Manual

When we give our children gifts, we see these gifts not as an end, but as the means to an end. Each year at Christmas, we give an “experience” gift which has either “family-bonding time” or our girls’ own “personal growth” in mind.

This year we accomplished both!

After putting up with used single-geared “kids” bikes for many years, we decided an upgrade was in order and purchased all three of our girls new multi-geared mountain bikes. We knew the concept of shifting gears would be new to them, but the challenge is what this was all about, right?

Well, our first few rides have certainly been family-bonding time, but not for the reasons you might think. Our idealistic dream of off-road adventure has been a constant stop and go of: “My bike isn’t working!”

The other day, we finally came to the realization that, having been raised in a digital world, our kids expect to push a button and have the thing they want to happen, happen. They’ve never searched for a radio station with the slight adjustment of a knob, fast-forwarded and rewound a VHS tape 20 times to get to the exact spot they’re looking for, or had to follow an encyclopedia rabbit-trail of “see page ____” to get to the information they need. When they twist the arrow to “3” they expect their chain to slip perfectly into third gear – and when it doesn’t, they don’t know what to do!

As experienced riders (and non-digital-natives), Tim and I know that shifting a bike (especially the budget-friendly versions we purchased) requires a “manual” mindset. Moving the arrow to “3” spot might not put you in third gear, but a few slight up or down adjustments will get you there eventually!

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I’m a huge fan of the “next big thing,” not in terms of what’s trending, but in terms of what’s going to “fix” my relationship with God. Whenever I experience a dry or apathetic season, I find myself looking at that “3” over there and thinking, “If I can just push that button, it’ll take me right where I want to be!” Sometimes it’s a book I think will have all the answers. Sometimes it’s a practice I know will finally kick me into gear. Sometimes it’s a return to an old discipline that worked before and will surely work again.

But as I wrap-up my 25th year of this relationship, I can say for sure that it’s anything but digital. Every “button” that promises a specific “outcome” is only a vague guideline which, over time, may lead to a broad range of results. Because I am not an automated human and my God is not a programmable God.

“As the deer pants for streams of water,
   so my soul pants for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.”
(Psalm 42:1-2a)

A relationship with the “living God” is just as much a “relationship” as my relationship with my husband or my children or a friend. A relationship with another “living” being is not something I will ever be able to manage with a button. The definition of life is that a thing has the potential to move, grow, and change and movement, growth, and change happen in fluid, subtle variation.

Every move I make with the hope of knowing Jesus more is a manual adjustment. It’s never a steady ride – there will always be ebb-and-flow, up-and-down, and back-and-forth shifts required as circumstances and seasons change. I regularly feel disappointed that my next big thing is “not working”! But that’s probably a good thing because a deer-panting, soul-thirsting desire for God isn’t something that can be selected from a screen.

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This is my last post before I take a break for the summer. School is about to end and I’ve got a few short weeks to prepare for our SERVE 2019 high school and middle school trips! And after that, as I shift out of “writing” gear, I’ll be shifting into “learning” gear. My project for the summer is prayer and a giant textbook-size manual called “Prayer Portions” my friend Jess finally convinced me was worth the investment.

In the introduction to the book, author Sylvia Gunter says, “You will miss the essence of this resource book if you are looking for formulas.” She makes sure her reader understands that she doesn’t teach “‘Domino pizza praying’ – thirty-minute-guaranteed delivery” because intimacy with God is not for the “quick inquirer” but is cultivated in daily practice over long periods of time.

This time, and maybe for the first time, I’m not expecting this book to be my “next big thing”. I’m not hitting the “Awesome Prayer Life” button and assuming I’ll get there by September (or ever!).

Intimacy with God is not measured in whole numbers or even half-sizes – but it sure is an off-road adventure!

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Happy Summer – see you in September!
Until then I’ll be reposting from the 2017-2018 year and I hope you’ll follow along 😊

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Suspense

The camera pans over the summit of a massive granite ledge to the green valley 3,000 feet below. But your eyes are immediately drawn away from the green to something not natural: the red shirt of a man climbing hand over hand up the wall… with no rope.

The opening scene of “Free Solo” continues as Alex Honnold pulls himself to the top of El Capitan, stands up, and looks down a what he just accomplished. As the audience, you can safely assume he did not fall – otherwise the film would never have been produced. But, just to be sure, the filmmakers give you the gift of knowing what happens in the end before you start freaking out!

As much as this documentary is about Honnold’s record-breaking climb, it’s almost as much about the filming of the climb. A “free solo” of this magnitude required 100% perfection – one mistake meant death. Should anyone else even be watching this climb? Would the presence of cameras affect Honnold’s ability to focus, causing him to make a mistake and die?

