Eternity in Our Hearts

Bringing what endures into everyday life


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questions while sitting in the fog

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Questions fill my days, looming like a murky and stubborn fog, without sudden breakthroughs. I don’t know that they’re good questions. They’re just …. questions, those uncertainties which accompany me when I don’t see the next step ahead. Clarity is quite appealing, I think. I mean, the questions, good or not, are keeping me awake at night. A direct answer would make a nice pillow after all. Then, when I rise to a bright and clear morning, I’ll do what God tells me to do.

All I’m looking for is a “yes” or a “no.”

This morning, after another night of wondering, of wrestling, a memory came to mind. (I knew it was a thought not my own, seeing that I was pre-caffeinated.) I remembered how, just days before, in a training session on small group leadership, I described the skill of asking good questions, the kind which are open-ended, which can’t be answered with the simple “yes” or “no.”

Good questions are those which invite group members to process and think and reflect, even to struggle a bit, if that’s what it takes to move information from the head to the heart. As Jim Branch says, “A good question creates dialogue and interaction and life … A good question invites us to go inward, to the very core of our being, and seek something deep within ourselves.”

As a mom of a teenager, one question in particular haunts me: Who am I going to be when she leaves?

It’s not a question that can be answered with a “yes” or a “no.” Perhaps more than any question I’ve ever asked, it’s this one that invites me to go inward.

Jesus wants the core of my being. And He is so committed to developing faith in me that He might not give pat answers, for those answers make trust unnecessary. Instead, He leads me to the open-ends, which usually means waiting and mystery and longing. The open-ends create space for grace where I slowly learn that the way of faith is not something I achieve. The Way of faith is a Person I receive.

This kind of faith transforms my questions.  I am prone to pray, “What do You want me to do?” But the Holy Spirit leads me to pray, “Who do You want me to become?”

It’s a tremendous shift, one that says “yes” to relationship, which involves more than simply following directives. It invites the Spirit to do tough, tender transformation within my soul. It is the work of grace and not the work of works. It is open-handedness, requiring all of me, nothing closed off, everything made plain to see, all surrendered.

“Who do You want me to become?” is a question that acknowledges that life is not a linear experience from one simple task to another. Rather, it’s a layered story, with subplots and loose ends and mystery. And I might be tempted to think my story is all about me, but God is writing the pages, crafting each chapter in due season. It’s His story.

It’s not that I have an answer for “Who I am going to be when she leaves?” as much as I have an Author who will guide me through that chapter when it comes.  And in the fog, faith says that’s all I need to see for now.

What questions are you asking today?

Of course, we all know, don’t we, that there are other kinds of questions. These are cries of a heart that is broken and grieving. Maybe we aren’t necessary looking for answers, for sometimes an explanation for “Why?” can’t change the situation anyway.

King David expressed this kind of heart’s cry: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.” (Psalm 22:1–2)

In our small group training, we discussed the value of silence. Anyone who’s led a small group knows the awkwardness of asking a question that’s met with silence. And we are tempted to fill that uncomfortable void with our voices, perhaps cutting off the opportunity for deeper reflection and movement from head to heart. As an introvert, I need time and quietness to process my thoughts inwardly before jumping to quick answers. But when the Lord seems to reply with silence, I feel frustrated, confused, even rejected. Obviously, my pain hasn’t caught Him off-guard, as if He needs time to formulate solutions.

God is never truly silent; the truth is that He speaks all the time in creation and in His Word. But sometimes we perceive His silence in ways that seem almost palpable, like a wilderness where we hunger and thirst without relief. But could it be that, only in the ways of God, silence is still a conversation, deeply inward? It can be a space where we learn to trust His promises and not our perceptions, where we come to discover Him in ways we missed when we walked by sight, where we seek Him not for the fixing but for His face.

Here, perhaps once again, the good question isn’t “what?” or even “why?” but “Who?” When we haven’t received the answers, when we can’t perceive His voice, let us lean in to knowing Him more, the Author who knows all mysteries and holds grace in their midst.

A Prayer for Those Sitting in the Fog ~

We confess our love of cloudless days, bright mornings, clearly marked pathways. We confess our discomfort in the fog but recognize a longing we discover there too. Even as we confess our desire for answers, may we learn to walk humbly with questions. Help us to find your company beside us as we crouch in the darkness and wait for the first light of dawn. Help us to know Your presence in ways we may have overlooked if not for our inability to see.  Emily P. Freeman, Simply Tuesday.

 

 

 

 


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Five Minute Friday :: path

Trust in the Lord with all our heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways, acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight. Proverbs 3:5 – 6

Father, in my understanding, I’m prone to think that a straight path is linear and predictable, progressing in neat and timely fashion from Point A to Point B to Point C. I confess that I’ve often expected the path of a Christ-follower to look like this.

But Lord, nothing seems straightforward these days. How long will I wander? Here I am, humbled and needful and seeking.

How I need Your grace to move forward in faith, not in my own plans but in Your wiser ways. I think You are asking me to release what I thought “straight” was meant to be. Could it be that I have sought a clear path more than I have sought You, Yourself? Forgive me, Lord, for seeking clarity more than Your company.

In the midst of these interruptions, delays, and detours, I want to bury hope in the ground, but Lord, I ask for a seed of faith to sow instead. As my heart aches with disappointment, I long to believe that You have appointed something lovely to rise from the soil of my need. If the fruit is a deeper dependence upon You, I will taste and see that You are good.

And when this path is steep and strewn with obstacles, strengthen me to surrender my inclination for the easy roads. May I step forward bravely because You are a true and trustworthy guide.

Father, I pray for the grace to keep my eyes on the path you have chosen for me uniquely, and not the path of another. Sometimes I stumble through a fog of comparison. I look around instead of looking ahead. In those moments, Father, I need You to fix my gaze straight to Christ.

