Imperfect People of the Imperfect Church

If you were to ask me what kind of Christian I am (as in what denomination do I belong) I would most likely tilt my head, throw up my hands, and shrug. I might say something like, “I don’t really know. I guess I’m a bit of a mixed bag.”

I don’t like being a mixed bag. I really don’t.

I am a member of a community church with a Reformed Baptist pastor. I often attend two churches on Sundays, one of those being Presbyterian. I read Lutheran theology for fun and faithfully listen to my Anglican friends’ online sermons.

As you can see, I don’t fit in with any one denomination. My husband and I are still trying to figure this all out.

I am not saying this to be different. I’m not trying to be a mystic and have Jesus my own way. Or create my own special worship “Happy Meal” by picking and choosing from the theological menu that is offered hoping it comes with a new prize that I don’t already have. I’m not a rebel or a trailblazer as some have misunderstood me to be. I’m not out to join a movement or change the world. I just want to worship Christ and him crucified.

Just the other day I was lamenting to a likeminded friend that it feels that there is no room for someone like me; a square peg amongst the round holes of churches with neatly thought out doctrinal statements that I can’t seem to wholeheartedly embrace. I believe my words to her were, “I’m not sure that I am a Calvinist, I’m not broadly evangelical, and I’m not a Lutheran/Anglican/Episcopalian. Where is there a place for people like us who are not on the baptism bandwagon yet love law/gospel and long for liturgy?”

Maybe there was some self-pity tied up in this statement. Actually there was quite a bit. What I was really saying was that I want a church that serves me everything. I want a church that I can wholeheartedly embrace and trust and never have to engage in hard conversations with.

The problem is that the Christian life is not a comfortable life. A thinking Christian will always have questions. There is danger in blindly tying yourself to one church, one ministry, one man etc without having the hard conversations.

I know that some of you have been sadly burned by the church. You hurt and long for a place of safety; a place that you can trust. You hear others speak of their churches as if they have found Mecca. They boast about the pastor dropping gospel bombs and their small group’s never-ending love and care for their family. You wonder why you can’t find a church with even an ounce of what they seem to be experiencing.

I’ll let you in on a secret…though it may appear so; they have not found the perfect church. You will never find the perfect church. I will never find the perfect church. Perhaps maybe we need to start asking ourselves more questions about why we don’t feel like we belong instead of why the church can’t seem to meet our needs.

I’m not denying the fact that it’s hard to find a church that faithfully delivers the goods week after week. I’m not ignoring that sad reality that there are destructive churches out there that we should run far, far away from. I am simply suggesting that we (yes, me too) ask ourselves the hard question of “What do I expect? What is my pride holding me back from accepting doctrinally or maybe even just practically?”

It’s easier to sit at home and listen to the sermon of my choosing. It’s easier to hand pick a group of people that I get along with and agree with theologically. It’s easier to dream about a church in which everything is run how I want it to be, preached how I would preach it, and have the programs that I want to be involved in. But then I remind myself that living with others isn’t easy. Church isn’t always easy. Family isn’t always easy. Life here on earth just isn’t all that easy.  What did I expect?

Instead of looking at the church and other Christians as threats, perhaps we can look at them as fellow believers, gifts from God to help us to grow in Christ, fellow saints who have also had to ask hard questions and confront their own pride in order to be there. We can run to Christ, ask him for clarity and contentment knowing that he longs for us to have a body to serve and be served in. Part of Christ loving us is providing for us the opportunity to be involved in a local church.

The church is a big part of my life and I don’t plan on giving up on it. But one thing that I have learned is that while it is good to have high expectations for the church, it will never provide for you what Christ alone can provide. It simply cannot fulfill your every longing. It is a means of grace, a gift to help us to grow. And as we all welcome growth we know that it often comes in ways that we would not choose.

The church is messy and we may never feel like we belong. Such is life for those who live between the already and the not yet. Thankfully every bit of Colossians 3:4 is true,

“For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”

Christ is our life right now and forever. And one day all of the questions and the hard conversations will exist no more. One day we will all happily worship together as a perfected church. Until then we press on imperfectly serving imperfect people in an imperfect church. And God gives us the grace to do just that.

 

 

Easter is for Losers

Holidays sometimes make me feel like a loser.

It’s a time that I let the comparison crud creep into my heart more than others.

It’s all around me, in my face: the crafts, the traditions, the moms who make every day special (or so it seems).

It’s what I begin to rate my motherhood by.

Am I doing enough? Is it special enough, unique enough, healthy enough, elaborate enough, simple enough, spiritual enough, fun enough?

I make excuses in my head about why I can’t seem to get it right. I blame my lack of _____ on my limited resources, my meager gifts, my ample number of children.  I compare because I want to believe that I’m keeping up.

I compare because I want my work to be enough. I compare because I want to somehow prove to myself that I’m not a loser.

And then I remember.

I confidently cut the comparison crud and stop trying to prove what I am not and start rejoicing in what I am – a far bigger loser than I will ever believe that I am, with a far bigger Savior than I will ever comprehend.

So while I call myself a loser, He calls me beloved. While I fret about dying eggs and filling Easter baskets, He is pleased to pour out His mercy and kindness on one who has not once proven herself worthy. It is for this very reason of grace and mercy that He takes pleasure in proving Himself over and over.

It is for the losers that Christ came and lived the sinless life because we couldn’t get it together. That’s all of us. Not one of us has kept the perfect law; not one of us ever will. He knew this and willingly submitted Himself to the Father to take our place.

