Saturday, July 23, 2016

the 7th circle

For Pete's sake.

Y'all, I can't even.

Where to begin?

The following narrative is completely true and factual. I am imaginative, but could definitely not make this stuff up. For what it's worth, please enjoy a laugh at my expense as I tell you about my time on a business trip this week, otherwise known as my time in the seventh circle of hell.

My kids are out of town this week, visiting the happiest place on earth with their dad and future stepmom and stepsister. I planned ahead, thinking this would be a great time to do some needed business travel without impacting them and their expectations of lazy summer days where I'm available to do their bidding. I had two clinics due for an audit and a visit with the staff, so I made arrangements for traveling to Opelika and Prattville, both in south Alabama. And silly me, I even kind of imagined that once I concluded my business responsibilities in Opelika, I could enjoy an evening in a hotel room with no house to clean, no dishes to wash, no one who needed me for anything. The next morning I'd be up and out the door to head to Prattville.

My first indication that this was NOT going to be a day that went smoothly came early.

Upon return after walking my dog, I was greeted by this little fellow wandering around in my garage:

**in keeping with the theme of this trip, I can't get the photos to rotate, so you get to view it sideways. Ironically appropriate, don't you think? **

I've never seen this pooch before. No tags. My dog, who loathes and despises other canines, was going bananas so I put her in the house. Knowing I was pressed for time and needed to pick up my rental car to head out of town, I scooped him up and walked to a couple different neighbors' houses where I knew I'd seen small dogs, hoping maybe one of them would be the owner.

Nope. Long story short, I finally found a guy walking around the neighborhood, obviously looking for a dog. Problem solved and I'd done my good deed for the day (and it wasn't even 8am!).

Upon arrival at the rental car place, I remember thinking that the young man helping me didn't seem quite as professional as I'm accustomed to at this location, but he was young and pleasant, so I didn't think much more about it. All I needed him to do was find my reservation and get me on the road. He started the car to check the mileage, got out and had me sign some forms, and a few minutes later, I was starting out on my 4-hour drive to Opelika, Alabama (which is also known as God's country because of it's close proximity to Auburn).

40 miles outside of my destination, I decided to stop and get some fuel and take a quick driving break. It was only then that I began to more closely examine my rental car. Oh, it doesn't use keys in the ignition. It's one of those cars you just push a button to turn the engine on and off. Those are fun, I thought.

Before I pushed the button to turn off the car, I began looking around just to be sure I knew where the key was. That's when I realized it. That's when a knot of dread began forming in my stomach. That's when I knew.

The young man back in Huntsville had not given me the key to the car.

Oh, good grief.

Knowing I didn't have enough fuel to make it 40 more miles to Opelika, I was forced to turn off the car, effectively stranding myself at an Exxon station in some little town called Kellyton, AL. I immediately began making calls to the rental car company and after quite some time of explaining the situation and being passed from person to person, I was assured that another rental car would be on its way within the hour.

I'd like to take stop now to publicly thank my new friend, Billy the gas station attendant, for being so hospitable and allowing me to loiter at his place of business for the next two hours. I learned all kinds of fun trivia about Billy, a super nice guy and retired army soldier. And I have to say, he handled the drunk African American man who wobbled his way into the gas station quite smoothly. I was also entertained by the man who walked in with more tattoos than actual remaining real estate on his body.

After the first hour passed, I called the rental company again to see what was going on. I mean, I was having a great time hanging with Billy and people watching, but I did have a job to do, after all. A car is coming soon, I was told. Again.

Eventually, a car did show up. Except it wasn't a rental and it wasn't a car. It was a truck. A tow truck, to be exact, and I was informed that I was to ride in said truck to a place 45 minutes away called Sylacauga. Small little detail that this was the OPPOSITE direction of where I was trying to get (which you will remember was just 40 miles away).

I'd like to take this moment to also say thank you to my other new pal, Charlie the tow truck driver.

We spent a lot of time together, Charlie and I. Almost 2.5 hours after it was all said and done, which is nearly the amount of time it took me to get all the dog hair off my clothes after riding in that truck.

Girls, here I am in a skirt and heels, now bumping along the highway in a huge tow truck, my rental car gleaming like an impossible dream behind me. So close, yet so far away.

But fine. No use crying over spilled milk, right? I made the best of it, enjoyed small talk with Charlie, and we arrived at the next location of the rental company.

