Ruts

sunrise-over-hoodoo

I don’t have to wonder how I got where I am.

Because every single day, I wake up with the memories pressing down on me with a pressure that no one else seems to feel.

Each morning, I wake up to scramble in the rut I’ve made, and I hope I can keep myself from looking around and noticing how deep in I am. 

And I keep fighting and fighting to get out of the rut. I pray. I ask for God’s help. I read my Bible and cling to the truth. I am doing everything that I am supposed to do.

And yet, I wake up, and I am still in the rut.

Sometimes I wonder why I keep fighting if I am always going to be a mess.

Have you ever felt like that? That, no matter what you try, you are just floundering in the same mistakes that you made yesterday, and the day before…and the year before?

Have you ever thought that maybe, just maybe, that all your fighting has just been spinning your wheels? Maybe progress is not just slow, but nonexistent?

Let me tell you something.

You didn’t dig that rut today. 

As humans, we often respond wrongly to the events of our lives. These responses can become habits, and sinful or unwise habits can dig deep trenches in our souls. Ruts.

We all dig ruts for ourselves from time to time. Instead of training ourselves to right responses, we choose another way. We choose to solve our own problems. And that’s where ruts come from.

But if you belong to Jesus, you are a new creation.

As I wrote several weeks ago in “A New Day,” your status as a child of God means that your sins are erased as soon as you confess them. When you wake up each morning, the mercies are new, unused before, untapped, waiting for you.

But in spite of the available grace, you still wake up in yesterday’s ruts, because habits are engrained in your soul like canyons and climbing out of them is a spiritual marathon.

Some days, you can’t for the life of you see a thing that has changed. The top of the canyon of your choices seems as far away as ever.

And the guilt catches up. “I dug myself into this mess,” you remember. “Maybe nothing has changed at all. I’m still in a rut, after all this time.”

After the guilt comes the despair. If you’re following Jesus with all your heart,  you might wonder what you’re doing wrong. Or, if you’re honestly giving your whole self to Him, you might wonder where He is. Why is it so hard? Why is the climb so long?

These moments can be truly frightening. Your last source of hope–that Jesus can do something with the mess of you–seems to be failing you.

You want to believe. You want to live and climb out of the rut and be free of its walls. But sometimes, you just don’t know if that’s possible. Maybe you can’t. Maybe it’s not possible, not for you.

My friend, today’s problem isn’t the rut. The rut is there. It is part of the geology of your soul. You put it there, yes. But have you been forgiven? If you have confessed your sinful failures, that rut cannot keep you from pleasing your Savior today.

The rut is now a temptation, a deeply-trained tendency, a devilish sort of gravity pulling down on your soul.

But He doesn’t remove the rut in a day, nor does He ask for you to climb all the way out of the rut today. He only asks that you keep climbing. 

Habits are not, generally, erased by grace. But in grace, God does reorient our desires so we can make new paths–paths traveling “onward and upward and outward” instead of spiraling downward and inward.

If you look around you and doubt if you are making any headway, stop and think about the new work that our Father promises to complete in all His children:

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” – Philippians 1:6, ESV

I get it. Climbing is hard. Perspective is elusive. Faith is sometimes the only shred of hope that remains.

Hold on.

 

Today, you get to do something hard and hopeful.

Today, you get to keep climbing out of the rut. Every battle you win, every time you choose to make a new, holy habit, every doubt you toss away, every prayer you whisper, every truth that you cling to, gets you closer to the top. It’s a victory. Every time you run for help to the Only One who can save, you are climbing out. It’s a win, a triumph of grace. It’s sanctification.

Whether you can see it or not.

Even stillness and rest propel you closer to the top of the rut. As you put your faith in Christ and His power in you by the Holy Spirit, your striving ceases and your footsteps become surer. Your position as child of the King is not up for grabs, or dependent on your performance.

And really, your climb is not supposed to go according to your plan. Only God knows when you will reach the top. For some of us, it might be tomorrow. Some of us may have to struggle longer. Life is that way. Actually, none of us ever climb out of all our ruts until our lives are over. Running out of sinful habits to unlearn is called glorification, and it doesn’t happen this side of heaven.

But remember, what some people call ruts are what others call valleys…and climbing out just means that you are on your way to the peaks of the mountains.

Climbing, struggling, working, praying, straining to see the top…these things are signs of life. It may be slow, but your rut-climbing looks a lot like scaling the highest of mountains to me.

Don’t lose heart. You are not condemned. You are not failing.

In the power of God, you are reaching heights you’ve never seen before.

“The Lord God is my Strength, my personal bravery, and my invincible army; He makes my feet like hinds’ feet and will make me to walk [not to stand still in terror, but to walk] and make [spiritual] progress upon my high places [of trouble, suffering, or responsibility]!”

 – Habakkuk 3:19, AMPC –

 

 

 

 

The Road You’re On

mystical-road

“Well, could it be that the many roads you took to get here
Were just for me to tell this story and for you to hear this song?
And your many hopes, and your many fears
Were meant to bring you here all along.”

 – Andrew Peterson, from “Many Roads” –


Let me tell you a story about a farm.

I grew up in the suburbs of America’s fourth-largest city. Major league baseball, giant rodeos, shopping malls, and miles-long lines of cars waiting in “rush hour” traffic are all stamped on my memory, normal facets of growing up in Houston, Texas.

I just wanted a horse like all the girls in the books had…and a farm to put the horse on.

But I got older and older….and older. My fanaticism about horses capped at around age thirteen and then started, gradually, to fade.

I gave up on the farm.

But when I was 18, my family moved to rural Arkansas and bought a 23-acre property nestled deep in the winding roads of the Ozarks.

And suddenly we had our farm.

Why Arkansas, of all places? Why when I was 18, and not when I was 8? Why here? Why now? Why me?

When I look back on our move, the winding roads of circumstance are even more intricate than the crazy twists and turns of the mountains.

I didn’t know what was going on then, but these days I look back in surprise at how God led my family through these crooked hills to the place where He’d use us best.

