Do You Need Christmas, Too? (Part 2)

Find Part 1 of “Do You Need Christmas, Too?” here

Hope of all hopes, dream of our dreams,
    a child is born, sweet-breathed; a son is given to us: a living gift.
And even now, with tiny features and dewy hair, He is great.
    The power of leadership, and the weight of authority, will rest on His

     shoulders.
His name? His name we’ll know in many ways—
    He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Dear Father everlasting, ever-present never-failing,
    Master of Wholeness, Prince of Peace. 
Isaiah 9:6


Sacrifice. Does it mean death? Yes. Does it mean life? Yes.

As we reach out for the “hope of all hopes and dream of all dreams,” our full hands prevent us from clinging, really clinging, to the Prince of Peace, the Mighty God, the Counselor. I’m carrying fear this year with a little resentment. You may be grasping dreams that never flourished… or plans others won’t acknowledge… or wounds that can only be healed by forgiveness. You may be carrying good things that, over time, have come to replace your passion for the very One who breathed life into us. 

Mirriam-Webster understands the complexity of “sacrifice.” There’s the literal definition that points back to ancient worship — the slaughtering of life to present an offering to God. There’s pain and work and reflection all wrapped up in an act of humility to acknowledge there’s Someone bigger than yourself. To surrender to Someone bigger than yourself. And in that surrendering, we find redemption.

Even Mary and Joseph, when presenting eight day-old baby Jesus to God in the temple, gave a sacrifice, an offering, out of their poverty. Trading uncleanliness for purification, they were to sacrifice a lamb plus a bird. Instead, they gave the offering of the poor — two birds.   

But we find less physical acts of sacrifice defined, too, like the “surrender of something for the sake of something else” and the choice to “suffer loss of, give up, renounce, injure, or destroy especially for an ideal, belief, or end.” And let’s pause while we wrap our minds are that.


How do I surrender for the sake of something else? How do I make the choice to lose something, to destroy something, for what will stand in the end? How do I discern what’s worth giving up? What end, ideal, or belief is worth risking?

And what about when the decision is made for me? To me?

Is sacrifice death? Absolutely. It’s often as raw and messy — in a figurative sense — as the animal sacrifices of ancient years. There’s a carving of one’s heart as we slowly begin to align our passion with God’s desires. There’s pruning away that which prevents restoration, what prevents life. There’s letting go and releasing and submission and strength and courage and maturity all wrapped up in the dying.

But, is it life, too? 

“Brothers and sisters, in light of all I have shared with you about God’s mercies, I urge you to offer your bodies as a living and holy sacrifice to God, a sacred offering that brings Him pleasure; this is your reasonable, essential worship. Do not allow this world to mold you in its own image. Instead, be transformed from the inside out by renewing your mind. As a result, you will be able to discern what God wills and whatever God finds good, pleasing, and complete. Romans 12:1, 2

God’s mercies
living sacrifice
sacred offering
essential worship
authentic transformation
renewed mind
discernment in rhythm with my Creator’s desires

Yes. This life. It begins with God’s mercies and ends with His desires. This is the life my thirsty soul is craving. This is the life that looks nothing like what I pursue here. This is the life reminding me I was created for more than the brokenness I reach for.

For Joseph, it was the mystery of fatherhood when he least expected it. It involved mentoring and teaching and raising up the One who had formed him in his mother’s womb. For Mary, it was never doubting she was seen and known by God. For the magi, it was dreams and studies fulfilled. And for the shepherds, it was inclusion in the most breathtaking way — being invited to the divine party and asked to dance.

For us, might we reach out and catch the mercy? Might we lean into the intimacy of what’s sacred? Lean into Him who is sacred? Might we be transformed and have our thought process renewed? Might we crave what the God of the universe desires?

Friend, I see your tender heart, weary from worry, craving relief. And I see you who are determined to live purposefully even though doors are slamming shut. And I see you who have reluctantly surrendered simply because you’re tired of fighting. I see you because I am you.

