Monday, June 27, 2011

Why I Am Me

“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” (Romans 12:6)

“Ever After” is one of my favorite movies. It has lots of humorous one-liners, adventure, romance, and a strong heroine.  Midway through the story, the hero finds himself inspired by love and says to her, “I used to think, if I cared about anything, I would have to care about everything and I'd go stark raving mad! But now I've found my purpose. It’s a project actually inspired by you. I feel the most wonderful freedom!” I used to always feel sad during that scene – like I was being taunted that I had yet to find a reason for my own existence.

I went through life, first, thinking I was going to die young with no need for a purpose. Then after becoming pregnant and getting married, I was sure my purpose was to be a mother and wife but my first husband was abusive and the marriage ended. Okay, maybe I was just supposed to be a mother. Then I met and married another man and I was sure my life and my purpose was now complete again. Six months later my son died and once again my purpose seemed lost. Maybe I was just supposed to be a wife. Then my second husband left me. Again, I was alone and without purpose.

Finding purpose in my faith didn’t seem to be working for me either. My religion teaches that the purpose of man (and woman) is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. That’s all well and good, but how am I, as a unique creation of God, suppose to live into that overall objective?  Sure, I have something I can say is my purpose in life, but it really doesn’t bring me any closer to living into it. I can’t begin to explain how frustrating and depressing it is not knowing and therefore not being able to even begin to fulfill my purpose in life.

I decided to stop searching for answers I was clearly not suppose to have yet and let God tell me in his own good time why he made me just the way I am. Then several months ago God brought it all into focus for me. The Bible tells us that God will restore to you the years the locusts have eaten (Joel 2:25) There’s not enough space here to explain all the ways God has restored the years of my life stolen from me by depression, abuse, fear, and grief. However I will say that he has restored and redeemed every moment and brought out of even the darkest times, great blessings of comfort, peace, and joy. I was comforted by God with a comfort I am to share with others. (2 Corinthians 1:3-7) I’ve received God’s solace for just about everything for which a person needs to be consoled. And now that he has fully prepared me through tragedy, therapy, healing prayer and years of forming in me a deep dependence on him, he has led me to a *place where I am helping to provide a safe haven for children who are grieving. For the last two months I’ve had the great privilege of sharing in the grief-stricken lives of seven preteens and their families. God has used my experience and my unique understanding of their pain to offer them comfort and give them hope again.

There you have it – my purpose for existing – to love God and love others the way he loves me using the unique gifts and abilities he has instilled in me. That’s why I write. That’s why I’m a secretary. That’s why I’m a friend, a daughter, a sister, and aunt. That’s the foundation of everything that I think, do, and say. Isn’t that funny? I knew it all along – I knew that all I could be was myself and that all I was capable of doing was to reach out to those around me with what I had. I used to think that what I had to offer was insufficent. Now I know it's the only thing that is a satisfactory offering. I didn’t understand that it wasn’t “merely” what I had to offer but “exactly” the gift he prepared me to give. It’s what he had intended for me to be when he created me – a comforter, a friend, a helper, and an encourager – someone he dearly loves, and at the same time, someone he can love dearly through.
“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31)

*The Caring Place is dedicated to grieving children and families, supporting them in their journey toward hope after a loved one dies.
About the pictures:
Pittsburgh, PA (May 2011)

Monday, June 20, 2011

I See Jesus

A friend of mine reminded me to ask a very important question this week – Where is Jesus right now? It’s a question I first learned to ask in healing prayer. The Bible reassures us that God himself is with us always. Deuteronomy 31:6 (Msg.) tells us that “God is striding ahead of you. He's right there with you. He won't let you down; he won't leave you” and Jesus himself tells us at the end of Matthew that “surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Whether or not a person chooses to believe God is alive and present in their everyday life is irrelevant to the fact that he is. More often than not, a person will ask this question in angry sarcasm when some unthinkable tragedy happens – “So where was God when I lost my job and my house? Where was God when my child died?” Their pain blinds them to the truth – He is right there holding you in his arms, crying with you, holding your heart in his hands as the two of you walk through this tragedy together.