And that’s exactly what He’s doing. He led us home…and now He’s using us to lead others home too.

It’s my favorite place to be.

And, six years ago, I’d have never, ever guessed what was in store.


My favorite Old Testament character is Joseph. I know that the men and women in the Bible weren’t perfect, and their life histories aren’t meant to be moral patterns for Christian living, but something about this young dreamer-turned-slave-turned-prince touches my heart. I love his passion. I love his wisdom and trust in a God who led him down many strange roads. And I love, as the Message paraphrase records, what he said to the brothers who tried their best to destroy his life:

“Don’t you see, you planned evil against me but God used those same plans for my good, as you see all around you right now—life for many people” (from Genesis 50:19-21, MSG).

Evil. Hate. Revenge. Anger. Jealousy. All of these conspire together against Joseph. And God turns the tables and rips the status quo apart, and life and good and joy spring out of the mess.

There are no dead ends for His children, only “many roads” that deliver us right to the doorstep of destiny.

Where are you in the journey?

Maybe you are at an intersection and can look back to see how God seamlessly fitted together all of the pieces to bring you to this moment.

Perhaps you are in the middle of a deserted road in the blackest part of the night, and you don’t think that it could ever intersect with anything good.

Perhaps you’ve been on the same road for miles and miles, and you’re just desperate to come to a crossroad so you can try something new.

Hold on.

I’ve been just dazzled by a tiny phase this past week–“the patience of hope.”

Wow.

The patience of hope.

I’m not very patient. Often, I’m ready for my hopes to materialize, right now. Immediately. Pronto. “Okay, Lord, now is good,” I pray. “Okay, this is perfect. Now’s Your chance…Lord? Don’t you think this is a good time for an intersection? Lord?”

The patience of hope.

When we believe that God is “up to something good in all our delays and detours,” as John Piper says, how can we rush the road?

Is it a scenic path? Enjoy it. Don’t be staring up ahead and miss what is, right now.

Is it long and deserted? Even there, something good waits. Seek the Lord first. Love Him with everything, and let it overflow. Love the people on your road. Love them hard. The long roads can be some of the most blessed.

Is it full of surprises and uncertainty? The Master Craftsman is in charge of making your road lead somewhere, and He’s promised that every turn will be just what you need (Romans 8:28.)

“But [The Lord’s] joy is in those who reverence him, those who expect him to be loving and kind.”

 – Psalm 147:11, TLB –

What are you expecting? Is your hope patient, because you expect Him to be loving and kind? Whatever you expect, He will be loving and kind. Your hope will not be disappointed.

You are on this one road, out of many roads, for a reason.

And it’s a good reason.


“Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.”

 – Isaiah 41:10, NLT –

A New Day

retro-bike-back-tire

“Yesterday’s a closing door–you don’t live there anymore,

So say goodbye to where you’ve been, and tell your heart to beat again.”

– from “Tell Your Heart to Beat Again” by Danny Gokey –


When I was 6 or 7, I got a new bicycle.

Mom and Dad did all the things parents are supposed to do to teach kids to ride bikes. In fact, I’d been riding all manner of wheeled toys and smaller bikes for years.

But soon after I got this brand new bike, I crashed.

I was a tall, lanky little girl, and for the fellow tall people out there, you know that it takes a long time for us to fall. There’s just so much body that has to pass through the air before the ordeal is done with. In fact, that’s probably why I’m afraid of heights. Just walking around is a safety hazard.

For some reason, that bike crash put a sudden halt to all biking. For months, I refused to get back on it. Whether this was before the days of my family’s bike rides or whether my mom was just merciful and didn’t push me too hard to get back on, I didn’t get back on that skinny seat behind those pink handlebars for a long, long time.

It was a year later that I finally got up the courage to try again after my fall.

I was just a little girl who fell a few feet off a wobbly bike. Big deal. It wasn’t much of a risk. It wasn’t so scary. I certainly had the ability to get back up again, even immediately.

Instead, a year passed and I didn’t ride that bike once.

 – – – – –

There are all sorts of things I could say about that lost year. I could highlight the wasted time, or camp for a while on my imagined danger. I could tell you how real and powerful that protective instinct was–so powerful that I can still feel the grasping panic of my bike-riding phobia.

But my childhood bicycling experience is not just a silly story of a child’s irrational fears. It is the story of another thing that we humans allow to define us: our Past.

For 12 months, my abilities and my choices were defined by that bike crash. It didn’t matter that I had successfully ridden bikes dozens of other times. I was too afraid that failure would happen again. I was frightened of being frightened, pained at the idea of another endless moment of falling.

The Past often paralyzes us.

Sometimes it doesn’t take the words of others to cripple us. Sometimes it just takes history.

The Past can define a person in many ways. Mistakes, failures, tragedies, habits, memories, grudges, sins, losses, even the status quo–all these relics of yesterday can profoundly shape and even control how someone lives today.

We all have stories.

I have a story. My story includes a bike wreck that led to a year of lost fun. My story includes emotional highs and lows that threaten to trip me up even this week. My story holds mistakes enough to paralyze me, and sorrows enough to scare me away from fully living.

My friends have stories. They have told me their stories of betrayal, abuse, terror, broken friendships, dysfunctional families, psychological horrors, and medical nightmares.

These things can be devastating! And they often are, because somewhere along the way, we start believing that our Past dictates our future. Even worse, we start to believe that we can never change.

And that is understandable, if you believe in closed systems and fixed pies.

The concept of a “fixed pie” is something I learned about in economics. Think about Thanksgiving dinner, when Grandma pulls out the pumpkin pie. “Fixed pie” means that there is only a certain amount of pie to go around. If Uncle Jerry takes half of the pie, all the other family members have to split up what is left. If Uncle Jerry eats the whole thing, there’s no more pie. End of story. People go away sad and hungry.

This is how people treat life. “I was this way yesterday, and I did the same things today. What makes tomorrow any different?” It’s a fixed pie. You’ve used up all the pie, and there’s no more pie to make tomorrow any different.

