The Gift of Presence

men silhouette in the fogI had a rough week. This week we moved our belongings into a storage unit, ourselves and two dogs into my son’s house (an investment that needs a lot of work he is just beginning to tackle), and we finalized the sale of our house.

The problem was that my husband woke up at one in the morning on moving day with an optical migraine. Actually, it was a stomach bug, which we found out a couple days later when I got it, but it presented as a migraine with vomiting and blinding pain. We were a little behind in the packing, but we had plenty of time to do it before the movers came. Except, of course, that he was asleep or being sick, and I was alone. (It was also my birthday, which just allowed me to feel whinier and sorrier for myself than I should have.)

The week didn’t improve much after that day. We were behind in everything, because my husband continued to feel terrible, and then I got sick, too. Being a diabetic, I don’t handle stomach bugs well, and I ended up in the hospital for a few hours for some IV fluids. We were both exhausted.

My church jumped in to help. We have a contractor in our body, and he helped us with a last-minute repair we needed to finish before closing. And the church also paid for a maid service to do the final cleaning, since neither my husband nor I had the energy to do that ourselves.

Now, here’s where this blog needs to tread lightly, because I’m about to complain. Sort of. I was ecstatic about the help offered to us last week. I was. We had a need, and they jumped in and solved the problem. However, I had another need, and that one went unmet. Not because of any deficiency in my church, but because this is the culture we live in.

You see, the day we moved, I wasn’t ready. My husband wasn’t around to help me make the final decisions of what to store and what to take to my son’s house. I felt utterly alone. And the entire time, I kept hoping God would send someone to make it better. I needed the physical presence of a human body to tell me, in an audible voice, that it was all going to be okay.

That body never arrived. For the entire week, when I went back to the house to pack or went to the storage unit, I did it alone. The big reason for this was that I never asked. I asked for help, and some people did offer to come and help, only the maid service was paid for and took care of the physical help I needed. Nobody offered to come and be emotional support, and I didn’t know how to ask for that, especially while we were healing from a crazy contagious stomach bug. I probably should have accepted the offers for help and simply used the time to sit and talk and refresh at a nearby coffee shop. But I never quite got the courage to say I’m alone and I just sold my house and my husband is sick and I’m not sure I did the right thing and I need a body to show up and help me not go crazy this week.

Many years ago, I lost a baby. It was a different time, when more women stayed home and community had different meaning. At one point, a friend simply sat on the bed with me and talked for hours, and another one brought a bucket and cleaners and cleaned my house. I had no idea how vital both of them were to my healing. And in my head, I think I wanted to experience something similar last week. But I don’t have that kind of support system now. It’s a different world, and I haven’t been careful about creating a net in this world.

I was feeling guilty about this desire for emotional support, because people did help me. The cleaning service was a life saver. But that deeper need, the need not to feel alone… Yeah. And I can say this without feeling too bad, because I know that, had the tables been turned, I wouldn’t have shown up, either. We were sick with something that turned out to be super contagious. My son and son-in-law moved us on their own time, and the only time they had was a Sunday morning, when I should have been in church, so my community was in worship and had no idea I was a wreck at home.  My friends have jobs or small children. Not like everyone can simply drop everything and show up to hold my hand because I’m feeling a little stress about a move–something that was my crazy idea to start with.

I was feeling guilty about my desire until I started to think about the book of Acts. Several times Paul thanks a church for sending someone to strengthen him. The financial gifts from the churches were delivered by human bodies who then offered comfort and friendship. Physical human companionship is valuable, even here in the digital age when we can handle almost every task without ever having a face-to-face human encounter.

This isn’t meant to be a complaint about the people in my life. Instead, it was an eye opener for me. I work from home writing and teaching my son. I have a very relaxed schedule. If someone is in need, I have very few excuses not to show up. And now I realize just how vital simple presence can be. So, I need to be more open to the promptings of the Spirit to get in the car and physically show up when someone might need comfort and friendship. Not everyone has a schedule that lets them do that. And being the backward person that I am, I’m not completely thrilled to write this, because I easily convince myself I can’t help, that I would be a burden, that I have nothing to offer. It is much more comfortable to make excuses and stay home than it is to show up.

