You Will Not Complete What You Don't Begin

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Cast your bread upon the waters,  for you will find it after many days.

Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth. If the clouds are full of rain, they empty themselves on the earth, and if a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie.

He who observes the wind will not sow,  and he who regards the clouds will not reap.

As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything.

In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.
— Ecclesiastes 11:1-6

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You Will Not Complete what You Don’t Start


“He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap.” Ecclesiastes 11:4. This certainly paints a picture. When we are trying to decide whether or not to take that job, have that conversation, move to that city, start that process, we can feel consumed with anxiety not knowing whether it is the right call or not. 

Control I seek to have that ends up controlling me. That is how decision making feels sometimes. I don’t know all the variables involved so I circle around a decision trying to look at it from every possible angle, trying to guess the what ifs; to foresee the unforeseeable issues. Deep down inside, beyond discernment what you and I want is a guarantee of success. 

Often what we are really thinking is I will move forward once I know the exact steps to an error-free outcome. Since we have not been given such agency, the activity can be exhausting and fruitless. 

Sometimes as believers we struggle to see the Bible relevant and helpful in the nitty-gritty everyday worldly life we have to live. We may feel the Bible is an archaic book filled with spiritual things that have little to say about regular everyday life. This passage however, says otherwise.


Stewardship is a Call to Action.

The first two verses open with action verbs: cast and give. Interestingly both are outward driven actions. That is, both casting and giving imply parting from something; letting go. The call to cast..



What do you toil for?

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Ecclesiastes 3:9-15, “9 What gain has the worker from his toil? 10 I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.14 I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. 15 That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.”

***

In 2014 I woke up one day burnt out, suicidal, and hating my life so much I was looking for creative ways to quit it. After months of wrestling with depression and a lot of prayer, I decided to quit my job instead. Unbeknownst to me at the time, with that single action, I would also quit an entire lifestyle and way of seeing myself and others.

The passage opens by posing a question: “What gain has the worker from his toil?” The word “toil” connotes hard labor, struggle, exertion. Essentially, the writer of Ecclesiastes is asking, “What is the point of working so hard?” I don’t think Scripture is taking a stand against hard work, per se. (Proverbs 12:1124Proverbs 13:4Proverbs 14:23.) Instead, the passage is questioning why we work ourselves to the bone.

The question rings personally in a culture like North America, where we’re obsessed with productivity, and being “results-driven” is a valuable skill. We toil to get somewhere, to achieve results we can be proud of, to make a difference, and to get ahead. We toil not just for a paycheck, but to quench a hunger for pursuit, meaning, and self-discovery.


Giving up What I Can't Keep to Gain What I’ll never Lose

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I became a Christian during my freshman year of college through the ministry of Intervarsity. In the fall of 1991, I arrived on campus, excited and ready to learn. My home for the next stage of my education was a prestigious, small, secular liberal arts university.

I came from a Catholic background, where faith was more cultural than personal. So, while my values reflected some familiarity and regard for religion, I had no real  personal investment in it. Unbeknownst to me, the first person I befriended was, a Christian.

Taming the Social Media Beast

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Last year I had an encounter with Scripture that got me thinking about my habits in a whole new way. A reply given by Jesus to the Pharisees regarding the Sabbath invited me to revise my attitude toward the various activities that occupy my energy every day. Particularly towards social media. Not just the amount of time spent there, but more specifically the position of my heart when I use my social-media accounts.


In Mark 2, the Pharisees were appalled to see Jesus and His disciples collect food from a field. The Pharisees saw this as a violation of the commandment to refrain from work on the Sabbath. The reply Jesus gave stopped me in my tracks: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27, ESV).


Two important thoughts looped through my thinking over the next few days. First, the notion that man was not made for the Sabbath, but the other way around. This highlights the truth that there are things that were made for me;  i.e. they serve a purpose in my life.The second, is that the passage offered a picture of what it looks like to live for something that in reality had been designed for us. It looked like serving something pointlessly for the sake of building oneself up.


God designed things for me; not the other way around. I was made for God; every other thing is  there for me to use in a way that honors Him.


We Serve It or It Serves Us


The Sabbath helped man position his heart for worship. This mandated day of rest served him by bringing his mind and heart closer to God. It encouraged him to rest and trust the Lord rather than trusting his own efforts because on that day there would rest instead of toil. It renewed him by restoring his energy and slowing down his pace enough for respite.


The Pharisees’ empty obedience turned God’s commandment to rest into a checklist of rules to follow. It was a far cry from its original intended purpose. With this attitude, they served an empty ritual that afforded them no rest and offered them no intimacy with their Creator. They were serving the ritual rather than allowing the ritual to serve them.


As I thought about how the Sabbath was created to serve us, I began to consider my relationship with social media. Who is serving who? Is social media serving me, or am I serving it? The digital age gives us tools that make us feel connected and in the know. Email, video, and the various forms of social media present what feels like endless possibilities to connect. Paradoxically these same tools can challenge our attention, time management, and emotional comfort.


We know, right away it seems, what is happening around us. We learn our friend gave birth to twins a few hours ago. We see our cousin’s new house and the color she’s choosing for the walls. We like, comment, and learn what others like and comment about the things we are engaging with. Both our capacity for connectivity and our need for affirmation are heightened by what social media makes possible.


It can make us feel seen and relevant, or invisible and unimportant. And these cycles keep us coming back for more. Because when we are connected, we want to perpetuate that feeling of connectedness. When we are affirmed and feel seen, we seek to have that again. When we don’t feel it, we go looking for it. Either way, many of us invest considerable time and energy in social media because it supplies something we want. And in the process, we are left feeling charged or drained. What determines either resulting state? This is where the words of Jesus resonate eye-opening Truth.


I realized that much of how I was handling social-media was essentially me serving it. What I serve owns me. And my misuse of social-media owned my time and determined my mood. I went to social-media for what only God can supply. We want to feel relevant. We want to be affirmed. We want to be seen and be heard. We want to be praised. These are all natural things to want. But if use our digital time to feed these needs, rather than our Creator, then we are letting it use us. We attempt to fill up the empty places in our lives, one square, status update, or tweet at a time.


Like most things at our disposal, social-media is neither evil nor holy. We can make it a tool to use for a good purpose as much as a liability to our spiritual and emotional health.

Here are three practical ways to help us use social media with discernment and wisdom, and prevent it from becoming a distraction that consumes our time. To that end, I want us to see social media as a tool to steward for the glory of God in Christ who alone brings genuine satisfaction our souls crave.

Treating It like a Tool: 3 Practices


A tool implies there is a function to fulfill in a job that needs doing. Scripture informs me that I was made for God. To know, enjoy, and serve Him (Deuteronomy 11:131 Samuel 12:24Psalm 119:10John 12:261 Corinthians 15:58.  That is who I was made for.  What use I give them can mark the difference between life-giving and life-draining. Because I can end up looking in it for what only God whom I was made for can give me.


Over the past year I’ve practiced fasting from social-media one day a week. I also came up with a list to help me take inventory to gauge my heart’s emotions and expectations, which I revisit periodically to keep my heart in check. And, more recently I’ve also stopped and prayed for others. Let me unpack these:



What Do You Submit To?

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Submission is a dirty word today. Many associate it with being subservient and “less than.” In a culture which values self-assertion, submission can feel like you are short-changing yourself by failing to fulfill your dreams and your potential.

 The dictionary defines submission as a submitting or surrendering, obedience, or resignation. And for the word submit, it offers this: “… to yield to the control or power of another” (Webster’s New World Dictionary Fifth Edition, 2016).

 Practically, submission looks like obedience or regard for someone other than ourselves and our way of doing things. It may be allegiance or even loyalty. We submit to those things we are loyal to with our time and decisions.

 Submission is not an optional add-on to our lives, as some may suggest. We all submit, to one thing or another. So the question becomes: what are we submitting to? Is it grounded in God’s truth or the world’s influence? What does the Bible have to say about submission? We’ll explore these questions together.

 

What are you submitting to?

 We may not realize it, but because we all hold to a belief system, we all submit to something.

 If we believe only a certain resource will supply what we need, we will serve at the altar which is holding hostage our true fulfillment. We may believe we need a specific job to validate and use our skills, or we can only live a specific neighbourhood to raise our children, or the only way to be a godly woman is to marry and conceive. We will submit to this belief and become subservient to it with our time, mind, life choices, and resources.