It's never a good sign when you walk into a place of business and the one person working doesn't acknowledge you even though there are no other customers around. I began to understand what it would be like to be invisible. However, she finally looked up, seemed to have no idea who I was or why I was there, and told me very casually that she was sorry, but that she didn't have any available cars for me that day. None. Not a single one.

Y'all, is it just me, or is this somewhat like an ice cream store running out of ice cream? What do you mean you don't have any cars? I was told that you had one waiting, which is why Charlie drove me here in the first place!

Skipping thru more standing around and more calls and my favorite, when Charlie the tow truck driver began getting upset, telling this woman that, "y'all need to fix this and get this poor woman where she needs to be!" the bottom line is that I was now being sent to yet another rental location. This time in a place called Anniston, Al., another 1.5 hours from where we were and TWO hours in the wrong direction from the hotel room which was now becoming just a distant dream. A paradise I could never quite get to.

It was like one of those dreams where you're running a race, and just when the finish line comes into view, the course changes and suddenly you have miles remaining. Is it just me that has that dream? Oh. I'm sure it means something deep about my subconscious. Whatever.

Back in the tow truck with Charlie. Back to the benchseat covered in dog hair. Except as an added bonus, we were now soaking wet because of the torrential, Noah-like downpour that was happening as we tried to climb into the truck. Charlie tried to help me, warning me that the step-up into the cab of the truck gets slippery when wet, but I nearly slipped and fell, anyway. Stupid heels. I grabbed onto a handle just in time and saved myself a very humiliating and potentially hazardous fall. Poor Charlie would likely have quit if he had to take me to the ER on top of everything else.

1.5 hours (and two u-turns later when Charlie got lost), we arrived in Anniston at last. I never thought I'd say this, but in that moment, Anniston was a place of beauty to this travel weary girl. The nearby Wal-Mart sparkled. The Sonic was like a view of heaven. The first glimpse of the rental company like the glistening white beaches of the Caribbean. At last, I was nearing the end of this leg of the journey.

I was just sure they'd be rolling out the red carpet for me, falling all over themselves to make this right. Offering me a glass of wine (well, maybe not...they do rent people vehicles, after all) and some flowers. Getting me behind the wheel of some fantastic luxury car.

Not exactly.

Again with the waiting and the having to go thru the whole ugly story again. Again with the manager who moved like a sloth and wasn't the least bit concerned with expediting the rental process given the day I'd had. It was actually a vivid reminder of my children because the more I tried to explain that I'd really like to get on the road and actually head in the right direction, it seemed like she had a harder time moving quickly. I've seen fossils formed faster.

The first car she tried to give me was a no go. Cracked windshield. The second car? A winner. It was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. I couldn't believe it. At last, at last, I was making progress.

However, my plans and meetings for the day had long since been shot to pieces and were completely out of the question. And I hadn't eaten anything all day but some peanuts I bought from Billy at the gas station just before the drunk man came in wanting to talk politics with us.

I don't even like Applebee's all that much, but I was hungry and it was right there, so I pulled in for dinner.

I needed a few minutes out of a car, away from dog hair and frustrating circumstances. I just wanted to chill out for a little bit before making the two hour drive to my hotel. Just some peace and quiet.

That wasn't in the cards.

After informing the host that no, I did not want to sit at the bar, he seated me in a corner booth and I sat with my back to the couple of fellows at the nearby bar. Sinking into the cushioned seat, I thanked my lucky stars that I could have this time gather my composure and mentally work out my new plan for this trip.

"I never do this. Really. But you're really pretty. Can I sit down?" a deep voice next to me said, pulling me from my weary thoughts.

And before I knew what was even happening, a man was sitting opposite me in the booth, talking a mile a minute. Showing me pictures of his two sons and telling me he'd been divorced for eight months. Telling me about the furniture he'd bought and given to his ex-wife and kids. After declining to give him my number, he gave up and walked back to his buddy at the bar. I paid my bill and prepared to leave, but as I was walking by, his buddy handed me his phone number and asked if I'd like to go to a movie.

For the love of all things good and holy.

At this point I've sat in a gas station for two hours with Billy. I smell faintly of cigarette smoke thanks to the patrons of said gas station. I've ridden all over south Alabama with Charlie. I've been soaked thru and have the lovely air-dried hairstyle going on. My make-up is a distant memory. My clothes are wrinkled and unkempt.

It was as if I had somehow unknowingly entered the only Applebee's in America where no other woman has ever been. I suspect that I could've had my lip sticking out with a big wad of tobacco in my mouth and I would've been hit on by these fellows. I had to double check to be sure I wasn't at some sleazy bar at midnight instead of Applebee's at 6pm on a Tuesday.

