Is Speaking Truth Love?

In college I went with a group of kids to hear a speaker at EMU. I have long since struggled to remember if it was Max Lucado or Phil Yancey, but those are two names written down the sides of bookshelves quite frequently in those days. Most often I credit this bit of wisdom shared there to Max Lucado, but I’m covering my bases here. The words are clear, the speaker is fuzzy.

The words were: We have to speak truth in love. To speak love without truth is a lie, but to speak truth without love…that is no truth at all.

Let me say them again: We have to speak truth in love. To speak love without truth is a lie, but to speak truth without love…that is no truth at all.

For this strong minded, loud mouthed little girl, that was a shifting comment. If you knew me in college, you could rightly describe me as someone who speaks her mind. She will tell it like it is. She says what others are thinking, but won’t voice. If the truth cuts like a knife and leaves a wound, I was certain the other person would be reminded every time they looked at the scar I’d caused and be reminded of truth.

I can remember those days like they were just a year or two ago. Because, probably they still were. Truth, friends, TRUTH!!!! I know truth! And people need to know it. They cannot go astray. They cannot be misled. And where they are veering to the left of the right it was my responsibility to correct where I saw deviance from the most strict, most honest line.

I loved that quote from college but for many years when someone would quote from Romans “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate, I do” I would hear my heart cheer in response, “My mouth, y’all. Welcome to my mouth.”

I’d flip from Romans to James 3 and read “All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Then, knowing the struggle to do what I want to do, but doing what I don’t want to do while trying to tame an uncontrollable beast…I was certain there was no hope of overcoming this.

Sure, I gained some manner of control and learned how to restrict my comments and opinions so that I could generally function as a socially appropriate person, but truth would get me every time and I would be unable to hold it in. If I am commanded to speak truth, then every time you choose silence when you have truth is a lie. Or so I thought.

I want to preface what I’m about to say with this disclaimer: What I am working through in my head does not involve situations where one must speak truth to defend a victim or to report illegal activity. Does. Not. And I am in no way encouraging people to lie. I absolutely believe in the high value of honesty and the piercing impact it has when employed.

But, here is the thing. I would see people look at the mark I’d left behind when I’d whipped out truth, and they didn’t seem to be grateful for the reminder that they should be realigning themselves. In fact, they would often go the other way. But why? I’d spoken truth. I’d even been intentional to do it in a kind and compassionate manner.

The past few days I’ve been reflecting on the mighty and terrible power of speaking one’s mind. I’ve reflected on a few moments in the past years or two where I’ve learned more about controlling my mouth than I ever learned in the first 34 years.

I had many stories to reflect on. Times I’ve told the truth and it made people mad. Time I’ve told the truth and the person didn’t hear me. Times I’ve told the truth and people have acted like they agree to get me to be quiet.  How I have felt the burden for truth. How I have felt the responsibility to say what “needs to be said.” How I have held to the belief that to hold your tongue is to lie, every time.

My friends, just because you know something to be true, it does not mean that the way to speak truth in love is to open your mouth. The quote that is often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi is true: Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary, use words.

I have in the past year taken some theological questions via email with a dear friend and spiritual leader in my life, if no longer official by certificate of membership, his grace and wisdom is a voice I will always covet to speak into this walk. I have taken via email the same questions to another spiritual leader in my life, and I don’t know why I think the answers will ever be any different from one to the other, it helps to have these two voices who are willing to help me hash things out and help me simplify the matter at hand. The topics have varied, but as I look at our conversations in the rearview mirror, I am finding that they all boil down to this…

Me: I have a truth and the rest of the world won’t conform to it.
They: Extend grace.
Me: Also, they can be mean and hypocritical because they lack the understanding of truth that I have!
They: Extend grace anyway.
Me: I could extend grace better if I could accompany it with truth.
They: Are you willing to look at your truth, to lean in and to be open to a truth that is outside of your very capable brain?
Me: Yes, but I’m right.
They: Ok.

And a few days later the conversation changes.

Me: I may have been wrong in my analysis of truth.
They: Ok. Tell me.
Me: New truth. Presentation of evidence. Conclusion.
They: Excellent! You have done well to lean in on this!
Me: I don’t feel so much like I need to argue about it with that person anymore….but it’s still not fair that they get to be mean and hypocritical.
And then this…..
This every time….
They:  Whose problem is that?
Me: Oh.

While processing a theological point in the past month, I went through this same conversation sequence with one of these great men and when we reached the point where he said, “I think that your confusion over other people’s responses is their problem… not yours.”

Oh my heart. Or rather, oh my ears. They were finally open. This person has said this to me for nearly a decade in one way or another. He has spoken that same truth over and over while I didn’t hear him.

You know what I have heard though? I have heard him allow me my strongly held beliefs, even when they are the exact opposite of my own. I have heard him encourage me to follow God’s word to me and God’s leading on my life even if it points me in different directions than he’d chose for his own.

But what speaks the loudest to me from both of these men is this. I have heard them not say things. They have held their tongues and chosen words carefully to be as clear as possible without giving more information than I needed at the time. They have not used the application of truth from their lives to attempt to realign my beliefs or actions into a forced submission of what they think and how God has convinced them to walk.

What has spoken to me louder than any other truth they’ve helped me find is when they’ve chosen to reserve their words and allow God to speak to me. 

I have stayed in the conversation because they have not told me to be quiet by pressing their rightness over my wrongness. They answer my questions as honestly and reflective of their interpretations to the best of their abilities, and those have helped me process concepts. But concepts are concepts.

What is speaking into my heart, what is changing me, what is absolute proof to me that entire sanctification exists alongside of ongoing gradual sanctification while I watch layer after layer being pulled back on my life, is the love, is the grace, and is the commitment to allowing God to be the truth giver, and not having the arrogance to think they have all the answers, not every story needs to be told. Neither do they bear the burden of responsibility to change my mind.

