Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Cactus, 2011

Last year, I wrote about how God used a strange and beautiful flower to speak to me about His character. This year, when Michael and I got to my mother's house in South Carolina, we saw that same flower in the doorway. A friend of hers raises these flowers and had given her one as a Christmas gift.

As I've been enjoying her potted Christmas cactus in the doorway, I've been reminded of God's faithfulness in a specific way. Seeing the flower again- being given a picture of God's goodness again- has been timely, because this past week it seems that I've been learning some of the same lessons- again- that I thought I learned years ago. I've been amazed at God's patience with me. His kindness leads me to repentance- again and again and again. Not only does He tenderly shepherd my wandering heart and use my own sin to instruct and restore me, but He does so every time I falter and fall. There's no "three strike" mentality with my good Shepherd, with my loving Father, with my faithful bridegroom.

The cactus came to mind yesterday as I was journaling. I wrote, "You allow my rebellion to bear its own fruit and You let it sting me, but You never desert or reject me in the process, even though that's exactly what I deserve." I thought of the thorns on the cactus. And then I thought of the surprisingly beautiful bloom that emerges from the thorny stems and felt God's tender instruction, "And I can still bring beauty out of the worst of it."

This is my story- God allowing the thorns of my broken life to show, only to display the true wonder of His beauty in the midst of it all. My story is of God making a broken life beautiful.

To read what I wrote about the cactus last year, see here.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Real Christmas

When I think "Christmas", I think warm and fuzzy. I think sparkly things everywhere and music that makes me feel cozy inside. Let's be honest- I think of all the stuff that advertisers want me to think. I've settled for a storefront depiction of Christmas, complete with a shiny nativity. This sleek Bethlehem stable with livestock smiling, Mary and Jesus snuggling, and angels performing live music in the background is very attractive. It's clean- we like that. (Who wants to see a bloody nativity?) It's romantic. More importantly, it makes me feel how I want to feel.

But this week I was realizing, it's not very real. In fact, not only is it a phony depiction of a live birth in a stable, but it's probably the polar opposite of reality for the family of Jesus. I mean here's a woman giving birth to her first child- a terrifying act in and of itself- displaced from her home, having just spent days on the back of a donkey, now holed up in a barn. Every comfort a woman would hope for during her first delivery- every familiarity, every expectation of warm fuzzy feelings- stripped from her. And here I am feeling depressed if I don't get a tree to don our window and make our house smell "Christmas-ey". Here I am realizing that my expectations for the meaningful events of my life have far more to do with nurturing a sense of comfort and security than perhaps anything else.

So today, I really thought about Mary, and the most meaningful event of her life. Blessed among women, chosen for one of the greatest tasks in redemptive history- and God didn't even save a hotel room for her. After all the persecution she bore for this child, after being so flexible and willing to travel at the end of her pregnancy- her reward was a cattle stall. Did she feel neglected? Did she ask whether or not God cared about her hopes and dreams for her family? Did she feel shame? Depression? I know I would. I actually started crying at the thought of giving birth to my first child in a shack for animals. I don't know that I'd be willing to give up my expectations- and my sense of comfort and security- if God asked it of me.

So back to the nativity scene- the real one, this time with a probably teary-eyed Mary and a terrified Joseph. I thought of the absolute mystery that the God of the universe- the Sovereign Lord over all creation- would choose this entry into the world. This, the Long Expected Messiah, the King of Israel, the Holy One- He is more worthy than all we have to offer. And yet He chose the lowliest of places. He chose to turn our expectations upside down. Instead of a comfortable, cozy first appearance that would appease our religious sensibilities and our aesthetic preferences, He chose His own way- the way of a servant. He chose to teach us all about who He really is from the moment of His birth.

I used to think I already knew the story of the first Christmas. I was very wrong. I'm realizing that it's a story I'll need to hear again and again- not because it makes me feel warm and fuzzy, but because it's uncomfortable. Because it challenges my expectations. Because like He did for Mary, Jesus turned my hopes and dreams upside down too- and in exchange, gave me greater joy than I could have ever imagined. I'm realizing that the joy of Christmas is a real joy- not the plastic, shiny kind found in storefronts, but a joy that's stained with blood and sweat and tears, like the ones that brought Christ into the world. It's not clean, and it's not romantic. But it's real- and it can survive even when every expectation and every comfort is lost.

