Remaining

Brad and I were discussing New Year’s resolutions the other day at dinner when Rowan burst out with his own declaration: “I have a resolution this year,” he announced with gusto. “I’m going to make my bed every day!”

He paused for a moment, chewing thoughtfully on a bite of baked potato. “Well, maybe every other day, because, you know, every day is so hard.”

We all laughed at that one. But later, Rowan’s comment about resolutions got me thinking, and I realized that I often approach God the same way. Sometimes I’m a halfway Christian.

Just as Rowan aspired to be good, and at the same time cut himself some slack by lowering the bar, I, too, often aim for a precarious balance between serving God and my own pursuit of happiness or convenience.

I love my neighbor when it’s easy – friendly chatting over the backyard fence. But I take a pass when it comes to loving my more difficult neighbors: the backstabbing colleague; the woman who blatantly cuts in front of me in the Hobby Lobby check-out line.

I serve the least of these when it fits my busy schedule, when it doesn’t feel too awkward or uncomfortable. But I’ll avert my gaze from the disheveled man holding the tattered “will work for food” sign at the stoplight outside SuperSaver.

I offer a kind word to the bank teller. But I’ll snap at my own child when he asks for his fourth sip of water at bedtime.

My point, of course, is that going halfway doesn’t work – in New Year’s resolutions or in faith. 

I know I’ve quoted this passage here before, but what C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity about this topic is so fitting:

“The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self – all your wishes and precautions – to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are all trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is to remain what we call ‘ourselves,’ to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time be ‘good.’ We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way – centered on money or pleasure or ambition – and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly. And that is exactly what Christ warned us you could not do.”

While Rowan can keep his half-way bed-making resolution, God, thankfully, won’t let us off the hook so easily.

Once we choose to follow him, he will not let us go. He will continue to work on us – shaping us, molding us, reminding us to go the distance, encouraging us to move beyond halfway.


He will cut off our brittle, rotten branches. He will prune our healthy limbs and nurture our tender fruit.

He will seep into the very core of our being, like stain soaking into oak.

He will wrap himself around us.

“Remain in me, and I will remain in you.” (John 15:4)
 What about you? How does God help you strive beyond halfway?

A repost from January 2010.

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Ladder Climbing

Recently I read Mark 10, the passage in which the disciples James and John corner Jesus and beg to be seated in places of honor, to the right and left of Jesus, when they arrive in Heaven.


“Teacher, we want you to do us a favor…when you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left” (Mark 10:37).

Disgusted and disappointed with their selfish request, Jesus responds: “You don’t know what you are asking!”

Later, when the other disciples hear that James and John have beaten them to the punch they are indignant, pouting and grousing that they have missed such a spectacular opportunity themselves.

I’ve read this passage before, more than once, and every time it strikes a chord close to home.

I was the kid in class who always wanted to be picked by the teacher to give the answer. “Oooooh, ooooh, ooh, pick me, pick me!” I would shout, stretching my hand skyward, bobbing up and down in my chair.

I wanted to be chosen, spotlighted as the smart one. I wanted to get ahead.

Fast forward 30 years. Not much has changed.

Recently my friend Sarah and I took the “Who Am I Meant to Be?” quiz in O magazine. This quiz, Oprah told us, would help us “figure out what really defines you,” by identifying our top “striving style” from a list of seven. The list included styles such as: Striving to Help, Striving to be Recognized, Striving to be Creative and Striving to be Spontaneous.

Sarah landed squarely in the “Striving to Help” category. This is no surprise. This is the woman who works in health and human services; this is the woman who volunteered for a hospice organization; this is the woman who is always reaching out, empathizing, sympathizing, supporting her friends and family.

And where did I land, you wonder?

Striving to be Recognized.

That's right.

Here’s a bit of the description:

"Ambitious, competitive, and hardworking. That’s you. With a clear image of who you are, you work tirelessly to make sure your accomplishments are recognized. Your drive for success extends to your family, and you invest a lot of energy in helping them live up to your expectations."

How perfectly God-centered.

And how perfectly true.

When we lived in Massachusetts I worked at MassMutual, a Fortune 500 financial services company. There my Striving to be Recognized personality was unleashed to its fullest potential. I thrived in that cut-throat environment. I aimed my eyes at the top and steamrolled.

