Jesus

 

“Auntie Sarah, baby Jesus is missing from our manger scene.”  It was my niece, face the shade of almonds–the one that never misses anything, but she was missing this.

“Oh, yeah?  Really?  Where’d he go?”  It is true, I wasn’t fully listening; a list of to-do’s plugged my ears and numbed my heart, and I was deaf.  And aren’t so many Christians deaf to this truth–that it is sometimes US, those that are supposed to HAVE Him, that are in fact missing Him?

“That’s just it; we don’t know.  He’s missing.”

“Who?” That was me, asking who when she’d already told me.  “Jesus?” And isn’t it true that so many of US, that are supposed to KNOW who, forget WHO this season is about?

“Yes, Auntie!  He’s missing from our manger scene.”

And like waking from one of those falling dreams, I felt I’d hit the floor; truth had her foot to my throat.  Because we lose Jesus at Christmas, don’t we?  We never mean to do it.  But somehow, though He is the centerpiece, He becomes small.

Her ceramic Jesus was missing from the nativity.  Jesus missing at Christmas.  Of all the pieces of painted porcelain, how could one lose the focal point?  Why not a shellacked sheep or shepherd? But Jesus?  Lose Jesus?

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Growing up, Jesus was a really big deal in our home at Christmas.  Every year, four scraggly sisters and I took turns tipping our toes and stretching arms to reach the mantle top where we placed a member of the milk-white nativity my mother displayed on a stable floor made of black velvet scrap spread across the thick cherry wood. Jesus was shorter than my pinky finger, a tiny figure in the manger scene, but mom never lost Him.  He was always present, when she pried back the old cardboard storage box and unwrapped tissue paper padding, waiting to be placed up high for all to take in.

He’s there this year too, in a blanket of ceramic straw atop the same midnight velvet on the same mantle.  But that’s not really the Jesus she never lost.  Hers is the living Jesus, the one who reigns in her heart–the one from whose offered cup of living water, she’s awoken early every morning of my life to drink. And in my haste to accomplish and make progress, I’ve thought more than once that perhaps for just one day she could suspend her routine. Why must she always start with Him before anything else?  How many times as a child I recollect waiting for her to finish seeking Him first?  My mom always kept Jesus where He belonged.

But when my honey-haired niece told me she was missing Jesus, I swallowed hard the glob of doughy truth.  I miss Him too–miss Him at every turn.  He’s not just in the stable, or on the mantle, he’s in that sweet girl’s chocolate cheeks, in my boys’ laughter squeaking like a clarinet in a beginner’s mouth, He’s in the strong back of my husband when he carries a patient from home to ambulance to hospital.  He is present when my husband and a fellow fire-fighter drive home, and the car a few feet in front is stopped dead.  It was Jesus whose hands cushioned and buffered as their vehicles miss by inches, and though my husband’s hands shake, His remain steady.  Jesus in a manger; Jesus on the highway. Jesus in the ambulance.  Jesus in the kitchen.  Jesus at the office.  Jesus in school.

Emmanuel. 

God with us.

He’s everywhere, and I miss Him.

And Herod too missed Him, hunted Him, wanted to destroy Him, had babies murdered in an attempt to eliminate him, but how can one destroy what they cannot see?  And Herod couldn’t see. Because eyes can be 20/20 while hearts are blind.  Herod hungered for the worship of mankind, and I hunger for autonomy in my life, but I can’t have it both ways.  I must choose–no one can serve two masters.  And come now, how many of us want it both ways–especially at Christmas?And if I want Jesus, I must choose to lay aside my agenda long enough to notice Him, to drink from His living water.

John said, “Prepare the way for the Lord,” (Matthew 3:3b) and I wonder if I have prepared the way for Him this Christmas season.

The Jesse Tree

The Christmas Tree

The Birthday Cake

The Cantata

The Nursing Home Visits

The Elijah’s Closet Toy Ministry

Surely I’ve made the season about Him, haven’t I?

But Jesus isn’t in a list;  Jesus IS the list.  John said prepare the way for Him because it is HE who IS THE WAY for life.  And when the Hebrews used that word, way, they meant a well-worn path, a dependable route.  It is He is that well-worn, that dependable route.  He is the firm footing for my fluttering size eight feet must fix themselves on.  He is the box that holds all the great gifts, and yet, like the drum set your thirteen year old boy wants for Christmas, He is unwrappable, uncontainable.

My weary eyes have read a thousand tales telling me I need new things this season.  An Echo, a Iphone 10, an Instant Pot, a red toaster because black and stainless are not nearly as pretty anymore, Christmas sweaters knit and pearled by some machine that can’t give life.  The flyers faint with the weight of all the stuff.  And how can my life be so full and yet, without Him, it is empty?  Because in Him is fullness of joy. 

IN HIM.

Joy.

Joy is found in the Christ of the manger, the lost centerpiece to which everything our soul truly desires is firmly fixed.

“You lead me in the path of life; I experience absolute joy in your presence; you always give me sheer delight.” (Psalm 16:11)

I can’t help but think how many Christmas sermons I’ve heard, how many devotions I’ve read, and my mind is saturated with their refrain, but I desire to be squeezed free of the myriad of mantras, like confetti crowding my mind, so that I can see clearly.  See just Him.  Just Jesus.

Is He really worth all this fuss?  Does He really make a difference?  Does it really matter if he is present or missing this Christmas?  That’s a question worth asking.  Does Jesus make a difference in the painful places and spaces we reveal to no one?  Does Jesus make a difference when he tells you he’s leaving and the vows you took were somehow disposable?  Does Jesus make a difference when the diagnosis is terminal, and the other children still get to run and play and live?  Does HE?  

