On Being Overwhelmed: The One Question That Makes Sense of Everything

Overwhelmed. It’s a state I’m quite familiar with. I thought we’d be less familiar the older my kids get. But Overwhelmed has a way of folding itself into every season of my life, in different forms and manifestations. For several years, God’s been teaching me to ask a specific question that disarms blurred anxiety and opens the gates for peace, clarity, grace, and hope. This one question changes everything; it breaks life down into pieces small enough to hold without succumbing to the confusion.

Last night I came across a seven-year-old writing of mine detailing the conversation with God that broke through to my supremely overwhelmed, in-the-trenches heart. I didn’t quite have language for it then; with a four-year-old, a two-year-old, and a growing fetus it was a feat just to form sentences. Take a moment here if you would, before we get to the Question…

 *   *   *   *   *  *

…I recently realized in my own life how heavy these responsibilities [wife, mother, citizen, light-bearer, employee, volunteer, caregiver, etc.] become if they are not tempered with the reality of my humanity and the grace of God. As a perfectionist and stay-at-home mom, I had become so entangled by the daily tasks of motherhood that it felt impossible to gain any perspective or hope of the future. Disheartened by the growing list of things to do that, let’s face it, might not ever be checked off! Beating myself up for all the ways I had fallen short. Disappointed by the ugly realities of sickness and pain and death and hate and injustice that at times seems to swallow the world up whole. And for some reason, I felt the need to understand all these mysteries, and own all these responsibilities, both true and false.

I was asking the Lord why it all felt so heavy, and if I was really supposed to feel so tired and heavy-laden in the face of what I considered ‘normal responsibility.’ His response was essentially, “Because it IS too heavy for you.” He is the Infinite One, and I am the limited mortal. By His design, He knows the future and I do not. He knows what my soon-to-be family of five will need in the years to come, and I – while I can worry all day long about what we might need, and if we will have enough – I do not. He knows the days that are left for me. He knows when and how the desires of my heart will be fulfilled. He knows it all.

And so His invitation to me through this realization was this: Let Me carry it for you. Let Me provide what you need. I am the One with unlimited strength. I am the Prince of Peace. I carry the government on My shoulders. At the end of the day, I am the One responsible, and I have chosen you to help Me with a few things, because I enjoy partnering with you and seeing your gifts and passions shine.

So I am learning to read my to-do lists through those glasses; to take off the load and rest for a while. I am deferring to my wise, capable, ever-present help in times of trouble, and taking His lead in what to carry tomorrow. He has counseled us to cease striving, and know that He is God. Of course the world must go on – the alarm clock will blare; the day’s tasks will press upon us, our bodies feeling the strain; challenges will appear without warning; toddlers will still have to be potty trained… perhaps I can at least let go of the things that aren’t mine to carry, share what I must carry, and find true joy in the fullness of all the good that has been given to me.

*   *   *   *   *  *

What a beautiful thought:  What is mine to carry?

Put another way…

 

What’s my job?

 

This is the question. To fully answer it, I must also understand:

“What’s NOT my job?”

and most importantly,

“What’s Your job, God?”

I’ve found the Overwhelming rushes in because I’m trying to do a lot more than my job. In difficult situations, I tend to want to fix everything, to worry about the future, to make sure every need is met, to control the outcome, to make everyone feel better, to make everything right. I’ve seen it over and over since this sweet conversation with the Lord. The enormity of All The Fallenness and All The Jobs sends me into depression and anxiety. This is actually God’s design, to make me aware of the fact that these are NOT my job. It is too heavy, as Corrie ten Boom’s father taught her. Pretty much all of them are God’s job. Not mine. I am not God. He’s way better at all of these jobs.

A friend tells of heartbreak. I listen in silence, seek to know their heart, and if I sense I’m to stick with them through the pain, I begin to seek God’s heart. “What’s my job here, Lord? What is your job? I trust you with all the jobs that are yours. All these things I tend to pick up… I see now, they’re not not my job.” Sometimes, my only job is to give them a big hug and cry with them in the silence. And I do that job, and it’s enough – it’s all I’m meant to carry. Other times God gives me specific assignments in their life. (More thoughts coming soon on this subject of friends’ heartbreak.)

That’s not my job. Now that’s a powerful statement! It frees me up from everything that would entangle and overwhelm. It frees me up to not be God – a tiring and dangerous way to live. It creates boundary lines when others assume I’ll take on jobs that shouldn’t be mine.

