Temporary Quarters

December 27, 2010

Temporary Quarters

In the 1980s, I lived in northern VA, in an area saturated by military families, coming and going according to orders. I knew families who had moved 18 times in 20 years! Sometimes, a father would be sent on an unaccompanied tour, for a year or so, and his wife was left holding the fort–and the family–together. Other times, when sent to live on base somewhere, they would live in temporary quarters until their new home was ready for them. I remember one army colonel telling me that with every move, if they had not used an item in a year, it was left behind as unnecessary. In all, they led transient, flexible lives, and travelled light. Not unlike the children of Israel in their wilderness wanderings, picking up their tents and moving to follow the cloud by day or the pillar of light by night. No forewarning, no master calendar plan, just the Master’s plan. Home was where you pitched your tent, for a while. But Home was really the Promised Land where they were heading. Everything else was temporary quarters. A good lesson for me, one that I need to keep learning.

Late on Christmas night, my brother-in-law’s father, Jerry, died from a sudden heart attack. We had all been concerned about his wife, Jewel, who has had three surgeries in the last two weeks and is still in the hospital. So when the call came about Jerry, it was an utter, heartbreaking shock. Since Jerry and Jewel’s home is near mine, I went to pick up Jerry’s house keys from a neighbor for Gary and Pat. As I held Jerry’s worn leather key case in my hand and looked at his darkened, empty house, it was a peculiar feeling. Jerry wasn’t returning home; his house had just been his earthly tent. Moreover, his body was his earthly tent; he wasn’t returning there, either. Instead, he went Home. And all the stuff he left behind, while meaningful or useful in this life, is in the end, was left behind. Jerry had been in temporary quarters; his permanent quarters are in Heaven.

Jerry will be missed, beyond words, by his bride of 60+ years, his family, and friends. His sudden Home-going speaks to those who remain. I am reminded that I am a transient; I am not meant to get too settled this side of heaven, and must live light in order to live well. My house is as much a temporary tent as is my body. I live in “temporary housing” not for my own purposes, but for following God’s purposes. “Living well” is not defined by a monetary standard of living. “Living well” means living out His purposes, nothing less. No matter how radical or mundane they may seem. “Living well” can only be summed up in the two great commandments: “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might; and, to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Whatever that requires. It’s a reminder to live intentionally: valuing what has eternal value; to say “I love you” often, to forgive quickly; to hold my “stuff” loosely so I can hold tightly to the One who will never let me go; and, to live with flexibility so that I can follow His lead at the drop of a hat. My daily planner, while useful to me, can get in God’s way. All the trappings of this life–people, plans, profession, position, possessions–subtly vie to be my soul’s source of security. They are “the pride of life,” but they are dust and will return to dust.

When I was growing up, a plaque hung above the organ in our living room, a reminder to see past all that matters to me to what matters most:

“Only one life ‘twill soon be past; only what’s done for Christ will last.” I must have read that a million times. I need to read it a million more, while I am living in temporary quarters.

“And They Lived Happily Ever After”

July 11, 2010

I went to a beautiful wedding last weekend; the couple is beginning their “happily ever after” honeymooning in Hawaii. While I actually do hope they live “happily ever after”, I also know that “happiness” is a by-product, not an end-product. I cringe when I think of how many children’s expectations of a “happy” future are framed by storybook endings and reinforced by a culture that chases pleasure instead of joy, values self-satisfaction over loving service to others, and indulges in immediate gratification instead of encouraging responsible delayed gratification.

This is the stuff of parenting; this is how we raise “children” to become “adults”—not a status defined by age but by maturity. It’s particularly tough when you are a single parent, and have no other parent backing you up as you swim against the tide. But this is how we prepare our kids to be responsible in their work, in their community, and in their relationships—and particularly important if they choose to marry. If we nurture these values and relational responsibilities even when our children are young, or in middle school, we prepare them to date responsibly, and to seek relationships governed by humility, unselfishness, and discipline. The by-product is more than “happiness”—it is a holy contentment.

The catch is, we must be practicing these things ourselves as parents! The demons of selfishness and pride badger me daily—and when I am unaware of them is when I am most vulnerable to their subtle temptations! Entitlement will always be the enemy of humility, and pride a hindrance to true intimacy in relationships. So I must ask, daily, what am I modeling for my daughters?

By the grace of God, I hope I get it right more often than not; and by the grace of God, I hope the times I miss the mark, they—and I— learn from my mistakes. And, by the grace of God, I hope they live “contentedly-ever-after”—whether they are single or married!