But maybe, just maybe, the hunger and closed doors and weariness will show us something greater than our dreams of beauty ever could.

Maybe they’ll show us our need for Jesus.

Come, all you who are thirsty,
    come to the waters…
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,
        
declares the Lord.
As the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts. Isaiah 55:1, 8-9 niv

Yes, come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters. Journey toward the One who satisfies the deepest thirst — even when surrender is required. It’s a risk, for sure. But there’s more than enough in His deep, deep well of grace. For when we refuse to come to the water, He brings it to us. When we lack the courage to let go as our full hands carry the weight of misguided passions, He still reaches. He grasps us and holds us in the most intense, rescue sort of way.

“A thrill of hope, a weary world rejoices…”

Photo by Jesse Bowser on Unsplash

When You Vacation in a Town That’s Rebuilding

GulfportI felt like college students. One day before our spring break began last March, my husband asked, “Do you want to get out of town? To the beach?” Of course, I did.

Spring break has always meant creating space at home for sleeping in, extra cups of coffee, visits to new restaurants, and conversing with our kids. Sometimes it’s great to have nowhere to be for a week. But times have changed — there are new summer jobs and extra summer sports commitments and cool things like songwriting camps. And with our summer flexibility fading away, wanderlust seemed especially strong this past March.

We hit VRBO and searched for beach condos as close to St. Louis as we could find. We started with the Florida panhandle but then kept expanding our search west. When it was all said and done, we chose a cute, dog-friendly place in a town we had never heard of along the Gulf Coast — Gulfport, Mississippi. Our plan was to hang at the beach and venture over toward New Orleans. It would be our first time in Mississippi or Louisiana.

The night before we left, I went online and discovered Google Earth describes Gulfport as “… a town still recovering from Katrina…” Oh, wow. The cottage was already booked and paid for.

I thought quite a bit about hurricanes this past year. Fifth graders at my school raised money for a community ransacked by Harvey. And my brother’s job sent him to Puerto Rico to do hurricane-relief — also Harvey. These headlines always remind me of two seasons in my own life: When I was six years-old, thousands slept inside our mega-church until Hurricane David passed through Florida. And, almost twenty years later, Hurricane Bertha hit North Carolina and rolled up the coast to New Jersey on my wedding day.

But Katrina?! That was 2005… and Gulfport, Mississippi is still recovering? I’m quick to hurt for a community when it makes the headlines but my empathy sadly fades as the days progress. And with Katrina, we’re talking 13 years later. I remember we donated a mattress when someone was hauling supplies of used goods down to Louisiana. But I haven’t ached for those victims since then. I had two preschool-aged kids back in 2005, and my life was embarrassingly all about us.

As dawn broke, we drove south and settled into an adorable brick home that had been repurposed into a beach cottage. We noted the closest Starbucks and donut shops on our phones, unpacked, and walked to the beach.

Two things struck me about Gulfport: 1) Yes, Katrina’s footprints were all over, and 2) This was a working town. I’ve never vacationed at the beach while rubbing shoulders with as many locals as I did tourists. Gulfport is home to the Mississippi State Port, and its horizon is punctured with the most industrial complex ever. Rentals were sprinkled among real neighborhoods where people got up early and drove to work instead of packing up their beach bags for yet another day of play and rest. It was an experience like none other. I navigated guilt and pity and pride and privilege — all in a few days.

It’s quite fascinating to watch a community thrive and intersect with one another … especially a community that has suffered. I fell in love, really. I felt redemption pulsing through its streets and beaches and even through its coffee shop. I read numerous tourist magazines highlighting locals who rose above the odds while opening new businesses and restaurants to replace those that were destroyed.

Our first meal was artisan pizza at Tony’s Brick Oven Pizzeria, a place mentioned on the Food Network.
Tony's

Oven

Shaggy’s welcomed us the next night.