Luckily Brad got a job in Nebraska, so after only six months at MassMutual, I was forced to leave. In retrospect, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Left to my own devices, blinded by my own ambitions, I just don’t know if I would have found God. I would have worked countless hours for corporate America; I would have climbed the ladder; I would have scaled the ranks; I would have been driven to achieve more and more…but would I have found God in the process? I’m not so sure.

It was only when I was stripped of my securities, stripped of my identity as I had always know it and faced with an unfamiliar landscape and loneliness, fear and insecurity, that I began to search for the one thing that actually matters. Without a job, without the ladder towering ahead of me, without friends and family to buoy my confidence, I turned to God.

Since then, I’ve begun to learn what my friend Sarah already naturally knows. I’ve begun to learn how to be a bit less selfish. I’ve begun to learn how to be a servant.

When Jesus hears his disciples grousing and jockeying for position, he says this:

"Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10: 42-45).

I’m still striving. The only difference is that now (on some days) I’m striving to serve. I'm striving to be more like Jesus. I don't always suceed. In fact, I often don't. But I'm still striving.

What are you striving for? Take the Oprah quiz, and then go one step further: ask yourself how your “striving style” fits with who God asks you to be.

An edited repost from October 2009.
 

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Tumbling Ducks

So much can be said about this little clip in terms of faith and parenting and growing and life in general. But because it's a crazy busy week, and I'm slacking off just a hair, I'm going to let this gem speak for itself:



Go ahead, laugh – no one got hurt!

How are your ducks these days – all in a row or tumbling willy-nilly?

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Dear Jon

Did I ever tell you about the time I emailed Jon Acuff?

Yeah, that Jon Acuff. The one of Stuff Christians Like. The one with like 40 million followers and 253 comments for each blog post.

I'd been blogging about a month when I had an idea in the shower one morning: I would email Jon Acuff and ask if he would guest post on my blog! Brilliant!

You read right. I had the gall to ask one of the most-read bloggers, and a published author, to guest post at Graceful. At the time I had, oh let me see...two readers: my husband…and me. No lie.

Can you believe the nerve?

I break out in hives just thinking about it.

The lovely part of this story, though, is this:

Not only did Jon Acuff reply personally to my outlandish request, he was impeccably gracious about doing so. Naturally he declined my tantalizing offer, but not without first suggesting a bit of humble and heartfelt advice:

"Just write what you know from the heart, Michelle, and people will read it."

When I emailed back to thank him for the advice – and to apologize for being such a nutball – he replied again:

"Not at all, Michelle. It's absolutely my pleasure."

Could the guy be any nicer for crying out loud?

So, the moral of the story: take a risk, put yourself out there, make a leap of faith. You may not get exactly what you want, but you just might come away with a blessing anyway.

Next on my contact list: Donald Miller.

[just kidding]

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Wardrobe Remix

It's been nearly four months since I launched the Shop-Not Project, and I have to say, it's going better than expected. I've even uncovered a few unanticipated benefits:

  1. Less time spent at Target and Banana Republic means, simply, more time. The weekends feel more relaxed now that I don't have dollars burning a hole in my pocket.
  2. Less waste. I'm a lot less likely to donate a shirt or pair of pants to the Goodwill simply because I'm tired of them. I wear everything I have, which leads me to the next point...
  3. Creative dressing. As we creep into the fashion doldrums of winter, I find I have to get more creative with my wardrobe. I can't simply dash over to Target for a new scarf or necklace to freshen up the same-olds.
Instead, I use what I have differently. That means turning many of my summer-only pieces into winterwear – like the slinky wrap dress or the short-sleeve tunic. Pull on a pair of tights and knee-high boots, layer a turtleneck under that dress, and voila, an outfit suitable for winter...even winter in Nebraska.

I apologize for the blur. And for the fact that it was taken about a half-mile away. This was one of 12 photos taken by my son, Noah who, after the twelfth shot, asked, "Can you just have Daddy do this please?" We already know how that goes.

The best benefit of Shop-Not so far: I've saved a total of $200. Combine that with the $5/month my friend Kristi generously offered to donate when she got wind of this project, and we are making some good headway toward sponsoring a Compassion child.

And that feels better than a new scarf any day.

Read more in the Shop-Not Chronicles here.

[The regularly scheduled Use It on Monday post will be back next week!]

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He is the Light





"I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." John 8:12

Wishing you and yours joy and peace this Christmas and always.
Your presence here is a gift to me every day!

Love,
Michelle

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The Accessible Nativity: An Update

A few weeks ago I wrote about one small step we’ve taken this season to make Advent and the birth of Jesus more real in our house. Instead of placing the nativity high on a shelf out of reach, I arranged the pieces front and center on the coffee table.

