A Higher Perspective

One thing I’ve always loved about flying is the view from thirty thousand feet up. From that vantage one can gain clarity; what you lose in detail, you gain in perspective. Dirty streets, shabby houses, brown and dying lawns all turn into a beautiful tapestry, unrelated to the reality the world below.
When I think about it, we need that perspective in life too. There are so many challenges. Difficulty is around every turn, and no one is exempt from the hard stuff. In times like that we can become stymied by our situation, because all our eyes can focus on is the chaos around us.

I’ve been in that place more times than I can count, and I believe there’s no shame in it. I’d go so far as to say that as humans distraction is a common thread. We tend to focus on what’s closest to us. And, when we experience difficulty or when hardship comes our way, we are even less likely to see anything but what requires our immediate attention.
Like some of you, I’ve tried several approaches as I’ve walked through trials in my life. In my human attempt to get through tuff times, ” I’ve tried the “grin-and-bear-it” approach. This is when you take whatever you are feeling and experiencing and drive it down into your psyche as deep as humanly possible. It often wreaks havoc on your physical, spiritual, and mental health, and is often the root of depression.

Another approach I’ve used is “masking.” You’ll recognize masking because it often involves the use of an outside helper which may come in the guise of alcohol, relationships, substance abuse, and other forms of self-medication. But this one is tricky, because all forms of this device are not what we’d think of as bad or unhealthy. One might find distraction through work, or sports, or – dare I say it – church ministry. Don’t get me wrong, not everyone who works or play sports, or volunteers is masking. I’m just saying these can become a way to escape pain.
So what are we to do when we find ourselves in the valley of the shadow of death? If our coping devices are removed, what’s to keep us from falling into a pit that we can never climb out of? The Bible clearly points to God as a way through difficulty. There are many scriptures available to serve as examples of what we should be doing. (Psalm 23 , Hebrews 4:16, Matthew 6: 6-8)

The Bible has a lot of examples of suffering. For example, the Psalms are full of David’s struggles as he journeys through difficulty. It’s always intrigued me that he often goes from despair to hallelujah with barely a hard return between them. I wonder at his gift of praise in the midst of tragedy. But I also wonder if the ability to move through circumstance is part of his make-up, or if it’s something acquired along the way. (Psalm107, Psalm 88, Psalm 73, Psalm 69)

My relationship with the Christ has not spared me from hard things, nor has it prevented me from whirling around in the chaos that often accompanies difficulty. Nope. What I’ve learned on my journey is that I own a lot of how I react to difficulty experiences. I believe the ability to rise above is not something we are born with. It’s not built into our DNA – it’s a skill we gain as we walk through experiences with our eyes firmly fixed on the one who provides perspective.

One of my favorite books in the Bible is Isaiah. There are so many gems that speak of redemption and restoration. One In particular speaks of perspective in a way that matches our view from thirty thousand feet; the verse that talks of “mounting up on eagle’s wings.” What imagery! What promise! What a directive.(Isaiah 41:30)

Wait… What? Did I just imply that scripture was meant to tell us what to do…land not a picture of a divine lifting out of our trouble? Yep… I did.
Think about it. What fool is going to find peace when they are dragged up by the scruff of their neck by some large taloned bird of prey. Maybe you would, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t. If I were in that picture there’d be a lot of screaming and likely a fair bit of struggling. It seems to me that in order for this to work there has to be some willingness on the part of the person being lifted up. I would imagine it involves trust. It would mean making a choice to ride along despite fear. It means we make a choice to be lifted.

I’m not saying it’s a simple decision. I mean, there are obvious perils in this scenario. The eagle could drop us, for one. And where are we landing at the end of this journey? Good questions, and all answered with one word – faith. Yikes! This is where the rubber meets the road, my friends. It is where we put into action all those lyrics we sing and verses we quote. Not easy… I get it… but, it is worth it. When we set aside our fear, and let go of controlling the outcome, something amazing and spiritual happens. With altitude, are able to raise high enough to get perspective. The view from above minimizes distractions and gives a clearer view of the landscape. When you are high up, the thing that seemed so looming becomes a spec in comparison to everything else.

I’ve learned this approach with time and through trouble. Difficulty is not the most fun training ground, but often the one that drives us furthest into a trusting relationship with Christ. And it is through that lens that I encourage you today. When you are discouraged by dirty streets, shabby houses, brown and dying lawns, look for an eagle and willingly ride to higher ground.

