICE!

Don’t get me wrong! I hate summer as much as I do winter, so I’m a equal opportunity season bigot. I just prefer seasons that have color and allow for some movement. I like seasons that appear to be doing something, and winter doesn’t appear to be doing anything.

And I wonder when this season will end. Where I live, the snow is actually melting away without being replenished on a steady basis. You’d think that would warm my stone-cold heart, right? Not so much, because what is there when the snow melts but layers of dead leaves that we weren’t able to get raked up before the snow came to stay this year; the same leaves that will be there to deal with in the spring.

When I wonder when the frustrations in my life will end, I see the unfinished work that’s still there to do and see the constancy of things in my life that seem to accumulate exponentially – the bills, the aches and pains, the debt, the house repairs – and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and hopeless. Like my yard, I could remove a layer of snow, but there’s still a blanket of leaves beneath it. And beneath that blanket is an uneven yard that will grow crabgrass because it hasn’t been properly cared for.

joy in the morningBut God has a promise.

But I feel as though I’ve been waiting a lifetime to see the incomparable joy that He promises. And it seems like just when I think things are going to improve, something else sets me back.

I know that God has a purpose in our pain and that He never promised that we’d see His joy during the time we inhabit our bodies on Earth. I even realize that when the next blessing comes along, I will sheepishly admit that God is faithful – always.

Still, it would be nice to have more than one thing be counted joy at the same time. Too often, I feel like I’m in a perpetual state of negotiation and compromise, getting one thing only to have something taken away – everything kept in balance so that I can be neither “ahead” or “behind.”

347d9a1bbc9d1d09543b4f8d1a5cd490I’m also aware that if I measure my joy by how many operable cars I have or how many bills I can pay off, then I’m using the wrong measuring stick and assuming that God doesn’t care for me when He really does.

Still, it would be nice to just relax in a soft over-sized chair with some warm socks, a fire, a hot cup of cocoa and a good book as it sit by a window and watch the snow gently fall.

For a while, anyway.

Perhaps it will be in that quiet that I will hear whispered, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”  John 14:27

Did the Grinch Steal Your Christmas?

I usually start out the holiday season (the no-I’m-not trying-to-be-politically-correct – from-Thanksgiving-to-New Year “holiday season”) like this:

elfI want the house to look festive. I want to bake cookies and make candy. I want to watch all the classic Christmas movies from A Christmas Story to Die Hard while I’m curled up on the couch with my family, a warm blanket and a big bowl of popcorn. I want to play Christmas music from Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Wizards in Winter to the Muppet’s’ unique take on The Twelve Days of Christmas or (my personal favorite) Dominick the Italian Christmas Donkey. I want to write the coolest Christmas letter to our family and friends, and get it mailed early!

But my Christmas letter turns into a New Year letter. If I hear Harry Belafonte sing Twelve Days of Christmas one more time, I’ll scream. (Actually, If I have to hear anyone stretch out “five go-old rings” through seven verses, I’ll scream!) My husband and I are too tired to stay up for a movie, and I’ve barely seen my daughter since the beginning of school break. The cookies and candy? Well…I’ve got the ingredients but got lost on Pinterest looking for the right recipe. And the house? Not bad, but the spare room is full of boxes – at least the ones that got into the room. One of the cats is using a partially-emptied tote for a bed and an unfinished wreath rests against the table by my chair. The cats seem to enjoy the way the fake needles massage their coats as they walk through the middle of it.

I am not Martha Stewart.

I think I love the idea of Christmas; but to be completely honest, Christmas really, really stresses me out! My husband and I have yet to go into the season with any money set aside for gifts, and John and I have gone through 21 Christmases with very different ideas on how much we should spend. And gift-giving of any sort gives me anxiety because I could never buy the right thing for my mother. (It’s okay – I’ve talked to my therapist about it.) I’m confident that most people probably have someone like that in their family; and if they don’t think they do, then they’re probably that person.

One year, I thought I had it nailed! My mother told me she would like one of two books – Roseanne Barr’s Roseanne: My Life as a Woman or the newest book from Robert Schuller. I chose Robert Schuller’s book because I thought it would be inspirational. When she opened it, she was quiet for a bit, then she set it aside without a word.

“Did I get the right one?” I asked.

“It’s fine.”

“You said you wanted that one or the one by Roseanne Barr, right? Is there something wrong with it?”

“Well, I wanted Roseanne’s book.”

No “thank you” at all. I’d failed again. That sort of track record leaves you a little anxious about getting anyone the “perfect” gift.

I am not Santa, either!

grinch and maxAll of the “forced festivity” is enough to turn a girl into a Grinch! You’re buying things for people you wouldn’t ordinarily buy something for – Secret Santa’s, the mail carrier, the paper carrier, the woman who does your hair! How much is enough? How much is too much? If you get it on sale, does the original price count or does the sale price count? Are you re-gifting something  to the person who gave it to you last year? Does it count if it’s handmade? Do the bag and card count as part of the price or not? What happens when you get a “surprise” gift and (naturally) have to find a gift of equal value to reciprocate? What on Earth made anyone actually think you liked ceramic turtles?! (Well, you’re a bona fide collector now, Sweetie! You’re welcome.) Your kids – bless their little hearts – understand that you can’t afford the latest electronic doo-hickey. They’ll just ask Santa for it. Fine! Maybe Santa can pay for the new tires we need for the car, too!