“I Fumbled It.”

June 6, 2010

“I fumbled it,” he said. Football language that I didn’t notice much at the time. Until I woke up this morning, and thought about what that means when spoken by someone who has played football and knows the game inside and out.

Failure to complete something important. Failure to hold on to and carry something valuable toward a valuable end. Careless instead of careful. Shame in front of his teammates. Disappointment in self, disappointment to others. Self-degradation, self-deprecation. Sometimes caused by inattentiveness or augmented by fatigue, sometimes complicated by circumstances or others, but still the same dreadful outcome.

My mind rolled back to a situation a couple months ago when I fumbled it. Horribly. Functioning on two hours of sleep, physically and emotionally spent—by the end of a stressful day, I was not in good form. And it came out in careless words and a sharp tone of voice and hurt someone I love. Sadly, I didn’t even realize in the moment how badly I fumbled it (which is usually the case when functioning in overdrive) but the damage was done. And when you can’t go back and “fix” it, when there are no do-overs (like when we were kids on the playground) then it’s hard to let go of it. Hard to forgive myself. Six weeks later, the tears still come at times. Sin produces sadness.

The enemy would like to use those tears to SHAME me—and he does, periodically rewinding the video of the event in my mind, like watching CNN replay 9-11 over and over again. And I can find myself slipping into a self-condemning, self-deprecating cycle of shame and remorse.

But God would like to use those tears to SHAPE me—watering seeds of humility as I position myself at the foot of the cross in need of grace. Daily. Constantly. Because I am human, and being HUM-an and HUM-ility have a lot to do with each other. And HUMility reminds me of HUMus—“organic, partially decayed matter that provides nutrients for growth.” Remembering that because I am human, formed from the dust of the earth, I will “fumble it” on a regular basis, and need grace—from God, from others, from myself. Grace that teaches me to give grace. Grace that grows me up. Grace that enables me to carry what is most valuable to me—my relationship with God and others—with attentive love—even when I am overtired and physically and emotionally spent. Because those are the times I am most vulnerable to “fumble it.”

Grace is for fumblers, like me. Although I’d rather slink off to the bench so I can lash myself in private, my Grace-filled Coach wants me to stay in the game, saying “get up, brush yourself off, learn from your mistakes, and play ball.” Grace-filled teammates who know they also fumble still throw the ball to me, praying I don’t fumble it again, because they still value me as a member of the team and want to give me opportunities to succeed.

And as I receive grace from the Coach and other players, it makes it easier to give myself grace—seeing myself through their eyes, reminding me that my worth isn’t based on a perfect performance or always “getting it right.” And at the end of the day, at the end of the game, this is perhaps the most important lesson of the game: that by grace, I am loved unconditionally by One who knows my fumblings and by co-fumblers who walk in the freedom of grace.

Amazing Grace is the path to freedom—not freedom to sin, but freedom to accept my human failings, freedom to move beyond failure, freedom to forgive (myself and others), freedom to embrace my identity in Christ and the truth that “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1), freedom to grow in Christlikeness, learning to love God, myself, and others well.

Remembering What I Too Easily Forget

May 31, 2010

Memorial Day. A day for remembering—theoretically, and hopefully in reality. Not just a morning nod of reflection as I sit in my easy chair, though that’s where I’m starting. I’m well aware that while I sit in air-conditioned comfort, anticipating the day’s errands, hitting various sales and visiting with family, there are soldiers sweating in Afghanistan who cannot visit family and whose errands serve a far greater purpose. And there are those who have lost their lives, in this war and in wars over the centuries–who have paid the price for the freedom I enjoy in my cushy-comfy home in suburbia. I feel gratitude beyond words. It’s hard to even blog about it, because my words seem pathetically small. They didn’t sacrifice their lives for freedom because I deserved it, nor that I would feel guilty for enjoying my life. They did it out of serving a greater purpose than themselves and a greater value than self-interest.

And that is my daily battle in the cosmic war—moment-to-moment skirmishes, really—to serve a greater Purpose than myself, and a greater value than self-interest. I win some, by the enabling of the Spirit, and I lose some, miserably, by my own foolishness. And in all of it, I stand in grace—in need of so much grace, with an unpayable debt to grace—for this battlefield is stained with the blood of Jesus. He paid for my freedom on the cross, and then moved the stone on Easter with his bodily resurrection so I could leave the graveclothes behind, be clothed in His righteousness, and step into His freedom day by day—even in the midst of my humanity. It’s a freedom I take for granted at times, forfeit at times, and on better days embrace haphazardly and incrementally. It’s a freedom that I will never fully grasp this side of heaven, nor will I fully grasp the price He paid for it. But I feel gratitude beyond words, and want to express that with my life, no matter how imperfectly.