But I don’t believe in closed systems or fixed pies.

So let’s try another look at Thanksgiving.

Grandma brings out the pumpkin pie and there goes Uncle Jerry. Everyone is horrified that there is no more pie…and then Grandma brings out another pie…and another…and another.

She is adding pie to the “system.” It is not a closed system (meaning nothing can be added from outside). It is an open system. Grandma’s goodness (and her uncanny cooking skills) can save the day.

You see, I believe that today is a new day, and tomorrow is too. I believe that, as important as the Past is to your story, the Past doesn’t get a say in today.

But I only believe that for one reason.

You can’t add anything to “the system.” You can’t make more pumpkin pie. When a new sun rises, there’s nothing extra in you than there was yesterday.

But there is grace–the only grace that saves, from the only God who saves.

That grace says that, in Christ, you are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). “My Jesus makes all things new,” as songwriter Andrew Peterson says.

That grace says the same power that raised Jesus back to life is the power that dwells inside of you, by the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:11).

Can you change today?

No. Not even a little.

But God can change you, from the inside out.

Whatever the Past is holding over your head has no power over you, if the Lifter of your head makes you new.

Do you know what being defined by the Past is?

In many cases, it is fear. It is fear of letting go of who you have been and trusting God to make you into who you will be. 

Fear always robs. Fear always drives others away. And, most often, overwhelming fear brings about the very thing that most terrifies you. “If you dig a pit, you will fall into it” (Proverbs 26:27).

What is holding you back? What do you think you will never escape? What part of your past seems to control you?

I’ve got good news for you.

Yet there is one ray of hope: his compassion never ends. It is only the Lord’s mercies that have kept us from complete destruction. Great is his faithfulness; his loving-kindness begins afresh each day. My soul claims the Lord as my inheritance; therefore I will hope in him.”

 – Lamentations 3:21-24, TLB

This is not just like all the other days you’ve ever lived.

Today is the tomorrow that Anne Shirley talked about, fresh and new and free of mistakes.

Today is the new-mercies day.

Will you cling to the fears of the Past? Or will you let Jesus make all things new in you?

“Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception.Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy.”

 – Ephesians 4:21-24, NLT –

 

 

 

The Definition of You

morning-after

What you believe changes you.

Even in salvation, belief—albeit “not of ourselves” (Eph. 2:8)—transforms our thinking by the power of Christ.

What do you believe about yourself? What defines you?

Hidden patterns of thinking often hold more sway over us than we know. What internal dialogue do you carry on with yourself? In the quiet of your heart, what do you call yourself? Beloved of God? Or something less?

I have heard plenty of stories. People crippled from making decisions because of what others might say. Men and women believing themselves to be beyond hope and value. Children who think there is no future for them. Girls who believe no one could ever love them or find them beautiful. Christians who live like risky love is optional.

And here’s something you might not know: defining yourself by anything other than God’s truth is unbelief. And unbelief is sin. So what lies are crowding out the way God defines you? This week we will talk about the words that shape our lives.

Words of Others

Words are powerful, especially if you believe them.

As I get older and hear more stories of other people’s lives, I am beginning to realize that my wonderful family, although not perfect, does not represent the norm for family life…or even the norm for Christian family life.

Shocked, I’ve heard tales of the horrible things that professing Christians say to one another…and, even more heartbreaking, the awful things that brothers and sisters in Christ believe about themselves because of those ungodly words.

While upholding personal responsibility for choices, Jesus had strong words for those who cause “these little ones” to stumble. He said it was better for these calloused souls to have a millstone tied to their necks and be drowned. It is such a weighty, serious thing to influence another soul toward sin. Sisters! What a horrible thing to cripple and destroy someone else from living abundant life in Christ!

Several weeks ago, I wrote about the power of reckless words (and, how much more, intentionally-harmful words!) But what if you’ve been on the receiving end of harmful words—and who hasn’t been? Are you doomed to be crippled all your life by them? What if you have heard so many lies about your worth and purpose that they all sound true now?

If you belong to Jesus, here’s something you need to hear: His words are the only ones that ultimately matter. (If you don’t belong to Jesus, hop back a post and read about how you can find hope.)

The only way to combat lies is with God’s truth. Can’t tell if you’re believing a lie? Write down what you believe about yourself, your past, and your future. Make a list. Take each statement and find out what God thinks about it. Here are some examples of lies you might be believing, and the truth that exposes them:

“I always mess up.”

 As humans, we all mess up, whether sinfully or by mistake. But what does the Bible say about this? For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift— not from works, so that no one can boast (Eph. 2:8-9, HCSB). Is it true that you have no hope for improvement? Not at all! “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13). What about when you sin or make a mistake? Does that make God stop loving you? “[Nothing] can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39). Nothing, not even ourselves, or our frequent failures. What grace! Repeat the truth to yourself and trust it. It is a sword that can cut those lies into pieces.

“I don’t have a choice. This is just the way I am.”

 If you belong to Jesus, that thought is a total lie. Not only does that line of thinking avoid responsibility, but it also destroys hope. I have good news for you! “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old things are long gone. Look! Everything is new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17, paraphrase). “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have put to death their human nature with all its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24, GNT). Where is this power coming from? How can you change? For the entire fullness of God’s nature dwells bodily in Christ, and you have been filled by Him, who is the head over every ruler and authority(Colossians 2:9-10, HCSB). As children of God, His Spirit fills us with the exact same power that raised Jesus from the dead! If He can change a dead body into an ever-living one, we should never believe that we are incapable of change. He can transform you. Do you believe His words?

“No one can love me. I am not worth anything.”

 Our sins are repulsive to a beautifully-holy God. But humans are His special creation. Without Christ, it is true that we deserve all of God’s just punishment. But humans never lose their value. Unlike any other creation, we are made in God’s image, to be finite reflections of his infinite attributes. Furthermore, if you have embraced the hope of the gospel, your life was purchased at an inestimable cost—the death of the God of glory. You are valuable because of Who made you and Who loves you, not because of anything else. “Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God!” (1 John 3:1). “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10, ESV). “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9, NIV).

