Thursday, December 3, 2015

To Ask the Unthinkable

I prayed today for God to break your heart.

I prayed that request in repentance too. It's not out of bitterness or desire to punish you. Just the opposite (which is so often how God works)--it's out of deep affection and care that I asked him that: to break your heart.

"If I ask wrongly, please forgive me. Forgive me and do not grant my request. Right my prayers. But if breaking that heart is what is needed, to give that heart its greatest desire, I pray for pain."

It sounds awful. I don't want you to hurt. But I had to ask for this, because I see you. I see you wanting something more and being held back from the freedom to go for it. Fear has you constricted. Fear of what? Your fears are not the same as mine. Convention binds you. Propriety? Professionalism? Reputation? Ah... I was there once. I too once thought that being above reproach meant me doing everything right all the time, rather than sinking into the fullness of unquestionable forgiveness and knowing the clean record never was my own in the first place. All his. His record. His grace. His favor and acceptance.

I see you wanting to love, wanting to draw closer to those in your path, and held back. Speaking of intimacy and relationship, and shutting your own thoughts and pain and longing up behind the mask of togetherness, leadership, professionalism. It's a semi-paralysis. Yours is not a circle to widen for others--not yet, though I see you want it to be. It's still a box. Hard, defined edges. Compartments. Roles. Might we call that box a casket of your making? I know you don't mean it to be that way. We all began there, anyway. Ever since that first fall. "Dead in our sins." Boxed up in self-love and self-protection. Can you have that, and your heart's desire too?

I'm afraid to say that most likely, no, you can't.

Loving others is dangerous territory. There's just no way to do it safely. C.S. Lewis wrote of this in The Four Loves:

There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.I believe that the most lawless and inordinate loves are less contrary to God’s will than a self-invited and self-protective lovelessness…We shall draw nearer to God, not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to Him; throwing away all defensive armour. If our hearts need to be broken, and if He chooses this as a way in which they should break, so be it.What I know about love and believe about love and giving one's heart began in this.

Because I see you, wanting more and holding out at arms' length, I pray for you. Today, my prayers wandered... wandered through my own evaluation, the whys for your sake. And in time, the Spirit brought to mind for me the ones who do it well. Not with polish. Not with programs. Not with regimens. No fanfare. Just authenticity. "Checking on you today." "I hear you." "I get that." Sometimes they curse, because pain requires it. Sometimes they cry because empathy finds another's place and stays awhile. Sometimes they laugh out loud because we're still here. That's all. We're still here, and it's worth a cackle of bewildered triumph. To know, we're oh, so broken. But we're held by him. Greater is he. They don't bring solutions. They don't bring great wisdom or advice. But they know the intimate silence of sitting on the red couch, just being near, sitting, and hurting, speaking softly if needed. Heavy sighs speak volumes for broken hearts. Makrothumia.

Oh, my friend. I see you. And I want your freedom. I want you to be free to love with abandon, not by halves. One thing I have learned, another example of this strange math of our Creator and Redeemer, is completely contrary to expectation: The more broken a heart becomes, the more love pours from it.

I wonder at it myself. Why do I not feel consumed with hatred? Oh, I am so weary of the things of earth--material goods that long ago tarnished and bring no joy, only demand their maintenance. Moth and rust and whatnot. Weary, weary, weary... And there was a time when bitterness sought a foothold. But vengeance is not mine, and over time, that gave way too. It did not take root for long. Instead, he's given me something else with each additional crack. He says the blood of Abel cried to him from the ground. I hear. I hear the groanings. I hear the moans. Wounds that won't close. Hurts everywhere. I didn't always hear. I didn't always see. Sometimes I think it was better that way, but what possible good was I then?

With every heart-breaking loss, another layer gets peeled. It hurts like hell, but he promises, this is all the hell I'll ever know. A little while longer, and we shall all see the Lord. Following every loss, every breaking, the sun sets and rises again, and the grief is still there and that's real. But there's another grain of understanding of what this freedom is. Nothing. Nothing. Listen to it, the inspired words, breathed out by God himself for our encouragement in the face of loss or opposition, or our own fears and doubts that hinder: For I am sure that neither life nor death, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing.

When we break, we bleed greater love. I didn't know this until I experienced it. I see it in others. There is something about a broken heart that requires honesty, and learns to be honest out of that desperate state of nothing left to lose. What is left, cannot be lost.

I see you, not yet fulfilled, for all your very good intentions. I see your heart so full of desire to love openly, that it's about to break itself, but fear holds it in a bit longer. You see, you think right now it is your love to give, and you must mete it out with wisdom and discretion. I know. I know. That's safe. But just as the Lord promises he is near to the broken hearted, to bind up wounds and to pour out lavishly on the undeserving his kindnesses for all eternity, he will be near to you and he will show you his prodigal excess. It's his to give, not yours. Love flowing outward like the river from the temple Ezekiel saw--ankle deep, then knee deep, then waist deep, then deep enough to swim in, and "wherever the river goes, every living creature will live." Live! The promise is for you and for the ones waiting near your own future banks.

