A Pool of Water in a Pavement Desert

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This night came slipping in like the world was pulling a dark blanket up over her sleepy head. I left the children in the yard at sunset, the dog bounding along beside me into the woods. I chose music loud and fast. “Stress to strength, stress to strength” has been my determined chant this fall. And I ran, trying to only think the things that would make me run hard and steady, while the sun slipped behind the trees and then the hills. The dark came creeping silently in behind, claiming its bed between the trunks and branches, settling into all the crevices of the woods.

I stopped and turned off my music in front of three pointed pine trees. They stood still and quiet, their branches without definition in the dark, like paper cutouts reaching their tops into the blue-blackness of the sky. There below, I became as quiet as they were and I was reaching, too.

This fall I’ve felt my limitations. Homeschooling five middle children and keeping up with my oldest in high school and not forgetting about the preschooler trying to slide between the books and other kids to make his way into my lap. And, still a wife, too, discovering that even after seventeen years of holding one man’s hand, there’s room to know him more and love him better. And, beyond our family in the woods, there’s our family around the country and concentrated in little Maine towns. There are the people in our church and in our town and at the school and in the store and I just want to do well by them all. And, sometimes, as I near forty, I wonder about myself. There’s a little restlessness that sets in and I question, as this world keeps turning and waking and sleeping and waking again, am I as awake as I can be? It’s like my head has suddenly poked out of the baby years, with the sleeplessness and round belly and knowing exactly where I should be. Sometimes I even think about taking some classes (in something?) or creating a part time job (doing something?). But then, that restless peering ahead seems silly, like I’m trying to grab something else with already full hands.

Once, a little over a year ago, I lamented with God about my limitations. I woke to an email from a woman I’d met after she visited our church. She’d been recently diagnosed with cancer and she was being crushed by fear. She wrote, “Will you pray with me today?” I wanted to drop everything and drive to her house and hold her in a hug and pray hard. But the day was already planned, dotted with things I couldn’t get out of and with my kids needing me, too. I could only briefly write back and tell her, “I will try to call you later today.”  And, that felt so lame and I drove to town and toward my commitments in what felt like the wrong direction.  As my three youngest kids chattered in the back seat, I prayed for my friend and I prayed for me, too. It was with an overwhelming sense of being too small in this world, and too helpless, and too caught in mundane things, that I prayed, “God, please bring encouragement.”

The last thing on our list that day, that felt small in comparison to praying with someone struggling with fear and cancer, but huge to a seven year old, was a promised stop at the pet store to buy a fish. My daughter had kept her room clean for a month to show that she was responsible enough to care for a pet. This was the long awaited day and I needed to be faithful to my word and to this little one. It was just after we’d paid and little hands were full of fish supplies and the fish himself, swimming in his plastic bag, that I turned and saw a miracle from our limitless God.

In a town I don’t usually shop in, in a store I rarely visit, at an hour that wasn’t planned, I turned and saw the woman I’d most wanted to hug that day. She was talking to someone who worked at the store, her parrot on her shoulder, his claws freshly clipped. When I said her name she looked at me, the surprise and disbelief I felt mirrored in her face. We laughed and spoke of providence as we stepped outside the store and into the late morning sunshine. The pet store is in the middle of town, surrounded by cars and people steadily flowing through the patterns of traffic lights. But, in the midst of that chaos, we found a holy place. Just outside the front doors of the pet store was a landscape display to encourage the sale of plastic ponds and waterfalls. Inside a man-made pool, large fish were getting fat from the treats a quarter could buy from a dispenser. My friend and I both pawed through our bags and found quarters to push into the eager hands of my little ones. While they fed the fish and watched them swim, the two of us sat on rocks at the edge of the water, looking at the waterfall tumbling down and feeling like we had found a tropical oasis in which to rest together. Most of the world disappeared and the only real place was this pool in the middle of a pavement desert. I couldn’t have planned this experience, sitting with my friend beside the water, her parrot perched on her hand, my little ones content. We had a moment to really share and to pray together and that moment was big enough to stretch forward and reach me again tonight in the woods.

Sometimes I feel like I’m grasping for something high and beyond reach. Something ethereal. But, God is not just a wisp in this world. He’s not a self-improvement plan or an answer to a midlife crisis. He’s not just a comforting Bible verse or an emotional response to a praise song.

He’s real.