 Do we believe that beauty is defined by the age on your ID or the number that shows on the scale? We will make very specific choices to reach the beauty we’re not seeing in those numbers. We will serve these choices with our calendar, energy, and finances.

 Perhaps we believe that success can only be equated with a specific paycheck, job title, or lifestyle. If we’re not able to secure those things, our life is a failure. Or our narrative says that only a spouse and children can bring true fulfillment.

 Maybe we only feel valuable when certain goals are completed with the accompanying praises from others. If things are not aligned and achieved in a certain way, or no one takes notice, we and our labour feel worthless.

Truly, what we believe, we end up serving.

What narrative are we serving?

 It’s not wrong to want to feel good about yourself, to want positive feedback for your efforts, or to desire a good job, a husband, or a child. But thinking that fulfillment can only come from these is a deception as old as the Garden of Eden. Many women – even those who are at a healthy weight, or who are married with children –  still struggle with feelings of dissatisfaction.

 

From the beginning, the enemy has not used bad things to allure and deceive, but rather, he’s distorted God’s good creation and twisted our thinking.With “Did God really say…?” the serpent took God’s words and put them into question, making Eve wonder if indeed God had been holding out on them. She then decided to decipher what’s best for her. Her choice proved detrimental to her and to all creation. She believed something – that God did not know best – and acted according to it, submitting her actions to that belief.  

 

What do you believe about your life, your identity, your loved ones, that is not in sync with God’s Truth? Do your choices reveal submission to narratives that view God as a stingy figure, a

We don't serve perfection; we serve the perfect One.

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We don't serve perfection; we serve the perfect One. There’s a difference.

Because when we serve Jesus it’s not about having all our variables in order. We make room for Him. We carve the intention to be in His presence in the life we live, in the day we are having; not the one we think we should.

This weekend something happened that brought this home for me in a very tangible and unexpected way. It was a small occurrence, made of regular life, which is what made it so important for me to note. It reminded me of the tyranny of perfection. How crippling a mindset it is to want and expect circumstances to align for us to feel like we can proceed. Like we are worthy.

I experienced blessing in the midst of incomplete and very imperfect circumstances. After a busy Saturday, filled with cooking, meaningful conversation with new friends about ministry and life, cleaning up, and some reading, I went to bed tired and sleepy. That state which warrants you will fall into a heavy slumber. Oddly though, after a while my body was wide awake and very restless.

What started as a sleep disturbance around 1 am felt very much like spiritual warfare by 4 am when I was cold, hungry, and anxious. Through the long hours I got up, walked around, changed into something warmer, tried to read, prayed, and ate something. All to no avail. I can’t remember when I fell asleep, but it was likely around 5 am.

Unaware of all this my husband had slept through the night and woken up with some dental pain. I woke up later than I needed to make it out the door on time to catch our bus and get to church. I was achy and exhausted. Although he was getting ready, when he saw me and heard the night I had he said we could just stay home. I laid in bed for a few minutes, feeling my joints ache and my back tense from the wretched sleepless night, I tried to visualize the rest of my Sunday. I’d drag my exhausted body heavy with fatigue out of bed and veg out on the couch.

The image left me wanting for something. I felt hungry for sermon words, weird as it may sound. Thoughtful challenging reflections to chew on, to look up on my own. My soul longed for the act of coming together under one roof to intentionally set my heart on the receiving end of what God does and gives when people come together to purposefully worship Him. The sentiment echoes this verse: “My soul languishes for Your salvation; I wait for Your word.” Psalm 119:81

I knew we would be SO late. Epic late, I thought. Not just the usual 10 or 15 minutes, but we’d likely miss half of the sermon. Yet, as wrong and incomplete as being that late felt, the alternative left me feeling worse. I knew I wouldn’t sleep and would just stay home and watch a movie or read. My body would get another chance at rest later in the evening, but my soul was longing for something that only comes on Sundays.

So, dragging my tired limbs out of bed I told my husband I wanted to attend church, late and all. I used a very quick shower to soothe the ache and help me wake up, gulped the oatmeal he made for me, and out the door we rushed.

 We caught the last third of the sermon, I think. When we arrived, the preached was elbow deep in his exposition of Acts 2. I savored what I grasped and listened in. New insights brought to light from familiar passages made me smile as I tried to take notes. Too tired, I put the pen and journal away and simply paid close attention, enjoying the experience of discovering new truths. I made a mental note to re-read the chapter later when more rested and take notes. (I did so this morning - totally worth it!).

Soon after, the sermon ended, and the worship team came on stage and closed with a hymn and a couple of contemporary pieces. While the gathering stood for the singing, we remained seated due to the excess fatigue. As I sang, from my seat in a low tired voice, “Thou my best thought, by day or by night, Waking or sleeping, thy presence my light,” the words rang deep in my soul. Indeed, I thought recalling the hellish evening and slow morning, whether sleepless or rested, by day or by night, God you are best thought.

 I left with a full heart. My tired self showing up to church almost 40 minutes late, felt like a meager and even shameful offering. But the alternative, which was to keep my tired self away, would also mean staying tired spiritually. One third of a sermon was better than no sermon at all. Saying a quick hello to a few friends was better than seeing no friends at all. While there are times when the best thing we can do is stay in bed and rest, I knew in my tired bones this wasn’t it.

 When we left my body was still very tired, but I noticed that my spirit wasn’t. I felt physically tired, but emotionally I felt joyful, satiated. The experience reminded me that drawing near to God is a respite. That the size of our offering - in this case how properly we show up - is secondary to the size of the grace and blessing that comes from drawing near to Him. That our souls need as much nourishment and rest as our bodies do. And that I don’t serve perfection, I serve the perfect One. Jesus, who doesn’t keep me from Him based on how well put together I show up. His love and approval are boundless and unchanging because they’re based on His heart not ours.

I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you.
— Psalm 63:5 NIV

[This is part of the “first-draft” series. If you want to know what it is and why I’m doing it you can read about it here.]

 

A Ministry of Words

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What do a large stage in Alberta, a tiny francophone church in Montreal, and my neighborhood coffee shop have in common? A ministry of words to steward, that’s what.


After I left the corporate world although I did not know it at the time, I was leaving behind a whole way of seeing the world and myself. Definitions of success and meaningful work would take on new wording. Through long months of soul searching, prayer, digging deep in God’s Word, and talking with my husband, I realized words were deeply important to me. And what until now had been a necessary tool and a fun one even, to leverage for my team and clients; was now to become an offering.


I discovered my knack for speaking if you will, through the PowerPoint presentation. Yes, that mandatory rite of passage for most corporate careers. I quickly realized I was at ease speaking to a room full of clients and I felt deeply engaged with my stakeholders when delivering their findings for any given quarter. I was not a fan for all the hard work it took to prepare one, especially in market research where the work entails interacting with statistics but did it gladly to offer the insights that came from that work.


I remember when I first felt the Lord calling me to a ministry of words. I wasn’t sure what it all entailed, what it was supposed to look like. But I pressed on in prayer and around that time younger women from our church started to ask if we could meet up for coffee to chat about career, life, and faith. My husband and I, a couple in our 40s are among the “older folks”. We chuckle, as in our previous life we were among the younger couples. Now, given our age and life experience, in a young church, we are vessels. I knew He was asking me to make myself available to listen, to devote some of the open spaces on my calendar and receive the words of others. So I did.


Around the same time, I felt called to write. It would take another two years before I’d take very insecure steps toward stringing words together in my first blogging attempt before taking it offline to regroup. In the meantime, I had a lot of coffee, listened in, and replied to questions and shared about my own experiences, along with the insight gained from the Bible.

God had placed on my heart this exhortation: to be a good speaker you need to become a good listener. And the practice of listening had to start with God’s Word. To listen closely to what I was reading, to dig deeper into it and in the process let it dig deeper into my soul. These things would then blend into the conversations I engaged in as I learned to listen.

The art of receiving words and offering them is at the heart of learning to steward them. A quick search online for the definition of stewardship yields this: “the job of supervising or taking care of something, such as an organization or property.” How fitting that to steward means to take care of something, to supervise it.

In calling me to a ministry of words to steward, He is asking that I learn to care for and supervise how I am going to use the words I speak and write. How fitting that this should start with the quiet everyday practice of meeting Him in His Word. The act of reading it, learning it, wrestling with it, praying over the words I read, treasure them.


