Jesus Calls You Beautiful

When I heard from Dee Brestin that she was writing a book about His love for us as demonstrated in the Song of Songs I thought: “I have to get my hands on this book.” And it did not disappoint. Several times as I read the pages of her book it was as if He was near enough for me to feel His breath on the back of my neck …tender and fathering me through His own words in the Song of Songs. If you’re hungry for a fresh brush with Him in His Word, Dee’s book will take you there and give you a grid. Today I have the honor of hosting her, here, on the blog –>

Hearing the Voice of Jesus in the Song of Songs

I love speaking in women’s prisons. There is a deep hunger there I seldom see outside the prison walls. I leave tingling in amazement, thinking: O God, you are still making the blind to see. It happened again in a Wisconsin prison with something only God could have orchestrated.

I’d been sensing that I should teach these new believers from the Song of Songs (also called Song of Solomon). But as I made the long drive, doubts clustered like storm clouds:

What am I thinking, presenting such a challenging book to babes in Christ?

They’ll go back to their cells, pour over this book, and think: “What in the world? What could this intimate love story have to do with Jesus and me?”

I went through security and walked down the cement hall to the chapel. When the women caught sight of me through the plexi-glass window, they began jumping and clapping – cheering as I entered the room. How I wished we were allowed to hug! There’s no bond like the bond of Christ – stretching across age, ethnicity, and social class. Their enthusiasm melted my doubt and I plunged ahead with my plan.

THE BEST SONG

I asked them to open their Bibles to a book at the heart of their Bibles, a book they might never have read: the Song of Songs.

It’s called the “Song of Songs,” because like “Lord of lords,” or King of kings,” it means the very best. And what is the best song? It’s always the gospel, the love song of Jesus to His bride. And we, as believers, are His “bride.” He sees us both as individuals, but also as a body. And oh, how He loves you and me!

Love-starved, they were listening intently. So many were victims of abuse and neglect.

The Song is a Cinderella story of a great king who falls in love with a peasant woman. It is an earthly love story, but it is intended to shed light on a much deeper mystery, the love story of Jesus coming to earth to woo, win, and eventually wed His bride. When the king first meets this woman, she is so aware of her unworthiness. She’s been working all day in the vineyard and she asks him not to gaze at her because she feels dark, not meaning anything about her ethnicity, but about feeling sunburnt, sticky, sweaty – anything but beautiful or worthy of a king’s attention.

They nodded. I didn’t have to explain to them what it felt like to feel unworthy.

She says, “Don’t gaze at me…” (Song 1:6) but he can’t stop. He tells her how beautiful she is to him, calling her, “O most beautiful of women.” (Song 1:8)

Julia, a slim blond seated near me, gasped and began to tremble visibly. I didn’t want to embarrass her by drawing attention to her, so I kept teaching.

You can see the gospel here – for she feels dark, but he tells her, no, she is beautiful – as pure as a lily. A theme throughout the Song is her beauty – he says: “You are altogether beautiful, my love. There is no flaw in you.” (Song 4:7)

Now Julia was sobbing. A woman passed her a roll of toilet paper, a staple in prison Bible studies. I paused and said, “Julia, do you want to share what’s going on?”

She nodded vigorously. We waited while she composed herself. Finally, she said:

All of my life I wanted someone to tell me they loved me – that I was beautiful. It didn’t happen in childhood, but when I got older, I determined to make men say those words to me – I’d do whatever they wanted – just to hear it. (Tears) That’s how I wound up in here.

The day before I was to be incarcerated, I looked in the mirror and screamed: “I HATE YOU, I HATE YOU, I HATE YOU.”

I saw women nodding. How they identified! Julia continued.

But in here, Jesus found me. Just this morning I told Him, “Jesus – You are so beautiful.” And then … I thought He said, “Julia – you are beautiful.” I wondered if I’d imagined it. I pleaded: “Say it again!” But there was only silence. Then tonight, you come in here, open your Bible, and … He said it again!

We sat in silence, sensing this holy moment. Finally, I said, “Julia, you’ve just been kissed by the King.” I explained how the Song opens with her pleading to be kissed – and how, according to Rabbinic tradition, “a kiss from the King” is a living Word – like when a verse leaps out at you, giving you exactly what you need, or when circumstances so align that You know God did it. I said, “In fact, we’ve just all been kissed!”

They nodded. God had met us all.

How badly women in prison need this message of His love – but it isn’t just women in prison. We all tend to look at our hearts, our failures, and doubt that God could love us. We keep losing our grasp on the gospel.

Up until the early 1800’s, the Song of Songs was the most preached on book in the Old Testament, for nothing, pastors thought, was more important in overcoming temptation and trials than understanding the depth and breadth of Christ’s love. Today, you seldom hear it preached on, but if you do, it is almost always primarily on the earthly picture of marriage, with a brief addendum at the end to singles, to remember that Jesus in their Bridegroom. Yet there is a fresh wind blowing that sees both pictures, earthly and spiritual, as essential. When both pictures are seen, they illumine one another. Marriage and the marriage bed is seen as beautiful and sacred, but the mysterious relationship of husband and wife, as Ephesians 5 tells us, is intended to illumine a more important and lasting mystery, the relationship between Christ and true believers. How badly we need to recover this lost book, to restore our confidence in the depth of His love, and to respond to His call:

Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
And come away,
O my dove, in the cleft of the rock
In the crannies of the cliff,
Let me see you face,
Let me hear your voice,
For your voice is sweet,
And your face is lovely.