It was a hard lesson to learn. And I’m not excited that I learned it. But if I’m going to love the people God put in my life, that means sometimes I have to sacrifice what’s comfortable and simply show up and let the Spirit use me in whatever ways He wants. Because nobody in the body of Christ should ever feel completely alone.

 

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An Unglamorous Word

I wrote a post this week sort of tearing down the American idea of goals and resolutions, or at least questioning it. And now I’m going to participate in one of those very things. So, bear with me. I might not always make much sense.

A lot of people like to choose a word for the year. I wasn’t going to do that this year. I was simply going to let this year happen without a specific word or thought or Bible verse guiding me. Not that I’m opposed to that idea–I often do it myself. Last year my verse was Jeremiah 6:16 This is what the Lord says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.

This year, the word came to me in the middle of the night, a long night when I was feeling sick because diabetes and I were warring, and I was losing. I felt terrible. And while I was awake, I was worrying. About where to live. What to do with a few hard relationships. Aching for lost family members. And all the while, feeling that somehow I needed to fix all of it, that if I was just better/smarter/kinder/wiser, everything and everyone in my world would be happy, God-loving, and ready for anything.

I didn’t get a magical, beautiful word. I’ve had friends choose lovely words like Pursued, Loved, Princess. Nope. Mine isn’t like that. I’ve seen people’s words become the tip of an iceburg of change. But my word didn’t seem to be a life-changing word. It’s just a word. Maybe it was just in my head because I was sick and miserable. But I suspect it’s deeper. And although it’s at the bottom of the list of glamorous words, for this year it’s mine.

Regardless. Yep. That’s it. Regardless. On its own, it’s not much. You might need a little context, so here it is.

In school, I was an A student. It’s a great way to win approval. As an adult, winning approval comes through different means. A good job, well behaved kids, important church positions. All of us work to do well in things that we do. And knowing we’re succeeding–tell me it doesn’t feel good.

God doesn’t hate us for doing a thing well. He says those who are faithful with little will be given much. It’s okay to be successful at something. It’s okay to work hard as though working for God Himself, because we’re working for God Himself.

And yet, God then turns around and offers us life and love for no reason at all. And lately I’ve been struggling with that one. It goes against all the rules. All I have to do is…nothing. And God can love me. I find over and over and over that I try to be worthy in some way or another. And when I fail, I worry. Maybe He’s not going to want me now. I failed. I wish I could change things about my decisions, my parenting, just about every aspect of my life. I would do better. I really would.

Then in Romans 5:8 Paul writes But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Or put it another way: Jill, regardless of anything you’ve said or done, any failure or success or judgment, I love you. My son died for you when you were a hot mess, because I love you just that much.

Regardless. He doesn’t regard any of it, not when He determines to love me. It sounds like total nonsense, but there it is, not nonsense at all.

I think I’ve posted a million times how much I want to believe this. And I do, but I don’t live like I do. I don’t act like I do. So. Maybe this year I can make this word and this verse and this thought my mantra. He loves me regardless. In spite of myself, He loves me. Before I ever did one thing right, Jesus died for me.

Regardless. That’s how God loves me. I don’t get it. I  don’t always live it. But at the same time, I’m staking everything on its truth, because try as I might, I sure can’t get to Him and secure His love on my own. I fail every single time. Maybe this will be the year I will finally relax and trust and stop trying.

On Failing 2017 Ten Hours In

file0001417654154(My musings at 10 am New Year’s Day.) It’s that time of year again. January shows up, and we infuse everything with special meaning. Time to wipe the slate clean, start new, make goals. And I admit some years I do exactly that. I take January 1 to have some kind of mythical, spiritual power, and if I treat it right, I can secure happiness and joy for the next 364 days.