I prayed for him to break your heart because I want to see you soar on wings like eagles, unfettered to this demanding ground. I want to see you free from your own self-made constraints to follow the heart that knows the answer to your own passion lies in something richer and deeper and from outside yourself. We have this treasure in jars of clay. Fragile. Breakable. But what is a jar for, but pouring out its contents? Not holding in, sealed--that's useless. Another friend who truly knows what it is to have a broken heart wondered with me about the absences of this intimate closeness in relationship that we all want and can't quite grasp much of the time. "In those days," she reminded, "the love of many will grow cold." I know it's not what you want. And so I prayed, in the Spirit, for whatever it took to prevent that--even pain, if necessary.

I prayed for you to bleed with the boldly brokenhearted. To be freed to love on the other side of fear of loss, equipped to comfort with the comfort by which you yourself will have, then, been comforted.

And just so you know, there's always a seat on the red couch. You know the way.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Silence: When the Father Turned His Face Away

How Deep the Father's Love by Stuart Townend; Fernando Ortega

How deep the Father's love for us
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure

How great the pain of searing loss
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the Chosen One
Bring many sons to glory

Behold the man upon a cross
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers

It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished

I will not boast in anything
No gifts, no power, no wisdom
But I will boast in Jesus Christ
His death and resurrection

Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom

Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom

My friend sent me a Youtube link to a Fernando Ortega song, as encouragement as I'm wrestling right now (I know, you're not surprised) with some issues regarding my desire and abilities to serve Jesus. I told her and another friend, "I get such mixed signals from God!"
And the signals change when I least expect it. Who can know the mind of God? His ways surely are not our ways.

That Youtube link led me to the one above. We sang this one in church just a week ago, the first Sunday back from a mission trip with an amazing God and an amazing group of people. Same place we went last year. This year was a feast for me. Yes, it was hard. Exhausting. Challenging. Some things I had planned in advance didn't work out the way I envisioned. There was no huge moment of human success that I can point to and say, "There! We did what we came for! We did something for God!" But yet, it was so sweet and precious in other ways. Like the slow unwrapping of a beautifully ornamented gift, little by little, I saw people drawing closer to one another in a way that was obviously more pure, more genuine, more sincere, with more depth, more Spirit. I saw the tie that binds our hearts to one another becoming. Just becoming. Real. I am sure that he worked more within our group than he did through our group. It felt like a feast for one such as I, hungry as I am for community with a purpose.

It felt like we were building something along the lines of Hebrews 11:10: a city whose foundation, whose architect and builder is the Lord. I felt like a citizen and a fellow laborer in the city of the righteous, prospering. (Proverbs 11:10) Not financially. Not materially. But something even more.

There's been a theme running through our church teaching lately, about individual instrumentality in God's hands. Yes, he works through his body, which is all of us combined. Yes, his purposes have a corporate nature, to produce a people. But he also works individually, and this is something my denomination often forgets, or seriously downplays. "God is no respecter of persons" gets quoted to diminish individual value lest our heads get too big, and in that repetition, Satan's voice begins its insidious whisper. "Not you. Surely not you. How could you think YOU had anything to bring to his work? You're barely allowed in the back door. Tolerated. Not loved. Not useful." 

That's the battle. It rages. I know there's been progress over the last couple of years for me, but certainly not yet victorious living over that one.

Yesterday and today took an unexpected shift. Changes are probably coming. While I can't say for certain yet what that will look like for me, it seems possible that it isn't what I would choose. His ways are not my ways. And I don't like that. What I want to do, for him, what I feel equipped to do, passionate toward doing--may not be the way he wants to use me. And since I can't see where he's going with it, my feelings tell me the reason is that which the enemy whispers to me. And that my questions are being raised to nothingness. 

At this point in my life, I've stopped seeking big, complete answers to questions. I no longer expect to see a large, redemptive solution plopped into my lap. I find, often, it's just little things. Little revelations. "Why, God? What can I take from this?"

A seed. It may be years later when I look back and say, "Oh. That was what that was about. I see now." And even that is partial, incomplete.

Today it was just that one bold line in the song above: The Father turned his face away.
That's the little revelation. 

Who do I love more than anything else? That man upon that cross. Who do I want more than anyone else to be like? That man upon that cross. When do I love him most, and desire him most? When he shows me a bit of the love in his own heart that made him pay my ransom. How do I see that? When I catch a glimpse, even a shadow of a glimpse, of what he endured, his reality. 

