Marked

I thought it was morbidly weird- ashen crosses on foreheads. My thought process was something like: Must we? That is what makes the world think the Christian religion is a bit freaky; so many outwards signs, symbols and rituals. And this… it’s just so sad looking.

We all wear scars, marks if you will. Some are visible, some invisible.

Maybe it’s a scar from a surgery or the marks from birthing children. Perhaps our mark is an intentional one like a tattoo with meaning behind it. Or the scar could have a darker purpose, like an attempted suicide or cutting.

Whatever the case, these are reminders, either for good or bad.

Likewise, the ashen cross marks us, reminds us, prepares us. The symbol of the cross reminds us that we are in need of saving and Someone has already done that. It reminds us that we are still carrying that mark invisibly in our souls everyday because we belong to Another. It prepares us for one of the greatest events in human history- the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The 40 days of going without serve a somber purpose, but with the happiest of all endings- the reason we rejoice in our present salvation and have a future hope.

The cross is the beginning, but the empty grave is the end!

As we embark on the journey of Lent, it is with purpose and deliberation; a time of reflection and ardent pursuit of the greatest love ever given.

I am a soul forever marked.

Undaunted

 

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I was dizzy. Someone grabbed my arm and pulled me back from the edge.

“Becky,” they called, “You cannot jump. Who knows what dangers are down there at the bottom? It isn’t safe.”

So I heeded their voices. I strove to fit inside their tidy boundaries for me. Don’t do this. Do this. And for the love of all that is sane and reasonable, do not take risks. People pleasing had always been an art of mine and so I crafted a careful life, safe from all the unknowns. I was afraid of heights anyways.

Somewhere in my late twenties, married, with 2 kids (and one on the way), I began to seek a precipice. For all the years of obedience had left me wondering: “Could there be more than this flat land existence? Is there a place where I can be me, not always bowing to the confines of someone else?” I longed for it, for freedom from the suffocating rules pressing against me. There had to be a way that I could step off of the ledge and not die.

The longing grew stronger, yet inside me there were always voices, warning me, cajoling me not to want it. In the next decade, I started to see the beauty of grace, the treasure of the cross, my salvation full and free, without regard to any rule following on my part. Those things chaffed against the neat list of expectations I had made for myself: the submissive wife, the godly mother, the dutiful daughter. Conversely, I knew the façade of safety was just that. All the flat land existence was eating me up inside. Gloomy clouds of depression suffocated me.

For the first time ever, I slowly taught myself to stop heeding the voices telling me to not seek the cliff. I began shedding those like layers of skin, each one more painful than before. The better I understood the simple message of the gospel, to believe and be free, to live for Jesus because He died for me, to embrace HIS expectations for my life knowing they come without strings attached, the closer I inched to the edge.

When the clouds of gloom were lifted, I saw that my feet were closer than ever to the rim of the canyon and I looked down into the vastness, its beauty captivating. I stopped reading the “how to” books. I stopped making my husband my god, instead putting purposeful and deliberate distance so that I could be me and he could be himself, all the while loving him deeper than ever.

There was one final rock I was about to stumble on; a rock of momentous proportions on which I would not just stumble, but fall entirely: parenting an adult child who chose a path of life I never could have imagined. Only then did I realize that the very thing I hated, all the man made parameters that had constantly kept ME away from the edge, I had built those very things around my kids to a lesser degree. Deconstructing them took time but as I did, the view became clearer and the canyon beckoned me to come.

Unshackled, I ambled to the edge. There was no fear. I was finally ready, confident,  my arms outstretched and breath bated out of sheer thrill of what was to come. I felt dizzy, light, unencumbered and yet, I felt wrapped in a security I could never contrive myself. This was the arms of my Savior that held me, close to His heart, warmly, gently, and safely. I was enveloped in His love and this assured me of a landing without harm.

I could feel the breeze blowing up from below and I began to totter. Before I could acquiesce to any shred of doubt, my feet left the edge. Air that I had never breathed before filled my lungs and I was in a freefall, sure this was not the last time I would fly.

Disarmed

I used to pride myself in saying, “I’m a fighter, not a lover.”

To be a lover meant vulnerability and weakness- two things I didn’t want to classify myself as. To be a lover meant to be all squishy on the inside.

I thought if I displayed my crusty exterior, I’d be prepared for the worst when it inevitably came. With my proverbial sword strapped to my side, I could easily unsheathe it, hacking and hewing with my words or thoughts until I felt vanquished.