Screen Shot 2018-07-11 at 6.27.41 AM

Screen Shot 2018-07-11 at 6.27.18 AM

And Coast Roast stole my heart with its industrial vibes, open air counter, and rich, deep coffee. I went there every day to order an Americano while my daughter, a bit more adventurous, tried something new each time. We saw a dog peering in from the outdoor counter with its owners sipping away. I loved this place so much I asked for a Coast Roast shirt for my birthday and asked my husband to paint our house the same color. (He said yes.)

Coast Roast Outdoors

Cocast Roast Indoors 2

Each of these restaurants’ websites told more than their business hours and menu items. Like many Gulfport establishments, their About Us pages referenced Katrina. When you’ve been hit hard, you view your story in two chapters: pre- and post-trauma. And while trials don’t define us, they impact our worldview. They deepen our understanding of ourselves, our faith, those around us — everything, really.

While we were in Gulfport, I happened to be reading Culture Making by Andy Crouch. He referenced how creatives and cultivators of culture adopt a posture of purposeful effort… how they do the painstaking work of preserving the best that those before them have done… how they dare to think and create something that’s never been thought of before… and how they steward culture, guarding what’s best in a neighborhood or field of practice. It’s a lot to navigate, really. I find it often easier to design something completely new than to rebuild what’s broken.

But restoration, it’s the heartbeat of the gospel. It’s about a God who pursues those whom sin has fractured, relentlessly drawing us near as He holds us with one hand and points back to the cross with the other. It allows us to understand — and believe — how much our Maker loves us. The gospel impacts everything — allowing us to risk, speak honestly, ask for forgiveness. It gives us the courage to redeem friendships and keep finding our voice instead of withdrawing in shame. All the while, we’re pointing back to that cross, too, with our own fingers.

“Finally, brothers and sisters, keep rejoicing and repair whatever is broken. Encourage each other, think as one, and live at peace; and God, the Author of love and peace, will remain with you.” 2 Corinthians 13:11

I think of my own brokenness that needs repairing everyday. I grow weary at my constant need for restoration, and I’m sure those around me tire of my fractured state, too. I think of the communities that I intersect with — and those I avoid — and how rebuilding and restoring is in my DNA as a Christ-follower. And that call to love people and be others-centered — it’s how we help tell the story of the Author of love and peace.

As Gulfport’s residents exercise persistence and resilience over a span of years, as they rise up stronger than before, we can’t ignore the call on our own lives to do the same. Where will we be in 13 years? Ignoring brokenness? Still stumbling over the rubble? Or building something beautiful and empowering others to do the same?


“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

3 Books to Read in Midlife

Midlife Books

I’ve been on a journey the past 12 months. Well, honestly, it’s been much longer than that, for hope and courage and fear and life circumstances from years gone by are woven into a web below the path I’ve walked recently. In recent months, these layers have all pointed to an intimacy I’d uncover with my Maker as my dreams became shards with edges sharp. Dramatic? Yes. When you’ve risked hope, and you find yourself with empty hands, it does feel quite dramatic.

I began to dance with midlife when I was 35, a bit early. Is this it? Is this really it? … and… I’ve given it my all, and it doesn’t quite feel like enough. I read a book and committed to find my identity in Christ, and that sustained me over the next several years.

But a shattered dream after months and months of hoping wakes you up to your frailty, and overnight you’re face to face with the truth that you’re really not in control — of your story, of what others think of you, of others’ behavior. At this breaking, midlife and its quiet doubt become harder to ignore.

I’ve written about my God who transcends time and prepares our hearts in advance for the pain of the now. It’s real, friends, it really is. That book I read on my own at 35? Well, a group of us read it together a few years ago. I never re-read books, but I thought it would be beneficial to open this one again because its words were so striking the first time. And my friends were reading it. Now I see God was preparing my heart for 2017. Oh, my God who transcends time and blurs the lines of present and past lessons to prepare me for tomorrow — I’m overwhelmed with His care.