Tell me, fellow followers, is it true?  Is there really absolute joy–absolute–in His presence?  Sheer delight?  Really?  Because if that’s true, than it is no wonder my mother, body aching in exhaustion with the raising of five girls by herself, woke each morning with the sun to greet her Jesus day after day, year after year. She met with Joy.  She met with delight.  She still does because in Him she has found the fullness her soul hungers for.

Errands took longer than I hoped this week, and I treated the boys and myself to a quick bite at a fast food spot. When I got home, I couldn’t even get the groceries inside before I ran for glass and water.  Thirsty. Junk always leaves you thirsty.  So do the other paths in life–they leave us soul thirsty, a condition beyond parched.

Drained.

Dehydrated.

Desperate.

And I have drank from rancid wells in my life, but this absolute joy is not that kind of cistern.  The Hebrew word literally means satiety–the condition of being satiated.  To be satisfied.

Just to be satisfied.  That in itself would be such a gift this season.  And my thoughts agree, “Yes, to be satisfied in my marriage, in my home, with my physical appearance, with my children’s progress in school, with our lot in life, with….”

No.

No?

No, I am the way.

In My presence is absolute/fullness of joy.

I give sheer delight.

Your soul longs to be satisfied in ME.  ME alone.

Already I missed Him.  Started hunting for wise men and shepherds. Satisfied with this, content with that. There is no satisfaction apart from the baby in the manger, the person of Jesus.  He is the way to satisfaction. Satisfied with Jesus can be a permanent condition when all other things will drive me to further thirst.  Everything else is a Dead Sea, and like a flopping fish my life will float to the surface because joy doesn’t survive in salted waters.

When Mary, mother-to-be arched her back in labor pains, the inns were filled with travelers on their way to be counted.  But they weren’t counting on Him, were they?  And Jesus would not be born among the counted because you cannot count Him.  You cannot contain Him.  You cannot contain the kind of satisfaction, of joy He grants.  It is infinite.  It is satiety. 

And I see that it is not He who is missing; it is we who are missing Him.

It is not just this season that He desires to be seen.  It is not just this one month, when carols call His name and candles are lit, when mistletoe is hung and hearts are tender, that He pours out living water while we swallow eggnog instead. We are always swallowing that which will eventually swallow our souls while Living Water is packed into a cardboard box, covered in tissue paper, and placed back in our attics.

He came that we would have life abundantly, more than just life in December.  His Kingdom is in our hearts and Peace can reign all our days, if we drink from His cup.  Jesus on the mantle, all year.  Never lost because He is never removed from His rightful home. And all the world’s a stable and wherever I go, the manger is before me. Jesus while I fold five thousand loads of laundry, Jesus while I rejoice over a miracle for my Aunt, Jesus while I weep over the separation of body and soul of a boy so young, Jesus while foreclosure court dates loom, Jesus when children leave for college and choose spouses, Jesus when our husband is deployed, Jesus when our children struggle with addiction, Jesus when our body fails us.  Jesus.

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Jesus, remaining on my mantle this year because “Better is one day in your courts, than thousands elsewhere.”(Psalm 84:10).

Days ago I woke slow and on my way to coffee, I stopped to look out the backdoor.  An indigo bunting perched on the naked arms of some spent shrub in my garden.  She was like a wild blueberry that somehow survived harvest just for this moment.  This moment when I stop and see Him.  Jesus dropping in for coffee and living water.  Jesus saying, “I am the way, I am here.  I am joy.  Do you see me wearing clothing you can understand?  Do you see me perching my creativity for your pleasure?” 

And I do.

See Him.

I do.

Jesus, teach me to slow down more, to lull and pause, to wait and wonder, to anticipate your appearance.  Teach me to seek You in the nativities of my life.  Teach me to discern when I am drinking from salted wells instead of your living water.  Thank you for clothing yourself in the form I could understand, the human form.  Let me live the Christmas season all year long.  Amen.

Jesus.  On all the mantles of my life.  All year.

The path.

The drink.

The life.

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All I Want For Christmas . . . is a leg

We were making jokes about it –calling ourselves the #hospitalhomeless, the Piedmont Squatters–my sister and I.  We’d arrived at the hospital before 5am for our mom’s heart surgery.  Our bags were filled with granola bars, bottled waters, and pretzels.  Trust me, the Occupy movement had nothing on us.  We had no intention of leaving until we were sure mom was in the clear.

We knew the cafeteria was a death trap, so we thought we were in France when we found a little cafe that sold baked goods and soups.  It would be a home run for our mom when she was feeling up to eating.  Faith took a panoramic picture of the shelves topped with muffins, croissants, and lemon-chicken orzo soup so we could tempt mom to eat when she woke.  They gave complimentary oyster crackers out too.  (We love a complimentary packet of crackers!  Come by it honest.  When mom felt up to examining her hospital tray, she may have refused to eat their cardboard sausage and rubbery scrambled eggs, but she snatched up their packets of Splenda “for company” and had us put them in her bag.)  We figured out that if we really were homeless, we would come to the hospital to live.  There are bathrooms, loads of empty waiting rooms (some with actual benches), and the complimentary oyster crackers.  One could, in theory, survive.

While we were crammed into our waiting room chairs, we did our annual family name draw, and everyone had their kids make a quick list of things they might like to have for Christmas.  We congratulated ourselves for multi-tasking while we waited for news on our mom.  We even did some Christmas shopping then and there, on our smartphones.

Christmas Shopping.  Check.

The first night, while mom lay in the ICU with wires, chords, and IV’s dangling from her like tinsel on a Christmas tree, we sprawled out on 3 chairs and a coffee table attempting to get some sleep.

The Hospital Homeless

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That was us.

