Younger and Older: Counseling Women

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One morning last week, after tossing and turning and unsuccessfully trying to fall back to sleep, I rose out of bed early and came out to the kitchen with my journal to pray. I wrote, “I feel like I’m too much for people right now. I’m so needy for love and wisdom and healing- desperate to bear my soul and hear words of truth and love. But, I feel like that is just too much- the layers are too deep, too much to burden anyone with. It would just suck the life out of friendships.”

Am I the only one who feels this way sometimes? Or maybe this why we have such a booming counseling business in our country?  Somehow, we know that in order to overcome what is inside it needs to be exposed to someone else. We need to reveal the reality of who we are and we desperately want to find grace and understanding. But we don’t want to risk hurting our friendships by exposing too much neediness or vulnerability. So, we pay to have someone on our side and if we give them money, and make it a professional service, we don’t have to feel guilty about the burden we also hand them.

I think there is a good place and a need for professional counselors, along with their training and skills that give them insight and the ability to teach helpful ways of coping with difficult things. But, I’m becoming more and more passionate about the kind of counseling that I have seen continually transform my darkest days of life into fruit-bearing and light shining seasons.

When I was in college I read a book about spiritual mothering. I don’t remember a lot about it, other than it left me longing for a mature Christian woman to take me under her wing. I wanted someone who would be committed to helping me grow, be invested in my life and a resource to come to with all my questions and needs.  She would of course be wise, and would have likely homeschooled her own large brood of children, could clean, cook, garden, organize and decorate, and she would check in on me frequently and offer her jewels of wisdom and practical assistance at just the right times. As a young wife, realizing that marriage, even to your best friend, was more complicated than I thought, and then as a young, exhausted mother, this longing turned into an idol in my heart. If only I had that ‘spiritual mother’, someone with all the answers and able to devote time to teaching me how to be a wife and mother, then I would be a better Christian. I would grow. I would be healthy.

It’s a misplaced hope to think that one person could swoop in and meet all of our emotional and practical needs. That spiritual mother I was looking for didn’t exist. I felt like God was withholding something good from me for a long time, when really, he had provided something much better that I just didn’t recognize. He made me a part of a diverse, beautiful, growing church. Last week, I once again overcame that fear of revealing my mess and leaned hard into relationship. And, once again, I was left in awe of the wisdom of God in placing us in community. I came away with a better understanding of what was at the heart of my problem, and a deeper appreciation for the friends God has placed in my path as counselors, along with a deeper love of the gospel, which gives insight into human nature, and helps us to not be surprised by sin and brokenness. Not to mention, my friends make me laugh. What a gift from a happy God.

In the book of Titus in the Bible, the church is given a model for how the older women are to teach, or counsel, the younger women. I find that I’m both that older and younger woman now… somewhere in the middle and so blessed to be both walking with women in seasons that I’ve already experienced, while also learning from the wisdom and experience of women a step, or a few steps, ahead. I have something I would love to say to both…

To the younger women:

First, please be brave. As hard and as intimidating as it is, you need to reach out to more mature women you respect. You need to ignore the thoughts in your head that tell you that they are too busy, you are too insignificant, or that you would be a bother. If you are living in a season we’ve already been through, your problems don’t scare us. But, you need to take the initiative and the risk in reaching out. Too often, we as older women don’t assume you need or want our counsel because we don’t always recognize either your need or our insight.

Also, please be open-handed. Don’t let your need for counsel develop into a utilitarian view of women with some experience and insight that you want to learn from. Remember that they are your sisters in Christ, in need of the encouragement and friendship you can offer as well. Look for ways to bless them, especially through your prayers for them. And, as you pray, God will mature your heart at the same time. You will take their burdens, some that you haven’t faced yet– like an empty nest or the care of an aging parent– and your heart will wrestle with these issues on their behalf. You will be more ready to face them yourself someday because of your faithful prayers for older women. Look for ways to bless and care for them even as you let them know how much you need their love and counsel.

And that is so important… let it be known. Be honest. Go beyond the point of comfort. Peel back a layer beyond the one that feels safe and experience grace and love entering into a deeper place.  Even if you feel like you are taking more than you’re giving, keep asking. It will bear fruit and before you know it you will be that older woman yourself, pouring out what you have received.  Be brave.