I've lifted empty hands to heaven a lot lately. Sometimes I lower them full. In my limited thinking, I call that blessing. I rejoice, for a moment, and then I forget. I forget I even asked. I forget he answered. There's always another need right on the heels of the last.

Sometimes, I lower them still empty. And the voice says, "See? He's not concerned with you. Why should he be?"

But today I heard, "See? This is for a moment, but this is what he did. He felt this too--a hundredfold, a millionfold more greatly than you do now. There was silence, for a time. Without that silence, that absence of response, you would face that silence forever. But this, these moments in this life, this is ALL the silence you will ever know. ALL the separation you will ever experience--these seeming moments of it now. Your empty palms right now--very temporary, soon to be filled to overflowing for all eternity. Glimpse it. Taste it. He did, and he did it for you."

I don't know how he'll use me. I long for him to use me. I don't want anything else. And it's just because I love him. And I love him more now, because I know a little bit more what he did when he endured the silence, the unanswered prayer, for me.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Operation Exodus: Mission to Inner City New York

I promised a blog post about this seven months ago. I promised to blog about it, because I came home from an exhausting week in New York City's Harlem too overwhelmed to talk much about it.

I did talk when the opportunity came up, but I never had the sense that I was fully communicating what that grueling and exhausting and glorious and invigorating week really meant to me, or how it seemed to affect my just-turned-15-year-old daughter either. But it did affect us. Forever.

It was my daughter's first mission trip. She's had a heart for some type of missions or service since she was six years old. I think I was born an activist, often an activist without a cause, so it was automatic that I would want to feed and fuel her ministry interests. Long ago, I decided that somehow, even with our never-enough personal income, I would do what I could, God willing, to introduce each girl to short-term missions around the age of 15. The two older ones started locally younger than that. Since the summer after 5th grade, each has volunteered with a local church day-camp in the summer, assisting adults who serve community kids with a very affordable arts and sports camp. They love the children they get to meet, and make relationships easily. They also readily serve in the children's ministry at our church, and again, readily give themselves to the little people in their care.

On the subway: On our way!
Last year about this time, our church (which we had been attending just over a year) announced a mission trip to the inner city of New York City. High-school youth and adult youth leaders were invited to join in. It was the opportunity I had been praying for years would arrive, right on time too for my oldest to participate. I inquired about going along as well, saying, "I think God wants me to go." The youth pastor responded that he thought the same, and so, we were on board. The trip is expensive. We had no idea how that would work out, but there was a sense of a supernatural palm in the middle of my back, pushing me toward this and a still, quiet voice simply saying, "Go."

We signed up. I felt nauseous at the commitment, as we grownups who've forgotten the daily provisions we've always known often do. I never was sure I felt OK about writing letters asking for support, but we crafted one together and sent it to a few dozen people. Some of those responded very generously. (Some of you reading this are most certainly among those.) I was baffled, humbled, awed by how willing people are to enter into ministry work that they won't even experience or see the benefits from. We put together a yard sale and got some income from that. A friend (Tiffany) even donated some of her own belongings to our sale to help support us. The church hosted three fundraisers and we participated in all of them, with a share of the earnings going to our account. Another friend (Cathy) donated some of her homemade goods for one of the fundraisers, another (Emma's Mee-Maw) donated handmade baskets. The company I do most of my work for donated a set of homeschool curriculum resources. Emma did manual work for a woman in our community; I got an extra freelance editing job. It came together--with even a small amount of excess to share with others in the group of 35 who went.

So in early  July of last year, we arrived very early (hardly slept a bit the night before) to meet our group in the church parking lot. We boarded a bus that had been chartered for us and drove to Charlotte to catch a plane flight to New York City. It was Emma's first time on a commercial plane. That was exciting in a fleeting, life's-little-milestones sort of way.

We stayed in apartments in the same neighborhood in Washington Heights where half our group would be serving. The other half--our half--had to walk and take the subway each day to get to our location in the Inwood neighborhood. I believe the count was 15 women in one NYC apartment. Close quarters, but the amenities far exceeded my expectations. The building was safe, secure, clean, and nicely furnished. We truly felt at home in it.

On site, we met the hundreds of children we would be working with through Operation Exodus, a ministry of the Presbyterian Church in America's Mission to the World. The organization provides after-school and over-the-summer tutoring programs for kids at high risk for dropping out of school. These children come from some of the poorest families in this wealthy country. Many are of Dominican descent. Their parents or grandparents came to New York, settling in Harlem, to seek something better, more livable, than their homeland offers. But education for these kids remains a challenge. Poverty pushes many to drop out of school and try to fend for themselves before they are mature enough to do so. Operation Exodus seeks to intervene and break that cycle with high-quality educational tutoring and an environment that teaches and lives out the God-given value of each and every individual. The success rates for drop-out prevention due to Operation Exodus are exceptionally high.