He quietly suffered the mocking, the spitting, the torture, the scathing, the whipping, the torn flesh, the unbearable pain, the spiked thorns, and the unthinkable separation from His perfect union with His Father; for me…for you.

As the darkness crept on, the relentless pain of separation continued tearing at His heart until the work was done. The final cry of “IT IS FINISHED!” was not a cry of death but a cry of life and freedom for all whom He shed His blood; a plea for us to stop trying to prove our worthiness because His gift of righteousness has made us worthy.

And if that wasn’t enough, He proved Himself by the resurrection. He fulfilled His promise and continues to pursue those whom He loves: us. He rose that we might be freed from wondering if what we’re doing is enough. He rose that we might have life—abundant life.

He died, was resurrected, and ascended so that He may reside in us by the Holy Spirit, bringing comfort to our thirsty souls and reorienting our wayward hearts that don’t always believe that the “It is finished!” is for us, the losers.

It is enough because He is enough.

 

How Taking Xanax for Lent Makes Surprisingly Rational Sense...at Least for Me

First of all I need to clarify that I am not a medical professional, counselor, or even a Lenten expert. This post is in no way trying to convince you to go out and get on meds. It’s simply an outpouring of what God has shown me through my weakness and in my need for him…and for Xanax.

I went to my doctor sometime during Lent this past year. I told her how much I have struggled with anxiety my entire life. I told her about how exhaustion exasperates my anxiety and during very stressful times I tend to spiral out of control. Or at least what feels out of control to me. I told her about the depression that comes; the demon that waits for me at the end of the paralyzing tunnel of fear I live in. I told her how my mind never stops. Like never. Like, I end up watching TV all night long to numb my racing thoughts.

Then I told her that I have four kids. She chuckled as if everything started to make sense when I said that. With a compassionate smile she proceeded to tell me that she would like to write me a prescription for an anti-anxiety drug called Xanax. We talked about how it has taken me 40 years to come to terms with the fact that this isn’t going away. We talked about how I have been counseled over the years, and we discussed how some of my closest friends are counselors and how much they help keep me sane. We talked about how I needed physical and emotional rest. And though I did not mention it, I knew in my heart that I needed spiritual rest as well—rest from the false guilt and condemnation that my mind tricks me into believing.

I have always thought that meds are only for the weak. I have believed that it was sin to rely on medication or anything other than the Lord for emotional health. I believed that if the person considering meds would just try harder to do what God was asking of them, pray harder, read their Bible more, if everything was right in their spiritual life, then they certainly wouldn’t need such a crutch. After all Christians are supposed to be strong so we can show the rest of the world a better way, right?

WRONG!

The life of a believer is a life of weakness. Using medication may actually increase one’s ability to trust more fully in the Lord. I know this now only because I have crashed and burned 10,000 times over in my attempt to fix myself by myself.

So what does lent have to do with any of this? First, you must know that I know very little about Lent. I am a member of a non-denominational community church with a reformed Baptist pastor who quotes Martin Luther. So…I guess I’m a bit of a mixed bag. There is no official church calendar, daily lectionary or the likes to follow. Just a church preaching Christ crucified. My only exposure to Lent was through the Lutheran school that our kids attended for a number of years. And even then, the only inquiry I ever made about it was when my kids came home and told me that they weren’t allowed to say “hallelujah” at school anymore. What the?!

I have quite a few Lutheran and Anglican friends who talk about, write about, preach about Lent and every year I ignore it. For this non-liturgical girl who has an allergic reaction to anything that she might perceive as religious, I’ve just thought of it as something that the church was telling me I needed to do. In some cases this is true, but the true meaning of Lent is so much more.

The day my doctor prescribed Xanax for me felt like death. It was humiliating to reveal my emotional weakness and ask a stranger for help. Later that day I listened to a sermon by my Anglican friend, Curt Benham. (You can listen here.) All I could say was “Wow.” There I sat, folding laundry, shaking my head in amazement at what the Lord was saying to me through his sermon on Lent.

He said the following things:

“Lent is the season of giving up. Not giving up this or that food or activity but about coming to terms with the fact that I am not in control of anything.”

“It’s a season to stop learning how to look to ourselves to get better and about looking to Christ to save us.”

“Lent is about learning to die until we are dead. It’s a season of honesty. A season of weakness, not strength.”

Death is about realizing how very little control we have over our lives. It’s about the realization that we can’t do it on our own anymore. It is a desperation. A crying out for Christ’s strength. This is the Christian life. This is the way of the cross.

So how did my taking Xanax for Lent make any sense? After all Lent is about giving up not adding something new. But that’s the point. Every morning when I go to the medicine cabinet and take that tiny white pill, I am giving up. I am dying a death to myself, a death to believing that I can do this in my own strength, and picking up the cross of Christ.

It’s not about giving up on life. I’ve been there and I can tell you that there is an incredible amount of selfishness and self-reliance in that. I’m talking about giving up on believing that my righteousness depends on my emotional health. That my strength is defined by what I do or do not put in my mouth. It is a dying to self, not in a work hard to deny myself sort of way, but in a humiliating, sickening, it-hurts-so-bad-not-to-be-able-to-do-things-my-way way. It’s a picking up my cross and following Jesus because that’s my only hope.

“Taking up your cross is doing nothing in the midst of that which will kill you other than trust in your savior. It’s a white flag of surrender, a learning to stop trying to fix all your problems.”