To the older women:

Please be kind. Please notice the younger women around you and ask them how you can be praying for them. They want to tell you and they need your prayers coming from a place of understanding.

If you understand the gospel, and it is the hope you cling to for all of life, then you are both qualified and needed to give counsel to younger women. The gospel allows you to step in with the truth about hope: that hope comes from God loving us in the midst of the messes. You have no idea how much just the fact that you have survived the season we’re in means to us younger women. There’s hope for us. And, if you’re honest about your failings along the way, that’s even better and gives us even more hope… we aren’t alone in our failures.

Please be careful of how you speak about others. We’re listening, and if we hear you divulging personal information about others or speaking disparagingly, we won’t feel safe coming to you with the things that are closest to our hearts. But, if you let us see your heart for others, and it’s one of grace, and your words communicate your care and concern, we will want to be added to those you know and love. 

Maybe sometimes we try your patience with our immaturity. Please keep being patient. In seasons to come, there will likely be the most fruit hanging from the branches that need the most growth now. Those are the areas the gospel still needs to penetrate and transform. Speak truth into our lives gently but boldly. We younger women don’t want to think we are right all the time about what we are thinking or feeling; we want to know the truth that brings hope- the truth that we are sometimes wrong and messed up but that we’re still loved and that God will keep working in those areas.

Remember, we don’t need perfection. We just really need your presence and availability. Take us seriously when we send you an email or make a phone call to tell you we are struggling and need counsel.  It means the perceived need is significant because it is so intimidating to take that step. Please be kind.

So, those are the things burdening my heart for both younger and older Christian women. They are coming from a passion that continues to grow and longs to see the church –the community of God’s people– thriving as a place where life-transforming counseling takes place in natural relationships being strengthened with His supernatural love.

But, even with that passion growing, I know that these relationships are imperfect. That morning, while I was sitting in the quiet kitchen, afraid to burden my friends, as I prayed I was reminded of another Counselor. One we don’t reveal ourselves to, but One who reveals us to ourselves.

In the sixteenth chapter of John’s summary of the life of Christ, the words of Jesus are recorded for us. He told his disciples that he had to leave, but that it was for their benefit that He would no longer be physically present with them. Shortly after this, Jesus died on the cross, paying with death the cost of sin and breaking its power to separate us from God. His sacrifice and life dramatically changed how God’s people would commune with Him. It was a turning point in all of history. There was a reconciliation so deep that not only can our sins be forgiven, but the Holy Spirit can draw so close that He abides in us and teaches us truth. He is our ultimate Counselor.

When I am feeling lost or puzzled, broken or hopeless, tired or frustrated, insecure or anxious, or any of the other countless emotions we as humans will experience, the first and perfect Counselor I need is God who has made his abode right here with me; He is here, always available, always wise, always pouring out truth and grace and always coming with life transforming, undeserved love. All because Jesus paid my counseling fee in full. I don’t have to worry about burdening Him beyond what He can handle, because He held the burden of the sin of the world on the cross. I don’t have to worry about Him growing weary with me, or giving up on me, because He chose to make me His when I was repulsively stuck in self-centered sin. He says He will stay with me and carry me through to completion. He knew me before I took my first breath, and he knows who I will be after my last breath is exhaled. Isn’t that encouraging truth? We are known and we are loved by the only one who knows us completely and can love us perfectly. That is transforming truth and that is the message of our deepest counsel to one another.

You have searched me, Lord,

and you know me.

You know when I sit and when I rise;

you perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down;

you are familiar with all my ways.

Before a word is on my tongue

you, Lord, know it completely.

You hem me in behind and before,

and you lay your hand upon me.

Psalm 139:1-5

The Provision of Friendship

IMG_0500We had a booming year for cucumbers; there are jars and jars of bread and butter pickles and some experimental dills. Next to them are jars of green tomato salsa, green beans and a long shelf full of little sweet dumpling squashes.  On the floor, five gallon buckets with oats and wheat berries wait to be turned into fresh bread all winter long. This time of year, with nine of us at the table and snow days ahead, there’s a drive inside to have the pantry shelves and freezer full. Just like a mother mouse finding seeds in the brown grasses, I find myself pushing my cart through the grocery store with an eye for what will keep.