In a Bleak Mid-Winter

Have you ever experienced winter when the weather conditions align in such a way to paint the landscape in diamond-like crystals? It usually happens when it’s very cold. It’s so beautiful, you almost forget that it comes out of the bleakness of winter.

Let me be honest – I don’t like winter. I don’t like the cold, and I don’t want to be outside. I’m not the kind of person who participates in activities like skiing, snowboarding, or sledding. When winter comes, I am inclined to hunker down inside my warm house. Yep, to me, winter is cold and dark and goes on far too long.

I haven’t always lived in a place where winter is long and cold and dark. There was a time I lived where there was barely a discernible change from one time of year to the next. There were a lot of things I liked about living in this area of the country – namely the weather. I loved the predictably warm days. I didn’t mind that it never changed much. I can’t say it ever really bothered me to spend Christmas on the beach in shorts. In a place like this, day flows into day, with little change. And at for me, that was the way it should be.

However, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how good it is for our souls to experience changes in seasons. In particular, there’s something renewing in moving from winter to spring. The anticipation of the next warmer season is a force that drives me to move through the days and weeks of cold and dark. Winter can be hard, but without it, I don’t know that I would truly appreciate spring.  

There are times when life can feel like winter. But sometimes, when we face cold, dark, and bleak times in life it can be hard to imagine spring will follow. No one is exempt from this – for all of us, life ebbs and flows, and at some point, we’ll all face a winter season. (John 16:33)  So how do we move through it and look forward to the change?

First, recognize a time of darkness and cold are common to all of us. The Bible is full of examples. (Genesis 50, Ruth 1, Job 1) When it happens, it’s easy to feel isolated, but try to remember others have experienced winters too. I’ve had to learn to recognize the season I’m in, while not letting myself get frozen in it. It’s not always easy, but it is very necessary. Without purposeful redirecting my self-talk, I would be in constant winter just by convincing myself I’m the only person ever who’s been in this place.   

Second, remember it is a season; it is not going to last forever. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8) One of the most critical parts of moving through winter is to experience it for the moment it is while keeping focused on the spring ahead. It’s easy for me to wistfully daydream about how great it was before winter began. Conversely, I can waste a lot of time and energy stuck in one place focusing on last spring. But I’ve learned it’s a delicate balance of continual walking combined with forward-looking. What I cannot do is stop and focus on the cold. We’re supposed to walk through the valley, not sit in it. (Psalm 23) Keep walking, and keep looking. Spring will come. (Hosea 6:3, Song of Solomon 2:11-12)

The third part of surviving winter is noticing the beauty of it. Yes, I said it – there is beauty in the bleakness. Even winter offers an allure. There is something so lovely about the crisp white covering of snow. (Isaiah 1:18) It’s preparation for the next season as nature prepares for a season of growth and renewal. And, so it is for us. 

Don’t despise the colder seasons. Remember, when it’s cold and bleak, we also get to see the magnificence of sun upon ice crystals, reminding us of God’s promises of restoration and redemption. (Proverbs 3:5-6, James 1:2-8, John 16:33, 1 Peter 5:10)