Except this year it started wrong. January 1 is a Sunday, and my family is skipping church. I had a terrible blood sugar night, and I felt nauseated all night, and I can’t make myself leave the house yet, not without feeling icky. And my husband, who’s been fighting something for weeks, is asleep. This is miraculous, and no way am I going to wake him up. Unless the house is burning down or zombies come, I’m not messing with him.

Also, we’ve been packing and house hunting, and I haven’t given even five seconds of thought to the year ahead. Nothing. Currently I’m living a life unexamined and unplanned, simply moving one day to the next.

So. Does this mean my year is shot? Have I started a trend that will bring down our family before the year is over? I doubt it.

God likes rhythm. Seasons, days, years–He made those. He gives us rhythms of work and rest. Ecclesiastes points out the rhythms of life more than most, with times to heal and kill and grow and reap. So there’s something to be said for awareness of the rhythms of the world around us, of aging times and growing times and all those other times. And it makes sense that the first of the year is a great time to reflect and think and look to the future.

But this is America. We’re the place that takes good things and goes crazy with them. I don’t believe a bad Monday means the week will be ruined. Or a bad morning kills the whole day. I’ve never been good at goals, not like those people who have everything planned, specific and measured and weighed. Seems God can take my bad Mondays and finish with an amazing Friday. A harsh winter can lead to a mild summer. And a goal–He seems to delight in upending my goals and substituting His own, and usually they look like chaos until that final moment when it all comes together and something beautiful happens.

If you have no goals this January, it’s okay. I have one. We sold our house a few weeks ago, and we haven’t bought another one. So my goal in 2017 is to end it not homeless. Pretty basic goal. I don’t have any specific spiritual goals, because last year I failed. I think I’ll just read the Bible and ask God to put together some direction and goals. I want to sell more books, and I have a few goals there, but honestly what I think will work always falls short, and things I never even considered will suddenly encourage people to buy for reasons that make no sense to me.

Sure, it’s good to have goals. The Bible talks about planning before doing. But I think this year my goals will be small. They’ll be flexible. They’ll be general. And while I wait for Him to put meat on the bones of my hopes and dreams and goals, I want to learn patience and trust. Trust most of all. Sometimes goals are a way of avoiding trusting God. At least they are for me. I struggle to trust God more than any other struggle. So maybe I do have a spiritual goal, but I haven’t the slightest clue how to make that happen. No actionable steps (ooh, I struggle with that word.) Just a vague notion that I’m failing and only He can bring victory. Clearly I won’t be writing a seminar on setting goals this year.

Okay, God, your work is cut out for you. Be my goals. Be my plans. And all You wish to do for and through me–do all of it for and through me.

 

Waiting

Birth Jesus silhouette of the crib in Bethlehem and candlesI’ve barely given a nod to Christmas this year. We’re house hunting, thinking about packing, trying to make plans for the future, and Christmas has fallen to the wayside.

In my denomination we celebrate Advent, the month leading to Christmas. It’s a time of waiting. And yet I bet for Mary, that last month before the first Christmas was more than just waiting. She had things to do. Baby clothes to make. Packing for the census travel that took her to Bethlehem. Talking to friends about pregnancy, birth, newborns. Getting ready for parenthood is work.

But then the baby came. Also in our denomination we talk about the Christmas season. Twelve days of it. I suspect once baby Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph slowed down for a few days. Mary rested. I’m sure God’s promises took new meaning when that baby was finally in her arms. She learned to feed him. She watched him sleep. Joseph listened for him to breathe at night, thinking about their little one’s future. They figured out his feeding and sleeping schedule. For a few precious days, they could simply watch and reflect and delight that he was here.

I’m glad to take a few days off house hunting and packing to celebrate Christmas. Whether I’m prepared or not, it’s here. It hasn’t been a normal holiday season, but that’s okay. I can still slow down and focus on the baby sleeping in the hay. The boy growing up in Nazareth. The man preaching in Jerusalem. The savior sitting on a throne. I didn’t do a great job of Advent this year, but God never said I had to. Advent and Christmas are based on biblical events, but God never said we had to celebrate them. It benefits us, but it’s not mandatory. This year I’m especially glad of that.