Help me, Lord, to remember that Your upward calling on my life is firstly to You, not to a job or a role or an accomplishment or whatever I think makes me significant.

Gracious Father, I know that as long as You’re with me, there is more joy in this journey than a direct route to Point C could ever offer.  Walk with me, and I with You, and that is enough.  Amen.

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Five Minute Friday is a weekly link-up where we write for five minutes on a specific word of the week. Click [here] to head to Kate Motaung’s site for more thoughts on the word “path.”

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Dear younger me (the anorexia years)

I recently heard Dear Younger Me, a new song by Mercy Me and I wondered – if I wrote a letter to my younger self, what would I say and what time of life would I choose? Middle school? High school? College? Those were certainly significant seasons when I made decisions that have shaped who I am today. But undoubtedly I would write to the person I was in the most heart-wrenching and pivotal time of my life – in my mid-twenties when I struggled for 5+ years against anorexia. Many years later, here is what I would say to that young woman –

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Dear younger me,

This is not the end. Night is darkest just before the morning. I’m writing to tell you that there is hope. I know it’s hard to believe now, but you need to know that healing and joy await you. But freedom will come at a cost, and I am years down the road to tell you that your life is worth it.

You are not your eating disorder. I know you feel utterly consumed by shame and fear. You think that little exists of your life other than your obsession with controlling your weight and your calories. You feel, not only in body but also in mind and in soul, a sliver of the person you used to be. But you are still you – lover of all things Disney, gardener, sports fan, bookworm, wife, daughter, sister, friend.

Let me tell you who you are most importantly. You are a beautiful daughter of God, and He has not turned from you. He created you according to His pleasure and His purpose, and that hasn’t changed (Ephesians 1 and 2). You still make Him smile. He still sings songs of love over you (Zephaniah 3:17).

God’s plans for you remain full of promise (Jeremiah 29:11). Your mistakes won’t negate His love for you (Romans 8:38-39; Psalm 103:12). One pound more or one pound less cannot change one ounce of His delight for you. The way you idolize control breaks His heart but it doesn’t break His unfailing acceptance.

You are redeemed and glorious because you bear God’s image, and He sees beyond your destructive behavior into the heart that He fights for.

Do you think that God would uniquely and purposefully create you, provide a way for your eternal peace through the anguish of the Cross, and then weigh you down with the burden of proving your worth? No, He is waiting for you to come to Him and receive the rest of knowing that Jesus is enough.

Younger me, you can overcome. You have not received a spirit that makes you a slave to fear but you have received the Spirit of a child of God (2 Timothy 1:7, Romans 8:15). You believe in the Resurrection. Did you know that the same power lives in you? Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (2 Corinthians 3:17). Because I’ve known you for awhile, I can say that you aren’t brave except for the power that Jesus gives you. And He will give.

Desperately cling to His strength for one decision at a time. Your grip on control is just an illusion, but the older me can tell you that Jesus is victorious, and He will break the chains that have held you captive.  In Christ, the old will pass away and the new will come! (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Jesus gave His all to pluck you from the hands of destruction. As you claim Christ, you are not your own; you were bought with a precious price (1 Corinthians 6:19 – 20). Jesus promises neither an easy life nor a culturally prosperous life but He promises that you will find your deepest, most liberating satisfaction in trusting Him (John 10:10). This means that you must open your hands. You must let go. Your freedom will become reality as you yield to the Lord.

To be accepted and to be approved, you have tried too hard for too long. When you say yes to surrender, you will be okay. Jesus will gently guide you to trust your counselors and your nutritionist. I know some people say that you should just pray more, but you really do need your helpers. They are a part of God’s provision for your healing. And at the point of every eating decision, Jesus will make you brave. You may be embarrassed to attend a support group but God will place compassionate people in your path who believe there is a healthy and whole woman inside of you, and they will rejoice as she emerges. Every time you loosen your grip, remember that she is worth it.

Let me tell you why healing is worth every painful choice. The Author of your story has much more to write. He longs to weave redemption into every page. Younger me, Psalm 107 will become for you a word of testimony:

Let the redeemed of the Lord say so … Some wandered in desert wastelands; they were hungry and thirsty and their lives ebbed away.

They cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and He delivered them.

Let them give thanks to the Lord for His love and for His miracles. He satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry.

Some sat in gloom and darkness; they were prisoners suffering in chains … they refused to eat anything and drew near the gates of death.

In their misery they cried out to God. He sent forth His word and healed them. Let them give thanks to the Lord for His love and for His miracles.

Let them tell of His works with songs of joy.

Younger me, your people are going to stay. They are God’s gracious gift to you. Your husband will love you persistently. God has made him brave too. One day, together, you will marvel at what God has done (Psalm 126:3). Your marriage will be sweeter and stronger and more precious that you have ever imagined.

Your mama and daddy will have full hearts once again. One day, sooner than you might expect, they will need you, and you will be there. Jesus will make it so.

Some friends will fall away because watching you go through this is too awkward and painful. But I think you already know who the steadfast friends will be. Ahead there will be lighthearted times when you laugh freely with them again.

Although you think that you’ve damaged your body to that point that pregnancy is impossible, God is able (Ephesians 3:20). One day, this deep desire of your heart will be met in one whose name means “song of joy.”

God has plans for His glory through your healing. You will share your recovery story in magazines, with high school students, and through something called the internet.

Younger me, you will come to the place where you finally forgive yourself. Yes, you’ve lost your career; you’ve been ridiculed and rejected by people who said hurtful things. But one day you will know that God wastes nothing. Somehow, in His plan, He turns ashes into beauty (Isaiah 61:3). You will experience a deeper compassion for yourself and for people battling addictions and shame.  One day you will seek out hurting women and lead support groups; it will not be comfortable, but God will make you comfort-able (2 Corinthians 1:4).