I think of my great-grandmothers; Isabella came on a boat from England with a store of knowledge. She knew about finding herbs and roots and how to make people well. I imagine her, with small Charles and little Lucy trailing along behind, studying the Maine woods; an early scientist identifying plants and a doctor tucking her prescriptions away in a basket or apron pockets. When Lucy was a mother herself and held my grandmother in her arms, it was still natural to look to plants for food and medicine. But, as time passed and pharmacies with strong, effective remedies grew, it didn’t seem valuable to hold onto these old ways.  So, this fall I turned to Amazon Prime and put in an order so that the cabinet would be stocked with children’s Tylenol and cough syrup and vapor rub. The pantry has cans of ginger ale and Gatorade for those seemingly inevitable belly hurts with little ones.  I know Isabella and Lucy would have been thankful for a storehouse of these simple things that I can take for granted, like a way to so quickly bring down a fever in a small, hurting child. Still, there’s a wistfulness inside that makes me long for a walk in the woods beside these grandmothers, bent over the leaves and digging in the dirt for roots and being taught some of the old ways.

We had our first snowflakes last week. They came down in intervals with a cold sleety rain. My husband says he’s making an appointment to get snow tires on the van. The children want to know where their snow pants and boots are and we locate tubs and make sure everyone has sizes that fit.  Everyone has grown a size or more since spring.

There’s a fire in the woodstove every day now. And, rows and rows of firewood neatly stacked outside ready for little boys to see how high they can stack it in each other’s arms and still make it up the porch steps and through the house without dropping any; little boys that are strong for their age and grin when I tell them, “thank you for keeping our family so warm.”

I think we’re nearly ready.

I love the sense that we are prepared and can face days of being snowed in and still be warm, with food on our table and hot cocoa in our mugs.

But, even with all the coziness and feeling ready for winter days ahead, the last few weeks have been hard for me. I know there are people who struggle with dark, hard, debilitating periods of depression. I’ve had days of feeling down and melancholy, but never to the point where I would alarm a doctor if I filled out a questionnaire. So, it was surprising to me how heavy I have felt. There were some days when I could barely function. My kids had half-hearted schooling and minimal mothering with movies to keep them quiet. A couple of times, after getting a bare bones meal on the table, I would go straight to bed when my husband got home from work. I had nothing to give, no joy in anything, no desire for anything except to be alone in the dark and quiet.

I think this began with an email I woke up to one morning. The words were from a close friend and her news was devastating. Not only did my heart break and bleed with empathy for her pain and anxiety for her future, but old hurts from my own life were broken open. Old fears resurfaced and the world that had seemed bright and full of kind people seemed dark and deceptive and full of evil. It overwhelmed me. I couldn’t pull out truth or Bible verses to lift the weight because everything seemed so meaningless. Why had God created a world with so much darkness to begin with? The presence of the darkness just swallows any joy in the flickers of light. I was heavy and dark and only desiring quiet.

But, with seven children busting through my bedroom door and begging for snacks or to be read stories, that desire to be still couldn’t be satisfied.  I’m sad to say that it wasn’t with joy that I tended to their needs but it was with a discouraged drag of my feet. It was overwhelming to see, when I stopped feeling the motivation to sweep or pick up, how quickly our house became a disaster of puzzle pieces and crushed food and random sticks and rocks from outdoors. The chaos made me want to retreat even more.

And, it wasn’t just from the kids and the messes that I wanted to retreat. I didn’t want to answer the phone, emails from friends wanting to make plans made me cringe, my husband picked up groceries on his way home, and I started day dreaming of how I would take a six month sabbatical from church. The darkness I was giving into wanted to isolate me. The darkness wanted to drag me into a place where I couldn’t receive love or hear truth.

A while ago I made a commitment to myself. It was shortly after we moved down this long dirt road and into a place where it would be easy to become isolated. I made a decision to listen to that voice that pops up sometimes and tells me to withdraw from church or friends or social interactions; to listen, recognize it and to do just the opposite. If I start hearing lies run through my head like…

You’re just tired… you need to take a break from church or having people over and spend time with just you and God in the woods and quiet….