Next year I’ll celebrate from another place. I have no idea where that will be. But I hope by then life will slow down, and I can take time to focus on the truths of Advent and Christmas. Until then, I want to wish all of my readers and friends a time of peace this year. Whether it’s a month or a day or an hour, I hope you can find time to reflect, like Mary and Joseph did, that the promised child truly came, and he did more than his parents ever expected of him. I don’t think anyone knew, on that very first night, just what had come to the world, and what kind of victories God had planned through him. It’s amazing to think about.

Merry Christmas.

When God has to Sweep Up

moving-2This fall and winter I made a bit of a mess in my life. It wasn’t sinful, just unwise. For reasons I still can’t entirely pinpoint, I decided it would be a great time to put our house on the market and try to move to a more rural setting. My husband agreed, mostly because sometimes it’s hard to tell me no. My son, a junior in high school, sort of agreed for the same reason.

So, we worked to clean and repair our house. We put it on the market thinking we had plenty of time to look for another house and move. On the first day we got one offer. The second day, two more. So, forty-eight hours into the listing, at the end of November, our house sold.

We started looking, and this was where I realized I had made a grand mistake. Our house is unique. Big house in a neighborhood where houses don’t cost much. Big yard for a city house. Treed lot because seventeen years I planted a heap of bushes and trees.

Rural houses we can afford aren’t ideal. Too far for any kind of internet, which would cut off my home school son from the world. Winding roads that aren’t great for my husband, who works second shift and drives home in the dark. So far off the path that my husband would spend his life in the car. Or, so far that I, a type one diabetic, would be so cut off that if I had a scary medical event, medical personnel could never come help me in time. (I’ve never had a diabetic event that bad, but it happens.)

We put an offer on a house, and it didn’t pass inspection, but it wasn’t an ideal house, either. Now we are house hunting again, only it’s too late to move straight from one house to another, so we’ll have to find interim provisions. My son, husband, and I can stay with my oldest son, along with our dogs. But my son’s pending roommate is allergic to cats, so they will need temporary homes, as will our belongings.

See? Mess. If I could step back in time, I think I’d not put our house on the market.

If you follow my blog, you know I tend to see God wrong. Too often I see an angry God. I like to get through life without rocking the boat, and I do the same with God–I want to be a good child who stays out of trouble. This time, I have a big mess on my hands, solely my own fault, and God has to fix it.

But I think He will. I don’t think He’s out there plotting ways to make me pay for my wrong turn. I know once that would have been my first thought–I made a mess, and God was delighted to make it a painful learning experience.

This time, I expect it will all work out. I don’t know if we’ll find a dream house, but we’ll survive the changes without scars. He won’t let us be homeless. He’ll put all the pieces together and bind us closer together and closer to Him. I imagine him rolling His eyes and then laughing as He sweeps my mess into a giant dustpan and turns it into something beautiful.

It’s okay that God has to take time for me. I haven’t always felt that way. And I don’t know why I feel it now. I don’t really know what’s changed, but I’m glad for it. He loves me. Even when I make a mess, He still loves me. I fix my kids’ messes all the time. Even my adult children sometimes need Mom to bail them out or help them along. So why do I think God is any different? Except He is–His bailing out is amazing, because His love is amazing, even deeper than my love for my kids.

I haven’t posted much during this time because it’s been wild here. And after Christmas we start to pack, so it will get worse. But I’ll try to keep everyone apprised of what God does with my mess. No, I’m not looking forward to packing and interim moves and the costs of all of it, but I know the end will be good. Whether distant or far in the future, the end for the children of God is always good.

God Can Get Your Dog Out of a Tree

skye-watchingOne night this week my small cattledog Skye began to bark like crazy from the back of my yard. It was dark. It was raining. I called for her, but she wouldn’t come inside. No, whatever had captured her attention back there was much more interesting than I was.