I am slowly but surely learning, it is my responsibility to work out my own salvation, not everyone else’s around me. I am slowly learning how to speak truth in love by closing my mouth. I am slowly learning that if I want to communicate truth in love I have to be committed to a conversation that could last for years, to play the long game, because truth is eternal, truth outlasts a conversation. I am learning to trust God more in this way.

I will close with how I responded to the comment that my confusion over other people’s responses being their problem, not mine.

It is something to consider that the more I learn, the more I come across the idea that the rightness and wrongness of the rest of the world is not my problem. I should write that on an index card and pin it to my desk.

Today I think I shall do just that.  🙂

Speak truth, y’all, and now how to do it with your mouth closed.

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The Church On Tangier Island

Sometimes missing church happens, but in this day and age with all the technology available, you can find a service to livestream any hour of the day. That is, you can find a service to livestream unless of course you are visiting Tangier Island.

When you go to Tangier you are going there to disconnect, and disconnect you shall, because unless you stand by this one large mud puddle near the beach or this a certain plank on the seldom used dock behind the Muddy Toes library, you won’t have enough signal to text, let alone find a sermon.

I’d resigned myself to being churchless this past Sunday, until, as we rode the golf cart around the corner to our B&B, I saw the marquee. Service after service was listed. I saw that there would be 2 services that evening and my curiosity was piqued.

Cats, gnats, beach, bikes and ice cream, I have experienced Tangier.  But I’d never stepped foot inside the little white church on the corner. As it turned out, we’d come on homecoming weekend. No football games and pep rallies for this event, homecoming weekend is just what it sounds like. When the folks who’ve left the island return. There is a festival style party with bounce houses and a stage. People who’ve gone off to serve on the mainland in ministry come home and help lead in the many services offered all weekend long.

I have in years past looked with curiosity at the small white church on the corner, but we’ve never been there during a service. This would be my opportunity to find out just what church on the island is like.

I entered up the steps into a small entry. No signs necessary to find my way to the sanctuary, I needed only allow myself to be led by preacher who grasped my hand as I entered and swinging our handshake to the left guided me a step and a half forward into a wide well light room.

Oh, I thought, I know this kind of church.

The light came generously through beautiful stained glass windows. The wooden pews formed sort of a semi-circle facing the pulpit which was raised about the congregation a few steps. The pews were soft and shiny and one could imagine that in just the right Easter dress you could slide from one end to the other if you got a good start. This church and others like it smell the same, a mixture of dampness (this one with a tinge of salt air), Murphey’s Oil Soap and a few centuries of potluck casseroles.

This church would be the same as others I’d been to, I was certain, where eyes don’t lift 3 feet above the ground the entire service, gazing from hymnals during singing, watching your knees during the sermon, and checking in your purse or your pockets for a mint or something else to pass the time.

A strong woman took to the front and raised a mighty welcome and immediately my head popped up. She greeted everyone and I strained to understand her thick island accent. For the first minute or two, she could have been talking about coffee and crabs, boats and buoys, for all I know, but it was pleasant. After a moment, the strange vowels sounded natural I could understand her, and I was smiling with her joy expressed of services I’d missed that morning and the day before, of seeing friends and family back to visit. “Hey!” she’d called. An island word, a greeting so common to her and a joy she’d found to share with a man she knew from Africa, teaching him how on Tangier one local greets another. “Hey!” the congregation rang back.

Something seemed to let me know I wouldn’t be knee watching this service. I looked from window to window, from pew to pew, and the familiarity of an old time church was still in the tangible building, but something fresh was in the room, too.

As the service got underway, we sang old hymns, songs that I’ve been singing to myself this summer and missing. I love the new worship music, but sometimes it’s nice to sing “How Great Thou Art” without a kicking drum solo in the middle. One lady in the choir had a solo, and though the style of her singing was classic, it was full of newness. A duet of two middle aged men sang and old song and sounded about like two pleasant men singing until something moved the songs from their mouths, deeper, and it resonated from within them and spilled thickly into the air around us all.

The missionary woman came again and invited joys and concerns and testimonies, and people rose to their feet and shared, joy upon joy and then one man, certainly in his early 60s stood and shared how grateful he was for his salvation. With a tremble in his voice and a tear in his eye, he spoke more sweetly about how much his faith meant to him than I may have ever heard. Ever. So unexpected to me and so precious was that moment, that I could only think “What is this place?”

The visiting speaker took to the pulpit and said that when he’d been asked to speak on homecoming weekend, he knew right away what he’d preach from. I tried to pull up a fast verse in my head with the word home in it and predict where we were going, but he went straight into his verse, from Proverbs 22 “Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set.” Well, that doesn’t have the word home in it at all!

He gave a fine message where he spoke about his favorite national landmarks, and then moved to his favorite island landmarks. He shared the story of the history of faith on the island brought ashore with Rev. Joshua Thomas, a great story unto itself. He told of revivals that had happened on the island, where hundreds of people came forward to receive Christ. He referenced a revival on the island as recently as 1996.

Then he made this point. The landmarks WILL fall. The island, which is slowly being taken back into the sea as they pray for the funding needed for a second sea wall, the island too will fall. The people, good and faithful though they be, will also pass, from this life to the next. They are not immune to the passage of time. None of these are the landmarks. Not even, he pointed out, would he say that the revivals were landmarks. Those prayers and songs and times ended and people moved on from the altars.

No, he said, Christ is our landmark. Remove not Christ from your life, for He alone is the only which is unpassable, unshakable. He will remain.

