Reprieve

landscape-2089850__480The sunset purpled the sky as an unusually warm breeze whipped around my jacket, and I breathed deeply this February blessing. I can be a hibernator, and by February, I am often simultaneously lonely and yet desirous of solitude. The snowy cold is an acceptable excuse to temporarily disappear. For me, historically, January and February have been rough months. Somehow when the calendar flips to the new year, all the sad stuff lets loose. Sickness, bad news, even death seem to congregate in the dreariness of these dark months.

This year is really no different. Some tragic events have left me feeling quiet. Sometimes there is no voice to give to the pain that peoples our world.  I have withdrawn. Facebook, where I usually watch my faraway friends’ pictures pop up, became a breeding ground for argument and intolerance, so I avoided that technological outlet. Blogging felt too difficult; I questioned what words the world might benefit from, but came up empty again and again. Then sickness took us out for a week. Feverish kids watched Netflix while I read and disinfected.

But last week, God sent the sun. The days became springlike, and I felt hope humming under my feet.I chatted with neighbors. I jogged my favorite route past my horse friends. I felt it in my soul: a reprieve. I reveled in days of warmth during what is often a frigid season. The pain, worry, and sadness isn’t gone, but its frosty hold is melting.

And this is how we survive the pain of a broken world- days of hope that arrive just in time. Moments of happiness that warm the cold and lonely corners of our minds.  God knows just when to send us a reprieve. It reminds me of an exercise I used to do in lifeguard training. Swim a brick to the bottom of the deep end, come back up for air, then return down to the depths to retrieve it.  That brief moment at the surface determined my success or failure. I needed just the right amount of air to accomplish the task.  And so it is in life; I need just the right amount of peace to survive the sometimes overwhelming experiences of life.  I go back to that well-remembered Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul: he leads me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” (Psalm 23)

So let it snow, or rain, or hail (this is Michigan, after all), I will rest assured that a reprieve is always on the horizon.

 

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Chasing the Prodigal

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Recent news, and stories that hit closer to home, have me thinking of the prodigal. So many of our worldly troubles lead us to drift, or run, or hide, to escape. Our minds or hearts or histories whisper the need to go. And some of us follow. And some of us, left behind in the cloud of questions, chase. If you are chasing a prodigal, I see you. I feel the intense pounding in your chest every time the phone rings. I sense the tension of each hair follicle when someone asks the innocent question, yet? I know the fear when the prodigal is away and you don’t even have an address. You consider driving in the dark scouring parking lots, but you are paralyzed by the vastness of possibility. I understand the void of a prodigal heart, which may share a dinner table, or a bed, or a life, but the distance is palpably wide.

  We have just read Cry, The Beloved Country in AP, and I am struck in every reading by the protagonist’s valiant search for his family members in a violent and bitter Johannesburg. And in the finding of each loved one, his inability to save them. His wrestling with God over the release, His faith for the future, His heavy hold on restoration. I am left feeling emptied and filled, a part of the journey to reach the prodigals.

  And really, we are all chasing prodigals. Maybe not our children, or spouses, or siblings, but someone. A friend who is traveling a dead end road but has closed herself off from communication. A coworker we watch self-destruct day after day, but we feel paralyzed by a distance imposed by cultural propriety.  And we follow at a safe distance, or watch from afar, but we feel powerless.

  God is in the business of pursuing prodigals. Hearts that stray, minds that wander, feet that falter. He is not afraid to follow. There is no propriety that prevents Him from calling even those furthest from Him back to His fold.  And as we run after those we love, we can be reassured by God’s faithfulness.  He does not forget us. He does not become weary in His pursuit. Like the shepherd leaving the flock to find the one, so is God concerned for each of us.