And how fitting that this would be accompanied by the call to make time for others’ words to reach my ears. To learn to create a space for them to share and ask and wrestle. How much, His Word, His people, and His call to serve are pivotal to my learning to steward the words He puts on my heart to share.


All of this reminds me how much we are not meant to do life on our own, or,  on our own terms. That our gifts aren’t going to be uncovered, invested, and, nor will they flourish if we don’t start with His voice giving the guiding steps, and don’t engage with others to sharpen and be sharpened. Lastly, it reminds me that healthy growth happens over time, not overnight. That small everyday obedience matters more than any big picture idea. And to have one you need the other.

As I continue to learn to steward the words that weigh on my heart, and continue to pray for opportunities to offer them where needed, I want to share two exhortations:

The first-

You may not be one called to a ministry of words per se. At least not in the specific form of speaking, teaching and writing, like me. But, if you believe in God and follow Jesus as your Savior, then you are called to season your words with His. And that starts with spending time to read and learn His Word. No other endeavour is more worthy of our time and effort, I promise! It’ll keep you coming back for more. And in the process, it will make you a good listener. Which in turn will give you a door to say timely words as the Spirit leads.


The second -

Beginnings are hard. They are also exciting. And they always start small. So whatever you hold in your heart and hope to see flourish, be encouraged and take heart! Small obedience counts for everything. Pray and seek the Lord, spend time with Him, read His Word, and ask for guidance. He will meet you and use your availability to teach you, bless you, and use you for the blessing of others.

 

[This is part of the “first-draft” series. If you want to know what it is and why I’m doing it you can read about it here.]  


Making a way for the King in every corner of Canada

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I’m just returning from a five-day trip to the Canadian mid-west, in Grande Prairie, Alberta, for a speaking engagement, that turned out to speak to and engage my heart far more than anything I went over there to do. That’s how God’s economy works, isn’t it? We pray and obey, and He meets us on the other end of that obedience, with His presence.

For two years my husband and I have been praying for the opportunity to speak and teach beyond our local church, in response to a deep sense of calling and desire to share words that encourage and point women to God’s Word. The answer came through the invitation to speak at the Women Encouraged 2019 Conference. It was a surprise that bears deep meaning to this new Canadian.

Our world is large and messy; you just have to look at the headlines. But it’s also rendered small and familiar when you enter a space where people love the Lord and seek to learn and live His Word. Leaving Montreal behind, two plane rides and six hours later, with a two-hour time difference for good measure, I found Grande Prairie women and families busy displaying so much His beauty in their hospitality, faith, and love for one another and for a God they seek to serve so faithfully, it was a gift.

I made a new friend from Nigeria, who like me, has now become Canadian through the gift of immigration. I met ladies from as far as Belize, and as local as a 20-minute drive to the church hosting the conference. Finally I was able to put faces to names I’d been collaborating with for months. We sat together, broke bread and broke in laughter over shared stories.

I listened to Glenna Marshall, lead us into worship with both beautiful singing, and later sound teaching, as she walked us through the Bible story showing a God who wants to dwell with His people. Also, we had the opportunity to sit under the teaching of Bethany Barendregt, who leads the ministry Women Encouraged, which hosted the conference. Her voice and heart deeply familiar to me, as the Lord crossed our paths over a year ago through a writing group. Both spoke messages centering around what the Word of God says about Himself to us and for us. That while it’s not about us, it is our very life-line. Because to know Him is to live. And that our compass for behaviour rests on what is already done, and what we think, and feel is to be filtered through His Truth.

I’m honoured to have shared a stage with these women. But more importantly, deeply moved that we all get to point to the higher stage where Jesus is high and lifted up, and where our permanent citizenship belongs.

For my part, while soaking our minds in the letter to the Colossians, I shared a bit of the story of deep change God has performed in my life, against the backdrop of God’s big and forever story of pursuing us to make us whole, and how our identity rests on whose we are, not what we do in terms of performance or results. All of us one goal: to make much of Jesus and to whet our appetites for His life-giving Word. It was a most precious time that moved me deeply to worship even more the Author of us all.

When the Gospel is the connective tissue that binds us together, what makes us different becomes a trace of beauty from our Maker we image to one another. Distance and accents become evidence of God’s work elsewhere. He really does have the whole world in His hands.

I’m a city girl through and through. I was born in a capital city and have always lived in cities. Being an extrovert, I enjoy the noise of cars, the sound people’s shoes make on pavement and general urban hums. I spent nearly a week in a snowed-in plain, where “she lives right over here” was a 35-minute ride down a road that was a beautiful expanse of cold white slumber as far as the eye could see.

My city heart felt the isolation of so much distance between each dwelling, where nothing but road and nature separated houses from each other for kilometers/miles at a time. It was a welcomed remoteness because it invited the eyes to see, and the heart to behold, the work of God in a land of generous hearts. I loved it all.

In it, I remembered that God is everywhere His people dwell. And, it showed His people are scattered everywhere. Because He means to pursue and redeem this race of ours. So, you can find Him in the hustle and bustle of a city with the aroma of French croissants baking on a street corner. As well as the quiet, peaceful kindness of the great North with the stranger that opens her home and welcomes you with the delicious aroma of a home cooked meal, simply because you are part of God’s family.

God is busy doing a new thing. He’s at work, moving His people, raising disciples in every corner or the world, every crevice of society and square mile of land. He’s raising a people for Himself one soul at a time, and His kingdom looks like snowy roads for miles on end, like immigrant accents sharing a table with those born and raised in the cold beautiful North, like women from various walks of life and traditions, speaking all the same language; the language of a Hope that is based on where we’ll spend eternity. That same language infuses today with courage because of the Truth recorded for us in Scripture, because eternity begins right here right now. What a joy it is to see His people working together, making a way for the King!

But to all who did receive him, who beleived in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh, not of the will man, but of God.
— John 1:12-13

[This is part of the “first-draft” series. If you want to know what it is and why I’m doing it you can read about it here.]  

Seeking, Telling, and Dwelling in the Truth

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A few weeks ago, I heard a speaker refer to "10% friends." He explained that most of us are willing to talk about 90% of how we are, and that we are willing to receive information about the same things we are willing to share. Topics that hover on the surface of everyday life and are generally safe. It might be a compliment we received on last night’s dinner, our upcoming vacation plans, or the details of a current project at work. This information is framed around content that is comfortable and affirming.

 But the remaining 10%, he explained, is comprised of the hard things we are not willing to share or hear others point out. He said we all need to have, and should aim to be, part of the 10% who speak and seek to hear the Truth. I turned around to my friend and smiling said, "You're welcome, for I am part of your 10%!" We both chuckled.

 My friend and I both acknowledge we need Truth from outside of ourselves to check our own version. Because there is Truth, and there is what we hold as truth. And they are not always the same. We are, after all, finite and fallible. Therefore, we need what is forever and infallible. Those attributes are not found in humanity, but in its Maker and the words recorded for us in the Bible.

  

Seeking the Truth

 There is something comforting about Truth. While it can be hard at times, it’s also stable. It is not contingent on my own agreement or emotions. What is True is true, with or without me. It does not need my endorsement or my permission to be true. When we lie, or when truth is absent from a situation, it does not cease being itself. It remains, well... Truth.

 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian who was martyred by the Nazis, wrote: "No man in the whole world can change the truth. One can only look for the truth, find it and serve it. The truth is in all places." That wording in the last part lingers in my mind, “One can only look for the truth, find it and serve it.” This means we submit to it.

 In a noisy world filled with competing perspectives on everything, whatever our truth is (that is, our go-to uncontested knowledge) will determine much of our emotions and thereby actions. The danger, then, is when we are holding onto our own version of truth. When we do that, we are in essence idolizing a part of ourselves. If the definition comes from our own reasoning, then we are really just serving ourselves.

 For me, this begs the question…

To grow we must be pruned

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The Christian faith is one where pain is a key component. And while most human beings find a natural aversion to pain, nowhere is this truer than in Western, and especially North American culture. For us, not just pain, but any semblance of discomfort, is deemed unacceptable. Our abundance and modernity have allowed for unprecedented comfort and convenience. Believe I’m as guilty/ delighted as anyone. With online grocery shopping and delivery service, my life has never been so easy, or convenient. I do 90% of my shopping from my laptop in my pj’s while sipping my morning coffee,and schedule the delivery for the day and time that most suits me. Convenient and predictable - yes please, thank you!  