Sometimes I’m just pounding out life, trying to run hard and fast and turn my stress into strength. To fill my head with thoughts that will keep me moving and not let me slow down or quit. Craning my neck to peer ahead and figure out what I can do to make this life I’ve been given significant.

But, stop. Slow down. Turn off the loud distractions. We’re limited but we’re cared for by a limitless God.

He’s real.

Do you see with me the weight and the hope in that?

Oh, Lord, may we learn to see you in our mundane and to be peacefully faithful.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Matthew 11:28-29

 

 

Providence and My Anxious Heart

 

“Someday you or I will die.”

“Lara, that won’t happen for a long, long time.”

“But, Mama, it really is going to happen.”

“Shhhh… it will be okay. We’ll just cross that bridge when we get to it.” 

I was five or six years old and my mother was trying to comfort me. But, I remember how I lay awake, looking into the darkness of my room, and thinking about this bridge in the distance. It didn’t matter how far away it was; someday we would have to walk across it. It was real.

I can still be overcome at times with anxiety. It rises up when I hear that my husband has to travel for work, or that one of my children isn’t feeling well, or that a snow storm is due to hit town right when I need to be driving somewhere. I start imagining awful things and grieving for sorrows that haven’t happened yet.

I’ve felt tension between how overwhelming this anxiety is and the Biblical commands not to worry. Over and over again, my Lord tells me, “Do not fear.” And yet, despite that and all my self-talk about the futility of anxiety, I still fear.

This winter, now that the cold and snow have settled in, I’m cozying up to my winter project. In the spare moments, or evenings, I’m opening old books, sitting before hundreds of pages of interviews, magazine articles and newspaper clippings. There are faces in old photographs, letters with pretty slanted handwriting, and stories on old typewriter paper. I’ve been researching the history of my family and roots in Maine, and starting to piece together the old stories.  As I do, the familiar sinks back into history; the hills and valleys, roads and ponds, set securely in their places suddenly are transferred back over the years to a time when my ancestors called them home. They were farmers and lumbermen, teachers, bootleggers, store keepers and mill workers. At times they were soldiers. Each name scratched on a family tree contains a lifetime of stories, though I’m often left with just a few dates to go with the name.

There’s something about letting my mind traverse the old stories that leaves me feeling both more grounded and somehow ethereal.  I can imagine how my own name would look, written out in one of these genealogical record books. It would be next to the name of my husband, with the dates of our births and marriage, and below would be the names of four sons and three daughters. Truly, we aren’t separate from history. This is just our moment to breathe and work and love and pray and hope. And it’s really just a moment.

I’m drawn to the old things and their reminders that others have walked the same roads we’re called to walk. My children all learn to read holding a one-hundred year old primer, turning the thick, brown-edged pages with their fresh little fingers. An introduction to the teacher reads, “…The subject matter is within the range of the experience and the imagination of most children of five or six years of age. It is full of incident and action. It enlists at once the liveliest interest of children…” And somehow, though these words were written about children learning how to read while the Great War was raging in Europe, my own children have their ‘liveliest interest’ enlisted as well. My sons love that some of the old books still have pictures of little boys with guns and hunting dogs. I love the simplicity of the stories; the focus on nature and agriculture. And there’s something time-surpassing about the human desire for ‘incident and action’ and things that speak into our ‘experience and imagination’. We all love stories.

Last week, amidst unexpected events and accidents and with my husband getting ready to board a plane, with anxiety swelling, I prayed and asked God for His grace to obey his words concerning worry. I trust that God, who delights when we know truth, is willing to teach us wisdom in our secret hearts. (Psalm 51:6) I’ve experienced this digging and exposing and thought-shifting work of God.

When I was a young Christian, I heard someone say that the many ‘fear God’ verses in the Bible really mean that we are to be in awe of Him. We’re to just be reverent. He’s our friend. We don’t have to be afraid of God.

But if we’ve never been afraid, I don’t think we’ve ever encountered his glory.

I’ve stood on a rocky cliff and felt spray from ocean waves on my cheeks as the wind whipped through my hair. I’ve heard their roar below me, and known that if I ventured too close they could crush me and pull me under. There’s something awesome and to be revered and also something fearful about the waves and the weight of the water crashing against the shore.

I’ve felt the same sensation as I watched a storm rumble in from the west on a summer day. The wind picks up, the sky darkens, and soon thunder is shaking the house and leaving a rumble deep down in my bones. Nature is awesome and fearful and seems to be telling us an old, old story.