And he closed expressing hope for another revival. It doesn’t matter that the most recent revival they’d experienced was in 1996, no time was too soon for more of God. His hope was for revival. His hope, he said, is that when people speak of Tangier Island that they say “They are a godly people.”

I will say of Tangier Island, they are a godly people. Do I know each of them? No. Do I think that they are free from the ins and outs and ups and downs of life? No. But this I know. While we on the mainland download and upgrade our faith, Tangier carries on, with hymnals and stained glass, with pews and and a pulpit. The service I experienced was dynamic and dear. It is not something you can manufacture for a special weekend. It is very obviously natural to them.

If you get the opportunity to go visit Tangier, include in your stay over a trip to the little white church on the corner.

Two last notes worth mentioning, if only so I can remember them years from now.

First, on the island there is a second church that I didn’t get to attend. I thought about the old joke about the man shipwrecked on the island who when rescuers arrived they found he’d built many small buildings. He showed them around his village he’d built pointing here and there saying “That’s my house, that’s the diner where I eat. That’s my church.” They saw another structure he hadn’t named and asked about it. He made a disgusted face and said “That’s the church I used to go to.” I wondered what it must be like to be on an island with two churches. On the mainland, we often ignore the churches in our neighborhood, viewing them as competition or not viewing them at all in our business to only view ourselves.

In the sermon, the man was thanking God for all the ways He’d blessed Tangier and set Himself among them. In this piece, he took time to thank God for the other church, for their work and their ministry to the island.

And secondly, as we entered the church there was a dog trying desperately to gain access to the sanctuary. He was shooed away repeatedly and I chuckled at how interested he was. Towards the end of the service, a woman rose and tiptoed out of the front door and returned a moment later. A minute or two after this, as our heads were bowed in prayer, I saw the woman in front of me jump a little. She spun around and mouthed something to people behind me.  Leaning forward, her shoulders went up and down with a little effort and then she popped back up, carrying the holy little mutt and taking him back to the entrance, she pitched him a little unceremoniously out the door.

It was as if I was reading a left out chapter from James Herriot’s Dog Stories. ❤

This service, these moments are enough to encourage you to give Tangier a visit and to find that church in session, but if that’s not in your ability, pray for those people, for their hope for revival and for their sea wall.

But How Does It End?

A friend and I were talking recently about the deep theological point of omniscience, you know, how God already knows everything and the devastating of the lack of omniscience in ourselves. I know you’ve had the same conversation before. See, I may not know everything, but I know you have had this talk before.

It’s the conversation that follows when something is ahead of us, job offers, proposals, children, test results, healing, or anything that requires us to wait. It is the monologue we deliver when something is upon us, pain, sickness and suffering, trial or temptation. That desire rises up inside us to just know how this all ends.

We tell our friends and we tell God, “I just want to know how this all turns out. I want to know how this is going to be used in my life. Then I will willingly walk through whatever He has for me.” I’ve been there. I’ve seen friend after friend arrive to this point. We are fine and content when the story of our lives is reviewing the setting, introducing the characters, building a background little by little. We are happy to listen as the narrative tells us about the ins and outs of our daily tasks and we happily read through happy times, feasts and family experiences, events and adventures. In fact we’d almost prefer there not be any talk of an ending in those cases. More words about those things, please, more pages, more time.

But onto the scene arrives a villain. Into the picture walks a problem. I am not trying to minimize the absolute horror and terror that can be written in to our lives. We lose loved ones before we think it’s time. We struggle with demons that won’t let us rest in sleep or in waking. We watch people fight battles we can not take from them. We have trials. Big, scary, painful trials.

Then our thumbs drag across the edges of the page flipping page after page, eyes skimming for a word to latch onto which will signal the description of the resolution and the explanation of the purpose. We hit the back cover with frustration, because there just aren’t the words. There aren’t words on the pages yet. They haven’t been written. But not just there. We look out to our friends, to our leaders, to our own understanding and ask why! What is the point of all this!?!? And our friends, our leaders and our own understanding have no words.

So we beg to know the ending. God, if you will just tell me how this turns out. God, if you will just tell me why this is in my life. God, if you…then I. And we flip back through the book hoping to see that lines are forming, letter after letter the answer will appear and we might see the future. But they don’t.

It is enormously frustrating!

A few months ago I heard this story.

“When John Kavanaugh, the noted and famous ethicist, went to Calcutta, he was seeking Mother Teresa … and more. He went for three months to work at “the house of the dying” to find out how best he could spend the rest of his life.

When he met Mother Teresa, he asked her to pray for him. “What do you want me to pray for?” she replied. He then uttered the request he had carried thousands of miles: “Clarity. Pray that I have clarity.”

“No,” Mother Teresa answered, “I will not do that.” When he asked her why, she said, “Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.” When Kavanaugh said that she always seemed to have clarity, the very kind of clarity he was looking for, Mother Teresa laughed and said: “I have never had clarity; what I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust God.”

This story was shared just days before I would come upon one of my own flip to the end times. Tell me what to do, God! Be clear with me! Send me a sign, a map, an angel who spells it out for me. But no, not clarity. Trust.

Back on that riverbank in that conversation I heard words come out of my mouth that I knew I’d need to write down. Not because they were particularly special, well formed and brilliant. Rather, because I know I will need to remember them later.

I told my friend to write down her story. To get a journal and write down this experience so that in a few months she could look back through her journal and see all that He has done.

But first, to know this.

When you ask God to write your story, when you allow Him to read it over your life….you already know the ending. It is going to be a happy ending. It is going to work out for His glory and our gain. Every. Single. Time. You can trust this.

I suggested she find a journal and on the front page write “And they lived happily ever after….what follows here is how it happened.”