Song 2:13-14

As a young woman Dee became known when her book The Friendships of Women was released and went on to sell over a million copies. Other bestsellers include Falling in Love with Jesus and A Woman of…series. Dee is perhaps known best as a Bible study author and speaker. Her studies are beloved for their penetrating questions that help women experience the power of God. She publishes a free weekly Bible study on her blog (www.deebrestin.com) that has thousands of readers from around the world. She has a prison ministry and a video curriculum for women behind bars. She is a graduate of Northwestern University and has studied at Covenant Seminary. She is the mother of five and grandmother of thirteen. She lost her husband to cancer in his fifties, but is so grateful for the marriage they had. She believes passionately in the power of gospel-centered teaching. She has seen the power of the gospel to set women free – not just from the wrath of God, but from debilitating sins. He Calls You Beautiful (Hearing the Voice of Jesus in the Song of Songs) was just released. See the trailer here: Movie trailer for He Calls You Beautiful

Messy Beautiful Friendship

I had a circle of 9 friends in high school and lived with about the same number of friends all throughout college — I always had a “group” … I thought, then, isn’t that just supposed to be how friendship works? It mysteriously comes together and is always available and easy. (Ha!) In high school and college, we bonded over Friday night football games and chips and salsa and raw cookie dough splurges at midnight. As I got older, however, I began to learn that friendship is something that is forged. It is not happenstance and you need a whole lot more than salsa and cookie dough to keep it together.

Christine Hoover’s book Messy Beautiful Friendship spoke right to where I am — yes, pushing forty and still learning how to do friendship well. (And the sweet thing is that Christine and I met, through a mutual, beloved friend who has since gone home to the Lord — so we share this common desire to do friendship well, and through thick and thin.) Today, I get to share Christine’s words with you below and encourage you, if you are like most every women who struggles to figure out how to do Godly friendship, well … go buy her book

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 The words came through an email and, as I skimmed through, I at first assumed I hadn’t read them correctly. My heart began beating quickly as I reread the first few lines and saw that, in fact, I’d read it right the first time. The biting words sunk in deep. A friend had misunderstood me and not given me the benefit of the doubt, and she was writing to let me know I had disappointed her.

We’ve all been hurt by someone we considered a friend, whether it’s an inconsiderate word or an unexpected betrayal. I’ve discovered that when it happens to me, as it did through that email, it’s my natural tendency, like many others, to pull away, erect protective barriers around my vulnerability, and let the friendship fade into the background as if it never existed.

Sometimes, when the wound is especially deep, our tendency is not just to write the friend off but also to write friendship off. We’re hurt so badly that we give ourselves over to cynicism, bitterness, and resentment, and we wonder if friendship is worth the risk of wading through the emotions and hurts, attempting reconciliation, and making ourselves vulnerable again. We are friendly and sociable at a safe distance, but heart-level friendship? It’s too hard and too risky, and it never quite lives up to our exacting wish-dreams. With that ideal view in mind, it’s far too easy to feel insecure about or frustrated with reality.

I tend to want to cast the responsibility or the blame for my imperfect friendships on others, but it works both ways. Sometimes I am the one that hurts others, something I inadvertently did this year. Although my friend whom I hurt brought it to my attention, at first I remained blind to the way I was wounding her, wanting to blame her instead. But she brought it to my attention again, just as clear and gentle as the first time, and I finally saw what my protective barriers had kept me from seeing and how they had been used as weapons instead of defense. This friend challenged me to stay in the friendship and work through our differences rather than keep my distance, something that felt risky to me but in the end has been worth it and, I know, honors the Lord.

Isn’t this what true, biblical friendship is about: being willing to love, forgive, and bear with those we might not necessarily always understand? And being willing to confess sin, inadvertent or not, and receive the grace that helps us grow? This is certainly more what it’s about than dinner parties and game nights. Biblical friendship is what helps us grow; it sharpens us just as we are used by God to sharpen others.

Over coffee, a young woman in my church and I discussed these things together, about how we have this stubborn belief that friendship can actually be what we ideally picture in our heads. She said she wished people would invite her to more things and talked about how it seemed like everyone was always getting together without her. I said I sometimes envied certain relationships and resented that I wasn’t included in them. After confessing our self-focused thoughts to one another, the conversation turned to what true friendship is and what it looks like in reality.

Isn’t it, we said, an ongoing effort? Doesn’t it require commitment and perseverance? Isn’t it having to deal biblically with our inevitable hurts, being quick to forgive, crossing life-stage boundaries, and refusing to put other women in categories? Isn’t it pushing through discomfort and refusing to give up on people even when they disappoint us? And perhaps the most important question: isn’t it the greater blessing to be a person that seeks this type of community rather than clinging to false ideals and waiting for it to just “happen” to us?

While it is a greater blessing, we determined that it’s also risky. We must look to serve rather than be served, which means it’s possible that we might not be served in the ways we hope. We must be ever willing to broaden the circle, which means we must have an eye for the outsider rather than an eye for how we can be insiders, and it’s possible we might be forgotten in the process. We must be willing to address sin and conflict in an appropriate way, which means it’s possible we might be rejected. We must be willing to be vulnerable, which means we might be misunderstood and grace might not be extended to us.

Instead of holding fast to our ideals, we need to cling to a new definition of friendship, one that allows for awkwardness and risk and fumbling through, because isn’t the road to true friendship paved by these very things? Paul offers us a definition for friendship that we’d do better to cling to than our false ideals:

“Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. But above all these things, put on love, which is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful” (Colossians 3:12-15).