Our church did a fantastic job of preparing us ahead of time for the personal interactions we would have, the fatigue, the pressure, the stress. We were taught strategies for dealing respectfully and effectively with difficult children, using a method called Love and Logic. We were given advice on how to deal with the unruly. We learned how to accept others' personality preferences, and ways to avoid and deal with conflict in a godly way. We planned ahead the content we would bring to praise and worship time, craft time, lunch, playground, game times. But nothing really could have prepared us for what was going to happen to our hearts in that week, and how deeply people we had never met and might never see again were going to lodge there.

Some of the faces from the unexpected group I was assigned to.
"God's a funny guy," a friend of mine used to like to say. Unpredictable, that's for sure. As a mom of four kids who had to give up homeschooling because it simply wasn't working for me and my little ones and who also worked in church nursery and toddler Sunday school classes for many years, I completely burned out on the total immersion into the preschool years some time ago. I love interacting with teens and older kids, the ones who can take a good conversation and move from the concrete toward the abstract. I don't mind the challenge of the difficulties that come with that time of approaching-adulthood. But put me in a room full of tentatively potty-trained three- and four-year-olds and I break out into a panicky sweat. So naturally, since "God's a funny guy," where did I get assigned: Preschool. And not just "that one year before Kindergarten," but the two-, three-, and young four-year-olds. Babies, in some cases.

A couple of my "babies": a brother and sister

We were prepared to work with partners from our own group: a male and a female in each class, assisting the tutors and then, when the tutors took their breaks and afternoons off to regroup, refresh--we pairs of volunteers would handle the entire class ourselves. That included escorting them across city streets to lunch and the park, and then back again for craft, reading, worship time. But upon arriving, we found so many preschoolers in the program that the grade was split into two, and I was given the younger ones on my own while my partner was put in with the fully-four- and five-year-olds. Another surprise.

My first day was difficult. The teachers were not the same type of tutors that the other grades had. They were, instead, more like grandmothers, and they seemed exceptionally stressed. The children were undisciplined, very high-energy, rambunctuous. There was more raising of voices to deal with them than I was comfortable with--and certainly not what Love and Logic had prepared me for. I just wanted to scoop those littles into my arms and sing or comfort or read--something calming and quieting for their spirits. I wasn't prepared well for the culture that I had stepped into, but I didn't trust my own perceptions either. Without a partner to evaluate my responses against, I felt unjustified in making any sort of judgment about the environment on my own even as it drained me and every shout felt like an attack. I persisted through the first day but at the end, nearly fell apart with exhaustion, stress. Every nerve was fried, honestly.

Our group debriefs every night in a large-group setting. We share the trials and triumphs. It's necessary in order to process well what the 12-hour day just held and to prepare to meet it again, better if possible, the next day. I didn't talk. I listened to others, but longed to get back to our apartment for some alone time with God.

I have to say that our group was well-prepared for the turbulence, even if we weren't aware of how prepared. Back in my room, prayer journaling, I was begging God to show me why I was there. I didn't think I could make an entire week of that kind of environment. I felt assaulted on behalf of the children, and useless. I thought it had been a mistake for me to go. One of the other women peeked in on me and saw my distress. Another did as well. In the smaller group, I could share a little of what had occurred, and they encouraged me to hold on, ask for help. (I understand one of them actually asked for help on my behalf. I'm not so good at that and I doubt I would have.) I slept soundly, woke earlier than anyone else, and spent a half hour in the quiet of the hallway to pray before the day started. I asked for supernatural help, so that I could show Christ's love to these little ones. I asked for mellowing of the leaders in my class too--for me to be useful to them.

To the rescue: The two Columbia football players
On the walk over to the site--many blocks plus a subway ride--our group leader pulled up alongside me. "Heard you had a hard day yesterday," he said. I responded affirmatively, and he asked if he could send someone else to help. I welcomed the offer, and another of the women was assigned to my class that day. But God came through in yet another big, and I mean BIG way. Upon arrival, I found not one but two of the biggest, sweetest, most helpful and pleasant young men I've ever met waiting for some direction in that preschool classroom. They were Columbia University incoming freshmen football players, and part of their introduction to Columbia life was to do five weeks of community service. These two were assigned to Operation Exodus.

The difference between Monday and Tuesday is the difference, I think, between light and dark. Monday was dark. Tuesday was nothing short of redeemed. With all the extra help, the classroom leaders seemed to settle down and relax. The children who were difficult the day before settled into the routine again--Mondays, it turns out, are high separation-anxiety days. Tuesdays are much more like business as usual. The children remembered me and vied for my attention in positive ways. They were intrigued with these nearly 7-foot-tall teens who had joined us and found great delight in climbing all over them. We managed to get to and from the park across city streets with the more-than-a-dozen amoeba-like preschoolers this time with plenty of hands to hold, eyes to watch. The day was still exhausting but delightful at the same time.