But how much greater is the weight of glory that the Creator of the waves and the thunder holds? A true taste of God’s glory makes us tremble. I’ve certainly found that true prayer isn’t safe. There’s a true, appropriate, healthy fear; a fear with a purpose of leading us to salvation.

Perhaps there’s nothing that makes me feel more small and vulnerable than looking up into the night sky. Sometimes I pause on my way back to the house from some errand that has taken me into a dark night. As I look up, higher and higher into the heavens, I feel myself shrinking into exposed insignificance. The stars are some of the most humbling witnesses of God’s glory. And amazingly, Psalm 103 says, “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him…” To truly come to know God is to fear Him; a heart pounding, knees knocking, trembling fear in the face of power. But to truly know Him and fear Him is also to receive a great and steadfast love that washes our fears away. The ocean waves, with their crashing power, don’t love me. The thunder doesn’t roar promises to hold me in the palm of its hand and cover me in the shelter of its wings. But God does.

It’s this weight of power and love that is the only match for my anxiety.

Too often I’m trying to grab the pen and write my own story. I want to control the plot line, because I feel like I’m the main character. I want to keep the story pretty tame, without much incident or action, but with plenty of comfort, security and just a little poetic romance springing up from purely happy things. This is the story I want to write for all of those that I love.

But there’s an Author already and He holds the pen. Do I trust him?

He wrote a story that I don’t always understand. I don’t know why he allowed sin and suffering to stain the pages when it seems he could have kept it out. I want a beautiful ending and I want it now. But what He’s given me is a stunning climax. The crushing, fearful holiness of God met in full force the deep, steadfast love of God when he wrote himself into the story. This is the gospel.

I keep thinking I understand this. While I’m reading the Bible or listening to a sermon or praying in earnest, this greater story will suddenly break into me and I’ll feel my fears being swept away as I see Him. “The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything…”

But so far, without fail, my anxiety flares up once again. I start telling myself stories about all of the what-ifs and dwelling on the sad or scary things that could happen to me or my loved ones.

When that happens, and I start to sink, I’m learning that my lifeline is to spend some time sharing stories with the Lord. I need it over and over again. I come to him in prayer and tell him my heart story. I tell him how I’d like the next few pages to go. And He holds me close and whispers back the time-surpassing, fear-stilling story He’s been telling his children from the beginning.

 

A few years ago I was drawn to a tiny, old book at the thrift store. I brought it home and found an inscription written neatly inside the front cover.

Jacob Langdell, New Boston, N.H. May 29th 1862

When I typed the words into an internet search, I found that Jacob wrote the inscription less than four months before he enlisted as a soldier in the Civil War. The New Boston historical society website showed a picture of him, sitting tall in his uniform with his legs crossed. Twenty-four men from New Boston volunteered along with Jacob to serve in the 16th New Hampshire Regiment. They were sent south by steamship, and ten of them died from disease (likely malaria) while in Louisiana. From the hospital there Jacob wrote a letter home to his mother, dated January 27, 1863. I saw his handwriting, the same neat, slanted letters as in the book I held. “… if I live and prosper I shall be at home before many months. I am contented for I know that the same Providence watches over me here that does you at the north.”

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Jacob Langdell, New Boston Historical Society collection

I looked again at the hands in the photograph, a farm boy’s, long and lean against his musket. I marveled that they once held this book now resting in my own, maybe even carrying it to war and safely back to New Boston once again. On one of the well-worn pages was a prayer.

“O Lord, I know not what I should ask of thee. Thou only knowest what I want; and thou lovest me better than I can love myself. O Lord, give to me, thy child, what is proper, whatsoever it may be. I dare not ask either crosses or comforts, I only present myself before thee; I open my heart to thee. Behold my wants, which I am ignorant of; but do thou behold, and do according to thy mercy. Smite or heal; depress me, or raise me up; I adore all thy purposes, without knowing them. I am silent, I offer myself in sacrifice. I abandon myself to thee. I have no more any desire, but to accomplish thy will. Teach me to pray. Pray thou thyself in me.” (Mirror of Thought, pg 112)

A century and a half after a young soldier may have done the same, I spoke these words aloud. My voice was soft as my heart struggled through each line. This was once again the whispering story of providence and the beckoning call to trust Him. Here was the only assurance that quiets my anxious thoughts and lets me rest deep in contentment. God loves me. He knows better than I do. It is safe to abandon myself to Him. He is intentional about every ‘incident and action’ that He allows into the story of our lives, and wants to use our experiences to enlist our liveliest interest in what will bring us the most joy. He’s made us to live in His story, and He’s willing to tell it to us over and over and over again.  It’s the old story that breathes new life into the present. It stirs my heart and lifts my voice so that I can say, “Teach me to pray. Pray thou thyself in me.”