So it is fitting to remember today those who have bought the freedom I enjoy with their own blood on so many battlefields around the world. And it was fitting that on Memorial Day weekend we celebrated communion yesterday as the gathered church, remembering that our freedom in Christ was purchased at the ultimate price, the price none of us could ever pay. Remembering is ever-important, because I am ever-forgetful, and then I become neglectful—of loving people well, and of living out God’s purposes wholeheartedly. Remembering, day by day, points me in the right direction, resets my compass, and makes me attentive to the Spirit’s promptings and purposes. God, help me remember what I easily forget, and to live out my gratitude for your grace!

Traveling Mercies (May 7, 2010)

May 17, 2010

I’m sitting at my gate at DFW airport, awaiting my departure to Toronto. The last time I went to Toronto was in 1994, to say goodbye to my grandfather. He had been declining fast, and we didn’t know if he had weeks or months, but in the timeline of eternity, he had moments until he would be with Jesus. The whole family had gathered from various parts of the US, to surround him with love. Although he was very weak, his mind was sharp. Near the end of our time together, we gathered in a living area at the nursing home, and read Psalm 91 with him, and prayed. Grandpa was tired, and soon the attendants took him back to his room to get settled in bed. Although I had watched him grow old gradually, his low boisterous voice, quick humor, and strong constitution seemed ageless. But that day, he was pale and frail; I was as unprepared to see him that way as I was to say goodbye to him. I wept, and Jesus wept. I don’t think we are ever ready to say goodbye and let go of the people we love. The soul doesn’t make neat, clean breaks along perforated lines; separating from people we love is a tearing apart, with raggedy, raw edges. I am comforted by wonderful memories; I can’t think of grandpa without smiling. Grandpa lived well and loved well, and I am so grateful for the confident hope that because of the resurrection of Christ, Grandpa continues to live in the presence of his Lord, and I will someday see him again.

I’m going to Toronto today for a very different reason, but ironically it is also loss-related–and hope-related. Out of the crucible of the loss of my marriage, God shaped a book, The Single Mom’s Devotional. Divorce is definitely a death, a separating of the heart that is messy and painful and grievous. It lacks the comfort of joy-filled memories and biblical benedictions. I wept, and Jesus wept. Yet even in my divorce, I was encircled by prayers of so many who also grieved this outcome and offered me support in the process of letting go and moving on. And because of the resurrection of Christ, there is life-after-death even this side of heaven, and God infused my life with His life as I imperfectly but deliberately sorted out how to live my life and nurture my family at “a place near His altar.” (Ps. 84:3, 4.) That became the drumbeat of my life, and eventually, the music of my life, and my passion to pass on to others who want to move forward in life with hope–a Hope that is impenetrable, unchangeable, inalterable, resiliant. This Hope is Christ Himself. NOTHING, Nothing, nothing can separate us from His love–neither life nor death nor things in earth or things in heaven; not people, not unpredictable events. So that is why I am going to Toronto today; to share the hope we have as single moms as we learn to move forward in life with Jesus–single, but not alone.

Expecting God in the Unexpected

May 3, 2010

Rule #1: expect the unexpected. Rule #2: expect God to be bigger than whatever rule #1 brings your way.

“We’re surprised, but God is not.” My mom has said this to me on multiple occasions, when life has thrown me a curve ball that has knocked me off my feet. Teaching on a retreat this past weekend, I scrapped my introductory remarks for the first session, and quoted mom instead.

“We’re surprised, but God is not.” Just moments before, sandwiched between our worship and praise time and my teaching time, Susan (the retreat coordinator) hurtled into the room, her face streaked with tears, and loving friends supporting her on each arm. “My husband just died!” Susan blurted out through sobs. Gasping, questions, murmuring, tears–the turmoil among the women was a small reflection of the turmoil in Susan’s soul. That event became the real-life introduction to Saturday morning’s teaching on a retreat entitled, “The Bottom of Pandora’s Box: HOPE.” Susan had selected the topic and title several months ago, prior to inviting me to teach.