Walking home that night was completely different. Again, the group leader cruised up next to me. "You're smiling more than you were yesterday. Better day?" "Yes," I could say with complete confidence and relief. "A much better day." He smiled in a way that surprised me because I read genuine relief in it for him as well. "I'm so glad," he said. A good leader needs only, really, to get the job done. That had happened. Help was assigned. Followed through. Stamp it complete and close the file. A great leader does more than get the job done. He cares too. Our group leader, this year, is taking the whole group plus some more back to NYC, only this time, he's the entire ministry leader. Since last year's trip, he has been promoted to Director of Youth for the church. Apparently someone else sees with some regularity what I saw that day.

It would be impossible to detail everything that happened in that week, but I can and must share some highlights: An autistic boy who seemed to connect with no one let me share bracelet making with him--only he could not bear the mixing of the colored strings and took his bracelet apart to separate the colors into their own segments, then pocketed the strings carefully for some other purpose. Later at the park, when he did not want to leave and was near meltdown, he would let me and only me take his hand to lead him back. I had brought some books from home, and asked the ministry director for another one or two, which were eventually found for our class, and I did get to establish that quiet reading time for the group each afternoon before naps for them. The hardest part was settling the arguments over who got to sit on my lap, who sat beside me, leaning in, who stood behind leaning over... Each day, I left covered in sweat, saliva, tears, sometimes urine, and any variety of the contents of various juice boxes. And each day, I loved it a little more. I loved them a little more.

One of the Columbia players took over reading time after I left.
I was deeply blessed by the friendship I formed with one of the football players. We are still occasionally in touch now, touching base every few months to catch up some, and I hope to see him next summer when we go back. Our afternoon worship times with the whole group of kids, including the middle-schoolers, was at first a bit frustrating to me. We had prepared songs, a skit, content with meaning to communicate to them the lavish love of our Father God, given through his Son Jesus, but nothing seemed to be going in. They were tired at the end of the day, distracted, disinterested. But we pressed on, trying to bring our best. On the final day, God again showed up in a big way. He completely wrecked the schedule for that last day. The entire group except my little babies were to go to Central Park for a field trip, but some details went wrong and the trip was going to be delayed. We were asked to fill the morning's empty time, and so, on the literal spur of the moment, we had to act to put on our music and worship time in the morning. We scrambled. I was leading the talk part, and had an illustration planned to recap the week's teaching, but I needed our Arts & Media guy to come on board with me, with music and video to back me up, with very little prep and planning. He wasn't sure what I was going for, but he promised just to do what I asked when I asked. I had already lined up help in the illustration from our group leader, and he accommodated the change of timing. Somehow doing it earlier in the day, even though we were taken by surprise, seemed to work for the kids in the group. Remember, we are talking about more than a hundred--maybe two hundred--kids. All in one room. All tired of waiting for an event they had looked forward to, now at least temporarily disappointed.

But their response was fantastic! We wanted to end our teaching, which had been about The Prodigal Son, with a party, and a party it was! I got to lead the kids in acting out how we all turn away from God in our sin, but every single time he opens our eyes, we come to our senses, we realize our sin and our need for Jesus, we are forgiven and accepted, and invited to that Heavenly Party where we know the love of the Father always.

Joyfully joining the Heavenly Party!

As more and more kids entered the "party," we cued up the song "Celebration!" and got them all involved in a conga line to celebrate our redemption. It was memorable to say the least. If they took away only one tiny pearl from that week, I hope it was that through Christ, we can all be forgiven and included in that eternal joy of God's presence.

That sweet face!

Saying goodbye to my little ones that week was difficult. I don't know if I will see any of the same children this next year, but I miss them. I miss Penelope's spunk and Sydney's smarts. I miss sweet Angeline with the raspy voice, the deep black eyes, the fascination with my soft, curly, bright hair. I miss Daniel's humor and sly flirtatiousness. Each unique little person came alive that week and they are forever written on my heart. I wonder if children so young can remember me. I hope, at least, that they remember someone came, read to them, played with them, and loved them.

Emma's week changed her as well. She was met initially with one fourth-grade boy who immediately told her he didn't like her. She wasn't as good as last week's volunteer. He ran out of the classroom and she had to pursue him. By week's end, he loved her. Made her a friendship bracelet. She still wears it today. It has never left her wrist--even when she went to her Christmas semi-formal.
Emma and her fourth-graders in the subway

Prior to this trip, she felt fairly certain she wanted to be a nurse in the international mission field. She had even taken several elective medical classes in preparation. But she came home last summer with different wheels turning, and sought out an internship with New City school, a local private school for inner city kids. Because of her Operation Exodus assignment, she specifically requested to be placed in fourth grade. She loved every minute of it.