No one really cares about you so don’t bother them with your troubles… you should be strong enough to handle it yourself, anyway…

Don’t call that friend… she’s so busy… there are more important things on her plate than listening to you talk about yourself… 

When I start thinking thoughts that if followed through would separate me from people, I know it’s time to send an email or pick up the phone. It can feel so humbling to send an email saying, “I am feeling really down this week. I don’t even know why… but if you get a chance to call sometime I could really use a friend to talk with.”

And, just like storing food on pantry shelves or medicine in a cabinet, I try to prepare for times when I barely have the strength to reach out. I try to give stores of friendship to women in my life so that they can call on me when they barely have strength as well. The truth is, this world does have a lot of shadows and murky areas, and we are going to feel the weight of sad things. And, we just weren’t designed to go it alone.

Our church is really wonderful about providing meals to people who are sick or who have just had a baby. I have had seven babies while a part of this church family and on average have received probably eight to ten meals each baby. Not to mention when I broke my wrist and was delivered lasagna five or six times (I’m not exaggerating… the kids started asking what kind of bread we were having with our lasagna instead of what was for dinner). Preparing meals and caring for people in this way is such a kind, wonderful way to live in community. But, honestly, this was so hard for me to accept. As an independent New Englander, I know I can plan ahead and put meals in the freezer and we can do just fine on our own. I always had the urge to say, “Thank you anyway, but we don’t need help. Don’t put yourself out on our account.” I’ve had to learn and be stretched and to grow in the area of receiving. Receiving meals and receiving relationship. It is so much easier to be the strong one offering a helping hand. But to accept the hand that’s offered, or to reach out and ask for a hand, is so much harder for me. It’s coming to terms with both my need and my worth. It’s admitting that I’m weak and believing that I’m worth helping.

Several times in the last couple of weeks I’ve needed to do both. The ladies in my church have a prayer group where we share requests through email. I sent off a couple of humbling emails. I have had to answer the phone and respond to emails and say ‘yes’ to getting together with friends, some of whom reached out just because I had admitted I was struggling. One friend brought me and my kids into her house for an afternoon and we shared the sweet medicine of laughter. She’s a friend that I have a big store of history and vulnerability piled up from years of truthful conversations, so I didn’t need to say much. She knew why things were hard and we could just spend time together pushing the darkness back and letting in more light.

Today, I just got home from a visit with another dear friend. Earlier this week I couldn’t imagine packing up all the kids and getting us out of the house and being energetic enough to visit. But I said yes. And, I’m so glad I did. More light came pouring in.

I finally feel like I’m coming out of that darkness that wanted to swallow me and isolate me. Some courage is seeping back in and some energy is starting to flow again. As it does, I find myself being so thankful. Not just for the stores of food to keep us fed or medicine to keep us healthy, but the store of community that God has blessed me with; friendships and a connection to a church family that has been tended and preserved through time.

One of the last things Jesus told his friends, after he had washed their feet and fed them a meal, was that he had a new commandment for them. “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. “

For a long time, the mark of being right with God had been holiness.  Jesus was drawing his people together and giving them a new mark. His disciples are known by their love for one another; the humbling, sacrificial, self-exposing, grace-extending love of Jesus pouring from heart to heart.

If you feel alone today, and like there’s a cloud or weight of darkness, please take the one little (though I know it can be so hard and daunting) step of reaching out and letting someone know you are feeling that way. I would love to have a cup of tea with you and hear your story, whether you are feeling strong and happy or whether you are discouraged and down. Since distance is an issue, sometimes the telephone or email has to serve as our virtual tea table. But those thoughts that tell you it’s a sign of weakness to reach out or that nobody wants to hear just aren’t true. God created us with a need for one another. He knew that in all seasons, the joyful bursts in summer, the cold and biting days of winter and all days in between, we do best when we are together. The love and truth and grace he wants to pour on you and me, he so often pours through the words or touch or listening eyes of a friend. My lesson this month has once again led to a prayer… may he give us the strength and the grace we need not only to give, but also to receive this kind of love. And, may He produce in us the commitment and authenticity to work and grow stores of this kind of friendship, which is more precious than any wealth of provision on pantry shelves.

 

Another Beginning

Right Now

I’ve really been struggling with how to begin. This is one of those stories that weighs and pushes and won’t let go and won’t be forgotten until it’s released. So, I am just going to start with right now.