I grabbed a flashlight and headed back. The back of our yard is filled with trees and scrub, so I had push through. I heard her, and I swung the flashlight all over but couldn’t see her. Then I saw motion overhead, so I flashed the light and found something black and white in the tree. Ah. A neighbor cat. Explained the barking. She loves to tree cats. Again I flashed the light under the neighbor cat, but still no dog, although I could hear her.

At this point I flashed up at the neighbor cat again. It was on a large, wide, broken trunk of tree, seven feet off the ground. Only it wasn’t the neighbor cat. It was my dog, over my head, in a tree, barking and whining like the world was coming to an end.

I thought she was stuck. I climbed over the back fence to the other side of the tree and began to coax her down. If she got close enough, I could grab her and pull her from the tree. She was still barking like the apocalypse was near. Then I happened to glance to my left, and I almost dropped the flashlight, because I was staring at a possum, six inches from my face at eye level, tucked into the crook of the tree.

I had no idea what to do next. Possums aren’t generally dangerous, but when you’re flashing a light in its face and your dog is above it barking like a wild monster–well, I would bite, too. So now I’m trying to coax my dog to the side while attempting not to get bitten by a terrified possum.

In the dark.

In the rain.

I yelled at the dog. I guess eventually I sounded angry enough to catch Skye’s attention, because she turned around, walked along the broken trunk (it was arched over the fence like a bridge, something I hadn’t realized until this very dark, very wet moment), and headed back down into my yard. I climbed the fence, grabbed the dog, and stomped into the house, both of us wet and tired.

The whole time I wished my husband had been there. I kept thinking if he hadn’t been at work, if he’d been here, he’d have known exactly what to do. I have known my husband more than half his life. I know for a fact he has no experience coaxing dogs out of trees while trying to avoid possums. In the rain. In the dark. But I also know for a fact he would have helped me. I always believe he can do anything. He’d have been out there in the rain with me because he loves me. Together we’d have figured it out.

As I was thinking about this, I came to a sad realization. It’s a truth I’ve posted about more than once this year, and I think it’s time to deal with this little problem. My husband loves me with an imperfect love. He doesn’t always have the skills to help, even though I tell myself he can do anything. And yet I trust he will always come and always help.

God loves me with perfect love. He always has the skills I need. And yet, I don’t always trust Him to come and help.

It’s a big deal right now for Christians to try to know their identity in Christ, to know what they mean to God. I realize I need to back up a step. Once again I am faced with the truth that I still don’t know God. Not very well. I’m pretty sure if I knew His character, understood His love, knew His real compassion and power and knowledge, I wouldn’t hesitate to call him to get my dog out of trees. I’d be able to trust Him with the souls of my children without fear. I could face ageing with a chronic illness without worry. I could line up my days with joy and not doubt.

So. This year I crashed and burned with my Bible reading. And I  think I know why. I need to simplify. Someone once told me I need to read a Bible passage and ask “What does this say about God? What does it say about me? How can I apply this?” Well, I need remedial Bible reading. For now, the question needs to be “What does this say about God?” And then I need to stop there.  Until I can answer that with some wisdom, until I can be consistent and stop falling back to the idea of God as angry or distant or unloving, I can’t possibly know myself or how to behave. (Okay, within reason. I’m not going to throw obedience to the wind. But the focus needs to be HIM.)

I have no idea how to keep our dog in the yard now that she knows she might find possums in trees. Now that she realizes she can climb trees. But at least now I know where to look if she goes crazy again. And I know who to call. Part of this is knowing God. Part of it is putting that knowledge to the test and calling on God all the time, for all things. He loves me. He’ll come. I never have to slog through the dark rain alone.

Never Quite Enough

never-quite-enoughI suspect everyone has days like this. Or weeks or months or even years. Those days when Satan sits at your ear and says, over and over and over, You’re not quite enough.

Not smart enough. Not pretty enough. Not good enough. Not outgoing enough. Not quiet enough. Not creative enough. Whatever it is, the message is that the best you have to offer the world doesn’t quite measure up. And that voice can get loud and harsh and so, so easy to believe.