I know that, as one only at this church a little over two years, I am still newish to the group, but I have been welcomed there. Emma has most certainly been welcomed there. And as a group, I see some friendships developing since last year's trip that seem to reflect the adelphoi assumptions of the New Testament writers. Sometimes the mission is about who you go to serve. Sometimes it is about who goes to serve. Sometimes it is about both. Always, it is about our Lord--and as he is triune, it shouldn't seem odd to us that he can work in such a way as to accomplish something new for each group and his own glory. That he did.

And so we are going back. And we are preparing now. Our group has grown by a few, which is good. Our flights are booked and accommodations seem to be set. We'll return in July, similar to last year's dates. Fundraisers are being planned, and odd jobs sought. We would love to have your prayers for this trip--preparation as well as our purpose while there. If you would like to support us this year, and are able to do so with a tax-deductible financial contribution, you would bless us all with that donation. We must each raise, earn, and save $1000 to participate. Donations can be sent to
Grace Community Church
495 Cardinal Road
Mills River, NC 28759

Please put Watershed NY Missions on the check memo and include a separate note "For Rebecca and Emma." Any excess donations, if there was such a generous outpouring, will be shared with the group as there is need.

Thank you for your prayers, thoughts, and any support you offer to us, to Operation Exodus, to the children of Harlem and the future God has planned for them. It has been a humbling honor to be a part of this kind of Kingdom work.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Two Blogless Months, and an Informal Poll

It has been exactly two months now since my last blog entry, and it's not that *stuff* isn't churning in my head, it's that so much of it seems so personal to me and the path God has me on right now that I'm not at all sure anyone else would want to read it, so I haven't written it out. Acknowledging that, though, caused me to remember that while I do hope some of the things I wrestle with, learn, worship through, etc., are beneficial to build up and encourage others, the real reason I have always written is because I feel compelled to, as an act of worship. I have always written first to make a concrete record of worship, second to work out my own salvation (or sanctification) by making myself grasp what might otherwise be fleeting thoughts and hold on to them long enough to complete a thought, pursue a leading, ferret out a mystery that is being revealed. In that regard, writing has been a sort of mental and spiritual (and often emotional) discipline for me.

But lately, I've turned far more inward, and I'm not sure that's a good thing. For me, for worship. I have no idea whether any of you who read do so on a regular enough basis to miss the entries when this blog lies dormant for so long. I'd love to hear feedback on that if you have something relevant or encouraging to offer. If not, then silence will communicate just fine, thank you. I know what silence means.

So, then, for this informal poll. If you read, and you're reading this because you have interest, I would like to ask whether one of these topics in particular is interesting to you. All have been on my mind, some have come out in partial pieces in my prayer journal or in emails to friends, co-workers, fellow church goers. I think I ought to spend some time putting discipline back into place to finish what I started on one or more of those topics and try another entry sometime in the next week or two. As an extrovert and highly relational person, I think I could be spurred on to get my rear in gear and do it if you provide the proverbial kick. So cast a vote, if you feel at all inclined:

The all-mighty, all-powerful, all-just Jesus is the one who kneels rather than stands over both those he forgives and those he condemns. (From John 8)

Martyrdom, living sacrifices, and our rightful place in relationship to God's altar. (Romans, Revelation, and common thought in the church today; this one's been brewing for years, but came up in today's sermon, so it seems like maybe it's ripe.)

Discerning between "prescriptive" and "descriptive" passages, and why we get them so confused--AND why doing so messes up our view of the right roles of Savior and believers.

The key thing to remember when we want to ask, "God, don't you care about my life?" (From Mark 4-5)

That's probably enough for now. Those keep resurfacing, so what say ye? Any thoughts or direction for me as to which one I might start with?

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

This Is Life: The Present

Annie Dillard, at the young age of 28, wrote a book that won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a collection of her own reflections on life and nature and faith, the confusing signals she gets from observing creation, the emotional and intellectual battle to respond to worldly stimuli, the wonderings of a woman who wants to know her place in the universe, if she even has one. In one chapter, she describes something she calls "The Present." That's present as one refers to time, not present as in a gift.

The Present, as she describes it, is a sense of reality that is realer than real--an acute awareness of the aliveness of the very moment one finds oneself in, completely devoid of self-consciousness. The Present is rarely more than instantaneous, for as soon as one realizes one is experiencing The Present, it is instantly replaced by awareness of self, which removes its edges and the individual once again finds herself shrouded and suppressed in the mundane.