If I ride the wings of the morning,
   if I dwell by the farthest oceans,
even there your hand will guide me,
   and your strength will support me.
I could ask the darkness to hide me
   and the light around me to become night—but even in darkness I cannot hide from you.  Psalm 139:9-12

  If you feel like giving up, rest in assurance that God will not. If your prodigal does not return in the time or manner you have hoped, God already knows. He was with them all along. If you are the prodigal, you are not alone. “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

 

The Word of the Year

 If hindsight is 20/20, then I can clearly see my failings and falterings from 2016. Too much sugar, too little exercise; too much yelling, too little grace; too many messes, too few checked-off tasks. We can see the political circus and the social drama. But after 35 New Year’s Eves, I have learned this proven truth: there is no going back. The only opportunity the past holds for you is regret, and you don’t want to set up camp there.

   I’ve also celebrated enough January 1sts to know that it is full of well-intentioned resolutions backed up by lack of action and determination. By February, many treadmills and bank accounts are empty again, despite the desire to lose weight or gather savings.

   This year, I’m avoiding resolutions and clinging to a word, a mantra, that I am confident will help me live a more fulfilled, less stressful, life. You are hanging on the edge of your seat by now, right? Katie is about to reveal an Oprah-book-list worthy idea to revolutionize our lives. Nope. The word is simple, the execution difficult. The word is: wisdom.

  Think of the worst situation you experienced last year. If you look at it in retrospect, likely it could have been avoided or mitigated through your own, or someone else’s, wisdom.  A few months ago, the girls and I ran out of gas about half a mile away from home on a busy road. After numerous unanswered calls to Nick and my parents and some muttered frustrations, I dragged the girls out of the car and we slogged along the shoulder as cars whipped past. I was mad, at my gas tank that failed me, at my husband who I pictured blissfully napping with his phone on silent, at the world for its cursed unfairness. But you know what? I should have filled the gas tank days ago. Wisdom would be prepared and preplanned. This walk home was just a small analogy for all the times I failed to make a wise decision: a fight I found myself in with a daughter that pitted us against each other in ugly ways, a missed opportunity to share Christ with a loved one, a pile of papers stacked up to a tight deadline because I had put them off, all revealed within me a lack of wisdom.  

  I think 2016 was a banner year for revealing the lack of wisdom on a larger scale in our society.  I don’t need to rehash political failings and public embarrassments caused by people’s lack of wisdom.  I don’t need to harp on the public policy decisions that seem to go against every wise form of forethought I can imagine.  And I certainly don’t want to join the ranks of finger pointers who are quick to focus on the failings outside of themselves.  Instead, I am going to focus on the small step of wise choices that I can make.winter

  Wisdom is the intersection of intelligence and integrity, the place where our decisions reveal our inner desire for truth.  Seeking wisdom will make us better workers, better parents, better spouses, better citizens, and better people in general.  I also know that left to my own devices, just like in my car analogy, I will fail.  Wisdom is not an innate part of my makeup.  For me, wisdom has to come from a close walk with Christ, who reveals in a multitude of ways what choices are best.

I want to pray like Solomon:

 “Now, Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?” The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for this. So God said to him, “Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be. Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for—both wealth and honor—so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings. And if you walk in obedience to me and keep my decrees and commands as David your father did, I will give you a long life.” ( 1 Kings 3:7-14)

     My desire is to have wisdom and discernment, because life is hard, and 2017 is going to be full of decisions and difficulties that I will not be able to face on my own.  James 1:5 promises, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”  I am clinging to that promise, because this world needs all the wisdom it can get.

 

   

Being Bethlehem

   The city was overcrowded and understaffed. The census was straining it at the seams. That dark night, Mary must have questioned God’s timing. This was no place to bring a baby. There was no room, no preparation here for Him. Certainly a larger city, or a quieter moment, could better accept the birth of a Savior. But God spoke then, and there, and Jesus was born. In the dust kicked up by the busyness of the census, people were not watching this young couple ride into town. There was no expectant pause in Bethlehem. It was full, but oh so empty.