This is an amazing song about the first Christmas. Click here to listen to the music.

It was not a silent night

There was blood on the ground

You could hear a woman cry

In the alleyways that night

On the streets of David's town

And the stable was not clean

And the cobblestones were cold

And little Mary full of grace
With the tears upon her face

Had no mother's hand to hold

It was a labor of pain

It was a cold sky above

But for the girl on the ground in the dark
With every beat of her beautiful heart

It was a labor of love

Noble Joseph at her side

Callused hands and weary eyes

There were no midwives to be found

In the streets of David's town

In the middle of the night

So he held her and he prayed

Shafts of moonlight on his face
But the baby in her womb,

He was the maker of the moon

He was the Author of the faith

That could make the mountains move

It was a labor of pain

It was a cold sky above

But for the girl on the ground in the dark

With every beat of her beautiful heart

It was a labor of love

For little Mary full of grace
With the tears upon her face

It was a labor of love

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

High School Hurts

Speaking of awkward growth, I've got to admit something. Something that God has been working on for a while with me- something that's a little tender to write about. I still have hurts from high school. Now, before you write me off- or laugh me off- for saying that, ask yourself:

Do you have hurts from high school? I bet you do. Even if you were the skinniest, prettiest, most popular girl in high school, I bet you have memories that still sting you. Despite what the movies tell us, it's not just the "nerds" who get their feelings hurt and it's not just the "popular kids" landing the blows. People, of all shapes and sizes and with all kinds of GPA's and extra-curricular activities, sin against each other and burn each other.

So back to my awkward growth. Maybe your hurts from high school were dealt with in a timely manner. Maybe you addressed your fears and sought reconciliation. Or maybe you're like me and you tried to stuff some of it under the rug. Maybe you made it your job to find a distraction from those awkward feelings, whether your "drug of choice" was a new boyfriend or a perfect SAT score or beer pong every weekend.

I tried out a number of strategies. They all brought temporary relief, but eventually revealed their inability to deliver me from the pain. Even after I found a new area of the country and a whole new "people group", those hurtful memories remained. I was wrong in thinking they would "just go away". I was also wrong in thinking that if I could roll my eyes about where "they" chose for college or what "they" liked to do on the weekends, I'd be able to write off the hurt they had made me feel. Sooner or later I realized that all those strategies were a bit self-defensive. They were a bit dishonest. They were a bit idolatrous.

Here's what I mean. When I take the protection of my heart into my own hands, I have to come up with all kinds of dishonest ways to do it. I have to avoid those who hurt me. I have to write them off. I have to become bitter and resentful. I realized that by doing those things, I was actually refusing to put my trust in God- because putting my trust in God would mean letting myself feel those hurts, acknowledging the damage done to my soul, and probably having a lot of awkward conversations! And I was not about to give "them" the satisfaction of letting them know they hurt me. Ha! So instead of trust in God and face the trauma, I trusted in me and made things worse. That familiar knot in my stomach hadn't gone away; I had just piled more layers of garbage over it.

Oh, did I mention that another reason I wanted to avoid the hurt was because I also wanted to avoid responsibility for my own sin? For every blow I took in high school, I can pretty clearly remember dishing one out myself. Now, again- I bought into the movie lie that "the mean kids" in high school deserve it when everyone deserts them in the end. I bought the lie that God probably wouldn't see my hurt as valid because I took part in something that made me "deserve" what I got. I had it coming to me, so why ask God for sympathy? Better just try and stuff it down.

But God is so good in showing me where I'm wrong. He's so good in showing me that throughout the history of His people, God has been comforting them in their suffering- even when it is largely self-inflicted. This God compels me to cast off my measly attempts at self-protection when He invites me to run to Him for comfort; even a comfort I don't "deserve". In that, I'm finding the freedom to acknowledge my own sin and ask those I've hurt for forgiveness.