And finally, one day, freedom will taste so good. You will receive gifts, even the ones with calories, with deep joy and gratitude. Your legs will run, without compulsion, but with an appreciation for the ability to exercise a healthy body. You’ll travel across the world to countries where you’ll eat bizarre foods and thrive in the crazy, once unimaginable, adventure of it all. You will embrace celebration and creativity through food as its power over you is submitted daily to the Cross. And as your loved ones gather around the table, it will no longer be a place of angst and concern. You will join them in communion, in thanksgiving, in the fullness of gladness and life.

Girl, you have a lot of life ahead of you. Go and live free. I can’t wait to meet you here.

To God be the glory,

~ Renee, your older me

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Such good words of hope from Holley Gerth:

You are living a story today. A story crafted and told by the Author of heaven. The star-scatterer. The mountain-mover. The water-walker. It is a story of grace. A story of hope. A story of, most of all, love.

Sometimes the plot is confusing. Or strange. Or sad. Sometimes we want to cut a chapter out with sharp scissors. Sometimes we want to be the editors with the red ink. Sometimes we want to skip right to the end just to make sure it says “and they lived happily ever after.”

But this is not our role. It is not for us to say, “This is what happens next” or “I’m changing the ending.” Instead we are to trust, to wait, to be in the middle of the mystery. There is so much we do not know, that we will not know, but we can be certain of this: the Author is good and we are loved … there is a God at work who has always been speaking, always been creating something beautiful in the middle of the broken.

I’m one of many writers who are joining Holley’s link-up today. Together, we are grateful that Jesus holds the pen.

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Speaking Life in the Small

Last week my husband and I received an email we didn’t expect. Our daughter is entering high school next year, and the college placement team reached out to say it is time to meet. I am not prepared for such preparations. What is expected, of course, is to say that just yesterday I was brushing her hair into a Pebbles-style ponytail right on top of her sweet little head. But it’s true.

What seems especially ironic or painful or some emotion I can’t articulate is that all this transition and looking forward for her comes on the cusp of a mid-life birthday for me. Here I am, looking backward and wondering where life veered from what I expected. It’s not necessarily cliché, nor is it crisis; it’s just real-life awareness that I am not really in control of anything.

I can’t stop my girl from growing up, and for all my own attempts to move upward, including a post-grad degree that took 11 years to complete, I’m in a place where I can choose to be disillusioned or to accept that life happens and circumstances sometimes collide with dreams and I feel as small as ever.

The complicating thing is that I have a really beautiful life. My blessings are abundant, and I know that the lines have fallen for me in very pleasant places (Psalm 16:6).

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Here, I am learning that my questions don’t mean that I am ungrateful; they mean that I am human.

Usually when I write, the editor in me gets in the way. Because I am actually employed as a writing editor. It is hard to write without evaluating every.single.word. (Is it grammatically correct to begin a sentence with because? Ugh.) But when I do, I am surprised at what revelation comes out. And so perhaps I need to pay attention to the above paragraph, where I off-the-cuff wrote that I have invested years and money in moving “upward.”

Is upward what I have wanted?

In itself, I see nothing wrong with this. I am for education and hard work and dreaming (and even college placement meetings *sigh*). I want this path for my daughter. My parents and my husband provided every opportunity for me to develop my potential and chase my desires, and how could I not look at this place in her life without dreamy (yet misty) eyes?

But as I grow deeper in relationship with Christ, I’m increasingly moving toward acceptance, even comfort, with a small life.

As an American, I live in a culture where small and upward are seemingly incongruent. But I am firstly a citizen of another Kingdom, where the highest goal is to go small. I think of John the Baptist who, when his followers left to pursue Jesus, said “He must become greater and I must become less” (John 3:30). And of him, Jesus said, “Among those born of women is none greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11).

I also think of the widow who gave the smallest offering, a mere two coins, and Jesus esteemed her offering – all that she possessed – as the greatest (Luke 21:1 – 4).  Even the apostle Paul, who had once relished the utmost in accolades and accomplishment, surrendered everything – counted it as garbage even – in order to move forward with Christ (Philippians 3).

Some of my lifelong goals are yet unrealized. When I set my perspective on God’s grace, sovereignty, wisdom, and the call of discipleship, I’m really okay with this.

I am learning that I never needed those accomplishments to validate me, because who I am in Christ is enough. Perhaps small fits best. (Hey, I always wanted to be a size small).

I should clarify what I mean by “small.” Part of my life mission statement is that I will “speak life.” By this I mean that I want my words and actions to be a voice for the dignity of life, in every stage and status.  I am inspired when I see other people doing this in “big” ways, crusading on platforms for justice and equality. I have sat in forums and movies where I was deeply moved by Christ-followers who have, in large-scale ways, been champions for the outcast. I’ve wanted to do that too.

And as I went to special events and heard the stories of young women who were forced into sex slavery or child marriage, I was inspired by the heroes who rescued them. I’d say, however, that I always had one reaction more urgent than any other. As much as I appreciated the message, I couldn’t wait to bolt from those events and go home and wrap my daughter in my arms. It was an expression of my motherly-gut-level calling to speak life to her.

Most victims of human trafficking are deceived into believing that they aren’t worthy of anything else. But they are created by God to bear His image, and that makes them beautiful and worthy. Every person needs to know this about themselves. My daughter needs to know this about herself, and God has gifted her to me for a season. I am telling her that she is God’s hand-crafted, priceless possession.

My calling may be very small-scale. But I am realizing that it is no less significant.

Perhaps you are like me, living a seemingly small-scale life that feels more ordinary than extraordinary. But Christ-follower, it is significant. This day is one ordained by God to move you into His will and His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). You have a God-given design and purpose to influence your people and your community as no one else can.