But the bad part is, I fought everything, even the good things. I fought grace and forgiveness. I fought joy and freedom. To allow those things to soften me would be to relinquish my self-efficacy. That would not do.

Our pastor used to say: “Behind God’s frowning providence, He hides a smiling face.” This angered me. I conjured a rather cosmic joker image; behind the sugary smile was a benevolent dictator of sorts waiting to pounce with His agenda. I did not understand. I fought this idea with a vengeance. To acquiesce to someone calling the shots, especially bad ones, unsettled me in the worst of ways.

Then my mom died. Then we lost lots of money. Then we lost a house. Then I was diagnosed with a hip disease. Then we lost jobs (plural). Then I had to go to counseling. Then we moved 12 times. Then my son chose a lifestyle of self destruction. Then lots more things happened that I won’t bore you with.

Sometime during all that, something changed. Not all at once or in totality but it happened yet I could never pinpoint the date or time.

 I saw God’s smiling face, behind the frowning providence.

I tasted the goodness. I witnessed the mercy. I felt the love. I heard the assuring words. I was washed with the peace. I was girded up with a strength not my own. I soaked in the grace that flowed like a fountain, free and unconditional. I was awed by the miracles. I was overcome by the provision. I was forgiven.

You might think I laid down my arms and became a lover. Not exactly. (Although I tap into that side of me much more frequently these days.) I still have a strong spirit and a tongue that can be venomous; a hard head and a willful way, but now I (mostly) fight for the good – for joy and peace, for strength and beauty, for making each day count. I fight to accept the frowns of God, knowing His kindness and love are far greater.

Does this make me weak? No, I don’t think so. Vulnerable? Yes, in a sense. Yet it is the very softening that enlarges my faith, causing me lean into the arms of a benevolent Father and say: “Whatever my lot, you have taught me to say, it is well, it is well, with my soul.”

Broken, Not Crushed

For weeks now, something I read in the gospel of Matthew, has been washing over me time and time again. It says (and I paraphrase):

If you fall on Jesus, you will be broken; but if Jesus falls on you, you’ll be crushed.

Sounds weird and harsh and demeaning; so contra to the world’s philosophy  that we gotta be loving ourselves and continually becoming more fulfilled, complete and privileged, certainly never broken and especially not by some God.

Sometimes life breaks us: people we trusted betray or hurt us, children we love shun us, money vanishes and we are destitute, we lose a job we love or have to do a job we hate, death takes someone away and a hole is left, illness pervades our body or our spirit is crushed by a series of “bad luck”. It is real, painful, heart rending, gut wrenching stuff.

But this is different. This brokenness is actually a GOOD thing- good because, once broken, God tends our wounds. The God of the universe comes to us with balm, bandages, gentle, loving hands, comforting, empathetic words and the perfect healing formula- Jesus Himself, who was broken unto death, so that ours might be a temporary wound. 

A broken, humble, transparent heart and spirit can be mended, a crushed heart cannot. Our pieces will be sewn together with Jesus’s ever flowing love; a heart hardened and crushed is beyond repair, the pieces scattered far and wide, destined for a scrap heap.

The great truth is: we must choose to remain broken, malleable, mendable, trusting not in ourselves to heal and bind the wound, but in the true Life Giver and Heart Healer to do it for us.

one sure thing- an allegory

The water keeps coming. Waves drench me in succession. Over the sides of my small craft, they forcefully enter, unwanted. I am not sinking, although it feels eminent.

The storm has reduced visibility to next to nothing. Heavy fog has reached its tendrils into every space previously bathed in scintillating sun rays.

Frigid drops pluck away at my skin and head. My once dry layers of clothing are now drenched. The rain comes in sheets, then lightens, but the stinging never quits.

There is a driving wind. When a forceful gust comes, it envelops my already soggy clothes. Where they cling to me, I experience sharp dagger-like pains over every inch of me.

Then there is the surging; the continual up and down motion of the storm induced current. It is sickening. I am sure I’ll vomit. I want to in fact.

My thinking is muddled and fuzzy. Everything that seemed certain and unchangeable escaped me when this storm began. I am enveloped: mentally, physically, emotionally. My knowledge of sailing seems lost. Nothing makes sense; all the instruments that once made direction certain- my compass, maps and charts- are useless now.

These waters are uncharted.

There is one thing– one single surety in this deluge. I have an anchor holding my craft. Down in the murkiness, beneath the fog, it holds fast off the bow. Although I can’t see it or feel it, I still know it is there. One thing.