The other side of this predictable convenient existence though, is that it has harmed our ability to weather and welcome life unscheduled and unpredictable. We see it in our attitude when a page takes longer than 3 seconds to load on our browser, or when what we want and expect to find at the store, is not available. If these instances catch us on a particularly bad day, our reaction can put a damper on the hours left with our poor families, colleagues, or friends.

We don’t like being inconvenienced. But we especially strongly dislike the notion that we will go through hardship, and so we freeze upon the possibility that something will push us outside of the area where we excel, where the roads and shortcuts are familiar to us, and where we feel we have control.

I personally sit in the tension of the self  I’m most familiar with, and the one I’m informed about in the Bible. Said tension is in essence what I write about in this blog. Hence its tagline “in the intersection of between everyday life and eternal perspective.”

That wrestling between the part of us that is asked to pick a heavy piece of wood and follow Someone; when all I want to do is sit irritated that no one is acting on my expert knowledge of how things are and ought to be, and everyone’s failure to follow suit.

What the Bible informs

Let's talk agriculture for a moment. The process of cultivating, to be more specific. First, the soil needs breaking. Being broken is what makes it ready for planting. Once seeds are placed, tending must follow. And then, a prolonged pause happens waiting for the harvest. During that prolonged pause where waiting seems to be the only thing taking up calendar days (instead of satisfying to-do’s we get to mark of) there actually is a lot of activity underneath all that dirt. It is during this last stage where growth takes place.

Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.
— John 15:2 (ESV)

He prunes so that we can bear fruit. The first time I heard this passage preached and unpacked I did not know the word pruning. It was in the early 90’s during my first year of university. Thinking it was because English was my second language,  I looked it up in Spanish only to realize I didn’t know it either. So, the issue was not language, but that I wasn’t familiar with plants at all.

More than 20 years later, doing my own inductive study of John’s gospel, I appreciated the details in John’s account. I took notice of the language and the intention. The cultural sensitivity revealed in the choice of analogy. Jesus often spoke in parables and used storytelling to illustrate important principles of the faith he came to live out for us.

He was speaking to an audience familiar with farming and agriculture. The people at that time derived their very livelihood from it. It was their day to day and means to make a living. Here he was, the Maker of everything using the very creation He had authored to paint a picture of how God parents us.

Pruned literally means to cut a part of a plant so that it will grow. The removal of a piece of its own composition will help the whole grow healthy. How interesting. I think of things that feel so close to me, so familiar and intimate, that its removal seems unbearable. Our reaction to the mere possibility ranges  from irritation when something doesn’t go our way; to utter despair when we feel out of our depth and the deep sense of injustice to have been placed in a predicament without our doing.

God’s economy is as wide as it is generous. So He is constantly pruning out of us the self that wants to stay comfy and the same always. Because that self has no interest in Him and will not naturally draw near to Him. That self is often found holding what we think is the reins of our lives, when in reality it is our spiritual demise we are holding on to. And so committed is God to our sanctification that both the mundane traffic jam-like irritations, and the deep crisis will He use to prune the parts of us that impede our soil to be broken and good seed to take root in our lives. Because the end goal is not to makes us comfy, but to make us like His Son.

What are you wrestling with deep in your soul right now? Ask in your heart; Am I resisting God’s pruning? Because, remember, His purpose in removing something from our being is in order to help us grow and be whole.

[This is part of the “first-draft” series. If you want to know what it is and why I’m doing it you can read about it here.]

The Main Thing Amidst all the things

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Today I had a busy day full of tasks. The kind that feel tedious but move our lives forward bit by bit. Things like sorting, washing, and folding laundry; making red lentil soup; washing and drying my hair ( I have long hair, so it’s definitely a task). There were also messages I needed to catch up with, reply to, and people to connect with. This too moves forward life. Actually quite an important part of it, as I’m sure most of us would agree.

Then I saw the time. The middle of the afternoon found me accomplished as far as my to do, yet distracted. I realized that I had not had a moment with Scripture all day. You see, I normally do that in the morning after getting up and making breakfast. Today, because I wanted to get done as much as possible, I woke up a bit earlier and tackled the day’s chores. Using every pocket of time, capitalizing on the interim of each activity to start or continue another. Chopping veggies while waiting to go downstairs to the laundry room to transfer our clothes from the washer to the dryer. Replying to a message between folding towels and sheets. And so on. My early morning and afternoon a symphony of efficiency in multi-tasking.

So with supper cooked, laundry done, and hair freshly washed and blow dried to style, my mind felt scattered and my soul distracted. I had addressed my to do list with gusto and now the rest of me was asking to be fed. I grabbed my notes, my Bible, and sat at my desk. Re-read where I left off yesterday and continued on to the next portion, Colossians 1:14-20.

I’m going through the whole epistle in small portions to outline it and simmer my mind in the words Paul so thoughtfully composed for a church he didn't plant but loved and which was steering away from the main thing, giving weight to matters of no consequence. To address this Paul begins with the Truth on which all hinges - who is Jesus?

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
— Colossians 1:15-20 (ESV)

I read Paul’s words and repeat them in my own: Jesus. He is EVERYTHING. The invisible God made visible. Holding all things together. Because all things were created by and through Him. He is the beginning. He holds the fullness of God. He reconciles, making peace with his blood shed on the cross.

And just like that, no more than 30 or so minutes, my thoughts and emotions, aligned once more. All the to-dos done could not give me that. Paul’s words written to a group of beleivers millenia ago, who were struggling with what was and wasn’t first order matters, reminded me how much I need that reminder too.

I got a lot of things done today. I have a fed husband and a closet full of clean neatly folded clothes and an almost up to date inbox to show for it. All good things by any measure, and a sing of a life in process; moving forward as it should. But it was those 30 or minutes that made sense of the rest of the hours, brought into perspective all the things, as His things, and made for the best part of my day. So much so, that here I am sitting down writing a first-draft post about it because it’s that important for me to record and capture life in the moment when that Life is Jesus Himself, the Word made flesh speaking to me through Paul’s words to a church on the other side of the world and time, reminding me that He is the main thing. Always and forever. From the first to the last. And that all things are held together by Him. Laundry, supper, messages, and my personal hygiene included. And remembering that holding it in the middle of my otherwise accomplished busy day is what made any of it meaningful. Those 30+ minutes reading, dwelling, and simmering those 8 verses, and thus spending time in His Word, were the best accomplishment of the day. May I always need it and carve space for it as a main thing on which all other things rest. Late or early, long or brief; worth it every. single. time.

[This is part of the “first-draft” series. If you want to know what it is and why I’m doing it you can read about it here.]



On Writing Unpolished to keep on Writing with Purpose

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If you’ve been reading me for a while you know that for the better part of last year I wrote regularly, publishing one thoughtful post every Tuesday. It was my commitment to myself and a group of supportive friends, for accountability and to help me stay consistent. By the end of the year, I was mentally exhausted. I learned that writing of that nature once a week was not sustainable for me, as it demanded time and mental energy at a pace I was not able to keep.

But 27 days into this year I realized that my writing needed attention. My writing muscles needed exercise to hone my voice. You learn to do something by doing it and making the mistakes that come with doing something for the first, second, and fiftieth time. You learn to write by writing. So, I need to write.

I need the fluidity that comes with a more unabridged way of writing. Otherwise, the time and effort it takes to write “properly” will keep me from writing at all. This atrophies the writing muscles. Which I realized is what’s happening. So, to help me warm up my writing muscles I will blog in a more “first-draft style”. What I hope to accomplish is more frequent writing even if less polished.

Needless to say, it is scary and humbling to write like this. I fear of coming across thoughtless and careless in my craft. But, ironically, it is by giving myself the space to write this way, that I hope to warm up my creative muscles and hone my skill to produce better work. Everything needs to start somewhere, and all writing begins with a first draft.

Inspired by a discussion Tim Challies started on the subject of blogging, and this post by Trillia Newbell, both whose writing I enjoy and respect, I decided to write more informally from now on until June. The exception, of course, will be those pieces I submit to other outlets like Women Encouraged which I also share on my blog as part of my writing.

In the end, the kind of writing I (and most writers) attempt to do is meaningful when shared with a reader. It is a privilege to share one’s thoughts with a willing listener. So I ask for your leniency dear reader, while I use this season to warm up my writing muscles.