Jesus did this. He spent time sharing his heart story with the father. The night before he was going to die on the cross he prayed in such distress over the wrath he was about to bear, that his sweat contained blood. He was honest about his desire to be spared from this suffering if there was another way to save us, but he was willing to be obedient to the point of death. “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.”

Jesus drank that cup of wrath and has handed me the cup of communion. There is nothing left to fear. Jesus died profoundly alone on the cross. But because of this, as for me, God draws near even in the darkness. There will never be a bridge that I’ll have to cross alone. My fears are really calling out a question to God. His answer is the only thing that will quiet them as He holds me close, and in all His glory He says to His child, “I am with you always…

Overcoming the Cold

The cold seems to make things quiet.

Outside, the evergreens are weighed down by snow that doesn’t melt; the maples and oaks each stand with arms outstretched and still as if in silent sentry. The only trees left with leaves to chatter when the wind blows are the beeches; they keep gripping them, even all curled and brown. The world is white on top of white with splashes of gray and glimpses of pine green. The chickens stay huddled in the coop and the only tracks we see near the house belong to the dog and the occasional rabbit. Most things are settled down somewhere, quiet.

We’re huddled down, too.  Sometimes we push through and layer and cover and trudge out. But we don’t stay long when it’s below ten degrees and the wind is picking up. The littlest one puts on someone’s boots and a hat on crooked, along with one mitten, and he pats my leg and points to the door. But I scoop him up and try to distract him with a book or a snack or something to make a mess with. The older kids sit near the fire. Two boys sit side by side on the rock hearth. One holds ‘The Return of the King’ and the other holds ‘Prince Caspian’. I think of Tolkien and Lewis an ocean and an epoch away, and something in me is proud of my boys. They are the type that could wear magic rings and do battle or walk through wardrobes and live in castles. We’re huddled together and dreaming bigger.

Something in me is quieter, too. This is what I dreaded in the fall; a cold, snowy winter with cancelled appointments and visits and church. And somehow it’s okay. Maybe because the seed catalogs are appearing in the mailbox every other day. Maybe because I’ve started planning and making sure we have everything we need for making maple syrup. Maybe just because something in me, deep down, has settled like the layers of snow from half a dozen storms.

Yesterday we woke to another foot of snow and an email saying church was cancelled. Before clearing the driveway, my husband helped me bundle little ones and put boots on the right feet. We strapped on snowshoes and loaded up the ice fishing sled with the ones too short to walk in the deep snow. It was bitter. In the woods the cold was biting but when we would come into the open it sliced through the layers with brutality. We made it only as far as the children’s Falkonhurst, a town they’ve created out of sticks and branches and forks in tree trunks. We peeked in each of their ‘cabins’ to see how well they were holding up, and then retreated back to the house to stand by the fire and thaw.

Today, I saw on the news that a woman just a little younger than me was hiking in the mountains not far away yesterday. By 3:30 in the afternoon she was somewhere on the ridgeline and knew she was in trouble. They tried to reach her but with temperatures reaching 30 below last night and unbelievable winds, they couldn’t. It’s one of those news stories that leave you aching.

We are all so much more fragile than we want to believe.

Maybe that’s a strange thing about a cold winter. It shows us things about ourselves. We see how dependent we are on that shrinking firewood pile next to the house. But then, we feel tough as we rush out to grab the next armload. We’re kind of dipping back and forth between feeling like dependents and conquerors.

Sometimes faith feels like that, too.

Another news story made my heart ache today. Twenty one men lined up along a distant shore. In the photographs, you can see the waves rolling in behind them. Twenty one men on their knees, the only words on their lips being, “Help me, Jesus.”

And they were conquerors.

Somewhere inside something has settled in me. It makes me quiet. Prayerful.

