Friday, December 18, 2015

When Jesus Lingers

The following are excerpts from the chapter “The Lingering Jesus,” based on John 11, in Stephen W. Smith's The Lazarus Life (I'd highly recommend reading the whole book!):

Imagine the scene: Mary and Martha realizing that their brother is so ill that he might not live. How wonderful that their dear friend Jesus is in the region! The two sisters send word to Jesus that His dear friend is sick. They assume Jesus will come. Hadn't he healed others He'd never even talked to before? But Jesus doesn't show up. He does not heed the pleas of the sisters who beg for Him to come. He stayed where He was...

Where is God? Why doesn't He do something? Questions such as these must have been swirling in the hearts of Jesus' three friends from Bethany. Jesus, their friend, the One they believed in, didn't show up in their moment of greatest need. It must have seemed that He was not only “beyond” their physical surroundings, but also “beyond” caring about His dying friend. Can't God see we need Him? Doesn't He care?

When I enter the story of Lazarus and realize that Jesus did not immediately arise and go to Bethany, I have to admit I'm bothered. I'm bothered because a rapid response seems like the Christlike thing to do when someone is in need. But Jesus didn't drop what He was doing and ride to the rescue. He left the worsening Lazarus, the anxious Martha, and the worried Mary to themselves and to the reality of death. He lingered. Jesus stayed right where He was for two more days (v. 6).

Why did He stay away for so long when He was needed so desperately? Needed so desperately, in fact, that because of His absence, Lazarus died. The hearts of those who waited and waited and waited for Jesus to show up must have been chaotic with questions, anger, and confusion. When Jesus doesn't show up today, we struggle to navigate that same chaos in our own hearts. Does He not care for us?...

Maybe Jesus did want to hightail it back to Bethany, but this was one of those moments when He had to submit His own will to that of the Father's. We have some evidence that Jesus was in the wilderness region where Satan tempted Him for forty days. Possibly this moment held the same kind of weight for Jesus: If You are the Son of God, rush back and save Your friend. Maybe Jesus was ready to go help His dying friend but the Father told Him, “No, My Son, You can't do what You want to do here. A greater plan is at work. It's not time yet.”

Mary and Martha were left in the spiritual quandary of if only. If only Jesus had come. If only they had been more persuasive in their wording of the message intended for Jesus. If only Jesus really understood. If only He knew how sick Lazarus really was...

Where is He when we need him to help us the most? The God who lingers. The Jesus who makes other plans. The Spirit who hovers but never comes down to where we are. Isn't He Emmanuel—God with us?...

The invitation is to trust a God who makes us wait...

Experiencing the Jesus who lingers means having no clue as to what is happening in you or around you. In the full wake of winter's fury, you don't even know if spring will come. The winter is all you know. It's all that is real. The rest may be nothing more than a dream...

We are like Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in so many ways. We cling to the belief that new life will come, but in the meantime we struggle to believe anything is happening. In this waiting—in the in-between time—something deep happens to us. Something happens within us. That's the way it has to be, because if transformation is anything at all, it is change from the inside out, not the outside in...

As we wait, we relinquish control, surrender our wills, give up our false hopes, and realize that if anything is going to happen at all, it will have to be God's doing...

Through waiting we become more aware of God and ourselves. As we grow in God-awareness and self-awareness, we sense something happening to us. This is the slow work of transformation that cannot be sped up by Jesus showing up any earlier than what has been orchestrated...

While Mary and Martha were agonizing because of Jesus' absence, Jesus told his disciples that Lazarus's illness was “for God's glory so that God's son may be glorified through it” (John 11:4). Mary and Martha were tied to an earthly view of death. Jesus knew that the greater good would come. Jesus might have thought, Maybe in My lingering they will come to want God's glory more than they want Lazarus to live. Perhaps My lingering will change the posture of their hearts to say, “Not my will but Your will be done.” This is only conjecture, but it touches on a mystery in the spiritual life that surpasses our own reasoning. When Jesus lingers, we have much to consider.

Glory talk goes beyond our horizontal perspective and allows the transcendent God to break through at the most unusual times. Glory talk is when God does something big and gets the credit, which is a hard thing to understand when we're in a crisis and just need God to show up. But seasons when God seems distant and quiet become the fodder for the fire in which glory begins to burn brightly...

The Jesus who lingers gives us the opportunity to face our fantasies and illusions and embrace something greater...

Embracing the truth offers us freedom and true life. Here lies the invitation for each of us to live the Lazarus life: Embracing what is true is core of the transformed life. The Jesus who lingers helps us work through our disillusionments and discover more of the character of God.

It's ironic that the times when God sees most absent can be the times when we get to know Him better. We read in Romans 5:5 that “hope does not disappoint us.” As our desperate hearts cry out to the lingering Jesus, we wonder what kind of hope that could be. It's in these moments that God is birthing a new hope in us, a hope in who He is and not a hope in who we want Him to be.”

May our hope be in the God who is, in this season of Advent. 
And may our hearts be transformed when Jesus lingers.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

When Jesus Walks Away

This is one of the best passages I've ever read on Mark 1 from Laura Story's When God Doesn't Fix It:

“Our desire is for God to fix broken things.

But God's desire is to fix our relationship with him.

There is a troubling passage in the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark that illustrates this. Jesus had the opportunity to heal people, but instead he seemed to turn his back on them. It happened not long after Jesus started his ministry with his disciples. They were in Capernaum, Peter and Andrew's hometown, where Jesus had healed Peter's mother-in-law along with many others. Mark said, “The whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases” (Mark 1:33-34).

The news of Jesus' healing had spread outside Capernaum. Early the next morning, ailing travelers streamed into town and headed toward Simon's house, as the disciples rubbed their hands in expectation of what the day ahead would bring.