These are just a few of the lies that others can tell us, or that we can even tell ourselves. Are you letting your opinions or the opinions of others define you? Or is the Word of Christ dwelling in you richly (Colossians 3:16)? Release your grip on the things that cripple you and reach out in faith to the only words that really matter.

If you let Jesus define you, and nothing else…

Your joy will be full….

…and the truth will set you free.

 
“So if the Son sets you free, you will be absolutely free.”
 – John 8:36, GW –

Therefore, I Hope

flower-in-the-rain-1391359782G9e

“We are pressed on every side by troubles, but not crushed and broken. We are perplexed because we don’t know why things happen as they do, but we don’t give up and quit. We are hunted down, but God never abandons us. We get knocked down, but we get up again and keep going. These bodies of ours are constantly facing death just as Jesus did; so it is clear to all that it is only the living Christ within who keeps us safe.”

 – 2 Corinthians 4:8-10, TLB –


Something buried deep inside the human soul clings to hope.

Once I heard the story of a baby born months prematurely, at 23 weeks and 6 days gestation. Four months early. She was incredibly small, her skin bruising dark from the gentlest touch, her internal organs so delicate that they could give out at any moment.

Her parents didn’t know what to expect. The baby, whom they named Juniper, seemed always on the threshold of death. But time after time, she pulled through the night. Her tiny chest would still be rising and falling the next day, no matter how many times she flatlined in the night.

Her father began reading to her every day. Inexplicably, the child’s heart rate would lift as she heard her father’s voice reading a story he loved and wanted her to love too. He imagined that Juniper was interested in the story. I imagine that the voice of her father broke into that baby’s pain and gave her something to cling to.

She made it. Today she is five years old and bouncing with good health.

As unbelievers, her parents and the others who tell her story discuss ethical implications, viability, Roe vs. Wade, and the unearthly aura of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit they affectionately call “Nick-u.” They have straddled life and death.

In their daughter’s story, they perhaps see evolutionary triumph, or the inexplicable emotional attachment of a parent to a child.

I see the hope that God kindles in the heart of every living soul, a will to survive. Juniper’s survival declares to me that nothing is by chance, and living isn’t a coin toss. Living–hoping–is engrained in us.

Someone once said, 

“Man can live about forty days without food, about three days without water, about eight minutes without air…but only for one second without hope.”

It’s true that, short of despair, we grasp furiously at existence. Something deep inside drives us to “live and life abundantly,” and as long as hope lives, humanity’s will to survive is incredible.

I believe God placed this desire in us. More than just an instinctive fight for supremacy, hope is a highly spiritual thing.

Do I have a reason to take another breath? Yes or no?

Humans again and again weigh their options in the balance, stacking up pleasure against pain, measuring heights of clarity against depths of confusion.

Those who do not believe in the hope of God often lose sight of hope entirely. Rejecting the possibility of His goodness and power, they unknowingly reject the one and only unshakeable hope.

People pin the happiness of their existence on many things. Wealth, pleasure, love, success, conquering. When their anchor of hope can no longer hold them down, what is left for them?

Every object of hope changes, fails, ceases to satisfy.

Except Jesus.

He never changes, never fails, never ceases to satisfy, because He is our Creator God. He made us to thrive in His presence. Nothing else can ever quite fit the bill.

You know, I’ve set my hope in other things. And I see people around me all the time trying to fit something human into this God-shaped need. It just doesn’t work.

So a world full of people are on a desperate hunt for hope…and only a few actually find it.

What does Christian hope look like? What does it do?

Hope is something believed in, something that keeps people alive, some ideal they see as worth their devotion. Hope is our internal answer to the “why” of existence.

Christian hope is turning away from sin and turning to Jesus Christ as your only chance for this life and the next. It is placing the weight of your belief in His simultaneous divinity and humanity, His death that satisfied God’s justice on your behalf, and His miraculous resurrection breaking the power of sin and death. It is giving Him sway over your entire being, which, incidentally, is already His anyway. You stop running from Him and start running to Him.

This hope is a true anchor for the soul (Hebrews 6:19).

This is why, really, only Christians can be real Optimists. Of course things in this world are messed up. Of course it is sometimes awful, painful, and dark. But something good is coming. We know this for certain.

This is why the theme verse of this post rings true:

“We are pressed on every side by troubles, but not crushed and broken. We are perplexed because we don’t know why things happen as they do, but we don’t give up and quit. We are hunted down, but God never abandons us. We get knocked down, but we get up again and keep going. These bodies of ours are constantly facing death just as Jesus did; so it is clear to all that it is only the living Christ within who keeps us safe.”

 – 2 Corinthians 4:8-10, TLB –

Christian hope can propel us through absolutely anything. We have a Savior who is both near and powerful, strong and kind, just and overflowing with grace.

To grasp on to this hope, we fix out eyes on Him.

He is the already-salvation who makes life livable, and the not-yet salvation who, one day, will make all things new.

Do you have this hope? If not, I assure you that nothing else you try is going to work. Jesus is the only hope that will satisfy the cries of your soul. Believe in Him.

If you have believed, but the pain of life is smothering your hope, don’t be afraid. Keep believing. This life may be marred, but it is marred beauty. It may be corrupted, but it corrupted joy. It may be dark, but darkness can never overcome light. Very soon, the marring and the corruption will end and the dawn will become noonday. Believe in Him.

Faith is the substance of things hoped for. In believing, you take hold of what is sure to happen, because God never fails, never changes, never ceases to satisfy.

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever–the same Creator, Redeemer, and Restorer.

Therefore, I hope.

But seek His kingdom, and these things will be provided for you. Don’t be afraid,little flock, because your Father delights to give you the kingdom.

 – Luke 12:31-32, HCSB –

 

 

 

 

For When You Have No Words

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Last week, I sat down at my laptop to write a blog post. I titled a page and began to peck away at the keys before everyone woke up.

The next day, I once again set the laptop on my knees and plugged away at words, this time careening in a different direction.

