Monday, April 2, 2018

Three Notes

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, 
that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."
John 3:16 (ESV)

I froze in my tracks.

Just three notes is all it took.

I remember it vividly.

It was the summer of 2000 and I was headed out of the dining hall at Frontier Ranch, a Young Life camp nestled in the Rocky Mountains in Buena Vista, Colorado. I was hoping to trot quickly to my bed and sneak in a power nap while my cabin girls killed a couple of hours by the pool, but then those three notes happened.

The lyrics pierced my soul even as the music held me paralyzed... 

I can only imagine what it will be like
When I walk by your side
I can only imagine what my eyes will see
When your face is before me...

Cold chills ran up the back of my neck while the hair on my arms stood up...

Surrounded by your glory
What will my heart feel
Will I dance for you Jesus
Or in awe of you be still
Will I stand in your presence
Or to my knees will I fall
Will I sing Hallelujah
Will I be able to speak at all...

Tears leaked out the sides of my eyes...

I can only imagine when all I will do
Is forever, forever worship you
I can only imagine...

Still frozen, I must have looked like one of the stone statues in Narnia. Until the sun hit my face, as warmly as Aslan's breath, bringing me back to life as it peeked out from behind a cloud in a most timely fashion, flooding the dining hall with its rays. The song ended. I turned around to find members of the summer staff and work crew gazing intently at me. They must have seen the desperation in my eyes when I pleaded for someone to tell me the name of the song, the artist, and the album, (more likely they wanted me to hurry up and get out so they could finish cleaning the dining hall and grab their own power naps), because several of them moved quickly toward the stereo cabinet to retrieve the info for me. On their indie album titled "The Worship Project," a then little known band called Mercy Me had recorded the song, I Can Only Imagine. It would still be another year before large scale Christian audiences would become attached to the song, and three years before the song would make the leap into the secular music world.

In the wake of a picture perfect Easter weekend here in South Carolina, I pause to think of those lyrics again. And I realize anew:

I cannot imagine leaving heaven to come to earth
I cannot imagine knowing what He knew or the pains of His ministry
I cannot imagine not being recognized as the promised one by those who waited for Him
I cannot imagine the beating, cursing, spitting, mocking, and humiliation He endured
I cannot imagine the weight of mankind's sin - past, present, future
I cannot imagine the devastation, loneliness, and abandonment when God turned His back
I cannot imagine being in hell, then being resurrected
I cannot imagine being doubted and unrecognized by those who knew Him best before death
I cannot imagine leaving loved ones behind for a second time to return to heaven
I cannot imagine the deep, profound longing for every man, woman, and child to be saved 

Such sobering thoughts hold me just as captive as the lyrics did nearly two decades ago. 

On March 16, the movie bearing the same title as the song opened in theaters. The story of family dysfunction at its finest. A tyrannical, monster of a father. An abused, abandoned little boy. Hate. Resentment. Unforgiveness. Then Jesus...

And so the story behind the song is essentially the gospel. Everything I cannot imagine makes no sense and is filled with despair. Until Jesus. Then all that I can only imagine becomes a steadfast hope filled with grace and mercy. 

"Then he [the criminal] said, 'Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.' Jesus answered him, 'Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.'"
Luke 23:42-43 (NIV)

Three hauntingly beautiful, unforgettable notes. 
Three crosses at Golgotha.
Between hopelessness and heaven, there is Jesus...

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Musings Of An Everyday Missionary

It was early June in 2009. After flying over the white-capped Andes Mountains, we descended through the clouds, which gave way to a breath-taking view of the Amazon River snaking its way through the thick jungle surrounding the city of Iquitos, Peru. It was a familiar sight that I loved.  The pilot landed the large jet on the small strip of concrete. Stepping out the door of the air-conditioned plane, the also familiar oppressive heat and humidity coated my face before quickly beading up and turning into a dripping, running sweat that made my tired, travel weary eyes burn. Pulling my carry-on suitcase behind me, praying my trembling knees wouldn't fail me, I made my way to the covered shelter that housed the luggage carousel. I was scared to death and I felt grossly inadequate and unprepared. 

"And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, 
'Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?'
Then I said, 'Here I am! Send me.'"
Isaiah 6:8 (ESV)

But there I was. An 18 year veteran high school English teacher who had recently turned 40, quit my job and packed up my stuff to trade in my teacher title for that of Resident Foreign Missionary.  Having traveled to Iquitos more than a dozen times between 2002-2009, including three eight-week summer stints hosting and working with mission teams, I was absolutely certain that God was calling me to live in the Peruvian jungle and I was eager to go (albeit nervous, sad, excited and all the other things you feel when you say goodbye to one season of life and hello to the next). Suddenly I wasn't really sure what it meant to be a "missionary," but according to my job description that's what I was.