Then someone noticed that Jesus was missing. They set off in a search party. Where was he? They had to find him! The crowds were growing restless. They wanted to be healed.

The disciples found him and exclaimed, “Everyone is looking for you!” (v. 37). They expected that Jesus would return with them. But his response was not at all what they predicted. Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come” (v. 38).

It's hard to understand why sometimes Jesus heals and sometimes he doesn't. When it feels as though he's turned his back and walked the other way, it's hard not to be disappointed. Maybe even angry.

But when we're focused on the unhealed sickness, hurt, and pain in our lives, God is focused on a bigger picture. Something else is broken, and it has eternal consequences if it doesn't get fixed.

It's our relationship with our Creator.

While doctors can heal physical ailments, emotional wounds can be soothed, and grief lessens with time, our broken relationship with God continues to cause us pain even when our life is going well. God wants to restore our relationship with him more than anything else. Though he loves us, he'll allow us to feel the pain of this world's unhealed hurts if it brings us closer to him...

Have you ever felt bewildered, disappointed, or angry that you didn't get what you thought you deserved? Looking around, you see others have gotten what you wanted, and you don't understand why you can't get it too. Someone else received your cure, your fix, your apology, the life you wanted, or the baby you prayed for. What you had hoped for, what you earned, what you thought would be mended, what you were waiting on, is now gone. That one thing that was almost in your hands, that you rearranged your schedule for, that you stood in line to receive, and that you made an appointment to get, can no longer take place. Though someone else may have been involved, it still feels as though God has turned his back on you.

Imagine the disappointment those sick and hurting travelers from the surrounding villages and towns must have felt when they arrived in Capernaum that morning and heard that their hope for healing had snuck away under the cover of darkness.

What kind of God-man leaves town so he doesn't have to heal those who need it most?

Jesus didn't say good-bye or promise he'd be back soon. He didn't even tell his friends that he was leaving; they had to go out into the countryside and hunt him down. When he said he wasn't coming back, his disciples were as shocked as the crowds. When he left town, the hope of healing departed with him.

If there is anything to learn from the Mark 1 passage, its that God's ways aren't our ways.

A God who leaves physically sick people to preach the good news to spiritually sick people is a God who cares more about our soul than our body. That is who our God is...

Those sick travelers waiting outside of Capernaum...wanted physical healing without spiritual healing. Restoration without redemption. But Jesus wanted them to understand that he was the Savior who had come to restore their relationship to his Father.

Yes, Jesus could have healed all the broken legs, ear infections, strep throat, breast cancers, and indigestion that was coughed up before him. But that would only have been a temporal healing. It wouldn't have healed their relationship with God. Jesus wanted more for them. He wanted to rescue them from their sin, not just from sickness. He wanted to restore their souls and put them back in relationship with his Father. Jesus had a much bigger mission than torn ligaments and athlete's foot. He was God's representative on earth, and he only had a short time to reach as many people as he could and to train his disciples to carry his message of redemption after he left.

Jesus didn't slink out of the city. He avoided the crowds because he knew what they needed more than they did. He went to be with his Father, so that he could be reminded that despite his love for and his desire to heal all those hurting people, he had a bigger mission.”

In a later chapter, Laura Story poses some great questions that we can apply to our difficult situations. Instead of Why? we can ask How?

How might my Father's glory be displayed through this situation?

How does my story fit into God's greater story of redemption?

How might God use my current trial to glorify himself?

How might God use my weakness, infirmity, or disability to display his power?

How might God use my pain for a purpose?

How might God make this mess into a message?

Where will I turn when Jesus walks away?

Thursday, December 10, 2015

My Gift of Grace at the DMV

Two months ago I Failed My Driving Test. The first time FAIL was permanently recorded big black and bold on the back of my driving permit. My second FAIL was even more humiliating, so I was really not looking forward to my third try yesterday. What if I fail again? I nervously approached the counter and felt the exposure of my past mistakes, as the clerk examined those two FAILs on the back of my permit. “Have you had a license before?” he asked. “Well, we've been living overseas for 20 years and my old Kansas license expired about five years ago.” “OK. Just take a seat and wait for your name to be called.”

During the waiting time before my first test, I tried to convice myself, “I know how to drive. I just need to show them that I can.”

Before my second test, I kept reminding myself, “Go slow through the school zone and all will be well.”

After my second test, the examiner's assessment was, “You started out really well, but about halfway through you fell apart. You had four incomplete stops.” Really?

So this third try, as my mouth became more and more dry and my palms increasingly sweaty, my mantra was, “Slow and stop.” I also knew I was in need of grace. A grace-giving examiner please.

“She looks kind of mean,” I whispered to Charly as I saw one examiner leave the building followed by one of my fellow test takers. “You'll do fine with any examiner. Don't worry,” he reassured me.

Another test taker returned and gave high fives to all of his family members in the waiting area. I felt happy for him, and new hope surged in my heart. There's definitely a more positive feeling in this room than last time. But wait, what if they are required to give a certain number of fails a day? Then other people passing their tests might hurt my chances...

My name was called. I jumped up and gripped the car keys tightly.

“So why did you fail your other tests?” My examiner pointedly asked after she had checked my turn signal and brake lights and was fastening her seat belt. “The first time I went too fast in a school zone, and the second time I didn't come to complete stops,” I confessed. There's my past. Nothing hidden.

“I think you're going to get it this time,” she told me. “I have faith in you.”

Really? I started to breathe more normally.

“The kid I tested before you was on his third try too and he passed.”

My hands relaxed on the steering wheel.

Thank you God.

We chatted about our families and about the state of the world as she gave me instructions on what to do. And even though I made some mistakes, like running through a yellow light and waiting too long before getting into a turn lane, I felt like she was on my side. This is the day, I dared to hope. I think I might pass.