As you watch the final 20 minutes of the film – the climb itself – you can’t help but stare at the screen and at the same time turn your head because you just can’t look! Even though you know the end (you know he’s going to make it!) you’re holding your breath and grabbing your stomach in the suspense of the moment.

The scene switches back and forth from Honnold to the camera crew and producers themselves, where the suspense is thick. Even though you know what happens, they don’t. They’re not just watching it on a screen, they’re experiencing it live. They know they’re about to witness something either astonishingly epic or gravely tragic – and for three hours and 56 minutes they had no way of knowing which it would be.

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Over the past several months, I’ve been walking with a friend through a hard situation. I’m not even the one going through it, but this crisis has tested my faith and caused me to ask some hard questions about what I believe. Because even though I believe in a God who has given His children many promises, there is no guarantee that those promises equal a happy ending, as I define it, in the here and now or even in the foreseeable future.  

When you’re in a crisis – whether it’s financial, relational, medical, or spiritual – it can feel like you’re dangling from a ledge, just trying to hold on to any small crevice of hope. There are no easy answers and most of the cliche pieces of advice people offer only make you feel worse. Sometimes things happen that are just plain hard, just plain scary, and just plain suck.

In her book, “Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved,” Kate Bowler recounts her story of being diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer at age 35. In the months after her diagnosis, Kate found herself navigating what it looked like to have “faith” during a time of intense suffering and a prognosis of only months to live.

One of the things that struck me was Kate’s realization that, after criticizing others for having an entitlement-based faith in which healing was demanded from God, she found that she herself was holding onto subconscious expectations of what she believed He should do for her. She had visions of what it might look like to make it to the ‘top’ of this climb and expected a loving, faithful, and powerful God to get her there.

The words of Psalm 13 give us a poetic picture of what it looks like to have faith in the middle of a crisis. David begins by being honest and crying out in the unfairness of his suffering:

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
 How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
 and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
 How long will my enemy triumph over me? (v. 1-2)

After getting that off his chest, David asks the Lord to show Himself and give him hope:

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
 Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
 and my foes will rejoice when I fall. (v. 3-4)

Then, after making his request, David declares his trust, even if the Lord doesn’t come through on his request:

But I trust in your unfailing love;
   my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
   for he has been good to me. (v. 5-6)

We all have subconscious expectations of what it looks like for us or someone we care about to make it to the top of a climb. If we’re willing to do some honest soul-searching, we’ll find we have lots of:

“If God loves us then _____________________ will happen.”

“If God is faithful then _____________________ will happen.”

“If God is powerful then _____________________ will happen.”

“Faith” lives in the suspense of trusting a God who doesn’t have to come through in the way I expect Him to. “Faith” submits to a God who has a much bigger picture in mind than my day, my week, my season, or even my lifetime. “Faith” understands that I may not have any answers about the “reason” for my pain. Ever. “Faith” keeps walking in the direction of a God who could do nothing I have planned for Him to do and accepts that it wouldn’t mean He loves me any less.

The difference between us and Alex Honnold is that we have a rope. We may not be gripped to the wall, in full control of our destiny, but we’re securely attached to the God whose purpose will stand. Trusting God will always leave me feeling suspended and in suspense – and when I sing “You’re never gonna let me down”* I can trust that He won’t! 😳

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*“King of My Heart” by John Mark & Sarah McMillan

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Crush

“Okay, Anna, you can walk now,” I said to our seven-year-old, who was about to start running up a long, steep section of trail in Valley Forge Park. We were two miles into a four-mile family hike/run and though she had kept up with us to this point, I wasn’t sure how long she would last. “No one runs this hill, it’s too long and steep! We can just walk to the top.”

Little did I know I had just issued a challenge. I could see the wheels in her little mind turning, No one? NO one?

Yes, she did run up that hill. A seven-year-old left the rest of us in her dust and ran all the way to the top without stopping. And then proceeded to complete the rest of the four miles without hesitation.

That’s when we knew it was time to sign Anna up for our annual family race – the Crush Childhood Cancer 5K*.

It’s one thing when you’re showing up your older sisters (and parents) on a mountain, but it’s another thing to keep running when no one really cares. In our training runs, we learned a lot about what it means to just keep moving.

To a seven-year-old, it only makes sense that if your legs hurt, you should slow down. If you’re tired, you should walk. If your tummy hurts, you should stop. And if all this is happening at mile one, there’s “no way” you’re going to be able to do 3.1!