Shockingly, I turned down the movie invitation and set out for Opelika. I was in a car. With a key. Life was back on track.

Not quite. This rental car had less than 1/4 tank of gas and Siri seemed to be taking me thru back woods and abandoned two-lane roads, so I decided to stop at the first place I came to for gas. And because this was just in keeping with the day I'd had, it happened to be a very run down looking gas station. No option to pay outside at the pump, either. At least it wasn't crowded and I didn't have to wait for an available pump, I tried to tell myself.

Wait. It isn't crowded at all. In fact, there's only one other car anywhere to be seen. And it has seen better days except for the brand new looking phrase across the back window: "PLAYBOY" It looked a lot like this:


I wished in that moment that my new friend, Billy the gas station attendant who packs heat, was with me. But alas, it was just me and I marched in there, kept my eyes down, and paid for my fuel with no incident to report

Fast forward nearly two hours. I unlock the hotel room. It was like the pinnacle of delight to be there at last. The wifi didn't work but I wasn't about to complain.

I'm happy to report that I was able to get an early start and pack everything into the next day. I love my job, I really do. It's fabulous.

Not so fabulous? The facebook message request from someone I didn't know the next morning. Who is that, I wondered, as I clicked on the message?

Oh. Charlie the tow truck driver who has facebook stalked me and is now offering to take me to dinner the next time I'm in Sylacauga.

Great balls of fire. This was one jacked up business trip. Ladies, if you're interested, I can put you in touch with some available bachelors (at least I hope they're bachelors) and recommend an awesome place to rent a car.

Til next time...over and out.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Unassuming Hero

There's this man I know. 

I'm told this picture was taken on the day I first smiled. Seems fitting that I'm looking into his eyes because he can still make me smile 38 years later. 

Ray Smith is his name. He's my dad. 

He isn't the life of the party. He doesn't command the attention of a room. He isn't wildly wealthy or always driving up in the latest amazing sports car. He doesn't care all that much about brand names or the applause of those around him. Upscale restaurants actually make him a little uncomfortable with all the doting attention of the servers. He's not interested in long, luxurious vacations, although as a retired man who has worked hard all his life, he'd certainly be entitled to just that by most folks' standards. 

I've told you a few of the things this man does NOT care much about. So what does he care about? What drives him? 

People. Plain and simple.  

My father is a man who shows up when others do not. He's the first in line to help in any way he can, even if you don't say a word or mention anything that you need. He looks for ways to help. He's the kind of man who shows up at your front door with his toolbox or his ridiculously powerful toilet plunger at 11pm when you've got a plumbing emergency. He's the guy you discover has taken care of all your flower beds with new mulch and has trimmed all the bushes even though you've never said a word to him about it. 

My dad. 

He doesn't dominate the conversation and gives you plenty of room to say whatever you need to in that moment. He's not driven by the winds of a volatile temper or at the mercy of a relentless need for approval by others. He asks questions. He tells corny jokes. He leads by example.

My dad was the man up in the bleachers for over a decade, cheering us on at our sporting events while still in his suit and tie from a day at work. He never once complained (that we knew of, anyway) about eating cold dinners we'd pack and meet him with at the ballfield. He never ate out on his lunch breaks, in part because I'm sure he and mom didn't have the money for such luxuries because they were sacrificing to send us to a Christian school where we'd be taught the truth. 

I've always known my dad is a strong man. I've known he is compassionate and a servant leader and loves Jesus. 

But during the last four years, I've seen it in action and personally felt the love of my heavenly Father in more ways than I can count. 

My dad was the man who, early on when my world was imploding and I could no longer hide it, didn't shy away from my tears. He put his arms around me in my kitchen one day as we were painting and my daughters were on a trip with their dad, the first of many I would not be invited to join them on. He knew the churning in my stomach and the anxiety always on my mind. He hugged me and let me cry and asked me what I was afraid of. 

Not an easy question to ask a woman terrified she is facing divorce. The torrent of tears really came then, and I rushed into all the things that seemed so scary. The gates that were threatening to give way did, and I talked about everything from finances to my daughters to managing a house, the car, my fears about ever possibly finding a good job, being alone, etc, etc, etc. 

He just listened and then, with tears in his eyes, he said, "Sharon, there will be better days."