Friends, it is advice I need to heed. I do not have some deeper knowledge of the future which gives me secret clarity or some ultra-faith that in unattainable to the masses. I sit on my own riverbank, in my car, on my computer, at my desk, on steps, in a friend’s office. The background to this situation changes, but the story is the same. I find myself explaining why God should let me in on the plan, why it’d be ok this time for Him to reveal more knowledge to me. And time and time again He leads me to the same sentence in my book…

They lived happily ever after.

And then He tells me to sit back and let Him get back to reading.

There is in this life or the next wholeness, happiness and healing beyond anything we can know here on this broken ground. There is hope and a future. There are plans to prosper us.  Do you know this? Do you?

Then you know the ending!

They lived happily ever after.

Now hush, child, and let Him read.

Unreal. 2 Weeks In.

Y’all, it’s been nearly two weeks. Almost two whole weeks since I started at the church. TWO. WHOLE. WEEKS. (almost.)

I have sat down at the computer countless times to record my experiences, because I know they’ll dim in my memory, and I do not want to lose a minute of it, but I just sit and stare at the screen, unable to find the words to describe any bit of it.

Me. Unable to find words. Well, able to find one word. Over and over, one word. Unreal. Unreal. Unreal.

I keep expecting to wake up and find it’s just been a dream. I keep expecting someone to come say “Ugh, I hate to tell you this, but we made a mistake.” I keep expecting something that will say, “Sarah, you made all of this up in your head.”

It has been a big year of the same lesson over and over for me, God repeatedly showing me that He is not just abundantly gracious, but that He is abundantly gracious to me. To me!

And yet, I walk around in shock that God is being THIS abundantly gracious to me.

The only thing I’ve formulated in my head by way of a summarizing statement of what the first two weeks have been like is this…..When you start a new job, you cling to everything they tell you, like there is going to be a test later. Where do you keep the paper? What color pens do you use? What’s the code? How do you turn on a computer? There is usually this tense transition time where you’re scared you’re going to mess everything up. But it hasn’t felt like that. Sure I’m having to learn where the paper is and about new software,but really, it just feels like I’ve started working from home. There just happen to be other people working in my house with me.

Moments of confirmation after confirmation. Joy upon joy. Situations I never thought I’d be blessed to be a part of.

I wish I could describe it better. I wish I had the words. But I don’t. So I’ll use someone else’s words. how about His?

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.  “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

They so are. Because in all the ways I tried to imagine the graciousness of God TO ME…this is far better than I could have dreamed up.

Unreal. Simply unreal.

In or Out?

        I had just finished telling her why I would NOT be coming back to this church.

The people were nice enough. The worship was good. The kids seemed to like the children’s church stuff well enough. But one thing had turned me off and turned me off entirely. So I thanked her kindly for her time and consideration, but I was outta there.

When we first moved here, she had taken time out of her busy days a number of times to sit and talk with me. She had more important things to do, and that’s not me being humble. She legitimately had more important things to do than sit and talk to some random girl who came to her place of work unannounced. But for some reason, she took the time.

We had similar interests. Both in early childhood education. Both with big thoughts about the issues and experiences surrounding that field. We talked probably more intensely about theological issues than one should when you just barely know someone, but that is my way and she indulged me.

She had walked me around the church, giving me the updated tour. I hadn’t seen it since I was in college, when Kermit and I had come to this church a few times at the end of my senior year when the building was just being plastered on the overhead screen as blueprints and dreams.

She took time to invest in me and I told her thanks, but no thanks. All the same, she smiled and gave me another moment to listen about what had upset me. As I made my way to the door, she walked with me, wrapping up our conversation.

I put my hand on the door, trying to push myself out of that church and on to whatever lay on the other side of “anywhere but this place.”

She said “So what’s next?
“Well,” I began, certain of the answer, “My plan is to get my master’s and teach Head Start, but I wouldn’t be surprised if God didn’t have a completely different plan for me.
“I guess we’ll see.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, “We will.”

And with that, I left.
I had no intention of returning.
I was Jonah, having been told to go to Ninevah, turned and booked it to Tarshish,  the most remote place in the other direction I could think of. No doubt, it would take a giant fish and an act of God to get me back in the doors of that church.

Thankfully, mercifully, God acts.

         I have put pieces of the rest of the story throughout my blog in the past, and so I won’t retell the whole story of the storm and the ship and the whale that God used to bring this Jonah back to where He intended me to be in the first place.

This piece of the story though, I tell and retell, because even when I was running to the remote parts of the Valley to escape where I felt He had pointed me, I knew, my plan was not going to win out. His plan would.

Not only that. The part that is most tender to me, which melts me in front of the glorious redemptive love that my God has for me, is that in the VERY conversation which I intended to reject this church, God placed my hand on the building and put these words in my mouth “I wouldn’t be surprised if God didn’t have something completely different planned for me.”

There are often times that I feel like God sighs before He says things to me, wondering at my amazing ability to miss a point, but there is no sigh in that moment. Only this sense that God may have thought, “Watch this. Watch what I’m going to do here. Watch me knit my plan into her hand so that she will not ever forget the hard coolness of this door and those words which I am about to unfold in her life. Just watch.”

This morning I put my hand on that door again and pressed it open. Certainly one of the greatest evidences of redemption I have in my life is that when I rejected “that church,” God brought me back and over and over placed my hand back on the hard coolness of that door until that place became “my church.”

Today, my first official day of working for my church, this story came out again in conversation, drawing me back to those same words of the unknown plan of God in my future and hitting me hard with the magnitude of just how much higher His thoughts and His ways are than my own.

Closely behind this story came a verse to my mind, a verse that was shared in the sermon given the day I put words to the calling I felt God was laying in front of me. The sermon talked about considering the cost of following Christ and was full of commentary that felt so made for me.