I pulled into the open parking space in front of the DMV and turned off the car. “I'm sorry to tell you,” she started, not even waiting until we got inside to go over my results. Oh no. Not again!

“I won't be able to go driving with you again.” Relieved, I smiled at her sense of humor, and felt like jumping out of my seat to give her a hug.

She went on to tell me some things I had done well and some areas I needed to pay attention to. “You have to get an 80 to pass, and you got a 92.”

Charly's eyes were worried when I got back inside. I'd been gone longer than he'd counted on, and he thought maybe I'd gotten into an accident out there. That would have been a definite fail, he figured. So he too smiled with relief and gave me a high five when I told him the good news.

The real good news is Grace, isn't it? An incredibly generous gift that we receive with open undeserving hands. Not a reward to be earned at the end of the day with a righteous sense of entitlement.

It's a gift of new life under the new covenant. No longer bound to the Law of the old covenant. 

God does not sit beside us in our tests of life with a clipboard in hand, eager to record our every little mistake. And He never ever writes FAIL in permanent black marker over our identity.

He whispers to our hearts when we feel most vulnerable, “I think you're going to get it this time. I have faith in you.”

This is my Gift of Grace. My Son.

Jesus. Who came from the highest place in heaven, down to meet the lowest on this earth, to give us grace, grace, and more grace.

From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another.” (John 1:16)

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Christmas Tradition I Could Do Without

We are in the middle of America in the middle of a consumerized Christmas season. And I've found that I am totally loving our new huge Christmas tree (gift from a friend of my Mom). I have felt mesmerized in our living room the past few evenings, with our tree lit up and all the ornaments sparkling. It makes the season of Christmas feel truly magical, reminding me of our Christmas trees growing up in the mountains of NC (when we had our own Christmas tree farm). And of our artificial tree in Tianjin for 12 years, when our kids would sleep under it every Sunday in December and on Christmas Eve. I have a special heart connection to Christmas trees.

But I've discovered that I don't have a heart connection to the Christmas tradition of gift-giving. I have absolutely no desire to make a list for those who have asked us what we want. And I really don't feel like wandering the aisles and filling our own shopping cart with gifts, just because there's the obligation to give something. I don't think it's because I'm being a Scrooge. But I've been trying to figure out why I feel this way.

Two years ago was our first time in 15 years to celebrate Christmas in the US. I loved being with both sides of our families and experiencing all of their traditions that we had missed while we were overseas. I thought then that my not being able at all to think about or purchase gifts was because we had just adopted David and Daniel and were in those survival-first-two-months with them in our family. But I've realized that I feel the same way about gifts this year. Maybe it's because gifts were really not such a big deal to our Christmases in China. And I don't know what to do with that here...

I felt shocked and disheartened by the news report of a Wal-Mart employee in NY being trampled to death by shopping madness on Black Friday. And that makes me--even more so--want to stay out of the consumer scene.

Maybe that's why this week I've been drawn to Richard Foster's book Freedom of Simplicity, and have been uplifted by his challenge to live a centered life of simplicity. It has felt like a breath of fresh air, and has brought to mind this verse, "Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls." (Jeremiah 6:16) The following passage is from his chapter called “Inward Simplicity: The Divine Center:”

“We dash about here and there, desperately trying to fulfill the many obligations that press in upon us. We jerk back and forth between business commitments and family responsibilities. While we are busy responding to the needs of child or spouse, we feel guilty about neglecting the demands of work. When we respond to the pressures of work, we fear we are failing our family. In those rare times when we are able to juggle the two successfully, the wider issues of nation and world whisper pestering calls to service. If anyone needs a simplification of life, we do.

What will set us free from this bondage to the ever-spiraling demands that are placed upon us? The answer is found in the grace of Christian simplicity. This virtue, once worked into our lives, will unify the demands of our existence; it will prune and trim gently in the right places, bringing a liberty of soul that will eliminate constant reversions to ourselves...

Within all of us is a whole conglomerate of selves. There is the timid self, the courageous self, the business self, the parental self, the religious self, the literary self, the energetic self. And all of these selves are rugged individualists. No bargaining or compromise for them. Each one screams to protect his or her vested interests. If a decision is made to spend a relaxed evening listening to Chopin, the business self and the civic self rise up in protest at the loss of precious time. The energetic self paces back and forth, impatient and frustrated, and the religious self reminds us of the lost opportunities for study or evangelistic contact. If the decision is to accept an appointment on the human services board, the civic self smiles with satisfaction, but all the excluded selves filibuster. No wonder we feel distracted and torn. No wonder we overcommit our schedules and live lives of frantic faithfulness.

But when we experience life at the Center, all is changed. Our many selves come under the unifying control of the divine Arbitrator. No longer are we forced to live by an inner majority rule which always leaves a disgruntled minority. The divine yes or no settles all minority reports. Everything becomes oriented to this new Center of reference. The quiet evening can be enjoyed to the fullest because our many selves have been stilled by the Holy Within. The business self, the religious self, the energetic self, all are at peace because they know we are living in obedience. There is no need to wave the flag of self-interest, since all things good and needful will be given their proper attention at the appropriate time. We enter a refreshing balance and equilibrium in life...

When we live out of the Divine Center, thoughts and decisions flow from the Fountainhead. All relevant data are considered, to be sure, but decisions stem from a source deeper than facts and figures. Once we have understood the mind of the Father, we can speak our yes or no with confidence. We will have no need to reverse our decision if the winds of opinion change, for we have spoken out of deeper Reality than the latest Gallup poll...

This kind of living communion does not just fall on our heads. We must desire it and seek it out. Like the deer that pants for the flowing stream, so we thirst for the living Spring. We must order our lives in particular ways if we hope to quench that thirst. We must take up a consciously chosen course of action that will draw us more deeply into perpetual communion with the Father.