By the end of that typing session, I had two very different partial-posts and no ideas of what I actually wanted to write.

When writers look for advice, there is one thing we’re always told:

“Write what you know.”

In other words, go out and live life. Write about things you’ve actually done or experienced. You can’t write if you don’t have an existence outside the written word.

But, dear writing community, I have stumbled across another problem.

I have discovered that it is possible to live so much that you run clean out of words.

Thoughts worthy of blog posts can come in fits and starts, ordinarily. Lately, though, I have been so immersed in life that when I sit down to think of a good post topic, I lean my head back on my headboard and go blank. Ideas pop up and I quickly squelch them.

I wonder if there is such a thing as too much writing material.

Just now, I live in a new world everyday. I wake up to complications and emotions that I’m just beginning to learn how to ride out.

Learning how to be an adult, in a house of six adults. Trying to give daily, intensive love to eight other people. Discovering how my family members and I handle stress. Finding out just how unreliable feelings are. Caring for my big, crazy family, sometimes long-distance. Looking for new things to learn. Opening my heart to bigger hurts and bigger loves. Juggling a schedule that isn’t even funny. Hoping to pull off a good job for my supervisor. Trying to find out where social media fits in. Learning that my life balance is something I have to discover by trial and error…lots of error. Squeezing in a book or a podcast in there somewhere. Singing, a lot.

Sometimes life lessons crystallize in slow motion, over a period of days or weeks. These days, so many lessons pour over my head that I’m slow to catch them, much less be able to put them into words.

But, even here there is a lesson.

When life crowds out your words, go back to the basics.

Jesus. Run back to Jesus.

Life can get too confusing. It gets crowded–full of mess and hurt and blessings and busyness. Whether the days whiz by or crawl, they often don’t seem to get any lighter. Breathing can be hard, and living can be weighty. Life is hard to condense into a neat package and tie up in a bow.

But maybe, just maybe, it’s not supposed to be nice and neat. 

I think life is meant to be a paradox. Everything may be wildly incoherent and out of my control…but all wrapped up in the hand of God.

“I deliberately kept it plain and simple: first Jesus and who he is; then Jesus and what he did—Jesus crucified.”

 – paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 2:2, from the Message –

When the apostle Paul went to Corinth, he didn’t try to help people make spiritual sense of their lives with anything other than the Gospel. Jesus was the totality of His message.

You see, the Gospel merges the broken, jagged puzzle pieces of our lives into a coherent whole.

Jesus–the crucified and resurrected Redeemer–truly redeems. He buys back the lives, the days, the purposes of every detail of existence. Because of Jesus, the picture of our lives, though incomplete from our perspective, starts to make sense.

Life doesn’t work without Jesus.

In the book of Acts, Paul quotes the Greek philosopher Epimenides, using Greek poetry to describe the centrality of Christ:

“For in Him we live and move and exist….” – Acts 17:28

The book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus, “[by] his own mighty word…holds the universe together” (Hebrews 1:3, CEV).

This truth is the reason why, when I am drained of words, I still have one word:

Jesus.

I don’t have to make sense of my crazy, whirlwind world. Taking one day at a time, I just have to love the next person in front of me, “do the next right thing,” and offer up each moment as something I’m doing to make my Savior glad.

The Gospel says that Jesus is enough.

When I run out of understanding…

Out of energy,

Out of intuition,

Out of words…

He is still there.

In Him, I am not a chaotic mess. In Him, I am centered.

In Him, I am home.

 

Swords and Silver Boxes

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“Thoughtless words can wound as deeply as any sword, but wisely spoken words can heal.”

 – Proverbs 12:18, GNT –


This verse made me stop in my tracks this past week.

I have probably literally heard it my whole life. I should know this, right? 🙂

Recently, a friend shared with me the deep pain that several people’s random comments and inappropriate words caused her. It was just this past week, as I considered blogging on the power of words, that I realized the connection to this verse.

The Bible has plenty to say about how we speak. Be kind to one another. Build up. Don’t curse one another. Speak the truth in love.

We know this.

But this particular verse especially stood out to me because people I cared about were being knocked flat because of words that people didn’t even intend to be hurtful. I can’t judge hearts, but I know these fellow Christians most likely did not intend their speech to be so deadly. But it was.

What does the proverb say again?

“Thoughtless words can wound as deeply as any sword….”

The verse doesn’t say “evil words.” It doesn’t say “malicious” or even “premeditated words.”

Thoughtless.

The reality of life is that you and I could walk into the world today and just blurt out something…and it could absolutely destroy someone.

Don’t get me wrong–people have choices about how they respond to wrong words. But God doesn’t expect us to blame our carelessness on the wounded. He places the responsibility of love directly the speaker.

Thoughtless words.

How many times a day do I carelessly throw out sentences? Many times in the last few weeks, I’ve become angry at the way other people fling thoughtless words at those I love. “That is SO insensitive,” I’ve internally ranted. “How can they not see how wrong that is?”

“The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love to talk will have to eat their own words.” – Proverbs 18:21, GW

Recently, someone I dearly love and respect excused his quick, thoughtless words as “just his personality.” He stopped and thought something like, “I wonder if I should say that?” And then he verbally announced his mental process and proceeded to speak his mind anyway. He knew better. But, because he identified as a blunt person, he thought that gave him liberty to say what he was thinking in that situation. I wonder, if he knew what his words might have cost, if he would think his liberty was worth that much.

I’m not advocating over-sensitivity or timidity when it comes to conversing with others. But we should certainly strive toward more compassion and less haste, more tactfulness and less impulsiveness. More Christ-likeness and less me-likeness. This verse about thoughtless words compels me to examine my communication and pray for grace to enrich lives rather than reduce them to dust.

Ladies, we especially have power to build or destroy with our words. Proverbs contains several laments of men who would have preferred to camp out on the edge of their roof than be in the same house as a cantankerous girl. Our gender, famous for using countless thousands of words each day, would do especially well to remember the harm that unthinking words can instigate.