What will not change is the intention behind all my writing. I wish with my words to beckon the reader to navigate the human experience with an eternal perspective. Because it’s where the follower of Christ is to spend his or her life. And that is a fact that should affect and color everything about our present. So I will continue to aim to write from that perspective, even in first-draft style :)

I confess I did a little editing with this post before posting, but considerably less than usual. Moving forward, for this series I will write when I can and give myself a set amount of time to write and post. No editing or wrecking my brain what pretty picture can I take to go with it. I will use what I have on hand or take a quick one (sorry ahead of time!). The idea is to write, and make it about that. This quote by Julia Cameron comes to mind: “Making writing a big deal tends to make writing difficult. Keeping writing casual, tends to make it possible.”

Trillia, thank you for the freedom and permission I feel your initiative provided!

A New Year and a Forever God

This is my first post as regular contributor for Women Encouraged. I’m delighted and honored to partner with them in the intention to put worthwhile words out there that point to the best ones. Wrote this piece desiring to remind us of the timeless hope we have!

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There is a sense of wonder that comes with the new year. The first days of January show up filled with daring hope. A fresh, new page on your wall calendar feels inviting and pregnant with possibility. Plans beg to spring forth. This is the time when we declare New Year’s resolutions, before the rhythms of our everyday life trample over them.

 

These coming days will witness changes in ourselves and those around us. Children will grow a few inches. Students will finish another year, and some will graduate and go on to the next phase in their lives. For some of us, there will be a few more grey hairs, and each of us will celebrate another trip around the sun on one of those calendar pages.

 

There will also be unforeseen events: an endeavor that didn’t flourish as we’d hoped, a diagnosis we didn’t expect, a move we didn’t plan, or even good news that forces change. These will feel like an unwelcome invitation to walk down a path we don’t know - one that isn’t marked ahead of time on the calendar.

 

Yet this unknown is as much a gift as the wonder we feel on January 1st. It will hold an opportunity to walk by faith on ground we don’t know and can’t see, made possible because we are known by the God who knows and sees everything, holding all the days of our lives in the palm of His hand.

 

For a few days, the newness of the year takes our breath away before it quickly becomes old to us. And in the midst, there is a different new that is out of the ordinary. It happens within us,

Why wash feet?

In a matter of time, the soldiers would come for Jesus. And in less than 24 hours he’d be crucified. This is where the 13th chapter of the gospel of John situates the reader.

Being truly God, he knew what would come. Because he was truly human, such knowledge would be agonizing as we would see in Gethsemane. But, at present, with hours still ahead of him, what Jesus does during the last gathering he shared with those closest to him -the men he’d be teaching for three years, calls for attention. He washed their feet.

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I did not grow up in the church nor in a Christian home. Although my grandmother became a believer late in life and she shared her faith with me as a child, it wouldn’t be until many years later, during my freshman year in college that I would come to faith in Jesus.

At the end of that first year in university, a group of friends travelled to Florida for a week-long Inter-Varsity retreat, where we joined several other university chapters from the south-east region. We studied from the gospel of John while learning to pray for and serve our campuses.

Each day we’d attend expository preaching in the main hall. The study was on John 13-15. Later in the day, we would gather in smaller groups to share and pray about what we’d learned.

One afternoon, arriving to the smaller room assigned to my campus group, I noticed on the carpet a bucket with water and some towels next to it. I thought perhaps the cleaning crew had left it there to clean after we were done with the room.  

Soon after the rest of our group arrived, we opened in prayer, and our Inter-Varsity leader explained we were going to do something different. She took the bucket and said we were going to take turns washing the feet of the person to our right and pray over them and tell them what we were grateful for in their lives. Silence took over the room as we glanced over one another feeling a little awkward.

The experience is forever seared in my memory. It was Scripture in action. It brought home in a most personal way what we’d been studying just a few hours before.

There is a certain vulnerability to the act. Even in warm sunny Florida where the retreat took place, there was a level of discomfort in taking off our sandals and tennis shoes. Feet are not particularly attractive. They are a functional body part which supports the whole, enabling us to stand and to enjoy walking and running. While they are also a body part that gets dirty, smelly, and tired, they accurately embody the limitations of our design. We are wonderfully made, and we are also breakable.

We recoil feeling exposed at the thought of showing them and having someone touch them and wash them unless you are paying for a pedicure or a foot massage. But as an act of intentional affection, it’s awkward. We don’t naturally feel inclined to do it nor welcome it with ease.

In the time of Jesus, washing feet was customary. In a culture that moved mostly on foot, where there were dirt roads, it was a hygienic necessity. For higher class families, it was common to have a slave perform that service for guests. For more modest homes, the host would provide the water and guests would wash their own feet. It was considered the lowliest task. Jesus takes the place of a lowly servant.

Situating ourselves in the chronology of the text, there are only five chapters before Jesus is taken before Pilate, questioned, beaten, and crucified. It’s tempting to interpret that time is running out, and thus imprint a sense of haste to the next actions and words of Jesus. Yet, nothing of the sort is revealed in the text. On the contrary, the passage begins with a sense of completion, a right tempo, to the timing that brings Jesus to this seemingly awkward action:

 “…when Jesus knew the hour had come to depart out of this world, he loved them to the end. (…) knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God (…) he laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.” (John 13: 1-5 ESV).

This is a man who knew the timing of what would come, and in complete tranquillity of mind and spirit chose his next action with intention: to perform the task reserved for the lowliest servant. As he began to undress that he may have more mobility and not get his outer garments wet, it’s not hard to imagine their shock. To watch him kneel before each man and proceed to wash their dusty, tired feet, as was customary, before eating supper – what was he doing?!

 

Indeed, what was Jesus doing?

Washing feet is getting into the messiness of someone; it’s literally coming into contact with dirt from someone else and rolling up our sleeves to love them. In this passage we behold this extraordinary man, embrace the humblest ordinariness of the human condition. Consistent with his life thus far, he forgoes his rightful place, his glory, and becoming lower than all, takes on the task beneath everyone present. What an accurate prequel to what he will do on the cross a few hours later.

Before John transitions into the next part of the narrative, we read what Jesus said after washing his disciples’ feet. It’s a compelling statement that humbles the soul and calls to action:

“When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them,

“Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” (John 13:12-17 ESV)

That last line, verse 17, grabs me by the heart. “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” That double conditional invites the believer to share in a promise. You are blessed if knowing what He’s done; you do likewise. It implies action. It’s not contingent on our feelings, but rather a deliberate decision on our part to humble ourselves to love others, in ways which will not be comfortable or natural for us. To do what we’ve seen modelled.

What might this mean for each one of us? A personal example for me was my mentor telling me things that were hard to hear, because she saw my need for Truth greater than her fear of my reaction. It’s not charity work. It’s costly and selfless and otherworldly; like the cross.

It might be doing something we consider beneath our station, because God is more interested in our character and obedience, than He is in our position.

Who has washed your feet by embracing your mess though costly to them? What’s been the result in your life? Whose feet is God asking you to wash? Pray and ask Him to show you.

Why wash feet? Because we want to be imitators of Christ, that we may know him, and others may see him. And because there is blessing in obedience.

Labels reduce, the Cross exalts

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“I wonder what this will cost me?”, I said to my husband right before sharing an article on social media about Jackie Hill Perry’s latest book. The book moved me deeply and my hope was that after reading the article, others would be curious to read the book too. He reassured me I should share it as worthwhile content. He was right. So, after posting the article along with my own enthusiastic recommendation of Gay girl, good God, as one my top reads this year, I put the phone down.

Shortly after posting I saw the first comment. There was pushback that misrepresented the piece and more importantly an open hostility against it. Jackie’s story, the article commenting on her book, and my own commentary, were all mixed together as part of the harmful efforts of the evangelical agenda against the LGBT community.

While I don’t expect everyone to agree with the faith professed by myself or the article, I realized it was likely they had not even read the article. The tone and words employed to express said push-back were out of sync with the spirit of the article. I understood it was a reaction to something more than what was shared. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said,

Nothing that we despise in other men is inherently absent from ourselves. We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or don’t do, and more in light of what they suffer.”

I wrote a short comment thanking them for their honesty, and affirming my affection for the person, as it was someone I know in real life. A short time later, they deleted the thread on their own accord and wrote me privately, where they apologized, and we engaged in written conversation for a long while.