There are three groups of people my shriveled Grinch heart really goes out to:

  • The introverts who are expected to spend all their free time in the foreseeable future in the company of extroverts.
  • The hostesses who end up stuck in the kitchen cleaning up after a big family feast that took two days to prepare and 20 minutes to consume!
  • Those who are trying to work their way through the holidays while bearing true substantial loss of a family member. (This is a special group that has a place in my heart like no other and deserves the dignity of being mentioned but not included in an honestly superficial rant like this.)

Is this really what Christmas is all about?

first christmasNo. No, it’s not. We know this going into Christmas, don’t we? Cognitively, we know it’s about the fulfilled promise of God and the baby in the manger. Even the folks who only go to church for Easter, Christmas and the occasional baptism or wedding know what Christmas is really about!

But we fall for the guilt, pressure and commercialism every year, don’t we? No one wants to be left out during a gift exchange, even if we don’t need another thing and probably won’t score anything all that special anyway. Is it any wonder we end up at least a little disappointed when we go into Christmas feeling like Elf and finish feeling like the Grinch. The version of the holidays that we buy into has the potential to rob us of our joy.

For me, the worst part is that I let it happen. I could set a monetary limit and stick to it. I could tell my friends and coworkers that I prefer to not participate in group gift exchanges because I don’t want to take on more debt. I could budget my time the same way by carefully choosing which get-togethers I prefer to attend, then balance them with the time I need to be alone with my family at home. At least my generation is beginning to appreciate the freedom of slow cookers and ready-made dishes that allow us time to spend with the ones we love – or are at least related to. Stressful food preparation no longer defines our womanhood. Much.

Christmas is about God offering “tidings of comfort and joy”, and here I am worn out and bitter. It’s about hope, but I’m freaking out about how much debt we’re accumulating. It’s about peace, and I’m cranky. It’s about liberation, and I feel trapped by social constructs. It’s about pardon, and I feel indebted. It’s about inclusion, and I hear story after story of family strife.

wreath crownChristmas is about eternal matters that cannot be measured or limited, and my focus is on resources that are finite and exhaustible – time, money and energy. I allow these things to take priority in my life while I struggle to keep alive a now, very small corner of my faith.

Who knows? Maybe next year I’ll find some balance that will allow me to enjoy the best of the holidays. Bless all of you who come alive and are in your element during the holidays! Personally, I’m relieved that Christmas only comes once a year. It comes and it goes. But the Kingdom on which the birth of Christ is built is with me all year long.  Now, that is a gift worth keeping!

I Don’t Get It!

If you’ve never seen it before, here’s your chance. It’s called “performance painting” and it’s been around for quite a few years now. David Garibaldi is probably one of the better known performance painters around today. I remember the first time I saw anything like this was at least 10 years ago. I’ve seen it used as motivation at schools, leadership conferences, and even churches – like in this video.

I first saw artists create portraits of a musician as the audience listened to one of their songs. For example, someone would paint a portrait of John Lennon while the audience listened to “Imagine.” It truly can be beautiful and stirring. Then some artists got more clever and began to paint a portrait upside down or even on a canvas that could be turned 360 degrees during the performance.

Being gifted enough to paint is one thing. Being able to create a portrait from any direction with splashes here and swipes there is downright awesome! The really cool thing that I enjoy about performance painting is that most paintings start out looking chaotic, almost a mess of smears and lines that don’t look like anything. And, quite frankly, the artist looks a little fruity bouncing around on the stage throwing paint on a canvas haphazardly. But when he’s done…something beautiful has been created right in front of you and you probably didn’t even see it coming together!

Segue to yesterday: My daughter was deeply disappointed. She’s prayed for something. Her father and I prayed about it. Her friends offered her petition to God. And she didn’t get what she’d hoped for. We’ve all felt that disappointment.

There are times I’ve been completely confounded. I don’t understand why. I wonder if the hard times will ever let up. I just don’t get it!

I can only imagine how hard it is for my teen-aged daughter and her friends. Everything is so new to them. The pain, joy, rejection, confusion, hopelessness. It’s the first time they deal with the things I’ve dealt with some many times already…and I still don’t always have the optimism of hope or a steadfast faith that God has a good plan for it all.

We just see pieces. We see the splatters of paint on the canvas, a random swatch here, a flick of paint there. Quite frankly it looks like a mess! Kind of makes you wonder what sort of joke this is.  Isn’t this supposed to be something?

In “Stronger“, Mandisa sings:

Hey, heard you were up all night
Thinking about how your world ain’t right
And you wonder if things will ever get better
And you’re asking, why is it always raining on you
When all you want is just a little good news
Instead of standing there stuck out in the weather

Isn’t that how we feel so often when we don’t understand what God is up to?

