dying to self

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.]  


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

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

Dying to Self

Since 2012, I live in a city where each of all four seasons is experienced deeply. It is one of my favourite gifts received through immigration. I am not poetic, deeply is indeed correct. Winter can go as low as -35 C (that’s -31 Fahrenheit for my American readers), while summer temperatures can trampoline all the way to the other end of the thermometer at 40 C (104 F). Autumn is a beautiful carpet of crunchy brown and red leaves, that quickly turns frigid. A prequel to a long cold winter. Spring is often a wet mess of rain, melting snow, cool temperatures and then a magnificent show of colour when least expected.

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Winter is, if you know me at all, my beloved season. I’ve lived in countries with seasons, but Montreal’s winter is its own category. I’ve never seen anything so majestic in a metropolitan city. It’s winter showing off beauty seen on a mountain while skiing. For weeks on end, a death-like slumber of white covers everything like a blanket. The same streets that only months before you walked wearing Birkenstocks, now you must struggle through feet of snow with arctic boots and coat on. Nature is dead, it seems. Trees are grey and naked. Parks are colourless. It’s hard to recall the rainbow of leaves and flowers of previous seasons.

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Each activity needed for nature to live and thrive is allotted a time. An appointed space in the calendar for a specific purpose to enable the whole to operate. The rhythm of winter, spring, summer and fall, is a promise of hope straight from Genesis: “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” Genesis 8:22

In other words, while there is life, there will be seasons to sustain that life. The sustaining includes a series of events by which life must diminish, weaken, and die, to then regenerate and bloom again. To be fruitful. To be born again.

I think of the seasons of life. The entrance into a different chapter requiring new rhythms. Motherhood. College. Marriage. New job. Divorce. Moving. The death of a loved one. Growing up. Growing old. Like in nature, to enter a new stage of life usually means the ceasing of another. Something is given up to gain something. The college student gains more freedom and gives up the comfort of the familiar. Motherhood is an invitation to live for someone else and no longer is your time yours. When you marry, mine becomes ours, I is now we, and so goes for the calendar, the budget, and the remote control.

Mostly these are small deaths unto the self. But, what does it mean to die to oneself? Perhaps the better question is, what does it feel like? Sometimes it feels like a disappointment.  Or giving up a preference. It often feels like the unwanted middle seat in a row of three of an airplane. Uncomfortable. Not our first choice. Can we take this back, please? - we ask.

I think of my husband who every day dies a hundred little deaths to put me, his wife, first. I think of the way a parent will forgo personal comfort to provide for their child.

It is both simple and so hard to die to oneself. To let that seed of desire and pride to fall and crack open, be rendered small, that I may grow into someone that understands the cross better. It’s not our natural bend. None of us begin our day thinking of ways to give up what we want, go last in line, give up our seat and stand on our tired feet, and trust that we will still feel full after giving up our space. Because a small part of me dies, and I don’t want to.

But if a healthy thriving life implies dying that we may be made fruitful, then we need help outside of ourselves.

These words of Jesus strike me: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” John 12:24 (ESV). The New International Version says, “it remains only a single seed,” as in fruitless.

If I remain all of me, my desires and my will unhindered, I remain only a seed. No fruit. Like a kernel of wheat, when I am broken, my life is fertile.

Some seasons feel like we are given more than we can bear, maybe because we are. Not to defeat us per say, but to help us need a Saviour more than we need to have our way.

Like nature, seasons shift us dramatically from one state to another. Who we are and what supports it, falls apart. It’s like a seed. It must hit the ground. It must break open. Then it will germinate, take root. And in due time, the old patterns of thought, old habits we like a little too much, give way to new ones. That is the Master Gardener pruning and cultivating the heart, that out of a single seed broken it may yield life. That’s what Jesus is doing in your life and mine through the season we are facing now and the ones to come. And it is ultimately good. Because He is good.