Recently I walked into the living room and saw this:



“Noah? Do you know what happened to the nativity scene? Why is everyone flat on their faces? Did you do that?” I asked, accusation creeping into my tone.

“Yeah, I laid them face down because they are worshipping Jesus,” he explained.

Good answer, kid.

Later in the week I walked into the living room and saw a brand-new arrangement:



Nicely done.

And then, the next day, there was this:


 Yes, for the record, that is a Hex Bug.

Hey, why not?

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A Different Advent: The Christmas Story


I laughed out loud a few weeks ago when my friend Dan recounted the first time he read the story of Jesus' birth on Christmas Day. When his wife asked him to read the "Christmas Story," as she referred to it, Dan was shocked to see a Bible placed in his lap. He'd assumed she'd meant 'Twas the Night Before Christmas.

I'm with Dan – this will be the first time in my 40 years that I have read the story of Jesus' birth on Christmas Day...or even leading up to Christmas Day (aside from in a church service, of course).

Nearly every evening at suppertime this month we've read a few lines about the birth of Jesus in Luke or Matthew. It's been a revelation for me to realize just how little I know about the details of that story. Just this week, for instance, I was surprised to read that Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus escaped to Egypt for two years to avoid King Herod, who vowed to kill baby Jesus.

I know I've read that detail before, but the magnitude of it never stuck with me – that just days after birthing her first child, Mary had to travel nearly 200 miles to a foreign land. Can you imagine bumping along on the back of a donkey just days after giving birth? Can you imagine raising your newborn in a foreign country where you didn't know a soul? Can you imagine the fear, the terror of having to dash from Bethlehem in the middle of the night because a crazed king was bent on murdering your child?

It all makes my move to Nebraska just weeks before giving birth to my first child look like a walk in the park.

That's the beauty of reading the Bible just a few lines at a time – you can soak in the details of the story. 

Often when I do my morning Bible study, I feel compelled to rush through the text, to squeeze in as much reading as my limited time will allow. It seems I simply want to "get through" the Bible in order to check it off my daily to-do list.

But because we are following an Advent devotional book, our evening readings are much more concise. We read just a handful of lines, maybe a verse or two, and then ask questions and talk about the scene for a few minutes. I'm not exactly sure what this approach is having on my kids, but for me, at least, it's allowed me to think about and remember the details of this age-old story.

I'm eager to read the "Christmas Story" in Luke on December 25 this year. After piecing the narrative together line by line this last month, I wonder how the story will read as a whole. I wonder how the kids will react to it.

I'm keeping my expectations low – after all, these are the kids who talked about dead racoons as part of our Advent devotions last week. But I do hope that we can breathe the true Christmas Story into our celebration on December 25 and be amazed, even if only for a moment or two, that he came to be with us.

Do you read the story of Jesus' birth on Christmas Day? Is this part of your family tradition?

This is the fourth and final post in the A Different Advent series. Click here to read past posts.

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In Excess

My kids are hoarders. Rocks, shells, SillyBandz, Bendarooz, marbles, spare change – you name it; if it comes in multiples, they horde it.

This, you should know, drives me insane. I hate clutter, of course. I hate piles of junk and stacks of papers and counters littered with debris. Clutter literally depletes my energy. I can't relax, I can't function, until everything is in its proper place...or in the trash. I am the Queen of the Toss-Out.

...Join me over at Make A Difference to One today for a confession...

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With


A couple summers ago my husband, our two boys and I took a day-long canoe trip in the Boundary Waters, a remote wilderness in northern Minnesota. After two hours of peaceful paddling, we turned the canoe around and began the return trip across the vast lake.





Just 30 seconds into the return trip, though, I realized that paddling against a gale-force wind was going to be a different experience altogether. As the lake frothed into whitecaps, water gushed over the bow, and the canoe threatened to turn broadside against the waves.

“Michelle!” Brad yelled from the stern over the wind. “You have to paddle harder! The canoe has to stay against the waves or we’ll tip over!”


Our oldest, Noah, clutched the sides of the canoe with a steely grip, his eyes wide like he’d just witnessed Loch Ness rear out of the lake. Meanwhile Rowan screamed over and over, “We’re gonna die! We’re all gonna die!”