So much more to say here… I’ll just give one final thought. The undercurrent through all of this – can you see it? – is the Goodness of God. We really can trust Him to do His jobs, and do them well. And we really can trust that His jobs for us are life-giving and best. He fashioned me for such a time as this, for such a job as this – therefore He has already given me what I need to do that job well. He believes in me; He knows I can do it through His strength. He knows my weaknesses and breaking points. He is thrilled to take me deeper into His ways. If God gives me a job, He’s setting me up for success. And if I don’t do it well the first or fiftieth time, He is gracious to afford me more opportunities to bring out the full expression of who He made me to be.

All the while, He whispers, Let Me carry that for you.

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The {Less Travelled} Road Back to You // Lessons from the Enneagram

I’ve been quiet over here – it’s summer, you know. But while I haven’t been writing, I have been reading and listening and thinking.

You know our ultimate dual-mandate: to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves? I’ve long considered this a three-pronged mission. For we are to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves. If we hate ourselves, what capacity do we have to love others? Unlearning a negative view of self is a life-long process, and imperative to aligning with Jesus’ best.

And it seems to me we must understand ourselves in order to love ourselves. The true nature of Rachel that God knit together in my mother’s womb is something I want to embrace fully. In other words, I want to be the best version of myself. Healthy, whole, walking down an ever-brightening path. (A beautiful tandem of becoming students of our own hearts is that we also grow in our understanding of others, able to extend grace and freedom instead of judgment and unforgiveness; able to make God famous by the ways we love each other.)

For this reason, I’m a big fan of studying personality types. DISC, Myers-Briggs, Flag Page, Life Languages, what your favorite 80s sitcom says about you, whatever. Love me some online quizzes. So last year when I started hearing about the Enneagram, I was immediately intrigued.

The Enneagram is a game-changer. Reading through the nine type descriptions and listening to The Road Back to You podcast the last few months, I am still narrowing in on the type descriptions that best fit me and my husband. I’m even planning on buying the book (drastic, I know)!

I resonate with the Helper (type 2: caring, interpersonal people-pleaser) and the Individualist (type 4: introspective, overly-sensitive lover of beauty). Enneagram descriptors show how you operate in times of growth and times of distress, providing rich insights into each type. Interestingly, 2s lean toward 4-ness in growth, and 4s lean toward 2-ness in distress. According to these descriptions, I’m either a 2 living the dream, or a 4 having a hard time. I hope to God it’s the latter. (Surely this makes me a 4.)

They say that women in the South are often pigeon-holed into Two-ness by culture. Same thing for women reared in traditional church settings. The Individualist in me hears this and jumps up, raising both hands, almost squealing in delight… then punching in anger.

I’ll save women in the church for another day.

Personally, this tool is helping me untangle a difficult year in surprising ways. In the process I am discovering a clearer picture of who I’m created to be and what I have to give the world.

We often ask the question, “what does the world need from me?” (Or maybe only 2s ask that question?) Holding a deep love for the church, I also ask, “what does the church need from me?”

It occurs to me that’s an unhealthy question.

Particularly if I’m a 4, the better question is: “What do I have inside me, and what beauty can I make of it?” I find immense freedom in this; in considering not the end consumers, but the initial treasure and its innate value. In remembering I am more than what I do, more than what people see me do. I am more than a second-class servant, more than a housewife, more than a coordinator. I don’t have to bend myself into being helpful just because that’s what the culture expects from me. Whoops! I am getting into what I said I’d save for another day. 

Here’s what I’m realizing: it’s not about what people need from me, because whatever I give they will consume it all, and either praise me or ignore me, and both would be unhealthy in my current state. Also, I am really good at making myself into whatever or whoever people need. A skill I’d like to unlearn, because there will always be immense need, and spending myself on something that isn’t really me is no way to live.

I’d much rather live out of my true self, and trust that God will be meeting needs through me in beautiful ways. I long to know His pleasure not for what I do, but for who I am… for I am His, and He is mine.

If you are still reading and that makes any sense to you, let’s meet at the pool one afternoon and talk through it all! 🙂

 

The Way He Should Go

It’s the morning after the last TCAP (Tennessee’s standardized tests), a soft rain just the permission we needed to sleep in. As a third grader, this was Jake’s first experience with the tests that somehow mean everything and nothing. Jake is more of an athlete than a scholar, and I’m still trying to figure out what to expect from him academically.

My boys could NOT be more different from each other. Everything I think I know as a parent is consistently thrown out the window once Jake gets involved. His energy is boundless, his joy contagious, his mouth noises incredibly annoying. Every morning he begs to ride his bike to school, and every afternoon he plays with neighbor friends for hours. His middle-childless is large and in charge.

Watching him find his place in the world will be quite the thrill, I’m sure of it. I am at the edge of my seat wondering who he will become. If his impact at birth is indicative of his impact out there, WATCH OUT WORLD!