There have been a few times in my life when I have known exactly that sense of being fully and totally alive in The Present the way Ms. Dillard describes. (I am so tempted to call her Annie, though I don't know that I've ever met her; however once, on a beach, I met a woman of about the same age, throwing a stick into the waves for a boisterous Labrador to fetch, and talking of sea and sand and sky and air and energy and consciousness in a way that reminded me so much of Annie Dillard's thought processes and style that I wondered if maybe it was she. I didn't ask, fearing destroying her privacy no matter who she was. She could have offered her name if she had wanted.) Even that thought interjecting itself into this piece is evidence of how much today has been a day lived in The Present, the swirling, energized, chaotic, emotionally and sensationally present Present.

It was an alive sort of day. Not all of them are.

What's different about today? If I analyze it too much, it will dissipate into the mundane. I know it. But I can't stop myself.

Somewhere in it all is the absolute understanding that today is today, and today is life, and today is valid in and of itself. It is not the "waiting for what comes next" which has described the vast majority of my existence up until this moment. Today had work in it. It had frustration in it. Phone tag and a tussle with a gate lock and a minor burn and mail that still didn't arrive even though it's been promised for days. It had children's needs and laughter and tears and homework that went on too long, a meal that was far below par but accompanied by outrageous laughter and too-loud music, empty refrigerator shelves, a visit from a friend bearing chocolate and an aquarium that will shortly house a mouse I'd rather not meet, and above all else, a compassionate listening ear and heart of love. And that was all real. It had enthusiastic anticipation for an upcoming event and frankness and celebration of the Spirit of reconciliation. Philosophical musing with someone far away, remembrance of a loved one passed on, the heavy promise of mortality, the hope of something much more.

And this is now, and this is real. Today is exactly what it was meant to be. It isn't less. In its lack of being remarkable, it isn't a day to write off as failure to rise to the potential of a remarkable day for a remarkable person with a remarkable life to lead and legacy to leave.

It is what it is, and it is enough. Somehow that realization is more energizing and encouraging to me than if it had been a day of some extraordinary success.

I think that's what Annie Dillard meant when she said she experienced The Present. It is a sense of full experiential awareness accompanied by peace and security in the rightness of the ordinary, which is operating exactly as it should completely apart from any constraint to the clouded perception that distorts our self-centered awareness and makes us cry for something more than what we have been granted.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Salvation, not Tragedy (but almost)

An instant is all it takes to radically change the course of a life, or lives. A nanosecond. One slip.

How will I sleep tonight? The world has not stopped rocking since 2:00pm this afternoon, when everything slid sideways and almost slipped away. This was almost a story of tragedy. I cannot even get my mind to wrap around how tragic it almost was, and if I venture there at all, I am still, almost eight hours later, overcome by trembling that comes from inside somewhere I can't identify. Everything hurts as a result--my head, my jaws, my biceps. Too tightly clenched to keep out the possibility of the reality that almost was.

And yet, this is a story of salvation, not tragedy. I must get that reality to latch on. It wasn't what it could have been.

I cannot bear to relive it all right now to tell it, but compiled here is the content of two email conversations and a face-to-face conversation with one person who was able to rush to me in person and catch me before I blew apart. All happened this afternoon, one with my pastor and the final with another friend who knows well how to bear burden with genuine empathy.

Dear Pastor D:
I am home right now with all four girls, and we are safe and sound. But we had a near tragedy today, and by God's mercy (and I'm not even exactly sure how) we are alive and no one is physically hurt.

My phone is dead from being submerged, so email is the only way I have to communicate right now.

It was interesting that you talked about hikes and waterfalls today. Just this week, Jill (the littlest girl) told me she wanted to see waterfalls. I had not taken them hiking at all this summer, so we planned to go to Dupont after church today. We also had two of Emma's friends from her cross country team with us, Brittainy and Emily.

We talked about your sermon while we had a really quick picnic in the pavilion area at church and then went out to Dupont. When Jill saw Triple Falls, she was ecstatic and even more excited about the people walking around on the big, flat rock area at the midpoint. She wanted to go there. I was likewise excited about her excitement, so we all went down the many steps and out onto the open rock area.

We read the sign that said "no swimming or wading," and everyone understood it. But even so, in just an instant, Jill, the baby, went to sit down on the rock near the water--not even at the edge. The water must have been higher very recently, because the rock was slimy and wet and she immediately slid INTO the water. I was only an arm length's from her, but the water took her too fast for me to grab her. I had to jump in. I managed to grab her and literally hurl her back toward the rock plateau where the four bigger girls (Brittainy, Emma, Jane, and Emily) had already gotten down flat on their stomachs and were reaching for her. Emily was able to reach Jill's hand and pull her out, but I couldn't get back. The water was pulling me away and though it wasn't deep, it was slightly inclined and completely slimy and slippery. I honestly thought I was going to die with my girls' hands outstretched trying to reach me.

