hope

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 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,

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.

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!

When Life is Too Hard to Live

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(Photo and drawing by my husband Gustavo Ruiz.) 

I wrote this on Saturday. The day announced beautiful, with a bright sun and cool breeze. The kind that brings home the idea of fresh new mercies. Yet, all I kept thinking was Anthony Bourdain's eleven-year-old daughter. Nothing about Saturday felt fresh when I thought of her and the family. The newness of a regular sunny Saturday felt dark, painful; a new I desperately wished to be old, before Friday, for her. I prayed while crying for a stranger’s child, who didn’t feel like a stranger to me.

That Friday, each time I heard the news anchor say “…he took his own life” the words felt too heavy to receive. Less than a week before, designer Kate Spade also took her life. Something about life ending by one’s own devices screams wrong in the soul. Why?! We ask. What happened?

Anthony Bourdain's death hit me and my husband closer than expected. Like many, we enjoyed his amazing expeditions around the globe recording a wonderful mixture of culture, gastronomy, and most of all humanity. He was no doubt very skilled in the kitchen. Personally, his diet scared me more than enticed me. But his storytelling I found spellbinding. He made the culture he visited feel seen and heard. And then shared it with us through the common and every day; one plate of food and conversation at a time.

I feel heartbroken. For the people that will have to reconstruct life minus one who leaves a void that can’t be filled.  My heart breaks for Anthony and for Kate. I call them by their first names because they were -aside from their fame and success- like you and me. They had jobs, friends, loved ones, dreams, good days, and bad ones. Until one day putting an end to it all seemed to be the only option. I do not know what made them make that final choice, nor do I mean with these lines to assume I do. I weep with their families, because I weep for humanity, for us all. We are broken and can’t fix ourselves. Our time is made of moments, and the sum of them makes our life. How much one single moment can carry, Lord; how much it can take away. One moment can splinter everything.

I have wrestled with these words. I hesitate to share because there is such a stigma about mental health. I also hesitate for fear of being judged as an adult unable to function despite being a healthy, educated woman with a life by all accounts pleasant with “no real problems”. But as a follower of Christ, I belong to one body with many parts. So, I want to share honestly and openly for the sake of the body member who might be reading this, and find in these words, that you are not alone.

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In November of 2014, I was wrapping up my last week at my well-paying corporate job. For the previous three years, I was a successful Senior Account Manager. My clients were big name companies. I had worked hard to earn their respect and establish my credibility as someone smart and reliable, able to offer strategies that could make a difference for their business.

I travelled occasionally on site to present findings to C-level executives, usually directors and VPs. The travelling was just the right amount, enough to make it exciting and yet occasional enough to not drain. My salary had been increasing steadily and by the time I left I was earning well. I was also held in high regard by my boss, my clients, my team and the CEO of the company.

Yet, by fall of that year, I was also suicidal.

For the previous 15 years, I had relentlessly pursued a very specific definition of success. I had traced myself career goals that encompassed climbing up a never-ending ladder, searching for the next achievement. My heart longed after what my bank account would say about me, how impressive my resume might look to the beholder. Meeting those goals became my life. The line between career and purpose blurred into a shade of sameness.

I want to tell twenty and thirty-year-old me that it is not the what that makes it or breaks it, it’s the why. And my why was breaking me.

I want to clarify, a corporate job, a good salary, travelling for business, and a portfolio of big-name clients, are all fine goals. I am in no way suggesting these are evil things to have or to desire. It’s why I was pursuing these things, which revealed the condition of my heart. My inner narrative said that to be a person of consequence, to be regarded as worthy, I needed to add to what is already there. Because what is there was too small to be important. And I wanted to feel important.

For that entire year leading up to November, I was exhausted. I slept poorly and was falling into deep depression. I came to believe that my life made no difference. I felt empty. The definition of self that I had built was not holding up. I remember feeling like there was no way out of feeling this way. Like I had no choice.

My husband started noticing my exhaustion and would comment that I looked tired. Was I ok? Then a few weeks later, he would say “you don’t look well sweetie, talk to me.” I told him I just felt awful, but that it was me, not us. “When you are not ok, we’re not ok,” he replied.

