And my word for 2017 is…

She poured the bubbling acid, waited for just the right moment, then scraped and scraped and scraped. It was a laborious process, requiring much patience and precise depth. We groaned at another piece of old, musty furniture that did not look worth salvaging. Yet, she saw beyond the layers of paint and deep gouges to the beauty of that turn of the century bird’s eye maple grain, stained a warm, inviting blond.

My mom saw it restored, envisioning something the rest of us simply could not see.

Restore.

That is my word for 2017.

After 2016 began by burying my last remaining parent and ended with a brutal, unjustifiable 2 months of unemployment for my husband, I look towards the beauty of what will be.

2017 will hold its own heartaches- this, life has taught me with certainty. Yet, the restoration I envision is no wishful thinking or wearing of rose-colored glasses finish.

Instead, with great deliberation, I will strive to find purpose in the layers of pain, broken expectations, loss. In the gouges, I will behold the grand details of life’s intricacies and the redeeming qualities of the blemishes.

Restoration is: reclamation of something lost, a bringing back to full capacity, a revitalization of original beauty. It takes seeing beyond what is on the surface. It takes hoping for a future promised. It takes valuing the painful moments alongside the exquisite ones.

It is a laborious process at times, but one so worth the effort. I will hope. I will imagine what’s underneath. I will endeavor to renovate the ugliness. I will have faith in God’s renewal. I will anticipate the loveliness of a salvage completed.

Here’s to a restored 2017!

1 Peter 5:10

“And the God of all grace… will Himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.”

When Fire Marries Gasoline*

This marriage should have caution tape around it.

Yeah. It’s sometimes a bit hazardous over here at my house.

What if I told you there were a few times in 23 years I drove off in my car and plotted leaving but just couldn’t find the nerve?

Marriage isn’t a subject that I often write about. Not because I don’t know stuff. It just feels weird because marriage (lived out) is about as variegated as the number of plant species in the world over- far too many ways and means and methods for any type of rubber stamp approach. Let’s face it, whether you’ve been married 2 months or 4 decades, it remains a bit of a mystery how 2 individuals unite as one unit and (mostly) cohesively live life together.

Now add into the mix two driven, high strung, high energy, “perfectionistas” and crap- it gets kinda messy at moments.

Some days I find it nothing short of a miracle that we’ve made it this far intact (and IT IS a miracle of God’s grace and mercy).

Picture this- a nice intense crackling fire. Close by sits a red can full of gasoline, almost near enough to combust at any moment. That’s us- fire and gasoline.

“You cannot settle something without fighting about it.” That is what I said when we were first married. I’m fairly certain he thought, “Oh no, what have I gotten myself into?!”

And so, for the first portion of our marriage we did a fair share of that. Equally head strong and heart strong with a splash of misconstrued marital bliss and a dash of young naivety.

Then somewhere half way in, I changed God changed me in some pretty huge ways. It was slow and excruciatingly painful. Yet it morphed all of me, including the wife part.

So there I was, far from where we had begun, in new uncharted territory, getting a kind of “relationship do-over”. It felt exhilarating and frightening all at once.

Without any pretense or know-it-all-ness, I can tell you it is possible to live within combustion range. What is equally crucial are both separate time and together time; time to pursue things we love and time to pursue our love.

To differ vehemently also takes the bigness to embrace the differences; “fight” hard and fight to preserve the treasure you’ve been given. Prize clear, honest communication above all else.

I got married for life. When I signed my name on that certificate, I really signed my name before God to do everything I (rather mechanically) said in those vows.

And I’ve learned that as complex and challenging as it is to live near combustion, fire and gasoline are equally beneficial to each other. Uniting one substance to the other creates a better, hotter, sustainable fire.

That’s us- better together, even with an occasional need for caution tape.

*This title was inspired by the Sia song, “Fire Meet Gasoline”.

Mud Pies

Contentment is one of those virtues that we often talk about and hardly truly attain. It’s generally the idea: “ok, I’ll just live with  fill in the blank .” This is more of a spirit of acquiescence than anything.

Contentment is often sought after in want. What if, we would not be content with mediocrity?  What if, we are not satisfied until we ask for more of God’s grace and goodness, instead of a lukewarm, paltry request? What if we are discontent with the status quo faith when we have the power of the true and living God of the universe accessible to us? Or perhaps we don’t know Him yet and we are living life seeking total fulfillment from all this world has to offer.

We often relegate ourselves to far less than is within our grasp.

CS Lewis says it best in his book, Weight of Glory:

 “Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. “

We are content with making mud pies when we could go to the magnificent ocean and play in the infinite sands! We are content with being clothed in rags, instead of wearing the royal robes as child of the King.