But “Coach Mom” has some words for you:

Everyone’s legs hurt when they run. You can still run when your legs hurt.
Everyone gets tired when they run. You can still run when you’re tired.
Everyone’s tummy hurts when they run. You can still run when your tummy hurts.
You can do this!

When Jesus prayed for His future followers in John 17:20-23, His number one request was “that all of them may be one”. (v. 21 & 22) And if our unity is Jesus’ number one priority, then by the laws of physics it will, of course, become our number one struggle. If the whole point of “church” is the gathering of people joining together to push forward the kingdom of God, it only makes sense that we’ll experience some pushback from God’s enemy.

As an introvert, “church” is one of the hardest times of my week. It’s not that I don’t like the people (I love you all, I really do!), it’s just that I would much rather be alone in a field somewhere 😉 When you have social anxiety, every Sunday is hard. Every event is hard. Every gathering is hard.

Maybe you’re not an introvert, but maybe church is a struggle for you because of a relational conflict. Maybe you have some disagreements about the way things are done or how certain situations have been handled in your church. Maybe you have a schedule conflict where something else has taken priority during that time. Maybe you’re just schedule-overwhelmed and Sunday mornings are your only break. Maybe you’re burned out from serving in the church and feeling underappreciated. Even my husband, whose heart literally beats, “Church… Sunday… People… Yay!… Church… Sunday… People… Yay!”, has days where it’s the last place he wants to be!

And it only makes sense in our minds that if something is hard, we should stop doing it.

A few weeks ago, I was again in “Coach Mom” mode, explaining to Anna that, “Every time I run, my legs hurt. Every time I run, I get tired. Every time I run, my tummy hurts.” Overhearing this, my 11-year-old started to laugh and said to me, “Then why in the world do you do it?”

“Because I want to keep my body healthy and every time I run I’m reaching that goal!” I replied.

In a counseling session recently, my counselor asked: “If ministry causes you stress, then why do you do it?”

My answer was the same: “Because I want to stay spiritually healthy, I want my church to stay spiritually healthy, and every time I go I’m reaching that goal!”

In the closing words of his letter to the Romans, Paul counsels the church to not be discouraged by the division and obstacles threatening them. In verse 20, he declares: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.”

Who will crush Satan? God.
But whose feet does He use? Yours.

Every time I don’t want to go to church and I walk in those doors anyway, I’m crushing Satan under my feet.

You can still run when you’re tired.
You can still run when your legs hurt.
You can still run when your tummy hurts.
And, as we found out on Saturday, you can still run when you desperately need a restroom!

“Church” may be hard and it may not bring you all the good feelings it seems to promise – but every time you walk in those doors you’re not only crushing Satan, but also keeping yourself and the rest of us spiritually healthy!

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Anna did complete the 5K this Saturday. She ran the whole way and finished in less than 30 minutes!

*For more information on this great cause, check out crushchildhoodcancer.org

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Blind Spot

I confess I’m not the best driver. It’s common for me to miss a turn or stop at a green light because I’m so focused on the story I’m telling to whoever is in the car with me. I also struggle, as many of us do, with overconfidence. I haven’t fully turned my head to see if anyone’s in my blind spot, but I’m sure no one’s there, so I’m just going to pull over. 😉

Last week, Tim and I attended a ministry conference in Atlanta, GA. The airport and our hotel were a distance from the conference center, so we rented a car for the four days we were there. We love our cars, but there’s something fun about renting a “new” car with all the high-tech functions our older, base model cars don’t have!

Not only did our rental car have a backup camera, it also had “Lane Departure” alerts, beeped to tell me when the car ahead of me had moved at a light, and most importantly, had super-helpful “Blind Spot Lights”. If a car was in the lane next to me, a light near the side mirror turned orange to alert me so I didn’t pull over and cause an accident!

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Cars aren’t the only things with blind spots. As humans, we have an uncanny ability to remain blissfully unaware of our flaws, even when they seem painfully obvious to everyone around us. Maybe it’s because we’re too close-up in our own situations, or maybe it’s just that we enjoy living in denial, but whether we’re refusing to turn our heads or just don’t quite turn them far enough, we tend to miss things.

One of the themes I picked up at the conference was: A leader who wants to grow isn’t afraid to ask for critical feedback. As we listened to speakers present their ideas about how to do ministry well, we learned that much of our effectiveness in helping others comes down to our own spiritual and relational well-being. The way we stay spiritually and relationally well is through gradual change in the direction of growth – but we can’t change what we don’t see.