“Train up a child in the way he should go” is thrown around a whole lot when it comes to parenting. I always thought this way looked clearly defined, and I thought the burden was on the parent to discern the perfectly Biblical, perfectly black-and-white, perfectly identical way for their children. I used to think I’d have a final say on the way my kids will turn out. I used to think it was all on me, figuring out the way they should go and making sure they follow suit.

I did not anticipate parenting correctly, that’s for sure.  A few years in I began to see that there is nothing narrow about this Proverb. Our job as parents is not to dictate or restrict. It’s to model, to create safe guardrails, to give freedom as much as each child has the capacity to hold it. And mostly, it’s about listening to my child’s life and the One who created it to uncover each one’s unique path.

This makes sense – after all, God is so much bigger and smarter than me! He doesn’t take a narrow, defined, dictated approach with his children. He doesn’t should on me all the time. He’s much more interested in a partnership of unfolding mystery, knowing full well who I am and who I will be.

This is the approach I want to take with my children. The ultimate goal is for the child to choose for himself the way he should go. That’s the way that will stick, the one he won’t depart from: the way that he chose out of his own free will, not the way that was chosen for him.

I am not so much creating my child – that was God’s job, and He did it well. I can’t control my child.  But I can tend to him, prune him, give him good soil, watch for weeds, teach him to do these things for himself so he can continue to grow into his full self.

Perhaps the most sacred act of parenting is leaning into the prophetic destiny of my child – watching and listening for what God has put deep within him as He formed him in my womb. Laying down my own agenda (all my shoulds and vicariously-lived dreams) and asking God to give me eyes to see my son they way He does. Becoming a student of my child, noticing what he’s drawn to, what he does naturally, what is difficult for him, what brings him alive, what he dreams about at night and in the day, what sparks something in the people around him, what he adds to the room, what favor is on him, what has been spoken over him prophetically, what his love language and personality type is, what has been scary, what the enemy’s strategy against him looks like.  Listening, watching, being alert, intentional, … being a student of my child in tandem with the God who created him.

Then I get to process all this input with God and consider the implications of these gifts and callings. What will my child need if his strength is xyz? What might the pitfalls be? How can I equip him if his weakness is abc? How can I teach him to fend off the enemy’s strategies against him?

Beyond all the wearing daily tussles and discipline issues, having a bird’s-eye view of a child’s way they should go is deeply refreshing to my mother-heart. Parenting is high-stakes. I can’t imagine doing it blindly. What a gift to have a God who is more interested in my child’s destiny than I.

My #1 Way to Actually Enjoy Cleaning the House

You walk into your living room and suddenly it hits you: Wait, this place is a mess! Was my house this dirty yesterday? What happened? Who lives here, a gaggle of vermin? Didn’t I just clean… um… a couple days ago?

Naturally, the next thought is: the last thing in the world I want to do right now is scrub these floors (or whatever particular filth you face) AGAIN. UGH. 

For several years now, I’ve been inserting a thought into this exact moment that turns the begrudging reluctance on its head. And I’m telling you, every time I put it into practice, the house work is no longer the last thing I want to do. In fact, it becomes a joy!

So here it is, the very best way to make house cleaning enjoyable:

Invite someone over for dinner. 

Yes, it’s that simple! On first glance, perhaps counter-intiuative: This place is a mess… so let’s invite people into it! But in my head, it works every time. Here’s how.

My husband and I confer over our running list {the we-should-have-them-over-sometime list}, and extend an invitation or two. Suddenly, the indefinite sometime becomes this Saturday night.

And suddenly, I have fresh motivation to do all that ordinary, repetitive work. I use the company’s arrival as a positive deadline. (I’m not so good at getting stuff done with no deadline.) I should clarify three things at this point:

1. My house isn’t perfect; that’s not my goal.

2. I’ve found no one minds the mess. They just love receiving an invitation.

3. The motivation is not fear-based, worrying what people will think of me if they walk into a dirty home. Fear should never choke out the chance for community. Please don’t ever let fear win that one!

It’s joy that propels me – the joy of welcoming people into a beautiful, well-stewarded space. I savor this opportunity to honor people. To give them the gift of comfort, joy, contentment, connection, laughter, and regular everyday life lived together.

As I work, I do so aiming not for perfection, but comfort. I work slowly and in silence, tuning my heart to the dear ones with whom we’ll break bread. The cathartic nature of working with my hands kicks in, and I siphon all those running thoughts toward the coming time around the table.

Cleaning the toilets, I first mumble, how is it possible to pee all the way through the seat to the back wall? But then I remember what my friends have been going through, and the toilets are nothing, and scrubbing turns into prayer.

Picking up yet another smattering of dirty socks and Nerf gun bullets and used bandaids (REALLY?), I remember the times we’ve laughed together, and gratitude swells to overflowing.