This world is cold. There is such a thing as evil and it wants to kill and destroy. It wants to whisper lies. It wants to numb us to what is true and put fear and hate in our bones. It wants to make our temperature the same as that of the world in a winter chill.

But that’s not all there is.

Last night I woke up and heard the wind battering the house. My husband and I were nestled close under the weight of wool blankets. I knew the woodstoves were probably getting low as it had been several hours since they had been loaded and the dampers shut. I thought of my little ones upstairs and downstairs and my husband asleep next to me, all waking up in a few hours. I took the plunge into the cold air and tended the fires.

This winter I’m getting more settled in my need to tend those fires.

“For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.  And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:8-9)

The cold of this world wants to creep not just through the walls of our house, but wants to creep into my mind and my heart.

The cold wants to numb my affections for Christ; to have me doubt that my faith will be sight someday. The cold wants to chill my marriage with little resentments here and there that go unspoken and unforgiven. It wants to bury my joy as a mother in the mundane tasks that seem more important than snuggling and listening and speaking kindness into little hearts. The cold of this world can make me weary.

But Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world.”

The cold doesn’t have to numb and chill and bury and weary. He has overcome the cold.

It’s okay to grow quieter; to be stilled by the cold. But it needs to drive me to tend the fires.

I tend the fires of my faith by drawing near to God; to have a heart that is not quiet toward Him but quiet before Him. It’s opening up the damper when I pray with honesty and rawness. It’s placing seasoned fuel in the fire when I open up the Word and read it until it is saturating my soul more than the drafts that come from circumstance. It’s stirring the coals and blowing fresh oxygen onto the flames when I don’t let snowy roads or a chilled heart keep me from reaching out to loved ones however I’m able. And, as I obey, I can watch the flames leap up and warm my heart so that I don’t give up and so that I can pour the warm harvest of the Holy Spirit into the cold world, starting with those closest to me.

Father,

Thank You for the reality of life beyond this cold world. I know this season of separation is so brief… Only You know when we each will breathe our last breath and what our first moments in the reality of eternity will be. Please let us live our lives close to You so that when that moment comes, it is just a continuation and increase in the intimacy we have grown to experience here. Let us not grow weary in doing good while we have the opportunity. Please let me love my husband and children well while we’re close together in this small house in the middle of winter. And let the love that You grow here, in the quiet and stillness of these woods and of our hearts, overflow into the lives of those we love in other places, and those who we don’t know yet but will love Someday.

Amen

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What I Need to Say Before ‘Thank You’

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Thanksgiving. I know it’s really important. Not the turkey or cranberry sauce and eating pie all afternoon… not even the Pilgrims and Squanto.  It’s the act of remembering, appreciating and being grateful. Being grateful to Him. It matters; it’s important and it’s good.

But I can’t just turn on thankfulness like a faucet. That deep appreciation and thanks isn’t pouring out of me right now.  And, he’s not an account in the sky where we need to deposit our yearly dose of thanksgiving before we carve the turkey and pass the mashed potatoes. He’s not the universe or ‘The Unknown God’ of the Athenians in the book of Acts. He’s Someone. He says, ‘I Am.’ He tells us about himself because he wants to be known… and he already knows each of us intimately. So, before I give thanks, I need to give honesty. I need to come to him with the questions weighing on my heart and making the thanks feel inauthentic. He’s real and I need to be real as well.

So, God, before I come to you with my thanks, I’m going to be honest and come to you with my sorrow.

Pressing down on me as I roll out pie crust is a weight of sadness for a woman I don’t even know well; we only spoke a few times. But her loss is so significant that just hearing about it has crushed part of me. Less than a year ago, we sat together after Sunday school and talked about her oldest daughter, just nearing school age. She wasn’t sure what she should do this year. We talked about the pros and cons of home, public, or Christian schools. And God, the whole time we were talking, you knew. You knew that a couple of months into her kindergarten year, that sweet five and a half year old girl would come home with a sniffle and be gone a week later. And it doesn’t make sense. It’s hard to get a thank you past the big, heavy ‘why?’. This doesn’t feel right. I don’t understand you in this.

But I keep going today with preparations for Thanksgiving. As I peel apples and make rolls, I’m thinking of another friend. We have her big, goofy dog in the front yard as a reminder that she’s not in a position to take care of him and that the future is unknown. It weighs on me every day; this feeling that things aren’t the way they are supposed to be. I bury my face in the thick fur of her sweet dog, with his tail that wags even when we’re pulling out porcupine quills, and I wish the world was just as sweet and gentle. And I need to tell you, Lord, that it just doesn’t feel right.