During the two weeks prior to the retreat, the intense spiritual warfare I encountered on many fronts during my preparations led several people to comment that the enemy must really be worked up about the truths I was planning on teaching. Others commented that there must be something significant God was going to do in our midst. I guess both were true. The very first scripture in my teaching was the story of the death of Lazarus, with Jesus showing up three days “late”, and Mary and Martha saying, “Lord, if you had been here…” Thus began the teaching God had scripted for the weekend about Hope–not “Pollyanna Pretending” that circumstances are better than they are, not “Little Orphan Annie Optimism” that everything will come up roses tomorrow, but Biblical hope that is rooted in God’s goodness, faithfulness and unfailing love, and is not vested in people or outcomes but in Christ Himself: His presence, His promises, and His power. “This is the mystery, Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Christ Himself is our hope, our only hope, in this unpredictable, uncontrollable, broken world, and also as we see our own brokenness. By grace, we are complete in Christ.

We were surprised, but God was not. The teachings He had given me were supernaturally tailored to the events of the weekend that only He could see. He displayed His glory to us on that mountaintop in personal and profound ways. Rule #2 ruled. Amazing grace, Amazing God.

Chipped Dishes

March 6, 2010

Chipped Dishes

I’ve been thinking about chipped dishes–the ones I always put under the rest of the dishes in the cupboard, to avoid using them. When company comes for dinner, I want to have a lovely presentation, so I make sure to use the UN-chipped dishes, not the chipped ones! I wish I could say that I did this to honor my guests with the best, but that is only partially true. Surely, my motivations are mixed with pride.

This week, God has exposed areas of insidious pride in me; it’s ugly, and I’m disappointed in myself. And it scared me; not only does it contaminate my soul, it will get in the way of being a useful vessel for God. So I was hashing this through with God on my way to work the other day, and He showed me that I am like these chipped dishes–blemished, and imperfect. Only He doesn’t relegate me to the bottom of the stack, and deem me unworthy of being used. It is a humbling thing that in God’s economy of grace, He chooses to serve up spiritual food for others on “chipped dishes.” And the food He provides is so rich and wonderful and satisfying that it takes center stage; the blemished serving vessel is overlooked. Paul reminds me that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves.” (2 Cor. 4:7.)

Lamenting the poverty of my soul, He also reminded me, “My grace is sufficient for you; my power is made perfect in weakness.” (1 Cor 12:9.) We usually think of operating out of our giftedness, our areas of strength. Inasmuch as God has given us gifts to be used, He wants our whole being to be given over to Him–strengths and weaknesses. Not only does He meet me in the broken places, He chooses to work through me in those broken places. In those places, pride cannot get a word in edgewise. Whatever good is accomplished is from God, by His grace.

So, as I prepare for a string of upcoming speaking engagements, I am asking God to clean out this serving vessel, to make me fit for His use–blemishes and all. I think of Him preparing a feast for His invited guests, and I am grateful He is willing to set the table with chipped dishes. I am honored that He chooses to use me; there are so many other, better, serving pieces He could use instead. Perhaps when His guests pull up a chair, they will be a bit more comfortable with less-than-perfect tableware, realizing they can shed their pretenses as well and just enjoy the food.

Now my chipped dishes will be reminders to me of humility and grace. The next time I serve company, I might just deliberately pull out some of them and give them a chance to be useful, too!

Soul Satisfaction, Sole Satisfaction

February 20, 2010

Last week I went to a conference featuring Ruth Haley Barton entitled, “Transforming the Soul of Your Leadership.” It was as if God was pulling the same thread in my soul that He has been pulling over the past couple of months–the thread that draws me to Himself in solitude, away from the flurry and frenzy of life. Solitude with the Father shapes the soul at the deepest levels. Hebrews 4:12 reminds me that the Word of God pierces to the innermost places of my soul–but I need to be still long enough not just to hear (or read) it, but to process it–or better, to let my soul be processed by it. And it is a process, not unlike what my food processor does–slicing and dicing, churning, kneading–until all the ingredients are fully incorporated and blended, producing something new. That is what I want in my times with my Father–that He would continually be shaping and transforming my soul into something new; how can you spend intimate time with the Almighty and not be changed? How can you be loved by Perfect Love and not have your heart re-shaped?

Some of my notes on solitude from Ruth Haley Barton:

Solitude is a place of: rest; quiet clarity; conversion; surrender; exposure; awareness; attentiveness; calling; holy ground; waiting; intercession; receiving guidance; Presence. It is a place of INTIMATE ENCOUNTER–with the living God, with ourselves. This is what my soul craves, always.