And so, I took up Xanax for Lent this year as a death to myself and new life in Christ. And as Curt said, “Death is something we can live with. It’s the dying that’s so hard.”

What are your thoughts on taking meds? Or better yet, what have you been told by well meaning people about the use of meds and the Christian faith? I'd love to hear what others are saying.

Bucking Horses, Failing Moms, And The Grace Of God

 

Picture this:

A mom puts her little girl on a horse that has already tried to buck her off. She pressures her daughter to do more, and in an instant, her little girl is thrown from the horse's back. Scared and hurting, she sits in a heap in the dirt. The mom checks for broken bones and blood and then callously demands that the girl get up and stop crying. When she will not, the mom gets on the horse and runs him up and down the ring trying to get him to buck with her, all the while yelling profanity at the horse in front of her ten-year-old daughter.

This mom has snapped. Her anger is out of control. The pressure of being that “good mom” and doing all the right things for her children has gotten to her. She finally puts the horse away, throws the saddle on the ground, and locks herself in the tack room of the barn to be alone. She feels ashamed of her actions and can't face her family.

After some time and good conversation with a friend, the mom sees how the Gospel speaks to her situation. She sees her actions as a window to the depths of her heart. She also sees how they are nothing new under the sun. Her God has seen this kind of thing before, in her and in others. She doesn't have to punish herself or try to make things right by working harder. She thanks God for showing her how weak she is. She runs to him and finds forgiveness. She is doused with a scandalous heap of grace.

She goes to her little girl and asks for her forgiveness as well. She tells her how mommy is a great sinner who has a great Savior. She gives her little girl a powerful picture, not of a well-mannered mommy who loves perfectly but of a mommy who needs Jesus and who is loved by Jesus unconditionally.

What if I told you that the mother in this story was me? Does that make you cringe? Have I lost your respect?

That's okay.

Nothing To Prove

You may wonder how I can share this humiliating moment, this private and ugly scene, with the perfect strangers who I hope will read this. The answer is that I have no shame because Christ has covered that day with grace, and that grace has set me free to admit that I am weak.

When Jesus told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9), Paul concluded that no matter what happened, he was not only content to be weak but would even boast in his weaknesses, “so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. . . For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9b–10). And that’s why I don’t mind writing the story about how I lost it with my daughter and the horse. I can boast in my weakness because Jesus is strong. I have nothing to prove because he has proved it all on my behalf.

The Law tells me there is no room for error; it says I must find within myself the strength to be perfect. This is bad news for you and me. None of us will ever be able to be the parent, spouse or friend that the law requires us to be no matter how hard we try.

But the Good News is that Christ met all the requirements of the law on our behalf and poured out his grace upon each of us so we may be 100 percent acceptable before God...even when we fail. No wait, especially when we fail!

Remember Who Loves You

Unlike my sin-polluted love for my children, there is nothing tainted about God’s love for us; because Christ took all the wrath that we deserve upon his back on the cross, God can only love his children perfectly. He doesn’t lecture us, nor does he withhold good things or send us away because he can’t stand the sight of us. No, when we have failed to do what’s right and have sinned against everyone within a mile’s radius, our heavenly Father calls us over, lifts us up into his lap, gently corrects us, and lavishes us with his love. He tells us how much he loves us and how what we just did has been forgiven.

We cry out to him as Father because that is what he is (Romans 8:14-17). Then he sends us on our way—not with a command of “be good and try harder or else I will be angry,” but with tenderness, calling, “Remember who loves you! Remember the one to whom you belong!”

This is an excerpt from my book Christ in the Chaos.  

What's So Hard About Being Nice?

With having four kids in the house I feel like my anthem has become, “Be nice!” It seems as if I am telling (or more often yelling at) my kids to be nice all day long.

Yet in my ministry to the rest of the world I seem to be preaching a different message. You see, in my heart I know that Christianity is not about being nice. But wait, is that true? What about the command to “love my neighbor.” That seems kind of important if you ask me.

The Law tells me to be nice by loving my neighbor but I still find myself elbowing my husband when he snores, scowling at my kids when they are too loud, and ignoring the needs of others. No matter how well we might think we are loving others and being nice, the truth is, according to the law, we are failing miserably. Even one selfish thought about the person next to us is grounds for disqualification. Actually, we were all disqualified a long time ago the first time we selfishly grabbed a toy from another toddler or whacked our little brother over the head. We were born sinners. No matter how hard we try, we simply cannot fulfill the commandment to love others more than ourselves!

As I once again whined to my girls this morning, “Why can’t you just be nice to each other?” the words slapped me in the face. Would I tweet that? Would I stand in front of a group of women and whine law at them to get them to change? Didn’t I just tell my kids yesterday that telling someone to change won’t change them?

You see, the law cannot change our heart, it can only slay it. The law can only kill all hope that we could ever fulfill it. The law can make demands but it gives no power to the hearer to actually do what it demands.

It does not beat us over the head yelling, “Love your neighbor” until we submit. No, it just beats us over the head until we’re dead; it slays us with its sword, killing all notions that we can actually do it.

Unfortunately, many of us believe that Christianity is all about being nice, being a better person, etc. There is even a popular Christian song that urges us to look within and “find our kindness.” I don’t know about you, but the last time I looked deep into my heart all I found was a heart that is “deceitful and wicked above all things.”