Paul certainly goes beyond vacationing together and small talk and waiting for someone else to initiate. He exhorts us to actively pursue being a godly friend to others–to actively pursue being patient, forgiving, loving, and being thankful for others as we relate to them. The focus is on what we give to others, not what they give to us. We don’t do these things because we hope to get something in return, friendship or whatever else. We do these things because that is how Christ showed His love toward us, and because biblical friendship will always model itself after Him.

Until Heaven, our community will never be perfect; it’s inevitable that we will experience hurt and disappointment in our relationships. But it’s worth the risk. By actively pursuing others in the way Christ pursues us, we extend an invitation for the friendship we desire but we also discover the beautiful and always-faithful way in which Christ relates to us. Because we have an anchor that’s sure and steadfast, because we recognize friendship as a gift, we’re willing to embrace the reality of friendship—messiness and all.

This post is an excerpt from Christine Hoover’s new book, Messy Beautiful Friendship: Finding and Nurturing Deep and Lasting Relationships, which explores the joys and complexities of friendship among Christian women. Christine is a pastor’s wife, mom to three boys, and the author of several books, including From Good to Grace and Messy Beautiful Friendship. Through her blog, www.GraceCoversMe.com, she enjoys encouraging the people of God to apply gospel truths to their honest thoughts, especially in the areas of grace, community, and friendship. Christine and her family live in Charlottesville, Virginia.

 

When You Find Yourself Hopeless on Mother’s Day

There’s one kind of woman that still makes me cry.

She stretches big bows around pink wrapping paper and makes casseroles when the mama is still hobbling the stairs and bleeding after-birth and she might as well start a pinterest account just for one year-old birthday parties — she’s been to so many.

But her womb is empty.

She laughs as parents recount toddler antics and celebrates when that gurgling little thing becomes mobile and holds her friends’ babies in the back of church … but it’s not just her womb that’s barren. There’s a hollow part of her heart that’s been carved with each new month of waiting. She has more questions than answers. The God she knew at 19 seemingly granted to her friends health and wealth and happiness and she wonders what it was that landed her with this curse.

Life isn’t like that present anymore — wrapped in a big bow. Hers has been unwrapped. Shucked. And she’s not sure what was even underneath it all, anyways.

Her eyes cloud over in worship and she sings the words out-loud next to her friends with big bellies all the while asking more questions on the inside.

This friend, this me, this woman who is living one big riddle is wrestling with question of all of life: why would I ever subject myself to hope?

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It was in an email, not in person, that a friend shared these heart-felt, deeply considered lines that all could be summarized with this one statement:

It’s time to accept what you have and not ask for more.

She wrote what so many had thought. She was bold with what others danced around. She cared enough to want my heart to stop bleeding at the hands of forever-uncertainty.

She put words to my own wrestling: Why keep praying for God to heal my body?

Why let this shucked life — this unwrapped mess of a story — stay this exposed to the elements? Why hurt this bad, over and over again? Why give myself over to some crazy notion of hope, month after month, only to throw ten bucks, and another plastic test, away? Again. Why even ask when the answer 43 times before was “no”?

He is sovereign. He rules over all and is the only Sovereign. His plans and purposes can not be thwarted. Every part of my story was under His watch and direction and decision. And it was under this authority, that my womb was vacant.

As this vacancy moved from months into years — brushing a decade — why did I still buy pregnancy tests and chart my temperature and look at bellies-bursting women with any of sort of longing or desire?

Why did I still pray prayers in secret that God would do the seemingly unthinkable?

You see, I absolutely adored the (then) four children God had given us through adoption. These were minethey were children of my own. They were an answer to years of longing and waiting and we were (are!) crazy about them. If this was the case, why did I still pray prayers in secret that God would do the unthinkable?

Because God made me for fellowship with Himself.

He made me so that He could enjoy me.

And He enjoys it when His people ask Him for the unthinkable. Faith for the unseen is His paradigm for relationship that delights Him. 

So, you — with your womb that has an echo — what if your decision to “accept” where you are and stop asking Him for what you really desire isn’t coming from some stalwart understanding of God’s hand, but is really just an attempt to preserve your bruised self? 

What if you’re wrapping yourself right back up, with broken scraps and a tight explanation — clamping down your heart — only to miss the thing for which you were created? What if the nexus of this barren womb and your insides, alive with hope in the God of the unseen, is how He made you to bring Him glory?

What if all this is less about a baby and a plan and a neat-and-tidy life and more about moving the heart of God with your … hope?

At twenty-seven or forty-eight — if your womb is still empty and you’ve spent years wrestling through hope — what if it meant that you allowed your heart to remain soft to the God-Man who spends every one of our days calling us into the unseen?

This season so full of unconventional pain that 90 percent of your world can’t understand isn’t “just” about a baby. It’s about a Man who witnesses every single tear you cry when no one’s looking and is moved because one more day, barren for you, meant one more chance that you’d call Him the God of the impossible and ask Him to do what you physically can’t conceive. 

You have a chance to walk out what few on the earth can.

You have a chance to believe that who He is is greater than what you can see right in front of you.

 

Is today your day to live in that uncomfortable nexus of physical limitations and an internal, steadfast expectation for the unseen God? Barrenness — in any area of life — when you lean into it (instead of dismissing the desire underneath it) invites Him to breathe life into the dark crevices of your heart. 