Some favorite quotes from the conference:

“The questions we MUST ask ourselves are more important than the answers we think we know….Questions blow open a door for the Spirit of God to come through, to do something new in our lives. “ (R. H. Barton)

“The things that most need to be fixed, solved, figured out in our lives will not be fixed, solved, figured out at the thinking level anyway. They will be solved at the listening level where God’s spirit witnesses with our spirit about things that are true.” (R. H. Barton)

“Every spiritual discipline rightly practiced gives God control.” (R. H. Barton)

“If you want to identify me,ask me not where I live,or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I am living for, in detail,ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for.” (Thomas Merton)

“For what does it profit a person, if they gain the whole world but lose their own soul?”
(Jesus; Matthew 16:26)

Thin Places

February 12, 2010

I’ve been reading Thin Places, by Mary DeMuth–a pre-release copy provided by Zondervan. I wish I could write like Mary. (I know, I’m not supposed to covet my neighbor’s house OR her giftedness.) Coveting aside, this is a compelling book; I hated to put it down. Each chapter is a vignette of her life–snapshots of the craziness of her abusive childhood, on-going confusing questions that plagued her as an adult, and glimpses of God in seemingly godforsaken circumstances. Her writng style is fluid and refreshingly candid. She writes with integrity as one who has wrestled with life, with people, with herself, and with her God. Like Jacob, she has walked away from that wrestling match assured that God is with her, even though she has a “limp.” This redemptive story will encourage anyone who has survived a mixed up childhood with more questions than answers. As a counselor, I will recommend it to clients struggling with similar issues.

Finding My Balance

January 31, 2010

I woke up feeling like I’d been flattened by a steamroller–reminding me of the cartoon where Roadrunner gets completely flattened into the ground. I always wondered how he appeared in the next frame fully revitalized. I did not feel hope for such a resurrection; instead, I felt the life had slowly been draining out of me, like a balloon that had been losing air. Balloons cannot give themselves a hearty pep talk and re-inflate.

What really bothered me was that I “should” be feeling great, enthusiastically embracing this exciting season of my life. But instead, new opportunities were subtly morphing into weighty obligations. I felt stretched to the edges, taut; there was not enough of me to spread in every direction. Pouring my morning coffee, I wondered when last week’s joy had dissipated. Over the weekend, I had procrastinated, avoided, and frittered away time that could have been used productively crossing items off my “to-do” list. It slowly dawned on me that I was resisting the very idea of expending energy in one more direction. I turned to my daily reading in the One Year Chronological Bible and prayed God would meet me in this thin place with some practical sustenance.

The day’s reading was in John 6. Jesus’ words spoke to me as if in bold print:

“Spend your energy seeking the eternal life that the Son of Man can give you….This is the only work God wants from you: Believe in the one he has sent….and now he offers you the true bread from heaven. The true bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world….
“Sir,” they said, “give us that bread every day.”

God, give me this day my daily Bread. You, the Bread of Life, are my Daily Bread. You are my sustenance.

I had been trying to figure out how to find a proper balance between all the things I was juggling, as if that could keep my towers of teacups from toppling. Jesus reminded me that what I needed wasn’t a matter of properly balancing all the external demands on my time against one another, but instead balancing my external life against my internal life. I had become so externally focused that my inner well had run dry.

As Emily and I drove to school, we gaped at the monstrous crane in the construction project across the street from her school. I was impressed by the reach of its extremely long arm and amazed by the weight it could carry with ease . My eyes shifted to the short stubby arm at the opposite end.

“Look, Emily, it looks like some kind of panels or weights are hanging from the short end. ” My much-smarter-than-me daughter patiently explained the elementary physics to me: the short end had to have weights on it or the weight carried by the long end would topple the crane. Obviously. I have since been informed that the weighted panels on the short end are called the “counterbalance.”

And there I saw it, as clearly as I had seen the words in John 6. The more demands on my “long arm”, the more I needed spiritual disciplines to experience counterbalance: anchored in the Word, nourished by the Bread of Life, plumbed in prayer, succored by the Spirit, reveling in God’s love, responding in worship. Christ Himself is my Counterbalance. As I focus on Him, He will energize and propel my “long arm” to accomplish His purposes. I had gradually, inadvertently shifted my focus and effort to the work of the “long arm”; no wonder I had toppled over!

That was almost two weeks ago. Since then, the image of the crane has been at the forefront of my mind, reinforced each morning as we pass the construction project. Day or night, whenever the weight of external demands tug on me, I’m choosing to shift my focus to my Counterbalance. Anchored in His unfailing love and faithfulness, His peace creeps over me, and I have a sense of “rest”, even in the busyness. Joy has returned…and I can’t wait to see what God is building!