  And so are we- full, but oh so empty. There is no expectant pause for us in the midst of violence, politics, pain, and self-serving idolatry.  And even in calm moments, we overrun our lives with complication. Every day is a census of sorts- a counting and recounting of achievements, of money, of importance. And somewhere on the fringe of all the being and doing is a stable, and a manger, and a tiny Baby that coos softly amidst the noise.

   Don’t be Bethlehem today. Be the innkeeper. Find a place for Jesus. Always be aware, be expectant, be looking for opportunities to open your heart and life. Jesus walks the earth today through us, and we are given many moments to give Him room.  As the holidays pass and the calendar turns, remember the manger that represents a place on earth for Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6-7)wordswag_1482638168126

The Voice

For my dear and inquisitive friend: My feeble attempt at explaining the sometimes unexplainable.

I grew up afraid of the silence inside me.  I had read all the stories in the Old and New Testament of people being approached by God. There were burning bushes, prophetic dreams, appearances of angels, and miracles of epic proportions that guided people so clearly.  When I was struggling, I prayed for the same.  But mostly I heard silence, crickets chirping.  Other times I heard everything. I was awash in voices like the time I visited an open-air market in Mexico.  Voices hawking their wares, persuading me with colorful baubles, calling me over from another stand.  The din was all-encompassing and confusing.  This all-or-nothing approach to listening for God’s direction became paralyzing in my faith journey.

Over the years, there were so many things I wanted to do. Places I wanted to visit, people I wanted to help, ideas I wanted to grow to fruition.  Sometimes I would begin, hoping to feel the tug of purpose, only to abandon it at some awkward halfway point because it felt like an empty endeavor.  Other times, I clearly felt a nudge, but I allowed the noise to drown it out.  I was unfocused, moving but without direction.  I watched others. Some confidently followed unlikely, amazing, even terrifying journeys that seemed like they must be so clearly spoken by God.  Others performed tasks of talent and tenacity yet seemed void of God’s calling, filled instead by a self-involved desire to be known.  And in the middle of that spectrum, I teetered, faltered, wondered, and worried: How would I know what God was asking of me?  

Sometime in my adulthood, at a pinnacle of my personal faith, I began to feel a shift.  I prayed with confidence, I listened intently, and I practiced patience.  And once in awhile, I felt it.  It was like the first fluttering kicks of pregnancy, clearly moving within me from a source outside my own body.  Usually, the voice was quiet, but forceful.  Hearing it, after years of floundering, I felt compelled to act.  The acts were often small, hardly even self-sacrificing. They felt sometimes silly- outside of the comfort of acts I would perform unbidden.  Other times, it felt strong, a hand on my back guiding me out in faith.  But there are still stretches of silence and wildernesses of words.  And somewhere in the midst, there is still God.  I think of Moses, after the burning bush experience.  How he must have hoped that he would see God so clearly again.  But I am sure God spoke often in the silence, leading Moses in the everyday, not only in the miraculous.  

Other times, in the threatening din of voices, I wonder if I will hear the wrong voice.  So often, the voice is simply our own, justifying our choices and our behaviors, without any inhabiting of a calling at all. Other times, the voices are others: good people giving good advice to promote good works.  And also in that cacophony is a devilish voice, rarely leading us astray through overt evil, but through deception and indecision and questioning of faith that turns us, sometimes in a stroll, other times in a sprint, off the path God has laid out ahead.  path

And in my unscholarly answer to my friend, I would give this guidance from my own experience. When you are listening for “The Voice”:

 

  • Test it.  Read Scripture. Ask a trusted mentor, a pastor, a friend. Remember that although they will not necessarily be able to tell you if something is God speaking, they can at least help you flesh out the calling.  Ask for proof: like the fleece Gideon leaves on the threshing floor, ask God for validation.  Judges 6:36-40- Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand as you have promised—look, I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you said.”  And that is what happened. Gideon rose early the next day; he squeezed the fleece and wrung out the dew—a bowlful of water.  Then Gideon said to God, “Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request. Allow me one more test with the fleece, but this time make the fleece dry and let the ground be covered with dew.” That night God did so. Only the fleece was dry; all the ground was covered with dew.