In the next couple years as it became plain that my marriage was in fact over, my dad then became my biggest cheerleader. He pored over the pages and pages of legalese. He (and a couple key others) became my source of strength, holding up my arms for me just like the closest friends of Moses did in the Old Testament. When my determination to fight the legal battle with all my might would wane, when I was just so weary of the battle and intimidated and so desperately wanted it to just be over, he would remind me why I was fighting so hard. Why I could not afford to give up. He helped keep the long-term goals at the forefront of my mind and gave me courage to keep going and to play hardball. 

He didn't encourage me to fight hard because he's a natural fighter. He encouraged me because that's what followers of Jesus do. We do all we can to promote peace and live with others as we're called to, but when push comes to shove and we are facing evil that threatens to destroy us, we pray up and we fight. We fight hard regardless of the fear or the pain. 

In the years since, my dad has continued to be my biggest cheerleader (and not to diminish the role my mom has in this regard...she is often the voice in his ear making him aware of things that could be done over here and she helps with my daughters just as much as he does). Scenes like this one are not at all uncommon:

He's actively engaged in our lives. This picture was taken three years ago right after my ex-husband had moved out. Dad took us to an amusement park in Chattanooga and showed the girls a wonderful, care-free day like kids are supposed to have. I was there, but not on official duty and could let him take the reins as the lead for a while when I needed a break because my world was spinning. 

All my neighbors now know and wave at my dad when he's out in my yard. They've come to recognize his truck and I hear comments all the time about how lucky we are to have him. I agree. 

To my dad, the servant leader. 

The quiet strength I've relied on time and time again. 

The man who was always up every night spending time with Jesus long after we'd gone to bed when I was growing up. 

The man who never waits to be asked.

The one who has deeply shaped and molded me into the woman I've become. 

The one who, at my recent birthday dinner, said he's so happy to have his daughter back. He made it a safe place for the real me, the one I had almost entirely forgotten was in there, to slowly make a return appearance. He waited quietly for me to find my footing and cheered me on when I was unsure of myself.

To the man who, just last week, got into my minivan with me and looked into my red, puffy eyes, swollen from the tears of a new sting. He listened and he was angry. I can count on one hand the number of times I've heard my dad cuss. He just doesn't. But during my divorce and the darkest days, I can now remember two times where he said "damn" in reference to some very difficult and unjust circumstances. And it made me feel better somehow. Made it okay for me to be angry, furious even. Dad taught me by example that sometimes we really are supposed to be furious. Once again he said, "Sharon, there will be better days."

His own eyes were a little teary, too. 

You see, my dad can say this with confidence because of this other man we both know. This other man tell us that we know the end of the story and it's really, really good. This other man faithfully leads and loves and serves even though He is the King of all. My dad has pointed me to this other man all my life and encouraged me to listen to Him first and foremost. Oh, I hope you know Him, too. His name is Jesus - maybe you've heard of Him but never really known Him for yourself. Don't wait another second, friend. You can't imagine how good He is. 

Though his daughters are grown and moved onto families of their own, Dad has not taken a backseat or put his life on autopilot. These days he can be found doing homework with his granddaughters or cheering them on from the bleachers at the ballpark. He loves faithfully and well.  

Happy Father's Day, Dad. I love you. 

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Mother's Day Thing

So today is a special day. 

It's a day designed to express appreciation, love, and gratitude for all the ways special women in our lives have sacrificed for us. 

Mother's Day.

Many of you will receive (or remember receiving) handmade cards, lopsided artwork, or a bouquet much like the one my 7-year-old presented me this afternoon:

And we will love it. After all, as I explained to my daughter yesterday afternoon, it's not about how expensive the gift is or what brand name is on it. It's about the fact that they thought about us. They put effort into expressing that they love us and are grateful for us. 

It's a great day. 

Except when it's not. 

Many of you know a heartache on Mother's Day that I can only imagine. And it's you whom I think of today. 

Oh, there are various reasons mothers feel the sting more acutely on this day designed to elevate us. Maybe it's because you are losing hope that you will ever be a mother. Maybe your children have long since grown up and don't pursue a relationship with you like you had hoped. Perhaps you have a child who is going down a dangerous path, plunging headfirst into heartache though they may not see it just yet. 

I personally know several women who likely have to brace themselves for Mother's Day because they have lost a child to miscarriage or sickness or tragic accidents. That's a sting that never really goes away, so I'm told. 

Or for some moms, perhaps you feel a heaviness because you feel unrecognized. Unappreciated. Un-valued. I know some fantastic mothers who will maybe have a card tossed their way and a murmured "happy mother's day" as their husbands go about their day. Or maybe some of you might hear something along the lines of, "you're not MY mother. I don't have to do anything for you today," from the man who made you a mother in the first place.  