I have discovered one delightful means to this end: prayer experiments that open us to God's presence every waking moment. The idea is extraordinarily simple. Seek to discover as many ways as possible to keep God constantly in mind...

It is wonderful to walk onto a grade school playground and inwardly lift every child into the arms of Christ. Or to ride in the back of a bus and invite Christ to visit with each person that boards. Carpenters and plumbers and electricians can fill the homes in which they work with the light of Christ, praying for each member of the family (or, if it is a new home, for the family which will live there). Grocery store clerks and retail checkers can pray for each person who passes through the line, imagining him or her drawing closer to God. In my work I write many letters, and each time I sign my name I try to pray for the person to whom the letter is addressed. It is great fun to imagine the recipients opening the letter and being strengthened with a fresh sense of God's presence. There are thousands of these little experiments you can try, and very often you will be startled by the results.

And most wonderful of all is what happens inside us. More and more we develop what Thomas a Kempis called a 'familiar friendship with Jesus'...

Of all the inward changes we experience, the most awesome is that we begin to know Jesus' Voice. We become inwardly acquainted with the language of the true Shepherd. Humbled under the cross, we are able to increasingly discern the true Spirit from the clatter and clamor of human voices, and even the hollow voice of the enemy who comes under the guise of an angel of light. We begin to live in guidance. Inward prompts give unity to our decisions. All the demands for service are somehow filtered through the Light. Our lives are being simplified because we are giving attention to only one Voice, and our yes and no arise from the Center. We no longer rush puffing and panting through our jam-packed day, yet somehow we accomplish more. Thomas Kelly witnessed, 'Life from the Center is a life of unhurried peace and power. It is simple. It is serene. It is amazing. It is triumphant. It is radiant. It takes no time, but occupies all our time. And it makes our life programs new and overcoming.'"

I would much rather live a life of Sheperded Simplicity than that of Frantic Faithfulness. Wouldn't you?

(Linking up with Velvet Ashes this week on the theme of "Tradition")

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Is Your God Good Enough?

I was encouraged that this post was published last week at Velvet Ashes (an online community of women serving overseas):

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55: 8-9)

Our God is BIG, right? Just as He took Abraham outside and instructed him to look up at the stars, we too can gaze on the vastness of the heavens and get a glimpse of God’s greatness. If God wasn’t great, we wouldn’t have left our homes, like Abraham, to follow Him across the globe. But sometimes our life experiences can shape our view of His goodness. When God acts in a way that doesn’t appear to us to be good, can we continue to put our trust in His unchanging character?

Do we believe that God is good enough?

Does He really care about the difficult circumstances we are facing? Will He give us the strength and grace we need to weather these boat-tipping storms? Take to heart our complaints, our longings, our desperation and pain? Love us and our loved ones (both near and far) with a deeper unconditional, unfailing love than we could ever imagine?

In Your God is Too Small, J.B. Phillips discusses two images of God that are void of goodness: one as a Disappointment and one as a Negative Force:

“To some people the mental image of God is a kind of blur of disappointment. ‘Here,’ they say resentfully and usually with more than a trace of self-pity, ‘is One whom I trusted, but He let me down.’ The rest of their lives is consequently shadowed by this letdown…

Such a god is, of course, in the highest degree inadequate. It is impossible for people who have persuaded themselves that God has failed, to worship or serve Him in any but a perfunctory spirit. What has usually happened to such people is that they have set up in their minds what they think God ought or ought not to do, and when He apparently fails to toe their particular line they feel a sense of grievance.”

Can you relate to this image of God? I sure can. Deep disappointment makes me think of the disciples who shuffled along, faces downcast, on the road to Emmaus. “We had hoped,” they told the mysterious man who appeared beside them, “that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” (Luke 24:21) It was all over, they believed. Finished. Their hopes for the Messiah had been nailed to the cross and had died with him there.

When you think about a time that God let you down and didn’t come through in the way you hoped, did a part of you die too? Has that deep disappointment caused your worship and service to become a joyless obligation?

You can read the rest at Velvet Ashes:

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

When I Was the Foreigner Who Was Welcomed

Our family called central western China “home” for the last 4 1 /2 years, and we experienced incredible warmth and hospitality there. We were befriended by compassionate, openhearted Muslims who took a risk to welcome us--pale-skinned foreigners of a different culture and religion. Muslim friends who chose to set aside their unflattering stereotypes of Americans to find out who we really were, inside. I'd like to introduce you to Hua, with the hope that a better understanding of our Christian-Muslim friendship might help to tear down the unflattering stereotype of Muslims in our world today. With the desire that our society would not be so divided by Us and Them. Could we work on getting rid of the logs in order to see more clearly?

“May we try to understand them as we in turn would like to be understood...May we see with their eyes, think with their minds, feel with their hearts. Then let us ask ourselves whether we should judge them...” (William Barclay) 

I feel compelled to write this post because I believe that it is a real tragedy when terrorists wave the banner of Islam and perform incomprehensible acts of violence. All of the Muslims I know are just as horrified by recent world events as all of the non-Muslims I know. And probably even more so, because these events have negatively affected the way many non-Muslims view Islam. It has been heartbreaking to see that in the aftermath of these recent tragedies, people have erected fearful walls of self-protection and have focused efforts to keep the refugee victims of ISIS out. I read last week that one of our presidential candidates publicly stated that we should only allow Christian Syrian refugees into our country. It is so difficult for me to understand that kind of rationale.