Transferring all the piles of random stuff into my bedroom corner,  I wonder about his dad’s health, and her sister’s woundedness, and consider what they need and how we can love on them.

Sweeping rice from under the table, I lean into God’s heart, asking if there’s anything He wants their hearts to know, and listen quietly for his promptings. {Pro-tip: leave the spilled rice on the floor overnight and it’ll sweep up without sticking.}

In short, cleaning for someone else is much more enjoyable than cleaning for yourself. Don’t you find this to be true? We might as well leverage this.

If you really want to go for it, invite someone you deeply respect, to thank them for the ways they’ve impacted you. It’ll elevate the cleaning to the next level!

Hospitality chores are also an opportunity to instill core family values in the kids. We are all hosts, and part of being a good host is honoring guests with a nice place to gather. Having a home comes with the responsibility of stewarding it well.  Everyone contributes, each one responsible as their ability allows. We give away what we have to others. Normal life is having more than five people around the table. I love watching our kids anticipate the visit; the way their smiles break out as they race to the call of the doorbell. One evening with 11 around the table, our friend Cory asked if we have people over a lot. Without hesitating Molly said proudly, “Yep! We’re really good at it!” How my heart leapt!

In the end, my kids are vested, my heart is happy, my belly is full, my house is clean, our guests know they are valued and welcome, our time is rich with intention and encouragement, friendships are deepened. Love looks like something. We are living out our values of community, honoring, and making room. (Also a core value: eating good food.) Occasionally, a long-neglected nook gets deep-cleaned, organized or decorated. When this practice becomes a bi-monthly rhythm, the house rarely gets completely out of control. It’s a win-win-win-win.

Give it a try this week? When you walk into your kitchen and cannot deal with that pile of two-day-old dishes… make your next thought:

Who can I invite over for dinner? 

 

For more ways to make house cleaning less terrible, read 5 Ways to Not Feel Like a Slave in Your Own Home.

All Things New

In many ways, I am starting over. Beginning again. Stretching my wings back into the work force, looking for a new church home, mothering and managing exclusively school-aged children, laying down my ‘calling,’ searching for beauty and significance on a level deeper still.  All Things New: it sounds so fresh and clean and promising… until you get there… and there’s nothing. Yes, the emptiness is pregnant with promise. But it sure does echo. What now? How does one embrace a new season and let God do the filling? Is He trustworthy? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Mine come down to a song:

In an old farmhouse stripped down to the studs
I sit and mourn what my life was
You walk in the door with a big ole’ grin
And lay out your plans for beginning again

I don’t understand
I dare not look you in the eyes
But the light is shining bright
through the panes, through the panes

All things new
All things new
I say yes to
All things new
Build me up into Your ways, not mine
I say yes to
all things new

This new old house is filled with emptiness
But You’re not scared of the long process
What is there to do but sit in your lap
Wrapped up in your love ‘til I believe it

I still don’t understand
But now I look you in the eyes
And the light is shining bright
From your face, from your face

All things new
All things new
I say yes to
All things new
Build me up into Your ways, not mine
I say yes to
all things new

The Gift of Seeing Upside Down

The West Wing is one of my all-time favorite TV series. I’ve seen every episode at least three times, and am currently working my way through another full run-through while I sew in the afternoons. In season two, the press secretary, CJ Cregg (Allison Janney), has a little encounter with the Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality. The mapmakers highlight the inaccuracies in scale and proportion of our current world map. CJ’s mind is consequently blown, especially when they propose to flip the northern and southern hemispheres – to put the south on the “top” and the north on the “bottom” of the map.

“You can’t do that – it’s freakin’ me out.” CJ flatly pronounced.

I hear that, CJ. When the whole world gets flipped upside down, when you’re not sure which way is up,  it’s pretty freaky. Disorienting. Traumatizing, even. Generally speaking, we humans like walking on solid ground; we like having our bearings.

In a moment of clarity, years later, have you ever looked back on a topsy-turvy season of your life and realized how God worked so powerfully through it, and it blows your mind? Have you ever wondered how God saw you then and sees you now? Ever wondered if His vision is nothing like yours?

He is, after all, the author of the Upside Down Kingdom, as some like to call it. (Jesus certainly lived that way.) Where the least is greatest, the wisest is a fool, the poor are rich, death leads to life, the weak are made strong, the humble are raised up, and the most sinful human can be called righteous by God.