I admit, praying is a rarity for me. Usually I simply just forget. But that afternoon in the wildly pitching canoe, when I wasn’t blasting Brad in my head – “Mr. Stupid Nature Man, dragging us out here in this stupid wilderness” – I prayed: “Please God, please God, don’t let the canoe tip over, please keep my kids safe.”

After the disastrous canoe trip was over and we’d arrived safely back on shore, I realized two things. One: that I was seriously lacking in upper body strength. And two, that regardless of whether I’d prayed or not on that roiling lake, God was with me.


“I know the Lord is always with me,” says Psalm 16:8. “I will not be shaken, for he is right beside me.”

Sometimes I forget that I don’t need to summon God for him to show up. In fact, God doesn’t simply “show up” at all; he’s not a fair-weather God, appearing just when he feels like it or only if I call on him. Instead, he is with me always, right there, whether I beg for his presence or forget about him altogether.

Amidst violent waves or still waters, God accompanies me. That he is always present with me – small, inconsequential me – is nothing short of astounding.


"She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel – 'God is with us.'" (Isaiah 7:14)
A reflection on yesterday's reading, Isaiah 7:10-16.


::

A similar version of this story will also appear in an e-news series called Nudge, published by Back to the Bible. If you're interested in receiving a short (seriously, only 350 words!) biblical nudge five days a week, check out the website here.

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Risky Business

I said it with just a hint of smugness.

"I think God likes it when we take risks, when we step out of our comfort zones and try something new," I announced to Brad one night as we sat on the couch watching TV.

 I was just back from the Deeper Still conference in Alabama and was feeling quite confident, very good about myself indeed. After all, that experience had been way out of my worship comfort zone, but I'd come away fulfilled and inspired, ready to embrace God's will with new vigor.

Oh that God, he likes it when we make these authoritative proclamations, doesn't he?

The next morning, just twenty minutes before I was to leave for work, an email popped into my in-box.

"Hi Michelle. I saw your post on A Different Advent and was wondering if you'd be willing to do an interview live this afternoon on my show?"

My first reaction: It's a hoax. Some creepy meanie out there is trying to trick me into thinking someone actually wants to interview me.

A quick Google search, though, revealed it was no hoax. Host John Hall of Word FM Radio in Pittsburgh was real...and he wanted to interview me. Live. For his show of 40,000 listeners.

My second reaction: Why do you want me on a Christian radio show? Apparently I forgot that I am, in fact, a Christian writer. It's amazing how often I forget that.

My third reaction: Absolutely not, but thanks for asking.

Still, it didn't take me more than a few minutes to realize that I had to say yes, as much as that thought made my feet sweat and my hands tremble. I couldn't possibly say no to a potential platform-building opportunity. Plus, I wondered if one of my simple Advent ideas might impact a listener on her drive home from work in Pittsburgh that day. And then there was the fact that if I ever do become a published writer, I'll have to get used to the idea of doing interviews.

So I said yes.

As I drove from home to work, I dialed my husband, who proceeded to talk me off the ledge. He suggested that I outline a few bullet points that I could refer to during the interview.

When I got to work I scurried to find an appropriate place to do the interview. The conference rooms were all booked, but it just so happened that my colleague Jenny was leaving early and offered her private office.

Later my officemate Pam noticed I seemed distracted. "Are your hands shaking?" she asked, concern edging her voice.

When I explained, she seemed visibly relieved.

"I just saw something on Parkinson's and I was worried when I saw your shaking hands!" she laughed.

Turns out I'd forgotten a little detail about Pam: that she has more than 20 years of publicity and public relations experience. She, too, offered some simple but important pointers. "Have a good story to relate," she advised. "Everyone likes a story."

In the end, the interview went fine. I won't say I knocked it out of the park, but I was reasonably coherent and I didn't say "like" or "um" or "you know" two dozen times.

Most importantly, I realized that God didn't leave me hanging, but instead placed key people in my path: my husband, who boosted my confidence with his reassuring support; Jenny, who offered the privacy of her office; and Pam, who gave me the tools needed to ensure I wouldn't be a blathering fool.

God had my back all along.

“I know the Lord is always with me. I will not be shaken, for he is right beside me.” (Psalm 16:8)

I think I've taken enough spiritual risks for one month. What about you? Have you stepped out of your spiritual comfort zone lately?

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All Kinds

[Part 2 of my musings on attending my first Christian conference. You can read Part 1 here  thank you for all those wonderful comments!].

So you’re thinking that everything changed that second day right? That I got out of my hotel bed with a new resolve, went back to the Deeper Still conference and dove in with verve and spirit and raised arms, right?


