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.

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.

 

Hope for the Hurting

I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say “God only gives you what you can handle.” Seriously – I’d have a hefty savings account. It’s a comment commonly meant to provide comfort during difficult times. But is it? Comforting? I never found it so.

Let me begin by saying I get that this statement likely comes from a place of positive intent. When people witness pain and suffering, most of the time they want to provide some level of help or comfort. I doubt anyone offers this to hurt or shame anyone.

The problem though is the  message behind this statement implies that God lets things happen to you just because you are strong. This might even suggest if you were weaker things might go easier for you. This could not be further from the truth. God doesn’t choose suffering for us based on our ability to weather the storm, he weathers the storms we cannot handle. (Luke 8:23 – 25)  

The thing is, suffering is universal. Bad things happen, and there’s not enough reasoning in the entire world to explain why. We want answers! We say things like “why did this happen?” We mistakenly think if we could get to the bottom of the “why” there would be a better chance of acceptance. The honest truth is that it’s not possible to find peace in understanding. The bible says God gives us peace that goes beyond what we comprehend. (Philippians 4:7) That means that through Him, we can have peace that is not dependent on our understanding of how or why. The secret is in our focus. Who or what are we focusing on? (Isaiah 26:3)

Like you, I’ve been hurt. I began life as an unwanted burden, reminded daily that abortion would have been better option than giving birth to me. I was a sore and painful scar that I nursed for a good portion of my life. But the happy ending in this tragedy is that I learned a long time ago where to look for comfort and it is this I offer as a solution. If you are hurting and broken.. If you are looking for an answer for every wrong you’ve faced, there is a God who loves and cares for you.

He did not design you with an end goal of pain and suffering. That’s just not His nature. His nature is compassionate. (2 Corinthians 1:3) His nature is grace. (1 Corinthians 15:10) And, His nature is love. (1 John 4:8) He created you and I in love and grace and compassion. And it is on this I choose to focus.

So, when I am hurt or in pain, I focus on God’s promise to be near us. (Job 36:15, Psalm 22:24) I set my sight on His promise is to deliver us and keep us through pain and difficult times. (Isaiah 14;3) And, I keep my eyes on His promises to heal our hurts. (Matthew 4:24)

Suffering is difficult, but God is our comforter and hope. It is that experience I offer you, friends. (Galatians 6:2) God gives peace, and comfort to me, and I offer the same to you. (2 Corinthians 1: 6 -7). Focus on Him and his promises, and together we can weather storms and lift each other up. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)

When Hope and Fear Collided

Hope is a powerful thing. It begs us to believe what we cannot see. It has the power to make us stay longer and believe stronger. Hope let’s us dream and feeds our vision. In the extreme, the Bible says without it we perish. (Psalm 29:11)

Fear can be equally powerful. It paralyzes the strong and confuses the wise. Fear causes us to run and hide. (Genesis 3:8) Countless Bible stories serve as cautionary tales and sad examples of the impact fear has on us. (Jonah 1:1-17, 2 Samuel 11, Proverbs 22:13)

The Bible story of the man at the Pool of Bethesda (John 5: 1 – 8)is a story where hope and fear collide and a life changes. The location in this story provides a clue. Bethesda’s meaning is “grace and mercy” – the very essence of salvation. It’s the story of man and his need for a Savior. And, it’s a story of the human condition.

The man in this story is described as being “lame” for thirty-eight years. What’s interesting is that we don’t know what that lameness is. I propose we don’t know because like him, we all have some kind of malady be it physical, psychological, or spiritual. So many times we are impeded by our lameness and just like this man we sometimes carry it for years.

I don’t know about you, but it fascinates me that for thirty-eight years he went to the Pool of Bethesda every day. The story doesn’t say how he got there – just that he did. Did he walk? Did he have friends or family carry him? However he managed it, I believe it’s another clue. Think about it. A man goes to the edge of grace and mercy for 38 years. Something keeps him going back year after year. I propose it’s hope that draws him there. But why doesn’t he get in and receive his healing?

This is where I think the story unveils his fear. Here’s why. When Jesus asks him if we wants to be healed, he has a litany of excuses as to why he can’t. Think about times where fear stopped you. Did you honestly say “Nope – I’m not going to. I’m scared.” Or, did you reason it away with excuses? Truth is, it’s sometimes easier to identify all the reasons “it” can’t or won’t work than to admit our fear.

Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t seem to pay attention to the guy’s feeble reasonings. Instead, he says, “pick up your mat and walk.” Wait, that’s interesting, isn’t it? Jesus doesn’t tell him he’s healed. He doesn’t rub mud on wherever the man is lame, and he doesn’t tell him to touch his robe. Nope. He just tells the lame man to walk. I think it’s another clue. I think the lame man had been healed for a long time. He just needed to get up and walk. He was laying by grace and mercy, and he just needed to take it.

There’s power in this story. How many of us have lain by our healing. How long have we stayed lame when hope was right there just waiting for us to take it.

I know I lived like that for most of my life. For years and years I waited – in my own lameness – until a loving Savior looked me in the eyes and said, “Walk!” I lived fearing what it might mean to be healed, until hope won out. On that day fear no longer ruled in my life. On that day I walked past fear in to grace and mercy. On that day I saw fear and hope collide.

Bravery or Fear?

I want to be brave. I want to fearlessly walk down unknown roads, and launch into deep waters. I want the kind of trust that goes even when I don’t know where I’m being led.

The truth though, is my brave talk is not always matched by my faith, and that’s frustrating. What I want to do, hope to accomplish, and dream of achieving is reliant on my willingness to step out of the safety and security of the boat, and that is sometimes where I sink. (Matthew 14:22-33)

There are times when I am my own worst enemy. My grand ideas of recklessly following God would be a whole lot easier if it weren’t for me. It’s not that I dont know what God’s word says about trusting Him to guide and protect me; it’s just not always easy to live that out.

So what am I to do when my faith doesn’t seem big enough to slay giants? (1 Samuel 17) How can I be brave when I am so weak? It seems insurmountable, but I promise you, it’s not.

I’m pretty clear that fearlessness does not come by my own strength. (Zechariah 4:6) In fact, the Bible says I am stronger through God, precisely when I am weak. (2 Corinthians 12:9,10) It says God doesn’t give us fear – he gave us power!

So, for me, it’s pretty clear this bravery thing is birthed in my relationship with God. In God I am strong. His word reminds me over and over not to fear. (Matthew 4:27, Joshua 1: 6-9, 2 Samuel 10:12)

What I know is my bravery is not based on my feelings of fearlessness. Braveru is not based on me, and this knowledge pushes me out into the unknown. I am confident in His promise to make me courageous. (1 Chronicles 19:13) so, this is how I fly, how I run, how I step out – in His strength and not by mine. (Zechariah 4:6)

So where do you need to be fearless? If you need a dose of bravery, I challenge you to take a step. Reach up towards whatever scares you. Go with the knowledge that God is your strength, he gives you bravery, and makes you fearless. (Romans 8: 27, 27)