It has taken time for God to peel back the layers of garbage I've piled up in self-protection and melt my heart with the gospel. It has taken time for me to unclench my fists and release to Him the hurt I'd been burying. And, here's the funny thing- releasing it to God doesn't mean the hurt goes away. Sometimes it means I feel it more deeply. But that's the beauty of the gospel! It frees me up to actually feel what's happening. Because of the cross, I can acknowledge that others have sinned against me and hurt me, and that God is a God of comfort. Because of the cross, I can also acknowledge that I am guilty of inflicting the very same pain on others, and that God is a God of forgiveness- a forgiveness which is offered both to me and to those who caused me pain.

If you suffered in high school, or if you're carrying any deeply buried hurt from the past (even if it's from yesterday!), consider two things:
1) Are your strategies for self-protection working, or are they only causing you more pain?
2) Would you like the freedom of being forgiven and forgiving, rather than hiding the shame?

Don't be afraid to let yourself feel pain. Trust in the God who knows pain well and offers comfort, no matter whose "fault" it is. Run to Him.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Awkward Growth

A few nights ago, I helped coordinate and execute a 700 person event. Those of you who know me might giggle trying to imagine me keeping track of the amount of details necessary for running a show that big! Those of you who know my sin struggles might wince trying to imagine me handling the expectations of so many co-workers and collaborators on a night with so much at stake.

Let's just say that God is doing the very thing I've been blogging about these past few weeks: He's been growing me. Giving me a little bit more to practice. Stretching me. Pushing the envelope of my personality by giving my disorganized, forgetful self a bit more responsibility. Challenging the fears deep inside me by forcing me to face others' disappointment with my performance. Encouraging me to step into uncharted waters by calling me to do something I have no "track record" of success in. Allowing me to do something new that might include failure.

He's loving me by making me uncomfortable. He's letting me deal with that anxious knot in my stomach. He's letting me walk where I'm not totally confident walking. He's not sheltering me from discomfort or even failure. He's growing me. He's loving me.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Forgetful Me

Yesterday I laughed to myself while re-reading my last blog post. I laughed because I had so smoothly spoken of my trust in God's promises to equip me for a future calling, and of my confidence in His timing to do so. I laughed because yesterday, none of that was true.

Yesterday, I decided I wanted to know what was happening after seminary, and I wanted to know now. I even decided to "figure out" what we should be doing after seminary by listing off my current strengths and weaknesses. Furthermore, I decided to be pouty towards my husband since he wasn't willing to hash out the "rest of our lives" conversation with me, and I decided God was in on it too and it wasn't fair for Him to leave me in the dark about things. Doesn't He care? Doesn't He know I want to do whatever He calls us to? All I wanted was someone to throw me a bone here!

Needless to say, I went to church yesterday feeling a little bit neglected. Feeling a little hurt, actually. Then I felt annoyed when I discovered my own pastor wasn't even preaching at our was Paul Tripp, my seminary professor! Now, in previous posts I've written about how much I admire Tripp- everything from his message to his mustache- but I just wasn't in the mood, well, for anything. So I decided to huff and puff about my oh-so-holy efforts to go to church on a busy week only to find something other than I anticipated.

It would take too much space to write all the things I learned in church that night. But here are a few things I want to share. I was reminded of Jesus' commitment to me, even when it means disagreeing with me or doing things I don't like. I was reminded that sometimes His silence, His refusal to bow down to my every demand (i.e., "tell me what we're doing in the future!!!") and His willingness to let me squirm with discomfort are actually evidences of His love and grace toward me.

I was reminded that I really am like a little sheep, proclaiming with confidence God's trustworthiness in one moment, and running away in fear the next. I was reminded that even if I could have spit out Tripp's major bullet points before he said them, I needed to hear them. I was reminded that the steadfast, stable, faithful One in this relationship between us is not me, it's God.

I was reminded most of all that Christ's love for me is so jaw-dropping because of all these things. He knows in my moments of confidence that I'll be crashing again in a few days (or even a few hours!) He knows that He'll have to keep teaching me the same thing day after day, week after week, year after year. He knows that even when He has shown nothing but faithfulness, I'll still run away from Him in anger when He does something I don't like. He knows that my trust in Him hangs on a thread, weakened and corrupted by sin. Yet He bears with me. He chooses to do life with me. He invites me into His arms to comfort me immediately after revealing this sin that I've carried against Him.

He is a good shepherd to this forgetful little sheep. He is a good husband to this untrusting wife. He is a good Father to this fearful child. He is good, and my very discomfort is grace to help me see it.