The Good News is that we have hope aside from the Law. We desperately need the Gospel to deliver us because the Law leaves us utterly hopeless. Once the Law has done its deed in slaying every hope that we have ever had of being able to do what we have been commanded to do, the Gospel comes swiftly in to deliver us from our despair. It saves us, bringing life to our dead souls. As C.F.W. Walther says,

“The Gospel does not require anything good that man must furnish: not a good heart, not a good disposition, no improvement of his condition, no godliness, no love either of God or men. It issues no orders, but changes man. It plants love into his heart and makes him capable of all good works. It demands nothing, but it gives all. Should not this fact make us leap for joy?”

You see, there is only One who ever loved his neighbor the way that the Law demands. And he did it for you and me. He did it because his name is Love and his heart is pure.

Jesus did not come to make us nice; he came to save us because we aren’t nice.

So the question is, “Should I stop telling my kids to be nice and just let them pound on each other?” Of course not. There is a place for kindness but it can’t come from the command to be nice, it doesn’t come from “within,” and it doesn’t earn our righteousness. As Luther says, “God doesn’t need your good works, but your neighbor does.” God doesn’t need my daughter to stop giving her sister dirty looks or saying rude things but her siblings sure do.

Because we have now been freed from the curse of the law, we are liberated to a life of good works. We can go ahead and love our neighbor, we can be nice to those around us, because it does not earn us favor with God; we can go ahead and love our neighbor because we have his favor now, when we are nice or not. We can love others because we’ve first been loved (1 John 4:9). And, as Luther says, “It is not that the righteous person does nothing, but that his works do not make him righteous, rather that his righteousness creates works.”

So you see, we have been freed from having to be nice just because we are told to be nice. We no longer have to look inside of ourselves to find our kindness. It’s not up to us. As Reinhard Huetter puts it, “Christian freedom rejoices in God’s commandments and welcomes them as creaturely ways of embodying our love of God and neighbor.”

Because He First Served Us

“But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.” -Romans 7:6

”By faith we receive blessings from above, from God; through love we give them out below, to our neighbor." -Martin Luther

Grace has done its work. You have heard the gospel in a whole new light. You have come to understand the outrageous power of a grace that comforts, a grace that transforms, and a grace that loves you just as you are. You have been told to rest and told that there is nothing left for you to do because “it is finished.” These are the mind-blowing truths of the gospel. This is our hope – we have a Father who has saved us while we were in our worst of worst ways and continues to love us in our mess (Romans 5:8). For this we can rejoice!

Yet in all of this gospel goodness and freedom from the law you may be left asking one question: “If Christianity is not about doing but rather about resting then how will anything ever get done?”

Perhaps what we need to do is ask a different question, “Now that you are free, what will you do?”

Christ came to serve the church, his bride, and he did it perfectly. He knew that you and I would shy away from waking up early to bake muffins for the women’s retreat, he knew that we would often find it inconvenient to pick up the elderly woman who needs a ride to church, he knew that every time we would be asked to work in the nursery we would want to jump off a cliff. So he did it all. He became a man in order to serve us and he not only served those around him perfectly but he served us in his obedience to the Father. Facing what he did not deserve, he served us by picking up his cross and carrying it to his death. He served us by being spat upon, mocked, and tortured; all to be our replacement, our representative, our sin. What did his service gain him? A terrible death and a separation from his Father so that we would never have to know that pain. Not only did he serve us in his suffering, but he also served us in giving up his record. He took upon himself our record of poor performance and replaced it with his perfect, complete resume of righteousness. He did this for us. Christ is our righteousness. Christ is our freedom.  

Now that we know that we are free from having to serve we are free to serve and with great joy. Why? Because Christ fulfilled the demands of the law (love God and love your neighbor as yourself), and, thus, the Law’s condemning voice is silenced (Galatians 3).  We no longer need to fear God’s displeasure because in Christ we are already pleasing to him.  We no longer need to use others as a step stool to further our own righteousness, because our service to others does not earn us merit with God.  We no longer have to use our good works and our service to others to prove ourselves worthy, to feed our incessant desire for approval, or to “pay God back.” The pressure is off.  Our good works, which flow from our faith, are not for God, they are for our neighbor. In other words:

Works no longer dominate us; rather, we have dominion over them (as it was in the beginning).

We have been freed from the curse of the law, and we are liberated to a life of good works. We have been given a new desire to love our neighbor (whoever they are); a desire that comes not from fear about what will happen but out of gratitude for what has already happened.

The Gospel isn’t about us and what we are doing for God. It’s not about earning more brownie points in heaven. It’s not about being able to look back at the past week and count all of our works of service. It’s about Christ and what he has done for us. It’s his undeserved and unearned love for us that compels us to want to shower grace upon those who (also) don’t deserve it. The more we look to the cross and relish in the amazing act of love that was bestowed upon underserving sinners (us), the more we will move toward our neighbor in service and love; this is what grace does. Grace is dynamic and not static; it will move us toward others. We serve because Jesus first served us.

“It is not that the righteous person does nothing, but that his works do not make him righteous, rather that his righteousness creates works” -Luther

The Mom Fail

I wake up to the sounds of my youngest microwaving himself a quesadilla while he sips on a soda. My pre-coffee conscience is slammed by the phrase “mom fail.”

I think of the shame that I should feel for not getting out of bed and fixing the kids a healthy breakfast.  I’ve convinced myself that every other mom, regardless of her situation, was up before her kids cooking up something healthy, unlike me. And then it hits me. Why am I trying so hard to cling to my self-righteousness through a plate of scrambled eggs and a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice?