The juncture of barrenness and hope (you know, the intersection we all want to avoid) grows a lost little waif into a daughter who expects good things from her Father.

Barren woman, is today your day to live?

For Your Continued Pursuit: Hebrews 11 | Ezekiel 37: 1-11 | Romans 5:5 | Isaiah 54:1-17 | Psalm 27:13

What Does it Mean to be Successful?

It’s Sunday night, and the only light in our foyer is from the moon, stretching its arm-beams across our lawn and bringing the outdoors inside with its reach. The house is at rest. Finally. It’s as if we all sighed — the walls, the keyboard, the well-loved doormats and me — when the last child turned off her light.

Time lapse would have revealed sparkling white dishes unloaded, piled high, scraped (licked?), and rinsed for a reload — all in twelve hours. Blankets, folded then strewn across the family room and folded again.

My life sometimes feels like “rinse and repeat”.

What does a creative-type do when 90% of their day feels so … uncreative? When the margin for imagination appears to be small?

So, it’s Sunday night and I sit down to my desk that faces the dark foyer. I see the moon through the glass french doors, aslant on the floor, except now the light is on in my office and the GE bulbs are crowding out the remnants of organic outdoors. My fingers click against the quiet. I’ve been planning to write tonight.

My music is set. I’ve listened to the same song on repeat for 3 years of writing. One single track.

I write the first sentence, read it in my head and I delete. Three times. Then four. I start on my next paragraph with hopes to circle back to the first after I’ve gotten into a flow. Except I’m in no flow. I’m stuck.

I don’t have the kind of words that feel like they sing when I move from reading in my head to reading out loud — which I always do when I feel good about what comes out of me. I have words, but not music. Just clicking of the keys.

Ten. Twenty. Thirty minutes of this and I have a decision. I can push through with what feels like filling out paperwork in a doctor’s office or I can wait to sing later.

This “stuck” isn’t unique to writers, it’s the influenza of all creators. It comes and goes as if in a mystery — at least that’s how we treat it. Who knows when a glorious stint of writing books or composing songs or sketching or choreographing a performance might just one day … fall sick? We creative-types can live under a low-grade anxiety about this flu that might come and leave us bedridden and unaware of what exactly hit us.

As a creator, “stuck” isn’t a barrier getting in the way of what I’m supposed to do, “stuck” is the indicator telling me that something isn’t quite right on my insides about how I perceive God and how I’m approaching what He has given me to do to bring Him glory. And this principle goes beyond creativity: “stuck” in life and in creating, in raising children and growing a marriage and cultivating a new ministry — it isn’t something we need to begrudgingly just get past and over. It’s the gift He has given us to pause.

I write because I love Him. And I write best when I’m most aware of His love for me.

This whole thing — the creating, the inventing, the mothering, the ministering — isn’t transactional, in which He gives me a task and I perform it. He’s not the Proctor In The Sky. He’s a Father, wanting to continually grow deeper with His people. The work He gives us is merely opportunity for this communion.

These days we are all tempted to work against a clock. We feel the deadlines like a metronome: always ticking, always reminding. Because in many ways creating has been whittled down to what can be monetized and followed and shared and spread wide.

From this perspective, “stuck” feels especially terrible. Every part of being stuck in every season feels exactly what the word implies.

I write because I love Him. And I write best when I’m most aware of His love for me.

But for us God followers, any time we’re stuck … He is moving. Hedging. Getting our attention, alluring the eyes we wouldn’t necessarily give to Him when we’re in a flow or when life is producing as it should.

“Stuck” is a gift for the believer, for the creative type, creating with Him. It simply means “there’s more dialogue with Me to be had, right here. Let’s sit and stay a while. Your project can wait and it will be better for the waiting.”

Throughout scripture, He has held up His people in prisons and deserts and way-stations of their own making. Paul was held up from sharing the gospel because he was in chains. Stuck, we might have called Him.

Invited, God might say.

Your project can wait. And it will be better for the waiting.

(Life as you want it to be can wait. And it will be better for the waiting.)

The dialogue that happens with God in the waiting is what changes a person, what grows a person.

Now it’s two o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon and I’m at a coffee shop. The plan is for me to write. Two hours before, I was prepping dinner and prepping kids for an afternoon at home with Daddy and prepping myself to create. Except on this particular day that ominous “stuck” overshadowed me. One option is to push through. The other is … to wait. To talk to God about what He might want to reach in my heart. (These barriers to my creating are actually barriers to my communing with Him.)

Three hours later and I’m home without a single sentence, but a heart just a little more engaged with His work in my life and His Word.

THIS is success. Not cranking out work towards a deadline, not prolifically producing, not being ranked as “best” in your field.

Success as a creative (as in most vocations) is engaging with the heart of God and having it bleed out into your work such that those who receive from it (when and if, in His timing, others may receive) are truly receiving … Him.

{On a practical note, my best work has come after multiple delays and hiccups that seemed to be roadblocks but were what He’d created to slow me up so that I might talk to Him. And I mean in life — my best work in life — not just my writing.}

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The Gift of Limitations

It was a rambling college-town that hosted the race that was to be my last for a long time. It is a town where narrow dirt-and-dust roads lead to horse farms with near-perfect views of the Blue Ridge and millionaires shamelessly drive beat-up old Volvos. Eccentric.

Every year, the allure of this four-miler, with its humanitarian push and socialite atmosphere, makes runners out of walkers and athletes out of those who don’t like to sweat. Women train all summer long to run Garth Road on Labor Day weekend.