You wipe noses and pick up toys all day …

You crunch numbers in a cubicle …

You sit with the lonely …

You spend out of your own salary to supply your classroom …

You write words that you think no one reads …

You stroke the hand of your frail loved one …

You serve in the church nursery …

You take in a child without a home …

You go to your prayer closet where no one sees …

You choose integrity in your job day in and day out …

You are speaking life. You are living your sacred responsibility to help others realize that they are God’s beloved.

So what do I say to my daughter? These years are pivotal, a time for her to dream big.  I want that for her. And I want her to be small too, in the way that Christ is greater and she is lesser, and every ordinary day is ordained by Him and for Him.

I want my child to speak life, whether from a platform or a pick-up game with kids from the other side of town. They may seem big; they may seem small; what matters is that there are God-sized plans awaiting her.

And you too.

Every small way is no small thing in the Kingdom.

The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus. (2)

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Such a good word from Jennifer Dukes Lee:

Could we, artists and writers and mothers and fathers and preachers and teachers and ordinary, everyday pilgrims — could we willingly lay down our lives for a life separated with Christ — a life hid in Christ with God?

And there, we would find the only approval that matters. 

And we would know it with certainty:

that it’s the approval we always had.

Writers are speaking life with Jennifer Dukes Lee and #TellHisStory.

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Connecting with other speakers of life @ Missional Women and Faith Filled Friday.

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Read this insightful post about a Christ-follower’s perspective on ambition at Purposeful Faith with Kelly Balarie.

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I’m having Coffee for Your Heart with my friend Holley Gerth

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Linking today with Thought Provoking Thursday @3dlessonsforlife

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When hope seems pressed thin

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We wake up to terrible news again … more violence and bloodshed, and we are saddened for Europe and the world. I imagine the European airport where my family will enter and depart in a few months, and my heart shrinks a bit. How do we live in this world – when despair feels overbearing and hope is pressed thin?

As I read about the final earthly steps of our Lord, I imagine Him in Gethsemane where He went to pray through the agonizing anticipation of the Cross. Gethsemane, which means “place where the oil is pressed,” was at the foot of the Mount of Olives. There, our Savior said yes to His Father’s will, that He would suffer the unthinkable weight of our sin and judgment in our place.

Olives were pressed under the weight of a millstone until the oil flowed out from the crushed pulp. The imagery of Gethsemane is fitting in light of Isaiah’s prophecy:

He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain … Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted … he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53: 3 – 5).

Jesus endured suffering and shame because of His love for His Father and for us. And He did it for joy. Hebrews 12:2 says, “Because of the joy awaiting him, (Jesus) endured the cross, disregarding its shame.”

Scripture indicates that oil is a symbol of purity, light, healing, and the joy of God’s presence.

 

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Like an olive crushed for its oil, Jesus’ suffering yielded a precious treasure. Again, Isaiah’s prophecy points us to Jesus:

“The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me (the Messiah), because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and … to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning…” (Isaiah 61: 1- 3)

The living Savior invites us to a joy-filled life, the kind of joy that comes through fellowship with Him, even in – especially in – suffering. It is a joy that is marked by surrender, by the willingness for self to be pressed out and replaced with Christ.

To the Son, God says –

Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever.
    You rule with a scepter of justice.
You love justice and hate evil.
    Therefore, O God, your God has anointed you,
    pouring out the oil of joy on you more than on anyone else. (Hebrews 1: 8 -9)

Jesus hurts with us in these times of grief and trouble and brokenness. He draws near to those who are crushed in spirit. But Jesus is drenched in joy because He endures.

He is Risen is still the news of the day, of everyday. Jesus rose from the grave to resurrect our joy, not necessarily a cheerful joy, but a resolute knowing that He has the final word. Because of Jesus, there is no weight of desperation that can hold us down. In Him, we can have the kind of joy which overflows and overcomes.

 “The Savior looks upon the redeemed with an unspeakable delight, thinks of what they used to be, thinks of what they would have been, thinks of what they now are, thinks of what he means to make them in that great day when they shall rise from the dead; and as his heart is full of love to them he joys in their joy, and exults in their exultation … There is a joy of our Lord into which he will give his faithful ones to enter, a joy which he has won by passing through the shame and grief by which he has redeemed mankind.

The oil of gladness is abundantly poured on that head which once was crowned with thorns.” Charles Spurgeon

“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow,will return with songs of joy,
carrying sheaves with them. Psalm 126: 5 – 6

You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy. Psalm 30:11

 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. Psalm 51:8

When justice is done, it brings joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers. Proverbs 21:15

Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way;
say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you.”

 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.

 Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.

And a highway will be there;
it will be called the Way of Holiness;
it will be for those who walk on that Way.
The unclean will not journey on it;
wicked fools will not go about on it.

 No lion will be there,
nor any ravenous beast;
they will not be found there.
But only the redeemed will walk there,

   and those the Lord has rescued will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away ~ From Isaiah 35


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That Day I Went to the Hospital in February

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I want to become a potter. I checked last week at a local studio, and taking classes is cost-prohibitive right now. But getting my hands dirty at a potter’s wheel is definitely on my bucket list. So, I investigated the idea, but those details don’t really matter as I write about what I learned this month.

It was a tender punch in the gut that taught me what I really needed to know in February. I’ll explain:

Although I had volunteered to visit patients in the hospital on Thursdays in February, my attitude was no less than rotten on a particular Thursday in February. I grumbled that I was too busy with necessary errands, and this visit was another “have-to.”

But I went through the motions anyway, bellyached about clueless drivers going the wrong way in the hospital’s parking deck, and hastily said a prayer after maneuvering my car into a too-small space.

Lord, I need you.