It happens without notice. It’s the air we breathe and the food we eat. It’s the incessant need to compare ourselves to others. We need to be the best we can be, or at least to measure ourselves against someone who is struggling to make sure we aren’t failing too badly. While these sentiments definitely indicate our heart issues, I’ve seen how these thoughts are built into a worldview regarding motherhood. The world tells us that unless we are Pinterestly perfect, Facebookly faultless, Instagramly interesting, and Twitterly terrific, then we have failed.

In my life I have experienced days when TV and video games are all that I have to offer my kids. There are days that a corn dog and a juice box are sufficient for lunch and then again for dinner. There are days that my bed has been filled with crackers, Legos, glitter, and scraps of paper as my kids have had to live life in the only spot that mommy could rest.

It’s my brokenness, my mess, and all of my failures as a mother that continue to draw me into the arms of Jesus. It is by the grace of Jesus Christ that I see the silliness of the idea of “mom fail,” as though I am perfect 99.9% of the time and that this little “fail” is just a little blip in my well-programmed system. The truth is that the whole operating system is broken. Crashed! Kaput! And I am in great need of outside intervention. I am in need of Someone who can do for me what I cannot do for myself. Christ has taken on my sin, failures, and the weaknesses that beset me, and he’s redeemed me at the cost of his own life.

We have all failed miserably. I’m not talking about “fails” like the time that you let the two-year-old out of sight and she painted the toilet with nail polish. Or the time that you poured milk from the baby’s bottle into your toddler’s cereal because you didn’t want to walk to the kitchen. I’m not even talking about the less cute failures of yelling at your husband or lying to your friend so you didn’t have to babysit her kids.

No, I’m talking about the failure of all failures…the crucifying of the Lord of glory. The tragic event that happened on Calvary 2,000 years ago was because of your failure and my failure. It was the most epic fail of all mankind. The necessity of the crucifixion of the perfect Son of God exposed us all for the failures that we are. No one is righteous in God’s sight—no not one.

When we understand that the cross was about us and our sin and our failure, we see that there is nowhere left to hide. We no longer have to fear exposure. The cross said it all. And as the hymn says, “Jesus paid it all,” so we can stop pretending that we really aren’t that bad. We can start loving the people around us because we know that we really are that bad and so are they. The shame and the masks and the walls… they all come to a blinding halt. The beauty of the cross is that we no longer have to bedazzle our proverbial fig leaves with the words “Mom Fail” across the front. We’ve been found out.

It is finished, moms. Every true failure has been laid upon Jesus’ back and every masqueraded self-righteous “mom fail” has died with him in his death to be remembered no more. You are free!

Jesus Pushed the Elf Off the Shelf

 

“Mommy, if there really was a naughty and nice list we would all be on the naughty list.”

This statement from my seven year old had much greater theological depth than she knew. Her observation didn’t come from a manipulative self-pity over being naughty. It came from a clear view of what she knows about the gospel: “None is righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:10).

As the traditions of the holidays swirl around my children, my hope is that they will learn to distinguish the law from the gospel. I want my kids to know that God is not another Santa Claus. I long for them to embrace the fact that they are not capable of being good enough to receive anything but coal in their stockings and that our hope for goodness can only be found in the only One capable of perfection.

With the advent celebration and family traditions intersecting this season there is a very clear battle between law and gospel going on. Many parents set an elf on a shelf to watch over their children leaving notes such as, “I saw you steal a cookie today. If you are good from now until Christmas I promise that I won’t tell Santa. If you are extra good then maybe you will get that iPod you asked for.” It’s just another extension of the naughty and nice list. It’s the law kicked up a notch and it gives parents a way to manipulate their children’s behavior as they deal with children high on Christmas treats and anticipation, and who can blame them. If I weren't so lazy and uncreative I would be doing the same. 

The Elf on the Shelf can be a fun Christmas tradition but unfortunately it is often a more intense reality of what many children are taught all year long. Do good and you will be accepted by God and will receive good things. Do bad and you will be punished by God or worse yet, be turned away. It’s the law, masked as Karma, masked as parenting.

Thank God for the Gospel! Thank God for the incarnation of the Son who came down to save us from this filthy mess into which we’ve gotten ourselves. Thank God that we no longer live under this burden but now live in the freedom of Christ. Is that not what Christmas is about in the first place?

We no longer have to live within the confines of the law. The Holy Spirit was not left to look over our shoulder to make sure that we are being good enough for God. Jesus didn’t come for those who were good enough and He certainly didn’t come to tattle on us. The Son Of God humbled himself into the restricted form of a human body, lived a sinless life worthy of one million iPads, and willingly hung on a tree to die for those who deserved not only coal but much worse. He did this all knowing that we could never be good enough to appease the Father.

We could not earn a righteousness of our own so God’s gift to us was the righteousness of his Son wrapped up in a blood-stained, tragic death, which culminated in a cry of “It is finished.”

“It is finished” declared Jesus’ annihilation of the naughty and nice list. It was with that cry that He pushed that elf off the shelf so that we could be free. My friends, rest in Him this season. Rest in His goodness and not your own. And please, give your children the greatest gift that they will ever receive: the grace that tells them that they have a Savior who loves them and has come to rescue them from the crushing news that they will never be good enough.