I spent the next three and a half years deepening relationships with pastors, their wives and congregations, doing women's ministry, volunteering in an AIDS hospice, hanging out with people on the streets, and learning how to live daily life as a foreigner in a familiar land. I talked about Jesus to anyone who would listen, prayed with people on their deathbeds, and made friends with as many locals as possible in an attempt to love and serve them as God had called me to do. In spite of everything I was doing I felt an overwhelming sense of failure, because my life in Peru didn't look anything at all like what I imagined a real missionary's life to be. I wasn't seeing people come to Christ on a regular basis because of my dynamic declarations of Jesus' love for them, or sharing with my supporters how many people had been baptized as a direct result of my evangelistic efforts. In fact, I wasn't seeing much of anything happen. In time, I learned that it wasn't about anything I was doing, but what God was doing in and through me. It also became clear that being a missionary always involves faithful sowing and planting, but does not necessarily include harvesting.

I didn't start being a missionary when I moved to Peru,
nor did I stop being one when I returned to the U.S. 

The bigger truth I learned is that I didn't start being a missionary when I moved to Peru, nor did I stop being one when I returned to the U.S.  In fact, the moment I accepted Christ as my Savior I became his representative - a missionary, if you will - carrying the light and good news of the gospel everywhere I go. The same is true for you. We are all missionaries, every single moment of our lives. First and foremost in our homes with our families, then in our jobs and our communities. The place we find ourselves today, right this very moment, is the mission field to which God has assigned us. Whether we earn our paychecks as church pastors, foreign missionaries, corporate CEOs, grocery store cashiers, doctors, coaches, or janitors, we are charged with putting the gospel on display in all that we do and say - all day, every day.

The propagation of the gospel doesn't require a seminary degree, church internships, missions certification or any other specialized training. These are all wonderful things that prepare some for vocations in various ministries, but missional living does not hinge on them. Isaiah 6:8 and Matthew 4:19-20 show us that the only real qualifications necessary are: 1) willingness and 2) action. God is looking for ordinary, everyday people with willing spirits and obedient hearts. He's searching for those who are begging to be sent and who will drop everything and actually go. For some that will mean relocating to new cities, states or perhaps foreign countries. But for most it will mean getting out of our offices and into our break rooms, out of our houses and into our communities, diving head-first into the messiness of real life with our families, friends, neighbors, co-workers and strangers alike. It means searching out the least of these and going to those society labels as undesirable to do life with them too. It means fighting through frustration when we've invested significant time and energy in people, but aren't receiving the benefit of immediate, tangible results. It means vulnerability and transparency and allowing others to see us as we really are, because only then can grace take its rightful place in the spotlight.

  • Are we willing to let the world see our faults, frailties and utter brokenness so that God might use us to draw others to Himself?
  • Will we drop what we're doing and follow Him - out of our comfort zones (because that's where He plans to take us)?
  • Do we understand that a life of loving Jesus is not easy, but IS so very worth whatever it costs us?
  • Are we ready to be everyday missionaries?

"And he said to them,
'Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.'
Immediately they left their nets and followed him."
Matthew 4:19-20 (ESV)

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

What The Heart Wants - Part III

My beautiful friend Meredith Evert in Malibu, California
Used With Permission
(This is the third of a three-part post written from the perspective of a 40+ year old woman who desires to be married, and for whom contentment in singleness is difficult. This post represents only one of many valid viewpoints on this topic.)

"The unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious 
about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit.
But the married woman is anxious
about worldly things, how to please her husband."
I Corinthians 7:34 (ESV)

When the heart of a woman longs to be married, the waiting moves from uncomfortable, to difficult, to excruciating from her point of view, as Part I of this series describes. Then there's the point of view, in Part II, of those who are trying to fix us so that our debilitating disease of singleness might be cured. But here's the thing - there's NOTHING wrong! 