I met Hua a few months after our move from Tianjin to Lanzhou in 2011. Our family was out on a walk one Sunday and I overheard her urging her 4 year old son Musa (Moses) to walk closer to us so he could practice his English. As I slowed my pace and fell into step beside them, I was encouraged to discover that her Mandarin was more clear than that of anyone I had met so far in our new city. I asked for her phone number before we parted, and we began meeting regularly to go shopping together. She invited me to come to the Arabic school where she worked as a janitor, and then later to the preschool where she worked as a cook. She took me to the basement of the big shopping center in our area to the dried fruit and nut stand where her mother worked and then to the sock stand where her cousin worked, so that I could chat with her relatives while we sipped tea together.

She was excited to get to meet my sister when she visited us in China two summers ago, and asked if she could invite her younger sister over as well. Through translated conversation our two sisters shared about differences and similarities in their jobs as elementary school teachers.

Hua helped me to understand and appreciate the way she practiced Muslim customs. Like how and when she would pray for the souls of deceased loved ones and honor them on the anniversary of their deaths. Like what she prayed in her heart when she gave money to beggars on the street. She was also interested in hearing about how I practiced my American Christian customs. And she told me that I had changed her stereotype of the immoral and immodest American woman that came from watching American movies. She noticed when I started wearing long sleeves (in the summer) and told me approvingly that I had grown more aware of the importance of modesty in their culture.

As we would weave our way along the crowded sidewalks, she would often link her arm in mine. Sometimes she would squeeze my upper arm and tell me that I hadn't been exercising enough. Other times she would tell me that she thought I was too thin. That was her way of showing her love and concern for me. She introduced me to her favorite halal street food (and I was glad that I liked most of it). When we needed to risk our lives and cross the busy street, she would boldly position herself on the side closest to the crazy traffic, otherwise she said we would never get across because I was too afraid to make that first step.

Our conversations included marriage and parenting issues, our dreams for the future, and the difference that faith makes in our lives. Hua told me the story of her arranged marriage when she was 18, and said that because she had complete trust in her father who picked out her husband for her, she wasn't afraid to marry a man she didn't know. Because Hua's husband is the youngest son in his family, according to tradition, his widowed mother is part of their marriage package and has lived with them from day one. Hua's rocky relationship with her mother-in-law has been one of her biggest challenges, and I never visited Hua's home because her mother-in-law didn't allow her to have guests over.

But Hua enjoyed coming to our apartment and often brought her son Musa and daughter Mayan (Miriam) to play games with our kids. She always brought lots of fresh fruit when she came. Unfortunately, we didn't get to spend much time with her husband because he worked the night shift and slept during the day. We were thankful that Hua showed up to help us with our last-minute packing and cleaning on the very hectic day that we moved out in June. She carried our final bags of trash to our garbage chute, and she was our last friend in Lanzhou to wave goodbye to us as we wheeled our luggage toward the bus stop, headed for the train station.

During the four years that I was blessed to know Hua, I was touched by her compassion and her authenticity. And that she always called me her older sister.

I hope to follow her example and welcome foreigners—of a different culture and religion--in the same way that she welcomed me.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Sufficient Sustaining Grace

My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

The following passage is from the chapter Fear Dethronedin Max Lucado's book Grace:

“Saving grace saves us from our sins. Sustaining grace meets us at our point of need and equips us with courage, wisdom, and strength. It surprises us...with ample resources of faith. Sustaining grace promises not the absence of struggle but the presence of God.

And according to Paul, God has sufficient sustaining grace to meet every single challenge of our lives. Sufficient. We fear its antonym: insufficient. We've written checks only to see the words insufficient funds. Will we offer prayers only to discover insufficient strength? Never.

Plunge a sponge into Lake Erie. Did you absorb every drop? Take a deep breath. Did you suck the oxygen out of the atmosphere? Pluck a pine needle from a tree in Yosemite. Did you deplete the forest of foliage? Watch an ocean wave crash against the beach. Will there never be another one?

Of course there will. No sooner will one wave crash into the sand than another appears. Then another, then another. This is a picture of God's sufficient grace. Grace is simply another word for God's tumbling, rumbling reservoir of strength and protection. It comes at us not occasionally or miserly but constantly and aggressively, wave upon wave. We've barely regained our balance from one breaker, and then, bam, here comes another.

“Grace upon grace” (John 1:16). We dare to hang our hat and stake our hope on the gladdest news of all: if God permits the challenge, he will provide the grace to meet it.

We never exhaust his supply. “Stop asking so much! My grace reservoir is running dry.” Heaven knows no such words. God has enough grace to solve every dilemma you face, wipe every tear you cry, and answer every question you ask.

Would we expect anything less from God? Send his Son to die for us and not send his power to sustain us? Paul found such logic impossible: “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)

Take all your anxiety to Calvary, Paul urged. Stand firm in the shadow of God's crucified Son. Now pose your questions. Is Jesus on my side? Look at the wound in his. Will he stay with me? Having given the supreme and costliest gift, “how can he fail to lavish upon us all he has to give?” (Romans 8:32)

Let God's grace dethrone your fears. Anxiety still comes, for certain. The globe still heats up; wars still flare up; the economy acts up. Disease, calamity, and trouble populate your world. But they don't control it! Grace does.”

Last night my sister shared with me her favorite song "Just Be Held" by Casting Crowns. I hope God will bless you through this music as well.

His sufficient sustaining grace will hold us, right where we are.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Both Sides of the Tracks

Last night at Jordan's cross country banquet, we listened to the coaches commend each one of the runners and hand out awards, not based on fastest times, but on strength of character. And I marveled at the quality of those high school kids sitting with us there in the school cafeteria, their positive influence on each other, and most likely the positive influence of their committed parents. Ben, the fastest runner ever in the history of the school, the coach told us, could have written down that his personal goal at the beginning of the season was to win the state meet, but instead he wrote that he wanted to be the best leader he could be to help the guys team reach its full potential.