It made little sense to me at the time. One day he looked at me and said, “honey you know you can walk any time.” But somehow, I didn’t think so.

You see, the identity I had built was so strongly rooted, I struggled thinking if I quit what would I do?! More importantly, who would I be? After all, mature, together people, don’t just quit their jobs. They do so if they have a better one lined up. I was too burnt out to look for anything.

It got worse. I remember one day, on the bus on my way back from the office going home. It was toward the last days of summer. The sun was setting, and it was beautiful. The colours in the sky were amazing. And in the most sincere and natural manner, I thought “I will miss this when I’m gone. It’s so beautiful.” I realized immediately what I had meant by when I’m gone. I scolded my mind for thinking such a thing. Yet in my depressed state, I wanted to entertain the thought. And I did.

As the first days of fall appeared, my spirit became more and more restless. My depression reached its peak. I would cry regularly. I would muster an unbelievable strength to show up to work and put up a front to be functional for the hours I was in the office.

I always did my job. Always up to par with my peers, meeting my responsibilities, and even trying to outperform my own objectives. And again, gaining the praise of my superiors and clients alike. I was “attaining” what I wanted; that which I had worked so hard for. Yet inside I felt depleted. I would arrive home beyond worn-out, a shadow of a person.

During that time, I would often go for walks in the evening to try and clear my mind, as the thoughts and feeling of anguish were oppressive. There is an indoor pool in our building. We never use it. Once I walked by it around 10 pm. There was a sign that said it was locked to the public after 9 pm. I remember thinking - I guess it’s better if it’s locked, It would be so tempting to just go and drown, and end this.

My heart was empty, and my mind was a dark place. The meaning I successfully built was not giving me any significance at all. I was successful on the outside. Inside I was literally a dying soul.

I was addicted to what my job fed in me. Like an addict needs his fix to function; I needed to derive meaning from the existence I thought I had created for myself. The problem is that it was not giving me the fix I wanted. Not anymore. That sense of importance, I was somebody because of what I did. I could not quit that. So, quitting my life instead, seemed to be the option left. That is how blinded I had become.

God’s saving grace came through the few who knew I was not well. I reached out to my best friend in the US regularly, often through sobs on the phone more than anything. I did speak with my husband, although he was the one who did most of the talking, trying to reach out to me. And there was a co-worker, who is also a friend, and a brother in Christ, who saw the severity of my state.

They didn’t tire of speaking truth and wisdom even -and especially- when it seemed I wasn’t listening. I believe, especially their prayers made a dent. I came to an abrupt conclusion that I needed to quit my job, more than my life. Although at the time the two were one and the same thing to me.

Quitting was an ordeal for me. Because breaking up with your addiction is hard to do. But by God’s grace, I did leave. The suicidal thoughts slowly subsided, while the depression lingered for a long while. The road to recovery has been a slow steady one. One baby step at a time, letting new narratives from God’s Word take captive old ones and replace them. Much like a recovering alcoholic, I now walk through life with a deep sense of sober-minded awareness. Identity, purpose, and success are all definitions I revise regularly against eternal perspective, rather than the here and now. My life is now small, and my God big. It is a blessed shift that has literally saved my life.

I feel the burden to open my eyes wide to those I share my life with, to try to see them, to hear them. My neighbours, my church, my friends online, abroad, and those I see every week here in my city. If you are clear-headed as you read this, please embrace that burden too.

If you are struggling, I may not know you personally or the root of your struggle, but I know the burden of a life too heavy to carry. YOU ARE NOT ALONE. And your life is of immeasurable value, for the simple reason that you are an image bearer. There is grace for you. Please reach out, talk to someone. Let someone do the talking like my husband did with me. Allow others an opportunity to prove you wrong and let God, through them, show you He is present and cares. Please give your life a second chance. After all, we say everyone is worth that. So are you.

Whatever you are facing, please let this speak Truth into your life:

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. Matthew 19:26

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Suicide Prevention

Canada–in French or English: Phone toll-free 1-833-456-4566 /Text: 45645 /Chat: crisisservicescanada.ca

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