The truth is:
  • Marriageability is determined solely by whether or not you want to be married - that's it! Think about the strangest couples you've ever met and how they don't seem to "match" with all of their oddities and eccentricities. If they can get married, so can you. You are just as marriageable as anyone else on this planet!
  • The fact that you aren't married means you are unwilling to settle for less than God's best. Think about couples you know whose relationships are dysfunctional; they are proof that if being married is all that matters, you can have that tomorrow. You don't simply want to be married, you want a marriage; there's a difference and you know it. You're holding out for the best, the right one. 
  • Marriage may not be part of God's plan for your life. Before you smash whatever device you're currently using and vow never to read another word I write, know that a few years ago I would have hated the guts of anyone who dared to say such a thing to me. But killing the messenger doesn't negate the message. 
 Our Deepest Needs Are Met In Jesus

No marriage (regardless of how unbelievably awesome your man might be) fills the longings of the soul. I know - that's easy for me to say because I have a husband. You're right. It is easier to say now, but I can tell you that I fully understood that before my wedding. (How's that for a hook? Now maybe you'll read the book I'm writing to hear my story!)

We women long for a flesh-and-blood man who will protect and defend and provide for us. One who will be a fierce warrior, yet sensitive too. One who will send us flowers, sweep us off our feet, make us laugh, hold us when we cry, open doors, pull out chairs, and help with the housework. One who will parent our kids perfectly, work hard and play harder. One who will never hurt us, never betray us, never abuse us and never leave us.  One who will snuggle with us and also sacrifice for us. One who will put us first, treasure us, cherish us, and love us wholly and purely. 

But it's too much. This burden that we long to place on one man is too much for him to carry. He will crumble under its weight, then be crushed again and again by our unrealistic expectations and subsequent disappointments. And he will wither and die analyzing his own shortcomings, mistakes and inability to complete us.

Don't you see? 

What we want is not humanly possible. 

Our burning desires can only be satisfied in the divine.

What we want is Jesus!

"Love is the antidote to loneliness."
Rick Warren

Yeah, yeah! We know that Jesus is the fulfillment of our deepest desires, but how do you convince a heart so sick with hope deferred that this is true?  A precious friend who is single and approaching the age of 50 recently shared with me the many unfulfilled longings and passions that she has grieved the loss of while living a life she never thought would be hers. All too often married women (or content single women) have been quick to offer her thoughtless tongue-in-cheek statements such as "Jesus is your husband!" Meanwhile years of frustration and disappointment gushed from her longing heart as my friend pointed out, "I cannot make love to Jesus!"

So what are we to do? How do we combat the life-sucking loneliness? How do we make peace with the married world around us, with ourselves, and with God if, after shoving thousands of prayers and petitions through heaven's door, our truth is that singleness is part of God's plan for our lives? The answer - LOVE!

Love Jesus.

When the heart aches and the loneliness overwhelms, lean into your Savior. Press hard. Claw and crawl your way to Him, refusing to let any lie of the enemy distract you from the one, true lover of your soul. Pour out your anger, frustration and tears at the foot of the cross, the place where the ultimate sacrifice for you has already been made and where your sacred romance with your Creator, the God of the universe, begins. It is there and only there that we find healing and wholeness.

Love others.

It's difficult to wallow in self-pity while ministering to the needs of others. We live in a world full of hurting people. Pour out all the love you've been saving up. Invest in others. Dive deeply into their pain. Everyone longs for something; our proverbial thorns may be different, but the remedy is the same.

"Above all, love each other deeply, because love
covers over a multitude of sins."
I Peter 4:8 (NIV)

It's in the pouring out of ourselves in love that we are filled to overflowing. 

And to all those who know and love single women...

What single women need:
  1. LOTS of hugs, kisses, pats on the back, handshakes, and other appropriate touch. Single women often go weeks/months without any real, intentional physical contact. We needed meaningful touch as babies to survive and develop/maintain emotional well-being; that need does not lessen as we grow older.
  2. Regular invitations from married friends (with or without kids) to hang out, eat dinner, watch a movie or go on a vacation. Sometimes the company of more singles is not what is needed. They want to observe what marriage looks like and see how difficult raising kids can be. Sometimes single women want to be part of a family.
  3. Not to be abused or taken advantage of just because they are single. The quickest way to alienate or burn out a single woman is to assume she has nothing better to do and is available 24/7 because she has no husband or children at home to take care of.
  4. To be valued for their wisdom and insight. Life experience has taught the single woman many lessons; lessons others can learn from. Seek to be mentored by older single women. Take younger single women under your wing. They can teach us a lot.
  5. To be a woman. A whole, complete woman. Lacking nothing. And to not be treated as though she is anything less because she has never been married, never been pregnant, and never birthed a baby.