You know that today your children, too young to even know what Mother's Day is, will simply carry on as usual. They won't stop to hug you or say thank you when you make their lunch. They won't bring you breakfast in bed or have some little something waiting for you. 

You'll scroll thru your facebook feed and see all the comments from men bragging on their wife, telling the whole world what a wonderful mother she is and how grateful he is for her. You'll know that other moms have someone who will wrap their arms around them, kiss them, and thank them for the job they are doing raising the children. 

And as sweet and precious and wonderful as it will be to spend your day with your kids, you will feel like no one really knows or sees or cares that you pour yourself into your role as a mother every single day (and night!).  

To my friends who face a day like this for whatever reason: I call you to rise up today and REMEMBER. 

Remember the One Who walks every step with you. Sees every note you put in lunch boxes. Watches as you pick up clutter for the millionth time. Knows when you hold your tongue when it would be so easy to say something you shouldn't. 

Remember the One Who is neither surprised nor shocked at the circumstances you find yourself in today. He knows the plans He has for you - and they are GOOD. I always have to take note of the fact that He describes His plans for me as GOOD, not "easy". There is a big difference a lot of the time, isn't there? 

I don't mean to make light of your heartache today, and I don't mean to dismiss your pain. I simply remind you (as I remind myself) that we belong to the One Who invites us to hide under the shelter of His wings. To take refuge in the security of His unfailing love. To rest in the knowledge that He is so very proud of the way you serve Him in your role as a woman, mother, and wife. 

And best of all, He's proud of us even when we don't perform those roles very well. And that's the best news of all. 

So today, friends, no matter what season you find yourself in, know that you are being celebrated by your Father. He NEVER forgets. He NEVER blows off opportunities to encourage you. He NEVER FAILS. And He calls you His own. 

Zephaniah 3:17(NIV) "The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing."

May your day be filled with reminders of how dearly you are loved. 

Monday, April 25, 2016

I'm Not Jealous Enough


Some days I feel the familiar sting more than others. But there's been progress. It's not debilitating like it used to be. It doesn't stop me in my tracks anymore or take my breath away like it did for so very long. It doesn't happen every day, and for that I'm grateful. Sometimes it's a good long while in between before the sting returns and I realize I've enjoyed a long run without it. 

But some days, the sting rears its ugly head and flares up in my heart again with no warning, no red flags, nothing to alert me that it's coming. And when it finds me, I've learned to respond differently than I once did. I've learned on those days to lean INTO it rather than try to resist it. I've learned to feel it fully instead of trying to rush past by finding ways to distract myself. 

But mostly, I've learned that this sting is not a bad thing. Now don't get me wrong, I sure don't enjoy it. None of us do. But it's okay. Because you see, to feel that sting means my heart is still in a place where I'm eagerly listening. Anxious to hear His voice. Impatient to feel His loving care soothe the sting away. 

That sting is the caveat to the only effective balm for lonely hearts which are so easily inclined to search for remedies elsewhere. 

Many of you will understand. Sundays are often the most difficult days I battle the sting of loneliness. By the grace of God, I am in a place where I've been taken in and welcomed and loved exactly where I am in my journey. I've not been viewed as a project. I'm not a second class believer because I bear the scarlett "D" of divorce. I've never been made to feel shame because of my very public failed marriage. 

And yet, despite being in a place I adore and am so grateful for, the very fact that I'm surrounded by loving believers can often lead to loneliness. I tend to have to ask the Lord to keep my thoughts focused on worship and study because I can so easily look around and be reminded that the seat next to me is not occupied by someone who is jealous for me. Church is so often, and rightfully so, filled with families. I see husbands with their arms around their wives. I see couples holding hands as they hear the preached Word. I see children sitting in their daddy's laps. 

And my heart begins to whisper to me: "you might never have that. You might never experience the love of a man who is jealous for your heart. It may be just you, sitting alone, for the rest of your life. No one to reach over and squeeze your hand. No one to share the beauty of communion with. These other women know the jealous love of a godly husband." 

I feel that weight. I hear the potential reality of those thoughts. 

And then. 

Just like he ALWAYS does, the Lord starts whispering to me as well, louder than the whispers of my lonely heart vying for my attention. 

Today the whisper came in the form of a song which I've heard many times but never exactly felt in this way. The very first line gripped me:

"He is jealous for me. Loves like a hurricane, I am a tree. Bending beneath the weight of His grace and mercy." 