“For grace is not given because we have done good works, but in order that we may be able to do them.” (Augustine)

“He meant us to see Him and live with Him and draw our life from His smile.” (A.W. Tozer)

“I do not at all understand the mystery of grace—only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.” (Anne Lamott)

I've been challenged recently to consider whether or not my life is positively influencing those around me. Inspired by My Good Samaritan last Saturday, who wasn't just focused on the mountainous path right in from of her, or how fast her time might be when she crossed the finish line. She actually stopped running her own race to be interested in mine. Do I live that way? Or am I living life in my own bubble?

I was sobered on Tuesday to attend a Human Trafficking seminar offered by our school district as I realized that human trafficking is going on right here, in our middle-class neighborhood. Vulnerable boys and girls, often from difficult family backgrounds, lured through internet connections or pursued after running away, become controlled by a trafficker and trapped in a life of prostitution that is incredibly hard to break free from.

That seminar made me think back to a teenage girl named Melissa I met at an AA meeting when I was in college. She was pregnant and needed help and as I spent time with her, I couldn't help but wonder, Why her, God? Why not me? Why do some people seem to get the bad breaks in life, while others find themselves on the right side of the fence? There may be good or bad choices along the way that contribute to where people end up, but so much seems due to life circumstances.

God did not intend His blessings to stop with the receiver, but to be passed on. He blessed Abraham so that all the people on earth would be blessed through him. (Genesis 12:3)

How can we, who have been undeservedly blessed, use our lives to bless those around us? Not look past or look down on those less fortunate. Not shake our heads and thank God that we're not in their shoes. But to sit down beside those who are struggling in life. Who have problems we may never even be able to imagine. And to say, “I want to be here with you.”

Several weeks ago an eighth grader committed suicide in our neighborhood park, and I have tried to imagine what could have made his life so terrible, so void of hope, that he would choose to kill himself. I will never know. But it happened right here, where we live. So close. And it grieves me. What could have prevented such a tragedy? Who might have been able to reach into this boy's closed-off walls and say, “I want to help you through your pain.” Did anyone in his life know how dark and desperate his world had become? Would I recognize someone in my life who was struggling in the same way?

“Grace. Let it, let him, so seep into the crusty cracks of your life that everything softens. Then let it, let him, bubble to the surface, like a spring in the Sahara, in words of kindness and deeds of generosity. God will change you, my friend. You are a trophy of his kindness, a partaker of his mission.” (Max Lucado, Grace)

“You are a billboard of God's mercy to those within your circle of influence. What message do people receive when they observe your life? In order for God's grace to be the central message of your life, does something need to be adjusted, dismissed, or forgiven? (Max Lucado, Grace study guide)

“God blesses us in proportion to how we open our hands to receive his blessings, and how open our hands remain in passing on his blessings to those who need them.” (Michael W. Smith, A Simple Blessing)

Lord, keep my eyes and my hands open.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Pause for Gratitude

“Our life is not a problem to be solved; it is a gift to be opened. The color of the sky, the song of a bird, a word of kindness, a strain of music, the sun on our face, the companionship of friends, the taste of sea air, the shape of clouds in summer, the reds of maples in fall—there are so many gifts in a single life. If we are preoccupied with what is missing and what is broken and wrong, we lose the miraculous harvest of all these tiny gifts, piled one upon the other, that accumulate without our acknowledging them.” (Wayne Muller, How, Then, Shall We Live?)

“When we begin to enjoy all that we already have instead of focusing on what we don't have, we move toward contentment. We become people who are more content when we stop, rest, play, because in those things, we find great freedom. We discover that like a loving parent, God revels in the joy of his children. We are unconditionally loved by God even when we are not working or producing.” (Keri Wyatt Kent, Rest: Living in Sabbath Simplicity

“The real issue is whether we can learn to see, and then welcome, the divine presence wherever we are.” (Norman Wirzba, Living the Sabbath

"The Mighty One, God, the Lord, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to the place where it sets. From Zion, perfect in beauty, God shines forth." (Psalm 50:1-2)

"Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations. I will be exalted in the earth." (Psalm 46:10)

When you take time to pause, how does God open the eyes of your heart to see and appreciate His blessings in your life? 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

My Good Samaritan

I ran a half marathon on Saturday. It was rough. And I barely made it to the finish line. Somewhere between 7 and 8 miles, I looked up and saw runners up above, weaving back and forth on the switch back trail that seemed to stretch right into the sky and I whispered, “Oh. my. goodness.” My brisk walk had slowed to simply trying to get one foot in front of the other, and trying to stay in a straight line. I was increasingly aware of my thirst and weakness, but knew that the next aid station wasn't until the 11 mile mark. And I began to doubt that I could make it. 

When I moved off to the side of the trail to let some runners go past me, a woman turned around and asked, “Do you need some water?” I looked up and saw she was carrying her own water bottle. “Are you sure?” I asked. I hated to take someone's precious supply. But she must have noticed that I didn't look very stable. “Yes. Here,” she handed it to me. Then she took a nutrition gel pack out of her pouch and gave that to me. “You need this too. It's going to taste like chocolate icing. Squeeze it all into your mouth at one time. Then take a few more big swigs of water to dilute it.” I did just what she told me. It was really thick and rich and difficult to swallow, but I managed to get it down.

In 4 to 5 minutes, you're going to feel the lights come back on,” she assured me. Then she looked at my number, “806. I'm going to tell them at the next aid station to be looking out for you. When you get there be sure to drink two cups of water and a cup of Gatorade, OK?” And then she asked, “What's your name?” “Jodie,” I told her. She looked me right in the eyes. “Jodie, you're going to kill this.” Then she and her friend continued up the mountainous climb.