There we were in a state of the art hospital with a top medical team from Europe treating our mother, temperature controlled rooms,  countless food options, and no real needs in the world.

The irony escaped me at the time.  It wasn’t until later, after we’d been discharged, after mom had spent a week convalescing at my house, when I went to send my Haitian Sponsorship Child, Rosemine, a Christmas gift (another item checked off my list), that I remembered.

Haiti.

A part of planet’s population separated by miles and by privilege, by needs and by wants, by governments and geography, and by homes or the lack thereof.  Really, truly homeless.

A nation with wants far different than ours.

a meal.

a home.

a parent.

a leg.

an arm.

hope.

Real Needs.  Not Wants.

Because to be hospital homeless for them would be paradise.  I’d forgotten that 96% of Haitians have no access to health coverage or basic healthcare.  We fuss and fight over healthcare access here in the states, but for a mere $400 we could supply a new leg for a real-live human being who doesn’t even care if they get free annual wellness checks; they just want to be able to rejoin society and walk.

The Haitian Christmas list?

To walk.

To eat.

To go to school.

To fall asleep under a real roof.

God forgive us all.  It isn’t what we have that is wrong, it is that we are unwilling to share.  No one is asking us to feel guilty for being born in a privileged country with resources at the ready.  That’s not the point.  The point is this:  We, you and I, are privileged so we can provide.  We’re granted blessings to give blessings.  We have access so we can open doors for others.  We’re not meant to hoard but to help.

Perhaps you’d like to see what Mission of Hope is doing to help?  Here’s one glorious glimpse into the prosthetic world.  When the earthquake ripped limbs from bodies like pages from a notebook, Mission of Hope decided to step in.  The going rate on the ground in Haiti for a prosthetic is around $400.  It would take the average Haitian 1/3 of a year to earn the money to pay for a prosthetic–if they bought no food, shelter or other necessities.  In reality, most natives will never afford a prosthetic rendering them permanently helpless, marginalized members of an already suffering society.  Three prosthetic labs remain on the ground today in Haiti, and Mission of Hope’s lab is the only one giving custom fitted prosthetics at no cost to the patients.  No cost.

Here’s the beautiful thing.  The head prosthetist?  He’s a man by the name of Nono, a native Haitian who first visited the lab seeking a prosthetic for his own son.  And the funding?  Well, it comes from people like you and I, yes.  But do you know where else it comes from?  3 Chords–another arm of Mission of Hope that employs disabled Haitians, pays them a living wage, and uses the profits to fund the prosthetic lab.  It’s a purposeful reversal of the cycle of poverty and disability into a cycle of life and hope.  MOH is empowering marginalized Haitians to self-sufficiency and equipping them to empower their fellow Haitian.  The prosthetics lab serves over 500 people currently. You can learn about this incredible work in a video interview I did on the ground in Haiti.

CLICK HERE

Perhaps this year as our families begin to make Christmas lists and look at Black Friday sales, we could begin with a real need–a Haitian need.

You can give so easily RIGHT HERE.

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My mom walked out of the hospital on both her legs.  Her surgery, covered largely by health insurance, was successful.  Hers is a story typical of those blessed to be born in North America.

But whose story can you and I change this holiday season?  A lot of times you hear people say things like, ‘they have no hope over there.’  But they do have hope, you know?

There hope is over here.

With you and I.

In our wallets.

In our bank accounts.

Let’s give together.

It is more blessed to give than to receive.

 

Of Flossing and Faith

Don’t forget to floss.

It was a text from my sister.  She helps me get my act together.  Basically, she sees the important areas where I’m dropping the ball and provides a support structure to assist me.  For example, I have about ten million photos in digital form.  She got hold of my phone, uploaded the Groove App, and set my photos to be printed and delivered to my house  monthly.  (Whatever. How was I supposed to know it was that easy to get my dumb photos in albums all along?)

So, the flossing thing.  Well, I’m just going to be honest about this.  I am very good at brushing my teeth.  By very good I mean I brush them about 100 times a day.  I love brushing my teeth. I even occasionally get tweezers and use the sharp edge to scrape off any plaque that has formed.  (It turns out I am not physically capable of making dental appointments, so I have to take annual cleanings into my own hands.)

But flossing?  I can’t do it.  I don’t know why.  I’m not good at remembering, and I hate doing it.  There are a lot of reasons why I fail at this particular important body-care ritual, none of which held up to my sister’s scrutiny, and so she is now texting me reminders.  I will admit that I do have some receding gum issues (self-diagnosed because you know . . . I don’t make appointments and also google. So who really needs a dentist when you have tweezers and google?)

The truth is that I’ve never been great at body care.

When people started using essential oils to treat illness, I bought more tylenol and ibuprofen–chemical cure-alls (and cheaper).

When the doctor said I should rehab my knee for 6 months, I went for 3 and called it good. (Okay, I’m regretting that.)

When people said our food was full of chemicals and hormones, and we should only eat carrots and wheat grass, I was like, “I’m already married to Doritos and Coke Zero is my middle name, so I guess I’ll just stay the course.”

But over the years I’ve begun to realize, when one part of the body doesn’t work properly, other parts begin to suffer.  So I’ve got some issues . . .

The good knee that compensates for the bad knee is mad at me now.

The hip above the bad knee also filed a suit against me.

There is the arm flab that flaps as I wash dishes reminding me I was supposed to do light body weight exercise to stay toned.

And of course there are the receding gums pointing fingers at the unopened floss in my vanity drawer. Who knew flossing would really turn out to be “preventative”?