I knew right then I was hearing the soothing whisper of my Father. And though nothing in my reality changed in that moment, my heart was suddenly calmer. My anxiousness quieted. The echos in the halls of my lonely heart filled by the sound of deep joy as it washed over me. Contentment and peace replacing the dull ache of loneliness. 

I DO have the jealous love of One Who knows my every thought. If He were sitting next to me in person, He would've had His arm around my shoulder. He would hold my cold hands and share a smile with me. And His jealous love would never suffocate, would never keep me from good things, would never tear down or wound. Would never leave or have anything other than my best in mind. 

I certainly can't and don't return that kind of jealous love for Him. It occured to me - I have some serious jealousy cultivation work to do in my heart. 

I'm not nearly jealous enough - are you?

Oh, I can be jealous, that's for sure. I can easily fall into jealousy over trivial things like another woman's perfect figure or someone's seemingly perfect marriage or well-behaved kids or their popularity among our shared circles...the list is endless. 

But I'm not jealous the way I should be jealous. I am not often quick to weed out those things in my heart which are distracting me from the love of Jesus. I tend instead to water those weeds, to nurture them and see them grow and spread in my heart. 

And before I know it, I have no room left for the One Who gave everything to win me as His own. 

I'm not jealous enough - are you?

It's so easy to let things slip in and steal my affections. Distract me from my first love. Convince me that I have enough love to spare just a little for something else without damaging my loyalty to Jesus. It happens slowly, almost imperceptibly, like a slow but steady leak in a balloon. Without quick correction, that balloon will at best not hold air at full capacity (and thus not be as useful as it should be). At worst, the balloon will be totally lifeless. Useful for nothing but to take up space in the trashcan. 

Jesus addressed this with strong words for His children: "Jesus said, “The first in importance is, ‘Listen, Israel: The Lord your God is one; so love the Lord God with ALL your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy.’ 

Just as I am so comforted by the thought of Jesus' fiercely jealous love FOR me, He desires that same kind of jealous love FROM me. I don't want the love of a man who only sometimes loves me. I don't want the affection or attention of a man who is only lukewarm about me. So Jesus, in all His perfection and in no way dependent upon my love, for some unexplainable reason, desires to have my WHOLE heart in a way that is given with abandon. He longs to see me fiercely protecting myself from anything that would take my first loyalty from Him. 

Oh, what a wonderful relief that I don't ever, ever have to worry about Jesus' loyalty or affection being stolen away by something or someone else. No matter how godly or servantlike or humble another believer may be, Jesus has the capacity to love each of us with a love that defies explanation, knows no boundaries, and breaks thru even the darkest and loneliest of hearts. And His love is for keeps. 

So I'll be working on becoming a more jealous woman. Step one: identify those things that threaten to steal my affections and take action to cut them out, roots and all. Sometimes that process is brutally painful, but oh so necessary. Just like I so jealously protected my little Barnum and Bailey cannister that held my savings account as a little girl, I should be standing guard over my heart, taking precautions to keep it from being stolen by people or things which can be so very alluring. 

Jealousy - asking the Lord for more of it today. Won't you join me? 


Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Faith and Failure

The other day a dear friend of mine said something that made me think. 

Over the past year, this friend has experienced significant loss in her life. She has been forced to accept some long-term limitations, come to terms with some deep disappointment, and adjust her expectations in several areas. It's been a difficult year for her and has left some lasting scars. 

We were talking about this recently and she said,  "This is the first time in my life I've really suffered. It's the first time I've had to deal with heavy loss and accept things I cannot change."

Although I know that is only partly true (because all of us have suffered at one point or another to varying degrees. I could tell you about some other hard times in her life.), it was what she said next that caught my ear:

"And when facing my first real trial(s), I FAILED. I failed my Heavenly Father." 

She looked down and tears welled up in her eyes as she felt the grief of disappointment in herself. Shame that she hadn't withstood her suffering the way she felt she ought to have. Regret that she wasn't as strong as she thought she should be.

Image result for pictures of failure

Children rushed in and our brief time to talk was whisked away, but in the days and weeks after our conversation, I haven't been able to shake her words or forget the look of failure on her face as she said them. 

And it has shown me a new glimpse into how much my Father loves you and me. 

Folks, if ANYONE could say that they have failed the first real season of suffering in their lives, it's yours truly. Oh my. You don't know the thoughts I've had. You haven't seen the moments of literally laying down on the bathroom floor and weeping with anger and bitterness. You don't know how many times I've wanted to walk away and throw out everything I believe because it hasn't worked out the way I planned. You haven't seen the times I've faltered, distracted by the allure of things that promise to give me the security and relationship I sometimes long for. 