In her lovely work Walking on Water, Madeline L’Engle reminds me that our eyes see everything upside down. I’m not sure how I could forget this, as I spent an entire semester in college studying the eye. But she mentions the physiological fact that our eyes actually  see upside down, and then our brains take the images and translate them to right side up. (Maybe left side up was her point, which I also appreciate as a lefty. 🙂

“I don’t understand why we see upside down; I know that nobody has been able to make a camera that doesn’t see upside down, and maybe there’s a message for us in that.” (p. 128)

This function of the eye made me consider again an upside down map, an upside down life, an upside down kingdom. Maybe there is a message in all of this: we were made to see everything upside down after all! Maybe it’s that if we turned off our brains – stopped trying to figure out how to translate everything to right side up, stopped trying to make everything look how it’s “supposed to” – we would more readily see things the way God sees. He’s not always looking at earth with the North Pole at top center — His view is much broader! He doesn’t define success or perfection the way we do, and He doesn’t define “right side up” the way we do, and maybe — could it be? — that’s a really good thing!

I wonder, in your life, is there something God sees in you that looks perfect to Him, yet upside down to you?  Perhaps He’s wanting to orient you to His True North – not the one you’ve identified and made your own. Perhaps what you see as emptiness, He sees as pregnant-with-promise fullness; what you see as disappointment, He sees as an opportunity to solidify your hope in Him; what you see as chaos, He sees as a place peace is about to be made known.

Our eyes are, after all, made in His image.

He’s already given us eyes to see… to see everything upside down.

If this resonates with you as it does me, let’s take a moment and ask God to unpack it further: God, what is your perspective on this thing? How do you see the problem? How do you see me? You are always as work in my life – where are you? What hope do you have for my future?

Lay down your logic, and let His image of your life reflect on your mind’s eye. If it’s upside down… maybe that’s exactly what He’s been trying to show you, and He has so much to give you in the midst of it as you embrace His perspective.

God, forgive us for always trying to make things make sense, for projecting our north upon your mysterious ways. If life in the kingdom is meant to be lived and seen upside down, grant us grace to let go of our understanding and fully participate in the adventure, free to fall deeper into your all-knowing arms and give the world a true picture of who You are. Help me tune in to these eyes you’ve given me to see. Thank you for such a gift. I do see… help me in the ways I can’t see.

Speaking of not my will but yours be done… I say it again to my soul: it’s not about me, as if you should do things my way. It’s all about you, Jesus. All this is for you.

 

 

To Mallory, On Her Surpassing Glory

I met Mallory almost fifteen years ago, a Belmont communications major ten years after I was (there weren’t many of us), full of energy and joy and laughter and spunk and beautiful words and big dreams and passionate worship. (Worshipping with her at Grace Center was the best.) She and a handful of others were Jay and mine’s pride and joy.  During our years of dating, engagement, and early marriage, we got to love on these Belmont kids together, to have them in our condo, feed them, cry with them, counsel them, love them to no end. Mallory, Ashley and Lauren laughed at all of Jay’s jokes and ate the first chicken and burgers from the gas grill we got with wedding money. They jumped up and down screaming when they saw the ultrasound of the first baby in my belly. (You could hear Mallory’s scream for miles, I know it!) They kept him company when I was pregnant with Cas and had a 7pm bedtime.

They were glorious days.

Mallory had the courage say yes to a call to missions in Mozambique, say yes to a marriage proposal from a Mozambican, and even more courage to say no when it became apparent she needed to break off the engagement. I had a front-row seat to her obedience, heartache, and courage, and I can tell you there is not a purer heart in all the land.

She met Kyle, married and moved to Atlanta. Weeks after the wedding, she was diagnosed with melanoma. She fought hard and beat it. She leaped for joy at her own ultrasound, and the cancer came back. She bore her beautiful daughter and beat it again, staring fear in the face. She beat it again and again, always hopeful, always believing God for full restoration, always enduring the treatments and side effects with determination. This winter they found disease again, this time in her brain, and gave her three weeks to live. There was maybe a 5% chance the radiation would even make a dent in the tumors’ progress. We all prayed again and she endured horrible treatments again and this time the scan came back almost completely clean! It was a true miracle; fruit of her faith for all these years! All the nurses called her Miracle One! But the same week revealed a new hot spot in her pancreas. More miserable radiation, more pain, more hope consumed Mallory’s life.

I can only imagine how much pain she was in, and how much hope she had, when she breathed her last breath yesterday.

Today is her first full day free of pain, free of fear, free of struggle, free to worship her Jesus with full abandon, face to face, flinging herself into his arms. After so many long, torturous days on this earth, I wonder how long today will feel to her! Surely it will fly by!

Mallory and I connected sporadically over the past seven years of struggle. I got to talk to her a few weeks ago for a glorious 45 minutes. I am so thankful for that conversation we had while she sat in her full bathtub – the least painful place for her beautiful failing body. We talked about sowing and reaping, about our generous Father, about the many things God has brought her through, about obedience and surrender, about the grace to receive help in time of need. We talked about the toll cancer takes on a body, a bank account, a marriage. We talked about the ways she saw God moving in her friends and family as a result of the cancer battle. She told me how God cares about our small dreams – like the way he gave her a VitaMix after her blender broke. We talked about dreaming big with God. She challenged me to dream outrageously, and partnered with me in asking God for the wildest dream I could think of. That’s Mallory – endlessly encouraging others and praising her good Father.