As I found the room and peeked through the crack in the door, I happened upon an interaction between the patient, an elderly gentleman, and a female employee who was tending to him. But before I knocked, I dropped my fist. I was immediately taken with this woman and how gently she wiped the patient’s face and how kindly she smoothed his rumpled gown and how honorably she talked with him.

At that door, I remember how my clenched fist opened.

After noticing that I was standing there, the woman waved me in and carried on with cleaning up what was left of his lunch. But there was no abruptness, no hurry; she carried herself with joy and purpose. I realized that she worked with food services, and I’ve been in the hospital enough to know that this dear woman was going above the call of duty.

She simply could have walked in, asked for the tray, and walked out. That’s the expected job. While her example of compassion walked across my heart, she stepped past me, taking a quick glance at my name tag. Then her eyes warmly met mine.

I really enjoy my job, Renee.”

I think it was her saying my name that felt like a punch. I stood straighter, while every hint of “ought-to” and “have-to” that I had carried into the hospital disintegrated. Yet it was so sweet, so heaven-sent, so vivid, so deliberate. Suddenly I was the patient, encumbered by self-absorption and wearied from joyless, dutiful “ministry.”

On a Thursday in February, God sent my healthy body to the hospital to heal my ailing soul.

My plea for help had been answered in a person – without knowing she was being watched – who showed me the delight of “get-to.”

She didn’t have to clean the patient’s messy face and soiled clothes. She didn’t have to do her task with deliberate slowness in order to treat him like a person and not a job. But she got to, and with joy.

What does this encounter have to do with my interest in pottery? Well, nothing specific in that moment, except that I returned home and watched a potter on You Tube.

Flickr. Jase Hill, CC 2.0.

As the wheel spun, the potter pressed her fingers into the center of a ball of clay until she pulled up its sides into the shape of a cylinder. “Opening” is the part of the pottery process in which the potter works deep into the mass of clay in order to create space. In the opening process, the potter transformed the mass into a useable vessel.

Oh, what a kind, merciful, patient Redeemer we have. While religion tells us what we must do to shape up, Grace gives a Potter who reaches for us in our frailty, who stirs within us – to shape us, even that He might use us.

With kindness, He pushes aside everything that has distracted and indulged us and hindered space for Him and His design. With purpose, He empties us of ourselves that we may be filled with Him and poured out for others.

The process of opening requires surrender and yes, often it is painful; yet when we allow God space for His Spirit, we become receivers — vessels emptied of ourselves and filled, even overflowing, with grace.

As Romans 5 says, God pours His love into our hearts, not only to satisfy us but to spill from us. Think of how different our world might be if our homes and communities were soaked with the overflow of God’s love, if we allow such love to turn our perspective of “have-to” into “get-to.”

May we take courage and open our fists and embrace the surrender of being as we were meant to be – emptied and filled and poured out.

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Emily P. Freeman hosts What We Learned, a monthly practice to learn and share the value of looking back before moving forward. To discover what lessons other writers are sharing from February, click {here}. I especially appreciate what Emily shares about Amelie’s French Bakery in Charlotte (because I get to live in Charlotte, a place I love).


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Discomfort and Joy

As I knelt to tie her shoes, a precious child with blond curls and bright eyes looked squarely into mine and whispered, “My mommy and daddy live in a hotel.” I gulped and replied with words wise and profound:

“Do you like your pink shoes?”

Of course, the truth is that I didn’t know what to say. My heart winced for this sweet foster child who leapt from the floor and twirled before the mirror in her sparkly silver skirt. She and her foster mom were our guests in the Mosaic Style with Love store, where foster children receive a personalized shopping experience where words of affirmation and blessing are offered, along with new clothes, shoes, and accessories.

In this instance, though, I couldn’t come up with timely words. I side-glanced at her foster mom who gave me a half-smile, an embarrassed “she-just-says-these-things” smile. Eventually the awkwardness passed as we admired the tip-toe dance of pink shoes and a sequin skirt.

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A few months earlier, my friend and I were in eastern Europe, alongside women in the kind of crisis and poverty that rattles my sheltered imagination. Their social worker, a Christ-follower who devotedly pours herself into their lives, had planned a retreat and asked us to speak about the love of Jesus. As we worked through our rehearsed outline, she interpreted for us.

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About midway through, a woman interrupted. I didn’t understand her words but they sounded cutting and irritable. Our interpreter explained her agitation: “I don’t see God loving me. I don’t feel God loving me. I’m waiting for God to love me!

I gulped and I don’t remember if I said anything, profound or not. But another woman in the group – a woman whose crumbling home I’ve entered with disbelieving eyes, a woman who clings to her faith despite illness and poverty – spoke to her friend in their shared language:

“God is loving you right now. While you are sitting here, with these friends who love you, with your social worker who loves you. God loves you right here and now.”

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After these two experiences in 2015, I don’t see “missions” – local or global – the same way. Perhaps not consciously, but I once viewed missions as an “us” and “them” enterprise. And “us” consisted of the ones with the spiritual answers, the resources, the polish and the shine. Maybe that kind of missional approach meets some temporary needs and provides a few feel-good moments. But can it create joy or sustain transformation for either “us” or “them?” It puffs up but it doesn’t build up.

I discovered, as I looked these precious souls in the eyes, that I have zero to offer out of an “us” and “them” mentality. My only offering comes out of an admission that we are together human and needful of grace. And what I offer oftentimes lacks polish or the timely word or the right answer to hard questions. But Jesus calls me to uncomfortable places where people say things that I don’t expect. They are honest. If I enter their experiences, why should they insulate me? And so, my own humanity feels exposed.

But while these scenarios were discomforting, I can’t name two more fulfilling experiences of the past year.

Lord, I thank You for the discomfort. Can I say, that in its midst, I felt the joyful awareness of standing upon holy ground? It’s here where I examine my heart and ask if I am willing to be broken, as a seed which gives life.