Ordinary Thankfulness

 

My parents are visiting for Thanksgiving. We don't have a guest room and I'm not about to make them sleep in the kids' beds simply for the reason that I do not care for my guests to discover dried boogers on the wall (yes it happens here too) next to their heads no matter how much blood we share. And so Justin and I find ourselves in two twin beds, our feet hanging off the ends, under purple quilts with a menagerie of stuffed animals staring us down. 

I'm thankful that we still get to share a room. I'm thankful that my girls gave up their beds to sleep on the couch. I'm thankful that they have so many outfits to wear even if they are all on the floor. Or perhaps that's just me trying to live up to the expectations of the holiday.

In all of my thankfulness for a bed to sleep in, a roof over my head, and good health I may have thrown a few stuffed animals at a snoring husband, spent some time sweeping up a shattered picture frame at 1:30am (no I didn't throw that too!), and ended up sleeping on the window seat in the living room. 

The spirit of thankfulness continued in our home as I awoke to the harsh words of "I hate you" blessing the morning air. Everything in me wanted to be discouraged but all I could think was, "Thank God my children are healthy enough to have the energy to fight!" (Because that's all I've got at 7:00am). 

I often believe that holidays are supposed to be exempt from the ordinary struggles of life — everyone should be perfectly behaved, perfectly healthy, and I should be perfectly thankful. But that's not reality. That's not life.

Am I thankful today? You bet ya. But thankfulness doesn't always come in the pretty ways we want it too. Sometimes it just looks like living life and staying where you are. One day does not make up our thankfulness for the entire year.

The good news is that God is for us. God is rejoicing over us with gladness no matter what our day looks like today. Your worth is not in the pies you bake, your kids' behavior, or your list of blessings. Christ is your life and you are worthy to be called his Beloved. He is thankful for you. Rest.

 

Chaos Interrupted

 

I watched as my pastor bounced up and down with excitement while delivering the good news of the Gospel to us one Sunday morning, even as I questioned my own faith. My spiritual life felt dry and dreary. I sang the usual worship songs, but not with much enthusiasm. I listened to the sermon, but I wasn’t moved. Where had my excitement gone over the past several months? Where was my desire for Christ?

As I sat and listened to the Good News I panicked when it didn’t move me. Something had to be done. I longed for the closeness with Christ that I felt I had as recently as a few short months ago. I was weary of my parched-desert and decided that I had to find my way out. And so I began to scheme. I made a promise to myself that I would wake up the next (Monday) morning and get back into the Word. I pledged to read and pray and write. Surely this will fuel me. Surely this will change my spiritual posture. And then maybe I, too, could hop up and down as my pastor did, Christ flooding my heart.

My well-intentioned plans were thrown out the window when Monday morning slapped me in the face: arguing kids, a missing shoe, and a reluctant kindergartner who greeted the morning with, “I’m not going to school!” All I could think about was hurrying the kids out the door so I could get to the business of getting out of this spiritual desert—surely that would make me a better mom and wife. If I had joy in Christ, then I could have joy in raising my children…or so I believed.

As I pulled my car into the drop-off line at school, my kindergartner’s protest began to escalate. I could see that this would not be a battle easily won. Even my other children saw it; they were begging me to let them out of the car quickly because they could see the gathering clouds of the impending storm.

As the teacher opened the door of the car, cheerfully greeting my kids, our eyes met. Even she could see that this was going to be another one of those days. I stepped out of the car and wrestled my six-year-old onto the sidewalk. I managed to make it to the gate before being kicked in the shin and informed that I was hated in front of what seemed like the entire school. In pain and anger, I made it very clear to him that he wasnever to kick his mommy again. And like that, I had terrified an entire group of five- and six-year-olds who had formed a semi-circle around our wrestling match.

Then I did the unthinkable: I burst into tears.

I broke down not only in front of my son’s friends, but in front of all the parents and teachers that I had worked so hard all year to impress.

I just cried.

In my moment of weakness, I suddenly saw very clearly what God was doing. Even though my day began by quickly spiraling out of control, my spiritual sand dunes began to transform to look more and more like lush waterfalls. In all of my planning and effort to bring myself out of my desert, God was showing me something that I needed more: weakness. In midst of the Monday morning chaos, I saw Christ more active in my public weeping than I would have on a benign morning of quiet study and solitary prayer.

I did read my bible that morning. In fact, I couldn’t wait to read it. I needed it like someone dying of thirst, crawling across the desert, desperate for a cup of life-giving water. God used my weakness—not my strength—to bring me out of the desert. Had things gone as planned, I would have forged ahead believing it was up to me to find more faith and that it was up to me to manufacture some kind of excitement toward the gospel.

When we take it upon ourselves to work to get closer to Christ, like I did, we slip back into the false notion that gaining more faith is something that we can accomplish. There is no amount of list-making and effort-giving that will give us more of him. No. He wants us to throw away those lists for a simple reason: it’s not about what we do for God; it’s about what he has done for us. Faith is a gift that cannot be earned.

It is the times of chaos and the difficult days that force us to our knees. It is on our knees where we find grace. The humiliation of that Monday morning—a suffering that caused a death to my put-together self—was the avenue by which Jesus brought life to my parched soul. No work, no matter how good and indisputably right, can make us love Christ more.

It is good news that we remain his beloved whether we are having a respectable moment (calmly dealing with an angry child) or an appalling moment (yelling at that child in front of the whole school). The Good News causes us to stand in awe of him.

It is in our weakness that we are finally able to see how much we need his strength.