She never backed down from pursuing her Jesus. Her tenacity was breath-taking. She was convinced that whatever the enemy was up to, God could turn it around for His glory. Her last Facebook post is true, true, true:

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My dear Mal,

He brought you to this position – now seated in heavenly places for full-real – so that many would come to know your Jesus. He brought you through all that pain for reasons all of us can’t see. But now you can! You can see it all just like God does – the mature fruit of all those seeds of obedience and faith and encouragement you’ve sown. This is not the way you wanted it to end, but it is the way you hoped it would end, isn’t it? Your big dream was to take your family to Disney World. I guess heaven is God’s upgrade to that request, and it’ll be the blink of an eye until you’ll get to walk those magical streets with Kyle and Lilian. I guess He knew all along, and He had purpose for every single day you endured… and now you can see all that. God better be making it worth your pain.

I look forward to worshipping beside you again, arms flung high in a gym in the sky, tears of joy sopping red carpets, angels all around us, and every tear of grief wiped away. Some people say we will be rewarded in heaven according to our lives on earth, that there will be places and crowns of honor reserved for heroes of the faith. You are my hero. Maybe my room will be a few floors down from yours — wouldn’t that be fun?!! I’ve told you at least a hundred times – can I tell you once more?

 

I am so proud of you.

Well done, Mallory.

Well done.

 

love,

Rachel

 

How to Be Job’s friend

We all know the story of Job and his three friends who came to visit. These three men are generally disparaged for their tiring, all-knowing speeches explaining Job’s misfortunes. It’s true, they talked so much that they ran out of words. Despite their pompous speeches, you know what I think of them? I think they were amazing friends. One could make the case that the story of Job is one immense lesson on friendship. Remember, Job gave a big long speech, too, and God reprimanded all four of them when He started up. (Reading Job 38-41 in The Message version will give you a fresh perspective on how God talks to His best friends. It’s actually hilarious.)

Why were Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar excellent friends?

Because they showed up.

When three of Job’s friends heard of the tragedy he had suffered, they got together and traveled from their homes to comfort and console him. Their names were Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite.  When they saw Job from a distance, they scarcely recognized him. Wailing loudly, they tore their robes and threw dust into the air over their heads to show their grief.  Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and nights. No one said a word to Job, for they saw that his suffering was too great for words.  Job 2:11-13

They took time off work and travelled to be with Job. This was probably neither convenient, comfortable, nor profitable for them. But they were not afraid to enter into his calamity. They mourned deeply with him. And this is the astonishing part: they sat with him FOR SEVEN DAYS AND NIGHTS WITHOUT SAYING A WORD. Who does that? A really, really good friend. A better friend than I have ever been.

These friends who are known for their verboseness, if we read the story carefully, were initially slow to speak.

I think we can learn a lot about friendship from these guys, particularly about being a friend to someone in crisis.

How can we be a good friend to the Jobs in our life?

1. Go to them.

Show up. Just be there. Don’t be afraid to enter into the mess, into the darkness. It’s a very Jesus-like thing to do. {“I was in prison, and you visited me.” Matthew 25:36}  We all fret about what to do for our hurting friends, and often this discomfort keeps us away. I’ve come to learn that the main doing that’s needed is just showing up. The presence of a friend makes the dark cell of grief a little brighter.

2. Talk less.

I imagine Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar were a deep comfort to Job those seven silent days. And I imagine they cancelled out all that comfort the moment they started talking. Trying to explain why God would let bad things happen to Job. “God has a reason for everything,” we say. “God never gives us more than we can handle.” “Have you confessed your sin?”  “Maybe God is trying to teach you a lesson.” “God works all things together for good.” “One day things will get better.”  Anyone who has been the recipient of these words during crisis knows how much they do NOT help. In fact, they hurt. Of course we want to explain why bad things happen; and who wants an explanation more than the hurting person? But in the middle of the pain is the WRONG TIME to make assumptions, to pretend to be God. These guys tried their best to have answers, and God nailed them on their presumption. {“I am angry with you and your two friends, for you have not spoken accurately about me, as my servant Job has,” God said to them. Job 42:7} Any words based on discomfort, obligation, unbelief, assumption, judgment, or agenda will hurt your Job and your God. Who are we to know why bad things happen? It’s okay to not know.

It’s okay to not have answers. Don’t try to fill the emptiness with your words.

3. Listen humbly.*    

*This one is for the friends as well as the Jobs.