An “us” and “team” mentality spoils a missions effort by 1) implying a condescension that steals dignity and robs fellowship and 2) leading people to think that they must have it all together and/or 3) compartmentalizing missions into occasional good works without growth toward a missional lifestyle.

If it means that I am all the more aware of my frailty, my tendency to be tongue-tied, and my needfulness, then Lord, send me. And thank You for the amazing thought that you use us, not despite our brokenness, but surely through our brokenness. Your power is made perfect in our weakness.

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I long for the fellowship of authenticity, as the “other” is human and vulnerable yet dignified, made in God’s glorious image. In truth, I don’t want to go on as an “other” – the one from the “right” side of town or the free, prosperous country who visits occasionally and returns safely to her sanctified bubble. This shared discomfort, between “others” colliding, gives us a glimpse of the incarnation – of Jesus becoming body in our humble, earthen mess.

In a world where people live in shady hotels and crumbling shacks, He came to “pitch his tent” (John 1:14). If Jesus incarnated Himself to birth in a manger, refugee status in Egypt, and to “have no place to lay his head,” surely we will experience Him in a new way when we identify with the “least of these.”

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Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” When we have a true perspective of our own poverty before God, without pretense or agenda, that humble spirit allows us into genuine fellowship with our brothers and sisters, and we see Him — in a foster mother, in an impoverished but grateful woman, in a social worker – those who pitch their tents and stay awhile. Missional living, after all, isn’t about “us” or “them” but about Jesus and His love being incarnated through human hands and feet.

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Perhaps I don’t yet fully understand what personal transformations and sacrifices this kind of mission – this pitching the tent – requires of me. But an incarnational life requires an encounter with the Cross.

Here I am, Lord (Isaiah 6:8).

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From Henri Nouwen, Here and Now: Living in the Spirit, pages 104 – 105:

Compassion is something other than pity. Pity suggests distance, even a certain condescension. We can come close to another person only when we are willing to become vulnerable ourselves.

A compassionate person says: “I am your brother; I am your sister; I am human, fragile, and mortal, just like you. I am not scandalized by your tears, nor afraid of your pain. I too have wept. I too have felt pain.”

We can be with the other only when the other ceases to be “other” and becomes like us.

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There are 400,000 children in the foster system in United States. Many children enter into foster homes with just a few articles of clothing and necessities. Christ-followers are called to “take up the cause of the fatherless” (Isaiah 1:17). The Mosaic Style with Love store is one way that members of Carmel Baptist Church are answering this call. Find out more [here].

 


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November Teaches Us to Have Open Hands

“Did you know that fall exists because of the Fall?”

My daughter asks me this as we talk about what she learned in Chapel.

“I haven’t thought of it that way but I know the leaves, so beautiful in all their colors, are in the process of dying.”

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We watch leaves fall to earth and reflect on autumn as a season of beauty and death, letting go and giving thanks. The crimson and golden leaves express the truth that beauty and death exist harmoniously, and can we accept this?

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The cycles of sowing, harvesting, degeneration, and rebirth are a natural, rhythmical part of our landscapes. Genesis tells us, however, that God created the Garden to be a place of continual abundance. Ever since the first sin, our sustenance from the land requires labor and vulnerability to drought, storms, and decay.

Our hearts know the vulnerability too. Emotionally we pass through seasons of abundance, seasons of loss. Past Novembers have found me in a cancer clinic, a funeral home, and a mental health hospital.

In such places, how do I give thanks?

As I remember these things and think about the conversation with my daughter, I ponder the thought that God made autumn, the dying season, beautiful anyway. I see myself in the letting-go, one leaf after another releasing from the limbs. The hope of redemption is the only thing that roots me. While November reminds me of pain, it also offers me a picture of the Gospel. Although death and devastation of the heart entered the human story, God married the gut-wrenching and the glorious at the Cross. 

November, the dying season, teaches me that these shriveled and decaying leaves produce rich soil for new life to grow.

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In moments of seeking life out of loss, I read reflective thoughts on the season, and I’m drawn to this:

Fall is a season for accepting the impermanence of things.

My heart says yes. This is way my soul has learned to live. How else can I open my fist and accept hope – except for the truth that only eternity is permanent?

And how else can I find purpose in this life – except to open my fist and say yes to generosity because nothing I possess is mine for keeps?

On this day when the gold and crimson fall like rain, my heart whispers a prayer of Moses: “Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”

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About Thanksgiving, C.S. Lewis wrote, “Let us give thanks and walk into Advent knowing that time is manufactured for eternity and the breath of humanity for the glory of God.”

November portrays the wisdom of open hands, of trusting that I am deeply rooted in grace and I will be okay when it’s time to release. When it comes to things most important, most significant, and most enduring, I’ve received all that I need, and no matter what happens, it is well. When the winds blow and the seasons change, my soul is held fast in permanence.

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And so, all that I have and all that I am on this side of heaven are gifts to me but not mine to hold. As I am a receiver, I am also a releaser. Whatever is impermanent – my possessions, my time – can be lifted from my hands on the winds of God’s will to higher purposes, if He chooses.

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Those with open hands, who let the leaves fall and who watch for spring, are the ones who learn to say “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

The process of releasing our thanks, with our very lives, is no easy fix, no recipe for blunting our pain, no emotional escapism. Sometimes my hands ball up into fists and I want to fight. Yet grace reminds me that Jesus renounced His will and opened His hands on the Cross out of love. And as the recipient of such love, I can always be grateful even when I cannot be happy.

“God is good” is not some trite quip for the good days but a radical defiant cry for the terrible days “God is good” is not a stale one-liner when all’s happy but a saving lifeline when all’s hard…. Thanksgiving in all things accepts the deep mystery of God through everything. ~ Ann Voskamp

And so, November, this time of impermanence – for me, this time of hard things, is my reminder that only God can intermingle hope with death, gain with loss, suffering with redemption, and eternity with humanity.