Florence Littauer, a dear Christian woman, wrote a book called Silver Boxes. In it, she recounts the story of a little girl who compared giving encouraging words to giving someone a silver-wrapped gift.

What a piercing thought.

Our words can be silver-cased swords, ready to cut to the quick…

Or they can be silver-wrapped boxes, filled with delight.

Practically, what kind of words come as silver-crusted daggers? While I’m sure situations vary greatly, here are a few examples of insensitive ones: physical appearance, mental or physical ability, psychological labels (even as a joke), misunderstood teasing, reminding people of past mistakes or sins, untempered criticism, or any words that belittle or discourage.

Whew. Not a fun list.

If those are the kinds of words to shun, what can we put on instead? I know, in my family, much of the above list is absolutely taboo.  We’re not particularly noble –- my brother and I were just never allowed to use them!

For me, then, my biggest challenge is the handoff between silver swords and silver boxes. Honestly, when I examine myself, I see more sins of omission in the area of words.

While I definitely say wrong things, mostly I don’t say enough right things.

“Pleasing words are a honeycomb, sweet to the taste and invigorating to the bones,” says Proverbs 16:24, NABRE.

What can you say? How about one of these: I’m proud of you. I really respect/appreciate you. Wow, look at what God has done in your life! Hey, how can I pray for you today? I love you. I am really glad you are in my life. What a good Father we have! I know He has this situation under control, even if we don’t understand. 

I told you at the beginning of this post that a friend of mine has been suffering from thoughtless words. What did these words do? They made a Christian girl have to work twice as hard to fight lies, because other people were unwittingly joining the chorus of temptations she already faced. They struck her with pain, because people she loved were using their words like knives. Unknown to those around her, they were actually siding with the devil, helping him tear down a soul. What a horrible thought!

And there I was on the other end of the spectrum. I was the one hearing the effects of these hurtful words and praying for words to pick up the pieces.

I get frustrated, because sometimes it seems to take 10 encouraging words to undo 1 hurtful word. But with this friend and with others, I now more clearly see the battlefield of communication. From time to time, God puts me on the front lines and gives me the gift of speaking truth into a hurting heart. He asks me to give out silver boxes.

If you think words can kill, you’re right.

But wait until God uses your words to bring life to dull eyes. This is real living, my friends. And I don’t dive into this abundant life nearly enough.

It is a battle. If you engage with encouragement, you are going to see some amazing things happen.

God gave us the gift of words. With the forgiveness and love of Jesus as our motivation and the grace of our Lord as our power, let’s make a choice to craft our silver into gift boxes of encouragement, not slicing swords.

Words are pretty powerful stuff. Whose life can you build up today?


“So continue encouraging each other and building each other up, just like you are doing already.”

 – 1 Thessalonions 5:11, CEB –

 

Acute Nearness

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Jesus’ acute nearness in suffering…I don’t have the words to explain it to you. 

All I can hope for is a close approximation, something that casts a vision or projects for you a shadow of what I am learning firsthand. 

I’m not sure what to call this suffering-joy. It needs its own word, for an ineffable something that I can feel to the tips of my toes, but remain unsure if I can speak. 

But I think I must try, for it is, in the end, great glory to a good, good Father. 


My house is full of life.

My comfortable family of four has transformed into an amalgam of nine very different people, often under one roof. When friends were hurting, we were positioned to be a refuge. So we took a plunge,  off a steep cliff, into the dark.

What happened when four became nine?

Realities of the world outside the four walls of our home hit us hard. Very hard. We knew before that these realities existed. But we didn’t really know what it was like.

What do hard realities feel like? 

They feel like words too big to fit through your throat, a roundhouse kick to your stomach, or a stranglehold on your lungs. It hurts, terribly. It can be consuming and draining.

But that’s not so very strange. People don’t wonder at suffering being hard. That’s just how it is.

Here’s the strange part: I’m not really sorry about it.

Certainly, I am not glad for evil, or the effects of sin, but I’m actually very tremendously glad to be suffering in just this way, just now. Not because it is pleasant.

But because Jesus is coming clearer.

People often say, “This drove me to my knees.”

Maybe they use those words so much because that’s a very good word picture of how pain actually works. Life grinds us down until our knees are the only place we have a hope of standing. Before God in prayer–this becomes the only way to navigate harsh, painful moments.

Prayer becomes like breathing in these times.

This what I call Jesus’ “acute nearness.” Acute means sharp, poignant, clear, stabbing, profound. That’s what is happening to me. His proximity grows more and more obvious to me these days. His truth becomes precious and a thing desperately craved. I need Him. Now, right now, for this next breath.

I have never had days like this. Wow, have they ever been hard! I’ve never felt anything like it.

But Jesus is so close. So dear. Everything.

I can’t bring myself to be sorry.

And since we are his children, we will share his treasures—for all God gives to his Son Jesus is now ours too. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering.

Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will give us later. For all creation is waiting patiently and hopefully for that future day when God will resurrect his children.” 

 – Romans 8:17-18, TLB –

This isn’t a post about my troubles. This isn’t even a post about sharing the burdens of others.

This is a reminder for you, when the winds of suffering are about to blow you down.

“Courage, dear heart,” Aslan whispers to Lucy in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

This is my whisper to you. “Courage!”

Whatever came yesterday, whatever happened today, whatever tomorrow holds–run to Jesus. His acute nearness in suffering will make you wonder at the joy that can come out of pain, and the laughter that is born in the middle of tears.

He makes the bitter sweet.

God doesn’t ask us to wish for bitter. But when sorrow comes, Jesus is far more than worth it.

I can testify to that.

“We wish you could see how all this is working out for your benefit, and how the more grace God gives, the more thanksgiving will [lead to] to his glory. This is the reason why we never collapse. The outward man does indeed suffer wear and tear, but every day the inward man receives fresh strength. These little troubles (which are really so transitory) are winning for us a permanent, glorious and solid reward out of all proportion to our pain. For we are looking all the time not at the visible things but at the invisible. The visible things are transitory: it is the invisible things that are really permanent.”
 – 2 Corinthians 4:15-18, Phillips –

The Things that Aren’t Ours

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Have you ever wanted to do “more” to share hope with those around you…but you weren’t sure where to start? Here are some of the “secrets” I’ve learned about moving toward others.