No, none of you have seen those moments. But my Father has. 

And though I'm not for a moment proud of some of the ways I've responded to the hard in my life, I'm absolutely convinced that He does NOT see me as having failed. He doesn't look upon me and see all the mistakes and bad responses and hypocritical behaviors. He doesn't have my weaknesses set on instant replay. 

He doesn't see me as a failure because He doesn't see ME. 

When my Father looks upon me, He sees the beauty and value that is in me BECAUSE OF His Son. 

In Matthew 7, Jesus tells the parable of two different homes built on very different foundations. One was built on rock, and it was able to endure thru every storm that came its way. The other was built on a foundation of sand. The first time this foundation was tested, the house was washed away because it was not on solid ground. 

This is what I would tell my friend if we could replay that conversation. She didn't "fail". The windows and doors of her life might have been rattling and maybe things were falling off shelves and shattering as they hit the floor. There may be ruined furniture and the place might be a mess. She may need to call in FEMA to help get things cleaned up. 

Image result for pictures of houses in storms

But her house is still standing. I can still clearly see her house like a city on a hill. The light is on at the front porch, welcoming those around her into the presence of the One Who built her home. 

Isn't that what Jesus does? Not only is He the Master Builder, He's also the clean up crew after the storms pass. And He doesn't expect to find our hearts in pristine condition after we are battered and tossed about in deep waters of suffering. He expects to find us bruised. Hurting. Baffled and discouraged. 

All He expects to find is that the aroma of His presence is still in that place. And the best part is, HE makes sure of that by holding us up thru the storm. He sustains. He intercedes on our behalf. He helps hold the little houses of our faith together. 

I've learned in very real ways that REAL faith, the kind that sustains us thru the worst times, is not pretty. It is not the nice, Sunday School kind of faith which looks great and sounds nice. Real faith is gnashing of teeth and throwing up your hands and an ongoing battle for control between you and Jesus. But at the end of the day, real faith is what keeps us close to Him even though we can't for the life of us figure out what's going on. 

In that gentle, amazing way that only Jesus has, He beckons us back to Himself. He sits with us in our mess and invites us to rest our heads on His shoulder. He whispers truth to our hurting hearts about what He sees in us. He tells us how precious we are to Him, even more precious because in our dirty, tear-stained moments of failure, we've responded to His call to fix our eyes upon Him, the Author and Finisher of our Faith. 

There is no sigh of impatience. No rolling of His eyes at our mistakes and no comments of, "I knew it," at our bad responses to pain in life. There is only the continual embrace of the One Who tells us He longs to gather us under His wings and be our shelter and refuge. 

No, my friend, Jesus does not see you as having failed your season of hard. He sees you as even more precious because You have heard His voice calling you unto Himself. 

Romans 8:37-39 says, " No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[k] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

I usually quietly add "divorce" to this list of things which cannot separate me from the love of Christ. Let me encourage you to add what you see as your own, personal "failure" to that list. NOTHING separates us. 

We are no longer failures. We are conquerors thru the blood of Christ. He sees us that way. May we see ourselves with the worth and dignity He sees.

So hang on if you're in the middle of a raging storm. 

Listen for His voice. Quiet the lies vying for your attention. We can never again be failures if we belong to the One who has overcome the power of death and despair. We can make mistakes in our responses, for sure, but our mistakes do not define us as failures. We are a new creation. 

Look for the One who calms the seas and quiets the wind.

Image result for pictures of calm seas 

He is there with you, loving you thru your pain, seeing you with eyes of absolute love. He sees you not as a failure. He sees you as His. 

Friday, January 1, 2016

Lacing Up My Running Shoes

"I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back." (The Message)

A few years back I ran a 5K race with my dad. The race course literally goes right past my house, so I have absolutely no excuse to not participate. It's a mostly flat route and fairly manageable even without a lot of training beforehand. 

                   It is just wrong that a man in his sixties is a better runner than I am. 

But don't get me wrong. That doesn't mean it's easy. It requires determination and at least a little endurance to finish. 

At least it does for me because it doesn't come naturally. I have to work at this running thing. I'd say I'm more in the camp of what my brother-in-law calls, "jogging with purpose". 

We were about 1/2 mile or so away from the finish line. Dad and I were keeping a steady pace and were making decent time (I think he was being nice and waiting around for me) when suddenly a little girl was running alongside us. She couldn't have been more than 10 years old and she had big tears streaming down her face. The kid was actively crying as she charged her way ahead of us and began putting distance between us and herself. Her pace was faster. Her breathing was heavier. 