I just did the dishes and made sure teeth got brushed and read ‘Little Rabbit’s Loose Tooth’ and gave seven goodnight kisses. I talked with my husband about work and licensing the dog and made chicken salad for his lunch tomorrow with the leftovers from dinner.

My life is all about ordinary things.

This is a Tuesday, so tonight I gathered my Bible, my journal and this laptop and I made my way across the yard to the cabin; the tiny house for company and for quiet.

And, this is where the ordinary stops.

It’s been almost two years since I stood by the woodpile and felt the pleasure of God. One day I woke up with a letter in my mind that I felt compelled to write. As soon as my feet hit the floor I was writing it in my journal and I would write sentences between getting the kids breakfast and finding shoes and feeding the dog. When it was done I typed it up, attached it to an email and then came the moment when I couldn’t bring myself to send it. It took me over two weeks and some encouragement from a friend and mentor before I could bring myself to hit the send button. Insecurity was bubbling over as I thought about my words showing up in email inboxes. I left the computer and stepped outside to get firewood. That is when an unexplainable feeling came over me. There I was doing the ordinary thing of getting wood for the fire, and I suddenly was wrapped in a new sensation that felt like the pleasure of God. It was like he was smiling at my obedience.

I don’t think of myself as charismatic in my worship of God. I like things that are solid and orderly. I like to read and study, to be still and ponder, to hear wise people; to find truth and know it before I feel it. I don’t put a lot of stock in feelings or dreams or impressions. I love Christianity because it is verified by history and great thinkers and you can savor deep, satisfying theology that comes in heavy books and is laid out in letters and words and chapters. I love truth that can be found and sorted out and lined up and applied. Its orderly, it’s trustworthy, it’s solid.

But, God isn’t a theory. He isn’t a philosophy.

He says, “I Am.”

So, that is why I’m here tonight. Because I have another story that is pressing up and in and won’t let me forget it even though I keep trying. I have to remind myself why I’m writing. It isn’t to convince anyone or to teach or to promote myself. It’s to pour out my journey of faith the way it really is regardless of whether or not it sounds sane to others. It’s not to be right but it’s to be honest. It’s peeling back the self-protective skin and exposing the raw reality of my experiences of seeking and being sought. It’s because I believe that ‘He is’ and the pleasure of God is more satisfying than accolades from any other voices. So, this is the story that wants to be shared, and it begins with the same letter I sent two falls ago.

The Letter

To my precious sisters in Christ,

Since we moved to this hill in the ‘wilderness’, I’ve spent more time with my eyes turned skyward. Our home is open and full of windows facing the west so I find myself pausing often in my work to gaze at the sky. During the day the expanse calms my spirit. The sky is so big and my worries so small. At night when I pause to look up, a billion lights peering back make me gasp for breath. For a moment I feel exposed, finite and vulnerable. There is something about seeing this space between me and the stars that reminds me of our Maker’s power- that even makes me afraid.

And then I remember, “As high as the Heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him.”

This God who is so powerful that it makes me tremble to look at his creation, let alone himself, actually loves me with a love as great as the height of the heavens. Just a taste of this love does something to my soul. I hunger for more!

When God created humanity He breathed into us His life; He made us in His image so that we could be vessels that hold and reflect and delight in his glory. Even in this fallen, shamed woman there is something calling out for restoration- that part of me made to delight in God and to be delighted in by him longs to have its purpose fulfilled. And that is the beauty of the love of God… that it is not a passive love. It is a love that reaches down from its holiness and enters into our darkness. That fear when I look into the night sky is the feeling that I deserve to be crushed by the weight of that glory. I am condemned by the way the image of God in me has been broken and turned inward so that it seeks to find and reflect glory in myself instead of in the only worthy God. Jesus, being in the very nature God, let himself be crushed in my place.

How great is the love of Christ to allow that condemnation to fall on Himself so that I can stand and gaze uncondemned. Instead of feeling the shame of exposure I can surrender to his covering. He makes my heart a habitation for his spirit, wraps me in his righteousness and beckons me to draw so near that I am drawn into oneness.

My soul longs for me to abandon myself to this truth and to abide there.

And my confession?