It is in our weakness that he calls out to us, drawing us to him for strength.

It is in our weakness that we find Christ.

What is Grace?

What is Grace?

“Shut up!” How childish that sounds coming from a mother of four. Immature, cutting words passed through my lips, taking flight as they hit the air, piercing my eight-year-old’s tender heart. Before I knew it, the words were gone, a vapor I could not grasp and stuff back in. The regret came fast and lingered through the evening. I’d done it again.

The guilt surfaced quickly as I realized what I had just said — what relationship I had just wounded. I sank into the chair in the corner and began to preach to myself how very wrong I was. I proceeded to add up all the other harsh words I had used that day. Surely I would have to pay; I would somehow have to earn my way back into good standing after sinning like this again. How does God put up with me?

His Kindness Leads Us to Repentance

But God was kind not to leave me with those lies for long. He whispered His words of sweet grace into my ear: “You are my beloved daughter, not just when you are good but at this very moment. This is what I was sent for: these very moments when your flesh has overcome you. This grace that you have found at the cross is yours. It is all yours! It is not just a saving grace, it is a living grace. It is a grace that counts you righteous. Believe that my grace is enough for you at this very moment and be free.”  He loved me into repentance and caused me to run to my little boy to seek forgiveness.

His Gift to the Sinner

You see, my friends, we are going to sin in this life. Even in our best efforts, we will still find ourselves with moments like my interaction with my son — or even far worse. This is why we need Jesus. This is why He had to humbly descend to our level. This is why He had to live a flawless life.

He willingly hung on a tree of death, was mocked and scorned, spat upon and hated.

He spent three painful hours separated from His perfect relationship with His Father, crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” so that we would never have to.

He was sealed in a tomb that could not hold back His glory, and then He rose again to sit at the right hand of God to pray for us, reign over us, and reside in us through the Spirit.

Through Christ we were given a righteousness that could not be earned other than by a perfect sacrifice of blood and tears, enabling us to stand before the Father who loves us as He loves His son.

That’s grace.

Grace for the Crooked Road of Reality

This journey is hard. The life that we live between the already and the not yet. Between the fallen and perfected. Like the windy roads that lead me to my house atop Lilac Hill, the roads of life are full of twists and turns. A series of hairpin turns that leave my knuckles white as they grip the steering wheel, careful not to let go.

Driving down the hill exhausts me. Leaving me dizzy and desperate for a stretch of straightness. What joy and relief there is in those moments that I can relax my hands, take my foot off the brake and see to the horizon. My heart is always searching for the straight, savoring every stretch, every smooth ride that I can, wishing it would never end.

And in my savoring of the straight I forget for just a moment about the next turn. I deny the impending reality that I cannot avoid it. I want to pull over and enjoy the view. I want to turn around and head back but I know that what lies behind is just as crooked. I want to deny reality and the harshness of the road ahead.

I try to speed through the turns hoping to pass by them unscathed only to find that if I do not slow down I run the risk of flying off the road all together. I will only crash and burn. Sometimes I wonder which is the one that will end it all. So many of them seem to come at a neck breaking  speed.

I lean and I brake and I panic and I hold my breath. Reality grabs hold of the back of my neck, turns my head straight and shouts, “LOOK!”  But with eyes shut tight I can continue to deny the pain of life. With eyes shut tight I won’t have to see what is in the road up ahead. Maybe in my own strength I can do this, maybe I can get there safely. If I try hard enough perhaps I can straighten the crooked. I convince myself that I will move away from these back roads of heartache and pain. Find a less crooked road to travel. Maybe some day.

And then I find grace, a grace that gives me courage to open my eyes. A grace that takes the wheel and assures me that one day I will live where there are no more crooked roads to travel. Where the road is smooth and straight and there is nothing but an easy drive ahead. This grace allows me to face reality. It gives me hope. It is a grace that breaks through the notion that humanness is something to hide. That my human best is all I have.

Fredrick Buechner writes, “The human best tends to be at odds with the holy best. To do for yourself the best that you have it in you to do­- to grit your teeth and clench your fists in order to survive the world at it’s harshest and worst- is, by that very act, to be unable to let something be done for you and in you that is the more wonderful still. The trouble with steeling yourself against the harshness of reality is that the same steel that secures your life against being destroyed secures your life also against being opened up and transformed by the holy power that life itself comes from. You can survive on your own. You can grow strong on your own. You can prevail on your own. But you cannot become human on your own.”

And so I let go. I take my grip from the wheel, trusting that all is grace. All is not up to me and the gritting of my teeth. Reality is merely the vehicle of which I relinquish my hold. It’s not up to me to get through this crooked life. It’s not for me to straighten the road.

My journey was birthed from grace, survives in grace, and expires in grace. It was finished before I ever started.

What Women Need

Women want a number of things in life. Some of it lies on the surface like the desire to lose a few pounds, have shinier hair or to make everything that we have pinned on our Pinterest board, but it’s our needs that run through us in a deeper vain. The trouble is that we often become confused, believing that our wants are actually our needs.

We run ourselves ragged with all of our “doing” and we believe that we need to do more so we won’t feel so out of control. It’s why we buy magazines called Real Simple and then work furiously to simplify our lives. It’s why we shut down at night and numb ourselves with a box of cookies while we watch America’s Next Top Model. We hide from the reality that we really aren’t good enough and never can be. We encourage ourselves by running to Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest in hopes of being “liked”, only to find that we aren’t living the same fabulous lives as our “friends.”