 

  • Test yourself.  Our own desires often cloak themselves as “callings” if we are not careful.  We must always be alert to our own desires, prejudices, and fears.  If you feel like moving to Africa will fulfill some emptiness within you, you might be attempting to fill a hole in your own power. Pray continually. Be honest with yourself and those close to you.  Find ways to lay down your own desires in your daily life so you are ready for the sacrifices that might be asked of you.2 Cor 10:3-5 (NIV) For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

 

  • Trust it.  If you are walking in God’s will, immersing yourself in prayer and Scripture, and actively looking for ways to serve others and show God’s love, He will reveal opportunities for you to be used.  Be confident.  Romans 12:2 (NIV)  Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Abundance When I’m Empty

Thankfulness should not be difficult for me.  I am free, and I am loved, and I know Truth.  But circumstances sometimes blind me.  A particularly taxing personal time buried within a cultural din of frustration and anger has led to exhaustion.  I am certain I am not the only entering this season feeling depleted, uncertain, and emotionally spent.  And yet, as I drove to school in the dim morning, I reflected on a brief morning ritual with Anika. Anika, who finally fell to sleep crying after numerous warnings and frustrated reminders from me, awoke with seemingly no recollection of the tumultuous evening.  She came around the bathroom corner and looked at me with complete love and trust as I put on my makeup.  It is a new day, I thought, and she is giving me a new opportunity to practice patience, to earn her trust, and to show her unconditional love.

I am putting my heart into a thanksgiving spirit with this reminder.  I am abundantly fortunate for new days, new opportunities to love and be loved.  God brought the story of the widow with the oil jar to my mind as I drove along the highway.  She had many debts and not many means, but every jar was filled out of God’s abundant provision (see 2 Kings 4:1-7).  My jar is often empty: I run out of time, out of wisdom, out of patience.  I have debts and debtors that I cannot pay out of my worn pockets.  But God always provides.  When I am waiting for an answer, God gives peace. When I feel like I have run out of answers, God provides resources.  When I am out of the strength to continue a battle, God shares strength. But most importantly, God gave me Jesus.  Jesus is many times not a popular answer, but He is always my Answer.  He is abundance, and in Him I am filled, and refilled, according to His purpose and plan.  Take away religious rhetoric, cultural confusion, and personal ideology, and what is left for me is Jesus.  Jesus, who multiplied the bread and fish to make a miracle, still offers abundance to me.  

I know not what tomorrow holds, but I will remain thankful. I will see abundance when I am afraid of emptiness.  Like the harvest which leads to feasting, I will focus on sowing evidence of Christ, praying for crops of His love to grow abundantly from the earth.  And I will harvest with thanksgiving, not for material blessings, but for the needs that I am able to meet through Jesus.thankful.png

“And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.”  2 Corinthians 9:8.

A Birthday Gift for Mom

  I have been privy to many mommy conversations over the past 9 years.  You see, I’m a mom, and moms try (most of the time) to keep their complaints among their own kind.  One thing I have carried from these many discussions is that moms need birthdays (or any days, really).  

  Becoming a mother has many side effects; once women cross that threshold, they become, seemingly instantaneously, responsible for the weight of the world.  Moms build an immediate executive ability to feed a baby, change laundry, track appointments, organize meals, and schedule all social events.  My own mom was so good at this, it seemed to me as a child that it must not take any work or planning, really.  When my small neighborhood was kicked off the bus for doing the Wave, my mom crammed us in the station wagon and drove us to school.  She delivered us to soccer on Saturday mornings and Sunday School the next day, giving up any hope of a weekend sleep-in.  On top of that, she didn’t even have a technological device to fill the hours and hours of waiting she endured at medical offices, sporting events, and boring school responsibilities.  That poor woman!  In return, once a year, if she was lucky, we produced some sort of birthday cake and a handpicked gift to celebrate her.  