A prayer I read this morning sums it up beautifully:

I go into a far country,

And come home a prodigal, saying “Father, forgive me”.

And yet, God is always bringing forth the best robe.

Every morning let me wear it,

Every evening let me return in it.

Let me go out to a day’s work in it,

Be married in it,

Be wound in death in it,

Enter heaven in it shining as the sun.

Grant me to never lose sight of the:

Exceeding righteousness of salvation,

Exceeding glory of Christ,

Exceeding beauty of holiness,

Exceeding wonder of grace.

Let us not be far too easily pleased!

mud pies

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.

Beware the Poison

Perfectionism is not only a trap, but a lie- a trap because it is a place you cannot get out of and a lie because it is unattainable. This self-made standard pervades and poisons our thinking, work and worth.

I know this first hand. I lived most of my adult life under the guise of perfectionism- expecting, particularly from myself, a certain standard, really a made up grading system. I got a score of perfect when: my house was 100% clean, my laundry all done, my children looked tidy and obedient, my marriage oozed over with love, my church people thought I had it all together.

But here’s the funny thing- I rarely, if ever scored that high. I worked and worked to attain “it”, but was left to feel inadequate, frustrated, and hollow. For whatever I appeared on the outside, I knew the real me- the me with flaws, the me with fears, the me with failures- and I was never 100% anything!

You see, this invisible yet powerful force causes us to suffer needlessly. The sway it has to make us feel worthwhile or like a failure is devastating.

So if you suffer from this (even in just a few areas of life): GET RID OF IT! Ditch the perfectionism and your life will suddenly feel free. Your chains will be loosed and you will begin to embrace yourself truly. If you have a spouse or kids, release them from this invisible grading system. They will never measure up anyways and it will only deprecate a healthy relationship.

There is NO SUCH THING AS PERFECTION (except God).

This is especially true in the realm of spiritual life: the more you realize you can’t attain to some arbitrary standard (usually set up by faulty man himself), the freer you are to embrace the God of perfection. Jesus is your perfection. He stands in your place. Don’t allow man made constraints to lay a burden on your back that you and I were never meant to bear.

Contrast This

This week, I wore the cloak of invisibility. But here’s the weird thing: I didn’t even know I had it on. Allow me to explain.

I was at coffee with a friend and in walks a mutual friend and his teenaged son. They stop and greet my friend by name and proceed to chat for the next five minutes. I sat and stared. INCREDULOUSLY. At first I think they don’t recognize me (I’m sans makeup). Then I look right into the eyes of the man talking and he avoids my gaze, as does his son.

They leave our table without ever even breathing a word to me. I was invisible. Not even good enough to make eye contact with or be greeted by name… I must confess I thought of some bad names for them after they left.

Contrast the following day. I meet up with a friend who is taking my youngest to a theme park for the day. While we wait for the others to arrive, I jokingly say I wish we had time for an espresso. Out comes her peculator and beans, and she’s apologizing that she doesn’t have her “regular” beans imported from Italy. She bids me sit down and rest my leg (still recovering from a recent surgery). Within minutes, we are sipping from dainty mugs and chatting about life.

There at her table, I find comfort. I find love. I find hospitality.

Then I mull over each scenario. In true metacognitive fashion, I rack my brain for answers to the first situation: maybe they didn’t recognize me, maybe they were having a bad day, or maybe I offended them at some point and they just can’t stand the sight of me. WHAT?! Stop it, I say to myself. Or maybe they are just rude, judgmental jerks that think too highly of themselves. Yep, I’m gonna go with that one.

In contrast, I feel hospitality with this other person. She exudes it from the very core of her being, a definitive kindness and empathizing love. She signs her texts to me “xo”. But is this just a personality thing, a temperament difference, or even a gender thing? NO, NO and NO.

It’s a perspective thing. Exhibit A lives life in a conservative, narrow-minded, (and I’m just going to use strong oxymoron here)- a Christian bigot kind of way. Exhibit B lives life in a big-hearted, broad thinking, Jesus kind of way. She embodies the definition of hospitality: the quality or disposition of receiving and treating guests and strangers in a warm, friendly, generous way.

Having had these experiences back to back, I want to, more than ever, exhibit the grace of Jesus. May it ooze from my pores, flow freely from my mouth and display itself at my table. May it be given in generous unvarying amounts to everyone- known and unknown.

And God help me forgive exhibit A.

Mantras to Live By

I grew up in a house of idioms. No, not IDIOTS! Idioms- catchy, sometimes pithy sayings meant to convey life application, but sometimes equally as baffling, crass and just plain ol’ unhelpful.