My Beautiful Ashes

Fool me once; shame on you. Fool me twice; shame on me. No matter how many times I hear that saying I don’t like it. I don’t like that it implies once you hurt me, I should be suspect of everything you do. But, I mostly don’t like that I’ve allowed people to mislead me more times than I’d like to admit.
It’s not that I’m over-trusting – at least I don’t think I am. I’d like to think I possess a balance of wary and trusting, mixed with a little common sense. Like many people, my immediate knee-jerk reaction to being hurt is to declare I’ll never allow that to happen again. But, the truth is, I’ve trusted and been fooled many times despite my best laid intention to “never let anyone mess with me again.”
The truth is, as human beings, we are messy. Scripture is clear, we are all sinners, and I’m not exempt. (1 Timothy 1:15) No matter how careful we are, we are going hurt those around us, and those around us will hurt us.
There’s no need to wonder whether we will get hurt, because we will. The question is whether the pain others inflict dampens our willingness to approach others with open hearts and arms. How do we balance caution with the freedom to freely love those around us?
There’s certainly enough evidence to convince us to keep our hearts locked in fear. Scripture is clear that we are all evil at our core. (Jeremiah 17:9-10) The depravity of human nature is not new, but it feels like it’s becoming more common.
Just turn on the TV, radio, or look at social media to find examples. It seems like every day some horrible event confirms the fact that humans can be downright evil. Because of technology we see and hear news in real time, it’s more difficult to separate ourselves from crime and violence. It’s shocking, and it makes people want to isolate themselves in a veiled attempt to feel safe.
But I don’t want fear to cause me to shut down. I’ve had my own experiences with pain, and they were bad enough to send me down a bad path – for a while.
I was molested at a very young age by my mother and later by an older male cousin The damage from this betrayal was deep and long term. The hurt and shame set me on a long course of self destruction. It replaced my God given identity (Jeremiah 1:5) with one that declared me a victim.
I live that identity for many years. Everything and everyone around me was impacted by my chaos. I was afraid and broken. But God never intended us to live in pain like that. (Jeremiah 29:11) His divine plan for our lives is to restore what the locusts eat. (Joel 2:25)
Eventually I found myself at a crossroad; at THE cross. And it changed everything. Scripture says that God will create beauty the burned up ashes, (Isaiah 61:3) and that is what God did in my life. In fact, my life verse. I love it because it speaks of a miraculous transformation from charred and scorched to ravishing beauty. It promises rebirth. It declares us whole in our brokenness.
I’m not implying it was easy, or overnight. It was not. It involved me facing my own mess, and learning a new way to live. Hard as it was, it was worth every painful step. Today, years later, I have family, friends, and a pretty amazing life. I stand on God’s promise to restore me every day of my life. Because of who He is, I am free to open my heart and arms to others. And now the mountain of loss and ashes have become the story God uses to help others find their way to His healing.

Which Way Lord?

I am a planner. I’m fine with change – as long as I know all the details of where, when, and how it will occur. The problem is, it doesn’t usually work that way. Life pretty much guarantees we won’t always have an opportunity to plan ahead for changes. And when life shifts, there are times I struggle to regain my balance.

Change is tricky. It can be unexpected, and when life goes in a direction we weren’t expecting, we’re supposed to trust. (Proverbs 3:6) As Christians, we look to God, because scripture tells us our hope, comfort, peace, and guidance are in Him. (Psalm 42:5)

But, how does that work when change is ushered in through decisions I make? How does God guide me, when I am the one making the decision? When the choice is mine, the risk feels greater. Decisions can change lives for better—or for worse. It’s a sobering thought and often leads me to the kind of circular thinking that keeps me stuck for a long time.

How then, do I un-stick? Truthfully, I’m still figuring out how this works. I am learning to navigate by faith and look for God’s direction. I’m not saying it’s easy because honestly, it would be easier to wallow in fear and worry. My habit of looking outside myself comes as easy as my habit of going to the gym. And by “easy” I mean “not-natural-to-me-at-all!” I’m not implying it’s not been challenging, but I am beginning to see that it works.

There are many times God shows me which way to go when I read the bible. Scriptures are full of examples of people making natural, normal, and necessary decisions. (Acts 16:7, Acts 19:21, Titus 3:12) Most of the people we see as examples are common, ordinary people – just like me. They did not possess extraordinary skills or talents – they just believed God would show them which path to take. (Psalm 119:105-106)

There are times, though that I still wonder if I really understand what to do and which way to go. How do I know when He’s “speaking?” There a scripture that says God is in the still, small voice. (1 Kings 19:12) That’s a beautiful picture, but sometimes I need more than a whisper; sometimes I need Him to yell!

I’ve often prayed that God would “speak” loudly, so there’s no doubt. Am I alone in my desire for the thundering voice or burning bush? Can God speak so we understand? I declare He can and does.

For me, God speaks in many ways. One way He speaks to me is through the environment around me. A phrase I heard somewhere and often use is “Kisses from the King.” He often reaches me that way.

Kisses happen when you hear lyrics to a song that send a shiver down your spine. They happen when you read a scripture and it comes up again, in a sermon. It can be a word on a poster or on your cup of coffee. Sometimes it happens through the words of a friend, stranger, or even an enemy.

Whatever the medium, God uses the world around us to speak his love and direction to us. And this should not surprise us. If God can use Balaam’s donkey to speak (Numbers 22: 21 – 39), He can surely use a car radio, a Hallmark card, or your neighbor.  