The truth of what he has done should make my knees bow before him and my mouth confess he is Lord. My response needs to be prayer. But I have so neglected the privilege of prayer. “I’ll pray for you,” is too often a polite response instead of an honest promise of action.

Recently, as the leaves have turned, mostly fallen and our first year in the woods turns colder, I’ve had some days of loneliness. I started thinking of activities that could fill my time and connect me to others. I decided I was really lacking vision concerning why God decided to place me here. So, I prayed that he would give me purpose and a vision and that he would show me how to avoid the pitfalls of loneliness and connect to others, especially to my sisters in Christ.

His answer was different than what I expected- it was simply “pray”.

On our property is a little cabin. In the little cabin is a wood stove. What I need to do is to kindle a fire in that stove and to expect God to kindle a fire in my heart.

So, practically, I asked Jon, “Can I go?” He said, “Go.”

So, I’m committing.

Tuesday nights you will know, Lord willing, where to find me. I’m going to kindle a fire in the stove in the cabin and at 7PM I’m going to head out and pray he lets me be an offering on the fire of his Holy Spirit. That He would meet with me and burn his love for others into my heart and that I would offer it back in intercessory prayer.

Will you pray with me? Will you pray for me? I know my little cabin is too far away on a little dirt road in the wilderness to ask with expectation that you would join me physically (though you would be so, so welcome!). But, regardless of that, I so desire to have you a part of my communion with Christ. I want to pray with you in spirit and to pray for you. You are going to be in my heart as I strive to seek his presence more intentionally than I ever have before. Please let me know if you have a burden I can carry into that presence.

And, please pray for me to be consistent. One night a week… just a few hours… but I know how hard it is to pray for even ten minutes. ‘My spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.’ It is a battle. But I am so convinced that this is real… that He is real… that he wants to be with us. His love is what arms us to fight self and the enemies of human souls. His love is what is calling out, “Come… bring your small spark and let me light the fire!” Jesus, please fill us with the faith to call back, “Here I am, Lord, bring your flame!”

With expectation!

Lara

Experiencing God, Experiencing Fear

That first Tuesday found me in the cabin, having kindled a fire in the old woodstove. I sat on the bed with my Bible and my grandmother’s hymnal and I began to pray. Not many words came out before I had to stop. I have had times when I’ve felt overwhelmed by God’s holiness or his love or his comfort. I’ve experienced feeling his nearness when going through something challenging or even beautiful times like the births of my children. I’ve been comforted by the knowledge of the presence of God many times. But, this was different.

I was afraid. I was overwhelmed, not with the intellectual belief in the omnipresence of God, but with an almost tangible sensation. There was a presence that was as real as if a friend had walked in and settled himself in one of the chairs. Instead of comforting it was terrifying. My first prayer that night was for this to stop. I didn’t want to offer myself on the fire of the Holy Spirit. This meeting was too much. I felt like I was going to die. But, as I cried out for distance, it felt like my prayer was answered. It felt like the Spirit drew back and I could breathe. I still experienced a more real and powerful sense of his presence with me in that place but it was gentler. I spent the next few hours in prayer and it felt like a conversation with a living, hearing, present Jesus. I poured out my heart the way I would to a trusted friend. My Bible was open and while I never heard an audible voice there were times of quiet when I felt like he was impressing things on my heart.

I left the cabin and I still felt overwhelmed by my experience as I climbed into bed beside my sleeping husband. There was a lingering fear.

Long before these days, shortly after I became a Christian in high school, I had a dream that has always stayed with me and brought me comfort. I can’t say whether it was from my subconscious or from God but it was beautiful and memorable and a gift regardless. In the dream, I stood on a sloping hill next to a large tree with overarching branches that were full of green leaves. I was either praying or singing or both and there was a feeling of complete satisfaction and joy. I was worshiping God and it felt like I was doing what I had been made to do. It was as if I was completely well. I’ve thought that the dream was a little taste of what Heaven will be like. That worshiping God in a pure and complete way will be the most satisfying thing possible.

But, the dream after the first night in the prayer cabin was different.

I was dying. It was hard to breathe. I was lying in a hospital bed with my two oldest sisters talking quietly on either side of me. Somehow I was also the tree from the ‘Heaven dream’ of long ago. But there was a steady, strong wind blowing through the branches. I was dying and simultaneously, the leaves were being blown off the tree.