Yeah, no. I didn’t do that.

The second day of the conference I participated in exactly the same way as the first. I sang quietly. I looked around in awe and wonder at the worshippers around me. I did not kneel in the aisle. I prayed quietly. I did not shout out “Amen!” or even murmur under my breath. And the only time I raised an arm was to brush the bangs out of my eyes.

On the plane home from Birmingham I read the story of David and Goliath. Priscilla Shirer, one of the conference speakers, had referenced the story, so I felt compelled to reread it.

In the story, when David announces that he plans to kill the Philistine Goliath, King Saul offers him his armor:

“Then Saul gave David his own armor – a bronze helmet and a coat of mail. David put it on, strapped the sword over it, and took a step or two to see what it was like, for he had never worn such things before.” (1 Samuel 17: 38-39)

And then David did something unexpected. He took off the armor and gave it back to Saul:

“'I can’t go in these,'” he protested to Saul. 'I’m not used to them.' So David took them off again.” (1 Samuel 17:39)

David knew what didn’t fit; he knew what didn’t feel right to him. And more importantly, he had the confidence to know he didn’t need the armor.

David didn’t get caught up in what he looked like, or what he should be wearing as he went to battle. He didn’t care that he didn’t look like the proper warrior for God. He knew what worked for him. He knew his tools and how to use them to benefit God.

On the airplane from Birmingham, David taught me that God needs all kinds of Christians. The vocal, emotive, physically joyful praise is wonderful – it fits many believers like a comfortable glove. But I think God accepts the quiet, stoic, arms-folded Christians, too. He has ways to use us.

I’m not advocating that we never try a new form of worship or prayer. After all, David tried on Saul’s armor and even walked around in it for a bit. But he decided it didn’t fit. And that was okay.

For now, demonstrative worship feels like clunky armor to me. But quiet praise, with old-fashioned hymns and wooden pews and hands clasping the bulletin…now that fits like a cashmere glove.

Have you ever tried a new form of worship that felt right…or not quite?

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A Different Advent: Devotions


I set the advent wreath on the sideboard in the dining room, and each night at supper I light the candles and read a devotion. I'm using two new sources this year: The Family Book of Advent and Ann Voskamp's Advent devotional booklet.

I admit, the reality of this scene doesn't always match my expectations.

For one, this is as far as we got with our Jesse Tree this year:



You’ll notice it doesn’t actually have any decorations on it. That’s because I ran out of printer ink when I was printing Ann Voskamp’s devotional book, so I didn’t print the pages with the ornaments. And by the time Brad bought more ink and installed it into the printer, I realized I didn’t have any card stock on which to glue the printed-out ornaments, so I decided the tree was good enough as is.

I got the tree this year, right? That’s something. Next year I’ll try for the ornaments.

And two, the devotional conversation doesn’t always leave us inspired.



Last week, for instance, I struggled to explain the notion of the Jesse Tree to Rowan:

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The spirit of the Lord will rest on him –
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of power,
the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord –
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. (Isaiah 11:1-3)
“So it’s like the redbud tree stump in our backyard,” I explain. “Remember how it was just a stump for a while, and we thought it was totally dead, and then it sprouted a branch that started to grow into a tree again?”

Rowan nods.

I continue. “So the stump is like our broken world, where things fall apart and people sin and are mean to one another. But Jesus comes to us in that bad place, and he is new growth. He makes everything new and growing again.”

Silence.

“I get it,” says Rowan, and I nod my head expectantly. “So it’s sort of like dead raccoons, right?”

He is serious, and I’m disturbed, because I can’t possibly see how any of it, the stump or the tender shoot or Jesus, is anything like a dead raccoon. And I wonder if he’s normal, or if this is some sort of red flag moment.

Should I be worried that my kid just mentioned dead raccoons as part of our Advent devotional?

I try to figure out what in the world Rowan is talking about, but it’s no use. The devotional has spiraled into the absurd, and now both boys are giggling and silverware is clattering to the floor and the moment has evaporated. So I close the book and look over at Brad and say simply, "It always seems like such a good idea on paper, doesn't it?"



It is, frankly, better on paper. The expectation is better than the reality. But that doesn’t mean we give up.

Some nights we have five minutes or so of decent conversation – the kids ask a question that makes sense and isn’t revolting. And we talk about Mary and Joseph, and what it must have been like for them to bump along on a donkey toward Bethlehem and how Jesus was born a baby in a barn, and what that means for us today.