It’s been too long since I’ve ask myself, “Where is Jesus right now?” So this week I sought him out in the ordinary moments of my life. The first time he revealed himself, he was in the back seat of my car kicking my seat and making me giggle. How wonderful that he took the time to make me laugh and remind me of his joy instead of admonishing me for my absence. Twice in my prayer time, he was sitting right there beside me, praying with me. The most significant moment this week was while I was listening to music with friends. I saw Jesus and my son walking hand-in-hand out of a heavenly light as if to greet me.
I know that by admitting this, I might be making some of my more conservative family and friends uncomfortable and even leaving myself open to ridicule from my unbelieving friends. After all, Jesus doesn’t really appear to people anymore, especially not ordinary everyday people….does he? Aren’t people who say they hear or see Jesus in this day and age just suffering from hallucinations or, at the very least, victims of their own wishful thinking?

To this I can only answer—why wouldn’t he? He’s God! He humbled himself to become a man who first reached out to me through his life and his teachings and then willingly gave his human life for mine on the cross to spend eternity with me. His grace and forgiveness brought us together through his sacrifice and resurrection. Why wouldn’t he be with me where I am right now? Why wouldn’t he be protecting me and personally guiding me through life?
I know how hard it is for a parent to be separated from her child by death. If it were in my power to bring Bryan back to life – I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment. And once he was alive again – I would be with him always. I wouldn’t walk off and say, " see you around some day twenty, forty, sixty years from now." My Creator – my Heavenly Father – was faced with this same lonely separation from me.  I was dead in my sin. It was in his power to give me eternal life through Jesus’ sacrifice. He’s not going to wait a moment longer to be with me let alone the forty or so years I have left to live on this earth. He is with me now and always and his love will reveal his presence to me when I seek him with all my heart.

So tell me…where is Jesus right now?

About the pictures:
Deer Lake Park, PA (May 2010)

Monday, June 13, 2011

Jesus Found Me

Last week I had the opportunity to put aside everything else and just spend time with Jesus for a whole entire day. It was indeed water for my parched soul. I forced myself to put aside my many responsibilities and made God my priority for one day.

As I explained in my last blog, I’ve fallen into a terrible rut of relying on my own abilities and wisdom – never a good idea no matter how intelligent or talented a person is. Life just gets overwhelming. Too often I find myself running around being a very busy Martha (See Luke 10:38-42) trying to make everything perfect, trying to cross everything off of my to-do list – and I miss out on enjoying Jesus’ company, his presence in my life. Instead, I’m tracking down information for worship guides and editing newsletters, putting together agendas and attending meetings. I’m providing comfort for grieving children and their families. I’m driving my handicapped mother to the store, making sure she eats dinner and makes it to her doctor’s appointments on time. I’m listening to friends vent their frustrations and share stories of their incredible blessings – ones I wouldn’t mind being blessed with myself and yet knowing it just isn’t in God’s plan for me. Please understand that I am not complaining or blaming others for my cycle of inattentiveness to my relationship with God. That’s completely on me. I’m just trying to show how I get into this mess in the first place. I am going to be distracted and get lost in everyday life.

That’s how I went into my day of retreat – once again faced with this reoccurring battle. With prayer, in searching Scripture, and reading through devotional writings, I was hoping the Spirit would reveal a solution to my struggle. I kept being drawn back to the same four verses in Psalm 73 which became the prayer of my heart that morning: “Lord, hold me. Guide me and bring me safely home. You are all I want and need here on earth. You are all I look forward to in heaven. I am so weak and flawed Lord, and I need you desperately.” That afternoon the Spirit reminded me that my prayer was only one side of the conversation. After all, that’s what prayer is – conversation with God. I was doing all the talking and not listening at all. So I shut up and listened. That’s when I heard Jesus’ side of the conversation:

“Hush my little one, my child.
Dry your tears on my sleeve
and tremble no more.
For I am here with you now
and always.
Though you may not see me,
my eye is ever upon you,
watching closely,
ready to catch you when you stumble,
there to pick you up when you fall.
Reaching out for your hand
to lead you along my Way.
I am here to provide for and protect you,
to teach and to nurture your heart – 
the one I hold so tenderly in my hand.
I walk beside you
and before you.
I will bring you safely home
and watch for your arrival.
Your frailty and weakness I know.
I will be your fortress, your hiding place.
I will carry you through each valley,
In my arms you will traverse the rocky trail.
My footing is sure.
Rely on my strength and my fortitude
to bring you into my waiting arms,
into my glory,
and into my heart.”