I woke at 2 AM and was sure that I was going to die. I felt like the presence of God that had been in the cabin was going to take me with it. I was going to be pulled out of this life.

A New Invitation

Our church has a women’s prayer group that exchanges requests by email each week. Several weeks ago, when facing some things that were making me anxious, I asked them to pray for me concerning fear.

And, that is when this story started unexpectedly stirring in my heart and mind.

For a long time, I didn’t understand my experience of fear that first night in the cabin or the dream and so I pushed them to the back of my mind. I thought I had been naïve to ask for such a deep level of intimacy with God in prayer. I wondered if it really *was* God or if it was my imagination or something darker. And, while I like to think I don’t put any stock in dreams, the dream did leave me shaken and I didn’t want to think about it.

I had been reading through the book of Luke and shortly after my friends started praying for me I found myself in the 12th chapter. In it, Jesus has a lot to say to his disciples about fear. He said we don’t have to be anxious about our physical needs being met or about defending ourselves before others or about preserving our lives. He said there is only one thing to be afraid of. “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!” The only thing to ultimately fear is the judge of our souls.

But the very next sentence Jesus spoke tells us more.

“Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

And again, he tells us, “Fear not, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.”

The only One to be afraid of is God. According to the words of Jesus and through what he accomplished for us, we don’t have to fear God. He will never forget us, we are of great value to him and he has been pleased to let us call him ‘Father’ and give us the kingdom.

There is nothing left to fear.

I thought I understood this when I wrote the letter to my prayerful sisters in Christ. I didn’t realize that I was expressing the battle of my life. God answered the cry of my heart that night long ago, and gave me the gift of opening my eyes to what holds me back in my relationship with him.

John Piper, in ‘Desiring God’, wrote, “The deepest and most enduring happiness is found only in God. Not from God, but in God.” There is a draw, a longing, to experience God in the way I did in the worshiping dream from long ago. There is something in me calling out in response to his call and wanting to be fully surrendered; to be made whole and complete and to experience the ‘deepest and most enduring happiness.’

But, in order to do that, I need to be like the tree in my second dream. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35) Like the wind in my dream, the Holy Spirit will work steadily and powerfully to blow away all of the pride of self, the fear of man and the panicked desire to cling to safety and comfort that is my grasping effort to save my own life.

I am such a fearful person. And, if it was just the discomfort of living with fear that was its affect then maybe it would be easier to just push it to the back of my mind and live with it simmering rather than face it.

But, I am convinced that what is keeping me from a more intimate, sure and faith-filled walk with God is not that he is unwilling to show himself to me. It’s that I am holding back. My fears are keeping me from drinking in the great, lavishing love of God toward his children (1 John 3:1).

Once again, I feel him calling me deeper and calling me to invite you to come along; to face fear and battle against it with truth. I’m praying for the faith to hear him calling out ‘fear not’ and the grace to trust, deny fear, and follow after him.

A Beautiful Church

There’s a little Baptist church in midcoast Maine that makes me catch my breath when I walk through the doors. I’ve never been a member or even a regular attender but there is a powerful wind of memories that meets me as soon as the doors swing open.

When I was a little girl, I would come through those doors once a year wearing a pink, flowery dress and an Easter hat. I would sit close to my grandmother and she would hand me peppermints during the sermon and quarters to place in the offering. I still remember one of the sermons. The pastor enthusiastically told the story of Jesus using whips to drive the money changers out of the temple. Close to thirty years later I can still picture the pastor waving his arms and feel my shock at hearing that the same Jesus holding little lambs in my storybook Bible could use whips and turn over tables.

Yesterday, I didn’t hear much of the sermon when I visited the little church. I paced in the back with a fussy baby and noticed that some extra pamphlets from my grandmother’s funeral the day before still sat on a table. For so long there had been two strong grandmothers in that little town and for the second time in three years I had come home and to this church to gather with family in a goodbye. Beside the table where the pamphlets sat were double doors leading to the sanctuary. I remembered how my sisters covered the little windows with white paper on my wedding day so that my husband-to-be wouldn’t catch sight of me until the wedding march was played and the doors were swung open.