   Moms become innately responsible in other places too.  It is usually a mother who is sure to send thank-you notes to teachers, coaches, bosses, and co-workers.  Frequently, mothers make food for funerals, births, and potlucks.  Moms remember the boss’s birthday and order a cake or plan flowers when the secretary’s father dies.  Moms leave the house with a badge that says, “Hey, I keep multiple people alive.  You can trust me to help in any situation.”  And because of this, we become used to meeting the many expectations that the badge suggests.  

  Every once in a while, moms need to put down the weight of responsibility they once took on.  A birthday seems a fitting day to do so.  If you have a mother, this would be a good day to plan dinner (even if it is just grilled cheese), get a card (or scrawl something nice on a piece of scrap paper), and let mom pick the show and watch it in peace.  Before I was a mom, I wanted to celebrate my birthday the entire month of October.  It was selfish, really, a grab for attention and validation.  Now, I tend to be so busy with conferences, doctor appointments, meetings, and “holding down the fort” that I can get all the way to the day before my birthday without giving it much of a thought.  I used to daydream about extravagant gifts, and Nick used to be quick to oblige.  Now, I scour for deals on “luxury” items like a good-quality curling iron or a new piece of bakeware, hoping to send Nick a discount code that will save enough money to buy a much-needed toddler snowsuit.  My priorities have shifted, and honestly, I really don’t mind.  Being a mom has changed so many parts of who I am, and mostly for the better.  But on this one day, and maybe Mother’s Day too, or the occasional random Saturday, I am elated if someone I love and care for takes a moment to care for me.  A night of not worrying about preparing dinner in between kids’ activities, or Nick doing the bedtime hostage negotiation with Anika, or simply having some recognition that I work hard and do (for the most part) a good job, is really the only gift I need.

 Remember this on your own mother’s next birthday:  She probably sacrifibirthdayced much more
than she ever let on.  She likely cried in secret as much as she smiled in public.  She definitely loved with a fierceness that took all of her strength some days.  And undoubtedly, the best gift for her would be to know that she is known, and loved, for all that we forget to say all year long.

Living with, and loving, your seniors

My day begins with 17 seniors, continues with 23 more, and ends with another 20. I am immersed in college apps and senioritis. Last week my ducklings followed me obediently to the library where we filled out FAFSA forms and applications. Some had to call home for Social Security numbers, others had already visited 8 college campuses.  I loved every minute. The best part of teaching seniors is watching them transform from children to adults. It is exciting, terrifying, and I am just along for the ride.  I can shout directions when they miss a turn, but I don’t have the wheel.

Spending hours a day with seniors has given me many things: a crass sense of humor, a vast knowledge of pop culture, a healthy dose of patience, and a heart for the futures of a yearly band of almost-adults. But I have also learned three things I feel I should share:

Share your beginnings   If you have kids of any age, you know that frequently they have unrealistic expectations. How many kids ask year after year for a pony for Christmas, even though they live on a postage stamp city lot?  Yup, unrealistic. Seniors frequently say they want to be a musician and have a summer home on Lake Michigan….ummm, 90 percent of the time those are mutually exclusive.  I have to say that I, as a parent, am sometimes guilty of breeding these unrealistic expectations, and you likely are too.  If you have worked hard over the years and are now enjoying some of the fruits of your labors- nice cars, a large house, exciting vacations- your children are seeing those fruits, but they may have missed the labor part.  Nick and I bought the ugliest house in a decent neighborhood in a good city when we first were married.  We dubbed it the “poop smudge on the corner” for its hideous brown paint job.  Over ten years (10!)  we lovingly remodeled it.  All our kids were born there,but they won’t likely remember it at its worst.  Now we live in a much nicer house.  Our kids, like my teenage students, are likely to believe that they will graduate college and buy a nice, big house, because that is what they are used to.  But that is not likely, or even necessary.  Nick and I have very happy memories of our poorest times together.  I don’t want my kids to miss that, so I’m going to talk about it.  Students should know that even the humblest of beginnings is a step toward success, AND that it takes hard work, time, and sacrifice to reach those dreams of expensive vacations or material wealth.