You see, I’m not quite sure if was a generational thing or a cultural thing (or perhaps my parents just had a way with words), but they were adept at throwing an idiom at any situation. It is said that there are 25,000 such expressions in the English language. I easily heard at least 5,000 growing up.

So maybe this scarred me. I can only retain short one-liners because frankly, I spent much longer than I should have trying to decipher what these words ACTUALLY meant. Or maybe this helped me become the lover of words that I am today; these deeply, meaningful brain-twisters made me dig under the surface for meaning (which I’m pretty certain only left weird mental pictures).

At any rate, I do currently subscribe to living by mantras, not in a Buddhist meditative kind of way, but as a simple implementation tool for my mind. The truth of its strong message can hold sway over the negative thoughts that come too easily. Here’s my list of favorites:

La Vita e Bella– or Life is Beautiful (in Italian)- When I saw the 1998 movie with this name, I was struck with profound emotion. (If you have not seen the movie, do and watch it in Italian with English subtitles.) This was also the year my mom passed away, which compounded the message home to me that: each day is a gift, life is too short to be lived in the doldrums, and if I live it beautifully, I can rise above the ugly.

God is everything. I am nothing. – Now before you get your feathers ruffled, let me say that I know this is contra to what our Western culture espouses. And this is the very thing I fight against every day. After years of misguided expectations for myself and unrealistic “putting on a pedestal” of people or things, I realized that humbling myself was the very place I would find true happiness. By acknowledging that God is the pinnacle from which all else is divinely appointed in my life, I finally have rest. This does NOT mean that I sit emo-ishly in a corner with a self-abasing razor strap held to my back. It does mean that I submit myself wholly to the GREAT POWER that is God, not from a needy weakness but from a willful whole-minded humility that admits my utter ineptness to be the master of my own destiny.

Everyone has a story- none of which you know and most of which you wouldn’t understand. This mantra came on the heels of the previous one- to be humble and to recognize that humanity in general is a beautifully messy business. This means every aggressive driver that flips you the bird, every grumpy waiter or waitress, every cross cashier, every holier than thou church member, every overly hormonal know it all young adult, every cantankerous older person- they all have a story, written over decades by every person and circumstance that has been part of their cosmos. Give that person grace & mercy because you know what they say- “Humans are like snowflakes- no two are alike.” 🙂 Your story isn’t theirs.

Words mean something. – You are probably saying, “Duh” and making a face while reading this. Shame on you!  This mantra, though simple, is one I tell my children and myself over and over and over again. I have this little problem of being, oh, let’s say, slightly venomous with my words. I let my emotion bubble and foam up over the very essence of what I should have said and boy does it make a mess- (think boiled over sugar mixture on a hot stove). Our words really DO have powerful sway, they really can’t be retracted and they showcase what’s in our heart. The book of James says it best:  It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell.

These are my “basic mantras”- the simple profound truths I repeat everyday because they MEAN SOMETHING.

What mantras do you live by?

Yield

I live surrounded by acres and acres of vineyards. Each year, I watch with great interest as the workers go out among the barren vines, braving the February chill. At first, this seemed odd- there was clearly nothing growing and it was still freezing at night.

Yet, each season without fail, a month or so after this pruning, I began to notice the tender shoots of green, then more and more until an explosion of verdant leaves filled the once bare cables and posts. It dawned on me that the preparation pruning was crucial to ensure the optimal growth of the grapes and in turn, yield the results the farmers’ long for- perfect grapes for a wine that delights the taste buds.

This brought a vivid word picture to mind: We are pruned each day and year for greater productivity and here’s the best part- the One holding the shears is The Master Gardener.

Now, don’t get me wrong: it is downright painful and I’m not advocating a love of affliction here. In fact, it is safe to say that for the better part of my life, I have held a tightly clenched fist so to speak. I have muttered scathingly under my breath, “Why, God?” or “Not this, God, please!” I balked badly at the shears and would pine away for the lost branches, even though they were clearly brown and dry.

Yet, these past few years a striking pattern has emerged- upon reflection, I see a purpose in the pruning- a grand design like nothing a mere landscaper could imagine. Sometimes, I have seen what I thought were even healthy branches tweezed off. This I know is no mistake.

You see, I trust a good God, a gentle God, a kind God, a loving God, a knowing God. He has the plan of my life exquisitely laid out before him. I am ignorant of it though so when I feel the shears snip, trim, lop off or tie up a branch, I chaff against it sometimes. But I am learning- learning to trust and lean and surrender, fully, humbly, peaceably, into the arms of a Savior who trims me faithfully and lovingly.

His master plan will make something beautiful, productive and flourishing, if only I yield to the shears.

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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