I was one of many. 

I’d placed in my age group in the past and after seeing the winning time from prior years, I decided that I wanted to try to win this race. I spent my summer mornings following a training plan that my friend (who was also a running coach) devised for me. On race-day, however, I hadn’t accounted for the handful of Olympic Trial-ers who were, unexpectedly, going to run the race this year. I’d also trained at 6:00am during an unusually cool summer. The start time for this race was 8am and we ran on black-top roads in an 80-degree thick heat, that day. 

I ignored the weather and I focused on the runners around me edging their feet towards the starting line, and on the split-times I’d written in permanent marker onto my hand. 

And three miles later I passed out.

Well — before I passed out (in delirium), apparently I stopped to ask the fans lined up along the race course just where I might find the finish line. The heat and the pace set by the top runners and my thick-headedness made for the perfect cocktail. I served myself up a heat stroke.

Weeks later, as I researched the implications of this heat stroke, I came across information that indicated that people who suffer heat strokes are often the ones who don’t know their own limits.

Hmmm….  

That was nine years ago. Before children. Before the circuitous path to adoption. Before the pursuit of our children’s hearts post-adoption. Before yet-longer years of infertility and losing my dad and rocking a babe to sleep at 3am and riding the roller coaster of my husband’s fledgling business.

And here I am, now, with six children and the most predominant data point I have of myself and my life is this: I’m limited.

I’m grossly limited. 

My limitations press in around me, all the time. The babe wakes at the very moment the toddler decides he’s ready to potty train and my thirteen year-old wants to talk about her heart. Not only can I not avoid these limitations, but they *are* me. I could add much more to this list, but you probably have your own list to harken to as you read this. I suspect I’m not alone and that this issue of limitations is not merely the struggle of the mother of six who moonlights as a writer. But even the mother of two or three (or one) or the woman who finishes a deadline at work just to face another, all while her dry cleaning collects dust, awaiting a pick-up. 

At twenty-five I wanted to conquer my flesh. (I wanted every area of my life to have a six-minute-mile pace.)

But these days, I have learned that what I really want is to surrender it.

More than resenting my failures, I’m starting to (more deeply) resent the days when my heart sinks because I see my failures. This should not be so.

Because in the kingdom of God, it is weakness that incites the miracles. It is weakness that incites the gaze of our Father God. Today, I want those stories more than I want a six-minute-mile pace. 

More than being able to rock the babe, potty-train the toddler and solve my thirteen year-old’s problems (all at once), I want that deep peace that comes with surrender to God. The deep peace that accompanies the safest of friendships. (He never asked me to be limitless. He just asked me to be His.)

This surrender is one of the most becoming things I’ve seen in a person. I’ve found myself scouring faces for it in the way a freshman does at the senior class on her first day of school. What is it that I see in these few sages in my life who finally rest at peace in their pursuit of God — who are relentless but not fearful, reaching but not anxious, determined but not proudly ambitious?

I want that

Because in the kingdom of God, it is weakness that incites the miracles. It is weakness that incites the gaze of our Father God.

You see, being settled within my limitations — seeing them as extensive and forever-lasting and likely growing, as they are — doesn’t actually relegate me to a boring and “mundane” life. It sets me up for the miraculous. 

I suppose it’s touching the part of me that sees the value of putting down my phone and sitting in the quiet, before God, with the acute sense of these limits that I now know I have.

In a given day, faced with all these needs and my inability to even come close to meeting them … I can push harder and plan better. I can Get Things Done™ and multi-task to keep up and shame myself when I don’t. I can scroll for minutes or hours and remind myself of every other person who’s hustling and “killin’ it” with their life.

But He just asks me to bring what I have. To pray. To watch what He does with my lack.

In a moment where I simply can’t meet the expectations of the people and the projects in front of me, I can use the midnight hours to work and sweat or run it around my head in sleeplessness.

But He just asks me to bring what I have. To pray. To watch what He does with my lack.

In the swirl of my children’s ever-growing needs I can solicit even more help. Make more appointments. Research more options. Troubleshoot.

But He just asks me to bring what I have. To pray. To watch what He does with my lack.

The quiet spaces in my life offer me perspective: I’m only five loaves and two fish away from some of the greatest miracles in my life.

His simple words in Matthew 14:18: “bring them here to me.

Perhaps today is your day to put down your phone full of lists and apps and reminders and pins that remind you about the wells that you’re not digging and the birthday parties you’re not throwing and the workout you didn’t finish and you take what little you have and bring it to Him.

Who knows but that basketfuls of overflow might fill your soul?

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God Wants Our Sad

This friend’s eyes were some of the first to read the manuscript that I’d almost tucked under my mattress, hoping it would only be shared between me and God. As a timid response to the whisper from Him — write your story — I stayed up into the wee hours of the night and clicked away at the keys during nap-times. Then that nudge turned into another and what I thought would just be a conversation between me and God turned into a story I would share. It found its way into safe hands, ’cause when you bleed on a page it feels safest having the first ones to read it be ones who also have bled.

Esther Fleece knew how to hold my story because she’d lived one of her own.

And now her words, below and in her book, invite us to stop pretending that everything is fine (as we Christians have too easily mastered) and talk to God with our pain. Esther invites us to bleed. To lament. And not just to the impersonal sky, but before the very personal God, as He tells us in His Word. 