Job also spoke against the Lord, but after the Lord’s rebuke, he was quick to LISTEN, quick to repent and say God, You’re right! I’m listening to you! I take back everything I said (Job 42:1-6). Job was quick to ask for forgiveness, which put him right with God. But Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar were still in need of reconciliation, and their humility came at an even harder price.

“So take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and offer a burnt offering for yourselves. My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer on your behalf.”        Job 42:8

God told them to go to Job and receive a prayer of forgiveness and blessing from him. Job, whom they loved yet judged. (Don’t we do that to each other a lot?) Instead of listening to themselves talk, they listened to God’s voice, counseling them how to be a friend to Job, how to mend what they messed up. And simultaneously how to set things right with God. (Don’t we all need relational mending?)

Job also listened to God’s voice and prayed for the friends who had just slammed him in his time of deepest need.  Job, covered in disease, plagued by loss, with absolutely nothing to give. Job, who should have been receiving blessing from his friends. And yet God turned the tables. It was Job’s prayer that made everything right again in their relationships to each other and to God. Job, the friend of God. {Job 1:8, MSG}

Do you notice how interwoven it all is? Their relationships with each other and with God?

God, friendship, suffering, and forgiveness are inseparable. If something is off with one, all connections fray.  If we are humbly listening, God will show us how to make it right with God and man. And listen we must, for it may look or sound different than we would assume. Perhaps suffering is an opportunity to deepen friendships. (Could friendship be that valuable to God?)

Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.  Matthew 5:23-24

Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results. James 5:16

Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered. Hebrews‬ ‭5:8‬ ‭

Job’s prayer produced wonderful results indeed.

When Job prayed for his friends, the LORD restored his fortunes. In fact, the LORD gave him twice as much as before! Job 42:10

Another detail about Job’s life that’s gone under-publicized! When was everything restored for him? When he swallowed his pain and pride and prayed for his friends, out of obedience to God. When they were all listening, humbled, reconciled.

The result of right friendship with God and man was not only forgiveness, but abundance!

I wonder what would have happened if this trio never made the trip to visit their friend. Would Job have been restored? Would the four of them have remained friends? Would they have ever heard God’s awesome speech? Would we have this profound understanding of relationship? This is why I think Job’s story may be a giant lesson in friendship.

Friends, let’s learn from it? Let’s not let Job’s suffering go to waste?

If you can relate to Job, I deeply hope this last point encourages you. Don’t give up. Your abundance is coming. Keep listening. Keep putting up with stupid people who don’t know how to be your friend right now. Give them grace, even though you have nothing to give. It’s not fair, I know. But you are not alone – Job has shown you the way. Faithfulness is being refined in you in ways you cannot see, and one day you will bear the fruit. One day you’ll be able to sit with someone in silence, and you’ll know how much it means to them to not have stupid friends to have a friend well-acquainted with suffering. Speaking of, you have one of those friends right now in Jesus. You are not alone. {Isaiah 53:3}
And if you have a friend in a hard place, please don’t be afraid to draw near to them. They need you – not for your theology, not for your perfection, not for your “timely words” – just for your presence, flawed as it may be. Don’t be afraid. If you mess it up, maybe God will make something even more beautiful out of the restoration. Maybe He’s been waiting for it all along. Listen, and God will counsel you on how to be their friend. After all, it’s not about you – it’s about God. 

2016 and a Fragile Faith

Dude. 2016: That’s gonna leave a mark. Not so much here — or here — but right along in here. (If you know what I mean.)

Looking back over the past twelve months, I find myself deeply grateful for God’s nearness, for unexpected gifts, for my children, for so much. So very much, it’s stunning.

And yet I find my soul frayed by the unpredictability of life. Looking forward, a sense of fragile faith looms low. Dare I look up, look ahead? For the longer I live, the more I realize how tightly the good is woven with the bad. With joy comes sorrow, with friendship comes loneliness, with gain comes loss, with health comes sickness, with favor comes cost, with purpose comes sacrifice, with new life comes death, with yes comes no. You can’t parse any of it out, can’t take your pick. The tares grow up with the wheat and we harvest it all.

So somehow, if we are to find joy, if we are to hold on to faith, we must be able to stomach the whole harvest.

What do we do with the good; how do we process it; how does it inform our lives? Every gift comes from the Father of Lights. Is it because of what we do? No, it’s because of who we are – His children. More precisely, it’s because of who He is – a Good Father. And yet faith is defined as believing that God exists and that He rewards those who seek Him. So as we live in Christ, we are to go from glory to glory; we are to expect His abundance.