The fact that God promises to guide our steps, should not come as a shock. His name is Counselor, Advocate, and Teacher. (Isaiah 9:6, Romans 8:1, Exodus 4:15)  But, experiencing the King’s kisses take practice. I challenge you to look for those God moments every day. Seek to recognize His promptings. Keep a journal so you remember all the times He spoke. Ask and believe that God will answer. (Mark 11:24, Romans 10: 9)  

Filling the Hole

Throughout my life, I’ve found myself looking at people or things to fill the empty places in my heart. In my defense, I don’t think I’m completely alone in this. As humans I believe we are born with a hole in our being that must be satisfied, so we look around for something or someone to satisfy where we feel empty. For most of us, it’s a deep ache and drives many of our decisions.  

As Christians, though, we likely know that God alone is capable of truly satiating that empty spot. (Ephesians 3:19, Numbers 14:21) We were meant to find life through God. But, even if we believe that’s true with every fiber of our being, we often still look for something tangible to furnish happiness.

It’s not that we don’t want what God offers, it’s just that we want our desires filled with something palpable. There is something in us that always yearns, so, we grab onto whatever solid thing is in front of us. We look to what we can see, rather than set our hopes on an unseen force – even if that unseen force it what’s best for us.

I’m no different. You’d think I’d know better, but I often forget that what God offers always surpasses anything I can come up with on my own. (James 1:7) Often, in my haste to find relief for the emptiness I feel, I fill up with people or things. And the feeling I get never lasts because even the best people or things cannot sufficiently fill the bottomless pit in my soul.

We don’t just look to people of things, either. I know I’ve tried to find life in some good and not so good ways. I’ve tried respectable things like sports, a career, motherhood, marriage. Unfortunately, I’ve also tried some destructive things like drugs, alcohol, and sex. Maybe you’ve tried different fillers too? There’s a whole gamut of things you may have attempted. Or maybe you are still trying them? Whatever it is, these things may seem to work, but, the effects are usually temporary. Usually, these devices require us to return for refilling at frequent intervals to keep them working.

Anyway, good or bad, acceptable or not, nothing but God can plug that deep, empty place. It really doesn’t matter what it is – it will never really give us life because only God in us works. What we find on our own, is never going to adequately furnish what He alone can. (Psalm 81:10, Ephesians 3:17 – 19) Our only hope of filling the void is looking to the one who created us in the first place.

You see, we were designed with an empty space that only God can fill. CS Lewis said: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”  So our only hope of plugging the hole is through God. He alone is capable of filling the place He created.

Audience of One

Have you ever looked back at something you experienced and realized you could have avoided the experience altogether? I’m not talking about the bad choices, stupid mistakes, “what what I thinking” kind of stuff. I’m talking about having the foresight to avoid the hard learned lesson

Don’t get me wrong, I get that hindsight is, as they say, 20/20. If we could just see where a decision was going to take us, life would be easier, right?  If we knew which fork to take, we could minimize – if not avoid – the rough terrain. Sometimes, though it’s good to take a good hard look at where we’ve been. Often, it’s in looking back that lessons are learned. (Proverbs 24:16)

For me, this self-examination resulted when I was forced to end a rather unhealthy relationship I had with someone I considered a mentor and friend. For years I saw the backlash people endured when they crossed this person, but I looked the other way. And worse, I stayed and did nothing. (1 Corinthians 15:33)

God had shown me over and over that it was time to sever ties. I knew what was happening was not right, but I was being told I was special. I saw what was happening, but I was told I mattered. I watched others fall prey, yet I continued to engage, And all along I secretly wondered if the extent of the relationship was what I could do for that person. I held onto crumbs of “friendship” that were thrown my way. It was years before I had the courage to leave, and it perplexes me why I settled for so little, in light of what God has for me. (John 10:10)

It was in trying to understand what happened, that I realized I had a part in it. You see, I figured out that it was my desire to please man instead of God that lead me down this road. It was the need for approval that caused me to overlook obvious signs that this relationship as problematic. (Psalm 118:8, Micah 7: 5-8)  Once I understood, it was not difficult to understand how I got there. The truth is that every time we seek man’s approval over God’s, we will be disappointed.