She found me at the finish. I was in the first aid tent, where someone must have directed me because I didn't look all that great. The first aid guys kept coming up to my chair about every two minutes, squatting down to look me right in the eyes, “How are you doing? Tell me what's going on.” Do I really look that bad? I wondered. Then my Good Samaritan appeared. “Jodie! You did it.” “Are you the woman who helped me?” I asked, since I couldn't quite remember what she looked like. “You were my lifesaver.” I told her. “I really couldn't have made it without you.

She told me her name was Lisa. Maybe she was an angel. She saw me out there struggling and she knew what to do. She gave me what she had and she asked others to watch out for me. Then she came back to find me and make sure I was okay.

Isn't that exactly how Jesus said we're to care for our neighbor?

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Lessons from an Uninvited Guest

An uninvited guest has taken up residence this week. No matter what approach I have tried to get him out the door, he has stubbornly refused to leave. And I am left feeling like a “sick” person who can't really handle much, wishing I still had the “healthy” body of the last few months which felt mostly free from limitations. This uninvited guest has dragged me back to those dreaded days of the past, when I constantly had to consider how I could quietly exit out the back door from situations that felt like too much for me, with both a fear of making commitments and a guilt of letting people down, along with an overwhelming desire to simply draw my head and all appendages into my turtle's shell because that's all I had the strength to do. 

This uninvited guest called Migraine has caused me to think a lot about limitations this week.

Several years ago when I was going through an especially rough time with migraines, I wrote about Chronic Pain. And about the bricks of truths I was trying to collect from the rubble of my life, like the workmen I could see saving bricks from the destruction of buildings going on behind our apartment.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted but not abandoned; struck down but not destroyed…because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus…Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” (2 Corinthians 4:7-9, 14a, 16)

Through His power resting on us, we are renewed. The same power that raised Jesus from the dead. This power does not come from us, cannot come from us. It can only come from Him. And can only come when we are needy. Broken. Spent. Struck down.

In Reaching for the Invisible God, Philip Yancey writes, “If…I perceive God as working from below, under the surface, calling out to us through each weakness and limitation, I open the possibility of redemption for the very thing I resent most about my life.”

“When we are hurting, it doesn’t matter how much we know about doctrine or theology. What we really need to know is Jesus. To walk with him. Talk to him. Crawl into his lap and let him hold us for a while. Perhaps we’ll never say, “Jesus is all I need” until he is all we have. At that moment, he will prove to be all we need and more.” (Max Lucado)

“We may be earnestly desiring to be obedient and holy. But we may be missing the fact that it is here, where we happen to be at this moment and not in another place or another time, that we may learn to love Him—here where it seems He is not at work, where His will seems obscure or frightening, where He is not doing what we expected Him to do, where He is most absent. Here and nowhere else is the appointed place. If faith does not go to work here, it will not go to work at all.” (Elisabeth Elliot, The Path of Loneliness)

This is The Real Life.
It is here. And it is now. In this moment.
When we want to hope, but are afraid to hope.
When we just want to give up and close our hearts off to any future pain.
When we are so weary and life feels so hard.
When it seems that God is absent. In the Unanswered.
God calls us—here— to Trust Deeply in Him.
Because if faith does not go to work here, it will not go to work at all.

“There is an intimate relationship between joy and hope. While optimism makes us live as if someday soon things will go better for us, hope frees us from the need to predict the future and allows us to live in the present, with the deep trust that God will never leave us alone but will fulfill the deepest desires of our heart.

Joy in this perspective is the fruit of hope. When I trust deeply that today God is truly with me and holds me safe in a divine embrace, guiding every one of my steps, I can let go of my anxious need to know how tomorrow will look, or what will happen next month or next year. I can be fully where I am and pay attention to the many signs of God’s love within and around me.” (Henri Nouwen, Here and Now)

“Might this thing I long to be different be the actual crucible on which God chooses to shape my soul into something of beauty that perhaps only He sees? Will I let God transform me in this?” (Paula Rinehart)

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.” (Isaiah 64:8)

Soft clay. Moldable. Shapeable. Conforming to the intentions of the potter and the unique design in His mind. No resistance to His masterful hands

Have your way with me, O Lord. I am surrendered to you.

(Linking up with Velvet Ashes this week on the topic of Limits)

Friday, October 30, 2015

What Adoption Taught Me About Control

Two years ago David and Daniel joined our family. On that milestone day this month, I took some time to read all of the blog posts I've written on Adoption. God has taken us on quite a journey! So many delays, twists and turns in the path, doubts, fears...and over all of that, His sovereign goodness. This is what Adoption has taught me about Control.
  1. I had no control over the timing of our adoption. We had some pretty clear ideas of how God was going to put the pieces of our story together. And it didn't turn out that way at all. We started the adoption process in 2007, when our children were 11, 10, and 8. At that point we were expecting a 12 month wait. 

    That same year, we also took our first family trip to Gansu province, the area God had put on Charly's heart before we got married, and we began praying that God would open a door for us to move there. We believed that God would complete our adoption while we were still in Tianjin, surrounded by a strong support network, and then provide Charly with a job that would enable us to move to central western China. But God was not in a hurry, or bound to our plans.
    In His perfect sovereignty, God waited until 2013, after we had lived in Gansu on our own for 2 ½ years and after CJ had left for college, before He brought David and Daniel into our family. 
    Early on in our waiting years, when friends and family committed to praying with us for the specific request we believed God had put on our hearts of two children from Gansu, a friend shared with Charly Habakkuk 2:3, “For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.” 

    We heard the “will not delay” part and felt confident that it would not be long before we would see God moving adoption mountains on our behalf. Looking back now, it's the “linger” and the “wait for it” that seem highlighted to me in this verse. As a result of those waiting years, I have grown in confidence that God has so much more to teach us in times of indefinite waiting, than when the answer comes right away. But it wasn't a lesson that I willingly learned.