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“Did you know that fall exists because of the Fall?”

Yes, and God made autumn beautiful anyway.


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Saying Yes Where You Are

“(God) says to ordinary people like me and you that instead of closing our eyes and bowing our heads, sometimes God wants us to keep our eyes open for people in need, do something about it, and bow our whole lives to Him instead.” – Bob Goff, Love Does

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I knew that we would quickly fall for the Albanian children at the orphanage. I felt it when the oldest, an eight-year-old girl with a gleam of mischief in her eyes, took the opportunity once the translator stepped out of the room to speak directly to the unsuspecting Americans:

What’s your name?”

This bright, bubbly child turned out to be a pint-sized translator herself:

Me – “Crayon?”

L – “Lapsi.”

Me – “Orange?”

L – “Portokalli.”

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My memories of my friend and her little sister are rooted in my heart. I was allowed to take a few pictures on our last day together. Most of the pictures are blurry, and eventually my mind’s eye will grow dim, but the eyes of my soul cannot un-see these children.

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But there was a time (not so long ago) when I succumbed to a feeling of helplessness at the darkness and suffering and injustice in our world and I basically chose to “un-see” the needful person across the street and across the sea.

My question was this – What can one ordinary person do to make a difference?

As I struggled with my hesitations and limitations, the Holy Spirit nudged me with another question, plus a challenge:

What difference does Jesus make in my life? Start there.

As I thought about these things, I read books by Richard Stearns, Henry Blackaby, and Emily Freeman which encouraged me to bridge the gap between sacred and secular and to open my eyes to all of life, even in my ordinariness, as my offering.

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Whatever you and I do, we are designed like no one else to say something unique and purposeful about God with our lives. As Emily Freeman says, creating a life of meaning is not about finding that one great thing you were meant to do. God has created you, Image Bearer, to know Him and to express Him in a million little ways.

The difference that Jesus makes in my life is that I’ve been saved by grace through faith, and Scripture says that this is a gift from God and not the outcome of my works (Ephesians 2:8). It’s tempting, in our cultural mindset, to be outcome-driven, even thinking that ministry is our deal, our doing.

But Ephesians 2:10 tells us that we are God’s workmanship, created by Him for good works He planned before we were born. What we have to offer is by God’s design and doing. Recognizing this truth has freed me from the burden of outcomes. No, I can’t change the world but I’m not called to. I’m called to offer my heart, my voice, my hands and feet and let God work as He will.

I alone cannot change the world but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples. (2)

While we’re waiting for a place where we’re significant and sufficient, He’s asking us to begin with a small step of obedience.

An outcome-mindset comes easily to someone like me who wants to do some good, feel successful in it, and make the world seem more neat and tidy.

An offering-mindset is rooted in the belief that I can do nothing good except for God’s grace in me. Sometimes – most times – this is an uncomfortable process because God shows up best through weakness and humility. But could it be that God’s work is best seen in surrendered people, not skilled people?

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In our individualistic culture, it’s tempting to see ourselves as do-good lone rangers. But Ephesians 2:10 says that we are God’s workmanship and we are better together as each part of the Body of Christ does its unique and valuable part. God designed us to serve alongside, not alone.

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I’m learning that yes – I have a responsibility to this world, but when I am concentrating on my gifts, my purpose, my weaknesses, my calling, I am getting in the way. It’s all His deal, and what a privilege you and I have to be a collective part of His story. Let’s be available and willing to see what He does.

We are all in full-time Christian service …. What has God given you? Moses had a stick. David had a slingshot, and Paul had a pen. Mother Teresa possessed a love for the poor; Billy Graham, a gift for preaching; and Joni Eareckson Tada, a disability. What did they have in common? A willingness to let God use whatever they had, even if it didn’t seem very useful … We may not be clear on just how God wants to use us. But that’s no excuse for doing nothing. Just jump in, and start doing.”  Richard Stearns, The Hole in our Gospel

God is greater than our gifts, and I think He wants us to keep our eyes on Him and open to the unexpected ways He is working. Your offering and my offering, wherever our mission fields may be, matter to Him.

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When you ask God to help you see, He will open your eyes and your heart in a way that’s unique to you. His calling may not lead you to another country. God intentionally places us in our families, neighborhoods, and local communities too. What you offer in these places is significant and sacred.

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The Great Commission is lived out through bedtime prayers, peanut butter sandwiches, a pick-up soccer game with the refugee kids, a gift to the crisis pregnancy center, a Sunday morning in the special needs class.

The hands and feet of Jesus represent the showing-up part, but they respond to the seeing part.

God invites me and you into His work. We don’t have to figure out where we fit. He will lead us when we keep our eyes open.

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So, let’s not limit ourselves by the question – What can one person do to make a difference?

Instead let’s ask – What difference does Jesus make in my life? and Where is He working?

And let us start there. We can create a ripple effect that swells into a current of life-giving love.

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“Saying yes isn’t really about doing it all. It’s about saying yes right where you are. It may seem small or insignificant, but any time you love someone or care for another person’s needs, you’re changing their world, and yours too. It’s about looking up from your everyday life and seeing opportunities around you to make a difference. It’s about loving others as we are loved.” – Kristen Welch, Rhinestone Jesus: Saying Yes to God When Sparkly, Safe Faith is No Longer Enough

Emily Freeman, A Million Little Ways and Simply Tuesday: Small Moment Living in a Fast Moving World

Richard Stearns, The Hole in our Gospel and Unfinished: Believing is Only the Beginning

Henry Blackaby, Richard Blackaby, and Claude King, Experiencing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God

 

 


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Sacred September (because you are an artist and your art matters)

“We’re in a lull right now,” and I knew what the radio announcer meant — it’s the in-between of seasons. School & football have started and daylight is waning but I’m not ready for raking leaves and buying pumpkin-everything.