I’m calling this poem “Jesus Found Me.” I know – If I started the day out looking for Jesus – why not title it “I Found Jesus”? Because when I was a little girl out in public with my mom, she always told me that if I got lost, I was to stop, stay right where I was, and she would come find me. I wasn’t to go looking for her. Rather I was to stay right there and wait for her to find me. It didn’t happen often, but when I wandered off and got lost – the first thing I would do is start running around looking for my mom. I would anxiously search for her until I became so lost, I didn’t know where I was or how to get back to where I had started. Then I would hear my mom’s voice echo in my head, “Stay right where you are – I WILL FIND YOU.” I’d stop searching and just waited in the middle of that big unknown until she found me. It never took her long to find me once I stopped moving. A little girl has a lot of time to think about how mad her mom is going to be when she is eventually found and every minute that ticked by just intensifies the anguish and fear I felt. However, when my mom found me, she’d proved me wrong by running to me, hugging me, telling me she’d been worried about me and was glad that she had found me. Then she took my hand in hers and we continued on our way.

That’s what my retreat day was all about last week. I just needed to stop roaming around lost looking for Jesus. Instead, I needed to stay right where I was and wait for him to come find me. And he did. He found me, ran to me, hugged me and told me he was glad. Then he took my hand in his as we continue our journey. By the way – I never got an answer to how to ensure I never get lost again, but when I do get lost again, I know exactly what to do and I know Jesus will always come find me.

About the pictures:
Fichter Fairy Gardens (May 2011)

Monday, June 6, 2011

You Can't Fill an Already Full Container

I beg of you, Lord –
empty me.
Empty me of my pride and wisdom.
Pour out the arrogance
of my human understanding
and intuition.
Empty me of me, Jesus.
Empty me.
Empty me of the rancid sinfulness
that permeates the well of my existence.
Of my greed and self-centeredness,
of my selfish desires,
empty me.
Spill out my plans, my will, and my way.
Strip my intentions,
my perspective.
Empty me Lord God.
Empty me.

This past week, I wrote the above poem as a sinner’s offering. This prayer came from the heart of a Christian who, once again, was trying to do too much on her own without the guidance of God’s Word and without relying on the Holy Spirit’s great power and blessing. Too often, I find myself falling into this trap of self-reliance and pushing God’s joy and peace, his very Spirit, out of my life because I’m too full of my own abilities, wisdom, and desires to make room for the blessings God has prepared for me and which he desires to fill me with until it overflows to those around me. I’m not saying that I have abandoned my faith. I've slipped into a kind of lukewarm relationship with God. I know this is a common struggle which is why I must confess it so boldly and freely.

Oh, I still pray and read a verse or two of scripture daily, but not to receive God’s Holy Word. Rather I glance at it as a kind of affirmation or encouragement for the day. In prayer, I thank the Lord for the many blessings he has lavished on me, but more out of courtesy or ritual than out of genuine gratitude. Mostly, I spend too much time talking at God and not enough time listening to God.

This is not the first time this has happened and I would be foolish to believe that it’s the last. It’s kind of a cycle with me. I’m on track and diligently seeking God in his Word, sincerely seeking his presence and his will in prayer for a time and then things get crazy at work or in my personal life or both and I am pulled in several different directions. Something has got to give – and usually it’s my Bible study first and then my quiet time with God. I always think it’s only for a little while and then that “little while” turns into weeks or months. Before I know it, I am feeling distant from God and lonely for his presence. This past week, as I turned to God in prayer asking him to fill me with his joy and peace, his blessing, and his presence, I heard in my spirit, “I cannot fill the places where you are already full of yourself.” As I contemplated that thought, I pictured pouring spring water into a pitcher already full of old rancid lemonade and seeing it overflow - the contaminated lemonade and pure water mingled together. I couldn't pour enough water into the pitcher to completely remove the stench of the rotten lemonade. I was moved to write the poem above as a prayer asking God to empty me - the first necessary step to being filled and overflowing with his blessings.

I think we all fall into the trap of being too full of ourselves, too sure of our abilities and wisdom, to busy to seek God's guidance sometimes. The important thing to remember is that God has the power and desires to empty us of our limitations and then fill us with his infinite blessings.

About the pictures:
Parkwood Presbyterian Prayer Garden (May 2011)