There are things that are so broken. I need to check in with my sister and find out if a little girl is at her house for Thanksgiving. This little two year old spent the first year of her life in my sister’s home and now comes back for visits. I am thankful that they have that time together, but, God, it still hurts. I know when my sister hugs that little one, they both remember their hearts have been broken a million times and will probably break a million more. The hardness of the foster care system and most of all the hardness of this world breaks people. It seems like you could do something. Like you should have done something already. It doesn’t make sense, Lord.

And God, I’m sorrowful because I’m so lonely this year. This is the first Thanksgiving I’ve experienced without a grandmother somewhere in this world. I want to hear Grammie B ask me what I’m thankful for and hear her say, like she always did, that she was thankful for her salvation and for all of us. I want to know Grammy J is in her kitchen today, sifting flour, baking up a storm of pies and mincemeat bars and getting Grampy to peel the apples. But they aren’t here. I know my grandfather’s heart is breaking today as well and I could just cry and cry. I know I need to thank you, but I want to tell you that I don’t like how this works. Death and leaving and being apart. It seems so wrong and I wish it wasn’t this way.

I also need to tell you about the guilt I feel when I even think of thanking you. I have a five and a half year old daughter as well. She’s so excited about learning how to make pumpkin pie this afternoon. She’s happy and chatty and she’s alive. I am so, so thankful… thankful it wasn’t my daughter you chose to take away. And, tomorrow, my family is going to be home together. Our own puppy will be looking for crumbs on our dining room floor and my husband, who makes me feel safe and understood, will be there with us. My baby will climb on my lap to put his fingers in the whipped cream on my pie and take it for granted that I’m his momma and I will never leave. I have so many reasons to be thankful. You have blessed me in every way. And the contrast between my thanks and others’ sorrows makes me feel those pangs of guilt. I know life isn’t ‘fair’. I don’t understand your ways, Lord.

And, God, I need to come to you with yet another emotion. It’s fear. As I think of all the good things you’ve blessed me with, like a home and family, bountiful food and healthy children, I’m reminded of how fragile these blessings are. They could be gone in a breath, a moment, with a missed stop sign or with a spark from the woodstove. Nothing here is secure. As soon as I start thanking you for these things I hold so carefully, I am reminded that you might take them away. I’m afraid because I love them so much. And, the reality is that when I look around at the hard things in life, I don’t completely trust you. Your ways just don’t make sense to me.

So that is the reality, Father. I have sorrow, guilt and fear. But you knew that. You are acquainted with all that’s inside and even before I say the words, you know them already. You know and you want me to come to you with them. Thank you for caring. Thank you for wanting to hear them just as much as you do my words of appreciation. Thank you for caring about me… right where I am. For real.

And this is when the real giving of thanks begins. We’re real together. Jesus is the ‘image of the invisible God’. We know you because you revealed yourself and your character to us in a way we could understand… as a human. And you were fully human… You wept. You were tired. You asked to be spared suffering if at all possible. And, you trusted, somehow in the mystery of the Trinity, that the character you have shared for all eternity, the Father’s love and justice, was enough to make the suffering, the weariness, the tears all worth it in the end.

You tell me it will all be made right. It is going to be okay.

For now, you are weeping with those who weep.

The reality of that is big enough for my sorrow, my guilt and my fears.

Thank you, Lord.

Yesterday, my baby came up to me and lifted up his arms. I reached down and picked him up and held him close. He wrapped his pudgy little arms around my neck and we rested for a minute, heart to heart. I was filled to the brim with love for the little guy, and with sudden wonder, I realized that he was feeling the same thing. He was in my arms, snuggled in and feeling love for me, too. We just held on for a moment, and thanks filled every fiber of my being.

That’s how I want to be with God this Thanksgiving. It’s good to count our blessings. It’s good to remember we have been given so much.

But, ultimately, the Giver wants to give us Himself.

I am so thankful that God isn’t just a power, but that he’s real and responsive and feeling. It means that I can come to him, lift up the reality of my heart and let myself be held for a while. I can rest in his arms and be thankful. Thankful not just to him or for him… but I can be thankful with him.