We desire something more, something deeper than what is fed to us on prime time television, but we don’t know where to find it. We long to be inspired, motivated and understood. We believe that if we just try harder and hopefully succeed that we will finally feel good about ourselves. We want to have control so we pick up the latest self-help book and believe that if it’s written by a Christian then it must be what we need to hear.

The problem is that we feed ourselves with what we want to hear instead of what we need to hear.

We don’t need another list to complete or another three-step program to a happier life. We don’t need new kids by Friday or new husbands by Wednesday.

What we need is to hear that Christ has set us free from relying on anything other than himself! He has set us free from the burdens we are carrying. He takes the load off and calls us to rest.

To hear that everything you have done over the entire day, whether good or bad, will not gain or lose you any favor with the Father is what rest is made of.

Rest is not found in doing. It’s not found in learning the secret to a better quiet time. Rest is found in knowing that when we’ve been a hormonal twit all day that we are still loved and accepted far more than we can possibly imagine. Rest is found in knowing that there is nothing left for us to prove because Christ proved it all on the cross.

We need to be reminded of the Savior who lived every single day of his life in perfect obedience because he knew that we would not. We need the gospel to breathe wind into our sails because most days we’re so tired that we just don’t know if we can pack any more lunches, set any more alarm clocks, listen to irrational fears, break up countless fights, receive concerning phone calls, critical emails or not cry when our child lashes out at us.

We need to hear that our joy comes from being overwhelmed by what God has done for us in sending his son to die for such a wicked sinner; one who thinks she can do it all, one who blows it every single day whether by a blatant outward sin or by an inward Pharisaical smugness.

We will never be motivated to love God by telling ourselves to try harder. Motivation comes from knowing how much we are loved and adored by the one who created the universe. The one who chose us even though in his omniscience knew every ugly thought and evil action that we would ever come up with.

Let’s stop believing the lie that we have to do it all and believe the truth that we don’t need to prove our worthiness because the cross has done that for us.

Dear friends, you are his beautiful daughter with whom he is well pleased, now, forever and always, even when you don’t feel like it, act like it or even want to be it. And that is all you need.

Jesus for the Win

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” –Colossians 3:1-4

I’m not sure how my friends and I had come to the topic of what life was like at eighteen, but I do remember my answer and I’ve given it some thought since then.

It was just a short little exchange. One woman mentioned that she wished she was eighteen again. While everyone else piped up about how foolish they were at eighteen and are glad those years are behind them, I too confessed that those younger years were some of the best days of my life.

Now, of course my wedding day, children’s births, and many days since are probably the true best days of my life, being that they were full of meaning and milestones, but for some reason 18-21 really rocked in my mind.

But why? What leads me longing for eighteen again? Was it the lack of responsibilities weighing on me? Or maybe it was the reckless abandon of the Doc Martins, orange hair, and argyle socks that I so exquisitely pulled off (think Angela from My So Called Life). While much of that may be the case I think the real answer lies in what I blurted out when asked why I loved eighteen so much.

“I was winning.”

Really. That’s what it boils down to. I was winning at life. Success defined me in those years. I was ruling the net on the volleyball court, raking in the medals, ribbons, and titles at the horse shows, and hanging with all the boys. It felt great. I was at the top of my game. I had amazing confidence in myself. So much so that on occasion I trained in a one-piece tie-died spandex suit. One-piece. Tie-died. Spandex. Please don’t go there. I’m still trying to recover.

As you can imagine, desperate, messy, and needy were nowhere in my vocabulary. I was doing just fine. I was winning and I was free…or so I thought.

As life has hung its years on my body, I am no longer winning. I broke down a long time ago. I can no longer play the court and am seldom able to ride my horse without wrecking my back. And hanging with the boys? Well, that now means something entirely different (insert favorite potty joke here). Worldly success doesn’t define me and failure is chronic as I do my best to parent four children.

Sure, I am doing some great things that may look like winning such as being a constant in my kids’ life, caring about their grades, signing them up for activities that help them to grow but at the end of the day when I have just freaked out on them about a toothbrush that is laying on the floor next to the toilet again, I know that in that moment I certainly haven’t won.

It is in those moments that I see how very much I cannot do this parenting thing (or anything) without an ocean of grace. My very breath depends on a man who came to win the world by allowing himself to be mercilessly fixed to a beam with spikes driven through the flesh and tendons of his body, to hang in agony, to be ripped away from the perfect union with his Father, becoming sin on our behalf so that we may never have to cry out in loss, “My Father, why have you forsaken me?”

Nobody was rooting for the underdog that day and what looked like a miserable loss was essentially the greatest win of all time.

A win that procured our freedom.

A horrific, tragic, heart-breaking win at the loss of another.

In all of our losing, we have One who has won for us. In fact, losing is exactly what qualifies us for the win. Christ didn’t come to call the winners. He didn’t come to save those who were getting it right. He didn’t hold intensive twice a day tryouts so that he could build a super team of amazing players. Instead he built a team of benchwarmers, water boys, and the weaklings who couldn’t make the cut.

He came to call the desperate, messy, and needy like you and me. And through our union with him we have gained something far greater than success, we have gained Christ who is our life.

I was wrong about a lot of things at eighteen. Freedom is not gained by our win, it is gained by his. And one day I will be in perpetual celebration of that win. No more broken body. No more losses. And thankfully no more one-piece tie-died spandex suits.