It feels like sanity right now. As I lapse in and out of utter despair, the anchor is hope– hope that I won’t be totally destroyed or blown off course, lost at sea forever.

There is nothing to do now but wait. Nightfall has made what already was difficult to see, impossible. The inky black steals into every inch of scenery.

I curl up in fetal position. It is my attempt to stave off the cold and shield my body from the driving elements. Suddenly a familiar tune, very faint, comes straining into the haze of my mind. The words finally come too.

When darkness veils His lovely face,

I rest on His unchanging grace;

In every high and stormy gale

My anchor holds within the veil.

On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;

All other ground is sinking sand.

 

Soaked, chilled, deliriously worn and trepidatious, I am strangely calmed by this song. It assures me to hope in what I know, despite my current state. It reminds me that something (or rather Someone) greater than myself holds me. The storm will dissipate and the sun will shine once more.

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Help for the Journey

We recently heard a message about what it means to know and follow Jesus by daily cross-bearing. Then this past week, our challenge was to take a hard look at things, people or pastimes, that we bow down to instead of God.

Double whammy! Makes me squirm in my seat just thinking about it… Nothing like a healthy dose of “wake up and rearrange your thinking”.

I have, for many months been thinking, rethinking, and analyzing many things- (parenting tops my list right now), but particularly how I LIVE OUT my faith in light of life’s circumstances. Now, I just cannot get this image out of my mind:

Daily I have to die to self, take up whatever cross God gives me and follow the Master, Jesus.

A cinch? NO. Not for me. Not for anyone. Oh sure, we will follow Jesus if He takes us along a pleasant, air-conditioned, dust free, path. And at moments, life can feel that way; all the planets align and our world resembles the chocolate river scene from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”: deliciously easy, delightful to the eyes and overwhelming the senses with pleasantries.

But follow Him AND cross bear? At the same time? Even when the path I have to tread is full of jagged rocks, all uphill, the weather is humid and every ounce of my strength is gone? Could this really be what God wants from us? Yes and yes.

We can do it because Jesus did it before us and that after He had been beaten with a razor sharp whip, spat upon, goaded, slapped, mocked, ridiculed.

But here is the beautiful part. Ready?

Jesus, in His human state of physical, emotional and mental weakness, had help. The 30-40 pound wooden beam proved to be more than He could bear. A man named Simon came and finished carrying it to the place of crucifixion. Even Jesus did not bear His own cross without help.

We don’t have to either. There is a plethora of assistance right near us. In fact, it is also right INSIDE of us. Yes. The power of the living God, creator and upholder of the universe and every person, dwells IN US: the Holy Spirit! Then there is the word of God at our fingertips: the Bible. Not only that, we have the ability to commune with Him on a personal, gut wrenching, heart rending level through prayer.

He will never shrink away from us, disgusted by our stench. He will never blow us off, preoccupied with bigger, better things. He will never balk against us asking for help, thinking our weakling state beneath Him.

And here is the more beautiful part: we may here bear a cross, but one day it will be replaced by a crown!

Beautiful Brokenness

Sometimes, for what seems like no apparent reason, a theme weaves itself intrinsically into my life. That has happened to me a lot over these last few weeks. Over and over again it plays like a song, with a few variable notes.

 

There is beauty in brokenness because what comes with it is: an irreplaceable sense of dependence (on God) and a complete emptying of self-reliance.

 

I have watched it unfold in my friend’s life as she deals with the pain of a daughter who has spurned the family. I have experienced it when my son makes a choice that shames us and goes against everything we have tried to teach him. I have friends whose family is being torn apart by divorce. I have seen several kids who are walking away from the faith and into a lifestyle of drug abuse or sexual exploitation.

The notes may be different, but the chorus is the same: all around me are lives bruised and battered by poor choices or grief from poor choices those we love are making.

We like things neat and tidy. We like obedient children. We like comforts and harmonious relationships. We like things and stuff and baubles. We like people who smell nice and act nice; people who are like us and people who like us.

But then, people mess up. They reject us. They give up on us. They let us down. They put us down. They get all stupid on us.

We mess up. We get in a funk. We succumb to worry, anxiety or despondency . We don’t love how we should. We get caught up in the pursuit of meaningless things.

We get broken. Sometimes we get down right shattered to pieces when problems come like falling dominos.

And, you know what? It’s alright. Truly, it is.

We are like rocks in a tumbler. Did you know that it takes between 3-5 weeks to tumble a rough, ugly rock into a lovely polished gem? It is a several step process that involves abrasion of several kinds and being cut as well. Bad things have to happen for these rocks to become a lovelier version of themselves.