This Sunday at church, Pastor George talked about the importance of being honest about our sin and confessing it to God. Psalm 32 describes what happens to us when we don’t:

When I kept silent,
   my bones wasted away
   through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
   your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
   as in the heat of summer. (v. 4-5)

Unconfessed sin leads to the opposite of growth. But when we confess our sins, forgiveness becomes real and change becomes possible. George encouraged us to take a few minutes at the end of each day to pour out our hearts to God about the sin we’ve seen in our lives that day. He also suggested that we ask the Holy Spirit to point out to us any sin in our lives we might not have seen.

Verse 2 of Psalm 32 says this:

Blessed is the one
   whose sin the Lord does not count against them
   and in whose spirit is no deceit.

“Deceit” in my “spirit” is not only the result of sin I’m pretending isn’t there, but also the sin I don’t know is there. I can confess the sin I know all day long, but there are things I will never see unless I ask the Holy Spirit to turn the ‘light’ on and alert me.

Critical feedback is hard to hear, but my growth as a leader and a follower of Jesus depends on me not only receiving it from Him, but asking for it!

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Honest

I love it when my children receive gifts. I love it even more when my children receive gift cards – because honestly, we do not need any more toys in this house!

But what I don’t love is the event called “Can we go to the store so I can buy something with my gift card?” It always sounds like such an easy thing – I mean, you’ve only got $10, so how hard could it be?

Forty-five minutes later as we’re wandering through the same five aisles we’ve walked through ten times each, I wonder why I thought this was going to be easy! I’ve suggested multiple options and multiple combinations of those options, but they’ve all been vetoed.

The problem is, I know what you want – you’re just not willing to say it. You want that stuffed animal, but you also know that I’m going to say a firm “NO!” to that stuffed animal because you already have so many stuffed animals they don’t fit on your bed. And you also know we recently donated several trash bags full of old ones you weren’t playing with anymore.

But in the back of your mind, you can’t let go of that fluffy, brightly-colored, glittery-eyed puppy – and so nothing else is going to make the cut! If you just admitted it, we could get the “NO!” over with and move on, but instead, we walk the aisles one more time…

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We’re all born with desire – it’s part of being human. We also learn early on that not all desires are going to be fulfilled in the way we want them to. Sometimes the things we want are “bad” because they are harmful or have the potential to become harmful. Sometimes the things we want are “selfish” because we just don’t need them.

As we get older, we gain a little more self-control over those desires. That doesn’t mean they go away – we just get better at hiding them (even from ourselves). We learn how to pray “spiritually correct” prayers so God knows we’re not being selfish. We assume that if we pretend they’re not there, our desires will somehow get small enough to disappear.

In Psalm 86, King David calls out to the Lord for mercy. After admitting his need, David proclaims his God’s greatness “among the gods” and then presents this request:

“Teach me your way, LORD,
that I may rely on your faithfulness;
give me an undivided heart,
that I may fear your name.
I will praise you, Lord my God, with all my heart;
I will glorify your name forever.”
(Psalm 86:11-12)

For David and his people, there was great temptation to worship other gods in hopes that a desire might be fulfilled. This would lead to a “divided” heart, where a portion of one’s heart was still for the Lord – but only a portion. An “undivided” heart, on the other hand, would fully trust this great God and his great wisdom, care, and provision.

A desire sought after is a recipe for a divided heart – but so is a desire stuffed down and ignored. We say we trust God with “everything,” but that “everything” is vague and really only includes “everything I’m comfortable trusting Him with.” In our attempts to be “good” and look “good” to ourselves and to God, we hold back, grabbing certain pieces of our hearts and sitting on them, hoping if we don’t acknowledge them or call them by name, they’ll go away.

Jesus has clearly called me to “deny” the fulfillment of my sinful and selfish desires (Mark 8:34), but that doesn’t mean denying their existence. Squashing them only feeds them by giving them permission to hang out unsupervised in the back of my mind. Jesus wants me to be “set free” from the power of sin and self (John 8:36), but I can’t be freed from anything I’m not willing to be honest about the existence of.

It’s my automatic reaction as a Christian to sense a sinful or selfish desire and think “Oh, I shouldn’t be thinking that,” give myself a little “Stop that!”, and move on. When I’m praying, it’s second nature for me to think carefully about what I’m saying – to manicure my prayers into what I think God would like to hear.

Meanwhile, the Holy Spirit is like, “Hello!? I know what you really want to say! Why don’t you just spit it out so I can speak My truth over it and we can move on, already!”

Acknowledging my real desires might be the very thing that frees me from their power. Being honest unclouds my fluffy, brightly-colored, glittery-eyed-puppy tunnel vision to see the many ways He is, has been, and will continue to provide for me. Being honest with God unites my heart to fully trust Him with everything – meaning I can honestly worship Him “with all my heart”.

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