Some nights they don’t mention dead raccoons. Some nights I don’t get the creeps. Some nights I’m not the least bit disturbed by my children.

Some nights we pray and talk. And some nights I close the Bible and the devotional book, breathe deeply and think, “It is good.”

Do you read devotions during the Advent season? What resources do you use?


FaithBarista_Christmas_JamBadge


This is Part Three of A Different Advent series. Click here to read past posts.

Next week: The Christmas Story

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What to Do with Your Arms at a Christian Conference


I spent last weekend in Birmingham at the Deeper Still Christian women's conference with my friend Deidra. This was big for me. One: it came about rather last-minute. I’m a planner, you know. I don’t fly by the seat of my pants. And two: I’d never been to a Christian conference before. I was a little intimidated. I worried I wouldn’t fit in.

Turns out I was right, I didn’t fit in exactly. But it also turns out that was okay.

Here are a few things I learned:

  1. Bring your Bible. I packed mine, I did! But I removed it from my purse before we left our hotel for the opening session to lighten my load. I kept my three-pound water bottle. I kept my lipstick and my cardigan. I kept my journal. But I left my Bible on the hotel room bed. Can I just tell you that 13,899 women in that auditorium had their Bibles and one woman did not? When Kay Arthur asked us to turn to the book of Matthew, all I heard was the crinkling onion-skin pages of 13,899 Bibles.
  2. Plan what you’ll say in advance. When you see one of your absolute favorite Christian bloggers of all time, do not clasp her hand, pull her close and exclaim, “I love you! I totally love you!” like a blathering fool.
  3. Expect to see a lot of closed eyes, swaying bodies and uplifted arms.


Now, let me preface this by reminding you that I was raised Catholic and am now a practicing Lutheran. When Catholics worship, they sit, stand, kneel, sit, stand, kneel. And repeat. They do not shout out. They do not “Amen!” and “Praise Jesus!” aloud. Catholics are rather reserved worshippers – at least the ones I grew up with.

And Lutherans? They’re no better. The only time I’ve seen Lutherans raise their arms in church is to put on their coats at the end of the service. These are Nordic people. You cannot possibly tell what they are thinking or how they really feel. Believe me, I know. I’m married to one.

So you can imagine my surprise when, during the opening worship song, the arms shot toward the rafters. I admit, I spent far too much time – time I should have spent praying and actually worshipping – observing the hand-raisers around me. Some raised just one arm at a time, while others went straight for both. Some stayed with one arm and then later added the other; some alternated arms (praise fatigue?).

I was curious. Was there a protocol, a format, for the praise? Was there a certain word or phrase that prompted the arm-raising? Was it the movement of the music? I noticed a definitive increase in arm-raising when we got to the Jesus lyrics, as well as when the vocalists began to crescendo. Then again, some worshippers kept their arms to the sky the entire time, even during the preaching. And there were a few who didn’t raise their arms at all.

If you’re wondering, I was a non-arm-raiser. I didn’t need to tell you that did I?

Truthfully, I felt a little awkward about that at first. I didn’t want to raise my arms because I knew that would feel disingenuous. On the other hand, I didn’t quite know what to do with my body.

Crossing my arms across my chest felt too hostile, but putting them in my pockets looked too casual. Folding hands in front of me made me feel too Church Lady, while dangling my arms by my sides too looked gangly.

I had a revelation: this is why we Lutherans clasp the bulletin so tightly during church! What to do with the arms is just simply too awkward for us!

I finally decided to fold my hands in front of my torso by my beltline. That felt comfortable yet still respectful. I looked a little bit like I was at a funeral rather than a rousing Christian conference, but it was the best I could do. 

All that over the state of my arms.

I admit, I walked away from that first night of the conference very unsure of myself. “Do I love God enough?” I wondered. “Is my faith real? Is it genuine?” I’d seen people completely undone in that audience – crying, tears streaming, swaying, faces lifted to the sky in pure bliss.

“Why don’t I feel that way?” I wondered. “Am I not deep enough? Am I keeping my heart too tightly locked? Do I not really believe?”

I was envious. Their faith looked real, pure. Their faith looked deeper, more special than mine. Their faith was gloriously exuberant. Mine felt like a starched oxford one size too small.

Thursday…What I learned at Deeper Still [and it will be deeper than an observation about worship arms, I promise!].