(Just know that while I fail in some areas, I do have skills.  My underwear drawer is folded and color-coordinated, for example.  Also, if you are in a crisis, I am your girl.  I will show up with coffee, cinnamon rolls, and a dart gun in case the crisis involves killing someone.  Also, my purse always has all the things.  All. The. Things.  I’m talking a nail kit, lighter, tylenol-ibuprofen (see earlier), gum, lotion, chap-stick, tissue, fan, tweezers (see earlier), toothbrush and paste (also see earlier), notepad, screw-driver, knife, deodorant, protein bar, bottle of water . . . boy scout level preparedness happens in my purse, people. )

Regardless of my skills in filling purses, the reality is that I stink at flossing and other forms of caring for my physical body which, it turns out, is all connected.  Every part of it affects the rest of it, including my gums.

I think Jesus knew exactly what He was doing when He called Christians the body of Christ because it turns out there is this great cosmic-collide of souls that occurs when people put their faith in Christ.  We all end up IN HIM.

Literally. All the Christians.  All over the planet.  All in the same Container–Jesus.

In Christ, you who once were far have been brought near.–Ephesians 2:13 

For we are members of his body.—Ephesians 5:30

Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.–2 Cor. 5:17

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.–Gal. 3:28

For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.–Col. 3:3

My husband just took a trip to Houston to help with disaster relief.  There were 6 guys in a van for 15 hours one way.  It’s a long time to be that close to one another, a long time to be in one vehicle.  No exit or escape.  And we, you and I, we are IN JESUS.

In HIM we live and move and have our being.–Acts 17:28

We want to experience the abundant life that Christ came to give.  It’s like going to Houston required getting in the van.  To have life, the believer must grasp that it exists only in CHRIST.

So, we’re all about that, right?  I love being a new creature IN CHRIST.

But here is the rub.

I’m not alone IN HIM.  I am not a lone ranger–just me and Jesus loving this new life.  I exist IN HIM along with all the other believers from all over the globe. 

The believers in my local congregation?  They’re in there.

The believers from the other churches in my area?  They are in there too.

The believers I fell in love with in Haiti?  In Jesus.

The believers I don’t like?  Yep, jostling around right beside me in Christ.

The believers who don’t like me?  Can’t escape me.  We’re together in Christ.

This merging of identities called the mystical union is the miraculous rebirth of those from different places and spaces and colors and perspectives and ideas into a single kingdom where all men and women are born on equal footing and equally loved.  In Christ.

It’s a kingdom no human government will ever be able to legislate into existence.

It’s a kingdom no human will ever accomplish, and yet it includes any human willing to die to an old way and live IN CHRIST.  When lived out according to biblical instruction, it is the answer to divided nations, to a war-weary refugee crisis, to all the lives mattering movements, and to hunger and thirst.  

When we fully fathom and allow this thought–that all believers are together IN CHRIST–to form, we begin to operate in a different way.

We begin to see the need for flossing.

Because there’s no separating portions of the body.  I once read a book called, “How to Quit Church Without Quitting God.”  Fascinating read.  Tragic misunderstanding.

Believers can’t quit the church–it’s a living, breathing organism whose head is Christ.

We are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.–Eph. 4:15

If we quit the church, we must understand, we’ve quit Christ and ourselves because we ARE the church and the church ONLY EXISTS in Christ.

The church–as we know it–is a building (lots of them in fact), a structure organized by human hands and minds.  However, THE CHURCH?  THE CHURCH is a body, not multiple bodies, and it includes Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, blacks, whites, people who believe differently about doctrine and politics, and most of all, it includes sinful, needy humans.  Just like you.  Just like me.  

From whom (Christ) the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.–Eph. 4:16

And so here we are . . . us Christians . . . with one body in which we’ve all been stuffed like hay in a scarecrow.  And God himself placed us, uniquely, perfectly, for the purpose of His fame and our growth.

And you, me, and all the rest?

We aren’t separate congregations competing for members.  We are congregations connected in Christ seeking heart conversion of all mankind . . . together.  Not separate.

We aren’t churches divided by doctrine. We’re doctrinally diverse disciples drawn together in LOVE in Christ, determined to grow up not into dogma, but into the Divine Deity of Christ.

We aren’t offended individuals gripping grudges like addicts on heroine.  We are a people who find ourselves encased in a new reality where we are renewed and reconciled, a reality where we release unforgiveness and hold tight to the healing Holy Spirit’s fruit of forgiveness.

Perhaps the real problem with the church is not that millennials are leaving or the carpet isn’t the right color.  Perhaps the real problem with the church is when we become disappointed and disillusioned, and in turn begin mass exodus, we are in effect dismembering the very body to which we belong.  We dismember ourselves and wonder why we are bleeding.  We’ve forgotten our existence is in Christ.

Christ knew we would have a hard time remaining in the body and gave some extensive instructions about how we should treat one another.  In other words, He gave us body-care instructions . . . little flossing reminders.  Because, it is by this–how we treat one another–and this alone, that the world will know we are true disciples of Christ.

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.–John 13:34,35

Perhaps we’ve forgotten this fact:  Body care is critical.  Scripture speaks on this around 60 times in the “One Another” passages.

Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.–Romans 12:10

Bear with each other.

Forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.–Colossians 3:13
Teach…[one another] 
Admonish one another.–Colossians 3:16

Be kind and compassionate to one another.–Eph. 4:32
Make your love increase and overflow for each other.–I Thessalonians 3:12
Love each other.–I Thessalonians 4:9

I cannot accomplish the “One Another” passages if I am not in relationship with my fellow believers.  I’m left wondering if we could grasp this grouped together existence where we are no longer identified by blood type O or A or B but by the blood of Jesus Christ that replaced our old DNA with the Divine, if we could grasp this grouping, perhaps the world would be willing to grasp Christ.

Because if we can truly love one another–the way Christ loves us–wouldn’t that be the irresistible food for which every soul hungers?  Authentic Christianity will involve relationships with all believers, and anything less is the generic version.  It may cost less, and be easier to obtain, but in the end, it’s not the original.