So we begin here with that book — followed by two more. I can’t imagine all three will resonate with each of you, but they were part of the lifeline God held out when I felt myself sinking into my fallenness. I can’t say the order in which you read them will be magical for you, but they were for me. We’re so complex. Sometimes you need doctrine and a guidebook. Sometimes you need prose so beautiful you have to re-read its paragraphs a time or two to soak it all in. And sometimes you need a non-intimidating, friend-like writer who lays her soul out bare and gently pulls you out of yourself.

Lost in Middle
Lost in the Middle: Midlife and the Grace of God
 
by Paul David Tripp

I sum up this book in one sentence: “Midlife reveals your idols that have always been there.” It’s a scary thing when you discover things about yourself that you never saw before. On the margins of my book, you can see my pencil scribbles (because I’m too scared to write in pen):
– where is it that you’re looking to find your value?
– self-righteousness = when my obedience is prompted only by the amount of my blessings, the blessings I define
– did I want to travel so much to earn significance?
– disconnect — numbness — lost — apathy
I imagine Tripp’s words will evoke responses different than mine, but I promise he’ll lead you boldly towards self-discovery. And when we come face to face with truths we’ve tried to cover up for years with ambitions and affections, well, our Maker and His grace become all the more beautiful, all the more sustaining.

Tripp’s guidance is rooted firmly in Scripture, and I’m amazed how he ties ancient stories I’ve heard countless times to the doubt and insecurity I’m feeling today. Over 300 pages, Lost in the Middle presents you with themes of the invincibility lie, feeling exposed, trying to make a name for yourself, suffering, identity crisis, and yes, idolatry.

I’m so glad this was the book I read first about midlife. Twice.

Falling Upward
Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life
 by Richard Rohr

She stopped by with a treat for my family and a book for me before I had started healing. Grief has its stages, and I was feeling all of them — except acceptance. My friend entered my home and stepped right into my range of emotions, right into the awkwardness, armed with Falling Upward.

Richard Rohr is one of the most beautiful writers I’ve ever read. He writes of the paradox, the irony, of your faith in Christ maturing (“upward”) as a result of failing or stumbling into humility (“falling”). He speaks of our two stages of life and the rhythm of coming to terms with our own brokenness which launches us into the second half. Rohr challenges the reader to face the truth and fall well.

Hear his words:
“In most all legends and literature, sacrifice of something to achieve something else is almost always the pattern. Some kind of falling or “necessary suffering” is always programmed into the journey. It creates the whole storyline inside of which we can find ourselves. Losing, failing, falling, sin, and the suffering that comes from those experiences — all of this is a necessary and even good part of the human journey. How often did Jesus tell stories where the character does his life totally right and is, in fact, wrong; and the other who does it totally wrong ends up God’s beloved? We grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right.”

A Million Little Ways
A Million Little Ways
by Emily P. Freeman

Self-discovery, for me, revealed a lack of humility, and it surprised me. Entitlement is hard to see in yourself. And while it’s good to face the truth, my new discoveries paralyzed me. I didn’t trust myself, my heart, my motives — so I stopped dancing — even when the rhythm begged to pulse out of me. I stopped using my voice, questioned my passion, and doubted my purpose while embracing shame.  I feared the critic, and silence seemed like a more favorable option than risk-taking.

A Million Little Ways wooed me back into community. Believing I reflect the Master Artist and bear His image is an invitation to come alive despite the truth of what I’ve come through. Freeman beckons the reader to live from our facets of wholeness instead of our remnants of dysfunction. She tenderly dares, “The world needs you to come alive right where you are and not where you wish you were.”

Chasing your crazy ideas, validating the dream you just can’t shake, remembering your belovedness — Freeman calls out your art and boldly puts you back in front of the canvas. And I love her for it.


Are you waking up asking, “It this it?” Are you aching at how life has (or has not) turned out? Are you hiding in shame over how little you’ve accomplished all these years?

Or are you facing a season of suffering, desperately longing to know there’s purpose that will unfold from it?

Friend, you are so not alone. You are seen and loved and known.