And what do we do with the bad; how do we process it; how does it inform our lives? To say we can just throw it out is harmful. To say we can ignore it is disingenuous, even foolish. To say it is categorically not from God is short-sighted. To say it is punishment is cruel. To say it is parallel to our level of faith… well that is complicated. Bad things happen because we live in a fallen world, because God chooses not to violate free will, no matter how poor our choices. We have an enemy and he is pretty good at ruining lives. Faith is not faith until it is tested, and God means to establish our foundation firmly. Yep, it’s complicated.

I have wrestled with these questions quite a bit throughout a year of extreme blessing and jolting heartache. Part of me believes in a faith that can move mountains, in a God that has made provision beyond all that we could ask or imagine, and the key is to live above the mess of this world, seated with Christ in heavenly places, claiming what He’s promised even when I can’t see it with my eyes, believing it will one day manifest. If He loves us, everything will end well.

Another part of me wonders though, how much of heaven can actually break through to this ugly world? How much freedom can we see on this side of the dim glass? How whole can a heart become while living in a broken world? Can I trust myself? How much do I give away? What is God doing in the midst of the suffering? Could the painful journey prove more fruitful, more powerful? Could the difficulty even be coming from His hand?

Which is true:

A life hidden in Christ should look like blessing and reward. We share in His inheritance!

A life hidden in Christ should look like sacrifice and lower still. We share in His suffering!

A narrow faith says it is either/or. A realistic faith says it is both/and. This year I have become more of a realist. It takes tremendous capacity to stomach the full harvest, doesn’t it?

I can’t say my faith is stronger having lived through 2016. Fragile is more the word that comes to mind. Not to worry —  I’m more certain of His ways than ever — just more familiar with the extreme mystery of His ways. My trembling hands hold His tightly. Who is man to define what blessing or reward looks like? Who am I to decide what is best? How could I ever see the beginning from the end? Reminds me of how God questioned Job:

“Where does light come from,
and where does darkness go?
Can you take each to its home?
Do you know how to get there?
But of course you know all this!
For you were born before it was all created,
and you are so very experienced!” -Job 38:19-21

 

Inexperienced, trembling hands hold His tightly. Darkness and light live together – there is not one without the other. While I can’t always tell which is which, I know I’m a daughter of the Father of Lights, and that is enough certainty. I must believe this to be true for each of His children, no matter what they are going through.

I’m coming to think that a fragile faith is more valuable, more desirable than I’ve given it credit. Thank you, 2016, for all you’ve taught me. I’m not feeling ready for 2017, but I’m holding this guy’s hand, and I think that’s enough.

 

 

 

 

 

Quit the Crowd[ed inn]

My son played the innkeeper in the church Christmas play this year. He’s a fifth-grader, aging out, a good foot taller than every other child. Cas was, of course, a great innkeeper. Molly even drew him into her nativity scene, as pictured. The children’s voices rang out so pure and strong! “Those were the days,” Bing Crosby would have told them.

In the search for fullness, I always stop and listen when I come across a Bible passage with emptiness or fullness involved. The Innkeeper’s infamous nativity-made line pricks my heart, “There’s no room for you.” Too full.  (It wasn’t his fault – it was just a fact. Sweet Innkeeper. :))

I stop and consider as the countdown to Christmas puts a crick in my neck: the inn wasn’t so much full… it was crowded. There is good fullness and bad fullness, and we all try to keep ourselves from the empty, and in the process we often let our hearts and schedules get crowded. The bad kind of fullness.

The holidays are of course more prone to crowding as we hustle and hurry and worry. Over time, I think our hearts suffer just the same, whether empty or crowded. It’s just easier to manage our pain when we are crowded, when from the outside it looks like everything is going well. Business is good – look at all these full rooms!

When Jesus comes knocking, though, we are too busy to notice. Too busy to hear His voice in the breeze, His small gifts, His hidden ways. “Have you noticed all the little ways I’ve been taking care of you lately?” He asked me the other day. And I realized, I hadn’t.

Fortunately He does not turn away from us – He simply goes out back, to the stable, and makes Himself at home and waits until we are ready to notice. Ready to be brave to walk away from success and “good business” and “good busyness” and “full rooms.” Ready to quit the crowd and face the emptiness. Ready to go searching for what our hearts really need. Ready to walk into the night and look at the stars and listen to the silence of the dark and find our hidden Savior and all the little ways He is taking care of us.

I wonder if the remedy is not trying to push enough stuff aside to make enough room for Love inside the inn, but to do what He did: something completely other-than. Outside. In that other dimension – our spirits maybe?  It is messy and dirty and unfamiliar and unfit, but that is just where God chose His only Son to come. I wonder what we have missed, trying to make room inside the inn.

This Christmas, may you have the courage to find the emptiness, to go outside and look for the only one who can satisfy:

 

Emmanuel

God With Us

The Word become flesh

Dwelling among us

Full of grace and Truth.