Flossing isn’t convenient.  It’s not even pleasant.  It is work.

Living IN CHRIST in committed community with other believers–it can also be work.  It can be unpleasant.  It can be downright devastating at times, but it is also our reality–like it or not.  It is good for us.  When we surrender to it, it is refining, restorative, and reflective of God’s love.

It’s preventative.

It prevents lost people from further rejecting Christ because they see genuine love.

It prevents me from reverting back to old ways and contributes to my transformation.

It prevents me from living dead in my sins and equips me for new life.

Only in this type of community, where I accept and embrace all the believers on the planet, will I grow up into the head who is Christ.  It’s a miraculous method of growing.  It doesn’t require a new Bible study, a new app, another conference, or a high-tech worship service.  It requires me committing to remain in the body.  It requires me committing to do my part.  It requires me recognizing that my spiritual gifts are not to be consumed on myself but to be shared with the body.  It requires me laying down my desire to have things my way and submit to one another out of  reverence for Christ.–Eph. 5:21.  It requires me determining to care–truly care–for all of the body.  The body in my personal local congregation, the body no longer attending any congregation, the body in Haiti, the body in Puerto Rico, the body in Houston, the body in Indonesia.  A well-cared for body is a body that understands it is no longer its own, it has been bought with a price, and is a temple of the very presence of God.  It carries Christ’s presence, the Sacred Solution to a spiritually starving mankind, wherever it travels.  Every part matters in this body.  No part can be discarded, rejected, cast off, or walk off voluntarily because it is joined by the unbreakable DNA of the Living God.

So, perhaps we need a text message, you and I?  A little reminder?

Don’t forget to floss.

The Shedding Tree

I saw this quote recently, probably on facebook or Instagram, and it stopped me.

The trees are about to show us how lovely it is to let the dead things go.  –Annonymous

I’ve always loved when the trees explode in their own display of fireworks–the riot of red and blazing orange that woo our gaze with their warmth and heat the crisping autumn sky.  But I never realized it’s a celebration of dead things.

Before those leaves are shed, they’re colored crimson.

Before those leaves are discarded, they’re dipped and dyed flaming yellows.

But they will be shed, and they will be discarded, because those leaves, they are dead.

There’s no hope of life left to linger.  They are completely and utterly dead.

When autumn’s fireworks have ceased, we see the naked and bare limbs of maples, their trunks like elephant legs, and it gives us a quiet, lonely sense about the world.

But in their naked state, they’re actually more alive than when the flaming leaves hold on to their branches heralding autumn’s last hoorah.

They’re alive because they let go of the dead things.

They’re alive because they’ve shed that which, if left to stay, would prevent the budding bumps of new growth come spring.

Life means letting go of dead things.

If we hold onto to dead things forever, we cling to crumpled remnants of what will never be.  We cling to the grave.

We do that, don’t we?  Cling to the grave?

Hold onto a grudge when forgiveness is budding beneath, pressing and pushing and praying to be released in our lives.

Hold onto paralyzing fear when trust is a trigger ready to be pulled, and peace wants desperately to be launched.

Hold onto material things and worldly goals when eternal things and heavenly pursuits are shoots pushing at the surface of our soul beckoning us to release them into a hungry, hurting world.

We like the dead things because they’re deceptively beautiful.

Because let’s be honest, whether we want to lose weight but can’t let go of our lattes and french fries or we want to see our marriage restored, but can’t get past the years of hurtful, angry words, we’re holding onto things we think will satisfy.  Mirages of the soul.

But eventually, their beauty crumbles in our grasp, and we’re left with dust.

For years my sisters and I would take our children to Nana’s house to rake leaves.  We didn’t have a leaf-blower, and the yard was too big for my mom to clean up all by herself, so we made a game of it with the kids.  We’d all work together to gather the leaves in a massive mountain.  When the yard was bare, our kids were released to dive into the mountain of maple, poplar, and oak leaves.  I can still see them jumping in, taking turns diving and flipping, their cheeks pink with brisk autumn air and excitement.

But the leaves would get crushed and scattered.

We’d rake them back up over and over, but after a while, the mountain would become a hill.

The hill would become a bump.

And before too long, we’d drift away, lose interest, and the leaves would be left to decompose.

Because that’s what happens with dead things.

They don’t hold the weight of real life for very long, and they can’t stand up to actual use.

The trees are about to show us how lovely it is to let the dead things go. 

The trees, they know the secret to a lovely life is releasing the dead and allowing the new to be birthed within us, through us, out of us.

Loveliness is the daughter of letting go.

Paul talked about this too.  He understood that as Christians, we’re literally in Christ and He’s literally in us, and therefore, the capacity for new life is in us.  He understood that if that holy capacity is within us, then it is for us to let go of the old ways and allow the new life of Christ to emerge.

You were living in your sins and lawless ways. But in fact you were dead. You used to live as sinners when you followed the ways of this world. You served the one who rules over the spiritual forces of evil. He is the spirit who is now at work in those who don’t obey God.  At one time we all lived among them. Our desires were controlled by sin. We tried to satisfy what they wanted us to do. We followed our desires and thoughts. God was angry with us like he was with everyone else. That’s because of the kind of people we all were. But God loves us deeply. He is full of mercy. So he gave us new life because of what Christ has done. He gave us life even when we were dead in sin.  Ephesians 2: 1-4a

The lovely life is the promised gift of God; the lovely life is a life that knows how to shed.

. . . seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self . . . Col. 3:9b,10a

To put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. Eph: 4:22-24

When I shed the dead, I bear the likeness of God—the beauty of His holiness.

When I shed the dead, I bear the image of the divine.