Jesus speaks to a man who wants to follow Him, but wants to put it off for a little while, til he can enact his own plans and settle things his way. In Luke 9:62  “Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

Here is my plow and my hand is upon it. How gracious was He who did not turn away from me when I ran from my plow. How kind is He who called me back to it. Each day that my hand presses open that door, I pray that the hard coolness under my hand will serve as a constant reminder of the day I spoke those words, and press into my heart which side of those doors I will choose to be on.

May I never look back from my plow or my door.

Saying Goodbye When You Don’t Have To

The day we loaded our moving van to begin our adventure to the east, I stood on the front porch, leaned against the wall. Friends had come by to wish us well, to hug and cry, to make promises of continued closeness and then they were gone. I watched the last few things loaded and there it was. Ready to go.

But I wasn’t. After being thoroughly convinced that we were making this move out of obedience to God’s calling us beyond our small town’s borders, there was this inside itch, this tiny voice, this urging. All I had to do was say “I was wrong. I’m not going. Put it all back in the house.” All I had to say was, “No.”

I could, too. We would have a just fine life in Ohio, with great family support and good friends and a church we loved and a home we loved despite it’s “antique needs.”

But I couldn’t. I couldn’t speak the words, because I felt so deep down that to unload that truck would be willful disobedience. So I climbed in the van and followed the truck out to 35 and on to our future. It was the right choice. I have been blessed beyond measure because I didn’t shove everyone out of the way and drag the couch back in the house. No matter how big the blessing, no matter the confidence I had in the direction, no matter how excited I was for the future ahead, I can’t deny that urge was there.

Last fall, as I began my second ministry class I had a period of time where I was overwhelmed at the bigness of the task ahead. Classes stretched ahead of me. Personal growth requires incredible effort that I had no concept of before. I am not everyone’s cup of tea and if the end of this is being a pastor, those moments where it is clear I am not for someone will hurt deeply, and probably happen more frequently than I want to imagine.

The week leading up to the first class session there was that itch, that tiny voice, that urge was there. I don’t have to do this. I can work at a comfortable job with people who like me. I can still sound smart and have good illustrations that I use here and there that would make people think well of me. I don’t have to show up to class or interview in front of panels. I could say no.

I could, too. Only, I couldn’t. Oh, it was true that God doesn’t need Sarah Kinzer to fulfill His purpose in this place. If you thought Mcgyver could do some impressive stuff with little to no resources, you should know, he has nothing on what God can do. I do believe that God would allow me to have a nice life, even if I said no. He’d use someone else who would be willing to do what I refused. But if obedience is a blessing, disobedience is a torment for the one who walks in it knowingly. Even if life was comfortable, I would know I’d said no, and I just can’t live with that.

That night in class Pastor Dave began with some opening comments which included this. He said “You will be tempted time and time again to be ordinary. Don’t be ordinary.” Those words were just what I needed to hear. Not just the encouragement to be extraordinary, but the recognition that the temptation would come. It wasn’t my weakness and it wasn’t my shame that I thought about the pretty bow that wraps up an ordinary life. It was a common temptation. But it was not without option.

I am able to choose to trust God’s unknown future where He hides His extraordinary plans until the appointed time.

Today is my last day at that job that I like, with people I like, doing tasks I can competently handle, that has benefits beyond what is laid out in the employee handbook. People are saying goodbye and wishing me well. This is a building full of men, so the crying and hugging which was so present as we left Ohio is noticeably absent, but the goodbyes are just as tender, at least to my heart.

There is that itch again, that tiny voice, that urging. I don’t have to do this. I don’t have to leave. I don’t have to go forward to this next adventure.  I can go yank my resignation letter out of the file and tear it up and just show up here on Monday. I don’t have to do this.

I could, too. Only I can’t. I can’t stay here in the safety and comfort of the known any more than I could get that couch out of the moving van and drag it back up the walk, sit on it and refuse to move. When God says go, you go.

I told my friend, Maite, this morning that I had a case of the nervousness and she got straight to the point in her encouragement. “God didn’t open this door for you to hide behind the door jam.” She’s right, too. Not because the option isn’t there for me to hide,  to resist and refuse, but because if I want God’s best for my life, I must accept it, take it, step into it. I must go.

So today, even though I don’t have too, because I believe in a God who offers, but never forces, new beginnings, I say goodbye.

Friends, I hope you have the opportunity in your life to say goodbye when you don’t have to because something better lies ahead for you. Be prepared for that itch, the tiny voice, that urge to tell you that ordinary is fine enough for you. And maybe it’s ok to daydream, for a moment, just a moment. Picturing it play out will set it there in your mind for you to return to the image when you are living in the extraordinary unknown and know that you made the right choice.

Oh, friend, in the pursuit of God’s best for your life,
you will be tempted time and time again to be ordinary.

Don’t be ordinary.

4 Lessons I Learned About Crossing Rivers and The Israelites

When we moved from Ohio to Virginia, I fell in love with the story of God leading the Israelites into the Promised Land. Time. Time again I saw connections between that journey and ours, leaving a place we knew to head towards a place of promise, without a map and without a plan of our own.

A few months ago, I found myself drawn to Joshua, someone that I knew enough about from childhood Sunday School, VeggieTales and the occasional sermon to give you a basic run down of his story. I had no idea, however, just how his experiences would speak so perfectly to my own. I had the pleasure of writing a sermon about him for class and was overwhelmed with all I learned from that character study.

I find myself walking through a riverbed this week, having seen the waters parted and the way made clear for me to head in to a new position at my church. I’ve remained in that Joshua story, making sure I took notice of just exactly they went through in order to get into the Promised Land.

Here are a few things I do not want to forget.