For I am sure that neither death nor life,

nor angels nor rulers,

nor things present nor things to come,

nor powers, nor height nor depth,

nor anything else in all creation,

will be able to separate us

from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:38-39

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 Prayer of Surrender

Three years ago my mind was full of plans for our farm and our beloved animals.  Eagerly awaiting calves from our sweet Jersey cows, I had dreams of fresh milk, butter and cheese.  I had big plans for increasing our herd of Belted Galloway beef cows and with the garden, chickens, fruit trees, honey bees and extras like the sheep and horse, we felt close to being self-sufficient.  I loved our two hundred year old farmhouse with all its stories on the edge of the village.  We were settled, full of dreams and putting down what we thought were deep roots. Carrying my newborn sixth child in my arms, I was surrounded by life springing up in our home, barn and fields.

Then, one early morning in June, I found myself in a dewy pasture touching a dead calf and looking into the heartbroken eyes of my daughter and the questioning brown eyes of her cow, Buttercup. This was the first event in a summer that I can only look back on as ‘the breaking’.  Every single day something horrible happened.  Friends and neighbors couldn’t believe our string of ‘bad luck’. Our vet said she had never seen anything like it. During our daily phone conversations my sister stopped saying, “I hope you have a better day tomorrow’ because it never was. There were calls to the vet, calls to the doctor, calls to poison control, trips to the emergency room. And there was so much more.  Suffice it to say that so much of what I thought was solid started to sink under me.   And every night I would sink into bed and sob.  Every day it felt like something was taken away.  Under pressure I would loosen my fist just a little and something I loved would be pulled from me. I would protectively close my hand over what remained thinking I had reached the limit only to have my fingers pried open again by another painful circumstance. It felt like I was breaking.

As Oswald Chambers described, “A saint’s life is in the hands of God like a bow and arrow in the hands of an archer. God is aiming at something the saint cannot see, but our Lord continues to stretch and strain, and every once in a while the saint says, “I can’t take any more.” Yet God pays no attention; He goes on stretching until His purpose is in sight, and then He lets the arrow fly.”

All the while my heart was crying out that I couldn’t take anymore, a compassionate God was weighing out my distress against the purposes He had in sight. He was moving us and He was relentlessness.  Day by day and week by week, my grip loosened and I began to learn the prayer of surrender. I sat alone in the ER in the middle of the night and prayed a prayer of surrender. My feet pounded as I tried to outrun the pain of being cut out of a loved one’s life and I prayed a prayer of surrender. I placed ads to sell animals that were supposed to be our beginning and grow old and be buried at the edge of the field we had planted, and I prayed a prayer of surrender. I answered countless ‘whys’ spoken by little broken hearts while my own heart was torn, and I prayed a prayer of surrender. With each box I packed, there was a sighing prayer of surrender.

Eventually the arrow flew.

Another summer came and the old life had passed away. I felt like I had been weaned of anything unessential and what remained was where my focus should be. I was still a wife, a mother, a sister, a daughter, a friend.

Also remaining was the prayer of surrender. So far it had been a giving in, an acceptance of what was. It was the same prayer as in laboring when I bury my face in my husband’s shirt and cry and breathe and surrender. It was a reaction to pain.

But driving home one night, alone in my car, I found a prayer of surrender that springs not from pain, but from worship. The summer following ‘the breaking’, I went to a weekly Bible study at a friend’s house. We were going chapter by chapter through the book of John. This gave me just what my soul needed. After the stretching and straining I needed to look into the face of Jesus. To follow his steps toward his own prayer of surrender, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” I saw his heart broken for me and my heart was drawn into deeper trust. I saw his compassion and his power and I was filled with longing. On that dark stretch of dirt road, watching my headlights bump through the night, I asked him to fill me more. I wanted more of him and if it meant less of me then I wanted to fade so that his light would burn brighter.  My prayer of worshipful surrender was an asking to die to self and to be filled with his life.

It was one of those moments, like in the field with the dead calf, which I can look back on as a point of turning.  It was a moment that led to more moments that led to changes. There is still a need for daily surrender, for moment by moment surrender. For not just a surrender to circumstances, but a full, look into His face and worship, surrender.  Not a resignation to fate but eyes fixed on Jesus, ‘the image of the invisible God.’ To behold that God, in all His glory, is gentle and humble. Not a hopeful spiritual exercise but a reply to a known voice saying, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-30)