But Emma and Brittainy made a chain and Brittainy came in after me. She was able to grab my jacket sleeve and pull that much into Emma's reach. Emma held us both until a woman we didn't know appeared and pulled me in, so Emma could get Britt back up.

The girls all seem to be doing OK. We are all alive and lost only a phone and have some skinned knees. But I am shaken to the core and can't yet even grasp how close it was, nor shake the image of my baby with one arm out to me, crying, "Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!" while being pulled out of reach.

Brittainy's mom met us back at the church parking lot to pick her up. I was honestly praying that maybe somebody would be there then, somebody I could just share the experience with, but no one was. I did tell Britt's mom, and she was wonderful and prayed with us all and even said she was glad Britt was there to help because my little ones would not have been able to make and hold the chain to get me out.

I don't know what we need, if anything really, other than prayer to settle us again, for us to see God's provision and rescue and not just the horror and fear. I just really needed to have the story told, I guess. I still feel like I might break apart into a million pieces, thinking how close we were to losing that little girl, and how close it was for me, and how at risk Brittainy was, and the other girls trying to reach me but not sure whether I was going to be OK. 

My friend said to try to focus on the image of God pulling us from the water, and I am trying. But the whole thing is too vivid, and this existence too precarious. When I sit still, the trembling begins again. My friend says it won't always be this vivid. I hope that is correct, except that then, am I walking blindly again into purposeful obliviousness about this unsettled peril of living? Annie Dillard said that if we could even begin to grasp who God really is, then we should never enter his presence without crash helmets on.

How will I sleep tonight? When I try, in a few moments, I will go get the little one and bring her in with me. Just the last hour apart from her has been almost more than I can bear.

When each girl was a newborn, I sticky-tacked an index card to the wall next to the head of my bed with Psalm 4: 8 on it: I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O LORD, cause me to dwell in safety.

Tonight I am not sure what that peace is, exactly. But I know it is true that You Alone, O LORD, cause me to dwell in safety. I can do no thing at all to contribute to this, it seems.

And I am staggered by the weight of that truth and that mercy.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

A Blessing for a Friend, as He Takes on a New Challenge

When I first came to the Christian faith, it was in a Baptist church in a small college town. I remember that the pastor, who became a good friend during those years, each Sunday ended the worship service by praying the same blessing over the congregation, and then he would finish with, "Now let's go out and be the church." It was an encouragement to active obedience in representing God to the world in love.

On my last Sunday there, before leaving to move to this town to take a job which that pastor helped me get by giving me a glowing personal reference (I was actually hanging around the church office when the call came in, and he announced to all of us gathered there, "That's the call! I have to go get Rebecca a job!""), he called me to the front of the worship area and prayed the blessing over me specifically.

As the years passed, I forgot some of the words, but four years ago, a dear friend was heading off to college, a bit fearful and uncertain, and I wanted to offer the same blessing to him. I found my old pastor with the help of Google and emailed him, asking for the complete wording again. He was thrilled to provide it, and to know that at least pieces of it had stuck with me all those years. (I think we all like to know that somehow, God really does use us to have impact somewhere, sometime. He does.)

He told me then that is was part of an old Scottish benediction.

Today we heard that as dearly beloved children, we are called and energized and empowered to step out in confidence to take on the tasks God puts before us--even though we may not perform perfectly. We will fall short. Some things will go undone; some may not work as well as we hoped. In some cases, we may fall flat on our faces. But as dearly loved children, we are still to be active--to do what we are called to do without fear of failure, because we are perfectly justified and nothing can change that state. God's love for us is not conditional upon our performance. That fits with the Scottish benediction of those years ago.

A rather new friend in my life is stepping out now in faith into a new calling. I have great confidence that all will be well--more than well: excellent. But there are questions and a lot to manage, plan, sort out. There are people to enlist and delegate to appropriately. It is a challenge, and it seems daunting today. But as a dearly loved child, confident that his favor can never be lost in the Father's eyes, he can still step out, still go, into the unknown and do. Even as we lack confidence in our own abilities, we can have certainty in God's. He will not fail. He will equip. He will multiply every seed of our human efforts as we lift our gifts up to him. As we go.

This blessing today is for that friend.

As you go, may the Lord Jesus Christ go ahead of you, as planner and preparer of your way.
As you go, may the Lord Jesus Christ go behind you, as finisher and completer of all that is left undone.
As you go, may the Lord Jesus Christ be over you, watching over you and yours.
As you go, may the Lord Jesus Christ be under you, to pick you up when you shall fall (and you and I will).
And as you go, may the Lord Jesus Christ be in you, incarnating his love now and forever more.


As you go, go as a dearly beloved child. Held, equipped, instrumental, and never forsaken.