1. It was big and scary. God did not mince words when He over and over told Joshua that what lay ahead would be something that could be seen as terrifying. He said this to Joshua, the guy who had lead the nation in military victory, who had gone as a spy into the Promised Land 40 years before and wasn’t scared of the giants then. And yet, God had to repeat over and over “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid. Do not be discouraged.”

We have the idea that the Promised Land was ONLY filled with milk and honey, as if here came the nation of Israel with bowls of plain Cheerios ready to flavor their life with sweetness and refreshment. But that’s not what they found.

Before they entered the land, the sent spies for a second time. These spies were found out and their lives were in danger! They had to rely in Rahab, a woman of low reputation from Jericho, to deceive her king and sneak them out. After they escaped, they spent days trying to shake the men from the city who pursued them. The first set of spies, 40 years earlier had only seen the people in the land and perceived great danger. The second set of spies were seen by the people of the land and were in actual danger!

Yet still, when they returned to Joshua, they said “The Lord has surely given the whole land into our hands; all the people are melting in fear because of us.” That’s some confidence!

What lies ahead of us when we walk into God’s promises on our lives may have challenge, but God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. God is the same for Joshua, for me and you and for generations to come. When He says He will lead you into His promises, follow Him! He is trustworthy!

2. It took a minute. God directed Joshua as to the plan, and Joshua immediately set about accomplishing the plan. However, before they would take the city of Jericho, before they would accomplish the first great task at hand, they had to pack an entire nation, send the spies, consecrate themselves, wait for the Jordan River to part, go back into the riverbed and collect stones, build an altar, tell the story of what God had done for them, set up camp, allow the story to reach the kings of the nations in the land, circumcise the men, heal from that, celebrate Passover, hear the plan of attack from the angel of the Lord and get themselves ready and head over to Jericho.

This was no flash of lightening and boom! Accomplished! No, it was a process, and each part of it served to prepare them not just go into the land, but to inhabit the land. God’s plan was never about entrance. It was all about dwelling.

When you are moving from one chapter to the next, be patient and be ready to find valuable preparation along the way.

3. The riverbed crossing was intentional. God made sure that the nation would see Joshua in the same light they saw Moses. Everyone knows about the parting of the Red Sea, but not many people talk about the Jordan River. But reading and rereading this part so sweetly illustrated the magnificence of God’s authorship. Through water Israel passed to freedom and through water they passed to promise. God is making very obvious points so as to make clear just exactly what story He is telling.

Echoed in this beautiful evidence of God’s crafting of a story, we see one man from each tribe head back into the riverbed, selecting 12 stones with which they will build an altar, the purpose of which is to communicate to the watching world what God had done for His people. God wrote the story so His people could tell it and tell it forever.

As you walk in a transitional time, make note of the story God is telling in your life. Make something permanent that you can refer back to for your own edification and to show others what God has done for you.

4. Be ready to fully rely on Him.  The Israelites had stopped circumcising their boys in the wilderness. Nothing marked them as set apart for God. So before they could be able to move into inhabiting the land, they had put themselves in right relationship with God. For them, this meant circumcision. For us, we look to a circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the law, an identification by cutting away what is between us and God, a commitment to God’s precepts written on our hearts. They had to take radical action to show that they trusted God, and so must we.

As they healed from the circumcision they celebrated Passover (oh, the beauty of God’s storytelling!) The day after the celebration, they ate food of the land for the first time. Until this point they had still be eating manna. They were finally able, having told and retold and celebrated God’s story on their lives from Egypt to the other side of the Jordan, to enjoy what grew in God’s promise. No more would they just open the tent flap and grab breakfast. Now was the time to harvest and gather and prepare new delicious dishes! God had kept them on a steady diet of plain provision, and now He set before them a bounty of promise. There is a maturing that has to happen to move from the expectation that God will put the food in front of your face to getting the food that grows in abundance around you. This is in itself a deepening in your reliance on God, because it is not as easy as just eating what’s put in front of you.

When at last you are ready to dwell where He has lead you, do not sit and moan that the manna isn’t falling. Get up and go get that milk and honey!

*************************************************************************************

In just a few days I will be in a new land.

If you could see my rock pile I’m gathering from my riverbed.
If you will listen to my story of how He did this for me.
Oh, my friends, God was trustworthy and able for Joshua and He is trustworthy and able for me and He is trustworthy and able in your life, as well.

“Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
Joshua 1:7-9

A Tale Of Two Mountains

It is easy when people speak about “holiness” and “righteousness” for people to interpret the message as a demand of perfection, unattainable and futile, frustrating and infuriating.  It’s easy to interpret it that way. It’s wrong, but I can see how one would hear the message that way, because I used to hear the message that way.

In the past few years I have learned that holiness and righteousness are not about adhering to a list of demands from an unfeeling master, but rather about relying solely and fully on the only one who is truly holy and righteous.

Hebrews 12 speaks to me to that point more than any other passage in the Bible. It begins with a heavy portion of the chapter addressing how we behave, instructing us to press on, to focus on Jesus, to expect ridicule and attack, to endure discipline as a blessing, to strengthen your spiritual self, to refuse to fall short, to reject anything that might cause you to reject Christ, because in unrighteousness is incredible and terrible consequence.

Alright, seriously though, how do you read that and not think again that this holiness thing is simply about behaving better? This is how. You don’t stop there. You read on, because in the second half of the chapter, following some of the strictest admonishment in the New Testament of how to live our individual faith lives, comes some of the most freeing, sweetest breath of life and hope kind of words that I have read.