Dream with them   Being realistic about expectations does not have to be separate from dreaming big.  I love to read a story by Kristi Yamaguchi to my kids called, “Dream Big, Pig”.  It is silly, but that little pink pig experiences her dreams by working hard and trying different things.  I want my kids to be dreamers.  I want them to hope for the unlikely and root for the underdog.  I hope my kids see me pursuing dreams of mine and are encouraged to do the same.  I feel the same about my seniors.  They have some awesome dreams.  And sometimes, I have been fortunate enough to see their dreams become reality.  I have students living across America working in film, marketing, and music industries that probably felt like unlikely prospects when they were sitting in a little classroom in little old Plainwell, Michigan.  As parents, we have a dual role of teaching reality and fostering dreams.  The reality is the boring part of parenting, like teaching chores, but the dreaming, that is the fun part!  Ask your kids what interests them. Travel with them.  Watch inspirational movies.  Be part of the cultivation of their dreams, even when they are almost adults and seem too cool to talk about them.

Let them fail (safely)   It is all the rage today to talk about helicopter parenting and its many pitfalls. And I can tell you from my many days with seniors, their biggest hurdle to success is that they don’t know how to fail.  I teach the A kids mostly.  You know, the ones who only know that one letter in the alphabet.  If they earn a C, they are crying, asking for extra credit, pointing fingers.  But if there is one piece of advice I would pass on to them, it is to fail NOW.  I sailed through high school, then spent an entire fall semester at college crying over my open chemistry book.  I didn’t know how to ask for help, I didn’t have well-developed study skills to fall back on, and I was miserable.  I almost lost a $4,000 academic scholarship over it.  I wish I would have had that experience in high school.  The money wasn’t on the line then, and I think my high school teachers would have been much more amenable to help me than my college chemistry professor.  If you are going to help your children dream big, be prepared to watch them fall.  And after they do, feel free to kiss their boo-boo, pat them on the back, and get them back on the bike, so to speak.  But don’t follow them around with a safety net and a box of band-aids.  I guarantee you, they will find you when they need you, and when they don’t have you right there, they will learn what other resources to fall back on.  

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While I love my job with seniors, I do not look forward with anticipation to raising them in my own home.  These almost-adults are a landmine of emotions, ideas, and needs.  But, if we stick with them through this last phase, they will go out and change the world we live in.

Waiting for Tragedy

Be with me in this moment: It is a dark 1 am. My baby is in a 3 hour stretch of sleep. My school day begins in only a few hours. My husband is either working or drinking, and I am guessing it is the latter. And I am praying. But it is not the prayer you are thinking. I am praying for tragedy. A traffic stop would be preferred, but a fender bender would work too.  An arrest seems likely, and necessary. You see, I am desperate, and I know from the movies that tragedy usually leads to redemption. And I am hoping for redemption, so I am waiting for tragedy.

 Yesterday I sat in an auditorium packed with 800 high schoolers watching underage drinkers and pill-traders be sentenced by a judge. Following that was a video with graphic images from underage drinking accidents and ending with a father-narrated slideshow of a smiling 18-year-old killed in one night of an overdose….his first time using drugs.  The tears welled up, and I was not certain what was spurring them most, my motherly sadness or my fear for these 800 kids surrounding me. Because everyone in the sentencing and the videos has one thing in common: they waited for tragedy to change.  

  And these invincible kids of mine are walking out into a parking lot to load into cars and head off to God-knows-where to do God-knows-what. Most of them won’t think to change any behaviors until tragedy demands it….if tragedy is kind enough to offer survival as an option.  But life isn’t a movie, and redemption need not be glamorous. We should not wait for a brutal wake up call if we can hear the whisper or feel the tug to change.