This might just be the permission you need … -S

Lament is one of those words we don’t use very much today. It’s not a regular entry in our vocabulary, even with us church people. I was in my late twenties before I really even knew what this word meant, despite growing up in church and staying connected to a Christian community in my early adult years. When everything hit rock bottom, it was my counselor who was the one to first explain it to me.

Lament, he said, is simply expressing honest emotions to God when life is not going as planned. Whether we’re hurt, frustrated, confused, betrayed, overwhelmed, sad, or disappointed, lament is the language God has given us to talk to Him right in the middle of life’s messes. It’s real talk with God when you’re hurting, when all you can do is cry out for His help. It’s a prayer that says, God, I’m hurting—will You meet me here? And as such, it is a prayer to which God always responds.

This is not a prayer for the superspiritual. Lament is a prayer for all of us.

Not everyone experiences prosperity, but everyone we know will know loss and grief. Each and every one of us will experience setbacks, letdowns, failures, and betrayals. Every one of us will encounter change that is hard, lose loved ones before their time, and see relationships fail with people we counted on.

So what do we do when everything is not fine? Why are we shooting for the easy-street, pain-free life anyway? Where did we come up with the idea that we should be happy all the time? We all need do-over days, and sometimes we will wake up, eat a bowl of ice cream for breakfast, and head straight back to bed. This should not surprise us because Scripture tells us that we will go through different seasons—not all of them pleasant.

Adam and Eve were banished from the garden, the only home they’d ever known. The Israelites wandered the wilderness for forty years before they entered the Promised Land. The prophets ripped their clothing, grieved in the streets, and warned God’s people to repent and return. Jesus died the most gruesome death the Romans could come up with. And the early church faced persecution of all kinds.

I don’t see many easy-street lives in the Bible. And I certainly don’t see God demanding that we keep a stiff upper lip through hard times.

In fact, D. A. Carson, a professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, writes, “There is no attempt in Scripture to whitewash the anguish of God’s people when they undergo suffering. They argue with God, they complain to God, they weep before God. Theirs is not a faith that leads to dry-eyed stoicism, but to a faith so robust it wrestles with God.”

So where do all the clichés and false hopes we use to explain suffering come from? Not the Bible, and certainly not from God Himself. My insistence that I have a nice, easy, “fine” life was not only unbiblical; it was also an unrealistic expectation that ended up making me feel disengaged from God and disappointed in Him. I thought I was suffering because I had done something wrong. I had fallen for clichés, which only increased my pain.

For so much of my life, I thought sucking it up and faking away the pain showed true strength. But real strength is identifying a wound and asking God to enter it. We are robbing ourselves of a divine mystery and a divine intimacy when we pretend to have it all together. In fact, we lose an entire vocabulary from our prayers when we silence the reality of our pain. If questions and cries and laments are not cleaned up throughout Scripture, then why are we cleaning them up or removing them completely from our language?

Scripture doesn’t tell us to pretend we’re peaceful when we’re not, act like everything is fine when it’s not, and do everything we can to suppress our sorrow. God doesn’t insist that we go to our “happy place” and ignore our sad, yet so many of our churches preach that we will have peace and prosperity just by virtue of being Christians. Scripture, in contrast, tells us that as followers of Christ, we are called to serve a “man of sorrows” who died a gruesome death. Until we identify ourselves with our Savior and acknowledge, as He did, just how painful life can be, we won’t be able to lament or to overcome. And if we silence our own cries, then we will inevitably silence the cries of those around us. We cannot carefully address the wounds of others if we are carelessly addressing our own.

The fact is, God does not expect us to have it all together, so it is a real disservice when our Christian communities create this expectation. We will be unsuccessful at sitting with hurting people if we have not allowed ourselves to grieve and wail and mourn and go through the lament process ourselves. God understands that life is full of pressures, hurts, stings. He took on flesh so He could relate to us in both our joy and pain. He wants us to feel and express every emotion before Him and not minimize a thing. There is no “fake it till you make it” in Scripture. When we fake fine, we fake our way out of authentic relationship with God, others, and ourselves.

 

Esther Fleece is an international speaker and writer recognized among Christianity Today’s “Top 50 Women Shaping the Church and Culture” and CNN’s “Five Women in Religion to Watch.” Esther shares her story in her first book, No More Faking Fine: Ending The Pretending. Stay in touch with Esther & share your own lament on her website at www.estherfleece.com.

 

Taken from No More Faking Fine by Esther Fleece Copyright © 2016 by Esther Fleece Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com.

I Share a Bloodline With The Children We Adopted

“Look, she’s calling you mommy!” said a beautifully well-intentioned friend, wanting to celebrate just how quickly we’d become a family.

My little girl was building with legos in the corner and her less-than-nimble fingers needed help piecing them together. She called me mommy when she was hungry and when she needed help in the bathroom, too.

We adopted our first two children from Ethiopia at 1 ½ and 3 ½. We were their parents and they came to us potty trained. We were parents and yet we’d never changed diapers or done 3am feedings. The first day we met them, the only words they knew in English were “Mommy” and “Daddy” – and for all they knew, these were our first names.

The reason I remember this friend’s celebratory words were that I wanted to celebrate then, too, like she did. Couldn’t calling me “Mommy” mean that my little girl knew all of what that that name meant — couldn’t it mean that we were more of a family than a mere three weeks of knowing one another might otherwise imply?

As a new mom, then just having crested my twenties, adoption was what I’d seen on Christmas cards and in “Gotcha Day” videos where teary-eyed parents met the children they would spend their lives raising and wide-eyed children met strangers holding gifts and crying.