Add suYou have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; 19 to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those

Moses climbed the mountain to receive the law, but there were strict boundaries placed which limited the Israelites from drawing near this event. Exodus 19 recounts this story and makes it clear that to attempt approaching the holiness of God by climbing the mountain would result in death. Hebrews sends us back to that moment, to remind the listeners of the familiar story, Moses going up the mountain to receive the 10 commandments. These commands and the law were given to God’s people so they would be set apart from the rest of the world,

But the writer makes such a strong statement saying “You have not come.” You have not come to the kind of mountain where law is given as a method of setting you apart, of making you holy. At Mount Sinai, Moses had to consecrate himself and follow strict guidelines and then he still had to wait for the trumpet blast in order to approach God there.

When I didn’t understand holiness, this is how I thought of it. That it is marked rightly as burning with fire, darkness, gloom and storm. That it is about consecrating yourself, following those rules and regulations, and then waiting for a trumpet blast to tell me that I’ve been good enough to come to God. However, Paul makes it clear with those 4 words “You have not come…”

So if we are not approaching the mountain of the law, what do we approach?

you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, 23 to the church of the firstb

There it is. “You have come.” The other mountain, the mountain of God, where the first indicator is one that points at worship, thousands of angels in joyful assembly. And then “You have come” again, this time, not to a place, but to Him, to God. It is this path that ends in communion with our holy God.

How is this accomplished? By the word of The Word Made Flesh, which speaks better than all of the condemnation laid out from the first condemnation, that of Adam.

But it doesn’t end there! It goes on…

See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from

Just before Moses stepped onto that mountain, it shook violently. These details would have been so familiar to the Hebrews receiving Paul’s letter here, that to connect the shaking of Mount Sinai before Moses went to receive the law would translate so sensibly to what is experienced when the Holy Spirit came to the new believers in those days.

The writing of the shaking mountains moves into the consuming fire, this Holy Spirit symbol that we still recognize today, thinking of those tongues of flame that rested on the apostles as the Holy Spirit came upon them. It connects to Exodus 19 as the mountain shook, it was covered in smoke “because the Lord descended on it in fire.” Paul connects the power of holiness on the mountain to the fire witnessed at Pentecost to explain the power now available to us through His Spirit.

Before we are ready to allow the Holy Spirit into our lives, to experience him not like the nation of witnesses kept at bay down at the foot of the mountain, but to experience Him in full at the mountain top, we will find a shaking away. Just as God shook the mountains and arrived in fire, just as the Spirit arrived with rushing wind and fire on Pentecost, so to will He come to us in an experience unlike any other.

When my shaking time was on me, a friend heard a song and gave me a lyric from it which says “You’re world’s not falling apart, it’s falling into place.” My friend, there is deep truth in that. I ran those words through my mind as things seemed to go from bad to worse. I found myself, at last, at a point where I was out of options and out of ideas on how to fix the mess all around me. I sat there in the sanctuary with what sounded like thousands of angels singing around me and in front of me I saw two empty hands with up turned palms. “Those are my hands,” I thought “I have nothing to offer. I have no more ideas. I have nothing.” Then into those empty hands slipped another pair of hands, filling them, curving around their edges, the meaning clear. Now that I had empty hands, they were ready to be filled by His. Now that I had nothing to give, He could give to me. Now that I had no more ideas, He could use me.

When you feel control is slipping through your grasp, don’t clench your fists. Let things fall around you, leaving your hands open so that what is of this world shakes away. Let His hands fill yours so that instead of you trying to grapple and grasp on to whatever you can grab to hold as the world breaks around you, He can hold on to you.

Just Give Me A Sign!!!!

In the past few weeks I’ve been working through a decision. Not a little decision like which socks, but one that felt big and important. Big like…is someone documenting this, because this is going down in the history books…oh…documenting my life and thoughts is my job.

People would talk about feeling peace or gaining clarity, but I never felt out of peace or particularly foggy. Close to the end a friend voiced what I’d been thinking the whole time, that really, either way I went, it really would be ok, that it wasn’t about right or wrong, but A or B. But with the process, there was this wait, and in the wait I found myself wondering, “How will I know when it’s time to decide? Will there be fireworks or what?”

I’ve been there before. It’s a natural human experience, to search for signs and wonders to direct your steps, looking outside of yourself to address your inner monologue. Even in the “follow your heart” crowd, if you watch, they interpret events, moments, conversations, chance encounters and apply them to the craving of their spirit and direct their path, good or bad, and move. It bears this note, that the casual observer can also tell if the outside influence of the action is a good or bad influence.

This isn’t a current trend, that everyone does it because everyone famous is doing it, but something that has been in our nature from the beginning. I listened to in incredible sermon a few weeks ago where Moses’s calling was outlined. It’s a familiar story, Moses is out and about doing the shepard thing and woah! There is a burning bush! And from the bush comes a voice which directs Moses to go back and get His people and free them from Egypt. Well, Moses doesn’t just take the burning bush at its word, for one thing, who even was this talking to him? And why would the bush choose him? And how exactly was this going to work, because he just was not the best guy for the job?

We find that story in Exodus 3, and there in verse 12, God has already anticipated that what Moses is looking for beyond answers to the questions, is something real and tangible that he can look to to drive home that this was real and this was trustworthy. We read, “And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”

We know the story that follows, Moses gets on board, goes and talks to Pharoah, Let my people go, plagues, blood, bugs, more bugs and death, freedom, Pharoah say “oh shoot, what’d I do?” chase scene, staff raised and parted sea, Isreal races forward, makes it in the nick of time and the Egyptians drown. These are some pretty impressive things there. But God did not say, “This will be a sign to you, there will be locusts, like, EVERYWHERE, and I mean EVERYWHERE.” He didn’t say a word about the blood, about the frogs, about the walls of water, nothing. It wasn’t any of the powerful or miraculous things God would do through for and through Moses. But those are the things we look for. I wanted fireworks. I wanted sky writing.

What God gives as a sign is that Moses will worship, that Moses will find himself in adoration of Him. What would show him that I am sent him out is that he would find himself facing God in wonder.