It’s hard, though, isn’t it?  When the dead is that thing that broke us?  Crushed us?  And we never want to forget, so we hold it tight in one hand and reach for life with the other, hoping we can somehow have both.  But death and life are darkness and life and they don’t fellowship well with one another, and you and I? We’ve got to choose, don’t we?  Why do we forget that life comes when we let the old ways die?  Why do we hold on to that which will give us nothing but sorrow?  We bite the fruit over and over again thinking that this time, it will be sweet when only that which finds its source in Christ is sweet to our soul.

I can’t get this quote out of my mind,and I am determined to etch this shedding the dead into my heart.   So I go outside, and  I get a crimson sumac branch and break it from the trunk it’s clinging to.  I bring it inside.  This year, as I think of the holiday season approaching, the season of gratitude and then the season of giving, I think to myself, I’ll strip the dead things and replace them with living things.

So I place the tree in a pitcher and sit with my boys. I ask them to think of the dead things they may be clinging to.  I ask the same of myself. And as the Holy Spirit brings them to mind, we’ll remove one of the dried, brittle leaves and replace it with an ornament of life.

When we lay our electronics down—all of them, the laptops, the cell-phones, the television, and pick up a game to play together, we’ll remove a leaf and replace it with life.  Time connecting as a family.

When we apologize for the short, clipped words we used with one another, we’ll crumple and crush one of those leaves and replace it with life.  Kindness, patience.

When we surrender our lengthy Christmas lists to God’s economy, we’ll replace the dead with giving life to others.

I can’t grasp the living if I’m gripping the grave.  I don’t want my legacy to be that of a grave robber when the option to be a life-giver is out there.  

So, I’m going to choose to shed, choose life.

This will be the first Christmas tree we decorate this year.  Before the matching-pinteresty one, before the antique one loaded with ornaments from a life spent collecting memories and moments.  This tree will go up before the others.  This tree that was dead and brought back to life.

The Shedding Tree that becomes The Living Tree.

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Revelation 21:25

All the dead things new this year.  He’s doing that in us, isn’t He?  It’s trustworthy.  It’s true.

Life.

 

While We’re On The Topic of Standing and Kneeling

In a world where a debate rages around a game played every Autumn Sunday on artificial grass, some lyrics and notes, and a piece of cloth made from strips of red, white, and blue, let us be a beacon of light that draws people’s eyes to the real issue at hand. Because in the end, folks aren’t really talking about flags and anthems and pigskin balls, are they?  

Of course not.

What we’re really talking about, the heart of the matter, the fulcrum on which positions rise or fall is actually just this:  I am here.  I am human.  I have a beating heart.  I matter. Somehow, we’ve bought into an idea that by allowing one to matter we must diminish or minimize another when in reality, there is enough room, enough space on the sprawling planet for all the hearts that beat to matter supremely.

So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality . . .” (Acts 10:34,35)

God invented the idea that everyone gets a fair shake, that there’s enough love for everyone.  He’s limitless; He’s love, and therefore, there is enough of Him and enough of love for all the humans.

But as a society, it seems sometimes, that we live by the law of scarcity.  We allow ourselves to be controlled by a cataclysmally crushing view that there’s not enough respect and justice and love for everyone, that we have to fight to get what is our due. We’ve bought into a liar’s lament that we live in a land of lack instead of a land of plenty, a land where when one is esteemed, another is diminished.

So we’ve begun to categorize and compartmentalize because if I am to treat you less than a human being deserves, I must first somehow separate you from me.  So, I’ll call you black, and I’ll call myself white.  Or you’re a soldier and I’m a civilian.  Or I’m an independent, and you’re a republican.  And now, there’s room for me and mine to self-preserve, and if it comes down to a brawl, well, you’re in the other box, so we’ll come at you guns blazing.

But dad-gum, we’ve missed it.  We’ve flat-out missed this one thread that ties us all together–the heart that beats.

We’ve forgotten the hearts of humanity–we all have these hearts that beat and pump and keep us alive on this planet.  And it’s actually the heart that matters in the end.

My dad, he had his heart stopped and started several times last week.  Apparently his short-circuits.  The wires misfire and his heart races to catch up to the fireworks exploding inside his chest.  He lands in the ER where they know him by name, and they shock him.  They stop the beating in the hopes of stopping the misfiring, and then they restart him in the hope that he’ll catch the rhythm again.  The rhythm of a healthy beating heart.

And I think we the people may just need a restart too.

Because we’re beating to different rhythms and forgetting that hearts don’t beat to black, and they don’t beat to blue.  Hearts don’t beat to flags or anthems or nuclear weapons. Beating hearts got their start back in a garden when God breathed His breath into the nostrils of the first man.  And the first man managed to get out of sync pretty quickly, and hearts have been misfiring ever since.

See, we have this tendency to zoom in on color or politics and miss the heart of the matter entirely, don’t we?

The person who refuses to stand is broken over a broken world-a world they feel is unfair and unjust, and frankly, in truth, they aren’t wrong.  The world has been unjust and unfair and unkind because it began beating to the wrong rhythm.  Their heart is broken, and they’re fighting for air and breath, fighting to find the right rhythm.  But the rhythm can’t be found in a football stadium anymore than it can be found in congress.

The rhythm is found in a person–Jesus Christ.  So whether we kneel or whether we stand, if we don’t know Jesus Christ, we don’t truly have hope.