I’m wearing long-sleeves & jeans while my daughter is in shorts because we can’t figure out what to wear. Sandals or boots today?

Seems to early to plant pansies, but my flower beds that bloomed heartily in the heart of summer are tired and done.

September lulls me back into a reluctant place of fixing lunches and checking homework and making lists and running errands. The beginning of September, like a second January of sorts, was filled with newness and expectancy, but now our days feel stalled in the “in-between.”

Flickr - mcamcamca. CC2.0

Photo credit, mcamcamca. CC2.0

Gone are the carefree days of summer and yet to come are the cozy comforts of fall. It’s just an ordinary day.

These are the days when my creativity is as drained as my flowers, or so I think. I’d like to be inspired by the autumn reds, yellows, and oranges but those colors have yet to burst on the scene. Maybe I could compose inspirational words about Thanksgiving but it’s not the giving-thanks season.

Hmm.

Perhaps you feel this way? Could you be in an in-between place too? Life feels kind of uninspiring, maybe small. There’s nothing especially spectacular about you or your world at the moment. Maybe a season of productivity has wilted like tired flowers. Do you have anything to offer? You wonder if God is able to use you in this place, this lull.

But even if you don’t claim “art” as a profession or hobby, you’re an artist. Did you know that?  Every day you’re given opportunities to tell a story, weave words into conversation, create environments for your professional and personal relationships, and reflect the image of our creative and caring God.

God can use you in the lull. This ordinary place can be a meaningful offering, and perhaps an eye-opener to the million little ways that God is showing up in your life, ready to be expressed in your world.

I believe this because I’m reading A Million Little Ways by Emily Freeman.

“When we resist living within our ordinary days, we are in danger of losing a sense of ourselves. We don’t need to walk away from our routines and daily rhythms to find something more interesting. More often we need to wake up to them” (page 118).

Sacred happens between the church aisles, but may God give us eyes to see Him in the grocery aisle, the hallways of home, the neighborhood sidewalks, and all the ordinary, ordained paths that make up life.

Photo courtesy of Flickr, Kate Ter Haar. CC2.0

Flickr, Kate Ter Haar. CC2.0

I recently traveled a painful journey through sickness and loss, with crisis moments along the way. And just months ago, I experienced the kind of poverty that wrecked my insulated, North American existence.

Why, why, why would I feel dulled by ordinary days?

Perhaps in managing life, I’m missing life being beautiful.

To me, this ordinary day finds me not at the hospital or responding to an emergency or wondering where my child’s next meal will come from. In my context, ordinary is quite a gift. But I’m not entitled to ordinary. I never know when life will bottom out or go roller-coaster on me again, so each ordinary moment offers me a choice about my perspective. Will boredom or blessing set the tone of this day?

Ordinary days – September days – consist of life-giving moments. Instead of waiting for the next big thing, I want to settle into the small beauty of packing lunches and checking homework (except math).  Little moments of intimacy can matter for eternity while grandiose moments of importance might last as long as the wood, hay, and stubble.

My soul craves a giving-thanks day every day. A lull can be a holy space to simply breathe and receive grace; to stop controlling and allow Him to design the canvas; to step back and be yielded to the vision of the Artist; to pause and behold what He calls beautiful.

Ordinary is where our most God-glorifying art comes from. As we search for God’s purpose for our lives, He’s beckoning us to just pay attention to where He is working.

The beauty of our lives is drawn out of our response to God, and He meets us, not just on Sundays, but in the seeking heart.

Prixel Creative @ Lightstock

Prixel Creative @ Lightstock

Friend, your ordinary matters.

“Ministering in everyday opportunities that surround us does not mean that we select our own surroundings— it means being God’s very special choice to be available for use in any of the seemingly random surroundings which He has engineered for us. The very character we exhibit in our present surroundings is an indication of what we will be like in other surroundings.

The things Jesus did were the most menial of everyday tasks, and this is an indication that it takes all of God’s power in me to accomplish even the most common tasks in His way. Can I use a towel as He did? Towels, dishes, sandals, and all the other ordinary things in our lives reveal what we are made of more quickly than anything else. It takes God Almighty Incarnate in us to do the most menial duty as it ought to be done.” Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, entry for September 11.

Your art is made of whatever opportunity you have to sanctify life and glorify God. Whatever your art is – your parenting, your listening, your befriending, your mastery with numbers, your teaching, your writing, your praying, your building, your homemaking, your giving – it matters.

You are God’s workmanship, and any given day holds holy, if unexpected, moments in which He can orchestrate experiences where His glory blows your blinders off.

Fellow artist, let’s show up to the page.  Let’s be who we are and offer our ordinary without concerning ourselves with the outcomes. Sacred things happen in September.

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The meaning of our lives is not dependent upon what we make of it but of what he is making of us … What makes us come alive goes deeper that what we choose to do in our professions and our free time. What makes us come alive is life, and this life is Jesus. Painting, cooking, parenting, calculating, and conversation all have the potential to hold within them a mystery and an expression of our life in Christ.  Emily Freeman, A Million Little Ways, page 30.

“It is ingrained in us that we have to do exceptional things for God – but we do not. We have to be exceptional in the ordinary things of life, and holy on the ordinary streets, among ordinary people – and this is not learned in five minutes.” Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest.

“The discovery of God lies in the daily and the ordinary, not in the spectacular and the heroic. If we cannot find God in the routines of home and shop, then we will not find Him at all.” Richard Foster, Prayer.

I found the Oswald Chambers and Richard Foster quotes in Emily Freeman’s Simply Tuesday, her latest book on the grace & beauty of small-moment living.