Sure, I’d read the adoption literature. I knew the stories. But I still was not all that different from my friend. When my daughter called me “mommy”, I ascribed more weight to those words than I did to the fight soon coming to win her to knowing the fierce love behind that name.

Our language betrays how quickly we want to declare victory. How quickly we want to move past pain.

When we adopted our first two, we had scores of friends and family who wanted to agree with what we’d already hoped – that the transition would be smooth and that any past trauma would have left very little imprint. We all wanted that piece of the vacuous American dream “healthy and happy children.”

We all secretly wanted “normal.”

So my little girl – the one I’d only just met – calls me Mommy and we all breathe a sigh of relief, as if this somehow indicates we are well on our way there … to that empty and elusive state of “normal.”

Girl MJ

Mommy is a tender responder to ouchies who fiercely fights for the hearts of her children and is relentless in her love for them, even when they hurt her out of their own hurt. But what I didn’t know at thirty was that the reasons why the ones who called me mommy (we now have four that we adopted) might struggle to believe me as such were entry-points for all of us into the heart of God.

As a culture, we want to stamp “done” and “fixed” over the things that hurt and the parts of us that still bleed. We want to bandage deep wounds without cleaning them first and label “complete” over the parts of us that still need His healing touch.

We want to celebrate a child who calls her caretaker “Mommy” as if this one day in which they were adopted means that all the past was forever erased.

And this is, perhaps, because we don’t yet have a grid for God as the deep Healer of our wounds.

He heals.

We don’t want to bleed because we‘re not yet quite convinced that He, Himself, bandages.

Perhaps we are called (in James 1:27) to care for the orphan and the widow because something happens to us when we get closer to a wound that’s still bleeding. We are opened to a side of God we cannot see when we’re spending our days trying to tidy our lives before Him who promises to be near to the ones who actually aren’t all that tidy, the God who promises to be near to the broken-hearted.

Morning run glory. Waking up expectant. I'm gonna see Him today.

Not too long after we adopted our second two, my husband said to me (about one of ours with a history that still leaves me in tears) “you know, you weren’t all that different from her, when I first met you.”

Excuse me?

This particular child bristled to the touch and averted her eyes when confronted with affection. She retreated down a long corridor of vacancy when she felt shame and shame seemed to be what she wore, no matter how we spoke otherwise to her.

When my husband met me at twenty-three I was more savvy. I hid those emotions that my child wore front and center. I stuffed them down deep, far from sight – except to those who were on a path to really know me. Indeed, I was messy underneath my carefully-groomed exterior.

These children who are now ours, but who were once orphaned, have brought our home a little closer to the mess. Not just theirs but closer to the mess inside of us, the mess we Christians like to tidy. Real fast.

James 1:27 has not been, to us, a call to powerful and strong believers who are wearing badges of rescue and saving the broken ones. Rather, it’s been our introduction to the way we humans bleed. All of us humans. And, even more than that, the God who uses this place of bleeding as an entry-point into our hearts as healer.

I couldn’t begin to know God as healer until I admitted my desperate need for healing. I’m just a few steps ahead of my children, in that. That’s the bloodline we share in common.

For When You Are Fresh Out of Amazing

I managed to crumple into a heap on my bed while holding the babe. I was still a mother, even in this melted state. I finally released the kind of tears you cry when a dozen times previous they’ve been stifled.
 These weren’t just today’s sobs.
The questions I’d been evading for weeks, perhaps even months, fell into my mind like bombs being dropped by planes overhead, strafing across my otherwise rational thinking.

Who was I to think I could live my life well—this life right in front of me—and with any sense of joy?

At what point did I move from having a good handle on my priorities to just surviving my days?

Have I just messed this all up? What is wrong with me that I’m here, now, unable to hold it together?

I clamped my eyes shut, over the tears, as if I could somehow close the door on all the questions, the insecurity, the creeping sense of failure, and go on to make a fantastic gourmet dinner in a spotless kitchen. As if I could even press pause on the swirling around me for long enough to pray, or even form a sentence or grab a tissue.

They were shut for five seconds before the baby cried, joining me in my meltdown and reminding me that I didn’t have the luxury of time to gain perspective on this internal rift. And then a knock at the door and I heard a squabble down the hall, between which there was a lineup of blocks in primary colors scattered across my hallway.

How did I get here? And what do I do now?

Continue reading this post over here –> 

The Myth of Human Strength

My best and brightest moments have been laced with weakness.

We met our first two children in Ethiopia and spent our first days of parenting in a tempered state of shock over the rolling meltdowns. While adopting our second two children from Uganda, I saw miracle-level movements of God I’d never before or since seen. Even in the times when we’ve repeated the stories, I feel that lump-in-my-throat awe over just how rare they were and how near He felt. And yet in between those miracle days were tearful nights under mosquito nets and terse words spoken to the man I love, the one who brought us there, and more of my own meltdowns than I’d like to admit over power outages and the broken shower in the guest home and the smoggy air.

(Nate tells the stories from Uganda — these glorious moments that only God could have orchestrated — to new friends and others who hadn’t heard what we saw and I can’t help but flash back to the argument we had outside of the van scheduled to take us to our court appointment, and in front of the unsuspecting driver who quickly got schooled in American conflict.)

I birthed my first biological baby after twelve years of marriage. Twelve years of waiting … and more than long hours of labor.