And while a debate rages on in our country, people lose loved ones, hurting heroes give up and commit suicide, people are diagnosed with terminal illnesses, children starve, and places like Puerto Rico remain destroyed.   And the followers of Jesus? Well, we followers of Jesus become distracted and ineffective because we forget the real needs and focus instead on a stadium full of padded athletic elites. Let us not forget that a world filled with needs is our stadium, and we stand for our anthem by walking across the street to our different skinned/same-hearted neighbors’ home and asking them to dinner.  We take a stand by feeding hungry humans.  We take a stand by holding the hand of a bereaved mother as she grieves an early parting.  We take a stand by insisting that the standard by which a life is valued is not the color of the life’s skin, the vocation, or the sexual preference of the human but by their beating heart.

It is the heart that matters.

Jesus always stopped and restarted the heart first.

Let’s make sure we get first things first.
Let’s stand for the true anthem . . . the anthem for which one day every knee will bow

Let’s stand for Jesus.
Stand for love.
Stand for peace.
Stand for long-suffering.
Stand for kindness.
Stand for patience.
Stand for gentleness.

That’s the restart we need.

Let’s do that in our classrooms at school, in our workplaces, in our sporting events,  in our neighborhoods, in our homes, in our communities.

As believers, we pledge allegiance first to Jesus Christ. And that should inform every other decision we make. If all believers stand well for Jesus Christ, these issues of inequality and injustice will be resolved as more and more people walk in the light. The flag represents a nation that affords us freedom, yes, but Jesus Christ affords us ultimate freedom and eternal hope. That can never be taken.

Some will read this and assume I don’t care about our flag.  They’ll be wrong.  That flag represents a nation that has given me the freedom to write these words freely.  The soldiers who have fought and defended that flag are men and women whom I love and want to stand and cheer for every time I see them.   A dear friend just said goodbye to her husband as he takes another tour across Afghanistan.  She’ll raise children alone while he bravely defends our ability to have these debates openly and without fear of retribution.  For that flag and those men and women, I’ll absolutely stand.  All day.  Any day.

Others will read this and assume I don’t care about the reality of systemic inequality that does exist in our country.  They too would be wrong.  I will stand all day every day for those who are measured by anything other than the equal ground of a beating heart.  On this planet, all humans are created by God.

He NEVER makes a mistake.

Each is worthy of life because the author of life in His great perfection and sovereignty breathed it into humanity. He gives life.

It is ours to respect, honor, and cherish.

Unborn life, aging life, colored life, poor life, different life.

All life.

All worthy of standing for.

Because Jesus–my flag, my anthem–came that they might have life and have it abundantly.

So, while we’re on this topic of standing and kneeling, perhaps we could do a stop and restart.

Let’s kneel to our God and stand for His ways.

By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:35)

Teach me your ways, O Lord;
    make them known to me.
Teach me to live according to your truth,
    for you are my God, who saves me.
    I always trust in you.

 Remember, O Lord, your kindness and constant love
    which you have shown from long ago.
 Forgive the sins and errors of my youth.
In your constant love and goodness,
    remember me, Lord!

 Because the Lord is righteous and good,
    he teaches sinners the path they should follow.
 He leads the humble in the right way
    and teaches them his will.
 With faithfulness and love he leads
    all who keep his covenant and obey his commands.

 Keep your promise, Lord, and forgive my sins,
    for they are many.
 Those who have reverence for the Lord
    will learn from him the path they should follow. (Psalm 2:4-12)

Laying Tile and Raising Kids

Years ago we sold our home and bought another one.  I was skeptical of the potential new kitchen, and with good reason.  In addition to the not-so-level country-blue laminate counters was this ocean-blue floor made of tiny 2 by 2 square inch tiles.  That floor was the stuff of Mexico, and I wasn’t having it.  I live in the mountains of rural north Georgia for goodness sake.  So when we toured the house, Jeff said, “Yes, Sarah, we can replace the tile.”  “Yes, Sarah.”  He said that.  Direct quote, people.  Can I just tell you that tile has left me sea-sick for almost 5 years now.  FIVE years.  To tell you that I have loathed the shiny, cobalt ceramic squares is an understatement.  I L-O-A-T-H-E-D the tile.  So, when I found some peaceful grey (neutral is my love language) tiles on sale for pennies, I grabbed a hammer and chisel and told Jeff it was time.  Time he ante up.  He promised after all.  He was at work, probably doing something spiritual like preparing a sermon to share with your children on Wednesday  nights, but I interrupted with photos of the new tile and requests for permission to proceed.
And proceed I did.  The elation I experienced at busting those tiles with my hammer ranks right below having my children and my wedding day.
I was pumped.
By pumped, I mean I went insane.  I seriously put on lip gloss and fixed my hair for the demolition.  Legit.  Hammer in hand, Cort by my side (I think Jeff sent him a text and told him to supervise and make sure I didn’t hurt myself), I tapped the tile gingerly at first, and then with a gusto and vigor I can only explain as being “caught up in the Spirit.”  (Cort may or may not have thought I’d been overtaken by a demon, but really, he’s young, how could he know?)  I banged and bashed and brandished my hammer like a crazed banshee.
And then.
Then I noticed how SLOW the tile removing process was going. I noticed after about ten tiles, the hammer was getting heavy. (Seriously, in this day and age, why does a hammer have to weight 5 million pounds?)  I noticed I wasn’t quite prepared.  (Read:  I had to go get safety glasses because shards of ceramic are sharp and they slice skin without apology or warning.  Sorry about your leg, Cort.) But I was determined. Nate was at work, but Cort quickly saw that an intervention would be necessary, so he had mercy on me and assisted.  We pounded and chiseled, and pounded some more.  When Jeff got home, he found only a few square feet of tile removed and a wife who was utterly exhausted.  We had about 140 square feet to go.