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Straight Paths

We delivered Meals on Wheels to 16 elderly residents in town yesterday. The boys didn’t want to go – they mutinied the moment they got word we would spend the morning driving from house to house.

Frankly, Brad and I didn’t much feel like going either. It was a blustery morning, with 35 mph winds, swirling snow and frigid temperatures.

To make matters worse, I dressed entirely inappropriately for the weather, with thin socks and slip-on shoes. By the fourth house my big toes were aching with cold. I crammed them beneath the mini-van's heat vent as we mapped out the next house on our route.

It was, in short, a festival of complaints.

Experiences like these remind me that my path toward God isn’t always very straight. In fact, at times it’s a serpentine labyrinth with no end in sight.

But experiences like delivering Meals on Wheels on a freezing day – a day when I’d rather have been under a comforter on the couch, a cup of hot cocoa in my hands and fleecy socks on my feet – these are the experiences that work to straighten that crooked path.

It never fails, you see. We start out moaning and groaning, dragging out reluctant selves out the door, and we end up, miraculously, spiritually stronger. Yesterday our recipients were so grateful to see us pull into their driveways. Many stood waiting behind their frosty front doors, cracking them open against the biting wind to take the food from my hands.

“You be careful now,” advised one woman, eyeing the snowy street as she wrapped her robe around her chest.

“Thank you so, so much for coming out today,” said another, yelling “God bless you!” into the wind as I ran back toward the car.

“Stay warm! Put your hood on, young man,” another woman admonished Rowan as he scuffed through the snowy sidewalk. “Make sure you drive slowly,” she advised me, and looked visibly relieved when I mentioned my husband was behind the wheel.

They were so grateful, so thankful, so worried about our well-being, I couldn’t help but feel increasingly gratified as we made the rounds around town.

As we wound our way through neighborhoods and apartment complexes, up and down elevators and across driveways and sidewalks, our path grew straighter toward God. And as Brad pulled the mini-van back into our own driveway two hours later, I realized that the glory of God had been revealed.


“Make a highway for the Lord through the wilderness. Make a straight, smooth road through the desert for our God. Fill the valleys and level the hills. Straighten out the curves and smooth off the rough spots. Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together: The Lord has spoken!” (Isaiah 40:3-5).

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Back Home (Part 2 of 2)


The telephone rang, startling me from the couch. It was the call I'd dreaded and expected for weeks.

I walked slowly upstairs to tell the kids. Pulling the comforter tight up to our chins, we talked about the death of their grandmother, what she might be doing her first few minutes in Heaven. After ten minutes or so, Noah, my oldest, turned to me.

...Join me at The High Calling today for part two of this story?

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Home


It's unexpected, the swell of gratitude that sweeps like a Caribbean wave through my limbs as I breathe in my surroundings.

These walls, serenaded by streams of late afternoon light.

This wood, aged worn with decades of touch, the tromping and smoothing of hands and feet large and small.

This fabric, suede soft against tired back.






These rooms, dominoes askew, trains run amuck, orphan lite brite pegs and puzzle pieces, one sneaker beneath the couch, laces beckoning like kite strings. Dust dancing in brilliant beams.

It is sacred and stained, beauty and bedlam.

It is home.


Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.
~Leonard Cohen

 
Tomorrow: Part Two of Back Home (read Part One here).

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Back Home (Part 1 of 2)


The boys and I visited over Labor Day weekend. We sat on the edge of my mother-in-law’s hospital bed in the living room, surrounded by Stargazer lilies and gladiolas. We told her how much we loved her, lavished her with drawings, clasped her body in a gentle-tight embrace.

And then we returned to Nebraska, while my husband stayed in Minnesota. He spent three weeks at his parents’ house, where he changed bandages, met with hospice nurses, fielded phone calls and held his mom’s hand.

...I'm over at The High Calling today. Will you join me there for the rest of the story?

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A Different Advent: Just Say No


This past weekend I had the pleasure of hearing Beth Moore speak live at the "Deeper Still" Christian conference in Birmingham. When she spoke about the Advent season and the concept of treasuring, one thing she mentioned stuck with me fast:

"Treasure," said Moore, "gets lost in the same trash as our time."

She had the audience – all 13,900 of us – repeat the phrase after her:

Treasure gets lost in the same trash as our time.

To me, Moore's statement suggests that if I want to treasure this Advent season like no other, if I want to find Jesus and God, hope and peace in this frenetic season, I need to free up the space and time to do so.