    The years went by and we renewed our paperwork every 18 months. During that time, my doubts multiplied, “Did we hear God right? What is He doing? Did God lead us on this journey for us to actually not adopt in the end?”
A friend helped me to surrender the control that I wished I had over our adoption (as well as my migraine headaches) when she told me I needed to be Welcoming Unmet Expectations in my life, because they were going to come. The life I was currently living was God's best for me, not Plan B, not meant to punish me or make my life hard. In the Unanswered, I could accept the mystery of God. 

Waiting on God is an act of faith. The greatest thing ever required of us humans. Not faith in the outcome we are dictating to God, but faith in His character, faith in Himself. It is resting in the perfect confidence that he will guide in the right way, at the right time. He will supply our need. He will fulfill His work. He will give us the very best if we trust Him.
(Elisabeth Elliot)

To believe that God is writing a bigger story from our lives than we could possibly imagine—that all our past is indeed “Thank you,” and all our future is “Yes.” 
(Paula Rinehart)

We’re in no hurry, God. We’re content to linger in the path sign-posted with your decisions.” 
(Isaiah 26:8 MSG)
  1. The outcome of our adoption was also out of my control. In the spring of 2013, we were told that we had renewed our paperwork as many times as we could. If we wanted to stay in the system past August 22, we would have to start all over again. So instead of indefinite waiting, we now had a clear deadline. My Husband My Hero wanted to continue to wait for the Gansu miracle as long as we possibly could. I was Wanting to Wait Well, but also felt weary of waiting and ready to give up on this hope that we had held on to for so long; ready to take another match just so we could adopt. 
    God honored Charly's faith and gave us news on July 15 of David and Daniel (aged 8 and 7), who had grown up “like brothers” in the Lanzhou orphanage, not very far from where we were living. This good news quickly dissolved into the realization that it would be a battle for us to adopt them together and within our tight time frame. One of our biggest lessons, in the midst of all the discouraging news we received that month, was that It Had to be God who accomplished what had become impossible. We couldn't put our trust in how persistent Charly was in making phone calls, or in how earnestly or how many people were praying for us. He was in control, not us.
God moved the mountains that needed to be moved, and we rejoiced for exactly two days after we found out that our file had been matched with David's and Daniel's. Then our lives turned upside down when we learned that Daniel had just come out of a 6 day coma in the hospital. He had suffered a serious brain infection and it was unclear what kind of recovery he would make.

There were so many tears during the dark days that followed. Why God?

We made a unanimous family decision, including CJ through skype calls, to sign the consent form to adopt both boys. We didn't really know what the implications would be, related to the long term effects of Daniel's brain damage, but we believed that God had led us down this road and we wanted to keep following Him.

“You cannot control your life. You are therefore free. You are not trapped by the need to arrange things as you want. Trust me more fully than you ever have before. Do what I am leading you to do, even though the risks from your perspective are enormous. 
I am thoroughly good, and I am good enough to trust thoroughly.”
(Larry Crabb, Finding God)

  1. After the adoption process has been completed, so much still feels out of my control. Bonding has been a real challenge for me, and I have struggled with feelings of being a failure as an adoptive Mom. During our one year home study interview, when the social worker asked what my favorite thing was about being David and Daniel's Mom, I had nothing to say. And I felt horrible about that.
It's a journey. And I'm thankful that where we are at two years is much better than where we were at one. I am holding on to hope that God will continue to bless my relationships with David and Daniel and knit our hearts even closer together in the years to come. It's a very different experience to mother older children, when we don't have a shared history together. Different for me, and for them to have a mother when they've lived without one for most of their lives.
    I know that David and Daniel have struggled with similar feelings to mine, over lack of control on this journey. David's out-of-control screaming that he wanted to go back to the orphanage at our front door after he'd been with us for just over an hour was because, he told us later, he wasn't sure if we were going to be good to him or not. He was scared of the unknown. Me too. I continue to wrestle with fears over what issues we're going to face as the boys grow older. I have no control over that, and I have been convicted that I need to release these fears to God. Not let them control me.
God moved mountains to bring these two boys that He chose especially for us into our family at just the right time. The outcome of the adoption was exactly the way He planned it to be. He has moved major mountains in Daniel's recovery; He made The Lame to Leap and the Mute to Speak in an amazing Two Months of Change. And He is in complete control of the days, months, and years to come. I can choose to rest in His sovereign goodness.

Moses told the Israelites, “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” 
(Exodus 14:14)

Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen.” (Psalm 77:19)

When Pharaoh finally let the people go, God did not lead them on the road that runs through Philistine territory, even though that way was the shortest way from Egypt to the Promised Land…God led them along a route through the wilderness…”
(Exodus 13:17-18a)

In spite of all the miracles they witnessed as God delivered them from Egypt, the Israelites still struggled with trusting God. Me too. Weren't our lives better back in Egypt? Can we get back there again and enjoy all that good food? Who wants to wander in the desert? Not me.

Manna. Water. In that dreadfully dry and barren desert. When I close my eyes I can picture it. There's daily provision. Daily compassion. Daily guidance. Which is what He offers me too. Not control of my life as an adoptive Mom. Not puffed-up feelings of “Wow, I'm such a natural at this.” But, on my knees confessing, “This is really hard. And I don't know what I'm doing. But that's why I need you, God. For hope. For strength. For love to give to them that doesn't come easily. For forgiveness. For grace. You are the One in control, so I don't need to try to be. And You are good. All the time.”

But the plans of the Lord stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.” (Psalm 33:11)

(Linking up with Velvet Ashes this week on the topic of Control)


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