So it is with us. Coming to the end of ourselves, the end of our expectations, the end of our selfishness, the end of our solutions for solving a problem, the end of hoping to make someone be something they are not, is precisely the climate that cultivates change. The abrasions, nicks and grittiness have their purpose.

The beauty comes when we can cling to nothing else except God. He is the constant that remains unchanged when we are shattered. He will mend what’s been broken.  He will transform us into something lovelier.

An old Puritan said it best:

“Adversity is the diamond dust Heaven polishes its jewels with.”- Robert Leightonweb-tumbled rock

To Need or Not To Need (that is the question)

I am just going to come out and say it:

Women are needy folks. (So are men, btw, just in totally different ways).

Lately, with all the hubbub surrounding my own life, I have seen a pattern emerge. It’s something I have remarked on for years to my husband: Women often look for someone to commiserate with, to share all their nitty-gritty-down-and-dirty details, when what they should be doing is leaning into the arms of Jesus.

Before you tune me out, throw your hands up in the air and think, “Humph, I need my BFF’s like plants need water. Without them I’d feel lost, alone, and have that ‘stranded on a desert island’ kind of feeling.”

I get it. I am a woman. I am needy just like you.

In fact, these past few months in particular have solidified that fact. My few closest friends have proven to be more precious than ever, like cool refreshing water for my parched dry soul. I have been wading through some serious excrement over here and they have been right there plodding with me, holding my hand at times, listening to me cry, pointing me to the way of the “crap-free” path! For that, I am truly thankful!

Yet sometimes, in our effort to unload our dump truck of feelings, spill the beans on every juicy detail or even (yes, I am going to say the “g” word) gossip about the ones who’ve hurt, offended or just plain bugged us, we are missing our greater need.

What we should do is to run like a child, vulnerable, hurt, broken, empty, into the arms of our Father God and our God-Man Jesus Himself, who has been tempted in every way, just like us and yet did not sin.

He waits and beckons us. Arms open. Comfort promised. Fears assuaging. Mercy abounding. Help offering. Unconditional-love giving.

But we are busy running to someone or something else: our husband, our friends, our children, our books, our blogs, our Facebook, our Twitter feed, our retail therapy, or our local Starbucks even 🙂 .

I have run to all these things. And they never quite satisfy. It is like putting a band- aid on something that really required a cast. What we want is full envelopment of our weary beaten down souls. We need Jesus to wrap us in the beauty of His perfect love. We need to cry out, “Abba, Father!” , pouring out our details to the ONE who can actually fix what’s broken.

Yes, we need each other. We need friends whose arms can wrap around us in a hug or a husband who will listen to us blubber. Outlets for emotions are good, necessary, helpful, tangible, keeping us from the unpleasant alternative of bottling it up (only one day to come uncorked completely). But let’s never forego the life giving water our thirsty souls must drink in order to find the truest comfort from our Perfect Friend.

The Great Dichotomy

I’ve been plagued this week. Burdened. Weighed down- with this thought:

Why do we, who already have the victor’s crown sitting atop our heads get defeated, bogged down and live as if we are losing the race???

This is the great {seeming} dichotomy of the Christian life- something our previous pastor liked to refer to as “the already and the not yet”.

We already have victory over sin in Christ because at the cross, He paid the FULL AND COMPLETE redemption of our souls. He did not cry out from the cross, “I am done here.” He cried out, “It is finished.” This meant it was done, consummate, having fully satisfied God’s demands, wholly assuaging His wrath against sin.

In Christ, we have that same fullness and encompassing finished work given to us. We are wearing the victor’s wreath though instead of the crown of thorns. Ours is the sweet rest and relief of a triumph- and here’s the amazing part- that WE DID NOT HAVE TO EARN OR WORK FOR.  Imagine getting to the end of a 26.2 miler without a drop of sweat, twinge of sore muscles, or one ounce of fatigue. Impossible with man. Not just possible but our REALITY with Christ’s cross work! How amazing is that?

Yet, the “not yet” of our humanity is that we grovel in the dust of defeat, wallowing around in the entanglement of sin or trying circumstances. For many sweet Christians I know (and myself included), we have spent many seasons of time on the ground, in the dirt with the paralysis of a side stitch or Charlie horse. Perhaps it is depression, debilitating physical pain, anxiety attacks, prodigal children, a rocky marriage, or financial despair. It could even be an outright denial of God’s truths that we once had clung to unswervingly.