Her determination was stronger. 

I've often thought of that little girl in the years since the race. What was it in her that made her press on like that when clearly she was exhausted and not enjoying the race at all? How did she make herself keep putting one foot in front of the other when virtually every other kid her age would have been walking by that point or just quit altogether? 

It was because this girl had determination, a strength, that came from someplace deep inside. Something inside her knew that it would be worth it in the end. She was positive that the finish line and crowd were waiting just a bit further and all the pain of pushing her body like that would be forgotten as she celebrated finishing the race. She believed the promise that the pain was temporary and the end of the race would be worth it when she was congratulated and felt a sense of accomplishment at her achievement.

It wasn't pretty. She was giving it all she had and it was a little painful to watch. But she was doing it. 

Tonight I feel a bit like that little girl. My faith is not strong and pretty like I'd prefer for everyone (including myself) to believe. It's taking everything I've got to hang on and believe the promise that the finish line is worth the race. Tonight I feel like taking a look at a map of the race course of my life and drawing in shortcuts to bring that finish line closer to where I currently am. I just want the painful, difficult race to be finished. I want these tears to be a thing of the past. 

Just like that little girl, my running tonight is not pretty. But I am convinced that tonight, while my faith is such a struggle and I want with all my might to just give up and take the shortcuts available to me, that Jesus is smiling upon me even bigger than when I was running with ease. 

Though I've tried to bypass some of the hard He has chosen to walk me thru, He is there with open arms to carry me on down a road I never would have chosen. And messy as I am, slow as my pace is, He is cheering even louder for one of His own. I am one of His lambs and He's overjoyed that I am following Him. Oh, so painstakingly and ungracefully following His leading and giving up the shortcuts I've been trying to hold onto lately. Sometimes things can temporarily distract us from the pain of running. Before we know it, those distractions have weighed us down and created so much noise we can't hear His cheers. That brings isolation. Discouragement. Heaviness that you only notice if you've been close enough in your life to hear the beauty of His whispers to your heart. Only something beautiful, I mean REALLY beautiful, could get me back in a race that is this hard, especially since I can't see anything that's more than about two steps ahead. It's often dark and uncertain. 

I am choosing to believe tonight, though the pain is real and I am so very tired, that my Shepherd not only waits at the finish line, but is running along with me. The more I focus on Him and stay close on the path, the louder I can hear Him joyfully cheering and calling my name, thrilled that I am putting one foot in front of the other to follow and believe His promises to me. 

I see others around me quitting. I see folks taking shortcuts that seem to be working. All kinds of temporary fixes that seem to be better than what I'm doing. I love that Paul so clearly understood this and felt the same frustration. Look at his words (again in The Message version)

"Stick with me, friends. Keep track of those you see running this same course, headed for this same goal. There are many out there taking other paths, choosing other goals, and trying to get you to go along with them. I’ve warned you of them many times; sadly, I’m having to do it again. All they want is easy street. They hate Christ’s Cross. But easy street is a dead-end street. Those who live there make their bellies their gods; belches are their praise; all they can think of is their appetites."

With tears streaming down my face, I continue to run straight ahead on this path that only He knows. He steadies my breathing and reminds me to set my pace for the long haul. He reminds me by His gentleness to stop focusing on the seemingly better paths others are taking and keep running straight ahead, neither to the right nor to the left. 

And His perfect love gives me the determination to stop focusing on the pain and instead focus on His sweet, comforting presence and promises. 

But the best part is that even when I do start heading down a path that seems more fun, more level, and easier, He doesn't angrily jerk me back onto the right path. He doesn't humiliate me and shame me for failing. He lovingly, oh so lovingly, calls me back and sets my feet back on the road where He is,  because my race is only to be run WITH Him. Not around Him, not behind Him, but WITH Him. 

As we welcome a new year, there are lots of unknowns. Will it be an easier year? Will there be more heartache ahead? Where will this race lead? 

I have no idea. But I do know one thing. The Shepherd calls me to keep running towards Him. He calls me to run with abandon. He cheers me on louder the more painful the race becomes for me. And He loves me with perfect, unchanging love when I lay aside other affections vying for His rightful place in my heart. 

So I'm running in 2016. It won't be pretty, I can tell you that right now. I'm laying aside (again) the things I seem to want to carry with me and breathing in the freedom that comes from obedience. 

I'm running. 

And that's all that matters. 

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