Where as Lost in the Middle speaks truth boldly and helps you recalibrate your thinking, Falling Upward is like a tender song that helps you interpret your heart. And A Million Little Ways beckons you and gives you permission to find God-sustaining courage to respond to your story for the benefit of others.

I needed all three.

Even When God Is Silent

soragrit-wongsa-599087-unsplash
I believe in the sun,
even when it is not shining.

I believe in love,
even though I don’t feel it.

I believe in God,
even when He is silent.         – Unknown

Etched on a cellar wall by a victim of the Holocaust, these words won’t leave me.

Yes — even when…

I first heard this truth from the lips of a middle school choir. We lead busy lives, as most of you do, and that night we had raced to our daughter’s choir concert. I love these concerts, for my girl comes alive on stage, and these times are a reminder that God will unfold any story He wants in my children’s lives. There are glimpses of me in my kids, but the real joy comes in watching their talents that could only be God-inspired, not mom-inspired.

I was unprepared to hear from my Rescuer that night. I was still catching my breath from our race to the concert.

But there in the dark and in the quiet, came the most heart-wrenching song of surrender:
I believe in the sun, I believe in the sun,
even when, even when it’s not shining.

I believe in love, I believe in love,
even when, even when I don’t feel it.

I believe in God, I believe in God,
even when, even when He is silent. 1

Oh, thirteen year-olds, yes. Etch these words on the walls of your hearts for you will need to read them again someday. I wish it wasn’t true, but yes.

Just as I know the sun exists when there are clouds covering it, shadowing my city, I will cling to what has been proven as true. And just as I know love is real even when I don’t feel it from certain people, I will remember the world is bigger than my own loneliness in those moments. And just as I know God not only exists, but holds His purposes together with fierce intention, I will trust Him when He is silent.

Why does surrender bring me to tears? Why does trusting a silent God take my breath away as confusion and conviction and even comfort together press upon my chest? Why can’t I find words as I ponder His silence?

And there’s no mistake that this truth was written by an “unknown” author… an “unknown” victim… an “unknown” teacher who is still teaching me truth years later, for my Maker is calling me to “unknownness” even now:

  • It’s in surrendering being known by others that He mysteriously reminds me I’m cherished by Him. And His divine intimacy mocks loneliness.
  • It’s in refusing to be swallowed up by the dark that I see Him unchanged by the darkness. His power transcends my fear of not being understood.
  • It’s His unchanging love, even when I’m too self-absorbed to feel it, that helps me not drown in shame.
  • It’s His silence that causes me to read others’ stories of His faithfulness and see He is not defined by our expectations of who He should be.

Yes, children, on the eve of adulthood — the sun does shine, love does exist, our Maker is real — regardless of our experiences.

Even if I am afraid, and think to myself,
“There is no doubt that the darkness will swallow me,
and the light around me will soon be turned to night,”
You can see in the dark.  Psalm 139:11-12

He can see in the dark.

Oh, to be like the Psalmist who boldly testifies that His God can see in the dark instead of begging Him to take the darkness away.

Will you join me this Easter season? Will you trust the One who is not defined by our expectations? Will you surrender all of your plans — even the ones you wildly dared to hope for? As D.A. Carson writes, “Christians have learned that when there seems to be no other evidence of God’s love, they cannot escape the cross.” 2

And so we start there. The cross. If you’re needing to recalibrate your perspective, let’s focus on different aspects of that horrific day in the life of Jesus, that beautiful day in the life of the Christian, that day of fulfillment for our Redeemer’s plan. Bookmark or pin this page, and beginning Monday, come back for daily devotionals to prepare you for Easter, to prepare you for surrendering to a Plan bigger than your own…

… even when He is — in the moment — silent.

 

photo by Soragrit Wongsa on Unsplash


1 Mark Miller. “I Believe.” J. W. Pepper online. Accessed March 25, 2018.  http://www.jwpepper.com/I-Believe/10335690.item#/

2. DA Carson. How Long, 191.