So, thinking on this, I decided to stop deciding. Stop pros and cons, stop weighing out the options, stop playing out imaginary what ifs in my head. I was just going to sing, to worship God. When the thoughts about the decision came back into my head, I sang louder. I sang in the car. I sang at home. I sang doing yard work. I sang at my desk. I sang when no one was with me and I sang when others were around.

Soon enough, I could hear another voice, a voice from my childhood singing a sweet old song, “Blessed Assurance,” and there in the chorus rang out, “This is my story. This is my song. Praising my Savior all the day long.” I love a good story and I love a good song, but there in those lyrics I found my answer.

The direction I should go should be the one that creates within me a response
to praise my Savior all the day long. 

When I filled my heart, my mind and my mouth with song it became so simple to see which way lead to more worship, which way pointed me towards singing and story telling the lyrics and lines I want written about me, penned by Him.

If today you are searching for fireworks or parted seas, may I direct you instead to song. Sing, sing loud, sing off key, just sing, until you hear Him singing with you, delighting in your delight of Him.

Pentecost and the Trinity

    Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Praise Him all creatures here below.
Praise God above ye heavenly hosts. Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

     Growing up I sang the Doxology and had enough Sunday school to get the basic idea of the trinity. Three in one….all each individual and yet not separate. There was a children’s moment where the children’s pastor used a banana to illustrate the trinity, showing that if you press your finger into the top off a banana it will separate into three parts, all three fully banana, but individual sections. It stuck, that banana example.

But it was still a bit of a mystery. Because, God the Father I could understand. He made everything and made me and my family.  God the Son I could understand. He was Jesus who died on the cross and took our sins. God the Spirit? God the Holy Ghost? What was that? Was it like a transparent Jesus? Or like God with a Charlie Brown holey ghost sheet on? And what was with the tongues of fire? It was almost like I was looking at the banana, and the first two pieces were banana and the third piece was like, I don’t know, kiwi in a banana shape? Just confusing.

In the early years of my adult life, I understood that those urges, the pulls on your heart which give directions to your steps, separate from whims and desires had something to do with the Spirit. But I probably also attributed that like nice feeling you get when you’re singing at church or like the feeling of the wind on your face when you sit outside at a retreat as the Spirit. I was aware that there were people who talked about the Spirit provoking certain responses in them that I wanted no part of and I saw stories on tv about snakes that just made the idea of being too involved with the Spirit sound kind of dangerous and weird.

So I lived the first decade and a half of my adult faith like
FATHER, SON, and the other guy.

     I saw some unhealthy things attributed to the Holy Spirit and I saw some intriguing things attributed to the Spirit, but nothing ever interested me enough to stop and say, “What exactly are you all talking about?” I would read about and think on the gifts of the Spirit and the fruit of the Spirit, but the Spirit still remained distant. It wasn’t until my 30s that I sat in churches where I heard good scripture on who the Spirit is and about the daily impact of the Spirit on a person’s life and our world, not fantastical promises of supernatural worked up frenzies expressed through sensational emotional highs. I heard about surrender. I heard about releasing control. And these things peaked my interest.

By the time Pentecost rolled around last year, I was excited about this. A day to remember when the Spirit came and the church was born. The day was almost upon us when I realized something.

In the Old Testament, God was introduced as “the God who sees me.” He was watching. He was observing. He was manipulating the outcomes of human affairs, but He was separated behind a veil.

     Then came Jesus, and at Christmas we meet Emmanuel, “God with us.” God stepped out from behind the veil and drew closer to humanity, willing to step into our dirt and mess and clean us.

Then came the Holy Spirit. And He was now the God withIN us. The Spirit was the final piece in God moving as intimately into our lives as He possibly could, to go from being behind a veil, to being present next to us, to being inside of our hearts.

     It was a beautiful thought, one that I treasured over the past year. That God would want to be so close to me and that the Bible told this story from start to finish of growing intimacy with Him. There was this terrible separation at the beginning of the book when Adam and Eve were send out of the garden, but God had a plan to restore that relationship, to bring back the closeness where man could stroll in the garden with God and feel no shame. It is like this embrace that gets tighter and sweeter as the story concludes.

Last weekend I was visiting with my mom and she was telling me about a book she was reading and some conversations she’d had with one of my cousins and she presented this to me. God in the Old Testament was the God who was invisible to us. Then Jesus came and made God able to be seen by man. And then the Spirit came and enabled us to make God seen by others.

Oh, how that pleased me! In the spring, my life group (see: small group, bible study, cell group, etc.) read Forgotten God by Francis Chan and discussed the Holy Spirit, His person and His impact. The thing that I was surprised to find was that the first effect a person displayed after an experience of the Spirit was almost always a vocal one. To worship, to speak a foreign language, to pray, praise, sing or to tell people about the gospel. When we can’t find the words, in Romans 8 we read that the Spirit speaks for us. The very obvious job of the Spirit is to make God known to as many people as possible.

That embrace that drew me closer and closer into His presence reversed.

In the same story about the sweetest intimacy we can experience is the story of the greatest extension available. As His arms gather us in each alone to Himself, He offers to place His Spirit inside us so that we may in turn, turn and embrace others. Through the Spirit God offers us each the experience of making Him known to us as our whole world, as well as the privilege of making our whole world know Him.

       Like breathing in and breathing out, the blessing of the Trinity and Pentecost is the inhalation of intimacy and the exhalation of love. There is a song that came out a few years ago that says it like this…

It’s Your breath in our lungs
So we pour out our praise
We pour out our praise
It’s Your breath in our lungs
So we pour out our praise to You only.

Praise Father.
Praise Son.
Praise Holy Ghost.

Amen.