God alone is my approver. (Galatians 1:10) It’s funny though, how often I look elsewhere for validation. I have to believe I am not alone. We all want someone to say “well done.” We all hope someone will notice and find favor in us. Look around, and it doesn’t take long to spot someone seeking approval. You might find it in people climbing the corporate ladder. It can manifest in those seeking applause on a stage. It happens any time we do anything for man’s approval alone. (1 Thessalonians 2:4)

I’m not saying applause or approval is bad in itself. It only becomes a problem when our value is based on the approval rating we receive from others rather than on what God says about us. It is only when we look outside God’s provision that we miss the extravagant value God has placed on us. And our worth to Him is not based on what we can give, or what we can do. It is based solely on His love for us. (Psalm 139: 13 – 16, Ephesians 2:4 – 9)

God alone has the right to determine our significance, for it is He alone who paid the price. (Romans 5:8, 1 Peter 1: 18 – 19, Ephesians 2: 4 – 7) Over and over He declares his love and approval for us! His thoughts towards us are good, (Jeremiah 29:11) and infinite. (Jeremiah 31:3) He says we are valuable. (Psalm 46:5, 1 Peter 2:9) We are His beloved treasure and precious jewel. (Proverbs 31:10, Isaiah 49:16)

So, now I hope to engrave this lesson on my heart. I ask for His forgiveness for looking to man for what only He can provide, and look forward to the next chapter He is writing in my life. (Ephesians 2:24, Philippians 3:13) Now, oh Lord, help me be approved by an audience of one. (Matthew 6: 1 – 6)

Beautiful Mess

Everything we do, is filtered through the experiences we have throughout our lives – whether good or bad. Being alive guarantees each of us a mix of positive or painful, happy or sad, gain, or loss. Intentional or accidental experiences mix together and embody who we are. It’s a road that begins at our birth, and shapes every experience that comes after.

We all know that one person who’s life seems untouched by sorrow. It’s tempting to believe there are people who escape hardship in life. But, in reality none of us is exempt. A life lived without trouble does not exist. (John 16:33)

It’s not all bad, either. Truthfully, most of us experience a mix of good and bad. Difficulty is guaranteed, but usually so is joy. We have sad times and happy times. We go up to the mountain and down in the desert. We gain and lose… and it all combines to create a beautiful tapestry of color that makes up our lives. (Ecclesiastes 7:14)

Sometimes, though life brings more bad than good. What happens when tragedy and pain are experienced in greater proportion than joy and happiness? What happens to the human heart when life is overwhelming bad? If a life begins in hardship, is the rest of life doomed to be viewed through the filter of pain? If every message says “you are unwanted, unloved, a mistake,” can there be any hope?

I say yes, there is. I know because I have experienced what happens when God reshapes the message life gives. He alone can fix the broken. He alone can change the trajectory of our lives. He alone promises to take the burned, tragic ashes of life, and replace them with beauty. (Isaiah 61:3)

In the 1950’s, while pregnant with me, my mother sought to have a back alley abortion. She wasn’t evil, she was tired and overwhelmed, and it seems like a solution to her problems. My father and his sister found out, intervened, and in the summer of 1956, I was born. My mother was stopped from making a decision that would have stopped my life before it began. Unfortunately,  it began a journey of physical and verbal abuse for me that lasted until I left home at 17.

My mother was a broken individual, who inflicted her pain on those around her. Forced to follow have a child she did not want, she viewed me with resentment. For as long as I can remember I was reminded daily that her life would have been better had she been allowed to abort me. She made it clear I was the biggest mistake of her life with words, and beatings and neglect.

I tell you this not to extort sadness or pity from you. In fact, I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. I tell you this to help you understand how far down I was. This beginning to my life taught me I was unwanted and unloved, and it impacted every choice I made for a good portion of my life. In short, my life was a mess. I came to know God when I was a dirty, broken, sad, and hopeless woman.

If the story ended there, it would be tragic – but it did not. All my experiences have shaped me into who I am today. (Romans 8:28) God uses my story to help others, and He can use yours too. The beautiful thing is that God chooses to use broken vessels like us to do His work. And through that work, He gets the glory. (2 Corinthians 12:9)

There’s an entire story behind the crooked path that got me from there to here, but I’ll save that for a future post. What’s important is that He changed me, and He can change you as well. He alone can take a mess and turned it into a beautiful message.