(Some will judge my son’s bare feet.  Judge away.  I pick my battles.)
I was discouraged.
But I was still determined.
And I was invested.  You can’t really change your mind once you’ve busted out a few dozen tiles and cracked scores more. We were all in, like it or not.
Kind of reminds me of parenting.   Does it you?
So excited about having a beautiful family, we bring children into this world and it is all roses and butterflies and heavenly choirs for the first few minutes.
And then.
They don’t sleep.  They end up with colic.  (Lord help us, mommas of littles, how I remember those days.  What in the world was wrong with me, I thought, that made my kids the only ones that cried constantly?)  Or they don’t potty train.  Or they bite.  Or they hit.  And later, they talk back.  They use their phones to send inappropriate things. They hide things from you.  They disrespect you.  And if you’re like me, you’re convinced that you’ve done something wrong, you missed the memo on raising perfect, well mannered kids.  Or maybe they don’t do anything wrong, they just don’t do anything at all.  They don’t talk to you.  They don’t participate in activities with the family.  They just dissolve into their bedrooms, and you can’t find a way back.  You wonder how you can ever get them to actually talk with you.  They get a little heavy, don’t they?  And the work . . . the real work of parenting lies before us. And oh my goodness, it is way more difficult than we ever could have imagined. All of a sudden, we are in shock and a little uncertain if we will make it through.
But we’re all in.  They’re ours.  No return policy.
And the potential for beauty and joy is undeniable.
It’s just hard sometimes, isn’t it?
When Jeff came home, he grinned at me in the midst of my mess.  Then, he had this advice for me, “We just gotta keep going, Babe.  We’ll get it done.”
And you know, he was right?
And here is something so beautiful.  He said, “We’ll get it done.”
Did you catch that?  WE.
God NEVER LEAVES us to do this incredible work of parenting alone.  He doesn’t.

I will never leave you nor forsake you–Hebrews 13:5

We are all in, yes, but we are all in with the power, the might, the wisdom and the strength of the God who hung our planet into orbit and breathed life into mankind.  He’s way more invested than we’ll ever be.  He’s the architect!  This is his gig.

In the end, every muscle in my body was sore.  Look, I turned 40.  Things have happened.  My knees hate me.  My arms are like long animal balloons filled with water.  I’ll just tell you I was popping 12 hour Aleves and vitamin B12s like they were skittles.  And I have concluded that all flooring guys should be nominated for Nobel prizes and given raises after every job they complete, and also they should be knighted or sainted.  What?  I’m not even kidding.
But, I have a lovely, inexpensive (thanks to sweat equity and my husband who can do anything in the world.) neutral floor that no future home owner will want to curse me for.  It’s so pretty.

(And may the God of heaven and earth grant me new counters someday before I am 100.)
It came one way.
Hard work.
And hard work takes time.  Lots of time.  Lots of sweat. Lots of commitment.
Can we just encourage you to keep going?  Keep chiseling away at the tiles in your children’s lives that need removing.  Keep carefully, attentively laying the foundational mortar of God’s Word that will ground them for a lifetime.  Keep doing the things that seem basic and simple and not very glamorous, but are truly critical and vital to the end result. Things like reading them the same story for the millionth time.  Things like telling them tales of your own childhood.  Things like teaching respect and honor.  Things like requiring the truth and giving fair consequences for wrong choices. Things like Nerf Wars and dressing up like Super Heroes and watching all the Marvel movies.  Things like asking your kid questions even when they only give you one word answers.  Things like texting funny memes that they think are stupid, and like tucking them in at night even when they are long over it, and roasting s’mores in the middle of a rainstorm, or making them a coffee and bringing it to them in bed. The magic of insignificant things is that when you accumulate them over a lifetime, they become the mortar that cements your hearts to one another.   There’s no perfect formula.  Your things will be different than my things.  Don’t be tempted to compare.  Never measure yourself by another human.  Allow God to equip you with His tools, and that will always be enough.

Your children may not thank you now.  They may not always be dream-boats to raise. Sometimes they may be a lot like my blue floor–horrifying.  But they are yours.

God chose YOU and appointed YOU to raise them, to love them, to guide them in truth.

Keep going, friends and fellow parents.  In the end, you will reap a harvest.

I always knew the vision I had for our kitchen.  I didn’t look at the tacky tile and dismiss the kitchen as useless.  I knew deep inside of me just what that space could be.  With parenting, we have to keep the end in mind too, you know?  You and I?  We know what our children can be.  We know deep within us who they are meant to be.  What do we hope for our children in the end?  What kind of people do we want them to be?  And every choice, every decision, every word shared, every interaction should take that end goal into consideration.  We are NOT guaranteed that our children will walk with Jesus all their days.  They get to make that decision for themselves.  What we CAN guarantee is that we lay the foundation for them to walk with God.  That is the choice you and I get to make. Each day.  With each truth spoken, each kindness offered, each smile given.  We get to introduce our children to the heart of God by mirroring Him every chance we get.

Be imitators of God as beloved children–Eph. 5:1

Keep going.  Your children are beautiful.  Your work is sacred and holy, and it matters tremendously.  You may feel ill-equipped, weak, and unprepared, but you are all in, so keep going.  Because your YOU is not just you, it is you and HIM–God Almighty is working through you.

For it is God who works in you (and your children), both to will and to work for his good pleasure–Phil. 2:13

Encourage the exhausted and strengthen the feeble.  Say to those with anxious heart, “Take courage, fear not. Behold, your God will come with vengeance; The recompense of God will come, But He will save you.” Isaiah 35:3,4

Listen, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.And you must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.  Deuteronomy 6:4-8

Maybe you look at the landscape of your child’s life, and you think, I want to keep going or even begin anew, but where do I start? I hear you.  It can be daunting and overwhelming.  Parenting is the stuff of heroes.  I have this one suggestion.

Just start with one tile.

And then the next . . .

and the next.

Just one tile.

Because it matters.