During our private exchange, my friend expressed alarm at the harm the evangelical community was doing. It was a frank comment, and I took it seriously. While there are plenty of instances where in the name of religion people have engaged in behaviour unbecoming of the gospel they profess to uphold, I wondered how was that the case with my sharing this article? It didn’t matter. Their mind was made up.

I looked up the word evangelical in the dictionary. The root comes from the Greek evangelos, in reference to good news according to the Gospels or the New Testament, adding “of those Protestant churches that emphasize salvation by faith in Jesus.” (Webster’s New World Dictionary, Fifth Edition). It is an accurate word to briefly describe my faith.

As a person who writes and speaks openly about her faith in Jesus, I fall under the umbrella of evangelical. A word that has come to mean many things beyond the dictionary’s definition, and which groups points of views and behaviours I do not subscribe to yet fall under by virtue of being a Christ follower.

When do words cease being an indicator to inform, and become a label to categorize people? I think when we don’t understand something, and a word becomes easier than the time and energy it would take for us to know. Not agree with, but understand. We all do it.

As I processed the aftermath of the whole article situation, I was reminded we all use labels. The label I was reduced to stands for homophobic, verbal abuse, and even violence. Although I was not personally accused of partaking in all of those, I was quickly judged as someone who endorsed it all and was guilty of the first one. Being regarded in that light left me winded.

All are actions heavily condemned in Scripture as they blatantly violate the supreme truth that ALL humans are created in God’s image, including and especially people we don’t like or agree with.

A follower of Jesus is called to uphold the Word of God with their actions. This means that the same Scripture that compels me to stand for the rights of the unborn for example, equally compels me to treat with dignity and respect those who don’t share that conviction. This is a nuance many are not ready to grant space in their thinking in our culture today.  

Whether the issue is abortion, sexuality, or something else, the discussion becomes black and white. Obliterating the fact that our thoughts and emotions usually run in shades of gray. We’ve blurred the lines of debate to labels void of character or humanity. It’s easier to lash out at the evangelical community, a faceless entity filled with hateful voices, than it is to debate amicably with a friend who disagrees with you.

With a sober mind I think of the times we’re tempted to use labels to explain away so we don’t like to engage in real conversation. For example, an immigrant stops meaning a person who moves from their country to a different nation. It now stands for lazy and opportunistic. Muslim is no longer someone from the Islam faith, but is now a horrible person bringing violence to our neighbourhood. Homosexual is no longer same-sex attracted, but dirty.

Those of us who follow a crucified Savor must be mindful of how we steward our words, especially in the way we think of others. Because whatever we hold in our hearts will eventually show up in our words and actions.

The way of the cross is costly and hard, because love always is. It cost the Father His only Son. And it cost Him, His life. Investing time to listen and get to know others will be uncomfortable. Not everyone will want to engage. And some may still react with disdain. This is part of the cost. And if Jesus deemed it worth it, we should do no less.

While my views on the gospel are uncompromising, there is a difference between saying things that oppose, and using rhetoric that reduces someone to a word intended to strip them of all but an adjective that makes us feel safer for keeping them away. I invite us all reading this to examine where in our hearts is there room for more time to listen, and less adjective calling?

I was reduced to evangelical as an adjective intended to close any further discussion with me and likely cost me a friendship. While I assume the cost as part of the price of picking up my cross to follow Jesus, I also take the whole experience as a sobering reminder to walk in humility and always see everyone first and foremost as the glorious expression of a God who chose to make us in His image, and be careful to never reduce anyone – myself included- to one word.

We are so much more friends. More than what words we want to attach to our personhood, more than those we heard all our lives and still hurt us, more than the good ones we fight hard to earn. We are His workmanship.

And when we look at humanity, may we see what God Himself sees; the work on the cross done by Jesus on behalf of a people who couldn’t do for themselves what God could.  

 

What do you want to see at the end of the year?

There are 56 days left till January shows up on a fresh new calendar on my wall. For most of us, I imagine, the next few weeks will be filled with a mixture of equal parts tired and excited. The demands of the season will stretch our calendars and budgets to capacity between events we need to plan, attend, and/or host, a myriad of gifts we want to purchase, and all the coordinating the season entails.

All the while everyday rhythms continue to carry the same load of responsibilities. Carpool, projects due, work routine, in short life goes on. The engine that is everyday life is still running on the same resources. The day still has only 24 hours, and we are still operating as one person with only two hands.

But the 50+ days we have, also means we have the luxury of time. Imagine 56 days from now, on December 31st, looking back. What do you want to see? How do you want to close the year and enter the next season?

Oddly I think the answer to this question is the same if I asked it this way: standing on January 1st facing the blank page in your agenda as it offers you a blank slate, what do you want to see?

I recently asked this question to a friend who is powering through papers and exams before heading home for Christmas. In sharing my own answers, I realized they would be similar if I was looking ahead on January 1st because in the end, at the core, I want to see a life lived well. What that looks like may vary from person to person, but I think most reading this probably share some common ground.

For me a life lived well looks like building relationships over empires. Whatever “empires” may be yours, mine usually have to do with wanting to be right and generally getting my way. I want a life that truly resembles that of a disciple, where my chief concern is to model myself after the One whose life makes mine possible.

I am learning that a life well lived for me, therefore, often looks like a life that is not entirely comfortable. It can be choosing the more difficult, less “natural” option of holding my tongue in an argument or using it to speak an apology after giving in to my frustration.

In the next few weeks, for all of us, it means that more important than getting all the shopping done on time, or checking off every item on the ever-growing to-do list, what will matter is being present and take life in moments not just tasks to be completed. The task, whether a trip to the grocery store for milk and eggs or to complete the next assignment for class, is filled with small choices along the way, which when compiled make up the person we are becoming.

It’s not about the eggs, or the milk, or the paper due. It’s about what it will require of us to move us forward in the calendar through December, and move us in life.

I think about the expression “a life hidden in Christ.” For something to hide me, it must contain or cover me. And for that, it needs to be larger than me. Otherwise, I am the one covering it.

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For me, a life well lived implies living my everyday choices in front of a much larger presence than just myself. Because let’s face it, after a while, a meltdown at the store with a tired child, or another sleepless night to finish up that proposal, begins to feel more like a hardship than an inconvenience, when it’s the twentieth meltdown this week, or you can’t remember when your life was reduced to project deadlines.

Let hardship minister to us in the hardened places of our hearts. When we are running low on patience and sanity, may we let the tired moment bend us to Christ to say “ I can’t, will you Lord, please?”

Will you give me the kind word I don’t feel like saying? Will you hold me together so I can hold this broken person in your name? Will you be my strength when my weakness is giving in, and I want to despair?

And open-handed ask for discernment and stamina to carry out the next step, one foot in front of the other, in grace that abounds. Whether that is to the parking lot to head home, or to the meeting room to explain you will need another day.

For me, a life well lived is one that acknowledges only with Jesus can it be so, and not on my own strength. Is a life that is weak because then He is strong. It’s hard. But strangely there is a comfort too. Weakness invites help and means it isn’t all up to you.

Who we are becoming is important, so let’s pay attention. The choices we make, are in turn, making us. And this happens in the everyday minutes. Those moments that are seemingly too mundane and small to have much significance. The to-do list and the calendar are filled with them, and require many of them, to move forward. I want to be a person who is present for the people and tasks that God has called me to, and who needs Jesus to do it.

Because the end of the year is particularly busy, here’s an exercise to help us. Make a list of all the things that need your attention between now and the last day of the year. Include all tasks, from baking cookies, cleaning the car, that recital that will take all the planning to pull off, the presentation coming up, choir practice, packing up to visit family, etc. All of it. Then, look over the list and imagine all the moments pregnant with possibility for meltdowns, headaches, and frustration, those tasks will require. Pray over the list and invite the Lord into the crazy. Ask Him for the grace to choose Him and to let yourself be held.

8 weeks from now we want to see memories that will outlive the items crossed off a list. We want to see Jesus because our life is hidden in His.

So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Matthew 6:32-34 NIV

The Ache of Unfulfilled Hope

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Over the past year, I have seen a young friend struggle with infertility and experience her third miscarriage. Another friend is wrestling the unfulfilled desire of marriage as she enters another decade still single. My heart breaks for them and aches with them. I’m short of words that can fit into the emptiness left by unfulfilled desires. There aren’t any.  

For my part, I have wanted and prayed for friends in my own season, peers with whom I could connect deeply. A desire God has answered very differently than what I’ve asked.