It’s happened to me more than once.

…and probably more times than I realize.

As I go about my day, God will often set me in the middle of an opportunity. I wish I would pray for these opportunities more, but whether I remember to ask for them or not, God is faithful to send me tangible reminders of His intimate care for our lives.

In these moments, girls tell me, “Shelbie, that is exactly what I needed to hear” or “I don’t know how you knew what to say!”

And I tell them, “I didn’t know.”

When I feel an “opportunity” coming on, my conversation with God usually has a quick upspike as I plead for help for the next words. “Help, Lord!” or “Please help me know what to say” are some of my go-to “arrow prayers” when God places someone in front of me who needs a special sort of encouragement. These are desperate, wisdom-seeking prayers. And they are so often answered, with impeccable timing.

It’s true. I have no idea what to say. My personality tends to be tactful and wary of offense, and this approach seems to put people at ease. My mom jokes that I could tell one of my music students how much trouble they were in, and they would still walk away with a smile on their face.

When people start baring their souls to me, I try to listen, ask probing questions, and point them back to their only hope, which is Jesus.

Amazingly, God sometimes uses imperfect channels like you and me to spread His love. 

Here are a few things I’ve learned about finding and embracing God-given opportunities:

1. Be an Approachable Seeker 

Depending on how desperate they are, people may not come to us for help. Moving toward others as Christ moved toward me is a challenge and can nudge me (or downright catapult me!) out of my comfort zone.

Look around.

This is hard, at least for me. It can take a lot of effort to take my gaze off myself and lift my eyes to those around me. Not only that, but it can be just as much of a challenge to actually see needs. As humans, we can be good at covering up just how in-need we are at any given moment. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been shocked at the pain and emptiness hidden behind smiles and polite conversation

Ask for eyes to see the need, to see what other people are missing. And then, go to that place of need. Dare to ask.

“A person’s thoughts are like water in a deep well, but someone with insight can draw them out.” –  Proverbs 20:5, GNT

2. Arrow Prayers

I love the Nehemiah-style “arrow prayers” that I referred to above. When Nehemiah heard about the ruins of Jerusalem and  then spoke to the king, he demonstrated the short, desperate prayers that I turn to often in a challenging conversation.

“Well, what should be done?” the king asked.

With a quick prayer to the God of heaven, I replied, “If it please Your Majesty and if you look upon me with your royal favor, send me to Judah to rebuild the city of my fathers!”

 – Nehemiah 2:4, TLB –

Whether you have to walk across the room to engage that hurting girl or whether she appears in front of you asking for advice, an arrow prayer is in order. Help is needed right away, for both her and you, and—thankfully—it is only a whisper away. God is faithful. I’ve been amazed time and time again.

“The Lord is close to everyone who calls out to him, to all who call out to him sincerely.”
 – Psalm 145:18, CEB –

3. Strive for “Liminal Space.”

Liminal space comes from the Latin word limen, meaning threshold. Basically, liminal space is an attitude of setting aside your own opinions for a moment in order to understand someone else. It is “willing suspension of disbelief.”

Liminal space allows me to step into someone else’s shoes. While fully recognizing the sinfulness of sin, I can try to understand why someone made a decision or feels a certain way. Even if their reasons are inadequate or misinformed, I can set aside myself for a moment and truly listen. Liminal space can take me a long way in a conversation.

Relational liminal space is not a call for Christians to set aside their convictions, but it is a call for us to set aside harsh criticism to make room for compassion.

A situation will often call for you to speak Biblical truth, but first, listen. Seek understanding. Because, at the end of the day, what is liminal space, really?

It is dealing with grace.

“Try to help those who argue against you. Be merciful to those who doubt. Save some by snatching them as from the very flames of hell itself. And as for others, help them to find the Lord by being kind to them, but be careful that you yourselves aren’t pulled along into their sins. Hate every trace of their sin while being merciful to them as sinners.”
 – Jude 22-23, TLB –

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4. Be Ready

How do I prepare for these spontaneous moments of ministry?

Well, I do prepare…and I don’t.

Moments of opportunity have no script, but…

The more I fill myself with Scripture, the more truth is in my heart, ready to be drawn out at a moments notice.

The more I look out for others more than myself, the more I see opportunities to speak truth and comfort into the lives of others.

The more ready I am to drop my plans and embrace God’s leading, the better my attitude will be when unexpected situations come up.

Actually, spontaneous ministry is fueled by moment-by-moment faithfulness. Every moment that I love Jesus, every choice I make because I want to glorify Him, and every time I deny my sinful self, I lay a paving stone for others to use to walk toward me.

Moments of ministry spring out of consistency. Not perfection–no, not perfection! I know I am a far cry from all that my Savior calls me to.

But that is the beauty of it.

He can use me — a flawed, redeemed, growing girl — to live out His truth and, sometimes, to speak it into others’ lives.

5. These Things Are Not Ours

At the end of a conversation, when someone asks, “How did you know?” the answer is always, “I didn’t know. But God did.”

With matchless skill and wisdom, God places His children in just the right places at the just the right times…and then His Spirit gives wisdom.

These things–these answers we give to others–are not ours.

It is not our intelligence, our intuition, our skill with language, that wins over hearts or gives encouragement to a weary soul.

These things aren’t ours at all. They are too wonderful.

Jesus alone receives the glory for a “word fitly spoken.”

But, as His co-heirs, we are swept up as well in the swells of His glory. His joys become ours. His loves become ours. His thoughts, slowly, become ours, because “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16).

When God puts someone in my path, it is pretty much my favorite thing ever…

To think!

I get a part in the grand drama of history.

My God allows me the joy of joining Him in the dance.