We find ourselves temporarily unable to go on, press forward or run through the discomfort. We have allowed Satan to convince us that we have already lost this race. Suddenly, we look around and see the other runners passing us, our goal time or hopes vanish. We succumb to the subjugation of sin and self- unable or not willing to remember the victory.

But remember it WE MUST! For when those seasons of life fall upon us (and they will in some form or another), this is our only HOPE, our SOLACE, our POWER to carry on.

In the book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian on his journey of faith carried a burden. It was a heavy load- pressing hard against his back, making walking almost impossible, causing strain and toil that felt to him unbearable. When he came to the cross and looked upon it, he considered the magnitude of what had been done there. In that beautiful yet agonizing moment, his burden came off and rolled into a nearby cave. He never saw nor felt it again.

So you see, my dear readers, this is really no dichotomy at all. We ARE victors in Christ. It is finished. Let’s start reveling in it! Savor the prize! Delight in the Savior! Rest in VICTORY!

Trading Chains

When you hear the word “slave” what images or words do you conjure up?

For me they are: subservient, servant, labor, shackles, mistreatment, beatings, harsh, plantations, black, negro spirituals, master, cruelty, dehumanization.

I often try to imagine what it must have been like for the slaves whose emancipation finally became a reality. How surreal. They could walk away, no longer be forced to work in the sun, back bent, answering to a man called “master”.  But as free men and women they inherited a new set of worries- integrating back into society with the label “freed slave”.  They were marked so to speak, probably for life.

For much of my early Christian life, this is how I lived out my faith- like a freed slave. In my mind, I knew that grace saved me and that I was free in Christ, but in practice I was bound by legalism, rules, expectations. Being like a dumb sheep, I gave in to listening to the confines of men. This appealed to me. I followed what they taught almost without question, mastered by what could easily be called pseudo-biblical principles, relying heavily on the interpretation of men rather than God Himself.

No wonder I became such a rebel. I hated all the stipulations because what I craved was true freedom. Instead, I had simply traded one set of chains for another.

But over a period of years and a thorough embracing of the gospel of Jesus, the freedom came. The rules stopped being my god. God became my Master and I embraced Him willingly (although sometimes with suspicious resistance as I wondered if I could fully trust Him). This was not forced labor, under the service of a harsh, cruel taskmaster. This servitude was one that I entered into by my own free will, through the grace of God. Now my burden was easy and the load to bear was light.

What irony- to go from being a slave to sin, to the bondage of legalism, to a willing servant of Christ! I think of it as liberating servitude- not oppression or lack of freedom- but a loyal heart free to follow after the best, kindest Master ever.  He knows my needs and cares for them tenderly. He loves me in an unrelenting fashion. He forgives me when I have strayed or rebelled. He lavishes me with abundance, meeting all my needs and more.

Now the labor I exert and the rules I live by are simply a beautiful expression of thanksgiving to my gracious Master, who died for me. I am pleased to serve Him, happy to submit to Him, striving hard to keep my former evil master at bay; mindful also of never going back to the bondage of legalism because now I am a servant without chains.

Here it is in the words of the book of Romans, chapter 6 (The Message):

15-18 So, since we’re out from under the old tyranny, does that mean we can live any old way we want? Since we’re free in the freedom of God, can we do anything that comes to mind? Hardly. You know well enough from your own experience that there are some acts of so-called freedom that destroy freedom. Offer yourselves to sin, for instance, and it’s your last free act. But offer yourselves to the ways of God and the freedom never quits. All your lives you’ve let sin tell you what to do. But thank God you’ve started listening to a new master, one whose commands set you free to live openly in his freedom!

19 I’m using this freedom language because it’s easy to picture. You can readily recall, can’t you, how at one time the more you did just what you felt like doing—not caring about others, not caring about God—the worse your life became and the less freedom you had? And how much different is it now as you live in God’s freedom, your lives healed and expansive in holiness?

20-21 As long as you did what you felt like doing, ignoring God, you didn’t have to bother with right thinking or right living, or right anything for that matter. But do you call that a free life? What did you get out of it? Nothing you’re proud of now. Where did it get you? A dead end.

22-23 But now that you’ve found you don’t have to listen to sin tell you what to do, and have discovered the delight of listening to God telling you, what a surprise! A whole, healed, put-together life right now, with more and more of life on the way! Work hard for sin your whole life and your pension is death. But God’s gift is real life, eternal life, delivered by Jesus, our Master.