I’m 46, married with no children. The women my age are busy navigating motherhood, while the women whose schedule might resemble a bit my own are university students. But I’m neither a mother nor a student. I’m a wife, who works from home, and spiritually parents and mentors a few younger friends. Not quite one or the other, I feel very much between seasons, even though the calendar and my energy says I’m definitely in my 40’s.

While I do remember well how difficult it was to be single, having married late in life, I don’t mean to compare my pain with theirs; there’s no comparison. I can’t possibly imagine the trial of witnessing your body reject naturally what you most want, or how my single friend is facing her loneliness. But I do relate deeply and have much compassion for the pain that it causes to have your hope broken.

Our heart can barely breathe out a prayer of any sort when all we feel is the oversized void of unfulfilled hope. It’s so hard to expect any good from a God who is seemingly withholding a good thing. After all, a child, a spouse, or meaningful friendships, are by no means far-fetched or wrong things to want.

How does one go about this? Navigating the pain of not having, and the terrible disappointment that comes with the conclusion that God must not care? Does God care?

The answer that has helped me is actually to ask a different question – What does God care about? He cares about us, infinitely so. Jesus on the cross is the evidence. This is both the Sunday School answer and as factual as one can get. But we need more.

God cares about His character; His holiness. So much so, that unable to be close to Him because of our broken nature, He bridged the gap we couldn’t. What does any of this have to do with grief due to absence where we wished for something, and in its place have an empty womb, a ringless finger, or no bosom friends with whom to share deeply?

I remember a season in my 20’s when I couldn’t grasp God being loving and all-knowing. As a recent convert, I was carrying wounds caused by others and could not reconcile why the pain was present and not just part of my past. I had accepted Jesus into my life, and this brought me inexplicable joy. But the things that were broken in my heart and in my life before meeting him were still broken and painful after opening my life to his. It was pain and disappointment I could not wrap my brain around. Why Lord? – I asked.

My best friend exhorted me to hold on to what I knew to be true about God. It challenged me because what I knew in my head was in total dissonance with what I felt in my heart and saw in my life (the pain by others still causing damage). She pressed on and encouraged me to go with what I knew about Him rather than what I knew of people, or myself, or the situation at hand. To accompany my emotions with what was True of God. I tried. Two important things happened.

The first is that it forced me to dig deeper and revise what I knew of God. It made me go to Scripture and look for His character in the stories I was familiar with, not simply remember I knew the story.  The second was a shift in direction from where my feelings were taking me.

Were the feelings gone? Of course not. The things that caused pain were still painful. I still felt very much hurt and wrestled with anger that God allowed certain things to map out as they did. What did change, however, was the conclusion. There was room for God to be good and who He says He is, within my circumstances. The fact is that the veracity of who He is and the magnitude of our heartbreak aren’t mutually exclusive.

I am allowed to hurt, be angry even, and yet include Him in the conversation. This is about as real as it gets in any relationship. While my pain is very real, my conclusions about God may not be accurate. Knowing Truth allows for pain and hope to coexist.

God’s character is good and sovereign. And neither attribute depends on circumstance. This is what makes trusting Him so difficult but also comforting. He is good even when others aren’t. He is sovereign even over an ailment that can’t be explained.

 If He is indeed good and sovereign, then why does He allow things that are painful, and not fix them? How can His goodness tolerate that, or His sovereignty allow it? I don’t have an answer for either of my friends or for myself, that would aptly cover this question in the pain each is facing. I don’t think any words could. Instead, I hold on to what I know of His character, it serves as the flotation device I hold on when drowning in questions and sore from heart-ache I can’t understand.

The broken pieces of my life are an indication of my need for something outside of myself. The goodness of God in the face of bad inexplicable hurt is the hope that holds us. It is the mystery of the cross, where Jesus facing torture and utter abandonment entrusted himself to the Father. The torture and the pain were as real as was his need for help to go through it.

I let my emotions be what takes me to Him, not away from Him. Let sorrows become an invitation to lean into Him, to fall apart and cry, and allow Him to enter the hurt with you. I think the invitation is to lean into Him and wait in Him, abide in Him.

When I pray for my two friends, holding out the pieces of what could have been and isn’t yet, I echo their why Lord?, I ask for longings to be met, and plead that come what may, to help us to trust Him to be good no matter the outcome, knowing that because He is God, He is good and can’t be anything other than who He said He is.

A prayer for us all-

Take our empty hands, aching from what we can’t hold, and keep them open Lord, that we may receive You. Pull us near, hold us and our sorrow so big, because You Lord are bigger, and because You Lord, are good. Thank you for not running from our pain, but instead want to enter it that we may know you deeper. May we feel Your love in all the broken pieces as You make all things new. We need You and we love you, give us Hope to hope in You. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Allegiance, Obedience, and Submission- All Synonyms

“This above all - to thine own self be true...” William Shakespeare

The Bard was not wrong. Being true to oneself is indeed important, that we may live congruent lives. The question is, consistent with what? Being true to myself is to remain loyal to who I am. It’s an issue of allegiance to my own heart’s convictions and desires. As a believer, to what are we called to be true?

Let’s look at Jesus. The uncomfortable, off-putting and the often omitted truth about faith in Jesus, is that it’s not about us. And nowhere do we see this clearer than in Jesus himself, who being God made man, did not act on his own accord or preference. In his own words-

“Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. (…) I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.” (John 5:19, 30. ESV) Jesus was true to the One who sent him. God’s will was above his own.

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I love words. Since English is my second language, to study their usage helps me to grasp their deeper nuances. I like the word allegiance. It comes from the Old English word “liege.” It connotes loyal service to a superior. It is synonym with obedience. Hence, whatever has our allegiance or loyalty is what we obey.  

Most of us genuinely desire to live lives that are aligned with what we hold at the core of our being. Usually, that is us. At my core is my preference, my will, my way. That is what sits there. And my natural inclination is to make it comfortable, to affirm it any way I can.  

Not everything that sits at the core of who we are is bad per se. A mother’s love for her child prompting her to care for him when sick is good.  But not everything that sits at the core of who we are and feels natural is good either. Think of any time last week when the last thing you felt like doing was to be kind to that person who got on your nerves or was rude to you. The reactions and preferences that spring naturally are very much true to our core, and not always aligned with the way we are called to live. Sin is at our core and thus prevents us from acting rightly even when we know we should.

Allegiance to the kingdom where our ultimate citizenship rests can be confusing amidst the noise of the world. For those of us who are disciples of Jesus, our chief concern is to remain faithful and steadfast to the Truth of the gospel. Said Truth, just as it includes to show compassion for others, and treat with dignity all image bearers (not just the ones we like or those who agree with us); it also includes a call to pick up one’s cross and follow a man of sorrows.

That is not an invitation that any of us want to accept with gladness.

In today’s complicated socio-political climate passions run deep over the causes where we place our loyalty. Race, a political party, gender, and even language are issues that determine where our obedience will take us. How are we to navigate what calls our loyalty to action?

Again, I think the answer is to look at Jesus. How did he live his life?

Reading the gospels is at once sobering, convicting, and encouraging. Jesus never affirmed anybody. Yet he also never denied their plight or personhood. He never questioned or denied when someone struggled. He always brought the Truth to light.  A Truth which invariably pointed to the core of the person.

With the rich young ruler we see the young man leave sad because giving up his preference was costlier than he was willing to give. We see the woman caught in adultery leave his presence with her dignity and physical well-being protected, and the mandate to “go and sin no more”. It was a revolutionary behaviour, where the only thing affirmed time and again is the loving and just character of God, speaking in the same breath dignity and compassion while also lovingly confronting with a question or directive, what is wrong, and to turn from it.

So, what are we to do when we feel our allegiance called to action? I think the answer is profoundly simple. If Jesus being God made man, “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped [and]…humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6,8), why should we – his disciples, be any different?

There is an allegiance that supersedes all others, to which all other loyalties submit.  Since what we are loyal to is also what we obey, submission, however dirty a word in our present day, is the very picture of our salvation. It was submission to the Father’s will that made the cross possible. Jesus’s natural inclination was not to die a horrible slow death. We know this from his agonizing prayer in Gethsemane . Submission made possible the gift that saved you and me.

Submission is a shift of obedience. We are loyal mainly to ourselves until we give our loyalty over to the Man of Sorrows. That is the beginning of dying to ourselves and truly living. And like any other death, it is painful. There is no natural inclination in us to do so.