  My midnight couch tragedy vigils are over. Nick found redemption in a whisper, not in a scream. But there may be more of those moments, waiting up for my someday teenagers, praying for choices and circumstances. For now, these school teens feel like my own, and I so badly want to say this: if you are headed to that party and you feel a warning nudge you, turn around. If you pick up that pill for the first, or hundredth time, and you know you are wearing your safety net thin, flush it. If you don’t trust that driver, walk back to the house. Do not wait for the millions of tragedies that could be hiding behind the next bottle, blade, or beer can.

    Now I realize that I was wrong, too.  My nights of praying for tragedy, believing fully that would fix his problem and my pain, were not the answer. I was wrong to reach for extremity when everyday could suffice.  Choosing to do the right things, or stop doing the wrong ones, should not depend on a period, but on a comma. Don’t hope for a tragic end to stop your sentence of poor choices. Rather, consider them a conjunction joining the before of pain and defeat with the after of healing and hope.  I can tell you from beyond the comma, the phrase in which you struggled feels small in comparison with all the words God adds to the sentence for you.storm2

Can You Oversell Heaven?

Have you ever had one of those conversations with your children…you know, the hard ones?  The ones where your little girl or boy, curled up in fleecy jammies, speaks oceans of truth in words formed by those little lips you kiss at bedtime?  And you wonder…can I shape this heart and mind?  Can I answer as Christ?  I had one of those moments just yesterday.  And the deep conversation teased out a childlike desire to “just go to heaven”.  The moment was piercing, and my heart drained out blood instead of words, and I felt caught between the truth of heaven and the truth of earth.

Because life is hard.  It is hard when you are eight, eighteen, eighty.  And when we start to forget the iron-clad difficulties of earthly bodies filled with desires and emotions and physical pain, we are drawn back to that flame in these moments.  Moments when a child says the thought that has run through your head but not across your lips. Then she says it.  And it sounds grotesque..a death wish.  But in her mind, she sees God.  She feels a warm breeze and sees a beautiful landscape.  She escapes thoughts of friendlessness, sorrow, and deep weariness that sometimes flood in at late hours staring at a dark ceiling thinking about Monday.  She pictures heaven in just the innocent way I want her to…as a glorious ending to an often painful life.

And I, I don’t want to snuff that spark of curiosity and desire, but I also want to reveal some sort of beautiful revelation of God in the fractured reality of the world.  So I sit, silently, my mind balancing two realities that I’m not sure answer the unasked question of purpose.  Can I convince her that pain is necessary for growth?  Is it possible for her to understand that friends now will become strangers not too many years from now?  Will she understand that her life is necessary to God’s bigger plan? And if I cannot convince my own daughter of the worth of life in Christ before the reward of heaven, can I convince a general public lost in despair?  I falter to find an answer.

God is here in our moments, but we often feel alone.  He is overseeing the world, but we often feel lost.  He is saving us, but we are not always rescued from earthly pain.  Heaven sounds like a reprieve.  Revelations reiterates His promise to “wipe every tear from our eye. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (21:4).  He reminds us that we will be, in the realest sense “His children” (Revelations 21:7).  But part of the beauty of heaven comes from the reality of earth.  Before we are called His children, we are reminded that “those who are victorious will inherit all this” (Revelations 21:7).  Matthew warns us that “small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life” (Matthew 7:14) and John adds that we “know the way to the place I [God] am going” (John 14:4).  If the prize is Heaven, the race is life.  If the return is eternal life, the investment is earthly surrender.  After John tells us we know how to get to heaven, he reminds us that God has already “overcome the world” (John 16:33). In Psalms, we are told that “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (46:1).  And Timothy encourages us that “the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love, and self-discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7).  heaven2The Bible is full of reminders that God IS with us in the moment.  And that is what I want to dwell on, what I want my children to cling to, when the feelings in our tiny hearts are overwhelming our knowledge of Truth.  I don’t think the beauty of Heaven can be oversold.  But I am afraid that I have been underselling the power of Christ dwelling in us.  And therein lies my work with my children and the rest of the world.  Emmanuel. God with us.  Do not fear.