"When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart." (Luke 2:16-19)







And for me this means saying no. 
  • Say No to Invites: Pick one or two seasonal events and wipe them off the calendar.
Just last week, for example, I declined an invitation to an event where I knew Santa would make an appearance and piles of homemade Kiss cookies would be spread out lavishly on a table.

How could anyone possibly say no to peanut butter Kiss cookies?

I knew the kids, Rowan especially, would love to go. But I also knew it would take place on a Sunday night after I'd been out of town all weekend. And I could see without a shadow of a doubt that I would be overtired and cranky and in no mood. I'm just old enough to know now which circumstances will provoke a Michelle Meltdown. And when Mommy melts, no one is happy, Kiss cookies and Santa Claus or not.

  • Say No to Perfectionism: Maybe this means forgoing Christmas cards or the dreaded holiday newsletter. Or recycling the Pottery Barn catalogue and leaving the mantel exactly the way it's been for the last 12 seasons.
For me, saying no to perfectionism this year means gifts won't look like Martha Stewart wrapped them. And I won't have a brand-new light-up Christmas tree displayed on my front lawn because I want to save the money and the time spent schlepping to Hobby Lobby yet one more time. And my Christmas photo card will be created in 15 minutes flat on Walgreens.com.

  • Say No to Spending: Less time spent shopping the crowded malls and fussing over fancy gifts means more time spent quietly at home.
I finished my Christmas shopping before Thanksgiving this year. And I didn't go wildly insanely crazy for a change. Each person on my list will receive one modest gift (I've been known to give three or four). And the kids will get three gifts each from Santa beneath the tree. Now that my shopping is done, I'm staying away from the mobbed stores.

I find I am easily wooed by the gifts this season offers. Because truthfully, most of the opportunities that come my way are things I would love to do, or experiences my family and kids would enjoy.

But there can be too much of a good thing.
I don't know for sure what this emphasis on less will mean for my family this season. I do know, though, that saying no to one thing means saying yes to something else, and I'm willing to bet that treasures will be found in doing just that.

Have you ever scaled back your holiday activities? Or perhaps you are doing so this year? What has the experience been like for you?

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This post is part of A Different Advent series. Click here to read other posts in the series. Next Wednesday: Advent Devotionals.

Linking up here:
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Also, my blogger friend, author Susan DiMickele, wrote about this very same topic at her place yesterday. Check out A Working Mother's Daily Rant for other great Just Say No ideas.

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Delight in Fear

Yesterday I read Isaiah 11:1-11, the passage about the tender shoot that grows from the stump of Jesse. After the initial read-through I assumed I would write about Isaiah’s prophecy of the birth of Jesus – a fitting topic for Advent – but when I sat down to write, I found that wasn’t the message that struck me. Instead, one line leapt off the page again and again:

“And he will delight in the fear of the Lord.”

“So how does that work exactly?” I wondered. How does a person “delight” in fear? How does one find joy in something or someone that terrifies?

I wasn’t a particularly sinful child. For the most part my sins were of the venial variety – I disobeyed my parents; I antagonized my sister; I told the occasional lie. The one exception, though, was the day I stole a faux gemstone necklace from my classmate. I slid my hand behind her back and into the dark, gaping mouth of her desk, snaked the velvet strand into my fist and balled it into my pants pocket.

From that day forward I lived in fear of God. I knew he watched me. I knew he saw me steal the glinting sapphire dangling from the black velvet strand. I knew he knew I hadn’t confessed the theft. And I knew he would punish me for it. God was the shrewd watchman, tallying my sins in one column and my good deeds in another on his super-sized chalkboard (I didn’t know about Excel spreadsheets back then).

Given my history, “delight in fear” seems like a blatant contradiction. After all, as a kid my fear of God was about the furthest thing from delight. I was afraid of God, plain and simple. I was afraid of his punishment. I feared his disapproval and was terrified of his anger.

Yet as I ponder this Isaiah passage I wonder if perhaps what’s required is a broader, more fluid definition of fear.

To me, God is incomprehensibly powerful, incomprehensibly big, and a force that awesome, a power that grand and all-encompassing does evoke fear. While I’ve largely outgrown my childhood terror, that doesn’t necessarily mean that part of me doesn’t fear God still. It’s hard not to stand in trembling awe of his power if you allow yourself the time and space to ponder the magnitude of it.

And it’s hard, too, not to feel a little bit delighted that a God so awesome could love unsubstantial, insignificant, inconsequential me.

What about you? Do you think you can delight in fear?



 



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