What enabled Jesus in the flesh to willingly walk to Calvary? His utter dependence on the Father. Trusting that a good God would see him through the unspeakable nightmare that awaited him. It is an insane idea. But one that holds together the how and the why of instructing us in turn, to pick up your cross and follow him.

The choices that we make every day are in turn making us. While our politics, causes, and reactions may vary from one person and culture to another; they will speak of the allegiance to which all our loyalties succumb to, and where we put our trust – us or Jesus? The only way to remain true to Him above ourselves is to let Him do what you can’t; change your heart at the core.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
— John 3:16

When We Think We Know the Answer, but haven’t understood the Question

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Watching Jesus interact with people is the most enlightening and confronting exercise I get from digging in Scripture. And sometimes you don’t have to dig too long before the narrative grabs your heart’s attention like a gentle hand raising your gaze from whatever is eating our minds and holds a mirror to see yourself in light of Truth. This is what I experience reading the first nine verses of John 5.

The apostle John who writes this account situates us right away in an area of Jerusalem where there was a pool called Bethesda. Nearby, we’re told, were many invalids who were blind, paralyzed, or lame. John points out a man who’d been invalid for thirty-eight years. With this information we read the following exchange:

“When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him,

- “Do you want to get well?” 

 -- Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.” (John 5:6-7 NIV)

Jesus asked a yes / no question, which the man replies with a long explanation revealing the reason he thinks he’s not well, while never really answering the question. His words answered a different question altogether than the one asked; why he thought he wasn’t healed yet. I wonder, how often do we do the same?

Jesus asks an obvious question, for to ask a person who has not walked in more than thirty years if he wants to be well is a rhetorical question. Yet he asks it anyway. Why?

The seemingly misplaced answer serves to reveal the heart of the man. It evidences where his hope is and why it’s been disappointed time and again. His eyes are on the familiar and tangible. The pool was a place where the sick often went in hopes of being healed by its waters. Some manuscripts mention that an angel occasionally came to stir the water.

I think the gospel does the same thing. The gift of grace that is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, begs the question from us, ‘do you want to be well?’ A question we frequently answer with something like this: ‘I tried to make it happen but couldn’t, if only I was able to get there, then things would be much better.’

It might be that new job, a spouse, the house you really want, a child, or perhaps that issue that hasn’t yet resolved this year, and which you know once resolved, will make life fall into its proper place once again, filling you with peace and assured that you are going to be ok.

We don’t answer the question because we are impatiently bearing with the unfavourable circumstances, which according to us, keep us from being well. Amidst the noise of our own needs and wants, we miss the fact that the one asking the question is also the answer to it. “Do you want to get well?” is not rhetorical if we don’t know what well looks like. Our answer simply reveals what we think will make us feel well.

The things that occupy the hearts of most believers aren’t usually terrible in of themselves. A home, a better income, a child, or more favourable circumstances, are not bad things to hope for. The issue arises when anything, however good, becomes the reason we can be well.

The exchange between the invalid and Jesus ends swiftly with Jesus showing his deity and authority by simply commanding him to walk- therefore making him physically well:

-Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.” (John 5:8-9 NIV)

Did this solve the man’s problems? Surely, it improved his quality of life exponentially. He gained mobility, and with it, independence to move about freely. Yet a few paragraphs later, they see each other at the temple, and Jesus tells him to stop sinning lest something else happens to him.

This helps me see that although I may get the thing I most want and with it fill what I see as my greatest need, there is still a greater area of need. He no longer had a handicap, but he still had the ability and desire to sin. And so do we.

I love this passage because in it, Jesus shows off his power. Being truly human and truly God, we see him display humanity and compassion, while also divine authority that with mere words he is able to command a body back to health. John is intentional in how he places the reader right in the middle of it all. But I love this passage mostly because it subtly shows that while God is willing and more than able to do spectacular, His truth is usually profoundly simple and in plain sight. We are not well because even when healed from ailments and suffering that come with the broken human condition, our greatest ailment is within us.

And the One who has the authority to speak light into existence, order the raging waters to calm, or an invalid body to get up and walk, is the only One who can knows the areas in my life where I am not well and promises to do for me what no medicine, guru, self-help book, or treatment can do; change my heart. This, friends is the greatest wellness we can hope for and the greatest need we have.

Canadian Thanksgiving and the Kingdom of God

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I always say I’m Canadian through the gift of immigration. It’s funny how that small stamp in our passports back in 2012, gives us a freedom we did nothing to defend, earn, or build. Immigration has taught my husband and me so much about the kingdom of God.

Though we were not born here, we get to call this nation our home and enjoy the same stability, peace, and prosperity as any other Canadian. This paints a picture of the kingdom of God, by which we face each day covered in grace and acceptance, just like the Son.

The hard things that bring shame, the hurts we carry, the ones we carelessly inflict, all – forgiven. Every day we get to face 24 hours worth of mercies. Grafted into a family, we enjoy a membership we didn’t work for, or pay. Through no doing of our own, we belong.

Yet membership is not always easy. Adaptation is the hallmark of being an immigrant. From your new home address, which will take more than a year to feel like home, to grasping social cues and looking awkward because you haven’t grasped them yet. You are frequently settling in and thus feel unsettled often. You feel your life uprooted, and taking root elsewhere is challenging.

Isn’t that like the kingdom of God? We are placed in it because we are in dire need of saving. The very process is painful. Being saved often will mean having to confront things we considered familiar, normal, and even comforting. After all, having our way feels like that. So, letting go feels contrary to our intuition.

Grafting connotes pain and certainly discomfort, for it includes cutting from somewhere to place elsewhere. But it also means new life will stem from the graft.  I googled the definition to shed some light. Graft: noun - a shoot or twig inserted into a slit on the trunk or stem of a living plant, from which it receives sap. The very purpose of grafting is so that the inserted piece may feed from the living organism where it’s been placed.

In this, our sixth Canadian Thanksgiving, celebrating with our small group, I got to see this so clearly. Looking around the room, I saw twelve very different people. From early twenties to mid-forties, some students, some working full time, some married, others single, a few born and raised in Canada, while several grafted from as far as the Middle East and Asia, all under one roof, filling the space with laughter that has no accent, while skin colors of every tone.

We come with a specific history, a set of beliefs, and our own ideas and preferences. And it is in the body of Christ that we sharpen one another’s edges by the work of the Holy Spirit, using imperfect, flawed vessels placed together under His grace. Jesus is the living water who feeds us new life.

I think belonging is one of the deepest needs we feel as humans. We long to be part of a clan, to have a community and say, “these are my people,” because it means we are known, seen, and heard.

But I think belonging is also one of the hardest things for us. We need it to survive and thrive because belonging creates an opportunity for needs to be seen and met. We end up undressing our hearts and letting our messy parts spill out. Whether we need fellowship, a plate of food, or clarity for a moral dilemma, belonging to His family calls to wash feet and raise our hands when our own feet need washing. It’s hard and beautiful.

He is building a new kingdom where every tongue, tribe and nation is represented. The colliding of all those accents, histories, and colours, makes for a beautiful tapestry, more unique in the sum of its parts, than any one of them all by itself. It makes for a messy picture this side of heaven but a glorious one in the life to come.

The transformation from a life lived according to me, to one lived according to Him, is nothing short of a miracle. That is the result of cutting and replanting us; the miracle is less of me and more of Jesus because all of me is being moulded into His likeness.

On this Thanksgiving, as I ponder on His active work of cutting and replanting my life, I want to invite you to look for His work in your life. A prayer for us both-

Lord thank you for saving us, that we may have new Life.

Give us eyes to see the present circumstances of our season in light of your plan. Help us remember you are building a Kingdom to make your name famous, through the miracle of changed redeemed lives,

and that redeeming and changing is what you are doing in our lives every day through cutting and grafting.

Lord reveal our heart to us. Where are we refusing to be grafted and take root with you? Show us and give us teachable hearts, willing to yield to you Lord.

Grafting is painful Lord, you know because you were willing to be cut from heaven and grafted into humanity, renouncing your power and glory, for death on a cross. Thank you, Jesus!

Please help us to trust you with our broken pieces, as you cut and graft them to renew us.

Fill our hearts with joy we pray,

That strange joy that coexists with more questions than answers, because we know the One who holds all answers. Lord we pray for blooms, a fruitful life in the things that matter to you.

We love you, and we need you, for everything.

In Jesus’ name we pray- amen!