Yet somehow I still imagine the most glorious moments I have ahead of me in God to be seamless. I look at others who’ve accomplished what I consider to be great feats of faith and ignorantly assume they came with ease.

CandlesMJ

Recently, a friend who has been a missionary to a remote village in Africa for years witnessed those she loved getting their hands on the very first translated New Testaments in their language. Translators had been working for 20+ years on these pages and the ones in her community now held their own Bible, in their native tongue. My friend sent me pictures and I cried — couldn’t get it out of my mind for days, this momentous event of hungry people getting the food of the Word. But when we finally connected so that I could hear her voice telling me more of the story, she cautioned me. This is complicated, Sara, she said. Bibles that could be read fell in the hands of many who have never read anything in their own language. This pinnacle moment was, in fact, another beginning towards a different ascent. These Bibles would be sweated over before they were read.

Our greatest moments in God are laced with weakness and we humans don’t like it.

bo-2-cs

Though I quote Paul’s letters to my children and to my fickle heart, I often forget what he walked through in order to be able to say “I can do everything through Him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13). I love that David was a man with a pulse melded towards God and one about whom God looked through his boyishly-rouged cheeks to see a heart that could hunger, but I’d like to ignore the tryst that leveled his life and made him weak and needy for God, and the son who stealthily betrayed him.

I want His best moments to also include me, at my best. I give accolades to friends who “pulled it off” and slap an “I’m doing well” on the times when I feel best about my motherhood and my home and my marriage and my writing and my friendships. I still want the great strength of God and my own great strength, too.

But it never happens that way. No, never.

When my human strength attempts to compete with His glory (let’s be honest: near daily), I am subtly despising the unique way (read: unfamiliar, unconventional, not-of-this-place-where-we-live) that He moves in power.

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. 2 Corinthians 4:7

It’s a rare thing that I call my weakness a treasure. But to skip to that step and merely use the verbiage — while still secretly wanting the glory of God to seamlessly manifest within my tightened life — I miss what David had. What Paul had. (And, ahem, I then lead people to me.)

They knew His eyes on them when all hell broke loose in their life. They knew destitution of the heart and body and yet also how one received look from God made that single moment their richest. They knew what it was like to have their heart … race. In love. From love. All because of a surprising brush with the near gaze of God in their most unsuspecting hour.

When I’m admittedly weak (because, as my husband sometimes tells me, my stated “weak moments” are truly just the ones where I’m acknowledging a weakness that was already there before I noticed it), I’m supple. Receptive. His glory streams brighter through all the holes in my countenance.

So, people, let’s stop dreaming about the day when it’s all slick and we’re strong and then God is glorified. It’s a myth.

So, people, let’s stop dreaming about the day when it’s all slick and we’re strong and then God is glorified. It’s a myth.

In your sweatpants and a top knot and un-showered, He has power (and He sees you). At the height of some sort of messy unfolding of a new thing He’s led you to do, He has power (and He sees you). With your arms around a child who would rather be anywhere else than with you, He has power (and He sees you). By the bedside of a friend, He has power (and He sees you). In your own hospital bed or nursing a tireless infant at 3am, He has power (and He sees you).

In the kingdom of God, all those places about which we’ve been complaining, where we feel so weak, are in fact the places for our greatest access to the truest Glory.

And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 2 Corinthians 12:9

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Photos compliments of Cherish Andrea Photography and Mandie Joy.

The Antidote to Comparison

Three sisters share a bathroom, a closet, hairbrushes and the nightly bedtime recounting of the day. They know each other’s strengths just as surely as they know one another’s morning breath. All the girls know that Eden can sing and Hope can dance and Lily can paint. They celebrate each others’ differences readily. They wouldn’t want to forfeit what’s theirs — and doesn’t every girl have their one thing? You’d never catch Lily in a leotard these days and Eden’s paints have long since dried up.

But in the everyday things of life they share – the writing, the reading, the piano playing … oh, and the hair – they often give each other the side-eye. The celebration of one another is a struggle. It’s work to rejoice over a sister’s longer hair and longer books read, and new writing pieces. On these, their natural bent can be to be silent.

Not all that different from us mamas, if we do what’s “natural”, isn’t it?

A friend who’s a triathlete or another who’s in sales or still another who plays the violin masterfully – they’re all easy for me to celebrate. I could spend a whole summer at the pool without getting my head wet, I like to buy (and not sell) and I’ve never once held a violin.

But what about the mom with children the same age as mine? Or (for me) the other writer, the other speaker, the other adoptive parent?

It seems harmless to remain silent at another’s successes – to look sideways and feel better about who we are because our successes might be bigger or to feel worse about what we’re not in light of their gold. It seems harmless to cast the side-eye and to stay silent. I mean they are, after all, succeeding – surely they don’t need celebrating in addition to enjoying all that so-evident fruit.

Within my heart, however, they do need celebrating.

When I don’t see the people in my world with the understanding that God has given to each a unique role within His body and that my job is to feel with another when they’re weak andto rejoice with another when they’re honored, I miss out on the beauty I was meant to receive from that person.

And I miss out on the sweet whisper of God telling me, uniquely who I am in Him.

We dress up comparison like we dress up our pet demons – “oh, it’s not that bad. It’s just a function of motherhood — just a function of a being a woman.” But what it steals from us (in ever-increasing increments over time) is the ability to hear His vision for our particular life and for our particular calling.

It all gets cloudy. And fast.

Comparison is the masqueraded thief  {continue reading this new post over here –>}