Is He there?

Does He see me, hear me?

Is He punishing me?

Am I not a good enough Christian?

Maybe – probably – that’s not it at all. Because God has a plan for your life, a good plan. You just can’t see the whole picture yet.

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Maybe it will be a very long time before we see the whole picture. Perhaps we’ll be gone long before God’s purpose for something is revealed. It’s even possible that we may never know the purpose because it’s something that doesn’t happen, rather than something that does happen.

The question is, can we trust the Master Artist, the ultimate Creator Himself, to create something beautiful in the end?

Jesus made no sense to the world – from his birth to his resurrection. His people expected a military leader, and yet he talked about turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile for those in military power over them. He went to his own execution without defending himself. He said the strangest things about temples being destroyed and rebuilt again in three days. Then he just died.

And the apostles and other disciples had no idea what to do with themselves. So they decided to just go back to the lives they’d had a mere three years earlier. No one understood that the Creator, the Artist, wasn’t done with the whole picture yet.

The kingdom of God is upside-down! When Christ rose from death, the portrait was righted, and then – and then – it started to make sense. Only  in God’s world could we be made white as snow with the blood of Jesus.

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Life gets messy. It can be chaotic. A lot of the time, it just doesn’t make sense to us. But nothing comes as a surprise to our Father. He knows what He’s doing, and the really amazing thing is that He’s doing a new thing – which means there is no way we can anticipate what it will be. He is able to make a way where there seems to be no way.

So my daughter is disappointed right now, and she doesn’t understand why. I don’t have an answer for her except to remind her that she is firmly in the hands of the One who has a good plan for her. He will never leave her or forsake her. He knows how many hairs are on her head – no matter what color she decides to dye it! And when He is finished with her, her life will be a beautiful portrait of His love, His glory, His grace and His power! Even this disappointment will be a part of her life’s testimony. And, oh, how surprised so many people will be when they see it.

LET IT GO!

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Of all the four seasons, I enjoy Autumn most of all because it’s the season that welcomes everyone back into their home to spend longer evenings with family, friends or a good book.

Hal Borland was an American author, journalist and naturalist. (No, he’s is not the brother of Al Borland from “Tool Time.”) I like to think of him as a “season specialist.” He found a way of finding wonder and wisdom in the different seasons and the constant transformation of nature.

Now that we’re officially in Autumn, trees have been in a glorious survival mode for a few weeks already. But what a amazing show before Autumn is done!

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Did you know that leaves don’t just fall off? Growing up, I assumed they did – I mean, it is FALL after all. Leaves, in fact, are actually pushed off by the tree. It’s the only way the tree will survive the winter. We could learn a lot from trees.

Right now, trees are letting go of anything that would make survival during winter harder. If they were to keep their leaves, the added weight of the snow would break their branches.

We don’t know what Winter will be like here in Minnesota this year – when it will start to snow, how much it will snow, how much snow will melt in between snowfalls, or when it will stop snowing for the season. That’s how seasons often are – we have some idea of what to expect, but we can never be certain, can we? The only two things we can be certain of is that Winter will begin and Winter will end. Although that sounds simplistic to the point of being condescending, we often seem surprised by its arrival and disappointed that it’s not over soon enough.

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.” Ecclesiastes 3:1 NIV

8f0ca2121e047e9f93401eea082fd846We each have seasons in our lives, as well – some easy, some challenging; some pleasant, some painful. I believe there are a few truths of seasons, whether in nature or in our personal lives.

They’re inevitable.

They’re temporary.

They’re transformational.

But most of all, they’re transitional. Just as Autumn is sandwiched in between Summer and Winter, the season you’re going through will pass in time. (True, it might pass like a kidney stone, but it will pass!)

The key to surviving your particular season is to let go of anything that doesn’t help you through it. What are you holding onto that you need to let go of in order to survive the challenging season ahead – a season of financial change, a season of poor health, a season of grief, a season of busyness, a season of disappointment?

Let go of habits that are robbing you of your time and energy. Release people from your unforgiveness. Delegate responsibility. Ask for help. Free yourself from unrealistic expectations. Use paper plates! (Not all changes need to be grand and philosophical, you know.)

Take time to find beauty in your season. It’s there somewhere! Even in the midst of death in Autumn, trees look like blazing flames atop a match, the leaves change color and fall to carpet the Earth in gold, red and orange.

Autumn also provides a new view. Hal Borland recognized that “October is the fallen leaf, but it is also a wider horizon more clearly seen. It is the distant hills once more in sight, and the enduring constellations above them once again.” The season in which everything seems to die also allows us to see everything that was obscured by foliage during the summer!

So while seasons are an inevitable part of nature and our lives, they can be survived. Beauty can be found in those changes. And, ultimately, what lies dormant will bring forth life in its time. All we need to do is prepare for it, be patient as we move through it and trust that this season may just be what we need to see God’s faithfulness in the next season.

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“One day you will look back on this season and know that you are truly blessed, and not because things were perfect but because you found perfect grace in the worst of it.”

~Morgan Harper Nichols