“But even though we were dead in our sins God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, gave us life together with Christ—it is, remember, by grace and not by achievement that you are saved—and has lifted us right out of the old life to take our place with him in Christ in the Heavens. Thus he shows for all time the tremendous generosity of the grace and kindness he has expressed towards us in Christ Jesus. It was nothing you could or did achieve—it was God’s gift to you. No one can pride himself upon earning the love of God. The fact is that what we are we owe to the hand of God upon us. We are born afresh in Christ, and born to do those good deeds which God planned for us to do.

Do not lose sight of the fact that you were born “Gentiles”, known by those whose bodies were circumcised as “the uncircumcised”. You were without Christ, you were utter strangers to God’s chosen community, the Jews, and you had no knowledge of, or right to, the promised agreements. You had nothing to look forward to and no God to whom you could turn. But now, through the blood of Christ, you who were once outside the pale are with us inside the circle of God’s love and purpose.

For Christ is our living peace.”

 – Ephesians 2:4-14a, Philips –

 

Breaking Down the “Other”

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“Love each other as I have loved you…”

 –  John 13:34b –


I happened to have two young teenage friends with me in Walmart the other day. While I moved around freely between the aisles, one of my young friends in particular seemed very inhibited. She was nervous and wary of our other friend straying too far away from us.

As I scanned shelves of fabric looking for a potential rainbow costume for a children’s song about God’s creation, my anxious young friend piped up again. I don’t think I was looking at her at the moment, but I can only imagine the wide-eyed, sidelong glances she may have been giving our fellow shoppers.

“People at Walmart keep getting stranger and stranger. Have you noticed that?” she asked us.

I held my tongue, but internally, I mulled over her reaction to people in the “outside world” — that is, those beyond her church and homeschool circles.

My sweet young friend suffers from a condition that many Christians seem to have, especially those who identify as conservative. In reality, I’m sure that this condition still lingers in me as well, although more extreme circumstances than a shopping trip might be required to draw it out of me.

This condition is “otherness.”

As a result of sin, humans instinctively withdraw from others who are different from us. Historically, there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of dividing lines: ideology, religion, language, education, skin color, social status, clothing choices, geographic boundaries, gender, intelligence, or political view, to name a few.

All of these differences reinforce to us the “otherness” of those around us. They are so different, so very strange. We stay back because…well, why would we move toward them? Why would we want to? Estranged by their cultural leanings, the way they dress, or the number of tattoos marking their arms–these “others” move past us and we often watch them go by with fear, disdain, or even anger.

Distance demonizes.

I don’t know who first coined that small phrase, but it is so true. The distance we erect between us and “them” makes others grow strange and monstrous. The farther away you get, the worse your perception of people will be. Distance demonizes. Estrangement is a dangerous sort of myopia, eroding your relational perception until all you can see is the faint shadow or outline of a person.

This is not the way of Jesus.

Sometimes we can get confused about what being salt and light means. Salt has to be on the food in order for it to make a difference in the taste or preserve the food beyond its natural shelf life. Light has to be uncovered and obvious in order for it to pierce the darkness.

You are like light for the whole world. A city built on top of a hill cannot be hidden, and no one would light a lamp and put it under a clay pot. A lamp is placed on a lampstand, where it can give light to everyone in the house. Make your light shine, so that others will see the good that you do and will praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16, CEV).

How did Jesus deal with people who were different from Him? The Bible contains many examples if we really want to know: Samaritans, people with contagious diseases, the wealthy, the impoverished, the thieves, the notorious sinners (John 4:1-42; Matthew 8:1-4; Matthew 10:17-27; Luke 21:1-4; Luke 19:1-10; Luke 23:39-43; Matthew 2:13-17).

I recently discovered — and highly recommend — a beautifully-written book that clearly and practically lays out steps we can take to walk “with others in wisdom and love,” as the subtitle says. This book Side by Side, by Edward T. Welch, lays out the pattern for us to follow:

“As the King goes, so go his people. He moves toward people; we move toward people. He moves toward people who seek him and people who do not; we move toward those who want help and those who seem distant and marginalized. He moves toward friends and even enemies; we move out beyond our circle of friends to those far beyond that circle” (Chapter 8, p. 74).

As my pastor preached on Sunday, Jesus’ death and resurrection established a New Covenant that no longer keeps an ethnic people cordoned off from the rest of the world. Ephesians 2 says that He broke down the barriers of separation between us and made the two (Jews and Gentiles) into one. On a universal level, this means that no one is beneath our notice, no one is too lost to be redeemed, no cultural gap is too wide, and no hands are too dirty or too bloody to be clasped in welcome.

Why would we welcome?

 Because, if we claim follow Jesus, there is no other real option.

Yes, God is the only one with enough love and courage to unswervingly enter into the mess of someone else…but this glorious God’s power fills us. The divine power that resurrected Jesus is the power that fuels us with the ability to move away from our prideful perspectives and, instead, move toward others (Romans 8:11).

And what we see–if we see rightly–is that at the foot of the cross we are no cleaner, no more acceptable, no more lovable, than anyone else in this broken world. It is our sin–yours and mine and theirs–that drove the bloody nails into our Savior. 

But this crucified and risen Savior welcomes you and me and them, all of us equally, without playing favorites.

Christ’s love to sinners is radical, transformative, unconditional, and full of compassion.

Who are we to offer anything less to others?

And if we got close enough to look, we might see that the people we instinctively demonize are just…people. People who, like us, are desperate for a taste of grace.

I don’t know how much opportunity I’ll have to lead my shy young friend in the way of this grace, but I do know that her fear of “otherness” taught me something this week.

Jesus broke down all the barriers of “otherness,” and if we claim to be His, we cannot fail to do the same.

One broken, love-starved heart at a time.


Then he came to Nazareth where he had been brought up and, according to his custom, went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day. He stood up to read the scriptures and the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. He opened the book and found the place where these words are written—‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor. He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord’.

Then he shut the book, handed it back to the attendant and resumed his seat. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed upon him and he began to tell them, “This very day this scripture has been fulfilled, while you were listening to it!”

 – Luke 4:16-22, Phillips –