I recently had one of those weeks. Honestly, I haven’t quite worked through it yet. In my writing business, I spent a week insanely busy working on promotions with very little return for my time. I’m putting my house on the market, and no matter how hard I work, the to-do list doesn’t seem to get smaller, and it seems everything I loved about my house–all of that has to go. My tastes apparently will not appeal to another soul on this planet, so I’m leaching the personality from my house, and it hurts. A ministry I’m involved in had a rough month, and it seemed that if I just changed everything about the way I do this, then people will catch the fire and help me.

All I can do is my best. And with God at my side, or with God in the lead, the expectation is that my best will be enough. But how often that isn’t the case.

I hope it’s enough for God. I hope the Spirit, who chooses not to let my best always be enough for the world, has a purpose. I could be Midas, where with God’s help everything I touch turns to gold, but that isn’t how He planned it. We believers fail. We stumble. The world tears us up and breaks us down. Other believers tear us up and break us down.

The Bible warns us the world will hate us and we will suffer and life here, while a gift, is a bittersweet gift at best. And in the midst of it, spiritual battle begins. One of Satan’s favorite lines is You Are Not Enough. You Have Failed and That Means He Doesn’t Want/Love/Need You.

I attend a church that sings few traditional hymns, and lately I’ve been reading old hymn lyrics. Recently a hymn was printed on our song sheets at worship, and I compared the old hymn lyrics to the newer worship song lyrics, and I noticed something interesting, something that might help explain my fatigue and frustration and feelings of failure. (No, the songs themselves aren’t at fault, but maybe it points to a bigger problem.) Old songs seem to focus more on who God is. Immortal, invisible, God only Wise. Man of Sorrows, what a name. Praise to the Lord, The Almighty, the King of Creation. On and on. And the newer lyrics? An extraordinary use of the words I, my, me… More about who I am because of God and less about who God is just because of Who God Is. Different focus. And I think I let that focus follow me into all of life.

I understand the desire to make God personal and intimate. Make Him a little closer and easier to deal with. But sometimes that makes me feel a little bigger, maybe too big, like my failures can ruin things. But a big God, an immortal, invisible, mighty bulwark, the one who comes on the clouds with a mighty roar to rescue his bride… Suddenly my focus turns off of me and onto this mighty, amazing God who is infinitely bigger and more complex and more unpredictable and wild than I can imagine. This is the God David sang about in his songs. This is the God who can overlook my failures because they are so very small compared to His greatness.

That God is big enough to shut up the voices in my ears.

I haven’t quite puzzled all this out in my head yet. I’m still not enough. But that huge, wild God doesn’t ask me to be enough. He knows I’m frail, and he puts me in his hand and covers me with protection and simply asks me to hang on for the ride. I’m a child, small and limited, and He loves me enough that my failures mean nothing. My trust means much, much more.

In the world, my failures mean everything, because often the story is about me. They are a litmus of how God and I doing as a team, of how much growth I’m experiencing. But they’re not. The Old Testament, especially, is filled with men and women who were not enough, who crashed and burned all over the place. But God wove the tapestry of life around them, pulling them in and protecting them and making beauty of even the worst messes. He is the central player around whom the entire story unfolds. It has nothing to do with me or any of the rest of us.

I told someone this week I was tired of trying to be perfect. I am called to be holy through the Spirit. But in this world, I will fail more than succeed, and that’s okay, because I can simply sit in God’s hand and not jump out, simply trust that this amazing, giant God has it all figured out. My successes and failures don’t change one iota of the tapestry.

The world does not hinge on me or anything I do. And today, I’d love to sit and sing hymns about God. Today, I don’t want to matter in a personal way at all. I just want to focus on Him and leave myself out of it, just sit in the hand and peek through the fingers and be safe and loved and precious, and know my abilities don’t mean a thing to anyone. And I know it sounds crazy,  but it doesn’t feel crazy. It simply feels freeing. And there’s plenty of room in here, so feel free to sit with me for a spell and watch Him work His wonders in spite of us.