My baby was getting louder so I made my way to a side room where a lady I didn’t recognize was working in the nursery. After we spoke for a few minutes she asked me my maiden name and when I told her, her eyes lit up. “I went to school with your father… I used to be a substitute teacher in your kindergarten class and bring in my guitar and sing. Do you remember that? You were so shy! It’s nice to see you are talking now!” We laughed and I vaguely remembered the guitar and the songs and the shy little girl.

My three year old heard there was Play-do and snacks so we made our way to the Sunday school class in the basement.  On the stairs I met a man holding the hand of his own little boy. There was a greeting and a brief memory of being seventeen and decisions that felt so heavy and confusing. Later, as I saw his sweet wife walk by with a new baby, I smiled and thought how God is kind and forceful and we don’t really choose but He moves and He purposes and He creates.

My little one finally fell asleep so I carefully eased into the back pew.  My husband sat with my newly widowed grandfather and a row of our blonde headed children. I remembered sitting in the same spot one Sunday as a teenager and not being able to hold back tears. I didn’t even know why I cried. A sense of something too beautiful for me to own overwhelmed me and loneliness welled up as the hymns were sung. It was surreal to remember and see through time the pew, both full of my people and the girl that I used to be as she sat in the wave of loneliness.

After the service, my eight year old boy asked about the old, cast iron bell that sits in the entry. It used to hang in the old church that burned down. In that old church his great, great, great grandparents used to come and sing and pray. Tucked away at home, I have a poem my great, great grandmother wrote to their beloved pastor when he was ill. She used to pray and write and listen to the bell that my little boy stood longing to ring.

I love history and small towns and feeling like there are roots that twist from the blood in my veins into the buildings and soil and old bells.

Nearly every Sunday for the last twelve or thirteen years, my growing family has made our way to another New England church. This church is in a college town and most of us are from someplace else. When I look around at the congregation I don’t see extended family, old friends or teachers. There are no ghosts of me as a girl. There isn’t even a church building with a bell and steeple, just a high school auditorium rented for the day.

In the Old Testament, before Jesus walked as a man with fishermen and sinners, God’s people built a temple where they could worship. God’s Spirit dwelt in a special room deep in the temple called the Holy of Holies and a thick curtain hung to separate this dwelling from the people. God was too holy to approach. Only once a year the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies in order to sprinkle blood of atonement at the mercy seat.

The day Jesus died on the cross, when He said ‘It is finished’, the earth shook and this curtain of separation split down the middle. Jesus, being holy himself and the only completely sufficient sacrifice, was able to do what no amount of ritual had been able to accomplish. The Spirit drew near. Now the church heard the words, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?”  Instead of separate and impenetrable, the Holy of Holies became the Christian heart.  Instead of looking to a physical temple or a church building, we look to the people God has chosen and we see him abiding in their midst.

Some Sunday mornings I don’t want to go to church. I’ve thought it would be nice to worship alone and I would feel more near to God in the woods and the stillness and beauty of the trees. But, God hasn’t made his Holy of Holies out of wood or boards or branches or blue sky.  He’s made it out of people.

Part of me says that there’s no way this can be true. I’m a Christian and I know that I’m not holy of holy. I see other Christians and they aren’t holy of holy either. I still see God in the distance waiting for me to clean up my act. Out of the corners of my eyes I peek to see how other Christians are doing and judge us all according to the progress we’re making. The progress we’re making on the road that isn’t there.

God isn’t far away. He’s with his people.

And Jesus is passionate. The same zeal that made him fashion whips out of cords and throw tables to cleanse his Father’s house consumes him. It’s what nailed him to a cross where the blood flows and gives us something better than roots. He gives us grace and breaks the curtain.

He loves us. He’s passionate about us. When we get that, it changes us. Suddenly we are the holy of holies. His Spirit abides and overturns our old nature so that we love him and we can love each other.

His church is beautiful and it’s not because we’re perfect or because of the white steeple or because of history in the pews or because we like each other.  It’s because we’re His, and He’s in us and we belong to one another. It’s because we’re all dressed in grace and where there is grace and His Spirit, love flows. We are tied by blood that isn’t in our veins but that washes our hearts and calls us to look to the cross. His church is beautiful because we are singing the same song and clinging to the same message.

“And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us.” 1 John 4:14-16